The Prodigal Son

Sundays when I was little, our beleaguered mother—divorced, in school, raising three kids—put us on the church bus, put a roast in the crock pot, and settled in for a couple of hours of respite. She got a much-needed sabbath; we got some churchin’.

And churchin’ we got, at some sort of rowdy revival church focused on soul-winning. It seems to me it might have been a Nazarene church, but I’m not really sure. We weren’t Nazarene, but I don’t think my mother was picky. They had a bus.

I don’t remember much, except that for some reason I went forward. A lot. I vaguely remember the minister, on what was probably one of many trips to the altar by that point, being kind but mildly condescending. It’s not that I blame him; who was this nerdy kid who kept coming forward? I’d been saved several times over by that point, like someone who places reservations at more than one restaurant, just in case. I’m not sure he knew what to do with me.

For my part, I think I probably took the invitation too literally. This is why I think it must have been a revivalistic church, heavy on the altar call, and I was easily swayed by the rhetoric. I was “suggestible,” probably a good candidate for hypnosis, or a shamanic trance. I think that’s one of the reasons I’m such a skeptic now, as a way of steeling myself against such suggestibility.

I hadn’t really missed the point, however; I had simply over-identified with it, or over-internalized it. For it is precisely this repetition that lies at the heart of a lot of evangelical spirituality, and betrays both the vacuity of evangelical soteriology and its parasitism upon capitalism—and even this is redundant.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, from Luke 15, is a popular one. Countless sermons and no insignificant number of books and articles have been dedicated to its exegesis as well as its devotional significance. I have to admit I’m a bit of a sucker for this story, a sap for any parent/child story and easily surrendered to the catharsis of a homecoming tale. I’m suggestible, in other words.

It is hard to resist the affective power of this parable. In most tellings, the reader/hearer gains access to this power, gets enjoyment and release from this story, by closing the narrative gap and identifying with the role of the prodigal. To do this we code ourselves theologically as errant waifs in need of the loving embrace of our father-God, which is generously and lavishly granted in the narrative. Many treatments ask us to identify with the other brother as well, adjuring us to learn from the father’s grace in receiving the prodigal.

But it is the first understanding, of ourselves as the prodigal, that is the mainstay of evangelical conversion. The narrative transaction of the evangelical conversion experience, which forms the frame in which Luke 15 is usually read, must be continually repeated in the life of the believer. Sermons, songs, various and varied aspects of the evangelical media machine—most of these are designed, in some way, to get us narratively lost and found over and over again, that we might somehow continually relive the conversion event.

In a similar way, romantic comedies and love songs invite us to repeat and relive the experience of falling in love, or the pathos of breaking up. It is an empty parody of the Benedictine vow of conversatio, or perpetual conversion, the life-long process of becoming to which monks commit themselves. But this is not to let the Catholics off the hook, inasmuch as I wonder if this isn’t also steeped in the perpetual sacrifice of the Eucharist. (Indeed, William Cavanaugh reads consumerism as a parody of the Eucharist, for which Cavanaugh’s remedy is a robust re-invigoration of eucharistic theology.)

My childhood appropriation of this dynamic, however much it might presage some of my instability regarding religion and the construction of identity, serves as a kind of living reductio ad asburdum of the need for repetition. For me this had to be literal, and it manifested in my going forward week after week. But my reaction differed from the norm in degree but not in kind—in expression but not in essence.

It is true that some find, in the conversion experience, the impetus toward some measure of a better life. They get clean and sober. They find friends and stave off loneliness. They turn their lives around and become productive members of society. These improvements come in tangible terms that are not to be discounted.

The dark side of this dynamic is twofold: One, such improvements are often concomitant with a process in which such people are mainstreamed into an oppressive culture. Giving your heart to Jesus also means learning how to stop worrying and love the bomb. They gain an identity as part of a demographic or even a voting bloc but their true political agency is largely eviscerated.

Two, those whose lives do not manifest room for such “improvements”—for instance, the middle-class target of most evangelical church growth strategies, who might need 3 ways to improve their marriage but do not seem to need rehab, or those who have already made significant changesmust continually seek narrative satisfaction in the repetition structure I describe above. They must seek, in evangelical media and church programming, ways to inscribe themselves as sinners who can find absolution in the message of God’s love and redemption. They must do this over and over again in Sisyphean futility.

This mimics and mirrors the way in which capitalism continually constructs and then partially alleviates consumer desire until eventually it is the desire itself that we are after. We want the catharsis of wanting. We seek the pathos of seeking. There is an addictive element to this, but also a more deeply pathological dimension, hinted at in Fight Club, in which the narrator says of insomnia (which seems to be a trope for capitalist malaise), “nothing is real; everything is a copy of a copy of a copy.” Everything solid melts into the air.

Evangelical spirituality freezes the religious subject at the point of conversion much as capitalism freezes the economic subject at the moment of desire. The religious identity must be continually performed in ritual and in narrative recapitulation just as our consumer identity must be continually performed in the act of consumption but also in the structuring of desire. Being defined in perpetuity as a “consumer” is not structurally different from being consistently defined as a “sinner saved by grace.” These identity constructions are at the very least complementary, if not mutually reinforcing.

The “practical application” of much evangelical preaching and teachingThe Purpose-Driven Life comes to mind hereis therapeutic and generally serves to either assist us in gaining access to the mainstream of consumer culture (this is especially true of theologies of health and prosperity) or to bear up under the demands of such culture and mitigate its more damaging effects. This is roughly the argument Slavoj Žižek makes against self-help culture and many Americanized versions of eastern religion. In the ramped-up rhetoric of a first-century rabbi, we make our converts twice the sons and daughters of hell that we are.

N.T. Wright argues that the context of prodigal son parable is eschatological, that the original audience would have heard the parable not as much in terms of individual repentance but of the restoration of both houses of Israel. As much as Wright and I disagree on other things, I think he has a point here. But I’m not sure how helpful a socio-rhetorical analysis is in this case, and I think in our efforts to correct for modernist individualism we have a tendency to swing too far in the other direction.

If we are to recover this parable as something useful, if we are to channel its affective power into something truly life-giving, we must complete the circle. We must teach this parable not simply as a tender story of the possibility of homecoming, but of the sacred responsibility to become the welcoming father. The narrative gap that we must close is not the prodigal son’s empty place at the dinner table but the kenotic absence of God.

The human social matrix is our ecological home. We are adapted to the tribe much in the way whales are adapted to life in the pod, or crows to the murder. This is not to celebrate any particular form of tribal life nor is it to deny the need to consciously adapt to the available forms of social organization in the present. But the basic tribal impulse, the need for human interaction, is not one that we have had time to adapt out of, and I can’t think of a good reason that we should.

Coming home, then, for whatever prodigals that there be, must mean coming into a welcoming human community. This does not need to be exclusively or specifically ecclesiastical. But we need, in various and varied forms, pockets of human solidarity performing the necessary political task of re-membering the disembodied capitalist subjects, seeking not merely retreat or sanctuary but genuine agency.

For far too long evangelicalism has offered simply the idea that God loves us. But this God only exists to the extent that such love is made manifest in genuine human contact. What we need is not a narrative transaction constantly repeated but a divine presence continually embodied. Those with ears to hear must become that presence, must bear the ring and the robe and order the feast to begin. Nothing less is salvific. The idea of God is not enough.

For what does it profit us to save souls and lose the whole world?

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