Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Greene’s Habit of Piety and Keller’s Prodigal God

I loved Graham Greene’s[1] The Power and the Glory (TPATG) almost without reservation. This was not the consensus of my reading group, however. We did agree that he was very good at periodic, sublime lyrical flourishes. Here are a couple examples:

“It was for these (children that the communist Lieutenant) was fighting. He would eliminate from their childhood everything which had made him miserable, all that was poor, superstitious and corrupt. They deserved nothing less than the truth - a vacant universe and a cooling world…He wanted to begin the world again with them, in a desert.” 58

“Perhaps when you’re my age you’ll know the heart’s an untrustworthy beast. The mind too, but it doesn’t talk about love. Love.” 199

“This (crowded jail cell) was very like the world: overcrowded with lust and crime and unhappy love, it stank to heaven; but he realized that after all it was possible to find peace there, when you knew for certain that the time was short.” 125

“How often had the priest heard the same confession[2] Man was so limited he hadn’t even the ingenuity to invent anew vice…It was for this world that Christ had died; the more evil you saw and heard about you, the greater glory lay around the death. It was too easy to die for what was good or beautiful, for home or children or a civilization – it needed a God to die for the half hearted and the corrupt.” 97[3]

The charge my friends brought against him, however, was that these flourishes seldom went anywhere substantive. We concluded that this was far from incidental. While, say, Flaubert crafted descriptions that resolved into a grand insights of vast generality, Greene consistently resisted this tendency. He seemed to be exploring human hearts rather than ‘the human heart’ which he found not only difficult to generalize between characters, but had no real consistency within characters. [4]

Regardless of Greene’s position on the fuzzy gradient that is mod-post-mod continuum, several intriguing themes emerged from The Power and The Glory. Greene was clearly haunted by the Catholic doctrine of ex opre operoto.[5] He also has far too much fun leading us into the ambiguous, overlapping territory of courage and duty (potentially antagonistic impulses manifesting similar symptoms).[6] But, by far, the most intriguing theme, from my perspective, was ‘the habit of piety.’

The Habit of Piety
We were first introduced to ‘the habit of piety’ when the courageous but morally weak protagonist, the whisky priest, found himself in a jail cell surrounded by thieves, murderers, and a woman incarcerated for religious observance. Himself an unholy amalgam of hedonist and moralist he saw the reflection of his own heart in both incarcerated types: the criminal and the religious. The surprising thing in this moment was that both reflections were troubling to him. Actually, the religious reflection was the more troubling of the two:

“It was more difficult to feel pity for (the religious woman in the jail cell) than for the half-cast (his betrayer)…but her case might be worse. The others had so much excuse – poverty and fever and innumerable humiliations.” 131

“Again he was touched by an extraordinary affection. He was just one criminal among a herd of criminals…he had a sense of companionship which he had never experienced in the old days when pious people came kissing his black cotton glove.” 128
Later he reflected on this paradox:

“The brandy was musty on the tongue with his own corruption. God might forgive cowardice and passion, but was it possible to forgive the habit of piety? He remembered the woman in the prison and how impossible it had been to shake her complacency. It seemed to him that he was another of the same kind. He drank the brandy down like damnation: men like the half-caste could be saved, salvation could strike like lightning at the evil heart, but the habit of piety excluded everything but the evening prayer and the Guild meeting and the feel of humble lips on your gloved hand.” 169[8]

The realization that his humiliation had bought him was that religion is just a refined brand of hedonism. Becoming habituated to the magnificence and wonder of the gospel is the most irrevocable form of lostness.[9]

Keller and the Prodigal God

I located the passages in TPATG that dealt with ‘the habit of piety’ relatively easily after I was done with the book…because next to each of them I had scrawled the word ‘Keller’. These passages dramatically illustrate the very idea that Tim Keller argues is at the heart of the message of Jesus and, in particular, the story of the prodigal sons.
In his neo-classic work on Luke 15,[10] Prodigal God, Keller argues that Jesus presents two possible ways to run from God: hedonism and moralism. And, in the parable’s shocking twist ending, Jesus reveals that it is the moralist (the older brother) who is actually in the more desperate state[11]:

“The lover of prostitutes is saved, but the man of moral rectitude is still lost…the younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why elder-brother lostness is so dangerous…Everyone knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the licentiousness of younger brotherness, but few realize that it also condemns moralistic elder brotherness…When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good you are on the brink (of the gospel).”[12]

This is the startling uniqueness of the gospel. It is not a program of moral reclamation. It is not a method to turn bad people into good people. It is not the transformation of reckless hedonists into intolerable, self righteous prudes. It is a unilateral acquittal that seduces us into better passions. It is a prodigal (recklessly extravagant) affection that subversively supplants our self destructive loyalties to self interested masters. Greene’s work has such resonance because to claim Christ is to be a ‘whisky priest’: a tired, helpless, moral failure, whose rare heroism oozes with mixed motives, but whose passions are rehabilitated by God’s prodigal love in the midst of our lostness.

