Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The doctrine behind 'Good Omens' (spoilers)

The thing about "Good Omens" is, it's just as fresh and original the third or fourth time through as it is the first time.

Bar none, this is the finest novelization of the Apocalypse that has ever been written. Leave "Left Behind" under the short leg of your table, where it's actually useful; and never mind the attempts of other authors to cash in on Antichrist fever. If the End of Days doesn't happen the way authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett describe it, there needs to be a do-over.

The bulk of the action takes place in what is supposed to be the last week of history as the armies of heaven and hell amass for the epic conclusion of their war, at the culmination of human history. There's only one little problem. The forces of hell accidentally misplaced the Antichrist shortly after he was born, and no one's really sure where to find him.

As the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride their motorcycles toward Tadfield, England, a demon and an angel who have been living on earth for so long that they can't bear to see it destroyed, join together in a desperate effort to find him and avert Armageddon.

Not surprisingly, the book is full of oblique references to "The Omen." For instance, the infant Antichrist was meant to be switched with the infant son of an American diplomat, as in the movies. The satanist nun involved in the switch suggests "Damien" as a name for the baby, as he was named in the movies. And so on.

Originally published in 1990, "Good Omens" was ahead of the curve for the millennial craze that eventually spawned "Left Behind," so "The Omen" at the time was the most recognizable story to feature the Antichrist.

The fast pacing and British humor that Pratchett and Gaiman bring to the book are reason enough to return to this book again and again; but these two are intelligent writers, and there's enough meat in the book to draw me back long after the jokes will have worn out. (If that ever happens, which seems unlikely.)

There's an interesting humanism at work within "Good Omens" that expresses itself through the framework of Armageddon. Since Adam was raised not at the center of power, as the son of a powerful American diplomat, but as the son of nobody important in Tadfield, England, he's grown up free of the influence of both heaven and hell. He's just pure boy, loving the things a boy loves, doing the things a boy does, and seeing a resolution to the War in Heaven that neither heaven or nor hell apparently anticipates.

The book also repeatedly underscores the role and nature of humanity itself, as the unconsidered third party in this war. The angel Aziraphale and his demonic colleague Crowley, regularly are surprised by a capacity for goodness in humanity that astounds Aziraphale, and a capacity for evil that shocks Crowley. Crowley, we discover, took credit for the Spanish Inquisition even though he had nothing to do with it; and Aziraphale blows up the radar guns of police, because he always assumed that hell's side had come up with them.

In a sense, the humanist themes of "Good Omens" are a rejection of popular Christian eschatology, which often juxtaposes harmonious depictions of Christians leaping straight from earth to heaven via the Rapture, with horrific descriptions of the Great Tribulation, in which God pours out of his wrath upon the earth, and a third of all living things perish, a third of the grass burns up, and a third of the stars are darkened, and so on.

The existence of God himself isn't called into question in the book, ironically enough, although that admittedly would be hard to do when you have angels, demons and the Antichrist himself running around as major characters. God instead is treated fairly respectfully; the questions about his ineffable purpose, such as "Why put a tree right in the middle of a garden and say 'Don't eat from it' instead of planting it somewhere remote and inaccessible if it's such a bad idea?", are hardly new questions, and have in fact bedeviled Christian and Jewish thinkers and philosophers alike for thousands of years.

Crowley and Aziraphale wrestle with these questions themselves after Armageddon passes with the world unexpectedly still intact. Crowley ultimately rejects the notion of history as a cosmic chess game between God and Satan; and, given God's omnipotence and omniscience, decides that it is, instead, more like a very complicated game of solitaire.

Like any good piece of fiction would do, "Good Omens" ends there, leaving readers to sort out for themselves such questions, as well as the general morality of evicting humanity from Paradise over a piece of fruit.

As I once wrote about "It's a Good Life," the Twilight Zone episode where 6-year-old Anthony Fremont sends anyone who displeases him to "the cornfield," stories like this serve an important function for Christians and for the church, if we will let them.

Far from being attacks, they usually are thoughtful critiques of the message that Christians present as coming from God. Sometimes they point out ways that we have bowlderized or just avoided difficult or painful truths; other times, and I think "Good Omens" falls into this category, the stories can and should shore us up, and draw our attention to faults we never admit to ourselves or one another but that are painfully obvious to anyone who has listened to us for five minutes.

(In this case, I'd have to say it's the self-righteousness that glories in the suffering of non-Christians, combined with the narcissism of the prosperity groups that most push the Rapture. Gaiman and Pratchett serve this up in the midst of the Apocalypse with a scene involving an American televangelist who embodies both those traits.)

When you get down to it, "Good Omens" really isn't primarily meant to be a depiction of the Last Days or of biblical prophecy, any more than the book of Revelation is. It's a rollicking good tale, with several themes beyond those I just outlined. The book of Revelation, while it does contain prophecy, is primarily a book about the majesty and glory of God, and the promise that however bad things are, we can be assured that Good will prevail.

And isn't that a more meaningful story than the one they like to tell in church about the Antichrist?

