Marilynne Robinson on Wonder

ChildRobinson

A thought from Marilynne Robinson today, as I’m traveling with limited internet access. To you and yours, so much joy! If you are like me, you are still learning this thing, and coming along very slowly. But OH, let’s learn it, because not everyone who calls Him, “Lord, Lord,” will come into the Kingdom. This is the one who will come in: the one who does the will. And this is it:

in everything give thanks

The War From Where We Are

DismalRain
In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets,

writes Marilynne Robinson, in Gilead. If we are among the courtiers of the Kingdom that is coming, this fragile hope of glory should transfigure all our moments, make an epic out of our days. For a day is coming when all will be revealed, all uncovered, all told. The unsung heroes will be sung, the darkly glass will shatter, and everything will be seen exactly as it is.

Into such an existence have we been born – into a state of being that matters everlastingly.

I spoke of this to some young girls recently. We were discussing character, and I am weary of the words that traditionally accompany that one, weary of abstract exhortations that don’t take root in the reason for being. “Character,” I said to them, “is who you are in the story of the world.”

Our characters matter because there is a story, because to be alive is to be a part of a tale of deeds that will be a bit of the lore of the ages to come.

“I wonder if we shall ever be put into songs or tales?” muses Samwise Gamgee, in The Two Towers, just a few hours before his own tale takes a particularly nasty turn. We laugh at him fondly and knowingly. We know, of course, that he is in a story now. We almost wish he could be out of it for a moment and witness the way the world is reading it.

Because the stories are not quite the same thing from the inside. We, looking in on the panorama of The Lord of the Rings, see a tremendous epic, a collage of action, a medley of intertwined adventures. But if you are Samwise Gamgee or Peregrin Took, or Frodo Baggins, you only get to see that story minute by minute, day by day, uncomfortable inconvenience by uncomfortable inconvenience.

One day you might wake up and life might proceed like this:

They made their way slowly and cautiously round the south-western slopes of the hill, and came in a little while to the edge of the Road. There was no sign of the Riders. But even as they were hurrying across they heard far away two cries: a cold voice calling and a cold voice answering. Trembling they sprang forward, and made for the thickets that lay ahead. The land before them sloped away southwards, but it was wild and pathless; bushes and stunted trees grew in dense patches with wide barren spaces in between. The grass was scanty, coarse, and grey; and the leaves in the thickets were faded and falling. It was a cheerless land, and their journey was slow and gloomy. They spoke little as they trudged along. Frodo’s heart was grieved as he watched them walking beside him with their heads down, and their backs bowed under their burdens. Even Strider seemed tired and heavy-hearted.

Before the first day’s march was over Frodo’s pain began to grow again, but he did not speak of it for a long time. Four days passed, without the ground or the scene changing much, except that behind them Weathertop slowly sank, and before them the distant mountains loomed a little nearer. Yet since that far cry they had seen and heard no sign that the enemy had marked their flight or followed them. They dreaded the dark hours, and kept watch in pairs by night, expecting at any time to see black shapes stalking in the grey night, dimly lit by the cloud-veiled moon; but they saw nothing, and heard no sound but the sigh of withered leaves and grass. 

Even as a hero right in the middle of an epic that has captivated the world, you might have a day like that. You might have many, many days like that.

nativityA girl in a remote corner of our own world, a great lady in our own story, was overtaken once by an angel who told her how her whole life would be utterly altered, how she would be swept up into the eternal company of heroes.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…nothing is impossible with God.”

What a place to be planted in the story of the world! What a splendiferous role – to carry in your own body the baby-flesh of the Wonderful Counselor! How happy we would all have been to be there!

And yet, that real life of hers – how different it must have been from our romanticized notions. For a revelation can change everything and still change nothing at all. That girl had to go on living as she always had – ground by poverty and oppression and now misunderstood by her own family, by the very man she was preparing to call husband. In solitude and loneliness she surely strove to work out some understanding of the Almighty power at work within her. She surely buoyed her uncomprehending heart with hope.

All the way through, she must have turned back again and again on this wobbly anchor. When her little boy was bleeding out under the spears of the very oppressors she had expected him to overthrow, did she lean into the hope that the story was somehow working itself out in spite of her confusion and her shattered expectations, and the intolerable bleakness of everything? Because in the end, hope was all she had.

