The Wicked

I got to see the Broadway show Wicked tonight.

The show Wicked is based on the novel Wicked by Gregory Maguire. I have not read the novel, so my comments are restricted to the show.

Wicked is the re-telling of the classic Wizard of Oz story from the vantage of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Wicked deconstructs the moral plotlines of The Wizard of Oz. In Wicked Elphaba is actually the good witch and Glinda is not a moral exemplar.

Specifically, we see Elphaba and Glinda as reluctant roommates in High School. Elphaba, being green, is shunned and Glinda who is blonde, rich, and beautiful is wildly popular. Thus, we see how the fortunes of birth (because it is not easy being green) affect character and social perception. In the end, Elphaba is called wicked, but she really is not. Why? Because we, the audience, now know her story.

This moral reversal, once the full story is in hand (in the imagination of the author), made be think of Martha Nussbaum’s view that we need to capture a narrative imagination when we approach criminals and criminal behavior. Basically, when we understand people’s stories our capacity for empathy is increased. This does not mean we excuse the behavior or forget the voices of victims. But a narrative understanding—the life story of the “wicked”—helps us understand a bit why people end up in the situations they do. Another good example of this is the book and movie Dead Man Walking where sister Helen Prejean, via her attempt to understand the stories of death row inmates, increases her capacity for empathy.

As we shift to the post-Cartesian world with the rise of weak-volitional models, these narrative approaches to morality will become more and more important. The stories of the wicked will attenuate strong notions of moral accountability.

Obviously, I think this narrative approach has implications for soteriology as well. We are all products of circumstance. We are all wicked to a greater or lesser degree due to the fortunes of birth and environment. Thus, I feel convicted that God will have to take all our contingent histories into account.

God will have to take into account that Elphaba is, well, green, while many of us are poor or abused or raised by non-Christian parents, or are persons of color in a racist world.

And in light of those stories, what is or is not "wicked" is much less clear.

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39 thoughts on “The Wicked”

  1. This reminds me of Tim Burton's first Batman film - the one where Jack Nicholson was the Joker.

    The main characters meet at the end of a movie - one a psychotic who dresses up like a bat and takes vengeance into his own hands, and the other a homicidal maniac with no moral compass.

    "You made me," Batman accuses the Joker, who killed his parents in cold blood when he was a child.

    "No! You made me!" Joker says, referencing the horror of being plunged into a vat of toxic chemicals, driven to insanity.

    The message seems to be that there is plenty of blame to go around when it comes to explaining why people are messed up.

  2. I agree with matt here. I was born into a minority family who did not go to church, but here I am, a Christian and living a blessed life!! It isn't perfect but over all I'm having the time of my life regardless of race, social class, and circumstances, and why should I let those things get in the way of rejoicing in my salvation?

    Its true that those circumstances can play a crucial role in our life, but we do have choices and we are responsible for our choices and there are plenty of stories like mine of people breaking the cycle and living a functional life. Beating the odds is not easy, but it is a choice. We choose who we are, who we follow, what we do, and then there are consequences for those choices. Good or bad. The truth is is that it is easier to just give in to the anger and resentment of our childhood experiences instead of choosing to learn from it and continue to live the life you were called for. It's sad when people make fun of you and you grow up with repression and poverity, but God gives us a way out, and when we enter His kingdom He gives us the truth of who we really are and when we choose to believe that, it changes everything.

  3. Roxanne

    Knowing many people who cannot "break the cycle" and live a functional life, I think that you or anyone else who claims to "overcome circumstance" are simply lucky. In other words, I think the choices you made are reducible to, and contingent on, a set of circumstances. Circumstances that you have no control over. Whether it is genetics, or you having the right relationships, or the right therapist, or the right medication... whatever it was, the stars aligned for you, and they do not align for many, many other people. The people I know that are stuck in a rut in life all want out; they want to be happy, they try to overcome whatever barriers are in their way, and they fail. They had bad luck to get in the rut they are in, and they had bad luck in not being able to get out of it. I'm in agreement with Richard on this.

    God gives us a way out? Really? Like he gives us a way out of homosexuality? Depression? Anxiety? OCD? MPD? Schizophrenia? Alcoholism/addiction? Frankly, if someone I knew was deeply depressed I would recommend drugs before I tried to encourage any sort of relationship with God.

