Sunday, June 17, 2018

Jeff Sessions fails Biblical exegesis

Jewish date:  5 Tammuz (evening).


I am working on a theological review of The Handmaid’s Tale.  In the meantime, I feel the need to note a bit of theological criticism in the news.  Those of you who have been paying attention to the news from the United States and who have actually bothered to read a decent fraction of the Hebrew Bible or New Testament (and have the sense to understand any of it) should easily realize that Trump and company are in serious violation of the basic moral ideas of Judaism and Christianity.  However, Shakespeare noted in The Merchant of Venice “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”  And though Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not Satan, he certainly follows in spirit and has cited Romans 13 as a source for separating undocumented immigrants from their children.  Romans 13 supports following the law, but Christian leaders and Bible scholars disagree with the Trump administration policy, accusing Sessions of essentially ignoring the rest of the Bible.  I’m glad that there are other people out there trying to be honest  about what their scriptures actually say and wish them much success in fighting injustice done allegedly in the name of law.



Monday, May 28, 2018

The religious dystopia of Dune: a theological review

Jewish date:  15 Siwan 5778 (evening).

The religious dystopia of Dune:  a theological review
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

Description of the series:  Soft science-fiction depicting an interstellar human civilization thousands of years in the future.  Emphasis is placed on development of humanity rather than technological improvement.  Six original novels by Frank Herbert (Herbert 1975, Herbert 1981, Herbert 1983, Herbert 1987, Herbert 1987, Herbert 1987).  Authorized fan-fiction published during the original run of the series (McNelly and Herbert 1984).  Various minor works (Herbert, Herbert et al. 2006).  The series is currently being expanded by Brian Herbert (son of Frank Herbert) and Kevin J. Anderson (Herbert and Anderson 2000, Herbert and Anderson 2001, Herbert and Anderson 2002, Herbert and Anderson 2003, Herbert and Anderson 2003, Herbert and Anderson 2005, Herbert and Anderson 2006, Herbert and Anderson 2008, Herbert and Anderson 2009, Herbert and Anderson 2010, Herbert and Anderson 2011, Herbert and Anderson 2015, Herbert and Anderson 2016).

Note:  The Dune series is long and freakishly complicated.  Any description is necessarily abbreviated.  It will be assumed here that the reader is more or less familiar with Frank Herbert’s novels.  (The other material does not add much theologically.)

Significance of the series:  The series is popular enough that it is still being expanded.  It has also spawned a movie, two miniseries, and some video games.  There currently is a threat of there being a new movie.  Very relevant to these reviews, the series has inspired at least one Web-site of religious texts (Hare) specifically inspired by The Orange Catholic Bible (though the result is actually more like The Azhar Book), and there have been people trying to defictionalize things from the series.  There have been at least two attempts to create a real-life version of The Orange Catholic Bible, one which actually got far enough to be published (Religion 2015).  Furthermore, there are manuals for real-life Bene Gesserit and Mentats (cheerioh 2017), and there used to be a site promoting real-life Zensufism.

Science-fiction frequently ignores religion or treats it as a peripheral issue.  Consider, for instance, the famous Star Trek franchise.  The series depicts the future of humanity as one in which religion seems to play little role and indeed is at best rarely depicted on-screen.  The Dune franchise, on the other hand, appears much different.  Religion (among humans) appears on-screen constantly, and without it the plot would be radically different.

Before proceeding, two core truths must be stated which explain much of what happens the Dune universe.

1.  The Dune universe is a dystopia.  The Dune universe is not even the sort of dystopia in Brave New World, in which the inhabitants find pleasant, but an outsider would find horrific.  Life in the Dune universe is terrifying, filled with violence and political intrigue.  Whole institutions in the Dune are nightmares, e.g., the Bene Gesserit are an anti-feminist nightmare, and the Tleilaxu are a biotechnological nightmare.  The reader should expect all sorts of evil from human history and a few more kinds as well to make an appearance and be considered completely normal and part of the status quo.  Dark aspects of religion are presented—along with dark aspects of much of human existence.

2.  Religion in the Dune universe is written from the point of view of an atheist.  This matters, because people frequently do not think about their own religion the way that people of other religions (including atheism) think about it.  The way religion in the Dune universe is depicted concentrates largely on the externally visible.  (Bear with me.  We will get to examples.)

To the credit of the authors, they get some things right:

1.  Humans are generally religious.  In real life, most humans subscribe to a religion, even if their subscription is merely nominal.  In the Dune franchise, religious people are everywhere.

2.  Religion is intertwined with politics.  On much of real-life Earth, people take this for granted.  Political parties and even whole countries frequently have religious affiliations, and sometimes the affiliation is anything but nominal.  Religion is invoked to get people to act—something which frequently happens in the Dune series.  