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Thoughts on Wandering

Gordon Atkinson is writing a series on the history of his San Antonio, Texas, congregation over at High Calling. The strength of his writing, as always, is in the stories he tells and the thoughts that they stir in the souls of his readers.

As someone who spent his share of time in exodus, looking for something deeper, something more real, or something simply more home, I found this comment of his to be especially thought-provoking:
God is not opposed to his children wandering for periods of time. The Children of Israel wandered. Jesus wandered through the desert and on mountains. Even Paul wandered around Arabia in the years after his conversion -- his great dark period for which no scholar can account. If you think you know where the Creator of the Universe is leading you, there is a good chance that you will be wrong. And even if you are right about your ultimate destination, you’ll likely be surprised by the wandering route that God has in mind.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

A load of dolumbs

A couple months ago, a friend of mine and I noticed that the word verification mechanism at Blogger increasingly was using strings of characters that either were really words, or at least came close.

One of the more interesting logisms was "dolumbs." I say this primarily because my friend noted that dolumbs looks like a word, but means nothing. But as I contended, it's easy to deduce the meaning of such a logism in context, and trotted out several possible uses:
  1. The crew was overcome by a severe case of dolumbs.
  2. It was a difficult operation, but fortunately the patient had come to a state-of-the-art hospital where doctors had all the necessary equipment, even a set of dolumbs.
  3. The salad bar was full of everything Freddie would need for his meal. There were plump red cherry tomatoes and mounds of grated cheese, the bins were heaped with mounds of croutons and delicious bacon bits. But when Freddie saw the dolumbs, he knew he truly had found the holy grail of salad bars.
  4. "Whoa!" Pete cried, elbowing Vern in the chest. "Check out the dolumbs on that babe!"
  5. The gym teacher was furious. He'd seen some useless students in his day, but this class had to be the biggest set of dolumbs he had ever come across in 36 years of public education.
  6. "I might be a dolumb," thought Melvin, "but at least I'm no rathro like Kevin."
In each of those examples, the supposed meaning is fairly obvious and easy to determine. As used, dolumbs means boredom or perhaps an illness; a piece of surgical equipment; something eaten with a salad; some aspect of a woman, presumably one that makes her attractive, although it could be something else, like jewelry or an article of clothing; an unimpressive or uninspiring student; and lastly, some undesirable appellation, like "loser" or "dork." Interestingly, one could argue that the word refers to the same thing in all six sentences, though I have no idea what possibly could fit such a wide range of uses.

The truth of the matter, naturally, is that dolumbs is essentially meaningless because it is not a word. We can run it up one flagpole or another and assume a meaning from the way it flutters in the breeze, but a shift in the wind or the use of a different flagpole is all that it would take to wrench it away from that assumed meaning and send it blowing away.

It lacks the weight of a thousand years of usage to shape its definition; the force of the mass consent that defines the words contained in the English lexicon, the experience of hearing it and speaking it; and the vast tomes of poetry, drama, essays and other literature that give words meaning in any language. In short, it lacks the necessary context to be a real word, and not just a neologism.

I don't mean to belabor the point, but it's an important one. In the third example, Freddie recognized the eatery as the holy grail of salad bars. The Holy Grail refers to the legendary cup that Christ drank from at the Last Supper.

A thousand years or so of English and Continental literature have established the Grail as the most sacred of relics, capable of bestowing immortality or other great treasures on anyone worthy enough to find it. The weight of that literary, cultural, and historical context allows us to use the phrase "holy grail" in a metaphorical sense; i.e., this is the salad bar before all other salad bars. For the afficianado of salads, there is no better place to be than the restaurant with this salad bar.

The word even holds up to being used as a verb. Were I to write "Stephen has gone a'holy-grailing," most English speakers will grasp the sense immediately. Conversely, the meaning of "Holy Grail" is so fixed in our minds that a sentence like "Frank took his Holy Grail for a walk" is just nonsense. I might use "Holy Grail" in place of the word "dog," just as a salesman might refer to mattresses as "dog kennels," but the misuse of the term throws the meaning of the sentence into doubt and imbues the discussion with a surreal, Pythonesque feel.

If this is true of words we speak, it is even truer of the stories we fashion from them. We understand stories firstly from the context of our own experience. In the case of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," I've encountered people whose reactions ranged from the intended enthusiasm for Scrooge's redemption to scoffing at the story for empty-headed sentimentalism, to disapproval at its liberal message that Scrooge should pay Bob Cratchitt any more than what he is contracted to pay him. The strangest take on it I ever heard was a psychosexual one: that Scrooge didn't need the spirits of Christmas to change him, he just needed to have sex. (No, I'm not making that up.)

I imagine a swineherder in a remote South American tribe would have no reaction at all; if he had no knowledge of Victorian England and Christmas, or if his ghost lore allows no room for helpful spirits, the story is likely to be completely meaningless to him. So meaningless, in fact, that it would be impossible to translate it directly.

It's possible for us to derive some meaning from our own context, and if we're close enough to the source of the story, we might even get a semblance of the meaning, but the further we are from the philological, historical and cultural roots of the story, the more likely we are to get it wrong.

