CategoryBooks, Movies and Television

Time and Despair

Time and DespairWe modern folks have a very modern view of time.   Having emptied time of transcendence, we think of it as mere chronology or sequence. Still, this sequence can be viewed optimistically; in our culture we tend to find meaning in time in terms of human progress. But there is a darker view of time in the absence of higher things. If God doesn’t exist, are Goodness, Truth, Beauty possible? Some say no, and despair.

This is the case of Maneck in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Time and its relationship to meaning is woven through the novel, most often through the words and musings of this young man. For instance, there is the idea that life is essentially tragic because it is embedded in sequential time:

Our lives are but a sequence of accidents–a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call LIFE.

Why does Maneck see life as tragic and time as meaningless? It’s because for him there is no God who is active in his creation.  He has this conversation with landlady, Dina:

‘God is dead,’ said Maneck. ‘That’s what a German philosopher wrote.’

She was shocked. ‘Trust the Germans to say such things,’ she frowned. ‘And do you believe it?’

‘I used to. But now I prefer to think that God is a giant quilt maker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.’

In the novel, we find reflections on the nature of time as we experience it–no minute is like another minute. Where I find this a piece of an argument for meaning in time, Maneck ends up using the same phenomenon as evidence against meaning:

What an unreliable thing is time–when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a rubber band stretched to suit our fancy. Time can be the pretty ribbon in a little girl’s hair. Or the lines in your face, stealing your youthful colour and your hair. …. But in the end, time is a noose around the neck, strangling slowly.

On his return home after the spreading of his father’s ashes, Maneck sits on the porch and begins

escorting a hose of memories through his troubled mind.” His mother’s interruption of his thoughts irritated him “as though he could have recaptured, reconstructed, redeemed those happy times if only he had been given long enough.” While he sits in the deepening dusk he spies a lizard. “He hated its shape, its colour, its ugly snout. The manner in which it flicked its evil tongue. Its ruthless way of swallowing flies. The way time swallowed human efforts and joy. Time, the ultimate grandmaster that could never be checkmated. There was no way out of its distended belly. He wanted to destroy the loathsome creature.

In a world where God does not exist, or has gone far away, if we are to find meaning in time we must find it someplace else. Some will find all attempts to find meaning under these conditions impossible. They, like Maneck, may despair.

Why I am not a Conservatyve

BibleI am not a Conservatyve because of three books.

Before I get to the books, let me just say that there are a lot of intelligent liberals and conservatives who hold their views because of careful thought and research.  I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about cheap imitations. My wife refers to inferior derivations of good things as being “spelled with a ‘y’.” So cheap over-processed cheese, she’d call “cheese spelled with a ‘y’,” as in “cheyse.”

I don’t really like to use the terms “liberal” and “conservative” because they have become caricatures–Lyberil and Conservatyve.  When I wrote a post about Why I am not a Liberal, people quite correctly took me to task for mischaracterizing what a liberal is, at least there version of it.  The reason that people push back against these labels is exactly the reason I am writing this post–there really is no such thing as a Lyberal or a Conservatyve.  The Lyberal exists only in the mind of the conservative, and vice-versa, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find all sorts of gradations.  Having said this, I do have my doubts–when I hear what some people write in the comments section of blogs and Facebook posts, I wonder if the caricatures might actually be becoming descriptive.

I don’t know where the truth lies between the extremes on the continuum, but I am confident that for most issues it lies somewhere in between and my instinct tells me it’s usually toward the centre.  How do we discover where truth lies?  Dialogue is one of the best ways.  Sadly in a world of Lyberals and Conservatyves, there can be no dialogue, only diatribe.  So this post is an attempt to drag one or two issues toward the centre.

I am not a Conservatyve because of three books.

The first book is the Bible.  I believe that the Bible is the world of God.  When I read the Bible, Old and New Testaments, I see a pretty clear and consistent message that He wants all people, but especially his chosen ones, to think more about how they can bless other people rather than to grab for money and power so as to gratify their own needs.  There are regular injunctions to take care of the poor and, for those in power, to make sure there is justice for the poor.  It is also apparent from the Holy Scriptures that God is an environmentalist and that He wishes, in some respects, Americans were more like the French.  The Conservatyve seems to be against these things.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck changed my life.  It’s about people who are poor.  They are poor to begin with, but things get a lot worse when the big banks and big business turn them off the land, leaving them with no means to feed themselves or their families.  Beginning with the used-car salesmen who sell them junk vehicles, their journey from Oklahoma to California is filled with people abusing them, ignoring their desperation or taking advantage of their plight.  It’s been a long time since I read it so I might have the details wrong, but in one rare act of kindness the family on whose journey the narrative is focused received a bit of beef fat.  The mother mixed the rendered fat with flour and made some dumplings.  In the context of their desperate condition, this meagre meal was a feast.  Ever since, I have never looked at discarded fat, bone and gristle the same way.  Importantly, these people were not in this condition because they were lazy, they were in this condition because of vast forces like government policies, climate, geography, economics, and (not insignificantly) human greed and corruption.

