The Problem of Pain: What Story is This?

Spring came early this year and I’ve really enjoyed the long days,the warm weather; there is work to be done in my gardens and new books to read and films to watch.  There are times, like these, when it’s easy to see the world as a good place – at least the small bit of time and space that are mine for the moment. But then I read the news: riots in London (Ontario?!), graphic details of the brutal rape and murder of Tori Stafford, a school shooting in France by a murderer who jumps to his death several days later, and so it goes. And suddenly the facts that much of this world is not the way it ought to be reveal a world that is sick and in need of healing.

Perhaps I’m being a bit naïve, but I would argue that the common reaction to such atrocities is similar, no matter one’s religious orientation.  There is a deep-seated longing for things to be made right. We long for justice, for peace, for harmony, for shalom – even if we disagree on how to attain any of these good things.  There is, even if it’s not articulated, an appeal to some shared standard of the Good, a standard that we are constantly failing to meet collectively and individually.

But for the person of faith, this raises some obvious problems: what is one to do in the face of such injustice when he or she foolishly subscribes to the notion that there is an all-powerful Deity who is also, apparently, benevolent?

Theodicy, the name for this dilemma, is nothing new and I realize I am wading into theological and philosophical waters that are of a depth I’m unqualified to plumb; however, this question has come up time and again in a first year English course I am teaching and I thought I’d blog on a few of the insights that have arisen from our discussions.

So, consider this to be a layman’s response, and nothing more.

For people of faith, perhaps the answers can come (too) easy and (too) ready-made when it comes to talking about suffering in an abstract sense; but when suffering finds its way into one’s own life, an understanding of the truth is much more difficult to hold on to.  Faced with the reality of our own suffering, can we, like Milton, “justify the ways of God to men”?

It is hard to judge the nature of God, or man, or good, or evil, if we are only doing so with the fragmentary moments that make up our lives because “man is a giddy thing.”  We are fickle, prone to change and inconstancy.  We act like confused teenagers, plucking petals in order to determine whether or not we are loved.  As I’ve mentioned already, my mood can change with something as arbitrary as the weather, and sometimes my notion of God changes based on the circumstances of the moment. I often feel like Harold Crick in Stranger than Fiction, ticking off the events in my life that suggest it is a comedy and those suggesting otherwise.

Stranger than Fiction is actually a helpful way to think about theodicy because it poses the right question: what kind of a story are we in?  Once we can get a picture of the play as a whole, perhaps we can begin to make sense of our particular act and scene.

As the observable evidence suggests, the play is going to end the same for all of us.  And – spoiler alert – it’s a tragedy. As the writer of Ecclesiastes observed, the same end is meeting the wealthy and the poor man alike. Dust to dust.  To be absorbed back into the primordial elements, to lose our material goods, our friends and loved ones, our bodies and our sense of self are the facts as we can know them. Our stories, as we can see them, conclude with a stage that is littered with dead bodies.

If this is the case, there is tremendous pressure to write our own stories and work quite hard to give them as much “comedic relief” as possible before the closing of the curtain.  And if, despite such efforts, the story seems to move from bad to worse, from darkness to darkness, why keep going?  (Wasn’t this the central question Camus believed faced the 20th century individual?)

But what if there is more to the story?  What if our vision is limited and contingent upon time and change?  What if the observable data is not enough for a complete story?

In Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” four men are stranded just off the coast of Florida.  For several days they exist in the precarious position between life and death and the correspondent wonders: “If I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned — if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods, who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees?”  It’s a good question, and perhaps a question we should ask each day things are going well.  If death is coming, what is the point of any fleeting joy?

Crane’s conclusion: When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no bricks and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers. Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.” A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.

What a chilling story, and I wonder if it is the story that many people tell themselves. It definitely gives you very little to live for and absolutely nothing to die for.

