TF: Calvin and Hobbes

TF: Calvin and Hobbes July 20, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 257

Rayford dozed with his earphones on in first class. Images from the news filled the screen in front of him, but he had lost interest in reports of record crime waves throughout the United States.

I'm not buying this. This is the sort of detail one can't just off-handedly toss into a novel and have it be convincing or believable.

It's not just a detail, really. What the authors are suggesting is the transformation of the entire world into an anarchic jungle of unrestrained, irredeemable lawlessness and chaos. If the authors want readers to believe that the world has become such a place, they're going to have to do more than just tell us, occasionally, in passing, that this is so. That isn't enough. Particularly when the rest of these novels constantly and repeatedly show us — demonstrate to us, prove to us — that this is not how the world is.

The world readers encounter in these pages is a remarkably orderly, law-abiding and safe place. The planes are flying on time and telephone service is fantastically reliable. Traffic and commerce flow uninterrupted. Young couples think nothing of going out for a leisurely midnight stroll and do so easily, unthreatened and unmolested. The main stories on the news indicate that life has become one long slow news day in which trivial non-events — the hiring of a pilot, an esoteric religious conference — make headlines without having to compete with crime or calamity.

We've paid a lot of attention to this conspicuous lack of chaos and upheaval because it seems impossible to reconcile with the premise of the Event and its traumatic aftermath. Imagine a Stephen King novel involving a sudden and devastating worldwide plague* that killed every child on earth, plus a few hundred million adults (kind of like The Stand, only with a few billion more adult survivors). Walk the streets of such a world. It would be bedlam, grief-wracked mayhem, a world infected with a thousand varieties of crazed nihilism, havoc and despair.

The instantaneously childless world of Left Behind is nothing at all like that. It is weirdly, inhumanly imperturbed by the sudden and unfathomable theft of all of its children. This is, to me, the largest and deadliest of these books' many, many flaws.

LaHaye & Jenkins' occasional and unconvincing references to "record crime waves" have nothing to do with the shocking, world-altering aftermath of the Event. It's simply a reflection of their view of human nature — human nature as it is now, here, today. The only difference between now and the record crime waves of the post-Rapture world is the restraining presence here on earth of real, true Christians and their message of the threat of Hell. Take that away and the world will quickly be overrun with the unchecked debauchery of godless humanity left to its own devices — a place resembling something out of Mad Max or Escape From New York or It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

This is a theological claim about human nature. Without the presence of the sanctified, RTC remnant, they believe, the world will run riot because this is what everyone would be doing all the time if not for the fear of punishment and the holy preserving influence of the RTC salt of the earth. It is only that preserving presence and fear of punishment that prevents every atheist, Episcopalian, Hindu, Jew, pagan and agnostic from revealing their true selves as ultimately nihilistic, brutal and violent.

The root of this theological claim, I suspect, arises partly from a misunderstanding of the idea of "total depravity." (That term comes to us from Calvinism, which presents a bit of a dilemma here. I'm about to express qualified praise for one aspect of Calvinism. Any Calvinists stumbling across this post are likely to be upset by that, since they're usually upset by anything short of unqualified praise for every aspect of Calvinism. So my apologies ahead of time to you readers from Calvin fandom.)

L&J's belief in post-Rapture crime waves and wilding in the streets arises, I think, from their mistaken belief that John Calvin's idea that the human condition is one of "total depravity" means the same thing as utter depravity.

It doesn't. And the distinction is rather important.

"Total depravity" was Calvin's response to the question of what it means that humanity is fallen and sinful. That word "total" leads to some confusion as to what he was saying. "Pervasive" or "across-the-board" might have conveyed the point more clearly.

He was responding to a debate over what aspect or aspects of our humanity are the sinful parts. This sounds esoteric, and maybe it is, but bear with me. Calvin's great project was to revive and reclaim the teaching of St. Augustine. All of Calvin's Big Ideas were reprises of ideas first expressed by Augustine. But Augustine's embrace of the New Testament emphasis on grace often came mixed up with a large chunk of the Neo-Platonism he never quite got over. Augustine carried forward all sorts of hints and suggestions that the physical world is inherently evil as opposed to the purer, virtuous world of the spirit. This had disastrous results when Augustine turned his attention to the question of humanity's fallenness or, as he called it, the matter of "original sin," leading him and many who followed him to regard it almost as a kind of sexually transmitted disease.

Calvin, to his great credit, wanted to correct that idea. Calvin didn't want to say that we were divine spirits trapped in sinfully fleshy, genital-laden bodies. Nor did he have much patience for debates over what particular aspect of our humanity carries the fallenness of original sin. Some argued that our reason was where original sin abides, or our conscience, or our will. But Calvin rejected that whole approach. It's across-the-board, he said, pervading every aspect and part of us — body and spirit, mind, reason, will, conscience … everything. That idea came to be expressed in the unfortunate phrase "total depravity."

