Throwback Thursday Books: Following Jesus in A Culture of Fear

The 1993 film, So I Married an Axe Murderer, is the story of Charlie MacKenzie and his paranoid fantasies about every girl he dates. MacKenzie, played by Mike Meyers, is protesting to his friend, Tony Giardino, that his fears are justified. Tony says, “Every time you meet a nice girl you can get close to, you always break up with them for paranoid reasons.” Charlie shakes his head. “That’s not true. I broke up with those girls for very good reasons.” Tony is unconvinced. “Oh really?”

“Yes,” Charlie insists. Tony is undeterred. “Oh really? What about Jill?” With a straight face Charlie replies, “She was in the Mafia.” Tony persists. “What about Pam?” Charlie stays the course. “She smelled like soup.” But then, Charlie meets Harriet, and it seems that love might overcome his fears.

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Until he discovers a bit more evidence. And it begins to look like Harriet might actually be a serial killer who dispatches spouses in creative ways and then moves on to the next target. If you haven’t seen the film, I won’t spoil it. But I mention it as one of my favorite explorations of the power of fear in our lives and in our culture. “Just because you’re paranoid,” Joseph Heller writes in Catch 22, “doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Heller’s slogan is the tagline for life in twenty-first century America. That’s why my Throwback Thursday book is Scott Bader-Saye’s 2007 work entitled Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos Press). “Fear is not evil,” Bader-Saye writes. “It is not a vice. It is not wrong to fear, but excessive or disordered fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage, and violence. It can also inhibit,” he continues, “virtuous actions such as hospitality, peacemaking, and generosity” (page 26). Bader-Saye writes in the tradition of Catholic virtue ethics in response to the American political, cultural and religious response to the 9/11 attacks.

Of course, he could easily have written his book yesterday. “In the culture of fear,” he notes, “Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives rather than a proper response to a concrete and passing threat” (page 27). Even though we live in the grips of an ever-deepening societal anxiety, we are really experiencing the latest installment in a serial drama that stretches back at least to the McCarthy hearings in the 1950’s. “Fear tempts us to make safety and self-preservation our highest goals,” he notes, “and when we do so our moral focus becomes the protections of our lives and health. Security becomes the new idol,” Bader-Saye concludes, “before whom all other gods must bow” (page 28).

Fear is better than sex, he says — at least in terms of marketing. It drives industries as diverse as parenting products, security systems, and software. We know that fear is better than hope — at least in terms of marketing campaigns. We’ve come a long way from the Willie Horton ads. Now tens of millions of terrified voters are certain that their election, their livelihood, and their way of life is being stolen by nameless hordes of black and brown interlopers who should go back to where they came from — whether that’s servitude or Central America, doesn’t really matter to the terrified totalitarians.

Fear is better than most things in terms of power because we are wired to be more threat-averse than opportunity-seeking. A common enemy gives us “a temporary, though artificial solution to our moral fragmentation,” he writes (page 29). Fear gives us a reason to reject strangers and imprison immigrants. Fear encourages us to keep our stuff for ourselves and to blame others for their lack. It drives some of us to a faux fearlessness fueled by Fascist ideology and armed to the teeth. This faux fearlessness is one symptom of what the author calls “the pursuit of invulnerability.” He suggests that the shock of 09/11/2000 was so great that ever since we have sought ways to guarantee that such a disaster would never happen again.

That pursuit may be costing us our economy, our democracy, our Christianity, and ultimately, our humanity — if current trends continue. For those with a sci-fi bent, you will enjoy Bader-Saye’s use of the Star Wars franchise as a parable of fear for our time. “The story teaches us,” he writes, “that evil is not just the object of fear but it is the temptation that arises from fear.” That probably sounds better when Yoda says it in his backward speaking.

Bader-Saye urges us to “put fear in its place.” He notes again, “Fear itself is not evil, but it can become such. Excessive or disordered fear,” he continues, “can drain the joy out of life, can constrict our vision and feed our hatreds. Fear can cause us to love less because we fear to much the seeds of sorrow that inhabit every love,” he says. We find our way back to Charlie MacKenzie for a moment. “Excessive fear can rob our lives of playfulness, exploration, and adventure. Fear can be a gift,” he concludes, “But it can also be a poison” (page 52).

Bader-Saye explores how we can know the difference and how we can “put fear in its place.” The rest of the book offers further analysis of the issue and points to resources for the task.

I find it deeply troubling that this book is as current and useful as it was fourteen years ago. It is now a prophetic text, describing the trends that have only accelerated since it was written. We have become far more adept at manufacturing and manipulating fear in the last two decades. We elected Donald Trump on that basis and rewarded him for his ham-fisted expertise. He has spent four years demonstrating just how effective fear continues to be as a basis for ruling (not for governing, of course). I fear that others have learned his lessons well and will continue to improve both the theory and the techniques.

The opposite of fear, according to Bader-Saye, is not courage but rather faith. In fact, he says, courage is rooted in a faith dedicated to something more than ourselves. “Courage is the capacity to do what is right and good,” he says, “in the face of fear. We become courageous,” he concludes, “when we learn to live for something that is more important than our own safety” (page 67). That capacity is best nurtured in communities of faithfulness, such as Christian congregations. “There can be no solution to the problem of fear,” he writes, “without the existence of communities capable of bearing fear together” (page 73).

I have observed and been part of congregations that have at least flickers of that fear-bearing capacity. We white American Christians haven’t been called on much at all to bear fear. Instead, we have often inflicted it on others. But we can certainly look to congregations filled with Black and Brown bodies for examples of fear-bearing communities of courage. As some of us seek to reject and abandon our bastions of privilege and embrace real life under the cross of Christ, we will need to continue our instruction by courageous Christians of color for whom this territory is quite familiar.

I suppose that’s one of the things that is most missing in the book from this vantage point. The more privileged we are, the more likely we are to succumb to the fear of losing our privilege. We white dominant folks have so little practice and stamina in this regard. And that is painfully obvious in the current time. Bader-Saye’s book is a good read as we build our resistance, but we have miles to go after that.

I’m reminded of a little poem by Gerhard Frost. I want to paraphrase a few lines as I end. “Yes, [fear] does gnaw at my faith, but faith gnaws, too, and faith has better teeth!” It’s an important reminder as we walk forward in this culture of fear.