Robertson, Sharon & Abraham

This happened some time ago, but it’s taken me a while to “process” it and come up with a cogent observation. Sometimes, certain things are just too unbelievable to take. But this is by no means the first, nor shall it be the last, time someone from the frothing-at-the-mouth christian right has said something which leaves most reasonable (and reasoning) people flatfooted.

Partly, this is about not knowing history, which is something all of us could do with a little more intimate acquaintance.

The right Reverand Pat Robertson, who spews forth on the 700 Club–a televised ministry previously notable for bad hair, excessive eye makeup, and monetary and sexual hypocrisy that ran off the scales–let the public know what he thought was behind Ariel Sharon’s massive cerebral hemhorrage this past week. Seems God did it.

If there is a more ideologically corrupt pundit currently mouthing off, I am unaware of him or her. Mona Chabon might qualify, except her observations are so fecklessly ill-formed that she poses no serious challenge to reason, and Ann Coulter seems to have turned purely to a Limbaugh-esque “don’t confuse me with the facts, my numbers are more important than truth” kind of screeding moronity.

According to Robertson, God struck Sharon down because he was about to give God’s land to the Palestinians. He said:

“God considers this land to be his…You read the Bible and he says, ‘This is my land,’ and for any prime minister of Israel who decides he is going to carve it up and give it away, God says, ‘No, this is mine.”

He quoted the prophet Joel.

He declared that Sharon could not do what he was going to do to appease the EU, NATO, the United Nations, or the United States–which made it a political statement. So much for separation of church and state on Mr. Robertson’s show.

There’s a little something called common decency which seems to be lacking in all this, not to mention common sense. But without doubt, many people will agree with Mr. Robertson, and, given our current religio-political climate, will send a message to congress to try to affect policy in accordance with this latest reading of what Yahweh wants.

Joel…

Joel was one of the so-called minor prophets. It’s not even certain when the Book of Joel was written, but most evidence points to some time in the Fifth or Fourth Century B.C. He wrote mainly about Judah, which at that time was a small slice of what had once been what we know as Israel. To give some perspective, the Empire of David and Solomon–which was the greatest extent of ancient Israel— included a number of what might be considered States: Edom in the south, Moab, Ammon, Bashan, Gilead in the east, Judah and Israel in the center and west, Zobah and Hamath in the north, in what is present-day Syria. Jerusalem sat on the border between Judah and Israel at the time.

Borders shift. Between Solomon and “Joel”, so-called Israel underwent a number of calamities, namely the Babylonian and Assyrian conquests. Judah was pretty much all that was left when Joel was written, and it had both shrunk and moved. Jerusalem was about dead center in Judah, whose eastern border was the Dead Sea and the Jordan River. Jericho was well inside its northern boundary.

So when Joel speaks of dividing God’s land, you have to bear in mind that (a) the land had already been divided about as badly as it could have been with there still being a Jewish state left worthy of the title, and (b) the reference was to a tiny circle that contained Jerusalem and Bethlehem and not much else.

In other words, Joel’s ravings don’t really count for much in the great scheme of anything.

The minor prophets, by and large, seem to have been a group of disgruntled misanthropes who spent all their time kvetching about the state of the world and spinning out warnings of what terrible things would eventually happen to everyone who had caused the Hebrews any grief. They stood on their metaphorical mountains shaking their fists at everyone–past, present, and future–who contributed to the lack of greatness God had promised Abraham.

Why would any reasonable person pay the least attention?

There are two points I’d like to make in this essay. The first doesn’t take very long to state: Pat Robertson exemplifies the complete lack of reason inherent in the fundamentalist mindset. Prophecy trumps compassion, revelation beats out practicality, and divine authority crushes genuine morality. Robertson’s pronouncement in the aftermath of Sharon’s tragedy demonstrates clearly where the dividing line is between the ideal and ideological.

Which brings me to the second point.

Where does that mindless commitment come from?

