Monday, April 23, 2012

Bumper Sticker Logic

 While driving through town today, I pulled up behind a car sporting the following bumper sticker: "My sh**** attitude is none of your f****** business."  Except there were no asterisks, and now it was my business.  In fact, it was the business of everybody who pulled up behind that particular car.  It immediately became my business because it's the kind of publicly displayed message that makes my 12-year-old look away with embarrassment as he reads it, and makes me hope my 6-year-old in the back seat doesn't use that sentence to work on his phonics.

 My initial annoyance at the lack of social grace was momentary, but I became increasingly bothered by the bad thinking.  The bumper sticker makes no sense. The slogan is just a condensed way of saying, "I am going to make you pay attention to something that is none of your business, and then get angry and swear at you because you don't ignore my passive aggressive obnoxiousness."

I am convinced we have become a society that ponders serious issues without much more than bumper sticker depth. Unfortunately, the supporting evidence is everywhere.

"What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas."  This one tops my list, because so many other equally foolish statements find confirmation here.  Does this mean the expense tabs, the debt, the compromises of morality, the memories, and the hotel towels all actually, truly stay there?  The Hangover was a morally bankrupt movie, but even Hollywood had the decency to show a little bit of a ripple effect.

 The Vegas slogan is a brilliant ad campaign - who wouldn't want a free pass on anything they do for a couple days?  The problem is, it's just not true.  What would happen if a plaintiff said to the judge, "You know, what happened in my car while I was driving drunk should stay in the car."  Or if a skydiver kept muttering, "What happens in the air stays in the air."  Uh, no.  What happens anywhere happens in real life; it matters. There are no free passes.

"What happens in the privacy of my bedroom is nobody's business," and its close cousin, "Keep the government out of my bedroom." 
Let's be honest. What we are really saying is this: "I want to live in a nation where everybody agrees that any sexual action in which we (specifically 'I') engage in privately is okay, and won't have any effect outside of the moment."  But that's not true.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Cormac McCarthy's Secular Apocalypse

Andy Tuck, who currently heads up the University of Michigan's Philosophy Club, recently wrote a review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road for one of his classes; I thought it worthy of being read by others who are interested in how literature of the apocalypse reveals something about our views of the world.

Morality and the Secular Apocalypse in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

The apocalypse as described in various religious traditions tends to reassert the sovereignty of the gods over the realm of morality. In the Christian tradition, for example, the second coming of Christ, in a final disambiguation of who is good and who is evil, will bring perfect justice to a fallen humanity. In the Oresteia, a long string of violence and death results in Athena setting a divine standard for human justice.  

In non-religious apocalyptic literature such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though, an entirely separate strand of thought is observed: the apocalypse, rather than bringing justice into a world incapable of saving itself, undoes any preexisting order and morality and plunges the world into chaos.

In the post-apocalyptic world of The Road, any hints of human goodness are vestiges of the old world. Every item that alleviates human suffering, from a first-aid kit salvaged from a ship to a bottle of Coca Cola stripped from a dilapidated vending machine, is an artifact of the past. Since these things are the products of civilization, when the apocalypse ends civilization, human suffering resumes. The protagonists of The Road, a father and his son, spend most of their time rummaging through destroyed buildings and vehicles for anything from the old world. Virtually all food and tools they use are remnants civilization; they are completely dependent on the scraps of the pre-apocalyptic world for the necessities of survival.

This stands in contrast with the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition, where the good are granted eternal paradise after the apocalypse, which undoes an unjust and fallen world. In The Road, the pre-apocalyptic world is not described as perfect (it was, after all, the same world that executed the nuclear war that turned the earth into the desolate wasteland portrayed in the novel), but as everything the father and son need to live comes from that time, civilization is inevitably and inherently characterized as being the solution to man’s suffering, rather than the cause of it.

Another item that especially reasserts the goodness of the pre-apocalyptic world is the pistol owned by the father and son. Even this symbol of death and destruction embodies the virtue of the old world: the only thing that gives the frail man and his young son a chance of surviving in a countryside dotted by bands of roving marauders is the pistol—as the adage goes, “God made man, but Colt made them equal.” The gun enables the weak to defend themselves in a world otherwise governed by strength, and in this sense, the gun becomes and emblem of justice.

Furthermore, in a phrase obviously picked up from his father, the boy repeatedly calls the ownership of the gun “carrying the fire” (83, 129, 278). This Promethean image reminds us that, like man’s discovery of fire, man makes life better for himself through his own devices, independent of (or even in spite of) the gods.

