Category Archives: Reading

On Reading Nonsense Satire

From the mailbag, Daniel writes to ask: Have you read Rabelais? In your reading of and about the classics, do you know of any reason why a Christian should hesitate to read him, for moral reasons or otherwise?

Good question, Daniel.

François Rabelais (1494–1553) was a contemporary of John Calvin (1509–1564) and the two Frenchmen couldn’t be more unalike. More on that in a moment. Rabelais’s two novels, Gargantua and Pantagruel are named for the central characters in each book (two giants). The works are non-sensical satire of farce, loaded with scatological humor.

I’ve read bits and pieces of the novels in the past and found his works to be so unnecessarily vulgar to lose all luster for me as a reader (there’s an entire paragraph describing how to use a live goose as toilet paper, and worse things I dare not share on this blog).

These novels raise other related questions. Here are a few things to consider regarding Rabelais (in particular) and the genre of nonsense satire (in general).

For a good start, be sure to read two G. K. Chesterton essays (both mention Rabelais).

In A Defence of Nonsense, Chesterton writes, “Nonsense and faith (strange as the conjunction may seem) are the two supreme symbolic assertions of the truth that to draw out the soul of things with a syllogism is as impossible as to draw out Leviathan with a hook.”

And in A Defence of Farce, he writes: “The literature of joy is infinitely more difficult, more rare and more triumphant than the black and white literature of pain. And of all the varied forms of the literature of joy, the form most truly worthy of moral reverence and artistic ambition is the form called ‘farce.’”

Traveling back in time to Calvin’s Geneva, Rabelais’s novels were condemned as obscene and one could face church discipline (i.e. public lashings) for being found with them.

Philip Schaff, in his History of the Christian Church, draws an interesting comparison (8:266):

These two men, so totally different, reflect the opposite extremes of French character. Calvin was the most religious, Rabelais the most witty man, of his generation; the one the greatest divine, the other the greatest humorist, of France; the one a Christian stoic, the other a heathen Epicurean; the one represented discipline bordering on tyranny [??], the other liberty running into license. Calvin created the theological and polemical French style — a style which suits serious discussion, and aims at instruction and conviction. Rabelais created the secular style, which aims to entertain and to please.

But this comparison is a bit overdrawn. Calvin was widely read and appreciated more literature than he commonly gets credit for, and he certainly appreciated the value of wit and sarcasm, as B. B. Warfield explains (W, 5:10–2):

The Reformation was the greatest revolution of thought which the human spirit has wrought since the introduction of Christianity; and controversy is the very essence of revolutions. Of course Calvin’s whole life, which was passed in the thick of things, was a continuous controversy; and directly controversial treatises necessarily form a considerable part of his literary output. We have already been taught, indeed, that his fundamental aim was constructive, not destructive: he wished to rebuild the Church on its true foundations, not to destroy its edifice. But, like certain earlier rebuilders of the Holy City, he needed to work with the trowel in one hand and the sword in the other. . . .

Of course he had nothing in common with the mere mockers of the time — des Périers, Marot, Rabelais — whose levity was almost as abominable to him as their coarseness. Satire to him was a weapon, not an amusement. The proper way to deal with folly, he thought, was to laugh at it. The superstitions in which the world had been so long entangled were foolish as truly as wicked; and how could it be, he demanded, that in speaking of things so ridiculous, so intrinsically funny, we should not laugh at them “with wideopen mouth”? Of course this laugh was not the laugh of pure amusement; and as it gained in earnestness it naturally lost in lightness of touch. It was a rapier in Calvin’s hands, and its use was to pierce and cut. And how well he uses it!