This post was written while listening to Vheissu by Thrice
[1] Green is best known for The Quiet American which was made into a descent film with Michael Cane. In the middle of his career he wrote three novels that have come to be known as his ‘Catholic period’ after his surprising conversion. The Power and the Glory is one of these and is set in an oppressive, violent, anti-religious communist state in Central America. It is a novel with a tactile sense of place since Green spent an extended period in a similar communist state researching a non-fiction expose on religious persecution.
[2] Later: “He would sit in the confessional and hear the complicated dirty ingenuities which God’s image had thought out.” 101
[3] I could go on and on. Here are a few more: “That is the fallacy of the death-bed repentance – penitence was the fruit of long training and discipline: fear wasn’t enough.” 118
“She dressed up her fear, so that she could look at it – in the form of fever, rats, unemployment. The real thing was taboo – death coming nearer every year…” 33
“Why, after all, should we expect God to punish the innocent with more life?” 155
“No, but as I was saying – life has such irony. It was my painful duty to watch the priest who gave me (my first) communion shot – an old man. I’m not ashamed to say that I wept. The comfort is that he is probably a saint and he prays for us. It is not everyone who earns a saint’s prayers.” 113
“His conscience began automatically to work: it was a slot machine into which any coin could be fitted, even a cheater’s blank disk.” (On being manipulated through his conscience.) 89
“every small surrender had to be paid for in a further endurance” 83

[4] I speculated that it is the difference between the quintessential modern (Flaubert is considered father of Realism) and a child of postmodernism. We also speculated that Dan preferred Flaubert and I preferred Greene because Dan is more of a modern and I am more formed by the latter perspective.
[5] Literally ‘the work works.’ This idea emerged from the Donatist controversy in North Africa. The question was, do sacraments administered by heretic or morally compromised priests ‘count’. The church decided, ‘yes.’ This is the sublime madness he is playing with when the whisky priest argues with the communist Lieutenant “I can put God into a man’s mouth just the same – and I can give him God’s pardon. It wouldn’t make any difference to that if every priest in the Church was like me” or in the torment of the married Father Jose “But then he remembered the gift he had been given which no one could take away. That was what made him worthy of damnation – the power he still had of turning the wafer into the flesh and blood of God. He was a sacrilege.” Greene seems to argue that this is the advantage of Christianity over communism. The later requires extraordinarily righteous and uncompromisingly selfless leaders to ‘succeeded’ while the Church’ success is independent of the moral quality of its leadership. (I couldn’t help wanting to mail this book to all of my Catholic friends as I feel it speaks peace to their movement in the midst of the horror of the abuse scandal they are broken-heartedly weathering).
[6] “Renounce your faith…It is impossible. There’s no way. I’m a priest. It’s out of my power.” 40[8] Green goes back to this well again and again. In at least two places (p 79 and 129) he suggests that there are worse things to be than thieves or murderers…and that a bad priest would be one of them. Then there is this nearly comical confessional exchange that begins to unpack the distinction between religion and gospel:
Why don’t you confess properly to me? I’m not interested in your fish supply or in how sleepy you are at night…remember your real sins.”
“But I’m a good woman, father,’ she squeaked with astonishment.
‘Then what are you doing here, keeping away the bad people?” He said, “Have you any love for anyone but yourself?”
“I love God father,” she said haughtily. He took a quick look at her in the light of the candle burning on the floor – the hard old raisin eyes under the black shawl – another of the pious – like himself.
‘How do you know? Loving God isn’t any different from loving a man – or a child. It’s wanting to be with Him, to be near Him.’ He made a hopeless gesture with his hands, ‘It is wanting to protect him from yourself.” 173
[9] “That was another mystery: it sometimes seemed to him that venial sins – impatience, and unimportant lie, pride, a neglected opportunity – cut you off from grace more completely than the worst sin of all. Then, in all his innocence, he had felt no love for anyone; now in his corruption he had learnt…” 139[10] In some ways, Keller is the bizarro-Lewis (who often held that he was a far better writer than speaker). He may be the best Christian orator of our day which makes his writing disappointing in comparison despite its exceptionally high quality.
[11] I unpack how these themes are also the themes of the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in my talk on Luke 18.
[12] But the response to moralism and hedonism is not just a vauge spiritualism but a dynamic Christocentric, gospel informed, communal Christianity. Keller frames this thus: “As a result (of the large populations of moralists in the church), a high percentage of people want to achieve spiritual growth without loosing their independence to a church…yet staying away from (church) simply because they have elder brothers is just another form of self righteousness.”

