Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Till We Can Face the God of C. S. Lewis (Part II)

(This is a continuation of an earlier post.)

A major point, that you have to keep in mind, is that Lewis turned the myth of Cupid and Psyche on its head, making Orual the main character. (If I am not mistaken her name comes from the Hebrew “curse of God.” Lewis uses Hebrew a number of times. In Narnia, there is a character named Emeth. In Pilgrim’s Regress, there is a mountain Jehovah Jirah.) He would not have done that unless he identified with her very strongly. Psyche is a goddess born into human flesh. She is perfect, but, in of herself, uninteresting. She is useful to the story only in terms of how others, particularly Orual, react to her. Psyche, the goddess, bears no relationship to us human beings, and cannot be imitated. Orual, a flawed and ultimately tragic human being, reacting to the divine inherent within Psyche, is of great interest.

Tobie makes the mistake of “skipping” to the end and saying that Orual was selfish. Yes, Orual was selfish, but that is almost beside the point. Her selfishness and her love were the same things. It is not that her love was simply a mask for her selfishness or that her love was somehow inauthentic. Her love was pure; she loved Psyche not for anything Psyche could give her, but for who Psyche was. The problem with Orual was that she could not see that her very love was an act of selfishness and that is what made it so dangerous. It is because she so truly loved that she was blinded to this selfishness. How could love be bad? This is a major theme in Lewis’ thought. It is precisely the “higher” desires that can be the spiritual downfall of the person. It is easy for a person to accept that a desire for money, sex and power can be bad and that people who pursue them are being selfish. When you are dealing with things such as love and honor you can always that you are acting “in the name of heaven.”

Orual is spiritually far superior to the other “human” characters, such as the Fox and Bardia. The Fox is a philosopher. He denies the literal existence of the gods, at least the sort of gods that would interest themselves in human affairs. Lewis, quite subversively, makes the Fox a powerful moral figure. He lives and dies based on Stoic principles, always striving to act according to reason. For all of his moral greatness, though, he is unable to appreciate the spiritual dimensions, right before his eyes. As he tells the heavenly court:

I taught her [Orual], as men teach a parrot, to say “Lies of poets,” and “Ungit’s a false image.” I made her think that ended the question. … I never told her why the old Priest got something from the dark House that I never got from my trim sentences. She never asked me (I was content she shouldn’t ask) why the people got something from the shapeless stone which no one ever got from that painted doll of Arnom’s. Of course, I didn’t know; but I never told her I didn’t know. (pg. 257-58)

Bardia is the exact opposite of the Fox. If the Fox stands for reason then Bardia stands for faith. He accepts as a matter of course that the gods exist and that the gods are concerned with human beings. The problem with Bardia is that he lacks the critical element. Since he is incapable of doubting the gods’ existence he is incapable of questioning the gods, if they are righteous, if they have the right to interfere with humanity or if humanity would be better off without the gods. Ironically enough, since there was never a time when Bardia did not serve the gods, Bardia, unlike Orual and the Fox, never gets that moment of salvation, to submit himself to the gods and accept their grace.

Orual is the combination of the Fox’s reason and Bardia’s faith. She is spiritually aware enough to be unable to rule out the possibility that the gods exist or to make them none issue in her life. Unlike Bardia, though, Orual has the intellectual awareness to doubt the gods’ existence. More importantly, because Orual doubts, she is capable of challenging the gods and rejecting them. It is precisely this “satanic” character who ultimately proves to be the one found worthy of salvation, once she decides to accept it.

Psyche suffers for Orual’s sake. One can look at it as Orual being so evil that Psyche had to suffer in order to save her. One could also look at this as Orual is so great that the gods saw fit to send Psyche down to this earth and had her undergo trials and tribulations all so that Orual might be saved.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Till We Can Face the God of C.S Lewis

Tobie recently put up a post on Till We Have Faces. (See here.) Most people only know C. S. Lewis from his Narnia chronicles. This novel, though, is my personal favorite work of his. This is a very different book than Narnia; it is much more mature and it is quite dark.