In extreme, and all too frequent cases, wars in real-life have been fought—and are still fought—over overtly religious issues, with warriors sometimes even acting suicidally.  Most prominently this is in the form of jihad—Islamic holy war.  Yes, violence in the name of religion happens in many religions, but there is no question that Frank Herbert was thinking specifically about jihad in the name of Islam, currently a religion in the name of which much war today is waged.  The Fremen, the most prominent jihadists in the Dune series, are descended from Egyptians (indicated by their name for themselves, Misr), speak a language descended from Arabic, and practice a religion descended from Islam—not to mention that jihad is the term used for Muad’dib’s wars and the earlier war by humans against thinking machines.

3.  Some religions are personality cults.  Many new religious movements form around a single, charismatic person.  This one person may hold disproportionate or even absolute power over the group.  The new religious movement’s ideology may well be whatever the leader says.  For an extreme example, Nuwaubianism was whatever Dwight York said it was, even though he shifted the alleged basis for his religion among Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and ancient Egyptian religion.  Personality cults in the Dune universe exist around Pardot Kynes, Paul Atreides and his sister Alia, and Leto II.  There is also a threat that such a cult will form around Sheeana.

4.  Religions are not static.  Religions in real life change.  Though many religious people aim to stick to some traditional form of their religion, religions do evolve over time.  Some end up very different from how they started out.  New religions can even sprout out of old ones.  The Dune series has its own religious history in which many new religions come into being, develop, and even get replaced by new religions.  Much of this development takes place off-screen, but the Zensunni religion changes its authorities and deities over the course of the series; at the start of the original novel and even that of the prequel novels, Zensunnism has already moved far from Islam or Buddhism.  It even has a backstory in the form of the Second and Third Islamic Movements which preceded it.

Sadly, many things in the depiction of religion in the Dune universe are difficult or outright wrong.

1.  Secularized versions of ideas from real religions.  Frank Herbert incorporated non-religious versions of prophecy, afterlife, and resurrection of the dead into the Dune universe.  Even a casual student of religion should know that all of these are mediated by gods or karma, not natural or technological phenomena.  To make things worse, they are done wrong.  Paul may see the future, but he has no communication with any god and no moral message.  The Bene Gesserit may be advised by the dead, but we never hear of a Heaven or Hell.  Resurrection is not supposed to be without memories which have to be recovered by trauma.  To make things worse, the authors do not attempt to provide an explanation for any of these, even a totally lame one.

2.  Lack of any realistic idea how religious people think.  A religious writer’s idea of dystopian religion might be to explore a theology gone horribly wrong, perhaps a mystical nihilism or a personality cult which rationalizes everything the leader does, no matter what.  This is not what happens in the Dune series.  As mentioned above, the Dune universe reads like it was written by an atheist with little exposure to religious thought.  Most of the emphasis on religious people is on how they behave in front of others.  Very little attention is given to religious epistemology or thinking.  Consider Zensunnism, for instance.  Zensunnis get a lot of screen-time, but there are big holes in their theology.  At the time of Dune, they worship Shai-Hulud, the sandworms of Arrakis as an incarnate god.  The Zensunni also consider the sandworms to be Shaitan, the devil, as well.  We are not given any clear idea why they take this theological position.  We are not told how this theology relates to any sort of scripture.  Likewise, the reasons for religious practices or moral behavior are not given, not such much as “Thus is it written in the Book of Laws”.  No one talks of a revelation or prophecy from Shai-Hulud.  There is no Zensunni mysticism, and despite “Zen” being part of their name, there is no Zensunni meditation.

It is not just religious thought at a specific time which is lacking in the Dune universe; the authors fail at explaining how religions develop.  E.g., the Tleilaxu come to accept Leto II as “the Prophet”.  Why?  We are never told.  Neither are we told realistically how humans shift to worship a goddess or a three-part god with male, female, and neuter parts.  We are never told how Buddislamics came to identify with Zen Buddhism, Sunni Islam, Shiite Islam, or Sufism—something akin to Christians identifying themselves with pre-Christian Jewish groups yet still maintaining their Christian identity.   We are also not realistically told why the Zensunni accept Pardot Kynes as a holy man whose commands go unquestioned, why they accept Paul Atreides as their Madhi, why they accept Paul and sister virtually as deities, why they accept Leto II as a god, or why they eventually start praying to Sheeana.  And these are just the beginning.  The reasons given are weak at best.  (E.g., Pardot Kynes told someone “Remove yourself”, and the man immediately committed suicide—a story which sounds fake, even for a miracle story.)  For the most part, the reader has to accept that they simply are and get on with reading the story.

Please note:  the question here is not whether anyone trying to be reasonably self-consistent or honest having the views of a Zensunni, Tleilaxu, Orange Catholic Bible believer, or anyone else in the Dune universe could exist; people in real life hold a wide variety of theological beliefs, some of them every bit as unusual as anything in the Dune series.  How people in the Dune series reach their theological positions and satisfy themselves is mostly absent.  Your humble blogger could speculate on how Zensunnism got started or what is in the gaping holes in theology, but that would be fan “theories” or fan-fiction, not a theological review.

