The Curious Difficulty of Numinous Fiction

Why do so many Protestant writers on the numinous (or even the religious) come across disingenuous, cloying, or false? If, as Joseph Bottum and others have suggested, the novel is essentially a Protestant art form, why is it that those who take the Bible most literally and believe Reformed doctrine most fully write fiction most dreadfully?

Of course, there are manifold exceptions (Defoe, Austen, Brontë, etc.). Perhaps the better question is to ask why the world of doctrine and spiritual life, of a real and active God, so brilliantly articulated in Protestant sermons so often fails to animate our works of fiction? Bottum argues that the form itself, so encoded with the Protestant understanding of the individual’s relationship to God and the world (in which the inner, spiritual life is paramount), collapses under its own weight when too self-consciously attempting to portray spiritual realities. He writes, “To write a Protestant novel is, instead, to do something a little unnecessary, a little verging on the redundant. And when a deliberately Protestant novel fails, it often fails because it seems didactic and preachy, engaged in what the art form itself promises that readers can take for granted.”

In the twentieth century, particularly the post-war era, the literary voices in Britain and America most able to capture the realm of faith  were overwhelmingly Catholic—Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, William M. Miller (A Canticle for Liebowitz). The best “Protestant” writers of the period were mostly secular in life and work—Robert Penn Warren, Harper Lee, William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, etc. Serious Protestant writing flowered in extremes of abstraction or concretion: poetry (Eliot and Auden) and theology (Lewis, Stott, etc.).

City scenes--St. Paul's Chapel

Looking heavenward in a material world.

Among these Catholic writers, themes of faith are handled in very different ways. Greene’s The Power and the Glory is a very Catholic story about a very bad Catholic, but God comes across convincingly (though subtly) as the main actor. Miller imagines how the Church can continue and rebuild society after a nuclear holocaust. O’Connor’s short stories are memorable for the violent intrusion of grace into the lives of smugly self-satisfied characters (through the theft of an artificial leg in “Good Country People” or a high-velocity book to the forehead in “Revelation”). Waugh and Percy’s characters (Charles Ryder, Binx Bolling, Will Barrett) explore dead-ends of selfish personal fulfillment, reaching beautiful resolution by the merest hint at conversion.

Why in this barbaric, scientistic, hypersexualized modern world (to which Scripture has so much to say) have Catholics rather than Protestants (particularly Bible-drenched evangelicals) handled the interaction between God and Creation so much more believably? This is a line of questioning that I’ve wrestled with for a long time (as a member of that most insufferable class–aspiring writers) and one that seems of peculiar importance in a day that promises less and less attention to traditional modes of Christian discourse.

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Ode to Pollen

Spring is in the air,
But not alone up there.

Shorter nights and warmer days
Call forth grass, trees, and yellow haze.

Roses are red, violets are blue,
Oak tassels are green, clinging like glue.

Myriad plants with hearts aflutter
Make love in the wind, stamens clogging the gutter.

The car’s chartreuse, the driveway mustard.
Pollen up your nose makes it run like custard.

Tiny proteins smother me in kisses
Working hard to keep Kleenex in business.

My eyes are red, my brain deep fried,
Without antihistamines, I’d sneeze ’til I died.

Rain alone brings real relief,
But extra mowing causes me grief.

A wet rag over the face promises sleep.
Winter’s over, and spring is a bleep.

Martin and Me

Yes, work and life intertwine often when you’re employed at an organization that reflects your beliefs and values. I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review in Disciple, but I found it so refreshing and encouraging, that I am posting it here too.

Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom, Carl R. Trueman, 2015, Crossway, Wheaton, Ill., ISBN 9781433525025, 214 pages, $17.99, softcover.

In the realm of Christian biography, we often look to those who have done great deeds in obedience to Christ—missionaries, martyrs, and evangelists—for inspiration and encouragement as we follow Him. Less often, perhaps, do we consider theologians as role models for our Christian walk. We read their work and their ideas impact us, but the Theologians on the Christian Life series from Crossway is taking this to another level. Each book in this series explores the great thinkers of the faith in their personal life and the development of their theology, mining it for wisdom for today’s Christians.

The latest installment in the series is Carl Trueman’s work on The Great Reformer, Martin Luther. Trueman, a professor of church history at Westminster Seminary, has studied Luther for the better part of his career and writes about him with affection and admiration (without sugar-coating his sins and shortcomings). As a scholar, he draws on thorough reading of Luther’s works, and as a Presbyterian standing apart from Luther’s tradition, he provides an instructive introduction to his life and thought from an outsider’s perspective.

This short volume is richly packed with scriptural and practical insight. Trueman begins by briefly summarizing Luther’s biography, illuminating the personal and cultural contexts that influenced his study, teaching, and actions. In this, he reminds us that theology never happens in a vacuum, and that there are very real consequences to our belief and our choices. Notably, Trueman urges readers to consider all of Luther’s life and work, not just his exuberant, bold pre-1525 writings (before which he had not had to wrestle extensively with the need for liturgical and ecclesiological precision in order to protect church order, among other things).

Over seven other chapters, Trueman unpacks several key concepts in Luther’s thought. The first is his distinction between theologians of glory (who see God’s character as a reflection of the way the world works) and theologians of the cross (who see God working in ways the world deems foolish, subverting the sinful order). Importantly, Trueman points out that these are not “theologies” but “theologians”, that is, attitudes of approaching God and His Word rather than organized systems of thought.

Trueman also spends a great deal of time exploring Luther’s views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, pointing out that he would have viewed most modern evangelicals as outside the bounds of orthodoxy for seeing these sacraments as symbols only (rather than understanding baptism as a seal of grace and communion as containing the real, physical presence of Christ). Instead of explaining away these differences as unreformed holdovers from Luther’s medieval Catholic theology, Trueman endeavors to show how Luther came to these positions through careful study of the Word and a fervent commitment to justification by faith. In this way Luther reckoned the sacraments as tangible gifts from God to remind His people that their salvation came wholly from outside themselves.

On justification, Trueman delves into Luther’s statement that “The Love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” In this idea and the reasoning behind it, we see a radical departure from the worldly view that we love that which pleases us, and, by implication, that we must somehow make ourselves acceptable to God before He will love us. In this, as in every area of his theology, Luther is adamant that man is helpless to save himself, thus magnifying God’s glory in the work of salvation.

In all, this book was a tremendous blessing to me. Trueman’s winsome writing style brings depth of content to bear on the reader with application as the goal. The result is a historically enlightening, theologically challenging, and profoundly pastoral work. Martin Luther has clearly been used by God to advance the spread of His truth, and Trueman engages him “as one of us,” a man whose “strengths were his weaknesses” but who was faithful to strive after humble obedience to his Heavenly Father.

Tolle lege et benedicentur.

Being There: A Vision for Family–Part 2

Read Part 1. Standard caveats apply.

Much as we imagine ourselves teachers and teachable, so many of the most important things I’ve learned have come by chance. Comments overheard, asides, throwaway phrases that, for a peculiar moment, sank deep in my soul. I’m too busy (or too proud) to ask for advice, and these snippets disperse that self-assured fog.

Several years ago, I was representing my organization at a large international missions conference hosted here in Chattanooga. Hours of shaking hands and repeating talking points while standing on concrete in dress shoes left me jelly-kneed and looking for a seat. I ducked into a breakout session with a local pastor, Joe Novenson. If Brother Joe reads this, he may correct my recollection of this story, and he’d certainly point all the credit away from himself, but it sticks with me nevertheless.

I couldn’t tell you what he actually spoke on that hour, but in a brief Q&A, I was floored with a reflection on parenting (I don’t even remember what point he was illustrating). In the midst of sermon preparation, he had a flash of wonder as to the outcome of life for his kids. One at a time, he asked them into his study, looked them in the eye and inquired, “What is the most important thing you’ve learned from me as your father?” His oldest son answered, “Do the right thing.” His second child likewise. Seeking signs of the Gospel of grace working in their lives, he was despairing at hearing his own moralistic instruction coming back to him. When his youngest, a daughter, came in, though, she replied, “Oh daddy, to love Jesus, of course.”

A sweet story, out of context, trite. To me in that moment, wrestling with the challenges of how to “do the right thing” by my young family, it was a devastating blow. A call to die to selfish worry. That was two kids ago.

With young children, it’s easy to believe the doctrine of original sin. There are days I’d give my left leg to have them say that “doing the right thing” even registers as a good idea. In spite of that, I have never doubted for a moment that they love me. They can refuse to obeyGals-4-15 over a thousand petty grievances and go to bed in a huff; but at breakfast all they want is to smother me with hugs.

Discipline and order (how I love order!) are most needful, but they will come with training. Love is something that must be cultivated and allowed to flourish. It is ready to grow, but is so easily trampled. The long race of raising children is completed by the daily steps of acknowledging their love for you and making sure they know you love them back. Without that foundation, all the moral instruction in the world will, at best, produce well-mannered pharisees.

Neither does breadwinning alone constitute faithful fatherhood. Professing your love and devotion while working every waking hour to “prepare for the future” is not the strategic move it seems. A friend quipped, “I can’t be a provider for my family if I don’t provide them with myself.” Financially, settling for less may give you more than you ever dreamed.

Of all the roles and responsibilities of dads, loving presence is both the most important and hardest to maintain. Time spent with your children is its own reward. Truth can be taught, food and clothes can be bought, but all the truly worthwhile skills in life only come through apprenticeship.

The kids are watching.