  4. Pecs,

    It strikes me that your rebuke of Roxanne is an exercise in cynicism. While it is true that nature and history are difficult to overcome and that mere choice is no prophylactic against, as you put it, being "stuck in a rut," sometimes the weak flesh can and does work with the willing spirit.
    The reality, it seems to me, is more complex, subtle, mysterious than a simple weak volitional versus strong volitional model, more than a choice between God and an anti-depressant. At one point, King Lear rages: "I am a man more sinned against than sinning." Is this a true statement? Lear's whining rationalization? An old man's delusional dementia?

    The diabetic's legitimate need for insulin is not a matter of choice--or is it? Is diabetes a genetic disorder treated by insulin or the body's response to gluttony and poor diet. And is gluttony learned or genetic? Assigning cause and effect in human behavior, it seems to me, is no simple matter. God and insulin together are precisely in order. God and Paxil may be as well.

    I agree that greater empathy and a sense of mercy toward others is needed. But so is a greater sense of hope as well as willingness to think clearly and to see things not only in terms of individual responsibility but also in terms of group responsibility.

    Why link homosexuality with depression, anxiety, OCD, MPD, Schizophrenia, Alcoholism/addiction??


    George C.

  5. Hi All,

    My reading of Richard's position is that the weak volitional model need not entail that the will has a diminsihed importance theologically. Many factors auger against that needless interpretation. Small volitional successes can make a big difference over time, either by iteration or by the magnification of time: a small turn of a rudder can have huge consequences by the time the ocean is crossed. Another outside factor: the possibility of divine intervention (miracle) is not directly undercut by it. Then there is the work of human intellegence to amplify the wills limited traction with the world. And what about simply getting to the place in life where one is willing to admit that help is required--very little "will" need be involved there, and yet the consequences can be huge, according to my therapist wife. I find this last point especially germane to the discussion, since it seems to bear on "the gospel" itself.

    And Richard,

    You say, "Thus, I feel convicted that God will have to taqke all of our contingent histories into account." James thought that the benefit of prayer from a strictly psychological perspective was that it gives a believer an ideal listener--one who understands and loves completely. Score another one for WJ.


  6. George,
    Please cut Pecs some slack. I agree with him in that Roxanne is arguing from a specific to prove a generalization. Just because her life is working out doesn't mean it is a general rule that all things in life work out when you say the magic words and "enter his Kingdom". I would like to hear you or Roxanne explain how a choice can change the life of an Iraqi or Sudanese or any of the millions of circumstances facing people today.
    Why link homosexuality with depression et al? Why not? The point is that none of these conditions are chosen.
    Why do you say that gluttony and poor diet leads to diabetes? This is not always the case as in juvenile diabetes. Also, it may be that some cases can be caused by a virus and one can contract diabetes nearly overnight.
    It feels better to be in control but choosing to believe that we all have more control than we really do is living in a dream world and insulting to those who simply have no way out of their circumstances. Besides, " Basically, when we understand people’s stories our capacity for empathy is increased. This does not mean we excuse the behavior or forget the voices of victims. But a narrative understanding—the life story of the “wicked”—helps us understand a bit why people end up in the situations they do.

  7. The last part of the anonymous comment is just a quote of Richard's that I didn't punctuate very well. I also forgot to sign it.
    I've been trying to participate for some time in the discussions but have been unable to post my comments for some reason. This time, however, it posted easily. I hope the problem is solved and I can participate instead of being a frequent lurker. I enjoy the comments and the climate here at this blog.
    Rick T

  8. Rick T.,

    (1) Thanks for revealing your secret identity (Is your cape color red, blue, green or yellow? Or is your color darker, more somber?).

    (2) I asked Pecs why he linked the others to homosexuality because that is not something to overcome. And by the way, alcoholism/substance dependendency is, in some cases, something of a matter of choice. For some, depression may be a choice.

    (3) I didn't read Roxanne's post
    as a statement made by some Polyanna or as Marie Antoinette suggesting the breadless poor eat cake. While I would caution her to avoid the editorial (or royal) "we," I read her post as a personal statement of liberation and victory which took note of the difficulty of beating the odds. I could be wrong, but my guess is that Roxanne is very much aware of the tragic heartache and hurt close by and around the world.

    (4) If you will re-read my post, you will note that I was raising questions to show problems associated with assigning choice and limiting choice. As Cassius puts it in "Julius Caesar": "Men at some times are masters of their fate. . . ."

    (5) A choice that might have made a great difference in the life of an Iraqi could have been made by Saddam Hussein or George Bush. Both chose the way of men of power and violence. The stage in Sudan was set by the combination of choices of men of power and violence but with lesser visibility. Tracy's post speaks well of choice and counter-choice.

    (6) You wrote that "choosing to believe that we all have more control than we really do is living in a dream world and insulting to those who simply have no way out of their circumstances."
    Chosing to believe? Hmmmm. And no, it may be insulting, but it may not. I would have to ask them. It seems to me that you personally find it insulting--a kind of vicarious identification or frustration with those who are powerless.

    (7) Richard's point about narrative, understanding the stories of others involves us empathetically. But response to narrative need not lead us exclusively into Hamlet-like irony, into a tout comprehendre c'est tout pardonner way of thinking, or dark denial of hope.

    (8) As to Pecs' exercise in cynicism, my guess is that he had no choice given his circumstances. :)


    George C.

    P.S. One or two more items and my (long-awaited, at least by Richard) blog will be ready for launch. Maybe as early as tomorrow.

  9. Hi Everyone,
    If you haven't noticed, I'm traveling about a bit-- Wicked isn't playing in Abilene, TX :-) -- and my computer access is spotty. So, fewer posts and delays getting back to your comments.

    So, as I'm running and my time is short (as I sit in an Internet cafe stealing a few minutes), I'd like to highlight George's point #7: The link between a narrative understanding and empathy. I think we can all find common ground there. Working out from there the Pecs/Roxanne conversation is a hard, fascinating, but deeply important one. My current toil in this area: How to adopt the weak volitional perspective without moving into nihilism?

  10. George,

    Rick did a great job of elaborating on the thought and feeling that motivated my post. Including homosexuality in my list was not meant as a slight; the thread connecting the list for me was "mental conditions for which one has no choice", not as a condition that needs to be overcome to be happy. I guess heterosexuality would have worked just as well in that category.

    I'm not going to argue further about our degree of choice in life, but will offer a few observations:

    1. People that have "made it" in life generally have a high view of volition. In other words, they like to think they are responsible for being in the good position they are in. Conversely, people that are lower on the social ladder generally have a low view of volition, i.e., they want to be cut some slack for the hand they've been dealt. Roxanne was evidence of this observation; she overcame whatever obstacles she had in life and now places a premium value on those "choices" she made. In my opinion, this amounts to nothing more than "patting ourselves on the back" and reflects the desire we all have to take responsibility when things are going well, and skirt responsibility when things go poorly. Cynical? I would prefer the word realistic. Cynicism, to me, implies painting the picture darker than it really is. I guess I'm just trying to paint the picture how I see it.

    2. I think this view is the compassionate one. At some level, it is reflected in modern ideologies placing the emphasis on the individual (as a prevention of victimization) by implementing laws against slavery, and laws for egalitarianism (women's rights, health care, education etc).

  11. George,
    Thanks for your response. I understand your points a bit better and hope this helps clarify my comments.

    1. I now choose to travel lightly so no more capes for me. Too much washing and ironing involved.

    2. Homosexuality is not something to overcome in the sense that one can be freed from the orientation but it does cause hardship to the person because of having to deal with intolerance from family and society and I don’t think that they chose the burden. Alcoholism and depression may involve a choice in overcoming them, yes for some but not all, but it may involve luck in finding a way out of the problem. Speaking of luck, I’ve dealt with depression in the past that darkened my mood (and cape color) and found that the best help for me was a new and improved world view. This discovery was facilitated by a psychologist, a naturopathic doctor, a patient wife and a whole lot of reading. The way out was discovered quite by accident and still requires attention to my thought patterns. In my case, was it free will? Yes, I did choose to seek help but I was fortunate to have the help that I did and quite lucky to have had my mood ameliorated. Others may not find my solution to be helpful to them though.

    3. Roxanne sounds like a nice person and not one who would suggest that a better life is just free for the asking. Yet, if not careful one can be so sure of the answer to life’s problems that those less fortunate are somehow at fault for not choosing to be better. I cringe when I hear a person thanking God for their safe return from war and credit their prayer to God for the cause. What about those praying souls who died?

    4. In re-reading your post, I appreciate your attempt to bring nuance into the mix instead of relying on labels of weak and strong volition to describe a complex world. I agree with you if you’re saying that at times we can make a choice to do something and have a choice to think or act in our own way. One of my keys to overcoming depression was the simple axiom, “Don’t take things personally”. Victor Frankel chose not to let the Nazis damage his joy of living by maintaining control of his mind. Yet he was still in a prison camp. We can only make choices of things we have control of and for some that is not a lot.

    5. I’m trying to understand your point here. If I’m rendered by Bush to a secret prison then a choice was made that affected my life. What would my counter’ choice be? And, how is this a refutation of Pec’s cynicism?

    6. I was referring to those who choose to believe an ideology because it makes them feel better. It may be for the best. The belief may actually help them live better, more productive lives. I don’t want their beliefs to become de rigueur for me. George, you are a smart man. You have divined my cape color and now have detected a bit of projection on my part but I do believe we choose what to believe about the world, sometimes in spite of direct evidence to the contrary. I do find it insulting to have someone insist that I try on their rose colored glasses.

    7. Tout comprehendre c'est tout pardonner. Mais non. Simplement, tout ne comprehendre pas c’est tout ne compatir pas.

    8. I don’t know his circumstances but he had a choice, and one that I would have made had I got there first. I just chose to respond to you because I know you better from reading your comments. They are thoughtful, artful, humorous and probably out of my league. But I knew that you are not prone to lurker bashing and I may have a chance to learn something.

    A quick summation. I can identify with Roxanne. I’ve been there, done that. I am closer to Pec’s way of thinking as of now. We all choose what to believe based on what we pick and choose from familial and societal menus. Our beliefs affect our attitudes about ourselves and the world. If we are labeled fat we can choose to believe it even if we are ballerinas. The mere recognition that this need not be our belief allows an opportunity to choose a belief that is not detrimental to us or those around us. We can only make choices from matters or thoughts that we can control and for some it is a lot and others not so much if anything at all. Let’s all extend compassion to those who may not have a choice instead of offering them our rose colored glasses through which to see a better life.

    Rick T

  12. Rick,

    I don't suppose you live anywhere near Boulder? The downside of this blog, to me, is never getting to meet anyone face to face. That certainly goes for Roxanne, George, and Richard as well.

  13. Richard,

    When you say nihilism, you mean the implication of low volitional views on the hopelessness of life? In other words: fatalism?

    I don't have an answer to this, but I am encouraged by the progress I see humanity making. My previous post was hinting at this thought. Concern for the individual, which has dominated modern thought, is at the root of most of humanities accomplishments recently. I think low volitional models fit well with this progress, and offer further justification for individual concern. As an example, let's take welfare. Like I was arguing earlier, people who don't need welfare (high on the social ladder) tend to see the people who do need welfare as responsible for the dependent position they are in. In other words, they have a high view of volition. On the other hand, having a low view of volition puts little responsibility on a person for the social position they find themselves in, and thus they are entitled to food, housing, and health care just like the rest of us. Therefore, I see low volitional paradigms as the compassionate paradigms--those that try to help out the victims of circumstance. This is why I'm continually surprised by Richard's disinterest in politics. I think you should be interested in laws that support the compassion for victims that low volitional models imply.

  14. Pecs,

    Are "mental conditions for which one has no choice" frozen? What's wrong with patting ourselves on the back if it is authentic affirmation and not smug self-absorption? By the way, I too think that we humans are, by the grace of God, not just muddling through but also up. Excelsior.

    Rick T,

    George Bush's choice affected the range of choices for your Iraqi. Sometimes choice is zerosum, sometimes it is win-win.

    I cannot pretend to comprehend the meaning of the mystery of innocent suffering. The words of Jesus say it best for me: "Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must happen that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh."


    George C.

  15. Pecs,
    I used to live in Denver but Oregon is my home now. It would be nice though.

    Thanks for the rousing discussion.

    I just learned from Oprah that we loose 50,000 brain cells a day and it’s important to stimulate the mind with intellectual activities. I prefer this to crossword puzzles.

    Thanks everyone,
    Rick T

  16. Richard said, "My current toil in this area: How to adopt the weak volitional perspective without moving into nihilism."

    Again, I see no reason to take a disparaging view of the human will simply because the weak volitional model seems to be the one which captures more "truth" than its alternative. In fact, it looks to me like the discussion is trapped in a black-and-white, either-or approach to the topic of the efficacy of the human will.

    Pecs, not to pick on you but your comment seems like a tit to Roxanne's original tat above: "Whether it is genetics...or...or...whatever it was, the stars aligned for you, and they do not align for...many other people."

    To me the main strength of the weak volitional model--to which Richard won me over--is that it is not a simple tit for tat response. Rather, it requires us to be frank about our--often crushing--limitations, while still remaining engaged in the fight to do the best we can at every moment.

    Furthermore, I do not think that this discussion can be carried out at a philosophical level. Rather, I see the question that the weak volitional model puts before us as, "What does a sober assessment of all the relevant factors in play at any given place and time as they relate to a single individual tell us about what our expectations might be for that individual with respect to her chance of successfully engaging her will to meet her goal?" The real life complexities are tremendous, and our accounts here are simplistic.

    We would need novel-length examples to even come close, and then we would still find ambiguity at the end of the trail. Read Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D' Urbervilles and consider a young woman who has been cruelly taken advantage of and then takes advantage of circumstancs that make it possible for her to murder her oppresser. With a book full of facts to consider one could make an equally good case for the murder having been heroic and depraved, free and fated.

    Kant famously said that a good will is the only absolute good. And he just might be right: where everything else is a miriad of contingencies as far as the mind can comprehend, perhaps it is starting out with--and doing one's best to maintain--a good will that makes all the difference. ...the small thing that can build over time.

    In the cross I see a message that says, I will love without condition despite receiving injustice and cruel death as payment. And so in the cross I see a commitment to a good will that does not waver, no matter how hard it is pressed. That, I suppose, requires a deity--at least on Pecs assessment. :)

    ...and I suppose on Richard's too.



    BTW: If I don't push Richard into addressing philosophical dilemmas that won't be productive from the standpoint of his blog, I won't be taking a legit approach to his jazzy thoughts. See: the will found a way.

  17. George,

    --Are "mental conditions for which one has no choice" frozen?

    I think the better question is: Are mental conditions (i.e., states) reducible? In other words, do they have a cause? Or do they arise ex nihilo? If they have a cause, and those causes are determined to be beyond our control (circumstance, genetics), then this "low volitional" situation does not necessitate that our metal states are "frozen", but rather determined. If they are determined, or mostly determined, then our degree of culpability when our situation is bad is low. If our situation is good, then the degree of credit we can take is low. So of course we are not "frozen"; the question is when we change, is that change a result of causes beyond our control?

    This is why the narrative is important, as Richard says. The story behind one's behavior is really just the exposure of the underlying causes that led up the mental condition or behavior. In other words, the causes that determined the eventual outcome. This is why, for example, why that lady who shot her COC preacher husband was given a light sentence by the jury: her behavior was easily understood once the causes where brought to light. She was not at fault for the circumstances she was in.

  18. Pecs,

    I think I am coming at the "weak volitional" model in a way not so different from yours. When I asked you if "'mental conditions for which one has no choice' are frozen," having inferred from incorrectly from what you said that you were speaking of unilinear or monocausality. I was moving in the direction of multi-causal rather than mono-causal. My take on mental conditions is based on a dynamic anthropology, ultimately a Heraclitian or historical notion. Complexity trumps mechanistic reductionism-- both/and generally trumping either/or.

    As to the Mary Winkler case, I am in agreement that the jury agreed that her narrative trumped the strong volitional model. But, remember, narrative can be altered by trauma and a good team of defense lawyers. Personally? I think justice was served based on what I have read.

