Why We Disagree About Movies, Constantine, Robert E Lee, Abortion, Etc.

“A prophet is not without honor except in his own country,” teaches Christ, presumably because a prophet’s countrymen can remember back to when the prophet flunked second grade, or when the prophet’s junior high voice was set squeaking by puberty. Twenty years later, that formerly squeaky voice is now beginning every other sentence with “Thus says the Lord,” and he is a little hard to take seriously. Cool it, Isaiah. I remember when Candace turned you down for prom. Now God listens to you? Sure He does.

For everyone else, though, the prophet arrives suddenly on the scene like Athena sprung from the forehead of Zeus. There is no memory of the physical and intellectual embarrassments which so often attend youth. A prophet’s countrymen know the prophet from the inside, while foreigners and aliens know the prophet from the outside. Given that a man is far better off taking prophets seriously, let us agree that it is better to know a prophet from the outside. It is not good to know as much as possible about a prophet, but rather to keep him at arm’s length.

On the other hand, some things are best understood from the inside.

Supporters of abortion refer to abortion as a medical procedure, an operation, and are embarrassed that anyone should have an insider’s knowledge of abortion. Opponents of abortion insist that abortion be known in all of its technicalities and nuances. Insider knowledge is knowledge of the structure of a thing, the parts of a thing, the guts of a thing, while outsider knowledge is knowledge of the form, the silhouette, the shape. Insider knowledge tends toward replication, while outsider knowledge tends toward adoration. Outsider knowledge fears proximity because of the sanctity of the thing, while insider knowledge implies equality with or mastery over the thing. Outsider judgments are thus often more generic, less forensic. Outsider judgments are more often positive, while insider judgments are more often negative, skeptical, or disenchanted. It’s telling that dissection of cadavers became broadly acceptable in the same century in which man was no longer universally acknowledged to be the imago Dei.

Christmas just passed, and perhaps you have lately witnessed an argument about the film Love Actually.

Everyone I know who likes the film defends it as “a good time” or “a fun romantic comedy” or “a December tradition.” This is knowledge from the outside, knowledge of the shape of the film, the outline. On the other hand, everyone I know who loathes the film insists it be understood according to its gratuitous sex scenes, lewdness, and debauchery. Defenders of the film are aware that many instances of such content can be found in the film, but insist the film is still just a funny and feel good romp. Those scenes are not what the thing truly is, nor can the film (or the scenes in question) sustain such scrupulous attention. Similarly, the foreigners and aliens who honor Isaiah are abstractly aware that the man was once a boy in diapers, or an acne-faced teen who couldn’t get a date, however, dwelling on such truths stands to corrupt the awe with which the adult Isaiah is rightly viewed. Knowledge from the outside is a preference, not a necessity. Those with outsider knowledge do not claim insider knowledge is incorrect, but that it is improperly held. Those with insider knowledge of a thing, on the other hand, tend to believe that outsider knowledge is incorrect. Insiders are often critical of outsiders, accusing them of being willfully ignorant, sentimental, superstitious, unenlightened, or simply luddites.

At least some aspect of denominational difference in Christianity depends on whether theology, sacraments, Church councils and the canon of Scripture are best viewed from the inside or the out. Many Protestants would be scandalized to hear of the historical arguments and debate which went into the formation of the canon of Scripture, although I think Catholics and Orthodox Christians often delight to hear it. On the other hand, Protestants are far less apt to get ruffled when reading of the politicking and strong arming which occurred at church councils, although I will unashamedly confess that, as an Orthodox Christian, I have intentionally stayed away from delving too deeply into the process of the seven ecumenical councils lest I be tempted to cynicism. So far as this self-imposed ignorance is concerned, I am content to be told in a swaggering fashion, “You can’t handle the truth.” Exactly. I myself have said it. Similarly, while I believe the formation of the canon is worth knowing from the inside, I don’t think much of Harold Bloom’s criticism that Baptists tend to view the Bible as a “solid object” that fell from the sky. Better a solid object which can be venerated like St. Paul’s napkin than merely a bunch of data.

Arguments over historical figures like Constantine, Robert E. Lee, and Martin Luther King, Jr. tend to hinge on questions of insider or outsider knowledge. Admirers of Constantine view his sins from a distance and see only the indistinct outline of imperfection, the foibles typical of a certain era, while detractors of MLK or Lee zoom in on such imperfections and refashion the exterior, iconic image of the man into the likeness of his vices. The vices become “the real man,” and the statues become shrines to a pious fiction. While Scripture describes the occasional pettiness and cowardice of the apostles, Job is declared “righteous” and “blameless” (though not “sinless” as St. John Chrysostom jotted down in his sermon notes) and the author of Job never thinks to complicate these claims by showing us Job sin. While the book offers us a profound psychological portrait of the suffering king of Uz, there is also a sense in which the character Job remains a sacred mystery up to the end.

So what determines whether a thing is best known from within or without? It is tempting to say that both kinds of knowledge can be obtained simultaneously, though I think the myth of Orpheus has long testified to the fact that a man can grasp a thing and not see it (judge it), or else judge a thing and not grasp it. The man who would possess Constantine cannot preside over him, but the man who judges Constantine cannot grasp him. It strikes me that so many impassioned arguments emerge from disagreements about whether a thing should be judged or possessed, seen or held, known from within or without. These disagreements become embittered because they are not reasonable, but intuitive, for there is often a whiff of the arbitrary about deciding that one knows enough to make a judgment— especially given that most human beings make binding decisions based not only on limited knowledge, but an ignorance of how little they actually know.

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