Novelist Larry Woiwode on the unbreakable bond between specificity and universality
“When a writer crosses the line of impropriety and talks about the act of writing itself, he or she’d better speak about it from the inside, as a person in a suit of armor might describe an itch starting to crawl up an arm, not as a scholar focusing on the makeup of a medieval gorget of mail. The itch in this instance is the relevance of place, or locale, to contemporary fiction.
“The French novelist George Bernanos says about his native Provence in Essais et écrits de combat I, after being absent from it for thirty years,
“Whether here or there, why should I be nostalgic about what actually belongs to me, is mine, and which I cannot betray? Why should I invoke the black puddles of the beaten-down path, or the hedge resounding under the melancholy beating of the rain since I am myself both the hedge and the black puddles?
“Here is a heartfelt response to homeplace, in which details of a particular place become one with the writer. Some critics might view Bernanos’s response as regional. When canonmeisters label a writer ’regional,’ they suggest that the writer isn’t in quite the same league as the big boys, equating regionalism with parochialism — an attitude that honors certain areas of the United States (or the world, for that matter) as right and proper, preferable to others — while the rest is regional. Every traveler knows that the vast tracts of continent from New Jersey to California contain varieties of typography, and isn’t quite healed until the Pacific coast. The area is called the Midwest, although it contains areas of the East and Northwest and West.
“In our anxious modern tendency to categorize — a reflex that suggests fear and has its apotheosis in computer circuits, as if fear dictates even the patterns of organization in the machines we invent to think for us — we seem to have forgotten the unpronounceable county in Mississippi, whose creator said it was the size of a postage stamp, or the locale of the Odyssey of our latter-day Ulysses, Dublin, or the best-selling prophet who never strayed far from his birthplace, Bethlehem.
“Let me say, then, that the properties of a particular place are important, yes, but the human beings are more important than locale. And the inner state of a character is of far greater importance than any external estate containing him or her, no matter how extraordinary its geophysical distinctions. Of even greater import is the character’s need to relate events that have had an emotional effect on his or her character to a friend or neighbor, the auditor of fiction.
“These elements make up what is known as narrative, and they can be transferred to any landscape on the planet, or to any vehicle in orbit around it. In one of the most limited poems, William Blake gives voice to a clod of clay and a pebble in a brook. It’s difficult to narrow your vision more than that, though Theodore Roethke does in his greenhouse poems. In the ‘The Clod and the Pebble,' Blake dramatizes self centered and selfless love, and by implication suggests that selfless love renders living in the world bearable, if it isn’t the foundation on which redeeming life in the world is built. It might help to have a Christian perspective to arrive at this last, larger inference (the clay as God-man trod down) but the poem is one that anybody from any culture at any given period can pick up and resonate to, as with Bernanos. Both speak to an unequivocal nature in every human being.
“So it's time to shed one obvious misapprehension about writing — that the physical locus of a piece of fiction limits the way in which meaning may widen from it, as rings of water widen around a cattail that a blackbird abandons. I can indeed reverse the premise and say that to the degree writing is true to indigenous detail, to that degree it resonates with wider meaning — or universality, as some might say. Think of the young man from rural Stratford who never forgot the local flora or any Bottom or Dogberry or resident of Arden, or the poetic, power-stricken Richards who aspired to be kings of one kind or another.”
— from Larry Woiwode, “Someplace, Heaven or Hell? On the Order of Existence,” in Words Made Fresh: Essays on Literature and Culture (Crossway, 2011). Larry Woiwode offered further thoughts about reading and writing on Volume 111 of the Journal.
Ralph C. Wood on the theological threads in the work of P. D. James
Ralph C. Wood has been a welcome repeat guest on the Journal. His first outing with us was in 1993, when he consented to talk about the backslidden comedy of then-recently deceased novelist Peter De Vries. In subsequent visits, he shared insights about Flannery O’Connor, J. R. R. Tolkien, and G. K. Chesterton. In 2002, we talked about the fiction of P. D. James (1920-2014), about whom Wood had written an article entitled “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide: An Essay on P. D. James’s The Children of Men.” Several years later, we recorded a reading of that article as one of our Audio Reprints. An excerpt from “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” follows:
“The key to P. D. James’s fiction, especially her later work, is her Christianity. She regards our cultural malaise as having theological no less than ethical cause. The murder in A Taste for Death occurs in a church, for instance, and the murderer is not only a sadist but also a nihilist who revels in the god-like power inherent in the threat of death. He kills in order to prove that the cosmos is empty of divinity. Like Dostoevsky, James is determined to ask whether, if there be no God, all goodness is vacated and all evils unleashed. As a Christian, James knows that the answer is yes. But as a novelist, she has sought to make her faith implicit rather than overt. In interviews following televised versions of her work, James has pointed out that Adam Dalgliesh, her chief detective, is a confirmed skeptic. She does not want to confine her hero within her own convictions, nor to impose them on her readers. James is an artist whose moral instruction is conveyed indirectly through aesthetic appeal, not a prophet who seeks our conversion by directly declaring the divine Word.
“The artistic indirectness of James’s Christian vision is made most evident in Innocent Blood, the novel whose manner and matter most clearly resemble The Children of Men. Strictly speaking, neither novel is a detective story. There being no crime to solve, James focuses her earlier novel on a much deeper concern: the enormous subtlety of evil. Innocent Blood contains not one protagonist but three, and each of them surprises us in the capacity to do both wicked and generous things. No sooner have we begun to regard the novel's central characters as despicable people than James reveals their own secret pathos — a suffering so deep that, though it does not excuse their sins and crimes, it makes us understand and even pity them.
“Though patient with evil, James is impatient with those who deny its moral and spiritual complexity. The profoundest human horrors do not admit of ready resolution — as if, James once declared in an interview, Parliament could pass a law abolishing original sin. Innocent Blood features a sociologist named Maurice Palfrey who believes, in fact, that evil can be purged by governmental measures. Since we are creatures of our environment, he holds, we need only to improve environmental conditions in order to prevent crime and other social problems. It follows that Palfrey regards Christianity — with its stress on ingrained sin and transcendent redemption — as the great deceit.
“Palfrey offers a veritable litany of what he considers to be the major Christian offenses: the monstrous notion that there is a God who created us in the divine image (when it seems obvious that we have made God in our own likeness), the pathetic injustice of blaming people for inborn sin when they have no choice in the matter, and the laughable contradiction between the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the sacramental view of sex as being so holy it must be confined to marriage. Most egregious of all is the doctrine of atonement, with its barbaric idea that the Son must ‘propitiate His Father’s desire for vengeance.’ Had enlightened folks like himself been present at the crucifixion, says Palfrey, they would have intervened to prevent such a grotesque injustice. ‘But the God of Love was apparently content,’ Palfrey laments, ‘to let it happen — indeed, willed it to happen — and to His only son. You can’t ask us to believe in a God of Love who behaves less compassionately than would the least of his creatures.’
“James’s wrath against such secular smugness is exceeded only by her impatience at the complacency and cowardice of her fellow Christians. Palfrey makes his assault on Christianity during a television debate with an Anglican bishop. Instead of replying that the sociologist has been appropriately scandalized by the offense of the gospel—by the good news that God transforms the worst human evil into the highest divine redemption — the bishop blinks. He is too benignly disposed, too timid and vacillating about his own Christian faith, to offer an untrammeled affirmation of it. And so James has a confessed murderess denounce the weakling prelate as he deserves: ‘Poor bishop! He could only win by saying things that he'd be too embarrassed to utter and which neither the BBC nor the viewers—especially the Christians—would in the least wish to hear.’”
In addition to our Audio Reprint of “Rapidly Rises the Morning Tide” — a Theology Today article from which the above paragraphs are excerpted — Ralph C. Wood’s insights are also evident in two of our Conversations: Hillbilly Thomist: Flannery O'Connor & the Truth of Things and Maker of Middle-Earth, in which Wood is joined by Tom Shippey and Joseph Pearce to talk about J. R. R. Tolkien.
Eugene Peterson on reading as an art of chewing, savoring, and digesting
“The Oxford don, Austin Farrar, in his Bampton Lectures [published as The Glass of Vision (1948)], referred to ‘the forbidding discipline of spiritual reading’ that ordinary people have characteristically brought to this text [i.e., the book of Revelation] that forms their souls. Forbidding because it requires that we read with our entire life, not just employing the synapses of our brain. Forbidding because of the endless dodges we devise in avoiding the risk of faith in God. Forbidding because of our restless inventiveness and using whatever knowledge of ‘spirituality' we acquire to set ourselves up as gods. Forbidding because when we have learned to read and comprehend the words on the page, we find that we have hardly begun. Forbidding because it requires all of us, our muscles and ligaments, our eyes and ears, our obedience and adoration, our imaginations and our prayers. Our ancestors set this ‘forbidding discipline’ (their phrase for us it was lectio divina) as the core curriculum in this most demanding of all schools, the School of the Holy Spirit, established by Jesus when he told his disciples, ‘When the spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth . . . he will take what is mine and declare it to you’ (John 16:13–15; also 14:16; 15:26; 16:7–8). All writing that comes out of this School anticipates this kind of reading: participatory reading, receiving the words in such a way that they become interior to our lives, the rhythms and images becoming practices of prayer, acts of obedience, ways of love.
“Words spoken or written to us under the metaphor of eating, words to be freely taken in, tasted, chewed, savored, swallowed, and digested, have a very different effect on us from those that come at us from the outside, whether in the form of propaganda or information. Propaganda works another person’s will upon us, attempting to manipulate us to an action or a belief. Insofar as we are moved by it, we become less, the puppet of a puppeteer writer/speaker. There is no dignity, no soul, in a puppet. And information reduces words to the condition of commodities that we can use however we will. Words are removed from their originating context in the moral universe and from personal relationships so that they can be used as tools or weapons. Such commodification of language reduces both those who speak it and those who listen to it also to commodities.
“Reading is an immense gift, but only if the words are assimilated, taken into the soul — eaten, chewed, gnawed, received in unhurried delight. Words of men and women long dead, or separated by miles and/or years, come off the page and enter our lives freshly and precisely, conveying truth and beauty and goodness, words that God's spirit has used and uses to breathe life into our souls. Our access to reality deepens into past centuries, spreads across continents. But this reading also carries with it subtle dangers. Passionate words of men and women spoken in ecstasy can end up flattened on the page and dissected with an impersonal eye. Wild words wrung out of excruciating suffering can be skinned and stuffed, mounted and labeled as museum specimens. The danger in all reading is that words be twisted into propaganda or reduced to information, mere tools and data. We silence the living voice and reduce words to what we can use for convenience and profit.
“One psalmist mocked his contemporaries for reducing the living God who spoke and listened to them into a gold or silver thing-god that they could use:
Those who make them are like them;
so are all who trust in them. (Ps. 115:8)
“It's an apt warning for us still as we deal daily with the incredible explosion of information technology and propagandizing techniques. These words need rescuing.”
— From Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Eerdman’s, 2006). Eugene Peterson (1932–2018) talked with Ken Myers about this book and four others on spiritual theology in Dancing Lessons: Eugene Peterson on Theology and the Rhythms of Life, one of many MARS HILL AUDIO Conversations.
Marilyn McEntyre on engaging texts receptively
“I've come to believe that good reading is not possible without investment of the whole self. If this is what is given us to do — to be readers, writers, and speakers — then to ‘do it with our whole might,’ in William Robinson Clark’s phrase, means doing it with all our faculties — mind, heart, and gut. To read well is to enter into living relationship with another whole self. Even the most insufferable pedant comes to his or her work as a whole human being with investments, passions, defenses, and desires. As we read, we do well to remember the ‘who’ behind the ‘what.’ If we maintain that focus, dimensions of reading open up that don’t get much press in classrooms. . . .
“There are three very basic questions I like to ask students as they embark on a new novel. What does this work invite you to do? What does it require of you? What does it not let you do? Because the nature of literary engagement is not, finally, detached. We will be addressed and changed, if we read well. We will be challenged and confronted and convicted and offended, bothered, unsettled, and sometimes bored — and even boredom has its uses as preparation for a deeper level of engagement — though more often it’s a sign of sloth.
“All this is to say that the act of reading itself is not only intellectually and emotionally engaging, but morally consequential. How we choose to read, how we submit to or question or resist the terms set by the writer, are choices that shape the habits of our minds and the habits of our hearts. Those habits determine the degree to which we are open to truth in its various guises, and capable of discerning the difference between the ring of truth and the metallic clang of lies.
“Over the past few years, since I began teaching a course called ‘Contemplative Reading,’ I have found that the ancient Benedictine discipline of lectio divina offers an approach to many texts that may allow us to harvest their gifts in a way that frees us from what may have become deadening in classrooms, institutional schedules, and syllabi. Lectio, above all other approaches to reading I know, teaches us to take words personally.
“In lectio, which Benedictines practice in the daily reading of Scripture, you read the text slowly, listening for a word or phrase that speaks to you with particular emphasis. Then you re-read the passage, allowing the key word or phrase to be a point of contact, considering how it addresses the particular circumstances of your life. On the third reading you meditate on the text and on the words it has brought to your attention as gifts peculiar to the moment, considering what response it invites. Finally, on the fourth reading you rest in words as you hear them once more. As a devotional practice, lectio is reserved for sacred texts and sacred time. I recommended it on those terms to anyone seeking nourishment from sacred reading.
“On the other hand, what lectio can teach us about how to read responsibly, receptively, and fruitfully need not be reserved only for the reading of sacred texts. Poems, stories, personal memoirs, even news analysis and feature articles can be read with the prayer that in them we may be personally addressed and from them receive what Kenneth Burke calls ‘equipment for living.’ I have begun to tell my students — many of them victims of twelve years of schooling in which many have learned to resent ten-pound anthologies with unimaginative study guides and the overburdened teachers who ask plodding content questions — to ‘take it personally.’ Not simply to find what they can (to use their favorite verb) ‘relate to,’ but rather to read with an eye and ear out for words, images, scenes, sentences, and rhythms that evoke a felt response. To put a check in the margin when they are bothered or amused or offended or delighted or simply when something makes them think ‘Hmm.’ And then to go back to those places and ask what happened there. What associations were triggered? What reactions might they take time to articulate? What part of their comfort zone was invaded? To listen for direct address is to listen for an invitation and to make ready to receive precisely the gift one needs in precisely this moment of reading. On this particular reading of Moby-Dick it may lurk in the chapter on the whiteness of the whale. Next time, though, it may be in the little colloquy on Ahab’s pipe that one of my students decided was ‘the key chapter in Moby-Dick.’”
— from Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Eerdmans, 2009). A second edition of this book will be released in May 2021. An interview with McEntyre about the original edition is included in The Worth of Words, one of many Anthologies available in our catalog.
William Cowper seeks retirement from worldliness, in a hymn and a poem
In our time, the best-known hymn by slaver-turned-abolitionist-priest John Newton (1725–1807) is “Amazing Grace.” But during the nineteenth century, his hymn “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” was much more popular. The hymn’s first stanza doesn’t address God, but “Zion, City of our God.”
The final stanza in the original hymn moved from describing the attributes of the Heavenly Jerusalem to discussing, in the form of a prayer, the characteristics that should be evident in the lives of citizens of the Holy City.
Savior, if of Zion’s city
I, thro’ grace, a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name;
fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion's children know.
Newton’s fellow hymn-writer William Cowper (1731–1800, and pronounced “Cooper”) seems to have been extremely alert to the distractions and temptations of the various pleasures of worldlings. One of the many hymns that he wrote — a hymn published in the Newton-edited collection Olney Hymns — expresses the desire to escape from the noise and distraction of worldliness. The hymn — usually named by its first line — was when originally published called simply “Retirement.”
1. Far from the world, O Lord, I flee,
From strife and tumult far;
From scenes where Satan wages still
His most successful war.
2. The calm retreat, the silent shade,
With prayer and praise agree;
And seem by Thy sweet bounty made
For those who follow Thee.
3. There, if Thy Spirit touch the soul,
And grace her mean abode,
O with what peace, and joy, and love,
She communes with her God!
4. There, like the nightingale, she pours
Her solitary lays;
Nor asks a witness of her song,
Nor thirsts for human praise.
5. Author and Guardian of my life,
Sweet Source of light divine,
And, all harmonious names in one,
My Saviour, — Thou art mine!
6. What thanks I owe Thee, and what love,
A boundless, endless store,
Shall echo through the realms above
When time shall be no more!
In his book The Hymnal: A Reading History (discussed on Volume 149 of the Journal and excerpted here), Christopher N. Phillips describes how the writing of hymns was the genesis of Cowper’s emergence as a significant English poet. So it is not surprising that one of Cowper’s longer poems (800 lines) develops in a more expansive mode some of the themes present in this hymn. That poem is also called “Retirement.” Below are some excerpts.
. . . conscience pleads her cause within the breast,
Though long rebell’d against, not yet suppress’d,
And calls a creature form’d for God alone,
For Heaven’s high purposes, and not his own,
Calls him away from selfish ends and aims,
From what debilitates and what inflames,
From cities humming with a restless crowd,
Sordid as active, ignorant as loud,
Whose highest praise is that they live in vain,
The dupes of pleasure, or the slaves of gain,
Where works of man are cluster’d close around,
And works of God are hardly to be found,
To regions where, in spite of sin and woe,
Traces of Eden are still seen below,
Where mountain, river, forest, field, and grove,
Remind him of his Maker’s power and love. . . .
Some minds by nature are averse to noise,
And hate the tumult half the world enjoys,
The lure of avarice, or the pompous prize
That courts display before ambitious eyes;
The fruits that hang on pleasure’s flowery stem,
Whate’er enchants them, are no snares to them.
To them the deep recess of dusky groves,
Or forest, where the deer securely roves,
The fall of waters, and the song of birds,
And hills that echo to the distant herds,
Are luxuries excelling all the glare
The world can boast, and her chief favourites share.
With eager step, and carelessly array’d,
For such a cause the poet seeks the shade, . . .
Luxury gives the mind a childish cast,
And, while she polishes, perverts the taste;
Habits of close attention, thinking heads,
Become more rare as dissipation spreads,
Till authors hear at length one general cry,
Tickle and entertain us, or we die.
The loud demand, from year to year the same,
Beggars invention, and makes fancy lame;
Till farce itself, most mournfully jejune,
Calls for the kind assistance of a tune;
And novels (witness every month’s review)
Belie their name, and offer nothing new.
The mind, relaxing into needful sport,
Should turn to writers of an abler sort,
Whose wit well managed, and whose classic style,
Give truth a lustre, and make wisdom smile. . . .
Religion does not censure or exclude
Unnumber’d pleasures harmlessly pursued;
To study culture, and with artful toil
To meliorate and tame the stubborn soil;
To give dissimilar yet fruitful lands
The grain, or herb, or plant that each demands;
To cherish virtue in an humble state,
And share the joys your bounty may create;
To mark the matchless workings of the power
That shuts within its seed the future flower,
Bids these in elegance of form excel,
In colour these, and those delight the smell,
Sends Nature forth the daughter of the skies,
To dance on earth, and charm all human eyes;
To teach the canvas innocent deceit,
Or lay the landscape on the snowy sheet—
These, these are arts pursued without a crime,
That leave no stain upon the wing of time.
Me poetry (or, rather, notes that aim
Feebly and vainly at poetic fame)
Employs, shut out from more important views,
Fast by the banks of the slow-winding Ouse;
Content if, thus sequester’d, I may raise
A monitor’s, though not a poet’s, praise,
And, while I teach an art too little known,
To close life wisely, may not waste my own.