Tag Archives: theodicy

Wild Things

islanddrmoreauLast year my wife suggested we each do a reading challenge for the year. The one we selected was Modern Mrs. Darcy’s, which, with only a dozen books, seemed doable. What makes it a challenge is that to meet Mrs. Darcy’s expectations, you have to read certain types of books, not just go through the stack beside your favorite chair than never seems to get any smaller. I finished the challenge in October or November and posted on most of the books on this blog. This year’s challenge includes a book you’ve read before. Since I’ve been reading about horror movies I decided to reach back to childhood and once again read H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau. It was a timely choice.

For anyone not familiar with it, the story concerns a mad scientist (Moreau) who experiments on animals, making them “men” on an isolated island in the Pacific. These creations aren’t fully human and most of them are blends of different animals as well as part human. They can talk, and they can reason, in a rudimentary way. To create them without anesthesia, Dr. Moreau subjects them to tremendous pain and to prevent them from attacking him, he establishes a basic religion where they obey his rules or he will subject them once again to the “House of Pain.” The narrator, victim of a shipwreck, ends up on the island and has to come to an uneasy peace amid these very strange circumstances. The heart of the book is the chapter where Moreau explains what he’s doing and to justify it he makes a secular theodicy. He is, after all, god to these poor creatures. The book has been made into a horror movie or two over the years, but I’ve never seen any of the cinematic treatments.

What struck me as particularly interesting, revisiting this book some forty years after I last read it, was how easily Wells slips into theological thinking. This is a book unafraid of implicating the Almighty in the troubles of an island that clearly stands in for the world. I wouldn’t have noticed that as a tween. I don’t think there even were tweens when I was one. In any case, the story ends in chaos, rather than creation. What makes it such a timely choice? I suppose the arrogance and entitlement of Dr. Moreau suggested themselves as analogues to our current situation here in the US. Only Moreau is clearly intelligent as well as deranged. This little book is a cautionary tale of what happens when a strong will has its way, unimpeded. It might be a good time for all of us to pick up a copy.

Joban Vampires

Interview VampireThe first vampire novel I ever read, I remember correctly, was one of the Dark Shadows series written by Marilyn Ross. I don’t recall which one, since I had to buy my books from Goodwill or some such vender utilized by the poor. Now, I’m really a squeamish guy and the sight of blood bothers me. Barnabas Collins, however, was a compelling character—deeply conflicted and a reluctant vampire. The combination of his sadness and the setting in coastal Maine kept me looking for Dark Shadows books every time we went shopping. It surprised me, given all that, that I had such difficulty getting into Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. I started reading it years ago (it was also a second-hand copy, and, interestingly, the color scheme of the cover nearly matched Dark Shadows novels) and some eighty pages in put it down only to forget about it. Starting from the beginning a few weeks ago, I gave it another try. Although Louis is a conflicted vampire, the pace is languid and it was almost as if the self-pity was overdone. I was determined this time, however, to see it through.

One of the recurring themes of the book, and I presume the Vampire Chronicles series, is that vampires are not evil because of the Devil. In fact, there is nothing Satanic about them. Blame tends to fall on God for their state. The more I thought about it, the more the theodicy of the vampire began to resemble that of Job. Like Job, death for a vampire takes a long time. There is much suffering along the way. Louis can love, in a measure, and can loath himself. He never really understands what it is to be a vampire. The other undead he meets help to define him, but he can’t get too close. His life is a kind of Hell without Satan.

Rice’s vampires don’t fear crucifixes or shun churches. In fact, Louis takes a priest as one of his victims, sacramentally near an altar in a church. Religious imagery and discussion abound in the book. It truly is a vampire theodicy. Perhaps, for its day, it was the next step in vampire evolution. Bram Stoker, while the most famous contributor to the modern vampire myth, didn’t corner the market on defining the undead. When Louis meets vampires of the old world, they are mindless, plodding killing machines that even other vampires avoid. Rice’s vampires feel, think, and yes, theologize. I feel strangely satisfied now that I’ve finally finished the Interview. It was a vampire at my bedside for so long that it feels like an accomplishment to have finally laid it to rest.

Insane Deities

GodsMustBeCrazyIt was 1987. I was in Israel for a good part of the summer excavating at Tel Dor. Between degrees and trying what to do with my life, like many people, I sought out a holy place. One evening while I was there, the locals (I can’t recall if it was the dig coordinators or the local community) sponsored a public showing of The Gods Must Be Crazy. The movie was fairly recent then, and it was the first and only time I’ve seen a movie captioned in Hebrew. I had a seminary friend who often showed me movies at his place, but this was one I had somehow missed, even though it came out when I was in high school. I’ve seen the movie several times since then, but not in the past seven years or so (this blog is a pretty good record of my movie viewing as well as book reading). This weekend we dusted it off and popped it into the DVD player and I noticed a few things for the first time.

Spoiler alert: not for the movie, but for reality. The portrayal of the bushmen in the movie is pure verisimilitude. While living much more in harmony with nature than modern, industrial late capitalists, they are not a completely peaceful people with no violence. We can overlook the “noble savage” viewpoint for the sake of entertainment, but anyone who researches human cultures closely finds that the perfect society doesn’t actually exist. Still, what I noticed in the movie diegesis was the bushmen had no need of theodicy. Theirs was a world where the gods gave them only good. The Coke bottle becomes their “tree of knowledge,” to put a Judeo-Christian spin on it, and they even use it for curing snake skins. The movie doesn’t work, of course, without this fictional view, but in reality all believing people require a theodicy.

Our particular disc of this movie has a less-than-dynamic special feature of someone who never identifies himself following up on the movie. This rambling, twenty-minute featurette shows “current” (for it must be a decade old by now itself) developments among the bushmen. Two hundred miles from the nearest electrical grid, schools are being equipped with solar panels so that the children can learn about computers. A laptop in the middle of the Kalahari. As I reflected on the loss of innocence theme, this struck me as surely as an angry serpent. The world in which we live allows for only one way of existing. It is a world of money where even the self-sufficient must be wired into the matrix. If ever there was a need for theodicy, this was surely it.

Something Lost

LosingMyReligion“Losing my religion,” I learned some time ago, means “going crazy” in some regions. It was that REM song that made me look it up. Losing My Religion, by William Lobdell, is much more literal. Having a hunger for spiritual memoirs, even if they end up with non-belief, has become an avocation for me. Growing up religious and having paid a pretty steep price for it throughout my career, I feel a bit like I’ve just risen from the analyst’s couch after a particularly helpful session. Here are people baring their innermost selves, trying to make sense out of a world that doesn’t add up. So it was for Lobdell. Since he was a religion reporter for the Los Angeles Times, his is the compelling story of a specialist who’s seen through the veil. His honesty is disarming. When I read such memoirs the question in the back of my mind is always, “what did it?” What pushed a believer over the edge?

By far the majority of these confessions I’ve read are those of women. Since religions have historically treated women poorly, it stands to reason that they might have second thoughts about what they’re being saved from. Lobdell, on the other hand, narrates what brought him to Christianity in the first place, and what forced him to conclude that it was wrong. Going the well-worn path from evangelical to mainstream Protestant to Catholic, he was seeking greater depth at each stage. Then theodicy. Theodicy is a god-killer. No matter how we frame it, there is no acceptable reason for good people to suffer needlessly. Out primate brains simply reject it. That’s not to say that for some faith can’t overcome such persistent doubts. It’s always a struggle, however, and, as Lobdell points out, not everyone is capable of believing what their mind tells them makes no sense.

One thing that stands out from all the spiritual memoirs I’ve read is how religion has such a difficult time explaining suffering. I suppose here’s where eastern religions generally have a stronger starting point. By acknowledging that life is suffering, they ask what we can do about it. Western religions, which often extol the good life, run into problems when theodicy hits. It’s almost as if the concepts can’t keep up with the realities of day-to-day life. Religions are often part of the culture you inherit, being born where and when you are. They also reflect belief structures from the age in which they emerged and those structures evolve over time. Today’s Christianity shares ancient concepts with the first century, but also modern sensibilities about psychology, culture, and philosophy. It can be a difficult mix, not least because it’s artificial and synthetic. As Lobdell notes, he isn’t alone in all this. It is, I might suggest, one of the reasons that studying religion is so important, even for those who do not believe.

Remember the Alamo

Midtown Manhattan is awash in litter, particularly on a Monday morning, or first thing after a holiday. I generally arrive in the city shortly after 7 a.m., before the detritus is swept away. Frequently I see, among the discarded food wrappers and cigarette butts, copies of Tony Alamo’s World Newsletter. You can get a pristine copy if you take the subway. An abstemious young man will gladly hand one to you with a smile. The articles are accusatory and unsophisticated examples of prooftexting of the worst kind. Even I know better than to use “you” all the time, implying that “I” am better. The following is typical: “It may seem fun to you to run wild, to do whatever you please, but remember…” Not that Tony Alamo would ever run wild, doing whatever he pleased.

I was curious about the movement. Ironically, Tony Alamo, according to Wikipedia, was convicted as a child sex offender in 2009. It is a pattern as familiar as it is unfortunate. Those who rail loudly against certain behaviors often find themselves practitioners of the same. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this phenomenon is that it never seems to change, as if the learning curve is just too steep to climb. In the case of evangelists, it may be that treating the Bible as a magical book—mashing all verses together out of context, cherry-picking the one that best seems to fit the sin of the day, creates an impossible standard to follow. The Bible both indicates that you should love your parents and hate them. What it might mean depends on context. Those who snatch a verse from here and a verse from there are practicing the old form of treating the Bible like a book of spells. It can be done, of course, since it has one author (God) and mix-and-match is as good a method as any. What if God was having a bad day?

WorldNewletter

The lead article I was handed last time on the subway confirms this: “Why Does God Bless and Why Does He Curse?” the pastor wonders. The answer to the latter question, which I have eagerly sought all my life, is finally made plain. What seems to be God’s curse is your own darn fault. You deserve worse, since you are such awful sinners. Pardon me, I seem to have slipped into the second person, based on the vernacular I have been reading. Classic blaming the victim. One can hardly be surprised when evangelists resort to this inexpensive explanation—theodicy has historically been one of the most difficult problems faced by those who declare God all-powerful and all-good. The 6 train squeals into the station. As the doors clinch shut behind me, I see passengers eagerly reading the newsletter. There are those who might give more reasoned answers to life’s pressing questions, but they can’t afford to hire young proteges to stand in a dank subway station to hand out their wisdom. It has to be found by chance, like litter on the streets of the city.

Watchers and the Holy One

WatchersI’m not really a fan of Dean R. Koontz’s thrillers, but I do find myself turning to them from time to time. Like Stephen King’s, Koontz’s books are easily found at book sales, but you don’t always have your choice of which titles. I picked up Watchers because it had a vaguely biblical sound to it. The title seems to fit the story only loosely, but there are a number of points where God is invoked in the tale. Watchers is a book about genetic engineering, both the good and the bad aspects of it. Scientists have produced a dog as intelligent as a human being, and a monster that kills indiscriminately; a Cain and Abel. As this is being explained to one of the characters, he says “If we can do this, we have the power and, potentially, the wisdom of God.” Here, in a nutshell, is the debate about intentional genetic modification. We don’t have the ability to see ahead very far, and although we like to think ourselves god-like, we could very well be creating catastrophes. At least, in this story, God is deemed wise.

Some time later another character in the story opines that when humanity can create an intelligent species, it is our responsibility to act, in a sense, as its deity. “If we’ve come so far that we can create as God creates, then we have to learn to act with the justice and mercy of God.” Interestingly, there is no question of theodicy here. The justice and mercy of God are assumed, despite the many wakeful nights and unsettled days of the theologians. Casting God as the “good guy” is not as easy as it used to be, and our own “engineering” isn’t always assumed to be for the good of our own planet.

Finally, as some of the characters are discussing who has the right to own this super-intelligent dog, God is invoked once again. The qualities of the dog (a golden retriever, since, one presumes, a Rotweiler, for instance, might have different qualities), its courage, ability to distinguish right from wrong, ability to love, and selflessness, make it more in the image of God than human beings. Again, God here is unquestioningly assumed to be the great good, the advocate of humankind. I realize novelists are under no obligation to be theologians, yet it is difficult to tell a tale of genetic tampering without invoking the Almighty. What I find so interesting here in Koontz is that despite the evil of some of the characters, the goodness of God is never called into question. It is assumed that the evil we create is our own while the good in the world belongs to God. It’s a view of the world that could be called almost biblical. Those who professionally reflect on these things, however, often come to a different conclusion.

I’m No Legend

First there was The Last Man on Earth with that rare, disappointing performance by Vincent Price. Then there was The Omega Man, putting Charlton Heston into the role that fit him better than Moses. Finally, returning to the original title, I Am Legend featured Will Smith as Robert Neville. Having watched all three movies, I knew I should have read Richard Matheson’s short novel first. After all, it was a vampire story, and who doesn’t feel utterly alone once in a while? I finally decided to make an honest man of myself. It occurred to me as I started to read that I didn’t know how this story would end. All I had ever seen were cinematic treatments—and who writes anything serious about genre fiction? Still, I needed to know.

Last Man

Matheson was one of the writers who had caught Rod Serling’s attention on the Twilight Zone. Having read some of his short stories I could see why. Not knowing the ending, some of them can actually be scary. I Am Legend isn’t exactly frightening. It is, however, thought-provoking and sad. Matheson, a New Jersey native, wasn’t among the most literary of writers. Nevertheless, he conveys some deeply disturbing images of humanity in this particular novel. After all (spoiler alert!) Robert Neville is the evil one. He has been killing vampires with a cold calculation, no matter whether they are living or undead (good or bad). Who has a right to kill whom depends on your point of view.

The-Omega-Man-Poster

In I Am Legend, Matheson makes it clear that Neville, the last man alive, is an atheist. The problem, as it usually is, is theodicy. How could a god allow such a massive tragedy to strike not only himself, but the entire world? After the vampire virus had spread, Neville finds himself dragged into an evangelistic meeting by terrified survivors who had turned to religion to make sense of their tragedy. Neville escapes as quickly as he can. The movie versions tend to ignore this poignant aspect of the narrative. After all, the audience watching must sympathize with Neville or the whole draw of the movie is off. In a nation where atheists are trusted about as much as vampires, it seems that Matheson left us a parable as well as a legend.