Tag Archives: Mary Doria Russell

Dodge City Ethics

Bein’ born is craps. How we live is poker. Doc Holliday

sparrowOf the dozens of novelists whose books I have read over the years, Mary Doria Russell is one of the least likely favorites. I’m not a big science fiction fan (I much prefer mysteries), but her debut novels The Sparrow and Children of God, about a Jesuit missionary expedition in outer space (you can’t beat Catholics in space!) are both beautifully written and thought-provoking. Dreamers of the Day, set in Egypt during the post-World War One partitioning of Palestine, is much better than I expected it would be. And I’ve avoided her most recent novels, Doc and Epitaph, which follow Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers through late nineteenth-century Dodge City and Tombstone, for quite a while since I’ve never been a fan of Wild West fiction. But a recent reread of Dreamers of the Day reminded me of what a wonderful writer Russell is; I was looking for a new novel, so Doc and Epitaph it is. I highly recommend  them.doc

Doc is set in 1878 Dodge City where the genteel and consumptive dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday finds himself scratching out a living as a card shark by night and a sometimes-dentist for cowboys who have never seen a toothbrush by day. A Northern-educated Southern gentleman who headed west hoping that the dry Plains air might be good for his lungs, Doc finds himself in a violent world where life means little and in which most of his acquaintances can barely read, let alone appreciate his conversational references to Vergil and Dostoevsky. One exception is Morgan Earp, the youngest of three Earp brothers in town, who is a policeman along with his older brother Wyatt. Wyatt can barely read, but Doc happily loans Morgan favorite volumes from the library he brought with him from Georgia, including Crime and Punishment and Oliver Twist.

One morning Morgan is in Doc’s dentist office as Doc extracts several teeth from a chloroformed Wyatt, Doc and Morgan discuss the novels Morgan is reading.holliday

  • Doc: Morgan, how are you and Mr. Dickens getting along?
  • Morgan: I lie him better than Dostoevsky. Oliver Twist reminds me of Wyatt when he was a kid.
  • Doc: You met Mr. Fagin yet?
  • Morgan: Yeah. Ain’t made up my mind about him. He’s good to feed all those boys, but he’s teaching them to be pickpockets too. That don’t seem right.
  • Doc: But that is just what makes Fagin interestin’. Raskolnikoff, too. Fagin does his good deed with a bad purpose in mind, but the boys are still fed. Raskolnikoff kills the old woman, but he wants to use her money to improve society. As Monsieur Balzac asked, May we not do a small evil for the sake of accomplishin’ a great good?
  • Morgan: I don’t know. It’s still an evil.
  • Doc: And yet, that seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.

posterAnd there, in a dentist office in dusty, dirty Dodge City, is the heart of one of the greatest quandaries in ethics. Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it ever morally permissible to act immorally in the attempted achievement of a great moral good?

Philosophers love this stuff. The other day when I tried to get a colleague and friend from the English department to choose whether she would choose to support our Providence Friars basketball team or the University of Virginia Cavaliers (UVA is her beloved alma mater) if they played in the Final Four, she asked “Is this one of those philosophy games where you give someone completely unrealistic hypotheticals and then force them to make a choice?” She undoubtedly had heard philosophy puzzles such as

Suppose an out-of-control train is running down the tracks directly at a bus full of 30 people stalled on the track. You have the opportunity to redirect the train to another track where one person is stalled in a car on the track. trolleyIf you don’t pull the switch to redirect the train, thirty people will die. If you do, one person will die and thirty people’s lives will be saved. Do you pull the switch?

To complicate matters, suppose that the one person on the second track is a brilliant scientist who is on the edge of discovering a cure for cancer. Does that make a difference? What if he or she is a homeless person? You get the point.

Surprisingly, non-philosophers don’t always enjoy playing such hypothetical games (by the way, my colleague said she would cheer for UVA, which almost ended our friendship instantly). But the issues raised by Morgan and Doc’s conversation still hold. c and pWas it morally permissible for Raskolnikov to murder the useless old miserly woman in the interest of distributing the millions of rubles she was hoarding to hungry and needy people? Does Fagin’s feeding of dozens of hungry children lose its positive moral strength when we find out that he is training them to be pickpockets and becoming rich in the process?

Many philosophers and theologians have noted that in an unpredictable world filled with evil, no one’s hands are ever morally pure—regardless of their intentions. Doc and Morgan’s conversation moves in this direction.

  • Doc: We’re none of us born into Eden. World’s plenty evil when we get here. Question is, what’s the best way to play a bad hand?
  • Morgan: The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
  • Doc: Infinitely sad, but damnably true. Bein’ born is craps, but how we live is poker. The question is how to play a bad hand well.

The great Stoic philosopher Epictetus could not have said it better: “For this is your business, to play well the part you are given; but choosing it belongs to another.

But in first week of Easter, I would be remiss if I did not return for a moment to Doc’s characterization of the events of Good Friday and Easter: “That seems to be the principle behind the crucifixion. Sacrifice the Son, redeem humanity.” hyacinthMaybe, but something tells me that a utilitarian number-crunching calculus is not the motivating factor behind Easter. At the heart of the story is radical love—God responds to our flawed human condition by becoming one of us, taking on everything that defines us including pain, injustice, suffering, and death. The new life of Easter emerges from the worst that our world can offer, just as the hyacinths are poking their heads out of the seemingly dead grass in my front yard. No matter the hand we’re dealt, that’s the way to play it.

Blessed Is He Who Comes

1696182087[1]Rodney Delasanta was one of best teachers and colleagues I ever had the privilege of knowing. Rodney was a true Renaissance man—a Chaucer scholar, family man, sports fan (especially the Red Sox), award-winning accordion player (really), and classical music aficionado. The accordion business made him a regular recipient of the latest accordion joke from me. “What is the definition of a gentleman? A man who knows how to play the accordion—and doesn’t.” Once Rodney responded with an even better one: An accordion player is trying to find the location of his latest gig in downtown Manhattan. He parks his station wagon on the street with his accordion in the back, locks it, and sets out on foot to find the address. Upon returning to his vehicle he is crestfallen to find that the back window has been broken—Brandoni%20Mod%20149W[1]and even more crestfallen to find five more accordions in the back of the station wagon!

Rodney lived fifteen miles from campus, and told me shortly after we met that he had spent the past several months of commuting (fifteen miles is a very long commute in Rhode Island) listening to Bach’s Mass in B minor, about which we was as exuberantly effusive as he was about life in general. He was particularly taken by Bach’s setting of the Sanctus in this composition. According to Isaiah’s vision of the throne of God, the angels continually sing “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God of Hosts; heaven and earth are fully of His glory.” This inspired Bach’s setting, music that Rodney, in his usual measured fashion, declared to be the “most glorious six minutes of music ever written.”

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus                    Holy, Holy, Holy Lord

Dominus Deus Sabaoth,                       God of power and might

Pleni sunt coeli et terra                         Heaven and earth are full of Your glory

Gloria eius.                                                Hosanna in the highest

I miss Rodney. He died of cancer a few years ago; the nine years I spent teaching honors students on an interdisciplinary team with him during my early years at Providence College strongly influenced  me both as a teacher and a human being. I cannot listen to any setting of the Sanctus, particularly Bach’s, without thinking of Rodney fondly.

200px-TheSparrow(1stEd)[1]With fewer than six degrees of separation, this makes me think of Mary Doria Russell’s science fiction novel The Sparrow. It is a wonderful story with a fascinating premise: Life is discovered on another planet through transmissions of hauntingly beautiful music, to which scientists respond with transmissions of their own, including selections from Bach’s Mass in B minor (Rodney would have approved). Eventually an expedition, including Jesuit explorers and scientists, make first contact — just as Jesuit priests were often in the vanguard of Europe’s Age of Discovery. “Catholics in Space”—it’s a great premise.

The mission goes disastrously and terribly wrong, leaving one of the Jesuits, Emilio Sandoz, as the sole survivor. hughjackman[1]Sandoz believed that God had led him to be part of this mission, that God had micromanaged the details to bring it about, and thought he was in the center of God’s will. In the tragic aftermath, after all of his companions are horribly killed, he is devastated, ruined physically, emotionally, and spiritually. From the depths of his pain he lashes out at God: “I loved God and I trusted in his love . . . I laid down all my defenses. I had nothing between me and what happened but the love of God. And I was raped. I was naked before God and I was raped.” Only such blunt and brutal words could match his devastation. In conversation with fellow priests and his religious superiors back on Earth, Emilio says “It wasn’t my fault. It was either blind, dumb, stupid luck from start to finish, in which case we are all in the wrong business, gentlemen, or it was a God I cannot worship.”

The God of Power and Might responds, “Oh, really??” We already have a classic text on what this God has to say in response to demands for accountability—the book of Job.BookJob[1] There are a number of parallels between Emilio and Job: both are dedicated believers, both are all but destroyed by events surrounding them, and neither carries any blame for these disastrous events. Job, from the midst of the ash heap in which he sits, demands an accounting from God just as Emilio does from the midst of his devastation. God’s answer to Job, once he bothers to provide one, is along the lines of “Who are you, puny creature, to question anything about me or what I do? I’m God, you’re not, so let me offer you a large helping of ‘shut the hell up’.”tumblr_me3hnr8r2k1qdjda6o1_500[1] And a God of Power is entirely within its authority to give such an answer. Some afflicted believers, in the face of such a response, might say with Job “though He slay me, yet I will trust Him.” Others might rather say, with Emilio, “Fine, but this is a God I cannot worship.” In Emilio’s position, I would say the same thing. Thanks for sharing (finally), but you can’t do any worse to me than you’ve already done. I’m outta here.

The God of Glory and Mystery responds “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”img_6246[1] This, I suppose, is an improvement on “I’m God and you’re not,” but not much of one. The God of Mystery’s answer is a reminder that none of our human faculties, either individually or as a total package, can ever crack God’s code, can ever fully encompass divine reality. I’m sure this is true, but it can easily turn into a license for laziness and apathy. The greatest commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” If my heart, soul, and mind are incapable of touching the transcendent, then God can be whatever I want God to be, since all visions of God are equally immune from scrutiny. Let’s just make it up as we go along.

But there is another divine response. The God of Love created the world because, as Iris MurdochimagesCA6KS6YV writes, “He delights in the existence of something other than Himself.” But love limits power. In order for the loved to exist and respond to love freely, the lover must not manipulate or control. The language of love is the language of intimacy and vulnerability. The only possible response of the God of Love to suffering, pain, and anguish is to embrace and endure it with us, rather than to eliminate it. And the ultimate response of the God of Love to human pain is to become human. This is not a God who intercedes. This is a God who indwells. God comes as one of us, not as a distant source of arbitrary power or wrapped in a cloud of mystery.

The ancients had it easy, because the various and indefinite aspects of the transcendent were each given shape in a different deity. Power for Zeus, wisdom for Athena, erotic love for Aphrodite, mischievous creativity for Hermes, murderous tendencies for Ares, plain old hard work for Hephaestusnbvcn[1]—a different deity for every divine mood. Maybe monotheism isn’t such a good idea. But the God of Love is a good way to get a monotheistic handle on our polytheistic dealings with the divine. The God of Love chooses to ratchet down divine power in exchange for relationship. The God of Love is revealed in the most intimate mystery of all, God made flesh. God responds to our demands for answers strangely—nothing gets answered, but everything is changed. Christianity does not provide a supernatural cure for suffering, but a supernatural use for it. Christ in us, the hope of glory. In the liturgy the Sanctus is followed by the Benedictus—“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” exactly what the crowds are singing to Jesus on a donkey as the drama of Holy Week begins today. “Hosanna in the highest” indeed.palm_sunday[1]