During the 1992 election, James Carville coined an infamous aphorism: “It’s the economy, stupid!” I thought of it as I read Tim Meuhlhoff’s CSR blog for October 19, which beautifully argues against an economic model of discourse, by which one pays or exchanges “evil for evil or insult for insult.” Communication for Christians, especially in the realm of politics, should instead be “abnormal.” I would like to build upon Meuhlhoff’s provocative word abnormal to suggest that abnormality should not only inform Christian political vocabularies (as well as scholarship about film), but also guide all followers of Christ as they communicate their faith.
Emphasis on economic exchange is, without a doubt, normal. From ancient bartering practices to the current stock market, humans depend upon exchange. In fact, language itself seems to function according to economies of exchange. Similar to presenting a quarter at the market in order to get chewing gum in return, we present a word like star or stupid in order to elicit an image or concept in return. Exchange is so basic to being human, in fact, that it shapes the way we understand religion. As I explain in Salvation from Cinema, “Many religions inculcate, if even unwittingly, some form of exchangism: do these works, you receive salvation; perform this rite, you become redeemed; behave this way, you attain Paradise; believe this doctrine, you escape damnation; follow these principles, you achieve Nirvana; kill these infidels, you enjoy the pleasures of heaven; say these words, you become born again. It is no wonder, then, that theologians and religion scholars often assess salvation from cinema in terms of exchange: transcendence or valuable insight received in exchange for attentive viewing” (125).
Having earlier noted that the word exchangism was coined by philosopher Jacques Derrida, I proceed to explain that the famous founder of deconstruction contrasts “an economy of exchange” with the words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. . . . For if you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Mt 5:38-39, 46).1 Reading Christ’s words in a book by Derrida, I saw them in a new light. Jesus did not say, “Do not even pagans,”or “do not the heathen,” or “do not Pharisees do the same?” Instead, Jesus alludes to people literally engaged in an economy of exchange: tax collectors. Derrida argues that pure love, in contrast, operates according to what he calls “the Gift”: an abnormal event entirely undeserved and unexpected, with no taint of exchange.
Intrigued that a philosopher who once said “I rightly pass for an atheist” was aligning Jesus with the abnormal, I was forced to face exchangism in my own Christian rhetoric. Helping me in the process was Dorothy L. Sayers, who repeatedly proclaimed that the distinguishing feature of Christianity was salvation as a gift, not because of exchange, lest anyone should boast. As she puts it in a 1941 essay, “forgiveness has no necessary concern with payment or non-payment of reparations; its aim is the establishment of a free relationship.” And, as usual, she employs an abnormal metaphor to reinforce her point: “Nobody has to sit about being humiliated in the outer office while God dispatches important business before condescending to issue a stamped official discharge accompanied by an improving lecture.”2
Because she celebrated the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, Sayers was distressed by exchangism in evangelical vocabularies, made most obvious through the quid pro quo of “if-then” arguments: if you accept Jesus into your heart and worship him with zeal, then you will receive comforting blessings in exchange. As she put it in 1941 when the London Blitz had driven many people to church, “one has a haunting feeling that God’s acquaintance is being cultivated because He might come in useful. But God is quite shrewd enough to see through that particular kind of commercial fraud.”3 Since it is normal to think of religion according to commercial exchange, the truth of salvation through Christ can be downright shocking.
Unfortunately, rather than proclaiming the abnormal Gift of God’s forgiveness, all too many Christians reduce belief itself to the quid pro quo of exchange, telling people if you believe in Jesus, then you are saved. The implication, of course, is that salvation depends upon what YOU do. As I grappled with this Derrida-driven conundrum, I came to realize, with the help of Sayers, that belief is nevertheless imperative. After all, the only way you can accept a gift is if you believe it has been offered to you. Otherwise, you don’t notice it, or else you think you’re being manipulated by the giver, who apparently wants something in exchange, which means it is no longer a true gift. Sayers therefore repeatedly emphasizes that it is Jesus Christ who saves us, not our belief. All we have to do is accept the gift. In fact, Sayers reputedly responded to the question “When were you saved?” with this abnormal answer: “When Christ rose from the dead!” It is no coincidence that C. S. Lewis read Sayers’s abnormal (and hence controversial) radio plays about Jesus every year until he died, proclaiming them to be one of the four most powerful influences on his spiritual life.
It is also no coincidence that my recently-released book on Sayers is called Subversive: Christ, Culture and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers. It’s about Sayers’s subversion of the normal through a determined fight against religious economies of exchange. It’s also about responding with love to the Giver of salvation, and how abnormal love should affect every aspect of our lives, including scholarship and politics: it’s NOT about economy, friend.
- Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (University of Chicago Press, 1995), 102, 106. The translator uses the KJV, which I have changed to the NRSV.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, “Forgiveness and the Enemy,” in The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, ed. Carole Vanderhoof (Plough, 2018), 39.
- Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” in Creed or Chaos? (Sophia Institute, 1974), 103.