Top 10 Recent Books: 5 on Heaven, 5 on Hell

You've been warned.

You’ve been warned.

I’ve recently written on both heaven and on hell. My own readings on these topics might be idiosyncratic. I’m not sure whether these books get read in seminaries or comparative religion programs. I don’t even know whether these topics are of any interest to academics in those disciplines. I, for one, went through most of the classes offered on Christianity at the University of Washington’s excellent Comparative Religion program and didn’t encounter, or discuss, anything about these topics. What follows is a list of books (in no particular order) I’ve found helpful for thinking about heaven and hell (along with their publisher blurbs).

Please order books via the links provided here if you’d like to help put some diapers on little Rosman butts!

HELL

JBR is the dean of devil studies. This is the summary book from his five volume history of the topic.

JBR is the dean of devil studies. This is the summary book from his five volume history of the topic.

“[In The Prince of Darkness] Russell recreates the arcane images of good and evil we all once understood perfectly well as children. From the moment the cover is lifted on this beautifully produced book, the world darkens. Russell presents story after story, using them like a descending staircase, drawing us down into archetypal memories of unending battles with the Evil One.”—Bloomsbury Review

The Devil's story in detail.

Are you ready to RUMBLE?!

“[The Old Enemy is a] learned . . . but also robust book. . . . Forsyth is much at home amid the heroics, graphic laments and winged enormities and leviathans of the Sumerian, Hittite and Canaanite epic fables. . . . He sees the narrative links between Marduk and Zeus, between the death-king Mor and the classical underworld. At the close of the study, the chapters on Augustine glow with intelligence and sympathy.”—George Steiner, The Times Literary Supplement

What the?

What the?

“This book displays the breath and breadth of life in history more than any merely analytical study could do. [The Formation of Hell] illuminates and deepens us with its humanity and its rare lucidity of style.”—Jeffrey Burton Russell

The prince of philosophical prose. Nobody keeps you interested in abstruse problems like Kolakowski.

The prince of philosophical prose. Nobody keeps you interested in abstruse problems like Kolakowski.

“[Kolakowski’s] exploration of the philosophy of religion covers the historical discussions of the nature and existence of evil, the importance of the concepts of failure and eternity to the religious impulse, the relationship between skepticism and mysticism, and the place of reason, understanding, and in models of religious thought. He examines why people, throughout known history, have cherished the idea of eternity and existence after death, and why this hope has been dependent on the worship of an eternal reality. He confronts the problems of meaning in religious language.”

He'll make you a believer in the (non?-)existence of Satan.

He’ll make you a believer in the (non?-)existence of Satan.

“Rene Girard is beyond question one of the seminal Christian thinkers of our time. Few, if any, have more imaginatively engaged the dominant ideas of modernity and post-modernity by exploring the bilical telling of the human story. He is one of those writers who, once discovered, leaves an indelible mark on one’s mind and soul. Read I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, and be prepared to be changed.”—Richard John Neuhaus, First Things

HEAVEN

Zaleski is our premier guide to otherworld journeys.

Zaleski is our premier guide to otherworld journeys.

“Critics of religion have argued that Christianity’s success stems from its promise of eternal life, that people become Christian at bottom merely to cope with their fear of death. Contemporary theologians and philosophers, highly sensitive to this charge, tend to skirt the issue of life after death. To speak of the afterlife is at best to engage in wishful thinking, at worst to descend to the level of pop religion, encounters with angels, and UFO abductions. In The Life of the World to Come, however, Carol Zaleski asks the question, ‘Are we rationally and morally entitled to believe in life after death?’ and answers with a spirited and emphatic ‘yes.'”

Much more fun than his book on sin and guilt.

Much more fun than his book on sin and guilt. Also one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.

