Students

A poem to my students…


I wonder if it’s a sonnet,

The poem of your life,

As I hear your shoes squeak their stanzas across the floor to your desk

And you click your blue mechanical pencil

Twice to take a quiz.

 

For I happened to notice two index cards,

Like a light pink couplet,

Tucked beneath the tidy layers of your notebook

As you closed your eyes, breathed, reassured yourself

Of what you knew and filled your name at the top.

 

Or do you live and breathe in music,

All elbows and gym bags, your fingers

Twitching steadily the edges of your sweatshirt?

Perhaps your life is a lyric, a rhythm

Kept in meter by the beat of basketballs,

Or the wild and fearless drummings of your

Feet along the track?

 

Or you, there in the far row,

Do you see the world in free verse?

Eyes bright from gazing through kaleidoscopes,

Bending the sky around your ballpoint pen?

From here I see your frenzied scribbling in that beat-up journal,

The back of your homework, the length of your arm,

Scrambling to seize your swelling thoughts,

Your echoing afterthoughts,

Your madcap fever of creativity.

 

And I bet hers is a ballad, a song,

Her eyes telling the fear in the horizons,

Dreaming of afternoon, of evening,

Of the time she’ll spend with her father

Before his illness takes a turn.

 

Whatever they are,

These poems in your mouths, your hands, your smiles,

They somehow fit each one of you, like shadows

Filled with beauty and, ironically,

With light.

 

And when I am old,

Beyond the reach of my podium,

My pen, my worn and dog-eared Hamlet,

I will see you all,

Again and again and again,

As young as autumn leaves

Reddening, then leaping

Into the constant winds of change.

The Decade of Literary Explosion: 10 Books in 10 Years

In my previous post, I mentioned that I was making my way through Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a novel of intense psychological depth, gripping suspense, and captivating revelations of the dirt and poverty of man’s depraved being. Truly, apart from Christ we can do nothing, and Crime unflinchingly exposes this theme in the barren alleys of 19th century St. Petersburg.

Simultaneously, I have been watching the 25th anniversary concert of Les Misérables with my daughters. We happened to listen one day to “Look Down” – the opening number with Javert and the chain gang – and my girls loved it, asking to hear it over and over. Soon enough, we watched the concert together, and my girls were asking for Jean Valjean and Fantine; just yesterday, I caught my eldest singing, “24601!” Needless to say, we have all been entranced.

So as my reading has been tunneling the streets of St. Petersburg with Raskolnikov and my listening has been building barricades with Enjolras and Marius, I’ve felt my mind begin to consider similarities in theme, tone, and pathos between the two works. I am hoping to dedicate a future post to investigating such a comparison.

For now, I was further struck by the fact that both works were published within about five years of each other. Looking further, I began to notice that the decade of the 1860s was an extraordinary era of literary flourishing as grand masterpieces erupted from America, England, France, Russia, and many other countries. The foundation had already been set in the previous decade with the impressive publications of The Scarlet Letter and David Copperfield (1850), Moby Dick (1851), Walden and Hard Times (1854), Leaves of Grass (1855), Madame Bovary (1856), and A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Yet, one sees from 1860-1869 a truly magnificent development in literature as groundbreaking works nearly toppled on top of each other, signaling one of the brightest hours in literary history.

Victorian LondonThis list is unbearably narrow, meaning that the work of contemporaries like Matthew Arnold, Charles Spurgeon, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Tennyson, and Abraham Lincoln are criminally unmentioned.

First, in 1860, we see the serialization of Charles Dickens’ greatest novel Great Expectations beginning, culminating the following year in 1861. This novel, a bildungsroman and the second of his to feature a first-person narrator, would ultimately become his finest triumph, chronicling the tempestuous life of Pip Pirrip as he navigates the artificiality of the upper classes in London and discovers the hollowness of his own ambitions in the process.

Next, in 1861, George Eliot publishes her moral allegory Silas Marner, a short but enchanting account of loss and salvation through the memorable appearance of little Eppie Marner to the hardened home of the title character.LesMis-main

In 1862 across the channel, beloved French author Victor Hugo publishes his sensational goliath Les Misérables, the story of Jean Valjean, “the weeping criminal”, as he struggles to accept and redistribute the grace and mercy of a loving God.

