The Narcissism of Heaven: A Review of Smith’s Heaven in the American Imagination

Heaven in the American ImaginationGary Scott Smith in his book, Heaven in the American Imagination (Oxford, 2011) has written a detailed, in-depth, and far-reaching study of the history of Heaven in American thought. Beginning with the Puritans, Smith highlights in each chapter a different era (Victorian, Pre-war, Civil War, etc.), documents that era’s historical distinctives (wars, death rates, major events), spotlights its notable theologians (ranging from Jonathan Edwards, to D.L. Moody, to Billy Graham, to Mitch Albom), and then discusses how the people of that era, given their history and influences, formulated the doctrine of Heaven. In this way, Smith seeks, through alternating survey and analysis, to document the changing perception of the afterlife that has followed the progression of the American experiment. On the whole, Smith’s book contained many historical gems as well as some interesting theological observations. Unfortunately, these insights were often rendered opaque by Smith’s oversaturation of data. The result was a book with good information—if you have the patience to mine it out, that is.

Historical study, then, is perhaps the best term to describe what Scott has done, and while Smith’s history is often interesting, this is also a weakness of the book. For example, Smith’s chapter-by-chapter structure is fairly rigid. Each chapter has a survey of history, a survey of theologians, a section discussing perceptions of afterlife, one on perceptions of hell, and a conclusion. When Smith discusses the work of theologians in the given time period, he fills his paragraphs with quotations—often of only one or two words at a time—to such a degree that one finds the theologians blurring together. Quotes, in other words, were not used either economically or very efficiently. The net result of Smith’s structuring and quote-density is that Heaven in the American Imagination is often tedious to read.

Still, within the tedium there are real gems. Many of these are from the descriptions of the various time periods he examines. For instance, we learn that the perception of Heaven during the Civil War was uniquely framed by the tragic loss of life: Heaven was the place where you were reunited with those loved ones. Another fascinating section documented the conceptions of Heaven as formulated by America’s black slaves—whether it be as a place of peace from their labor, or for justice from their masters. Or, to learn that Harriet Beecher Stowe was partly responsible for the myth that deceased children become guardian angels when they die. These kinds of historical connections (and developments) were some of the most compelling parts of the book.

As I have intimated, however, the forest of ideas is sometimes lost for the trees of historical detail, and to get at the real analysis of the book takes a little ingenuity. So, according to my analysis of Smith’s book, I believe there are four things (generally) to observe about the history of Heaven in American thought.

#1. There is always an orthodox line. Throughout the history of Christianity in America, there has always been a consistent strain of Christian orthodoxy which upholds the traditional understanding of the afterlife: that it is attained by faith in Christ alone, that there is a real Heaven and a real Hell, that choices in this life determine one’s ultimate destiny. Furthermore, along with this strain there is a consistent voice which reminds us that Heaven is about God more than it is about us (the object of Heaven is relationship to and union with the Trinity). This orthodox line is a refreshing reminder that truth, though it sometimes seems dormant, continues to thrive.

#2. Alongside the orthodox line there is always a popular perception of Heaven. This popular perception was present even in the earliest founders of America, whose Deist beliefs led them to think that doing good and being a good person would warrant acceptance into Heaven. In one form or another, this perception of Heaven has also always been present in American thought. Thus, disconnected from Christian orthodoxy, Americans felt liberated to populate and shape the afterlife after their own desires. Rather than being about a God they may or may not believe in, Heaven became more and more about us.

#3. Between the orthodox and the popular line, a host of ‘theologians’ have attempted to bridge the gap by accommodating Christian theology to popular tastes. Hell is softened, Heaven is reinforced by theologically whitewashing the desires of the masses, and the entry requirements are reduced (good behavior is enough for some, others think everybody gets saved, and so on). Fuzzy theological books about visits to heaven are some of the best examples of this accommodation—especially because they emphasize all the pleasure and peace of Heaven, while reducing the need for obligations in the present. In short, these popular accounts of ‘Heaven’ are most often wonderful opiates against real action or reflection.

