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.

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?