Thursday, December 27, 2007

What's in a Semester?

Well, here it is. This is what I've been doing the last four months. I usually don't do big checklists like this but it was a daunting season of life and I wanted to keep on top of things. Its kind of sad to look at 4 months of your life summarized in a checklist but there it is. The thing is, each thing on this list represents a learning experience: Some of them practical, some of them profound. I really have enjoyed seminary. Can't believe there is only one semester left.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

A Beautiful Story

In church today they told the Christmas story, and they said it wasn't just a story. What more could it be? It is the story. From eternity past this has been the story. We are in it. We get to participate in the eternal community of God because of His election to create, and not only to create but to become, human.

Of course He is not reducibly human any more than we are divine. But from the foundation of the world the story has been that Creator elected to share life and love with creatures and to take this to the most unimaginably intimate lengths. The incarnation is the opening of the floodgates of the depths of that story. A story that is not done. It is about reconciling the world with Himself.

It isn't just a story, we say. Funny we don't say this about our creeds though. We don't read our doctrinal statements and say they are just our doctrinal statements. But they fall short of conveying all that is to be conveyed about the wonders of God in life. Story helps us appreciate that a bit more. The Bible is full of this story. I go to church to be a part of a story that God is telling. But I digress. It's true, this isn't just a story. This is the story: The one in which all stories find their meaning.

I have my criticisms of church, but at the end of the day I have to say this morning it was (and always is) a privilege to be reminded of this story and to be called to live in it and even be an extension of it. For all that the church may or may not be, it is God's collective witness through time and space of what he has done and is doing and is yet to do. The incarnate Son of the Eternal One is not finished uniting us to Himself. Let us partake together.

Friday, December 14, 2007

"New Clothes" (A Short Story by Dale H)

Well, I haven't had much to write lately but I've had lots to read. One of the things I've enjoyed reading lately have been some short stories of some friends of mine. I asked them if I could share them. Here's one by my friend Dale at seminary. In a week or so I'll post one from my friend Dave M. I won't say much about them but if anyone comments I'll make some comments too. Be nice to my friends though! I love stories that take you to another place or into another person's mind or heart. Both of these stories do that. If you have some time, give them a read! Peace, Jon.

New Clothes

A Short Story

If one could somehow know, before it occurred, that this or that experience would leave its indelible mark on the imagination, I suppose one would make a more conscious effort to absorb as many of the details as possible for later rumination. As it is, I remember very few, and those I do drift intangibly before my mind’s eye like grains of dust suspended and illuminated but briefly in the sunlight shaft of my memory.

I remember especially the heat. It had gripped me like a sweaty fist all that day as I waited for the evening’s performance. I had whiled away the sun and the time in the shade of the carefully manicured greenery of Vienna’s Stadtpark, reading the last pages of Camus’ L’Etranger. If I had not been laboring so hard to effect that existential objectivity I so admired in its narrator, I would probably have allowed myself to indulge in the sense of absolute Bohemianism the whole scene evoked—the drifting traveler in repose, detached and foreign, sitting and reading an existential French novel in the dappled shadows by the banks of the Donau, oblivious of the crowds rushing past him along the Schubertring.

In retrospect, I must admit, the majority of Camus’ sparse prose was wasted on my ungainly schoolbook French, but the odd phrase here and there—"Do you wish my life to have no meaning?" "I had no soul, there was nothing human about me"— whet my appetite for the profound just enough to keep me engrossed. I read and reread the final paragraph somewhat tremulously, trying to absorb the essence of those last sentences. Though I did not understand his des cris de haine, I knew well enough what he meant by la tendre indifférence du monde-- a world which had ceased to concern me.

