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.

Book Review: G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Today I have the privilege of announcing that I have just finished my first G. K. Chesterton book.  I will not presume to recommend it here, because I assume that the readers of this blog are probably well-versed in G. K. Chesterton and thus do not need recommendations from a relative late-comer to the party.  I simply ask for your indulgence as I pour out my unmitigated glee over what I have only lately discovered.

The Man Who Was Thursday is equal parts philosophical textbook and spy thriller.  It is written from the assumption that there is a vast underground conspiracy of anarchists determined to blow up the world.  Scotland Yard detective Gabriel Syme, the hero of the story, is part of a special counter-insurgent unit.  He has managed to infiltrate the highest levels of an anarchist network where the leaders are, for security purposes, named after the days of the week.  But one leader is almost immediately unmasked as a traitor, and as the story progresses it becomes clear that the others may be something other than what they say they are.

Early on in the story, however, the reader begins to suspect that this is more than just a run-of-the-mill spy thriller.  In the opening scene we are treated to a description of a strange, lurid sunset over the artist-oriented suburb of Saffron Park, where Syme is having it out with the established poet Lucien Gregory over such things as anarchy and the nature of poetry itself.  We then flash back to when Syme was interviewed by Scotland Yard.  The chief of his unit was a mysterious man in a completely dark room, who welcomed him to the unit with the words, “I am condemning you to death.  Good day.”

The story has an almost dreamlike quality, especially in how the passage of time is treated.  In one scene the anarchist group which Syme has infiltrated is meeting for breakfast on the outdoor balcony of a Leicester Square hotel.  The weather is quite mild at first–mild enough for them to be eating outside, at any rate–but by the time they finish it has gotten very cold and snow is falling quite rapidly.  In another scene it seems to take only five minutes for Syme and his co-conspirators to cross the English Channel–on a boat, mind you, long before the hovercraft.

Events continue to unfold in an almost nightmarish quality as Syme and friends are chased through a forest by a mob of black-masked men, all the way down to an apparently hopeless last stand on a pier surrounded by the ocean.  Finally we reach the ending, where it becomes clear that the names of the days of the week have a far greater significance than just concealment for security purposes.

The key to understanding this book lies in two words on the title page:  the subtitle, “A Nightmare.”  Chesterton says as much in an afterword intended to clear up misconceptions about the book:

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now.  It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

This book is quite rich with many layers of meaning, and much food for reflection and contemplation on the nature of doubt and belief.  Doubtless I will be returning to it many times in the future; there is just too much here to absorb on one reading.

As I said earlier, this is my first G. K. Chesterton book.  If any of you who are more well-versed in G. K. Chesterton can offer recommendations on where to go next, that would be greatly appreciated.

[The Man Who Was Thursday is available free of charge via Google Books.]

Two Books on Christianity to Look Out For

Jesus: a 21st Century Biography

Edit: it just occurred to me that in addition to being terrible, the title of this post sounds negative. I did not intend it that way.

If the following two books are any indication, it looks like the spring is going to be an exciting time for Christian history. Diarmaid MacCulloch, professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and Paul Johnson, controversial historian and journalist, are both set to release major works on Jesus and the Church.

The first book is Jesus: a 21st Century Biography by Paul Johnson. Johnson, author of Modern Times and A History of Christianity attempts to prove the importance of Jesus in the 21st century by constructing a portrait of “Jesus of Nazareth, his life, death, resurrection, and ascent into heaven, as simply and factually as possible.”

From the History Book Club:

Accepting the historical fact of Jesus’ existence as given, including his divinity as asserted in the New Testament, the author provides a wealth of detail about the Roman world as a backdrop to Jesus’ life. He weaves the complementary accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John into an integrated chronicle—a base upon which he adds his own informed speculations and deductions about Jesus’ education, his acculturation, and his whereabouts and activities during the 18 “missing” years of his life. In the absence of contemporaneous accounts of Jesus’ physical appearance, Johnson uncovers clues within the texts. The historian’s facility for finding the humanizing detail parallels the habit of penetrating observation that he attributes to Jesus: “He missed nothing. …His all-seeing eyes were, almost certainly, the first thing that struck people about him.” The author’s perception extends even to the Messiah’s personal affinities: for example, his predilection for high elevations during momentous events.