I have just finished reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.  If I hadn’t read The Grapes of Wrath, this novel would have saved me from Conservatysm.  The setting of A Fine Balance is India, and it too explores the life of the poor which is not really all that different than that of the Joad family in Steinbeck’s novel.  It’s frustrating at times to experience vicariously what it is like to live between hope and despair–with despair usually in the ascendant.  Here again, the Conservatyve myth that the poor are poor because they are lazy is shown as the lie that it is.

People are usually poor, for the same reason people are rich–not because they did or didn’t work hard, not because they made good decisions or not, not because they had initiative or not.  People are rich or poor because of government policies, climate, geography, economics, and human greed.  The only difference between the rich and the poor is into which circumstance one was born.

I found myself responding to these novels in two ways–compassion and gratitude.  Conservatyves aren’t very compassionate and that’s because they aren’t very grateful.

These two novels are great works of literature.  One of the functions of literature is to broaden and deepen our understanding–I am a Canadian in 2016–I don’t know what it’s like to be poor; I didn’t live in the 1930s, or in India.  I get enough of a glimpse of what it might be like through these novels–and they changed me.  They move me toward an understanding of others and their lives and, consequently, bring me closer to dialogue.

I don’t think Conservatyves read–or they don’t read the right things.

Please read these books.

 

 

You Gotta Read War and Peace!

I just finished reading War and Peace. I knew it was long, but I didn’t know it was awesome!

  • If you like stories about the two lovers finally overcoming their own pride and prejudice, like you find in Jane Austen novels,
  • If you like stories where individuals get are overcome by forces far bigger than themselves, like you find Thomas Hardy novels,
  • If you like the witty critique of human foibles and foolishness, like you find in Flannery O’Connor’s stories,
  • If you like epic events carried out in fascinating, expansive and strange worlds like that found in Tolkien,
  • If you like the brilliant use of analogy in the critique of rationalism and historicism like you find in C. S. Lewis,

then you will love War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.

Some notes about Hollywood Films

Movies and Rality

“Can’t we just watch it?!”

When watching a movie in class, many of my students complain when I stop it in order to engage in a discussion of what the movie is presenting.  My response to their “Can’t we just watch it?” is always, sure.  “Sure, this Friday night, in your living room.”  But to be truthful, I don’t believe that we should ever “just watch” a movie.  We need to be aware of what they are presenting as truth or reality.

I’ve written about movies before: R Rated Movies, Does Movie Violence Affect the Viewer?, Language, Sex and Violence–What will we Watch?, The Demonic and the Stupid, A Negative Times a Negative Equals a Positive.  Here are some notes that I don’t think I’ve yet posted:

Movies always show a hero who needs something.

  • What they need is often not what they think they need.
  • Friends, trials, even enemies help the hero to realize what they need.
  • In the end, the hero has an opportunity to take it.
  • It’s interesting to analyze movies on the basis of what the story tellers insist the hero needs.
  • In Hollywood it’s usually, it’s romantic love.

_____________________

Masculinity, Femininity, Love and Sex

  • Male heroes often have a problem with authority–they need freedom?
  • Masculinity in the movies is muscles, emotional restraint, dominance, aggression, sexual prowess and the capacity for violence.
  • Femininity in movies presents the woman as passive and finding her identity in the man. She is expected to be sexually chaste and resist the advances of the male.
  • Sex is a physical expression of romantic love. She was chaste until she realized that she was “in love,” and this is within the rules.
  • Love in Hollywood: Romantic love is passionate, irresistible and able to conquer anything, including barriers of social class, age, race and ethnicity, and personal conflicts.

______________________

Hopeful and Materialistic

  • We like things to wrap up nicely and leave us with a sense of hope for the future.
  • Hollywood films must be rational.  We need a knowable, physical cause for everything.

