Three: Theology, a Novel of the Miniscule, & a Tome by Joyce Carol Oates

This week, I read three very different writers: John MacArthur, Nicholas Baker, and Joyce Carol Oates. One is a Christian theologian and pastor; one is a postmodern fiction writer whose style departs from almost anyone else I have read; and Oates is an American writer who has been prolific since the 1960s.

Below are some thoughts on each book, its main concerns, examples from each that illustrate said concerns, and some questions for reflection.

In Reckless Faith by John MacArthur, published in 1994, MacArthur introduces his theme up front and unpacks it throughout the next 200 pages. He explains how existentialism, subjectivism, relativism, and mysticism have undercut the very foundations of logic and reason. The result has been widespread poverty of proper biblical interpretation:

. . . to say that people can’t reason their way to the truth of Scripture is not to imply that Scripture itself is irrational. The Bible is perfectly reasonable, consistent with itself, true in all its parts, reliable as a foundation for our logic, dependable as a basis for good judgment, and trustworthy as the definitive test of sound doctrine. Because it is pure truth, it is perfectly rational (xii)

And another gem:

We cannot simply flow with the current of our age. We cannot elevate love by downplaying truth. We cannot promote unity by repressing sound doctrine. We cannot learn to be discerning by making an idol out of tolerance. By adopting those attitudes, the church has opened her gates to all of Satan’s Trojan horses. (81)

But the various isms resulting from suppressing God and his revelation of himself in Scripture have led to abuses and misinterpretations that are embarrassing. In his trademark fashion, MacArthur does not pull punches. He quotes from primary sources in his many analyses of existentialism, mysticism, neo-orthodoxy/liberalism, fundamentalism, Roman Catholicism, and more. He traces the trajectory of how many people wound up with such reckless faith.

One example I found particularly helpful was his analysis of mysticism that has infiltrated much of the professing Christian church. Many people are chasing feelings, chasing experiences:

The faith of mysticism is an illusion. “Truth that is true for me” is irrelevant to anyone else, because it lacks any objective basis. Ultimately, therefore, existential faith is impotent to lift anyone above the level of despair. All it can do is seek more experiences and more feelings. Multitudes are trapped in the desperate cycle of feeding off one experience while zealously seeking the next. Such people have no real concept of truth; they just believe. Theirs is a reckless faith. (30)

He ends this book as he ends every book I have read from MacArthur—with a call to the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Scripture is the authority. Many profess that, but deny it in practice. Say what you will about John MacArthur, but I have never seen him equivocate on that: Scripture is the only objective standard—not traditions, not feelings, not “being led,” not visions, not “looking within,” and certainly not popes, bishops, or councils. If you seek clarity, and want an apologetic resource calling you back to living out, not just the sufficiency of Scripture, but also the authority of Scripture, this is a valuable resource. Isms come and go, but the Word abides forever.

A second book I read was a first for me. More precisely, the book and the author were new to me. Nicholas Baker is an American postmodern writer, and The Mezzanine, a short novel about a businessman’s trip up an escalator, and his mental activity during that trip, is, well, amazingly detailed in its attention to the banal, the quotidian, and the everyday. The author’s goal? To show us the superficial ways we so often glide through contemporary life without thinking through things.

Baker’s forays and footnotes (yes, lots and lots of footnotes, even footnotes about footnotes) serve to focus the reader on the things right under our noses and under our fingertips (like the handrail on an escalator, like the feel of a stapler on your office desk, like why shoelaces break at nearly the same time, etc.). Here is an example:

Presently the metal disk that drew near was half lit by sun. Falling from dusty heights of thermal glass over a hundred-vaned, thirty-foot-long, unlooked-at, invisibly suspended lightning fixture that resembles the metal grid in an old-style ice cube tray, falling through the vacant middle reaches of lobby space, the sunlight draped itself over my escalator and continued from there, diminished by three-quarters, down into a newsstand inset into the marble at the rear of the lobby. (103)

 Baker is new to me. I admire his precision in description. I admire his raising the issue of how the quotidian may teach us if we would but pay attention. But, I think Baker suggests herein, we suffer the illusion that we will be happier if we skate along life, carried escalator-like, unbothered by serious contemplation of our mortality. Baker is, in my view, important. He is not, I admit, easy to read; it can be work. But that, I believe, is part of what makes him important to read. If I had to summarize Baker’s aim, it is this question: What happens if we pay attention–stop entertaining ourselves to death–and just stop and pay attention?

The Oates novel I am (still) reading is her 2001 tome Blonde. It is nearly 800 pages, so it is not one I can finish in a day or two. Marilyn Monroe, as most of the world knew her, was really Norma Jeane Baker, and she is the subject of the novel. As readers, we meet her mother, Gladys, her grandmother, Della, the actors at The Studio in Los Angeles during Hollywood’s golden era, and on and on.

I said the subject was Marilyn Monroe. The more I read this novel, I would say the subject is not Marilyn so much as it is the question of what it means to act, to fulfill a role, to don a façade, and what costs are involved.

Norma Jeane Baker lived roles. And I think Oates is exploring that theme, not a small one. Stay tuned.

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.

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?

Reflections on Kidd’s Biography of a Founding Father

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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

Overview:

 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.

Quotation:

 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.