Christianity by MacCullochThe second book is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. This ambitious and magisterial work begins one thousand years before Jesus’ birth and continues on until the present day, showing the constant evolution and reformation of Christianity.

In this book:

We follow the Christian story to all corners of the globe, filling in often neglected accounts of conversions and confrontations in Africa and Asia. And we discover the roots of the faith that galvanized America, charting the rise of the evangelical movement from its origins in Germany and England. This book encompasses all of intellectual history-we meet monks and crusaders, heretics and saints, slave traders and abolitionists, and discover Christianity’s essential role in driving the enlightenment and the age of exploration, and shaping the course of World War I and World War II.

Look for reviews of these books soon, if I can get my hands on them.

Reggae as Ethics: Rastafari Theology From Garvey to Marley

I’ve been on a Bob Marley kick lately, so this book caught my eye: Noel Leo Erskine, From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology (University Press of Florida 2005). It’s a fascinating and colourful exploration of the history and theology of the Rastas. In Erskine’s analysis, the whole Rastafarian theology boils down to this: “God is an African” (p. 158) – so that “the central question the Rastas pose for us is where we stand in relation to Africa” (p. 5)

Read the rest here. Sounds like an interesting book.

Posted via web from Mike Frizzell’s Weblog

Review: Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship

Mark von Hagen, Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship: The Red Army and the Soviet Socialist State, 1917-1930. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Mark von Hagen’s “Soldiers in the Proletarian Dictatorship” is a book that traces the history of the Red Army from its origins as the Red Guard in the revolutions of 1917 to a professional, strict traditional army during the collectivization pushes of the late 1920’s. It is not a work of military history, but rather von Hagen explores the connection between the development of a non-socialist army and the rise of the Stalinist national security state. The story this work tells is one of a military outside of power, and considered dangerous by many, that fights its way back into the center of power, succeeds at somewhat militarizing the nascent union, and creating a different kind of socialism.

In short, von Hagen’s thesis is that the Red Army helped shape the political culture of the Soviet state in what he refers to as militarized socialism. The army was not the only agent of change, but it certainly was at the forefront of the fusion of militarism and Marxism.

The Red Army, according to von Hagen, helped bring about militarized socialism, or Stalinism, in two ways. First, a professional army emerged from the Civil War, in spite of the radicals’ desire for a more egalitarian militia with a “democratic ethos.” After the defeat of the civilian militia in 1924, it was clear a more professional army was needed to secure the state, and that such an army was not a threat, as had long been thought, but would be an aid to further the the Communist Party’s program.

Second, the Red Army became an institution linked to citizenship and upward mobility, and as such became a powerful player in party politics. The army’s inclination against the NEP and collectivization while at the same time becoming what von Hagen calls a “school of socialism” effectively trained soldiers in the army’s version of socialism. The net result of this was a militarized socialism, an interweaving of militarist and socialist values in Soviet political culture.

Von Hagen does warn, however, that this does not mean the Army imposed its will on the Soviet Union, nor that the Army is responsible for the horrors of the Stalin era. Rather, the militarization of the Soviet state was “the conscious aim of a political leadership that is difficult to characterize as either purely civilian or strictly military,” (334). It was never the military’s intention to create full-fledged militarism, and in this sense the Soviet state of the 1920s is not at all comparable to the German Nazi state, instead they sought to shape the political process, helping to create a new political culture.

Von Hagen’s book is a significant work of both social and political history. It sheds light on the Army as a political institution, the rise of Stalinism, and the Soviet national security state. It is a convincing work that represents a new perspective on a not altogether new thesis.

Despite his extensive bibliography of secondary sources, and primary sources that ranged from newspapers to party propaganda, however, the effectiveness of the Army’s education process remains somewhat murky. As the author admits, it is difficult to penetrate below the top level of officers to see what the peasant soldier truly believed.