In 1864, Dickens returns to the writing table to pen his penultimate novel (and the last completed one before his death in 1870) Our Mutual Friend. Meanwhile in the cold heart of Russia, Fyodor Dostoevsky writes his brief, yet harrowing account of the underground man in Notes from Underground, a turbulent and strikingly honest account of a “sick and spiteful man” working out his pain and suffering in dreaded isolation.

maxresdefaultOn a lighter note (…possibly, depending on your interpretation), Lewis Carroll publishes his famous work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, and readers everywhere have been led down the rabbit hole ever since.

On a certainly darker note (…again, possibly, depending on your interpretation and your overall personality), Dostoevsky sees the overnight success of his 1866 novel, Crime and Punishment. Who knew an axe murder could be so philosophically intriguing?

Back in America in 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, publishes his first book, a collection of short stories titled The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. Twain would go on to write The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; of the latter, Ernest Hemingway claimed, “All of modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.

In 1868 another American classic arises: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. While Twain’s writing would bring light and recognition to the American south, Alcott’s did the same for New England, depicting the power of domestic drama and the fierce bonds of sisterly affection and love. Except when Amy tossed Jo’s manuscript in the fire. Gracious.

Lastly, in 1869, and merely three years after the appearance of Crime and Punishment comes Russia’s other hulking giant: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. If the 1860s were a lineup, Russia may just be batting cleanup with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky publishing a combined 2,000 pages of literary strength. So much snow.

So there you are; ten impressive contributions to literary history in just ten short years. I’m sure Queen Victoria was thrilled… if she could be bothered enough to actually smile.

Happy reading!

“Come Forth, Ye Drunkards”: Pity and Grace in Crime and Punishment

raskolnikov 3I am working my way through Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and was struck by one of its early scenes depicting a drunkard in a St. Petersburg tavern bemoaning his vices, as well as the costs they have accumulated, to the novel’s protagonist Rodya Raskolnikov.

To set the scene, Marmeladov is a sickly alcoholic who has drowned himself beyond the breaking point in his sins. With each vain attempt at repentance, Marmeladov, like a dog to his vomit, returns again and again to his excesses, much to the despair and fury of his long-suffering wife and children.  In fact, Marmeladov mumbles to Raskolnikov that his drinking has even pushed his daughter Sonya into prostitution to keep the family above water while he lurches night after night down the old steps into the dingy bar.

In his extensive monologue, Marmeladov admits his depravity and the egregious consequences it is creating, yet he feels compelled to linger in his darkness, a tension that pits sin and redemption on opposite ends of the same locked door of the heart, thus foreshadowing Raskolnikov’s own division as he crouches behind the door of the old pawnbroker moments before her murder.

By the end of his rambling speech, however, Marmeladov rises to a momentous occasion in which he declares he “ought to be crucified” and judged rightly for his wickedness. He even tells the bartender: “Do you suppose, you that sell, that this pint of yours has been sweet to me? It was tribulation I sought at the bottom of it, tears and tribulation, and I have found it, and I have tasted it.”  Here, Marmeladov has reached the nadir of his troubles and has realized his inability to see joy, redemption, or hope in his bottomless search; neither in beer nor the tears it draws can salvation be found.

At the climax of his speech, Marmeladov looks forward to the final judgment of Christ in which all will be exposed and all will be made right. Read the beauty of his plea:

“And He will say, ‘Come to me! I have already forgiven thee once…Thy sins which are many are forgiven thee for thou hast loved much’ […] And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say, ‘Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ […] And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He will say, ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.'”

Few moments in literature parallel with this piercing declaration of hope in the face of hollow living. Marmeladov, for all his sinfulness and despair, preaches the gospel in a dim-lit corner of a Russian pub. He has vainly sought peace in his drink and in his darkness, yet he discovers that it is in such darkness that illumination may rise. The voice of Christ beckoning all who are weary, all who are broken, all who are drunken to rise, like Lazarus, and come forth into the light is one of the most beautiful pictures Dostoevsky imagines, and he seats it right in the opening of a harrowing novel full of shadow and fear. It is perhaps no wonder his original title for the book was The Drunkards, for that is what every character, in his soul, is. And since Hamlet was right in declaring all art to “hold a mirror up to nature” and expose our own innermost realities, we as readers instantly recognize our own spiritual drunkenness, our own Marmeladovian depravity. Therefore, as Raskolnikov begins his own plummeting spiral over the rest of the novel, we too are caught in the plunge, equally complicit in the powers of darkness that await the resurrecting call of Christ.  We too are drunkards, and our only salvation will come from the belief that we are unworthy of it.

