The Invisible Church You’re Worshipping In

The Invisible Church You’re Worshipping In November 27, 2012

I ordered a copy of Three Parts Dead (and cajoled three friends into having a book club) when I read the ever trustworthy Alyssa Rosenberg’s glowing review.  But I just found out that the author is doing an AMA on Reddit, and his intro alone is probably enough to attract the interest of some of you folks.

Three Parts Dead follows Tara, a junior associate in an international necromancy firm. She’s been hired to resurrect a dead fire god, but as she investigates (with the help of a chain-smoking priest, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith), she learns the god may have been murdered. Skullduggery and calamity ensue.

The idea came from the sky-is-falling terror I saw back in 2008 at the start of the financial crisis, which made me ponder the extent to which we’re tied to an invisible world (market) of powerful immortal entities, who sometimes go to war and sometimes die.

I had no idea this was the genesis of the novel, so you needn’t worry it’s a ham-handed allegory.  A lot of the book is about dependence.  The sentinels of the city subsume themselves in the hivemind Justice, and that power and grace can make their lives seem grey in comparison.  The dead god sustained a city, not just in prophetic dreams, but through satisfaction of practical concerns like heat and transportation.  One of the priests, in homage to his fire god, smokes constantly, and its hard to tell which is more physically wracking, his occasional abstinence from tobacco or the withdrawal of his god’s gaze from his life.

And then there’s the protagonist and Craftswoman, Tara Abernathy.  Here, human magic is contrasted with divine puissance.  While gods have power as part of their being, practitioners of Craft (magic) need to draw their fuel from something — their own life and will, or that of others (willing or unwilling).  [As a sidenote, the word puissance really came alive for me, once its root turned up in my French class in the subjunctive conjugation of pouvoir, which my teacher defined as “to be able to.”]

The characters in Three Parts Dead spend a lot of time struggling with constraints on what they are able to do, or the limitations they might need to put on the power of others to be able to act freely.  These dependencies aren’t in the pattern of the Creator-Creature model we were just discussing in Frankenstein — they’re unmoored from duties, responsibilities, and love.  And that does sound a lot like the financial system we belong to.

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  • grok87

    “These dependencies aren’t in the pattern of the Creator-Creature model we were just discussing in Frankenstein — they’re unmoored from duties, responsibilities, and love. And that does sound a lot like the financial system we belong to.”


    I just attended a book talk by Nicholas Nassim Taleb on his new book “Antifragile”
    As i’m sure many know he is one of the leading critics of our current financial system. What I found really interesting is his use, in the book, of Eastern Orthodox Theology. He has a whole section of his book on applying the “Via Negativa” approach of the mystical theologian Pseudo-Dionysos the Areopagite.
    In his talk, Taleb made glowing references to Kahneman who I see is on your book list.

  • Shelama

    Leah, I have made the observation elsewhere that virtually the only two ways that people enter into Christian faith (or into any Abrahamic faith) in the first place are either thru childhood indoctrination or in a state of rather profound ignorance of the Bible.

    You have been suggested as an example to the contrary. I’ve not yet done a comprehensive look at your journey and background and study but perhaps you might comment on how you view your own Biblical literacy. For instance, concerning things like it’s history, authorships, culture, cross-cultural comparisons, historicity, story and comparative story, sources, editing, redacting, compiling, re-writing, eye-witnesses, etc, etc.

    I’m sure we both agree that Biblical literacy, and true, honest, critical study and understanding of the Bible, involves more than quoting scripture or catechism or arguing doctrine or theology. Or even memorizing and quoting verbatim the entire Bible.

    I apologize if this is the totally wrong place to post this comment and question but this is where one link I was provided has brought me.

    Appreciate your time, thanks, and I look forward to exploring this site and more about your journey.

    Thanks, Shelama

    • This sounds like a No True Scotsman type of argument to me. I would not be shocked if the definition of not being in a state of profound ignorance is basically equivalent to agreeing with you about the essence of what the bible is. Namely that it is not the word of God.

      How much do people know about the bible before they become Christian? I can see that not many go beyond just reading it and learning what Christians claim about it. The type of analysis you suggest is typically done by convinced Christians or convinced atheists. A few guys like Lee Strobel moved from atheist to Christian based on their study. A few probably moved the other way too.