Also:  The Bene Gesserit deliberately manipulate religions and even create them from scratch to manipulate “primitive” people.  How they manage to get said people to accept foreign ideas is never really explained.

Also:  In the Butlerian Jihad, humans of all religions band together to fight a holy war against artificial intelligence.  Afterwards, they agree that computers are religiously prohibited.  Considering that there can be large disagreements even within religions (e.g., “two Jews, three opinions”), getting such high levels of agreement between different religions is hard to believe.  That humans in general would so readily accept a new, clearly not divinely demanded duty upon themselves in complete disregard to all religious tradition is downright impossible.

3.  Lack of value of humans.  In the real world, humans generally at least pay lip service to some version of the Golden Rule or human rights (e.g., “You will love your neighbor as yourself”).  Such values are frequently cited when discussing the values of many religions.   In the Dune universe, humans frequently have little concern for their fellow humans other than their loved ones, friends, or tribe—if even these.  There are a few characters which have some sense of human decency, but most are jerks, if not downright psychotic.  As such, violence, murder, rape, manipulation, war, slavery, torture, and even deliberately tailoring humans for various purposes are common.  Religious people in the Dune universe are no exception.  The Zensunni are violent and xenophobic.  The Zensufi Tleilaxu aristocracy use Tleilaxu women for growing custom human beings, and their lower classes are treated as disposable.  The Butlerians are technophobes and hypocrites who are prone at any moment to explode into senseless violence.  While there are real-life religious people who fail to live up to their own religions’ calls to love their neighbors, in real life there are also other religious people who decry the hypocrites.  (E.g., Stephen Colbert does a marvelous job on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert poking fun of Christians who act in ways blatantly contrary to what Jesus did in the Gospels.)  In the Dune universe, those who decry the hypocrites are conspicuously absent.  And at no point is this fundamental shift in human attitudes for the worse ever explained, even badly.

Also:  one might think that religious people were being stereotyped as being horrible people, but adamant secularists in the Dune universe, such as the Corrinos, Harkonnens, and Honored Matres, are also frequently horrible people.  A few religious people, such as Jews and Buddislamic monks, are depicted as decent people.  These decent people are as subject to persecution as anyone else in the Dune universe.

4.  Syncretism.  Many people in real life do mix two or more religions.  E.g., in China there has commonly been blending of Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Chinese Traditional Religion.  Much less common is for anyone to establish a blend as a religion in its own right; the only example your humble blogger is aware of is the recent phenomenon of “Chrislam” (Christianity + Islam) in Africa.  Established blends in the Dune universe can be from two or more religions which are even more different than Christianity is from Islam.  Take Zensunnism, for example.  Buddhism is nontheistic; any gods which exist are themselves caught up in the cycle of reincarnation.  Islam, on the other hand, is monotheistic, with Allah never being incarnate and an essentially different being from mortals.  Logic demands that one cannot believe both religions without compromising at least one of them:  Allah must be Himself caught up in the cycle of reincarnation, or Allah must be an exception.  Frank Herbert never explained how—or even if—he solved this or any other contradiction between Buddhism and Islam.  Such blends are the religious equivalent of transporters in the Star Trek universe:  they may be useful for telling stories, but once one tries to dissect them, major difficulties in the concept show up.

5.  The Orange Catholic Bible (OCB).  This is the mother of all syncretisms, a condensed, harmonized version of a number of major religious texts.  The OCB is the product of representatives of all major religions who took it upon themselves to remove conflict between different religions and thus prevent future religious wars.  See Appendix 1 for a summary of what books any of the authors claim are in The Orange Catholic Bible.  Composite religious texts do exist, but none quite like the OCB.  In some cases, a single redactor commits plagiarism (The Holy Koran of the Moorish Science Temple of America , the works of Anton Szandor LaVey (Smith 2001), the works of Helena Blavatsky (Coleman 2004), The Urantia Book ).  In others (the Bahá’í scriptures), the authors are building on preexisting material which they view themselves as the legitimate heirs to.  In others (Neopaganism), objective truth is not much of a concern, so the authors borrow whatever they like with impunity.  Group efforts to patch together texts from multiple religions like the OCB into a coherent whole, on the other hand, are at best rare; if such efforts happen, the results do not garner the attention the OCB does.  

If Frank Herbert was trying to model the OCB on something not obscure, it would likely be the Documentary Hypothesis.  According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Torah was patched together from four separate texts (J, E, P, and D).  But even the Documentary Hypothesis is a poor precedent.  The Torah was purportedly assembled and harmonized over hundreds of years, not quickly, not by a committee, and not from the texts of unrelated religions.

