Posts tagged with: hell

Blog author: kspence
posted by on Friday, June 24, 2011

Jeffery C. Pugh has landed every blogger’s dream: the book deal for a best-of collection of his musings. Devil’s Ink: Blog from the Basement Office is an answer to the question “What if Satan kept a blog?”—one of several (the opportunity to pun is apparently irresistible) all of which immediately invite comparison with C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. Pugh anticipates that comparison in his book’s preface, saying he offers “another way of looking at evil,” a modern way that reflects how the “locale of evil has changed,” and confronts particularly its rise in popular culture.

He certainly offers a different perspective on evil; so different, in fact, that rather than avoiding comparison with Lewis, he forces it. Pugh presents only one kind of “evil” in his bloggings from the throne of Hell—and such is the nature of a blog that the action of evil can be nothing else than as he presents it. That evil is not the personal sin that Lewis explored in Screwtape’s letters on the art of temptation, but a kind of corporate, structural sin based on a view of human history as class conflict.

Pugh offers some insightful entries on pride and on spiritual community, but he is continually caught up in the idea that evil is found in the structures of society rather than in men’s sinful hearts. In fact he rarely uses the word sin, preferring the more ambiguous “evil.” Post after post deals with war, human suffering, and the vulgarity of popular culture—all of which are valid subjects of reflection, but which totally consume the author’s ethical thoughts.

One sees flashes of Lewis in postings like “Spiritual but Not Religious,” when he warns that “Spirituality pursued without the community of faith is easily dealt with and dispersed. Discipline pursued in the community of faith makes them stronger and less susceptible to us.” But the community is not the basic moral unity—that unit is the individual person, and when Pugh says in his preface that “it is difficult sometimes to see evil when one lives in the midst of it; it is usually in retrospect that one sees how evil manifested itself,” it becomes clear that he does not realize where evil—where sin—is first of all to be found. The Screwtape Letters draws the reader to look inward; Devil’s Ink lets him off the hook by directing his meditation at society.

This confused ethics comes from Pugh’s view of history as a narrative of class warfare. As he writes in a post about Utopia (in which he reveals a real misunderstanding of Thomas More’s work), the Devil scores a big victory when man ceases to see revolutions as “the historical eruptions of the masses who want more and desire what the other has.” Pugh is not the writer that Lewis was, and so it is often difficult to find his voice in the Devil’s, but in this case the context makes it clear: the author’s embrace of history-as-class-warfare leads him away from a proper understanding of personal sin.

A recent post on the Devil’s Ink blog illustrates Pugh’s confusion. He is right that attention paid Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, and Anthony Weiner is attention distracted from worthwhile pursuits, but he cannot resist seating evil in the popular culture that promotes those three. “The ways [humans] construct their society, the type of human beings those environments create, and the material effects of those communities” are the Devil’s prime victories, not the corruption of men’s souls. Such a view is not fundamentally different than those of Marx and Lenin, with Christianity sprinkled over the top.

What is to be recommended in the book? Some of Pugh’s irony is indeed funny, as the blurbs on the back cover note. Jabs at public figures are often landed to humorous effect, although each laugh is a reminder of the author’s search for moral fault anywhere but the self. Stanley Hauerwas is quoted on the back: “Pugh’s devil is indeed deadly serious, but in this hilarious and wise book we learn to laugh at Satan. Pugh teaches us how important it is to defy evil with humor.” One is instantly reminded of Screwtape’s advice on counterinsurgency: “The fact that ‘devils’ are predominantly comic figures in the modern imagination will help you.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Monday, November 23, 2009

Contrary to the belief of some, the two realities referred to in the title of this post are not identical.

But the discussion around a recent Boston Globe article reminds me of the saying from Jerry Taylor, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, “Capitalism without the threat of bankruptcy is like Christianity without the threat of hell. It doesn’t work very well.” It may well be that capitalism without the threat of hell doesn’t work very well either.

The Globe piece refers to a bit of research that links belief about punishment in the afterlife with economic development. This is important, since “knowing exactly how and when God influences mammon could lead to smarter forms of economic development in emerging nations, and could add to our understanding of how culture shapes wealth and poverty.”

It is promising that there is “a larger movement in economics, in which the field is looking beyond purely material explanations to a broader engagement with human culture, psychology, and even our angels and demons.”

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, December 19, 2006

In a much discussed op-ed for CNN last week, hipster church leaders Marc Brown and Jay Bakker (the latter’s profile, incidentally, immediately precedes that of yours truly in The Relevant Nation…a serendipitous product of alphabetical order) lodge a complaint against Christianity that doesn’t respect the call “love others just as they are, without an agenda.”

Speaking of Jesus, Brown and Bakker write, “The bulk of his time was spent preaching about helping the poor and those who are unable to help themselves. At the very least, Christians should be counted on to lend a helping hand to the poor and others in need.”

I’m sympathetic with their concerns that Christianity not become “co-opted by a political party” or only about “supporting laws that force others to live by their standards.” I’m less sympathetic with their emphasis on Christianity strictly as social gospel (the only mention of “hell” in the piece is as part of a rhetorical flourish at the piece’s beginning, having nothing to do with the biblical doctrine of everlasting punishment.)

In a piece for the Christian Science Monitor (HT: WorldMagBlog), Mark Totten writes that “a remarkable trend is emerging among Evangelicals today: the embrace of a social agenda that includes not only abortion and marriage, but poverty, AIDS, the environment, and human rights.” On one level, this reflects the positive engagement of evangelicals with the totality of public life, something that is important given the extent of Christ’s lordship.

Totten writes,

The most telling change is perhaps taking place in the pulpit. For most of the past century, Evangelicals have reacted against the Social Gospel movement of the progressive era, which many felt replaced the Gospel message with one of mere worldly social action. Today, however, a new generation of evangelical pastors is weaving an ethic of “neighbor love” into the fabric of sin and salvation.

(Totten cites the work of Rev. Tim Keller, whose work is discussed in more detail here and here, as a case in point.) The key here is that in an overreaction to the social gospel, some Christians eschewed any and all political or social engagement. We need to be careful, however, that in response to what may be too little engagement, we don’t return to the errors of the social gospel and make Christianity all about material or social well-being.

So, instead of the “either/or” dichotomy that Bakker and Brown set up between traditional political issues of the religious right (e.g. gay “marriage,” abortion) and the “new” concerns of political evangelicalism (e.g. the environment, poverty), it’s really a “both/and” equation. And this “both/and” extends beyond the political realm to the theological, so that we have a socially conscious and active Christianity that doesn’t abandon orthodox doctrine and concerns about salvation.

Augustine, in his monumental work De Doctrina Christiana (On Christian Teaching), captures this relationship well (emphasis mine):

Now of all those who are able to enjoy God together with us, some we love as people we can help, some as people we can be helped by, some as ones both whose help we need, and whose needs we help to meet, while there are some on whom we ourselves confer no benefits, and from whom we do not expect any either. Still, we ought to want all of them to love God together with us, and all our helping them or being helped by them is to be referred to that one single end (1.29.30).

As Augustine elsewhere observes, “A person who sorrows for someone who is miserable earns approval for the charity he shows, but if he is genuinely merciful he would far rather there were nothing to sorrow about” (Confessions, 3.2.3).

What does this mean in the context of Christian evangelism? That we not simply seek to bind up physical wounds, but minister to the whole person, body and soul. And real ministry to the soul entails that we relate the true situation of all sinners, for as Augustine also confesses, “my sin was the more incurable for my conviction that I was not a sinner” (5.10.18).

Brown and Bakker write that Christians are to “love others just as they are, without an agenda.” If taken to an extreme, this claim is a radical departure from traditional Christian faith. For not only in the words of Augustine are we to love others as they might become brothers and sisters in Christ (“No sinner, precisely as sinner, is to be loved; and every human being, precisely as human, is to be loved on God’s account”), but also in the words of Jesus we are to show our love to one another by proclaiming the gospel: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”