crossing the line

interrogating boundaries

“A Prayer for Owen Meany” — “The Angel”

leave a comment »

Owen MeanyBefore I get into chapter 3 in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I wanted to point out the pattern of rebirth that is built into the structure of the novel. Tabitha Wheelwright’s death is recounted in the first chapter, but in the following chapters we meet and get to know the living Tabby; after her death in chapter one, she is, in effect, brought back to life in chapters 2 and 3.

The episode when Owen saw an Angel illustrates the essential difference between Owen, with his incarnational view of reality, and Johnny, who sees the immanent and the transcendent as radically separate.

‘THAT’S SO CATHOLIC . . . TO GET VERY RELIGIOUS ABOUT OBJECTS.’

This was a theme of Owen’s–the Catholics and their adoration of OBJECTS. Yet Owen’s habit of collecting objects that he made (in his own way) RELIGIOUS was well known” (270).

Owen’s understanding of objects is definitely incarnational rather than secular. In the secular worldview, an object has only meanings that are attributed to it by a human subject. In Owen’s incarnational view, the objects possess inherent meaning and value without the help of any human subject.

In the eyes of Owen Meany, the objects are subjects–that is, they are something meaningful in and of themselves.   The dressmaker’s dummy is one such object. The boys use Tabitha Wheelwright’s dressmaker’s dummy as an object of entertainment, but it seems to have special meaning for Owen. After Tabitha’s death, Owen commandeers it from Dan and takes it to his house, bedecked in the mysterious red dress. Although he provides the excuse, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO STARE AT THIS DUMMY AND MAKE YOURSELF MORE UNHAPPY” (140), he takes it because of the meaning that is inherent in it. The narrator suggests “that it had a purpose” (142) which only Owen could see.

The dummy, and other objects, possess significant meaning for Owen. Johnny observes Owen’s obsessions with them, but does not understand them, for he views these objects from a secular framework where the only meaning in an object is that which the individual human subject attributes to it. Regarding Owen’s engagement and use of these objects, we might go so far as to suggest that, in Charles Taylor’s words, as Owen enters “the zone of power of exogenous meaning,” the meaning includes or perhaps penetrates him. The important thing is that “the meaning can no longer be placed within; nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is a kind of interspace which straddles what for us [in the modern world,] is a clear boundary” (A Secular Age 35).   In other words, for Owen, the boundary between nature and supernature is porous. The transcendent isn’t way off somewhere, but within the physical world of objects and persons and actions.

How one interprets events is influenced by how one understands the relationship between the transcendent and the immanent. With his secular view, Johnny interprets Owen’s sighting of the angel much differently than does Owen with his incarnational view. Owen was sleeping over at 80 Front Street and was feeling sick, so Johnny told Owen to go tell his mother. Anticipating a reaction from Owen, as he is bound to be startled by the dressmaker’s dummy which stands near Tabitha’s bed, Johnny is not surprised when Owen returns saying, “YOUR MOTHER IS NOT ALONE . . . I THINK IT’S AN ANGEL” (101). It soon becomes apparent that Owen was not reacting to the dummy because the angel was standing on the other side of the bed. The secular Johnny is very quick to touch Owen’s forehead, and conclude that because he has a fever, the entire incident was imagined. Owen never accepts this explanation; he lives in an enchanted world where such visitations are possible. Later he concludes that he had interrupted the Angel of Death at its work, and in so doing, received responsibility to complete the task himself.

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Armadillo”

leave a comment »

Owen MeanyThe novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany presents a clash of worldviews. Owen sees and understands the world in a much different way than do the young Johnny and the other characters in the novel. The key difference is that Owen is not as strongly influenced by modern secularism as are most.

Modern secularism is the dominant worldview of the West. One of the fundamental features of modern secularism (perhaps the fundamental feature) is the radical separation of the material world from the nonmaterial or spiritual realm. Importantly, modern secularism isn’t just out there in “the world”; it has shaped the church to a large degree.

Modern secularism finds its roots in the Enlightenment. Before the Enlightenment, and in those cultures less affected by the Enlightenment, it is not so easy to separate the spiritual from the material. For the pre-modern mind, a tree or a person or even an act have both spiritual and material dimensions that are inseparable.   Where the modern mind believes this separation is essential, the pre-Modern mind rejects such boundaries. This latter view, because the transcendent indwells the immanent, can be called the incarnational view of reality.

