Fiction is Truer than Fact

img_4595In Jill Lepore’s extraordinary biography of Ben Franklin’s sister Jane, Book of Ages, a short chapter near the end sketches the rise of the novel as a genre. Prior to the eighteenth century, “history” was the genre for telling the stories of lives, and they were always the stories of famous men. Then in the eighteenth century, novels began to be written, but at first they called themselves “histories”: Fielding’s History of Tom Jones, Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy are two that Lepore names. Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela also purported to be real letters that Fielding had discovered.

Soon, though, novelists dropped pretense of writing history, because they were convinced that their new genre was truer than history. It was a new kind of biography—of ordinary people—and its truth was founded not in documentary evidence but in human nature.

I was reminded of this while recently reading Kent Haruf’s novels Plainsong, Eventide, and Benediction, all set in his fictional town of Holt, Colorado, on the high dusty plains east of Denver. The small events of very ordinary lives are Haruf’s subject. In a spare, understated style, Haruf creates characters who surprise themselves with a generous gesture, who suffer from depression or loss or the meanness of others, who settle into habits of sadness or of gratitude.

Reading along, I would often stop and think: “this is life as it really is.”

Lepore’s terms helped me understand why I keep reading fiction: because fiction connects me with the truth of other lives. And so with the truth of my own. [Read more...]

The Creationist Crisis Reprise

Sevbible2eral months ago I blogged about the Ken Ham Bill Nye debate at Liberty University. I hadn’t given the two much thought since then until last week when they both rose back into the media. My son’s Popular Science magazine arrived with Nye on the front, his fists wrapped like a boxer’s, and the title of the article about him: Nerd Fight! The same day, Ham hit the news as a butt of jokes for blogging that intelligent alien life cannot exist because, “the Bible makes it clear that Adam’s sin affected the whole universe. This means that any aliens would also be affected by Adam’s sin, but because they are not Adam’s descendants, they can’t have salvation… To suggest that aliens could respond to the gospel is just totally wrong.”

What struck me about the Ham kerfuffle is how this arises from the same place that his strict stance on young earth creationism does. At its core, this is not about the science; it is about hermeneutics.

[Read more...]

Your Life Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

minecraft-chicken-hatchingOn the last night of Image’s Glen West Workshop earlier this month, after a moving concert by Over the Rhine and all manner of sniffling and hugging, Father Richard Rohr invited us to make spaces in our souls for worship.

“How you live this moment is how you live your life,” he said. “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

His words nailed my heart to the floor.

I like to think I am “good” at worship. I often prepare myself by opening my hands, a posture that helps me focus. But my mind has a way of hairline-cracking within seconds: Do these people like me? Have they noticed my discolored tooth? On a scale of one to ten, how much of an idiot have I made myself today?

I like to think I lose myself in the beauty of God, but as my mind splinters and my prayerful hands go numb, I have to acknowledge that this moment of unrest reflects a life of unrest.

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Lessons of The Giver

Mphoto-1-2emory, of both the best and the worst, is central to guidance. Without it, we forego paths that have led to prosperity, take paths that have led to ruin.

Further, memory is extremely personal, while at the same time supremely collective. We all have our own particular catalog of recollections, which we consult, as need be. But we are all also part of a greater story, and our lives intersect with each other in such complex and dangerous ways that the shared memory of what we have been to each other, and done to each other, must be sounded to direct how we are to live with each other. This we call history, and its caretaking is a solemn affair.

In Lois Lowry’s classic young adult novel, The Giver, brought to the screen August 15 in a very fine film version (with Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and Brenton Thwaites), memory is not allowed to the individual members of the state. It is the repository of only one, who retains the past in case it’s ever needed. As he ages, he must pass—“give”—his storehouse to another.

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We Who Are Left Behind

thumbnail“Why’d you let go?” Conrad Jarrett shouts at the ceiling, in a climactic scene in Ordinary People. Conrad’s family has unraveled after a boating accident took his older brother, and after his own attempted suicide. In flashbacks we see the Jarrett boys gripping a rope slung across their storm-tossed, capsized sailboat. Conrad’s brother loses hold, is swallowed by the water.

Conrad’s psychiatrist elicits from him the truth beneath his survivor’s guilt, which is that he is angry. Angry his brother didn’t head for shelter sooner. Angry he couldn’t hang on. “Did it ever occur to you,” asks his psychiatrist, “that you might have been stronger?”

Seventeen years after Ordinary People garnered four Oscars, Robin Williams received an Oscar for his role in Good Will Hunting, as a psychiatrist much like the one played by Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People. In a similarly dramatic counseling scene, Williams helps the film’s protagonist find the beginning of peace.

[Read more...]


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