Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Of Morals and Metaphors: #2

In my last note, I spoke of the dominant moral metaphor of modern times: a straight line, spanning good and evil. I also noted several points of weakness in that metaphor, and asked how else we might visualize questions of morality.

In this post I want to offer the first of two alternate metaphors, both of which originated (for me) in the writings of C.S. Lewis.

The first metaphor shows up in his "Space Trilogy," particularly Out of the Silent Planet. The hero, Ransom, is a rather gawky linguist who finds himself unceremoniously deposited on the alien planet of Malacandra. He quickly learns the language, but is surprised to find the natives have no word for "badness" or "evil." This actually reflects the medieval mythopoeia in which Lewis was grounded, a cosmology in which the Fall of Man affected the earth alone and left the heavens unblemished.

Ransom is forced to improvise, to invent a new vocabulary for moral negatives. In order to warn the natives about his enemy, the imperious Dr. Weston, Ransom lands on the term "bent."

As a metaphor, "bent" lacks the simple elegance of a linear black-white spectrum or gray-scale. But through a single modification -- a slight angle in place of a straight line -- it has access to a far richer pool of image associations.

Humans live in a notoriously intractable world. Cars break down in the middle of nowhere, household appliances have to be replaced with alarming frequency, and rain will inevitably fall on the first day of a week-long camping trip. In my family, we call that "God's sense of humor."

This world is profoundly non-cooperative. Even at the most basic level of existence, Nature sometimes seems to rear and buck, itching to rid herself of her riders. Take our bodies, for instance. As Lewis notes in The Four Loves, St. Francis of Assisi was in the habit of calling his body "Brother Ass." Is this not the  perfect and quintessential expression to encapsulates the feelings of bemusement and occasional frustration that every man and woman feels at some point in their lives towards to the very bodies by which they live?

So we see the metaphor is indeed a potent one. Through it we may unconsciously associate evil with the malfunctioning machine, a pipe warped out of alignment, a plumb-line or ruler that do not give a straight line, or in some cases a decidedly hostile force of nature.

As stated before, every sin is at root a corrupted or distorted image of virtue. This mental link conveys that crucial information with efficiency and concision.

But in the last analysis, this too fails. The metaphors withstands most critique, far more than the linear model. Indeed, it may be said it withstands all critique but one: darkness is the absence of light.

Evil is purely the negation of the good. We may treat sin as "bent" or corrupted virtue, and this is true in many senses. But the evil lies solely in the bend, in the corruption. Evil consists in what a thing is not, or what it was but is no longer. It never lies in the thing itself. The thing itself is purely good, for only the good can exist in reality.

This is a theological point, but one we will expand on in the next post. In the interim, once again we face the same question. What other ways might we rely upon, to visualize good and evil? What metaphors might incorporate this latest insight, and how might it also incorporate the content-rich imagery of these previous metaphors?

Stay tuned. It's quite a treat.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Of Morals and Metaphors: #1

My previous posts on metaphors and persuasion were mostly by way of introducing this next topic. For the sake of brevity, I'm splitting up my thoughts into multiple installments. For the sake of readership, I'll try to end each post with a thrilling cliff-hanger of a question. For the sake of my own self-respect I probably won't try too hard.

We've already established that our rational minds rely on images and metaphors to an impressive and often unconscious degree. This is particularly true when it comes to questions of of morality.

How do we visualize good and evil?

The moral imagination of the modern age is dominated to a startling degree by an ancient Gnostic heresy called Manichaeism. According to the Manichees, good and evil were equal and opposite forces. Good was associated with God and a spiritual "Kingdom of Light;" evil with Satan and a physical "Kingdom of Darkness."

In other words, the Manichees asserted a basically dualistic moral universe. Sound familiar?

The key metaphor in our modern understanding of good and evil is a straight line: good on one end, evil on the other, and a morally gray no-man's land in between. This metaphor is robust, and with good reason: its  strength is its simplicity. But it has one fatal flaw: namely, it just ain't so.

Good and evil are not equal opposites. Every vice is, at root, the corrupted or distorted image of a corresponding virtue. But the reverse is not true: virtue is not at heart merely glorified vice. Likewise, the most successful lie is a half-truth, a fiction spliced with just enough fact to make it persuasive. On the contrary, the most successful truths are judged, not according to persuasiveness, but by fidelity to the real world.

Right and wrong don't even compete in the same weight class.

Thus the question remains: how else might we visualize good and evil? Tune in tomorrow for the answer.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 11

I say then, God has not rejected his people, has He? May it never be! For I too am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin.

Romans 11:1 ~~ Continuing from the previous chapter, Paul asks: if hearing leads to faith (cf. 10:17), and Israel has heard yet has no evident faith, does that mean God has rejected Israel?

Romans 11:1-5 ~~ God has not forsaken the people of the covenant, the children of Israel whom he foreknew. Rather, despite their disobedience to the gospel, God has preserved a remnant of their number.

Romans 11:5-6 ~~ The remnant of Israel is preserved no longer on the basis of works, but by grace.

Romans 11:7-10 ~~ "What Israel is seeking, it has not obtained, but those who were chosen obtained it, and the rest were hardened." This initially seems to point to a strict predestination along the lines of Calvinism. On the other hand, the verses quotes immediately thereafter refer to God giving them "a spirit of stupor" (from Isaiah 29:10) and "eyes to see not and ears to hear not, down to this very day" (from Deuteronomy 29:4). The next quote, pulled from Psalms 69:22-23, speaks of the "table" becoming "a snare and a trap." This seems to be a reference to Paul's earlier reference to Israel's pursuit of righteousness by works (Romans 9:31-33). Thus it seems clear that God's involvement in their "stupor" and blindness was in providing an opportunity for their disability to be demonstrated (see my Commentary on Romans 7, in particular 7:7-13). The commandments of the law became their snare, and their over-reliance on works became their stupor.

