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Tuesday, December 30, A.D. 2008
Steve Harvey and Dionysian Protestantism

Ann Coulter linked to the following video that I found interesting:

By trade, Harvey is a showman, and his peculiar homage to the Lord has some clever and amusing parts. I especially like his fish fry bit. It is difficult to pull off the comic and pious simultaneously, but Harvey accomplishes it rather well. What I find somewhat troubling, though very familiar, is the audience’s response. There is something very Dionysian in several strains of American Protestantism—and we cannot simply attribute this to the “excitability of the colored folk” as some people claim who are not familiar with religious traditions born from or heavily influenced by the spiritual feverishness of the Great Awakenings. If you have ever been to lily white charismatic congregations, you feel the same energy—the same rush to lose oneself in the mob—in the “One” of the moment.

Though from youth I was very familiar with “holy rollers”—as my mother calls them—since her family is full of such Christians, I never realized this connection until I attended a black worship service held in a local high school assembly hall. I did so due to a “multicultural” assignment for class. I had recently read The Birth of Tragedy wherein Nietzsche proposes his distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and, behold, I saw his words brought to life in the pagan pulsing of the congregation’s singing, dancing, shouting, and general blending into a unity where distinctions and separations blurred. This is the Dionysian impulse in man—that hunger for submitting oneself to the boundlessness that transcends the distinctions between the self and the other. Pagan worship from many cultures is replete with such Dionysian activity, and it has reentered many Protestant religious traditions in the last two centuries.

In contrast to the Dionysian, the Apollonian force creates and orders such that one can see the parts and their relation to the whole in art and in life. The Apollonian esteems distinctions, and it exhibits logic in relating those distinctions. Both the Apollonian and the Dionysian deal with music—as the language of the soul—but they refer to different aspects to music and to their effects upon human beings. The Apollonian brings order, causality, and connections into the consciousness, whereas the Dionysian smashes the mind’s interest and ability to perceive those relations.

For Nietzsche, human beings—as great art and as full life—require both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, and he argues that the Greeks maintained this necessary balance in their civilization, the epitome of which was Greek tragedy. However, Nietzsche contends that Greek culture devolved in the Hellenistic age following the Socratic revolution in philosophy and the Euripidean moment in drama, both of which attacked and sought to expel the Dionysian element from art and from life. Thereafter, Western culture has suppressed the Dionysian and promoted the Apollonian. For Nietzsche, the malady of Western man after the Enlightenment was a consequence of this imbalance, and he hoped that the stirrings of the nineteenth century might once again resurrect the Dionysian power too long dormant in the world.

If you consider the Western fascination with primitivism, from that time until today, Nietzsche certainly tapped into the Zeitgeist of a decaying West. From Wagner to the Nazis to rock and roll, from theosophists to the New Age hippies to Wiccans, from Gauguin to Picasso to the multiculturalists of today, we see a desire to return to the pagan springs of the soul. It is possible that such is a reaction from many quarters to the suffocating Apollonianism of modern rationalism.

In religion, I take cold, bloodless, intellectualized Calvinism as the most notable disembodiment of harmony between the Apollonian and the Dionysian. It is purely Apollonian, where the emotive, the bodily, and the thirst for transcending the self have been expelled as pagan accretions to popery. This most distilled form of Protestantism rids Christianity of all “religion of immanence”—and religion itself. It turns faith into propositional assent and the Christian life into social morality. In other words, it is a unique form of godless Stoicism interpreted through the languages and imagery of the scriptures.

If we agree with Nietzsche that men need both the Apollonian and the Dionysian, then we would expect such Apollonian Christianity to destroy itself. Nietzsche claimed that Christianity in toto was such a denial of the Dionysian, but then he was the son of a Lutheran pastor in Kantian Germany. Perhaps, the incredible secular energy of Calvinist societies resulted from such starvation . . . just as the celibate Shakers showed themselves quite industrious, as well. Imbalances can lead to some striking achievements. Nonetheless, the eruption of the Great Awakenings and the charismatic movements along with the neopagan ragings of contemporary society may all be reactions to the stifling Apollonian character of Protestant civilization. If such is true, then the Bacchic tendencies shown in Steve Harvey’s audience might be the result of an untempered rejection of Apollonian sobriety. The dam broke, and the flood of irrational emotion so evident in hot tent Protestantism crashes upon the souls of its adherents, sweeping them to and fro in the sea storm of modern pietism. If we need balance, we find none in such chaos. The pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.

Posted by Joseph on Tuesday, December 30, Anno Domini 2008
Religion | Protestantism • (2) Comments
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