TagCharles Taylor

The Modern Malaise

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Do you ever feel that life is a little flat?

If you do, you are not alone according to Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor.  He calls it “the modern malaise.”

Taylor says that the experience of living in a secular age is one of “flatness.”

This feeling comes about because of a new view of reality which affects how we experience reality. The view goes by various names–Naturalism, Physicalism, Philosophical Materialism, or Exclusive Humanism.  It is the belief that there is nothing over and above the physical.  There is no spiritual dimension to reality.

“Nature has no doors, and no reality outside herself for doors to open on”

C. S. Lewis, Miracles.

This loss of the transcendent results in a malaise. Without God, the world lost the enchantment it derived from his presence; meaning is more difficult to come by; it’s not so easy to anchor truth to anything absolute, the same goes for the good and the beautiful.

In the absence of a transcendent source of meaning, where do we look for it?

Other Sources of Meaning

The Romantics looked for it in Nature and the Modern thinkers in Reason.  In the postmodern context, these have become inadequate.  In our current context, we look for meaning within the individual mind, says Taylor.

Well, that’s cool!

Is it?

Any meaning to be found in the universe is to be found in my head. I get to decide if a thing is good or true or beautiful. I don’t know; I feel inadequate to the task.

“I told you once you’d made a God of yourself, and the insufficiency of it forced you to become an atheist.”

— Robertson Davies

Without the higher things, our experience of reality is flattened. Hence, the malaise of modernity.

The symptoms for the modern malaise:

  • We ask, “Does anything have meaning?”
  • We seek “an over-arching significance” in life.
  • We tend to commemorate important life events, but feel as if these efforts were all for naught.
  • We have a sense of the “utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary.”

People are obscenities. . . . A mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.”

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

So how do we bring some fullness into our experience to counter the flatness?

  • Family
  • Membership
  • Sports
  • Toys
  • Vacations
  • Parties
  • Halloween
  • Etc.

These can sometimes mask the symptoms, but fail to cure the real illness.

A Prescription for the Modern Malaise

  1. A broader conception of time.
  2. The recovery of objective reality.
  3. The re-enchantment of the cosmos.
  4. Recovery of the transcendent.

I’ve covered the first in previous posts, the first of which is here.

The other three will be addressed in the posts which follow.

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Two Inconsistencies

John 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.

The Paradox of Proof

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 seemingly broke his own rule.  He went against the understanding of faith he so consistently presented through every other aspect of the novel.

The opposite of faith, is not doubt, but certainty.  Wheelwright has certainty.

Parallels Between Owen Meany and Jesus

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 secular perspective forces the actions of Christ to be duplicated by Owen.  Thus, Owen functions as a substitute Christ, rather than an imitation.

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.

More parallels: 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 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).

The Passion of Owen Meany:

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 KNOW 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.

To Duplicate is not to Imitate

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.

For Irving, the real Christ is too transcendent, so he 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 instead 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” (Sykes 63).

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.

Resurrection is Only in Christ

Charles 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. Those who have lost a loved one “struggle to hold onto the meaning they have built with the deceased” 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. 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.

Eternal Flourishing

In a 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 post 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:

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.

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”

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving presents an incarnational spirituality. 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.

“Jospeh–forever standing in the wings.”

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).

The Leap of Faith

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 it incarnationally. Quoting T. S. Eliot Taylor says, “Humankind 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. Click To Tweet

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”

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 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.

The Mentorship of Rev. Katherine Keeling

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 worthwhile, 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.  Wheelwright has not experienced this fullness since Owen’s death.

Oppositional or Incarnational

There has never been another encounter with a richer and deeper life for Wheelwright because he still holds the transcendent as 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.”   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.

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).

Not every human being experiences fullness, but it is perhaps something we all seek.  This novel shows that it is decidedly easier to experience with an incarnational view of reality.

When you have finished the chapter entitled, “The Shot,” read my commentary on the final chapter of A Prayer for Owen Meany.

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.

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Dream”

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 anti-religious (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.

Belief in a Secular Context

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.”   Typical of the Modern secular mind, Wheelwright sees faith in opposition to reason.  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.

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.

Faith and Doubt

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 and transcendent realities 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.

Importantly, the leap of faith toward unbelief follows the same path.   Unbelief in the transcendent is also non-rational.  Once it is believed that no god exists, other things follow which are equally irrational but do not require another leap of faith. 

Recognizing that faith need not always align with reason, Owen 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 either faith or reason, but on the purpose of his life in which each event or action has meaning.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the battle is not between faith and reason; it’s between meaning and meaninglessness, purpose and purposelessness.

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, the battle is not between faith and reason; it's between meaning and meaninglessness, purpose and purposelessness. Click To Tweet

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.

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.

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Little Lord Jesus”

In A Prayer for Owen Meany, Owen and Johnny function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational position where transcendence is seen to be within the material world, and the young Johnny sees the transcendent as far off and irrelevant (likely nonexistent) to the world in which we live.  The young Johnny resists Owen’s belief that objects have inherent meaning, because he first rejects the presence, or at least relevance, of the transcendent in the material world.

This difference between the Owen and Johnny is brought out in several episodes in the chapter, “The Little Lord Jesus.” One occurs during the Christmas holiday when all the boys’ rooms at Gravesend Academy are vacant. As drama teacher at the Academy, Dan Needham lived in the residence and had keys to all the rooms. During Christmas holidays Johnny and Owen borrowed Dan’s passkey and explored each room.  When he inspected a room, Owen

looked in every drawer, examined every article of clothing, sat in every desk chair, lay down on ever bed—this was always his last act in each of the rooms: he would lie down on the bed and close his eyes; he would hold his breath. Only when he’d resumed breathing did he announce his opinion of the room’s occupant. (155)

Using all the objects in the room, he would interpret the relative happiness of each resident with school or their home-life. For Owen, meanings are not exclusively in the mind, and so he falls under the spell of significant objects. Johnny, however, insists that the contents of the rooms are “just things” (156); what they found in the rooms was “random disorder and depressing sameness” (157).

Owen blurs the line between spiritual and physical

In Owen Meany, Irving has created a character who is open to the supernatural, but Irving has gone further. In an attempt to emphasize the importance of the transcendent in and through Owen Meany, he has given Owen the burden to symbolically embody the incarnational view of reality–to embody the transcendent while at the same time remain profoundly immanent.

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 made Owen wholly transcendent, but grounds him in such a way to blur the boundaries between the immanent and the transcendent. 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 shows that Irving 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.

Although it is one of the funniest episodes in the book, Owen Meany as the Little Lord Jesus in the Christmas Pageant is also one of the most significant. Irving has explicitly linked the Incarnation of Jesus with Owen Meany.   In the preceding pageants, Owen played the transcendent announcing angel, but for the pageant in 1953 he has come to earth as the baby Jesus. For the Christian, the key to the unified view of reality is the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, the Word became flesh, God became human without ceasing to be God; he became temporal without ceasing to be eternal and immanent without ceasing to be transcendent. By linking Owen to the Incarnation, John Irving shows that he understands the importance of the Incarnation in Christian belief.

Read the next chapter, “The Ghost of Christmas Future,”  in A Prayer for Owen Meany and read my commentary here.

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

“The Angel,” chapter 3 of A Prayer for Owen Meany, is one example of the pattern of rebirth 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.

Enchanted Objects

‘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, the meanings and values of an object are only those that are attributed to it by a human subject. In Owen’s incarnational view, meanings and values are inherent in the objects without the help of any human subject.

The Dressmaker’s Dummy

We might say that, in the eyes of Owen Meany, some objects are subjects.  The armadillo and his baseball card connection for example–perhaps even Hester’s panties.  The dressmaker’s dummy is certainly an object that Owen sees as subject. 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 meanings include or perhaps penetrate Owen.  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.

Secular or Incarnational

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. 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.

Here is the analysis of chapter 4, “The Little Lord Jesus.”

 

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Armadillo”

The second chapter of the 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 the rest.

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.

Enchantment

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 where the supernatural is recognized as a very real presence in the world. The presence of the spiritual enchants the physical and gives the world meaning–meaning is in the world.  Meaning, then, 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 attribute to it; 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 of 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.

Armlessness

Johnny realizes that Owen has connected this act of amputation to Watahantowet’s armless totem. Watahantowet was the Indian leader who sold 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 comes 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’s is not.  He lives in a secular world.  These characters function as foils in Irving’s exploration of faith and doubt. Owen represents an incarnational view where the transcendent lies 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 a 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.”

 

The Cosmos

 

WikiImages / Pixabay

Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos was one of my favourite television shows of all time.  It wasn’t just that it was intellectually stimulating, there was also an emotional or even spiritual dimension that drew me in.  I was in awe of the beauty and complexity of the cosmos and caught the thrill of being a part of it.

The show has been rebooted, this time hosted by Sagan admirer, Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.  After watching the first few episodes, I can see already it’s got the same intellectual and emotional appeal as did its predecessor.  But this time I’m finding myself trying to understand what story it’s trying to tell.

Perhaps the title, The Cosmos, offers some clue.

The Cosmos

The ancients saw the divine where ever they looked.  The divine was in everything.  The Greeks called this everything the cosmos (κόσμος).  To the ancients, the cosmos was animate, aware and intelligent.  This animating principle was the divine–the logos (λόγος).

This idea of the cosmos was transformed by Christianity where the divine is no longer located within the cosmos, but outside of it.  This is obviously a huge change from the ancient understanding, but not as great as the shift to the modern conception of the universe.

The modern view is quite different than both the ancient and the Christian ideas of all that is.  Philosopher Charles Taylor uses the terms “universe” and “cosmos” to distinguish the post-Christian outlook from that of the pre-Christian/Christian view in which the order of the cosmos “was a humanly meaningful one” (60).  In the ordered whole of the cosmos, all things found meaning because all things were grounded in a higher reality:  human beings are “embedded in society, society in the cosmos, and the cosmos incorporates the divine” (152).

The Universe

Unlike the cosmos, the universe is an infinite, cold and anonymous space governed by “exceptionless natural laws” (60).  In the universe, humans “are no longer charter members of the cosmos, but occupy merely a narrow band of recent time” (327).

But the makers of the TV show The Cosmos are not despairing.  They seem to be rejecting the idea that humanity is adrift in the “dark abyss of time” in the cold, vast universe.  As if in response to the inadequacy of modern materialism to explain our encounters with the cosmos Sagan said,

Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

Episode 1 of The Cosmos reboot pretty clearly shows us how small and insignificant we really are in the context of the universe.  If there is any meaning, it’s up to us to generate it.  Clearly, one of the ways we might do this is to make a television show that celebrates the human ability to comprehend the vastness of the universe and be inspired by its beauty.

Not only is the cold deterministic universe rejected by the show, so too is the Christian view of the cosmos.  Sagan’s famous quote remains central and doesn’t leave any room for a transcendent God.

The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.

The Cosmos attempts to dismantle both the pessimistic Modern and the fantastical Christian conceptions of the universe by resurrecting, with the power of our imagination and scientific knowledge, the ancient idea of the divine within the cosmos–transcendence within immanence.

Carl Sagan said,

The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.

This is a more optimistic picture of the universe than that which is offered by the materialists because it sees it as, once again, more humanly meaningful.

Neil deGrasse Tyson says, “Our molecules are traceable to stars that exploded and spread these elements across the galaxy.”  Human meaning comes from our participation in the “great unfolding of a cosmic story.”

More optimistic still is the idea that the wholly transcendent God created the cosmos for human beings and then became physically present in it in the person of Jesus Christ.  His death and resurrection make possible a deification where, when we die, we are not just incorporated into the eternal cosmos, but where we continue on as a person in (or out of) relationship with the person of God.

Of course, the degree of optimism is not the criteria by which we decide which of these conceptions of the universe is true.  For Christians, Truth comes to us, not only through imagination and scientific knowledge, but also though a personal encounter with the logos become flesh–Jesus Christ.

Zombies (18): The Death of Herosim

Ahmadreza89 / Pixabay

I love superhero movies.  I’ve seen all of the Marvel movies, most of them in the theatre.  I like the heroes of literature too–Beowulf, Van Helsing and Aragorn.  I think it’s an essential character trait of every hero that he or she is usually concerned for the wellbeing of others–often to the point of death.

Zombie movies don’t have heroes like that.

Our heroes have changed because we have.

Literary heroes represent ideals and ideas that are valued by a society– self-sacrifice is often one of these ideals, but certainly not the only one.  Like monsters, heroes change to reflect their contemporary cultural context.

The Immanent Hero

Like all heroes, the heroes in zombie films “face crisis situations in which they must assume extraordinary personal responsibility and make exceedingly difficult choices” (Robinson [Fear] 23).  The modern hero has to make these choices in a modern world and that means there is no transcendent ideal to guide these decisions.  Their choices are often between some moral principle and their survival.  The focus in these moments of crisis is on the agony of the choice, rather than on the sacrificial nature of the hero. And despite the agony, the choice is almost always in favor of survival.

Thus, in zombie narratives, it is not really appropriate to call any of the protagonists heroes.  For with the emphasis on survival, and without transcendent ideals, it is more accurate to call them “would-be survivors.”

Simon Pegg points out that “the protagonists of zombie invasion movies are not superheroes or professional monster slayers like Van Helsing – they are common, average folk forced to ‘step up’ and defend themselves” (Bishop 117).  So, just as the zombie is an immanent monster, the hero in the zombie narrative is an immanent hero.

Heroism in Night of the Living Dead

In Night of the Living Dead, the fate of the character Ben reveals the demise of the traditional hero.  Despite his failings, Ben is “the closest any of the human beings in Night of the Living Dead come [sic] . . . to being the sort of hero that is found in previous monster narratives” (Waller 295-96).  For lack of any better place to put it, the audience puts their faith in Ben.

This faith is regularly challenged, however.  Ben is protective of Barbara, but only somewhat so. When Barbara first enters the farmhouse, she discovers a partially consumed corpse and flees.  Ben, having just arrived in a pickup truck, intercepts Barbara, and with a tire iron gallantly dispatches several lurching men, who are becoming numerous, and finally leads the hysterical Barbara back into the house.

Ben is a hero defined, not by knowledge or depth of belief, but by his actions (Waller 284).  As soon as he arrives at the farmhouse and discovers Barbara, he gets to work barricading the doors and windows.  His heroism is rooted in a material and practical—the immanent domain.

After the others are discovered in the cellar, he seems to expect they “will prove to be as competent as he has proven and that help will come to those who help themselves” (Waller 285).  He does not see himself as one who supersedes the others in ability.  Whatever capacity he has, he expects it to be present in everyone else as well.

The radio reports widespread attacks by people seemingly in a trance; later there are reports of widespread mass murders and cannibalism. The situation is stressful, and Ben does not always deal with it very well. He obviously lacks leadership skill,  For example: he engages in bickering with Harry; he overreacts in anger on several occasions, the last of which results in his shooting of Harry with the rifle.

It is further obvious that he is not a traditional hero when he fails to save Barbara or any of the other temporary residents of the besieged farmhouse. He merely survives the night.

The Death of Heroism

In the morning, a posse, which has been killing the remaining zombies, approaches the house. Hearing them, Ben cautiously goes up the cellar stairs into the living room and is mistakenly shot dead by a posse member who takes him for a zombie.  His body is carried from the house and burned with the zombie corpses.

Rather than standing next to the vanquished foe, or at least honoured by the survivors for his sacrificial victory, the hero instead lies, undistinguished, on a pile of dead monsters.

In Night of the Living Dead, the action is bookended between two scenes that “intimate that the zombie-human distinction is not that easily made” (Cooke 167).  In the first sequence, a zombie is mistaken for a man, and, at the end, a man is mistaken for a zombie, and shot and burned as one.

Thus, the movie gives its viewers a picture of a flattened world, for in the death of each character, we see the death of every previously-held source of fullness or meaning.  In Ben’s death, we see the utter meaninglessness of everything in a world without the transcendent.

The immanent “hero” of this film burns like the great hero Beowulf, but this is no funeral pyre, but a garbage fire.  There is little difference between hero and monster, given that Ben is laid upon a bonfire to be burned.

Waller’s explanation of the action around the final bonfire reinforces the absence of any meaning that we can take from the film.  The men in the posse have no idea they have misinterpreted the situation in shooting Ben; the movie audience alone is privy to this information.

McClelland orders a deputy to burn the grisly heaps of the formerly undead.  Because McClelland is the final human being we see in the film, Waller calls him the survivor.  As such, we can look to him, and his fire, for those things that endure.  He is “unemotional and almost cynically mater-of-fact.  He is concerned not with explanations, but only with getting his job done.  The work he is engaged in is just work and not a mission, much less a holy crusade” (Waller 297).

Ben suffers exactly the same fate as the monsters, and the tragedy the night before is nothing more than a day’s work for McClelland and his men.  McClelland’s attitude is what is required of secular man in the flattened world.  The death of the thoroughly immanent hero symbolizes this symptom of the modern identity “whose very invulnerability opens it to the danger that not just evil spirits, cosmic forces or gods won’t ‘get to’ it, but that nothing significant will stand out for it” (A Secular Age 303). 

In Night of the Living Dead, “every convention of heroism is overturned by Romero’s script” (Russell 68).

Ben, the “hero” of #NightoftheLivingDead burns like the great hero Beowulf, but this is no funeral pyre, but a garbage fire instead. In the zombie film, there is little difference between hero and monster. Click To Tweet

Zombies and The Modern Malaise

In its treatment of the hero, Romero’s Night of the Living Dead reflects what Charles Taylor called the modern malaise.  One of the effects of modernity is a malaise in which we get the sense that our lives “have been flattened or narrowed” (Malaise 4).  The movie clearly illustrates the loss of the “heroic dimension of life,” at least of a sense of what we might call a higher purpose, “of something worth dying for” (Malaise 4).

Taylor says that this sense of loss is inevitable given the “eclipse of the transcendent” (307).  He distinguishes three forms that “the malaise of immanence may take.” First, is a “sense of the ‘fragility of meaning,’” the search for an over-arching significance; second, is the felt flatness of special moments in life; and lastly, is “the utter flatness, emptiness of the ordinary” (309).  He suggests that this everyday lack can be the most painful and seems most significant for “people of some leisure and culture.”

This malaise is, then, particularly acute for those who live in a consumer culture, who “feel [the] emptiness of the repeated, accelerating cycle of desire and fulfillment in consumer culture; the cardboard quality of bright supermarkets, or neat row housing in a clean suburb; the ugliness of slag heaps, or an aging industrial townscape” (309).  The malaise of immanence that is felt so deeply in consumer culture is exploited in Romero’s second movie about the undead.

Next zombie post: Consumer Culture

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