I mean, while it is true that we have a history of misreading the so-called “will of god” and thereby unleashing untolled misery in the name of the Prince of Peace, we nevertheless have this idea, whether we accept it or not, of absolute obedience to perceived divine authority. How does that bumper sticker go?

God said it, I believe it, that’s the end of it.

Why?

Never mind how you might know what god actually said. Let’s assume, for the sake of this argument, that we can take the Bible as true.

The key passage, I think, is Genesis 22. That’s the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac. This is Sunday School stuff. We all know the story. Isaac was Abraham’s only son. One day God tells Abraham to take Isaac to such-n-such location and offer him up as burnt sacrifice. Abraham saddles up, takes Isaac to the place, and proceeds to do just that. At the last minute, God stays his hand, tells him he’s proved himself, provides a ram for the sacrifice, and promises Abraham all kinds of stuff for his descendents because of his willingness to kill his son for Yahweh.

We are taught to read this story as symbolic that God values absolute obedience over all else, that because Abraham would give up the one thing he loved more than all else for God he was somehow worthy of God’s special love. Lesson being that divine authority is NOT to be questioned.

Well. What if we’ve been reading it wrong?

See, if indeed this was a test–if God was testing Abraham to see if he was worthy of something–why do we assume he passed?

My take is, Abraham failed. The test was to see if a moral code had actually taken root in Abraham. The correct response would have been–“Are you kidding? That’s murder. You want a sacrifice, I’ll offer myself, but it is IMMORAL to expect me to coopt Isaac’s life in Your name.” Instead, Abraham was going to obey, regardless of the right or wrong of the request.

A moral compass is supposed to work independently of divine authority–otherwise, why even discuss morality? Why even bother with the notion of free will?

Free will, of course, was more a problem to the Medeival and Renaissance philosophers and theologians than it was to Abraham–or Joel–but it’s implicit in much of the Old Testament.

You may say, but God went on to promise Abraham blessings for his obedience. He did, didn’t he? Did it come true? Did it happen? Did, in fact, Yahweh deliver?

Think what we may, Israel was never a great power. A strong kingdom for a time under David and Solomon, but not of much international influence. In the reckonings of history, it was a land of the conquered and reconquered more often than it was ever a Player. I’m suggesting that, if we want to take all this at face value, it’s just possible that God was being disingenuous–out of intense disappointment.

But people like Pat Robertson cling to that story as the anchor that holds their ship in the bay, keeps their world in place, lets them know that whatever may appear moral, may well not be what God wants–and between the two, morality and God’s whim, the latter is always more important.

Like I say, why would any reasonable person pay any attention to this?

If, since we’re taking all this as if it were true, God is really like that, then we have no choice. This is a question of brute force and overpowering potential to deliver on threats versus…scruples. Which would you bet on? Which would you willingly sacrifice yourself or your family to defy?

And if that’s the case, then my only point here would be to say–stop talking about morality. This is an autocracy, nothing less, and it doesn’t matter what is right or wrong, only what the Boss wants. So it’s a sham to talk about those demands as if they have anything to do with morality.

But obviously, when you go to connect the dots, when you look at what was promised for what and what was actually delivered, it’s not true. Not literally, certainly. God made a promise to Abraham which was not kept. (Don’t even bother with the “well, the children of Israel fell into immorality, so God punished them” stuff, because it doesn’t matter–the promise was made on condition of Abraham’s obedience, not his heirs’. The promise was broken. Nothing was ever said about “well, if your great-great grandchildren tow the line etc then they’ll get all this stuff.” No, Yahweh made the promise based on Abraham’s character.) When you go through the Bible you see most prophecy failing, most promises broken, most expectations disappointed. Yahweh did not follow through.

So evidently He gave us free will and told us to figure it out for ourselves.

Comes Pat Robertson, who feels qualified to tell us that God is killing people today because of this or that condition of Biblical circumstance.