Berlin Cabaret

Peter Jelavich. Berlin Cabaret. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Berlin CabaretIn Berlin Cabaret, Peter Jelavich traces the evolution of Berlin cabaret from its early stages in 1900 through its death at the hands of National Socialism in the 1930s and ‘40s. The book is both a narrative account of the history of the art form and a synthesis of the many themes (aesthetic, sexual, racial, fashion, and political) that were present in cabaret. In short, it is an examination of the triumphs and failures of popular entertainment in the modern city.

Despite the popular conception of cabaret as little more than a strip show, established by the film starring Liza Minelli and the career of Marlene Dietrich, Jelavich views cabaret as an “ephemeral art” that stood between sleazy nightclubs and vaudeville on the one hand and the higher art of opera on the other. Cabaret is, in its ideal type, a series of short numbers of differing genres on topical issues such as sex, fashion, fads, and politics performed intimately on a small stage in front of a small audience. While Jelavich acknowledges this “ideal type” was rare and short-lived, anything else was not cabaret proper.

The structure of the book is not in keeping with cabaret, which would have a series of disconnected numbers, but rather Jelavich follows revue, with central themes loosely woven into the various chapters. Satire, whether looking at politics, sex, fashion, or race, is the central theme of the book; its goal was “to shock, or to amuse, or to make someone or something look ridiculous,” (50). This satire, and the entire program of cabaret, would function as a safety-valve, allowing political and social pressures to be released in a theater and not in the streets.

The book’s structure follows a chronological order. The first chapter focuses on the environment of the subject: Berlin. A modern, or “world”, city, Berlin was in need of a new form of entertainment, one that stood between mindless variety shows and cryptic avant-garde art.

The subsequent three chapters examine pre-war cabaret. Wolzogen’s Motley Theater, the first Berlin cabaret, sought the “ennoblement” of vaudeville. Wolzogen, an artistic elitist, stressed the refinement of popular entertainment and the exclusivity of cabaret. Ultimately, however, his cabaret would fail, simply not being good enough for the public at large he catered to. Max Reinhardt’s Sound and Smoke took a different approach, opting instead for exuberant play. Over time, Reinhardt would abandon cabaret, looking more like a standard theater of classical and modernist productions. Finally, the pre-war years saw different types of cabaret, from the pub-cabarets modeled after Paris to Rudolph Nelson’s upper-class and Claire Waldoff’s lower-class cabarets.

Chapter five discusses cabaret during World War I and the early Weimar years. As censorship came under military control, most forms of entertainment turned nationalistic; cabaret was no exception. Left-leaning writers such as Kurt Tucholsky and Walter Mehring toned down their lyrics, opting for a more ambiguous political tone.

Chapter six explores the most popular form of entertainment in Berlin during the Weimar Republic, the revue. Unconcerned with most forms of censorship, revue revealed much about sexual and racial assumptions. For the first time, nude dancing was allowed onstage, although eventually there would be some restrictions. At the same time, jazz became popular in Berlin, its spontaneity and primitive qualities being praised, but its performers patronized at best and horribly mistreated at worst. Another form of Americanization, the kickline of “Girls,” was praised, but lead to many debates over gender, military, and industrial questions.

Chapters seven and eight describe the end of cabaret in Berlin. While politics had always been a part of cabaret, it was not a primary focus. The movement failed to see the dangers of National Socialism, and Hitler himself, choosing to simply make fun of him. In the end, most cabaretists would flee the country, practice a form acceptable to, and even supportive of, the Nazis, or face labor camps where they would perform for Jewish captives.

Berlin Cabaret, in the end, is an important study of a movement that swept through Germany for a brief time, had a few triumphs, but ultimately failed to live up to its promise. Cabaret never achieved a high level of social satire, whether politically, sexually, or racially; it usually ended up looking like other forms of popular entertainment. The book is a good study, one that well proves its thesis, using the best available primary and secondary sources. The only difficulties are the inherent problems in translating German humor into English and the lack of a cohesive movement, none of which are the author’s faults.

