Sex & Money, part 3

I worked myself into a bind on the question of usury and interest because I was reading the Bible wrong. I was approaching it wrong, asking the wrong questions and therefore coming away with the wrong answers.

"What does the rulebook say about this?" I asked. And then, having asked that question in that way, I found that the rulebook offered a set of rules. Those rules seemed clear and strict, and they seemed to forbid the very good work that I thought God was calling me to do.

There was the Berean Savings and Loan extending credit to the Baptist Deliverance Tabernacle so that it could expand its Bethany Housing initiative. A storefront thrift enabling a storefront church to make affordable, decent housing available to more of its elderly members. That is good and righteous and holy, but by treating the Bible as a rulebook, all I could see was usury upon usury, an abomination.

I didn't like that conclusion, but I couldn't see any way of escaping it. The trap I had set for myself was partly semantic, as that word "escaping" implies. Trying to escape or evade or explain away what I believed to be the rules mandated by holy scripture couldn't be permitted. Viewing my dilemma that way simply invoked the same familiar accusatory evangelical phrases still being repeated ad nauseum by the Guardians of the Authority of Scripture in their e-mails castigating me these days for challenging their condemnation of homosexuality. Escaping the rules is against the rules.

My conundrum was not unique — not to me and not to the question of usury. The same dilemma arises whenever we treat the Bible as a rulebook. That's an approach that guarantees — that manufactures — conflicts between text and reason, text and experience, text and reality, text and context.

And such conflicts always produce perverse choices. In my case it was the perverse choice between, on the one hand, the evident goodness of the work being done by South Shore and Grameen and a hundred real-world incarnations of the Bailey Bros. Building & Loan and, on the other hand, the biblical prohibition against usury. In someone else's case it might involve the perverse choice between some devotion to a list of rules gleaned from Paul's epistles and the near constant warning in those same epistles against compiling such lists of rules.*

I've been describing this as an evangelical Christian dilemma because that's who I am and where I'm coming from. But this is a human failing, not a peculiarly evangelical one. We all have this tendency and temptation to approach whatever we regard as holy writ as though we were paralegals, compiling citations and precedents for a moral indictment of other people. Every religion or ethical framework ever known has had some variation of the Golden Rule, and the adherents of every such system have at some point been tempted to regard that imperative as insufficient and inadequate, seeking and finding additional rules until those rules eventually come to conflict with and supersede that central principle.

"Love is the fulfillment of the law," the Bible says. When love is perceived as a violation of the law, something has gone horribly amiss. When the rulebook is telling you that more affordable, decent housing for seniors is wrong, then something is wrong with the way you're reading the rulebook.

Starting, probably, with the fact that it's not supposed to be a rulebook.

Reading the Bible as a rulebook can be as ethically misleading an approach as reading the Bible as a scientific textbook is a scientifically misleading one. Both readings — both mis-readings — create conflicts between text and context and between the map of the text and the terrain of the world.

American evangelicalism today is distorted by the growing chasm between its reading of the map and the reality of the terrain. Having invested its identity in the notion that the map is "infallible," it is forced to side with that map in every such imagined conflict with the terrain.** Thus we have things like young-earth creationism and "ex-gay" ministries, both of which are based on the denial of stubbornly actual actuality. These reality-denying positions have come to dominate evangelical Christianity because reality tends to reassert itself rather vigorously until it is acknowledged. You can't just deny reality once and then move on, you have to do it constantly.

"Reality is harsh to the feet of shadows," someone once said. And it was that harsh refusal-to-go-away-when-inconvenient aspect of reality that helped save me from my self-induced biblical quandary over interest. I didn't decide to dismiss or disregard the biblical rules, but chose, rather, to pay them the respect of reading them better — of reading them in such away that they did not conflict with love as the fulfillment of the law, that did not suggest that there was some commandment greater than this, that did not imply that the fruit of the spirit was against the rules.

I chose, in other words, to stop looking for ways in which I could concoct conflicts between the map of the text and the terrain of the world, and instead chose to look for ways in which the map could guide me through that terrain.

What does all that ancient teaching about interest and usury have to teach me in this world of market economies, electronic currency and credit scores? The terrain is vastly changed, but the old maps drawn by Moses and Nehemiah (and, for that matter, Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas) still provide direction. The old rules embodied principles that still apply. Those principles tell me that money can and ought to be put to work to empower and liberate the poor, never to exploit or entrap them. When interest works to do the former, it is a Good Thing — a righteous thing, the fulfillment of the law and a sweet-smelling incense in the nostrils of God. When it works to do the latter, it is evil — not because it contradicts the rules of my proof-texts, but because it exploits and entraps and enslaves.

I first used this map/terrain analogy in an earlier post on the very same subjects we're discussing here. Three years later, I'm not sure I can improve on what I wrote then, so allow me to quote from that earlier post:

The charging of interest, when properly harnessed, can be a powerful engine for growth and prosperity, creating incentives for investment that makes possible many good things which would otherwise be impossible. The recognition of this fact, over the centuries, led to an evolution of our interpretation of the prohibition against usury. It ceased to mean the charging of any interest … and came to mean, instead, the charging of "excessive" interest. We began to reinterpret the evident meaning of the text in an effort to reconcile it with what we were learning about the world and how it works. The prohibition against usury remains in recognition of the principle contained in the text, a principle we continue to honor despite the sometimes laughably elastic application of that weasel-word excessive.

This argument can be challenged as mere "rationalization," in the psychological sense, an after-the-fact attempt at self-justification by a religious tradition whose adherents had become wealthy and worldly. But I would counter that in the non-psychological sense, rationalization is, well, rational. The application of reason is reasonable and necessary, and I find the reinterpretation of the prohibition against interest to be a reasonable step.