    A to questions of change being brought about by choice or forces beyond our control, my first blog post will deal with that issue from a different perspective: that of resistance to change.


    George C.

    P.S. Launch tomorrow.

  19. There is a story of two men who now live very diverse lives. One is an amazing man who is a servant to all and loves his family and is loved by many and the other is a man who is bitter and has taken advantage of many and lives a very unhappy life peppered with drugs and alcohol. The two men are brothers who experienced a home growing up full of hardship and pain. When both men were interviewed about who they had become in their own lives, in light of what they had been through growing up, both men had the exact same response, "How could I have been any different?"

    There is a choice to be made.

  20. What about taking responsibility for your actions? Consequences for our behavior? God does punish those who are "guilty." David was punished when he committed adultery, are we to say that he had an excuse for that? God did not allow Moses to enter the promised land, wouldn't you say God is pretty harsh sometimes? What about the couple who lied about their property when they sold it, and then was struck dead on the spot? But what about those others who have lied and committed adultery and disobeyed God in the little ways? Why do some get punished severley why others seem to get away with it? Is God not a just God, does He not know the circumstances and the heart of the person? Did He not expect more from Moses then from anyone else in the desert? Did he not expect more from His servant David? Was not the beginning of the chruch important and critical to God? Circumstances do play an important role as well as motive! Only God really knows the motive and only He knows what lies in the circumstances. I also believe that He redeems those who love him and want to do his will. What was it that really healed all those people we read about in NT? Was it not their faith? How many times did Jesus credit their faith for their healing? God does give anyone a way out of their sin and circumstances if it is His will. And then God wants us to suffer. Innocent do suffer. Jesus for example suffered although he committed no sin. He was not being punished, for God does not punish the innocent. But as long as we live in the world we live in, all will suffer to some extent and to some degree. I believe it is so because God is helping us learn about what it is to be holy and righteous. Through our sufferings do we become perfect like him. Jesus says this for us.

    We are all part of the human family and that human family is full of sin and suffering and pain. I was born into a family of alcoholics and drug abusers, I had no choice in what family to be born in. Growing up was painful in a lot of ways, but it also taught be compassion and gave me a maturity that I would not otherwise have recieved. But I also had choices. I did chose to live that lifestyle at one point. I drank did drugs and slept around. I did blame my childhood for so long, and I was angry for so long. I kept thinking that if I had grown up with different circumstances I would not have lived that life I once had. But the truth is is that I knew in my bones what was right and what was wrong, and I chose wrong, and then I paid. I got pregnant when I wasn't married and was forced to quit college. It was in that time that I knew I needed to choose better. To choose right. So I asked God to help me, and He did. He listened to a fornicator, an adultress, a sinner like me, and He redeemed me. I choose not to be in the circumstance I once was in and it is a battle I fight on a daily basis. I take all the neccessary pre-cautions to do so. Sudy, pray, counseling, and more praying, I fall and I mess up, my old self is always trying to resurrect, and sometimes I yeild, sometimes I am defeated, but God continually redeems me because he knows my heart.

    Some people, I think, would gladly take Job's place. At least he lived life with God and prosperity and even though he lost so much and suffered so much, he at least got it back two times full in the end. A lot of people are not so lucky. I know that. I have sibblings who are/were still stuck in such darkness. But as I continue my life with God, they notice something different, but instead of choosing what I chose they choose jealousy, bitterness, and anger and it is that that gives them the excuses to do their sin. Are we to say that they have no choice? I think that is absurd!

    But I am happy to say that one of my sisters did choose right, she was baptized into Christ two weeks ago! She stayed with us for the summer and she wanted a different life than the one she was raised into. She saw the love and acceptance of other Christians, she was the one who chose. God does give us many ways to escape if we really want it. I wll be so bold and say that yes, sometimes we really don't want to escape. Sometimes we like the darkness more than light. But we all have choices. Yes there are those people who are born with diabilities and such, but that's not what I am talking about here. Faith, people, we need more faith!!

  21. Thanks for sharing your story, Roxanne. I am glad it had a happy ending. Your points are well taken...Especially your observation that the Bible is very pro-choice (in the volitional sense). God punishes wrong choices; that is how the Bible reads, to me as well. However, that reading is not compatible with my experience. So I either try and reinterpret those passages, or just sweep them under the rug for moment, not really knowing what else to do with them.

    I would not make such a distinction between those born with mental problems, and "normal" people. Whether you have OCD, ADD, anxiety, depression, an addictive personality, a gigantic sex drive, anger easily, or whatever, I think we are finding that all of these problems are reducible down to the brain. That is why, for example, that most of these things are treatable with drugs affecting the brain's chemistry. The bottom line is: if every mental state is reducible down to a brain state, than there should not be any distinction in responsibility between ADD and easily angering and hurting someone. Consider Phineas Gage, the poor guy who got a stake driven through his head. Before his brain was damaged, he was a mild-mannered man; afterwards, he an angry, violent man. Modern brain scanning confirms the existence of "anger management centers" in the brain that some people have in better function than others. The point is that the same idea applies to other emotions and behavior.

  22. Pecs,

    You wrote the following in response to Roxanne: "I would not make such a distinction between those born with mental problems, and "normal" people. Whether you have OCD, ADD, anxiety, depression, an addictive personality, a gigantic sex drive, anger easily, or whatever, I think we are finding that all of these problems are reducible down to the brain. That is why, for example, that most of these things are treatable with drugs affecting the brain's chemistry. The bottom line is: if every mental state is reducible down to a brain state, than there should not be any distinction in responsibility between ADD and easily angering and hurting someone."

    I didn't figure you for a bottom-line kind of guy. Much of the above sounds very reductionistic to me. Some forms of each of the above need no drugs but can be altered through behavioral or nutritional modification or non-western treatments. Additionally, some individuals are damaged because of the side-effects of certain medications.

    And then there is the ethical consideration. Consider Abraham Lincoln whose post-childhood spells of dark depression are well-known. Would he have been a better thinker, lawyer, politician, leader, writer if he had been medicated? Remove alcohol, anxiety, and manic-despressive disorder, and schizophrenia and some writers and artists cease being creative.

    As to the Bible being volitionally strong, consider passages dealing with Moses and Pharoah, Saul, Job, Judas, Paul's use of "potter and clay" imagery. And much of the Bible really involves both communal and personal responsibility.

    Hermeneutically, it seems to me, we all do what you do in varying degrees. Being honest about it is key. And some folks are not.


    George C.

  23. George,

    What's wrong with reductionism when applied to the brain? Mental states are reducible to brain states; Do you think otherwise?

    By saying that we can treat unhealthy mental states with drugs, I did not say that we should. Changing the brain's chemistry with drugs certainly affects mood and behavior. I'm not denying that there are other ways of changing the brain's chemistry, like exercise or meditation. The point is, in changing the brain's chemistry, different mental states and behaviors result.

    I agree that the Bible often spreads responsibility across the community. Individuals or communities, the Bible is heavy on responsibility.

  24. Pecs,

    Aren't you stating the obvious in quasi-scientific language when you say, "The point is, in changing the brain's chemistry, different mental states and behaviors result"? Language being a social construct, could you not say within a different context that an evil spirit affects the soul? Or that someone "made" me sad? Or the devil made me do it? Or Flip Wilson did?

    Silly me. I thought the point had to do with what humans are going to do with the givens and circumstances we face and how narrative plays into our actions: i.e. with conscious individual and social choice, with levels of responsibility and accepting responsibility. But I guess it was the dill pickle I ate that caused me not to get the point. Too many will lead me to nihilism.


    George C.

  25. "How to adopt the weak volitional perspective without moving into nihilism?"

    I think if you're merely weak volitional, you're fine. People have choices, they are just very small, localized choices. If you're deterministic, though, nihilism threatens.

    (Pecs has staked out the deterministic side in this discussion, Roxanne the strong volitional.)

    So I think the hard question for determinists is: "By default, people think about the world as if they make choices. How do you deal with the fact that human beings simply aren't built to see their choices as determined?"

    And the hard question for weak volitional folks is: "Why do you think you make even small choices? Scientifically, where is there any room for agency?"

