Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

I’ve had a rather odd relationship with James K.A. Smith since 11th grade. Until this book, I had never read him or actually listened to him, beyond the odd lecture on Youtube here and there. However, I felt like I’d read him as my High School more or less mediated his Cultural Liturgies project to me as its official position–something I’m quite grateful for.

Since my parents quasi-homeschooled me, I only went to this school once a week. Yet I came to anticipate it. The staff carefully baked Christian liturgies into every aspect of the school day, and strove to create the sort of thick community I wanted. I loved it.

I approached Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, then, with a somewhat odd lens. I’m certainly nowhere near well-read enough to evaluate Smith’s engagement with Jeffrey Stout, Jonathan Chaplin, or Oliver O’Donovan. I came to Awaiting the King as a young Christian citizen, interested in politics, and soon to vote in his first election. Happily, it turns out I’ve been asking many of the questions Smith addresses in the book. Is Liberalism (classically conceived) incompatible with Christian faith? What habits of the heart does democracy or capitalism cultivate? What–if any–is the place of the church in politics? Is there a single political order the Bible mandates?

Smith begins his answers to these questions by redefining how we think of politics:

“Across different theological streams that counsel quite different modes of Christian engagement with (or distance from) politics, we can nonetheless discern a common assumption that ‘the political’ is a kind of realm, a turf, a territory. In this sense we spatialize political theology and reduce it to boundary management and border patrols. Second, we tend to assume that citizens (i.e. political agents) are ‘rational actors’ of the sort economists like to dream of–decision making machines whose actions are the outcome of conscious deliberation rooted in beliefs and ideas.” (pg. 8)

Contrary to these assumptions, “the political is less a space and more a way of life; the political is less a realm and more of a project.” (pg. 9) With this, he sets up the point of his first two chapters. Politics is not something Christians can escape entirely, nor is it a realm Christians can separate from their spiritual life and merely step in and out of for some door-knocking and voting. Politics is baked into the fabric of our lives.

Perhaps this is easily visible in our time. One can hardly open social media or turn on a TV show or a movie without being inundated with politics. Even further: do you shop at Target or boycott it due to their bathroom policy? Do you get your news from Fox or CNN? Do you give money to the homeless man on the side of the street? Do you buy oil from BP? Do you use an electric car? Do you send your children to public school?

Politics is everywhere. “Laws, then, are not just boundary markers; they are social nudges that make us a certain kind of people.” (pg. 10)

Thus, we must examine how our political order deforms or re-forms us. We have no choice–even the most mundane law does something to us. As an (important) aside, Smith points out that politics in our day includes economics:

“In the current configuration of globalized capitalism, the state has in many ways been trumped by the forces of the market and society. Wannenwetsch points out that in Western societies–and globalized societies more and more–the economy functions as a ‘structure-building force’ that shapes everything. The market no constitutes ‘the inner logic’ of society itself: the dynamics of society are ‘moulded by the laws of the market: as a contest between participants competing for an increase of their shares.'” (pg. 12)

How do we engage with the political order, then? Smith emphatically, throughout his work, reminds us that a proper political theology starts by recognizing that politics is not neutral. In one of his more provocative lines he drives this home: “It shouldn’t be surprising when an institution that wants you to ‘pledge allegiance’ is not happy with anything less than your heart.” (pg. 14)

In the rest of the book, Smith argues that Christians must–for their own peace and for love of their neighbors–try to bend the loves of the earthly city towards the Kingdom of God. We might say that we are required to nudge the kingdom of man towards the Kingdom of God. This is an aspect of our calling to serve as lights to the world (Matthew 5:13-16). We must pursue the peace of the earthly city: “for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

The sticky point is how Christians are to do this without resorting to an authoritarian “convert-or-die” methodology. We must have something constructive to add:

“Any truly prophetic critique and identification of purpose, then, needs what we’ve called a canon and criterion: some outline of the substance of how things ought to be, some delineation of what ‘kingdom come’ looks like. ‘The prophet needs a point of view from which it is possible to criticize without criticism becoming a mere form, empty of substance. The prophet is not allowed the luxury of perpetual subversion. After Ahab, Elijah must anoint some Hazael, some Jehu. (Desire of the Nations, 12)” (pg. 65)

