Saturday, October 21, 2006

Weight of Glory

It is good to occassionally remind ourselves of what is truly important in life. Lewis stated it far better than I ever could:

“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken.

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now you would be strongly tempted to worship it, or else a horror and corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or another of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations —these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, marry, snub, and exploit —immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the onset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is you Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

-C. S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The Passage of Time

I recently attended my 10 year highschool reunion. Reflecting on how quickly the last decade vanished, prompted me to find this piece in one of my old gridbooks:

You start out a little kid for whom the world is an unfamiliar place, but after a while you get used to the world and even start to recognize it as your own. Change doesn't affect you at first. The old man who lived on the corner died and a year later someone tore down his house and put a gas station there. But that doesn't mean much to you. A thousand other unremarkable things change without causing any stir at all... until one day you wake up startled to realize that everything you once recognized is gone. It all left without you noticing.

Suddenly you recall that childhood fear of a world you don't recognize. You probably never gave the old man waving from his rocking chair on his porch more than a minute's thought in your whole life, but now you lie awake at night longing for him. And it's no use learning the new world, because you realize that things change too fast now.

The world hadn't seemed to change much at all until you start trying to hold on to things, then the more desperately you cling the faster everything you know flies away. It might be better just to stop worrying. Anyway you'll be gone soon too and your place will probably be replaced with a gas station.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Known World

I just finished "The Known World" by Edward P. Jones. A book this beautiful and profound deserves both recommendation and discussion here:

The Known World is by far the best book I have ever read by a living author. Edward P Jones' skill in painting character's lives and the world they inhabit is quite remarkable. The non-linear exploration of his characters makes for a mildly difficult but insightful read. Mr. Jones has rightly been compared to the brilliant William Faulkner. The Known World won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and if Mr. Jones continues to write like this he will almost certainly join Faulkner as a winner of the Nobel Prize.

The Known World tells the story of the fictional Manchester County Virginia in the years before the Civil War. The story centers around a freed slave named Henry Townsend who owns slaves and runs a plantation. The story explores Henry's entire world and the web of people in it. The story makes our common concepts of victims and abusers or race and class seem too trite and weak to explain the complex people of the story. The characters of the book are disconcertingly true to human nature. Even those who act monstrously are shown capable of incredible kindness, and even the most admirable of characters are rife with flaws and always in danger of falling from grace.

The crime of enslaving another human being is at the center of the story, but it is not a story "about slavery." The book examines our inherent bent towards misusing each other, of which slavery is one picture. Most of the book doesn't contain any intentional cruelty at all. The well-meaning people gradually created a world in which abuse and misuse is a part of life. It uncomfortably reminds the reader of how we often interact with each other in today's world. The author approaches his characters with such compassion that instead of righteous indignation we look on them with sympathy, "Father forgive them, they know not what they do." When chaos and violence finally erupts we can realize how easily it rose out of seemingly harmless acts of these well-meaning murderers.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book for discussion are the characters who “knew better.” I think particularly of John Skiffington the kind and honest sheriff. Skiffington is a good man who knows enslaving another human is wrong, but finds no way to avoid that it is a fact of the world in which he lives. He tries to keep the world stable by living righteously and keeping unjust laws as justly as he can, but his seemingly innocent entanglements in the injustices around him bring about his fall from grace and the ensuing chaos. In the end the good sheriff is more responsible for the crimes than the slave owners or the violent men who knew no better way. I found this righteous sheriff the most tragic and disconcerting character in all The Known World.

In a world like our own where the undesired are terminated, the neighbors and children of our enemies are bombed in the name of security, and property is more important than relationships are we not the same? We modern, enlightened people read books about the world of slavery and say, “Well I would have definitely stood up against those injustices!” but The Known World shows how easy it is to live with evil as part of the fabric of the only world you have ever known. Even if we recognize the evils in the world around us, we tend to give our opposition lip-service while benefiting from the security or wealth they provide. Someone like myself with a tendency toward rants might be tempted to call The Known World a "call for action," but it would not be an honest look at the work. The generous Edward P. Jones doesn't ask his characters to save the world, he even forgives them as they are destroying it. Perhaps he hopes with a bit of introspection we might be a little better than our ancestors.

If you are looking for a fascinating read I highly recommend The Known World. If you have read it I would love to hear your thoughts on the book...