Category Archives: Philthy: Philosophy & Theology

Good and Evil in ‘The Satanic Verses’ by Salman Rushdie

How does Rushdie Represent Good and Evil in The Satanic Verses?

“The just,” Aristotle wrote in Nicomachean Ethics, “is something human.”[1] For Salman Rushdie in The Satanic Verses, good and evil are something human. Rushdie gives a dialogic representation of good and evil, especially of the latter; each character (including the nebulous narrator) identifies different people, ideas, and institutions as “evil.” Although one could say that this multiplicity of voices supports moral relativism, it accomplishes something slightly different: Rushdie’s dialogic representation of evil grounds “good” and “evil” in the psychology of particular human beings, encouraging his readers to understand other human beings before judging their actions or beliefs as good or evil.

Dialogism and Evil

All the characters in The Satanic Verses employ their equal and unique voices to declare their own views of good and evil. Since the
omniscient, unidentified narrator[2] speaks to the reader throughout the story as a character, the novel presents no single authoritative voice. “I’m saying nothing,” the narrator says. “Don’t ask me to clear things up one way or the other; the time of revelations is long gone.”[3] Here the narrator refuses to impose his or her perspective on the story. Since the novel lacks an authoritative voice, all the characters’ differing opinions on good and evil carry equal weight; thus, the novel lacks an absolute standard of good and evil. What one can gather from the different characters’ statements is that good and evil are human things, not divine. For instance, several characters associate “evil” with a particular culture: the Imam defines “evil”
as “foreignness”[4] and Hind calls London “a demon city.”[5] Other characters condemn ideologies and institutions as evil: Sufyan,[6] Jumpy,[7] and Mishal and Anahita[8] reject the British government that oppresses Asian immigrants; and Sisodia
censures Indian religious beliefs and practices.[9] Others denounce certain people as evil: Salman attributes evil actions to
Mahound,[10] and Mrs. Qureishi calls her son-in-law “a woman hitter” and a “devil.”[11] Each of these voices present evil as a human phenomenon, not as something supernatural. A few characters such as Ayesha[12] and Mahound[13] attribute evil actions to spiritual figures. Hence, while the novel presents no absolute standard for good and evil, the majority of voices in this democratic novel declare good and evil to be a human phenomena, identifiable in human institutions, ideas, and hearts.

 Saladin’s Story: Evil and the Human Psyche

When Saladin is transformed into a satyr, people don't see him as a kindly pan-flautist like this satyr, but as a monster.

More specifically, the plot reveals that evil is grounded in human nature and psychology, as shown by Saladin’s story: his transformation into a “demon”[14] and his crime against Gibreel and Allie stem directly from his childhood in India and relationship with his father. Saladin—who pursues his idea of “the good,”[15] that is, Englishness—finds himself morphed into a living representation of his idea of “evil.” As India is filled with “rubble, litter, noise,” and “disorder”[16]; so Saladin-satyr is “loud, stench, hideous, outsize, grotesque.”[17] The old Indian pedophile’s “fleshbone”[18] is even mirrored by Saladin-satyr’s “phallus, greatly enlarged and embarrassingly erect.”[19] Saladin becomes a caricature of his father: Changez is tall,[20] so Saladin grows “to a height of over eight feet”[21]; Changez is domineering and cruel,[22] so Saladin gains remarkable “Powers[23]; Changez is superstitious,[24] so Saladin asks a “Moroccan priest” for help regaining his human form.[25]
Tellingly, Saladin snaps at his father before his transformation, “Whatever I am, father dear….I owe it all to you.”[26]
Thus, when Saladin appears to be “the incarnation of evil,”[27] he does not embody a universal absolute evil, but the particular evils that have traumatized his psyche.

Throughout the novel’s middle, Saladin-satyr struggles with his transformation and with human nature and evil. Saladin initially thinks that his metamorphosis has fundamentally changed his being: “He chose Lucretius over Ovid. The inconstant soul…A being going through life can become so other to himself as to be another.”[28] After incorrectly deciding that his “essence” has completely changed,[29] Saladin revises his view—he has not truly changed at all, since man is essentially evil: “Why demons, when man himself is a demon?”[30] Saladin comes close to an accurate understanding of his psyche when he
recollects Niccolò Machiavelli’s life: although the Florentine politician sacrificed everything to fight for democracy and freedom, his name has become “a synonym for evil.”[31] One may call Machiavelli an “evil” traitor and sycophant because he worked for
the tyrannical Medici, but by doing so, one forgets that Machiavelli’s actions stemmed from a particular political and personal situation.

Saladin does not understand the full significance of his Machiavelli allusion until after he has betrayed Gibreel and Allie. Rushdie brackets Saladin’s wicked deeds with references to Shakespeare’s Othello,[32] aligning Gibreel and Saladin with Othello and Iago. According to Professor Wormersley, Iago does not trap Othello with his schemes; rather, “Iago and Othello create a world
together” that inevitably leads to tragedy.[33] This reading of Othello does not interpret Iago as “pure evil” and instead thinks of Iago as a psychologically complex human. Gibreel and Saladin reflect this view of Othello: Gibreel’s “maw of the black hole”[34]
parallels Saladin’s “new, dark world”[35]; both choose to take “the left-hand path”;[36]  the narrator calls the two men “conjoined
opposites.”[37] Hence, if Saladin is Iago, then Saladin has not completely transformed into “the incarnation of
evil” as he thinks.[38] Instead, Saladin’s wicked actions simply stem from his very human psyche. Although Saladin has regained his human form, his scheme to destroy Gibreel and Allie’s relationship shows he has inherited his father’s deceitful cruelty. As Changez’s theft of the wallet showed an infantile lust for control, so Saladin’s phone calls to Gibreel and Allie are an “infernal, childlike evil.”[39] Like Iago’s treacherous acts, Saladin’s betrayal does not confirm him as absolutely evil, but rather merely human: “His humanity is sufficient form and explanation for his deed.”[40]  Saladin—like Machiavelli and Mohammed[41]—is
not a supernaturally evil figure; he is human, and must be judged accordingly.

Niccolo Machiavelli wrote 'The Prince,' in which he infamously appears to support tyranny, after his family was banished and he was tortured by a tyrant.

After his crimes, Saladin comes to understand human evil by reconciling with his father and confronting Gibreel. Saladin returns to India to visit his father, who has been transformed by cancer. As Saladin’s metamorphosis did not fundamentally change his soul,
but only emphasized already-existing evil aspects of his psyche; so Changez’ cancer has not abrogated his self, but only abolished the evil aspects of his character: the cancer “stripped him of his faults, of all that had been domineering, tyrannical, and cruel in him, so that the mischievous, loving and brilliant man beneath lay exposed, once again, for all to see.”[42] While Saladin has always envisioned his father as absolutely evil, he now understands that Changez is only a human with human flaws. Moreover, Changez’s
death teaches Saladin that evil is inherent to human nature: after witnessing “the dawning of a terror”[43]
on his father’s face as he dies, Saladin wonders, “‘Why the horror?”[44] By using the word
“horror,” Rushdie alludes to Kurtz’s last words in Joseph Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness: “‘The horror! The
horror!”[45] The dying Kurtz comprehends with terror the depravity of human nature; in The Satanic Verses, the dying Changez and his son reach the same realization—evil is human.

Saladin’s confrontation with Gibreel cements his new understanding of human evil. After Gibreel murders Allie and Sisodia, Saladin recognizes his guilt: “he was going to die for his verses, but could not find it in himself to call the
death-sentence unjust.”[46] This statement indicates that Saladin has realized two things: First, he
understands that his transformation into a satyr did not mark a fundamental change in his identity[47]—Saladin,
a human, was already evil—and thus he is morally responsible for betraying Gibreel. Second, Saladin can empathize with Gibreel’s mental instability, even though Gibreel betrayed him: Saladin, seeing from Gibreel’s point of view,
feels “oddly detached from events. –Like Gibreel when the sickness came.”[48] Having learned from his father’s illness and death that humans are inherently evil, but not completely evil, Saladin can judge Gibreel’s “evil” actions
appropriately. Saladin can “no longer believe in fairy-tales”—he can no longer blame his and Gibreel’s evil deeds on supernatural forces, as he knows that evil is human.

 Conclusion

Rushdie’s novel presents a bleak view of humanity—the qualification that man is not completely evil does little to brighten
the statement that evil itself is human. Moreover, The Satanic Verses explicitly critiques Muslim theology, questioning its distinctions between good and evil in a way that unsettles any religious person in the postmodern era. If one is disheartened by Rushdie’s depiction of human nature, religion, and good and evil, one must note the final page of the novel: “It seemed to him [Saladin] that in spite of all his wrong-doing, weakness, guilt—in spite of his humanity—he was getting another chance.”[49] Like Saladin, Rushdie’s readers have been unnerved by their journey to a new perspective on evil and humanity; yet like Saladin, one has been given an opportunity to approach others with empathy and humility, knowing that everyone is merely human.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated by Terence Irwin (Indianaoplis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 1999),
10.

[2] Rushdie never reveals his narrator’s identity, but one may infer that the narrator is a supernatural figure, due to his or her omniscience about the story’s spiritual aspects. Yet it remains unclear if the narrator is a demon (perhaps even Satan, as seen on
page 95) or an angel (perhaps even Allah, as seen on page 423). Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (New York: Random
House, 1988).

[3] Ibid., 423.

[4] Rushdie, 212.

[5] Ibid., 258.

[6] Ibid., 261.

[7] Ibid., 426.

[8] Ibid., 253, 267, 272, 292,
296.

[9] Ibid., 533.

[10] Ibid., 376.

[11] Ibid., 240.

[12] Ibid., 498.

[13] Ibid., 125-6.

[14] Ibid., 294.

[15] Rushdie, 265.

[16] Ibid., 55.

[17] Ibid., 298.

[18] Ibid., 38.

[19] Ibid., 163.

[20] Ibid., 36.

[21] Ibid., 300.

[22] Changez takes the wallet Saladin finds only to force thirteen-year-old Saladin to use it to pay for his father to live lazily in London (Rushdie, 37-44).

[23] Ibid., 298.

[24] Ibid., 41.

[25] Ibid., 251.

[26] Ibid., 46.

[27] Ibid., 265.

[28] Rushdie, 297.

[29] Ibid., 285.

[30] Ibid., 422.

[31] Ibid., 415.

[32] Ibid., 439, 481.

[33] Professor Wormersley, “Othello” (presented at the “Shakespeare’s Tragedies” lecture series at Oxford University, 25 January
2011).

[34] Rushdie, 479.

[35] Rushdie, 433.

[36] Ibid. 362, 433.

[37] Ibid., 441.

[38] Ibid., 265.

[39] Ibid., 459.

[40] Ibid., 481.

[41] Ibid., 415.

[42] Ibid., 538.

[43] Rushdie, 545.

[44] Ibid., 546.

[45] Joseph Conrad, “The Heart of Darkness,” Heart of Darkness and Selections from The Congo Diary, (New York:
The Modern Library, 1999), 86.

[46] Rushdie, 560.

[47] Ibid., 265-6.

[48] Ibid., 560.

[49] Rushdie, 561.

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‘Let there be Light’: The Gospel According to Dr River Song

Amy: What does the time energy do?

Doctor: JUST KEEP MOVING.

Amy: Tell me!

Doctor: If the time-energy catches up with you, you’ll never have been born. It will erase every moment of your existence. You will never have lived at all. Now….keep your eyes shut, and keep moving.

Remember how scared you were when you first heard Matt Smith speak those four sentences? As Amy clung to the communicator and shook with fright, the BBC National Orchestra’s string section screeched up the scale and you scooted forward on the couch. I scooted forward on my desk chair and started cramming chicken tikka masala into my mouth at factory speed while watching ‘Flesh and Stone’ on my laptop as a dinner-time break from prepping for my Virginia Woolf tutorial. Since BBC iPlayer posted the episodes out of order, I hadn’t known about the cracks until this episode. I didn’t understand what had
happened to Rory at the end of ‘Cold Blood’ until this moment. And I felt very afraid.

Rory Williams (Arthur Darvill) gets devoured by time-energy in 'Cold Blood.'

Why are the cracks so very scary? If Rory dies in any “ordinary” fashion—getting sprayed with poisonous green gas, shot with a laser gun, or blown up in the Blitz—we throw our dinner plates at the telly screen, at Steven Moffat, at Amy for rendering Rory unavailable in the first place. We comfort ourselves, knowing that Doctor Who has a history of undignified but epic dues ex machina endings, and that Moffat will probably pull one to bring Rory back.

But Rory erased from existence? All the plate-throwing and rationalizing in the universe can’t dampen our rage, grief, and fear.

Why?

Because we know, instinctively, that existence is inherently good and nonexistence inherently evil.

It’s an inalienable truth. We all like existing. Athanasius, an Egyptian theologian born around 298 A. D., expanded on this truth in his book On the Incarnation: ‘It is God alone who exists, evil is non-being [or nonexistence], the negation and antithesis of good.’[1]

In other words, God exists. Goodness exists. Evil does not exist—or, it is nonexistence. Nonexistence threatens to destroy all good things.  So the cracks in Doctor Who that devour all of time and space are evil. They transform everything that exists into nonexistence—they change everything that is good into the ultimate evil. They can even change Rory—who can be too kind-hearted for his own good—into Evil.

And that scares us.

One of the cracks in the fabric of the universe.

But there’s a way to shut the cracks, to bring Rory and otherssucked into nonexistence and evil back into existence:

Angel Bob: The time field is coming. It will destroy our reality.

Doctor: Well, look at you, running away. What can I do for
you?

Angel Bob: There is a rupture in time. The angels calculate that if you throw yourself into it, it will close, and they will be saved.

Doctor: Yeah, yeah, yeah, could do that, could do that, but why?

Angel Bob: Your friends would also be saved.

Doctor: Well, there is that.

River: I’ve travelled in time. I’m a complicated space-time event, too; throw me in!

Doctor: Oh, be serious! Compared to me, these angels are more complicated than you, and it’d take every single one of them to amount to me, so get a grip.

River: I can’t let you do this.

I suspect the Doctor knew then what he had to do. To shut the cracks, he would have to find the explosion that caused the cracks and throw himself into it. That’s exactly what he does in ‘The Big Bang’:

River: The T.A.R.D.I.S. is still burning; it’s exploding at every point in history. If you threw the Pandorica into the explosion, right into the heart of the fire…

Amy: Then what?

River: ….then let there be light.

Vincent Van Vogh's depiction of the T.A.R.D.I.S. exploding.

Specifically, if you threw the Doctor—the most ‘complicated space-time event’ ever—and the Pandorica with its restorative light into the explosion, the Pandorica’s light would shoot through the cracks to every point in time and space, forcing the cracks to regurgitate everything they had swallowed.

Although it’s the Pandorica’s light that brings the universe back into existence, it’s terribly clear that only the Doctor can fly the
Pandorica into the explosion. Only by sacrificing himself—giving himself up to evil, to nonexistence—can the Doctor save the universe from evil.

When River and Amy had that conversation, I immediately thought of the end of C. S. Lewis’ novella The Great Divorce, in which Lewis and others take a bus from hell to heaven—from a huge grey metropolis to an entire world of trees and mountains. When Lewis arrives, he meets Romantic novelist and preacher George MacDonald, who shows
him that hell—which he had thought was huge—was really infinitesimal:

…he made me see, after I had looked very closely, a crack in the soil so small that I could not have identified it without this aid.

‘I cannot be certain,’ he said, ‘that this is the crack ye came up through. But through a crack no bigger than that ye
certainly came.’

‘But—but,’ I gasped with a feeling of bewilderment not unlike terror. ‘I saw an infinite abyss. And cliffs towering up and up. And then this country on top of the cliffs.’

‘Aye. But the voyage was not mere locomotion. That bus, and all you inside it, were increasing in size.’

‘Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?’

‘Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real
World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste….’

‘I see,’ I said at last. ‘She couldn’t fit into
Hell.’

He nodded. ‘There’s not room for her,’ he said. ‘Hell could not open its mouth wide enough.’

‘And she couldn’t make herself smaller?—like Alice, you know.’

‘Nothing like small enough. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it…’

For Lewis, hell is a bleak place of near-nonexistence: you’re trapped inside a crack so small, so close to nonexistence, that no one can fit their arm inside the crack to pull you out. Just as the Doctor alone can enter the explosion to bring people out of nonexistence, Jesus Christ alone can enter hell to bring people out of near-nonexistence. Lewis continues:

‘Then can no one ever reach them?’

‘Only the Greatest of all can make Himself small enough to enter Hell. For the higher a thing is, the lower it can descend—a man can sympathise with a horse but a horse cannot sympathise with a rat. Only One has descended into Hell.’

‘And will He ever do so again?’

‘I was not once long ago that He did it. Time does not work that way when once ye have left Earth. All the moments
that have been or shall be were, or are, present in the moment of His descending. There is no spirit in prison to whom He did not preach.’

‘And some hear him?’

‘Aye.’[2]

Sound familiar? Only the Doctor—the most complicated space-time event ever, the last of the Time Lords—can throw himself into the explosion and close the cracks. River Song can’t; the weeping angels can’t; the Pandorica alone can’t. And when he does, he restores every moment and place throughout all of space and time. Similarly, only Christ—the most complicated
space-time event ever, the eternal God turned into mortal human flesh—can be crucified and descend through the cracks into hell. And when He does, he rescues every person throughout all of history from evil’s power, giving them the freedom to choose Him, the Light of the world.

As River so aptly says, ‘Let there be light.’


[1] Athanasius, On the Incarnation., I.4.

[2] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: Macmillan, 1946), 122-4.

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“If We Ask Anything According to His Will, He Hears Us”

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we ask of Him.

–James 5:13-15

 Earlier this evening, I wrote a brief theology of prayer based on James. Now, I must contemplate the following question: “What do you fear to ask God for? Why do you not have confidence in that request? How can you find confidence in that request?”

I feel tricked. Two pull questions in one night about prayer? But I also know how dense I am—usually God has to repeat a point over and over until I get it. My assumption, then, is that there’s something God wants me to learn about prayer tonight. Tonight, as I can’t escape that I’m-about-to-cry feeling; as I’ve spent a day fighting the when-I-think-about-everything-I-have-to-do-I-feel-nauseated feeling; as I listen to Christmas music not to reflect on the miracle of God with us, but merely to stay sane. Tonight, I have something to learn about prayer.

Since I haven’t a clue what it is, this blog post is going to be a lá Virginia Woolf or James Joyce—that’s right, stream-of-consciousness.

So here goes.

“What do you fear to ask God for?” (Resist the urge to edit the sentence’s preposition error!) I can trace my most common requests over the years:

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t ask for wisdom; it’s both the oldest and most persistent of my requests. I don’t think I’m wise, so I keep asking. I don’t know if that means God hasn’t given me wisdom, or if I just don’t see it.

 Every time we’ve moved, I’ve begged God for friends. Sometimes He’s given them; sometimes He hasn’t.

In middle school, I asked for courage and comfort, but mostly for answers. A friend died, and I didn’t understand how God could let that happen. I can’t say that I ever got what I asked for, but I did make it through.

In high school, I asked for perseverance, confidence, patience, strength, and joy. I know God gave me the first four. But joy?

I still ask for joy, alongside other things: peace, love, energy, and more wisdom. Now that I’m a quasi-adult, I ask for physical things, too: a job, a car, a place to live, a roommate, a mentor, a church, a top-50 grad school, a solid resume.

But what do I fear to ask God for? Well…I fear to ask God for things that hurt to think about. Things that, when they came to mind years ago, I could forget by doing homework. Now, when those things come to mind, I feel so sick that not even homework distracts me.

Sometimes, I do ask. But often I don’t. It hurts too much. And I suspect I don’t entirely believe that God is listening. If He isn’t, then by thinking about those things, I suffer for nothing. Even if He is listening, I don’t entirely believe that He’s disposed to give me what I ask. Which John says is absurd: “And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us” (1 John 5:14).

In my last blog post, I came up with two reasons why God might not give me what I want: (1) Either it’s inappropriate for me, or (2) I just don’t ask.

I know this. And yet I rarely ask.

It’s nonsensical. I value rationality. I can argue myself into or out of most things. But I can’t convince myself to ask for those things. I know my motivation is entirely emotional and irrational. And I hate it.

“Why do you not have confidence in that request?” I know the answer to that, too. But I don’t particularly want to share that on the Internet. Because it’s my heart’s little secret from my head. Typing it out would hut like nothing I’ve ever known.

“How can you find confidence in that request?” Ironically, it seems the only way I can find confidence in my request is if that request is answered.

I’m sorry I’m being so cryptic. But when Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can know it?” he meant two things: First, it’s almost impossible to accurately understand what’s in a person’s heart. Only God can really do that. Second, even if someone has come to a sketchy understanding of her heart, it’s not something for other people to know. Aslan only tells you your story—no one else’s.

And so I’ll stop here.

 **Note to Dr. Vincent, if she reads this: I did my best.

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“Elijah was a Man Just Like Us” *insert skeptical expression here*

I had a high school teacher who loved to tell stories. He’d tell the same ones over and over until we had each one memorized. I can recite tales of little boys playing baseball in 1950s LA, high school guys navigating the prom in the 60s, and college guys coping with their ’Nam vet friend in the 70s. (I’m grinning as I type this, wishing I could take the time to tell each of those stories now.)

 One story he told over and over always started with the same sentence: “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17, NIV). I can’t remember the context of the continually recycled anecdote (i.e., the point of telling it again), and I can’t even remember exactly how the Elijah story went. I think our teacher jumped around 1 Kings, relating a different Elijah escapade each time.

But I remember that sentence. “Elijah was a man just like us.” So when I was asked to scratch out a brief theology of prayer according to James, I thought of Elijah.

“The prayer of a righteous man,” James writes, “has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore fruit” (James 5:16-18, ESV).

I’m skeptical. Elijah was a man…just like me. Right. Even ignoring the awkward gender constructs on the English translation, I’m not convinced that Elijah was just like me.

So since that’s too confusing, let’s look elsewhere in James. Besides the end of chapter five, the two most important passages about prayer in the epistle are 1:5-8, 16-18 and 4:2-8. In the first section, James tells any Christian who “lacks wisdom” to “ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Great—if you feel like a fool, you can ask God for wisdom, and He’ll give it without checking (twice) to see if you’re on the naughty list.  But there’s a caveat—“But let him ask in faith, without doubting” (James 1:6). Three chapters later James adds another qualification—“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So while God won’t give you something that’s not good for you, there’s only one fault that will actually put you on the naughty list: doubt.

Which raises a big question: What if you ask for God to take away your doubts? What if you ask for faith? Remember the man who told Christ, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)? Knowing that God “gives more grace” to those who ask (James 4:6), the man asked Christ for more faith. He had enough faith to ask, but not enough faith for much else. Any prayer is founded in faith—even if it’s faith as small as a mustard seed. I couldn’t ask God for more faith if I didn’t have any in the first place. And I do hope (and pray!) that God doesn’t “reproach” me for my doubts, but rather gives more faith.

If every prayer is founded in faith, then any old prayer “will save the one who is sick” (James 5:15). And any of us who prays is just like Elijah.

Even though I have that sentence ringing in my head—“Elijah was a man just like us”—I’m not entirely sure that’s the point. “Every good and perfect gift is from above,” James reminds us, “coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

I’m not like Elijah. I’m human, and I have some smidgen of faith—but I know I’m not like Elijah. Nevertheless, I know that Elijah’s God and my God are the same. He doesn’t change. He gives good gifts. He is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He gives wisdom to the foolish and uses them to shame the wise. He gives more grace.

I might not be like Elijah. But I can pray to his God anyway, trusting that the Father of lights still gives good gifts.

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Thoughts about Suffering

1 Peter begins with Peter establishing his readers’ identity in Christ. His audience of “elect exiles”[1] has two loyalties: the greater one to God’s kingdom (“elect”) and the lesser one to their earthly country (“exiles”). These people are “exiles”—they are Jewish and Gentile Christians scattered throughout Turkey who belong in Israel. Peter defines their earthly identity as a lack: as they have lost their homes, their identity in a homeland is something perishable. But they have an “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”[2] identity in God. Our identity, Peter insists, is not what we do, or where we are from, or what we have. We are who we are—God’s “elect”[3]—by God’s “mercy”[4] and “power”[5] alone.

 God’s mercy and power defines us as His. And only God’s mercy and power will allow us to endure suffering. “In this you rejoice,” Peter writes, “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.”[6] You will delight in your identity in Christ, Peter asserts, when suffering comes. Only your identity in Christ—which is “guarded”[7] by God’s power and mercy—will sustain you.

 “Therefore,” Peter continues, “preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation.”[8] Peter then charges the “elect exiles” to holiness, but even that second command is grounded in the first.

What’s the independent clause in Peter’s sentence? “Set your hope fully on the grace.” Subordinate  clauses? “Preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded” and “That will be brought to you at the revelation.” So the main clause is not the command to prepare your mind for action, but rather the command to “set your hope fully on the grace.” “Preparing your minds for action” modifies the main clause, describing how or why you “set our hope fully on the grace.” Why is that important?

It’s important because preparing for action is so much more exciting than setting your hope on something. One is physical; one is metaphysical. One sounds daring; the other, demure. Nevertheless, Peter’s primary command is to set your mind on grace—to set your hope on who you are in Christ.

The point Peter makes is this: Simply preparing for action will not sustain you in suffering. No matter how many years you spend in seminary, how many languages you learn, or how many kung-fu moves you master, you will not endure suffering unless you hope in who you are in Christ’s grace alone.  Learning who you are in Christ is the only way to prepare for suffering.


[1] 1 Peter 1:1 (ESV)

[2] 1 Peter 1:4

[3] 1 Peter 1:1

[4] 1 Peter 1:3

[5] 1 Peter 1:5

[6] 1 Peter 1:6

[7] 1 Peter 1:5

[8] 1 Peter 1:13

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The Salvation of Harry “Bevel” Ashfield

I can’t decide about Bevel.

