An Easter Reflection

My wife’s an English professor, and she’s helped me realize I’m late to a game, or a party—or an awkward social occasion; whatever! I'm late—that of seeing the power of stories, the way they shape us, how we define ourselves by and see ourselves in relation to them. It makes sense, but as a philosopher I’ve heretofore tended to be more interested, when it comes to something like “worldview,” to think in terms of what’s true and what’s false, what we have good reason to believe and what we don’t. It’s why my philosophy stuff, as much as I love it, sometimes seems so thin and dry in comparison with the richness and thickness of her literature.

 Today is Easter, for example, and the evidential case for the resurrection is important to me. I am confident there’s a nondiscursive way of knowing, via personal experience, the truth of the resurrection, and it may be the most important knowing of all—but though that may be good for those who have it, it doesn’t much help those who don’t. Fortunately the historical case for the resurrection is amazing; my colleague Gary Habermas is one of the world’s leading experts on the topic. For those interested in wondering whether the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is actually true, whether there’s evidence for it historically, I’d encourage them to read Gary’s books.

 That sort of thing is a fun intellectual exercise, and it appeals to me as a philosopher. But suppose we establish the truth of the resurrection, or at least the credentials necessary to believe in it rationally. It’s hardly the end of the story, but just the beginning. Even devils presumably believe in the historicity of the resurrection. That it’s true is extremely important, but its truth doesn’t mean we’re conducting our lives according to that truth. This is where seeing worldview as more than a set of propositions one believes to be true can come in so handy, and seeing the power of stories can help.

 We are all of us inveterate storytellers. We love a good yarn—to hear them, to tell them. And the most important stories are the ones we most closely associate with our identity. On a garden-variety note, but one that rings with significance for me, I think of a few years ago, when my mom was still alive. A brother, my mom, a sister, and I met in Kentucky—and for a few hours one afternoon we reclined in a room together and endlessly rehearsed stories that make up our family lore. They were stories we’d told and retold a thousand times, each recounting as delightful as the one before, tickling us all to no end. We didn’t need to exaggerate or stretch the details; the canon’s already fairly established; too much deviation isn’t even allowed. The same stories, yet still rife with significance. I remember that afternoon, while regaling my family members with stories, and being regaled by them, I felt what I can only describe as unbridled joy. I was with people who’d known me my whole life, and we were relishing the stories that, to a significant degree, defined our shared lives together and knit us together as family. I was home.

 The best literature shouldn't be enjoyed just once. C. S. Lewis once wrote that the sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers "I've read it already" to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. Some stories are good for ingestion; others are worthy to be relished, savored, digested. The greatest Story most of all.

 Each Easter, I go to church, and hear the Easter story one more time. The details are the same. Nothing changes. But as my pastor said this morning, we change. Each time we hear it we’re different. We bring a new set of needs to it, but the story itself remains the same. I couldn’t help but think of Holden Caulfield’s visits to the Museum of Natural History—where the exhibits are always the same, which he found deeply comforting, but those visiting the museum, he recognized, are always different, either in big ways or small. The Easter story provides an even more significant point of constancy, an even more fundamental Archimedean point on which to stand. The narrative of self-giving love reaches its climax each Easter and offers itself to each of us, and though the story is the same, how it speaks to us is always slightly different. For it meets us where we are, at our point of need, reminding us of what doesn’t change, and offers to transform us. It offers us the chance to become part of that universal Story, to define ourselves anew in relation to it.

 That the Story is true is obviously crucial, but recognizing its truth isn’t enough. The Story challenges us to become part of it, to define ourselves by It and Him, to grab hold of what’s constant and permanent, eternal and ultimate, while bracing ourselves for needed and inevitable change in the midst of growing and of life’s vicissitudes and contingencies.

 The Story tells me who I am and what I’m called to be. It reminds me of what love looks like and that death isn’t the end. It challenges me not just to believe that it happened, but that the fact that it happened makes all the difference. It was the key plot point on which the whole narrative turned, marking love's victory and the death of death. It reminds me that as a Christian I don’t merely believe static truths, but dynamic life-transforming ones—that I’m part of a Story that’s still in the process of unfolding. And we’ve been afforded a glorious peek to see how it ends.

Image: Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Results from the 2016 MoralApologetics Writing Contest

Results from the 2016 MoralApologetics Writing Contest: It was our great pleasure to read through all the entries to this year’s writing competition. Submissions ranged from a prose poem to a defense of Molinism, from critiques of naturalism to a critical scrutiny of apologetics by a skeptic. Seasoned writers mixed it up with bright newcomers, and our decision was not an easy one. We finally settled on a Grand Prize Winner, a Runner Up, and two Honorable Mentions:

Overall Winner: Jeff Dickson, “Apocalyptic Love and Goodness”

Runner Up: Frederick Choo, “The Third Option to the Euthyphro Dilemma”

Honorable Mentions: Anil Deo & Nolan Whitaker

Thanks to all who participated, and be sure to try again next time around!

His Truth Is Marching On: Selma’s Clarion Call

Editor's note: This article was originally published at Christ and Pop Culture. 

 

“The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

There’s a poignant scene towards the close of Ava DuVernay’s new film Selma, a scene made all the more compelling by its prescience. John Doar, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, warns Martin Luther King of credible threats against his life that await him in Montgomery, the destination of the Selma march protesting barriers to African American voter registration.

Doar implores King to drive—rather than walk—into the capital and to nix the planned speech, to minimize his exposure and prevent any possible harm. “Don’t you want to protect yourself?” Doar asks. King’s response here is telling, as it speaks of his convictions and highlights the worldview animating the film and, more importantly, the nonviolent resistance movement whose story it portrays.

I’m no different than anyone else. I want to live long and be happy, but I’ll not be focusing on what I want today. I’m focused on what God wants. We’re here for a reason, through many, many storms. But today the sun is shining, and I’m about to stand in its warmth alongside a lot of freedom-loving people who worked hard to get us here. I may not be here for all the sunny days to come, but as long as there’s light ahead for them, it’s worth it to me.

The specific threats of violence against King echo the egregious wrongs perpetrated throughout the film—the disenfranchisement of black citizens, the murders of innocent children and protesters, the brutality of local and state police against unarmed marchers. And yet the activists refused to be intimidated. “We go again,” Dr. King says after so-called Bloody Sunday—the brutal attacks by police and posse alike on the protesters during their first attempted march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

[su_dropcap]T[/su_dropcap]he injustice on display in Selma is heart-wrenching. Few will leave the theater dry-eyed after witnessing the powerful using their positions and privilege, their weapons and words, to dehumanize others. Again and again, the protesters are at the receiving end of such abuse. They suffer indignity after indignity in exercising basic human rights—registering to vote, checking in to a hotel, protesting peacefully.[su_pullquote]This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength.[/su_pullquote]

The scenes projected on the screen provoke outrage and disgust. And yet, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) led by King rejected retaliation in kind, however tantalizing the temptation. After one particularly humiliating and damaging attack, several protesters plan to round up some guns, only to be reminded that the police and government force will always be much greater than theirs. “We have to win another way,” SCLC leader Andrew Young counsels.

Resisting the logic of lex talionis—an eye for an eye—seems counterintuive and countercultural at best, foolhardy at worst. Achieving victory by turning the other cheek seems impossible. Conceived in secular terms, victory over subjugation requires defeating one’s foes by force—be it legal, corporal, psychological, economic. But justice in Selma goes well beyond tactics; it points to a radical conception of reality itself.

[su_dropcap]J[/su_dropcap]ustice in the minds of the Selma freedom-fighters is a metaphysical fact, a real state of affairs promised and being worked out by a good God who is setting the world aright at the incalculable cost of his own son. And driven by their Christian convictions, the SCLC embraces the privilege and responsibility of participating in this process, of co-suffering with Christ.

While the scenes of outrageous abuse will infuriate viewers, the resolve of the protesters not to multiply evil through retaliation will inspire. What Marilyn Adams writes in a different context is attested to by the protesters’ courageous example: “To return horror for horror does not erase but doubles the individual’s participation in horrors—first as victim, then as the one whose injury occasions another’s prima facie ruin.”

Without granting its theological foundations, King’s campaign was worse than foolish. Knowingly placing himself at the mercy of those who would oppose with appalling force the truths he preached took courage, courage borne from the conviction that justice is the natural bent of the universe. The values of the kingdom of God turn those of this world on their head.

As Selma testifies, King understood that his real enemies weren’t government officials assassinating his character, racists and segregationists who thought themselves superior, nor even the man who would eventually kill him. No, he fought instead “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). And he knew that in the face of an all-powerful and all-loving God, these spiritual forces of darkness and entrenched systemic evils would not and could not stand.

[su_dropcap]S[/su_dropcap]elma gives us a glimpse into how this redemption works in our own lives here and now; it’s terrifying, convicting, and inspiring all at once. This process—resisting the impulse to respond to injustice in kind, to daily wait on the Lord to set wrongs right, to proclaim truth without fear, to stand in solidarity with the downtrodden—is hard. It is in fact beyond hard; it is impossible in our own strength. In our personal lives we all face indignities, abuses, and wrongs—all of which Selma magnifies in horrifying detail. We can thus sympathize with King’s weariness, his call for support, his pleas for divine intervention, his temptation to give in and give up.

In the crucible of this maelstrom, we see, too, the resurrection of hope, the power of community, the hardiness of righteousness, an enactment of the gospel. We see the church at work, Christ’s body setting the world to rights little by little, through the most powerful weapons there are, and the only truly efficacious ones—faith, hope, and love.

The saga of Selma echoes its clarion call to Christ’s body today to be faithful heralds of truth and justice, to live and labor in the hope of what we still can’t see except in fleeting glimpses and furtive glances. It is a glorious and sober reminder that if Christ be raised we have seen manifest the first-fruits of a coming victory so resounding, and a glory so amazing, that it will dwarf and eclipse any and all of this world’s sufferings. Like Dr. King, let this blessed assurance inspire us to proclaim truth with boldness, battle injustice with hope, and daily carry our cross with courage.

A Reluctance for New Wine

A Twilight Musing

The first few days of a new year invite us to review the recent past, to let go of our baggage, and to pursue self-improvement.  However, Jesus gave advice about the danger of trying to embrace the new while holding tenaciously onto the old:  “Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (Matt. 9:17).

Both of the poems below deal with how our desire for the “new wine” of positively altered behavior is hindered by either our reluctance to break through the comfort boundaries of the familiar, or our substitution of face-saving guilt feelings for humble reform.  Our Adversary has no preference for either of the two, since they are equally effective in preventing the painful process of growth.  Happy New Year, folks.

 

A Reluctance for New Wine

 

The fabric of threadbare hope

Stretches toward year's end.

Pieces of frayed ambition extend

To cover the old wineskins

That many disclaim

But few set aside.

Like children clutching tattered dolls,

We hug in vain security

The rags of the past,

Because in some degree

They are accommodated to our wills.

 

The outworn selves we cling to

Can be our own

The more as time goes by:

We patch and mend

In order to possess.

 

The New

Stirs something deep within—

But I would not willingly admit it.

 

                                                            --Elton D. Higgs (Dec. 31, 1977)

 

A Prayer for Exorcism

 

Lord, spare me from the ghosts

Of work undone;

The year has run its course,

And once again I find

Unfinished what I had designed.

No doubt You hoped for more as well;

But, truth to tell,

I doubt my sense of falling short

Arises from the faults You see.

I prefer those sins whose guilty shades

Are quite definable,

And limit my lament

To my own thwarted ends.

Your design transcends my pride;

I cannot hide beneath the guilt

That comes from You,

For it speaks of new beginnings,

And brooks no misty sentiment

For what I've failed to do.

 

                                 --Elton D. Higgs  (12/30/78)

 

Image: "Growing" by A Tipton. CC license. 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Atheism and its Impossible Imagination: How Literary Imagination Insists on Theist Morality

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Editor's Note: This essay was originally published in The City.

Let me begin boldly: no atheist fiction writer, living or dead, has successfully created a world in the image of his non-belief.  The possibility for such a non-believing world vanishes the moment an atheist author exercises imagination to create conscientious characters in a fictive society.  As soon as the atheist author creates a fictive world, he populates that world with living characters.  These characters must have a semblance of will, intent, emotion, civility, and they must live by the laws, both natural and moral, of their world.  It is in the secondary world, in the tropes of character and identity, in themes of truth or doubt, in those questions of moral meaning and belief, that imagination both resists and ultimately redresses atheistic creativity.

I do not mean that atheist novelists have not created closed worlds populated by characters neglectful of morality or refusing of faith.  Many have done that.  Look no further than works like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy for fictive worlds of wanton morality written from an atheistic worldview.  These, some of the most critically acclaimed and popular texts of the twentieth century, are only a few examples of unbelieving attempts to submerge, disturb, or undo theistic assumptions about life and morality.  What I am saying is that as products of the imagination, the self-enclosed communities of Hemingway’s characters, Burgess’s maddening dystopia, even Pullman’s anti-theistic celebration of deceit (Lyra “Silvertongue,” the heroine of Pullman’s His Dark Materials, prides herself on her ability to lie with “bare-faced conviction”) fail to escape the inherently theistic laws of imagination.  To put it another way, there are atheist authors, but no atheist stories.

Imagination means the power to create new and previously unknown images and experiences, along with abstract ways of knowing those images and experiences (i.e., it does no good to write a story about space explorers discovering another world if I do not imagine ways they can know, understand, believe in, and relate to that world).  It is important to note that in literature, the imagination creates those images and experiences consistent with the author’s ultimate reality.  So, to use a fantastic example, an author can write a story about a talking giant tree who befriends a lonely child, having met neither the fantastic character or the child, precisely because in the ultimate reality the author inhabits, language, trees, friendship, and children actually exist.  While the story’s images are entirely new–its characters having never existed before mental conception–the author draws from those familiar cognate realities, like trees and children, and old sensory experience, like language.  From the fragmented source material of reality–its nature, its physical properties, its diverse inhabitants, along with their morality and sense of life meaning–an author freely forms a secondary world made in the precise image of his creative vision.

In this way, the imaginative world, no matter how fantastic or illustrious, is essentially a distilled reality, a deliberately crafted parcel of cosmos written so that readers must wrestle with life’s meanings, and in wrestling, must come to understand those meanings more fully and more deeply. What is so vitally important to remember, though, is that the author, regardless of his worldview, has the liberty to make any sort of world, full of any sorts of characters, he wants from the mental material available to him.  From the raw material of his reality, an author may make any world his heart desires.  And in this way authors are subject to the great law of human creativity: we create what is new and unknown from what is old and known.  Ex nihilo has no part in human imagination.

Why is it then, to return to my main point, that no author has ever created a world free from theistic morality–that is, from a morality that transcends the human condition and does not contain inherent truths that point to a higher Being?  An atheist author is free to write any number of secular humanist stories, free to undo the aged myth of Christian belief, free to create a society unfettered from the oppressive gods of a higher truth, and yet, not one has.  Every story, even the most nihilistic, supplies a moral subtext inexplicable apart from some higher agent from whom that morality originates.  When we recall that the imagination is making what is new from bits of what is old, that we create what is not from what is, we find that no author has ever written an atheistic novel because the inherent material of his imagination is spoiled to his purpose.

If I set out to write a godless story about love, or bravery, or hate, or cowardice, or even existential doubt, I find that my very ideas are hopelessly infused with a meaning greater than the ones I gave it.  No matter how I might like to write a society whose morality gets along fine without any moral lawgiver, I instantly find that the very ideas of morality which I would like to make new carry with them nagging old notions.  And it would not take long, if I started to investigate from where exactly these nagging old ideas derive, to discover that the same moral precepts have cropped up across civilizations and their literature since the dawn of documented time.

It is no use saying that these moral precepts simply come from years of evolving human social prescription, for most moral precepts, even those that defy social utility, have remained the same since their first appearance.  The questionable virtue of jealous love in Euripedes’s Medea shows up again in Shakespeare’s Othello.  The honor and shame of which Homer wrote in the Odyssey are the same ideas Hemingway disturbs in The Sun Also Rises.  Friendship in Gilgamesh is not very different than friendship in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

It seems when we think about works of seminal literature written with no theist intent that some kind of inexplicable moral ascent keeps showing up.  Even in the bleakest literary moral visions of the modern age–something like William Burroughs’s non-linear, nearly impenetrable, and obscene Naked Lunch–imaginative attempts to unravel higher moral meaning only serve confirm its permanence.  In a world like Burroughs’, the imagination can only play on and push against the raw material of accepted moral principles, so when he writes a line like, “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell....Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus,”[1] he imaginatively assumes there is some “image of Man” that can experience moral brokenness (see the unnumbered Chapter titled, islam incorporated and the parties of interzone).  He makes an imaginative moral judgment.  What is brokenness, or the evil of poverty, or hatred if not all confirmations of higher polarized moral principles–for example, an unbroken image of man characterized by plenty and love – and from where did these values originate other than Burroughs’ im/moral imagination.

