Monthly Archives: October 2012


Today I was thinking about the reasons for art – why it is produced and consumed, and how it can be used and abused. I thought of three reasons, all of them applying to both the producer and the consumer.


I’m a computer programmer, so perhaps it’s only natural that I’m primarily interested in art for its information value – what message I can receive from the author. I’m generally not much of an artist, hence my focus on consumption, but these blog posts are themselves information-dense art. Art can be used to educate or to brainwash; they are the same act except one is honest.


I tried to think of why people, especially those most interested in art, are often so interested in subjective “interpretations” rather than information content. The first reason I could think of is that art can manipulate a consumer’s emotions, and it might manipulate one consumer in a different way than it would another. I decided that consuming art for this purpose is equivalent to taking antidepressants, or less reputable drugs. This manipulation is important to art’s entertainment value, but making it the focus in production or consumption would be intolerably shallow.


Then I realized that sometimes I learn about my personality or opinions by how I understand and react to art. When I understand art in a way that the author didn’t intend, I make a statement about myself rather than the art. (Of course, if the artist is unskilled in conveying the message, I am more likely to make up my own meaning, but this will happen some anyway.) The same applies to production of art; the characters in a story, for example, say something about the author. Perhaps only the author knows enough to understand what the characters mean, but they are a product of his personality and experiences.


I should now explain what I meant by my “Christian” status being complicated. For much of my adolescence and early adulthood, I was rigid in my regard for the Bible as Scripture. I performed mental acrobatics to reconcile the Old and New Testaments, but certain pieces kept eating at me. I decided that the Old Testament was an expression of the same fundamental truths as found in the New, but that there was a disconnect such that I could not understand why the Old was appropriate to its era. Then my brother explained to me that he had given up that fight, and my house of cards collapsed. Questions flooded in and I decided all that I had believed was useless because I could no longer be confident of the foundations (as the New Testament required the Old and both were perfect).

But then I found myself becoming something I did not want to be. I had forfeited my reasons to be moral, so why was I disgusted at the prospect of becoming immoral? I quickly began trying to justify my ethics, and this meant reestablishing my belief in God without the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. I described to an online atheist friend that I was stuck; I did not want to be where my questions (the worst of which I am omitting) had landed me, but I could not return to where I was before. My only option was to press forward in hope that the pain would ease further along the way. And I could not express any of this to any Christians except my brother. I had no right to lead others where I was until I knew I was going somewhere good. (I still don’t know that, but I trust people to not read this if they can’t handle it. The anonymity of the Internet is useful, since I can vent to few people personally.) And I didn’t want to tell my brother that he had hurt me by expressing himself.

At this time I had a habit of listening to free LibreVox audio books on my smartphone while lying in bed waiting to grow tired, as an alternative to using the computer which can make me stay up later. That night, after expressing myself to my online friend, I listened to The Princess and the Goblin, and this blog’s title comes from it. The enchanted spider-web is a plot device which leads the two protagonists to safety. It will only lead them forward and never back, and it leads one of them through an area of great peril to save the other from certain death. When I listened to that part of the story, I found it a very apt analogy for my recent experiences and what I hoped would be my future. I speculated that this might be an answer to my pleas for answers, aimed at the God whose I was uncertain of.

Within the next week or so, I found a way to ask a friend of mine whether he was in a similar position without causing him to be. To my selfish delight, he was. Finally, my misery had company!  I also overcame my reluctance to talk to my brother about it, and he didn’t even seem to realize he’d done anything that might be wrong. I was both relieved and offended, but I kept it to myself; it was a much less unpleasant secret than the old one. He believes that morality as universally understood is evidence of a creator and expressed in various religious texts including the Bible. The alternative sources for morality are evolutionary genetics and social convention, and he found them both unsatisfactory. I haven’t yet researched this for myself but it’s my working hypothesis for now.

Soon a Calvinist coworker attended church with me one Sunday, and I slipped up by revealing that I disagreed with Paul’s thing against women leading men in church functions. He pressed the issue on Facebook and I finally gave in, explaining that I didn’t believe the Bible like I used to. It was nice to express that to someone who would disagree, because it helped me understand my new opinions. On the other hand, I discovered some beliefs of his that I found unsettling, and I also found (and my brother later confirmed) that Christians can be surprisingly resilient in the face of reason. I didn’t know I had seemed so dense when I had been on the other side of the argument. But at least this saved me from the guilt of dragging him into the mess I was in.

My brother explained to me that he had come to terms with his unanswered questions, and I began to hope that I might do the same and thereby reconstruct some semblance of theology. At this point I think I’ve mostly managed that. I believe Jesus was basically right. Moses is an enigma; if Jesus knew what he was talking about he seems to have validated Moses, but their teachings seem at odds with each other. Everyone else’s writings are worth considering but sometimes wrong. I try to glean further explanation of what Jesus said from the rest of the Bible, and from literature in general. But whatever doesn’t further this end given my limitations, for the sake of morality I must not consider it Scripture.


In my previous post, Caveats and Biases, I described my approach to conversation, relationships, and conflict. This post was supposed to explain why any of this matters – why I do not “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But it turned out as more of a big question-mark, a list of things I’m still trying to figure out.

I’ve really been thinking about this out for a few months now, and I’m not done. I started, naturally, from Christian deontology. I’ve never agreed with Calvinism or proper divine command theory, but I believed that we knew fundamental axioms of ethics from the Bible and our consciences. Conclusions such as murder being wrong while capital punishment would be okay were explained by what I understood to be utilitarianism. That always seemed awkward, considering the generally low opinion of utilitarianism among Christians, but I never looked much into ethical theory until recently. Currently, non-absolutist deontology seems the best fit for my beliefs. I don’t yet understand how an absolutist would justify war and self-defense; wouldn’t he be forced into the Society of Friends by his beliefs? Nor do I understand the logic that allows deontology to be non-absolutist.

I consider the best possible welfare for the most possible people as the self-evident goal of ethics, and I believe each person has a duty to promote it. However, I also believe that the naive pursuit of that goal can undermine itself. If a person is in a catch-22 such that he must either violate his fundamental principles or allow havoc to transpire, he must allow the havoc rather than betray his principles, because by betraying principles he weakens his discipline and causes himself to be unprincipled. (The only way out would be to find a good reason to adopt different principles, but I couldn’t trust myself to judge that in the moment.)  Some ends justify some means under some circumstances; more precisely, principles must be prioritized and the higher must always determine action.

But why does duty matter? Why not shirk it and do what I want? I could never be proud of that; I need to believe that I have done well and done right. Additionally, I do believe in grace, faith, and works as they are explained in the Christian Bible, and I believe in Heaven and a hell which annihilates its inhabitants (because I disagree about how to translate Jesus’ words on the subject). I don’t think of the hell part often, but I suppose it’s a subconscious motivator – to desire to do good rather than to do good begrudgingly. That desire is the faith which, without works, is dead; without faith, works are pointless. More about my theology is forthcoming, within a few seconds in fact.