NRA: Tsion and them that mourn

Nicolae: The Rise of Antichrist; pp. 195-200

Buck Williams and his new friend are headed to Michael’s hideout in Jordan the East Bank of Israel. That’s where renegade rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah’s followers hid him to keep him safe after black-hooded thugs murdered his wife and children. Shortly after they helped Tsion flee to safety, the ex-rabbi’s chauffeur was killed by a car-bomb.

The Russians love their children too.

This is all sloppy work on the part of the nefarious Jewish conspiracy out to get Tsion Ben-Judah. Their crude, unimaginative violence shows they haven’t been watching enough of the right kind of movies about innocent men being framed and hunted by diabolical shadowy forces. Anyone who’s seen those movies knows that you can’t just kill somebody like Tsion — that might turn him into a popular martyr whose followers could be inspired to cause even more trouble. You have to disgrace him first by framing him for some unspeakably heinous crime.

The conspirators nod in that direction by belatedly trying to spread the rumor that Tsion himself arranged for the murder of his wife and children, but this half-hearted smear was too little, too late for it to be effective. They’d sent a whole squad of black-hooded thugs to kill Tsion’s family, and they killed them publicly in the street. Then they tried to pin the blame on Tsion’s driver — saying the ex-rabbi had instructed his chauffeur to orchestrate this public attack. Well, OK, but if that’s the plan, then the next step should have been to arrest the driver and extract a false confession from him, implicating the ex-rabbi as well (or just disappear him into some nameless cell and say he’d confessed, maybe before hanging himself). But this bone-headed conspiracy bungled that part of the plan too by also killing the driver publicly. Even Buck and Michael are smart enough to figure out what that means:

“And these stories about his driver having been in on the slaughter of his family?”

Michael shook his head. “That man was exonerated in a most decisive way, would you not agree?”

They pause to remember this man they both knew, having just confirmed his innocence. Well, his legal innocence, anyway — he was still guilty of original sin, of course, so he clearly deserves to suffer an eternity of torment in the fires of Hell.

“Was he also a believer?”

“Sadly, no. But he was loyal and sympathetic. We believed it was only a matter of time. We were wrong.”

That “sadly, no,” seems inadequate to the gravity of what they claim to believe that means for this good, loyal man’s eternal fate. We might say, “I wanted the pie a la mode, but, sadly, the waitress said they were out of ice cream.” But we wouldn’t say, “The lab results are back and, sadly, it’s terminal and there’s nothing we can do for you. Bummer.”

I’ve heard countless sermons chiding Christians for failing to fully appreciate the gravity of the eternal damnation awaiting every unsaved person we’ve ever known. If we really believed that these people were doomed to suffer never-ending agony forever and ever, the preachers all insisted, then we’d be far more urgent evangelizing others, spending our every waking moment in a frenzy of proselytizing. There’s a compelling logic to that. Given their premise, those sermons’ conclusions were correct. If we really believed that every non-believer was damned for eternity, then it would be monstrous for us to do anything other than evangelize — constantly and aggressively, by any means necessary.

But because I accept the logic of that, I’m led to another conclusion as well. Since no one does this, then perhaps no one really believes in this idea of Hell. Buck and Michael certainly seem like they don’t really believe this. They’re angry at the evil conspiracy that killed this good and innocent man, but they’re not angry at the God they imagine is now killing him perpetually and painfully for eternity. “He was loyal and sympathetic,” Michael says. But, “sadly,” he’s now burning in Hell.

The inadequacy of that sigh and shrug convinces me that these characters — and the authors who created them — can’t possibly really believe what they’re suggesting here. I’m not sure anyone “really” does.

“Sadly, no. But he was loyal and sympathetic. We believed it was only a matter of time. We were wrong. Dr. Ben-Judah is not aware of the loss of his driver, by the way.”

“He, of course, knows about his family.”

