Epilogue: Perelandra and Pleasantville

794043472824f1(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here. Part III here. Part IV here.)

Lewis tackles Eden in a way that makes us want innocence to last despite ourselves. Gary Ross takes the opposite approach in Pleasantville, a film about two well-meaning siblings sent to make a perfect town fall and wake it out of unfulfilled innocence. The following review, Pleasantville: The Garden of Eden Revisited describes the place:

“Pleasantville is a stagnant ideal of perfection —- the weather forecast is always ‘high 72, low 72, another beautiful sunny day.’ The high school basketball team never loses -— in fact, the players never miss a shot. They actually can’t miss, even if they try! Firefighters have nothing to do but save cats, and mothers nothing but to cook, play bridge, and adore their families. But as Rabbi David Cooper writes, ‘without the potential for perfecting, perfection itself would be imperfect.’ Pleasantvillers have no sin, no strife, no worries. There are no achievements because there are no challenges. There is no passion, and no love has ever been tried and proven. There is no ‘knowledge of good and evil’ -— all books are blank, all conversations vapid, and all roads lead nowhere.”

Pleasantville is crying for fall. The brother and sister from our world have inverse roles: Jennifer is a serpent figure introducing the town to sex, knowledge, and the world of risk. She makes Pleasantville fall, clearly for its own good, and we cheer her all the way. David becomes a Christ figure “fighting the bigotry and violence rising in Pleasantville, and urging the citizens to use their free will for beauty and good.” Jennifer and David aren’t opposites, however, but complimentary, yin and yang, since one is fruitless without the other. They each have their own “fall” to experience: David, when he confronts a bully for the first time ever, and Jennifer, when she begins to read books and realize there is more to life than partying and popularity.

This all amounts to a modernizing, or Easternizing, of the felix culpa (happy blame), teaching us to be grateful for sin so there can be growth, fulfillment, pain, loss, and ultimately redemption. But we saw in the last post that Lewis was uncomfortable with the felix culpa, and no surprise. It becomes very easy to think of sin itself (and not the redemptive remedy) as the greater good. But the fact is that guilt and sin are essential. Innocence and righteousness may be good, but on their own they’re impotent. That’s the problem with paradise.

But as we’ve seen, Perelandra draws us into innocence; strangely, we don’t want to see Venus fall. I attribute this to the creative way Lewis handles the Green Lady. Unlike the citizens of Pleasantville, she isn’t a scripted automaton and has imagination. The townspeople can’t conceive of anything beyond their borders; they can’t even fathom different things happening or different routines. But the Lady, as we saw, is able to “step out of life into the Alongside” and look at things differently. She appreciates novelties — “whatever waves roll towards her” — and enjoys having her expectations overturned. Indeed she realizes that to reject something new for the sake of something old can only be “evil”. That discovery gets used against her, but the point is that she’s able to appreciate now what the citizens of Pleasantville appreciate only after they fall. Paradise isn’t inherently monotonous. It doesn’t need to be stagnant. It’s possible to do more than act out predetermined scripts, and thus be surprised, rewarded, and fulfilled.

In Pleasantville we want people to fall, grow up, make real decisions, and live life. On Venus we want people to do better than grow up, and taste possibilities as yet undreamed. That’s the genius of Perelandra.

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10,000 Visits

As of today, 1/30/06, The Busybody has received 10,000 visitors since 9/25/05. (I started the blog in July but didn’t add Sitemeter until later.) I want to thank my readers for your ongoing interest and comments. I aim to please and provoke, and look forward to the blog-space of 10,000 more visits.

Perelandra (IV): Ascension vs. Incarnation

heavmain1x1(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here. Part III here.)