This reasonable step is regarded as noncontroversial when the matter involved is our own money. When the matter involved is someone else's sexuality, however, such a reasonable step is regarded as
extremely controversial.

And that controversial step is what I am advocating here. I want to rationalize American evangelicals' understanding of what the Bible teaches about homosexuality. By that I mean I want to spare them from irrational readings of the map that cannot be reconciled with the terrain of reality. If your reading of the Bible leads you to assert that homosexuality is a choice when it is not, then you're reading it wrong. If your reading of the Bible leads you to claim that "ex-gay ministries" are effective, rather than delusional and abusive, then you're reading it wrong. If your reading of the Bible leads you to claim that the happiness of a loving, committed same-sex relationship is an intrinsically, irredeemably abhorrent thing, then you're reading it wrong. And if your reading of the Bible leads you to tell someone else that their desire for that kind of relationship means that they are dirty and wicked and evil, then … well, then you're just being a jerk, really.

I'm not asking you to throw away the map. I'm asking you to read it in such a way that it doesn't force you to pretend the terrain is something it is not and never will be. Pretending will not make it so.

But the biggest problem with this evangelical reading of the map is not the ways in which it creates supposed conflicts with the terrain. The biggest problem with this way of reading the map is that it forces the map to contradict itself. It forces them to read the text as though it did not say "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean." It requires a reading of the text that, like my own misreading of the rules on usury, leads to a place where love becomes a violation of the law. And that's not a good place.

The response, I'm sure, is that I'm engaging in wishful thinking.*** The GAS chamber will tell me that I'm engaging in that other kind of rationalizing — the psychological kind in which I'm trying to create justifications after the fact for my preferred position. Trying to justify my preference for ignoring clear rules through the pretext of some love-ethic trump card. But I'm not doing that. I'm not going to attempt any such justification any more than Jesus did, inviting — then commanding — his disciples to follow him.

"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets," Jesus said. "I have come not to abolish but to fulfil. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished."

That's in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a long discussion on how those thorny rules are even thornier than the most devout rule-follower has ever imagined. And as soon as he finished that sermon, Jesus went right back to obliterating rules left and right, violating way more than just jots and tittles.

The law was very clear, the rules were unambiguous: Some people are clean and others are unclean. And the clean people must have nothing to do with the unclean ones.

So what did Jesus do? Jesus sought out and embraced unclean people like that list of rules was a scavenger hunt. Women? Check. Gentiles? Check. Gentile women? Double check. Samaritans, menstrual women, lepers, madmen, the lame, the blind, the dead? Checkity check check check.

Ah, the GAS cloud says, but when Jesus touched the unclean lepers it was only to heal them — to make the unclean clean. So if we are to reach out to unclean homosexuals, it must therefore only be to make them heterosexual and therefore healed and clean.

True enough for lepers, I suppose. But how exactly does that apply to women and to gentiles? Jesus met the woman at the well and she went away just as Samaritan and female as she was before. When Peter finally, belatedly, learned this lesson — "God has shown me that I should not call any person profane or unclean" — he never suggested that Cornelius needed to stop being a Roman centurion. The lesson was not that unclean Cornelius could be made clean, but rather that gentile Cornelius was not unclean.

Paul was also rather rudely adamant on this point and the GAS company might want to read what he had to say about it. (When an apostle's response to your argument is to say, "Yeah? Well why don't you just go cut your dick off, OK?" then you might want to rethink your point.)

The main GAS-eous justification for Jesus' enthusiastically flagrant rule-breaking involves an elaborate distinction between two different kinds of law. See, there's the ceremonial law, which is just, you know, ceremonial. Stuff like all those rules about clean and unclean, and eating kosher, and sacrifices and circumcision and all that. And then there's the real law, the law that's still the law.

This is an interesting response and I don't think it's entirely wrong, but it presents several difficulties for the noble GASes. First it raises the question as to whether their view of homosexuals as intrinsically unclean due to their gender might not be regarded as much more likely to fall in the nonbinding ceremonial category (in which case, checkmate). More troubling is that Jesus himself never cited such a distinction as an explanation for his rule-breaking — "Woman, thy touching the fringe of my garment — a ceremonial zizith I weareth for no apparent reason — hath rendered me unclean, but this counteth not for it is merely ceremonial." Never said that. Nor did he limit himself to only breaking little "ceremonial" rules. He also broke some big ones — like keeping the sabbath, which is in the Top 10.

That one got him in trouble, and his explanation for it got him in even more trouble: "The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath."

And that right there is your rule for rules. The rules were made for humankind, and not humankind for the rules. That's a rule that both helps us navigate the terrain of the world, and helps us navigate the map itself. That's the lodestone that helps us make sure we're reading it correctly. First rule of map-reading: Which way is north?

And reading it correctly doesn't mean tossing it aside. I'm not talking about the anarchically antinomian straw-man imagined by the GAS pumps. A sabbath made for humankind is still a sabbath.

Our economics and our sexuality must be guided by ethics, but it has to be an ethics that makes sense — an ethics that can guide us through the terrain of this world. We can find such an ethics in the map of the Bible, but not if we turn to it as a rulebook and especially not if we turn to it as a rulebook for other people. That approach will yield only a list of rules we don't fully understand, rules that require us to pretend the terrain of the world is something other than what it really is.

Earlier I compared the dominant evangelical approach to ethics to the miserably shameful evangelical approach to science. I think our ethics — particularly when it comes to money and sex — has followed the same pattern as our reaction to 20th-century science. Confusion, perceived conflict, denial, retreat.