“Yes, and you can imagine how awful that is for him. When we loaded him into the boat he remained in that fetal position, covered by the blanket. In a way, that was good. It allowed us to keep him in hiding until we got him to the drop-off point. I could hear his loud sobbing over the sound of the boat throughout the entire voyage. I can still hear it.”

“Only God can console him,” Buck said.

“I pray so,” Michael said. “I confess, the consolation period has not yet begun. He has not been able to speak. He cries and cries.”

I’ll give Jerry Jenkins a pass here for the callow glibness of Buck’s response. That’s an awful thing to say, but there’s a kind of accidental realism to that awfulness. Confronted with unimaginable grief, we often find, to our own horror, that our mouths are moving and hollow, mortifying sounds are coming out of them. That happens. Thus even though Buck’s shallow platitude here was probably intended to be a bit of pious wisdom — or, even worse, a model of the sort of thing it’s good to say — we can pretend otherwise and just treat this as the kind of all-too-common verbal farting we’re capable of when confronted with a grief for which there can be no words.

(This is why cops are trained to stick to, “I’m sorry for your loss.” That’s inadequate, of course, but anything they say would be inadequate, and it’s better to say something inoffensively inadequate than to risk ad-libbing something that would be both inadequate and appalling.)

We could critique other aspects of Jenkins’ attempt to describe Tsion’s grief, but parts of the scene above are not bad. “He has not been able to speak. He cries and cries.” That works. I’ve picked on Jenkins so many times for violating the “Show, don’t tell” rule that I feel obliged here to point out this rare instance of him getting that right.

The significant point here, though, is not how the authors describe Tsion Ben-Judah’s grief over the loss of his wife and children. The significant thing here is that Tsion is grieving at all.

This is series of books in which, in the first chapter of Book 1, everyone everywhere lost all of their children. Yet since then, Tsion Ben-Judah is only the fourth person we’ve seen responding to this loss. Rayford Steele mourned the loss of his wife, Irene, and his son, Raymie. Bruce Barnes mourned the loss of his family. And poor Loretta is just about my favorite character because she was the only person we’ve met who seemed appropriately, humanly devastated by the loss of her loved ones in the Event.

There was a perfunctory mention of Buck’s alleged sadness over the disintegration of his nephews, but that didn’t seem credible. Chloe Steele’s initial anger after the Event might have been a form of grieving, but the authors insisted it wasn’t so much a response to the loss of her mother and brother as it was to the loss of the intellectual hauteur she had to surrender in order to become a real, true Christian.

Tsion Ben-Judah has just learned of the violent death of his wife and children. And now he is mourning and grief-stricken. “He cries and cries.” That’s good. That rings true. It portrays a human response that seems real and believable.

But the larger context surrounding Tsion’s grief underscores something unreal, unbelievable and inhuman about these books. The problem is that his appropriate response rings true because it portrays something universal — yet the authors portray this response as exceptional.

The implication of Tsion’s grief — and the grief of Rayford, Bruce and Loretta — is that only real, true Christians mourn the death of their children.

We discussed last week how the authors seem confident in presuming the absolute worst about everyone everywhere who is not a member of their own small circle of true believers. That presumption can only be maintained by preserving a determined ignorance about all those people. We see here just how astonishingly vast this ignorance must be. It’s one thing to embrace hateful stereotypes or to attribute to others some imagined intrinsic inferiority, but consider the utter disdain it takes to assert — or just to assume — that Those People do not mourn when their children die. (“I hope the Russians love their children too,” Sting sang back during the Cold War. But his point was that of course they do — that all people love their children, and that perhaps it would be good if people who loved their children didn’t kill one another’s children and their own.)

What we described last week as Tim LaHaye’s disdainful disregard for the entire world is related, I think, to the cognitive dissonance we saw illustrated above regarding the driver who, “sadly,” is now burning in Hell. That dissonance is easier to cope with if you reassure yourself that Those People really deserve to burn forever. People who love their children, people who mourn the loss of their children, clearly do not deserve such a fate. Therefore, hellbound sinners must not mourn the death of their children.