“With erudition and wit, Jean Delumeau’s History of Paradise explores the medieval conviction that paradise existed in a precise although unreachable earthly location. Delving into the writings of dozens of medieval and Renaissance thinkers, from Augustine to Dante, Delumeau presents a luminous study of the meaning of Original Sin and the human yearning for paradise. The finest minds of the Middle Ages wrote about where paradise was to be found, what it was like, and who dwelt in it. Explorers sailed into the unknown in search of paradisal gardens of wealth and delight that were thought to be near the original Garden.Cartographers drew Eden into their maps, often indicating the wilderness into which Adam and Eve were cast, along with the magical kingdom of Prester John, Jerusalem, Babel, the Happy Isles, Ophir, and other places described in biblical narrative or borrowed from other cultures. Later, Renaissance thinkers and writers meticulously reconstructed the details of the original Eden, even providing schedules of the Creation and physical descriptions of Adam and Eve. Even when the Enlightenment, with its discovery of fossils and pre-Darwinian theories of evolution, gradually banished the dream of paradise on earth, a nostalgia for Eden shaped elements of culture from literature to gardening.In our own time, Eden’s hold on the Western imagination continues to fuel questions such as whether land should be conserved or exploited and whether a return to innocence is possible.”

The man who brought you the ultimate itinerary of the Devil also has a handle on heaven.

The man who brought you the ultimate itinerary of the Devil also has a handle on heaven.

“At minimum, it is the most rigorous modern study of the various strains of Western tradition that culminate in [Dante’s] Paradiso. But its introductory chapter [of A History of Heaven] goes beyond that to sketch out an apologia for passionate heavenly belief. In effect, Russell tries to re-establish the honor of the Christian mystical tradition. . . . Like Dante’s, Russell’s paradise is deeply God-oriented. . . .”—David Van Biema, Time

A slightly more philosophical guide through the significance of the afterlife to the present life.

A slightly more philosophical guide through the significance of the afterlife for the present life.

“Nicodemus first posed the question “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” This book reads that problem in the context of contemporary philosophy (particularly the thought of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, and Deleuze). The phenomenology of the body born ‘from below’ is seen as a paradigm for a theology of spiritual rebirth, and for rebirth of the body from ‘on high.’ [The Metamorphosis of Finitude argues] the Resurrection changes everything in Christianity–but it is also our own bodies that must be transformed in resurrection, as Christ is transfigured. And the way in which I hope to be resurrected bodily in God, in the future, depends upon the way in which I live bodily today.”

Death, you lose!

Death, you lose!

“Levering brings the best of current biblical scholarship into a creative interface with theological reflection informed by one of the Church’s greatest minds, Thomas Aquinas. In Jesus and the Demise of Death the core tenets of classical Christian eschatology, recently jettisoned by many theologians as allegedly outdated, make a surprising and come-back. Levering adds an important and timely Catholic contribution to the lively contemporary theological debate about Christian eschatology.”—Reinhard Huetter

Don’t miss our top 10 books (that I’ve read) of the last 10 years.

But remember, a different faith means a different afterlife:

I couldn't get a preview of the video link below. So here's a sneak peak.

I couldn’t get a preview of the video link below. So here’s a sneak peak.

http://en.gloria.tv/?media=93470

 

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Forgiveness Wins: The Perversity of the Prodigal Father

Only the full experience of this capacity can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, those two essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora's box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their "glad tidings": "A child has been born unto us."

Only the full experience of this capacity [for natality/forgiveness] can bestow upon human affairs faith and hope, thosetwo essential characteristics of human existence which Greek antiquity ignored altogether, discounting the keeping of faith as a very uncommon and not too important virtue and counting hope among the evils of illusion in Pandora’s box. It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their “glad tidings”: “A child has been born unto us.” –Hannah Arendt

I reluctantly watched the new Arendt biopic. The trailer seemed to offer the same bowdlerized version of history I hated so much in The Lives of Others and Life is Beautiful.

Agnieszka Holland is much more up my alley when it comes to dealing with World War II, because she puts all the rough edges of history up front and center, which is what I believe good historical cinema should be about. Her breakthrough biographical film Europa, Europa dealt with so many twists and turns that it drove Lanzmann, the director of the classic documentary Shoah, into hysteric fits.

Reading The Human Condition softened me up to watch the new film about Hannah Arendt. The book spends a lot of time discussing the fragile practice of human freedom as it plays itself out in the plurality of the many networks of human relations that encompass us. Freedom is the quintessential obsession of the modern world, but Arendt thinks (this came out of nowhere for me) that freedom requires forgiveness. This is because freedom is by definition unpredictable. Furthermore, even with initial good intentions, as freedom gets channeled through the complex web of human relations, there is a high probably that it will cause harm to others.

This is where forgiveness comes in for Arendt. It also comes in a theological register for her. Her insight is so surprising that reading it felt a little bit like Christmas in July. Only when I read the following words did it become apparent she was telegraphing her intentions while talking about the natality of human freedom, its ability to give birth to totally unexpected, almost miraculous possibilities:

“The discoverer of the role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language is no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense. It has been in the nature of our tradition of political thought (and for reasons we cannot explore here) to be highly selective and to exclude from articulate conceptualization a great variety of authentic political experiences, among which we need not be surprised to find some of an even elementary nature.”

So much for the separation of church and state. She really buries the ditch between revelation and history with that.

Arendt goes on to comment upon the practicality of the various admonitions to forgive endlessly that issued from the lips of Jesus (7 times and so on):

“Crime and willed evil are rare, even rarer perhaps than good deeds . . .  Trespassing is an everyday occurrence which is in the very nature of action’s constant establishment of new relationships within a web of relations, and it needs forgiving, dismissing, in order to make it possible for life to go on by constantly releasing men from what they have done unknowingly. Only through this constant mutual release from what they do can men remain free agents, only by constant willingness to change their minds and start again can they be trust with so great a power as that to begin something new.”

How scandalous is this in a world where we’re constantly grinding old axes instead of starting anew? Is it possible to live this way? But is it possible to live otherwise?

These are questions I’d like to revisit sometime with regard to Poland, especially since the complexities of its history tend to be so frequently flattened out, I would say Orientalized, by Western scholars. (You can take a look at the comments at the end of this post for concrete examples of what I mean.)

Finally, in a Girardian vein avant la lettre, she contrasts the liberating freedom of forgiveness with the automation of vengeance (which is painfully familiar to anyone who has more than one kid, especially if their age differential is small):

“In this respect, forgiveness is the exact opposite of vengeance, which acts in the form of re-acting against an original trespassing, whereby far from putting an end to the consequences of the first misdeed, everybody remains bound to the process, permitting the chain reaction contained in every action to take its unhindered course. In contrast to revenge, which is the natural, automatic reaction to transgression and which because of the irreversibility of the action process can be expected and even calculated, the act of forgiving can never be predicted; it is the only reaction that acts in an unexpected way and thus retains, though being a reaction, something of the original character of action. Forgiving, in other words, is the only reaction which does not merely re-act but acts anew and unexpectedly, unconditioned by the act which provoked it and therefore freeing from its consequences both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven. The freedom contained in Jesus’ teachings of forgiveness is the freedom from vengeance, which incloses both doer and sufferer in the relentless automatism of the action process, which by itself need never come to an end.”

What’s most disappointing is how Arendt wants to limit the act of forgiveness to small offenses, precisely the typical everyday stuff that happens seven times seventy times a day. She ignores Matthew 5:44 in the collection of Gospel quotations she uses to ratchet down the applicability. This can, in part, be explained by the fact that she is writing not long after the Holocaust, which tested the limits of forgiveness like no other event in history. On the other hand, the triviality of the acts she counts as forgiveness severely undercuts the ontological weight Arendt attributes to the creativity inherent in the act of forgiveness. It is a contradiction she does not work out in The Human Condition.

The film, more or less follows the same tracks. In the film she continually struggles to separate out the “banality of [Eichmann’s] evil” from the unforgivably monstrous end result of  his acts. Besides the anonymous readership of her New Yorker articles, her (soon to be ex-)friend since their student days under Heidegger, Hans Jonas, is her most strident critic. He thinks her banalization of evil forgives monsters like Eichmann and he cannot stomach it.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, holds up an issue of Time magazine outside a military recruitment center after being released from prison in Istanbul on Thursday. Agca served more than 25 years behind bars in Italy and Turkey.