Like Jean Valjean’s defining moment of forgiveness from the bishop in Les Miserables, Marmeladov faces the depths of his own sin in the light of Christ’s glory and grace. It is not in the rack of guilt or the metallic strictness of the law that such men hear God but in the beautiful touch of pity and grace. Like Valjean, Marmeladov sees, though ethereally, the mercy of God extended even to him, and struck to the bone, he seeks the light of redemption. Like Valjean, he is brought to a full understanding of his wickedness, and there, only there, may he see the extended hand of God lifting him up. And so in reading such masterpieces, may we also be brought to the pits of our own sin, may we also see our offenses for what they are, so that we may be forgiven, shown grace, and restored to our full humanity. May we drunkards hear the call to quit the shadows and ascend from the grave into the marvelous light of God.

Review: Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl

Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God's Spoken WorldNotes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World by N.D. Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Well, the apple certainly doesn’t fall far from the tree. Nate’s outlandish work (in the most positive sense) is quite reminiscent of some of his father’s style and metaphorical craftsmanship. Nate is a supremely gifted writer, every page of this wonderland text dripping with poetic imagery. Perhaps the most obvious triumph of these Notes is the way Nate holds the damper pedal for 200 pages, seamlessly sustaining his poetic edge to the end. Incredible endurance.

This work, more like a kaleidoscope than a book, was a breath of glorious air. Actually, more like a gust. Or maybe a cyclone. Possibly, a speeding planet.

View all my reviews

Jean Valjean and the Face of God

tn-500_14.01_mir_les_mis_colm3949At the end of Les Misérables, as Jean Valjean lies dying before his beloved daughter Cosette and her husband-to-be Marius, the musical swells to a beautiful arrangement of different musical themes sung by Valjean, a vision of Fantine, and reprising his earlier role, the Bishop of Digne. In this stirring scene, Valjean commends Marius and Cosette to marry and reveals his long-held secret that he, in fact, is prisoner #24601, tired from a life of running from the law. As Valjean sings his last confession, Fantine appears to welcome him into heaven, accompanying his reflection on the grace he has been shown and his attempt to live a life worthy of it. At last, Valjean sees the Bishop, the noble priest who initiated the entirety of Valjean’s redemption by welcoming him to his home, forgiving his crime, and graciously setting him free, transforming him into a new man whose soul has been “bought for God”. Notice the kindness and sacrificial love of the priest as he gives Valjean the candlesticks at the beginning of the musical:

“But my friend you left so early / Surely something slipped your mind / You forgot I gave these also / Would you leave the best behind?”

Here, in Valjean’s final hour, he experiences an almost beatific vision of the priest, surrounded gloriously in candlelight in the 2012 film adaptation, as they sing one of the show’s most gorgeous lines:

“To love another person is to see the face of God”

maxresdefaultNo statement better captures the spiritual center of the story as Valjean fully takes the measure of how strong grace truly is. One simple act of kindness, unmerited yet fully proffered, has the power to transform a filthy sinner into a forgiven saint. Even in his humble and lowly position, the priest became a vessel for Valjean and, by extension, the audience to see the very face of God through his indefinable love for an embittered thief.

For such wild forgiveness and abundant grace effuses from our Father, the Almighty God who turns slaves into sons and frees us all from the burdens of our many years in prison. Like the Bishop, God offers rest for the weary, comfort for the resentful, love for the unloving and unlovely. Like the Bishop, God transforms the nameless prisoner (24601) into a new man, restored to life, saved not by good works but to them, called to let the grace with which he’s been filled spill over to another. When Valjean is forgiven, he is free to shed his old life and commit himself to a life of service, redeeming little Cosette from her equally dismal life.

In I John 3:16, the apostle describes this love of the Father: “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers” This selflessness characterizes love and, as God is love, draws us closer to His nature. Since we are called to imitate God (Eph. 5:1), learning to love others as He is love is the way forward.

In Romans, “Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” Incidentally, this truth explains Javert’s ultimate self-destruction. No man so bound to the duties of the law can function, for the law is fulfilled in love; the only way Christ could fulfill the law is in his final breath dying for His friends. As Javert’s inability to cope with such love and grace becomes his undoing, Valjean’s embrace of it in giving his life to Cosette, Marius, and the dozens of young boys at the barricades becomes his way to salvation.

“Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling . As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (I Peter 4:8-10).

From Kansas to Oz: The Poetic Excursions of Billy Collins

CollinsYes, you must forgive me for making another plug for the poetry of Billy Collins. But seeing as today marks the one-year anniversary of launching Eden.Babel, I find myself musing, like Bilbo Baggins, on the nature of the journeys we take, a reflection Collins often considers in his work.

For me, Collins’ is the one poetic voice that has resonated most beautifully concerning the process of sojourning; in the pithy breath of a lyrical phrase, he captures the massive undertakings we begin in the simple acts of ordinary mornings: the epic quest of frying an egg, the poetic brilliance of cleaning a windshield. As I mentioned in a previous post on Collins, someone once gorgeously quipped that his poetry “begins in Kansas and ends in Oz.” This is the majesty of Collins’ work, that the reader can begin the poem introduced to the most mundane of settings, yet find himself struck by the lightning of a startling stanza within seconds. For example, I recently purchased his collection Horoscopes for the Dead, flipped to the first poem, and read these lines:

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Only Collins can produce this effect. The speaker begins with an utterly casual and unceremonious question (“What do you think of my new glasses?”), moves to an equally casual setting (“I asked as I stood under a shade tree”), then smoothly slides back the curtain to reveal the quiet distress of the grief the speaker bears (“before the joined grave of my parents”). This is the signature movement of Collins, to show his speaker caught between the subtle, almost childlike question for approval – What do you think? – and the bare melancholy of reality. This is the journey from ordinary to extraordinary, mundanity to magic, that makes Collins’ voice a powerhouse for effect and provocative insight. This is the punch of his poetry.

And so, I leave you with the charge to discover Collins for yourself. Brace yourself for the knockout.

The Ameri-Con Man: How Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby define America

harold-hill

“Remember, my friends, listen to me because I pass this way but once.”

From Meredith Wilson’s Tony-winning musical The Music Man and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s perennially high-school required read The Great Gatsby spring two of the cleverest and most dapper American heroes to feature in our star-spangled tradition. Yet, the word “hero” is clearly a troubled one in these works, for both Hill and Gatsby (if we may even refer to them as such since both monikers are pseudonyms) complicate the water of conventional heroics. Undoubtedly, they enthrall their audiences, luring us all in with their smoke-and-mirrors masquerade. They are truly dazzling figures, quick-witted charlatans with magnetic appeal and magical, theatrical aplomb. Their uncanny ability to wink-and-nod through life, to deflect the truth with a carefully-timed joke, to blur unpleasant realities with enough lights and music (indeed with seventy-six trombones) to encourage the fantasy of the American dream – even if the supports have been lamed decades ago – stuns us, leaving us with just enough patriotic paralysis to miss the haunting possibility that behind the American camouflage lies a hollow and corroded void.

the-great-gatsby-2013-720p-bluray-x264-yify_jan-9-2016-3-35-55-pm

“They’re such beautiful shirts […] It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts before.”

They are American con-men, perhaps the only American identity left for us to believe in, for whether it’s the conductor’s plumed hat or the crisp New York tuxedo, our national heroes may simply be costumes and stage-names, props and scripts. Perhaps they are only, as Daisy painfully sobs, “such beautiful shirts.”

In this post, then, I’d like to introduce a comparison of both Hill and Gatsby as quintessential American figures, earnest and romantic heroes pursuing illusory and counterfeit means of achieving their dreams. They are pied pipers, whistling and parading the nation in an endless and indefinite march toward ever-receding hopes. Yet, they are not cruel, for they are equally caught up in the cavalcade, spirited themselves by the glittering exuberance of the red, white, and blue. In short, they represent the modern American in desperate need of spiritual redemption and salvation from the treadmill of the American dream.

  1. Empty Yesterdays

Much of what motivates both Harold Hill and Jay Gatsby in their construction of false identities and flashy theatrics is a settled fear of the wasted life, a molded leaf-pile of regrets and missed opportunities.

As Hill requests to meet Marian Paroo, the reticent, independent town librarian, at the footbridge for a romantic rendezvous, Marian hesitates, asking to postpone the meeting. Hill’s response reveals his fear of losing time: “Oh, my dear little librarian. You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make today worth remembering.” Though this romantic gesture may arguably be just an extension of Hill’s crafted persona, I believe this statement embodies Hill’s genuine sentiment, for it arrives at the point in the film where Hill is becoming most vulnerable and most transparent in his affections for Marian. Indeed, he sacrifices his entire industry in falling for her, a choice (or not?) equally true of Gatsby and Daisy.

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“Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

For Gatsby, this fear of a lost past is summed up powerfully in one of his most famous lines spoken to the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway. In his attempt to regain Daisy Buchanan, the love of his life, from her husband Tom, Gatsby seeks to go back in time, to undo all of the damage done to their relationship over the last five years. Yet, Nick attempts to halt Gatsby’s efforts, claiming the rationale that one simply cannot repeat the past, to which Gatsby retorts, “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!” Perhaps nowhere else in American letters is the tormented desire to redeem lost time put more conclusively, for Gatsby’s dream is not Daisy, but an echo of Daisy, a vision of Daisy as she once was, and as she fades further away in time with every passing hour, so must Gatsby’s outstretched hand remain suspended in the air. Hers is the green light always at the other end of the bay, and time, it seems, is the sea upon which we “beat on, boats against the current,” yet are always “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

2. Promising Tomorrows

1962-Music-Man-The-05

“I always think there’s a band, kid.”

The charm and the enduring glory of these characters must arise from their eternal optimism, the genuine hopefulness that lies at the core of their flair and self-confidence. For Harold Hill this attitude is most poignant in his interactions with young Winthrop, Marian’s withdrawn little brother. At one moment, Winthrop, distressed with the revelation that Hill is a fake, asks him if there’s no band either. Hill’s response encapsulates the American notion of tomorrow, that the dreams we believe in are pure even if the steps taken to reach them are faulty. Hill lovingly says, “I always think there’s a band, kid.” This is the distillation of Hill’s entire aim: there is always a noble calling to reach for, some beautiful dream to strive after.

For Gatsby this beautiful dream and his constant expectation of it is described as a gift. Nick says, “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life […] it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” Both Hill and Gatsby epitomize this “heightened sensitivity”; they are cognizant of the greatness and grandeur of life even if they are simultaneously beleaguered by the flawed approaches they take toward realizing it. In this way, they reveal the depths of the American experience, twisted by the corruptness of sin yet, as Loki declares, “burdened with glorious purpose.”

All is not lost, however. The so-called gorgeousness of these characters does bear a mark of truth and hopefulness, for the hollowness at the root of these heroes may be restored. While Gatsby is drowned by the overwhelming impossibility of his dream, we must remember that Hill is redeemed by the truth; exposed as the sinful man he is, Hill ends the musical disgraced, yet redeemed. As he tells Marian, he cannot go on as a con man since, for the first time in his life, he “got his foot caught in the door.”

May all our American performances, our daily struggle to maintain the sparkling masks of success, self-reliance, and selfishness, likewise get caught in the door so we may learn to accept our failures and live sacrificially, loving one another in truth.

May all our veils be abandoned that we may finally be human again.

 

Be Thou My Vision: Wordsworth and Seeing into the Life of Things

king-heartsIt is often said that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Yet, what must be said of the two-eyed man?

This is the sort of binocular vision afforded to the follower of Christ, the man or woman whose soul has been quickened by the Holy Spirit and, as C.S. Lewis taught us, has been led no longer to look at the sunbeam but to look along it, to track the ray of light, the small coruscation of glory, to the majesty of the sun. Christians have been tasked to navigate this blinded world not with a limping myopia of self-reliance and DIY spirituality but rather with the full vision of God, “For God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (II Cor. 4:6). Through His death, Christ has torn the veil, allowing all the saints a wide-eyed view of the wonder of Almighty God.

Throughout the Word of God, Christians are constantly invited “further up and further in”, a welcoming call to all who would follow Christ to see Him and all He will do:

Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8)

Come and see what God has done: he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man” (Psalm 66:5)

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14)

Even the great hymnist composed the beautiful lines: “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face”

The Christian, then, has a distinct blessing of vision; as we look to the heavens, we see declared aloud the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). The early 19th century Romantic poet William Wordsworth, in his famous work “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, effectively demonstrates this sort of Christian vision as he meditates on the sublime beauty of the natural world:

“While with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, / We see into the life of things.”

-William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

This is the depth of Christian experience, what Jonathan Edwards would call a “God-entranced vision of all things.” Through the resurrecting power of God, Christians receive new eyes, new life, washed clean by the blood of the Lamb. With these new eyes of faith, we perform miracles: we see “into the life of things.” No longer are we waylaid by reductive materialism, the false sturdiness of earthly gain, or thin pleasures masquerading as true joy; rather, we see through them to discover the thickness and robustness of God. Remember, Christ’s resurrection body could pass through walls not because it was ghostly or wispy but, perhaps, because our material world is thin and feathery compared to the rich thickness of God.

And so, we must learn to see into the life of things, to track the sunbeam to the sun, to see the great abundance of the pleasure of God in and through the things He has made. As Doug Wilson suggests, we ought to “turn the soup into stew” and thank God for the freedom to see Him, for “we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (II Cor. 3:18).

3 Classics that Preach the Gospel

pile-de-livres-e1418392637859As my classes this year begin to wind down, I find myself making frequent glances in the rearview mirror, looking back at all the worlds I have led my students through. From the electric streetlights of New York to the vast acreage of the Russian countryside, from the courts of Denmark to the Paris Opera House, the wintry streets of Victorian London to the cramped apartment of a desperate salesman*, I am taken aback by the sheer beauty and splendor afforded in the simple pleasure of reading books.

One particular glory, and perhaps the preeminent one, is the power stories have to speak the truth. As someone once said, fiction is “the lie that tells the truth,” and so, I’d like to share three classic works of fiction that, I contend, edify and encourage the believer through their depiction of the Great Story that God is telling. These are simply a small handful of works that reveal, in some measure, either in their portrayal of man’s tragedy or his redemption, the awesome wonder of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

  1. Silas Marner by George Eliot

Falsely accused and abandoned by both his fiancee and his best friend, the weaver Silas Marner’s most grievous despair comes from the loss of his faith in the process. God, it would seem, has also withdrawn, leaving him desperate and alone in a home that has lost all familiarity, all comfort. So Silas retreats from his beloved old life and further into the darkened caverns of his battered heart.

Yet, in true form, all is not lost, for God, the beloved Father, has never left Silas Marner’s side. As the weaver burrows himself deeper in his gloom, God sends a wandering, helpless child through his door, toddling her way to the warm fire. As the novel progresses, Silas must learn to father little Eppie and raise her to love and care in a world lacking such virtues. A beautiful work of loss and redemption, sadness and joy, Silas Marner shows us the goodness of a sovereign God who designs all things, both sorrow and gladness, to His fullest glory.

2. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Pip, the poor orphan boy raised “by hand” by an abusive sister, lives on the scraps and meager margins of life. Opening the novel alone in his parents’ graveyard, Pip suddenly finds himself on the receiving end of death threats from a hardened, terrifying convict, demanding food and a file to free his chains. Yet, though Pip has nothing of a future ahead of him, he dreams of a life in London, the top hats and cobblestone streets, the theater and the busy coaches. In short, Pip dreams of being a somebody.  And so, when a mysterious benefactor sends him an inexplicably magnificent fortune, granting Pip the impossible opportunity to attain his expectations, Pip is ecstatic.

But, as Pip finds, not all that glitters is gold. Throughout Pip’s experience in the city, he must, both literally and figuratively, wave the fog and chimney mist from his eyes, constantly wiping away the crumbling illusions of his makeshift fantasies. The world, Pip discovers, is greedier, crueler, dirtier, and lonelier than he had imagined. What remains for Pip, then, is to watch his worldly ambitions fade to nothing only to discover the true joy and grace that had been beckoning to him all along. Considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece, Great Expectations guides its reader from the warmth of home to the prodigal “far country” and, thankfully, back again with the spiritual richness and stylistic aplomb typical of Dickensian fiction.

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

At once both Gothic thriller and philosophical discourse, Frankenstein perhaps is one of the more misrepresented works of Romantic literature. Dr. Victor Frankenstein is obsessed with scientific exploration and daring feats of progress, namely, the discovery of reanimation and the source of life. Written in the short wake of Galvani’s work with electricity, Shelley’s novel examines the ethical, social, and religious implications of playing God as Frankenstein assembles a motley cadaver from dead men’s limbs and surges it to life. Yet, the creature he thought would bring him worldwide renown and adoration in the scientific community turns out to be a harrowing monster, eight feet tall and more powerful than Frankenstein had ever dreamed. What follows is a cat-and-mouse pursuit as Frankenstein runs from his creature and, ultimately, the consequences of his deeds.

