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.

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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

Faith on the Hill

A new study by the Pew Forum analyzing the religious affiliation of Congress shows American politicians overwhelmingly self-identify as religious. The study, which polled every member of Congress, found only one representative who identified as an atheist (although the individual in question, Rep. Pete Stark, is also a Unitarian, thus placing  him as religious in the poll results), and six members who refused to answer.

Most members of Congress identified as Christian (Protestant and Catholic), but there are representatives of all major world faiths, including Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, but not Hinduism or Jehovah’s Witness.

The results compare the makeup of Congress to that of the American public at large, and generally finds things to be even, except in unaffiliated category. Judaism and Christianity are slightly overrepresented (Protestants by about 5%, Catholics by 6%, Jews by 5.5%), but other world religions are proportionally represented. Again, except in the case of those who are not religiously affiliated.

Why is that the case? While 20% of the American population claims to be non-religious, only one member of Congress is willing to identify himself as an atheist. You would think, given the location of many House districts, that it would be fairly easy for an open atheist to gain votes. Is atheism closeted in America? Since 1961, not a single member has self-identified as non-religious, and this during a time period in which Protestants in Congress have dropped by 17%.

It appears there is still a religious test of sorts for politicians in America. While I can imagine an urban House district electing an atheist, it would be all but impossible to do so in a state-wide election. In my state of Missouri, an atheist or agnostic (or anyone besides a Christian, to be honest) may find support in Columbia or St. Louis, but would find very little support in the Ozarks or the Bootheel.

And this leads to a much larger question: would any Christian readers have a problem voting for an avowed atheist? (As opposed to the many atheists we have voted for who pretended to be religious.) Imagine a candidate for Senate with whom you agreed politically, but not religiously. Could you vote for such a candidate? When you vote, do you seriously take into account a person’s religion or are other factors more important?

A Hymn for Christmas Day

Why doth the sun re-orient take
A wider range, his limits break?
Lo! Christ is born, and o’er earth’s night
Shineth from more to more the light!

Too swiftly did the radiant day
Her brief course run and pass away:
She scarce her kindly torch had fired
Ere slowly fading it expired.

Now let the sky more brightly beam,
The earth take up the joyous theme:
The orb a broadening pathway gains
And with its erstwhile splendour reigns.

Sweet babe, of chastity the flower,
A virgin’s blest mysterious dower!
Rise in Thy twofold nature’s might:
Rise, God and man to reunite!

Though by the Father’s will above
Thou wert begot, the Son of Love,
Yet in His bosom Thou didst dwell,
Of Wisdom the eternal Well;
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