Sunday, October 22, 2017

The Übermensch vs the Christ-man

Both Nietzsche and Dostoevsky lived around the same time in the late nineteenth century--a time of the fall of Christian values and the rise of rationalism and nihilism. While Nietzsche lamented the 'death of God,' Dostoevsky concluded that 'everything is permitted.' The two existentialists' thoughts ran almost parallel to each other until Nietzsche proclaimed that men must now rise above the herd and transcend beyond good and evil. Nietzsche was foreshadowing the emergence of the 'Übermensch'--the man who would forge his own values free of God. Meanwhile, Dostoevsky was formulating in advance his answer to Nietzsche's Übermensch, and this answer was modeled on none other than Jesus Christ.

In each of Dostoevsky's last novels we see the figure of Christ presented through the unlikeliest of characters. Alyosha--the troubled novice monk who must travel outside of his monastery to spread the gospel. Sonya--the self-sacrificing prostitute who brings salvation to a murderer. Both these characters are Nietschean in a certain sense. All three survive betrayal and tragedies. They survive that which 'does not kill them,' and emerge stronger. But the one who truly makes them stronger is Christ.

Dostoevsky's Übermensch is Christ. His Übermensch, in stark contrast to Nietszche, does not transcend beyond good and evil, but, rather, becomes a bridge between heaven and hell. Dostoevsky's heroes, Alyosha and Sonya, live inside the hellish realm that is the reality of the world in which we live in, yet they embody and spread all that is good and become Christ-figures to their societies. Though they cannot escape hell, they nevertheless bring light to all those who are trapped alongside them, often at the cost of themselves. Their hearts, despite enduring much pain, are entrenched in that which cannot be seen. They redeem the world through their supposed weakness--their weakness being the imitation of Christ.

Unlike Nietszche's Übermensch, Dostoevsky's Christ-man moves gracefully under the structures of authority. Whereas the Übermensch imposes his will on the structures themselves, the Christ-man transcends the structures and deals with the battle at the very root--the heart of man. The Christ-man seeks to transform the human soul, not subdue or coerce it through sheer dominance. Redemption lies in mimicking Christ, not in building up a brand new human from scratch, for the brand new human was already revealed in the form of a Jewish rabbi two thousand years ago. Jesus was and always will be the solution to the countless diseases that plague the human heart. He is the greatest example of positive mimesis--the ultimate role model.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Gospel in 'Crime and Punishment'

In Dostoevsky's 'Crime and Punishment,' the protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, believes he is special and can, quite literally, get away with murder. He brutally murders two women with an axe, just to prove his point. But soon, he is torn apart by the constant battle between his conscience and rationale. This causes him great physical and mental anguish. He howls and rages in agony. He is endlessly tormented, and, as a result, lashes out against those who try to help him. One day, he meets a woman by the name of Sonya. Rodion falls in love with this overwhelmingly humble and shunned lady. He is strangely attracted to Sonya and even confesses his sins to her, albeit in pride. Sonya, upon hearing Rodion's confession, urges him to turn himself over to the authorities. But, she also says that she will follow Rodion into captivity, promising to never leave him.

Dostoevsky presents to us how mere mortals must imitate Christ in this fallen world. Rodion is the person we are before and in the state of conversion. After all, his name literally means 'schism.' Sonya, on the other hand, is how a Christ-follower is supposed to act. Astonishingly, Dostoevsky portrays the only Christian in his novel as a harlot. How ironic! Aren't we all harlots in our own unique ways? Sonya is basically us, broken and ashamed, but always striving like a child to be like Christ. When Sonya hears Raskolnikov's confession, she does not cast judgement upon him, despite the fact that one of Raskolnikov's victims was her friend. Sonya instead weeps and embraces Raskolnikov, choosing to speak to the murderer's suffering soul. She could have quite easily exposed Raskolnikov to society and thus exacted 'justice.' But she refuses to do this. Why? There is no why! It's because she truly loves Raskolnikov. She urges Raskolnikov to turn himself in so that his conversion might be complete.

When Raskolnikov is in prison, Sonya, true to her promise, keeps visiting him. However, Raskolnikov is still proud and unrepentant. He tries to justify his crime, stating that he killed only worthless human beings. But nevertheless, Sonya continues to offer compassion. One day, she falls sick and is unable to visit, and Raskolnikov becomes restless because of her absence. When Sonya resumes her visit, Raskolnikov cannot control himself. He falls to her feet in repentance. They embrace each other through tears and recognize that many years of suffering still lie ahead, but they have each other.

True repentance and reconciliation can never occur unless we are ready to travel to the deepest depths of hell with the tormented. In order to do that, we must forego all ideas of retributive justice. It isn't easy; no one said it was.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

'A Clockwork Orange' and victim-based politics

In the movie 'A Clockwork Orange, ' the central character is a hooligan, murderer, and rapist. His name is Alex and he enjoys what he describes as 'a bit of the old ultraviolence.' He beats up homeless men, rivals, and even his own gangmembers. He rapes women on a regular basis. And when he goes back home at night, he listens to his favorite composer--Beethoven. Believe it or not, Alex is us; he is you and me. Given the right circumstances, we are liable to become ultraviolent just like Alex. We can become the murderer or the victim, depending on one's ideological perspective.

The movie is also an interesting commentary on the political spectrum of our society. When Alex is apprehended, he is put forward as the recipient of a mind-altering treatment. He is forced into endless sessions of watching violent films, and, as a result, he develops a physical sickness whenever he is confronted with a violent situation. Unfortunately, he also, rather inadvertently, develops a sickness towards Beethoven's music. The reigning government--a liberal one--hails Alex's cure to the press, proclaiming it as a fulfillment of their promises to rid the streets of crime, all but ensuring their reelection in the coming election.

When he is released, Alex's physical ailments start to get the best of him. Violence is unavoidable, and so are violent circumstances. Whenever he is attacked, whether by hooligans or homeless drunkards, Alex cannot fight back, and, as a result, he is beaten up by almost everyone. Worse, he becomes a pawn for political fanatics. The conservative opposition manages to get a hold of him, seeing in him an opportunity to strike at the liberal ruling party. They manage to get Alex to attempt suicide by forcing him to listen to Beethoven's music in a locked room. The story is put through the press. The ruling party are cornered because of the devastating affects of the supposed cure for violent behavior. True to the realistic narrative, the liberals treat Alex again, this time reversing the cure. Now, Alex is once again able to listen to Beethoven, once again he is a murderer and a rapist. It doesn't matter though, as the government has reclaimed its image in the public eye.

"The most powerful anti-Christian movement is the one that takes over and "radicalizes" the concern for victims in order to paganize it." - Rene Girard

The left and right sides of political power are really two sides of the same coin. Both thrive on victim-based politics. Both seek out victims, and both use victims to further their power and cement their authoritarian place in society. Alex is first a victim of society when he is selected for the mind-altering treatment. When he is cured, he has outlived his uses and dismissed by the ruling party. The party has already used the victim Alex as propaganda and succeeded in winning the praises of the media; why should they keep him now?

Alex, however, has now become a different kind of victim. He is now the victim of state-sponsored mind alteration. And what kind of uses does this victim have? He is used against the government, of course.

This is the sad state of modern western society. Political parties and governments are entirely victim-based. Victims are utilized for party agendas and then easily dismissed. For example, in America, the far-right says that the victims are people of the white race who are marginalized by the establishment. On the other hand, the far-left say (and this will seem somewhat strange) that the blacks, Hispanics, women, homosexuals, transgenders, etc. are all victims of the white patriarchy.

The problem with this kind of victim-based politics is that it always seeks out an external oppressor. The kind of concern for victims that require you to hate another man, that's playing straight into the satanic hands of deception. In the post-Christian society of the western world, where people seek a return to the paganism of old, the radicalization of the concern for victims is the quickest way to achieve that goal.

The non-violent message of the Gospels, the crucifixion of Christ, once and for all deconstructed the violent scapegoat system hidden under pagan religions. The stories of Oedipus, Romulus and Remus, Antigone, all reveal how mankind solve violent conflicts by sacrificing a single victim upon whom all blame is placed. This sacrificing of a single victim successfully brings the conflict to halt, albeit temporarily. This scapegoat phenomenon was deconstructed and laid bare before all thanks to the crucifixion of Christ. Much of western society, and the values that sprung forth from it, has been built on this revelation from the cross. The idea that each and every person is of immense value, deserving life and dignity, is a result of the deconstruction of violence by Jesus. However, Satan is a master of adaptation, and the devil knows just how mankind can come back to the pagan days of old, when human sacrifices occurred without outrage and guilt.

The best way Satan can eclipse the Christian revelation is through a radical method of social justice. The communist revolutions in Russia and China were testament to that. The self-proclaimed army of victims rose up and annihilated the oppressors and left not a single trace of their murder. They wiped out even the families of the oppressors. This is Alex's dark side. The new rule of the victim must continue to find oppressors, hence they find it within their own ranks. Men and women are turned in as 'traitors of the revolution.' Millions more perish in labor camps, never to be seen again.

When Alex is 'cured' for the final time in the movie, he is back to being a murderer and he is already planning another violent assault. This is where victim-based politics--the modern social justice movement--eventually leads us. It makes us no better than we were before, instead it makes us worse; it gives us an axe to wield and an oppressor to kill.

But there is a way through which humanity can continue the revelation of the cross. This way calls for us to renounce violence altogether. Rene Girard explains this boldly in his book 'Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World.'

To leave violence behind, it is necessary to give up the idea of retribution; it is therefore necessary to give up forms of conduct that have always seemed to be natural and legitimate. For example, we think it quite fair to respond to good dealings with good dealings, and to evil dealings with evil, but this is precisely what all communities on the planet have always done, with familiar results. People imagine that to escape from violence it is sufficient to give up any kind of violent ‘initiative’, but since no one in fact thinks of himself as taking this initiative—since all violence has a mimetic character, and derives or can be thought to derive from a first violence that is always perceived as originating with the opponent—this act of renunciation is no more than a sham, and cannot bring about any kind of change at all. Violence is always perceived as being a legitimate reprisal or even self-defence. So what must be given up is the right to reprisals and even the right to what passes, in a number of cases, for legitimate defence. Since the violence is mimetic, and no one ever feels responsible for triggering it initially, only by an unconditional renunciation can we arrive at the desired result.

A total and final renunciation of violence would not allow us to get sucked into the perpetual, bloodthirsty game of victim and oppressor. The refusal to participate in mimetic violence will save us from what Nietzsche called 'the slave morality.' An adherence to non-violence will spark an outbreak of love for one another--a contagion of positive mimesis. Jesus said that the world will know his disciples by their love for one another. This love for one another is designed by Christ to be first mimicked among his disciples and then work its way out into the world. Love is such a force that it cannot be enforced through legistation or any other means of coercion. Love must come forth by imitation, not from violent forces of evil, but from the crucified life of Christ.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Book Review: 'Blessed Are the Weird' by Jacob Nordby

Blessed Are the Weird is one of the most unique books that I have ever read. This book, written by Jacob Nordby, is not a self-help guide of any kind, but, rather, is a celebration and reflection of the creative spirit of mankind. Blessed makes the bold declaration that the world’s future will be shaped by creatives or ‘Weirdians’ as Nordby likes to call them. Is this what Dostoevsky meant when he said ‘beauty will save the world’? Nordby writes,

The only success now is living and creating a work-of-art life: unique, rich with meaning, naked of anything we don’t care about, and ruthless about carving out something absolutely real from a world that has gorged itself on fakeness and become critically ill from it. The only failure now is pulling back from that quest because of fear.

It certainly is true that the world has mostly lost itself in the chaos of the routine. We, in our day-to-day lives, hardly have the time to appreciate the beauty in creation.
Nordby starts the book with the following viral poem:

Blessed are the weird people —poets, misfits, writers, mystics heretics, painters & troubadours— for they teach us to see the world through different eyes
Blessed are those who embrace the intensity of life’s pain and pleasure, for they shall be rewarded with uncommon ecstasy.
Blessed are ye who see beauty in ugliness, for you shall transform our vision of how the world might be.
Blessed are the bold and whimsical, for their imagination shatters ancient boundaries of fear for us all.
Blessed are ye who are mocked for unbridled expression of love in all its forms, because your kind of crazy is exactly that freedom for which the world is unconsciously begging.
Blessed are those who have endured breaking by life, for they are the resplendent cracks through which the light shines.

