Temptation

This post is something of a confession; prepare yourself. It’s nothing so tantalizing as a comment about the temptation of drugs or sex; it’s about another insidious temptation with which society often plies us. Lately, I’m feeling its pull more strongly, it seems.

That temptation is the one of comparison. You know the one. It’s the one that gnaws at your soul a little, whispers doubts in the back of your mind, every time you open up a social media platform. You see people living their “best lives” and–even though you consciously know that 99% of what you see posted is manufactured and exaggerated, conveniently glossing over those problems, dilemmas, failures and weaknesses that everyone has and no one really wants to share–you still wonder, “Am I not doing as well as everyone else?” “Am I just not as good?”

I’m no exception, and lately I’m thinking about this much more than I’d like to. Part of it is a function of age: I’m thirty-five, fast closing in on thirty-six. But I can’t really lay the blame on that, because it’s just another measure I’m using for comparison.

I, like many people from upper-middle-class suburban backgrounds, was raised on a steady regimen of the importance of achievement. Explicitly or not, I was taught to weigh value based on achievements reached, things accomplished. To add to that, I fell into the belief (though I can’t, admittedly, say that anyone drilled it into me) that real achievers achieve things early and often.

This was an easy thing to satisfy when I was younger and in school. I maintained consistently high grades, took all of the advanced placement classes available to me and entered my first semester of college with forty-seven hours of credit already under my belt. I spent the next decade or so earning degrees, tangible (kind-of) certifications of achievement.

Now I’m much farther removed from academia, and I’ve become much more responsible for intrinsically maintaining my sense of self-worth.

And therein lies the battle. I have very consciously chosen certain ideals and values to live by, ideals and values inspired by my faith and my idealism, ideals and values about which I am convicted and passionate.

Sometimes, those values are counter-cultural. A significant point of my personality is the value I place on my independence. Combined with my moral compass, that’s very much influenced my career path as a lawyer. Those choices are not without consequences. One of my wisest friends once said, “you’re only as free as you’re willing to accept the consequences of your actions.” Fulfilling that statement is truly living without fear, and it’s something that has resonated with me ever since I first heard it.

So–most of the time–I’m perfectly content with the career choices I’ve made. I work in a small firm with two partners who are like family, I have great independence in how I do my work and for whom I work. This has given me a lifestyle balance that truly fits with who I am, and I often tell people that I wouldn’t be happy lawyering if I was working for someone else.

But it also means that there are consequences. Balancing my broader life goals against my career and placing my moral values first when working mean that I sometimes turn down work that might be lucrative or that I perform my work in ways that place income as a secondary concern. I don’t take on new clients when I don’t believe that I can achieve anything for them; I don’t bill my clients for every little thing; and I don’t charge the exorbitant fees I sometimes see other attorneys charging.

I feel those choices every time I look at my bank account. Don’t get me wrong, I make a decent living and my practice grows with each passing year–it turns out that being honest and capable actually is a good business model! I’m happy to accept the consequences of those choices; I’ve found in the past few years that I need far fewer material things to be happy than I thought I did, and I have mostly disdain for the pursuit of wealth, power and status.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I was scrolling through Facebook over the weekend and happened across a post by a couple I went to law school with and felt a pang of jealousy. Here’s the strangest part: my jealousy was about the background of the picture, about their kitchen. I’ll be very excited to see K’s reaction when she reads this, because she knows me well and knows how little stock I typically put in the size and fanciness of a person’s home.

Of course, my feelings weren’t really about the kitchen. They were the result of the doubting my own adequacy in light of the financial success this couple presumably enjoys. These feelings were really about me asking myself if I’m really good enough, according to a standard I don’t believe in and actually reject!

I don’t want a house like theirs. I don’t want the type of life consequences that are attached to such a choice (which is not intended to be a judgment of their choices, simply a statement that that is not the path for me). But it doesn’t matter who you are, that temptation will reach its ugly tendrils into each of us at some point, if not regularly.

When it comes down to it, though, career achievement is the place where the temptation of comparison to others is easiest for me to bear. I’m very proud of how I conduct my business and uphold my values; that I try to practice the Christian ideals I so often discuss on this site. Again, that’s not intended to be a judgment on others, just a matter of trying to keep my own hypocrisy to a minimum.

The two other temptations I frequently feel to compare with others hit closer to home. The first of these is about parenthood; the second: my writing.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time, or perused it in depth, or who know me personally, know that K and I plan to foster to adopt, and that we’re again waiting for a placement of kids. That’s difficult enough as it is, but we’re quickly approaching a time where it seems that we’re the only ones without children. One of my partners at the law firm has two; the other is expecting his first this Fall. My (younger) sister is pregnant with her first (and I am very happy about this and excited for her!) and I’ve got several siblings and cousins–many of whom are younger than me–who already have children as well.

I know better than to think of having children as a matter of achievement, really I do. But the fact that I have to write that here is revelatory in and of itself, is it not? And I know that K and I are not the only ones to deal with such comparisons with others–not by a long shot.

For me, my writing is where this temptation cuts deepest. If I can discern any sort of divine calling for myself, it lies in writing fiction and theology. If there is a personal pursuit about which I am truly passionate,  it is in writing. If there is a single most-powerful, non-divine source of my sense of self-worth, it is in my writing.

I’ll make a true confession by way of example, so get ready for some vulnerability on my part: This past weekend Rachel Held Evans died. She was an outspoken writer for progressive Christian values and, even in her short life, accomplished much in service of Christian faith and demonstrating to the unchurched (and perhaps millennials in particular) a Christianity that rejects fundamentalism, embraces the Gospel truth of love and reminds us that Christ calls us to pursue an agenda of social justice that does not rely on identity politics, a rejection of immigrants, or fear. (Here is one article with some information if you’re not familiar with her).

To my shame, I have to admit that, in addition to the sincere sorrow I feel at her passing, I was awash in a sense of unreasonable jealousy. She was only a little older than me and already had five published books! Obviously, my feelings of inadequacy have nothing to do with her; they’re really about me questioning myself, worrying that maybe I just don’t have what it takes.

I told myself that I’d get my first major work published before I turned 40. As that time slips ever closer, I find myself often looking up other author’s ages when they were first published. I can say that I understand that their life isn’t mine, nor should it be. I can write that I know that the value of a writing originates in the writing itself, not how old the author was at the time of creation.

And that knowledge, I think, is where the truth will out. Particularly in my theology, I talk about the importance and beauty of ambiguity. I also admit the difficulty we naturally have with the ambiguous. And let this post be evidence that I don’t stand above that difficulty; I’m not free from that struggle.

There are no easy ways to judge the value of a writing, whether fiction or non-fiction. Style is so highly varied and individual, the myriad ways in which a story might be told so dependent upon the consciousness in control of the tale, that there can be no single measuring stick. And yet, we humans like to have some certainty, even if that certainty is artificial and illusory.  For me, I can find some tangible standard of measure by looking at age at time of publication as a meaningful comparison (though I know in my heart it is not).

Again, the craziest part about falling into self-doubt by making such comparisons is that I intellectually do not value them! In my fiction, I follow after Joss Whedon: “I’d rather make a show that 100 people need to see than one 1,000 people want to see.” At this point in my writing, I’m not sure that I can do either, yet, but the point is that I’m more interested in deep connections with a smaller group of people than broadly appealing in a commercially-viable way. The same goes for my theology–I’d rather write something that resonates deeply and inspires just a few people to legitimate faith, that gives even a single person permission to practice Christianity in a way that isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” than to establish some great presence in the history of theology.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m not even sure that I’m interested in traditional publication avenues right now. I’d love to be able to make a living writing, to devote all of my time to it, but not at the cost of having to cater to publishers or what will be successful on the current literary market to do it. My self-comparisons with published authors, though, makes me wonder if all of this idealism is simply cover for the fear of failing. “Know thyself,” the oracle says. “I’m trying!” I complain in response.

Ultimately, the temptation to compare ourselves comes from a positive place–we want to be meaningful, to be creators of meaning and to live lives where others can easily recognize meaning. That is a natural and divine thing. It’s where we let society tell us that meaning must look a certain way that we go wrong, where we try to make someone else’s meaning our own that we lose ourselves. Perhaps that is what Jesus means when he warns us about the temptation of the world, what Paul is alluding to when he warns us not to be “conformed to this world.”

What I do know is that I am passion about writing, and in particular I’m passionate about writing speculative fiction and easily-accessible theology. I’m working on the discipline to match that passion, and with every passing day I’m probably coming to understand the art and craft of writing just a little bit better–no that anyone truly ever masters it. Those things need no comparisons to be true, to be inspiring, to be fulfilling. So why look beyond them? As with so many things, easier to know what to do than to actually do it.

How do you cope with such temptations? Having read the blogs of some of my dear readers, I know that there is insight out there, meaningful stories to share. If you’ve got one, comment, or post a link to a post on your blog, or send me a message!

Post Script: Maybe in talking about my struggles writing, it would be useful to give a short update on where that writing stands:
(1) Children of God: This is the tentative title of my first theological book. I’ve had finished about 75% of a first-draft for several years now, but it needs a rewrite from the beginning and I need set aside the time to do that.
(2) Wilderlands: This is the first Avar Narn novel I’ve seriously set to working on. The first draft is about 40%-50% complete. I’m starting to feel an itch to return to the story; I’m not sure whether I’ll do that soon or wait until NaNoWriMo this year (which is how it started). It needs to be finished and then needs some significant rewrites in the portion already written.
(3) Unnamed Story of Indeterminate Length: This is an almost-noir-style story set in Avar Narn and what I’ve been working on most recently. I had envisioned it as a short-story, but it’s already swelled to 16,000 words and I’m not finished. I’ll be sending to some volunteers for review and advice on whether it should be left as a novella, cut down significantly, or expanded into a novel. I’ve got several other “short stories” in mind with the same major character, so this could end up being a novella set, a collection of short stories, or a novel series. I’ve also got an unfinished novella-length story with the same character I may return to while this one is under review. If you’d like to be a reader, send me a message.
(4) Other Avar Narn Short Stories: I’ve got several other short story ideas I’m toying around with, but I’m trying not to add too many other projects before I make substantial progress on the above.
(5) Avar Narn RPG: I have a list of games to spend some time with and potentially steal from for the rules here, but I’m mostly waiting to get some more fiction written to elaborate the setting before continuing seriously here. I’m occasionally working on additional worldbuilding and text that could fit in an RPG manual.
(6) The Blog: Of course, more blog posts to come.

 

What Jesus’ Fulfillment of Prophecies Tells us about Biblical Literalism

As my dear readers have come to understand, one of my biggest assertions in my theology is against any purely literal or uncomplicated reading of the Biblical text. In this post, I want to demonstrate how a number of interpretations of Jesus’ fulfillment of Old Testament prophetic scripture requires the insertion of metaphor and a rejection of purely literal reading.