For a closer fit to the OCB origin story, God’s Book of Eskra 48 in Oahspe (Newbrough 1912) has something similar to the composition of The Orange Catholic Bible:  a council of religious scholars condenses and harmonizes a number of preexisting religious texts; the most notable difference is that this council has divine sanction for their actions.  Earlier chapters also deal with condensed, composite, edited religious texts.  However, your humble blogger is unaware of even a hint that Frank Herbert was aware of Oahspe, a channeled text of which most people would probably never hear if it were not for the Internet Sacred Text Archive or this review.

Granted, the publication of a syncretic religious text by prominent religious leaders would be seen by many as heretical, perhaps meriting the death penalty.  (The publication of the OCB caused riots and lynchings.)  But the eventual widespread adoption of the OCB starting with widespread rejection and condemnation is unprecedented and left unexplained.

Conclusion:  The Dune series is an imaginative set of stories which correctly recognizes that religion is important in human life and history.  However, the authors failed to learn how religious people think.  They are often murky about their characters’ religious beliefs and reasoning.  The authors well may have not considered the question of religious thought seriously or decided it was simply not what they wanted to examine in their stories.  Many find the books interesting reading, but their relationship to real-life religion is limited.

Theological rating:  C-.

Appendix 1:  Books of The Orange Catholic Bible

Jewish books (derived from the Hebrew Bible)
Genesis (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406, 412)
(“harmonized with the Quran”)
Exodus (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406) 
(“harmonized with the Quran”)
Laws (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414) 
(≥ 32 chapters.  Derived from Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, “supplemented by the Tawrah, Quran, Confucian traditions”—indicating that the writers of The Dune Encyclopedia probably were not clear that the “Tawrah” is none other than the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—and “harmonized with the Quran”.)
Promises (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406) 
(Derived from Joshua, Judges, Ruth; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Kings (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406) 
(Derived from Samuel, Kings, Chronicles; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Refugees (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406) 
(Derived from Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Job (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 413, 414, 415, 456)
(≥ 19 chapters.  Little changed.)
Psalms (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414, Herbert and Anderson 2006, p. 281)
(≥ 105 chapters.  Psalm 29 is “bastardized”.)
(“assimilated to Taoist and Socratic dicta, at least”) (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)
Preacher (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 413) 
(Derived from Ecclesiastes.)
Prophets (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414, 415) 
(≥ 113 chapters.  Derived from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, The Twelve; “harmonized with the Quran”)

Note: Song of Songs was deliberately omitted. (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406)  Also note that the ordering used is Christian, not Jewish.

Christian books (derived from the New Testament)
Gospel (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 413, 414, 415) 
(≥ 36 chapters.  Derived from Matthew, Mark, Luke, John.  Jesus has been reduced to just another prophet under Islamic influence, “harmonized with the Quran”.)
Apostles (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406) 
(Derived from Acts, “harmonized with the Quran”)
Epistles (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 406, 412) 
(Derived from Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude; “harmonized with the Quran”)
Revelation (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 406, 414, 415)
(≥ 17 chapters.  Little changed.)

Islamic books
Saari (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407) 
(Derived from the Qur'an, influenced by Song of Songs.  Is this a version of the Maometh Saari of Third Islam?)
Kalima (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 457, Herbert 1987) 
(≥ 467 verses.  Derived from the Qur'an.  If Saari is really based on the Maometh Saari, poetic intuition suggests Kalima is a version of the Muadh Quran.)
Sura (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 457)
Siret (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 411-412) 
Masnavi (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Traditions (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)

Hindu books
Upanishads (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Vedas (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Puranas (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Gita (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)

Buddhist books
Sutra (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407, 413)
(≥ 124 verses.)
Bodhisatvara (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 412)
(≥ 73 chapters.)

Navachristian books (derived from the Navachristian Bible)
Avatara (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 411)
(≥ 1,181 verses.)
Unnamed Navachristian text (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407)

Zensunni books (probably derived from the Zensunni Codex)
Koan Answers (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Ohashi (McNelly and Herbert 1984, pp. 407, 411, 412, 414)
(≥ 65 chapters.)
Hui-Neng (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Tao (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Eisai (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 413)
(≥ 2 chapters.)
Confucian books
Analects (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)

Zoroastrian books
Pahlavi (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)

Recent books
Arran (Herbert 1981, McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407) 
(≥ 11 chapters.  Contains material from Revelation (from the original New Testament).  This is the only book of The Orange Catholic Bible mentioned in Frank Herbert’s books.)
Blake Skul Visions (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407) 
(≥ 99 verses.  Influenced by Song of Songs.)
Revelations (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407, Herbert 1987)
(≥ 61 verses.)
Hymns (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
(Composite origin.)
Holy Lives (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)
Testimonies (McNelly and Herbert 1984, p. 407)

Other books
Kimla Septima (Herbert and Anderson 2001, p. 11)
(≥ 5 chapters.)

Note:  We have no guarantee that this list is exhaustive; the article on The Orange Catholic Bible in The Dune Encyclopedia makes no mention of Eisai, Sura, or Kimla Septima.  There may well be other, yet unknown books.  Also, there is very little overlap in material between the fictional OCB and the published defictionalized one.


