Tag Archives: theodicy

Superstar Detective

One of the reasons I accept reading challenges is that they take you places you otherwise wouldn’t go. Not all the books I read for the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 challenge make it onto this blog (to find the full list you need to see what I post on Goodreads.com), but some I can’t help but talk about. My wife had noticed a book that ended up in her Christmas stocking and for which I had admitted curiosity: J. Bradley’s Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. Now, Jesus is no stranger to fiction. In fact, he appears in lots of books as either the main character or as fulfilling some supporting role. In some books you have to really squint to find him. In others he’s obvious. In Bradley’s novel he’s a bit of both.

There’s a good bit of theology going on in the background of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. As the title suggests, Jesus functions through a new incarnation in the body of a, well, boy detective. With some assistance from a criminal uncle and Saint Peter, he investigates bizarre murders and other crimes. There seems to be an ulterior motive, however, since he’s trying to get his father to own up for all the suffering he’s caused humanity. That’s right, this book is a modern theodicy.

Theodicy is a word for considering how a single deity can be both all powerful and all good. Since there’s plenty of suffering in the world we all experience, the question naturally arises: why doesn’t God do something about it? Theologians are fond of reminding us that we can’t see the bigger picture. It’s like global warming—it’s easy not to believe since we only live a few decades and the climate takes a lot longer than that to react to our pouring toxic stuff into the ecosystem. Maybe, theologians say, we have to suffer because we don’t see everything. Only God does. The boy detective disagrees. The deity in this story is truculent and culpable. A strong-willed divinity. If he doesn’t sound familiar, take another look at the Bible. I don’t know if J. Bradley has any theological training—I don’t even know his first name—but it’s clear that he’s down here with the rest of us wondering how all the pieces fit. And where there are clues it’s not a bad idea to call in a detective.

Interior Theodicy

Photo credit: Richard from Canton, Wikipedia Commons

Speaking of theodicy, I have a dentist appointment today. Now, if you were raised with the Protestant guilt that used to be so pervasive in this nation, you’ll understand. I do brush my teeth twice a day. I even use floss and that mouthwash that burns away a layer of mouth lining every night. But there’s always more you could do. I’m not particularly good about visiting the dentist, though. Partially it’s a memory thing, partially it’s a pain thing, but mostly it’s a time thing. No matter how far back I jam the toothbrush, well beyond my gaging threshold, cavities seem to appear. And I don’t even have a sweet-tooth. What kind of deity allows cavities in a person who eats very little sugar and brushes so assiduously that last time the dentist told him to ease up a bit since he was scraping away the enamel? (People tell me I’m too intense.)

One of the real ironies of all this is that for all the trouble teeth give us during our lifetimes, they are our most durable parts after we die. Archaeologists find mostly teeth. In fact, it seems that Neanderthals might have practiced some primitive dentistry. I wonder what they thought of their neanderthal deity? So teeth are pretty useful, no matter whether the gray matter above them is dead or alive. I can explain this to my dentist, but he only seems interested in me as a specimen of carnassial curiosity. Maybe it all goes back to my belief that fillings were meant to last forever. Or all those root canals that seem to come in pairs that cost as much as a semester at a public university. Mostly it’s the memories.

In Edinburgh I had a tooth go bad. The Scottish dentist was surprised. “You’ve got a twelve-year molar erupting,” he said (you’ll have to imagine the accent). I asked if that was unusual. He owned that it was as I was a post-graduate student in his late twenties and the twelve-year molar was so precise in its timing that child labor laws used to be built around its presence. Years later in Wisconsin a different dentist asked about one of my fillings. I told him it was from Edinburgh. He called all the other dentists in announcing, “You wanna see a real Scottish filling?” Or maybe the fears go back to my earliest dental nightmares where the cheap doctor seemed unaware that teeth actually had nerves in them. I always left with a guilt trip. “You should brush —“ (more, better, longer, with a more gentle touch) you fill in the blank. I’m afraid of another kind of filling. And I know as it is with Protestant guilt, so it is with teeth. There’s always more you could be doing.

The Deal

Intellectual property is a concept that only arises where thought can be monetized. Think about that. (But don’t charge me, please!) It is a strange idea, when you ponder it. In any case, one of the problems with writing book reviews is that the reviews themselves become the intellectual property of the journal in which they appear. In a mental ménage à trois, everyone gets something out of it: the publisher gives away a book for free publicity, the journal gets copyright content of value to its readers, and the reviewer gets a free book. In the best of these encounters everyone goes home happy. I began doing book reviews when teaching at Nashotah House. Academic books are expensive and although professors make more than editors do, they are still hard-pressed to pay academic press prices. After my strictly platonic affair with higher education, I stopped doing reviews for a while, but now that I have hours on a bus to read, I’ve picked up the habit again.

Most often I review books for the two societies of which I’m a member—the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature. There might, however, be a conflict of interest here. One of the main things I do on this blog is talk about books. Since I’m no longer a professor, but I still think like one, I figure it’s a compromise I can live with. The conflict arises because I post daily on my blog while publishers take weeks, or even months, to publish reviews. Despite technology, publishing is a slow business. That means that I read books I can’t really talk about until the review has appeared. That’s the case with Jill Graper Hernandez’s Early Modern Women and the Problem of Evil: Atrocity & Theodicy. I can’t say here what I say in my review since the review isn’t my intellectual property anymore. There’s another trade-off here: publishers get your name out there in return for owning your content—everything can come down to the level of business, it seems.

Still, I can use this post to reflect on theodicy—the justification of God in the face of evil. Since I don’t address this fact in my review I can say here that since Trump’s election it’s difficult to read a book about suffering without tying it to the current political situation. Many of the incumbent’s ardent supporters are coming to see that he doesn’t really care for them or their issues, and conservatives as well as liberals have four years of suffering to face. I was surprised how often in reading this philosophical treatise that our present national shame came to mind. Perhaps that’s inevitable in a book that discusses how women have been repressed in a world where they too have been relegated to the level of a commodity. Intellectual property seems less a concern when human beings are still trafficked as chattel. That’s not just bad business, it’s evil.

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.