This is, of course, not to say that there aren’t parts of the Bible that are intended to be taken literally. There are. But determining which scriptures those are is not a matter of blind acceptance; it is a matter of using all the analytical tools God has given us to separate the wheat from the dross. That extremely complex and difficult task is a discussion for another time (and a long one at that). For now, I just want to look at how certain prophecies generally (but not universally) accepted by Christians as applying to Jesus require us to leave behind the literal meaning of the text or, more commonly, to allow one of Chesterton’s “furious paradoxes” in seeing both an immediate (more literal)  prophecy and one (more metaphorical) that looks toward fulfillment in Jesus.

Let’s start with Isaiah 7:13-17. Verse fourteen is often translated “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” It’s rather easy to see how this might be applied–retrospectively–to be a prophecy of Jesus. But that requires ignoring the context. The word often translated as “virgin” does not necessarily mean “virgin;” it could also fairly be translated to indicate a “newly married woman” or a “young woman (of marriageable age).”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary I happen to have at hand at the moment of writing states that calling the (soon-to-be-born-in-Isaiah) child “Immanuel” should not be equated with a claim that the child so-named is God in human form as we believe Jesus would later be. Instead, the commentary argues that the prophecy simply means that the coming of the king of Assyria would occur before a child to be born to a woman present at the time the prophecy is uttered reaches the “age of accountability” (held by Jewish custom to be 13 but not explicitly named in the Bible).

Indeed, Ahaz calls upon Tiglath-Pileser III of Assyria (against Isaiah’s warnings) for assistance; Tiglath-Pileser captures Galilea and later Samaria for himself. Jerusalem itself is besieged by Sennecharib in 701 BCE (though Hezekiah is king at this time).

So, on a literal reading of the prophecy, we should only apply it to 8th Century Israel and Judah, not to the coming of Christ seven centuries later. But the metaphor still seems so clear as to be unavoidable. That’s the problem with well-constructed prophecy, isn’t it? It seems in retrospect so easy to find a successful prediction and yet we like to think of that link as inevitable. Which makes it suspicious and susceptible to reasonable questioning, as the human predilection for inserting patterns into chaos is well documented.

Much ink has been spilt on the topic of the Christianization of Old Testament scriptures like this one, and I’ll defer to the scholars on that discussion. For this post, I’ll limit the topic to the fact that, right or wrong, to see Isaiah 7:13-17 as a prediction of the Messiah requires us to leave the literal text behind. I don’t at all believe that that is wrong, but I do think we need to acknowledge what we’re doing when we make that argument.

Likewise, Isaiah 9:1-7 (From verse 6):

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.”

The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary again warns: “Christians have used some aspects of the passage to help them understand the significance of Christ, but the passage as a whole does not directly apply to Christ and the NT does not so apply it.”

While conceding that “Verse 7 does express what Christ will yet do,” the commentary goes on to describe how the passage represents an imminent deliverance from Assyria of the Israelite people by Yahweh.

Again, it is easy to see, looking back from the Gospels, how readily this passage might be applied to Jesus as the Messiah, but that is an ex post facto interpolation. That doesn’t necessarily mean that God didn’t intend for Isaiah’s prophecy to have both an immediate meaning and a cosmic one–I think that’s a fair interpretation for the Christian to make. But, in doing so, we must maintain the honest position that neither Isaiah 7 and 9 do not prove the coming of Christ through Old Testament prophecies.

Rather, we ought to formulate the statement as something like: “As a believer in Jesus as the Son of God and in the Gospel message, I believe that the God, speaking through the prophets in the Old Testament, gave the Israelites double-pronged prophecies that had immediate and literal importance to the hearers while also containing a metaphorical cosmic prediction of God’s action through Jesus Christ, though the prophets and hearers of the time would not have considered or looked for this second, metaphorical meaning.”

Again, the specifics of our interpretation of these passages are not the point of my thoughts here. We’re instead focusing on the need to resort to metaphor and non-literal thinking to make the popular Christian interpretation of these scriptures the least bit functional.

Some more examples:

Isaiah 52-53: Like Isaiah 7 and 9, there is a very strong metaphorical relationship between this text and the life of Jesus Christ. But we must also conveniently overlook some inconsistencies between the description of the “suffering servant” and Jesus or again assume that this text had both a more immediate interpretation and more metaphorical applicability to Jesus.

Psalm 2:7: “I will proclaim the LORD’s decree: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have become your father.” This cannot be a literal reference to Jesus if you are a Trinitarian Christian, as such an interpretation would result in the heresy of “adoptionism.”

Zechariah 12:10: The passage about “the one they have pierced” and those that follow certainly seem to have correspondence with the Crucifixion–you might have read this passage during Good Friday services. As I have above, I’m not asserting that this passage doesn’t have anything to do with the Gospels. However, if we look at the first verses of Chapter 12, I think we have to consider that this passage is not literally referring to Jesus’ on the Cross and that our (probably correct) temptation to read that relationship relies on a metaphorical relationship.

As I’ve tried to indicate in the preceding paragraphs, I’m going to accept the applicability of the Old Testament passages cited above to Jesus. There are many more examples to be given, but I’m going to try to keep this post short(ish).

To accept that we should assign Christian meaning to those OT scriptures and maintain some semblance of logic and intellectual honesty, we must acknowledge that metaphor is sometimes required in the “proper” interpretation of the scriptures.

If we do that, we cannot hold both that these passages point to the Messiah and that the Bible should only be read literally and without layers of indirect meaning and complex interpretation. Interesting, n’est pas?

Holy Week

(An opening note: I’ve started writing this post, veered off onto various tangents–later deleted–and then restarted several times. Being “stuck” on a post of this nature, or having to repeatedly reset my thoughts, is atypical of my experience in the time I’ve been running this blog. The thoughts that follow should probably be treated as musings, as me thinking to myself on paper as you observe, rather than the sort of pointed and organized theological assertions I tend to make. This may be–and I hope that it is–a result of what theological understanding I have being overwhelmed by the reality and the mystery of the Holy Week. I also hope that you find something of value to ruminate upon, meditate upon, or at least mull over during the coming Easter weekend.)

If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’re probably already familiar with Dr. John (Jack) A. Beck. He is a scholar of Biblical geography and was our guide during our two weeks in Israel last year. If you want to (re-)read about that, my journal of my experiences along the way starts here.

Sunday night, Jack came to our church to preach in the morning for Palm Sunday and to give a lecture about what the geography of Jesus’ route into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday tells us about the Gospel text. As expected, it was an eye-opening lecture. I’ll include a short summary, but I’d invite you to take the time to watch it here. Then consider watching some of Dr. Beck’s other work or buying some of his books.

I’m going to unabashedly ride on Dr. Beck’s coattails here, thinking about the Holy Week in light of the picture he paints of the thoughtful fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy involved in Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem.

TL;DW

If you don’t have time or inclination to watch Dr. Beck’s lecture, here’s the short of it: the choices Jesus makes in approaching Israel from the east, through the Judean wilderness, entering Bethpage on a donkey (procured after he’s already walked up the Mount of Olives rather than before) and proceeding from Bethpage to the Gihon Spring are all conscious fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

The response of the (probably mostly Galilean) crowds to throw down their cloaks and wave palm branches was an explicit recognition of Jesus’ claim to be the fulfillment of those prophecies.

Enacting Prophecy
If your first response to the argument Dr. Beck makes is to have some doubt about the Messiah because he actively orchestrated the fulfillment of the prophecies, you’re not alone.

I had written a rather long response to this issue, but I’ve cut it from this post in the interest of focus. Maybe it will pop up in a post of its own sometime in the future, but for now, I’m going to settle with saying this:

Jesus taking measures to enact the Old Testament prophecies in his entrance to Jerusalem is just another of his claims to be the Messiah. When you look at it this way, it’s not very different from any other time he claims that he is the Messiah. You’re still left with the choice of whether to believe he is or is not, and we are ultimately given enough on which to base a strong conviction of the answer without being able to definitively and unequivocally prove it to anyone–in no small part due to the fact that none of us were personally there to witness. It’s a matter of faith for a reason.

I’m proceeding in this post based upon the importance of Jesus consciously choosing to fulfill the prophecies about which Jack Beck speaks in his lecture.

A Point of No Return

I don’t know to what extent the human aspect of Jesus had access to divine foresight; that is certainly a part of the mystery that Jesus was wholly human and wholly divine. But it wouldn’t take divine foresight to see what was likely to follow if Jesus made the claim to be the Messiah by so publicly fulfilling the messianic and prophetic expectations of the Jews gathered in and around Jerusalem for Passover.

The Biblical text tells us that he expected what followed–he predicts his impending death three times before he actually makes his grand entrance into Jerusalem according to the Gospels.

The Pharisees and religious authorities commonly asked Jesus the authority by which he spoke and did what he did. They were already looking for a way to be rid of this thorn in their side. The same goes for the political authorities (who sometimes were also religious authorities). Jesus’s declaration to be the Messiah create an alternative to their authority in maintaining control over the Jewish people. Look at history–those in authority are often willing to kill for far less.

So there’s every indication that Jesus knew what his entrance into Jerusalem in the fulfillment of the messianic prophecies would cause to happen. Certainly, once the palm fronds came out, it would have been clear that there was no going back.

A Declaration of War
As Jack Beck points out in his lecture, the palm fronds procured by the bystanders witnessing Jesus’ arrival into the city have historical roots. This is a reference to the Book of Maccabees, wherein the Jews retake Jerusalem from the Seleucids, celebrating their victory with palm fronds. The crowd’s use of the vegetation shows us several important things.

First, they were familiar enough with messianic prophecy from the Old Testament to recognize the claim that Jesus was making when he entered Bethpage on a donkey. Second, they expected their Messiah to bring them military revolution in which they would retake Jerusalem from the foreign powers who once again dominated it. Third, they expected this victory to be achieved solely (or at least almost solely) by God’s action through the messiah.

You might ask why I make the third argument. It’s simple, really. The Galileans gathered for Passover who witnessed Jesus coming into the city gathered palm fronds, not weapons. We know of the existence in the decades after Jesus’ death of violent dissidents who would eventually be instigators of the Jewish Revolt (the Sicarii or Zealots), but there’s not evidence of their existence before the procuratorship of Felix in the 50’s A.D. (from Josephus). Neverthless, we’re not told of a rash of violence, an uprising by the Jews or a widespread suppression by the Romans in response to Palm Sunday (and the Gospels seem to indicate a noticeable lack thereof–see the section on Pilate below). The use of the palm fronds also indicates timing–the Jews participating here are acting as if the victory is already won (if we stretch the metaphor to Maccabees to near-direct analogy).

