Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tess of the D'Urbervilles is a terrible book

It's a tragedy. If I'd known that I might not have started it, but it has me in its grips now, and I'm reading literary criticism on a Saturday night, trying to sort out my irritation. I'm halfway in, and this story is seriously not going the way I want it to. One reviewer wrote when the book first came out that, "except during a few hours spent with cows," the book has "not a gleam of sunshine anywhere."

The other book I'm supposed to read this weekend is You Can't Get Lost in Capetown, and that looks like it'll prove to be equally cheerful.

There's a harvest lunch at church tomorrow, and I was all set to make a collard green casserole but for the little problem of arriving at the grocery and not knowing what collard greens are called in German. And since I also don't know what they look like...I made Winter Fruit Salad with Lemon Poppy seed dressing, minus the poppyseeds, and biscuits instead.

So, I've been thinking about faith lately for several reasons. One reason is I'm reading a book by Karl Olsson called Turning to Jesus: The Sociology of Conversion which talks about the various approaches to the idea of "conversion" that can be found within Christendom, which biblical texts they emphasize, and what we might learn from Christians who hold a different view than we do about what it means to "become a Christian." For me, that topic raises questions about how faith comes to us, how we identify ourselves with Jesus, how we perceive the community of the church, both local and universal, and it's role in our lives, etc. I've skipped around a bit in the book and need to fill in the holes, but that's one thing that has me thinking about faith.

A second reason I've been thinking about this is a conversation I had with the girls' great aunt on Tuesday. She said when the weather is beautiful and she goes for a walk in the woods, she feels that all is right in the world. But, she added, it's not really. There are so many things that are wrong and a general deterioration of the divide between right and wrong, not to mention pain from illness, etc., that sometimes it's hard to pray because it seems like God isn't helping when we ask him to. She said when her husband was in the hospital she found it especially hard to pray, until a friend suggested that God doesn't take all our troubles away, but carries us through them. Although that sounds suspiciously like that rotten footsteps poem, there's truth to the idea for sure: Jesus didn't say we wouldn't have troubles if we follow him. The Aunt brought up Job. Yet he daily bears our burdens if we let him. But who hasn't looked around and wondered if God is really there, or really listening?! She said when she was younger she had a more hopeful outlook on the future, that maybe things would get better. But, the older she gets, the more she feels how far we are from what God has said we ought to be. All this was in German, so I mostly just nodded the affirmative as she talked, but I can sure understand her discouragement.

Finally, as a third factor in my little internal contemplations, I ran across this Brandi Carlile song a few days ago (see below). It's a bit vague in what it's saying about faith, but pulls together an interesting mix of references. First, there's Jesus' comment that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. I think the song invokes the whole story, and the whole idea of redemption and the kingdom of God, not just that line. But the song particularly begs the question: who are 'those like me'? And who is the addressee? Second, there's a reference to the "now I lay me down to sleep, pray the Lord my soul to keep..." prayer, and third a line from "Amazing Grace" turned on it's head. Oh, the possibilities of meaning! :)

I really have no synthesis of these thoughts to share with you...they've just been running laps in my brain while I've been baking biscuits. I like literature because it incarnates abstract truth and theology. I heard someone say recently that truth has to become flesh at some point. We have to see it in the context of the physical world to understand. Much like the Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that men could behold his glory, literature gives flesh and blood to difficult things. The truth dwells among us as the characters we read become real, as if they are our neighbors and friends, their lives stitched into our own.

The guy drew an interesting parallel to how God related to us through Jesus. He said that when God sought to redeem us, he didn't read a conference paper or hold a seminar to tell us something. He did it by coming to our real world, in the flesh: in the physical environment that we understand. Stories are an incarnation in a similar way. I guess that's why I do, in the end, appreciate and like books like Tess and songs like this one...they make me think about ideas and beliefs in terms of their application and implications for everyday life.

Eye of the Needle
Brandi Carlile

Twenty years of pushing pens
Of up the stairs and down again
Should've learned to style my hair
So I could never sleep at night
I've never mastered eating right
Distracted by the skin I wear

And I'm alive in here somewhere
Cause I can feel me twistin'
I'm so far beyond my years
So don't be fooled by today

Hey please, just believe in me
Don't lose your hope so easily
Because passing through the eye of a needle
Isn't as easy as it sounds
For those like me
Yeah yeah

Nothing short of miracles
Can save a small and dying world
That offers no apologies
To lay their hopes and dreams asleep
But pray the Lord their goal [or gold?] to keep
But I still got a soul in me

And old protects ability
And illusions of grandeur
I once was blind but now I see
They got everything for me but grace

Hey please, just believe in me
Don't lose hope so easily
Because passing through the eye of a needle
Isn't as easy as it sounds
For those like me


  1. All those books sound interesting, but I've got too big a backlog to beg for one.

    Funny that you also find the footsteps poem rotten... I think it used to be fresh - it was the first time I read it - but someone must've forgotten to close the lid on it and now it's rotten and its smell is everywhere.

  2. Man, I am surrounded by incredibly smart friends! Thanks for your thoughts. They encourage and make me think :)... Off I go...