Thoughts From the Brave New World

There was a thing, as I’ve said before, called
All the crosses had their tops cut and became T’s.
There was also a thing called God.
We have the World State now and Ford’s Day
celebrations and Community Sings and Solidarity

There was a thing called Heaven; but all the same
they used to drink enormous quantities of

There was a thing called the soul and a thing called

But they used to take morphia and cocaine.

Aldous Huxley puts these words in the mouth of the director of his dystopian society in a scene where the collapse of the world as we know it is narrated with an eery nonchalance.

Huxley’s classic novel has been on my list to read for quite some time and when a friend wanted to read it with me over the summer, I finally got down to it. Based on what I’d heard about the book, I was expecting to find some remarkable parallels between Huxley’s society and our own technological age. However, I wasn’t prepared for just how many powerful ways I would see the Spirit of the Age foreshadowed in this book.

In Huxley’s Brave New World, the old order of struggling for survival and working to achieve your goals has been replaced by a new society where scientific advancement has removed the need for pain, suffering, frustrated desires and social instability. People are genetically engineered to serve the specific needs of society and conditioned from infancy through hypnopaedic sleep training to embrace their lot in life. There is no disease and the effects of aging have been obliterated. There are no longer any causes for dissatisfaction or discontentment. And if anyone should find themselves experiencing strong emotions, there’s always soma, the feel-good drug that provides a euphoric escape from any unpleasantness.

The catch? In order to do away with the strong negative emotions that threaten the stability of the social order, the Brave New World has done away with marriage, family, and all strong and meaningful connections that bind humans to one another. They’ve done away with love. Everyone is trained in uninhibited promiscuous sexuality from childhood and words like fidelity, parents, and God have become indecent expressions. The high arts have been replaced by synthetic music and sensory experiences. Television and soma are ever-present as a constant distraction against any serious contemplation. Pleasure flows through the culture like a steadily dripping intravenous solution, deadening feeling.

Huxley paints a picture of an existence that most of us would no doubt categorize as no way to live. We don’t live in a society where Shakespeare and the Bible are forbidden and marriage is a dirty word. The high arts are still held in high regard by educated people and housed in museums that can be visited free of charge all over the country. We can still listen to opera and classical music radio stations in every major city in this country. Unfortunately, I think these ways in which our culture isn’t like Huxley’s can be a dangerous distraction from a myriad of ways in which it is.

Technology in our time has ushered in an era that is unprecedented in history. Mechanization has drastically reduced the need for quantitative manpower and a few people can easily complete work that once required thousands of laborers. Whereas humanity used to be engaged in a constant struggle for survival, the means of production are rapidly evolving to a point where this struggle is no longer necessary. In order to accommodate the resulting leisure opportunities, virtual and passive entertainment forms have become increasingly central in the lives of millennials.

Gaming provides opportunities for activating the brain’s rewards system and giving users the illusion of accomplishment. Smartphone technology provides instant access to many forms of mindless entertainment or pleasure simulations, from Candy Crush Saga to pornography. Apps like Snapchat allow smartphone users to feel informed about world events and trends with daily news and fashion feeds but all of these news outlets look more and more like tabloids every year. Rather than promoting serious observations, research or deep thought, they stimulate users on a shallow level with short articles centered on pop culture figures, gossip tidbits and useless trivia. They promote a hook-up culture in which meaningful, committed, long-term sexual relationships are replaced by cheap one-night stands and love and friendship are divorced from sexuality.

Are we happier for all this? Are we happier now that we live at a level of physical and material comfort that none of our ancestors ever experienced?

I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can see that this influx of consumer media has resulted in the loss of many important elements of the human experience. There’s no longer any need for boredom or contemplation or pondering the hard facts of reality and the questions of existence that enhance our humanity. There’s little motivation to expend effort towards achieving long-term goals when so many short-term goals are instantly attainable.

What is it that’s missing? What is it that the human heart hungers for so desperately and that can’t be fulfilled by ending world hunger or unemployment, by giving people everything they want? Why is it that what we think we want is never really what we want after all?

Hand-Lettered Bookmark Listed on Etsy Here


“God, you have made us for yourself,” St. Augustine wrote, exposing the emptiness of all the pleasures in the world, “and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.”

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

While university life is full of reading, I don’t think textbooks and assigned excerpts and articles will ever be able to take the place of living books and literature. So even though I find it really hard to carve out time for reading while at school, I’ve managed to finish reading a few books and one thing I really enjoy about breaks is the opportunity to catch up on reading. Here are a few thoughts on what I’ve read in the not-too-distant past:

TheRoadThe Road (Cormac McCarthy) – 5 STARS – Hands down, this was my favorite fiction work I’ve read in awhile. McCarthy employs a sharp, incisive and minimalist style to describe the relationship between a father and his young son struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic setting. Although the story is rife with tragedy and often takes on a deeply cynical tone, it’s simultaneously haunted by the promise of faith. This book doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of the darkness of the human heart and some portions are extremely sobering and even revolting, but in his determination to accurately depict evil, McCarthy never loses sight of the actuality of good. By presenting the reader with a world where all dreams and creeds and security have been stripped away and “the frailty of everything is revealed at last,” he makes his case that it is far better to die an untimely and painful death as a noble and selfless person than to survive as merely an animal. By forcing the reader to confront the certainty of impending death, he drives them to consider who they truly are.