One of the things that I love about C. S. Lewis is that he was willing to face up to some of the dark implications of believing in God. Unlike most outreach specialists, Lewis did not take the line that God exists, he loves us, we are going to be saved by believing in him and therefore everything is wonderful. Lewis, throughout his work, questioned God’s goodness and wondered if mankind would be better off without God’s active involvement. This was more than just a literary or rhetorical device, one gets the sense from reading Lewis that he really struggled with these issues and, down to the very end of his life, had his doubts. (Read, for example, A Grief Observed)

Lewis’ dark side finds its expression in Till We Have Faces in the figure of Orual, Lewis’ Nietzschian super-heroine. Anyone who thinks that Lewis was a misogynist, whose female characters were either evil witches or meek, obedient, good little girls, clearly has not considered this novel.

Orual is one of the evil sisters from the Cupid and Psyche myth who cause Psych to disobey her husband, the god Cupid, by looking at his face and be banished from him. In Lewis’ hands, though, Orual becomes something far more complex than a jealous fairy tale sister. This novel is her defense and her prosecution of the gods. She argues that it is the gods who have sinned: what sort of god gives random commands, that serve no purpose, and damns those who fail to keep them? What sort of god hides his face and only speaks in hints and riddles? Ultimately what she did to Psyche was justified because the gods had no right to take Psyche, the person she loved most in the world, away in the first place. Who gave them the right to interfere with her life and steal her happiness?

For they [the gods] will neither (which would be best of all) go away and leave us to live our own short days to ourselves, nor will they show themselves openly and tell us what they would have us do. For that too would be endurable. But to hint and hover, to draw near us in dreams and oracles, or in a waking vision that vanishes as soon as seen, to be dead silent when we question them and then glide back and whisper (words we cannot understand) in our ears when we most wish to be free of them, and to show to one what they hide from another: what is all this but cat-and-mouse play, blindman’s buff, and mere jugglery? Why must holy places be dark places? (pg. 218)

It was Lewis’ genius that he almost succeeds at getting us to agree with Orual. Ultimately Lewis’ answer to Orual is that the gods could not face her until she herself had a face. She needed to turn inward and face herself; to come to terms with the fact that she had hurt the people she loved most in the world with her love and because she loved them. In the end, Orual submits herself to the gods and in return is given the gift of grace by Psyche.

I disagree with Tobie, that Lewis is arguing that we blindly submit ourselves to God, accept his will and surrender our own personalities. Lewis’ theology was far more complex than that. For Lewis, the starting point is the fact that we have strong personalities and that we struggle with God, even to the point of hating him. It is only once we have established this adversarial relationship that we can turn around and give ourselves over to him with all of our doubts and issues. It is a dialectical relationship between fighting and submitting, with no easy answers or quick roads to salvation.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Another Ender Post

Dragon recently posted a piece on Ender’s Game. (See here.) She analyzes the novel in terms of Erik Erikson’s theory of social development. I have no background in educational psychology so this piece was a real eye-opener for me.

Senator John McCain in Columbus

Back in the fall of 1999 and the winter of 2000, when I was sixteen and still too young to vote, I cheered on Senator John McCain in his forlorn primary run against than Governor George W. Bush. I had read McCain’s memoir, Faith of My Fathers, and found it utterly moving. It sounds funny now but my thinking back then was that, if Arab terrorists were to carry out a major attack on American soil, there would be nobody better to rally this country than John McCain.

McCain in 2000 was not to be and we got President George W. Bush instead, a decent human being but a mediocre candidate, who proved unqualified for the job of office. As Conservatives, we cannot allow ourselves to be classified as intellectual lightweights. I hope the damage done by the Bush presidency will not prove too great for us to overcome.

Last night I went downtown to the Renaissance Hotel to a McCain rally. We were standing around for about two hours, time I am sure Dr. Goldish would say I could have better spent studying, but it was worth it. We got to see McCain in person and hear him speak. After McCain finished speaking and was leaving the podium I managed to get myself to the front. The person next to me got to shake McCain’s hand.