 Now literature is filled with people who wrestle with such questions, but perhaps none so poignantly as Job. In the course of several days, Job loses his wealth, his home, his children, and even his health.  But the most interesting thing about Job’s story is how God talks with Job at the end.  I always expect God to sheepishly admit to Job that the cause for all his suffering was a bet being made between He and the Devil: “Satan thought you would crack, but I showed him.”  But this is not what happens.

God simply questions Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  And as the questions proceed and the litany of things God has done and controls beyond Job’s scope of vision are presented, Job’s ignorance and lack of control are exposed. God shows Job that a much bigger story is taking place, one that has been going on long before him.  While the story ends as a comedy (Job gets everything back, although not his former family which still troubles me somewhat), we should know that there will be a second time where all these things are taken from Job: his death.

But what if the bigger story has something beyond death? What if, instead of lying cold in the ground, we awake to the final act of the play and see that Comedy has finally trumped Tragedy?  Wouldn’t that make this “vale of tears” endurable.  Even if the observable facts reveal we are all inching our ways towards darkness, it will take a leap of faith to suggest otherwise. And this is not so much a leap in the dark as it is a leap towards the light.

The world can be an amazing place and the fleeting glimpses of Shalom, small though they be, are important gifts to be enjoyed.   Pain is also real and it’s a burden to be endured.  But pain is something that can be more fleeting than joy if we believe the right story.

Of course, such a belief would have to maintain, against the facts, that there is such an author who is benevolent enough to write an alternative, comedic ending and powerful enough to enable his characters to die into such a denouement.

Hearing the Music of Middle-earth

Most people who love the writing of Tolkien can most likely recall the moment when they first fell under his spell.  This happened to me on the bus in the first grade when a group of older boys sitting a few rows back spent their morning ride with an awkwardly large and square-shaped, illustrated edition of The Hobbit.  Of course, at six I had no idea that it was The Hobbit because the cover had no writing and, more to the point, I couldn’t yet read.

I think, looking back, that the book jacket must have been removed by some appropriately anal-retentive parents because the faded orange hardcover – splotched with the various stains of school lunches – was all that remained to safeguard the vast treasures within.  While it was much later that I would learn “all that is gold does not glitter,” I do remember desiring to look inside this book more than anything else; however, it wasn’t until a few weeks later, when most of the boys’ infatuations had waned, that I mustered the courage to ask the owner if I might borrow the book for just a while and there must have been some hobbit blood in this boy for he freely loaned his precious book to me (although he never asked any riddles).  I pored over the pictures of the goblin king and the three trolls, the large spiders in Mirkwood Forest and the great eagles coming to the rescue, dwarves with funny names I would learn one day and Smaug, the large red dragon; without even knowing the story, I had become enchanted with Middle-earth.

When it comes to my love for Middle-earth, I don’t think much has changed since those days of flipping through the illustrations with my greasy six-year-old fingers.  Just over twenty years later I have read and reread The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion and despite my ever-growing reading lists and real-world responsibilities, I am still inevitably drawn to their place on my bookshelves again and again. But why?

Many people I know could not be bothered with Tolkien’s lifelong project. They begin the stories with the best of intentions, but after reading several pages dedicated to descriptions of the flora and fauna of an imaginary world, they realize (or I should say, imagine) that their time might be better spent reading something “more real,” by which they presumably mean a historical novel or an autobiography or, perhaps, The Washington Post.  This reaction is nothing new; in fact, I once heard a story that when Tolkien stood up to read his latest installment of the ring saga to his close friends, someone from another corner of the pub (with several pints in him) shouted: “Oh, come on! Not another story with #$!ing Elves!”  There is more than an unwillingness here to believe in the fantasy world, there is an unwillingness to even suspend disbelief. It is a failure of imagination (or, to be more gracious, perhaps a personal preference I will never understand).

Yet despite such naysayers, I would maintain that those who love to wander in Middle-earth are not necessarily lost.

Middle-earth, or midgard, is a term Tolkien borrowed from Norse mythology. In a letter, Tolkien admits that Middle-earth is a “modernization or alteration of an old word for the inhabited world of Men, the oikoumene: middle because thought of vaguely as set amidst the encircling Seas and (in the northern imagination) between ice of the North and the fire of the South. Old English midan-geard, mediaeval English midden-erd, middle-erd.”

