Classics

 

Apr

07

2014

Joe Carter|6:00 AM CT

9 Things You Should Know About The Chronicles of Narnia

The end of March marked the sixty-fifth anniversary of C.S. Lewis completing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first book in the Chronicles of Narnia series. Here are nine things you should know about the Lewis' beloved novels:

narniachronicles1. The name 'Narnia' is a Latin word, referring to a town in ancient Italy called 'Narni'.

2. Lewis first thought of Narnia in 1939, but didn't finish writing the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, until a decade later in 1949. Lewis said of the idea for the book, "The Lion all began with a picture of a Faun carrying an umbrella and parcels in a snowy wood. This picture had been in my mind since I was about sixteen. Then one day, when I was about forty, I said to myself: 'Let's try to make a story about it."

3. Lewis believed the series should be read in the chronological order of the events covered in the books. But most readers, critics, and scholars believe they should be read in the order the books were published: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), Prince Caspian (1951), The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), The Silver Chair (1953), The Horse and His Boy (1954), The Magician's Nephew (1955), The Last Battle (1956).

4. Lewis Scholar Michael Ward has proposed a theory that that Lewis deliberately constructed the Chronicles of Narnia out of the imagery of the seven heavens. According to astronomers before Copernicus in the sixteenth century, the seven heavens contained the seven planets which revolved around Earth and exerted influences over people and events and even the metals in the Earth's crust. In his book, Ward says, "In The Lion [the child protagonists] become monarchs under sovereign Jove; in Prince Caspian they harden under strong Mars; in The "Dawn Treader" they drink light under searching Sol; inThe Silver Chair they learn obedience under subordinate Luna; in The Horse and His Boy they come to love poetry under eloquent Mercury; in The Magician's Nephew they gain life-giving fruit under fertile Venus; and in The Last Battle they suffer and die under chilling Saturn."

5. 'Aslan', the name of the central Lion character in the Narnia Chronicles, is the Turkish word for 'lion'. Although Aslan is the only character to appear in all seven books, he never appeared in the first draft of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, even though it was published a year later.

6. The character of Puddleglum, who appears as a principal character in The Silver Chair, was based on Fred Paxford, who served as a handyman, gardener, and occasional cook for over 30 years at Lewis' home (the Kilns) in Oxford. Douglas Gresham described him as "a simple and earthy man who might be called a cheerful, eternal pessimist." If someone said "good morning" to Paxford, he might respond by saying "Ah, looks like rain before lunch though if it doesn't snow or hail that is."

7. The series of books took Lewis more than eight years to complete, though he spent only three months of that time writing the first book, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

8. Although there are several maps of the Narnian universe available, the one considered the "official" version was published in 1972 by the books' illustrator, Pauline Baynes. (Illustration copyright © C.S. Lewis Pte. Ltd.)

narnia

9. In a letter to a fifth-grade class, Lewis explained that Aslan is not meant simply to "represent" Jesus: "Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen."

 

Other posts in this series:

9 Things You Should Know about the Story of Noah

9 Things You Should Know About Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church

9 Things You Should Know About Pimps and Sex Traffickers

9 Things You Should Know About Marriage in America

9 Things You Should Know About Black History Month

9 Things You Should Know About the Holocaust

9 (More) Things You Should Know About Roe v. Wade

9 Things You Should Know About Poverty in America

9 Things You Should Know About Christmas

9 Things You Should Know About The Hobbit

9 Things You Should Know About the Council of Trent

9 Things You Should Know About C.S. Lewis

9 Things You Should Know About Orphans

9 Things You Should Know about Halloween and Reformation Day

9 Things You Should Know About Down Syndrome

9 Things You Should Know About World Hunger

9 Things You Should Know about Casinos and Gambling

9 Things You Should Know About Prison Rape

9 Things You Should Know About the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing

9 Things You Should Know About the 9/11 Attack Aftermath

9 Things You Should Know About Chemical Weapons

9 Things You Should Know About the March on Washington

9 (More) Things You Should Know About Duck Dynasty

9 Things You Should Know About Child Brides

9 Things You Should Know About Human Trafficking

9 Things You Should Know About the Scopes Monkey Trial

9 Things You Should Know About Social Media

9 Things You Should Know about John Calvin

9 Things You Should Know About Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence

9 Things You Should Know About the Supreme Court's Same-Sex Marriage Cases

9 Things You Should Know About the Bible

9 Things You Should Know About Human Cloning

9 Things You Should Know About Pornography and the Brain

9 Things You Should Know About Planned Parenthood

9 Things You Should Know About the Boston Marathon Bombing

9 Things You Should Know About Female Body Image Issues

 

 
 

May

31

2013

Leland Ryken|12:01 AM CT

Wisdom Through Suffering in The Death of Ivan Ilych

Editors' note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in The Death of Ivan Ilych, you can the first and second installments from Leland Ryken. This week, Ryken suggests reading chapters 5-12.

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While chapter 4 has already portrayed the onset of Ivan's serious illness, the new development that enters with chapter 5 (and that will persist to the end of the story) is the premise that Ivan is a dying man. The main action is twofold: (1) the indifference and deceptiveness of Ivan's family and acquaintances regarding his illness, and (2) the thoughts and feelings that run through Ivan's mind as he suffers physical and mental anguish and seeks to understand the meaning of his past and future. The exception to the prevailing indifference of the world is Ivan's butler, Gerasim, who shares Ivan's suffering, who "alone did not lie," and who holds Ivan's legs on his shoulders to ease the pain.

As Ivan ponders the meaning of his life and approaching death, he comes to the shocking conclusion that his life of conformity had been a sham and that "there was nothing to defend" in regard to it. On his deathbed Ivan moves beyond this conviction of his lost condition to a state of salvation. This is handled with literary indirectness and subtlety, and by means of symbolism, but it is unmistakable. Ivan falls through the black sack that had impeded his progress and enters into light and joy, finally declaring "death is finished. It is no more."

Death-Denying Culture

The main interest of the second half of the story is the moral and spiritual progress of the protagonist, ending with his physical death and spiritual regeneration. But before we chart that progress, we need to register something that remains constant. The falsity, deceptiveness, and insensitivity of Ivan's family and acquaintances are a background chorus to everything Ivan experiences. Tolstoy keeps coming back to the way in which Ivan's society does not "get it" in regard to human suffering, illness, and dying.

The story accomplishes several things with this technique. One thrust is satiric, as Tolstoy makes a scathing indictment of modern society. The object of satiric attack is the way in which people deny the reality of death, both in regard to themselves and also to the dying. As always with satire, as readers we see the folly of what is portrayed, and we are invited to avoid the same folly in our own lives.

Additionally, the deceptiveness of people in their interactions with Ivan is a leading ingredient in his suffering. We read, for example, that "this deception tortured him." And again, "This falsity around him . . . did more than anything else to poison his last days." Ivan comes to hate his family members because they ignore him and even pretend that he is not dying.

The servant Gerasim stands as a foil to the other characters. He does not pretend that Ivan is not dying. He does not avoid contact with Ivan. In fact, he holds Ivan's legs up on his shoulders "easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych." It is in the nature of storytelling that the writer puts examples before us—positive examples to emulate and negative examples to avoid.

For reflection or discussion: We can profitably ask three questions regarding the deceptiveness of the death-dying culture portrayed in this story: (1) how do we see the same thing in our own culture, (2) how do we see the impulse within ourselves, and (3) what do we resolve to do about the situation?

Psychology of Facing Death

Truthfulness to human experience is one of the great contributions of literature. The classical tradition spoke of literature as an imitation of life. Other eras (as well as Shakespeare in a famous speech by Hamlet) called it "holding the mirror up to nature."

