Wednesday, March 08, 2023

When the Chickens Come Home to Roost

In his classic The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis wrote a scene I loved as a child, and have never been able to forget as an adult. The lion Aslan (Lewis’s Christ analog) is speaking to Aravis, the Calormene girl who has fled her family and home country to avoid a forced marriage, and is currently recovering from a fairly serious injury inflicted on the way to Narnia by a previously unrecognized lion.

So Aslan tells her the real reason for her injuries.

Here is what he says:

“The scratches on your back, tear for tear, throb for throb, blood for blood, were equal to the stripes laid on the back of your stepmother’s slave because of the drugged sleep you cast upon her. You needed to know what it felt like.”

Oh yeah. I get that.

Not Everybody’s a Fan

Not everyone likes this scene as much as I do. Hayley at hayleyism writes about Lewis’s (and Aslan’s) storyline treatment of one of her favorite characters:

“During her escape, [Aravis] drugs a slave in order to escape — knowing that said slave will likely be beaten for oversleeping. Later, Aslan claws her back — actually inflicts physical violence upon her — he says, to atone for the lashings that her slave must have endured. Is that really fair? Should Aravis have really stayed in Calormen, enduring marriage to a sniveling man 4 times her age, just to avoid causing hurt to a slave that will likely be hurt on a regular basis anyway? Does Aslan follow Shasta around and inflict a punishment for every sin the boy has committed? Is Edmund, who gives up his sisters and brother to the White Witch (in the previous chronicle) ever punished for his crimes? No, Aslan takes the blame for good little Northern boys. Not Aravis, though. She’s not allowed to get away with even the slightest blemish on her character.”

Ah yes, so Lewis and Aslan were probably both racist. That certainly solves the problem of Aravis taking her lumps. Except Hayley has apparently forgotten that just about all the other bad guys in the Narnia chronicles are whiter-than-pasty-white, including the witches, the Telmarines of Prince Caspian, the slavers and corrupt bureaucrats on the Lone Islands from Dawn Treader, and even the giants of Silver Chair. But oh no, if Lewis writes about one nation “of color” with some consistently undesirable characteristics, we must raise a ruckus about his prejudices against non-white, “strong female” characters.

Bah, humbug.

The Purpose of Chastening

Hayley fails to grasp that the biblical (and Narnian) purpose of chastening is to bring about repentance and a change of heart, not to dispense justice for justice’s sake or to distinguish the “author-approved” characters from those he doesn’t approve of. Aslan doesn’t say he scratched Aravis in order that she “atone for the lashings that her slave must have endured”. Not at all. Rather, he flatly tells us he did it to cultivate empathy in Aravis: “You needed to know what it felt like.” That’s a completely different thing.

Did Aslan treat Aravis unreasonably, or inconsistently with his treatment of others? Shasta was a comparative naif, raised in horrible circumstances, whose errors in the book are mostly uncalculated and undefended. And Edmund had his own moment of truth with Aslan after narrowly escaping execution, which is not described for us but in which it is evident he had thoroughly and completely repented of his conduct, apologizing to his brothers and sisters and risking his life in battle only a few hours later, becoming grievously wounded in the process.

Aravis, on the other hand, really did need to “know what it felt like”. She was still in the rationalization and self-justification stage.

A Little Empathy, Please

Lewis’s earlier narrative made this obvious:

“And what happened to the girl — the one you drugged?” asked Shasta.

“Doubtless she was beaten for sleeping late,” said Aravis coolly. “But she was a tool and spy of my stepmother’s. I am very glad they should beat her.”

“I say, that was hardly fair,” said Shasta.

“I did not do any of these things for the sake of pleasing you,” said Aravis.

Nice attitude, Aravis. Hayley also asks, “Should Aravis have really stayed in Calormen … to avoid causing hurt to a slave?” That’s a very binary question, to which the answer is dead simple: No, she should have done something — anything — else, or at very least have done what she did knowing there might be consequences for it down the road, and regretting the necessity of causing pain in the process. But she didn’t. She gloated about getting an enemy punished, and would happily have done it again.

In short, Aravis “needed to know what if felt like”; that was the only way she would learn.

A Long Way to Go for This …

All this is neither here nor there, really. What interests me this morning is a theory about God floated by Job during his suffering that seems to me to be on a similar theme:

“You write bitter things against me and make me inherit the iniquities of my youth.”

“God, you are tearing my back. I am being made to atone for my sinful past.” And, like Aravis’s online defender, maybe just a little bit of “It’s not fair!”

Job’s argument to date has been that as an adult his conduct has been unblemished, and that his current sorry, suffering state is unreasonable given his righteous life of devout obedience to God. But he also has to acknowledge this has not always been the case. Apparently there were a few “iniquities” in Job’s youth to be accounted for. Perhaps this is the reason God is currently afflicting him?

But is God really any more like that than Hayley accuses Aslan of being? Does the Lord make us inherit the sins of our youth in this life? Is karma really a thing for the Christian? Does every stripe have to be laid on our backs in this life in order to atone for our ill-judged, youthful errors?

I don’t think so.

The Iniquities of Youth

Now, sometimes the idiotic, selfish things people do in their youth come back to haunt us for reasons other than the discipline of God. The seventeen-year-old brat who runs away and joins the army to avoid a disciplinarian father may find he has jumped from the frying pan into the fire. The young couple who won’t keep their hands off each other may find they have to choose between a secret abortion they will deeply regret later, or an unpleasant confrontation with parents who will be quite unhappy with the revelation they have a grandchild on the way. The student who refuses to buckle down and do his homework in high school may find himself having to learn on his own time and at his own expense while in the work force, when getting accreditation is much harder and time that much more scarce. The high school drinker who was famous for the number of shots he could consume finds he has pickled his liver, and the kids who started smoking in Grade 9 to be cool have given themselves a much higher chance of a cancer diagnosis down the road.

In a world without God, these things would all work out just the same. None of that is “atonement”. None of that is God afflicting us. It’s simply the way the world works. The army is a nasty place nobody should choose voluntarily. Sex produces babies. If you refuse to learn now, you will probably have to learn later. Smoking increases the risk of cancer and drinking increases the risk of liver disease. We all know these things. That’s what it means that we reap what we sow. Our choices in life lead inevitably to certain consequences, some good, some bad.

Roosting Chickens

To the extent God is involved at all when the chickens come home to roost, it is rarely punitive. He is far more gracious than that. In Job’s case, he had been judged worthy of the privilege of bearing God’s standard in a cosmic conflict he knew nothing about. He came through unbroken. When Abraham was told to take his only son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice, it was to share a moment of fellowship with a Father who would one day offer a Son he loved far more than Abraham loved Isaac, and to remind the world that “God will provide for himself the lamb.” When Peter wailed in shame at his own failure to stand with the Lord, his grief and despair were not some way of atoning for his denial; God was bringing him face to face with his own inadequacy and lack of self-knowledge so he could learn to abide in Christ, not trust in his own determination to succeed. When the delight of Ezekiel’s eyes died suddenly, God was not punishing him for the sins of his youth; rather, the prophet was modeling the grief of God himself as an object lesson to a nation in need of repentance.

And yes, there are people like Aravis who experience the chastening of God in this life. It is always for their good. It is a teaching moment, not a guarantee of God’s ongoing displeasure or bias against us. It is not some kind of payback from a vengeful deity.

If you want that kind of God, try one of the Indian religions. You will find them a better fit.

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