A favorite quote: “No sound but the wind. What will you say? A living man spoke these lines? He sharpened a quill with his small penknife to inscribe these things in sloe or lampblack? At some reckonable and entabled moment? He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt.”

While this sounds woefully pessimistic, I found it extremely compelling: a call to examine my life and realize the imperative necessity of breaking through the temporary surface of the world around me and operating on the plane of everlasting reality. I think McCarthy’s novel is at heart surprising compatible with Christian truth and I was especially pleased with the unexpectedly hopeful ending.

Note: I’ve heard a lot of negative things about the movie, so if you’ve seen it but didn’t enjoy it, I’d recommend giving the book a chance. I found the high-quality writing style one of the most attractive things about this book and I can’t see how any film would be able to duplicate it successfully.

Oswald ChambersAbandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland) – 5 STARS – This was my favorite non-fiction book I’ve read recently. I’ve been reading My Utmost For His Highest regularly for several years now and I still find Oswald Chambers one of the deepest and most mature Christian thinkers I’ve ever encountered, so I was quite excited to read about his life story and I can’t imagine a better biography than this one. McCasland is clearly devoted to providing an account that maintains the spirit of Chambers’ approach to faith, holiness and cheerful utter reliance on the power and presence of God. I found this book overwhelmingly compelling at times and it did more to encourage me to pursue spiritual maturity than anything I’d read in quite some time.

A main theme in Oswald Chambers’ writing is the significance of being as opposed to doing. His writing is full of warnings against Christian “busywork” and is a constant call to strengthen our own fellowship with Christ. “How does your spirit develop in intimacy with Him?” Chambers asks. “Nothing else is right if that goes not well.” A primary part of his advice is always to empty ourselves of self-regard and scheming and grow in dependence on the life of the resurrected Christ within us. When that happens, he assures over and over again, we will become channels of the power of God in the lives of others, but will not be corrupted by this power because it is not our possession, or our aspiration. Our only obsession is maintaining the company of Christ.

What I enjoyed most about this book was how it brought life to Chambers’ approach by providing examples of this staggering power in his own person – something that could never really be established by his own writing, but would have to come from the observations of his family and contemporaries. McCasland has worked hard to compile the statements that demonstrate this. Here are a few examples:

Cultured, and all his culture captivated by the Holy Ghost, he in turn captivated men and women.” (George B Kulp)

“[He was] a man who always carried with him, and therefore gave to others, a sense of the Presence of God.” (Mary Hooker)

He came into our quiet home life with its parochial outlook like a west wind, waking us up and bringing an exciting sense of limitless possibilities. He was always ready at any moment for anything anywhere. One never knew what lovely, exciting thing might happen where he was, and maybe catch us up in its train. He had a great scorn for small petty outlooks and actions: ‘small potatoes, rather frosted,’ was his expression for all that.” (Irene Chambers)

I think the main thing I took away from this book was the thought that the common ideals for Christian living which we encounter in our culture are sadly impoverished and often flabby, powerless images. This book really enriched my ideals and filled me with a desire to press in towards the Source that can power a life such as this one.

tozerAnd He Dwelt Among Us (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – This book is a collection of thoughts, observations and meditations on the Gospel of John, and the significance of the concept of Emmanuel. Some of Tozer’s premises haven’t been analyzed quite as thoroughly as they might been, and so even though I agree with what he is expressing, readers who tend towards skepticism might find themselves wanting him to back up a few of his ideas with more substantial evidence and reasoning. However, that isn’t really the nature of this book, which is written in a simple, colloquial tone, calculated to reach uneducated people and not merely scholars. This book gave me a lot to think about and although its style is simple, its range is larger than you might expect and it covers a variety of topics and ideas that I think aren’t often discussed in such an approachable fashion.

A few favorite quotes:

“The very first qualities of Christianity are holiness, purity, right living, right thinking and right longing.”

“It is not what I hold as a creed that matters so much (although if my creed is wrong, my experience is bound to be wrong too), it is that part of my creed that I have lived through experientially…I believe that everything I hold as true must be mine in living, vibrant experience.”

“God knows that the most mature of us still need coddling sometimes, and so He is quick to overlook our ignorance, but He is never quick to overlook our sins.”

“It must always be kept in mind that what God thinks about a man is more important than what a man thinks about himself.” “The sinner dies alone and the Christian dies in Christ. But every man dies for his sins. He either dies by joining his heart to Jesus Christ, and is tucked up under the wings of Jesus and dies in the body of Christ or else he dies alone in his sins.”