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cheerioh (2017). "The Bene Gesserit Manual and the Mentat Handbook: awesome, in-depth (fanmade) documents +download links! ." from
Coleman, W. E. (2004). "The Sources of Madame Blavatsky's Writings." from
Hare, J. B. "Internet Sacred Text Archive." from
Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2000). Dune:  House Atreides. New York, Bantam Books.

Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2001). Dune:  House Harkonnen. New York, Bantam Books.

Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2002). Dune:  House Corrino. New York, Bantam Books.
The triumphant conclusion to the blockbuster trilogy that made science fiction history!

Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2003). Dune:  The machine crusade. New York, Tor.

Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2005). Dune:  The Battle of Corrin. New York, Tor.

Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2006). Hunters of Dune. New York, Tor.

Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2008). Sandworms of Dune. New York, Tor.

Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2009). Paul of Dune. New York, Tor.
Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2010). The winds of Dune. New York, Tor.
Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2011). Sisterhood of Dune. New York, Tor.
Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2015). Mentats of Dune. New York, Tor.
Herbert, B. and K. J. Anderson (2016). Navigators of Dune. New York, Tor.
Herbert, F. (1975). Dune messiah. New York, Berkeley.
Herbert, F. (1981). Children of Dune. New York, Berkley Publishing Corporation.
Herbert, F. (1983). God emperor of Dune. New York, Berkeley Books.
Herbert, F. (1987). Chapterhouse:  Dune. New York, Ace Books.
Herbert, F. (1987). Dune. New York, Ace Books.
Herbert, F. (1987). Heretics of Dune. New York, Ace Books.
Herbert, F., et al. (2006). The road to Dune. New York, Tor.

McNelly, W. E. and F. Herbert (1984). The Dune encyclopedia. New York.
Newbrough, J. B. (1912). "Oahspe:  A Kosmon Bible in the Words of Jehovih and his Angel Embassadors."  3rd ed. from
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Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Good Place and the Galactic Empire

Jewish date:  30 Kislew 5778 (after Sunset) (Parashath Wayyiggash).

Today’s holidays:  Ḥanukkah and Ro’sh Ḥodhesh (Judaism), Saturnalia (Paganism), Feast of St. Sacco/St. Vanzetti (Church of the SubGenius).


It has been way too long since I posted on this blog.  During this time I have been reading through the Dune series, and this will take more time to result in a review, due mostly to the efforts of Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson to extend the series and make money off of it.  In the meantime, I would like to point out some other people’s efforts to explore religion-related issues in popular culture.  (I should do this more often.)

1.  “The Complicated Morality of The Good Place” and “What The Good Place Can Teach You About Morality”.  Background:  The Good Place is a comedy show which presents a version of the afterlife in which some characters seem to have gone to a variation on Heaven by accident.  Said characters then have to do sneaky things to avoid getting caught, including quietly working on morally improving themselves to keep their world from destabilizing.  As such, moral concepts and philosophy are dealt with rather more explicitly than in most TV shows.  (Bonus:  The Good Place is fun to watch.)

2.  Your humble blogger does not plan on releasing another Star Wars review until after the release of Episode IX two years from now, but in the meantime please note “‘Star Wars’ Nazi Influence Is Complicated In A Bad Way”.  This article correctly notes something I missed when I wrote my own Star Wars review three years ago.  The Galactic Empire draws a lot on the Nazis, but Lucas and company have missed something critical about Nazis:  Nazis were not simply a bunch of horrible people.  They were principled evil, oppressing and murdering people because they believed something.  As noted in my review of Expelled:  No Intelligence Allowed, Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf rationalizes his moral perversion in the name of preserving the purity of the (purported) superior race.  Hitler also tapped into widespread Christian anti-Semitism viewing Jews as diabolical, an evil for society to fight against.  The Galacic Empire, on the other hand, does not seem to have any moral ideology (perverse or otherwise).  For that matter, the Rebels do not seem to have a moral ideology either.  (Maybe we should not be surprised.  Lucas is concerned more with “the hero’s journey” than with the nature of morality.)  Enjoy the movies, but do keep in mind that no movie, no matter how good, is good at everything.



Friday, July 15, 2016

The Gospel according to C. S. Lewis: a theological review of The Chronicles of Narnia

Jewish date:  9 Tammuz 5776 (Parashath Balaq).

Today’s holidays:  Bonaventure (Catholicism), Confuflux (Discordianism), Feast Day of St. Neil Gaiman (Church of the SubGenius).

The Gospel according to C. S. Lewis:  a theological review of The Chronicles of Narnia
by Aaron Solomon Adelman


NOTE:  The Chronicles of Narnia deals with many interrelated topics that do not readily lend themselves to a linear order.  As such, the order of the topics below is somewhat meandering.

