SOMEHOW IN KIRA'S DEFORMED STATE, a few of the village leaders saw past her condition and instead saw the covenant gift within her young life. She was fed and given shelter and challenged to complete the mending of the ceremonial robe. The story quickly builds to a climax.
Christ too saw covenant, destiny, in every person. In fact, in some it was so strong when he met them that he renamed them: Simon, fisher of men, you are called Peter. James and John, sons of Zebedee, you shall be called Boanerges, sons of thunder. Zacchaeus wasn’t a despised tax collector to Jesus but a dinner host!
Christ didn’t see any of the sick and diseased and demon-possessed that were brought to him as worthless. He saw them whole before he even performed a miracle. He saw the inside where they were crippled too.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.'
So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, 'He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.'
But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, 'Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.'
Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.' --Luke 19:1-10
Zacchaeus caught a glimpse of who he was in Christ’s eyes, and it changed him. No one had to tell him the right thing to do. He no longer saw himself from the outside in, but from the inside out, the way God intended. Zacchaeus came to understand who he was in an entirely different way as does Kira by the end of Gathering Blue.
COMING TO CHRIST IS NO PANACEA, but if C.S. Lewis were to tell us a tale of how pain and doubt were inevitable and unavoidable in a life of belief in God, who would willingly listen? It’s one thing to share personal experience or to preach a lesson, but in fiction, an author and his audience might just be left with a moralizing and probably unlikeable character instead.
Most fiction features at least one appealing character—the one you cheer for, stumble with, return to. Therein lies one of the trickiest elements in Till We Have Faces. Perhaps one of the most exasperating characters of all of Lewis’s novels, Orual is an unlikely blend for a central character. At the beginning of the tale, she is practically an orphaned girl without love or looks, and so we naturally pity her. By the time Psyche is born, it seems that Orual now has a purpose in life. In spite of her abusive father, she can now care for Psyche and be loved in return by Psyche and the Fox. Yet that same thing that brings joy to Orual also brings the most pain, and we begin to dislike Orual as she denies the truth of Psyche’s sincere faith and even the god who revealed himself to her. Orual’s long-term obstinacy and manipulation is offensive to us. We are frustrated by her resistance.
But there are moments of hope. When she ascends the mountain with Bardia, her heart delights in the beauty that surrounds her. In spite of the errand of grief, her heart is responsive. This is not just a sensitivity to nature, but a means by which God can speak to her. As her audience, we too hope that she might know God. Hope might also spur her to pray and ask the gods for their help after her first visit to the Grey Mountain.
Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness.
Yet Orual hears and feels nothing after hours of prayer. When we look at her in those moments, we can see that she is likely manipulating her religion. Orual wants things her own way because she only understands how to do things, to make things happen, in order to get something else. Her prayers are based on herself, not a sincere relationship with God. She selfishly demands an answer, and it must come in the way she chooses. Orual’s wrestling is paralleled in James 1:6-8 (ESV): But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. Doubt is a harsh teacher, and it’s probably because it stems from our own selfishness. With doubt in the way, Orual cannot see or hear the gods.
COWBOYS AND RANCHERS. This might qualify as an unusual topic for me, but sometimes, I reread children’s literature and again am captured by the quality of writing. To truly know me as a reader of all things young, you must know that I read every Louis L’Amour western in my junior high library. I know they aren’t deep books and follow a definite plot pattern, but I loved them. Action, mystery, rescue, the setting sun, the lonely West, a misunderstood man.
In the same vein, Jack Schaefer creates a story that’s even more impactful. From his opening description, Schaefer crafts a deeper character than most for young adult fiction, perhaps because we witness his influence upon an entire family. Shane mysteriously arrives in the Wyoming valley alone on his horse, a character dressed with a “hint of men and manners.” I know, I know. It begins like a cliche. And yes, we soon find out that a few homesteaders are holding out against one greedy rancher. Again, quite predictable, though historically realistic. Yet, here is where the story veers because Schaefer shows us, rather than tells us, who Shane is as he meets and is hired by homesteader Joe Starrett. Shane carries a chill with him yet is careful of his dress. He’s not large yet he’s wiry and powerful. Within the first day of working for Joe, Shane’s presence alone dissuades the local peddler from cheating Joe. Young Bob shares, “You felt without knowing how that each teetering second could bring a burst of indescribable deadliness . . . a strange wildness.” Even with an aloof nature, Shane begins a friendship with Bob, sharing chores and sharing wisdom like “What a man knows isn’t important. It’s what he is that counts.”
