Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Atheist Behavior: Back to Basics (& a review of Gladiator by Philip Wylie)

Best cover of a SF classic that inspired SupermanLet's be fair here: while I have always been a 'professing' Christian, the truth is I lived pretty much the life of an atheist for ten years or more: a life ruled by my reason, my desires and my own will.

Contrary to many ugly caricatures, the atheist is a thinking man, a man who holds a moral standard that in general Christian believers can agree with: don't steal, don't lie, don't murder, treat others as you would be treated, etc. The problem arises when you tell them there is a greater wisdom than themselves; a Person who is invisible and all-knowing - and usually this is where the fight begins - loving.

Humanity and human life is often precious to the atheist. But the problem is they love humanity too much. Because of this love they even get more disgusted faster than the devout Christians who does not expect so much from humans. The atheist gets infuriated at short-sighted, war-mongering and foolish mass of humanity who are continually superstitious, fearful and cowardly.

Well, that's what I've read of their writings. The problem is as they go reaching for god-like control over all they touch, they are arguing with God at a sub-conscious level. I think if I could briefly sum up the fight with the Almighty it would be: "This mess of a world is intolerable! If you won't do something about it, we will!"

[Sadly, some Christians think they have to replace God's providential timing too.]

To which I think God would reply (shaking His head): "The mess was caused by your pride and desire to know evil as well as good. I already did something about it, though. Go to the cross. There any human being can be transformed. They change the world they live in, one step at a time."

I know - a little didactically evangelical - but the cross of Christ is the place where we admit we cannot conquer - or fix - this world and cannot even fix ourselves.

And that is the tragedy and glory of Gladiator by Philip Wylie. When I read it at first, some 20 years ago, I was disappointed in the lack of joy the protagonist Hugo Danner had: he was super-strong and bullet-proof - wow! Shouldn't he be happy?

No. You see, the author Wylie was raised like many men of his generation to be God-fearing rationalists - not quite Christian , but raised to be moral, do right and fear God, who remained in the abstract. Knowing God on a personal level was impossible - and any man who was god-like would, rationally and logically, be feared for who could stop him?

Wylie is brutally honest about the low-level spiritual brow-beating his mother with her 'deeper' faith inflicts upon her quieter husband, a biologist who discovers the secret of granting superhuman strength to animals while they are in the womb. The results are especially terrifying when he realizes he has created a juggernaut of a kitten that casually scratches a hole through a door because it wants some warm milk. After it is discovered that several dogs in the neighborhood have been killed by 'a mountain lion' Professor Danner kills the supercat with poison. "Its death throes were Homeric." writes Wylie.

Professor Danner informs his wife what he has discovered and she is horrified that he is taking such blasphemous liberties with God's creation. "You must stop this!" she demands. He agrees, but you know what they say about curiosity: when his wife becomes pregnant, he puts her to sleep and injects the growing fetus with the serum.

To her credit, she decides she must love this child of theirs and teach him to be very, very careful with his strength. Still, it does get out as a rumor among the children and that is when Hugo Danner learns being different and invulnerable and super strong is not a good thing in the eyes of those around you.

The great tragedy of this book is that Hugo wants to fit in and be friends with someone - nearly anyone. But after romance after romance, and after becoming a famous college football player and accidentally killing an opposing player in a moment of anger, he finds his strength and toughness of greatest value in the battlefields of World War I. The horror of war and the brevity of life is also well-portrayed by Wylie.

This is getting long, but here's the point: gods cannot fit among mortals unless they too are soft and squishy. Christ was.

What we have in Philip Wylie's excellent novel is the logical playing out of a strange card: if one man were so empowered, how could he live? How could he use his gifts? Can we as human beings put up with a man-god in our midst?

The answer Wylie ended up with and the one I agree with is: no. We'd fear him.

In the end of the novel, Hugo Danner has decided to work with a scientist to make a race of these superhumans - just like himself. And they would slowly take over the world, re-making it into a better place. Superhuman fascism is boldly discussed. [And remember kids, this is 1928 when this was originally penned - such thoughts were running rampant among the intellectuals, not just in Nazi Germany; a perfect society by eugenics was often considered to be our solution.]

Well, that plan doesn't come to fruition. The night after formulating this plan in the jungles of the Yucatan, Hugo is struck down and killed by one of the few forces able to do so: a lightning bolt from heaven. And make no mistake - Hugo is screaming at God over the uselessness of his existence when it happens. The warfare is clear.

I understand Hugo's frustration. I came to Christ yelling in fact. Unlike him, I was raised back up, knowing and accepting that God is God and He does run this universe. He has His own plans for making it glorious, and they all center on His Son, not on us.

I appreciate the frankness of that ending by Wylie. I appreciated his writing and clarity.

But make no mistake: better biology cannot solve our problems in this fallen world.

It is supernaturally solved by God at a spiritual level.

By a god-man who was not bulletproof nor superstrong.

As Wylie noted, "Perhaps the solution for Hugo Danner was not in the future but in the past."

He spoke more truly than he knew.


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