Of all the Old Testament stories in my old Cartoon Bible, the one that made the greatest impression on me as a child was the story the Abraham and Isaac. It’s a pretty terrible thing for a 6 year old to contemplate, the specter of a loving father prepared to kill his own child. I was supposed to be impressed with the faith of Abraham and the mercy of the Lord. Instead I shuddered to think of a father willing to do such a thing and a God for whom that would count as a virtue. I had never been taught to fear the Lord, as they say, but I certainly began to wonder if I should fear Him upon reading that scripture. More to the point, I wondered if I should fear my own father?
Significantly, it was my own father that I turned to for questions about the meaning of that Bible. I don’t recall exactly what Dad had to say about that passage, though I want to think that he might have called into question its particular vision of God. There are of course plenty of wonderful messages to be found in (or read into) the story of Abraham, but there is at least one message that I could never reconcile with my own sense of right and wrong, with my own sense of what family should be to one another. It was never Abraham’s faith that impressed me. Rather, it was his faithlessness; his betrayal of his son.
Of course Abraham didn’t actually kill his son, an Angel of the Lord stayed his hand. Still, I couldn’t help but imagine looking into my own father’s eyes and knowing that he was prepared to do such a thing. How could anything be right in the world after a moment such as that?
And how could anything be right in a world where its creator could want such a moment? At 46, the moral universe of that lesson still terrifies me, all the more so, because there are people who reside within it, even if their God does not.
It doesn’t appear that I am alone in this. The late Christopher Hitchens raised this objection several times, most notably in his book, God is not Great. But of course Hitchens is hardly the first public figure to underscore the trace of terror in this narrative. The story of Abraham and Isaac has darkened more than a few moments of artistic expression.
The sinister vision of Abraham appears in Leonard Cohen’s Story of Isaac, and of course in the opening lines of Dylan’s Highway 61. The sculptor George Segal deemed it a fitting symbol for a memorial to the Kent State Shootings (though Kent state University rejected his work, which is why it now rests at Princeton University). I’m also reminded of a rather bad movie with an interesting twist. In The Rapture, Mimi Rogers plays Sharon, a mother commanded by God to kill her own daughter in order to achieve Heaven. Having complied with His commands, she cannot bring herself to enter Heaven. Perhaps she too thought that nothing could ever be right again after crossing such a threshold.
My favorite use of the Abrahamic trope comes from Wilfred Owen who used it to comment on the horrors of World War I. His poem is called The Parable of the Old Man and the Young:
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him, thy son.
Behold! Caught in a thicket by its horns,
A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.
It would be a mistake to see in all these narratives the sort of polemics Hitchens had in mind, but they do speak to an element of meaning that cannot quite be reduced to the faith of Abraham or the mercy of God. There is something truly disconcerting about the command given to Abraham. Still more so his willingness to follow it. In the story of Abraham, if only for a moment, faith becomes a source of terror. I expect that for most believers the moment passes.
For some of us it never does.
Kurt Vonnegut may have struggled with that moment more than any of us. It haunts the opening chapter of Slaughterhouse Five, though Vonnegut took his point of departure from a different passage. It was the story of Sodom and Gomorrah that seemed to ask too much of Vonnegut.
And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human. So she was turned to a pillar of salt. So it goes.
It shouldn’t take much imagination to understand why Vonnegut of all people would identify with Lot’s wife. …to see how he could find in her a fitting symbol of something human, something often lost by demands of faith and loyalty. It was typical of Vonnegut that he didn’t quite field a direct objection to the Biblical narrative. He doesn’t deny the moral order of God’s commands (or even those of the Allied Air Command in his own day). He doesn’t even say that she was right and God was wrong. He simply embraces the moment when Lot’s wife does look back, and in doing so Vonnegut reaffirms the value of all the lives buried in that Biblical tale, …and of course those consumed in the fires of Dresden.
Gods do what they will, so it seems. There is little that mortals can do about it, but the God Abraham has always demanded just a little more. He has always demanded that we love him for it, that we condemn his victims along with him, and that we think of his acts of terror as positive moral actions.
And sometimes that is just too much.
For me that line is crossed in at least one more sort of story, one which brings us full circle to the relationship between father and child.
The concern is illustrated wonderfully in is a scene from the movie Black Robe wherein a missionary (Father LaForge, played by Lothaire Bluteau) tries to convert an Algonquian-speaking native (Chomina, played by August Schellenberg) to the Christian faith just before the man dies. Desperate to save his companion’s soul, Laforge offers Chomina the promise of eternal life in Heaven. But of course LaForge must admit that none of the Chomina’s heathen relations will be with him in this eternal life. Neither Chomina’s wife, nor his parents, nor even his youngest child will be there to meet him in Heaven, because they died without accepting the faith.
It would be easy to under-estimate the power Chomina’s response to LaForge in that movie, but it has always seemed to me a very compelling argument. It works for me, not because of fictional characters with fictional relations, but because of real people in my own life. I am well aware that some (perhaps many) of those I have known and loved passed away without reconciling themselves to terms of sundry Christian teachings. What must be done of course varies from church to church, but in each case where the price of heaven is conversion, I know of specific people who failed to make that choice in terms described by one or all of these churches. Faced with the prospect of conversion and its benefits myself, I can honestly say that the choice strikes me as a betrayal.
Do I belong in this heaven, while my father does not? And will I enjoy paradise while others that I loved rot in graves, burn in eternal fires, or simply waste away in outer darkness?
If there is a God in heaven that would have this, then I will say ‘no’ to Him.
He is asking for too much.