We continue our every-Sunday-celebration of the 30th anniversary of Binding The Strong Man, Ched Myers’ political reading of Mark’s Gospel.
…we should instead be about understanding how myth functions as political discourse–in antiquity and today.
Another term for symbolic discourse about social realities and conflicts is ideology.
…There is consensus among both Marxist and non-Marxist scholars that ideological discourse functions in one of two basic ways. It either legitimates or subverts the dominant social order: Berger calls these the “world maintenance” and “world shaking” functions. The legitimizing function seeks to lend plausibility to social reality, “giving normative dignity to its practical imperatives.”
…Ideology can also function to subvert the dominant order pursuing one of two general discursive strategies. The reformist strategy will usually argue its case from reference points within the dominant order, trying to give new meaning to established symbols. These appeals may be for purposes of retrogressive change, as for example in the New Right’s nostalgic call to return to the “traditions of the founding fathers of the USA.” Or the strategy may be progressive, in the sense that the system has yet to realize its own ideological commitments. An example would be Martin Luther King’s appeals to the Bill of Rights in order to attack racial segregation in the USA.
Alternatively, revolutionary strategies usually repudiate the dominant symbolic system altogether, either fundamentally redefining the old terms of appealing to entirely different ones. Such an ideological project must simultaneously introduce and legitimate the new symbols even as it is “delegitimating” the old ones. Sometimes there is no desire to transform or overthrow the dominant order, the strategy being one of withdrawal and establishment of a “counter-culture,” as in the case of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Hutterites. In an atmosphere of tolerance or pluralism, such efforts represent only an incidental threat to the dominant order. It is when the subversive ideology is vigorously battling for the “hearts and minds” of the populace that conflict erupts into a “war of myths.” In this case, the “subversives” become the target of ideological counterattack, with the “custodians of the ‘official’ definitions of reality…setting in motion various conceptual machineries designed to maintain the ‘official’ universe against the heretical challenge” (Berger and Luckmann).
Needless to say, revolutionary ideologies, once their proponents attain political power, can quickly become hegemonic–and usually do. We see this in Christianity after Constantine, the successful bourgeois revolts against feudalism (the French and American revolutions), and most significantly in the modern era, Marxism, which became “a legitimation science, serving the interests of the new socialist ruling elite by legitimating the institutions of emerging socialist societies.” In such cases, however, the revolutionary-turned-hegemonic ideology usually preserves what liberation theologians have called a “subversive memory,” which can become the seed of renewal movement within the tradition. This can be seen in the ideological systems of Christianity, liberal capitalism, and Marxism and, of course, the case directly relevant to a reading of Mark, Judaism.
In sum, there is no simple formula for ideological discourse. Although in any given social and historical situation ideology will function either subversively or hegemonically, the very themes that were liberating in one context can in another become oppressive. The social function of a given ideology cannot be discerned apart from its concrete relationship to the political and economic ordering of power in a determinate formation. For example, in cases where a common symbolic universe is being debated, the war of myths can be difficult to discern, for what on the surface might appear to be agreement is in fact sharp divergency. Thus socio-political analysis is intrinsic to the study of ideology as symbolic discourse; without it the sociology of knowledge becomes what its critics fear: simply another, more subtle, exercise in the history of ideas. The task of “reading” subversive and legitimating ideological discourse to discern the concrete social strategies they represent constitutes the fundamental premise of my political approach to Mark.