On Paranoid Culture, Part One: An Apocalyptic Jewish Sect Goes Mainstream
The only way to read “The Gospel According to Matthew” today is not to read it.
The law is pretty good. Don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t adulter—all make good sense if we’re going to make it in this life, despite the instinctual renunciation involved.
When Jesus came telling people to give up their money and their families and follow him, he knew well that he would be understood as wishing to undermine the fragile social bonds that the law made possible. Thus, he preemptively declared, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
And how precisely to fulfill? Well, he tells us, not only should you not murder, but you should also not even get angry. Not only should you not adulter, you should not even lust, for “everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
It is a testament to Christianity’s continued hold on our modern paranoid culture that we can read such statements and not find them totally and insidiously insane. It’s hard enough not to murder people; how precisely are we to always control our tempers? It’s hard enough not to adulter; how do we avoid even thinking about it? Has Jesus seen other human beings, their magnetic body parts, and the lovely manner in which they complement one another? Not look? Not fantasize? Absurdity itself!
People tend, of course, to interpret these passages as saying that inner orientation is more important than outer action. This is questionable in itself: to a great extent, I do not really care what a passerby thinks of me in the street, so long as they don’t lunge at me with the intent to fuck or to kill (or both). But the demanding nature of orienting right intention in the manner Jesus suggests also bears pernicious consequences, described well under the logic of repression in psychoanalysis. When you try to hold back the bad for too long, it has a way of seeping out in unseemingly ways.
If Jesus stopped here, then, we’d already have plenty of cause for concern. But he goes on: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”
Within its proper context, as the statement of a leader of an apocalyptic Jewish sect, this statement makes perfect sense, and it was taken quite literally by ascetics who would invite unimaginable bodily suffering for the purpose of demonstrating their fitness for eternal life. But as a statement of canon for a durable institution, it can only be occasion for splitting.
Ask any self-identified Christian. “Jesus doesn’t actually mean that we should be tearing out our eyes, chopping off our hands, and, erm, maybe making ourselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. He just means that we should try really hard to be good.” It’s difficult to imagine another context within which clear injunctions to remove body parts are deprived so wholly of their literal meaning.
As Benjamin Y. Fong writes in these pages,
Paranoia is defined… by an indiscriminately applied depth hermeneutic. In paranoia, as opposed to in psychoanalysis, things always have a deeper meaning. For the paranoid, there is never first a moment of taking consciousness seriously, and there is no limit to interpretations of meaningless, unwanted symptoms. Interpretations can be applied to all things, including those that are perfectly comprehensible on their surface. And they can be applied at all times, that is, before anything is understood about what is derided as the “surface level.”
Modern believers in Jesus’s message are not just bad readers; they’re paranoid readers, effortlessly able to find the truth beneath the surface. To some extent, this is true of anyone who adheres to a text locked in a particular historical moment but universalized into canon. Muslims will sometimes nervously explain away more uncomfortable bits of the Qur’an: the translator of the Oxford edition can’t help but include a footnote to the part from Sura 4 where men are encouraged to hit their wives if they’re uppity: “This signifies a single slap, as is clear from the circumstances of the revelation of this verse.” We’re on the way to a feminist Islam!
But the Qur’an ultimately articulates a this-worldly ethics: it concerns how we get along in this life—how we deal with inheritances, how we settle disputes, when we do and don’t go to war. Jesus, by contrast, was wholly focused on the other-worldly, and thus didn’t intend for his message to be the basis of an institutional “religion.” Indeed, his basic point is that there is no way for you to achieve the eternal and still live out any semblance of a normal life—not only in his age, but in any age. There is something profoundly anti-social there, and that was the point. Either this or that; you can’t have both.
Thus, anyone attempting to apply Jesus’s message to their everyday life today without going to the desert and starving themselves until the last vestige of temptation is suffocated under bodily misery must apply a paranoid depth hermeneutic to do so. This goes way beyond excusing or explaining away: it’s staring at something that is there for anyone to see and saying confidently that it just isn’t. “Of course Jesus doesn’t actually mean we should tear our eyes out.”
This is one of the fabulous gifts that Christianity has bestowed on our culture. As an institutionalized doctrine, it requires either non-literate adherents, or else fundamentally paranoid readers. The truth is always somewhere else because if it’s not, we are all destined for hell.
Next time on “On Paranoid Culture”: Time is Suffering.
Aurora Borealis ate her own parents and has nothing to show for it but a vivid fantasy life