Currently a group of us are going through the Old Testament book of Esther. It is among my favorite books of Scripture. And I am learning it is among the most powerful of books when it comes to exploring issues involviing courage, wisdom, and faith.
Set in the 480s-460s B.C. in Susa of Persia (present-day Iran), Esther’s story covers a series of historical events and explores sundry themes:
Good vs. Evil
Cowardice vs. Courage
Pride vs. Humility
Bravery vs. Bravado
Trust in Government vs. Trust in the Lord
Temporal Power vs. Divine Providence
This list could go on, of course.
Esther is about how the Feast of Purim came to be, about how God sustained the Jewish people during their exile under Persian rule and captivity, about how a humble God-fearing man like Mordecai was used by God to alter the history of redemption, about how a beautiful and brave young woman (Esther) risked it all to trust the Lord, and how God rewarded that trust by vanquishing wicked Haman, his progeny, and how the low and humble (like Mordecai and Esther and the Jewish people) were brought from low to high, and about how God’s providence was manifest–yet again–through examples of faithful men and women.
People often quote phrases from this book, like ” … for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14) and “if I [Esther] perish, I perish” (Esther 4:16), but Esther is an easy book from which to quote. It is much harder to live out, especially if you have skin in the game.
Was it Dorothy from Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz who said, “There’s no place like home”?
I think so, but it has been a bit since I read it or watched the film.
But the statement is true for me.
My wife was busy fattening the girl deer up on bread from her hands.
And I fed and watched the birds come and feed on sunflower and other seeds from a feeder.
And I think of such times when I’m flying from place to place and look down upon cities electrified at night.
And tomorrow I will be able to gather with the saints at Sunday school and church as we open the Scriptures to the wonder-filled book of Esther wherein we will learn of heroism (Mordecai and Esther), read of romance/love, dangers and threats to the good in a world of pervasive evil, read of one of history’s true villains (Haman), and see how obedience to the Lord was repaid in a temporal sense via Purim but also eternally for the redeemed by the Lord’s presence.
Did I mention that I concur with Dorothy? There’s no place like home.
Several of the books/series I am going through are leviathans. In the current edition of Moby-Dick I am reading, there are over 600 pages. I am quite familiar with Moby-Dick as the literary masterpiece it is, and so the length of the novel does not intimidate me or hopefully anyone else who dives into its sea of profundities. But even if it does intimidate you, please see it through. Press on. Stick with it. Melville’s encyclopedic wisdom is in these pages. Plus, it’s just a masterful story of will, of good and evil, of humanity and inhumanity, of the great enduring truths of the human condition.
In the copy I’m using, it is marked up from my previous readings. Below are just a few of the places where characters from the novel, or the narrative voice, or perhaps Melvillean avatars utter thought-provoking gems:
“What could be more full of meaning?–for the pulpit is ever this earth’s foremost part; all the rest comes in its rear; the pulpit leads the world. From thence it is the storm of God’s quick wrath is first descried, and the bow must bear the earliest brunt. From thence it is the God of breezes fair or foul is first invoked for favourable winds. Yes, the world’s a ship on its passage out, and not a voyage complete; and the pulpit is its prow” (55).
And one of the funniest scenes is when Ishmael meets Queequeg. Thinking Queequeg is some degenerate cannibal and that he (Ishmael) is the refined and sophisticated person, Ishmael begins to learn that things are often not what they appear. When Ishmael discovers he has to share a bunk with a tatooed cannibal, he (Ishmael) at first is prideful and resentful. But as he gets to know Queequeg, Ishmael learns that virtue abides in action rather than in appearance:
“What’s all this I have been making about, thought I to myself–the man’s a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me as I have to be afraid of him. Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian” (38).
And of course one of the most familiar passages comes near the beginning of the adventure when Ishmael, trying to understand his reasons for wanting to take to the sea, has this interior monologue:
“Why is almost every robust healthy boy with a robust healthy soul in him, at some time or other crazy to go to sea? Why upon your first voyage as a passenger, did you yourself feel such a mystical vibration, when first told that you and your ship were now out of sight of land. Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and own brother of Jove? Surely all this is not without meaning. And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all” (19).
The characters loom large in this masterpiece, too: Ishmael, Queequeq, Starbuck, Ahab, the sea, and, of course, the whale.
And the meanings are nearly inexhaustible in the book: What does the whale represent? Why Ahab’s animus? Why the motif of sailors and sea? Why all references to Jonah from Scripture? Why the anger against the way things are? Why wrath rather than worship? The questions are nearly inexhaustible, too. If one could read only ten of the greatest novels ever penned, Moby-Dick would have to be on that list. And it will repay you in riches each time.
Recently I completed another reading of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls.
What follows below are several items: 1) quotes from the book; 2) some ideas about Hemingway’s atheism; 3) some questions to ponder; 4) why my views of the novel changed.
As a brief prolegomenon and as a matter of disclosure, I value Hemingway’s writing–especially his short stories–immensely. His place in the canon of classics of American and world literature is not in doubt. The fact that thousands of us still read his works is proof. So what follows is not a Hemingway-bashing screed.
I hope that it is rather a thoughtful response and series of questions for careful readers to ponder as we continue to read and study Hemingway’s works and his worldview.
Here are a few quotes from the book that moved me, told from a soldier’s perspective, amidst war:
Two Quotes from the Novel:
“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” (169).
And then this quote. It is, like the one above, from a soldier’s perspective, an internal stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, and it reflects a worldview:
“I think that we are born into a time of great difficulty, he thought. I think any other time was probably easier. One suffers little because all of us have been formed to resist suffering. They who suffer are unsuited to this climate. But it is a time of difficult decisions. The fascists attacked and made our decision for us. We fight to live. But I would like to have it so that I could tie a handkerchief to that bush back there and come in the daylight and take the eggs and put them under a hen and be able to see the chicks of the partridge in my own courtyard. I would like such small and regular things.
‘But you have no house and no courtyard in your no-house, he thought. You have no family but a brother who goes to battle tomorrow and you own nothing but the wind and the sun and an empty belly. The wind is small, he thought, and there is no sun. You have four grenades in your pocket but they are only good to throw away. You have a carbine on your back but it is only good to give away bullets. You have a message to give away. And you’re full of crap that you can give to the earth, he grinned in the dark. You can anoint it also with urine. Everything you have is to give. Thou art a phenomenon of philosophy and an unfortunate man, he told himself and grinned again” (368).
Thoughts on Hemingway’s Atheism:
It should be evident from both quotes that Hemingway’s characters in the novel embody a naturalistic worldview. There is no God; there is only material and chance. Man came from nowhere; there is no divine overarching purpose to the cosmos, much less to individual lives, except what one arbitrarily manufactures. No heaven, no hell. Just blood and soil, as it were. Lots and lots of blood, blood-soaked soil, and war.
But what strikes me each time I read this novel is that Robert Jordan, the protagonist, loves. He loves his fellow soldiers (like Anselmo, for example) and he loves Maria, the Spanish girl. He also loves concepts like honor and sacrifice.
Some Questions to Ponder:
Is that not interesting? Why would a person with an atheistic/naturalistic worldview love people, love his fellow soldiers, love a woman, or love ideas like honor and sacrifice? How can one logically account for these things in an atheistic/naturalistic worldview?
But what we find in this novel, and in all of Hemingway’s other masterful works, is that his characters do love. They do value sacrifice. They do value honor. They do believe in right and wrong, good and evil.
Why My Views Have Changed:
When I read this novel now, I see its contradictions, and those contradictions lessen my appreciation for the atheistic position.
The writing (please hear me) is wonderful. But the logical inconsistencies are replete.
Robert Jordan is in many ways, one might reasonably say, a “good” man. (“Why do you call me good?” should be ringing in your bibical ears, if you know the Scriptures.) He is at war voluntarily to combat what he views as evil.
He loves his battle buddies.
He loves a woman.
He loves life and hates meaningless violence while also recognizing that violence is necessary at times to destroy evil’s advances.
But all of these concepts about good and evil, love and hate, right and wrong, purpose versus accident, chance versus providence–they all only make sense if there’s a personal, transcendent, objective reference point, i.e., God.
I was flying in uniform today. When I went through pre-check and walked out to my gate, a man spoke to me kindly.
“Thank you for your service,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
Moments later we were all boarded. The plane was full. Packed. The man at the Delta kiosk offered checked-in passengers $1,200 to take a flight twelve hours later.
When I boarded, I strained to fit my backpack into the overhead bin. This plane appeared smaller than the ones I normally fly. And the bins seemed smaller, too.
Finally I squeezed my black backpack into the overhead bin, grabbed my bottle of water and the novel I was completing, and took my seat.
I was seated near the rear in a window seat. I was speaking with a kind woman next to me who was flying with her two young daughters. The girls were clearly excited to fly but their mom was less spirited. I tried to cheer her up and make small talk while her girls took their seats across the narrow aisle.
Then the man who had earlier thanked me for my service stood up from his seat in first class. He pointed at me. He waved me forward, mouthing, “This seat’s for you,” and told me to come to his seat.
He came and took my little window seat in the back and insisted I take his large seat in first class. He would not accept my refusal. And I did not wish to cause a scene.
Because of him, I flew first class across the country.
When we arrived several hours later, I stayed on the plane until he exited. “Thank you, sir. I really appreciate it,” I said. I asked him if he was prior service.
“I’m not,” he said, “but my dad is a Marine. He died last year. But there are no former Marines,” he said.
“Yes, sir, I know,” I said and laughed. “Thank you, again.”
Despite the self-absorption and selfishness that tend to characterize most current things, kindness (often in quiet ways) abides.
I salute you, sir, and your dad, the Marine, for raising a generous and kind man.