For all their disturbances of Judeo-Christian principles or basic theist belief, novels like Naked Lunch present an imaginary immoral world that ultimately–when we begin to question the very meaning of the work’s moral pronouncements–assumes, and then concedes to, a higher moral law.  The origins of this moral law are inexplicable and only imposed on Burroughs’ created world because they were first nested in Burroughs’ own imagination.  It is astonishing that even in works like Naked Lunch, readers do not find pages of nihilist answers to nihilist questions.  If that were the case, the readers’ moral imaginations would experience instant disconnect and that book would fade into an unpopular oblivion.  Instead, Burroughs fills his world with Ecclesiastian doubts about moral meaning while interrogating those doubts with fragmented scraps of possible truth.  And in each fragment exists an inherent meaning of which Burroughs is only a transcriber.  The imagination only creates what is not from what is, and even in a Burroughs novel, what is has loaded moral meaning.  In this way, atheism in Naked Lunch is unable to totally break the tethers of higher moral precept.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, calls these inescapable moral precepts the “moral law” and makes these key observations about the law’s perennial presence:

“The Moral Law, or Law of Human Nature, is not simply a fact about human behaviour in the same way as the Law of Gravitation is, or may be, simply a fact about how heavy objects behave. On the other hand, it is not a mere fancy, for we cannot get rid of the idea, and most of the things we say and think about men would be reduced to nonsense if we did. And it is not simply a statement about how we should like men to behave for our own convenience; for the behaviour we call bad or unfair is not exactly the same as the behaviour we find inconvenient, and may even be the opposite. Consequently, this Rule of Right and Wrong, or Law of Human Nature, or whatever you call it, must somehow or other be a real thing—a thing that is really there, not made up by ourselves.”[2]

In making what is new the imagination works with what is already there, and what is already there are the irremovable realities about how morality should look in characters’ lives.  This moral law goes “above and beyond the ordinary facts of men's behaviour, and yet quite definitely real—a real law, which none of as made, but which we find pressing on us.”[3] It is because of this law’s presence that authors like Burroughs imagine innately morally charged themes of the human condition and poverty and hatred.  Just as the atheist author works from the imagination so the atheist imagination works from a higher moral reality.

The raw materials of the imagination, and this point can hardly be overstated, with which an atheist writer creates are utterly saturated in higher moral meaning.  The imaginative act, then, entails envisioning new worlds for old truths, gleaning from those moral meanings already available to the author, about whom George MacDonald–fantasy writer, theologian, great imaginative theorist, and C. S. Lewis’s self-proclaimed “master”– says, “for the world around him is an outward figuration of the condition of his mind; an inexhaustible storehouse of forms whence he may choose exponents…the meanings are in those forms already, else they could be no garment of unveiling.”[4]

The atheist author writes in no other imaginative power than that from the inexhaustible storehouse of forms offered by the world.  Like the precepts of the moral law, each and every outward configuration of external reality already contains meaning, waiting for the imaginative act to reveal their deeper truths.  In creating those inherently meaningful forms through stories, the writer exercises  “that faculty in man which is likest to the prime operation of the power of God.”[5] Unbeknownst to them, atheist writers imitate this prime operation of divine power by creating worlds that unintentionally affirm a transcendent moral law.  And so atheism is pitted against man’s imagination, man’s chief creative power, which MacDonald describes as being “made in the image of the imagination of God.”[6]

To show how inescapable imagination’s adherence to theistic morality is, I want to look at one short text that embodies atheism’s inability to be carried over into an author’s created world: Ernest Hemingway’s story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”  I choose Hemingway’s short story for two simple reasons: First, it is a superbly written short story, rich and layered with complex meaning, beautiful in style.  Second, Hemingway wrote “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” without any Christian or theist intent.  It is truly a case study in the atheist imagination.

Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is the story of two waiters, one old and one young, both waiting to close up a café one late night.  The remaining only patron is an old deaf man who tried to kill himself the week before.  The two waiters see the old man’s lingering late into the night differently, the younger waiter impatient for the deaf man to leave and the older much more understanding of the old man’s need for a “clean, well-lighted place.”

The old waiter says, “Each night I am reluctant to close up because there may be some one who needs the café.”  He feels the need for to create a space for “all those who do not want to go to bed” and to wait along with “all those who need a light for the night.”  The younger waiter does not understand why the deaf man cannot just go to a bar, chirping to the older waiter, “Hombre, there are bodegas open all night long.”  To which the older waiter replies, “You do not understand. This is a clean and pleasant cafe. It is well lighted. The light is very good and also, now, there are shadows of the leaves.”[7] We see in Hemingway’s works a subtextual morality­–and what I would call a subtle metaphysic–at work.

What good is a clean, well-lighted place, anyway?  It has no inherent value.  It’s neither moral nor immoral.  Hemingway has merely imagined a café incandescently illuminated and contrasted it against the outer dark of night and the dimmed atmosphere of a bar. And yet, Hemingway has, in drawing from the cafés and bars and storehouses of imagery from his own life, written a sort of apologetic for morality.  According to the older waiter, Hemingway’s moral voice, the deaf, unsuccessful suicide puts himself in the way of hope inside the café.  Hemingway imagines the café as a solace with latent moral cleanness and order.  The hopeless and desperate need “a certain cleanness and order” in their lives, according to the old waiter.

But Hemingway’s realist imagination raises questions about ultimate moral meaning.  For example, what sort of statement does the narrator really make about the old waiter, when he says, “He disliked bars and bodegas. A clean, well-lighted cafe was a very different thing?”[8] It seems as if Hemingway, despite his salient personal unbelief, makes a statement about morality and life meaning that mysteriously transcends what seems to be a closed world of artificial light, failed suicides, and mundane waiters.

To get at just the kind of statement Hemingway’s short story makes, I think a look at C. S. Lewis’s essay on Christianity and culture might prove helpful.  On the value of culture in relaying higher theological truth, Lewis writes, “culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values.  These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit.  But God created the soul.  Its values may be expected, therefore to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.”[9] When we look into the mirror of literature, quite the large mirror in the room of culture, and see its reflections, its flickered flashes of character and plot and dénouement, we see images of moral intuition.  And the small dark mirror of a Hemingway story is no exception.

Hemingway’s café, its cleanness, and its well-lighted atmosphere reflect something greater and more essential to the human condition.  Morality and hope and a bright existence in the community of others are imbedded in Hemingway’s imagery of the deaf man in the clean, well-lighted café.  These fixtures of the atheist imagination, despite the atheist author’s creative intentions, ultimately “resemble the regenerate life,” but only, Lewis points out, “as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.  But though ‘like is not the same’, it is better than unlike.  Imitation may pass into initiation”[10] Lewis here captures what Hemingway’s café means as a function of the imagination.  It is that imitation of the storehouse of reality imagined as a place of moral initiation.  Hemingway writes a café story with threads of humanist morality–themes of goodwill toward another, care for life, the need to recover a hurting life–that come to nonsense apart from transcendent truth working to weave those threads into universal moral meaning.

To apply Lewis’s terms to Hemingway’s fiction, the deaf man might move from the imitation of clean moral order to an initiation into actual moral transformation.  He might go from the reflection of moral truth in an artificially well-lighted café to the substance of truth in the real light of a redeemed life.  What Hemingway imagined as a story of minimalist morality, becomes, upon consideration of the story’s embodiment of that morality and its higher meaning, a story of moral ascension into metaphysical truth.

Once the old waiter finally leaves the café, he stops at a bar.  The old waiter stands at the bar smiling, while thinking through a mock version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”[11] It is as if Hemingway’s imagination cannot completely shed spiritual language, as he turns to the Lord’s Prayer as a way to stir nihilistic doubt in his character. This barroom prayer is an instance of doubt seeking the assurance of faith.  The old waiter’s dismissive prayer fails to dismiss, as the old waiter has already given himself to the prayer’s requests.  Hemingway’s imaginative vision for this scrambled prayer includes splintered versions of the lines, “give us this day our daily bread” and “deliver us from evil,” lines that get at the essence of the old waiter’s service to the deaf man.   It is fitting that the old waiter would recall these particular lines from Jesus’s prayer in the gospel of Matthew, as he literally served the deaf man his daily bread as well as delivered him from the dark world outside of the café.

The waiter, like Hemingway, uses his imagination to mock a God for which he has little use.  And through that same imagination, creates a moral imperative that transcends the story’s closed world, subtly pointing toward some higher Being.  Interestingly, the waiter’s actions move in a different current than his mock prayer, as he refuses another drink from the barman and goes home to lie awake till the sun comes up.  A kind of small eschatology emerges as the story that begins in artificial light ends in the light of day.  The old waiter’s atheism, as evidenced in the false prayers, turns out to be a failure in the imaginative act.  Why, given the freedom that atheism theoretically provides, would the old man bind himself to a kind of loving his neighbor?  For the same reason that Hemingway, an author free to create any moral vision he desires, imagines a world of moral obligation and angst over Christian spirituality.  The literary imagination does not allow for any other world.

I began by saying that no atheist writer has ever created a fictive world in his own image, and I have given only a few brief considerations as to why I think the imagination redresses atheism’s influence.  I will end this introduction where I started it, by saying that the role of imagination in atheism is subversive.  It cannot allow an author to construct an inhabitable world apart from those transcendent, timeless moral laws that govern necessarily imaginable habitation.  If, as MacDonald said, the imagination is that power most alike “the prime operation of power of God,” then we would do well to study it in the work of atheist authors in hopes that we might better know the creative resemblances of the regenerate life in literature as well as learn how the imagination’s imitation of theist morality passes into Christian initiation.

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (New York: Grove Press, 1959), 141.

[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[3] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper, 1952), 20.

[4] George MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” in A Dish of Orts (London: Sampson Low Marston & Company, 1893), 5.

[5] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 3.

[6] MacDonald, “The Imagination: Its Functions and Its Culture,” 4.

[7] Ernest Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960), 382.

[8] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.

[9] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” in The Seeing Eye: And Other Selected Essays from Christian Reflections (ed. Walter Hooper; New York: Ballentine Books, 1967), 30.

[10] Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” 31.

[11] Hemingway, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” 383.

 

Comment

Corey Latta

Corey Latta holds a BA in Biblical Studies from Crichton College, an MA in New Testament Studies from Harding School of Theology, an MA in English from the University of Memphis, and a PhD in Twentieth-Century Literature from the University of Southern Mississippi. Corey is currently Vice President of Academics at Visible Music College. Corey is the author of numerous articles, poems, and three books, including “Election and Unity in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans,” and “Functioning Fantasies: Theology, Ideology, and Social Conception in the Works of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.” His latest book, When the Eternal Can Be Met: A Bergsonian Theology of Time in the Works of C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, was published by Wipf & Stock in April.

Time: from Regulator to Terminator

Marking the passage of time is such an ingrained part of modern Western society that we usually give little thought to why we are conditioned to do so.  Business and industry strive for the most efficient use of time to maximize the profitable productivity of their investment of material resources and human energy.  Contracts and agreements are drawn up and ratified with reference to the boundaries and limits of the time during which the agreement is to be carried out.  In social life, much is made of anniversaries and the celebration of what has been done or accomplished in the span of years leading up to the chronological milestone being observed.  All of these things are treated in a positive way:  “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Anniversary,” or “Happy New Year” we say.  But at the gut level, we all recognize that the passage of time leads eventually to the demise of the organization, or the nation, or the person whose milestone is being affirmed.  In other words, time, in our experience of it as fallen creatures, inexorably weaves the web that ensnares us in death.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth, at the end of his campaign to manipulate the world of time for his own benefit, expresses the despair that comes with realizing he has always been the victim of time, rather than the master of it.

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5)

Time became our enemy when Adam and Eve rejected God’s order of things and thought to set up an alternative order, a substitute kingdom with themselves as rulers.  The way we experience time in our fallen state is at the core of our alienation from God, so how does our experience differ from the way God intended for time to function?   In His essence, God is completely unaffected by time, since time is perceived and measured only through some sort of change taking place, and God is immutable, without beginning or end, changeless.  However, His present creation does have a beginning and an end, and even in the Garden before the Fall, time was a defining element of order in both the act of creation and its ongoing operation. The Genesis account of creation calls its phases “days” even before the sun was created to define them, and the concept of the seven-day week, culminated by a God-honoring Seventh Day of rest, showed time as a natural thread integrated into a perfect creation;  but time in Eden carried with it no sense of limitation or decay. It was merely a regulator in the daily activities of Adam and Eve in caring for the garden.  But of course, sin changed all of that.  God’s regulator became humankind’s terminator.  

In the poem below, I have imagined Adam at the end of his first year of living with the consequences of his and Eve’s sin.  He shares something of Macbeth’s dark vision of the relentless advance of time, but unlike Macbeth, he also knows that God’s light and presence, though diminished, are still with him.

 

Adam's First New Year

Adam paced the field

Made rough by tilling,

Unwilling ground since God

Withdrew His Presence from it.

The sun itself, now cyclic,

Gave only partial beams

To warm the stubborn soil.

"No need in Eden's bounds

To think of ebb and flow,

Of patterned change

Which gives us markers

For the progress of decay;

But now each day reveals

That something more of what we were

Is lost,

And nights accumulate

Until the sun comes back

To mark the point where death began.

"That day, I made a world

Where beginnings add up to ends,

And cycles are incremental.

Can God be heard in such a place?

Can timeless Love be found

Where time feeds hateful death?

I only know that breath,

Though shortened now,

Is still from Him;

And though I sweat for bread,

He feeds me yet."

--Elton D. Higgs

 (Jan. 1, 1983)

Image: "Closing Time" by Kevin Dooley. CC License. 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Podcast: C. S. Lewis and the Problem of Personal Suffering with David Baggett

In this week's podcast, we hear from Dr. David Baggett as he discusses two of C. S. Lewis' most psychologically insightful works, A Grief Observed and The Great Divorce. Dr. Baggett helps us understand how Lewis thought we should deal with intense emotional pain, how the love of God "has teeth," and how moral transformation may require much suffering.

Son of Perdition (Matt. 27:3-5)

A Twilight Musing

Did all the powers conspire

To make me plant that kiss?

And why did what He sowed among the Twelve

Bear bitter fruit in me alone?

I was called and sanctified

And given power to exorcise—

Even held the purse for all the rest.

He alone could see the secret fires

That burned my soul away,

And yet He left me to my course

And urged me from His presence

In the Upper Room.

My doom is His to bear as well;

This day we meet in hell.

He let himself be killed,

Poured out the ointment

Meant as alms for all,

While I, at least, have

Dared to test my worth

And act my will.

Even now,

When emptiness engulfs me,

I cannot be still

Beneath the scourge of God;

I shall die on a tree

Of my own devising.

 

                              --Elton D. Higgs

                                (Sept. 22, 1979)

 

Image: "The-Last-Supper-large" by Carl Heinrich Bloch - http://www.carlbloch.org/The-Last-Supper.jpg. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The-Last-Supper-large.jpg#/media/File:The-Last-Supper-large.jpg

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

God’s Goodness and the One Ring

A Twilight Musing

Those of you who read the last installment of the “Letters of Ichabod” series will remember how it depicts the possibility that even a demon can be affected by the goodness of God.  That scenario may be far-fetched, but this conclusion to the career of Ichabod reflects a more certain truth: that the Goodness emanating from God will either transform the person who engages it, or the person will reject the Good and replace it with a counterfeit “good,” which then becomes an instrument of evil.  True goodness is a part of God’s nature that can be wielded only by Him and by those to whom He grants the grace to be avenues and instruments of His Goodness. God’s Goodness is a part of His non-contingent existence, which can be defined only by reference to Itself (cf. Ex. 3:14: “I AM WHO I AM”).

This fact reminds me of the nature of the One Ring, the Ring of Power in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Again and again, the characters in this epic struggle between good and evil are reminded that the Ring of Power cannot be used except according to the manipulative design of its creator, Sauron, the evil Lord of the Rings. All who try to use the Ring, even for good purposes, will be corrupted by that usage.  It strikes me that the reverse principle is true in a theological sense: Only God, who is Absolute Goodness and the Source of all true goodness, can bring out of His Goodness truly good things.

To be drawn thus into the imprisoning vortex of Evil is to experience an ever-narrowing path leading away from all true reality.   By contrast, the drawing of the soul into the Goodness of God offers an infinite future for that soul’s development and enhancement. 

To this similarity, however, must be added the observation so astutely made by St. Augustine in his Confessions (as a part of his rejection of his earlier Manichaeism), that evil has no separate existence and can be manifested only as a corruption of the Good.  Seen in that light, Sauron’s One Ring doesn’t represent a dualistic Evil Power equivalent in nature to the Good Power, but rather (like Satan) a horribly distorted counterfeit of the Good.  Consequently, unlike the Good, the only transformative capacity Evil has is to take its users farther away from reality into illusion.  To be drawn thus into the imprisoning vortex of Evil is to experience an ever-narrowing path leading away from all true reality.   By contrast, the drawing of the soul into the Goodness of God offers an infinite future for that soul’s development and enhancement.    C. S. Lewis depicts this contrast graphically in The Great Divorce, in which he shows the inhabitants of Hell continually and progressively growing more isolated from the center of things, because they chose to focus on their own “good” rather than embracing the great and essential Good. Herein is the chief pitfall of self-centered insistence on individualistically defining ourselves.  The noblest desires within us to be good and to do good can easily be diverted into a kind of solipsistic and pitiful parody of the Source of Goodness.   That associates us with the demonic “shadow government” that Ichabod’s letters were describing, a complete model of darkness purporting to be light.  (More to come about the intertwining of Goodness, Glory, and Light.)

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Invoking Truth: Lev Grossman’s Magicians Trilogy

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

“Sing Muse, Achilles’ Rage, black and murderous” (The Iliad, line 1). “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns” (The Odyssey, line 1). “I begin my song with the Heliconian Muses” (Theogony, line 1).

Homer and Hesiod both began their greatest works invoking a higher power beyond themselves. Rather than seeking to portray something new, the ancients followed the convention that their stories were inspired by Muses and as such partook of the mythic truth overseen by the goddesses. While modern authors rarely invoke deities to begin their novels, the best authors infuse their stories with truth transcending time and space. Lev Grossman is such an author.

Defying genre boundaries in his Magicians trilogy, Grossman’s writing reflects a clear knowledge of literary structure, devices, and intertextuality. It meets all of Tolkien’s criteria for a true work of fantasy: magic is taken seriously, it is set within a believable non-technological secondary world, and it has the “consolation of a happy ending.” The Magicians trilogy could also be taken as a coming-of-age story portraying the journey of a Millennial (Quentin Coldwater) as he grapples with dreams smashed against the harsh post-collegiate world.

While Grossman told a fan that he did not spend much time concerned with religious questions, his novels reflect several key components of Christian theology: the Imago Dei separating man from the rest of creation, the necessity of divine death to resurrect life, and the fallen nature of the world. Just as Homer and Hesiod may not have believed in the Muses yet by invoking them raised a mythos on which their narratives rested, so Grossman invites the possibility of his novels fitting in the Lewis, Tolkien, and Waugh tradition of infusing his fictional world with Christian truth.

Grossman’s magic system corresponds with the Christian concept of the Imago Dei, man created in the image of God. Magic in this world is an endlessly inventive capacity possessed by some who spend a lifetime exploring its potential. As an inherent quality, magic must be developed, and it reaches its fullest expression in new creation. Magic is that part of humanity which aspires to divinity, and livens up a seemingly meaningless world. For those characters who have this quality but have not yet discovered it, reality is a drab, dull place.

These novels are excellently written, and unwittingly provide illustrations of profound truths. The world is a painful place, forcing the innocent to grow wise. Redemption does not come from personal righteousness, but requires the death of God.

Magic endows the world with meaning, and gives magicians a role as stewards of this great power. In Genesis YHWH creates man and gifts him with kingly authority, lordship over all creation. The world is his to work because he alone has the breath of life, the divine spark God breathed into Adam. Longing for beauty, truth, and goodness are all components of this Imago Dei, and Grossman illustrates the necessity of cultivating humanity through the use of magic. Through magic, his protagonist temporarily rises to the divine in the final book.

The Magician’s Land chronicles Quentin’s discovery of a spell of world creation, and concludes in his successfully creating his own land. Before this scene (which functions as an epilogue), Quentin participates in the cruciform conclusion of the trilogy. Michael Gorman coined the term “cruciform” to describe the cross-shaped, sacrifice-oriented way of life Christians should have as they await the eschaton. Cruciform seems the best way to describe the end of The Magicians’ Land. Fillory has a single god who inhabits two rams—Ember and Umber (a di-unity?)—and to save Fillory from self-destruction, the god must die. Only in divine blood can resurrection occur for the dying land.

Thus far, Grossman draws on Christian and Norse tradition, but he pulls from C. S. Lewis’ Perelandra for the finale. In Perelandra the Edenic temptation is reenacted, but Ransom kills the devil-figure, removing the temptation before another Fall can occur. In The Magician’s Land, Grossman explores what might have happened if Jesus (the sacrificial Lamb) had reached the Garden of Gethsemane and been too cowardly to die.

Ember the Ram-God waits for Quentin to arrive, knowing his death is necessary that Fillory must live. At the last moment, however, Ember struggles seeking to prolong His life. In contrast, Umber meekly submits to the sword. In the death of two rams, Fillory is given rebirth. The divine nature and power pass to Quentin, and he recreates the world resembling the Genesis creation account (even concluding in rest).

In Christian theology, rebirth and resurrection are possible only through the death of God. In Christ’s death, sinful humanity’s debt is paid. Grossman does not continue in this vein; he does not have a resurrected savior-figure. He does, however, have a quasi-Trinitarian correspondence.

Where Christianity maintains that God is one and three (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), Grossman concludes the recreation of Fillory with a conversation between three characters each of whom have held some portion of divinity throughout the story. Julia appears, now three-quarters divine and queen of the Dryads. She corresponds to God the Father, explaining the overall story. Alice, the recently restored human who had been a demon for the previous book, corresponds to the Holy Spirit. Quentin corresponds to God the Son, who created and sustained all things. These correspondences are not exact, but they form an interesting parallel at the end of a creation scene. Fillory, however, is done with gods. The power of the gods leaves Quentin and will remain dormant for an age. In essence, Quentin remade the world in a Deistic fashion, winding it up and calibrating Fillory to run without divine supervision.

The final element Grossman illustrates is the Christian understanding of the world as fallen. These novels trace the development of Quentin as an adult, moving from naïveté to disenchantment to finding joy in an evil world. As a child, Quentin longed for the purity and goodness he found in the Fillory books. He thought his magic training would lead him to the place of happiness; as he grows in the first two books, he learns that both Earth and Fillory are complex, evil realms inhabited by broken people. Fillory has a dark side, composed of monsters, villains, and laws which reject Quentin. Earth has disappointments.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n a way, Quentin resembles Odysseus, the “man of twists and turns” whose name translates as “son of suffering.” Out of suffering grows wisdom. From no other path can men grow to understanding, according to the Greeks. By the end of this trilogy, Quentin comes to believe that the world will always be fallen. His joy cannot come from escaping to a perfect, imaginary world like the Fillory of his eight-year-old imagination. Joy comes from struggling in the world, from human interactions. Joy is found in good food, excellent wine, and love worked out across years.

These novels are excellently written, and unwittingly provide illustrations of profound truths. The world is a painful place, forcing the innocent to grow wise. Redemption does not come from personal righteousness, but requires the death of God. Man is made bursting with potential, in the very image of God, yet few realize their potential.

While The Magicians trilogy highlights elements of Christian theology, it operates like half of a syllogism. Internally consistent, it neglects the hope Christianity offers. This broken world will be redeemed, recreated by the resurrected God who died for its sake. God died, but is not dead. The bodily resurrection of Jesus is the proof of redemption. Fulfillment of the Imago Dei is found not in becoming God, but in submitting to God.

Grossman writes a brilliant story, filled with vivid characters. While not himself a Christian, he reached for Christian truths which uphold his narrative. His story is like a tapestry woven on the loom of undergirding truth; because of the strength of the supporting truths, his story is that much stronger. His characters are real, with dark consequences that spiral beyond expectations. Their motivations run deep, pointing to desire for love and significance at the root of human nature.

Video: Peter Williams on C.S. Lewis and Friendship

Photo by  Kevin Gent  on  Unsplash

Photo by Kevin Gent on Unsplash

Peter Williams, hosted by the C.S. Lewis Foundation, shares some thoughts on C.S. Lewis' view of friendship. The lecture is entitled, "Surprised by Philia: The Virtue of Faithful Friendship" and includes a great discussion of the theme of friendship in Lewis' Narnia series. If you're interested in an exploration of friendship from a biblical, philosophical, and literary perspective, this lecture is well worth the time!  

Podcast: David Baggett on Mothers, God's Love, and Moral Transformation

On this week's episode of the podcast, we sit down with Dr. David Baggett for his thoughts on the importance of mothers to morality. Dr. Baggett shares how his mother shaped his own character, how God can heal those who've lost their mothers, and how mothers reveal the love of God.  

Image: "Mother Son Beach" by E, Merille. CC License. 

Mythopoeia: Evidence of the Image of God in Literature

Photo by  Jeff Finley  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash

As a young boy, I loved to read. I would spend hours at the library roaming the shelves, selecting a stack of books to read for the coming week. I became intimately familiar with Asimov, Tolkien, Lewis, Heinlein, Bruce Coville, Lloyd Alexander, and dozens of others who fit somewhere within the sci-fi/fantasy genre. I eventually migrated upstairs from the children’s section to the adult fiction wing of the library, and discovered dozens of new authors who shaped my reading tastes. Though my mother was excited I loved to read, she despaired at getting me to read serious material. “Twaddle” was her word for the kinds of reading I enjoyed. She had little love for Oz, Fantastica, Asgard, or Professor Xavier’s Home; fictional reading was good as long as it was something worthwhile. None of the stories I loved fit the bill.

Over the years, I have come to appreciate the love my mother instilled in me for reading, thinking, and debating. When she challenged my reading choices, it always made me pause and seek to justify why this was “a good book!” In hindsight, many of the books I read were terrible: the prose was inane, the plots simple, the characters flat. And yet, they peopled my childhood with excitement, stories, and worlds beyond measure. My mother and I still disagree on the value of many fantasy authors; catching her reading the latest Dresden Files book might be a sign of the Apocalypse. Some years ago, I ran across a poem in which J. R. R. articulates a great defense for all forms of literature both high and low.

Mythopoeia encapsulates Tolkien’s doctrine of sub-creation which he works out in longer form in his essay, “On Fairy Stories.” Tolkien wrote this poem after an all-night argument with C. S. Lewis in which Lewis claimed myths were worthless, because they were lies “even if breathed through silver.” Challenged by his friend, Tolkien wrote his defense in rhyme and meter.

The poem centers around two worldviews—one materialistic and scientific, the other transcendent and Platonic. Borrowing heavily from Plato’s theory of forms, Tolkien argues that

He sees no stars who does not see them first of living silver made that sudden burst to flame like flowers beneath an ancient song, whose very echo after-music long has since pursued. There is no firmament, only a void, unless a jewelled tent myth-woven and elf-patterned; and no earth, unless the mother's womb whence all have birth.

Without the form existing in the transcendent realm, Tolkien argues, no man could form an idea. He continues in his defense of myth, arguing that their creation is directly connected to the bearing of the imago dei.

Though now long estranged, Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. Dis-graced he may be, yet is not dethroned, and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned, his world-dominion by creative act: not his to worship the great Artefact, Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light through whom is splintered from a single White to many hues, and endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

Tolkien argues in these lines that man, though fallen, stills bears signs of being made in the image of God. His lordship is demonstrated in the “creative act.” The implications of Tolkien’s idea are huge—far from literary work being unimportant, worthless in comparison to some other work, it demonstrates the hand of God within mankind.

Tolkien unpacks the details of his theology in “On Fairy Stories.” In essence, he contends that since God is a creator, whenever man creates something he images his Creator. Tolkien then ranks works on how well they either correspond with reality, or how convincingly they connect the reader to the “inner consistency of reality” in the secondary world.

Authors are a special kind of artist in Tolkien’s theory. They use the same medium as God (words) to create a lesser version of primary reality. Whether they realize it or not, authors we love tap into some aspect of the “single White” which is the “refracted light. . . splintered. . . to many hues. . . endlessly combined in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” When I enjoy the worlds of Brandon Sanderson, Orson Scott Card, Robert Jordan, or George R. R. Martin, I do so because they are imaging the creative work of God through their writing.

Year later, I still disagree with my mother over books. What we can come to agree on, however, is that all men are made in God’s image. When we work “as unto the Lord,” we demonstrate his handiwork within us. In world-building, authors (both Christian and non), exercise the creative faculties which cause us to remember that our world too is a secondary creation, one which will one day be joined with Primary Reality when the Lord returns and establishes the New Heavens and New Earth.

 

 

Hosea and Polyamory: The Sufficiency of Scripture

For two thousand years, Christians have made an extraordinary claim: that a set of books contains the words of God, written through human authors, and that this Bible is sufficient for “life and doctrine.” With conservative estimates dating the Revelation of St. John to approximately 90 AD, Christians believe that writings from 1900 years ago are both relevant for today and contain truth to cover all circumstances. When stated so baldly, this claim seems ridiculous. But what if it is true? What if the Bible is enough to communicate God’s truth to a chaotic world, no matter how it changes?

The world has changed significantly over the past century: from the horrors of the Holocaust to the shifts of feminism in the West, from the rise of legalized marijuana, to the ever evolving sexual landscape. Such changes, systemic as they may seem, are nothing new. St. Augustine wrote his timeless classic The City of God in response to the apparent end of the world in the 5th century sack of Rome. In 1000 AD, Western Europe was convinced the millennial kingdom was imminent. In 1215, Beijing altered irrevocably with the arrival of Genghis Kahn and the Mongol hordes. In a world where tradition appears immovable yet is gone like a leaf in the wind, does the Bible actually provide the counsel of God?

I believe the answer is yes, and want to illustrate timeless biblical wisdom by examining the microcosm of a single but deeply telling issue: polyamory. Polyamory combines two Latin words—poly, meaning “many,” and amor, meaning “love.” This term describes open relationships which may or may not define themselves as a sort of group marriage, or as a single couple who remain together but pursue other sexual partners. Polyamorous relationships fascinate journalists, and have entered into mainstream public discourse in recent years.

I am not arguing that polyamory is something new; there have always been strange sexual practices. From the mystery cults in Greece and Rome to temple prostitution in ancient Sumeria, aberrant practices have always existed outside the norm of marriage. What is unique about polyamory, however, is that it seeks to become a new normal. Where previous generations have had bizarre sexual cults and practices, the present generation stands out for attempting to make these practices appear normative (by which I mean the attempt for the new practice to replace the traditional). One way in which polyamorous couples do this is by implying that traditional marriage is limited, and consumed by jealousy. They are on the moral high road, allowing all consenting adults to fulfill their desires.

The Bible does not describe any polyamorous relationships. It deals with polygamy, monogamy, adultery, fornication, beastiality, and homosexuality, but does not specifically address this manifestation of human sexuality. Does polyamory defeat the idea of the Bible being sufficient for life and doctrine? No—instead we need to examine how the Bible portrays marriage as a training ground for understanding the concepts of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, allowing us to discern that polyamory threatens a truly human concept of fidelity. The prophet Hosea can help us on this journey.

Hosea is written by the eponymous prophet, one of a group of 10th-8th century BC men who preached messages from God to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah before the Assyrian destruction of northern Israel and the Babylonian exile of southern Judah. He wrote before Israel’s destruction, and communicates a message of judgment and eventual restoration. Where Hosea becomes unique, however, is the way in which God commanded him to show his message. The book opens with “When the LORD first spoke through Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea, “Go, take to yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the LORD” (Hosea 1:2). Hosea proceeds to marry Gomer, who remains faithful to Hosea until the after the birth of their first child. The fatherhood of her second two children, however, was suspect. Gomer eventually became a prostitute, and was redeemed by her husband. They had a total of three children, each of whom was named to communicate an aspect of Israel’s infidelity.

On one hand, this is the most appalling scene in the prophets. Can you imagine a preacher getting a vision from God saying, “Go! Marry a prostitute! And when she betrays you and goes back to selling herself on the street, go and buy her back from her pimp, and treat her as if she never left.” Hosea does so, and honors God in his obedience. Rather than stopping at shock in methodology, perhaps the better question is, “Why would God use this living metaphor, and this language?”

