I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during a particularly low point in his life. His son Charles, without consent, had joined the Union army during the American Civil War and was killed in combat. Around the same time his wife also died in an accidental fire. On Christmas day, 1864, he sat down and penned these words.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The carol begins nicely: the bells on Christmas morning remind him of the angels in the Gospels. Peace on earth, good-will to men! Then it takes a dark turn.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

While we can look back and see 1864 as a good year for the Union, for those living during the time victory was not certain. Battles at the Wilderness and the Crater and the siege of Petersburg were bloody, brutal affairs. Coupled with his double-loss, it was no wonder Longfellow despaired. “There is no peace on earth” is a mild sentiment considering the circumstances.

But the carol doesn’t end there:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

This is not mere sentimentality, or a liberal belief in Progress. For Longfellow, the Gospel rings louder than the evil of men. What sin has done to man, Jesus undoes. The canon may boom, but the church bell peals louder.

On the limits of prescience

“Daily Delivery” by Rob Gallop

Like many American boys my age, my first job was as a paperboy. For those who don’t know what that is, there used to be these things called newspapers that gave you all of yesterday’s news, and companies would hire local boys to hand deliver them to people’s houses. You could also buy a newspaper at a store, or through a machine that operated on the honor system, but many people, especially old and fat ones, preferred to have a boy deliver them to their doorstep so they wouldn’t have to actually get out of the house.

Anyway, every day I would get a stack of newspapers delivered to my house by a van-driving middle aged guy who had a, I don’t know, rapey quality about him. (I know, you’ve always wondered “Who delivers to the delivery guy?”). I would then put the newspapers into individual bags and proceed to drive my ten speed around town so people could finally figure out whether they won the lottery or which of their friends was arrested the night before. I did this every day, including Saturday and Sunday morning, for about two years. For all of this work, I was only paid $150 a month, plus tips. No one ever tipped me.

At the same time, I also fancied myself a bit of a writer. A science fiction and fantasy writer, no less. I imagined a future where I would live in New York, rich off of all my short story sales, drinking champagne every night and hanging out at a lot of coffee shops. Obviously, this was before the bottom fell out of the lucrative short fiction market; now, I only imagine living in Poughkeepsie and drinking Coke Zero.

All of this took place between 1992 and 1993, at the height of the Fab Five and right before internet access became commonplace. I was cutting my teeth on Frank Herbert, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Alan Moore, Robert Jordan, and Neil Gaiman while enjoying the musical stylings of Nirvana and Public Enemy. Bill Clinton was playing the sax on the Arsenio Hall show and Michael Jordan was already the greatest basketball player of all time. This was when I was at my most naive and optimistic; in only a year, Kurt Cobain would kill himself and O.J. Simpson would drive a white Bronco down the highway, thus ending my extended childhood and thrusting me into the cynicism of late adolescence.

So, as I was delivering my newspapers, I had quite a bit of time to think. About an hour and a half every day. During that time I would write stories in my head, most of them sci-fi, and most of them very, very bad. I don’t remember most of the stories, but they were probably blatant ripoffs of popular stuff with a very obvious avatar of me as the protagonist. Oh, and I also probably was a ladies’ man, closely depicting reality.

One story that I do remember was decent, but made irrelevant by modern technology. The protagonist was a young paperboy in an isolated farming town who went from house to house with a 3.5” floppy disk (the things used before CDs and thumbdrives but which were not, in fact, floppy), loading the daily news into each home’s central computer. The character would ride his hoverbike to a house, insert the disk, enter his passcode, and upload the news; after upload, the family could read the news on any computer they had, as well as the TV and a tablet like device (the latter stolen from 2001: a Space Odyssey).

The paperboy, who was never given a name, grew tired of hearing all of the bad news. Day in and day out, he would read about war, rape, murder, famine, and even cyber attacks (which seem quite obvious considering everyone had an unsecured disk drive on the front of their house). The more he, and the town, knew about the world, the more depressed they became. So, in a fit of inspiration, the paperboy decided to rewrite the news to make it more upbeat. (It’s unclear whether cable TV existed in this world.) He wrote what he thought the news should be, making nations sign peace agreements and the murder rates drop precipitously.

Sure enough, the people of the village cheered up. They came out of their funk and started being nice to each other, organizing street fairs and festivals. Block parties were a weekly occurrence. Utopia was at hand. But, of course, that could not be. People from the government found out about the paperboy and tried to shut him down. They sent a new paperboy, a paperman, who delivered the real news while attempting to subvert the false news. The paperboy fought back but was, in the end, defeated by the government. The people, who probably knew the news was fake all along, went back into their black mood.

For a story written by a 13-year-old, The Paperboy wasn’t too bad. I’m sure it wasn’t original, and it certainly was inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four and Pump up the Volume, but it was enough to earn me an A+ in Mrs. Williams’ English class. At the time that was all I really cared about. While I was hoping for a literary career, I was much too shy to actually show anyone but my teacher the piece. (NB: I’m still much too shy to show anyone my writings.)

As far as literary themes, the story isn’t too bad. It says a lot about the nature of the news and how we are being manipulated by what our newsmasters choose to tell us, as well as how knowledge does not always lead to enlightenment, sometimes it just leads to misery. This is one of the things I have always loved about Dune, and something that shows up quite a bit in my writing; a character seeks to learn a mystery, but upon learning it discovers the Pandora’s Box should never have been opened.

Another key element is the individual rebelling against the collective. This is quite a trope is sci-fi, especially dystopian fiction, but one that appeals to teenagers. I can imagine how pleased I was at writing about a character who was the only one to see the problem and who took it on himself to fix society’s problems. This is, of course, every teenager’s place in the world.

The ending, a dark bit of business that would characterize most of my stories, was more about my feelings of futility in the face of the adult world than anything. This Cassandra complex, of both seeing the future yet being unable to do anything about it, is perhaps a bit too biographical, but it does sum up how I felt at the time. (And often feel today.)

The problem with the story is not necessarily the plot or the characters, cliches and all, but with the treatment of technology. At 13, I could not imagine a world where the internet existed (although it did exist at that very moment) or where people had an abundance of choices for getting information. In the town I lived in, population 500 or so, not a single person had internet access. The library didn’t and the high school didn’t, nor would they for at least 5 more years. The only options for getting news were two out-of-town newspapers, one radio station, a few TV stations from 100 miles away, and, if you were lucky enough to have cable, CNN. Within that context, it made perfect sense that everyone could be fooled by fake news. I was constrained by what I knew, although I could have imagined greater.

Also, while the idea of someone physically uploading news to your home computer network is laughable today, at the time it made perfect sense. I remember sharing this revelation with my friends, who were certain something like that could never happen. There would always be newspapers, they assured me. Again, we were constrained by what we knew. I knew that one day digital news would replace paper news, but couldn’t imagine a scenario in which the bits would be delivered by wire instead of a person. I understand how stupid this is, since there were already technologies in place that did this very thing (computers, fax machines, telegraphs, etc), but at the time it was the only feasible solution. Also, I really didn’t want to lose my job.

The problem I had, one the affects even great writers, is that there is a limit to what I can imagine. For all of the iPads and cellphones that were predicted, there are tons of things that sci-fi writers just got plain wrong. How many stories had flying cars and ubiquitous jetpacks? How many movies and TV shows from the 90’s still had us using giant CRT monitors fifty years in the future? How many imagined the miniaturization of computers and the rise of mobile computing?

This limit to our prescience is nothing to be ashamed of. Storytellers are not in the business of predicting what will happen in the future, they are in the business of telling really good stories. You don’t read Dune to figure out how the Holtzman drive works, you read it to follow Paul on his journey. You don’t care that much of the hyper and warp drive stuff is crap, you just want the hero to rocket off into the stars. And in the case of my (terrible) story, it’s not important that the paperboy’s technology is outdated, what’s important is that he discovers the truth of knowledge.

John Scalzi’s theodicy

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Warning:spoilers for Redshirts follow

John Scalzi’s Redshirts is a novel with a familiar premise: what if the characters in a story realize they are, in fact, characters in a story? In this case, what if the (thinly veiled) redshirts from Star Trek, characters with whom the viewer is not familiar and who die a spectacular death, figure out they are characters in a pretty crappy TV show?

As far as premises go, this is quite familiar, as one of the characters even points out, but not necessarily bad. Scalzi, who wrote one of the best super-soldier-in-space novels1, takes something familiar and transforms it into an excellent book. Redshirts is, in parts, a meditation on free will, a theodicy, a love story, and one of the best books on writing you will ever read. It is that second part, the theodicy, that I’m interested in today.

A theodicy is an attempt to reconcile the existence of evil and human suffering with the omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God.2 Within the world of Redshirts the characters recognize they are surrounded by misery and suffering, but only for a select few. The Captain and other senior officers are rarely affected (with the exception of the lieutenant who is constantly getting hurt only to quickly recover in time for the next away mission), but the lowly ensigns are dying in droves. What’s worse, these redshirts are dying for no good reason in increasingly bizzare ways. One is killed by ice sharks, the next by crazy robots who were given weapons, and another by sandworms that are clearly ripped off from Dune.

Needless to say, life for these characters is something of a hell, even if Scalzi fills the story with his charcteristic humor. They come to realize their lives are guided not by their own actions, or even the fate of a powerful deity, but by some hack writer who makes and breaks rules on a whim. A writer who kills anyone with an interesting back story for dramatic effect, to make an audience feel something right before a commercial break. They come to realize their lives are essentially meaningless, that they can and will be killed without a moment’s hesitation.

