Yahweh = Allah?

I write so rarely on here these days that, when I put a lot of work into a comment, I might as well adapt it into a post.

This post is inspired by a great question over on @SirNickDon ‘s site, which in turn was inspired by Miroslav Volf’s book.  Basically, the question is, are the God of Christianity and Allah of Islam the same being?  Can all the differences between them be ascribed to misunderstandings?  Do Allah and Yahweh have the same essential character?

It’s a question worth asking.

I do think that a lot of Muslim theology about Allah arose in reaction to either misunderstandings about Christian doctrine or heresies within Christianity.  Even today, many less-educated Muslims think Christians believe the Trinity is God the Father, Jesus, and Mary; even better-educated Muslims often think Christians believe in three Gods.  Islam is strongly monotheistic (even as a proper understanding of Christian trinitarianism is), and thus reacts very negatively to these ideas.

I also think that the name itself isn’t what’s important here: Arabic Christians refer to God as “Allah” as well.  But the “Allah” of an Arabic Christian is very different from the “Allah” of Islam. 

And thus I have to say in the end that no, the God of Christianity and the God of Islam cannot be the same being, or one is a distorted account of the other.  Two things stand out in particular that cannot be reconciled between the two: first, the Incarnation, and second, Grace.

The Incarnation is crucial to Christian theology, and is a defining belief.  First, it means that when Jesus sacrificed himself in the crucifixion, it was not merely a prophet who died, or even a perfect human: God himself died so that we could be reconciled to him.  This is a huge teaching, a mind-boggling idea.  And second, it means that God is not only a righteous being in the sky somewhere who sits over us in some kind of judgment: it means he knows what it’s like to be human, knows what it’s like to struggle with pain and death and grief and temptation, knows from firsthand experience.  The author of Hebrews underscores this point for us.  “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Muslim theology, however, is offended by the rawness of the Incarnation.  Surah 4:171 reads, “O People of the Book!  commit no excesses in your religion: nor say of Allah anything but the truth.  Christ Jesus the son of Mary was (no more than) a Messenger of Allah, and His Word, which he bestowed on Mary, and a Spirit proceeding from Him: so believe in Allah and His Messengers.  Do not say “Trinity”: desist: it will be better for you: for Allah is One God: glory be to Him: (far Exalted is he) above having a son.  To Him belong all things in the heavens and on earth.  And enough is Allah as a Disposer of affairs.” 

and Surah 5:17a reads, “In blasphemy indeed are those who say that God is Christ the son of Mary.”

A God who would incarnate as human is as incompatible with Islam as a micro-USB cable is with my three-year-old cell phone.

Grace, too, is a crucial part of Christianity.  Repeated over and over again in Christian thought we find the idea that the Law could not save, that it only showed our weakness and our inability to please God through our actions, fallen creatures that we are.  “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.”  Instead, Christ fulfilled the Law on our behalf, he paid our bloodprice, he cast down death and rose in triumph.  So when we are saved, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”  We still are called to do works, but we do these works out of our love (John 14:23), and as a demonstration of our faith (James 2:18), NOT as anything on which our salvation is contingent.

In Islam, however, while Allah is described as “gracious,” his grace is activated by obedience.  Works hold a more important role in a Muslim’s salvation than they do in a Christian’s.  It is he who “believes and does good deeds” that Allah forgives.  Surah 23:102-103 says that when “the Trumpet is blown,” that “Then those whose balance (of good deeds) is heavy, they will attain salvation: But those whose balance is light, will be those who have lost their souls; in Hell will they abide.”  Surah 33:70-71 reads, “Fear Allah, and (always) say a word directed to the Right: That He may make your conduct whole and sound and forgive you your sins: he that obeys Allah and his Messenger, has already attained the highest Achievement.”  Surah 49:14b reads, “But if you obey Allah and his Messenger, He will not belittle anything of your deeds, for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.

Modern Muslims confirm this interpretation.  Bassam Zawadi, in refutation of an article entitled “Does Islam teach salvation by works?” writes, “Matt Slick says that us Muslims are not sure if we are goingto heaven or not but Christians are. The thing is, us Muslims believe that if we live upto the standards that God wishes us to live up to. Meaning, if we truly try our best tokeep ourselves within God’s law (and God knows our intentions) then yes we believe that weare going to heaven.”

I remember, when I was in college, a joint meeting my InterVarsity chapter had with the Muslim Student Association.  I got into a great theological discussion with the MSA’s chaplain.  He told me that, from a Muslim perspective, Islam is the balanced faith between the excesses of Judaism and Christianity.  He said that, as they see it, Judaism emphasized the Law too much, but Christianity emphasized Love too much.  Islam, to his mind, was Goldilocks’ bowl of porridge, “just right,” the perfect balance between Law and Love.  Muslims try hard to follow God’s law, and trust to God’s mercy for those areas where they’ve failed… but there’s no sense of why God would be merciful, or what (other than a previously good track record) activates God’s grace. 

Allah of Islam does not have the impossible standard (for fallen humans, anyway) of the Christian Yahweh: his Law is possible, do-able.  If you try hard enough, you can be good enough.  And thus there is no need for sacrifice, for the Crucifixion, for the Incarnation.

This may seem like a slight difference between the personalities of the two deities (or the one deity as described two different ways) but in the end it makes a world of difference.

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The Pedagogy of Hogwarts

The Harry Potter series is a coming-of-age story in many ways, a story that matures with its readers, moving from the innocent adventures of an eleven-year-old, to the angst and social entanglements of a fifteen-year-old, to the pain and sorrow and battle and joy of adulthood.  It is a story of students, of learning, of education, of school.

And thus, in many ways, it is a story of teachers.

As a teacher myself, I’ve found it interesting to place modern pedagogical theory side-by-side with the practices of the various Hogwarts teachers.  I don’t know if Ms. Rowling has any training in education, but she certainly describes several teaching styles quite accurately.


1)  The Teacher-centered model: Professor Binns

When we think of school, what many of us think of (or remember) is the teacher telling students what to know, and the students copying that information down on notes in order to spit it back out for the exams.  This is known as the Teacher-centered model of teaching, or the tabula rasa (blank slate), because the idea behind this is that students are empty vessels waiting to absorb knowledge.

“All these ideas, teacher as knowledge knower, student as knowledge receiver, sound fairly logical and, indeed, some of them are deeply rooted in our culture.  The models, however, are largely based on a few assumptions that we need to examine seriously…  The problem with teaching as telling is that it is overwhelmingly a one-way street… listening for long periods of time is downright wasteful, if not impossible to sustain, for most students.”  –Leila Christenbury, Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts

This doesn’t mean that teachers should never impart information, should never give lectures, should never talk.  On the contrary, sometimes that is downright necessary.  But a teacher who relies solely on this mode of teaching will have a hard time maintaining student engagement, cannot tailor his or her classes to suit the needs of his or her particular students, and will be doing most of the work.

At Hogwarts, Professor Binns perfectly embodies this pedagogy.  We first met him in The Philosopher’s Stone, teaching History.  “Easily the most boring class was History of Magic, which was the only one taught by a ghost.  Professor Binns had been very old indeed when he had fallen asleep in front of the staff room fire and got up next morning to teach, leaving his body behind him.  Binns droned on and on while they scribbled down names and dates, and got Emeric the Evil and Uric the Oddball mixed up.”

This seems far more a criticism of Binns’s teaching style rather than of history in general, for after all, history plays a crucial and interesting role countless times throughout the series.  We get a deeper look at his classroom in The Chamber of Secrets, when Hermione shocks the undead Professor by actually asking a question, and the interest the class takes in his answer completely throws him off-balance.  The protagonists (excepting Miss Granger) routinely fall asleep during his class.  It is a surprise to no-one that few do well on their History O.W.L.s

It could be argued that some other of the Hogwarts staff engage in teacher-centered teaching, arguably (such as Lockhart, who really engages in Lockhart-centered teaching, or Umbridge, whom we will examine later), but I find that Binns practically embodies the traps and downfalls of this pedagogy.

2)  Teacher as Authority/Textbook as Authority:  Professor Umbridge

“‘We will be following a carefully structured, theory-centered, Ministry-approved course of defensive magic this year.  Copy down the following, please…’
“‘Yes,’ said Hermione.  ‘Surely the whole point of Defense Against the Dark Arts is to practice defensive spells?’
“‘Are you a Ministry-trained educational expert, Miss Granger?’
“‘No, but–‘
“‘Well then, I’m afraid you are not qualified to decide what the “whole point” of any class is.  Wizards much older and cleverer than you have devised our new program of study.'”

A trap that it is very easy for we as teachers to fall into is to see themselves, or the textbook, as an unassailable authority that cannot be questioned.

As Socrates famously said, the unquestioned life is not worth living.  Teachers can be wrong.  Textbooks can be wrong.  Students should be encouraged to dialogue–respectfully–with their teachers, to ask the whys and the wherefores, to question and to engage.  And we teachers need to practice not being defensive when that happens.


–from xkcd.com

Dolores Umbridge, regardless of her ulterior motives in trying to undermine Dumbledore’s nonexistent coup, is an authority-centered teacher.  Her lessons always begin with the command “Wands away,” followed by a reading assignment, and “There will be no need to talk.”  She does not allow the text, or the Ministry’s guidelines, to be questioned.

(Of course, Umbridge as High Inquisitor is more interesting than Umbridge as Professor–you can see her Inquisition as a not-so-subtle dig at the government’s idea of educational reform.  But we are restricting ourselves to pedagogy today.)

(Hermione, interestingly enough, has picked up a little of the textbook-as-unquestioned-authority mindset.  In The Half-Blood Prince, she stubbornly sticks by the textbook’s instructions, regardless of whether Harry’s marginalia suggests better methods.)

