TagFaith

A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Foul Ball”

A 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 of past events to comment 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 it in the first few paragraphs of the novel, his focus is on denominational differences, particularly in how each disposes of their dead.

Death is perhaps it the best place to start the story of one’s 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.

An Incarnational Reality

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

Unlike Owen, Johnny is very much a product of his age; the framework from which he sees the world is Modern, which means, among other things, secular.  One of the main characteristics of the Modern view of the world is that there is a radical separation between two worlds–the material (or immanent) and the spiritual (or transcendent).

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 mind necessarily sees boundaries, Owen Meany 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 than just giving Owen pre-Modern belief; Owen is not only open to the supernatural, he embodies the unity of the natural and the supernatural.

The Transcendence of Owen Meany

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).

Owen Meany: Blurring Boundaries

Owen is transcendent, but Irving grounds Owen in such a way as to blur the boundaries between 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.

Armlessness

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.”

Atonement with the Father

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

My 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 that students of literature get excited about: comparison and contrast, patterns and parallels, foil characters and motifs.  It’s filled with symbolism, irony, and juxtaposition.

It doesn’t just make you think about literature stuff, though.  It also makes you think about life which is what great art always does.

Faith in the Modern World

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 it is exploration of faith.  Specifically, it reveals some very important things about faith in a modern context. By modern, I don’t mean that we have smartphones and smart cars.  To be Modern means we have a certain way of looking at the world, the other and 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.

All North American Christians need to very aware of the power of the Modern worldview to produce this anemic faith and significantly distort all relationships, including that which we have with God.Click To Tweet

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’ve written a post for each chapter commenting on how the novel might be useful to help us understand our own struggle with faith in our world today.

The Epigraphs

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

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 epigraph emphasizes the nearness of God; he’s close enough 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 religious certainty in the story. 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.

The next post is on Chapter 1: “The Foul Ball.”

 

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