Thoughts on Hamid’s “Exit West”

Ever discovered a book that dramatized a world you thought only you noticed? Last week I was unpacking boxes sent to us American military members deployed in the Middle East. Nothing unusual about that for me. But then I noticed a novel that was literary fiction, not the pulp fiction that most groups send. Exit West was the novel. It was written by Pakistani novelist and essayist Mohsi Hamid. Something about it intrigued me. I read the back cover whereon one reviewer commented: “Hamid has created a fictional universe that captures the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines.”

Oftentimes I have wondered if reviewers have a shallow well from which they draw platitudes to serve as book reviews, but this reviewer nailed it when he wrote that Hamid captured “the global perils percolating beneath today’s headlines.”

I’m not one who has a high view of modern news media. It has degenerated into name-calling, sound bites, and showmanship. It’s entertainment designed to appeal to the lowest common denominators and/or logical flaws—stereotyping, red herrings, and ad hominem attacks. The West has almost completely replaced reasoned and respectful debate with inanity and invective. I prefer to read. There at least one may weigh arguments writers have put forth, and evaluate ideas. Instead of yelling at each other, often mischaracterizing each other’s views, etc. Reading thoughtfully engenders—hopefully—discernment.

So after I read the reviews on the back cover of Hamid’s novel, I put the Vietnam memoir I had been reading this week aside, and started on Exit West. That was three days ago. Now I’m done with the novel. Not done in a cynical sense, but done reading it through for the first time. It was that readable. To be a novel with relatively little dialogue, it moved quickly. Why? Below are some of my thoughts as to why it succeeded as a story and why I concur with the reviewer I cited, and why you might want to read it.

Our world in 2018 is characterized by the constant deluge of information; cultural  flotsam pervades most people’s lives more than wisdom does. Novel reading is out (except, perhaps, by some introverts, intellectuals, and retirees). If you want to be a 21st century man, just post, tweet, and emote via social media; that’s where the bang is.

Think of these things for a moment: we can purchase drones online; smart phones put the world in our palms (if you imagine it, you can browse for it); cross-cultural pollination is a reality of 21st century life (homogeneity is largely receding in many parts of the world); terrorism is not localized to the Islamic Middle East but it is likely in your zip code; we are networked through smart phones but are falling apart at the spiritual seams.

The 25-year-old in 2018 lives in a very different world than a 25-year-old lived in during 1948 or even 1988. He texts more than he converses face-to-face. She may have 2,000 Facebook friends but no one with whom she spends a Friday evening with at a coffee shop or café. The world, in short, has changed.

Technology has shrunk the globe and brought us both closer together and farther apart. We’ve constant information but little wisdom.

Hamid has captured this conglomeration in his novel. Listen to the following episode. The main characters, Pakistani lovers Saeed and Nadia, are urged by Saeed’s father to flee Pakistan, which is being destroyed by Islamic terrorists:

SAEED’S FATHER then summoned Nadia into his room and spoke to her without Saeed and said that he was entrusting her with his son’s life, and she, whom he called daughter, must, like a daughter, not fail him, whom, she called father, and she must see Saeed through to safety, and he hoped she would one day marry his son and be called mother by his grandchildren, but this was up to them to decide, and all he asked was that she remain by Saeed’s side until Saeed was out of danger, and he asked her to promise this to him, and she said she would promise only if Saeed’s father came with them, and he said again that he could not, but that they must go, he said it softly, like a prayer, and she sat there with him in silence and the minutes passed, and in the end she promised, and it was an easy promise to make because she had at that time no thoughts of leaving Saeed, but it was also a difficult one because in making it she felt she was abandoning the old man, and even if he did have his siblings and his cousins, and might now go live with them or have them come live with him, they could not protect him as Saeed and Nadia could, and so by making the promise he demanded she make she was in a sense killing him, but that is the way of things, for when we migrate, we murder from our lives those we leave behind.” (p. 98)

What do you see here? In short, here is a family in crisis. Terrorism is destroying a nation (sound familiar?). The father figure, sacrificial and loving, seeks to send off those whom he loves so that they may find a better life. (It’s somewhat akin to Naomi telling Ruth and Orpah to go back to their people in Moab, if you know the reference.) Terror. Cross-cultural pollination. And yet the three people in this scene from Hamid’s novel are almost completely alone. The father is a recent widower, and his only life, really, is trying to protect his son and the son’s girlfriend, Nadia. The young lovers, Saeed and Nadia, have smart phones, which bring the terror of the world to their palms, but the irony is that the human connection is being severed because of terror and sin.

This is a different world. We have become numb, I think Hamid suggests, to the human … because the human looks more like the bestial.

The two protagonists flee terror looking for connection—human connection, love, trust, etc. in a world bedraggled by information deluges, rapacity, and murder. They are both types of the “everyman,” if you will.

I won’t spoil the novel for you. Read it yourself. Think about the issues Hamid raised. Ask yourself if he has not captured accurately our world. Brace yourself: there are some unpleasant scenes in the book. But they are necessary to portray modern life as it is. Ask yourself if the ending gives you reason to hope. I appreciate very much writers who spur us to explore difficult questions, and Hamid has succeeded in doing that in Exit West.

Sleepless with Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye”

There are advantages to battling sleeplessness, I suppose; one of those advantages is rereading great novels. I came across an old paperback of Salinger’s lacerating, hilarious, façade-shattering masterpiece The Catcher in the Rye in, of all places, Iraq. I’d read The Catcher in the Rye twice before, but this rereading was the most meaningful so far. C.S. Lewis, another enduring favorite for me, touched on the value of rereading great books: “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally—and often far more—worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” Yes and amen. But how is Catcher great? In at least two ways, Catcher is a remarkable piece of fiction: 1) Salinger’s mastery of tone and 2) the way in which he explores how the sensitive person (artist/writer/musician, etc.) sees the nuances, details, and beauties in life that the mass of humanity tramples upon. This sensitivity to nuances alienates Holden from the less perceptive people around him.

First, Holden Caulfield is one of the most realized and believable characters with regard to tone in all of serious literature. He is as real to me as Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, as real as Emma Bovary, as real as Santiago on his boat, as real as David Copperfield coming into his own, as real as Lear as he goes mad before his own family and kingdom, as real as Scout and Jem, as they gossip about Boo Radley.

Holden Caulfield is a 16-year-old boy, repeatedly expelled from prep school. Why? He doesn’t apply himself, as the adults in his life tell him. He does not play by the rules. He neglects most of his class assignments and focuses instead on writers and books he particularly appreciates (Thomas Hardy’s novels, Dickens, Shakespeare, etc.).

Holden passes his English classes, but even in those, his mind wanders too much; he neglects the discipline required to succeed in the prep school system. He learns more through self-study than he ever does in the classroom. He obsesses (not too strong a word?) about particulars and details 99% of the other students and faculty never notice and/or suppress. (More on this idea below.) But Holden’s speech and mind are believable.

In the passage below, Holden is visiting with his history teacher, Mr. Spencer, who has awarded Holden an “F” for his (Holden’s) admittedly shoddy work in class. Listen to the way Holden’s mind works:

Well, you could see he [Mr. Spencer] really felt pretty lousy about flunking me. So I shot the bull for a while. I told him I was a real moron, and all that stuff. I told him how I would’ve done the same thing if I’d been in his place, and how most people didn’t appreciate how tough it is being a teacher. That kind of stuff. The old bull.

   The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away. (pp. 12-13)

Holden knows his own immaturity with regard to his poor academic performance, but he respects the humanness of Mr. Spencer. He has connected with him in spite of not doing well in his class. Moreover, Holden’s thoughts are preoccupied with the ducks. Who cares for them? Of course any number of connections about providence may be asked here. Is there a caring God over all or are the ducks (and all of the cosmos by extension) alone?

And then, after we as readers sense Holden’s fatal flaw (he retreats from “the system” instead of accepting it, and making the best of it), we see how attuned and compassionate Holden is vis-a-vis his concern for the ducks in Central Park. Where do they go in winter, when the lagoon is frozen over?

How many 16-year-old boys’ minds work like that? You see a boy who uses words like “lousy” and “moron.” But then he frets over delicate creatures. Questions of providence, or the lack thereof, might be asked here.

Another scene where’s Holden’s tone is artfully displayed comes when he’s in New York City. He’s lonely for girls. (Remember, he’s sixteen.) He flirts with some fatuous girls in a hotel and dances with them. But inside, he knows he’s frittering his time because they’ve nothing to offer him. They are part of the “phonies,” too. The irony, of course, is that Holden is often likewise phony towards others. Listen to Salinger’s mastery of tone:

The one ugly one, Laverne, wasn’t too bad a dancer, but the other one, old Marty, was murder. Old Marty was like dragging the Statue of Liberty around the floor. The only way I could even half enjoy myself dragging her around was if I amused myself a little. So I told her I just saw Gary Cooper, the movie star, on the other side of the floor.

     “Where?” she asked me—excited as hell. “Where?”

     “Aw, you just missed him. He just went out. Why didn’t you look when I told you?”

She practically stopped dancing, and started looking over everybody’s heads to see if she could see him. 

“Oh, shoot!” she said. I’d just about broken her heart—I really had. I was sorry as hell I’d kidded her. Some people you shouldn’t kid, even if they deserve it. (p. 75)

Secondly, Salinger explores the deeper issues of Holden’s character. Salinger is suggesting something about the role of the artist in the world. He (the artist) differs from the masses of humanity in that he notices what most never consider and/or suppress. Holden is sensitive to the power of genuine friendship (his relationship with Mr. Spencer, e.g.) innocence (his sister Phoebe, e.g.) and to the vast difference between artifice (what Holden calls “phony”) and the genuine.

Allie, Holden’s deceased younger brother, exemplified the genuine—but he is gone. Allie had a baseball glove that he’d written poems on, and he’d read them when he was in the outfield. Now ask yourself: what would you think of a kid with poetry written on his baseball glove? Exactly. Seems odd. Sissy, perhaps. And if you thought that, you’re playing right into Salinger’s hands.

He is suggesting something about the life of the artist. He (the artist/Holden-like, Allie-like) is an exile in a kingdom that thrives on artifice. He is a rebel doubly cursed because he feels the thorns of life.

When phonies rule the world, where does the artist go? Holden’s repeated flight is a sad commentary on Salinger’s views with regard to that question. The fact that Salinger walled himself off from public life for most his writing life after his military service is not irrelevant here. Perhaps only Thomas Pynchon and Cormac McCarthy have been more guarded.

This idea of the artist’s predicament is powerfully captured in the poem “What’s Wrong with Me” by Chase Twichell. Twichell writes of a sick coyote “ . . . crossing the field, /poisoned, injured, rabid, old, the rest of the pack anxious,/yipping and howling back and forth/across the valley as dusk comes on. What’s wrong with me is that/I find their music beautiful. I dwell on it long after it stops/and in the silence afterward I write down its words.” That is haunting and beautiful. Both the images and sounds recorded, and the fact that a person takes notice and subsequently labors to preserve that pathos, are noteworthy. He puts words to paper to capture the power of the cries of a hurt coyote, of the pack yelping, and of the sun sinking another day.

Holden Caulfield is like the speaker in this poem. He notices what most would bypass, as they go on to the next distraction. Yet he’s caught in a dilemma: how does one fight for the genuine and enduring in a world obsessed with artifice and the temporal?

Holden Caulfield is believable because Salinger was a master of tone (he attended to what the mouth reveals about the heart), and through The Catcher in the Rye, we are blessed with not only a master of narrative tone/voice, but also by one with a narrative exploration of how life cheapens or deepens, depending upon our view of aesthetics.

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls – Thoughts on Hemingway’s Novel

Hemingway. Just reading his name connotes a persona. Solitary yet brave characters pervade his fiction. Santiago, for example, is the heroic wizened old fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea. Robert Jordan, another example, is the self-sacrificing bridge-blower in For Whom the Bell Tolls. And literary connoisseurs know of Hemingway’s trademark short declarative sentences. Imagine the opposite of Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy, and you get an idea of Hemingway’s terse unadorned style. Most scholars trace Hemingway’s stripped-down style to his years spent in journalism where linguistic precision and minimalism were prized. In less than a week, I fly out to another military deployment, and so I tend to read a lot of war novels and history in the months leading up to going across the pond again. Over the last few weeks I read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, a novel set during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). What follows is a three-part examination of the novel–overall summary, analysis, and assessment. Lastly, I pose a question or two for reflection. If you’re a fan of war novels, of Hemingway’s linguistic skill, or of Hemingway’s importance in the Western canon, I welcome your reading.

Summary: For Whom the Bell Tolls is the story of an American Spanish teacher (Robert Jordan) who’s in Spain during the Civil War there in the late 1930s. The war is between the Republicans and the communists/fascists. But Jordan’s not there to teach Spanish to expatriated Americans; he’s a dynamiter of bridges. He is fighting against the communists/fascists, a guerilla warfighter attached to a motley crew of Spaniards who hate communism/fascism as much as he. He falls in love with a Spanish girl (Maria) over the course of the novel. He battles internally over how he might completely love her and simultaneously remain committed to his life’s work of blowing bridges the fascists use, and killing as many communists as possible. About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Robert and Maria are discussing their plans after the war is over. What follows is an example of their dynamic, as Maria speaks:

“We will be in the big clean bed in thy famous room in our famous hotel and we will sit in the famous bed together and look into the mirror of the armoire and there will be thee and there will be me in the glass and then I will turn to thee thus, and put my arms around thee thus, and then I will kiss thee thus.”

 Then they lay quiet and close together in the night, hot-aching, rigid, close together and holding her, Robert Jordan held closely too all those things that he knew could never happen, and he went on with it deliberately and said, “Rabbit, we will not always live in that hotel” (Hemingway, 1940, p. 346).

 At least a couple of things are seen in the above excerpt. First, we sense Maria’s naiveté. Her mind over-inflates the beauties of Madrid as a counterpoint to the carnage she and Jordan are currently in. And secondly, we sense Jordan’s internal recognition of “things that he knew could never happen.” There is, in short, recognition by Hemingway’s main character that the relationship will not end happily. In typical Hemingway fashion, the protagonist suffers this recognition silently. He keeps it to himself. He is a man in love, yes, but a man nonetheless alone.

Analysis: Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls just two to three years after being in Spain during their Civil War, and just prior to WWII. In sum, it is a war novel. But what was Hemingway suggesting about war? Was the book only a diatribe against communism? Clearly, communism is shown in the book to be a system of butchery wherein what matters is never the individual but only the state and its power. But I think Hemingway was less focused upon exploring political ideologies than he was in exploring the individual’s role in war (any war) and his significance/lack thereof. Here is one example of what I mean. Robert Jordan is thinking to himself:

If this was how it was then this was how it was. But there was no law that made him say he liked it. I did not know that I could ever feel what I have felt, he thought. Nor that this could happen to me. I would like to have it for my whole life. You will, the other part of him said. You will. You have it now and that is all your whole life is; now. There is nothing else than now. There is neither yesterday, certainly, nor is there any tomorrow. How old must you be before you know that? There is only now, and if now is only two days, then two days is your life and everything in it will be in proportion. This is how you live a life in two days. And if you stop complaining and asking for what you never will get, you will have a good life. A good life is not measured by any biblical span (Hemingway, 1940, p. 169).

 Hemingway shows his hand here by having his protagonist demonstrate his worldview. Jordan is secular. There is no God in his thinking. What matters is this world, the here and now, and he should not look for cosmic justice. Eat, drink, and be merry now, for that is all there is. There is no “biblical span” in this man’s thinking.

Assessment: How do I therefore judge the novel? What are my visceral and intellectual evaluations of the novel and its worldview? Is Hemingway’s worldview, at least as evidenced through this novel, accurate? Is the worldview given the way reality really is?

As a story of a man in war, a man against overwhelming odds, the novel succeeds as far as it goes. As a military man, I appreciated the specifics and accuracy with which Hemingway denotes calibers of weapons, the precision of maps and cartography, the models of aircraft, etc. All of these rang true. How did the novel affect me emotionally? How did it stir me? In short, it stirred me because I felt what it was like to view life as a secularist. Though I am a Christian, I revisited what the Bible calls the natural man’s way of seeing the world. Here is an example of Hemingway’s demonstration of his (and Jordan’s) atheism.

I wish Grandfather were here instead of me. Well, maybe we will all be together by tomorrow night. If there should be any such damn fool business as a hereafter, and I’m sure there isn’t, he thought, I would certainly like to talk to him (Hemingway, 1940, p. 338).

Here I see Jordan’s view of life as a secularist. He longs for ultimate redemption and the benefits of an afterlife to commune with his beloved grandfather but he rejects it, too. It seems foolishness to him. Biblically speaking, redemption is foolishness to the perishing.

A question or two: What if Hemingway was wrong? What if God does exist? Would Robert Jordan then embrace him? I don’t see any evidence of that in the text. What I do see is a man who, because he exiles God from his worldview, becomes an exile himself. He longs for love but believes he is unworthy of it from Maria, and that he will fail her. His god becomes his own pride, valor, courage in battle, and his sense of honor. But what do these terms mean in a universe devoid of the God who offers transcendent value? If all is material, whence come these values? How does the atheist account for objective values? I would argue that he cannot. They are preferences, but not objective values. Jordan is an exile from Eden (in which he doesn’t believe, but against which he nonetheless rebels), and his exile is self-imposed.

Consider

Ever taken a personality test? In the military chaplain corps we have access to many curricula that use personality tests as part of their programs. Some tests make use of animals as symbols for personality types. Beavers are structured types who appreciate regimens and rules. Otters are those who frolic and want as much of life as possible to be a festival. Other tests use shapes. Circle types seek harmony and collaboration whereas triangle types are charismatic leaders asking, “How can I accomplish this?” Still other tests use colors wherein yellow types are adrenaline junkies who often tend to be self-centered, whereas blues are known for their loyalty in relationships and their careful self-discipline. I appreciate these tests in so far as they go. However, people are more complicated than just a dominant personality type. We all have peculiar personality traits wherein we trend towards certain behaviors more often. But we have shades of more than one color. We are not just one type/shape/color vis-à-vis our personalities. Different stressors elicit different parts of ourselves. How important is it, therefore, that we consider our ways? Personality tests are helpful as a possible starting point for understanding people. But might there be more value in considering our ways?

Recently a teacher in the church my family and I attend was leading our Sunday school class through a study of Haggai 1 and Ezra 5, two passages that dovetail in their description of Israel’s plight in the 520s B.C. and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem under Zerubbabel. In Haggai (ESV) 1:5, Scripture records this admonition from the Lord delivered via Haggai the prophet: “Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways.”

Danger lurks when we gloss over commands so fundamental as simply to consider our ways. What did God mean? Just what he said. To consider, to give thought to, to reflect upon the ways in which we spend our time. God commanded what was good for the people—namely, that they consider their ways.

Then the Sunday school teacher asked a powerful question: “How many of us are spending our days traveling the road of life, simply turning up the volume on the radio?” Rather than dealing with the big questions of life, we spend ourselves on trivia, entertainment, and distraction. English poet William Wordsworth wrote the following in “The World Is Too Much with Us,” addressing the same issues:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The prophet Haggai did not let his hearers off the hook. Listen to his words: “You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways” (1:6). Again the Lord says through his prophet, “Consider your ways.”

Ever since the Sunday school hour I have kept hearing that refrain—consider your ways. My mind went to a Braves game several days ago. My family and I had gone as part of a group to enjoy another game with some friends. The game ended up being postponed due to rain. But before that happened, we did have time for the “Star Spangled Banner” to be played. I’m an officer in the U.S. military. I am moved each time I hear the tune and recite the words. Bravery, sacrifice, and brotherhood are not just talking points to me. I know heroes and work alongside many each day. But what I noticed when the flag was displayed on the massive electronic billboard inside the stadium was that many (particularly youngish) people in the stadium did not remove their hats. No respect for the national anthem. Nor did many of them even stop talking. They kept eating their peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

Why do I bring this up? It’s not just to suggest that respect for America’s exceptionalism has been emasculated. It’s not even just to suggest that a coarsening has taken place among many of America’s Millennials. And it is certainly not to suggest American patriotism is salvific or in any way the gospel of Christianity.

But as an American, as a military officer, as a husband and father, I grieved inside. I was saddened that young men would not take thirty seconds to remove their ball caps, hush their talking, and at least honor the nation that allows us all to enjoy America’s pastime.

I wonder how many of us in the stadium were considering our ways. I know at least one person who was convicted. I see him daily … in the mirror, when I rise early to shave. Haggai spoke powerful prophetic words: let us consider our ways.

 

 

 

Carson McCullers, the Heart, and a Question of Fellowship

Biography is defined as the story of a person’s life, either in whole or in part. A few years ago I discovered that I was reading a lot of biographies. Certain authors and thinkers intrigue me. It’s seldom I agree with all of what they write and/or create, but because I fear superficial knowledge, I try to read all of a writer’s works.  It seems only fair to do so in order to evaluate his/her worldview.

Recently I read several bios of Winston Churchill, Katherine Anne Porter, and Emily Dickinson. Each led me into deeper appreciation for those writers’ lives and accomplishments. Over the last several weeks I have been rereading the works of Carson McCullers and two biographies of her, too. One is by Savigneau and another is by Carr.

Readers, if they have heard of McCullers at all, tend to know of her novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. That was the first of her works I read, too. When I was seventeen and a freshman in college, I read that novel over the course of a few all-nighters. Back then, I kept vampire hours and would read until dawn, then go to classes pale and sleepy for having been up all night reading. Now I go to sleep early and rise early, and I still like The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter–several decades later.

What’s more, I reread novels, plays, and poems that resonate with me. Certain books shape me more than others. I’ve read hundreds, perhaps thousands, of novels and or pieces of literary fiction, but a dozen or so pieces abide. Several Faulkner novels and pieces of his short fiction move me so powerfully that I find myself an apologist for the potency of literature. Dostoyevsky’s grasp of man’s psychology is staggeringly profound. The works of Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy seem to me so magnificently crafted I marvel at the literary gifts of their creators. Certain Dickens characters cause me to wonder at his panoramic imagination. Here was a man who created David Copperfield, Pip, Joe, Sydney Carton, and Scrooge, among scores of others.

Literature, the best of it, moves the soul, the mind, the imagination; it makes us see ourselves as creatures wonderful and yet fallen, noble in our capacities to sacrifice and endure, compassionate and yet terrifyingly cruel, as exiles from Eden, poor players in search of (and often in rebellion against) ultimate reality.

Faulkner wrote of this power of great literature in his Nobel Prize Address. He wrote of what the serious writer/poet does and why he does it:

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

In her novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter McCullers has a character named Doctor Copeland. He is a black doctor in the South (Georgia) in 1930s and 40s. He is an intellectual. He’s introverted, a reader of philosophy, and a good man. But he is lonesome. His heart is a lonely one. He,  like the friend whose death he mourns, longs for connection. His friend had been Mr. John Singer, a Jew living in the South, another exile and stranger, who had committed suicide after his (Singer’s) friend had died. Listen to how McCullers suggests what her novel explores—namely, man’s isolation from man, and a longing to reconnect what has often fallen apart (spiritual fellowship):

“But truly with the death of that white man a dark sorrow had lain down in his    heart. He had talked to him as to no other white man and had trusted him. And the mystery of his suicide had left him baffled and without support. There was neither beginning nor end to this sorrow. Nor understanding. Always he would return in his thoughts to this white man who was not insolent or scornful but who was just. And how can the dead be truly dead when they still live in the souls of those who are left behind?”

Death teaches us—if we will listen—that this universe is not the way it was originally. To use biblical language, the universe is under a curse. God told our first parents, “[C]ursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;” (Gen 3:17). Why? Because of our sin. And Paul, thousands of years later, continued that theme in Romans 8: “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (8:22-23).

Carson McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter explores this idea of being cursed with groanings/longings/yearnings impossible to satisfy just by way of our fellow men. Instead we see characters take their own lives. We see characters that are deaf and mute—symbolic conditions for man’s inability to communicate sufficiently, his inability to cure his spiritual loneliness.

This brings me to what I relearned in reading McCullers’ work, and reading bios of her life as an artist. We do long for fellowship; we do labor under a curse; we do long for redemption. We do long to have our hearts satisfied. And great literature can call attention to these great themes. But what if it is true what Solomon wrote? In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote, “he [God] has put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl 3:11a).

When I read wonderfully talented writers like McCullers, very often they’re adept at seeing the tragedies in life. For McCullers, she spent her short lifetime writing about the loneliness that plagues mankind, whether we admit it to others or not. But what she and few other wonderfully talented writers less often embrace, however, is the One who came so that all that was cursed because of sin and the first Adam will be made right through the second Adam: Jesus. He knows the longing for eternity in our hearts because he placed it there.

Why Must You?

“Why must you bring Jesus into everything?” James asked.

“Sorry? What do you mean?” Sam responded.

“Why must you bring Jesus into everything? Why can’t things be just what they are . . . without any Jesus, just as you find them?” James said.

James’ starched white collar dug into the sunburned skin of his neck. He was shaved immaculately. His tie was knotted in a perfect Windsor.

“Why did you come to church today?” Sam asked.

“You wish to question me now, is that it?”

“I am trying to answer your question,” Sam said. “Truly.”

“My family has been members here for three generations. We began here in the early 1900s, when this was a little country church.”

“I see,” Sam said.

“It’s who we are. Tradition. My family. You’re just blind to our way.”

“Hmm.”

“Why do you do that? You didn’t answer my question.” James’ voice grew louder.

Sam watched muscles in James’ neck create spurs of taut skin that ran down from below red earlobes and disappeared behind the Windsor knot.

“Today is what many people call Easter, is that right?” Sam asked.

“Yes, of course,” James said, “but I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“What is it that Christians are remembering and celebrating?” Sam asked.

“Jesus’ resurrection.”

“Do you believe that?” Sam asked.

“Believe what … that Christians remember and celebrate that, or that the resurrection occurred?”

“Both are important. But the second issue is the main one,” Sam responded.

“Well, we’ve been coming on Easter for years, Sam. My family is rooted here.”

“I understand. But did the resurrection of Jesus occur?” Sam repeated.

“Look, Jesus was a good man. No doubt about that. He taught compassion, called out hypocrisy, and healed people of illnesses. He was a miracle worker, even. But to say that he came alive again after he died …”

“Why do you say Jesus was a good man, James?” Sam asked.

“Who can doubt that, Sam? He showed compassion to women. He preached about forgiveness. He called out Pharisees. And when the government officials and Jews came for him, he didn’t resist. He was good unlike anyone else. I cannot believe you would even ask that.”

“I agree. Jesus did all those things. But would a man who did all those good things be worthy of worship if he only died but did not physically resurrect?” Sam asked.

“Well, sure. That’s why we’re here, right? To worship, to say we follow his teachings.”

“That’s not why I’m here, James.” Sam said.

“Ah, so you don’t believe the resurrection either?”

“No, I believe the resurrection completely. If I didn’t I would not follow Jesus at all,” Sam said.

“But what about all the good stuff he did? What about his precepts? What about his telling us to love our neighbors?”

“Why would I love my neighbors, if Jesus didn’t resurrect? I don’t even like a lot of my neighbors. In fact, my closest neighbor, I’m pretty sure, is cheating on his wife,” Sam retorted. “I’m pretty sure I don’t love him. I think, quite honestly, he’s kind of a creep.” Sam said.

“I don’t know about you, Sam. I thought you were going to lecture me. But now it seems like you’re kind of hardhearted. Don’t you believe Jesus?”

“I do. I believe him completely. That’s where I think you and I differ. I believe I should love my neighbor who is cheating on his wife. And I believe I should love you, too, even when we disagree completely about the resurrection. And I believe that I should love my neighbor, you, and Jesus because of the resurrection,” Sam said. “If Jesus is still buried in Jerusalem, my options are about as meaningful as preferences of ice cream flavors,” Sam said.

“You believe it, then?” James asked. His eyes bore into Sam like nails.

“I do. But I believe it because it happened,” Sam said. “I have to deal with it. Otherwise, I’m a coward.”

James stood motionless. His earlobes were red and swollen above his shirt collar. Sam watched him as he tweaked his perfect Windsor knot.

“I’m going to join my family now, Sam.”

“Of course,” Sam said.

“James?”

“Yes?” James said, looking up.

“That’s why,” Sam said.

“That’s why what?”

“That’s why I must bring Jesus into everything,” Sam said. “Because he changes everything.”

James was already walking back to the foyer. He crossed it and entered the men’s room. He walked to the sink, lathered his hands with lemon-scented liquid soap, rinsed, and pulled three brown folded towels from the white dispenser mounted on the white wall. He readjusted his tie, shaping the knot into a perfectly symmetrical inverted triangle. He pulled the short end of his tie again for a tighter knot, and pushed his chin upward in front of the mirror to check for any hairs he could have missed on his neckline, but none showed. He appeared perfect and clean. He walked into the foyer again, careful to avoid Sam. Finding his family seated where they’d been for generations, he took his place.

                                                       (The end)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pablum

Meet Pablum R Us.

Remember Toys R Us? It is currently going out of business. But I recall once or twice going through a couple of the stores looking for toys for my younger siblings. Dolls, Yo-Yos, models, plastic furniture, bicycles in the aisles, and battery-powered scooters attracted kids whose parents were seemingly uninterested in parenting. Lots of stuff; little of value. Toys. There’s a big difference.

Shelves of Lego blocks, Barbies, Tonkas, and Fisher-Price kits. I never cared for it. Volume, volume, volume. And clutter. Had it been a bookstore or history museum, I would have stayed longer or spent more.

But Toys R Us provided children something to do. However, it did not nourish. Now it’s out of business. Bankrupt.

In similar fashion, American discourse might be renamed. Just as Toys R Us was the general rule for shoppers looking for trinkets, something to fill up children’s time, contemporary public discourse might be more accurately dubbed Pablum R Us.

Pablum, of course, is a term for worthlessness. Pap, drivel, and garbage are synonyms for pablum. When cocky adolescents like David Hogg spew vitriol in place of reasoned argument, when four-letter words supplant respectful dialogue, and when Leftist media outlets pander to this sort of bilge, we all lose. All of us. We are cheapened.

The Hollywood machine glorifies rebellion against parents, rebellion against education, rejection of monogamy and traditional marriage, rejection of any vestige of a biblical worldview. Instead, the media mills laud “change,” emotionalism, ignorance, adultery, prurience of every variety, and pagan sensuality. And we wonder why the David Hoggs emerge? Don’t wonder. Instead, admit it’s Pablum R Us.

Two verses of Hebrew wisdom that, I’m sure, will be mocked by those who seethe rather than think, come to mind: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Pr. 26:4-5). How to navigate these is trying. Very.

If the nadir of Pablum R Us remains, we all lose. But if wisdom is known by her children, I’d sure welcome … not another toy store, but a place where wisdom and decorum dwell. The toy store and contemporary discourse share at least this in common: bankruptcy.