Believing is Seeing

A little friend of mine has been reading The Magician’s Nephew, and over the last two months or so I’ve listened to her read some parts aloud. One of Lewis’ comments in the story struck me when she was reading it, and it came to mind again recently. It’s the part where Polly, Digory, the cabby (and Stawberry!), the witch, and Uncle Andrew are watching and listening to Aslan singing Narnia into existence and observing the first events that happened there. Lewis writes of Uncle Andrew, “It had not made at all the same impression on him as on the Cabby and the children. For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” Uncle Andrew tries so hard to convince himself that the lion is not singing, but only roaring, that “soon he couldn’t have heard anything else even if he had wanted to.”

Something similar happens in The Last Battle. Do you remember the dwarfs who are convinced they are in an dark, dirty shed and who can neither see nor hear what is truly around them? “‘But it isn’t dark, you poor stupid Dwarfs,’ said Lucy. ‘Can’t you see? Look up! Look round! Can’t you see the sky and the trees and the flowers? Can’t you see me?'” But they can’t. “They have chosen cunning instead of belief”, says Aslan. “Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.” What they saw and heard depended on the sort of people (or dwarfs, I should say) that they were.

A friend and I were discussing this topic recently. (She made a comment along these lines and I eagerly exclaimed “I was going to write a post about that!”). Of course there is such a thing as objective truth, but if you’re not the right sort of person, sometimes you can’t actually see it. You look at the same thing someone else looks at, yet you see something totally different. Just as when I wear sunglasses, the whole world appears a different colour, so when we don the sunglasses of doubt or bitterness or whatever they may be, we see the world in a different way. We look at what is beautiful and see ugliness. We look at a plan and see only random chance. Truth sounds like a wild, meaningless roar rather than like music.

I sometimes think that if I could see or understand something for what it is, then that would change me. That’s true in a sense, but it’s also true that I have to be a changed person before I have any hope of seeing something for what it really is. “If he be the King of Israel,” the Jewish leaders jeered, “let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him.” But would it have made any difference if He had? If they had not believed up until that point, would one final miracle have changed their minds?  The fact is that they refused to believe what they did see, because seeing is not always believing. Believing, however, is seeing–it is seeing aright.

As Doug Wilson says, our hearts affect our minds: “We tend to think that intellectual difficulties create heart difficulties. But in fact, it is the other way around. The rebel commander is the heart; the grad school credits are just foot soldiers in that rebellion. Notice the order and progression as Paul sees it. ‘Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.’ Ephesians 4:17–18 Paul attributes darkness of understanding to a hardness of heart.”

And the problem with donning our distorting sunglasses–whether they are glasses that show us the world in a perpetually negative light, whether they are the glasses of doubt or scepticism or whatever else–the really frightening thing about refusing to see what is really there, is that, like Uncle Andrew, we may end up never being able to see anything else. We wear the glasses for so long that they become part of us. I’m sure I read somewhere that there’s nothing more frightening than God leaving us to carry on with our sin–than God, as it says in Romans 1, giving us up to it.

Believe me that I’m writing as someone who needs to hear this, as someone who so often chooses to look at truth or beauty through distorted lenses. If I want to live my life as Lucy rather than as a dwarf, I desperately need God’s grace to be the sort of person who can see things for what they really are. The good news is that this is grace that God is more than willing to give.

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Man Found Alive with Two Legs

So runs a telegram from Innocent Smith to Arthur Inglewood, which is recounted near the beginning of G. K. Chesterton’s novel Manalive. When Innocent Smith himself arrives shortly afterwards, life at Beacon House is turned upside down.

Manalive counts as one of the most delightful and insightful novels I’ve read. I find Chesterton’s non-fiction to have flashes of brilliance, but overall to be lacking in lucidity. If reading his non-fiction is like digging for treasure, where one is rewarded to be sure, but only after the effort of digging, reading Manalive is more like being sent to a jewellery store by a rich friend who tells you he’ll buy everything you might want. The labour is minimum, but the jewels are just as real.

I’m not going to give you a detailed plot summary. I’d rather let you experience the unexpected by reading it yourself.  But I’ll share a little of the story and of my own thoughts without giving the game away entirely.

If you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll know that words fascinate me, but that I am also conscious of how poorly I often use them. Not surprisingly, Chesterton doesn’t seem to have the same problem. Just listen to the way he begins his book:

A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea. In a million holes and corners it refreshed a man like a flagon, and astonished him like a blow. In the inmost chambers of intricate and embowered houses it woke like a domestic explosion, littering the floor with some professor’s papers till they seemed as precious as a fugitive, or blowing out the candle by which a boy read “Treasure Island” and wrapping him in roaring dark. But everywhere it bore drama into undramatic lives, and carried the trump of crisis across the world.

Add to his beautiful word paintings the humour that he liberally splashes through the book (humour that produces a statement like this from Michael Moon: “I will not be so uncivil as to suggest that Dr. Pym has no common sense; I confine myself to recoding the chronological accident that he has not shown us any so far”) and you can see what a delight it would be to read Manalive.

As for the “insightful” part, reading this novel is like reading a conglomeration of many of the ideas that pop up in Chesterton’s non-fiction–ideas such as sanity, the optimist and the pessimist, ritual, and revolution. They’re not ideas awkwardly tacked on to a story, however. They are part of the story.

Out of all the ideas that Chesterton splashes around, the central one that he baptises Manalive with is something like the idea of having a zest for and a joy in life.  “He refuses to die while he is still alive,” Michael explains of Innocent Smith. Instead, Smith does his best to feel life to the full and to encourage others to do the same. The methods by which he does so are, I confess, highly unusual. Don’t let the word “encourage” fool you into thinking of a benign gentleman who gently reminds you of all the things you ought to appreciate. When Smith says, “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man”, he means it quite literally. It is strong medicine, but such is Modern Man’s state, so joyless, so un-wondering, so unthankful, that he needs strong medicine. One of the contrasts presented in Manalive is this: you can accept the gift of life in this world joyfully, like a little child, and live it with zest, or you can be so consumed with your own self-importance that you don’t really notice the fun and beauty, and even if you did, you wouldn’t care. You have nothing to laugh at (especially not yourself) and nothing to give thanks for.

I don’t like everything about it, but the only serious issue I have with it is that on two occasions, a character in the story takes God’s name in vain. I realise that this happens in the real world, and I don’t believe that books are obligated to present a tamed-down version of reality (it all depends, it all depends!) but I strongly feel that this is one area in which a book (especially a book written by a professing Christian) ought not to mimic the real world. The story would have been no less effective without it.

And it is an effective story. It’s enchantingly good. It is anything but dull, which considering Innocent Smith’s attitude towards life in general, is most appropriate.

(Not) An Interesting Post

Words. It’s amazing what they can do.  There are many wonderful words in English, but I don’t take advantage of that variety nearly as much as I could. Sloppy speech is one thing.  But even speech without ugly fillers such as “like”, even writing that is grammatically correct, can be so lacking, not just in variety but in shades of meaning that add colour and clarity to what one is trying to say.

I know, because I’m guilty of this sort of writing myself. It was brought to my attention last week when I came across a  book in the library called A Cure for the Common Word: Remedy Your Ailing Vocabulary with 3,000+ Vibrant Alternatives to the Most Overused Words. It takes words that I know I use time and time again–overworked words such as “bad”, “do”, “feel”, “good”, “need”,”new”, and “well”–explains what’s wrong with that particular word, and suggests alternatives, along with a selected amount of definitions and concrete examples. There are so many words that I seldom, if ever, use, while I settle for other words far too much.

Let’s try a word that I certainly overwork– “interesting”. What’s wrong with it? It’s vague, my book explains. It fails to explain why something was interesting. There are lots of alternatives! These are the ones that A Cure for the Common Word particularly highlighted:

-Absorbing

– Amusing

– Compelling

– Fascinating

– Intriguing

– Riveting

– Stimulating

Can’t you see difference? I can get across so much better exactly why that book or this event was “interesting”. I can choose just the right word to convey a more precise impression or a subtler shade of meaning. This doesn’t only enrich my hearer or reader, it enlightens him. It adds not only beauty, but truth.

Let’s try another overworked word: “good”. I had a good time. It was a good book. He is a good man.

How could we make that more–I nearly said interesting! How could we make those sentences more informative, as well as more of a delight to read?

Here are what the book calls “powerful remedies”:

– Commendable

– Gratifying

– Honorable

– Satisfying

– Valuable

– Welcome

– Wonderful

Some of those words will be appropriate for one context and with one intended meaning, while others will be more appropriate for different occasions and purposes. And there will of course be times when “good” itself is actually the right word, but that’s certainly not as often as I use it! Just as an artist might choose this particular shade of pink and no other for a petal of his rose, when we write or speak we can, if we choose, select from our array of words the one most fitting for that moment.

I know I could do better in this area. The problem is not only that I’m not familiar enough with many of the words in our language (not to mention their definitions), but also that too often I don’t take the time to really think about what my meaning is or how I can convey it well. Rather than trying to analyse the situation and find a word that actually expresses what I am thinking, I too often use a vague, general word and leave it at that. It can be shallow thinking as well as as a constricted vocabulary.

Life is complicated enough as it is, I know, and we don’t all have to try to become walking thesauruses! But I know that for my part, I can see both laziness and ignorance here, and I do think that it’s a shame that I don’t use language better. There are more important issues at stake in this world, I know. But how we use words isn’t a trivial matter either. In fact, there’s an inter–fascinating book that I’m reading about the importance of language and the words we use, but that might be a topic for another post.

Of Things Lost or Omitted (And Other Things Too)

Ooh…. I didn’t realise it had been quite so long since I posted. I will be posting more regularly now, due to a student challenge I’m involved in. When one wants to do something but isn’t sure if one has the intrinsic motivation to actually make regular time for it, some extrinsic motivation really helps!  I plan to be posting at least once a week now, and I’m sure there will be times when I post more than that. We’ll see!

I finished reading Ben-Hur last week. I read it in June, taking it with me to read while travelling to Germany. I didn’t manage to bring all of it back, however. Pages 99 and 100 are… somewhere. Perhaps at this moment they are thousands of feet above me, speeding above the clouds. I don’t know. They were somewhere in the area of my seat when I got off the plane. And while I would not wish to think of myself as careless about whether or not my books are intact, on this occasion I felt it more important to try to catch my connecting flight, feeling as I did the constraints of time. Missing my plane because I was hunting for a page from a book just didn’t sound like a great idea. And at least I’d already read those particular pages! With the way the book has continued to fall apart, it’s hardly something I’d really want to save for posterity anyway.

As for the story itself, well, coming as it did on the heels of my reading two Austen books in a row, it was definitely a change. It may be an exaggeration, but I did think that Lew Wallace must have used more words describing the physical appearance of Balthasar as he waits for his two companions than Jane Austen used describing the physical characteristics of every character at every point in Pride and Prejudice put together. And as for his descriptions of scenery and buildings, well, my patience was tried. However, when he is not drowning in descriptions, Wallace can tell an attention-grabbing story.

Ben-Hur is, of course, set during the time of Christ and for me it was interesting to see a picture of the richness and complexity of life in that time and place–a way to imaginatively (and yes, it is only imaginatively) “colour in” some of the biblical stories. There was so much going on–the Romans in charge, the political unrest and intrigue, the hatred the Jews felt for those Romans.  I think it’s also good to imagine what it would have been like for the people who lived in that world, and particularly for the people who encountered Jesus. They were real people who experienced real awe or fear or joy or confusion or whatever it was in those situations. I’m so familiar with so many of the stories myself that I forget that these people weren’t familiar with them–because they weren’t reading the stories years later, they were living them. It was new and intense and unpredictable. It’s like that conversation between Sam and Frodo–I may not remember it quite right, but Sam is talking about the old stories and how, although they’re enjoyable to read about, they were not enjoyable for those who had to live through them. And for the people who actually experienced those turbulent, world-shaking days during the times of Christ, their experiences, both good and bad, were as real as mine (and rather more dramatic).

That being said, I did not like the way Ben-Hur  portrayed Christ. Too soft and weak. It’s not that Jesus wasn’t “meek and lowly of heart” (He was), it’s not that He wasn’t tender and loving and compassionate (He was), but He was more than that. He turned over tables and chased people out of the temple, after all. He pronounced woes on hypocritical scribes and pharisees. He warned of judgement to come. Even worse than this effeminate Jesus was the fact that while the story recounted Jesus’ death in detail, it never mentioned the resurrection. It didn’t even imply it. If you didn’t know from elsewhere that Jesus rose from the dead, you’d have been none the wiser after reading Ben-Hur. That’s a glaring omission and Paul would have had none of it.

It’s not a book to take your theology from, that’s for sure. The problems I mentioned aren’t the only ones I noticed. But it’s still a very enjoyable story and even a thought-provoking one.