Mehmet Ali Agca, the gunman who shot Pope John Paul II in 1981, holds up an issue of Time magazine outside a military recruitment center after being released from prison in Istanbul on Thursday. Agca served more than 25 years behind bars in Italy and Turkey.

But what if Hans Jonas was mostly right, save for his disbelief in the power of forgiveness to cure us from vengeance even in situations of the most extreme evil? I’m reminded of the “Letter of Reconciliation of the Polish Bishops to the German Bishops,” where the bishops of a country that lost six million of its citizens (both Jews and Catholics) to the Soviets and Nazis were asking the Germans for forgiveness for the crimes Poles committed against the Germans during the war. John Paul II was one of the signatories of this document.  He carried over its spirit into a papacy highlighted by apologies and attempts at healing age-old schisms that made so many decent people cringe (a bit like Hans Jonas in the film) and not enough people took seriously.

In all of this it’s important to remember that the line between victims and victimizers is very thin. It is not uncommon for former victims to turn into victimizers. Take the example of Hitler and Germany. Would the horrors of WWII have been possible without the punitive measures imposed upon Germany by France after WWI? In fact, the French were so vengeful that the Germans only finished paying back their reparations in 2010.

We celebrated Rembrandt's birthday, the painter of the best known images of forgiveness, about a week ago.

We celebrated Rembrandt’s birthday, the painter of the best known images of forgiveness, about a week ago.

I realize that what I’m exploring here is much more perverse than the shenanigans of Deleuze and Guattari. The shift I am tentatively proposing is akin to seeing the Parable of the Prodigal Son as the Parable of the Prodigal Father. I think this is what Philippians 2:5 might mean. I’m still trying to figure it out. It seems to make more sense of the rough edges of my own life, and the very rough edges of both my countries (Poland and the USA), than the “natural” culture of retribution.

There are ways of reading what I’ve written here as monstrous. Go ahead. I can’t stop you. Comfort yourself with vengeance and resentment, but don’t let me know how that’s working for you. It generally hasn’t worked very well for me.

The film hints at this too as it closes with Arendt, who wrote her thesis on St. Augustine, making the classical argument that evil is a privation (another way of saying that it is “banal”?) of the good, which is truly radical, because it is the creative root of reality.

Coetzee Demolishes Greek Harmony With Christian Agony

I tried to find an example of the "Unitarian with an attitude" bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

I tried to find an example of the “UNITARIAN WITH ATTITUDE!” bumper sticker I once saw in Portland, OR. This is what the search turned up. True story.

The best religious novelist of our time isn’t, as far as I know, a Christian believer. J.M. Coetzee completed his doctoral dissertation upon another Christ-haunted writer Samuel Beckett. He also is clearly influenced by the philosophical and theological writings of the Catholic (other than Bruno Latour) most-discussed in the secular academe. Of course, I’m talking about René Girard, whose work I’ve alluded to elsewhere.

Coetzee did attend a Catholic high school, plus he has both Dutch and Polish ancestry. Poland was not always the Catholic stronghold it is nowadays–Poles can thank the Germans, Russians, and the Jesuits for that. Actually, during the 16th century Poland was home to not only nearly all the Jews expelled from the West, but also of the Radical Reformation (so perhaps Coetzee has radical Calvinist or Unitarian roots?). In fact, it’s the only place where the Jesuits were successful at combating the Reformation. As the old joke goes:

Q: What is similar about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?

A: Well, they were both founded by Spaniards, St. Dominic for the Dominicans, and St. Ignatius of Loyola for the Jesuits.
They were also both founded to combat heresy: the Dominicans to fight the Albigensians, and the Jesuits to fight the Protestants.

Q: What is different about the Jesuit and Dominican Orders?
A: Well, have you met any Albigensians lately?

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his not enough.

Mann saw through some of the intellectual fashions for Greece, but his Röntgen didn’t cover enough.

