Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Legalists and Shades of Grey: Why everyone is wrong (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

The following is a comment I dropped over at another blog. My comment was in relation to a discussion about legalists and literature, viz., how they usually approach all literature from a very narrow point-of-view that prevents the literature from having any positive growth and/or change in their life. I agreed with most of what was said, up until a certain paragraph. That was where the fun began.

"For every [legalist], plot can be boiled down to these elements: Someone is right. Someone is wrong. And Someone is bound to be damned if they keep it up. That's all that matters. Insight into things like life, love, pain, greed, sacrifice, hate, bravery, desire, and the common human condition are just so much window dressing [to them]." (by "Darrell," the site director for the blog)

I take issue with this statement, Darrell, though not for the reasons that you may think.

I am an English major (having just received my Masters last year) and an aspiring author (I'm working through my first novel even as we speak), and I completely agree with your main premise: [Legalists] do not get out of books what they're supposed to get out of books (viz., an enlightenment and enlargement of the mind and soul) because they come to every book with a narrowly constructed box that they try to jam everything into kicking and screaming. The world is larger than they suppose, and God larger still. This, we agree on.

However, I disagree that that box is simply "someone's right and someone's wrong and the latter will be damned if they don't turn around." Rather, I think the box is more "someone's right in my specific way and someone's wrong in my specific way and the later will be damned if they don't turn around in my specific way." [Legalists] have their man-made preconceived notions about what is "holy" and what is "damnable," and that is their error: their moral compass has been tinkered with by human hands, and only an act of God can blast the thing apart and rebuild it correctly. In short, their moral compass is skewed and cramped; that is their flaw. I know that you (and everyone here [on your blog]) would soundly agree with that.

Your actual statement, however, seems to imply that the [legalist's] flaw is not that their moral compass is skewed, but rather that they have a moral compass at all. Though I am sure that that was not your overt meaning, I still feel the need to caution against such implications.

Shades of grey do serve a dramatic purpose (both in novels and real life), but our world is not simply shades of grey anymore that it is simply black and white. In fact, if there were no "black and white," then the very concept of "shades of grey" would lose all meaning.

Simply put, "Someone is right [and] Someone is wrong [a]nd Someone is bound to be damned if they keep it up" may be simplistic, but it is still true, at least in this regard: "Except you repent, you will all perish" (Luke 13:3). The truth is that there is someone who is "right" and someone who is "wrong": God is right, and we are wrong; and unless we repent, we will perish. It is either-or. There is no middle ground.

I write this knowing full well that ninety-nine percent of everyone here will agree in some degree with what I am saying, but I still see this as a necessary caution. In correctly pointing out the suffocating claustrophobia that passes for [legalist] moralism, we must not turn and commit the opposite yet equal error of jettisoning black and white morality in its entirety. Shades of grey do exist, and thus we must approach others with compassion and understanding; but black and white exist too, and thus our compassion must include Jesus' warning: without repentance towards God, there is only damnation.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

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