The Target that Hit the Bullet

28 05 2012

Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the suspect is sitting in the witness stand, giving testimony on his behalf.  The defense attorney, of course, is about ready to crawl under the table and do himself in, because he knows his client is guilty and, to make matters worse, exceptionally foolish.  With great animation and apparent self-confidence, the accused explains that he did not, in fact, cause the bullet to fly from his gun at the victim (may he rest in peace).  Rather, the victim, reckless man that he was, actually rode the rotation of the Earth straight into the bullet.  Because the gun was fired in a westerly direction, the bullet was essentially released in a stationary position, and the accused did nothing at all to propel that bullet toward that victim.  Even after the jury hands down its verdict, the defense attorney scuttles out of the room in shame and the bailiff begins to drag the man off to prison, the accused is still shouting at the top of his lungs that he is not to blame if someone else manages to impale himself on a stationary object left behind by him.  The argument, you see, is that the Earth is not stationary, but that it actually rotates.  In fact, it does so at considerable speed, even  to the point of negating the velocity of the bullet.  The jury, without even realizing it, makes their judgment based on the premise that the Earth is stationary and the universe revolves around it.  Otherwise, the bullet never moved, because the gun was fired toward the west.

After writing that last paragraph, I had to walk down the hall and get a cup of coffee.  Incidentally, the cost of coffee has gone up so much that I’ve resorted to doing something that I swore I’d never do again, which is to buy a generic brand.  So, as I’m walking back with the brew that will likely make me sick to my stomach, I might have wondered if I was walking in a westerly direction.  Actually, I did not worry about that at all.  The fact of my movement down the hall was, however, a matter of speculation.  You see, we judge the movement of an object by the change of its location relative to its surroundings.  I knew that I was walking down the hall, because the bigger picture, the whole rest of my environment, appeared to be moving with respect to me.  Excuse me, I mean to say that I was moving with respect to the rest of my environment.  In the early geocentric world, all things were judged with respect to the Earth, because the Earth and everything on it was the bigger picture.  If your location (or your bullet’s location) moved with respect to the Earth, then we would have said that you (or it) moved.  Of course, we’re wiser, now.  Our horizons have broadened, and we realize that there’s a great big universe out there.  The background, the bigger picture and the surrounding environment are now the universe, as a whole.  We say that the universe is stationary and the Earth is moving.  To say otherwise would require an even bigger picture by which to judge the movement of the universe.

A former coworker of mine was poring over the diagrams of the Ptolemaic model of the universe, the geocentric view, and he marveled at how stunningly elegant the designs were.  In truth, it took a great deal of math and mental stamina to follow and diagram the movements of the heavenly bodies according to a geocentric view.  I responded that it was, actually, possible to think of the universe in geocentric terms, but it required a great deal more math, and the description was a heck of a lot more complicated.  He looked at me with a startled expression, not quite that I was mad, but that I had challenged his most basic assumptions.  I hereby renounce any responsibility for his admission to a psychiatric ward shortly thereafter; it was a preexisting condition, and I had nothing to do with it.  We often mistakenly think of the heliocentric model as the simplest explanation of how the universe works, but we would be wrong.  It’s actually not an explanation of anything.  It is a description, but not an explanation.  The whole model depends, very heavily, upon an understanding of the nature of gravity.  While we know much about what gravity does, we know absolutely nothing about what it is.  Much speculation exists as to the cause of gravity, but there seems to be no good evidence, or even any bad evidence, to suggest that any of it may be true.  The rule of thumb (Occam’s razor) is that the simplest explanation is usually the best.  We don’t have any explanation, so we’ve settled with the next best thing, which is the simplest description.  Heliocentrism is the simplest description, because it uses the least math to tell us what to expect from moving objects in the universe.  The description for geocentrism is far more complicated than the description for heliocentrism.  Therefore, heliocentrism is deemed correct, and geocentrism is deemed a falsehood.

Yet, despite all of that, the jury, which claims to believe solely in heliocentrism, still convicts the man on a geocentric reasoning, that being the same geocentrism that they would in any other setting have called a complete falsehood.  While heliocentrism may be technically true, it is only practically true to astrophysicists.  While geocentrism may be technically false, it is practically true for everyone in every situation but space exploration.  In fact, a small amount of geocentrism exists even for an astronaut standing on the moon, because the Earth is still the center of his universe.  We still say that the sun rises, never giving the slightest care to the fact of the Earth’s rotation.  If I hit you, then you don’t care which direction I’m swinging and whether or not you technically hit my fist with your face.  Either way, I need to start running before you come to your senses.