 In Flannery O’Connor’s short story The River, Harry Ashfield—who calls himself “Bevel” after the riverside preacher—gets to leave his neglectful parents’ apartment for the day with his sitter, Mrs. Conning. Harry-Bevel learns many things at the Connin’s country house that day. For instance, Harry-Bevel learns that a carpenter named Jesus Christ made him. Harry-Bevel had always thought that “Jesus Christ” was a swear word.

Mrs. Connin takes Harry-Bevel to the river to see Reverend Bevel Summers heal people, even though the preacher had failed to heal Mr. Connin: “He couldn’t do nothing for Mr. Connin, though,” Mrs. Connin says. “Mr. Connin didn’t have the faith, but he said he would try anything once.”[1]

At the river, Reverend Summers preaches about the River of Life: “All rivers come from that one River and go back to it like it was the ocean sea and if you believe, you can lay your pain in that River and get rid of it because that’s the River that was made to carry sin. It’s a River full of pain itself, pain itself, moving toward the Kingdom of Christ, to be washed away, slow, you people, slow as this here old red water river round my feet.”[2]

Mrs. Connin pushes Harry-Bevel forward to be baptized. Though he initially thinks it’s a joke, Harry-Bevel changes his mind when he looks into the preacher’s eyes. Then the preacher shoves Harry-Bevel backwards under the water and pulls him up.

(This summary is longer than I thought it would be. Flannery O’Connor always said that a good story resists paraphrase; clearly, The River is a good story. Which is why I can’t decide about Bevel.)

Mrs. Connin takes Harry-Bevel home, where his parents scoff at Mrs. Connin’s blind faith in Bevel the preacher and Bevel the boy. When Harry-Bevel wakes to a silent apartment, he eats crackers, drinks ginger ale, and knocks over ashtrays. Sitting on the couch, “his expression changed as if he were gradually seeing appear what he didn’t know he’d been looking for. Then all of a sudden he knew what he wanted to do.”[3]

Then Harry-Bevel goes to the river and drowns himself.

I said that so crassly because Harry-Bevel’s death can’t be paraphrased. To relate it properly, I’d have to quote four paragraphs from O’Connor—or better yet, the entire story. Because Harry-Bevel’s death defies all explanation. He pushes back at you, like the river pushed back at him until the current took him away. But unlike Bevel, who might have been saved by shoving himself deeper and deeper into the river until the current took him, I don’t know if I’ll find The River’s point by thrusting myself deeper and deeper into it.

Yet I still must decide if Bevel is saved.

O’Connor consciously ends her stories with a violent moment of grace. One woman gets gored by a bull’s horns. Another has a stroke. Another is shot by an escaped convict. Each time, the violence forces the afflicted character to realign her perspective and accept or reject grace. The woman gored by a bull is physically turned upside down and mutters a prayer. The woman with a stroke sinks further into the past, into oblivion, disconnected from the present and her horrified son. The woman shot by a convict sheds her prejudices and has compassion on her killer.

But each time, the brutal grace comes from outside. The character has no control over grace’s coming. Bevel, on the other hand, goes to the river and forces the violence upon him. If violence hails grace, did Bevel force grace’s hand?

You can’t force God to save you. As a Protestant, I adhere to “grace alone, faith alone” and wonder to what extent Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic, did. Yet I empathize most with her characters who pester God until He finally turns His ear. In Revelation, Mrs. Turpin begs God to answer her question until He finally does. The violent moment that caused Mrs. Turpin to question came from God; her vision at the story’s end also comes from God. So although Mrs. Turpin sticks with her questions, both moments of grace come from God. God’s free grace saves her—not her own perseverance.

But what about Bevel? Bevel doesn’t start questioning because of an initial moment of violent grace—unless being baptized counts. I’m wary of saying that Bevel’s baptism is “just like” Mrs. Turpin’s getting whacked over the head with a book. Both Bevel and Mrs. Turpin resist paraphrase, and with it, corollaries.

And Bevel’s death-by-drowning differs from Mrs. Turpin’s salvific vision in one big way—he caused it. From Bevel’s perspective, the river took him. But the reader knows the river took him because that’s what river currents do—they pull you under and away. The river had no agency or volition; Bevel did.

But you could say that the bull that gored Mrs. May in Greenleaf had no real will to do it, either, since it was just an animal. In both instances, someone had to cause the irrational thing to hurt the character. That “someone” would have to be God. Thus, the moment of grace came from God. Bevel did not save himself.