If the remnants of the pre-apocalyptic world repeatedly represent the relative righteousness of that time, then it follows that the post-apocalyptic world should be filled with wickedness. Indeed, this is the case; the depravity of humanity following the apocalypse is shown time and again. Early in the novel, the father is forced to shoot a man who is holding a knife to his boy’s throat (66), and has to wash a dead man’s brains out of his [son’s] hair” (74). This disturbing image is compounded when they soon after run into a caravan of raiders with a dozen or so female sex slaves and “a supplementary consort of catamites ill-clothed against the cold and fitted in dog collars and yoked each to each” (92).

In this terrible new world, such scenes are common: with the restraints of civilization undone, man’s evil is unleashed, and the strong rule over the weak with utter cruelty. In perhaps the most disturbing scene of the novel, the boy and his father, searching for food, break open a locked cellar in a forgotten house only to discover that it is filled with naked, mutilated, people who cry to him for help (110). We later find out they are being kept alive by marauders for food, like cattle (127). Of course, such circumstances are products of the apocalypse: in the civilized world of the pre-apocalypse, not only was there no allowance of cannibalism, there was also no need for it to begin with.

Civilization was the only thing that prevented such degeneracy, and the apocalypse put an end to it. This stands in stark opposition to religious views of the apocalypse, where violence and injustice are human inventions and only undone through divine intervention. God and divinity is mentioned in The Road, but rarely positively. Early in the novel, the father wakes up and curses God, saying “Are you there? Will I see you at least? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally, have you a soul?” (11-12). The man is portrayed as agnostic throughout the novel, so he is likely just being rhetorical, yet this outcry does portray God as being unsympathetic and aloof in the wake of the apocalypse.

Any sympathetic mention of God describes him as an invention of civilization; he is good not because he is holy, just, or sovereign, but because he is product of human goodness. At the end of the novel, the father dies and the young boy is rescued by a small group of refugees—the first sympathetic characters in the novel besides the father and son. Among the refugees is a kind and motherly woman who takes care of the boy and “talks to him sometimes about God” (286). The boy prefers to pray to his father, and the woman says it’s okay, and that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

The woman, the first the boy meets in the post-apocalyptic world, is incredibly tender with him, and becomes a symbol of religion. Furthermore, by asserting the existence of a higher power, and therefore an outside source of morality, she opposes the unruly disorder and chaos of the marauders, whose highest value is strength. God is good here because he represents the order, morality, and love embodied by the woman; the positive qualities she ascribes to God are less a positive affirmation of his character than they are a positive affirmation of her own.

The apocalypse in secular literature such as The Road is not merely different from the apocalypse in the religious tradition; it is the perfect inverse of it. In the Oresteia and in Christian theology, mankind is flawed and, left to his own devices, will only increase his own suffering; human civilization is evil, because humans are evil.

But in The Road, human civilization is our only hope for lifting us out of our primal state of nature. Rather than ending human immorality in a nuclear reenactment of Sodom and Gomorrah, the apocalypse undoes our only chance at managing it. In the secular apocalypse, humanity is both responsible for and capable of his own redemption. The religious and secular views of the apocalypse, then, do not just differ in the details: they present two fundamentally different theories of human nature.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Hitting Us At Our Weakest

I suppose I shouldn't be, but I am continually amazed by the conclusions our society reaches about human life. Exhibit #1: Recently, Peter Singer's blatant call for the legalization of infanticide has regained popular traction after the idea oafter-birth abortion became mainstreamedHere is the core argument:
[W]hen circumstances occur after birth such that they would have justified abortion, what we call after-birth abortion should be permissible. … [W]e propose to call this practice ‘after-birth abortion’, rather than ‘infanticide,’ to emphasize that the moral status of the individual killed is comparable with that of a fetus … rather than to that of a child. Therefore, we claim that killing a newborn could be ethically permissible in all the circumstances where abortion would be. Such circumstances include cases where the newborn has the potential to have an (at least) acceptable life, but the well-being of the family is at risk...merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.” 
There has been some criticism within the media, but it's been a cautious criticism:  most people don't like the idea at all, but as it pushes them to the logical conclusions of their ethics, they start to stumble a bit. The author of the article above, after saying he believes something changes when the baby is born and achieves autonomy, adds, "But I also think that the value of the unborn human increases throughout its development..."  That's a tough position to defend. Perhaps that explains why the article concludes with some questions for other pro-choice hard-liners, questions which the author carefully avoids answering.

