“The lights drifted farther away the faster he ran and his feet moved numbly as if they carried him nowhere. The tide of darkness seemed to sweep him back to her, postponing from moment to moment his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow.”
-Flannery O’Connor, “Everything That Rises Must Converge”
Perhaps no writer in the 20th century was better capable of sharing the “shiver of wonder” and the glorious taste of the gospel than C.S. Lewis. Throughout his life, Lewis reveled in the truth and beauty of God, passionately chasing the eternal ache and longing he felt for the joy and ultimate satisfaction found only in Jesus Christ.
Taking the journey one chapter at a time, this new podcast delves into the deeper magic of Lewis’s famous Narnia stories, inviting you to go further up and further in to savor the glimpses of Jesus that lie just on the other side of the wardrobe.
You can listen to Episode 1 – Introduction right here:
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I read another reviewer who labeled this perhaps the most important book Wilson has written, and I am more than happy to throw my support behind such high praise.
I am an ardent fan of Wilson’s and have read several of his books; Empires of Dirt, however, is one of the greatest, timeliest, and most extraordinary of his expressions to date. His grasp of America’s present ills is sure, and his biblical, postmillennial, optimistic vision of mere Christendom a delicious remedy.
Wilson argues for the engagement of all Christians in reclaiming the world for King Jesus, affirming that, as I once heard Wilson quip, if Christ is not Lord of all, then He is not Lord at all.
This book is simply magnificent, though if you are new to Wilson’s style, I would recommend you start with Angels in the Architecture or Rules for Reformers first.
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,
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
On 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.
I 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.
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.
At 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”
No 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).
Yes, 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:
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.