Eugenics (2)Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Although the scope of this book was more limited than much of what Chesterton writes, I think it was one of my favorites of his books on social commentary. Although he addresses some specific issues of British legislation and politics which no longer apply in the same way they did in his time, I think this book still rings true today as a hearty denouncement of modern academia’s disdain for the lower classes and the modern capitalist elevation of profit over the lives and loves of people.

A few favorite quotes:

“The eugenical opportunity I have described is but an ultimate analysis of a whole drift of thoughts in the type of man who does not analyse his thoughts. He sees a slouching tramp, with a sick wife and a string of rickety children, and honestly wonders what he can do with them. But prosperity does not favour self-examination; and he does not even ask himself whether he means  ‘How can I help them?’ or ‘How can I use them?’—what he can still do for them, or what they could still do for him. Probably he sincerely means both, but the latter much more than the former; he laments the breaking of the tools of Mammon much more than the breaking of the images of God. It would be almost impossible to grope in the limbo of what he does think; but we can assert that there is one thing he doesn’t think. He doesn’t think, ‘This man might be as jolly as I am, if he need not come to me for work or wages.’”

“Prevention is not only not better than cure; prevention is even worse than disease. Prevention means being an invalid for life with the extra exasperation of being quite well.”

“The curious point is that the hopeful one concludes by saying, “;When people have large families and small wages, not only is there a high infantile death-rate, but often those who do live to grow up are stunted and weakened by having had to share the family income for a time with those who died early. There would be less unhappiness if there were no unwanted children.’ You will observe that he tacitly takes it for granted that the small wages and the income, desperately shared, are the fixed points, like day and night, the conditions of human life. Compared with them marriage and maternity are luxuries, things to be modified to suit the wage-market. There are unwanted children; but unwanted by whom? This man does not really mean that the parents do not want to have them. He means that the employers do not want to pay them properly.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Douglas Adams) – 4 STARS – Perhaps the cleverest, funniest and yet most cynical classic science fiction work of all time, the Hitchhiker’s Guide is certainly entertaining. Douglas Adams is, of course, a bitter atheist, and this attitude can’t help but affect his writing. I really wasn’t a fan of some of the content in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, but other than that one, I gave these books a solid 4 stars, mainly for their piercingly intelligent humor – a form of humor that seems to be going out of style in my generation.

A few favorite quotes:

“One of the things Ford Prefect had always found hardest to understand about human beings was their habit of continually stating and repeating the obvious, as in It’s a nice day, or You’re very tall, or Oh dear you seem to have fallen down a thirty-foot well, are you alright?”

“Another thing that got forgotten was the fact that against all probability a sperm whale had suddenly been called into existence several miles above the surface of an alien planet. And since this is not a naturally tenable position for a whale, this poor innocent creature had very little time to come to terms with its identity as a whale before it then had to come to terms with not being a whale any more.”

“They rented a car in Los Angeles from one of the places that rents out cars that other people have thrown away. ‘Getting it to go round corners is a bit of a problem,’ said the guy behind the sunglasses as he handed them the keys, ‘sometimes it’s simpler just to get out and find a car that’s going in that direction.’”

Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works – 4 STARS – This book compiles all the poetry and some of the letters of the Jesuit poet-priest who is perhaps most well-known for Dappled Things and As Kingfishers Catch Fire. Hopkins’ devotional poetry is studded with wordplay and powerful imagery and although the book contains many that are unfinished or only fragments, each one is like a jewel.

War In Heaven (Charles Williams) – 3 STARS – This is the first of Charles Williams’ I’ve read and although I can see his appeal, I’m not certain I’ll ever be a huge fan of his style or preferred subject matter. This book’s metaphysical explorations were a little too far-fetched for me, but I still appreciated some of the thoughts it introduced.

A few favorite quotes:

“‘Something awaits him surely of ruin and despair.’ ‘It may be,’ the stranger said, ‘but perhaps a happy ruin and a fortunate despair. These things are not evil in themselves and I think you fear them overmuch.”

“‘Oh damn and blast!’ he cried, with a great voice. ‘Why was this bloody world created?’ ‘As a sewer for the stars,’ a voice in front of him said. ‘Alternatively, to glorify God and enjoy him forever.’

Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card) – 4 STARS – I’ve been meaning to read something by Orson Scott Card for quite some time and I finally got around to it. I think this was a good introduction and I really enjoyed thinking about a lot of the serious questions it raised regarding leadership, management of power, and war ethics. Although this is classified as young adult science fiction and features protagonists who are children, it centers around surprisingly deep themes. One of my favorite ideas presented was the fine line between virtual reality and the real world, a concept that I think is particularly important for my generation to deal with, surrounded as we are by constant internet access, video streaming, and gaming. So many human experiences can now be simulated on a console or electronic device with seemingly no immediate consequences, but this book really underscores how profoundly our reality is affected by our mental state, and how the imagery that we process and entertain is shaping both our internal character and our outward view of the world.

A few favorite quotes: 

“I will remember this, thought Ender, when I am defeated. To keep dignity, and give honor where it’s due, so that defeat is not disgrace.”