So yet again, this strikes me as Bad Writing that arises, in part, from Bad Theology. But it’s also just partly Bad Writing. Remember all that stuff your English teacher said about universal and specific? This is where that comes into play. This is why that’s so important.

Writers need to make the universal specific and to allow the specific to be universal. “For all the history of grief / An empty doorway and a maple leaf.” Tsion’s grieving fails in both directions. On the one hand, it’s too general — with nothing particular about Tsion’s grieving to distinguish it from any other father and husband. We’re never told anything about the actual woman and actual children whose loss he is mourning. The effect of that is to make his grief seem blandly generic, and since any grief we’ve experienced or witnessed was particular and not general and generic, we can’t fully relate to that. We’re not moved by it.

But that’s less of a problem than the other way in which Jenkins fails here, because on the other hand he’s also suggesting that Tsion’s generic, universal experience of grief is somehow exceptional and specific only to Tsion and to other RTCs like him. It thus comes across less like a description of this one man’s experience than like an accusation about everyone else.

Mallory Ortberg captured this pregnant insinuation in her piece on the woman who preferred animals to humans:

“I love my pets,” the woman said, as if someone had questioned it, or as if this was somehow an unusual or praiseworthy way to feel about pets.

When a generic sentiment like that is presented as exceptional, it always carries that implication of accusation. If we read, “The people of the tiny village of Milltown were still mourning young Tommy, who had drowned in the river late that summer,” we’re allowed and invited to relate to the grief of these townspeople. We relate to it because their particular experience evokes something universal. But if we strip away all those particularities, it turns into, “In small towns, people mourn the loss of children who die.” That’s not inviting, it’s accusing. It’s suggesting that people who don’t come from small towns cannot relate to this experience.

This comes up quite a bit in country music, which is filled with tribalistic songs celebrating life in small towns and the people who call them home. At their best, such songs include delightfully specific details that can bring a smile to the face of a lifelong Manhattanite. But at their worst, these songs do what Jenkins does here by treating Tsion’s grief as exceptional. Consider, for example, Scotty McCreery’s “Water Tower Town.” That title image is evocative, but the rest of the song is so full of banal generalities that it can’t be heard except as an accusation. When he sings, “Workin’ hard and livin’ right is the only life we know” it doesn’t come across as a boast about his small-town people, but as a criticism of big city people — or of everyone everywhere else.

Tsion Ben-Judah and Rayford Steele mourn the death of their children. But so does everybody else.

If the authors understood that last sentence, and if they’d allowed themselves to consider that thought for more than a second or two, then these would have been a very different set of books.

  • Lorehead

    Sorry, your response wasn’t showing up for some reason. (Disqus.)

    We seem to agree that the first fight was not self-defense and the second fight was. I agree that Ender didn’t always make the best decision. I don’t agree that the book pretends he did or that it would have been a better book if he had.

    Card himself has some kooky ideas about the Meaning Of his own books, so I personally prefer just to look at what he wrote. I would say that the book makes the point that children are not at all blank slates, but have the full complement of human flaws and emotions, in particular malice, and that it doesn’t trust adults to take away their autonomy and hide the truth from them. I don’t read it as saying that children are emotionally mature or understand the consequences of their decisions.

    I would say that there’s a lot of moral luck in Ender’s childhood, as the philosopher Bernie Williams defined it. At least three times, someone dies as the direct result of his actions without his having meant for that to happen, and in each instance, if Card had told us that nobody got seriously hurt, you wouldn’t be calling Ender an attempted murderer.

  • Will Wildman

    in each instance, if Card had told us that nobody got seriously hurt, you wouldn’t be calling Ender an attempted murderer.

