Category Archives: Joel Harrison

The Theology of Superman: Hope for the Empire

By now, many will have already seen this article or others like it describing the Warner Bros. campaign to get pastors to talk about Man of Steel this past Sunday, which was Fathers’ Day, using a guide developed by Pepperdine theologian Craig Detweiler. The main thrust of the sermon is centered around this question: “How might the story of Superman awaken our passion for the greatest hero who ever lived and died and rose again?”

The CNN story goes on to set up the “debate” surrounding this marketing tactic on the part of Warner Bros. as between Christians who think this is a good way to show the world that we can get behind something in pop culture and those who think films are “pumped out from Hollywood’s sewers.”

What is fascinating to me about this set up is that it simply takes the messianic parallels as given and obvious. The film is just obviously about Jesus and parallel to his story–so now the only question is whether or not Christians are willing to trust Hollywood to speak the story of Jesus to them through a “worldly” medium like film. As Detweiler himself is quoted in the article, “All too often, religious communities have been defined by what they’re against. With a movie like `Man of Steel,’ this is a chance to celebrate a movie that affirms faith, sacrifice and service.”

My concern is that “faith, sacrifice, and service,” while all wonderful attributes to have, do not sum up the story of Jesus. In fact, by making that the distillation of Jesus’ life and ministry, the sermon notes seem to direct us away from what should be the most troubling divergences between the story of Superman and the story of Jesus by focusing on the archetypal parallels.

No one should be surprised that Man of Steel, or the mythology of Superman more generally, has strong parallels to the Jesus narrative. You would be hard-pressed to find a story archetype in Western literature that cannot be traced back to the biblical narrative. With regard to superhero archetypes especially, the parallels to the story of Christ and the messianic archetype (which does not originate with Jesus) are more than obvious. So what, then, could these sermon notes be other than a reminder, saying, “Hey! Stories like Man of Steel are retellings of your religion’s story of salvation. But with way more explosions. Let’s look at this clip!” Superman is a story of hope. Kal-El is a character (like Spock, like Gandalf, like a lot of characters in the world of science fiction and fantasy) who deviates from his origin, his true nature, choosing to become more human and embracing those characteristics (usually emotion, empathy, etc.) which are made to be the epitome of humanness, and suffering some consequences for it.

The problem is that to say the story of Jesus can be encapsulated in a single statement about the hope of salvation makes that story completely one-dimensional and misses the what of salvation entirely. And by the way, this one-dimensional view of salvation is probably how many Christians view their own faith: Jesus has punched my ticket into Heaven–now that’s something I can put my hope in! That’s why we love stories like this–or any other myriad versions of the story of hope in salvation from… something.

It’s that something that makes up the really vital difference between Superman and Jesus. Man of Steel is an origin story, establishing the basic relationships between Superman and everyone else so that a few more films can be made before another reboot. One of those relationships is between Superman and the US government–that is, Superman and the empire. Some (especially Evangelicals) will find that comparison offensive, but it’s certainly true. You don’t earn the title of “World Superpower” without being an empire. So Superman goes “on call” for the empire at the end of the film. He’s not its soldier, like the Marvel parallel Captain America. He still maintains some independence, but he also has no interest in subverting the empire in any way. Now, I don’t mean a coup d’etat like his friend General Zod stages on Krypton. But the US perpetrates plenty of injustice worldwide on a daily basis. What would be really Christlike is if in the second film, we see Superman staging nonviolent protests against drones strikes against innocent people, or helping to shut down Gitmo, choosing not to use his immense power when he very easily could–we could go on and on like this. Instead, Superman becomes a symbol of hope for the empire itself. The film may portray Superman’s struggle with his identity, and I think it does a good job of that, but at the end of the day, Superman is not just a human–he’s an American.

Admittedly, the nonviolent Superman probably wouldn’t make for a very interesting film. Superman’s power is not in his ability to speak radically in a way that moves an agenda of radical subversion against an oppressive empire. He punches stuff. And flies. And cuts stuff with his heat vision. All of that is fantastic–I really enjoyed the film. But none of it represents the mission of Jesus. There’s no account of Jesus fighting Tiberius through the streets of Rome (the Colosseum didn’t exist yet) which, I must admit, would’ve been badass.

The hope that Jesus brings is salvation from the oppressive force brought upon the poor, the weak, the widowed, the orphaned, the sick by the powers of the world–the Roman empire and all those in service to it. And he does this through a radically nonviolent means of subversion to the point of his death. This is the fuller, deeper meaning of the hope of salvation. The moment we begin to compare Superman and Jesus in this respect, the parallel falls apart.

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Gatsby and the Resiliency of American Empire

The Great Gatsby opened this week in its fourth film adaptation to very mixed, leaning toward negative reviews. The complaints range from the film being Baz Luhrman’s attempt to do a perfect Baz Luhrman impersonation to the awkwardness of the mash up between the early twenties and contemporary hip hop to the plodding pace of the plot and the poor attempt to mask that with a lot of flashing lights and CGI. There even seems to be a recurring complaint that the adaptation misses the point of the novel entirely, celebrating American empire and all the decadence of the Roaring Twenties rather than telling a story about its downfall.

One of the interesting things about the reviews is that they seem to claim exact opposite things about the film: Where one blasts the mashup, another praises it; where one says the film is shallow, another says it carries the message of the novel perfectly, and so on. What this tells me is that people (still) don’t really know what to make of this story. It’s one of those novels that everyone supposedly read in high school; people tend to like to use it as a touchtone for their own cultured-ness, a way of showing that they have some semblance of knowledge about literature. One of my brothers used to keep a copy in the glovebox of his car on the off chance a girl happened to open it.

I have many thoughts about the success of the film (or lack thereof), though this is not meant to be a review. I will say, however, that the aspect of the novel I’m going to discuss is brought out through what I think is the film’s greatest failure. As an adaptation, the film does an incredible job being faithful to the timeline and construction of the plot as well as the dialogue, with much of it taken word for word fromt the text of the novel. With regard to the major themes, my impression was that the film, in a sometimes heavy handed way, makes it a point to alert the viewer that, through the quintessentially modernist devices of lost love and failed attempts to recover the past, this is primarily a story about empire; namely that American empire is cold, destructive, and tragically resilient. But while the film attempts to beat that into the viewer with melodrama and over the top mise-en-scène, the novel sketches a much more careful, delicate picture which has made it notoriously difficult (some say impossible) to adapt.

This brings us to the film’s greatest failure which also happens to be, I think, the novel’s greatest trick: Nick Carraway. Both novel and film are told from Carraway’s first person perspective (though the film sometimes departs.) This is obviously a very deliberate choice for Fitzgerlad: Why write a novel so heavily dependent upon the revealing of another character’s backstory in the first person? At times, the devices utilized to convey those details of the past feel stilted, contrived, usually a telling of a telling. Furthermore, a story that is so tightly centered around deception and fantasy does not lend itself well to reliable first person narration, even if it isn’t the narrator intentionally lying, and indeed, many scholars have attempted to make the argument that Nick Carraway is in fact an unreliable narrator. The film plants that possibility in the viewer’s mind right from the beginning by having Nick tell the story of Gatsby from a sanitarium where he is being treated for severe anxiety and alcoholism–an unnecessary addition, to say the least. Nick Carraway is an unreliable narrator, but not in the sense that the story he has told is false in anyway.

