Tag Archives: suffering

Reviews – or is it a reflection? Pleasantville and Nietzsche

Pleasantville (1998). A classic example of metaphor in art. The standard interpretation of the piece written, produced and directed by Gary Ross is that it was a metaphor of the sixties. America was leaving behind the Father Knows Best and Leave it to Beaver paradigms of the 50s and launching full speed ahead into the sexual revolution and peacenik philosophy of the 60s crowned by such shows as Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Okay, I get that. After all, I was there. It was a time when we transitioned from collectively looking the other way when Marilyn Monroe sang happy birthday to the President (May of 1962) to the cultural “freedom” of opening our homes and our bedrooms, to public view – and criticism. Happy Days and Opie consigned to the archives and re-run channels; enter South Park.

There are also the more personal interpretations. Moments of personal change such as when Betty Parker (the quintessential 50s mom) makes the decision to stop hiding the fact she is now in full Technicolor and refuses to use her grayscale makeup to hide it. Or when Mr. Daniels discovers color as an art form and refuses to give it up, even in the face of town statutes. The struggle to seek personal integrity even in the face of prejudice, conflict, and self-doubt.

Watching the movie for the first time in recent weeks, I saw these interpretations; and much more. To me this film was a kaleidoscope of thought provoking moments that went far beyond the superficial presentation of “sexual freedom” and “civil disobedience.” This was most evident in the change brought about in Jennifer/Mary Sue. The most promiscuous individual in the whole story remains stubbornly grayscale until she finds her real passion, literature. Her conversion takes place as she reads from D. H. Lawrence. An author who was considered controversial in the 50s as he confronted many of the underlying themes in the movie. She becomes so impassioned she remains in the Pleasantville universe to attend college. Or, David/Bud remaining grayscale until he ends up in a fight protecting his “mother” from harassment.  It was not all about free sex, free speech, and open rebellion. It was about finding that thing which filled the individual with enough passion to become the deliberate vehicle of change.

How then does all of that relate to Nietzsche?

Because Nietzsche had this thing about suffering. Grant it, his view was elitist. He was quite certain that suffering only made sense for those already strong and healthy and was little more than a deep abyss for those who were not. On this I disagree. For a moment, let’s paint Pleasantville with a different brush, one from Nietzsche’s studio.

Pleasantville was the perfect place to live. The greatest emergency was a cat stuck in a tree and no one ever showed up late for dinner or work. The basketball team never lost. No one was jealous, felt left out or failed at school. It was, quite frankly, what many of us pray for. Unrelenting peace and serenity, no challenges, losses or regrets. The inhabitants lived in a world so protected that they could not even imagine the thought of “somewhere else.” A condition many practice in real life even if they choose not to admit it. Segue to Nietzsche.

Within a number of Nietzsche’s writings we are introduced to his idea of suffering and what it means in the context of being human. In his view mankind, most particularly those of Christian Europe towards the end of the 19th century, was a mass of sickly worms with visions of greatness, but no capacity to reach it. Though he is saddled with the misnomer of being the father of Nazi philosophy, he would have abhorred the result. In Genealogy of Morals he states, “Do we really need to see in him ‘the spawn of an insane hatred of knowledge, mind and sensuality’ (as someone once argued against me)? A curse on the senses and the mind in one breath of hate?” Although not particularly enamored of the “masses,” he was a man that would have fought against any force that selectively suppressed knowledge, passion, and intellectual freedom on any level.

Shall we return to Pleasantville, the land of the perfect and home of the – uninspired? Nietzsche is not, of course, the first philosopher that reserves the true intellectual advance of mankind to some elite group. It is an all too common point of view. In my research for my manuscript on the book of Job I have found many and will, most likely find more. There is, however, a fundamental truth to his perspective.  Again from Genealogy of Morals, “but suffering itself was not [man’s] problem, but the fact that there was no answer to the question he screamed, ‘Suffering for what?” We are not afraid of suffering, we are afraid there is no reason.

