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

WARNING:  SPOILERS AHEAD.

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-.


See also:

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Quantico should be cancelled

Jewish date:  5 ’Adhar Sheni 5776 (Parashath Wayyiqra’).

Today’s holidays:  Bahá’í Month of Fasting, Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Edward G. Wood (Church of the SubGenius), Bacchanalia (Roman Religion).

Greetings.

When I first saw promos for Quantico, I thought the show was nothing worthy of attention.  However, since then, accusations have been made of the show being anti-Semitic, e.g., “Major Jewish Group Demands ABC Cancel ‘Quantico’ for ‘Vicious Defamation of Jews, Israel and the IDF’”.  The Zionist Organization of America even compiled a long list of anti-Semitism and apologetics for Islamic terrorism in the show, ending it with urging readers to complain to the network responsible, ABC.  In the name of fairness, I have watched Quantico (all 12 episodes which as of this writing can be viewed by someone who is not currently paying on Hulu), and the accusations are completely true.    As I do not believe I can reasonably write a better review than the Zionist Organization of America’s, I refer my readers to their “ZOA: ABC’s Anti-Semitic Terrorism Soap-Opera “Quantico” Defames Jews & Israel, Should Be Cancelled” and urge them to follow their instructions to complain to ABC.

To the people at ABC, who are going to get a copy of this:  Quantico deserves to be cancelled.  I realize it is a piece of fiction, but in this fiction lies are presented as if they are fact.  Lies are not harmless.  These lies condemn the innocent and exculpate the guilty.  Sadly, people do believe things from fiction, even fiction as blatantly unrealistic as The X-Files.  And when people believe lies like those presented in Quantico, the result is unfair prejudice against Jews and a blindness towards Islamic terrorism.  Please do the right thing, cancel the show, and make the public apology you owe to Israel and the Jewish people.  Thanks in advance for your attention.

Peace.

’Aharon/Aaron

Friday, December 4, 2015

Everybody sucks: a theological review of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon

Jewish date:  22 Kislev 5776 (Parashath Wayeshev).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of John Damascene (Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Mechagodzilla (Church of the Subgenius), Bona Dea (ancient Roman religion).

Everybody sucks:  a theological review of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

One of the most persistent stories in the English-speaking world is the legend of King Arthur.  The most famous telling is Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory (published in 1485).  Since then the legend and select parts of it have been retold many times, including:  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Idylls of the King, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (itself made into movies), Mr. Merlin, Merlin (the miniseries), Merlin (the TV series), Prince Valiant, The Once and Future King, and The Sword in the Stone.  (This list is nowhere near complete.  The lists on Wikipedia are huge.)

An aspect of the legend of King Arthur which is often not explicitly stated—and yet is relevant to this blog—is that it is a Christian story.  Arthur is a Christian king supported by Christian knights.  One thread of the story is the quest to find the Holy Grail (the cup which Jesus drank from in at the Last Supper), humorously depicted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  Even if someone interprets the legend in such a way to downplay the religious aspect—and many interpreters do that—the Christian nature of Arthur and his court remains as a subtext.

Every interpretation the legend gives it a new spin, and eventually a Neopagan interpretation was produced in the form of The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, a rewriting according to Neopagan matriarchal pseudo-history.  The spin was novel enough that the book was on The New York Times bestseller list, and a miniseries was made based on the book.  All the well-known elements of the story (and even some lesser-known elements) remain intact, just reworked to fit a different set of assumptions.  Rather than putting Arthur in some idealized British past age, the story is set in Britain not long after the Romans have left.  At the start of the story, the island is a patchwork of small kingdoms and tribes.  There is no overall unity, and there is constant threat of invasion and war.  Avalon is recast as a pagan religious site, populated mostly by priestesses and their acolytes studying to be priestesses.  The Lady of the Lake becomes the high priestess, and the Merlin the high priest.  (The definite article is not a typo.  Two Merlins, Taliesin and his successor, Kevin, appear in the story.)  The whole plot deals with the struggle between paganism and Christianity in Britain.  Christianity has already become the favored religion in many courts, and it continues to spread.  As paganism is abandoned, Avalon slowly slips into the mists and away from the rest of the world; it may only be reached deliberately by magic.  In this religiously divided world, all the major characters belong to one religion or another, a few being pagans pretending to be Christians or religiously confused.  (Other religions are somehow absent.)

Morgaine (as in Morgaine le Fey) is promoted to central character and becomes a pagan priestess of Avalon, eventually becoming the high priestess.  Arthur becomes king by “sacred marriage”; he sleeps with his half-sister Morgaine as a proxy for the Goddess and marries the land.  (That business about him marrying the land is not a typo.)  Arthur has the problem of trying to satisfy both a Christian aristocracy and pagan peasants.  (Or so we are told.  Much is written about the aristocracy, but peasants receive little screen time.)  When Arthur gets too Christian under the influence of his wife Gwenhwyfar and thus fails to live up to the pagan priestesses’ hopes, Morgaine plots his downfall according the cycle that sacred kings are supposed to undergo:  they reign for a time under the consent of the real, female ruler, and when they falter, they are ritually killed and replaced.  (See The Golden Bough.)

The writer displays a consistent hatred for Christianity.  The pagans repeatedly claim that all gods are the same god—a typical Neopagan claim—but this claim runs afoul of the fact that Christians for the most part do not believe this, both in the book and real life.  It should go without saying that the Neopagan claim of the existence of a goddess who is all goddesses has even less Christian acceptance.  There is a little lip service towards ecumenicism (e.g., Taliesin claims to have attended mass and taken communion), but Christians get depicted badly, and the more dedicated they are to Christianity, the worse they are depicted.  Thus Christian priests and nuns are depicted as mean, rigid, life-hating, patriarchal people.  Christians are intolerant, obsessed with sin, and hypocritical, especially about sex.  One cannot even finish reading a sentence about one of these people without feeling revulsion.  Only by embracing Neopagan ideals can a Christian gain favor in the eyes of the author.  Very prominently, Gwenhwyfar is so seriously Christian that she pushes Arthur to Christianize himself, his court, and by extension Britain—and she is treated for the most part as the enemy.  However, when she slips up and commits adultery or at least emotional intimacy with Lancelet—behavior which is acceptable to Neopagans but not Christians—and maybe feels a bit ecumenical is she treated sympathetically.  Symmetrically, Kevin starts off as a good (though secret) pagan, completely approved by the author, but then he decides that the way to deal with the Christianization of Britain is to use pagan religious articles in Christian ceremonies—which is treated as unconscionably evil.