I feel like we have been given a chance to go back to 2000 and do things right this time. We can elect a genuine American hero as our next president the likes of which the Oval Office has never seen.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Female Spirituality in Medieval Christian Thought: A Bibliography

Ahlgren, Gillian T.W. “Ecstasy, Prophecy and Reform: Catherine of Seina as a Model for Holy Women of Sixteenth-Century Spain.” In The Medieval Gesture: Essays on Medieval and Early Modern Spiritual Culture in Honor of Mary E. Giles, ed. Robert Boenig, 53-65. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. 

Benedict, Kimberley M. Empowering Collaborations: Writing Partnerships between Religious Women and Scribes in the Middle Ages. New York: Routledge, 2004. 

 Bell, Rudolph M. Holy Anorexia. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1985. 

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York, 1998. 

Bryne, Sr. Mary. The Tradition of the Nun in Medieval England. Washington, DC., 1932. 

Bugge, John. Virginitas: An Essay in the History of a Medieval Ideal. The Hague, 1975. 

Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast, Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. 

Jesus as Mother: Studies in the Spirituality of the High Middle Ages. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982 

Clark, Anne. Elisabeth of Schonau: A Twelfth-Century Visionary. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992. “Holy Woman or Unworthy Vessel? The Representations of Elisabeth of Schonau.” In Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, ed. Catherine M. Mooney, 35-51. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. 

Coakley, John W. Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2006. 

Conner, Paul M. “Catherine of Siena and Raymond of Capua – Enduring Friends.” Studia Mystica 12,1 (1989): 22-29. 

Dillon, Janette. “Holy Women and Their Confessors or Confessors and Their Holy Women? Margery Kempe and Continental Tradition.” In Prophets Abroad: The Reception of Continental Holy Women in Late-Medieval England, ed. Rosalynn Voaden, 115-40. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1996. 

Elkins, Sharon K. Holy Women of Twelfth-Century England. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988. 

Elliott, Dyan. Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennylvania Press, 1999. 

“The Physiology of Rapture and Female Spirituality.” In Medieval Theology and the Natural Body, ed. Peter Biller and A. J. Minnis, 141-73. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 1997. 

Proving Women: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004. 

Ferrante, Joan M. To the Glory of Her Sex: Women’s Roles in the Composition of Medieval Texts. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997. 

Frugoni, Chiara. “Female Mystics, Visions, and Iconography.” In Women and Religion in Medieval and Renaissance Italy, ed. Daniel Bornstein and Roberto Rusconi, trans. Margery J. Schneider, 130-64. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 1996. 

Greenspan, Kate. “Autohagiography and Medieval Women’s Spiritual Autobiography.” In Gender and Text in the Later Middle Ages, ed. Jane Chance, 216-36. Gainesville, FL, University Press of Florida, 1996. 

Hollywood, Amy. “Inside Out: Beatrice of Nazareth and Her Hagiographer.” In Gendered Voices: Medieval Saints and Their Interpreters, ed. Catherine Mooney, 78-98. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. 

Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002. 

The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechtild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1995. 

Jantzen, Grace. Power Gender, and Christian Mysticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. 

Luongo, Francis Thomas. “Catherine of Siena: Rewriting Female Holy Authority.” In Women, the Book, and the Godly, ed. Lesley Smith and Jane H. M. Taylor, 89-103. Oxford: D. S Brewer, 1995. 

McGurie, Brian Patrick. “Holy Women and Monks in the Thirteenth Century: Friendship or Exploitation?” Vox Bendectina 6 (1989): 343-74. 

Newman, Barbara. From Virile Woman to WomanChrist: Studies in Medieval Religion and Literature. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995. 

“Hildegard of Bingen: Visions and Validation,” Church History 54 (1985): 163-75. 

“Possessed by the Spirit: Devout Women, Demoniacs, and the Apostolic Life in the Thirteenth Century.” Speculum 73 (1998): 766-67. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988. 

Poor, Sara. Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.  

Ranft, Patricia.”A Key to Counter-Reformation Women’s Activism: The Confessor-Spiritual Director.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 10,2 (1994): 7-26. 

Schulenburg, Jane Tibbetts. Forgetful of Their Sex: Female Sanctity and Society ca. 500-1100. Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1998. 

Slade, Carole. “Alterity in Union: The Mystical Experience of Angela of Foligno and Margery Kempe.” Religion and Literature 23 (1991): 109-26. 

Szasz, Thomas. The Manufacture of Madness: A Comparative Study of the Inquisition and the Mental Health Movement. New York, NY: Harper Colophon Books, 1977. 

Thompson, Augustine. “Hildegard of Bingen on Gender and the Priesthood.” Church History 63 (1994): 349-64. 

Voaden, Rosalynn. God’s Words, Women’s Voices: The Discernment of Spirits in the Writing of Late-Medieval Women Visionaries. York: York Medieval Press, 1999. 

Zilboorg, Gregory. The Medical Man and the Witch During the Renaissance. New York, NY: Cooper Square Publishers, 1969.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Adolescent Military Genius versus the Friendly Neighborhood Vampires: An Analysis of Orson Scott Card and his Influence on Twilight. (Part II)

(This is the continuation of a previous post. See here.)

It would be a mistake to confuse a society with a group of friends. While the societies that populate Orson Scott Card’s novels are often quite small and might be passed off as a group of friends, it is not friendship that binds them. Often the societies in Orson Scott Card’s novels are built by people thrown together against their will. They do not necessarily like each and often never come to like each other. Despite this fact, there is a bound that does form between characters. Card’s plots tend to revolve around the issue of his characters, despite the fact that there may not be any great friendship between them, attempting to build a society together. For their societies to succeed Card’s characters must confront the question of what are they willing to sacrifice for it, ultimately for people whom they owe nothing to and have no logical reason to care for.

The relationships that Ender builds are very different than what you find in Harry Potter. As Dumbledore points out, Harry’s strength comes from his love for his friends, Ron and Hermione. Harry, Ron and Hermione are a group because they like and care for each other. Their bonds to each other came out of their own free will. The contrast to Harry is Lord Voldemort who, while he has followers and people who worship him as a God and are even willing to die for him, has no friends. Voldemort is completely self sufficient, loves nothing and has no need for anyone’s love. This, ultimately, is Voldemort’s undoing.

Ender has a lot in common with Lord Voldemort. He is set up from the very beginning as a loner. The people who run the Battle School, purposely isolate him, surround him with people who are hostile to him and, in one case, would go so far as to try to kill him. When Ender succeeds at forming bonds with people he is immediately taken away to another group. Because of this Ender is forced to turn completely inward. The only person he can rely on is himself; he has no friends. Ender’s victory over the Battle School system is that, despite his in inability to form friendships, he does build relationships, many of which prove capable of overcoming the limitations of time and space.

What Card’s societies can be are families. Families, particularly in the world of Orson Scott Card, are groups of people thrown together, with complete disregard for compatibility or love. Despite this, family members do form bounds of loyalty with each other, even with family members that they dislike and continue to dislike.

This connection between societies and families is brought home by the fact that the one close emotional bound that Ender maintains over his years at the Battle School is with his sister Valentine on earth. She reunites with him after the battle with the Buggers and goes with him into exile. In the later books Ender marries a woman named Novinha and becomes a step-father to her children. In addition Ender has a daughter of sorts, a computer entity named Jane. These characters, and in a more abstract way the various residents of Lusitania, become a new society for Ender to deal with. Card purposely blurs the line between society and family to the point that they become extensions of each other.

Considering Card’s emphasis on societies/families, it is not a coincidence that Card is an outspoken fan of the television show Firefly. In Card’s review of the Firefly film, Serenity, he commented that:

On that ship [Serenity] we had an interlocking community with a history, rather like what has been a-building with Lost and what was developed over the years with Friends. … The key to this kind of movie is that you create a community that the audience wishes they belonged to, with a leader that even audience members who don't follow anybody would willingly follow. That will be the key to Ender's Game if the movie is ever successfully made; and it is the key to Serenity.

Firefly and Lost for that matter are stories about people thrown together by chance. These people do not necessarily like each other and they may even hate each other, yet they are forced to come together as a common group.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Adolescent Military Genius versus the Friendly Neighborhood Vampires: An Analysis of Orson Scott Card and his Influence on Twilight. (Part I)

Stephenie Meyer, the bestselling author of the Twilight series, has a lot in common with the legendary science fiction author, Orson Scott Card. They are both active members of the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). More importantly, while neither of them is known for religious novels per se, they both write from a background of faith and bring a strongly religious, though not particularly Mormon, vision to their work. Beyond this, I would suggest that the Twilight series contains certain Cardian elements. This should not be surprising as Stephenie Meyer has publicly stated that she is a fan of Card’s work.

I read Card as a running meditation as to the question of how one builds and maintains a society? What causes people to join together as a society? How does the individual relate to the surrounding society? What brings an individual to make sacrifices, sometimes the ultimate sacrifice, for the sake of his society? These issues underline almost all of Card’s work. For the purposes of this post I will focus on Card’s most famous work, Ender’s Game, and it various sequels.

On the surface Ender’s Game is about a war between humans and an alien race known as the Buggers. Andrew “Ender” Wiggin attends a school for brilliant children. The purpose of this school is to create the next brilliant military commander, another Napoleon Bonaparte or Alexander the Great. The children at this school are being trained for one thing only, war. As such their primary education revolves around military strategy games, either computer games or the mock combat of the battle room.

The war against the Buggers is only an incidental part of the story. What Card is interested in is this Battle school as a group of competing societies. While the main character, Ender Wiggin, is a genius, his real talent is his ability to handle people. Ender is someone whom other people are willing to follow. People admire him and desire to learn from him and emulate him. Ender in turn is someone who honestly desires to help people. The narrative arch of the novel revolves around Ender building societies. Through the various stations that Ender finds himself, whether as a Launchie, as an unvalued member of Salamander army, as a valued member of Rat army, as a Toon leader in Phoenix army or as the head of Dragon army, Ender connects to various people and gets them to forge bounds with each other. Many of these people, such as Petra Arkanian and Bean, eventually become his subordinate commanders in the coming war against the Buggers.

What is interesting about Ender’s character is that, even though he is this great leader, he is a reluctant leader and does not seek power or recognition. Ender does not put himself at the center of the societies he builds. He is always remains off to the side and alone.

The foil for Ender is his older brother, Peter Wiggin. Peter possesses similar gifts as Ender. The difference, though, between Peter and Ender, and the reason why the Battle school never took Peter, is that Peter lacks a firm moral base; Peter manipulates people for his own ends and is completely untrustworthy. While Ender is away from home at the Battle school playing his war games, Peter plays his own game, attempting, under the pseudo-name of Locke, to become a world leader. What is so interesting, though, about how Card deals with this character is that, while Peter may be immoral, he is not evil nor is he the villain of the story. Over the course of the novel and its sequels Peter manages to do a tremendous amount of good even if the things that he does always seem to incidentally help him.

Ender and Peter can be seen as models of two different kinds of leaders, who come to be the center of two different kinds of societies. Peter is a political leader, who desires power over other people. He accomplishes his goals by making it in people’s interest to put him power. He eventually becomes the Hegemon of the entire earth and leads mankind in its expansion to the stars. Ender is a spiritual leader. Even though he leads the first human colony to a foreign planet and becomes its governor, he gives up his post for a life of exile. His legacy is a book that he writes called the Hive Queen and the Hegemon. This book becomes a bible for those humans who go off to settle the galaxy and it spawns a religious movement known as the Speakers for the Dead. In the end, while Peter may have been a great political leader, nothing survives him. While Ender does not build any physical empires, he creates a society, beyond any physical boundaries, that lasts for thousands of years.

(To be continued ...)