The lesson of Pleasantville as I see it is that we can choose to paint our lives, our world, and our universe, with the grayscale-brush of protected perfection. Resting in the assurance that the mystery of the why and wherefore is not for us to understand, but to endure. Except – well – we live in a Technicolor universe. If we are to be all that we can be as individuals, as a race, as a representative of what the creative power of life itself can accomplish – we have to accept the consequences of passion. We must embrace the reality of the ever-changing relationship between what was, what is and what will be. Suffering is every bit a part of being human. An essential part that makes us the creators we are.

Some of the bits that inspired this post.

https://orwell1627.wordpress.com/2015/01/10/nietzsche-on-suffering-analysis/

http://www.valueofsuffering.co.uk/nietzsche-on-suffering/

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Book Review ~ Seeking our Say in the Court of the Universe

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis. Available in many formats for $9-15.00

FacesThere are many among us who have suffered some life changing event; an event that changes us in quick or slow ways, forever. These are the kinds of events that cause us to build “public faces.” More often than not, these changes build a wall between us and others at least in part because we do not wish to allow ourselves to be vulnerable to suffer more pain, or its repercussions, ever again.

We also build these walls in our choice to push those who are suffering away. Much like Job’s friends, we seek, in whatever way accessible, to understand the cause and effect of what we see. As humans we are creatures always in search of order. We cannot tolerate the arbitrary, we must find a pattern. In some of us that results in a search for God (or gods), in others it is the explicit effort to eradicate even the hint of the divine from our lives.

I believe, in some way, this was the seed to human sacrifice. In our ancient civilizations, with vastly less understanding than we have today, there was a strong belief that the gods must demand blood and restitution for the shortcomings of mankind. After all; there were famines, natural disasters, accidents, pestilence, and all sorts of ways to die. Perhaps, in their ignorance, they thought to choose those to send to the gods in order to save their own hides.

We have, of course, changed this view over the last several millennium or so.  Although the Aztecs were hard at it in the early centuries CE, there had arisen a culture in the Middle East that looked on the sacrifice of human life as an abomination. They did, however, hold tightly to the sacrifice of blood offerings. This interpretation of divine demand remained through the birth of Christianity. There was still a strong conviction that someone somewhere had to pay the price for all that was not right with the world. One of the problems we seem to face most consistently is what constitutes restitution and what constitutes the natural course of the universe and is there a difference?

This weekend, I decided to re-read a favorite tale I had read many years ago. There are times when I go through stages of hunting down everything by a particular author and read through it all. This remembered stage was a search for C. S. Lewis. He is best known for titles such as the Narnina series, the Space Trilogy and Christian apologetics. The subject of my blog is a bit off the usual track. It is a retelling of the tale of Psyche and Cupid. I found it quite intriguing at the time and deeply thought provoking now. Let’s visit Glome and meet the Queen whose thoughts and actions may touch your dreams and your fears. Perhaps you’ll find a treasure to take back home.

The story of Cupid and Psyche is quite old. We know it best from the Latin novel, Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass) written in the 2nd century CE by Apoleius. The tale itself must be quite ancient since depictions of Eros (Cupid) and Psyche appear in Greek art as early as the 4th century BCE. The basic story is about a king with three daughters, each quite beautiful but none as beautiful as the youngest. Although the older sisters marry, the youngest finds only worshipers and no lovers. So much is the attention she receives she draws the ire of Venus. Venus sends her son Cupid to end the competition, but Cupid falls in love and takes her away to a hiding place. His only request is that she never tries to discover his identity.

Time passes and the young bride tires of being alone all of the time and begs to see her sisters. The visit is disastrous.  As a result of their jealousy of her new style of living, her sisters coerce her into revealing the identity of her husband. By exposing him, she brings the wrath of Venus upon them both and Psyche is forced to wander in a quest to meet the demands of this very jealous goddess. She wins in the end and is restored to her beloved Cupid.

I don’t want to give you all the story twists of Lewis’ retelling; it’s really a charming read. What I will do is tell you something of what I found within the pages of this rather different interpretation of the tale. You see in this story the elder sister does not see the palace, except through the mist in the middle of the night of betrayal.  She believes her young half-sister to be quite mad. She seeks some way to believe, some way to find an answer from her goddess or her Greek philosophical training and finds only contradiction and doubt. She finally makes the decision to coerce her sister into revealing the identity her new found husband.