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Intriguing Instances of Imaginary Irish Imps

Green beer can be fun, but on the whole St Patrick’s day generally leaves me nonplused. I’m sure there is a ‘true meaning’ of St Patrick’s day, but I am so sick of that old ax that I have no interest in grinding through March in addition to December and April. But today included two fun leprechaun ‘sightings,’ that I thought worth sharing.[1]

I took an ecology final this morning in Storer Hall, home to the department of Evolution and Ecology. The first thing you notice, when you walk into this building, is a large porpoise skeleton suspended from the ceiling. Ah, the musty eccentricities that pass for academic décor.[2]

But this morning, a festive prankster had included the inaccessible, expired, marine mammal in the festivities.

Props to the stealth pranksters for forgoing the obvious holiday for skeleton involvement in favor of one far less cliche.

Then, this evening, my reading group began our trek through volume 2 of NT Wright’s epic New Testament series: Jesus and the Victory of God.[3] The first 60 pages had some fun moments[4] but none were more entertaining than his description of Dominic Crossan: “(Crossan) has been described by one recent friendly critic as a ‘rather skeptical New Testament professor with the soul of a leprechaun.’”[5] The description is as apt as it is timely.

This post was prepared while listening to The Jungle of the Midwest Sea by Flatfoot 56

[1] Mainly because I don’t think I’ll get another post off before I leave for central Asia but I hope to post a travel blog when I return.
[2] The new geology building got a saber tooth.
[3] Affectionately known to us as J-VOG.
[4] He retells the story of the prodigal and casts the theologian as the older brother and the historian as the profligate suggesting that mature, robust, historical analysis (after a protracted period of polemical, ideological, antagonism) finally returns home with insights to offer the theologian, but the latter is too smug in his fidelity to receive it.
[5] This comment comes in the midst of an introduction to Crossan’s work that is effusive with praise including comments like ‘(Crossan) seems incapable…of thinking a boring thought or writing a dull paragraph’ and ‘Crossan represents…the high point of achievement in the new wave of the New Quest.’ Which makes the next sentence especially startling: “It is all the more frustrating, therefore, to have to conclude that (his) book is almost entirely wrong.” It is clear that Wright has a great deal of respect and affection for Crossan personally, but his analysis of Crossan’s work as tautological and thoroughly misguided is, in my opinion, 100% correct.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Unexpected Orogeny: Geology in Culture and the Tectonics of the Eschaton

I have often thought that if I was an actuary, I would create an automotive insurance variable called ‘the road cut’ factor.[1] I would simply ask, ‘Have you had more than one geology class?’ If the answer is yes, I would increase their rate. You see, I believe that geologists are fundamentally bad drivers because where other people just see rock next to the road, we see an unfolding[2] narrative…clues to a great regional mystery…artifacts of a an sublimely distant history caught unaware; exposed by the indignity of dynamite from their multi-million year hiding place. Road cuts are the equivalent of a modest young woman revealing a little more leg than usual in a moment of careful carelessness.

I recently heard an ecologist describe education in the natural sciences as ‘getting new eyes.’ You suddenly see things that were just not there before. Where there were only trees, now there is a ferocious battle field of interspecific competition with legions of unseen combatants. Where there was only rock, now there is a global drama of power in forms both gradual and catastrophic. Suddenly I am Bruce Willis in the Sixth Sense. Wonder was always there, but I was blind to it. [3] However, I have found that this gift/neurosis extends beyond the realm of vehicular menace. I ‘see things’ in surprising and enjoyable places. Here are a few of them:


Settlers of Catan is my favorite board game for a number of reasons…but one is a little eccentric. After the board has been laid, I try to reconstruct the geologic history that would result in the physical geography (mountains, deserts, moisture and soil distribution) of the island that did not exist minutes earlier. Are the mountains volcanic or mélange? Why do trees grow on the east while sheep friendly grasslands dominate the west? Does the desert make sense as a rain shadow of the mountains? And when the ‘gold’ expansion pack is used, I rack my brain to understand how mineral rich placer deposits formed. This is problematic because Settlers is won or lost in the first 10 minutes when you place your initial settlements, and I am invest precious mental resources trying to understand how the fictional world came to be rather than focusing on how to victoriously exploit it.[4]


There was a moment during the new Star Trek[5] film, where Spock’s mom was looking from a balcony over the doomed planet Vulcan. We were supposed to be feeling a sense of dread for her safety and the safety of her planet. But I could not emotionally vest in the moment. I was trying to figure out what kind of geologic process would produce alternate offsetting hogbacks ridges, steeply dipping in alternate directions. Surely this location is not tectonically stable enough to be the site for the great repository of Vulcan culture.[6] Also, I have spent nearly the whole Stargate series trying to figure out the geologic origin of Naqata and I can’t tell if Avatar was being ironic or lazy by just mailing in their efforts with ‘unobtanium [7].’


