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Monday, February 09, 2009

Scattered Thoughts (Fiction, Adventure, the Pursuit of God, and Hell)

To my few regular readers, you have my apologies for my neglect of this blog over the past few weeks. Much of my free time has been spent in writing--finishing and revising the third book of my trilogy, the first installment of which is set to come out from OakTara Fiction in the next few months. It was gratifying to finish the project, which has been the focus of my creative writing for the past four years. (And many thanks to my brother Josh for his work in reading, editing, and making suggestions for the manuscripts).

- Among many Americans, and especially among Christians, one of the first questions that comes up against my hobby of writing fiction is "Why waste time making up stories when you could be writing about true, practical, this-world issues?" Unfortunately, this attitude seems to be widespread among Christians, and it comes at me even more sharply when it is revealed that not only am I writing fiction, but I'm writing fantasy. There is a fear encouched here that fantasy is nothing more than time-consuming escapism. Sadly, much of the fantasy on the secular market probably is just that.

But if we neglect fiction--even fantasy fiction--I think we lose a great deal of potential insight. This is especially true for pastors and other ministers of the Gospel. Our position necessitates a certain level of understanding of the human condition and its widely varied experiences. The truth of the matter is that I only get to live one life here on Earth, and so far it has been a pretty steady road for me. I have no intimate, experiential awareness of a broad swath of the tragedy and trials that afflict the great majority of humanity. Fiction helps fill that gap. By reading fiction, I can walk through experiences that are foreign to me, experiences which teach me more about what it means to be human. It challenges me with a perspective on life that is not my own. It provides a wealth of illustrations, drawn from fictional experience, to illuminate the underlying tensions and challenges of my own life. In the engagement of fiction, we are presented with the question that so powerfully arises from the dark circumstances of Defoe's Moll Flanders: "What would you do?"

Further, fiction allows us to represent the questions of faith and philosophy in concrete, rather than abstract, form. Most of us learn truth better from stories than we do from syllogisms, and stories often have a peculiar ability to transcend the level of explanation available in any syllogism. To use an example cited by C. S. Lewis, the tragedy of Oedipus Rex challenges us to consider the relationship between free will and determinism in a way that no philosophical debate ever could.

Fantasy, as a genre of fiction, has great potential for these benefits, since its horizons for creativity are practically unlimited. It is possible to use fantasy to devise scenarios which would presumably never happen in this world, but which speak with deep profundity to the problems we encounter here. As a writer, fantasy also gives me the rich joy of reflecting God's act of creation--to build an entire world, complete with people, cultures, languages, and so on. I would like to say that my fantasy novels actually fill out their potential in terms of the benefits outlined above, but I fear I have a long ways to go before I ever produce anything that could be considered a "classic" in any of these constructive senses. My project, rather, is mainly to tell an entertaining story, woven throughout with themes of faith and virtue. It is, in broad view, an experiment in imagining what the story of redemption might have looked like if it were enacted in an entirely different world. That, I think, certainly has intrinsic merit, since the story of redemption will always produce something of value. On a smaller scale, my stories are also an attempt to show "virtue in action." Most of us will never have to face the trials and adventures that I put my characters through, but such dangerous circumstances have a way of clarifying the confusing mix of choices in life, and so adventure provides a good stage for the unveiling of virtue.

- In a sense, though, fantasy can be a form of escapism for me, and I have to guard against its influence. I am possessed by an exploratory nature, a wanderlust that thirsts for adventure and, too often, becomes discontent with the normal flow of everyday life. Perhaps some of it comes from growing up on the mission field--there is a thirst to constantly be seeing and experiencing some new corner of creation. This tendency overflows to a number of my interests. Take history, for example. While I'm a fine student, and could probably make a fair professor of history, I doubt I could ever be a true historian in the sense of a scholar who delves into the stories, thought, and culture of a particular age until he knows it through-and-through. I couldn't do that. I love history, but I love it for the stories. And when I've already learned the major characters and stories in one particular corner of history, I tend to move on to find new stories somewhere else. So writing fantasy can be escapism for me--when my own life fails to provide any adventure, and when I'm not in a position to create adventures around me, then I can retreat into the worlds of my own creation and devise whatever sort of adventures I please. But this is only problematic, I think, insofar as it detracts from my engagement in the here-and-now, and I have enough of a sense of self-awareness to keep a firm hand of discipline on that impulse. The real question will be whether the settled life of ministry will be able to long survive my adventuresome wanderlust (I really feel no attraction whatsoever to a life of quiet American domesticity). I think ministry will survive that impulse--at least I'm hopeful it will--for a number of reasons. First, I'll be dealing with the Word of God each week, and I have found, to my great delight, that its horizons for leading me into the adventure of God are unbounded. Second, I'll be interacting with a community of people, and communities have a tendency to produce their own adventure. From what I know of pastoral ministry, there's usually enough going on to keep one's interest up. Third, as long as I'm in a place with access to a slice of wilderness open to my personal exploration, I'll be fine. Nothing is quite so restorative for me as trailblazing alone through a patch of woods, and if I have access to such a place, then I think my restless nature will be satisfied. And fourth, I have enough of an appreciation for a slow-and-steady pace of life, enough of a delight in tradition, that I think the ministry might be a good fit for me. I have an adventuresome heart, true, but it's ruled fairly well by reason, good sense, and an appreciation for the simple joys of life. Give me a choice between risking my life in extreme sports merely for the sake of adventure, or a life behind a desk in a quiet study, and I'll choose the latter every time.

- Benedict Groeschel has written that in his observation, many people encounter God along the lines of the ancient philosophical categories: the One, the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. Those who seek and experience God as the One tend to be those in search of personal integration, aware of conflicting forces within them (the example given was Catherine of Genoa). Those who seek God as the Good are generally gentle, joyful people who easily become emotionally broken in encounters with the brokenness of the world (Francis of Assisi). Those who seek him as the Beautiful are, obviously, lovers of beauty (the young Augustine), and those who seek him as truth are often engaged by the intellectual and philosophical side of the faith (Thomas Aquinas). I don't know if this breakdown is exhaustively true of human experience, but it's certainly interesting. For my part, I tend to pursue God around the dual poles of Beauty and Truth. My thirst for beauty is such that I have what might almost be called a mystical experience whenever I'm out in a particularly lovely corner of nature--there is nowhere else where I feel so near to God. I drink in beauty in wordless wonder, and it pours out of me in poetry and song. Interestingly, the sins which most easily beset me are associated with this undying pursuit of beauty--they take the proper object of that thirst, God, and redirect its passions to seek beauty elsewhere. Truth is also important for me, and provides a secondary means by which I seek and experience God. Being something of an intellectual, I take great joy in learning new things about the world, about human experience, and about God himself. Beyond my roving wanderings in the woods, a book is the next best thing for me when it comes to igniting my heart for the pursuit of God. Paradigms like Groeschel's can be valuable, both for understanding the character of our own relationship with God and for reminding us that the person in the next pew over might well experience God in a very different manner than we do, and that that's quite alright.

- I've been thinking quite a bit about hell lately, thanks to a research paper for my "Ecclesiology and Eschatology" class. In particular, I've been pondering the fate of the damned. Traditionally, there is one main view--the damned are condemned by God for their sins at the Final Judgment, then cast away into an eternity of conscious torment. One may say quite easily that God's justice is linked to his love, and that because of his love for the redeemed, he will do justice to the oppressors. However, this view neglects to take into account the fact that the Bible tells us of God's love for all people (including, one would suppose, the damned). If the traditional view of hell is a reality, then it would seem that God would have to stop loving the damned at some point. This becomes difficult, because we know that the very character of God is Love, and that God's character does not--indeed, can not--change. It would also seem, at least from our limited perspective, that a punishment of unending, conscious torture for as little as one sin would be a punishment that does not fit the crime. (Defenders of the traditional view would say here that because God is an eternal God, a crime against him requires eternal punishment. This appeal to logic seems to me to be a stretch, though. If the Bible said nothing about hell as eternal conscious torment, would these theologians still devise such a system and defend it as a logical necessity?) Further, we regard physical torture, even of the most evil people, as a horrendous deed here on earth (now clearly prohibited by all standards of international law). The earthly leaders who practice ongoing torture as a means of punishment are regarded not as particularly awesome, but rather as villains and despots. If we magnify this to an eternal scale (with God as the authority), would the values actually reverse to the point that physical torture becomes a good rather than an evil?

These are not easy questions to answer, but they are important to consider. Although the traditional view of hell has held sway for most of church history, there are some leading lights who have questioned whether this doctrine might actually impugn the character of God (Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and, in our own day, John Stott). It is also good to consider that the traditional view of hell leans almost completely on a legal metaphor of the atonement (sin as crime), rather than a Christus Victor or healing metaphor (sin as captivity or disease). There have been a number of attempts to challenge or moderate the traditional doctrine down through the years. One such attempt was universalism (the belief that all will eventually be saved, perhaps by undergoing hell as a purgational stage), but that has largely been condemned as unbiblical by church tradition (there are some biblical hints toward universalism, but not enough to build it into a proper dogma of the church). Another is annihilationism, which holds that sinners will be snuffed out of existence by God rather than condemned to eternal torture. Others hold to the possibility of different gradations of punishment in hell (so that Gandhi would find himself in a pleasanter hell than Hitler). Some will also talk about hell as being something that we choose rather than something which God sends us to. This sounds nice, but runs contrary to the biblical evidence which shows God as the one who judges and condemns.

All things considered, it's no easy question. Following an evangelical hermeneutic of Scripture, I find that I simply cannot get around the "traditionalist" passages in Scripture which seem to support an eternal conscious hell. Is that the end of the debate? Perhaps, but perhaps not. I find the emotional and philosophical arguments for the other positions very compelling, and they have some intriguing biblical arguments as well. I find myself hoping for universalism in the face of my adherence to the biblical picture of eternal conscious torment, but overall I'm content to say that God is wiser than I, and that whatever he does in the end will certainly be right and good.

For me, it comes down to two main applications as a minister of the Gospel. First, hell is such a difficult question that it ought to be handled carefully and with great empathy. Despite all the teaching about hell in Scripture, there is a great deal that we simply don’t understand about it. The traditionalist position appears to have the strongest biblical argument, but it often comes across as repulsive and extreme. It may be the case that our perspective here on earth is limited, and that in the age to come we will be able to see and understand hell in a way that dissolves all our objections. Until then, I think the advice of John Stott holds true: “We may, and I think we should, preserve a certain reverent and humble agnosticism about the precise nature of hell, as about the precise nature of heaven. Both are beyond our understanding."

Second, while we can retain some agnosticism about the exact nature hell, we must be clear about the reality of hell. Jesus did not teach so extensively on the subject for nothing. Sinners must be told that there is a judgment coming and that the eschatological punishment will not be pleasant or tolerable in the least. The Bible is clear that hell is a horrible, terrifying end. While we ought not to abuse the doctrine by trying to scare sinners into repentance, we must hold fast to our responsibility to warn them. The Gospel is good news for those who believe, but there is also an element of warning—perhaps even “bad news”—that needs to be told. We must remember that the Gospel will always be an offense to sinful human sensibilities, but that does not mean that it ought not to be proclaimed.

(If you're interested, I have my full 20-page research paper on this subject if you'd like to look at my analysis in more detail--just drop me a note, and I'll send it to you.)