#4. There are four historical features of Heaven, and one modern one. The oldest and most orthodox perception is that Heaven is a place of divine contemplation. We are exposed to the Trinity, and worship and enjoy the Godhead forever. The nature of this enjoyment, while described in various ways (harps, singing, worship, contemplation, etc.) is never truly described, but, when in doubt, Christians have retreated to superlatives (‘unending,’ ‘wondrous,’ ‘incomprehensible,’ etc.). The Puritan foundation of American theology helped to cement this perception of Heaven, but as the Puritan influence faded, Americans began to import into Heaven desires that were framed by their times. For some, heavenly rewards were the focus of Heaven (those who suffered, lost children, were slaves, feared survival). For others, heavenly reunion was the key (especially during wartime, but also when infant mortality was high). For still others, Heaven was the place where we fulfill our talents and abilities (perfect knowledge for the Puritans, but work for later believers, and singing, dancing, skill-usage, and thrill-seeking for 20th century Americans). Finally, and most recently, heaven has been conceived as a place of therapeutic healing, where our anxieties regarding self-identity are resolved in the peace of inner harmony.

The Hell of Self-Obsession...

The Hell of Self-Obsession…

So, what does all this mean? My own assessment is this: that the more narcissistic we have become as a culture, the more we have lost out on the reality of Heaven. Focusing on ourselves, we have cheapened Heaven with our cut-rate desires. This must necessarily be the case, because Heaven and narcissism exist in an inverse relationship, and we must continually ask, “Is Heaven about God, or is Heaven about me?” If the focus on Heaven is about what I get, and what I experience, then I’m on the wrong track. If the focus is on what God is doing (and by proxy on experiencing Him), then I am on the right track. And the line that is drawn between the two is the line called narcissism. Seen this way, the history of American theology appears to be the history of increasing, and increasingly blessed and accommodated, narcissism. Heaven goes from being God’s gift, to the reward we are owed for good lives. Hell shifts from being a place of revealed, final judgment, to being an inconvenient theological pariah. Heaven shifts from being the place where we encounter God, to the place where we get rewards, meet people we want to see, and exercise our skills and talents. Are these features inherently untrue? By no means—but they cannot be the focus of Heaven, and if they are, then they are idols. And the fullness of our narcissistic fruit may be bearing a crop even now—Heaven is the place of ultimate self-fulfillment and healing, where it is entirely about us, and only marginally (if at all) about God. Hell, the very thing that judges our narcissism, is then fully eclipsed. We are left, then, with a Heaven that is for us, about us, and leaves nothing to trouble us at all. It is a place that reminds me of something George MacDonald once said, “The one principle of Hell is: I am my own.” Hell, indeed, is narcissism extended to eternity. Heaven, by contrast, is the opposite: it is about someone and something else; it is eternal self-sacrifice and eternal renewal in relationship with the Triune God.

All in all, Smith’s book was an interesting and informative read, although it was bogged down by its organization and oversaturation with detail. Nevertheless, I came away with a renewed appreciation of the Puritans, of Jonathan Edwards (who I now suspect really is America’s greatest-ever theologian!) and some fascinating details about the Civil War period in American History. I also developed some interesting perceptions about American thought—chief among them was this: that while Americans are saturated with desires, they are also starving for significance. As a consequence of their hunger, they have consistently projected their confusion into the afterlife for over 200 years. What, then, is Heaven in the American imagination? For some (the orthodox, a small group) is the presence of God. For others (most everyone else), it is the projection into eternity of the fulfillment of our temporary desires. And that is a discouraging revelation indeed.

Heaven in the American Imagination: 4.5 stars for content, but only 2 for readability and organization. Final judgment: 3.5.

