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Beowulf as Christian Apologetic

Douglas Wilson has translated Beowulf, and a few years back he wrote an essay for Touchstone on it: “The Anglo-Saxon Evangel: The Beowulf Poet Was a Shrewd Christian Apologist.”

Though a heroic poem about pagans that never mentions Christ, Beowulf is the opposite of syncretistic compromise. It is written to highlight the treachery as a way of life that afflicted these pagan societies from within, and the greed and plunder as a way of life that afflicted them from without (whether they were the marauders or the victims).

Our poet shows us this pagan hopelessness in a period of history just before their conversion to the Christian faith. He is recounting the testimony of his people, and, just as with modern testimonies, the sin is highlighted. But it is art to conceal art, and he leaves us hanging just before the explicit moment of conversion. His original listeners knew exactly what was going to happen next.

….

The poem shows how necessary was this sequel, and in this lies its shrewd apologetic. Many generations of roistering pillagers had not thought any other way of life either possible or desirable. In Beowulf, this pattern of raids and counter-raids, of vengeance accomplished and vengeance thwarted, is a way of life on its last legs.

The people are (most of them) heartily sick of it, and they keep trying to find ways of fixing the problems created by their cycles of blood vengeance. Their vain attempts to weave peace through arranged marriages, and their frustrated attempts to stay the violence with the wergild (or man-price, a compensation for murder) show that they know they have a serious problem.

Their long-established way of doing things gives them all the civilization-building power of a biker gang. It is hard for us to imagine Viking angst,but the author of Beowulf is delivering us a vision of exactly that.

The rest, including a beguiling suggestion that the poet has created paganism at its best, as it never existed anywhere, is here. Vintage Wilson, with much insight into Beowulf.

Wilson has also put together a volume on The Rudiments of Anglo-Saxon accompanied by an Answer Key, and in this clip you can hear him reading Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon:

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Death by Living Trailer

HT: Douglas Wilson.

Hitchcock said a good story was life with all the boring parts taken out. That’s what N. D. Wilson summarizes in this powerful clip:

I’m looking forward to reading Death by Living.

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How To Use “The Bible’s Big Story”: Dads, Step Up and Play the Man

Do you know what I’m trying to accomplish with The Bible’s Big Story?

I want you to win the hearts of your children.
I want you to win them through the time you spend with them.
I want you to start when they’re so small they can’t yet climb off your lap and crawl around.
I want you to read to them, and I want you to read to them about the highest and most important things: the Lord, the gospel, the true story of the world in the Bible.

So more than just winning their hearts, I want you to win your kids to the Lord. My prayer is that the big story of the Bible will capture their imagination, that the high King would lay claim to their allegiance, that they would trust him from deepest recess of soul.

I’m trying to help parents–and I really have dads in my crosshairs–obey Deuteronomy 6:7. The ESV translates that verse as follows: “You shall teach them [these words that I command you today, v. 6] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

That phrase “you shall teach them diligently” could also be rendered “you shall repeat them constantly.”

This verse calls fathers to do two things: 1) repeat the Bible constantly to their children, and 2) discuss it with them.

That’s your basic recipe for family discipleship, and I’m trying to help you do it by starting when your children are sitting there on your lap looking at picture books with you.

[Here’s a longer discussion of family discipleship interpreting Deuteronomy 6 and Proverbs: “That the Coming Generation Might Praise the Lord,”].

Make no mistake about it: Satan is prowling around like a lion wanting to devour your child. You can’t outsource their discipleship. They need you. Particularly you, Dad.

The other day my wife was telling me how it’s harder for my kids to get to sleep when something has me out of the house and I’m not part of the bedtime routine of family devotions. Without me there, she finds the kids to be more fussy and fearful. She said to me: “Don’t underestimate daddypower.”

Dad’s, I’m calling you to step up.
I’m calling you, fathers, to read to your kids.
I’m calling you to be a man, to take the responsibility God has placed at your feet in the Scriptures.

This is bigger than any free throw you ever shot, bigger than any at-bat with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run in scoring position. This is more important than twitter and blogs and books and news. We’re talking about your kids.

We’re talking about whether you will lay the foundation when they’re small that will put you in position to be heard and heeded when you start warning them against the snares of the devil–snares of porn and predators and pushers. How do you lay that foundation? By establishing yourself as their father in the formative years. Before they start walking, you’re holding them, teaching them what the world is–what it’s for, what life is about.