It is impossible to read this prophecy and miss the pain and horror of what God commands Hosea to do. These actions are not done purposelessly. Instead, God has a clear point. He reaches for universal human experience to communicate how unjustly Israel has forsaken him. The metaphor of the adulterous wife transcends the context of 8th century BC Israel. It is a picture that the whole human race across all of time can recognize as betrayal, as wrong. This transcendence is part of the beauty of Hosea—reading this prophecy does not require background knowledge. Anyone can pick it up and recognize that Gomer betrayed her husband, and caused him great pain, for no discernable reason. The idea of a woman selling her body is also a universal phenomenon, recognizable through literature where it is not visible on the streets. The vocabulary and metaphor allows the book to transcend the geographic and temporal context and appeal to perennial human experience.

As such, the book communicates on at least two levels. On the divine level, Hosea teaches the reader about God’s response to the betrayal of his covenant with Israel. There will be consequences to that betrayal. It also shows God as the jealous husband, who wants sexual exclusivity with his wife (which in this case represents exclusive worship by his covenant people Israel). On a human level, the reader sees Hosea’s unfailing love for a woman who clearly does not deserve it. Gomer should have been tried in court, divorced, and (under the fullest application of the law) even stoned. Instead, here is the faithful husband who buys her back, and restores her to honor. Hosea’s faithfulness functions as an example for how husbands should love their wives.

Hosea is a beautiful book of prophecy and poetry. Its use of extended metaphor allows it to appeal to all times and places communicating a high ethic of love while also showing the consequences of covenant betrayal. It foreshadows the gospel, where all mankind is Gomer (as we worship other gods and ignore our rightful LORD) and Jesus is Hosea (painfully purchasing the human race from Satan’s reign at the cost of his own blood).

What then does Hosea have to say about the topic of polyamory? Hosea illustrates the biblical teaching that sexuality should occur within fences, within the confines of marriage. When sexuality occurs outside these fences, there are consequences. Polyamory functions as a denial of this foundational principle. It begins with the premise that there should be no fences, no limits to human desire. For the polyamorist, marriage is not predicated upon sexual exclusivity but upon emotional closeness which can exist between multiple partners. Instead, the polyamorist argues that desires are the highest value and that when one person desires sexual intimacy with another, no marriage agreement should stand in the way. Polyamory goes as far as to argue that those who insist on traditional mores limit themselves, and fail to experience the best pleasures.

Where Hosea provides a living metaphor of faithfulness and infidelity, polyamory destroys the structure within which faithful marriage can exist. It denies a fundamental part of our human nature—marital jealousy is right and proper, according to God’s example in dealing with Israel. Polyamory holds up jealousy as evil, where Scripture holds up faithfulness of one spouse as a good. Hosea shows us that these two visions of the good life stand in opposition: they cannot both be true. Either polyamory is correct, and traditional marriage is enslavement to one partner, or biblical morality is correct that as people we are made for exclusive love in marriage just as we are made for exclusive worship of the Triune God.

For two thousand years, Christians have looked to the Bible as their source of how to live life, and what to believe. The world is always a different place; each generation wrestles with how to answer fundamental questions about what it means to be human, how to live the good life, and where to find wisdom. The Bible serves as the Christian bedrock. For all that this world may shift, evolve, and metamorphose, the teachings of Scripture remain true. Regardless of what new phenomena develop, whether it is the national legalization of marijuana, the widespread acceptance of homosexual marriage, or the normalization of polyamory, the Bible still holds the words of the Living God. Scripture is sufficient for all circumstances, and remains our source of life and doctrine.

 

Image: "Hosea" by Peter. CC License. 

In the Twinkling of an Eye

Photo by  LUM3N  on  Unsplash

Photo by LUM3N on Unsplash

In a course I taught this term on evil, suffering, and hell, one of the books we read was Jerry Walls’ Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory, a distillation of his scholarly and groundbreaking work on eschatology over the last few decades. Mention of purgatory immediately tends to make evangelicals go a bit apoplectic, raising the specter as it does of Catholic indulgences, religious abuses, and satisfaction models of purgation that undermine the sufficiency of the cross. But Walls makes it clear that the model he endorses instead is a sanctification model.

The intuition behind his approach is this. To be fit for heaven, we have to be perfect. The biblical admonition to be holy as God is holy is actually to be taken with dreadful seriousness. None of us at death, however, has achieved such a state. So some amount of posthumous transformation is necessary—for some more than others, but some for all of us. Most evangelicals would agree, but embrace a model of instantaneous transformation—and refuse to call such a process “purgatory.” (If, though, purgatory is thought of as this transformation itself, then purgatory it is, but not much rides on this semantic point, beyond the observation that some of the visceral opposition to Walls’ argument might be opposition more to a perceived pejorative than the idea.) Walls demurs, since such a “zap” model isn’t typically how moral transformation takes place. And such complete immediate radical transformation may well raise intractable identity questions without a coherent enough narrative of how it takes place and a sufficiently gradual process of transformation that salvages an ongoing sense of self.

Walls asks us to re-envision the plot of A Christmas Carol, this time featuring Scrooge going to bed a selfish miser and waking up a new man, with an entirely new moral orientation, but without all the intervening plot twists that explain the transformation. Looking in the mirror the next morning, the “new” Scrooge might understandably ask who he really is.

So Walls pushes the need for a process of transformation that, intuitively, takes time, as events are wont to do. But many would resist his suggestion and opt instead for an instantaneous model of transformation because they’re inclined to think the Bible teaches such a thing. So no matter how clever, how philosophically adroit and logically coherent Walls’ approach may be, it is runs afoul of the Bible. Of course the resistance is based on a relatively few number of verses; on their surface, at least, other biblical verses seem to resonate a great deal with Walls’ suggestions, such as this one: “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6).

At any rate, a verse adduced to undermine Walls’ argument is likely to be this one: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (I John 3:2). Walls notes that John Polkinghorne, reflecting on this verse, writes that “there is a hint of a salvific process, for we can scarcely suppose that Christ will be taken in at a glance” (emphasis added). But some might find this unpersuasive, and remain adamantly committed to belief in instantaneous transformation after death.

Such people may be right, but, even so, they wouldn’t be right for a reason often cited, namely, that merely shedding the body makes glorification inevitable. That idea seems to be predicated on a pretty big mistake, the clearly unbiblical idea that the body is somehow inherently corrupt. Though an impeccable Gnostic view, it’s not a biblical one, and if instantaneous posthumous transformation is possible or actual, it’s surely not for that reason, which overlooks that our worst sins tend to be entrenched sins of the heart, like pride.

For all we know the whole universe could be contained at the head of a pin; it wouldn’t make flying to London from New York go any quicker. And what might the twinkling of an eye contain?

At any rate, another biblical reference some might wish to adduce to reject a process view is I Corinthians 15:52: “[We will all be changed] in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.” For many this seals the deal, precluding any suggestion that a process is needed, despite Walls being surely right that, when considering the logic of moral transformation, most all of our experience seems to demand such a process, one in which we come to terms with the truth, undergo genuine penitence and a change of heart, growth in sympathy and empathy and compassion. We can be forgiven in a moment, but wholesale changes to character don’t generally occur instantaneously. Significant crisis moments can happen, but going from being radically imperfect to totally perfect is nothing any of us has even remotely experienced. And I say this despite my Wesleyan inclinations that make me open to belief that, in an instant, God can fundamentally orient a believer’s heart toward Himself.

So what do we do with this impasse? Complete transformation requires a process incomplete at death, sometimes quite incomplete indeed, but that also arguably has to happen, potentially anyway, in the twinkling of an eye. Is this dilemma intractable?

What I would like to do is tentatively offer an effort at rapprochement. Suppose we grant both that (1) a process is needed, and that (2) it happens in the twinkling of an eye. Are these inconsistent? Only if we assume that the process needs more than the twinkling of an eye. As Corey Latta, author of When the Eternal Can Be Met: The Bergsonian Theology of Time in the Works of C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, and W. H. Auden, puts it, “I imagine the twinkling of an eye to be both anthropomorphic, of course, and an ancient glimpse into a cosmological truth.”

What cosmological truth? Well, it’s natural to think of any process as requiring time, and an elaborate process quite on occasion, but there may be a reason to question this is always the case. Purgatory’s opponent seems to be presupposing a proposition like this: (3) Significant processes require a significant amount of time. If there is reason to doubt this in some important sense, then there may not be much tension at all between glorification taking place in the twinkling of an eye and its requiring a process, perhaps even a protracted one.

Much of the issue pertains to time. So consider a quick insight from science. As Bruce Gordon puts it, “If you were traveling at the speed of light time would not stop in your reference frame, but your clock would appear to have stopped to anyone who could see it from another reference frame (the ‘rest frame’) relative to which you were traveling at the speed of light. Of course, by relativistic length contraction in the direction of motion, the length of your spaceship would also have shrunk to zero as observed from the rest-frame (while nothing would have changed from your perspective). And also of course, unless you managed to transform your spaceship and yourself into massless particles, you wouldn't be traveling at the speed of light anyway, because resistance to acceleration (mass) increases without bound as the speed of light is approached, so the speed of light can never be reached by massive objects because their mass would become infinite.”

So here’s the point for present purposes. Time would not stop in my reference frame even at the speed of light (bearing in mind that this is a counterfactual). And the closer to the speed of light I go, the more my clock appears to slow down from the perspective of someone in the "rest frame." Thus, even a short interval, given this “plasticity” of time, might contain plenty of chance for transformation requiring an interval of time, perhaps a significant interval. To stick with the science example, someone traveling close to the speed of light might to me look like he's experiencing just seconds (if I could see his clock onboard), while to him the experience could be days or weeks or months. So what might seem a mere moment to an observer might contain, for the person experiencing it, ample opportunity for a transformative process of some sort and longer duration.

I don’t presume to have a scientist’s grasp of relativistic implications of time, but this doesn’t undermine the claim that there’s a potential rapprochement between a posthumous process of radical transformation and a near instantaneous event. If time is so difficult to understand, especially after death, why assume that the “twinkling of an eye” precludes a process of transformation? Such an assumption strikes me as presumptuous, the assumption that we have a good bead on how time works after we’ve shuffled our mortal coil. What we do know of time seems to call such sanguine confidence into serious question. So perhaps the resistance to Walls is based less on what the Bible says, after all, and more, perhaps unwittingly, on what someone is supposing to be true about time, and ambitiously assuming at that.

Though an impeccable Gnostic view, it’s not a biblical one, and if instantaneous posthumous transformation is possible or actual, it’s surely not for that reason, which overlooks that our worst sins tend to be entrenched sins of the heart, like pride.

What does the Bible mean when it says that a thousand years in our sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night? Is there not perhaps at least an intimation that time is more fluid or plastic than we might have imagined? C. S. Lewis played with this idea when, after the kids came back from Narnia, just a few minutes had passed, while their experience in Narnia had canvassed years. And an analogous spatial example can also be found in Lewis: Consider in The Great Divorce, when it’s revealed that hell inhabited but a speck of space. In that speck was the entirety of hell. For all we know the whole universe could be contained at the head of a pin; it wouldn’t make flying to London from New York go any quicker. And what might the twinkling of an eye contain?

Arguably the Bible hints that God’s relation to time is fundamentally different from our own, and science seems to hint too that time is not what it at first seems. And apart from those considerations about time itself, there is also the fascinating issue of our subjective experience of time, rife with mysteries of its own. People who seem to “see” their lives flashing before their minds when they think they’re on the brink of death, or the subjective experience of time seeming to slow down in certain emergency situations; it’s not the case, presumably, in these cases, that time itself is showing its plasticity, but it goes to show the relativity or plasticity of our subjective responses to time. For present purposes, again, this is relevant, because it points to the possibility of a great many events transpiring in rapid succession, all within a short interval of time.

If a story is at least possible in which a process can occur in but a moment, then much of the evangelical angst over Walls’ proposal, predicated on the presumption we understand time better than we do—assumptions about how time works that are controversial indeed—may turn out to be misguided. Perhaps we can indeed experience an extensive, elaborate transformative process in a timeless moment, or at least in the twinkling of an eye.

Image: "Time goes by so fast" by J. Ramsden. CC License. 

Touching Thomas (John 20:1-29)

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" by Caravaggio. Public Domain. 

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas" by Caravaggio. Public Domain. 

 

 

Why should I have touched His wounds,

Who asked a measure more than those

Who only saw, and made His peace their joy?

Still others, seeing not, will have His touch.

And I, who walked with Him and shared

A thousand days of common ground,

But ran away when He was taken off

To bear the wounds I now have touched--

These wretched hands have felt the anguish of

The wounds He took for me.

Little did I know that what I asked

Was sharing in His pain.

Yet in his love for me, He let

My probing hands renew the desecrating

Thrust of nails and spear;

And now I know that all along

His sufferance of our selfish, grasping fingers,

Seeking only fleshly touch,

Was of a piece with baring all His wounds.

How far He had to reach

To let me touch His side!

 

                                                      --Elton Higgs

                                                       5/3/87

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

A Matter of Conscience (Matt. 27:1-10)

"Judas returning the thirty silver pieces" by  Rembrandt

"Judas returning the thirty silver pieces" by Rembrandt

 

 

 

They were exceedingly careful

In handling blood-money;

They picked it up gingerly,

And debated what,

In conscience,

Could be done

With the price of another man's life.

They provided

For the burial of the poor

With the rejected silver,

Then busily turned

To the murder

Of the man it had bought.

 

                                      --Elton D. Higgs

                                                  (12/17/80)

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Cock-Crowing (Luke 22:61)

The Denial of St. Peter . circa 1620-1625. Gerard Seghers.

The Denial of St. Peter. circa 1620-1625. Gerard Seghers.

("And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter
remembered the Lord's words . . . .") Luke 22.61

Grey dawn
Gone,
But day
Still waits.
Cock-crowing
Flowing
Flashing
Tearing
Through anguished heart.
Part
Of me
Is dead--
The thread
Of boasting, knowing,
Throwing words about
Is snapped,
And dangling ends ensnare the dawn.
Dark my heart since dawn
And dark the curtain drawn
Across my soul
By fear which stole
My light away.
But day must come.
The One who prophesied the broken thread
And gazed on new-made shreds
Can knit my soul and turn
Cock's call to Light indeed.
It needs my Master's face
To make cock-crowing
Both breaking
And making
Of dawn's first rays.

--Elton D. Higgs
(Spring 1973)

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

Nicodemus, Post Mortem (John 3:1-21; 7:45-52; 19:38-42)

"The Entombment of Christ" by Luca Giordano.

"The Entombment of Christ" by Luca Giordano.

 

 

His words are done, and now He rests,

A fragrant corpse in a rich man's tomb.

Lifted up, indeed—but are we healed?

The night He chided me for darkened mind

Is not behind me yet,

For this death no more

Than second birth I grasp.

How can earth receive

A body so unlike itself?

Not spice nor worthy grave

Can honor Him, nor rescue us,

But only words of life I heard

When cowardly I went by night.

 

No words now—but pregnant death!

That brings us to the womb again

And stirs our souls to breathe anew

The air His Spirit stirred!

Both birth and death are buried now

In the Word that does not die.

--Elton D. Higgs

(Nov, 11, 1980; rev. 3/18/04)

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)

The Final Steps (Mark 14: 32-42)

"Christ in the Garden" by Caravaggio. 

"Christ in the Garden" by Caravaggio. 

   

I have slept in Gethsemane,

Lacking the sense

Of immanent pain

My Master bears.

His sorrow

Has been my pillow,

And I have slumbered

In the shadow

Of a dying God.

Because I cannot look upon

The final step that Love must walk,

He kneels alone,

And trembling

Takes the proferred cup

For Him and me.

 

"Wake up!" He says;

"Though you could not watch with me—

Though you could not

Embrace my task—

I have met my fear alone,

To seal the bonds of brotherhood,

That we might live at one."

 

--Elton D. Higgs

10/15/78

 

 

Comment

Elton Higgs

Dr. Elton Higgs was a faculty member in the English department of the University of Michigan-Dearborn from 1965-2001. Having retired from UM-D as Prof. of English in 2001, he now lives with his wife and adult daughter in Jackson, MI.. He has published scholarly articles on Chaucer, Langland, the Pearl Poet, Shakespeare, and Milton. His self-published Collected Poems is online at Lulu.com. He also published a couple dozen short articles in religious journals. (Ed.: Dr. Higgs was the most important mentor during undergrad for the creator of this website, and his influence was inestimable; it's thrilling to welcome this dear friend onboard.)