Oh, Absalom

Today I am posting a video of a song by the incomparable Jamie Soles.

A couple of warnings: I recommend you just listen to the audio. Don’t look at the screen, because the words pulse in a way that is likely to give you a seizure. I apologize; this was the only YouTube version of the song I could find.

Secondly: This song will make you bawl, particularly if you are a parent.

The back story goes as follows. The relationship between King David and his adult son Absalom had deteriorated badly. The story of that is also tragic, but too long to tell here. It’s in 2 Samuel 13 – 14. Eventually Absalom, having lost all respect for David, stages a coup (2 Sam. 15). David actually has to flee Jerusalem. Eventually, his men fight Absalom’s in a bloody battle in the forest. 20,000 men die (2 Sam. 18). Absalom, as he rides his mule through the woods, gets his head (possibly his long, luxuriant hair?) caught in the branches of an oak tree. His mule runs off and Absalom is left dangling there. David’s bloodthirsty general, Joab, finds him, stabs him in the heart with three javelins, and buries him unceremoniously in a pit. (2 Sam. 18:6 – 17) This even though David, who at first had wanted to go out himself into the battle, had instructed his generals, “Deal gently with the young man Absalom for my sake.”

Word comes to David that Absalom is dead before his victorious army returns to the city. When they come back, they can hear David in the small room over the city gate (the “judgment seat”), weeply loudly and saying over and over again, “Oh, Absalom, my son, my son, if only I had died instead of you!” The army sneaks into the city in shame, like defeated men.

Joab goes up into the room and berates David for not honoring his soldiers. “You love those who hate you and hate those who love you. You have made it clear today that … you would be pleased if Absalom were alive today and all of us were dead.” (2 Sam. 19:6)

This is not true, of course. No way this situation could have gone would have made David happy. But Joab just doesn’t get it.

I kind of hate that this story is in the Bible, because I wish the whole thing had never happened. It’s one of those slo-mo tragedies where, just when you think that every single thing has already gone wrong, the situation unspools some dismaying new tentacle of horror.

On the other hand, given that it did happen, I am glad this story is in the Bible. Clearly, this is not some slappy-happy, naive, “everything-will-be-great-if-we-all-just-believe-in-our-hearts” kind of document. This document was written by and for people who live in the actual world, where each of us, by the time we are adults, has witnessed or experienced this very kind of thing: complicated, tragic, stupid, seems like it could have been prevented at any point along the way. God is aware of these situations and of how stupid and futile and tragic they are. He is a God for people who find themselves in those situations.

Ahem. OK, sermon over. I guess I got carried away. Here’s the song.

I Just Stayed Up Late Reading this Horror Story … Oh, Wait, It’s Real

Many people have trouble loving their bodies. Not everyone struggles with this, but many do. “The outside does not match the inside.” We are given a body, and our body continues to be a stubborn fact that cannot be overlooked, and as we grow our body continues presenting us with a steady stream of stubborn facts about what sort of person we were designed to be.

So naturally, I figured Love Thy Body was going to be a healing, affirming sort of book that helps readers along the road to accepting and even celebrating the set of stubborn facts that is our particular body.

And I guess it could still do that, but you’d have to dig deep. Because mostly what this book is, is a terrifying ride through a dystopian nightmare not terribly different from Brave New World, except this one is true and is happening to us. I started to binge on this book (late at night, appropriately), but finally I couldn’t take it any more and had to start skimming. I really can’t think of a scarier book to present you with, as we approach Hallowe’en.

The two-story divide

The author, Nancy Pearcey, who is described on the jacket (and, apparently, by The Economist) as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual,” dives right in to the philosophical developments that have served to sever human beings from their bodies. This divide goes all the way back to ancient Greek (and also Hindu) contempt for the material world and veneration of the spiritual or intellectual world. The Greeks actually taught that the creation of the physical universe was a huge mistake and was carried out by a lesser, evil, deity.

This philosophy has been with us, waxing and waning, ever since and has led to all kinds of dichotomies that even today dominate most people’s thinking:

  • Values vs. Facts
  • Morality vs. Science
  • Postmodernism vs. Modernism
  • Sacred vs. Secular

Each of these dichotomies can be diagrammed using the same “two-story” image. The immaterial thing is on top. The physical, or “real,” thing is on the bottom. The first “story” of the house (Science, say) is furnished with public, verifiable facts that anyone can access. The second story is home to all the immaterial stuff. In some of these dichotomies, the lower story is considered superior (facts; science). Some people even consider the lower story to be the only one that really exists. Thus, we are encouraged to keep our upper story “private” and not impose it on others. In other dichotomies, the upper story is given more importance. For example, in the evangelical world, “sacred” jobs are considered more spiritual than “secular” ones and this is supposed to be a good thing. Postmodernism, with its suspicion of materialism and reason, was a reaction against Modernism, which considered physical objects and reason to be all that existed; and, not surprisingly, was felt by the Postmodernists to be dehumanizing. The Postmodernists were right to stop devaluing the immaterial, but unfortunately they went in the direction of rejecting the entire lower story, leaving the sharp dividing wall in place.

The problem for human beings with this sharp divide between spirit and matter is that is splits us right in two. We are embodied spirits. But the prevailing philosophy of the last several centuries has tried to tell us that our bodies are not, in fact, really us. They are just a tool we manipulate, a machine that we drive. Our spirits are the “real” us.

I’ve never liked the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” It is supposed to describe what a human being is, but instead of capturing what it feels like to be a human being with a body, it does the opposite. It gives a spooky, lonely feeling. I imagine the poor ghost wandering the circuits of the computer, unable to make it do anything.

And that is the effect of splitting people off from their bodies. You make the spirit a mere ghost and the body a mere machine, and suddenly they can barely even influence each other.

This is “Personhood Theory,” and it is the foundation for all the horrors in the rest of the book. Personhood theory, like a good dichotomy, shows the Person in the upper story and the Body in the lower story (diagram on page 19). The Person has legal and moral standing, but unfortunately, according to personhood theory, just because you have a body doesn’t necessarily mean you are a person.

You must earn the right to live and/or have children

The most obvious example of beings who are inarguably biologically human, but yet are not considered to be persons, in our modern society are unborn babies.

“By sheer logic, in accepting abortion, we implicitly adopt some form of body/person dualism, even if we do not use those terms. Out actions can imply ideas that we have not clearly thought through. Of course, when people are making a decision about whether to have an abortion, their choice is often based on personal reasons … In discussing personhood theory, however, we are not talking about people’s personal reasons but about the logic inherent in supporting abortion.” (page 52)

“The most obvious problem for [personhood] theory is that no one can agree on how to define personhood. If it is not equated with being biologically human, then what is it? And when does it begin? Every bioethicist has a different answer. Fletcher proposes fifteen qualities to determine when human life is worthy of respect and protection (such as intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, concern for others, communication, curiosity, and neocortical function).” (page 53)

It should be obvious that this is a very, very slippery slope. I am sure that, as you read Fletcher’s list, examples sprang to your mind of adults who seem to lack these qualities in greater or lesser measure. It would be funny if this wasn’t a life-and-death topic. Obviously, these qualities are not present (as far as we can tell … and, honestly, how the hell would we know?), in newborns. Thus, bioethicists (and was there ever a more ironic job description?) are already deciding that newborns do not make the cut. Waston & Crick feel that newborns should not be “declared human” for three days after birth because some genetic conditions do not show up until then. So-called bioethicist (and the irony deepens each time I type that word) Peter Singer says “a three-year-old is a grey case.” (page 54)

But the difficulties in earning their humanity presented to babies and toddlers are just the tip of the iceberg. Qualities like self-awareness and a sense of time can be lost to conditions like dementia, brain injury, severe mental illness, and the list goes on. If someone who has previously been acknowledged as a person loses these qualities, does it then become moral to kill them? Personhood theory presents no logical impediment to their being “declared” nonpersons by whatever authority once declared them persons in the first place.

The qualification that is most frightening to me is “intelligence.” What the heck does that mean? Who determines it? When I read excerpts from eugenicist Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), I get the impression that her ideal society would give everyone an IQ test and sterilize, not just the lowest scorers, but everyone who scored average or below. Every time, I can’t help but wonder whether I would meet her criteria for sufficient intelligence to be allowed to reproduce. Probably not … after all, how intelligent could I be when there are several major points on which I disagree with Margaret Sanger?

You don’t get to say what kind of being you are

Once we have thoroughly severed personhood (upper story) from the body (lower story), it follows that our body is not at all a part of who we “really” are (the only “real” things being the upper story — our experience, thoughts, and feelings). This concept is applied consistently by the transgender narrative, which “completely dissociates gender from biological sex” (p. 197).

Because the trans narrative insists that the body does not matter — that it is not the “the real you” — some transgender people do not even bother to change their bodily appearance. A friend introduced me to a local musician who identifies as genderqueer. He appears completely masculine except that he wears eyeliner and sometimes a woman’s blouse or skirt. Yet he insists on being referred to as “she” and her.”

Ibid, p. 200

This man is not pushing the envelope. He is a person who sees clearly the logical implications of the trans world view and is following them (almost) all the way to their conclusion.

(And, by the way, that’s convenient for him, because one of the lousiest things about being a biological woman is female hormones, and I think it’s a little unfair that a person should be able to call himself a woman and not experience the joys of those, but I digress.)

“So,” you say, “What’s the problem? It’s all about personal choice. The individual should not be bound — repressed — oppressed — by his or her body and society’s response to that body.”

Pearcey understands the emotional appeal of this motivation:

The goal is complete freedom to declare oneself a man or a woman or both or neither.

The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — even its own body.

Ibid, p. 210

Of course, having a body, having that body be an important part of your identity, and being among other people who have a certain response to the total package … all of these are important elements of what it means, and has always meant, to be human. But no matter. Individuals may fairly say that they don’t like what it is to be human, that it is a rotten experience, and that they think they have figured out how to fix it by completely denying the reality of their bodies. Onward! How can this be a problem for anyone who values individual autonomy?

The problem arises thusly. By seizing the ability to declare ourselves whatever we may want to be, we have created an awesome new power. And awesome new powers seldom remain diffuse, in the hands of every individual. When an awesome new power arises, so will a supervillain to try and monopolize it.

These legal changes [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws] do not affect only homosexual or transgender people. In the eyes of the law, no one has a natural or biological sex now; all citizens are defined not by their bodies but by their inner states and feelings. Your basic identity … no longer follows metaphysically from your body but must be determined by an act of will.

But whose will? Ultimately, it will come down to who has the most power — which means the state. “It does not matter what you or I mean by the word ‘gender,’ explains Daniel Moody. “The only opinion that counts is that of the state … In law, our gender identity is defined without reference to our body.”

By rejecting the biological basis of gender identity, SOGI laws empower the state to define everyone’s identity.

Ibid, p. 214

If that’s not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.

If the state can legally declare a man to be a woman because he says he is, it could, in theory, legally come to my house and declare me not a woman, even though I’ve borne three children.

“Oh, come on. No one is going to do that.”

It is already happening. Not to me personally, but to much more vulnerable people.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the case in Texas where a father and mother are locked in a custody battle over their school-aged son. The mother insists the son is transgender, though he seems perfectly happy to identify as a boy when he’s with his dad. The courts have, so far, sided with the mother. This is just so tragic I don’t know where to start … but the big question is, In what sense is the little boy in this story making any kind of choice at all?

There are no such things as mothers and fathers

Until now, the family was seen as natural and pre-political, with natural rights. That means it existed prior to the state, and the state merely recognized its rights. But if the law no longer recognizes natural sex, then it no longer recognizes natural families or natural parents, only legal parents. That means parents have no natural rights, only legal rights. You, as a mother or father, have only the rights the state chooses to grant you.

Ibid, p. 213

This, of course, is a tyrant’s dream.

I am sure you have heard people make serious arguments along these lines: “Some people should not be allowed to have children” (by whom?); “There is no such thing as other people’s children”; “It takes a village to raise a child.” (I agree with that last one, but only when the village is an organic social unit, made up of lots of nuclear and extended families. When Hillary Clinton says “a village,” the village she has in mind is the national government.)

The people making these arguments wish to build a society-wide utopia. In other words, they are budding totalitarians.

The ideology of choice [being the only determining factor in forming a family] has ominous political implications. For if children must be chosen, if they do not belong to their biological parents as gifts from God, to whom do they belong? Answer: the state. If you read scholars like Ted Peters carefully, you consistently find statism lurking as an underlying assumption. In one passage, Peters writes, “Society places its children in the care of rearing parents as a trust.”

Stop right there: Society gives us children? Society gives us its children? This view reduces both parents and children to atomistic dependents on the state.

The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century all sought tight state control of education, down to the earliest years, to inculcate unquestioning acceptance of the regime’s ideology.

History shows clearly that when biological bonds are downplayed in favor of choice, individuals end up forfeiting choice to the state. Demanding freedom from natural relationships means losing freedom to the state.

Ibid, p. 231

I would have to call that an unexpected outcome, wouldn’t you?

Yes, some natural families do really stink to grow up in.

All bureaucratic group homes for children would stink to grow up in.

Now that Pearcey has pointed this out, though, I can see this theme of a totalitarian utopian state undermining natural family bonds in all kinds of dystopias. Brave New World is the most obvious, where people are encouraged to sleep around, babies are grown in a lab, and the terms mother and father are considered obscene. But there is also The Giver, the YA book by Lois Lowry, in which babies are assigned handpicked parents after they leave their “birth mother” (which is a low-status role in their society … sound familiar?), and babies who are not thriving are euthanized.

This theme even surfaces in 1984. In that book, Winston’s neighbor is a rather simple-minded man who is enthusiastically in support of the Party. When Winston ends up in the Ministry of Love, there to be re-educated (sound familiar?), he is shocked to see his neighbor also there. The man has been turned in by his children, who claimed that in his sleep he would mutter, “Down with Big Brother.”

So, yeah, I recognize this theme from dystopian literature. I just didn’t realize, until I read this book, that legally and philosophically we were quite so far down that road.

Scary Things: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil

They are distinct and should not all be collapsed into the category of Resistance.

Today, we will be responding to this book: The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.

It’s the one on the left.

I mentioned TWOA in another post on writing-related books. Later, The Orangutan Librarian hilariously dressed the book down in her review. Today, I will get into the book’s flaws (which bothered me but not as much as they bothered her), and that discussion will lead us to talking about some entities that are definitely scary, namely the three baddies of this post’s title.

The War of Art started out swimmingly

Pressfield starts out discussing how, whenever people go to follow their calling, they experience something called Resistance. He mentions endeavors like starting a business, parenting, charitable work, or “taking any principled stand in the face of adversity” as activities that evoke Resistance, but if you read the rest of the book, it’s clear that the main type of calling he has in mind is becoming a writer or an artist. I frankly think this narrow focus is more helpful, because with some activities (such as parenting or fighting evil), the reasons that people run into difficulties are obvious and expected. This is not the case with, say, landscape painting or novel writing. Those look easy until you try to do them, and there is no obvious reason why a person who has talent in these areas should find life grindingly difficult while pursuing them.

Yet, they do.

Resistance cannot be seen, touched, heard, or smelled. But it can be felt. We experience it as an energy field radiating from work-in-potential. It’s a repelling force. It’s negative. Its aim is to shove us away, distract us, prevent us from doing our work. (p.7)

Resistance is not out to get you personally. It doesn’t know who you are and it doesn’t care. Resistance is a force of nature. It acts objectively. Though it feels malevolent, Resistance in fact operates with the indifference of rain and transits the heavens by the same laws as the stars. (p.11)

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it. (p.12)

The danger is greatest when the finish line is in sight. At this point, Resistance knows we’re about to beat it. It hits the panic button. It marshals one last assault and slams us with everything it’s got. The professional must be alert for this counterattack. Be wary at the end. (p.18)

What does Resistance feel like? First, unhappiness. We feel like hell. A low-grade misery pervades everything. We’re bored, we’re restless. There’s guilt but we can’t put our finger on the source. We want to go back to bed; we want to get up and party. We feel unloved and unlovable. We’re disgusted. We hate our lives. We hate ourselves. Unalleviated, Resistance mounts to a pitch that becomes unendurable. At this point the vices kick in. Dope, adultery, web surfing. (p.31)

Resistance is directly proportional to love. If you’re feeling massive Resistance, the good news is, it means there’s tremendous love there too. If you didn’t love the project that is terrifying you, you wouldn’t feel anything. (p.42)

quotes from The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

All of this is perfectly true and I think it’s a fantastic description. I’ll bet that everyone reading has had these experiences a short way in to a new enterprise. Besides writing, people commonly describe this kind of phenomenon coming midway through a weight-loss regimen, or hitting a few weeks in to their attempt to live in another country. If you haven’t experienced this stuff, I guarantee you’ve read a memoir or watched a documentary about someone who has.

Then it starts to trivialize Resistance … and everything else

It isn’t long, however, before TWOA’s diagnosis of our troubles starts to go a little bit off the rails:

Resistance seems to come from outside ourselves. We locate it in spouses, jobs, bosses, kids. “Peripheral opponents,” as Pat Riley used to say when he coached the Los Angeles Lakers. Resistance is not a peripheral opponent. Resistance arises from within. It is self-generated and self-perpetuated. Resistance is the enemy within. (p.8)

Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and conquer Resistance. (p.16)

Ibid

Well, OK, that is partly true. Resistance as fear, self-sabotage, rationalization and procrastination is a very important part of the picture. That even may be its main characteristic in many cases. (More about this in a sec.) But, for someone who appeared to be taking Resistance so seriously as a real force, I’m a little disappointed that Pressfield is locating it entirely inside ourselves. And this problem is going to get worse, when the book goes way off the rails:

We get ourselves into trouble because it’s a cheap way to get attention. Trouble is a faux form of fame. Ill health is a form of trouble, as are alcoholism and drug addiction, all neurosis including compulsive screwing up, jealousy, chronic lateness … (p.24)

Creating soap opera in our lives is a symptom of Resistance. Why put in years of work designing a new software interface when you can get just as much attention by bringing home a boyfriend with a prison record? Sometimes entire families participate unconsciously in a culture of self-dramatization. If the level of drama drops below a certain threshold, someone jumps in to amp it up. Dad gets drunk, Mom gets sick, Janie shows up for church with an Oakland Raiders tattoo. It’s more fun than a movie. And it works: nobody gets a damn thing done. (p.25)

Ibid

OK, this is bad enough. Pressfield has just attributed every one of our character flaws, as well as family drama (which, let me note, is other peoples’ behavior) to Resistance. But, surely, this can’t all be the same thing as the psychological phenomenon where we get scared and antsy when we start to succeed in our creative work, can it? Surely, this is too broad?

But then, he really lost me:

Doctors estimate that seventy to eighty percent of their business is non-health-related. People aren’t sick, they’re self-dramatizing. The acquisition of a condition lends significance to one’s existence. An illness, a cross to bear … Some people go from condition to condition … The condition becomes a work of art in itself … A victim act is a form of passive aggression.

The War of Art. p.27

OK.

This paragraph was obviously written by someone who has never had a real, serious health problem.

“Doctors” estimate this, do they? First of all … I doubt it. Secondly, “doctors” tend to be fairly healthy themselves (or they wouldn’t have made it through medical school). Yes, they can tend to disbelieve people about their own condition. Many people with rare or hard-to-diagnose conditions, such as Lyme Disease, Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, obesity, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, chronic pain, or less-typical forms of any disease, have horror stories of how hard it was to get a diagnosis or even get their complaints taken seriously. I’ll bet you know at least one such person whom you could name right off the top of your head. I’ll bet that with a little thinking, you could come up with more names.

So let’s dispense with this nonsense.

If buckling down to your calling was all it took to cure a host of chronic conditions, I assure you, Mr. Pressfield, people would do it.

So, then, does Resistance mean anything at all?

Pressfield has just completely discredited his own thesis by attributing to Resistance literally every bad thing that happens to anyone, whether or not they caused it. It tempting, at this point, to chuck the book contemptuously over our shoulder and be done with it. That is exactly what The Orangutan Librarian did, and I can’t blame her.

But this created some serious cognitive dissonance in me, because there are passages in this book that I don’t want to chuck out. For the first several pages, it seemed to me that Pressfield was describing a real phenomenon, and describing it better than I’ve heard it described before.

So what’s going on here? How can these two things coexist?

Resistance Means Three Things

The problem, revealed in the second half of the book, is that Pressfield is a Jungian. This means, as far as I can tell, that in his world view, all of the important stuff happens inside the person, in our internal world. In fact, your mind and subconscious might be the location not just of the only important stuff, but of all the stuff. The outside world, basically, doesn’t exist at all.

Any world view that takes this as its postulate is naturally going to lose some explanatory power.

Yes, the mind is real, but it’s not the only real thing. The world exists. Physical stuff exists. Other selves exist. Furthermore, it’s a fallen world, and so, sometimes, bad stuff is going to happen that has its origin in that fallen, hybrid-spiritual-and-physical world, and not on our own almighty psyches.

Christianity, by the way, does a great job of this. Full disclosure, I’m a Christian. One thing that gives the Judeo-Christian world view its awesome explanatory power is that it takes seriously both mind and body. What Pressfield calls Resistance (and is forced, by his world view, to locate entirely inside the sufferer), Christianity breaks out into three things: The World, The Flesh, and The Devil.

The World

You may have noticed that Pressfield starts out by saying that we tend to locate Resistance in our spouses, bosses, etc., but that it’s actually internal. But then later, he mentions that “entire families” will help each other engage in Resistance. Elsewhere he talks about how people will try to sabotage each other’s hard work and success. And he mentions that there are entire industries that make money off distracting people from their duties.

So perhaps other people, and the greater culture, do have some effect on us after all.

Of course they do. This is what theologians call The World. In extreme cases, other people’s sin can stop us in our tracks, completely crushing our ability to focus on anything else, either temporarily or long-term (though not, thankfully, eternally). Examples of this would be an abusive parent, spouse, boss, or (in the ancient world) mistress or master; rape, mobs, warfare, and associated atrocities. All of these things are aspects of the world being fallen. They are not the fault of person they happen to, but they can certainly knock the person off-track from any other calling they might have had, forcing them to deal with the atrocity instead.

Because we live in physical bodies in a physical world, populated by other selves, and because that world is fallen, it is therefore possible (and, indeed, common) that bad things happen to us that do not have their source in us. Go and read the book of Job. It is absolutely not true that “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

The Flesh

The phenomenon that Pressfield does such a great job describing, before he gets off-track, is what used to be called The Flesh. This means our own character, with all its temptations, vices, fears, flaws, and weaknesses. Often, we need nothing more than this to cause us to crash after we have started out doing well. I’m not going to spend as much space on this one, because it is described pretty well above and because it’s the challenge that most of us are probably the most familiar with. The Flesh is, indeed, a formidable foe. Conquering it might not be a sufficient condition for success in our calling, but it’s certainly a necessary one.

The Devil

Now we get to the scariest of the troika, and also the most controversial. This post has already turned into a really long rant, so I’m not going to make a bunch of theological arguments that the devil exists. I’ll just explain the relationship that he bears, in my thinking, to Resistance.

Pressfield describes Resistance as a force that is:

  • real
  • malevolent, yet impersonal
  • dedicated to keeping people from “evolving their soul” – i.e. becoming productive, courageous, and virtuous
  • spiritual: invisible, non-physical

Clearly, this is an exact description of Satan as he appears in traditional Christianity.

Unfortunately, Pressfield’s world view doesn’t allow for the existence of an invisible, but real, spiritual entity that is not just the artist’s shadow side or something like that. So, having personified Resistance to such vivid effect, he is then forced to back off and explain that it has no reality outside ourselves, really. Because he’s Jungian, this doesn’t register as a problem, because all of the universe is inside ourselves. But, I find it unsatisfying.

I think Pressfield was describing more than he knew.

Why is Resistance “protean,” deceptive, “always lying and always full of shit”? (p.9) Because the devil is a liar.

Why is Resistance always perfectly timed to interfere with our work? We live in a fallen world, where pipes burst, bacon burns, where people get sick and have family drama. But why do these things seem to happen, not at random, but perfectly timed to interfere with us doing good things (shortly after we begin a new enterprise, or when the finish line is in sight)?

Andrew Klavan says that shortly after he finished the first draft of Another Kingdom, his house suffered an invasion of caterpillars. Every time he hit another milestone with the project, something “dreadful” would happen.

You can’t tell me that caterpillars coming into your house is caused by your subconscious desire to create drama. Neither is your toilet flooding, your car breaking down, your aging parent taking a fall, or, say … a plague hitting the nation.

No, I’m not saying that all of these things are the devil directly trying to sabotage you. At least, I don’t think so. Again, we live in a fallen world and sometimes stuff just happens. But sometimes, I have to say, the timing is extremely suspicious. And I am not just making this stuff up. In the New Testament, Satan is clearly credited with sometimes causing sickness. Ironically, believing that comes out sounding a lot more humane than “70 – 80% of people with symptoms aren’t really sick.”

In the video below, Andrew Klavan talks about Another Kingdom. At 7:03 he tells the caterpillar story.

The Guilty Reader Tag

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

For the uninitiated, a “tag” is when a fellow blogger asks you to answer a bunch of questions, which usually revolve around a theme. I, for some mysterious reason, tend to get tagged by bloggers who are interested in books, writing, and reading.

This tag was created by  Chami @ Read Like Wildfire and passed on to me by my faithful friend The Orangutan Librarian, a fellow INFP who, like me, is also an expert in guilt. Maybe that’s why I love her sensitive and lighthearted book reviews and parodies.

One. Have You Ever Re-Gifted A Book You’ve Been Given?

Hmm. I don’t think so. But probably. I have been known to buy a book for myself, read it, and then a few years later, give the nearly-new copy to a fellow reader as a gift. And then, after they have enjoyed it, after another few years I have even been known to re-claim it.

Also – fun fact! – I was once given a book that eventually turned out to be a library book. It was pretty good, too.

Two. Have You Ever Said You’ve Read A Book When You Haven’t?

Photo by Marcela Alessandra on Pexels.com

I have definitely implied it.

Back in my college days, when I made an idol of being intellectual and was consequently a poser about it, I would talk as though I was familiar with philosophers like Plato, when I had not read their works but only heard about them.

(Hot tip: if you make an idol of your intellect, you will always feel like a dummy who is about to be exposed.)

Three. Have You Ever Borrowed A Book And Not Returned It?

Yes. I borrowed a book about children in history from a history prof, let it sit around unread, and then eventually returned it. At least, I thought I returned it. She was unable to find it, as was I.

Four. Have You Ever Read A Series Out Of Order?

All. The. Time. Some series seem to stretch on forever into both the past and future, having neither beginning nor end. *Ahem* Dragonlance!

Also, I love Tony Hillerman’s Navajo police procedurals. But they have a big flaw: they are not numbered as a series! Each one can be read as a standalone, but if you read more than a few of them, you realize that they develop over time. You have to read each book to find out where it fits in with the others in terms of Jim Chee’s disastrous love life, for example. I’ll bet that somewhere on the Internet, someone has listed them in order just for people like me.

Five. Have You Ever Spoiled A Book For Someone?

Um, probably, but I can’t remember. What I remember, of course, is when people spoil books for me. The most egregious instance was when a friend spoiled Things Fall Apart.

Six. Have You Ever Dogeared A Book?

Um, so, this is one of those habits that I have had to belatedly realize makes me uncivilized, and have had to train myself out of. (I won’t tell you the others.)

Seven. Have You Ever Told Someone You Don’t Own A Book When You Do?

Maybe, if I forget that I own it. Or, I might think that I own a book, but do so no longer.

Eight. Have You Ever Skipped A Chapter Or A Section Of A Book?

In nonfiction, all the time. Often you can see where a section is going (if you’re wrong it will quickly become apparent), or the author is laying out background that you already have.

In fiction, I occasionally skip atrocities.

Nine. Have You Ever Bad Mouthed A Book You Actually Liked?

Yes. I still feel bad about a review that did for a reviewing site, where I gave a very decent historical fiction volume 2 out of 4 stars just because the characters occasionally spoke like modern people. Once I got more experience, I got more fair with my reviews.

Moral: The Heart is Deceitful

So, it turns out that I have committed every single pecadillo on this list, from the harmless (forgetting I own books) to the prideful (posing as an intellectual). Not super surprised by this. Jesus Christ came into this world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.

But one question was left off this list: Have you ever been lost in a book at a time when, in the opinion of people around you, you should have been doing something else?

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!

I’ll post a quote about that tomorrow.

You post your book pecadillos in the comments.

Best to you all.

Giants II

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 on Pexels.com

Welcome to October, month of Halloween! Every Friday, we will discuss scary things. This week’s scary thing is giants, and specifically the proper use of the word cannibalism.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing that in both ancient history and folklore, giants are more horror creature than fantasy creature. Part of the reason for this is that they eat people. My question for you is, Can we properly call them cannibals?

But first, a detour about eating blood

In my second book, The Strange Land, the people group whose adventures I am following (I think of them as “my” people) tell stories of giants who eat people and animals indiscriminately. Their euphemism for them is “blood eaters.”

Some religions have a taboo on “eating meat with the blood still in it.” In Indonesia, there is a special word for such meat. If you want to eat, say, a chicken, the word for the animal and the meat is ayam. But that’s only if the bird has been killed properly and bled out. If these rules have not been followed, it is ayam bangkai, which translates as “chicken carrion” or “corpse chicken.” If you are a devout Muslim, you would not eat meat without knowing that it has been butchered in the proper manner. Otherwise, you could accidentally defile yourself by eating ayam bangkai or some other kind of bangkai.

Obviously, this rule goes way back, at least to Leviticus:

“Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood — I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. Therefore I say to the Israelites, ‘None among you may eat blood, nor may an alien living among you eat blood.’

“Any Israelite or any alien living among you who hunts any animal or bird that may be eaten must drain out the blood and cover it with earth, because the life of every creature is its blood.”

Leviticus 17:10 – 14

There is a similar passage in Deuteronomy 12:23.

Here in Leviticus, God gives two reasons for the taboo on blood-eating. First of all, the blood is important to the sacrificial system that He had set up for the Israelites. “I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar.” This blood was a key part of God’s solution for dealing with the people’s sins. Obviously, to eat such a thing for mere physical nourishment would be to take lightly the evil in one’s own people, family, and heart, and to disrespect the sacrificial system and, by extension, the One who set it up. Note that God does not expect the other nations, to whom He has not yet given this sacrificial system, to abstain from blood, unless an individual foreigner happens to be living among the Israelites, and therefore presumably learning about and also benefiting from that system.

The other reason, which seems to be implied here, is that eating or drinking an animal’s blood shows disrespect for the creature itself. “The life of every creature is its blood.” Even when out hunting, and not bringing an animal for sacrifice, He tells them to bleed out the body and to cover the blood with earth, as if to symbolically give the animal a proper burial before we take it home and eat it.

Apparently, avoiding eating an animal’s blood is the respectful, civilized, human thing to do. This is very different from the usual picture we are given of ancient people, where they club something in the field and then tear right into it with their teeth.

I have described elsewhere how Genesis 6:1 – 4 tells of spiritual beings interbreeding with human women, producing a race of giants who terrorized the earth. This would have been before the Flood (and was probably a major reason for the Flood), which makes the time frame very ancient indeed. The extrabiblical book of 1 Enoch tells us,

“and when the people were not able to sustain them [with agriculture], the giants dared (to attack) them, and they devoured the people. And they began to sin with birds and wild animals and reptiles and fish, and to devour one another’s (!) flesh, and drink blood.” (I Enoch 7:2 – 6, quoted in Giants by Doug Van Dorn, p. 60)

This horrifying practice was apparently common knowledge even as “recently” as the time of the Exodus, which is still ancient history but is now within the realm of recorded history, not just dim memories. When the Israelites arrived on the border of the land of Canaan, having escaped from Egypt, Joshua sent twelve men to spy out the land. They came back and reported “it is a land that devours its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32 -33). That’s why they were so scared. Even after having seen God’s ability to deliver them from the merely human inhabitants of Egypt, they recommended not entering the promised land for their own safety.

I am not arguing that the Biblical taboo on eating blood was given because the giants ate blood. I see it in reverse: eating blood — like eating people, like bestiality — was just one of many obvious and intuitive taboos in ordinary human morality which the giants either were unable to perceive or perversely sought to break.

This picture of giants as somehow paranormal and as eating humans and/or drinking their blood is well attested in world folklore. Polyphemus, the cyclops who captures Odysseus and his men in the Odyssey, will literally pick up a human and eat him alive. And he’s not hunting them like animals. He is fully aware that the sailors he has captured are persons and can talk, and he doesn’t care. He likes Odysseus, and so promises to eat him last.

Beyond Polyphemus, Van Dorn points out in his book that cultures all around the world have stories about paranormal creatures that seek to drink human blood, though they are not always portrayed as giants.

About the word “cannibal”

Surely, cannibalism has to be one of the last taboos. Even if you have been exposed to the concept before, it never seems to lose its shock value. (“Soylent Green is people!!!“)

On the other hand, the idea of a giant eating people, I believe has lost its shock value, though maybe it shouldn’t have. We associate it with fairy tales. After all, how scary can a character be if he lives in the clouds and goes around saying Fe, Fi, Fo, Fum?

To recover the shock value, I propose using the term “cannibal giants.” But there’s a problem. Technically, cannibalism means eating your own kind. Technically, these giants aren’t human. So, is this hyperbole only slightly less serious than that committed by every earnest 13-year-old vegetarian who calls her parents “cannibals” for eating something was that once sentient?

I argue no, for two reasons. For one thing, giants are clearly humanoid. They look like people (more or less). In Genesis, they have human mothers. Critically, like Polyphemus, they can talk. If they were less human-y, it wouldn’t make sense to call them cannibal. We would call them man-eating, like a man-eating tiger, which would still be scary, but not as much so, because it would be done more innocently somehow.

Secondly, the word cannibal actually has two subtly distinct senses. One, indeed, is the idea of eating one’s own kind. So we can say chickens or spiders are cannibals, or we can talk about someone cannibalizing their own ideas. But the other meaning is just eating people, who are a thing which should not be eaten, and I think this its primary meaning. Once that line has been crossed, humanity itself is now somehow defiled. We have been shown that it’s possible to think of people not as sacred bearers of the image of God, irreplaceable individuals, eternal embodied souls … but as a substance. A food source. We are being invited to change the way we view ourselves and our fellow humans, and this is true whether that ancient taboo is being broken by actual humans, or just by creatures that look sort of human and can talk and, frankly, ought to know better.

Neither one is great.

So I am going to go ahead and call these giants cannibals.

Surprising Fact of the Week

We should never defend Christianity by saying it is traditional. From the beginning, it has stood against the traditions of its day.

Beginning in the fifth century, Christian leaders finally began to wield enough political influence to pass laws against sexual slavery. The church fathers called it “coerced sin.” One historian notes that the most reliable index of the Christianization of an ancient society was the recognition of the injustice of sexual slavery.

Let that historical fact sink in: The most reliable index of how deeply Christianity had permeated a society was whether [the society] outlawed sexual slavery.

Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body, pp. 69 – 70, 71 – 72

Ancient People Were Really Smart, Part … What? 10?

Massive stone structures in Saudi Arabia may be some of the oldest monuments in the world.

They number in the hundreds, can be larger than an NFL football field and are found across Saudi Arabia. … radiocarbon dating of charcoal found within one of the structures indicates people built it around 5,000 B.C.

“This ‘monumental landscape’ represents one of the earliest large-scale forms of monumental stone structure construction anywhere in the world.”

Ibid

Oooh, so many thoughts.

We keep finding these things everywhere. And every time one is found, it’s older than expected, such that it seems we are constantly being told that “the earliest” or “one of the earliest” has just been found.

There is Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, the earliest (?) stone temple.

There are standing stones, marching stones, and stone circles all over the Middle East and Europe.

There are crannogs in Scotland (apparently Neolithic), and the Stone Serpent of Loch Nell.

The Giza pyramids, and the Sphinx, are arguably much older than commonly believed.

So, I don’t necessarily believe that these monuments in Saudi Arabia are “the first” of anything (even though, I’d like to point out, the monument could be older than the charcoal they found in it).

What I do believe is that they are yet more evidence that the compulsion to build massive stone structures, and the engineering skills to pull it off, was near universal among ancient humanity.

It looks most probable to me that these “earliest monuments” in Arabia were contemporaneous, or nearly so, with the other “earliest stone monuments” and temples and things that we keep finding, all over the world.

Perhaps people were dispersing from somewhere (somewhere near the Fertile Crescent, say), taking this building culture with them as they went. They would have hit northwest Arabia fairly quickly. The Table of Nations, in Genesis 10, lists all the peoples that descended from Noah’s three sons after the Flood. Though this is supposedly a comprehensive list, when it tells where they settled, the homelands listed for them are all in the Fertile Crescent, the Levant, and Arabia, though it is obvious that some of these peoples eventually ended up settling in much more far-flung places.

See also my posts about The Lost Civilizations of the Stone Age, by Richard Rudgley, who presents evidence that fully functioning human civilizations existed 10,000, 20,000, or even 30,000 years ago.

Just a thought for the day.

Quote of the Week: The Soul Who Sins is the One who will Die

The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb:

‘The fathers eat sour grapes/and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will not longer quote this proverb in Israel. For every living soul belongs to Me, the father as well as the son — both alike belong to Me. The soul who sins is the one who will die.

“Suppose there is righteous man who does what is just and right. … Suppose he has a violent son, who sheds blood or does any of these other things (though the father had done none of them) … Will such a man live? He will not! Because he has done all these things, [the son] will surely be put to death and his blood will be on his own head.

“But suppose this son has a son who sees all the sins his father commits, and though he sees them, he does do not such things. He will not die for his father’s sin; he will surely live. But his father will die for his own sin, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother and did what was wrong among his people.

“Yet you ask, ‘Why does the son not share the guilt of his father?’ Since the son has done what is just and right and has been careful to keep all my decrees, he will surely live. The soul who sins is the one who will die. The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him.

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear, O house of Israel: Is it not your ways that are unjust?”

Ezekiel 18, most of the chapter

Writing about the Afterlife

Writing about the afterlife is tricky. It does not always go well.

Bookstooge recently reviewed a book that was set entirely in the afterlife, and it failed (at least, based on his review, it failed) because writing about the afterlife immediately brings out the limitations of the author’s understanding of: God, eternity, human nature, human embodiment, space, time, etc.

Some of these limitations on our understanding can be fixed with better theology. (For example, the TV show The Good Place could have benefitted from an understanding that the human heart is deceitful and desperately wicked, and who can know it?). Others of these limitations can’t be fixed because they are a consequence of our inability to imagine an existence that transcends space and time. New Age accounts of “out of the body” experiences immediately lose me when they describe things like “a cord coming out from between my shoulder blades that connected me to my body.” (Pro tip: if you are out of the body, you do not have shoulder blades.)

But despite these pitfalls, I find it irresistibly attractive to follow my characters just a step or two beyond death. Perhaps it’s because the moment of death is so poignant in a story, or because there is an opportunity to address unfinished business. “Wrong will be right/when Aslan comes in sight.” We are all longing for that wrong will be right moment.

The 11-minute song below is a ballad that successfully (I think) follows a character slightly past death. I find it very moving. I hope you do as well.

For the comments: when an author attempts to write about the afterlife, do you start rolling your eyes or do you go with it? What are some of your favorite post-death scenes in books or movies?