As I’m running, two things at once become very clear to me.  The first is that I haven’t been getting enough exercise and will likely not outlast you, but this is largely irrelevant.  The second is that you really do care which way I swung my fist; you just don’t care which way it was in relation to the Earth or its rotation.  This brings us to an even more practical, yet highly incorrect, technically, view of the universe, which is an egocentric one.  Suddenly, I realize that I never called it a sunrise because of geocentric notions.  I don’t really care what it’s doing in Japan unless I happen to be in Japan.  I don’t look at a sunset and say, “Oh, look at the Indian sunrise!” because I neither know nor care what it happens to be doing for the Indians, or the Pakistanis, or the Iranians.  You, likewise, are not really shocked that I hit someone, or that I hit in a direction other than West (though, we all know by now that I ought to be forgiven if it happened to be West).  No, the only directions you know are relative to your own person.

When I was a baby, I thought the whole universe revolved around me.  When I got older, I learned on my own that it did not.  With education, I learned that the universe does not even revolve around the Earth.  With a higher education, a divine one, I learned that the universe does not even revolve around itself.  As previously stated, we judge the motion of an object by its change in location relative to its surroundings, the bigger picture.  Beyond the confines of this universe is God.  The universe is contained only within God.  Therefore, while egocentrism is more practical than geocentrism, which is more practical than heliocentrism, and while heliocentrism is technically more correct than either of them, theocentrism is the card that trumps them all.  When we were egocentric little babies, as some of us still seem to be, all things related to our own personal needs, yet the whole world was largely out of our control.  When we grew into geocentrists, as kids, we had a better handle on the world, but we still lacked maturity.  As heliocentrists, we of the adult world have maturity, but, like the baby, there still exists that outside element of our own destiny, which not only eludes us but utterly terrifies us.  The world may come to an end by collision with an asteroid, or the world may come to an end by environmental disaster, and no one can say otherwise.  When limited to heliocentrism, this way of thinking is true in a practical sense, though it is not technically true.  Practically speaking, it could happen, but in the big picture, things are not really so far out of control as that.  The universe does not revolve mindlessly around itself.  The relationship of I and the Earth is such that I revolve around the Earth.  The relationship of the Earth and the universe is similar, and the universe does not revolve around the Earth.  Likewise, God does not revolve around the universe, but if his attention is fixed on the Earth, and the Earth abides with God, then, from the biggest picture of all, the universe really does seem to revolve around the Earth, not that the Earth is really its focal point, but that the Earth happens to be aligned with the ultimate focal point.  The same could be said for human individuals.  Does the universe revolve around a person?  No, but it revolves around God, who may abide with that person, having a similar effect.  Looking at the universe as the biggest picture still convinces us that we are merely lost in space, but looking at God as the biggest picture, space becomes the moving object, while the human being remains stationary, so long as God is with him.  It’s a coincidental alignment.  People feel like the center of the universe and know that they are not, but still, the original impression might lie closer to the truth than realized.

This brings us to the problem of destiny.  The truth of the matter is that there are really two polar-opposite meanings of the word.  One is egocentric and the other is theocentric.  I could say that God has called me to be a prophet, or that I am destined to do something great, or that I am destined to take over the world, or that it is my divine mission to eradicate the world of an unwanted race of people.  All of these things, from pastor and prophet to emperor and mass-murderer, are a product of the egocentric meaning of destiny.  It’s a question of what God has planned for me.  God revolves around self.  Really, it’s a very practical outlook.  The world’s most successful people tend to live on that kind of a sense of destiny.  It’s also untrue.  It’s only good until things go wrong, or worse, when life turns out to be extra-ordinary, instead of extraordinary.  Where is the destiny, then?

Destiny as a theocentric view takes a different meaning.  No matter who you are or what you do, the world does not revolve around you, and the universe does not revolve around your planet.  You can rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic, but it still ends up sinking.  You can institute environmental policies and struggle to save the Earth, but life on Earth still comes to an end, and the sun eventually winks out.  In the end, the bigger picture wins.  Earth trumps the human.  The sun trumps the Earth, and God trumps everything.

Destiny is a paradox.  When I say that I sawed a piece of wood in two, you might imagine that the log was held in place while I dragged the saw back and forth on it.  With destiny, the reverse is true.  I held the saw in place with a vise and dragged the wood back and forth on it.  Either way, the result is the same (except that the second way left me badly in need of a bandage).  Did you do the act because it was your destiny, or did you do it because you chose to?  Did you shoot the bullet at the victim, or did the victim fly eastward and hit the bullet?  In the end, no jury changes its mind about your guilt because of the higher understanding.  It was your destiny, and you chose to do it.  You shot the gun at the victim and he flew eastward at you, piercing himself on your motionless projectile.  Still, you are punished because you chose to do it.  You are punished because you shot the gun.  Galileo is in the restroom at the moment, and he isn’t here to defend you.