WHERE WAS I? In my mind J.M. Coetzee is the greatest Christian (why not Catholic?) novelist of our time, because his characters constantly mull over the significance and practices of Christianity. They make the Incarnation strange again by inviting the unsuspecting reader to look at it from new angles. But don’t let me be the judge; judge yourself.

Let’s start with a passage from Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I’m almost certain the passages you’ll read from Coetzee later are a polemic against this great German modernist writer. The Magic Mountain is a prime example of post-Christian attachment to an idealized Greece, even if some of the rough edges are briefly highlighted, instead of totally glossed over. The oneric section of the “Snow” chapter begins with the idealized beauty we usually associate with Greece:

“Youths were at work with horses, running hand on halter alongside their whinnying, head-tossing charges; pulling the refractory ones on a long rein, or else, seated bareback, striking the flanks of their mounts with naked heels, to drive them into the sea. The muscles of the riders’ backs played beneath the sunbronzed skin, and their voices were enchanting beyond words as they shouted to each other or to their steeds. A little bay ran deep into the coast line, mirroring the shore as does a mountain lake; about it girls were dancing. One of them sat with her back toward him, so that her neck, and the hair drawn to a knot above it smote him with loveliness. She sat with her feet in a depression of the rock, and played on a shepherd’s pipe, her eyes roving above the stops to her companions, as in long, wide garments, smiling, with outstretched arms, alone, or in pairs swaying gently toward each other, they moved in the paces of the dance. Behind the flute-player—she too was white-clad, and her back was long and slender, laterally rounded by the movement of her arms—other maidens were sitting, or standing entwined to watch the dance, and quietly talking. Beyond them still, young men were practising archery. Lovely and pleasant it was to see the older ones show the younger, curly-locked novices, how to span the bow and take aim; draw with them, and laughing support them staggering back from the push of the arrow as it leaped from the bow. Others were fishing, lying prone on a jut of rock, waggling one leg in the air, holding the line out over the water, approaching their heads in talk. Others sat straining forward to fling the bait far out. A ship, with mast and yards, lying high out of the tide, was being eased, shoved,and steadied into the sea. Children played and exulted among the breaking waves . . .”

The black book of Greek religion.

The black book of Greek religion.

Mann briefly spoils the lazy dream with the nightmare of homo necans we usually ignore:

“Scarcely daring to venture, but following an inner compulsion, he passed behind the statuary, and through the double row of columns beyond. The bronze door of the sanctuary stood open, and the poor soul’s knees all but gave way beneath him at the sight within. Two grey old women, witchlike, with hanging breasts and dugs of fingerlength, were busy there, between flaming braziers, most horribly. They were dismembering a child. In dreadful silence they tore it apart with their bare hands—Hans Castorp saw the bright hair blood-smeared—and cracked the tender bones between their jaws, their dreadful lips dripped blood. An icy coldness held him. He would have covered his eyes and fled, but could not.”

In the end Mann doesn’t let Castorp entirely forget the horror of the temple, yet he represses into an inarticulate muteness of a “silent recognition.”  With that the novelist still makes his character side with the myth of Greek balance and beauty even if he couches it in a decidedly Christian rhetoric of love:

“Death and love—no, I cannot make a poem of them, they don’t go together. Love stands opposed to death. It is love, not reason, that is stronger than death. Only love, not reason, gives sweet thoughts. And from love and sweetness alone can form come: form and civilization, friendly, enlightened, beautiful human intercourse—always in silent recognition of the bloodsacrifice. Ah, yes, it is well and truly dreamed. I have taken stock. I will remember. I will keep faith with death in my heart, yet well remember that faith with death and the dead is evil, is hostile to humankind, so soon as we give it power over thought and action. For the sake of goodness and love, man shall let death have no sovereignty over his thoughts. And with this—I awake. For I have dreamed it out to the end, I have come to my goal.”

Greece exposed!

Greece exposed!

I immediately thought of these passages passage from Mann when reading “The Humanities in Africa” chapter in Coetzee’s novel Elizabeth Costello. Bridget, the sister of the title character, is a nun and she has the following to say about our (unhealthy) obsession with Greece:

“‘You miss my point, Elizabeth. Hellenism was an alternative. Poor as it may have been, Hellas was the one alternative to the Christian vision that humanism was able to offer. To Greek society–an utterly idealized picture of Greek society, but how were ordinary folk to know that?–they could point and say, Behold, that is how we should live–not in the hereafter but in the here and now! Hellas: half-naked men, their breasts gleaming with olive oil, sitting on the temple steps discoursing about the good and the true, while in the background lithe-limbed boys wrestle and a herd of goats contentedly grazes. Free minds in free bodies. More than an idealized picture: a dream, a delusion.”

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes it might be blasphemous for the Orthodox.

Not a pretty picture by Greek standards. Coetzee even notes the Eastern Orthodox might consider it blasphemous.

Bridget continues, refuses a merely “silent recognition,” and takes poor Elizabeth behind another woodshed:

‘Do you think, Elizabeth, that the Greeks are utterly foreign to Zululand? I tell you again, if you will not listen to me, at least have the decency to listen to Joseph. Do you think that Joseph carves suffering Jesus because he does not know better, that if you took Joseph on a tour around the Louvre his eyes would be opened and he would set about carving, for the benefit of his people, naked women preening themselves, or men flexing their muscles? Are you aware that when Europeans first came in contact with the Zulus, educated Europeans, men from England with public-school educations behind them, they thought they had rediscovered the Greeks? They said so quite explicitly. They took out their sketch blocks and drew sketches in which Zulu warriors with their spears and their clubs and their shields are shown in exactly the same attitudes, with exactly the same physical proportions, as the Hectors and Achilles we see in nineteenth-century illustrations of the Iliad, except that their skins are dusky. Well-formed limbs, skimpy clothes, a proud bearing, formal manners, martial virtues–it was all here! Sparta in Africa: that is what they thought they had found. For decades those same ex-public schoolboys, with their romantic idea of Greek antiquity, administered Zululand on behalf of the Crown. They wanted Zululand to be Sparta. They wanted the Zulus to be Greeks. So to Joseph and his father and his grandfather the Greeks are not a remote foreign tribe at all. They were offered the Greeks, by their new rulers, as a model of the kind of people they ought to be and could be. They were offered the Greeks and they rejected them. Instead, they looked elsewhere in the Mediterranean world. They chose to be Christians, followers of the living Christ. Joseph has chosen Jesus as his model. Speak to him. He will tell you.’

How do post-colonial departments digest mysteries such as this one? One is reminded of the divisive rhetoric emerging from deep geographical divisions within the Anglican communion. These insights also square with Girard’s repeated claim that the victim is the only universal category everyone agrees to in our age. What’s more, the victim, as Nietzsche knew (and despised), is a Christian category first articulated by St. Paul and the Gospels. It would have never struck the Greeks to put something as ugly as that at the center of their world. Finally, Coetzee goes beyond scratching the surface with novels built around characters who are victimizers. He presses the issue of forgiveness in extremis, with characters who might be as despicable as Kermit Gosnell or George Zimmerman are to some, in novels such as Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace.

All in all, it’s because of sharp observations such as these, because of a novelistic intensity unmatched since Dostoevsky, that Coetzee is the most significant living writer of theological fiction.  This is also why I couldn’t wait until the American release of The Childhood of Jesus and bought myself the UK edition.

The cover of the Polish edition, because why not?

The cover of the Polish edition, because Coetzee might really bum out the kids if they’ve been raised on Disney.

You Have no Idea How Much Nastier I Would be if I Was Not a Catholic

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

Christ breaking the cycle of violence.

My post about the historical roots of resistance to the widespread and sociologically natural practice of abortion got quite a few people riled up. Luckily it didn’t result in as many stalkers, haters, and insinuators (usually about pedophilia) as my post on anti-Catholicism. I can only handle so many hatchet jobs before I get emotionally felled.