“You realize that power will always end up with the kind of people who crave it.”

“He could see Bonzo’s anger growing hot. Hot anger was bad. Ender’s anger was cold, and he could use it. Bonzo’s was hot, and so it used him.”

“In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment, I also love him. I think it is impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves.”

What I’m Still Reading:
Relationships: A Mess Worth Making (Timothy Lane, Paul David Tripp)
D.L. Moody: Moody Without Sankey (John Charles Pollock)
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman)
A Passion For The Impossible (Miriam Huffman Rockness)
Death By Living (N.D. Wilson)
Good Poems (Garrison Keiler)
All The Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)

What have you been reading lately?

On Suffering, the Russian Soul, & the Kingdom of Heaven

Russian_NightIt’s become a byword, the Russian tradition of suffering. Apparently everyone knows that misery permeates the works of the great writers and merits a substantial paragraph in even the most basic information about Russian literature. Wikipedia devotes an entire section of the Russian literature page to this very thing, stating,

Suffering, often as a means of redemption, is a recurrent theme in Russian literature.

Happily, I didn’t get the memo about that. A year ago, when I wrote about Imagination as Love, I still didn’t know that what I was writing about was at the very core of not only Chekhov’s writing, but Tolstoy’s too, and Gogol’s and Solzhenitsyn’s and Dostoevsky’s.

I didn’t read the Sparknotes, only the books. Only War and Peace, and How Much Land Does a Man Need? Only One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and The Overcoat, and The Grand Inquisitor, and half of Chekhov’s Stories. And one of the delightful things about missing the study guides is that you have no idea what to look for, so that when you do pick up a pattern all by yourself, it means something to you.

So it was for me, through pages and pages of the stories about tragedies without happy endings, and hunger that isn’t assuaged, and grief that doesn’t go away, and the long defeat of living. After a time, I sat back and said, “These stories are about suffering. They are all about suffering.” It seems simple enough to the initiated, but to go from not-knowing to knowing at last – there is an exquisite satisfaction in that.

Yet that wasn’t all. In these stories there was something else. The Russian grief is not purposeless. There is a colossal sort of reduction in suffering and in loss: it takes things down to essentials, strips away circumstances, reveals to a man what he truly is. There are hints in it of the possibility that suffering might usher in truth, precisely by ripping out lies.

And Christ. There is in these Russian stories a wild, confused, at times unorthodox fascination with Christ as humble, as suffering. As silent.

fathers-taleThis much I picked up on my own, but was hardly sure how to put it all together and make sense of it. Then last month I read my second Michael O’Brien novel, and found a man with the answers. A man who knows the historic Russian soul, and is intimately acquainted with the turbulent history of the 20th century. A man who knows the importance of traditional imagery better than anyone I can think of, who understands the vital significance of boats and of birds. A man who knows about kingfishers catching fire, and homesickness, and more than anything, who knows about the poor in spirit.

The Father’s Tale is 1076 pages long, but after the first 100 pages or so, it goes by like a breath. Alex Graham is a Canadian bookseller whose college-aged son gets caught up in a cult group and goes missing from Oxford University. The plot follows the timorous, unadventurous Alex as he travels around the globe in the search for his son. It’s a storyline that never works out exactly as you expect, and yet somehow always works out in the best possible way. Like any author who’s turned out this much volume on a regular basis, O’Brien certainly leaves some holes in the book, in terms of weak sentences and things you wish you could rewrite or reconstruct. But then, so does Dickens, and it didn’t seem to ruin his legacy.

O’Brien and I are not on the same page as regards faith traditions, so I’m not entirely in sympathy with some portions of the book, and found some of them exasperating. However, the ultimate themes in here transcend our differences, because they aren’t about icons but ideas, and those ideas are rooted deep in the literature that we both love, beginning, perhaps, with the Bible itself.

One of the many things that the tepid and dispassionate Alex Graham learns in his travels is the mysterious and yet lucid beatitude of poverty.

One becomes empty and poor, and in that state the Kingdom of Heaven is given to you,someone tells Alex while he is en route to Siberia. “To become a poor man is the greatest thing that can be given to us. It is the foundation.”

O’Brien takes the old Russian preoccupation with suffering, and shows its redemptive purpose with astonishing clarity.

Not what you expected, perhaps,” his friend tells Alex, after a particularly disappointing setback in his venture. “But it was a gift.”

A gift?” Alex responds. “It seems a total failure.”

“What is failure? The only failure is to reject what God wishes to show us.”

In a public lavatory in Moscow, Alex encounters a dying man. The man is sick and filthy and wasted with substance abuse, and does not wish to live. He is in the drain-hole of the world, he says, the nyet, nyet, nyet. But Alex is determined to rescue him and take him to a hospital, in spite of a disgruntled taxi driver and an unsympathetic nurse. When he learns that the man’s name is Alexei, the Russian form of Alex, he is a bit taken aback by the coincidence, and chooses to call him by the fond and familiar derivative, Alyosha, the pet name that Alex gave himself as a child and a budding Russophile.