We’re told in Mark that the priests began to look for a way to kill Jesus not upon his Passover entrance into the city, but upon his “attack” on the moneychangers at the Temple. This doesn’t seem exactly right to me. If the “rustic” Galileans understood the message Jesus was sending on Palm Sunday sufficiently to behave as they did, surely the educated priests took note as well.

And if all of them understood this, certainly the disciples did, too. When they were told that they should go fetch a donkey in Bethpage for Jesus to ride, they must have understood that this was it–Jesus’ big declaration of his Messiahhood.

We don’t really get any indication about how the disciples felt about all of this. We know that Jesus had told them three times to expect his impending death upon the entrance to Jerusalem and we know that fear later overtakes Peter and the other disciples upon Jesus’ arrest. But we’re not told about how they feel upon the entry to Jerusalem, knowing that Jesus’ action in fulfillment of the prophecies means that something big is about to happen.

This, ultimately, I think, is fitting. As I’ve argued in other posts, Erich Auerbach argues in Mimesis that the “Biblical style” of narrative forces us to engage with the text, to think about it in various contexts, to really wrestle with the ambiguous possibilities. This instance is a perfect example.

If words described the feelings of the disciples upon the Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem, we would quickly read those words and move on, taking them for granted. Feelings may be described, yes, but they’re at their most powerful when experienced. The gap in knowledge here forces us to insert our own humanity into the text to understand the humanity of the disciples in that moment–to try to feel what they felt.

Imagine how torn you would have been. You’ve been traveling with a man who claims to be the Messiah for several years. You have heard him teach amazing things and bring the Gospel of hope to a broken world. You have seen him do the miraculous, proving that he is truly “God with us,” both in those wondrous events and in the mundane ways in which he speaks and lives.

And now, all of the hopes and doubts you’ve developed in those years rush together in a maelstrom of emotion. The liberation Jesus has promised is finally at hand! The people outside of Jerusalem are recognizing Jesus as the Messiah! But Jesus has told you that this means the end for his physical time on earth. And, understanding the revolutionary tone that has arisen when the palm fronds came out, you know there’s about to be trouble. Is Jesus going to overthrow Roman occupation? Is he going to be killed by the Romans? Is the Day of Judgment at hand? Is Jesus really who he says he is? This combination of excitement and fear must have been swirling about in the minds of the twelve (and Jesus’ other followers).

Perhaps this thought grasps me because all Christians have some experience of this moment, I think. When they are deciding whether to believe in Jesus, they are at the precipice of fear, doubt and hope–between conviction that the Gospel promises are true and the hopelessness of deciding that Jesus was only a deluded man who made outrageous claims and died for nothing. And, I think it’s fair to say, that experience is not just a one-time thing in the life of the Christian. Until the Second Coming, we are all (metaphorically) in this middle place at the beginning of Holy Week–in possession of some evidence that Jesus is who he says he is but yet without the undeniable proof that the Gospel is Truth. Faith, especially when reasonable, is a difficult thing, and I empathize.

Pontius Pilate
Jack’s talk also has me thinking about Pontius Pilate’s position in the Passion. When the palm fronds came out on Jesus’ entrance to the city, surely someone informed Pilate what that symbolized. We know (and Jack shows this in his talk) that later Roman coins would mock the defeat of the first-century Jewish revolts by showing palm trees next to Roman soldiers or the goddess Nike, so we know that, at some point, the Romans understood the symbolism. I think it’s reasonable to believe that Pilate understood it at the time.

At this point in Roman history, and given Pilate’s position in Judea, I think that his primary concern would have been over physical and political revolt against Roman occupation. I don’t think he would have much cared about an internal religious dispute in Judaism if it didn’t affect Roman rule.

This certainly seems to play out in the Gospels, where the synoptics indicate that Pilate finds no reason to put Jesus to death beyond the urging of the Jewish priests. There, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is “King of the Jews,” Jesus replies with some variation of “You have said so.” (emphasis mine, of course). If you’ve been left wondering about this exchange and why Pilate accepts that answer, I think Jack’s analysis of the entrance into Jerusalem helps fill in the gaps.

When those welcoming Jesus waved palm fronds, this would have been cause for some alarm among Roman leadership–the symbolism certainly seemed a prelude to revolt. But when the days followed with no revolt, or even the intimation of preparations for a revolt, I think the Romans would have lost concern quickly. Jesus’ actions with the moneychangers in the Temple would likely have reinforced Pilate’s idea (assuming he heard about this event) that the dispute of Jesus indicated an internal religious struggle with little bearing outside the Jewish community.

When Pilate questions Jesus, who responds without an assertion to rulership or right thereof, without threat of uprising or violence, without opposition to the power of Rome, I think that would have sealed the matter for the Roman. We’re told in Luke that Pilate tries to pass off Jesus to Herod. This would have been a shrewd political move, I think–it allows Pilate to claim that he’s made some effort to allow the Jews reasonable autonomy and to distance himself from the whole affair (which he seems to understand that no good can come of). Unfortunately (for Pilate), it doesn’t work; Herod passes the buck right back to the Roman governor.

John gives us even more information–here Jesus responds directly to Pilate’s key concern, saying “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.” This statement gives Pilate an explanation to why no uprising manifested after Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, as well as giving some assurance that there’s no threat to Roman rule from the “Jesus dilemma.”

Pilate’s ultimate decision to crucify Jesus at the behest of Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin (after his attempt to escape the situation by pitting Jesus against Barrabas) is characterized as a further political calculation. Jesus has already told him that Jesus’ followers hold beliefs that make a present uprising against Rome unlikely because they see nothing to be gained from such a worldly revolt. On the other hand, the magnates of Jewish society in Jerusalem have worked themselves into a froth over Jesus’ presence and claims–not doing something about Jesus likely would cause unrest. For the practitioner of realpolitik, the choice is a simple one.

Thus, we’re again given ambiguity, this time in the person of Pontius Pilate. In John, we’re given the image of an almost nihilistic powermonger (“What is truth?” he asks in response to Jesus’ claim to have brought the Truth to Earth). In the synoptics, we get the characterization of a man who bears no ill-will to Jesus but who is subject to sociopolitical forces beyond even his control. One invites derision; the other sympathy.  Some early Christians must have agreed, as apocryphal texts make some attempts to rehabilitate the image of Pilate.

JudasBetrayer or Loyal Follower?
I cannot remember where, but somewhere in my reading I’ve picked up on the interesting argument that Judas’ actions seem to indicate that his “betrayal” of Jesus was a matter of following instructions rather than truly betraying Jesus. To preface, I want to say that I have not done enough research to evaluate the credibility or weight of evidence in this argument; I present it here as nothing more than intriguing supposition. The argument goes something like this:

Iscariot should be taken to indicate relationship to the Sicarii (rather than the more commonly-accepted “from Kerioth”). As noted above, Josephus indicates the first appearance of the Sicarii in the 50’s A.D., so this is a somewhat problematic move, but one I’m not entirely willing to completely brush aside if we are focused on narrative meaning rather than historicity. In a similar vein, it has been argued that the use of the Pharisees in the Gospels reflects more on the time of the writing of the Gospels (when the Pharisees had become dominant after the fall of the Temple) rather than as an indicator of their position at Jesus’ time, when the Sadducees had greater power. If that assertion is true, and if a similar move is being made by the Gospel-writers here to use the idea of the later-formed Sicarii to make anachronistic–but effective–commentary about the relationship of those in favor of temporal, violent revolt with the way offered by Christ, then it is feasible (if unlikely), that Judas’ name as given in the Gospels was meant to tie him to the idea of violent revolt.

Accepting this as true for the sake of argument (as the line of thinking I’m describing does), the argument then proceeds to draw an analogy between Judas hanging himself in the account of Matthew with the loyal soldier committing suicide to die along with his beloved leader.

These ideas are then used to retroactively argue that Judas had been instructed by Jesus to give his location to the priests (something that the Gospels give no indication of) and that Jesus selected Judas because Jesus knew Judas would see the task through.

This idea came back to me as I thought about the argument that Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem–or at least the response thereto–could be viewed as a declaration of war. But the argument that Judas had some allegiance to those elements of Jewish society in favor of violent revolt against the Romans could just as easily cut the other way–we could imagine that he would be in high spirits as the palm fronds waved in remembrance of the Maccabean victory and all that it symbolized but that, when no uprising manifested and he began to understand that Jesus’ revolution and kingdom were not temporal, he became disillusioned and betrayed his master.

To be clear, there a number of elements of the Gospels that actively undercut the idea of Judas as “loyal servant” in the “betrayal” of Jesus. John disparages Judas’ nature as the disciples’ treasurer and Luke says that “the devil made him do it.” At the end of the day, there must remain some uncertainty about whether Judas was a scapegoat added to Jesus’ passion. I think he serves that function for us regardless of historicity or authorial intent–by focusing on demonizing Judas’ behavior toward Jesus, we can conveniently turn our thoughts away from scrutinizing our own failures in our walk. Even more, demonizing Judas ignores much of what Jesus had to say about forgiveness.

We don’t need some convoluted argument about Judas’ intent to reach that conclusion, even if petty greed seems an poor motivation for Judas’ actions as is commonly put forth.

I’d also note that the “grave betrayal” is that Judas told the priests where to find Jesus–but there’s no indication that Jesus was hiding and there’s every indication he expected to be arrested as part of those things which needed to happen.

Gethsemene
That brings us to the Garden of Gethsemene. This short scene in the Gospels carries so much meaning with it! I am especially moved by Chesterton’s description of the action between the Father and Son in Gethsemene as “God tempting God.” This accentuates the idea that, through Jesus, God has come to Earth to suffer everything man has suffered (and worse) in a demonstration of God’s justice; that it is human to not want to sacrifice, but divine to do so anyway; to give us some glimpse of the perichoresis of the Trinity.

In light of Jack’s analysis of the import of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, this scene in Gethsemene takes on new meaning for me. Jesus has already set in motion the claim and events that will lead to his crucifixion, and only after doing so does he ask for the “cup to be removed” from him. Jesus is asking for the miraculous and divine intervention of the Father, I think, not simply for some other way for things to work out.

To see even Jesus in this position carries great comfort to me, for some reason. I understand that Jesus is fully human and fully divine and that I am (only) fully human, but I nevertheless find this acknowledgement of human emotion to be another of God’s kindnesses. Here there is a permission to feel without guilt while Jesus’ example simultaneously calls us to the righteous path in spite of those feelings.

Conclusion
If you happen to be Catholic, I invite you to submit the task of reading all of these thoughts to your priest as an acceptable form of penance if future need arises. If you are of a Protestant persuasion, then consider the fact you’ve survived all the way through as a further demonstration of God’s inexhaustible grace.

Either way, I thank you for giving me the time to ramble as I have, and I wish you a Happy Easter filled with the profundity and comfort of the reality of God’s work for us through Jesus Christ. He is Risen, indeed!