Romans 11:11-15 ~~ Israel's rejection of the Messiah (which resulted in His Passion and Death) produced riches for the world and specifically for the Gentiles. Paul asks, as if to himself, what greater grace would come when the Jews (the chosen people of God, according to the covenant) accept the Messiah? "If their rejection is the reconciliation of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?" How much greater blessings will come by their faithfulness, when so much good was wrought by their infidelity? In a sense these verses are paralleled by the ending of C.S. Lewis' science-fiction novel Perelandra, which depicts a counter-historical Garden of Eden in which the woman Eve does not succumb to temptation. Even though we speak of the "blessed fault" (for the entry of sin into this world led to the mystery of the Incarnation), we cannot know what greater blessings would have come had our Parents remained faithful to God.

Romans 11:16-18 ~~ Paul warns that the Gentiles who are grafted like branches onto the root (which is Christ) ought not take pride their new station and elevation over the unbelieving Jews.

Romans 11:19-24 ~~ For all his protestations of "neither Jew nor Greek" (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11, Romans 3:29), Paul writes at length about the subtle distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, or between the "natural" and the "wild" branches of the vine.

Romans 11:25 ~~ "I do not want you, brethren, to be uninformed of this mystery -- so that you will not be wise in your own estimation." This verse reminds me of that famous (and probably apocryphal) quote by Socrates, when he was told by the Delphic Oracle that he was the wisest man in Athens: "I cannot be the wisest, for I know nothing!" Yet he soon realized that was precisely why he was wise: he recognized his own ignorance.

Romans 11:25-27 ~~ Paul speaks of a partial hardening of the Jews "until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in," at which point there will be a full conversion of Israel as prophesied.

Romans 11:28~~ "From the standpoint of the gospel they are enemies for your sake" -- that is, in practical terms, they persecute you and are your enemies. However, "from the standpoint of God's choice, they are beloved for the sake of the fathers" -- that is, in objective and ontological terms, they are the children of the covenant.

Romans 11:29 ~~ Great verse: "For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable."

Romans 11:30-32 ~~ This passage is pretty involved and rather confusing. 1) "You once were disobedient" but "shown mercy because of their disobedience." 2) "These also now have been disobedient" that they might share in the mercy granted to you! The second part is particularly complicated, as the referent for "these" is unclear and the later syntax doesn't seem to clarify the statement's meaning.

Romans 11:33-36 ~~ Paul rocks. This is another impromptu doxology, this time focused on the mysteries and mysterious ways of God, who abounds in mercy even in our disobedience and rebellion.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Little Old Ladies of God

As I've transitioned from an evangelical Protestant background to the Roman Catholic Church, I've kept my eyes open for similarities and commonalities. There are, of course, the core beliefs that all Christians accept -- what C.S. Lewis once dubbed 'mere Christianity.' But I've noticed something else.

No matter the church, no matter the denomination or the beliefs, there is a single unfailing constant that you can expect to see in any Christian community. There will always be little old ladies, who sit in the back pews of the church and pray constantly. They don't attract a lot of attention, but they're there. I've known quite a few of them, and they are generally as idiosyncratic as the rest of us. But, in addition to being human, they are spiritual giants and living saints, always ready to offer prayers for others in the Church.

There are two reason I'm bringing this up. First, I bring it up because I think these ladies deserve some credit. I wouldn't wonder if the Church isn't as stable and vibrant as it is because of their prayers constantly strengthening the foundation.

The other reason I bring it up is because of the Virgin Mary. It turns out this was a really easy way for me as a Protestant to understand Mary's role in the Catholic Church.

Mary is the ultimate Little Old Lady of God. She's the mother of our Lord, mother to the Church, and she has seen it all.  She's always ready with an encouraging word when we come to her in need. She tends to avoid the spotlight or the pulpit, and doesn't seek out attention for herself. When we ask for guidance she invariably points us God-ward. But there she sits, waiting patiently in the back pew, listening and praying. She's kind of awesome that way.

Of course, there are many other reasons why Catholics respect and venerate Mary. But this strikes me as a pretty solid beginning. The Church is built on the prayers of those little old ladies who sit in the back, that  inconspicuous legion of unassuming saints. And Mary is first among them.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Metaphors as Persuasion

I've already written about how metaphors are the fuel of the mind, and how we would be unable to think without them. This can make it quite difficult to displace a set of poor metaphors in our mind, since we must replace them almost instantly.

However, there are occasions when such a paradigm shift becomes feasible, when we are able to consciously identify and sort through our mental metaphors, determining which to preserve or permit and which we wish to discard. In some cases this may be an easy process, especially when the metaphors relate to a subject or idea to which we have not given much thought. If an idea arose without undergoing strict scrutiny at the beginning, and has not given rise to any other ideas, then it is so isolated that it might be easily uprooted and removed.

But when the life of the mind is active, such cases are vanishingly rare. In any other cases, the process of sorting and shifting paradigms can take considerable time and effort. It may even require emotional endurance, when opinions run high on an issue or when there is personal history involved. In any event, persuasion can be quite difficult, even when you are yourself both the agent and the object of such persuasion.

Yet in many cases we are not the primary agent of our own persuasion. Often we find ourselves receiving new metaphor-sets en masse from others.

This is the power of fiction. By presenting a coherent world, or a narrative within that world, in which a different set of images and metaphors is tacitly accepted, fiction enables us to envision a world in which we might ourselves accept such images or metaphors. Alternately, by offering up such images and metaphors within the story itself, fiction may provide the fuel for our mental fires, and may serve as a catalyst for our rational imaginations.

This is also the power of rhetoric.

Why do we imagine that good rhetoricians and persuasive public speakers are so apt to use emotive or metaphoric language. Surely they would tire from it if it were merely decorative. Thus, the imagery they use is not meant to merely beautify their main argument. Rather, the imagery carries the argument within itself.

There are three essential elements of classical rhetoric: the ethos, or the credibility of the speaker; the logos, or the rational content of a speech; and the pathos, or the emotional content of the speech. Many classic texts on rhetoric tend to minimize the importance of pathos. They treat it as the ugly stepsister of the family, or (more accurately) as the gorgeous blonde sister who looks the part but has nothing going on upstairs. Pathos may beautify a speech or add emotional resonance to a message, but without logos, without true and substantial content for a message, rhetoric becomes an endeavor in futility.