The Two Sins of Judas

Dante’s vision of the final circle of Hell was Satan eternally chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius (three greatest traitors in history).

Judas, right after Peter, stands out as the most compelling figure among the disciples, and, indeed, as one of the most mysterious personalities of the whole New Testament.

Part of the mystery stems from lack of information: there is little that we know about Judas other than his betrayal. What we do know makes his betrayal seem even more startling. After all, he was one of the twelve. When Jesus healed, preached, and exorcised demons, Judas was a direct witness. When Jesus sent the twelve out to preach and empowered them to cast out demons and heal the sick, Judas went out, preached the kingdom, cast out demons, and healed the sick. Judas, we must never forget, was a man who knew and experienced the power of Jesus firsthand.

And yet, for all this, Judas’s motivations remain shrouded in mystery. How could a person who knew Jesus so well, who experienced Jesus’ power, betray him in the end? Could such a person really betray Jesus merely for money? If it was really all about money and greed, then why did he take his own life?

Judas is compelling because he figures so prominently in the narrative of Jesus’ life. He is mysterious because we know so little about his life and motivations. But, in addition to these, Judas is also one of the most unsettling figures in the Bible because his betrayal presents us with a theodicy. How can God ordain that Judas should betray Jesus, then condemn him for doing what he had no choice but to do? Jesus states clearly at Matthew 26:24 that “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.” Jesus’ death was prophesied, but woe to the man who betrayed him! And this makes us ask: If Judas was clearly destined to betray Jesus, does that also mean he was destined to die as he did? Was the aftermath of his betrayal bound by the same necessity as his betrayal? Is Judas a special case in the history of salvation—the one man God could never, and would never, save? Did God, who destined Judas to betray Jesus, also destine Judas for eternal damnation?

I propose to you that the answer to those questions is “no.” That Judas, while destined to betray Jesus, was not of necessity bound to die because of it. In fact, when we examine the story of Judas in the Gospel of Matthew we discover a series of curious parallels that force us to ask a critical question. The parallels are between Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial, and the critical question is: What is it that separates these two men? The answer, I believe, is in two sins Judas commits, implicitly, between his betrayal and death. They are sins worth examining both to answer for Judas’s untimely death, and because they are sins into which every Christ-follower is equally prone to fall.

So worthless, in light of eternity…

The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel that treats significantly with the details of Judas’s last night on earth. Curiously, within that narrative the actions of Judas and Peter are directly paralleled four distinct times. To set the stage, we must remember that Judas has agreed in Matthew 26:14-16 to betray Jesus into the hands of the Pharisees for a sum of 30 pieces of silver. (As an aside, Judas’s decision to betray Jesus falls on the heels of the ‘waste’ of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus at Bethany. Notably, all the disciples take offence at the waste, so Judas isn’t singled out. Nevertheless, we are led, by virtue of editing, to conclude that Judas is the only one to do something about it. This, of course, is merely speculation.)

This brings us to the first parallel between Judas and Peter. During the Last Supper, Jesus makes a prediction. He says (26:21), “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” He is, of course, speaking of Judas. Then, after supper, while on their way to the Mount of Olives, Jesus makes another prediction. This time he says (26:31), “This very night you will all fall away on account of me.” Not only would one disciple betray Jesus, the whole group would fall away that very evening. It was, to be sure, not a very good night to be a disciple.

The second parallel is in the focusing of these predictions, because both Peter and Judas present themselves to be identified as prime culprits. First, right after Jesus predicts his betrayal, the disciples seek to exonerate themselves, each saying, “Surely not I, Lord?” When Judas offers his excuse in verse 25, Jesus responds by saying, “Yes, it is you.” Then, when Jesus has predicted the falling away of all his disciples, Peter responds, on behalf of the group, and says (26:33), “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.” To which Jesus replies that Peter would disown him three times that very night. In verse 35, observe, Peter restates his conviction, “And all the other disciples said the same.”

