The Lawcourt for Writers (Part 3A): Baptizing the Imagination to Understand Judgments

Having covered parties, pleadings and jurisdiction in my previous installment in this series on the lawcourt for writers, I proceed now to consider the all-important subject of judgments.  But before commencing a constructive treatment of judgments in literature, I need to do a little deconstruction of three common modern preconceptions that make a proper consideration of judgments difficult; to that task I shall confine myself in this post.

The preconceptions are:

(1)    The unreflective hatred of the very notion of judgment, in which our culture is presently awash;

(2)    The idea that judgment is a bad thing and that the Christian’s aim is simply to escape it, which prevails in much of the contemporary western Church;

(3)    The idea that the role of judges must be narrow (in a way it generally was not in the ancient world, and need not be in well-written fictional lawcourts).

A.      The incoherent and hellishly boring condemnation of judgment

’You know Dad – he’s so judgmental.’

‘He is, and I’ve often condemned him for it.’[1]

Much of our culture is allergic to the word “judgment” and its cognates.  Thus, outside the Church (and, not infrequently, within it, too), the biblical text most frequently brandished today is Jesus’s “judge not, that ye be not judged.”[2]  Ironically, the use of this one text in isolation is itself a judgment – a harsh, quite absolute, and breathtakingly sweeping judgment – against the very idea of judgments and those who make them.  The judgment is so commonly pronounced that those who pronounce it almost never see what they’re doing.  Just as fish in the sea don’t notice being wet, those who swim in this judgmental anti-judgmentalism do not notice it.

Denouncing judgment per se is incoherent.  More to the point for writers, though, this judging of judges as judges, this compulsive defrocking, makes for lousy stories – or, at least, very bleak ones.  Consider this quote:

When you’re young, you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally how wise, or powerful or what-the-hell-ever. But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That I was moving on an upward path toward some elevation where – God knows what – I would be justified, or even condemned – a verdict anyway. I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day – and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was an endless argument with oneself – this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench.[3]

“Justified, or even condemned – a verdict anyway.”  The very best stories will create suspense as to whether its characters will rise to, or be given the grace of, a comedic end – or fall to a tragic one.  Empty the bench and this suspense becomes impossible, and your characters’ lives, a bunch of hopelessly boring, meaningless, solipsistic hells.  What C. S. Lewis wrote about the refusal to love because “well, it’s a hard world after all,” applies equally to the refusal to be judged: The alternative to tragedy, or the risk of tragedy, is damnation.[4]

B.      Fleeing judgment, fleeing salvation

Why, then, are vast tracts of the Church so intent on escaping judgment?

I haven’t done any serious diagnostic work to answer that question, but speculatively, I’d say there is one bad reason, and one better one. The bad reason is that the Church has acquired the broader culture’s allergy to judgment.  The better one is that a number of biblical texts[5] seem to indicate that judgment is a bad thing, and avoiding it, a good thing.  Since these texts occur more frequently in the New Testament, and the ones demanding judgment occur more frequently in the Old, the texts wind up getting pitted against one another, and the New Testament texts win.

That kind of error isn’t limited to bad theologians.  No less an imaginative theologian than C. S. Lewis makes this exact mistake in his chapter on judgment in Reflections on the Psalms.  He says the characteristic old covenant posture in the lawcourt is that of civil plaintiff, demanding that God judge the defendant pagan nations; the characteristic Christian posture, that of criminal defendant pleading for mercy. Then he pronounces the superiority of the latter picture.[6]

While the distinction between covenant-member-as-civil plaintiff and covenant-member-as-criminal defendant can, if made properly, serve a legitimate pedagogical purpose, Lewis’s near-absolute separation of the two pictures, and his pronouncement that the latter is better, simply cannot be sustained in the face of God’s revelation.  First, there is the sheer volume of texts in which judgment, far from being bad news, is very good news indeed:

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;

let the sea make a noise, and all that therein is.

Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it; then shall

all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord.

For he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth; and

with righteousness to judge the world, and the peoples with his truth.[7]

The foregoing isn’t an isolated outburst of praise to God as Judge.  All over the scriptures, under both the old and new covenants, when the people of God break out into song, His judgments are extolled.  Thus Hannah:

Talk no more so very proudly,

let not arrogance come from your mouth;

for the LORD is a God of knowledge,

and by him actions are weighed.

The bows of the mighty are broken,

but the feeble bind on strength.[8]

Ditto Mary, at the dawning of the new covenant:

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

he has brought down the mighty from their thrones

and exalted those of humble estate;

he has filled the hungry with good things,

and the rich he has sent away empty.[9]

And thus sings Zechariah about the coming fulfillment of old covenant promises in the new:

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has visited and redeemed his people

and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

that we should be saved from our enemies

and from the hand of all who hate us . . . [10]

No wonder, then, that Paul goes so far as to say that God’s judging the secrets of men is part of his gospel,[11] and that His judging the world is a good thing[12] – taking into account the entirety of the biblical record Paul’s view is the rule, not the exception.  So given the universal guilt of mankind in the heavenly lawcourt, how exactly is it that judgment can be good news for anybody?