The word that comes to mind is–bullshit.

But I think Mr. Robertson is not himself deceived. He’s not an uneducated or stupid man. I think he well knows how all this actually lays on the ground, but he’s banking on his followers being thoroughly ignorant. I mean, who really reads the Bible? There are people in this country who have trouble getting through a Harlequin romance novel because they’re so long. People rely on single source media for their understanding of almost everything, with the exception of a literate few, but even among those, how many read the Bible? I’ve been through it a couple of times and still miss a great deal. But even more frightening is the fact that among those who do regularly read the Bible, they do not actually read it. My grandmother, before she died, had read the Bible beginning to end twelve times. She
could not tell you what was actually in it. The reading was a ritual. She did not read it to find out what it said but as an act of worship. When I would occasionally point things out to her of an eschatological nature, she would deny it vehemently. I’d show it the passage to her and she would be astonished.

And then forget all about it. Next time through, same thing.

Yet there is supposed to be something called a Christian Spirit. Generosity, compassion, empathy. Cashing in on the misfortune of others to make political points or to gain bragging rights (my god is bigger than your god) is supposed to be anathema to this “spirit”.

Personally, I concede nothing to such men as Pat Robertson. If someone says something I know is B.S. I call them on it, especially in mixed crowds, because people do not know, and the words of powerful men, even when false, carry great weight…simply because they’re powerful. Which is autocratic. Nothing to do with Truth.

Or fact.

Transcending Genre: Why 1984 is Literature and Starship Troopers Is Not

Right off, I have to make a disclaimer. I don’t actually believe in what the title of this piece suggests–that there is a pecking order separating Literature (capital L) from genre, and that it has something to do with a quantifiable approach to form. If we really wanted to sort out what Henry James and many 20th Century critics mean by Literature from all the rest of the publishing world, we’d be remiss if we didn’t go back to the precursors of contemporary literature and make the same qualifiers apply.

Immediately we have a problem. Where does one put Gulliver’s Travels? What about most of James Fenimore Cooper? And Robert Louis Stevenson? Rudyard Kipling? Jules Verne?

Starting with H. G. Wells, we begin to see the delineation. Henry James took Wells to task for writing beneath his ability by paying attention to all sorts of things having no direct bearing on or descent from character.

Character. That’s where it starts and ends for most serious modern critics. And by modern, I mean from about 1920 to the present.

A few years ago a very good critic named Sven Birkerts, in a review of Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake, came right out and made the statement that science fiction will never–never–be Literature with a capital L. In his words: “…science fiction will never be Literature with a capital ‘L’, and this is because it inevitably proceeds from premise rather than character. It sacrifices moral and psychological nuance in favor of more conceptual matters, and elevates scenario over sensibility.”

When I plucked the two books out of the air to compare in this talk, my first intention was to take two works that both qualify as science fiction and see why one remains solidly genre and the other has the appellation of Literature, despite its clearly science fictional qualities. I didn’t at the time realize how similar the two books were in many ways. As it turns out, they are ideal for this kind of comparison. For 1984 is indeed Literature, and for precisely the reason Mr. Birkerts argued–it is drenched in character. Starship Troopers is virtually without character. My position is that this fact in no way renders the one superior over the other. Merely different, even while they share similarities.

At first glance, there could not be two novels more different. In spite of the ongoing war depicted in Starship Troopers, it is relentlessly optimistic. It is born of an American optimism that must have been pervasive during World War II. 1984, on the other hand, is one of the most profoundly cynical and pessimistic novels not written by a Russian–a pessimism, interestingly enough, also born in WWII.

Yet in both we see a member of the middle class–and I’m stretching the label here just a bit–laying out how the society in which he lives functions. Both have become members of the power elite–one having joined through the inevitabilities of survival, the other out of a vague desire to actually have power, specifically the vote. Both societies are run by minorities. The vast majority of populations in both novels neither understand nor care about how things are run. The justifications for the societal structures are part of the narrative. Both are persuasive in making their cases, yet both cases are seriously flawed, yet to those who live within them, they are utterly convincing, also in both cases. In the end, neither Johnny Rico nor Winston Smith have lives of their own.