As a result evangelicals don't really have an ethic for sexuality — only a list of rules based primarily on legal contexts and categories. Like my proof-texts forbidding usury, those rules don't provide much useful guidance through the terrain of this world. So let's use the brains God gave us: What are the principles embodied in those rules and the reasons for them? What direction do those principles provide and in what direction do they lead? What does it mean that sexual ethics are made for humankind and not humankind for sexual ethics?

And above all, can we answer all those quest
ions in a way that doesn't lead us to contradict the Golden Rule and to
ignore the more excellent way?

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* Paul's catalogues of Do's and Don'ts are always always always embedded in a larger argument about the freedom and salvation that comes from grace, rather than from such rules. Such lists are not provided to clarify the rules against gossips or gays or kitten-burners, but to clarify the argument against the pre-eminence of rules.

Those lists are the flip-side to Paul's other rhetorical approach to the same point — his "boasting" passages. "Rules? You want to talk about rules?" Paul says in boasting-mode. "I followed more rules than you ever imagined, buddy. You can't compete with me when it comes to rules — I was a frickin' Pharisee, I know from rules. But it's not about that …"

Conversations with those who are upset with me for not condemning homosexuality invariably come down to the claim that Paul's epistles give strict rules on the subject. "Rules, rules, rules," Paul says in response. "When I was a child, I thought as a child. But you know what? I grew up. Let me show you a more excellent way …"

** The early 20th-century fundamentalists who first proposed this principle of "infallibility" did not, to their credit, make the same mistake their descendants have made of pretending that all perceived conflicts between the map and the terrain must be due to a flaw in one or the other. They recognized the presence and the agency of third actor in the equation — the most variable and fallible one — the reader. Thus they taught that if science clearly demonstrates something that contradicts your reading of the Bible, then your reading of the Bible must be wrong.

That possibility seems to have been forgotten by the modern-day Guardians of the Authority of Scripture who are always gassing on about the "infallibility" of the text in a way that arrogates to themselves this same infallibility as readers of that text. They can't seem to imagine that the supposed conflict may not be the fault of either the map or the terrain, but that the problem might be they're holding the darned thing upside-down.

*** I've been told exactly that in those exact words — "wishful thinking." That word "wishful" is revealing, I think. Explore that. Why is it wishful — a thing to be wished for, a desirable, desirous, praiseworthy thing? Quench not that spirit of wishfulness.

Left Behind Classic Fridays, No. 30: 'Thank Heaven for little girls'
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Inerrancy, white evangelicals, 'and the sin of racism'
Sunday WTF?
  • ShifterCat


    I… really don’t feel he’s being as enormous a jerk as you feel he is? He’s been pretty civil in the face of a lot of incivility from us, and he is at least trying to reply to some of the arguments being flung at him from all directions. Blah blah tone argument whatever…

    First of all, tone argument counts for a lot, at least from my point of view.
    Second… well, I’ve been around for several dogpile-on-one-or-two-posters arguments before. If it were just a matter of missing the occasional thing, and going back to answer as conscientiously as possible when called on it (as I’ve seen other people do when they’re dogpiled), I’d have a bit more sympathy. As it is, he keeps saying the same things over and over, most notably the “all or nothing” argument, and they’ve been rebutted over and over — at that point, there are simply too many counters to “miss” all of them. Yet he keeps on doing it. That makes me suspect bad faith.
    Something else that makes me suspect bad faith: the constantly asking other people to find or reiterate previous posts for him. I’ve run into people who try to derail an argument with rapid-fire, “When did I do this?” “When did you do that?” questions; it tended to be either an attempt to turn the conversation into a Battle of Anecdotes, or an attempt to swamp the other person with distractions until they threw up their hands and left. I’m not going to accuse him of this without a solid reason, but the suspicion is there.
    And, I must admit, two things that are virtually guaranteed to make me go from zero to pissed-off: willful ignorance and arrogant condescension. The former, I can’t respect. The latter, I can’t abide. The combination fills me with contempt. And unlike other people, “affectionate contempt” isn’t an emotional combination I’m comfortable with; it feels a bit too close to being patronizing.
    Ursula L. said:

    If you write/post something online, you’re primarily doing it so that others can and will read it. So it is your own responsibility to write well.

    Well, yeah, I agree. That’s one reason why I use EditPad to write things out, and often take a while composing.
    And now I really must go to bed. Thankfully, I don’t work tomorrow.

  • ako

    I think I could be persuaded by an angelic visitation. It’d depend on the particulars, of course. If it was an angel disguised as a normal person, or one that appeared to me while I was delirious with fever and alone in the room, or seemed to be wearing cheap costume wings and didn’t do anything noticeably supernatural, then I wouldn’t be convinced. But if, for instance, it swooped down one day from the sky, summoned up a vision of God creating the world according to Genesis, and said “In the name of the Lord, I show you this!”, and I had no particular reason to believe I was off my head, I’d believe. I’m fairly easily persuaded to believe what I see and experience.

  • Pius Thicknesse

    I’ve said this before, but I’ll tell you what would make me go from zero to infinite in how fast I would believe in any supernatural entity that left a clear calling card:
    Violation of natural law in a verifiable way.
    Even just breaking the first law of thermodynamics would be all right with me, but… oh, let’s see, a parity-violating electromagnetic interaction, breaking the uncertainty principle (simultaneous measurements of complementary variables NOT disturbing the system under consideration by the fact of measurement), or other similarly rarefied situations.
    Actually, suppressing the weak interaction would be another immensely immediate proof, since this also violates natural law as we know it (it would require destroying the exchange particles involved, and the immediate consequence would be the disappearance of beta decay radioactivity).
    So, yeah. Quite a few candidates exist for immediate worship by yours truly, yet said deities seem oddly reluctant to do such things. XD

  • anon for this one

    I’d love to give the world a hug.
    I’ll settle for a corner of the internet.
    Anyone who reads this is given an infinite amount of the best internet hugs I could possibly give you, anytime you want one, for any reason.
    There is someone human out there who wants you to be comforted and congratulated in good times and bad times. I love you all.
    Even J and all the Brians. :)

  • anon for this one

    Feel free to pass that on, if you want to. :)

  • Mark Z.

    When this was brought up earlier, I assumed(apparently incorrectly) that it was sarcasm. God breathed into man the breath of life, and man became a living soul. This is not the same as God infused man with sinless perfection. Different words, different contexts, different meanings between the two passages.
    The same words. Human life is God-breathed. Absolutely nobody says this means “sinless perfection”. Yet Paul describes the scriptures as “God-breathed” and you take that to mean “perfectly true”. Where do you get this?
    Others have argued this point so I’ll spend some time on it. He says inspired(“God-breathed”) and the rest of verse says: “and is profitable …” in other words, inspired/is profitable for are two separate things.
    You say they’re separate things, I say he’s making a general statement and then clarifying with details. Seems we have a conflict of interpretation.
    Something can be true/inspired/God-breathed and not be profitable for the things mentioned. He could have done a dissertation on the chemical properties of G2 stars, but that would not have fit the following description.
    Not in the letters of Paul, because there was no word for helium back then. If you think I’m nitpicking your example just to be difficult, think a little harder. There is a point here.
    The statement is that it is both true AND profitable for the mentioned activities.
    No, the statement is that it is both inspired and profitable. Now you’re trying to write your preferred interpretation back into the text. Cut it out.
    But let’s go beyond that. Let’s consider the phrase ‘the Word of God’. We find this all over the place in the NT. The OT is called the Word of God(Mark 7:9-13). Jesus’s message was the Word of God(Luke 5:1).
    And yet relatively little of that message made it into the Bible. We have a few sermons, a few parables, conversations with a handful of people. It seems “word of God”, as the phrase is used in Luke, doesn’t mean “the Bible”. It’s its own thing.
    I suggest you look at the way the term “word of the Lord” is used in the Hebrew Scriptures: for prophetic statements spoken to specific people for an immediate purpose. I’ll make it easy: here’s a search in the NASB for that phrase. Like 1 Kings 17: “The word of the Lord came to him [Elijah], saying, depart from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the brook Cherith that is east of the Jordan.” And a little later, the word of the Lord tells Elijah to leave the brook and go to Zarephath. I’d argue that the word of the Lord in that sense really is infallible–he goes to Cherith and there are indeed ravens that bring him food. But it’s appropriate to that moment. It doesn’t mean that if I go to Cherith that is east of the Jordan I’ll be fed by miraculous ravens.
    (Also, ravens? Scavengers. Ritually unclean, as is anything they touch or feed on. That’s right, the word of the Lord told Elijah to violate the rules in the Bible.)

  • Jamoche

    NOOOOOO! what?
    Italics. It’s the curse of Typepad: forget or typo your close-italics tags, and on some browsers it’ll be italics all the way down. Previewing doesn’t help, because that’s the one part of Typepad that manages to figure out that there are missing tags to be closed.

  • MadGastronomer, who is really just very tired

    italics all the way down
    I thought it was turtles all the way down.
    Maybe the turtles are italicized?
    Or maybe I just haven’t had enough sleep and the cider is getting to me now.

  • MadGastronomer, who is really just very tired

    I totally forgot: You’re right, Bugmaster, I am some variety of heathen (though not Heathen). More precisely, I describe myself as a Hellenic-Eclectic Solitary Wiccan, and a part-time Discordian.

  • alfgifu

    Oh dear.
    First of all, an apology. I am away with work all week and haven’t got time to read more than a couple of pages of the discussion since my last reply, and I probably won’t be able to come back and respond to this one. I just wanted to add some thoughts.
    The thing is, I really like C.S. Lewis. I enjoy his work. I’m not saying I agree with all his ideas, or anything like that. But when my own depression was as bad as it got, I found freedom, support and (yes) inspiration to be a better person in his work.
    One thing about Lewis is that he was honest enough to change his mind when he got things wrong. Take his treatment of women. Even more than Tolkien, Lewis grew up and lived in a male world. He had no close female relatives around when young. He went to a boy’s school, fought in a man’s war and lived and worked in an entirely male environment. It wasn’t until quite late in life that he actually started meeting women.
    Look at the development of female characters in his books.
    First you have the ‘nut-brown girls’, or whatever they’re called, in the Pilgrim’s Regress, set against the glorified ‘Lady Reason’. It’s entirely Madonna/whore territory, and the female figures are there to illustrate the journey of the male narrator. It’s a straightforward (and self-important) allegory about the general unworthiness of the self-insert main character.
    From there go to That Hideous Strength. Five or ten years down the line, Lewis attempts to write an everyday woman and produces the strange unreal Jane Studdock. I agree, by the way, with whoever said that Mark Studdock looks like Lewis’ self-insert. There’s a similarity to the narrator of Pilgrim’s Regress, who is an intentional self-portrait. But otherwise you see a rather crass and ignorant attempt to draw a picture of what Lewis thinks a woman might be and should be.
    Then, Narnia. In one place, he’s saying ‘battles are ugly when women fight’. In the next few books, his female characters start taking part in battles – Lucy and Susan’s archery gets more useful, Aravis steals her brother’s armour and runs away from an arranged marriage, and Jill turns out to be better at ‘woodcraft’ than the boys. They develop more personality, as well.
    Finally, Till We Have Faces. Orual, the main character, is female. She’s also a strong political and military leader who has several lovers over the course of the book, with a flawed but internally consistent character who (this being Lewis) engages in a life long struggle with the divine.
    I’d hold Orual up against Eowyn as a powerful female character any day of the week.
    I suppose the point I’m trying to make is that Lewis may have been flawed, but he struggled with his own bigotry and you can see his position changing. And while he certainly did have a big pulpit, he often talked about how he didn’t feel that he could set himself up as an authority. He states clearly that he is a layman, with no special knowledge, who is only sharing his own thoughts and positions which have no authority. Even in Mere Christianity he starts out by saying that he is no theologian and is only talking about his own ideas on Christianity. It’s true that he has been treated like the fifth Gospel writer by a lot of people ever since, but that wasn’t his own assessment of himself.
    Also, the Problem of Susan – my impression is that the whole of The Last Battle was a thought experiment along the lines of The Great Divorce, and Lewis needed someone to leave out. Given that Susan is the character who he has shown previously having the most difficulty accepting the strange and magical stuff associated with Aslan, she’s the obvious choice. She’s the most sceptical, and the most committed to the real world, so she gets the boot. I don’t think it has anything to do with incipient sexuality, necessarily – she wants to be a grown up because that shows that she is rejecting the reality that a simple child can accept in preference for a less real world that a young adult thinks is far more important. Add in Lewis’ general ignorance about women and you get an accidentally ugly picture. I do think that it was a terrible idea to try that sort of thing in a book aimed at children. It doesn’t work, and it has all sorts of unpleasant implications.
    Thanks for your concern, Kit. The depression is not such a big thing for me now – it hasn’t gone away, but I know what it is, which makes a huge difference. I think I’ve got it on the run.

  • Anton Mates

    Lewis-themed Wall O’ Text incoming!

    Tolkien, and Shakespeare, and probably every good author ever, grey up their villains as well as their heroes. No reader of Tolkein hates Gollum; you’re not meant to, and in fact it’s through Gollum that the quest succeeds. The shadow lies across every human heart- cutting it out isn’t treated as either possible or desirable. In LoTR Sauron is a cypher rather than a character, but if you read his backstory he comes out looking greyer too.
    Lewis never does this. He’ll slag off his protagonists, but the villains are all unmitigated evil. There’s no goodness or ruined virtue in Jadis- Aslan has mercy for Edmund, a once and future good guy, but there’s no concept that there should be mercy for her. She’s the Other; she’s only there to be hated, battled and defeated, never redeemed.

    I think this is rather unfair. Yeah, Tolkien has Gollum–and to some degree Saruman and Boromir and Denethor–but he also has a crapload of orcs and trolls and other emissaries of faceless evil, who exist only to be destroyed by the righteous. And Sauron, as you observe, is a cipher.
    Lewis, for his part, has quite a few villains with ruined virtues and sympathetic qualities. In the Narnia books, there’s Miraz from Prince Caspian, Digory’s Uncle Andrew Ketterley from The Magician’s Nephew, and arguably Eustace in the first part of Voyage of the Dawn Treader. (He’s about the closest thing that book has to a villain, at least, the short bit with Gumpas aside.) Ketterley experiences some redemption, if only in the form of an epilogue, and Eustace of course is redeemed all the way into a Hero.
    In the Space Trilogy, there are Weston and Devine, both exceptional men in their own way. Weston in particular is depicted as a very tragic villain (although Ransom ultimately triumphs against him only by killing his sympathy for Weston and channeling his “perfect hatred,” which is pretty damn icky.) And The Great Divorce is of course full of villainous damned souls who may yet be redeemed; that’s one of the main points of the book.
    (Yes, these grey-area villains are almost exclusively male. And the only female ones I can think of are rendered sympathetic entirely by their status as mothers. But that’s Lewis for you. And after all, if his female villains had any good qualities, you could hardly distinguish them from his heroines!)
    Now it’s true that Lewis’ villains are rarely potently evil and sympathetic at the same time. That seems to follow from his worldview; evil is weakness and smallness and pettiness and void, and is always pathetic if you look at it carefully. No one is really swayed by evil because there is no power to sway other than that given by God, and God is good; hence sin is always a free choice by a formerly good being to reject good. No villain can be less than completely blameworthy for their crimes.
    I don’t think this philosophy is a result of a lack of empathy, though; Lewis holds himself as responsible for his flaws as he does anyone. (This leads to some of the passages I find most painful to read, where he seems to argue that people with depression are to blame for letting Satan seduce them into being depressed…and he doesn’t seem to realize that this sort of argument is itself a symptom of depression.)

    Tolkien gets referenced practically every other thread here, and we don’t have obligatory callouts to his racism and imperialism and classism and terribly creepy relationships with real life women.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I can see a couple of factors here. Lewis has a much bigger rep as a Christian apologist than Tolkien does–whether or not Lewis himself would think that appropriate. So naturally people are going to be more interested in whether the positions he expresses in writing are morally acceptable. You don’t see many people citing The Hobbit when they’re explaining how best to interpret the Bible.
    Also, no offense to Tolkien fans, but I personally consider Lewis a much better writer than Tolkien, so his flaws interest me more. I feel the same fascination with him as with Lovecraft: how can someone be able to articulate their own mental life with such power and nuance, and apparently be a good friend and kind person to almost everyone they meet, yet have such massive blind spots and prejudices when it comes to viewing others?
    Nothing Tolkien does really resonates with me, so I’m not terribly surprised if his attitudes on race, class, etc. don’t either.

