When we asked our writing friends to talk about the deadly sins, Rich Farrell said he believes the sins resonate with writers because “the uninitiated must pass through a period of long trial.” He goes on: “The sinner becomes the saint, but only after passing through hell.” Wrath, for its heat, its terrifying ability to end things irreparably, its consumption of the self, its sheer noise, epitomizes hell.
I’m not very trendy or au courant, so I’m often informed of the latest craze well after it has taken root. I thought I was safe, however, in my general assumption that seriously being accused of being a heretic was in mothballs. Imagine my surprise in the past 4 weeks to encounter 4 people — that’s one per week folks — being either actually accused of heresy or expressing concern that they would be. Two of the people I know personally, two are authors of books questioning traditional interpretations of Biblical scriptures.
Heresy is a controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. It is distinct from apostasy, which is the formal denunciation of one’s religion, principles or cause, and blasphemy, which is irreverence toward religion.
I originally planned to steer clear of the recent book getting a lot of press about questions of “what is hell” and “is hell real.” If you missed it, there is a good AP story about the book, the author, and some of the fall out connected to his public questioning here: What is hell? Book stirs debate about afterlife – Yahoo! News.
I told a friend of mine who implied it might be good for Esse Diem that I considered it but rejected it as meaningful conversation, as it seems to go nowhere fast. The people I’ve encountered who believe in hell are not moving, and I can honestly see why: It’s a great no-lose position. I actually saw a woman spell it out online: “If I am right, you will burn in hell and I will be in heaven with God. If I am wrong, I’m still not going to hell. Goodnight.” Except I am editing her closing remark. It wasn’t that polite and was closer to a parting comment more common on the street.
You have to hand it to her. That’s pretty solid on the face of it. True, I win. False, I win.
Except sometimes, even the most hardcore not-gonna-change-my-minders open up, and I say better late than never:
The Roman Catholic Church has admitted to erring these past 359 years in formally condemning Galileo Galilei for entertaining scientific truths it long denounced as against-the-Scriptures heresy.
Pope John Paul II turned up Saturday for a meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help set the record straight on behalf of the 17th century Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist who was the first man to use a telescope and who is remembered as one of history’s greatest scientists.
Excerpt from Chicago Sun-Times, November 1, 1992, William D. Montalbano
So here we go, friends. Let’s be absolutely clear about what the position of the woman who holds onto hell with white knuckles really is: It’s a fear-based insurance policy that claims to be faith-based, but in fact represents an inner terror and insecurity that, to me, is about as far from what God wants for us as you can get.
This does not mean anything goes and nothing matters — far from it. But I think we so often confuse the concepts of being punished by sin and being punished for sin. (A side note for anyone turned off by the word “sin” — I know it has a lot of baggage, but it is the best word for describing what is meant by violating a moral code of conduct decreed by a divine entity. That is all intended here.)
My own understanding of sin in my faith tradition grew exponentially when I started to think as an adult about why a society thousands of years ago recorded some things as sinful and warned heavily against their consequences. I began running informal experiments on my own life, and lo and behold, there developed a reliable pattern of misery connected to violating the principles of the 10 Commandments. Note: Have not tried them all. Not planning to try them all. Rest assured, my “study” is complete and everyone is still alive.
I don’t think God punished me. I think I punished myself by not taking some good advice about how to live a healthy life connected to some core concepts that hold society together. And I think that is what divine influence in this world wants us to understand — we are important to one another. We need to take care of ourselves and our neighbors. We need to focus on systems of justice and love and caring and honor in order to live our healthiest and happiest lives. When we fall away from these systems, we hurt ourselves.
I’ll close with why I finally decided this is a good topic for this blog. I believe that what we teach children shapes our world in ways we cannot even fathom. Ask yourself this question: If you had never heard of hell, and one day at age 30 someone told you that you should embrace the idea, would you?
Engraved portrait of Italian physicist and astronomer Galilei Galileo (1564 – 1642) sitting at desk and reading book. Engraved by Samuel Sartain from a painting by H.W.Wyatt. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
When I heard the news that Rolling Stone was profiling Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, it seemed like a gift from God. Finally, the nation and the world would get a look at what West Virginia has been battling for decades.
Bring it on.
I started taking Rolling Stone magazine in my early teens. My friend Joanna gave it to me as a gift for my birthday, and continued it for a few years before I picked it up on my own. It’s been several years since I subscribed, but I still buy it from the stand from time to time. Honestly, it was Cameron Crowe’s film Almost Famous that brought me back, and I’m grateful. If you haven’t seen the movie, you really owe it to yourself. Frances McDormand, Billy Crudup, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kate Hudson. Anna Paquin – wow. The writing is great and the performances genuine. I’d pay full price in the theater again just to hear Frances tell Billy over a pay phone, “Russell, it’s not too late to become a person of substance.”
What RS does better than anyone is deliver profiles of famous people that reveal the human being submerged in the image. After reading such a piece, I traditionally need to spend a few days shaking off the unpleasant feeling that everything I’ve read prior about the featured person is obscenely incomplete and unfair. I’m not saying RS writers don’t have agendas, because everyone does whether they acknowledge it or not; but profiles in Rolling Stone are difficult to categorize as manipulative. When one reviews the sequence and elements of the story, rarely if ever will much emerge beyond undisputed facts and the verbatim reflections of the people directly involved in the story. I find RS writers often surprise themselves with the degree of empathy and connection they build with people who, profiled differently and in ways less complete, are not hard to despise. The profile of Blankenship met all of my expectations in this regard.
There are stories about Blankenship’s childhood, youth, and young adulthood. His now infamous “investment” in (then) West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard is reviewed, and lest you forget how bad that smelled you can catch another nauseating whiff here. Blankenship’s memos directing miners to ignore safety violations, his crushing of the United Mine Workers in 1985, and his swanky mansion with its own water supply piped in are all presented and chronologically explained. I knew most of these things, but something about having it all recounted as event after event pulls together a story most of us have been trying not to put together. It’s just too awful.
If one wanted to dismiss much of said story as “just business” (which I hear all the time), it is still impossible not to be jarred by the consolidation of immoral corporate conduct that has had such devastating and irreparable consequences to so many people. I don’t toss around the word “evil,” but a better word is hard to find. I try not to describe human beings as evil, but there are actions that are driven by a system of rewards I think reasonably could be termed evil. Consider:
During the 198os, the company (Massey Energy) injected more than 1.4 billion gallons of slurry underground — seven times the amount of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico during the BP disaster this spring. According to the lawsuit, Massey knew the ground was cracked, which would allow the toxic waste to leach into nearby drinking water. But injecting the slurry underground saved Massey millions of dollars a year. “The BP oil spill was an accident. This was an intentional environmental catastrophe.” (p. 88)
All told, Jeff Goodell’s portrait of Blankenship is something that will linger in the reader’s mind for a long time. It resonates with the old saying, “Man is not punished for sin, but by sin.” Goodell is certainly not out to paint Blankenship as a hero, but there is a surprising degree of pain in his conclusion that “the dark lord of coal country” did not make choices that could have lifted him up as a visionary with the potential to lead his people out of darkness. Blankenship was a local boy with street cred in Appalachia. Goodell believes Blankenship could have been a voice of reason and sanity about coal’s future, about energy transition and business ethics. Goodell makes the case that he could have saved lives — hundreds of lives if not more.
I think Goodell’s conclusion is romantic, and fails to take into account the fact that Blankenship rose to power and influence based on a ruthless and cold profits-only mentality for which he was richly rewarded. It seems slightly flawed to ask why Blankenship didn’t use his power for good when in fact he would have had no power at all with Massey if it were not for his utter disregard for human life and health, both now and in the future.
Still, it is impossible to know. Nothing scrapes at the human heart like lost potential and doors that are forever closed. RS has a small collage of photographs of Blankenship over the years on page 86. Perhaps it’s the Christmas season, but when I look at the yawning canyon between the handsome senior class president and the bloated and dead-eyed coal baron 40 years later, it breaks my heart.
I wonder what Frances would say to Don on a pay phone?
Following the publication of the December 9 issue of Rolling Stone, Massey Energy announced Don Blankenship’s retirement as Chief Executive Officer.
Growing Up Blind (part 4, Born Again)
Things became more complicated in the middle of my senior year of high school when I became a born-again Christian. I had gone to church all my life, but mainly because my parents required me to do so. At a church service on New Year’s Eve of 1985 I decided that I wasn’t doing a very good job of running my life and that I should surrender it to Jesus and let him have control. At the time I didn’t know that many Christians considered a homosexual lifestyle to be sinful.
My senior year passed quickly, and in the fall of 1986 I began my freshman year at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute, Indiana. I quickly became actively involved in a campus Christian fellowship, and I made a lot of great new friends.
Being a seven-hour drive away from home seems to have helped me finally to admit the truth to myself and others. Just two weeks into my freshman year, I told Mark, an upperclassman from the Christian group, about my sexuality. I wrote, “We had a really good talk. I told him all about my past.” I had finally told someone, but I wasn’t ready to admit the truth to my journal yet.
Through conversations with Mark and other Christians I became convinced that having homosexual desires was not sinful, but acting on them would be. I felt horrible feelings of guilt and shame when I allowed myself to entertain sexual thoughts; I began praying that God would help me to change, or at the very least, to have the strength to resist sexual temptation. I read all the information I could find on the subject, and over the course of my freshman year I wrote more and more openly about my struggle with homosexual desires.
At one point, Mark introduced me to a woman he knew who was similarly conflicted about her sexuality. It was a huge event in my life: For the first time I knew another person who was like me. Despite our similar circumstances, I never became very close with her. I didn’t have a car, and she lived off-campus. I suspect I would have put more effort into the relationship if Mark’s friend had been a man.
By the beginning of my sophomore year, I had come out to my parents and many of my college friends. In September of 1987 I wrote, “Something I’ve meant to do recently is to make a list of people ‘who know,’ if you know what I mean. It’s no big secret if you’ve been keeping up on the past few month’s [entries].” I went on to list 14 people that I had explicitly told about my sexuality and 16 others that I thought probably suspected the truth. I was careful about who I told, but there was not a single person I told during college who rejected me (and most of these guys were conservative Midwesterners).
Tomorrow, part 5 and the conclusion of Growing Up Blind – After College.
Image credit: John Warren
The concept of evil is so ancient, vast, and complex that even though I think about it often I hesitate to write about it. A story on NPR yesterday made me change my mind.
Consider this (emphasis added is mine):
Inspired by the structure of Dante’s circles of hell, Michael Stone has created his own 22-point “Gradations of Evil” scale, made up of murderers in the 20th century. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to do,” he says.
His scale is loosely divided into three tiers. First are impulsive evil-doers: driven to a single act of murder in a moment of rage or jealousy. Next are people who lack extreme psychopathic features, but may be psychotic — that is, clinically delusional or out of touch with reality. Last are the profoundly psychopathic, or “those who possess superficial charm, glib speech, grandiosity, but most importantly cunning and manipulativeness,” Stone says. “They have no remorse for what they’ve done to other people.”
Stone hopes the scale could someday be used in prosecutions. “The people at the very end of the scale have certain things about their childhood backgrounds that are different,” he says, from those who appear earlier in the scale.
That a modern-day psychology/medical professional would use Dante to consider how to interpret and respond to criminal activity fascinates me. I have a foundation of respect for things that are ancient and complex, and genuinely believe that no matter how “evolved” we become as a species we may never be able to get any closer to the Truth of some things than we did hundreds of years ago. In fact, I often think we lose knowledge by insisting that something explained by older civilizations must need polish and improvement. If it’s old-school, primitive hindbrain stuff, maybe not. Avarice, gluttony, wrath, betrayal, etc. seem resistant to “evolving” out of human nature.
But how we interpret and label our condition is important. How we position the concept of “evil” in the world is crucial to how we respond to it. My life changed the day I internalized the concept, “We are not punished for sin, but by sin.” Naturally the human justice system can only focus on punishment for, but the larger idea of why we suffer is directed by the idea that following certain inclinations rather than resisting them inevitably will lead to a bad situation. It’s as guaranteed as basic addition.
When we label people themselves as evil, we are taking the easy way out. If anything, Michael Stone’s analysis of the 22 murderous types indicates that the more abuse and trauma an individual as suffered, especially early in life, the more prone they are to a psychotic break that disconnects them from a capacity to participate in anything but increasingly violent and disturbing behavior. There is clearly a stress point for the mind, and the scale suggests that it’s the passing of that point that creates an inability to ever go back.
Which brings us full circle (pardon the pun) to Dante.
Reading Stone’s profiles of murderous behavior and its origins supports Dante’s story. What we call “evil” is a concentric, spiralling energy that with each pass pulls one deeper into a level more difficult to escape. Properly managed, this connection of old and new thoughts on the influence of evil on our lives has the potential to reinvigorate public interest in prevention of and intervention in abusive environments, especially for the very young.
It also reminds me that, past a certain point, there are still limits on what people can fix. That doesn’t mean it can never be repaired. See Dante.
One of my favorite American short stories is Stephen Crane’s The Blue Hotel. Some people think it is very complex, some think it is very simple. But most critics and scholars agree it is a terribly important piece of literature.
I’d be lying if I said I “enjoyed” reading it. I really didn’t the first time or since. But the theme of shared responsibility for the very things we decry made an impression on me that has only been strengthened with time.
It’s especially significant in American storytelling because it pokes around in our avoidance of shared responsibility for tragic events and human suffering. Our national story is more exhuberant and fun when we focus on individual responsibility. It’s also often more hopeful. If I can focus only on myself, and my exclusive responsibility for my future, things seem more manageable. If others do the same, we should all be fine as wine.
I think about this story often, and today it came up to shine a mirror in my face as I criticized The Charleston Gazette for not better policing their online comments. I swear that site has turned into some kind of Roman coliseum, but all the gladiators and spectators are wearing hoods over their heads. Only the prey in the center are identified by name. A series of recent personal and cowardly attacks on individuals finally pushed me to ask “out loud” on Facebook, what the hell is going on?
One journalist who I deeply admire took the time to write to me in private and encourage me to contact executives at the paper. S/He said they do care what readers think, but the new world of making a living at a newspaper is creating stress and strain for everyone. Website clicks create statistics that help sell advertising. People are prone to click on controversy and, let’s face it, ugliness. There is a degree to which this knowledge and the need to put food on the table sometimes overrides the decency that is most people’s hearts. It’s a very difficult situation.
I had to ask myself, what do I proactively do to support the newspaper financially? Nothing. I no longer subscribe to the paper because I can “get it” for free online. I don’t buy ads. I don’t donate. I don’t give them any financial support at all, and yet I am free to criticize. And how do I know about the troubling comments? Because I click on the comments section. Crane concluded this in his short story: “Every sin is the result of a collaboration.”
It’s a new world for newspapers. I don’t have the answers. But I think it starts with holding online comments to the same standards of printed comments. Who are you really, not what cute online code name do you use? Expect that your actual identity will be attached to what you say publicly in our newspaper when you comment online, just as it is when you comment in print.
From the last lines of The Blue Hotel:
“Fun or not,” said the Easterner, “Johnnie was cheating. I saw him. I know it. I saw him. And I refused to stand up and be a man. I let the Swede fight it out alone. And you — you were simply puffing around the place and wanting to fight. And then old Scully himself! We are all in it! This poor gambler isn’t even a noun. He is kind of an adverb. Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men — you, I, Johnnie, old Scully, and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment.”
The cowboy, injured and rebellious, cried out blindly into this fog of mysterious theory. “Well, I didn’t do anythin’, did I?”