When the characters eventually face their creator (and of course they do), they confront him with their grim existence. They throw in his face that his lazy writing has actual consequences, that his use of tropes and shortcuts has ruined lives and is the cause for much suffering in the universe. The writer has no comeback, he lamely attempts to mount a defense, but even he knows it is futile. He is a bad writer who has never written anything good; he is a lazy creator and his creations are revolting.

Christians, when talking about the problem of evil, usually go to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans in defense of God. In the 9th chapter, Paul imagines a scenario where a human goes to God and asks “Why did you make me like this?” God’s response is to point out that he is the creator and has the right to do what he wants. But, Paul goes on, God does this for a reason, there is not a randomness to things but rather he is working things out to create for himself a people, the children of God.3 That’s all well and good if you have a benevolent god, but the characters here have probably the worst deity of all time.

So what do they do? In a dream (that may or may not actually be real), the characters appear to the writer and talk to him. All of the characters he has personally killed stand before him and give their demand: they want meaning to their lives. Their spokesperson says they don’t mind death and suffering, they recognize it as part of the universe, but what they don’t want is to die for no reason. They want their deaths to provide more than just a sense of danger for the Captain or to make the audience feel sad for all of 30 seconds. They want their lives to have real meaning and they want the writer to be the Creator he should be.

Ok, so there really isn’t a theodicy in Redshirts, at least not in the traditional sense. The characters want to figure out why their lives are full of suffering, but they don’t really need to reconcile that with a good god because they discover they don’t have anything like that. But in the end they come to a point where they want something like a theodicy: they want to reconcile their deaths with a larger purpose. They want meaning. Just like we all do.


  1. The best super-soldier-in-space novels, in order of greatness: Starship Troopers, Old Man’s War, The Forever War, and Armor
  2. The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this.
  3. The point of this is not to argue whether Christians are right on this count, merely to explain the most catholic theodicy.

The scapegoat in Benghazi

cc photo “Goat” by Edwin IJsman

On news that the United States ambassador to Libya was murdered, many are questioning how and why such a terrible thing could happen. Various answers have been put forth, ranging from the religious to the political, but each attempt merely looks at a single aspect of the killing, not the whole. In trying to come to a better understanding of the situation, I believe René Girard can be of some help.

Girard’s most famous theory, that of mimetic desire, says that we do not desire things simply because we desire them, but because others desire the same thing. We mimic those around us, which leads to violent impulses and the war of “all against all”.1

“The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them”

In many cases this mimetic desire results in the formation of an angry mob. “Every time you add one,” Girard has said, “the move towards the unity of the mob becomes faster, it has more power and attraction.” As more people join, as the media reports on it, as more people are talking about it the mob gains momentum.

At this point the violent impulses must be suppressed. A victim must be found and punished, what Girard calls the scapegoat2, an accessible target of the mob’s violence whose death (or expulsion) restores balance to the community. The scapegoat is not referred to as such, in the eyes of the mob it is the actual source of the problems, because the larger object of violence is often unreachable.

In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning (chapter 12), Girard says:

The real source of victim substitutions is the appetite for violence that awakens in people when anger seizes them and when the true object of their anger is untouchable. The range of objects capable of satisfying the appetite for violence enlarges proportionally to the intensity of the
anger.

In the case of the riots in Libya, could we say the American embassy was the scapegoat? The rioters, angry over blasphemy against Muhammad, saw America as the enemy but could do little against a far away nation. The ambassador and embassy building represent America and are therefore suitable outlets for violence.

The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other

This seems to be at the root of the type of violence we see in Egypt and Libya. Sure, we can look at religious answers or we can look at the geo-political issues surrounding the violence, but neither of those go deep enough. The root cause is our innate brokenness and desire to blame the Other and restore harmony to our community.

Finally, I think it would be good to caution against creating a scapegoat of our own in our desire to understand this. We can look at someone like Terry Jones, who enjoys inciting religious violence, and label him a crazy. Because we only are interested in self-righteous condemnation, he and his small group of followers thus become our scapegoat. Ultimately, we haven’t actually moved forward.

Update: This post was written immediately after the attack, before all of the details were known. It is now clear this was an intentional attack, not a spontaneous one. The point still stands, I believe, no matter what the impetus for the attack.
 


[1]: I am indebted to John H.’s post at Curlew River here.

[2]: For the Christian, or anyone familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, the scapegoat is a familiar idea. See Leviticus 16.

Happy Thanksgiving

"Cornucopia", CC photo by brownpau


Almighty God,
Father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving-kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you
for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
And, we pray,
give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts
we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up ourselves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages.
Amen

For All the Faithful Departed

In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem. Chorus angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere æternam habeas requiem.

May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, the poor man, may you have eternal rest.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. –St. Paul, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18