In the novel, it is Owen Meany who sees the world incarnationally.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the features of the pre-modern understanding of the world that makes it different from that of the modern. Pre-modern societies live in an “enchanted” world when the supernatural is recognized as a very real presence in the world. In the enchanted world, meaning does not come from within our individual minds, but from outside of us–the meaning is already there in the object, person or event. It is not something we give; it is there quite independently of the subject, us, and it would be there even if there were no human mind to engage it. This is not the modern view where meaning is simply an operation of our minds.

The framework in which Owen Meany lives is one where the immanent is infused with the transcendent. He lives in a world of filled with enchanted objects–a world full of meaning. Perhaps this is the reason behind his surname.

The events surrounding the stuffed armadillo illustrates Owen’s vision of the world. The stuffed armadillo is an object, infused with meaning. Johnny loves the thing because it is a gift from Dan, but for Owen the armadillo holds far more significance. The narrator recounts the careful arrangement of the armadillo on the nightstand between their beds when Owen slept over. It is always placed so that its profile was perfect, but in the morning, it is turned more toward Owen. On one occasion, Johnny wakes up and found Owen awake, staring at the armadillo and smiling (62). Eventually Owen would tell John, “IT’S HARD TO GO TO SLEEP WITHOUT IT ONCE YOU GET USED TO IT” (79). It is never articulated what meaning Owen has discovered in the armadillo, but his behavior indicates he has found something

Because of what he sees in the armadillo, Owen uses it in an elaborate ritual of exchange to communicate his feelings for complicity in the death of Johnny’s mother. Owen has “no other way to articulate the way [he] felt” (84) about “the foul ball” than giving Johnny his most prized possession—his baseball card collection (another enchanted object). Johnny does not understand this gesture, but Dan Needham explains and coaches him to give something in return. Johnny chooses to give Owen the armadillo and Owen returns the armadillo with its front claws removed. Johnny is indignant at this act of violence and puzzled, for Owen loved the armadillo more than he did.

Johnny realizes that Owen has connected this act of amputation to Watahantowet’s armless totem. Watahantowet was the Indian leader who sold the Whiteman the land where Gravesend is situated. Both the armless armadillo and the Indian totem speak from a frame of reference where “everything had its own souls, its own spirit” (86). For Watahantowet, the land was full of spirits so that when he sold it to the white men, he understood the terrible cost. According to the narrator, his armless totem said, “Here take my land. There go my arms!” (87). This might be true for Wheelwright who come across as impotent in many ways, but Watahantowet is also associated with Owen Meany who is the opposite of impotent. Owen had already formed the idea that he would later share with Johnny: “GOD HAS TAKEN YOUR MOTHER. MY HANDS WERE THE INSTRUMENT. GOD HAS TAKEN MY HANDS. I AM GOD’S INSTRUMENT” (87). Owen sees his physical hands in the context of divine purpose and armlessness in symbolic of his, indeed all mankind’s, inability to resist the will of God. In this one event, we see that Owen lives out of a world that Charles Taylor calls the enchanted world.

Owen Meany’s world is enchanted, but Johnny Wheelwright lives in a secular world–they function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational view where the transcendent is within the immanent; Johnny represents the secular view where the transcendent is so far separated from the immanent that it is irrelevant, if it exists at all. In this secular view, says Charles Taylor, “all thought, feeling and purpose, all features we normally can ascribe to agents, must be in minds, which are distinct from the ‘outer’ world” (Taylor 539). As representative of the secular view, Johnny cannot understand a world where objects have meaning in themselves, that events may be meaningfully guided by a higher purpose.

Enjoy chapter 3 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Angel.”

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

leave a comment »

Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany is narrated by the adult John Wheelwright. As he tells the story of how Owen Meany is responsible for his belief in the Christian God, he regularly breaks into the narrative commenting on his life in the present, often on his current spiritual struggles . The faith that he owes to Owen Meany is a very particular kind of faith; he describes it as a “church-rummage faith–the kind that needs patching up every weekend” (2).

Wheelwright has a fairly low view of his faith, justifiably, I think. When he describes his faith in these first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead.   Death is perhaps it is the best place to start the story of ones conversion. Many are under the misconception that Christianity is all about being good, but it’s not. The problem that all humans face is not, ultimately, that we are ill-behaved, but that we are going to die.   Christianity is very much an answer to this most fundamental concern. The good news is that Christ saves us from death; the Christian life is a grateful response to this truth. On the one hand, it is appropriate that the narrator starts with death, but his focus is not on his salvation from death by faith, but on denominational differences and what passages will be read at his funeral. Not much joy in that. Watch for this pattern in adult John Wheelwright’s comments–when speaking of spiritual matters; he usually misses the essence of faith by focusing on peripheral concerns.

