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Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

Before Christmas I read a quote about feasts by GK Chesterton, and since it intrigued me, I tracked down the source. This involved my embarrassingly asking the Facebook Group which had posted the quote, whence it came – only to be told that the citation was the very first thing in the post, preceding the quote. Much of Chesterton’s work is available free online, so I set about to find the entire article, from The Illustrated London News 1906. It may be scanned in somewhere, but not easily searched nor found.

In my searching, I did run across the existence of printed volumes of GK Chesterton’s articles, so my next effort was to find a copy at a library to which I had access. In this I was again nearly thwarted by the fact that all the volumes were contained in the same catalog entry, so that I was unsure how to request only one (without driving an hour or more each way to access the library in person). I decided to risk the request, imagining that even if the wrong volume was sent, it would likely be worthwhile to read anyway. The electronic catalog was better than my estimation, and I was today able to pick up the exact volume bearing the article I sought, along with several books about geysers, volcanoes, and pillar-cobbled causeways made from cooled lava flows. 

All of this is a hopefully amusing introduction to my much shorter actual reason for writing this blog post: As I read one entry from the middle of a collection of weekly essays written by the witty Chesterton, and began the next, I had the exact feeling I get when I flip to the middle of a Calvin & Hobbes collection, and realize that I am intruding on a story already in progress, and that I do not know how many editions backward I must retreat in order to enter at the episode’s gate. 

And the fact of this coincidental phenomenon led me to the discovery of a fact. Chesterton and Watterson were in the same business; their art delved into the same themes; their skills produce the same enduring delight mixed with education. I don’t know if GK Chesterton ever saw a sketch of a phalanx of garish snowmen, but if he had, I feel sure he would have approved. 

To God be all glory, 

Lisa of Longbourn

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Fanny Price is one of the most boring heroines in literature.  She is always good, always correct, and it seems that her only faults lie in being too timid and being too easily fatigued.

Edmund Bertram is one of the least interesting heroes in literature.  He is sincere, intentional, and sober.  His primary shortcoming seems to be thinking the best of people and making the most of bad circumstances.

But isn’t real life and real goodness more like this duo?  Do they not refute our human tendency to buy into bright personalities, to follow confidence, to love foolishly?  Isn’t it hard to draw the line between dying to self and giving in to the pressures of those less wise?

Mansfield Park, by Jane Austen, does seem to be busy pressing these truths.  The most charming characters are the ones who oppose the good.  Mr. Henry Crawford and his sister Mary may not set out to be wicked, but they don’t try to be good.  They try to seem good.  They may even wish they were good.  What good could be done with them if good people took them under wing, befriended them, taught, influenced, married them?

How are good people to resist the allure of reforming their lovers?  How are good people to judge accurately?

While simultaneously facing these dilemmas and illustrating them, Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram move through the excitement of new connections in the small neighborhood that has been their comfortable home.  Over and over again you see the heroine and hero making mistakes because of the things that influence their perspectives.  They doubt themselves.  They deceive themselves.  They reproach themselves.  They deny themselves.

And all through the plot, following paths merely tangential to each other, they’re getting a chance to discover the value of each other’s steady, reverential characters.  So when the events conspire to divide them from all the temptation of flattery, charm, and attraction, little wonder they proceed to fall in love with unsatisfactory brevity and with a felicity the envy of all their foolish relations.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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I read once that Tolkien wrote with the pessimism of the pagan poets [1].  They uphold honor in despair, dying well, the heroic quest at the cost of losing everything you love.  But I read Tolkien and see hope scribed into every chapter.  No light, whimsical child’s hope: Tolkien’s hope is not ignorance of all things capable of clouding the good.  It’s a “fool’s hope,” [2] where anyone can see that in all likelihood, if things go on as they are, the fool will be disappointed.  In Tolkien, the fools know themselves to be fools.

 

Elven-King Fingolfin’s story weighs on the side of hopelessness.  The Silmarillion describes him as “fey” [3] when he challenges Melkor himself, living up to the epic’s heroic virtues.  What hope has an elf against a Vala?  But the Vala ought to be contended, resisted, fought.  Though the high king of the Noldor (elves) finally fell, his fight was not without effect.  The Dark Lord Melkor limped forever after.

 

At first reading, it seems that Aragorn commends this sort of despairing courage when he instructs his friends, “There are some things that it is better to begin than to refuse, even though the end may be dark.” [4]  But Gandalf, the wizard who knows his life-encompassing hope is foolish, lends a bit of insight early on.  Recognizing he is a fool, he embraces humility.  Do you hear it in Gandalf’s words? “Despair, or folly?  It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.  We do not.  It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope.” [5]  He acknowledges that he may not have all the facts.  Indeed, thinking that he knew what the end would be was the prideful downfall of Denethor, who let his enemy select the facts he discovered, and so turn him to despair, and madness.  Tolkien’s works regularly discourage the assumption that we know the future.

 

He also discourages despair.  I know it doesn’t seem true.  There are some pivotal scenes driven by characters that rashly pursue death and glory.  Aragorn is accused of it when he takes the Paths of the Dead, but that perspective is refuted.  Though the way had been shut for long ages, the time had come.  Such is the way of hope.  Things go on in a certain way until the due time, and then change springs upon the world.

 

Perhaps most potent is the image of grey-eyed Dernhelm.  The warrior’s silent, calm assurance going in search of death chilled Merry.  And it awakens our empathy.  Why shouldn’t it?  Who hasn’t felt that life is going from bad to worse, and decided to rush forward to the end instead of waiting to be burned with the house?  I think maybe Tolkien intended to carry us along with this character, so that we could reach the same end.  Dernhelm was proud, seeking glory before duty, though demonstrating loyal love to King Theoden by staying close to him.  And glory was achieved.  And darkness did descend on the desperate hero.  Even as Dernhelm revealed herself as Eowyn, golden hair glittering in the storm-piercing sunrise like a figment of hope; she was cast down, poisoned, and taken for dead.  [6]

 

But now we come to it:  Tolkien’s hope is the kind that stands further and deeper than all those things – than despair and darkness and loss.  He knew about a resurrection hope, about seeds bringing forth fruit after they have fallen into the ground and died.  Maybe he knew that fruit is more glorious than merely putting an end to your enemies.  His hope embraces grief.  It accepts hard things.  Good is not determined by the outcome, but by some transcendent standard.  And this hope joyfully trusts that there is someOne good who may intervene yet.

 

For Eowyn woke, and repented her destructive ideals.  Day came again.  Darkness was not unescapable.  Faramir described the moment, “I do not know what is happening.  The reason of my waking mind tells me that great evil has befallen and we stand at the end of days.  But my heart says nay; and all my limbs are light, and a hope and joy are come to me that no reason can deny.  … in this hour I do not believe that any darkness will endure!” [7]  So Eowyn moved and married, healed and tended gardens. [8]  Her story is a fuller exposition of the transformation the Fellowship underwent in Moria.  They lost their way and lost their guide.  They had descended black depths and awakened demons so that they lost hope.  But on the field high on the mountain slopes, “they came beyond hope under the sky and felt the wind on their faces.” [9]

 

[1] Hopeless Courage by Loren Rosson, III (http://www.hollywoodjesus.com/lord_of_the_rings_guest_03.htm)

[2] The Return of the King: “The Siege of Gondor” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 797)

[3] See etymology of “fey” at http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=fey&allowed_in_frame=0

[4] The Two Towers: “The Riders of Rohan” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 430)

[5] The Fellowship of the Ring: “The Council of Elrond” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 262)

[6] The Return of the King: “The Battle of the Pelennor Fields” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 823-824)

[7] The Return of the King: “The Steward and the King” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 941)

[8] The Return of the King: “The Steward and the King” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 943-944)

[9] The Fellowship of the Ring: “The Bridge of Khazad-Dum” by JRR Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin One-Volume Edition 2001; p. 323)

 

See also, The Silmarillion: “Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin” by JRR Tolkien, edited by Christopher Tolkien

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Submission has come up a lot lately in my life.  I very much value authority and submission. But I don’t understand parts of it. Can you correct someone in authority over you? How do different authorities share their roles – church has authority, husbands have authority, fathers and mothers have authority, government has authority.  Can an authority delegate his leadership to someone else? For example, if God told Moses to lead the children ofIsrael, could Moses sit back and assign others to lead them? What role does delegation play?  What if God intervenes and exercises His authority directly (He told Isaiah to break the Mosaic Law, and he didn’t go to the priests or the king or the assembly to get permission)?  If there is no one exercising authority over me, is it my job to find someone to whom to submit?

 

Friends have challenged me on my interpretations of Church leadership.  Does God even give actual authority to elders, or is it more about responsibilities and respect?  Does an elder have a right to tell me when and where and how or how not to use my spiritual gifts? Can he tell me to go on a mission trip or to host a poor family in my home or to quit my job? Could a father or a husband? Do I have to get approval from my authority for every choice I make? If not, how do I know which ones to get his ok on?  Do those who were formerly under authority and are appointed to equal authority really exercise equal authority?  Who are elders accountable to?

 

I’m also wondering whether men, in general, ought to be followed by women, or only specific men: husbands, fathers, Church elders.  Paul says he does not permit a woman to have authority over a man (in church), and cites the order of creation, but does that mean women ought to never lead a man? Or is it bad to submit to a man who does not have a specific authority position over you (husband, father, elder)?  If a man has (any kind of) authority, does that mean he gets to tell you what to do (make me a sandwich; read this book; call your parents) or is the authority different somehow? Does it matter the sphere of authority?

 

One book I read as a study in discipline is a parenting book called Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp.  It raised more questions.  What happens when kids become adults – do parents have the same authority over them? If a parent’s authority is derived from their responsibility before God to train up their children, then is it ok for other people to help parents?  Are there limits to the amount of a parent’s job that a babysitter, teacher, friend, or relative can take – can they discipline?

 

One point Mr. Tripp really tries to drive home is that parents don’t have authority because they are bigger, older, better, stronger, or smarter.  They have authority as God’s representatives to their children.  Therefore, they don’t get to decide what purposes – and in some cases, which means – they have in raising their children.  Training is not for the parent’s convenience or pleasure.  They must be good examples of submission (to God) for their children, who are likewise learning to submit (to parents and God).  The children are not theirs; they are God’s.  So God says parents are authorities, not buddies; trainers, not dictators; fellow humans, not gods.

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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CS Lewis wrote a book, That Hideous Strength.  It is one of my favorite novels.  Early in the story we meet a newly married woman named Jane, who has discovered that marriage is not what she imagined.  In fact she imagined a lot about her life that just isn’t so.  And some things have come up that she never intended.  Her initial reaction is to reject uninvited realities, and to be miserable about her disappointments.  She thought her life could be made by her, her marriage, her identity.  Gradually she acknowledges that this was never an option in God’s plan.  Always she has been His, with a role to play that he wrote, that fits in best with others who are surrendered to the author’s intentions.  And what a disaster when you fight it.

 

The whole earth is suffering from just such a rebellion.  Every man is trying to make himself God and the world in his own wisdom, trampling others, insanely overlooking facts of nature.  But the Church is meant to stand opposite the chaos, showing how every part does its share through the measure of gifting supplied from God, keeping our places as God has set each in the Body.  CS Lewis uses the house of Ransom to depict this unity in diversity, showing not only how much we need each other, but how we are most ourselves when seeking how to bless one another instead of trying to figure out who we are and what life we want.  Let others tell us, or by their needs reveal to us, what becomes us.

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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“We sometimes hear the expression ‘the accident of sex,’ as though one’s being a man or a woman were a triviality.  It is very far from being a triviality.  It is our nature.  It is the modality under which we live all our lives; it is what you and I are called to be – called by God, this God who is in charge.”  Elisabeth Elliot deeply explores the subjects of calling and obedience in her book, Let Me Be a Woman.

 

Being alive and finding myself a woman indicates to me that God has a purpose for me in being female.  It is not given to me to change which gender I am, or to ignore my gender and act however I feel.

 

A couple chapters later, she writes: “All creatures, with two exceptions that we know of, have willingly taken the places appointed to them…  What sort of world might it have been if Eve had refused the Serpent’s offer and had said to him instead, ‘Let me not be like God.  Let me be what I was made to be – let me be a woman’?”

 

The rest of the book explores what it means to be a woman, why God created females, and how we are to relate to the rest of the world, and particularly as wives to husbands.  Reading it recently was refreshing and encouraging as I struggle to learn submission.

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Baptists: Thorough Reformers by John Quincy Adams is a short book demonstrating the impact on the Church and individual Christians when infant baptism is practiced.  Filled with quotes from Baptists and Paedobaptists, this is an informative resource on the question.  John Quincy Adams (yes, the president) is on the side of volitional baptism by immersion, having himself converted from the paedobaptist denomination in which he was raised.  Topics range from biblical interpretation and translation to the doctrine of sola scriptura and discussions of the need for a member of the Church to demonstrate their faith by the fruit promised in the Bible.  The author does a good job of tying together the doctrines for which Baptists are distinctively famous, including separation of church and state.  To me the most interesting aspect of reading this book was seeing how little Baptists of today understand their roots, even as recently as the founding of this country.  When Thomas Jefferson wrote his letter to the Danbury Baptists, their denomination was just beginning to surface from centuries of persecution; no wonder they were concerned that the new constitution would protect them from another round of political oppression.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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I’m so behind, reporting to you on the books I’ve been reading!  Let me catch you up.

Back in August, I read The Oath by Frank Peretti.  It is the second grown-up book I have read of his.  (Monster was a fantastic book!)  I have to say that I was disappointed.  The story started slowly, and dragged on with way too many “climaxes.”  At the end of the book the real climax was not nearly as redemptive as I hoped for.  And I think that reflects the central theme of the book that dissatisfied me: sin when it is full grown gives birth to death; men who are not redeemed are slaves to sin.  That is true enough, but there was precious little in the story about the power of God over sin, to save us from death.  What was there didn’t ring real or powerful or even theological.

The Oath centers around two vivid images of sin: a dragon growing, hungry, but hard to see and hard to fight; and a oozing sore over the heart – a sore that people want to avoid, want to deny, want to ignore, and ultimately insanely forget.

Of all the characters, the one that stood out to me wasn’t a main character.  It was the pastor of Hyde River.  He sounds like a lot of pastors: downplaying the power of evil, giving the benefit of the doubt to the intentions of wicked men, avoiding confrontation, and dreaming of bigger ministries.  His was not the blatant rebellion against God embraced by much of the community – but he tolerated and excused the sin around him, even rebuking those few in his congregation who stood for the truth.  The pastor enabled the sin in the community, did nothing to stop the men who were hurrying to hell.  At the end of the story you see which side that puts him on.

In summary: the writing wasn’t all that good; the idea not that compelling, but there were some high points of description both of human character and of the nature of sin.

After that I dabbled in a book by Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of the Church in Asia, but it wasn’t what I hoped or expected, so I gave up half way and sent it back to the library.

This was partly because I was busy reading a novel lent to me by a friend, Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope.  That was a pleasant read!  Mr. Trollope confides in you, author to reader, but also uses polite denials to manipulate one into suspecting the accusation denied.  His characters are, sadly, typical of the human race.  Even his hero and heroine have their faults and foolishness.  But he begs you to love them and forgive them, just as they would treat you.  And the spell he casts worked on me.  I do love Mrs. Bold and Mr. Arabin.  From the very beginning the author painted such a picture of his characters that I was curious to see how they would perform whatever dramas and comedies he submitted them to.  I was not disappointed.

Shortly after I finished Barchester Towers, I was babysitting.  After the little boys were put to bed, I raided their father’s bookshelf, and began to read GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.  Unrelated to the two movies by the same name, the book is a series of mysteries solved by a genius who knows too much about the dark side of man.  He has too often seen bad men get away with their crimes.  I marvel at the commentator’s skill at weaving into story a sort of poetic metaphor of philosophy along with his critique of politics, aristocracy, and press.

In response to a friend preaching on hyper-dispensationalism, I took the time one evening to read and make notes on Galatians with a view to the theology of dispensationalism.  Though I sympathize with the concept of dispensations, I must admit that as a whole the book says nearly the opposite of the point my friend was trying to make.  My study has prepared me for our next confrontation.

While recently on vacation I began The Letters of JRR Tolkien.  So far they are not very interesting, as they mostly predate The Lord of the Rings and any correspondence with fans or critics.

A partial viewing of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King inspired me to pick up my copy of JRR Tolkien’s Trilogy again.  What delight to revisit The Fellowship of the Ring!

As always I have a huge stack of books I desire to read in the near future: a couple about AnaBaptists, one about the Great Depression, John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, Pilgrim’s Progress, Emma, Wives and Daughters, Passion and Purity, Quest for Love, From Eternity to Here, Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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There is something blissful about finishing a good book.  It makes me want to stand by an open upstairs window in spring, or find a well-cushioned corner of a cozy room, or to make cookies.  Many good books leave one wishing the story continued.  But a really great book finishes with a satisfying sense of closure and promise, as though the story did go on, exactly as you would wish it would, only I don’t need to know the details.  And then I am lonely, but not for another book; for people – and not to share thoughts or to retell the plot in a silly, useless way, but just to be unalone.

That Hideous Strength is a love story.  And it is a story of the beloved very much in danger.  CS Lewis writes of the lovers meeting difference – things other than self – and either fighting them, dominating them, hiding from them, or giving them a sort of worship.  That’s what the whole story is about, whether you’re talking about Mark or Jane or Ransom or Mother Dimble or Wither or Frost or Merlin or mankind or God.

The tale of the N.I.C.E. and Logres’ simple war against it describes what you get when you reject reality.  In reality, even a person’s own identity is rather different from how one perceives it.  He is meant not for what he wishes himself to be, but for what the world needs him to be.  There is humility and obedience and purpose and harmony set up against pride and selfishness and destruction and nonsense.  People who reject truth find that they are lied to.  And in the end, the lie is stripped bare, and each person makes the choice of loyalty, not really dependent on which side is winning at all.  Every man and woman decides whether to sink with the ship that stands for the elimination of mankind or to risk fighting on the side of the good guys even when the bad guys look terribly strong.

Is it such a little thing, to be a self-important College Fellow arranging the affairs of colleagues as one wishes?  What epics of the world stand or fall on whether a woman loves her husband?  Is weather good (delightful) no matter what its form?  How is it so fitting to keep a garden, to marry, and to beget children?

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Flax flowers, tall and green crowned with sky-blue petals bend beneath the water falling on them, stooped double, dripping and dreary under a summer sky shrouded in grey.  Am I made for such a world where the beauty bows to necessity, where death is such a threat that the glorious sun must be cloaked, life furled?

I wish I had made these observations while on a walk, but I was driving.  My car was pulling out of my driveway to carry me to the paces just outside of where babies die.  The heart of me resisted, catching its hands on trees and fence-posts, loathe to leave them behind.  A few yards down is a rose garden, and in my mind I shrank…
Paradise.  Shadows and breezes, still and soft and just enough to shed the perfume of the roses across the little green between.  It is like an elven meadow, the little people running about their blissful business – the tallest thing they can see is the living tower of blossoms rimming their country.  No eyes can pass the borders to see the sorrow of our world, the world of mortals.  No tiny heart is troubled like mine, knowing of the suffering and wickedness and death I am about to witness.
Are elves diminutive or tall?  Those legendary immortals, acquainted with nature and delight, cut off from our world by size, by magic, or by choice?  Tolkien wrote about elves, despising the modern conception of them as petal-sized fairies, who evade human capture and notice by their slightness.  The author’s idea was of a people maybe even taller than men, living in the depths of the forests or across the leagues of the sea.  They were powerful and wise, joyful – and sorrowful.  For Tolkien’s elves could see over the roses.  They witnessed mortality and evil and the changing world, and it was a grief to them.
Mankind was in a different sort of captivity: not hemmed by fragrant visions of living loveliness.  Their world was the broken, mortal one, saturated with sorrow.  Battlements built high: temptation, pain, guilt, fear – guarded their even seeing something else.  And then they saw the stars.  Ever beautiful and untouched, glittering points in the sky spoke of a joy and purpose beyond the grueling existence through which men plodded.  Faramir tells that men burdened by mortality built high towers and communed with the stars.
They may have been wrong, seeking something forbidden, discontent with their created lot.  In the Shire lived a different sort of mortal.  They knew fear and death, so they celebrated peace and long life (and birthdays).  Life was too short to simply hoard; they gave away.  In the rural country of the Hobbits there was danger of becoming fat and complacent, gradually surrendering more and more of the fullness of life granted to mortals.  But most didn’t.  They enjoyed things: friends and family, stories, food and drink, walking, gardening.
Outside the Shire, the Hobbits proved that it was they who had built their country, and not that the simple life of relative ease had birthed their contentment.  Hobbits don’t have courage in tight spots because it is hiding deep inside them; their courage is something exercised every day.  It takes enormous strength to feast when you know the world is dark, to hope when it has been so long since anything happened to encourage you.  Complacency is not hope.  And Samwise Gamgee was not complacent.
He carried with him the willingness to seize good times.  His eyes grow large with wonder at the hidden elvish cities he visits. They’re in a gardenous land filled with herbs and wild game just his size, so he stews some rabbit. And when his quest seems hopeless, he sits on the top stair of an enemy tower and sings about the stars: those beacons of hope anchoring him to a reality he belongs to.  He can’t access it now, but it is no less sure or beautiful because it is far away.

Above all shadows rides the Sun



And Stars for ever dwell:



I will not say the Day is done,

Nor bid the Stars farewell.

So in the hobbits we have the same spirit as the elves seeing over their flower-hedge, but in reverse.  The elves looked out and what they saw brought grief in – something they would not shrink from, but took and blended with their joy.  And the hobbits looked out and what they saw brought hope, but they took it and blended it with their weariness.

To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

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