The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons

Bad Theology


Perhaps the most overused simile for a real mess is that it’s “like a train wreck.” No doubt this is because train wrecks are messy, and deadly. Few things speak to human vulnerability more than airborne hunks of heavy metal flying in indeterminate directions. Trains don’t stop fast. If they do people get hurt. No, I wasn’t on the train that crashed into the Hoboken station yesterday during the morning commute. I’m just one of many thousands of people who make their way into the city every day, but I go by bus, which is more affordable. Still, there’s something in every commuter that mourns a tragedy like this. We’re not in competition for getting into New York. It’s only after we’re off our conveyances that we compete. The stories after the crash, however, emphasized something I’ve always known—people are basically good.

A strain of Christian theology makes the extremely dubious claim that people are “totally depraved.” Assaulted again and again with this misanthropic theology in college, I was bound to fight back. Some guys with minimal psychological training decided, in the early modern period, that God had created the vast majority of people for Hell. Because we share the primates’ evolved taste for fruit, we participated in “original sin.” It wasn’t exactly sex (since God had declared that good) but it was a consequence of it. We were born fallen and had to be redeemed. These theologians declared, however, that very few ever would be. Most of us were Hell-fodder and deserved to be since we’re so naturally evil. A few centuries earlier Jesus had said you’d know the righteous by their fruits. There’s no getting away from the fruit.

Life in the big city is impersonal. Commuters share their conveyances each day with many strangers. After the wreck, however, as my wife pointed out, those in the cars far enough back that the injuries weren’t grievous first turned to everyone else and asked if they were all right. If they need help. If they could walk. Strangers helping one another. Good Samaritans. It doesn’t sound like total depravity to me.

Our economic system thrives on hyped-up competition. When we’re taken out of that context and placed into a human one, we cooperate. We want to help one another. Perhaps it’s not the people who are totally depraved, but the system they’re forced into. No, I wasn’t on that train. My bus had pulled into New York an hour and a half earlier. But even from a distance I could see what I’ve known all along. People are basically good.

White Carrots

Acronyms are useful in a complex world, although they are frequently opaque to outsiders. Taking a new job you’re found constantly swimming in an alphabet soup of abbreviations that can drown you as easily as ABC. Each the church has them. As an undergrad religion major at a Presbyterian school I had to memorize TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints), all of which but the last I had to reject on the grounds of sanity. As aids to memory they can serve as mnemonic devices, or they may simply be frustrating caricatures of reason. In any case, we all know them. In universities departments or divisions are known by acronyms, local businesses and landmarks may be as well. The internet has only speeded the process up, with countless abbreviations, some of which are definitely NSFW.

IMG_1889So it was that I learned an acronym that is current in the publishing industry. I always thought of the parsnip as a rather curious root vegetable, somewhat like a white carrot. As a child I severely disliked them, but I’ve come to appreciate them, roasted and glazed, as an adult. The word itself is somewhat fun to say: PARSNIP. It is also an acronym of things publishers, particularly those who publish textbooks in English as a second language, have to avoid. PARSNIP stands for, according to the popular explanation, Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, Isms, and Pork. Interestingly to me, at least four of these things have their traditional taboo status because of religions. Clearly Religion is one of those, but restrictions on Alcohol, Sex, and Pork are also based on religious rules. One could argue that Narcotics also fits into that category as well. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, religion, substances, and sex are all deeply intertwined.

One of the curious things about this is that our post-Christian society has declared that religion is not worth discussing, or even learning about. We slash religion departments from universities and then wonder why we can’t discuss things like sex and alcohol, without which our society would apparently collapse, freely in other cultures. When I was a child, reading MAD magazine, I quickly learned two things that adults didn’t discuss were religion and politics. The list has grown since that time, but apart from the fact I have no idea which Isms are to be avoided, I see PARSNIP as the white carrot of religious taboos. And politics. In this secular world, we’ve become very politically correct, although we really shouldn’t mention politics in that phrase. Now I’m wondering if maybe I should reevaluate TULIP after all. At least the first part.

