Tuesday, November 27

The Return: Emotions and Literature

From the time that I was a small boy, my mother used to read stories to me. I have always enjoyed reading and writing, but tales of far off lands, fantastic journeys, seemingly impossible adventures and accounts of heroes, dragons and men have always captivated me and held my attention. For the longest time, I have viewed literature as something I simply read as something to pass the time while every now and again I would come across a "good book." For the last three years, the articles on this website have been about the defense of Christianity, explaining and understanding different aspects of religion, science and the world around us. I make no claim to be an official theologian, scholar, historian, scientist, or archaeologist. But I do make the claim that as a human being created under God, I hold a right to express my views and defend them as I see fit, particularly if I hold these views to be truth. This article is about the exploration and journey of a man who is still learning his lessons slowly but surely and wishes to convey them to the thousands of readers who make this place their usual haunt.

The usual articles on here (particularly the last year or so) have attempted to become more scholarly in nature, and I have endeavored to maintain the quality - though clearly not quantity - of the published material so as to inform and aid Christians and non-Christians alike. Articles have covered topics from different arguments for God's existence (the cosmological, the ontological, teleological and others), arguments for the resurrection of Jesus and attempts to pick apart skeptical arguments against the resurrection (disciples stealing the body, the notion that Jesus simply fainted on the cross and other - in my view - fallacious theories), reconciling alleged Biblical contradictions, answering common questions posed to Christians (who created God, the problem of evil), discussion about the end of time and a wide variety of other articles. I have received more emails and comments than I can count or even recall - some of which I am still in the process of responding to.

Over the past year, a lot has happened in my personal life. I will not delve into the details of these experiences, but for those who have asked why there has been a decrease in the amount of published material this year, I can simply say that I have been going through la noche oscura del alma, which is Spanish for the "Dark Night of the Soul." This phrase was used by the 16th century Spanish poet John of the Cross. For its relation with Christianity, this phrase describes a period of spiritual crisis or testing in your journey intended to bring you to further union with the Creator. For those who are not Christians, it simply means that I have been going through a period of struggle in every area of my life - physical, emotional, mental, social, financial, spiritual and so forth. A couple of months ago, I started to think over the events of this year and determine the overall theme of my year, and proceeded to also classify the past few years. It was eventually concluded that this year was about literature, emotion and Christ.

Before proceeding further, allow me to explain a few things (a sort of disclaimer inserted mid-article, if you will). This article is not the norm, and is not what this website is usually used for. But after several months of silence, I felt it necessary to explain a few things and also reflect upon the year. I may also further clarify that this article is not intended to truly be about myself, but about you. This article is intended to look at different aspects of literature and emotions and how they are applicable to life, with hope that lessons I have learned can be utilized by you, the reader. Bearing this in mind, we can then continue. There is an ultimate conclusion from all of this, so understand that the massive amount of background information is for a good purpose.

When I was younger, my mother bought me the entire Chronicles of Narnia series written by the author, poet, and lay theologian Clive Staples Lewis (1898-1963), better known as C.S. Lewis, and known to his friends as "Jack." As I grew, I was also given a set from my father - it contained J.R.R. Tolkien's (1892-1973) The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The years wore on and I read other works by each author - The Silmarillion (Tolkien), Mere Christianity (Lewis), Unfinished Tales (Tolkien), Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, the Space Trilogy (all from Lewis) and several others. My current goal is to read all of the published material from both Tolkien and Lewis, who have been, are currently and will likely continue to be my two favorite authors. Lewis is perhaps my favorite author of the two, and much of my philosophical and theological inspiration comes from him, while Tolkien is a close second simply because The Hobbit is my favorite work of literature and is something that I read at least once or twice a year. I am also among the Tolkien fans who has been heavily anticipating The Hobbit film (now a trilogy) for over a decade now and my joy at finally having the opportunity to see it next month is more than I can express.

The Lord of the Rings films as well as the collective writings of Tolkien and Lewis have affected my life in a massive way. Certainly, the Scriptures have had the most impact on my life over everything and my first priority and first love is for Scripture. But as humans, we tend to become attached to different things, develop habits and hobbies (or hobbits, if your feet are hairy), likes and dislikes. People are not concrete, and are in a constant state of flux. Emotions can change, people can and do change, and life circumstances can change. God remains the same - but while we are earth-bound (in what Lewis describes as the Shadowlands), we are bound to develop an interest in various things. Over the past year, I have read a large body of literature, both ancient and modern.

For example, I have just finished reading The Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic poem likely written around the end of the 8th century BC by Homer (assuming Homeric authorship, though it can be and is debated in scholarly circles), and am in the process of reading Euripides' Bacchae and Homer's Iliad. Other poems and plays have included Hesiod's Theogony, Aeschylus' Agamemnon and Eumenides, the Homeric Hymns, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, Aesop's Fables (some of which were likely composed in the sixth century BC), the Art of War (attributed to Sun Tzu), the Analects of Confucius, many early Christian writings and non-canonical gospels (such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Shepperd of Hermas) and Jewish non-canonical texts (such as the Enochian writings or the book of Tobit), and a myriad of other works. On a whole, I read several books a week about history, philosophy, archaeology, linguistics, Biblical studies, ancient and modern literature and such.

What of emotion? Emotion can sometimes be very complicated. Philosophers and scientists have tried to describe it, control it and exploit it for centuries. Psychologists (the youngest of the scientific fields, having been around for a little over a century and a half) have spent a large amount of time researching every aspect of emotion and more and more understanding and information is gained, processed and learned everyday. One of the most complicated emotions of all is love. Perhaps the best definition of love can be found in the writings of the apostle Paul, in 1st Corinthians 13:4-8. It reads, "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails" (TNIV).

For my part, if the love you have between a friend and another friend, a husband and a wife, a boyfriend and a girlfriend does not meet these guidelines, it may not necessarily be considered love. There are many forms of love, of course - platonic love, impersonal love, unrequited love and other forms. I agree with King Solomon's description of his wife when he described her as his "perfect one, who is unique." Sometimes the best love starts off as a friendship, and develops from there. We see this happening often in our culture, in ancient stories and fantasies. Granted, sometimes these romances are quite fanciful and do not specifically fit with how life actually works. It is also important to keep in mind that if you feel you are "in love" with someone, be sure you are in love with the person and not the idea of that person. Many moons ago, I believed I had fallen in love with someone. It took me several years to realize that I was not actually in love with that person for various reasons - I was in love with the idea of them. Lewis comes in handy here. 

C.S. Lewis had married a woman named Helen Joy Davidman in 1956. Their love story is one of marvel and tragedy, and one that I have learned and read about in great detail (the 1993 film Shadowlands does a splendid job of portraying their love story). Sadly, after only four years of marriage Joy died of bonce cancer in 1960. Jack (Lewis) was devastated, and proceeded to write in a journal that later became published under the title of A Grief Observed in 1961. At one point in this journal, Jack notes that he is trying to keep himself from loving the idea of her (so to speak) - from only loving what he wanted to remember about her. When she was alive, she would be there to shatter the image he had created of her, whether he had mentally picked and chosen the good and positive things about her and only remembered that part of her - this is what he feared. He wanted to have her around to remind him of who she really was, and he hoped that he would never lose sight of that. The best way I can relate this to you is this: imagine that you have not seen your aunt or uncle in four years, and you only remember certain things about them. When you see them again, they may move their head a certain way, speak a certain way, perform certain actions and a variety of other things that shatters that image you had of them and replaces it with a fresh, realistic image. In the same way, if you feel that you are "in love" with someone, be sure that you are in love with that person and accept them fully instead of only falling in love with the idea of that person or the idea of you being with that person. There are a million things that can be said about love, but for my part I will simply say that love is the grandest and most enthralling of all mysteries.

There are many books that can contribute to change in your life. Indeed, Scripture is life-changing and extremely profound. Any reader of my past articles is well aware that I defend the veracity of Scripture and hold it in the highest regard. Yet I am also a lover of Greco-Roman mythology, Egyptian, Norse and others. Greek and Roman mythology, history and philosophy have always held my interest and enabled me to learn more about the world around me by utilizing concepts and ideas and filtering them through the lens of Scripture. 

So what is the whole point? Almost there, bear with me. I have completed my life up to the present time - my story continues today. And yourself? You are exactly where you need to be at in the story of your life. Whether you are to learn from an experience or grow from a conflict, take small comfort that you are where you need to be at this moment in time. Simply bear in mind that the story is not yet over. I find that literature can provide an escape from this reality (which itself is not bad - we are humans taking on the role of our Creator by engaging in sub-creation), and emotions can be influenced by literature, can influence literature, and certainly our emotions have an influence on everyone around us. There are a thousand other points I wish to make and things I wish to say, but I shall save those for another day. To me, life is a grand mystery, and the inclusion of God in my life and my belief that He guides my life gives me comfort but also fills me with meaning and purpose. As sin-corrupted human beings, we make mistakes, and we sometimes fail. But I find that events in life can only be considered a "failure" if you choose to disregard the lessons you ought to have taken away from those experiences and if you choose to not allow that "failure" to somehow become a success.

Over the course of this past year, I have learned a lot. Literature, experience (especially learning about emotions), time spent with family and friends and a plethora of other things has contributed to my understanding of the world around me and my understanding of God, Scripture, and it has helped me to come to some sort of understanding with the ancient Greek aphorism "know thyself." C.S. Lewis once noted on experience, "Experience is a brutal teacher, but you learn. My God, do you learn." What does it all add up to? There are a dozen different conclusions I could make, and there are a lot of other things we could discuss. This is not the best article I have ever written nor is it intended to be the last, but it serves as more of a self-reflection on what has passed and what is to come. But please, do not let the darkness of your past cloud the promise of the present or the possibility of the future. Life is a challenge: accept it and face it head on. Discover what purpose you were created for, and live that purpose out to the best of your abilities. If I have learned anything this year, it is simply this: I have become once again like a child. 

Lewis once remarked that "I wrote this story for you, but when I began it I had not realized that girls grow quicker than books. As a result you are already too old for fairy tales, and by the time it is printed and bound you will be older still. But some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." I am old enough to read fairly tales again - from Tolkien and Lewis, from Greek to Roman myths, from Germanic folklore collected by the Brothers Grimm and many others. I am old enough to accept Scripture as the ultimate story - the myth come true, the greatest story ever told that spans the corners of space and time and fills my life and the universe with meaning. Emotions and literature - but more importantly my Creator - have taught me to be like a small child again. Sometimes all it takes for us to move forward in life is to view life through the eyes of a small child: we spend our childhood trying to grow up, and much like we long evermore for a return to that Edenic paradise we lost so long ago, we spend our adult lives longing to be young again.

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