A Lovely Hand Grenade

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Science Fiction has always feuded. I got the hint that I shouldn’t like both Zelazny and Niven when I was young, but it took years to understand the war. I remember when hard science fiction writers were militant about whether missile defense was good. People writing about faster than light travel were forming political committees to claim that the Patriot missile system could never work. I later learned that these fights have been going on since before the first World Science Fiction convention. Could I explain them. Why bother? Man is a political animal. Pfui!

Besides, I liked writers on both sides of these deadly disputes. Learning too much about these fights made it hard to enjoy good writers with whom I disagreed and made me angry when writers I agreed with wrote poorly. The writing was clearly less important to some than preaching.

I haven’t read much science fiction recently. Only an occasional book interests me. Last year I learned why. The Sad Puppies fiasco enlightened me, made me furious, and made me weary to the bone. Apparently, most of the people who publish and run conventions have decided that promoting ethnic minorities and those who practice ineffective sexual techniques is more important than entertainment. Very well. Darwin will claim his own. When a publisher wants only minority and LGBoring evangelists to print, and seeks to exclude the unenlightened from winning prizes, she will achieve a minuscule audience. Make that Adam Smith will claim his own. The Invisible Hand of the Market writes. And having writ, moves on….

The Sad Puppies was an attempt to nominate good writing – a highly subjective thing – for the Hugo Awards without regard to the writer. This sounds so eminently fair – even classically liberal – that the character of those rejecting affirmative action must be assassinated post haste.

At this point I grew bored and ignored the field.

Then something happened.

Lois McMaster Bujold is the finest Science Fiction writer of the last four decades. She is semiretired now but puts out an occasional book. She was not a supernova. Bujold has quietly built a couple of mighty oaks of great writing. She was first and still published by one of the publishers who is considered anathema to the pushy leftist crowd. Her politics are…. There is a technical term for those who ascribe beliefs to an author based on her characters: Blithering Idiot.

At the last Hugo awards her long time editor was humiliated and made sad. At least one famous reviewer said he would never review another book by her publisher.

This month Lois McMaster Bujold published a new novel.

It is Everything the inquisitors want: It is masterfully written. It has beautiful characterization. There is very little science. There is next to no conflict. The main character is bisexual. The author is a woman.

It has things the inquisitors hate: It is published by the evil publisher. It, I think, is edited by the editor they tried to wreck last year. It gives money and attention to the people of whom they disapprove. They don’t know the author’s politics.

This puts the social justice wankers in a quandary.

This isn’t just a good book. It is a hand grenade tossed to very deserving people.

A very lovely hand grenade.

Counterfeiting Grace

dance_of_the_three_graces_by_jeighdeighDance Of The Three Graces Jonathan Day 

Johnathan,

At work when people ask if I am working hard, I say ‘No.’

If the choice is to be perceived as a drudge or as a man about whom things magically occur, well, I prefer to be the magic man. Or at least to appear so.

This is actually a hilarious root of our culture which few people know.

Until the Renaissance, the doctrine of the Church in the West was that the Pope held the keys to heaven. This is why one sees the crossed keys on papal heraldry. ‘On this rock I shall build my Church,’ said someone about Peter, or Rocky, as he was known. And his successors claim authority as Pope to this day.

[ Parenthetically, the Pope is, perhaps, not the Pope. Before Peter started the church at Rome he started one at Antioch. The Patriarch of Antioch has historically claimed the Papacy. The Patriarch of Alexandria has sometimes claimed the Papacy through Saint Mark. When Emperor Constantine moved the Roman Capitol to the new, Christian capitol of Constantinople, he was quite sure he had moved the Papacy as well. The Papacy’s location in Rome depends on the Bishop of Rome being elected by the congregation of all the Christians in Rome. They haven’t done that in a very long time. Now the Papacy is wherever the Pope is. So why wasn’t it moved to Roma Nova when Constantine was quite sure he had moved it? ]

If the Pope wished to use his delegated authority from God to forgive a sinner, well, that was just how the system worked, and nobody gave it too much thought. God delegated his authority to the Church in the person of the Pope. The Pope delegated to the priests. And the priests offered forgiveness to the people after confession. Simple, straightforward, and clean. Although, ahem, confession, as it is practiced, is not found in the Bible.

The Renaissance Popes started raising money in imaginative ways which were so effective that they became almost indistinguishable from scam. They needed real money. They were rebuilding Saint Peter’s Basilica in marble. They were, sometimes, leading Papal armies in battle against Christian princes. They were acquiring an enormous and exquisite art collection. Peter’s Pence was a tax on Christians which went to the Vatican from all over Europe. Stones of the Basilica were sold to rich people to raise money by subscription. And the Papacy started selling Plenary indulgences. And there were stories about strange activities in the Vatican. It was all legally proper. If the Pope had absolute discretion, he could give away forgiveness, force it upon people against their will, or sell it. Who could gainsay him?

Well. Many people actually. When people started reading, things changed. Many things people were taught to believe weren’t in scripture. And there were contradictions in scripture which required thought. [ Incidentally, this is why the Koran needs translation to modern vernacular.] And people suddenly bereft of certainty have a psychological need for something to believe.

Protestants in the West turned to Grace. If the Pope was no longer credible, how could you expect Heaven? If the Pope and the priests didn’t seem to grant absolution, who could? The next Pope? One of three Popes? Dei Gratia, it had to be a gift from God. Nobody, it seemed, deserved Heaven. And if Heaven couldn’t be deserved, then could God be bribed? It didn’t seem so. And if we were all fallen then who could demand the gift? Worse, we could not presume to know whom God would save. Hitler may very well be saved. We can not deny that God has saved him. We couldn’t claim to see into his soul or God’s mind. Even worse, we see into our own minds. We DON’T deserve an infinite reward. I don’t. Maybe that other fellow. Third from the left.

And worst of all, we have no way to know that our loved ones are not damned. And we know our loved ones all too well. The uncertainty may make logical and scriptural sense, but it is psychologically untenable.

One result was the concept of Grace. Perhaps, those who – Dei Gratia – had received the gift would show symptoms.

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

People who were the better sort – the elect – would be, to take a turn from classical civilization, gracious. And graceful. Things would come easily to them. They wouldn’t be sweaty and grubby. They would be modest, well-spoken, and refined. Clumsiness would be anathema. They would also be beautiful.

This is not an improvement. This is not a description of ourselves or our children that we can recognize except aspirationally. Worse, it reminds us of how far we are from grace.

I don’t wish to tar everyone, but when people I know are in an impossible position… they cheat.

To make your children appear to be of the elect might make them of the elect. Or maybe sneak them through, regardless of merit. We may counterfeit grace as a coin and pass the fake coin to God.

So you teach them to read scripture. You make them stand up straight and speak clearly. Calisthenics are by definition exercises that are intended to make one beautiful. Our daughters are taught ballet to be graceful. All children should learn music. Dentistry is important. Cleanliness is next to godliness. We try to make our children better than we are. We try to have them take up professions where they are not dependent on some overlord.

This lead to a split in Christianity: Some pester their neighbors or strangers about going to hell and tell them how to live. Some live lives of apparent grace and try to be preceptors of a better way.

They seek leaders who are the better sort. Cleaver, graceful, honest. An exemplar is better than a boss. Or more gracious.

So by desperate faking we have swerved into a civilizational idea. We make life better and more gracious by fakery. Things are better if we no longer use dung-lined pits to store our grain. If we move past woven twig and stick hoses covered by mud and dung our children live longer. Quaint thatched roofs may be fetching to the tourist, but modern roofs are more gracious for the occupants. In Victorian days London was filed with smog and cholera. Better ways of burning fuel have done away with the famous pea-soup fogs. And the lack of cholera tells me that plumbing is a grace. We can afford to be offended by that which was once trivial. We try to influence others by example. History is then not the sole criterion for success.

Fake grace is educative. In the 1840’s the Flathead Indians looked at how they lived and how United States citizens lived. They made a quantum civilizational leap. They sent an expedition to Council Bluffs, Iowa and brought back a priest, Father Desmet, to teach them. They didn’t quite kidnap him. A priest has a duty to save souls. The bravery and wisdom – the grace – of that act is heart-stopping. It didn’t go entirely well, but the idea was pure.

One last thing, Johnathan. During the Renaissance a scrappy grand duchy called Urbino set about developing a modern way of life. Castiglione invented or transcribed symposia at the ducal court. Games really. How one should act to be the ideal courtier. The conversations emphasized such things as humility, politeness, and, being in a bloody period, defense of one’s self and others. For the first time in centuries it was pointed out that women were not inferior to men. In a court one slighted women at one’s great risk. This was written up as The Book of the Courtier. I’ll wager a nickel that you had two or three lines on it in your History textbook. I will also wager that nobody explained why it was important. Shortly after the book was published a queen came to the throne in England. Italy was something of a vogue in Renaissance England. The people seeking grace wanted an example for their children’s behavior. England had just come through a century of war and another century of war was ahead of them. The Book of the Courtier was their exemplar to their children. With Queen Elizabeth on the throne it was important to value women. With war on the horizon it was important to be tough as well as gracious. With the spread of English speaking peoples around the globe the attitudes of this book were spread around the globe. Much of our culture had its seeds in this book.

Roger Zelazny wrote a series of books in a Renaissance flavored culture. One if his critics claimed that his heroes were polite, well-spoken, educated, homicidal maniacs. She got it just right.

I am Merlin, son of Corwin of Amber and Dara of the Courts of Chaos,
known to local friends and acquaintances as Merle Corey: bright, charming, witty, athletic. . . .
Go read Castiglione and Lord Byron for particulars, as I’m modest, aloof and reticent, as well.