Step up, dads. For the sake of your children, for the respect of your wife, for your own Christlikeness, for the glory of God, for the church in the generations to come. By all that you love, by all that is holy, in the name of the Lord Jesus, let us take up the solemn charge to train our kids in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Disciple your children.

Play the man. Repeat the Bible constantly to your kids and discuss it everywhere you go, when they get out of bed in the morning, when they go to bed at night, when at home, when out and about (cf. Deut 6:7).

Their souls depend upon it, and if you’re in ministry, your qualification depends upon it.

So how can you use The Bible’s Big Story in your efforts to fulfill the role God has given to you and play the man? (cf. 1 Cor 16:13–14)

Here are some suggestions, following the basic outline of Deuteronomy 6:7, to 1) Repeat and 2) Discuss, and I’m adding the third step of 3) Do It Yourself to get at the idea that is clearly the goal of the repetition and discussion Moses prescribed in Deuteronomy 6:7–living out the Bible. Moses wasn’t calling for Hebrew households to become seminar rooms or discussion forums. He wanted fathers to repeat the Bible to their children and discuss its meaning with them so that they would live out faith and obedience for God’s glory.

Here’s how you can use The Bible’s Big Story to lay the foundation of you being the most influential person in your child’s life. Here are some steps you can take on the path of winning their hearts:

Repeat

1. Read the poem straight through. On each page there is a rhyming couplet and a Bible verse, and this first recommendation is to skip the Bible verses and just read the rhyming couplets of this book. These rhymes comprise one unified poem. By reading the whole poem over and over straight through, the idea is for both you and your little one to find that you have the thing memorized. The poem is intended to be a high-level overview of the whole story (thus its title, The Bible’s Big Story), and my hope is that it will serve as a roadmap for Bible reading.

So read the poem straight through. This is how you read most children’s books, and in this recommendation I’m encouraging you to read the poetry by itself and save the Bible verses on each page for other kinds of trips through the book.

2. Repeat. Maybe your experience is like mine, and you find yourself saying to your toddler: “we just read that book.” On those second and third readings, go more slowly through the pages, and these are the times to read the verses.

Discuss

3. Got a toddler and other kids under the age of 10? We do, and often the older ones gather round as we read to the younger. When this starts happening, don’t just read, discuss. Ask the older kids to tell you more about the pictures and the stories they depict.

4. Talk about what happens between the lines. This little book is only 24 pages. Most of the Bible’s events and teachings are not depicted. Ask your child if they know what happened before or after what’s on a particular page. Let the things depicted in this book be your landmarks, and more and more sketch in the details between the landmarks.

Do It Yourself

These suggestions can be adapted to the age and aptitude of your child.

5. Assuming that you have access to a photocopier (three in one printers are everywhere these days), photocopy a page in black and white and let your child use it as a coloring page.

6. Have your child reproduce the pictures in the book using tracing paper.

7. The next step after tracing paper is of course for your kids to draw their own versions of the pictures in the book, whether reproducing the book’s pictures or doing the scene a different way, or the previous event . . . you get the idea.

8. At our family gatherings, the cousins sometimes do drama presentations. Why not use The Bible’s Big Story for the family (or church) Christmas drama your kids produce. Have them memorize the lines and say them as they act out the story. Get costumes. Make it a yearly tradition at Christmas or easter. Go whole-hog (even if you’re an LSU fan).

9. Are there families of small children whose parents you’re shepherding or discipling? At $4.99, this is a pretty affordable discipleship tool, birthday gift, or party favor. Let me assure you: my goal is not selling more copies or making a name for myself. I want to love God and neighbor. I want God to be glorified as you win the hearts of your kids, as your friends win the hearts of their kids, as fathers establish themselves in the lives of their kids by obeying Deuteronomy 6:7, as families grow in their understanding of the Scriptures together, as disciples are made of all nations.

10. Are there unbelieving family members, friends, or others who sometimes read to your kids? Put this book on the top of the pile. Unbelievers who read this book will be exposed to the big story of the Bible and an exhortation to trust the Lord Christ. I hope and pray The Bible’s Big Story can be a natural evangelistic experience for your unbelieving neighbors, friends, or family members.

These are of course, merely suggestions, and they’re not exhaustive. Have some other ideas? Please do share them in the comments (or post them somewhere–I’d love to know to your thoughts. . .). The main thing is for us to know God by knowing the Bible, and helping you and your kids do that is what I’m after in The Bible’s Big Story.

Look around.
Darkness clouds the horizon.
The culture grows more and more hostile to Christians and Christianity.
Take action.
Redeem the time.
Disciple your kids.

Dads, your wife and children are yours to protect and lead. Play the man.

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The Fiftieth Anniversary of The “I Have a Dream” Speech

Here are items #7 and #8 from Joe Carter’s 9 Things You Should Know About the March on Washington, which happened 50 years ago today:

7. King was the last speaker because no one else wanted that slot (everyone assumed the news media would leave by mid-afternoon). King agreed to take it and planned to speak for 4 minutes (he ended up speaking for 16 minutes).

8. King improvised the most recognizable, memorable part of the speech that he is most famous for, according to his speechwriter and attorney Clarence B. Jones. Although King had spoken about a dream before two months earlier in Detroit, the “dream” was not in the text prepared by Jones. King initially followed the text Jones had written but gospel singer Mahalia Jackson yelled, “Tell ’em about the dream, Martin!” King nodded to her, placed the text of his speech aside, and veered off-script, delivering extemporaneously what is one of the most famous orations in American history.

And here’s the speech:

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New Song from Ross King: Win My Soul

I highly recommend Ross King’s new album, “This Hope Will Guide Me,” and so far this is my favorite song:

Great chorus:

Praise the one who climbed the hill
And stormed the very gates of hell
Went to war with death itself
To win my soul

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Paris Review Interview with Shelby Foote

Deeply enjoyed this long interview in Paris Review with Shelby Foote (HT: JT). Here are a few snippets.

Advice for young writers:

To read, and above all to reread. When you read, you get the great pleasure of discovering what happened. When you reread, you get the great pleasure of knowing where the author’s going and seeing how he goes about getting there—and that’s learning creative writing. I would tell a young writer that. Of course I would tell him: work, work, work, sit at that desk and sweat. You don’t have to have a plot, you don’t have to have anything. Describe someone crossing a room, and try to do it in a way that won’t perish. Put it down on paper. Keep at it. Then when you finally figure out how to handle words pretty well, try to tell a story. It won’t be worth a d***; you’ll have to tear it up and throw it away. But then try to do it again, do it again, and then keep doing it, until you can do it. You may never be able to do it. That’s the gamble. You not only may not be able to make a living, you may not be able to do it at all. But that’s what you put on the line. Every artist has that. He doesn’t deserve a whole lot of credit for it. He didn’t choose it. It was visited upon him. Somebody asks, When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? I never decided I wanted to be a writer. I simply woke up a writer one morning.

Then some motivation from Robert Browning:

One of the most remarkable jobs of becoming a writer I ever heard of was done by one of my favorite writers, Robert Browning. Browning decided at the age of fourteen, I think, out of the clear blue sky, to become a writer. His father had books all over the house anyway. He said, If I’m going to be a writer, there’s certainly one thing I must do, and then he proceeded to memorize Johnson’s Dictionary—both volumes, cover to cover. He has, next to Shakespeare, the largest vocabulary of any English writer. Now that’s preparation.

The whole thing (warning, some language).

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Hopeful Indications in Derek Webb’s “Everything Will Change”

I’m hearing good things from people I trust about the direction of Derek Webb’s new album. Scott Corbin pointed me to one of the new songs on YouTube, “Everything Will Change.”

It’s encouraging that this song locates the resolution to the world’s ills not in some social-engineering project of a political party but in the eschaton, when “you’ll wake and the curse will break.”

I also appreciate friends who have encouraged me to be as generous to Derek as I’ve tried to be to J. K. Rowling. Point taken. Eager to hear the whole album.

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Derek Webb’s Failed Confession

Collin Garbarino posted a new video from Derek Webb, in which Derek “confesses”: “I was wrong, I’m sorry, and I love you.”

My problem with this song is that Derek doesn’t specify what it is he thinks he was wrong about. There are some things I think he has been wrong about, but those may or may not be the things he’s apologizing for. Does he think he was right where I thought he was wrong, and wrong where I thought he was right? He doesn’t clarify, so the song isn’t very satisfying. What tried to be sincere and authentic devolved into bland platitudes and cliches. I know that’s not what Derek wanted.

