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It’s Not a J. K. Rowling Novel

The title of this post says what you need to know about this play, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, bearing the ascription, “based on an original new story by J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany, and Jack Thorne; a new play by Jack Thorne.”

Here are my complaints, as they come to me:

  • The characters are flat and boring and say the kinds of dumb things we say in real life with all our cliches and banality. These hacks have the same names, but they are nothing like the surprising, funny, noble, sincere, honest, endearing, real characters in the Rowling novels. One of the bad guys in the novels tells Harry that if he’s going to use an unforgivable curse, he has to mean it. These characters don’t seem to mean it.
  • The plot fails to grip. The book arrived on my doorstep last night. We got the kids in bed, and I started reading around 10pm. At the end of Act 1, I went to bed. It was about 11:30. And I had done other things than read in that hour and a half. If this were a J. K. Rowling novel, I would not have been able to put it down to do other things, and I would not have gone to bed at 11:30. I likely would have read into the early morning, unable to stop until I simply couldn’t read any more. But this isn’t a Rowling novel.
  • The plot fails to convince. In a Rowling novel, the spell is cast convincingly and both the story-world and the events that take place in it so fit that we never pull up from the book and say to ourselves: that would never happen. Or: there’s a simpler fix for all this. Or: this is preposterous. Or: I don’t think these characters would act in these ways. Everything in a Rowling novel is right and feels inevitable. She does the necessary work to set us up, and she does it in a beautiful way. But this play by Jack Thorne isn’t a novel by J. K. Rowling, so I repeatedly found myself broken out of the weak spell of its world, unconvinced by the unnecessary events, the dumb solutions, and the trite words and actions of the characters.
  • Whatever has been said about him since the end of Book 7, Ron Weasley is a great guy in the Rowling novels. He’s a big enough person to be normal around the boy who lived when he first meets him, and then at the end of the first story sacrifices himself for his friends. He is funny, principled, heroic, and true to the right. His barbs toward enemies have teeth, and his dialogue is sharp and witty. In this stupid play Ron is a worthless doof of a loser. That’s not fair to him, and I don’t know why J. K. Rowling signed off on letting this be done to someone she cared so much about as she wrote those magnificent novels. She should have had more dignity. She should have loved Ron now as she loved him then. And she should not have let her name appear on this new play by Jack Thorne. She should not have let Jack Thorne and John Tiffany do this to her creation. And if it’s her fault it’s the way it is, she should have let the creation stand as it was rather than risk ruining it with this failed add-on.
  • Even worse than Ron is the way Harry is presented in this play. If he’s going to be such an incompetent father in this disappointment, why not just leave the hero alone and the story untold? I simply do not believe that the Harry Potter of those seven great novels would be as bad a father as this play tries to make him. The Harry Potter in this play never could have done what the Harry Potter in the novels did: The play-Harry could not have loved people, understood what was at stake, been taught by Dumbledore, and sacrificed himself the way the novel-Harry did. If he could have done all those things, he wouldn’t be the loser-dad the play-Harry is. So even though the play-Harry has the same name as the novel-Harry, they are not the same character.
  • Please. The adult novel-Harry would never say to Dumbledore-in-the-portrait: “I have proved as bad a father to him as you were to me.” I’m just not buying it. Adolescent Harry who didn’t know or understand the whole story could have blown up at Dumbledore the way he does when he throws a fit in his office. But then the rest of the story happened, and the characters both matured through their experiences and came to understand the necessity of everything that happened in the novels. In this play, the main characters are childish, even though they’re presented as adults. And these characters went through too much in those seven novels to be childish adults. Adults in our culture are childish, but adults in our culture haven’t been through what Harry, Ron, and Hermione went through, nor have they stood up the way the threesome did.
  • If J. K. Rowling wrote the lines of these characters in this play, she didn’t begin to approach what she achieved in the dialogue of the novels. So I’m inclined to think that either she didn’t write the lines and someone without her genius is responsible for the tripe, or that she’s too busy now, or that she failed to enter into this new story with all her emotional range and creative power. Because the dialogue stinks.
  • This play is a sappy, uninteresting attempt at sentimentality that fails to convince and just leaves me disgusted that someone would attempt to manipulate my emotions rather than earning the right to move me with real goodness, deep beauty, and high truth.

To sum up, the difference between reading a J. K. Rowling novel and reading this new play by Jack Thorne is like the difference between watching LeBron James play basketball and watching yours truly attempt the same. The one is dynamic, mesmerizing, awesome in his physical prowess and dominating presence. Thousands gather every time LeBron takes the court, and even more tune in for the spectacle. The other is the attempt of a guy in his 40s to get some exercise, not something even friends and family would have any reason to show up to watch.

Maybe Cursed Child is better on stage than read as a script, but I doubt it. Shakespeare’s plays do just fine when you read the script instead of seeing them enacted. Not this one. This is no J. K. Rowling novel. There’s no magic here.

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The World Is Whispering

This poem comes at the moving conclusion of Andrew Peterson’s fourth and final book in the Wingfeather Saga, The Warden and the Wolf King:

The world is whispering–listen child!–
The world is telling a tale.
When the seafoam froths in the water wild
Or the fendril flies in the gale,

When the sky is mad with the swirling storm
And thunder shakes the hall,
Child, keep watch for the passing form
Of the one who made it all.

Listen, child to the Hollish wind,
To the hush of heather down,
To the voice of the brook at the stony bend
And the bells of Rysentown.

The dark of the heart is a darkness deep
And the sweep of the night is wide
And the pain of the heart when the people weep
Is an overwhelming tide–

And yet! and yet! when the tide runs low
As the tide will always do
And the heavy sky where the bellows blow
Is bright at last, and blue

And the sun ascends in the quiet morn
And the sorrow sinks away,
When the veil of death and dark is torn
Asunder by the day,

Then the light of love is the flame of spring
And the flow of the river strong
And the hope of the heart as the people sing
Is an everlasting song.

The winter is whispering, “green and gold,”
And the heart is whispering, too–
It’s a story the Maker has always told
And the story, my child, is true.

We think so highly of this poem that Andrew Peterson somehow got Armulyn the Bard to write for him that we’re memorizing it together.

Our family relished the re-read-aloud of the first three volumes in preparation for the fourth, and the capstone did not disappoint. My oldest son has read the first three volumes so many times that when we read back through them, I would finish a chapter, and he would tell me the title of the next! We had to put contact paper over the cover of the third book because it was worn out from use. I’m pretty confident that before long this fourth volume will look as books do when they’re constantly in the hands of young readers. Binding no longer crisp and tight, dust jacket torn and loose fitting, pages softened and browned at the edges. Books are beautiful when they’re new, but well-used books earn another kind of beauty: the love they’ve been shown gives them a velveteen rabbit kind of grandeur. (A fitting comparison/compliment, don’t you think, for the proprietor of The Rabbit Room who writes books whose covers have to be held together by contact paper?)

We praise God for Andrew Peterson. The Lord has used his music and his fiction to bless and deepen our lives. If you haven’t read the Wingfeather Saga series, you should.

On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness

North! Or Be Eaten

The Monster in the Hollows

The Warden and the Wolf King

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Reading a Chiasm Helically

In his brilliant and thought provoking book, Deep Exegesis, Peter Leithart writes (167):

“In a book happily back in print, John Breck argues that chiasms are not ‘balanced structures, but instead are dynamic literary devices. He suggests that chiasms should be read ‘helically,’ moving not just from A to B to C to B’ and so on, but from A to A’, B to B’, C to C’, and so on. Read in this way, the text has a centripetal pull toward the central section. The corresponding sections, Breck argues, are related in the same ways that the strophes of a verse of Hebrew poetry are related. He says there is a ‘what’s more’ relationship between the corresponding lines: A and, what is more, A’.”

[the Breck book to which Leithart refers is The Shape of Biblical Language: Chiasmus in the Scriptures and Beyond]

This idea of reading a chiasm “helically” (from “helical: of or shaped like a helix; spiral”) is exactly right.

I have argued that chiastic structures function this way across the books of Revelation and Daniel, and in my forthcoming book on the theology of Daniel, I suggest that Daniel’s chiastic structure influenced the choices John made in structuring Revelation chiastically.

This helical function can also be seen in the chiastic structure of 2 Samuel 21–24 (see GGSTJ, 174–75) and is likely at work anywhere you find a chiasm in the Bible.

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Shelby Foote on Hard Work

In a letter to Walker Percy, Shelby Foote exhorted Percy to get to work on his desire to write fiction, saying something that is true about any craftsman pursuing any craft:

“But the most heart-breaking thing about it is: the better you get, the harder youll have to work–because your standards will rise with your ability. I mentioned ‘work’–it’s the wrong word: because if youre serious, the whole creative process is attended with pleasure in a form which very few people ever know. Putting two words together in a sequence that pleases you, really pleases you, brings a satisfaction which must be kin to what a businessman feels when he manages a sharp transaction–something like that, but on a higher plane because the businessman must know that soon he will have spent the dollars he made; but those two words which the writer set together have produced an effect which will never die as long as men can read with understanding.

So much for execution. I cant even begin to speak of conception–it comes from God.”

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What Rowling Said about Dumbledore

I’m sure you’ve heard what J. K. Rowling said about Albus Dumbledore: “I always thought of Dumbledore as gay.”

Dumbledore is a hero, one of the good guys through all seven novels. Unlike the way he is portrayed in the movies, Dumbledore is neither bumbling nor weak. He is commanding, authoritative, strong, sure, and only defeated by superior forces, never inferior ones. Dumbledore didn’t die because he made mistakes or because he absentmindedly mismanaged some magic. He died because he laid down his life, playing his appointed part in the outworking of a grand providential plan into which he had remarkable insight.

How do we deal with the information that Rowling has given us? How do we respond to her declaration that she thought of him as gay?

This calls for wisdom.

We should ask, I think, at least two questions: (1) what does Rowling show us of Dumbledore’s conduct as it relates to homosexuality/same-sex desire, and (2) what is it that makes Dumbledore a hero? Let’s start with the second first.

Is Dumbledore a hero because he has decided that the desires he feels must be right? Has he concluded that his appetites are to be gratified? Has he chosen what he wants over what he deems right? Has he chosen what is easy or what is true and good? Has he done whatever he wanted to do without concern for how it affects other people? Does he advocate that his impulses, his freedom, and his right to do whatever he wants to do matter more than any consideration of traditional morality or societal standard? Does he demand the right to throw off moral norms and be considered righteous by everyone?

The answers to these questions are obvious to anyone who has read the fabulous Harry Potter stories. Dumbledore is a hero not because he has thrown off Christian morality and Christian conceptions of what is good and true and beautiful but because he has embraced them. Dumbledore is a hero because he selflessly opposes evil—moral evil—and the definition of moral evil in the Potter stories corresponds to the definition of moral evil in the Bible. Dumbledore is heroic because he is Christ-like.

There is a character in the Harry Potter stories who has moved beyond traditional morality, who has decided that his appetites are to be gratified, that what he deems right is what must be true, that what he wants he will have without respect for the way it harms others. This character says that there is no good and evil, only power. There is a character who chooses that path, but his name is Voldemort not Dumbledore.

I would suggest, then, that Dumbledore’s same-sex attraction does not take away from our conception of him as a hero but adds to it because it shows us one more way in which Dumbledore has crucified evil, selfish, fleshly desires for the sake of what is morally true, ethically right, lovingly beautiful, and in every way good.

Skeptical of my interpretation of Rowling’s intentions? Need proof? Let’s move from the second question to the first: what does Rowling show us of Dumbledore’s conduct as it relates to homosexuality/same-sex desire. We’ll answer this question at two levels: on the surface, then under the surface.

On the surface, Rowling shows us nothing of Dumbledore’s same-sex attraction. That’s why people were shocked when she announced it. Observe: Dumbledore never overtly declares that he is gay. He never says or does anything to identify or define himself in those terms or by his own desires. Dumbledore never evidences a desire for a day when people’s conception of what is “moral” will be different so that he can pursue his impulses without social stigma. Dumbledore never encourages anyone to “transcend” moral norms of acceptable sexual orientation. In fact, I contend that Dumbledore would view that not as transcendent but as transgression, and this is precisely what makes him heroic.

Had Rowling not told us Dumbledore was gay, we would never suspect it. We would have seen Dumbledore as the self-sacrificial, wise, good hero that he is. And we would be right. Now let’s move from the surface, from what we can know from reading the novels for ourselves, below the surface, to what we might suggest about what Rowling shows in the novels now that she has given us this tidbit about her conception of Dumbledore.

I want to make three suggestions here: first, Dumbledore seems to have chosen a life of celibate singleness. Second, Dumbledore seems to take steps to protect himself and others from his own harmful impulses. Third, Rowling is therefore implicitly presenting Dumbledore as a heroic model for how those who struggle with same sex attraction can nevertheless be good and true.

First, Dumbledore has no partner. Rowling indicates that he had a dalliance in his youth, a dalliance that involved a plan to raise up a new world order, likely extending to a redefinition of sexual morality. While Rita Skeeter and other slanderers use Dumbledore’s youthful mistakes to call his character into question, the characters in the novel who see the truth understand that while Dumbledore may have forayed into those waters in his youth, he fled them and spent the rest of his life fighting those floods. Dumbledore seems to have learned from his own past, and he seems to view his youthful involvement with Grindelwald as a mistake. As a result of his own mistakes and his awareness of his own weaknesses, he is prepared to extend mercy, to give second chances to the likes of Rubeus Hagrid and Remus Lupin. He even trusts Severus Snape. Dumbledore is a great man not because he looks at people’s wickedness and trusts them anyway. He is a great man because though aware of people’s past wrong choices, he is willing to give them new chances to make the right choices. I would add that Dumbledore is fully prepared at all times to accept responsibility for his mistakes, for his own wrong choices, and he confesses them and repents. His desire in giving second chances is a desire for others to recognize their own wrongs, turn from them, and do right in the future.

Second, think of the way that Dumbledore protects himself and others from his own weaknesses. In chapter 37 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Dumbledore explains to Harry that he distanced himself from Harry to keep Voldemort from exploiting any perception that their “relationship was—or had ever been—closer than that of a headmaster and pupil.” Dumbledore explains that had Voldemort known of his love for Harry, Voldemort would have used Harry against Dumbledore. There is nothing in the book at this point that would lead anyone to the conclusion that Dumbledore might have felt inappropriate, perverse desires mixed with his appropriate love for Harry, but the passage takes on deeper, unstated meaning in light of what Rowling has told us about Dumbledore’s inclination. In fact, what Rowling has told us enables us to see Dumbledore as more heroic, not less. There is not the slightest hint that Dumbledore used his position as headmaster of Hogwarts to gratify his own desire. There is every indication that Dumbledore recognized ways that magic could be used in the service of illicit pleasures and he opposed all such use of magic—think of the way that Dumbledore warned Harry of the temptation presented by the Mirror of Erised.

All this leads me to think that what J. K. Rowling is celebrating is not homosexuality but virtue as traditionally conceived. Virtue is not the redefinition of sexual morality away from biblical norms, away from the dictates of nature. Virtue is the rejection of wicked desire, desire that would lead us away from biblical norms. Virtue is choosing the true, the good, and the right, even if—precisely when!—what we want is the false, the bad, and the wrong. Albus Dumbledore is heroic because he is virtuous, because he is Christ-like, because he is a celibate single who refused and repudiated his own immoral impulses.

In reaction to Rowling’s declaration, “One blogger wrote on a fansite: ‘My head is spinning. Wow. One more reason to love gay men.’” But Rowling herself contrasts Dumbledore with Bellatrix Lastronge. She said of Dumbledore, “he met someone as brilliant as he was and, rather like Bellatrix, he was very drawn to this brilliant person and horribly, terribly let down by him.” (source). This comparison is instructive: Bellatrix is evil because rather than repudiating what attracted her for the sake of what was right, she abandoned what was right and chose what she desired. Dumbledore did the opposite. Rather than indulge his desire though it was wrong, he crucified his desire and chose to do what was right. That blogger misunderstood. Rowling’s declaration is not “one more reason to love gay men” but one more reason to celebrate and admire those who—whether repentant traitors or werewolves—repudiate their own evil impulses and choose what is good and right instead.

I recommend you read or listen to the books for yourself and hear the wisdom that cries aloud in the street (Prov 1:20).

Postscript: I haven’t read Jerram Barrs’ book yet, but I just saw on Justin Taylor’s blog that Barrs has an appendix in his forthcoming Echoes of Eden entitled “The Outing of Dumbledore.” I’ve been thinking about what Rowling said about Dumbledore since it was first brought to my attention, and seeing that Barrs has an appendix on it spurred me to finish this post. I don’t know what Barrs will say, but this is my take on Rowling’s declaration that in her conception of Dumbledore he felt same-sex attractions.

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This post originally appeared at Christianity.com.

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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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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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Remus Lupin, Werewolf

I love the Harry Potter stories. My first trip through them was an audio excursion guided by the talented Jim Dale. Enthusiasm for the books swept me right into reading them aloud to my children, and we’re almost finished with the series. I am thrilled that J. K. Rowling’s next book, The Casual Vacancy, is appearing any moment now. I can’t wait to read it. Sorry for my effusive delight over these books—what I’m trying to do is tell you about one of the characters in the Harry Potter stories, Remus Lupin.

There’s a play on his name, as lupus is the Latin word for “wolf,” and Lupin is a werewolf. Werewolves are not exactly pleasant, and the surprising thing is that Lupin is one of the good guys. This is one of the ways that Rowling has given us stories that are true to life.

In the Potter stories, if you get bitten by a werewolf, the bite infects you and can make you a werewolf. Remus Lupin’s father had offended an awful villain of a werewolf, and that werewolf sought revenge by biting Remus when he was a child.

Remus did not want to be a werewolf. Abused by an adult, he became a danger to himself and others. He was cut off from society. He suffered terribly, and he had no control over his affliction. At the full moon, whether he wanted to be transformed into a werewolf or not, he lost control of himself and became something dangerous.

Have you ever met anyone who has experienced something like this? Or has this been your own experience? Something tragic, awful, happened during childhood, and its painful repercussions seem all but inescapable?

J. K. Rowling tells a story in which there’s hope for people who have been abused as children, abused in ways that threaten to make them monsters as adults. Rowling’s story helps us to sympathize with people we might not otherwise understand, people we might otherwise fear. Lupin tells his personal history in book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I saw Rowling interviewed, and she commented on how much Lupin means to her.

Remus relates how it seemed impossible that he would get to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, until a headmaster came to the school who believed in giving people second chances, believed in trusting people, believed in the power of love. Albus Dumbledore allowed Remus Lupin into Hogwarts, and he devised a way for Lupin to be protected—from himself and others—when his monthly transformation took place. Dumbledore thought carefully about the situation, about Lupin’s affliction and needs, and he took steps to make sure that Lupin would not destroy others or himself when he became a werewolf.

Lupin goes on to relate how as the years of his schooling passed, his “three great friends” did something for him that made his painful transformations “not only bearable, but the best times” of his life.

What could his friends have done for him?

First, when his friends learned his secret, they didn’t reject him. From there, his friends began to explore ways to care for him, ways to enter into his experience, ways to be in his life in his moment of need, to walk with him through the trial.

Lupin’s friends worked for three years to perfect the complex magic necessary to transform themselves into animals that would not be hurt by a werewolf. They did that so they could keep Lupin company, so they could protect him from himself, so they could keep him from hurting others, and they did it because they were his friends.

Lupin says, “Under their influence, I became less dangerous. My body was still wolfish, but my mind seemed to become less so while I was with them.”

Do you know children who have been sexually abused? Did that happen to you as a child? Do you know children who have been exposed to pornography? Were you?

Consider what Rowling teaches through this powerful story. There is hope for people who have experienced things they wish had not happened, and there are steps that can and should be taken in such cases.

Notice how Dumbledore let Lupin into school, but he acknowledged that because of what had happened to Lupin, he had to take measures to restrain Lupin when he became a werewolf, measures that would protect Lupin himself and other children.

What boundaries are necessary because of what has happened in your life, or in the life of someone you love?

If you find yourself experiencing a transformation at the full moon—that is to say, if there things that happen, or that you see or hear, that cause you to experience impulses that are beyond your rationality, beyond your control—are you acknowledging your need for help in those situations?

Do you find yourself risking everything that matters most in the world to pursue some desire that most of the time you don’t want to gratify at all? Dumbledore built a place where Lupin could go to be safe at the full moon. What kind of place do you need?

Notice also that Lupin had friends who loved him—friends who knew the awful reality of his condition, friends who knew the worst about him and loved him anyway, friends who thought carefully and persistently about how to help him, friends who went to extraordinary lengths to stand by their brother who was in need.

Oh to have such friends. Oh to be such a friend.

We all need second chances. We all need boundaries. And we need one another.

There’s something better than having Albus Dumbledore as your headmaster and great classmates like Lupin’s three great friends: belonging to Jesus and being part of his church. Rowling has given us a picture of the human condition in an unlikely place. She has shown us that sometimes even the good guys turn into werewolves. The good guys, however, know what their problems are, take steps to address those problems, and they know they can’t make it alone.

If you haven’t read the Harry Potter stories, trust me, Rowling’s narrative is much more powerful than this little reflection on it. Consider this my encouragement for you to read what I think will prove to be the publishing event of the century (get them here). These books are the third most read books in the world.

More importantly, if you’re not a member of a church where Jesus shepherds his people through the preaching of the word, it’s better than Hogwarts. If you don’t have friends who will listen to you and think about your plight and be creative about how to help you, the church is better than magicians who can turn themselves into animals. And the great redemption Christ has accomplished is the substance of which the Potter stories are but a shadow.

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This post originally appeared at Christianity.com

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My Take on Dumbledore’s Orientation

Christianity.com has posted my thoughts on “What Rowling Said about Dumbledore.” Here’s the postscript:

I haven’t read Jerram Barrs’ book yet, but I just saw on Justin Taylor’s blog that Barrs has an appendix in his forthcoming Echoes of Eden entitled “The Outing of Dumbledore.” I’ve been thinking about what Rowling said about Dumbledore since it was first brought to my attention, and seeing that Barrs has an appendix on it spurred me to finish this post. I don’t know what Barrs will say, but this is my take on Rowling’s declaration that in her conception of Dumbledore he felt same-sex attractions.

The whole thing is here.

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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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On the Eve of the Release of Rowling’s Next Book

I’ve been thinking for a while about what J. K. Rowling teaches us in the Harry Potter stories through her depiction of Remus Lupin, the werewolf who is a good guy. I finally got around to writing up my reflections, and they’re now posted over at Christianity.com. Here’s the opening:

I love the Harry Potter stories. My first trip through them was an audio excursion guided by the talented Jim Dale. Enthusiasm for the books swept me right into reading them aloud to my children, and we’re almost finished with the series. I am thrilled that J. K. Rowling’s next book, The Casual Vacancy, is appearing any moment now. I can’t wait to read it. Sorry for my effusive delight over these books—what I’m trying to do is tell you about one of the characters in the Harry Potter stories, Remus Lupin.

There’s a play on his name, as lupus is the Latin word for “wolf,” and Lupin is a werewolf. Werewolves are not exactly pleasant, and the surprising thing is that Lupin is one of the good guys. This is one of the ways that Rowling has given us stories that are true to life.

In the Potter stories, if you get bitten by a werewolf, the bite infects you and can make you a werewolf. Remus Lupin’s father had offended an awful villain of a werewolf, and that werewolf sought revenge by biting Remus when he was a child.

Remus did not want to be a werewolf. Abused by an adult, he became a danger to himself and others. He was cut off from society. He suffered terribly, and he had no control over his affliction. At the full moon, whether he wanted to be transformed into a werewolf or not, he lost control of himself and became something dangerous.

Have you ever met anyone who has experienced something like this? Or has this been your own experience? Something tragic, awful, happened during childhood, and its painful repercussions seem all but inescapable?

Read the whole thing here.

Get the Potter books here.

Get The Casual Vacancy, which releases Thursday, September 27, 2012, here.

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The Life We Long for: On Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

These words, near the end of Flanner O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” bounced around in my head as I made my way through Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. The man and son on the road live every day knowing that someone is there to shoot them, just around the bend, in the weeds across the ditch, or coming up behind them. Along with the constant threat, McCarthy’s spare prose builds a world in which trinkets and distractions have been stripped away. Neither color nor sunshine decks this landscape. The story confronts us with characters forced moment by moment to recognize what matters.

“No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”

The man and son in this predicament testify by their very existence that humans must live for others, else there’s no reason to live. And they show us that we cannot live without hope.

World as We Know It

The novel’s opening paragraph invokes Plato, Bunyan, Jonah, and Dante:

“In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. . .”

Like Dante finding himself in a dark wood, McCarthy’s pilgrim will be led through hell to love not by Virgil but by the child. Like Bunyan’s Christian he shoulders his pack, which he will lose on the way to the celestial city. Like Jonah this man’s journey and experience are in themselves a message that calls Ninevites to repentance. Like Plato McCarthy seeks to deliver us from the illusion of the cave to know what is real (“forms” are invoked throughout, as is the image of “philosophers chained to a madhouse wall”).

McCarthy’s pilgrim is loath to wake from dreams of the world as we now know it, and McCarthy calls his audience to repent of discontented distraction and awaken to this world, the world of our dreams. At one point the man finds clean water, “water so sweet that he could smell it,” and he finds “Nothing in his memory anywhere of anything so good.” Savor your next drink of the same.

Like Job’s wife, the man’s wife gave up (the line “Curse God and die” appears in the novel, followed shortly by the suggestive word “Blessed”). She asserted that those who had survived were “the walking dead in a horror film.” She claimed that there was no counterargument, that she hoped “for eternal nothingness.” But the counterargument McCarthy shows—not tells—is faith, hope, and self-giving love. These show the bankruptcy of hopeless, faithless existence that ends in nothingness. The man even pled that his wife not kill herself with the words, “For the love of God, woman. . .”

These Three Remain

McCarthy’s words depict a world of “The frailty of everything revealed at last,” and the story he sets in that world shows that when all else is gone hope, faith, love, and life remain, that a man knows no greater love than to lay down his life for another, that life itself—the fact that we go on living—argues against despair. The birth of the boy was the man’s warrant for hope and faith against the devastated despair of his wife that a child had been born into such a world. The man and his wife responded in opposite ways: to her the child was a sorrow that tore out her heart, to him a miracle aglow with goodness:

“They sat at the window and ate in their robes by candlelight a midnight supper and watched distant cities burn. A few nights later she gave birth in their bed by the light of a drycell lamp. Gloves meant for dishwashing. The improbable appearance of the small crown of the head. Streaked with blood and lank black hair. The rank meconium. Her cries meant nothing to him.”

The alternatives are clear: death/life; despair/hope; selfishness/love. And in this book the good guys choose life, hope, and love. The good guys never give up. The good guys don’t break small promises because it leads to breaking big ones. The good guys carry the fire.

“The nights were blinding cold and casket black and the long reach of the morning had a terrible silence to it. Like a dawn before battle. . . . There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasnt about death. He wasnt sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all.

Sharp Contrast

Other religious answers are also contrasted. At one point man and boy encounter a traveler, “a starved and threadbare buddha,” and this traveler regards the world and his experience as though nothing matters. When the man asks the buddha, “How would you know if you were the last man on earth?” The buddha says to the man:

“It woudnt make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.”

The man replies: “I guess God would know it. Is that it?

Buddha: “There is no God.”

The man: “No?”

McCarthy condemns the buddha’s logic by presenting him contradicting himself with the retort: “There is no God and we are his prophets.”

The man meets the buddha’s nonsensical assertion that he is the prophet of a God who does not exist with a counterargument for the buddha’s indifferent rejection of God: “I dont understand how you’re still alive. How do you eat?”

The assertion “There is no God” is answered with the counter-assertion “you’re still alive.” The man seems to be suggesting that life itself is proof of God, evidence against meaninglessness.

To the question “How do you eat?” the begging buddha replies: “People give you things.” With these words the buddha confesses that apart from the Christian virtue of charity he has no hope of life. The man has countered the buddha’s rejection of God with the fact of the buddha’s ongoing life, and the buddha himself has acknowledged that the generosity of others sustains his life. The wider narrative makes plain that generosity and charity spring only from faith in God, from hope that God will deliver and provide, and from love that mimics the very love of Christ, who gave his life that we might live.

As the man and boy move on, the man asks if the buddha will thank the boy for giving him food, but the buddha refuses to do so. Christianity makes gratitude possible, but the buddha will not give the thanks he owes.

This conversation with the buddha shows that love is distinctly Christian. The buddha has no category for love, goodness, or kindness, and the man’s suspicious interchange with him also shows how essential trust is to human communication. God is basic to human kindness and essential to human dignity. That is to say, apart from God there can be neither kindness nor dignity. The buddha will not even wish the man and the boy luck, and McCarthy seems thereby to intimate that a belief in God’s providence undergirds the kind of luck the man knows the buddha will not wish him. As they leave him, the man tells his son, “There’s not a lot of good news on the road” (175). The buddha has no gospel.

The book opens with the man waking to grope for his son, earnest for reassurance that he is there, that they are safe. The book closes with the man going to sleep, choosing not to kill his son before he dies, clearly trusting that though he will not be awake to protect the boy, he can rest knowing that the boy will be safe. For this pilgrim, dying is an act of faith. They have not wandered in a cave but in a world without civilization, a world without forms. The forms are the world we now enjoy, if . . . if McCarthy’s Jonah can lead us to repentance by escorting us through the inferno, pilgrims making their way through the ruins of Vanity Fair. McCarthy seems to want us to know that the life we long for is the life we have.

—-

This post originally appeared on The Gospel Coalition Blog. For a video of McCarthy on the Oprah Winfrey show that validates the proposal I make here, see this post.

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Do You “Get” Flannery O’Connor? She Writes Like a Biblical Author

Flannery O’Connor’s novel Wise Blood left me scratching my head. I think that was part of her technique, honestly. The “meaning” of her stories isn’t right there on the surface as it is in a Dickens novel. Her works really have to be pondered, and you’re best off pondering from the perspective of the biblical authors (by the way, learning the perspective of the biblical authors is the point of biblical theology).

I think the technique of writers like Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce is actually closer to that of the biblical authors than what we find from the likes of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc (writers who are easier to enjoy). What I mean is that as in biblical narratives, the plot isn’t always there on the surface, and you have to read carefully for the perspective from which the narrator presents the story. Once you understand the narrator’s perspective, you can tell whether his presentation is meant to be taken positively or negatively (note: if Miss Flannery can use the generic “he” when talking about what authors do, and she does, so I can).

Consider this example: suppose a hard-left abortion-activist is describing the activities of a pro-life person trying to persuade women not to have abortions. If the abortionist says the words: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature,” we know that statement is meant as an indictment.

But consider the statement.

It’s only an indictment because we know the abortionist’s opinion of such activity.

The same words could be spoken by a pro-life attorney defending such behavior: “He was standing outside that clinic distributing literature.” When the pro-life attorney says the words, they are a declaration of innocence rather than an indictment.

My point here is that this is how the biblical authors often operate. The authors of Kings and Samuel expect their audience to know Deuteronomy, and they expect their audience to understand that their accounts are written with the Torah as the standard of evaluation. The meta-narrative in which they have couched their plot has also been articulated by Moses in passages like Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 4:25–31, and Deuteronomy 28–32, and this meta-narrative is assumed rather than directly invoked in a passage like Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 8.

So to understand these texts, we have to know the perspective of the biblical authors. That is, we have to understand biblical theology. (Want some help?).

All this to say, I think that writers like James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor are imitating the artistry they have seen in the Bible, and I’m grateful for people who have studied the writings of Joyce and O’Connor with the kind of rigor a biblical theologian applies to the Bible.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I’m really grateful that Jonathan Rogers has started The Flannery O’Connor Summer Reading Club, and I think you should get Flannery’s Collected Works, read along with Mr. Rogers, and with his help, let Miss Flannery shock you into sensibility. It will not be like a sweater clad visit to a safe neighborhood. It will be a different kind of beautiful day in the neighborhood.

The first post on “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” is up, along with a discussion of the Misfit’s moral clarity, and you can listen to Miss Flannery herself read the story here.

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Jane Austen and Jeremiah 20:7

The Lord provided for me on Saturday morning. I was preparing to preach Jeremiah 19–20, and I was really stuck on Jeremiah 20:7, which reads in the ESV, “O LORD, you have deceived me, and I was deceived; you are stronger than I, and you have prevailed . . .”

Some scholars say that Jeremiah is verging on the blasphemous. More liberal interpreters suggest that because this terminology is used elsewhere to describe sexual assault, Jeremiah is saying that the way the LORD has abused him that way. Balderdash! But what exactly is going on here?

That’s what I was wrestling with, when two of my favorite people, my 8 and 6 year old sons, came to me saying, “Dad, can we read?”

We’re reading through the Harry Potter stories, and we’ve recently started book 3, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. It’s Saturday and Sunday’s coming–that is, the sermon is hanging over my head! And I’m puzzling my way through this text with no idea what to make of it. I’m thankful that it’s so hard to say “no” to my sons, because it was in saying, “sure, guys, let’s read,” that the Lord provided for me.

I’ve listened to the (fabulous) audiobooks of the Harry Potter stories, so I know where things are going. Reading back through them aloud to my boys, I’m seeing how J. K. Rowling is setting her little traps for us, prepping us for her delightful surprises. No sooner had I begun to read this account of the escaped Sirius Black than I sensed the Lord giving me insight into what Jeremiah meant when he said the LORD had deceived him.

I didn’t want to give plot spoilers on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban since my sons would hear the sermon, so I decided to illustrate the same idea with a novel I’ve heard J. K. Rowling loves, Jane Austen’s Emma.

Here’s the intro from the sermon:

In Jane Austen’s Emma, the author subtly misleads her audience. Austen misleads her audience by recounting Emma’s thoughts and impressions, and Emma is usually wrong. It is not as though Austen is unfair to her audience, however, for she supplies a reliable character, someone the audience can trust, in Mr. Knightly. Mr. Knightly regularly tells Emma that she is wrong, but Emma insists that she is right, and Emma is a delightful and sympathetic character through whose eyes the audience sees the story unfolding. So it is only natural for the audience to suspect what Emma suspects.

One aspect of this is what happens with another character in the novel, Jane Fairfax. Emma sees some suspicious things about Jane, and she jumps to some mistaken conclusions that fit the evidence she has but are nevertheless wrong. By giving us only Emma’s perspective, Austen shows us things that will enable us to understand everything when she reveals that Jane Fairfax is not in love with and loved by her best friend’s husband but rather she is in love with and loved by Frank Churchill. From her limited perspective, Emma thought there was something between Jane and her best friend’s husband, and the audience thinks so too. Once all is revealed, however, everything falls into place and the audience sees, with Emma, that all along what Emma took to be evidence of something between Jane and her best friend’s husband was actually evidence of the relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.

We could say to Jane Austen what Jeremiah says to the Lord in Jeremiah 20:7, “You deceived me and I was deceived; you seized me and you prevailed.”

Austen knows more than we do, and she overpowers us with her subtle misdirections. She herself has not lied to us; rather, she has chosen to present us with Emma’s unreliable interpretations. And Jane Austen has not done this to us with malicious intent but with a loving intent. She has not set out to deceive us so that she can take advantage of us. She has good purposes in mind. She wants to teach us not to jump to uncharitable conclusions, and she gives us that lesson in the form of a charming story that delights us with a wonderful surprise at the end. She is teaching us not to be fools, and she teaches us that lesson in a way that pleases us and affirms us that she loves us.

And then when we came to Jeremiah 20:7 as we worked through Jeremiah 19–20:

I contend that Jeremiah is saying that the Lord has deceived him the same way I described Jane Austen deceiving her audience in Emma in the introduction of this sermon. Jeremiah is not accusing the Lord of wrongdoing.

Perhaps he is saying that he was mislead about how desperate the situation was; perhaps he means to say that though the Lord revealed to him that he would be an adversary to the people, he assumed (wrongly!) that he would be used to lead the people to repentance.

Perhaps he has seen some good fruit, which the Lord gave him to encourage him and keep him going, but which he concluded might mean that the people might actually repent. The reality has turned out, however, to be as the Lord told him at the beginning (Jer 1:17–19). He is the people’s adversary. They are not going to repent.

So I think in saying that the Lord deceived him, Jeremiah is saying that if he had realized that it would be this bad, he never would have agreed to do what the Lord called him to do. When he says that the Lord is stronger than he, that the Lord prevailed upon him, he is acknowledging that the Lord knew things he could not know, that the Lord controlled what information Jeremiah had access to, and that the Lord manipulated the circumstances such that Jeremiah did what the Lord wanted him to do.

I think the NET Bible captures the sense of the verse:

Lord, you coerced me into being a prophet,
and I allowed you to do it.
You overcame my resistance and prevailed over me.
Now I have become a constant laughingstock.
Everyone ridicules me (Jer 20:7, NET).

Not that the Lord has done anything wrong, but that the Lord has done what good authors do for good reasons. Good authors will allow their readers to be deceived so that they can surprise and delight their readers, the way J. K. Rowling does in the first of the Harry Potter books by allowing her audience to think that Snape is trying to kill Harry, when actually it was Quirrell.

Authors like Rowling and Austen are imitating the delightful surprises God builds into the great story for his people.

God will surprise and delight through the plot twists of the story. The Lord uses the authorial deceptions that Jeremiah is alluding to here to lay the groundwork for something better than Jeremiah ever could have imagined: the fulfillment of the exile in the death and resurrection of Jesus. All this judgment that Jeremiah is prophesying will be visited in 586BC, an event that is a type pointing forward to the cross.

God is writing the story of the world so that it culminates in Jesus.

I’m thankful that my sons interrupted my sermon prep, and I’m thankful that the Lord used them to lead me to this understanding of Jeremiah 20:7. I’m thankful, too, for J. K. Rowling and Jane Austen, who imitate the great Artist, the Lord himself.

If you’re interested, here’s the sermon: Jeremiah 19–20, “A Burning in My Bones”

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Camus’s Translator on Translation

I have posted before on Dostoevsky’s translator, and I was pleased to read the “Translator’s Note” to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. Matthew Ward is the translator, and it seems to me that his comments weigh against “dynamic equivalence” in favor of a more literal rendering. Ward is actually critiquing the earlier more dynamic translation of Stuart Gilbert. Here’s what he says:

Camus acknowledged employing an “American method” in writing The Stranger . . . . There is some irony then in the fact that for forty years the only translation available to American audiences should be Stuart Gilbert’s “Brittanic” rendering. . . . As all translators do, Gilbert gave the novel a consistency and voice all his own. A certain paraphrastic earnestness might be a way of describing his effort to make the text intelligible, to help the English-speaking reader understand what Camus meant. In addition to giving the text a more “American” quality, I have also attempted to venture farther into the letter of Camus’s novel, to capture what he said and how he said it, not what he meant. In theory, the latter should take care of itself.

When Meursault meets old Salamano and his dog in the dark stairwell of their apartment house, Meursault observes, “Il etait avec son chien.” With the reflex of a well-bred Englishman, Gilbert restores the conventional relation between man and beast and gives additional adverbial information: “As usual, he had his dog with him.” But I have taken Meursault at his word: “He was with his dog.”–in the way one is with a spouse or a friend. A sentence as straightforward as this gives us the world through Meursault’s eyes. As he says toward the end of his story, as he sees things, Salamano’s dog was worth just as much as Salamano’s wife. Such peculiarities of perception, such psychological increments of character are Meursault. It is by pursuing what is unconventional in Camus’s writing that one approaches a degree of its still startling originality.

. . . .

. . . an impossible fidelity has been my purpose.

. . . time reveals all translation to be paraphrase.

Sentiments such as these are very close to my own reasons for thinking the Bible should be translated literally.

Related:

Dynamic Equivalence: The Method Is the Problem

What Makes a Translation Accurate?

“Son of Man” or “Human Beings” in the NIV 2011: What Difference Does It Make?

The Heresy of Explanation

Can Dostoevsky’s Translator Weigh in on Bible Translation?

Was Gender Usage in the English Language Shaped by the Old Testament in Hebrew?

The Word of God Is Living and Active (unless your translation philosophy emasculates it)

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