Exhibit #2: When the New York Times wrote a feature on babies with Down's Syndrome, they certainly did not choose a neutral tone:
"A growing group of parents is seeking to insert their own positive perspectives into a decision often dominated by daunting medical statistics and doctors who feel obligated to describe the difficulties of life with a disabled child." "The parent evangelists are driven by a deep-seated fear for their children’s well-being in a world where there are fewer people like them. But as prenatal tests become available for a range of other perceived genetic imperfections, they may also be heralding a broader cultural skirmish over where to draw the line between preventing disability and accepting human diversity." 
The idea that the handicapped children have value and worth is a "perspective"; their parents are actually zealots motivated by fear. Later, the NYT finally managed to give at least one sentence to the more serious question underlying the debate: 
"Many participants in the ad-hoc movement describe themselves as pro-choice. Yet some see themselves as society’s first line of defense against a use of genetic technology that can border on eugenics."
 That's how they see themselves, anyway. The NYT promptly followed that up with a paragraph about the selfishness of the parents, but the underlying questions of ethics and eugenics had been cautiously raised. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Jonathan Cahn's "Harbinger": Deconstructing Isaiah

Jonathan Cahn's The Harbinger is currently #54 on (#1 in Religion/Mystery and #2 in Religion/Fiction).  If you have not read it, think of The Bible Code or  The Da Vinci Code without any cool Hebrew language grids, chase scenes or exotic locations.
The narrator meets a mysterious guy who walks him through “harbingers,’ impending signs of doom based on two previously under-appreciated verses in Isaiah.  Harbinger's classification as "fiction" is apparently a nod to the style, not the seriousness with which the subject matter is presented or taken. 
I'll tell you up front:  I think the book has some serious flaws in its reasoning.  Before I explain why, let me point out the things I liked.
The warnings about the pride and arrogance in America, as well as the condemnation of our false gods of wealth and ease, are certainly timely. Cotton Mather once noted that  “Religion brought forth prosperity, and the daughter destroyed the mother.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, I suppose.
I appreciate Mr. Cahn's concern for the spiritual well-being of our nation.  I don’t know him;  he seems to love God mightily, and he apparently wrote this book from a sincere desire to warn America about the dangers of its chosen path.
At the end of the book he provides a thorough explanation of the importance of accepting and following Christ.  Considering the astonishing breadth of his audience, he is in a unique position to present the hope of the gospel to many. 
My following comments have nothing to do with the author’s character, heart, or presentation of Christ.  I suspect that if Mr. Cahn and I sat down for lunch, we would have far more in common than not. I'm glad we are on the same team. My comments have to do with the manner in which the book leads readers toward particular conclusions. I am worried that its questionable presuppositions and unusual analysis of Scripture set a precedent that may have detrimental fallout.


The conclusions of the book work only if the foundational assumptions are true. Here are some of the core claims Harbinger presents without a defense:
  • America is Israel
  • America made a covenant with God like Israel did
  • The passages in the Old Testament specifically directed toward a specific group of people at a specific place and time are also for us
  • Actual Middle Eastern trees are meant to be associated with similar iconic North American trees
  • The Founding Fathers were somehow like the Patriarchs of Scripture
  • A private dream can carry as much clout as the Bible
  • Everyone in the world is ordered to observe Jewish Years of Jubilee 
  • Politicians are prophets unaware, similar to writers of Scripture
  • Defiance against terrorism is the same thing as defiance against God
  • The collapse of Wall Street is iconically the same as a "breech in the walls" in Old Testament cities
  • Washington, DC is Samaria
  • The collapse of the global economy was determined 3,000 years ago 
  • When the #7 shows up, something spiritual is happening
  • There are "invisible" messages in Isaiah 9:10
  • The damning “testimony of two or three witnesses” in Scripture refers to the Vice-President, the President, and the Senate Majority leader all saying that America will rebuild 
  • People can speak prophetic curses on entire nations unintentionally
  • Obama pronounced judgment on America while genuinely trying to give an inspiring speech  
  • Because of presidential speeches, the harbingers had to happen
  • The narrator in the book - who I assume is meant to be speaking for Jonathan Cahn - is “the son of God’s light, the declarer” because those words were written on a piece of paper in a vision
If all those previous claims are true, then the book’s conclusions would follow logically.  But assuming they are true and showing they are true are very different things indeed. Mr. Cahn rarely makes the case for them; he simply states them and moves on to conclusions based on these unsubstantiated claims. Perhaps he has published other material in which he explains why he believes these things to be true, but this book gives me no reason to agree with him.