The trick is that while being faithful to the story that he lived, he is not honest with the readers, and more importantly himself, about his participation in the empire that destroys Gatsby and George and Myrtle Wilson by the end of the novel.

The natural effect of first person narration is that the reader or viewer begin to identify with and trust the narrator. In fact one of the effectual goals of the novel is for us to begin to think that we are Nick Carraway–to be able to see ourselves sympathetically in his shoes. I’m not sure any film adaptation carries this as well as the novel, and it is why every adaptation has ultimately come up short, seeming not to capture the elusive essence of the story.

One of the most carefully crafted details about Carraway’s character is his own privilege. It’s well concealed and very easy to forget especially since he is so often juxtaposed between Gatsby and the Buchanans. However, the novel begins with Nick relating this advice from his father: ” ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’ ” It is clear that he is not Tom Buchanan, but it is because he is not that we are able to identify with him. It adds an important layer of complexity to what would otherwise be a rather banal modernist theme, old versus new, which the film hits on quite strongly. Nick seems to be set outside of that somehow and gives the impression that he is above the games being played, telling the reader, “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues, and this is mine: I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”

But it is Nick Carraway’s self-ascribed honesty that actually prevents us at first from being able to see his character completely; that is, his privilege has afforded him the opportunity to be passively drawn into a story which he could break himself from at any moment. In that sense, he is actually no different from the Buchanans, Jordan Baker, or even Meyer Wolfsheim, who all treat their own lives in the exact same way. He has romanticized Gatsby’s persona much in the same way as Daisy, referring to Gatsby’s misguided attempts to repeat the past and win Daisy back as his “incorruptible dream.” The famed last line of the novel emphasizes this as well: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past,” suggesting that the never ending attempt to recover a more real, more pure past is a noble endeavor. But it is a romantic endeavor, one that Nick and Daisy both have the ability to pursue and abandon at their leisure. Gatsby never has the option to break from his dream, and both the Wilsons’ attempts to do so end in their deaths. Nick pushes the blame for all the terrible events of the novel on to Tom and Daisy, telling us, “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

But I don’t think Nick’s hands are totally clean here. The tragedy Nick sees in his story is not that Gatsby, because of the uncontrollable circumstances of his life, was considered nothing and never had any chance in the face of real American empire. Rather, it’s that his farce was ruined, and he was not permitted to continue to live out the romanticism that Nick so admired.

In this way, Nick participates in the resiliency of American empire that is made explicit in his indictment of the Buchanans. And he has drawn the reader unwittingly into that participation. We revere Gatsby for all the wrong reasons and his story suggests that there are only two ways to really participate in the empire: be born into it or be a self-made criminal tycoon like Meyer Wolfsheim. [Aside: In the novel, after Gatsby's death, Wolfsheim tells Nick that he made Gatsby what he was, that he gave Gatsby everything he had.] The rest of us, the Nick Carraways of the world, will hate that, we’ll actively despise it, go so far as to insult it and see ourselves as better than it [Nick says of his last encounter with Tom, "I felt suddenly as though I were talking to a child."] Yet we will have no problem romanticizing individual efforts to overcome it, even when they fail, if we are privileged like Nick to be able to do so. Our privilege affords us the pseudo-active ability to be outraged from our living rooms and behind our computer screens, bringing no real change to the problems that have outraged us. And American empire continues to thrive.

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Theories of Religion: Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant, a late-Enlightenment German philosopher, is most famous for what is known as The Kantian Synthesis which extends through both metaphysics and epistemology. I have made reference to and explained it elsewhere, but in short, Kant’s contribution made it possible for both philosophy and science to proceed beyond the radical empiricism of David Hume. At the same time, however, Kant still upheld the rigorous commitment to reason championed by Hume and other empiricists of the period (Locke for example) who maintained that one’s knowledge was derived empirically through perception and no other way. For Kant, reality is divided into two realms: the phenomenal or sensible world conditioned by the categories of our understanding (i.e. time and space) and the noumenal or things-in-themselves world. There are two important claims here. First is that there really are “things-in-themselves”–things as they really are “behind” what we perceive them to be. This is also called “transcendental idealism” because it claims that Reality consists of ideas that transcend what we can actually have knowledge of. Second is that if we were able to take away the categories of our understanding, we’d be able to come into contact with the noumenal. The purpose of science, for Kant, is to limit the interference of the categories as much as possible in order to get us close to the noumenal. Science is right on edge of the phenomenal.

This worked quite well for everything in Kant’s system that had to do with immanent matters; however, it created a significant complication for the place of religion. Under Kant’s system, any attempt to make a reasonable statement about God must be by definition not reasonable since such statements can only come from phenomenal experience, and God must be, by definition, wholly noumenal. What then constitutes reasonable religious discourse?

Before we can understand Kant’s answer, we must also understand his ethical system as that dovetails with epistemological concerns in his understanding of religion. In Kant’s discourse on practical reason (his ethics), he argues that in order for one to act morally, one must only ever act according to one’s duty in any given situation; thus, the consequences of actions are not what are important in Kant’s system, only the motives behind action. An act driven by pure duty is the highest good–a purely good will. This differs from previous ethical theories, particular Aristotle’s virtue ethics, in that, for Kant, the highest good is something that we already have the capacity for, not a place we are striving to get to. This will be immensely important for Kant’s understanding of religion. The highest good cannot concern things like pleasure, intelligence, happiness, or freedom because these terms are far too relative and cannot be universalized in relation to duty. Someone may find freedom, happiness, or pleasure in the harm of others, which is unacceptable in Kant’s system. Thus, the will itself is the only thing that can be truly good, and its goodness is determined through two conditions known as the categorical imperative:

1. Motives must be able to be generalized into universal law.

2. An action can never use another human being as a means to achieve an end whatever that end may be.

Something like lying can never be ethical because it cannot be universalized–even if it actually results in good. One’s duty is to, through one’s own good will, act according to the categorical imperative at all times. For our purposes here, it’s important to note that this results in a disinterested morality–a morality that does not evaluate the conditions of particular cases.

The question for Kant in relation to religion then becomes what will arise from doing what we ought to? What is the result of the aggregate of dutiful action? The answer is religious life. In other words, morality in itself does not require religion, but acting morally will inevitably lead to religion. In order to trace this out, we have to start at the nature of humanity–Kant’s theological anthropology. As stated above, Kant believes that human beings have the capacity already for the highest good because that good can only be our own good will. Humans are naturally good. This capacity is in the form of our ability to reason. Reason, remember, is central to Kant’s entire philosophical system. For Kant, our reason has not been tainted by sin as earlier theologians had argued. At the same time, however, humans are free to use their reason to follow their duty and the moral law or  to not do that. Sin is not depravity, some universal condition we are all under, nor is it our inability to obey our duty and the highest good; rather, it is our tendency to follow a different law, that of our own self-interest. Each human being incurs what Kant calls radical evil upon him or herself through choosing self-interest. It is a choice, our own responsibility, and we have the responsibility or freeing ourselves from it. In short, if we ought to do something, it means we have the absolute ability to do it.

It is here that we can insert Kant’s flimsy argument for the necessity of God’s existence. Because duty-bound morality must be disinterested, which is plainly against our nature as human beings, there must be an external reason why someone would choose to act according to duty. Kant’s answer is that there must be a reward which could only be conferred by a being who had ordered the world in such a way from the beginning: God. From this, we can see that the role of God is little more than a footnote in Kant’s account, and once we begin to look at how traditional doctrines become articulated, we can see that even more.

