Cthulhu and the Dreaded Questions

I have avoided using the word “atheism” in this project for a reason.

In some ways, it is far too narrow a term to do the job necessary. There are many kinds of people that look to science for answers, draw inspiration on variants of Darwin’s theory, and prefer naturalistic explanations for what goes on in the world around us. Some are rationalists, while others embrace intuition. While some certainly do disbelieve in any sort of God, others are for more open to a wide range of supernatural beings and phenomena. Some are even churchgoing Christians. Of course, many don’t really give greater religious or philosophical issues much thought, simply absorbing the vague habits of the culture around them. And for many, applying a religious/philosophical label like “atheist” entirely misses the point. Political or social and entertainment subcultures have far more significance to some people than metaphysical views, however important those views may be in grand scheme of things.

But when we talk about Cthulhu, we have to talk about atheism. This eldritch star-spawn derives his entire character, all his dread and primal horror, from the fact that to humanity, he can only be perceived as a divine being. Almost as disturbing as the tentacle elder being himself is the existence of his worldwide cult, that most ancient of devil-worshipping religions. When talking about Lovecraft’s ancient aliens, you can just be talking history. H. G. Wells can be about time and biology, and X-Men can be about race and politics. But when you speak of Cthulhu, you are dealing with theology.

The Call of Cthulhu is Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s signature work. It forms the central piece of his mythology, and the title creature has become emblematic of cosmic horror in the popular consciousness. But far more than being a masterpiece of its genre, this story is a commentary on the origin and nature of human religion. It is that very commentary which inspires cosmic dread, which leads the characters to label the denizens of their world and the evidence of their presence not merely horrors, but “blasphemies.”

The tale, published in 1928, begins in the winter of 1926, just a few months after it was actually written. It follows the unfolding explorations of a man into the unknown, after the death of his great-uncle, George Angell, a professor of Semitic languages. Among Professor Angell’s belongings he finds a strange bas-relief, freshly made but in a style that hinted at great antiquity. Accompanying this is a bundle of rambling notes and newspaper clippings, chronicling some investigation his great-uncle had made in the year immediately preceding his death.

The papers quickly reveal that the bas-relief comes from an artist who sought help from the Semitic professor. He had been experiencing odd dreams recently, visions of a strange city with inhuman architecture, and the distant sound of alien syllables being chanted by terrible voices. He reproduced this bas-relief from his dream, and hoped that the professor could help interpret the mysterious hieroglyphs inscribed on it, beside the depiction of a monster originating from no known mythology.

At first, Professor Angell dismisses the young man as an eccentric, but when he mentions that the most commonly chanted phrase in his wandering nightmares is “Cthulhu ftaghn,” the scholar’s interest is immediately engaged. He asks the artist to keep him posted on these dreams, which continue throughout the month of March, stopping abruptly on April second. By this time, the professor has established that sensitive people throughout the world have been having these dreams, though not often ordinary people or scientists. It is as if some psychic presence is making itself felt on those more equipped to sense it.

Our protagonist then follows his great-uncle back to 1908, to a meeting of the American Archaeological Society. There a New Orleans policeman presents a small statue made of odd material to the consideration of the assembled academics. They pass it around, trying and failing to guess where it might have come from. The figure itself is remarkably like what Professor Angell would later see on the bas-relief—a creature compounded of a dragon, a man, and an octopus, though far more alien and dreadful than any of these.

One anthropologist discloses that he has seen a figure very like this on an idol he found in West Greenland. It seems there was an evil cult within a certain tribe of that region, long feared by the other native peoples. He recorded their rites, from human sacrifice to certain strange ceremonies passed down over generations. Though it was difficult to record the words of this dark liturgy in Roman characters, he did manage to take down one phrase which startled the Louisiana detective, who had heard the same thing chanted in the swamps of his own region.

                “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Prompted by the others, the Inspector—Legrasse was his name—offers the translation given to him by one of his prisoners: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Following this revelation, Legrasse recounts his story of an expedition into the swamps of Louisiana to arrest the members of a voodoo cult accused of kidnapping and murder. In the depths of the bayous, close to an evil lake where monsters resided, they came across a dreadful ceremony. Devotees danced around a circular bonfire, in the center of which was the idol. Around them were hung the bodies of those they had stolen, and as they chanted strange words, it seemed inhuman mouths chanted back. The raid was largely successful, and the captured members of that cult describe to him a religion far darker than voodoo.