Your humble blogger comes not to bash The Chronicles of Narnia (consisting of the seven books The Magician’s Nephew; The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; The Horse and His Boy; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; and The Last Battle).  First of all, the series qualifies as readable literature in its own right.  The author, C. S. Lewis, worked out a lot of the details of his fictional multiverse, bringing together talking animals with elements of English chivalry and ancient Greco-Roman religious stories.  Lewis populated his stories with actual personalities and furnished them with plots and character development.  A number of the characters screw up and turn themselves around, sometimes even switching sides—like people in the real world.  While these books do not suit everyone’s tastes, many—including your humble blogger—have found them enjoyable even without realizing that they are Christian fiction.

But what sort of Christianity are we talking about?  C. S. Lewis was a serious convert to Anglicanism, and he had his own bent on Christianity which he laid out in his book Mere Christianity.  All the familiar basics of Christianity are explained there, including the Trinity, Jesus as the Messiah, the crucifixion as atonement for humanity, and various virtues.  Mere Christianity especially emphasizes morality:  God has a universal moral law which humans know instinctively; practice of this moral law is common among the saintly, and the morality of the seriously religious of whatever religion converges on it.  God wants all humanity to follow it.  God also rewards and punishes all humans—regardless of their religion—for their actions with respect to how well they follow this universal moral law.  Being a just god, God is strict but fair.  As such, Christianity for Lewis is not an exercise in mere belief or showing up to church once a week; putting ideals into practice is required.  Furthermore, just as the moral law is binding upon all humanity, salvation through moral behavior is available to all, including non-Christians.

These beliefs are reflected in The Chronicles of Narnia.  The characters do not simply sit around believing or having faith, even though belief and faith are dealt with in the series.  They help each other, go on adventures, face moral challenges, and often end up improving themselves.  And the God of Narnia expects nothing less.

Aslan:  There are works of theological fiction which depict God as something other than all-powerful and invulnerable.  Forget anything like this in Narnia.  Aslan is a real-deal god.  Despite having the form of a lion (most of the time He is on-screen), Aslan is Jesus incarnate with His godhood evident.  He is the son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea (= God the Father).  Whenever He appears, He is consistently described in glowing terms evoking awe.  He sings Narnia’s world into existence in The Magician’s Nephew, and He presides over its end in The Last Battle.

Anything resembling death or injury happens to Aslan only with His consent.  Most prominently, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, in order to save Edmund Pevensie from Jadis the White Witch, He allows Himself to be sacrificed; since He is a god, He comes back to life afterwards, as a real god (at least in general Christian conception) is immortal and cannot actually be killed.  This directly reflects the Gospel narratives of the crucifixion, in which Jesus is killed so that humanity may gain forgiveness, only for Him to rise from the dead three days later.  A drop of blood from Aslan’s paw heralds Caspian X transitioning to the afterlife in The Silver Chair.  Being invulnerable, Aslan never shows the least bit of fear or worry.

Aslan is an involved god, playing a pivotal role in every book.  He cares about mortals.  He periodically appears to guide the inhabitants of Narnia’s world and visitors from our world and to reward and punish them.  In The Magician’s Nephew, He tasks Digory Kirke with planting an apple; He then makes a cab driver and his wife the first King and Queen of Narnia.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan charges the Pevensie children with their roles in the battle against the forces of Jadis the White Witch and makes them kings and queens of Narnia.  In The Horse and His Boy, Aslan repeatedly acts to help Bree, Shasta/Cor, Aravis, and Hwin out of Calormen and to prevent an invasion of Archenland, as well as punish Aravis and Rabadash, king of Calormen.  In Prince Caspian, Aslan guides the Pevensie children on their mission to save Narnia from King Miraz, establishes the reign of Caspian X, and gives the Telmarines, who were on the wrong side of the war, the option of going to Earth.  In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Aslan repeatedly appears to guide Caspian X and his companions on their voyage to the edge of Narnia’s world.  In The Silver Chair, Aslan gives four commands to Jill Pole around which almost the entire plot is centered; he also grants an afterlife to Caspian X and gives Jill, her friend Eustace Scrubb, and Caspian X an opportunity to scare bullies.  And in The Last Battle, Aslan sends warning to Shift and Puzzle, lest they carry out Shift’s diabolical plan.  As Narnia comes to an end, Aslan sends the worthy to His own country (= Heaven) and the unworthy to darkness.

Noticeable is that Aslan is the only member of the Trinity to make an appearance in Narnia’s world.  While Aslan is the son of the Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea, God the Father Himself never appears in the story.  The Holy Spirit is never mentioned at all.  The Chronicles of Narnia may thus be viewed as a “what if” scenario in which Jesus alone creates and is involved with a world.  Without the Father, there is no Torah and nothing resembling Judaism.  The only law that matters is Lewis’s universal moral law.  While there is prayer to Aslan, His image takes the place of the cross, and there are a few prophetic traditions, Aslanism is not an organized religion.  There is no church, no mass, no baptism, no sacraments, no Bible, and no clergy.  If this is a form of Christianity, it truly is mere Christianity, stripped of most of its externals. 

