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Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang

First appearing in Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Starlight 3, this swept the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Seiun Awards; was shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, reprinted by Robert Silverberg, Karen Haber, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Vonda N. McIntyre, Charles N. Brown, Jonathan Strahan, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, and Rachel Swirsky.

Angels are appearing on earth, and their appearances bring as much death and destruction as healing. The following three lives come together due to these chance healings and destruction occurring in this wake.

Neil Fisk had never been religious although ultimately he becomes so. He was born with a congenital defect "that caused lost his left thigh to be externally rotated and several inches shorter than his right." Neil didn't come to love or hate God because of this. His wife, however, was a quiet believer, which encouraged him to be more disposed to liking religion. She is killed, though, when an angel appears. Much as he's angry with God, he knows he cannot be with Sarah again unless he gets to Heaven which requires loving God.

Janice Reilly lost both of her legs at birth. Janice became a famous evangelist until one day her legs are restored. She wonders what her new purpose should be now that she cannot be an evangelist to the handicapped since she is no longer handicapped.

Finally, we have Ethan, a man who encounters an angel but is neither healed nor killed. He cannot understand why, so he seeks out Janice, believing she has the answer to this mystery.
From all the awards and reprints, this should be a story to expect great things from. The set up is cool. Again, we have characters that represent different ideas: Neil seeks God but should hate Him. Janice should love God but is confused by his gift, and Ethan has been neglected by God. The scenario is ripe with potential.

The imagery is spare except for the last scene, which is eye-popping. The disappointment is Janice. She doesn't feel like a genuine believer. It's like you can open up her and soul casing and find it barren.

In an interview Chiang said he read the books of handicapped believer Joni Eareckson Tada as research, and Joni is supposed to be devout. That doesn't mean that believers don't doubt, but that she would have an arsenal of theological thought to wrestle with and against.No wrestling with actual theology goes on.

What may have happened was that Chiang swept away religion-specific markers to protect the story from being a critique of one religion (and Tada), but leaving out specificity made her feel artificial or a shiny new believer fresh out of the wrapper, which isn't the kind of believer you'd want to discuss complex religious issues with.

Here's an example. In the "Story Notes" Chiang writes:
"one  of the  unsatisfying things about the Book of Job is that, in the end, God rewards Job. Leave aside the question of whether new children can compensate for the loss of his original ones. Why does God restore Job''s fortunes at all?... One of the basic messages of thebook is that virtue isn't always rewarded; bad things happen to good people. Job ultimately accepts this, demonstrating virtue, and is subsequently rewarded. Doesn't this undercut the message?
...If the author were really committed to the idea that virtue isn't always rewarded, shouldn't the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?
Chiang typically uses a lot of qualifiers, which is nice. His qualifiers answer his own question: "isn't always" implies there are times when behavior is and is not rewarded. Sometimes people go through limited trials, and sometimes the testings extend to the end of one's life. Sometimes virtue is rewarded. Of course, the believer doesn't see this world as the final reward although that is sometimes difficult to recall when going through troubles.

This is what I mean, in part, about having an arsenal of theological thought. Someone's already thought of something similar that may apply. A believer may doubt, but they'll have something to ponder. They will pit their circumstances to those they've read in their scriptures. Put it another way: Imagine a kid has an astrophysicist father, and the kid's given a difficult homework problem concerning astrophysics. Does the kid give up after he cannot answer it? Or does he consult his dad or his dad's books?

Since Joni and the text are Judeo-Christian, the ending doesn't make sense within that framework (although it may apply to other religious contexts). Why would a Judeo-Christian god do that? There's no record of such within the text. More likely, if God revealed himself it would be to some end.

Chiang must have felt The Book of Job connected (see again the quote above) and that this is the more fitting end. Eternal suffering then must be more pious and loving than temporary.

Suffering in Job, however, is not an end but a means. It was a proof that he could remain faithful in the face of adversity, not just success. It was also a way to stop those who connected every event, positive or negative, to God's like or dislike of the believer. Finally, God corrects Job on second-guessing God. Because God knows all, who is Job to judge and tell Him what He should do? [See also the Lord's Prayer, and Jesus' final petition to God not to be crucified: "Take this cup."] It's been awhile since I read Job, so there may be further purposes I'm leaving out. Here's the text, but be warned that it is difficult to interpret without a solid understanding of the rest of the Book. The link provided does have "Tools" on the left, which can help guide the reader and give the original Hebrew.

Clearly, others were taken by the tale, so I may have missed something, or some lack a full understanding of the context. Or maybe this is a critique of an entirely different religion. Definitely, food for thought.

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