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Cross Roads, Part 2, When is a Metaphor not a Metaphor?

Anthony Spenser, the protagonist of Cross Roads, in addition to being one of the worst two-dimensional caricatures of a pre-redemption Gordon Gecko ever penned, is also in a coma in chapter 4. Spenser was in the coma when he met C.S. Lewis, a fact I forgot to mention last post, not that anything is helped by mentioning it. Now he has met the creepy Jesus who holds him through the night (ewwww), but Jesus is now cutting wood and running a rundown farm or ranch, thus lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus (can't you just see the Brawny guy?). This is supposed to be a novel, but I assure you, it reads like a sermon with colorful illustrations. I had just gotten used to Young referring to a certain rundown house in Spenser's coma-world as a "habitation" (If you're not a Christian, google Ephesians 2:22. Make sure to read the King James version.) when I happened upon this torturous bit of nonsense. It's lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus talking:

"We are only able," Jesus continued, "to move at the speed and in the direction the land itself allows. One must relate to it with honor and reverence and let the land speak its own heart. Then, out of respect we must choose to submit to its idea of 'real' and still remain ones who love it toward the true, without faltering, regardless of the cost. To not live for the land in this way is to join all its aggressors, ravagers, users, and benefactors, and then all hope for its healing would be lost." --pg. 60

What we have here is a series of metaphors, right? Even Spencer notices, because he tells Jesus that he's losing the thread of the conversation in trying to keep up with the metaphors. At this point, lumberjack/ranch foreman Jesus utters this howler: "I have not used a metaphor once, while you have done so many times. Because you continue to inhabit and believe your metaphors, you cannot see what is true."

This has to be the worst application of Plato's Allegory of the Cave I have ever come across. First, lumberjack Jesus is wrong. Calling a human a habitation is certainly a metaphor. You might think it's an accurate one, and you'd be left to "prove" it based on Bible verses, but you have to admit it's a metaphor. Referring to humans as land that must be worked? Definitely a metaphor. And that list of naughty people at the end? Metaphors. Clearly ranchhand/lumberjack Jesus slept through English and literature classes. (Or Young did.) What makes it worse, in addition to making Jesus look ignorant of basic definitions, is the way Young once again makes those who doubt his thesis appear to be at fault, or at least blind and stupid. 

May I ask who doesn't inhabit metaphors? Everyone does. It's the nature of language. Much of what we discuss can only be done so metaphorically or analogously. The entire field of religion is based on extended metaphors. That Young misses this is either a function of dishonesty, arrogance, ignorance, or misunderstanding. He believes he is conveying truths about things that can't be known, proven, or seen without the use of metaphors. This is a remarkable feat. Even the authors of the Bible couldn't quite pull that off. Even God, when speaking to the authors of the Bible, couldn't pull that off. It's amazing what a runaway bestseller does to your confidence as a writer.

Young surely means that Spenser inhabits the wrong set of metaphors. That is the most charitable way to see this section. Even allowing that this is a distinct possibility (and I believe it is), we are left to discern which set of metaphors is superior. Plato talked of the light outside the cave that would reveal the world as it is, and there is a metaphorical application to Plato's allegory as well that transcends the merely physical; however, Young would have us leave behind a set of metaphors for an undefined set, and to do so, he asks us to believe the voice of God, but what we seem to have at work here is the voice of Young, and it's terribly confused, even about basic definitions.

Next time. Young knows things are true because he experiences them. Sigh.

Cross Roads, Part 1, or How C.S. Lewis Got Worked into Another Set of Theological Clothes

C.S. Lewis is the paper doll of Christianity. He has been dressed in more sets of theological clothing than I thought possible when I started reading him in 1985. Since that time, I think I read everything by him in print, as well as many things about him. What I discovered is well known in evangelical circles; Lewis is not an evangelical. Not even close. A very honest read of The Last Battle or The Great Divorce should be enough to convince any evangelical that Lewis is a member of a different tribe. Yet...yet...Even as evangelicals are writing love letters and homages to and for him on the event of the 60th anniversary of Mere Christianity, a book that was not "merely" anything, Paul Young has resurrected the corpse of the irrascible anglo-Catholic to phil0sophize in Young's new book Cross Roads.


The publisher sent me a free copy for review, and since I met and interviewed Young about this book not so long ago, I am happy to oblige. However, within the first few pages, I realized that I was not going to read the whole thing and then review it. Rather, I'm going to stop every time something threatens to give me an embolism and review that section. Thus, C.S. Lewis opening this post. I should say I did a series of reviews on The Shack as well. The first is here. I hated the book. Can't express how much I hated it. I read it at a time when my now defunct faith was defuncting, and like the utterly awful Blue Like Jazz, I recognized in The Shack that tendency to create new metaphors for the faith, but the metaphors were only meant to deconstruct wrong thinking about the faith as conferred in stories, not deconstruct the stories or faith themselves. In other words, both those books were attempts to make evangelical Christianity more palatable to readers widely assumed to be suffering some sort of postmodern relativistic epistemological meltdown. The cure, apparently, was a shitty set of new metaphors that did nothing but make an already inscrutable faith less scrutable.