Rethinking Tolkien

One of the things that’s been keeping me from posting on the blog lately is that I’ve been teaching a Sunday school class on Christianity in Tolkien for the past several weeks and my research and writing time has been in part devoted to preparing worthwhile material for that (I’ve also been slowly working on an Avar Narn short story or novella which you’ll see in the future, but that’s for another time).

I wanted to share some of my thoughts and realizations in preparing for teaching the class here. The late revelation of some of these ideas is a bit shameful to me–I’ve long had all of the evidence needed to come to these conclusions and yet somehow failed to do so until recently. I’m trying to keep that thought humbling and not humiliating; we’ll see how it goes.

In particular, I had long held Tolkien to be an exemplum of that easy trope of “epic” fantasy–evil and good painted in black and white without gray. My more recent (and mature) study of his works has revealed his writings to be anything but. Instead, they are indicative of the nuance of good and temptation within man’s soul, with many permutations of the characters falling momentarily to evil ways only to recover themselves (Boromir, for instance) and with lasting temptation that claws at even the sturdiest of souls (Frodo and Sam). The variegated grays in his works have dashed my thought of my love for gritty fantasy as somehow an evolution from or response to Tolkien. Stylistically, perhaps, but not in philosophical approach or theme.

The first four lessons I’ve taught centered on the following topics: the Silmarillion’s creation story and idea of “Fall” (and–a topic very dear to me as aspiring theologian/fantasy author–“subcreation”), Tom Bombadil as unfallen Adam and the One Ring as Sin, Gandalf’s resurrection narrative, and Tolkien’s Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon mindset. Much (much) ink has been spilled on the first two topics and I cannot claim much thought there as my own, so I’ll focus on the latter two. If you’re interested in reading more about the first two ideas, I’d recommend Ralph Wood’s The Gospel According to Tolkien. As a second admission, I think the class had intended for me to follow that book a little more closely in my teaching, but I’ve taken them down the rabbit-holes of my own interests instead. Such a rebel, I am.

Gandalf’s Resurrection as Odin Christianized

It is tempting and popular to view Gandalf’s resurrection after his fight with the Balrog (told when he re-encounters Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn in Fangorn Forest) as a thinly-guised Christian story of death and resurrection. But Tolkien was adamant about disliking easy allegory when incorporating Christian Truth into his stories (it might be fair to say that he does this despite his own protestations, but his letters indicate a conscious attempt not to). The preface of the Silmarillion (actually a letter of Tolkien’s) says as much.

And we know that mythical Odin provided great inspiration for the character of Gandalf, both in his nature as wise instigator and magician and in his very appearance with the worn grey clothes of the wanderer and the pointy hat now inseparable from the idea of a wizard. To look for some other relationship back to Odin in Tolkien’s resurrection story seems a ready move to make.

Let me summarize the myth I want to refer to in particular: Odin’s discovery of the runes. For excerpts from the original texts describing this legend, click here, and spend some time on the Word and Silence Blog while you’re at it. And now my summary:

In his quest for knowledge, Odin decided that a sacrifice was necessary, so he pierced himself with a spear and hung himself from the branches of Yggdrasil overlooking the fathomless watery depths below. For nine days he hung suspended there, without food or drink or comfort, waiting for revelation to come. Finally, on the ninth day, he began to discern shapes in the water beneath him, the runes. These runes are both indicative of the power of written word (perhaps that must fundamental and far-reaching of technologies) and the representations of a powerful system of magic for which Odin would be remembered and revered.

We know in Norse culture that human sacrifices were made to Odin (known as blót, though this term is more expansive than the particular instance here). These humans were sacrificed by being pierced by a spear or hung from a tree, or both–almost certainly related to this legend of Odin. In some way, this makes Odin’s time on the tree a sacrifice to himself in the search for knowledge and transcendence, a self-driven (perhaps selfish) ascension.

It is this, I think, to which Tolkien obliquely refers in Gandalf’s narrative. Gandalf returns full of new knowledge and insight (he spends several pages detailing the plans and failings of the Fellowship’s major adversaries) but having forgotten much about himself (such as that he “used to be called” Gandalf). That he has become Gandalf the White (as he says, “Saruman as he should have been”) is about as plain an indication of ascension as possible.

But it’s important to note the differences between Gandalf and Odin. Gandalf’s fight is an external one, very in line with the “northern heroic spirit” we’ll discuss shortly. Despite this, Gandalf sacrifices himself for the Fellowship, not for his own ascension and aggrandizement. That ascension is the unexpected reward–and responsibility–given by Eru Iluvatar, the supreme God of Arda (the cosmos of Middle-Earth). It is in the nature of his sacrifice that we see Christianity creep into the Odin story–“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Yet, while Gandalf has ascended in some way, we cannot forget the fact that he has been resurrected with purpose–because his task “is not yet finished.” His ascension carries with it responsibility, not entitlement to reverence and worship.

This goodness and Christian virtue gives Gandalf the White the right to supplant Saruman as the head of the Istari, for Saruman has chosen the pursuit of power over the role of protector and counselor to which he was intended. After his return from the Abyss, Gandalf tells us as much, that Saruman’s pursuit of power has made him foolish, that his hope of seizing the ring and gaining advantage over Sauron has been lost (though he does not yet know it), and that his massed armies, though still formidable to Men and Elves, have revealed him as an enemy of Sauron rather than an ally.

In comparing Gandalf to Saruman, we are led to ponder Matthew 16: 25-26: “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Two lines, Gandalf in the first, Saruman in the second.

So, by focusing Gandalf’s actions (and the “reward” that follows) outside of himself, takes the mythic construct of sacrifice that results in ascension exemplified by Odin on the tree and “purifies” it, taking those things that are good an virtuous even in the Norse story and, through the addition of love of others, refining the unvirtuous parts into something Christian and Good.

We see this general strategy throughout The Lord of the Rings (and Tolkien’s other works) in his general fusion of Anglo-Saxon virtue with Christian virtue.

The “Heroic Northern Spirit”

We don’t know as much about the Anglo-Saxon religion as we’d like. We know it has strong connections with the Old Norse religion, but we have a paucity of evidence about were the variations and boundaries lie. Much of the Anglo-Saxon literature available to us was written by Christians, so it’s difficult to know the extent to which the “heathenry” of those texts as Christianized in the retelling. This is something medievalists and Anglo-Saxon scholars–Tolkien included–have long debated.

We do have more evidence of the Anglo-Saxon mindset, generally speaking. I’m going to point to a few examples with that we know Tolkien was intimately familiar with.

The first is an Anglo-Saxon poem called “The Battle of Maldon,” based on an historical event. In that poem, the Anglo-Saxon leader Byrhtnoth is tasked with fending of a warband of invading Danes (a common occurrence at the time). Byrhtnoth encounters the Danes camped on a sort of island connected by a narrow causeway to the mainland. By positioning his force at the mouth of the causeway onto proper land, he can force the Danes to fight only a few at a time against a much greater number and score an easy victory.

But Byrhtnoth will have none of that. There is no glory, no honor, in a slaughter. So, despite the risk–or rather, because of the risk–Byrthnoth pulls his troops back, giving the Vikings space to cross the causeway and deploy a full shieldwall formation in a pitched battle–one the Anglo-Saxons lose badly. Byrthnoth was killed.

Tolkien viewed the poem, which he believed to be written by a Christian scholar, to be a commentary and criticism of Byrhtnoth’s pride rather than a tale about the Anglo-Saxon’s courage. He penned a work of historical fiction of his own in response, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, Beorthhelm’s Son.” Scholar Mary R. Bowman interprets this as Tolkien’s attempt to refine the “impure alloy” of the “northern heroic spirit” by refocusing the courage (read: “reckless pursuit of glory”) reflected in that ideology into a bravery expressed for the good of others (like Gandalf’s tale).

And then there’s the granddaddy of Anglo-Saxon literature: Beowulf. If you’re not familiar, you should read it as soon as possible. At least get the Cliff’s Notes or look up the summary on Wikipedia.

If you didn’t know, Tolkien (as scholar) wrote what is arguably still the most influential piece of criticism about Beowulf, his lecture and essay entitled, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In that text, Tolkien argues (among other things), that the monsters are indispensable from the story and that they should not be disregarded to try to read the text as one of mythologically-enhanced history. It should be read as literature. He goes on to argue that the author was likely a Christian familiar with the older story who had penned the text to Christianize it. In that way, we see a morality story develop between the “northern heroic spirit” of the young Beowulf, who ventures to save Hrothgar’s people to build up his own glory, and the old King Beowulf, who lays down his life to protect his subjects when a thief rouses the anger of a sleeping dragon by stealing a cup from his hoard (anyone see a resemblance there?).

For Tolkien, that “northern heroic spirit” (at its best) is about defiance to the forces of chaos, even in the face of inevitable defeat. There are numerous places in The Lord of the Rings where we see a similar function–the Christianization of the virtue of the “northern heroic spirit.” I’ll point out only a few.

The most obvious to come to mind is Boromir. His speech before attempting to take the Ring from Frodo drips with the “northern heroic spirit” as he proposes overthrowing Sauron by force. While Tolkien’s work accepts that sometimes violence is necessary, its just use is always a stalling or defensive tactic to make space for sacrifice to occur, and Tolkien is clear that the threat of Sauron and the Ring can never be defeated by the exercise of power and violence. Even were Sauron defeated in such a way, he would only be replaced as a Dark Lord by the usurper.

And, of course, Boromir’s imagining of the overthrow of Sauron puts himself at the head of the army, where he may win glory and renown for himself. Contrast him with Faramir, who has a much more reasoned (and humble) approach to the resistance of Sauron.

After the “northern heroic spirit” momentarily possesses Boromir and drives him to his immorality, he recovers, immediately repents, and redeems himself from his infractions in the most poetic way possible–through the redeemed “northern heroic spirit” itself. He fights and dies to protect the Hobbits as they are attacked; we are told he slays at least twenty orcs in the fight. He wins the renown and glory he so desired, but only by laying down his life for others.

The Battle of Helm’s Deep provides a set of related examples. The whole action by the remnants of the Fellowship at Helm’s Deep (the Hornburg, really), courses with defiance in the face of overwhelming odds as the Uruk-Hai (and, if memory serves, their Dunlending companions) prepare to destroy all resistance. But we also have three very specific instances as well.

First, the competition between Gimli and Legolas as they taunt one another with their killcount. They spur one another to greater acts of heroism in the face of the enemy (heroism because they are fighting to protect the innocent). It is especially interesting to me that when Legolas inquires after Gimli when they are separated, he says it’s so that he can tell the dwarf he’s no up to thirty kills. His very affection for the dwarf is masked under the expression of the northern heroic spirit. We might digress here onto the topic of toxic masculinity in the northern heroic spirit, but I’ll save that ball for someone else to unravel.