Lake-Baikal-russia-iceAlex doesn’t stay long with Alyosha after he sees him admitted to the hospital, but the significance of the incident pursues him throughout the rest of the story. It pursues him to strange and bizarre places, as he finds himself on a train attacked by militant protestors, stranded for weeks with a widowed Russian doctor and her two fatherless sons in a tiny village on the shores of Lake Baikal, and, in an unexpected turn of events, tortured by government intelligence officials in a windowless cell in Siberia. All along, O’Brien is probing deeper and deeper into the Russian psyche, into the legacy of the Soviet era, into the corruption of East and West.

In one scene, Alex speaks to an agnostic Russian with words that are far beyond him, although he doesn’t know it yet.

“Irina, do you remember when we first met, that night on the train? You quoted Pushkin. You said that in our times man was either tyrant or traitor or prisoner.”

“I have not changed my opinion,” says the woman with a hint of bitterness.

“But the Christian is a prisoner in Christ and with Christ and thus he is the only free man on the planet,” Alex says triumphantly. But he does not yet know what he is talking about.

It is in Alex’s greatest crisis of suffering that the ultimate gift is given to him. He wakes up brutalized in a freezing cell, completely dispossessed, and sees a man beside him in an even worse condition. Although Alex feels like his body has become one great wound, he reaches out to other person to try to offer some comfort.

“Who are you?” Alex breathed. Christ_Suffer

“Alyosha,” the lips whispered in reply.

“We are suffering, Alyosha,” Alex sobbed, placing the palm of his hand on the man’s forehead. “But we are not alone.”

The flesh of the forehead was riddled with holes. “You,” said the prisoner, are Alyosha.”

He touched the holes in the hands and feet of the prisoner. He lightly touched the face that a rifle butt had shattered. The hands of the prisoner drew his fingers to the wound in his heart, and his heart was a fountain.

And blessed are the poor in spirit.

For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.


Book Reviews [Spring 2013]

Well, it’s that time again: time to round up all the books from the past few months and make a quick record of my distilled ideas about them. I do hope you’ll join in with your own thoughts, and let me know what is the best thing you’ve read this year so far.

…because words have the power to change us…

LettersOfTolkienThe Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Christopher Tolkien) – 5 STARS – Tolkien’s son has put his father’s letters into a quite extensive collection that gives us a better feel for John Ronald Reuel’s own mind than any biography could do. It includes letters to Edith, to family members, to publishers, inquirers, scholars, fans of all kinds, and – my personal favorites – letters to his two sons, as they attended university and later fought in the Second World War. There are many letters that have to do with publishing hassles and squabbles and domestic arrangements, and the more or less monotonous life of a university professor. However, there are also deeply insightful family letters of advice and fellowship and yes, the thing most of us are hoping for: considerable information about the process and motivation driving The Lord of the Rings. This is not a book for those who are wishing to just pass the time, and feel it may be amusing to know a bit more about Tolkien. It is for those who wish to really know Tolkien, to the extent that he still can be known. Some more brief thoughts about the war letters are here.

Hudson Taylor [Volumes I and II] (Howard Taylor) – 5 STARS – This massive two-volume biography of Hudson Taylor and The China Inland Mission is not for the faint-hearted, but I found it to be a lasting delight as I read it over the course of almost two years. Written in that grand old tone of 19th century literature, the books dwells not as much on the external particulars of the ministry as on Hudson Taylor’s spiritual adventure – although, by the time it is complete, there have certainly been enough pages to touch on plenty of material details as well. I recommend it highly, and found it a most effective summons to awake to the urgency and fleetingness of life. Some favorite quotations below:

“His capacity for happiness was like that of an unspoilt child.”

“Surely to need much grace and therefore to be given much is not a thing to be troubled about, is it?”

“Should we not rejoice when we have anything we can give up for the Savior?”

“Light will be no doubt be given you. Do not forget, however, in seeking more, the importance of walking according to the light you have.”

“There should be only one circumstance to us in life, and that Circumstance – GOD.”

WHAudenThe Complete Poems (W.H. Auden) – 3 STARS – Well, in all honesty, I didn’t actually read the complete poems. However, I got well over half-way through this one before deciding I needed to take a really long break from Auden – as in, I’m done with this book. Auden’s writing includes many really strong pieces and I expect that several verses from here will stick with me for the rest of my life. However, my ultimate conclusion was that the man would be regarded far more highly today if he had burned up about half of what he wrote before it ever had the opportunity to be published. Nevertheless, there are some great compositions, in the middles of some quite dull and context-bound pieces, there are startling statements. A few favorite lines are below:

From The Quest:

The only difference that could be seen
From those who’d never risked their lives at all
Was his delight in details and routine;
For he was always glad to mow the grass;

Pour liquids from large bottles into small,
Or look at clouds through bits of colored glass.”

From At The Grave of Henry James:

All will be judged; master of nuance and scruple
Pray for me and for all writers, living or dead
Because there are many whose works
Are in better taste than their lives, because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling, make intercession
For the treason of all clerks.

From A Christmas Oratorio:

We are afraid of pain, but more afraid of silence.” 

Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.

What is real about all of us is that each of us is waiting.

“If we were never alone or always too busy
Perhaps we might even believe what we know is not true:
But no one is taken in, at least not all of the time;
In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night,
We know very well we are not unlucky but evil,
That the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all
To which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment.”

“…remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

From The Age of Anxiety:

“But the new barbarian is no uncouth
Desert-dweller; he does not emerge
From fir-forests; factories bred him;
Corporate companies, college towns
Mothered his mind, and many journals
Backed his beliefs. He was born here.”

Anton_ChekhovThe Complete Short Stories (Anton Chekhov) – 4 STARS – Again, I can’t say that I read the complete stories. But after I’d read over half of them, I felt it was enough. Here is another author who just wrote so much, and certainly not all of his work is created equal, although it all proceeds from the same spirit. Chekhov sees right through humanity, and is not a bit taken in. All of his characters are presented in their stark reality, with no whitewashing, and no redemption. There are not really any heroic characters in Chekhov’s stories. There are just people, behaving just as people generally do. And yet, despite all of this, Chekhov loves them, for a reason that perhaps is best articulated by a short paragraph in his story Frost:

“The old men sank into thought. They thought of that in man which is higher than good birth, higher than rank and wealth and learning, of that which brings the lowest beggar near to God: of the hopelessness of man, of his sufferings, and his patience.”

I think it’s fair to say that Chekhov’s stories are about suffering. And thus, by default, they are about love. (I’ve written some more detailed thoughts about this here.)

Nicholas Nickleby (Charles Dickens) – 5 STARS – One of my favorite Dickens books so far – and I’ve read most of the major novels now. For me, this one rates right up there with Great Expectations and Bleak House. Nicholas Nickleby embodies so many aspects of the heroic ideal and makes honor and decency seem like new and flaming concepts; like aspirations that outweigh the balance of the whole world. While I’m fully aware of a number of serious deficiencies with the structure of this novel, I had to give it a five-star rating since it was among the most encouraging books I’ve read in months. (You can read my more extensive thoughts on this one here.)

OliverTwistCharles Dickens (G.K. Chesterton) – 5 STARS – Chesterton on Dickens? It hardly gets better than that. Chesterton is the perfect man to write about Dickens, because he understood and shared so many of Dickens’ central ideas: Love of the free and simple man’s home. A fierce defense of the traditional family structure. A thorough understanding of Romance. A humble and unpretentious regard for the poor. A respect for the great Christian carelessness that seeks its meat from God. A relish for comradeship and serious joy. A hunger for the inn at the end of the world. Indeed, I feel this is one of Chesterton’s best books, and found fuller explanations in here for many of the themes that pervade his poetry. Dickens was exactly the stuff that Chesterton understood best, and Chesterton understood even Dickens’ literary weaknesses better than any other critic I’ve encountered. Ultimately, it is plain that Chesterton transcended the mighty Dickens because he did more than delight in the ideals: Chesterton actually lived by them.

My Utmost For His Highest (Oswald Chambers) – 5 STARS – At last I read My Utmost for His Highest for a whole year and all the way through. It feels like a growing up. And I know that in some ways, it is, because when I picked this one up a few years ago I found it intolerable and had to put it away. It wasn’t that I felt it was untrue, but only that it hurt my independence frightfully and spoke of things I was afraid to know about. Now I can call it one of the greatest masterpieces of truth that I have encountered. I expect to read it again and again and again, for I know there is still so much I haven’t attained to.

Deliver Us From EvilDeliver Us From Evil (Ravi Zacharias) – 3 STARS – I wanted to like this book more than I did like it. Ravi Zacharias is a great thinker and has much wisdom to offer. However, it seems like the book is not as well organized as it might have been, and the writing style employs quite a bit of unjustified circumlocution. In spite of this, it is also full of truth, which sometimes shines out with a glimmer of splendor.

The Love of God (Oswald Chambers) – 4 STARS – As with most of Chambers’ writing, this little book is full of staggeringly good stuff. Due to the fact that Chambers’ writings were mostly published posthumously, some of the text here is also included in other works, such as My Utmost For His Highest.

The ChimesThe Chimes (Charles Dickens) – 3 STARS – Just as in A Christmas Carol, Dickens attempts in this short novella to tackle social issues in the context of a tale set during a holiday season. However, he doesn’t pull it off quite as well in The Chimes. The characters are not as developed, and the plot line is shaped by his central theme of social injustice, rather than being worked into it. In spite of these weaknesses, Toby Veck is an endearing protagonist, and the catastrophic vision is quite moving.

“He delighted to believe — Toby was very poor and could not well afford to part with a delight — that he was worth his salt.”