During the interview linked above, I asked Young why he didn't deconstruct the grammar of the faith and not just the old set of metaphors. It seems to me that once you begin the game of creating new metaphors, you've already begun to play with the possibility that we aren't understanding something clearly, and if we're not understanding it clearly, it's very possible that the story is wrong to begin with and not just the metaphors meant to convey the story. If the metaphors are breaking down, it just might be because the story is non-functional or contradictory or simply false. This isn't a fun thought for Christians, and typically they hide their uncertainty or inability to answer the question in mysticism. Mysticism allows them to believe anything. Anything. More on mysticism later.

Young told me that the new book would begin to deconstruct the grammar of the faith. I think he meant it would deconstruct how we thought about the grammar, not the grammar itself. I suspect that when I finish this book, I will discover that Young does not abandon his faith in the end. I was prepared for the beginning of the deconstruction, but I got C.S. Lewis instead. It is literally impossible for C.S. Lewis (Jack to his friends and in this book) to believe everything that's been attributed to him by evangelicals and post-evangelicals. He would have to be the most confused man in the world, and unlike contemporary evangelicals (as a tribe, not all individually), Lewis could discern a good argument from a bad one, at least within the context of his metaphysical assumptions.

Jack shows up in Cross Roads to explain the difference between real and true. Yes, that this is necessary is befuddling to me, but it does make a certain perverse sense if you're going to say tons of shit that can't be verified but want readers to believe it is real and true. Myticism needs some sort of justification. Normally, that justification has been a reference to Scripture. Mystics can intuit all sorts of things, but if they get too far afield, the external authority known as the Bible can be brought to bear on their intuited knowledge. (This is, of course, the difference between mystics and transcendentalists; the latter had no governing authority over their pantheistic intuitions.) Young's mysticism is of a different variety, though. He's going after the grammar, allegedly, and therefore, he'll need to do some work outside the purview of Scriptural authority. You can't go after the grammar without assuming some parts of the Bible are just plain wrong. (You also can't use mysticism or intuition as a mode of knowledge unless you want to run completely off the rails. Just ask the International House of Prayer how that's working for them this month...)

Enter C.S. Lewis, or Jack. Young brings the authority of this exhausted old Irishman to his philosophical trick. Lewis sounds smart. That is different than actually being smart, but that's not important. Lewis was brilliant and plainly wrong about many things, but he has a reputation as smart and philosophical. Adding him to the critical juncture of the book as a sort of baritone voice of reason, a James Earl Jones narrating how reasonable this shit is, and you avoid the hard work of actually deconstructing what is clearly a poor move philosophically and theologically. That he does this at the first critical juncture of the book leads me to believe the rest will be fundamentally dishonest, but not in an intentional way. Young suffers from that peculiar and noble affliction of wanting to explain how God is not as big a dick as God's followers and an honest read of the Bible have led people to believe. You see, it doesn't matter if something is real and true if you can't demonstrate it, not in the realm of metaphysics.

Young asserts that we have created a sense of separation from God because we do not believe God's Word, whatever the hell that means. We refuse to believe the truth because we have created a false sense of the real. Wow! The move is dishonest because it assumes the fault lies with us. Mystics talk a great deal about God's presence, as if it is obvious enough to be noticed if we of little faith would tighten up our belt of truth, lay aside our proud questions, and just allow Jesus to hold us. (Yes, that's in the book. Jesus holds the protagonist. Can I just say that if I found out tomorrow there is a Jesus, I still wouldn't want him to hold me? It's just weird.) The problem, of course, is that many of us tried and tried and tried, and there was no holding or answering going on. The question that no one ever answers, and maybe someone will finally try, is that if God wants so much to be in relationship with us, why not make godself much more apparent? I don't tell friends I want a relationship with them and then insist on some sort of cosmic fucking scavenger hunt. What friend would put up with that? How would you even call that a friendship? 

Moving Forward on a Lie, or The Mormon Moment

I learned yesterday in this excellent piece from Slate that The Book of Mormon exists in first edition form. That is stupefying. Imagine a first edition Tanakh or New Testament. Imagine how many questions could be answered about textual accuracy and canonicity. In the Mormon piece, the subject, a Mormon historian named Quinn, found six substantial changes in the text of The Book of Mormon between the first edition and the current edition. There were many more changes, but he believed six were critical in terms of Mormon theology. This is what makes the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints such a rare opportunity in the study of religion. They are a modern faith. Their origin, history, and documents are all available to us. Imagine if Jesus had lived a mere 150 years ago. Imagine the possibility that John, James, Peter, and Paul built the Church at the turn of the 20th century. That's what we're dealing with when we look at the history of Mormonism.

Quinn realized that the "revelation" Smith allegedly received was not as infallible as he had been led to believe. The text had been emended, and not with slight emendations. This is no surprise to someone outside the faith of Mormonism. Smith's laughably anachronistic references to the cultures of Meso-America and North America are well documented. What Quinn discovered in his quest for the truth, though, was that Mormon leadership didn't care if the origin of their sacred text didn't square with the official story. One member of the leadership even muses aloud that "truth is not always helpful." I agree with that sentiment in the narrow sense. If someone is fat, I don't need to point it out. The truth in that sense is not helpful. I think of it as the emphasis Buddhists put on right speech. All truth-telling is not right speech, so the Mormon leadership and I agree, sort of. 

Truth is very helpful, however, if I'm trying to decided whether a set of religious teachings and practices is based on truth or falsehood. The election in two days has brought about an amazing Mormon moment in the country. Evangelicals are rushing to embrace Romney, and because they cannot embrace a member of a "cult" as POTUS, they are quick to call Mormonism a legitimate faith. (In all honesty, some are being far more consistent and calling it a cult, including Franklin "I Make Shit Up and Sign My Dad's Name To It" Graham.) Exactly what constitutes a legitimate faith is a cipher. Of the world's many religions, the five we know the most about are Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam. The first is practiced by relatively few believers, especially when compared to the other four, all of which have adherents in the billions. What we know about these five faiths is a matter of history, conjecture, mythology, half truths, legends, obfuscation, sanitized narratives, and occasionally, truly true stories. We don't have access to the records as we do with the history of Mormonism.

This is a crucial difference because it allows the veneer of legitimacy to adhere to ancient faiths, but faiths that are constructed in the modern age will be revealed to be the false belief systems they are. Except that Mormonism is one of the fastest growing faiths in the world. We know Joseph Smith's life story: con man, criminal, philanderer, etc. We know the sacred text has been changed. We know the convenience with which "new revelations" have allowed Mormonism to adapt to the changing American culture. Want to be a state? Well, all you need is God to reveal that polygamy isn't okay anymore. How do you feel about the Civil Rights Act and its subsequent impact on America's racial topography? Oh, really, your Church says what?! Um, never mind. New revelation in. We're now cool with black folks. Whew. We know the sacred text is riddled with so many errors that only the willfully deceived can believe it reports anything that could be called sacred history. We know nearly every falsehood associated with the growth of this faith, and yet no one who practices it seems to mind. Now people are prepared to vote for a man who believes in an utter falsehood  because they can't stand his opponent. I get it. Lesser of two evils and all that, but this goes to the heart of how we construct our lives around some kind of tangible truth.

Why shouldn't people be free to practice whatever faith they choose even if the faith seems silly, so long as it's not harmful? Agree. Agree. Agree. However, two points. Why the hell would someone want to align his life with a false system, by which I mean a system known to be false? The older faith systems may be false; I'm almost sure they are, but they are removed from our current context so much that proving their falseness is a virtual impossibility. They are widely thought to be reasonable articulations of metaphysical questions and answers. I think they're nonsense, but they have the benefit of being too old to fully deconstruct. However, with Mormonism, we have a fully deconstructed set of claims. They're not true. They don't add up. The history says Joseph Smith made it all up. In our lucid moments, we know this to be the case, but we're so polite about religion that we dare not say it for fear of offending someone. People are allowed to have their own faith. It's their right. Agreed, again. However, it's one thing to respond in faith to things that can't be known. Responding in faith to things known to be false is not faith; it's lunacy. 

Secondly, within the Christian tradition there is a notion that because the church grew and thrived following the death of Jesus, "something" must have happened. By "something" they mean resurrection, but they pretend to be objective by not mentioning the actual word. It's a semantic way of throwing up the hands and saying, "We're not calling it resurrection, but something happened." The notion has been popularized by C.S. Lewis and Josh McDowell, among others. N.T. Wright tried to give it a more scholarly treatment, but it still boiled down to Lewis's idea that the church could not have grown based on a lie. Paraphrasing, Lewis said that men will die for a lie if they don't know it's a lie, but no one will die for a lie they know to be a lie.

The history of Mormonism shows that not to be the case. Smith's followers knew who he was. They knew what he was. They witnessed it. Historians have shown us the falsity of his claims and his book, but early Mormons accepted martyrdom, believed the lie, and grew their church. They continue to grow the church, even in the face of "unhelpful truths." As we've learned with Mormonism, belief is way more complicated than just showing someone a truth or a lie. People believe what they want based on very complicated reasons, not just epistemological courage. In fact, it's more rare to find people who disbelieve things simply because those things aren't true. In fact, the more committed someone is to a system of belief, the more unlikely he believes contrary evidence, even if the evidence is irrefutable. 

What is distressing to me about this Mormon moment is that Americans are acting as if the truth doesn't matter. It shouldn't have surprised me, but it did. We can't always know the truth, but when we do, it might be a good idea to shape our lives around it, not around what we prefer to be true.