    That’s kind of a vague counterfactual situation though–I don’t think I understand the distinction you’re drawing between Ender’s actions and the results of those actions. To get extremely specific, a kick is rather defined by the swinging leg and its impact–if the impact is different, the swing had to have been different as well. So do you mean “If Ender hadn’t beaten Stilson and Bonzo so brutally” or “If Ender had tried to savagely beat Stilson and Bonzo, but for some reason it was ineffective”? Obviously, if Ender had pulled his blows, had stopped fighting as soon as his opponent was no longer attacking him, I would not call him any kind of murderer. If Ender had tried to smash Bonzo’s face in but somehow missed and then the fight broke out, the ‘attempted murderer’ charge could only be based on the kind of damage Ender was trying to do.

    All of the Ender books and spinoffs push very hard on the idea that intent defines morality completely. Ignore the kicking for a moment; pretend Ender has a gun. He wants to only incapacitate Bonzo but his aim slips a little, or his knowledge of anatomy isn’t great, so instead he fires a fatal shot. It seems to me like your logic would suggest he’s not a murderer in this case, because he didn’t fully intend the consequences of his actions, but there can’t really be any question that he intended to cause harm and, whether it’s gun or beating, attacked in a way that he knew could kill, and did so anyway, and continued to attack once his enemy was down. Legalistically, I think Bonzo’s death might be ‘voluntary manslaughter’, but the idea that Ender bears no responsibility in the situation is weird to me. (If you have any interest in enduring the long essays I’ve already written on the book, I also get into the circumstances surrounding the fight and everyone’s total disinterest in Bonzo’s life, but for this discussion I’m content to only discuss Ender’s choices at the point where he’s trapped in the showers.)

  • dpolicar

    Protagonist-Centered Morality is certainly closer to what I’m talking about than anything related to perfection, so that’s a step towards mutual understanding. Thank you for that.

    I agree that Ender doesn’t think his hands are clean.

    I agree that in Speaker for the Dead many characters, some of whom are sympathetic, believe that Ender in Ender’s Game is basically a monster. (Relatedly, the character of Bean in Ender’s Shadow observes many of the problematic aspects of Ender’s Game.)

    I don’t think Ender is strictly responsible for the genocide of the Formics. Whether Card is pro-genocide or not, I have no idea.

  • Lorehead

    Good people never do bad things?

    I have the impression that where our opinions of the novel diverge is not when a child repeatedly takes actions in the heat of a fight out of anger or even self-destructive impulses, rationalizes them by saying that he has to, for his own safety, completely destroy all his enemies so they can never threaten him again, and later finds out that he killed them and feels guilty and ashamed of that.

    Where I think we disagree is that I think the book is a tragedy, and meant as one, that made me think about where trying to destroy your enemy completely, even if you succeeded, would lead.

  • dpolicar

    Good people often do bad things.

    (Incidentally, we seem to keep repeating this pattern where I say A and you respond as though I’d said B, where I don’t even remotely believe B and can’t even figure out what I said to lead you to B in the first place. I’m not sure what to do about it, but I’d like us to find a way out of that pattern.)

    Yes, I disagree that Ender’s Game was meant as a tragedy. Neither do I think its fans mostly experience it as one (not that you said they do).

    That said, I do agree that there is a story in there about the limitations of the power to destroy.

  • Lorehead

    I think we can agree that the legal system would exonerate Ender, and that, morally, that doesn’t matter.

    I mean two things. Secondarily: both of the times Ender kills another boy, what Ender did might, for all he knew, have killed him or not. You’ve re-read the book much more recently than I have, so your recollection is probably more accurate, but if memory serves: he didn’t even suspect he killed the first time, and everybody believed the cover story that Bonzo had lived but been expelled, but Ender had a lot of suicidal guilty feelings implying he subconsciously knew?

    Primarily: a lot of the attacks on the book from this direction seem to proceed from the implicit premise that Ender is The Hero and the book endorses everything he does. But the reaction I had was: three times, Ender killed without meaning to, and each time he justified his actions by saying that he could only be safe by destroying all his enemies completely. And in all but the first of those cases, they had tried to murder him first. He probably wasn’t even mistaken. But he was wrong. And that was a tragedy.