Heresy of the Epic Sort

[N.T.] Wright’s new Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision (London: SPCK; Downers Grove: IVP, 2009) is an outstanding book. Written in lively, if somewhat polemical style, not encumbered with many footnotes, Wright has here laid out his views with exemplary clarity.
Craig Blomberg (emphasis mine)

There is a heresy of the epic sort in the above quote. No, it has nothing to do with N.T. Wright and what he may or may not believe. Rather, it’s the idea that a book can become encumbered with footnotes. I’ve checked (and rechecked) all of my sources, and everyone agrees that a book can never have too many footnotes. It is impossible.

NPM09: The Dragon and the Undying

The Dragon and the Undying
(from The Old Huntsman)
by Siegfried Sassoon

All night the flares go up; the Dragon sings
And beats upon the dark with furious wings;
And, stung to rage by his own darting fires,
Reaches with grappling coils from town to town;
He lusts to break the loveliness of spires,
And hurls their martyred music toppling down.
Yet, though the slain are homeless as the breeze,

Vocal are they, like storm-bewilder’d seas.
Their faces are the fair, unshrouded night,
And planets are their eyes, their ageless dreams.
Tenderly stooping earthward from their height,
They wander in the dusk with chanting streams,
And they are dawn-lit trees, with arms up-flung,
To hail the burning heavens they left unsung.

Reading Flannery O'Connor

Flannery O’Connor, American writer and keen observer of human nature, was born today in 1925.  Had she not died of lupus at 39, should would have been 84.

Most of the people I know are instantly turned off to O’Connor.  She is a Catholic, her characters are not always nice, they are usually (deceptively) backward Southern Protestant fundamentalists, and did I mention that she’s a Roman Catholic?  But I find her work amazing; she has a razor sharp wit and a sense of humor that truly speaks to me.  Often times you can feel that she’s laughing at what’s about to happen to her characters.

Her reality is fully sacramental and God-charged, but not sentimental.  Grace, in her books, is like a surgeon that has to hurt in order to heal.  This runs counter to most evangelical writing; O’Connor doesn’t promise happy endings, nor is she an apologetic writer.  Fireproof would be a much different story had she written it.

Perhaps one of the best tributes to Flannery O’Connor comes from Ralph C. Wood at National Review.  He says:

It is almost impossible to read O’Connor without revulsion — so frequent are the deaths, so maniacal the characters, so uninviting the fictional world. There we encounter, for example, a club-footed delinquent who lies and steals because, he says, he’s good at it; a little rich boy who drowns himself in search of the salvation his parents hold in contempt; a baptizing backwoods prophet who has spent time in an insane asylum and who deafened his own nephew with a shotgun blast; a failed white liberal writer who contracts a lifelong disease while seeking to celebrate a secular communion with black dairy workers; a mass-murdering misfit who guns down a complacent grandmother while complaining that Jesus has “thown” everything off balance; and a self-satisfied farm wife who thanks Jesus daily for making her both white and prosperous — until she is slugged in the head with a psychology textbook thrown by a Wellesley student.

Yet the offense is precisely the point of Flannery O’Connor’s work. Her fiction creates scandal just as the Gospel often becomes a snare and a stumbling block. Some readers see their own condition mirrored in O’Connor’s grotesque characters, and thus seek to discern the Mercy that is given in extremis to almost all of them. Other readers turn away in wrath, outraged that O’Connor turns her keen satiric eye on secular sophisticates and cultured despisers of religion. They cannot forgive her sympathetic treatment of shouting fundamentalists and fire-breathing street preachers. Contempt for the sweated Christianity of such folks is, after all, the last acceptable form of cultural bigotry in our time.

Beliefs Have Consequences

Among those pastors and church leaders who became early supporters of the Nazi party, anti-Semitism certainly played a role.  Like nationalism, anti-Semitism was so ingrained in many Christians that it went unquestioned.  Only gradually, during the course of the Third Reich, did some Confessing Christians realize the consequences of this prejudice.

Victoria Barnett For the Soul of the People: Protestant Protest Against Hitler, 15