What good stories do.

In a great little collection of Eudora Welty’s essays called On Writing, she says the following in a piece called “Must the Novelist Crusade?”

“Time, though it can make happenings and trappings out of date, cannot do much to change the realities apprehended by the imagination. History will change in Mississippi, and the hope is that it will change in a beneficial direction and with a merciful speed, and above all bring insight, understanding. But when William Faulkner’s novels come to be pictures of a society that is no more, they will still be good and still be authentic because of what went into them from the man himself. Mankind still tries the same things and suffers the same falls, climbs up to try again, and novels are as true at one time as at another.”

“The Lord of the Rings” – Not Allegory, but Romance

C.S. Lewis said the following, specifically with Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in mind:

“A strict allegory is like a puzzle with a solution: a great romance is like a flower whose smell reminds you of something you can’t quite place. I think the something is ‘the whole quality of life as we actually experience it.’ You can have a realistic story in which all the things & people are exactly like those we meet in real life, but the quality, the feel or texture or smell, of it is not.

In a great romance it is just the opposite. I’ve never met Orcs or Ents or Elves – but the feel of it, the sense of a huge past, of lowering danger, of heroic tasks achieved by the most apparently unheroic people, of distance, vastness, strangeness, homeliness (all blended together) is so exactly what living feels like to me. Particularly the heart-breaking quality in the most beautiful places, like Lothlorien. And it is so like the real history of the world: ‘Then, as now, there was a growing darkness and great deeds were done that were not wholly in vain.'”

C.S. Lewis, from a letter to Lucy Matthews. 11 September 1958

A good, true “romance” in the literary sense is a story that doesn’t relate to, or teach a clear “lesson” about, life as we know it in a strict “this represents that” sense. But in the telling of the story, and the development of the characters, it feels like real life. It stirs your affections, awakening pleasure and sorrow and fear and joy. You see much that is applicable, as Tolkien talked about, to real life as we all live within the great Story (capital “S”) that the Creator is telling. And in being this way, a romance is filled with Truth, of echoes and emotions that remind us of our true country. The “quality and texture” is there, and is realistic. The Lord of the Rings is filled with more truth than I’ve experienced in lots of other books, though it’s not an allegory. We don’t need it to be. And the things a story like that stirs in us are possibly more real and rich as a result.

It’s good to read books that have these qualities, because they wake us up, I think, to truer feelings, which all point to the new heavens and earth that are coming. When things will be the way they were meant to be in the first place. We only glimpse it now, but reading the right kinds of books can shape us into the right sort of people, who desire and feel for the right sort of things.

Peter Kreeft, and the Real Hero of “The Lord of the Rings”

This is really a great lecture. Kreeft’s insights into The Lord of the Rings are right-on, and I especially enjoyed this because I wrote a senior thesis paper on this subject matter in college. If you’ve never heard some of this, it’ll give you a deeper appreciation for what Tolkien was up to in his writing.

Peter Kreeft is the author of The Philosophy of Tolkien, where you’ll get more of these insights, in greater detail and depth.

Reading The Beauty Of “The Pilgrim’s Progress”

Totally unrelated to this post, two ironic things have happened in the last couple of weeks. First, Ligonier announced their release of a new series by Derek Thomas, published on DVD, which looks great. Second, Justin Taylor wrote a post about this series on his blog, quoting Dr. Thomas, who asks whether this generation will be the one in which The Pilgrim’s Progress disappears.

I’m right in the middle of reading through The Pilgrim’s Progress with my British Lit. class, and I’ve been getting kind of a fresh look at the book this time through. I’ve been meditating a lot on what goes on in this story, and the truths Bunyan is portraying in the allegory. So I appreciated Justin Taylor’s post, and the quotes and clips there from Derek Thomas and J.I. Packer, about the book’s value, especially for the church. Maybe this all means that we’re all thinking about this book, and should be writing and talking about it, in-part so the next generation doesn’t lose an appreciation for it. Maybe. In any case, here I go – not necessarily because I’m fearful of the book’s disappearance, but mostly because I’ve grown to really love it.

For fun I thought I’d do a short series of posts about a few of the characters who are really standing out to me this time through the book. If nothing else, it’ll be helpful and devotional for me to think a little deeper about the people inhabiting this story.

But first of all, though, I wanted to write just a couple thoughts about what kind of story The Pilgrim’s Progress is, and how we should read it. These are things I’ve learned as I’ve taught through the book, while also reading through it each time, for five years now.

An allegory is a story written with an intentional symbolism in the characters, places, and plot. There is a relationship, sometimes a one-to-one relationship, between things in the story and things outside of the story. The best allegory takes invisible, intangible, or inward truths and circumstances, and makes them visible. The Pilgrim’s Progress does this in maybe the purest sense.

There are degrees of allegory. One degree would be when it’s written something like The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis buried his allegory a little bit below the surface of this story, more deeply in certain places, so that you might have to think hard to get the symbolism. The Father Christmas scene in this book, if you’re familiar with it, is one of those “thinkers” (for me anyway). Then there’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, where the allegory is right there on the surface of the whole thing. You don’t find yourself reading Bunyan’s story and getting lost in the story quite for its own sake, at least not as much as in something like Lewis’s Narnia books. But these two “kinds” of allegory each have their beauty and purpose.

Here’s the beauty of Bunyan’s allegory: it’s as if he took the whole inward journey and battle of faith for a Christian, and flipped it with the real outward, physical world. All of a sudden, initial awareness and guilt over sin, conversion and new life at the cross, and the ups and downs of a persevering faith in Jesus are here what you would see, if those things were all visible. And so the result is real, tangible pictures of things and people breaking in and giving perspective and light and, hopefully, clarity and encouragement as we process the ups and downs of our faith. We go with Christian as he flees the City of Destruction, and loses his burden in faith and repentance at the cross. We meet characters like Evangelist, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Interpreter, Hypocrisy, Atheist, Ignorance, and Hopeful. We climb the Hill of Difficulty with Christian, experience the horrors of the Valley of the Shadow of Death, nearly meet our demise in Doubting Castle, and even so we persevere with Christian on the road to the Celestial City. And if we are Christians, born again to new life in Christ, we have, or will, do all these things.

To borrow from J.I. Packer’s quote that Justin Taylor shares in his post,

Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.

Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet?

“Unexplored Adventure”

“All of summer stretched out before me: a vast, unexplored adventure. In my arms, I held a package my uncle had given me several weeks before. On the brown wrapping, Uncle Frank had written his instructions: ‘Do not open until summer vacation.” My uncle had sent me the greatest of all gifts: three brand-new Hardy Boys books.

I love the writings of C.S. Lewis, Mark Helprin, Norman Maclean, Frederick Buechner, and Howard Frank Mosher. But nothing will ever compare to the supreme luxury of lying in a cool barn on that first day of vacation and reading The Shore Road Mystery, by Franklin W. Dixon.”

Matthew Sleeth

“It’s A Wonderful Life” And Great Joyousness

My wife and I have had a problem the last couple years with It’s a Wonderful Life. We’ve been watching it as a Christmas tradition. We do love the movie – it’s just great – but what keeps bothering us about the story is that Mr. Potter does a pretty heinous thing, for which he receives no justice, in what we see of the story anyway.

Here’s what happens if you recall: Mr. Potter wants to take control of the Building and Loan, run by George Bailey. Potter tries everything, even hiring George with the promise of much higher pay, to acquire George’s family business and control over the banking and real estate of the town of Bedford Falls. Having tried everything else, Potter swipes an envelope of cash meant to be deposited by the building and loan, putting George and his company at great risk, and starting the tragic trajectory of events the movie is famous for. George tries to find the money to no avail, which leads him to lash out uncharacteristically in anger at his family that night, and leads him out to the bridge in the snowstorm where he’s saved from suicide by Clarence the angel, and is given a chance to see what his life and everyone in it would be like without George Bailey. And on and on it goes, but the seemingly terrible thing about it if your paying attention, is that no justice ever befalls Mr. Potter for his terrible crime against George. George hurts his family, and almost kills himself over this whole mess, which is all Potter’s fault. And no admission, no repentance, no final reckoning in the story for him at all.

But I say “if you’re paying attention” for a reason. By the end, when George is given his life back, and he’s realized how good he has it with such friends and family, we’ve all but forgotten about Potter and what he did to George. Potter’s crime becomes overshadowed by the grace and love that come to George in the end.

Here’s what’s so cool about this film. In spite of the weird theology, or what I guess is really angelology, there’s a deep sense of the triumph of true goodness and love over any wrongs ever done to us in this life. The goodness at the end of the story, and the profound, self-forgetful love shown to George matters far more than the injustice done against him. But old Mr. Potter recedes down and away into his self-made loneliness and misery, a recession that’s mirrored in the last scene of Potter in the film. In that scene we see Potter peering miserably out of his window at George searching the snowy street for the lost money, trying to right the wrong he didn’t even commit. Contrast this with how George’s burdens are borne upward by the love and kindness of his friends. In kind of a Pauline sense, death is swallowed up in victory; miserable avarice is swallowed up in great joyousness.

There’s not much of Christ in this story, but we feel some deeply Christian things here even so.