Bradley also goes out of her way to make Christians look like a bunch of idiots.  Morgaine steps in when Kevin tries to use pagan religious articles in a Christian ceremony and turns the experience into a full-blown ecstatic pagan ceremony.  The Christians are unable to comprehend what has really happened, so they interpret it as a Christian revelatory experience involving the Holy Grail.  Many of the knights then set out on a fruitless quest to find the Grail.  If this makes no sense to you, do not be surprised.  It makes no sense in context either.

If this negative treatment of Christians sounds familiar, I have written reviews of books betraying such attitudes before.  Philip Pullman created his own deliberately perverse version of Christianity for His Dark Materials, and Ayn Rand depicted everyone who is not selfish as contemptible.  The technique is simple:  portray the hated group in a negative light at all times, thus making the favored group look good.  The technique is purely rhetorical, not rational or logical.  A fictional story is not constrained to be realistic.  There are some Christians who are jerks in real life, but when Christians are consistently jerks without a good reason for all the Christians in the setting to be jerks, the story comes off as biased.

To be fair, Bradley is under no delusion that being a pagan automatically makes someone good and pure.  (Contrast Pullman and Rand, who are that delusional.)  But Bradley goes overboard in depicting pagans as something other than idealized saints.  The central pagan character, Morgaine, wavers a good deal in her devotion to the Goddess and spends a number of years completely derelict in her duties.  She sleeps regularly with Kevin without the benefit of marriage, and then later has an affair with her stepson Accolon; the latter is rationalized by him being a pagan and them claiming to do so for religious reasons.  She sends Accolon to kill Arthur for abandoning paganism, but Arthur wins the battle and kills Accolon.  For Kevin’s treason, Morgaine orders the young priestess Nimue to seduce Kevin to return him to Avalon for execution.  While Nimue is successful, she falls in love with Kevin in the process; overcome by guilt, she commits suicide.  (What?  Was sending an assassin with a sword too hard?)  As a heroine, Morgaine leaves a lot to be desired—and she is arguably the best portrayed pagan in the entire book.  The others are no better morally.  (Do not get me started on Morgause, who abandons all principle and practices blatantly black magic.)

Even bizarre jumps of logic are not limited to Christians.  Morgaine has her own episode at the end of the story in which she looks upon the Christians around her and finally sees something positive.  Her beloved Lancelet, at the end of his life, has retired to a monastery and was ordained as a priest shortly before his death.  And Morgaine herself sees enough of paganism among nuns—the only time nuns are portrayed positively—with their communal living and their veneration of Mary and Bridget.  Why this suffices her is never stated; anyone with a basic knowledge of Christianity knows that even Mary, despite her high status, is not considered a goddess, while God is most certainly considered a god.  Thus it takes great intellectual dishonesty to see pagan duotheism in Roman Catholicism. 

Perhaps the most bizarre jump of logic is the one that isn’t made.  The way to keep a religion going is to encourage people to believe in it and practice it.  But Morgaine and her fellow priestesses barely do so.  Morgaine on a number of occasions warns Arthur to keep his pagan coronation oaths, and when he fails to do so, Morgaine plays politics and seeks his downfall—as if killing Arthur would show that paganism is the truth.  Never do the pagan priestesses even discuss trying to spread paganism.  There are no pagan missionaries trying to show the people that paganism is the truth in any way, shape or form.   Since the Christians, unlike the pagans, evangelize, it is little wonder that they win out in the end.

Where The Mists of Avalon fails miserably as a polemic is that it never shows what is so great about paganism or how it is better than Christianity.  The focus on paganism in this book is whether or not it is going to survive.  Why it should survive is not really dealt with.  Demonstrating the truth of paganism is not considered at all.  Even as a moral system, no attempt is ever made to show that paganism is better (according to any criteria) than Christianity.  Hence, as accordance with the title of this review, everybody sucks.

Overall classification:  Pretentious, dreary fantasy novel.

Theological rating:  D.

Friday, October 16, 2015

A theological review of M*A*S*H

Jewish date:  3 Marḥeshwan 5776.

Today’s holidays:  Feast of Ida Craddock (Thelema), Feast Day of St. Mrs. Emma Peel/St. Lynne England (Church of the Subgenius).

Greetings.

Sorry I have not posted in over a year.  I got a full-time job, and do not have a lot of free time for writing these days.  Other things going on in my life have also reduced my available writing time.  One of these things has been my mother’s untimely departure from this world a year ago.  As part of the mourning process, I felt the need to write a theological review relevant to her.  And so I spent a lot of time reviewing the relevant material and (even harder) writing the review included below.

Peace.

’Aharon/Aaron



A theological review of M*A*S*H
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

This review is dedicated to the memory of my late mother, Carol Jeanne Adelman, whose favorite show was M*A*S*H.

The original incarnation of M*A*S*H was a novel by Richard Hooker which came out in 1968.  A movie version was released in 1970.  The movie was adapted into a TV series which ran for 11 seasons from 1972 to 1983.  There are also a number of sequels to the original books and a TV series sequel to the movie (Trapper John, M.D.).  The TV series spawned two sequels:  AfterM*A*S*H, which lasted a season and a half, and W*A*L*T*E*R, which never made in past the pilot.  All three versions of M*A*S*H (but not their sequels) are set during the Korean War (1950 to 1953) and deal primarily with the lives of doctors, nurses, and other personnel at the 4077th MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).  The book, the movie, and the earliest seasons of the original series were released during the Vietnam War (1955 to 1975), and the anti-war attitudes that many Americans had at the time are reflected in the writing, especial for the TV show.