Now, before I say more, with all that they share these two novels are fundamentally different in one basic way. Approach. Which in this instance, for the purposes of this discussion, is the only difference that really matters. As I said, Starship Troopers is virtually devoid of character. Oh, there’s charm. Johnny Rico has a glib, pseudo personality that comes through in his travelogue–which is what Starship Troopers is basically, a travelogue–but we end up knowing almost nothing about him. We don’t know if he ever had any hobbies, we don’t know how he feels about girls or sports or politics or music or art or theater. These things are mentioned along the way and there’s the implication that, yeah, sure, he likes all those things well enough, even understands some of them, but it’s like a resume, not an actual revelation. By the end of the book, we may sort of like Johnny, but it’s his almost boyish enthusiasm for defending the human race and his modest competence that wins us over. If asked, “How about that Johnny Rico? What’s he like?” What could we say? Not much.

Winston Smith, on the other, is as fully fleshed a character as might be encountered in fiction. We know his obsessions, his fears, his reactions to various stimuli, we know his opinions, we know his ignorance. Above all, we know his ignorance, and the pathetic will to challenge limitations that ultimately dooms him. He is a human being in a horrible situation and we know him as well if not better than we know Oceania and Big Brother. Because we see very clearly how his situation affects him. Personally. We don’t get that insight with Johnny Rico.

When modern critics and theorists talk about Literature with a capital L, that’s what they’re talking about. In a nutshell, Starship Troopers in prescriptive. It’s concerned with its premise, it wants to tell you about the way things work, and that is primarily what it’s all about. 1984 is concerned with its main character and while you certainly learn all about how Oceania works, you learn about it through its impact on Winston. He’s not a guide, he’s a victim. He not a narrator, he’s an inhabitant. In the scheme of things, though, I have to ask: So What? I mentioned Gulliver’s Travels. This, too, is a travelogue. How come it’s not considered genre? Well, for one, it was written before any such considerations had any meaning. It’s old, and still read. It has survived, and thus has passed a major test. But for a contemporary sensibility, it becomes Literature by virtue of the fact that it’s satire. This is, by the way, how Kurt Vonnegut manages to be regarded as Literature, rather than genre–he’s a satirist. Of the first water, to be sure, but a satirist nevertheless. Satire, for some reason, seems immune from the castigation of the Literati.

There’s nothing wrong, I think, with a certain amount of labeling in fiction. It’s not so bad to let people know more or less what kind of story they’re about to read when they pick up a book. If I’m in the mood for, say, a mystery thriller, I’m going to be miffed if I get a sacharine romance instead. The harm is in making the label a hierarchical judgement. To say that such-and-such sort of story is necessarily inferior by virtue of its conceits. Because all conceits can be used to make great art.

That said, I want to make a few observations about the use of art, which I think has much to do with its reception and classification as great, middlebrow, or vulgar. Unfortunately, what each person defines as Art is subjective. There are a couple of methods by which we determine what is Art, one of which is the test of time. If enough people over a long enough period agree that a work is, in fact, Art, we tend to accept the designation. The other method is both less and more democratic, and that is if we discover that a work impacts people differently–I mean, significantly differently–even while evoking similar responses. Repeatedly. That is to say, if you pick up a book and read it at ages 12, 18, 25, and 35 and come away with a deeper, fresher appreciation of the work, then you probably have a work of art in your hands. Works that aren’t up to that description exhaust themselves with one, at most two readings. But a work of Art–capital A–lives, insofar as it interacts with us as an aspect of growth. This is subjective as well, because the reactions are personal, but again if the reaction is definite and rich each time–and, linking this to the first test, is something more and more people experience, each in their own unique way–then the work in question is probably Art. And Literature–capital L–is Art–capital A.

You may detect a bit of tongue in cheek at this point. That’s because any attempt to create categories which are all-encompassing is doomed to fail since there will always be a way to step outside the category and still create Art. Is Starship Troopers literature? In the sense of great Art, no.  Is 1984? Yes. And it’s all in the way each book brings us into its world. 1984, for all that it’s a bleak, dismal ride, draws us in fully, engages the emotions, makes us feel what Winston is going through. We don’t get that with Johnny Rico.

This is a function of character, certainly. But it’s also a function of the conception of the worlds. Heinlein was interested in laying out a blueprint. He describes how his system ought to work. It’s even elegant, and an engaging read. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as a good book. But a blueprint is not a house. Orwell built a house–which means that he didn’t neglect the stains on the carpet, the dust on the shelves, and aging furniture, and the faulty thermostat. He left the flaws in and made us feel that you could walk into this world and live in it and recognize it as a real place–emotionally.

Now you have to ask: does this make any difference insofar as the kind of fiction the two books represent? No. 1984 is science fiction in every definition of the term. Just because it is also a wholly fleshed world with well-drawn characters does not magically remove it from that definition. But it brings us to the common failure of any book in any genre to transcend that genre.

A good novel–like any good work of art–always gives more than it seems to contain. It always offers the reader more than one avenue, more than one way to read it, always surprises with its possibilities. Such a book depends on its genre conceits, if it has any, but it is not limited by them. And there is no genre which in and of itself automatically limits these possibilities.

But some books–some writers–quite comfortably remain within genre limits, because it’s fun. There’s a pleasure to be found inside those walls, and it’s always a mistake to dismiss a work as genre as if to say that makes it inferior. It would be like condeming an Ansel Adams photograph because it’s not a painting, then condeming it further because it accepts a naturalistic approach to subject as opposed to a surrealist approach. Apples and corkscrews. Starship Troopers is an excellent example of the kind of book it strives to be. It should be judged accordingly.

I said Starship Troopers is prescriptive. So is another of Heinlein’s great novels, Stranger In A Strange Land. But that novel goes beyond its genre limitation insofar as Michael Valentine Smith–and those around him–are far more richly affected and affecting. Partly, this is because the world they inhabit is more fully realized, more emphatically tactile and human. But it still offers the pleasures of its basic form, which is didactic.

As is Orwell’s other famous work, Animal Farm–which is in no way a character novel. All the characters are archetypes, some even stereotypes, and unapologetically so. It is also a blueprint. If Stranger In A Strange Land is Heinlein’s 1984, Animal Farm is Orwell’s Starship Troopers. But Animal Farm is also blatantly satirical. It declares itself so almost from the first sentence. Starship Troopers strives in its way to be naturalistic. We’re meant to take Heinlein’s effort at face value as mimesis.

There is one other use of art which is vitally important and utterly personal, and I’ll wrap this up by talking about it. Nostalgia. Not so much in the evocation within the text of a time gone by, but in the evocation of an emotional response to a given work. This is why the homage functions, why it’s possible to write an homage. Because much that we treasure, we reacted to in a time and place where its importance became paramount. There is no way an artist can do this intentionally. All he or she can do is make the work as well as possible and as honestly as possible, because it is good and honest work that creates this particular aspect of art.

Some books, as I said, exhaust themselves after a reading or two. But going over them again and again, triggering those reactions long ago made familiar, is a legitimate use of art. You don’t expect to find something new in this use, you expect to relive a pleasant experience. So Heinlein’s Starship Troopers has engendered a number of homages. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War is the first I remember. More recently there is John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War. All these works function because they play on the original impact of the Heinlein. They can also be read quite easily and pleasantly on their own, but they are part of a tradition. 1984, while it is part of a tradition of dystopias, does not need or invite homages or this sort, because we don’t read it for that reason.