Mirage: The Deadly Sin of Hope

“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torment of man.” (Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human)

Nietzsche’s wisdom squares with that of the ancient Greeks. Aeschylus said hope was the “food of exiles”, Euripedes thought it was humanity’s greatest curse, and in Pandora’s box it was ranked alongside the sins of greed, vanity, slander, envy, and pining. Hope was just as foolish to the Norse and Anglo-Saxons: evil would out at Ragnarok, and the best a warrior could hope for was to go down laughing in defeat. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth evokes the pagan mindset: even after destroying the Ring, Frodo reminds Sam that “hopes fail” despite appearances. Hobbits rely on cheer instead of hope, expecting disaster from then start and so remaining immune, even cheerful, when their expectations are confirmed. I’m inclined to view hope as more sinful than virtuous, despite what the Judeo-Christian tradition teaches us — and even if that puts us in the unpleasant company of Nietzsche.

Svetozar Ristovski’s excellent film Mirage opens with the Nietzsche quote, promising something less uplifting than what usually comes out of Hollywood. It’s about a Macedonian boy Marko, whose life is punctuated by poverty, family dysfunction, and abuse at school. His father is an alcoholic who rails against the American occupation, his mother a mouse, his older sister a vicious tramp, and his classmates horribly violent bullies. He finds some hope in his Bosnian teacher who patronizes him for his academic talents, encouraged to write a poem for a school competition which would award him a trip to Paris. He also finds escape along the railroad tracks where a hobo befriends him. But hopes are ultimately dashed: his teacher turns out to be hollow and ineffectual, unable to control the classroom bullies; and his homeless friend abandons him. Marko finds the strength to stand on his own only by turning to crime and violence.

Mirage paints a country ruined by occupation, poverty, and corruption, and forces the theme of hopelessness in ways that will leave many viewers nonplussed. The ending is certainly grim. But it’s a must-see, for its excellent acting performances and effective cinematography, and because it makes you think about despair for the right reasons. Jesus lived in a country much like Marko’s Macedonia. He found hope in the apocalyptic kingdom of God, where the last would be first and the first last. “Jesus was wrong,” intones Dale Allison, “reality has taken no notice of his imagination. And yet despite everything, he says the only things worth saying, for his dream is the only dream worth dreaming” (Millenarian Prophet, pp 218-219). Perhaps. Hope keeps many of us sane, and self-deception is largely necessary for healthy living anyway. But Nietzsche had a good point too: dreams like Jesus’ and Marko’s can set us up for even more misery and do more harm than good. There’s something to be said for the ancient pagan wisdom that since things must turn out badly in the end, they can only be better in the meantime — or that life is good no matter how bad, because that’s all there is.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.

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How clean are we?

Put your blog through this website rater and see how appropriate it is for young readers. Most of the biblioblogs appear to be rated G, though mine is PG.

I went down my blogroll and put every URL through the rater. Here’s a round-up:

Rated G

Mark Goodacre
Stephen Carlson
Jim Davila
Chris Heard
April DeConick
James Crossley
Phil Harland
Rick Brannan
Brandon Wason
Chris Weimer
Jim West

Rated PG

Loren Rosson
Tyler Williams
Michael Turton
Chris Petersen
Rick Sumner
Michael Bird

Rated NC-17

Michael Pahl

Take with a grain of salt. Chris Petersen should have easily passed a G-rating, but his discussions about “death” kick it down to PG. And look at Michael Pahl! Who would have thought our exemplary evangelical delved into necrophilia and other morbid issues… no, not really — like Chris, he’s just into eschatology. The rating device simply generates key-word counts devoid of context. It works in some cases (I think my PG-rating is appropriate), but not all.

Wizard’s First Rule and Q

I have enjoyed Chris Petersen’s synoptic pilgrimage, parts I and II, which in some ways mirrors my own abandonment of Q in favor of the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis.

In his second post, Chris cites the first axiom from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth novels to help explain why so many people believe in Q. (I’m afraid I vehemently disagree with Chris about this series being one of the best fantasies ever written — I loathed the first book — but that’s another matter.) He explains “Wizard’s First Rule” as follows:

“With minimal persuasion people will generally believe things to be true for one of two reasons: either because they are scared that it may be true or because they strongly wish it to be true”.

But Chris is much more tactful than the originator of that rule. In Goodkind’s book it’s put bluntly:

“People are stupid and will believe any lie, either because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it’s true.” (Wizard’s First Rule, chapter 36)

Of course, it wouldn’t be accurate (or kind) to say that Q-adherents are stupid, but the question of Q being a lie is an interesting one. It could be one of the greatest scholarly self-deceptions.

