It’s the first Sunday of Advent and I hope we are going to light the candles again this year. There is something cool about doing something that has its origins in the Middle Ages. I recently re-read Desiring the Kingdom by Calvin philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith. In it he says that rituals are very important because they shape who we are. For some reason repetition affects us very deeply–on the level of our identity.
Advent is the beginning of the church calendar. It is a time of expectation. It commemorates the hope that God’s people had for the Messiah, but it also reminds us that we, too, are waiting for Jesus. The Advent season reminds us that we are people of expectant waiting–that this world is not all that there is and it’s not as good as it gets. There’s more, much more, in store for us.
Christmas Day, when we celebrate the Incarnation, is our next stop on the church calendar. It is an incredible thing that the material world was visited by the transcendent God. God has bridged the huge chasm that separates us from himself.
Lent is a time for reflection, repentance, and prayer as a way of preparing our hearts for Easter. This is often accomplished by “giving something up.” The idea here is that some form of deprivation helps us to attend more deeply to the sin in our lives and our need for salvation. A keen awareness of these can make participation in a Good Friday and Easter Sunday services very profound.
These are just the highlights. The traditional church calendar celebrates the Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, the Ascension, Pentecost, the Assumption, and more. The annual remembrance of these events is a ritual in itself, and these have shaped the people of God for centuries.
How might the rituals surrounding these important events in the church calendar have any formative influence on our identities? According to Smith, rituals aren’t just something we do, they do something to us. When we celebrated these annual events, we understand ourselves as sinners in need of salvation; we know ourselves to wait expectantly for something better, and that this something better is the person of Jesus Christ; and we know that we are beloved. Our “knowledge” of these things is not on a cognitive level, says Smith. It is a knowledge that resides in our bones.
Many Christians don’t really follow the liturgical calendar and are therefore not being shaped by it, but this does not mean they are not being shaped by rituals. There is another calendar that dominates our culture and it, too, is filled with repeated activities–it is the commercial calendar.
The commercial calendar does not begin with waiting, but receiving, immediately. (Well, almost immediately; you usually have to wait till the 25th to get your stuff.) Christmas is the most important shopping season of the commercial calendar. Where the center of the church calendar is God made flesh, the high priest of the commercial Christmas is Santa Claus who models a generosity that, for those of us without a workshop of elves, must be preceded by purchases. Not only do we buy gifts, we buy wrapping paper and bows, ornaments to dress our trees and homes, and enough meat to feed a non-Western family for a year. Out national economy is dependent on these weeks (months) of spending. And the day after we celebrate all our purchases, we go out (in Canada at least) to take advantage of the Boxing Day sales and buy more things.
The next significant event on the commercial calendar is Valentine’s Day. We celebrate romantic love through the purchase of a card, roses, chocolates, and dinner with Champaign. At Easter, too, we have a list of ritual purchases–if not Easter dresses, then certainly chocolate bunnies and eggs, and, my personal favourites, Peeps. The stores have sales to encourage our consumption on or around each of our national holidays. And in August we engage in the annual ritual of Back-to-School shopping–not just for paper and pencils, but for a new wardrobe as well. As soon as school starts the Thanksgiving and Halloween related products and sales are advertised, and then we arrive at American Thanksgiving. This is the holiday where Americans give thanks by fighting over “door crasher” televisions. This holiday is important to Canadians as well because merchants north of the border must offer Black Thursday Sales to compete with the American rock bottom prices that kick off the commercial Christmas season.
Rituals shape who we are. Which are the more powerful rituals in our culture? The consumer calendar is adding new rituals all the time–Presidents Day Clearance Sale!? The church calendar is down to about two events, and even then most Christians we are engaged in commercial rituals at the same time.
What is a human being? A beloved creature, helpless in sin, but saved by a loving heavenly father? Or a consumer that finds comfort an meaning in consumption? Even if we think (or even believe) it is the former, before long we will know deep in our bones that we are, in fact, the latter. This is the power of ritual.
When I was in about grade 4, I was bored in church. There was a long sermon and long prayers and a whole bunch of singing and some recitation that held little meaning to me. It just kept on going and going, on and on. I remember thinking that if I knew where we were in the service, I might it would be easier to endure. Since my father was the minister, I thought I had an in. One Saturday, I asked him if he could write out the order of events in the upcoming service. He smiled and directed my attention to the familiar bulletin. One of the pages was entitled, “Order of Worship” and beneath this was written, in order, all the elements of the service. These included “Call to Worship,” “God’s Greeting,” “The Law,” “Call to Confession,” “Prayer of Confession,” “Words of Assurance,” “Congregational Prayer,” “Offering,” “Sermon,” “Benediction” with hymns of praise, adoration, repentance and thanksgiving, in appropriate places. I had no idea that every service proceeded through the same elements each week.