Be that as it may, the surprising reaction to the latter piece only confirmed it’s central thesis that something like anti-Catholicism is alive and even (especially?) among the exceptionally well-educated who don’t intend to offend. I was reminded of the real-world repercussions of this when Fr. Daniel berated our CL School of Community for leaving the door open given the recent threats against our parish. He went for his usual hyperbole with “Why did you leave the door open? Do you all want to get shot?”

Just to get back on track, Paganism was the topic of a previous post about how pre-Christian myths were filtered and preserved by Catholicism in ways you don’t see among both Protestants and its illegitimate twin of globalism. The topic of paganism resurfaced in the wake of the recent post on abortion and a picture I attached to it in a facebook thread:

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

Bloody hell except for some islands of blue.

My facebook friend Alexander Boldizar jousted back at me with the following provocation:

“Pro-abortion as antisemitism seems a bit of a stretch, like saying atheism is antisemetic — mixing race and religion. I know lots of atheist Jews. But the larger point seems consistent — as a very strongly pro-abortion atheist I have a much easier time relating to Zeus or Odin than I have to the Abrahamic God, because neither Zeus or Odin totalizes the way God does — and that totalitarian impulse in the Abrahamic God is what repels me so much about all of the monotheistic religions. And at its most basic, my support for abortion is rooted in relativism — that it’s not my place to make moral decisions for someone else.”

There is a lot to untangle in the response to this. First of all, there are plenty of pro-abortion Catholics who are unfaithful to their tradition, so there is nothing especially disturbing about there being Jews who are atheist (and pro-abortion).

The arguments of my post dealt with a faithful innovation within the Judeo(-Christian) tradition that set the Jews off from what we might presently label as the pagan groups around them.

The developments are interesting, because they arose within thoroughly violent totalitarian political structures, which used founding myths to justify their use of force against the populations. Compare the envy and violence involved in the account of creation in the Enuma Elish (or any of the creation myths of the Greeks, Romans, Hindus, and so on) to the non-rivalrous and peaceful account of creation in Genesis.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

Pre-monotheistic history was worse than a bad acid trip.

The biblical accounts are posterior (ain’t nothin’ wrong with that!) to the Mesopotamian myths. They retell the earlier stories in a monotheistic manner that expunges the violence of the original polytheistic sources whose relativist syncretism required the various gods to duke it out in mythical cagematches.

I wouldn’t go so far as suggesting that even the New Testament is free of positive portrayals of violence, however, Rene Girard has frequently argued the Gospels are part of a slow Jewish unmasking of the myth of redemptive violence (abortion as a legitimate solution to harms done is one such contemporary myth) whose arguments first gained their steam in the writings of the prophets.

If one wants to call the exit from the notion of violence-as-creative as totalitarian then we’ll take it, but good luck enforcing toleration.

Some might complain that history didn’t become a bed of roses after Christianity appeared upon the scene. Fair enough. Such criticism reminds me of a Waugh riposte to someone who asked him why he was still suck a jerk after his conversion. His response was, “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being.”

On a wider scale, there would be no critique of totalitarianism or totalizing philosophies (think: Levinas and how his critiques of totalizing are indebted to the Hebrew Bible) without revelation, because what we call totalitarianism would be as natural as water is to fish–we wouldn’t notice it. The fight that broke out between our four and a half year old and three year old while I was writing this piece reminds me how much freedom it takes to break the cycle of violence.

Anyway, a taste of the great and ever-annoying Evelyn Waugh:

All in all, the idea of Odin as tolerant and non-totalitarian grafts uniquely Judeo-Christian sensibilities onto pagan myth. We should remember, as I’ve suggested here, we don’t live in a pre-Christian world, nor in an entirely anti-Christian world, but in a post-Christian world whose unquestioned manners of perceiving reality are indebted to revelation. This fact, especially given the unintentional spread of theological categories (or as we antiseptically call them “Western values”) through globalism, is possibly the only non-imperialistic way of understanding Karl Rahner’s notion of the “anonymous Christian.” 

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

Sweet Viking Jesus wants us all to get along as Christians.

The idea of an Odin-Christ reminds me of Bob Odenkirk’s last name. So here’s a relevant Mr. Show clip where he plays Jesus to David Cross’ Marshall: