Category Archives: I do not think that word means what you think it means (must be said with Inigo Montoya accent)

Books, Films, Wars, and Adventures in Missing the Point

So there’s been a lot going on in the world of late – both in my own personal world and in the larger world around me. Oddly, a lot of them seem connected in my mind (which occasionally also means that they are connected in real life).

In a lot of places this weekend, the first of three movies based on the wildly popular objectivist novel “Atlas Shrugged” was released, to either wide acclaim or harsh criticism that is only partially dependent on one’s political viewpoint.

In Africa, the U.S. and other countries continued to engage in what people who think the word “war” is too icky are calling a “kinetic military action” in support of rebels who seek to unseat meglomaniacal dictator Moammer Qadhaffi . . . or Moamar Kadafi . . . or Muammar Gaddafi . . . one of those guys.

Meanwhile, the evangelical world was rocked to its core recently when Rob Bell, the pastor of Mars Hill – a well-known megachurch – released a book called “Love Wins,” which is either a testament to the love of God or a heretical embrace of universalism depending on who you ask. Actually, the evangelical world began rocking well before the book was ever released, since theological luminaries like John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Al Mohler took Rob Bell to task for his heresy based solely on a promo video he put out before it was even published.

Finally, in my own personal life, I’ve been reading a series of fantasy novels I’ve recently discovered: Terry Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series.

Believe it or not, all these things seem related – at least to me – by more than the fact that they all seem to be happening at the same time.

As far as Atlas Shrugged, I’m hoping to see the movie in the very near future since it’s based on one of my favorite books, and from what I’ve heard the movie does a pretty good job living up to the book at least in this first installment.

In reading reviews, I came across this assessment – not so much a review as a political essay from a commentator who is something less than a fan of Ayn Rand. He, in turn, points to what he calls the “definitive repudiation of Rand,” written by Whitaker Chambers in 1957.

The commentator laments Ayn Rand’s influence on the Tea Party movement, and says that “No one who, as a mature adult, espouses [the philosophy of Atlas Shrugged] without reservation should be taken seriously” (Personally, I have a hard time taking seriously someone who espouses anything without reservation). Chambers, on the other hand, seems to use Rand’s rabid atheism to reject her entire philosophy out of hand . . . without reservation, so to speak.

As far as Libya, we’re mucking around seemingly without a clue as to what we’re doing there. Our objective is to help the Libyan rebels, or unseat Qadaffi, or defeat his hired merceneries, or bomb the crap out of some desert, or secure the nation’s oil supplies, or . . . whatever. Sometimes it seems like our entire purpose there is to just do something already! Ultimately, the absolute best-case scenario is probably a democratic government that is not hostile to the U.S. or its interests. How close we’ll end up to that best case is anybody’s guess.

I have yet to read the book Love Wins, so I won’t speak on what I don’t know . . . but I will say something about the controversy that’s brewing around the book. More on that a bit later.

As far as the “Sword of Truth” series, I’ve recently discovered that this series I’m enjoying has actually been made into a TV show as well, called “Legend of the Seeker.” The TV show is fairly boiler-plate fantasy/sci-fi stuff: Hero on the run from evil villain flits from place to place lending aid to random helpless strangers in passing. The characters and the stories they find themselves in are fairly accurate to the books, with some necessary alterations making it fit better on the small screen. But it really loses something in the broader scheme of things.

What it loses, is the same thing that connects all these random strings.

Unlike the TV show, the “Sword of Truth” books tell a sweeping, epic story of a brilliant, courageous young leader whose most earnest and sincere desire is to bring about a world of peace, justice and equality . . . and that’s just the story’s villain. That last sentence is not a typo.

His vision of “peace” is a world under the rule of one empire with him at its head. His idea of justice entails severe repercussions against any who stand in his way or dare to voice a countervailing opinion. His view of equality is that those who are successful are only so through avarice and greed . . . and that such success is therefore evil. Because everything one has is undeserved, in this worldview, misery is virtuous and charity is an obligation. The hero combats this view relentlessly, noting in one of the books that “Charity, if you have the means, is a personal choice, but charity which is expected or compelled is simply a polite word for slavery.”

In the TV show, the hero runs around helping those too weak to confront a difficult destiny. In the books, the hero shows people that they are strong enough to forge their own destinies. In that way, the TV show manages to miss the point rather comprehensively, almost turning the entire point of the books on its head at times.

Here’s the connection between all these random things: I think we’re suffering from a fundamental misunderstanding of freedom. In the TV show . . . in Libya . . . in the reviews about Atlas Shrugged . . . in the way we think about Hell . . .

The problem is that we think freedom is an end in and of itself. It’s not. Goodkind gets that fact in his novels. For Goodkind . . . for Rand . . . for me . . . freedom is a valued ideal, but one that only has value because of a greater ideal: self-determination.

Aren’t those the same thing, though? I don’t think so. I think freedom is merely a pathway that makes self-determination easier. Freedom is a circumstance controlled externally, whether by a government or another entity or individual. We can be free or not free, based solely on factors we cannot control.

When it comes right down to it, freedom is simply a variable in the number of choices available to me. Self-determination, on the other hand, is the act of making those choices, rather than having them made for me. Only I can decide whether to be self-determined or not. Nobody can take that away from me. Either I decide my own fate or I let somebody else do it. Even someone who has no freedom has this choice . . . even if it is the martyr’s choice between surrendering what one believes or dying for it. This quality that none can take away is that which makes me, me. It is my core. My character.

It is my soul.

And what about Rob Bell? How does all of this relate to a book about Hell?

Here’s how: One of the themes of self-determination that runs through both Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Goodkind’s “Sword of Truth” series is the theme of personal responsibility.

Some would say that Hell is, itself, the incarnation of personal responsibility . . . that it’s not a conscious decision of a vengeful God to cast people there, but that they choose to go there on their own accord as a natural consequence of their choices. C.S. Lewis, for one, seems to take such a view of Hell in his writings. I can’t speak for Rob Bell’s view because I haven’t read the book, but that’s not the point I want to make anyway. I want to make a similar point about his critics. Namely this:

What are they so spun up about?? If Bell is wrong, he’s wrong. So what? Who cares?? Presumably, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Al Mohler and all the rest believe themselves to be “in the club” . . . so the only logical reason they could have for being so wound up about Bell is that they’re afraid to conceive of what a universe without hell would mean for them.

And what would it mean?? Simply that their beliefs, their actions, their every thought and word and deed would have to come from the core of who they are . . . and not from a fear of eternal damnation, fire and brimstone.

Self-determination, in other words.

After all, if I’m doing what I’m doing . . . If I believe as I do . . . simply because someone else is threatening me with a gun (or a lake of fire), then that’s just another external factor like freedom, or the lack thereof. I’m not really determining anything in and of my self.

Here’s how Matt, from the blog “Church of No People” puts it:

I might know why Universalism pisses off so many evangelicals. For most of us, if we were standing in line at the heavenly security checkpoint and God let in a drunken wife beater right before us, we’d whine because that’s not fair. We tried all our lives to walk the walk. We said the sinner’s prayer, we went to church, we fed the hungry, we followed God’s will. Why should a bunch of heathans and wife abusers, and Democrats and homosexuals get to go when they didn’t do one blasted thing they were supposed to? Does all the obedience and believing we did count for nothing?

If you are struck by the unfairness of everyone getting into heaven, it just shows that somewhere in your mind, you are still banking on the things you did in life to get into heaven, not God’s grace. Who am I to tell Jesus what the limits of his grace are? But that’s exactly what we do. Universalism always gets one reaction from reformed types and evangelical types: “There’s no way in hell those people are getting into heaven, and you’re going to hell just for suggesting otherwise!”

I have never heard a reformed or evangelical say to a Universalist, “I hope you’re right.”

There is something absolutely, painfully wrong with that.

The thought Matt puts words to here is the reason why, personally, I don’t think the whole Rob Bell controversy matters two hoots – simply because my relationship with God doesn’t depend on whether hell exists or not. I just can’t bring myself to care. I choose a relationship with God, regardless.

Others are free to do so – or not – as they choose, and to deal with whatever consequences arise from their choices. I’ll be more than happy to talk to them about my choice and share my reasons for it, but at the end of the day, what they choose is up to them.

This misunderstanding about self-determination also extends to how we think about situations like that in the Middle East. We set up new democracies who vote in new governments, and we call it a win as long as they’re not shooting at us.

What we never do is get to the heart of the matter. Take Iraq, for example, or Afghanistan. It is wonderful that these nations have the ability now to elect their own leaders and write their own

laws. But has anybody told them that each of them is free to draw his or her own destiny? For that matter, how self-determining can a person be when their culture tells them that it is more important that they are a Sunni, or a Shiite, or a Kurd, than it is that they are an individual??

If we’re going to support rebels against tyranny, that’s what we should be telling them. Not “you now have the ability to elect your own leaders from your own sect or ethnic group” but instead, “you have always had the ability to write your own future!”

And finally, this misunderstanding extends to many of those who read (or see) Atlas Shrugged. In the Whitaker Chambers “takedown” of Ayn Rand that I linked earlier, Chambers essentially asserts that Rand’s libertarian philosophy shares a logical conclusion with the Marxism she loathed. Where Marxism’s end result was a totalitarian regime that attempted to control every bit of life through force, Chambers asserts that Rand’s end result is a technocratic regime that controls every bit of life through a shared view of what is “rational” and ostracism of anybody who does not share that view. I can see how Chambers might reach that conclusion, but in order to get there, he has to ignore one thing. He has to ignore self-determination.

Yes, Rand believes in freedom. Yes, she believes in the superiority of the “men (and women) of mind.” Yes, she believes that reason is the ultimate arbiter of truth. Yes, she believes that people who fail to choose these things is in the wrong. But what she never does is deny them the right to make that choice.

Think whatever you wish about each of these beliefs of hers. Just realize that they are not the point. Each of these flows from a deeper belief. The belief that each of us is, by definition, a self-determined being. I think it’s possible to hold to that deepest belief, and not reach all of the same conclusions Rand did. So I think Chambers misses the point.

That point is simply this: We may be a fractured culture composed of different traditions from hundreds of different histories, but the thing . . . the ONE thing . . . we all share is the ability to make our own rational decisions. That is what sets us apart from animals. It is even, if we look at the way they are portrayed in Scripture, the thing that sets us apart from angels. For those of us who are Christians, it is something that is so innate in us . . . so important to the core of who and what we are . . . that God was willing to allow us to exercise it in Eden, even with the full knowledge that we’d choose wrong, and that our choice would cost the life of His Son.

When we miss the point . . . when we get hung up on lesser goals, even such laudable goals as freedom or democracy or charity . . . we betray who we are. Let us pursue these lesser goals, but let us always do so out of our own self-determination . . . not because we ought, but because we choose to.

It’s not that freedom doesn’t matter. It’s just that self-determination matters so much more!

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