This simple formulation ignores the vital role that pathos and emotions generally play in the persuasion process. Adding emotional resonance to a speech is good for more than grabbing and holding the attention of an audience. Emotional resonance is necessary to changes minds in the first place.

Good rhetoric doesn't merely feed a listener a stream of statements in propositional logic form. Good rhetoric must also feed the listener a stream of images.

We think in terms of images. If all we hear are propositional statements of logic, the only way we will be persuaded is if we construct the images for ourselves. But if we receive them along with the logical content, we are able to take a shortcut and find ourselves at home with the speaker's position much more easily.

The function of pathos, the emotional content of a speech, is not limited to mere decoration. Pathos is not inert; it is not moribund. The non-rational content provided by images is both the spoonful of sugar and the medicine itself. If persuasion is a specialty car, metaphors serve as both the custom paint job and the engine.

Metaphors are the essential vehicles of persuasion. The pun was regrettable, but the point is not. Metaphors are, quite simply, the means by which we are moved.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Michael Flynn: Eifelheim

If any of my readers are considering a career as an Internet troll, they should first familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations. That's right: as in any respectable profession, there are standards and practices to trolling through forums and comment threads. The first rule of trolling is this: if at any moment you find yourself sparring with a man called "Ye Olde Statistician," run. Flee the scene and burn your bridges. You are profoundly outmatched.

Imagine if Bruce Wayne's alter-ego (for those of you who sprang from the womb as fully grown adults, that would be Batman) had an alter-ego of its own, even more shadowy and lethal. Meet Michael Flynn: statistician by day, well-regarded science-fiction author by night, and veteran troll-hunter in the twilight hours. I first encountered "Ye Olde Statistician" deploying his arsenal of historical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge against a horde of angry trolls on a theology blog. I decided to look for more of his posts online, and that's when I discovered he was a published author.

"Eifelheim" was first published in 1987 as a novella, focusing on a pair of scientists who discover the startling truth about the medieval German village called Eifelheim, which had mysteriously disappeared at some point in the late fourteenth century. From this beginning came the novel, published in 2006. In addition to the original scenes set in the present day, Flynn wrote a parallel narrative set in medieval Eifelheim itself. It is in these sections that we find the meat of the story, and Flynn's masterful command of medieval history.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 10

Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I testify about them that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge.

Romans 10:1-2 ~~ Paul desires salvation for his fellow Jews. This desire seems oriented around something not yet attained, though perhaps in light of their (albeit misguided) zeal for God, something in the process of being attained. This all relates back to the relationship between knowledge and salvation that is discussed at length in Romans 2.

Romans 10:3 ~~ The failure to be subject to God -- is born both out of ignorance of God's righteousness, and by the desire to established themselves as arbiters of righteousness.

Romans 10:4 ~~ Christ is the end (telos: goal, purpose) of the Law for the faithful.

Romans 10:5 ~~ According to Moses (Lev. 18:5), if you practice the righteousness based on the law, you will live by that righteousness.

Romans 10:6-7 ~~ But the righteousness of faith does not speak of anything in our own power, that we might bring Christ into the world or draw Him out of death (the Incarnation and Resurrection are informally referenced as bi-modal peaks of Christ's life and ministry).

Romans 10:8 ~~ Righteousness based on faith proclaims the nearness of the Word in our mouth and heart, that being "the word of faith which we are preaching" (the gospel transmitted by the Apostles).

Romans 10: 9-10 ~~ Verse 9 is the more famous of the two: "If you confess with you mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that Christ raised Him from the dead, you will be saved." But verse 10 is the essential filter and gloss of that previous verse: namely, that the belief in our hearts results in righteousness, while the confession of our lips results in salvation. That's something to ponder.

Romans 10: 11-13 ~~ Paul speaks in these verses of the universal and perpetual accessibility of God's grace, and thus the universal possibility of our salvation.

Romans 10:14-15 ~~ "How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom that have no heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?" Paul speaks of the necessity of the evangelical Church, and the necessary connection between an evangelical mission and the Apostolic commission. We are sent because we have heard, and we heard it from the Apostles, from those who bore witness to Christ.

Romans 10:16-22 ~~ Faith is enabled by hearing... but Israel has heard without belief. Why then has it no faith?

Romans 10 is an odd chapter, full of brief tangents that fill the void between Romans 9 and Romans 11, both of which cover the theme "Jew and Gentile" in a great deal of depth. Romans 10 seems more oriented on the "how" than the "why": how did we come to belief, and how did Israel come to lack it? This leads Paul to discuss the role of the Law and the law of righteousness, the centrality of a Credo for salvation and of public evangelism for the Church.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Reflection on Metaphors

We think, we breathe, through images.

Often, when we try to convey or communicate ideas, we rely on propositional logic: for instance, "if A, then B." But this mode is not how we process ideas internally. Our minds operate on images, associations, and pattern recognition.

In other words, metaphors are the fuel of the mind.

Such metaphors wield immense power over our ability to reason, and their influence is almost entirely unconscious. We do not recognize the extent of the images and mental associations that are inspired by almost everything we perceive. Indeed, I would say we cannot. Our conscious minds are simply not robust enough to account for everything that needs to be accounted for.

Even when we recognize metaphors consciously, we may find ourselves unable to consciously reject them.

This could be for any number of reasons. Reason is a faculty by nature, but a habit by use. If we are not accustomed to using the muscle of our mind, we will find such intellectual heavy-lifting strenuous or perhaps even impossible. Like stalagmites rising from the floor of a cave, thoughts and paradigms may grow organically though they quickly become calcified. This is one of the reasons pure or 'objective' rationality is effectively impossible

Another reason why we may be unable to consciously dispose of mental metaphors is the lack of any ready alternatives. For images are not something we can simply 'do without.' If metaphors are the fuel for our minds, then we cannot consciously reject one set of metaphors without immediately replacing it with another. Yet this is a process that often requires a good deal of prior reflection and consideration.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Judged (Afterword)

Read the Preface.
Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.
Read Part 3.

As you no doubt figured out by the end of Part 3, Judged is an adaptation of the story of Samson as a crime drama in a setting similar to 1920's gangland Chicago.

The three parts released thus far only comprise the first chapter. I've done some outlining for the rest, and at this point it looks like the whole story will work as a five-act drama or a five-chapter mini-novel.

The setting is the fictional city of Illini, a Native American word that originally applied to the general region south of Lake Michigan. I considered using "Assati" or "Azza" (or some other derivation of Gaza, the city of the Philistines), but the name would have been too Aramaic to fit a middle-America gangland setting. The period is late 1920s -- Dom drives a prototype Model A Ford, which was released in 1927.

The Philistines in this case are the crime family of Dom Basilio. His daughter is Dalia, a Latinized "Delilah." She's kind of important. After some fence-sitting, I kept Samson's original name for narrative impact, but changed his father's name from "Manoah" to "Noah" (retaining the same root, meaning "rest").

If you noticed that some of the names (Basilio, Antonio, Lindoro) sounded familiar, that probably means you're either a fan of classical opera or French theater. The names are taken from characters in "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro," plays written by Pierre de Beaumarchais and later converted into operas by Rossini and Mozart, respectively.

The first break came by re-imagining the "gates of Gaza" (Judges 16:1-3) as local syndicates of a broader criminal enterprise. Once that was understood, it also became clear that the temple of Dagon (Judges 16:24) was the center of this empire, the headquarters for the Basilio 'estate,' and thus the necessary site for the initial confrontation and reveal of Samson.

This was an almost startlingly easy project to write. These eight pages took about five hours of writing, and another two hours for editing, spaced over several days. This is especially rapid in contrast with the glacial pace of my novel project. But, to borrow a quote from a not-quite historical Mozart, I suppose when's it's already written in one's head, the rest is just dictation.

I've already continued writing the second chapter of the story. At the same time, I don't anticipate posting additional parts from this storyline for some time, for a variety of reasons. Now we return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Judged (#3)

Read the Preface.
Read Part 1.
Read Part 2.

Before Dom could respond, however, the door burst open behind him. It was his son, an overeager pup of a man, a boy with no sense and no control of his senses. He was Donnelly, after his mother's godfather. She had insisted on the name. The runt of the litter, he was constantly rushing into ill-considered brawls.

The men of the Temple were instructed to call him "Don" and never "Donnie." But among themselves they knew him by another name, an even more insulting diminutive. They called him Donnicello.

Donnie had been in the East Gate when he had learned of the destruction of the West Gate, and then the return of his father’s car to the Temple at the hands of a stranger. Putting two and a number not necessarily two together in that instant, he had rushed home, wielding the only blunt instrument he could find: a hand-crank he took from the Model T he had driven there.

The discovery that his father was both alive and, more distressingly, in the same room made him pause. But this lasted only a moment. His energy was consumed in fueling a deeper rage toward the stranger, who was clearly responsible for the destruction of the West Gate and the murder of his father. His loathing was not diminished by his father's evident survival, but was rather exacerbated by the kind and potentially puppyish look his sister was giving the stranger.

Donnie advanced, a menacing gleam in his eye and an inarticulate war-cry on his lips.

Basilio was exasperated by the interruption, but he was not in the habit of restraining his son from the verge of every new insanity. At any rate, he shared his son's suspicions, and was eager to see how the confrontation might be resolved. He saw Dalia pale visibly, but that meant nothing. It was the weakness of a woman, or perhaps girlish anxiety for a potential beau. Dom was more interested in the youth.

The young man held his ground, his eyes tracking Donnie as he approached. Basilio noticed that his hands were flexing slightly, and his feet and legs had tensed. Something approaching alarm began to dawn in his mind, but Dom did not yet realize it. After all, his son held the crank.

Donnie approached and swung the crank. It was a low arc, aimed at the body. His father nodded approvingly: the pain would incapacitate without death. But the young man had other plans. He had launched himself against Donnie, into the path of the crank. It shuddered to a stop within an inch of his flesh. The youth had pinioned Donnie's arm, forcing him to drop the crank and retreat from the pressure. The youth snatched the crank with his other hand as it fell, placing it on the nearby table. Then, mere seconds after it had begun, a break in the action.

Dom Basilio was astonished. Only now did the thought finally occur to him to caution his son against this fight. But it was already too late.

Donnie, enraged at being so easily disarmed, had thrown his full weight into a punch aimed at the young man's nose. The young man turned slightly, and his jaw caught the blow. The punch landed with a crunch of bones and a cry of pain. Basilio did not understand: surely so quick a man would sidestep the blow? Then he realized that the crunch and the cry had not come from the young man. They had come from Donnie. His hand had broken on the young man's jaw, and the jaw was none the worse for wear.

Dom glanced, incredulous, between his son and the young man who had disabled him. Now, even in his own Temple, he was terrified of those eyes that spoke of so much wildness.

The young man spoke, and his words had a cold authority. “You made an enemy of me this day. This man abused me in your own house, and you lifted not a finger." His eyes flared. "You have led him and your people to the slaughter." He glanced to Dalia, the fire reduced to embers. "Dalia, dear, you are always welcome to my presence. But not as one who bears my enemy's name."

The young man looked down to the whimpering Donnie, who was only now getting to his knees. He grasped the hand-crank from the table, overshadowed by an aura of unimaginable restraint. "You provide the weapon. I wield it." He struck twice, brutally: the first just below Donnie's knees, knocking the breath out of him, the second against the legs as Donnie began to collapse. They struck with a sickening sound of bone, muscle, and ligament. Dom Basilio knew without a doubt that his son would never walk again. He raged inwardly, but was so far from his wits he hardly knew to move.

The young man looked at the bloodied cudgel and spoke over it:

“With the hand-crank of a T, I have laid him in a heap.
With the hand-crank of a T, I shall fell a thousand men.”

In his fear Basilio managed to ask a single question, though weakly:“Who are you?”

The young man replied: “My father is Noah, and our family is Dan. We walked this land for many years, and now we are home." He gathered himself and walked out, turning to speak in Dom's ear as he passed: "Their cause is mine. I will deliver them from your hands."

At last Basilio found his power return in a wave, rage pouring through his every vein and pore. He did not ask but howled his demand after the retreating figure. “Your name!”

The young man didn't look back as he walked out onto the street. But his words rang through the Temple.

“My name is Samson.”

Read the Afterword.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Judged (#2)

Read the Preface.
Read Part 1.

The three men returned to the car, only to find a surprise waiting for them: namely, the car was not waiting for them. Basilio’s new Model A, the best car in Illini, was missing.

The two guards quickly dashed off in either direction to look, while Basilio cupped his face in his hands in disbelief. He was soon startled from his reverie by one of the guards.

He came running. “You see it?” The guard who had called shook his head. He was about to speak when the other interrupted: he had spotted tire treads of the car on the road back to Illini. Basilio might have kissed him on the cheek in instant gratitude, but an impatient grimace from the first guard made him attentive again. “Why did you halloo us, then?”

The guard pointed a short ways ahead:  “Look!” Sure enough, not twenty yards away, was the West Gate garage, kept apart from the main building and evidently immune to the house’s ill-fortune.

Within minutes they were driving back to the city, this time in much older Model T. The road was slow going, but at last they found themselves back in the city.

Basilio almost blushed at the ignominy of returning in a T. The car still ran, thank the gods, but Dom would have never thought he’d ever be found in a T again, not after he was given a Model A, still in prototype, as a sign of ‘friendship’ with Mr. Ford and more importantly Mr. Ford's financiers. He smiled at the memory: the family business had been good.

But now the estate was threatened, and the threat must be dealt with. The car slowed to a stop outside the Temple, and Basilio flung himself out and up the stairs. Just before he passed through the doors, he stopped, turned, and gaped again. The car, his car, his stolen Model A, was parked outside the house, parked where it had been parked every day since he had received it.

He shook his head with disbelief, then anxiously waved his guards to follow. Whoever had stolen the car may yet be inside, and whoever had stolen the car might have information on the person who had destroyed the West Gate.

They entered, and the other Temple guards quickly gathered around him. One of the men soon admitted that the car had been returned by a young man who had entered the house, claiming the car was abandoned and he was returning it to its rightful owner. This young man was at the moment in the sitting room with the Basilio’s daughter, Dalia.

At that, Basilio waved the others to return to their posts. They fanned out, while his two trusted ‘goons’ followed him to the inner rooms. He would have words with this young man.

He almost knocked over the doors in his haste to enter. The young man quickly stood up. He had been sitting beside Dalia, leaning over to whisper in her ear, but he did not look self-conscious now that he was standing. Dalia, on the other hand, was still fighting a smile. Dom never had to fight a smile. His face was a vassal to his mind, and any wayward smiles had long since been routed. He glared at the youth.

Dom couldn’t read this kid. His eyes were almost dancing, a riot of green, but his expression was calm and confident. Basilio waited, hoping that silence would subordinate the young man, and looked closer. Truth be told, there was almost a hungry wildness in his posture. It was like looking at an animal. Unconsciously his brow furrowed; consciously he maintained a steady glare.

After some time, though still without the expected fear and trembling, the young man stepped forward. “Forgive me, sir, for intruding on your hearth and home. I trust your man at the door told you my reason for attending upon you?”

Interesting, he thought: An animal and a wordsmith. Aloud, he spoke in monosyllables. “Yes.”

“Good! I’m glad that you are well returned, and glad to be of service in returning your car.”


Basilio expected this gruff reply would give the young man some pause. It didn’t.

“Indeed? Pity. Well, I was just telling your lovely daughter Dalia my sad little story. Forgive me, young lady” (her eyes danced with his) “but it seems I am not welcome here.”


It was only the ambiguity of this reply that made the young man stop. “Pardon?”

“You may stay.”

Another pause. “Is that so…?”

“If" Dom paused "you tell me who you are and how you came to find that car in the first place."

"Oh!" His face lifted. "I saw smoke and thought I might help. It was visible all morning. But the place was deserted, and the only thing I saw was the car. It looked to be yours, so I figured the one who took it from you was the one who had burnt the house. So I took it on myself to return it."

Dom pressed him. "But how did you find yourself in the middle of nowhere? No one lives near that house for miles."

The young man seemed abashed for a moment – or perhaps merely confused – but soon took a second wind. “It was a lady, you see.” Dalia looked crestfallen – simple girl! The youth hastened to reassure her. "No, no. It was" (he paused for half a beat) "my sister." His face brightened with hers, and Dom found himself almost buying this performance. "She had lately fallen on trying times and more trying suitors, and I was assisting her with both.” He smiled lopsidedly.

Dom stood in silence for a few moments. The boy’s tale was convincing, even if his face was not. And while Dalia still waited expectantly for his approval – or whatever she wanted for him – he was still troubled by the raw wildness that he saw beneath.

Part 3 will be posted tomorrow.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 9

I am telling the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience testifies with me in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart.

Romans 9:1 ~~ A triple repetition for effect, a common convention in Hellenic rhetoric. In this case Paul uses it with subtle distinctions between "I tell the truth in Christ" (possibly taking an oath 'by Christ'), "I am not lying" (pledging himself and his honor), and "my consciences testifies with me in the Holy Spirit" (invoking his conscience and the Holy Spirit as his witnesses).

Romans 9:2 ~~ An abrupt transition from the Providential security of Romans 8:31-39 to Paul's own great sorrow and sense of desolation, inspired by the sudden remembrance that Israel had lost its security and salvation.

Romans 9:3 ~~ Paul yearns for the salvation of Israel, his fallen brethren.

Romans 9:4-5 ~~ "What benefit has the Jew?" Paul had asked in Romans 3:1. Here he answers: they were adopted as sons, they received the glory, the covenants (of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David), the giving of the Law, the Temple and temple services, and the promises (of the prophets, the hope of the Messiah). This passages concludes with a brief and evidently spontaneous doxology.

Romans 9:6 ~~ Israel may have been displaced, but their non-assurance of salvation does not demonstrate the failure of the Word or the Love of God.

Romans 9:6-8 ~~ Children of Israel defined not according to the flesh (physical descent, or circumcision under the law) but according to the promise (the covenant with Abraham). "Through Isaac your descendants will be named" -- Isaac, historically one of the lesser patriarchs, is in this light the center of the story of Israel. He defines the covenant.

Romans 9:10-14 ~~ God's preference for Jacob is by principle (and by time) prior to any work, yet His preference is not therefore unjust. This theme continues....

Romans 9:15-18 ~~ God's providence (predestination) is not dependent on the man but on the will of God.

Romans 9:19-22 ~~ God's justice consists in having the right to dispose as He sees fit, even to demonstrate His wrath. Yet He exercises this rule sparingly and with great restraint, for our benefit.

Romans 9:22 ~~ Awesome verse. "God [is] willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known," yet He withholds or defers His judgment over us. He "endures with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction": temporal punishment (the natural consequence of sin) is allotted in place of destruction and wrath, the eternal punishment (the spiritual consequences of sin).

Romans 9:23 ~~ Patience predestination and deferred punishment are to "make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy which He prepared beforehand for glory."

Romans 9:25-29 ~~ Paul cites passages from Hosea and Isaiah to prove the universal scope of salvation even under the Abrahamic covenant.

Romans 9:30-33 ~~ Paul summarizes: Gentiles who did not seek righteousness (who do not even have the law, cf. Romans 2:14) attained righteousness by faith (by doing the law, they showed themselves to be a "law to themselves," cf. Romans 2:15). Yet the Jews, who knew the law and pursued the law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. "Why? Because not by faith, but as out of works." Please note that in these verses, the "law" is identified with "faith" and explicitly contrasted with "works." It should be clear that Paul is using "law" in a broader sense than the Torah, and using "works" in a narrower sense than "deeds."

Saturday, June 11, 2011

"In the white-hot furnace of essential speech."

There came an instant at which both men braced themselves. Ransom gripped the side of his sofa; Merlin grasped his own knees and set his teeth. A rod of coloured light, whose colour no man can name or picture, darted between them; no more to see than that, but seeing was the least part of their experience. Quick agitation seized them: a kind of boiling and bubbling in mind and heart which shook their bodies also. It went to a rhythm of such fierce speed that they feared their sanity must be shaken into a thousand fragments. And then it seemed that this had actually happened.

But it didn't matter: for all the fragments - needle-pointed desires, brisk merriments, lynx-eyed thoughts - went rolling to and fro like glittering drops and reunited themselves. It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.

For Ransom, whose study had been for many years in the realm of words, it was heavenly pleasure. He found himself sitting within the very heart of language, in the white-hot furnace of essential speech. All fact was broken, splashed into cataracts, caught, turned inside out, kneaded, slain, and reborn as meaning. For the lord of Meaning himself, the herald, the messenger, the slayer of Argus, was with them: the angel that spins nearest the sun. Viritrilbia, whom men call Mercury and Thoth.

~ C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 1954. Chapter XV: "The Descent of the Gods."

Friday, June 10, 2011

Judged (#1)

Read the Preface.

Dom exhaled deeply through pursed lips. It sounded more like a gasp than a whistle.

Dom Basilio stood on a plot of unremarkable but undisturbed plain, far removed from the bustle of the road and chaos of nearby Illini. But placid beauty had been savagely marred. Only an hour had passed since he had learned the house was in ruins. Smoke crested the trees. Eden was at war.

With his two guards – he had half-jokingly called them his ‘goons’ once – he walked from his parked car to get a better view of the house. But just as they cleared the patch of trees that blocked the house from passers-by, the three men came to an abrupt halt.

A single profanity pierced the silence. None of the men knew which of them had voiced it.

Basilio gaped. It was worse than he could have imagined. The house was like the wreckage of a downed monoplane, like a carcass on which vultures would feed. Debris littered the ground. The roof had caved, the walls buckled outward. Was it some sort of explosion?

He squinted in disbelief. Between the house and the field, just beyond the collapsed porch, he saw a dull streak of gray. He moved closer. His eyes did not lie. Somehow the damage was even worse than it had first appeared.

The house had burst at the seams, but the house had also moved. The whole structure had been torn from its foundations and dragged at least three feet. The scratches on the exposed cinderblocks proved as much. But what explosion – what force – could move a house and blow it apart?

The side door had fallen away, so he motioned for the men to search inside. They were good at their job, good enough to fear for their lives and not push against anything while inside.

It took a few minutes before the men returned from the silent suspense of their work. They brought him nothing but a pair of unlocked handcuffs.

Basilio looked incredulous. “What’s this?” But he was compelled to look again by the grim looks on his men. The handcuffs were not unlocked after all. They had been torn to pieces.

“The hell? Who did this?” Then his mind returned to the previous evening. Basilio had received a call late that night about a man who had been caught sneaking around this very house. “Lawful stiff?” He had asked.

“Well, ‘e don’t work for us, so looks it.” Antonio, the house manager, had replied.

“Beat it out of him, would you.”

“Shor’ thing, Dom. If he weren’t stiff before, ‘e will be after we’re done with ‘im.”

A prisoner held in the West Gate: a bit odd, but nothing too unusual for a man in Dom’s business. Such vigilante types were always poking into the Basilio family estate.

The Basilio estate had been passed from grandfather to father to son for a hundred years. His great-grandfather, the first Dom, had won the estate from its previous occupants, the Lindoro clan. That Dom had sent the Lindorosi sprawling towards the Oregon Territory many decades ago, and they had not heard news of that family since. The estate was secure.

Not that anyone could implicate Basilio in the business. Sure, everyone was wise to the fact that he ran it, but they were wise enough to forget when lawmen came asking. Dom lived quite comfortable out of a mansion at the center of Illini, near city hall. Men called it the Temple. All family business was conducted far away from town, divided between four houses: the “Gates” of Illini. Only the four local managers could ever contact Dom directly, at least on their own initiative.

But this was unprecedented. The four Gates had existed at least as long as the estate itself, and the Western Gate was the oldest of them. How could it now collapse? How could it collapse like this, with a plume of soot and unanswered questions?

Shaking his head in disbelief, he listened as the guards told him about what they’d seen inside the house: corpses piled against walls, bloodied heads and broken bones, and a single chair resting innocently in the middle of the floor. “That’s where we found the cuffs, Dom. On the chair. Wrapped around the back. I think someone was being held there.”

The guard paused, at once eager and ashamed to say it.


“But there weren’t any blood on the chair.” The guards exchanged a quick knowing glance. If a stranger had been inside the Gate, it certainly wasn’t for pleasantries.

“No blood on the chair? But.” Basilio stopped himself. He didn’t say, ‘But I told Antonio to beat it out of him.’ He didn’t say anything. If the stranger had been spared, to sweat out his fear overnight, that was Antonio’s prerogative. Certainly no one would expect the same man to break out of chain handcuffs, let alone to devastate the entire building as he had done. Besides, Antonio’s men had been armed.

That reminded him. “Did you find any spears or darts?” Dom had never understood how the slang had come about, but they were so common people hardly used the proper words for ‘rifle’ and ‘pistol.’

“Not one, Dom. Some holes in the wall, and some casings on the floor, but nothing else.”

Basilio grunted. Worse and worse. The West Gate was down, and the cache was missing. The estate was under siege. It was time to return to the Temple and let the managers work their magic.

Part 2 will be posted next week.

Judged (Preface)

The following short story was written as proof-of-concept for a much bigger idea. It was inspired by my review of Orson Scott Card's Homecoming series, which successfully integrated plot elements from the Book of Mormon in a distinctly science-fiction fantasy setting. I realized that it would be a similar creative leap for Christians to adapt content from the Bible into existing literary genres.

There have been a few modern adaptations -- see, for instance, Bill Myers' Eli. But such cases almost always revolve around the Gospel narrative. There are far fewer adaptations, if any exist at all, from the Old Testament. Yet it is a treasure trove of story-telling.

I can envision the second half of Genesis as a road movie and the first half of Exodus as a political drama. I see Numbers and Joshua as a homecoming narrative, with a ending comparable to what the Scouring of the Shire (if only they had included it in The Return of the King!) I envision Ruth as a romantic comedy, 1 Samuel as a LOTR-style fantasy epic, and 1 Maccabees as a post-apocalyptic war movie. But surely there are more gems than these in Scripture. Perhaps Elijah and Daniel deserve to have their stories told as well.

So I present an 8-page short story I whipped out in four hours as proof of concept. I enjoyed writing it quite a bit -- I might just keep going. But for now, enjoy the hors d'Ĺ“uvre.

Part 1 is posted here.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

100 Posts!

So yesterday I posted my 100th essay on this blog. That's a big deal, right? It took 3 years and 30,000 miles to reach triple digits, but we did it. Along the way, this blog was ranked as one of the Top 100 Religion Blogs in the world (according to, though the bottom promptly dropped out on our Auth. rating after that. Traffic for this blog more than doubled both in April and May. We're about halfway through a series on Catholicism, a little under halfway through a Commentary on Romans, and just beginning a series on Life After Death. So yeah: life is good and life goes on. It's not much of a 100th Post Party, but it's something. To another 100!

Jay Richards: Money, Greed, and God

When I was fourteen, I was hired as an intern at for a public-policy think-tank based in Seattle. I was encouraged by my supervisor to pursue policy-related work, particularly in my area of expertise: economics. This is how I eventually came to work as an assistant for Dr. Jay Richards, one of the Vice Presidents, who was looking to develop an accessible book on economics.

"Money, Greed, and God" was first developed as an autobiography. Dr. Richards originally intended to cover the course of his life and how his thinking on economics developed from a youthful Christian Marxism to a more mature pro-market paradigm. This kind of content is retained in many of the chapters, but the overarching framework (the organizing principle) of the book is slightly different. Dr. Richards organizes the material around eight myths that Christians believe about capitalism and the market system. They are, in order:

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Orson Scott Card: The Memory of Earth

**This review was cross-posted on my book review blog, Worthy of Note. While the book in question is science fiction, the plot is adapted wholesale from The Book of Mormon, and it seemed fitting to post this and future reviews of the series here as well for any discussion of the theological elements. Enjoy!**

In my opinion, Orson Scott Card is one of the best storytellers of modern times. He conveys the motivations of characters, even villains, in such a convincing way that readers are able to immerse themselves fully in the dynamics of the narrative. He is also a singularly impressive world-builder, drawing us in to new worlds and universes through his story-telling. This was the case with Ender's Game, with Seventh Son, with Pathfinder and The Lost Gate. It was also the case with The Memory of Earth, which introduces the Homecoming series.

I read all five of the Homecoming books and enjoyed every one of them. Afterwards, when I went to prepare these reviews through a bit of research, I was stunned to discover that the entire series is a thinly veiled adaptation of the Book of Mormon: a family called by God to travel from Jerusalem to the "promised land" of America. Joseph Smith may have been a false prophet extraordinaire, but he was evidently a singularly impressive story-teller (that or he simply benefited from the proximity to Card's genius). While the original setting of Homecoming, the city of Basilica on the world of Harmony, is officially a Slavic matriarchy, the feel of the place remains pretty clearly Aramaic in nature, so even such atmospheric details are preserved. More notably, many of the events are the same, and even the names are retained in something like their original form. Where events or names are parallel, I will insert the equivalent from the Book of Mormon in parentheses.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Eusebius: The Church History

Quite simply, Eusebius of Caesarea is the Father of Church History. With the obvious exception of Luke, who gave us the book of Acts, Eusebius was the first person to construct a history of the early Christian church. Though there are rough patches and legitimate criticisms to be made, Eusbeius' work is an almost unprecedented boon to modern historians.

Eusebius' method was far removed from modern historiography. Eusebius did not attempt to reconstruct history from statistical data or from interpolating between multiple competing authorities. He did not have the luxury of either option. Rather, his method was to collate any and all texts from earlier authors, and present them in a largely uncritical and unedited fashion. His ten volumes of ecclesiastical history are thus a treasure-trove of primary-source documentation, many of which would have been lost forever to the dark reaches of antiquity if not for their inclusion by Eusebius.

Modern critics often cite Eusebius for a lack of objective historiography, but they forget that such a standard is quintessentially modern, unrelated to the classical discipline of writing history. Eusebius' goal, informed by the classical tradition of rhetoric, is to educate and persuade. Thus, much of his History is informed by explicitly theological content.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Commentary on Scripture: Romans 8

Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Romans 8:2 ~~ "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus sets you free from the law of sin and of death."

Romans 8:3-9 ~~ The following passage is an extended contrast between "spirit" and "flesh." It should be noted that this is not the same as a Manichean or Gnostic dichotomy between "spirit" and "matter." Even while "flesh" is treated with contempt in this particular passage, it is necessary to remember that "the Word became flesh." The mere fact of the Incarnation dignifies and glorifies "flesh" in the sense of matter, even as it condemns and destroys "flesh" in the sense of sin.

Romans 8:3 ~~ This verse contrasts Law (of weakness and of flesh) with God's power through the Incarnation.

Romans 8:4 ~~ The Son was sent, that sin might be condemned in the flesh, that the requirements of Law fulfilled in us. By walking according to the Spirit, we are justified by fulfilling the requirements of the Law, through Christ's work.

Romans 8:5-8 ~~ Paul engages in a series of arguments. If "of the flesh" or "of the spirit," then "set their minds on things of the flesh" or "of the spirit." As the mind is set on flesh or spirit, so it is death or life, because "the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God." It is not subject to God -- indeed, it cannot subject itself to God -- and therefore cannot please God.

Romans 8:9 ~~ If "in Spirit," then the Spirit does dwell in you. Likewise the contrapositive: if you do not have the Spirit of Christ, you do not belong to Him.

Romans 8:10 ~~"The body is dead because of sin." Physical death and suffering are temporal punishments allotted to sin; that is, the natural consequences of our self-inflicted detachment from God's presence and grace. This temporal or natural consequence is distinct from the eternal or spiritual consequence of damnation, which is affected and ameliorated by the sanctifying grace of God.

Romans 8:10-11 ~~ The spirit is alive because of righteousness: the Resurrection of Christ is imparted to us (cf. Romans 6:4-5).

Romans 8:12-13 ~~ "We are under obligation" (faith and worship of God are both duties we owe to our Creator) to die to self.

Romans 8:14-17 ~~ "We are children of God... heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ." This verse is as explicit a confirmation of the doctrine of divine filiation as we could possibly expect.

Romans 8:17 ~~ As we are heirs with Christ, so we suffer with Him "so that" we will be glorified with Him.

Romans 8:17-18 ~~ Paul transitions from soteriology (teachings on salvation) to theodicy (teachings on suffering).

Romans 8:19 ~~ Nature eagerly awaits "the revealing of the sons of God," which heralds its restoration to the "New Heaven and New Earth" prophesied in Revelations.

Romans 8:20-22 ~~ Nature is subject to the Curse because of the Fall, and will be restored to glory by the Atonement. The whole of Creation is vicariously represented to its Creator through Man, and the salvation of humankind through the work of Christ has ramifications for every level of nature.

Romans 8:23 ~~ Our conversion -- our initial adoption as sons of God -- is merely the "first fruits of the Spirit." Salvation is far more extensive than merely justification, in the narrow (and quintessentially Protestant) sense of an initial and juridical imputation of God's grace and Christ's merit.

Romans 8:24-25 ~~ These verses on hope point to the much deeper and more involved relationship between faith and reason, and more pointedly the connection between knowledge and salvation.

Romans 8:26-27 ~~ Paul transitions from the uncertainty of hope, to the aid of the spirit in Praying.

Romans 8:28 ~~ This is a pretty clear statement on Divine Providence: "God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God." This is not a promise of riches or material blessings, for that is a far too narrow definition of "good." But even suffering and pain can benefit the souls of those who truly love and seek God, who is the Author of all truth and beauty and goodness. It should be noted that the idea of Providence is somewhat problematic in a strictly logical sense: for the normal mode of Nature consists of randomness and regularity. If the operations of Nature are interposed by divine or supernatural agency, we call it a miracle. So what is the distinction between a "miracle" (direct intervention in the laws of nature) and Providence, in the sense of a subtle guidance or influence for God's own ends?  Lewis has some good content on this point in his book "Miracles," but I'm not sure what to make of it.

Romans 8:29-30 ~~ This is a fantastic passage. God's foreknowledge of our persons and natures precedes His predestining our conformity to His son. This predestination is accompanied by His "call" (election, or possibly vocation), followed by justification, succeeded by glorification. One possible interpolation and gloss: by observing our desire for God, God predestines (arranges in advance) our ability and our opportunities to conform to His Son, moves our hearts to seek Him more than we might by nature and conscience, accepts our faith in God, and glorifies us with His Own Son Christ.

Romans 8:31-39 ~~ Paul launches an extended meditation on our security in hope, taking refuge in the shelter of Divine Providence. Several beautiful (and eminently quotable) verses in this section, but all recapitulate the same simple theme.

This chapter in Paul's epistle to the Romans treats a wide variety of themes. Paul treats the distinction between "flesh" and the "spirit" (though, as mentioned before, we must be careful to avoid the Manichean heresy, which denies the Incarnational nature of our faith). Paul also distinguishes between the temporal and eternal consequences of sin (a central point in Catholic teachings on sin and purgatory), and asserts the path to salvation (notably emphasizing our life as fellow heirs of Christ). Paul also treats, briefly, the question of how Nature is alternatedly damned and glorified vicariously through Man's relation to God. Finally, with a brief detour to theodicy, Paul lands on the core teaching of hope, particularly in reference to predestination and Providence.