Category Archives: Literature

Baptism in Gilead

Marilynne RobinsonIn 2005 Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with her magnificent Gilead. It is a gentle, beautifully-written story, the memoirs of the elderly Reverend John Ames, written for his seven-year old son, retelling his life, his beliefs, his fears, his hopes. This is a deeply human story of life in a slower time (the 1950s, but recalling a family history extending to the mid-nineteenth century). But slower does not mean simpler, for issues of war and slavery, courage, sickness, and family difficulty loom large.

So do matters of love, friendship, faith, ministry, and theology. As a reader I was caught by Robinson’s theological vision woven throughout the book, but in such a way that it does not overwhelm the story. Using the story, she reflects on all the issues mentioned above and more besides. See, for example, her meditations on the value being human:

There is nothing more astonishing than a human face … Any human face is a claim on you, because you can’t help but understand the singularity of it, the courage and loneliness of it… (75)

When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? (141)

So, too, Robinson’s meditations on baptism and the Lord’s Supper surface from time to time. For instance:

There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running … It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth … it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing… (31-32)

It may be that “blessing” is Robinson’s primary word for describing the action of grace in the sacraments, and indeed the entire function of ministry. We minister in order to impart blessing (cf. Rom. 1:11). Baptism and blessing belong together in Robinson’s luminous world, and come together in a particularly humorous passage:

We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town, and this affected our behavior considerably. Once, we baptized a litter of cats. They were dusty little barn cats just steady on their legs, the kind of waifish creatures that live their anonymous lives keeping the mice down and have no interest in humans at all, except to avoid them. But the animals all seem to start out sociable, so we were always pleased to find new kittens prowling out of whatever cranny their mother had tried to hide them in, as ready to play as we were. It occurred to one of the girls to swaddle them up in a doll’s dress – there was only one dress, which was just as well since the cats could hardly tolerate a moment in it and would have to have been unswaddled as soon as they were christened in any case. I myself moistened their brows, repeating the full Trinitarian formula.

Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal. So finally I asked my father in the most offhand way imaginable what exactly would happen to a cat if one were to, say, baptize it. He replied that the Sacraments must always be treated and regarded with the greatest respect. That wasn’t really an answer to my question. We did respect the Sacraments, but we thought the whole world of those cats. I got his meaning though, and I did no more baptizing until I was ordained…

I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing… (26-27)

For other, better accounts of this book, see the reviews by Nathan Hobby and Ben Myers.

 

Should I Watch the Movie?

Book or Movie

Sometimes I see a movie is being released and make sure I read the book first, so I can enter more fully into the experience of the movie. I remember seeing the first promotional shorts of The Lord of the Rings about nine months before the first movie was released, and determined then and there to read the books. My enjoyment of the books was enhanced by the movies. I did learn early, however, that movies and books do not always agree, and sometimes, the movie does no justice to the book at all. And sometimes, the movie is better than the book. I remember seeing and enjoying The Time-Traveler’s Wife a few years ago and enjoyed it so much I soon read the book. What a disappointment! The idea was original and creative, and it was well-developed in the movie, but the prose of the book just did not do it for me. I felt let down by poor execution. Maybe if I had not seen the movie first I would not have felt this way about the book.

My dilemma: I have just finished The Book Thief my Marcus Zusak. The book was passed onto me with a high recommendation by Mike Parsons when he returned to the UK in 2009. I have only just got to it, and loved it. At the same time I have been reading around Barth and Barmen, Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church, and so history and story have been swirling around in my mind.

The book is simply and beautifully written. When I began reading I was pleasantly Book Thief Movie Postersurprised by how simple it was, not at all like some literature (and some theology) which sometimes aims at incomprehensibility. Yet as I read I often found myself caught, not only by the power and pathos of the story, by the characters and creativity of the tale, but by fresh and startling metaphors and wonderful turns of phrase. The book, or more accurately, the story, has touched me. I want to sit with it for a little while; I know I will read it again sometime, if life persists.

But should I watch the movie? Will it enrich or diminish my experience of the book? Or maybe watch it, but not yet?

What do you suggest?

On Being a Reader – Even of Scripture

Pride and Prejudice - PenguinIn 1972, Tony Tanner’s introduction to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice notes:

For during a decade in which Napoleon was effectively engaging, if not transforming, Europe, Jane Austen composed a novel in which the most important events are the fact that a man changes his manners and a young lady changes her mind… Jane Austen’s book is, most importantly, about pre-judging and re-judging. It is a drama of recognition – re-cognition, that act by which the mind can look again at a thing and if necessary make revisions and amendments until it sees the thing as it really is (368-369).

Tanner’s introduction (see Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice, Penguin Classics edition, 1996), provides a psychological reading of Austen’s masterpiece, using the work of Hume as a lens. In his view, Pride and Prejudice deals with issues of character, decisions and “first impressions” (Austen’s working title for the book before its publication).

In the same edition an updated introduction is provided by Vivien Jones, who notes:

Written in a period of political crisis and social mobility, [Austen’s novels] are strategic critical analyses of the moral values and modes of behaviour through which a section of the ruling class was redefining itself … She writes, therefore, about femininity and about class: about forms of identity and about marriage as a political institution which reproduces – symbolically as well as literally – the social order. …

Selfconscious, rational, sceptical: Elizabeth is an Enlightenment figure skilfully integrated, through the mechanisms of romantic comedy, into the traditional Burkean hierarchy which Enlightenment values sought to dismantle…

Romantic love makes individual happiness both the motivation and the goal of moral and social change. … So the power to motivate and reward change, both personal and social, lies with the woman. … This plot formula seems to give women, and the values they represent, a lot of power and responsibility. But it is power of a carefully circumscribed kind. The social order has been modified, not radically altered. Austen’s post-revolutionary achievement in Pride and Prejudice is to put Wollstonecraft’s revolutionary femininity at the service of the Burkean ‘family party’ by writing what is still one of the most perfect, most pleasurable and most subtle – and therefore, perhaps, most dangerously persuasive – of romatic love stories (xv, xxxii, xxxv).

Jones and Tanner are two very different readers of the same story, and provide an excellent example of the reality that who the reader is and what they bring to a text makes a decisive difference to the way they read the text and what they see in it.  Tanner sees a wonderfully written romantic comedy devoid of political significance, while Jones sees a wonderfully written romantic comedy that serves as a vehicle for a sophisticated political vision that fuses elements of early feminism and conservative Burkean hierarchy, against a backdrop of revolutionary France.

It is likely that Tanner was unable to even see what Jones has seen in the story. It is not simply that Jones reads as a woman, though I suspect that is part of it. She is also schooled in feminist literature and history and so is alive and sensitive to issues in Austen’s context that Tanner simply did not see. Is Jones over-reading the novel, seeing in it things that are not there? This is a danger confronting every reader, and could legitimately be asked of Tanner as well. But no, her reading of Austen is insightful and well-supported. Both introductions are excellent and well worth reading, and Penguin is to be commended for keeping them both in their revised volume. They highlight development in Austen scholarship between the early 70s and mid 90s, and feminist contributions to literary study.

They alert us also to the significance of the reader which has evident implications for readers of Scripture. We do not simply read the biblical text in some kind of unfiltered way, gaining direct and unmediated access to “the truth.” Every act of reading is also an act of interpretation, and we interpret what we read according to the frameworks of understanding we bring to the text – whether consciously or unconsciously, whether well or ill-informed.

What has shaped you as a reader?

A Latin Poem & Natural Theology

the-name-of-the-roseI came across this in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (15):

“My good Adso,” my master said, “during our whole journey I have been teaching you to recognize the evidence through which the world speaks to us like a great book. Alanus de Insulis said that
      omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum
and he was thinking of the endless array of symbols with which God, through His creatures speaks to us of the eternal life. But the universe is even more talkative than Alanus thought, and it speaks not only of the ultimate things (which it does always in an obscure fashion) but also of closer things, and then it speaks quite clearly.”

This little Latin poem is half of the first stanza of a longer medieval work. The whole stanza is:
      Omnis mundi creatura
      quasi liber et pictura
      nobis est in speculum:
      nostrae vitae, nostrae mortis,
      nostri status, nostrae sortis
      fidele signaculum,

which translates roughly as:

     All the world’s creatures
     As a book and a picture
     Are to us as a mirror;
     in it our life, our death,
     our present condition and our passing
     are faithfully signified.

The poem derives from twelfth century Christian theologian and neo-Platonist philosopher Alain de Lille, and makes the simple point that observation of the natural world can inform understanding of our own life. But it does so only up to a point. This poem is like the book of Ecclesiastes: it can see the reality and inevitability of death, but cannot see resurrection. This is the limitation of all forms of natural theology: it requires the revelation given in Jesus and attested in Scripture if it is to speak the truth of our existence. Umberto Eco rightly suggests that God indeed speaks to us through created things of the eternal life, but only obscurely.

See Psalm 19.