Phillip M. Sherman on Erin Runions’s The Babylon Complex
Mythology matters. The stories we tell ourselves, individually and collectively, shape our experience of the world and our relationship to other people. Myth does not mean “false narrative” certainly, but mythological narratives or images are certainly capable of being utilized for positive goals or to negative ends. Myth can tell us “how the world is” and also “how the world ought to be.” This constructive element of myth can even be weaponized. There is nothing so dreadful as playing a predetermined role in the myth of another; nothing so damaging as being present but not truly seen, subsumed beneath the constructed images of another person or group. Recent months provide ample evidence of this dynamic. The hatchet attack of police officers in New York City and the killing of a Canadian soldier by Western sympathizers of ISIS/ISIL show what can happen to those who, because of their vocation, are seen to represent the ‘West’ in the minds of radical Islamists and become mythologically significant targets. The numerous and racialized fears of people who are perceived to be from West Africa during the Ebola-induced mass hysteria demonstrate that scientific knowledge and basic human decency can easily be eclipsed by the popular consumption of catastrophe literature and apocalyptic film. Was Michael Brown a demon or was Darren Wilson simply ‘seeing’ what his culture taught him must be the case?
These are all contemporary iterations of how an individual’s or culture’s mythological narratives — the stories they tell about how the world must be — shape reality in ways that can be harmful to those both inside and outside of that particular mythological system. The institution of American slavery, famously, was justified by appeal to a pseudo-scientific reading of racial difference, grounded in the biblical account of the ‘curse of Ham’ (Gen 9). Modern evangelical support for the state of Israel has a foundation in the mythological role played by the Jewish state in the ‘last days.’ The actual lives (or deaths) of Israelis and Palestinians can easily be ignored. In all of these cases, mythological systems occlude vision and distort how the ‘Other’ is described and experienced.
In a book at once intriguing, challenging, and frustrating, Erin Runions provides an extended discussion of how a key biblical symbol — Babylon — has shaped the political and social thought of the United States over the past century or more. She asserts “biblical interpretation is implicated in biopolitical securitizing and regularizing discourses … as they are yoked with national self-understandings and aspirations.” Joining together a broadly defined form of biblical reception history with cultural studies, she examines how contemporary social, cultural, and political discourses have appealed to the scriptural myth of Babylon. Central to this project is her claim that Babylon is an icon of anxiety in the current U.S. myth of national superiority (often known under the only slightly less offensive sounding name of ‘American Exceptionalism’) and unquestioned sovereignty. This is a myth in the more popular definition of a ‘false narrative’ as increasing numbers of political and economic observers claim that “national sovereignty is … a fiction in a globalized world” as capital is no respecter of nationality. Awareness that the nation-state is an increasingly anachronistic concept and is no longer the most important actor in world affairs results in a spectrum of political responses — from opposition to international trade deals to the rise of nationalistic movements. Obsession with ‘securing the borders,’ for example, can be seen as a political symptom of wide-spread anxiety regarding economic and political sovereignty. Such a concern was raised to comic and self-parodying extremes recently with a concern expressed by two U.S. congressional representatives in October 2014 that ISIS could use undocumented immigrants from Latin America to spread Ebola in the United States.
Many things can be built with the bricks of Babylon, a particularly pliable image. Conservatives and liberals alike appeal to Babylon to accomplish opposing purposes. Babel is almost ubiquitous. “Allusions to Babylon touch on the dangers of sex, the necessity of war, and the problem of governance … Babylon represents what might be considered central fears within U.S. liberal democracy: that sexual, moral, ethnic, or political diversity will disrupt national unity, or, conversely, that some totalitarian system will curtail freedom and force homogeneous unity.” Babylon thereby paradoxically embodies political opposites.