“They worshipped, so they said, the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. Those Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first men, who formed a cult which had never died. This was that cult, and the prisoners said it had always existed and always would exist, hidden in distant wastes and dark places all over the world until the time when the great priest Cthulhu, from his dark house in the mighty city of R’lyeh under the waters, should rise and bring the earth again beneath his sway. Some day he would call, when the stars were ready, and the secret cult would always be waiting to liberate him.”

This terrifying picture points to beings from beyond this world, strangers to the earth and humanity. These being, worshipped as gods, were beyond death, still capable of psychically influencing living men. Chained in some inexplicable manner by the movements of the stars—a force greater even than them—they would one day be liberated with the aid of their dark priest Cthulhu, and the undying cult that served him.

This is a radical recontextualization of religion. Gods worshipped by ancient cults are revealed to be nothing more than powerful beings from beyond the little realm which is familiar to us. Though subject to other forces in the universe, they are immeasurably greater than man, influencing him in ways his primitive science cannot begin to fathom. Though they bear no kinship to man, and their purposes are utterly different from our own, mankind still worships them as gods, still renders them religious devotion and unflinching service.

On the one hand, this is a radical demythologizing of religion. Rather than being a way of life inspired by an encounter with the truly transcendent, it is merely the superstitious worship of a stronger creature by a weaker, either ignorant of the danger the greater being presents, or out of a quite probably vain hope that useful creatures will be allowed to live. In the same way that man worships Cthulhu, dogs might worship men, and ants might worship dogs. This is no elevated contact with the Creator of the universe, no insight into the meaning of existence, the purpose of life. This is a move of self-preservation on the part of inferior life-form afraid of a superior one.

But just as it takes religion out of the context of the truly supernatural, it places it in the context of a new mythology. This world is once again a realm where all beings struggle to survive, often against each other. There is no transcendent judge, no transcendent standard of justice which might survive the brief life of humans on this planet. But there is delusion, a sort of ignorance and superstition trying to curry favor with what mankind fears and cannot understand. That is religion in The Call of Cthulhu—a lie inspired by fear.

But Lovecraft does not set forth some heroic alternative. There is no optimism in his world, no redemption from the terrifying vistas that surrounded a humanity beleaguered by monsters on this little island in the void. No, while he might look down the Eskimos and “mixed-blooded” cultists of the Louisiana swamps, he cannot exactly propose an alternative to their superstition—other than ignorance.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

In some ways, Lovecraft is the Calvinist of materialism. He does not promise that our own effort can save us, does not allow that the human spirit might be capable of dealing with the darkness in the world. No, instead he offers us the hard truth. Regardless of what we wish, the universe is what it is. It is not centered on us, does not take into account the feelings or petty presumptions of mankind. It is far vaster than the little patch we live in, and the rules of its operation are merciless and without exception. Of course, unlike the Calvinist, Lovecraft offers no salvation. There is no election in his world, and the ironclad laws have nothing to do with standards of behavior, only the grinding of eons and great forces against the thin edifice of our existence.

The Call of Cthulhu is a profound tale skillfully told. The masterful way Lovecraft layers and interweaves the narratives of our protagonist, his great-uncle, the artist, the anthropologist, the inspector, and others, keeps the reader constantly off-balance, switching from one view to another. But always those multiple views are driving at the same chain of evidence, towards the same inevitable conclusion. It builds from abstract philosophizing and the quiet dealings of an inheritor with the estate of a relative, up through rising action, from nightmares, and then a chilling police raid, and ultimately to a terrifying encounter with a monster on the edge of reality. It is no wonder this quiet New England writer has had the impact he did.

Christians would do well to learn from this insight into one potential materialist worldview. From this perspective we can see why some atheists find it so easy to dismiss believers, to simply not engage with the questions or ideas that Christians or other religious people have to offer. Confronted with such a view of the world, how could you not desire to drown your own fear of the uncaring universe, of the ultimate void, in easy ignorance and self-deception? To such a person, religion looks childish, the inability of weak people to confront reality like an adult. Have not many Calvinists treated broader, softer evangelicalism in much the same way?