Black Swain

In a somewhat rare move, I watched a film that was released less than five years ago this weekend. Black Swan is difficult to classify since it crosses so many genres with relative ease and it left me strangely reflective. Although called a “thriller,” the frenetic pacing and sense of outside menace of most thrillers is lacking. Black Swan includes some horror elements, but little in the film defies rational explanation if Nina Sayers is really going insane. The underlying story, however, is something that every religion would recognize—the need for transformation. Even before John Calvin dreamed up the laughable doctrine of total depravity (and for any Presbyterian readers, I was predestined to write that), all religions have at their heart the concept that people need to change. Sometimes the transformation is subtle and gentle, at other times fiery and dramatic. If you end life the same way you began it, you are a religious failure. This premise lies behind every movie where a character transforms into something else, be it werewolf, Mr. Hyde, Mrs. Doubtfire, or a wereswan.

Our perceptions of who we are cause us considerable introspection. Nina Sayers is a timid yet ambitious girl, living with her mother yet wanting to be the seductive black swan. She really doesn’t comprehend what she is wanting to become, but she knows that it must be better than what she presently is. Again, the parallels with religion are striking. I have known good people who’ve transformed into black swans under the influence of noble religions such as Christianity and its monotheistic siblings. People who have become intolerant and judgmental, insisting that their way is the only possible correct way. In the mirror they see a white swan, but the audience sees the black one.

Black Swan is heavily symbolic and provocatively mythic. Like any honest account of life it refuses to provide any definitive answers. Since each experience we undergo leaves its mark upon us, we cannot help but transform. Volition, however, can lead us toward paradise or perdition and any ambiguous place in between. Is the Nina Sayers dying on stage the greatest sinner of all, or a saint who has been beatified as fully human? The answer to the riddle the film stubbornly refuses to relinquish. So it is with life. We will transform over its course. Religion will declare whether it is good or bad, right or wrong. At the end of the script, however, we are both the white and the black swan.

Garden of Nede

Dystopias fit the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century a little too well. The level of disillusionment has soared since the administration of Bush the Less when an unprecedented degree of ridiculousness tempered every political decision filtering out of a Washington that has become a little too religious. So it is that the genre of the dystopia is strangely therapeutic. I first became aware of Margaret Atwood because of an introduction to the Bible that pointed out the misuse of Holy Writ in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. An allegory that demonstrates the power of religion to reduce women to mere reproductive objects is frightening enough in itself, let alone the post-optimistic view of a future of endless possibilities gone bad. Now that I’ve finished her more recent Oryx and Crake, I see that her outlook has grown more bleak, if more believable.

Like most dystopias, Oryx and Crake is filled with religious and biblical allusions. A society that does not know its Bible is easily manipulated by it. The book has been out long enough that I won’t worry about spoilers – does any dystopia end well? The basic idea is that the eponymous Crake of the title has tried to replicate Eden with genetically improved human beings. To prevent them from entering a world filled with human-inflicted suffering, he devises a way to wipe out the world’s population, leaving these innocents to carry on a genetically modified human gene pool. One survivor of the old days, Snowman (Jimmy), has to explain to these innocents what their world is about. He concocts a myth where Crake becomes a new god. Although Crake tried to modify the brains so that the “bundle of neurons” that make up God are gone, the new generation stubbornly develops a rudimentary religion.

Is it possible for humans to build a better future? I have never been swayed by the perverted notion of total depravity; people are quite capable of doing good. Our great ape cousins demonstrate that it is within our genes to produce a harmonious society. Although religions have motivated some extremely noble behavior in the past, they have also introduced heinous distortions of anything of which it might be said “behold, it was very good.” Atwood has offered us a world to ponder seriously. It is a world where humans play God and end up rotting under an unforgiving sun. Perhaps if politicians were more literate and less religious we might be able to counteract our partial, self-inflicted depravity.