TellingTheTruthTelling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale (Frederick Buechner) – 4 STARS – Buechner writes prose like poetry, and is a master at his craft, and so of course this book is beautiful, echoing so many of the things you know but don’t know how to put into language; so many of the things about fairytales and Story, and humanity and homesickness and hunger. As a note of caution, I did get the feeling Buechner was so caught up in his own lovely writing that he may have taken some unwise liberties with the character of God – nothing overt enough to prevent me from recommending the book to someone else, but certainly I’d want to tack this disclaimer onto any recommendation I make.

Tortured For Christ (Richard Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – Wurmbrand’s iconic account of persecution under communism in Romania covers much more territory than I expected. It’s a short read, but deftly addresses many aspects of the oppressed underground church throughout the world, and illuminates the simplicity of the devotion that goes to death for Christ expectantly, singing, singing, singing. As Wurmbrand says himself, “I have found truly joyful Christians only in the Bible, in the Underground Church, and in prison.” The church in the West would do well to attend…

WurmbrandFamilyThe Pastor’s Wife (Sabina Wurmbrand) – 5 STARS – I read this one on Noel‘s recommendation. It gives a much more complete picture of the Wurmbrand family’s personal history and I especially appreciated how openly Sabina writes about their struggles, loneliness and isolation, as she tells a very real and honest story. Somehow the significance of their endurance becomes even more overwhelming as we hear about the darkness that veiled their sight all the way and sundered everything from everything else. I found their son Mihai’s story particularly gripping as he grew up relatively orphaned for several years and struggled not to lose his faith.

The Radical Cross (A.W. Tozer) – 5 STARS – Tozer espouses a sane, Biblical, healthy, and uncompromising theology. I think it does even the most learned and mature among us a great deal of good to do this sort of reading periodically and take refreshment from the simplicity of things. This is not to imply that this book is in any way simplistic – it is in fact a sophisticated collection of thoughts on the meaning and significance of the Cross of Christ – but only that it is simple, with that perfect straightforwardness which characterized the life of our Lord.

LittleDorritLittle Dorrit (Charles Dickens) – 4 STARS – Little Dorrit doesn’t commend itself by one overarching idea but by the incorporation of a great many that are mingled together to construct one fabulous whole. We come away quite overwhelmed and satisfied by the humble constancy of Amy, the unassuming decency of Arthur, the pathetic conceit of Mr. Dorrit, the great-hearted practicality of Mr. and Mrs. Meagles, the devoted magnanimity of John Chivery, and the principles of the pitiable and many-faceted Mr. Pancks. This is Dickens doing what he does best, although not perhaps in his best way, since the plot feels a little stretched at times. Nonetheless, I class this among the author’s greater works, as definitely an exquisite novel and no weakly-veiled social pamphlet like Hard Times.

The BBC produced an excellent film version within the past couple of years, which I highly recommend. The mini-series clocks in at eight hours, and remains true to the spirit and text of the book. Indeed, in some ways it is arguably superior.

What I’m still reading:

Abandoned To God: The Life Story of Oswald Chambers (David McCasland)
Eugenics and Other Evils (G.K. Chesterton)
The Father’s Tale (Michael O’Brien)
On Writing Well (William Zinsser)
The Four Loves (C.S. Lewis)
Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Major Works
The Greater Trumps (Charles Williams)

What about you?

On The Importance of Being Smike

Nicholas NicklebySometimes a story smacks you squarely in the face with precisely the thing you need. So it was for me with Nicholas Nickleby last month, which I read over the course of only a week and which has been growing on me ever since, like a widening light.

Charles Dickens’ third published novel, Nicholas Nickleby is among the author’s earlier writings, and belongs very definitively to that set of his work that was the most Dickensian. That is, it is full of flair and hyperbole and drama and oppression and cold weather and child abuse and misery and heroics and ideals. Especially ideals.

Indeed, as with all of Dickens’ best work, Nicholas Nickleby’s strengths lie not in any unique plot twists or unusual characters, but in the incarnation of ideals, their taking on of flesh. Nicholas Nickleby is strong because its’ characters are ideals. And they take on flesh quite well – indeed, in 900 pages they have plenty of time to do so. The ideals are very fully fleshed out. But they are also very strong ideals, that have endured in the world since the genesis of Christendom. And if you love them already, you will find them splendid because Dickens makes them so, but mostly because they are splendid in their own right.

NicholasAt the heart of these ideals is the hero. This is Nicholas himself. He is not particularly original, but he attracts us because he is not merely a protagonist, but is, in fact, really a hero, in the traditional sense of the word. He adores justice and honor with a childlike simplicity and he takes on the miseries of life with a pure heart and cheery self-denial. Beside his fiery innocence, every contaminated sentiment and half-wrong seems horrible, and not to be endured.

All my days I have been seeking to be like him. Quite without knowing his story, at all, of course. Because Nicholas Nickleby is not a character invented by Dickens at all. He is the quintessential human hero, a picture of the man that men will follow, and that the world is not worthy of.

