Hope for Cruella

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August 06, 2017

It was about three o’clock on the afternoon of her wedding day that I first saw my daughter in her white dress. Mary Olive was standing in the garth with her bridesmaids and the photographer. To that point, I had not been allowed to see so much as a picture of the wedding dress. Now I was inside the Cathedral fluffing up cushions for the service when I got a text from Julie saying I had permission to come outside. I walked out and there Mary Olive was, radiant—a vision almost—the same child I had held my arms just moments from the womb. When she saw me looking at her in the garth, her face changed and I saw her love for her father on it, as she saw mine for her. A moment of truth, that was.

The next day, Sunday, I traveled with Dr. Snapp to Sewanee for SUMMA, our week of high school theological debate camp. Monday morning found me in a funk, dwelling on the wedding. Tuesday, campers came pouring in and, with forty-nine names to memorize, I turned my attention to the task at hand. This was good medicine for post-matrimonial depression.

The campers’ first night, when I announced the topic for debate, they thought I was pulling their leg.

Resolved: In Christ there is hope for Cruella De Vil.

I wasn’t joking.

In SUMMA debates we use Lincoln Douglas format. Each debater holds the floor for thirteen minutes total, plus three minutes to ask questions of the other. The debate opens with a six-minute argument called the “affirmative constructive.” This debater must tell us why there is hope in Christ for Cruella De Vil. The negative debater will then have seven minutes to explain why there is not. Then each takes turns to rebut the other’s arguments. Thomas Aquinas began arguments by listing the strongest objections he could think of to his own position, and then he would say sed contra (“but on the other hand”) and make his case. In debate, our opponents name the objections for us.

This year at SUMMA we invited a superb guest keynote speaker, Leah Libresco, who explained that in a good debate there are two ways that we can win. I can win by persuading my opponent of the truth in my position, or I can win by being persuaded of the truth in his or hers. Leah had grown up a committed atheist. At Yale, she joined a philosophical debate society. One day in a moment of truth she realized she was loved by God. That was a big win for Leah.

Resolved, there is hope in Christ for Cruella De Vil.

 I believe that, so this morning I will be arguing the affirmative.

Like Aquinas, I will start with objections to my own position. Cruella is faithless and malicious: a cruel boss, a thief who kills other peoples’ puppies for their spotted fur. She’ll do anything for fur. I worship fur, she says. In the Bible, Elijah warns Jezebel that all the evil she has done will be repaid in full by God. Cruella is Jezebel in fur. In arguing the affirmative for hope, it would seem that I’m not giving faith and love their due.

Resolved, even for Cruella there is hope in Christ.

Now I must define my terms for the debate. Three are crucial: “Cruella,” “hope,” and “in Christ.”

For “Cruella,” just think of the worst person that you’ve ever met. Karl Barth describes such a person this way:

God is for [her]; but [she] is against God. God is gracious to her; but she is ungrateful to God. God receives her; but she withdraws from God. God forgives her sins; but she repeats them as though they were not forgiven.

Ms. De Vil is well named: Barth terms such a person devilish, “possessed and rule by Satan.” That is my definition of Cruella. My claim is hope in Christ for such a soul.

For “hope,” I take my definition from Aquinas, who writes: “The object of hope is a future good, arduous but possible to attain.” The object of hope in Christ, according to Aquinas, is nothing less than eternal happiness in God. This means that Christian hope is heavenly. Aquinas explains why we must look to heaven for our hope’s fulfillment:

We can be partially happy in this life, but not completely and truly. For there are many ills that cannot be avoided in this life: ignorance of mind, unbalanced attachments, all sorts of bodily pains. And we also desire the good things we have to last whereas in this life they pass away. Indeed life itself passes away, though by nature we desire it and wish it to last and shrink from death.

Earthly happiness slips through our fingers. My vision of Mary Olive in her wedding gown lasted just a moment. It is only a memory from now on. The same is true of the apostles’ vision on the Mount of Transfiguration—a memory enshrined in scripture.

My hope for Cruella is for her more than momentary happiness in God. That is an “arduous” possibility to say the least. Sed contra (on the other hand) it is written in the Gospel according to St. Luke: “Nothing shall be impossible with God.” Those words are an angel’s speaking to the Virgin Mary. Pregnancy would have seemed impossible for the cousins Elisabeth and Mary, but suddenly they both find themselves with child. Strange things are possible with God.

That brings us to a final definition. Hope “in Christ” is the hope that was born on Christmas, that died on Good Friday, and rose on Easter. Christmas widens hope. Good Friday deepens it. Easter displays its invincibility. The moment of truth, that was.

Christmas pins our hope on Jesus and populates it with all those characters whose hopes he raised throughout the gospels. That group is a breakfast club times twenty: rough, tough shepherds, eastern astrologers, roman military officers, Samaritan heretics, crooked tax collectors, doubters, adulterers, rich bankers, poor debtors, anti-Christians, and crazy people. Rather than a spiritual elite, in the gospels we meet a motley crew, all the way down to that thief on the cross to whom Jesus offered hope for paradise, no questions asked.

Good Friday is an intervention. Defining hope, the word “arduous” was used. In Christ, intervention was an arduous experience: God’s dive down to the bottom of the human barrel where debts are collected and crimes punished. According to scripture, God himself assumes the burden of those debts and crimes. “Christ died for the ungodly,” St. Paul declares, taking the affirmative.  

The older we get the better we understand. All it takes is loving someone whose life has broken bad. “Love is like grace,” the old man said in Gilead. “The worthiness of its object is never really what matters.” Hope is like that too.[i]

It certainly would seem that death spells the end of hope for anyone. The dead have no future, only past, we would have thought. That is one way to argue the negative: there is no real hope for anyone; partial and temporary happiness is as good as we can get. According to the Bible however (sed contra) that isn’t so. “With God, nothing is impossible,” the angel said. Easter morning, angels returned to prove the point. Easter gives the dead a future.

Will her future be happy for Cruella? I hope so. It may be up to her. That is what C.S. Lewis thought. Both Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis had high hopes for Cruella. Barth’s hope brooks no ifs or buts. The grace of God is finally irresistible. The object of our hope for Cruella is “arduous”—but certain. But Lewis disagreed with Barth’s surmise. Lewis put greater stock than Barth did in human freedom, meaning that he believed that grace is an offer that we can refuse.

In his novel The Great Divorce Lewis imagines hell and heaven. Hell is inhabited by ghosts, former people who live on in a weightless half-life full of grievances and strong opinions. In hell, life is diminished. In heaven it is amplified. Lewis imagines the spiritual bodies St. Paul talks about. The risen dead live on as meaty, big-hearted, cleared-eyed spirits.

At the boundary of heaven, these hearty spirits attempt to persuade pitiful ghosts, who had been among their earthly friends or family, to join them in the larger life. Sometimes the ghosts agree—and in that instant, their lives are glorified to their astonished delight. But some ghosts stubbornly refuse the offer.

To be clear— is not that those who refuse had been the greater sinners necessarily. The heavenly crowd had been the motley crew on earth, guilty of sins up to and including murder. Most of the ghosts weren’t criminals or puppy killers. One was a book writing English bishop whose sins were intellectual. Rather than seeking truth, he craved recognition and approval. He still does, now preferring to remain in hell with the right set of ghostly literary critics, rather than give up his vanity for the sake of eternal happiness with God. In hell, he gives theology lectures on Tuesday nights.

In The Great Divorce, we are told that we will not see heaven “if we insist on holding on to even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell.” Cruella is welcome! But to enter the gates she will have to leave her coat and all it represents behind.

In several debates I judged, those arguing the negative quoted this passage from The Great Divorce:

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice, there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.[ii]

Even coming from the negative, that moment of truth sounds like hope, for all of us, to me.

[i] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead, Kindle edition, 238.

[ii] C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Kindle edition, page 75.