The “Call to Worship” always kicked things off. A Bible passage was usually read, different every week, but they all communicated that we are sitting in church that morning, not because we decided to come, but because we responded to a call. The one who calls us to worship is none other than the Triune God. I’ve noticed that without this sense of calling, I can easily fall into the mistaken idea that my arrival signals the beginning of worship.
“God’s Greeting” — It’s his house and as a host he greets us. The weekly repetition of this element reminds us that this building is not just bricks and mortar that we assembled and pay for with weekly payments to the bank. We were drawn in by God, and he welcomes us as host–in this sense we are on holy ground. Lots of churches do the horizontal greeting, congregants to each other, but without the vertical greeting coming first, isn’t the whole experience flattened?
The “Call to Confession”: This is a weekly reminder that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. It is followed by the “Prayer of Confession” which is an acknowledgment of this fact. The Good News is that these are followed with the “Assurance” that God forgives. The Catholics do this individually. When I was a kid, we did it collectively. Nowadays, we do this occasionally–usually with a song. Does it pass unnoticed those unfamiliar with liturgical confession.
Prayer — my new church is good at this. The church is open for prayer on some weekdays. There’s a prayer room and there is communal prayer and the elders do a lot of praying. Prayer is a strange activity, when you think about it. We are talking to someone who appears to not be there. It is an enchanted activity.
Rituals and practices effect us on a deep level–they can shape who we are. When we weekly hear God call us to worship, we begin to learn that worship doesn’t start with us. When we regularly hear God greet us, we begin to learn that we are in His house, not He in ours. When we confess our sins, and are forgiven, we learn the gospel. When we sing and pray to someone we can’t see, we believe it because we are doing it.
We don’t learn it in an intellectual sense. Very little of this occurs on a level we are aware of. Modern churches, like modern society, is very rational and emphasize knowledge and information with occasional forays into apologetics and worldview. These things are important, but our identity lives much deeper than these. Far deeper than the mind, deeper even than the heart. The Hebrew believed the soul was in the gut–that’s the level where we are shaped.
Worship services can shape us. Do you think they might be able to do so even more effectively with explicit liturgies?
This post was inspired in part by Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith. I strongly recommend it for church leaders.
When I compared the church services of the Christian Reformed Church I went to as a child with the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Church, I didn’t understand why a graphic I found in a textbook said that my church, with respect to the presence of the Spirit within the physical elements of the service, was half way between these older churches and the newer Evangelical denominations. I figured the CRC (and every other “mainline” church) was way more like an evangelical church that one of the big three/older denominations. I mean, I didn’t see a whole lot of the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a CRC church service.
Then I began to regularly attend a modern Evangelical church. I have begun to understand that chart. I can see the difference between my new church and my old church, some of which, makes my old church seem pretty silly, but still, there’s something that I miss.
When I was a kid, there was a big Bible on the pulpit in the front of the sanctuary. I now know that it’s position declared the centrality of God’s word, but even though I was very young, I got a clear sense that this Bible was holy in some way. This Bible was ever used; the minister always read out of his much smaller personal Bible. The fact that it wasn’t read added to the sense of importance, rather than detracted. It was as if it was too holy to touch.
When I was about five years old, I entered the sanctuary with some other children. I felt compelled to gaze at the power and mystery represented by the Book. I’m not sure how it happened, but while I was looking, the water glass tipped and spilled all over the Bible. Although very young, we all knew the seriousness of this act and bolted from the church.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I was visiting with a seminary classmate of my father’s who recounted a time when he was a young guest pastor at a mainline church. Before he started to preach, he closed the pulpit Bible and arranged his noted on top of it. Following the service he was chastised by an elder of the church who informed him that that Bible had been sitting open on the pulpit for over 50 years. It had never been closed. Now on one level, it is ridiculous to take offense at the closing of a book, but on another level, this book was clearly far more than a composite of paper, leather and glue.
At my new church we recently had a guest speaker who was asked about the differences between our western churches and those of India where he grew up. He offered several differences; one of them had to do with our treatment of our Bibles. He said that in India, the Bible would never be placed on the ground and we do in Western churches and homes.
In my new church, there is no pulpit Bible, actually there is no pulpit, just a music stand. Most people, including me, read the Bible on an electronic device. Other people place their Bibles on the ground when they sing. The pulpit Bible of my youth was not treated with reverence just because it contained the revelation of the Most High God, but because it was more than just a physical thing–it was an enchanted object.
There aren’t too many enchanted objects in our churches anymore. Is this a problem?