One of the things that makes The Death of Ivan Ilych so riveting is that it takes us through the thoughts and feelings that surge through all of us when we have a physical ailment. We can credit Tolstoy with "getting it right." One strand is the fluctuations that tyrannize Ivan's thought life. For example, "Now a spark of hope flashes up, then a sea of despair rages." When the doctor says in reply to a question from Ivan that there was a possibility of recovery, Ivan experiences a "gleam of hope" that "did not last long." We also read that since the onset of Ivan's illness his life "had been divided between two contrary and alternating moods"—despair and intense "observation of the functioning of his organs."

Tolstoy also does a masterful job of capturing the psychology of living with anguish (in this case awareness of dying) that becomes a constant mental preoccupation. At one point death becomes a personified "It" that stands before Ivan incessantly. In another memorable image, death becomes a "narrow, black sack" into which Ivan is being pushed. There are moments when Ivan "wept like a child." This is what it is like to live with a tyrannizing problem.

Part of the psychology that the story portrays consists of the voices that arise within Ivan. We read that "it was as though he were listening . . . to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him." The voice asks, for example, "What do you want?" Ivan replies, "To live and not to suffer." And so forth.

A further dimension of the psychology of suffering that Tolstoy portrays is the impulse to blame God. At one point we read that Ivan "wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God." He also asks of God, "Why dost Thou torment me so terribly?"

For reflection or discussion: What strikes you as skillful about Tolstoy's portrayal of the psychology of suffering and dying? How does that portrayal correspond to some of your own experiences?

Conviction of Sin

The theme of wisdom through suffering has held an esteemed place in serious imaginative literature from the Book of Job and ancient Greek tragedy through King Lear to a modern work like The Death of Ivan Ilych. Additionally, no matter how moved we are by Tolstoy's handling of social critique and psychological analysis (as discussed above), the central aspect of this story is the spiritual journey of the protagonist. That journey falls into two distinct phases, and these correspond to what theologians call the order of salvation.

Like Job, Ivan seeks to understand the meaning of his suffering. At one point he asks, "Why, and for what purpose, is there all this horror?" And later, "Why these sufferings?" And again, "If I could only understand what it is all for." Ivan becomes a latter-day Socrates in his belief that the unexamined life is not worth living.

The first step toward answering the "why" question is Ivan's decision to cast a retrospective look at his life. Early in that thought process, having told his inner voice that he wants "to live and not to suffer," the inner voice asks, "To live? How?" Ivan replies, "Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly." This provides the impetus for him to look back on his "pleasant" life.

Ivan quickly comes to the conclusion that his shallow life was "worthless." In fact, "the longer it lasted the more deadly it became." Of course the complacency of his social setting makes it hard for Ivan to admit this: "'Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,' it suddenly occurred to him. 'But how could that be, when I did everything properly?'"

The conviction keeps growing that "what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true." This prompts Ivan to "pass his life in review in quite a new way." His conclusion: the life he had lived "was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death."

This conviction of sin remains with Ivan right up to the moment of his conversion on the verge of his death. Ivan "realized that he was lost" [a theology-laden word]. In this awareness, he experiences the sensation of being forced into a black sack, struggling "as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself" [and we should note the theological nuance of the word save]. Ivan feels unable "to get right into it [i.e., the black sack]," and the double meaning of the word right should not escape us: Ivan cannot go into the afterlife "right."

For reflection or discussion: The foregoing quick trip through Ivan's growing awareness that he is a lost soul does not do justice to the detail with which Tolstoy chronicles Ivan's coming to an awareness of the failure of the life he has lived. As you peruse the text, what for you are the important landmarks in Ivan's growing conviction of sin? The biggest obstacle to Ivan's achieving salvation is "his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life . . . prevented his moving forward." How have you observed the same phenomenon in your own life or in the lives of acquaintances?

Salvation

Ivan's moment of conversion is handled in a thoroughly literary way, that is, by indirection, symbolism, allusion, and metaphor. It is certainly not preachy or overly explicit. This is to Tolstoy's credit, and the fact that some (not all) secular readers do not see the Christian nature of the experience should not deter us in the least from celebrating the Christian conclusion to the story.

To begin, the image of being forced into the black sack of death and of not able to get into it "right" has by now taken on a life of its own in the story. That is all the preparation we need in order to understand the moment of transformation when Ivan "fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light." Key biblical verses provide a good context for this symbolic use of light (e.g., Matthew 4:16; John 3:21 and 8:12; 1 John 1: 5, 7).

The very next sentence compares what has just happened to the experience of someone on a train who thinks he is going backward when he really going forward "and becomes aware of the real direction." Ivan has changed spiritual direction. We might imagine Jesus saying parabolically, "The kingdom of heaven in like a man riding in a railway carriage. . . ." There is also the symbolism of Ivan's screaming in pain for three days, "during which time did not exist for him." Falling through the sack occurs "at the end of the third day, two hours before his death."

The conversion motifs keep tumbling out. At the very moment that Ivan "fell through and caught sight of the light, . . . it was revealed to him [note the theological overtones] that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified." Earlier he had hated his family, but now he "felt sorry for both his son and his wife." He tries to say "forgive me" but instead says "forgo, but he is not troubled by this because he knows "that He [capitalized] whose understanding mattered would understand."

Ivan experiences the sensation of losing a burden, "dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides." He "sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. 'Where is it? What death?' There was no fear because there was no death." "In place of death there was light. 'So that's what it is!' he suddenly explained aloud. 'What joy!'" The rebirth is instantaneous ("all this happened in a single instant") and its effect permanent ("and the meaning of that instant did not change"). Someone near Ivan says, "It is finished," and Ivan repeats the words "in his soul." "Death is finished," Ivan says; "it is no more," in obvious reference to Revelation 21:4 (see also 2 Timothy 1:10 and John 5:24).

For reflection or discussion: The foregoing commentary says enough to make the case for the Christian meaning of the story's conclusion, but it does not exhaust the nuances Tolstoy packed into the last three pages; what do you see in addition? Chapter 1 says regarding the look on the deceased Ivan's face conveys that "what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly"; how does the last chapter explain that statement? It is the task of Christian storytellers and poets to "sing a new song"—to express the timeless truths of the Christian faith with fresh vision or new effect; how does Tolstoy's story do this for you?

 
 

May

24

2013

Leland Ryken|12:01 AM CT

Terrible Conformity and The Death of Ivan Ilych

Editors' note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in The Death of Ivan Ilych, read Leland Ryken's first installment. This week, Ryken suggests reading chapters 2-4.

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As narrated in this novella, the life of Ivan falls into two eras—life before his accident, and life after that accident. Chapters 2-4 tell the story of life before the accident (with chapter 4 serving as a transition as it records the onset of Ivan's illness, while stopping short of identifying the illness as terminal). The keynote of Ivan's life before his accident is summarized in the first sentence of chapter 2: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." It is terrible in its superficiality.

Ivan's childhood and early professional life are spent in social conformity. His marriage, too, is "thoroughly correct," "easy and decorous." When his wife becomes irritable and family life demanding, Ivan retreats into his professional life. He unexpectedly gets a promotion, and he "was completely happy." Then Ivan becomes preoccupied with decorating his house, which represents a further stage of dehumanizing in his life. One day while decorating his house Ivan bruises himself when he missteps on a ladder. This becomes the turning point of his life, as it leads to an undiagnosed illness and then to deteriorating health. Chapter 4 tells of the growing pain in Ivan's side, of futile visits to doctors, of the gradual isolation of Ivan in his private world of illness.

Life of Conformity

Chapters 2-4 trace a sequence of phases through which Ivan's life passes, so we should follow the contour that the story lays down. The keynote for all three chapters is sounded at the outset, with its equation of Ivan's "ordinary" life and the fact that it is "therefore most terrible." Exactly what makes Ivan's life terrible? The verdict is voiced by the narrator, and if we follow the cues laid down in the text itself, we will see the ways in which Ivan's life is terrible—not externally, but morally and spiritually.

Externally, Ivan's life is not terrible, and we can profitably begin by tracing the things that make his external life successful, as narrated in the first half of chapter 2. It is a life in which conformity triumphs. Already as a schoolboy Ivan fit in completely. Upon graduating from law school, Ivan receives "an easy and agreeable" position. His life flows "pleasantly and decorously." When he transfers to a new town, he "settled down very pleasantly." He married "a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct young woman."

The sheer accumulation of details would itself lead us to protest against the superficiality and banality of such a life, but Tolstoy does not put the entire burden of interpretation on us as readers. He creates a narrator to serve as a tour guide through the story. As the vocabulary of conformity noted in the previous paragraph accumulates, we catch a distinct note of scorn toward what is being portrayed. When the element of conformity is highlighted to this extent, we cannot help but see that it is being mocked.

This relates to the rhetoric of narrative—the techniques of persuasion by which a story gets us to assess characters and events in the manner desired by the storyteller. Selectivity of material is one of these rhetorical strategies. What a storyteller chooses to include influences what we see and how we see it. Tolstoy chose to include details that add up to a life of conformity in which the protagonist does all the "right" things as prescribed by social norms.

For reflection or discussion: Literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves; it is also a window through which we look at life around us. Both of these are profitable premises from which to assimilate the first half of chapter 2. Where do you see your own lifestyle and inner inclinations laid out to view in the account of Ivan's life of conformity? At what points are you reminded of what you see in your society or neighborhood or circle of friends? How does the story bring conviction?

Protecting Life from Unpleasantness

The first phase of Ivan's life, from infancy through early marriage, is a life of ease. Of course this life is a spiritual void—a life without meaning. Additionally, Ivan himself is a moral nonentity, totally self-absorbed. This self-absorption is threatened when Ivan's wife becomes pregnant, and thereupon Ivan enters a new phase. The story is orchestrated in such a way as to lead us to see the strategies by which people manage to escape involvement with human suffering.

The first thing Ivan does is lose himself in his professional work. Correspondingly, his marriage and domestic life become a mere social convenience, not a high value. His work becomes a "separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction." Ivan becomes an organization man.

The second half of chapter 2 is conducted in such a way as to show that Ivan manages to shield himself from human suffering. When he receives a promotion and moves to a new town, the higher cost of living cancels the higher salary, his wife does not like the place, and two of their children die. Ivan simply spends "less and less time with his family." The "whole interest of his life" centers in his job. Everything considered, Ivan manages to sidestep suffering and finds that "life continued to flow as he considered it should do—pleasantly and properly."

Tolstoy has constructed his story in such a way that only dying will bring his protagonist to a state of awareness regarding the true issues of life. Until Ivan reaches that point, a series of intermediary and potential impetuses to awareness enter Ivan's life. In the second half of chapter 2, that impetus is domestic disappointment. But Ivan comes up with a defense mechanism against that disappointment. A key statement is that domestic life became something "in which [his] sympathy was demanded but about which he understood nothing."

For reflection or discussion: We should continue to operate on the premise that literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves and a window through which we see life around us. How is the second half of chapter 2 true to life as you know it?

Another Narrow Escape

In the first half of chapter 3, another form of suffering enters Ivan's life, accompanied by another possible occasion for Ivan to face life's true issues. Ivan's income is inadequate and his marriage unfulfilling. He becomes depressed and takes a leave of absence from work. It appears that he may need to embrace human suffering and learn from it.

But then the unexpected happens. By chance, Ivan lands an improved job. Having escaped suffering yet again, "Ivan Ilych was completely happy." His life and marriage reach a new level of triviality when furnishing the new home becomes the passion of his life. Even his official work "interested him less than he had expected." In short, Ivan has become interested in things rather than people. "Life was growing fuller," the narrator tells us in mockery. Again, "Everything was as it should be." At one point the narrator tells us that Ivan's "chief pleasure was giving little dinners to which he invited men and women of good social position," and a few paragraphs later that his "greatest pleasure was playing bridge."

In either case, we are to understand that Ivan is living life at the level of complete triviality and social convention. Tolstoy is adept at giving us aphoristic sentences that sum up various phases of his story and the broader issues of the story as a whole. Chapter 3 ends with one of these sentences: "So they lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly." As readers we are expected to supply what is omitted from that progress report, namely, that Ivan and his wife are totally superficial people, cut off from essential humanity. Ultimately their physical prosperity makes this type of life possible.

As we end chapter 3, we can profitably sum up what the story has presented up to that point. First, we have observed a life of complete social and moral conformity. Second, we have seen Ivan avoid family involvement and suffering through work. Third, we have viewed a life materialistic triviality, with devotion to physical things and the home prominent on the list of priorities.

For reflection or discussion: This story provides an anatomy of how many (most?) people in the affluent West (and perhaps worldwide) live. What are the keynotes of that lifestyle? In what ways is it your own lifestyle? By God's grace, to what extent have you avoided it?

Turning Point

The story gradually leads us to wonder what will bring Ivan to a state of moral and spiritual awareness. The answer comes in a seemingly trivial event that nonetheless becomes the pivot on which Ivan's whole life turns. In the middle of chapter 3, we read in passing about a bruise that Ivan sustained when he slipped on a ladder while decorating his house. The very triviality is ironically important: just as Ivan's life has revolved around the shallow trivialities of life, so his injury is undistinguished (a slip on step ladder).

To heighten this effect, the ladder incident is tucked into the middle of a chapter devoted to chronicling how Ivan managed to do everything in life "easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically." However, a new note is sounded as we move into chapter 4.

This chapter is mainly devoted to the progress of Ivan's illness. Earlier Ivan had distanced himself from his wife's physical difficulties, and now she turns the tables on him. We read that "the more she pitied herself the more she hated her husband." She demands that Ivan go "to see a celebrated doctor." "He went," and with disappointing results. The doctor treats Ivan as he himself treats people in the law courts—as a professional case. The doctor is preoccupied with figuring out the physical cause of Ivan's pain and ignores Ivan's anguish: "It was not a question of Ivan Ilych's life or death, but one between a floating kidney and appendicitis."

One of the great triumphs of Tolstoy's story now enters aggressively. It is the literary technique known as psychological realism and consists of our entering the character's thought process. An early example occurs in chapter 4 with the account of what goes through Ivan's mind on the journey from the doctor's office to his home. We read that "all the way home he was going over what the doctor had said." He tries to translate the medical terminology into answers to his questions, "Is my condition bad? Is it very bad? Or is there as yet nothing much wrong?"

In addition to this uncertainty and anguish, Ivan finds himself ignored by and isolated from the people around him. His wife impatiently listens to his account of his visit to the doctor, finding the report "tedious." Her advice: "Mind now to take your medicine regularly." As Ivan himself becomes convinced that "something terrible" is taking place inside of him, "those about him did not understand or would not understand it, but thought everything in the world was going on as usual."

As Ivan's physical state deteriorates, his mental anguish increases. So does his isolation from those around him. Again a summary statement at the end of chapter 4 packs the punch: "And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him."

For reflection or discussion: It is hard to beat this story for its truthfulness to life. For example: when have you or a family member or friend faced Ivan's situation of a physical ailment for which there is no medical help or even diagnosis? How does the suffering of Ivan in regard to that correspond to experiences in your own life? Suffering is what forces Ivan to probe beneath the pleasant surface of life; has this been your experience?

Summary

The overall shape of this story resembles Shakespeare's play King Lear so closely that one wonders whether it was in Tolstoy's mind as he composed his novella. Both stories revolve around the tragic theme of wisdom through suffering.

While that is common to all literary tragedies, the following paradigm is not. Both King Lear and The Death of Ivan Ilych first divest the hero of all external privileges that had given meaning to life. With space thus cleared, the second half of both works traces the hero's moral and spiritual progress forced by intense suffering.

 
 

May

17

2013

Leland Ryken|12:01 AM CT

Life Without Meaning: The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Gospel Coalition invites you to join Leland Ryken in reading and discussing Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Illych. To learn more about our series on Commending the Classics, see earlier reader guides from Leland Ryken on Albert Calmus's The Stranger and "Young Goodman Brown" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Phil Ryken on Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, along with Kathleen Nielson on the short stories of Flannery O'Connor.

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I first read and studied this novella as a sophomore in college. It was my first intense adult encounter with literature. Being a work of Christian fiction, Tolstoy's story also gave me a vision for the integration of literature and Christianity that never left me. I am happy to report that this great Christian classic still appears in The Norton Anthology of World Literature, where I encountered it in college.

In my last posting on Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story "Young Goodman Brown," I claimed that while Hawthorne's religious views are important, his short story is universal in its issues and does not require being contextualized in the broader landscape of Hawthorne's religious views. The same thing is true of The Death of Ivan Ilych. Tolstoy is an important figure in any history of modern Christian thought and practice, but knowing about his unorthodox Christian faith is not a prerequisite to understanding his masterpiece on suffering and death. I will therefore concentrate on the story itself, with minimal reference to Tolstoy's tortured religious life.

Leo Tolstoy was a Russian who lived from 1828 to 1910. His biography reads like an adventure story and a tragedy. At the approximate age of 50, Tolstoy reached a point of extreme despair about life. He resolved his despair in what can loosely be called a Christian conversion. The Death of Ivan Ilych was Tolstoy's first major fictional work published after his conversion and belongs to a group of works in which Tolstoy explained his religious views.

Brief Facts on The Death of Ivan Ilych

  • Date of writing: 1884-1886 (Tolstoy worked on his masterpiece over a two-year span and made numerous references to the composition of it in his correspondence)
  • Date of publication: 1886
  • Language: Russian
  • Best-known English translation: by Aylmer Maude; the translation used in this discussion guide
  • Approximate number of pages: 60
  • Format: 12 chapters (representing a symbolic completeness, corresponding to how Ivan's life ended in such a way that "what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly")
  • Genres: novella (short fiction, but longer than a short story); realism; satire; semi-autobiographical fiction (inasmuch as the spiritual progress of the protagonist is modeled on the spiritual conversion of the author); the literature of dying
  • Setting of the action: multiple, inasmuch as the story encompasses the entire life of the protagonist, but mainly St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia in Tolstoy's day
  • Chronology of the plot: the story begins with the death of the protagonist at the age of 45 and then (starting with chapter 2) moves back to the beginning of Ivan's life
  • Style: simple and matter-of-fact prose (reminiscent of biblical narrative)
  • Point of view: the story is told by a reliable narrator who knows everything (including what characters are thinking) and relentlessly forces us as readers to get beneath the surface level of life
  • Inferred purpose of Tolstoy: to jolt readers out of living by the shallow norms of modern society and to lead them to face the serious and unavoidable issues of life and death
  • Double plot: the story of external action (the level at which most characters in the story live) and the story of Ivan's internal life

Mirror of Modern Life

The Death of Ivan Ilych is a picture of the values by which many (and perhaps most) people live. It is a life without meaning. We need to note a great divide that runs through the story, however. With two exceptions, the characters who inhabit the world of the story are content with the trivial and materialistic life. This includes Ivan before he injured himself and embarked on the process of dying. But the story also pictures an alternative to life without meaning. As a result of his suffering, Ivan repudiates the values of materialism to embrace something more human, more moral, and more spiritual. The ultimate breakthrough comes when he is converted on his deathbed.

One of the great strengths of this story is its satiric portrayal and exposé of modern life. The features of modern society that we confront as we read include the following:

  • the triviality of the things that occupy people's daily lives
  • preoccupation with material things
  • worship of success and prosperity
  • social climbing
  • careerism
  • self-centeredness
  • breakdown of families
  • social conformity
  • sexual permissiveness
  • denial of death
  • trust in medical technology, and a sense of betrayal when doctors cannot heal a patient

The mere portrayal of these familiar facets of modern life would itself be powerful and convicting, but Tolstoy's master stroke is his narrator. The narrator describes external and internal events in such a way as to heap scorn on the spectacle of living by the norms listed above. One of the best tips for reading is thus to regard the narrator's voice as a helpful tour guide that prompts us to respond correctly to the data that is presented.

Death Is Announced

This discussion guide will divide the story into three disproportionate units. This week's posting will limit itself to the opening chapter. There is no reason not to read more than the opening chapter in connection with this week's posting, since the opening chapter achieves its full meaning when we have the whole story in our awareness.

Tolstoy himself highlighted the opening chapter as a freestanding unit by devoting it to the death of Ivan Ilych and the responses this death elicits (and fails to elicit) in Ivan's family and colleagues. Only afterward does Tolstoy take us to the beginning Ivan's life. It is as though we cannot understand Ivan's life without first understanding his death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying correctly observes that structurally this story privileges Ivan's death over his life. By the time we end the story, this perspective will seem entirely logical to us.

Additionally, the opening chapter is the portal through which we enter story, so we should view it as our introduction to what will follow. One commentator claims that as a prelude to the story, the first chapter is designed in such a way as to implicate the reader in sharing the wrong responses made by the characters in the story.

Plot summary of chapter 1: During an interval in a trial in the law courts, someone announces to the assembled lawyers that their colleague Ivan Ilych has died. Immediately the colleagues begin thinking in terms of how the death will benefit their career climb, and then they take stock of the tiresome demands of visiting the widow to pay their condolences. We make the visit to the widow with a specific colleague named Peter Ivanovich. During his visit, Peter learns the details about Ivan's suffering and death. Yet he manages to distance himself from everything that might bring him to perception, including an awareness that death will come to him, too. All responses (including the widow's) remain on the surface level, and Peter leaves feeling lucky when he gets to his scheduled card game only a little late.

Narrative World of the Story

We need to begin by accepting that Tolstoy intended something definite by rearranging the chronology of his story in such a way as to begin with the last event in Ivan's life, namely, his death. One commentator believes this strategy puts us as readers into the story. As various characters respond to the death, we share their inner thoughts. Those thoughts are selfish, unfeeling, distanced, death-denying. We are right there to share Peter Ivanovich's irritation at the inconvenience of a colleague's death.

The opening pages of any fictional story are designed to initiate us into the narrative world that we enter when we commit ourselves to read the story. There can be no doubt that this is what Tolstoy accomplishes by beginning with the announcement of Ivan Ilych's death. Merely by recording what characters thought by way of response to Ivan's death, Tolstoy has plunged us into the world of the story by a kind of shorthand method. Our response to what we observe is double—shock at the attitudes displayed in various characters and at the same time awareness that these are the same thoughts to which we are at least tempted when confronted with the inconvenience and demands occasioned by someone's death. This story is like the Bible in its manner of convicting us.

For reflection or discussion: Since this is our initiation into the world of the story, we need to note the essential features of that world. What leaps out most obviously? How do the features of modern life listed above already establish themselves in our awareness? How do your own experiences and observations confirm the accuracy of the portrait that chapter 1 paints? Taken a step further, how does the narrator's voice get us to evaluate these features? At what points in the account are we particularly aware of the shallowness and deceitfulness of social conventions?

Foreshadowing Things to Come

Initiation is one of the two main items of narrative business that Tolstoy achieves in his opening chapter. The other is a skillfully managed strategy of foreshadowing. The opening chapter is a "teaser" that makes us curious about the rest of the story. Four things in particular are foreshadowed.

The first is embodied in a statement that describes the look on the face of the deceased Ivan: "The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly." We will not learn what this means until the last chapter, where even the word rightly will explode with meaning. What is here a foreshadowing will be echoed in our memory when this key sentence is explained.

A second piece of foreshadowing is the information that the widow imparts to Peter Ivanovich regarding Ivan's suffering. We learn that Ivan's suffering was so terrible that he screamed for (a symbolic) three days before his death. Again we are teased into wanting more information.

Third, the ease with which Peter Ivanovich and Ivan's widow manage to sidestep the reality of death foreshadows a leading motif in the story as a whole. In the opening chapter, Peter is only momentarily struck by the possibility that what had happened to Ivan Ilych could happen to him. The widow's response to Ivan's suffering is the self-centered statement, "I cannot understand how I bore it."

Finally, in view of what we later come to know about Ivan's servant, Gerasim, we can view our introduction to him in the opening chapter as a foreshadowing. As Gerasim performs his servant's duties, we catch a glimpse of someone who understands what is happening in life. In contrast to Peter's and the widow's denial of death, Gerasim says forthrightly that death "is God's will. We shall all come to it some day."

For reflection or discussion: The skillful use of foreshadowing in chapter 1 is something that subsequent chapters will bring to fruition. Other techniques, though, can be relished in the opening chapter itself. For example, part of the triumph of this novella is its exploiting the literary technique of realism. Writers of realism love the apparently random and trivial detail that make a story lifelike. The pouffe [cushioned chair or couch] with its unwieldy springs takes on a life of its own in the scene set in Ivan's house. What other realistic touches strike you as cleverly managed by Tolstoy? More generally, knowing that Tolstoy worked on this 60-page novella for two years, what evidence do you see of careful craftsmanship?

Summary: The opening chapter is a detailed dramatization of how the death of Ivan Ilych fails to affect his family and acquaintances. By contrast, the story will eventually record how the death does affect Ivan. The story as a whole is arranged in such a way as to encourage us as readers to share Ivan's insight into suffering and death, and to rise above the imperceptiveness of his (and our) society.

 
 

Apr

19

2013

Philip G. Ryken|12:01 AM CT

Prodigal Grace for a Dying Pastor

Editors' Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken's first installment, "A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry." This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 149-215 of Gilead. See also:

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One of the great loves of Robert Boughton's life—and also his greatest grief—is his son Jack. Here Gilead author Marilynne Robinson views a familiar character-type from a fresh vantage point. We do not see the prodigal son from the perspective of his father, but of his father's best friend. John Ames, too, has a fatherly role in Jack's life (the young man is his godson), but he stands more in the position of the older brother (see Luke 15:11ff.). Ames describes himself as the good son who never left his father's house, "one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained" (see Luke 15:7).

The Older Brother

Like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, Ames resents Jack's careless immorality. "I don't know how one boy could have caused so much disappointment," he says, "without ever giving anyone any grounds for hope." For as long as Ames can remember, there has been something "devilish" about the boy's petty thefts and other sly transgressions. His juvenile pranks were not fun-loving, but mean-spirited.

But Jack's greatest sin of all was to father the child of a poor country girl out of wedlock, and then to neglect the child, who died of a common infection. The guilty charity of the rest of the Boughton family came too late to save her. "It was just terrible what happened to her," Ames says, "and that's a fact."

At one level, the Reverend Ames believes that "the grace of God is sufficient to any transgression." This principle is deeply rooted in Robinson's own commitment to Calvinism, as expressed through her essays in The Death of Adam (New York: Picador, 2000) and other places. She writes, "We are all absolutely, that is equally, unworthy of, and dependent upon, the free intervention of grace."

John Ames believes in sin and grace as much as Robinson does. He believes further that Boughton's love for his wayward son—"the most beloved"—exemplifies Christ-like compassion. Yet he is also angered by the extravagance of his friend's fatherly affection, which he regards as overindulgence.

Given the chance, Boughton would pardon every last one of his son's transgressions, past, present, and future. Ames finds it hard not to resent this grace, even though he knows his feelings are at odds with his theology:

I have said at least once a week my whole adult life that there is an absolute disjunction between our Father's love and our deserving. Still, when I see this same disjunction between human parents and children, it always irritates me.

Ames's struggle to reconcile the true gravity of human sin with the free grace of God's forgiveness is complicated by his unique role in Jack's life. The boy was born long before Ames had a son of his own, and as a gift of Christian friendship, Boughton named him John Ames. Jack is Ames's namesake, his alter ego; indeed, he is "another self, a more cherished self."

Yet when Ames performed Jack's baptism, he found his heart strangely cold towards the child. To his own guilt and shame, he has always found it hard to love his godson the way that his friend intended, or the way he knows a godly pastor should. He regards his namesake as possibly dangerous (where will Jack's growing friendship with Lila and Robby lead?) and probably dishonorable—someone who will "never really repent and never really reform."

"I don't forgive him," Ames says. "I wouldn't know where to begin."

The Younger Brother

Like the Reverend Ames, Jack Boughton fears that he is beyond forgiveness. Although he is an agnostic ("a state of categorical unbelief," he calls it: "I don't even believe God doesn't exist"), Jack still wonders whether there is any grace for him. This is the personal issue that lies behind the philosophical question he asks about predestination in one of the book's central dialogues: "Do you think some people are intentionally and irretrievably consigned to perdition?"

Ames and Boughton both err in taking this question as primarily theological rather than intensely pastoral. But Jack is really asking about himself: can he be saved, or is he beyond any hope of redemption? Surprisingly, it is Lila—not the ministers—who understands the real question and gives the most helpful response: "A person can change. Everything can change."

The Father's Blessing

If the Reverend Ames fails to give Jack the spiritual help he needs, it is not without misgivings. He believes he is called to save the prodigal son and give him grace, that "ecstatic fire," but he is struggling within his soul: "I regret absolutely that I cannot speak with him in a way becoming a pastor."

Ames begins to wish that somehow he could make up for the boy's cold baptism, that he could "put my hand on his brow and calm away all the guilt." Given the circumstances, he does the only thing he knows how to do and prays for Jack, asking God for the wisdom to care for him as a good shepherd.

These prayers are answered in the novel's climactic scene, which brings the balm to Gilead. After revealing that he has a "colored" wife and son, Jack decides to leave Gilead for good, even though it means abandoning his father in his dying days—a sin Ames knows that "only his father would forgive him for." The Reverend Ames meets Jack at the bus station and asks to bless him, to pray for God's protection and pronounce a final benediction: "Lord, bless John Ames Boughton, this beloved son and brother and husband and father."

These are loving words of the prodigal grace that God lavishes on all his prodigal sons. They are words of blessing for both men—for John Ames as well as John Ames Boughton, the Older Brother and the Younger Brother. For the Reverend Ames to utter these words on behalf of his namesake is worth seminary and ordination and all his years in ministry. It is also the final preparation he needs to die a peaceable death.

For reflection or discussion: All of the father-son relationships in Gilead are marked by some form of estrangement or abandonment. According to the Reverend Ames, "A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension." This is true for Ames himself, whose father cannot understand why he stays in Gilead, and whose son is too young to comprehend most of what his father wants to communicate.

How has your relationship with your father (or some other family member) hindered your spiritual progress or helped you understand the grace of God? How can a father lavish grace on his children without excusing their sins or becoming overindulgent? Who are some of the prodigal sons and daughters on your prayer list? Where have you seen God's grace at work to restore children who have wandered away from him?

 
 

Apr

12

2013

Philip G. Ryken|12:01 AM CT

Dying with a Quiet Heart

Editors' Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken's first installment, "A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry." This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 217-247 of GileadSee also:

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From the beginning of his letter, John Ames has known that soon he will have to leave behind his church, his family, and his life itself. Marilynne Robinson deftly shows us signs of the patriarch's imminent mortality, through his growing need for sleep, through other physical symptoms, and through the solicitous concern of people waiting for him to die. Ames has even begun to write his funeral sermon, hoping to save old Boughton the trouble.

With death approaching, Ames reminisces about the past, which he describes honestly and poignantly without lapsing into undue sentimentality. He speaks of his love for his wife, the gracious gift of a son, and many other pleasures, including the joys and blessings of pastoral ministry. "Oh, I will miss the world!" he says. "Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration," as the "Lord breathes on this poor grey ember of Creation and it turns to radiance."

The Reverend Ames also has more than a few regrets, as any minister does—"the frustrations and the disappointments of life, of which there are a very great many." He often wonders whether any of his sermons "were worth anything" and fears that he has been "boring a lot of people for a long time." He wishes, in fact, that his old sermon notes (an image of his own mortality) will be burned. He has often "known, right there in the pulpit, even as I read the words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view."

Ames also regrets his failure, at times, to offer the best spiritual counsel: "I still wake up at night, thinking, That's what I should have said!" But his biggest regret, by far, is to leave behind his wife and son. Sadly, he will not be able to provide for their needs, or to share life with them as they grow up and grow old.

The Last Testament

In dealing with these regrets, Ames sees two choices: "(1) to torment myself or (2) to trust the Lord." Hoping to die "with a quiet heart," he chooses to place his ministry, his family, and his own life into God's hands. Rather than foolishly imagining that his congregation will be unable to manage without him, he preaches that Christ himself will be the pastor of his people. As for his son, he practices what he earlier preached from the story of Abraham and Ishmael, that "any father must finally give his child up to the wilderness and trust to the providence of God."

Thus ends the life of a faithful minister, who tried to keep the gospel before him as a standard for life and preaching, and who remained loyal to his calling in a single church for nearly 50 years. Gilead is the town where he was born, and also the town from which he will leave for home. "I think sometimes of going into the ground here as a last wild gesture of love," Ames writes near the end of his letter. "I too will smolder away the time until the great and general incandescence."

After that final conflagration, there will still be more stories to tell. Robinson uses a beautiful analogy to describe the narratives of the life to come: "In eternity this world will be Troy, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets."

For reflection or discussion: Christ calls every one of his followers not simply to live well, but also to die well, with "a quiet heart." Who are the pastors, ministry leaders, and other Christian servants that you have seen finish strong in life and ministry? What habits or commitments enabled them to persevere? In what ways are you passing on a legacy of faith to others? How are you preparing to finish well? 

 
 

Apr

05

2013

Philip G. Ryken|12:01 AM CT

The Challenges Every Pastor Faces

Editors' Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken's first installment, "A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry." This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 86 to 149 of Gilead. See also:

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One of Marilynne Robinson's extraordinary accomplishments in Gilead is to establish, as a woman, a plausible narrative voice for a man. Further, as a layperson, she manages to capture with remarkable authenticity the interior life of a man who serves in pastoral ministry.

The Reverend Ames is honest about the challenges of ministry, familiar to any pastor. He complains about church meetings ("just a few people came, and absolutely nothing was accomplished"). He confesses how hard it is to love his sheep ("After a while I did begin to wonder if I liked the church better with no people in it").

At the same time, Ames knows that his parishioners treat him differently, giving him more respect than he deserves—a "kindly imagining" that is hard for him to disillusion. He also laments the relentless approach of next week's sermon ("it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night. You just finish preparing for one week and it's already the next week").

The Difference a Minister Makes

With these inevitable challenges come many opportunities for personal ministry. The same people who suddenly change the subject when they see the minister coming, Ames says, will "come into your study and tell you the most remarkable things"—the dread, the guilt, and the loneliness that lie under the surface of life.

In each pastoral encounter, Ames has sought to discern what the Lord is asking of him "in this moment, in this situation." Even if he has to deal with someone who is difficult, that person is "an emissary sent from the Lord," who affords him "the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me."

Over the course of a lifetime in ministry, addressing a wide range of spiritual needs, the Reverend Ames has learned that trying to prove the existence of God is an ineffective strategy for dealing with spiritual doubt. "Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense," he believes. In fact, "the attempt to defend belief can unsettle it" because "there is always an inadequacy in argument about ultimate things."

He has also learned how to answer the questions that people have thought about the torment of hell, which he believes the Bible characterizes primarily as separation from God: "If you want to inform yourselves as to the nature of hell, don't hold your hand in a candle flame, just ponder the meanest, most desolate place in your soul."

Ames has also learned the value of friendship for ministry. He is blessed to have Robert Boughton as his oldest, dearest friend and closest colleague in ministry. Having grown up together in Gilead, the two men now serve as pastors of the town's leading churches. They do not work in isolation, but share ideas, discuss their sermons, and pray for one another's families.

For reflection or discussion: What are the hardest challenges you face as you serve God in the church? What are the most important lessons that you have learned about ministry—the first lessons you would pass along to someone who is just starting out? What are the most common questions that people ask about God? How have you learned to answer them, or not to answer them? What patterns of relationship and accountability support your ministry? What relationships do you still need to put into place?

 
 

Mar

29

2013

Philip G. Ryken|12:01 AM CT

Positive Portrayal of the Pastorate

Editors' Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken's first installment, "A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry." This week, Ryken suggests reading 39 to 86 of Gilead. See also:

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Gilead is an epistolary novel, written by a pastor in his 70s to a son who is too young to receive all the wisdom an old man wants to share. So the Reverend Ames writes his son a long letter that includes important episodes in family history, summaries of important sermons, practical admonitions for daily life, digressions on topics of theological interest, and many expressions of personal affection.

Ames writes to share with the young son of his old age "things I would have told you if you had grown up with me," with the goal of leaving "a reasonably candid testament to my better self."

The minister is not without his faults, of course, including some he openly acknowledges (like his covetousness, or his difficulties in loving the people he is called to pastor), and some that are apparent only to the reader (his racism, for example, as revealed in his casual dismissal of a black congregation that left Gilead after its building was damaged by arson).

But Ames also bears witness to his "better self." He is an admirable man whose ministry upholds many of the highest ideals of gospel ministry. Thus Gilead presents one of the more positive portrayals of pastoral ministry in literature.

Ministry and the Means of Grace

Ames's pastorate is a ministry of the Word, sacraments, and prayer. He views ministry first in terms of preaching. Early in the novel we learn that he has kept all of his old sermon notes up in the attic. "Pretty nearly my whole life's work is in those boxes," he says. Ames estimates that at a rate of at least 50 sermons a year for 45 years, there must be 2,250 sermons in all. Written out in full, they amount to more than 67,000 pages, which he guesses is as much as Augustine or Calvin wrote. With a sense of legitimate satisfaction, not ungodly pride, Ames can testify that each of these sermons was preached with genuine conviction, for he believed that "a good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation."

At appropriate points in his letter, the minister recounts the main argument from one of his sermons. From these homiletical digests, we sense his relish for working with the details of a biblical text, as well as his tendency to interpret Scripture partly through the lens of experience and reflection.

Ames is a minister of the sacrament as well as the Word. His sense of sacramental mystery was awakened in childhood when his father brought him an ash-covered biscuit out of the ruins of a church that had been struck by lightning—an incident he regards as his first communion. He later came to regard the sacrament of the Lord's Supper as a witness to the unity of the body of Christ, showing that the church anywhere is part of the church everywhere. Since he has spent virtually his whole life in a cultural backwater, his experience of the church is sheltered and parochial . . . "unless it really is a universal and transcendent life, unless the bread is the bread and the cup is the cup everywhere, in all circumstances, as I deeply believe."

Images of baptism recur throughout Gilead. Water itself seems miraculous to Ames, and key episodes in the novel occur while it is raining, or with some other glistening affusion. Ames remembers the baptism of Lila, who later became his wife, with a sense of mystery and sacred wonder ("What have I done? What does it mean?"). He also remembers the many newborns he baptized, "that feeling of a baby's brow against the palm of your hand—how I have loved this life." He regards baptism as a real blessing, in which water establishes an electric connection between the pastor and his parishioner, operating as "a vehicle of the Holy Spirit."

Pastor at Prayer

As much as anything else, Ames's ministry is a life of prayer. "I pray all the time," he claims, and this proves not to be an idle boast. Gilead is suffused with petitionary prayer. Pastoring through two World Wars and one Great Depression, Ames often prayed over the "dreadful things" his people were facing. Various sections of the letter end by mentioning matters that call for more prayer, and the minister sometimes leaves off his letter writing to go and pray.

At night Ames walks the streets of Gilead and prays for people in their homes: "I'd imagine peace they didn't expect and couldn't account for descending on their illness or their quarreling or their dreams. Then I'd go into the church and pray some more and wait for daylight." The pastor's prayers are a means of grace for the people of God. His last words (also the closing line of the novel), form an appropriate epitaph: "I'll pray, and then I'll sleep."

For reflection or discussion: The Word, the sacraments, and prayer are fundamental to the ministry of any church. What relative priority do these practices have in your own congregation? What experiences in life or worship have helped you come to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of baptism and the Lord's Supper? How has participation in ministry helped you grow in the life of prayer?

 
 

Mar

27

2013

Owen Strachan|12:01 AM CT

Darkening of the Light: Hawthorne and the Post-Puritan Conscience

Tall, mysterious, and handsome, Nathaniel Hawthorne was known for walking silently by himself. He was a writer and creator who could not bear the indignities of small talk. He was lost in worlds of his own making on strolls through the New England woods. Perhaps, if you had happened upon him, you might have thought him rude. Perhaps he was.

But while those walks—friend to many a plot-stricken narrator—may not have deepened the man's social graces, they did allow him to create scenes and characters still with us, still beguiling us with their Gothic beauty. Hester Prynne, the fallen star of The Scarlet Letter, was the first literary creation of the battle-scarred republic to achieve international recognition. Her tale of sin, tragedy, and limited redemption announced the ascendancy of American letters in the antebellum 19th century.

Restless Heir of Puritan Worldview

It is tempting to view Hawthorne in this modern era as one whose stories—featuring such taboo topics as adultery and deception—helped divest post-Puritan New England from its spiritual conscience, its theological legacy. The jeremiads of former days had fallen silent, and with them the larger-than-life preachers who ruled the conscience. It is undoubtedly true that Hawthorne broke with Puritan theology and mores. He flirted with Transcendentalism (though he was never much of a joiner) and his funeral was held in a Unitarian church. He had no stomach for the wrath of God, and the concept of damnation set his teeth on edge even when a boy.

But in Hawthorne's writings, as in New England society more broadly, we see too that there was no immediate flight from Puritanism to secular humanism. Hawthorne wrestled mightily with spiritual and theological themes, with guilt and sin playing major roles in his body of work. The author was an "old soul" of the kind that still proliferates in his beloved region. He wrote critically and with great insight about the marching pace of technology and science, yet he distrusted each and saw early on that neither could fill the role of the displaced Puritan God.

He is a complicated figure, one who rejected both of the warring theologies of his 19th-century context: evangelical Congregationalism and deistic Unitarianism. In Hawthorne, we gain perspective into the changing world of antebellum New England, and beyond it, America. We see a figure breaking with tradition, and glad of it.

Hawthorne's Early Life

The birth of Nathaniel Hawthorne was portentous: he entered the world on July 4, 1804, in Salem, Massachusetts. It's tempting to see both past significance and also foreshadowing here. Hawthorne, after all, was born in the most spiritually conflicted New England city on the day announcing the triumph of self-made American identity.

He drew from both wells.

Hawthorne's family was similarly riven between the freshly heretical and the stoically orthodox. His mother, Betsy Hathorne, was reared in Unitarianism, while Captain Nathaniel Hathorne came from Trinitarian Congregationalist stock (his great-grandfather participated in the Salem witch trials). This was a heady time for theological disputation in the region. In 1805, Henry Ware would take the young nation's most prestigious divinity post, the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard College. Ware was an avowed Unitarian, meaning he denied the doctrine of the Trinity. The appointment caused a doctrinal earthquake. Harvard never returned to its orthodox roots, paving the way for the spread of Unitarianism in once-sound Congregationalist churches. On the other side, fledgling works like Park Street Church (1809) and Andover Theological Seminary (1807) sprung up even as evangelical leaders like Timothy Dwight, Edward Dorr Griffin (recently treated in the PhD thesis of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School graduate Mark Rogers), and Edwards Amasa Park sought to counter the drift and extend gospel influence through the region.

Nathaniel loved reading and soon emerged as a literary talent. He was sent by family and patrons to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, a Congregationalist school founded to train pastors. He fell in with a gifted set of classmates, including future American president Franklin Pierce, writer-statesman Horatio Bridge, and poet laureate Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (all class of 1825). Also at the college in this time was John Brown Russwurm, the third African American college graduate in all the nation (class of 1826) and future governor of Liberia. Hawthorne read the college's required texts with interest—Locke on reason, Paley on evidentialist Christianity, and Herodotus on history—but according to biographer Brenda Wineapple found equal pleasure in his status as "a charter member of the secret Pot-8-O Club, dedicated to weekly poems" and no small amount of illicit alcohol.

Perambulating: Or, a Writer's Existence

We might think that Hawthorne, with his contemporary eminence (a journal has been devoted to him), went from strength to strength as a literary auteur. In reality, over the next four decades, Hawthorne lived a rambling existence not uncommon to writers. With his wife, Sophia, and three children (Una, Julian, and Rose), he traveled to find work, living for a time in Salem (he worked as a surveyor) and a spell in Liverpool, England (appointed by President Pierce as consul) before settling in Concord, Massachusetts. He rarely had much money, seemed to genuinely enjoy his daily employment, and always itched to write, sometimes carving out time to do so in his governmental posts.

He published Twice-Told Tales in 1837, and the collection of short stories announced the arrival of a dazzling if somewhat impenetrable writer. The mind of Hawthorne, it seemed then and later, was something like the Salem namesake of his 1851 book, The House of the Seven Gables. It was magisterial and mysterious, filled with many rooms, open for contemplation yet not eager for tenants. The Blithedale Romance followed in 1852, The Marble Faun in 1860. These were augmented by several short-story collections and numerous essays.

In his corpus, Hawthorne specialized in the intricacies of a conflicted psychology, one wrestling as previously noted with the duties of morality and the innate—and often frustrated—desire for human fulfillment. Here is how philosopher Wilfred McClay summarized the author's body of work:

Hawthorne's elaborately wrought fictions seem designed to reconnect us with a great mythic narrative at the foundation of the Western intellectual and moral tradition: the ultimate cautionary tale of how the acquisition of worldly power beyond one's ken, and the transgression of venerable taboos and ancient boundaries, will surely lead to physical and moral ruin . . . like all the greatest fictions, their reach far exceeds the particularities in which, and for which, they were composed. They offer us today profound and prescient warnings about the many moral perils entailed in human efforts to gain mastery over the terms of human existence.

Those who delve into Hawthorne's writings will find themselves in the presence of a careful craftsman, one attuned to the complexities of human character, who never seemed to resolve his own internal tension. He loved beauty but never yielded to the God of truth, goodness, and the same; he prized innocence but was aware that his own was lost; he hungered for ultimate satisfaction but walled himself off from its source.

Man of Shadows

Whatever you conclude about Hawthorne, he is a figure worthy of study and contemplation. No mere scion of an enlightened age, he seemed to embrace the life of a post-Puritan while shrinking back from the proudly liberated character of this age. Not for him the triumphal narcissism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the warming glow of Transcendentalist devotees. Hawthorne preferred the shadows.

I find it poignant that he loved to walk by himself in the wild (I have walked the same woods and find them enchanting). But there's another reason for this poignancy. A century before Hawthorne, another genius roamed the Berkshire Mountains. He too was lost in thought; like the novelist, he too would have had few words for fellow passers-by.

Jonathan Edwards was also a post-Puritan, but only in terms of chronology. He was, as some have said, the last of the Puritans. He did not find in their religion and soteriology an offensive doctrine, though; he realized that the great and terrible God the Puritans set forth in their pulpits was also good, and gracious, the savior of the morally conflicted. Edwards's grand pulpit offered the words of life to such travelers, and many savingly received them. The revival of interest in Edwards in the current day—and with it, neo-Edwardsean preaching and evangelism--suggests that the old light of past days has not died out.

Hawthorne and his ilk may have lost their way in those woods, but the old paths are still good, and still lead to eternal rest.

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If this limited engagement with Hawthorne interests you, and if you enjoy thinking deeply about theology, history, and the Christian heritage of New England, consider Southern Seminary's New England Expedition, taking place from May 19 to 26, 2013. Professors Greg Wills, Michael Haykin, and myself will be teaching numerous classes on theology and church history, including one I'm offering on "The New England Mind" that will look more closely at Hawthorne.

In fact, we'll talk about this great American novelist on the steps of his home, even as we discuss Edwards in Princeton, George Whitefield in Newburyport (his burial site), and Timothy Dwight at Yale. You can get up to nine hours of course credit from SBTS, or you can come simply to hear the lectures, see the sights, and eat some delicious lobster.

SBTS will be hosting another expedition, this one to the UK in July 2013. It's led by Dan DeWitt, a C. S. Lewis scholar and dean of Boyce College. The trip will visit The Kilns, Lewis's home, the gravesite of Charles Darwin, and Spurgeon's famous church. Registration is now open (see also the December 2013 Israel trip).

 
 

Mar

22

2013

Philip G. Ryken|12:00 PM CT

Getting the Gist of Gilead

Editors' Note: For an introduction to our Commending the Classics series in Gilead, read Philip Ryken's first installment, "A Novel View of Pastoral Ministry." This week, Ryken suggests reading pages 17 to 39 of Gilead.

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The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (b. 1943), is a richly textured exploration of family life and pastoral ministry in small town America.  Here are a few basic facts about the book:

Publication date: 2004

Genres/categories: fictional autobiography, epistolary novel, small town fiction, farewell address, sermon, fatherly instruction, diary or journal

Setting: Gilead, Iowa, in the summer of 1956; most of the action occurs in the manse of the town's Congregational church

Main characters:  John Ames, a third-generation Congregationalist minister who has stayed in his hometown for virtually his entire life; Ames's young wife, Lila, whom he married in later years, and their 6-year old son, Robby; Ames's best friend, Robert Boughton, who is the pastor of Gilead's Presbyterian church; Boughton's beloved son and Ames's namesake, John Ames Boughton, the antihero whose failings and spiritual struggles occasion most of the book's central conflicts

Companion novel: in 2008 Marilynne Robinson published Home, which tells about many of the same events from the perspective of John Ames Boughton's sister, Glory

Plot Synopsis

At age 76, the Reverend John Ames III knows his heart is failing. Anxious to pass on a legacy of faith to his only son—a legacy his son is too young to receive—Ames begins to "write his begats" and to recount lessons learned from a life in ministry. His genealogy includes a fiery, visionary abolitionist preacher (Ames's grandfather), a pacifist minister who rebelled against his father's militant Christianity (Ames's father), and a brilliant scholar whose theology was liberalized by graduate studies in Germany (Ames's brother Edward).

The family history is overtaken by the unexpected arrival of John Ames Boughton, age 43, who has been away from Gilead for 20 years. Jack, as he is called, is the proverbial prodigal son (also Ames's godson). Though loved beyond anything he deserves, Jack has humiliated his family in the past by (among other things) fathering the child of a local farm girl.

Jack Boughton returns to Gilead with another secret, which he discloses only to Ames: a common-law wife and son ("colored") in Mississippi. Ames wrestles with his aggravation over Jack's misconduct and with his own sense of guilt for not loving his godson or giving him the pastoral direction he needs and almost seems to desire. Does God still have grace for this wayward son?

Ways of Reading Gilead

As mentioned before, this series takes a thematic approach to Gilead. Rather than working sequentially and systematically through the book, future installments will briefly explore some of its central themes.

At this early stage, it may be helpful to suggest several different ways of reading Gilead. The novel is partly the story of a November/May romance between an aging minister and a much younger woman who wanders into his church and then into his heart. It is also the story of a father's love for his only son, who is still too young to understand everything he needs to know about life. Then, too, it is a story about growing old and dying, leaving family behind for the glory beyond.

At a broader level, Robinson's book can also be read as an imaginative retelling of the history of Protestant Christianity in the United States, with members of the Ames family standing in for major traditions and character types of American religion after the Puritans. The blazing, one-eyed, gun-toting abolitionist John Ames is a visionary prophet in the tradition of John Brown, preaching the sons of his church off to fight for the Union, and then after the Civil War proclaiming the righteous purity of their sacrifice. His namesake becomes a pacifist, claiming that fighting such wars has "nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing."

The oldest son of the next generation is named "Edwards," after America's greatest theologian (Jonathan Edwards). But he drops the terminal "s" in college, a small but telling indication that he is moving farther away from Puritan theology. Edward goes to study theology in Gottingen, where he falls under the sway of liberalism and abandons Christian orthodoxy. As a matter of conscience, Edward cannot even say grace at the family dinner table when he returns home for vacation.

The son who remains at home all his life—at home both in the humble town of Gilead and in the practice of old-time Protestant religion—is the Reverend John Ames, III. Though he is well aware of various intellectual attacks against Christianity, he steadfastly perseveres to the end of his ministry, leaving behind a legacy of faith. Writing with a constant awareness of his own mortality, in Gilead Ames says farewell to the life, the family, and the ministry he loves.