  • ako

    Till We Have Faces frustrated me. The ending felt like a cheat. Although I think that’s something that’s influenced by how you see the whole human-deity relations thing: I’m not convinced of much of anything on the deity front, and have a lot of disagreements on principle with most of the more widespread beliefs on this front. So I’m inclined to take apparent principled disagreement with Gods very seriously, and feel cheated if those aren’t being addressed. I think the whole “What seems to be a grand stand against injustice is really selfishness wrapped up in high-minded rhetoric” trick might satisfy some other people the way it completely failed to satisfy me. When it went “No, actually she’s concerned because of her selfishness!”, I was just left going “What of it? Pointing that out doesn’t answer the questions she raised.” And those questions never were satisfied.
    As far as the Problem of Susan goes, it always struck me as extremely subject to interpretation. Yes, she’s left out of the trip to Narnia because she’s stopped believing and developed some fairly ordinary adolescent vanity. Whether people read this as “She’s damned to Hell for all eternity for being a teenager who likes lipstick”, or “She’s been left out because Aslan knew she wasn’t ready, and she’ll be back with her family after she’s found her faith again” seems to have as much to do with their personal expectations and attitudes as it does with what the book says.
    I did quite like The Screwtape Letters, even with the obvious preachy aspect. I haven’t read The Great Divorce.

  • Francis D

    Doesn’t it say at least once that Hell was made for the Devil and his angels? IE, those who actively -chose- it, by rebelling against Heaven?
    I don’t care. If that’s what Hell was created for and God’s chosen to repurpose it for another group he wants tortured, then it says nothing better about him than if he created it for the purpose of eternal torture.
    I think humans have to choose hell– by which I mean actively reject Good, Light, (and, possibly, Dark), Love, Laughter, Music, Joy… Good– in order to get there.
    And now we’re back to God the Merciless, God the Compassionless. Anyone who chooses to reject all that is mentally ill and as such they need help. Not to rot in hell.
    Do you think they would change their mind about Genesis if an angelic demonstration told them to?
    Depends what you mean “Told them to”. If an Angel came down to me personally and claimed that Genesis was literally true, it would change my mind on some things. I’d start believing in angels. This is new evidence that was not previously available. If the angel simply ordered me to believe in the literal truth of Genesis then I’d believe in Angels – and also that Angels were authoritarian sods who expected me to believe rubbish just because they told me to. If the Angel then went through a demonstration of exactly how the world had been created to look as it did while being consistent with the two (incompatable) accounts in Genesis then I would still want to know why the Universe had been fabricated to look old and therefore deliberately mislead people.
    In short, Angelic revelation would make me change my beliefs because it’s new evidence. It would not necessarily make me change my beliefs to what the Angel wanted.

  • Kit Whitfield

    Yes, of course, and I found some of it quite enjoyable (but a lot of it was pretty dull), though he’s better known for his fiction.
    Among certain circles. Not everywhere. And as even his fiction was a form of theology, you’re on weak ground.

    @hapax: *isn’t* a stereotypical argument?
    It’s an argument that calls attention to the stereotypes he uses. And if we’re on the subject, “Oh, and did you know Lewis had sadistic sexual fantasies?” is stereotyping what I said. I said it was inappropriate the way he mixed up his sadistic sexual fantasies (which are on record) with his evangelical writing for children. Not the same thing. And not necessarily the worst sin in the world, but symptomatic of his inability to distinguish his own tastes from divine mandates, which is never lovable.
    What I do not tend to find, is that they are evil.
    Okay, that’s how you react to him. I react with visceral recoil, the same way I do to Ayn Rand: reading both their writings gives me an instinctive sense that I’m listening to the inside of a really, really horrible mind. You see a struggling moralist, I see an intellectual thug. You feel his virtues outweighed his faults, I feel his fault outweighed his virtues. Different people see different things.
    As Lewis has more admirers than detractors around here, I sometimes resort to stronger language out of frustration. This is a board with a lot of Christians and a lot of geeks, so a Christian fantasy writer is likely to have plenty of fans; I suspect the fact that I’m into neither makes me less likely to cut Lewis slack because whatever goodies he’s handing out, they don’t fit in my cupboards. He was, at least, a strong personality, and strong personalities tend to elicit strong responses. Anger and condemnation, which are what I feel, are strong reactions, but I don’t think this is because I’m blind to his merits. I just don’t feel they let him off the hook for his vices, which ring louder in my ears than in yours. I don’t think this is unreasonable.

    Oh, please, Paul’s the gayest bitch in the Bible.
    Can we please not use phrases like ‘gayest bitch’?

  • ako

    One caveat on the belief thing – something that would make me believe wouldn’t necessarily make me worship. It depends on what was revealed and explained. If I was going to decide a god was worthy of love and worship, I’d need to be reasonably sure of their basic goodness.
    If, for instance, I saw really strong evidence that God-as-described-by-Bryan exists, and it wasn’t accompanied by anything to help me understand how such a God could possibly be good (because the more I read of Bryan’s description, the harder of a time I have seeing any justice or mercy in the God he talks about), then I’d be more likely to despair than worship.

  • Tonio

    It is far better to help the sick, etc, than to not do it. But God is more interested in your motive than your action, and you can’t earn your way to him no matter how many ‘good’ things you do.

    That wrongly takes the focus away on the effects of one’s actions on others. I would argue that a motive to placate authority may sometimes result in charity being a grudging thing. But Fred has made the excellent point in earlier posts that focusing on motive amounts to patting one’s self on the back for being a “good person.” What ultimately matters is how people interact with one another.

    It’s about what love really is, which is doing what’s best for someone. Sometimes the best thing a person can have is some hardship so they will grow to become more complete people. In such a situation, solving their felt need is the least loving thing that can be done.

    No. It’s not your place, or mine, to determine what is best for someone.

    To argue that gay people need to avoid actually being gay is to claim that they are better off alone, without romantic connections of any kind, longing for love but unworthy of experiencing it.

    I would agree with one clarification – they’re already gay because they have gay desires.

  • Bugmaster

    I said it was inappropriate the way he mixed up his sadistic sexual fantasies (which are on record)

    I know you referred to some passages in your previous post, but I’d like to see more proof, because so far, I’m rather unconvinced. Yes, Aslan is strong and furry, and Jadis is elegant and sexy in an implicit kind of way, but that doesn’t quite add up to, “hey kids, check out how much fun BSDM is”. I’m open to persuasion, I’d just like to see more evidence.
    As for “anger and condemnation”, it seems like our current discussion of Lewis parallels our earlier discussions of Kipling and Jefferson. Thus, my opinion is the same as before: if you’re going to condemn everyone who’s a man (or, perhaps, even a woman) of his time for not having a perfectly enlightened morality, then you’re going to end up condemning pretty much everyone who has ever lived, including yourself. You’ll end up focusing on all the “vices”, and thus miss all the “virtues”.

  • Tonio

    I’ll tell you what would make me go from zero to infinite in how fast I would believe in any supernatural entity that left a clear calling card: Violation of natural law in a verifiable way.

    Even in that case, I wouldn’t be prepared to deem it as “supernatural.” It would be possible for the entity to be “natural,” meaning that our previous understanding of physical laws was incomplete. I don’t like the term “violation” in this context because it stands the concept of physical laws on its head – we created the “laws” to codify and categorize the order that we observe in the universe.

  • Kit Whitfield

    if you’re going to condemn everyone who’s a man (or, perhaps, even a woman) of his time for not having a perfectly enlightened morality, then you’re going to end up condemning pretty much everyone who has ever lived, including yourself
    That’s an unreasonable parody of what I’m saying. I think misogyny, racism, intellectual bullying and cruel dismissal of the mentally ill fall well below the line of ‘not perfectly enlightened’.
    And the ‘including yourself’ threat isn’t going to work on me. If somebody wants to condemn my morality because they’re doing better, then good for them. I’m glad there are people more virtuous than me. It’s better for the world, and what’s good for the world matters more than what’s flattering to me. Maybe I’ll even learn something.
    I may get to the cites later, but it would involve looking up and copy-typing, and that’s time-consuming and I’m having a busy day. Try, as rough examples: Jadis whipping the horses, the unmanning effect the green witch supposedly has on her knight, the sensual description of Aslan post-resurrection as he romps with the little girls, the grateful pain in the flaying of Eustace. Then look and see if you can find equally passionate and engaged descriptions of physicality in scenes that don’t involve extreme power imbalances. I’m not saying he’s trying to promote something; I’m just saying you can see the workings of his own sensual thoughts in what he chooses to be sensual or graphic about. Like I said, it’s not the end of the world; it’s just like his implication that there’s something more civilised about liking eggs and bacon than fish and white wine: confusing his personal preferences for moral qualities.

  • Izzy

    I’m with ShifterCat on the tone argument thing. Being an asshole in polite language doesn’t make you less of an asshole. And I *do* wish Bryan would shut up, and go away, and a number of other things if it comes to that; I think he’s a troll, and if he’s not a troll, he’s a homophobic, bigoted moron, and I have no sympathy. None.
    Also? My friends don’t feel the need to hold interventions for me over something that’s not hurting me–or even something that might theoretically not be in my best interest, like drinking occasionally or eating cheeseburgers or whatever. That’s why they’re my friends: they can distinguish between “stuff I wouldn’t do” and “stuff that’s going to kill you.” Nor did my friends *make* the thing that’s going to harm me harmful for no good reason.
    I’m not gay. But being poly and sexually open is part of me, “hate the sin, love the sinner” is bullshit, and I would spit in Bryan’s face if I met him. And in the face of his “God”. I’m not sure how much clarification “petty, megalomaniacal dickhead” needs, honestly.

  • Bugmaster

    I think misogyny, racism, intellectual bullying and cruel dismissal of the mentally ill fall well below the line of ‘not perfectly enlightened’.

    Right, so you’re automatically condemning everyone who is less enlightened than yourself — while reserving the possibility that you might not be perfectly enlightened. Still, as far as you’re concerned, whatever virtuous things these people have accomplished, are completely overshadowed by their “vices”, as you put it.
    There’s nothing wrong with this stance, if you look at it from the strictly moral perspective. However, from a more practical perspective, it makes no sense. Humans do not live in a vacuum; for better or for worse, we are the product of a culture that surrounds us. This means that if absolutely everyone in your culture is misogynistic (by our modern definition of the word), you are overwhelmingly likely to end up being be misogynistic as well — and you’re not going to even be aware of it. Sure, I could demand (retroactively) something better of you, but I might as well demand that you hover in the air by will alone. It’s not impossible, but highly unlikely. I believe that this is the point where righteousness transmutes into self-righteousness — the point where you begin demanding the virtually impossible.
    Or, to rehash a previous example that someone else posted: it is somewhat likely that, in the future, CO2 pollution would be counted as a great sin, and a morally unacceptable act. Have you, Kit Whitfield, done everything you could to reduce your — and your nation’s — carbon footprint ? If not, then why should I listen to anything you say or respect anything you do, the carbon-polluting global-warming-inducing vicealicious wretch that you are ?

    Try, as rough examples: Jadis whipping the horses, the unmanning effect the green witch supposedly has on her knight, the sensual description of Aslan post-resurrection as he romps with the little girls, the grateful pain in the flaying of Eustace.

    I recall the scenes that you mention, and I acknowledge that they could be interpreted as BSDM episodes — but I think that you’d have be looking very, very hard for kinky sexuality in order to interpret these passages in this way… Perhaps as hard as all those Moral Guardians who keep finding secret youth-corrupting messages in Disney movies. If you look hard enough for something, chances are you’ll find it. FWIW, I don’t believe that every expression of “physicality” is necessarily sexual, as you seem to be suggesting.
    As I said though, I’m open to persuasion; I’ll await your detailed analysis.

  • Izzy

    A few specific points:
    “I’m sorry you feel that way” is passive-aggressive. Either you’re sorry for your comments and actions, or you’re not. Hell, hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner is pretty passive-aggressive too. Either grow a pair and admit that you willingly follow the sort of jackass God who would condemn people to hell for doing something that causes no apparent harm and makes them happy, in which case you’re an evil bigot but you might as well admit that anyhow, or grow a pair and actually consider what exactly your beliefs say about the being you worship, and whether that being deserves worship. Either way, stop being a weasel and claiming you really really love me despite my tragic flaws, because fuck that noise.
    Having friends of Persuasion X doesn’t mean anything. (I mean, claiming friends of said persuasion on the Internet *really* doesn’t mean anything, but we’ll let that pass.) As we’ve discussed before, friends are a pretty self-selecting group: you could hang around with gay people who really honestly aren’t bothered by this, but that doesn’t mean all or even most gay people don’t find it a problem that you think a benevolent deity would send them to Hell. Also, you have no idea what your friends think. Maybe they find your views very hurtful but hope you’ll change your mind. Maybe you have some unknown personal qualities that balance out your hateful bigotry in their eyes; maybe they have to hang around you because they’re friends with a friend of yours and blah blah intricate web of social relations; maybe you throw really good dinner parties or have a PS2 or something.

  • MadGastronomer, who is really just very tired

    I agree with Izzy that Bryan’s rude. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Some things cannot be said politely, no matter the tone used to say them, because the content of the message is rude.
    “You’re going to Hell for who and how you love,” is one of those things. So is, “You’re completely wrong about your own religion.”

  • Kit Whitfield

    This means that if absolutely everyone in your culture is misogynistic (by our modern definition of the word), you are overwhelmingly likely to end up being be misogynistic as well
    Excuse me, did you just define ‘everyone in your culture’ as misogynist men? Are women not part of a culture?
    This is the kind of remark that creates ‘check your privilege’ situations. It’s like saying ‘Everyone in the antebellum South was racist’, as if the slaves somehow weren’t ‘in’ the antebellum South, or ‘Everyone in Victorian England was homophobic’, as if there were no gay people. It’s using ‘everyone’ to mean ‘everyone who was anyone’, and that won’t wash.
    Look, what I’m saying is simple. As I read his stuff, C.S. Lewis seems to have a nasty personality. As I said before, that’s personal, not political. He also has nasty politics, which give his nasty personality plenty of room to work with, but it’s the nasty personality that really gets to me. This is not a general statement about human nature, it’s a statement about the nature of a particular human.
    I think that you’d have be looking very, very hard for kinky sexuality in order to interpret these passages in this way… Perhaps as hard as all those Moral Guardians who keep finding secret youth-corrupting messages in Disney movies.
    Nope, I wasn’t looking that hard. I just got a vibe off them. Same as I wasn’t looking very hard to find reasons to dislike Lewis; it just came naturally to me when reading his stuff.
    Your implication seems to be that if I see things you don’t, I must be struggling to contrive them rather than feeling them as sincere reactions. To which I say: thtp. Why would I waste my time looking for reasons to dislike someone? Sometimes the reasons just jump out; the rest of the time, why bother?

  • chris y

    I think misogyny, racism, intellectual bullying and cruel dismissal of the mentally ill fall well below the line of ‘not perfectly enlightened’.
    Sure, but these attitudes were for most of history in most of the world not simply those of the unenlightened, but those of effectively the whole of society. They were structural, and it’s something that one unavoidably has to come to terms with in dealing with anybody born before, say 1914. A few individuals may stand out in retrospect, but if you peer too closely at even a Wollestonecraft or a Wilberforce what you find is feet of clay to a 21st century sensibility.
    I recently read a book surveying late antiquity (400 – 1000 CE) in Europe and the mediterranean. In a post script the author admitted that he’d asked himself the question: who, of all the myriad people he had researched, would he actually want to meet. He came up with a rather tentative list of four.
    If we come to Lewis’ generation (my grandfather’s) you can legitimately apply a slightly higher standard, but you’re still dealing with a structurally racist and misogynistic society, with an deep authoritarian tradition in the academy as much as elsewhere and a fundamental incomprehension of mental illness. And Lewis was no Wilberforce.
    I can’t imagine I’d have wanted to meet Lewis. It would have been almost impossible to remain civil. But there he is, a significant figure in 20th century letters, and we have to deal with him somehow. I’m unconvinced that the most useful way to do this is to place undue emphasis on attitudes which are simply commonplace. That isn’t to excuse or applaud those attitudes from a modern perspective, but to suggest that we need to see what, if anything, he has worth saying which can be extricated from them. I’d say the same thing about Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible. And Shaw.