But there are moments when the mystery of who Shane is overshadows his behavior. When he shows Bob how to hold and aim a pistol, a fierce moment of memory hits and Shane freezes, his face described as a gash. Bob has to say his name several times to break the hold of the past. Many times Schaefer describes how Bob recognizes there’s more to Shane, yet Bob, and yes the reader, never learn enough. The story unfolds, tensions rise, and the homesteaders must choose to fight the manipulative mob boss of a rancher. More than once, Bob must watch Shane fight to right a wrong. He sees, and we see, “the flowing brute beauty of line and power in action” as Shane overpowers the rancher’s men. By story’s end, we want more. Schaefer has furrowed our curiosity to a point where we love Shane as much as Bob and his family do, yet we all remain caught in the unknown of who he is and who he was.
". . . TO BE IGNORANT OF CHRISTIANITY was to be ignorant of the underpinnings of our own worldview."
Maybe it’s because Klavan credits Wilkie Collins’ and The Woman in White (one of my personal favorites) for spurring him to jump wholeheartedly into the suspense genre or that Hitchcock was his Homer. Maybe it’s because Klavan deems his wife Ellen the first great good thing that happened to him. Simply put, this is no moralizing pulpit-pounder. I’m not sure there is a typical autobiography, but Klavan’s life is no cliche of rags to riches or a Damascus road vision, just the claim of a driven writer of decades.
Klavan begins with the thought of being American, not a Jewish American, Jew-ish. His family’s religion was full of expectations but not faith, “a godless Judaism.” His Long Island school years could have been ideal, but they weren’t. He escaped through his imagination, “to be what I pretended to be,” and suffered the reality of being the middle child, the one his father picked on.
By escapism, reading, the discovery of innate morality, reasoning, the true love of his wife, even the “prison of my own conceit,” Klavan comes to degrees of belief. He acknowledges that religion did matter: “I thought of it as a living myth.” Years pass as he slowly realizes that Jesus came to him through stories, through the stories of his Christian housekeeper, the gospel of Luke, even Crime and Punishment. This element is one of several that bring about his need for Christ. He most winningly describes how “a story records and transmits the experience of being human. It teaches us what it’s like to be who we are.” And that perhaps is what Klavan captures best—the reality of being human and being capable of choosing Jesus.
The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan
ANNALS OF A QUIET NEIGHBORHOOD
“I fancy I have never written a book in which I did not quote from him. But it has not seemed to me that those who have received my books kindly take even now sufficient notice of the affiliation. Honesty drives me to emphasize it.”—C.S. Lewis
I can’t explain it as well as I’d like, but there’s something to George MacDonald’s preachy style. As a teenager, I read voraciously and whipped through a number of his romances such as The Seaboard Parish (1869) and The Fisherman’s Lady (1875). In each story, a prominent character is in need of a rescue, and in a predictable pattern, MacDonald provided a devout Christian who could guide and lead the needy to Christ. Simple conflicts, happy endings, nice and neat. Yet these are only one type of novel he wrote. The fairy and fable of his early years feature deeper and darker thoughts. Consider Phantastes (1858). Here, young Anodos, meaning pathless in Greek, discovers an atypical fairy world, a place of goodness and darkness. The inexperienced Anodos doesn’t always know who to believe among the world of fairies, trees, and creatures, and most alarmingly, he unearths his own shadow, a being that is himself and yet wholly evil. After many adventures by fable’s end, Anodos reawakens in the real world and finds he has been asleep for twenty-one days. This type of fantasy along with his children’s stories and poems is only one small part of his writings. Having been a Congregational minister for a time and a devout Christian, MacDonald can’t seem to keep himself from sermonizing, let alone moralizing, in his stories.
So recently, I picked up a piece of his I hadn’t read before, Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (1866). Our story begins with the honest and friendly greeting of Harry Walton, a new vicar in a rural parish harmlessly called Marshmallows. The story is replete with stereotypical characters such as the rich old widow manipulating others through her position, the old geezer working the local grain mill, the young working-class couple separated by a gruff father, and so on. What’s unique is MacDonald’s perspective. Young Walton is ever the narrator and describes what he sees: “Why did I not use to see such people about me before?” (99). He recognizes that he is learning to truly see each parishioner as they are, and his ideals are clear. He is driven (or is it inspired?) to make God real to the people in his charge: “a man must be partaker of the Divine nature; that for a man’s work to be done thoroughly, God must come and do it first himself; that to help men, He must be what He is—man in God, God in man—visibly before their eyes, or to the hearing of their ears. So much I saw” (137). Through Walton’s eyes and ears, we see his encounters and hear his sermons. We see his sincere desires and his need to bring people together, even if he must solve the mysteries of people themselves. He is a winning protagonist, even if pedantic at times.
Personally, I enjoyed hearing the voices of the Victorian age, whether the Spenserian carols at the vicar’s Christmas party or the pulpit pounders straight from MacDonald himself. Unlike other MacDonald novels, Scottish brogue and dialect are hugely absent since our narrator is a cultured man. All the easier for his audience to enjoy the style and theology that is MacDonald’s.
It’s available in several volumes now as a reprint or digitized for public use at projectgutenberg.com.
The Legacy of Words
From the time of the Middle Ages in the twelfth century, John of Salisbury not only depicts the thorough and balanced measure of the education of the ideal scholar, but he also points to the deficits within our modern educational system. Like his antagonist Cornificius and his followers, our educational culture of today appears shallow and showy, and in many ways, unprepared and one-dimensional in its thinking. So many students see their education as a means to have the job or prestige they desire, and so they do not embrace their education as a lifelong preparation, a how-to for thinking.
Much misunderstanding of how to cultivate critical thinking and logic stems from this modern factory system where a student is one of thousands straining en masse to get what they want. John of Salisbury would liken this culture to that of Cornificius’ thinking. Salisbury roundly tears into Cornificius’ ideas, exclaiming “he undermines and uproots all liberal studies, assails the whole structure of philosophy, tears to shreds humanity’s social contract, and destroys the means of brotherly charity and reciprocal interchange of services” (11). In The Metalogicon, Salisbury vigorously defends not only a way of study, but also a way of life as one pursues a liberal arts education.
For Salisbury, logic is his most valuable player. In Book II, he states that “Every branch of philosophy therefore has its own questions. But while each study is fortified by its own particular principles, logic is their common servant, and supplies them all with its ‘methods’” (103). It is a tool for argumentation and also a skill to use in all learning throughout life (Ibid). Since “logic is exercised in inquiry into the truth,“ its use can lead to wisdom and all its fruits as well (74). This advantage lends to a lifestyle of learning, much more than most modern students could appreciate. Salisbury also points out that logic carries power (74), a force. By its proper use, it not only exercises our minds, but also can stir us and others to action. It is here that Salisbury advocates methods of learning, practicing our logic and reasoning skills.
Even a modern reader can relate to his views on how to reason and how to choose and use their own words. Salisbury exclaims that he is “not interested in verbal hair-splitting” (152) or a legalistic way of addressing how to learn or interpret. He clarifies that “Dialectic accomplishes its entire purpose so long as it determines the force of words and acquires a scientific knowledge of how to investigate and establish truth by verbal predication” (153). It becomes everything about how words are understood, “whether it is dividing, defining, inferring, or analyzing” (153). To make his point, Salisbury cites the power of words as used by past philosophers and scholars. “Like a whirlwind, they [the words] snatch up those who are ignorant of them, and violently lash such persons about or dash them to the ground, stunning them with fear” (166). They are “veritable thunderbolts” of power that he encourages learners to use for their own proofs or refutations. Why waste time creating your own arguments or examples when they have done it for you? Salisbury’s unintimidating point here is that part of the learning practice is to use or mimic the greats because their reasoning and ideas bear “wide applicability” (167-8).
Along with logic and reasoning, John of Salisbury persistently addresses the clear use of words and their force. Without clarity and context, we judge or misread in error—“The meaning of words should be carefully analyzed, and one should diligently ascertain the precise form of each and every term . . . so that one may dispel the haze . . . that would otherwise obscure the truth” (58). This is a step that many in the mass educational systems ignore. If they don’t understand, they argue, just like Salisbury’s opponent Cornificius who “assails with bitter sarcasm the statements of everyone else . . . in the effort to establish his own views and overthrow the opinions of others” (13). By detailing his opponent thus, Salisbury points to those who are quick to argue, those who reflexively combat any idea they disagree with. They use words as weapons of retaliation, evidencing the vice of impatience, a prevalent issue in learners today. Words then become meaningless without clear intent, and Salisbury’s ideal of force or power is neglected.
Salisbury further cites Aristotle’s standards for clear word choice and predication—“For they either deter or impede, or foster and expedite the work of those who are endeavoring to proceed” (155). This involves definition (186) and what Aristotle would describe as dividing words accurately (174). We might call it understanding denotation, connotation, and context. Take, for instance, Salisbury’s investigation of the use of “true” (254). An opinion is “true” if it reflects reality because it can be defined as a thing itself or its influence upon things. “A being is a true man if this being has true humanity . . . true ‘whiteness’ is that which makes white; true ‘justice’ is that which makes just” (254). By examining and using a single word with care, misunderstanding can be avoided. But perhaps, most importantly in our day, an author’s meaning “should not be discarded by quibbling over a word” (153). We are all guilty of jumping to conclusions, a similar impatience as mentioned with verbal arguments earlier, but to glean a truth from an author or speaker when they do misspeak or misuse words requires a mature learner.
Salisbury also equates the force of speech with understanding the intended meaning of words (81). This involves learning implied meaning, a difficult skill that Salisbury says Cornificius was incapable of applying (26-7). In the science of effective argumentation, Salisbury says, “the effective force is to be found in the words themselves” (80) and later, “One who wishes to know what is being discussed, must shake out the [full] force of words” or he won’t understand what is being said (175). This idea speaks to our use of clear diction and our unobstructed interpretation. It does not mean, however, using more words to explain ourselves: “Excessive verbosity is the greatest wastrel of all” (197).
For those who bemoan the plight of today’s educational system, let them take heart in Salisbury’s admonitions and advice. Salisbury did not allow misinterpretation of himself or his words because he countered Cornificius directly in person and offensively in writing. His legacy of The Metalogicon exemplifies a practice that we must advocate to change our learning systems—to address the failings directly and to see that one educator can transform the world in which he teaches. “The faculty of speech” must bring to light “its feeble conceptions, and communicate the perceptions of the prudent exercise of the human mind” (11). Salisbury’s learning philosophy can become our own as we advocate a conscious observation and effort in ourselves and our students, where a student both trains himself and is trained to notice and analyze how words are used. Words have power and force, and when enabled by logic, can produce the fruit of wisdom and truth—“Reason, the mother, nurse, and guardian of knowledge, as well as of virtue, frequently conceives from speech, and by this same means, bears more abundant and richer fruit” (11).
GRIT AND GRAVEL. I hadn’t read anything of Andrew Klavan’s until this last weekend when I decided to give one of his crime novels a try. I struggled through The Identity Man, partially because I usually don’t read modern crime (give me Hercule Poirot any day) and partially because I hoped a friend's recommendation might hold true for Klavan's non-adolescent line.
The Identity Man is set in a fictional megalopolis of chaos and crime. For the cops, the criminal, or the gangster, the sin portrayed is too real, too gruesome, too depraved unless the intent is to show the Sodom and Gomorrah of our day. I naturally wondered if gruesome imagery was necessary to show the nature of evil. (Is it? Do bad guys have to curse exponentially for me the reader to recognize they’re bad?) The lead character, John Shannon, is neither protagonist nor antagonist; he doesn’t fit a “category.” He’s a gifted woodworker, but then he’s a petty criminal. He uses women then he doesn’t. He doesn’t want to kill anyone and then he does. The list could go on. Maybe John Shannon IS a dichotomy because he doesn’t easily mesh into a definition of flawed man.
I could say more but won’t in case there are other gritty souls out there willing to branch out. Simply put, this Klavan genre is not my taste.