Lars Walker’s new novel

Lars Walker is someone who hangs out at this blog fairly often.  He is also an accomplished novelist.   He has a new novel out entitled  Troll Valley.

Lars specializes in tales about Norway, especially the ancient Vikings in their transition from paganism to Christianity.  (See West Oversea.)  But this one is about Norwegians in Minnesota, settlers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on the farms and in the small towns that would give us the Lake Woebegone cliches.  But there is much more to these people than that.

Lars also specializes in hard-hitting Christian critiques of modernity.  (See Wolf Time.)  For all of the Little House on the Prairie charm of watching the main character Chris Andersen and his family ply their customs in the New World, we see change a-brewing.  His father invents a better farm device, leaves the farm for town where he builds a factory and makes a fortune–embodying the industrial revolution with both its good sides and its down sides.  I was most taken, though, with his mother, who shows how a certain kind of Pietism can turn to moralism, which can then turn to progressivism, which can then turn against the very Christianity that inspired its beginnings.  Mrs. Andersen’s do-gooderism turns her into a crusader for prohibition and then for the women’s suffrage and then for a “moral progress” that has no room for the Bible and that wreaks havoc in her family.

And Lars also specializes in writing about the strange denizens of Scandinavian myth, legend, and folklore.  (See The Year of the Warrior.)  The thing about Chris Anderson is that, as he struggles with his withered arm and his self-doubts, he sees elvish creatures from a parallel world.  And he is regularly visited by his fairy godmother, who herself yearns for baptism and the Christian faith.  All of these fantasy elements are going on at the same time as the realistic story and as a sort of commentary on what is happening.  One critic has called what Lars is doing “Christian magical realism,” which is a good description, a reference to the quite interesting style pioneered by Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  (And it’s about time that contemporary Christian authors go beyond formula fiction to experiment with more sophisticated styles and literary effects.)

Another contemporary feature of this novel is that it is being published solely as an e-book, which means too that it costs a mere $2.99.  So if you have a Kindle or the equivalent, download   Troll Valley.

Charles Dickens at 200

Yesterday, February 7, was the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens.  (As well as being the birthday of our oldest daughter.)  His novels are still gloriously readable after all these years, combining seriousness and humor in a way that has not been equaled since.  Here is a worthy tribute, which compares the novelist to Augustine:  Happy Birthday to our Mutual Friend » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog.

What are your favorite bits from Dickens?

Petronius, gluttony, and the Internet

Another example of how classical literature can help us think through contemporary issues.  Rob Goodman writes about the information overload that the internet can give us in terms of Petronius:

For those of us left numb by the Internet, it might help to consider the ways in which gorging on information parallels (and has, for many of us, replaced) gorging on sensual pleasures. And if we want to take that comparison seriously, there is no better guide than the pioneering Roman novelist of decadence, Gaius Petronius Arbiter. Few have ever described—or lived—the attractions and exhaustions of overindulgence more vividly.

In the court of the Emperor Nero—his friend, partner in excess, and the man ultimately responsible for his death—Petronius was employed as the official “arbiter of elegance.” In short, he was a style consultant to the Roman elite. The historian Tacitus describes him as an expert “in the science of pleasure.” Unmatched in his day as a trendsetter, Petronius is best known in ours as the probable author of one of the earliest surviving novels, the Satyricon. And out of this picaresque story, which has come down to us in fragments, the most outrageous figure by far is Trimalchio: the nouveau-riche ex-slave whose wildly gluttonous banquet forms the Satyricon’s centerpiece. . .

Trimalchio—if only he would stop shooting dice, or loudly discussing his constipation problem—could be a master entertainer. He is a man of abundant means and an almost-pitiful eagerness to please, but his party turns into a feast of steadily diminishing returns. Good food isn’t enough for Trimalchio’s table: Nothing can be served if it isn’t in disguise. Visual jokes were a fashion among Roman chefs, but in Trimalchio’s household they are taken to absurd heights: olives disguised as rocks; sausages “roasting” over pomegranate seeds disguised as coals; pastry eggs hiding roast songbirds; a pig prestuffed with sausages; fruit filled with saffron perfume; more pastry birds, and fruit stuck with thorns to resemble sea-urchins; goose, fish, and game all made out of a pig; oysters in the water pitchers; a whole roast boar surrounded by suckling sweetmeat “piglets,” stuffed with live birds, complete with droppings that turn out to be fresh dates. The boar is also wearing a hat.

One of these courses might have been a surprise; two or three or four might have been marvelous. But after our narrator is bludgeoned by hours of course after dressed-up course, all of which have to be applauded and swallowed, his only thought is for the exit—which he can no longer find.

Is the host, at least, enjoying himself? It’s hard to see any real pleasure in a man who announces how many pounds of jewelry he’s wearing and then demands a scale to prove it—a host who tops off the evening’s entertainment by ordering the guests to “make believe I’m dead” and who then ends up weeping as they act out his funeral.

If Petronius had been a Christian moralist—an ancient John Bunyan, maybe—Trimalchio’s feast might have been marshaled against the sin of gluttony. But Petronius doesn’t criticize the monster he’s created from a standpoint of better morals. He criticizes Trimalchio from a standpoint of better taste: Petronius’ attitude to Trimalchio is equal parts fascination and snobbery. The author was every bit as decadent as his character—he was simply, effortlessly, better at it. . . .

Under decadent circumstances, such as Trimalchio’s feast or Nero’s court, pleasure becomes cheap. It must, at first, be exhilarating to find exquisite versions of the things we most want—food, sleep, sex—right at hand. But then comes the revelation that even with unlimited means, our capacity to take pleasure is itself limited. The usual enjoyments become repetitious and dull, until we can barely taste them at all, or remember how they once tasted. . . .

And there’s the key to understanding the often anesthetic effect of the Internet. Decadence doesn’t demand great wealth: Decadence is a useful way to understand any situation in which an existing pleasure becomes cheap, and it takes the ingenuity of a Petronius to fight off the boredom. That is now the case with information—the small burst of satisfaction that comes from a refilled inbox or a new text, from connecting with friends, or sharing the meme of the day. Millions of us are now richer in these pleasures than our parents’ generation could ever imagine. But our capacity for enjoyment is still finite: We’ve built up a tolerance to the pleasures of information, just as Trimalchio built up a tolerance to the pleasures of food. Those who experience our constant connectivity as dulling should be able to identify closely with his guests.

via Gluttony Goes Viral – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Do you agree that we can become “gluttons” of information?  That the internet can have an “anesthetic” effect?  That it can make us “decadent”?

With the liturgy, “you never need words for joy”

Rev. Samuel Schuldheisz points us to the role of the liturgy–including the Psalms and the classic hymns of praise–in the life of J. R. R. Tolkien.  This is from a letter to his son, Christopher:

“If you don’t do so already, make a habit of the ‘praises’. I use them much (in Latin): the Gloria Patri, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Laudate Dominum; the Laudete Pueri Dominum (of which I am specially fond), one of the Sunday psalms; and the Magnificat; also the Litany of Loretto (with the prayer Sub tuum praesidium). If you have these by heart you never need words for joy.”

via E-nklings: Tolkien on the Liturgy.

HT:  Mary Moerbe

The Bible’s physical form

We Lutherans believe in the supernatural efficacy of “Word and Sacrament.”  Other Christians believe in the power of God’s Word, but deny that water, bread, and wine, when joined to God’s Word, can have any more than a symbolic significance.  After all, how can the physical convey what is spiritual?  Part of my answer has always been that the Word too is a physical thing–ink on paper, sound waves in the air–that God uses sacramentally to bring us His grace.

David Neff of Christianity Today has written an interesting piece on the physical form of Bibles from the middle ages to our present-day “Bible apps.”

The default meaning of Bible for Christians in my group was the King James Version. The default physical form was a black leather binding.

The physical form of the Bible matters because it influences the way Christians use their sacred book. In the countercultural 1960s, for example, publishers shucked the black leather uniform in favor of more contemporary dress. The aim was to reach those who might not otherwise pick up the Scriptures. The American Bible Society’s Good News for Modern Man resembled a mass market paperback, and Tyndale House’s Reach Out: The Living New Testament looked just plain “groovy.”

Three centuries before Luther’s New Testament first came off the press in 1522, workshops in Paris produced one-volume Bibles called pandects. Unlike the large multivolume Bibles that sat in churches, monasteries, and rich men’s libraries, these could be conveniently carried by Sor-bonne students and mendicant preachers. Thus began the revolutionary shift from communal reading of Scripture to its private, individual consumption.

In 1735, the Bible emerged in another physical form—the family Bible. An English publisher named William Rayner produced The Compleat History of the Old and New Testament or a Family Bible. This was the first time that phrase was used, according to Liana Lupas, curator of the American Bible Society’s collection of rare Bibles.

The purpose of these Bibles, says Lupas, who curated a current exhibition of family Bibles for the Bible Society’s MOBIA gallery, was to provide study helps to answer questions that readers might have, and also to stimulate families to center their common devotions on the Bible.

People soon found other uses for these Bibles, pressing flowers, preserving locks of hair, and protecting other keepsakes. Families had already used the blank pages at the beginning or end of large Bibles to preserve genealogical information, recording births, marriages, and deaths. Dedicated family history pages were a natural development. And so in 1791, Isaiah Thomas published the first American Bible to contain pages dedicated to this purpose.

Placing the family Bible at the physical center of the ideal American home helped entrench the idea of the family as the main training ground in Christian living.Both Catholic families and Eastern Seaboard Protestants traditionally enshrined their family histories in parish registers and churchyard burial plots. But the American family became mobile, and American faith became more baptistic and individualized. Families who moved west left their family networks behind, and the family Bible became a portable shrine, recording the family as a sacred institution. . . .

Placing the family Bible at the physical center of the idealized American home also helped entrench the Puritan ideal of the family as the main training ground in Christian living. . . .

Today, many of us use Bibles with no physical properties of their own. They borrow their frame from computers, iPads, and smartphones—also markers of middle class existence—but created for individual use. Will this digital revolution cement the decline of family spirituality that was once fostered by the family Bible? God knows.

via How the Physical Form of a Bible Shapes Us | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction.

Of course, the Word of God is living and active, even as it exists on an iPhone screen.  Just as the Blood of our Lord can be conveyed in plastic cups no less than in a silver chalice.  And yet, do you think the physical form of a Bible can have significance?  If people know the Word mainly as electronic information flashing across a screen, might that contribute to the Gnostic tendency we are seeing today, wherein faith is reduced to “knowledge” by way of “information” and the physical realm of creation, incarnation, sacrament, body, world,  and vocation are giving way to a less-than-Christian hyperspiritualism?  Or will reading it online lead to taking it in just short bits and pieces, in accord with much online reading, as opposed to extensive, sustained reading and study?  On the other hand, might reading the Bible on a Kindle, say, or other e-reader, mean a return to the continuous unfolding text of the ancient scrolls, rather than the chapter and verse breakdowns of the bound volume?  Or what?

The two kinds of warriors: Hector & Achilles

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has written a fascinating essay entitled “Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?”  The short answer is “both,” or “either.”  In the course of his discussion, which draws on his own experience playing football, he points out Plato’s observation that human beings have a need for thymos–the thirst for glory–but that this passion needs to be subordinated to reason.  Edmundson illustrates his points by contrasting the two major figures of Homer’s Iliad:  Hector and Achilles.

In the Western heroic tradition, the paragon of the humane warrior is Homer’s Hector, prince of the Trojans. He is a fierce fighter: On one particular day, no Greek can stand up to him; his valor puts the whole Greek army to rout. Even on an unexceptional day, Hector can stand up to Ajax, the Greek giant, and trade blow for blow with him. Yet as fierce as Hector can be, he is also humane. He is a loving son to his aged parents, a husband who talks on equal terms with his wife, Andromache, and a tender-hearted father. He and King Priam are the only ones in Troy who treat Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, with kindness.

One of the most memorable scenes in The Iliad comes when Hector, fresh from the battlefield, strides toward his boy, Astyanax. The child screams with fright at the ferocious form encased in armor, covered with dust and gore. Hector understands his child in an instant and takes off his helmet, with its giant horsehair plume, then bends over, picks his boy up and dandles him, while Andromache looks on happily. Astyanax—who will soon be pitched off the battlements of Troy when the Greeks conquer the city—looks up at his father and laughs in delight.

The scene concentrates what is most appealing about Hector—and about a certain kind of athlete and warrior. Hector can turn it off. He can stop being the manslayer that he needs to be out on the windy plains of Troy and become a humane husband and father. The scene shows him in his dual nature—warrior and man of thought and feeling. In a sense, he is the figure that every fighter and athlete should emulate. He is the Navy Seal or Green Beret who would never kill a prisoner, the fearless fighter who could never harm a woman or a child. In the symbolic world of sports, where the horrors and the triumphs of combat are only mimicked, he is the one who comports himself with extreme gentleness off the field, who never speaks ill of an opponent, who never complains, never whines.

But The Iliad is not primarily about Hector. It is the poem of Achilles and his wrath. After Hector kills Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, Achilles goes on a rampage, killing every Trojan he can. All humanity leaves him; all mercy is gone. At one point, a Trojan fighter grasps his knees and begs for mercy. Achilles taunts him: Look at me, he says, so strong and beautiful, and some day I, too, shall have to die. But not today. Today is your day. At another point, a river close to the city, the River Scamander, becomes incensed over Achilles’ murderous spree. The hero has glutted its waters with blood and its bed with bodies. The river is so enraged that it tries to drown the hero. When Achilles finally gets to Hector, he slaughters him before the eyes of his parents, Hecuba and Priam, and drags his body across the plains of Troy.

Achilles is drunk on rage, the poem tells us. His rational mind has left him, and he is mad with the joy of slaughter. The ability to modulate character that Hector shows—the fierce warrior becoming the loving father—is something Achilles does not possess. Achilles, one feels, could not stop himself if he wished to: A fellow Greek who somehow insulted him when he was on his rampage would be in nearly as much danger as a Trojan enemy. Plato would recognize Achilles as a man who has lost all reason and has allowed thymos to dominate his soul.

This ability to go mad—to become berserk—is inseparable from Achilles’ greatness as a warrior. It is part of what sets him above the more circumspect Hector on the battlefield. When Hector encounters Achilles for the last time, Hector feels fear. Achilles in his wrath has no idea what fear is, and that is part of what makes him unstoppable.

Achilles’ fate is too often the fate of warriors and, in a lower key, of athletes. They unleash power in themselves, which they cannot discipline. They leave the field of combat or of play and are still ferocious, or they can be stirred to ferocity by almost nothing. They let no insult pass. A misplaced word sends them into a rage. A mild frustration turns them violent. Thymos, as Plato would have said, has taken over their souls, and reason no longer has a primary place—in some cases, it has no place at all.

via Do Sports Build Character or Damage It? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This comparison, I think, can apply to modern warriors in the military, and to athletes, and to “warriors” in the business world and other professions.  It’s possible for a lawyer, a scholar, a salesman, or maybe even a pastor (you think?) to go so all out that normal human feelings are extinguished in favor of winning at all costs, exerting power over other people, and achieving glory.  They can never “shut it off.”  Even when this means harming their families and ultimately themselves.  (Achilles himself being brought down by the weakling Paris whose arrow hits him at his one point of vulnerability.)

This has to do, of course, with vocation, when the vocation is twisted into a means of aggrandizement for the self rather than love and service to the neighbor.


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