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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Quality of Unexpectedness

Songbird has been panting at the foot of the bookcase for three years. It was three years ago that I, in my agoraphobic longing to burrow into my books and couch cushions with muffin and coffee, decided to test young ears on Jane Austen’s humor. It was only because we had read aloud every appropriate book in all those shelves and it was too hot to go to the library. It was a brief experiment, chiefly in my ability to explain every blasted sentence. It ended in relief on the part of Gale Force and tears on the part of Songbird, who understood nothing, but already knew enough to wish to.

This year, to her hand-clapping delight, I tried it again. We are halfway through, and I have had to explain one or two things. There have been one or two moments of delicious snark that failed to elicit a laugh, and I could be tempted to think I jumped the gun.

Here why it’s not too soon.

1. She is delighted. She wants to hear another chapter, and another. She giggles at 75 % of the humorous parts. She comments astutely on the most ridiculous characters. If she is hanging in and having fun, she is picking up enough to benefit. Marinating in beautiful and witty language is always beneficial. Delighting, even 75%, in story is the foundation of a lifelong love affair with books.  

 2. She is asking good questions. “What did that mean?” after every sentence and paragraph tells you the writing is too advanced. “What is an entail?” tells you it’s mostly sinking in. “You will not improve as a reader if all you read are books that are well within your capacity,” says Mortimer Adler, but he is not speaking primarily of literature. My biggest worry was that I would divulge the plot twists before her mind was ready for the beauty. I made Geronimo sit out the last four Harry Potter books last year because I knew she was missing most of the plot but was sure she would remember who died. That is all spoiler and no benefit. But as long as the questions indicate general understanding (and enjoyment) you can’t really spoil anything. Because….

3. First reads are all about getting over the plot hurdles. The magic of the best books actually happens in the subsequent reads, when the pages have softened and the corners bent. This time through, Songbird doesn’t yet know what happens. She is falling in love with the style and wit, learning to sit taller and prick her ears because she doesn’t want to miss the subtleties. But she will inevitably miss a great many because she is trying to follow the action.

But next time! Next time, she will curl up with it in her bed, and she will already know what happens. The magic begins to work when you are free to dwell in the moments between the action. Your eyes won’t fly to the next piece of a puzzle, but will linger over hints and phrases and skillful wordplay that you missed that first, anxious time.

Anything worth reading is worth reading again. If you found out whodunnit and have no need to pick it up again, it might have been entertaining, but it probably had no soul-molding value. Let’s just let C.S. Lewis say it better and have done.

“An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . .It is the quality of unexpectedness, not the fact that delights us… We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties. Till then, it is like wasting great wine on a ravenous natural thirst which merely wants cold wetness.” (On Stories)

Thursday, September 19, 2019

How to Stay Sane: A Three-Part Survival Guide

Part Three: Embracing Exile

“I’ll believe in anyone or anything,” said Nikabrik, “that’ll batter these cursed Telmarine barbarians to pieces or drive them out of Narnia. Anyone or anything. Aslan or the White Witch, do you understand?”

Christian courage is doing right, being as blameless as you can, though by it you lose the whole world.

To rally behind an ostensible champion simply because Christians have long felt downtrodden by the cultural wave is to forget the essence of the redemptive story. That we are aliens here. That the kingdoms of this world are not our homes. That we seek the good of the city only within the context of Babylonian exile: that it is a sick, dying city in which we are asked to live and flourish. Babylon’s power is not ours to wield. We could never handle it faithfully.

Those who grasp at power do so out of fear. On the first day of school, my daughter sat in the car reassuring herself, “Mom, bullying always means the person is secretly scared, right?” Yes, it does. The fundamental dynamic of Christian life is feeling the fear of the chaotic world (they could kill me, sometimes that’s in the cards) and then trusting that God’s ends are bigger than ours (they could kill me, and from ashes may spring something glorious.) We purport to live for the glory of God, and we forget that we don’t know how God is best glorified. We don’t know if strong, Imperial notes are part of glorifying strains, but we do know that quiet, daily righteous living is a sweet melody in God’s ear.

And then we forget.

We give way to fear about ends and we slip, shouting, into any means and any alliance.

That’s why we are given so many examples.

Fear drives David to kill Uriah. The man after God’s own heart heeds the voice that says, “I have already fixed on an ending. I have no choice.”

But we don’t write the endings.

We don’t know the endings.

Sometimes Rome gets sacked.

God can do a lot through a good sacking. Sometimes, as with David, he sacks the Christian’s heart and purges it of its hubris and restores that heart to himself. Sometimes, as with Saul’s coronation, he lets the natural consequences instruct (You want a king? I’ll let you have that and its fallout.) That’s God’s prerogative, and we humbly leave some of it to mystery. 

Blessed, however, are Christians when they are insulted, persecuted, and misrepresented because of the gospel. (No such blessing for us if we are insulted because of our vitriolic political posturing, though.) We rejoice in persecution because our reward is in heaven (paraphrase, Matt 5) If we seize the reins of Babylon, we might just get our rewards here and now, but we won’t have been much of the salt and light that we are asked to be in the next verse.

The only thing we know for sure is that words like these from a few weeks ago:

Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys.’ They might make great Christian leaders but the United States needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!

are the words of fearful end-writers, not the words of faithful servants. 
        To my brothers and sisters in exile, be not only as wise as serpents, but also, always, as innocent as doves.