The results are disastrous as Orual discovers her sister was quite sane and she is now responsible for sending the young lady into the wilderness to be tested by a jealous goddess.  Princess Orual returns home to become Queen Orual on the death of her father only a few days later.  Shaken to the core, she vows to always wear a veil, so that none can see how homely she is, and to slowly extinguish that part of her that was the caring and loving protector of her beloved little sister. She lives her life in constant fear that the gods will strike her down. And she never allows herself to love again.

Queen Orual is a wise ruler. She reverses the policies of her father and finds ways to protect the country from the vagaries of nature, to build their treasury and to protect their borders. An excellent fighter, she rides with her armies when required. The kingdom finds peace, and yet she suffers. It is by chance that during a casual trip, taken for pleasure, she happens upon a temple, built in honor of her little sister Istra (Psyche in Greek). The tale she hears is nothing like the story she knows and she vows to write her own story, the truth. She vows to seek justice from the gods.

I find the tale compelling because it is a search for a very elusive thing; something that we are so sure we know, and yet we face trials, suffering, and retribution. Like Job, we believe we are doing our best, that we make appropriate decisions based on the knowledge we have, only to discover we didn’t have all the facts. No matter how hard we seek answers, we only see darkly the things in this world. And, like Job, we reach a point where we begin to demand answers. Not because we don’t believe, but because we do.

In the book the Queen muses as she writes, “There must, whether the gods see it or not, be something great in the mortal soul. For suffering, it seems, is infinite and our capacity without limit.”

No, not so different from the world we live in. Seeking guidance, following precepts and yet suffering. Seeing a world in pain, and noting that much of what happens is an accident of birth. Is it any wonder that our highly developed, rational minds seek answers? That we reach a point when we stop and demand of the universe, of God, “Why?”

Our Queen sets out her tale in order to challenge the gods, to ask them to tell her what more she could have done with the information she had. In the end she learns that her love for her sister, her suffering throughout her life, brought solace during the years of Istra’s wandering. It provided support during times of trial, and that when the final test came her sister had grown to the point that even her dearest and most loved could not sway her from the task at hand. Istra (Psyche) does, in the end, earn the approval of the gods and win back her place at Cupid’s side.

Orual brings us to the lesson that although we often suffer the consequences of ill informed decisions, we still have a chance to build on our failures and turn them into something productive. We gain “face” if you will by what we do about suffering, how we treat those in pain, how we use the tools we are given to make the world a better place, however small that improvement may be. It is when we strive in this way that we earn the right, the obligation to stand, “gird our loins like a [rational being]” so that when we are asked we can inform.  That search for understanding can never end; else why are we given these incredible gifts of a rational mind, a spirit of wonder, and a will to seek truth?

 “I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

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Answering the Ultimate Paradox

Book Review ~ God’s Problem by Bart D. Ehrman, Available for under $15.00

problemAlthough I write because I have read, I also read in order to write better.  Consequently, even with pages and pages of notes collected through the years regarding my own developing interpretation of the Book of Job, I still seek more information.  Some of that is technical.  Meaning I seek out the people who are working on the language of the Old Testament.  People who know something about the structure of the oldest version of the text before us.  People who know something about the archaeology and anthropology of the time periods involved.  This is where I start.

After I have the “setting” of my project I move on to what other people think the lessons might be, or if there is one at all.  This is my method in my current work, Why Me? Come let us Reason with Job.  As I move through my draft I have researched the history of theological and philosophical thought regarding this passage of the Hebrew canon.  Now, I have reached a stage in that research that is leading me through the more modern thinkers, some very well known, some rather obscure.  One of the writers I chose to read is a rather popular author and a James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Caroline, Chapel Hill.   He is Professor Bart Ehrman and this is not my first experience with his writing. I have always found him informative, easy to read and challenging.  He makes me think and I happen to enjoy thinking.

As mentioned, I have read a number of Professor Ehrman’s books and watched several of his lectures.  As a scholar he is passionate about his subject matter.  Whenever I read or listen to his work I feel like he is taking me on an exploratory journey that will challenge the way I think.  I always learn something, even if I disagree.  And, sometimes I do.

