My grandmother had a love of quoting Numbers 32:23 “… be sure your sins will find you out.” There is a kind of tragic irony to its use in the Bible belt (where I was born and raised). This particular quote comes from Moses exhorting the tribes of Israel to genocide in the name of their rightful inheritance assigned by their god. Here’s a taste of the larger context:
20 Then Moses replied, “If you will do this thing, and if you will arm yourselves for battle before the Lord, 21 and if all your armed men cross the Jordan before the Lord until he drives out his enemies from his presence 22 and the land is subdued before the Lord, then afterward you may return and be free of your obligation to the Lord and to Israel. This land will then be your possession in the Lord’s sight.
23 “But if you do not do this, then look, you will have sinned against the Lord. And know that your sin will find you out.
We could connect this back to English colonialism and American Imperialism with the notion of the White Man’s Burden and all, but that’s not really where I want to go with this. Instead, I want to focus on my grandmother’s intent.
Her meaning was that if you did anything shameful or immoral, it would eventually come to light no matter how hard you tried to conceal it. For anyone raised in the fold of American religiosity, drawing as it does on Scotch-Irish Calvinism and English Puritanism, there will probably be a very familiar feeling nameless, sourceless dread: a feeling that you’ve already done whatever is going to come to light and subject you to divine and societal judgment. That of course is its purpose. In post-Reformation Christian culture you’ve always already sinned, so it’s just a matter of time before you are punished for it. It’s like living under a giant, invisible Sword of Damocles, your only hope being to live according to God’s word, but it is also very effective at keeping people in line.
The cost is quite high, though it’s difficult to put exact figures to it. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the cost is to look at the inverse principle, the reality that reveals this passage’s true nature as nothing more than a shadow.
You see, there’s another saying, not so old but showing more insight: “truth will out.”
The clear attestation of this saying is in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (Act II, Scene II) when Launcelot says
“Nay, indeed, if you had your eyes, you might fail of
the knowing me: it is a wise father that knows his
own child. Well, old man, I will tell you news of
your son: give me your blessing: truth will come
to light; murder cannot be hid long; a man’s son
may, but at the length truth will out.”
In this passage we get both good and bad coming to light: murder and progeny, creation and destruction, life and death. This is the truth. The good may be quelled for a time, but it will not remain concealed for long. “Unicorns may go unrescued for a very long time, but not forever.” What is more, good is always stronger than evil. Life overcomes death, love dissolves hate, joy and good repute last despite the forgetfulness of men. As the old rune goes:
Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself too soon must die,
but one thing never, I ween, will die, —
fair fame of one who has earned.
This pertains directly to our lives as contemporary but traditional pagans. We can see the truth of our religious beliefs in how they emerge into the world, in how other religions slide inexorably back into traditionally pagan ways. Naturally, these tendencies are seen in other traditions as sinful or wrongful behaviours, and in some cases they can have very negative and evil repercussions either in their conflicted efforts to resist these paganisms or in their partial realization. That’s for another post, however. We can see paganisms emerge into secular traditions around the Winter Solstice, but they also show up in seemingly unreligious popular culture.
Consider briefly for example Walt Disney’s Sword in the Stone. Based loosely on the first book of T.H. White’s masterpiece The Once and Future King, Disney’s 1963 adaptation eradicated the book’s genuine darkness and moral complexity in favour of an idiom that would appeal to a much broader range of tastes and ages. Gone are the messily beheaded unicorns and silent acquiescences to private mediocrity as a safeguard of social grandeur, and in its place are jaunty songs and some truly magnificent sight-gags— not that I am decrying Disney! The Sword in the Stone is a true work of Disney magic, but it should never be confused with the book, or genuine Arthurian tradition for that matter.
Hence am I focusing here on a character and scene that is a wholly Disney invention: the wizards’ duel between Merlin and Mad Madam Mim. The alliteration should be the first indication that we are dealing here with a purely Disney creation, and what a creation she is! Gleefully evil, Mim is presented as Merlin’s nemesis, but she is no Nimue. In fact, she is utterly ridiculous in her insistence that she is more powerful than Merlin only moments before she is outwitted by the masterful mage and left recovering in bed from the magical virus, “malignalitaloptereosis.” The disease is not fatal, though, and Merlin assures her that she’ll “recover in a few weeks and be as good … I mean as bad as ever.”
You might be wondering why I’m calling out this one little all-Disney gem. It’s because it’s not part of the Arthurian tradition, which we can genuinely trace into the pre-Christian past, and yet still is in keeping with traditionally pagan principles: viz. the Other has a place in the world, and its destruction would be truly evil even though it is right to enter conflict against it. Disney’s fight with Madam Mim exemplifies the Good Fight. It is right to battle with Mim, but Merlin does not seek her death even as she seeks his. Instead, she is put in her place and her own evil becomes her punishment. Plurality is a natural quality to be upheld, and peace is not something to be upheld by “turning the other cheek.” To do so would have led to Merlin’s death, but balance and proper order must be upheld through the just application of force. (Here I use the term ‘just’ in the sense of justice.) This is a very pagan idea as a great many pagan tales explain the tragedy that occurs when someone decides to eradicate what they perceive as evil.
My point is that Disney was only trying to tell an entertaining story about a good wizard teaching a boy and ended with lessons that are much more in keeping with traditional pagan ideas than Christian ones.
To take this even further, Merlin is very much a “man of Science” despite being magical, ranting in several places about the “Medieval mess” they’re in and touting the marvels of Reason and Progress … that is until he actually goes to the modern world and sees what a “Modern mess” it is.
Disney was all about Progress but loved Fantasy as well. It’s no mistake after all that Tomorrowland, which was originally supposed to showcase the future to which we were all heading, shares a border with Fantasyland. In other words, Science and Magic overlap. Disney magic is the aesthetic experience made possible by “hard science” wedded to imagination — at least it’s supposed to be. Wonder was the lifeblood of science in Disney’s mind. Without it, scientific reasoning is just mechanics, just as fantasy without solid know-how is just pointless daydreaming.
Fear of what we may do with free imagination and rigorous thinking will only hold us back. We should be looking for the Truth that is occluded by its own virtue, like the amazing view that is invisible all around us until we climb a mountain to look back on where we’ve been, rather than fall into examining ourselves for some fault that is hidden by ignorance or design.
After all, truth will out.