Johnny Cash, October Sands, and Family

There’s a line in Moby Dick that sticks with me. No, it’s not “Call me Ishmael.” It’s this one: “Yes, as every one knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.” Why? Short answer: I have found it to be true. Something there is about the sounds of waves meeting shore; something about the way moonshine bathes the sea’s surface in white, and you can see the dark below and the light above, and you seek to discover some truth therein.

Perhaps it’s something about the strands of white and the impressions they hold for a moment: footprints of walkers, runners, kite fliers and tan seekers, young and old, working and retired—all there until the next wave or footprint or toddler with an orange shovel and matching pail.

I had my family, Johnny Cash’s autobiography, and a week of sun-drenched days and moonlit nights. Tonight is the full moon but it was nearly impossible to tell it was not full already, it was that bright.

Sitting on the balcony looking down towards the pool, I watched a gray squirrel climb a palm tree. Until he spotted me watching him, he seemed on a mission. I watched children play in the Gulf of Mexico while Zac Brown’s “Free” poured from a Bose Wave Music System, and many of us sang along, even if to ourselves.

I swam with my son and rode the waves in from the sandbar. I heard his boyish voice say, “Hey Dad, watch this!” wave after wave, afraid I’d miss seeing him.

I watched my wife’s skin absorb the sun and turn brown almost immediately. I read my Johnny Cash autobiography and listened to his last album filled with gospel songs about hurt and redemption and heard his voice say, “The Man Comes Around,” in a voice like no one else’s.

I watched my immediate and extended family work to provide and continue to make memories. And it’s all so simple: sunlight, water, sand, each other, music, ice cream, walking at night with headlamps on our foreheads, chasing the crabs on shore, their black eyes glowing in our beams of light. And still, the moon above. The sand like a white ribbon. The sounds of the water lapping at your ankles and retreating. Children’s voices. An occasional firecracker. The silhouette of lovers walking beside one another.

Melville was right; meditation and water are forever wed in a dance. And it is a good thing to be able to participate, to wade in and belong.

Roads to Redemption in the Stories of Denis Johnson

Tree of Smoke, Johnson’s long novel published in 2007, won the National Book Award. Its subjects were Vietnam, conspiracies, and myriad struggles to discern what is the “really real.” I read this novel over the last few weeks as I have worked my way through the fictional works of Johnson.

Perhaps it was because I still have an appetite for Vietnam stories. Though that was the war of my parents’ generation, in high school I read Vietnam stories and novels, and got hooked on them. Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War and Going After Cacciato were books I was assigned to read, but I actually enjoyed those. And Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, though it has been years since I have read it, still remains with me. Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers is another fine book about the many fallouts of the whole Vietnam era from which I have benefited.

Even though I was too young at the time to have understood Vietnam when it ripped America apart, the scores of novels and memoirs I have read of that war have hopefully helped me understand a terribly divisive time in America’s history, especially with regard to issues related to war, the dangers of trusting mainstream media, drugs, feminism, secularism, and the loss of shame. The list could go on.

The late 1960s and early 1970s still shape my parents’ generation. They can recall JFK’s assassination, Watergate, and Charles Manson like I recall the Challenger explosion, the attempted assassination of Reagan, and the Islamic terrorist attacks of 9/ll.

I know that is a lot of background to explore the fiction of Denis Johnson. But context is critical. No one writes in a vacuum. Johnson’s novel Tree of Smoke was, to me at least, not his best writing. In my view, it was too long, and he lost track of his main idea. But that was the first piece of Johnson’s that I read. Its backdrop was Vietnam, the effects upon brothers and families, upon men and women with each other, and upon how people very often lose their way.

They lost belief. Does that sound banal? Perhaps. But Johnson’s characters can rip your heart out when you see them unravel existentially and flounder in trying to put themselves back together again.

Here is an example of the protagonist (Skip Sands) thinking about who he is and what he is about, about how he is to make his way in the world of Vietnam’s horrors and the pervasive lies surrounding him:

Skip regretted the role handed him at the end, that of traitor to the rebellion. At the end the colonel had sought reasons not just for an operation gone wrong, but for the breaking of his own heart, had looked for betrayal at the very center of things in the shape of some classical enormity, and what could have been more enormous, more darkly Roman, than betrayal by one’s own house, by his nephew, by his own blood? A soul too wide for the world. He’d refused to see his downfall as typical, refused all collaboration with the likes of Marcus Aurelius: “You may break your heart,” the old emperor had written, “but men will go on as before.” He’s written himself large-scale, followed raptly the saga of his own journey, chased his own myth down a maze of tunnels and into the fairyland of children’s stories and up a tree of smoke. (p.515)

But it was not in his long novel Tree of Smoke that most impressed me. It was his short stories.

The Largesse of the Sea Maiden contains amazing short fiction. Johnson, you need to know, is not a gentle writer. That is, he addresses life at its extreme moments, as if the extremes are oracles revealing mysteries not otherwise spoken.

In the short story “Strangler Bob,” (from the Sea Maiden collection of stories) for example, the first-person narrator describes his mindset while at the county jail and courthouse. Like many scenes in Johnson’s fictional world, this character is amidst addicts, rebels, dreamers, and rebels:

While I was kept there I wondered if this place was some kind of intersection for souls. I don’t know what to make of the fact that I’ve seen men many times throughout my life, repeatedly in dreams and sometimes in actuality—turning a corner on the street, gazing out the window of a passing train, or leaving a café just at the moment I glance up and recognize them, then disappearing out the door—and it makes me feel each person’s universe is really very small, no bigger than a county jail, a collection of cells in which he encounters the same fellow prisoners over and over. (p. 99)

And in his novella Train Dreams, Johnson explores the experiences of Robert Grainer, a common railroad laborer in the early 1900s in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and Texas. Uneducated but hardworking, he marries, becomes a father, loses his wife and child in a fire, becomes a recluse, howls at the mountains with the wolves, battles insanity, a gives a dying man a drink of water from an old shoe. Yes, this is the world of Denis Johnson’s fiction, and it may shake you, too.

Lastly, my favorite Johnson stories came from his collection Jesus’ Son. This collection—again—explores lives of men and women on the edge—not just on the edge of society and laws, but on the edge of sanity. Characters hitchhike across America, find themselves in and out of hospital ERs, dives and bars, car crashes, and cabins for junkies. But they also serve as characters who illuminate the beauty in life that escapes the attention of most people.

I don’t think for a moment that Johnson would advocate for going through life on drugs or alcohol (he himself got clean after a long battle with both substances in the 1970s and into the 1980s) but in his fiction, Johnson does not shy away from using the extreme experiences—both comic and tragic—he was privy to in order to shock us into realities we would otherwise suppress. But those realities matter; they are important. They are sometimes those oracular insights—about ultimate things, and how we can know redemption is not just possible, but actual, if we will follow the signs.


What Is Your Worldview?

Seven questions reveal a lot … if they are the right questions. In his book Discipleship of the Mind: Learning to Love God in the Ways We Think, James Sire asks the right ones. 


In a world ripped apart and often characterized by (pardon the poor grammar) Us vs. Them, Sire excels in this book by demonstrating that all of us have a mental map of the world, a set of assumptions about the big questions and answers of life. We may not be conscious of our own worldviews at all times, but learning to be aware of ours and the worldviews of others—be they politicians, writers, entertainers, teachers, lawyers, philosophers and theologians, etc.—helps clarify what we think, why we think the way we do, and why we behave the ways we do. 


The questions he asks us to ask are fundamental questions that go a long way in revealing each person’s worldview. In a world ripped asunder via politics, race-baiting, shouting matches, and ad hominem attacks, Sire’s book may encourage you, too. 


Sire’s seven questions that elucidate each person’s worldview follow. Each time you listen to a politician, read a newspaper article, listen to the lyrics of a song, watch a film, ask these questions about the person’s or persons’ views behind what is being promulgated. What worldview are they operating from? How would they answer these questions?


1. What is prime reality—the really real?
2. What is the nature of external reality, that is, the world around us?
3. What is a human being?
4. What happens to a person at death?
5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?
6. How do we know what is right and wrong?
7. What is the meaning of human history?  


And perhaps most important of all, Sire’s definition of worldview: a set of presuppositions which we hold about the basic makeup of our world. 


One of the passions of my life is literature. Sire dedicates an entire chapter to worldview analysis of literature. In one chapter he contrasts the worldviews of the Christian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied Beauty” with the atheistic writer Thomas Hardy in his poem “The Darkling Thrush.” 


The worldview of each writer is manifested. Hopkins, a Christian writer, sees the world as the creation of the infinite-personal God, and beautiful colors and creatures in life as indicators and evidences of God’s nature being inseparable from the true, good, and beautiful. God exists, his creation exists, our minds exist, and we reflect God’s glory because we are created as his image-bearers.


Hardy, writing from an atheistic worldview, sees a bird dying along a fencerow at dusk as symbolic of man’s darkening hopes with regard to life and the future. The universe is a closed system, there’s no God beyond it, and all that exists is material, etc.—yet here we are, trying to make sense of why we feel empty and lonely in a dark world. Well, when we explore Hardy’s worldview, it’s no wonder. Why write poetry if we are just material in a material world? 


If you are curious about why we people think, create, and behave the ways we do, you are curious about worldviews, and an excellent place to begin is with Sire’s book.

Rereading J. Gresham Machen (& some related musings)


Over the last few months I have been under medical care due to a shoulder injury that called for surgery. Unable to exercise the ways I have done hitherto, I have spent more time in a recliner and/or on a bed than I would have liked. But these days healing post-surgery have not been wasted. I have been able to read more than usual. Better still, I have been able to reread some of my favorite books and writers. 


Last week I reread one of my favorite writers and thinkers, J. Gresham Machen. What follows are two items: 1) my thoughts on Machen’s book The Christian View of Man and 2) a short list of some books I am rereading.  


There are a few writers I return to again and again. J. Gresham Machen is one of my favorites. Why? In short, Machen excelled in getting to the bottom line in his books. He saw to the heart of the matter and then explored it with a keen mind and sharp pen. Okay, you might say, other writers have done that. Some have, I admit. But Machen saw the issues clearly and did not shy away from declaring them clearly. That is one way he distinguished himself. 


Very often I have found academic writers write largely to sound impressive. The writing contains little if anything new or noteworthy, or even particularly insightful. And often it is laden with abstruse academic jargon, as if that denoted something’s truthfulness.


If veracity is the goal, clarity of expression should be more prevalent. In academic writing, however, many books are never read except by committees, and then only to credential a peer.  


With Machen, however, we are spared those irritations. In The Christian View of Man (a book comprised of lectures Machen gave during the 1930s), Machen addressed fundamental issues with regard to the Christian worldview. The title is accurate. Machen contrasts the Christian worldview with the pagan one. He divides the book into twenty short chapters (usually five to ten pages each). And those few pages are packed with clearly defined characteristics regarding how the biblical/Christian worldview explains reality. Following is an example from Machen on how the Bible differs from secular literature:


     The Bible differs from human books on religion not merely in this point or that but in the centre about which everything moves. Human books are prone to find that centre in man; the Bible finds it in God.

     Men do not like that fundamental characteristic of the Bible. The prefer to think of the happiness of the creature as the goal; they wrongly interpret the text ‘God is love’ to mean that God is only love and that God exists for the benefit of His creatures; reversing the Shorter Catechism, they hold that God’s chief end is to glorify man. (50)


See how Machen clarifies the ways in which worldviews matter? If one comes to the Bible assuming it is just another book penned by men, (maybe even with helpful myths regarding the origin of the universe, of man, of sin, of strife, of ethics, etc.) it is still just another book. 


But if one takes the claims of the Bible seriously, and does the work necessary to understand the various types of literature it contains (history, law, poetry, wisdom, gospels, epistles, apocalyptic, et al.), and that it has one central theme uniting the myriad genres, and that there is a unifying storyline reaching its crescendo and fulfillment in Jesus the Christ, that would mean it’s a very different sort of book, would it not? Then it would not be “just another book.” Then there might be good reasons the apostle Paul, imprisoned for declaring the truth of the biblical worldview and Jesus as the Christ, would write to his younger child in the faith, Timothy, instructing him to do one thing above all–bring him the parchments (2 Timothy 4:13).


This is what I mean when I write Machen’s book clarifies what’s at stake. Here is another example of how Machen reveals the mutual exclusivity of the pagan worldview vs. the biblical worldview:


At the heart of everything that the Bible says are two great truths, which belong inseparably together—the majesty of the law of God, and sin as an offence against that law. Both these basic truths are denied in modern society, and in the denial of them is found the central characteristic of the age in which we are living.

    Well, what sort of age is that; what sort of age is this in which the law of God is regarded as obsolete and in which there is no consciousness of sin? 

I will tell you. It is an age is in which the disintegration of society is proceeding on a gigantic scale. Look about you, and what do you see? Everywhere the throwing off of restraint, the abandonment of standards, the return to barbarism. (189-90)


See the differences? On the one hand is the biblical worldview, with God and his holy nature revealed in his law. On the other hand is the secular/atheistic view, with man at the center and moral chaos as its distinctive characteristic. 


I was reminded today of how current—how relevant–Machen’s writing still is. Today as I went to the library, I heard the news on my radio. The story was of newborn infants left to die in a “comfort room.”


No, this story was not of babies under Herod in 1st century Palestine. No, it was not of babies under Josef Mengele in 1940s Nazi Germany. No, this was a story from our day, in our world, of Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Illinois in the U.S. Here’s a link to read about it, if you dare:


This is the value of rereading Machen. He clarifies the importance of worldviews. He explores winsomely the truism that ideas have consequences. And he points us to the Scriptures which are able to make us wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). 


I am looking on my desk now at other books I am rereading. They are among my favorites: Dickens’ David Copperfield, Dostoyevsky’s novels, and the fiction of Flannery O’Connor. There are more. And they are worth our time, dear readers, as much is at stake.  







The Gritty Fiction of Larry Brown

Occasionally I discover a writer whose works have endured thus far because they are true, not because they are necessarily pretty. If you appreciate the writings of Harry Crews and Flannery O’Connor, you may appreciate the gritty fiction of Larry Brown.


 Today I completed reading Brown’s novel The Rabbit Factory. Like everything else I have read from Larry Brown, this narrative explores the trials of (mostly) poor, white, hard-drinking, hard-living southerners who long for better lives. But each character is trapped—almost powerless to extricate himself/herself fully from a taunting, overwhelming web of evil. Better lives remain out of reach due to unwise choices, bad luck, fate, and/or formidable evil. 


This is not reading for the faint of heart. There is much violence herein.  And there is sex. And there is physical abuse. And there are scenes upon scenes with bourbon, beer, gin, and marijuana use. But these scenes are not there for shock value. These things, I would suggest, are tropes for lesser writers (Hunter S. Thompson and Norman Mailer, e.g.) but not for Brown.


Brown excels in his depiction of down-and-outsnot to sentimentalize them, but to reveal our possible connectionto them. He shows the sense of how actual people battle demons that we don’t often speak about to one another—demons of childhood traumas, wounds from abusive fathers, and loneliness that aches. His characters long to accomplish that for which they are convinced they were born but they flounder amidst cruel realities that reveal they have fallen far short. 


And on the stories go–of fighters, licentious wives, hit men, lonely female country cops, men and women who press on against formidable external odds and plaguing internal demons. 


If you’ve ever driven through the U.S countryside and seen neon Bud Light signs in front of roadside bars, and seen pickups parked out front, and you’ve thought of those men and women inside as if they were obviously beneath you … you might have thought, “How sad. Why can’t they be like I am?” Well, this book is not for you. Your life is zipped up nicely; theirs are apart at the seams. 


But if you’ve driven by those places and thought, “Yep, I am a lot like those folks on the inside—ugly, trying to drown my pain in my own way, in a mess … but determined to push through,” then this book might grip you. You might find we sinners are a lot more similar than we care to admit. 


Exposing facades of composure is what Brown does so well. But he does not do it via the high and mighty in our world but by exploring the downtrodden and morally bankrupt. 


Reading Larry Brown makes the honest person ask himself a hard question: Am I responding to other people like a Pharisee or like a fellow sinner?

25 Lessons at 50

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. 




1. Cruel people are almost always more courageous than kind ones, but I still prefer the kind ones. 


2. No testimony is so powerful as the lived one.
3. I learned more about the value of hard work when sitting alongside my grandparents under a pecan tree, shelling butterbeans and shucking corn, than I did in any university.


4. There is a world of difference between Facebook friends and friends. 


5. There will be lots of surprises for us at the final judgment.


6. Beauty makes no sense as a category if atheism is true. 


7. The visible Christian church, though filled with sinners, is still precious, because we sinners confess our sin is the problem and the gospel is the answer; secularists refuse to admit these by insisting the world will ‘progress’ via yet another humanistic model. It wont; study history. 


8. Words, though often misused, are nonetheless necessary.


9. Great books are one of life’s great comforts.


10. We have forgotten how to be alone and learn.


11. A hand-written letter still makes me smile. 


12. In a week, we won’t remember today’s headlines.


13. The Bible is too important to neglect; previous generations knew this. 


14. There are more wolves than shepherds.


15. Some people’s smiles reveal knives; discernment is key.


16. I bet Judas Iscariot had a lovely smile.


17. I have not fished enough, even if they’re not biting.


18. The apostrophe has reason to be upset. 


19. Grammar classes should be compulsory.


20. Public discourse has degenerated into verbal assassination; we have slain ourselves.


21. I wish I had learned to garden well. 


22. There are many excellent books, and Shakespeare penned more than a few of them. 


23. My wife loves me better than I deserve.


24. The arts, though largely neglected, are vital. 


25. 1 Corinthians 15. 



Reflections on Gaines’ novel, A Lesson Before Dying

image1Recently 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:

  1. Overview
  1. Quotation
  1. Main Idea
  1. Question(s) raised/reflection(s)


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)

Main Idea:

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.

Question(s) raised/reflection(s):

 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.

Reflections on Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables and Hawthorne: A Life (Part One of Two)

IMG_3178.JPGOver 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)



A Paean for CJ

FullSizeRenderIt 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.

Reflections on Kidd’s Biography of a Founding Father


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:

1. Overview

2 Quotation

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.

Main Idea:

 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.

Questions raised/reflections:

 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.