The author celebrates the types of people (and other equivalents) mentioned in this poem, and he urges us to join in this celebratory tribal dance. He reminds us that, for a vast period in history, creatives, or ‘Weirdians’, were given elevated statuses in society by the authorities and rulers. These Weirdians were so cherished in society that they were able to get away by subtly taunting rulers and making fun of their policies. Sadly, today, as Nordby observes, many people of talent have sold their souls to the big money-making machine and become the entity we call ‘celebrity.’ In the wake of this soul-selling, we need to be artists of raw sincerity more than ever.

I have long been interested in a book such as this one. I consider myself a fellow Weirdian—I'm a painter and a creative writer. The art of painting and writing are, for me, the best ways to express the love of God to a broader audience.  The question you may be asking right now is : ‘has this book benefitted me in any way?’ The answer is a resounding yes, though it was difficult, at times, navigating through the more reflective parts in the later pages and trying to make sense. Perhaps, I will be able to understand more clearly during a second reading.

The author feeds us with reflections from his own journey; reading these parts will make you feel a lot for the writer and understand where he is coming from. He also regales us with a few fantastical tales which illustrates his points with great clarity. Nordby gives us lessons from both real and imaginary life. He takes us on a journey unlike any other, as all creatives do, and forces us to marvel at the beauty of the human soul and the magnificence of the ‘Great Everything.’ He fills his pages with delight, triumph, and sadness—things that make no sense to the rationale, yet are dear to the human heart. How I wish these things of the soul are held closer by the modern day church as well; it is why we need to read from Dostoevsky and Tolstoy just as much as we read from theologians and pastors. Who knows? Maybe, we’ll regain the daring colors that we had long lost in our thinking of God and his creation.

CLICK HERE to buy 'Blessed Are the Weird' on Amazon.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

'Silence': A brief review of Scorcese’s film

The movie Silence is directed by Martin Scorcese and based on the Japanese novel written by Shūsaku Endō; it deals with the state persecution of the ‘Kakure Kirishitan’ (hidden Christians) in 17th century Japan after the Shimabara rebellion. The story is told from the perspective of Father Rodrigues–a Portuguese Jesuit priest who travels to Japan in search of Father Ferreira. Ferreira is said to have renounced his faith under extreme torture from the inquisitor; he steps on a fumi-e—a stone slab containing Christian images—and symbolically 'tramples' on Jesus. Unable to believe the news of Ferreira’s apostasy, the young priest Rodrigues decides to find out for himself if Ferreira has indeed turned his back on Christ.

I must say Silence is probably the best film of 2016 along with Hacksaw Ridge; it is also one of Scorcese’s masterpieces. It is a difficult film to watch, yet it is also beautiful and sublime. The moments of persecution and trial of Christians left me deeply moved. Christians are beheaded, burnt alive, left bleeding in pits, and crucified. There is a scene where a Japanese Christian is crucified and left to drown. He is singing in his last moment a serene hymn, which sounds bittersweet, while everyone else, including the persecutors, looks on in silence. By watching and absorbing these scenes, you can feel how everyone involved with the movie are giving their all. Andrew Garfield who plays Rodrigues is especially powerful in his performance and deserves an Oscar. Speaking of Oscars, it is a complete travesty that Silence did not get any nominations this year other than for best cinematography.

Those who have seen the movie may have noticed the film’s complex themes interwoven throughout the plot. In this blog entry, I will attempt to touch on some of these themes and take time to briefly reflect upon them. In doing so, I hope that the reader may appreciate the movie, and admire the author, Mr. Endō, even more for his incredible insights into human culture and various theological issues, many of which are still relevant today. For those who might not have seen the movie, please be informed as there are spoilers that follow.

Cultural Barriers
It is not long before Rodrigues discovers that the land of Japan is a uniquely different country. Here, the people are simplistic, without deceit, and extremely humble—even childlike. The Christians welcome Rodrigues with an affectionate sadness and treat him with overwhelming admiration and warmth. Even the Inquisitor, Inoue Masashige, invites Rodrigues to his home for meals and discussion. The Japanese rulers abhor the ‘arrogance’ of the European missionaries, yet they are strangely moved by the Christians’ willingness to suffer. At the same time, they are unable to understand why these European missionaries would allow their flock to suffer such extreme agonies for the simplest of faith-denial acts such as stepping on mere images.

I can say that this is true for many Asian cultures when faced with foreign, particularly western, interaction in any form. It is true that many western ideas have been beneficial with regards to fighting superstition and social discrimination, but at the same time western concepts such as individuality and hyper-capitalism are often seen as threats to the cultural solidarity of Asian peoples. So it is not surprising that the Japanese persecutors in this story think of western Christianity as a danger to their land.

When Rodrigues finally comes face to face with Ferreira, he is told that Japan is a vast ‘swamp’ and ‘our religion does not take root here.’ Ferreira tells Rodrigues that the Japanese simply cannot conceive of a God that exists beyond the realm of nature. Rodrigues shakes his head at Ferreira and says that he saw countless Christians dying for God. ‘But they’re dying for you, Rodrigues,’ Ferreira says to Rodrigues, much to the young priest’s shock.

The author, Mr. Endō, had long believed that for Christianity to thrive in Japan it must abandon certain western concepts such as the patriarchal father image of God. The Japanese do not take kindly to a father image, which exudes stubborn authority and allows no weakness. Endō said that the Japanese are more drawn to the maternal nature of God as revealed in the tender, nurturing nature of Jesus. The maternal aspect of Christ is indeed the most heartwarming and comforting place in the Gospels, and it is true that we Christians have not emphasized on this as much as we should have in our day-to-day lives. Julian of Norwich writes in her ‘Revelations of Divine Love,’

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him, and this is where His Maternity starts, And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.

Towards the end of the film, the Inquisitor says to Rodrigues that Christianity in Japan has become a ‘strange thing.’

God’s voice in suffering
In his trials and tribulations, Rodrigues often asks God for comfort and deliverance. He also questions God as to why must the Christians’ suffering be so terrible. ‘Where are you?’ he shouts at God repeatedly in a prison cell while awaiting execution.

The author had said that Japanese culture identifies with the 'one who suffers with us.' Is it true that God suffers with us in silence while we undergo painful and agonizing trials? I am reminded of an account of the Holocaust told by Elie Wiesel in his book ‘Night.’ Wiesel recounts an episode where he and others witness the hanging of a small boy in a concentration camp.

“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing...
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
"For God's sake, where is God?"
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
"Where He is? This is where--hanging here from this gallows..."

Rodrigues is disheartened by God’s silence amidst the screams of his children. There comes a time when Rodrigues must commit apostasy in order to save members of his flock from the agony of bleeding to their deaths. He gazes at the fumi-e upon which he must trample, and it is exactly in this moment when Christ breaks his silence. The Lord says to Rodrigues in a gentle voice,

"You may trample. I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross."

‘Father, I want to make confession.’
When Rodrigues travels to Japan, he meets a drunken Japanese named Kichijiro who later acts as his guide. Rodrigues suspects Kichijiro is a Christian, and it turns out that he is right. Kichijiro is revealed to be one of the Christians who has apostatized and stepped on the fumi-e to save himself, but his family is wiped out in brutal fashion because of their refusal to do the same. Does Kichijiro’s inability to save his own family haunt him? Kichijiro tells Rodrigues that he sees the fire of his family’s death burning less brightly due to the priest’s presence. On top of that, Kichijiro seems to follow Rodrigues everywhere so that he can make his confessions to the priest. Many times, Rodrigues gets annoyed of Kichijiro because of his stubborn insistent need to confess each and every time after stepping on the fumi-e or betraying fellow Christians. How can Christ love such a wretch? Rodrigues often contemplates.

After Rodrigues commits apostasy, Kichijiro still sticks with him as his servant. One day, Kichijiro again asks Rodrigues to hear his confession, but this time Rodrigues is not annoyed; this is because he is aware of the Japanese inability to see God beyond creation. Rodrigues may have realized that Kichijiro is asking for forgiveness much as the same way we Christians ask for forgiveness because of our multiple sins. Rodrigues’ journey comes full circle here. In the Gospel of John, Christ says,

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. (John 15:4, NASB)

The apostle Paul says,

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32, NIV)

Can it be that Kichijiro showed Rodrigues, in his utter weakness, what it means to have Christ living inside of you? Kichijiro begs Rodrigues for forgiveness because, for Kichijiro, Rodrigues is Jesus; the young Portuguese Jesuit priest is to this broken Japanese man the very embodiment of Christ living among his disciples. To Kichijiro, God has already spoken through Father Rodrigues and he has spoken with unconditional forgiveness. Therefore, Rodrigues somehow understands and he finally embraces Kichijiro and thanks him.