Second, Aragorn’s defiance of the Uruk-hai from the walls of the Hornburg as he goes to see the dawn of the third day. That exchange is well worth the short read. Perhaps as code for modern society’s version of the “northern heroic spirit,” “the balls on that one, let me tell ya’.”

Third, Theoden’s speech to inspire the men to ride out against their attackers rather than to wait and hide, even though sallying forth means almost certain death. He says that he will die fighting, not of old age. The Norse/Germanic spirit is strong in those words.

That final act of defiance, riding out on horse from the Hornburg, brings us to a third important point.

Eucatastrophe

In his “Letter 89”, Tolkien says, “I coined the word ‘eucatastrophe’: the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears (which I argued it is the highest function of fairy-stories to produce). And I was there led to the view that it produces its peculiar effect because it is a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back.”

He further elaborates on “eucatastrophe” in On Fairy Stories:

“The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially ‘escapist’, nor ‘fugitive’. In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

The idea of eucatastrophe in Tolkien is a fascinating subject, one that Wood’s book spends time on and that is elsewhere much discussed. It is, in some sense, deus ex machina in both micro- and macrocosm.

But what truly fascinates me is the interplay between the northern heroic spirit and eucatastrophe.

The eucatastrophe that concludes the Battle of Helm’s Deep is Gandalf’s arrival with the Ents of Fangorn Forest. Given Gandalf’s nature as one of the Istari, his recent resurrection and ascension, this, I think, equates directly to medieval stories of a military force’s unlikely salvation coming when a host of angels descends upon the battlefield against their enemies. It is this divine intervention that saves the day for the Rohirrim and for Aragorn.

But pull the camera or the Eye of Sauron back just a little bit to the bigger picture. Yes, the final salvation comes from the divine and is completely out of the hands of the mortals (and Elves) fighting in the battle. But without their grim determination and defiance, their northern heroic spirits, would there have been space for the eucatastrophe at all?

And this, I think, is an existential masterstroke in Tolkien’s Christianization of the “northern heroic spirit.” The willingness to resist, to fight despite the odds, for the good of others creates the setting for divine intervention. Though God (in this existence or in God’s guise as Eru Iluvatar in Middle-Earth) does not need to rely on created beings to intervene and save the day, God finds usefulness and purpose in drawing mortal beings into participation in the grand narrative of the resistance to and defiance of Evil. To borrow Tolkien’s term, we have an example of “subcreation.”

We then have a combination of free will and divine determination in the argument, the same existential outlook I’ve argued for in my own theological writing.

Perhaps this is the best answer to that perennial question: Why don’t the Great Eagles just carry someone to Mt. Doom to drop the Ring in? Because, as much as Tolkien resists the idea, the story is allegorical, and God doesn’t seem to work that way. God has created in such a way that we must be tried and tested, that we must learn the value of sacrifice firsthand. This is our experience in the “real world,” and it’s similar to the experience of the Fellowship–enough so that Frodo and Gandalf briefly talk theodicy at the very beginning of the trilogy!

 

 

Accounting for Respect

(This is the 8th of 17 posts in my “200 for 200” challenge to myself. We’ve hit over 200 followers in total, but the goal is to have 200 followers through Wordpress subscribers–there are currently 147).

It has recently struck me that we talk about respect as a currency. We do certain things to “pay our respects,” and we talk about those to whom “respect is owed.” We talk about respect being “earned, not given.” Several sci-fi settings I’m aware of–the Eclipse Phase RPG and even The Orville TV show–discuss the use of reputation as a form of currency in a semi-or-fully-post-scarcity economy.

1 Timothy 6:10 tells us that “The love of money is the root of all evil.” Out of curiosity, I went to Strong’s Concordance to look up the word use for “love of money.” It’s philargyria, which comes from a root indicating “avarice” or “avariciousness.” Avariciousness can be applied to more than just money–it applies to the “miserly hoarding of wealth” in a general sense. Greed. This is what I expected to find; it’s axiomatic that it’s the feeling, the obsession and the behavior, rather than the object, that causes the problem.

And here’s where my concern comes in: should respect be something that we commoditize? In other posts (like this one), I’ve talked about the societal tendency (at least in Western cultures) to value people in a capitalistic way–a person is only worth what they produce for consumption or what they generate in terms of income. This, I think, is why stay-at-home parents face a stigma despite the fact that managing a household and rearing children is as or more difficult than many jobs for which people get paid (which, ironically, includes both household management and child-rearing!).

These issues (assigning capitalistic value to a person and commoditizing respect) are related, perhaps symptoms of the same malady, but they’re different things. The previous post referred to above deals with the problem of how we assign value to other people. This post is about the problem of seeing reputation as a form of currency.

As is often the case on this blog, the topic is complex and filled with nuance. In her book The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, the anthropologist Ruth Benedict drew a distinction between “guilt” cultures and “shame” cultures, with an assertion that Christian societies were mostly “guilt” cultures (with notable exceptions) and a focus on Japanese culture as a “shame” culture. These assignments are, of course, debatable, and further categories (“fear” culture and the “shame” culture is now sometimes discussed as the “honor-shame” culture) have since been developed. We can also talk about “face” as an aspect of honor-shame cultures and we can debate whether the part of the United States we think of as “the South” is (or formerly was) an honor-type culture where the rest of the country may be something else.

The basic premise of this anthropological view of cultures is that guilt cultures rely on the concepts of justice and punishment (temporal or spiritual) as the enforcer of societal norms and the honor-shame culture relies on the judgment of other by society as the enforcer of norms.

This post is not about an anthropological dissection of social constructs; it is a reflection on the consequences of assigning value to reputation. In my own studies (and I’m accepting this as generally true for sake of discussion), I’ve read writers who argue that many agriculturally-based societies tend to be honor societies (pointing to the agriculturally-dominated economy of the antebellum “South” as an example). I’d like to use this idea to give some form to my thoughts. The argument goes that honor societies (here sometimes contrasted with law societies) use a person’s reputation as a regulatory structure in place of reliance on a legal code. The Southern gentlemen who disavowed a business agreement after the fact would suffer economic consequences for his actions (others would be unwilling to deal with him in the future); this cause-and-effect serves to enforce expectations and provide the predictability and stability that an economy needs to thrive.

It also meant that challenges to a person’s sense of honor unrelated to business dealings had to be vigorously defended, lest an affair unrelated to one’s livelihood bleed over into economic ruin. Hence dueling, honor killings, and all other manner of senseless activities that occupy the fringes of some honor/shame societies, historical and present. It seems especially true that women tend to suffer most from honor-based cultures. I would argue that this is strongly related to the preservation of property rights–both the intense focus on the maintenance of virginity and the use of honor killings as a consequence for premarital sex or adultery stem in great part from controlling who might inherit a family’s property and economic wealth.

That writes large one problem with commoditized reputation: it gives incentive to do things which may be immoral to protect a source of wealth and livelihood. But it also–as with all forms of wealth–has a disproportionate effect, because those will little economic power to begin with are disincentivized to participate in the system. This, in turn, means that those with wealth, reputation and the power that goes along with both being to see those without wealth or reputation as inherently immoral or amoral (though the reliance on this system of honor means that morality is not typically the first motivating factor for anyone). This gives those with power freedom to further exploit and oppress those without by viewing them as morally bankrupt. As Shakespeare’s Apothecary says, “My poverty, but not my will, consents.” Come to think of it, Romeo & Juliet is an excellent example of a contemporary critique of Renaissance European honor culture, given that the crux of the play hangs on the tensive nature of the relationship between love as moral motivator and honor as destroyer of that which love builds up.

Likewise, the Renaissance historian, philosopher and (in my opinion, at least) funny-man, Francesco Guicciardini gave this advice (paraphrased): If you want to ingratiate yourself with someone, do not do a favor for them, ask them for a favor. People would much rather feel that someone is indebted to them than that they are indebted to another, and this creates a bond between you that invites them to return to you to call in that reciprocal favor. The context of the time–Guicciardini was friends with Machievelli and a product of the same tumultuous political systems (and experiments) of early sixteenth century Italy–jibes well with this sort of thinking. But, of course, it is based upon a background of often life-or-death political competitions and the assumption that every man’s ambition should be the accumulation of social, political and economic power. This is the very thing Scripture warns us about, because it skews what is truly important in favor of what is, fleeting, ultimately disappointing and often self-destructive.

And that’s the problem with our tendency to make a commodity of respect and reputation. Our reputations are inextricably bound up in the web of relationships we have with others, our “social networks.” When our focus is on leveraging those relationships–which is really a matter of exploiting the people on the other end of them–we’ve lost sight of the types of relationships we should have with others. Respect merely becomes a currency we cash in for personal benefit. Such an approach removes even the possibility that our relationships are about mutual admiration and celebration of the uniqueness and sacred worth of others.

When we look to the example of Jesus, we see someone who looks past reputation to acknowledge the value of the person. He dines with the sinners and bears harsh words to the Pharisees, whose power and reputations allow them to reject and exploit those “beneath” them.

What would it look like if we viewed respect as something that ought to be shown to every person simply because they, too, are a child of God? What would happen if we stopped talking about “earning respect” and removed our respect for each other as a commodity to be traded for personal benefit? I think we’d have brought the Kingdom of Heaven just a little closer to Earth.

Christianity and Warhammer 40k

(This post is the 3rd of 17 remaining in my “200 for 200” goal. While originally intended to be included in the post reviewing Wrath and Glory, I thought it better to be separated out.)

(This post is related to the “Big Review: Wrath & Glory” post. If this topic interests you, I’d encourage you to read both posts in proximity to one another. Of course, this is not mandatory.)

Fantasy Fiction and Christianity in General

No, I’m not going to diatribe about magic and daemons and the like being anathema to Christians. If you think I was, you have not been paying attention to my writing, or this is your first post of mine to read. If it’s the latter, welcome and thanks for taking the time!

To those who say that Christianity means we can’t (or shouldn’t) enjoy Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Harry Dresden or any other fiction that deals with the supernatural in any form, my response is the following:

“Put on your big-boy or big-girl pants, grow up, and understand that fiction doesn’t necessarily endorse any of those things. Realize that you don’t have to agree with everything in a fictional setting to enjoy it or–as important–be caused to think about some idea in new and different ways. That kind of intellectual challenge is healthy and good. If you are worried about the make-believe and imaginary shattering your faith or diverting you from the “one true path,” I question the composition, sincerity and depth of that faith. I suggest you read Milton’s Areopagitica.”

TL;DR: Being a Christian should not prevent you from playing games in or enjoying the Warhammer 40k Universe. Or other fantasy fiction, for that matter.

Confessions

Okay, that aside, let me confess to you: sometimes, the 40k universe raises within me some issues that make me consider abandoning the setting, despite all the things I love about it. Here’s the crux of it: 40k confronts me with the question of whether I need the settings I enjoy to be compatible with–or at least not entirely counter to–my theological beliefs.

The same question could be given about most roleplaying games that are polytheistic, like default D&D. It’s important to note that the anxiety here is not about a threat to my soul or my salvation–I don’t think that, in the theme of the Cthulhu Mythos or 40k that reading such material is going to turn me to either heresy or insanity. But there is a feeling–and it’s just that, an emotion not linked to any logic or rationale–that sometimes makes me uncomfortable with those settings where the religious beliefs are very different from my own.

I have several potential responses to myself about this feeling:

(1) “Suck it up, buttercup.” Not everything needs to make me happy or comfortable, and the idea of religious ideas different from my own (especially fictional ones) should certainly not be one of those things I get bent out of shape about.

First, I respect real religions that are not my own and honestly believe that there is value to them and that the genuineness of those who seek after what is right and true through pathways other than Christianity are not somehow offensive to God (while maintaining that Jesus Christ represents the clearest manifestation of truth in this world, that his life and death were cosmically significant for all people, and that the full answers–as best humans can understand it–to the existential questions of who and what we are and what we are supposed to be are only found in Christ.) That being the case, why should I feel threatened by a fake religion?

Second, it’s a good thing for my faith and theology to be challenged at times; roleplaying games and reading/writing fiction are probably the safest spaces for these explorations, so that should be welcomed.

I think that, at the end of the day, this may be the best answer.

(2) “Adapt and Overcome.” Usually, with some minor tweaks, a setting can be modified to be at least not contradictory to my broad theological thoughts. Tolkien’s work and my own Avar Narn (inspired by the former, of course), seek to synthesize the greatest universal truths about Christianity with an ability to tap into the mythopoiea and narrative power of polytheistic faiths; to have our cake and eat it, too.

This is especially tempting with Warhammer 40k, partially because of my ideas about the “theology of 40k” (if you’ll permit me to call it that), partially perhaps in the same vein of Arthur Derleth “posthumously collaborating” with Lovecraft to bring the Mythos more in line with his Christianity, and partially because it’s the most comfortable thing to do.

Just like Tolkien did, there are ways to do this without losing too much fidelity to the setting–if there’s some true monotheistic god who lies behind the D&D pantheon and the “gods” are essentially powerful spiritual beings who like to meddle in mortals’ affairs (which makes sense given their pettiness and ability to be killed), what’s the harm in that? Of course, given that D&D encourages homebrew settings, this is perhaps the easiest of RPGs to worry with this in.

Nevertheless, I have several concerns with this. If there’s such a thing as “fiction imperialism,” that seems to cut a bit close to it, n’est pas? Is there something disingenous or unethical about modifying some other writers setting in this way? I honestly don’t know the answer, but the possibility gives me pause.

(3) “Shake it Off.” For most games, large scale issues of religion–except perhaps for conflicts between different faiths that tend to be more about character-building and societal conflict than a real theological argument–simply never arise. There’s just no need to focus on game on meta-discussions of the world’s theology and, to be honest, you’re probably detracting from the story if that’s where you’re spending time. So, it’s probably best understood that this issue is a weird internal idiosyncracy of my own.

But, for the sake of laying some of my thoughts painfully bare and then dissecting them, let’s continue.

There are several reasons, I believe that the Warhammer 40k universe causes me to dwell on these types of thoughts more than any other setting.

First, there’s the over-the-top, nihilistic grimdarkness of the setting as often portrayed. At their core, the thoughts I’ve been describing above are probably indicative of nothing more of than a psychological need to spend time only on settings that have some glimmer of (existential) hope to them.

Second, there’s the inherent conflict between the truth of the Emperor and the religion about him in 40k. According to the backstory (particularly in the Horus Heresy books), the Emperor is patently not a god and, while whole, actively campaigned for atheism (see Graham McNeill’s “The Last Church” short story). In particular, playing characters of the Inquisition, with their fanaticism for a religion that is known to be false (at least in meta), brings about a massive cognitive dissonance for me.

Third, at its best, the ideas of 40k regarding religion (and a number of other things) are meant to get us to question things like “what should we do (or not do) in the name of religion?” What is the difference between faith as sincere believe and religion as social institution? What are the differences (existential and social) between atheism and faith? The setting sometimes begs the question I confound myself with! (Again, see “The Last Church”).

Fourth, some of the ideas (which we’ll look at next) in the 40k universe come so close to touching on core principles of Christianity (as I understand it) before backing away that it’s too tempting for me not to consider them.

The Core (Theological) Irony of Warhammer 40k

If we view the core conflict in the Warhammer 40k as the struggle against Chaos, I cannot but help see the coincidence with Christian theology. To be fair, this conflict within 40k by design is meant to be between Order and Chaos (harkening back to Elric and all) rather than Good and Evil. Nevertheless, follow me here:

The Warp, as the source of Chaos, is responsive to the thoughts, beliefs and collective will of mortal beings. It is explicit that the state of Eldar/Aeldari society brought about the birth of the Chaos god Slaanesh and implicit that the darker impulses of mortals brought about the existence of the other Chaos gods.

If this is the case, the only way Chaos can be truly defeated is through love and compassion–if all mortal beings were to become enlightened enough to be righteous, Chaos would have nothing to feed off of and would starve to death. It is the greatest irony of the setting that (especially for the Imperium of Man) the only methods actually employed to fight Chaos: hatred, violence, rigidity and regressive social thought, are contributing to Chaos in the long run!

The belief that evil must be overcome by love and not violent opposition is a core tenant of Christianity–progressive Christianity, at least.

In this way, in its typical grimdark and sardonic approach, the basis of 40k is ironically Christian.

John Milton’s Shadow

Graham NcNeill and other writers for the Horus Heresy series have explicitly given John Milton’s Paradise Lost as an influence on the writing.

I love Milton’s writings and applaud that influence making its way into Warhammer; it’s been an influence on some of the mythopoiea of Avar Narn as well.

But we must be careful in assuming that this necessarily means a Christian influence on the Horus Heresy writing. I have lamented elsewhere that what most people–Christian or not–think about Christian ideas about the nature of hell or the devil derive not from Biblical sources but mostly from Paradise Lost and Dante’s Divine Comedy. We have to keep in mind that these are poetic works well-rooted in the culture and ideas of their authors. In modern and sardonic terms, we might think of these as Bible fanfic. Yes, theological arguments are made within them. Yes, Christianity is the most significant influence upon them. But neither makes them indicative of good Christian theology.

Bear in mind that Dante choose with great particularity those people he encounters in hell–they are real figures in the history of Florence and people against whom Dante held very deep grudges. While he used these real people to give examples of what he considered to be mortal sins, his choice in using them was very much to get a dig in.

And Milton was concerned with writing an epic poem in the heroic style of the Greeks but using a more palatable subject–Christianity rather than the pagan gods and heros. (Here perhaps we go full circle to my own confessions above!) In Paradise Lost, Milton paints Satan as a sort of tragic hero–filled with hubris that causes his downfall, but also indicative of a heroic will and admirable qualities.

This directly translates to Horus Lupercal in the Horus Heresy narrative. A fitting influence perhaps, but let’s bear in mind that Milton was creating a sort of Christian mythopoeia and not quite dealing with Biblical narrative or strict theological argument.

Further, as I’ve also argued before, it seems much easier for we humans to characterize evil and damnation than righteousness and the eternal good. Perhaps that’s part of the reason (aside from its innate nihilism) that there’s so much more detail to the machinations of Chaos and so little to any spiritual or supernatural forces that could truly be called good.

The Emperor, you say? Well…

The Emperor’s an Ass

There is, for those not deeply familiar with the lore of 40k, a temptation to link the Emperor with the Christian God or with Jesus as a saviour of humankind. But this really doesn’t work.

As mentioned above, the Emperor isn’t God and is an atheist according to the “Imperial Truth.” If he is ultimately responsible for the creation of the Imperium’s bureaucracy, dogma and general approach to things, he’s neither a good person nor very bright when it comes to dealing with the long-term threat of Chaos.

He’s powerful, to be sure, mostly using that power to protect humanity by pyschically staving off the forces of Chaos, and apparently immortal, but he’s just not good in any moral or theological sense. He is victim to the same mistaken belief that Chaos can be vanquished by violence rather than righteousness. At least, this is what we can say about him as an active character–as a sort of passive force from within the Golden Throne; it might be possible to speculate that he has become morally better than he was in life (but no answers are to be found here).

Let’s also remember the uncomfortable fact that, according to the lore, 10,000 psykers must be sacrificed to the Golden Throne daily to keep it operational. We could perhaps fairly chalk this up to a very misguided plan by the Emperor’s supporters, but according to the Horus Heresy novels, the Emperor is the designer of both the original Golden Throne and the life-support system that it became. We have to face it, the Emperor’s as grimdark as they come.

The Ecclesiarchy and Inquisition

The Ecclesiarchy can most fairly be said to represent the worst about institutionalized Christianity. The Schola Progenia seem to be the worst-case scenario of stereotypical old-school Catholic institutions–schools, Magdalene asylums, etc.–where what we would now call abuse served as “encouragement” to learning and good behavior.

From the pulpits of the Imperium’s temples, priests spew rhetoric of hate, fear and paranoia. Do Christian priests and pastors do this? Of course they do, every day, and especially in mainstream Evangelical Christianity in America. But to those pastors and preachers I must say, “Christianity? I think you’re doing it wrong.”

Many authors have commented and criticized organized religion as “the opiate of the masses” (to quote Marx) or as construct of societal control above all other things (Jorge Luis Borges has at least one short story with this theme). And, in some ways, this is explicitly the purpose of the Ecclesiarchy: to use fear to control the thoughts of manking and therefore (hopefully) keep them from behaving in ways that feed into Chaos. Again, the irony of this is that such coercive force itself plays right into the hand of Chaos.

The Inquisition itself offers both the best and worst in dealing with these issues, I think. Most commonly, the Inquisition is at its worst: a sci-fi reimagining of Matthew Hopkins, Torquemada (for whom one of the inquisitors is named!), the Salem Witch Trials and the early modern witch-scare of Europe. In this mode, the Inquisition is a blunt instrument wielded without analysis, the very epitome of “Kill ’em all; let God sort ’em out” (a phrase, mind you, purportedly coined by Papal legate and Cistercian abbot Arnauld Amalric at Beziers during the Albigensian Crusade). It is torture and murder and wanton abuse of power in the name of theologically unsound ideas. I hope you’ll pardon me if that doesn’t strike me as a background I’d like to have for a character in an RPG (though I will readily admit that such a background could give rise to a very interesting meta-narrative around these issues in a long-term campaign and a killer story arc as the character is confronted by this past).