More recently, Kevin Vanhoozer makes a very good point about why Rabelais’s works may appeal to the postmodern mind (Is There a Meaning?, 432–3):

Nietzsche and Derrida capture the spirit of much postmodern interpretation — what I call the “spirit of carnival” [a phrase coined to describe Rabelais’s novels]. In the festivities associated with the medieval carnival, hierarchies are turned on their heads (fools become kings and kings fools) and the sacred is profaned. Everything authoritative or serious is mocked and subverted. Indeed, one critic has suggested that Derrida’s most important, though perhaps unintentional, effect has been the “carnivalesque impetus” that has taken hold of and overturned the humanities. To view the world, with Nietzsche and Derrida, as a Dionysian carnival is to celebrate its openness and indeterminacy. Yet the spirit of carnival is ultimately a rebellious spirit, one that undoes authority by mocking it: “Deconstruction subverts from within the system that liberation seeks to change from without. . . . Carnival as a social event is the mockery by the oppressed of the structures of oppression, through an ironic mimicry by the subordinate of the dominant, a reversal of roles.” Carnival is thus an apt metaphor for the postmodern condition.

Finally, I scanned through Douglas Wilson’s blog and books for mentions of Rabelais but with little to show for it. He’s a Chesterton-Calvin-Vanhoozer blended thinker, and I’m certain he could put all these thoughts together on Rabelais in a way I cannot.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the genre of nonsense satire, but for now — for my money — I’d skip Rabelais strictly on the basis of his gratuitous scatological humor and his filthy and crude joking (Eph. 5:3).

Christ, the Center of Christian Literacy

Last night I was honored to speak for two hours on a theology of literature to students and faculty at San Diego Christian College, Rivendell Sanctuary Program. Some of my content was taken directly from Lit!, but much of it included fresh thoughts on how the glory of Christ transforms Christian literacy. The Rivendell folks were probably the most engaged Christian audience I’ve ever spoken to, making for a tremendously fun evening of lecture, laughs, food, and dialogue (my first salon). Here’s a copy of my manuscript, for the interested (PDF): “Christ, the Center of Christian Literacy.”

New Creation Literacy

Perhaps the most significant passage in Scripture explaining the power of awakened (or illuminated) literacy is found in 2 Corinthians 4:6, and it’s particularly interesting given the parallels:

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” [first creation], has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ [new creation].

Gospel awakening is an act of new creation finding its appropriate parallel in the initial act of cosmic creation. And just about everyone from Matthew Henry onward has acknowledged this. But the context of this passage has everything to do with reading (2 Cor. 3:15). If we ourselves read over this too quickly we can miss is how new creation illumination, enacted by God on a spiritually dead heart, brings with it a permanent and abiding change to the literacy faculties.

But Christian literacy is more than mere noetic intellectual awakening because, in Christ, Christian literacy is God-appointed means for the regenerated soul to live and move and have its being. Scripture itself takes on new meaning and significance to us, it begins to live, it affects us, it begins to claim us, and it begins to change our behaviors and attitudes. This is a key point Karl Barth understands and well articulates in Church Dogmatics (IV/3.2, §71.2):

“In thy light shall we see light” (Ps. 36:9)… There is a god of this world — we are reminded of the darkness in Col. 1:13 — who has darkened the thinking of unbelievers “lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (2 Cor. 4:4). To continue the quotation already adduced: “For it is the worst evil that can befall us not to see the light.” But the true “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness (Gen. 1:3), hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). As His God, “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ,” He gives him “the spirit of wisdom and revelation” in which he may know him, “the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us-ward who believe,” in short, what is proffered to man and awaits him in Him (Eph. 1:17f), and what is the structure of the mystery concealed from all eternity in God the Creator of all things (Eph. 3:9). Man is called as this knowledge is imparted to him. By this knowledge Christians are distinguished as the called from others who are not called.

If we are to understand this process, however, we cannot pay too much attention to the fact that in it we really have to do with a new creation. According to the speech and thought-forms of the Bible, concepts such as light, illumination, revelation and knowledge do not have, either alone or in their interrelationships, the more narrowly intellectual or noetic significance which here as elsewhere we usually give them. The light or revelation of God is not just a declaration and interpretation of His being and action, His judgment and grace, His endowing, directing, promising and commanding presence and action.

In making Himself known, God acts on the whole man. Hence the knowledge of God given to man through his illumination is no mere apprehension and understanding of God’s being and action, nor as such a kind of intuitive contemplation. It is the claiming not only of his thinking but also of his willing and work, of the whole man, for God. It is his refashioning to be a theatre, witness and instrument of His acts. Its subject and content, which is also its origin, makes it an active knowledge, in which there are affirmation and negation, volition and decision, action and inaction, and in which man leaves certain old courses and enters and pursues new ones.

Illumination, we find out, is a sovereign act of God (in the gospel) in bringing new creation. It plays an important role for God in making his children’s lives into a theater, a witness, and an instrument for his own glory and use.

Here we discover one of the profoundest purposes for Christian literacy.

The Pastor and His Reading

Monday afternoon in Minneapolis I led a seminar at DG’s 2013 conference for pastors. My topic: The Pastor and His Reading: Why You Are the Key to Building a Church That Loves Books.

This seminar provided me the opportunity to review a basic theology of literacy (as I understand it), and to press a little deeper into the message of Lit! in three new areas.

First, I was able to press a little deeper into why I think literary pleasure is connected to Christ’s glory. There’s still much more work that needs to be done here, but I hope to have advanced the conversation by suggesting the revelation of Christ in the gospel brings with it a reorientation of all our affections around his truth, goodness, and beauty. Which means the glory of Christ brings with it a recalibration of the literary palate.

Second, I was able to look more closely at why and how Bible-centered pastors already inherently provide counter-cultural models of literacy for the men and women in their own churches. That’s not something I’ve pointed out very well in the past but hoped to accomplish in this seminar (with the goal of encouraging these faithful pastors).

Third, I was able to press deeper, think harder, and expand my list of practical suggestions for pastors to a list of 14. So many other things can be done to encourage literacy in our local churches. You’ll find this expanded list in the final pages of my notes.

I was honored to lead the session, enjoyed the questions and answer time, and came away deeply grateful for all the friends who attended. Anyone interested can download the seminar manuscript here (PDF).

A Christian Walks Into Barnes & Noble

This is very likely the best explanation for why a Christian who truly understands the centrality of Christ is a generous reader. At once we prize Scripture above all books, and in prizing Scripture above all books we are properly postured to read all other other books with discernment and appreciation.

The following quote is taken from Herman Bavinck’s outstanding book Our Reasonable Faith (Eerdmans, 1956), pages 36–38, 44. If you don’t have it, it’s worth owning, and I think page-for-page it’s Bavinck’s most valuable work (though it’s not cheap).

The quote is worth quoting at length and is worth reading slowly.

It is not the sparkling firmament, nor mighty nature, nor any prince or genius of the earth, nor any philosopher or artist, but the Son of man that is the highest revelation of God. Christ is the Word become flesh, which in the beginning was with God and which was God, the Only-Begotten of the Father, the Image of God, the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person; who has seen Him has seen the Father (John 14:9). In that faith the Christian stands. He has learned to know God in the person of Jesus Christ whom God has sent. God Himself, who said that the light should shine out of the darkness, is the One who has shined in His heart in order to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6).

But from this high vantage point the Christian looks around him, forwards, backwards, and to all sides. And if, in doing so, in the light of the knowledge of God, which he owes to Christ, he lets his eyes linger on nature and on history, on heaven and on earth, then he discovers traces everywhere of that same God whom he has learned to know and to worship in Christ as his Father. The Sun of righteousness opens up a wonderful vista to him which stretches out to the ends of the earth. By its light he sees backwards into the night of past times, and by it he penetrates through to the future of all things. Ahead of him and behind the horizon is clear, even though the sky is often obscured by clouds.

The Christian, who sees everything in the light of the Word of God, is anything but narrow in his view. He is generous in heart and mind. He looks over the whole earth and reckons it all his own, because he is Christ’s and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:21–23). He cannot let go his belief that the revelation of God in Christ, to which he owes his life and salvation, has a special character. This belief does not exclude him from the world, but rather puts him in position to trace out the revelation of God in nature and history, and puts the means at his disposal by which he can recognize the true and the good and the beautiful and separate them from the false and sinful alloys of men.

So it is that he makes a distinction between a general and a special revelation of God. In the general revelation God makes use of the usual run of phenomena and the usual course of events; in the special revelation He often employs unusual means, appearances, prophecy, and miracles to make Himself known to man. The contents of the first kind are especially the attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness; those of the second kind are especially God’s holiness and righteousness, compassion and grace. The first is directed to all men and, by means of common grace, serves to restrain the eruption of sin; the second comes to all those who live under the Gospel and has as its glory, by special grace, the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of life.

But, however essentially the two are to be distinguished, they are also intimately connected with each other. Both have their origin in God, in His sovereign goodness and favor. The general revelation is owing to the Word which was with God in the beginning, which made all things, which shone as a light in the darkness and lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:1–9). The special revelation is owing to that same Word, as it was made flesh in Christ, and is now full of grace and truth (John 1:14). Grace is the content of both revelations, common in the first, special in the second, but in such a way that the one is indispensable for the other. …

In determining the value of general revelation, one runs the great danger either of over-estimating or of under-estimating it. When we have our attention fixed upon the richness of the grace which God has given in His special revelation, we sometimes become so enamored of it that the general revelation loses its whole significance and worth for us. And when, at another time, we reflect on the good, and true, and beautiful that is to be found by virtue of God’s general revelation in nature and in the human world [e.g. on the shelves at Barnes & Noble], then it can happen that the special grace, manifested to us in the person and work of Christ, loses its glory and appeal for the eye of our soul.

This danger, to stray off either to the right or to the left, has always existed in the Christian church, and, each in turn, the general and the special revelation, have been ignored or denied. Each in turn has been denied in theory and no less strongly in practice. … We must be on guard against both of these one-sidednesses; and we shall be best advised if, in the light of Holy Scripture, we take a look at the history of mankind and let it teach us what people owe to general revelation.

How C. S. Lewis Processed Great Fiction

C. S. Lewis to an inquirer, as published in The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, 2:644:

I myself always index a good book when I read it for the first time noting (a) Linguistic phenomena. (b) Good & bad passages. (c) Customs: meal times, social classes, what they read etc. (d) Moral ideas. All this reading, though dedicated ad Dei gloriam [to the glory of God] in the long run must not be infected by any immediate theological, ethical, or philosophic reference. Your first job is simply the reception of all this work with your imagination & emotions. Each book is to be read for the purpose the author meant it to be read for: the story as a story, the joke as a joke.

This is a nice concise summary of principles more fully unpacked in Lewis’ book An Experiment in Criticism.

Training Children For Gospel-Centered Reading

Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson, Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, page 120:

We want our kids to know the one good story so well that when they see Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Frodo, Anne of Green Gables, Ariel, or Sleeping Beauty, they can recognize the strands of truth and deception in them.

The Vocation of a Lifetime

John Piper, article, “Teaching, Schooling and Reading” (September 1, 1974):

The person who has learned to read well is never dependent on living teachers to educate him. The growth of his mind and the betterment of his wisdom and his behavior is not connected with his being in or out of school. Because almost all the greatest thinkers of history have shared their wisdom in writing and because these great books are almost all available to be bought in stores or borrowed from libraries, the person who has trained himself in good, active reading and who cares about growing wiser, does not need live teachers or college classes, or daily assignments, or threatening exams. Instead, as a good reader and as one who is not enslaved to the television and radio, he has a lifetime of growth ahead of him.

It is of the utmost importance that college students stop trying to fill their head with facts and start trying to form the habit of fruitful, active reading. Almost all the facts will be forgotten. But the skill and discipline and love of good reading will go on bearing fruit 30, 60, 100 fold. It is a tragedy that on graduation day so many students look back with a pang of longing that they are leaving the place of so much discovery and stimulating growth, instead of feeling themselves at the end of a training period which has now fit them for an adventurous lifetime of stimulating reading and discovery. It is a dreadful deception that learning and mental growing are strictly associated with school. Good reading should be the vocation of a lifetime. Schooling — at least my classes — is a concentrated training process to help prepare you for that vocation.

Stabbing Public Pastoral Prayers

Pastor Thomas R. Mckibbens in his article to pastors, “Prayer In Corporate Worship,” [Faith and Mission (SEBTS), 7.2:22–23]:

At the risk of seeming to waste your time, consider reading great fiction, poetry, and drama. Go back and pick up those books which you know you “should have read” back there in college or even high school, but that you have secretly kept quiet about when the book was discussed in your hearing. I am speaking of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and some of the Greek plays by Sophocles or Euripides. I am speaking of classics like Milton’s Paradise Lost and the great novels of Tolstoy.

Enjoy the imaginative writings of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis or Charles Williams. Or you may prefer to read American classics like Melville’s Moby Dick or Faulkner’s novels or contemporary writers like Walker Percy. I am not talking about forcing yourself to complete an agonizing book just so you can say you have read it; rather I am talking about leisure reading for fun! Why pollute your mind with junk novels when you could, with a little forethought, be reading the great works of the English language? After a number of years of this you will be surprised at how many of the great books you can call your friends.

The pleasure of all this reading is not only that it is fun, but also that you enrich your mind with a store of imagination. In the preparation of public prayer, it is a way of forming your sentences and shaping your thoughts which stabs the imagination of the congregation, and they are a vital part of the prayer you voice. It becomes their prayer, because you have said it just the way they wish they could have said it.

His point about the value of classic literature to sharpen (pun) one’s prayer language is a good one, as long as we do not underplay the value of the prayers, Psalms, and prophetic writings of Scripture to do the same.

How Jonathan Edwards Processed Theology

The new theology of Jonathan Edwards by Michael McClymond and Gerald McDermott is a magnificent achievement in bringing theological synthesis to the copious works of America’s most noteworthy theologian. Now that the works of Edwards are online and more accessible than ever, I’m sure other volumes of similar magnitude will follow in the future, but to date there’s nothing that compares to this new volume in scale and breadth. McClymond and McDermott’s work is to the theology of Edwards what Marsden’s work is to the life of Edwards, and unless the second half is a major disappointment it will be my book of the year in 2011. (Since it’s technically copyright 2012, it may be my selection next year, too!)

In one of the earliest sections of the book the authors explain the different ways Edwards processed different theological ideas (pages 10–12). Since my friend Andy recently dissected the theological brain of the greatest Canadian theologian, I thought I would write a summary of how the theological brain of America’s greatest theologian worked, a very brief one.

According to McClymond and McDermott, Edwards processed his theology on three fronts by juggling, connecting, and infusing ideas.

By juggling ideas, Edwards studied many different theological topics at the same time. His 1,400 recorded miscellanies testify to how well he captured and developed various ideas. It was to these notebooks that Edwards turned in developing books and sermons, a well to withdraw years of recorded and retrievable thoughts.

By connecting ideas, Edwards thoughts were not merely atomized, random miscellanies. The genius of Edwards is not only how deeply he thought with atomized topics recorded in his notebooks, but how he connected and cross-pollinated orthodox theological themes that led him to consider fairly novel conclusions. What he discovered was a nearly limitless interrelationship between the themes, tying strings to the various themes he had once juggled.

By infusing ideas, Edwards was able to take the major conclusions of his research and infuse those ideas into his larger theological picture. The topics he juggled in his mind, began to grow and connect, which he then worked into major themes – notably the brilliant idea that God’s passion for His own glory and man’s happiness are not at odds. In my mind infusing a key theme (or a few key themes) into the whole structure of one’s theological convictions is really the most difficult of the three, and something only a few exegetically-grounded, deep thinking theologians will achieve with much public success (think John Piper).

Yet for all his brilliance, Edwards leaves us a pattern that I find helpful. As those who research Scripture and theology we need (1) a place to record our developing thoughts, (2) time to see how themes of Scripture relate to one another, and (3) deeply-rooted convictions about major themes.

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