I should point out that Wizard’s First Rule ignores a third factor. People believe something (whether a lie or not) not only because they want it to be true, or are scared it may be true, but because they have been taught that it’s true. That is, after all, why I believed in Q. I relinquished it when I finally realized it was unnecessary to solve the synoptic problem — and when I saw that it has been so popular because (per the rule) people really do want it to be true. As I said in my list of dangerous ideas (#6), citing Mark Goodacre (as Chris does),

” ‘Q has been all over the world, loved by everyone, feminists and liberation theologians, the sober and the sensational, the scholar and the layperson, a document with universal appeal. Indeed one of the keys to its success has been its ability to woo both conservatives and radicals alike.’ (Mark Goodacre, Case Against Q, p 16). Traditionalists favor Q for providing (supposedly) early evidence of the Christian movement, and liberals adore it for its emphasis on parables and teachings (like gospel of Thomas), lacking orthodox material like the passion and resurrection.”

It’s just not easy to let go.

God’s Elusive Judgment

Most people voted yes in yesterday’s poll which asked:

Did Paul believe that God would judge the elect?

Yes. Paul believed that God would judge both the righteous and the wicked. Christians were guaranteed salvation, but they might still be punished for bad deeds.

No. Paul believed that God would judge only the wicked. Christians would appear before God at the judgment and give an account of themselves, but would be waved through after receiving their reward.

I kept the poll open for about 24 hours, and 25 readers voted.

17 (68%) voted yes.
8 (32%) voted no.

I’m in the minority with the nay-sayers but with a qualification.

Of the key texts in question, I Cor 3:10-15 makes the strongest case for “yes”. As an anonymous commenter mentioned, Paul speaks of those being “saved, but only as through fire”. However, as an offline correspondent pointed out, this passage is really about church founders, not believers in general. Paul was saying that churches founded by rival apostles leave much to be desired, and are subject to judgment. The “builders” of these churches may be saved in the end, but will suffer serious punishment (“through fire”) for leading others astray. Paul apparently held pastors like himself to a higher standard than lay believers who would not be judged.

For, as I mentioned in the first post (following Philip Esler), Rom 8:33-34 implies that no charge will be brought against God’s elect. Once we appreciate what Paul meant by “righteousness”, this is easy to understand. Righteousness was a form of ascribed honor, or privileged/blessed identity. It had nothing to do with forensic/declaratory categories, nor behavioral/ethical ones. The righteous were acceptable to God, period. Their righteousness was gifted to them not because they’d done anything to deserve it, but because God had chosen them (Rom 4, 9). They would not be charged at the judgment: they would give an account of themselves, and then be waved on after receiving their reward. For better or worse, that seems to be what Paul believed.

It was competition and rivalry which brought out nuance in Paul’s theology of the judgment — much as we might expect of a Mediterranean macho man. His belief that God would (naturally) not judge the elect whom He had righteoused was tempered by growing convictions that the deity might very well make certain apostles “pay the price” for misleading people in ways that were not pleasing to Paul.

Poll: God’s Judgment

In my last post, I asked whether or not Paul believed God would judge the elect. On the question of salvation/condemnation he is clear. But on the question of reward/punishment he is more ambiguous. Faith and works were both essential, but did a believer have to fear any divine punishment? Read that post and then vote in the following poll, if you wish.

Key texts to keep in mind are Rom 2, Rom 8:33-34, Rom 14:10-12, I Cor 3:10-15, I Cor 4:1-5, II Cor 5:10, and Philip 2:12b-13.

[Voting closed. Results posted here .]

Does God Judge the Elect?

Mark Goodacre mentions a media panel-discussion in which Tom Wright, Dom Crossan, and Paula Fredriksen take turns refuting the Lutheran dichotomy between faith and works. Wright and Crossan reconcile the two in terms of their inseparability. For Wright, good works are a necessary outworking of faith: “we’re not saved by good works, but for good works.” Crossan also thinks good works are necessary, stressing that a believer does them out of fear — not of God but the world: “there is ‘fear and trembling’ (Philip 2:12b-13) not because our God will punish us if we fail but because our world will punish us if we succeed.” And Fredriksen thinks the answer depends on whether one has the long- or short-term in view: “being saved is forever, good works are only for the time being”.

I’d like to focus on an aspect of Crossan’s response. He asks “If, after all, it is ‘God who moves within us’ both ‘to will and to work’, that is, to start and to finish, why should there be any ‘fear and trembling’ present at all?” His answer, as stated above, is that believers should fear the world for doing well (as Paul knows from being in prison) instead of God for doing badly — that God will apparently have no need to punish believers whose good works flow so naturally and inevitably. Is this correct?

Philip Esler thinks so. In Conflict and Identity in Romans (see pp 162, 265-266), he argues that Paul does not envision a judgment for the elect. A judgment requires that someone lay a charge, and Rom 8:33-34 implies that no such charge will be levelled against Christians; the righteous are simply waived through after giving an account of themselves and receiving their reward. The judgment of Rom 2 (and II Cor 5:10) would thus apply only to the wicked. “No one will bring a charge against God’s elect, since God is righteousing them…Paul does not appear to envisage a judgment for the righteous, even though they will appear before God.” (p 266)

Are Esler/Crossan interpreting Paul correctly?

UPDATE: More on this in God’s Elusive Judgment.