Still, it is critical to keep in mind that this view does not represent the attitude of all who subscribe to a naturalist and evolutionary view of the universe. It is far different than the optimism of much of mainstream popular culture—utterly different from the sunny progressivism of Star Trek or the X-Men. The X-Files unmistakably fit in this scientific and Darwinian milieu, but is infinitely more hopeful, and far more human. Even the first season of True Detective, a show that confronts these themes more powerfully and directly than most, ultimately ends with a note of redemption and humanistic optimism utterly absent from The Call of Cthulhu. And as a result, all of these can have a far different perspective on the meaning of religion, and its place in society.

The Call of Cthulhu is a startlingly clear example of why I believe this project is important, why Christians need to examine deeply the stories told by those who hold to different worldviews. Not only can we gain a greater understanding of those people, and a greater sympathy—something essential to an evangelical attitude—but we can also gain a greater understanding of how stories reflect the deepest and most profound beliefs and longings of a culture.

Here we see the terror of certain understandings of reality, but also the refusal to ever actually give in to reassuring lies. There is a profound maturity, a profound adultishness present in this confrontation with the indifference of the cosmos. But in that terror and maturity we also see the love of something else, of a world that man can be at home in. In that longing for a world that Lovecraft believes does not exist, we see the incredible meaning and power of the Christian Gospel. If it is in fact true that a Creator does exist, and if it is in fact true that man is his special creation, and that all the suffering in the world is ultimately to be destroyed and all that is good is ultimately to be redeemed—that is a far more profound and joyous Gospel in light of such a dark alternative. If that is the case, then we ought to value our faith all the more—and we should also be more conscious of the value it might have for others.

Of course, all this is under the assumption that our faith does in fact conform with reality, that we are not just trembling ants grasping superstitiously at whatever might deliver us from the terrifying world round about. And to justify that assumption, we have to be willing to honestly confront the questions that trouble both us and our neighbors. Naturalism and Darwinism are not competitors to be shouted down—they are questions that must be answered. If we are right to offer the answers we do, then we must know how those answers address the questions—and we must not be afraid to ask the questions.

Of course, not every person has time to mire themselves in a thousand scientific, metaphysical, and exegetical issues. But as a community, as Christ’s body, we cannot stifle such discussions. Some among us must actually be willing to sincerely engage in them, to think and write and speak about them. We cannot all be philosophers, apologists, and theologians, but we are, as a community, called to be salt and light. Some among us must deal with them.

So, as someone interested in stories, I offer this investigation. If we delve deep into the mythology of the society we are a part of, we can learn what their concerns are, see the things they hold dear and the questions they struggle to answer. Perhaps in doing so we will find a way forward in our cultural engagement, either as apologists and evangelists, or else as storytellers in our own right. If The Call of Cthulhu is the product of Lovecraft’s cosmic indifferentism, then what is the product of a writer who sincerely believes in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? There are few riddles more worth answering.

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Two Kinds of God and Sloppy Argumentation

“Some contemporary writers zealous for God’s unrivaled authority have expressed concern about natural law thinking, supposing that it presents a potential competitor with God. But whether this might be true in a kind of universe where God was a finite, Zeus-like, immaterial extra-terrestrial, and natural law some impersonal surd structuring the universe without an explanation for its existence, it is certainly not true in the theology and cosmology of classical theism.”

This is one thing that bugs me about some discussions concerning religion. People often equate gods like Zeus, Marduk, or Thor with the God of the Bible. But where the former gods are finite–though extraordinarily powerful and relatively inhuman–immaterial extraterrestrials, who exist within the universe and are subject to its laws, the God of the Bible (and the creators proposed by other monotheist faiths) transcends the universe and its laws, standing outside it, and in fact creating and sustaining it.

In other words, God is not Cthulhu, mighty and inscrutable, but ultimately subject to other superhuman forces and the passage of time. He’s not on top simply because he’s got more power, whatever form that power takes. God’s authority comes from the fact that he is author and creator, the one who established the universe and its laws, and everything in it. We belong to him because we came out of his head, and out of his spoken word, not because he’s big and can smash us.