In the face of these required paradoxes–thorough Christianity without sheer theocracy, tolerance and love for others without concessions to neutrality, etc.–it may be tempting to simply opt for some neutral stance. Smith points out how many have appealed to St. Augustine’s “two cities” theology, arguing for a notion of dual citizenship. I’m in no place to judge the legitimacy of Smith’s critique of this position, but he argues that Augustine had no such intent. For Augustine, the earthly city and the heavenly city are fundamentally opposed because they are organized not around beliefs (“Abortion is wrong,” “Gay marriage is right,” “Capitalism is just,” etc.) but around loves. The earthly city has no object of love beyond itself. Its own peace, prosperity, justice, and equality is everything. Because there is no Lord to claim vengeance, we must claim vengeance. Because there are is no Second Coming to overcome injustice, we must inaugurate whatever kingdom of peace and justice we desire. This is why conservatives and liberals are unable to have discussions of policy. They aren’t talking about policies, they’re talking about gods.

In this sense, Christianity has something quite political to say:
“Embedded in Israel’s narrative is a transcending of tribalism–the conviction that because Yahweh is ‘a great king over all the earth’ (Ps. 47:2 ESV), his ‘law can be extended in principle to other nations than Israel’ (DN, 65). ‘The political structures of other nations had the same vocation to exercise just jdugement as Israel’s did’ (DN, 68). Israel was called to model this, to show them how, not through colonial rule, but through witness. Whether or not Israel succeeded in this (spoiler alert: Israel failed), this entails a responsibility of the nations. The nations are expected to obey God’s rule, which is precisely why the prophets call the nations to account. It’s also why, as we’ll see, nations are still called to obey God’s rule and, after the resurrection of Jesus, some will answer that call, albeit fallibly and imperfectly.” (pg. 75)
This political witness Smith proposes is encapsulated best in his critique of Kuyperian Sphere Sovereignty:
“To give Caesar what is his is a bit like granting someone the right to occupy a building that has been condemned to demolition, or giving someone currency that is going to be decommissioned in the near future…The question at issue…is not jurisdictional (who rules what?) but temporal (who rules now?).” (pg. 76)
This is all quite clear, up to this point. At the name of Jesus, every knee must bow, and the call of the church is to bring more people into the Kingdom of God. How, then, can we possibly exclude political authorities from such obedience, or order them to privatize their spiritual lives? How can we assent to political habits that deform us from from the image of Jesus? The resurrection of Jesus inaugurated a new kingdom where Evil and Death and Injustice no longer reigns, and in which all nations are called to surrender their authority to the King of Kings.

The question is how. Smith spends the rest of the book exploring some possibilities, but this is where it is least clear. What political order follows the standard of Jesus?

For example, how ought Christians handle pluralism? Smith nuances this question out quite a bit, but the kind of pluralism possibly objectionable to Christians he labels as “directional” pluralism. This pluralism “names ‘the plurality of religions, worldview, or other fundamental spiritual orientations’ that animate people and communities in diverse societies.” (pg. 136)

 

As one of my teachers often emphasizes, pluralism is first a fact rather than a policy. There are diverse “spiritual orientations,” we simply have to decide what to do with them.

 

From a Christian perspective, we can’t just shrug our shoulders and surrender to a procedural relativism when we start engaging in the public sphere. What, then, do we do? This is where the books becomes unclear. Smith gives us no final direction, he does not resolve the dispute one way or another. The closest he comes is a sort of, “well, we have to deal with pluralism and allow some form of religious freedom.” The question, of course, is whether that itself is not a deeply formative habit. In other words, when dealing with penultimate political issues, if we must treat all religions equally, will that not deform us, making the sheer exclusivity of Jesus’ claims politically unacceptable, at best, and morally repugnant, at worst? Unfortunately, Smith doesn’t seem to give a clear answer.

Another frustrating part of Smith’s book is his response to the challenge oft-leveled at the Cultural Liturgies project, namely that there are (many) individuals who grew up fully immersed in liturgical Christian worship and are still deformed and passionless about Christianity.

While Smith clearly takes the critique seriously, he fails to give a satisfying answer. In all honesty, it seemed like Smith himself hadn’t decided what to say in response, or how to nuance his project to accommodate. The best of the answer is simply that there are many liturgies in the world, not just Christian ones, and Christian formation requires whole-hearted devotion to Christian liturgies.

Unfortunately, this answer sounds like the apparent failure of liturgy to deform individuals is solved by more liturgy. I do want to emphasize that I highly doubt this is actually Smith’s answer, but it is the way it came across to me in the book, a point that frustrated me a bit.

With all this in mind, then, I finished the book with many questions unanswered, but with a solid theological foundation. In many ways, I believe this is all Smith tried to do. He sketches a political theology that refuses the liberalism and faux-neutrality of post-Lockean democracy, and recognizes the total rule that Christ has over all nations. He does not tell us how to work out this paradox, but perhaps

Perhaps Smith simply wants us to live with our feet firmly planted in the New Creation Jesus inaugurated in his resurrection while surrounded by the Old Creation. Somehow, Christians are called to serve the Lord of Life while immersed in the Kingdom of Death. We cannot pretend to serve only Reason or some Neutral Common Good on election day and worship Jesus on Sunday.

Christians are called to live as citizens of the City of God all the time, where final justice and real peace are postponed till the last days. Yet we are called to be agents of this Kingdom of Light, bringing others into it. We cannot surrender our Christianity when we engage in politics. Instead, while we fight and pray for the peace of the earthly city, we must remember that we are praying to the One who sits on the throne and says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” We pray not for some carnal peace, but for the Kingdom of Life to conquer Death forever. And we pray for our Father, not our President, to make all things new. May we always remember that.

 

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.
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A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth

A few years ago I started blogging through Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. I didn’t get too far and ended up with posts on most of her early stories. These are, of course, the stories that don’t get much airtime. My post on “A Good Man is Hard to Find” being the exception to the rule.

And, funny enough, though I haven’t blogged about her in years, those posts are the only ones that consistently get a decently high number of views. Other than that regular reminder, I hadn’t thought or read much about O’Connor since those posts. Reading Michael Mears Bruner’s new book, A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, reminded me why I loved her so much. The book itself is not, in my opinion, all that great. It makes some interesting points and highlights some theological influences on O’Connor, but ends up repeating established interpretations of O’Connor’s work. Bruner starts right off with his thesis:

 

“This book makes the argument that, through her fiction, Flannery O’Connor subverted the conventional notions of truth, goodness, and beauty, not merely from a position of Christian dogma but out of an aesthetic impulse.” (pg. 1)

This sounds like a new thesis, but a confusing one at that. The hinge upon which the book stands (it is in the title, after all) is the word “subversive.” Almost halfway through the book Bruner finally defines what he means by subversion:

“contravenes cultural assumptions; uses distortion as a way to create new patterns and modes of reception; always initially resisted; often establishes or codifies new genres; is an implicit critique of the status quo.” (pg. 128)

On this definition, Bruner’s argument boils down to: Flannery O’Connor contravenes common assumptions of truth, goodness, and beauty through displaying the gritty, violent, and ugly way grace breaks into the world. It’s not that this thesis is wrong, it’s simply obvious.

Writing introductions to an author is by no means problematic, but Bruner doesn’t couch his book as an introduction. He acts as if he’s presenting a new thesis when what he’s actually done is rephrase an old one.

Bruner’s original contribution is his examination of Barron von Hügel’s influence on O’Connor. This section frustrated me, though, because it doesn’t shed much light on O’Connor’s fiction. Bruner convinced me that von Hügel did in fact influence O’Connor, but didn’t clarify why this changed things. I’m not against scholarship for scholarship’s sake, but if that was Bruner’s goal it might have helped to clarify that up front.

That’s not to say the book is useless. Some of Bruner’s peripheral insights are brilliant. For example, in one section he highlights O’Connors sympathies and criticisms of Protestant theology:

“With few exceptions, there are also no properly liturgical elements in O’Connor’s stories because there is rarely a church in any of them; and the paradox of ‘overly cognitive’ yet ‘anti-intellectualist’ faith, as Cole puts it, exemplifies Old Mason’s as well as young Francis’ approaches, as representatives of a position that stands over and against the hyperintellectualism of their more urbane relation, George Rayber. An overly cognitive and anti-intellectualist paradoxical approach to faith even describes Haze Motes’s religious impulses, with his desire to establish the Church of Christ Without Christ that stems from a position that is all head and no heart, which is as much a repudiation of Christian praxis as it is of Christian orthodoxy. I am reminded of Chesterton’s paradoxical quip that ‘a madman is not someone who has lost his reason. A madman is someone who has lost everything but his reason.'” (pg. 103)

This is spot on. The characters in O’Connor’s stories almost never encounter Jesus through a doctrinal formulation. In fact, quite often, doctrinal formulations are the enemy. “Good Country People” exemplifies this best, perhaps, with Hulga’s rabid intellectualism blinding her to the seductive and conniving Bible salesman who knocks on the door.

The Grandmother’s theological convictions in her conversation with the Misfit–to reference O’Connor’s most famous work–are not wrong. The Grandmother’s problem is that she managed her whole life to learn quite a lot about Jesus without ever meeting him. When Jesus finally does show up it’s at the end of a shotgun and in a pool of blood.

On this front, O’Connor’s critique could be summarized this way: it’s not that doctrine is wrong, it’s that Protestant theology over-emphasizes the intellectual component of Christianity to the exclusion of the very-much-not intellectual and quite gritty and bodily ways that God communicates grace to his children.

Perhaps this is most apparent in Protestant approaches to the Eucharist, in which the emphasis usually falls on remembering the sacrifice of Jesus, thinking on what he has done for us, rather than on the communication of grace to the individual through the sacrament.

I’m not taking sides in the fight, I’m simply highlighting one of Bruner’s best insights into O’Connor.

Later in the book, Bruner mentions O’Connor’s critique of modernity:

“Whatever violent form her subversive impulses took, such a subversion was, by its very nature, incongruous with modernity’s most cherished and ubiquitous expression of religion, which is some form of providential deism, which states–or more often simply implies–that God’s main purpose is to work for the glory, happiness, and satisfaction of humanity.” (pg. 155)

While this is simple elaboration on O’Connor, it shows the best of Bruner’s book. Unfortunately, he does spend most of the book rehearsing standard interpretations, but he still makes a few brilliant points. It’s not the introduction I would point someone to, but it isn’t bad. If you read it, the best is probably Bruner’s emphasis, near the end, epitomized in the quote above, that O’Connor saw through the thin disguises of modernity and its naturalism to the the Christ-hauntedness of nature. She worked from a conviction that all of reality is sacramental and that Jesus really just might be hiding behind every tree. The modern mind’s radical privatization of faith and ambivalence (or hostility) to the supernatural is real, but it doesn’t stop Jesus from sneaking ever-nearer to human hearts until he finally steps right in, and grace breaks through the cracks of the world.

Rich Mullins said the prairies called out the name of Jesus, and O’Connor would say every human heart is calling out for him too. And she might also say that if we look through the nice, tidy, good veneer everyone puts up, and listen ever so carefully, we just might hear a heart calling out for grace. And we just might hear Jesus sneaking a little bit closer.

Summary of The City of God, Books I–III

So I’m going to blog through, perhaps intermittently, my reading of Augustine’s The City of God. I’m merely summarizing, hopefully to help myself with retention. A few disclaimers.

  1. I have no pretensions that my summaries are authoritative. I could be totally wrong.
  2. I’m merely summarizing, not evaluating. Just because I write something in this little series doesn’t mean I endorse it. It’s just what (I think) Augustine said.

With that said, here we go.

Book I

Augustine wrote City of God in response to mounting claims that the newly ascendant Christian religion was the cause of the Roman Empire’s decline and eventual fall. He wrote this after Rome fell, in part to debunk these claims. But as he acknowledges, the work has grown into something a bit bigger. Also, he sums up the feelings of every student assigned this book.

The work is great and arduous; but God is our helper.”

And yes, he really did write that in reference to his own book.

Augustine begins his apologetic by noting how merciful the Christian Visigoths who sacked Rome were to the Roman citizens. He summons historians of the ancient world to prove that this mercy is thoroughly unusual, and that, indeed, the custom of invading armies is to brutally kill all those–even those seeking refuge in temples. Augustine’s point is that the Christian Visigoths spared those who took refuge in Christian sanctuaries, even the pagan Romans who merely confessed to be Christians to save their lives. How ironic, Augustine notes, that these pagans who were saved by confessing Christ now blame their ills on Christianity.

But Augustine anticipates a further objection: some Christians did die in the sack, and some non-Christians were spared who shouldn’t have been. Why would God allow this? Augustine’s answer is “great and arduous,” but in essence boils down to this. God allows evil things to happen to Christians to strip them of their earthly loves and the security they may have drawn from financial stability, social status, or good fortune. He redirects their loves towards Himself by destroying the temporal things Christians love. Or in his words:

“The whole family of the highest and true God, then, has a consolation of its own: a consolation which depends neither upon falsehood nor upon hope in those things which falter and fail. Also, its members have a life in this age which is not in the least to be regretted: a life which is the school of eternity, in which they make use of earthly goods like pilgrims, without grasping after them, and are proved and corrected by evils.

Why do good things happen to bad people, then? I’m not really sure of Augustine’s answer.

Book II and III

Books II and III are basically centered on showing that the Roman Empire was in horrible disarray and suffered all sorts of evils even when being incredibly pious and religious in their paganism. Thus, Augustine says, Christianity cannot be the cause of Rome’s misfortune.

Precisely, actually, Augustine is responding to the claim that the pagan Gods are punishing Rome for turning largely away from them and to Christianity. Augustine’s tour of Roman history in these next two books is basically showing that even when the gods were being worshipped perfectly calamities still fell on Rome. Also, as an aside, Augustine points out that the type of worship demanded by these gods is grotesque and horrible and involves the kinds of actions the Romans condemn–except in worship. Why, then, worship the gods anyway? What god who commands such obscene rituals is worth worshipping?

Augustine also attacks paganism on the grounds that, even when Rome’s civic virtue was faltering, the gods didn’t speak from the heavens and teach Rome how to live. But the Christian God has taught us how to live and how to please Him.

The Old Man and the Spinning Top: A Reflection on the Theme of The Old Man and the Sea

The final scene of Inception is one that’s hard to forget. The main character, Cobb, finding himself back at his home spins the top to discover if he’s in a dream or not. Then, he leaves it behind, going to see his children. The camera pans back to the top, and we see it spinning perfectly, indicating that he’s in a dream. We see the top waver–and then the screen cuts to black.

What does Inception have to do with The Old Man and the Sea? At first glance, a film about stealing dreams and a novella about fishing seem to have little in common. However, I suggest that there is a resemblance the two have, and that by examining them in conjunction we can understand The Old Man and the Sea’s theme better. What is the similarity between the two? I believe it has to do with the shared theme of perception.

Inception presents this theme in a more overt, less-subtle way. The Old Man and the Sea is, first and foremost, a story. But underlying that story is an examination of the power of perception, and the place perception has in determining what we believe to be reality.

The specific example I’d like to bring up from Inception is the character of  Mal. Mal has the idea that her world isn’t real planted in her head. From that point on, she becomes obsessed with that idea, and begins to construct her own reality. Everything becomes an illusion–she is convinced that herself and Cobb are still stuck in a dream. This reality becomes her life, until finally she commits suicide to try to get out of the dream.

The concept of perception is obvious in that example. Mal perceives reality to be one way, and decides that her perception is reality. In The Old Man and the Sea, the idea is more subtle, but still present. The theme does, however, become more obvious as the story progresses.

The Old Man is, at the start of the book, down on his luck. Yet, despite that, he continues to go fishing, expressing certainty that his luck will change. When he starts on the voyage that brings him the Fish, there is an interesting section where he contemplates how he refers to the sea as opposed to how others refer to it. The difference is that he refers to her as female, while others act as if the sea were male. Why is this important? The importance isn’t so much the difference in referential terms, but in what happens next.

The Old Man reflects on the power of the sea; it is uncontrollable and prone to seemingly random storms. The Man cannot control them, and acknowledges this fact. An interesting tension emerges, and that is the tension between the man’s perception and reality.

There are several examples of this. Early in the book, the Old Man and the Boy speak of food the Old Man doesn’t have. They know he doesn’t have it, but every day we are told they act as if he does. Why? Why waste time doing that? Later in the same section, they speak of buying a lottery ticket, acting assured that they will win. Yet even there they recognize that they cannot control it. But they still, even with that knowledge, act as if they can.

I could go one, pointing out various examples throughout the book of how the man acts as if his perception determines the world around him. But, I think that a more fruitful question to ask would be, “why does he act this way?”

In Inception, the answer is obvious–Mal is, in essence, coerced into thinking that way. The Old Man, on the other hand, is not being coerced. He chooses to deceive himself–to act as if he has control over that which he does not. Why?

Perhaps the answer is found at the parts in the book where the theme shows most clearly. When he is still trying to reel in the fish we read an interesting passage: “The sack cushioned the line and he had found a way of leaning forward against the bow so that he was almost comfortable. The position actually was only somewhat less intolerable; but he thought of it as almost comfortable.” Then again, later in the book we find something interesting: “I wish I could show [the fish] what sort of man I am. But then he would see the cramped hand. Let him think I am more man than I am and I will be so.”

What do we see from these two examples? We see that in both situations he deceives himself–lets his perception determine reality for himself–so that it will be easier for him. His perception of reality is a perception where he is stronger, where life is easier. And thus, he lies to himself, believing that those things are true.

Somehow, even though we understand that ultimately it does not actually help his position, he still believes it. He refuses to acknowledge truth because he knows the truth is dangerous. G.K. Chesterton said it best when he said, “Truth, of course, must of necessity be stranger than fiction, for we have made fiction to suit ourselves.”

It seems the Old Man created a fiction, just as Mal created a fiction. They believed what they wanted to in order to make life easier.

Perhaps most fascinating, however, is what happens to them both at the end. Mal dies. Her fiction destroys her. The Old Man loses the fish, and has little to show for his efforts. He is exhausted, sick, and hungry. His fiction, his deliberate deception of himself seems to have brought him nothing but pain in the long run.

What is being said about this theme? Does Ernest Hemingway, the author of The Old Man and the Sea, suggest that deceiving ourselves is acceptable, since it does create momentary relief? The answer to that question is an entirely different blog post–but yet it’s an important one. I don’t want to get into the subject much, but I will say this. What is important, I think, to not forget is that the Old Man recognizes that what he is doing is refusing to accept the truth. He understands, at least at some level, that he is believing a lie.

That’s an important point. Hemingway may argue that ignoring the truth is acceptable. Truth is, after all, stranger than fiction. Perhaps lying to oneself does create momentary relief, or at least the appearance of momentary relief. But even if that’s what Hemingway is arguing, we’re still left with a very simple fact that has to be dealt with, especially if we agree with that argument. We may think that truth is dangerous enough to suppress, but we can’t ignore the fact that it’s still truth.

In other words, truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is truth nonetheless.

Breaking Our Own Rules: A Review of The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman

“Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great. What would have become of Beethoven’s music if he’d chased rules instead of inspiration? Of van Gogh’s paintings?”

So begins The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. The funny thing is, The First Five Pages is a book on writing that opens with an indictment against books on writing. Now, I appreciate what Lukeman goes on to do in the rest of that opening chapter. He distinguishes, it appears, between storytelling, and writing. Storytelling is an art. Writing is, but is less of one than storytelling. Lukeman proposes that rules can be set down when it comes to writing.

If he adhered to this proposal (that rules can be set down for writing, but not storytelling) I’d agree with him. Sadly, he doesn’t.

First, though, credit needs to be given where credit is due. This is a truly unique book on writing. It’s written from the perspective of an agent or editor who has just received a manuscript from an aspiring author. Lukeman, as a former agent himself, outlines what things agents and editors look for when reading a manuscript. He claims that they are simply looking for a way to reject your work (and he gives backup for that).

Then, going in order of what an agent or an editor looks at first, he sets out rules to avoid getting rejected.

Let me say this. This book is helpful in many regards, but perhaps best in the sense that it teaches you to think like a writer. I found myself, during the days that I was reading it, suddenly paying attention a bit more to language, to imagery around me, and trying to write something about it in my mind. That’s helpful because, as Orson Scott Card reminds us “We storytellers, like fishermen, are constantly dragging an ‘idea net’ along with us.”

This book helps train you to drag that idea net along.

Nevertheless, ultimately, I think this book breaks its own rule. It creates rules for storytelling especially in the chapters and sections on creating likable characters, pacing, setting, characterization, and even its chapter on viewpoint. It gives us many “thou shalt nots” even though, as it itself claimed, it is ridiculous to do so when it comes to an art like storytelling.

Even with that problem, though, there is still much to learn from this book. It’s not perfect–no book really is–but so long as we realize that the “rules” set down for storytelling are opinions and not objective facts, we can enjoy and learn from this book. I recommend it.

Justifying the Means: An Overview of the Philosophy in Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Something I really appreciate is when a story isn’t afraid to deal with complex themes. Sure, it’s a risk to do so. The storyteller risks alienating audience members if the theme is too blatant, or he risks sacrificing good story for good theme. Every now and then, though, a story comes along that embeds its theme in the plot, characters, and setting.

Ender’s Game is one such book, and for that I am grateful. However, just because it wove the theme into the story well, doesn’t mean that it necessarily was a good theme. To clarify, I’m only speaking of the first book in the series, Ender’s Game. I haven’t read the rest of the series.

My primary problem with Ender’s Game is that ultimately it seems to endorse a view of “the ends justify the means.” This is a philosophy known as pragmatism.

In pragmatism, the guiding force is the force of expediency. Something is true if it is expedient. If it works. Workability becomes the determining factor in truth. If something achieves a good end, it is justified. It is true. Here’s an example of how a pragmatist might defend their position.

Nazi’s come to your door and ask you if you have any Jews hidden there. You do, but obviously you don’t want to turn them over. So, instead of telling the truth, you lie to the Nazis and save the Jews. See? Good end (saving human life) justifies normally bad means (telling a lie).

At this point it’s important to distinguish between pragmatism, and being pragmatic. Being pragmatic is trying to solve a problem logically. Being a pragmatist means that you believe the ends justify the means.

That’s a very basic definition, and if you’d like a more in-depth discussion of pragmatism, I suggest you check out this lecture. I took all the information above from it.

So, how does Ender’s Game endorse pragmatism?

The primary and most obvious way is simple. Throughout the book a simple question is raised: is it right to turn a child into a killer, to put a child through so much pain, so that he could save the human race? Does the end (saving the human race) justify the means (turning Ender into a killer)?

And ultimately, the answer given appears to be yes, for three reasons. 1) The planet is saved, 2) Ender is not harmed, and 3) No real consequences take place because of the militaries’ choice. Most of the characters end up happy. Basically, the goal is achieved without much (if any) harm coming to the characters. The pragmatistic logic used to justify their actions works.

Granted, it’s a subtle message, which is why I say it appears to endorse pragmatism. Because it is subtle and woven so well into the story, it’s hard to figure out precisely what’s being said. But after thinking about it for a while, I believe that this is the message given.

So in essence, I’m going to be careful when I recommend Ender’s Game. That’s not to say that it wasn’t a good book–rather, it was a fantastic one. But even good books have flaws; it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read them. Instead, it means that we should watch out for the bad, and praise and enjoy the good.

The Power of Simplicity: A Review of So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger

I’m going to be completely honest here. I haven’t read many Westerns. In fact, I count, including this book, a total of two that I’ve read. This isn’t because I have anything against them, rather, I’ve very much enjoyed the ones that I have read. The only reason my count is so low, is because I’ve never found too many to read.

The point being, I read So Brave, Young, and Handsome as just another story, not necessarily as a Western.

The story follows a struggling writer named Monte Beckett. His first book was a runaway bestseller, prompting him to quit his job and turn entirely to writing (every aspiring writer’s dream). That was seven years before the story opens. When it does, we see him yet to publish another book, always unable to get very far into any attempted project. When he meets a man named Glendon who has his heart set on returning to New Mexico to see his former wife one last time, Monte can’t resist joining him.

The author of So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger, had written a single book before this one. That book, Peace Like a River, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I enjoyed it, I felt it took too long to get where it was going, and dipped a bit into sentimentality near the end. Funny thing was, everyone liked Peace Like a River, while So Brave, Young, and Handsome got mixed reviews. I personally prefer the latter. Here’s why.

To begin, the story got moving far faster than did Peace Like a River. Because it started so fast, I was a little worried it would slow down around the middle. To my surprise, it kept up the pace for most of the book, while maintaining strong characters at the heart of it. Speaking of which, the characters were exceptionally well-drawn.

Never once did any of them go “over the top.” Meaning, the story never painted anything as black and white, including the characters. They all do good things, they all do bad things. Instead of stereotypical–and slightly easier to write–heroes and villains, we have legitimately flawed characters, all of which we sympathize with in some way or another.

But perhaps the aspect of this book that made me love it so much was the simplicity. It wasn’t simplistic, but it was simple. The entire book was understated, which made the moments where emotions ran high far more believable than if the entire book was written that way. In fact, the most emotional part of the book was simply the main character leaving another, wounded character (arguably the “bad guy,” though as I previously said it’s hard to define anyone that way).

In that scene where Monte Beckett leaves, there’s no long discussion. No speech. No overt emotion. Monte just leaves. And somehow, the way that was written, the subtlety with which the emotion was portrayed, affected me far more than many things I’ve read as of late.

So yes, this book is understated and simple. On occasion, this hurts it, especially near the end. At the end there is a section of about fifty pages that while significant, could have easily been cut back to thirty or twenty-five, without any real loss.

The climax might disappoint some because of how understated it is. For me, I thought it was perfect. Maybe you won’t, but I’d urge you to give this book a try anyway. I highly recommend it.