3)  Teaching as Maintaining a Creation:  Professor Snape

Regardless of spoiler-laden plot developments later in the series, I don’t think anyone can argue that Snape is a good teacher.  He plays favorites, abuses his classroom disciplinary system, belittles struggling students such as Neville, and overall doesn’t do much to help his students achieve.  While he certainly sees himself as an unquestionable authority, it could also be argued that Snape is the sort of teacher for whom the management of the classroom, the system of the classroom, or the subject itself has become more important than the teaching.

“The first days of every school year I created; for the next thirty-six weeks I maintained my creation.  My curriculum.  From behind my big desk I set it in motion, managed and maintained it all year long.  I wanted to be a great teacher–systematic, purposeful, in control…”  –Nancie Atwell, “In the Middle”

“Sitting there at my big desk, developing new assignments and evaluating the results, I remained oblivious to… my students’ ideas, experiences, and expertise.  I remained in charge.”  –Nancie Atwell, “Everyone Sits.”

Now, to be fair, for much of the series we encounter Professor Snape through Harry’s eyes–the eyes of the object of Snape’s ire.  And yet I think we get more objective assessment of Snape’s teaching through his replacement–through the fact that, when Slughorn takes over teaching Potions, the lessons become far more interactive and friendly, with little competitions (complete with prizes) added.  Snape used no such thing: his students’ only motivation to succeed was to avoid his belittling comments.  Snape is far more interesting in maintaining his system, his order, his class, than he is in the students in it.

All the same, some teachers whose classrooms often go off-task–like Hagrid, for instance, or Trelawny–could use a little more of the classroom-creation to keep their students engaged.  Not nearly so much as what Snape uses, but surely there is a happy medium somewhere between?

4) Student-Centered Instruction: Professors Lupin and Flitwick

“Student-centred learning is focused on the student’s needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles with the teacher as a facilitator of learning. This classroom teaching method acknowledges student voice as central to the learning experience for every learner. Teacher-centred learning has the teacher at its centre in an active role and students in a passive, receptive role. Student-centred learning requires students to be active, responsible participants in their own learning.”

I find Professor Lupin’s classroom to be the clearest example of a student-centered approach.  His lessons are very hands-on, with students taking the lead, learning to do things under scaffolded guidance, such as confronting boggarts in a controlled classroom environment.  And he begins every lesson by saying, “Will you please put all your books back in your bags.  Today’s will be a practical lesson.  You will need only your wands.”  This is the opposite of Umbridge’s practice.

Lupin is an encouraging teacher, asking the struggling Neville to take on challenging tasks, all while expressing confidence in his abilities.  Yet he is no pushover, either: he can be firm when the situation requires it.

We rarely see an entire period in Flitwick’s Charms classroom, but what we do see is constantly active, in motion, even chaotic.  Feathers flying upwards with cries of Wingardium Leviosa!  Objects fly with the sound of the Summoning Charm!  Yet no matter how much noise there is, no matter how much the students are talking, they always seem to be on-task.  This is a great example of how messy good learning can be: it may not always look like learning is going on.  But, as one student said when Umbridge began her Inquisition, Flitwick always sees his students through their exams.  His is an excellent example of student-centered learning.

5) Teaching as Discovery:  Professor Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore

“It’s not as efficient, as many suppose, to be told the point and then find the examples to support it.  It’s like being told the punchline and then trying to recreate the joke to fit the end…  Using the discovery method, we learn and internalize that learning by finding the point ourselves, by making it our own, by saying it, by stumbling towards it…  we must stop asking students to admire the fine conclusions we have reached or to be in awe of our knowledge of any given subject.  Instead, we allow them to lurch through to their own.”  –Leila Christenbury, Making the Journey: Being and Becoming a Teacher of English Language Arts

Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, theorized that we remember best what we discovered ourselves.  A teacher who teaches through discovery will structure his or her class in such a way that it allows students to come to their own conclusions, to test them out, to explore.  Discovery-centered teachers ask instead of tell, and aren’t afraid to answer questions with “I don’t know.”

We only see Dumbledore teaching a “class,” really a private tutoring, in one of the books: The Half-Blood Prince.  In these sessions, Dumbledore invited Harry to speculate, to guess, to explore the questions that Dumbledore was struggling with himself.  Dumbledore showed Harry what he knew, and asked Harry to learn what Dumbledore didn’t know.  They embarked on a journey of exploration together.  This was a true example of discovery-centered education.

There is a lot more we could say about this series from an educational standpoint.  Rowling beautifully explores the power of marginalia annotation, and the bond formed by a shared text, in The Half-Blood Prince, for example.  Or, we could go through and try to set up a comparison between wizard fields and Muggle fields, and then look for hidden commentary: Potions is chemistry, obviously, but is Divination a dig at English and Literary criticism?  But, alas, I’ve already kept you long enough.  Suffice it to say, I love the portrayal of teachers in these books, particularly from a student standpoint, and I am grateful to see the spectrum of my profession given portrayal, from the bad to the good.

For further thoughts on the teaching styles of the Harry Potter series, particularly as they relate to corporal punishment, I found this link interesting.

True Scotsmen

There’s a logical fallacy called the No True Scotsman fallacy.  It goes something like this.

Somebody says to you, “No true Scotsman would ever wear anything under his kilt!”  You say, “That’s not true–I know Seamus MacHarper wears boxers.”  To which the somebody replies, “Then Seamus MacHarper is not a true Scotsman!”

Leaving aside the question of exactly how you know what Seamus MacHarper wears under his kilt…  It’s a self-sealing argument.  The speaker starts out by describing the category of “true Scotsman” as though it is static, fixed.  In reality, the speaker is treating that category as fluid, moving the (rather arbitrary) boundary as he sees fit.  When an example of a boxer-wearing Scotsman is found, the speaker moves the boundary of “true Scotsman” to exclude that anomaly which would otherwise invalidate his statement.  So, with a No True Scotsman argument, it is impossible to find an example that would invalidate the speaker’s statement.

“Wearing anything under a kilt” and “Scotsman” can be replaced by whatever action and people-group you like.  “No true Republican would vote for Ron Paul.”  “No true Goth would wear a collared shirt.”  “No true man would ever carry his girlfriend’s purse.”  “No true Latino would eat at Taco Bell.”  All these statements are fallacious because, as in the Scotsman example, their definitions can be arbitrarily shifted to keep from being disproved.

Got the hang of the principle?  Good.  Now let’s try another.

“No true Christian would shoot an abortion doctor.”

You see the problem.  Christians have sought to distance themselves from those self-professing Christians who (they perceive) have engaged in undesirable behavior.  You bring up the massacres of Muslims and Jews during the Crusades?  “Oh, those who fought in the Crusades weren’t really Christians.”  You bring up the Inquisitions?  “No no, anyone who tortured people in the name of God couldn’t really have been a Christian.”  How about the Christian trappings of the Nazi party?  “No true Christian could have been a Nazi.”  And then of course you have the recent shooting of an abortion doctor by a self-professing Christian.

In these statements, has Christianity committed a No True Scotsman fallacy?


(I wonder if it’s true what they don’t wear beneath the kilt.  Ding ding diddly-eye, oh…)

I have my suspicions.  To explain my suspicions, I need you to follow my train of thought, so bear with me for a moment…

In high school I had a friend who decided that she was going vegetarian.  She told us over lunch about the evils of animal-killing, and how she decided to exempt herself from our “culture of death.”  Then, a few days later, I caught her eating a Slim Jim–you know, those processed sticks of Beef Jerky.  I said, “Hey, I thought you were going vegetarian.”  She looked confused, then looked down at the Slim Jim, and said, “What, this?  This doesn’t count.”

Now, I couldn’t say “No true Vegetarian would eat Beef Jerky,” because that would be a No True Scotsman fallacy, right?

Actually, wrong.  Saying “No true Vegetarian would eat Beef Jerky” is exempt from that fallacy?  Why?  Because, in this statement, the given definition of a true Vegetarian isn’t arbitrary, but intrinsic.  If I said something like “No true Vegetarian would watch Desperate Housewives,” that would be a NTS fallacy, because watching a particular TV show has an abitrary connection to being Vegetarian–it has nothing to do with the definition of Vegetarian.  But not-eating-meat is the very thing that defines being a Vegetarian.  The status of “Vegetarian” is defined by specific behaviors, and meat-eaters are not adhering to those behaviors.  So, had I made this statement, I would have been wholly justified.

So.  If someone says, “No True Christian would shoot an abortion doctor,” whether this statement is fallacious or justified depends on the definition of “Christian.”  If “Christian,” like “Vegetarian,” is a status defined by specific behaviors, and if shooting-of-abortion-doctors violates those behaviors, then the statement is not a fallacy.  However, if such a shooting is not intrinsically linked to the definition of Christianity, but rather is only arbitrarily linked, such a statement is not justified.

 
(“Don’t worry ladies.  There’s plenty of beef and spice to go around…”)

What is a Christian?  How does one define a Christian?

I’ve heard a myriad of definitions.  I’ve had people who don’t believe that there is a God tell me that they are nevertheless Christian.  I’ve had people who believe in many gods–and that there are many ways to heaven, Jesus being only one–tell me that they are nevertheless Christian.  Some people call themselves Christian because their parents were Christians, some because they go to church once a year, some because they believe certain beliefs, some because they perform certain actions.

The dictionary is no help, because it includes all these definitions: everything from “derived from the teachings of Jesus” to “Christlike” to merely “humane.”  For simplicity’s sake we’ll take three of these definitions as possibilities.
–A person who believes in Jesus Christ; adherent of Christianity.  (Professing Christian)
–One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.  (Active Christian/Liturgical Christian)
–One born in a Christian country or of Christian parents, and who has not definitely becomes an adherent of an opposing system.  (Private Christian/Cultural Christian)

To me, that last definition can sometimes be akin to my jerky-eating friend claiming vegetarianism.  And the first definition is a step in the right direction but not enough.  I’d like to examine what the founder of Christianity said being a Christian was all about.

–It should be noted that the term “Christian” didn’t even get coined until Acts 11:26, years after Jesus’ death.  “…the disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.”  –St. Luke.  That statement right there tells us that “Christian” was originally synonymous with “disciple” (mathetes).  (Understand that “disciples” did not always only refer to the Twelve, cf. Luke 16:13.)
–Christians/disciples follow the teachings of Jesus.  ‘To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
–Christians/disciples love each other–and this is supposed to be the hallmark, the key way we identify a Christian.  ‘”A new command I [Jesus] give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”‘
–Christians/disciples “bear fruit.”  ‘”I [Jesus] am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
–Christians/disciples become more like Jesus.  “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect shall be as his master.”
–Christians/disciples put Jesus before everything else; there is a cost to being a disciple.  ‘”…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”‘

With me so far?  (Notice, Christians, I’m not talking about salvation here–Jesus and Paul gave specific criteria for salvation.  They give seperate criteria for “disciple,” and thus by extension “Christian,” and so I will treat them as seperate issues.)


(Sadly, unlike Master Po’s disciples, Jesus’ disciples don’t necessarily learn any Kung Fu…)

So if the original definition of “Christian” was a disciple/follower of Jesus, and if Jesus himself laid down certain criteria that are intrinsic to the definition of “disciple of Jesus,” can we ignore this original definition when determining whether shooting-an-abortion-doctor is antithetical to the definition of “Christian”?

Sure, if you take the cultural definition of “Christian,” that you just have to go to church once in a blue moon or have had Christian parents to be considered a Christian, then yes, it IS a No-True-Scotsman fallacy to say “No true Christian would shoot an abortion doctor.”  Because the fixed definition of “Christian” then has nothing to do with the alleged Christian’s actions, and little to do with his beliefs.

But if you go with the original definition of what constitutes a “Christian,” then it would not be a No-True-Scotsman fallacy to say that, because shooting an abortion doctor specifically violates one of the fixed definition criteria of Christian–that of “A Christian follows the teachings of Jesus.”  (Even further in the recent example: since abortion doctor George Tiller was, at least, a professing Christian, for a Christian to shoot him would be a violation of Jesus’ hallmark disciple-defining statement “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.“)

If following Jesus’ teachings is the defining characteristic of a Christian, and if shooting an abortion doctor (or slaughtering Muslim civilians, or torturing Jews) violates those teachings, it follows–without fallacy–that one who shoots an abortion doctor is not a Christian.  (And it does violate those teachings: how about “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, pray for those who spitefully use you…”)

Short version, the statement is not a NTS fallacy if:
Original definition of Xtian
     –> Definition of Disciple
          –> Teachings of Jesus  =/= Shooting Abortion Docs


(“Master, Judas is team-killing again.”)

So now you have my thoughts–it depends on which definition of “Christian” you use, but I suspect that saying that the guy who shot George Tiller could not have been a real Christian is not necessarily a No True Scotsman fallacy, because by some fixed definitions of Christian, his action places him outside of that category.

Now we just have to figure out the truth about those Scotsmen.

Love’s Labours Won: A review of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins”

In contrast, I do have to say, this was a short read.  I finished most of it during my wife’s music rehearsal for a church retreat.  I think part of this has to do with Robel’s

unconventional 

formatting

which

takes

up

extra

space 

He does it to drive home a point, on occasion, and so the book is shorter than it looks.  (House of Leaves had a similar issue.)  I heard someone describe this as “Rob Bell writes the way he talks,” and going from some of his videos that I’ve seen, I’d say that’s a fair assessment.

I’m going to tackle this in sections, because while the book does form a cohesive whole, it goes about its task fairly systematically, with each chapter almost forming an independent essay.

The Preface:

In the prelude to the rest of the book, Robel puts forth his purpose, in what I thought was fairly clear terms.  Here’s a couple excerpts.

“There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do.  The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it…  I’ve written this book for all those, everywhere, who have heard some version of the Jesus story that caused their pulse rate to rise, their stomach to churn, and their heart to utter those resolute words, ‘I would never be a part of that.'”

My mixed feelings about these two paragraphs are, in a nutshell, my mixed feelings about this book.  First, that he has an excellent point, that so much of what has accrued around the image of Christianity is not the message of Jesus–things ranging from Harold Camping’s predictions to more fundie Christians’ rejection of modern music get in the way of the gospel, the Good News, and turn people off to Jesus that would not have been turned off to Jesus otherwise.  On the other hand, Truth isn’t always palatable, and I think we run into error if we evaluate the Truth of a statement based on how it makes us feel.  But he’s not necessarily claiming that here: so far all he’s said is he’s writing to these people.  Let’s move on.

“A staggering number of people have been taught that a select few Christians will spend forever in a peaceful, joyous place called heaven, while the rest of humanity spends forever in torment and punishment in hell with no chance for anything better…  This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’s message of love, peace, forgiveness, and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

The witch-hunters will already be lighting up their torches, but hold on a moment.  He says this doctrine (and the belief that this doctrine is central to Christianity, in the sentence I skipped) is in error and “toxic,” but he doesn’t yet say which part.  As we read further we’ll see that he doesn’t deny the existence of heaven, or of hell, so it’s not the whole doctrine that he finds in error… so which part?  Is it the “with no chance for anything better” part?  The “forever” part?  The “torment and punishment” part?  He’s not going to say yet–that’s for the bulk of the book.  I, myself, would disagree with that doctrinal statement as he stated it, and I am no universalist by any stretch, so we don’t have our damning evidence of heresy in this statement, no matter how it sounds at first.

“…I’ve written this book because the kind of faith Jesus invites us into doesn’t skirt the big questions about topics like God and Jesus and salvation and judgment and heaven and hell, but takes us deep into the heart of them…  Lots of people have voiced a concern, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe, ‘We don’t discuss those things here.’  …I believe the discussion itself is divine.  Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering, God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he’s asked… with a question.  …There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issue too dangerous.  …That’s the beauty of the historic, orthodox Christian faith.  It’s a deep, wide, diverse stream that’s been flowing for thousands of years, carrying a staggering variety of voices, perspectives, and experiences.”

Right up front, Robel tells us that he’s here to engage us in discussion on a tough topic, a tension.  He doesn’t seem to have any plans for giving us a definitive piece of systematic doctrine, so much as he has plans to raise questions, poke at long-held beliefs, and challenge his readers to re-examine the biblical authenticity of their traditions in light of other, conflicting-yet-orthodox Christian traditions.

He’s trying to get people talking.  And if that’s his goal, I think he’s succeeded.


Chapter One:

This is the question-asking chapter, breaking down traditional beliefs to make room for later exploration.  Starting with the “Ghandi’s in Hell” story from the book’s trailer, Bell asks a series of questions about the implications of the traditional evangelical understanding of heaven and hell.

“Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish?  …Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few finite years of life?   …If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying to fathom: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape this fate?  How does a person end up being one of the few?  Chance?  …Being born in the right place, family, or country?”

Notice that asking these questions at no point automatically means that his answer to them are “Yes” or “No.”  So far all he’s doing is inviting us to look at our beliefs from an angle we may not have looked at them from in a long while.  Honestly, the way some evangelicals approach their beliefs in the afterlife, their beliefs would have a hard time holding up under this level of scrutiny.

Then, a story:

“Several years ago I heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high-school student who was killed in a car accident.  Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died had been a Christian.  She said that he told people he was an atheist.  This person than said to her, ‘So there’s no hope then.’  …No hope?  Is that the Christian message?”

What Robel does is explore the power relations behind the teaching of an exclusive heaven with clearly defined entrance criteria.  That is, in a belief where heaven is only attained by a select few, those who hold such a belief always think that they themselves are of those “few,” and most others are not.  Through telling this story, Robel points out the arrogance that tends to be produced by such a belief is antithetical to the attitudes Jesus promoted.

Robel then breaks apart one of the teachings that has been used to address issues with the traditional evangelical stance on the afterlife, the teaching of “The Age of Accountability.”  He rightfully points out that this teaching is problematic and arbitrary, and that if carried to its logical conclusions, would lead to all sorts of error. 

“If every new baby being born could grow up to not believe the right things and go to hell forever, then prematurely terminating a child’s life anytime from conception to twelve years of age would actually be the loving thing to do, guaranteeing that the child end up in heaven, not hell, forever.  Why run the risk?”

Robel then asks about the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and points out both that Christians do not always agree about what needs to go in the Sinner’s Prayer, and that the term or even the concept are not found in Scripture.  He asks about people who have said the prayer as a child but later stop being Christians, or about people who live Christlike lives but have never said the Sinner’s Prayer.

Ultimately, the point is, evangelical Christians tend to focus on the afterlife, on “going to heaven,” as though it were the whole point of Christianity–“what life is about.”  He–rightly so–points out that Christians tend to place far more of a focus on getting to heaven than Jesus did in his teachings, which were about being active on earth as much as going “somewhere else.”  He points out that a Beam-Me-Up-Scotty approach to heaven (my words, not his) tends to remove the believer from being active in this world, from helping the exploited and the poor.

Even the idea of Jesus himself can be inadequate, Robel says, to define what matters–the idea that “all that counts is how we respond to Jesus.”  But he points out all the false Jesuses that exist for people: the Jesus of the Crusades, the Jesus of the religious rapist, etc.  He says, “Some Jesuses should be rejected,” the inaccurate and unhealthy portrayals of Jesus that some of the religious will offer.  He points out, as he did with the Sinner’s Prayer, that the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is not found in Scripture.

Robel then goes through the New Testament and points out all the instances in which Jesus seemed to approve of someone or affirm their salvation, and all the conversion experiences: the centurion whose faith made Jesus marvel, the thief on the cross, Paul, the Phillipian Jailer, etc.   He points out how the often seem to conflict or diverge, that none of them are as consistent as standard Christian doctrine would expect them to be.  “Is it what you say, or who you are, or what you do, or what you say you’re going to do, or who your friends are, or who you’re married to, or whether you give birth to children?  Or is it what questions you’re asked?  Or is it what questions you ask in return?  Or is it whether you do what you’re told and go into the city?”

With all this deconstruction (some of which, in my opinion, veers onto shaky theological ground, I’m not certain the centurion counted as being “converted” just because his faith made Jesus marvel) Robel’s point seems to be that the biblical presentation of salvation is much more complex than our theology makes it, and we have to be willing to live in the tension.  When we cannot even define what conversion is–when the Sinner’s Prayer and the Age of Accountability are problematic–when even the demons believe in Jesus, so that doesn’t count for much–we are left with the idea that we may not quite know everything we think we do regarding salvation, heaven, and hell.  Of course, Robel will use the following chapters to then build on the possibilities such uncertainty allows for.

Myself, I think some healthy uncertainty is necessary here.  I am human, I am not God, and so I do not understand how the spiritual realm works.  Robel has a point in that many Christians have lost this healthy level of uncertainty regarding things that are not clearly stated in Scripture.  I do think, however, he takes such uncertainty rather far.  But I’ll show you what I mean as we go.

Chapter Two:

This chapter is one that I find I wholeheartedly agree with.  This is Robel’s chapter on heaven, and he does an excellent job of breaking down the idea that heaven is only “somewhere else.”

He does some word studies on the idea of “eternal life,” which church-raised Christians have been trained to always associate with heaven.  This is not necessarily the case.  He makes very good use of the rich man’s question in Matthew 19 to demonstrate this.

 
“Jesus, however, doesn’t do any of that [inviting the man to confess or repent or believe].  …Jesus refers to the man’s intentions as ‘entering life’?  And then he tells him that you do that by keeping the commandments?  This wasn’t what Jesus was supposed to say.  …The big words, the important words–‘eternal life,’ ‘treasure,’ ‘heaven’–were all there in the conversation, but they weren’t used in the ways that many Christians use them.”

In other words, the rich young ruler wasn’t asking about where he would go when he died, when he asked about “eternal life.”  He was asking about this world, this earth, this life.  “Eternal life” is as closely related to Jesus’ idea of “life more abundant” as it is to the afterlife, if not more so, and understanding this changes how we read Jesus’ teachings.  “Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now.  It’s not about a life that begins at death; it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.”

Robel’s discussion of heaven in “this age” and heaven in “the age to come” echoes the idea of the “Already, but not yet” kingdom.

Robel does an excellent word study on the word “eternal,” explaining that it’s not the same thing as “forever” or “everlasting,” year following year following year into infinity, but that it’s closer to timelessness, atemporality, “transcending time, belonging to another realm altogether.”

He also goes through the Old Testament prophets and their descriptions of the Peaceable Kingdom, the New Earth, when all will be renewed.  Not a spiritual realm, not a “somewhere else,” but heaven here, physical, with “soil under the fingernails.”  A return to Eden.

“When we talk about heaven, then, or eternal life, or the afterlife–any of that–it’s important that we begin with the categories and claims that people were familiar with in Jesus’ first-century Jewish world.  They did not talk about a future life somewhere else, because they anticipate a coming day when the world would be restored, renewed, and redeemed and there would be peace on earth.

“…Jesus takes the man’s question about his life then and makes it about the kind of life he’s living now.  Jesus drags the future into the present…  What Jesus taught, what the prophets taught, what all of Jewish tradition pointed to and what Jesus lived in anticipation of, was the day when earth and heaven would be one.  The day when God’s will would be done on earth as it is now done in heaven.”

So for Robel, heaven and eternal life have multiple meanings: one part now, here, on this earth, as we “pursue the life of heaven now,” but “also then,” the someday, when heaven comes to the New Earth.  Thus, this biblical view of heaven encourages the believer to change the world around him or her, to “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”  This isn’t a distant somewhere else where we’re going, so we can check out on the lost cause of a world we’re living in now.  This is a heaven that is here as well as there, now as well as then, already and not yet.  Robel’s three definitions of heaven: “There’s heaven now, somewhere else.  There’s heaven here, sometime else.  And then there’s Jesus’s invitation to heaven here and now, in this moment, in this place.”

Robel also talks about two parables, first in Matthew 25, and second in Luke 18, in which someone who expected to attain heaven does not, and someone who did not expect to attain heaven does so.  “…what Jesus does again and again is warn us against rash judgments about who’s in and who’s out.”  I couldn’t put this better myself.

Chapter Three:

Now we start to broach the subject of Hell.

Robel does a bit of an exploration of the various biblical words that are translated “Hell.”  Because, if you didn’t know, the word “Hell” is not in the Bible, it’s an English word, and there are several Hebrew and Greek words that got lumped together in our concept of Hell.  He explores many of them–Sheol, Hades, Gehenna, Tartarus–but left out the lake of fire, presumably because it doesn’t come with a name.  That, I thought, was rather sloppy.

The concept of Hell is big enough that I can’t explain my own take on it in a single blog post.  Look for “Hell Week,” a week of blogging on the subject of Hell, on this site in the coming month.  For now, suffice it to say that Robel does an okay job with the terms which may-or-may-not refer to Hell which he covered, but he could have done a lot better.

Robel then goes on to talk about Hell on Earth.  He tells several stories about the worst that humans do to each other.


“I tell these stories because it is absolutely vital that we acknowledge that love, grace, and humanity can be rejected.  From the most subtle rolling of the eyes to the most violent degradation of another human, we are terrifyingly free to do as we please.  …God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it.  We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice.  We are that free.”

He then goes on to explore the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

“Jesus teaches again and again that the gospel is about a death that leads to life…  This rich man Jesus tells us about hasn’t yet figured that out.  …he’s unable to let go of the world he’s constructed, which puts him on the top and Lazarus on the bottom, the world in which Lazarus is serving him.  He’s dead, but hasn’t died… the kind of death that actually brings life.”

So, as with heaven, Robel believes that there is “hell now” and there is “hell later.”  That humans rejecting God make a hell wherever they are.

He also points out that Jesus only ever warned religious people about Hell, not the nonreligious.  Again, if you think you’re “in,” beware: you don’t know that for certain.

He makes a good point about how a lot of what Jesus said that people take as warnings about Hell in the Someday are really warnings to his listeners about the destruction of the temple, though Robel over-politicizes a few statements as he explains this.

Now we get to the controversial part.  Robel starts to play with the idea that, in the Bible, punishment always leads to correction.  (We have to take his word for this, because I can’t remember that always being the case.)  He quotes from some of the prophets about reconciliation, return, and restoration–verses that I think properly apply to the exiled nation of Israel, not to all people.  He hints that this can be applied even to Hell.

He starts to do a word study on “eternal punishment” as opposed to “eternal life,” using the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 as his starting point.  His translation of “eternal punishment” is “‘a period of pruning’ or ‘a time of trimming,’ or an intense experience of correction” as opposed to “‘punishment forever.'”

This strikes me as stretching too hard in a word study: the word can also be translated “torment,” and indeed makes sense that way the only other time it’s used, in 1 John 4:18.  “Perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with correction” doesn’t quite make sense the way “because fear has to do with torment/punishment” does.  Yes, the word is derived from the word “to prune,” but that doesn’t necessarily make that its meaning.  And furthermore, this is a single use of a single word–hardly enough to say that all references to Hell are corrective rather than punitive.

Before he gets too into this, however, the chapter abruptly ends.

Chapter Four

This is the chapter that has most of the parts which people will reject.

Robel’s first point is this objection to the doctrine of a forever Hell: If God wants everyone to be reconciled to him, and he’s God, how can he not get what he wants?  This objection has so much wrong with it, within Christian theology.  God didn’t want humanity to be separated from him in the first place, but he couldn’t ignore their rejection of him.  God has to play by God’s rules–that’s part of his nature, part of being God.  Hence the whole necessity for God himself to have to take humanity’s punishment, simply to reconcile anyone to himself.  God didn’t want to have to go to such an extreme–we have Jesus’s prayer in Gethsemane to show us that, it wasn’t something he looked forward to.  But he did.

Robel proceeds to go through several passages which say that “the nations will know that I am the Lord,” or “All the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.”  This, to me, seems an elementary misreading of these passages.  When a verse says “all nations,” does it mean every single individual within those nations?  When it says “all peoples,” does it mean every single individual?  No–it means representatives from every nation or people group.  It’s such a basic mistake to make, that I’m surprised to see it from the same man who gave us the excellent word studies of Chapter Two.

Robel rightly points out that love must contain freedom, that God cannot co-opt free will and force people to love him.  He then begins to explore the different ways that Christians try to reconcile the loving God and the all-powerful God with this inviolate free will.  Notice that here he offers several possibilities, even though it’s clear which way he leans.
–He notes that most people think that a person’s nature won’t change in eternity, and so if they were nasty and mean and self-centered in life, why would they stop being so after death?
–He notes that some believe that, in a forever of years, we can either nurture the image of God within us, or continue to efface it.  “Could the divine image be extinguished in a person, given enough time and neglect?  Is there a possibility that, given enough time, some people could eventually move into a new state, one in which they were in essence ‘formerly human’ or ‘posthuman’ or even ‘ex-human’?”
–He notes that some play with the possibility of a “second chance” after death, for those who didn’t get to accept Jesus in life.  Martin Luther, apparently, toyed with this idea.
–Then he puts forward what is obviously his own stance, that if there’s a second chance after death, why is it a one-shot deal?  Why not “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God”?  “At the heart of this perspective is the belief that, given enough time, everybody will turn to God and find themselves in the joy and peace of God’s presence.  The love of God will melt every hard heart, and even the most ‘depraved sinners’ will eventually give up their resistance and turn to God.”  He claims that this stance was held by some early church fathers, such as Clement and Origen and Eusebius, and has a history within Christian orthodoxy.

“At the center of the Christian tradition since the first church have been a number who insist that history is not tragic, hell is not forever, and love, in the end, wins, and all will be reconciled to God.”

I am not enough of a church historian to know what sort of credibility the idea of a Temporary Hell (essentially that all Hell is Purgatory) because of the Irresistible Nature of God’s Love has.  But I can point out that Robel has just made a MAJOR ERROR in the INTERNAL CONSISTENCY OF HIS BELIEFS.
 
The problem with the statement that “given enough time, everybody will turn to God” is the time part.  Robel did such a good job in Chapter Two of breaking down the idea that “eternity” is not the same as “everlasting” or “forever.”  If “eternity” has more to do with transcending time or being outside of time, then time does not pass in eternity.  And if time does not pass, then it is nonsensical to speak of “endless opportunities in an endless amount of time.”

Rob Bell can’t have his cake and eat it too.  He can’t have an eternal time-transcendent timeless heaven simultaneous with a eternal-but-temporal hell containing an infinity of second chances. 

But anyway.  Back to our story:

“People have answered these questions about who goes where, when, why, and how in a number of ways.  Or, to be more specific, serious, orthodox follows of Jesus have answered these questions in a number of different ways.  Or, to say it another way, however you answer these questions, there’s a good chance you can find a Christian or group of Christians somewhere who would answer in a similar way.  …It is, after all, a wide stream we’re swimming in.”

Here is a point worth making: that Robel is not putting forward his belief in a Temporary Hell as the single biblical doctrine.  He’s not saying, “This is what the Bible says Hell is like.”  He’s not saying “This is how things are.”

What he’s saying is more like “Look, what the Bible says about Hell isn’t as cut-and-dry as some people make it out to be, and there are a lot of interpretations within Christianity, several of which are valid and orthodox, so feel free to explore the possibilities.  Here’s a couple other options, and here’s the one I think is most compelling.”

Is this true?  Are these other options within Christianity?

Some of this is dependent upon how one defines “Christianity.”  A heresy is a belief that is incompatible with the core tenants of the religion it claims to be part of: if a Christian claims a heretical belief, the belief he or she holds cannot be reconciled with Christianity.  Time it was, when we were all one church, it was easy to see which beliefs were heretical and which were not.  But Christianity is fragmented now, we have splintered.  So which beliefs are heretical?  Is infant baptism heretical?  Consubstantiation?  Total Depravity?

Can one hold an alternative belief regarding Hell and still be an orthodox Christian?

Because we are fragmented, I think we are limited to calling “heresy” those doctrines which are against the very basic core tenants of our faith.  That is, music style or baptism preference aren’t important enough to be heresy.  Any belief, however, which goes against orthodox beliefs on the nature of Jesus, the nature of God, the message of the crucifixion, the mission of the church, etc., is.  Think of the Apostles’ Creed–those basic beliefs which all Christian groups hold, and all fringe-groups-that-think-they-are-Christian-but-aren’t don’t.  The defining beliefs.

The doctrine of Hell isn’t one of those defining beliefs, I find.  It’s not important enough.  We know what God has commanded us to do: we know that no-one comes to the Father but through Jesus; we know that God is reconciling mankind to himself through Jesus’ sacrifice.  Within those beliefs, a Christian can believe whatever he or she believes about Hell–that it doesn’t exist, that it does exist, that it does exist but is temporary, that it’s another word for oblivion, that it’s another word for the second death, that it’s literal fire, that it’s figurative fire, that God sends us there, that we send ourselves there, that it’s an actual physical place, that it’s a spiritual state, etc.–and still be a Christian.

So yes, on this Robel is right.  If Universalism, Annihilationism, etc., are not heretical beliefs, then there is a range of beliefs within Christianity regarding Hell.

Not so sure I like the conclusion he draws from that, however:

“Many people find Jesus compelling, but don’t follow him, because of the parts about ‘hell and torment and all that.’  Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option when it comes to Christian faith is to clearly declare that a few, committed Christians will ‘go to heaven’ when they die and everyone else will not, the matter is settled at death, and that’s it…  Not all Christians have believed this, and you don’t have to believe this to be a Christian.”

Yes and no.  Yes, not all Christians have believed in this, and you don’t have to believe in the doctrine of hell as described above to be a Christian.  At the same time, shouldn’t we be truth-seekers, desiring to find out what the world is, who God is, and operating within that knowledge?  I don’t like the idea of having to operate around “dealbreaker beliefs.”  “Oh, well if Christianity teaches X, I can’t bring myself to be a Christian.”

Are we trying to make Jesus more palatable?  Because we’ll run into problems if we try that.  He doesn’t box up neatly.  Yes, you can follow Jesus without having to believe in an exclusive heaven or a hell of torment… but you’ll have to deal with the fact that Jesus talked a lot about judgment and sorting and “the worm that dieth not.”

“Whatever objections a person might have to this story [of every person being drawn to God’s love in the end], and there are many, one has to admit that it is fitting, proper, and Christian to long for it…  To shun, censor, or ostracize someone for holding this belief is to fail to extend grace to each other in a discussion that has had plenty of room for varied perspectives for hundreds of years now.”

Yes.

THIS.

What I like about this statement is, first, that Robel admits there are many objections, many problems, with the idea of a Temporary Hell… but that it’s Christian to wish for it to be so.  Too many “Christians” seem to get such glee out of the idea of others going to hell, and that’s not Christ-like at all, regardless of what you believe is truth.  But second, he re-affirms the need for conversation, for discussion without condemnation.

Evangelical Christendom’s reaction to this very book–before it had even come out, before anyone had read it–is itself exemplary of the failure to extend grace to those who believe differently within Christianity.

If we are to be like Christ, we must be willing to take the hard questions, and not try to shuffle them off or shut up the askers.  This is a tough question, the question of Hell, and it is a “tension we are free to leave fully intact,” as Rob himself puts it.

Robel goes on to talk about how people “choose to live in their own hells.”  This is an idea I myself ascribe to, though I think C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller put it more clearly, in their books The Great Divorce and The Reason For God, respectively.

He ends the chapter with a re-affirmation of Hell’s existence, regardless of our theories regarding its permanency or lack thereof.  “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option…  If we want nothing to do with love, we are given a reality free from love…  If we want hell, if we want heaven, they are ours.”

Chapter Five

In this chapter, Robel talks about the crucifixion, and what it does.  He begins with an examination of how sacrifices work, and how Jesus’s death fulfilled and did away with the Jewish sacrificial system, a la the author of Hebrews.  Then he does the Paul speech by talking about how Jesus’s death reconciles God to man.  After that he dips into Romans and talks about how the cross was the price paid for our sins.  From there over to 2 Timothy to talk about the cross as Jesus’s victory over death.

In a moment echoing his multipassage examination of conversion experiences in the New Testament, he asks, “What happened on the cross?  Is the cross about the end of the sacrificial system, or a broken relationship that’s been reconciled, or a guilty defendant who’s been set free, or a battle that’s been won, or the redeeming of something that was lost?”

“The answer, of course, is ‘Yes.'”

Essentially, Robel says, what happened on the cross was so “massive and universe-changing” that the first Christians struggled to communicate all that it accomplished, and so they grabbed metaphors from the sacrificial system, legal system, martial acts, etc.  The Crucifixion is so huge that you need to see it from many different angles to get the whole picture.

And his point is, we need to remember not to fixate on any one angle.

“When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross so that we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true.  But that explanation as the first explanation puts us at the center.  For the first Christians, the story was, first and foremost, bigger, grander.  More massive.  When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals from their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus’s resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything ‘on earth or in heaven’ (Col. 1), just as God originally intended it.  The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable…  A gospel that leaves out its cosmic scope will always feel small.

He ends this chapter with a reminder about the paradox of finding life through dying, as mirrored in the life we get through a death on the cross.


Chapter Six

This chapter opens with several stories, anecdotes, about people who had an encounter with God without the aid of an evangelist or missionary.  White light in near-death experiences, dreams, visions, etc.

He then talks about the rock that Moses struck in the desert, from which water sprung.  Paul, writing much much later, says that the rock was Christ.  Perhaps Robel takes this a bit literally, but he makes a point from it–that “Jesus was there, without anybody using his name, without anybody saying it was him, without anybody acknowledging just what–or, more precisely, who–it was.”

Robel is building to the point that, yes, no-one comes to the Father except through Jesus.  But could coming through Jesus come in a form we as Christians don’t expect?

“As obvious as it is, Jesus is bigger than any one religion.  He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day.  He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.'”

This sounds a little scary at first.  Is he saying that all religions, all paths, lead to God?  Well, hang on, let him finish speaking.

“Imagine a high school student whose family is part of a Christian church.  She belongs to a Christian youth group, has only Christian friends, reads only Christian books and has to attend Christian chapel services, because it’s mandatory at the Christian high school she attends.  That student can potentially become so anesthetized to Jesus that she is unable to see Jesus as the stunning, dangerous, compelling, subversive, dynamic reality that he is…

“At the same time, there are Christians who have raised support, gathered supplies, traveled thousands of miles into the farthest reaches of the globe to share the good news of Jesus with ‘unreached people,’ who upon hearing of Jesus for the ‘first time,’ respond, ‘That’s his name?  We’ve been talking about him for years…'”

Essentially, Robel’s point is that there will be those who think they are “in” but are not, and those who you wouldn’t think are “in” but are.

