Christopher Rodkey | The Madman
In this episode of TCM, Preston Price and Matt Baker speak with Christopher Rodkey, United Church of Christ pastor and religious educator, professor, and author. He is pastor of St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Dallastown, Pennsylvania, and teaches at Penn State York, York College of Pennsylvania, and Lexington Theological Seminary. You can check out his author page on Amazon here.
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In the popular 1984 film The Neverending Story, the protagonist, a young boy of around twelve years old named Bastian is chased by a group of bullies and manages to escape his pursuers by quickly ducking into a bookstore. Inside, he discovers an oversized leather-bound book, into the cover of which is set a large occultish-looking medallion composed of twin interlocking serpents. Bastian seizes this book and later hides himself in an attic where he begins to read aloud. We are transported to a fantastic world, named somewhat unimaginatively “Fantasia” wherein we encounter a slew of creatures: gnomes, dragons, giant tortoises, characters who are made of rock, and so on; all of whom we soon discover are threatened by an amorphous and terrifying force called the “Nothing”. The Nothing is an abstract concept represented on-screen as a thrashing storm that engulfs entire sections of Fantasia in a black wave of despair that drains life of joy and hope before rendering it meaningless by wiping clear the entire horizon, leaving nothing in its wake. Although this threatening force might be most accurately described as the the possibility of non-existence - and indeed, one New York Times reviewer wrote that the film sounded to him like “The Pre-Teenager's Guide to Existentialism,” - one may still hear echoes of Nietzsche’s well-known parable in which the madman leaps into the marketplace pronouncing the death of God, asking “who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?” The seriousness of the threat notwithstanding, we should perhaps not worry too long given the title of the film. The story never ends, and in fact, its success spawned a series of painfully unfortunate sequels. And so it is with Christianity.
As the film progresses, Atreyu, Bastian’s co-protagonist approaches the Southern Oracle, colossal twin sphinxes, beyond which he must pass in order to complete his quest. It is perhaps of some interest to note the Sphinx is typically depicted in legend as a guardian figure placed before a threshold or passage. Often found in pairs, they communicate to the uninitiated that beyond lies knowledge forbidden to all but those few deemed worthy, and that those who would dare transgress this limit, do so under the threat of death. And so, in Atreyu’s footsteps we approach the Oracle with a mixture of wonder and terror. With each terrifying step these monstrous figures appear to grow larger before us, their wings stretching out to overtake the sky. With intensity we scan their solemnly closed eyes, for any indication they might open and destroy us with their deathly gaze. Were we to allow our imaginations at this point to wander freely, we might imagine these titanic twin figures as Alpha and Omega, first and final cause, standing in both eternal accord and opposition. Is not their very polarity that which secures the intelligibility of the world? So conceived, these guardians stand as bookends in the never-ending story of Christianity and the West. The passage they guard is thus a book, one that even now opens before us, its opening made possible by its own foreclosure. In a burst of panic, we see the slit of the sphinxes eyes slowly open, and a great light streaming forth from these eyes. For but a brief moment we consider turning to flee, but it is already too late. We find ourselves transfixed, bound by this aporia even as we seek safe passage beyond its limit. Between the intersecting gaze of these beasts, we are now forced to answer their riddle: how does a line become a circle? The answer is in the book. Here is the convergence of identity, difference, and dialectic, the sign of the phoenix, the passage of Gods eternally crucified and resurrected where the death of God appears as merely the descending crest of an oscillating wave-function of the Logos. Hence the closure of the book is at once the possibility of its opening such that the line of history bends ever inward into an infinitely spiraling circuit.
Suggesting that the heart of the Western tradition is indeed a Christian heart, Clayton Crockett in his book on political theology quotes Jean-Luc Nancy who writes, “The only thing that can be actual is an atheism that contemplates the reality of its Christian origins”. He then points our attention even further toward this dilemma with the provocative question: “can Christianity be deconstructed, or is it deconstruction itself, and as such - undeconstructable?” Mary Daly provides language that, although employed in a different context, seems nonetheless appropriate here. “The wheel of “renewal”, she writes, “turns full circle. Those caught in its spokes, broken and “restored,” re-turn to embrace the very cause of their breakdown.”
For those outside the walls of the Church, the language of Christianity may, as Christopher Rodkey suggests, amount to nothing, and for them this nothingness might rightly be considered a form of non-existence. We recall that in the film, it is the image of the storm that stands in for the Nothing. More malevolent than any mere Nothingness however, the more insidious threat, as Nietzsche knew, is the maelstrom of signs, images, and representations which when taken altogether in the spirit of resentment, brings about Christianity’s own ultimate devaluation.
Growing weary of such navel-gazing, one may be tempted to intervene here, asking ‘and what of the other’? It may certainly be true as Charles Winquist writes, that “epistemic undecidability does not prevent or even inhibit ethical decidability,” but we may still be left reeling from the aforementioned problematic. Indeed, “Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?” With these questions in mind, should we not simply declare along with Levinas, ethics as first philosophy? Perhaps, yes. Although we may at the same time hear another voice come echoing down from the mountain. “Unhappy do I call all those who have only one choice: either to become evil beasts, or evil beast-tamers. Amongst such would I not build my tabernacle,” so declares Zarathustra. But let us leave it there.
In the ongoing quest for a “religion without religion”, we may discover as well a “politics beyond politics” such that the two crystallize into altogether new formations freed from the allure of reactive forces, where our “yes” may finally escape the gravitation of “no”. Perhaps the alighting of this yes-beyond-no must arrive finally in the language of madmen speaking with tongues of fire.