Given his “ought” equals “can” position, Kant must reframe the doctrines of atonement and justification in order for his system to work. Christ, for Kant, was a Second Adam but only in that his good example counteracts Adam’s bad one. Atonement is exemplary rather than substitutionary. Jesus shows us what it looks like for the will to act according to duty at all times. There isn’t much room, then, for justification as a work of God within us by grace. Our regeneration is as a new moral person constituted through our ability. We are not in need of divine grace. In fact, if we remember what we laid out in the beginning regarding God and the noumenal world, this precludes any interaction between God and the sensible world. This view contrasts greatly with the theologians of the 16th century Reformation for whom justification by grace alone was immensely important; thus, we can see that everything in Kant’s system must bow to the principle of reason.

Perhaps a better way of saying that, though, is that Kant still maintains religious commitments but they become reframed as the sacralization of the individual. This cuts two ways: The autonomous ability of the individual to realize the highest good is sacred and the highest good (the will for the categorical imperative) only exists in relation to other individuals, who therefore, must have a special status, though Kant is less interested in the latter because ultimately one’s own duty excludes the consideration of another’s well being except where that consideration satisfies the categorical imperative.

Situating this sacralization of the individual in relation to Kant’s notion of sin and evil will help us see how morality inevitably results in religion. Remember that there is no state of total depravity for Kant; the individual has the autonomous ability to overcome self-interest (sin) and choose duty. However, sin still exists beyond the conversion of the individual (Kant calls this persisting of sin “radical evil.”) We can see that this is plainly true, since individuals are constantly falling back to self-interest, have yet to convert themselves to duty, etc. Competition between individuals makes it extremely difficult to act according to duty even though we are naturally good. Thus, in Kant’s view, the only way to eliminate radical evil is for a corporate ethical existence to arise (the ethical commonwealth). This is more than just a group of individuals acting according to duty together, and it is also a different “kingdom” than that of the civil state, echoing Augustinian-Lutheran two kingdom discourse. The ethical commonwealth consists of everyone acting according to the freedom of everyone else, people in relationship with each other and the moral law at the same time.

If this all sounds dangerously like Pelagianism, then you know your early church heresies. However, identifying Kant’s view as heretical only to dismiss it doesn’t do any real work for us in terms of understanding our own position. Rather, what I want to re-emphasize are two points that I’ve already highlighted: The centrality of reason and the sacralization of the individual. The centrality of reason as Kant and the Enlightenment understand it has resulted in some undesirable side-effects, namely the scientism of New Atheism that claims a monopoly on all “real” knowledge as being found (literally) in the sensible world. Paradoxically, this has stuck somewhat in the contemporary religious consciousness even if we dismiss the conclusions about religion to which this led Kant. It isn’t necessarily something that a lay person, for instance, would rely on intentionally in practice; rather, it is a latent effect, a rarely understood or reflected upon claim in the back on one’s mind that may lead a person to holding tightly to particular “foundational” beliefs for fear that letting those go will cause the entire system to dissolve. Or it may lead to one claiming the ability to see all the physical work that God is doing (i.e. a heavy reliance on visions or miracles in order to keep one’s belief afloat.) Now, this isn’t to say that empirical evidence is superficial in religious experience. Indeed, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, appeals to first hand accounts–empirical evidence–of the resurrection of Jesus in order to prove to the church at Corinth that there is indeed resurrection from the dead, and Jesus accomplished it. But this is still an experiential proof that already assumes the existence of God a priori as well as the fact that Jesus was the son of God. Paul and the Corinthians agree on that. The resurrection is incredibly important for the viability of Christianity, as Paul says many times elsewhere, but it would not disprove God’s existence for anyone in the ancient world if it turned out it had not happened, even for Paul.

Our core beliefs do not collapse easily. There is a certain amount epistemological resilience that keeps them more or less intact, even if the warrants and claims that support them shift slightly. I’ve written about this sort of epistemological holism here. If we take that to be the case, then there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to hold strongly to the account of reason that Kant gives especially since he’s probably correct in his religious account that follows it. What American Christianity tends to do is exchange Kant’s human reason for “God’s reason” which is still just human reason since even if we believe that God reveals Himself, we certainly can’t contend that such revelation is completely unmediated. This “reason” coupled with the availability of an abundance of “empirical evidence” for God’s existence is what ultimately results in a fundamentalism that necessarily ignores science, even vilifies it, in favor of its own brand of “scientism.”

Thus, it is not enough to simply say that Kant was wrong about religion. His account of religion is accurate, but only if we assume that reason and ethics should operate the way that he claims they do. It’s there that we must begin a new road.

Theories of Religion: A Series

I thought it would be a good idea to begin a series on some important developments in the theory of religion since the Enlightenment given that I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on the subject lately in my first year of doctoral work. There are a number of reasons why I think it’s important to understand these developments as a Christian. This sort of study reveals the historical development of the challenges contemporary Christianity faces with regard to religious epistemology especially in relation to science and secular reason. The suspicion raised in many of these treatments of religion helps us to see where the historical practice of Christianity has failed miserably in understanding its own epistemological underpinnings. That is, understanding these developments and criticisms can help us see how our current practice or ways of thinking about our practice might be shifted to move us toward a much better account and method and even a richer experience.

This is a broad topic, and there are many places one could begin. The first post of the series will deal with Immanuel Kant’s account of religious experience. The reason why Kant makes for a good starting point is that in contrast to many thinkers of the medieval and early modern periods, the question of the metaphysical reality of God (whether or not there is a God) is not of primary importance. Rather, Kant is interested in the rational viability and function of religious experience and practice in general. In other words, he is asking and seeking to answer this question: Is religious belief reasonable?  In fact, none of the thinkers covered in this series are  necessarily interested in the existence of a transcendent being, though many make the indirect claim that there is no such being. However, they do so on their way to an account of the origin and function of religious experience.

Remember: this series is not evaluative–at least not in the sense of pure refutation of the claims set forth. Rather, the purpose is to extract the salient points and reflect on what these thinkers contribute to our understanding of religion.

A Brief Note on the Nature of truth

A friend of mine on Facebook shared this post from Mark Driscoll yesterday:

“In a society where there is no truth, the greatest ‘sin’ is saying someone is wrong.”

Pastor Mark has seen his fair share of beatdown over the last month, so I’m not looking to contribute to that. The post itself, which expresses a sentiment that could belong to any conservative Christian, is what I’m interested in. Normally, I don’t think that such a weak, late 20th century banality would have caught my attention. I’m sure Mark Driscoll is posting this kind of superficial garbage parading as insight multiple times a day, but it appeared just below a post by Bo Sanders of Homebrewed Christianity responding to Roger Olson’s recent blog that has caused a bit of controversy where he describes what he sees as the problem with liberal and progressive theology (two terms that he conflates.)

