Jesus Defeats Dionysus

From the Pulpit

By G. Willcox Brown

The first lesson for 3 Easter this year began with Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” The reading ended with Saul being baptized and finding illumination and strength. And Ananias tells Saul that Saul is to regain his sight and more: he is to be filled with the Holy Spirit and with strength.

Here we see in the beginning a man filled with threats and murder, seeking to bind the disciples of Jesus. In the beginning we see Saul under the dominion of Satan, whom Jesus says “was a murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). Let us remember that the Hebrew word for Satan means accuser. At the end of the reading we see Saul filled with the Holy Spirit, the giver of life. The Greek word for Holy Spirit (parakletos) means Advocate. In the beginning Saul is under the dominion of the Accuser, who brings murder; and in the end he is filled with the divine Advocate, who brings life.

We are in the midst of a national discourse on gun control, the catalyst for which was yet another horrendous massacre — this time, appallingly, at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. But of course before Sandy Hook, it was in Aurora, Colorado, and Virginia Tech University, and Columbine High School. These things seem incomprehensible to us as a society, perhaps because of the undiluted nature of the evil perpetrated but also, and more significantly, because our society has become disconnected from the gospel and deaf to its message.

In many of these mass murders, the murderers leave behind rambling manifestos, attempting to articulate a justification, or at least an explanation of their actions. This was famously the case with Seung-Hui Cho, the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre; with Christopher Dorner, the rogue Los Angeles police officer who went on a rampage in February. Osama Bin Laden likewise wrote a “letter to America” in 2002, explaining the reasons for the violence al-Qaida was perpetrating against our nation. The letters written by these killers have a similar theme. Most of them decry the libidinous self-indulgence and hypocrisy of our culture, and our culture’s scapegoating and neglect of the weakest and most marginal members of our society.

Reading these letters, a Christian with a modicum of seriousness about the faith is struck by the truth of much of their contents. Our culture is libidinous and self-indulgent; it is dominated by pleasure-seeking to the exclusion of much else. And we do neglect and scapegoat the weak and those on the margins — the loners and weirdoes, the people who don’t fit in — those who, for one reason or another, fail to exemplify or celebrate the dominant values of the larger group. I well remember these people at my college. They didn’t get bids from fraternities; they weren’t invited to parties; they were sometimes openly ridiculed; they often sat alone in the dining hall. After awhile, usually after a year or so, they would give up trying to fit in, and their desire to be accepted would be displaced by a more or less intense animus for the values of the community from which they were excluded, and for the community itself.

American culture at large is increasingly Dionysian. We have come to understand a healthy society to be one in which the pleasure-seeking of its members is formally ordered and facilitated. It has become a cliché to say “It’s a free country” as a retort to those who question instances of one’s pleasure-seeking. As a society we have embraced the notion that no one should interfere with the gratification of our passions. As often as not, this translates into our thinking that no one, not even the most helpless, should interfere with what our founding documents called “the pursuit of happiness.” No one must interfere: not the uncool, the unrich, the non-native, and especially not the unborn.

There is an irony in the manifestos often left behind by these mass murderers. The irony is that precisely because they are in one way or another excluded from our culture, they are able in a sense to see it from the outside, in a clearer light perhaps than we are able to see it from within. It should go without saying that this does not absolve them of their actions — who can forgive sins but God alone? — and of course it is also not to say that their victims are individually hedonists. The rampaging of the perpetrators tends to be pretty indiscriminate. They are perpetrators of horrendous and heartbreaking evil. Nonetheless, as a culture, and to an indeterminate degree, we share in their guilt. There is blood on our society’s hands, and on ours as individual members of it — because we hold up, or at best we tolerate — Dionysian values, and we exclude from our company those who are unable or unwilling to join the festival.

The 19th-century philosopher Friedriech Nietzsche was a proponent of Dionysian values; he advocated giving free reign to passion. Indeed, shortly before his death, he went insane and began signing his letters “Yours sincerely, Dionysus.” Nietzsche saw Christianity as a kind of slavery that stifles passion and prohibits people from flourishing, by constraining their freedom to do what they want to do. Nietzsche seemed to feel this personally, and he advocated a metaphorical devotion to the pagan god Dionysus, whose followers in antiquity would worship at wild parties, with drunkenness, ecstatic dancing, and lewd sexuality. The festivals would end with the ritual slaughter of a sacrificial victim, often an animal, but in the myths also sometimes a human, and indeed sometimes (it was said) Dionysus himself. The god would then be reborn endlessly to perpetuate his cult of passion and ecstasy.