  26. George,

    I don't think the mind-body problem is so clear cut. Even if we can reduce every mental state to a brain state, there is still the question of whether we can "will" a specific brain state into existence. And then we are back to square one. Nonetheless, I think reducing the problem to the brain is still the right first move.

  27. Richard and blog companions,

    Tah, dah. My blog is available at

    I invite you to join me.


    George Cooper

  28. To me, if I may jump in belatedly, the power of a weak volitional model is that it encourages us to look for help.

    From a theological perspective, we are created as beings intended for perichoresis. That is, we are inherently in need. Our limitations, our finitude, our need is not a punishment or a negative it is a positive statement about the purpose of our existence. We exist in order to support and be supported by others. We literally cannot make it on our own. Without this need we would never be able to be freed from our sinful pride and despair - both of which encourage us to depend on ourselves rather than others. Our weak volition is the blessing which propels us into the arms of Christ and sends us out again to extend the peace of Christ to the less fortunate.

  29. What I like about this blog is the attempt to look at theology in light of what we know about psychology. It isn't trying to fit psychology into a theological belief set. That's important because if we are already positively sure about the nature of God and his dealings with us then no other knowledge is necessary or desirable. But we can't live and interact in a world where we shun reality in favor of an ideology that doesn't match up. Reality has to inform our beliefs.
    My college sociology prof taught that a society is healthy when the real and the ideal are closely related and the further they diverge then the more chaotic society becomes.
    Aric Clark said "the power of a weak volitional model is that it encourages us to look for help." And also, “We exist in order to support and be supported by others". I agree, and also pecs has mentioned, “People that have ”made it” in life generally have a high view of volition. In other words, they like to think they are responsible for being in the good position they are in." For those reasons I would favor a weak volitional model because it jives with reality and it promotes compassion.
    If it is cynical to view things with a realistic eye instead of an ideological eye then I’m fine with that. I would rather know the truth even if it is shifting and changing in light of development in physical science or psychology. If “God” is being pushed out of the gaps of our knowledge, a la William James, then it wasn’t really God but an erroneous assumption and not one worth basing a life on. I want the real to match the ideal. Similarly to the manner in which weak volition promotes compassion, I would say that accepting change and accepting that we could be wrong promotes humility. Me being right means someone else is wrong. This bears the bad fruit of separation and, worst case scenario, persecution.


    Rick T

  30. I don't think I am smart enough to know exactly what you all are talking about here, but I just wanted to quickly add that this blog was merely to help us understand that we shouldn't be so quick to judge. What we consider evil or wicked may not be to those who are doing it. When I was living with my boyfreind for example without being married and having babies out of wedlock, well for me that was acceptable. My parents were not married until I was 8 and so I didn't know anything different, and so living with my boyfriend was not a sin to me. So when my boyrfriend and I wanted to become Christian's they would not let us until we "repented" of our sin. At the time we didn't know we were committing sin, we were, in our eyes, just following the example of our parents and the society around us. Although we knew it was wrong to the christian world, we didn't understand why. So before wanting to become Christians we did not like Christians because they made us feel guilty for our choice of life style. In fact when I got pregnant the first time while still living in the dorms, a friend of mine who was Christian did not speak to me after she found out my sin. So I did not like Christians very much because they seemed so judgemental. Anyway,when life was really hitting us hard we knew that we needed to give our life to God. Despite what we thought and what we knew, we knew we "needed" God. So we married and were baptized the same day. I think this blog is interesting because our views of people and how they behave is not up to us to decide if they truly understand what they are doing and why. It is not up to us to shun them and expect them to live up to a standard that we Christians are living up to when they don't know Jesus or His ways. So as Richard states what is wicked or not wicked is not clear to us because we don't know the individual or their circumstances. I mean who knows what we, even as Christians, are capable of when a certain circumstance arises! I mean we know it is wrong to lie but Rahab was commended for her lying to the soldiers. So there you go, it is unclear to us. Whether they have a genetic mishap or a chemical brain imbalance, is not the issue. I think it is better not to judge and befriend someone like that and show them Christ, regardless.

  31. A few years late into the game . . .but we'll be talking about this musical in our Sunday gathering this week exploring some of the points you address here . . . thanks for the insight 

  32. Don't really care what you think, but the broadway is amazing! The book is even better! Read it!

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