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A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 4, 2014 at 4:07 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Prayer for Owen Meany — Introduction

In Books, Movies and Television on August 27, 2014 at 9:48 pm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first:

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

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

The second epigraph:

Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would be. Without somehow destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me. –Frederick Buechner

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

The third epigraph:

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

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

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

 

Those moments of bliss…

In Uncategorized on November 19, 2012 at 10:38 am

This feeling of bliss fell upon me.  I was in the medieval part of Renne, France.  It was in the afternoon and I was sitting in an outdoor cafe on an ancient street drinking something called Piçon biere.  It’s hard to describe, but I’d call it a moment of bliss.  It didn’t last long, but I thanked God for it immediately because I knew him to be the source.  But what do these moments mean?

In his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis describes something similar.  Of these moments Lewis says, “the central story of my life is about nothing else.”   Lewis’ recounts three such episodes in his childhood.  The first occurred while the young Lewis, looking at a blooming currant bush, remembered a toy garden he had built in a biscuit tin.  A powerful sensation came over him which he describes as an intense desire.  Lewis senses this to be a supernatural encounter in that, following this brief glimpse, “the world turned commonplace again.”  The second event was through Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter when Lewis experienced a “trouble” which pointed toward “the Idea of Autumn”; he became “enamored of a season.”  The experience was again, one of intense desire.  The last glimpse occurred through the poetry of Longfellow’s Saga of King Olaf.  Common to each of these experiences is the feeling of “unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any satisfaction.”  He called this sensation Joy.

His description of these encounters implies that this was a meeting with the transcendent for they came “without warning, and as if from a depth not of years but of centuries” (20).

Later, Joy reprises its invitation.  Lewis uses the imagery of a sudden spring to describe the second summons of Joy.  The encounter came with a quote from and an illustration of Siegfried and the Twilight of the Gods which produces the feeling of “pure Northernness,” a deliberately ambiguous term describing the feeling derived from “a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer, remoteness and severity . . . .”  This feeling awakens and fuses with the memory of Joy to create an “unendurable sense of desire and loss.”  He characterizes the feeling as “incomparably more important than anything else in [his] experience.”  From this point in his life, Lewis pursues Joy; he is on a quest to find its source.

A clearer idea of what these experiences may mean was suggested to me at a recent teacher’s convention.  Syd Hielema was talking about looking at our lives using the Creation-Fall-Redemption-Fulfillment paradigm.  I’ve looked at a lot of things with this template, from coffee to zombies, why not myself?

Here are Hielema’s questions:

Creation: How am I wired? What are my gifts? What gives me joy? In what situations in my past have I felt most fully “myself”? (Read Psalm 139:13-14)

Fall: In what ways do sin and fear affect me?  In what ways do I pretend to be someone I’m not?  What interferes with me loving God and loving others?  How do the wounds I’ve received from the brokenness of life affect me? (Read Jeremiah 17:9)

Redemption: Where have I seen God in my life? What helps me and what hinders me in terms of walking with him?  What am I quite clear about and what am I quite confused about?  Are there particular events or people that stand out on my road to Redemption? (Read Isaiah 43:1-2)

Fulfillment:  What might I be like when God has finished his refining work in me?  What might his universe be like?  How might I live anticipating that completion as a new creation?

It’s not very difficult to find creational goodness in ourselves, nor is it very difficult to see how we are distorted by sin.  The movements of redemption are also apparent when we look for them.  But the Fulfillment piece was something I figured was out of my experience–we get that when Christ returns.  But Hielema suggests that we might have the occasional glimpse by which we can extrapolate who we will be when God has finished his work.  And what it will feel like.

I instantly thought of my moment of bliss in medieval Renne. Are those moments that Lewis called encounters with Joy, a small sip of what it will be like when I am made new?

I’m looking forward to the next one.

 

 

In Defense of Fairy Tales (2) – Creation

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2012 at 6:12 am

We get a lot of rain in south western BC so we often talk about it, often disparagingly.  We fail to see magic anymore—even when it drops out of the sky and hits us on the head.

We think about rain in the same way we have been trained to think about many things.  In science texts, rain is presented as a result of a series of intractable processes.  First, water in the ocean is obligated by impersonal forces to do something we have called evaporation; as it moves inland and cools at higher altitudes the water vapor begins a process that human beings have named condensation; eventually, gravity takes over and the water falls in some form of what we have labeled precipitation.  Why does water do these things?  It does it can’t do anything else.  We expect it.  It’s the law—Natural Law.  We have named all these mindless processes, the water cycle.

Think about it.

What is happening here?

WATER IS FALLING OUT OF THE SKY!!!

This is incredible! Water is falling out of the sky!

What kind of a world is this, where water falls out of the sky?!

It didn’t have to be this way, but it is!

What is reality?  Does nature tediously adhere to natural law, or is it “a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful” (Chesterton).

Which is more consistent with the Biblical teaching of Creation?

The Bible begins by telling us that God made everything and it was good (Genesis 1:31).

. . . crossing the line between fantasy and reality

This means there is no such a thing as an ordinary thing, and Chesterton claims that fairy tales help us to remember this truth.  In the fairy tale we encounter a golden apple and this brings back to us the “forgotten moment,” and the ensuing thrill, when we first discovered that they were green.  We come to see the creation, not as slavishly following a deterministic law, but joyfully producing green apples again and again, like a child who wants to be thrown into the air one more time.  “Again . . . again . . . again.”  It is not law, but “magic” that we find in creation.  There is no wonder associated with law, but there always is with magic.  It is because they ought to invoke our sense of wonder, that Chesterton can claim “[a] tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree.  Water flows downhill because it is bewitched.”

Tolkien refers to this characteristic of fairy tales as recovery.  It is the quality that “allows us to stay ‘childish,’ in the sense of viewing the world in the same way a child does—as if everything is brand new.”  We recover the sense of wonder that creation affords, “not seeing things as they are, but seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them” (Northrup).  This recovered sense of wonder is not “a mere fancy derived from fairy tales; on the contrary, all the fire of the fairy tales is derived from this” (Chesterton).  According to Chesterton, the natural response—the child-like response—to the creation is one of wonder.  And the immediate effect of wonder is praise.  To be filled with wonder at the world around us and to respond with praise to the creator is to be brought back to reality, not drawn from it.

In the fairy tale “Cinderella,” through the presentation of the extraordinary, we experience the ordinary as brand new.  When Cinderella’s fairy godmother transforms an ordinary pumpkin into “a beautiful coach, gilded all over” and six ordinary mice into six “dappled mouse-grey horses” (Perrault), we see anew the commonplace pumpkin and mouse as exceptional. Because they were turned into something different we can, with Chesterton, marvel at their original state.  Which is a greater marvel, a carriage or a pumpkin?  Because it could have been otherwise, we get a sense that in the orangeness and roundness of a pumpkin, “something has been done” (Chesterton) by a creator.  Mice and pumpkins are not as they are simply because they must be; Chesterton proclaims it magic and then stands in awe of these ordinary creatures.

How much more enriching is life when we live in a world where there are no ordinary things?

******************

So fairy tales help us to see the reality of the wonder of Creation. But there is another Creational truth that fairy tales help us to see—the reality of limits.

Cinderella’s fairy godmother “bade her not to stay [at the ball] beyond midnight” (Perrault)—this was her incomprehensible condition of joy. Happiness depends on not doing something: if Cinderella stays beyond midnight, she will be humiliated and lose her happy-ever-after ending. This is a perspective that the fairy tale provides and it is consistent with the conditions found in Eden. Accept the curfew and happiness will endure, leave after midnight and suffer humiliation; do not eat of the Tree of Knowledge and enjoy paradise forever, eat of it and “you will surely die.”

Man was placed in God’s good creation to enjoy and prosper, but there was a condition—that he “must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” for to eat of this tree would bring death (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition seems arbitrary and irrational, but upon it hinges life itself.

Chesterton recognizes this biblical reality in fairy tales where we find “incomprehensible happiness rests upon an incomprehensible condition.”  He calls it the “Doctrine of Conditional Joy.” Chesterton metaphorically compares this condition to glass, a prevalent substance in fairyland.  “Strike a glass, and it will not endure in an instant; simply do not strike it, and it will endure a thousand years.”   The fairy instruction is, “You may live in a palace of gold and sapphire, if you do not say the word ‘cow.’”

Although these fairy restrictions may seem arbitrary and irrational, they are not unfair. When held up against what we can do, we should not be resentful of the little thing we cannot do.  Chesterton’s illustration of this point is monogamy.  Many chafe under the Christian restrictions of sex only within marriage, all the while failing to see, and be grateful for, the great gift that sex is [Read “KD, Bud and Sex”]. Chesterton thought that “existence was itself so very eccentric a legacy that [he] could not complain of not understanding the limitations of the vision when [he] did not understand the vision they limited.” The thrill of what we can do outshines that which we cannot do and our happiness depends on obeying the restriction. This aspect of fairy tales is consistent with reality as presented in scripture.

Fairy tales present the biblical truth that our continued happiness rests on a condition of obedience.

Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (1) – Introduction
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (3)Fall
Read In Defense of Fairy Tales (4) – Redemption

Resources:
Chesterton, G. K. Orthodoxy. New York: Doubleday, 1990.
Northrup, Clyde B. “The Qualities of a Tolkienian Fairy-Story.” Modern Fiction Studies. 50.4 (2004) : 814-837.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “The Monsters and the Critics.” The Monsters and the Critics, and Other Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Prometheus: Ridley Scott contributes to the conversation on faith and doubt

In Books, Movies and Television on June 16, 2012 at 10:18 pm

It is one of my great pleasures to look at popular culture through the lens of the gospel and to eavesdrop on the conversation as artists like John Irving, David Shore, and Cormac McCarthy discuss the complexities of faith and doubt in their works, A Prayer for Owen Meany, House, Sunset Limited respectively.   In Prometheus, Ridley Scott has come into the room and attempted to insert his thoughts into the conversation.  The role of the moviegoer, Christian or otherwise, is not only to mine the film for truth, for all movies will have truth of some kind or another, but to evaluate how it wrestles with its central themes.  In other words, do we allow it a seat at the table where faith and doubt are being discussed?

I don’t think it should be allowed in the room.  Rather, it should be set down in front of television with a large bowl of Cheezies while the grownups talk.

SPOILER ALERT

I saw it opening night and I was tired, so maybe I missed the parts where this movie dealt with the issues surrounding faith and doubt in a post Christian world.   What I did see was a lady with a cross who believed in some transcendent good in the universe and a robot that didn’t.  Oh, and the woman with the cross, got an abortion.  My critique is that this film doesn’t raise any issue for serious discussion, even though it presumes to deal with the very serious and complex issue of faith/doubt.

I think he may be guilty of the same thing in the title.  Prometheus created man and sorta fell for the little beggars so he stole forbidden fire from the gods and gave it to humans.  For his pains he enjoyed a quotidian extraction of his liver by a raptor.  At this point, I can’t figure out the relevance of this allusion.  The only connection I see in Scott’s film is that the “engineer,” like Prometheus, created man.  Where’s the Promethean rebellion against the gods?  Where is the perpetual torture that is a result of immortality?  Where’s the idea that human are in possession of some power beyond their power to control?

Like the abortion, I suspect he just tossed the allusion in there to create the illusion of profundity.

Regarding characterization in the film: characters were very thin, just types actually, possibly even borrowed from cartoons. Did anyone else think that Mr. Weyland and David bore too close a resemblance to Mr. Burns and Smithers from the Simpsons?

. . . crossing the line between faith and doubt (?)

If you go to movies because you love special effects or critiquing superficial schlock masquerading as art, you should see this movie.  If you like movies with interesting round characters and honest exploration of the complexity of human experience, go see the Avengers a second time—there’s way more there and they weren’t even trying.

On the other hand, Chris Morrisey finds much more in this movie than I do.  Consider this.