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.

 

 

Is That All?

Physicist Stephen Hawking died this week. He was well known for his 1988 book A Brief History of Time. He also had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and spoke via sophisticated electronic circuitry designed to enable him to communicate. Hawking tapped into a larger popular audience than academia normally affords. His voice is even heard on the Pink Floyd song, “Keep Talking,” on their 1994 The Division Bell album. I remember reading Hawking’s book a few years back. Though my academic background is in philosophy/theology and literature, I read Hawking’s book because of the theological and philosophical assertions he made. He wrote about design in the universe. He wrote about morality. He wrote about purpose. Yet he was a committed materialist. He rejected the idea of a transcendent God who created the universe, the laws of nature, and the laws of logic. He rejected the one who sustains the creation by the word of his power.

In a 1988 interview with Der Spiegel, Hawking said, “We are a just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the universe. That makes us something very special.”

Interesting how a man who spent his life studying the cosmos, the origin of the universe, the complexity of information in the universe, the existence of mind and matter, etc. rejected the author of all this. An “advanced breed of monkeys” does not encourage me to place credibility in your “thought.”

It reminds me of Richard Dawkins in his 1996 book River Out of Eden. Dawkins wrote, “DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” Dawkins, too, is referenced in popular music, but this time it is via the Eagles, not Pink Floyd. In the song, “Long Road Out of Eden,” from their 2007 album of the same name:

Silent stars blinking the blackness of an endless sky

Gold, silver satellites, ghostly caravans passing by

Galaxies unfolding and new worlds being born

Pilgrims and prodigals creeping toward the dawn

And it’s a long road out of Eden

Hawking and Dawkins both taught we’re random collocations of atoms, here by chance, for nothing, going to nothing, and our values are subjective and foundationless, ones we choose. What else could values be if there’s no God? As Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, if God doesn’t exist, everything is permitted.

But is that all? Is it possible that Hawking and Dawkins stepped out of their lanes as physicist and biologist respectively?

What if God has spoken? What if “the heavens declare the glory of God,” as Scripture says in Psalm 19:1?

What if human life is created in the image of a loving and sovereign God (Psalm 139), who knows the very hairs of our heads (Matthew 10:30)?

What if there is a sovereign superintending creator who has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of [our] dwelling place, that [we] should seek God, in the hope that [we] might feel [our] way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26-27)?

Ask yourself: Is that (the world described by Hawking and Dawkins) all there is?

If we are intellectually honest, I would argue there is much evidence for God—not against him.

Materialists (like Hawking and Dawkins) chose to suppress that evidence by attributing it to natural law while denying the cause of those laws. They caricatured God.

Rather than admitting all of the evidence for him, they created red herrings and used non sequitirs. The universe itself, our consciences, objective moral values, mind, language, laws of logic, etc. bear witness to God.

An empty tomb in Israel does, too—so powerfully, in fact, that even stones cry out to the reality of the God who is (Luke 19:40).

 

 

 

Lily’s Return

Vehicles of every make and model were parked in Beulah’s parking lot when Lily returned. She pulled her Honda into a space, grabbed her iPhone, and exited her car. Donald stood outside Beulah’s white doors, smiling at her. He wore black Florsheim shoes with a silver buckle on top, gray slacks, gray shirt, and black blazer. When Lily reached him and went to shake his hand, she caught the scent of Jergens. “Welcome back,” he said, and hugged her.

“Thank you, Donald. I’ll explain later.”

“The congregation is still singing. Come on in. You can sit with us if you like.”

“I’ve caused you enough worry this morning. I’m okay, Donald. I’ll find some folks from Covenant to sit with. Okay?” Donald smiled an avuncular gentle smile, and nodded his head.

Lily walked across the foyer and peered into the sanctuary. She saw Mrs. Ellen Aims. She thought of sitting near her but changed her mind. She looked for Nathanael. Finally she spotted him. He sat near Tim, the Sunday school teacher. Beth Aims and Desiree Dramal sat on the other side of Tim.

The congregation appeared to be between songs, and was now seated. The pastor shared announcements with the church body. Donald walked towards his wife, and Lily moved towards Nathanael.

“May I?” Lily asked. Nathanael looked up and stood.

“Of course.”

Lily moved in and took her place. Nathanael, unlike his aunt, eschewed public drama. Lily sat next to Nathanael, until the music leader asked the congregation to stand again to greet one another, and then sing again. As everyone stood, Lily felt eyes upon her. Nathanael turned to shake hands with Beulah’s members and guests, then shook Lily’s hand again.

“I’m glad you’re back,” Nathanael said.

“As am I,” she said. “Thank you for …”

As Nathanael was about to speak, Beth Aims’ voice jangled.

“Miss Rood, you’re back,” Beth said.

“It seems so.”

“Some of us thought you’d run off,” said Beth smiling maliciously.

“No, I only forgot something,” Lily said. “But I’m back now.”

Beth’s smiled disappeared. Her lips closed over white daggers. She turned to Desiree, whispered something, and they both turned their faces away as if to sing.

(To be continued)

 

 

Down at the Creek

“Careful!”

“I know, Dad.”

“Watch for the moss on those rocks. It’s deceptive. Slick, son. Please be careful.”

“Dad, I know.”

I watched my 10-year-old descend to the fast-moving creek below. Gray granite stones, many times bigger than we were, jutted from the north Georgia hills, some at incredible angles. Often they had carpets of green moss on them, especially if they received little direct sunlight or were near the water.

As I watched my son, I thought he scuttled. “Slow down!” I wanted to yell at him. He stepped on one massive gray stone, then another, then another, until he reached the bottom. He stepped onto the bank of the creek.

From twenty feet above I watched my son. With one foot on the rocky bank, he leapt onto stones that protruded from the creek bottom. At last he was on the other side of the creek from me, looking up at me. He had his hunting knife in its sheath in his right hand. He held it up, pointing it skyward, as if to say, “Dad, see. I didn’t drop it.”

“Dad, come feel this water. It’s freezing!”

It wasn’t freezing, of course. My son, after all, was wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and tennis shoes. And I was in shorts and hiking shoes, with only a t-shirt and my favorite cap on. It was probably fifty degrees outside, but when I did climb down and meet him in the creek, we dipped our hands in the cold north Georgia water. We felt the water together. The afternoon sun struck the creek, and reflections from quartz, mica, and shale flashed from the waves. The stones, though silent, spoke.

Once down, there was only one thing to do, and that was go up the other side. I waited to see if my boy wanted to lead. The other side was just as steep. Slowly I began scaling my way up by way of stones and by pulling on the laurel limbs that surrounded us.

My son found his own way up, too. When we both arrived at the ridge where we could see down to the creek again, we paused, caught our breath, and felt the presence. Of what exactly?

It was really just a walk through the woods within a mile of our house—woods that are filled with whitetail deer, black bears, coyotes, hawks, and more squirrels than one can count. But we did not see them this day. For my son, he saw time with his dad, climbing massive stones up and down on a sunny March afternoon, and descending steep creek banks to play in the creek. I felt analogous things, too, but also perhaps some things about time, some things about how beauty is not a cosmetic we purchase. I understood something about beauty being inseparable from God, about beauty calling one to praise him for his benedictions.

A New Civil War

I heard someone say recently that the West is in a civil war. But this civil war is not over states’ rights or slavery, he said. It is a war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. That sounds overstated, doesn’t it? A war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. But I wonder if he may be right.

This morning at work, a friend and I were talking over breakfast. He’d stopped on his way into work and bought us both breakfast. When we were together a few minutes later at a table in the office, he flicked on a nearby TV and we began eating our biscuits and taking in some of the day’s news. Today’s news included three main issues: 1) violence at our schools as recently evidenced in Parkland, FL; 2) another Islamic attack, this one in Montenegro; and 3) the death of Rev. Billy Graham.

My friend and I ate our biscuits and shook our heads at the state of events we saw splashed across the screen: 17 dead and 14 injured in Parkland, FL, and the community and nation reel; another Islamist hurls a grenade into the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, Montenegro, then blows himself up; and 99-year-old Reverend Billy Graham, arguably the most effective Christian evangelist since the apostle Paul, has died. All three stories shared at least one theme: death. Death by violence in FL; death by suicide with the Islamist; and the death of Reverend Billy Graham, and how some secularists rage against his message of the Christian gospel—that Christ has come for sinners.

But how different are the worldviews? Strikingly. The young man who murdered his classmates and teachers in FL ripped life away from Cara, Chris, Gina, Alex, Joaquin, and more than a dozen others. Violence, death, suffering, and lots and lots of finger-pointing. I cannot read the soul of the murderer in FL. I cannot read the soul of the Islamist who threw a grenade into the American Embassy in Montenegro. I cannot read the soul of Rev. Billy Graham. But is the West in a type of civil war? Is there not a war of worldviews for the human soul?

Will more government intervention in our lives prevent murders like in Parkland, FL? Many on the political left emote that America needs more laws, more restrictions on guns, and some even argue for relinquishing American’s Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many on the political right point out that thugs don’t obey laws; hence, more laws and restrictions would not have prevented this. It’s not the millions of Americans who own guns, and who are law-abiding citizens, that we need worry about. Instead, we should enforce the laws we have, screen people for psychological health, and possibly arm some government school employees. But AR-15s (originally named for the ArmaLite-15) don’t discharge on their own. Human will is involved. Human responsibility is involved. I, for example, own several weapons; they don’t own me. Human volition and responsibility are always involved. What worldview better assesses what we are witnessing? Is more government the answer? The political left wants bigger government and more laws. The political right wants smaller government, enforcement of current laws, and personal responsibility.

What if one proposed that there is a worldview out there that assesses this, and that man’s problem is not a primarily political one, but a moral and theological one? The biblical worldview posits that men and women are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), that we are fallen creatures (Gen 3) because we chose (and continue to choose) to trust ourselves rather than God’s revealed will, and that we suppress the truth that God graciously gives us (Rom 1:18). The NT puts it this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-22 ESV).

In short, the biblical worldview diagnoses man’s root problem: he is a sinner. We are rebels against holy God. And our behavior is that characteristic of fools. We won’t prevent murder by banning AR-15s. We won’t prevent Islamic terrorists from murdering civilians by failing to call the reality of evil what it is. We won’t stop the raging mouths of secularists who inveigh against Rev. Billy Graham and his Christian message by forfeiting free speech.

I think what I overheard was right: there is a civil war in the West. I even think he may be right that there’s a war of worldviews over the human soul, and what it means to be human. We see what happens when we reject the biblical worldview. Names of victims scroll across our screens. Pundits point fingers. People bypass civility and rage at one another instead of reason. We prey instead of pray. We become, in short, darkened and increasingly foolish. Might we consider the biblical worldview? Rev. Graham was not a perfect man, to be sure, but he faithfully brought a message that not only assesses man’s problem but also includes God’s solution: the Christ.