      I do think that your observation is much less significant for Catholicism than it is for Sola Sciptura Christians. Sola Scriptura really puts the bible at the very foundation of the faith. Catholicism does not do that. It says Jesus established a church and that is the pillar and foundation of truth. What we know about the bible we know because the church says it. Protestants would not reason that way.

      • I think you have a fair point about the “no true Scotsman” thing. But on the other hand, many of us left Christianity specifically because (or at least partly because) we took a good hard look at the Bible. To us, people claiming it as divinely inspired really are demonstrating ignorance.

        It’s sort of analogous to people like Ken Ham claiming that evolution is false and Creationism makes more sense (or if you prefer, take another accepted conclusion of science and one of the “expert” dissenters- global warming, age of the earth, etc.). He’s probably done a lot of reading on evolution, but I would still call him ignorant about it- even if he happens to be willfully ignorant instead of accidentally ignorant. Honest question: do you have a better suggestion? How would you suggest dealing with people who look at what you consider to be obvious demonstrable scientific or historical fact, are quite well versed in the relevant material, and still take a view way outside the mainstream of other experts*?

        *not that there aren’t Biblical experts who are also Christian. But Shelama’s claim is that most non-biblically-ignorant people are either atheists, or have been born (read: indoctrinated) into the Church. Granting this premise for the sake of argument, I’m curious if you still think this qualifies as a no true Scotsman?

        • I would not call someone biblically ignorant who reads the bible according to their own tradition. They might ignore some of the Old Testament violence but their tradition tells them that those passages are of lesser importance so that makes sense. The trick is they don’t admit they have a tradition that tells them how to understand the bible. They claim to go by the clear meaning of scripture alone. It is pretty hard to get them to see it is only clear to them because they were formed in a certain tradition. Still they are not ignorant. They know what they know very well.

          How do you deal with people who see grand conspiracies in evolution and global warming? I wish I knew. Many of them also see a grand conspiracy in the Catholic church. It is just hard to break that thinking.

      • Shelama

        Does it merely “sound like The Only True Scotsman” or is it, in fact, no different from the gent?

      • Shelama

        It’s not ‘No True Scotsman’ at all. Leah might very well be the exception that totally trashes the assertion.

        I’ve no overwhelming commitment to it to start with and have been looking long for a legitimate exception, I’m more than willing, without argument, to stand corrected and be totally fine with it.

        I personally don’t even see it as a pejorative but just simply an observation about the real world. From where I stand it’s self-evident. I’m not sure it’s even truly controversial. One perfectly adequate response, were the assertion true, would be, “Yes, that’s true, but so what?”

        In any case, clearly NOT being ‘No True Scotsman,’ it’s a falsifiable proposition.

        • How is it falsifiable? You say you are totally fine with a legitimate exception but it is fuzzy. Exactly how much research does one have to do to not be considered ignorant? It is easy to move the goalposts. That is the nature of the fallacy. It seems strong when you assert it but when you are actually challenged on it it can quickly be transformed into a weak and even trivial statement.

          Even the notion of childhood indoctrination is fuzzy. Does that exclude anyone whose parents were connected with any church in any way? That is a very high percentage of the population if you interpret it weakly.

          Having said all that I do think you have a point. I would say 90% of Christians are embarrassingly weak on their knowledge of the where we got the bible. My father is a pastor so I would meet anyone’s definition of childhood indoctrination but even after going to Christian school and Christian college I had very little knowledge on the subject. It really wasn’t until I started investigating Catholicism that I researched the canon questions in any depth.

    • Ted Seeber

      Shelma- most Protestants accuse Catholics of having a “profound ignorance of the Bible” when in reality, what we have is a completely different view of the Bible’s place in Divine Revelation (which to a Catholic also includes Tradition, and to any post Englightenment Catholic, scientific observation and human reason).

      The Bible is inerrant in our tradition, but it is by no means the only source of knowledge, or for that matter, even terribly important (despite Pope Benedict’s statement that every good Catholic should read the Bible, the Catechism, and the Code of Canon Law, I know every few who have done so).

  • Shelama

    Sorry, Leah, one more thing I forgot…

    My personal journey includes finding within evolutionary socio-biology everything I personally need for the development of morals and ethics, a moral system and a moral compass. For instance, traits seen among social mammals (and not just primates), including: empathy, altruism, cooperative social living, social order, a sense of fairness and sharing, nurturing, protecting and educating the young, etc. These, of course, compete with other evolutionary traits: aggression, dominance, jealousy, possessiveness, power, etc.

    Do you personally find within those traits insufficient grounds for human morality, ethics, a moral compass, an ethical system, etc? I know there are many people who do find them wholly unsatisfactory.

    Thanks again for your trouble if you find it worthwhile to respond at all.


    • Iota

      I’m not Leah and I’m quite certain she’s capable of giving a more thorough and true answer but, as long as she doesn’t … [may links to Leah’s posts below – both pre- and post-conversion – but sometimes there probably is an even more suitable post buried in the archives]:

      “Do you personally find within those traits insufficient grounds for human morality, ethics, a moral compass, an ethical system, etc?”

      That is the vibe I generally get from Leah’s writing. And even more specifically it’s not so much that evolution would not be sufficient grounds for someone’s personal morality (they may just have a long genetic heritage of being altruists and being successful that way, fair enough) but that it’s insufficient insofar as it does not let us condemn (not the right word, can’t find a beter one just now) some other strategies.

      Say A ended up being predisposed towards altruism and B ended up predisposed towards stealing people’s stuff and being a freeloader. So long as they both successfully have children, both strategies are perfectly fine. There is no non-emotional reason to object to freeloading then (you can also substitute other, worse, things).

      Usually this argument tends to go one of the following ways:
      1) Asserting that we are becoming more ethical, to which one of the responses could be that “evolution does not select for ethics“.
      2) Asserting that there are prohibitive social costs to being a bad person, which just shifts the debate a bit without resolving the main problem (B could, for example, specialize in “helping” elderly relatives leave this world so he/she can inherit their stuff – much less risky then traditional theft). You can choose any other behaviour with sufficiently lowered risk that you still find abhorrent to see this (I’m not going to provide examples, although I could give a few off the top of my head)
      3) Saying: so you religious people would steal and murder if it weren’t for your imagined god, which completely misses the point (I may elaborate, if you insist).
      4) Saying that yes, in fact there is no reason to object to theft if it’s a good survival strategy it’s just that some of us have personal/emotional reasons to do so and will do so, so long as we can (leads to this debate)
      5) Saying: yes, in fact there is no reason to object to theft – so what? Leads to a morality variant of this.

      In general, claiming we just evolved that way and there is no more objective morality (yes, I know it’s a loaded term) leads to only having is, but never ought. If you believe there should be an ought (i.e. there is such a thing as moral obligations we should be able to force both ourselves and others to adopt even against preference or interest, in the interest of fairness, justice, or whatnot) then the question becomes: why? I think this is largely what Leah and Hemant Mehta disagreed about once.

  • Jubal DiGriz

    After reading through the review, which had a sampling of the theology of the novel, I had the question “Why isn’t our world like this?”, as a serious question.
    For people who do believe in divinity, what does the god/s get out of it? Is there an actual relationship, or do humans simply receive and can offer nothing? If there is a relationship, why is it so muddled as opposed to the orderly contract and obligations portrayed?

    • Ted Seeber

      Humans receive grace and God receives Praise, is what the Baltimore Catechism would have told you.

      What the modern catechism says is that God appears to appreciate praise, but it’s not necessary to his existence.

  • Shelama

    Leah, there’s no been a claim elsewhere that you are an example of a person who converted to Christianity, “…from Unbelief to Belief based on the conclusions of serious, honest, critical study of the Bible.”

    The person, who seemed quite familiar with you and Patheos, was unable to cite your specific testimony to that fact but was adamant that it was true.

    Perhaps I’m just missing it (I’m really enjoying browsing your blog…very, very interesting), but I can’t find where you, yourself, make that claim about yourself and your conversion or even suggest it. In what I’ve seen so far – just scratched the surface – I don’t see much discussion of the Bible or critical Biblical study at all. That’s not comment or judgment on the Bible itself, nor to say that your conversion wasn’t justified or didn’t involve a lot of heavy thought and study and conversation, including about the Bible itself. You’re far and away the most interesting example of atheist-to-Christian I’ve yet encountered and I’m intrigued.

    Again, would you consider to comment on how you view your own Biblical literacy at the time of your conversion?…re: the history of the Bible itself, authorship, culture, cross-cultural comparisons, historicity, multiple and independent attestations, story and comparative story, sources, editing, redacting, compiling, re-writing, eye-witnesses, manuscript transmission,-translation, -corruption histories, etc, etc.