No version of M*A*S*H is primarily theological fiction.  The book and the movie are essentially comedies focusing on the crazy things done by the doctors and the nurses at MASH 4077, but at a relatively shallow level.  As such, in the movie religion is treated as something to laugh at (along with pretty much everything else in the film).  Hence Captain Frank Burns’s prayers are mocked by his tent-mates; only later do we find out that he is morally reprehensible and worthy of our hatred.  And Father Mulcahy is depicted as weak and fairly insignificant.  There really is not much to analyze.

The TV series, however, delves a lot more into the backgrounds and thinking of the characters and explores why they do crazy things.  War is presented as horrifically ugly.  War wrecks people’s lives and often ends them.  It is brutal for those whose country the war occurs in and those who serve in the armies fighting the war.  The situation is so bad that it is frequently referred to metaphorically as “Hell”.  Indeed, in “The General’s Practitioner”, Captain Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce argues that war is worse than Hell; only sinners go to Hell, while war is full of innocent bystanders.

Faced with everything from primitive living conditions to unpalatable food to bureaucracy to forced separation from their loved ones to the real possibility of being killed, the personnel of the 4077th, paradoxically, deal with the insanity around them by acting in an insane manner.  It is the insanity of the situation and the insane things which the characters do which are the focus of the humor of the show; the war itself and explorations into the thinking of the characters—even the reasons for insanity as a psychological self-defense mechanism—are never treated as funny.

Given the TV series’ tendency to delve into the thinking of the characters, it is no surprise that their thoughts on religion get discussed over the span of 11 seasons.  In fact, the majority of episodes have some sort of religious reference.  There are so many religious references—your humble blogger’s notes on the subject run to 21 pages—that detailing them all is not compatible with keeping this review to a reasonable length.  (I apologize for not analyzing all the religiously themed jokes.)  However, in all this data, there is a very consistent pattern on how religion is depicted:  Religion is presented very positively.  Or to be more precise, religion done correctly is presented very positively.  Abuses of religion—the sorts of things which seriously religious people in real life often complain about—on the other hand, are depicted negatively.  To illustrate, let us examine two central characters, Father Mulcahy and Major Burns.

Father Mulcahy:  The most obvious manifestation of religion—and example of religion done correctly—is Father Francis John Patrick Mulcahy, a Catholic priest and the camp chaplain.  At times he seems naïve, but the writers had a lot of fun expanding on his character to the extent that this review cannot truly do him justice, though the general idea seems to be that he should be a holy, yet human, character.  In the episode “Heroes”, he relates the following origin story to the dying boxer “Gentleman” Joe Cavanaugh:

I’m sure people tell you this all the time, but you’ve always been quite a hero to me.  Actually, when I was growing up I had two heroes, no offense:  you and Plato.  I know that sounds strange.  I loved Plato’s notion of an ideal plane.  I could even picture it:  rambling fields and trees, sort of like the suburbs, but in the sky.  I wished I could live there myself.  I suppose that’s because my real life was less than ideal.  I was small and wore thick glasses, probably from reading too much Plato.  And I was an easy target for the neighborhood kids.  I didn’t even try to fight back.  I didn’t think fisticuffs were very, oh, Platonic.  Well, when I was 12, my father dragged me to see my first fight.  It was you versus Tony Giovanetti.  By the ninth round, you were punching him at will.  The crowd was yelling, “Put him away!  Put him away!”  My father was one of the loudest.  All of a sudden, you stopped punching.  You stepped back, and you told the ref to stop the fight, because the man had been hurt enough.  And I realized for the first time that it was possible to defend myself and still maintain my principles.  If Plato had been a boxer, I suspect he’d have fought like you.  That was when I made up my mind to keep one foot in the ideal plane and the other foot in the real world.

Father Mulcahy at MASH 4077 works hard to live up to his ideals.  He takes his duty as a priest and the teachings of the Gospels and church seriously, with an emphasis on the most compassionate teachings of Jesus.  Besides holding services, he hears confessions, performs last rites, and prays for his comrades.  He is compassionate to almost everyone.  He is quite tolerant of followers of other religions (“38 Across”, “Ping Pong”, “Exorcism”).  Father Mulcahy helps out at a local orphanage, and eagerly volunteers to help out at camp as necessary.  For an extreme example, in “The Yalu Brick Road” most of the camp is sick with salmonella, and Father Mulcahy—one of the few who are unaffected—happily performs even the most menial chores.  He is also quite willing to stand up for his principles, despite the costs and risks.  He refuses to compromise the sanctity of the confessional, even though it means he has to retrieve stolen sodium pentathol hidden under a bell himself (with the help of Corporal Maxwell Klinger) at risk to his life.  The sanctity of the confessional reappears in “Identity Crisis”, in which Father Mulcahy has to coerce a soldier to abandon a plan to go back to the United States by stealing the identity of a dead comrade—again without publicizing the contents of a confession.  In “A Holy Mess”, Father Mulcahy defends a fugitive soldier’s right to sanctuary in the mess tent—then being used for services—and when appeals to higher-ups deny this right, he has the guts to rebuke the fugitive for attempting to use a loaded gun to get sent back home and grabs the weapon away from him.  

It would have been easy for the writers to write Father Mulcahy as a cliché of a religious character, either making him blandly faultless or hypocritical.  But in the TV series, as previously noted, the writers put a lot of effort into making Father Mulcahy a human character.  So while he is an excellent priest, he is more than just a priest.  For example, he took after “Gentleman” Joe and took up boxing and even taught it in seminary (“Requiem for a Lightweight”).  Appropriately for a comedy show, Father Mulcahy has a sense of humor and regularly trades jokes with Hawkeye—both often referencing religious ideas in the jokes.  (He also has the humility to be amused and not really offended by the Father Mulcahy sound-alike contest in “Movie Night”.)  He plays the piano.  And like many of the characters at the 4077th, he drinks, bets, and plays poker.  (In “Our Finest Hour” he claims he finds the latter relaxing.)

Father Mulcahy is human enough to occasionally show some flaws in his character.  He is disappointed about not being promoted from second lieutenant to captain and makes a fuss about it (“An Eye for a Tooth”, “Captains Outrageous”).  (He is eventually successful.)  On a number of occasions, he gets angry and sometimes even shows it when rebuking sinners.  (Arguably anger is not the best thing for a religious paragon to show, but it is still a natural thing for a human to do.)  In one episode (“Dear Sis”), a wounded soldier insists on being examined by a doctor immediately during triage, and when Father Mulcahy tries to convince him to be patient, the soldier hits the priest.  Instinctively, Father Mulcahy hits back, and he is so upset by what he has done that he spends the rest of the episode trying to atone.

In short, while Father Mulcahy is a holy man, he nevertheless remains a man.

Major Burns:  Just as M*A*S*H has a realistic religious person, it also has an example of a religious hypocrite in Major Frank Burns.  Major Burns portrays himself as an upstanding Christian.  He reads his Bible regularly.  He speaks constantly about morality and the sanctity of marriage.  These do not make up for the fact that what he practices is anything but what Jesus actually preached.  He lies, he cheats, and he steals.  (E.g., in “The Gun”, Frank steals a colonel’s antique gun, passes it off as his own to Margaret, denies it, lets Corporal Walter “Radar” O’Reilly take the blame, and only reluctantly returns the gun back under threat of being exposed.)  He treats almost every other character in the series with contempt and lacks sympathy for anyone.  He is greedy (“Major Fred C. Dobbs”, “Movie Tonight”). He is ill-tempered, with him insulting someone in probably every episode in which he appears.  He hates non-Christians (including atheists) and even tries to stop the practice of religions other than Christianity (“Life with Father”, “The Abduction of Margaret Houlihan”, “The Korean Surgeon”, “Exorcism”, “38 Across”, “Ping Pong”, “Love Story”, “Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde”).  He is also ignorant that Greek Orthodoxy is a form of Christianity (“Private Charles Lamb”).  Most infamously, for much of his time at the 4077th he has an affair with Major Margaret Houlihan and tries to hide it from his wife Louise.

To be fair, real-life humans (including this review’s author) are generally a bit hypocritical.  It is very easy for one to have high ideals.  Living up to those ideals is another matter entirely.  Many of us recognize that we do not truly live up to our ideals.  Many of us who recognize our shortcomings make some attempt to do better.  What makes Frank particularly hypocritical is that  he never gets very far in trying to do better.  He always remains rotten to the core.  He has a few moments where he shows a more human, sympathetic side, but his gains are always wiped out by the next episode.  He shows little in the way of guilt and only admits wrongdoing if he is caught.  “Repentance” is not in his vocabulary.  

Other characters:  This bifurcated depiction of religion is carried over to other characters as well.  No other regular character is as visibly religious as Father Mulcahy or consistently evil as Frank Burns, but while religion-related jokes are abundant (e.g., Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake claiming “I avoid church religiously” in “Operation Noselift”), making fun of religion is conspicuously absent; making fun of hypocrisy and evil is constant.  No one makes fun of Captain B.J. Hunnicutt for being a Presbyterian or Radar for being a Methodist.  No one even makes fun of Klinger for wavering between atheism and Catholicism.  (In “The Kids” he is caught praying and claims he gave up atheism for Lent.)  Even the bomber who cracks and believes himself to be Jesus is treated sympathetically (“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?”).

Treated less sympathetically is Margaret, Frank’s partner in faithlessness.  She starts off as co-antagonist along with Frank and is likewise treated unsympathetically by the writers.  However, once she dumps Frank and gets friendlier, the writers make her a more sympathetic character.  (She is not alone in such treatment.  Major Charles Emerson Winchester III starts off as a selfish jerk, but he becomes more friendly and compassionate as the series progresses.  Accordingly, the writers are more inclined to depict him positively as time goes on.)

The positive depiction of Father Mulcahy as a good religious figure extends to how the other characters view him.  The vast majority of characters treat him with at least deference—including the black market (“Out of Gas”)—regardless of their religion or lack thereof.  Father Mulcahy is generally well liked and respected.  Some characters (such as Radar and Colonel Sherman T. Potter) are on their best behavior around him or apologize if they are not.  Whenever Father Mulcahy feels that he does not make enough of a difference at the 4077th, Hawkeye—a secularist by all appearances—steps up and praises him for being an inspiration for his “decency” and “humanity”.

Frank Burns, on the other hand, is the regular character most hated by everyone else at the 4077th, with even Margaret periodically getting angry at him and eventually dumping him for Lieutenant Colonel Donald Penobscot.  When Frank is eventually transferred back to the USA, no one is sorry to see him go.

The style of humor presented in M*A*S*H is arguably socially functional.  People’s religious beliefs and practices are frequently serious business—whether or not we agree with said beliefs and practices.  Many people’s religion has deep emotional and even rational roots, letting them make some sense of the World.  Religion also helps many people live more moral lives (according to many common views of what constitutes “moral”).  Religion helps many people connect with others or find some sense of purpose or meaning.  Whether or not one agrees with other people’s religions, they are not jokes.  Laughing at religion, especially religion which brings out the best in people, is thus mean-spirited and a slap in the face of people trying to do good—something to avoid.

Laughing at evil people, on the other hand, is a time-honored tradition.  Many of those reading this will recall cartoons from childhood in which bad things happened to characters who deserve them.  Frank Burns is the live-action equivalent of Elmer Fudd or Sylvester.  As an unwavering evil (and a mediocre doctor), he is constantly on the receiving end of insults, practical jokes, and undisguised contempt from all sides—and we are meant to side against him and find what happens to him funny.  Little wonder also that Frank did not last the entire series; without the ability to grow, there was only so much they could do with his character.  He is the example of what is generally agreed how we should not behave.

Hopefully one can learn from M*A*S*H something about what deserves and does not deserve to be treated as funny.

Friday, July 4, 2014

I find George Lucas’s lack of faith disturbing: a theological review of the Star Wars movies

Jewish date:  6 Tammuz 5774 (Parashath Balaq).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of St. Elizabeth Montgomery (Church of the SubGenius), Founder’s Day (some form of Neopaganism).



I find George Lucas’s lack of faith disturbing:  a theological review of the Star Wars movies
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

WARNING:  SPOILER ALERT!  THE FOLLOWING REVIEW ASSUMES A DECENT KNOWLEDGE OF THE STAR WARS MOVIES.  IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THEM, YOU SHOULD RUSH TO SEE THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY AS SOON AS REALISTICALLY POSSIBLE; YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT.

NOTE:  This review only covers the prequel and original trilogies (Episodes I-VI).  There is a lot more Star Wars material, but 1) none of it has the same level of canonicity, 2) that which your humble blogger has copies of does not substantially change the conclusions of this review, 3) a sequel trilogy (Episodes VII-IX) is in the works, and preexisting materials set after the original trilogy have been relegated to an alternate, non-canon timeline, and 4) the Star Wars Extended Universe is not sufficiently significant to be of great importance to the Divine Misconceptions project, and 5) obtaining and reading everything in the Star Wars Extended Universe would put off this review by several years.

One could have easily foreseen a theological review of the Star Wars Universe coming, even without the prescient powers of Palpatine/Darth Sidious; Star Wars is too big a cultural phenomenon and too fun for me to ignore.  (And, yes, there is a Star Trek review, or maybe a set of reviews, in the works, too.)  Before I start nitpicking on specifically religious issues, I think it fair to say that the original trilogy of Star Wars movies (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) got so much right in terms of plot, characters, dialog, acting, excitement, and effects (even before computer-generated images) to make them a real pleasure to watch and to make it easy to forgive anything done wrong in them.  (There are good reasons why there are dedicated Star Wars fans.)  The prequel trilogy (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith), on the other hand, while having largely good effects, suffers from obviously bad writing and acting (e.g., Jar Jar Binks, practically everything said in the romance of Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, and how Anakin turned to the Dark Side).  All of this is well-known to any Star Wars fan.

Religion—the general topic of this blog—is not a major concern in the Star Wars saga.  Most of the characters, major and minor, are not religious in thought, beliefs, or behavior.  With few exceptions—the biggest one being a rather strange exception at that—they do not reference religion directly at all.  This is extremely surprising.  Consider these facts:

1) The population of the galaxy is about 1017 beings (according to Wookieepedia).  Even if we disregard this source, real galaxies have on the order of 1011 stars, so even if the average population of a star system is very small (say, 1), that still makes for a huge number of people.

2) Humans make up a large proportion of the population (also according to Wookieepedia, but, yes, a whole lot of the characters in all six films are humans).  So expect even with a very low estimate of the population of the galaxy (1011), there should still be a huge number of specifically human people.

3) Humans being overwhelmingly secular in science-fiction is a cliché.  Humans in real life tend to pay at least lip service to a religion.  According to Wikipedia—yes, I am being lazy on my research here—2.01% of real-life humans are “atheists” and 16% more are “non-religious”.  To the credit of the people who wrote the relevant article, it discusses the difficulties of counting atheists, e.g., being an “atheist” is not the same thing as dissociating oneself from a religious group or abstaining from all religious activity.  But even assuming every single “atheist” and “non-religious” person is completely non-religious, that would leave almost 82% of humanity as more or less religious.

One would reasonably expect with all these humans populating the galaxy, there should be a huge amount of religious activity.  Yet there is very little to show of all this.  Maybe there is something about the sorts of characters which get screen time which tends to make them not religious.  Bounty hunters, gangsters, gamblers, smugglers, and anyone living in Mos Eisley (the “wretched hive of scum and villainy”) might not be good candidates for religiousness, but what would be implausible about people joining the Rebellion out of religious feelings of the need to fight oppression and injustice?  Of all the central characters, only C3PO—a character who is more comic relief than anything else—shows any religious sentiment:  he exclaims “Thank the Maker!” in A New Hope, but that is the full extent of his religiosity.  The only overtly religious characters are the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, and then not for long.  When they first see C3PO, they mistake him for a god.  They bow and chant to him, and they wish to sacrifice Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca to him.  Luke then uses his Jedi powers to fake a miracle to convince the Ewoks that such a sacrifice is offensive to their new deity, so they release their captives.  After this, any visible religious activity by the Ewoks ceases.  That the Ewoks practice a religion at all may be due to the cliché that low-technology cultures are more religious and superstitious that high-technology cultures.  George Lucas largely follows the common science-fiction cliché that people in high-technology cultures have no need for religion.

The only thing actually identified as a “religion” in the movies is the belief system/philosophy/praxis of the Jedi.  The Jedi do have some of the trappings of a religion:  a temple, mental discipline, and a code of behavior.  What passes for Jedi theology, on the other hand, will strike those who subscribe to an Abrahamic religion as strange.  No god—or even karma—is ever mentioned, but instead the Jedi believe in the Force, an “energy field” generated by life which permeates the Universe.  The Force behaves rather like modern magic:  by properly directing one’s feelings and beliefs, one can use it to accomplish superhuman feats.  The most visually obvious of these—besides being able to fight with lightsabers—is telekinesis (moving objects at a distance).  Also featured are the ability to control the minds of others (as in “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”), clairvoyance (seeing things at a distance), prescience (seeing the future), and telepathy.  Note that while prescience in the Star Wars saga is often labeled “prophecy”, no mention is ever made of Divine communication (which is characteristic of prophecy in Abrahamic religions).  The Jedi can survive death in the form of a ghost, but this is not a Divine or karmic reward for living a good life; it is the result of a long-term project of Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi.

Membership in the Jedi Order is not open to everyone.  All life in the galaxy has obligate symbiotic microbes known as “midi-chlorians”.  The more midi-chlorians one has in one’s body, the more one is able to use the Force.  As using the Force is what the Jedi are all about, only those with high midi-chlorian levels are eligible to become Jedi—and even then, maybe not.  Objection is made to training Anakin Skywalker and later his son Luke for them being too old.  Clearly the Jedi want to recruit only those who will be able to complete the training and perform their duties.  Issues such as belief or having the right lineage are never mentioned and seem to be irrelevant.

The Force has two “sides”, the Light Side and the Dark Side.  These two sides do not differ merely in qualities, unlike yin and yang or the ancient Greek elements.  It is the morality of the two sides of the Force which is constantly emphasized.  Thus morality in the Star Wars universe is presented in dualistic terms:  there are two—and only two—sides.  The Light Side of the Force is good, and the Dark Side is evil.  Likewise, those who ally themselves with the Light Side, such as the Jedi and later the Rebels, are good, while those who ally themselves with the Dark Side are evil.  For the sake of this moral symmetry, the Jedi have a dark equivalent, the Sith.  The Sith have all the same powers as the Jedi, the difference in their technique being that the Jedi try to maintain emotional self-control, while the Sith channel their negative emotions into Force effects.  For no apparent reason, the Sith are limited to two at any time, a master (in this case Palpatine/Darth Sidious) and a pupil (successively Darth Maul, Count Dooku/Darth Tyranus, and Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader); the Jedi, on the other hand, can exist in any number.

The upshot of this built-in morality is that characters who are somehow morally “gray” are forced to choose a side (as do Han Solo and Lando Calrissian), be minor characters, or die.  There is, in fact, only one important character who manages to maintain any substantial degree of moral grayness:  Anakin Skywalker, later known as Darth Vader.  He merits such an exception, because he is the central character of the series and thus needs to undergo character development.  Anakin undergoes a two-part moral transformation:

1) In the prequel trilogy, Anakin starts off as an innocent slave child thrust into the world of the Jedi.  Once he is freed, he lives under an increasingly large amount of stress.  He is traumatized by war, terrified by prescient and clairvoyant visions of tragedy, and trying to keep his forbidden marriage a secret.  To make it worse, he is too emotionally immature and unstable to properly deal with all this, so he eventually breaks and embraces the Dark Side under the influence of Palpatine/Darth Sidious.  This is handled with all the grace and beauty of a novice swimmer doing a bellyflop (like so much in the prequel trilogy).  The sane and psychologically realistic way of handling this transition would have been to have Anakin gradually rationalize increasingly worse behaviors as he fights in the Clone Wars, only formally embracing the Dark Side after doing something abominable for the sake of the Republic.  What he actually does is irrationally panic over a vision that his wife Padmé will die in childbirth and stupidly turn to Palpatine/Darth Sidious on the unsubstantiated claim that he has the power to save her—which he fails to do.  There are people who convert irrationally or quickly in real life, but few who do it as irrationally and quickly as Anakin.

2) In the original trilogy, the conversion of Darth Vader is handled much more credibly.  I call him “Darth Vader” at this point, because at the start of the original trilogy he has given himself completely to the Dark Side and no longer identifies himself as Anakin Skywalker.  Indeed, Obi Wan Kenobi even tells Luke that Vader murdered Anakin, later insisting this to be true “from a certain point of view.”  Vader is a paragon of principled evil, efficient and merciless to anyone who stands between him and completion of his goals.  This includes a number of minions he kills for failure by using the Force to choke them.  He even blows up the inhabited planet of Alderaan as part of his efforts to crush the Rebellion.  And yet this monster is not irredeemably evil.  He has a weakness:  his son Luke Skywalker, who is studying to become a Jedi.  Palpatine’s reaction to discovering that Vader has a son is to wish the son dead.  Vader, on the other hand, is pleased to learn of Luke’s existence and rationalizes that he wishes to turn him to the Dark Side.  Vader makes this intention clear to Luke, even when fighting him; he even wishes that they rule the galaxy together.  Even though that encounter is a failure (which is to be expected, since Vader cuts off Luke’s hand), Vader tries again at their next encounter, not putting in the effort needed to strike Luke down, instead losing a hand in the fight and being prepared to let Luke strike him down and take his place as the Sith apprentice.  When Luke remains steadfast with the Light Side, Palpatine tries killing Luke by zapping him with electricity.  Unable to bear the sight of Luke screaming in pain, Vader kills Palpatine, thus saving Luke, even though he mortally wounds himself in the process.  Vader dies redeemed and reconciled to his son.  This is the way real-life conversion frequently works:  small stirrings which could initially be overlooked build until the conversion manifests itself openly.  Kudos to George Lucas for getting this right.

Many religions have a concept that there is a war between the forces of good and evil, and the war may be to some degree predestined.  This naturally leads to the possibility of foreseeing some aspect of the battles that lie ahead.  In the prequel trilogy, this takes the form of the prediction that Anakin Skywalker is the chosen one who will bring “balance” to the Force.  None of the Jedi foresee what really happens, but Palpatine/Darth Sidious might.  Somewhat more useful foresight occurs in the original trilogy.  Darth Vader may foresee a showdown coming in The Empire Strikes Back, but the second half of Return of the Jedi is filled with foresight of the final showdown between Luke, Vader, and Palpatine.  Not only all three of them know it is coming, but so do Yoda and Obi Wan.  Vader sets things up so the meeting can occur, and Luke, Jesus-like, walks willingly into the trap, believing that there is still good in Vader and hoping that he will come to embrace it.  The only thing no one really seems to know reliably is what the outcome will be.  Palpatine is genuinely shocked that Vader betrays him.

Less common in religions (if it exists at all) is the idea that good and evil exist in balance.  The way things normally work is that the forces of good are ultimately more powerful that the powers of evil—the opposite of balance.  A true balance between good and evil would require them to be equally powerful—an idea which is downright heretical in any mainstream Abrahamic religion, but a situation akin to the moral theory of The Dark Crystal, where good + evil = perfection.  Obi Wan in Revenge of the Sith bemoans to Anakin that he was supposed to bring balance to the Force by eliminating the Sith, only for Anakin to instead become a Sith.  But arguably Anakin actually fulfilled his destiny in the prequel trilogy.  At the start of The Phantom Menace, there were a large number of Jedi, but only two Sith (Sidious and Maul).  The balance was tilted severely towards the Light Side.  By the end of Revenge of the Sith, the two remaining Sith, Sidious and Vader, had destroyed all of the Jedi except two:  Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi.  With equal numbers of Jedis and Sith, the balance in the Force was restored.

This makes for an inconvenient implication for the original trilogy.  Near the end of Return of the Jedi, Vader kills Palpatine and turns to the Light Side, dying soon afterwards himself.  This leaves one Jedi and zero Sith left alive.  This situation is as lop-sided as possible.  The prequel trilogy made evil a necessity, completely on-par with good.  Lop-sidedness is intolerable, so Vader is guilty of abandoning his duty.  And George Lucas is guilty of not properly figuring out the “balance” issue before he made the prequel trilogy.

WARNING:  SPECULATION AHEAD.

By this point, everyone knows that Disney, which bought the Star Wars franchise from George Lucas, is working on continuing the movie series with Episodes VII-IX.  This brings us a new hope (however small) for a fuller picture of religion in the galaxy, especially after the fall of the Empire.

At the very least, I hope that the problem of the “balance” of the Force will be addressed.  The easiest way would be to reveal that the original prediction was simply wrong or even fake.  Perhaps it was all part of Palpatine’s machinations, based on his own prescience, to make sure that the unstable Anakin Skywalker would be in place to turn to the Dark Side.  Palpatine was evil and skilled enough to create a civil war to manipulate the entire galaxy and seize control; faking a prophecy would not be beyond him.

A deeper alternative, however, would be to explore what the “Light Side” and “Dark Side” really are.  Are they really good and evil, respectively?  Or do they perhaps represent qualities which often, but do not necessarily, lead to good and evil?  Could there be evil Jedi who despite emotional serenity nevertheless deliberately commit acts of evil?  Could there be good Sith who take all their anger and rage and use it to fight injustice?  If so, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader as a ghost may return to fulfill his destiny in a way that no one foresaw, to bring balance to the Force, not by balancing good against evil, but by training a new generation of Sith who use their powers for good, thus balancing out the new generation of Jedi which everyone Luke Skywalker to train.  Besides taking the Star Wars Universe in an interesting direction, this would have the advantage of allowing Anakin to continue appearing as the central character and continue his moral development.

Overall classification:  Light science-fiction/fantasy/adventure movies.

Theological rating:  D, as the religious situation as depicted is difficult to believe and clichéd, plus Jediism does not reflect real-life religions well.  However, this series of movies is scheduled for expansion.  Disney is advised to fix the “balance” problem and fill in the holes left by Lucas.  It is entirely feasible to redeem the series theologically.


Note:  Credit goes to Darth Vader for inspiring the title of this review.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What does the Creator want?: a review of Noah (2014 film)

Jewish date:  8 ’Iyyar 5774 (evening) (Parashath BeHar Sinay).

Today’s holidays:  Day 23 of the ‘Omer (Judaism), Feast Day of St. Peter Lorre (Church of the SubGenius).

What does the Creator want?:  a review of Noah (2014 film)

by Aaron Solomon Adelman

The story of Noaḥ (Noah) is one of the most familiar stories in the Hebrew Bible.  This is probably because it is in the early chapters of the first book, Genesis, so  it is one of the most likely to be read, especially by people who fail to read very far in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Due its familiarity, it is periodically dramatized and adapted.  Already on this blog I have reviewed Noah’s Ark (1999 miniseries) and the quasi-adaptation Evan Almighty.  Considering the publicity and number of reviews of the recent Noah movie (titled המבול, “The Flood” here in Israel), I could not ignore it.  As with previous reviews, the story of Noaḥ will be treated as a literal story, even though it is arguably esoteric.

The makers of the film clearly apparently read the original text (Genesis 6-10) and tried to get some things right.  The general outlines of the story are all there—Noaḥ, his wife, his three sons Shem, Ḥam (Ham), and Yefeth (Japheth), building the ark, the flood, the sending forth of the raven and the dove, and the restarting of human society.  The genealogical context of where Noaḥ comes from is correct, including his grandfather Methushelaḥ (Methuselah) and his father Lamekh (Lamech) and there being two competing lines of humanity from Qayin (Cain) and Sheth (Seth).  The ark is correctly depicted as an ark in the literal sense:  a box.  (Think about it.  The term used in the original text, תֵּבָה (tevah) means “box”, and there is no mention of anything one would expect specifically on a boat, such as oars, a sail, or a rudder.)  There was also a lot of work put into the visual effects and some thought about the logistics of life on the ark.

But when one goes into the behavior and reasoning of the characters that the film goes horribly wrong, as the writers violate a cardinal unwritten rule of good religious thought:

YOU WILL NOT TAMPER WITH TRADITION.

And the tampering is not for the better, dramatically or religiously, and the worst of it lies at the very heart of the story.

The writers of the film botched the theology of the original text.  The Hebrew Bible consistently depicts YHWH as clear about what He wants.  Yes, there are some mysterious prophecies about what will happen in the future, but He is explicit about what He wants humans to do in the present.  And when He is angry at humans, it is because humans are disobeying the commands He has given them—and in the age of prophecy, He sent periodic messages about what people were doing wrong.  Being a god, YHWH is quite capable of communicating, so humans do not have to guess what He wants.  (I am well aware of the inherent problems of interpretation.  But when YHWH is ready to smite someone, it is always over “big picture” issues, such as murder, idolatry, sexual immorality, theft, abuse of the sacrificial system, and violation of Shabbath, not minutiae.)  Thus YHWH tells Noaḥ in Genesis 6:13-21 why humanity is doomed, how the doom is going to happen, and what He wants Noaḥ to do about it.  Noaḥ is to build an ark according to a specific plan, stock it with two or seven of each species of animal (the number depending on species), and he, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives are to ride out the flood in the ark.  Humanity is meant to survive.

