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A Prayer for Owen Meany — “The Dream”

In Books, Movies and Television on October 2, 2014 at 6:03 am

Owen MeanyIn 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 antireligious (409, 413). Eventually Owen’s enemies “crucified him” (398-99) after being passed between the Academy’s chaplain and psychologist—Herod and Pilot, if you will.

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.”   For Wheelwright, faith is a “trust that is antithetical to rational demonstration” (Sykes 59). 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. 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.

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 reality and the transcendent 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.

On the one hand, recognizing that faith is not required to be in accordance with reason, he 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 the either faith or reason, but on the purpose of his life in which each event or action has meaning.

This bears repeating: the battle is not between faith and reason; it’s between meaning and meaninglessness, purpose and purposelessness.

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.

Christian Modernism? Modern Christianism?

In Christ and Culture, False Dichotomies - the lines between on October 9, 2013 at 5:08 am

UntitledWe just can’t escape the modern worldview.  The term “worldview” is itself a product of the modern worldview.

The modern worldview sees the world in terms of clear boundaries between categories.  Well, one of the most cherished categorical distinctions is between subject and object.  Implicit in the term worldview is the division between the object, the world, and the subject, the viewer.

But it all evens out because a person who deliberately rejects the Christian worldview can’t escape it either.

Those who claim they have a secular-modern worldview, don’t really.  Their understanding of the world and themselves is unavoidably infused with the Judeo-Christian worldview out of which it grew.  The concept of “secular” is itself rooted in the Judeo-Christian past.  A linear understanding of history, the importance of human rights and freedoms to name a few more.  Science flourished in the west because the universe was understood to be ordered–“In the beginning was the Logos.  Ordered means predictable and this is the basis of the scientific method.

These are just a few of many examples where the modern “secular” worldview is not truly secular.  If it were it would look far different.

Just as the secular worldview isn’t purely secular, the so called “Christian worldview” of our day has been influence by modern secular ideas.

First, there are many Christians that accept the modern reductionist understanding of “truth.”  They are trapped within this syllogism: Truth is rational and empirical; The Bible is true; therefore, the Bible is rational and empirical.  At a popular level, this idea leads to two common errors: that the Bible is true like an encyclopedia is  true, or that it’s not true at all.  Since this reductionist view of truth is so recent and so limited, it is neither appropriate nor useful to hold the Bible to this narrow understanding of truth.

Another way the modern worldview has infiltrated our churches is the valuing of reason over emotion.  This is the one I need to own up to.  I like the rational bits of the worship service–the sermon–far more than the more emotional components–the singing.  And you notice that even by classifying the elements of the church service as emotional and rational I am being very modern.

Third, we have a tendency to be individualistic and we put more emphasis on the individual autonomy than in preceding centuries.  We speak of having a “personal relationship with Jesus” and we sing songs like “I have decided to follow Jesus.”  OK, we don’t sing that song anymore, but we sing a lot of songs that are essentially personal reflections.  There is, obviously, an important personal or individual dimension to Christian faith, but modernism has lead us to put an unbalanced emphasis on the importance of the individual.

Modernism considers faith a private affair that ought to be kept out of the public arena.  Some in the church find it handy to live within this false dichotomy.  In these cases, one’s public life has nothing to do with one’s religious life.  This makes it possible to not claim some income on your tax forms, or to underpay employees, or cheat customers, or pollute the environment, or fail to adequately tip servers in restaurants, etc.  These behaviors do not really touch upon one’s conscience because “business is business.”  In other words, the demands of the Bible are separated from one’s public activity.

A related dichotomy, equally false, divides the world into sacred and secular spheres.  There are many examples of this kind of thinking.   When I was a teenager, there was much debate as to whether or not Christian young people ought to listen to “secular” music.  For many it was clear that Christians ought not do so, and no consideration was given to whether or not the “Christian” music was true, or even good.  Some Christian schools are based on the sacred/secular dichotomy.  The problem with the idea of the secular, as we understand it today, is it suggests there are areas of creation over which Jesus is not Lord.  This idea is completely incompatible with scripture.

 It is no easy thing, purging modernism from our minds and if we could ever completely succeed in doing so, we’d then have to purge our minds of post-modernism.  I really don’t believe we can ever avoid being a product of our times.  But reading the Bible helps a lot.  It also helps a great deal to read history and non-western literature–the Bible nicely fits into these categories as well.  These help us to provide a context for the idolatrous worldviews out of which we live.