XC

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

What is it about the moon and stars that fascinates us so? (If you have not felt the fascination, you have been cheated of a great mystery by light pollution.) One partial answer may appear below.

MoonfromOrbit

The Contribution of Lesser Lights
Sonnet XXIX

For a while he could almost count them as they came
Like scouts, but then the whole vast army stepped
At once into the sky and into flame.
Like a poem he could not understand, they kept
A vigil in his spirit while he slept
And swift were vanishing when he awoke.
But the more garish light of day that swept
Them from the sky swept no soul’s darkness, spoke
No lightning lines, no secrets could uncloak.
Oh, it shone bright and clear, there was no doubt,
And glanced gold fire from off the dull-leaved oak.
But though man has it in him to blot out
The sun, these lesser lights still often find
The chinks in the dark armor of his mind.

starry-night

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Reflections-Front Cover-2013-6-4

LXXXIX

Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”

If you think Nature is mysterious, you should try to raise a human being. If you think human beings are simply continuous with Nature, not uniquely created in the image of God, you either haven’t raised one or weren’t paying attention. I was raising one while studying linguistics at the same time, which forced me and enabled me to pay attention in certain very fruitful ways.

Portrait-DadMomHeather

The Poet to his Daughter at Eighteen Months

What a mystery, my little friend,
You are, what an enigma to me now!
Not all your forty words can tell me how
The least thing in this world appears to you.
And yet, the snatches that I apprehend:
A magic landscape now springs into view,
Now fades into the mist, and springs anew,
But leaves not one clear image in the end.
Oh, there will come a day when you can grope
About for metaphors that can let me
See through your eyes, and find them too, I hope.
But then, alas, the vision will not be
This bright one that I long so now to see.

Remember: for more poetry like this, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

Stars Through the Clouds

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE, Part 2

WHY EVANGELICALS CAN’T WRITE,
And How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Us Learn Better

Part 2

Donald T. Williams, PhD

A version of this essay appeared as “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity 20:7 (Sept., 2007): 15-18. A fuller version appears in Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).

What can Evangelical writers learn from Christian writers from liturgical churches, who have done a much better job of pursuing excellence?  What can we learn from them without compromising our own Evangelical convictions?  Those were the questions I raised last week and will try to answer today by looking at Flannery O’Connor.

Miss Flannery

Miss Flannery

THE HILLBILLY THOMIST

Flannery O’Connor, the Georgia writer who died of disseminated lupus in 1964, was a self-styled “hillbilly Thomist” whose two novelettes and small collection of short stories have transcended the local-color cubbyhole into which they were first placed to shock, puzzle, intrigue, and delight a growing body of readers ever since. A devout and loyal Catholic who often had more sympathy with Protestant Fundamentalists than with others in her own tradition, she said that “I am no disbeliever in spiritual purpose and no vague believer. I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that” (32). In most of her stories the central character, whether secular or religious, starts off smugly self-sufficient but is given an opportunity to become open to the grace of God which is usually not responded to very well. A master of irony, O’Connor often puts the most profound spiritual insight into the mouth of the character who is by conventional standards the farthest from the kingdom. There are no cheap conversions, but the cumulative effect of her stories for those who understand them is to break down the modern sense of enlightened self-sufficiency and prepare readers to accept their need for grace.

 
Although she often expressed a bemused impatience with the expectations of the average Catholic reader, O’Connor also found in the larger tradition of that church a community that nurtured and supported her artistic vision. She mentions at least three forms of such nurture she found there, only one of which is liable to be present in the typical Evangelical congregation.

Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.

Miss Flannery feeding her Peacocks.

A TRUE WORLDVIEW

First, she found a true world view, encapsulated in dogma, that constituted a lens that brings human nature and human significance into piercing clarity. “Dogma,” she said, “is an instrument for penetrating reality” (178). “It is one of the functions of the Church to transmit the prophetic vision that is good for all time, and when the novelist has this as a part of his own vision, he has a powerful extension of sight” (179-80). But it is not enough simply to have been taught the truth. O’Connor understood that good writers do not simply parrot these insights; they must take this doctrinal understanding and apply it to the concrete realities of human life. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing” (91). When we do not understand this distinction, Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda. “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality” (163). Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not simply a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.