The kiss would help soldiers identify the correct man in the dark. (They were afraid to arrest Jesus during the day.)

These, then, are the first two parallels: a general prediction (betrayal), followed by specific identification (Judas), and a general prediction (falling away), followed by another specific identification (Peter). Both predictions, of course, and both betrayals, come true. And this, indeed, is the third parallel in Matthew’s Gospel, because Jesus’ predictions are fulfilled. After the disciples arrive in the Garden of Gethsemane, Judas arrives with the soldiers and betrays Jesus with his kiss. Shortly after this, while Jesus is on trial, Peter disowns Jesus three times outside in the courtyard. It seems clear, from the editing of the text, that we are meant to see Peter and Judas in parallel to one another.

But there is a fourth parallel drawn between these disciples, and in order to understand this parallel we must also understand the passage Jesus quotes to his disciples when he predicts their falling away. There, in Matthew 26:31, Jesus quotes from Zechariah 13:7, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”

Zechariah’s prophecies figure prominently in Matthew’s account of the passion of Jesus, but the quotation of the oracle from chapter 13:7-9 is one of the most prominent instances. An initial clue to help us understand this passage will be to know that in the Old Testament the language of ‘shepherd’ and ‘sheep’ is frequently used in the place of ‘King’ and ‘people.’ Here, then, in the passage Jesus has quoted, God has promised to strike a shepherd (His King), and scatter His sheep (the people of Israel) as judgment. In Jesus’ quotation, Jesus has envisioned himself as the shepherd and his disciples as the sheep; he was about to be struck, and they were about to be scattered. For both Jesus (in Matthew) and Israel (in Zechariah) it is a striking of judgment—Christ, in other words, is about to take the judgment of God, on our behalf, upon himself.

This process of saving judgment is something the prophet Zechariah speaks about as well, and we find, in Zechariah 12:10 (a passage immediately preceding the one Jesus quotes), the following striking oracle:

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.

The shepherd, Jesus, is about to be struck, or pierced, and the people of God will look upon the one who had been pierced and mourn as a response. This reveals our fourth, and most stunning parallel between Peter and Judas, because both of them look on the one they have pierced and mourn. In Matthew 26:75, immediately after Peter has denied Jesus, he “went outside and wept bitterly.” And right after this passage, in Matthew 27:3, Matthew records that “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse.” Both Peter and Judas mourn bitterly for what they have done to their master. They both fulfill Zechariah’s prophecy.

Painting by James Jacques Tissot

Peter’s grief was real.

But it is here that the parallels end, for while Peter lives on to be restored by his master, Judas takes his own life. And let it be clear, at this point, from within the darkness of betrayal, that neither man has a real advantage. Both men have had their master name the betrayal/denial in them before it came to pass. Both men have actually betrayed their Lord and Master. And both men experience remorse for what they’ve done. By all accounts and purposes, and to the extent that Matthew documents this story, Judas and Peter are, at this point, in the same dismal boat.

What is it, then, that sets Peter and Judas apart? Both men betrayed their master—why does one die, and one live? Indeed, this question becomes more imperative when we remember that we also, like Peter and Judas, sometimes deny and betray Jesus—what, in the end, is the real difference? If we commit this sin of Judas and Peter, are we equally doomed to die an eternal death as a result?

The answer is “no.” We are not doomed, but we must beware two sins that Judas commits at this point, because it is these two sins—those that follow his betrayal—that condemn Judas to an eternity in hell.

For a moment, let’s return to the passage Jesus quoted from Zechariah 13, because that passage will inform our understanding here. There, the same oracle from which Jesus quotes also describes the ultimate effect of God’s divine scattering. There, in Zechariah 13:9, it is revealed that the result of this scattering will be to refine and purify God’s people. The remnant who survive this scattering, who survive the remorse of witnessing the one they have pierced, will be revealed as God’s holy people, the purified foundation of Christ’s new nation. Remember again, it was not merely Peter and Judas who betrayed Jesus that night, but the entire group of disciples that abandoned him. They were all scattered, they were all filled with remorse, but only eleven survived. What set Judas apart was not that he had remorse (which was predicted by Jesus through Zechariah), but the way he dealt with his remorse. And it is precisely here that Judas committed his two sins.

The first sin Judas commits is the sin of despair, and to despair is to fixate on the present hopelessness to such a degree that you remove God from the influence of your life. Emotionally, you close off the world, close out the future, and judge all of eternity in light of a present moment. Judas determined that, for him, there was no hope.

I find this image sadly fitting…

As Judas fixates in this way, he sections off outside influences. Nobody can reach him. Nobody can get through. There are no words that can reach a heart that has given itself to despair because that heart is becoming increasingly self-referential. Even subconsciously, the heart thinks, “I am the only one. There is no one who can help me. There is no one who can save me. I am alone, and alone I have no hope.” Judas had experienced the Lord; Judas had then betrayed the Lord. And if Judas knew (as we must presume he did) that the Lord was his only hope, then Judas believed he had betrayed his own hope. His logic, in a twisted way, was sound. It is the logic of a world without God. It is flawed because it doesn’t account for God.

To put this another way, Judas’s first sin is the taking Good Friday without Easter Sunday. Judas got stuck in a moment of time, and never looked to the larger picture. To this you might immediately respond, “How could Judas take Easter Sunday? He takes his life before the resurrection happens!” But that is precisely my point. Judas stops, he fixates, on Good Friday. His remorse for what he has done is the right response, but he holds on to his remorse, lets it control him, and gives in, in the end, to despair. In this, Judas is so busy looking at himself and how he feels, that he closes himself off from the world around him. And ultimately, that is precisely what his suicide is: a closing off of the world, a denial of everything but the experience of his own self. Judas took Good Friday as the final word and didn’t wait for Easter Sunday.

That this is a lesson for us should be obvious. We cannot allow our momentary despair to overshadow the work of God. We must always maintain perspective, always remember that God is good and has a plan for us. We must always remember that for every Good Friday, when things seem darkest, there is always an Easter Sunday around the corner where God’s light will shine on us again—if we have but the patience to wait! Therefore the sin of Judas is this: to fixate on our circumstances, to close off the voice of God and the voice of history and the voice of the Church in favor of our own thoughts. It is to become self-referential when we ought to be looking for forgiveness. It is to judge our present circumstances as absolute, as if there were no future possible for us. It is, in effect, to take the world as all that is, and deny the possibility of God’s goodness and providence toward us.

The second sin of Judas is the sin of power, in particular with the taking of matters into his own hands. Judas doesn’t wait on God’s power; instead he acts in his own power. Potentially, there are hints of this in Judas’s betrayal. Some have hypothesized that Judas, knowing the power of Jesus, betrayed him as a way to force him to act. All the disciples, remember, were looking for an earthly kingdom—was Judas’s betrayal his own earthly way of forcing Jesus to exert his divine power against the Romans? The hypothesis fits what we know of Judas’s character, but even more than that speculation, we see this taking of matters into his own hands most clearly in Judas’s suicide. There, rather than waiting for God to dispense His divine justice, or wait for God to reveal His ultimate plan, Judas took justice into his own hands, literally. Judas determined to mete out his own punishment, determined what he deserved, and dealt himself the killing blow. He was to himself judge, jury, and executioner.

Framed this way, the sin of power, of taking matters into our own hands, is perhaps one of the oldest of all sins. After all, if only Adam and Eve had waited a short while longer, they could have asked God what He thought about the fruit and the snake. Seen this way, taking matters into our own hands is the essence of all sin—it is the refusal to admit God’s power, to wait on His will, and to allow God’s sovereign reign. We commit it when we grow impatient with God, when we try to work our own deals. God says to us, clearly, “Wait for Sarah,” and we go and find ourselves a Hagar and mess it all up.

Peter denies Jesus but is redeemed. Judas betrays Jesus and is condemned. Alike in their betrayal, they are unalike in their outcomes, and what separates Judas and Peter are the sins of despair and power. In the end, it is these two sins that commit Judas to Hell; not his betrayal. I even suspect that if Judas had stayed his hand for two more days, he might have been restored and forgiven by the risen Lord. He, like Paul, might have been the corrupt apostle made more glorious by the redemption of the master. Instead, Judas is in Hell. But he is not there because God chose him for Hell before time began, but rather because he was self-referential, because he allowed no inbreaking of God’s greater plan, and he, from that dismal vantage, impatiently took his own life into his own hands. In fact, together these two sins—despair and power—are the sins that create hell itself. They represent a sinister and pervasive logic: “This world is all there is. My power is all I have.” By such thoughts is Hell sustained. God forgive us all for thinking them.

The mystery of Judas has long pricked the imagination of the Church, and followers of Jesus have striven to make sense of Judas. The apostles, of course, felt no such compunction—they were content to condemn him in blanket uniformity, and after his replacement in Acts 1 he is never mentioned again. But later followers of Jesus were compelled by the mystery of Judas; he remained an alluring figure. Partly because of this there was even an early, heretical, “Gospel of Judas” which attempted to resolve the theodicy by framing Judas as the hero of the story, doing Jesus’ will by inaugurating the cross. But while the disciples dismiss Judas as a thief and say no more, and early Gnostics invent stories to make sense of Judas, neither of these provides a satisfactory answer to the complexity of Judas.

Of necessity, much of Judas’s life and choices will remain a mystery. We will never, this side of eternity, know the real motivation for his choice to betray his Lord. And yet perhaps there is more to the story of Judas for our benefit—not, as with those early Gnostics, in a secret history where Judas reveals to us some long-hidden truth, but rather in the content of Judas’s story as recorded in the gospels. And from that content we see these truths: that we may betray, deny, or fall away from our Lord, but we must not despair, closing God off from our lives. And no matter what happens, under whatever circumstances, we must always trust in the power of God, rejecting the temptation to take matters into our own hands. We must reject self-reference and patiently embrace God’s power. Like Peter, and unlike Judas, we must in all things wait on God.

Raise the Red Lantern: A Study of Hell on Earth

In chapter 14 of C.S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost he documents four demonic responses to the reality of being trapped in hell; one demon advises pure rage as a way to cope, another advises complete inaction, a third advises imitating heaven within hell, and the fourth, Satan himself, advises the hurting of others; if our own existence is trapped, he reasons, then perhaps we can drag a few others down with us.  And this, I might add, is a perfect picture of envy.

Curiously, there could hardly be a more apt foil to examine Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film, Raise the Red Lantern.  And yet, while I don’t propose that Zhang Yimou or Su Tong (author of the source material) had read Lewis—or Milton for that matter—I do suspect that Milton, Lewis, and Tong have tapped into something common to the human experience.  Rage, inaction, imitation, and envy are four extremely human recourses to the experience of hell on earth.

Raise the Red Lantern is the story of four ‘sister’ wives who struggle for petty power within a home controlled by a set of mysterious, traditional rules.  Among these, and the source of the film’s title, is the tradition that each night the master chooses the bed of the wife with whom he will sleep.  When she has been chosen, red lanterns are lit in her room for the household to see; a consequence of the lit lanterns is that the ‘chosen’ wife wields the greatest influence in the house.  We are introduced to this world by Songlian, the household master’s new fourth wife, played superbly by Gong Li.  Four ‘seasonal’ periods in the film unveil both the characters and motives of the wives as well as the rules and their terrible consequences.

It would be easy to short-circuit the deeper implications of the film by focusing on the gender differences—that is, by reading this story as a war between the wives and the male master.  Yimou, I believe, is at pains to direct us away from this.  The master’s face is always obscured; he is shown from behind, or at a distance, or through a veil.  He is an important player in the household, yet his life is not the focus of the film in the slightest.  In fact, his facelessness renders him more a part of the scenery of the house than an active member; he is as much a part of this household prison as the cold stone walls.

The house itself is a potent screen against which Yimou casts his events.  Bleakness is the overarching visual motif.  The house, though large, shows signs of decaying age.  Colorless stone abounds.  And upon this cold, hard canvas Yimou causes two things to be highlighted.  First, in the daily ceremony of choosing and elaborate lighting of the lanterns that follows, the vibrant red casts the powerful glow of favoritism against the bleak walls of the house.  We are made to feel both the warmth of the master’s choice and the chill of his neglect.  Second, Yimou’s staging keenly draws our attention to the four women.  Elaborate sets and costumes would have drawn our attention away from the four women themselves, but as it stands we are compelled to gaze upon their faces and consider their characters.

Furthermore, within the world of Raise the Red Lantern suggestion is the storytelling method of choice.  Things are not shown so much as they are implied, and this is one of the great strengths of the film.  We do not need to see inside the mysterious tower where disobedient wives find their demise to know what goes on there—and, in fact, our imaginations are far better sources of material than anything that Yimou could have contrived.  Suggestion is not limited to the visual, however.  When a wife is chosen for the evening one of her ‘perks’ is that she is given a curious foot massage—her feet are pounded by miniature hammers that have bells in them.  The bells ring loud enough for the sound to be heard throughout the house.  On her first night in the house, Songlian, like us, finds this phenomenon strange.  But as the movie progresses we come to see that the pleasure of the foot massage is not in the massage, but in the knowledge that the other wives are not receiving it.  We experience Songlian’s discomfort when she, like us, must hear the sound of favoritism in the bells coming from a sister wife’s chamber, and we later witness her delicious enjoyment as she relishes in the fact that she has been chosen.

Truly, the greatest pleasure in this household is the taking of pleasure from others.  It is, in Miltonic language, the Satanic response to an existential hell.  And in fact, I believe that this house in Raise the Red Lantern seems to stand for that very existential helplessness experienced by much of humanity.  Within it, the world is seen as an inescapable prison of mysterious rules and painful consequences.  The house is our world, closed; we inhabit this home throughout the many seasons of life.  There are rules in our universe which we break at our own risk.  And the wives, though taking particular pleasure in envy, embody the various responses to which we have recourse.

The first and eldest wife is a picture of inaction.  The lanterns in her home are never lit because of her age, and she has seemingly resigned herself to her fate.  Accustomed to her position of powerlessness, she is barely a participant in the household goings on.  The third wife is a picture of imitation—a former opera singer, she (also the image of the caged songbird) fills the house with her songs, fills her room with images of the opera, and is the only wife who seeks to bring some of the outside world into the home with her.  She even does this through her illicit relationship with the family doctor.  Her way of coping with hell is to try and recreate a little heaven within it.

The second wife plays the Satanic role in the film—through false pretence she makes it her goal to hurt others.  She despises the first wife because of the son that she had given to the master, despises the third wife for the same reason, and sees in Gong Li a threat as she herself ages.  She is the silent power player in the film, working through envy to destroy the others around her.

And Gong Li, the fourth wife and our guide, is a picture of rage.  She comes to loathe the household rules and the members of the house.  She becomes petty in her rage, hurting her serving girl, squabbling with the other wives unnecessarily, and ultimately bringing about two deaths by her actions.  In the end, her uncontrolled rage is the very cause of her demise.

Raise the Red Lantern is a bleak but beautiful film that explores human responses to despairing captivity.  It is beautiful in its storytelling, cinematography, editing, and performance, but bleak and terrible in it’s portrayal of human despair and sin—which, I might add, is a perfectly appropriate marriage.