"Can we wonder that the Lord Jesus, in His preaching, should continually draw lessons from the book of nature? When He spoke of the sheep, the fish, the ravens, the corn, the lilies, the fig tree, the vine, He spoke of things which He Himself had made."
J.C. Ryle from Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots
Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.
One-eighth mile from the shores of a rolling sea, up a winding dirt path and through a damp, close forest sits a village, or rather a row of houses facing the unseen water, bathing day and night in the sounds of the great conflict between waves and shore. Its buildings are all made of wood and sit in a dusty semicircle of the path winding through the trees. The architects of this hamlet chose not to make a clearing for it, but—for the convenience of the local trees—built the houses in fantastic shapes around the ancient sylvan inhabitants. The post office of this venerable village has a foundation in the shape of an upper case “L,” and the house beside it has mimicked the nearest tree in its rotundity. Others have tilted their walls to avoid lower boughs and even twigs jutting out from the aged trees—taking into account the average sway of a bough in the wind. As the trees grow, the houses are renovated to accommodate. If a root system surfaces directly below one of the homes, foundations are torn up to make room; if a rotting branch falls from the treetop onto the roof of an abode below, the abode’s roof is removed to facilitate the second half of the dead branch’s descent.
Some have brought up the impracticality of such a town; others have questioned the longevity of such aberrant and fluid structures, but those naysayers need not worry, for the locals are nearly all post-modernists and therefore have no interest in practicality or longevity. The locals need only a place to think, discuss and be disgusted at the rest of the world for assuming that nature should accommodate them, for these are intellectuals: sons of Sartre and daughters of Derrida. It is true that they have been persecuted for their simple forest life, mostly by wandering branches, one of which forced them to make such a great hole in their outhouse that privacy became nearly impossible. But like the true suffering servants they are, they bear the slings and arrows with gladness.
Now, let us say a woman stood on the nearby rocky littoral on the 16th of November 20--. We will give her long, dark, thick hair, for it is necessary to express how the wind was blowing that night. We will also give her a pale complexion, rosy cheeks and an expression of utter terror. The torrents of rain that came that night will be driving against her wan face as she stands gazing out on the open water. The fingers of the wind and the spray of the sea will groom her thick hair into wild black creatures behind her lovely head. She will be wearing a navy blue dress with a small tear in the shoulder as if she fell on a rock while running; her feet will be shoeless. Of course these details will only be viewable in the spectral light of lightening bolts striking the water at short intervals in front of her. Yes, we will say there was a woman like this on the 16th of November, 20--, for there truly was. She had been running and now stopped for a moment on the rocky shore to scream at the tearing winds and giant waves churning from the black storm at sea. Having received no answer to this outburst but a sheet of salty stinging rain, she turned and ran hurriedly down the little path to the odd village.
If the night had been still and chilly like the night before she would have heard voices floating from the third house from the left—shaped oddly like a piece of rhubarb pie—saying things like this:
“I believe that if I set a rabbit here on this table you would call it a social construction!”
“And I believe that if I gave you the same rabbit—assuming that it truly exists—to study, you’d find conclusive evidence for its behavioral patterns by studying a hamster.”
“That’s a red herring and you know it, Edward.”
“And we’re back to social constructions . . .”
But this night was in no mood for listening—though how any night has the patience for such conversation, I do not know. This bleak night afforded no sound to the woman’s ears as she made the final steps up to the front door of the third house from the left, followed closely by the biting wind and cold rain.
Edward Door and Jacob Edwards—the two men sitting and talking in the third house from the left—were men of great intellect and understanding. Their superior minds had been in the brainstorm that had created the forest village years before. Edward had blue bright eyes, brown hair, a small nose topped by spectacles and a head crowned with a plaid bowler. Jacob had brown bright eyes, brown hair, a small nose topped by spectacles and a head crowned with a brown bowler. If you found these two descriptions frighteningly similar, you would find the true men even more frightening in that manner. One may as well attempt to describe the difference between a rock and a stone. Oh yes! Their minds differed in opinion from time to time, but mostly for the sport it created in conversation rather than for true differences in outlook. If you asked them about their wives Edward would respond,
“Yes, quite. Yes I have a wife. Yes.”
And Jacob would add with a glazed expression, “She’s in the city; what a . . . what a nice woman.” You might trace a hint of loneliness or even sadness flashing across their expressions before they returned to their books.
On the night of the 16th of November, as the mysterious woman was rushing up to their door, Jacob and Edward—following their examinations of Red Herrings, in which the poor herring was diced, quartered and crushed by a thousand strategies of rhetoric—were discussing detectives, mysteries and the like.
“I’d like to move from the topic of the Red Herring now.”
“That would be fine Jacob; what would you like to discuss?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Edward. Policemen? Detectives?”
“Why policemen and Detectives, Jacob?”
“Oh I don’t know, Edward. Seems like a night for them. Listen to that wind! Hear that rain pound against the windows, Edward! I can almost imagine that Mr. Holmes is back on the streets of London tonight, oblivious to the rain, bent over with his hands behind his back, smoking his pipe and solving a case of international significance. Can you see that, Edward?“ Jacob shifted in his chair.
“You let your imagination take you too far into the past. How about we discuss the possibility of a modern-day Holmes, or rather a post-modern day Holmes. Yes! What would he look like, Jacob? What would he sound like, Jacob?” Edward shifted in his chair. The fire crackled and the rain continued to spit at the windows.
“Good gracious, Edward. I’ve thought about it and I’ve come to a conclusion: he would look like us. Indeed! Don’t look surprised Edward; I tell you he would. First of all, our brand of English is more like his than any two people in the Colonies due to our extensive reading—at times I fancied I sound like a Brit. Indeed! Just the other day I spelled color “c-o-l-o-u-r” without a second thought. Finally, Edward, I believe our knowledge of reality is much more advanced than his; it truly is. Yes, yes.” Having agreed with himself with these final words, Jacob waited for Edward to do the same.
“Why, Jacob after spending some time considering, I believe you are right! What good detectives we would make. Haven’t we read every poem of William Carlos Williams, Jacob? Don’t we know what DNA is, Jacob? Isn’t an Andy Warhol on our wall, Jacob? Haven’t we seen videos of Woodstock, Jacob? Did dear Sherlock himself have these privileges, Jacob? No, no he didn’t. In fact—and in conclusion—I’m surprised he could operate at all with his antiquated rationalist paradigm. The fact is, Jacob, we have every qualification to be . . .”
But what they had every qualification to be had no time to come out of Edward Door’s mouth for the true door was flung open, and the ghostly figure of a woman was flung across the threshold, followed by a shriek of wind, a wave of rain and the door slamming.
“My goodness gracious, Edward what’s this?” exclaimed Jacob,
“I don’t know, Jacob; I don’t, but it wasn’t in our plans for the evening.” exclaimed Edward, not considering the thoughtlessness of his second remark. The woman got up quickly, her black hair and clothes sopping and her tears mingling with the raindrops covering her face.
“My daughter!” she blurted, “My baby daughter is gone. Do you hear me? Gone! . . . cliff . . . evil woman . . . (sobs) . . . Oh God, help!” And with this she threw herself back on the floor and began to cry bitterly.
Jacob looked at her curiously and said, “Oh, bringing God into it will not do for a start, not at all! Please, tell us your name and what you are doing here, my good lady; maybe we can help. Tell her so, Edward.”
“Maybe we can,” said Edward.
It took a few minutes for the woman to settle down enough to be understandable. Jacob fetched her some tea. Edward wrapped her in his second favorite bathrobe and gave her a chair by the fire. After a few more minutes of uncontrollable sobbing, she began:
“I heard this was a town of smart people, intellectuals.”
“It is!” interposed Jacob.
“And my problem can’t go to the police; it doesn’t make sense; they’ll never believe me! People just don’t act like that!”
“Good lady!” Edward interrupted, “In literature we don’t mind non-linear plotlines, but for us to understand your meaning, I feel it necessary to ask you to start at the beginning.”
“The beginning, oh yes. I’m sorry. My name is Jean, Jean Bard. I was walking with my darling Emma Jane—my six month-old daughter—on the cliffs a mile up the shore from here; do you know them? We like to walk there in the evenings. Well, Emma was in her stroller, and I had her all wrapped up to keep her warm—oh my baby, my baby” Another round of sobs interrupted the story. While this was happening Edward and Jacob both adjusted their glasses and bowlers. Soon she continued, “We really like the place—not far from our house—where the forest ends and the cliffs begin and you can see the sun setting over the water so far out at sea. Well, as we came to this place in the path I heard footsteps behind me and someone giggling.”
“Giggling?” asked the two simultaneously, quite taken aback at the detail.
“Giggling, but I didn’t have long to think about that, because just as I heard it a lady rushed by me and before I had time to even scream she had my beautiful Emma in her hands and was standing at the very edge of the cliff, looking right at me and laughing hysterically. Emma was so scared she didn’t even cry, but just hung above the woman’s head. That terrible lady threw her head back and yelled “Haha, what a life! What a face!” and threw my Emma as far as she could behind her over the cliff . . . I screamed and ran to the edge, but I was too late, too late, too late . . .” She lapsed into more crying as the two men sat in their cushy chairs as stunned as if they had just found out that the Christian God had really created the world.
“It sounds as though this woman is a victim, Jacob,” observed Edward.
“Of course I am!” she said incredulously.
“Not you!” said Edward, surprised “the woman who threw your child over the cliff—oh do stop crying—she has obviously been basely mistreated by someone, wouldn’t you say, Jacob?”
“I’d say so, Edward; I would.”
“But aren’t you listening to me?” screamed the woman, “My child has been murdered!”
“My good lady, we are intellectuals and—I suppose you could say—post-modern detectives. We must do away with conventional wisdom, in all matters and question the conventions of this situation. Edward agrees. Look, he’s nodding his agreement. Conventional wisdom would tell us that you and your beloved child are the victims here, but why must we bind ourselves to such cumbersome standard thinking?”
“Because I’m right here; and she has done a terrible terrible thing.”
“Are you poor?” inquired Edward of the woman.
“I suppose you could say that. But what does this have to do . . .
“Ah Ha! Now, you would say you are poor because you don’t have enough money—wouldn’t she Jacob? I can see Jacob nodding his ascent. She would; she would. But we would say that you are poor because of the oppression of the bourgeoisie upon your class or the oppression of a ceiling made of glass. Oh goodness gracious, Jacob I’ve just made a rhyme. I’m in danger of being called a ‘bad poet’ like Tennyson or Cowper. Let’s not call it a poem, Jacob. Poems must be in free verse. No, let’s not call it a poem.” And with this final statement Edward sat back in his chair, having—in his own mind—given an argument to change the mind of a king. And from all the nodding and bobbing of the head coming from the chair opposite, Jacob was of the same mind. But the poor woman had now had enough. She rose from her chair slowly and with fury in her eyes and spoke with the eloquence borne only of a mother’s desperation,
“You idiots! You stupid stupid idiots! My daughter was murdered this evening, and I came to you thinking that maybe, just maybe you could help me. I may not know very much, but I know that if brains like yours would be put to something useful and practical instead of this nonsense about breaking conventions and forgetting reason, a murderer could be caught tonight. You know what I think? Well, you’re gonna find out! I came here thinking that ‘intellectuals’ like you had answers or at least could find them, but instead I find two men who wouldn’t think in a straight line if a policeman pulled them over and told them to. Now, are you gonna help me? Please . . .” and now she softened, “Please, look at me; I’ve lost everything; she was my everything. Help me. Oh, my poor darling!” She lowered her head to cry.
The wind picked up for a moment and whistled a sad song through the treetops above the little house, and the rain played along on the windows in a sad cadence. Jacob and Edward sat stunned and confused, staring meaningfully at everything in the room except the woman. The wind outside whipped down the chimney and played with the jolly little fire in the grate, and yet the two did not stir. The woman had not moved from her curled up position.
Suddenly and without warning the two men jumped up out of their chairs and broke the silence with a simultaneous exclamation. The woman looked up surprised and disconcerted at the sudden action. Jacob ran to the closet and yanked out raincoats, Edward furiously rummaged for the Wellingtons in the closet. A string of nonverbal thoughts had rocketed through the minds of both men at the same rate, and—at the same moment in time—they had decided what must be done.
“She has appealed to my pathos, Edward.” More mad rummaging.
“And mine Jacob, and mine.” The raincoats were produced.
“I believe we must help her, Edward and use rational means to do it.”
“You never said a truer word, Jacob; keep it up.”
“And I have a theory as to what happened to the child, Edward” and turning to the woman with his Wellingtons on and one arm in his raincoat he said, “was your child particularly talkative during your ambulation this morning, good lady?”
“Well, no she wasn’t. But I know what happened to my Emma; I want to know what happened to that awful woman who killed her.”
“Jean Jean Jean . . . silly Jean” scolded Edward, “You asked us to assist you—yes, Jacob she did didn’t she—and you must allow us to munificently offer that assistance. Now, let us move out, and quickly I say! —Ah, yes, now Jacob has said it too. Off we go!”
After finding a rain coat and some Wellingtons for the now thoroughly confused woman the trio set off into the inclement night. Their trek to the cliffs was wordless, windy and wet. The enthusiasm of the two men nearly filled the air as much as the rain falling all around them, and now hope shyly stepped into the woman’s broken heart. But she wouldn’t allow it; she couldn’t allow it; she had seen the woman’s ghastly face and her precious child flung into the deep. Quite abruptly, they stopped and the woman screamed over the wind,
“This is the place. There’s her stroller. Oh my child!”
“Let me see that stroller!” said Jacob, now almost feverish with excitement. “So you say the woman just snatched up the child?”
“Yes, right out the seat!”
Now Edward took over the interrogation, “And before you left on your walk did you leave the child alone in the pram for any amount of time?”
“Um, yes. Yes I think I did. I had run downstairs to my closet to grab a scarf. It couldn’t have been more than a minute.”
As chance would have it, just as the woman said this last qualifying phrase a great lightening bolt ripped the air as it struck a tree nearby. The noise was deafening, but when it ceased the woman heard laughter, great rolling jolly laughter, like she imagined St. Nickolas would laugh at a particularly funny joke told during a Christmas party. Jacob and Edward were standing on the edge of the cliff nearly roaring, patting each other on the back and smiling wonderfully large smiles. As the two men laughed the rain slacked; the wind put down its whistle, and the sea ceased its churning.
“My good good lady” Jacob finally managed to say, “I will not hold you in suspense any longer.”
“Nor I,” put in Edward.
“He won’t. I can attest to that. No he won’t. My good good lady,” he began again, “Edward and I will not hold you in suspense any longer; you’re child is not dead, but—most likely—famished and feeling quite neglected.”
“What?! But I saw her go . . .”
“You saw a bundle of swaddling clothes fly over this cliff, but your baby was not in them. Do you recall what the ‘evil woman’ said when she performed her knavish deed? ‘What a life! What a face!” Now—save in the case of madness—people have meaning behind what they say. Upon searching my brain, I fail to find any motive for murder in these words. She was fascinated with the expression of your face, for indeed she could not see the baby’s. Unless she had a terrible vendetta against you and found joy only in your suffering, the only motive I can find—oh, and Edward seems to agree, ah yes he does; he’s nodding—for her deed is a most common pursuit of young people these days: thrill-seeking, adrenaline rushes, getting thrills. Unfortunately, you were the proverbial butt of her epic stimulatory jape. It is quite obvious from your story what truly happened, oh, but Edward why don’t you finish. Yes do.”
“Ah yes, thank you Jacob, very kind indeed. What happened is this: our culprit—let us call her Elizabeth, Jacob. Oh yes let’s, beautiful name. So Elizabeth made her way into your house without your knowledge, replaced your baby with a plastic impostor child wrapped in your child’s warm blankets—neglecting to re-buckle the phony baby for the sake of speed and to lessen the risk of your intervention—and a few short minutes later dashed by you and threw her doll and your blankets into Neptune’s blue realm. You, madam are the victim of a simple . . .” But before he could complete his big-reveal, the woman had raced off down the trail into the woods and—presumably—in the direction of her home saying over and over,
“Is it true? Oh, my darling Emma!”
It certainly was true. All the two men had conjectured had come to pass. Mother and child were reunited in a flood of tears and not without a few moments of pouting from the poor child who had been left in a broom closet for the entirety of the adventure. The culprit—I too will call her Elizabeth—was traced using footprints and charged with trespassing and petty theft. When asked why she did it, she is reported to have said with a shrug,
“Eh, why not?”
The two men returned home to their rhubarb pie-shaped house—the one third from the left—took off their Wellingtons, hung up their raincoats, fell into their chairs by the now weak fire, and sat for a good long time without speaking. Jacob finally broke the silence,
“Where does eschatology fit into an atheist’s paradigm?”
“I believe it’s inextricably linked to theology and therefore has no place there, Jacob.”
“Ah yes, Good. I thought so too.”
Eighth Day Books, Wichita Kansas
May 3, 2011
Only one holiday I can recall as a child was celebrated each and every week. Because of its foundational importance to the rhythm of life, it has been carried on to my young family. In the course of time some legends and lore have also been added as necessary accoutrements. If I remember correctly in my youth, at least one song was sung on these mornings in weekly commemoration and now to flesh it out in the imagination of the next generation a dragon's lair* is mentioned. Alas, it is a holiday of the elder generation and each following group of children seem less enamored as were their parents in their own childhood.
A Half-Finished Thought on Religion in Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Along with a Lengthy Parenthetical Aside Addressing the Place in the Contemporary Cultural Consciousness of a Late but Inexplicably Semi-Obscure Novel of the Latter Author
[NB: I wrote this several months ago, accidentally posted it, quickly took it down, basically finished it a few days later, and then completely neglected it until now. I have made a few emendations and additions to what I wrote after I posted it, but it still needs a conclusion. However, if I wait till I have the motivation to think it through and write it, It'll be at least a year before I finish my first post. So take it more as a juxtaposition of two authors' approaches to religion and morality in the drama of their art, and draw from it what you will. (I've also long since finished Anna Karenina, so any further ruminations would have to take into account the rest of the novel, making it less an off-the-cuff observation, so to speak, and more of a full analysis. Ack! Too much work!)]
Dostoevsky is usually credited with being the more overtly religious and political novelist, while Tolstoy (at least in War and Peace and Anna Karenina) is said to by more true to the art of the novel itself. Dostoevsky’s characters, though incredibly well-drawn and round, are almost types. The Karamazov brothers represent the intellectual (Ivan), the contemplative/ascetic (Alyosha), and the passionate (Dmitri), especially as these types confront and relate to the Christian faith; Prince Myshkin, in The Idiot, represents a sort of flawed type of religious innocence; Crime and Punishment is one giant conversion narrative, fergoodnesssake; and while Demons (alternately titled The Possessed or Devils) is more overtly political than religious, it could also be construed as a conversion narrative, at least of Stepan Verkhovensky. Indeed, while the story of Demons centers on the irresponsibility of a certain generation of political thinkers and the horrific fallout in the following generation, Stepan Verkhovensky's conversion at the end of the novel is purely religious (and also, by implication, political—the two, after all, are distinct but inseparable phenomena). (And as a sidenote, why does one hear so little about Demons? I was only vaguely aware of it before I started reading my way through Dostoevsky, and was surprised to find out it's considered one of his four great masterworks, along with Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. It was the last novel he wrote before Brothers [which was his last] and is probably also his next best [and my favorite after Brothers]. There's also this: it is brilliant. It has some of the most harrowing and haunting scenes I've read in all of literature.) So much for Dostoevsky.
Right now I'm working my way through Anna Karenina, and it's interesting to note the different ways the two great authors approach religion. While the engine of each character's turmoil in Dostoevsky is religiously fueled, it's not so in Anna Karenina. At least at first glance. While I don’t think I’ll ever read a novel to top The Brothers Karamazov, Tolstoy’s characters, one has to admit, are just more ... real. Dostoevsky’s are vivid, for sure, and Dostoevsky sometimes comes close to Tolstoy’s subtle characterization, but I don’t love and hate each one of Dostoevsky’s characters at the same time the same way I do Tolstoy’s characters. And so Tolstoy strikes me as being more true to life. So when a Tolstoy character makes a moral decision—usually a bad one—I don’t get as explicit a sense that everything hinges on this one little action. Rather, though there are definitely key moments, Tolstoy’s characters are caught in the sweep of an accumulation of morally ambiguous actions that lead them either toward redemption or destruction. And so the theological or religious ramifications rise out of the story organically rather than function parabolically (which he moved toward after Anna Karenina).
For instance: when Anna’s husband first confronts her about the inappropriateness of her social relations with Vronsky, we get a glimpse, in Anna’s response—in which she spiritedly rises to her own defense despite her knowledge of her own guilt—of the moral or religious underpinning of her actions, because the narrator slips in a tiny little observation: “She felt herself clothed in an impenetrable armour of lies. She felt that some invisible source was helping her and supporting her,” a force that gives her the eloquence and the passion to thwart her husband’s attempts to exert social pressure on her. And this is not the last time in the novel that an “invisible source” comes to her aid and pushes her toward Vronsky—and ultimately to ... well, let’s not spoil it. So while there is nothing explicit regarding religion or Christianity here, Tolstoy is most assuredly working within a morally defined universe, however subtly he names the points of contact between human moral action and supernatural prompting. To me at least, this little bit of commentary is evidence of a submerged continent of tectonic moral forces, which drive the action of the novel.