Category Archives: Literature

To Be or Not to Be

In the prologue of John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost, the poet seeks the Spirit’s help to aid him in his effort to “justify the ways of God to men.”

The poem begins,

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woes
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat…”

A very different book written by the existential philosopher, Albert Camus, begins on a very different note. The opening article in a collection of articles, The Myth of Sisyphus, begins on this sober note:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

The difference between the two authors is that the first appeals to biblical narrative to make sense of life. The second author makes his appeal to the absurdity of life, as he sees it. The first author argues from the vantage point of purpose; the second from the vantage point of no purpose.

That there is a God who made man for His purpose gives life dignity. So, the purpose of life can be assessed from this vantage point. The answer to Camus’ question about whether life is worth living or not worth living is answered through revelation, the Bible.


The Ministry of Pain

Two high-minded young ladies meet a Scottish chieftain who represents the last of a less sophisticated but noble way of life in George MacDonald’s book, “What’s Mine’s Mine.” They see him plowing a field with two stubborn oxen that require some manhandling. The young women are disturbed by the chieftain’s use of force and make a snide remark or two about his treatment of the oxen.

When the beasts of burden try to gore one another with their massive horns, Alister, the chieftain, drops a rein to handle the matter. “In a moment the plough was out of the furrow, and the bulls were straining every muscle, each to send the other into the wilds of the unseen creation. Alister sprang to their heads, and taking them by their noses forced them back into the line of the furrow.” He then administered a blow to each animal, and made them stand still. The girls are repulsed.

George MacDonald then comments, “There are tender-hearted people who virtually object to the whole scheme of creation; they would neither have force used nor pain suffered; they talk as if kindness could do everything, even where it is not felt. Millions of human beings but for suffering would never develop an atom of affection. The man who would spare due suffering is not wise. It is folly to conclude a thing ought not to be done because it hurts. There are powers to be born, creations to be perfected, sinners to be redeemed, through the ministry of pain, that could be born, perfected, redeemed, in no other way.”

Paul wrote of the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18, 19); Hosea, “the ministry of the prophets” (Hosea 12:10); and Luke, “the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). MacDonald writes of the “ministry of pain.” I am not prepared to say that all pain is good, but some is. I am persuaded that the only lessons some people will ever learn are taught by Mr. Pain. (He’s taught me a lesson or two—or three or four.)

Consider the painful circumstances that have taught others the lesson they needed to learn: Israel in captivity, Paul’s thorn in the flesh, Paul’s public rebuke of Peter, the death of David and Bathsheba’s son, Nebuchadnezzar’s beastly experience. The Psalmist wrote, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I observe thy word” (Ps 119:67).

Mr. MacDonald is right, “There are powers to be born, creations to be perfected, sinners to be redeemed, through the ministry of pain, that could be born, perfected, redeemed, in no other way.


“The Da Vinci Code”

A runaway best seller, with over 8 million copies in print, and soon to be major motion picture, is Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code.” This thriller hooks the reader from the very beginning. It is a book about secret societies and code words and religion—in particular Christianity.

The protagonist, Robert Langdon, is forced into a life-threatening quest for the Holy Grail. But the Holy Grail in this story is not what it is traditionally believed to be—the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. The Holy Grail is the body of Mary Magdalene. Jesus and Mary were married and gave birth to a daughter they named Sarah. After Jesus’ death, Mary fled to Gaul, and then, under the protection of secret societies throughout the centuries, the seed line from Christ was preserved. There is no resurrection in this story, just a dead Jesus of Nazareth. What makes Jesus important is not his deity, which is denied in the book. It is the fact that he came from a royal line, the line of David. This is the justification given in the book for the preservation of his descendents. It is purported that the works of Leonardo Da Vinci left clues for what the books claims to be true.

The Da Vinci Code comes complete with proposed evidence to support its claims. When asked what is true in the book, Mr. Brown affirms that all its history claims are true. Though it is a work of fiction, he argues that the particulars concerning Jesus and the Holy Grail are based on fact.

There are two main issues at stake in the book. One is the reliability of the New Testament documents. The second is the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. If you can destroy the first, you can cast a mighty big shadow over the second. For those whose faith may have been shaken by reading the book, let me recommend a few resources. The first is a book by F. F. Bruce, “Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?” Another book is by Hermann Ridderbos, “Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.” A third book I would recommend is written by Lee Strobel, “The Case for Christ.” These should help put to rest much that is amiss in this novel. And any Bible bookstore you walk into today will have at least half a dozen books written for the explicit purpose of addressing the preposterous claims of this novel.

One of the characters in the book, an expert on the Grail sums up the impact of the book in this sentence: “What I mean… is that almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false” (The Da Vinci Code, p. 235).

I have written a manuscript concerning “The Da Vinci Code” and have posted it on my web site under Manuscripts at http://www.closerlookbooks.com.


The Life of Pi

Pi begins his life trained in Hinduism. As a young man he embraces a form of Christianity and the Islamic faith. He embraces all three uncritically as if they were equally viable belief systems. The only criticism he has is the exclusiveness of each one. Pi critical of the notion that one must choose between religious options; i.e. Hindu, Christian or Muslim. His defense is, “I just want to love God.” This is a classic case of pluralism. That’s the first part of the story.

In the second part of the story Pi is stranded in a lifeboat for 6 plus months. The reader begins to doubt that Pi will ever be rescued from a lifeboat adrift in the sea—his only companions being a few wild animals that were being transported from a zoo in India to the USA. But when Pi is rescued, insurance agents quiz him concerning the shipwreck in order to settle liability issues. He tells them the fantastic story that the book purports to accurately record. But his auditors refuse to believe him.

The second version he tells the agents does not correspond with what happened on the boat, but is a very dry and uneventful account of what could have happened. After inventing the second scenario he says, “Neither makes a factual difference to you.” The Japanese investigators confess, “That’s true.”

“The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?” In other words, we superimpose our own subjective ideas on the way things are and “in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?”

Pi says, “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer?” Then he says, “And so it goes with God.”

When you apply this philosophy to the first part of the book, (Pi’s search for God), I think you have this: it should make no factual difference to us whether Hinduism, Christianity, or the Muslim story is true. Pick the one you like: the one that strikes your personal fancy. Either way, you choose God.

When considering the three accounts of the way things are (Hinduism, Christianity, or Muslim), the real question is, does it make a factual difference? Does Jesus’ resurrection from the dead make a difference? Mr. Martel still has Jesus in a grave somewhere in India.

One final point. The author has said that chapters 21 and 22, while short, are at the core of the novel. He refers to them as, “Dry yeastless factuality,” which is a reference to a view of life void of the divine, an idea illustrated at the end of the book by the two versions of the story Pi tells the Japanese investigators. He is asking us, “What story are you going to embrace?”