Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Comments continue two posts down. Check them out.

Almost a year ago (October 30, 2005) I responded to Kalaraen’s comments about chivalry by trying to define Natalian chivalry. It’s a tricky concept for me, much trickier than adventure or romance. I settled for trying to define chivalry in terms of what I think a woman ought to demand of a man when he pursues her. I came up with three general categories of virtue: wisdom, honor, and valor. Roughly speaking, I process those as what you know about God, how God has changed you as a person, and what you do about it. The trichotomy isn’t perfect. In practice, for one thing, those three things overlap to an enormous degree. For another thing, I make no claim that Natalian wisdom, honor, and valor cover all that a man should be. But I still find them useful categories.

I say this because I think the time has come for me to make some attempt at defining feminine Natalian chivalry, and I want my disclaimers clearly understood up front. So the first disclaimer is this: I am drawing distinctions because I find them useful categories, not because I think they’re really discreet things. The second is like it: I may be leaving things out. Third, I am trying to capture a vision in my head, and my verbal grasp on that vision is not especially clear. This post is one attempt to get at it. But even if I were to perfectly capture that vision, let me admit up front that I don’t understand everything about the spiritual realities of women. So the vision itself is likely incomplete.

Fourth, let me stress that I am not trying to define the term woman. I don’t actually have a definition of woman—or of man, for that matter. I have definitions or pictures (imperfect though they be) of what a man or a woman should be, which is what I am trying to get at by describing the chivalric man and chivalric woman, but the wisp of the gender essence itself—what a good woman shares with a bad woman, or how a bad man is different from a bad boy—is something I have no definition for. The Eldredges’ definitions work fine for me, but I’m not sure they’re as universal as one would like a definition of this kind to be. Piper’s definition I’m a little wary of although it has virtue; Inarra Serra’s I think is correct but incomplete. At some point I may need to define those terms, but for now I think the should be is more important than the is. At any rate, I have already tried to define what a man should be—roughly speaking, a knight and a gentleman. This post is an attempt to evoke on paper my definition of the chivalric woman—a lady knight, to use the Natalian shorthand—and no more.

Fifth and finally, I must beg the indulgence of anybody who reads this, particularly the women in the audience. I have no interest in believing that women should be [insert feminist slogan here]. Nevertheless, I would not have it said that my vision of women is weak or subordinate for the simple reason that it is not true. If the lady knight in my post seems overly subordinate or soft, pray juxtapose it with my goddesses: three are great feudal ladies, two are sovereigns, one holds high command, three are career soldiers, two are great commanders of men, four have changed the course of nations, three have defied their home kingdoms and their sovereigns, four know how to handle a sword, three are highly accomplished martial artists, two are natural killers, one is a natural healer, one is a great sorceress, two own fabulous wealth in their own right, two have volcanic tempers, two are painfully shy, one struggles with self image, none are considered great beauties, three are deeply in love with men (and one woman, non-sexually) of their own choosing, who are likewise devoted to them and every bit their matches. And with that said, what do I think defines a lady knight?

A woman should be wise. Does she see things as they are, and not as she wishes them to be? Can she see clearly even through great emotional turmoil? Does she perceive the heart of the matter? Does she perceive her own heart as it truly is? Has her counsel proven trustworthy in both process and result? Does she know the Lord, and does the Lord know her? Does she love the Lord? Does she delight in obedience? Does she love the Word?

A woman should be magnificent. Is she at peace? Is she patient? Are her principles sound, and soundly grounded in the Word? Are her principles invincible against the pressures of culture but held with humility? Does she live by them? Does she reject falsehood and cowardice uncompromisingly and simultaneously inspire to godliness? Is she unpretentious? Is she radiant? Does her presence point to the Lord? Is her character alluring? Does she love to worship the Lord? Is her presence awesome? Does her character make her wrath terrible? Is she self-controlled, mistress of her own thoughts and feelings? Is she wild? Is she beautiful because God loves her and she knows it? Does she value herself as and because the Lord values her? Is the Lord both the foundation and the great fact of her identity?

A woman should be valiant. Does she protect those around her? Is she tender-hearted? Is she fierce when roused? Does she always believe, always hope? Does she forgive as the Lord forgives? Does she act out of faith, and neither out of fear nor bravado? Is she growing in the Lord? Does she love with vulnerability? Does she hold back when it is time? Does she love to serve others? Is her life always inviting those around her to the Lord? Is she a vessel of the Lord’s healing? Is she chaste and scandalous in romance? Does she love to give in romance? Does she graciously receive? Does she support her boyfriend or husband and yet remain his match?

A lady knight is something like that. It is an imperfect picture, I think, but that is just as well—who would want women to be so simple that a picture could capture them perfectly?

Friday, September 01, 2006

Well, I finally went and read The Da Vinci Code, because on the way back from Chicago there was nothing else to do other than listen to my wonderful iPod, which I mean in total sincerity because a) my iPod is genuinely wonderful, and b) I was way too tired to do any writing. I don't really want to talk about TDC a whole lot more, but I feel that fairness requires me to acknowledge I have read it. Fairness also requires me to admit that I enjoyed it well enough. I'd like to skip over the religious part fairly quickly and just discuss it as a book, or an exercise in world-building.

The Christian critique can be passed over, as Antilles has dealt with all of my thoughts on that subject in more than adequate fashion. As far as the way the book treats paganism ... well, personally I didn't think paganism got any better treatment than Christianity, and for essentially the same reason - lack of research. As near as I can figure, both Teabing and Langdon view paganism as essentially doctrinally monolithic, and that monolith basically looks like some sort of cross between Hellenized Egyptian religion and the new-kid-on-the-block religions of imperial Rome only without the pantheons of either (something tells me Artemis would object to being lumped with Aphrodite into a single entity simply labeled "The Goddess"). They also seem to know an awful lot about the actual theology of "paganism," for which I'd be terribly interested to see their primary sources.

But the truth is that the portrayal of religion in the novel didn't especially bother me. I mean sure, I thought it was childishly researched, and I'd be very sorry if anybody took as fact anything material about Christianity, paganism, or history. But there's nothing wrong with taking the current fad for Magdalene conspiracy theories and making an adventure story out of it. I mean heck, Infernal Gaslamp was really nothing more than twisting real people, organizations, or events according to an author's personal fantasy life and using that raw material to tell a story, which is basically all Brown is doing. Except that where The DM told a coherent story, I didn't feel like Brown did. The question I was asking myself through the whole book was, "What catastrophe are we trying to prevent?" There's a lot of talk about the awful power of the Priory's secret - how valuable it would be, how it could topple the Church, even some talk about how it could bring modern religion back into balance. So clearly this secret is supposed to be important. But I just didn't feel like the book established that. Now, mind you, I try to take books on their own terms. So I'm willing to accept, for purposes of reading, every point at which the world of TDC differs from the real world. Even so, what was the great catastrophe? Arguably, the final twist of the book is that there is no great catastrophe. But clearly the book feels that many, many people thought there was going to be one. And I just couldn't figure out what it was. That the Catholic Church - indeed, the entirety of Christendom - would be shown a fraud because Jesus wasn't divine? Well, maybe that's good, but it's never really very clear. Nor is it clear how proving that Jesus had a child proves that he wasn't divine. I mean, even the deluded Christians of Brown's world think that God the Father had a child, and that doesn't seem to have cast any doubt on his divinity. Maybe it would just topple the Catholic Church, because it would prove that the Catholics had killed in order to protect themselves. But that seems pretty far-fetched, and not even Teabing or Langdon goes that far.

Perhaps, though, TDC thinks that bringing the Priory's secret out into the open would not topple Christianity but rather reform it (and perhaps in time all "modern religions," to use the book's phrase) by bringing it in line with the gender-balanced paganism of our forefathers. I think that's really the most likely consequence the book is asking us to accept. And speaking as a writer, I have two problems with that.

First, the implicit converse of this theory (and the book makes this point explicitly at one point) is that gender-imbalanced "modern religion" is a catastrophe worthy of building a thrilling adventure story around. Essentially, the book is asking me to look around and say, "Behold the world as you know it. Isn't it awful?" And frankly, it isn't. Or rather, it is awful, but I don't know that it's so obviously awful that reforming the world as we know it makes for a good thrilling objective (even if that objective turns out to be a red herring). Especially when what we're reforming it to is:

Second, nobody in the book - not even Teabing and Langdon - ever goes on record as saying pagan antiquity was better than the Christian era, or that the areas of the world where non-modern religions hold sway have it fundamentally better than the areas of the world where modern religions hold sway. Nobody ever says that in gender-balanced pagan antiquity women had more rights than they have today, or that there were fewer wars, or that societies were not dominated by corrupt oligarchies, or even that people were just plain happier. And as everyone knows (even restricting ourselves here to the Greek-influenced Mediterranean, as TDC sort of unconsciously does), gender-balanced pagan antiquity was generally a brutish and nasty time to live when people of power did what they pleased, states were far more frequently at war than they are today, and women had very few rights compared to the rights they have today. So it's not exactly clear what beneficial effects gender-balancing modern religion is supposed to have, and nobody ever makes it clear.

So I felt like the book's biggest failing was that Brown took real people, organizations, and events, twisted them according to his personal fantasy life (so far so good; we have the makings of a good novel) and then didn't use them to tell a very interesting story. For most of the book I was asked to believe that revealing the Priory's secret would have some large, sort of cataclysmic effect. And I was never able to figure out just what that effect would be, or even might be. Which left most of the book feeling sort of meaningless to me. It's not that I thought the premise of the Priory's secret was improbable. Infernal Gaslamp certainly had that problem - I consider it extraordinarily improbable that Cthulhu will ever appear on Earth, for instance. The trouble is that, granting the premise, I thought the cataclysm extraordinarily improbable. If Cthulhu ever were to appear on Earth, it is reasonably clear to me the catastrophic consequences which would follow. If it were to become accepted as fact that Mary Magdalene bore a child by Jesus and was intended to found the church rather than Peter who actually founded the church, it is not at all clear to me what catastrophic consequences (or even which beneficial consequences) would follow.

Which, I don't know, strikes me as kind of a narrative failing. Did I miss something?