Literary Apologetics: An Interview with Dr Holly Ordway

I was recently a guest on Nick Peters’ Deeper Waters podcast, where I spent two hours discussing literary apologetics with him – and the time flew by!

You can listen here.

The conversation included:

  • why literature is important for everyone
  • why Christian apologists specifically can benefit from reading fiction,
  • why it’s important to understand literary genre when reading Scripture, and what “literal” literally means,
  • what an allegory is and why neither the Chronicles of Narnia nor The Lord of the Rings are allegories,
  • why horror fiction can be valuable for Christians (with a shout-out to Garret Johnson who’s written an excellent series on Hieropraxis about weird fiction),
  • why Beowulf is a fantastic poem,
  • who the Inklings are… and more.

Not surprisingly, I also referenced my colleague Dr. Michael Ward on several occasions during the podcast, as he’s doing the very best work out there on C.S. Lewis and imaginative and literary apologetics. Go read his book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis.

Oh, and I happened to mention that if you find all of this fascinating, you can come study with me and Dr. Ward at HBU in the MA in Apologetics… which is now approved for 100% online delivery starting in Fall 2014!

If you are interested in literary and imaginative apologetics, this is the place to be, and now you can do the MAA from anywhere in the world. Come join us! (more info at hbu.edu/maa )

Here’s the link to the podcast:

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/grok558/2013/09/14/the-apologetics-of-literature

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

 

Literature, CS Lewis and Conversion: Holly Ordway and Laura Miller on Unbelievable?

In June, I had the pleasure of joining Justin Brierley, the host of the UK apologetics radio show Unbelievable? on Premier Christian Radio, in his studio in London to record a show on C.S. Lewis and literature. We were joined, via phone, by writer Laura Miller, who wrote The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia, which I had read and enjoyed.

You can listen to the show here.

unbelievable show
In the Unbelievable? studio in London.

On the show, Laura and I discussed the experience of reading the Chronicles of Narnia and discovering – later – their Christian message; we then get into the larger issues of the merits of using literature to convey the Christian message, and the question of whether literature points beyond itself, to a transcendent reality. Can this be the case for Christians only, or for nonbelievers too? And can non-Christian authors have something to offer as well?

I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation, and I hope you will too. You can listen to the whole show here: Literature, C.S. Lewis, and Conversion (the page with show notes) or with the direct link to the MP3 audio.

If you enjoy this, you’ll also enjoy the show from several years ago in which my colleague Michael Ward discussed Narnia with Laura Miller as well: A Skeptic in Narnia.

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type (2010; 2nd ed. forthcoming, 2014, Ignatius Press). Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Red Booth Notes: Simple Gifts, Profound Truth: A Lenten Reflection

Red BoothThis year, during Lent, I have been grateful for Chestertonian gifts, all centered on his remarkable ability to find wonder in things that are familiar.

The good in seeing familiar things anew was something Chesterton never took for granted. It was something he cherished, and often wrote about. Take, for example, a piece of chalk. Cast in Chestertonian prose, a piece of chalk became a key to the vale of the White Horse, where “colossal contours…express the best quality of England.” We find that phrase in the book Tremendous Trifles, set in an essay leading out from the commonplace to a mist-filled morning of reflections that deeply stir the imagination. We stand on a high hill and look down on an ageless steed. A small piece of white has conjured a legend.

I think as well of Chesterton’s deep appreciation for George MacDonald, and how a simple golden thread (another familiar object) woven in one of MacDonald’s works of imaginative fantasy became a lifeline that drew Chesterton to faith. I had never before stopped to consider how the magic, unbreakable thread bestowed on the Princess Irene and the miner boy Curdie, which guided them out of a terrible labyrinth, could become a redemptive metaphor. Chesterton helped me see that.

Take up his Autobiography. There you will read of dark days when, as a young man of college age, Chesterton was nearly overwhelmed by a sense of existential despair. But, when he most needed to see how to make sense of life, one shard of truth from long before returned to him. A scene from The Princess and the Goblin rallied to his aid. He remembered Irene, Curdie, and their desperate errand. He knew next what to write in his book. It was then he said: “I hung on to religion by one thin thread of thanks.”

As in MacDonald’s story, this thread also proved unbreakable. It gave Chesterton the courage to believe. He began to see the world, once more, like a great tapestry woven by a Master Storyteller. He followed the familiar and re-discovered a thread of thanks back to the light—to faith.

Last of all, the place of story, and its redemptive qualities, was something Chesterton reflected on in his classic work of apologetics, Orthodoxy. It was there he penned the now-famous line: “this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a Person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a Story-teller.”

Delve more deeply into this line of thought in Orthodoxy, and you come upon this shining insight:

 I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.

Those who read Orthodoxy from start to finish learn that this magician was He who set the morning stars in the cosmos, stars “bent upon being understood.” Seen through Chesterton’s eyes, we find in the world what he called “a submerged sunrise of wonder.” Chesterton takes the familiar – facts, stars, sunrise – and imbues them with a sense of the miraculous. And that is the best kind of gift.

***

 An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).

Expectancy without Expectation: EB White’s The Trees of Winter

As I write this, it is the tail end of winter – just a few more days before the Spring Equinox – and the last part of Lent, looking ahead (but not quite arrived at) Holy Week and Easter. Some of my friends who live in more northerly climes are still getting snow. It’s a good time to think about waiting, and about the way that waiting is an essential part of a fruitful life.

I took up that theme — what I called ‘expectancy without expectation’ in this reflection on E.B. White’s poem “The Trees of Winter”, which I wrote for Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine Muses: you can read the whole thing here. Enjoy!

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Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.

Looking at Poetry as a Poet: Jane Kenyon’s “Happiness”

In my latest piece at Kelly Belmonte’s excellent blog All Nine, I take a look at a complex and interesting poem by modern poet Jane Kenyon.

A mysterious dance of reader and words, memory and imagination, takes place in the reading of a poem. A good poem leads the dance with skillful steps, drawing the reader in without shoving him around. Jane Kenyon’s poem “Happiness” is provoking and unsettling, yet subtly so. As a reader, I found myself thinking about, responding to, and in part resisting the idea of happiness here… but then as a poet, I found myself stepping back to notice the way that Kenyon does her work.

You can read the rest of my piece here at All Nine. Enjoy!

Highlights of 2012: Part 2

2012 was an exciting year: among other things, it was the year that I headed to Texas, where I’m now Chair of the Department of Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and direct the MA in Apologetics.

Not surprisingly, many of the top posts on Hieropraxis dealt with literature, the arts, and the creative imagination. Here are some of the highlights in case you missed them: (read Part 1 here):

6. “The G.K. Chesterton Library: Tremendous Treasures of the Imagination” was one of my favorite pieces of 2012, as well as being a popular one! While I was in Oxford over the summer, I had the privilege of seeing the GK Chesterton Library’s collection of original Chestertoniana (not yet open to the general public). This post features photographs of some of the treasures, but best of all, I was able to report that soon the treasures will be made available for scholars and the public to see. The collection will be housed in the new Library of the Oxford Oratory. If you want to help that happen faster, you can donate to the Oxford Oratory’s building fund here.

7. Kevin Belmonte is a big fan of musician Phil Keaggy, and in this review of Phil Keaggy’s album Inseparable, he gives us a glimpse of why, noting that “A dozen years have passed since its release. Yet time seems only to confirm the artistry that imbues this cycle of lyric and song.”

8.One of the most popular literary-apologetics pieces in 2012 was this podcast, a lecture that I gave called “Imagination and Doctrine: John Donne’s Holy Sonnets and the Trinity.” In it, I address the use of poetry as a means of apprehending truth on an experiential level, complementary to the comprehension of truth on an intellectual level. I discuss the work of John Donne (and specifically four of his Holy Sonnets) as a particularly good example of the way that poetry can illuminate Christian doctrine so as to help make it a lived reality, not an intellectual puzzle.

9. Gerard Manley Hopkins is my favorite poet. In this piece on his sonnet “No Worst, there is None,” I look at the way that this “Terrible Sonnet” gives readers a voice to be honest before God, and a recognition that the pain of depression is as real and legitimate as other kinds of pain.

10. In the new year there are sure to be many exhortations to “find your passion! follow your passion!” and so on. Frankly, it gets depressing… even when you’re doing what you love (which I am) it is impossible to feel excited about everything all the time. Kelly Belmonte’s excellent piece “Passion is Overrated” is a tonic to the spirit and an encouragement at a much deeper level.

 

 

Last-minute Book Recommendations

For those of you still scrambling—or just starting to scramble—to find gifts for your book loving friends, here’s one final round of recommendations.

* * *

Recommended by Garret Johnson:

JRR Tolkien: The Letters of JRR Tolkien - Edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien:

Part autobiography, part theory-of-everything, part treatise on the author’s craft, collections of letters can be both inspiring and enlightening. They help us, for one, understand a particular author’s—or any artist’s—work itself better. But they also give us an intimate kind of connection to the author virtually impossible to get any other way. Reading these letters is like listening in on Tolkien and one of his sons having a chat that’s as wide-ranging as the man’s imagination: from topics like a theology of the Holy Spirit to German industriousness to trying to find material for fiction in the labyrinths of Norse mythology. We get to see interchanges between Tolkien and his unendingly patient publishers as they press him—literally for years—to write, and then to finish, his sequel to The Hobbit. A sequel he almost never started . . . We all know where that went. And there’s so much more here.

Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being - Letters edited and with an introduction by Sally Fitzgerald:

Peacocks, a Southern manse called Andalusia, a beloved but exasperating mother, chronic illness, the Eucharist, theologians and other authors galore. This is a tiny smattering of the kinds of things you’ll hear Flannery O’Connor talking over with friends in these letters. Often sharp and witty, often brimming with pathos, O’Connor’s letters—like Tolkien’s—are spiritual and personal and filled with ruminations on both the craft and the life of writing. In them, we’re also afforded a glimpse into the writer’s most intimate relationships.

What better kinds of books for cozying up to a Christmastide fire?

Find our other recommendations here and here.

And for music recommendations check here.

HP Lovecraft and Christian Thought

It seemed fitting at this time of year to take up a literary subject that’s often understandably—though I think unfortunately—neglected entirely by Christians: Horror fiction. I’m immediately aware of some well-founded hesitations that probably just sprang to many people’s minds. But I hope after a little digging and clarifying, some profound points of contact between two seemingly distant worlds will clarify themselves. For the sake of narrowing the field, and as an interesting place to start, I’m going to focus on a single figure who’s had massive, though oft unrecognized, cultural influence and who I think might be of particular interest to a Christian audience.

HP Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was an American author born in Providence, Rhode Island, known for pioneering what’s long been referred to as “Weird Fiction.” In some circles, he’s thought of as both ‘America’s Horror Writer’ and the true progenitor of modern science fiction. He was hugely influenced by, and often classed with, Edgar Allen Poe. And Stephen King, the name most contemporary readers associate with the Horror genre, looks back to Lovecraft as an enormous influence and inspiration.

Lovecraft was also an atheist. More than that, he was a materialist. And, as he saw it, it was this distinct aspect of his worldview that guided the philosophy and aesthetics of his fiction. Aside from considering mankind to be not much more than a cosmic speck of dust, he also—as many have noted—just didn’t seem to like writing about people. So he wrote about gothic architecture, dark foggy forests, old houses with either rats scurrying in the walls or cities of alien creatures from eons past living on vast subterranean plains beneath them.

Convinced yet?

Why, exactly, would a Christian audience find the work of a staunch atheist who practically invented a distinct branch of Horror fiction to be of particular interest?

First let’s distinguish between different kinds of “Horror” literature. One is the gore-fest kind, in which the bloodiest, most gruesome set of occurrences wins the most points. The other is subtler, more psychological, and, in many cases, supernatural. It’s the ghost story kind, the mysterious-secret-in-the-basement kind. That’s HP Lovecraft’s brand. In fact, the first line of his treatise on the genre, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” has become a go-to expression for describing the source of the genre’s power: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”

This is where Lovecraft gets really interesting to me.

Though I didn’t recognize it, as such, until I first read that line, the idea of the unknown coupled with its ability to frighten permeates all of Lovecraft’s fiction. His theory on the literary power of this coupling—succinctly captured in that one statement—eventually got me digging around for a connection between the power of the unknown in Horror fiction and the power of the unknown in all kinds of fiction. But that, alas, is for another time. (A very big ‘another time.’) Here, I want to look at Lovecraft’s unique strain of spooky fiction, where he thinks its power comes from, how this theory of his intersects with Christian thought, and what can be immensely profitable—to anyone, Christian or otherwise—about reading him.

Seemingly unbeknownst to him, Lovecraft essentially redefined the genre of science fiction, creating a sub-genre sometimes referred to as “Cosmic Horror.” The way he did this is what’s interesting. His new vision—for the old, benevolent genre of the scientifically curious—continued the far flung speculations of the past but loosed them from their former underlying certainties: that God, or some sort of force for good, was at least somewhere in the backdrop of things and would ultimately ensure they came out all right. Hence, the “horror” piece of his sci-fi innovation. Much like the twentieth-century Existentialists, Lovecraft saw the universe as an absurdly disordered place with no inherent meaning and no underlying good, without even a reliable force (natural or otherwise) holding it all together. Lovecraft’s vision of mankind’s place in this universe is one of intensely precarious luck—so far. He was somewhat of an amateur astronomer in his younger years, and though he never took a professional avenue with his stargazing, his view of the cosmos was evidently altered by what he saw.

The sheer scope of creation seemed to intellectually overwhelm him and led to such thoughts as these (an epigraph kicking off his story, “The Haunter of the Dark”):

I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim—
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
Without knowledge or lustre or name.

He signed this short verse, “—Nemesis” (the Greek goddess who meted out divine punishment for hubris), a point whose greater significance will crystallize in a moment.

His study of the cosmos, and his contemplation on the limits of human understanding, also spawned this famous opening paragraph to his truly influential story, “The Call of Cthulhu:”

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Reflecting on that paragraph after first reading it, I thought: Yes. Yes, of course. What other conclusion could one draw from taking a sober, wide-angled view of the universe? If there is no God (or anything like God), then not only—as one Dostoyevsky character said—is everything “permitted,” but so too is everything unmoored, precarious, utterly teetering on the brink of obliteration.

Interestingly, though, for a materialist, Lovecraft seems to possess an unusual mistrust of the ultimate ends of “the sciences” and a profound lack of confidence in the autonomous human mind to either arrive at ultimate truths or to handle them once arrived at.

This turns out to be a critical link between Christians and those who share such a vision of the universe as Lovecraft’s—particularly those who also flock to the unique realm of literature that is “Supernatural Horror.” Here, then, is an area in which Christians can more deeply understand, and thus better converse with, those of a mindset that may seem separated from Christianity in every possible way.

More than that, Lovecraft is also interesting for his insights, in and of themselves. To people of a distinctly theist persuasion, this may sound odd. But yes, I do think Lovecraft has a particularly keen eye for certain truths. He sees a number of things clearly and deeply. Observing them, however, apart from the lens of Christ—the Word or “Logos,” the organizing principle that “upholds the universe,” and “in whom we live and move and have our being”—without such a lens, this penetrating sight gets truncated right at a certain point. It halts after its initial, bleak observations and—quite consistently, given its premise—acknowledges no higher, mitigating reality that makes a deeper kind of sense out of the potentially horrifying aspects of the universe.

I don’t mean to imply that Christianity automatically clarifies all mysteries and solves all unknown equations like some skeleton-key syllogism. That’s not the way of it, at all. In fact, I looked in depth at the very opposite idea in a previous post.

But regarding these Lovecraftian insights, I’m wondering if it’s as immediately odd to others as it is to me that an adamantly hard-nosed materialist not only attempted a serious treatise on “supernatural” literature but also specialized in writing it, himself.

It’s true that, in Lovecraft’s mind, the beastly grotesqueries he depicted—variously referred to as the Old Ones, the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods, etc—were meant to be phenomena of strictly natural origin. But he saw such an immense gulf between the far reaches of possibility in the natural order and the human capacity for understanding such possibilities that it made for a frightening contrast: the bigness and power of the universe against the smallness and ignorance of humanity. He manifested these disturbing possibilities often in the assorted forms of these primeval ‘Gods’ who had no regard for mankind, except perhaps as a group of gnats buzzing around the domain where they had once ruled, in eons past—before whatever unexplained event(s) brought on their indefinite slumber.

The thing that’s ferociously interesting about this is that Lovecraft recognizes, and articulates (in his fiction especially), certain realities more incisively than do many of us theists who profess doctrinal convictions about them: both the frightening reality (or possibility to Lovecraft) of sentient beings with great power that exist in the universe but are not human, and the relative ignorance of an often over-confident, hubristic human race in the face of such large forces. This latter reality is compounded by another: the inability of the human mind to fully comprehend the deep things of existence.

Another great commonality, then, between Christians and readers and writers of Horror (not the gore-fest kind, but this subtle, supernatural kind) is a deep sense of, and response to, the realities of things unseen, unknown, things of deep mystery. Not the detective-story type of mystery—in which some all-clarifying answer exists, which people, right now, could fully comprehend if only given enough information—but the type of mystery referenced by the Apostle Paul who maintained that, right now, we “see through a glass darkly.”

Underlying all of this, however, is the strongest link between Christian thought and this fear-of-the-unknown aspect of Supernatural Horror… Death.

In an old interview with the BBC, JRR Tolkien argued part of his own theory about the function of fear in literature: “If you really come down to any large story that interests people or can hold their attention for a considerable amount of time—these stories, human stories, are practically always about one thing, aren’t they? Death. The inevitability of death.” Taking that idea a bit further, some Christian theologians have said that every fear mankind experiences in a fallen world is, at its root, a fear of death. The last enemy. And what, for a human, can be more unknown than the other side of the grave?

We Christians certainly believe a number of things about it, most significantly, that the Resurrection of the Son of God demonstrates the grave’s ultimate lack of power over those who are in the Son of God. As St. Paul triumphantly writes to the Corinthian church (seeing these same Lovecraftian horrors through the lens of the risen Christ), “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”

This raises an interesting point: If Christians do hold this view about the grave, and the other side of it, then the ultimate and deepest permutation of the fear of the unknown is essentially toothless.

For the Believer in Christ, Horror fiction is a genre not wholly without the virtue of tapping into profound realities. It recognizes many of the dark truths about living a fallen existence, the utter despair that would be ours but for an intervening God.

And as such, this distinct branch of literature can be an effective—and I think radically underutilized—means by which the Christian can relate to a fearful world.

 

Elves, Orcs and Freaks: The Shared Authorial Vision of JRR Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor (Part 1)

It’s not very often you hear the works of JRR Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor mentioned in the same breath—at least not on purpose. Some might find this surprising. O’Connor and Tolkien were, after all, both mid-twentieth century Catholic authors who garnered serious acclaim for very unusual works of fiction. But for most, that would be where all comparison ceased.

And of course, there are plenty of differences between the two that make it perfectly natural not to compare them.

O’Connor lived and wrote in the very distinct literary sphere of the Deep South, operating in an aesthetic many refer to as the Southern Gothic (or, more interesting for this discussion, the Southern Grotesque). Tolkien, on the other hand, was an Englishman, a scholar, enamored of arcane languages (mostly Northern European) ranging from Old Norse, to Old Icelandic, to Old English, to Finnish and Welsh, and numerous others. O’Connor’s characters were people like serial killers camping out in the woods near Florida who liked to talk about Jesus and wore clothes that didn’t fit; grumpy, combative women who ran farms and either pawned their vulnerable daughters off to crooked Bible salesmen or found themselves getting gored by bulls at the end of one story or another. Tolkien’s characters were elves, orcs, hobbits, men of old legend, wizards: the original cast of High Fantasy as we know it.