When I was a university student, I came across a graphic which put the major denominations on a continuum from Roman Catholics and Anglicans on the one side, to the Evangelical denominations on the other. I’m not exactly sure of the exact wording, but my recollection is that the continuum compared the degree a denomination was open to the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit in and through the physical elements of a church service (what Owen Meany would call “hocus pocus”). The mainline churches, like the Christian Reformed Church to which I have belonged since birth, was right in the middle.
At the time, I didn’t understand how exactly the church of my youth was at all open to the Holy Spirit in the physical elements of liturgy. It was nothing like the Greek Orthodox, Anglican and Roman Catholic worship services I had attended over the years. These services were full of mysterious objects and activities that I don’t understand or appreciate, but I definitely got the sense that the physical elements were infused with a mystery, and power.
I once went to a Greek Orthodox on a Sunday morning, but hadn’t bothered checking when the service began, so I got there about an hour and a half too early. Although the pews were completely empty, there was a lot of activity behind the heavily iconic screen in the middle of the sanctuary. The priests were chanting and praying and doing things with the Bible and candles and incense and I don’t know what else. What struck me was the lack of an audience. Adorned in their priestly vestments, they were going through all sorts of complex ritual and there was no one there to see it. Or was there? It’s interesting that as much as we talk about God being the centre of worship in our protestant churches, our rituals suggest otherwise. In the churches I’m familiar with, the worship starts when the congregants show up and not before.
Besides meaningful interactions with God and preparing themselves for their role in the service, I think the Greek Orthodox priests were also engaged in activities that prepared the physical space for worship. It makes some sense that you can’t just have people walk into a place and start worshiping the Almighty, Triune, Creator God. I was thinking about the space of worship in the church of my youth. Back then it was called a sanctuary. I know that the worship space in many churches today is called an auditorium. Labels make a lot of difference. A sanctuary is a sacred or holy place. An auditorium is a place where you hear things. Notice how the first suggests the presence of the holy and the spiritual in the physical space, where the second places an emphasis on human activity; humans making noises and hearing them.
I’m glad my new church doesn’t call the space we gather for corporate worship as “the auditorium.” But what about the sense of holiness for the space in which we worship? I wonder if we have gone too far in the last 500 years.
I love “Revelation Song” by Jennie Lee Riddle. But there’s this one line that I wonder about every time I sing it.
All the lines but one contributes to a the feeling of being overwhelmed by the incredible vision the Apostle John describes in the heavenly throne room where innumerable voices of the heavenly choir sing,
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Rev. 5:15
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,’ who was, and is, and is to come. Rev. 4:8
It also includes similar images and language from the Old Testament including Psalm 98:1
Sing to the Lord a new song
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. Psalm 96:13
The reference to the “mercy seat,” which is the cover on the Ark of the Covenant–the seat of God, relocates the mercy seat to heaven, and links the reverence of the Old Testament Father to the eschatological Son. Other lines have a similar feel when they echo Ephesians 1: 20-21 where Paul reminds us that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God “in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” The splendor of the scene is reinforced with multi-sensory images of “living colors,” flashing lighting and “rolls of thunder.” The song is so good it takes me there, and I even get to join the choir with all creation. I love that!
The last time I was in Revelation, I didn’t just read it, I experienced it. At least a part of my experience was enhance by just having read Discipleship on the Edge by Darrell W. Johnson, which is a commentary on the book of Revelation. The combination of this book, The Book and the Holy Spirit was incredible. I felt that I was in the heavenly throne room.
The “Revelation Song” brings me back to that place, until I get to the line “You are my everything and I will adore You.”
That line evokes a feeling that was not a part of my original experience in the throne room when I read it.
The splendor of the scene before me evokes so much awe that subjective self is almost lost in the object of worship. Then comes the adoration line, and I shift the focus to my own feelings of adoration, which, is inconsistent with what the song so excellently expresses in every other line.
Let me say again, I love this song.
Can someone offer a way for me to understand that line so that I can enjoy the song even more?
John Wheelwright’s view of a radical transcendence (God is there, but he’s so very, very far away), results in his inability to experience a flourishing faith like that of Owen Meany or many of his spiritual mentors since. I can’t help but wonder if this is a result of John Irving’s failure to recognize the incarnational nature of reality. I think that this would explain the two serious inconsistencies in the novel. One is a fundamental inconsistency regarding John Wheelwright’s leap of faith. The second is that because of the inadequate understanding of the incarnation, the novel, inadvertently, offers no alternative to meaninglessness, when it seems it is Irving’s intention to offer a least the option of hope.
As has been discussed, it appears that John Irving works very hard to establish that the choice between a material reality that is infused with the transcendent and one that is closed to transcendence. Every supernatural explanation is always countered with a material one. Irving does this so that he can be faithful to the freedom necessary to faith as articulated by Fredrick Buechner at the beginning of the novel. It reads,
Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there is not room for doubt, there would be no room for me.
