web analytics

English

[6] On Christian Literature

by Micah Mattix, Associate Professor of English at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va.

We often demand that so-called “Christian” fiction or poetry be as unambiguous as a Gospel tract. The result is a novel or a poem that is not a very good novel or poem.

Because I am a professor of English and a Christian, people often ask me to recommend a Christian novelist or poet. Mostly, I am happy to oblige, but sometimes these requests make me uneasy. This is because what people often seek is not so much a work by a Christian novelist or poet but a Christian novel or a Christian poem. While Christian novelists or poets are real enough—though not always very plentiful—it is somewhat more problematic to speak of Christian, as opposed to pagan, literature. This is because, as I hope to show, all literature is Christian in a limited sense. Instead of asking whether a novel or poem is “Christian” or not, it would be more helpful to speak of all literature in terms of value.

“Literature” is a beleaguered term. Our culture prefers the egalitarian term “text” to refer to what used to be called “literature” because it evacuates the spiritual—or immaterial—element of the original term. There is no difference, post-structuralist theorists would have us believe, between an email and Hamlet’s soliloquies, but this, of course, is wrong. A text is a grouping of linguistic signs that express some state of affairs, actual, speculative, or imaginative. A work of literature is a text, but in addition to signifying imaginative states of affairs, the signs in such a work are also symbolic—they point to some ethical, moral, or theological reality. This might be the presence of suffering, the beauty of love, the goodness of virtue, the evil of vice, or any number of realities of human existence, but in order for a work to be a work of literature, it must gesture toward these sorts of things. Furthermore, works of literature are also works that possess an element of craft, ambiguity, and if not originality, at least some element of formal variation or difference.

The term “literature,” therefore, is a qualitative term, and in this sense, it differs from the term “culture.” Cultural artifacts, such as texts, express certain contextually determined ideas or values. Some of these ideas or values are good; some are not. While works of literature certainly express culture specific ideas or values, part of what makes them works of literature, and not merely cultural artifacts, is that they transcend their respective cultural contexts. Cultural artifacts tell us about a culture. Works of literature tell us about a culture and about human beings.

Accordingly, not all that is said to be literature actually is literature. Not all stories are works of literature. For example, contemporary fiction that merely shocks is not literature. Guillaume Apollinaire’s erotic stories are not literature. Much cadavre exquis and “new-materialist” poetry is not literature. Based upon our culture’s erroneous definition of literature in terms of novelty alone, works that exhibit some formal innovation or treat taboo subjects are wrongly passed off to the public as works of literature, and part of the role of the Christian critic is to call our culture to task for such errors.

For most people, Christian literature differs from pagan literature to the extent that the former contains Christian themes and the latter, pagan ones. In other words, the Christian work draws from the grand narrative of Scripture while the pagan work draws from pagan sources.

Yet, this is where things become problematic. Take Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot. In terms of its symbolic meaning and in terms of its craft, it is a far more Christian work than either so-called “Christian” romances or “Christian” morality novels. While Beckett was an atheist, in Waiting for Godot we have a very accurate picture of life without God, and, therefore, of the consequences of the fall.

The two main characters, Estragon and Vladimir, wait for Godot, who will tell them what to do. In other words, Godot will provide their respective lives with purpose and meaning. He never arrives, however, and life is experienced by both characters as loss—it is meaningless and absurd. At the end of the play, Estragon and Vladimir all but admit this:

Estragon: Didi. Vladimir: Yes. Estragon: I can’t go on like this. Vladimir: That’s what you think. Estragon: If we parted? That might be better for us. Vladimir: We’ll hang ourselves to-morrow. (Pause.) Unless Godot comes. Estragon: And if he comes? Vladimir: We’ll be saved. (Vladimir takes off his hat (Lucky’s), peers inside it, feels about it, shakes it, knocks on the crown, puts it on again.) Estragon: Well? Shall we go? Vladimir: Pull on your trousers. Estragon: What? Vladimir: Pull on your trousers. Estragon: You want me to pull off my trousers? Vladimir: Pull ON your trousers. Estragon: (realizing his trousers are down). True. Vladimir: Well? Shall we go? Estragon: Yes, let’s go. (They don’t move.) (109)

 

For Beckett, the two ways of escaping the meaninglessness of life are apocalypse (Godot coming) or suicide. A third way would be to stop waiting for Godot and find meaning in each other, as Estragon and Vladimir try to do. The fact that Estragon and Vladimir are often cruel towards one another demonstrates that, for Beckett, such a solution is rare. Overall, Beckett’s rather dark play provides a very telling picture of the meaninglessness of life in the absence of telos.

By contrast, Christian romances are often watered-down versions of a Danielle Steel novel. In these, a woman—usually a recent divorcee in her early forties—is unexpectedly struck by love when she meets a handsome, but equally troubled thirty-something. The two struggle to put past demons to rest. Yet, with the help of some good pastoral advice, they overcome that which separates them and finally give themselves to each other (though behind closed doors) in a climactic moment of conjugal passion.

While the presentation of forgiveness and healing available in Christ are elements that often separate such romances from Beckett’s play, the treatment of love as a spontaneous, overpowering feeling is perhaps more secular than Christian. Furthermore, the emphasis on a passionate, horizontal relationship between two people often supplants the perpendicular one between God and man as the source of all meaning and joy, despite hedging remarks to contrary.

While markedly different from the Christian romance, the Christian morality novel has its own shortcomings. In these, we often get the story of a happy family—a mother, father, three children, a van, and a dog—who love Jesus and suffer through a mild, albeit difficult trial, say, an unsaved Grandmother suffering with cancer or a close friend struggling with drug addiction. In the end, the Grandmother is saved or the friend checks into rehab, all to God’s glory, of course. There is no profanity, no unseemly situations. Overall, such novels are very wholesome.

Yet, they are also overly simplistic. No doubt, Scripture tells us to meditate on what is pure, holy, and good, but it does not tell us to ignore the darkness of the world in which we live. Ecclesiastes does not ignore it. Isaiah does not ignore it. Paul does not ignore it. Rather the Bible confronts our sinfulness head on. Works that give us a more accurate picture of our darkness are more Christian than works that ignore it. After all, if people do not think that they live in darkness, how can they possibly look for or enjoy the light?

If we turn to the area of nuance, ambiguity, and craft, here too, Beckett’s Godot is a much more Christian work than so-called “Christian” romances or morality novels because it respects the genre in which it was written (even if it simultaneously bends it) and because it shows elements of craft, ambiguity, and originality. Each genre has different goals and capacities. The evangelistic sermon is for making direct Scriptural, emotional, and logical appeals to follow Christ. The philosophical essay is for defining and examining the nuances of virtue, vice, and metaphysical truth. Gospel tracts are for providing a short expression of the Gospel for someone you do not know. If you use one of these forms for a goal to which it is not suited, you are in trouble. An evangelistic sermon that is as detailed and analytical as a philosophical essay is not a good evangelistic sermon. A philosophical essay written in the form of an evangelistic sermon is not a philosophical essay.

Yet, strangely, we as Christians often demand that so-called “Christian” fiction or poetry be as unambiguous as a Gospel tract. The result is a novel or a poem that is not a very good novel or poem. This is like putting up with a poor architect, who cannot build anything either beautiful or functional, but slaps a Bible verse over the front door. The Christian novelist who crafts his or her novels poorly does a disservice to God to the extent that such works imply that God is uninterested in beauty, nuance, and detail. In doing so, they present an incorrect, and, one could even say, an idolatrous image of God.

Thus, Waiting for Godot is more Christian than many so-called Christian romances or morality novels, both in terms of its symbolic significance and in terms of its craft. Of course, the comparison between Beckett’s Godot and what I have called Christian romance and morality novels is an unfair comparison, because neither the romance nor the morality novel is a work of literature according to the qualitative definition of the term given at the outset of this essay. However, this does not negate the fact that Godot has elements of Christian truth and craft that point to a creator God no matter how much Beckett would want it otherwise.

Beckett’s Godot is not an anomaly. Almost all of the “classics” and numerous contemporary works express something about the human position with respect to pain, suffering, love, virtue and vice, and the like, but thinking in terms of Christian and pagan literature tends to cut Christians off from the blessings of God’s general revelation in pagan works.

In De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine argues that God’s command to the Israelites to take the gold of Eygpt as they left for the Promised Land shows that it is right for Christians to take all that is good in culture and use it for God’s glory. He writes:

In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labor, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them. These are, as it were, their gold and silver, which they did not institute themselves but dug up from certain mines of divine Providence, which is everywhere infused, and perversely and injuriously abused in the worship of demons. (2.40)

 

Making the same point earlier in the treatise, Augustine states that “every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s” (2.18). If Augustine is correct that all truth is God’s truth, then it follows that all truths about the human condition in literature and all craft are God’s truths and God’s craft. Every work of literature—that is, every work that expresses some truth about what it means to be human with craft, ambiguity, and originality—is Christian in this very limited sense.

Such a view is dangerous according to some Christian philosophers and theologians. For example, discussing (often prophetically and with great wisdom and nuance) the Christian’s role in art and literature in his excellent A Christian Critique of Art and Literature, Calvin Seerveld warns against just such a use of Augustine. For Seerveld, Augustine’s analogy always leads to the “[f]usion of the christian [sic.] faith with good ideas and products not native to the gospel of Jesus Christ.” “A willingly synthesizing Christianity,” Seerveld continues, “cannot help but become synthetic Christianity, adulterated, showing an irenic, me-too spirit towards pagan or secular interests, a spirit of composed if sometimes mystical Diesseitigkeit (a being riveted to the this side of the world) which compromises the response Revelation asks.” Furthermore, Christians espousing this Augustinian approach to the arts and literature, Seerveld argues, can become satisfied with “a common grace culture” and ignore the call to create works of art and literature themselves.

While Seerveld is absolutely right that taking the gold of Egypt can lead to culture usurping the Gospel or to Christians becoming satisfied with that gold, it does not necessarily lead to either of these. Simply because an activity can be abused, or lead to a deadly imbalance down the road, does not make that activity wrong.

Furthermore, it is important to remember that the gold in Augustine’s analogy refers to aspects of God’s general revelation found in the works of pagans—aspects such as beauty, truth, and justice—not the false idols of Egypt. No doubt, incorporating idol worship with Christianity is syncretism, but acknowledging the truths of general revelation in those works, as Paul did in Acts 17, is not. In fact, it is exactly the opposite. It is reclaiming for Christ the things that rightfully belong to His people. This is the distinction between the gold of Egypt (which the Egyptians accumulated at the hands of Joseph and, later, at the expense of the enslaved Israelites) and Egypt itself in the analogy. The gold of Egypt—beauty, truth and goodness—are not things that are foreign to the Gospel, but partial revelations of that Gospel, visible for all men to see, who nevertheless refuse to see it.

