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

In Books, Movies and Television on September 20, 2014 at 6:30 pm

Owen MeanyIn 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. 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. (Irving 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).

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 is 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”

In Books, Movies and Television on September 17, 2014 at 5:31 am

Owen MeanyBefore I get into chapter 3 in A Prayer for Owen Meany, I wanted to point out the pattern of rebirth that is 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.

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

In the eyes of Owen Meany, the objects are subjects–that is, they are something meaningful in and of themselves.   The dressmaker’s dummy is one such object. 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, in Charles Taylor’s words, as Owen enters “the zone of power of exogenous meaning,” the meaning includes or perhaps penetrates him. The important thing is that “the meaning can no longer be placed within; nor can it be located exclusively without. Rather it is a kind of interspace which straddles what for us [in the modern world,] is a clear boundary” (A Secular Age 35).   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.

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 with his incarnational view. 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.”

 

Application or Implication

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on December 2, 2012 at 12:00 am

When I was a kid, my Sunday School teachers were always asking us, “What’s the moral of the story?”  I’m wondering if this reductive reading of the Bible is embedded in the idea of the “Application”: the part at the end of the sermon where the pastor explains how the Biblical text applies to our lives.   I get the sense that this is the most important part of the message, but it feels as if it is the most difficult.  The difficulty may lie in the incongruity between the concept application and what the pastor is trying to do with it, for the word suggests a  very modern approach, and thus, a limited one.

Application

If I do some free association I come up with Band-Aids and other things that adhere, like those decals I used to stick onto my models of racecars.  To apply  means to stick something onto the surface of something else.

It follows then that to apply the lessons of a sermon means to stick its teachings onto me.  The limitations of this word are becoming obvious.   For one thing, the pastor does all the work and the listeners are passive, like a child receiving the Band-Aid.   And, like a Band-Aid, it makes us feel better, but it doesn’t usually stick longer than a day.  We walk away happiest if the bandage is one of those fancy kinds with cartoon characters on them.  We might even show our friends, who will be only temporarily enamored.

This is not a very good way to interact with any story for it makes it an object to be dissected and a resource to use.

The idea of application presupposes a gap between subject and object–between me and the text.  It suggests that there are things in biblical texts that I can extract and use.  These things are almost always ideas, that is, intellectual propositions.  It’s not that stories don’t communicate ideas, but that’s not all they communicate–stories are not primarily intellectual.  Stories that are, are usually boring.

Stories are not just ideas or morals, but experiences.  They don’t stick to our surface, but they penetrate us and the encounter is implicit and transformative.

Let me illustrate this with the story of “The Good Samaritan” found in Luke 10:25-37.

A lawyer, in an attempt to test Jesus, asks him what one must do to have eternal life.  Rather than answer directly, Jesus asks him what he thinks the Law says.  The lawyer correctly answers that he must love God and neighbour.

The lawyer then asks, “Who is my neighbour?”

If there was a clear intellectual answer to this question, Jesus could have simply told it to him–He could have delivered the application right then and there, but because the answer cannot be reduced to an idea, a story is necessary.

A certain man was set upon by robbers and left seriously injured in a ditch.  A priest and a Levite saw him, but walked past.  A Samaritan, thus hated by the Jews, helped the injured man and arranged for his care and promised to return.

If you were to apply the lessons of this story to your life, you’d likely be convicted to help others in need like the good Samaritan, and not ignore them like the priest and the Levite.  The problem is, I already know I am supposed to do this, and I also know that I will not do it to the extent that the God’s Law requires—and the lawyer knew this too.  So, this application adheres to the surface and will, consequently, fall off during the first bath.

Implication

Rather than application, I would like to suggest the word implication.  It suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, but that’s a good thing since the clarity of application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth to a moral.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story.

I can enter this story at a lot of points.  I can enter it as the Samaritan and see that I am inadequate because I’m not enough like him.  But I can also be honest and see myself in the action of the robbers or the priest and Levite who are not so different than the robbers who harm the man through inaction (Where does your coffee come from?).  Let’s be honest, this is most of us.  I can also enter the story as the victim of the evil of others.  In reality, I occupy all these roles in various ways—I am in the story.  Implication is experiential.

Application puts me into the position of subject, therefore it favours a self-centred understanding of the story.  It’s about me and what I am supposed to do; I’ve got to be on the lookout for the people who have been tossed in the metaphorical ditch and do something about it.  But this story is not primarily about what I am supposed to do; it’s more about what I can’t do, and what Jesus has done.