Would you with joy trade your spot in the story for King David’s place, for the hands that strangled lions and bears and swung the pebble that felled the fell giant? How about for Esther’s? For the queen that tasted royalty solely for the purpose of saving her whole people? Would you trade your own dim, obscure chance of glory for that of Abraham, called out of his country to be still under the stars and hear the promises of God? You would be so glad to get to stand in that furnace with Shadrach and Abednego in the company of a shining one, and hear the stunned surprise of your enemies, wouldn’t you?

You think you would, because you are looking in from the end of things, you know the ends of all the stories. They are good stories. But a hero’s own story is never clear to him. And all these ever had was hope.

“All these,” so the Good Book says, “died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

Someday, we shall all step out of our story, and witness the way that the host of heaven is reading it. That prospect makes a good many things worth doing well, even when we are quite alone to our own eyes.

What I’ve Recently Finished Reading

Notes-from-the-Tilt-a-WhirlNotes From The Tilt-A-Whirl (N.D. Wilson) –5 STARS– I’m giving this book five stars because it was just so glorious and so big, in spite of being quite short, and I certainly intend to read it again. Perhaps more than once. “Tilt-a-whirl” is no empty term here. Wilson takes the reader on a lightning-fast journey of thought, just barely brushing against science, philosophy, mythology and theology. I suppose the thing the reader should be expected to take away from this book is an overpowering awe for the vastness of the world and the One who spoke it into existence. One comes away from Tilt-A-Whirl with a very small, stunned feeling, like an ant in the face of a tsunami wave. My one complaint is that there were places in the book where Wilson’s extraordinary style seemed to bulge into pretentiousness and felt artificial. However, I felt that these passages were balanced out by the sheer wonder of other passages, and have forgiven him for it.

The Iliad (prose translation by Martin Hammond) –4 STARS– This was my first introduction to The Illiad, so I obviously can’t pretend to be any kind of authority on the matter, but I really enjoyed Hammond’s prose translation. I felt that the literary devices and the poetry in the writing stood out conspicuously when embedded into a non-verse format. I can’t say that I really got too emotionally involved in the story itself – which is mostly about mostly bad guys killing other mostly bad guys with the help of mostly bad deities – but was continually awed by the delectable uses of language. I mean, seriously: those similes.

Take this one:

The Trojans were crowding round him like blood-red mountain jackals round a horned stag that has been wounded, shot by a huntsman with an arrow from the string: his legs get him clear of the man, running for as long as the blood flows warm and there is lift in his knees: but when the swift arrow has overcome his strength, the flesh-eating jackals tear him in the mountains, in a shadowy wood. Then some god brings a marauding lion: the jackals scatter, and the lion makes his meal. So it was then that many brave warriors crowded round the resourceful warrior Odysseus.

Or this one:

But the Achaians were griped by monstrous panic, the workmate of chilling flight, and all the leading men were struck down with unbearable sorrow. As when two winds come up suddenly and whip the fish-filled sea, the north wind and the west wind, blowing down from Thrace: the mass of the dark swell rears into crests, and piled the seaweed thick along the shore. So the Achaians’ spirits were troubled within their breasts.

Needless to say, this book gave my sister and I many good laughs. It also gave me an excellent context through which to understand and deeply appreciate Chesterton’s “Defense of Humility,” in which he states,

Humility, again, is said both by its upholders and opponents to be the peculiar growth of Christianity. The real and obvious reason of this is often missed. The pagans insisted upon self-assertion because it was the essence of their creed that the gods, though strong and just, were mystic, capricious, and even indifferent. But the essence of Christianity was in a literal sense the New Testament–a covenant with God which opened to men a clear deliverance.

The Illiad serves as a poignant, if somewhat grim, illustration of this fact.

Gilead (Marilynne Robinson) –5 STARS– This is a rich, memorable novel that reads like a memoir. Robinson talks about life, mystery, love, children, forgiveness, church, grace and God through the voice of her fictional protagonist, an aged Congregationalist minister writing letters to his young son. I have three pages of quotes copied from this book, and could have copied at least as many more. Some of my favorites:

“Now that I look back it seems to me that in all that deep darkness a miracle was preparing. So I am right to remember it as a blessed time, and myself as waiting in confidence, even if I had no idea what I was waiting for.”

“ ‘I am confident that I will find great blessing in it.’ And that is what he said about everything that happened to him for the rest of his life.”

“A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard in that way. There are three parties to it of course, but so are there even to the most private thought – the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord.”

The Weapon of Prayer (E.M. Bounds) –4 STARS– I suppose I should have closed this one at the end and started it right back over again at the beginning. It is the thing I need more than anything, I suppose – constant, urgent warnings to pray. Otherwise I don’t. How about you? I really appreciated this book. It was by no means very beautiful in its wording, or especially literary, but full of very compelling truth. Says Bounds,

All this makes praying a real business, not child’s play, not a secondary affair, nor a trivial matter but a serious business. The men who have made a success of praying have made a business of praying. It is a process demanding the time, thought, energy and hearts of mankind. Prayer is business for time, business for eternity. It is a man’s business to pray, transcending all other business and taking precedence over all other vocations, professions or occupations.

When the trueness of this once takes hold of us, so that we respond to it like Andrew Ingram, I think it changes everything

A Rare Benedictine (Ellis Peters) –3 STAR– This was my first attempt to read any of Ellis Peters’ medieval mystery novels. I thought that the stories were alright, but not exceptional. I think part of the problem for me, as with The Hawk and the Dove, is that I just have such a hard time swallowing these narratives about Benedictine monks who speak in more or less modern language and hold so many contemporary values.

Through Gates of Splendor (Elizabeth Elliot) –4 STARS– It is with good reason that this book is a modern classic. Elizabeth Elliot unpretentiously narrates the story of her husband’s life and short-lived (but in many respects everlasting) work to take the gospel to isolated South American people groups. Jim Elliot’s journal extracts were perhaps my favorite part of this book. What an astonishing character he must have been. I look forward to the prospect of talking with him about all of this someday, when we have “ceased to wonder why.”

Some favorite quotes from Jim’s journals:

Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

“Every now and again, I ask for something, a little something, perhaps, and something answers.  Maybe it’s only me, but something answers and makes the request sound so funny that I laugh at myself and feel that He is smiling with me.  I’ve noticed it several times lately, we two making fun of my ‘other self’ who does so hate to be laughed at.”

“I walked out to the hill just now. It is exalting, delicious, to stand embraced by the shadows of a friendly tree with the wind tugging at your coattail and the heavens hailing in your heart, to gaze and glory and give oneself again to God – what more could a man ask? Oh, the fullness, pleasure, sheer excitement of knowing God on earth! I care not if I never raise my voice again for Him, if only I may love Him, please Him. Mayhap in mercy He shall give me a host of children that I may lead them through the vast star fields to explore His delicacies whose finger ends set them to burning. But if not, if only I may see Him, tough His garments, and smile into His eyes -ah then, not stars nor children shall matter, only Himself.”

When the time comes to die, make sure that all you have to do is die.”

Absolute Surrender (Andrew Murray) –4 STARS– This is the sort of book I need to read every day. Not overwhelmingly complex, but full of deep truth and scripture. Murray’s biggest weakness is probably an occasional vagueness reminiscent of Watchman Nee, a lack of practical illustrations.

Favorite quote:

“Alas! we too often make our plan, and we think that we know what ought to be done. We ask God first to bless our feeble efforts, instead of absolutely refusing to go unless God go before us.”

The Pursuit of Holiness (Jerry Bridges) –4 STARS– Bridges’ writing is in no sense literary and is extremely simple. This was so distracting to me in the first couple of chapters that I didn’t want to continue reading the book. After that, though, I felt that the style and the content became markedly better, to the point that I almost wanted to give this book five stars. I consider this an ideal supplement to the frustratingly elusive writings of Hannah Whitall Smith, Andrew Murray, and Watchman Nee. Bridges sorts through some of the confusion generated by all of those unanswered questions about what holiness looks like practically, about the ways to pursue it now, in our own unwhole world and our shattered lives. Without diluting the message at all, he makes it approachable. And he even retains the mystery.

Collected Fictions (Jorge Luis Borges, translated by Andrew Hurley) –3 STARS– I have to say, after trudging through over 600 pages of Borges, I’m not a fan. He is certainly a gifted writer, with a knack for memorable phrases and scenes, and some of the short stories were stunningly clever. However, his postmodern, fragmented style did not engage me, and a good portion of his writing deals with eastern religions and fictional religions and cults and other subjects that I didn’t find particularly encouraging or entertaining. I understand that Hurley’s translation has received a lot of negative reviews, but my problem with this book wasn’t the translation as much as the content, so I don’t think that a better translation would do much for me.

The Road To Serdom (F. A. Hayek) –5 STARS– It took me many months to finish reading Hayek’s classic work on economics and totalitarianism. It certainly isn’t for the faint of heart, but I consider it well worth the effort. Writing during World War II, Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek explores the sinister ramifications of centralized “planning” in the economic sphere and delves into the nature of socialism. He explains why socialized systems are dishonest and totalitarian in nature and warns of a creeping acceptance of collectivist thinking in Western cultures. Perhaps most importantly, he makes the case for The Rule of Law.

A Mathematician’s Lament (Paul Lockhart) –4 STARS– This lengthy article by a distraught math teacher should be widely read. Lockhart is determined to be the fabled child in the street, decrying the unclothed state of the emperor, as he calls out what he considers our culture’s trammeling treatment of the beauty of mathematics. Mathematics should be studied because it is wonderful, Lockhart says. Like music. Stop telling students that calculus or algebra is going to be useful to them. We live in an era of computers and calculators! Is the anguish expended on the teaching and learning of mathematics really necessary? Is our entire approach to mathematics based on a lie? Can we do an about-face in this field and begin to use mathematics as a means to cultivate discovery and wonder in children, rather than struggling to fill their minds with useless formulas and rules? It’s worth a try.

P.G. Wodehouse Books:

(Some time ago, I picked up several Wodehouse books on a clearance rack at a used bookstore for a dollar apiece. Last autumn I finally got around to reading through some of them.)

Ukridge –4 STARS– Ukridge is a fairly unscrupulous visionary with vast plans and no capital. His friends get into all kinds of of scrapes on his behalf. Need I say more? This is one of my favorite Wodehouse books I’ve yet had the pleasure of reading. I felt that it had very strong characters and some delightful dialogue. I’d put it right up there with the Jeeves and Wooster stories.

The Clicking of Cuthbert –3 STARS– Well, it’s about golf. I guess it could be quite fascinating, if you like that sort of thing. Being a complete golfing illiterate, I’m sure I missed a lot. There were still a few entertaining pieces in here nevertheless.

Meet Mr. Mulliner  –2 STARS– I didn’t feel that this was one of Wodehouse’ better books. Mr. Mulliner’s stories were so farcical and absurd that they were too hard for me to swallow.

Young Men In Spats –4 STARS– The first few stories in this one are good reminders of why we read Wodehouse in the first place. Some samples:

‘I wish I had a quid for every girl Freddie Widgeon has loved and lost,’ sighed an Egg wistfully. ‘If I had, I shouldn’t be touching you for a fiver.’

‘You aren’t,’ said the Crumpet.

The Bean frowned. His head was hurting him, and he considered that the conversation was becoming sordid.

And this:

Bad blood had sprung up between them. Also pique and strained relations. They were not on speaking terms.

His hearers were frankly incredulous. They pointed out that the friendship between the two artists had always been a byword or whatever you called it. A well-read Egg summed it up by saying that they were like Thingummy and what’s-his-name.

Service With A Smile –4 STARS– He’s not quite Jeeves, but Uncle Fred is particularly endearing in yet another story about a valuable pig and doting owner, bossy and forbidding sisters/aunts, and an ancient family castle full of bustle and intrigue and situations that must be handled with delicacy.

What I’m still reading:

The Complete Poems (W.H. Auden)
A Patriot’s History of the United States (by Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
Hudson Taylor (by Howard Taylor)
The Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers
Annals of a Quiet Neighborhood (George MacDonald)
A Short History of England (G.K. Chesterton)

What else I want to read in the near future:

10 Books That Screwed Up The World (Benjamin Wiker)
The Ward of Heaven and the Wyrm in the Sea (Colin Cutler)
The Everlasting Man (G.K. Chesterton)
Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis)
End the Fed (Ron Paul)

So, what have you been reading?

All The World’s A Stage

All The World's A Stage“Calvin says somewhere that each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought to be aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense. (…) I do like Calvin’s image, though, because it suggests how God might actually enjoy us. I believe we think about that far too little. It would be a way to understanding essential things, since presumably the world exists for God’s enjoyment, not in any simple sense, of course, but as you enjoy the being of a child even when he is in every way a thorn in your heart.” (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead)