Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Conan Meets Jesus

In the past year, I have gained a greater appreciation of the pulp writer, Robert E. Howard. It’s clear that this appreciation is based solely on my friendship with a Howard aficionado who has written a biography of the author. In fact, this whole post is based on some correspondence with him. To the uninformed, Robert Howard was an author of fantasy, horror, western and detective literature in the 1920s and 1930s. He is also the creator of Conan the Barbarian.

I must admit that I haven’t read anything by Howard. (That will soon change when Amazon delivers a collection of short stories.) Still, every time that I see his name, I read a bit further. A few months ago, John J. Miller had an interview with Rusty Burk who has edited some Howard anthologies. I certainly have no way of judging whether he portrays Howard or his books accurately. Still, I was intrigued.

Howard also saw that violence was the inevitable result of breakdowns in “civilized” societies. In his view, humans are really just apes who learned how to build things: when our societies begin to break down, we revert to our innate savagery. I’ve just been re-reading Leo Grin’s essay “The Reign of Blood” and I think he’s right that Howard sees man’s primal emotion as hate, and so when confronted with forces we see as hostile we see them as “something not only to be battled but to be hated.” I think anyone who has looked at what happens on the frontiers between societies in conflict would have to agree that Howard’s views were pretty dead-on. Even when the initial contacts are not hostile, man’s tendency to turn hatred on perceived threats frequently serves to escalate into conflict and ultimately violence. At the end of the Turlogh O’Brien story “The Dark Man,” a priest asks “Almighty God, when will the reign of blood cease?” “Turlogh shook his head. ‘Not so long as the race lasts.’” It seems a bleak and pessimistic view, but on the basis of our history to date, it also seems a realistic one.

Now this is where it gets weird. As a pastor, lots of folks tell me that they find concept of “blood atonement” horrific and barbaric--Jesus pouring out his blood on the cross for my sins. Frankly it offends my modern sensibilities as well. However, this insight into human nature, whether Howard’s or not, might provide some guidance.

Human beings at their core are savages. Humanity’s primal emotion is hatred. The kingdom of this world is built on death and the spilling of blood. Ultimately, this kingdom is fleeting. We are just waiting to be overthrown by another set of barbarians. Jesus Christ, representing the
kingdom of God, enters the world challenges it, and threatens it. Rather than hatred, Jesus teaches that love of God and love of neighbor is a better foundation. The kingdom of man, threatened, attempts to destroy Christ, to kill him, and to spill his blood. This is only natural since the world has only one playbook. Ironically, God uses the spilling of blood to defeat hate. The innocence of Christ reveals the ultimate failure of hatred. Christ pours out his own blood in love to destroy a world based on blood spilled in hatred. Jesus plays by the world’s rules and wins. By winning he changes the game forever. The resurrection shows the ultimate triumph of God’s Kingdom over this human world.

Clearly this is not well thought-out. I still wonder if Howard’s world-view (if it is accurately depicted) might help us understand the fallen world absent Jesus Christ.

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