Atheists are free to disbelieve in such a God, but to equate such a transcendent Creator with Cthulhu or Thor and so dismiss him is sloppy argumentation. It’s a category error. You’re talking about a totally different sort of being. To equate the two may work as a joke among already convinced atheists, or as an insult directed at Christians–and other believers in a creator–but it doesn’t work as logic. Disproving one is not necessarily to disprove the other, and to disbelieve in one is not necessarily to disbelieve in the other. Atheists do not simply “believe in one less god” than Christians, they disbelieve in a totally different kind of God.

The quote above is from an article on natural law in the Bible over at The Calvinist International. The site is a great resource for people interested in natural law or historic two kingdoms theology, as well as other topics of interest to Evangelical armchair and professional theologians.

The Subtle Knife

From now on my reviews will be divided into two sections. The first will be short and spoiler-free for those deciding whether to read the book, and the second will be a longer exploration of the book geared towards those who don’t mind spoilers.

Should You Read It?

This series is thoroughly atheistic, designed to be an answer to Lewis’s Narnia. It attempts to be a compelling apologetic, and it certainly is an incredibly entertaining work. If you have a sharp mind and a firm faith, this is an excellent place to learn about telling good stories with a worldview. However, this is not something to raise your kids on. By itself it’s not persuasive, but this is the sort of stuff that can be poisonous over the long haul. Tread carefully.

If You Have Read It

This book is fascinating. Pullman crams it with meaning and commentary on life. But before we get to that, can I just point out that he has some serious problems with point of view? In the first book that was fine, because Lyra was really the only one who did things. Here, however, we’ve got a ton more heads running around and Pullman is intent on jumping through them all. There are ways of pulling it off, but he barely takes a breath while switching POV’s. It’s downright disorienting. I mean, you can easily read past it, but it is annoying. Anyhow, on to the fun stuff.

Lyra and Will

Right off the bat we have a new protagonist. Will Parry is far more competent than Lyra, and Lyra figures this out quick. She falls for him, and she falls hard. It’s actually rather frightening.

Don’t get me wrong, Lyra needed to be humble and look up to somebody. When she realized that Will’s Oxford was so unlike her own, that was something I’d waited a long time for. She had to rely on someone else to be smarter than her, to take care of her, and she had to admit that she simply couldn’t handle things. Sure, she’d had doubts before, but she was nauseatingly arrogant with all the other characters.

But from that point on, the contrast becomes enormous. At every available opportunity Lyra becomes more childish and Will is shown to be more competent. A crisis comes and she rages, distraught, while he calmly considers the situation. Another crisis occurs, and a moment later Lyra chatters happily while Will’s wound continues bleeding and he struggles to keep moving.  She stops using the alethiometer on her own, letting Will call the shots. She apologizes repeatedly for the slightest thing, and repeatedly he accepts. She is mystified by the world, and he explains it to her. I am hard-pressed to think of a single incident in the book where this trend is not followed.

It’s not the degree of devotion and submission from Lyra towards Will which is jarring. Plenty more patriarchal fundamentalists would paint a relationship this way. But an atheist preaching equality and the evils of submission? That’s startling, especially after Lyra is made so much of in the first book. By the end of The Subtle Knife, it’s hard to take her seriously as a sidekick, much less as an independent protagonist.

Kids Are Evil

One of the things Will explains to Lyra is the nature of human cruelty. There is a thread spanning most of the middle of the book involving unwatched children who run about tormenting cats, each other, and eventually Will and Lyra. Lyra is shocked by this, unable to understand how children could be so mean. Like many people today, she had imagined children as a sort of noble savage, incapable of real evil.

Surprisingly, Pullman through Will insists that this is not the case. Children are violently hateful towards anything they find strange or frightening, or anything that harms them. The only thing that keeps them from murder is sheer inability. While I agree with the idea, lover of Augustine that I am, it is surprising coming from the guy who associates enlightenment and original sin, via Dust, with puberty. But Pullman is complex, and sometimes contradictory.

Magical Science

The way Pullman fuses magic and science is fantastic. Somehow he removes the spiritual realm and invests infinitesimally small particles with intelligence. Because these particles are everywhere, permeating the universe like the Force, they can be provoked into acting by apparently magical rites or by complex scientific procedures.

It’s not just the explanation, either. This whole series, but especially this book, evokes the same sense of wonder and mystery with particle physics that we ordinarily associate with enchantment. Then he turns around and treats spells with the same empirical and matter-of-fact manner with which he might treat a scientific experiment. People should do this more often.

The Conceit

As Film Crit Hulk is fond of pointing out, the ending is the conceit. With this book, no kidding. Pullman lays out his whole agenda in no uncertain terms. In fact, it was so starkly revealed the first time I read it that I was sure there was still a twist to come, that he couldn’t be serious. I was wrong, so very wrong. But that is a story for later. For now, we plow onward through the last bits of The Subtle Knife.

Doctor Malone and the Rebel Angels

When Lyra finds someone in Will’s Oxford to help her, it is an apostate nun-turned-physicist named Dr. Mary Malone. She is a rather flustered individual, in a bit of an airheaded and devoutly scientific sort of way. Honestly, I thought her portrayal was goofy, but she goes interesting places.

One of the places she goes is into a direct conversation with Dust. It turns out these intelligent particles have organized themselves into vast structures we know as angels. These angels, who guide Lyra via the golden compass and now Dr. Malone through this machine (and later through I Ching), are rebel angels. They interfered in evolution, turning humanity into a conduit for Dust as an act of revenge against God. And Doctor Malone is going to “play the serpent” for them.

The Setup

In the last part of the book we are tugged along in the asking of two questions: who is Lyra, and what is Aesahaettr?

Aesaheattr, it turns out, is the titular knife. Not only can it cut open portals between worlds, it can kill angelic beings. Which, apparently, includes God. In fact, it seems the only reason the Rebels lost the last war was that they did not possess such a weapon. Now they have that chance.

As time goes on, we also discover that Lyra is the next Eve. There are now two stories running on parallel tracks: the assassination of God and the reenactment of the Fall.

It’s at this point that continuing the series seems ghoulish and downright diabolical. Quite frankly, this book is satanic. It makes God into the enemy and devils into heroes. At least, that is Pullman’s intention.

But this is not something that ought to be too shocking or inherently unfamiliar. In reality there are only two ways of telling a story– on God’s side or Satan’s. In most books, this is veiled and obscured. Paganism hides at the heart of the parable and goes unnoticed. Here it is shockingly and openly blasphemous, but its very explicitness robs it of its teeth. Pullman is honest about the story he is telling, so we can honestly evaluate it. Therefore, onward.

John Parry’s Speech

Will’s missing father–John Parry/Jopari/Dr. Grumman– sums things up as he gives his son his mission in the very last chapter. All of history has been a war between the Authority and the Rebels. Because the Rebels lost the first engagement, there has been “nothing but lies and propaganda and cruelty and deceit for all the thousands of years of human history.” It is a battle between “human freedom,” knowing more, being wiser, being stronger on the one side, and obedience, humility, and submission on the other. And this time the Rebels must win.

But John Parry’s speech falls flat. It is itself a glorious piece of propaganda, and not one page later he betrays a man who gave his life for Parry, Lyra, and whatever cause they were defending. Every adult on the Rebel side is at least as cruel as the Church they fight. Until now we have not seen the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Church has been little more than shadows. But these men, those who fight them, are despicable. John Parry stands witness against his own cause.

All Parents Fail

In Pullman’s world, it is dangerous to be a parent.The moment Will recognizes this shaman as his estranged father, the man is struck down by a scorned lover. Our beloved Lee Scoresby, in trying to replace the awful Asriel, dies for Lyra. Nor is it only the fathers. Lyra’s mother is a horrible person, and Will’s is crippled and dependent, unable to be there for him even if she would like to do so. This is a world of orphans, a world where reality is harsh and growing up means being alone. And, in the end, like every other father, God must be proved senile, cruel, or dead.