 
Some Evangelical congregations still do a good job of transmitting the biblical world view and the specifics of Christian doctrine, though too many of them have allowed the edges of that body of material to become inexcusably fuzzy. Perhaps we have not done so well at giving our adherents the confidence to take this body of doctrine and use it creatively as a tool to understand life and experience. But on this point at least we may with some credibility claim not to have been completely “left behind.”

Miss Flannery

Miss Flannery

A THEOLOGY OF ART

The second form of nurture O’Connor felt she had received from the Church was a definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose for the artist distinct from that of the propagandist. She quotes Thomas Aquinas as saying that art “is wholly concerned with the good of that which is made.” And she adds, “We are not content to stay within our limitations and make something that is simply a good in and by itself. Now we want to make something that will have some utilitarian value. Yet what is good in itself glorifies God because it reflects God” (171). This is a telling comment. That which reflects God may have an evangelistic effect. But if evangelism must be the primary purpose of everything we write, then a lot of God’s character will remain unreflected–which will, ironically, not help the cause of evangelism. Also, an emphasis on “the good of that which is made” puts theology on record as affirming the value—indeed, the necessity—of the hard work and craftsmanship required for good writing.

 
I have searched the current popular Evangelical systematic theologies–Grudem, Erickson, etc–in vain for a definition of art. For us, it does not seem to be a theological topos. O’Connor complained that too many Catholic writers were too utilitarian in their approach, but at least their theologians thought art a topic worthy of attention. Indeed, Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar has made it the organizing principle of his systematics, with series entitled The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics and Theo-Drama. So it is not surprising that, with no such emphasis coming from its leaders, the popular Evangelical subculture is even more addicted to pragmatism in its approach, as a brief trip through that oxymoronic commercial institution the “Christian Bookstore” will quickly show. Fiction can only be justified if it has an overt evangelistic purpose; works of visual art must have a scripture verse tacked under them. Perhaps when our theologians become concerned with the good of the thing made, some of our people will too. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's writing desk.

Miss Flannery’s writing desk.

THE SENSE OF MYSTERY

The third form of nourishment O’Connor acknowledged as a gift from the Church was a sense of mystery. Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the good? “It is the business of fiction to embody mystery through manners” (124), O’Connor wrote. Therefore, “The type of mind that can understand good fiction is . . . the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery” (79). In Catholic worship with its sacramental focus, O’Connor found her sense of mystery nourished, and saw such nourishment as a key to the writer’s ability to “penetrate concrete reality”: “The more sacramental his theology, the more encouragement he will get from it to do just that” (163).

 
Does our Evangelical theology of the sacraments preclude us from nurturing our writers in this way? I think it would be shortsighted to answer that question in the affirmative. Metaphor and symbolism are central to the creative process for writers, and they are an important way that we evoke and assimilate mystery. One need not believe in transubstantiation to make the Lord’s Supper more central in worship, nor would a symbolic or metaphorical view of the sacrament render it irrelevant to the lives of artists. But we have too quickly and too often reacted to the abuses of the biblical sacrament in the Mass by relegating the Eucharist to a marginal role in our worship. This cannot be unrelated to the fact that we as a community are too much like the generation O’Connor described “that has been made to feel that the aim of learning is to eliminate mystery” (125). Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to let us express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call. Some of these goals are worth pursuing; but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity felt as such were one of them, we would be better Christians as well as better writers. Until that happens we will continue to be “left behind.”

Miss Flannery's gravestone.

Miss Flannery’s gravestone.

CONCLUSION

O’Connor can help us make the case that it is not the distinctive emphases of Evangelical theology, but rather a lack of other emphases, equally biblical, that has kept us from being a community good at nurturing the arts. Our failure to encourage people to apply doctrine to the realities of life; our failure to include in our theology the whole counsel of the God who called Bezalel and Oholiab and gifted them as artists; our pragmatism, an uncritical reflection of American culture rather than a biblical mandate; and our mystery-impoverished worship tradition are all simple failures to be what we claim to be, faithful to Scripture. They could be changed without threatening any of the doctrinal emphases that as a movement we have been right about. Until that happens, we will continue to be “left behind.”

WORKS CITED

O’Connor, Flannery. Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. Ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald. NY: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1977.
______________________________________________________________________________

Donald T. Willliams (BA, Taylor Universtiy, M.Div., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, PhD, University of Georgia) is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College in the Hills of N.E. Georgia. His books include Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), Stars through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012), and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012).

InklingsofReality5c

Order Stars through the Clouds ($15.00), Inklings of Reality ($15.00) or Reflections from Plato’s Cave ($15.00) at http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/.

Appearance or Rationality?

Yesterday I posted the following comment as my status on Facebook:

“After several years of getting drawn in to various debates on Facebook, I have come to a conclusion. About 95% of the people commenting care nothing whatsoever about evidence or chains of reasoning or the search for truth. They are concerned only with what statements will make them appear cool, intelligent, or with it to whatever group they are trying to impress.”

Not a person I was describing.

Not a person I was describing.

The response–an unusually high number of “likes” and not a few comments–suggested I had hit a nerve.  All of those commenting basically agreed with me.  Either I was in the group they were trying to impress, or I had just attracted all the rational exceptions to the rule.  (Either generalization would probably be dangerous!)

The bottom line is that, while there are many exceptions, the level of rational discourse of which our contemporaries seem capable is distressingly low.  Many apparently think that assertion is evidence, insult is rebuttal, shouting is argument, and repetition is exposition.  It’s not just that they try to get away with these substitutions; they apparently really cannot tell the difference.  They respond to the caricature that is already in their head of the position they are arguing against, ignoring the actual argument that has just been placed before them.

Shakespeare's Grammar School.  He learned to read Latin there.

Shakespeare’s Grammar School. He learned to read Latin there.

How is it that more people are consuming more higher education than ever before while getting so little benefit from it?  There are many reasons.  The expansion of educational opportunity in itself brings a lowering of standards.  Addiction to electronic media has decimated attention spans.  Public figures set terrible examples.  (The entire senate race my state is currently living through consists of one candidate implying that the other is a closet communist and his opponent characterizing him as a Robber Baron; each has called the other a liar, though not in so many words.  Discussion of any actual issues or political principles has been notably absent.)  The media reinforces a focus on soundbytes over reasoned civic discourse. Too many parents no longer teach their kids to practice self-discipline or to take responsibility for their time and be accountable for their actions.  So what’s even a good teacher to do when they get to school?  A climate of Post-Modern relativism cultivates cynicism about truth with a corresponding reluctance to engage in the rigorous disciplines required seriously to pursue it.  All these things make it harder to overcome the basic intellectual laziness and dishonesty that is our legacy from the Fall of Man.

No comment necessary.

No comment necessary.

If you have not yet completely fallen prey to these enemies of the mind, push back against them when you have the opportunity and set a better example when you can.  You’d better.  Otherwise these logic-deficient, evidence-impervious, educated morons that annoy you on Facebook will be the people sitting on our juries and electing our next congress and president.  Oh, wait; it’s worse than that.  They already are.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

A book that fights back against the encroaching darkness.

Donald T. Williams is R. A. Forrest Scholar at Toccoa Falls College and President of the International Society of Christian Apologetics.  To order his books from Lantern Hollow Press, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/

NO EVIDENCE???

How many times have I read an Atheist online making the statement, as if it were a simple and unassailable fact, “There’s just no evidence for the existence of God”?

Highly illogical!

Highly illogical!

How embarrassing! This claim is either a confession that you are too ignorant to be debating the subject or it is an unintentional admission of dishonesty. You can say that you don’t find the evidence sufficient, you can say that you don’t find it convincing, you can say that there is counter-evidence you find more compelling, and we can profitably discuss those claims. If you say there is no evidence, you have just signaled your unwillingness to have an honest debate.

space-sunrise

The heavens declare the glory of God . . .

There is evidence: the contingency, intelligent design, and fine-tuning of the universe; the persistence of a moral law that refuses to be reduced to convention or utilitarianism; the historical evidence for the resurrection of Christ; the changed lives of believers. All these things can be disputed, but they are out there. To ignore them and pretend they don’t exist is either willful ignorance or dishonesty. What else can you call it?

Not all Atheists are like this, but an appalling number are, judging by what they post on FaceBook and various websites.  Call the dishonest Atheists out on this every time! Do not let them get away with it.

Reflections-Front Cover-2013-6-4

Donald T. Williams is president of the International Society of Christian Apologetics.  For more of his apologetic work, go to http://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Reflections from Plato’s Cave: essays in pursuit of goodness, truth, and beauty!