Book-reviewer extraordinaire Tim Challies has just launched a new site devoted to book reviews appropriately titled The Diet of Bookworms. Looks like a place I’ll be visiting frequently. Read about the launch here. Nice job, Tim.
There are certain characters in the canon of Western literature that are instantly recognizable by mention of their surname. The names of Crusoe, Nemo, Copperfield, Ahab, Sawyer—all evoke the setting and aura that their respective authors intended for them. But if Ahab evokes a whale, and Sawyer a picket fence, what in the world does the name Raskolnikov bring to mind?
The protagonist of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov conjures up a cacophony of paranoia, guilt conceit, and—to some extent—redemption. Rodion Raskolnikov is a student, who in an act of sheer will-to-power, murders an elderly moneylender (sorry for the mild spoiler, but it doesn’t take long to get to the murder). Raskolnikov rationalizes his action as moral because he considers himself of greater worth than the old woman he killed.
It is from this point that an investigation ensues—but rather than a mere detective story, Dostoevsky in his psychological brilliance gives us an investigation into the mind of the criminal. Only Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” comes close to portraying the pangs of conscience as well as is done with Raskolnikov.
On many levels Raskolnikov is in denial. He is poor–just as poor as the poor people he encounters on the streets of St. Petersburg. However, in Raskolnikov’s mind he is better than them because he is a “student”—a sentiment not lost on many a college student today. As his walls of self-denial crumble, so too do the walls of association with others much different from himself.
Dissertation upon dissertation (in the areas of psychology, philosophy, and literature) could be written of Crime and Punishment, yet it remains as Dostoevsky’s most readable works. There’s scarcely a dull section—which is a lot to say for a nineteenth century Russian novel.
The haunting of Crime and Punishment comes when one juxtaposes oneself with murderous Raskolnikov. The way Dostoevsky writes him makes readers wonder just how far removed they are from becoming Raskolnikovs themselves. In a culture where conscience has all but been eradicated, we need to read Crime and Punishment now more than ever.
I haven’t yet read Michael Crichton’s new novel about environmentalist conspirators, State Of Fear, but it’s on my wish list. The Christianity Today review of Crichton’s book by Read Mercer Schuchardt is good overall, but this line in particular struck me:
Crichton deftly reminds us that today, only fiction writers can tell the truth.
This is an interesting concept, though I dare say it applies only to today. Literature has throughout history had somewhat greater license to convey ideas than outright argumentation. This is because the cloak of fiction always leaves the reader a perceived “way out.” In a more objective battle of ideas, one must either accept or reject explicitly the idea that is set forth. With fiction, one can appreciate the work while still encountering ideas that might be too hostile in a debate.
Fiction’s inclination toward subtlety is both a strength and a weakness. While it can make an alternate idea or truth known to a opposing reader, the reader can easily dismiss it without having to deal with the intellectual consequences—consider the Soviet Union’s rejection of Dostoevsky’s ideas while continuing to celebrate him as a Russian author. In order to work properly, truthtelling fiction must be accompanied by truthtelling nonfiction. There is also the issue of where the fiction writer will get his truth to tell if not from truthtelling nonfiction writers!
There needs to be a good mix of both fiction and nonfiction in truthtelling. Fiction, if it is not too preachy, can make inroads where straight argument could never go. However we still need outright tellers of truth if the depths of truth are to be further explored.
If, in some parallel universe, I were held down kicking and screaming and demanded to sum up the work of Flannery O’Connor in a single word, the word which I would choose (kicking and screaming, mind you…) would be disturbing. As I’ve noted before, O’Connor’s works—both her short stories and her novels—have penchant for taking the reader on a slow walk through the “innocent South” only to shock the reader with such a jolt that he or she is knocked from the blissful stroll into a reality that must be grappled with.
O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, is about a young grandson-of-a-preacher named Hazel Motes. Having decided to live a debauched life upon returning from military service, Motes encounters a self-blinded street preacher who irritates Motes to the point that he decides to become a preacher himself. Hazel Motes, however, does not wish to have anything to do with the Jesus his grandfather preached. The Jesus he encountered through his grandfather’s preaching unsettled him:
The boy didn’t need to hear it. There was already a deep, black wordless conviction in him that the way to avoid Jesus was to avoid sin. He knew that by the time he was twelve years old that he was going to be a preacher. Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown. (p.22)
Motes founds and preaches the Church Without Christ, a church that doesn’t have to bother with Jesus because it summarily ignores him. Motes meets primarily with rejection, having only one follower, Enoch Emery, who, led by his “wise blood,” finds an entirely new Jesus which he presents to Motes. Throughout the novel Motes flees from this Christ who pursues him in the recesses of his mind.
The unflinching honesty set forth in the pages of Wise Blood earned O’Connor acclaim from wide audiences, both Christian and secular. In the preface to the second edition, she addressed the tension that the novel created:
It is a comic novel about a Christian malgré lui, and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death…That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.
Wise Blood’s characters are anything but squeaky-clean. Perhaps it’s this very stumbling block that makes the greater Stumbling Block that haunts the back-story all the more present…
If Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings really was, as Tolkein himself held, devoid of any hint of allegory; and if Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress displayed allegory to the extreme; then Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory strikes the perfect balance.
Set in a Mexican province bent on ridding itself of Catholicism and its clergy, Greene’s novel is ripe with the Passion imagery. The protagonist is a “whisky priest,” a cleric who is, to say the least, a little rough around the edges. He is an alcoholic, which is just one of many failings that make him a striking contrast to the ideal of what a priest should be.
Despite his numerous shortcomings, the priest is compelled to perform his priestly duties. In an ironic turn for a Catholic, Greene depicts an almost Calvinistic predestination that transforms the weak priest and moves him to act. His selfish motivations are supplanted by the larger need to do the work of God.
The illegal whisky priest is pursued by a likewise nameless police lieutenant. The lieutenant—an intriguing figure on his own—is relentless, methodical, and assured that he will hunt down the priest. Much like reading the gospels, there is a sense of impending doom for the preist. We know that he will be caught, and we know that the novel’s Judas figure will betray him. In keeping with the “no spoiler” spirit of these posts, I’ll leave the rest of the plot to the reader.
I first encountered the novel during my senior year of college. In order to fill up some credit hours in humanities, I took an intro to religious studies class. The class was pretty much what I expected it to be—broad surveys of the major world religions, each taught as if they were equally valid. One of the surprising things about the class was that we had to read several works of fiction that came out of each religion (so much for primary sources!). The professor chose The Power and the Glory as our text for interacting with Christianity.
After reading the book, we were assigned an essay answering the question, “Is the whisky priest a good example of a Christian?” My response was that, all Roman Catholic errors aside, in one sense the whisky priest was a good example of a Christian (stress is on example, not good). His own sins are never enough to overwhelm the power of God working in him and through him. Granted, a Christian should not strive to be a whisky priest, but at the same time every believer should remember the depths from which they were saved.
The Power and The Glory reminds the reader that God can use the most sinful and profane for his purposes. It’s a novel that will haunt the reader’s thoughts with notions of redemption, sacrifice, and betrayal for many a sleepless night.
Walker Percy’s writing is ready-made to get under one’s skin, and Lancelot is no exception. Far removed from the Knights of the Round Table, Percy’s 1977 novel is a look at the madness that results when a person’s own revulsion of darkness overwhelms him.
We first meet Lancelot Andrewes Lamar in mental health facility. The reader assumes the ear of an old friend coming to visit, which gives the narration and style of the novel a sense of involvement that would otherwise be lacking. As the storyline progesses, Lamar tells the reader of what landed him in the asylum.
Once a carefree liberal, Lamar accidentaly discoveres that his youngest daughter was not his own. He investigates, and finds that his screenwriter wife has been less-than-faithful, occasionally indulging herself with her director. Lamar plots his revenge—an effort to cleanse the world of the decadence that is Hollywood. He finds his opportunity when the film crew shoots a set at his Louisiana estate.
Central to the plot is the idea of a quest—a motif that runs just as strongly through Lancelot as in Percy’s acclaimed 1961 novel, The Moviegoer. In The Moviegoer, the quest dealt with the existential search for meaning; in Lancelot, the quest is portrayed as an engine for destruction itself.
As Lamar is increasingly consumed by his desire to set right the wrong actions of his wife and her Hollywood enclave, he succumbs to the very self-reverence that he is trying to topple:
“Evil” is surely the clue to this age, the only quest appropriate to the age. For everything and everyone’s either wonderful or sick and nothing is evil.
God may be absent, but what if one should find the devil? Do you think I wouldn’t be pleased to meet the devil? Ha ha, I’d shake his hand like a long-lost friend.
While he rightly identifies a lack of the recognition of evil in our age, Lamar unwittingly (or not?) begins to fill that void himself. Lancelot is a haunting novel because it reminds us that as we stand at the crossroads of history and culture, we must take heed that our zeal to protect what is right is only a handsbreadth away from the evil we stand against.
Although I read more in kindergarten than I have in the last month (having a child causes “adjustments” in one’s reading schedule…), I still consider myself a bit of a bibliophile. While my love of books is scrupulous (I never, ever write in my books–not even my Bible!), something I love almost as much are book lists.
I love seeing what other people read and recommend. For example, Joshua Sowin points to an update of Desiring God Ministries’ booklist—which is a hefty, nutritional list that ranks among the best I’ve seen.
I remember the excitement I had when I found musician Michael Card’s book list on the internet way back in 1997. In a time when I was hungry for good books to read in my personal, extra-curricular study but had few resources, Card’s list provided a great starting point.
Albert Mohler’s annual list of “Top Ten Books Every Preacher Should Read” is always helpful as well. A highlight of my seminary career was touring Dr. Mohler’s personal library of some 25,000+ volumes. It put Barnes and Noble to shame, and aroused feelings of covetousness from within my soul.
Even if a person doesn’t have a recommended reading list, I always find it enlightening to peruse the contents of their bookshelves. I can usually learn a lot about a person from what’s on their shelves, although one must careful in forming judgments from what is on the bookrack—most everybody some pork on the shelf. Perhaps what would be most telling are the books stored away in a closet that don’t make the cut for the bookshelf…
John Rabe points to some free online offerings by Crossway Books which include a number of John Piper’s books! Also available for free is the forthcoming When I Don’t Desire God: How to Fight for Joy.
I’ll agree with Rabe in that Piper is excellent, and if you’ve never read any of his works due to fact that you spent your book money paying for internet service, go download them now. The only thing that frustrates me about Piper is that he tends to be really repetitive in his books—then again, the repetition of good things never hurts. The only thing that frustrates me about Piper is that he tends to be really repetitive in his books—then again, the repetition of good things never hurts.
In an age such as ours, when boys grow up to be either “wimps” or “barbarians,” where is the modern-day knight? Does he even exist? If so, then what does he look like—how does he act? These are all questions explored by Brad Miner in his new book, The Compleat Gentleman: A Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry.
Considering the abdication of manhood from many of the would-be “men” in our culture, books about “how to be a real man” are not in short supply. Just go to any bookstore, secular or Christian, and find volume upon volume of books on how to be a more sensitive man, how to deal with your deepest psychological hurts, and even how to be a wilder man. The Compleat Gentleman is none of the above.
Miner’s gentleman is a modern incarnation of the gentleman of old (hence the archaic spelling, compleat). Beginning with the concept of the knight, and the code of chivalry, Miner traces the concept of the knight throughout the Middle Ages to its metamorphosis into the Victorian gentleman of more recent centuries.
The compleat gentleman, Miner suggests, consists of three elements: the warrior, the lover, and the monk. The warrior is guided by both strength and honor, traits lacking in today’s therapeutic culture. Writes Miner, “…strength and honor more dependably keep the peace than does palaver about psychic posture and moral equivalence.”
The lover practices the virtues of chivalry which, “comes down in the end to respect for women.” The author argues that while men and women don’t have to be completely equal, the compleat gentleman allows a woman to be what she wants to be.
The monk is the side of the compleat gentleman who is devoted to learning throughout his life. This learning is not mere bookishness, but extends to spiritual realms as well. Miner, a Catholic, offers for comparison the monastic life with the gentleman-monk.
These three traits of the compleat gentleman have an underlying characteristic that Miner sees as the hallmark of the compleat gentleman: sprezzatura. A term with Renaissance origins, sprezzatura denotes a sort of nonchalance:
There are two ways to look at a fellow’s sprezzatura: on the one hand, it means discretion or, more grandly, prudence; on the other, it means restraint, which may even be concealment.
These are, of course, very counter-culture qualities in an age when men are constantly told to express their inner feelings more and more. Keeping things close or showing restraint is considered repressive and even unhealthy in our hyper-psychologized climate. To say that the potent coolness of sprezzatura is lacking in our culture is understatement. The compleat gentleman stands against the grain because not only does he do something, but he does it with nonchalance, when everybody else would be tooting their collective horns.
I do have a couple of small quibbles with Miner’s work. First, I think he goes too far with equating the physical abilities of men and women. His point is to show that the issue of keeping women out of combat is a matter of honor and prudence rather than inequality, and this I agree with. When he says that modern women are able to meet the physical requirements for combat, I’d have to disagree. While there may be some “Amazon” women who probably could beat a man in a fistfight, these are extremely rare, and even fewer of these women could defeat a well-trained soldier. Men and women are simply made for different purposes. Make no mistake—Miner does argue against women in combat, I just think he goes a little too far with his concessions.
Second, when Miner uses Stoicism as a backdrop for the monkish sprezzatura of the compleat gentleman, he mentions the Apostle Paul as expressing Stoic qualities. This is probably not the best description of Paul—the determinism exhibited by Stoic philosophy is of a much different nature than that of Paul.
As I said, these are minor quibbles. Overall, The Compleat Gentleman is a refreshing departure from the hodgepodge of “men’s movements” that clutter the scene. If nothing else, it points men toward a recovery of honor, a virtue that is scarce these days.