Friday, August 28, 2015
Sharon L. Baker deals with the injustice inherent in much of the traditional doctrine of hell. She does not dispense of the hell doctrine entirely, but she does present a fresh inquiry that is based solidly upon scripture. I would recommend this take on the topic far more than I would Rob Bell's Love Wins, which I discussed sometime back, because she does refer continually to scripture, and (unlike Bell) is not vague regarding her conclusions (although certain questions, in my opinion, could be explored further).
It is interesting that among the people she discusses the issue with in the book (who are disturbed by the doctrine) are a young woman who apparently has not given much thought to horrific nature of the doctrine, until her own grandmother (who was near death) refuses to convert to the Christian faith. At the end of the book, it is reported that the grandmother did indeed die, and, to everyone's knowledge, did not convert. Baker nonetheless offers hope that the soul of the young woman's grandmother may yet have a chance. Why is this? Just let me say read the book and find out.
Monday, July 20, 2015
Note: this is the same post I made on Flame in the Dark. I thought I'd post some of those posts on both blogs now, since the subjects often overlap.
I bought this book the other week after seeing it reviewed, and thought it would be an interesting exploration of the religious nature of the vampire tale in fiction and cinema--which, for the most part ,it is. While the deeply conservative nature (in general) of the horror genre tends to be overlooked, even, perhaps especially, by those working within the genre itself, the Christian iconography of the vampire is difficult to miss. The cross, Holy water, silver, etc. are shown as very powerful in repelling evil. Really, if such icons did succeed in warding off vampires or other creatures of darkness, would that alone stand as a powerful testement to the Truth of the Christian faith?
M. Jess Peacock recognizes this, and explores numerous examples, from Stoker's original Dracula to modern vampire tales. He notably excludes the Twilight-type stories in case you're wondering. However, while I had been expecting something more in the vein of Horror: a Biography, (also known by the title Monsters of the Id), by E. Michael Jones, what I got was, as a whole, almost a reverse. Unlike Jones, Peacok concentrates strictly on the vampire subgenre, and this much is made clear by the cover. Also unlike Jones, who is a political and religious conservative, Peacock is unabashedly liberal. This is made clear early on by his repeated use of words such as "patriarchal," oppression," "liberation," and so on, even criticizing Repulican policies and politicians occasionally. He is a strong proponant for "liberation theology," which advocates using relgion, notably Christ's criticism of the wealthy, as a tool for social reform.
Now, as I've become more liberal over the years myself, I don't disagree with this stance entirely. In fact, though the conservative repsonse to the problem of poverty is generally through personal, chariable acts, government reform is not something that is neceassarly contrary to Christ's teachings. Peacokc's criticism of policies he believes sustain poverty may well be spot on, though I'm not informed enough to comment.
Nonetheless, partly as a consequence of his politics, Peacok gets at least part of the theology of vampirism dead wrong. He correctly identifies that the traditional vampire tale is powerfully Christian-themed. However, he also makes at least one of the errors that Jones points out as committed by left-wing critics of horror. Peacock identifies the monster, in this case the vampire, as a potential rebel against the oppressive, social and political order. The vampire certainly can be interpreted as an ultimate rebel against tradition, all right: he seeks man-centered immortality without God or the need for salvation. But the fact that the undead are macabre parody of salvation seems to have escaped Peacock; the rebellion of the vampire against God and the forces of light is hardly a successful one. The vampire, condemned to an eternally monstrous exisitance is more akin to rebellions such as the French and Russian revolutions, which , in addition to slaughtering countless innocents, ended up devouring themselves in the process. Thus, the figure of vampire most accurately represents a warning against the false allure of creating a human-centered utopia on earth.
Peacock also points out, with some measure of accuracy, that the potency of the Cross and other symbols has somewhat waned over the years onscreen, indicating a percieved diminishing power of God to combat evil. There is doubtless some measure of accuracy in this last observation. In this case, he identifies vampires, once they have achieved power over their victims, as themselves purveyors of the old, traditional social order, and heroes such as Buffy and Van Helsing as the leaders of a new revolution. Such an interreptation will not work with the more traditonal vampire tales, in which the heroes rely on the symbols of tradtional Christianity to repel the beasts. However, in the more secular tales, such as the Blade movies, and other tales in which power of the Cross seems to have diminished, Peacock might have a point. Heroes are coming to rely more on their own wits and resources than on faith in God. Is this becoming a trend for the vampire tale and for horror in general?
The last section of the book is compodium of the films and TV series that the author thinks are most notable to the vampire subgenre. He explicates each of them very well, and often in great detail, explaining each one in light of his criticism. All in all, an informative and interesting read for the vampire enthusiasts, if a bit of a politically biased one.
Saturday, February 28, 2015
It never is, it seems.
In the seemingly amoral chaos of Game of Thrones, the forces of Good (do they even exist?) never experience a clear-cut victory over evil.
When I was first introduced to the Game of Thrones series, I was not particularly taken with it. This was supposed to be a fantasy series, or so I'd thought. It turned out that the central, even defining ingrediant for fantasy appeared missing: the timeless conflict between the forces of good and evil. Evil in fantasy tends to be personified in a 'Dark Lord' of some sort, whether he be Sauron, Darth Vader, Voldemort or Darken Rahl. He's always clearly evil, and while most fantasy series feature heroes who struggle with real internal flaw, we never doubt their essential moral character.
George R. R. Martin's series is another story.
The entire format of the show through me at first. Where was the Dark Lord? Where was the epic quest? Where was the valiant band of heroes faces incredible odds? The show seemed more like a drawn-out medevial soap-opera, and largely, that description is apt. It just happens to take place in a reality where drgaons and wizards just happen to exist. It was just that thing, I gradually realized that sets the series apart, that forms part of its mass appeal. Set in a realm where internal and external conflicts strongly mirror those in the real world, Game of Thrones works, more than other fantasy series, as a splendid "what -if" scenario: in this case, what if fantasy elements actually existed in a real historical setting?
In an interview with the author in Rolling Stone magazine,
George Martin explained that he originally considered setting his series in our own world. The problem with that was that since we know our own history, viewers wouldn't be kept in suspense; we'd know ahead of time how it would all unfold, who would kill whom, etc.
Conservative fantasy author Vox Day, (yes, him again), has opined that Martin, though sometimes hailed as "The American Tolkien" (actuallly the same or similar titles have been attached to other fantacists), he is better described as an 'anti-Tolkien', much the way Phillip Pullman has been labeled the 'anti-Lewis':
"I leave it to the readers to decide whether my books are Christian fiction or not. I don't care. I consider them to be epic fantasy, written in the tradition begun by George MacDonald and exemplified by J.R.R. Tolkien. And to those who will roll their eyes at the idea of "a Christian answer to George Martin" and imagine it is meant in the Stryper sense, let me hasten to disabuse you of that notion. A THRONE OF BONES is neither an homage nor an imitation, it is a challenge. It is intended as a literary rebuke.
I believe Martin and some of the other authors of epic fantasy have not extended the sub-genre so much as they have betrayed it. And in doing so, even as they have attempted to make their works more "realistic" than those of their epic predecessors, they have actually made them much smaller in terms of the human experience. In their colorblind rejection of what they suppose to be "black and white" morality in favor of their beloved "balance" and "shades of gray", they have inadvertently turned their backs on the full rainbow spectrum of colors. They paint ugliness, but no beauty. They sketch images of hate, but none of love. Their sex isn't erotic, it merely the slaking of appetites. Their work, for the most part, is quite literally and intentionally soulless.
I'm not at all interested in attempting to become their polar opposite, as some erroneously see it. Still less am I trying to write some saccharine, watered-down version of their works. Instead, I'm attempting to embrace the whole. Good and evil. Love and hate. Joy and sorrow. Beauty and ugliness. Art and philosophy. I am not saying that I have been, or will be, successful in this, I am merely pointing out that to claim that A THRONE OF BONES is an imitation of Martin, or any other author, is not only to miss the point, it is missing the entire conversation."
Day has also stated that he does consider the Game of Thrones series are good novels for what they are. But he certainly has a point. There is indeed precious little beauty to be found in the Game of Thrones series. The focus does indeed tend to be on on human cruelty instead of selfless acts of heroism. Noble acts do occur, but they are few and far between. Part of the reason for this, I'm assuming is that Martin, a political and cultural liberal, is about challenging standards in regard what can be shown and read, at least as much as he is in painting his world in shades of pessimistic realism. Part of this counter-cultural attitude showed itself, when, in the aforementioned interview with rolling stone, he observed that viewers were lilely to see young Bran Stark as a King Arthur figure..until he gets thrown out a window and winds up crippled for life. Now, I might add here that a good wizard might be able cure Bran, but that's something Martin is not going to allow. In other words, he's deliberately waring against convention here.
Another concept that is prominant in Game of Thrones is that any character, sympathetic, or not, may be killed off. That's a deliberate difience of convention again, stretching the limits of what can or can't be shown on television, the most infamous example of this being season 3's Red Wedding. Good is not necessarily rewarded nor is evil punished. I had a student last semester who praised Game of Thrones for this reason, opining that if a character survives death on the show, his or her survival feels "earned." Indeed, it seems that not knowing which characters well get out it alive is a selling point for a great many GOT viewers and readers. I was, in fact, a bit surprised when, in Season 4, the thoroughly repellent character of Joffrey finally does bite the dust--though the same can hardly be said of the even more repellent character Ramsay Snow. There is at least one seemingly good character, Daenerys Targaryen, who not only survives and triumphs, but seems unbeatable. However, in the most recent episodes, viewers learned that her campaign of end slavery in her world's equivelant of our Near East has resulted in some unforseen moral consequences--just as they likely would in our own flawed world.
But is Game of Thrones intentionally nihilistic and postmodernist? Is Martin denying the existence of objective good and evil here? According to the Rolling Stone interview, it would seem otherwise; Martin gives an example of Woodrow Wilson, a man with racist beleifs who praised D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation (for its actual message, not just its ciniematic value), but strove to end world peace. Was Wilson a hero or a villan, Martin asks. In fact, he tells us, he was both.
And so it is with Martin's characters.
Martin does beleive that some actions of his characters are evil, while others are good. Most committed liberals do. But sometimes I have difficulty registering that, when sadists like Ransy Snow triumph and persist again and again.
Together they will learn there can be no good without evil...no love without hate...no heaven without hell...no light without darkness.
The harmony of the universe depends upon an eternal balance. Out of the struggle to maintain this balance comes the birth of Legends," thus implying that God cannot exist without the devil. I once remember a Christian movie guide calling that film "totally anti-Christian," and this could well be the reason why.
The ending of the original Dragonlance Chronicles by margaret Weis and and Tracy Hickman, perhaps best sum up the concept of 'balance.' At the end the war of the Lance, the heroes triumph, but they fail to eradicate the forces of darkness form the world of Krynn. the absent-minded mage Fizban (actually a human incarnation of the God Draco Paladine), an archetype of wise-fool, informs the heroes that evil must persist in the world in order for balance to be maintained. The dragon highlords and evil dragons will remain a menace on Krynn.In response the the question posed (I think) by Tanis Half-Elven, "Why shouldn't Good win--drive back the darkness forever?" Paladine replies at one time Good did reign supreme--but the balance was destroyed in the process.
This is, as Vox Day has observed, a long way from the works of Tolkien and Lewis, Tolkien in particular, who was the central inspiration for the vast bulk of fantasy novels filling the bookshelves from the late seventies onward. It is also totally anti-thetical to Christianity, which holds that evil is corrosive force. C. S. Lewis observed that evil is to good, not is dark is to lgiht, but as rust is to metal Evil is parasite that, of necessity must feed upon Good in order to persist. Think about. Any human being who does evil does so in pursuit of something good. It's just that they push the rights and values of others to the side in so doing. That is why idols are so dangerous. That is why pride in oneself is so grave a sin. Power, money, pleasure recognition or respect, even the love of one's own family are good things in and of themselves. Okay, 'power' might seem a bit of an exception, but even given the long-standing association of power with corruption, (and the stereotypes of evil aristocrat and ruthless businessman) a person with power is not necessarily corrupt, nor is power itself necessarily a bad thing.