    And more specifically, what in your critical study of the Bible and what in the Biblical evidence (as far as I can tell everybody shares a common body of the exact same evidence) convinced you that it was not entirely man-made?

    Thanks again and sincerely,

    • Ted Seeber

      Got a link to that other conversation?

      I’ve been reading Leah since before her conversion was announced. And I don’t remember anything of the sort either. Leah converted to Catholicism, not Charles Scofield Pentecostalism.

      • Shelama

        It’s a conversation in a local, small-town, newspaper comment section with some who was familiar with Leah’s story, so there’s no Patheos link.

        Given that Catholicism, at least in my understanding, is both the most theological and the most intellectual branch of Christianity, my best guess is that would be precisely the Christianity most likely to attract an intellectual like Ms. Libresco. I’ve made no pejorative comments or intimations about either Leah or her conversion (nor even about Charles Scofield Pentacostalism).

        Were it the case that Leah did, in fact, convert to Catholicism without substantial, critical engagement of the vast and myriad world of Biblical scholarship (I consider theology to be almost incidental and irrelevant, at least anything presented and discussed after the 1st century), I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative and certainly not a judgement about her honesty, intelligence, credibility or rational intellectualism. It just simply would be, with no value judgement attached to it at all.

    • leahlibresco

      …from Unbelief to Belief based on the conclusions of serious, honest, critical study of the Bible

      Nope. I mean, I did some reading, on both sides of the big debates, but not enough to be able to fact check a lot of the key assertions. This old post is probably germane.

      • Shelama

        Leah, thank you ever so much. I genuinely appreciate it. I’ve also read your older post, thanks.

        (In my own journey, questions and debates about the NT and about Jesus and about his divinity became relevant only after, and only in the context of, myriad issues and questions concerning Hebrew scripture (the Tanakh, the Old Testament). Having been born and raised Christian, these issues became known to me quite late and quite by accident and, almost unawares, I was drawn in (still have only scratched the surface). By the time I finally got back to Jesus and the NT, whether or not I could conclude there was any “divinity” in the OT (I couldn’t) I could no longer see Jesus as a fulfillment or continuation of them. I was left believing the Jews had been correct about Jesus and the NT and Christianity for 2000 years. His divinity, and, indeed, the entire narrative of Jesus as Jewish fulfillment, savior and messiah, became a non-issue and I was left only with endlessly fascinating puzzle of the invention of Christianity and the NT from out of his life and death. Higher Christian theology –post-1st century theology– escapes me and I’ve nothing to contribute.)

        (By then I had also satisfied my own concerns about morals and ethics within the evolutionary socio-biology of social mammals: empathy, altruism, cooperative social living, fairness, sharing, nurture, protection and education of the live-born young, etc).

        In any case, I’m truly grateful for your response. It will not become fodder for any (non-existent) agenda of mine. The only person with whom I would even share it is the one who referred me to your conversion in the first place and he appears to have deserted that conversation.

        Thanks again, best wishes and good ventures. I think Catholicism is lucky to have you (and Judaism the loser : )


        (“Shelama”, btw, as I understand it, is a variant on the Aramaic, “Sh’lama”…Peace… as in Shalom, Saalam)

  • Grok87

    Just checked out the book from my library- I can’t believe they had it!

  • Ted Seeber

    I have long been convinced that economics is more theology than science.

    My first hint was the near religious belief some economists have in David Ricardo’s comparative advantage theory- despite 40 years of empirical proof in the United States that the model does not fit the real world.

  • I checked this out and read it last night. It was OK. It was trying to say something about freedom, love, and various kinds of dependency and submission, but never very coherently that I could see. Plus


    .nalp terces s’tsinogatorp laer eht ni goc a tsuj si tsinogatorp eht erehw etah I tolp fo dnik eht sah tI

    • Iota


      Just wanted to say: great trick with writing the spolier backwards. 🙂

  • jenesaispas

    Yay, slipping French words in again! Puissance just sounds like one of those French words that could become a loan word, but I’m not really a fan of the subjunctive. Apparently the posh term for ‘can’ lacking some tenses is ‘defective’, I hadn’t really noticed how ‘to be able to’ is a ‘modal auxililary verb’ in its own right and not just a crazy sounding conjugation of ‘can’.