More so now than ever before, there is this type of freedom in secular society. Charles Taylor says that in modern society we have no compulsion to choose sides in the war between belief and unbelief. We live in “a kind of a no-man’s-land; except that it has got wide enough to take on the character rather of a neutral zone, where one can escape the war altogether” (Taylor 351).
Johnny would likely have lived in the “neutral zone” between belief and unbelief indefinitely, except for the miracle of Owen’s life and death. In this, Irving breaks the stalemate and forces the narrator to choose in favor of belief. Although Irving offers Rev. Merrill as the doubting Thomas, when taken together, the circumstances surrounding Owen’s death suffer no other interpretation—a leap of faith is no longer required. Johnny has no choice but to believe and then, to ask Buechner’s question, can there be any room for John Wheelwright? In forcing faith upon his narrator, Irving went against the understanding of faith he so consistently presented through every other aspect of the novel.
Second inconsistency that arises from Irving’s understanding of a radical transcendence is that, although he attempts to offer hope as at least an option, the novel ultimately offers no alternative to meaninglessness. The sense one picks up is that Irving “seems to have a Christian apologetic aim for the novel” (Sykes 58). The “book’s foregrounding of Christian spirituality, its development of a modern-day Christ-figure” (Haynes 74-75) sets a hopeful tone to the novel, but he fails, ultimately, to deliver any hope because the author’s non-incarnational (or secular) perspective forces the actions of Christ to be duplicated by Owen rather than imitated.
Irving draws very clear the parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. One of the persistent mysteries in the book revolves around the “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” perpetuated by the Catholic Church on the Meany family. It is revealed at the end of the novel that Mr. Meany believes, and communicated his belief to Owen when he was eleven years old, that Owen’s was a virgin birth. There is certainly ambiguity surrounding this claim, not the least of which is the insanity of Owen’s mother, so it is not clear whether her insanity is the cause of the UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE or a result of it. Later, in 1953, Owen’s role in the Christmas pageant will not be suspension from the rafters as the transcendent announcing angel, but instead he will replace the babies and play the more immanent role of the Little Lord Jesus. Although he never raised anyone from the dead, it was once said that his voice “could bring those mice back to life!” (17). To reflect the unusual quality of his voice, Irving represents Owen’s words using all capital letters, and the effect is much like that of a red letter edition of the Bible in which the words of Christ are set off from the rest of the text. Then there is Owen’s Mary Magdalene relationship with Hester the Molester. “She with the reputation for promiscuity becomes devoted to Owen, yet so far as anyone knows, they are never lovers” (Sykes 64). In the chapter called “The Voice,” he preaches against the establishment, occasionally breaking its laws, and he attacks the hypocrisy of the new headmaster of Gravesend Academy. Consequently, he is brought before the Sanhedrin –he is called irreverent (289) and antireligious (409, 413). Eventually Owen’s enemies “crucified him” (398-99) after being passed between the Academy’s chaplain and psychologist—Herod and Pilot, if you will. He even repeats the words of Christ on several occasions; “FATHER FORGIVE THEM FOR THEY NO NOT WHAT THEY DO,” (151) is one example. Johnny, in a frustrated attempt to thwart “Owen’s stubborn pursuit of a heroic death, . . . plays Judas to Owen’s Christ, betraying him” (Haynes 82) to his commander. Owen has a Gethsemane experience the day before his death (Irving 585). The most significant parallel to Christ is of course his sacrificial death. Owen death does not achieve cosmic redemption—he saves a group of Vietnamese orphans—but he willingly gives his life for others, just the same. There is even a final Pieta when the nun cradles him in her arms.
In attempting to create meaning through the illumination of the Christ of the Christian faith, Irving instead undercuts meaning, by creating a duplicate Christ rather than an imitation of Christ. The real Christ is too transcendent, so Irving has to create “a new character of God’s holy choosing” (542)—Owen Meany. A Christ figure can function as a powerful metaphor which “carries us away, embodies us in itself and moves us deeply when we surrender ourselves to it” (Polanyi 79), but in Owen Meany, Irving gives us a literal Christ. The meaning of Owen Meany is not found in the focal point that is Jesus Christ; the meaning of Owen Meaning goes no further than Owen Meany. Thus, John Wheelwright’s “belief is notably a-christological. Owen, John’s Christ figure, plays a larger role in his thoughts than does Christ; the Christian paradigm is more important that Christ himself” (Sykes 63). Once again, Irving falls into this trap because he does not really have an adequate understanding of the incarnate Christ; his Christ is radically transcendent.
The effect of Irving’s non-incarnational spirituality shapes the conclusion. As a duplicate Christ, there are many parallels between the life of Owen and that of Jesus. Owen’s sacrificial death is the most significant parallel, for his whole life has meaning in his death. Taylor says that death, particularly the moment of death, “is the privileged site from which the meaning of life can be grasped” (723). Irving understands this and therefore structures the plot accordingly; the funeral and almost all of the resolutions occur before the recounting of the events surrounding Owen’s death. Death brings out meaning for both the one who faces his own death as well as for the bereaved (Taylor 722). Those who have lost a loved one “struggle to hold onto the meaning they have built with the deceased” (722) while at the same time letting go. The purpose of our funeral rites and ceremonies is to “connect this person . . . with something eternal” (722). Within the world of the novel, this is the reason for John Wheelwright to tell the story of Owen Meany. Yet for Johnny, that eternal is so far away that to link Owen to it is to lose Owen. With the loss of Owen, is the loss of meaning.
Irving attempts to offer Wheelwright, and his readers, a resurrection of sorts by “subtle references to death and rebirth” (Haynes 79). Owen is regularly linked with death. His skin is “the color of a gravestone” (2); he encounters and scars off the Angel of Death; his summer job is working in his father’s monument shop; and in the army he becomes a casualty assistance officer in the army. There is very little irony behind Owen’s statement to Johnny the day before his death that he is “IN THE DYING BUSINESS” (604). Irving builds suggestions of rebirth into the novel as well. The setting for the story is Gravesend—graves end; Owen wrote for the school newspaper, “The Grave,” under the penname, “The Voice”: the voice from the grave (Haynes 79). The pattern of rebirth is built into the structure of the novel. Tabitha Wheelwright’s death is recounted in the first chapter, but in the second we meet and get to know the living Tabby; after her death in chapter one, she is, in effect, brought back to life in chapter two. Lastly, Owen’s sacrificial death occurs in the Phoenix airport, named for the mythical bird that is reborn from its own ashes (79).
By associating Owen with the pattern of death and rebirth, Irving’s attempts to connect Owen to the transcendent, but because he thinks of it as so distant, the attempt fails. In secular society, there is no sense of flourishing in and after death. Such is the case with Johnny following Owen’s death. So all he can do is tell a story about Owen’s life. The last line of the novel is the prayer for Owen Meany. John Wheelwright prays, “Oh God—Please give him back! I shall keep asking you” (617). It is a prayer for John Wheelwright to have his own meaning back – in its immanent form. After his conversion, Irving’s narrator believes in the transcendent and through the writing of the book he seeks meaning, but he will not seek it in the incarnate Christ; he will seek it in His duplicate. Therefore, with Owen dies meaning. As things stand at the novel’s end, Owen is too far away—just like the God to whom the narrator offers his final prayer.
We live in a secular age and therefore belief in God is not a given as it once was. In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving honestly presents this reality by presenting characters in various states of belief and unbelief. In almost every case, he maintains ambiguity by undercutting both faith and doubt. However, in the life and death of Owen Meany, he gives us a miracle. Within the world of the novel, there is no explanation other than the transcendent puncturing the ordinary world. This reflects Irving’s view of the radical otherness of the transcendent that governs the novel. The inadequacy of this view is seen in the continued struggles of the adult John Wheelwright after his conversion. He fails to achieve fullness because, once he accepts the presence of God, he cannot encounter him. Therefore, he is stuck in between. He believes in God, but only as an impersonal force who has poked his celestial finger into objective reality and for all he knows, that divine digit may since have been amputated like his own. John Wheelwright’s story illustrates that in a secular, closed immanent world, Christians have to “struggle to recover a sense of what the Incarnation can mean” (Taylor 753). That is, to understand that God does not just poke, but He’s got the whole world in his hands. And in that reality, we can find the fullness we desire.
This book concludes my chapter by chapter commentary through A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. If you missed these posts, you can read the first one here.
In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving presents an incarnational spirituality in the novel. Owen is the character that embodies this view of reality. That Irving is not able to embrace the incarnational view is manifest in the conversion of the story’s narrator, John Wheelwright.
Wheelwright ends up believing in God in the end, but where Owen’s faith is “certain, personal, and immediate,” Johnny’s is “tenuous, ritualized and mediated in many ways” (Haynes 91). In his chapter on conversion, Charles Taylor says that “people who undergo conversion . . . may take on a new view about religion from others . . . who have radiated some sense of more direct contact” (729). This is clearly the route of John Wheelwright’s conversion since it was the miracle of Owen’s life and death that caused Johnny to think differently about God. As narrator, John Wheelwright declares his belief in the first sentence of the novel: “[Owen Meany] is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1); but he is certainly not the Bible thumping warrior that Reverend Wiggins is. Although he is a “pretty regular churchgoer” (1), he “skips a Sunday now and then;” he “makes no claims to be especially pious” (2), nor does he read the Bible much, preferring the orderliness of The Book of Common Prayer.