Jesus is like the Samaritan.  He was willing to get into the ditch with the beaten man, and pay his bills and promised to return.  If the story is about me, it ends with my guilt as a crappy Good Samaritan, or as a priest or Levite.  Neither the Lawyer who questioned Jesus, nor I, am capable of meeting the injunction to “love your neighbour” as the Law requires.  The implicit meaning of the story is that I am not able to love my neighbour properly, but because Jesus did, I receive eternal life, as if I did—it’s about him.  When I understand that this story is not just about me and my inadequacy, but Jesus and his adequacy, I am free to love my neighbour out of gratitude because  I have been given the eternal life the Lawyer was asking about, even though I don’t deserve it.

Jesus refuses to give a straight answer to the Lawyer, as to who a neighbour is.   By refusing  to simplify the Truth to an application he points to something far greater–an implicit and transforming truth about God’s grace.

I am not suggesting that every pastor who uses the word “application” at the end of his sermon is leaving his listeners with a simplistic, individualistic idea.  I am just arguing that the word implies a limited understanding of story.  By using the word implication, we have a better tool to experience the transformative power of stories.

 

Objectification of the Onion

In False Dichotomies - the lines between, Worldview on April 22, 2012 at 6:06 pm

The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon is the most remarkable cookbooks that I’ve ever read. For one thing, it has hardly any recipes in it. Most of the book is a reflection on food, life, the world and everything, while patiently describing the preparation of a lamb stew. Chapter 2 is dedicated to considering the onion. Capon suggests you ought to set aside an hour for this one ingredient.

When you take the onion into your hand you note that it is a thing, as are you. He calls this a mutual confrontation, for the onion also confronts you. With his poetic prose, Capon leads us on an exploration of all aspects of this amazing ingredient, from the dry onion paper, both sides, to the wonder of the layers within. To look at an onion in this way, one encounters gravity and mortality, the nature of dryness and the miracle of water, the glory of discovering something never before seen, life inside death, and pressure. Because of this careful exploration, he hopes that we will “never again argue that the solidities of the world are mere matters of accident . . . [and] meaningless shapes out of nothing.” He wants us to encounter it first for what it is and not only for how it can be used. He believes man’s “real work is to look at the things of the world and love them for what they are.”

Objectification is bad, right? At least in the sense that to objectify a person is bad. It suggests that they’ve been downgraded to a lower level—the level of the object. This idea, that objects are inferior to people, is a given.

It makes sense, I suppose. We’ve inherited this idea from our past. In the Middle Ages, for instance, we understood reality in terms of the Great Chain of Being. In this view of reality, everything was placed hierarchically as if on a cosmic chain. At the top of the chain were all the things that were completely spiritual, then the human world which was part spiritual and part physical, then the animals and the plants, and at the very bottom were the things that were completely physical and therefore inferior to everything above it. In this scheme almost everything was thought inferior to human beings.

But objects weren’t then as we think of them now. Objects today are completely empty of anything but their physical properties. To know something we just need to know measure, graph and diagram it.

In the Medieval world, objects were more than just their physical properties. Garlic wasn’t just a flavour for stew, but also a repellent for evil. You had to be aware of your relationships to things like black cats and ladders because they weren’t just cats and ladders. The flowers a bride carried not only covered up her body odour, but aided in her fertility on the wedding night.

These things weren’t hard to believe for the medieval mind.  Because the meaning of things was in the thing.  Meaning was external—meaning was objective.

Meaning has moved–it no longer lives in the object, but in the mind of the human looking at it (or smelling, measuring, graphing it).

So, while objects have been held as inferior to humans for a long time, the modern world has taken the inferiority of the object in a whole new direction. It has completely emptied things of their meaning. Meaning is no longer to be found in the object, only in the subject, or, more accurately, in the mind of the subject. Objects have no inherent meaning, only that which I attribute to it. The modern person takes this as a given; it is part of our worldview.

. . . crossing the line between subject and object

But Capon warns that much is lost when we view the world of things as empty of meaning. He says that every time we look at what a thing “can be made to mean,” rather than what a thing is, reality slips away and we are left with nothing. He concludes the chapter on the onions saying, “One real thing is closer to God than all the diagrams in the world.”

To objectify something is to look at it only as something to be used. It is completely inappropriate for one to look at a human being in this way—we call it objectification. But built into the word itself is the assumption that it’s just fine to look at an object in this way.  Capon contests this view of the created world.

If it seems strange to see objects as Capon sees them, it is because we are modern.  Most people who have lived would think secular modernism pretty strange.