Perhaps this is why I was disappointed that evening to find that the two Americans so annoyed me. My annoyance bore witness to the failure of my contrived detachment. We were all crowded together in the dim light of the standing-room-only section of the Vienna State Opera House: these Americans behind me to my left, a stoic British couple just in front of me, to my right the Australian tourist who had chatted so affably at me in the line while we waited for our tickets. In this crowd, the heat of the day, not at all waning with the evening, swarmed oppressively. Many had already accordioned their programs into fans and were desperately trying to wave it away. My Lonely Planet had assured me that Stehplatz—standing room only admission—to the Vienna State Opera House could be purchased for a mere 20 Austrian schillings, and the cultured exoticism of it all had been irresistible to me. It may be that I was not the only pseudo-bohemian traveler looking for a taste of the exotic after spending the day reading French nihilistic literature by the banks of the Donau, for the standing-room-only section densely packed.

At any rate, these Americans annoyed me. They had struck up a conversation of the most transparent kind with the woman standing next to me. She was a girl, really, perhaps twenty, and the tone and tenor of these two young tourists was particularly grating: "Have you been to the Opera before?" "Are you from Vienna?" "We’ve been traveling through Austria for two weeks now." Without effort the image came to me of these two college kids back home in Connecticut regaling their friends with stories of the time they had with that girl they met at the State Opera House in Vienna, like some trophy snapshot in a sordid photo album captioned with ugly words like "score" and "chick."

That the girl spoke English with an extreme brokenness, which she tried to hide behind fluttering, averted looks, made the whole scene the worse. They pressed her. "Are you Austrian?"

"No… not Austrian." Her accent was German. "I always have wanted…to see… ballet."

Because of the crowds, I could not help but notice her. She was quite lovely, in a timid way. Her complexion was porcelain-white, and the hair that fell in dark curls past her shoulders, together with the wide darkness of her eyes, exaggerated its fairness to pale. She smiled faintly at their conversation but something about the hint of nervousness in the gesture, the furtive movement of her eyes as she did so, suggested to me a mother bird feigning a broken wing to distract a predator from the vulnerable hatchlings in her nest.

Her figure, too, though graceful, had a fragility about it that was accentuated by her unusual attire. A simple white dress hung straight from her shoulders, curvelessly to her feet. Aside from the obvious newness of the dress—its stiffness and brightness—there was nothing remarkable in it alone. Even the platform sandals she wore, though they gave the impression of a child playing at dress-up in her mother’s high heels, were not especially unusual. It was the brilliant sash bound about her straight waist that caught the eye. A bright, lime green silk, it seemed all the more green for being the only swatch of colour she wore: a brilliant star of green in a perfect night of white. On any other figure, in any other setting, this combination would have seemed eccentric, even clownish. In her it somehow gave her loveliness a bashful naiveté, pitiable perhaps, but not laughable. I could close my eyes and imagine this timid young innocent donning this plain white dress, her newest and best, for her first time at the ballet, scrutinizing herself before the mirror with a look of humble dissatisfaction, and then, with artless triumph, completing her ensemble with this garish green sash, blissfully ignorant of the glaring effect, and all the more lovely for that ignorance.

"You speak German?" one of the Americans was asking.

"Yes…German."

"We’ve never seen ballet before." The other was confessing. "Do you like it?"

Again the mother-bird fluttered her broken smiles: "I always have wanted…to see… ballet."

"Well, when you’re in Vienna, you have to go to the Opera House at least once."

"Yes. It is so… beautiful."

"I’m Josh."

"And I… I am… Sofia."

The British couple ahead of me was mumbling placidly to one another about the pending performance: "It says here the show tonight, ‘L’Existence’ is an experimental modern ballet."

"Experimental and modern? I wonder what we should expect then."

"Something deep, I’d say. Interpretive, no doubt."

Next to me the effusive Australian was imposing on my attention some anecdote he had read in his tour guide about the Emperor’s commissioning of the Staasoper. "Look here, mate," he was saying, "it says the architects of the Opera House committed suicide after the Emperor Franz-Josef made some off-hand remark about the building being too low to the ground. Can you imagine?"

Apparently the foundation had been laid before the surrounding street was finished, and the street ended up being higher than planned. In his chagrin over his role in their deaths, the Emperor sought to avoid the self-destruction of other artists by confining all subsequent aesthetic judgments to a simple: "Es war sehr schön, es hat mich sehr gefreut"—it was very nice; it pleased me very well. "Not much of an art critic, was he?" laughed the Australian as he recounted to story.

All the while I listened to him I kept the corner of my attention fixed on that strange girl and the two Americans. Before my annoyance could pin itself to a justifiable excuse, however, the ballet began.

The lights faded and the noise of the crowd dimmed to silence. For a few moments my eyes and ears gaped wide in the perfect darkness as we waited for something to happen. Then, the faintest scratch of a bow on a violin moaned distantly, and ceased. It scraped again, ceased again, and then the sound began in earnest. To call it music would somehow fall short in conveying the dark, swirling chaos of tonal textures— staccato creaks, piercing wails and guttural groans—that escaped in irrational intervals from that unseen horsehair scraping wire somewhere in the darkness. It was not unmelodic. It was deliberately and calmly antimelodic.

Though no doubt these noises were all carefully contrived, the ear sought vainly for some pattern which it might cling to and call rhythm in the sinuous bursts of sound. In the back of my mind I wondered if this was what was called atonality.
Whether my eyes had begun to grow accustomed to the dark, or whether somewhere on stage a light had come up, I couldn’t tell, but peering ahead an image slowly materialized: two hunched forms occupied opposite corners of a large square platform elevated some four feet off the main stage. In the hazy but growing light it appeared to be hovering there, suspended in a void of nothingness. It was lit, I now felt certain, from above with a grim grey light, but what made the scene hazy and indistinct was a transparent veil or curtain that was apparently hung in the darkness before the stage. In the centre of the platform sat a large, white cube.
Still the sound writhed around us.

For what seemed an unbearably long time, nothing happened. Then the figures rose and began their movements. Their black leggings and the shadows along the muscles of their naked upper bodies gave them a sinister air in that gloomy light. The music having no perceptible rhythm, it was somewhat difficult to discern a dance in their gyrations, but as they moved toward one another, the most unexpected thing happened. The platform began to tilt with the shifting weight of their bodies, pitching and heaving like some enormous, two dimensional scale. As it did so, the white cube in the centre began to move and slide with it.

Once the movement started, it could not stop without threatening to dump one, the other, or the white cube off into the pit. So the two figures drifted continually through the gloom and shadow, sometimes chasing, other times grappling each other, or else twining together to form some subtly grotesque tableau before flinging apart. And every movement was somehow punctuated with that eerie, formless sound.
Gradually the randomness of the scene wore off and a story, or perhaps more accurately, a pattern, could be made out. The two men were in competition, but this was only clear from the way one would attempt to tilt the platform such that the other came precariously close to disappearing over the edge. They were also striving for control of the white box; and through manipulating the scale just so, one might cause it to slide to him, only to have it wrested from him by the machinations of the other.

At times the two would lock together leaving the cube to slide itself dangerously close to the infinite abyss of the edge, only to be spared this just in time by further shifting of the platform’s angle. This continued through no clearly defined progression until, after a time, by some chance coincidence of vectors, friction and forces, the cube came to rest safely in the centre of the platform again, the two figures balanced on opposite corners. There they hunched again to their original positions. The violin heaved itself to a near-rhythmic tattoo, dropped darkly to a long whispered sigh, and stopped abruptly. The faint light was snuffed out and darkness again descended. With it fell a palpable silence.

The lights rose and for the briefest glimmer of a pause, the audience digested what they had just witnessed. Then a knowing ripple of applause began. It was not enthusiastic, but neither was it was obliging. It was an ovation of assent, not an approval, as if in one voice the audience was merely saying, "Es war sehr schon, es hat mich sehr gefreut," without passing any aesthetic evaluation on what had passed on stage. Clearly refined, the only thing the crowd seemed eager about was to prove there was not an uncultured Philistine in all their midst.

I stood there for a while after the applause had died, suspended between consternation and bemusement. "Well then," the Australian interjected at my right, "That was unexpected." His words brought me from my indecision and settled me squarely in bemusement.

In the row before me, the British couple had begun to ponder the performance between them, their voices quiet with a taciturn, if somewhat cadenced detachment. "But what did it all mean?" she asked him, her voice betraying not the least hint of disquiet.

"I suppose that’s entirely the wrong question," he answered knowingly. "Or a question impossible to ask. It meant nothing. Or rather, that there is no meaning."

She nodded acquiescence: "But it was experimental?" "Indeed."

Indeed. The faintest hint of a thought glimmered in me: if it was truly so, with what could it have possibly been experimenting? Even as that revealed darkness dimmed, I stole quick glance across the crowd and seemed to see the whole mass of humanity in new light, blithely rationalizing the irrational. With mild interest they had already assented to it, uncrumpled and consulted their program for the next piece, as if to say, "Well, even so, life must go on."

Then she began screaming.

"Nein! Es ist eine Lüge!"

And there is not a word sufficiently clear of cliché to convey the piercing cry. Frenzied, hysterical, lunatic, even bloodcurdling, haunted: it was all these things at once, and yet none of them. It was feral, to be sure, yet so precise, so oracular was its tenor, it came more as a clarion call than a howl of horror.

To make it worse, everything I heard in her cry was garbled with that enigmatic ecstasy of an unknown tongue.

"Nein! Nein! Das kann nicht sein! Wie können Sie diese Spötterei schön nennen?"

As usually happens when the unconventional shatters the nice platitudes of manners that keep the pond-water of society serene, it took a moment for the multitude to agree on an appropriate response. I could see people looking at one another with uncertainty and censure, and, concealed beneath them, that ancient terror of the weird. At first they gestured with their chins and condescending nods: "What is the matter with that one?" But like a pebble breaking pond water, a ripple spread concentrically from her, the standing crowds pressing back until there was a clearing around her of considerable radius.

And all the while she cried out: "Es ist eine Lüge! Können Sie das nicht sehen?Es ist Hässlichkeit und Leere! Eine nackte Lüge! Es ist nichts drin!"

Even those in the auditorium general, down below our crowded section, had begun to turn, look up, and murmur against the commotion in the standing room only pit.
But I found myself somehow paralyzed by the cry of this strange young sibyl: I could not press back from her with the others. For a moment it seemed as if my whole consciousness had narrowed on her cry, or that somehow the radius of the clearing around her and I had stretched to infinity. I looked nervously for those two Americans, but they had disappeared completely.

Then she turned her eyes on me, and as she did so, her body collapsed against the wall and she slid slowly to the floor. The look in her eyes trembled between pleading and defeat. She was weeping now. I felt her reach up and clutch my hand. And those fingers, their strange flesh, felt like ice against my skin. Her eyes held me frozen. She was babbling now, spent, though even subdued her voice had and inexorable urgency:

"Wieso? Warum können sie es nicht sehen? Das ist nicht Schönheit oder Wahrheit! Es ist ist nur eine nackte Lüge!"

I could not escape the lowering impression that her eyes were imploring something of me. Some response, some sympathy was expected of me. I stood there stupidly. She rose up on her knees, still clutching my hand in that icy grip. She turned her voice one last time over the crowd, and shouted a final indictment:

"Können Sie es nicht sehen? Das ist nicht Schönheit oder Wahrheit! Es ist nur eine nackte Lüge!"

Then she collapsed again against the wall, weeping exhaustedly, her chin drooped on the breast of her new white gown.

The confused murmurs of the crowds trickled towards me; part of me longed to discretely shake my hand free of her grip and join their condescending indignation at the disturbance. But I stood there, still stupidly.

"Was ist denn mit Ihnen los?" The voice of the usher broke the tension. Surely someone had summoned him to discretely usher away this impropriety. Her face was ashen as she lifted trembling eyes to him: like one stirring from the dead.

"Kommen Sie, lasst uns gehen. Sie sind wohl betrunken?" That he spoke German could not veil from me the utter contempt in his voice.

"Ich bin nicht betrunken."

Her voice was subdued now, but her eyes cast about with still a hint of their previous wildness. "Aber was war denn das? Ich dachte, es sollte schön sein."

"Kommen Sie, Fräulein. Lasst uns gehen." He reached out his hand, a menacing invitation.

She rose resignedly to her feet. Her hand was still against my fingers, but it felt now like air, not ice. She let it slip away, and my fingers were left haunted by the frozen imprint it had burned against them.

"Aber es war nicht schön…."

The usher snorted. "Nein, das war Kunst."

She left a kind of awed stillness in her wake. Slowly the crowd pushed back to fill in the void of her passing, as if in one mass they were trying to shrug off the memory of her. The hushed murmurs rose up again, but more subdued this time. "What was that all about?" they asked, expecting no real answer.

Behind me I heard one of the tourists who seemed to have a smattering of German translate for another. "She asked about the ballet… what it meant. He said it was just art." Her knowing "Ah" at this information crept across my spine.

The lights were dimming a second time, signaling the end of the intermission and the start of the next performance. I tried to focus my reeling concentration on the music that was now rising with the falling light.

This was a ballet in the fullest tradition of that word. Flowers, ribbons, tight silk stretched across taut bosoms and terse thighs pirouetted across the stage through a music that washed over all with a lush, fecund, somehow verdant sensuality. The gyrations and leaps of horn and flute and string were echoed and echoed by the luxurious movement of those carefully honed bodies.

My ears rushed with it, until it became a roar. Even as I watched, I felt my body convulsing with the urge to vomit. The heat, the press of the standing-room-only crowds overwhelmed me. I groped for the exit frantically, burst almost gasping for breath into the foyer of the Opera house, and rushed out into the moist night air, swirling with the traffic on the Opernring. My hand still burned with cold.
When the convulsions finally left me, and I was able to somehow compose my self, I began making my way slowly through the pressing, hot night towards my lodgings. But every step was a labor, and those eyes—like the haunted eyes of one who has looked behind a veil, a torn veil, and seen the gaping void of nothingness behind—pleaded with me through the darkness. And in my burning ears, as if it would never leave me, rang that forlorn howl of execration.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

There's Nothing Quite Like the Incarnation

At times I am so bored by Christmas it is ridiculous. The same tired old songs and one-liners every year. Somehow our culture finds a way to make even the incarnation trite. This is why, in my recent GKC overdose, I was glad to come across these great re-kindlers of wonder:

“It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians; because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature. There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. . . . Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet” (The Everlasting Man, 171).

“In that fold or crack in the great grey hills . . . the whole universe had been turned inside out. I mean that the eyes of wonder and worship which had been turned outwards to the largest thing were now turned inward to the smallest. . . . it is true in a sense that God who had been only a circumference was seen as a centre; and a centre is infinitely small” (172). “The hands that had made the sun and stars were too small to reach the huge heads of the cattle” (169).

“In the riddle of Bethlehem it was heaven that was under the earth” (173).The cave was not just a hiding place from Herod (i.e. Moloch) but was like an “outpost . . . a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world” (181).

The story of the actual incarnation is "THE ONE GREAT STARTLING STATEMENT THAT MAN HAS MADE SINCE HE SPOKE HIS FIRST ARTICULATE WORLD, INSTEAD OF BARKING LIKE A DOG. ITS UNIQUE CHARACTER CAN BE USED AS AN ARGUMENT AGAINST IT AS WELL AS FOR IT. IT WOULD BE EASY TO CONCENTRATE ON IT AS A CASE OF ISOLATED INSANITY; BUT IT MAKES NOTHING BUT DUST AND NONSENSE OF COMPARATIVE RELIGION” (267).

“Nobody else except those messengers has any Gospel; nobody else has any good news; for the simple reason that nobody else has any news. Those runners gather impetus as they run. Ages afterwards they still speak as if something had just happened. They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witnesses. In the Catholic Church, which is the cohort of the message, there are still those headlong acts of holiness that speak of something rapid and recent; a self-sacrifice that startles the world like a suicide. But it is not a suicide; it is not pessimistic; it is still as optimistic as St. Francis of the flowers and birds. . . . We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old” (269).

I am pretty sure the church needs a bit of a rebirth these days, however, at least in regard to its treatment of Christmas. We need to recapture all that is meant in this moment rather than skip too quickly ahead to everything else. The incarnation is a piece of redemption already, even before the cross.

Monday, December 03, 2007

A Tale of Emptied Hells: Natural Theology in Chesterton's Thursday

As my last few posts indicate, I've been swimming in GKC lately. As I work up to my thesis defense in March, this doesn't look to be letting up any time soon. Perhaps for awhile I should say that this blog is about "thinking Chestertianity". Pretty lame joke.

Anyway, I am presenting what is called a "colloquium" to my school's faculty and students this Friday. This is basically an opportunity to present a scholarly paper and get feedback on it. It is pretty long and detailed, so I don't think I'll post it here. However, I did a related seminar in class a ways back that is roughly the same theme only slightly shorter. Here it is, for anyone who is interested.

I should add a spoiler alert though. The Man Who Was Thursday is definitely worth reading on its own first, so don't read on if you can see it in your future to get a hold of this novel and give it a go. You'll be glad you did. Then come back and read what I have to say about it!

A TALE OF EMPTIED HELLS:
NATURAL THEOLOGY IN CHESTERTON’S THURSDAY

This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells,
And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells . . . .
The doubts that drove us through the night as we two talked amain,
And day had broken on the streets e’er it broke upon the brain.
Between us by the peace of God, such truth can now be told;
Yea, there is strength in striking root, and good in growing old.
We have found common things at last, and marriage and a creed,
And I may safely write it now, and you may safely read.
(Chesterton 1999, 28-30)

There can be little doubt that the dedicatory poem at the beginning of The Man Who Was Thursday indicates an autobiographical element to this fantastic tale. The place of this novel in Chesterton’s own life and literary career is also quite suggestive: It was published in the same year as Orthodoxy, after Heretics and the ensuing challenge from his opponents to articulate his own view instead of merely tearing apart the views of others. Thursday does read startlingly like a companion piece to Orthodoxy. As such it this metaphysical thriller might double as a personal testimony and defense of the faith.

Such a thing would not be out of character for Chesterton. Believing that most people came to faith from "one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend" (Chesterton 1996, 212), his stated intent in Orthodoxy was not "to turn this book into one of ordinary Christian apologetics" (Chesterton 1996, 211). If that was his spiritual autobiography, how wildly might he paint his faith within the landscape of Thursday?

As is made fairly clear in the dedication, Chesterton seems to have the darkest days of his adolescence in mind as he composes this novel. Later in his life he expressed his annoyance that people seemed to miss the significance of the story’s subtitle: A Nightmare (Buechner 2001, 96). Given what we know of Chesterton’s childhood, it should not be surprising if he should choose the literary form of a detective story/mythical fairy tale to relate his own spiritual journey through the darkness into the light. Early in his life Chesterton’s writings were apparently more exploratory and reactionary and when he reflected on this later we’re told that he "destroyed many early [manuscripts] and left ‘an absolute command' that his solipsistic juvenelia never be published" (Herbold 1967, 552).

When he finally wrote Thursday at the age of 33, Cecil Chesterton said his brother Gilbert "took great pains with this tale" (Wills 2001, 55). It may have been as much a personal catharsis as it was a fascinating story. Even then, Chesterton seemed to think only his childhood friend would understand the significance of what he was saying. However, one should not sell short the power of testimony, even veiled in fantastic language, to speak to the common experience of humanity.

Such an approach to this novel is not out of line with what Chesterton himself might have done in our position. In a discussion of the works of Charles Dickens he said that the purpose of literary criticism is to deal with "the subconscious part of the author's mind which only the critic can express, and not with the conscious part of the author's mind, which the author himself can express. . . . [It] means saying about an author the very things that would have made him jump out of his boots" (Chestertion 1989, 272).

At the same time, as one of his biographers noted, Chesterton "would have had little patience with [any author’s] egotistical tendency to say that the only subject for fiction was their own consciousness and its sensations" (Dale 1982, 116). Indeed, in The Man Who Was Thursday it would seem that the author is purposely veiling himself in order to point to Something Else. This he does not with Bible verses, but with story—a story where we do not see God until the end of a high speed pursuit of Nature.

If theology plays a part in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday and in the personal journey that lay behind it, one could argue that it is not through biblical revelation but through some form of natural theology. Natural theology is defined as the attempt to discern "truths about God that can be learned from created things (nature, man, world) by reason alone" (Van Engen 2001, 815). Although it would be fiercely denied within Christian circles that natural theology could bring one to a saving knowledge of God, Chesterton’s approach to orthodoxy betrays a belief that reflection upon reason and mystery can take one at least to the feet of Christ, even if one requires God’s self-revelation and divine mercy to be able to look up and recognize Him. In Orthodoxy Chesterton claims that by reason he discovered the key-hole to the mysteries of life and then when he turned to Christianity he found the key. He explains:

"I am the man who with the utmost daring discovered what had been discovered before. . . . [This book] recounts my elephantine adventures in pursuit of the obvious. . . . I freely confess all the idiotic ambitions of the end of the nineteenth century. I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it. . . . I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy" (Chesterton 1996, 5-6).

This exactly the kind of odyssey that seems to be written all over the pages of The Man Who Was Thursday. In it a secret council of seven terrorists (named for each day of the week) is infiltrated by an undercover policeman who starts out investigating a murderous scheme and ends up unraveling some of the deepest mysteries of life. This is all typified particularly in the detectives’ pursuit of the enigmatic figure of Sunday. In this pursuit Dr. Bull observes that they are "six men going to ask one man what he means" (Chesterton 1999, 222), and Syme says it is even "queerer than that . . . I think it is six men going to ask one man what they mean (Chesterton 1999, 223, emphasis mine). Indeed, once they are taken in by Sunday is pummeled they pummel him with questions. To the question of his identity he answers, "I am the Sabbath . . . . I am the peace of God" (Chesterton 1999, 260).

True to form, in his intellectual honesty Chesterton’s characters are thrown by this statement into a tailspin of theodicy. If so, why all the darkness and suffering? The Professor says: "I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell" (Chesterton 1999, 260), and Gogol wonders aloud: "I wish I knew why I was hurt so much" (Chesterton 1999, 260). To these questions Syme can find no answer, and he cries out at Sunday with the agony of Job: "Have you ever suffered" (Chesterton 1999, 263). The answer that comes back from the exloding blackness is the only Scripture reference in the whole story, Mark 10:38 (NIV): "Can you drink the cup I drink?"

It is a declaration of the suffering of Christ in solidarity with nature and it is suggestive of the call to martyrdom which first came from the lips of Sunday in the darkened room where Syme was called to serve. As the nightmare closes and drifts into the pleasant wakefulness of the book’s closing pages we are left with the alluring prospect that perhaps one must come to the end of oneself in order that one may live. Without but one word of Scripture the reader has been brought to this place in ways far more subtle and fantastic (and therefore more compelling) than I myself have just described.

Like a Kafka novel Thursday takes its readers on a journey through the perplexing absurdities of existence, but unlike a Kafka novel it leads us further into wonder and thanks. After reading Chesterton himself, the usually dark Kafka himself quipped that "one might almost believe he had found God" (Dale 1982, 113). Right down to the last line of the story the riddles pile on top of each other, exploding in the brain and touching the heart instead. Only there, in the last words of the nightmare, is Nature unveiled as the Sabbath and the last obstacle to faith—the reality of human suffering—addressed in the echoing refrain of Jesus Christ.

The really astounding thing about all of this is that Chesterton is not proposing anything explicitly about natural theology, per se, but is describing this as his journey. Having grown up somewhat acquainted with the Unitarian church, caught between a Universalist father and an agnostic mother, Chesterton had little comprehension of the fuller Christian creed and by all accounts barely survived an almost full embrace of nihilism. He would later describe his conversion to Christianity as something like "a mind surviving a hundred moods" (Chesterton 1985, 169). In most of his writing his intent is clearly to reach out to those who are where he once was and to offer them a safer way through the nightmare. A year after Chesterton’s death, one writer observed:

"[He was] more concerned with those who do not share his faith than with those who share it. He looks after the stray sheep. He does not spare his trouble, and will teach children to read in the hope that they might one day read their prayers. Chesterton never starts his argument from Revelation, he leads to it. He begins by spelling patiently the agnostic's alphabet" (Cammaerts 1937, 54).

This is the heart of the man who had dug himself deep into those "emptied hells", but somehow or other struck root, stumbled across the creed like a treasure hidden in a field, and then wrote about it from the other side (Chesterton 1999, 28-30).

Using imaginative narrative rather than systematics, and natural theology almost entirely in lieu of Scripture references, Chesterton reaches out to his world. Through the detectives in The Man Who Was Thursday he probes questions of existence—and as the standard dilemmas (between order and anarchy, optimism and pessimism) unravel before the investigators’ eyes they confront something wild, wonderful, and wholly other.

Considering the climate of our times, there might be something to be said for this approach. Today’s interest in spirituality is countered by its distrust of religious institutions and its search for answers is tempered by a distrust in statements of truth. This is a problem for Christianity, which depends greatly on divine revelation for knowledge and salvation. There is little doubt that Christianity declares people incapable of reaching God and salvation through their good works or their intellect, but calls them to receive the free gift of God by grace through faith. In that sense the Christian faith is dependent upon the Special Revelation of God spoken of in Christ. But how much can be learned in reflection upon that more General Revelation of God in creation? If the saving God is the same God as the creating God one can expect to find great continuity between General and Special revelation. Perhaps the path from one to the other is seamless and, to some degree, even overlapping.


REFERENCE LIST

Buechner, Frederick. 2001. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought To Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith: Four Who Wrote In Blood. San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins Publishers.

Cammaerts, Emile. 1937. The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G.K. Chesterton. 2d ed. London, UK: Methuen & Co.

Chesterton, GK. 1999. The Man Who Was Thursday. Annoted by Martin Gardner. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
________. 1996. Orthodoxy. Hodder & Stoughton.
________. 1989. "The Old Curiosity Shop: Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens." The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton Vol XV: Chesterton on Dickens.
http://www.chesterton.org/gkc/critic.htmlSan Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.

________. 1985. "The Thing: Why I Am Catholic." As I Was Saying. Edited by Robert Knille. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
Dale, Alzina Stone. 1982. The Outline of Sanity: A Life of G.K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Herbold, A. 1967. "Chesterton, Gilbert Keith." New Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol III. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
Van Engen, J. 2001. "Natural Theology." Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. 2d ed. Edited by Walter A. Elwell. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics.
Wills, Garry. 2001. Chesterton. New York, NY: Doubleday.