 And so I can’t decide.


[1] Flannery O’Connor, “The River,” in The Complete Stories 157-174 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), 159.

[2] Ibid., 165.

[3] Ibid., 172.

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“In the World Above”: True Reality in Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland and Plato’s Republic

“Fantasy,” J. R. R. Tolkien writes, concluding his essay On Faerie Stories, “can thus be explained as a sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” (Tolkein).  Any fairy tale, from the Grimm brothers’ Snow White and the Seven Dwarves to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland, reveals the existence of an unseen reality. Since every fairy-tale ultimately points us towards the same truth—the Christian myth of the God who is Truth—each myth builds on the body of stories that came before, repeating the same plot and character patterns. By reworking Plato’s cave myth into a two-dimensional world of nineteenth-century mathematics, Abbott’s novella Flatland reminds his readers that our physical realm is not the true reality.

Edwin A. Abbott, like Plato millennia before, asks his readers to “imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling” (Plato, pg. 1132). The cave’s prisoners are chained to the floor with their faces fixed in only one direction, unable to see anything besides the dark figures dancing on the wall; similarly, the Flatland shapes are bound to a two-dimensional world, only able to see along a flat plane and unable to look up into the Third Dimension. Plato’s and Abbott’s characters face the same dilemma—they are trapped in a false reality with no way of knowing of or escaping their ignorance. Both the prisoners and shapes “would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows” (Plato 1133) and denounce anyone who questioned the readily apparent reality “a fool” (Abbott 53).

 The cave’s captives and Flatland’s shapes have only one chance to escape their false reality—an Outsider must enter the shadow world, unbind a prisoner, and make him examine his comfortable home. In the Republic, the captive then sees that the dancing figures on the wall are not real, tangible things, but only shadows cast by a fire and puppets. In Flatland, the Sphere enters the two-dimensional world and compels A. Square to look around him for evidence of a third dimension. When confronted with blasphemous knowledge, both the prisoner and A. Square refuse to believe the Outsider. Like the cave’s hostage who “turn[s] around and flee[s] towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the ones he’s being shown” (Plato 1133), A. Square clings to the Circles’ orthodoxy, desperate for the equanimity of his ordinary two-dimensional life.

But the Sphere does not allow A. Square to reclaim his complacency. The Sphere, like the Outsider in Republic, pulls A. Square “away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight” (Plato 1133). As the prisoner is “pained” and “unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true” (Plato 1133) when he first arrives in the world outside the cave, A. Square feels “an unspeakable horror” and “a dizzy, sickening sensation of sight that was not like seeing” (Abbott 64). As the former prisoner “need[s] time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above,” (Plato 1134), A. Square needs a moment to recover from his initial terror. When he does open his eyes, he sees “a new world” lying beneath him: Flatland as it really is (Abbott 64).

Of course, neither Plato’s cave myth nor Flatland ends well. The prisoner who sees the “world above” (Plato 1133) descends into the cave, wanting to lead his fellows out into the sunlight. But the other captives think him mad, refuse to believe his story, and “kill him” (Plato 1134). This is precisely what happens in Flatland: A. Square returns to Flatland determined to spread “the Gospel of Three Dimensions” (Abbott 77) to his fellow “inmates” (Abbott 65), only to be arrested and imprisoned for his heterodox views.

The Christian reader will want to find some hope in the Plato and Abbott’s dark conclusions—and one will find it. Plato and Abbott have reminded us that there is something more out there: there is the Sun outside the cave, and a realm of infinite dimensions outside Flatland. Plato and Abbot have demonstrated that an Outsider can descend into the cave or Flatland and lead a captive into the sunshine or the infinite dimensions of Space. If these two fairy-tales are true, then why cannot the Sun itself or the Infinite Space itself descend into the cave or into Flatland and reveal itself to the prisoners inside? Why cannot the unseen Source of all reality descend into our physical world as a physical being? With the question comes the hope—the hope that True Reality will enter into our unreality and rend the veil between the spiritual and the physical, between fairy-tales and history, between God and man.

Works Cited

Abbott, Edwin A. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1992. Print.

Plato. “Republic.” Plato: Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Trans. G.M.A Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing   Company, 1997. 971-1223. Print.  

Tolkien, J. R. R. “On Faerie Stories.” Brainstorm Services. Web. 26 Oct. 2010. http://brainstorm-services.com/wcu-2004/fairystories-tolkien.pdf

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