One of the most succinct statements of the answer scripture gives comes from the prophet Micah:

Rejoice not over me, O my enemy;

when I fall, I shall rise;

when I sit in darkness,

the LORD will be a light to me.

I will bear the indignation of the LORD

because I have sinned against him,

until he pleads my cause

and executes judgment for me.

He will bring me out to the light;

I shall look upon his vindication.

Then my enemy will see,

and shame will cover her who said to me,

“Where is the LORD your God?”[13]

Here is a picture of someone – an admittedly guilty someone – being sorely oppressed by an enemy.  For relief, he cannot simply ask the Court to acquit him; he needs judgment against his enemy.  Thus, he needs to enter the lawcourt as plaintiff.  The trouble is, his own guilt has stripped him of standing to plead his own cause.  So he humbly acknowledges his guilt and lack of standing, and submits to whatever chastisements the Judge deems fitting.  But again, he needs more than simple acquittal; so he needs someone with standing to plead his cause for him, so that he may get judgment against his enemy.  Only when he has received that judgment will he stand fully vindicated; before judgment issues in his favor against his enemy, salvation has not really come to his house.  No judgment, no salvation.

I’ll defer a fuller consideration of actual literary examples to the next installment in this series, but here I’ll mark that in its broad outlines, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion tracks Micah 7:8-10 quite closely.  The Noldor and Edain do not need an abstract or isolated declaration of innocence; they need deliverance from (read: an executed judgment against) a dreadful, merciless Enemy.

C.      The deistic American Judge

One question remains: what kind of judge could thus deliver them?

Whatever else we might say about a judge sufficient to that task, we can say pretty confidently that he cannot be a judge strictly limited by the separation of legislative, executive and judicial powers, as contemplated by Article III of the U.S. Constitution.  He will resemble much more closely the kind of Judges who judged Israel – not robed and dispassionate interpreters of legal codes, but deliverers who actively executed just decrees against encroaching enemies.

Those of us raised in the United States are so used to heaping praise on the concept of the separation of powers that it can be difficult to take in such a totally different view of judges and judging; I remember being totally baffled and bewildered the first time I read through the Old Testament book of Judges.  It isn’t as though there is no wisdom in limiting fallible human judges the way our nation’s founding documents do.  But if we let that picture of the judge – an essentially deistic picture – color our view of all judges, both our theology and our literary imagination will be impoverished.  We ought not be so haunted by the specter of the activist judge, running roughshod over our elected officials, leaving in his path (among other horrors) the dismembered corpses of unborn babies, that we insist that judging always be a strictly circumscribed enterprise, and that all activists be summarily impeached.  For while it is true that Morgoth is a lawless activist judge, it is equally true that Manwë is a lawful one.


[1] Frasier, Season 1, episode 15 (“You Can’t Tell a Crook by His Cover”).

[2] St Matthew 7:1.

[3] Arthur Miller, After the Fall, in The Portable Arthur Miller 262 (2003).

[4] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves 121 (Mariner 1971)(1960).

[5] For example, St John 5:24, 29.

[6] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms 10-12 (Mariner 1964)(1958).

[7] Psalm 96:11-13 (Coverdale).

[8] 1 Samuel 2:3-4 (ESV).

[9] St Luke 1:51-53 (ESV).

[10] St Luke 1:68-71 (ESV).

[11] Romans 2:16.

[12] See, e.g., Romans 3:6

[13] Micah 7:8-10 (ESV).

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Posted on September 10, 2011, in C. S. Lewis, Christianity, David Mitchel, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lawcourt, Myth, Story, Teaching, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Biblically, the distinction between two types of judges (circumscribed and omnicompotent) is accurate. Literature does not presume that only one kind is legitimate. But the Constitution does, and for good reason, since human beings actually capable of being trusted with the larger role are in rather short supply.

    Separation of powers is also a biblical concept, going back to the prohibition of one man holding both the kingship and the priesthood. Only one man is qualified to be both: the Son of Man. Until He agrees to accept an appointment to the Supreme Court, I’m not going to modify my opposition to activist judges!

  2. Don, to be clear, the last paragraphs are not a shift to political commentary; I wasn’t taking shots at the restraint appropriate for Article III judges (or state judges, for that matter). The Federalists seemed to think the document they championed closely circumscribed the judge’s role, and they were right (even if the anti-Federalists were also right in predicting the abuses of judicial power that we’ve seen).

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