“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

“Old so-and-so”–A post on peculiarity and affection

Lately, I’ve been reading Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, after Brianna and I put the kids to bed.

It’s a story about the “unique” people one comes to know during a lifetime in a small community.

Jayber

A key takeaway is this: When no one is a “stranger” we see more clearly that everyone is strange.

But far from being merely a cause for mockery or bullying, peculiarity can spark affection.

Case in point: ‘Ol Ab Rowanberry, with his rifle and his chamber pot.

Yet another sight I used to see [around town] was uncle Ab Rowanberry shuffling by, carrying a rifle, a lantern, and a sack containing a chamber pot, a cowbell, a corn knife and a long leather purse tied with a rag string. He would be on his way between daughters.

The paragraph is random and ridiculous—and delightful.

The scene continues:

Ab carried with him all his worldly possessions, the terms of his independence and self-respect: the rifle with which he provided a little meat for the table and with which he could defend himself if attacked, the corn knife in case he needed it, the lantern and the chamber pot to preserve his dignity when he had to get up at night, the cowbell to ring if he fell down and couldn’t get up. […] I observed him carefully and have remembered him always.

The last line is vintage Berry.

EXAGGERATED?

Some would allege that such colorful depictions of human beings amount to “tall tales” that exaggerate the strangeness.

I disagree.

As a case in point, I recall a similar critique as it was levelled at the southern gothic stories of Flannery O’Conner. In defense of Flannery, the poet Elizabeth Bishop wrote the following:

Critics who accuse her of exaggeration are quite wrong, I think. I lived in Florida for several years next to [a church like those described in O’Conner’s fiction].

After those Wednesday nights, nothing Flannery O’Conner ever wrote could seem at all exaggerated to me.

CONCLUSION

What’s the point of these forays into human idiosyncrasy?

Since I’m in the middle of a fiction-writing project myself (MS due in about a month!), one reminder is to “Include a rifle and a chamber pot” in my own way (i.e., Don’t be afraid to highlight the peculiar features that make people interesting people).

But there is also a spiritual lesson to be learned.

For Berry (and for O’Conner), the goal is not to mock our strangeness, but to weave a spell around it so that even oddity can become a mark of beauty and belovedness.

As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves:

The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not [alike]. Growing fond of “old-so-and-so,” at first simply because he happens to be there—[rifle and chamber pot in tow!]—I presently begin to see that there is “something in him.”

This realization also connects with another theme from Lewis’ most famous essay (The Weight of Glory): There are no ordinary people. No mere mortals.

We are all odder and more broken than we look; yet more beloved than we dared imagine.

 


Thanks for stopping by.

Click the green “Follow” button to never miss a post.

Signup here to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter, “Serpents and Doves.”

 

Is beauty a guide to God?

Is beauty a guide to God?

“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”

Thus begins the poignant novel by Julian Barnes (Nothing to Be Frightened Of).

The story represents a wrestling match with mortality in a post-Christian age. Yet my interest in it pertains to a much narrower topic: what one might call the Aesthetic Argument for faith; that is, the argument from beauty.

The question runs as follows:

Can the experience of beauty be a guide to God?

The possibility is raised by James K. A. Smith in his recent book, How (Not) to Be Secular. In his words:

[Barnes] seems, if not tempted, at least intrigued by an aesthetic argument […] : that religion might just be true simply because it is beautiful. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it,” […] It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel.  

“A helluva novel.”

While there are several classical arguments for God’s existence (see Aquinas’ Five Ways), it should not surprise you that this isn’t one of them.

Yet consider also the words of a very different source, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). As he writes:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.

For the former Pope: sainthood speaks to “goodness,” while artwork points to “beauty.”

Yet as Rod Dreher notes (here), neither goodness nor beauty are, strictly speaking, arguments at all.  But they can be gateways to truth—like what Francis Schaefer called “pre-evangelism.”

They are, to use the phrase of N.T. Wright, “the echo of a voice.”

The idea, for both Barnes and Benedict, is that even atheists and agnostics have moments in which they are—for lack of a better word—ambushed by an aching beauty.

And more specifically, a beauty that bespeaks Transcendence.

Amidst doubt and skepticism, there comes a haunting sense that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins).  And at certain moments: “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.”

Behold the (non-)argument for God from beauty.

EVOLUTIONARY ART 

But surely there is a natural explanation for this feeling. Right?

Indeed, several thoughtful ones have been proposed.

The most popular evolutionary argument (see here) for how art emerged has to do with its benefits in attracting mates. We have art, so to speak, because the artist got the girl and produced offspring

(That’s true actually.  Just ask my wife.  Incredibly, my youthful musical skills managed to mask both my acne and my near total lack of long-term earning potential. We have four kids.)

Still, there is a problem with the purely evolutionary argument.

In short, it tells us why artists might a procreative advantage now, but it fails to show why anyone should have found such art beautiful or moving in the first place.

As should be obvious, the meaning must precede the mating, or there is no evolutionary advantage to such artistry.

And to all appearances, this beauty-conciousness is hard-wired into us.

To be human is to be unique as homo artifex.

And there are few analogues within the animal kingdom. My dog leaves the room when I pull out the guitar, and she was mostly “meh” on last year’s Oscar nominees.

We alone seemed awed by beauty. Perhaps, then, the former Pope and the agnostic author (Barnes) were on to something.

Life itself is, to quote Barnes, “a helluva novel.”

But do not all novels have an Author?

NOT PROOFS, PERSISTENT WHISPERS

In the end, my own view is that there are no ironclad “proofs” of God’s existence—much less of the more specific question of “Which god?”

Metaphysics doesn’t work that way.

And perhaps it’s for the best.

Because in the worst cases, such “proofs” come into conversations like Elijah’s earthquake on the mountaintop. They thunder through the internet and through theology textbooks.

But as with Elijah:

“the LORD was not in the earthquake” (1 Kings 19).

If you want proofs, take math.

The Christian God desires trust sans certitude.

Hence, as with Elijah: He comes (often) in the “whisper” (1 Kings 19.12).

Thankfully, however, in moments of transcendent beauty, such whispers can be annoyingly persistent.