In a novel about Christian faith and doubt, the characters will occupy positions on a continuum between two poles. Owen Meany has a lot of faith and sits at one end of the continuum; the young Johnny Wheelwright is toward the other–He says, “the greatest difference between us: he believed more than I did” (22).

It is important to explore this difference a little. Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is modern, which means secular. One of the main characteristics of this view of the world is that there is a radical separation between the material (or immanent) world and the transcendent or spiritual one.   Owen Meany has a pre-modern understanding of transcendence and immanence; he sees a much closer relationship between the two. In essence, where the secular minds of the other characters (as well as Irving and many of his readers) necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany’s does not.   In the novel, it is Owen Meany who is the lone adherent to this more integrative, incarnational view of reality where the transcendent and immanent are intertwined.

But Irving has gone further that just giving Owen pre-modern belief; he’s not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural. The transcendent qualities of Owen Meany are apparent in the first pages of the novel. The Sunday school children “thought it a miracle” (2) how little he weighs and so, made a game of lifting him into the air. When the Sunday school teacher returns from her cigarette and finds Owen up in the air she would always command, “Owen Meany . . . . You get down from up there!” (5). The narrator derisively comments on the stupidity of Mrs. Walker to miss the obvious cause of Owen’s levitation. Yet in the final paragraphs, he acknowledges that they did not realize there were “forces that contributed to [their] illusion of Owen’s weightlessness,” suggesting that there was a transcendent tug on Owen that they “didn’t have the faith to feel” (617). Furthermore, Owen Meany had a peculiar voice; it was a “strangled, emphatic falsetto” (5) or a “shout through his nose” (3). In any case, it was a voice that was “not entirely of this world” (5). It was also observed that “light was both absorbed and reflected by his skin, as with a pearl, so that he appeared translucent at times” (3). The overall effect of these elements on others was significant. Hester later says of her first encounter with Owen, “I didn’t think he was human” (69) because he looked like a descending angel . . . a tiny but fiery god” (69).

Irving has not given Owen transcendent qualities, but grounds him is such a way to blur the boundaries between the his materiality and spirituality. Owen is extremely small and light, yet he lives, and later works, in a granite quarry. His name—Meany—suggests his humble origins and his littleness, yet he sees himself as an instrument in the hand of God and acts the part. The cumulative effect of grounding the transcendent Owen Meany is that Irving is attempting to locate transcendence in immanence. By doing so, Irving shows that he understands the importance of the incarnation to Christian faith and in the novel, Owen continues to represent an integrative faith in contrast to other characters.

Where the secular mind sees things in clearly bounded categories, one of the most significant qualities of Owen Meany is his resistance to categories.   The paradoxical nature of Owen Meany is correlative to that of Jesus Christ. The secular mind resists the idea that Jesus was as both fully God and fully Man, transcendence incarnated in immanence. Both Jesus and Owen, in his far more humble way, embody these paradoxes. Irving repeatedly establishes parallels between Owen Meany and Jesus Christ. Owen’s voice is shown in all caps– suggestive of the red letter editions of the Bible. Wheelwright explains his grandmother’s reaction to Owen’s voice.   She said, “‘You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?’ she asked me. ‘I mean caught–their little necks broken–I mean dead,’ Grandmother said. ‘Well, that boy’s voice, ‘my grandmother told me, ‘that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life'” (17). This description draws a metaphoric comparison to the voice of Jesus who actually could bring someone back to life.

Two last things that I should mention. In chapter 1 we see the first mention of armlessness (8). Back in Gravesend history, the local chief, Watahantowet, instead of using a signature to sign a deed, signed it with his totem–an armless man. This begins the motif of armlessness that runs through the novel. The meaning of armlessness is clarified, but never defined. Later in this chapter Watahantowet is referred to as “spiritually armless.”

Lastly, this chapter also shows that Johnny Wheelwright’s desire to know who his father is. Owen prophesied that God would identify Johnny’s father for him. “YOUR DAD CAN HIDE FROM YOU, BUT HE CAN’T HIDE FROM GOD” (10). The search for the father is symbolic of every human beings search for the one whose image we bear.   The narrator links the search for his earthly father to finding his heavenly one when he says, regarding Owen’s prophesy, “that was the day that Owen Meany began his lengthy contribution to my belief in God.”