The true beauty of this novel, however, lies in the way Shelley provokes sympathy for the monster. In her world, this creature becomes a being that longs to know its telos, its purpose, in this hostile and chaotic world. The monster, in this sense, is transformed into a type of Adam, created and designed by an expert hand, as he subsequently roams western Europe in search of his maker. Perhaps the most climactic and stirring moment occurs when Frankenstein and his monster meet atop Mount Blanc, embodying the classic , almost mythical confrontation between creature and creator. In this sequence, the monster finally interrogates Frankenstein, begging him to accept him, love him, and explain his purpose for being. Yet, for all his earnest pleading, the monster receives no kindness in turn as Frankenstein berates and abandons him, damning him to his alienated and miserable state alone and confused.

As awful as Frankenstein treats his creature, the story awakens the reader’s heart to the contrary opportunity we all have in addressing our own Maker. Unlike Frankenstein, He will never spurn us with disgust; rather, we serve a good Father who made us in His living image, not from the rotted, corroding skin of death. In this way, Frankenstein shows us the inadequacy of humanism compared to the lovingkindness of a sovereign God. We, as it turns out, make lousy gods.

 

*These works are The Great Gatsby, The Seagull, Hamlet, The Phantom of the Opera, Great Expectations, and The Metamorphosis.

Scrooge, Marner, and the Lethal Love of Money

IMG_2417In Charles Dickens’ near-perfect novella A Christmas Carol, the iconic miser Ebenezer Scrooge endures a painful series of journeys to the past, present, and future to discover the depths of his selfishness and to redeem his crooked heart. Among his famous visits to Mr. Fezziwig’s party, the Cratchit house, and his own grave, one scene in particular is quite moving. As the Ghost of Christmas Past reveals to Scrooge a number of scenes of his boyhood and younger years, a vision of his potential, yet ultimately unrealized marriage to Belle appears, causing Scrooge to beg the Ghost to “show [him] no more!” In this episode, Belle pleads with the younger Scrooge to remember his former love and affection toward her, feelings which had grown cold over time as his piles of gold rose ever higher:

“It matters little,” she said softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

“What Idol has displaced you!” he rejoined.

“A golden one.”

For Scrooge, his obsession with his “master-passion, Gain” through the pursuit of money clouds out the real warmth of a woman who loved him dearly.

Similarly, in George Eliot’s 1861 novel Silas Marner, we see another instance where money-chasing leads to destruction. Upon his exile from Lantern Yard following false charges of theft, the weaver Marner winds up a stranger in Raveloe where he stays alone in his cottage on the fringes of town and hoards his income beneath his floorboards. Like Scrooge, Marner’s soul becomes intimately connected with his wealth as he sits alone at his table in the company of gold coins:

“The light of his faith quite put out, and his affections made desolate, he had clung with all the force of his nature to his work and his money; and like all objects to which a man devotes himself, they had fashioned him into correspondence with themselves. […] His gold, as he hung over it and saw it grow, gathered his power of loving together into a hard isolation like its own.”

For both Scrooge and Marner, their stacks of gold became surrogates for the people they once loved, standing in for fiancees (Belle and Sarah, respectively) they lost long ago. Their love of money, an all-consuming obsession, serves as a coping mechanism for fear, loneliness, and, most of all, purposelessness. Wishing to discover a sense of significance and identity, they resort to chasing money in hopes to find security, control, and assurance that they will never be hurt again. As Jim Carrey famously quipped at the Golden Globe awards, they were on a “terrible search” for joy and satisfaction.

Yet, money-chasing can never provide genuine rest. The quota mentality remains a stubborn factor: How much money must one have to be happy? When will enough be enough?

While the first half of Paul’s statement to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil”is more famous, it is the last half of the verse that is most striking. See the full verse:

“For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.” (KJV, emphasis added)

Paul notes that money-chasing is not only a poisonous root to further evils but also an invitation for many sorrows to pierce the heart. In other words, the pursuit of money for its own sake is a confident step directly into enemy fire, an intentional upward look at a shower of arrows, barechested and shieldless. The love of money is lethal, a greed and discontentment that festers and rots until the heart is brought to ruin. It drives people away from any sort of need for faith or trust, tempting them to see their own wealth as a mighty fortress. Ironically, our currency is right: In God we certainly trust. I just wonder if that god is the piece of paper we’re holding.

So our only hope is to release our clinched fists and let our dollars go because palms that are freed from the grip of gold are free to be given grace.