Thursday, June 17, 2004

Kurtz oder Christ?

Ever so many articles have been written attacking Mel Gibson's adaptation of Good Friday. Many were written even before its preliminary screening.

However, it occasions special attention when Paul Kurtz takes up the pen to write a critical review for Free Inquiry magazine:

Kurtz is arguably the greatest living humanist philosopher, and Free Inquiry is the leading organ for the cause.

As a man who trumpets the virtues of rationality and rigorous argument, we'd naturally expect his review to exemplify his stated standards of excellence. So how well does he measure up against his own yardstick?

Two features stand out for particular note: (i) the regular resort to unsubstantiated claims, and (ii) the lack of critical coherence.

1. On the one hand, he characterizes the flogging of Christ as "sadomasochistic." But in the next paragraph he warns the reader of the religious right, which, among other things, is opposed to same-sex marriage.

But the relation between these two criticisms calls for a couple of comments.

i) Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the depiction is, indeed, sadomasochistic, it is hard to see how Kurtz can oppose sadomasochism in a film when he supports same-sex marriage, seeing as sadomasochism is a feature of the queer lifestyle.

ii) It is also unclear on what scientific basis a secular humanist would support same-sex marriage. What survival advantage does the impotent, disease-ridden lifestyle of the sodomite confer on the species?

2. He goes on to say that "more than ever before, the Bible has become a powerful political force in America." Really? More than it was in Colonial America, in the age of Winthrop, Witherspoon, Bradford, Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards, to name a few?


i) He devotes a fair amount of his time to browbeating Mel Gibson for taking too many liberties with the canonical Gospels. But it's more than a little unclear what the point of all this is, for in the very next section he takes issue with the canonical Gospels themselves. Why should he care whether the secondary source is inaccurate when he regards the primary source as inaccurate?

ii) And since when has historical exactitude been an artistic benchmark of a cinematic adaptation? Would he fault De Sica for taking liberties with Bassani?

iii) He spends a lot of time on the contributions of Catherine Emmerich, as if he were breaking the story of the Pentagon Papers. But this has been widely reported for over a year.

4. On the one hand, he repeats the old-heard assertion that Gibson's dad is a Holocaust-denier. On the other hand, he says, parenthetically, that "some even question whether he [Jesus] lived."

But what's the difference between a Holocaust-denier and a Christ-denier—between someone who denies the historicity of the one, and someone who denies the historicity of the other? Frankly, Kurtz is putting himself in the same company as Gibson's crackpot father.

5. As is characteristic of these movie reviews, the movie is putatively the primary target, when, in fact, the Gospels are the primary target.

i) On the one hand, he says that the Gospels were written "to satisfy the immediate practical needs of the new Christian churches then developing." On the other hand, he had earlier informed us that "they were thus written some forty to seventy years after the death of Jesus."

But this, to say the least, demands a rather elastic definition of "immediate." If they were written to satisfy an "immediate practical need," then how could they be written 40-70 years after the fact? Doesn't seem very immediate or practical to me.

ii) So which claim should we sacrifice to restore coherence? Or should we dump both of them?

If you compare the Gospels with the Epistles, you can see that they don't cover all the same ground by any means. But if this were merely a literary device to historicize doctrine and ethics, then there ought to be a point-by-point correspondence.


i) Kurtz denies that the Gospel writers were eyewitnesses. But this is a straw man argument. Who ever said that all four Gospels were the word of eyewitnesses? Rather, the usual claim is that at least two of the four (Matthew, John), were eyewitnesses. It is more than possible that Mark, as a resident of Jerusalem, was an eyewitness of some events as well. And Luke, by his own admission, relies on eyewitness testimony rather than eyewitness observation.

ii) But, of course, history is a history of the past, not the present, so that few scholars are participants in the events they recount. Would Dr. Kurtz discount a modern-day historian who writes about the Middle Ages or ancient Near East?

For example, Kurtz informs the reader that Julian the Apostate was "most likely [murdered] by a Christian soldier in his army." Was Dr. Kurtz an eyewitness to that event? Does this bit of speculation come from "an impartial observer"? Is this a "scientific" datum?

7. Kurtz asserts that the "Gospels are based on an oral tradition." He offers no evidence for this claim. How does he happen to know that?

Why assume that an oral stage precedes a literary stage? The Greco-Roman world was not preliterate. The Gospel authors did not discover the art of writing. If they could write 40-70 years after the fact, why could they not write 5-10 years after the fact? If they knew how to write, and their audience knew how to read, why interpolate a lengthy interval of time?

8. For that matter, what if they were written several decades after the event? Most men and women, if they pen an autobiography, do so towards the end of life. Doesn't Dr. Kurtz remember what happened to him in his teens and twenties?

9. Kurtz asserts that the "Gospels' claims are not independently corroborated by impartial observers."

i) But, to begin with, if you have "four" Gospels, as well as other NT documents bearing witness to the historical Christ (e.g., James, Jude, 1-2 Peter), that is independent corrobortion several times over. So multiple-attestation is not wanting by any means. These are 1C witnesses to a 1C figure.

ii) Does Dr. Kurtz demand independent corroboration for Tacitus or Josephus? Certainly there is a regular and glaring absence of independent corroboration for many of his own claims about the Gospels.

iii) The term "impartial observer" is treacherous. Does he mean impartial before or after observing the event in question? One can hardly be impartial after the fact for you have formed an opinion on the basis of your eyewitness experience.

10. Kurtz claims, without any corroboration of his own, that the Gospels "were not written as history or biography per se—and the authors did not use the methods of careful, historical scholarship."

i) Well, for starters, Luke tell us that he did just that, and he has not been without his defenders.

ii) But what about an eyewitness account? An autobiographer or biographer of a contemporary friend may make no use of "the methods of careful, historical scholarship" for the simple reason that he's reporting on what he heard and saw for himself.

11. Kurtz then tries to dismiss the Gospels on the grounds that they were written to "attract and convert" their readers to the cause.

Well, if that's a disqualification, then we must also disregard Free Inquiry magazine as sheer "propaganda" and "special-pleading," must we not?

There is no automatic antithesis between advocacy and accuracy. It depends on whether the bias was formed on the basis of the evidence or else is manipulating the evidence. It depends on whether the writer has an incentive to lie and shade the coverage.


i) Kurtz says that the Gospel writers found inspiration in the OT. But how is the promise/fulfillment scheme a disproof of the NT? When a scientist predicts a new discovery, and his prediction comes true, is that a disproof of his theory?

ii) Again, how does a "passionate yearning" disprove the fulfillment? Doesn't a scientist long to find confirmation for his theory?

13. Kurtz then makes the breathtaking claim that "there is no mention of Jesus or of his miraculous healings in any extant non-Christian literature."

i) For starters, this claim is demonstrably false. Cf. F. F. Bruce, Jesus & Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans 1974).

ii) But even if the claim were true, so what? There is no mention of Tacitus in Jewish sources, no mention of Josephus in Roman sources, and so on. What's the relevance of this claim?

14. Kurtz says that according to late tradition, "Mark heard about Jesus from Peter." But we don't have to depend on Eusebius to figure out where Mark may have gotten his information.

i) The fact that Mark was a resident of Jerusalem, whose home was a house-church (Acts 12:12), means that he had access to all the Apostles, and may have been an eyewitness to the Jerusalem ministry of our Lord.

ii) And as Kurtz himself admits, Mark is not the only source for Matthew and Luke. Matthew had his own first-hand experience to draw upon, while Luke had a wide circle of informants—as is clear from the Book of Acts. And John was, of course, on the scene for everything of consequence.

15. On the one hand, Kurtz dismisses the canonical Gospels as third-hand accounts, even though they're 1C primary sources of 1C history. On the other hand, he takes the word of John Crossan and Elaine Pagels, who rely on 4C apocryphal gospels. Talk about "ill-attributed sayings"! No one is more credulous than an unbeliever.

16. Contrary to his baseless allegation, there is no compelling to evidence to date the Fourth Gospel after the fall of Jerusalem, although that's perfectly possible, and would not subtract from its authenticity as long as John lived long enough to write it—which is perfectly possible as well. In my own estimation, Jn 21 was probably occasioned by the death of Peter, which would date the Gospel to the 60s.

17. He then says that the Apocalypse, which he designates by the vulgar plural form of "Revelations," "reflects, in the view of many scholars, the ruminations of a disturbed personality."

i) Really? And exactly how many such scholars has he actually read on Revelation? I'd like to see his list. Here as elsewhere, Kurtz makes a sweeping statement couched in strict anonymity. This is the telltale sign of over-reliance on tertiary sources. Of course, we all have to take shortcuts, but if you're going to publish something on the subject, and if you're flaunting your intellectual superiority throughout, there is something to be said for making some slight effort to know what you're talking about.

ii) He says that Revelation predicts "the Rapture." No, that would be 2 Thes 2.

iii) He says, "we have no reliable evidence that these events will occur in the future." But this misses the point. You don't need direct evidence for everything you believe in as long as you have a reliable source of information. Kurtz believes in many things he has never attempted to independently verify. Instead he puts his faith in scientific and historical authorities—especially those most favorable to his viewpoint!

18. He says that Christianity "developed a more universal message" than Rabbinic Judaism, which, incidentally, was already implicit in the letters of Paul." Actually, it was already implicit in the Abrahamic covenant, and patent in the latter-day prophecies of Isaiah.

19. Regarding the Gospels, he says that "one finds many omissions and contradictions."

i) I don't doubt that there are omissions in the Gospels, although I don't quite know how one would "find" an omission. How do you discover something that isn't there?

ii) But any history will have its share of omissions. That does not, of itself, render the history inaccurate. An omission is not a positive falsehood, but only the absence of some additional point of truth—of which there is no end. If Kurz wrote a history of secular humanism, there would be many omissions as well.

iii) At the same time, it's one thing to know that there are omissions, quite another to know what omissions there are. Without a more complete frame of reference, there is no basis for comparison.

On the one hand, Kurtz refuses to believe in the testimony of eyewitnesses and contemporaries of Christ; on the other hand, he acts as though he himself were an eyewitness, able to tell on the basis of personal information what really happened, and what was left out of the final edition. Does he know something we don't?

iv) As to contradictions, this is another lonely assertion in search of a supporting argument. Certainly there are a number of formal contradictions, in terms of variant wording and ordering. But a formal contradiction does not implicate a factual contradiction, and does not, therefore, amount to an error. Since Kurtz offers no argument to the contrary, there is nothing to rebut.

20. Kurtz goes on to say that "each Gospel was crafted post hoc" to satisfy the needs of the new churches. The "post hoc" caveat is decidedly odd. I mean, a history or biography is ordinarily written after the fact. Would Kurtz find the Gospels more believable if they antedated the life of Christ? Although this evinces a promising confidence in the power of prophecy, we somehow doubt that Dr. Kurtz would find a history written in advance of the events to be more credible than one which tags along with the arrow of time.

21. He says that the Gospel authors were "motivated by the transcendental temptation to believe in Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."

i) Why could they not be motivated to believe in Christ because they knew him, were witness to his wonders, and saw in him the convergence of many OT motifs?

ii) Moreover, this armchair analysis can be turned on the analyst. We could just as well assume that Kurtz is motivated by the immanental temptation to be his own god and savior.


i) Kurtz offers the reader a fictitious history of the canon, mistakenly claiming that the canon of the NT was fixed by the Council of Nicaea. I don't know where he gets his information, but he has obviously not given the matter much study.

ii) But even putting aside his historical blunders, the fact that the Church rejected the NT Apocrypha, far from showing a lack of historical awareness, displays a strong historical consciousness. The church excluded evident forgeries that were not well-attested in their putative milieu. Let him make a case for the authenticity of one writing that was excluded from the canon. He does not because he cannot.