Mad Max: Fury Road

I just got back from watching Mad Max: Fury Road [SPOILER ALERT]. It didn’t take me too long to wonder if I had made a mistake–it’s a bit over the top. The world into which we are dropped is pretty terrible–I expected it to be terrible, but not that gross. But the film makers are building upon so many other movies in this genre since the original post-apocalyptic Mad Max and it’s sequel, Road Warrior, that they obviously felt they needed to ratchet up the terribleness a notch or two. I can’t say that I ever got to the point where I felt all the dirt, defects, and disgusting were worth it, but the movie does make an pretty important and interesting religious statement. Mad Max? Religious? Yes, the terms hope, redemption and salvation are uttered by the characters and the story is built upon these religious ideas.

It’s an allegory. We live in a world that’s pretty horrible–scarcity, exploitation and religious fanaticism are the order of the day. At the top are the exploiters. Their power is maintained through a combination of withholding life giving water, and other physical necessities, occasionally offering a meager “gift” from their bounty and letting people fight each other for it, and through promises of rewards in the afterlife for loyalty and sacrifice in this world. These are the basic evils that concern your average middle class North American.

The allegory continues: Human beings have a longing for a better world–C. S. Lewis uses the German word Sehnsucht to describe this inherent “longing,” or “yearning” that results from knowing we live in a world that we know this isn’t the way it is supposed to be. Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron, is a character of Sehnsucht; her dissatisfaction with the world comes from a childhood memory of “The Green Place”–read, The Garden of Eden. It is her mission to get back to the green place with four beautiful women who have been used as breeders for the corrupt warlord of The Citadel.

It is interesting that where the Biblical narrative moves from a garden in Genesis to a city in The Book of Revelation, the story in the new Mad Max movie moves from city to garden. This reversal is central to the religious statement the film is making.

One of the things I like about this movie is that the women are actually heroic rather than passive victims waiting to be rescued by a man. This is also a reflection of a positive trend in our culture. There are two men that help out a lot, but the success and fulfillment of the women does not rest solely in the hands of the male heroes. Max and Furiosa are equally heroic and they even swap traditional gender roles; Furiosa is the better shot, where Max is the healer.  The rest of the band of heroes are comprised of young and beautiful, but also capable, girls and the old, sandy, wizened, desert women which are also formidable in their fight against the exclusively male band of evil guys.

Firiosa is going to lead her crew, sans Max, across the salt flats where they hope they can find a place to begin life again and perhaps plant the invaluable seeds that they carry. They are going to, allegorically, re-establish the Garden, but, in the context of the movie, the garden is blended into the future hope of Heaven. Max turns them from this goal–interestingly, it’s not certain that this better world, “heaven,” doesn’t exist, but they do know that The Citadel certainly has enough water to begin again. They turn toward certainty–and it is a certainty. As movie goers, we know that some of them will make it and succeed in creating, if not Heaven, at least a garden, on earth.

And that’s exactly what happens.

It is an allegory that describes how a lot of people in our culture understand hope, redemption and salvation. Our world has some big problems and we need salvation from the rich or powerful or religious exploiters if we are going to have a better world. Our redemption will not, likely, come from an afterlife–our only hope is to do something for the here and now. This will take courage and sacrifice (and men and women working together), but we just might have a chance if we get out from under the control of the 1% and the religious leaders who exploit the rest of us for their own personal gain.

Although many found this movie entertaining, I’m afraid they won’t find it satisfying. The Sehnsucht we are experiencing will not be satisfied by crawling out from under the thumbs of the exploiters. Nor will it result from the flight back to the Garden. Our true longings will only be satisfied when we live in the city for which we were made–the City described in Revelation 21.

Now those are some good lyrics . . .

Praise 1I’m a big fan of Josh Garrels and his latest album, Home, was just released.  (He’s giving it away! Click here to download. [Don’t forget to give a tip.])

I often lament that the lyrics of so many of the songs Christians sing are artless.

Not so with Josh Garrels.

Here are a few fragments of Josh’s lyrics from this new album.  This artful poetry combined with his incredible talent as a musician (and his unique voice) make Josh Garrels my favourite singer songwriter, Christian or otherwise.

