Thursday, April 08, 2010

The Poet and the Lunatics

I have been following up a few footnotes to my paper for next week's Society for the Study of Theology conference in Manchester next week and ended up reading a few pages of a book that gets filed under the heading "I can't believe I haven't read this yet."

Far as I can tell, where we join the story the main character, Gabriel Gale, is being questioned by police for the way he ended a debate: By literally tying his opponent to a tree. In the course of that questioning he asks that they consult the man on the tree to find out if he'd like to press charges. By way of telegram the man responds only with gratitude--for in his view Gabriel has actually saved his life. Now here is some of Gabriel's defence. I've highlighted the quote I was following up in bold, and another quote lower down that I've heard many times before, most recently in a paper on the Lutheran doctrine of the Eucharist.

There is no cure for that nightmare of omnipotence except pain; because that is the thing a man knows he would not tolerate if he could really control it. A man must be in some place from which he would certainly escape if he could, if he is really to realize that all things do not come from within. That is the meaning of that mad parable or mystery play you have seen acted here like an allegory. I doubt whether any of our action is really anything but an allegory. I doubt whether any truth can be told except in a parable. There was a man who saw himself sitting in the sky; and his servants the angels went to and fro in coloured garments of cloud and flame and the pageant of the seasons; but he was over all and his face seemed to fill the heavens. And, God forgive me for blasphemy, but I nailed him to a tree."

He had risen to his feet in a suppressed and very unusual excitement; and his face was pale in the sunlight. For he spoke indeed in parables; and the things of which he was thinking were far away from that garden or even from that tale. There swelled up darkly and mountainously in his memory the slopes of another garden against another storm. The skeleton arch of a ruined abbey stood gaunt against the ghastly light, and beyond the racing river was the low and desolate inn among the reeds; and all that grey landscape was to him one purple patch of Paradise... and of Paradise Lost.

"It is the only way," he kept repeating; "it is the only answer to the heresy of the mystic; which is to fancy that mind is all. It is to break your heart. Thank God for hard stones; thank God for hard facts; thank God for thorns and rocks and deserts and long years. At least I know now that I am not the best or strongest thing in the world. At least I know now that I have not dreamed of everything."

Needless to say, I'll be checking the library for this book on my way home today. At lunch, however, I'll be presenting my SST draft to some of my peers for their critique. We do this to each other every week and I'm supremely grateful to have found people here who want to try to do theology in community. By the way, here's the abstract, which I sent in months ago and will be more or less presenting on Tuesday afternoon:

“Winsome Witness: G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday as Narrative Apologia”

As borne out by the phenomenon of William P. Young’s The Shack, the narrative mode of theology has not only a wide audience and a certain appropriateness to its subject matter, but also a large margin of error and a need to know its proper place. As a guide forward, G.K. Chesterton’s 1907 novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare charts a better course. In it a secret council of seven terrorists (named for each day of the week) is infiltrated by a philosopher-poet turned undercover policeman who, perplexed by both the absurdity and wonder of existence, is caught up in a harrowing pursuit of Nature personified, only to get around front and finally see the fleeting face of God. Spurred in part by Chesterton’s dedicatory poem, naming it his tale of “emptied hells”, readers have long noted the story’s wildly autobiographical element and elusive meaning. The novel merits close attention because, as a narrative apologia, it demonstratively avoids overstating its own argument on one hand and spiralling into mere narcissism on the other. Furthermore, as narrative theology, instead of undermining dogmatics or supplanting Scripture, the story serves them both—probing where systematic theology can’t reach without posing as a stand-in for its precision. As such, it is a winsome witness and fine example of the proper relation of theology and the arts.

You can probably see why I was tracking down the above quote.

7 comments:

Colin Toffelmire said...

That sounds brilliant Jon. Have you ever read The Rule of Metaphor by Paul Ricoeur? It's not an easy slog, but I think that you would find his conclusions regarding metaphorical language and philosophical and religious discourse very helpful. He makes a strong case (I think) for the power of metaphorical language to reach beyond the semantic capacity of non-metaphorical language. What you describe regarding Chesterton is an example of theological discourse tipping to the figurative end of language, but even in "normal" theological discourse there is extensive use of metaphor in order to say things that are otherwise semantically difficult or even impossible.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

"Thank God for hard stones"

Yeah. And soft pillows and good food.

Incredible quote.

The mystic. All this effort to detach or transcend, and all the while the earth is trying to seduce you (meanwhile your body slowly decays). I say just give in and be done with it. Let yourself get nailed to the tree. That's the best way forward.


Chesterton wrote a book called 'The Poet and the Lunatics'? Nice title.

Justin said...

Wow man - that's sounds all smart. Looking forward to hearing it next week. Sorry, by the way, that I didn't make it to your paper this afternoon. I do care about doing theology in community, I've just been wrestling my far less erudite paper to the ground this afternoon is all.

Eric said...

John, do you think The Shack makes the mistakes you want to avoid in your abstract? I haven't read the Shack - just wondering.

Jon Coutts said...

Colin: Thanks, I'll have to check out that book, if I pursue this line of thought any further, which I likely will.

Matthew: Can't tell exactly if you are saying to give in to the mysticism or for the mystic to give in to reality, but somehow regardless I like the comment!

Ah Justin we'll always have Manchester.

Eric: I realize my abstract made it sound like I was using the Shack as a foil but I really am not. It was sort of just a hook. That said, what I've read of the Shack, and about it, I'd say it makes some of the mistakes I'm referring to, yes, and others, but I can't say I'm an expert on it and I definitely need to clarify that this is not going to be a paper that deals with it at all. I more just mention it to highlight the popularity and the risks involved in doing narrated theology, as a set up for the importance of the task at hand....

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

What I meant was,

The tree we should give in and get nailed to is pleasure and all that is good -or even bad- in the physical world. Learn to navigate transcendence through that, not through detachment. Fully man.

I'm sure I'm biting off more than I can chew with a statement like that.

Jon Coutts said...

I'm sure a lot of people would say that the association of mysticism with detachment is false--that mysticism is actually coming closer to reality or your inner self or something like that. If push came to shove I might defend aspects of that idea, but frankly, I don't know if I have a mystic bone in my body, and am not convinced I need one. So for my part I'd say this instead:

I think that Christianity is about the transcendent navigating the physical world (in incarnation rather than detachment) for good and getting nailed to the tree for it...