There are similar sentiments at work in both the Driscoll post and the Olson blog: There is such a thing as Truth, and they have it. Olson makes the following two points (which Bo objects to very nicely in his post) that I find to be completely incoherent:

“I look at their approach to “doing theology.” How do they approach knowing God? Do they begin with and recognize the authority of special revelation? Or do they begin with and give norming authority to human experience, culture, science, philosophy, “the best of contemporary thought?” That is, do they “do” theology “from above” or “from below?” Insofar as they do theology “from below” I tend to think they are liberal theologically.”

and

“If I ever wake up and find that I think like a true theological liberal, I hope I will be honest enough to stop calling myself ‘Christian.’ “

I’ve written many, many posts that deal with the sort of complaint that Olson is raising. In the first point, he’s assuming that there’s no mediation between special revelation and an articulate knowledge or theology–no interpretive work. That is, if one is doing “correct” theology, one is simply the mouthpiece of God. Whereas the theology of the liberal “Christian” is based upon the contingent, immanent, imperfect disciplines he lists, Olson’s theology is somehow not based on anything except the authority of special revelation. His own contingency, personal experiences, education, etc. don’t play into his theology. In the second point, he’s stating explicitly what Driscoll does implicitly: “There is such a thing as Truth, and I have it, so don’t be mad when I tell you you’re wrong (and not a Christian.)” Frankly, I’m just so tired of hearing this sort of arrogance come out of the mouths of people who profess the love of Jesus Christ.

Listen:

Put aside what you think about postmodern notions of truth, whether or not you think any relativity in truth is absolute relativity, etc. for a moment. Christians simply cannot continue to hold the positions that Driscoll and Olson espouse anymore. The history of the church from the very outset is marked with accepting radically different beliefs and practices (or lack of practices) into the church community. That doesn’t mean there should be no attempt to talk about normative practice or belief. But that normative activity is fluid, not solid. It has to be able to flex, to grow in order to account for human history, for new cultural contexts. When Roger Olson or Mark Driscoll place a boundary around what it is to be Christian, around what truth is, they are actually placing limits around what the gospel can do more than what it should be. You, me, Driscoll, and Olson are human beings. We are thrown into a particular time and place from which we must think and write. We may believe that the gospel message transcends that, can speak across history and culture, and that’s great, but don’t for one second believe that you do.

On Recovering Dialectic in Argument

A few years ago, I was teaching college freshmen how to write argumentative research papers: Taking a side of a particular issue and using actual research to make a compelling case for that side. Invariably, I would have a student who was especially passionate about a particular topic: legalizing marijuana, abortion rights, and lowering the drinking age were what drew the most attention. These papers were always well researched; it seemed as though students thought that if they could convince me, they would have an impenetrable case for something that was deeply important to them–a worthwhile endeavor. The most glaring issue with a large number of these papers, however, was that they typically failed to take into account the opposing viewpoint. The university at which I taught even had a database called Opposing Viewpoints as part of its library resources which linked students to a variety of periodical and peer reviewed sources. As a result many of these papers ended up being a victory parade before any challenger was ever faced: a self-congratulatory exercise. The best papers I received always took their opposition seriously and tried their best to meet those challenges head on, whether they were entirely convincing or not. Sometimes engagement with the other side even led a student to change his or her position.

I want to state a case for something very simple that has been important in the philosophical understanding of rhetorical argument but which I very much doubt has ever been a consciously recognized tool in popular argumentation. Dialectic, which I will define in a minute, is a tool as old as Plato that would be immensely helpful if applied publicly. By “publicly,” I don’t mean in the political sphere necessarily (though it certainly couldn’t hurt), or the Media at large (because critical thought is not what they’re in the business of selling), and I’m not really interested in arguing for its importance within the Church as such (then again, a little could go a long way); my aims aren’t that grandiose. I just want my friends to use it, at least think about using it, in social media when they’re arguing about issues like gun control, gay marriage, or any other myriad of hot topics that seems to flood my newsfeed daily.

Argument is a techne, to use Aristotle’s term–an art. It requires finesse, guile, and above all a level head in order to see how one can appeal to those one is attempting to reach. It seems over the last five years or so with the exponential rise Internet message boards and social media comment threads, we’ve been bombarded by voices upon voices screaming their viewpoints at the top of their lungs. At the risk of oversimplifying, there seem to be two options: Ignore those sorts of conversations altogether, or change the disposition with which we enter them in the first place. What I want to propose here is called dialectic, but it doesn’t even need that name. It’s simply taking a viewpoint opposed to yours seriously enough to critically reflect on it and honestly ask yourself if there is something worthwhile there that you may be missing. This isn’t as a hard and fast system of rules by which we must abide; it’s a guide and a means for opening the door to productive discourse in the first place.

Dialectic consists of three parts: Thesis. Antithesis. Synthesis. If you ever participated in a “Socratic Seminar” method of classroom discussion in high school or college, then you’ve probably encountered this either explicitly or not. The idea is that one person offers a claim, a thesis statement. This is countered by another statement, the antithesis. The method, recognizing that there is probably value in both statements, seeks to draw out the truth kernel in each and form a synthesis of both, thus creating a new thesis statement. The process then starts over until, as Socrates [Plato] hoped, one arrives at Truth itself where no more antitheses may be offered against the True thesis statement.

The problem with most popular political debates is that they begin from the point of Truth. That is, the first argument offered is itself Truth in the mind of the person offering it. There is nothing more to be said except subpoints which can do nothing but support the initial truth claim. Those themselves are of course true because the initial statement is. This is called circular reasoning. At the risk of being incendiary, take this example:

P1: All marriages are between man and woman.

P2: All homosexual relationships are between man and man or woman and woman

Q: Therefore, all marriages exclude homosexual relationships.

This simple syllogism (a kind of logical philosophical argument) is logically valid but not logically sound. It’s valid because we have two premises and a conclusion drawn from them that doesn’t contradict either. But if we think about the premises, we might see a problem. Both are definitional, but only one is what we would call a tautology: P2. Put simply, a tautology is a statement in which the predicate repeats what the subject is in all possible interpretations. In other words, we define a homosexual relationship as a relationship between two people of the same sex. There is no other way to interpret the term “homosexual relationship.” But consider P1. A person making this argument would probably assume that P1 is also a tautology. But it begs the question: Is it? Is marriage only between man and woman? This is indeed the very crux of the debate itself. P1 is not an agreed-upon definition for marriage; to state it as such is to inevitably draw a fallacious, unsound conclusion. That’s not to say one couldn’t make a case for why P1 should be accepted, and if you’re compelled to quote the Bible or talk about God’s covenant, then I’ve done my job–you realize that further proof is needed for P1.

Dialectic demands two things of us in an argument. First, we are required  not to begin with Truth, but to realize that one’s initial proposition is simply a thesis that one expects to be rebutted with an intelligent antithesis. (The word “intelligent” is problematic, of course, in these sorts of disagreements because the assumption on both sides is almost always that the opposition is not intelligent; for our purposes, however, we will proceed as if the opposition does have some degree of intelligence. We want to be generous dialecticians.) Second, the method forces us to listen to the opposing viewpoint receptively. Dialectic doesn’t work if we’re not actively trying to draw out what might be true in what the other person is saying.

That’s all I’m after here. What would a social media debate look like if two (or more) people engaged in this type of discussion or, at the very least, allowed it to inform how they enter into these sorts of disagreements? I’d like to go one small step further and submit that even if a person on the other side of the fence seems unwilling to engage in this sort of discussion, begins with a mild insult, etc., it is still possible to treat that person’s propositions as theses to be considered and synthesized if for no other reason than to exercise our own critical thought muscles. I want to expand our notion of what is engageable in argument and how we should go about engaging others (to an extent and within one’s own practical limits of course. There are most certainly very serious exceptions where a proposition is simply abusive, offensive, and genuinely offers no usable insight, but at that point, one should feel no guilt about simply exiting the thread.)

