Friday, June 25, 2010

The Joy of Snow by Elizabeth Goudge

Please do not read The Joy of the Snow unless you are already a huge fan of Elizabeth Goudge. If you do, you may be tempted to dismiss her as "strange" and never open one of her marvelous books. There isn't much I can say about this book that hasn't already been said by Janet at Across the Page. I, too, struggled to like this book because Goudge is honest about her beliefs and eccentricities to a fault. When fans wrote her and asked if she put herself in her books, she replied that quite the opposite was true. "After writing for years I noticed the regular appearance of a tall, graceful woman, well-balanced, intelligent, calm, capable and tactful. She is never flustered, forgetful, frightened, irritable or nervous... She is all I long to be and never will be. She is in complete reverse a portrait of myself."(p. 34) Goudge is this self-deprecating throughout her entire autobiography.

My least favorite Goudge book is Middle Window. But after reading Joy of Snow, I at least understand what compelled her to write it: her strong belief that love is stronger than death. This theme is too sentimental for a common sense girl like me, but time and life experience may change my opinion.

Though I had to come to grips with the fact that Goudge and I don’t share the same theological views, I still believe she’s one of the best fiction writers out there. Her characters grapple with real issues and don’t always come up with neat and tidy solutions. YET, they often recognize their need to make tough decisions based on their growing understanding of who God is. Interestingly, Goudge insists that she always set out to write a good story rather than a religious one and that faith-related themes came into the books quite unconsciously.

A sampling of some of the lovely quotes:

God draws us to Himself with tenderness and then says the most uncomfortable things to us. (p. 245)

I believe that death interrupts nothing of importance if the goal is Christ. (p. 247)

Truly great men and women are never terrifying. Their humility puts you at your ease. If a very important person frightens you he is not great; he only thinks he is. (p. 212)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Miniatures and Morals by Peter Liethart

Austen’s books have sadly been relegated to the modern abyss of “chick lit”. In his book, Miniatures and Morals, Peter Liethart contends that Austen’s novels function on many other levels. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by his subtitle, “The Christian novels of Jane Austen.” Obviously her books are “moral” in the sense that the heroes and heroines are rewarded for gallantry and the scoundrels punished for their misdeeds. But are the novels “Christian” in the sense that they present truths derived from New Testament teachings? Leithart makes a strong case for his premise.

In his chapter titled “Real Men Read Austen”, he writes, “All of Austen’s great heroes – Darcy, Wentworth, Edmund Bertram, Knightley – are men who hold positions of authority and use those positions for good. Each of them is a Christlike lover who sacrifices, often at some cost to his reputation, to win his bride. They are servant-heroes, not macho-heroes. (p.19) Later he calls Austen’s novels “allegories of redemption”. (p. 32)

In addition to his expert analysis of each novel, Leithart offers insights into Austen as "craftsman". Over and over he points out specific scenes in each book that are perfect counterbalances to other scenes. One example comes from the book Persuasion. In the final pages Anne Elliot and Captain Harville are discussing whether men or more constant in love than women. Harville says all great literature is on his side and Anne counters that all the great literature has been written by men. Just at that moment the eavesdropping Wentworth drops his pen. I always thought he did that out of embarrassment, but Leithart contends that Austen purposely “takes the pen out of male hands” and puts the final word in the mouth of a woman. Those kinds of insights are sprinkled throughout the book and caused me to holler with sheer glee.

I majored in English Lit and did my post graduate work in theology so this book was a perfect combination of subjects. It may be a bit didactic for the average reader and it presupposes familiarity with all six novels, BUT if you like literature because it gives you a deeper understanding into what it means to be human, you will appreciate this fine book. I wish I had enough room to give Leithart’s explanation of the complex meanings of the words, sense and sensibility. Or of his declaration that Emma is the “most Christian” novel of them all. Or to reiterate why “boring” Fanny Price is one the best heroines ever. But this post is already way too long.

(An explanation of the title, Miniatures and Morals: “Instead of a thin description of large events, [Austen] gives us a thick description of small events.” - p. 30)

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Lost Art of True Beauty by Leslie Ludy

The subtitle of The Lost Art of True Beauty is The Set-Apart Girl’s Guide to Feminine Grace, which implies the spiritual aspect of beauty. Ludy strongly urges her readers to find true beauty as they separate themselves from the values of the world and draw closer to Christ. The thoughts I’ve woven together below are taken from the author’s own words.

She rightly points out that we live in a culture that lifts up a standard of beauty impossible to achieve in real life. “We are constantly assaulted by a world that insists we aren’t alluring enough – we need to change our bodies, our clothes, and our personality in order to be more appealing.”(p. 26)

“Love yourself, take care of yourself, transform yourself” are our mantras. But as Ludy points out, these are totally contrary to scripture. Christ said, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”(Mark 8:34) The word “deny” here literally translates: to forget one’s self, lose sight of one’s self and one’s own interests… The secret to becoming radiant and beautiful is to forget about self and become completely consumed with only one thing – Jesus Christ…. (p.30)

The first step to discovering true feminine beauty is exchanging all that we are for all the He is. If we rely on something that we possess to make us beautiful, we cannot receive the supernatural, transforming beauty of Christ. True beauty is impossible outside of Him. (p.22)

God’s pattern is the very opposite of the “bad girl” image so applauded in our modern times… Somewhere along the way, as the culture became more cavalier toward sin and selfishness, the idea of being dignified, refined, ladylike, gracious, and socially selfless faded into the background. Now young women seem to get far more respect if they are loud, boisterous, rebellious, obnoxious, and sexually aggressive than if they are sweet, polite, graceful, refined, modest and thoughtful… (p.44)

[But] true beauty, in a nutshell, is found in a soul completely surrendered to Jesus Christ, a heart consumed by Him alone, and a life eagerly poured out for His sake. (p.168)

(I wish someone had given me this book as a teenager.)

Friday, June 4, 2010

Silence by Shusaku Endo

If I have to pick between a Protestant novelist or a Catholic one, I almost always choose the latter. That probably sounds funny coming from a Methodist, but experience has shown that fiction written by Catholic authors manages to deal with theological issues while at the same time avoiding simplistic, pat answers. Shusako Endo’s Silence is no exception.

The story takes place in Japan in the 1600’s. Though all missionaries have been expelled, several priests enter the country secretly to give pastoral care to the Catholic converts. Father Sebastian Rodrigues has an additional motive for making the trip: One of his favorite seminary teachers had been in Japan as a missionary and was rumored to have denied the faith while under torture. Rodrigues' quest to discover the truth makes up the bulk of the novel's second half.

The book deals with the issues of suffering, persecution, forgiveness, and the efficacy of prayer. (The title refers to God’s seeming indifference to the suffering Christians’ prayers.) Powerful stuff! This is not a light read, nor does it have a nice, neat ending. But if you like to grapple with real-life questions in a well-written book, you’ll appreciate Silence.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

C.S. Lewis on The Great Books

Few have equaled C.S. Lewis in their ability to distill complicated truths into understandable sentences. He wrote the introduction to a book I am reading now. And his thoughts alone are worth the price of the book. In the intro he writes that novice readers prefer reading modern, "simplified" versions of classic theology and philosophy books because they feel inadequate to understand the original documents. Here is Lewis' response:

This seems topsy-turvy to me... If the ordinary reader must read only the new or the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it...

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.... If the average student wants to find out about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read it. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about "isms" and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for its springs from humility. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

From intro to On The Incarnation by Athanasius