There’s so much more we could talk about, but it’s far better to read Irving’s narrative than my exposition, so enjoy chapter 2 and then return to trentdejong.com and read the post on “The Armadillo.”

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Introduction

leave a comment »

Owen MeanyMy favourite book is A Prayer for Owen Meany. It’s really funny. It is one of those books that can’t be read in bed because your unsuccessfully-stifled laughter will make it impossible for your spouse to sleep. It offers the full range of humour, from ridiculous situations through extraordinary characters to profound ironies. And the more times you read it, the funnier it gets.

I also like it because it is very well-crafted. It’s full of the things students of literature like to notice: comparisons and contrast, patterns and parallels, foils, symbols, ironies, motifs and juxtapositions.

It doesn’t just make you think about Literature things, though. It also makes you think about life which is what art often does.

This novel is about doubt, but mostly about belief in God. The novel opens with “I am a Christian because of Owen Meany” (1).

This is an important book because in it’s exploration of faith, it reveals some very important things about faith in a modern context. By modern, I don’t mean that we have smart phones and smart cars. To be Modern means we have a certain way of looking at the world, at the other and at ourselves. The novel doesn’t just reveal the difficulty of faith in the modern world, but the nature of that faith.   The influence of Modernism can easily produce an anemic faith. As you read the novel, you will see this limited faith held by the adult narrator of the story.   I have very little doubt that all North American Christians need to very aware of the power of the Modern worldview to significantly distort all relationships, including that which we have with God.

This all sounds rather serious, and it is, but, don’t forgot–this book is the funniest and most entertaining book I’ve ever read.

I invite you go get yourself a copy of A Prayer for Owen Meany, and read it with me.

I’ll be posting at the end of each chapter with my commentary on how the novel might be useful to help us understand our own struggle with faith in our world today.

Be sure to read the three epigraphs that precede the narrative. These little gems are being used to help us focus on the key ideas in the novel.

The first:

Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. –The Letter of Paul to the Philippians

The first points out that God is close enough to us that we can talk to him and ask things of him. It also suggests that awareness of God’s presence alleviates our anxiety

The second epigraph:

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 were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. –Frederick Buechner

Buechner points out that in the face of absolutely certain evidence about God’s existence, the individual believer would be annihilated. Irving takes this idea very seriously; he continuously undercuts certainty wherever it reveals itself. Or does he?

The third epigraph:

Any Christian who is not a hero is a pig. –Leon Bloy

As you read, attend to the connection between Christian faith and heroism.

My next post will be on Chapter 1: “The Foul Ball.”

 

“Maybe Jesus was a vampire?”

with 3 comments

Vampire JesusAre there vampires in the Bible? A few of the characters on HBO’s True Blood suggest there are. Lazarus, Cain and Eve are presented as possibilities, but then the dim-witted Jason Stackhouse hypothesizes, “Maybe Jesus was the first vampire?” Jason’s evidence for this assertion is that Jesus rose from the dead and he told his followers to drink his blood.

This conversation over a cafeteria lunch wasn’t any deeper than this, but it prompted some of the shows fans to ask the question again here and here.

Silly question? Perhaps, but the answer is far from silly.

Jesus is like Dracula because he could not be contained in the grave. Actually, this comparison doesn’t really work. Although Dracula lived for many centuries, by the end of Bram Stoker’s novel the eponymous anti-hero was dead at the hands of the Crew of Light. On the other hand, Jesus, according to the book of Revelation, is shown to be seated at the right hand of God ruling for all eternity. I suppose Jason’s mistake is understandable given that it’s not likely he’s read either of these books.

Another way Dracula is like Jesus is that they were both thought to be human, but really weren’t. Oh, wait; this isn’t true either. Jesus was fully human. Born like a human, ate and drank like a human, died like a human. Dracula, on the other hand, is not very human at all. He could turn himself into various animals and even smoke. He didn’t come to be like a human, he didn’t eat or drink like a human and he didn’t die like a human.

Then there’s the whole blood thing that Jason brought up. Dracula drinks blood; Jesus doesn’t drink blood. I’m not sure how this is a positive comparison.

This is actually the essential difference between the vampire and Jesus. Jesus gives his innocent blood for the sake of the guilty, the vampire is guilty of taking innocent blood for his own sake. Jesus fills the empty with his blood; Dracula drains the full of their blood. Christ’s giving of his blood is symbolically enacted in the Eucharist, where believers symbolically partake of the blood of Christ. Again, what is rehearsed in this ritual is Christ’s giving his blood for the sake of humanity. When Dracula drinks the blood, usually of a young maiden, he is rejuvenated–it is the secret to his immortality.   As Jesus gives up his blood, he dies. This is the secret to our immortality.

This leads us to another superficial similarity: Once bitten, Dracula’s victims become like him. In the acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice, the true believer becomes more like Christ. But because the vampire is all about the taking of blood, innocence, life, purity, his victims become the same–they take. Jesus is all about the giving of blood, giving life, so the behaviour of the true disciple will be very different–they give. This is one of the marks of a true follower of Christ–the giving.

Importantly, Dracula absorbs the will of his victims. The vampire has the power to mesmerize his victims as they surrender their will and become passively complicit to its attack. The product of Dracula’s blood taking will be creatures whose lives are qualitatively like his own because he has consumed their selfhood, their freedom, their autonomy. Their identity has become vampire–a creature that must take to live. Absorbed and no longer distinct.

Christ, on the other hand, desires a people whose wills are freely conformed to his–united with him, but still distinct. The essential difference between Jesus and vampire is that behind Jesus’ desire is a perfect love and the result of submission to this love is, paradoxically, perfect freedom.

Although he’s not talking about vampires per se, as Lewis’ Screwtape beautifully articulates the vampiric view of the world:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specifically, that one self is not another self. My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses. Even and inanimate object is what it is by excluding all other objects from space it occupies; if it expands, it does so by thrusting other objects aside or by absorbing them. A self does the same. With beasts the absorption takes the form of eating; for us, it means the sucking of will and freedom out of a weaker self into a stronger. ‘To be’ means ‘to be in competition.’ Screwtape, in The Screwtape Letters (C. S. Lewis 92)

The vampire is profoundly selfish and exploitative and will refuse to respect the autonomy of others. They use people to satisfy their own needs and desires.   The way of Christ is the exact opposite; in John 15:12-13 he said:

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

Written by Trent

June 20, 2014 at 3:01 am

Two Kinds of Language

leave a comment »

Rothfuss2I have this theory that English is two languages. Maybe all languages are two languages, but I don’t really know any language but English.  I came across a passage in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel that got me thinking that English can be used in two distinct ways.  If we are reading something that the author wrote in one language as if it were another, we’ve completely missed the author’s intent.

It seems to me that it can be a very precise language so if you want to communicate to your son exactly what you expect from him regarding the cleaning of his room before he goes outside to play, English is more than capable of communicating these clear expectations. Although your son will likely dash out the door before the tasks are completed, it is no fault of English. The precise nature of the language also makes it effective for writing encyclopedias; it is the language of the academic.  In this type of writing, the meaning lies mainly “on the line.”

But the resources of the English language can also be turned toward more poetic purposes.  There are many types of writing which taps into the elegance of the English language. Where meanings lie between the lines, or beyond the lines.   This type of writing is inferential and is able to reach far beyond the sense of the words to transcendent meanings.

I’ve presented a passage from The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss before. I love the intelligence of Rothfuss’ work. This dialogue between Kvothe and his teacher Vashet as they discuss the illusive philosophy of Lethani, illustrates the dual function of language.

 

Vashet leaned forward seriously. “Part of the problem is with your language,” she said. “Aturan is very explicit. It is very precise and direct. Our language is rich with implication, so it is easier for us to accept the existence of things that cannot be explained. The Lethani is the greatest of these.”

“Can you give me an example of one other than the Lethani?” I asked. “And please don’t say ‘blue,’ or I might go absolutely mad right here on this bench.”

She thought for a moment. “Love is such a thing. You have knowledge of what it is, but it defies careful explication.”

“Love is a subtle concept,” I admitted. “It’s elusive, like justice, but it can be defined.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Do so then, my clever student. Tell me of love.”

I thought for a quick moment, then for a long moment.

Vashet grinned. “You see how easy it will be for me to pick holes in any definition you give.”

“Love is the willingness to do anything for someone,” I said. “Even at detriment to yourself.”

“In that case,” she said. “How is love different from duty or loyalty?”

“It is also combined with a physical attraction,” I said.

“Even a mother’s love?” Vashet asked.

“Combined with an extreme fondness then,” I amended.

“And what exactly do you mean by ‘fondness’?” she asked with a maddening calm.

“It is . . .” I trailed off, racking my brain to think how I could describe love without resorting to other, equally abstract terms.

“This is the nature of love.” Vashet said. “To attempt to describe it will drive a woman mad. That is what keeps poets scribbling endlessly away. If one could pin it to the paper all complete, the others would lay down their pens. But it cannot be done.”

She held up a finger. “But only a fool claims there is no such thing as love. When you see two young ones staring at each other with dewy eyes, there it is. So thick you can spread it on your bread and eat it. When you see a mother with her child, you see love. When you feel it roil in your belly, you know what it is. Even if you cannot give voice to it in words.”

Vashet made a triumphant gesture. “Thus also is the Lethani. But as it is greater, it is more difficult to point toward. That is the purpose of the questions. Asking them is like asking a young girl about the boy she fancies. Her answers may not use the word, but they reveal love or the lack of it within her heart.”

“How can my answers reveal a knowledge of the Lethani when I don’t truly know what it is?” I asked.

“You obviously understand the Lethani,” she said. “It is rooted deep inside you. Too deep for you to see. Sometimes it is the same with love.”

Vashet reached out and tapped me on the forehead. “As for this Spinning Leaf. I have heard of similar things practiced by other paths. There is no Aturan word for it that I know. It is like a Ketan for your mind. A motion you make with your thoughts, to train them.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “Either way, it is not cheating. It is a way of revealing that which is hidden in the deep waters of your mind. The fact that you found it on your own is quite remarkable.”

I nodded to her. “I bow to your wisdom, Vashet.”

“You bow to the fact that I am unarguably correct.”

She clapped her hands together. “Now, I have much to teach you. However, as you are still welted and flinching, let us forbear the Ketan. Show me your Ademic instead. I want to hear you wound my lovely language with your rough barbarian tongue.” 822-824

Written by Trent

June 2, 2014 at 5:42 pm

“Just a Story”?

leave a comment »

BibleSome Bible detractors will say that this or that part of the Bible is “just a story.”  In the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the same phrase in their defense of the historic Adam saying that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”

We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to caution Christians from adopting the idea behind the phrase “just a story.”

The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just.”  It could not have been used to precede the words “a story,” after the Enlightenment–when we severely limited our understanding of truth and story.

Our post-Enlightenment worldview equates truth with information, and we believe that the best way to transmit information is in simple and exact language and that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” is makes sense.

But the writers of the Bible had a very different view of truth and story. They were more interested in relationships than information. And they communicate relational truths in narratives and poetic language full of metaphor and other figures of speech.   Truth was something that we experienced through story. Until 500 years ago, the truth in story transcended mere information.

In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world.  The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representative, the priest-king/pharaoh. The Adam story told it’s original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God.  In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible presents the radical idea that both Man and Woman bore the image of  the creator.  Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that male and female are of equal value.  Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths.

The Adam story tells the original audience that the material world matters to the One God and that he created it for humanity.  Consistent with the value attributed to human beings by the creator God, Adam and his offspring are given the task of being stewards of this newly created world.  In a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.

There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis.  We learn that God wants a relationship with the people He created.  We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices.  We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived.  How, deep down, we want to live it.  We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be accomplished, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat death and evil.

To summarize:

  • All human life is valuable.
  • Male and female are of equal value.
  • Human beings have been honoured with very important tasks.
  • The Natural world is very important.
  • We have moral choices and are responsible for them.
  • We usually choose evil.
  • This isn’t the way the world was supposed to be.
  • The Creator of the vast Cosmos loves us and wants a relationship with us.
  • It is only by the actions of this God that our relationships with Him, each other and the natural world will be restored.
  • This restoration will be by the actions of another human being.

These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve.  These are the truths that it’s shocked original audience would have heard.  The author of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners simply know this information;  his intention was that they experience these truths at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives.  I don’t think this purpose changes now that that 21st century Christians are reading the stories.

Whatever it is we do find in the first chapters of the Bible, we do not find “just” a story.

Christian or Humanist? — Yes!

leave a comment »

Science versus HumanitiesLast week, I stuck a link on Facebook to a short blog post I wrote for Abbotsford Christian Schools blog, InsideOut called,” My Coffee Cup and Genesis 1.” I received some heat for this post; I was called “yet another science bashing Christian.”

This appellation, I believe, is misapplied.

Although it’s difficult, if not impossible, so separate out my “Christianness” from anything I do or say, I think that it might be just as appropriate to call me “yet another humanist insisting that science has limits,” (humanist in the sense that I think like a humanities person).

What science does, it does well, but it’s not very useful for what it doesn’t do. This idea ought not offend anyone, unless they believe that science can do everything. Many scientists and nearly all philosophers would have no problem with the limitations I suggest. Science looks at the material world, it cannot tell us about everything, unless everything is material. There are some, many of them scientists, who suggest this is the case.

But as soon as anyone suggests this, they are no longer in the realm of science, but of philosophy. Scientism, philosophic materialism are among the names for this philosophy. Once in the realm of philosophy one must play by the rules of philosophy.

Philosophy is one of the humanities–there’s a lot of critical thinking in philosophy. Like science, it seeks objective knowledge, but it is not limited to the physical reality–one of the branches of philosophy is metaphysics. Other branches include logic, epistemology and ethics. Although philosophical materialism can be argued, it’s not easy because there are pretty good arguments from each of these philosophical disciplines that challenge the fundamental tenets of Scientism.

History is another of the humanities. History helps contextualize the current age with those that have gone before. Without history we might think that, just because we are progressing technologically, we are progressing in other ways as well. One well supported reading of history suggests that humanity is not, essentially, progressing as Scientism often assumes.

Literature, my favourite branch of the humanities, explores ideas with imagination–it asks, “What if?”  From Frankenstein to The Wise Man’s Fear literature warns of science stepping beyond its natural limitations.

Humanities and science complement each other. We are all the weaker without both being strong.  One of the many tasks that those of us in the humanities have is to maintain this complementary relationship.  My Facebook critic is not alone in thinking that arguments promoting the humanities are a defense of a bronze-age mentality.

I believe that science (mathematics, physics, biology), philosophy, history and literature–freed, within their natural boundaries, to do what they each do best–will lead to the truth. As a Christian, I believe this Truth to be Jesus Christ.

The Difference between Truth and Fact

leave a comment »

I’ve been listening to conversations about “what the Bible says” and have been having a hard time articulating why I’m disturbed by the position taken by some Bible defenders.  I agree with them that the Bible is true, but I get the sense that they are using the term differently than I am.  Their “true” is much more concrete than mine.

Rothfuss2I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day Two). It’s a fantasy series that occupies a region between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Rothfuss writes intelligent fantasy.

Below is a passage from the book that, I think, gets at how truth is more relational than informational. And that it has to be communicated in stories full of poetic language and metaphor that transcend explanation.

“TODAY,” ELODIN SAID BRIGHTLY, “we will talk about things that cannot be talked about. Specifically, we will discuss why some things cannot be discussed.”

I sighed and set down my pencil. Every day I hoped this class would be the one where Elodin actually taught us something. Every day I brought a hardback and one of my few precious pieces of paper, ready to take advantage of the moment of clarity. Every day some part of me expected Elodin to laugh and admit he’d just been testing our resolve with his endless nonsense.

And every day I was disappointed.

“The majority of important things cannot be said outright,” Elodin said. “They cannot be made explicit. They can only be implied.” He looked out at his handful of students in the otherwise empty lecture hall. “Name something that cannot be explained.” He pointed at Uresh. “Go.”

Uresh considered for a moment. “Humor. If you explain a joke, it isn’t a joke.”

Elodin nodded, then pointed at Fenton.

“Naming?” Fenton asked.

“That is a cheap answer, Re’lar,” Elodin said with a hint of reproach. “But you correctly anticipate the theme of my lecture, so we will let it slide.” He pointed at me.

“There isn’t anything that can’t be explained,” I said firmly. “If something can be understood, it can be explained. A person might not be able to do a good job of explaining it. But that just means it’s hard, not that it’s impossible.”

Elodin held up a finger. “Not hard or impossible. Merely pointless. Some things can only be inferred.” He gave me an infuriating smile. “By the way, your answer should have been ‘music.’”

“Music explains itself,” I said. “It is the road, and it is the map that shows the road. It is both together.”

“But can you explain how music works?” Elodin asked.

“Of course,” I said. Though I wasn’t sure of any such thing.

“Can you explain how music works without using music?”

That brought me up short. While I was trying to think of a response, Elodin turned to Fela.

“Love?” she asked.

Elodin raised an eyebrow as if mildly scandalized by this, then nodded approvingly.

“Hold on a moment,” I said. “We’re not done. I don’t know if I could explain music without using it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not explanation, it’s translation.”

Elodin’s face lit up. “That’s it exactly!” he said. “Translation. All explicit knowledge is translated knowledge, and all translation is imperfect.”

“So all explicit knowledge is imperfect?” I asked. “Tell Master Brandeur geometry is subjective. I’d love to watch that discussion.”

“Not all knowledge,” Elodin admitted. “But most.”

“Prove it,” I said.

“You can’t prove nonexistence,” Uresh interjected in a matter-of-fact way. He sounded exasperated. “Flawed logic.”

I ground my teeth at that. It was flawed logic. I never would have made that mistake if I’d been better rested. “Demonstrate it then,” I said.

“Fine, fine.” Elodin walked over to where Fela sat. “We’ll use Fela’s example.” He took her hand and pulled her to her feet, motioning me to follow.

I came reluctantly to my feet as well and Elodin arranged the two of us so we stood facing each other in profile to the class. “Here we have two lovely young people,” he said. “Their eyes meet across the room.”

Elodin pushed my shoulder and I stumbled forward half a step. “He says hello. She says hello. She smiles. He shifts uneasily from foot to foot.” I stopped doing just that and there was a faint murmur of laughter from the others.

“There is something ephemeral in the air,” Elodin said, moving to stand behind Fela. He put his hands on her shoulders, leaning close to her ear. “She loves the lines of him,” he said softly. “She is curious about the shape of his mouth. She wonders if this could be the one, if she could unclasp the secret pieces of her heart to him.” Fela looked down, her cheeks flushing a bright scarlet.

Elodin stalked around to stand behind me. “Kvothe looks at her, and for the first time he understands the impulse that first drove men to paint. To sculpt. To sing.”

He circled us again, eventually standing between us like a priest about to perform a wedding. “There exists between them something tenuous and delicate. They can both feel it. Like static in the air. Faint as frost.”

He looked me full in the face. His dark eyes serious. “Now. What do you do?”

I looked back at him, utterly lost. If there was one thing I knew less about than naming, it was courting women.

“There are three paths here,” Elodin said to the class. He held up one finger. “First. Our young lovers can try to express what they feel. They can try to play the half-heard song their hearts are singing.”

Elodin paused for effect. “This is the path of the honest fool, and it will go badly. This thing between you is too tremulous for talk. It is a spark so faint that even the most careful breath might snuff it out.”

Master Namer shook his head. “Even if you are clever and have a way with words, you are doomed in this. Because while your mouths might speak the same language, your hearts do not.” He looked at me intently. “This is an issue of translation.”

Elodin held up two fingers. “The second path is more careful. You talk of small things. The weather. A familiar play. You spend time in company. You hold hands. In doing so you slowly learn the secret meanings of each other’s words. This way, when the time comes you can speak with subtle meaning underneath your words, so there is understanding on both sides.”

Elodin made a sweeping gesture toward me. “Then there is the third path. The path of Kvothe.” He strode to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, facing Fela. “You sense something between you. Something wonderful and delicate.”

He gave a romantic, lovelorn sigh. “And, because you desire certainty in all things, you decide to force the issue. You take the shortest route. Simplest is best, you think.” Elodin extended his own hands and made wild grasping motions in Fela’s direction. “So you reach out and you grab this young woman’s breasts.”

There was a burst of startled laughter from everyone except Fela and myself. I scowled. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and her flush spread down her neck until it was hidden by her shirt.

Elodin turned his back to her and looked me in the eye.

“Re’lar Kvothe,” he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my ****” (253-255).

What’s wrong with this picture?

with one comment

Stairway to heaven_jpgI lifted this picture off my Twitter feed and posted it on Facebook to solicit some reaction.

Dylan, true to form, pointed out the very practical problem of certain suffocation.

My first question was, Who made these stairs that will supposedly take us to heaven?  Although longer, they look like the sort of stairs that one would find in an airport or a mall.  The way to heaven is man-made?  This goes contrary to the one thing that distinguishes Christianity from most (every?) other religions.

In Christianity, you don’t get to heaven because of your prayers, church attendance, putting money into the collection plate, by what you do or by what you don’t do.  You get to heaven because of what God does.  God makes it possible for us to go to heaven by the death and resurrection of his son.  All we need to do is accept this free gift.  This picture shows the way to heaven as much harder than it really is.  But Daniel is also right, this staircase is too easy–if you hang onto Jesus it will cost you your life.

Then there’s the caption.  I was trying to figure out what it meant.  Then I concluded that if you “share” this picture and/or “follow” it on Twitter, you can get to heaven.  This is consistent with the works-based, man-made stairs problem discussed above.

Dean noted a further problem, “Following “Us” is only going to get you as far as “we” can carry ourselves. It’s a dead end.”  For those who end up in heaven, I think the general consensus is that one would have followed Jesus is some manner, not people who post mindless, and unfortunately not meaningless, pictures on Twitter.

Written by Trent

April 21, 2014 at 2:41 am