"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Friday, June 26, 2009

Some Reflections On Bad Writing and Imperfect Churches

The artistic black and gilt designs flowing over the green cover of a volume published in 1869, led more than anything to my reading of Westbrook Parsonage. This appalling Christian romance novel by Harriet B. McKeever confirms the old warning not to judge a book by its cover. The writing was atrocious.

The ho-hum story follows the entire history of a family at Westbrook Parsonage. The plot (if it had one; I don't remember) was boring. I don't usually disparage writing styles—one monkey should not deride another monkey's fleas—but this was painful to read. Here is a specimen of the author's abrupt, present tense style (if style it can be called):

“Warren is impetuous and self-willed, daring in his nature... He is standing at the gate, with Alice, his darling pet: she is a beautiful child, with deep blue eyes, and a profusion of golden curls; she is a sparkling little girl, very fond of brother Warren, who is proud of his lovely sister.”
Imagine an entire book that goes on like that. The world would be a better place if some of those punctuation marks were omitted, a few periods substituted, and lastly, a wholesale alteration of tense and syntax were effected. The character's conversations are little better. They too are abrupt and and contain none of that small talk expected in a normal exchange. Take this artist's rendering of a typical dialogue:

Question. (Serious and troubled).

Answer. (Compassionate and fatherly).

Reply. (Relieved and at peace).

End of conversation. As can be seen, such dialogues are short and to the point.

As if this defect in writing were not enough, the heated defense of protestantism is enough to make one cringe. While it claims to defend Protestant freedom from Roman Catholic ritualism, what it really does is defend one type of ritualism from another type. I was rolling with laughter when one of the heroines asked where such popish formality was to be found—no, not in the Bible—in the Book of Common Prayer! After thus repeatedly invoking the authority of the Book of Common Prayer and Protestant church tradition (not Biblical tradition), I lost all remaining respect for the book.

Why did I waste time reading the entire thing? I have no idea. Sadistic curiosity I suppose. But here is the thing, this author, unknowingly, is a very great teacher. Looking at a long forgotten doctrinal conflict about ritual from a 150 years away can shed light on the dubious traditions of our own churches. McKeever has her fictional characters react to the obviously unspiritual practices of her time but is strangely blinded to her own extra-biblical additions to the faith. It is worth pondering what there is in our Christianity that is merely inanity and not Christ. Even though it looks different from 19th century ritual, we are not exempt from extra-biblical tradition either. We may take pride in boasting we are not like Rome or like the unknowingly hypocritical characters in a 19th century didactic novel, but have we really reached the true core of God-centered spirituality? We peal away and discard those things that it eventually becomes clear are absurd, but underneath? Like Eustuce the-boy-turned-dragon of C.S.Lewis's Narnia story, we may peal off dragon skin after dragon skin only to find a smaller version of the same dragon underneath. Only with the help of Aslan is it possible to get down to the real boy within and discard the heavy exterior that only gets in the way. But beware, his claws are sharp, and his clause is that we obey only him.

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Col. 2:8

Monday, June 22, 2009

Between Heaven and Hell

The fictional dialogue is an ancient way of conveying hard topics in a reader-friendly way. Plato placed Socrates in conversation with other philosophers of ancient Greece and the literary technique of the Socratic Dialogue was born. The imitators of Plato have been holding little chats ever since. The most recent writer to come to my attention who has found the fictional Socratic Dialogue to be useful is Peter Kreeft. His book, Between Heaven and Hell, brings together John F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley for what the subtitle explains is “A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death.

The setting for such a dialog makes use of the remarkable death of all three men on the same day in 1963. Kreeft lifts the curtain on the dialogue with one of the dead men asking: “Where the Hell are we?” This initial question may not be answered satisfactorily for each of the three men but, because it is a question that many still on earth have asked, it is a relevant starting point for a philosophical dialog of interest to both the living and (in this case) the dead. The three speakers soon move on to other questions; questions about knowledge, truth, and, ultimately, the truth of Jesus' divinity.

Proving the divinity of Jesus, the core of the Christian apologetic, is Kreeft's goal and, despite some important detours, the dialog constantly returns to this pivotal point. Once prove that Jesus is God and all other questions are answered. Kreeft has the character of Lewis call it,

“the skeleton key principle: it opens all other doctrinal doors.”