With these very basic principles of argument in mind, even engaging someone like this Sam Elliot meme should be possible.

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Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt: Kurt Vonnegut’s Theology of Suffering

**Update** I recently changed the subtitle of this from “Kurt Vonnegut’s Critique of the Theology of Culture” to what you see now. Two notes on that: 1) I think stating what I see happening in Vonnegut’s work (particular Slaughterhouse-Five here) in the positive rather than the negative gives a better sense of what is at work theologically. “Theology of Culture” is sort of hard to pin down. 2) Vonnegut never developed a theology of anything–that should go without saying–but I think that what he is getting at in much of his work speaks to an idea of a theology of suffering that is far superior to much Christian thought on the subject.
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Below is my final paper for a seminar I took at Fuller last quarter called “Theology and Culture.” This was probably one of my most favorite papers to write because I feel like I was finally able to connect Vonnegut to theology in a meaningful way. The argument I put forth would certainly be contested by many current Vonnegut scholars, but I think this gets at the heart of what I see Vonnegut’s work doing. Even without the theological articulation, I think the argument still stands.
This is probably the longest piece I’ve posted here. Here’s a short abstract:
Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five critiques a social imaginary that acknowledges only the good life and not only ignores the tragic, but condemns it as a means of achieving the good life. Thus, it serves to critique a theology of culture that would see “God’s good purposes” in everything, including the tragic. While, the paper does not dive into lengthy explanations of theodicy, more classical models of God’s action in the world (Augustinian blue-print models, etc.) are what the novel is critiquing. In other words, when bad things happen, there is no necessity to explain such events in terms of God’s will or action. Sometimes horrible stuff just happens, and it’s not to achieve a greater good or make someone stronger or test someone. It’s simply because the world is broken. Much of Vonnegut’s work makes the case that to sweep tragedy under the rug, so to speak, by viewing the world through the “Everything was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt” lens is in fact a greater, more damaging tragedy.
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           Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Kurt Vonnegut’s fall on the steps of his New York City brownstone, which ultimately led to his death four weeks later, Vonnegut scholar Robert Tally, Jr. writes that “[p]ointing out the absurdity of everyday life was perhaps Vonnegut’s greatest contribution to American literature.  Whereas Hannah Arendt had marveled at the banality of evil, Vonnegut duly recorded the banality of … well, everything.”[1] This certainly is an appropriate starting point for understanding Vonnegut’s work. Vonnegut’s prose is deceptively simple, almost childlike at moments, and yet it simultaneously reveals, with great accuracy and often to the great embarrassment of the reader, the most prominent vices of American culture. However, only in recent years has Vonnegut criticism turned to the redemptive quality of his work. Indeed, there is still resistance to such readings, as Tally himself demonstrates, concluding his reflection with, “Yet Vonnegut gets the last laugh, as both his detractors and his admirers are fooled into imagining, respectively, an overrated hack or a undervalued genius, whereas Vonnegut remains what he always was: a tragicomic performer, as willing to tell a story as he is to take a tumble, and always just for the hell of it.”[2] Many critics agree with Tally that Vonnegut cannot be dismissed as a hack writer, a blip on the screen in the grand scheme of American literature, nor can he be lauded as a writer with a profound message that transcends generations—that his genius and place in the history of American literature is as the author who defied all categories.[3]

I would resist this notion. While it is certainly problematic to place too much emphasis on the “morality” of Vonnegut’s novels (or the genius of them for that matter) because such a reading is in danger of ignoring the actual cynicism of the real-life Vonnegut, we must recognize that there is a redemptive quality that speaks both to theological anthropology as well as a theology of evil. In the midst of the tragedy of Vonnegut’s novels, particularly the middle and later works, emerges an understanding of humanness and culture that can fruitfully be put into conversation with theology. In this paper, I will be offering a close reading of Vonnegut’s sixth novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, in conjunction with an understanding of the relationship between theology and culture as presented by Kevin J. Vanhoozer and James K.A. Smith. The violence of Slaughterhouse-Five, presented to the reader through the technique of defamiliarization, serves to gesture toward itself as absurdity, to the point where the text becomes saturated with the absurd and the horror of war is equated to the death of bottled champagne. Juxtaposed to this violence is the recurring sentiment that life can and should be viewed in the totality of its most beautiful moments. Taken together, these two elements can operate as a critique of a theology of culture that would claim the world as wholly sacred, addressing any notion of the profane with violent hate or complete desensitization, resulting in the oppression and death of others in order to uphold the ideology of the world’s sanctification. The novel thus vacates God from a culture of totalizing beauty and places him as necessarily present in the profane-made-sacred.

Methodology

I will begin with an overview of the theories of the theology of culture that I will employ in the paper. First, a word on the general project of reading cultural artifacts theologically. I concur with Vanhoozer and Smith that culture, in its broadest sense is a gesture toward the good life.[4] In this view, the products of culture are intended to move us closer to our own (or our broader society’s) notion of what the good life is. That is, we desire the good life, as Smith points out, and engage with the cultural products we believe will get us there. When we believe strongly enough that certain cultural artifacts will produce the good life, our engagement with them can quickly become ritualized. Smith uses the example of the mall. If desire is at the core of what it is to be human, then the mall as a cultural text has quite a bit to say to us. We can see that every store as well as the concept of “the mall” as a whole institution affects what we desire and who we should then be. Retailers want us to believe that their products will make us better people, will finally grant us the good life that we’ve sought after so desperately and that without their product, we run the risk of missing out on the good life.

I will not be discussing worldviews, then, as they relate to culture; rather, I will follow Smith when he writes, “In order to recognize the religious power and formative force of the mall, we need to adopt a paradigm of cultural critique and discernment that thinks even deeper than beliefs or worldviews and takes seriously the central role of formative practices.”[5] In relation to Vonnegut, my method will be to extrapolate the ways the novel speaks to the formative practices that have created the theology of culture described above in order to demonstrate how it offers a critique of both the practices and the theology they produce. Vanhoozer is helpful in this regard. It would be easy to restrict a reading of Vonnegut solely to “cultural hegemonies” particularly because the novel is so overtly against war, capitalism, and the American Dream as ideologies. While such a reading is important as a preliminary understanding of the way in which the novel itself engages with and is shaped by the culture of its time, it will also be valuable to put the novel in conversation with theology. Vanhoozer writes: “To understand a cultural text truly thus requires putting it into theodramatic context—reading it in light of the control-script; viewing it thrice over in terms of creation, fall, and redemption.”[6] Thus a situating of Vonnegut both within his cultural milieu as well as within this theodramatic framework will be necessary. That is not to say that other, similar texts of its time do not speak to us theologically—only that I see Vonnegut’s work, particularly Slaughterhouse-Five saying something different.

Vonnegut in the Context of Anti-War Fiction

            Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut’s most famous work, is an anti-war novel, and along with Cat’s Cradle, is usually compared with Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Historically, both Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse fall between the two, Catch-22 published in 1961, Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse in 1963 and 1969, respectively. One of the key characteristics of all four is that each narrative is massively fragmented in some way in order to explore the utter meaninglessness of the atrocities committed during war. Catch-22 is told from multiple perspectives and jumps back and forth in time. Cat’s Cradle is broken up into 127 chapters, though it is fewer than 300 pages. Slaughterhouse-Five relies even more heavily on time, incorporating the actual time travel of the main character, Billy Pilgrim, as the reader is left to try and piece together Billy’s life and more importantly, his experience in WWII and the firebombing of Dresden. Gravity’s Rainbow has close to four hundred named characters, and even though the reader primarily follows Tyrone Slothrop, Slothrop’s story is erratic, disjointed, and ultimately the validity of certain aspects becomes questionable in the reader’s mind. The novel is also broken up into four parts and 73 ‘episodes.’ By the end, it seems the only character story the reader can trust is that of the V-2 rocket, named 00000, as by the end, it is the only “character” left from the beginning.

Ultimately, this fragmentation points to the loss of meaning, just as Modernist texts do, but the novels go further to subvert any attempt to try and re-establish or recover meaning because they suggest that there is actually no meaning to be found and that such attempts are absurd.[7] In Pynchon’s and Heller’s work, the reader is confronted directly with a complete loss of meaning without any hope for discovering it. The arc of the V-2 rocket itself in Gravity’s Rainbow represents an utter hopelessness, an inevitability of meaningless violence. Yossarian of Catch-22 deserts at the end of the novel because he cannot cope with the meaninglessness of war. He says, “Let the bastards thrive since I can’t do a thing to stop them but embarrass them by running away.”[8] There is an acceptance of this loss, almost a reveling in it especially with Heller.

Vonnegut’s relationship to these authors is complicated. There are certainly shared elements, particularly the loss and satirizing of meaning in the face of unspeakable atrocity. However, with Vonnegut, as I shall demonstrate in this paper, there is also a gesture towards a solution—a redemption. This gesture does not come in the form of a modernist hero or glimmer of hope; rather, it comes through facing and accepting the profane for what it is, thus allowing oneself to find the sacred beyond the profane. Much of Vonnegut’s middle work supports this reading. Sacred and satire are held in tension together. The human attempt to create meaning often results in absurdity in Vonnegut’s work; however, the destruction of life is clearly a terrible thing to Vonnegut. The refusal to recognize the “constructedness” of reality and meaning is what becomes the primary target of satire. In the face of such a disturbing, absurd destruction of human life, what do we do? This is the question raised in Slaughterhouse-Five right from the beginning.

Absurdity

            At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator describes Billy’s job as the chaplain’s assistant and says that he played a small organ and was in charge of a portable altar. The narrator then provides the reader with this seemingly unnecessary information: “The altar and the organ were made by a vacuum-cleaner company in Camden, New Jersey—and said so.”[9] The effect of this is a “profaning” of the sacred with the purpose of demonstrating that objects are made sacred and are not inherently sacred. This is a constant subject of concern for many of Vonnegut’s narrators, and the narrator of Slaughterhouse-Five is no different. Behind this concern for the construction of the sacred lies an even greater concern for Vonnegut: That everything is ultimately meaningless and uncontrollable. The narrator, toward the end of the narrative, writes of the novel itself, “There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless play things of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”[10] There is an important affinity here, expressed well in this passage, between Vonnegut and the work of atheistic existentialists particularly the work of Albert Camus (namely, the concept of the absurd.) However, there is also a vital difference, which will be important for the theological case that will be made later.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus describes the conditions that constitute the absurd: “The world is not reasonable, that is all that can be said. But what is absurd is the confrontation of this irrational and the wild longing for clarity whose call echoes in the human heart.”[11] Camus is pointing to the immensity of the universe and not only the inability of our narratives to account for it or contain it but the desire for them to do so. When one recognizes this immensity and sees the failure of our human constructs to explain it, one experiences the absurd.

Vonnegut’s treatment of death in Slaughterhouse constitutes a response to the absurd. Camus gives other practical examples: “At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them. [. . .] A man is talking on the telephone behind a glass partition; you cannot hear him, but you see his incomprehensible dumb show: you wonder why he is alive.”[12] For Camus, both man and nature “secrete the inhuman”[13] at times. When one stands at the edge of Niagra Falls, for example, one may be taken by the immense beauty of nature but may also suddenly realize that this same nature could also utterly destroy the human body. This realization of human frailty in the face of the immense universe constitutes the absurd. Camus’ solution to experiencing the absurd is to invent meaning. The power of Sisyphus,[14] says Camus, lies in the fact that he would not succumb to death, but persevered though his situation was unbearable and maddening. In that way, he defeated the gods who sought to defeat him. In the same way, human beings must continually overcome the inhuman that becomes unveiled in the universe, especially in our own selves, by creating meaning and identity for ourselves. While the creation of meaning is positive for Camus, Slaughterhouse-Five wants to draw our attention to the problem of treating made meaning as inherent meaning. This isn’t to say that meaning creation is bad—only that it can be bad and often is. The primary mode of meaning creation satirized in Slaughterhouse certainly is, as we shall see.

Furthermore, for Camus (and others such as Jean-Paul Sartre) the creation of meaning is strictly a human affair for oneself. That is, Camus is interested in “Knowing whether or not one can live without appeal.[15] In other words, Camus is not interested in an exterior transcendent, but an interior one—man’s own transcendent self, his goals, etc.[16] There is a clear distinction on this point between Vonnegut and the atheistic existentialists that will be helpful as we turn to the theological significance of the novel. Man’s own transcendent self, for Vonnegut, is what gets in the way of creating the sacred because Vonnegut sees that quite often the creation of the sacred according to man’s own goals is precisely what constitutes the absurd. Recall the organ manufactured by the vacuum cleaner company or consider the monograph of Howard J. Campbell in which he describes what it is to be poor in America:

It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor. Every other nation has folk traditions of men who were poor but extremely wise and virtuous, and therefore more estimable than anyone with power and gold. No such tales are told by the American poor. They mock themselves and glorify their betters. [. . .] Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money.[17]

Here we have quite a negative view of a transcendent ideal (that to be rich is to be wise and to be poor is a crime) that humans place upon themselves. Vonnegut’s work does point to a transcendent “part” of human beings, but questions whether or not that transcendence is given by man to himself. In contrast to the above passage, consider this passage from Breakfast of Champions where artist Rabo Karabekian describes his most famous painting:

‘I now give you my word of honor [. . .] that the picture your city owns shows everything about life which truly matters, with nothing left out. It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal—the “I am” to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us—in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.’[18]

One could argue that this awareness is exactly what Camus is talking about: our ability to recognize the absurdity of our situation and continue on in the face of it. However, Vonnegut’s work pushes against the notion of a self-dubbed sacred humanity and instead points to sanctification coming from the o/Other.

This also pushes against the idea that our response to horror should always be to make positive meaning out of it, a point explored at great length shortly. Ultimately, what matters to Vonnegut are the human beings who are caught in the “amber of the moment”[19] not the “why” that humans want to attach tragedy. “There is no why,”[20] I would argue, is an appropriate theological response to tragedy.

Defamiliarization

Before I begin an examination of the novel, I must first define one technical literary device that Vonnegut employs throughout the novel, which is vital to an understanding of the effect that the novel produces. Defamiliarization is a term coined in literary studies by the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky, in a 1925 essay entitled “Art as Technique.” There, Shklovsky writes, “as perception [of an object or concept] becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. [. . .] all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic. [. . .] In this process [. . .] things are replaced by symbols.”[21] In other words, we cease to see the meaning or implication of objects—they are reduced to their utility. Shklovsky continues: “By this ‘algebraic’ method of thought [referring to the unconsciously automatic transforming objects into symbols] we apprehend objects only as shapes with imprecise extensions; we do not see them in their entirety but rather recognize them by their main characteristics.”[22] Defamiliarization occurs when we are brought abruptly out of this mode and forced to see the object in a new light, reevaluating its details and gaining a new, more detailed understanding of it.[23] The effect typically forces us to see how objects were at one time assigned meaning or new meanings that the object perhaps did not have before.

In Vonnegut, we see this occur surrounding moments of death, particular because of the use of the phrase “So it goes” following most deaths in the novel. Death becomes defamiliarized particularly because the phrase follows and draws our attention toward not only natural deaths but “deaths” that turn to satire (i.e. the death of champagne or water.) Death is not only reduced to neutral phenomenon, but the process of defamiliarization seeks to reduce those who die to the level of neutral object, or as the narrator of Breakfast of Champions says, “machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.”[24] This forces us to see those moments as terribly cold or callous, thus calling our attention to the ways in which we make death meaningful—which, in this case, turns out to be affirmed by the novel.

Vonnegut’s use of defamiliarization is often complex and thus difficult to understand. It is not enough to say simply that the intention behind the technique is to satirize that which is being viewed through defamiliarization. In some sense, the neutral response to death is an object of satire. Satire is often critical sometimes even polemical, and the equivocation of dead champagne to dead people is a clear example of this. However, satire also always contains a kernel of truth. That is, there is also a sense in which Vonnegut’s use of this technique reveals the way things actually are. While we may not respond to the “death of champagne” in any classifiable way, Vonnegut rightly points out that there is a certain ambivalence when it comes to the death of human beings, particularly when that death is on a horrific scale. When death is defamiliarized, our attention is drawn to the artifice of meaning; however, a response of non-meaning is also criticized. The two are held in tension together.

Theodrama. So it Goes.

Our task now is to examine the features I have described above within the context of the theodrama of creation, fall, and redemption as described by Vanhoozer. Slaughterhouse-Five presents the reader with a tangled, yet theologically appropriate vision of creation and fall. That is, the novel holds a dual vision of creation as valued yet also fallen and tragic. At the beginning of the third chapter, the narrator relates the following episode that illustrates this tension well:

His bandy legs were thrust into golden cavalry boots which he had taken from a dead Hungarian colonel on the Russian front. So it goes. [. . .] One time a recruit was watching him bone and wax those golden boots, and he held one up to the recruit and said, “If you look in there deeply enough, you’ll see Adam and Eve.”

Billy Pilgrim had not heard this anecdote. But, lying on the black ice there, Billy stared into the patina of the corporal’s boots, saw Adam and Eve in the golden depths. They were naked. They were so innocent, so vulnerable, so eager to behave decently. Billy Pilgrim loved them.

Next to the golden boots were a pair of feet which were swaddled in rags. They were crisscroseed by canvas straps, were shod with hinged wooden clogs. Billy looked up at the face that went with the clogs. It was the face of a blond angel, of a fifteen-year-old boy.

The boy was as beautiful as Eve.[25]

The interplay of the perfect boots, where the boots came from, the innocence of Adam and Eve become quickly smashed together in the image of the teenage boy, feet wrapped in rags stuffed into wooden clogs, yet beautiful. Beautiful and broken at the same time. His location further compounds this. He is a teenage boy at war, most likely destined to die. His beauty becomes conflated with Ronald Weary’s “cruel trench knife” as the thieving corporal calls it “a pretty thing.”[26] The clear lines between innocence and violence that were being drawn at first are broken down so that the beautiful is no longer pure—it “secretes the inhuman.”[27]

There are many more examples throughout the novel where beauty and horror, humanity and inhumanity, sacred and profane become blurred. Theologically, this seems to be an accurate depiction of our condition as fallen human beings. In other words, our ability to produce or experience the beautiful or the sacred is always going to be mediated by our brokenness. We do not have the ability create or experience these things without the aid of God nor do we have the ability to experience or create them the way that God would without the transformative power of redemption. The picture that the episode above paints is one of broken beauty. Innocence that is slightly off-center. It is beauty that is in need of redemption.

However, our brokenness and, more specifically, the results of our brokenness cannot always be described theologically. That is, although brokenness and tragedy point to the necessity of redemption in the theodrama, the causes of and God’s action in specific moments of tragedy and brokenness do not need to be explained in terms of God’s theodrama apart from the more general sense of the Fall of creation—which brings us to the crux of the theological force of Slaughterhouse-Five. To do so is to create a naïve theology of culture in which all tragedy is ultimately positive and all victims are ultimately made objects of God’s plan rather than subjects acting in it.

This point will require further explanation. One of the most central moments in the novel occurs when Billy Pilgrim is struck with an epiphany as his wife is asking him about the war: “A crazy thought now occurred to Billy. The truth of it startled him. It would make a good epitaph for Billy Pilgrim—and for me, too. [. . .] “EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL AND NOTHING HURT.”[28] Why should this be “true” to Billy Pilgrim? Looking broadly over the entire novel, it should not be. The epitaph is true only for a dead Tralfamadorian—the extra-terrestrials who kidnap Billy Pilgrim to put him on display in their zoo. When Billy asks his zookeeper how it is their planet can always have peaceful days, the alien responds:

“Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments [. . .] That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.”[29]

The only response Billy can muster is “Um,” and it is completely appropriate. Although this Tralfamadorian worldview is what ultimately spawns Billy’s epiphany, this is not and can never be Billy’s experience. Like the Tralfamadorians, Billy is “unstuck” in time, traveling sporadically from one moment in his life to the next. However, unlike his alien hosts, he has no control over where he will go or what he will see. Instead, he is always reliving the most beautiful, horrific, and mediocre moments of his life. Thus, the thought that everything is beautiful and nothing hurt could not be an accurate description of Billy’s life. He has to instead take every moment as it comes again and again—as we all do.

The novel ultimately critiques this worldview through the defamiliarization and satirizing of a neutral response to death through the phrase “So it goes.” Like the epitaph, this phrase is also connected to the Tralfamadorian worldview. At the beginning of the novel, the narrator relates a letter to the local newspaper that Billy had written describing his inter-galactic friends and in particular, their views of time and death: “When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.’ ”[30] We can see how this worldview, which Billy Pilgrim attempts to adopt, ends up becoming a critique of itself through the devices of defamiliarization and satire.

Theologically speaking, this is a worldview that would mold all aspects of culture to be a part of “God’s will.” Under this view, the statement “Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt” entails, theologically, that God be present in all events, both beautiful and tragic, for the ultimate purpose of good. In other words, even the most horrific tragedies, the bombing of Dresden to put this in terms of the novel, are explainable ultimately in terms of God’s greater good. Such a view, however, is inconsistent with Vanhoozer’s notion of theodrama because it does not allow for a robust understanding of fall and redemption. If even the “most fallen” of human endeavors and events ultimately serve God’s good purposes,[31] then the act of redemption, though still present and necessary, is severely twisted since it suggests that God will use human fallenness in his act of redemption rather than ultimately transforming that fallenness.

We can also put this in conversation with the desire for the good life. The novel critiques this theological view in relation to the good life in a number of different ways. First, if this sort of theology of culture is adhered to as a means of achieving the good life, then it will have great difficulty engaging with and discerning between institutions as means to achieving the good life. A theology that sees everything as beautiful can hardly see anything as ultimately bad. Thus, when Smith discusses the ways in which particular institutions such as consumerism, patriotism, and education come to shape our identities, one could ultimately argue from the “Everything is Beautiful” position, that these institutions cannot negatively form our identities because God will ultimately use them for good. Returning to Howard Campbell’s monograph, we can see how works and ends up creating a narrative of oppression against the poor:

“Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. The inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since, say, Napoleonic times.”[32]

This belief among both the wealthy and the poor is what serves to create the immense oppression that Campbell describes in his monograph—and seeing things this way has formed a certain kind of person. Comparing the Tralfamadorian way of seeing things to the way that Smith talks about formative practices, we can examine the ways in which such a theology would shape our desires and our identity negatively in relation to Christ-like Christian practice.

The desire that drives the Tralfamadorians is the good life achieved by only existing in the good. The joke of this part of Vonnegut’s novel is that the Tralfamadorian social imaginary sounds so good—who wouldn’t want to live that way? Much like the promises of consumerism, which Smith describes, such an imaginary could never be realized, and Vonnegut makes it very easy for us to see that since the Tralfamadorians are nothing like us—they are time traveling aliens. That Billy Pilgrim believes he can adopt their social imaginary is a part of his tragic nature. The novel then calls us to question an imaginary among human beings that would attempt to ignore the bad and only see the good—or see the bad as good or neutral. It allows us to see how destructive that actually is. Vanhoozer summarizes this well when he writes that “theology and understanding alike are short-circuited if we are not able to discern (1) how our faith is affected by the world we live in and (2) how we are to embody our faith in shapes of everyday life.”[33] We are not living in the world if all tragedy is beautiful—if all bad can be explained in terms of God’s greater good. Rather, the brokenness of the world must be engaged on its own terms, apart from God’s action in order to arrive at the most robust understanding of God’s transformative redemption. We pass through the profane to arrive at the sacred.

Conclusion: Cross-Pressure in the Immanent Frame

I’ve suggested that the novel critiques a vision of the world that would see only the most beautiful moments, ignoring or attempting to destroy those that are not. Much of Vonnegut’s work struggles with this conflict between wanting to acknowledge the beautiful and not allowing the beautiful to dominate our vision. Another way of articulating the situation that Billy Pilgrim finds himself in over-against that of the Tralfamadorians is found in Charles Taylor’s notion of the immanent frame. For Taylor the secular distinction between the transcendent and the material is ultimately an immanent frame: “the different structures we live in: scientific, social, technological, and so on, constitute such a frame in that they are part of a ‘natural,’ or ‘this-worldly’ order which can be understood in its own terms, without reference to the ‘supernatural’ or ‘transcendent.’ ”[34] Billy’s desire to see everything as beautiful is in, many ways, an appeal to the transcendent. The Tralfamadorians have the ability to “transcend” time in that they can choose “when” they look at—they defy the metaphysics of presence, able to be present in any moment. Billy’s condition is misleading both for him and the reader in that he is still immanent despite his ability to travel through time. It really is no ability at all since he has no control over it, as discussed above. Thus, the tragedy that Billy must continually relive is simply a part of the structures he lives in. He cannot escape, and his attempt to ignore those moments is reflected in the objects of the more overt critiques the novel makes against American culture in general.

Taylor’s notion of cross-pressure in relation to how both believers and non-believers exist in the immanent frame together is also helpful in further understanding the dilemma that Slaughterhouse presents. Taylor writes that “those who want to opt for the ordered, impersonal universe, whether in its scientistic-materialist form, or in a more spiritualized variant, feel the imminent loss of a world of beauty, meaning, warmth, as well as of the perspective of self transformation beyond the everyday” and continues, arguing that on the opposite end are those “haunted by a sense that the universe might after all be as meaningless as the most reductive materialism describes. They feel that their vision has to struggle against this flat and empty world; they fear that their strong desire for God, or for eternity, might after all be the self-induced illusion that materialists claim it to be.”[35] Vonnegut situates his characters right in the middle of this tension.

Billy himself is flat, without an identity,[36] and the novel ends with a question, “Poo-tee-weet?”  which signals the absurdity of attempting to draw meaning from something as horrific as the bombing of Dresden. The theologically minded reader feels the burden of the tension. Such a reader senses that Billy Pilgrim is in the first position, but Billy has already lost the world of beauty despite his desire to be Tralfamadorian. Furthermore, such a reader will identify with the second position in the face of the atrocity that the bombing of Dresden presents particularly when the response of both characters and narrator is one of indifference. If, however, we read those moments of indifference as satirizing such a response to atrocity, then the novel points us to a theological position where our response to tragedy is to understand it on its own terms and situate ourselves in the hope of God’s redemption.

by Joel Harrison

Bibliography

Camus, Albert, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage   International, 1955, 1991).

Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961).

Smith, James K.A., Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation             (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009)

Tally, Robert T. “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies         http://continuumliterarystudies.typepad.com/continuum-literary-studie/2012/03/kurt-   vonneguts-last-laugh-guest-post-by-robert-t-tally-jr.html> 15 March 2012.

Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007).

Vanhoozer, Kevin J., Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends          (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007).

Vonnegut, Kurt, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973).

—, Slaughterhouse-Five ((New York: Random House, 1969).


            [1]. Robert T. Tally, “Kurt Vonnegut’s Last Laugh,” Continuum Literary Studies http://continuumliterarystudies.typepad.com/continuum-literary-studie/2012/03/kurt-vonneguts-last-laugh-guest-post-by-robert-t-tally-jr.html> 15 March 2012.

            [2]. Ibid.

            [3]. The fashion among Vonnegut critics has often been to see him as one of his own tragi-comic characters, either Pilgrim or Kilgore Trout or another, who are always depicted in a “me versus the world” sort of way.

            [4]. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology: How to Read Cultural Texts and Interpret Trends (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2007) 45.

            [5]. James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic 2009) 24.

            [6]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 41.

            [7]. A term to be defined and discussed at length later.

            [8]. Heller, Joseph, Catch-22 (New York: Random House, 1961) 462.

            [9]. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (New York: Random House, 1969) 31.

            [10]. Ibid., 164.

            [11]. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, Trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1955, 1991) p. 21

            [12]. Ibid., 14-5.

            [13]. Ibid,. 14.

            [14]. In this myth, King Sisyphus is punished for his trickery against the gods by being made to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down again.

            [15]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 60.

            [16]. See Jean-Paul Sartre Existentialism is a Humanism.

            [17]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [18]. Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions (New York: Random House, 1973) 226.

            [19]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 77.

            [20]. Ibid.

            [21]. V. Shklovsky, ‘Art as Technique,’ J. Rivkin and M. Ryan (ed), Literary Theory: An Anthology (Blackwell Publishing: Massachusetts, 1998) p. 15

            [22]. Ibid.

            [23]. Jamie Smith uses this technique when describing the mall at the beginning of Desiring the Kingdom, 19-22.

            [24]. Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions, 225.

            [25]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 53.

            [26]. Ibid., 54.

            [27]. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 14.

            [28]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 121-2.

            [29]. Ibid., 117.

            [30]. Ibid., 27.

            [31]. This is, of course, also ignoring any complex discussions of theodicy.

            [32]. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five, 129.

            [33]. Vanhoozer, Everyday Theology, 16.

            [34]. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2007) 594.

            [35]. Taylor, A Secular Age, 592-3.

            [36]. This is because identity is formed through the achievement of goals over time. Billy is unable to do this given his “unstuckness.”

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