The film, in contrast, depicts the Creator—His name is never mentioned—as having abominable communication skills; He never says anything.  In the film, the Creator sends Noah a vision of drowned people.  He has to go to his grandfather Methuselah to make any sense of what he saw and discover that a flood is coming.  There is no explicit message of why the Creator is sending a flood, what Noah is supposed to do, or what the Creator plans for the future.  Noah has to fill in the gaps with inference, gut feelings, and sheer guesswork—with the emphasis on gut feelings and guesswork.  This leads humanity to the brink of disaster.  Noah guesses that the Creator intends for those on the ark to be the last humans.  Because of this, he refuses to find wives for Ham and Japheth—or even let Ham bring a girl with him onto the ark.  When Shem’s (presumedly) barren wife Ila gets miraculously pregnant, Noah is determined to kill the child, should it prove to be a girl, lest humanity have a chance of continuing.  This idea is unpopular among the rest of the humans on the ark.  Shem builds an escape craft for himself and Ila, but Noah destroys it.  When Ila gives birth to twin girls, Noah only relents at the last second.  He initially feels unbearably guilty for not killing the babies and lives apart from the rest of his family; he has a cave to himself and indulges in wine until Ila argues to him that the Creator really meant for humanity to continue, thus choosing Noah for his being sufficiently moral to show mercy on his granddaughters.  At that point the Creator shows the rainbow, and the movie ends.  This change in the relationship between the Creator and humans makes some sense dramatically, as it creates serious problems to be overcome.  But the problems it creates only serve to make the Creator and Noah look worse:  the Creator due to His inability to plainly say what he wants, rather than forcing Noah to guess what He wants him to do, and Noah due to him making desperate, misanthropic guesses which could easily be wrong.  For this change alone the writers deserve condemnation.

The lack of clear Divine communication is also evident in the question of why the flood is brought.  In Genesis 6:11, the answer is explicit:  destruction (or corruption) of the Earth and violence; Noaḥ is told exactly that soon afterwards, so he has no reason to express doubt.  But in the film the Creator leaves Noah to figure out what He is thinking.  And the solution that Noah comes up with is environmental destruction.  The Cainites have created a civilization advanced enough to produce iron weapons, and in the process they have wrecked much of the environment.  Part of this is due to mining for a flammable mineral known as “zohar”.  Another part of this is due to the extensive consumption of meat; they are never shown eating anything else on their own initiative.  The Cainites are shown as cruel, enslaving each other to trade for meat, and waging war, but Noah puts the emphasis on their disregard for the environment.  Noah views his mission as an environmentalist one:  once the flood is over, he is to restock the Earth with animals and plants—and humans are to go extinct so that they can never wreck the environment again.  Noah sees evil as inherent in humanity—essentially the Christian doctrine of original sin—thus his insistence on human extinction.  

Moving the emphasis for the flood to environmental destruction, rather than immorality, is not an improvement.  The Hebrew Bible is overwhelmingly filled with laws about and preaching on human behavior, but almost all of it deals with how humans treat each other and YHWH; very little is said on animal welfare, and one has to read between the lines to see any concern for the environment.  The paucity of environmental material is demonstrated by the book Ecology in the Bible by Nogah Hareuveni and Helen Frenkley, which is a mere 52 pages, 30 of which consist of photographs; the actual text consists of material on animals and plants as part of the world of the Hebrew Bible, but not really environmentalism per se.  Environmentalism, to someone steeped in the Hebrew Bible is a matter of human welfare, as we humans have to live on this planet; acting stupidly about our home is something we should not need a deity to tell us to not do, and we are not allowed to act in ways that hurt other people.  The film, on the other hand, inverts the priorities.  Environmentalism is changed from a means to an overriding goal; Noah considers animal “innocent”, unlike humans, so their existence must be assured.  In contrast, human existence, much less welfare, is precariously threatened, rather than assumed.  Furthermore, the flood is not a good way to help the environment.  Yes, the environment sucks, but parts of it are still there.  After the flood there is nothing, and “sucks” is still better than “nothing”.  While all terrestrial animal species are saved on the ark (except those that, according to the film, went extinct there), the populations preserved are very small.  In real life, this is recipe for extinction.  The loss of one member of a species can mean the loss of the whole species, and those which survive end up severely inbred.  And if the animals are truly innocent, as Noah thinks, why do only a tiny number of them survive?  Would it not be fairer for the Creator to instead send a plague to kill off humanity and spare everything else?  Without a doubt, the writers failed to think things through when introducing the theme of environmentalism into the film, and the result is morally perverse.

Arguably the reason for warping the story is to make it more suitable for action and drama.  Noaḥ in the original text is not an action hero.  He does not fight with other humans or struggle with the commands of YHWH.  To transform him into the Noah of the film, he has to have problems which cannot be dealt with quietly and gently.  Hence the writers made the messages of the Creator hard to understand, leading to drama which should not be there.  The Cainites are co-opted as villains, and their leader, Tuval-Qayin (Tubal-Cain, Genesis 4:22), preaches everything which is abominable to Noah, actively fights against Noah, stows aboard the ark, proves a bad influence on Ham, eats animals on the ark, and has a final showdown fight scene with Noah, all for the sake of extra drama and action.  The mysterious Children of ’Elohim (Genesis 6:2) are metamorphosed into the Watchers, rock monsters who are really fallen angels who find forgiveness from the Creator for daring to help humanity by helping build the ark and dying spectacularly fighting the Cainites.  And, of course, the flood itself is depicted horrifically, with the Cainites screaming as they seek higher ground to escape the rising waters and ultimately drown.  The film does succeed in creating an adrenaline rush—but only at the cost of wrecking the letter and spirit of the original story.

Overall classification:  CGI-heavy action movie.

Theological rating:  F.  Darren Aronofsky is hereby banned from making religion-rated films for life.