Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Reality of Fiction

When one places life's center of gravity not in life but in the "beyond"--in nothingness--one deprives life of its center of gravity altogether. The great lie of personal immortality destroys all reason, everything natural in the instincts--whatever in the instincts is beneficent and life-promoting or guarantees a future now arouses mistrust. -Friedrich Nietzsche

My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. [...] The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now, are the things called fairy tales. They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things. They are not fantasies: compared with them other things are fantastic. Compared with them religion and rationalism are both abnormal, though religion is abnormally right and rationalism abnormally wrong. Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense. It is not earth that judges heaven, but heaven that judges earth; so for me at least it was not earth that criticised elfland, but elfland that criticised the earth. -G.K. Chesterton

Sometime in early February:

I sat at my usual spot at the coffee shop I've come to frequent here in Louisville. I cautiously brought the cup of hot cinnamon tea to my lips, hoping to bump into my new friend. I first met my friend Henry several months ago while helping some friends move. He reminded me of Thoreau, a man with luddite tendencies desperately trying as hard as he can to escape the corruption of the world. I would consider him to be some kind of existentialist, even though he would probably refuse the label and call himself an individual (as any good existentialist would).

A sip. Ah, the tea is perfect.

Henry arrived as if on cue. We greeted one another cordially and I slid aside my impressive (though only to me) stack of books on medieval theology. He took a seat and I lit my pipe. He produced a pack of cigarettes. We ignited our vices and began to reason together.

I had an ulterior motive in meeting with him, of course. You see, I care tremendously for his soul. As is so common in our ultra-modern, ultra-convenient times, he seems to me a listless and tempest-tossed alien. He has never been more comfortable and never so homeless. In addition to the cosmopolitan curse, he is also weighed down by survivor's guilt. His best friend drove thirty miles into the glorious New England countryside to drown himself ingloriously in a pond just a bit off the highway. Henry blamed himself for being so far south when his friend took his own life. Needless to say, I continue to release many fragrant prayers to the Lord for him.

"I'm working on a project," I announced after the pleasant small talk had subsided, "maybe you can help me."


"Yeah. I could use another pair of ears. Y'see, I'm writing on hope. Tryin' to figure out what exactly it is, what it does for us, why we need it, is it even real? Maybe you can help me sort through all my thoughts."

"Okay," Henry agreed. "What do you have so far?"

"Well, I began... um, are ya familiar with the 'Green Lantern' comics?" He nodded. "Well, then you know how the Blue Lanterns work. The symbiosis with the Greens and everything, the symbolism of hope being useless without willpower, but together hope can super charge willpower. Right?" Yes. "But isn't that just a fancy way of saying that hope is just a delusion?"

"How so?" he asked.

"Think of it. Hope isn't real, it's just a tool. It really doesn't matter what you hope in, so long as you hope for something. Nietzsche would say that hope is a great lie, particularly when imposed from the outside. It's a fantasy, a tool for control. Or it's just something we need in order to function, an existential necessity. Anyway," I concluded, "that's where I'm stuck. Ya got any thoughts for me?"

He mulled it over for a moment. Then he answered, "I think hope is fantastic in some sense. Honestly, I'm not really as much of a philosopher as a writer or English dork. But I think fiction really resonates with people because it IS fake. Maybe it's not real, but that's what so compelling about it."

"So you would say that the compelling things about literature aren't really based on anything real?"

"They're rooted in our experience, or how we perceive it. We want the world to be better than it is. We wish our experiences were more than they are."

"It's just a wish then? It has no reality?"

"It's a real desire for things to be better than they are. There's nothing false about wanting things to be better than they are. In fact, idealization keeps us going. Writers craft ideal characters to fit their stories. The people they invent function just the way they're supposed to in the narrative. But any good writer will tell you that a solid character eventually writes themselves. That sorta makes them real, doesn't it?" Henry asked whimsically.

"But are the characters really ideal? Are ideal or realistic characters better?"

"Realistic ones, of course. I meant that they function ideally in the story. They do what the author wants."

I conceded the point. "But why are realistic characters better? Why not the perfect ones?"

"I think real characters need to be relatable."

"Why do the readers need to relate?"

"Are you leading me somewhere?"

"I asked you first."

Henry sighed in defeat. He knew that I was in fact leading him somewhere. Still, he was the one who had to get there. To state it plainly wouldn't mean the same to him. "I think readers need to relate because they need to see themselves in the story. They ought to recognize what kind of person is in the story and how they're like that character. They need to see that a character will react in a story just like they will, or if they're different, why they did otherwise."

"So a realistic character has to seem real, not entirely fictional?"

He was thoughtfully quiet before replying, "I suppose so."

"So might it be fair to say that the compelling thing about fiction is, on some level, not what is imaginary but what is real about it. Aristotle praised poetry for this reason; it attained unto the universal. It uses narrative to tell us what's true about being human in a way that philosophy never could."


"Couldn't hope be the same?" I asked. "Could it be that we're not compelled by fiction but by reality? And not reality as it is--for the real world is a harsh place--but reality as we always hoped it could be? As though our hearts yearn for the world to be better than it actually is not because we can imagine it better but because it is supposed to be better than it really is? What if there's something terribly wrong with the world? We think that our hopes aren't real because we don't see any tangible proof of them. But the hope itself is the evidence! Or else why would there ever have been hope at all?"

(A more thorough treatment of the question of hope will follow this dialogue.)

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lenten Reflections: Matthew 1 & 2

I was raised in the Baptist tradition, so low church I think I scrapped the bottom of the holiness barrel. I leaned downright Anabaptist for a long time, so the idea of a Christian calendar with seasons of fasting seemed alien to me. After all, fasting doesn't make you a better Christian. Aren't we free in Christ from the law and its appointed seasons of feasting and fasting? The whole Christian life is a feast, I thought. By the end of high school I was identifying as a Calvinist and in college I was exposed to the deep wells of tradition and theology that pushed me firmly into a broadly-Reformed camp. There I discovered the history of the saints gone by and realized that the Church Universal didn't end with the Apostle John only to restart with Billy Graham (and maybe a blip with Martin Luther). I learned how Lent is supposed to be a time to prepare us for Easter, that the fasting is supposed to deepen our feasting on God. Our hunger for food or caffeine or the internet is supposed to bodily turn our affections toward a deepened spiritual hunger for God. Still I participated in Lent only once and then halfheartedly, forgetting partway through I was even fasting or what the point was. I failed to orient my hunger toward the Lord and fell back into my thoughtless feasting. Praise God that grace abounds to the chief of sinners.

This year I actually attended a morning Ash Wednesday service at Sojourn, a Southern Baptist congregation which manages maintain low church form with high church sensibilities. They have a deep appreciation for liturgy, ritual, art, and holy expression while keeping the last, the lost, the least unalienated with esoteric holy trappings. So this morning I heard the real truth of Lent again for the first time: Man is mortal and we die to something to come alive again with a celebration of Christ's resurrection. Along with that came a charge to read the Gospels this season, so I endeavor to do so as I fast praying that my devotion to the Holy Writ will increase in my temporary death.

Today I read and meditate upon Matthew chapters 1-2. Here we read the genealogy of Jesus. It is filled with the names of men sometimes glorious, but more often inglorious. Particularly Matthew calls to mind the wicked kings of Israel we read about in Kings and Chronicles. These are men like Rehoboam and Manasseh who bow the knee to idols and demons, couching the plans of God with their own expedient safeguards and back-up plans. God can't be wholly trusted, they reasoned, so my Judahite army, Molech, and Asherah will save me if Yahweh fails. There are harlots like Rahab and liars like Abraham. Still God chose to use this pedigree to fulfill His purpose.

Other things could be noted (the Magi, Herod, the Bethlehem slaughter), but I was struck today by the example of Joseph. Here was a man I once heard described as "the manliest Christian outside of Jesus Himself." He first hears that his betrothed is pregnant though he has never had sex with her. Rather than expose her to a public humiliation, we are told that he plans to divorce her quietly. This is a drastic understatement. According to Levitical law, he could have had her stoned for infidelity! Yet even before he realizes what has transpired, he still intends to extend grace and break off the engagement. Now, we know as the reader that had he done these things he would have in fact done something quite unjust. Yet from his perspective and the vantage point of those around him, this would have been reasonable, just, and even gracious.

Then he has a vision of an angel telling him that this child is from the Holy Spirit. And he believes and marries her. In spite of the local gossip around Nazareth, he takes responsibility for a child not his own. Only an unfair modern critic would try to say that he is buying into some mythology to justify himself here. Ancient people may have had a more primitive science, but they certainly knew where babies came from! He knew this wasn't natural, that it defied all explanation. He knew that the community might (and probably did) speak against the character of his future wife. Nevertheless he persevered by faith that God was working something astounding. He doesn't even know that Messiah has come, he just believes!

It is by faith that he takes his family to Bethlehem. His wife is due any day and he still goes, knowing that through obedience to Caesar he is obeying God. He trusts God to iron out all the details. God provides a safe birth. It is by faith that he listens to the angel's warnings and flees to Egypt. Can you imagine? He didn't go back home to Nazareth at all. He brought no effects of home with his young family. Instead, he flees by night to a foreign land--a land of slavery in the Jewish mind--to escape the wrath of a jealous king. Here he shows the great virtue of provision. He thinks again of the safety of his family--a disgraced wife and a child not his own--and leaves everything behind all based on another vision from a divine messenger. He has no natural promise of safe conduct, no tangible guarantee of success. He has his faith and his God, and that his more than enough. He has nothing yet he has everything.

His journey is not so different from ours. We too sojourn by faith, not by sight. We Christians live as a people in-between in a kingdom here but not here yet. The promise of Christ has yet to be fully realized. We have the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and promises of suffering and deliverance. And so we sojourn. We travel through life prayer by prayer, trusting not in the might of our hands nor the strength of our earnings nor the knowledge of our minds. This is the life of a Christian, the life of Joseph. It is one which is folly to the world yet salvation for those who believe. May we endure well this mortal race with our full hope in God the Father, faith in Jesus Christ our Redeemer, by the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling us. May the ash on our foreheads be a reminder that to dust we shall return and from death we shall rise in the glory and majesty of our brother Jesus Christ and our Father God Almighty. May this season of death be a season of life.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Varnish on the Abyss

But what is Hope? Nothing but the paint on the face of Existence. The least touch of truth rubs it off, and then we see what a hollow-cheeked harlot we have got hold of. -Lord Byron

Hope, in its stronger forms, is a great deal more powerful stimulant to life than any sort of realized joy can ever be. Man must be sustained in suffering by a hope so high that no conflict with actuality can dash it — so high, indeed, that no fulfillment can satisfy it: a hope reaching out beyond this world. (Precisely because of this power that hope has of making the suffering hold out, the Greeks regarded it as the evil of evils, as the most malign of evils; it remained behind at the source of all evil [that is, in Pandora's box],) -Friedrich Nietzsche

Hope, if it is indeed a mere convention, is a powerful tool in the hands of the user. Hope can instill that great endurance which would be wholly absent apart from it. By willing ourselves to hope, we can achieve far more than we ever could without it. Honing the power of hope can unlock the will to make our greatest desires a reality. Hope has toppled dictators, freed the masses, won Olympic medals, brought hearing to the deaf, and made the lame to walk again. Hope is the difference between the great men and the barely-subsisting ones.

The truly, utterly desperate have only the will to live. They are but a short fall from losing even that. The nations with the greatest poverty are those with the most despair. Even the regions of America with great poverty (for instance, Appalachian eastern Kentucky) are communities marked by high levels of fatalism. When a man believes that all things are ordained by fate apart from any human action, he is bound to find himself locked into a cycle of hopelessness and destitution. Everyone needs hope just to operate. Even a hope so slim as another day's pay or another meal can be the impetus unto life. But more than feed is needed to pull a man out of the pig trough. He has to believe that he can be empowered.

This is the mantra of modern counseling in all of its circles. Victims must be taught that they are not merely at the whims of a victimizer. The key word here is "empowerment". Empowering a victim means convincing him that he can take control of a situation. He is not at the mercy of his attacker. By equalizing the power between them, he robs the attacker of power. He can again become the master of his destiny and overwhelm the adversary. This is also the mentality of educators, particularly in low-income classrooms. Teachers must convince students that no force on earth has locked them where they are. They can go to college, they can hold down jobs, they can break the cycle of poverty which strangles their communities. If students be convinced in their own minds to hope for the future, no star can ever shine brighter.

But a tool is just an instrument in the hands of its user. And a hope which sees no fulfillment is the greatest tool of all.

How can that be? Because hope in oneself can be a powerful asset, so too can hope in another. By placing our hope in someone or something external to ourselves, we become the living puppets of the external. Hoping in Barack Obama makes you a slave to him, for you would follow him into the flames of perdition itself. Isn't that what great generals have known for centuries? Robert E. Lee was not canonized for his gentlemanly virtues or singular greatness. He was canonized because his men put their whole hope and trust in him. He could throw his men pell-mell against vicious gatling guns and they would stubbornly absorb the bullets of the inevitable future. Some great general; he lost the war! And yet still in loss they lionized him all the more, for though the cause be lost the man lived on as a champion of Southern dignity in defeat.

Yet imagine a hope which has no fulfillment. In spite of every proof to the contrary, it is never shaken. Think about the blind jingoism on the right which leads America into travesty after travesty. Or think about the naive idealism on the left which puts all its hopes in an inept government that can't resolve anything. No matter how much evidence is provided to the contrary, the hope of these extremists remains resolute and unwavering. Each party may respectively lead us into costly war or paternalistic tyranny. Frankly, neither hard right nor hard left seem particularly worried by the prospects of their darkest futures. "What does war matter when America is great and in the right?!!" "What does civic tyranny matter if everyone is equal; aren't we under the tyranny of the rich elite anyway?!!" Though many have been disillusioned out of either political extreme by circumstances, imagine if everyone continued to hope in a thing in spite of the evidence against it AND a lack of evidence for it.

Maybe hope deferred and unfulfillable can endure all things, even leading to death. Consider the hope instilled in jihadists for the certainty of heaven and the promise of seventy-two virgins. Have we any empirical evidence that their souls ascended unto Paradise to commune with Allah and consort with nubile women? All we have is airplane debris and charred corpses of fanatic slaves of extremist imams. Consider if Osama bin Laden really believed this doctrine? Do al-Qadea bosses really believe that the only sure-fire way into Paradise is through martyrdom against the infidels? Then why aren't they in the hijacked planes? This is just a lie they purport to control men for their own ends.

Control is why parents lie to their children about Santa. "Be good so that the red elf will reward you." And if a child doesn't get what he wants, "There's always next year!" It may revile you to think that hope is just a tool for brokering power--to barter power to and fro for control or empowerment like an abacus in balance--but how many times have you yourself perpetuated this same lie?

And isn't Nietzsche right when he says that Jesus weaponized hope like no one else? Dan Brown certainly agreed when he published The Da Vince Code in which the Church used the lie of the crucifixion and the resurrection to coerce Christians for millennia. The teaching of the Christian Church--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant--is that Jesus was the first fruits of a general resurrection when creation will be restored from its fallen state. Death will itself die, they say, when Jesus returns. Nietzsche scoffs, "'Behold, I am coming quickly.' Great lie!" And knave after coddled knave pray the prayer, bow the knee, and willingly submit to slavery bound in chains of hope deferred and unfulfillable. Despite the promise of his imminent return yet unfulfilled, Christians will obey even unto death the mandates of the faith without even seeing a single Jewish hair from the Messiah's head.

Hope is the great lie when it is based on nothing real, nothing tangible, nothing certain.

Or so says the nihilist. I will examine more on this next time.

Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man. -Nietzsche