Thanks largely to Ransom, the Lady of Venus resists temptation. She and the King — their names are Tinidril and Tor, we finally learn — ascend to angelic perfection as God intended. The angel from Mars explains:

“‘The world is born today… Today for the first time two creatures of the low worlds, two images of [God] that breathe and breed like beasts, step up that step at which your parents fell, and sit on the throne of what they were meant to be. It was never seen before. Because it did not happen in your world a greater thing happened, but not this. Because the greater thing happened [on Earth], this and not the greater thing happens here.'” (169)

But does Lewis truly believe the Incarnation was greater than if Adam and Eve hadn’t sinned? We saw his unease with this idea in the last post, and the rhapsodic non-Christian conclusion to this story undermines it completely. Tor explains to Ransom that Christ’s second coming on Earth and the apocalypse will be “the wiping out of a false start in order that the world may then begin” (182). The other planets have seen beginnings, but Earth nothing more than “a failure to begin” (ibid). In the grand scheme of things, the so-called greater good on Earth amounts to a mere corrective, or erasing a blot.

The ascension of Tor and Tinidril is clearly portrayed as a greater good than what happened on Earth, and Ransom probably speaks for Lewis when he asks Tor:

“In our world those who know God at all believe that His coming down to us and being a man is the central happening of all that happens. If you take that from me, Father, whither will you lead me?” (183)

Whither indeed. Tor leaves it to the angels to explain, which they do in a bombardment of praises and hallelujahs (183-187) that are frankly too abstruse to make much sense of, which is probably much the point.

The closing chapters of Perelandra stand as Lewis’ ambitious attempt to deal with the dilemma of the felix culpa (“happy blame”) by envisioning what was originally meant to be. That he overreaches himself is not a fault, for that’s what writers who tackle big questions are supposed to do. It’s what Stephen Donaldson did in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Dan Simmons did in Hyperion-Endymion. I believe Lewis is suggesting that Christ’s Incarnation is perceived as greater than Adam’s Ascension on account of a caged perspective, and that the greatest good is in fact the “Great Dance” of the universe — which has already begun, and doesn’t need to wait on a fallen world like Earth (183).

In the next and final post, we will wrap up and look more generally at the question of Edenic innocence and loss thereof.

"You Say So" (II): The Question of Messiahs

Mark Goodacre proposes a distinction between Jesus’ clear response to the high priest in Mk 14:61-62 and his ambiguous response to Pilate in Mk 15:2. In the former he affirms he is the “messiah”, in the latter he refuses to confirm whether or not he is “king of the Judeans”. Yesterday I suggested that Jesus’ ambiguous response signals a “yes” historically, if not in the Markan narrative.

But maybe not. The historical Jesus was hostile to the idea of popular kingship, and the term “king” may have possibly been too restrictive for his messianic role. William Herzog has suggested that the parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Mt 18:23-35) was originally an anti-kingship story — a story that would have come naturally after Jn 6:1-15 rather than Mt 18:21-22. Herzog reads the parable as a “rejection of the messianic ideal, because any messiah who did ascend the throne would be caught in the systematic realities of kingship in agrarian societies and aristocratic empires. Every king is captive of kingship, including the messiah!” (Jesus, Justice, and the Reign of God, p 239). No sooner would a messiah ascend the throne than he would begin to take on the role of a tyrant himself. That’s the lesson Israel/Judah/Judea learned over and over again. Look at Solomon, Omri, and the Hasmoneans. Look at the king in this parable. (See Herzog’s Parables as Subversive Speech, pp 131-149, “What if the Messiah Came and Nothing Changed?”, for full details.)