In Dickens’ story, Nicholas is afflicted by some rather prosaic difficulties when his father, a country gentlemen, dies unexpectedly, leaving the nineteen-year-old Nicholas, his sister Kate, and their mother in dire straits. They are forced to apply for assistance to the senior Nickleby’s brother, Nicholas’ uncle Ralph. Ralph is a ruthless and unscrupulous miser, who sends Nicholas off to work for pennies at a wretched boarding school in Yorkshire, and exploits Kate’s feminine graces to please his business partners. Their mother, while an amiable woman, lacks discretion, and cannot serve as a source of guidance for the two young people in their difficulties.

All told, the title character’s situation seems thoroughly unenviable. Fortunately, Nicholas carries something with him that turns the desolation of the world into an adventure: his stalwart decency. Thrust into scenes of unbearable degradation and injustice, his ideals of truth and righteousness do not falter, and cannot be co-opted. He is an honest man, and no one can take that away from him. This makes his life bearable and serves as a roadmap. You pity him in his hardship, but not too much, because you know he has a treasure of incalculable worth, and that he has what it takes to get to the other side of what is before him. Before his story is over, he will be the one turning the arrogant from their ease, and rescuing the downtrodden with remarkable flair.

I can’t not want to be that guy.

But I’m not.

I spent all my childhood imagining myself as something of a champion in the making. Oh, the places I would go, and all of the rescue I would dispense! All of my dreams were about heroics. So the knowledge that I have been somewhat mistaken in my aim has been a long time coming home to me.

With Nicholas Nickleby, it came home a little more. Because beside even Dickens’ simple and clichéd ideal, I seem very unheroic indeed. And I know that there must be something besides the fruitless chase after championship.

And so there is.

At Dotheboys’ Hall, a stereotypically Dickensian hell-hole, where Nicholas serves as an assistant to the evil schoolmaster Wackford Squeers, we meet another character. Smike is crippled, and hardly a boy anymore at eighteen. He was abandoned at the school six years ago, and has been exploited by the Squeers ever since, serving them as a slave in deplorable conditions and beaten continually. His ill-treatment and ignorance have given him a feeble mind and doubled his terror and helplessness. Smike has no ideals to nourish him, and no prospects or plans ahead of him. His life is a living death.

Nicholas, enraged by the cruelty that Smike endures, is very kind to the drudge. This is something Smike has never experienced before, and something happens to him that he did not realize could happen:  it dawns upon him that there is a reason to live, and that waking up in the morning doesn’t have to be just the shock of death flooding his lungs. His reason to live is Nicholas, and the hope of Nicholas’ approval and the ambition of serving him.

The Squeers, who are evil, are annoyed by the sight of goodness thriving anywhere, and redouble their efforts to make Smike’s life a torment to him. Nicholas decides this additional oppression is just about the last straw, and he informs Smike that he is going to leave. In a wild fit of desperation, Smike abandons the disgraceful institution on his own that night. Lame and starving, he doesn’t get far before he is dragged back by the schoolmaster’s wife. The Squeers, who find it necessary to deal with the imminent threat of mutiny among the boys, decide to make a great spectacle of Smike, and to flog him severely before the whole school.

As this ordeal commences, Nicholas snaps, and descends like a hurricane upon the schoolmaster, administering a sound drubbing to the latter, before packing his little bag and quitting the place. As he sets out on the long journey back to London, impoverished and with grim prospects, he runs into Smike, who has been following him all the way. Smike drops to his knees at Nicholas’ feet.

 ‘Why do you kneel to me?’ Nicholas asks.

“To go with you–anywhere–everywhere–to the world’s end–to the churchyard grave,” says Smike in a wild supplication. “Let me, oh do let me. You are my home.”

Smike is a cripple all of his days. He drags his deformed limbs with him everywhere, and his weak mind is never made whole. Wherever he goes, people will stare and whisper and feel sorry for him. He will never be a specimen of perfection. But in spite of all this he is at rest, and at home. Because he is following Nicholas Nickleby , and consumed in a sort of slavish devotion to his hero. What he is is wretched indeed, but what he is is not important to him. For he is utterly wrapped up in worshipping a worthier champion. In himself, there is limitless impotence and fear. But in his master there is enough glory to satisfy him.

And when the full import of this burst upon me, I found it disturbing, like a call to wake up.  Because my Dearest Friend is the prince of champions, and oh, are all of my springs in Him? The grace that has set me free, is it enough for me? Or must I do something of my own to add to it, before it is sufficient to be happy-making?

Hudson Taylor wrote to his wife in 1869,

I now see that it is not in what He is to me, not in what He is working, or has worked, or may work in, for, or by me, but in Himself I am to rejoice;  in what He is and has in Himself absolutely. And this, it appears to me, is the only possible or even legitimate ground for constant, unchanging, full joy.

But to get at the joy that is only outside of ourselves, we must come to the end of ourselves. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” said our Lord. Not because they are lesser or more wretched than their brothers, but because they know it. And theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For the life at the heels of Christ is not about being a hero, but about loving a hero. And the more you love Him, the more you are at home in Him. And when He is all that matters, it doesn’t matter that you are what you are.

Because He is what He is.