Evil:  Also lacking is the Fall of Adam, so arguably there should be no original sin.  Thankfully for the plot, there is evil in Narnia.

At the very beginning of Narnia in The Magician’s Nephew is Jadis, a half-giant, half-jinn descendant of Lilith.  Jadis had already destroyed her own world, Charn, and escapes through trickery.  In Narnia, she achieves immortality by eating an apple from a magic tree and essentially sets herself up as Aslan’s archenemy.  By The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, she has become the White Witch, ruler of Narnia and cause of a century-long winter.  In both books, she acts as a temptress.  She is eventually killed by Aslan.

In The Silver Chair is another supernatural figure of evil, the Lady of the Green Kirtle.  Her form of evil is magically brain-washing others into submission.  Her species is unknown, but right before her death, she takes the form of a giant snake.  (Compare the snake in the Garden of ‘Edhen.)  It is never revealed whether or not she originated in Narnia’s world.

Other evil is performed by mortals.  In five out of the seven books, humans perform actions of evil.  (This is unsurprising, considering that humans perform rather a lot of evil in the real world, too.)  Nonhumans, such as dwarves and talking animals, side with the forces of evil or (in the case of the ape Shift) initiate it in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Last Battle.  While humans, who originated on Earth, are subject to original sin, that nonhumans can be evil, too, suggests Lewis does not believe original sin is necessary to be evil.

Racism:  Your humble blogger was asked to discuss racism in The Chronicles of Narnia, and it is in the discussion of evil that this seems most appropriate.  Narnia’s great rival is Calormen, a country to the south whose inhabitants are not Aslanists.  They are polytheists, their chief god being the monstrous Tash.  Their rites include human sacrifice.  While the Narnians can fight quite well, the Calormenes are more given to war and conquest.  Calormenes keep slaves.  Calormenes have prominent roles as villains in The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle.  And—relevant to the question of racism—they are dark-skinned, while the Narnians are light-skinned.

Given this situation, one may easily jump to the conclusion that Calormenes are inherently evil and thus The Chronicles of Narnia is racist.  But the situation is not so simple.  One obvious problem is that Narnian humans are not inherently good; their villains are prominent in Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  The other problem is that despite the morally uninspiring environment they grow up in, Calormenes can still turn out to be good people.  In The Horse and His Boy, Aravis is the central heroine.  And in The Last Battle, the noble Emeth seeks to get to the bottom of Shift’s fraud and is counted among the righteous.  Having dark skin does not make one evil.

There is a more solid claim of racism in The Chronicles of Narnia:  by order of Aslan, all kings and queens of Narnia have to be human (“sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”).  Talking animals and entities out of legend and Greco-Roman religion are not eligible.  No reason is ever given why humans are necessarily the best rulers; your humble blogger sees no reason for this either.  Strangely enough, no one ever objects to this, despite some dwarfs showing a lack of community spirit with other species.

Fractional Christians and potentially universal salvation: As noted previously, Lewis makes clear in Mere Christianity that he does not believe that non-Christians are necessarily evil or damned to Hell.  He thinks of them as being fractionally Christian, as they may agree with parts of Christian doctrine and practice parts of the universal moral law.  As such, they may also receive salvation.  This doctrine of Lewis unambiguously appears in The Last Battle, in which Narnia’s world comes to an end and all the mortal characters go to Lewis’s version of Heaven or into darkness.  The Calormenes Aravis and Emeth both go to Heaven, despite the latter being a devout Tashist and never meeting Aslan while he is still alive.  Aslan Himself explains that those who serve Tash with good intent and good action are accounted as if they served Aslan; those who serve Aslan with intention to do evil are accounted as if they served Tash.  Aslan is not so small a god as to condemn mortals simply for not knowing Him or justify mortals simply because they pay Him lip service.

Sexism:  One of the other issues your humble blogger was asked to discuss is sexism.  (This will get tied into the question of salvation.  Please be patient.)  Lewis was not a 21st-century feminist/egalitarian.  In Mere Christianity, he does hold that the husband is supposed to be in charge, not the wife.  Considering the era he lived in, this was probably not unusual.  E.g., The Chronicles of Narnia was published 1950-1956, while at practically the same time (1951-1957) was the original run of the famous and popular television show I Love LucyI Love Lucy is anything but feminist, with Ricky Ricardo dominating his wife Lucy and this being portrayed as normal and healthy in a loving relationship.

On the other hand, Lewis has enough respect for females to depict them in The Chronicles of Narnia as fully competent, unlike Lucy Ricardo.  In every single adventure, at least one girl is a central character, be she Polly Plummer, Lucy (Pevensie), Susan, Aravis, or Jill.  These characters do not stand around and look pretty.  Neither are they damsels in distress.  They take part in the decision-making and the action of their stories.  They handle and use weapons, including in battle.  They face their own trials and are proven worthy.  And just like the boys, they also screw up and develop as characters.  For that matter, there are two female villains, Jadis the White Witch and the Lady of the Green Kirtle.  While Lewis may not be as forward-thinking as L. Frank Baum (author of the more feminist Oz books), he is not a chauvinist idiot.

If a serious charge of sexism—at least with respect to the standards of his time—is going to be laid on Lewis, then it might be on account of Susan Pevensie.  All the protagonists of all seven Narnia books go to Heaven—except for Susan.  By The Last Battle, Susan has grown up in such a way that she is mostly interested in “nylons and lipstick and invitations.”  Unlike her siblings, Susan no longer believes that Narnia is a real place; she thinks it is a fictional world that she and her siblings imagined as when they were younger.  Some interpret that Susan does not go to Heaven, because she grew up, in thinking as well as in age.  But from the way the other Friends of Narnia describe her, they seem think she has become shallow and has abandoned the ideals of Narnia.  As such, she would not have gone on that last adventure even if she had known about it, and so she misses an opportunity to participate in events which would have resulted in her going to Heaven.  Is this a satisfying outcome for Susan?  No, it is not.  But it is a realistic one.  People who are good do not always remain good.  And it could have just as easily have been Peter or Edward who turned away from Narnia; at no point is it claimed that Susan went astray because she is female.

This also is not necessarily the end of Susan’s story.  While everyone who is in Narnia when it ends necessarily dies (and some of the characters arguably actually die in a train accident right before their final journey to Narnia), Susan is almost certainly alive at the end of the series.  And as long as she is alive, she may yet repent.  Aslan at no point claims that Susan is condemned to Hell.  Throughout the series, Aslan is forgiving even of characters who do worse than Susan, should they repent, e.g., Edward in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  As such, Susan may well join her siblings in Heaven.  (If someone in charge of the estate of C. S. Lewis should read this review, please commission someone to write this story!)

Other gods than Aslan:  Surprisingly, Aslan is not the only god to show up in Narnia’s world.  The least surprising is Tash, the bird-headed, four-armed god of Calormen, worshipped with unspeakable rites.  Tash shows up in The Last Battle, withering whatever ground he passes over—he floats rather than walks—and grabbing away doers of evil.  One may argue that Tash is not a real god, but actually a character straight out of standard Christianity:  Satan.  However, Tash, unlike Satan, shows no interest in tempting anyone to do evil, only in claiming those who have (metaphorically) already sold their souls to Satan.  Tash shows no sign of being on the same level as Aslan.

Harder to understand is the presence of characters out ancient Greek and Roman religion (fauns, nymphs, satyrs, centaurs, the Maenads, etc.), including some of their gods:  river gods, Silenus, and Bacchus.  None of the Greco-Roman gods appears to be anywhere as powerful as Aslan.  They are also present in a fairly benign form.  The internal logic of these anomalous presences is never explained; so far as your humble blogger knows, Lewis did not believe they exist in the real world.  Their inclusion does reflect that Lewis was very interested in European religious stories (mythology), and he came to Christianity through it; to Lewis, Christianity was a myth which happened to be true.  A possible solution is that Lewis is continuing an earlier tradition of syncretizing Christianity with Greco-Roman religion, e.g., as in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which identifies God with Phoebus and Satan with Hades.  While Milton may have been using poetic metaphor, Lewis does not make such an interpretation easy.

Faith and trust:  Faith and belief, as previously mentioned, also play a role in The Chronicles of Narnia.  Indeed, much of the plot of The Silver Chair depends on faith in Aslan.  The commands that Jill receives from Him and Eustace and Puddleglum have to deal with (e.g., having to release a possibly psychotic man who happens to invoke the name of Aslan) might be suicidal if followed otherwise.

But there are other sorts of trust than trust in a god.  One kind which plays a role in the plots is trust in other people who are worthy of trust, even if they make unusual claims.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy Pevensie reports having traveled to another world via a wardrobe.  Though the claim seems ridiculous, Digory argues that since she has a history of honesty, she should be believed; it turns out she is right.  Lack of trust in Lucy’s claim of having seen Aslan makes things harder for the Pevensie children in their quest to help Caspian X in Prince Caspian; disregarding her claim leads them to practically walk into an enemy army.

Summary:  The Chronicles of Narnia is a reflection of C. S. Lewis’s Christian beliefs.  Jesus is included as a central character in the form of Aslan, depicting Him as a just, but loving, god.  Emphasis is placed on morality and action rather than ritual and law.  Despite the fantasy setting, characters face moral and theological challenges and respond credibly.  Salvation is depicted as attainable by anyone, even those who do not believe in Jesus.  Despite the anomalous appearance of entities out of Greco-Roman religion, this series is generally theologically sound and enjoyable literature.

Classification:  Enjoyable family-friendly Christian fantasy.

Theological rating:  A-.

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