Irving emphasizes this passive expression of faith by metaphorically equating his narrator to Joseph. Owen chose for Johnny the role of Joseph in the Christmas pageant. In commenting on this event Wheelwright says, “I was just a Joseph; I felt that Owen Meany had already chosen me for the only part I could play” (207). This is a refrain of the narrator through the novel who describes Joseph, and himself by association, as “that hapless follower, that stand in, that guy along for the ride (160). This reflects the passivity that is clearly evident in his expression of faith throughout the novel. Still he seems to resent the role: “I—Joseph—had nothing to do, nothing to say, nothing to learn” (167), and again, “I, Joseph—forever standing in the wings” (214). He appears to have had very little success in getting himself out of the role for he says, “I was twenty-one and I was still a Joseph; I was a Joseph then, and I am just a Joseph now” (439). When he finally discovers the identity of his biological father, he expresses his disappointment in the discovery by saying, “My father is a Joseph, just like me” (571). Wheelwright admits that he has a faith just like his father used to have, before he was tricked into having “absolute and unshakable faith” (571).
So why is John Wheelwright “just a Joseph”?
Because his faith is never like that of Owen’s. The differences between the faith as lived by Owen and that of John Wheelwright are not attributable to the difference between the direct and indirect varieties of religious experience that Charles Taylor talks about. In Johnny’s case, there is something inadequate about his leap of faith.
Johnny certainly experiences a conversion, according to the criteria set out by Taylor, because he experiences “a transformation of the frame in which [he] thought, felt and lived before” (Taylor 731). However, if we look at the nature of Johnny’s conversion the reason for his passive and vacillating faith becomes clear. When Johnny is converted, it is to a belief merely in the existence of the transcendent. If conversion is “breaking out of a narrower frame into a broader field” (Taylor 768), then he has a conversion experience, but the field into which he breaks is not broad. He recognizes the transcendent, but does not go so far as to see the it incarnationally. Quoting T. S. Eliot Taylor says, “Human kind cannot bear too much reality,” (769) so it is necessary for us to shut out the transcendent to some degree. The extent to which an individual does this varies. Johnny’s equilibrium does not shift very much. He “shuts out” much of the new view of the transcendent; his new equilibrium is not very far from where it was when he did not believe in the transcendent. He is a believer, but this remains a fact, and never develops into a life.
Given that this is the state of his narrator at the end of the novel, I wonder if John Irving himself cannot make the leap that he forced on his narrator. Although Irving seems to locate transcendence in immanence in the character of Owen Meany, he is not able to overcome his own secular framework; instead he holds to an oppositional model of transcendence–transcendence is opposite of immanence, rather than inhabiting it. So, the conversion of his narrator is, at best, only one of imposed rational acceptance. Wheelwright never achieves a flourishing faith because he remains trapped in a secular immanence—his acceptance of the existence of God, even Jesus Christ faith is not able to provide the meaning that an incarnational faith would offer, because they are as far away as is Owen Meany.
Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.
This post will not be about the finger. You probably already figured out that through the removal of his finger, John Wheelwright joins Chief Watahantowet, the armadillo, the dressmaker’s dummy, the Mary Magdalene statue in armlessness.
By this point in the novel we have a pretty good understanding of the person who is telling us this story. Our impressions are gleaned, in particular, from the diary-like interjections into each chapter. To understand what Irving is trying to tell us about his narrator, we can look at the contrast between the life of the adult John Wheelwright and that of Rev. Katherine Keeling, headmistress of the Bishop Strachan School.
Wheelwright comments of the thinness of Katherine Keeling. Her thinness is symbolic of her unselfishness as she gives her life away to her charges–family, friends and the students of the school. She’s very nurturing, even of Wheelwright in that she takes him on family vacations to the cabin.
It can be said that Katherine experiences “fullness” in her life where Wheelwright does not.
Charles Taylor describes “fullness” as a sense that “life is richer, deeper, more worth while, more admirable, more than it should be” (Taylor 5). Fullness, whether we recognize the existence of the supernatural or not, is “a reflection of the transcendent” (769). But fullness also has its “negative slope; where we experience above all a distance and absence, an exile, a seemingly irremediable incapacity to ever reach this place” (6).
It is clear through the narration of this story that John Wheelwright experiences fulfillment in his relationship with Owen Meany, indeed, it is likely that the reader experiences something of the same thing while reading the novel—but he has not experienced it since Owen’s death.