I sincerely believe that a book such as God’s Problem should be read, and studied.  I believe that the questions that Ehrman raises should be confronted and addressed.  In fact, some of the questions he raises are the very reasons I am writing my own rendition of just what went on all those centuries ago when in fact or in literature a man stood and demanded an audience with his Maker.  Let’s talk a bit about what Ehrman has to say.

Beginning with the prophets of the Hebrew bible, we are reintroduced to the things that we don’t really pay much attention to when we are preparing Sunday School lessons.  The Old Testament is a violent and bloody book.  The “bad” guys are not always the ones causing murder and mayhem.  There are many passages that, unless you choose to bend things in uncomfortable angles, the God of Israel takes direct responsibility for the devastation of people, creatures of all sorts, ecologies and whole countries, if not the entire globe.  Too often we write this off as justice (since it came from God) without really considering the innocent lives involved.  Many modern day “prophets” use this scenario as an excuse to blame every disaster on someone’s sin – rarely, if ever their own.

Another answer to suffering analyzed in the book is the apocalyptic view.  This is the view that here on earth there is suffering and travail because evil powers are being allowed to rule the earth for now.  Someday, however, God’s judgment will fall and all evil with be done away with, all suffering will end, and a new world will take form where there is no suffering. In the meantime, it will be hell on earth.

A third interpretation brought out in scripture, and discussed by Ehrman, is that there really isn’t any answer to suffering.  In this case we just have to make the best of what is here because there really is no logical, theological or philosophical reason to support why we should suffer.  At least not for all suffering.  It is certainly reasonable to understand that when we do certain things there is a piper to pay.  If we drink and drive, we can injure ourselves and others.  If we smoke, we may get cancer.  If we choose not to care for our bodies, we will get sick.  This is a cause and effect we can understand.  But in the case of much of the suffering in the world, well, we’re still searching.

Last, but certainly not least, Ehrman explores the answer called redemptive suffering.  This teaching looks at suffering as a temporary evil that prepares us for a greater good.  Or that through one person’s suffering another person finds a greater truth.  This point of view could cause nightmares.  I actually find the author’s journey rather compelling.  He tells how he first became challenged by the simple act of thanking God for his food.  Why, he thought, should I be so special that God would feed me and let millions more die of starvation?  What right do I have to such a special dispensation?  What right do I have to be thankful for something that 850 million people in this world do not have?  Especially when I live in a world where that is not necessary?  In case you’re wondering, he actually does try to do something about it.  If you are interested, his support foundation can be found here.  I think, though, you get the point. A sensitive person may look at his or her relative comfort and feel something more deeply than a simple, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”

Now the thing I find interesting is that the interpretation of these teachings of scripture, and they are indeed, what scripture has to say about the matter, are all predicated on one assumption.  That we understand what it is that God “is.”  We base all of our assumptions on an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-loving Sovereign of the universe and then attempt to figure out how such a being could know everything, and love each and every one of us – and allow suffering.  Therein we find the paradox.  A paradox which arises from our own reasoning.  A paradox that Job faced and just might have solved.

I recently read a book entitled God and the Philosophers.  In an article by David Shatz, an orthodox Jew, there is a quote that goes something like this, God does not follow us around looking at each and every action in order to pass out spankings and lollipops according to our daily performance.  A kindred spirit.  Although I may see this somewhat out of context, I interpret some of Ehrman’s point of view as casting God in a domestic violence case.  Someone who beats up his children for every infraction and sometimes not bothering to tell them what the infraction was or because someone else needed to learn a lesson.  This, of course, is not how I view a Sovereign deity at all.

I firmly believe that at the heart of the matter is our interpretation, our “assumption,” of what God is or does.  I believe if we spend a little time with Job, if we “gird” ourselves and prepare to answer the questions put to us, we just might find some answers.  They may not be the ones we want.  They may, however, give us a better sense of what our place in this vast universe really is.  I can tell you that I don’t believe it is crushed and groveling in the dirt.

I am always open to feedback and love to see your comments.  I will not approve attacks, rude commentary or baseless profanity.   Other than that, I am on a journey, just like you, and I don’t mind being challenged.  Thanks for stopping by.

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