Predestined?

This particular doctrine struck me as evil. It violated every experience and thought I’d ever had, even raised as an unquestioning Christian as I was. Then, at Grove City College I was faced with it for the first time—predestination. If free will is an illusion, what crueler God can be conceived? I couldn’t avoid such thoughts upon re-reading Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. A non-conforming non-conformist at the college assigned it in a science fiction class, so it has been decades since I’d read it. Now I found it perhaps more profound than before. Much has happened since my initial reading of the book, o my brothers. (And sisters.)

The framework of the story is well known. Alex and his friends are teenage punks who love ultra-violence. Alex is betrayed and imprisoned. Considered incorrigible, he’s reprogrammed to the point that he can’t even defend himself in a society that’s grown even worse during his time in jail. In the hospital after a suicide attempt, he awakes to find his old self restored, whether this is a good thing or not. The main point that’s behind this, it seems, is that without free will, repentance means nothing. In fact, in my edition of the book, an afterword by Stanley Edgar Hyman makes the point that some interpret A Clockwork Orange as a fictional defense of Christianity. Certainly the comparisons are there, from Judas through Jesus, healing, sin, and suffering. How much it actually meets that idyllic vision of God in Heaven directing the lives of individuals is, of course, an open question.

The idea that human beings are born as Hell-fodder posits a cruel and sadistic deity. Not only are the majority of human beings going to face eternal punishment for matters beyond their control, there is a divinity who planned it that way. We are all, literally, puppets in a universal morality play written by a being whose moral compass is horribly skewed. Indeed, even at Grove City some of the faculty would state that philosophically there could be no contest—free will was right. But, they would add, tapping the Bible, it’s not true because the Word of God says so. When I protested, it was declared, without irony, that even my protest had been predestined. In other words, in this clockwork universe I was clearly an Alex. Upon closer inspection, however, the truer analogy would be that we are all the victims of Alex and his droogs. But only if we have the freedom to make such an observation.

Good, Evil, and Normal

GoodOmensTo date I’ve read a fair number of Neil Gaiman novels. One of my students started me out on American Gods and I pursued his others on my own after that. I was a little unsure about Good Omens, however. I guess I’ve always been dubious about the quality of co-written books. Terry Pratchett, an accomplished novelist in his own right, paired up with Gaiman on this one, and it took the wisdom of another student, albeit recently graduated, to assure me that it was worth the effort. Given that it’s about the apocalypse, or perhaps an apocalypse that doesn’t quite take off, there seemed to be no reason not to give it a try. It is, at the end of the day, a charming book with colorful characters and an Antichrist who gets switched at birth and grows up in a normal household and herein lies the tale.

One of the most common religious themes in novels is the end of the world. The four horsemen of the apocalypse are one of the most striking literary tropes of the first century, if not of all time. The real question about the end of the world, it turns out, is—why can’t it be funny? For those who’ve pondered that, Good Omens is the book for you. It actually does help, however, if you’ve read the Bible. It adds to the cumulative effect. Subtitled The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter Witch, the book revolves around the certainty of the written word. Prophecy, however, just as in the book, only achieves verisimilitude in retrospect. The prophets didn’t always get it right, even in the Bible. Human choice often causes a breakdown in divine plans. In Good Omens, you’re pretty sure from the beginning that the world won’t end, but you’re not quite sure how it won’t end. The unfolding of the story eventually addresses how a prophecy can fail.

Free will, those who specialize in theology and philosophy will say, is among the more difficult of phenomena to pin down. Some predestinarians would say it’s all an illusion. We are programmed to do what we do. Ironically, some reductionistic materialists would say the same thing. Each of us, however, trudging through out days of toil and play, feels like we’re making our own decisions. True enough, sometimes circumstances decide for us, but if we were given the choice of good or evil, wouldn’t we approach it the way we approach just about everything else? Along the way, the demon Crowley asks a pointed, poignant question: why would God make people inquisitive and then forbid them some obvious, desirable fruit? Isn’t the conclusion foregone? Any writer today would know the outcome before the first sentence was finished. And so, free will is off and running. I hope that the fact that the world doesn’t end won’t be a spoiler for anyone, because I also hope that others will read Good Omens and learn a great deal about how demons can be good, angels can be naughty, and people will always just be people.

Z War to End

World_War_Z_posterWorld War Z is playing in theaters and I haven’t even had time to stock up on water and canned goods. Zombies are everywhere. And we can’t say that we didn’t see them coming. As movie critic Stephen Whitty points out, there are over 900 movies featuring zombies and the vast majority of them are recent productions. Major news corporations have been analyzing this undead interest for a few years now. No doubt the zombie is a populist monster, but why does it have such a potent effect on the modern imagination? Stepping back from the screen a minute, I think perhaps an answer is very obvious.

We live in an essentially programmed society. Philosophically we believe in free will, but economically much of our lives are predetermined. Among the happiest years—speaking strictly from the point of view of what I have been required to do for work—of my life were those of adjunct teaching. I had finally broken into the realm of the major university, and I had class after class of students who wanted to learn. Many disparage undergraduates. I never did. They come to college with what they have been taught, and that teaching comes at the behest of a society that informs them college is all about money. Who needs to really learn to not split infinitives? Or reason out that even if you know that Genesis 1-3 is a myth that evolution is not about religion at all? Who needs to learn to think when your boss will not want criticism? Do what you’re told. Be a good citizen. Be a zombie.

Our children are not stupid. I had many intelligent conversations with many bright young people at our state universities. I learned from them, and I hope they learned from me. The voice of the adjunct instructor, however, is nowhere near the decibel level of higher earnings. Is not the price of being a zombie worth having an adequate home, crippling debt, and access to wifi? The zombie, after all, is the antipode to the life of the mind. Zombies are, by definition, mindless. They carry around a carcass that does only what, in the classical sense, it is told to do. And so, if I loved that bohemian life so much, why did I hypocritically leave it? I have a family that requires healthcare. I have a child to support through college. I have a retirement fund that will not support a modest lifestyle for more than a single year. Yes, I too am a zombie. World War Z is indeed already here.