The screaming continues down the corridor, something about the speed of the Earth’s rotation as it relates to the circumference of that line of latitude, versus the speed of a bullet, but the door shuts and we hear nothing more.  All rise….





The Supralapsarian Dilemma

9 02 2011

“When the Boston Lighthouse was first built in 1716, the Massachusetts Bay Colony forbid the use of a lightning  rod for fear that such an instrument would be viewed by the powers of heaven as intent to interfere with divine strokes.  After the lighthouse was struck and damaged by lightning some 12 times in ten years, twice setting it on fire, a lightning rod was installed.  The justification was that a lighthouse, reaching skyward higher than any other structure, was too much of a temptation for the powers above.  Thereafter, the Boston Lighthouse suffered no serious injury due to lightning.” (Elinor De Wire, Guardians Of The Lights; Stories Of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers, 1995, p.108)

In their humble belief in the sovereignty of God, the authorities decided that every lightning strike was predestined by God and therefore should not be hindered by mortal man.  In their arrogant disbelief in the sovereignty of God, they determined that they were, as well as all of humanity, above and outside of that same power, even thinking that they were capable of hindering an act of God.  Why affix a lightning rod, when it might contradict the intentions of God?  They might as well have asked why they constructed a lighthouse at all, if human innovation against the forces of nature are a rebellion against God.  They neither considered that the lightning rod, as well as the lighthouse, were part of the same course of history, and that every last part of it, from beginning to end, was within his power.  Even the lighthouse keeper was a product of that destiny, moved to guide ships safely out to sea.

[fiction]

And somewhere out there the great cruise liner, the RMS Olympic, passed just close enough to glimpse the intermittent light from the lighthouse.  This massive ship, among the most advanced in its time, slowly chugged along the coast on its pleasure tour of the New England coast.  One might say that it was well-stocked with libations.  Perhaps it was too well-stocked, for a poor hapless passenger found himself in the unlikely position of examining the outer hull of the ship during a very rapid descent into the ocean, and, to make matters worse, the only ones to notice this event were a small collection of philosophers standing at the rail, pondering the significance of his fate.

They were five men of a society of thinkers who came to believe themselves to be merely fictional characters, whose destiny was predetermined by an all-powerful author of some sort.  They were the Authorians.  They were the only members of their society.  It is for this reason that the victim was especially unfortunate.  Had they been merely philosophers, we might fear that these thinkers would spend far too much time thinking about the problem, not doing enough about it until it was too late.  Being fatalists, they assured the demise of the intoxicated swimmer.

This group of five had been discussing the fine merits of their philosophy to one of their newest members, John Basques, who was, by virtue of his need to avert his attention elsewhere, the primary witness of the fall of the man.  The other heads did not turn until the splash was heard, and Basques’ eyes widened perceptibly.  Basques was a wiry little man badly in need of a wife, but his insufficiency in stature was generally unappealing to many women, and the remaining women were already taken or otherwise indisposed to marry him.  This had the effect of lending him far more time for the company of other men, and for a man like Basques, such men were usually either divorced or actively, though unwittingly, in pursuit of divorce.  Such clueless men have many opinions to offer, but little practical handiness around the house, what little time they spend there.  Doubtless, they thought themselves splendid husbands, though they could not understand why their wives were so upset at being left at home alone all evening, every evening, after being left home alone all day while these men were at work.  Needless to say, going on a cruise without their wives didn’t help much, either, but that would be beside the point.  The real point is that a man who had been aboard the ship was now in the water and swiftly trailing behind the ship.

“I say, that’s a bit of a trouble!” exclaimed Basques.  He started forward, when a hand grabbed him firmly by the arm.

“Never mind that,” said another of the group, a mustached man named Calvin Del.  “The hand of the author is at work, here.  You do not think that he would have fallen into the sea were it not his destiny.”

“His destiny?!” exclaimed Basques, “The author did not make him fall into the sea!  Don’t you take me for a fool.”

“John,” said Del to Basques, “It is not necessary to intervene.  Had it been the author’s will, then that man would have been saved anyway, or, better yet, not have fallen at all.”

Basques looked back and forth incredulously between the faces of the other four, noting their silent assent.  Destiny seemed a sturdy and decent thing when circumstances were fair, but calamity shook it to its core, and the proscription to interfere with that calamity made it utterly repugnant.  “You men are mad!” scolded Basques, “We’ll discuss this later, but I will not stand by and let a fellow person die under my passive watch.”  With that, he made haste for the ship’s bridge, running as fast as he could, yelling “Man overboard!  Man overboard!”  A security officer stopped him before he got there, promising to relay the information to the captain.  Painfully long moments passed by, until the guard emerged from the bridge and relayed a message from the captain.

“Captain says we can’t turn this behemoth around and retrace our line of travel.  Would take too long, and we’d likely as not miss our man.  By the time we got turned about, we’d not be in the same place any more.  We’d be going back the same direction, but we might pass by miles.  We’ll be dropping anchor and hailing the Coast Guard.  They can retrace our steps better than we can.  If they don’t find the poor soul by tomorrow, then we’ll continue on our way,” explained the guard.

“Poor soul!” exclaimed Basques, “I wish more could be done.”

The gentle rumble from the boilers ground to a low murmur, hardly impacting the momentum of the ship noticeably.  On deck, shuffleboard games continued, and objectless mafficking continued unabated.  No one noticed the lowering of the anchor.  The captain of the ship, an admirably concerned fellow with a trim white beard and ponytail, emerged from the helm, passing directly by Basques without acknowledgment, followed at the heels by two deck hands.  They made their way down to the deck, where they headed straight to the stern and out of sight.  Two other men stepped outside and gazed back in the direction from which the ship had come, and then they quickly disappeared back inside again.  Soft music that had been playing over the house speakers truncated, and someone announced the situation to the passengers.  All were instructed to return to their cabins promptly, where the floor managers would take role and attempt to discover the identity of the victim.  Even members of the crew were required to check-in.

By the time Basques reached his cabin, his roommate, Del, was already there, waiting.  The other members of the group waited by their open doorways, smoking cigars nervously.  Del eased the door to within an inch of closing, and said to Basques in a low voice, “Now, John, I know you’re only trying to be helpful, but surely you must understand that the will of the author predestines the fate of the whole world, and not just the handful of us who believe.  I know it’s hard to accept, but these things don’t escape the author’s design.”

Basques, still uncomprehending of the man’s utter insensitivity, stammered for a moment and then replied, “But Cal, my man, surely you did not expect me to do nothing?  I could not stand by and let a good and innocent man be left to die out there.  What kind of creed is it that commands us to do nothing?”

“It is not for us to decide who is good and who is evil, ” replied Del.

“Then I claim ignorance,” replied Basques.  “You seem to think the man condemned because he happened to fall into the drink.  You seem to have decided that the man is evil.  I, for one, don’t know.  I only know that he is one in need of saving.”

“Then let the author save him,” countered Del.

“Author or no author, I am duty-bound to serve my fellow man,” replied Basques.  “Now, I don’t know any more whether I like this ideal of ours that all things are under the design of a higher power.  Even so, I like to think that I am under no obligation to sit idly by and let disaster befall my neighbor.  Am I required to do absolutely nothing?  Why do I even bother to feed myself?  If I strike you in the nose, then was it by decree of the author?  Answer me now, because I’m tempted to find out.”

Del took an unconscious step backward.  “Now, John, we are the protagonists.  Not everyone is like us.  We did not fall overboard, because we are the primary characters in the plot.  We are the good guys.”

“Good!  Ha!  Fat lot of good you are!  You think you’re a good guy, because you stood around with your hands in your pockets and did nothing!  You think that the author smiles favorably upon you because nothing particularly bad has happened to you yet.  The cruise is still young, dear Cal.  Misfortune visits everyone, sooner or later.  When it comes knocking at your door, I hope, for your sake, that your neighbor does not ascribe to your beliefs.”  Basques was about to say more, but the floor manager appeared in the doorway and took their count.  Then they were free to leave, which they did, promptly.  The other members of the society were waiting for them outside.  One of them gave Del a questioning glance, and was returned with an evasive look.

“Let’s hit the galley for a bite to eat, shall we?” suggested the leader of the group.  The rest mumbled their assent.

Lunch was an awkward affair.  The members largely attempted polite conversation over the usual heady philosophical debate.  No one wanted to acknowledge the elephant in the room, who was Basques.  The leader of the group, a man named Martin Shirr, was about to say something, finally, when a uniformed officer invited himself to sit with them.  The sailor identified himself as Jacques, the first mate of the ship.  “Well,” he began, “The count has been finished.  A couple dozen passengers had to be tracked when they failed to show for roll call.  We finally narrowed down the list to a single individual, a man named Adam Boxer.  His wife, Dora, hasn’t been able to find him since the alert, and she’s worried about him.  He was a tall, skinny fellow in his forties, wearing a solid red polo shirt and white slacks.  Is this the man that you saw?”

“My memory is a little unclear on his attire, but I believe he looked something like that,” replied Basques.

“Well, then, gentlemen, I thank you for your help.  Hopefully we can find this man and be on with our journey shortly,” said the first mate, beginning to rise.

“Is there hope?” asked Basques, eagerly.

The sailor ran his fingers across his close-cropped head and replied, “Well, that remains to be seen.  The captain has, himself, left the ship on a dinghy to search for the man.”

“Left the ship!” exclaimed one of their party.

“Yes, well, he is a man of principle.  He would rather leave the entire ship at my command than leave a single lost soul adrift in the ocean.  I believe he will be out there for quite a while, unless he finds the victim,” explained the sailor, with a subtle pride.

Del looked at Shirr and mumbled, “Our fate is tied with that of an antagonist?”

“What?” begged the sailor, “By Jove, what are you talking about?  Who are you calling an antagonist?”

Shirr chose his words carefully, “Well, you see, sir, we are a philosophical group that believes our world is fated at the hand of an author, of sorts, one who exists in a higher sense than ourselves.  You might call him a god.  We call him an author, because we believe that our destiny, even our own choices, are at his mercy.”

The sailor rubbed his chin and replied, “Ah, I see.  So you have taken it upon yourselves as the heroes in this plot to help save a drowning man.”

There followed a moment of awkward silence.

“Ah, well, you see, sir,” struggled Shirr, “We believe that all things are under control, whether they be fortune or misfortune.  We do not normally presume to alter the fate as determined by one who knows better.”

The sailor had to think about it for a moment, before he replied, “So this is not a normal response for you?  Normally, you would have abandoned the man in need?”

“You might call him an antagonist, sir,” explained Shirr.

“And you are the protagonist?” exclaimed the sailor with delight.  “Why, however could you know that you are not the antagonist, while victim may actually be the protagonist?”

“Well,” explained Shirr, talking mostly to the table top, “We must examine ourselves carefully to determine if we might be among the chosen ones.”

“Take no care at all!” exclaimed the sailor.  “I wouldn’t choose you!  What kind of hero would not help a neighbor in need?  Bosh, man!  If I were like you, I would not need to steer the ship.  Let the author steer it, himself.  Surely there must be enough elect on a ship this size to warrant a safe journey, regardless.  This I’ve got to tell the captain!  Why, we’ve been going about this all wrong!  Why, we’ve been wasting hours at the helm, when we could be down here nipping at the bottle, chumming it up with old friends.  Let your author steer the ship.”  He let out a shameless laugh.  “No, I’ll tell you what.  Your destiny is in my hands, I’ll tell you.  You can move around on this ship all you like.  You are free to do as you choose, here, but I control the over-all destiny of your whole world…at least, until the captain gets back.  That’s destiny for you.  It’s all the destiny I know.  I don’t need a higher power to determine when I burp.  He can tell me when to die, but I’ll do as I choose until then.”  With that, he stood and left the room.

The group of five were inconsolable.  They were a meek bunch, not used to impolite words.  Shortly, they seemed to think that the author was calling them to pursue other ends, so they stood and wandered off by themselves.  Each was certain that he was the only one whose faith was shaken.  They were nearly apostate by sundown, as they anxiously awaited the return of the captain in his dinghy.

All eyes were astern in the darkening dusk.  Hope was nearly gone by the time that boat came abreast of the ship.  On deck were two sailors, the captain and a soaked man in a red shirt and soggy white slacks.  Greeting the victim was a flustered wife, accusing him of his drunkenness.  The victim replied that his wife was to blame for opening the bottle and tempting him to fall off of the wagon.  One would think that at the uncorking of that bottle all of the world’s evils were unleashed upon the world.  A man could hardly be blamed for drinking too much, and, having drunk too much, could hardly be blamed for sitting on a rail and falling overboard.  Even the witnesses claimed absolution from attempting rescue.  It would seem no one was to blame for their own actions.  All were victims of fate.

Basques turned to Del, on his left, and said, “Cal, I must leave the group.”

“Why?” replied the disheartened Del, “Your man survived.  He was not condemned by the author.”

“Yes, but he could have been.  Some are not so lucky, ” replied Basques, “I cannot accept an author like that.”  He began to walk away.

“I believe you are a protagonist,” said Del, to his back, “even if you do not believe it.  I am more certain of you than I am of myself.”

Basques paused, then replied over his shoulder, “Thank you, Cal.”

When Basques began to walk away again, Del called to him, “Oh, do reconsider, won’t you?  Surely you did foresee such a possibility as this?”

“Yes, I did, Cal,” said Basques, “but I was not ready for this.”

“Will you think it over.”

“I will, Cal.  I will.”  And then John Basques returned to his room.

I suppose I should mention that, although they were shockingly wrong in the application of their philosophy, they were also astoundingly correct, at least in principle.  For they were quite right.  They are, indeed, characters whose destiny is in the hands of an author.  They have found it easy to accept salvation by my word, but they would not have easily accepted failure by that word.  Basques would have been no less a protagonist had he failed.  His comrades correctly assumed that the man overboard was caused by the destiny of my choice, which is why they thought not to override it.  However, they incorrectly assumed that they were powerful enough to override that destiny at all.  They were not.  They generally did not see that their intervention was as much a part of their destiny as was the fall of the man the victim’s own destiny.  They did not see that being a protagonist had much less to do with things going right for them, than that they would respond rightly to the things that happened to them.

I suppose I could be blamed for having a man fall overboard, but I could also be credited for giving the man any life at all.  Anyway, this is my story, and I have every right to tell it as I see fit.

[/fiction]





God’s Protagonist

20 11 2009

Now we come to the notion that gave birth to it all.  Someone asked me why God allows bad things to happen to us.  That was my senior year in high school, and I was in the middle of trying my hand at writing fiction for the first time.  My mind was on my story all day, every day, and everything that happened in my life seemed to relate to it, somehow.  What it translated to was, why did I allow bad things to happen to my characters, specifically the good ones?  The answer was easy enough.  Every event was part of the story wherein the protagonists fulfilled their destiny.  Some events were beneficial to the protagonists.  Some events were harmful.  Either way, the outcome was that good would triumph, and the main characters, the heroes, would win in the end, even if they died trying.

That brings us to our second point.  The fiction writer is the god of his world.  No one has absolute power like an author has over his fiction.  It’s as close to godhood that a person can reach.  Case in point, secular fiction, like the stuff they made you read in English literature class, is typically dreary and leaves a person wondering if life has any purpose.  After a thousand pages of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, you’d need a couple of days to get back to thinking that there really is God, who really does hold us accountable for our selfishness.  Every author, even the atheist, portrays God, and usually very badly.  Do you have any idea how a novel would read if an atheist wrote it to portray a world without God?  It would be several hundred blank pages.  There would be nothing, no one and no universe for anything to happen in.

In as much as the author attempts to make his world true to life, he attempts to portray God for who he really is (though it doesn’t necessarily mean that he does a good job of it).  Therefore, it does matter who’s works you read.  This is not about the language or the content, but the nature of the plot.

Secular fiction:

Earnest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea: A poor old hungry man catches the world’s largest marlin, which the sharks promptly devour.  Now he’s a poor hungry man with a fish skeleton.  The end.

A Farewell to Arms: A medic gets his kneecaps blown off, spends his nights in the hospital fornicating with a nurse and drinking himself into a bad case of jaundice.  She gets pregnant, and drinks until the fetus dies.  She dies during childbirth.  The end.

Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath: A poor family move to California to get jobs.  They get their low paying jobs and continue to live in squalor.  The end.

Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie: A loser drunk gets a blind date for his pathologically shy sister.  The man happens to be engaged already.  Too bad.  The end.

This is typical stuff for people who don’t believe in God, or, at least, people who don’t accept who he really is.  They attempt to portray real life.  Life happens…we’re miserable…the end.  What they think of real life says everything about what they think of God.  Tragedy happens for no reason…blah, blah, the end.  When you read their stories, you have no confidence that good will overcome.  You have no faith in the author to bring you through to a meaningful outcome.  When evil befalls the protagonist, it’s for no real reason whatsoever than because the author wanted something bad to happen to someone.

Christian fiction, on the other hand, has a certain predictability to it, most of the time.  Bad things happen to those characters, too, but the over-all impression that you get, walking away from the book is that it was not all for nothing.  Most of the time, good overcomes evil, and when it doesn’t, we start wondering why it was sold at a Christian bookstore in the first place.

Christian fiction:

Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness: A journalist and some other ordinary people struggle to overcome an evil and powerful corporation.  They win.

C. S. Lewis’ The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe: A bunch of kids and a magical lion fight to free the world from an evil witch who turns the inhabitants to stone.  The lion gets killed, but the witch is defeated, and good prevails.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: what, you didn’t know he was a Christian?  You saw the movie.  An evil monster sought to control the world, and a handful of good guys defeated him.

The difference between the works of unbelievers and those of Christians, is that we trust the Christian writers to bring good out of the plot, no matter how bad it looks.  It is their aim to attempt to test our faith in them, only to reward us for holding onto hope.  When the godless writer makes things seem dim, there’s a good chance that things really are as bleak as they seem.

What, then, shall we say to real life?  Even in our case, the situation is no different.  Either we look at bad events and wonder how God is going to bring us through it, or we look at bad events and get angry.  Either we know that God works for good in all things for those who love him, or we think that he has smitten us out of spite.

Either we are his protagonists, or we’re not.  Not everyone is, you know.  We spend a few years on this planet making up our minds which way we will go, and then we spend the rest of eternity going that way.  To an eternal God, a hundred years is like the blink of an eye.  Only eternity matters.  Either we are his friends in Heaven, or we were never his friends and never with him.  He already knows which is which.  You’re not going to go to Hell with God thinking, “You know, I really thought she was going to come around some day.”

The ultimate protagonist, though, was Jesus.  He was a case of the Author writing himself into his own story so that we could know him.  He suffered his own tragedy so that good could overcome evil.  In the end, he lived, and he went to his reward.  Those who have faith in the Author of our lives know that through our tragedy there comes, ultimately, a happy ending.  Good will overcome evil, no matter what the circumstances may presently show.

I wouldn’t want to be the character of a human author.  What they go through at the behest of their authors is more than I want to bear.  The atheist complains that there is no God, or if there were, that he must be a cruel God, indeed, but then they play god in their own fiction and do far worse.  Humans make terrible gods.  They play with and torment their subjects ruthlessly.  I like the real God better.  He’s easily amused with my dull life.  Boring is good.  It means that nothing is going wrong.  I like that.

There are two things that I want you to keep in mind.  When I say “you,” I mean exactly whomever God happens to make read this thing.  The first is that every novel portrays God incorrectly, because the role of God is always played by the author.  The less godly the author is, the worse he will make God look.  The second thing I want you to keep in mind is that if you love God, then you are his protagonist; life has a purpose for you, and you will overcome.  Even death cannot keep you down if you love God.  Trust God in all things.  Keep his word in your heart like a loved lady keeps the letters of her lover.

We are all on a stage, but none of us are actors.  The script has already been written, and the end is determined, but we have not learned it.  The only question you have to ask yourself is, “Is this the sort of author whom we can trust to bring good out of an evil situation?”





Life at the Bottom of the Pool

6 12 2008

Nine years is a long time to suffer from chronic depression.  One might see how, after all of those years, I might have come to see it as a more or less permanent state of existence.  In fact, the most depressing aspect about being depressed was the apparent endlessness of it.  Frankly, I’m not sure how I survived.  I had come to believe that not only I, but the entire world, was gripped with the iron hand of the foul mood, and that all happy people were complete frauds.  Fantasies of suicide were a nearly daily occurrence.  There was a certain irony to it, though, that with the depression came a pessimism about all things self-related, and I had no hope for suicide any more than for anything else.  I figured I’d go to Hell and be even worse off, or I’d botch it and maim myself for life, making things much worse, or I’d get caught in the attempt, and people would regard me as a mentally sick individual for a lifetime.  Now that would be a reason to get depressed.  As bad as I felt, I was sure it could get much worse.  As I recall, the most dangerous time of my life was at the very end of this season, when things were finally starting to improve.  The clouds were beginning to part, and I had a sense that maybe life was taking a turn for the better.  It was in that critical time that I had enough optimism to think that I could go through with it if I tried, that I might not be worse off for it.  True, I had less reason to kill myself.  In fact, I had virtually no reason to do so, but the experiences of a decade gave me no precedent to stand on and no reason to believe that true happiness was a thing of permanence.  Perhaps, it was because of this mindset that I found myself on the bottom of the pool, moments away from death.

 

I had made a practice of holding my breath.  It was this contest I made with myself.  It’s not as though I had anyone to swim with, or anything else interesting to do while swimming in the pool.  Exhaling all my breath, I would crawl along the bottom of this large pool until I had traversed it, lengthwise.  With effort, I got quite good at it.  One day, I decided to just sit at the bottom of the deep end and see just how long I could hold my breath.  I held it until I felt like I was going to burst, and then some.  The carbon dioxide buildup in my blood made me hiccup, but underwater it feels different, so I didn’t really know what it was.  I actually tried to voluntarily inhale the water, but I knew that the diving reflex would prevent me from doing it.  No matter how strong the urge to breathe, I could not inhale the water.  This was not an attempt to kill myself.  Eventually, though, the urge to breathe completely subsided, and I knew exactly what was happening.  I was experiencing rapture of the deep.  I was in an underwater paradise, where air was no longer a need, or so it seemed.  When the body detects a low oxygen level, it produces the intense urge to get air, but only to a certain point.  If the oxygen level drops to an extreme, that urgency reverses, and the person feels no need to breathe.  The same is true in reverse.  Over-oxygenated blood causes a person to slow breathing, but when taken to an extreme, the person will gasp for air uncontrollably.  I knew this at the time.  I knew I was moments away from death.  I sat there and thought about how wonderful it was that I was about to die.  I thought about a number of things while I was down there, getting relaxed.  I thought about the woman I had fallen in love with, who actually loved me back.  I thought about my promising future.  I also thought about my past, and I knew that if I merely followed the pattern, then I had nothing to hope for…but that all seemed okay, because I was about to die.

 

Then I thought a step further.  In probably less than two minutes, I would be seeing my maker face-to-face.  This was no fantasy, now.  This would be reality.  Whatever was on the other side of death would be everything to me.  I was pleasantly happy.  It was then that I had a little bit of a flashback to a certain incident at the age of about fourteen, when I was with a scouting group in the middle of the desert.  The adult leaders, who were two brothers, had brought iodine tablets to purify some rather nasty water that we came to and camped by.  Having run out of water in our bottles, this is what we were expected to use.  They seemed proud of themselves for their survival skills, but I didn’t trust them.  In the dead of night, I left with a fellow youth and hiked all the way back to the trailhead to retrieve water from a tap.  On the way back, we strayed from the trail, encountered a coyote and got startled by some gasses escaping the cooling earth with a loud hiss.  We kept our cool, though, and found our way back to camp, somehow.  The next morning, the two leaders took us to task for our behavior.  One of them was angry and red-faced.  The other was ashamed of us and didn’t say a word.  It was the second of the two that impacted me the most.  They had made me a role model for the group, and I had betrayed them.  I did my own thing in my mistrust of their plan.

 

While sitting on the bottom of the pool, I saw in my imagination God in two persons, in the form of these two leaders.  I knew at that moment that he had plans for me, and that I was daring to throw it all away in my mistrust of him and my future.  I knew that, should I die then, I would be facing a God who was ashamed of me.  I had not walked into this with the direct intent to kill myself, but somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that I really had walked into this with the intent to kill myself.  It was an intentional accident.  Ashamed, God said to me that I had people in my life, now and in the future, on whom I would have a lasting and important effect.  It was his plan for me, and he was determined to have it happen.  He had made me a role model to others, impossible as it seemed.  To choose death would be a betrayal against him, and this was not the way I wanted to greet him on the other side.  I don’t know that I would have gone to Hell.  I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have that stated inflexible belief that all who commit suicide go to Hell.  However, I couldn’t see myself crawling past God to get into Heaven.  I looked up at the air above me, thinking that I had better go up and get some air.  I still didn’t feel like it, and I felt quite comfortable down there, like a man who grows comfortable in his sin, headed for death and feeling good.  The problem was that I was almost too relaxed.  I moved like a sloth.  Here I was, stuck in slow motion, and gravity was working at full speed.  I didn’t have the strength to swim.  I stood there, looking up and thinking that I’m glad the pool was only eight feet deep, which was only a little higher than my reach.  Man, I was feeling sleepy.  I gave a little hop, grabbed the coping and slowly pulled myself up.  I looked at the stopwatch, and I had been underwater for over three minutes after exhaling.  The problem was, I still didn’t feel like breathing.  I actually watched the clock for a half minute longer.  I looked around, feeling fine, and then I took a very deliberate breath.  The transition back into the land of the breathing was completely uneventful.  I never once actually felt like I was about to die.  I only knew, logically, that I was close.

 

Was this the closest I had been to death?  Years earlier, I was almost run-over by a speeding truck that ran the school guard crosswalk stop signs.  An older kid from just up the street grabbed me by my coat and pulled me back just in time.  Sometimes I think about how awful that would have been.

 

I am a fatalist at heart.  I didn’t choose how, when or if I was to be born, and I’ll go out in the same way.  I get a little unnerved, thinking that one day God will kill me.  It happens to us all.  Will I die in my sleep?  Will my head be on a platter, with people dancing in the streets, giving each other presents in celebration?  Everyone dies eventually.  Because of this inevitability, it is actually life that has the most uncertainty, not death.  We simply must trust God, and that he has a plan for us.  We must be willing to live that plan, humbly, and not fight to wrest control of our lives from him.

 

Incidentally, the years following this story have been the happiest years of my life.

 

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