From “Born Again”:

Instincts are guiding me

Like a beast to some blood

And I can’t get enough

From “Born Again”

Running scared in between what I hate

And what I need

Savior and enemy are both trying

To take my soul

From “Colors”

So let all the creatures sing

Praises over everything

Colors are meant to bring

Glory to the light

From “A Long Way”

There’s a time in our lives

To return, sacrifice

Wild grass has grown high

On the path between our lives

From “The Arrow”

How on earth did it all go down like this? I’ve got no words to make sense of it My shield, my fight for righteousness Could not protect me from myself

From “At the Table”

‘Cause I lost some nameless things

My innocence flew away from me

She had to hide her face from my desire

To embrace forbidden fire

But at night I dream

She’s singing over me

Oh, oh, my child

From “Benediction”

As the days unfold

Hold your breath to see

Life is a mystery

And joy, it is severe

When the way is rough and steep

But love will make your days complete

The Equalizer

EqualizerI just finished watching The Equalizer starring Denzel Washington. It’s a movie like many in the genre. [SPOILER ALERT] There are bad guys and the good guy kills them all. The bad guys are dirty cops and various levels of the Russian mafia. They make a lot of money doing bad things to everybody, but what makes them really despicable is that they do bad things to young girls. Like I said, they are bad. Then there’s our hero–he’s good because he protects the young girls and other meeker people. Although he looks like a mild mannered Home Depot guy (the movie uses a different name, but they ain’t fooling anybody) who likes to read books and drink tea in his spare time, he four armed thugs in less than 30 seconds.

We’ve seen this movie hundreds of times, the only thing in this sort of movie is if the hero dies at the end or not–always in exchange for the life and/or happiness of the former victim. I won’t tell you if Denzel survives or not since that will be the only “surprise” in this movie.

Still, I liked the movie. And I’ve liked most of the hundred that I already saw. The one with Clint or Jean Claude or Arnold or Harrison or Wesley or Steven or Bruce or Jackie. You get the idea.

Why do we like these movies so much? Why do they get away with giving us the same story again and again.

It’s because we really want it to be true. We want to watch the bad people get what’s coming to them, and we want to the innocent to be rescued and given their life back. We want to see justice–we need to see justice.

It’s interesting that this impulse is so strong in Western movie goers who rarely experience the sorts of injustices that are daily fare in many other parts of the world. If experiencing justice is such a rush for us, imagine how important it is for those who actually experience the intense injustice that we only experience in the theatre.

We also know that we will never see the kind of justice we crave, unless this is true.

Here is my servant whom I have chosen,

the one I love, in whom I delight;

I will put my Spirit on him,

and he will proclaim justice to the nations.

He will not quarrel or cry out;

no one will hear his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out,

till he has brought justice through to victory.

In his name the nations will put their hope.

(Isaiah 42:1-4, see also Matthew 12:15-21)

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Two Inconsistencies

Owen MeanyJohn Wheelwright’s faith is built on radical transcendence (God is there, but he’s so very, very far away).  This 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 fully appreciate the importance of the incarnational view of reality–the view of reality that Owen, his creation, holds.  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.

Johnny’s Forced Faith

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving presents two ways of understanding the material world.  Material reality is either infused with the transcendent or it is closed to transcendence.  In the novel, supernatural explanations of events are always countered with material ones. Irving does this so that he can be faithful to the freedom necessary to faith as articulated by the epigraph of 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, we see 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—God exists.  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.

Duplication rather than Imitation

A second inconsistency that arises from what I believe to be Irving’s view of radical transcendence is that, although he attempts to offer hope, at least as an option, the novel ultimately offers no alternative to meaninglessness.  Irving 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. Ambiguity certainly surrounds 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.

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). A Christ figure can function as a powerful metaphor, 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 novel’s 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, for Irving,  the transcendent is 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.

Other Resources:

Sykes, John. “Christian Apologetic Uses of the Grotesque in John Irving and Flannery O. Connor.” Literature and Theology 10.1 (1996) : 58-67.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Shot”

Owen MeanyIn 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.

Being a believer, can remain a mere fact, and never develop into a life. #OwenMeany

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.

 

Other resources:

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.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Finger”

Owen MeanyThis 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 in 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; 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).

SPOILER ALERT (but not really,

as you have probably already guessed where the novel is going.)

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.

It makes a huge difference if you have an incarnational view or if you see the transcendent and the immanent as oppositional. #OwenMeany

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.

Other resources:

Eisenstein, Paul. “On the Ethics of Sanctified Sacrifice: John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.” Literature Interpretation Theory 17 (2006): 1-21.

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