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Monday, 2 November 2015

Fiction Reading for Theologians & Theology for Fiction Readers

Sometimes Thomas Aquinas is boring, and sometimes Stephen King is boorish. While the first attempts to present truth without drama, the latter attempts drama without truth. Wouldn’t it be nice to have both? Isn’t there a place where theologians and fiction readers can meet? Happily, we have the following novels, which I’ve curated out of no other logic than that I found them the best fictional explorations of Christian themes so far in my short life. I suppose, though, this post itself should have a better justification than that. So, briefly, here are my reasons.

Reading contemporary literature, I get the strong impression that authors are shirking their responsibility to wrestle with realities in a way that makes for growth, spiritual or otherwise. A while ago Flannery O’Connor, protesting the focus on technique and story structure in the American MFA programs, said, “We want competence, but competence by itself is deadly. What is needed is the vision to go with it, and you do not get this from a writing class.” How much the MFA degree has impacted modern fiction, I can’t say—though I suspect is has, and drastically. I do agree, though, with O’Connor’s priorities. Why settle for mere competence, mere entertainment, mere story, when these things could also serve a greater purpose than themselves? I’m not talking about didactic, or moralizing, literature. I’m talking about literature that gives us the excitement of life as a spiritual excitement.

Simone Weil wrote an essay entitled “The Responsibility of Writers.” It’s brilliant, but it obviously forces a mandate on writers that most will refuse.

“The good is the pole towards which the human spirit is necessarily oriented, not only in action but in every effort, including the effort of pure intelligence… The literature of the twentieth century… consists in describing states of the soul by displaying them all on the same plane without any discrimination of value, as though good and evil were external to them, as though the effort towards the good could be absent at any moment from the thought of man. Writers do not have to be professors of morals, but they do have to express the human condition. And nothing concerns human life so essentially, for every man at every moment, as good and evil. When literature becomes deliberately indifferent to the opposition of good and evil it betrays its function and forfeits all claim to excellence.” (The Simone Weil Reader, 289)

Weil gives the example of Proust, who “makes many attempts to analyze non-oriented states of the soul.” His 4,000-page novel In Search of Lost Time is considered one of the best, if not the best, work of literature in the 20th century. Such is the state of critics’ spiritual priorities. I have only read the first volume, Swann’s Way, and it is breathtakingly beautiful; I feel like Keats did about Chapman’s Homer: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” Still, Weil’s incisive comment rings true for me, and I suddenly feel an absence in Swann’s Way of something essential.

In summary of this insight, I turn to Wayne C. Booth, a writer and critic whose moral sensibility I envy and who wrote these perfect assessments of what contemporary readers and writers seem to value in literary fiction:

“To defend the moral intent of the author is in itself no more conclusive than to show that he wanted to write a masterpiece. In this matter, curiously enough, the ‘intentional fallacy’ is committed by many critics who avoid it otherwise: if a novelist’s intentions are ‘serious’ rather than ‘commercial,’ or if he has set out to reveal filth rather than to celebrate nobility, many seem to feel that they should give his work at least some credit, however slovenly its technique may be...” (386). 

“We are told again and again that the novelist could not help turning inward to his own private world of values because there was no outer world left to which he could appeal. But even if consensus has declined—something in itself hard to prove, in spite of our ready clichés about it—surely artists must accept some of the responsibility for the decline themselves. If the loss of consensus forced them into private value systems, private myths, it hardly could be said to have forced them into the kind of private techniques I have discussed… One possible reaction to a fragmented society may be to retreat to a private world of values, but another might well be to build works of art that themselves help to mold a new consensus” (The Rhetoric of Fiction, 393).

Hear hear! Without further ado, then, I present ten books that I do think take on these responsibilities of the artist in this fragmented Waste Land of a world. My intention is, I’ll admit, to give those readers about to pick up Eat, Love, Pray, or The Stand, or a John Grisham or Dean Koontz novel, another option. Just as no one should play laissez faire with truth, neither should we play laissez faire with fiction; so accuse me of bias, of prescribing taste, of whatever. No one will be able to deny the connection between fiction and truth after reading just one of the following novels, and seeing that, find something missing in so much of the literature out there.

[Please note—before you get all high strung at the absence of The Brothers Karamazov and The Lord of the Rings—the simple fact that you must get rid of the sun (two suns in this case) in order to see the stars.]

Ten Novels

[1] Franny and Zooey, by J. D. Salinger
This is more than a novel—it is spiritual direction at its finest. Salinger is a writer who knows  how to dramatize intellectual crises, a writer who can take those truths we find ourselves indifferent to in the everyday and bring us into that rare state of exacerbated yearning, hope and vulnerability in which they seem real again and take on the lustre of immediate consequence. Franny is a university student and actor on the verge of a breakdown. She is sick of all the ego—the cloistered, preening, self-affirming university ego—around her. “Sometimes,” she complains, “I think that knowledge—when its knowledge for knowledge’s sake, anyway—is the worst of all. I don’t think it would have all got me quite so down if just once in a while—just once in a while—there was at least some polite little perfunctory implication that knowledge should lead to wisdom.” I will not spoil the climax. But the fact that there is a climax in a “novel of ideas” should be indication enough that this book is worth a read.

[2] Silence, by Shusako Endo
“Father, have you thought of the suffering you have inflicted on so many peasants just because of your dream, just because you want to impose your selfish dream upon Japan?” In Silence, Endo has pulled together all the coarsest questions of faith and suffering, knotted them into a ball, and thrown them at the reader’s face. Here we have a Portuguese priest in a foreign country, oppressed by the feeling of uselessness, dreading the state’s violent anti-religious authorities, confused at seeing a spiritual master’s apostasy… As we read, Endo shows us the difference between the solutions that Christ did not bring and the redemption that he did.

                                     [3] East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
“I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this,” said Steinbeck of East of Eden. Indeed, this is a novel that has passed through fire and become something more; it’s not just a “good hard look at reality,” not just a poetic celebration of the Salinas Valley, not just a gripping plot or character study. It takes all these up to become, with The Brothers Karamazov, a tour de force of enacted theology. The novel follows two families, the Trasks and the Hamiltons, in their intergenerational pantomime of the feud between Cain and Abel; at the heart of this 600-page complexity, then, is a story of the consequences of rejection and the mystery of freewill. Reading East of Eden, one becomes aware of the irony of arguments for or against such freedom, for its center can in no way be outside us. Where is it then? Steinbeck’s magnum opus wrestles the dark angel of fatalism on behalf of us all—and comes out marked. “What is the word again?” “Timshel—though mayest.”

[4] Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor
You can’t have a list of theological novels without Flannery O’Connor in it somewhere. No other author has spent so long and hard a time problem-solving the representation of grace in fiction. Grace, indeed, is for her the very point of fiction: “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize this moment,” she writes elsewhere. In Wise Blood, O’Connor creates a vehemently anti-Christian character, Hazel Motes and shows us how his being haunted Christ, who darts from “tree to tree” in the back of his mind, is part of his very integrity. Thus O'Connor dramatizes a journey towards redemption as only a writer who has masterfully combined both “competence” and “vision” can.

[5] Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams
Charles Williams is the lesser-read member of the Inklings (you know—C. S. Lewis, Tolkien…). The reason? He’s dense. He’s unconventional. His novels have been described as “supernatural thrillers.” In this novel, William’s finest achievement, we have Wentworth, a historian who little by little is damning himself to hell. For Williams, as for Lewis, that is the only way you end up there: through little and big choices in which you relinquish your ability to love. But what Williams is doing here is unique—he’s not a theologian arguing that “making bad decisions can have eternal consequences”; rather, his aim, as T. S. Eliot puts it, “is to make you partake of a kind of experience that he has had.” The plot, accordingly, follows a dream-logic in which breath-taking and haunting passages appear like flashes in a jungle of meaning; there’s a relentless forward motion, a superfluity of weighty intention. The reader finds himself wondering, On what level of reality is this or that event happening? Williams, it is clear, is so attuned to spiritual truths that he has trouble separating the mundane from the eternal for us common folk.
[6] Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
On putting this book back on the shelf, I had the feeling of having met a great and beautiful soul. I would anticipate our meeting in heaven with excitement but for his being—it is so easy to forget—a fictional character. Really, this book doesn’t need me to  argue for it. Just read the Norman Denny translation. (As a side note, I don’t know by what convention the title has gone un-translated, but it really should be called “Outcasts.”)

[7] Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
For a while I had trouble with the idea, which seems so obviously true to me now, that there was an essential spiritual structure to the human being—in other words, that there is a “human nature,” that we are created in such a way that certain things lead to our flourishing while other things lead to our confusion, our decay, our death. One cannot escape Crime and Punishment without being convinced of this. One of way of describing the arrogant, self-involved Raskolnikov is a “spiritual explorer,” a man pushing the limits of what a human self can mean and do. His murders and his self-concealment can be seen as a forays into the outskirts of the human spirit, expeditions to discover the limits of the world of the self. What Raskolnikov finds is a guilt that won’t disappear, indeed a guilt that strengthens into a light shining on a depth of createdness in himself that he had not seen before. “The darker the night, the brighter the stars, / The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” writes Dostoyevsky. Part of his genius is that he recognized the need for such “negative revelations” in an age of religious disillusionment. This is why it is inaccurate to call Dostoyevsky an “existentialist.” He is a storyteller of the life of the spirit. Crime and Punishment is the story of Raskolnikov’s discovery of a desire for reintegration, for health, and with it Dostoyevsky shows us what stories can give us that we cannot get elsewhere.

[8] The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy
In The Moviegoer, Percy tells the story of a man sensitive enough to be aware of how mired he and is peers are in the heavy “everydayness” of life and of the consequent “possibility of a search”—but socially and historically dislocated enough from any religious or wisdom tradition that his sensitivity manifests as a distortion. Sound familiar? Percy taps into the essential spiritual situation of our post-enlightenment, post-modern world. He has found something so characteristic of who we are that just his simple presentation of the situation reverberates with all the mystic power of an epiphany. Our question is no longer “What are we searching for?” but one prior to that: “What is the search?” 

[9] The Farthest Shore, by Ursula LeGuin
“I set before you life and death. Choose life.” That’s Deuteronomy. That’s God speaking. Interesting, isn’t it, that God has to tell us which to pick? You’d think it’d be obvious, but it’s not. Life and death both argue convincingly for themselves, as anyone whose been depressed or in despair knows. Consequently, life needs to be continually reaffirmed. LeGuin’s fantasy novel, finds a way to reject the darkness and to accept joy—with integrity. Anyone who thinks that fantasy cannot be high literature may be embarrassed by their prejudice after this book. It is a beautiful story that, like life, argues for itself convincingly if you give it the chance. And so I’ll say no more. (Except that you may want to read The Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan, the first two in the series, in advance.)

[10] Till We Have Faces, by C. S. Lewis
Till We Have Faces is easily—easily—Lewis’ best work, of his fiction and non-fiction. There is no other author who deals so charitably and accurately with the theme of self-deception; neither is there an author who does so as grippingly, entertainingly, or movingly. The question of suffering, for Lewis, always comes back to self-deception and the distortion of love. In Till We Have Faces, Lewis shows us how we participate in creating the very problems we rail against God for, become embittered over—and sell our souls to have solved our way. 

Other Worthy Titles:
The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood
The Death of Ivan Illych, by Leo Tolstoy
The Diary of a Country Priest, by George Bernanos
The Brothers K, by David James Duncan
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene
Gilead; Home; and Lila, by Marilynne Robinson

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Fall Days

Fall is here. Fall has always been here, just beneath everything. It would be better to say, “now everything that is not fall is gone.” All the energies of spring and summer gently sifted away, leaving us with only the essence of the seasons. 

What do we do with these fall days? They come, and I sit on park benches beside crunchy paths and in between half-dressed trees, watching nothing care where it lands. I walk, and direction is allowed to exist only behind me. Everywhere there’s a layeredness, light on shadow on light on shadow. Its muted brightness moves me to ask desperate questions, and I yearn to be lost in swaying cornfields, to crawl into those fuzzy dark spaces, to make a journey under the leaf piles or into the bark. The cloud-corniced skyline calls me to do something with it. I want to mean something, it says; make something of me. I don’t know what. 

What do we do with these fall days? I am pulled out of myself just smelling the flaking air. Let it to crystallize so I may bite it. Let me climb its holds up into an undiscovered hole. The light dances from leaf to leaf, the ground lets out a sleepy sigh as long as days, and all the failing colors twist and wind themselves over the frayed ends of questions I asked as a child and forgot I asked. The shimmering, spiced air and the patchy amber ground: the fading footprints of something that has left a thousand years ago. Being here is not enough, I want to go to the place where all these things come from. 

What do we do with these fall days? In all other seasons we face the front-side of the world. But in the fall, things shift slightly, the angle slips, and we sense the other dimension running behind things, deep as the world is wide. A fire burns back there, underneath every raked yard pile, behind each jagged tree, descending behind each falling leaf. Its warmth is expended in the depth, and its light always streams backwards. We are here in the place we are in. There exists a path of mere walking, a direction we ignore. Look at the leaves. Mystics, all of them. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

The Races

It’s like this—at recess the bell,
us already rummaging for bottle-caps
in teacher’s lounge recycling;
the rain has come, the rain has wrecked
our gravel soccer field and a vast puddle
created in the southwest corner.
Spectators, a coliseum’s worth,
milling, some carrying water
in ziplock sandwhichless baggies
to deepen gravity’s groove
for the great races.
                                         Taken seriously,
these things are great; we can race
bottle caps with the best of them,
all our hope small-packed upon the cap
rushing doomward into vast muddy water,
water not supposed to be there really
but we, hehe, stoppered the drain
with safeway bags; we, hehe, had won
ourselves a better competition
than genepool’s arbitrary game.
And there’s my cap, over gravel dams
and white-water, stuck behind a twig,
penned up with what cannot win—
O I could not make a grave enough face.

The Artwork

A man existed who, like many of us, felt the urge to say something—only, he did not know what he wanted to say. He tried pottery, woodwork, poetry, song, painting, and other crafts, but he left each one more dissatisfied than the last. And so he set out on a search.

One day he fell upon a land of ripening grains and rich golden fruit and planes of rolling clover and daffodil. He thought, Here is my inspiration

This man felled trees and carried hefty stones and gathered driftwood from the great shores, gathering his materials into a shape. For many moons he worked upon it and at last he stood back. His sculpture was curved and supple despite its hard materials.  It had motion in its stillness. And for the first time in his life he felt satisfaction.

Upon resting, however, and viewing his work from all angles and in all moods and lightings, his dissatisfaction returned. He craved intensity—something that would distinguish itself further, say something more definite, bear his mark more clearly than the wood and stone could.

The artist dug deeply into the soil and found clay; this he purified and dyed with roots and wildflowers. He built his structure and tore it down, built it up and tore it down, until finally before him stood a monolith wholly distinct in color, texture and form from the fields and groves and running brooks around it. And the artist was satisfied.

Soon villagers from the surround area came to look. One of them informed a wealthy merchant, a connoisseur of foreign art; he came, and commented on the artist’s prowess. What defiance! the merchant said. There’s as much genius in the piece as in his choice to build it here, in the midst of such natural beauty. These words of praise soon soured in the artist’s mind. Again he grew discontent.

With the money the merchant had given him he bought mirrors. With these he covered his sculpture so that when a viewer looked upon it she would be forced to look at anything but the sculpture. Again the villagers came to look. They were awestruck, but also confused. They sent for the merchant, who in turn stroked his beard. Then he snapped his fingers. I will send for the art critics!

They came, two dozen at least—for the merchant was wealthy and influential—and pondered the great mirrored sculpture. Soon they were murmuring excitedly among themselves. A profound statement! they said. Subversive! The mirrors redirect the gaze to the beauty around us. ‘Don't look here, at my conceited artificiality,’ it says. ‘Look around you, at nature's quiet grandeur.’

The artist’s instinct for dissatisfaction did not fail. It was not fair of him, he knew, for the art critics had understood him perfectly. Yet he felt an emptiness.

Then the artist had another idea. In the secret of night he dismantled his sculpture, leaving only the ring of stones that had surrounded it to demarcate the spot on which it had stood. Again the villagers came, then the merchant, then the art critics. Yet none of them could discern what the artist was saying by it. They stared at the empty spot, raking their beards and murmuring.

And so the artist again felt displeased, even confused. He thought to himself, I do not want to say anything. Or perhaps I do, only I want nature to say it for me. Reflecting this way he came upon the truth: what he wanted was for the villagers and the merchant and the art critics to look around them and feel his same awe. And yet there they were, staring at the patch of dead grass, fixating on emptiness as though it were a statement. And the artist thought in despair, How can I say that I have nothing to say without that being a statement?

Then the artist had another idea. The stones that formed a ring where the original sculpture had been he removed. Time passed; people soon grew tired of musing at the patch of dead grass and wandered off. Less and less people showed up and then none at all. Soon everyone forgot even that there had been anything special there, where now a patch of new grass grew. This pleased the artist somewhat. At least I am not misunderstood, he thought.

Of course his satisfaction could not last. He looked around him and saw people busy at work, swearing and yelling, heads bent to the ground, thinking about silver coins and leaky roofs and vexing servants and ill-cooked meals. And again he felt an urge to say something. Indeed, this time he knew precisely what he wanted to say. He wanted to give people a glimpse of the sublime—to push their chins up and have them muse at the shape of clouds for so many hours that stars would creep stealthily into the sky and elicit cries of delight on being noticed.  He wanted to yell at the villagers and the merchant and the art critics, Your lives are not everything. All around you opens eternally a beauty so vast and deep that beholding it you would fall on your face and weep. The artist wanted them to see this for themselves—not to be dragged along daily by the brute necessities of survival and social advancement but to be buoyed up each moment by this miracle.

It was beauty that would change the world the artist desired.

The artist cried aloud. Does such beauty even exist? What art can do what I want it to do? What message could be understood the way it wants to be understood—as dispensable? What sculpture would not gather merchants and critics to it and hoard attention, raise interpreters, gather a cult of appreciation around itself?

Then the artist had another idea.