Thursday, January 21, 2016

Faith & Fiction (How Books Impacted Belief)

For anyone who knows me even a little knows that I love to read. I cannot remember a time when I did not love books. I love the way they feel in your hand and the way they smell (Glade really does need to come out with a "New Book" scented candle). The true test of whether or not I should continue to date a girl was if she could hang with me in a bookstore. My wife clearly won that endurance test. For all of my life, I have tried to sneak books with me whenever I had to go to any type of social event. Even now, I usually have a book with me and there is at least one in my car's glove box just in case. I often carry more than one book with me just in case I'm not in the mood for one (usually it's a novel, maybe some poems, a biography, or nonfiction book, or short stories - yes, it's very Rory Gilmore of me). If you don't get that reference here's a clip and, yes, it hits home for me:

To say books are important to me is an epic understatement. I try not to miss a single library book sale. Of course, waiting in the line to get into the book sale is difficult for me because I'm convinced that everyone in front of me will buy all of the good books before I get there. It's not a problem. Really. It isn't. A problem, a real problem is not having a book with me. If your not a book lover, too, then don't judge me. 

Books are important to me, to my life, and shaped the way I am, including my faith.  The first books that had a huge impact on me were C.S. Lewis' Narnia series. I can remember how magical The Lion, The Witch,and The Wardrobe was for me. Stepping through a wardrobe, the snow, and then that lamp. It was the lamp that grounded the magic into reality for me. It was sheer genius on Lewis part to have that lamp. When we went to Ukraine, I got so excited as we were walking down the snowy sidewalk and I saw this one and just had to take a picture of it:

I looked all around for Mr. Tumnus to step out carrying his packages. Alas, he did not. 

As a child, I longed for a wardrobe instead of a closet. Closets don't lead to magical lands. Wardrobes do. I found this out because no matter how much I tried to push through my closet, I always came to the wall. "Aslan, take me away," I cried out like that woman in the TV commercial who asked the same thing of Calgon.  

I loved the Pevensie children and wanted so much to be one of them. To enter Narnia. To meet all of the magical creatures. To come in contact with Aslan the lion. This quote really stuck with me:

They turned and saw the lion himself,
so bright, and real, and strong
that everything began to look
pale and shadowy compared to him.

I would imagine that is how the disciples felt when they saw Christ after the resurrection. Resurrection was something I learned about through Aslan going to the stone table to die for Edmund's betrayal. That also taught me about love and grace. 

Aslan also taught me that Jesus was not some meek and mild Milquetoast of a guy. No, like Aslan, the new Testament makes you realize, "Safe? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn't safe. but he's good. He's the king, I tell you."

This was my indoctrination into the magic of theology and I didn't even know it. This would also be the series that gave me my love for the writing of C.S. Lewis that I continue to marvel at his genius, his insights and wisdom, his wit, and his love for the magical; after all, he made a wardrobe and a streetlamp into something transcendentally un-ordinary.

Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time was the next book to really open my mind to the awesomeness of God. It was the doorway to science and that there are truths bigger than mere explanations. As she wrote, "Don't try to comprehend with your mind. Your minds are very limited. Use your intuition." Even now it astounds me at how deep her book was. I immediately connected with the bookish, shy, awkward outsider Meg Murry. Like Lewis, L'Engle was great at weaving theology into her fiction. "We look not at things which are what you would call seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal but the things that are not seen are eternal." How many other children's writers do you know that work the words of Saint Paul into their fiction?  This helped guide me into understanding as she writes that, "Some things have to be believed to be seen." She introduced me into paradox, into the battle between darkness and light, that one cannot be ruled solely by the mind and intelligence but that it must be balanced by the soul and the heart. It was also the first "banned book" I'd ever read. I would later to go on to read her Crosswicks Journals and Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art.

Science fiction and fantasy lend themselves to theology. There are so many parallels to the Christian walk in this journey to destroy the one true ring, but what J.R.R. Tolkien taught me was in this one line, "Not all those who wander are lost." This has summed up my entire spiritual walk. I am by nature a wanderer, wonderer, and filled with questions. This line has shown me that all of these things are okay because all of them make me delve deeper and wrestle more with scripture. I can't take things at face value. Like those in the fellowship, my journey is seldom on a straight path from A to B. I get sidetracked, backtracked, and overwhelmed by the task before me. But never do I take it lightly. Tolkien was so right when he said, "There is nothing like looking if you want to find something." His books showed me that it was okay to do just that.

I cannot even estimate the importance of To Kill A Mockingbird on my life. This novel has made me rethink my own thoughts of the world and how one has to let go of childish things to truly see the light and darkness that is really there before me. Atticus Finch has been a character that I looked up to, admired, and aspired to be. He taught me the importance of empathy and imagining myself in someone else's shoes. It is this that has most impacted my faith. How so? Because it means I listen to others and what has either led them to or away from faith. It has allowed me to approach their stories with tenderness and not judgment. This has made me open to dialogues and share my own story with compassion and light. Atticus has also shaped my view of fatherhood and what it means to be brave.

No one better understands grace than the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. His works are profound theological works that wrestle with the best and worst of man's nature. When I first encountered his works, I was knocked off my feet. I had never read anything like this before. "The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man." WOW! 

"If you were to destroy in mankind the belief in immortality, not only love but every living force maintaining the life of the world would at once be dried up. Moreover, nothing then would be immoral, everything would be permissible . . ." Dostoevsky attacked nihilism and the belief in nothing. 

The section that hit me the hardest was that parable called "The Grand Inquisitor." It is during this section that Dostoevsky has Christ on trial by the Grand Inquisitor after having returned to earth amidst the Inquisition. It shows how religion, even now, fears the power and freedom that Jesus has to offer man. They fear it and him and despise even the notion that they are not in control. This section is told by the older brother Ivan to his younger brother, Alyosha, the novice monk in an attempt to get him to renounce his faith. The parable ends with Jesus silent, as he was with Pontius Pilate, and kissing the Grand Inquisitor on his "bloodless, aged lips." Though the "kiss glows" in the Grand Inquisitor's heart, he still moves forward with killing Jesus all over again. 

It was after having read The Brothers Karamazov, that I discovered my favorite Dostoevsky novel The Idiot. In this work, he writes of a pure soul entering the sinful, selfish and violent world of Saint Petersburg. Prince Myshkin is described as a "positively good and beautiful man" and as "an idiot" by those who encounter him. Dostoevsky imagined Myshkin as a "Christ" figure who is both loved and rejected by the world around him just as they confide in but don't understand him. One of my favorite lines from the novel is, "Compassion was the most important, perhaps the sole law of human existence." It was through not only his difficult life but in writing his complex novels that Dostoevsky understood grace in a world that was harsh and unforgiving. He once said, "The Genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the fact. Faith does not . . . spring from the miracle, but the miracle from the faith."

Dostoevsky' works have not only taught me about grace but about how those who believe will always be on the outside, viewed as odd, viewed as "idiots."

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton is referred to as a "metaphysical thriller." Chesterton was a brilliant and hilarious man who easily debated atheists like George Bernard Shaw, who was also a friend of his. One of Chesterton's famous quips was, "The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people." I would later discover his monumental works such as Orthodoxy and Heretics but first I came to him through this novel about Gabriel Syme, who's recruited by Scotland Yard, to a secret anti-anarchist police corps. There are elements of Christian allegory woven into this mystery that describes a world of "wild doubt and despair" and about ultimately finding faith and hope. It's a surreal work with a profound message.

How does one truly explain the Southern Gothic world of Flannery O'Connor? She once said that, "The freak in modern fiction is usually disturbing to us because he keeps us from forgetting that we share in his state." Her strange short stories reveal biblical truths like the last shall be first in a comical and tragic way such as in "Revelation."  Flannery O'Connor presents this most magnificently as the character of Ruby Turpin, who believes herself to be superior to others, especially blacks, in the end gets a vision of heaven that horrifies her as she sees souls winding their way there. Those that Ruby deems "proper" Christians are in the back of the line, while in front of them are those she deemed inferior: minorities, the lame and crippled, and the poor. O'Connor said of her writing, "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, and brutal." O'Connor wrote her stories from a state of belief and the notion of "help me in my unbelief." Her stories, like she said of the South, weren't so much "Christ-centered" as "Christ-haunted." It was reading her short stories in college that led me to reading her amazing letters Habit of Being as well as her novel Wise Blood and her prayer journal. Nothing challenged me like her writing. As she so aptly put it, "The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it."

I love the work of Wendell Berry, both his fiction and nonfiction. His humane vision and his stressing of good biblical stewardship of the land has influenced my thoughts on the environment. My first experience with his fictional town of Port William came with Jayber Crow and the community of that fictional place. It is essentially a love story in which the love of a woman draws a man to the love of God. As Berry writes, "Young lovers see a vision of the world redeemed by love. That is the truest thing they ever see, for without it life is death."  But my favorite quote and the one that rings truest to me was:

As I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me
that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came
instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry
religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the
roadsides and the banks of the rivers, into the houses of sinners and
publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership
of all that is here. 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005 about the elderly congregationalist pastor Reverend John Ames. It is supposed to be an epistle to his seven year old son so that he will understand something about his father once he's died. It's also about his faith and how it cannot always be expressed in words. Robinson deftly weaves theology and Calvinism throughout this novel in the most masterful way that I didn't believe possible for fiction. She is a gifted writer whose books I cherish (from Housekeeping to the two other books in this trilogy Home and Lila, as well as her collections of essays). A line that I love from this book is, "Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense." I wish more Christians had that attitude when talking sharing their faith. Maybe if they did less in an attempt to convert as a way to share their story. As Reverend Ames puts it, "Christianity is a life, not a doctrine . . . I'm not saying never doubt or question. The Lord gave you a mind so that you would make honest use of it. I'm saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own."

These are just a few of the works of fiction that influenced my faith. What are yours? 

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