But this is only Pullman’s negative case. The pain and angst is later replaced with an effort to love in a world without God. I pushed on, hoping to learn how he could present a positive worldview, something that goes beyond the hopeless denial of atheism. As an artist, or an apologist, such an effort is valuable. If you’ve come this far, I urge you to soldier on and see where it goes.

Atheists and Operating Standards

So, after my last post, some friends of mine pointed to this article and pointed out that atheists can indeed act morally. I have a very sophisticated and complicated philosophical response to that statement. Are you paying attention? It goes like this: yeah, I totally agree.

Not only can atheists act morally, some atheists can even act better than a lot of theists. No doubt about it. That, however, is not the point.

I don’t know whether Christians actually argue that atheism leads to being a horrible person. Some may, I don’t. What I will argue, however, is that atheism cannot justify being a decent person. Not that it keeps you from being a decent person, just that it can’t justify doing so. In other words, an atheist that is morally principled is inconsistent with his worldview.

This is because morality is about shoulds. You should do this and not that. You should hold the door open for the old lady, you shouldn’t laugh as she struggles to get it open herself. You should defend the helpless, you shouldn’t steal from them or kill them at your convenience.

An atheist cannot talk about shoulds. An atheist can explain why (as primates, or a highly developed species, or a herd animal, or whatever) we have a tendency to act morally in a given situation. But that just tells us why we act a certain way, it doesn’t tell us whether we should act that way. The same evolutionary explanations can explain why rape and murder are so common. Explanations have nothing to do with should and shouldn’t.

A theist (specifically, a Christian) can. Should and shouldn’t, and their synonyms “supposed to” and “not supposed to” all assume that there is some sort of purpose. Human beings are meant to act in one way and not another. We have operating standards to live up to.

But operating standards require a standard maker. In other words, people with a purpose require a creator to give them that purpose. Laws require a law-giver.

The article claims morality can’t come from such a Being. It asks whether the commands given by God are moral because he gives them or he gives them because they are moral. The first, we are to believe, leads to the possibility of God commanding immorality. This isn’t worthy of much attention, as in such a scenario, by definition, that would not be the case. The second, it is assumed, places a standard above God, and therefore God does not actually establish morality.

Try this on for size: Right and wrong, good and bad, the system of morality, is inherent in God’s nature. The same way it’s in some peoples’ nature to be friendly and outgoing, in others to be quiet and contemplative, that’s the way in which the whole plan of justice and righteousness is in God’s nature. He defines morality by who he is. Then he tells us “Be holy, for I am holy.”

The article then slaps down some well-worn “evidence” that the Christian God is immoral. I won’t bother answering those charges, since anybody really searching for the truth can find answers to those online, talking to a pastor, or in the Scriptures themselves. I find it more interesting that the author is judging God’s actions by a moral standard which he has no basis for. The closest he comes to giving an origin for these standards is when he says “few of us would see [various heinous things] as moral.” I won’t dwell on the problem of basing morality on majorities (few vs. most of us). That’s a path that’s been well worn, and the problems there should be obvious. Besides, I don’t think that’s really his standard.

In fact, when I see this same discussion played out among various atheists and Christians, I very rarely see an atheist provide any solid basis for his views on morality. He is always eager to prove he is not a monster (who wouldn’t be?), but rarely forthcoming with an explanation of why he shouldn’t be.

Most atheists grew up and continue to live in Christian or (supposedly) post-Christian societies.  When they reference their knee-jerk moral reactions, they give little thought to the history and underpinnings of the ethical culture they live in. I would suggest that most of the morality they feel flows directly from their hearts actually flows from over a thousand years of repentance, grace, and hard preaching they took in with their mother’s milk.

Today there are very few societies untouched by the Gospel, and most of us would not be eager to claim them as fine examples of moral rectitude. This only gets more true the deeper into history and the farther from the Gospel you look. Which is not to say that the moment you remove Christ we revert to cavemen beating each other over the head with sticks, but there is a reason Christian societies prospered and spread while others died out. Solid morality makes for solid societies.

So, to recap: atheists can be nice, but they can’t tell us why we should be nice. Standards require a standard-maker, something atheists refuse to believe in. I hope this gave you something to chew on. Good night, and God bless.