As with much of pagan mythology, there is a keen insight about human nature in the story of the cult of Dionysus, an insight that Nietzsche understood and embraced, but which we as a culture do not seem to see. The insight is this: the lust for violence is an integral component of the unbridled reign of human passion. Violence and murder are inevitably entailed by servitude to our appetitive desires.

We can see this in the domestic abuse that often accompanies chemical addiction; we can see it perhaps on a geopolitical level in our nation’s addiction to oil and the wars we think we must fight over it; and we can see it in an excruciating way in the mass murders perpetrated seemingly more and more frequently. The government of the passions sustains itself by violence and murder. And societies or communities that construe their self-purpose as guarding liberty in the base sense of protecting an individual’s right to gratify his lusts — these kinds of societies are doomed to contend with murder. The god demands a sacrifice. And indeed in America: as our social ethics have become increasingly libertine, so have we seen a dramatic increase in these horrendous murders, and in violent crime generally.

So what is the answer? It may not surprise you to hear me say it: the answer is Jesus, and him crucified. There are striking similarities between the story of Dionysus and the story of Jesus. Both are gods who are murdered and who return to life so that their followers can flourish. But there are striking dissimilarities too. For one thing, the myth of Dionysus was just that: a myth. Even pagans in antiquity understood this. Pagan myths were stories that explained the human condition — they were really allegories about invisible and impersonal gods, stories the efficacy of which was found through their ritual enactment.

In Christianity, on the other hand, while we do find similar typologies, similar allegories, we are not dealing with a mere allegory. Our God is a real, historical person, who had flesh and blood — and this is a fact emphasized in the cycle of gospel readings after Easter. The founding myth of Christianity really happened. Whereas the pagan stories found their power through ritual reenactment, our ritual reenactments have power in (and only in) the historical veracity of the myth that really happened. For us, the dynamic is reversed: the myth of Dionysus became real through its ritual; our ritual is real because of the reality of the myth.

Most significantly, however, our God is not a god who enables the gratification of our lusts through an endless cycle of being murdered and reborn. Rather Christ dies once for all, to bring about our flourishing by delivering us from slavery to our lusts. And we return again and again to our ritual — the sacraments — to access that once-for-all gift of deliverance and life, the gift which Jesus himself is, not merely on some distant and intangible Olympus, but in our world, on a hill outside Jerusalem, in the most holy sacrament of the altar, and in the hearts of all his faithful people.

The night before Jesus died he said, “Now is the judgment of this world.” Because the work he was about to do was undertaken precisely to end, once for all, the cycle of human bondage to carnal desire with its foundation in vengeance and murder and the ritual placation of demons. This was something only a god could do, and not just any god, not Dionysus — only the Lord of lords could do it, the King of kings, the God of gods. And this shows what Jesus meant when he said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt. 10:34) — the sword that is the judgment and the destruction of secular culture — a “sword that no human being can fail to dread or resent even though” (or perhaps because? [see René Girard, “Dionysus vs. the Crucified,” MLN, 99/4]) it represents God’s love for us, and is the overthrowing of the powers that bind us in darkness. To some degree we’ve all fallen in love with our captors.

If we are to be honest, we have two choices: Dionysus or the Crucified. With Dionysus we get the gratification of our carnal appetites and the will to power, but (as Nietzsche understood), we must also embrace the violence and murder on which the whole system is built. As a culture, if we choose Dionysus, we must be prepared for more and more Sandy Hooks and Auroras and Columbines and Virginia Techs. Or we can choose the Crucified; we can submit our lives to him and find in his government a life transformed by the power of the only true God, who not only is alive but who is life itself. In him alone, as St. Paul bears witness in Acts, in Christ alone, crucified and risen, are we delivered from threats and murder; in Christ alone will we find illumination, strength, and life abundant.

G. Willcox Brown, SSC, is rector of Holy Cross Church, Dallas.

Image: Dionysus by José de Ribera [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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