“It was as if whatever had happened had reached some kind of limit. It was like finding the gateway to the past unguarded, unforbidden because it didn’t have to be. Built into the act of return finally was this glittering mosaic of doubt. Something like what Sauncho’s colleagues in marine insurance liked to call inherent vice.”
—Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
Shasta’s Inherent Vice
I walked out of Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice feeling middy lost in the fog and the haze that constantly enveloped the protagonist Doc, a drug-doping private eye. When you imagine Doc, picture Charlie Brown's busy Pig Pen, only doused in a cloud of pot smoke instead of dirt and general filth. Well, the filth was there too, but also smoke. A lot of smoke.
It’s nearly impossible to condense all the twists and turns present in Inherent Vice. As The Dude of The Big Lebowski might say, “[this case has] You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous…” While I was caught off guard by how gritty Anderson’s adaptation is in places (this is not a family film), I was also surprised by glimpses of clarity and profundity in the midst of an otherwise hazy narrative.
One of those profound moments was during a conversation between Doc and Shasta Fay, Doc’s ex-girlfriend and (ironically enough) current love interest. Shasta has been running around with the very crooks and shady characters that Doc is investigating.
In the midst of all the “ins and outs,” Doc finally connects with Shasta for a candid conversation about her whereabouts and associates. Shasta admits that she had been living off-shore on a boat called the Golden Fang with a crowd even seedier than Doc but that eventually they forced her ashore.
Doc wonders, “Why?” Shasta’s response is vague in the film. Apparently the crooks and smugglers had to release Shasta as a passenger because of her “inherent vice.”
If you’re anything like me, you’re probably not familiar with the term off hand. A quick query revealed the following definition and context:
"Inherent Vice: hidden defects (or the very nature) of a good or property which of itself is the cause of (or contributes to) its deterioration, damage, or wastage. Such characteristics or defects make the item an unacceptable risk to a carrier or insurer . . ."
So in terms of marine insurance, inherent vice is the intrinsic quality or nature of a good that may cause it to deteriorate at sea, or potentially cause damage to other items being shipped alongside it. For Shasta, this meant that for some reason or another, her presence on theGolden Fang was too great a risk for her or the crew.
After they saw her for what she truly was, Shasta was unceremoniously released due to her “inherent vice.”
Coram Deo: Face-to-Face with God
For many early Christians, the ultimate spiritual experience was being found in the presence of God and being able to commune with Him face-to-face. This type of intimacy with the divine, typically reserved for only the dearest of friends, was something to be greatly desired. Leaning on Psalm 105 and the prophet Isaiah, many believed that the primary function of the Christian life was the pursuit of this intimacy: "Look to the LORD and his strength; seek his face always" (Psalm 105:4, NIV).
When I think of the splendor of this moment, I am completely awestruck and left perplexed by the sheer beauty and overwhelming power. But I am also discouraged: discouraged because I’m not certain I could handle the glory for which we so naturally long.
I am reminded of Moses who, though far from perfect, was the chosen instrument to lead God’s people out of slavery and into redemption. Surely if one among us would have the opportunity to stand squarely with YHWH, it would have been this man. Called by God through the burning bush, entrusted with the power to alter and influence the natural world, given the right to command gods and kings; if anyone merited the intimacy of an unveiled divine encounter, it was Moses.
Yet when it was Moses’s time to commune with the most High on the mountain, the LORD shielded him from his presence, saying that “while my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.” (Exodus 33:22). In both the burning bush encounter and his experience in receiving the law, Moses descended from the mountain a changed man. He was changed in such a way that others could see it. When he walked among his people, they could tell by his countenance and demeanor that he had experienced the divine in a way we hope for and dream of.
I think many of us believe that what permanently altered Moses was what he saw. This may in part be true, but I’d like to suggest that what impacted Moses even more deeply was his being seen by God.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denying that there is a sense in which God, in his omnipotence, sees all of us all of the time. But there was something divinely intimate and special about being that close in proximity with the Father. Though the LORD held his hand over the cleft to shield Moses from seeing, the Lord saw him entirely. Moses was a wholly seen man.
In his character, Moses possessed a sense of virtue, to be sure. However, his vices and shortcomings were not without note. In this case, as he often does, God equips the called rather than calling the equipped. He took Moses on at the burning bush and commissioned him on Sinai, not because of his merit but in spite of his vice.
Our Inherent Vice
Perhaps what we have missed about seeking the face of God is that the real privilege is in being fully seen, fully known by Him.
Ever since Adam and Eve first covered themselves in the garden, we have been frivolously trying to shield our true selves, from others and from the Most High. We effectively are able to alter our perceived self to others in short bursts, and we deceive ourselves into thinking we can manipulate the LORD’s perception of ourselves.
The real power, the real grace, of a divine encounter like Moses’s is not that we see all of God in a face-to-face manner (I am not sure that even in eternity we will be able to see all of God, though we will experience him fully and unveiled). It’s that we are seen by Him, vices and all.
Unlike Shasta’s unreliable companions, God will never cast us ashore due to our inherent vice. We all possess a brokenness of spirit and flesh that makes us a significant risk in transport. God sees us; he calls us aboard and into his presence, without worrying about what he has seen.
To be loved is to be known, especially in one’s flaws. When we encounter the LORD in a face-to-face manner, we have no choice but to drop our facades, to take off our masks, and be seen for who we truly are.
This is where we are at our most vulnerable. This is where we are most wonderfully known. To paraphrase a Pauline classic by way of a Pynchonian drug addled adage, “. . .but God shows his love for us in this, while we were [fully and completely seen in our inherent vice], Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Thank the LORD that we serve a God who’s been making marine insurers nervous since the dawn of time. He sees our vice. He empowers us to virtue. He loves us and brings us on the voyage no matter our performance or the price he has to pay.