One dramatic example of this is recounted in the missions biography "Peace Child." In this story, author and missionary Don Richardson explains that among the Sawi people whom he was living with, treachery was seen as an admirable behavior. Someone who could act like your friend and then destroy you, was hailed as a hero by his clan.

Thus, when Richardson presented the story of Jesus to the Sawi people, the man they admired wasn't Jesus. It was the traitor Judas Iscariot, hardly the hero Richardson had hoped they would embrace. Richardson eventually discovered a meaningful cultural context among the Sawi that enabled him to reinterpret the story to them so that they perceived the same inherent meaning that he did.

The Sawi case presents an extreme and obvious example of missed contextual clues, but if we're willing to admit it, the truth is that we ourselves often misunderstand the stories and misconstrue the message of the Bible ourselves. We do not speak the languages the Bible was written in, we lack the premodern mindset of its authors, and we do not share the cultural mores that they took for granted.

Nor, ultimately, do we possess a knowledge of the extrabiblical literature that helped to shape the mindset of the Bible writers, such as the histories of the kings of Judah. When we do possess such literature, we rarely avail ourselves of it. Relatively few American Christians bother to read the book of Enoch, even though the author of Jude found it important enough to quote from it by name.

One of the greatest problems the American church has in terms of biblical literacy is our assumed familiarity with the text. We all know how Moses came to Pharaoh and demanded that he free the Israelites, and when Pharaoh refused, how God struck him with a series of plagues. Many Americans would be surprised to discover the significant role that Aaron has in this story, just as they might be surprised to discover that Pharaoh would have been Moses' uncle and not his brother.

It goes on from there. Aside from the many ways Hollywood has mined the rich vein of Bible stories, there are many stories that have been told and retold so frequently that they have been reduced to children's tales, with the result that religious folk feel we know not only the story but the moral we're supposed to draw from it.

Why were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego saved from the furnace? Because God rescues people who are true to him. Why was Joseph treating his brothers so harshly when they came to Egypt to buy grain? Because he wanted to test them to see if they had become as mature as he had always been. Who is the Parable of the Prodigal Son about? Clearly, it's about the son who squanders his inheritance in a faroff land and then comes to his senses and comes home.

In each of those three stories, those lessons I have just shared are commonly taught, but it's fairly clear from the actual biblical passages that none of those is the main point.

Perhaps the biggest loser in this too-familiar approach to hermeneutics is Jesus himself. Among evangelicals in particular, the message of Jesus has been reduced to a simple conversion appeal that is shocking in its absence from the actual teachings of Christ found in the gospels.

The repent/confess/believe message has been preached so widely and so thoroughly in America that we often miss the heart of his message, which was a call to a much deeper spiritual revolution than one of simply changing where we go to church and which label we affix to our set of religious beliefs.

Reading the gospels in their proper context reveals a dramatic call that Jesus makes upon us to change how we live here and now, not so that we will experience the Kingdom of God at some far-off date, but so that we might experience it here and now.

There are thorny teachings on the surface, like when Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and give it all to the poor; but there are even thornier lessons in the way Jesus taught. The Parable of the Good Samaritan, for instance, took a familiar story in which a virtuous Pharisee saved a wounded countryman on the road to Jericho, and turned it upside-down by making the hero of one of the most reviled people imaginable. It would be as if Jesus told the story in church today and made the hero – the one who receives eternal life – a Muslim, or a homosexual.

What we need -- all of us -- is to return to a sound basis for Bible study. Christianity has bigger PR problems than the Exxon Valdez because of the boorishness of many of our appointed representatives, but we also have bigger credibility problems than a town hall of politicians in no small part because we've forgotten how to read a text intelligently.

That was fairly evident not many weeks ago, as the scientific community took time to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. There was scarcely a news article without a snark about the creationists who insist on reading Genesis 1-3 as a scientific treatise on the origin of species and the formation of planets.

That text is beautiful, affirming the transcendent qualities of God and declaring the value of the life of each ecosystem, from the smallest vernal pool to the deeps of the ocean, but let's remember what it is. It's a myth, doing what all great myths do: explaining the relationships among humanity, the world, and the creator of both. The text continues to relate the moral dimension of God, that he approves of certain behaviors and not of others, and it warns that walking out of faith with God can have disastrous consequences.

These are, in all probability, not stories that originated with the Hebrews, although the Hebrew Scriptures reinterprets each one in a manner that is positively revolutionary. The ancient Sumerians told a story virtually identical to the Noah tale found in Genesis, but there the Deluge was brought about by the vagaries of a god who was tired of the noise people made while he was trying to sleep.

The Babylonians told the story of the world's creation as the result of a conflict between Tiamat and Marduk. Only in the Hebrew Scriptures is there a depiction of a God outside the world, who calls it into being by his own authority, and who regards the people he has put there with affection rather than with a tolerance that often borders on annoyance.

There's a lot about the Bible that can be understood just by reading it casually, and I wish many more Christians would do at least that much. But any responsible reading is going to involve a fair amount of study. To know what the authors were saying, we need to study more ourselves about their values, their beliefs, and their other literature. It may take our faith to places we never imagined we would go, but in the end it's all worth it.

Otherwise, we might as well just be reading a page full of dolumbs.

Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.