Nor is it clear how one could possibly avoid such an approach when attempting a faithful and careful engagement with culture. Indeed, Seerveld himself seems to practice it despite his dismissal of this approach when he states, for example, that the Gospel “has the power to set radically right what sin has misdirected and unbelievers are prostituting, however honourably,” or when he comments on Hawthorne’s treatment of hypocrisy or the craft of Marc Chagall’s A Praying Rabbi.

In addition to his critique of Augustine, Seerveld also argues for a distinctly Christian art and Christian literature, and, thus, would no doubt view with a skeptical eye my statement regarding the limited sense in which all literature is Christian. In A Christian Critique, Seerveld is preoccupied with calling Christians to create art and not give this domain of life over to non-Christians, and on this score, we agree wholeheartedly. It is essential that Christians create works of art and works of literature. However, in making this call, Seerveld defines art and literature somewhat differently that I do above. While I use the term literature in its qualitative sense, Seerveld has two related definitions of art and literature. On the one hand, he defines art as “the symbolical objectification of certain meaning aspects of a thing, subject to the law of allusivity” (36). This is his ontological definition of art. While it is not exactly clear what Seerveld means by “certain meaning aspects of a thing,” it seems to refer to both right and wrong meanings, right and wrong signification, as well as meanings that are neither ethical, moral, nor theological and, therefore, neutral. The ones with the “right” meanings are Christian (or perhaps pre-Christian), and the ones with the “wrong” meanings are pagan, or anti-Christian. Thus, Picasso’s Minotauromachia, which, according to Seerveld expresses the idea that “the bestial vitality of sex runs this life,” is a work of art for Seerveld, and it is a Satanic one (59).

On the other hand, art has a functional definition, as well, which, according to Seerveld, is to worship God. “Art,” Seerveld writes, “is a symbolically significant expression of what drives a human heart, with what vision the artist views the world, how that artist adores whom” (21). Thus, only art that expresses or leads to the worship of the one, true God is good art in this second sense. Accordingly, Picasso’s Minotauromachia is doubly damned—both in terms of its content and in terms of its function.

While I am hesitant to write too boldly on problems Seerveld has clearly thought about much longer than I have, I do think Seerveld’s definition of art is somewhat problematic. First, his ontological definition of art in terms of meaning making and ambiguity seems to leave out what I take to be the essentially qualitative nature of works of art and literature. As I noted above, what makes literature literature is the transcendence of such works above the culture in which they were produced, and that transcendence is directly related to the relative truth content of such works with respect to what it means to be human. For Seerveld, however, it seems, it is possible to have art with no truth content, or art that is created from entirely the wrong “slant.” In this sense, I think Seerveld is too quick to follow the egalitarian leveling that has taken place within modern criticism between “culture” and “art.” While Seerveld later calls the critic (and rightly so) to exercise his proper role of judgment with respect to the aesthetic value (which, of course, is determined by the content) of works of art and literature, it seems to me his ontological definition of art leaves the critic with less, not more, ground on which to make such judgments.

Second, Seerveld is right that art should be an act of worship of the one, true God. Indeed, all aspects of the Christian’s life should be done to God’s glory. Yet, such a statement also obscures the fact that all work or craft glorifies God whether those doing such work want it to or not. This does not mean, of course, that God accepts their creation as an act of worship. Rather, they are judged for “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.” However, God is indeed sovereign over all of creation, and human beings cannot escape the image of God within them, no matter how perverted it has become.

Indeed, Seerveld’s definition too often leads to a dichotomy in which the value of—or the image of God in the work of—non-Christian art is too quickly dismissed. For example, regarding Seerveld’s comments on Picasso’s etching, while Picasso does indeed present the idea that “the bestial vitality of sex runs this life,” is this not how many people in the modern world view sex, and doesn’t the brutality shown in the etching itself express, perhaps even against Picasso’s intentions, that such a view of sex is indeed a brutal perversion of what sex should be? Indeed, while Seerveld is right that we would be gravely mistaken to take the etching’s half-truth as expressing the complete truth regarding sex or to ignore the anti-Christian worldview of the artist, doesn’t Scripture also call us to recognize and give glory to God for all His work in creation? Ignoring the fact that He is the source of all good, truth, craft, and beauty could also be said to be an expression of the spirit of the anti-Christ. If they are works of literature, they express truths about who we are and exemplify an element of craft and nuance, and, in this sense, they reflect—whether the writer wants them to or not—the truth and craft of God Himself. Clearly we need to follow Seerveld’s example in evaluating the dangers of pagan art with nuance and precision, but we also need to recognize God’s common grace where it is present.

Thus, when I argue that all works of literature are Christian in a “limited” sense, I am not arguing that we should begin applying the tag “Christian” to all such works. Rather, I am arguing quite the opposite. We do not refer to “Christian” biology, “Christian” architecture, or “Christian” truth, because to do so would make the Christian God a subcategory of, rather than the source of, biology, architecture, and truth. So, too, I think, the term “Christian” literature obscures the fact that God is the source of all truth and craft.

This does not mean that there is no significant difference between non-Christian and Christian writers and artists. I tend to agree with Seerveld that the best work in the art and literature should indeed be done by Christians because of the fuller revelation they possess regarding what it means to be a human being in God’s image, even though I recognize that, at present, this is sadly not the case.

What it does mean, however, is that because we are all created in God’s image, and, therefore, all possess the same basic notions of love, good, and evil, and a longing for transcendence, as well as the same capacity for creation, we can expect to find value in works written by both Christians and non-Christians.

Furthermore, encouraging readers to think of literature less in terms of “Christian” and “non-Christian” and more in terms of value actually encourages, not discourages, the sort of critical engagement for which Professor Seerveld argues. These values should be derived from the truth statements of Scripture, which Christians accept on faith as God’s revelation, and, therefore, as the solidest foundation on which to make aesthetic, ethical, and moral judgments. Readers should be encouraged to engage works of literature, asking themselves whether a work reflects some aspect of the Bible’s grand narrative or whether it reflects the nuance, complexity, and depth of our Creator. If so, read it and glorify God that what may be known about Him is, indeed, manifest in them (Romans 1:19).

Micah Mattix is Associate Professor of English at Regent University and has previously taught at Yale University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  This was originally published online by Comment magazine and is retrieved from https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/2393/on-christian-literature/

[5] The Writer as Journalist

by Philip Yancey

Writers lead a sheltered and boring existence in which we spend our days in utter isolation, shuffling electrons around a computer screen or sliding a pen across paper.  Yet we of the journalistic breed have the advantage of leeching life from others.   We can sit in the cockpit jump seat or on a chair backstage and take notes, basking in the glow of those who actually do lead exciting lives.

As a journalist I became fascinated with one of my subjects, Dr. Paul Brand.  We rode the London tube together, toured the Royal College of Surgeons, dissected armadillos and rabbits, tinkered with computer programs at a leprosarium.  He even let me assist alongside as he treated patients under a tamarind tree in India.  Yet I did not have to spend the rest of my life wearing scrubs and scouring medical journals.

Some writers view journalism as a poor stepsister.  James Joyce proposed this condescending formula, “Literature deals with the ordinary; the unusual and extraordinary belong to journalism.”  Today, a reader who turns from Vanity Fair and Esquire to the novels of Thomas Pynchon, Gabriel García Márquez, and Salman Rushdie might almost reverse Joyce’s formula.  Increasingly, literature has moved away from realism toward the fanciful and magical, whereas journalism focuses on the ordinary, the quotidian. , it has also given birth to the field of creative nonfiction.

I resist that word nonfiction.  Some university Associated Writing Programs acknowledge a new species of “factual and literary writing that has the narrative, dramatic, meditative, and lyrical elements of novels, plays, poetry, and memoir.”  That describes journalism at its best, for example, in The New Yorker.

Newspaper journalists have the singular goal of communicating information efficiently, hence the inverted pyramid structure that begins with the most important facts and moves toward the more trivial.  The kind of narrative journalism that appears in the better magazines and often expands into book length has a very different goal.  We are more interested in telling a story than communicating information.  I would summarize my writing goal in this way: to cause the subject (which may in fact be a person) to stand out in relief, in a kind of silhouette, for the benefit of a particular audience, and to do so in an engaging way that holds the reader’s interest.

I want to probe and delve into that subject so that my audience goes away with a clearer understanding, both in context and in relation to themselves.  Early in my career, in interviewing teenagers, I devised a fill-in-the-blank method.  Was the sun shining?  What was the temperature?  Describe the bear.  Where did she bite first?  Tell me about the pain.  I had to imagine the story (good practice for a budding writer) and then backfill it with the corrected facts I managed to drag out of my interview subject.

Bono, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter—any question I might think up, they had already been asked at some point.  As public figures, they knew exactly how to fend off a probing journalist who might threaten their carefully protected image.

Once, while interviewing Billy Graham, I felt a sudden wave of sympathy for him and others under public scrutiny.  If I were to ask, “Mr. Graham, honestly, off the record, could you tell me what you really think about gay rights, or the tricky issues surrounding abortion?” I’m not sure he could truly answer.  He had learned over the years what to say and what not to say, and in matters of controversy his public persona had swallowed up his private person.  He couldn’t think certain things, and if he did, he certainly wouldn’t tell some nosy journalist.

Every journalist who deals with famous people faces this barrier.  A few years ago before interviewing novelist John Updike I spent a week studying some 200 interviews he had given, carefully crafting my questions.  But when the eloquent and erudite novelist responded to my questions he quickly controlled the content and steered his answers toward more comfortable waters.

If I want something novel, I must somehow establish a position of strength I developed a style I call the Columbo method.  Rather than direct confrontation, I often bring up criticism through the words of another person: “I see that the Times really roasted you for that speech you gave in San Francisco.  How would you respond?”  Like Columbo, I only expose my background knowledge when absolutely necessary.

Toward the end of Francis Schaeffer’s life, I was to do a comprehensive profile of him.  Schaeffer was undergoing treatment for the cancer that would eventually take his life.  Because of fatigue, he asked if we could do the interview over three afternoons.  The first day, I felt completely stonewalled.  His son Franky hovered over us, interrupting, answering questions for his dad, warding off anything that might seem controversial.  The second afternoon I got nothing but prepackaged speeches.  Desperate, I used a Columbo-like subterfuge.  I left behind a published article containing scathing criticism of the elder Schaeffer, with many of my notes and questions pencilled in the margin.  If he saw that and realized that as a writer I had the power to slant my profile any way I wanted, perhaps he would take my questions more seriously.  It worked.  The next afternoon, Schaeffer seemed genuinely to listen to my questions and give thoughtful, authentic replies.

