This section (remember we created the sections for our own purposes) starts off in the middle of an important argument between John Ames and Jack Boughton. I must say that after spending many hours in theological debate, my bachelor’s degree is in Biblical Studies, I have an extremely low tolerance for it. Too many times I have had to sit and listen to debates among fellow classmates, debates that are often irrelevant in the wider story of the gospel message, questions that are many times impossible to answer in the first place. Perhaps this is why I find this conversation between Jack and John so boring. Yes it is crucial to the plot of the story, but I have a hard time reading it. To be fair I have equal intolerance for the instance in the book in which John discusses theological arguments on his own. Certain issues of theology are most definitely important and the very essence of Christianity, others are no more than the arguing of semantics, opinions, and inferences. That was dangerously close to a rant.
Building on last week’s thoughts on the worries of John about Jack Boughton, I am beginning to wonder if the issue is compounded by John worrying if his own son will do something similar to what Jack did to his family. In this section we learn the treason that Jack committed, and I will not mention it hear so as to not be a spoiler for those of you behind, it is both not as horrendous and more horrendous than I thought it would be (I realize that makes no sense). I was expecting some dark side of Jack to arise but honestly I was prepared for some violent act. However, as the story went on and John explains his own thoughts on the matter to his son, I began to realize the gravity of the actions. Yes, this sort of thing happens every day in small towns, churches, big cities, and just about every other social circle but I think that John illuminates the often unseen side of such actions. Also, and I do not know how to say this without out a SPOILER ALERT, the death of the child most certainly weighs heavy on John as he lost his own child while Jack “wasted” the life of his, as Jack writes,
-That one man should lose his child and the next man should just squander his fatherhood as if it were nothing–well, that does not mean that the second man has transgressed against the first.
I don’t forgive him. I wouldn’t know where to begin.-
Alright, so I have given up on the whole no spoiler thing.
Some other favorite quotes:
-Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.-
-I really despise the pathos of being found asleep at odd times in odd places.-
-I have thought about that very often–how the times change, and the same words that carry a good many people into the howling wilderness in one generation are irksome or meaningless in the next.-
-So creating proofs (of God’s existence) from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon. It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.-
-I don’t know exactly what covetise is, but in my experience it is not so much desiring someone else’s virtue or happiness as rejecting it, taking offense at the beauty of it. Covetise is certainly a recurring theme in the book.-
-Harm to you (his son) is not harm to me in the strict sense, and that is a great part of the problem. He could knock me down the stairs and I would have worked out the theology for forgiving him before I reached the bottom. But if he harmed you in the slightest way, I’m afraid theology would fail me.-
-You and Tobias are on the porch steps sorting gourds by size and color and shape, choosing favorites, assigning names. Some of them are submarines and some of them tanks, and some of them are bombs. I suppose I should be expecting another visit from T’s father shortly,. All of the children play at war now. All of them make those sounds of airplanes and bombs and crashing and exploding. We did the same things, playing at canon fire and bayonet charges.
There is certainly nothing in that fact to reassure.-
-Cataract that this world is, it is remarkable to consider what does abide in it.- I could write an entire post on this quote alone.
-The thoughtfulness of any individual, when it is seen to be in service to the mindfulness of the Lord, cannot justify anger.-
-Every single on of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with your own variant notions of what of what is beautiful and what is acceptable–which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live-
-It is a good thing to know what it is to be poor, and a better thing if you can do it in company- I couldn’t agree more with this quote.
Regarding the conversation on predestination: I love both old Boughton’s and Ames’ responses to young Boughton’s question (which, for the record, I think is an obvious attempt to stick a finger in Ames’ eye over his sermon and his perception of young Boughton, but that’s really not here nor there) not for their content, which seems solid enough, but for the room they leave for the mysteries of the issue. I think the church is increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of leaving things indefinite regarding even the most incredibly complex theological issues. People want certainty, which I understand, but consider this exchange:
(Young Boughton has asked Ames about whether certain people are predestined to live evil lives and go to Hell and how he responds to that question when posed by his flock.)
“… there are certain attributes our faith assigns to God: omniscience, omnipotence, justice, and grace. We human beings have such a slight acquaintance with power and knowledge, so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace, that the workings of these great attributes together is a mystery we cannot hope to penetrate.”
He laughed. “You say it in those very words.”
“Yes, I do. More or less those very words. It’s a fraught question, and I’m careful with it.”
As I said before, I understand that people want certainty, but so often our attempts to put an issue to bed, finally and forever, actually do a disservice to both the issue and to us. Shouldn’t we be more careful with these fraught questions than we are? Despite what I very often feel, being absolutely and totally sure (or being absolutely and totally right. which is similar, but not the same, exactly) about my faith is not a prerequisite for said faith. In fact, how arrogant would I have to be to claim any assurances about God’s wisdom, justice, mercy, etc., that is not scripturally supportable? (And even then, do I trust myself totally with scripture?)
As Christians, I know we feel pressure to be able to satisfy the hearts and minds of everyone who inquires to us about anything, but we haven’t got that power anyway. I love that Ames shows God that reverence.
Also, to disagree with Curt, I really enjoy these theological asides, but that’s maybe because I don’t find them as disconnected from the narrative as Curt seems to. For me, these explorations are an attempt for Ames to reconcile the legacy he’s leaving his son with his own beliefs and actions. It’s like he’s leaving a record of himself that he knows will be the only thing his son will have by which to judge him, so he’s trying to explain his choices and attitudes by discussing his theological impulses and attitudes. But then again, I remember what it was like in college for people to get into impassioned arguments over literature (I was an English major) that weren’t really germane to a meaningful understanding of the text at hand and being thoroughly annoyed by that, so if I’d had to suffer through a theological version of that, maybe I’d be a little less amenable to those sections.
This is probably the most quotable novel I’ve ever read. I don’t know if I can even think of one that comes close, to be honest. I’m only going to put one here, though, because I’ve already rambled on a fair bit.
“Nevertheless, I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.”
Now, obviously, there’s a theologically weighty sentiment behind these words. Defensiveness might be equated here with risk-aversion. A simple illustration would be the choice (insofar as it can be a choice) to love someone. There are a great many people who shun close relationships because of their inherent capacity to wound those involved if something goes wrong. But, as Ames points out, don’t those people lose out on “the best eventualities”? They might achieve “safety” in some broad sense, and reduce the likelihood of pain, but ultimately lose out on so many of the great things life has to offer.
I’m sure this seems very After School Special of me to point out, but when you consider Ames’ history, these words could be applied to nobody in the novel more than him. Isn’t having a son and never getting to see him grow up a pretty grim eventuality? What about marrying and leaving your much younger wife alone to raise the child? Sure, but Ames’ son and wife are his rescuers, and to wish that he’d never married or that his son had never been born would not only be incredibly selfish, but would have condemned him to a life so much less rich, so much less important, even, than the one he has been given to lead. Any attempt to protect himself from the pain of his experience would cancel out the joy of it as well.
I think that’s one of the reasons I love this book: it is as much as anything else about the joy and wonder offered this man by God, through his family, in the face of such sadness and imminent loss, and I find all of that to be – there’s no other word – beautiful.