It does have a catchy tune, though. Like much of his stuff. Classic Derek–wailing voice that really communicates emotional depth, changes in tempo and volume, good stuff.

I wish Derek would recognize that he’s not an inspired prophet, that for every stupid thing some church or some Christian says or does there are a lot of examples of biblical ecclesiology and truly Christ-like Christians, and that he should give himself to writing God-honoring, Bible-saturated, thought-provoking songs.

And for my money he can leave the swear words out.

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Lepanto by G. K. Chesterton

Savor the power of the language in this stanza from G. K. Chesterton’s tribute to the Battle of Lepanto:

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war,
Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold
In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world,
Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
Love-light of Spain—hurrah!
Death-light of Africa!
Don John of Austria
Is riding to the sea.

The rest is just as good. Whole thing here.

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How to Read through Shakespeare in a Year

Have you ever read The Complete Works of Shakespeare? Seeing the film Lincoln inspired me to set an informal goal of reading all Shakespeare’s plays and poetry this year, and then I came across this quote in Another Sort of Learning:

Not too long ago, I heard a tape of the memorial service held at Stanford University Chapel at the death of Eric Voegelin. On the tape, Professor William Havard, I think, remarked that Voegelin read the Complete Works of Shakespeare once a year all his adult life.

Voegelin read the Complete Works of Shakespeare the way that many read the Bible: yearly. That prompted me to think about reading Shakespeare the same way that one would approach reading through the Bible in a year–with a systematic plan of action involving reading a little bit every day.

There are 1,675 pages in the edition of Shakespeare’s Works I have from college. But there are about 330 pages of introductory material, so the actual page count of Shakespeare’s plays and poetry comes to around 1,336. Divide that number by 365, and you read about 3 and a half pages per day to get through everything Shakespeare wrote in a year. If you want to read all the introductory material too, it’s about 4 and a half pages per day.

Another way to come at it would be to do it by plays and poetry per month. There are 37 plays, and then there are another 74 pages of sonnets and longer poems. The plays are about 30 pages each, so we can count the sonnets as two more plays. 39 plays in 12 months would be about 3 and a quarter plays per month. Which is to say that four months of the year you’ll read 4 plays, then the other 8 months you read 3 plays per month.

There are 224 days left in 2013, so if you start now, skip the introductory material, you’re looking at just under 6 pages of Shakespeare a day. At the end of May there will be 7 months left in the year, which means that if you start June 1 you’d need to read 5 and a half plays per month to finish at the end of the year.

The main thing is not to finish in a year, but to steep your mind in the words and the themes, to be elevated by Shakespeare’s vision, his ability to put life and morality on display in words, to let the Bard make you better.

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Mere Christianity’s Arguments in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

A few years back I read The Chronicles of Narnia aloud to my oldest two sons (we read them in the right order). The third-born is now 5 years old, and it’s his turn. The older boys are listening in, and we’re doing our best to keep them from revealing story-spoilers. I’m also trying to read Planet Narnia alongside the Chronicles, in the hope that Michael Ward will help me see more than I ever have before. He has me reading more attentively, and there’s a lot to which to attend.

In the first dialogue the children have with the Professor, Lewis presents him making sophisticated yet simple logical arguments. Remember the famous “liar, lunatic, or Lord” argument from Mere Christianity? That will make its appearance below, along with another that’s probably in either Mere Christianity or Miracles but I haven’t gone back to check. This second argument responds to the the idea that non-repeatable events are impossible, therefore the Bible’s miracles didn’t happen (so Hume, Strauss, Troeltsch, Ehrman, et al.). Along with this usually comes a challenge to the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Lewis equips children and others who might read neither Mere Christianity nor Miracles to counter Troeltsch’s way of doing history, to credit eyewitness testimony, and to think through the liar, lunatic, or Lord question in this little dialogue between the Professor, Peter, and Susan regarding Lucy’s tale that she has entered Narnia:

Then Susan pulled herself together and said, ‘But Edmund said they had only been pretending.’

‘That is a point,’ said the Professor, ‘which certainly deserves consideration; very careful consideration. For instance–if you will excuse me for asking the question–does your experience lead you to regard your brother or your sister as the more reliable? I mean, which is the more truthful?’

‘That’s just the funny thing about it, sir,’ said Peter. ‘Up till now, I’d have said Lucy every time.’

‘And what do you think, my dear?’ said the Professor, turning to Susan.

‘Well,’ said Susan, ‘in general, I’d say the same as Peter, but this couldn’t be true–all this about the wood and the Faun.’

‘That is more than I know,’ said the Professor, ‘and a charge of lying against someone whom you have always found truthful is a very serious thing; a very serious thing indeed.’

‘We were afraid it mightn’t even be lying,’ said Susan; ‘we thought there might be something wrong with Lucy.’

‘Madness, you mean?’ said the Professor quite cooly. ‘Oh, you can make your minds easy about that. One has only to look at her and talk to her to see that she is not mad.’

‘But then,’ said Susan, and stopped. She had never dreamed that a grown-up would talk like the Professor and didn’t know what to think.

‘Logic!’ said the Professor half to himself. ‘Why don’t they teach logic at these schools? There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad. For the moment then and unless any further evidence turns up, we must assume that she is telling the truth.’

Susan looked at him very hard and was quite sure from the expression on his face that he was not making fun of them.

‘But how could it be true, sir?’ said Peter.

‘Why do you say that?’ asked the Professor.

‘Well, for one thing,’ said Peter, ‘if it was real why doesn’t everyone find this country every time they go to the wardrobe? I mean, there was nothing there when we looked; even Lucy didn’t pretend there was.’

‘What has that to do with it?’ said the Professor.

‘Well, sir, if things are real, they’re there all the time.’

‘Are they?’ said the Professor; and Peter did not know quite what to say.

One of the problems with excerpts is that the power of the broader story with all its characterization and depth cannot accompany a snippet. The dialogue continues, and of course Lucy’s tale turns out to be true. Shortly all the children are in Narnia.

If you haven’t read these books, I’d encourage you to fill that void in your happiness and read them for yourself.

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Literary Horse Puckey

My friend Jason Duesing sent me a link to an insightful essay by Kathryn Schulz, “Why I despise The Great Gatsby,” where she points out Fitzgerald’s lack of humor in Gatsby, lack of empathy for his characters, and lack of real moral power. It’s a great essay, and it reminded me of a crisp scene in Leif Enger’s So Brave, Young, and Handsome. A little context, then the scene in question:

The main character of Enger’s novel, Monte Becket, is a writer whose first novel (Martin Bligh) has achieved unexpected success, and now Monte is helping an old and never-caught bandit make his way to the woman he left, to whom he wants to apologize.

They get separated when Monte gets apprehended by an off-duty detective, Royal Davies, who invites him to spend the night in his home so he can take him to the station for questioning next day. At the Davies home Monte meets the wife of the detective, and we get this fine passage:

As for Mrs. Davies, she kept me under the reptile eye while listening to her husband’s presentation of contemporary Chicago, of his sister’s health, and of the bothersome train ride home. He was a bright observer, and I soon saw he had to be, for Mrs. Davies asked him a chain of incisive questions which built one upon the other until she had in her mind a satisfactory portrait of her husband’s absence. You’d think it might abrade, to be probed that way by your spouse, but Royal Davies seemed to shine and grow younger under her spotlight, and he leaned toward her, his language and whole manner becoming honed and precise.

She then turned to me and said, ‘Very well, Mr. Author, it is your turn.’

‘I am at your service, Mrs. Davies.’

‘You are a man of letters,’ said she. ‘Tell me, what do you think of Boyd Singleton Ample?’ [whose name will later be abbreviated ‘B. S. Ample’!]

I said, ‘I think he is very good, yes, a very important writer.’

There are any number of reasons to tell this sort of lie. As a well-treated guest, I didn’t wish to seem critical of her taste. Worse, I didn’t wish to appear jealous–every one of Mr. Ample’s books sold much more briskly than Martin Bligh had.

‘Go on,’ she said, nodding.

‘Well, his insights on human miseries are salient,’ I ventured. It didn’t seem like a weak limb to climb out on–it was a common opinion among people who were serious about Literature and the phase it was in, whether of ascent or decline, and What It All Meant for Society. In his most recent novel he had sallied out with a number of momentous ideas, namely that war is difficult, and that poverty is difficult too; in fact, that much of human experience is marked by difficulty. I don’t remember who is at fault.

‘Horse puckey,’ said Mrs. Davies, an excellent glint in her gaze.

‘Pardon?’

‘He is boresome. Humorless as a mole. Tell me, are you familiar with The Pestilence of Man?’

‘Yes. Yes, I am.’ I was mortified, because in my politic reply I’d set myself to defend a novel I hadn’t even finished. I tried! But it’s a long book.

‘And did you laugh much, reading it?’ she asked.

‘I’m afraid not, Mrs. Davies.’

‘Call me Celia, please. Did you get much good from it?’ she persisted.

‘Why, I think so–Celia.’

‘And what particular good would that be?’ said my rigorous hostess.

‘Well, a broader understanding of human darkness, I suppose,’ I said, seizing a trite phrase from a review I’d seen somewhere. Oh, I was on thin and melting ice now!

Celia Davies said, ‘At this minute many people are reading books by that man; I will tell you how to identify them. They own a furtive brow, men and women alike; they bend their slight shoulders, they tug their lips and fret. Mr. Becket, do you find yourself improved for your new understanding of human darkness?’

I adjusted my own shoulders. I had a new admiration for Royal Davies, that he could be a match for her. ‘Few things have managed to improve me, Celia,’ I admitted, ‘although a day or two of your company might.’

Then she laughed, which was the youngest thing about her; Royal took her hand with an expression of delight, and I was released from that table.

I’m thankful for books like So Brave, Young, and Handsome, books that show the beauty of marriage and the courage to laugh at dour high-mindedness, books that are funny and that make for the improvement of those who read them.

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“A City Radiant as a Bride,” by Timothy Dudley-Smith

Revelation 21:9–11,

“Then came one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues and spoke to me, saying, ‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.”

A City Radiant as a Bride
by Timothy Dudley Smith
Copyright 1987

A city radiant as a bride
and bright with gold and gem,
a crystal river clear and wide,
the new Jerusalem;
a city wrought of wealth untold,
her jeweled walls aflame
with green and amethyst and gold
and colors none can name.

A holy city, clear as glass,
where saints in glory dwell;
through gates of pearl her people pass
to fields of asphodel.
In robes of splendor, pure and white,
they walk the golden floor,
where God himself shall be their light
and night shall be no more.

A city ever new and fair,
the Lamb’s eternal bride;
no suffering or grief is there
and every tear is dried.
There Christ prepares for us a place,
from sin and death restored,
and we shall stand before his face,
the ransomed of the Lord.

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Daniel

Son of Man and floating hand,
Mysteries galore.
A statue gold, a dream untold,
Unfold what is in store.

Furnace of fire and lion pit,
Nations there did rage.
The letters on the wall were writ,
And God his people saved.

Antichrist is on the way,
Many now have come,
Those who know their God will stay,
If killed still will not run.

For God his Kingdom will raise up,
And all the dead will rise.
These will suffer, those will shine,
Like stars will be the wise.

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J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

What’s with Rowling’s new book? Is it an “adult” novel? I saw one report where, rejecting some connotations of the word “adult,” Rowling said she preferred to say the novel is for grown-ups.

That’s right.

This is not a book that titillates. This is not a book that seduces people, luring them to fantasize about illicit sexual activity.

Nor is this a book for impatient people unwilling to reflect, people who want artists to preach rather than produce works of art, people who don’t want their own rebellion exposed in all its darkness, more by the absence of light than its presence.

What is this book?

Holding the Mirror up to Nature

This is a book that does what Hamlet told the players they should do: hold the mirror up to nature. And nature isn’t pretty. Actually that needs to be qualified. Nature, as in the world in which we live, is beautiful. Stunning, really, and Rowling sings the beauty of the cool morning, the night sky, the hilltop view of the quaint township.

But if by “nature” we mean what Hamlet wanted the players to depict, the things that people do in the world, Rowling reveals the only-evil-all-the-time-ness of human impulses and actions. Often these two aspects of nature are juxtaposed in The Casual Vacancy: Rowling describes the heavens declaring the glory of God, then shows the image of God defiling the cosmic temple God made for his glory. There is many a jarring movement from the beauty of the world to the ugliness of what humans do in it.

Moral Fiction

In all their selfish pursuit of vanity, Rowling’s characters are oblivious to the stupendous glory of the world they inhabit. Just like us, most of the time. The Casual Vacancy is laced with profanity and sex, so what I’m about to say may seem incongruous: this is a piece of moral fiction. This book is moral the way that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is moral. That book is about adultery, and it shows the sin in all its ugliness. The Casual Vacancy depicts lots of sins in all their ugliness.

One of the things I appreciate about the Harry Potter stories is the way that Rowling depicts her characters such that we really understand their motivations and predicaments. She’s a master of characterization. That’s true of The Casual Vacancy as well. Do you want to understand human motivations and difficult predicaments? This book could help your powers of imagination and sympathy.

Restless Wandering

What might this book help you understand? Depending on your background and the level of authenticity you’ve experienced with people who are really suffering, you might encounter a lot of new things in this book:

A dyslexic girl who is overshadowed by older siblings finds refuge in cutting herself. A goofy teacher mocked by the whole school shows enormous courage in the face of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A woman enslaved to heroin prostitutes herself and neglects her children to the point of one of them drowning and the other committing suicide. A liberal social worker has her own substance abuse issues, and her personal life is little better than the prostitute’s, as she is treated by the man in her life “like a hooker he doesn’t have to pay.” Conservative political types do not concern themselves with how their limitation of government programs will alter the lives of real people, particularly children.

My Brother’s Keeper?

This book will prompt reflection on the responsibility-depravity axis. It shows the unsatisfying lies of lust, the devastation of rape, the ruination of sex when used outside its appointed boundaries (a loving, one flesh, man-wife union in marriage), the wreckage of uncultivated marriage, the continual meanness to which all are prone, the lost-ness of unanchored souls unable to distinguish right from wrong and rumor from reality, the vanity of selfish and mistaken perceptions, the Stockholm Syndrome of a beaten wife and the rage of her abused children, the folly of youthful rebellion against “conventional morality,” and . . . and I’ve saved the biggest problem for last: the lack of a man who loves by living for others.

The catalyst of the story is the death of a good man. He leaves a vacancy. His death is the casual vacancy, which is a phrase used to describe the opening created by the death of a local councilor. The book is about the void left by the death of a man who was his brother’s keeper, and the story shows that the main reason others can’t fill the void he leaves is because they don’t love like he did.

Better to Give

Perhaps the sharpest contrast is drawn between the good man who has gone to his reward and the loser who is using the social worker for sex, a loser who could be a good man but he won’t commit, won’t invest his life in the woman he is exploiting, won’t lay his life down for the benefit of others. So he takes and does not give, and he knows no blessing. His selfishness does not make him happy, and it does not benefit those who need him.

Shame. Dirt. Filth. Sadness. Misery. That’s what people reject goodness to have. And when a good man dies, wicked people say “just goes to show,” as though the death of “Fairbrother” proves them right, as though they won’t die themselves, as though his death shows that loving others lands you dead. As though they are justified in their selfishness since “Fairbrother” died.

Rowling shows—in a way that never relativizes good and evil—that what you achieve or even what your agenda is matters a good deal less than how you live and whether you love people. She demonstrates that life outside “conventional morality” is miserable, and she tells it like it is. In The Casual Vacancy we see the unhappiness of sinners in all its fullness. We see that it’s not a program that makes a difference, it’s the man who loves others.

How to Respond?

This book is a powerful appeal for people to intervene in the lives of at-risk kids, for people to care about those unlike themselves, for people to be kind to one another, and Rowling is showing not telling. She makes her case not as a preacher but as an artist. The Casual Vacancy shows the “walking shadow” life becomes through disobedience, it shows the misery of the strutting and fretting on the stage when idiots reject God and his ways and become nothing more than sound and fury. When men will not love, when men will not be good, when men will not be Christ-like, the women and children suffer most, for they are weakest and easiest to exploit. Rowling makes this point, and makes it with power, by putting us in the wake of the death of a good man. No one steps into The Casual Vacancy able to love as Barry Fairbrother did.

If you ask me how I think J. K. Rowling wants people to respond to The Casual Vacancy, I think the answer is the one word formula of Dumbledore’s most powerful magic: love.

Will you love?

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