But there’s a great deal in their respective works—even works as seemingly disparate as the ones I’ve referred to—that betrays a fundamentally similar creative aesthetic. And a fundamentally similar reliance on Christian thought in arriving at that aesthetic. (For the sake of clarity, by “aesthetic,” in this discussion I mean: a set of internal principles and external characteristics that tend to permeate an artist’s work.)

A close examination of not only these authors’ creative efforts but also of their essays and letters uncovers some striking—and profoundly deep—artistic parallels.

Two essays in particular make perfect ground for drawing this comparison. Both essays are, in part, deliberate attempts by these authors to explicate and defend their visions of what makes the best, most deeply moving, and (counter-intuitively) most deeply real kind of fiction.

O’Connor’s essay is titled, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” and Tolkien’s, probably the more widely known of the two, is called, “On Fairy Stories.”

The titles alone indicate that each of these works is about the mechanics of a mode, about the distinctness and the power of a particular kind of fiction. And this unique power comes from—as both essays spend a great deal of time delineating—the “arresting strangeness” (in Tolkien’s terms) of their chosen modes.

In the unworldly and the bizarre, both O’Connor and Tolkien see an opportunity for representing deeper truths about their societies, their fellow man, and their universe than strict “realist” fiction allows. Both acknowledge a profound irony in the end result that such un-reality can furnish a truer picture of creation and its apex (people) than the more dominant and, in their time, more critically acceptable literary mode.

O’Connor begins her explanation of it this way: “I think that every writer when he speaks of his own approach to fiction hopes to show that, in some crucial and deep sense, he is a realist; and for some of us, for whom the ordinary aspects of daily-life prove to be of no great fictional interest, this is very difficult.”

Tolkien, similarly, says, “Probably every writer making a secondary world, a fantasy, every sub-creator, wishes in some measure to be a real maker, or hopes that he is drawing on reality: hopes that the peculiar quality of this secondary world (if not all the details) are derived from Reality.”

In a further defense of her peculiar aesthetic, O’Connor claims, much like Tolkien will in his essay: “Today many readers and critics have set up for the novel a kind of orthodoxy. They demand a realism of fact which may, in the end, limit rather than broaden the novel’s scope. They associate the only legitimate material for long fiction . . . with the typical, with fidelity to the way things look and happen in normal life.”

Like O’Connor’s lack of interest in the “typical,” Tolkien expresses incredulity at the preferred subject matter of strict “realist” fiction when he shares this anecdote: “Not long ago—incredible though it may seem—I heard a clerk of Oxenford declare that he ‘welcomed’ the proximity of mass-production robot factories, and the roar of self-obstructive mechanical traffic, because it brought his university into ‘contact with real life’ . . . The expression ‘real life’ in this context seems to fall short of academic standards. The notion that motor-cars are more ‘alive’ than, say, centaurs or dragons is curious; that they are more ‘real’ than, say, horses is pathetically absurd.”

The first thing I wondered, when I read this again recently, was, Dude, what kind of robots were they building in Oxford??? But in all seriousness, Tolkien is pointing to what seems the ludicrous veneration (in both modern life and modern fiction) of simple mechanical advancement. Such a value-system also typifies the stories O’Connor refers to as “novels about men in grey flannel suits.” O’Connor adds that writers of this kind of fiction (valuing the progress of immaterial souls about as much as Tolkien’s ‘clerk’ valued horses) “have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even greater freaks than what we are writing about.”

Now I don’t want to come off as comparing apples to oranges here. The Southern Grotesque and Fairy Stories (as defined by Tolkien) are quite different things, in a multitude of ways. But the two forms share a distinct quality: a reaching beyond the typical or everyday ‘reality’ that the dominant literary school limits itself to. This school arrives at its self-imposed limitation through the assumption, in O’Connor words, that all the “mysteries of life will eventually fall before the scientific advances of man.” And these are the same ‘progressive’ sorts whose perspective Tolkien satirizes thusly: “How real, how startlingly alive is a factory chimney compared with an elm-tree: poor obsolete thing, insubstantial dream of an escapist!”

I hope, by this point, something of the similarity in these two writers’ sentiments is coming across. In all honesty, I hardly scratched the surface on that score. I encourage anyone who’s skeptical, or even just curious, about this point to track down these essays and discover firsthand the remarkably close attitudes O’Connor and Tolkien have toward the strict-realist literature of their day, and also toward the truth-revealing power of literary worlds that stretch beyond the visible details of everyday, material life.

There’s much, much more to say. But, for now, let me leave you with this. This shared sentiment about what comprises “reality” is far from the only similarity uniting O’Connor and Tolkien. It’s really just the starting point. A much more fundamental connection actually exists in their common impetus for writing in these hyper-realist modes.

In Part 2 of this discussion, I’ll argue how their shared Christian worldview links them—and their respective aesthetics—even more profoundly than their shared affinity for the hyper-‘real.’

Red Booth Notes: What’s in a Title Page?

On a time, title pages were a place where epigraphs set the theme and tone of a book. Over the years, I’ve learned much I would not otherwise have known from taking time to read and reflect on title page epigraphs from an earlier age.

Take, for instance, the British reformer William Wilberforce’s apologia for the faith, A Practical View of Christianity. First published in 1797, it has never been out of print—to this day commending a vision of the good society that says much as well about orthodoxy and the reasons for hope. It was in many ways the “Mere Christianity” of its time, and has much to tell us still.

The title page epigraph Wilberforce selected for his book is a world in itself. It’s comprised of five lines taken from John Milton’s masque (or dramatic poem), Comus.[1] Starting at line 476, we read:

 

How charming is Divine Philosophy!

Not harsh, and crabbed, as dull Fools suppose,

But musical as is Apollo’s lute,

And a perpetual feast of nectar’d sweets

Where no crude surfeit reigns.

 

William Wilberforce (statue in Hull)

Seldom has an epigraph been better chosen. To those wary of books and writers that set forth arid, lifeless explorations of theology—or the knowledge of God—Wilberforce was telling his readers, in Milton’s voice, that he wished to set before them something of that “perpetual feast” to be found at Christianity’s table.

One passage, in particular, showed how truly Wilberforce’s understanding of faith ran in the same channel as that captured in Milton’s verse. “But let us now turn our eyes,” Wilberforce wrote, to those “who have possessed the substance, and felt the power of Christianity.” Such folk, he said, “have known what it was to experience its firm hope, its dignified joy, its unshaken trust, its more than human consolations.”[2]

It was Wilberforce’s privilege to commend a faith that had been embraced “not blindly and implicitly, but upon full inquiry and deep consideration,” by great writers and thinkers like Francis Bacon, John Milton, John Locke, and Isaac Newton. There were others too—“much the greater part of those, who, by the reach of their understandings, or the extent of their knowledge, and by the freedom of their minds…have called forth the respect and admiration of mankind.”[3]

Wilberforce understood, profoundly, how assent to the tenets of Christianity led to the place of imperishable hope. He was not a hymn writer, but he did pen lines that run very close to a doxology. In them, he spoke of what it meant

to be adopted into the family of God;

to become an heir of God and a joint heir with Christ—

entitled to all the privileges which belong to this high relation.

Here, to the Spirit of Grace—a partial renewal after the image of our Creator;

hereafter, to the more perfect possession of the Divine likeness,

and an inheritance of eternal glory.[4]

A perpetual feast. Wilberforce knew that it beckons to all who will come, and he knew of no better epigraph for his book than those favorite lines from Milton’s verse.

So what’s in a title page? Sometimes, the things of eternity.

 

 


[1] To be precise, a masque is formally defined as “a form of aristocratic entertainment common in England in the 16th and 17th centuries, originally consisting of pantomime and dancing, but later including dialogue and song, presented in elaborate productions given by amateur and professional actors.” See http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/masque

[2] See pages 117-118 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, 6th edition, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).

[3] See pages 478-479 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, 6th edition, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).

[4] See page 339 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, 6th edition, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).