Keep in mind, though, that this is not the entire story. If every aspect of our humanity is fallen and tainted by sin, it's also true that every aspect of our humanity also reflects the image of our creator. We humans are created in the image of God and that divine spark of invaluable goodness is equally pervasive. No part of us is untouched by "depravity," but no part of us is utterly depraved. We are capable of reason, justice and virtue, but never of untainted reason, justice and virtue.

By reinterpreting "total depravity" as utter depravity, LaHaye & Jenkins disregard a very important part of the picture and arrive at a very different picture of humanity than the one held by Paul or Augustine or Calvin. They arrive at this different picture in part because of that misreading of what those others were saying, but also because they're trying to answer a different question. Those other theologians were interested in why we humans do the things we do — why it is we seem capable of both marvels and monstrosities. L&J are interested, instead, only in the monstrosity because only a wholly monstrous humanity could be imagined to be deserving of the wrath and punishment they imagine God will soon delight in administering. The actual human race as it is won't fit neatly into this scheme, so they've replaced it with an invented human race that will — a barbarous horde running wild in the streets, a perverse, Hobbesian mob that can only be restrained by the iron fist of a divine Leviathan.

L&J's invisible "record crime waves" are thus based on a theological claim about human nature. The proble
m for them is that human nature is the one area of theo
logy that is most easily subjected to scrutiny through direct observation. God may be mysterious, invisible and ineffable, but there are billions of us humans wandering around, living our lives. Human nature can be studied and explored. We can examine it through interviews and introspection. Theories of human nature can thus be evaluated and refined or rejected based on how well they fit with what we can observe in others and in ourselves.

And L&J's notion of monstrous, vicious, utter depravity just won't fit.

The authors themselves can't make it fit. They can't sustain their portrayal of humanity gone wild, resorting instead to these drive-by assertions of a supposed crime wave while at the same time exposing us to dozens of peripheral characters who all seem decent and law-abiding (albeit two-dimensional).

Stanton Bailey, for example, hasn't transformed into a knife-and-chain wielding thug. Rayford's boss Earl hasn't proclaimed that God is dead and anything goes and therefore flown off to Kansas to slaughter the Clutter family. Why would he? To the extent that Earl has any character, that would be horrifically out of character for him.

The Jimmy Bats episode in the last book was meant to illustrate this theme of godless humanity run amok, but Chloe's reaction to their home being burglarized illustrated just the opposite. Frightened by the break-in, she sought and found refuge with a neighbor up the block. She ran to the home of unsaved, godless, left-behind heathen Mr. Anderson because she knew him to be a reasonable fellow and a good man willing and able to assist a neighbor in distress.

Anderson's basic decency refutes the authors' own theory of human nature. So do most minor characters you'll meet in these books. So do most people you'll meet in real life.

These different views of human nature have consequences. The contrasting visions of human nature correspond with contrasting visions of the kind of human society that is necessary and possible. Those words — necessary and possible — come from one of my favorite summations of the implications of the Pauline/Augustinian/Calvinist view of human nature, from Reinhold Niebuhr:

[Humanity's] capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but [humanity's] inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

That's a theological claim about human nature that withstands comparison to observable reality. It rings true. It fits.**

Significantly, it's not just a Pauline view, but also a Madisonian one — the view that shapes American-style democracy with its checks and balances and its insistence on a limited government still powerful enough to protect the rights and freedoms of minorities. If L&J's portrait of utter depravity were accurate, then such a system would be unworkable folly. If humans are utterly depraved, then self-government is an impossibility. Government of, by and for the people cannot work if the people are nothing more than bestial sin-machines. Such humans cannot be trusted or expected to govern themselves. They can only be ruled and restrained by an iron hand.

Tim LaHaye, like most of the activist religious right he helped to create, loves flags and fireworks and the whole red, white and blue costume of extravagant patriotism. But ultimately he does not believe in democracy. He does not believe it is possible or that it is compatible with wretched, sinful, utterly depraved human nature. LaHaye believes that these utterly depraved humans will always seek the tyranny they require — whether its the international Soviet rule prophesied by his John Birch Society mentors or the Antichrist one world government he imagines was prophesied by the Bible.

In opposition to such potential godless dictatorships, LaHaye has worked for what he sees as their only antidote — the godly dictatorship of theocracy.

– – – – – – – – – –

* As I mentioned in an earlier post, I'm in the middle of Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century. Tuchman's account of the Black Death, which killed about 1 in 3 Europeans  in a few short years, gives a sense of how massive, inscrutable trauma altered every aspect of that society. Nothing like that happens following the Event in the Left Behind series, even though it carries off the same proportion of the population.

** Here's where our fiercely Calvinist friends will protest that by believing that humanity possesses any capacity for justice, Niebuhr and I are succumbing to "Semi-Pelagianism." They get even more upset when I fail to recoil from that as a grave insult.

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