Kennedy: “You mean once you believe that, anything goes?”

Lewis: “No, anything he [Jesus] says goes” (35).

In the argument for the divinity of Jesus, Kreeft extensively develops Lewis's famous “lier, lunatic, or Lord” argument. He shows that the ubiquitous “good moral teacher” idea cannot apply to a lier or a lunatic. Because Jesus claimed to be God (and was crucified for this very reason) the only conclusion we can draw is aut deus aut homo malus: “either God or a bad man” (37-38). Clearly, those who crucified him thought he was a blasphemous bad man. Is anyone really willing to go that far today? But Kreeft and Lewis point out that the only alternative is to accept what he called himself: the Great I AM, God.

PS. Normally I spell “dialogue” with a “ue” ending but I have noticed that “dialog” is very common. Imagine the time before dictionaries when nearly every word could be spelled (spelt) at the whim of the individual author! In facsimile copies of old books published long before the time of Webster or Johnson I have seen the same word spelled two different ways on the very same page. There is a sort of horror at this lack of rules but also a certain empowering freedom in this variability. I've indulged myself in this post by using both spellings. (Actually, I heard somewhere that the variations in spelling, particularly the extra “e” on the end of some words was added by old-time typesetters so that the right-hand margin would look straight.)

Peter Kreeft, Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death With john F. Kennedy, C. S. Lewis, and Aldous Huxley. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois. 1982.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Search for a Soul

Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, read Undine: that is a fairytale.... and of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.” --George MacDonald (23)

Naturally, when I read this in George MacDonald's essay "The Fantastic Imagination," I knew that I would have to read this “most beautiful” of fairytales. "The Fantastic Imagination" is MacDonald's attempt to say a little bit about what a fairytale ought to be. Not what a fairytale is, for that task is too difficult; as MacDonald says: “I should as soon think of describing the abstract human face, or stating what must go to constitute a human being. A fairytale is just a fairytale, as a face is just a face” (23).

Since a fairytale is so hard to describe, MacDonald directs his readers to the lengthy tale of Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouquee. I googled it and read its entire 55 pages at Project Gutenberg. If you plan to read it there you need not read any further here since what follows is just a short summary of some of the important highlights of the tale.

A wandering knight, bewildered by a fierce storm, stumbles upon a fisherman's cottage where he meets the young and beautiful Undine. The fisherman explains that his foster-daughter mysteriously appeared at his cottage years before when she was a toddler. The truth of the matter is that Undine is a water-nymph in human form seeking a soul. She learns that only by loving a mortal can she gain the soul that no water-spirit has. Needless to say, she comes to love the knight and they are soon married. “Through love Undine had won a soul, which is indeed the gift of God to every mortal” (25).

But this is not the end of the story. Undine's powerful uncle Kuhleborn does all he can to destroy her love and make her return to her watery home. In an eerie parallel to the Prince of the Power of the Air, Kuhleborn says of himself: “I am free as the wild birds of the air to go hither and thither as I will” (30). He laughs mockingly when Undine cries out that, “I no longer wish to have aught to do with you!” (30) Rather than going away, he plagues Undine and the knight Huldbrand more fiercely. On top of all their other trials the lady Bertalda begins to drive Undine and the knight apart. Finally, at the instigation of Kuhleborn, the knight breaks his promise to his wife and speaks harshly to Undine. At this, Undine must leave him and return to her ocean home. “There will I live, loving, sorrowing, for into the depths of the blue sea will I carry my new-won soul” (28).

The knight sees too late his error and only at his own death, when Undine's tears fall so heavily on his heart that it breaks, does he realizes that "he had never loved any one in all the wide world as he loved Undine" (53). The wild water-nymph who found a soul when she found love and who always tried to protect her knight in life, melted into a stream at his grave while it was said by the villagers that, “the little crystal stream, was none other than Undine, poor forsaken Undine, who thus surrounds and protects Huldbrand, her beloved” (55).

Friedrich de la Motte Fouquee. Undine. Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=240839&pageno=1

George MacDonald. "The Fantastic Imagination." The Gifts of the Child Christ: Fairytales and Stories for the Childlike. ed. Glenn Edward Sadler. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1973.