Runions connects this multivalent use of Babylon in the contemporary context to the ambiguity surrounding Babylon in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament. The biblical Babylon is mainly a negative symbol, but it is not without its attractions. In the Hebrew Bible, Babylon is the image of grandiose and imperial power, hubris and arrogance, as well as the chosen instrument of Yahweh against his own people. The juxtaposition of these two attitudes — allure and repulsion — is especially prominent in the book of Jeremiah. The image of the ‘Whore of Babylon’ in Revelation 17 provides another important scriptural touchstone for seeing the allure of Babylon as ultimately a temptation to destruction. Of special note here is the call for triumphant devastation of Babylon: “In the U.S. national myth, ancient Israel (Judah) becomes the United States, while Babylon becomes a symbol of tyranny and evil that must be fought by any means necessary. Babylon become more than the ancient empire; it becomes the cosmic symbol of political and sexual evil, against which U.S. messianism pitches its battle and shines its light for the world.”
The book proceeds as a series of forays into the diverse ways in which the image of Babylon interacts with U.S. anxieties surrounding identity and sovereignty. Deeply informed by political theory and cultural studies, Runions unearths how “a deep-seated biblical stratum in U.S. culture influences, limits, and enables political policy, expression, and action.”
The Tower of Babel narrative (Genesis 11:1-9) provides ample material for political and theological reflections on the relative value of difference and the potential dangers of unity. Babel is often encountered already packaged within a certain history of interpretation. Runions, therefore, opens her analysis with a discussion of this story as refracted through one of its most ancient and influential interpreters, the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus. She is not claiming that Josephus’s version of Babel is always explicitly known and used; it is often “folded into Christian Scripture” by later tradition. Josephus, in his multi-volume Judean Antiquities, modifies the biblical Babel in a number of important ways (1.113-119). At the center of his retelling is the importation and expansion of the figure of Nimrod. The builders of Babel are terrified that God will attack them again (as he did in the Flood) and are increasingly anesthetized by their economically comfortable lives. They are persuaded by Nimrod — the original tyrant — that they must build a tower to protect themselves and to go on the offense and wage war against God. While Josephus’ version of the Babel story is heavily shaped by larger Greek and Roman philosophical debates about the proper forms of governance it also reflects Josephus’ own indigenous political preferences for a hierarchical form of governance (Priests), authorized by appeal to the transcendent. There is a marked “suspicion of democracy as an impious and tyrannical locus of moral dissolution and a threat to established hierarchies of governance.” The sin of Babel is therefore political, pursuing inappropriate or impious forms of governance.
After her exploration and contextualization of Josephus’ reading of the Babel story, Runions moves into a fascinating examination of how various strands or pieces of his re-telling emerge in the contemporary period. Josephus’s Babel serves as a resource for modern thinkers struggling to make sense of the diversity and unity of the contemporary American political experiment. The bulk of her exposition details conservative opposition to Barack Obama from 2009-2012. What might appear to be simple — even if intense — partisan political maneuvering is actually driven by much deeper arguments about the nature of the state and the role of individuals in the larger political project. She is no partisan here and claims that both conservative and liberal political voices use the image of Babel. Liberals and conservatives share a commitment to what Runions terms theodemocracy.
Some features of theodemocracy are that it criticizes conceptualizations of democracy that are not ordered by clear lines of hierarchy; it displays anxiety over the effects of uncontrolled sexuality on the healthy body politic; it ruminates over the tension between liberty and equality; and it worries about cultivating a sense of national unity.
A concern with clear lines of hierarchy is often masked in contemporary discourse by references to ‘low information voters’ and the passage of laws related to ‘potential voter fraud.’ But a concern to maintain hierarchy-within-democracy can also be seen when questions are raised about the suitability of a particular candidate to hold elected office. Consider Nimrod as a potential ruler in Josephus’s Babel narrative. Runions argues that the figure of Nimrod becomes a cipher for the racialized ‘Other’ who threatens a divinely authorized and unified and properly hierarchical political order. How does this work? In the interpretive tradition, Nimrod is often associated with Africa through his father, Cush. The biblical ‘curse of Ham’ (another African) in Genesis 9 can be linked to Nimrod to produce the image of an African tyrant who stands in opposition to the divinely ordained political order. And this is where it gets weird. Runions introduces a fascinating section on conservative Christian voices which implicitly or explicitly (a reference to Barry Babel!) link a racialized Nimrod to Obama. One commentator, Craig Portwood, makes the equation very clear:
… Nimrod was of dark complexion, or as we say today, black. We do have one [?!] black world leader in place: United States President Barack Obama. If the soon anticipated antichrist does make an abrupt appearance in a world in crisis, will he be more suited to that role than is Barack Obama?
Theodemocracy also ruminates over the tension between liberty and democracy. How can individuals truly be free in a society where everyone is theoretically equal in the pursuit of their own definition of the good and there is no agreed upon definition of what might constitute the ‘good?’ In one of the most disturbing sections of her work, Runions explores how the media figure Glenn Beck reconfigured the narrative of the Tower of Babel to argue the dangers of “one-world order, equality, humanism, and big-government.” Beck’s interpretive strategy includes the following exegetical gem. He notes that the Babelites build with bricks, which are uniform, and not with stones, which are irregular. Out of this basic observation, he elaborates a conspiracy theory: those who say they are concerned with economic and social inequality are not primarily motivated by compassion but wish to create a society of absolute equality for their own purposes. They just want citizens to become another brick in the wall. A desire for unity and equality is nefarious. (Philo of Alexandria, in his work On the Confusion of Tongues, makes a similar argument in noting that Pharaoh is also concerned with the creation of bricks in the book of Exodus [Exod 5:6-9]. For the Alexandrian philosopher, the tyranny of the Exodus myth is projected backwards into the Babel account. This is the only similarity between Philo and Glenn Beck, to my knowledge.)
The remainder of the chapter touches on opposition to same-sex marriage, the contemporary use of the writings of Tocqueville, and the concept of “soft despotism” to provide political rationales for opposing economic or social equality. The use of Babel imagery and language is not confined to the political right, however. President Obama uses the language of Babel as well to assert that the political and economic plurality of contemporary American society must ultimately yield to some higher purpose. During a prayer breakfast he cautions that “we become absorbed with our abstract arguments, our ideological disputes, our contests for power. And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God’s voice.” The narrative of Babel — and its reconfiguration by Josephus and others — is a flexible myth that can criticize or authorize either unity or diversity.
The image of an Iraqi prisoner, hooded with his hands outstretched in a (perverse?) parody of crucifixion, has become one of the iconic images of American torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib. How was such torture justified? Consider that Haj Ali Shalal, who was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib, has said that scripture itself was deployed as a form of torture. He claims that the song, “Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M, was played loudly over and over again to torment prisoners. The use of loud and deafening music as a type of psychological warfare strategy has been used by the US military before. (Manuel Noriega was no fan of Guns and Roses!) Pointedly, its effectiveness has even been derived from biblical narrative: the blowing of the trumpets by Joshua during the battle of Jericho (Joshua 6). Lt. Col. Dan Kuehl cites this biblical account as a way of authorizing the strategy. Runions also notes that soldiers were encouraged by some military chaplains to see modern Babylon and ancient Babylon as one.
The song ‘Rivers of Babylon’ includes lyrics from Psalm 137. This particular Psalm contains the lamentations of the exiled Judeans who are taunted by their captors to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land.” It famously ends with a benediction on those who would smash the skulls of Babylonian infants against rocks in recompense for the crimes of Babylon against the people of God. In the original context, of course, the violence can be understood — at some level — as a weaker party responding out of the depths of their suffering and powerlessness against a much larger, imperial system which had exiled them and destroyed their homes and families. The reversal at Abu Ghraib — the world’s strongest military force imagining themselves as weak and the prisoner’s under their guard as agents of an empire opposed to God — calls for greater scrutiny. Runions’s claims that “central to my concern in this chapter is how the Bible comes to be used as torture, and how biblical interpretations circling around Babylon come to make torture unexceptional.”
The primary theoretical contribution in this section is Runions’s notion of ‘literalist allegory.’ The paradoxical sounding term is how she refers to the imposition of scriptural language and themes onto actual populations and persons who are made to ‘allegorically’ represent the embodiment of scriptural themes. The notion of ‘revenge on Babylon’ and ‘Babylon as the Enemy of God’ is present in the biblical text and seen to be present in contemporary Iraq embodied in contemporary Iraqis by those responsible for their abuse and torture. “Literalist allegory requires the same allegorical and scripturalizing process of interpretation by higher truths, but now it is politics, present events, and people that are allegorized by texts, which are used to predict the future.” Individuals, in other words, are hidden behind the myths of others. She argues that by viewing the detainees at Abu Ghraib as allegorical embodiments of cosmic evil arrayed against God and American forces as cosmic good in eternal opposition to Babylon, torture was made theologically legitimate by appeal to scripture (including Psalm 137!) which validates revenge against the enemy as justifiable — if not mandatory! Such a reading is deeply problematic because it allows for great crimes to be committed against individuals by hiding them behind sacred text. “When the psalm’s vengeful affect is raised to the status of cosmic truth through the literalist-allegorical interpretive tradition around Babylon,” she claims, “it effectively creates a set of allegorical cross-identifications that obscures responsibility for unethical behavior.”
The remaining chapters are equally engaging and theoretically detailed. She examines appeals to Babylon as foundational for Christian Reconstructionism and theonomy (R. Rushdoony), movements which advocate the equation of federal law with literalist interpretation of biblical law. There is detailed discussion of the role of the Tower of Babel narrative in American neo-conservative imperialistic discourse from Irving Kristol to Leon Kass. Yet another chapter examines the place of Babylon in film by exploring the Orientalizing allure of Babylon from D. W. Griffith’s infamous Intolerance to Alejandro Gonzalez Inárritu’s Babel. She concludes with an exploration of the gay Antichrist and her own constructive reading of Babylon utilizing queer theory.
There is something of a vertiginous effect to reading Runions’s work. The sheer volume of political and cultural theory and the chorus of academic theorists discussed in these pages is astonishing (Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, and Michel Foucault would name only the most widely known); her intimacy with film-studies and her firm grasp of hermeneutical theories is impressive. Bringing such thinkers into conversation with broader biblical studies is a challenging undertaking which was well executed throughout the work. On numerous occasions, I sensed that she was genuinely uncovering something real and dangerous about the way a biblical image had (over) influenced American thinking about its larger place and function in the world. Whatever one might believe about poetry, myth does make things happen. Runions careful parsing of the image of Babylon can leave no doubt about such a truth.
And yet I struggled as a reader with a background in more traditional models of biblical studies. In some cases, the connection between the image of Babylon and a political theorist or propagandist was clear and compelling. In other cases, the connection to the image of Babylon seemed exceedingly tenuous. Did the guards at Abu Ghraib really mean to convey anything by their choice of music? How would we know? Does it finally matter what they meant by what they did? Critical theory and cultural analysis were at the center and the image of Babylon hovered in the margins on many occasions. Runions would confess that she could not always draw a straight line between the biblical texts and its reception. Was Glenn Beck reading Josephus’ Judean Antiquities? Probably not. Over and over, however, I had the sense that the work was primarily one of well-informed juxtaposition. In fairness, she uses the term in her introduction: “I juxtapose cultural artifacts, interpretive traditions, layers of texts, philosophical overlays, and theoretical analyses to present a discursive diorama of the Babylon complex.” She goes on to refer to this collection as a “pastiche archive.” Given that the book consists of some pieces that appeared elsewhere, the chapters have been curated well and are provocative. The cacophony of voices present, however, often threatened to drown out the larger story to be told about the reception of the image of Babylon.
Perhaps I am not being entirely fair; but methodology matters, too. Certainly the Bible and the mythemes drawn from it continue — even in this post-biblical age (perhaps especially in a post-biblical age when biblical images are often entirely divorced from the constraints of their textual foundations!) — to shape and mold contemporary political thinking. Must we only speak of the reception of Scripture when there is a clear and explicit reference to a text and its interpretation? Certainly not. Runions models a more expansive approach, searching for the shadow Babylon continues to cast in the early twenty-first century.