There has never been another encounter with a richer and deeper life for Wheelwright because he still holds the transcendent to be oppositional rather than incarnational. With this chasm between immanent and transcendent realities, Wheelwright’s perspective is laden with a host of other oppositions—the United States “must either be perfect or damned;” Owen must be either divine or human” and his own life must be “either wonderful or terrible” ( Taylor 153). In the absence of an incarnational perspective, he does not encounter fullness in the transcendent, instead he often experiences a “self-exile into bitterness, childishness, self-pity and nostalgia” (153)—the negative orientation of fullness.
Most of the characters continue to oppose Owen’s faith, particularly in his belief that “the dream” is a vision of the future. Owen tells the story of his dream with “the certainty and authority . . . of a documentary, which is the tone of voice of those undoubting parts of the Bible” (473). According to Johnny, to treat the dream seriously is infantile; as he puts it to Owen, “this is so childish. . . . You can’t believe that everything that pops into your head means something! You can’t have a dream and believe that you ‘know’ what you’re supposed to do” (472). Johnny repeats, “It’s just a dream” and declares it “a stereotype” (475). Johnny argues from a psychoanalytical perspective that in the dream the nuns, the palm trees and the children “are tied to unresolved psychological conflicts in Owen that merely take the most available raw material for their indirect expression” (Eisenstein 8).
Owen insists that his faith is not childish, or irrational. He tries to explain reasonable faith to Johnny using the statue of Mary Magdalene that was near the basketball court where they practiced “the shot” until it was dark. Owen would ask, “YOU CAN’T SEE HER, BUT YOU KNOW SHE’S STILL THERE, RIGHT?” He repeatedly, and annoyingly, returned to this question, “YOU’RE SURE . . . YOU HAVE NO DOUBT . . . YOU ABSOLUTELY KNOW SHE’S THERE?” until Johnny screams, “Yes!” Then Owen says, “NOW YOU KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT GOD” (451).
When you have finished the chapter entitled, “The Shot,” read my commentary on this final chapter.
Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.
In the seventh chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen’s life continues to parallel that of Jesus: Because of Owen’s attacks on the establishment, especially the hypocrisy of the new headmaster. Owen is brought before the Sanhedrin –he is called irreverent (289) and antireligious (409, 413). Eventually Owen’s enemies “crucified him” (398-99) after being passed between the Academy’s chaplain and psychologist—Herod and Pilot, if you will.
Owen has a recurring dream. We don’t know the specifics, but Owen understands it as a divinely inspired “vision.” Predictably, to the more secular Johnny, it’s “just a dream.” For Wheelwright, faith is a “trust that is antithetical to rational demonstration” (Sykes 59). Because of this, it is not possible for him to have faith, or understand that of Owen. All the other characters of the novel share Johnny’s opinion (Dan Needham, Harriet Wheelwright, Hester, Pastor Merrill, and Father Findley), and for the same reason.
The dispute between Owen and Johnny on the issue of belief is the same in our culture at large. According to Charles Taylor, there is little argument as to whether there is an immanent reality or not. What is disputable is whether it lies within a transcendent one. According to Taylor, the material world “allows of both readings, without compelling us to either” (Taylor 550). Because the material reality allows for both, taking a position on whether or not there is also a supernatural realm requires a ‘leap of faith.’ The particular direction we chose to leap is dictated by “our over-all personal take on . . . life” (Taylor 550). However, our “take” can change through experience. This is conversion. Taylor describes two types of conversions. The first type is a “seemingly self-authenticating experience” and the second comes about more indirectly through those whose experience is more direct. Owen’s conversion is of the first order and Johnny’s is of the second.
It becomes more and more clear that Owen, like most theists to one degree or another, believes the events of his life a following a divine plan. Like a good secular modernist, John Wheelwright believes in free will; he believes that ones choices or chance govern the universe. “Disbelief is hard in the enchanted world” (Taylor 41); because Owen lives in such a world, it is far easier to be a believer, but Johnny, who experiences the world as disenchanted, was continuously puzzled by Owen’s faith. Irving makes it clear that choosing between these two is extremely difficult; he consistently problematizes both views.
Irving insures an ambiguity between faith and doubt by “giving us access to Owen only through Johnny’s second hand narration, rather than the direct evidence on which Owen’s own faith is based” (Haynes 78). With this narrative device, Irving undercuts both belief and unbelief and maintains a non-didactic stance. This is seen in one of the novel’s major story lines—the search for the identity of Johnny Wheelwright’s biological father. Unbelief, or faith in rationalistic explanation, is undercut in the elaborate investigation of this paternal mystery. Pursuit of the facts takes the boys down various avenues all of which turn out to be far from the truth. By keeping both paths ambiguous, Irving is consistent with Taylor’s assertion that we have no compulsion to choose one over the other.
