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This blog is a little out of the ordinary for me, but a good friend sent me a recent article by Philip Jenkins with a provocative question.
"Imagine you wanted to teach a course on Evangelical Christianity, past or present, what novels or similar texts might you use? One problem of course is that for many years, evangelicals had real doubts about the whole world of novels, which they associated with frivolity and immorality, and that’s why there is no evangelical Jane Austen. On the other hand, Puritans like John Bunyan have a good claim to have invented the English novel as a genre – Pilgrim’s Progress, or The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. They were after all fundamentally interested in exploring the inner landscapes of the mind and soul. But for later years, the pickings are scarcer. I love for instance to use Lewis’s Screwtape Letters as a teaching tool, but what else leaps to mind? I’m not necessarily referring to books that happen to be authored by evangelicals, unless they centrally address those distinctive religious themes."
I was an English major (among other things) in college, and while I would say Flannery O'Connor has clearly written fiction out of a Catholic perspective and Wendell Berry's fiction is not inconsistent with evangelical culture (especially younger evangelicals), there is a scarcity of fiction that is actually positive about evangelical culture.
I'm pretty sure the "Left Behind" series is not what Philip Jenkins is trying to find. Why is there not more? I would say this:
1. Great novels are mostly about the complications of this world and, typically, evangelicals have concentrated on the next world and discounted the "inner landscapes" of this world. We cannot claim St. Augustine's torturous reflections for this one. The Catholics own him.
2. Novels when done well are not didactic or proclamational. They do not have foregone conclusions. Much of evangelicalism is just that. We all remember the story of the little boy in Sunday School who asked, "What is brown with a tail, lives in a tree and eats acorns?" The little boy responded, "Well, it sounds like a squirrel but I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus."
3. Novels may have a limited number of plots but they are not "systematic theology". Evangelicals like closure. We cannot have unresolved issues. We are more comfortable with "five ways" kinds of books or biographies with happy endings.
4. Fiction trusts the reader as much as the author. It is truth working on many levels and not just one or two.
5. The evangelical culture - unlike Southern religion or Jewish - is not old enough to be really interesting and historically rich. It is still new and many of the main figures are sometimes caricatures more than characters.
6. We are people of the Book. We preach/teach but we don't do stories or fiction...yet.
You take a stab at answering Philip Jenkins. I know he would like some suggestions.Comments
A friend who has a developed taste for politics but whose soul has not yet been taken over by the partisan body snatchers came by recently and dropped off a book that has helped me avoid the trap of cynicism and despair. Like all of us who have had small children on road trips, we are weary of hearing the kids call each other names, point out minor infractions ("she's breathing on me again") and make us turn around countless times and warn them about "one more time and you are going to bed with no dessert tonight." Of course, I am not talking about small children. I am talking about politicians. Same thing.
Many years ago I heard Os Guinness issue the challenge of how we live with our deepest differences. Not just our disagreements but those differences which define us and for which we would die - or kill. Some have solved the dilemma with a black and white position which alienates while it delineates the clear differences. Others have chosen tolerance which, as we know, often devolves into the worst kind of intolerance. As well, it too often becomes a cold and detached disregard for the values and beliefs of others as it "merely tolerates" them and quickly writes them off. And that is where the book "The Limits of Liberal Democracy" steps in with a third choice - hospitality. I know that sounds like a throw back to a naive assumption about people breaking bread and magically solving generations of mutual hatred. That's not what Scott Moore is describing here. "Hospitality...denies the allegedly neutral space within which tolerant political discourse longs to move. Since there is no such thing as neutral space to begin with, this means that hospitality is also more honest." Hospitality is not theoretical or philosophical or doctrinal because its focus is on people - even more than rights. It is not undisciplined acceptance of bad behavior or indifference. There are "rules of the house" but it is a game for grown-ups - not children in the back seat. True hospitality recognizes difficulty and complexity but does not run away from them by choosing a tolerant indifference, a demeaning intolerance disguised as sophistication or a refusal to budge on even the most minor points.
Tolerance is the practice which says: "We are willing to put up with you. We don't like you, or your ideas, or your behavior, but we are willing to stomach your sorry condition and behavior in the name of your civic liberty to do and be these things." Hospitality, by contrast, is the specifically Christian practice which says: "We want to put you up. We welcome you to enter our houses on the condition that you let us enter your lives, engaging you about the matters in which we morally and religiously disagree, confessing our own limits and sins as we help you confess yours."
That, while still idealistic, might make room in the back seat for some growing up.Comments
John Gardner's books and essays on "Self-Renewal" have become classics and I for one hope they discover a whole new market among today's Millennials who are looking for meaning, purpose and using their lives for something outside themselves. Several times he cautions against becoming so good at something that we let other parts of ourselves atrophy and we "go to seed" because we have so focused on one area of our lives. "Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one's capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring." Too often, we find something we do well and become smaller people in time.
There is a good example of that in the Levites. While on the surface it would seem unfair they were excluded from an inheritance of land in which the other tribes shared because "the Lord God is their inheritance", it became the source of their greatest strength. They enjoyed the benefit of having a whole nation of "benefactors" which enabled them to be free of special interests, spending energy and resources on the defense of their boundaries and worrying about making a living. Instead, they became the first "culture makers" (to use Andy Crouch's fine phrase) in Israel. They were not simply Temple functionaries but were involved in every aspect of the new nation.
They were teachers, judges, physicians, poets, authors, creators of libraries, artists, architects, builders, musicians and financial managers. They were the creative class and knowledge workers. Scattered throughout the whole nation instead of being concentrated in one locale, they created a first-rate network of influence and relationships.
It's not how we think of them from the New Testament, is it? We see them as dry, colorless and lifeless lawyers who are only interested in picking Jesus apart. That was not their original purpose. They reduced themselves to that over time because, in Gardner's words, they stopped renewing themselves and went to seed. They became so competent in one area of their lives that they lost their calling.
What was such an extraordinary inheritance in disguise was not enough for them. They wanted more and, ironically, became examples of a shrunken life far from what they once had been.Comments
Rodney King died recently and, of course, his most famous line was out of the riots that followed his beating and arrest. "People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along?" While that line has been comic fare for years, I ask myself that question all the time. I don't like conflict or confrontation and living in the midst of tension drains me.
While some like the action of Israel conquering the land of Canaan, I like the verse that goes, "Then the land had rest from war." That is exactly how I would have things end. Happily ever after and everyone getting along. Unfortunately, that's not the way it ends in life...or in the Bible. It's true the land had rest from war but that is followed by this: “So then, the Lord left some nations in the land to test the Israelites who had not been through the wars in Canaan. He did this only in order to teach each generation of Israelites about war, especially those who had never been in battle before."
God did not leave the enemies because the people were bad. He left the enemies because the people needed them to become good. I would prefer God drive out all the enemies completely so I can settle down and enjoy the peace but God knows we will become complacent without them. We want to eliminate risk and obstacles but without them we do not grow. Moreover, it's not enough to tell our war stories to our children. They must have their own experiences with opposition and hardship. Otherwise, they will become "at ease" which is far different from being at peace.
All of us have "enemies" the Lord has left in our lives that we will resist and spend our lives overcoming. All of us will one day see why they were there and we will tell each other our stories of how we struggled with them. For without enemies there are no stories - just a flat and colorless life of getting along.
I have a friend who told me he read book reviews instead of books because it was more important to know about a new book than to have read it. He called it “fake smart”. It’s a good phrase. I do the same. I don’t want to be caught not having at least some knowledge about the latest book so I snack on the reviews and, unfortunately, lose my appetite for reading.
I was at a conference a couple of years ago and realized we were doing the same thing with speakers. We were “speed dating” with content. We were curious about what they had to say but not really interested. At home we have a bird house outside our kitchen window and I was watching the mother swallow her food and then belch it up into the babies beaks. They do that because the enzyme mechanism is not fully developed in the babies and they don’t yet have the bacteria that allows them to break food down themselves. It felt similar. The speaker was chewing it up for us because we didn’t have the enzymes needed.
It feels like ideas have become entertainment instead of an opportunity to think and respond.
Today I read an interview with Eugene Peterson by Owen Strachan that once more emphasized the importance of words, thought and discipline. “Good writing does not come easy; it takes a lot of discipline, a lot of self-criticism. A lot of people in my position want to know how to write, and after talking to them for a while I realize, "You don't want to write, you want to get published; you're not willing to go through the disciplines…” That’s the heart of it, I think.
We have slow cooking and slow church movements. Maybe I need to work on a slow conference for The Gathering.Comments