The idea of a renewed earth as the center of Christian eschatology is kind of new to me. I, like most in my movement, totally misread the text[8] and expected eternal life to be a disembodied state, reflecting an entire and total discontinuity with this life. NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope cured me of this. But as a natural scientist that is geologically trained[9] (and embarking enthusiastically on an ecological education) I have since enjoyed rampant speculation about what the implications of an eternal, renewed, earth and cosmos would be. This has led to an insight I will call ‘eschatological geology.’

The earth is dynamic, and I can not think of any reason why a renewed earth wouldn’t be dynamic. The great city(s)[10] of the renewed earth, would presumably be built in locations such that the earth’s natural rearrangements and perturbations would not translate into human disaster. But it would also mean that the new earth would continue to reveal new glories indefinitely. Yosemite and Glacier would eventually erode into unremarkable monuments to the inevitability of gravity and entropy. But an eternal, dynamic earth would continue to perform endless variations of geologic virtuosity. Only by recognizing how many Yosemities there have been can we contemplate how many are yet to be. Passing eons would bring new wonders and creations which, like their Creator could be indefinitely enjoyed not as a static perfection but as an eternal dance[11] of discovery and wonder.

This post was written while listening to Appeal to Reason by Rise Against ___________________________
[1] Of course, if I was an actuary, I would also include a risk variable for actuaries for throwing themselves in front of busses because their job is so dull. Though, to be fair, I have been studying a fair bit of actuarial theory lately since it is the foundation of Ecological Population Modeling. Many of the original break throughs in Population Biology were made by NY insurance magnates who dabbled in Natural History on the side.
[2] Pun intended…if someone makes a pun and no one realizes it…did it happen?
[3] I find the natural science education pitched as a new way of seeing delightfully and subversively similar to the theology of Christian conversion, both theoretically and empirically.
[4] Two other fun notes about Settlers. 1) My friend Corrie has declared the Cake song Comanche the official anthem of Settlers of Catan because “If you want to build cities you have to build roads.” 2) A couple that my brother and his wife play Settlers made them shirts embroidered with Gen 34:10 "You can settle among us; the land is open to you. Live in it, trade in it, and acquire property in it." Of course there are countless variants of less delicate jest that also accompany the game, mostly surrounding the phrase ‘I’ve got wood.’
[5] I am not a trecky. This is the first Trek film I have seen. My family watched Next Generation during dinner on Sundays during most of my adolescence, so I get the premise, but have almost no attachment to any of the character from the original series. Still, I appreciate the effort taken to find continuity with the original narrative despite consciously re-writing the it. (That’s right, I’m calling you out Batman and Spiderman). We enjoyed the film. But it had some glaring faults. Kirk and Spock senior’s meeting was far too coincidental, I had trouble buying Syler as Spock, and the whole thing had kind of a Space Camp feel to it (with essentially undergrads rising to positions of prominence to form the Enterprise crew).
[6] Although one could deduce that JJ recognized that this would be a tectonically unstable configuration and thus, why the Romulan villain (who was a miner and, presumably, geologically savy) chose to drill to the core at this particular site. This theory is corroborated by the fact that when Nero (who Banda hit out of the park) attacked earth, he drilled in the SF bay which the average viewer would recognize as techonically active.

[7] In a film that gave such careful effort to imagining a biological system (if taking an unintentional stand on niche ecology and convergent evolution…more on this in a later post) their geologic imagination was on par with that expended on the story and dialogue.
[8] Though, the text is so clear on this, ‘misread’ is generous. Really, this is medieval theological baggage happily leveraged by dispensationalism. That’s right, I’m looking at you ‘Left Behind’ truther.
[9] I made this phrase up. In the church we often talk about if someone is ‘theologically trained.’ In music we talk about someone who is ‘classically trained.’ Being ‘geologically trained’ seems like it should be something too.
[10] One of the things that I find interesting about Biblical eschatology is that it is fundamentally urban. But that makes sense. If the new earth is to sustain an enormous population indefinitely, population will have to be concentrated so resources can be harvested sustainably. Concentrating population minimizes anthropogenic impacts on creation. Eschatological cities would be centers of creativity and would not suffer the ill effects of the endemic nature, so urban life will not be plagued with the ills that are currently associated with it. But, by concentrating habitation and environmental impact in one or a few urban centers, the new earth would presumably be mostly natural and, I suspect, regularly visited in a ‘leave no trace’ practice of redeemed enjoyment.
[11] credit, the ever quotable Capadocian Fathers.