23. He then proceeds to drag in all the atrocities committed in the name of religion.

i) But to blame one theological tradition for the crimes of another makes about as much sense as blaming one political ideology for the crimes of another. You'd think that a philosophy prof. might be capable of a bit more rational discrimination, especially when he claims to be a rationalist.

ii) In the nature of the case, only those in power are in a position to abuse their authority and to persecute their opponents. So it's just a case of who is in power at any given time. Both secular and religious regimes have a history of persecution. The record of secular humanism is knee-deep in bloodshed.

24. He brings in the Establishment clause, with the usual historical revisionism. But the so-called Constitutional separation of church and state was only discovered in the mid-20C by Hugo Black, a Klansmen and a Jew-hater. As a man who lost family members in the Holocaust, you'd think that Kurtz might be a bit more discerning in his choice of cobelligerents.

25. He says that "the origins of the Christian legend have for too long lay [sic] unexamined, buried by the sands of time."

i) Where has he been for the last two-to-three hundred years? The origins of Scripture have undergone a sustained assault from every quarter.

ii) The truth of the matter is rather the reverse: for nothing is more quickly buried by the sands of time than ephemeral theories of Bible criticism. Just browse the back-stacks of your used bookstore.

iii) I can understand someone who, due to prior intellectual commitments, is unprepared to believe the Bible. But no one is more gullible than a Bible critic who supposes that he can reconstruct the creative process two-to-three thousand years after the fact.

iv) Here as elsewhere, Kurtz is very fond of the "scientific" adjective. But the direct relevance of this to a work of history is left considerably unclear. Science is a field of study generally confined to the discovery of impersonal, universal "laws" of nature—whereas history is a field for the study of persons and particulars. We would not normally judge the accuracy of Boswell's Life of Johnson on scientific grounds.

v) And the most meaningful things in life occur at the level of history rather than science, at the level of persons and particulars, for that is who we are and how we live. To impose a rule of evidence that leaves out the human equation is like a man who defines a home by the architecture instead of the family.

vi) He goes on to say that "we can apply circumstantial evidence, archaeology, linguistic analysis, and textual criticism to authenticate or disconfirm the veracity of ancient literary documents."

Indeed we can. And many conservative scholars have been doing just that for decades—in confirmation of Scripture. But, of course, Kurtz spares his secular faith from falsification but only reading one side of the argument.

Of his bibliography, one of the four books is by John Crossan, the renegade priest; while the other three are put out by Prometheus Books, the publishing house of modern-day atheism.

He appears not to have read any of the conservative scholarship on Scripture. This from the elder statesmen of secular humanism.

What is that if not the very definition of prejudice and invincible ignorance? Nothing could be more anti-intellectual than such an utterly insular and one-sided sifting of the evidence.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Faith, freedom & the Constitution

For a fine analysis of the Judge Moore controversy, check out the speech by Alan Keyes on "Faith, Freedom, and the Constitution."

Debunking Da Vinci

Dan Brown's sensational novel, The Da Vinci Code, has proven to be a runaway best seller, aided and abetted, in no small part, by its racy conspiratorial theory of church history. Because many readers don't know their Bible or their church history, they've been taken in by Brown's fanciful reconstructions.

For the benefit of the uninitiated, here are some handy resources:

I. Online book reviews:

1. Ben Witherington,

2. Craig Blomberg,

3. Craig Evans,

II. Print monographs:

1. Darrell L. Bock & Francis J. Moloney,

Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nelson Books, 2004)

* ISBN: 0785260463

2. Ben Witherington,

The Gospel Code (IVP, 2004)

* ISBN: 083083267X

3. James L. Garlow & Peter Jones,

Cracking Da Vinci's Code (Victor Press, 2004)

* ISBN: 078144165X

4. Hank Hanegraaff & Paul Maier,

The Da Vinci Code: Fact or Fiction? (Tyndale 2004)

Sunday, June 13, 2004

Why I believe-2

IV. Why I believe the Bible

1. Psychological realism

The Bible contains a wide variety of psychological portraits—some are thumbnail sketches, others more 3D—involving men (e.g., Aaron, Abner, Abraham, Absalom, Agrippa [I&II], Ahab, Amos, Asa, Asaph, Barnabas, Daniel, David, Eli, Elijah, Esau, Felix, Festus, Gamaliel, Haman, Herod [the Great, Antipas], Hezekiah, Jacob, Jehoiada, Jeremiah, Jonathan, Jonah, Joseph [OT/NT], Judas, Laban, Manasseh, Mordecai, Moses, Naaman, Nebuchadnezzar, Nicodemus, Paul, Peter, Pilate, Rehoboam, Samuel, Saul, Stephen, Thomas, Uzziah, Zecharias) and women (e.g., Abigail, Athalia, Delilah, Esther, Hagar, Hannah, Herodias, Jezebel, Lot’s wife, Mary, Mary & Martha, Michal, Miriam, Naomi, Rahab, Rebekah, Ruth, Sarah, the Samaritan woman, the Shunammite, the Syrophoenician mother, Tamar, the witch of Endor, the hemorrhaging woman) from all walks of life.

To my mind, and to countless readers before me, their characterization always rings true. They are unmistakable and unforgettable. Even if a novelistic genius could pull this off, the Bible wasn't penned by a novelist, but by several dozen writers of varied experience. So the only plausible explanation is that we are face-to-face with a record of real people—which is, of course, inseparable from a real life setting.

(For a defense of traditional OT authorship, cf. O. Allis, The Old Testament: Its Claims And Its Critics [P&R 1972]; G. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction [Moody, 1994].)

2. Thematic consilience

The OT is filled with a bevy of apparently disparate motifs involving people (Adam, David, Enoch, Jonah, Melchizedek, Moses, Solomon), places (Eden, Promised Land, wilderness), ideas (remnant, firstborn, firstfruits, theophany, imago Dei, pilgrimage, exile/restoration, inheritance, only child, sonship, spotless lamb, seed of promise), offices (prophet, priest, king, covenant mediator, kinsman-redeemer, the Anointed), institutions (Temple, tabernacle, Sabbath), events (Flood, Exodus), observances (circumcision, Passover, burnt offerings, kosher laws, lustrations), and things (manna, Jacob’s ladder, brazen serpent, red heifer, scapegoat, river of life, tree of life).

In the NT, these seemingly scattered motifs suddenly converge on the person and work of Christ. Cf. F. Bruce, The New Testament Development of Old Testament Themes (Eerdmans, 1968); E. Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery (NavPress, 1988); R. France, Jesus and the Old Testament (IVP, 1971); W. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 1995); J. Motyer & R. France, "Messiah," The Illustrated Bible Dictionary (IVP, 1998), 2:987-995; V. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Wolgemuth, 1991); W. VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption (Zondervan, 1988); "Jesus, Images Of," Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, L. Ryken et al. eds, (IVP, 1998), 437-51. Although typology is prospective, the pattern only emerges in retrospect. Short of providence and plenary inspiration, it’s hard to see how such massive coordination is possible.

3. Archetypal quality

The Bible resonates with themes of perennial and universal appeal. This is something it shares in common with other great literature and drama—although to an uncommon degree. But what sets it apart in that respect is that the Book of Genesis reveals the historical origin of such archetypal literary motifs.

4. Diagnostic discernment

The Bible offers a diagnosis of the human condition. On the one hand, it describes the psychology of the believer. On the other hand, it describes the psychology of the unbeliever. And in both cases, its diagnosis is uncannily acute, accurate and prescient. On the one hand, every believer can find himself in the lives of the Old and NT saints. On the other hand, unbelievers, past and present, act and react, as if typecast, in exactly the way that Scripture predicts—according to the evasive animosity of Jn 3:19-21 or the suppress-and-supplant strategy of Rom 1. Cf. "It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe…All of our intuitive judgments of what is probable turn out to be wrong…because [they were] tuned—ironically, by evolution itself," R. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (W.W. Norton, 1986), xi-xii; "Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist," ibid., 6; "The living results of natural selection overwhelmingly impress us with…the illusion of design and planning," ibid., 21; "Even if there were no actual evidence in favor of the Darwinian theory…we should still be justified in preferring it over all rival theories," ibid., 287; "We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs… [and] just-so stories, because we have an a priori matter how counter-intuitive...Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door," R. Lewontin, The New York Review of Books 44.1 (1/9/1997), 31. Robert Jastrow has documented the atheistic prejudice of many modern cosmologists in God and the Astronomers (Norton, 1978); Cf. S. Jaki, God and the Cosmologists (Gateway, 1989). For a Freudian critique of atheism, cf. P. Vitz, Faith of the Fatherless (Spence, 1999).

In this same connection it is striking that Scripture presents the opposing as well as the supporting side. It candidly records the objections of the unbeliever.

5. Historical centeredness

The Bible is studded with place names and proper names, dates and addresses. It is possible to locate Eden on a map (in Mesopotamia), retrace the route of the Exodus or the journeys of St. Paul. And you can color in the outline of various places and people and people-groups named therein (e.g., Nebuchadnezzar, Pilate, Herod, the Hittites) from extra-Biblical sources. Although our historical distance and the ravages of time impede a complete reconstruction, more than enough survives to show that the many stories of Scripture took place in real time and space. Cf. P. Barnett, Jesus & the Rise of Early Christianity (IVP, 1999); F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Eerdmans, 1974); E. Blaiklock & R. Harrison, eds., The New International Dictionary of Biblical Archaeology (Zondervan, 1983); F. Bruce, In the Steps of the Apostle Paul (Kregel, n.d.); A. Hoerth, Archaeology & the Old Testament (Baker, 1998); W. Kaiser, A History of Israel (B&H, 1998).

In the NT alone we have four biographies of Christ by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. All of our 5000 Greek MSS designate these authors, and these only. Cf. On the originality of the superscriptions, cf. M. Hengel, The Four Gospels (Trinity, 2000), 48-56.

Matthew and John were Apostles, so they wrote from firsthand knowledge. Mark was a native of Jerusalem, whose family home was a house-church frequented by the Apostles (Acts 12:12). So he was likely an eyewitness to the Jerusalem ministry of Christ, as well as having full access to the Apostles for further information. And Luke was in touch with many of the founding members of the mother church in Jerusalem. (For a defense of traditional NT authorship, cf. E. Ellis, The Making of the New Testament Documents [Leiden: Brill, 1999]; D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction [IVP, 1990].)

In addition, two of the NT letters were written by half-brothers of Christ (James, Jude), as well as two letters penned by yet another Apostle (Peter). So the NT is a 1C historical witness to a 1C historical figure, founded on multiply-attested firsthand observation and testimony.

6. Johannine asides

In the Fourth Gospel there are a number of occasions when John will gloss a saying of Christ (e.g., 1:38,42; 2:17,22; 4:2; 6:6,10,46,64,71; 11:13; 20:16). Now, if the Evangelist were making up these speeches, you wouldn't have a direct quotation followed by an editorial aside. Rather, the Evangelist would build his own interpretation into the very form of the statement and then put the whole thing in the mouth of Christ. So these parenthetical comments presume that John is transcribing what Jesus really said, and then putting it in context for the benefit of readers who, unlike himself, were not on the scene.

For a Synoptic example, cf. Mk 5:41. Peter, James and John were in the room when Jesus spoke these very words and raised the daughter of Jairus from the dead. One of them then reported this miracle to Mark, who reproduces it verbatim. Note also the extraneous detail of her age (v42). The healing of the deaf-mute supplies still another such instance (Mk 7:34).

7. The Synoptic Problem.

The various parallels between the Synoptic Gospels suggest some internal relation of literary dependence. The basic argument is that if a teacher received three student papers as similar as the Synoptics, he'd suspect that his students had collaborated. And this is generally resolved in favor of Markan priority, partly because Matthew and Luke never agree to disagree with the order of Mark, which indicates that Matthew and Luke used Mark as their point of departure. (It should be unnecessary to point out that there's nothing inherently dishonest about sharing information. Historians constantly use and reuse primary and secondary source material.)

Now this supplies an external check on how Matthew and Luke edit their sources. And when we compare the three we see an extremely conservative transmission of primitive tradition. From time to time, Matthew and Luke touch up Mark's syntax or add some background detail for Matthew's Jewish audience and Luke's Gentile audience. What stands out is dull, dutiful fidelity over markéd originality.

Conversely, Matthew and Luke supply an external check on Mark, for they both had independent sources of information and corroboration. Matthew as an apostle, while Luke likely had contacts with the dominical family and founding members of the mother church. So they, in turn, vouch for the historicity of Mark.

The same reasoning extends to the Fourth Gospels as well. As Craig Keener observes,
"Despite the interest of my doctoral mentor, D. Moody Smith, in the question of John and the Synoptics, I had not pursued that question in any detail until examining some parallel pericopes in the early stages of preparing this commentary, an examination undertaken merely in an effort to be somewhat thorough. What surprised me was that, where John could be tested against the Synoptics, he recounted earlier traditions in the same basic idiom in which he covered ground otherwise unfamiliar to us. While current historical methods cannot locate John precisely on the continuum of historical reliability, they can demonstrate that, where we can test him, John is both historian and theologian," The Gospel of John (Hendrickson 2003), 1:46.

Synoptic variants are often treated as evidence of creative redaction, but this overlooks the fact that variants occur when the same writer retells the same story. So this doesn't imply a distinctive doctrinal slant. It rather reflects the narrative conventions of Biblical historiography. Critics who draw up a long list of internal "contradictions" fail to make allowance for this elementary fact. For a discussion of the harmonistic method that takes redaction criticism into account, cf. C. Blomberg, "the Legitimacy and Limits of Harmonization," Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, D. Carson & J. Woodbridge, ed., (Zondervan, 1986), 139-74.

8. The Incomparable Christ

When we read the Bible, we can identify with almost every character. Some of them are better than us, others worse. Yet we can project ourselves into either persona. But there is one singular and surpassing exception. In Christ we encounter a figure who is at once one with us and yet apart from us, who inspires admiration and defies emulation. He has fellow feeling without loss of firmness, and familiarity without hint of complicity. He can speak at the level of a child, yet with a reserve of subtlety that leaves the keenest listener out of his depth. No other figure, in either fact or fiction, covers such a range and or strikes such a balance, for in him we witness perfect manhood and perfect Godhood conjoined in one peerless person. C. Blomberg, Jesus & the Gospels (Broadman, 1997); The Historical Reliability of John's Gospel (IVP, 2001); F. Bruce, Jesus: Lord & Savior (IVP, 1986); C. Cranfield, "The Resurrection of Jesus Christ," On Romans (T&T Clark, 1998), 137-50; D. Guthrie, A Shorter Life of Christ (Zondervan, 1970); E. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Eerdmans, 1968); M. Harris: Three Crucial Questions About Jesus (Baker, 1994); K. Latourette, Anno Domini (Harper, n.d..); J. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Baker, 1977); L. Morris, Jesus is the Christ (Eerdmans/IVP, 1989); R. Reymond, Jesus, Divine Messiah (P&R, 1990); A. Schlatter, The History of the Christ (Baker, 1997); R. Stein, Jesus the Messiah (IVP, 1996); N. Stonehouse, The Witness of the Synoptic Gospels to Christ (Baker, 1979); G. Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (IVP, 1999); G. Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus (Eerdmans, 1954); "The Historical Christ," The Person and Work of Christ (P&R, 1950), 5-33; M. Wilkins & J. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire (Zondervan, 1995).

It is a truism to say that creative writing is autobiographical. This can even be unwittingly and uncomfortably revealing. A famous instance is the figure of Satan in Paradise Lost. He is easily the most vivid, memorable and well-rounded character in the epic. And the reason is that Milton put so much of himself into the character. Milton was an imperious, independent, versatile, and supremely self-confident man—and all these traits are reproduced in his diabolical antihero.
Now what I’ve said about Milton holds true of Austen, Dante, Bunyan, Eliot, Goethe and Racine as well—to name just a few. You could construct a psychological profile from their imaginative vision. If you had no other source of biographical information you could still deduce their sex, social standing, period, place, taste, talent and worldview from their creative labors. Cf. B.B. Warfield, "Concerning Schmiedel's 'Pillar-Passages,'" Works (Oxford, 1931), 3:181-255

Sceptics regard the Gospel portrait of Christ as a wholly or fairly free invention of the evangelist or redactor—especially in the more exalted aspects of its conception. But here we immediately run into a roadblock. For powers of characterization are constrained by the personal resources of an author’s own personality and experience. Every storybook character is a psychological projection. To be sure, it may be modeled on close observation of humanity in general. But that is still filtered and distilled through the psyche of the writer.
Now the problem with reducing Jesus to an imaginative construct is that it would take a Jesus to make a Jesus. And, I ask you, dear reader, have you ever met anyone like Christ? I know I haven’t. What is more, I have never encountered his like in all the multiplied histories of great men. Indeed, it’s disillusioning to read about great men. The more I learn about them, the less I like them. When I study their life in detail, there always emerges some unseemly or unscrupulous side to their character.
There is only one credible explanation for the portrait of Christ that forms itself from the pages of Gospel history: the Gospels present us with a realistic depiction of a real person. To attribute this feat to the creative energies of the evangelist or redactor only pushes the problem back a step. For if we knew nothing else about the author, we would know this much—that he was a man of like passions as ourselves, sharing our fallenness and finitude. Just as water cannot rise above its own level, and muddy water cannot clarify its own issue, a characterization cannot ultimately improve on the character of the creative writer. His writing is ultimately an exercise in mirror-writing as he makes out his own distorted visage at the bottom of the well. That which is flesh begets flesh (Jn 3:6).

Why I believe-1

The natural mind sees God in nothing,
Not even spiritual things;
The spiritual mind sees God in everything,
Even natural things.
—Robert Leighton

I. Insight & Hindsight

Why am I writing this? For several reasons.

Over the years, I’ve had a number of college and seminary students approach me to ask me how I’d field this or that objection to the faith. In responding, my answer was naturally shaped by the form of the question. And this is fine as far as it goes. But that doesn't really represent how I’d frame the questions and prioritize the issues if I were offering a positive defense of my own faith. And so I’d like, for once, to take the initiative in setting the terms of the debate from my own point of departure.

Secondly, I’m at a point in life where it is worthwhile to take stock of my reasoning. I became a Christian as a teenager, and I’m now a middle-aged man. So I’ve passed through the most of the major phases of life, in consequence of which my outlook is pretty settled.

In addition, I’ve read widely and deeply in the fields of philosophy, theology, apologetics, philosophy of religion, science, philosophy of science, Bible criticism, comparative religion, comparative mythology, and atheism.

I doubt that there are any major arguments pro or con that I’m not acquainted with, so I don't anticipate any intellectual revolutions in my thinking. Having sifted through all this material, it’s time to distill it down to a few core questions and answers.

In that regard I need to say in advance what I do and do not intend to cover in this essay. On the one hand, I don’t plan to rehearse all the traditional arguments for the Christian faith. This omission doesn’t necessarily imply a rejection of such reasons. Many of the arguments I’m leaving out of consideration enjoy considerable merit.

Among the better literature in defense of the faith, I'd mention: R. Adams, Leibniz: Determinist, Theist, Idealist (Oxford, 1994); G. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Zondervan, 1982); G. Berkeley, Alciphron; Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous, R. Adams, ed. (Hackett, 1988); M. Behe, Darwin's Black Box (Touchstone, 1998); C. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (IVP, 1987); W. Brown: In the Beginning (CSC, 2001); J. Byl, God and Cosmos (Banner of Truth, 2001); G. Caird, "The Study of the Gospels," ExT (1975-76), 137-41; W. Dembski, No Free Lunch (Rowan & Littlefield, 2001); J. Frame, Apologetics to the Glory of God (P&R, 1994); P.Helm, Faith with Reason (Oxford, 2000); Objective Knowledge (IVP, 1989); The Divine Revelation (Crossway, 1982); B. Metzger, "Methodology in the Study of the Mystery Religions and Early Christianity," Historical and Literary Studies (Eerdmans, 1968), 1-24; J. Newman, A Grammar of Assent; A. Plantinga, "A Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments"; God and Other Minds (Cornell, 1967); Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford, 2000); C. Van Til, Why I Believe in God (P&R, n.d.); K. Wise, Faith, Form, and time B&H, 2002); J. Woodmorappe, Noah's Ark (ICR, 1996); W. Young, Foundations of Theory (Craig Press, 1967).

But I don't want to swamp the reader in a sea of technicalities. I'd like to keep this essay at the level of popular reading and personal reflection. So I’m confining myself to arguments that I myself find especially appealing and compelling. The treatment is admittedly idiosyncratic.

Conversely, I don’t plan to parry a lot of stock objections to the faith. This is a needful and beneficial exercise. But it would make the essay ten times longer and twice as technical if I went down that winding path. Besides, I've dealt with that elsewhere ("I'm glad you asked!") In addition, one way of fielding objections is to offer positive reasons for faith. Finally, I have delegated some of the detailed argumentation to footnoted literature for the benefit of interested readers.

Finally, there’s a difference between reflective and prereflective reasoning. There are many things we apprehend as a matter of tacit knowledge that we’ve never tried to prove. And the effort to formalize our reasoning cannot capture the full range of evidentiary support: what it gains in slim rigor it loses in density and detail—what Newman dubbed the illative sense. The exercise is of value, but not without attendant tradeoffs.

Philosophers spend a lot of time trying to tease our tacit knowledge into articulate form. The hardest things to prove are the most obvious things. For if they’re already obvious, then what more can you say? And if someone can’t see the obvious, how can you make him see it? As Gordon Clark once observed, "philosophy doesn’t deal with unfamiliar things; it deals with familiar things, and that is why it puzzles you," Gordon H. Clark: Personal Recollections (Trinity, 1989), 68.
Thus the attempt to prove what we already know can readily foster a misleading impression. For our conviction may be a many-layered thing, built up—like a painting—of many brush-strokes. You can’t reduce a painting to a series of brush-strokes. For what makes it a painting lies in the overall composition, and in the texture, and in the interplay of light, shade and color. The effort to peel back the layers and identify every stroke of the brush leaves you with less than the sum of the parts.

So my point is that trying to justify what we believe isn’t always an easy thing. In fact, the more fundamental the belief, the harder it may be to explain and defend because it deals with such familiar things—things so basic to our understanding of the world within and around us that it may never occur to us to justify our belief in such things inasmuch as they are what enable us make sense of the world. Without it we couldn’t make sense of anything at all. And in that respect, some beliefs are self-warranting insofar as they supply the warrant for lesser beliefs.

II. Why I believe in anything
When the average Christian is asked why he believes in God, he may be stumped. For purposes of this paper, I'm operating with an Augustinian doctrine of God, viz., God is a personal agent, of infinite wisdom and might, subsisting outside time and space. I have defended this position in "God of the Fathers," All Things in Subjection, M. Selbrede, ed. (Ross House, forthcoming). In this same volume I've also presented my Christian philosophy. Cf. "Trinity & Symmetry."

It seems like a natural enough question, so why is it so hard to offer a simple and straightforward reply? One problem is that to pose such a question is to plunge into the river at midstream, rather than crossing at the riverbank.

You see, we prove or disprove the existence or the truth of one thing by assuming the existence or truth of something else. Suppose, for example, someone asked you why you believe in time or space? Wouldn’t you be taken aback by such a question? For ordinarily, questions of fact are not nearly that large. If you ask me whether I believe in the lunar landings or the Loch Ness monster, such things and events, if they happen to exist or ever happen, take place within space and time. The spatiotemporal framework is taken for granted. But if you ask me to justify the framework itself, then I may be at a loss in even knowing how to broach an answer, for the question is so big and broad that it leaves me without a point of reference.

So we normally ask whether something exists in space, but not whether space exists. We ask whether something occurred in time, but not whether time occurs. The reason we usually don’t give a reason for believing in space and time is that space and time supply the background conditions for reasoning about most other things and events.

And it’s that way with God. We don’t prove the existence of a Creator in the same way we prove the existence of a creature. For God, if there is a God, is not merely an object of truth, but the origin of truth; not just another being, but the ground of being and wellbeing. God is the author of time and space, and the ground of goodness and truthfulness, necessity and possibility.

III. Why I believe in God

1. The Semiotic Universe

I’m impressed by the symbolic dimension of the sensible world. By this I mean that I find it remarkable how the material order supplies an endless stream of metaphors for the moral order. That is, of course, the stuff of poetry.

But because it comes so naturally to us, we may not stop to consider how unnatural it is if nature were all there was. Why are certain sounds (major/minor) and shades (light/dark), lines (backward/ forward) and curves (upward/downward) freighted with moral significance?

Indeed, this dimension is multidimensional. Consider the mimetic and synesthetic plasticity of music. We associate certain progressions and intervals with visual cues. And these carry the same moral and emotive overtones. The symbolic overlay of one medium onto another represents a higher-ordered significance.

And this semiotic potential figures forcibly in the language and communicative power of Scripture. Consider how much spiritual sense is contained and conveyed by such simple and mundane metaphors as: arm, ash, birth, blindness, blood, body, bone, bread, breath, brotherhood, cedar, childhood, city, cloud, darkness, dawn, day, deafness, death, desert, dew, dirt, dog, dove, dream, dung, eagle, ear, earth, eye, fat, fatherhood, fire, firstfruit, firstborn, fish, flesh, flood, foot, fountain, garden, gem, goat, gold, grape, grass, hand, head, heart, heaven, honey, husband, king, lamb, land, leaven, leprosy, light, lightning, lily, lion, lip, locust, milk, moth, motherhood, mountain, nakedness, neck, night, oil, pearl, rain, rainbow, river, rock, root, rose, rust, salt, sand, season, seed, sheep, skin, sleep, smoke, snake, sonship, sparrow, sun, thistle, thorn, tongue, tree, valley, vine, vineyard, water, weed, wife, wind, wine, wing, and wolf, to name a few. The Fourth Gospel has been dubbed the "book of signs" for the way in which earthly things exemplify heavenly things, and shadow forth a better country.

There is no natural explanation for this rich, referential dimension on secular grounds. It doesn't confer any survival advantage. But this makes perfect sense if the material order was made by God to manifest his perfections and pantomime a moral order.

2. The Cryptographic Universe

The classic conundrum of knowledge lies in the hiatus between the subject of knowledge and the object of knowledge. For the mind doesn’t enjoy direct access to the external world. In order to receive information from the outside world, such input must be encoded.

For example, a sensible object reflects light. So the surface texture is encoded as electromagnetic information, and transmitted to the eye, where it is reencoded as electrochemical information and transmitted to the brain.

But the match between input and readout is ineluctably teleological. Like a lockbox with one key to open and another to close, the system must be designed so that the constituent parts operate in conjunction. No random process could run through every conceivable combination or solve for all possible permutations.

3. The Narrative Universe

I'm also impressed by the narrative direction of the sensible world. Solomon says that God has planted eternity in our hearts (Eccl 3:14). This intriguing and enigmatic image. comes on the heels of his statement that God has made everything beautiful in its time, and is followed by his statement that man is unable find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. So the entire verse is finely sprung on a delicate dialectic between time and eternity.

We register the narrative dimension in the natural world of time, space and light. The backlighting of late afternoon and forelighting at the end of a dark tunnel or leafy trail convey a sense of motion through time—of time past and time future, verging on the "stillpoint of the turning world"—in Eliot's evocative phrase. Lighting likewise serves to signal the divisions of the day and seasons of the year, while autumnal or Post-meridian shades, in turn, signify the life-cycle. Streams and rivers further furnish a universal emblem of time's passage. ( The B-theory of time denies the objective flow of time. However, I'm only concerned here with the phenomenology rather than the ontology of time.)
Such natural narrative associations form the basis of arts. A story has a plot, and the quest genre is the Ur-genre of all literature. A play follows a dramatic arc. Opera and oratorio have a narrative format. The symphonic and sonata forms have a narrative quality. A church nave evokes a journey, while the stained-glass triggers diurnal and seasonal associations. Some Cathedrals augment this effect with a labyrinth in the crossing. A film has a storyline. Every movie is a journey of the imagination. Even still photography and still-life painting try to freeze a passing moment.

The Bible owes a great deal of its perennial appeal to its narrative power. The story of redemption is the story of stories and story within stories as we follow the progress of the woman's seed, from the Protevangel promise, and all the way through the history of the prediluvians, postdiluvians and Patriarchs, the Exodus, wilderness wndering and Conquest, the monarchy, captivity and Restoration, to its culmination in the Advent of Christ and coming Consummation.
God has encoded his subliminal message in sight and sound. For God is the great storyteller, for both Word and World are divine speech-acts (Heb 1:1-2; 11:1). The universal theme of art and universal appeal of nature lie largely in their token of travel through time and space to a waiting eternity.

4. The Animal Kingdom.

Solomon admonishes the sluggard to go and study the ways of the ant (Prov 6:6-8; cf. 30:25-28). And, indeed, the complexity of insect behavior is very difficult to account for on the basis of raw materialism. How do bug brains no bigger than a milligram execute such complicated and coordinated activities, viz., flying, milking aphids, spinning webs, constructing hexagonal chambers, building underground cities, communicating by code language (the waggle dance)? Even primates don’t do anything half as clever. If mental-events are identical with brain-events, what is the neurological basis for their ingenious behavior?

Of course, social insects exhibit a sort of corporate intelligence, but that doesn’t explain their coordination. What overarching factor is choreographing and combining their individual efforts? For example, how does the relative complexity of building a beehive compare with constructing a geodesic dome? An evolutionist would attribute the latter achievement to our advanced brain development, yet the same explanation is hardly available in the former case.

Insect behavior reminds me of remote-control signaling, viz., toy cars, boats, planes, drones, robots, &c. If their actions and interactions are being directed by a superior, external intelligence, then I can account for the intricacy of their behavior, but to reduce it to the amount of hardware and/or software that nature can cram into the skull of a bug strains my own capacity for credence.

5. Natural Selection

Darwinists often appeal to natural selection as an alternative to teleology. Natural selection is often touted as a major evolutionary mechanism. But, from what I can tell, it only operates on periodic variations within preexisting and stable species. That doesn't approach macroevolution. White rabbits beat out brown rabbits in wintertime because they blend in against the snow and survive to multiply. Conversely, brown rabbits beat out white rabbits in summertime. And this explanation is fine as far as it goes.

But in order to lodge his claim, the Darwinist must assume a surreptitiously God’s-eye standpoint. For natural selection is oblivious to the survival value of camouflage and other adaptive strategies. Only an intelligent observer can appreciate this stratagem. But how could a bottom-up (evolutionary) process solve a problem that only a top-down perspective can grasp? The naturalist must stand outside of natural selection to perceive the (pre-) adaptation of practical means to tactical ends.

6. The Possible

The real world doesn’t appear to exhaust all possibilities. Indeed, there seems to be an infinite number of variations on the actual world. So what was it that selected for the instantiation of this particular state of affairs out of the plenum of possibilities? Such a selection process must have recourse to some sort of personal intelligence in general, and a mind of at least commensurate amplitude in particular. The answer, with respect to possibility and infinity alike is the divine mind (see below).

7. The Infinite

It has been said that mathematics is the science of the infinite. Equations imply other equations, multiples imply divisibles, &c. In a system of internal relations, all of the relations must obtain for any to obtain. 2+2=4 because 1+1=2 and 4-2=2. And hence, in a system of infinite internal relations, the infinite must be actual rather than potential. Cf. J. Burgess & G. Rosen, A Subject with no Object (Oxford, 1997); B. Hale, Abstract Objects (Oxford, 1987); J. Katz, Realistic Rationalism (MIT, 1998); C. Wright, Frege's Conception of Numbers as Objects (Aberdeen U Press, 1983).

Mathematical entities also appear to be mental entities. What else could they be? The number three doesn’t have an address. It doesn’t subsist in time and space. It doesn’t come and go. 2+2 don't become 4.

But if numbers are mental entities, then they must inhere in an infinite and timeless mind—the mind of an eternal and omniscient God. Cf. R. Davis, The Metaphysics of Theism and Modality (Peter Lang, 2000); B. Leftow, Divine Ideas (Cornell, forthcoming); A. Plantinga, The Nature of Necessity (Oxford, 1974); A. Pruss, Possible Worlds (U of Pittsburgh 2001); G. Welty, An Examination of Theistic Conceptual Realism (Oxford: MPhil thesis, 2000); Theistic Conceptual Realism (Oxford: DPhil diss., forthcoming).

8. The saints

By this I do not mean the communion of saints or the cult of the saints, in which a saint is a Christian of supposedly supererogatory merit or wonder-working power. Rather, I merely mean those humble, ordinary believers whose quiet, faithful, loving lives are a silent witness to the life of grace in the soul. This is both less and more than mere goodness. There is a piety particular to the Christian faith — a piety above and in spite of any natural virtue or absence of virtue. A theistic proof can be a person no less than a thing or formal argument. Such a person is a living proof of the living God, of grace embodied in a vessel of clay, of a power surpassing nature and superior to nurture.

A twice-told tale-7

Undset (1891-1949)

Sigrid Undset’s mother and father were freethinking intellectuals, her mother a polyglot, and her father an archeologist. They traveled widely before her father’s illness sidelined him. From him she acquired her interest and expertise in medieval studies. After a failed marriage, Undset underwent a spiritual crisis which led her into the Church of Rome. It was likely her love of the Middle Ages that predisposed her conversion to Catholicism. The Lutheran church was the national, albeit nominal, church of Norway, and her Catholicism was something of a cause célèbre, but the dead formalism of the state church was both a cause and consequence of spiritual malaise.

Although Undset wrote a number of contemporary novels, she set her major Catholic novels in the Middle Ages. Authors generally write about their own time and place because they draw on their own experience. They know about their own time of life, both consciously and unconsciously, with a depth and density, intensity and immediacy that is never within reach in writing about the past or, in the case of the SF genre, the future, or, in the case of the fantasy genre, an alternative world. And, of course, their contemporaries can more readily identify with the present and immediate past.

On the other hand, this timeframe also limits an author. The more you and your readers know about the way things are, the less artistic license you enjoy, for you have to fit your story into an exacting and preexisting framework of facts. So a writer has rather more freedom if he situates his story in the past. He can still give the story a realistic feel without being hemmed in by an oppressive weight of public data.

The creative art always involves a creative tension between form and freedom. Without some boundaries, there is no where to start. Reality, by imposing an upper limit on your range of options, makes it possible to choose from a manageable array of options, for the creative art is as much an act of omission as commission.

Why did Undset choose to situate her major Catholic novels in the past—the distant past? Two or three of reasons suggest themselves. To begin with, she was not a Roman Catholic when she began her medieval sagas. In a way, she wrote herself into Catholicism by writing about medieval Catholicism.

In addition, authors like to write about interesting people and events, and when they live in exciting times, that makes their job easy. A Bassani or Malory or Melville or Hemingway or Crane or Conrad could plow their life experience straight into their novels because they has such dramatic material at their fingertips. Even Linebarger could smuggle his varied experience into a literary masque.

There is, of course, a complementary danger in writing about your own time and place. Hemingway wrote about the lost generation. That made his work compelling to his contemporaries, but diminishes its enduring appeal. The particular threatens to swallow the universal. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about the roaring Twenties. But how dated it seems!

Conversely, a fantasy or SF author writes about a world that never was. Although this lends the genre a certain timeless, archetypal appeal, it carries with it the opposing peril of the universal swallowing up the particular. For it becomes the story of no one living nowhere at no time.

Inter-war Norway was something of a cultural and political backwater. It had escaped the physical and psychic trauma that scarred the major European powers during WWI. What do you write about when you live during dull times, in a rather sedate and insular culture? Unset had already canvassed the contemporary scene in earlier novels, so there was no where else to go but back into the past.

The other reason is that, unlike, say, France or Italy or Bavaria, contemporary Norway did not supply a preexisting stageset for a Catholic novel. By withdrawing into the past, Undset withdrew into medieval Catholicism. She did not have to carve out a little Catholic cubical for herself within a nominally Lutheran culture. The medieval setting gave her full freedom of movement to stretch her legs and take the story wherever she wanted to amble without ever leaving the cathedral. So that may be why she continued the medieval milieu after her conversion.

This began with the Kristin Lavransdatter cycle, which is, in part, an allegory of Undset’s own conversion to Catholicism, and part historical novel about the evangelization of Medieval Norway. Personal conversion parallels national conversion. The saga explores the spiritual and social tensions in that transitional age. From a typically feminine viewpoint, Unset centers her storyline on social relationships—of lovers, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. This orientation is carried through The Master of Hestviken cycle—as well as her modern novels.

Unlike the otherworldly Charlotte Yonge, Sigrid Undset, as a onetime worldling, has a real feel for men and women and the power of passion, both as a force for good or evil; for the same passion can be either a virtue or a vice depending on how it’s directed or misdirected. Natural passion, to be virtuous, must be channeled by faith and grace. A common thread running through her medieval novels is the cumulative effect of evil as one sin leads to another and weaves a web of moral quandaries.

Unlike an SF novel, Catholicism is a historic phenomenon, so that a Catholic backdrop needs a realistic setting, be it contemporary or historical. And, in Undset’s case, it would need to be historical.

But one further advantage is that this allowed Undset to preserve the national identity of her fiction, for she was writing about Norwegian history. Although discontinuous in time, it was continuous in space.

At the same time, there’s some loss in the fact that she did not write about her experience as a religious minority. So she is leading a sort of double life instead of plowing her life into her work. Within her study she writes about medieval Catholicism. She must leave this world every time she goes out to buy a loaf of bread. It would be better to bring the real world into the study, than compartmentalize life and fiction, for experience is the life-blood of fiction.

In her later novels (Wild Orchid, Burning Bush, Ida Elizabeth, The Faithful Wife; Madame Dorthea), she does try to join the spiritual dimension of her medieval novels with the contemporary setting of her early novels. But, for the most part, they merely transpose the same social dynamic to modernity, without any gain in insight.

A partial exception is The Faithful Wife, where Nathalie espouses an open marriage in theory, only to be devastated when her husband puts the principle of free love into practice. This is a social critique of the radical chic ideology of the educated classes. Madame Dorthea was the first installment of a projected series, and was also to be an 18C tableau of her liberated mother, but her work was overtaken by the dislocations and deprivations of war, which left her a broken woman without the will to round out her literary vision.

Given the Tolkien-cult, the time would seem to be ripe for a revival of interest in Undset’s Nordic Medievalism.

Updike (1932-)

John Updike professes to be a Christian. He is accounted a fine stylist. He writes about the post-war middle class family. His novels are both representative and realistic. They are quintessential period pieces—a slice of modern Americana. Whether you have a taste for Updike depends on whether or not his world is your world. Speaking for myself, I, too, grew up in a post-war middle class family. But I grew up in a home which was, by turns, artistic, political, and pious; a home frequented by preachers and schoolteachers. His world is not my world, is not the world I knew or would wish to know or have chosen to know. His characters do not speak for me or to me or about me. Their occupations and preoccupations are not mine. Their lives are so full for being so empty. In sum, I can no more identify with Updike than Austen.

There is doubtless some spiritual potential in this material, but the seeds never germinate. Ironically, Bradbury’s epiphanic style is much more religious, despite his evident secularity, than Updike’s nominal faith. There is, however, a rising generation of Evangelical novelists who are attempting to wed faith and realism.

Wells (1866-1946)

An ardent disciple of Darwin, Wells was, in the overweening arrogance of youth, a prophet of secular humanism. But after two world wars he died a bitterly disillusioned and broken old man.

The Wonderful Visit develops an aside by Ruskin that if an angel fell to earth, he would surely be shot. The germinal idea is that innocence and evil cannot coexist. Wells turned heaven into a figure of Fabian socialism, while the provincial little village where the angel landed represents the narrow and backward opponents of progress. Fifty years later, in the Mind at the End of its Tether, the prophet of humanism became the prophet of doom. Without God, every utopian dream becomes a dystopian nightmare.

Williams (1886-1945)

The literature of Charles Williams is associated with Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and George Macdonald. And Williams was instrumental in the direction or redirection which Lewis took in That Hideous Strength. Unlike the others, who generally situate their stories in fantasy worlds, Williams takes the modern, urban world as the setting for his novels. Yet that is something of a stageset for the spiritual world.

The leading idea in Williams is a highly idiosyncratic take on the communion of saints. On this view, the City of God and City of man merge. Central London is a storefront for heaven. On this view, there is constant commerce between the living and the dead. On this view, the motto of one-for-all and all-for-one is to be taken quite strictly and literally.

Now, this has all the error and appeal of a half-truth. Since almost no reader will subscribe to his eccentric principle of coinherence, his novels overtax the willing suspension of belief. And while there is value is taking the real word as our lens, there are right and wrong ways of relating the sensible and spiritual realms, and trafficking with the dead is a very wrong turn indeed.

The general problem with this sort of literature is that it tends to soften up the Christian reader to believe anything as long as it sounds pious and has a little hook in Christian tradition. Doing theology is not an exercise in creative writing. The source of theology is revelation, not imagination. The faith to which God calls us in Scripture is not make-believe or wishful thinking.

The principle of coinherence is at two removes from revelation. Williams begins, not with Scripture, but with an article from the Apostles’ creed. This is already at one remove from revelation. The original intent of the article (communion of saints) is open to debate. Williams than proceeds to put his own construction on the phrase. This is at two removes from revelation. His procedure would only be sound if it were a valid inference from the creed, and the creed were a valid inference from Scripture.

As it stands, coinherence has a quasi-Platonic or panpsychical flavor to it that makes massive metaphysical claims. Where is the philosophical or Biblical justification for such an ambitious and extravagant doctrine?

In fairness, though, there is a rather natural connection between the communion of the saints and necromancy, as well as mysticism and necromancy—a connection well illustrated in Evelyn Underhill's trilogy: The Grey World, The Lost Word, The Column of Dust. Medieval mysticism and the cult of the saints have much in common. And it is not, I imagine, coincidental that Williams was a close and sympathetic student of Underhill's fiction and non-fiction.

In addition, Williams depicts spiritual warfare in terms of white magic versus black magic. Perhaps this could be given a more orthodox gloss by reference to the one-upmanship between Moses and Jannes & Jambres, or Paul and Bar-Jesus. But this raises the issue of whether an average Christian is so empowered. In my opinion, the answer is no. One is tempted to say of Williams, like Milton before him, that he w as of the Devil’s party without knowing it.

Woiwode (1941-)

One of Lewis’s harshest critics is Larry Woiwode. Since a writer naturally values in other writers what he values in his own writing, and generally finds fault with authors who do not share his literary values, Woiwode’s dissent presents an instructive contrast between two different theories of Christian fiction.

A character in a Lewis novel is, in Woiwode’s opinion, a cardboard cutout stuffed with wonderful ideas from his essays. For Woiwode, a novel is not about ideas, but people, and— at most—the ideas emerge from the clash of characters and the adaptation or reaction of a character to his environment.

Woiwode uses Lewis as a posterboy for a more general trend he dislikes in contemporary Christian fiction, which is escapist fantasy. For Woiwode, Christian fiction should be about the real world, the world of sin and grace and common grace.

What are we to make of this? It raises a couple of questions: does the failure of Lewis lie in the execution or the goal?

At one level, this goes to a perennial and cyclical debate in art and literature over the role of realism. One generation will make an idol of realism. The next generation, bored by the exhaustive exploration of the minute particular, will take an anti-realist turn.

Much of this also has to do with the individual temperament and experience of the author. We generally write about folks like ourselves, folks we grew up with and work with, members of our own social class. Woiwode likes to write about men and women with a small town, Mid-West, working class background.

Now, there’s no doubt that Lewis is deficient in his powers of characterization. It takes infinite patience to work up a character, to color in all the squares with the routine shades of thought, word and deed that round out a figure and delimit him by the shared surfaces of other figures and common boundary of their outward setting. Lewis hasn’t the forbearance for this sort of minute and mundane detail work. He’s in too much of a hurry to get to the great speech or the great scene.

Woiwode is a much better novelist than Lewis, not only in his longsuffering powers of characterization, but in his professional interest with the mechanics of the craft, by exploring and exploiting different voices and viewpoints. He makes full use of the literary medium.

Yet the criticism is rather one-sided. To begin with, Lewis was an Oxford don. He lived and worked in a world of ideas, the world of the lecture hall and debating society. He was also a philosophy major, or the modern-day equivalent. So Lewis is writing in a way that comes naturally to him. Up to a point, it is a realistic rendition of his social circle. There is an intellectual class. They do talk about ideas—and not just in essays and formal debates, but at the dinning room table. A classic example is To the Lighthouse, which is a semi-autobiographical masque of Virginia Woof's upbringing.

In fact, Woiwode is a member of the intellectual class. His writing improves on the raw materials supplied by his working class characters. He is more meditative, reflective, articulate, even eloquent, than the average farmer and hard-hat, housewife and bank-teller.

But this brings us to a larger issue. Is there such a thing as a Christian novelist? Is a Christian novelist a bard who happens to be Christian, or a Christian who happens to be a bard?

Woiwode is, in part, reacting to Christian fiction which is essentially a sermon with a bit of biographical window-dressing. To some extent, Lewis is guilty of this. And writers like Newman and Pantycelyn are even worse. The narrative and novelistic elements are just a gesture.

But what about writers like Dante and Bunyan, writers who are militantly theological? And yet their dogmatic agenda, which burns through every page like a cigar on paper, is consistent with the highest order of story-telling. Theology is driving the setting and action and dialogue, and that is precisely what gives their work its coiled intensity. All the unity and continuity, propulsive energy and spring-action are tightly wound up in the clockwork and tick-tock of the doctrinal enterprise.

There’s nothing inherently artificial about Christian fiction. If you put a believer with another believer, or put a believer with an unbeliever; if you put a Christian in an unchristian setting, or set an unbeliever in a Christian setting, you have the makings of natural dialogue and drama. And much of Scripture consists in narrative theology. Its historical and theological content does not subtract from its narrative power.

Dante has also shown a number of ways of sounding Christian themes through the use of allusion and allegory. And one can do so with a lighter touch than Dante.

For Woiwode, a good novel is character-driven. That is a valid perspective, and every novelist needs to play to his strength.

But Lewis is more of a landscape painter than a portrait painter. In a novel by Lewis, what ultimately bears the burden of meaning, the carrier wave of the moral vision, is not the messenger or the set speeches, but the evocative environment. That is what the reader remembers. In this respect, Lewis is like Cather. The mute voice of the landscape speaks more forcefully than the plot or personalities.

And here you have a superficial resemblance with Woiwode. For he also has an attentive and affectionate eye for the natural setting. He lingers lovingly on the inanimate scenery.

Yet this presents a point of contrast as well as comparison. Woiwode takes his descriptions direct from nature. And his theology underwrites this perspective. His word is the word of the world that God has made.

One reason that Lewis’s novelistic art is not character-driven is undoubtedly due to his socially stunted upbringing. But there are theological reasons as well—although these may also have origin in his social alienation, which—in turn, leaves him aloof from the sensible world.

As we all know, Lewis likes to write about imaginary worlds—the never-never landscape of Narnia and Perelandra and Malecandra. And his theology underwrites this orientation. For Lewis lies to write about other worlds because he has an otherworldly outlook; in his platonic theology and ontology, the imaginary and mythical are even more, and no less real, than the world of time and space.

This, then, is not an issue over novelistic technique. It goes much deeper than that. It comes down to an issue of who has a truer worldview—Lewis or Woiwode? As a member, not only of a Reformed church, but a theonomic church, with a family-centered faith in federal theology and covenant seed, with a postmillennial faith in the historical progress and final triumph of the Gospel on earth, as well as a faith in the summons and success of the cultural mandate, Woiwode has a religious investment in the welfare of the world and the nation.

And that brings us to one further issue. Woiwode’s realism commits him to a degree of explicit profanity that you don’t ordinarily encounter in Christian fiction this side of Dante. We make a mistake if we either accept or reject this out of hand.

On the one hand, you have folks who grew up in a conservative church. When they go to college, they take courses in literature which expose them to all the vulgarities of the reprobate mind. At this point, some of them succumb to spiritual pride. They flatter themselves that they are mature enough to see or hear or read anything an unbeliever can write or say or show. They convince themselves that this is part of begin all things to all men, of engaging the culture and witnessing to he world. They pretend that they are so grown up that they are entitled to this sort of adult fare and immune to its corrupting influences. Indeed, they dismiss such admonitions as prim Victorian fear-mongering.

Now, aside from the fact that some of these folks are nominal believers to begin with, it is also the case that a Christian is not supposed make a point of seeing and hearing everything the unbeliever indulges in. Some of this is unavoidable, but we ought not immerse ourselves in this moral climate. It is hard to disinfect a polluted imagination.

On the other hand, Woiwode was an established novelist well before his conversion. So he’s not a Christian outsider who’s vying for an insider’s view of Sodom and Gomorrah, but a spiritual escapee who’s warning unwary travelers.

There is also a sense in which his warts-and-all style dovetails rather nicely with his theology. Calvinism is the one theological tradition which never flinches in face of the harsh, ugly, evil facts of life. And, of course, you have the Bible's unblushingly candor. There are also a few colorful expressions, usually reserved for quotation, that have never made their way out committee. In translation work, a common rule of thumb is to ask what words a Greek or Hebrew speaker would use if he were speaking in modern English. Applied to 2 Kgs 18:27, I don't suppose that your average translation quite captures the first choice of available synonyms.

But over against this, the Bible is ordinarily sparing on the grim and gory details. The explicit impression is supplied by the imagination of the reader. A case in point is Canticles, which achieves its effect, not through anatomical detail, but suggestive analogies and atmospherics. Once again, less is more.

Yonge (1823-1901)

The Heir of Reclyffe is of some incidental interest inasmuch as this novel was instrumental in the conversion of Abraham Kuyper, as well as some charter members of the Rossetti circle (Morris, Burne-Jones) But when I revisit it, I’m afraid that it reads like a stereotypical period piece.

The plot revolves around a sibling rivalry between Sir Guy Moreville, the protagonist, and his cousin Philip Edmonstone, over Amy, the gold-hearted heroine and common love interest. An orphan, Guy Moreville is reared by his wealthy grandfather. Guy is heir to the family fortune, but doesn’t receive his inheritance until he comes of age. When his grandfather dies, Guy receives an allowance from his guardian—the father of Amy.

When an impecunious uncle privately approaches Guy for financial assistance, Guy dutifully and discreetly takes out a loan, using his inheritance as collateral, to pay off the debts. But Philip, Guy’s self-righteous prig of a cousin, gets wind of a garbled version of this transaction, spreads malicious rumors about his cousin’s compulsive gambling, and tries to block the engagement of Guy and Amy. When word of this gets back to the guardian, he demands an explanation from Guy; but Guy, ever honorable, refuses to betray a confidence, and thereby endures the ignominy of a false accusation. When his uncle finds out about the scandal, he intervenes. With the stigma lifted, Guy and Amy tie the knot and honeymoon in Italy, where they encounter Philip, bedridden with fever. Guy forgives his treacherous cousin and nurses him back to a semblance of good health, but, in the process, takes ill and succumbs. Philip, broken in heart and health, is redeemed by his cousin’s noble example.

Yonge was a Victorian spinster who taught Sunday school for over 70 years. Amy is a projection of Yonge’s Ango-Catholic femininity.

The novel tells a lovely and latently moving story of saintly virtue and the power of redemption. But it’s all a tad too perfect, too good, too beautiful to ring true. Guy’s absolution of Philip is far too free and easy to command conviction. There is a certain paradox to the grace of forgiveness, for it takes grace to be gracious. Because we are sinners we need the forgiveness of God; but because we are sinners, we are unforgiving of others. We are better as objects of remission than as subjects of remission. What is no effort for God is a considerable effort for you and me. It costs us nothing in merit, but everything in pride.

And this brings us to a larger problem. Because Yonge never dated or married or bore and nurtured boys to manhood, her male characters have a China doll quality to them. Guy is a fine young man —at times too good to be true, or goody-goody in a school-girlish way—with heavy helpings of sugar and spice and everything nice. For Yonge, the perfect husband would approximate a household pet.

What Yonge takes to be character flaws are natural masculine traits. Guy’s besetting sin is a quick-temper. But although a short-fuse and sharp tongue can be a sin, a man without any temper is a limp, floppy, gelatinous thing—and a streak of itchy-twitchy impatience is the natural expression of a young man’s overflowing energy.

For that matter, not a few women—pious women included—are hardly such confectionery creatures as sweet little Amy. Many girls are Tomboys. Many women have a wild streak. Even Christian Rossetti, her fellow Victorian, Tractarian, and spinster had a more robust and realistic view of manly and womanly passions.

For all his flaws, Yonge’s way of writing makes one appreciative of Milton’s manliness, and other virile writers like Spenser and Scott, Dante and the author of Beowulf. If Tom Brown’s School Days stood for muscular Christianity, The Heir of Redclyffe stood for emasculated Christianity.

Looking Ahead

What guidance can we derive from this survey regarding the future directions which Christian fiction ought to take? In my opinion, the best Christian fiction should embody the following features:

A balance between realism and irrealism. A balance between the universal and the particular. A balance between natural and supernatural goods. Use of natural, Scriptural, and ecclesiastical symbolism. Use of church history. Use of contemporary history. Use of literary allusion. Use of Biblical allusion. A Christian worldview. A Bible ethic of social role-relations. A candid, but measured, depiction of sin. A witness to the power of the Gospel. A prose-style tooled to express rather than impress. Emotional transparency. Narrative transparency. A first-person narrator or unobtrusive third-person narrator.

Some of these criteria admit exceptions. There is sometimes a value in taking things to an extreme. And, up to a point, a really gifted writer can break the rules and make his own rules.

Another issue I’ve touched on is the question of whether some literary genres are more suited to the Christian outlook than others. Two genres, the quest and the comedy, illustrate a v-shaped plotline that moves from a high point to a low point to a high or higher point.

Theological systems in which freewill is a key factor (e.g., Arminian, Roman Catholic, Greek and Russian Orthodoxy) naturally select for the quest genre, for they view the walk of faith as involving elements of human initiative (freewill) and risk (apostasy). The quest genre construes salvation in terms of enlightenment.

Theological systems in which grace is the key factor (e.g., Reformed, Augustinian) naturally select for the comic genre, for they view of the walk of faith, not as man reaching upward, but as God reaching downward to uplift the sinner. The sinner may face various ordeals, and even succumb to temptation, but God will rescue him and bring him through. The comic genre construes salvation in terms of deliverance.

It would be more accurate to classify Dante’s Commedia as an example of the quest genre, whereas The Pilgrim’s Progress is a classic example of a Christian comedy. The life of Christ is a comedy rather than a quest, for there was never any chance of failure.

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A twice-told tale-6

L'Engle (1918-)

L'Engle is best known as a popular children's author. To her credit, she has a healthy respect for the intelligence of children.

Her writings don't conform to any particular genre because they represent a syncretistic mishmash of ecumenical theology, eclectic philosophy, and quack science. Since there is always an audience for starry-eyed nonsense, L'Engle will never lack for a following, but like a trip to the carnival, the popcorn and cotton-candy only go so far.

Lewis (1898-1963)

Both Lewis and Tolkien enjoy a cult-following, drawn from much the same fan base, although Tolkien has overtaken Lewis. In one respect, Tolkien is the superior of Lewis inasmuch as the former worked out a consistent, self-enclosed fantasy world whereas Lewis is highly eclectic. In other respects, Lewis is the superior. He shares, with Tolkien, a great visual imagination, but Lewis brings a numinous intensity to some of his descriptions—aided by an elegant, yet unpretentious prose style. Moreover, Lewis was a man of ideas as well as a man of imagination. Furthermore, he writes as a Christian. And when he found images with which to clothes his ideas, the result was impressive.

The Screwtape Letters present spiritual warfare, not on a cosmic canvas, a la Milton, but as a string of petty grievances and innocuous inducements that unconsciously disaffect the convert from his newfound faith. Much of this is an exercise in thinking aloud—in saying what we may privately feel or mumble under our breath in passing.

In one respect, this marks a signal advance over the comic-strip version of spiritual warfare we encounter in so many highbrow and lowbrow and cinematic renditions. For their cartoonish character subverts serious belief in a personal devil and tempter of souls. And Lewis’s mock dialogue is much closer to the interior monologue of the Christian conscience than more flamboyant recreations.

At the same time, the urbanity and dry witticism of Lewis’s own treatment tends to undermine the cause as well by playing into the Victorian image of the devil as a dashing cad, sporting a bowler and Van Dyke.

Lewis denied that his fantasy novels were allegorical, but this turns on a rather narrow and technical definition, and, pedantic precision aside, there is no reason for denying that his fantasy novels are allegorical—and mostly Christian.

The Chronicles of Narnia present an allegory of Christian protology and hamartiology (The Magician’s Nephew), soteriology (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), eschatology (The Last Battle), and natural theology (The Horse and His Boy). The Great Divorce allegorizes Purgatory, while Perelandra allegorizes the temptation of Eve as well as Christ.

Fans sometimes wonder why Lewis’s final fantasy novel (Till We Have Faces) was about Greek mythology rather than Christian theology, but after the Space Trilogy, Chronicles of Narnia, Screwtape Letters and Great Divorce, Lewis had pretty well shot his bolt in terms of raw materials for further Christian allegory—at least on the themes of central interest and importance to himself. In some measure, it is fair to say that Till We Have Faces is an allegory of Lewis’s short and shattering years with Joy Davidman. Owing to his emotionally-starved childhood, there is a social detachment in most of his writing. But his encounter with Joy tore away the veil—which comes through in the searing account of A Grief Observed. In some way, Lewis died a broken man, but with a broken and contrite spirit (Ps 51).

So what are we to make of this achievement? It must be judged on several levels.

1. As his best, Lewis has a visionary and even beatific style that exemplifies his doctrine of sehnsucht. This is on display in Perelandra and the final chapters of the Voyage. But the flipside of this coin is that the style flattens when he leaves the silver sea and floating islands behind. In That Hideous Strength, there are moments, such as the entry to Brangdon Wood and the Descent of the Gods, when the old magic returns, but Lewis, unlike Eliot, lacks a knack for finding the sacred in the mundane.

2. There was, with Lewis, the ubiquitous risk of naked ideas streaking through the story. His first, semi-autobiographical, entry into the fantasy genre (Pilgrim’s Regress) suffers from this disproportion, as does the final installment of the Space Trilogy (That Hideous Strength).

Although a literary failure, the Pilgrim’s Regress is useful as an exposition of his Platonic spirituality. It resurfaces in The Last Battle. But Platonism is the subterranean stream that runs under his mythopoetic art and outlook generally.

3. There are also times when Lewis cultivates an expectation on which he cannot deliver. In the climactic chapters of Perelandra, the elida treat the reader to the accumulated wisdom of the ages. The only problem is that Lewis is no angel, and must therefore feign a pompous, eonian profundity. Less would be more. But whatever its flaws, Perelandra is a work of creative imagination that sticks in the reader’s mind.

4. Like Bunyan, only worse, Lewis doesn’t trust the reader to draw the right conclusions. It may again be owing to his Platonism, with its primacy of the idea, that Lewis feels the need to turn the narrator into an editorial voice. Or maybe it’s carryover of his classroom lectures. Or maybe it’s just a lack of skill. But whatever the reason, this is an artistic flaw.

A skillful narrator does not so much speak to the reader as speak through the character, and plot, and setting. Even this has to be handled with some delicacy, lest the character become a walking, talking treatise or dummy for the narrative ventriloquist. Such speeches must be "in character" with the character. In addition, the reader should not only hear what the character says, but see what he sees. In Dante, the main character describes the journey, like a tour guide. And, in Dante, the scenes are symbolic. These are all oblique ways of making a point without stepping outside the story, which destroys the illusion.

5. Lewis was in part an allegorist because this was a way of presenting the faith to those for whom the traditional coinage was worn smooth. Whatever the theological propriety of this exercise, its principle utility is to a culture in a transitional phase. But we are now at a terminal stage where the challenge is not so much with those for whom the Christian story is overly-familiar, but unfamiliar. What is mainly needed, therefore, is not an allegory of the faith, but straightforward evangelism and apologetics.

6. Although Lewis apparently believed in the basic biographical facts of Christ, including the miraculous stuff, yet his Platonic outlook is such that what seems to matter most are not the historical particulars, but the universal truths, and as long as a given story exemplifies these general and perennial themes, one story is pretty much as good as another— be it literal or allegorical, factual or fictitious.

7. This can be seen in his rejection of justification by faith for an essentially Greek Orthodox soteriology. Since theosis is a Neoplatonic construct, it dovetails with his philosophical bias. This can also be seen in his embrace of Purgatory.

And this goes back to an old divide. Is the plight of man primarily moral or noetic? Is it owing to guilt or ignorance? Lewis sides with eastern philosophy and theology. In that case, salvation is a matter of revelation rather than redemption, of enlightenment and right ideas rather than a historic fall and redemptive deed. What matters is not a wrong righted, but a falsehood corrected; not the unique, unrepeatable, and vicarious event, but the universal, accessible and instantiable idea.

8. Still another aspect of Lewis’s platonism is his evident distaste for the sensual side of life. Sex doesn’t exist in a Lewis novel. Every birth is a virgin birth. This prim attitude is especially irritating when he puts the reader on a tropical island with a Botticellian beauty and then proceeds to admonish the reader against entertaining any untoward feelings. Of course, Perelandra was written before he met Joy Davidman, and one wonders if married life knocked some of the starch out of his collar.

This marks a major step back from Dante and Racine. Dante, as an Italian male, and one, moreover, tutored in the troubadour tradition, handles women with exquisite tact, as does Racine—a Frenchman and heir of the chivalric ideal. This is something distinctive to the Christian vision of the sexes. You don’t get it in Gilgamesh or the Ramayana or Arabian literature or the Classics or Lady Murasaki.

9. In yet another Platonic turn, Lewis’ own sympathies seem closer to annihilationism than universalism, by pressing the privative theory of evil. However, the privative character of evil is ethical rather than metaphysical. Evil is the negation, not of being, but of well-being. And whatever the entailments of such a theory, our doctrine of the afterlife must take is cue from revelation rather than speculative metaphysics.

Linebarger (1913-66)

Paul Linebarger (pseudonym: Cordwainer Smith) was the grandson of an Anglican clergyman, although he spent his formative years in Europe and Asia. Later in life he returned to the Anglican fold. Because of Linebarger’s polyglot, cosmopolitan upbringing and career in counter-intelligence, he brings to his literary work a social sophistication and intricacy quite unlike the standard SF fare. Linebarger is fairly adept as both a portrait painter and landscape painter, for his characters are full of human interest while his settings are often lyrical and unforgettable. Added to that is his wit, fertile imagination, feel for beauty, and stylish prose, and you have what is, in principle, an exceptionally complete novelist. But even if he’d lived longer, one wonders if he had the ruthless discipline and architectonic mastery to forge such an encyclopedic array of materials into a coherent storyline.

Although Linebarger never got around to stringing his story beads onto a chronological chain, the basic sequence seems to be as follows: the first space age ended in a world war, returning civilization to the dark ages. This was succeeded by the Instrumentality of Mankind, which ripened into a utopian technocracy, and included a genetic reengineering program that raised animals to the status of quasi-human drones. But the ensuing Pleasure Revolution proved to be a cultural cul-de-sac, and so the Instrumentality was succeeded by the Rediscovery of Man, which tried to inject an element of risk into human existence. And that, in turn, was followed by the Holy Insurgency, which is an underground movement, partly inspired by the underpeople (humanized animals), and represents a revival of the old time religion (Christianity). (James Jordan identifies a number of Christian motifs in Linebarger's opus. Cf. "Christianity in the Science Fiction of 'Cordwainer Smith,'" Contra Mundum 2 [Winter, 1992].)

This schema exploits both the utopian and dystopian threads of the SF tradition. And as an exercise of the Christian imagination, it holds great promise, for it presents a social critique of secular technocracy. But because he died in his early fifties, the promise was not fully kept.

Because Linebarger returned to the Church late in life, he had to make up for lost time, which resulted in rather hasty and heavy-handed rush-job as he tries to retrofit his metanarrative to describe a Christian arc. The effort to play catch-up mars his mature work. So what we’re left with are the ruins of the once-great cathedral. And yet the noble arches and fragments of stained-glass lend to his work a fan-vaulted grandeur and flash of unearthly splendor that raise it above many more finished designs.

At the same time, this raises again the question of how fact and fiction should be related in creative writing, especially from a Christian pen. There may be some value in pushing the limits of our creative imagination, unfettered by the gravity of real time and space. There is something heady and godlike about exploring these impossible possible worlds. If we have the faculty, why not give it full reign? And the mind of God is infinitely more expansive than the imagination of man, so that the outer reach of human imagination does brush up against the inmost border of the boundless mind of God.

But although this may be a natural good, it is a lesser good, for at the end of the day it is, after all, only a fleeting figment of the imagination. It may, at most, give us some dim glimmering of the world to come, but that is only guesswork. Even sheer fantasy must take the known world as its launching pad. It does not teach us how to live and love in the world God has made. It does not teach us how to discern the sacred in the mundane or be better Christians. And there's a sense in which the less representational the art form, what is left over is not a broadening of insight, but a narrowing—for the process of abstraction entails a negation of the particular, and every retreat from the world around us is a privation rather than augmentation of experience.

Macdonald (1924-1905)

George Macdonald was a Scots-Presbyterian pastor, later defrocked when he turned against the doctrines of grace. Owing, in part, to national character, Scottish Calvinism is often less than winsome, and it is understandable, it not excusable, if some people equate the austerities and angularities of Celtic character, climate, history and topography with Calvinism itself. Yet the writings of Rutherford, for one, show that, even in a kilt, Reformed theology can catch fire.

Macdonald was a novelist and short-story teller. He might have been consigned to the ranks of the justly forgotten had he not been rediscovered by Auden, Chesterton, and the Inklings (Lewis, Williams, Tolkien). He has greatly benefited from the reflected and backward casting glory of their own success. It is striking that his leading disciples have all been affiliated with the Anglican or Catholic communions. The connection is less than clear, except for the latitudinarian faith of their respective communions.

Macdonald was a powerful mythmaker, but a poor phrasemaker. What sticks in the mind is the mythopoetic plot rather than the purple passages or catchy one-liners.

Macdonald enjoys a saintly reputation. There are several reasons for this. He wrote for children, from which it is rather too readily inferred that anyone who writes for children must love children and be as pure in heart as a little child—assuming that children are pure in heart, an assumption for which abundant evidence to the contrary is not entirely wanting. He hated Calvinism, which, for many, is reason enough to think him the right sort of person—unless, that is, you happen to be a Calvinist. In addition, he was a universalist, and there are many who always have a soft-spot for the softhearted—not to say the soft-headed. Finally, he was canonized as a modern-day Beatrice, although I daresay less photogenic, by Lewis in the Great Divorce.

But if you study some of his demon-haunted plotlines, like Lilith, it should be apparent that this is the work of a morally diseased mind. To some extent, that is of a piece with the chic occultism of the Victorian era—in France and England and Germany. But it seems to have a deeper hold on Macdonald. Day-trippers to the Netherworld flirt with the idea of the dark side, rather than the dark side itself—for the romance of evil is romantic only as long as it is remains unconsummated.

Macdonald was a chum of Ruskin. Both men forsook their Evangelical upbringing, and it is striking that both of them lost their mind and both of them withdrew into dumb dementia in their final years. Apostasy has no admittance fee, but you pay on the way out.

Mann (1875-1955)

After Marlowe and Goethe, Mann’s Doctor Faustus marks the next major treatment of the Faust motif. It is striking that Mann was drawn to the same theme as his co-catamite, Christopher Marlowe. His Faustian figure is largely a fusion of Wolf, Wagner, Tchaikovsky and Nietzsche, updated by Schoenberg. Suffering from a mental block, Adrian Leverkühn strikes a Faustian bargain to enhance his creative energies. Like his Joseph cycle, Doctor Faustus is political parable of wartime Germany. Hitler and the Third Reich were the diabolical incarnation of the Übermensch oracle. Goethe’s masterpiece appears hopelessly jejune in the Nazi-tinted shadow of Thomas Mann’s sequel.

The Devil in Doctor Faustus picks up from the role of Shemmael in Joseph the Provider, where the devil is part court jester, part agent provocateur. In Doctor Faustus, Mann leaves the objective status of the Devil indeterminate—is he a figment of Adrian’s siphilic dementia, or a real being?

On the one hand, Mann was hardly an orthodox believer, so he was disinclined to credit a personal devil. But he finds him a useful symbol, and maybe more so. The Führer was surely a fine candidate for a demoniac.

Besides the apparitions or hallucinations—as the case may be—Prof. Schleppfuss is, as the name implies, a devil is disguise, while Kumpf is a clownish spoof on Luther. A homosexual relationship between Rüdinger and Adrian is hinted at, which is based on Mann’s own affair with Paul Ehrenberg.

O’Connor (1925-64)

Flannery O’Connor has quite a following in some circles. She is respected and admired for the way in which her moral theology informs her storytelling. I’m afraid I can’t join in this adulation. She writes in a campy, Southern Gothic manner, with grotesque figures and melodramatic scenes. I know she wishes to portray the ugly stain of sin, but a more adept author would slowly unveil the face of evil, allowing the reader to discover it on his own, rather than dressing it up in horns and hooves and hanging a sign around its neck.

Why is she such an overrated writer? Is it because she’s a woman? But there are better women writers—Cather, Woolf, Welty. Is it because she’s a Catholic? But there are better Catholic writers—Dante, Greene, Bernanos.

I think it must be because of her prophetic voice as a Southern writer with a social conscience. Readers like her because they’re supposed to—because it is a virtue to like a virtue. Isn’t there something wrong with you if you don’t? But although her social consciousness may make her a good person, it doesn’t make her a good writer. It isn’t good art, and it isn’t even very good propaganda, for what propaganda needs, besides a worthy cause, isn’t a pair of lungs, but a silver tongue.

Percy (1916-1990)

Another Southern Catholic writer, more artful than O'Connor, is Walker Percy. Like O'Connor, he is both moralist and novelist, but more of a novelist--a novelist of ideas.

In his later novels (Love in the Ruins; The Thanatos Syndrome), he proves to be a far-sighted critic of technocracy, behaviorism, social engineering, the therapeutic culture and especially the culture of death--where he sees a parallel between Nazi eugenics and modern-day abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia.

His books are readable because they're so very interesting to read. He also has, in common with Southern writers generally, an eye for natural beauty, so that his novels are shot through with natural epiphanies.

His characters, though, are less lifelike--papier-mâché creations made to voice to his social criticism. This is the debit for being such an analytical author. To some extent he conceals their artificiality by situating them in a highly artificial environment--a fantastic, futuristic, surreal setting, tinged with Southern Gothic grotesquerie.

One arresting motif in his novels is the continuing existence of the Jews as a sacramental emblem and omen of God's continuing presence in the world.

There is a studied vulgarity in his novels--which may be one reason he has not achieved the saintly status of O'Connor.

Santayana (1863-1952)

The primary theme of the Last Puritan may be identified as spiritual rootlessness, and this moves on two levels. The LP is semi-autobiographical. As a boy, Santayana’s mother took him to America. This was a smart career move. But the premature and permanent separation of young Santayana from father and fatherland was disastrous for his social formation. He never married and never felt at home in any land or tongue.

There is, in Santayana, a stultified spiritual yearning. He was a heady materialist with the heart of a platonist. In this respect, Santayana and C. S. Lewis were much alike except that Lewis, unlike Santayana, had the faith to redeem the token.

Santayana distributes the two sides of his split personality to two characters: Mario, who represents his sensuous side, and Fr. Darnley, who represents his spiritual side. Fr. Darnley is like a man who has fallen in love with a woman he can never have. She spoils him for anything less. He would rather cling to his ineligible fantasy than consummate an eligible banality

The other plane on which this theme plays out is in the character of Mrs. Alden, who stands for the dried flowers of old New England piety. After universalism and unitarianism and transcendentalism had blanched the crimson faith from Calvinism, all that was left was an effortful, dutiful moralism and ersatz Emersonian mysticism

Tolkien (1892-1973)

Tolkien appeals to much the same fan base as C. S. Lewis, and in some circles his popularity has outstripped Lewis—partly because he offers a more unified vision than Lewis.

LOTR was once panned by Edmund Wilson, doyen of American literary critics. I must say that at the aesthetic level, I have little to add to or subtract from Edmund Wilson’s classic and crushing verdict. ("OO, those Awful Orcs!" The Bit Between my Teeth (NY, 1965), 326-32.)

Although it is vastly overrated, LOTR has certain virtues. In a feminist age, the male camaraderie is a salutary counterbalance. (The cinematic adaptation is marred by the gratuitous and ever-incredible intrusion of the kickboxing superheroine.) And the storyline appeals to our boyish sense of adventure. The fact that the enchanted forest begins to wither away after the ring of power is destroyed illustrates the theodicean trade-off between a lesser and a greater good.

The fantasy genre is, in a way, more realistic than the SF genre, for a fantasy writer can create his own world with his own rules, whereas SF must often bend or break the rules to say what he wants to say. At the same time, that places a great burden of creativity on the back of the fantasy writer, for it is no easy task to fabricate a self-contained world. And at this level, Tolkien may succeed as well as anyone since Dante. But how we judge this achievement depends on a couple of considerations.

To begin with, there’s the question of how appealing or interesting we find the result. And this is, of course, a matter of personal taste. Speaking for myself, I’d rather spend a day on Perelandra or Pontoppidan than a month in Middle Earth.

More deeply, the investment necessary to fill out a fantasy world is only justified if there is warrant for the genre. And I fail to see that this is either needful or advantageous. I think Eliot was onto a better avenue with the liturgical turn taken in Ash Wednesday. Why not use the framework of Mosaic history, dominical history, and church history as our framing device?

LOTR is often classified as a specimen of the quest genre, but it’s more in the vein of an anti-quest, for the journey is not about finding something, but getting rid of some-thing— disposing of an unwelcome discovery rather than making a discovery.

But what is a potential point of strength exposes a reflexive weakness. The grander the canvass, the more space you have to fill, and Tolkien is a man with a very big canvass and very small ideas. There is no breadth of insight to match his breath of sight. LOTR is a thousand pages long—and feels it every step of the way. Tolkien’s prose has all the grace of a drunken centipede.

Tolkien has a habit of sparking our initial interest with potentially intriguing characters, but failing to then whet our aroused curiosity. Goldberry, Gandalf, Sauron, Saruman and Treebeard all ought to have a fascinating tale to tell of all they’ve seen in their long and varied lives. Yet Tolkien’s vivid imagination lies as always on the sensible surface of things.

Another problem is the faux-antique setting. Tolkien has situated his novel in the same sort of world as Beowulf. But shouldn’t the reader have outgrown that sword-and-sorcery stuff by now? Beowulf works on its own level because it is a genuine period piece, but why should we have to make the same allowances for Tolkien? Why go back in time to an older world unless you can go back in time to an older worldview? If it were at least an allegory, then there would then be some residual resonance in the old heraldic conventions. But when I read all the rigmarole about royal bloodlines and the like, the irrepressible image forms in my mind of a little girl dressing up in Mommy’s bathrobe and donning a cardboard crown. Isn’t the time past due to tuck away the sparkles and spray paint? Racine and Bernanos were writing for grownups, as grownups, and about grownups.

By this I don’t mean that we ought to throw off the supernatural. But in Scripture there is a bright red line between the divine and the diabolical, historical and mythological.

One of the issues is whether or not LOTR is Christian. Many Christian fans claim that it reflects a Christian worldview. To some extent, I think this is a case of readers rationalizing a guilty pleasure. They love the stuff, and in order to justify their taste, they try to baptize it. Assuming that LOTR is worth all the fuss, it would be more honest to defend it on the grounds that natural revelation and common grace have produced good art that is not expressly Christian.

There are two supporting arguments for its Christian character. One is that Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. But, among other issues, this assumes that Tridentine theology sets the standard of orthodox, evangelical theology. But from a Protestant viewpoint, Trent is an anti-Gospel, and badge of idolatry and apostasy rather than orthodoxy and fidelity. I realize that, in an ecumenical age, this may sound hopelessly provincial, narrow-minded, retrograde and melodramatic. But remember that this cuts both ways. The Tridentine anathemas are just as intolerant and absolutist.

But even if we were to waive this issue, a writing must be judged by what we find in the writing itself, and not in writer’s résumé. Certainly a writer puts something of himself into his writing. But he also leaves a lot out. A work of fiction is supposed to present a self-enclosed world, the meaning of which ought to be internal to the story.

Secondly, some of the fans invoke to Simarillion to supply a theistic framework. But this appeal is also illicit. To begin with, this work is extraneous to LOTR. Secondly, there is far more to a Christian worldview than generic monotheism, such as the affirmation of a Creator. How does that distinguish Christianity or Catholicism from Islam or the Aristotelian Prime Mover or the Platonic Demiurge?

But there may be a more general and complex explanation for this interpretation. In the ecumenical atmosphere of post-Vatican II dialogue, when many lay Catholics and Evangelicals swap theology, we seem to have an unholy marriage between Evangelical typology and Catholic hagiography. On the one hand, Evangelicals are used to reading OT history, with its people and places, events and institutions, as prefiguring the advent of Christ. On the other hand, the cult of the saints is prized on the principle of human merit. The difference between Christ and the saints is a matter of degree, rather than kind. Indeed, the saints are so virtuous that they have merit to spare. And this supererogatory merit is deposited in a heavenly bank account (the treasury of merit), with the Pope as the loan-officer.

Now, if you subscribe to the alloy of Evangelical typology and Roman merit, then I suppose that you could, in all clear conscience, see Frodo or Gandalf or Aragorn as a type of Christ. This is the same sort of easy-going syncretism which bedeviled OT Israel, and the Baal-worshipers are alive and well in today’s Evangelical church.

In any event, this is all special-pleading, for Tolkien had a pronounced dislike of the allegorical genre. He felt it saddled a good story with burdensome baggage. Hence, is runs counter to his literary aims to turn LOTR into a Christian allegory.

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