I like Herzog’s reading of the Unmerciful Servant, but he uses “messiah” and “king” synonymously, thus concluding that Jesus never thought of himself as the messiah in any way. His reading would certainly indicate that Jesus had no use for popular kingship, or for any who wanted to make him an armed insurrectionist (see Jn 6:15). But messiahs came in all colors. John Collins, in The Scepter and the Star, identifies four kinds of messiahs in first-century thought: kings (the most common), prophets, priests, and heavenly archangels. Jesus was historically a prophet, and in Mark’s understanding he is both a prophetic and heavenly messiah — not the kingly messiah suggested by Pilate’s question. On the point of the latter, Mark Goodacre believes that gospel writer John “is a fine exegete of Mark and he teases out the meaning of the terse, ambiguous ‘You are saying so’ in this way:”

Pilate…asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18.33-36)

Jesus was historically a prophetic messiah, gospelly a prophetic/heavenly messiah. In either case, then, perhaps his retort to Pilate’s question about kingship — “You say so” — was a “no” after all, though no less offensive for it, since it was a disdainful evasion and implied that the prefect was making him a king anyway.

UPDATE: Phil Harland (and in comments below) thinks I was more on the right track with the “yes” interpretation. With regards to the historical Jesus, I think the question hinges on how accommodating an apocalyptic prophet could have been with the word “king” vis-à-vis messiahship. A text like Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30 does suggest kingship, though even E.P. Sanders prefers that Jesus envisioned himself more as a “viceroy” than a king. What would “king of the Judeans”, as put by Pilate, have suggested in the minds of most? Probably popular kingship, which Jesus rejected.

If Pilate had used the term “messiah” (as the priesthood is reported doing), Jesus’ “you say so” would easily be interpreted as “yes”, as I suggested in my first post. But I’m on the fence with what Jesus’ retort means in answer to the specific charge of kingship. I can go either way, depending on the phase of the moon.

UPDATE (II): Stephen Carlson discusses Morton Smith’s take on the matter, that in Mk 15:2 translators should “preserve in English the ambiguity of the Greek”.

UPDATE (III): Mark Goodacre elaborates on Mark’s distinction between messiahs and kings.

"You Say So"

Prompted by Phil Harland’s post, Mark Goodacre offers an explanation as to why the Markan Jesus acknowledges his messianic status to the high priest but not to Pilate. To the former Jesus says, “Yes, I am the messiah,” while to latter he only retorts, “You say so.”

Then, on the Better Bibles blog, Wayne Leman identifies what I believe to be the crucial problem. He writes:

I have never understood the communicative meaning of Jesus’ answer just from the literal translation, ‘You say (so).’ That is, what was Jesus communicating to Pilate by his answer? Was he saying, ‘You’re the one who has said that, not me.’ Or was he indirectly affirming that the answer to Pilate’s question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ was ‘Yes.’ Or maybe he meant something else.

Much of the time we don’t mean what we actually say, in English or any other language, and this is quite possibly one of those utterances recorded in Greek. So how should we translate something that doesn’t mean what it says? This is a difficult problem for translators, one which gets at the heart of how humans communicate with each other.

Indeed: “much of the time we don’t mean what we actually say”, and this is even more true in honor-shame societies, where a person’s publicly defined self (“what one says”) is expected to coincide with the in-group defined self (“what one is expected to say”) rather than the privately defined self (“what one really thinks”). On top of this, one’s identity is provided by family and peers, not oneself. In this light, the movement from Mk 8:27-30, to Mk 14:61-62, to Mk 15:2, becomes intriguing.

In the first passage Jesus asks Peter what people are saying about him, and then, in effect, what his disciples are saying about him. Peter tells Jesus he is the messiah. Bruce Malina and Richard Rorhbaugh comment on this heavily misunderstood passage:

“Viewed through Western eyes, this critical Markan passage is usually assumed to signal the point at which the messiahship of Jesus is first recognized by Peter. The assumption is that Jesus knows who he is and that he is testing the disciples to see whether or not they know as well.

“If the passage is viewed from the vantage point of the Mediterranean understanding of personality, however, it is Jesus who does not know who he is, and it is the disciples from whom he must get this information… Jesus wants to find out what his status is… It cannot be stressed too strongly that discovering identity is not self-discovery in Mediterranean societies. Identity is clarified and confirmed only by significant others.” (Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, p 180)

Peter tells Jesus that he is the messiah, God’s anointed one, and Jesus “sternly orders Peter not to tell anyone this”. As we know, this plays into Mark’s theme of the messianic secret. Historically — if the event is historical — Jesus would have been telling Peter and the disciples to keep their yaps shut because he was appalled at the role they were thrusting on him.

But in collectivist cultures, you eventually accept what your friends/family tell you about yourself (or you won’t have any family and friends), and the disciples, of course, were both Jesus’ friends and (new) family. This brings us back to Jerusalem. In the Markan narrative, Jesus has by this time accepted the messianic role assigned to him by the disciples. In answer to the high priest’s question, “Are you the messiah, the son of the Blessed One?”, Jesus answers, “I am” (Mk 14:61-62). But when Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Judeans,” he says, “You say so” (Mk 15:2). Compare the answers given across the synoptic gospels:

Priesthood: “Are you the messiah?”

Mark — “I am.”
Matthew — “You have said so.”
Luke — “You say that I am.”

Pilate: “Are you the king of the Judeans?”

Mark — “You say so.”
Matthew — “You say so.”
Luke — “You say so.”

Goodacre notes that “Pilate’s question is different…Nowhere does Jesus own the title ‘king’ in the Gospel, though it is the one that everyone imposes on Jesus throughout the Passion Narrative, king of the Jews, crown of thorns and so on.” True: gospel writer Mark was comfortable having Jesus — on this one occasion — acknowledge the more general title (messiah) while shunning the specific (king). In this particular narrative, Jesus proclaims himself openly for the first and only time. But Matthew and Luke show Jesus to be as reticent with the first question as with the second. Mark’s “unprecedented yes” (as Harland puts it) sticks out like a sore thumb.

If the so-called “trials” before the priesthood and Pilate are historical, it seems safe to bracket off the “I am” response as purely Markan, and conclude that Jesus refused to answer either question. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Jesus is denying the accusation. Far from it. In honor-shame cultures, men do not answer questions when confronted by hostile challengers. To respond to either of the above questions — whether by “yes” or “no” — would have been weak and shameful on Jesus’ part. Mark, by having Jesus actually answer the high priest’s question, makes him lose the challenge-riposte. I believe this can be attributed (in part) to the way Mark wants to show Jesus “losing” and suffering as much as possible.

If collectively speaking, the gospel reports are at all trustworthy, we may say as follows: Jesus was acclaimed the messiah by his followers, and he was initially appalled. But he eventually accepted the title thrust on him, even if the title had to accommodate his particular prophetic role. By the time of Jerusalem, he was confident about his messianic identity, but he refused to explain anything to hostile authorities. When challenged, he threw the question right back in their faces — “You say so” — refusing to give ground.

So in answer to Wayne Leman’s question:

“What was Jesus communicating to Pilate by his answer? Was he saying, ‘You’re the one who has said that, not me.’ Or was he indirectly affirming that the answer to Pilate’s question, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ was ‘Yes.’?”

The latter. I think Jesus was affirming he was the messiah in the most insulting and aggressive way possible — by refusing to answer the question, and by implying, moreover, that Pilate was the one who “said so”, that is, in effect, who acknowledged it.

UPDATE: See my follow up post, where I now express reservations about Jesus implying he was “king of the Judeans”, depending on how loosely the term “king” could have been used vis-a-vis messiahship. Jesus had come to accept his role as a prophetic messiah, to be sure, but perhaps not a kingly one.

Perelandra (III): Ransom and the Devil

(Prologue to this series here. Part I here. Part II here.)

What distinguishes the Venus scenario from the previous fall is that an outside agent has been sent to help the woman. Just as the devil comes armed with more sophisticated arguments, a Christian from Earth has been sent to counter them. We saw in the last post how the devil was able to make the Lady entertain the unthinkable — living on the Fixed Land — first by capitalizing on her own logic, then by suggesting a murky intent behind the giving of the commandment. The first argument is that

1. To reject any new idea for the sake of a familiar idea is not good (=evil).

Ransom has no hope in arguing against this, since it was he himself who helped the Lady understand it! The problem is that it presumes a closed system of paradise. All people, all things, and all ideas coming from within paradise are good, since evil doesn’t exist there. The devil and Ransom are outsiders, but what can the Lady, in her innocence, conclude about outsiders? Why would she have any reason to reject the devil or his ideas? Why should she reject the fruit he is offering for the sake of fruit she is used to? It’s a Catch-22, and one that Ransom cannot refute. So he zeroes in on the second part of the devil’s argument, that

2. God’s will is not always what it seems to be. The commandment about the Fixed Land was given to be broken, so as to empower the Lady to think for herself and stand on her own.

To this Ransom replies —

* It’s true that the commandment against living on the Fixed Land is different from other commandments, but this isn’t because God secretly wants it to be broken. It’s because there must be one commandment obeyed for the sake of obedience alone, in order to taste the joy of obeying. Obedience must amount to more than doing what seems good anyway. (101)

The “joy of obedience” has a tradition in Judaism and Christianity, involving the pleasure which comes from serving God in any way that pleases him. Is this what Rick Brannan has in mind when he states, citing Rom 6, that “one is either a slave to sin or a slave to righteousness…we obey because we are His, not because we happen to agree with His commands at a particular point”?

There is, after all, another way of looking at the matter. In Paradise Lost Adam and Eve’s fall doesn’t center around the question of joy, but simply “the way things work”. From Milton’s structural point of view, the proper running of the universe requires unconditional obedience of inferiors to superiors, whether they take joy in it or not. Rom 6 can be pressed into this service too.

Lewis favors the personal over the structural. In Perelandra the issue turns on joy, and Ransom hastens to point out that when Eve broke the ban — just as the Lady is contemplating doing now — “no joy came of it” (103). Humanity fell, and “all love was troubled and made cold”. But the devil has an immediate response, pointing out that it was precisely because of Adam and Eve’s disobedience that God came to Earth in human form, which, to Christians like Ransom, is the greatest event ever. Ransom, chaffing at the “unfairness” of the argument, retorts:

* It’s true that no matter what people do, God will make good out of it. But the good he initially prepared for Adam and Eve was forever lost, and what they lost has never been seen. And because of their disobedience, there are people to whom good will never come. (104)

This is an intriguing response, and not entirely consistent with the doctrine of felix culpa, or “happy blame”, which teaches that Adam and Eve are to be thanked for their sin which brought Christ to the world. Contrast again with Milton: in Paradise Lost Adam is so overjoyed to learn from the archangel Michael what his disobedience will lead to, that he regards the future Christ event as a “greater good” than having remained sinless in Eden. Lewis appears to be at least somewhat uncomfortable with this business. Ransom acknowledges the doctrine with unease, emphasizing — contra Milton’s angel — that since people have never seen the good originally intended by God, there is really nothing to compare the Christ event to. (Not to mention all the people who end up being denied salvation because of it.) This implicitly calls into question the idea of the Incarnation being the “greater good”.

The Lady has been given much to think about. The problem is that she’s innocent and has no knowledge of evil — and thus, paradoxically, no real knowledge of good. In a perfect world she has little context in which to place the devil’s argument and Ransom’s counter. Is this perhaps why a fall would result in a “greater good”, as the devil suggests? So that human beings will truly awaken and start to live life, now able to make conscious decisions about good and evil, and risk all the heartbreaks, horrors, and hard lessons necessary to grow up and appreciate what is good?

In the next post, we will see what happens in the end.

Perelandra (II): The Devil’s Argument

4_eve-serpent-temptation(Prologue to this series here. Part I here.)

Having arrived on Venus shortly after Ransom, the devil (inside a man named Weston) tries persuading the Green Lady to sleep on the Fixed Land, just as he once seduced Eve into eating fruit from the Tree of Knowledge. The earlier event is recounted in the space of five short verses in Genesis (3:1-5):

Serpent: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Eve: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden. But God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'”

Serpent: “You will not die. For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like gods, knowing good and evil.”

The devil’s strategy on Earth was simply to call God a liar (which he was, and I suppose it’s no surprise that Lewis took a different approach in this story) and entice Eve with the promise of godly knowledge. On Venus his strategy becomes more complex. For whatever reason, it gets increasingly difficult for the devil to seduce the unfallen. The Green Lady is more resilient than Eve: she argues and resists to the end, is quite shrewd despite her purity of innocence, and calls forth every bit of the devil’s resources. So he attacks with penetrating arguments, in a relentless verbal onslaught that leaves us reeling as much as Ransom.

The devil begins with the “innocent” suggestion that

• The Lady should consider what it would be like to dwell on the Fixed land. “This forbidding is such a strange one,” he says. And God has not forbidden her to think about dwelling on the Fixed Land. (89)

But why, asks the Lady, bewildered, should one think about something which cannot happen? (89) Stepping outside of God’s will is, to her, an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

• Thinking about things which do not happen, but could conceivably happen, is like making stories or poetry, and to shrink back from such artistry is like drawing back from new fruit being offered. (89, 97)

The devil thus begins to use her own logic against her. As we saw in the last post, if one had to define “evil” from an unfallen perspective, it would be “to refuse something offered for the sake of something expected”.

• Indeed, shrinking back from this idea is what makes Ransom such a Bad man, because he is causing her to reject fruit she is now being offered for the sake of the fruit she is used to. (98)

The word “bad” (= evil) is used for the first time in Perelandra, by the devil himself.

• She should contemplate more daring ideas than before, because God wants her to start growing up and walking by herself, without him holding her by the hand. (99)

The seed is planted: an idea that God wants her to mature on her own, and to try things out on her own.

• Indeed, to wait for God’s voice when he wants her to walk on her own is a kind of disobedience. “The wrong kind of obeying can be a disobeying,” like when someone loses on purpose playing a game. (99)

The devil now uses doublespeak, by claiming that in some cases obedience can actually be disobedience.

• Furthermore, walking on her own could never be perfect unless she, at least once, seemed to disobey God by doing what he only seemed to forbid. God secretly longs for one act of disobedience, so that his creatures may grow up and stand on their own. He has thus given one commandment “for the mere sake of forbidding,” precisely so that it may be broken. (100)

There must, according to the devil, be a specific reason why God gave a commandment so different from his other commandments. In all other matters, obedience to God amounts to doing what seems good in one’s own eyes (such as loving and not killing). But one cannot see the goodness in a prohibition against dwelling on the Fixed Land. The reason, he suggests, is that it is a commandment given for no other reason than to be broken — to empower God’s creatures to think and act for themselves.

Stepping back for a moment: It’s striking not how wrong the devil is, but how right. From our perspective, how can we object to what he’s saying? Lewis’ devil would make a fine exit counselor. The Lady behaves as one brainwashed, he as one deprogramming her to health and reality. God’s inexplicable command to avoid the Fixed Land demands what we call blind obedience. Yet we identify with the Lady anyway and want her to resist. Lewis accomplishes what good novelists do when they make the reader identify with something alien — making the repulsive seem appealing — and demonizing the norm. Clavell did this in Shogun, where we come to think of remorseless samurai and suiciding fanatics as our own family. Donaldson did it in the Thomas Covenant chronicles, by making us cheer for a rapist. In Perelandra we come, despite ourselves, to identify with unfallen naivete, innocence, and obedience.

In short, the devil is able to make the Lady entertain the impossible — stepping outside God’s will — by employing her own logic against her and by arguing that God’s will is not, in fact, what it seems to be. Stay tuned for the next post: Ransom’s counter.