Owen’s faith arises from a combination of that which underlies the “UNSPEAKABLE OUTRAGE” and the hitting the foul ball which kills Tabitha Wheelwright. “The first of these events determines Owen’s religious interpretation of the second” (Eisenstien 7). This fusion is not “rational”; it is believed as a leap of faith. The fusion amounts to a direct encounter with God and once it is believed, other things follow which are equally irrational but do not require another leap of faith. Owen sees the inseparability of material reality and the transcendent as having a real bearing on his life. His voice and diminutive size, his obsession with “the shot,” the regular return to the image of armlessness, his vision of the date on the tombstone in the play, and his recurring dream are all informed by his belief in the fusion of the transcendent and the immanent—he has an integrative and incarnational view of reality.
On the one hand, recognizing that faith is not required to be in accordance with reason, he asserts “YOU CAN’T PROVE A MIRACLE” (272). “REAL MIRACLES AREN’T ANYTHING YOU CAN SEE—THEY’RE THINGS YOU HAVE TO BELIEVE WITHOUT SEEING (309). On the other hand, he doesn’t believe everything that pops into his head; “FAITH IS A LITTLE MORE SELECTIVE THAN THAT” (472). Because Owen’s faith is incarnational, he is not so focused on the either faith or reason, but on the purpose of his life in which each event or action has meaning.
This bears repeating: the battle is not between faith and reason; it’s between meaning and meaninglessness, purpose and purposelessness.
Sykes, John. “Christian Apologetic Uses of the Grotesque in John Irving and Flannery O. Connor.” Literature and Theology 10.1 (1996) : 58-67.
Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.
Haynes, Stephen. “Footsteps of Ann Hutchinson and Frederick Buechner: A Religious Reading of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Religion and Literature. 27.3 (1995): 73-98.
The life of Owen Meany has many parallels to that of Jesus Christ. Who else is Hester, but Owen’s Mary Magdalene? She has “the reputation for promiscuity [and is]devoted to Owen, yet so far as anyone knows, they are never lovers” (Sykes 64). Another parallel between Owen and Jesus is that, as “The Voice,” Owen preaches against the established authorities and occasionally breaking its laws–and he attacks the hypocrisy of the high priest, the new headmaster of Gravesend Academy
There is more to say about the Owen Meany material in the chapter entitled, “The Voice,” but I thought I would focus my discussion on the interjections of the narrator in this chapter.
These interjections are contain information about his present life in Toronto and are always signaled by a gap in the text and then a heading: “Toronto: May 13, 1987″ (319). It is fruitful to look for connections between the narrated stories and these diary-like sections from 1987. In this chapter, for instance, the adult John Wheelwright interrupts his Owen narrative to report on:
- Liberace’s death
- Holy Week
- Easter Sunday including a recounting of the Easter Story
- Mrs. Brocklebank’s dandelions and starfish regeneration
- On the teaching of Tess of the D’Urbervilles
- On the teaching of The Great Gatsby
The first four of these interjections tell a very important story as to the mindset of the narrator. Although the first interjection from February 5, 1987 comments on Liberace’s death specifically, it is important in that it brings up the topic of death in general. In the entry dated April 12, the beginning of Holy Week, the narrator expresses his anxiety that the Resurrection won’t happen this year. He knows what Owen would say, “IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE IN EASTER . . . DON’T KID YOUSELF–DON’T CALL YOURSELF A CHRISTIAN.” On April 19 he recounts the Easter story. And on May 12, Wheelwright’s discussion with Mrs. Brocklebank moves from dandelion removal to the regeneration of starfish. Taken in the context of the preceding entries, aren’t we are really talking about resurrection even if it is only that of starfish? In this chapter, the narrators interjections move from death, through resurrection anxiety, to resurrection. This subject is important for anyone who has lost someone important to them, as is the case with the narrator
The later interjections in this chapter, are comments on the novels the teacher Wheelwright uses in his English classes. And interjections are just as telling. Tess of the D’Urbervilles was written by Thomas Hardy. Fatalism is one of the characteristics of Hardy’s novels in general and Tess in particular. In Tess, fate drives the plot. Tess’s decisions and the events of the early part of the novel begin an irreversible sequence of events. She is powerless to change the trajectory of her life as governed by Fate. The use of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby says something about the narrator. The Great Gatsby is narrated by Nick Caraway, who is enamoured with his idol and who is well known for his observations of the events in the novel rather than his participation in them. As with these references to classic novels, the other interjections by the narrator throughout the novel are not without their significance.
Read the next chapter, “The Dream,” in A Prayer for Owen Meany and then read my commentary here.