Turned 50 this year. Perhaps that is part of what gave rise to reflecting on some lessons from along my way. If you like lists, enjoy. If you don’t, sorry … I do.
Turned 50 this year. Perhaps that is part of what gave rise to reflecting on some lessons from along my way. If you like lists, enjoy. If you don’t, sorry … I do.
Recently I read Ernest J. Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying. The story is set in 1940s Louisiana. Black vs. white racial tension divided many of the characters in the narrative; the gospel of Christianity united others.
The main character (Mr. Grant Wiggins) is an unmarried, atheistic (at least initially), black teacher of black children in a Louisiana parish. He is persuaded/cajoled/manipulated into the awkward position of helping an innocent black man (Jefferson) recently accused of murder, to discover and embrace the fact that he is a full man, a creation of God, a person of worth.
Why is Jefferson these things? Because he bears the image of God (Imago Dei). The irony of ironies is that Grant himself, at least for most of the story, is a professing atheist.
Jefferson’s discovery of his worth comes through Grant Wiggins, the Jonah-like reluctant prophet, sent with a message of worth. Both men are changed throughout. The lesson before dying? Worth exists because of the Creator. Absent a Creator, worth and values are merely subjective preferences.
What follows is a form providing a brief book review:
256 pages of southern literature. If you enjoy Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Faulkner, O’Connor, Porter, Cormac McCarthy and other southern literary fiction, rest easy. You won’t be required to work that hard. This novel is easy to read.
Motifs of Christian self-sacrifice and atonement for a world in need pervade the narrative. But what happens in a world that does not want God? There’s the rub. The world is in need of those redeeming events but lacks the humility to admit it.
The novel is a solid story of an innocent man condemned by the mob of some racists in Louisiana. The protagonist is a university-educated black man, Grant Wiggins, who is (perhaps?) a professing Christian but who has lost whatever professed faith he had (during his college years), proving, I would argue, he never possessed saving faith/trust to begin with.
Grant returns to his roots in Louisiana, reunites with influential matriarchal figures like Ms. Emma and others, and is persuaded to serve as the advocate for the innocent-but-condemned black man (Jefferson) who is guilty only of being in the wrong place with the wrong people at the wrong time.
Here is an example of Gaines’ style. In the following paragraph, these are Grant’s thoughts towards the end of the novel re his crisis of faith:
Don’t tell me to believe. Don’t tell me to believe in the same God or laws that men believe in who commit these murders. Don’t tell me to believe that God can bless this country and that men are judged by their peers. Who among his peers judged him? Was I there? Was the minister there? Was Harry Williams there? Was Farrell Jarreau? Was my aunt? Was Vivian? No, his peers did not judge him—and I will not believe. (251)
I remember my high school English teaching telling me, “Look for how and when the protagonist changes; that’s crucial.” Great advice that has stood me and other readers of serious literature in good stead. In short, Grant Wiggins changes when he, reluctant prophet though he is, gives life to another by convincing him (Jefferson) that he’s a man, a creature of dignity and worth, a creation of God. The irony is that Grant himself has not believed that until … You see the idea.
One would be hard-pressed to find one who appreciates serious literary southern fiction more than I. But why the accolades for this novel? It is, I admit, an emotionally appealing novel. A skeptic discovers the gospel and what it means to be human and a creature of worth … rather than cosmic material ephemera. But is that new? No. That idea has been written for millennia via Scripture and via books like Thomas Howard’s Chance or the Dance?
Writers like J. Gresham Machen, Francis Schaeffer, R.C. Sproul, Chuck Colson, Nancy Pearcey, Larry Woiwode, C.S. Lewis, Flannery O’Connor, Ron Hansen, and others have addressed this issue of where worth comes from.
There is a reason Gaines’ novel received such attention by another generation of readers. Something in most of us recoils at the pervasiveness of injustice, racism, and cruelty. But unless one is willing to admit that God is the only grounds for objective moral values, any talk of worth and intrinsic value founders unless we will admit the founder and perfecter of all that is true, good, and beautiful.
Over the last few weeks I reread a book by an American writer I have admired for many years, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his novel The House of the Seven Gables. But I also read a lengthy biography of Hawthorne by Brenda Wineapple. I have provided a threefold approach to the novel and the biography using the following format: Summary, Analysis, Assessment. If you are a reader of serious literature and/or of its masters, I hope you benefit from what follows. I hope you will read (and or reread) Hawthorne’s works yourself. I recommend reading his short stories first, then moving on to The Scarlet Letter and other novels. There is much more to Hawthorne’s works than Hester Prynne’s scarlet A.
The House of the Seven Gables:
At the risk of oversimplification, the novel explores the power of the past, and some people’s attempts to preserve it, pervert it, yield to it, and/or manipulate it. The “house” of the novel’s title is a house with seven gables, yes, but also a symbol for creation itself—once beautiful but now decaying due to the fall of the universe and all mankind. Does beauty exist anymore? If so, by what standard is beauty to be understood? Is love possible? What worldview best explains the way the world is—chaos or Christianity?
A few quotes from the novel may help to reveal what the novel centers upon:
Nothing gives a sadder sense of decay, than this loss of suspension of the power to deal with unaccustomed things and to keep up with the swiftness of the passing moment. It can merely be a suspended animation; for, were the power actually to perish, there would be little use of immortality. We are less than ghosts, for the time being, whenever this calamity befalls us. (141)
Intellectual honesty requires readers know up front that this novel is not light fare. Hawthorne was a serious thinker and writer; his canon of literature attests to that. In the above passage, the issue is how to capture the fleeting nature of human experience. How can the artist arrest motion and present his art to a world swept up in the quick, fast, and silly? Artists labor to speak to the deep things of life, but the trivial things invariably occupy most people’s time. More accurately stated, most people fill their free time with silliness and distraction.
A second quote from the novel may further illustrate Hawthorne’s concerns:
It seemed to Holgrave—as doubtless it has seemed to the hopeful of every century, since the epoch of Adam’s grandchildren—that in this age, more that ever before, the moss-grown and rotten Past is to be torn down, and lifeless institutions to be thrust out of the way, and their dead corpses buried, and everything to begin anew.
As to the main point—may we never live to doubt it!—as to the better centuries that are coming, the artist was surely right. His error lay, in supposing that this age, more than any past or future one, is destined to see the tattered garments of Antiquity exchanged for a new suit, instead of gradually renewing themselves by patchwork; in applying his own little life-span as the measure of an interminable achievement; and, more than all, in fancying that it mattered anything to the great end in view, whether he himself should contend for it or against it. (157-58)
Summary: As you can tell from the above quotes, the novel is concerned with the past. (Notice how Hawthorne capitalized it.) How we view the past is crucial. What are the standards we should bring to bear when thinking about the past? What should we preserve and what should we erase and/or deemphasize? (I’m thinking in terms of architecture here.) And what about literature? Should we preserve the Classics by Milton, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Homer, Dante, and Tolstoy, for example? Or should we consign these thinkers to “the past” written by those “oppressive white males,” and instead only read today’s writers, many of whom focus on race, class, sexual proclivities, and gender and neglect what Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself”? Hawthorne’s novel explores these underlying issues.
Analysis: How does Hawthorne demonstrate the questions posed above? In short, he explores them via Hepzibah, Holgrave, Clifford, and Phoebe, four of the major characters in the novel. In my view, these four characters embody an angle from which Hawthorne explores how to view the past. Does it cripple us via family and generational curses? That is, are we helpless to overcome the power of the past? Should we seek to carve out a present by neglecting the past and the so-called lessons of history? Should we tiptoe along the surfaces of life, pretending all is well? Contemporize it for a moment: In selfies, isn’t the message most often, “I’m so happy!”? Hawthorne’s characters from the 1800s would not have known the meaning of “selfies,” but some of his characters embodied their takers’ worldviews. If man is the measure of all things, in other words, what you get is, well, man. Don’t curse the heavens if you worship at the altar of man.
Assessment: It will come as no surprise that I am still reading Hawthorne’s fiction—thirty years after I discovered his fiction. Where does Hawthorne fit? He has been called a Dark Romantic, like Edgar Allan Poe. He disavowed Thoreau’s pantheism and Emerson’s paganism. Feminists celebrate Hester Prynne as a brave woman, a martyr for women’s sexuality in a man’s world. Some angry self-professing atheists see Hawthorne as an author who called out some Puritans for their hypocrisy. Where do I fall in my view of Hawthorne’s oeuvre? In sum, I would agree that he is a Dark Romantic. His view of man—his anthropology—is realistic. He sees that man is a sinner by nature, by inclination, by deed, and by choice. I do not see evidence, so far in my studies of Hawthorne, at least, that he was a Christian. He seemed to disavow biblical Christianity several times, in fact (I will explore this more in Part Two). An issue that fascinates me is this: If Hawthorne acknowledged sin, man’s fallenness, the fallenness of the universe of all of mankind, what prevented him from embracing the gospel? Hawthorne was a master, at least in my view, of exploring our sinfulness, but he was less ready to explore the Redeemer. As a result, his writing profoundly explores man’s problem but without proposing a solution, one he would have found in the gospel.
(Part Two coming soon)
It was when I pulled out of the driveway that I knew. I knew I had to write it. Let me explain. She was sitting there with the dogs, watching me pull away to drive south again to Fort Benning for surgery this Thursday. I knew I had to write it. I can get it across on the page, things I don’t say as often or as well as I should—namely, that I am grateful for her, for her steadfastness, for her loyalty, for her feistiness, for her prayer life, for her deftness at organizing our lives, and on and on. I had to write it. To write what exactly? A paean to my wife who makes me better than I would otherwise be.
I learned an awful lot during my seminary years. And one of those lessons came by way of my favorite seminary professor. He was teaching us seminarians about personal discipleship. He was stressing that we could learn lots of theological precepts and still lose our marriages. Then he made this profound remark: “Don’t wait till Mother’s Day to realize if you have a Proverbs 31 wife.” Dr. Cutrer, my professor, could have ended class that moment. He was that gifted in teaching via example.
Proverbs 31:10-31 is perhaps the most obvious set of verses in Scripture where a godly wife is praised. King Lemuel uses synonymous parallelism in Hebrew poetry to make the point of how valuable a godly wife is. Here is just one example from verse 10: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10, ESV). Pretty straightforward, right? An excellent wife, according to Scripture, is worth more than fine jewels, and this was written circa 1,000 B.C. in an ancient Near East context, so precious jewels perhaps sparkled more in people’s thinking than they might today.
But what made Dr. Cutrer’s lesson for us more poignant was that Jane, his precious wife, was in class with him. She was at his side, serving alongside him to show us seminarians what an enduring commitment looked like. In short, the precept was theological (that God created, ordained, and loves biblical marriage) but also fleshed out in real lives. Theology was not just to be cerebral but incarnational. And that is why I had to write today—not primarily about theology but about my wife. Following are three examples of why I felt compelled to share.
Example one: I love to work outside in the yard. Where I’m from, folks call it “piddlin’.” It is a catchall phrase. In my case, it usually involves doing something in the soil. From my mom and my maternal grandfather, I inherited a love for the earth—the smell of soil, a love of colors in nature, of flora, of things growing, etc. Some guys like to peruse sports cars; I like to walk through the garden section at Lowe’s, if that gives you an idea.
When I was outside piddlin’, my wife, CJ, pressure-washed both of the decks on the back of our house. We live in the woods, and so spiders and carpenter bees and all sorts of other creatures like to try and stake a claim on the decks of the house. So while I was out in the yard, my wife had gone down to the basement, hauled up a pressure washer, and sprayed off two decks. I don’t know of many husbands who would have complained. This one didn’t. Score one for the Proverbs 31 wife.
Example two: I have a surgery this week at Fort Benning to reconstruct my right shoulder. I’ll be operated on here, and then return to my barracks room to rest and recuperate, and hopefully, return home for a few days of convalescence. No big deal, right? No need for my wife to drive three hours south. Yet when I told her that I was good, that I had a buddy down here who had promised to look after me if anything goes wrong, she got … well, feisty. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, not really wanting any reply I might have offered. “I’ll be there. You’re having major surgery. Do you really think I’m staying home? Good grief, Pirtle.” Yep, not the brightest husband moment. Score another one for the Proverbs 31 wife.
Example three: I was in a church recently where a teacher was teaching on a couple of verses from one of the New Testament epistles. As part of his lesson, he cross-referenced a passage from another letter but when he cross-referenced the second passage, he did not explain the context of the passage at all. The passage was about dietary laws, not about what he was trying to emphasize. And I was troubled because context is crucial. A fundamental rule of correct interpretation is to know, understand, and teach the correct context. Put bluntly, we are never to rip verses out of context. Anyway, I was troubled but I did not say anything until my wife and I were talking after lunch. I told her what had transpired and she asked me this: “Will you just commit to pray about it (talking to the teacher) this week?” She knows I don’t like conflict, but she was right. Not only should I have gone to the teacher, but I should also have been praying and prayerful as I did it. But I had not. My wife was right on both counts and I was wrong. Score another one for the Proverbs 31 wife.
When I pulled away today to drive back down, she was on the driveway with the dogs. She would undoubtedly go in when I pulled away, make sure the kids were okay, straighten something in the house, perhaps read the book she’s working on currently, prep for the coming week, and wait for me to call and tell her I had made it to Benning again.
I have made it here now and reflected some on how much better I am because of her, on how far I still have to go, on how humbling it is to be chastened and loved by one who loves and remains alongside me despite knowing my many weaknesses.
Her parents (my in-laws) I have grown to love and respect more with each passing year, and two of the greatest blessings they gave this world were daughters, both of whom love the Lord. They (my in-laws, sister-in-law, and wife) know, too, that Proverbs 31 is not just for Mother’s Day homilies. It’s for us stubborn, sinful husbands who don’t tell you enough that you are more precious than jewels.
This week I read a history of one of the most influential men in American history, a Founding Father, printer, author, autodidact, aphorist, statesman, scientist, friend of Calvinist George Whitefield, and inveterate ambassador of discovery, education, and self-improvement. Biographies are among my favorite areas in which to read deeply, and Thomas Kidd’s bio of Ben Franklin did not disappoint.
Following is a form to provide a brief book review:
3. Main idea
4. Questions raised/reflections
Kidd divides the book into nine chapters: 1) Child of the Puritans; 2) Exodus to Philadelphia, Sojourn to London; 3) Philadelphia Printer; 4) Poor Richard; 5) Ben Franklin’s Closest Evangelical Friend; 6) Electrical Man; 7) Tribune of the People; 8) Diplomat; and 9) The Pillar of Fire.
Kidd provides a clear overview of Franklin’s Calvinist upbringing and deep knowledge of the Bible; his prodigious work ethic and self-discipline; his staggering output of pamphlets, articles, ads and booklets as a printer; his deftness with proverbs; his lifelong friendship and theological foil with Christian evangelist George Whitefield; his discoveries in electricity; his educational and political honors and appointments; his government service; and his final days wrestling with the question of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel.
Consider the following commentary by Kidd re Franklin’s self-help moralism:
If Whitefield preached transformation by God, Franklin advocated gradual reformation by daily effort, with biblical precepts as a guide. No internal change or divine regeneration was needed. Whatever the lingering influence of his Puritan heritage, this was a point on which Franklin clearly departed from the Puritans, and from their evangelical successors like Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. In this focus on harnessing daily habits, Franklin was setting foundational precedents for that distinctively American, quasi-religious genre, the self-help movement. Franklin’s “The way to Wealth” and his Autobiography were ur-texts of that movement. (161)
Kidd excels in demonstrating the rich theological culture that existed in America in the middle of the 1700s due mostly to the robust evangelism of Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield amidst the literacy rate of the nation seeking to separate from George and English dominion.
Kidd maintains his focus throughout the book on Franklin’s internal struggles. He (Franklin) was saturated with biblical knowledge but he never would concede the divinity of Christ, his virgin birth, or that salvation was by grace alone. Franklin sifted the Bible for moral precepts, acknowledging Jesus’ incomparable greatness, but would not, as far as historians can tell, ever trust in Christ and the gospel completely. Whitefield and Franklin corresponded for decades, and all the while, Whitefield pleaded for Franklin to trust in Christ alone, but Franklin persisted to trust in his own deeds as meriting favor with God, a clear indicator he had not embraced the gospel.
It is interesting to study a man as brilliant and gifted as Benjamin Franklin, one who was largely self-taught, one who explored the Greek and Roman classics, the Bible, philosophers like Locke, Hume, and Kant, theologians and pastors like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield, and never seemed to lose his zeal for discovery and learning. Despite his experiences of man’s butchery in the American Revolution, the slaughter of Indians by misguided zealots, and some of America’s birth pangs, he continued a rebel soul up until his end in this life. I wish he has listened more to his friend Whitefield and believed the Scriptures, rather than just quoting them when they suited his rhetorical purposes.
Lastly, if you wish to learn of this Founding Father, this contradictory man, this gifted writer and satirist, read Kidd’s bio of Franklin. Kidd writes so well that you may wish the book had been even longer.
Ever have a day or two in a row where everything falls into place, days when you say to yourself, “I don’t want this to end. Can’t we just keep this going, please?” Let me explain.
Recently I was able to spend a couple of days with some of my family after a long absence due to my military obligations that often keep me away from home. My wife and I drove down to the lake where we live. We loaded our dogs in my truck, drove down to the water, leashed the dogs and walked some. It was evening. Some boats were on the water. We watched a girl on a float being pulled across the lake’s surface by her family in their boat. The girl laughed and then screamed seemingly simultaneously, as her father circled the boat and made his daughter jump the boat’s wake over and over. Then we watched the inevitable: the girl bounced, the ski rope was ripped free, and we saw the girl laughing and bobbing in her orange life jacket, waiting for her dad to swing the ski rope by her again for another tug.
My wife had our King Charles Cavalier on a green leash by the rocks. My wife had her hair down. The sun’s last gold of the afternoon was at the western edge of the lake. Except for wake from the boats, the lake was smooth. I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture of my wife when she was unaware of my watching her. She was in one of the expressions I adore. (There’s something about her in spring/summer, when her skin has turned brown, her eyes shine as if she’s got a funny joke she wants to tell, her sandals reveal her pretty toes, and she’s unaware I’m watching … but these moments I wish I could freeze, bottle them for future openings, and so I snap a picture.)
The light was just right off the water. The girl out on the lake was up and on the float again, way out now on the far end of the lake, and being pulled across the water. A kayaker, nearer us, eased by silently, searching for hungry fish at dusk. I glimpsed one of the man’s rods as he paddled. Aflorescent green curly tail of a plastic worm swayed in rhythm to the man’s paddle strokes.
My wife comes over to me and takes our German shepherd from me so I can cast a few times. The water is crystal clear. I can see the lures I use, even several feet down. Cast, retrieve, cast. No bites, yet I see fish just below the dock on which I stand. It’s okay. This is not an evening for complaint, I can tell, but for thanksgiving.
After several minutes, I pack up my rod and tackle boxes, and rejoin my wife who has been standing with the dogs on up the shoreline, and we walk back to my truck for the drive home.
The next day, we go to a local restaurant where we eat raw oysters and talk and people-watch in an artsy section of a nearby town replete with great restaurants and nightlife. We go home later and watch a movie that causes us both to weep and laugh together.
We talk of the kids. Our son is with friends for the weekend. Our daughter will be home tomorrow, too. We are thankful. My wife speaks of what she is singing tomorrow at church. It grows late. I take the dogs outside for a bit and hear the cicadas thrumming.
And it bears upon me—that my times like these cannot be manufactured, but they unfurl as if by providence. It is enough to make me, as our dogs rustle through the dry oak leaves in front of the house, say aloud, “Yes, thank you,” and know I have been heard.
“We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” That is a line from American fiction writer John Updike’s short story “The Blessed Man of Boston, My Grandmother’s Thimble, and Fanning Island.” I read that story, along with many other Updike stories, and even an excellent biography of John Updike, over recent days and weeks.
That line sounds deep chords within me because I am in a place where I have never been, at least to this degree, before—on the receiving end of medical treatment. Heretofore I have been healthy. I’ve never broken a bone, never had major surgery. My mom tells me I had tubes in my ears when I was a baby and I know my tonsils were removed when a child, but that’s it. I have been fortunate in the field of physical health.
But on 2 April 2019 in Iraq, that changed. My right shoulder and bicep ripped during physical training, the right shoulder dislocated, the dumbbells fell, and I collapsed onto the mat.
Now I am back in the States undergoing physical therapy, spending a lot of time in medical appointments and waiting rooms (where Updike’s fiction has been my companion), and I am likely looking at surgery.
I have been forced to slow down. It has, to return to Updike’s image, felt like a snail’s pace. But I have been able to read carefully, not just in the various doctors’ offices, but also in my room at night when the shoulder pain keeps me up.
Doctors’ offices are not my preferred environments. Sitting in the cold plastic chairs, removing my uniform top, having my blood pressure taken, being asked my height and weight, being told to wait (“The doctor will be with you shortly, sir”), flusters me. I do not do well in this environment; I want to return to work.
I look around these waiting rooms filled with soldiers (current and veteran) and family members. Some have black hats on advertising their wars: VIETNAM VET; KOREAN VET; and a few, WWII VET. Of course, these waiting rooms are filled with soldiers from my generation’s conflicts and wars: IFOR/SFOR in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
I watch the people. The young ones have their phones out. The viewers are hunched over them, streaming videos, scrolling social media, or playing inane games that keep their thumbs and index fingers twitching.
Overhead hang TV monitors. Daytime entertainers don perfect smiles, show tanned skin, and speak through teeth white as Chiclets. They blather about an Elton John movie and politics in the Middle East. They smile, give hugs to each other, clap like penguins, and smile again.
On cue, their audiences transition from subject to subject unawares. Yesterday, Kathy Lee and Ryan talked about dangers to dogs in the summertime, an Elton John movie, and Robert Mueller. They and their guests all smile, they hug a lot, and there are lots of ooos and ahhhs. They smile, sip coffee from giant porcelain cups, emote. The TV audience smiles, applauds, and seems so happy they are on the verge of erupting into hallelujahs.
And I have lots of questions: Why this injury? Why did it occur less than two weeks before I was slated to return to the States with my unit?
But I know it would make more sense to ask different questions: Why not me? Why not this injury or even worse? What makes me think I get a pass? Why should I think I get a pass on suffering or hardship?
I return to my reading. Later in the same Updike story referenced above, the main character describes the prayers of his local pastor come to visit a family whose grandfather had just died, and Updike writes: “His prayers seemed to chip pieces from our hearts and float them away.” Yes and amen.
To be snail-like and “leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves” is a beautiful line, I believe. Some find their callings there—to call attention to our own and others’ plights, by expressing them through writing or ministry.
Paul phrased it this way: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor1:1-4).
I admire Updike’s fiction. He does indeed “give the mundane its beautiful due.” But does not that desire need an ought, a reason, a justification? If it does, could it be that we desire to “leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves” because we sense we are here as part of a greater design, one ordained even, where not even a sparrow falls to the ground except by way of the will of God?