He spends a few pages discussing John 14, “No-one comes to the Father except through me.”  “What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him.  He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him.  He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.  …there is an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity [sic].  This kind insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.”

Robel seems to blur the idea of culture and religion, here, and perhaps for him they are mostly one and the same.  But his point remains.  Can a Hindu get to heaven?  A Muslim?  A Buddhist? 

I am reminded of the fate of Emeth, the faithful Calorman, from the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia.

No-one comes to the Father except through Jesus.  But what forms might “coming through Jesus” take?  I can’t say, myself, that I know every form that may take.  I just know that God is just, and God is merciful.

“…none of us have cornered the market on Jesus, and none of us ever will.”

Chapter Seven

This chapter is interesting.  He tells the story of the Prodigal Son, drawing much from one of Tim Keller’s books, and puts the whole thing in the realm of story-telling.

“The younger son has to decide whose version of his story he’s going to trust: his or his father’s.  One in which he is no longer worthy to be called a son or one in which he’s a robe-, ring-, and sandal-wearing son who was dead but is alive again, who was lost but has now been found.  There are two versions of his story.  His.  And his father’s.  He has to choose which one he will live in.  …Same, it turns out, for the older brother.  He too has his version of his story.  …in his version of events, he’s been slaving for his father for years.   …In one sentence, the father manages to tell an entirely different story about the older brother.  …The question, then, is the same question that confronted the younger brother–will he trust his version of his story or his father’s version of his story?”

A great interpretation of this parable.  But what does it have to do with Heaven, Hell, or anything?

Robel uses this parable to illustrate an aspect of heaven and hell–that they are more two states than two places, with one up and the other down.

“Jesus puts the older brother right there at the party, but refusing… to join in the celebration.  Hell is being at the party.  That’s what makes it so hellish.

“…Hell is our refusal to trust God’s retelling of our story.”

Interesting.

I’ve seen hints of this idea in other places in the Bible, about how Hell is not quite seperate from Heaven.  I think of the ten foolish virgins left outside during the wedding–they can hear, they can see, but they can’t join in the party.  And in Revelation, there are those described as being “outside” the city, left out.  Not in some other realm entirely, but there, at the party, just unwilling or unable to join in.

It all comes down, Robel tells us, to our ability to trust God.

“God extends an invitation to us, and we are free to do with it as we please.  Saying yes will take us in one direction, saying no will take us in another…

“So when the gospel is diminished to a question of whether or not a person will ‘get to heaven,’ that reduces the good news to a ticket, a way to get past the bouncer and into the club.  The good news is better than that.  This is why Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.”

In other words, heaven is about participation in the life God has extended to us, the “abundant” life, the “eternal” life.  It’s not so much about “getting in.”

Interesting.  Still, there are plenty of parables about being cast out or left out: can we take this parable to the exclusion of the others?

Robel ends by talking about grace, about how the older brother thought his goodness brought him closer to his father, but in realty it estranged him because he was trusting in himself, as opposed to the younger brother who knew he wasn’t good enough and threw himself on his father’s mercy.

I liked this chapter, but it almost felt like it belonged to a completely different book.

Chapter Eight

…is a short chapter, a conclusion, bringing the reader back to the idea that we must die to live, humbling ourselves and trusting the Father’s version of our story.  “Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year to person after person.”

This chapter is followed by recommended reading, including The Great Divorce, The Prodigal God, Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross and Surprised by Hope (Lewis, Keller, Baker, and Wright, respectively).  In short… Rob Bell reads many of the same authors as I do.  Huh.

So, in summary…  Robel does believe in hell.  He believes that hell is something we do to ourselves by rejecting God, by refusing to participate in God’s story of redemption.  He seems to believe that hell is temporary, that God’s love will eventually reach even the hardest of hearts in the afterlife, but this belief is presented as one of many options, a “possibility,” in the unresolved tension that we as Christians can discuss but should extend grace to one another in.  So he does (probably) believe in Universal Reconcilation (he never comes right out and says so but strongly hints that this is the case), but believes that this is one of many beliefs on Hell compatible with christian orthodoxy, as with similar nontraditional views such as Annihilationism.

This belief, however, and the controversial nature of it, ultimately comprised only a small fraction of this book–I’d say less than a quarter of it.  The rest of it–Robel’s beliefs on eternity, heaven, religion, and the cross–are quite sound, often quite brilliant, and I think will cause no objections from any save the most traditional of evangelicals.  I love his chapter on heaven.

It’s a good book for sparking discussion, despite all the parts I disagree with.  Disagreeing in love is a healthy thing, it sharpens the mind.  But you will not find me calling Rob Bell a heretic, or denouncing him, or saying he will “burn” for what he teaches here.  None of that would be right, fitting, or Christlike.

9/11 Closure

My brothers Travis and Nick have already done a very good job of describing what a Christian reaction to Bin Laden’s death looks like.  I am going to explore a different aspect of this.  I want to explore the aspect of closure.

One former New York firefighter — forced to retire due to lung ailments suffered as a result of the dust from ground zero — said he was there [at ground zero] to let the 343 firefighters who died in the attacks know “they didn’t die in vain.”

“It’s a war that I feel we just won,” he said. “I’m down here to let them know that justice has been served.”

Bob Gibson, a retired New York police officer, said the news of bin Laden’s death gave him a sense of “closure.”

“I never thought this night would come, that we would capture or kill bin Laden,” he said. “And thank the Lord he has been eliminated.”

 —Source

And the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. special operations forces may help to start some healing, said Christian and Muslim religious leaders, relatives of victims, and a generation who grew in the shadow of 9/11.

“There is a sense that justice has been done,” said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the 12,000-member Northland Church in Orlando, Florida, and a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama.

“There is a scripture, Genesis 9:6, that says, ‘He who sheds man’s blood, by man his blood be shed.’ There is a certain kind of sense of relief that that has been accomplished,” Hunter said.

…Hunter also cited the verse promising that “those who mourn will be comforted,” saying they might “find some sort of solace in this event.”

Source

My question is this: what is closure?  What is justice?  What brings healing after a horrible tragedy like 9/11?

What relationship does the punishment of a crime hold to the healing of the victims of that crime?

I can see some relationship, in the fear of a repeated offense.  An abused child still living in the home of her abuser has little chance for healing.  Even upon removal from the home, any closure or healing she must undergo will often be delayed by fear, but often, healing must continue despite that fear of repeated offense.  To use another example: not every rapist is caught.  Does that mean that those women whose rapists are still “at large” can never find solace or healing?  Of course not.  It may be a longer, more difficult journey, but healing can still take place.

So, let’s bring the metaphor home.  The U.S. was attacked by terrorists.  It responded by taking steps to ensure such an attack could not happen again.  We overthrew two regimes, currently have troops in both those countries, tightened airport security until it’s a hair shy of routine cavity searches, etc.  In other words, as a nation we did all we could to eliminate the fear of a repeated offense.  Up until yesterday, the common cultural image of Osama Bin Laden was of him holed up in a cave somewhere on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, reduced to the level of throwing rocks.

Were we really so afraid of this man the day before yesterday that our fear of him was keeping us from “closure” and “healing” after our pain and grief ten years ago?  I could be wrong, but I didn’t have that impression.

So if not fear, what then?  Well, in psychological terms, when we speak of our need for closure, what we’re often referring to is our need for definite solutions without ambiguity.  A novel with a lot of closure has all loose ends tied up, all characters accounted for, with nothing left for a sequel.  A novel without a lot of closure… must have been written by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Er, I mean, has a more ambiguous ending, loose ends, characters unaccounted for, etc.  In other words, is more like life.

And that, I think, is a worthy point.  That in real life, we never know everything, so we never find true “closure.”

A friend is murdered.  Do we have closure?  The police collar a suspect, but it may not be the actual murderer.  Do we have closure now?  Despite the uncertainty, the suspect who may or may not be the real murderer goes to trial, and is found guilty.  Any closure yet?  The suspect is executed twenty years later.  Do you have closure now?  Of course, the answer is “No” to all those questions–there’s always doubt, always questions, always ambiguity and uncertainty.

This is as true of Bin Laden’s death as it is of the hypothetical situation above.  Questions about whether he was really responsible are only part of the equation–even assuming the standard story, the death of Bin Laden does not necessarily mean the death of al-Quaeda, and the death of al-Quaeda wouldn’t mean the death of terrorism.  For those affected by 9/11, no event short of the Second Coming will ever be enough to remove all ambiguity and questions from the equation.

Robert Fulford said it well:

In the 1990s, closure became part of American legal discourse, most notably in the case of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. When he was convicted, a Texas paper ran a headline, “Verdict brings sense of closure for families.” That easy assumption has always struck me as nonsense. Everyone wants a mass murderer caught, especially the relatives of those murdered, but the idea that a conviction will restore the spirits of the afflicted is dubious. “Closure” was the reason for allowing hundreds of survivors to watch McVeigh put to death. Attorney-General John Ashcroft said it would help those who had lost relatives to “close this chapter in their lives.” Perhaps, or perhaps it rendered the experience, in long-term memory, even more hideous.

Those who think we can manage our feelings about tragedy are usually deceiving themselves. The idea seems to be based on a belief that we can sort our feelings into separate chapters that won’t leak into each other. Nothing in human experience supports that notion. Consciously seeking “closure” is a way of trying to shorten the length of time it normally takes to soften the edges of grief. Everyone can sympathize with this desire without believing that the techniques clustered around the term closure will help.

In 1930, the young Morley Callaghan wrote a novel, It’s Never Over, about a man who is being hanged for murder and the way that event reaches endlessly into the lives of people connected with him. A woman who lost a relative in Oklahoma City gave a reporter a response that made good sense to me. “There is no such thing as closure for people who lost family in the bombing,” she said. “The only closure is when they close the lid on my casket.”
Source, emphasis mine

Closure is a myth.  In reality there is only grief, in all its stages, from denial through acceptance.  But “healing” from a spiritual wound such as that caused by the tragic death of a loved one never means an end to the chapter, and it never means an end to grief.  I have losses twenty years old that are still losses, I’ve just learned to live with them.

So the fact of the matter is, knowing Bin Laden is dead won’t really help the families of 9/11 victims in any major way.  Their long slow progression toward acceptance of their pain is wholly independent of external justice, because the fullness true external justice is not within the abilities of humanity.

“Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles.”
–Proverbs 24:17

Breaking the “Rules” of Grammar

“Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous.”  –Chaucer, The Friar’s Tale.  Uses a double negative.

For this was gret unkyndenesse, to this manere treten there brother.  –John Wycliff.  Splits an infinitive.

“And God saw that it was good.”  –The King James Bible.  Starts a sentence with a conjunction.

“[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  –The King James Bible.  Uses “themselves” as a singular pronoun.

“The smallest worm will turn being trodden on.”  –William Shakespeare, Henry VI.  Ends in a preposition.

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend”  –William Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors.  Uses “their” as a singular pronoun.

“Who wouldst thou serve?”  — William Shakespeare, King Lear  Doesn’t use “whom.”

“Nor never none Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.”  –William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.  Uses a double negative.

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  –opening sequence to Star Trek.  Splits an infinitive.

“The President was shot.”  –A reporter in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  Uses passive voice.

…if a peace officer has reasonable grounds to believe that, because of their physical condition, a person may be incapable of providing a breath sample…  –from a 2008 amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code.  Uses “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

“The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”  –Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.  Uses passive voice, does not group related words together, and contains a relative clause.

In the books The Best American Essays of 2001 and The Best American Essays of 2003, all but four of fifty essayists used at least once sentence fragment, with the average being ten per essay.

Is this the downfall of The English language?  Hardly.

First off, let’s get something straight.  There is no The English Language.  There is English language.  There is English language as spoken by an uneducated native of Minnesota, and English language as spoken by a doctor from Australia.  There is English language as spoken by a East-End Londoner, and English language as spoken by an upper-class Bostonian.  English is living, and because it is living, it changes, has different pronunciations, different spellings, and… different grammars.

A “grammar” is that part of language which allows its users to make sense of it.  Don’t get me wrong, grammar is important.  But it’s important in terms of meaning and in terms of ethos (credibility), not in terms of some set of “rules” that seperate The English Language from imposters.

There’s a difference between “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat Grandpa!”  But that difference is in terms of meaning.  There’s a difference between “I went to the store” and “a wnet 2 te stor.”  But that difference is in terms of credibility, of getting your audience to take you seriously.  When you break a grammatical “rule” for dramatic effect, or to enhance meaning, why should the “rule” take precedence over the original purpose of writing–communication?

“When making choices between formally grammatical sentences and rhetorically effective sentences, good writers often chose the latter.”  –Edgar H. Schuster, “Beyond Grammar: The Richness of English Language, or the Zero-Tolerance Approach to Rigid Rules.”  English Journal 100.4 (2011): 71-76.

Many of our grammar “rules” are quite artificial, made up sometimes out of whole cloth by English teachers or by ministers concerned that “bad English” leads to moral decay.  A particularly infamous case is Robert Lowth, a clergyman who in 1762 wrote a grammar guide that told us for the first time that it was wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.  (It was a rule he borrowed from Latin; it has no basis in English.)  His guide caught on among the upper classes, and soon “good grammar” became a marker of class distinction.

It was entirely artificial.  He didn’t make rules based on how people already spoke: he made rules based on how he thought people should speak, and people began to socially enforce them.


(The Grammar Nazi Flag.)

“…in America, these rules of grammar underlie what has been termed “standard American English,” but as in other countries, this is really just the speech of those who wield the most power, in this case, those who are white, educated, professional, middle- and upper-class. What I hope you see is that there is nothing “natural” about these rules of grammar or our feelings about them: they are every bit as much a cultural construct as a building, a painting, a computer, or a sonnet.”  –Karl Tamburr, “Why Shakespeare Didn’t Know Grammar.”

In the end, English is a living language–the language of government and commerce, of conversation and communication, for millions of people.  And because it is living, it will change.  And all the dictionaries and grammar rulebooks in the world cannot hold back the tide.  Only dead languages stay the same.

If English didn’t change, wé wolde bespricen Englisc angelícan þes.

Some “errors,” such as the gender-neutral singular they or the definition of “nauseous” as meaning one feels like one will vomit, are already in widespread popular use.  Because they are in widespread popular use, they eventually must be recognized in dictionaries and grammar rulebooks, or else those books will cease to be useful to the population.  (Already, look at the entry for “nauseous”: its backwards-formation meaning is its first definition, while the original meaning is now its second definition.)  Countless “wrong” words have already been added to our language this way, and are now considered correct, such as “diagnose.”

Learning to write effectively is not necessarily synonymous with learning to write according to the “rules” of standardized English.  The Dalai Lama once said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”  That is the approach I think English users should have towards “good” grammar.  It’s not a bad thing to know how to speak and write in standardized English.  (I’m building a career around that premise, in fact.)  It’s the sad fact that in certain rhetorical situations, people will not give you a hearing if you do not have a mastery of standardized English.  However, do not mistake this for meaning that standardized English is the “right” English.  It may be the wrong thing to use in another rhetorical situation.  (You wouldn’t ask a biker in a rough bar, “Pardon me, but would you be so kind as to pass me that napkin,” would you?)  Effective writers size up their rhetorical situation, and choose the form of English that will best accomplish their purpose in writing (to persuade, to inform, to entertain).

So learn the “rules,” by all means.  But know when it’s time to toss some of them out the window.

Unknotting “Tangled”

Ever since I saw Disney’s movie Tangled, my literary-deconstruction-sense has been tingling.  The story of Rapunzel is a very old story, and it has a sort of mythic resonance to it, which Disney’s re-imagining didn’t mess with.  If anything, the writers slipped in various lietmotifs and recurring symbolism that complemented the older story.  There’s a lot to see here, and I really want to tease it all out into the open. 

This whole thing is going to be chock-full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, and intend to, don’t read this one.

Maybe a little context is in order first.


1)  The Salad Bar: Rampion, Rudaba, and Radishes

Flynn Rider: Alright blondie.
Rapunzel: Rapunzel.
Flynn Rider: Gesundheit.

Okay, first, let’s look at the originals.  The story of Rapunzel probably descended from (or is related to) the Persian story of Rudaba, but many elements integral to the Rapunzel story (such as the tower of isolation) are absent, so we’ll pick up the thread at the German folktales that the Grimm Brothers collected.  The folktale begins with a standard faerie-tale trope, as old as Hannah or Sarai: the childless couple who want children.  This particular couple live next-door to a faerie (or sorceress, depending on the version), who has a magnificent garden.

Well, it came about that the childless wife does become pregnant one day.  While pregnant, she has an incredible craving for a plant that she sees through her window.  (In some versions it’s rampion radishes that the wife sees; in other versions lamb’s lettuce; sometimes it’s parsley; of course, in the most familiar version, it’s the rapunzel plant.)  She has such an intense craving for this plant that her life becomes threatened, and her husband repeatedly sneaks into the faerie/sorceress’s garden to steal some for his wife to eat.  Long story short, he gets caught, and the sorceress/faerie demands payment in the form of their firstborn child; when the girl is born (and is named after whatever the plant was that her mother ate), the faerie/sorceress/whatever claims her.

Raised in isolation, in a tower without door or stair, little Rampion/Rapunzel holds the only means of entrance in her hair, which she lets down for “Frau Gothel.”  One day a young prince overhears the means of entrance and begins to visit Rampion/Rapunzel when the faerie/sorceress is away.  Eventually Rapunzel accidentally gives away the secret of her lover’s visits–in the older versions, by asking why her dresses are all suddenly too tight.  Enraged, the sorceress/faerie cuts Rapunzel’s hair, sends her away to the desert, and when the prince next comes visiting, she throws him down to have his eyes blinded by thorns.

Years later, as an older Rapunzel is living in poverty in the desert with her twin children, the blinded prince comes stumbling across her path.  She recognizes him, weeps over him, and her tears heal his wounded eyes.  Then they all go back to the prince’s kingdom, where (you can hear it coming) they live happily ever after.

Okay, so on reading this, you can see that Disney changed a lot between the Grimm’s version and their own.  No, duh.  I doubt Disney could have made the Grimm’s original, what with ‘Punzel getting preggers and the prince getting blinded and all.  But look at what survived the cut.
–It all starts because Rapunzel’s parents dug up a plant to feed to Rapunzel’s mother, who was dying.
–Frau Gothel takes baby Rapunzel as repayment/vengeance
–The tower of isolation, while no longer representing sexual chastity, still is associated with parental protectiveness (or, you know, foster-parental protectiveness).
–Rapunzel’s lover is wounded when trying to visit her again, when Gothel is the one waiting for him instead.
–Rapunzel’s lover is healed by her tears.

Sure there’s a lot more that was added–animal friends, musical numbers–but I’d wager that a play-by-play comparison between Grimm’s and Disney’s versions of Beauty and the Beast would show more was changed in that movie.  (I mean, where are Maurice’s other daughters?  And where did Gaston come from?)

Besides, I like what they added.  Whoever the scriptwriters were had a sense of the mythic.  Let’s dig deeper…

2)  Flynn Rider and the Alchemical Process

Hook Hand Thug
: Go, live your dream. 
Flynn Rider: I will.
Hook Hand Thug: Your dream stinks. I was talking to her.
[Referring to Rapunzel]

I’ve recently been introduced to the world of alchemical literary theory by better literary critics than I, such as Mr. Pond and Professor John Granger.  Most of you are no doubt familiar with the concept of alchemy–a medieval attempt to change one element into another (usually lead into gold), the ancestor of chemistry.  What literary alchemy is, is a story of purification that roughly follows the three stages (and three colors) of classical alchemy.

The story of Eugene FitzHerbert, a.k.a. Flynn Rider, is one such story of purification.  When we first meet him he’s somewhere between a Loveable Rogue and a Phantom Thief, stealing for profit and for glory, double-crossing his less-than-savory accomplices when it suits him, and working on maintaining an Errol-Flynn-like reputation as a “dashing” outlaw.  Despite his claim that he “doesn’t do backstory,” we learn that his childhood upbringing has led him to prize material gain above all else.  Hardly the noble prince of the original story!  Eugene/Flynn is somewhat lost in his own facade, buying his own publicity, but he’s all spectacle and little substance.  By the end of the story, however, he’s willing to make selfless choices, even ones that benefit someone else but are detrimental to himself.  What changed?

In alchemy, the three stages of altering a base metal into gold were:  Nigredo, the “black” stage, the stage of putrefaction or decomposition, in which the base metal is broken down into a sort of primal matter; Albedo, the “white” stage, the stage in which impurities are washed away; and Rubeo, the “yellow-red” stage, the stage of fusion, in which the material finally took on the properties of gold.

Nigredo — a breakdown, a state of ultimate despair.  Eugene/Flynn has one such moment when he and Rapunzel are trapped in a tunnel that is rapidly filling with water.  The light goes out, leaving him in total blackness.  All that he is, or that he thinks he is, rather, has broken down, failed him, and he comes to the end of himself.  This is when he finally admits his real name.
Albedo — the removal of false self-images, the gain of insight into ones self.  The white horse Maximus, the symbol of law and justice, joins the party, and Flynn comes to an uneasy truce with him.  Meanwhile, they travel with Rapunzel through the white city, a sort of conflation of Minas Tirith and Mont St. Michel, where (as Rapunzel dances) Flynn begins to wonder if material gain is really what his heart’s deepest desire is.
Rubeo — the fusion of spirit with matter, of pure with impure; the solar awakening.  Out on the lake, in a boat with Rapunzel, Flynn reevaluates his life goal, his dream.  As he does so, the two are surrounded by Rapunzel’s dream, hundreds and hundreds of burning sky-lanterns, in the film’s most visually impressive moment.  The fire flickers yellow-red, and Eugene/Flynn comes to a decision, and finds wholeness.

Rapunzel: I have made the decision to trust you.
Flynn Rider: A horrible decision really.

I wish I knew if there were any alchemical significance to the color green, because in the film, green seems to be associated with Flynn’s past.  The Stabbington brothers wear green, and right after the sky-lantern scene, we see them on the shore holding a green lantern.  I’ve been picking at that but can’t find any deeper meaning to the color choice.


(The City in Tangled)


(Mont St. Michel in France–a REAL PLACE)
 

3)  Rapunzel and the Light

Rapunzel’s story, however, is not a story of purification.  It’s a story of revelation.  And thus it’s quite fitting that the symbols and motifs that surround her story are not those of the alchemical process, but those of the properties of light, particularly sunlight.
–The “drop of sunlight” that formed the magical flower
–The crest of Rapunzel’s family is a yellow sun
–The various suns that Rapunzel subconsciously worked into her paintings
–The sky-lanterns that Rapunzel’s parents send up in her memory
–Her own hair and its glow
–The mirror that Gothel obsessively looks in; mirrors reflect light.
–Even her animal friend, Pascal, is a chameleon, changing his color to reflect different wavelengths of visible light.

During the film’s song “Mother Knows Best,” Mother Gothel sings about how Rapunzel can’t ever leave the tower because of all the scary things that are out in the world, making disparaging remarks about Rapunzel’s ability to handle “life out there.”  (“Mother knows best./Take it from your mumsy./On your own you won’t survive./Sloppy, underdressed,/Immature, clumsy,/Please!/They’ll eat you up alive!”)  As she sings, she walks around slamming shut windows, making the interior of the tower darker and darker.  Rapunzel follows her around, trying to re-light candles so she can see, but Gothel just keeps putting them out again.  Symbolically this one’s a no-brainer: Gothel is figuratively keeping Rapunzel in the dark, keeping her cloistered and isolated for selfish reasons.  Rapunzel knows nothing of her real parentage, nothing of her own past–and doesn’t even know why it is that a cloud of lights appear in the sky every year on her birthday.

Light is truth, is knowledge–you can know what is in a lit room, but not in a dark room.  Light reveals.  It’s no accident, then, that Rapunzel’s longing for self-knowledge is represented by her longing for light–to know what the “lights in the sky,” the sky-lanterns, are.

When Rapunzel finally has her moment of revelation, it comes in the form of the sun.  Groping through dim childhood memories, she suddenly sees that all her paintings contain the same sun-crest that hung over the city–her family’s crest.  The girl whose hair holds the power of the sun-flower can now see clearly, see who she is, see what Gothel is.  Her self-knowledge comes symbolized by the sunlight she embodies.

Gothel’s disparagement of Rapunzel hit all sorts of uncomfortable notes with myself, when I was watching this movie in the theater: I’ve witnessed codependent relationships and emotionally abusive relationships, and Gothel’s mother/daughter relation with Rapunzel had strong hints of both.  With her constant emotional manipulation she tries to keep Rapunzel on a leash, and that manipulation seems associated with Gothel’s mirror.

[looking in the mirror with Rapunzel]
Mother Gothel: Look in that mirror. I see a strong, confident, beautiful young lady.
[Rapunzel smiles]
Mother Gothel: Oh look, you’re here too.
[laughs]
Mother Gothel: I’m just teasing! Stop taking everything so seriously.

Mirrors reflect light, but they don’t always reflect light accurately.  Think of a funhouse mirror, that stretches or distorts its image.  Likewise, if light represents truth, Gothel’s mirror is a skewed perspective on truth–a view of the world that Rapunzel’s foster-mother has foisted upon her. 

Notice the circumstances under which the mirror breaks:

Mother Gothel: Now, Now. It’s alright. Listen to me. Everything is as it should be.
[tries to touch her but Rapunzel grabs her wrist]
Rapunzel: No! You were wrong about the world. And you were wrong about me! AND I WILL NEVER LET YOU USE MY HAIR AGAIN!
[Gothel breaks free of Rapunzel’s grip only to cause a nearby mirror to fall and smash. Rapunzel then turns to leave]

The mirror breaks at the moment that Rapunzel rejects her foster mother’s worldview, the skewed version of reality that she had been feeding Rapunzel.  The twisting of light has ended, now that Rapunzel knows who she is.

When Flynn cuts Rapunzel’s hair, to keep her from being “kept” by Gothel, he does so not with a knife or with scissors, but with a shard of the broken mirror.  He is, in essence, using the broken symbol of Rapunzel’s former psychological shackles to free her–because by cutting her hair, by breaking the healing enchantment even before it can be used to save him, he is releasing the reason for Gothel’s hold on Rapunzel.

4)  Gothel and Time

Rapunzel’s story of revelation is associated with light; Eugene/Flynn’s story of purification is associated with the colors of alchemy; Gothel’s story, however, is one that has to do with time.

Neither a sorceress nor a faerie, in this version, Gothel is simply an old woman obsessed with youth, a sort of Elizabeth Bathory, selfishly hoarding the regenerative power of the sun-flower–and when that is taken from her, stealing the child that has inherited its powers.  Her gaze turns past-ward, to the “beautiful young lady” that she was and wishes to remain.  Listen, too, to the song she sings to activate the flower’s (and later Rapunzel’s hair’s) enchantment:

“Flower, gleam and glow, let your power shine.  Make the clock reverse, bring back what once was mine.  Heal what has been hurt, change the Fates’ design.  Save what has been lost, bring back what once was mine, what once was mine.”

It’s all about reversing time, stopping decay, and clinging to what was.  Gothel is, in Perelandrian terms, “one who shrinks back from the wave that is coming… and would like… to bring back the wave that is past.”  She seeks to keep things as they were.

And this is true not only of her own physical appearance, but of her relationship with Rapunzel.  She seeks to keep Rapunzel a child, essentially–dependent on herself, incapable of venturing out into the world.  She wants this for purely selfish reasons, of course–to keep the magical power of the sun-flower close where she can get to it.

But this has its mirror in real-world parenting.  What of helicopter moms, or obsessive parents who treat their thirty-year-old children like infants, or other such parenting phenomena?

My mom has a great phrase: “A good mother works herself out of a job.”  That, essentially, it is the job of a parent to equip and encourage their children to become independent adults, rather than to hold them back at their favorite stages.  A bittersweet thought, but one essential for a healthy parent/child relationship.  Gothel, of course, has no such sense, but then, Gothel isn’t setting out to be a good parent, just to keep the source of her eternal youth a prisoner.

Rapunzel: I can’t believe I did this.
[Whispers]
Rapunzel: I can’t believe I did this. *I can’t believe I did this!* Mother would be so furious. That’s OK though, I mean what she doesn’t know won’t kill her. Oh my gosh. This would kill her. *This is so fun!* I, am a horrible daughter. I’m going back. *I am never going back!* I am a despicable human being. *Woo-hoo! Best. Day. Ever!*
[Sobs]

In Conclusion

Ultimately this is a coming-of-age story, a story about finding oneself and one’s dreams.  But for all that cliche stuff, there’s a surprising amount of depth to Tangled, and a lot of room to dig.  I haven’t enjoyed a Disney film this much since Beauty and the Beast, and as a literature teacher, I haven’t had so much fun exploring the deeper meanings of a Disney film since, well, ever.

What did I miss?  I’m sure there are layers here that I haven’t yet touched–this movie is like an onion, or parfait.  Thoughts?