Janet Malcolm has written about the sense of betrayal in journalist. “The subject becomes a kind of child of the writer, regarding him as a permissive, all-accepting, all-forgiving mother, and expecting that the book will be written by her.  Of course, the book is written by the strict, all-noticing, unforgiving father.”  I have since moved away from the kind of investigative journalism that leads to misunderstandings and betrayal, deciding to focus on people I wanted to learn from positively.  The book Soul Survivor includes the resulting profiles of some of these people: Dr. Paul Brand, Dr. Robert Coles, Annie Dillard, Henri Nouwen, Dr. C. Everett Koop, Frederick Buechner.

Good journalism tells a story.  As Reynolds Price says, “the need to tell and hear stories is the second most important need after food.”  Participatory journalism affords me a chance to live a story before I tell it.

Peter Jenkins, who was working on the book A Walk Across America, once said to me, “I get tired of these reporters flying down from New York, renting a car, then driving out to meet me.  They hit the electric window button of their air-conditioned car, lean out, and ask, ‘So, Peter, what’s it like to walk across America?’  I’d like a reporter to walk with me for a while!”  Thoughtlessly, I volunteered to join him in Texas during the hottest summer on record.

For several days Peter and I hiked together.  Several weeks later I flew to Washington, D.C., to sort through several thousand photos which Peter had taken and was storing at the offices of National Geographic.  That magazine’s two-part write-up on Peter’s walk had attracted a higher reader response than any article in their history.  “How in the world did you decide on what to use from the mass of material Peter had written?” I asked the editor.

“It’s like this,” he replied.  “I went home early, sat down with a beer, and read all 200 pages as fast as I could.”  Then I put the manuscript down, drank another couple of beers, and fixed a barbecue dinner for my family.  I went to bed early that night, got up, and made some coffee.  Then as I sat at the breakfast table I made a list of the scenes from the book that stood out in my memory.  Those are the very scenes that made it into the article.”

Often we journalists want to write about weighty matters of significance.  Most readers want stories.  One droll editor once came to my office later and said, “Philip, that was a great story you told at coffee break.  Why isn’t it in your article?”

Before leaving investigative journalism, I visited the PTL Club at its height in the late 1970s.  Jim Bakker claimed that God had revealed to him the architectural plans for a television studio complex in the form of a miniature version of colonial Williamsburg, and he proceeded to build just that.  As he and his wife Tammy Faye tearfully plead for funds to support their enterprise, donors (many of them elderly and needy themselves) would cash in their life savings or mail in their wedding rings.  Meanwhile the Bakkers lived lavishly.  They once held a wedding ceremony for a poodle and a Yorkshire terrier, complete with bridal gown and tuxedo, and installed them in an air-conditioned doghouse.  Because I represented Christianity Today, the PTL Club gave me the run of the place.  I faced ethical dilemmas in writing that article, but decided that my primary responsibility was to inform my readers about what was going on behind the scenes.  (Bakker was later imprisoned and to his credit wrote a book with a title that says it all: I Was Wrong.)

Effective journalism needs narrative drive, a force that pulls the reader from the beginning to the end.  Sometimes what takes place inside the writer supplies it.  The story unfolds internally: the feeling of guilt and helplessness as I stood in a refugee camp swarming with 60,000 Somalis waiting for food while I strolled around snapping pictures; the sense of astonishment when I watched through a window on Red Square as the flag of the Soviet Union came down and the flag of Russia, banned for seven decades, rose to replace it; the prickly sensation of fear as I challenged the African-American leader John Perkins to prove to me that racism was still alive in Mississippi and we entered a never-before-integrated restaurant and every white patron fell silent and left their seats to avoid eating with us.

Recently I read a striking article in The Atlantic by a mother who wondered about the vulnerability of children in the age of cyberspace.  She went on MySpace and picked at random a girl named Jenna.  Without much trouble she tracked down Jenna’s school, learned her interests and daily routine, and found herself stopping by her favorite hangouts, hoping to catch sight of her.  She, a perfectly harmless and responsible mother, found out how easily a predator could prey on her own daughter.

In another example, I read a powerful account by an Israeli journalist who visited Palestinian refugee camps.  As their guest, he listened to stories of brutality from refugees who had no idea that he also served as a member of the Israeli army reserves and had himself participated in such raids.  They told of beatings, of late-night searches by armored soldiers shining flashlights into their eyes, of Israeli bulldozers destroying their homes. These are the new Jews, he thought to himself—an uprooted and despised people yearning for their homeland—an astonishing admission for an Israeli soldier.

An inner tension lies at the heart of each of these pieces.  That tension gets transferred from the writer to the readers.  The struggle, the irresolution in the writer provides much of the narrative drive.  That is why propagandists, whether religious or political, produce so much feckless journalism: they perceive the dynamic as existing between the message, accepted in advance, and the unconverted reader.  They forfeit the power of suspense.

Sometimes an exterior setting provides the narrative drive.  I once read a profile of Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft.  The writer conducted the interview mostly by email, amazed that one of the richest and busiest people in the world would actually answer his emails, and usually without delay.  The writer was surprised to meet a passionate man who curses, loses his temper, yells, and laughs lustily.  He had seen none of that in Gates’s electronic messages—which was the point.  The writer’s theme asked: as more and more human interaction is handled electronically, will actual personal encounters become distilled, even exaggerated versions of the real humanity?  Will our personalities evolve to fit the age of cyberspace?

On international trips I have often encountered irony providing the narrative drive.   I had a gourmet dinner in a restaurant in a former colonial palace in Lima, Peru.  Unexpectedly, the inside cover of the menu began with the words, “Jesus lives!  For this we are happy.”  And as we ate the waitresses appeared and sang a vespers hymn for their patrons.  The restaurant was run by an order of nuns who cooked, waited on tables, scrubbed floors, and worshiped, and did all these things to the glory of God.  But with a modern twist to the Brother Lawrence style: they proffered gourmet meals in order to serve the poor of Lima.  All proceeds went to fund their social programs among the poor of Lima.

The deepest irony traces back to the very heart of journalism in which an act of vicariousness leeches life from others and inevitably distorts it in the process.  I don’t lead prisoners and juvenile delinquents through the wilderness, or minister to prisoners in Chile or squatters in Peru.  When it comes to issues like world poverty and justice, I shine a spotlight on those who serve on the front lines.  I rage against injustice by sitting in my Colorado office moving electrons around on a screen and arranging words and phrases.

Moreover, I never get it right; none of us journalists do.  The act of writing involves selection, editing, point of view.  I love my work, and cannot imagine doing anything else.  I begin, however, with a deep sense of humility, an awareness that we writers are little more than peeping toms at the keyhole of reality.  James Agee in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men pinpointed the essential difference between fiction and journalism.  Fiction creates a universe and characters that exist only on the page and in the author’s mind.  Journalism has the audacity to record on the page what purports to be real, but is actually a reduction of the real through one person’s point of view.

I once wrote about a friend of mine named Larry, one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever known.  A bisexual, he has a history of liaisons with people of both genders.  A recovering alcoholic, he attends AA sessions almost daily, has twenty years of sobriety, and has become a substance abuse counselor.  Raised Mennonite, he rebelled by serving in Vietnam, but has since become a doctrinaire pacifist.  Along the way, Larry became a Christian, claiming he was converted by two hymns, “Just As I Am,” and “Amazing Grace.”  As he heard the words of those hymns, I realized that God really did want him just as he was; God’s grace was that amazing.  In his own way, Larry has been following God ever since.  Larry states his dilemma this way, “I guess I’m caught somewhere between ‘Just as I am’ and ‘Just as God wants me to be.’”

I wrote about Larry briefly as part of an article for Christianity Today.  I changed some details, hoping he would not come across the article and recognize my caricature of him.  A few weeks later I got a phone call from him containing these devastating words: “Philip, I’ve lived all my life trying to be a real person, a three-dimensional person.  You’ve reduced me to a two-paragraph illustration.”

Larry was right.  We reduce the magnificence of human beings to statistics, and illustrations, and article leads.  Journalism—and indeed all art—is but a mere portrayal or depiction that will never do it justice.  I try to remind myself of that as I turn to the keyboard.  I will do my best to render truth, but I will fail.  I will never get it right.

Philip Yancey is perhaps the most famous celebrated of current Christian writers.  This is adapted from his website and we thank him for his permission to publish this.

 [4] Reflections on Faith and Learning in the English Classroom

by Don King, Professor of English, Montreat College

Several years ago, as I taught a junior-level middle English literature course, I was discussing with my students an assigned book review.  A bright young woman in the class raised her hand and asked: “Dr. King, are you trying to turn us into scholars?” Her inquiry had very deftly revealed a hidden agenda for all the classes I teach, though I had not realized it before her question. She helped me see that, yes, I was trying to turn my students into scholars. After recovering from my shock, I told them so. This incident is the catalyst for what follows, as I explore briefly what it means to be a Christian scholar and teacher within the discipline of literature

TOOLS

Let me begin by noting the “tools” necessary for Christian scholarship within the discipline of literature. First, persons interested in such scholarship will bring an informed, biblical perspective to their study of literature; indeed, knowledge of Scripture is critical for this enterprise. Avoiding the simplistic, such persons will grapple with the declaration that “all truth is God’s truth” in light of the biblical record. Ideally, such persons will be guided by humility, civility, service, and honesty. I add by way of clarification that such persons will not use their faith to browbeat and coerce others into some prepackaged Christian mold. Second, Christian scholars of literature will harness

their intellectual ability and rigor in order to explore all aspects of literary study. They will seek to discover truth—about themselves, others, the world, and God—no matter where the search leads. This means that while some discussions will remain open-ended, other will lead toward closure; that is, truth is not always elusive.If the tools of Christian scholarship are biblical depth and academic expertise, what are the three most common perspectives on the subject? Some people believe these two ideas are mutually exclusive; that is, they argue that literary study can receive no insight from religious belief nor can faith be informed by academic inquiry. Such people would answer Tertullian’s rhetorical question, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” by saying “Nothing!”

The assumption here is that Athens (representing the high point of Greek rationalistic civilization) can learn nothing from Jerusalem (representing the pinnacle of Hebraic faith traditions). These people believe there is simply no point of contact between faith and literary study. Others believe each is fine in its own place; that is, literary study is worthy of sustained effort and so is a deeply felt relationship with Christ as long as the two run parallel with each other. These people would probably not be actively opposed to the idea that faith and literary study could inform each other, but they would not be particularly interested in nor motivated to discover how to bridge the two.  However, a third group, in which I include myself, believe faith and literary studies intersect in powerful ways. Indeed, I’d put it this way: faith and literary study are not mutually exclusive, they should inform each other, and Christian literature faculty members should seek proactive ways for such integration to occur. Faculty sympathetic to this view will approach literary studies from the perspective that a Christian worldview informs, supplements, enhances, exposes, comments upon, and enriches the truths they pursue in literature. Such people find this perspective cogently summarized by Dutch

theologian Abraham Kuyper, who at one time also served as the prime minister of the Netherlands. Speaking at the inaugural convocation of the Free University of Amsterdam, he said: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!’”

PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

I begin with two caveats. First, I believe that the enterprise of learning how to integrate faith and literary studies is a lifelong project. Second, I doubt your own college or university is a wasteland with regard to Christian scholarship; indeed, I want to encourage you who are actively engaged in this enterprise and to collaborate with others on campus in considering how to go about this enterprise in a more intentional way.

When I began teaching in the mid 1970s, having studied in large state universities, I had to decide if I should approach literature as many of my professors had in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They tended to treat literature as holy; literary studies for them verged on religious devotion, but divorced literary study from any sense of divine truth and meaning. Literature may have been holy, but it had no direct connection to God.

When I began my doctoral studies, again at a large state university, I had to decide if I should approach literary studies from any number of popular ideological perspectives. This approach associated literary studies with power/political agendas including Marxism, feminism, sexism, multiculturalism, and so on; often the ideology became the focus of such studies and those things that I most loved about literature—the power of language, the subtle nuances in discovering truth and meaning in life, the orderliness and beauty of literary forms (poetry, drama, fiction), the tender, poignant portrayal of the human condition, including the redemptive nature of human love as well as the destructive force of human selfishness, pride, and deception—all these things seemed subservient to the “cause,” whatever it was.

Through the 1990s I had to decide if I should approach literature through the lens of postmodernism and deconstruction where the very meaning of the text is called into question. I reflect back not to disparage or attack (indeed, I have learned valuable things through this literary pilgrimage and the various “isms”), but instead to show what I believe is one way (not the only way) a Christian literature professor can go about the task of integrating faith and learning.

For me this meant going back to the literal beginning. I realized that language, or

more properly logos, is the primary way in which God has revealed himself, as both the beginning of Genesis and the Gospel of John reveal: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light.’” (Gen. 1:3), and “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). In the Genesis passage we see God using logos or language to create the natural world. In a real sense God spoke into creation all that is. In the passage from John, a Christian sees an equally wonderful thing: that is, the Word, literally the Logos, Jesus Christ, is God’s word to us.

These realizations had profound implications for me.  Among these was the fundamental truth that human language itself is a reflection of our divine connectedness, the imago Deo.  That we have language and use language and enjoy language intimately and irrevocably links us to God. On the one hand, God used language or logos to create the natural world, and on the other hand he sent his Logos, his Word, his Son to us. One part of my task, then, is to explore and discover with my students how language and by extension literature participates in the revelation of God’s natural creation as well as His revelation of his own character as portrayed in the life of Christ.

I have tried to consider the implications of this with my students, realizing that when we read and study a novel we enter into not only the author’s world but at least indirectly into God’s. Although the piece may be fictional and not obviously focused upon God, the means the author uses to communicate, logos, is a gift of God and in itself connects us to the divine image. An author uses logos as the vehicle to portray her vision of life.

No piece of literature is “beyond the pale,” even if it is clearly antithetical to Christianity or God. The Christian finds in such a piece of writing the grand irony that an author uses logos to try to defy Logos, reminiscent of Isaiah 45:9: “Woe to the one who quarrels with his Maker—an earthenware vessel among the vessels of the earth! Will the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you doing?’” At the same time, realizing this irony will quicken in the Christian not an attitude of self-righteousness but one of renewed commitment to exploring how language and literature link us to the idea of being created in the image of God.

INTEGRATION IN THE CLASSROOM

How might the integration of faith and literary studies happen in the classroom? First, faculty members should to try to make connections between the literary texts being studied and relevant biblical motifs, themes, and ideas. While we can sometimes plan this out ahead of time, often such connections occur spontaneously during class discussion; yet we have to be sensitive and ever looking to make such connections.  Often these serendipitous moments of integration will be more profound and influential than our deliberate efforts.

Second, we should develop a series of integrative questions. These are designed to raise questions in our students’ minds with regard to the course material and important biblical motifs, themes, and ideas. Over the years I have come to include these integrative questions in my syllabus and tell my students that while we may not ever directly address the questions in class, they undergird the kind of thinking in which I hope we will engage via course readings and discussions.

Here, are the integrative questions I include in EN 301,

Shakespeare:

1.  How does Shakespeare’s portrayal of romantic love in the early comedies relate to a biblical view of romantic love? The mature comedies? What biblical texts comment upon the idea of romantic love?

2.  In Shakespeare’s “problem comedies,” what is the relationship between law and grace? In what ways does his understanding of this relationship reflect a biblical one?

3.  What appears to be Shakespeare’s view of the nature of humankind in his histories and tragedies? Are we simply beasts or are we created “a little lower than the angels”? What difference does this make?

4.  How does Shakespeare’s knowledge of biblical passages, themes, motifs, ideas, and principles inform his plays? In what ways does he draw upon these rich resources as an artist?

5.  What are the roles of confession, repentance, forgiveness, redemption, and reconciliation in his final plays, the romances? Is Shakespeare’s understanding of these principles biblically informed and how so?

6.  What appears to be Shakespeare’s view of marriage? Do his plays reflect a static view of marriage or an evolving one? How so? What biblical insights about marriage inform our understanding of how Shakespeare portrays marriage?

On the first day of the course, I spend time going through the questions, even suggesting ahead of time how some of the questions invite significant biblical engagement. I believe it is important for students to see how deliberatively I am thinking about Shakespeare and these biblical ideas. These questions set the context for my (not always systematic) attempts at integration throughout the semester.

Moreover, because scholars have effectively documented Shakespeare’s almost-verbatim knowledge of large portions of Scripture—mostly likely via the Geneva Bible (1560)—a third avenue I pursue in regard to integration turns upon a brief study of the history of the English Bible, followed by a handout exploring the implications of this question: “If Shakespeare had a close knowledge of the English Bible and if his plays clearly reflect such, of what significance are these matters to our study of Shakespeare this semester?” The discussion that follows often sets the context for our approach to

studying the plays in terms of trying to make connections between the content of the literary texts and biblical ideas. In order to invite students to make such linkages I often suggest biblical passages that might inform their reading of the plays. Accordingly, when we study the early comedies, I assign parallel biblical readings assignments including the Song of Songs, Ephesians 5, and I Corinthians 13, and for the problem comedies, we read and discuss passages from Romans and Galatians. For the tragedies and romances, parallel biblical passages are almost ubiquitous, particularly from the New Testament.

I do not necessarily feel compelled to force the issue. For instance, as we begin studying Measure for Measure, I give students a handout that reproduces six biblical passages focusing upon judgment, forgiveness, mercy, and justice; then I invite a brief discussion of the biblical passages. After we have studied Measure for Measure,we then move into a study of the Merchant of Venice; together these are arguably Shakespeare’s two most biblically informed plays. I give my students the option of writing the following essay on the two plays that, by implication, invites them to consider the original six biblical passages (and others we have identified in the meantime): “Identify and discuss a common biblical theme found in both Measure for Measure and the Merchant of Venice. What biblical texts express best this theme and how do echoes of it appear in the plays? What is different about the way the two plays treat this theme, especially with regard to how the characters act upon the theme? Which play best expresses this biblical theme and why? Be specific by referring to the texts.”

In response to this prompt, one student opened her essay this way:Throughout literature, biblical ideas and allusions have played a vital role developing an author’s theme. From John Milton’s Paradise Lost to the works of Flannery O’Connor, Christian themes are the foundation of varying literary periods and genres. Although not as obvious in his use of biblical passages as other authors, William Shakespeare

draws a good deal from the Bible in many of his plays; in particular his biblical insights can be seen in the Merchant of Venice and Measure for Measure. Specifically, the interactions between Shylock and Antonio in the Merchant of Venice and Angelo, Claudio, and Isabella in Measure for Measure exemplify the biblical passage found

in Matthew 7:1–2, “Do not judge lest you be judged yourselves. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it shall be measured to you.” Based on my readings of the plays and this biblical text, I believe Shakespeare explores profoundly the question of mercy versus justice and comes close to articulating

a definition of Christian forgiveness.

BEYOND THE CLASSROOM

Beyond the classroom and teaching, the Christian scholar may have opportunities to engage in research. Christian scholars given such opportunities must be committed to critical learning that is deep, sustained, and biblically informed. They won’t be satisfied

with the facile, the simplistic, or the shallow; instead, they will go to extraordinary lengths to explore all aspects of a subject. This will include exhausting all avenues of research material as well as thoughtful dialogue with others, both peers and experts alike. A consequence of this will be the realization that while much is learned, much remains to be learned.

Reading deeply on a subject and faltering attempts at putting into words what has been learned are the “bricks and mortar” of Christian scholarship. Moreover, meaningful scholarship of this sort is driven by a mind that is curious, not easily satisfied, thirsty for new knowledge, creative, able to integrate and synthesize, and given to playfulness.

Indeed, I think playfulness is a characteristic of many in the academy I see most absent today. Scholarship that is playful does not accept the status quo without question; it delights in challenging old assumptions and provoking the established paradigm, not for the sake of being an irritant, but because it sees a new way of dealing with an old issue. An interesting example of this may be seen J. R. R. Tolkien’s fascination with a rather obscure piece of Anglo-Saxon literature about a larger-than-life being who had three separate fights with supernatural creatures of evil. Before Tolkien’s work, this piece of writing was viewed at best as an archeological artifact of limited interest .  Tolkien’s playfulness as a scholar led him to argue in a1936 essay that the work was a legitimate piece of literature deserving serious scholarly study. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” provoked a veritable tidal wave of scholarly reaction and today is a standard text in English literary studies.

Tolkien moves us toward perhaps the most personal thing I want to share about Christian scholarship: a Christian scholar should be in love with learning. If you don’t love to learn new things and have your conventional wisdom challenged, you may never find peace as a Christian scholar. I was reminded of this in one of the literature classes I taught in our adult program. At the I normally give a comprehensive essay exam. You know the type: “Write everything you know about topic X.” Students usually leave such an exam with writer’s cramp and a secret desire to throttle me. The class had read and studied Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle, Shakespeare’s Othello, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Emily Dickinson’s poetry, and Alan Paton’s moving novel about South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country.

One student, as I recall a man in his mid- to late-30s who worked for a major airline (he had a 160-mile round-trip drive to class once a week), wrote on the power of words in terms of several of the works I just mentioned. I will limit myself to his conclusion:

It is not by accident that these writers use their words to charge our emotions. Their task is to stir our innermost thoughts to provoke action on our part. As Paton wrote: “We believe that God endows men with diverse gifts, and that human life depends for its fullness on their employment and enjoyment, but we are afraid to explore this belief too deeply” (154). The [literary works] we have studied are examples of works by men and women that have used the God-given gifts Paton is referring to, and we continue to reap in the enjoyment and fulfillment of emotion they can offer. Like them we should not

be afraid to explore our beliefs more deeply.

I was greatly moved by this man’s essay, not only because he writes with grace, but even more so because his last sentence reminded me once again of what gives my life as a Christian scholar focus and purpose; his words, “like them we should not be afraid to explore our beliefs more deeply,” ably illustrate a deep passion for learning, a passion I so profoundly share.

And so it is that I turn to this matter of why I love to learn.For whatever reason, God has endowed us with this love, and it seems as if nothing can quite quench our thirst to know. For some of us this love is focused upon learning with a specific goal in mind; perhaps we want to do research that will lead to a medical discovery that will alleviate human suffering; for others, this love drives us to seek answers to age-old problems afflicting governments and economies; for still others, this love is bent upon solving

specific social, religious, or environmental dilemmas. These are wonderful motives that drive love of learning. They are practical and applied. But I confess that I love learning simply for the sake of learning.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

First, of what value is learning for the Christian scholar? Does a life of scholarship or learning have the same kind of value for the Christian as that of being, say, a plumber, or an airline pilot? I suppose the best answer I can think of comes from 1 Cor. 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God”(nasb).

Paul suggests here that the job function does not determine job value; instead, value proceeds from our ultimate focus. Can a plumber plumb to the glory of God? Can an airline pilot fly to the glory of God? Can a person learn to the glory of God? Yes. None of these positions is necessarily better than the others, for all can reflect a divine fulfillment of living life to the glory of God.

Second, shouldn’t a Christian be primarily interested in saving souls? There is a sense in which this is true, but not all of life is given over to purely spiritual things. Many ordinary human activities go on without a spiritual mandate: we take showers, cook meals, wash clothes, play sports, and so on. A life of learning can actually be an antidote to going the wrong direction with some of these ordinary human activities. As C. S. Lewis said, “If you don’t read good books, you will read bad ones. If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally. If you reject aesthetic satisfactions, you will fall into sensual satisfactions.”4 Learning, then, can lead to discovery of the beauty and truth God has created, even in ordinary human activities.

Third, is a life of learning a waste of time? Are we lovers of learning like the emperor Nero, fiddling while Rome burns? I’ll answer this objection by asking questions. Is it a waste of time to discover truth? To find the answers to difficult questions? To solve problems? To reflect deeply on the human condition? To speak clearly and honestly on matters of values, ethics, and the moral life? To promote an attitude of stewardship toward the whole of creation? To encourage an appreciation for what is beautiful, true, and good in the arts and literature? To promote a genuine critical openness to the ideas and beliefs of others? To recognize the imago Deo in all human beings? To understand the past and its interconnectedness with the present and the future? To articulate boldly the implication of God’s sovereignty over all creation and human knowledge? Are these endeavors a waste of time? I

 So, I love to learn for all these reasons. In learning I find the realization of my particular calling as a Christian scholar who is seeking to bring God glory. Again, C. S. Lewis is helpful. First, in his essay, “Christianity and Literature,” he considers, in part, the question of whether or not there is such a thing as a Christian novel or poem or play. Another way to put this is that he considers the question of how the faith of a writer should connect with his practice as a writer. He begins by saying: The rules for writing a good passion play or a good devotional lyric are simply the rules for writing tragedy or lyric in general: success in sacred literature depends on the same qualities of structure, suspense, variety, diction, and the like which secure success in secular literature . . . Literature written by Christians for Christians would have to avoid mendacity, cruelty, blasphemy, pornography, and the like, and it would aim at edification in so far as edification was proper to the kind of work in hand. But whatever it chose to do would have to be done by the means common to all literature; it could succeed or fail only by the same excellences and the same faults as all literature; and its literary success or failure would never be the same thing as its obedience or disobedience to Christian principles.2 To this he very wisely adds, however, that “the Christian [writer] knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.”3

Second, in his essay, “Learning in War-time,” written during England’s darkest WWII days, Lewis affirms the legitimacy of faith and learning: If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned

life . . . I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty, as such in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping other to do so . . . The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us.4

Christian scholarship is a lifelong process, not a matter of simplistic biblical proof-texting, nor shallow, Sunday school moralisms. At the same time, faith in Christ should serve as a guide as we work through intellectual challenges, personal conflicts, and real-world decision-making. To neglect faith is to cut learning adrift on a sea of relativism; to neglect learning is to set sail on a faith journey buffeted by conflicting winds of pietism and legalism. We need faculty members and students who proactively combine their passion for learning with their passion for Christ.

 

Endnotes

1 C. S. Lewis, “Learning in War-time,” in Fern-seed and Elephants and Other Essays

on Christianity, ed. Walter Hooper (Glasgow: Collins, 1975), 30.

2 C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter

Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 1–2.

3 Ibid., 10.

4 C. S. Lewis, “Learning,” 33–4.

Don W. King, has served as a long-time professor of English at Montreat College in North Carolina.  In his role as editor of the Christian Scholars’ Review, he shaped a generation’s understanding of faith integration in a variety of disciplines.  This is adapted from CSR and is published here with Dr. King’s permission.

[3] Dostoevsky and Authority

by Mark Eckel, Providence Center for Urban Leadership Development

Our conversation began in Charlotte, North Carolina and ended on the Indianapolis tarmac. It happens naturally at times.  One sits beside a stranger on an airplane that becomes a friendly acquaintance 90 minutes later.  He is 26 and had just written an independent screenplay for one of the big Hollywood studios.  I listened attentively, peppering my airline companion with questions.  Fyodor Dostoevsky’s famous novel The Brothers Karamazov was his inspiration for a story that would engage 21st century characters.  The theme of the screenplay focuses on choices four brothers make about an ethical dilemma.  A question of right and wrong is then considered by those four different, human points of view.

Midway through the explanation of his humanistic theme–after asking questions and listening for 20 minutes–I interrupted and simply asked “Who says?”  Disgruntled he replied, “What do you mean, ‘Who says?’”  Focusing on his human-centered response to an ethical dilemma I pointed out that none of the characters had a basis for authority outside of themselves.  “Push comes to shove,” I calmly continued, “I could slit your throat while we sit here together and my defense for killing you would be no different than any of the characters you just explained to me.”

You should have seen the look of shock on his face.  “But you can’t do that!  You seem like a nice man!”  And again I asked, “Who says?”  Stumbling for an answer he said, “Well, I suppose I would appeal to the International Court of Justice.”  Shaking my head, I sadly said, “But they aren’t here to stop me from slitting your throat.”  His face registered a thousand objections but nothing came out of his mouth.  “You see, you are arguing for ethical behavior based on individual or group morality,” I continued.  “Remember Dostoevsky’s most famous line in his story: if there is no God, anything is permissible. That leaves me with only one question, ‘Who says?’”  Finally, after a full 15 seconds, my seatmate said, “While I think of an answer why don’t you tell me what you believe.”

And I did.  Our conversation continued for a full 90 minutes.  After hearing about my movie reviews he promised to send me his screenplay.  We exchanged business cards and shook hands before we left the plane.  “Don’t forget about that question,” I reminded him.  “Don’t worry!  I won’t,” he assured me.  As I have reflected on our visit since that time, it seems my airline companion suffers from the same issue that has plagued our human race since Genesis.  If there is no authority outside of ourselves, we have no one to answer to but ourselves.

Dr. Eckel delivered this insight on Moody Radio in Chicago.  His www.warpandwoof.org website is first rate for Christian scholars.

[2] Emily Dickinson, Peter De Vries, and the Strangely Unshakeable Calvinist Character

By James C. Schaap, Professor English, Dordt College

Last summer, I read Peter De Vries’s Blood of the Lamb, for the second time.  I had read the novel first in the Sixties, four or five years after it was published, forty years ago, at a time in my life when I loved the irreverence De Vries wields at the Dutch Calvinists, a tribe into which both of us were born—for the silliness, even the idiocy of their austere, other-worldly piety.  In places, the novel is rib-tickling funny.  Peter De Vries was among the most well read and beloved of American humorists, his novels—most of them at least—knee-slappers.

Blood of the Lamb has humor, too, Don Wanderhope and his father, aboard their garbage truck, slowly sinking into the primordial ooze of some Chicago-land pit like the Titanic into the North Atlantic.  Scared to death of their own demise, they start singing the doxology.

But, for the most part, Blood of the Lamb isn’t funny.  Not at all.  Or at least it didn’t seem to me to be so hilarious this time through.

Forty years ago, I was a rebel, chafing under the strictures of De Vries’s own ethnic and religious heritage, a heritage in process of significant change.  It was the Sixties, and little was left unaffected by the seismic cultural shifts of the era.  At twenty, I read Peter De Vries’s Blood of the Lamb and roared, as I did at almost anything DeVries ever wrote.  Google him sometime and read a few of his finest quotes—he can be uproariously funny.

Forty years later, I am not nearly so headstrong.  Forty years later, I’ve got some scars, even open wounds, from fisticuffs me and the Lord have come to.  Last summer, when I finished Blood of the Lamb again, I had read an entirely different novel.  The story hadn’t changed, but I had.  The novel really wasn’t funny this time around—not at all.

Peter De Vries died in 1993.  I wonder if he ever guessed that of all his novels, Blood of the Lamb would be the one that wouldn’t go away.  He wrote it just a year after the his daughter, Emily, just a few days short of her 11th  birthday, died after a ferocious two-year battle with  leukemia.  Much of the novel is the near recitation of prolonged agony that child—and her father—faced before eventually succumbing.

Honestly, the theologically chilling part of the story I had forgotten because that story didn’t connect when I was 20 years old—“no young man thinks he shall ever die,” after all.  Today, I’m sixty, and Blood of the Lamb nearly took out the knees of my soul.

De Vries is just as affecting, maybe more so, when he describes, even carries Dutch Reformed seriousness, as when he describes its silliness.  Through his daughter’s suffering, Don Wanderhope goes to war with a sovereign God for putting his darling daughter through unrelenting human suffering.  De Vries asks the same question Elie Wiesel can’t help asking in Night and elsewhere, one of the most profound and difficult questions believers have or will ever face:  if God almighty loves us and if he controls this world, why on earth do the innocent suffer?

This time through the novel, I just about cried at the torturous human suffering De Vries chronicles in Blood of the Lamb.  His most memorable novel is not a book for the weak of heart—or soul.

But the novel was a blessing to me, at sixty, the best thing I read last summer.

Peter De Vries could have had a field day at Dordt College in the mid-Sixties, just a few years after Blood of the Lamb was published.  For a time, to keep the Sabbath holy, dorm counselors put Scotch tape over the coin slots on the Coke machines every Sunday morning.  Back then, women were required to wear skirts, not slacks, even though minis were all the rage.  Dorm hours were draconian—for women, not men—keep the women corralled and the men turned docile.  The Dean of Students would wander residence halls at chapel time, searching out sinners.  Rock music was verboten, as were beards, symbols of hippie life, the free love of flower power.

In a strange, but understandable way, at that moment the pietistic rules of early to mid-20th century Dutch Calvinist culture were as excessive as the hippie culture it so terrifyingly feared.  Good Christian people were trying hard to balance the contrary scriptural injunction to be in the world, but not of it—just as those of us who are believers still do.  The vanities of the time required, or so it was thought, not just lines in the sand but battle trenches, that were themselves blown away by the winds of change—and right here many of us could hum a tune from Bob Dylan.

Clearly, in the Sixties the church—and let me be specific here—the Christian Reformed Church–was beginning to lose its authority.  When I was a boy, backsliders were publically admonished for their sins during, even banished from the community in rites that took place during communal worship; it was called excommunication, a tribal practice all but abandoned in most fellowships today.

Some  might call that process decline, some liberation.  I myself am not so sure.  My guess is there are likely as many believers in America today as there were in the late Sixties, perhaps more.  But things have changed.  The church no longer has much authority.

Blood of the Lamb  may well be helpful in observing what’s been gained: far less Pharisaical posturing and holier-than-thou self-righteousness, an end to punishing violations of only one or two of the sins on Moses’s tablet (often the seventh); too much Old Testament-style works righteousness; and steep passageways  through unending labyrinths of guilt—for not attending church twice on Sunday, for television antennas in the attic, for wine or beer or liquor only when you’re out of town.  What’s been gained as a result of the church’s immense loss of authority?  Much, much of that kind of thinking and practice is behind us.  Thank God.

But if you, like me, are too much a Calvinist to trust progressivism, to truly believe the world is a better place because we’re smarter, more morally sound, or less judgmental than my ancestors—then a question we have to ask is what might have been lost?

Maybe Blood of the Lamb offers some answers here too.  While it makes sport of all our penny-ante prejudices, it also paints a deeply painful portrait of a man named Don Wanderhope, who is so God-haunted that he can no more love God than be rid of him.  There’s absolutely nothing endearing about that description, of course, so let me phrase it another way:  Wanderhope’s long and agonizing fight with God almighty is so terrifying that, reading it today suggests to me that maybe, amid our liberation, we have lost a certain kind of God-seriousness.  We’re all for personal relationships with Jesus these days; that’s clear.  But I wonder if there are any young writers from the Dutch Reformed world who would or could chronicle as fierce a battle with the reality of living God whose ways are, as they always have been, far beyond our own.

In most every DeVries novel, characters are named precisely, and Don Wanderhope is no exception, his hope and faith tried to the quick by the awful death of his child.  Most of the second half of the novel follows his wandering path as he seeks to find not simply some possible cosmic meaning to his beloved daughter’s death, but even more, a reason for life as we know it.

We live by a kind of conspiracy of grace:  the common assumption, or pretense, that human existence is “good” or “matters” or has “meaning,” a glaze of charm or humor by which we conceal from one another and perhaps even ourselves the suspicion that it does not, and our conviction in times of trouble that it is overpriced—something to be endured rather than enjoyed.  Nowhere does this function more than in precisely such a slice of hell as a Children’s Pavilion, where the basic truths would seem to mock any state of mind other than rage and despair.  (215)

Carol’s stay in the Pavillion, the children’s hospital, creates an eternal battle that might well be funny if it weren’t so deadly.  After months of suffering, Wanderhope buys a cake for Carol when the doctor tells him that she seems almost miraculously to be in remission.  But just a moment later, when an infection has marched through the ward “like wildfire,” a woman tells him, Carol is housed in an oxygen tent, and Wanderhope discovers, after years of fighting, that his daughter’s precious life will be gone in a matter of hours.    “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee:  The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee,” Wanderhope prays, for the last time, at his daughter’s bedside.   “The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace”—words he must have heard thousands of times as a boy in thousands of worship litanies.

Then I touched the stigmata one by one:  the prints of the needles, the wound in the breast that had for so many months now scarcely ever closed.  I caressed the perfectly shaped head.  I bent to kiss the cheeks, the breasts that would now never be fulfilled, that no youth would ever touch.  “O, my lamb.”

In DeVries’s most famous novel, that line cues the title:  the lamb that is slain is not Jesus Christ, but Carol Wanderhope, an innocent whose appalling death, by her father’s mad reckoning, slays the Savior, Jesus Christ.  Love and compassion dies with his daughter, words and promises as worthless to him as the paper the Word is printed on.

In a last black moment, Wanderhope, drunk, retrieves the cake he’d left in the church where he’d offered up his last prayer, the cake he meant to use to celebrate Carol’s unforeseen remission.  He walks outside, where, like a demonic slapstick comedian, he tosses that cake into the sculpted face of the suffering Jesus.  “Thus Wanderhope was found at that place which for the diabolists of his literary youth, and for those with more modest spiritual histories too,” DeVries writes, ”was said to be the only alternative to the muzzle of a pistol:  the foot of the Cross.”  Not particularly humbled, and dead drunk.

But there, nonetheless.

In the midst of the battle, Don Wanderhope receives a note from his college newspaper, asking him to write down for them his own philosophy of life.  He does—and includes it in the novel, twice, interestingly.  

I believe that man must learn to live without those consolations called religious, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race.  Philosophy can really give us nothing permanent to believe either; it is too rich in answers, each cancelling out the rest.  The quest for Meaning is foredoomed.  Human life “means” nothing.  But that is not to say that it is not worth living.  What does a Debussy Arabesque “mea,” or a rainbow or a rose?  A man delights inall of these, knowing himself to be no more—a wisp of music and a haze of dreams dissolving against the sun.  Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through.  Reason, Courage, and Grace.  And the first plus the second equals the third.

Because DeVries repeats that “philosophy of life” twice in the novel—once again in the last few pages, when he’s reminded of what he wrote, one can’t help but believe those words represent something more than the creed of Don Wanderhope, especially because the entire novel is painfully autobiographical.

And yet, like Jacob, Wanderhope—and DeVries?—simply can’t stop believing in God, even though, his suffering would be less should he find himself capable of stopping the furious engagement.  In a way, as Charles Spurgeon says, Wanderhope—and DeVries?—suffers in a way only real believers can,  a way that King David himself knew, not the affirmation that God does not exist, but that he does—but that he’s just not around.

I could go on and relate stories of DeVries’s later life that suggest this dilemma was something he never could put to rest.  Even in his later novels—far more comic, less dark, less theologically quarrelsome—reviewers were often quick to point out that his fiction always carried something of his own Calvinist heritage, a darkened view of humankind and our situation on this earth.  “How I hate this world,”  Wanderhope says, sounding much like the author.  “I would like to tear it apart with my own two hands if I could. I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit.”  Peter DeVries spent far too much of his life in a Calvinist church is far too brilliant a writer not to know what he was saying there, especially and precisely with that last line.

My American literature anthology makes the claim that Emily Dickinson was and perhaps is the premiere Calvinist poet, an assessment that, once upon a time, had me puzzled because what seemed clear to me, even after a quick reading of a number of Dickinson’s most anthologized lyrics, was that she certainly gave no quarter to the Plymouth Brownists, or Cotton Mather or, even a century later, to their theological descendent, Jonathan Edwards.  That Calvinism as a religious force still existed in Amherst, Massachusetts, mid-19th century, is impossible to deny.  But by the time Emily Dickinson was writing her “letters to the world,” most scholars would agree that Calvinism had already morphed into, and even begun to pass through, a patrician Whig mentality that was itself already evolving into the modern age.

In his fine biography, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, Roger Lundin suggests that Ms. Dickinson may have been one of the only old-line Calvinists around Amherst, someone left almost untouched by changing religious landscape of her time.  Her letters and poems make clear, for instance, that she was not taken with the emotional excesses of  the “revivals” that took place in her neighborhood—revivals that had clearly affected even her own family members; but neither was she charmed by any of the new religious and philosophical currents fashionable in academic and cultural life.  “Dickinson undeniably chafed under the grip of evangelical piety and apologetics,” Lundin says, “but that discomfort hardly drove her to embrace the rationalistic secularity that was loosening the evangelical hold on the New England mind” (187).

Ms. Dickinson was familiar with Charles Darwin, as were many of those around her.  She was not at all unfamiliar with the early stirrings of more mainline, culturally softened American Protestantism, as it lived and breathed and had its being in her era and beyond.  Furthermore, she stopped attending church altogether quite early in her life.  How some scholars could call her “a Calvinist poet” seemed, at one time, rather odd.  And let me add, I’m not Dickinson scholar—but I am an admirer.

But like Peter DeVries, Emily Dickinson, a century before, was blessed—or cursed—with an incurable Calvinism that may well have been more evident in her heart and mind than it was in the hearts and minds of the throngs who regularly attended worship just down the street from her Amherst home.  What scholars intend when they call her “the Calvinist poet” is a description created upon the twin pillars of classically defined Calvinist theology—the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man.

The recipe goes like this:  God is sovereign, unreachable in his transcendence, and inasmuch as his authority is beyond question, he is, in fact, King over all.  Our depravity renders us subject only to his grace alone.  But because we aren’t granted the privilege of fully knowing the eternal status of our faith or our standing with that God, Calvinists live their lives fretting about themselves and their destinies in the face of an unapproachably sovereign God.

Just like Peter DeVries, Emily Dickinson, who some would claim as America’s greatest 19th century poet, seemed unable to find a way to live with that sovereign God.  “For every poem that questions the nature or existence of God, another affirms the existence of the Divine character and power,” Lundin says.  Her poetry occasionally reveres God, often rejects him, sometimes ridicules his rule, and frequently stubbornly picks fights.  Sometimes she sounds simply irreligious, even blasphemous; other times, she seems incapable of living without faith.

I know that He exists.
Somewhere — in Silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

In this poem, Dickinson begins with an unqualified affirmation:  although she does not say she loves God, she makes clear that she harbors no questions about his very real existence.  He’s there, but unapproachable, or at least too often silent, hiding his oh-so-important life from our depraved sensibilities.

Lundin’s biography of Dickinson is especially helpful because he clearly illustrates that just about all of Ms. Dickinson’s poetry is, in fact, religious.  She was, in his words, “one of the major religious thinkers of her day.”  She knew the Christian tradition, and especially its scriptures and hymns, in depth; on several occasions, in adolescence and young adulthood, she agonizingly approached the threshold of conversion but never passed over it; and throughout her adult life, in her poems and letters, she brilliantly meditated upon the great perennial questions of God, suffering, the problem of evil, death, and her “Flood subject,” immortality.  Though she never joined the church—and quit attending it at all around the age of thirty—she wrestled with God all her life.. . .Dickinson would not let go of God.

In another of her most anthologized lyrics (1545), a poem she sent to a teenage nephew, Dickinson talks about scripture in a way that documents both the skeptic and the believer in her character.

The Bible is an antique Volume—
Written by faded men
At the suggestion of Holy Spectres—
Subjects—Bethlehem—
Eden—the ancient Homestead—
Satan—the Brigadier—
Judas—the Great Defaulter—
David—the Troubador—
Sin—a distinguished Precipice
Others must resist—
Boys that “believe” are very lonesome—
Other Boys are “lost”—
Had but the Tale a warbling Teller—
All the Boys would come—
Orpheus’ Sermon captivated—
It did not condemn—

Clearly, she dislikes the Bible’s “faded” voices, its seemingly hackneyed character and characters, the anger and punishment she found abundant in her own reading of the texts; if the story had a more captivating voice, she says, somewhat superciliously, if it only had a “warbling teller,” then “all the boys would come”—human beings would throng to the Bible’s truth.

The poem is a really a kind of joke.

There is, nonetheless, an unmistakable affirmation amid the sarcasm.  Her attitude toward the Word of God is not necessarily diminished by her criticism of what she judged to be its often antique rhetoric.  The “if. . .then” construction of the poem does not in any way diminish the stature of scripture, merely suggests that if the Word of God didn’t come packaged the way it is, more “boys,” more of us, would be drawn to its riches.

The context of the poem is of interest here too.  She is talking to a nephew about the Bible itself, exercising, perhaps, some empathy, and, like a good teacher, coming to him in terms of what may have been his own childish perceptions of the Bible–as if to say, “I understand what you feel about what you read.”   But by not denying the significance of Scripture, she’s helping him to see and understand what he’s feeling as he continues to make his way through the Word.

As Lundin makes clear, Dickinson, not unlike King David, was capable of some fairly hearty fisticuffs with God.  Unlike the psalms, the Dickinson canon does not contain anything approximate to David’s near ecstacy in, say, Psalm 100, or the comfort the psalmist derives from the mere idea that the Lord is his shepherd.  But the absence of such striking and blessed imagery should not inure the attentive reader from observing that God, in Dickinson, is not dead.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church-
I keep it, staying at Home-
With a Bobolink for a Chorister-
And an Orchard, for a Dome-

While this little delight documents Dickinson’s personal refusal to attend Sunday worship, it doesn’t for a moment diminish the importance of worship, nor any believer’s righteous motivations to worship the Creator.

In a thoughtful and comprehensive essay on Dickinson’s religious thought, “Wrestling with Silence:  Emily Dickinson’s Calvinist God,” Magdelena Zapodowska ends with this assertion:

. . .Dickinson clung to the Calvinist categories of thought despite her acute sense of their inadequacy, and while she resisted conversion as the ultimate settlement of one’s business with God and rejected the formality of institutional religion and public rituals, she pursued her controversy with the Calvinist Jehovah whose image she detested but could not renounce. (12)

Other 19th century American writers likewise lived in the autumn of this nation’s Calvinist heritage, but, like Ms. Dickinson, simply could not shake its strictures.  Herman Melville, reviewing Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from the Old Manse, a review which many scholars assume is as much about Melville himself as it is about his would-be friend Hawthorne, makes this claim:

For spite of all the Indian-summer sunlight on the hither side of Hawthorne’s soul, the other side – like the dark half of the physical sphere – is shrouded in a blackness, ten times black. . . .Whether Hawthorne has simply availed himself of this mystical blackness as a means to the wondrous effects he makes it to produce in his lights and shades; or whether there really lurks in him, perhaps unknown to himself, a touch of Puritanic gloom, – this, I cannot altogether tell. Certain it is, however, that this great power of blackness in him derives its force from its appeals to that Calvinistic sense of Innate Depravity and Original Sin, from whose visitations, in some shape or other, no deeply thinking mind is always and wholly free. For, in certain moods, no man can weigh this world, without throwing in something, somehow like Original Sin, to strike the uneven balance.

While it is more difficult to find, among Dickinson’s thousands of poems, a number of them that speak to her attitude concerning the theological doctrine of original sin, what seems clear, to me at least, is that the suffering she endured, in part because of her inability to accept God or his ordinances, could be attributed, at least in part, to the impossible chasm which in her estimation separates God from humankind.    The perception of the reality of darkness changed Young Goodman Brown, in Hawthorne’s story, from a man fully confident of warding off the Devil’s wiles, to someone whose life ended “in gloom.”  Dickinson was never—by my perceptions—a Young Goodman Brown.  Throughout her life, like Jacob, she wrestled with God, as does Peter DeVries, gigantically, in The Blood of the Lamb.

Where these two parallel each other, or so it seems, is in their inability to accept the battles lines inherent in Calvinism’s classically-perceived character—the sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. Unlike Nathanial Hawthorne and Herman Melville, Dickinson and, century later, Peter DeVries, simply would not accept that the darkness of the Calvinism they inherited was inherent in the human condition, post-fall; but neither, it seemed, were either of them blessed sufficiently simply to write it off.

What we witness in both Emily Dickinson and Peter DeVries is the powerfully residual character of Calvinism itself, a comprehensive theological system that some would call an ideology.  It seems impossible that either of them would have considered themselves a Calvinist; yet, if we believe the tales and not the tellers, the lines are irreducible throughout their respective work.

It seems almost indisputable to assert that Calvinism—in its American manifestation—had an immense effect on American letters and American culture, for better or for worse.  What seems equally clear is Dutch Calvinism had a similarly powerful effect on the man who was its most famous novelist, Peter DeVries.

Those of you with a knowledge of the tribe in which Peter De Vries was raised will find it remarkable that  the man’s first cousin was another Peter, another religious man with a significant following:  the Reverend Peter Eldersveld, an almost legendary broadcast voice of the Back to God Hour, a radio ministry of the Christian Reformed Church.  If letters ever passed between those two first cousins, wouldn’t they be rich?  The two could not be more different, with one exception: they undoubtedly shared a deep and unshakeable God-seriousness.

In evangelical circles today, millions love Jesus—and that certainly is a joy and blessing, an article of faith right out of the summary of the law itself.  But Don Wanderhope’s epic battle in Blood of the Lamb and Dickinson’s life-long clash with a God she could neither fully accept nor reject, fights that had to have grown out of a faith traditions now more historic than contemporary, may well have been borne from what people used to call “the fear of the Lord.”

Not long before John Calvin died, he wrote this:

The will I have had, and the zeal, if it can be called that, have been so cold and sluggish that I feel deficient in everything and everywhere. . . .Truly, even the grace of forgiveness [God] has given me only renders me all the more guilty, so that my only recourse can be this, that being the father of mercy, he will show himself the father of so miserable a sinner.

I don’t believe I know many people, myself included, who would or could offer such a dour assessment of themselves anymore, if in fact someone should.   But thus saith John Calvin—late, late, late in life.

Professor Christian Smith and his researchers published a study in 2006 that examined religious practice among American teenagers (Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Eyes of American Teenagers) and determined that most young people today maintain a view of God almighty that he and his research team characterized as “moral, thereapeutic deism,” a faith that is characterized by, simply enough, moralism, feeling good, and not much else.  There are times that I wonder—and I teach “covenant youth”—whether young people’s attitudes don’t resemble that of their parents, that of many—if not all—of us.

How many of us fight with God, like Jacob—or like the psalmist of Psalm 13 or 88 or like Peter DeVries in Blood of the Lamb, a novel that is not a pleasure to read; it’s a stiletto in the ribs of the Lord. Don Wanderhope finally loses the fight; but so does, in a certain way, the love of God.  But the battle is Promethian, and the God of Blood of the Lamb is nothing to sneeze at.

Dickinson’s poetry simply won’t let God alone.  Often, it’s not pretty, for conventional Christian believers.  But her God simply won’t be discounted, even though he more than occasionally merits her disfavor.

When I left Dordt College after graduation in 1970, I tried to shake the dust off my sandals.  The place was a hotbed of Nixonian politics, even in the late Sixties, when riots of all kinds were burning cities and shutting down universities, when young men my age were dying at a rate of 500 per week in Southeast Asia.  The institution’s almost insolent silliness about beards and jeans and rock music were, to me, what Calvinism was all about—and I wanted nothing more of it.

Only a few years later, in graduate school, did I read the Institutes and begin to understand that I was—as was Hawthorne, Melville, and Emily Dickinson were—perhaps forever a carrier of what sometimes seems an unshakeable legacy, a theological tradition I’d been raised within, for better or for worse.  In some ways, my graduate school experience taught me more about the enduring legacy of Calvinism than my undergraduate program at a college that would have proclaimed itself “Calvinist” back then, forty years ago—and might well do it again today, only because the word Calvin has somehow fought its way back into favor in the evangelical world.

Maybe that’s why, forty years later, I found the novel Blood of the Lamb—this time to be sure—as deadly serious as it is instructive.

Dr. Schaap is Professor of English at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa, and an award-winning novelist.  He is associated with ccblogs.org

[1] Stephen Crane: Author Without Authority

By Mark and Tyler Eckel

Stephen Crane is syncretistic, claiming multiple answers to his question. Crane writes about reality as he sees it while carrying on the “eternal debate” (II) about “The Question” (III); both suggest another world.  But if Stephen Crane ponders another reality, he does not think it matters.

The problem for Crane is the seeming lack of unity in reality.  Some do indeed go through life without questioning “how does everything fit together?”  This question, however, is crucial to the whole of life.  If there is no organizing principle, if no one is in charge, if humans are left to the whims of fate, and if personified Nature has no master, then we in fact live in Crane’s world.  Stephen Crane’s view of life can be summarized as naturalistic cynicism—man against indifferent nature.  Crane’s naturalism provides the essential understanding of life; nothing and no one governs Nature.  Cynicism is best reflected in Crane’s use of irony.  There are no happy endings in Stephen’s writings.  The story stops abruptly, not in tragedy, not in triumph, but in timidity.  A human writing about humans concludes that existence has no coherence, nothing to hold it together leaving life without meaning.

The Red Badge of Courage is not simply one man’s view of war; the book ultimately ignores the coherence of the universe.  If there is no governing structure, order, or framework whereby people interpret life, then everyone is left alone.  The verbal shrug of the shoulders—“whatever”—is indeed the answer to every query.  Humans by themselves are left to themselves.  Crane uses impressionistic realism to make the individual the arbiter and interpreter of truth.  Impressionism suggests personal, emotional, visual, situational, and experiential foci.  Crane’s reality is created in conjunction with his viewpoint.  What he sees, what he feels, is Crane’s outlook.  If there is another world behind this world, Crane fashions it for himself and his reader.  The clarity of Crane’s assumptions concerning life makes it clear that absolutes do not matter because humans do not matter.

Rebellion Against Authority

Crane lived his short life with others who had a long reach.  The ideas of Darwin, Nietzsche, and Marx, for instance, had begun to seep into intellectual conversation.  Nietzsche’s views were honest: if one rejects the Christian God he must naturally reject the Christian ethic.  “Dog-eat-dog” evolutionary theory popularized by Darwin would stream into literary communities.  Marx would give the poor a new voice all the while redistributing wealth until the wealth producers were gone.  Together with writer friends, Henry James, H.G. Wells, and especially Joseph Conrad, naturalism, atheism, and impressionism were finding inroads into fiction.  Nature alone, man alone, and self alone are worldview constructs which discover their voice in Crane.

Seeds of aloneness began to take root in childhood.  Stephen Crane grew up in the home of a Methodist minister.  Fourteenth in the birth order, it would not be difficult to see that strict discipline along with lack of personal attention could foster individualism.  From the beginning Crane rebelled against his father.  Baseball, theater, chess, smoking, drinking, and novels—all considered to be vices by Reverend Crane—became Stephen’s focus.  Were his dad alive to see, Stephen’s multiple love affairs would also have been a mutiny against religious standards of conduct.  Perhaps calling the cannon battery in Red Badge which lobbed shells at the enemy—soon to be destroyed itself—“Methodical idiots!  Machine-like fools!” (VI) was really a shot at his dad.  Of course, Crane’s father spoke on behalf of the One who ordered the universe.  Among the many poems Crane produced, revolt against God was a consistent theme.  The Black Riders, while published after The Red Badge of Courage, was concurrent thought as Crane substitutes himself for The Almighty.

God is left unreferenced in Red Badge. Even a direct argument against the evil of war in the world might have suggested care for God’s existence.  So, when one rejects God, one is left by himself.  Crane’s anonymous references to “the youth” were statements of aloneness.  Crane’s words cement the author’s perspective.  Impressionism was his faith.  Left alone with Nature and himself, Impressionism became his god, self became his authority.

Self as Authority

Stephen began his vocation as a writer in newspapers.  While other correspondents recorded events, Stephen took readers to the events through his eyes.  Ultimately, Stephen Crane’s journalistic interpretation became the lens in the course of which he wrote his fiction.  Crane alone possessed an inner knowledge, replacing thinking with feeling.  Impressionism is feeling which depends on individual experience and perspective to be the twin arbiters of truth.  Impressionistic painters used dots of paint to blur the lines of reality.  Crane’s writing created his own reality.  Crane questioned all established standards, becoming the sole authority.

The youth sees the world around him only through his own eyes.  Personal comfort consumed the youth’s focus (I).  Experimentation (I) was the basis for his knowledge.  With no ultimate reassurance about war outside of himself, he would have to establish his own experience: in one case, “Watch[ing] his legs to discover their merits and faults” (II).  Emotion surges through the text as the youth realizes that he cannot understand anyone but himself.  “He felt alone in space . . . No one seemed to be wrestling with such a terrific personal problem.  He was a mental outcast” (II).

The youth called Henry egotistically thinks “his profound and fine senses” (III) are unappreciated by others around him.  It is always his “impression” (VI) that matters most.  He was a know-it-all (VI).  Whether in life or death, the ultimate concern is self; ego reigns.  Any connection to others is simply to create another opportunity to look in the mirror again.  Over and over, the youth calls attention to himself.  Consider the youth’s response to impending battle:

He would have liked to have used a tremendous force, he said, throw off himself and become a better. . . . He thought of the magnificent pathos of his dead body. . . . his capacity for self-hate was multiplied. . . . He now conceded it to be impossible that he should ever become a hero.  He was a craven loon (XI).

Nature’s Brute Authority

People may interpret their world but the world has the final word.  Crane refers to the world as “Nature.”  Capitalization seems to suggest an external authority, a god-like personification.  But Crane’s Nature is not a good god.  Nature is harsh.  Nature is amoral.  Nature is indifferent.

Crane famously records the war between Nature and humanity in “The Open Boat.”  Based on a journalistic entry, Crane had actually endured a shipwreck and used the experience to create the short story.  The narrator desires to confront personified Nature “bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying ‘Yes, but I love myself.’”  Nature responds, “A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him.”  Crane understands the tragedy, the misery of his situation.  Life is chance.

Presentism as Authority

The War Between The States—heaving bricks at each other—is both backdrop and metaphor in The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane’s novel was an early progenitor of realism.  It is no surprise Crane wrote in such a manner considering his stints as news reporter.  Further, Crane’s lackadaisical attitude toward unfinished schooling created no connections to literary tradition.  Crane had no canon.  He did not draw from authors’ past work.  He wrote in the present.  Crane considered his environment to be his “university.”  For the prostitute story Maggie it was the Bowery, for “The Open Boat” it was a real-life shipwreck.  His human experiences were also unfettered from Heaven’s authority.  During the time of Dickens, Conrad, James and Crane, God’s existence was cast in doubt.  Until this time, novelists depended upon the authorial-omniscient view—the writer with authority.  All voices within the novel are based on the author’s perspective.

To Crane death is the end of the present.  Death anticipated “his eyes burning with the power of a stare into the unknown” (VIII).  “He now thought that he wished he was dead.  He believed that he envied those men whose bodies lay strewn over the grass of the fields and on the fallen leaves of the forest” (X).  Fear of death—“ominously silent he became frightened and imagined terrible fingers that clutched into his brain” (XII)—is ever on Crane’s mind.  History becomes nothing more than an individual’s trophy case.  But his awards are only meant for him.  Crane is not scared of some future event or place like heaven or hell.  If there is no fear of afterlife, one must fear losing this life.

The title Red Badge of Courage is embedded within chapter 9.  Bravery in battle is reduced to a wound; the youth was envious of other soldiers who had been bloodied.  What Henry wants is a wound, a scar, a mark which confers on him singularity and independence.  What strikes the reader is that meaning for the wound is tied directly to here and now.

No Absolute Authority

Left to ourselves, humanities’ search for meaning is a returned reflection in the mirror.  Purpose is self-directed.  Belief parties with fate.   “The Open Boat” records Crane’s anti-authority assumptions.  Speaking of Nature he says:  “She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor treacherous, nor wise.  But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent. “  Crane believes social mores like etiquette are the only authority possible in human terms.  The unasked question is “Why obey community standards without absolutes?”  If experience is the arbiter of truth, the only possible justification for a standard is having the exact same experience as another.  Only then can one claim truth.

But individual experience has no universal authority.  If no external authority exists, humans are left to the whims of raw power—either in the hands of tyrants or tyrannical Nature.  Because Crane’s character makes decisions in the moment, ethics become situational.  Community values matter little.  What others do or don’t do is unimportant to Crane.  People live and then they die.  Chance, luck, accident, and coincidence are words marking life’s progress.  “Fate” is Crane’s repetitious term of choice throughout Red Badge.  “It was as if fate had betrayed the soldier.” (III)   Darwin and Nietzsche were accurate.  Self-focus is the youth’s only focus.  Crane would agree with William Ernest Henley, “I am the captain of my fate…”  Human will is the sole arbiter of choice.

Conclusion

Famous novels such as Camus’ The Stranger or Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye follow the antinomian—anti-authority—perspectives in Crane.  Camus’ ethic-less lifeview in novels could not stand real life injustice during World War I.  He spoke out against inhuman situations before the United Nations.  Jack Kerouac, highly touted as a restless wanderer, ended up back at his mom’s house when needs and rest beckoned.   Holden Caulfield exhibits the same hypocrisies he castigates others for in Salinger’s work.  The Red Badge of Courage and all likeminded followers leave a void of authority.   The emptiness of Crane’s viewpoint is exposed by objectivity, Truth, creation, and reality.

Some would argue that the so-called “impressionism” was simply a method of communication.  But method and meaning are kissing cousins.  A book’s perspective comes out of a point of view, an assumption about life.  The audience is consistently given one individual’s sightline in the book.  Problems arise, however, when history is interpreted only through one set of eyes.  Crane’s dependence on the “seeing” metaphor throughout the novel—possibly 200 references—limits the reader to presentism.

Experience may be a witness to truth but truth does not depend on experience.   Henry’s own words demonstrate the ineffectual foundation of experience.  What the reader can be sure of is the testimony of R. G. Vosburgh that when Crane was not working he would sit and write his own name.  Ego secure, Truth was not.  Truth cannot come out of mid-air.  Truth needs a transcendent, immutable source outside of human experience.

While Crane wrote about nature’s indifference and his own malaise about life, still he could not turn away from the plight of the prostitute in Maggie or racism in “The Monster.”  Deep within a person resides the template of Another whose Image he sees in other faces.

The Red Badge of Courage leaves one with two options: continue to live as if another reality does not exist or accept this life as subservient to Another.  Rebellion is so much make believe if an Author with Authority exists.  Self is but one small word in the universe-filled volumes of One Author.  There are two realities; but the natural world is sustained by The Supernatural.  Only an Eternal Authority brings coherence with the temporal reality.  Stephen Crane’s impression of reality is only the author of “That’s your interpretation.”  The Author with Authority is the only Interpreter who matters.

Dr. Mark Eckel is a multi-talented administrator, professor, and blogger.  His won, Tyler, is a freelance writer.  They both contribute to www.warpandwoof.org.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to this site
Get new Faith and Learning posts sent to you by email: