One Hundred Monkeys in Texas

July 13, 2009

Language, faith, fiction and long Russian names

Herewith a review of a book I read recently. It’s not for the intellectually faint of heart, though!

Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction
By Rowan Williams
Baylor UniversityPress, $24.95

In an old “Peanuts” comic strip, Lucy finds Linus reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. “Don’t all those Russian names bother you?” she asks her brother.
“No,” he replies, “when I come to one I can’t pronounce, I just bleep right over it!”
A little advice if you happen to pick up Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction: Before starting, do your homework on the 19th-century Russian author. Some background in literary theory and criticism (particularly Dostoevsky critic Mikhail Bakhtin) would help, too. Otherwise, you may find yourself taking the Linusian approach and bleeping over large sections of Rowan Williams’ book.
The unresolved tension in Dostoevsky’s novels, says the archbishop of Canterbury (yes, it’s that Rowan Williams), “is not — as it is too often portrayed — a tension between believing and not believing in the existence of God. … Dostoevsky is not presenting to us a set of inconclusive arguments about ‘the existence of God,’ for and against, but a fictional picture of what faith and the lack of it would look like in the political and social world of his day.”
Another key point (and this is where some of that literary theory comes in): “[W]hatever Dostoevsky actually believed himself, he could not but put it into a novel as one perspective among others, since he was committed to a particular view of what authorship can and can’t do …. we have a text that consciously writes out the to and fro of dialogue, always alerting us to the dangers of staying with or believing uncritically what we have just heard.”
Working from The Brothers Karamazov and Dostoevsky’s other major novels — Crime and Punishment, Notes From the Underground, The Idiot and Devils (also known as The Possessed) — Williams addresses various questions. What did Dostoevsky mean when he wrote that “if someone were to prove to me that Christ was outside the truth … then I should choose to stay with Christ rather than with the truth”? How are freedom and the diabolical connected? Why is open-endedness important to the concepts of dialogue and narrative? What might “taking responsibility for others” entail? How does Dostoevsky employ the ideas of holy images and blasphemy?
If all that sounds like quite a mouthful … well, it is. Rowan’s book assumes not just a thorough working knowledge of the novels — there are no plot summaries or character lists — but also an ability to hike in the rarefied atmosphere of academic discussion. CliffsNotes this ain’t.
“[O]ne of the most serious mistakes we could possibly make in reading Dostoevsky,” Williams says, “is to suppose that his fundamental position is individualistic, simply because of his passionate opposition to determinism.” True freedom, according to Williams’ understanding of the Russian writer, involves the ideas of language and exchange — it is not something that focuses on my arbitrary choices and obliterates any need for an “other” whom I must react to and dialogue with. “Freedom as detachment or freedom as self-assertion will equally lead away from language, toward the silence of nonrecognition.”
So if you’re up to a thorough intellectual workout, Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction may be the right exercise machine for you. Otherwise, you’ve got a few rounds of literary push-ups to do.

April 25, 2009

A pause for thought at the wordsmith’s anvil

“We are all like the Word himself — we might say that we are ‘little words,’ made to be communicators in words just like our Creator. God is the One who called all worlds into being by his creative word, who sustains and rules over all things by his powerful and law-giving word, who reveals himself by his truth-giving word, who communicates by his life-giving word. We are to use language in imitation of him by exercising the gifts of creative imagination, by understanding and naming the world around us, by revealing ourselves truthfully in all we say and write, by communicating with our Creator and with one another to build trust and to give life to all our relationships.”

— Jerram Barrs, Through His Eyes: God’s Perspective on Women in the Bible

October 7, 2008

None of that around here

Filed under: Christianity,Spirituality — alancochrum @ 9:28 am
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Quote for the day:

“I attended a Christian college at a time when a sister school, Moody Bible Institute, posted instructions on what to do in case of ‘Emergencies,’ which they defined as fire, tornado and air raid, bomb threat, emotional upset and/or suicide, sickness or injury, and ‘charismatic activity.'”

— Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God

August 11, 2008

Another Flannery shirt in my mental wardrobe

Filed under: Spirituality,Writing — alancochrum @ 4:34 pm
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“When I ask myself how I know I believe, I have no satisfactory answer at all, no assurance at all, no feeling at all. I can only say … Lord I believe, help my unbelief. And all I can say about my love of God, is, Lord, help me in my lack of it. I distrust pious phrases, particularly when they issue from my mouth.”

— Letter of Aug. 2, 1955, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor

“Groundhog Day” redux

Filed under: Movies,Spirituality — alancochrum @ 7:41 am
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For a long time, I had heard how wonderful the film Groundhog Day was. I was skeptical. A weatherman (played by Bill Murray) who keeps repeating the same 24 hours over and over? Ya gotta be kidding.

Then I found a VHS copy on sale for a dollar or two and decided: Well, all right, let’s see. And I was impressed.

I was telling a friend recently how suprisingly deep this film was. The friend — I can’t remember if she had seen it or not — wasn’t buying it. No, really, I said. The key moment lies in the middle of the film, when Murray’s Phil Connors is driving around with two drunken acquaintances and asks them: What would you do if there were no tomorrow?

Which is precisely what Phil proceeds to explore, in predictable fashion. He gorges himself. He steals from an armored car. He conducts laboratory studies in seduction. In short, he indulges himself in every way — and eventually, like the author of Ecclesiastes, discovers that it’s all emptiness and chasing after the snowy wind. (For that handful of people out there who don’t know how — or if — he manages to get out of his predicament: Go ahead, watch the movie.)

Last night, it was like deju vu all over again. I had bought a secondhand DVD of Stranger Than Fiction, the 2006 movie in which a bland IRS agent (Harold Crick, played by Will Ferrell) starts hearing a female voice narrating his life. He soon discovers that, inexplicably, he is actually a character in a novel being written by an author (Karen Eiffel, played by Emma Thompson) who plans on killing him off.

About halfway through the movie — which, despite what one might expect from Ferrell, is definitely not written as outright comedy — I was finding it lacking. “And I paid ten dollars for this!” I said to my wife.

But then it struck me: In a way, this is actually a movie about God and Man.

What happens when a person confronts his Creator about what is happening to him? Can that act — in real life, we call it “prayer” — make any difference?

Late in Stranger Than Fiction, a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman) who has read Eiffel’s manuscript reluctantly tells Harold: I’m sorry, but you have to die. That is the only way this story can end. And after all, you cannot escape death in the end anyway. This is a magnificent story, and this is the way it has to be.

But Harold refuses to accept that. He tracks down Eiffel and asks her not to kill him. And (not to give away too much), his plea does change the ending of the story in a way.

I was reminded of the story of King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20. The Judean king becomes ill, and the prophet Isaiah comes to him and says: Get your affairs in order; God says you are going to die.

Now, if the Master of the Universe goes to the trouble of sending you a personal message that you’re not going to make it, it does seem a bit cheeky to fight it. But Hezekiah does. He prays that God will remember what kind of person he has been.

And the startling thing is that before Isaiah even gets out of the palace, God changes his mind: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. … I will add fifteen years to your life” (NIV).

You always hear that life is sometimes stranger than fiction. Maybe there’s more to that than we usually think.

August 7, 2008

‘Dog’ backwards

Filed under: Dogs,Spirituality — alancochrum @ 8:00 am
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The dog only thinks she is mine, you have to understand.

She technically belongs to my younger daughter, who got her as a birthday present. We acquired her — the dog, not the daughter — from a pet-rescue-operation person who lived about half an hour south of our home. Molly is a sheltie — really a pretty well-behaved animal, although she barks more than my wife would like and sheds more than we need.

Her primary sleeping place is my daughter’s bedroom. But when the daughter is absent overnight — at a friend’s, say, or a church retreat — Molly has decided that the carpet at the foot of our bed is an acceptable substitute.

And since I’m the one who rubs her belly and walks her most of the time, she has decided that I am Good Company. She is lying about four feet away as I type this. When I go downstairs for lunch, she will relocate to the dining/living room near the table. When I return to the computer, she will bound up the stairs so she can be in the same room. She likes to be around me.

This ought to be a picture of me and God, who feeds, waters and shelters me and gives me treats. I ought to be as drawn to the divine presence as Molly is to mine. Suffice it to say that the “ought” is not as “is” as it should be.

I once heard about a prayer: “God, make me the kind of person that my dog thinks I am.” To that you could add: “God, make me the kind of ‘pet’ that my own pet is.”

August 4, 2008

Wearing a Flannery shirt

Filed under: Humor,Spirituality,Writing — alancochrum @ 3:35 pm
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I am working through The Habit of Being, a collection of Flannery O’Connor’s letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald. An excerpt:

“I read [Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica] for about twenty minutes every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing.”

Not everybody would find that amusing. Actually, not too many people would. But I do.

July 28, 2008

“Will all of this ever end?”

Filed under: Bible,Spirituality — alancochrum @ 6:08 pm
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We have two doorbells. The one outside the house is small and golden and makes a pleasant sound; it’s under the control of the person on the porch. The one inside the house is medium-sized and sheds black fur all over the floors; it barks and arguably is not entirely under the control of anyone on the premises.

The other day, the interior doorbell went off at great length and volume; I was busy at the far end of the house and so did not respond for a while. When I finally got to the door, I glimpsed a woman and child going back toward the street; one of them was holding a Bible. A familiar-looking sort of pair.

I could have engaged them in conversation, but I was thinking in terms of having to restrain the dog — not that she would have been any danger to the twosome — and so I decided to take a rain check.

Sure enough, when I opened the door later, a little leaflet with the familiar Jehovah’s Witness look fluttered to the porch. (If you have an eye for such things, you can spot a Witness publication from ten yards away, whether it’s an issue of The Watchtower or books such as Life Everlasting in Freedom of the Sons of God or You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth.)

“All Suffering Soon to End!” proclaimed the leaflet’s front. And inside, it said: “The past hundred years have seen more suffering than ever before. Will all of this ever end?

“The comforting answer is yes, and very soon! …

“The human condition is just as the Bible foretold for our times. God’s word identifies our era as ‘the last days’ of this system of things when ‘critical times hard to deal with will be here.'”

Of course, a great many people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses expect the Second Coming sometime soon. The big differences (aside from the Witnesses’ fairly high score on the Heterodoxometer) have been the iron-fisted ecclesiastical control of Bethel (as the Witnesses’ headquarters is known) and its outstandingly bad batting average on predictions — a situation that could be summarized as: “Eat what we give you, or else … um, never mind; now eat this, or else …”

For those interested in a thorough yet very readable backgrounding, I recommend two books: M. James Penton’s Apocalypse Delayed: The Story of Jehovah’s Witnesses (1985, University of Toronto Press) and Raymond Franz’s Crisis of Conscience (1983, Commentary Press).

Franz’s book is particularly fascinating, given that he was one of the group’s top leaders before being purged. (Commenting on the longtime Witness belief that Jesus’ “invisible presence” began in 1914, he notes that for nearly five decades, the group preached that this event occurred in 1874, and that this was still being taught as late as 1929.)

And judging from the leaflet, things may not have changed all that much. “Will all of this ever end” — this being the misdirected preaching work? You can still hear the tune that was being played more than eighty years ago in the “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” campaign.

Well, maybe millions who are now alive will indeed never die. But if Bethel told me that the sky was blue, I’d still look up.

July 26, 2008

It hurts my I’s

Filed under: Bible,Spirituality — alancochrum @ 8:54 am
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I was looking out a window, waiting for a friend who was supposed to drop off a package. Said friend was not in front of the house at that moment, and I absent-mindedly closed the blinds a little further.

In the nearby dining room, a growl emerged from my wife, one that with a little electronic alteration might have served as a sound effect in a horror movie: “I … want … light!”

Or words to that effect, anyway.

This is a recurring scene at my house. My spouse likes the blinds open, with light streaming into the house. I, on the other hand, like things shady.

For one thing, I have light-sensitive eyes; in our old family movies (the kind that you took with genuine film), I am the child who is always trying to shield his eyes from that glaring indoor camera light. Fall, with its coolness and cloudy skies, is one of my favorite times of year.

(As for you summer-philes out there: If you had to look forward to multiple days of 100 degrees or above, as we do in Texas, you might change your mind. If human beings could hibernate, I would find a nice cool cave — Inner Space Cavern north of Austin comes to mind — and not come out between the beginning of June and the end of September. At least.)

It reminded me of a passage from the Gospel of John, one just after the famous “For God so loved the world” declaration:

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” (John 3:19-21, NIV)

My little quirk of preferring the shadow to the light is harmless — except, of course, when it clashes with my wife’s preferences. But my innate, fallen tendency to gravitate toward the moral Shadow rather than the Light — to make “I” the most important word? Much more of a problem.

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