At the same, some of the stories of the Inquisition give us the best of mankind in the 40k universe (I’m still hesitant to call them good, because grimdark and all, but they’re arguably closest as it comes). The stories of Gregor Eisenhorn (and probably Gideon Ravenor, though I’m less familiar with those at present) present us with this: a man possessed of deep will and an earnest desire to uphold and protect what is good against Chaos, a man able and willing to show compassion and reluctant to destroy simply for the sake of it, a man tempted by the very evil he seeks to combat. It’s still a bit militaristic of a theology for me to say it has much place in the real world (being skeptical of the “spiritual warfare” often spoken of as anything other than the internal struggle to become more Christlike), but it’s at least in the same vein of other fiction. It’s the value in fantasy that G.K. Chesterton pointed out: to tell us that there are dragons…and that they may be defeated.

What does this mean for running a 40k RPG?

To refer to my confessions above, and to again be explicit: it doesn’t have to mean anything. This is a fictional world and it can be enjoyed for what it is without having to reconcile it with Christian theology. In this sense, it still serves the convenient function of reminding us how fortunate we are that God has acted in the ways known to us through our faith rather than the cosmic pandemonium the 40k universe embodies. In the same vein, it’s okay for a Christian to enjoy the cosmic horror of Lovecraft regardless of whether it is atheistic and/or nihilistic.

If, like I sometimes feel, you’d prefer to bring the 40k universe more into line with something comfortable for you, I think that’s probably okay, too–provided you don’t suddenly argue that you have found the “one true 40k.” Like any existing setting used for a roleplaying game, those playing the game should feel freedom to adapt the setting to be as enjoyable for them as possible–otherwise what’s the point?

40k seems to me to be readily amenable to this, if it’s your preference. It’s very easy to say, “all of the Horus Heresy stuff is legend–nobody’s exactly sure what the Emperor did or didn’t do 10,000 years ago.” From there, one can easily imagine that the Emperor’s actions were morally upright but that it was the failings of his human companions that led to the current status quo. If you take this tack and view the Emperor as some analog for the Christian God, then you’re still left with the question of why the Emperor would allow this sad state of affairs to persist–but this theodical question is the very same we deal with in reality.

More likely, as I mention above, your game isn’t going to brush hard against these issues anyway, so probably nothing at all needs to be done with any of the above. If you approach your games with the kind of nuance and morality that Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell seem to employ in their fiction, then your 40k RPG is going to feel (in regards to this topic, at least) like just about any other RPG in a fantastic setting.

 

Eulogy

(This is the first post of seventeen for my “200 for 200” goal; get your friends to follow!)

I went back and forth about whether to put this up on the blog; in some ways it seems such a private thing for friends and family. But, at the end of the day, I figured that my grandmother, though she wouldn’t have done it for herself, deserves to be praised to anyone who will listen. So, I’ve decided to post the short eulogy I read at my grandmother’s funeral this past Saturday. Here goes:

My grandmother, Barbara Bass, is one of the greatest rebels I’ve ever known. We live in a world that tells that success is based on power. There was never any doubt in my mind that she was the matriarch of the family, but I cannot remember a single time she demonstrated a sense of entitlement to that position. Given the stereotype of the Southern matriarch, that could only be a matter of impressive will or genuine humility. Both are commendable. Instead, she influenced by reason and example, governed by gentle guidance, demonstrated strength by quiet confidence.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on money. I never saw my grandmother lavish herself with expensive things. Instead, she lived a life of satisfaction in sufficiency, seeing through the empty grandeur of material things. As a result, she and my grandfather have been generous with their hard-earned wealth, sharing freely with others—especially us grandchildren—what they have.

We live in a world that tells us that success is based on career achievement. Coming along in a world dominated by men, my grandmother earned great success as both student and educator. With my grandfather, she ran successful businesses in dollhouses and in antiques. She mastered the Ebay market—buying and selling—and while Grandpa played the stocks, she played other commodities, like art. But it was never about cold profit; for her, it was about the thrill of the find, participation in a community of people who appreciate art and culture. Most important, no matter how easily that success came to her, it was never her primary aspiration—her family always came first.

In a world that tells us so many lies about what matters and what doesn’t, my grandmother’s life was once of continued defiance. You see, she followed the truth of Jesus Christ like few other people I know. In knowing Christ, she knew that the most fundamental and meaningful thing there is in this or any other existence is love. Not only did she know that, but she did what even fewer people still do: she lived it. I am sure that hers is a mind an inner life far too complex, diverse and, frankly, well-developed to be summarized in a short speech. But there’s not one memory I have of her that is not imbued with the sense of the love she has for others, her compassion and caring for those around her.

My wife, Kate, would agree. When I was preparing these words, she shared with me her best memory of my Grandmother. Granny was the first person in my family to tell Kate that they loved her—and this before we were married or even engaged. From that point on, Kate felt part of the family. And she was. That welcoming and loving spirit is the thing that has, I’m sure touched all of us the most in knowing my grandmother.

In this day and age, the kind of life that Barbara Mitchell Bass led, of building others up instead of bringing them down, of creating relationships instead of pushing them away, of sacrificing for others instead of putting oneself first, of lifting up ideas and ideals that are beautiful, is itself a rebellion against those falsehoods that daily endeavor to lead us away from what is real and good and true. She managed that kind of revolutionary behavior without belittling or denigrating any other person, by positive example instead of negative argument.

It is natural for us to mourn her loss, for our lives have all been brightened by her presence in them and now, for a time, we will be diminished for the lack of it. But we should also celebrate, for there should be no doubt that my grandmother has now come face to face with our Creator, and she has heard those coveted words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” She has entered into the abundant and eternal life promised to all of us. When each of us goes to join her there, I am sure that she will be there waiting with that welcoming spirit we all remember her by, ready to remind us that we are loved.

Loss

Monday morning, my grandmother passed away. I am thirty-five years old and this is the closest to home I’ve been hit by such a loss; in that regard, I am fortunate.

This is not to say that I have not previously lost people in my life about whom I cared deeply and who were profoundly influential on me: my stepfather’s mother, my wife’s grandmothers, a brilliant and inspiring professor. But, before this point, I have never lost someone such a direct and constant force in who I am.

She was both a lifelong student and educator (with all but a finished dissertation on her PhD, no less!), a person of deep and abiding faith, and a lover (and connoisseur) of art in all its forms. She and my grandfather have been one of the best examples of successful marriage I have ever encountered–at once like giddy school-children at the blossoming of new romance and yet with an implacable and well-settled love deposited by the accumulated sediment of years and decades.

We traded good books to read, fiction and non-fiction and talked about a wide variety of topics. To me, she was both the matriarch of the family and an exemplar of values, but also eminently approachable and a friend with whom I felt free to discuss nearly anything.

Not only was she a role model and great example to me, but also a great encourager, one of the most enthusiastic supporters of this blog, in fact. It is strange, almost incomprehensible, that I will not see her face or hear her voice, enjoy her laughter again in this life. And yet, I will always, for those things are engraved on my heart and inscribed in my mind with what seems to be flawless detail.

So what do I feel now? Guilt, mostly, I suppose. Guilt that I am not distraught to the point that I can do nothing but mourn. Guilt that I have the wherewithal to sit and write this–perhaps not dispassionately, but more at peace than not. Guilt that the emotions I feel do not reach the level of what I think she deserves.

In my more logical mind I realize that that guilt–at least most of it–is not warranted. I am at peace about her passing. I am resolved in my belief that she has passed on to God’s presence and the existential joys that follow this life about which we who are left behind can only dream. I am convicted that she led a life full of meaning, well-lived and focused on what is most important. I am steadfast that her last moments on this Earth were filled with love, surrounded by her children and her husband (with whom she’d been since she was sixteen!). I will miss her, but I will see her again. Given all of this, a part of me asks why mourn at all?

And so I wrestle with this strange conflict of being content and yet feeling that I should be anything but content. Illogical, but natural all the same. In a sense, I am glad to have both, to–as Chesterton might put it, “keep this paradox and keep both ends furious.” There is a beautiful fullness, experiential and existential, to the combination of logic and emotion.

And, I suppose, I am happy to see my faith strong in the face of being tested by that must absurd and unsettling of human experiences–the existence of death. Try as we might, I’m not sure that we’re capable of understanding why we die, what purpose it serves. That is true for both the person of faith and the atheist, for regardless of the answers we try to find, the question is the very same: “why this and not something different?”

As I look back through what I have written, it strikes me just how much paradox I’ve related in these words, from the mundane (educator and student) to the more profound (I will not see her again in this life, and yet I will by memory). Perhaps that’s ultimately what death is to all of us–life’s greatest paradox.

Regardless, it’s cathartic to write these words, and to be explicit that my grandmother has been and will be a great influence on me, and by association, this blog.

 

 

42

Maybe Douglas Adams was right when he wrote that “42” was the answer to “Life, the Universe and Everything.” Personally, I lost interest in the “everything is meaningless and isn’t that funny?” game about four books in, but after this weekend, maybe I have a newfound respect for the author.

My dad has been invested in Kairos Prison Ministry for a few years now. About a year ago he told me that he’d be leading one of the Kairos weekends in November 2018 and asked if I’d participate. I said I would and mostly forgot about it until trainings began a few months ago.

If you’re not aware, Kairos International is ministry that equips Christians to carry out “Kairos Weekends” in prisons across the world. For us, that meant about four hours inside on this past Thursday, about twelve hours inside each on Friday and Saturday, and about eight hours inside yesterday. It is an intensive program first and foremost designed to communicate the love of Jesus Christ to inmates through the actions of the faithful who volunteer with the program.

Thursday night is largely an introduction. A lot of the volunteers had been involved in Kairos for years, but for those of us who had never been, we did not know what to expect. It was my first time to set foot inside a prison.

And, of course, for the inmates involved, they have no idea what to expect when the weekend starts. Our Kairos Weekend was the third to be held at the Jester 3 unit here in Fort Bend County. Jester 3 is a relatively laid-back prison (as far as they go); inmates are sent to Jester 3 primarily either because they have medical issues or because they are taking college courses through the programs offered at the site.

Most of the men have been incarcerated in other prisons within Texas, many of them much harder on the inmates than Jester 3–not only because of the Correctional Officers (COs) but because of gang activity, drugs, and violence within the prison itself. I heard some stories from the men about their previous experiences that made me feel like Piper in the first episodes of Orange is the New Black.

And Jester 3 is not without its fights, rivalries, disputes, and dangers for the men inside–not to mention the shame and guilt, rejection, isolation and worthlessness felt by those who are incarcerated no matter the location.

So, on Thursday night, it’s understandable that many of the men came in with their “shields up.” Because of their backgrounds and their experiences in the system, they’re used to viewing all (or nearly all) relationships as transactional–everybody’s out to get something for themselves in every association with another person, and nothing’s ever offered for free. It was plain on some of the faces that there were those who did not want to attend, and I later heard from a few of “my guys” that they almost didn’t come at all.

My understanding is that Jester 3 houses somewhere between 1200 and 1400 prisoners. Only 42 were selected to come to our Kairos Weekend after submitting applications (though there were a few who had applications anonymously submitted on their behalf!). Of those eighty-something men who had participated in the previous Kairos Weekends, about fourteen of them served their brothers in the latest weekend, bringing out food and drinks, working with outside volunteers on logistics, and generally making sure everything went smoothly.

Most of the men had heard something about Kairos before the weekend started, but like so many things that are deeply significant in our lives, those who had come before couldn’t explain what they’d been through–it had to be experienced. Accordingly, what most of the men knew about the program was that it was something to do and that the food was good (it was, and it offered the inmates food from the free world that they rarely or never had access to in the commissary or the chow line). There were fresh fruits and vegetables–a rare delicacy in prison–over 1000 cookies (I don’t want to think about how many I ate in those four days), and meat that wasn’t pork. The guys put ranch dressing on everything. As it turns out, the commissary used to sell it, but when the system switched to a cheaper (and not very tasty brand) the inmates stopped buying, so the commissary stopped carrying it altogether.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that part of our preparation (in addition to the four training days) was the writing of a letter to each participant. For efficiency, we wrote the bodies of the letters in advance. Friday night after the program we went home and added personal details and messages to eight of the forty-two (the six guys who were in our “family” for the weekend and the two for who we were personal greeters and hosts), addressed and signed all of them, and put them into envelopes. We couldn’t do this until Friday night because the roster is subject to change up to that point (not to mention that the names given to us on the prison’s official roster are not always how the men want to be called).

In prison, mail call is a big deal. It is tangible evidence that the outside world hasn’t forgotten you, that there are still people who care about you and who are willing to have a relationship with you after you have been labeled “criminal.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The weekend itself is a collection of talks and meditations, followed by discussion time, fellowship at meals, and singing of hymns (often with silly hand motions or dances: flapping of arms and “flying” around the room for “I’ll Fly Away,” and a number of moves for that painful classic, “Pharaoh, Pharaoh”).

As I alluded to above, there are six men from the inside in every family, along with one clergyperson (if possible) and two lay volunteers. The talks are intended to guide each participant into asking questions to develop an understanding of self, that God is love and that they are all worthy to be forgiven of their pasts and to be called God’s children, and to equip them to develop spiritually and to build a community on the inside that centers around living in love and following Christ. It’s a lot to pass on in a weekend, even if it is a longish and intense one. And that’s what the volunteers are there for: to demonstrate God’s love for them.

At first, it’s a confusing and disorienting thing to be confronted with. One of my guys kept telling me that he just couldn’t believe that someone (especially young-ish like myself) would take the time from the things I could be doing to come inside and spend time with them. They had to let their guard down to accept that kind of acceptance and treatment–its nothing short of miraculous to watch.

We ask them to share about themselves and to open up, but there are certain things we don’t ask–why they’re in, how long they’re in for, and the like. Quite frankly, it just doesn’t matter. Not once did I really find myself wondering why any one of the guys had been incarcerated. That kind of willingness to be accepting was strange to me when I experienced it, even when I always considered myself a pretty accepting person in theory.

I notice that I’m putting a lot of words on the screen and probably not saying too much. I’m certainly not conveying the depth and profundity of the experience and the extent to which I myself have been changed by the experience. I left the experience yesterday with sadness that it was over, and the feeling that I’d become brothers with the men at my table over the weekend. We plan to write one another and I hope to be able to visit them.

I was told before the weekend that I’d get more out of it than I put into it. That certainly proved to be true. As my writings likely suggest, I’m typically a cynical, sarcastic and skeptical person in many things. My experiences inside a prison with men who had been waiting to be able to let their guard down, who wanted to have faith in God and that love was the answer to the lives they’d been living (which, if we’re honest with ourselves, could be a life any of us could have been born into or could stumble into on our own), and who had courage to do things that were existentially frightening to them (like forgiving people against whom they had long held grudges), refreshed my faith in humanity and my faith that God can redeem and refine any person no matter who they are. I was put face-to-face with the reality that all people have real value, that people can change and that our existence was created in such a way that the selfless love demonstrated by Jesus Christ is the most joyous state of being there is. In the free world, those opportunities for our hearts to be “strangely warmed” (as John Wesley put it) often seem few and far between. This weekend, that feeling set in early Friday morning and still hasn’t worn off. I see clearly why my father is so passionate about this ministry.

It didn’t hurt that the volunteers who came in with me (most of whom are my father’s age) provided both examples of men of faith and stories about how God had worked in their lives.

If you have the opportunity to participate in Kairos (whether the original version of the program for incarerated men or Kairos Outside for the female family members and loved ones of incarcerated men), I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Cyrus and Trump

There is a disturbing trend among politically-conservative evangelicals to compare President Donald Trump to King Cyrus the Great as a move to legitimize the support of Christians for Mr. Trump and his policies.

Here are links to a handful of articles on the subject:
Vox
The Guardian
The New York Times

I’ve written on some related topics, which you can find below:
The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem is not a Fulfillment of Biblical Prophecy
Jeff Sessions, Romans 13 and Separating Families

But today, I want to focus directly on this idea that Trump is somehow a “chosen one” akin to Cyrus in the Old Testament. This idea is wrong-headed, theologically problematic on many fronts and, frankly, dangerous.

While I’m strongly tempted to start with argumentation about how the historical understanding of Cyrus and the Biblical writings of Isaiah don’t match up too well, so we ought to read the Bible’s commentary on Cyrus as making arguments and creating narrative about the Israelite people, the end of the Babylonian captivity, the right of returning Jews to land now occupied by the Samaritans, etc., etc. However, I’m going to bypass that argument, for two reasons. First, you can investigate that for yourselves and I don’t need to take lots of space to summarize here. Second, those who espouse this Cyrus/Trump connection dismiss the historical argument out of hand, coming as they do from a position of Biblical literalism. There are so many problems with that position, but for purposes of this argument, I’m going to avoid the historical argument in favor of logical and theological arguments as well as literary criticism.

Let’s begin with the ways in which Trump doesn’t seem to match the Biblical narrative of Cyrus very well.

First, God declares in Isaiah 45:13 that God will “raise up Cyrus in my righteouness: I will make all his ways straight.” So there’s an explicit declaration that God’s selection of Cyrus (again, if we take the text literally) necessarily comes with an instilled righteousness. But the evangelical comparison of Trump with Cyrus is founded on the idea that Trump, while not moral or pious, is still somehow being used for God’s purposes. But that argument puts us more in the realm of Tolkien’s Gollum than the Bible’s Cyrus. There are plenty of Biblical arguments that even the unrighteous can advance God’s plans for the world, but that’s not the argument made here in Isaiah.

Second, let’s look at Cyrus’ function in the Isaiah narrative. Cyrus does two main things: he releases the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity and he decrees the rebuilding of the Temple (though that doesn’t actually happen until later). Unless you see the U.S. Embassy as somehow equivalent to the Temple that housed the holy of holies, I’m not sure where you could find a functional comparison here. Trump has not drastically changed the political landscape in Isreal (except for heightening tensions), so we have to look elsewhere for the divinely mandated accomplishments (on behalf of God’s particularly-favored people, because let’s be realistic, this argument blatantly favors the paritcular interests of the evangelicals who make it and not the good of all believers or the good of the world as a whole) of the current president if we’re to make the argument that, like Cyrus, God has personally elected Trump to accomplish God’s ends on the earth.

By my estimate, here are the accomplishments: the creation of environment more permissive to racists and the alt-right; a fear and rejection of innocent immigrants fleeing crisis; benefits to the wealthy and to large corporations at the expense of the little guy; threats of war; the disparagement and disengagement from our political allies; a lack of caring about suffering that happens to other people in other countries; rejection of truth in favor of making things up as one goes and insisting it’s the truth until people stop questioning it; decreased acceptance of people who are different; scapegoating already marginalized people as the cause of the perceived problems of the rich; a preference for political success in conflict rather than the support of democratic institutions and justice for all people.

To be fair, there is an argument that Trump is the reason that the economy is good right now. But it’s just that, an argument–and certainly not one that has much to do with righteousness. While the President often gets the credit or blame for the economy (mostly because that’s the only politician the average person can name), most economists agree that the President (no matter who it is or what party they belong to) has relatively little power when it comes to affecting the economy.

And now we come to the real issue: evangelicals believe that the government should enforce their form of morality, so action that curtails the rights of women to get abortions or be believed when they assert that they have been sexually assaulted, the rights of the LGBTQ community to exist, the rights of immigrants to have a fair go in this country matches with their view of what the country should be in order to follow their definition of Christian righteousness.

You can argue with my characterization of their goals if you’d like, but at the end of the day, you have to acknowledge that evangelical Christians support Trump because they believe that Trump will achieve the type of change they want for the country. You only have to look at Trump’s policies, statements and actions to see the truth in what I’ve written.

That creates a problem for the evangelicals. They want what Trump offers them, but they also don’t want Trump, because he is amoral, narcisstic, jingoistic, self-interested and generally problematic.

Enter the Cyrus argument. This allows the evangelicals to avoid the cognitive dissonance between seeing themselves as inherently righteous and moral actors while supporting someone who is so clearly not. “Trump may not be godly, but he’s doing what God put him here to do, so we should support him.” If you’re inclined to ask about the actual morality of the policies favored by the evangelicals in light of the Gospels, don’t bother; that ship sailed a long time ago.

What makes this dangerous–for the nation, as a temptation to Christian believers and as a detriment to the Christian witness to those who do not believe–is that it again resorts to Divine Command Theory to justify what humans believe to be God’s will as absolute and unassailable truth. The “Cyrus Prophecy” argument allows the evangelicals to unquestioningly cling to a very particular interpretation of Scripture, to use an “ends justify the means” approach to their faith, and to reject outright anyone who challenges the assertions that they’ve made. Psychologically very effective. Theologically, not so much.

As I argued in my post about the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, this allows Christians to ignore the effects of the route they take to pursue their so-called righteousness. Just as the Cyrus argument requires us to selectively ignore the claim of Isaiah that God’s selection of Cyrus made him righteous, resorting to Divine Command Theory to justify beliefs and actions requires us to ignore much of Christ’s message as to how we ought to comport ourselves as Christians seeking righteousness.

To be fair, I think that there is a very good analogy in the Old Testament for Trump, it’s just not Cyrus. It’s King Saul, appointed king by God when the Israelites begged God for a king and God said (paraphrasing): “Okay, I’m gonna give you what you’re asking for, but I don’t think it’s going to be what you think it’s going to be…” Because Trump certainly isn’t the president this country needs right now, but he might be the president we collectively deserve until we take a good look at ourselves and figure out what a “great” America actually looks like.