Why has modern fantasy strayed so far from its origins in terms of the concept of Good and Evil so central to the Christian faith?
Monday, February 23, 2015
Disproving Christianity and other Secular Wrtings (Revised Second Edition) by David G. McAfee is another curious item that has come my way of late. It's author is a surprisingly young man (I first doubted the back cover photo was truely him), and is newcomer to the world of freethought. His book was originally self-published according to Wikipedia, but evenually found a publishing home with "Dangerous Little Books" a book series challenging traditional faith.
Unlike other similar texts, DC does not spend much of its pages attacking percieved logical fallacies in the Bible. Rather, it focuses mainly on moral/ethical problems, chiefly OT atrocities, which, unfortunately for the Christian, there are many to be found. For a "moderate" beleiver such as myself (I hesitate to define my Christianity as "liberal"), refuting arguments such as McAfee's is not very difficult: the terrible atrocities carried out by God or in His name didn't really happen, and/or aren't mean to be taken literally. However, the problem with this approach is that it leaves me standing on one side of the debate, and McAfee and most conservative Christians united on the other.
Another point of argument that fortunately, not many Christians, conservative or otherwise, would agree (though some do, as I've explored in my previous essay on King's Revival) is the disturbing topic of kids in hell. McAfee argues that the Bible, according to logic, would dictate that infants and small children too young to learn about God and religion would end up in hell if they died, because according to the Bible, Jesus is the "only way to heaven." I had a Christian pastor once who made precisely the same argument.
John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth and the light. No one comes to the father except by me." Those are the words of the Lord Himself. It is certainly truth that "no one comes to the Father but through Jesus."
But what, exactly, does that mean? To most evangelizing beleivers it seems to mean that one must beleive in the historicity of Christ's sacrifice, and pledge themselves to Him. In other words, convert to the faith. But, theorectically, if the Lord should decide to save, say a total unbeleiver like Richard Dawkins, with no requirment at all (and for an atheist, giving up what believes is one's "rationality" and worldview would indeed to a heavy price tag for salvation), that person would still be saved by Christ. The same certainly holds for children too young to understand faith or the minuatae or faith. McAfee is making a straw-man assumption that salvation depends on technicalities, and then taking those technecalities to an extreme. Technicalities cannot work in the case of salvation, because they are not based on morality at all. Being born in the wrong place or being fed the wrong information about spirituality cannot, in itself, determine salavation. Only one's spiritual state can dtermine that.
Another of McAfee's central arguments in this book (perhaps the central argument) is that secularism is best path toward true altruism and morality:
"Not only do I believe that it is possible to maintain moral standards without the crutch of religion but I would argue that it is the only way to achieve true goodness."
Now, on the surface this argument appears to be logical. If you aren't constantly trying to appease a diety, or in fear of hellfire, it appears that you should be accpomplish good works simply because they are good. It certainly seems to make sense. Doing good merely to avoid punishment or secure reward, is, in fact, motivated by self-interest. This is clearly true. Wouldn't it be better to free ourselves from our faith to achieve genuine altruism?
However, McAfee fails to point out what we all know:
It doesn't work.
Statistics across the board have shown than secualrists lag behind Christians when it comes to charity and personal kindness. This is precisely the opposite of what we should expect if McAfee's supposition were true:
The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions…
Charity differences between religious and secular people persist if we look at the actual amounts of donations and volunteering. Indeed, measures of the dollars given and occasions volunteered per year produce a yawning gap between the groups. The average annual giving among the religious is $2,210, whereas it is $642 among the secular. Similarly, religious people volunteer an average of 12 times per year, while secular people volunteer an average of 5.8 times. To put this into perspective, religious people are 33 percent of the population but make 52 percent of donations and 45 percent of times volunteered. Secular people are 26 percent of the population but contribute 13 percent of the dollars and 17 percent of the times volunteered.
These differences hardly change when we consider them in isolation from the other demographics, using a statistical technique called tobit regression. Religious practice by itself is associated with $1,388 more given per year than we would expect to see from a secular person (with the same political views, income, education, age, race, and other characteristics), as well as with 6.5 more occasions of volunteering. (Arthur Brooks, 2003)
Phil Zuckerman, a noted secularist himself, has made essentially the same observation in his recent book, Living the Secular Life , so thing do not appear to have changed since. The reasons for the desparity of charity giving between the secular and the believing may be many; one rather obvious possibilty I've long considered is the fact that, the majority of atheists being social liberals, there is the supposition that charity is up to the government more than the individual.
But what McAfee gapingly overlooks in making his argument is the Christian concept of grace. He states idetifies, correctly, that attempting to gain favor with God is self-serving. This is precisely why one cannot "work one's way into heaven." It goes straight to the heart of why spiritual rebirth must necessarily come first, followed by good works, not the reverse. McAfee seems not to be paying attention to what so many Christians, are, in fact stressing. As I've offtimes argued the emphasis on God's grace rather than works can sometimes mislead, but it is nonetheless true. McAfee would do well to that fact into account for any further updates of Disproving Christianity.
All seems right with the world until (wouldn't you know, since this is a King story) a terrible tragedy strikes the Jacobs family: Patsy and Morrie are killed in a accident, and the man who caused it (an older gent who's lived most of his life) manages to live until up in his eighties. Little Morrie has his face torn off, and we're "treated" to PastOr Jacobs howling in anguish about what happened to his son's face.
After the funeral, Jacobs seems to recover somewhat, and gives a soon-to-become infamous sermon, in which he begins by thinking his congregation for their support, and build by reciting tragic incidents he's spent the last week looking up in the newspapers (in one of them two boys and their father jump in to save their dog from drowning in a lake; the dog survives but the man his two children drown). Jacobs ends by essentially renouncing God, and saying of the afterlife:"maybe there's something there, but I'm betting it's not God as any church knows". Jacobs walks out the church, quits his ministry and leaves town. There is a following scene in which Jamies hurtles the electirc-powered Jesus across a room, wailing and cursing Jesus for not being real.
That's just the setup.
The next several chapters follow Jamie as he gorws into a teen and young adult in a guitar band. There is a literally electrfying scene in which jamie and his girlfriend visit a hilltop (which jacobs has referred him to), where an iron rod drawa bolts of lightening during an electric storm and turns vivdly blue, crimson and purple as it absorbs its power. It's an incredible experience the King describes it.
Later on, Jamie finds himself addicted to heroin, but he runs into Jacobs, now a carny showman. Jacobs draws crowds with incredible picture shows generated by electricity. Jacobs manages to cure Jamie, which makes the younger man indebted to him. Years later, he runs into Jacobs again, only know the former paster has ditched his carny act, and is now a flamboyant revival preacher. He soon learns that Jacobs has hardly rediscovered his Christian faith--if anything, he's grown even more bitter, and is willfully taking advantage of his gullible patrons, the way some many televangelists are infamous for. But Jacobs is snake-oil salesman: his miricles actually seem to work! The thing is, a relatively small portion of the people he "cures" eventually go insane in a variety of bizarre ways. It all has to do with Jacobs' strange experiments with lightening, which enables him to tap into what he calls "the deep electricity, " a vast power hiterto unknown to science. It is suggested that Jacobs' insane patrons may have gotten a glimpse of something "beyond" during their treatments, which has blasted the reason from their brains.
It all culminates in a grand experiement which Jacobs theorizes will allow him and Jamie to "peak through the keyhole' and catch a glimpse of the afterlife.
As one of the advertisments for Pet Semetary claimed back in the mid-eighties, you might say that SK has "really done it" this time, not just "done it again."
Now it has come to my attention that there indeed other King novels that deal with the topic of the afterlife in which it appears to be unlike that described in Revival. Someone on King's site has brought to my attention Bag of Bones. What about the spirits in Overlook Hotel, for example? Or, for that matter, the shade of Jack Torrence visiting Danny on his graduation (this happened in the Shining TV miniseries, BTW, not the book, though I beleive King wrote the screenplay, and that was the version he approved of). I didn't get the idea he'd been to the hell Jamie saw. Perhaps the world of Revival takes places in aseparate but connected alternate realit, like those in the original Bachman Books. But if that's the case, why those place names still there?
Another thing: Revival is ultimately a nihialistic novle, in which the very concepts of good and evil are rendered meaningless. The theme of the hubris of science is a strong one, but in a universe devoid of meaning or purpose, who's to say that Jacobs' experiements, and his desire to peak bhind the veil, are actually wrong in any moral sense. King even cites Arthur Machen, adn H.P. Lovecraft as inspriational to this novel, and for good reason. The problem is, it classes with his own mutliverse. Consider the Dark Tower novels, which are built aroudn the classic conflict between the forces of good and evil. But in light of Revival, Ka is rendered nil. Is the Crimson King really wrong in seeking to destory themlicnhpin of the multiverse, causing all the realities to unravel? It would not seem so.
I have not read Bag of Bones so I can't comment on that story directly, but King has, indeed, been notoriously inconsistent over the years in regard to his own worldview. That's not surprising, since his worldview fits the very defintion of agnosticism. Now, I'm sure King would want to describe himself thusly, and the way the term "agnostic" tends to be used these days is very close to the word "atheist," even though that's technically incorrect. In an eithies interview with Douglas E. Winter, then the most famous King expert, King is quoted as saying,
...it has to put into the equation: the possibility that there is no God and nothing works for the best. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that view, but I don’t know what I do subscribe to. Why do I have to have a world view? I mean, when I wrote Cujo, I wasn’t even old enough to be president. Maybe when I’m forty or forty-five, but I don’t now. I’m just trying on all these hats.
That's pretty much the very essence of agnosticism. I also recall King as saying, and do forgive me if I've got it wrong that "Jesus Christ might have been divine" and that ultimately, "wer'e livng in the center of a great mystery." I think that really echoes Jacobs' observation near the end of his imfamous sermon that "we come from a mystery, and to a mystery we go." You can't get much more agnostic than that.
But the very concept of an agnostic hell seems a contradiction in terms. Hell is almost always associated with religion, most specifally with scaring potential converts into the faith--at least it works that way with Christianity and Islam. This brings something else that I don't really mean to go into in this article, partly due to its deeply disturbing nature. This is the concept of innocent human beings, such as certain of the the unevangelized and (most specifically in relation to King's novel) certain children, in hell. King, in fact, seems to wish fervetly that the whole story of Jesus and heaven were real, but fears it's all just foolish pipe-dream.
But he seems to have entirely overlooked the fact that conservative Christianity sometimes presents a version of hell even more disturbing, in a sense, than his own. Christians are, in fact, somewhat divided as to the fate of unevangelized. C. S. Lewis argued that it was possible for an unevangelized person to enter heaven. David Platt argues, among many others, argues that it is not. When it comes to children, most, it seems, do not beleive that hell awaits them, and tend to accept some form of the "age of accountability." For the record, I don't think that the age of acountibility is a Biblical doctrine, and in fact no strict age may exist. But God's promise to David and Bathseba appears to rule out the possibilty of infants in eternal torment.I also beleive that the simplistic concept of eternal bliss on one hand and eternal torment on the other is a far, far too simple picture of the fate of spirits on the Other Side. Jesus addressed only adult men and women with normal brain function as to salvation, and when he discussed hell, it was always in regard to behavior, not worldview or factual information. Yes, it's one's spiritual state, not behavior per se that determines that determines one fate to the Christian, but that's a different story.
But it is nontheless true that there are Christians do beleive and defend the concept of innocents such as children in hell. I even once had a minster he who beleived this. What makes this more disturbing than King's agnostic version? Well, in the story, Jamie observes that his deceased sister "deserved heaven," but got this instead. It's very very clear that many of these deceased are indeed "innocent." But show me a Christian who defends children or the unconverted in hell, and he or she will insist that even children are not truely "innocent," that all humans, even small children, as so bestial and depreaved that they somehow "deserve" it. The main thing that makes such a concept so dreadfully unjust is the very fact that it purports to represent justice.
At least SK is suggesting no such thing.