Thursday, August 18, 2011

Oh, Hemingway...

He said some good things: 

"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer." 
Ernest Hemingway

Thanks, "Daily Literary Quote," for putting this on my iGoogle today. Good one. 

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Reading War and Peace... Still

Well, I’m still in the midst of War and Peace. I don’t think I have ever been in the middle of a book for so long while consistently reading. I’m on page 821;  The novel has 1,215 pages. Well, to be more precise, I’ll just stick with calling it a “book,” not a novel. Tolstoy said, “it is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still less a historical chronicle. War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed.” There's creative genius for you.  It is just so different than anything I’ve ever read. Isaac Babel said, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” That seems to capture it.

The force of the book moves forward ponderously, inevitably, enormously, unstoppably—containing and gathering up within itself the intermittent, sporadic motions of small and great individuals. The power of it all takes your breath away and leaves you feeling quite small. And yet, simultaneously, Tolstoy highlights the strange magnificence of humanity. He turns the tables so that the great figures of history—Napoleon, specifically—are shown to be small-minded and incidental. Meanwhile, ‘mediocre’ people with their mixture of beauty and baseness experience these crazy moments of transcendence that elevate their souls, in Tolstoy’s depiction, beyond that of the great Napoleon. Within all of this, Tolstoy exposes the tragedy and absurdity of making war a game--of playing with human lives like chess, when the player is the same as the pieces.
These reflections bring to mind Lewis’ famous quotation:

"It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods or goddesses, to remember that the dullest or most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are in some degree, helping each other to one or another of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection due them that we should conduct all our dealing with one another, all friendships, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Native cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life to ours is as the life of a gnat. But is immortals we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit.”

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Story and Virtue: Or, Why You Should Watch Good Movies and Get Completely Lost In Good Books Without Feeling Guilty

I just finished reading After You Believe this morning. Wright finishes his book with the question that has been looming over the entire book: “Yes, Tom, I understand that I’m supposed to develop these virtues of ‘faith, hope, and love.’ But, you see, I think that’s another thing that’s very easy to say, much more difficult to practice. So, how do you think we do this?” Wright’s answer lies first of all in the presupposition that moral effort is not contradictory to grace, a matter of ‘legalism’ or ‘hypocritical putting on.’ To try to be virtuous is not saying that we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps (what does that mean, by the way?). That kind of mindset rests on the wrong presupposition that ‘whatever God does we don’t do, and vice versa. Life (thank God!) is more complicated than that” (258). So, Wright proposes intense moral effort in implementing the ‘virtuous circle’ of “scripture, stories, examples, community and practices” in order to form those hard-won habits of virtue.

Nevertheless, while I would love to expound on each one of these, I would like to focus on one area in particular—the area of stories.”

(Sidenote: I just looked down and there was a yellow spider crawling on my shirt. If the rest of this post seems a bit jumpy, he (i.e. the spider) is the culprit).

I’ve thought for a while now that loving stories is something more than a fun escape or hobby. Wright confirmed this more for me. While of course, his particular focus is in the area of biblical stories, he also addresses the reality that we are ‘storied creatures’ (264). We are swept away by the tension and resolution in stories because we identify. We yearn for resolution, for completion. As we experience stories, we automatically discern between characters. We see their development, we see how their actions unfold, and we can learn from that. Wright also states:

“All of this is true, of course, of any human being in any tradition. But within the Christian tradition there is special reason to pay attention to stories. Many of the great writers in the world have been deeply formed by the Jewish and/or Christian tradition, and their thoughtful words can help us to reflect on that tradition more deeply. But Christians believe that all human life is itself a gift of God and, however much it may be distorted, a reflection of God. Thus even stories written by writers who are explicitly atheist—indeed, writers whose words were intended to mock or dismiss God—have a strange knack of making crucial points about what is means to be human, about the importance of love and justice and beauty. Living within the world of stories increases—if we let it—the capacity for discernment.” (265)

In my opinion, it even goes beyond “the capacity for discernment.” I think that stories—whether it be reading good literature or watching good movies—have a fundamentally humanizing element in that they take the focus off of ourselves and allow us to get into the mind and story of another. It gives us a practical way to practice, as Atticus Finch implored, the ability to step into another person’s shoes. In short, literature helps us to love our neighbor as ourselves. I found this quote on a blog a couple of months ago and I think it expresses this reality precisely:

"Literature is "useful" because it wakes us up from the sleepwalk of self-involvement—of plans, anxieties, resentments, habits, the fog that clings to our eyes as we stumble through the day, stumble through our lives—and shows us the world, shows us ourselves, shows us life and experience and the reality of other people, and forces us to think about them all. The pleasure of serious literature is not escape or fantasy, it is this very shiver of consciousness, this troubling exhilaration. Reading is thinking and feeling, both at once and both together, simultaneous and identical.” (William Deresiewicz,

Thursday, August 04, 2011

War and Peace & N.T. Wright, Part 1

It’s difficult to write about the books you’re reading while you’re in the middle of them. I suppose I could try to write about something else, but I am not fully engaged in anything else. I am almost halfway through the monster known as War and Peace. It’s taken a month to get that far, which is quite a feat of patience for me. But, we’re starting to gain momentum now. I have reached the reading stage which is one of my favorite things in life, namely, when I sit down, grab that fat book with two hands (too big for one), let it fall heavily open on my lap and eagerly enter the world fully as a participant because I’ve thoroughly taken the time to get to know the characters and their world. These gigantic novels take patience, but “you reap what you sow” and l’m pretty excited to reap War and Peace.

Besides the fact that War and Peace is quite lengthy, I’ve also been proceeding slowly because I was finishing N.T. Wright’s Justification and subsequently starting his book, After You Believe. Of course, Justification was brilliant, but I will probably address that book in a subsequent “N.T. Wright is Splendid” post. Right now, I would like to recommend to you After You Believe.

 After You Believe is a sequel of sorts to Simply Christian and Surprised by Hope, addressing the issue of Christian character. Wright couches his teaching within the tradition of virtue, demonstrating how Jesus and the NT writers expanded and surpassed the wisdom beginning with Aristotle. Virtue, simply put, is “what happens when wise and courageous choices have become ‘second nature’ ” (21). Within the framework of ancient wisdom, the four main virtues were “courage, restraint, cool judgment, and determination to do the right things for others” (21). Christianity summed up and surpassed these by the overlaying triad of “faith, hope, and love,” which synthesizes what it means to look more and more like Jesus, which, by default, means becoming more and more human.

All of this is framed within an eschatological framework. Eschatology is the “study of last things,” but don’t immediately think about the Left Behind series (which, if you own it, should be buried in a place where no-one can ever find it, ever. I would say ‘burn it,’ but burning books—even such a wretched series—is pretty horrible and I start getting images of Fahrenheit 451). You see, the early Jewish followers of Jesus interpreted the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus through their contemporary theological framework. Within that framework, when the Messiah came to fulfill God’s promises to restore the world to Himself, he would bring in the “last days” (i.e. when God would make all things right). Indeed, the resurrection of Jesus brought that future restoration into the present. God turned death on its head in Jesus, giving a foretaste of when He would finally conquer Death once and for all. But, the early Jesus followers also recognized that this restoration is not yet complete. We live in what can seem to be a Jackson Pollock world with some beautiful color spatters mixed up with a lot of darkness and confusion. The NT clarion call within that world is to faithfully live in a manner that is decidedly oriented to the future reality of judgment and restoration.

Wright especially brings attention to the promise that those who are faithful to following Jesus will indeed be glorified and will reign with him, accompanying him in bring healing justice to the world. When we hear “reign,” I know it’s easy to cringe because we associate any sort of power with corruption. But, Jesus was exalted to reign over all because of his self-giving love (i.e. Phil. 2). Those who reign with him will also be like him. If I truly believe this will be the future reality, then I will shape my life accordingly.  I will “anticipate” that reality by properly reigning over myself in self-control. And self-control does not only refer saying ‘no’ to sin, although that’s certainly an important part of it. I think it also has something to say to my patterns of indecisiveness and oscillation, which proceed out of fear.

Unfortunately, at points, within a certain view of spirituality, my wishy-washiness would be affirmed as proper waiting upon the Lord for him to move my emotions and give me “peace” about whatever I should do. Within that point of view, one mistrusts using the mind to make a fully-thought-out decision because it could be “worldly wisdom.”  Christians are supposed to step out of the way and let God move them ‘spiritually’ (i.e. emotionally) to do whatever he wants, no matter how absurd it might seem to the rest of the world. The more ludicrous it is, the more obvious it is from God because “I would never have thought of it on my own.” Wright straightforwardly addresses this issue:
 “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think. I cannot stress too strongly that this is a mistake. The more genuinely spiritual you are, according to Romans 12 and Philippians 1, the more clearly and accurately and carefully you will think, particularly about what the completed goal of your Christian journey will be and hence what steps you should be taking, what habits you should be acquiring, as part of the journey toward that goal, right now."
The whole scope of Scripture tells a story of humans created in God’s image to be strong and free people—not wishy-washy people trying to ‘get out of God’s way’ (how do you do that anyway?) so that he can possess them and make them do whatever he wants. Instead, part of being fully human means making wise decisions out of self-giving love and gladness to be holy. Tragically, the first humans rebelled against that and instead became enslaved to death and sin and life-depleting addictions. Jesus came and was the true human, freely choosing to take upon himself the consequences of all of their sins. In his death, burial, and resurrection, he defeated Death, Sin, and Evil. In following him, humans are freed from their slavery and are given life through the life of Jesus, both in this age and in the age to come. By the indwelling Spirit of God, they are being renewed and restored back to what they are created to be—glad and free people, who love both passionately and intelligently, people who make wise decisions to show God their hope that he indeed is restoring this world through his Son. In sum, God rescued those people from the inhumanity of slavery to sin, self, passions, and evil and is transforming them to be more and more human, to be a “kingdom of priests” who will properly reign over the earth.

If I live with the expectation of being part of that kingdom of priests, then I will reign over myself well.  I won’t be so fearful and timid and indecisive. I will wisely and confidently make decisions that are aligned with the truth that I know. And, I will be disciplined to think about how the patterns of my daily life also reflect that truth.

Well, I think Tolstoy is rubbing off on me because this is getting long. My next post, I hope to integrate more fully this topic of “war and peace” and N.T. Wright.