Middle-earth, then, is not like Lewis’ Narnia (to be found in another dimension) or even his Perelandra (to be found on another planet), nor is it a Spenserian Fairyland (although I think that might be closer to the mark); it is the Earth as we know it, or as we might have known it in a previous age.   While the place is quite real,the history and inhabitants are not; and this fusion of the real and the imaginary is what makes Tolkien’s work so enticing.


As these maps indicate, there are visible traces of Western European geography underlying much of Middle-earth. Tolkien does this in such a beautifully subtle way in order to make the wary reader feel both at home in Middle-earth, while also being oddly unsettled by its other-worldliness.  Of course, traces of European geography in no way means that Middle-earth is a tracing; the two worlds are still quite different (see maps).

This disconnect can be understood if you follow the history of the ages of Middle-earth to see the constant restructuring of geography as time continues its downward-spiral through the ages in an ever-narrowing gyre.  At the close of Lord of the Rings, another age is setting and, Tolkien seems to invite the interpretation, perhaps another restructuring will take place which will leave the world in its present form.  But this is just speculation.

What is, perhaps, even more interesting about Middle-earth’s history is the music of its creation. The various ages of Middle-earth actually follow a cyclical pattern already established in the great music of the Ainur (this story is found in the Ainulindale).  As Eru, father of light, weaves his infinitely complex and beautiful harmonies together, the plans for Middle-earth are made known to the Ainur, but already in the song a note of discord can be heard arising from the mightiest of these, Melkor (whose name means, “one who rises up in might”).  Eru allows Melkor to break the harmony for a time, but eventually undoes his music and manages to create a song even more beautiful than before.  Once the music stops, the Valar begin the long work of taking up their small parts in this big harmony, and thus begins all the tragedies and comedies of Middle-earth’s history.

I continue to go to Tolkien’s work because it leaves me in the middle of things. Wanderering in Middle-earth, I find myself suspended between visions of a world long gone and visions of a world that could still yet be. I can see the long wisdom behind places like the Shire, Rivendell and Lothlorien, and the quick folly of Mordor and Orthanc.  Tolkien’s work awakens the desire I have (and many others share) to see Other-worlds and escape into them.  To clarify, lovers of fantasy do not escape like deserters from the army, rather, they escape like prisoners who long to return home.  Anyone who has read and loved Tolkien knows the ‘freeing’ effect it can have on you.

As I read, I can journey out only to return and clearly see again how the real earth is the visible stage between the invisible realms of heaven and hell. Fantasy, contrary to popular belief, does not cloud vision; when it is properly done, it restores vision.  And it also restores our hearing. As I journey back into the various ages, I can hear the echoes of the Ainulindale as Melkor and Manwe, Feanor and Morgoth, or Aragorn and Sauron bring the music nearer and nearer to its denouement.

And I can put the book down for a few months or a few years and attend to my work in this earth, my small labour which is part of something much larger.  I can look at the world around me and stand in the middle of forces that ever seek to recall the harmony of a new creation and forces that ever seek its destruction; I can look around and still hear the faintest (and perhaps the last) echoes of that great Song.

Of Gods and Men: Stumbling into Stories

My wife and I recently watched Xavier Beauvois’ film Of Gods and Men, partly because a friend of mine left his Netflix account logged in on my computer, and partly because Jeff Overstreet, in his recent blog, recommended it as one film which helpfully counters the deluge of recent films that the evangelical community has been swooning over as of late.

Over the past few years I have watched Facing the Giants, Fireproof, and most recently (and most reluctantly), Courageous. Yet while the central messages are something I could agree with, there is something about these films that still does not sit well.

That shoddy writing, unrealistic dialogue, cardboard characterization and poor acting are seen to be pardonable sins when a film’s message is good and true, reveals an unconcern for beauty that should be far more disconcerting to far more people.  These films are championed for being unashamedly countercultural; yet surely to abandon the basic elements of good film to deliver a poignant message is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is not good art, and some might even argue it is hardly good Christianity.

Don’t get me wrong, marital fidelity and the importance of stable father figures are noble ideas and we need films that show this, but films are not sermons and should not be treated or appreciated as such.

And this is what I love about Of Gods and Men: although it is a film that revolves around a small fellowship of French monks who face the persecution of Islamist extremists and the story line is constantly interjected with short clips of liturgical prayers and singing, Beauvois somehow avoids preaching.  The film is evidence of an artist who is in service to the truth and to his craft.

One of the truths that Beauvois beautifully communicates is the “unlooked-for” nature of true heroism.

In Book IV of The Two Towers, Sam and Frodo are (unbeknownst to them) about to walk into Shelob’s lair, a trap laid for them by Gollum, when Sam says:

The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually their paths were laid that way, as you put it.  But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.

There is more than just a little of this in Of Gods and Men. The monks do not go out seeking to die for their faith or to make some heroic last stand for the world to see; in fact, they have no idea that their story will ever be told. Like most of us, the monks reflect very little upon the reality that they are taking part in a story because, as for most of us, they have little conception of the nature of the story and of what part they play.  They see in the “mirror darkly.”

They make decisions moment by moment, but as death approaches, they seem to be overwhelmed by the story in which they must now choose to partake.  The question of whether or not they should stay hangs over the men as each confronts his own weakness and fear at facing death, the final enemy.

Of course, the film begs self-reflection: What type of man would I be at zero hour?  What would I do should my place where I have found my calling become hostile, perhaps to the point of death? Would I stay, or flee to safety? Should I?

Captain Fellows, the brash American businessman in Greene’s The Power and the Glory, thinks that “he’d always been a man who was good at zero hour”; but when his life is violently interrupted by the Gringo, we find him at the novel’s close packing his bags for America.  The whiskey priest, however, has no pretentions to goodness and no delusions of grandeur.  In fact, the only reason he is still in a secular state that is killing off the priests is due to his inability to make a decision quickly enough, and now Death is at his heels. Yet his duty keeps him going. And each day the whiskey priest confronts his weakness and moves towards death.

Greene, like Beauvois, leaves us to see that there is more duty than daring in the hero.  Bonhoeffer once wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”  Easier said than done, yet Bonhoeffer chose to stay in the hostile Germany that would take his life.

Of Gods and Men is an excellent countercultural reminder that Story is something much bigger than character; and it is an unfortunate reality that we seldom stumble into any type of a self-conscious awareness of the Stories in which we play a part.  But when we do stumble into such stories, whether it is in our lives or in the lives of others, we have a responsibility to tell them and to tell them in way that gives the truth its beautiful due.

English > Math

[The following piece was prompted by a proposal from my students who run the school’s newspaper to write a short piece as one side to the debate of which is the superior subject, math or english.  It was fun to write and I can’t wait to see the math teacher’s reactions. I have left his name out of this post.]

There is a book coming out this year in which a variety of authors and thinkers were asked to write an epistle to their younger selves.  They were asked to give advice or admonition based on what they know now and one letter worth sharing comes from contemporary author, Jodi Picoult.  The only piece of advice she thought worthy of sending back into time was this: “You will never use calculus. Trust me.”   As far as I’m concerned, she is right.

But which is greater, English or Math?  So the question has been posed to Mr. —– and myself. Of course, the unfortunate irony for my esteemed colleague attempting to sing math’s supposed superiority is that he must (to his chagrin) rely upon the English language. Therefore, I will do what I can in the way of leveling the playing field by taking the liberty to rephrase the question as such: if x≠ y; is x > y or y > x?  Find (and defend) the value of x.

I’m going to leave variables behind here for a moment (if you are a true philomath, do not worry, I will write slowly), to point out that the fruits of this inquiry will inevitably be flawed because of the nature of the question. The question, as posed, suggests a necessary, mutual exclusion between these two subjects and is therefore a question that only a Mathematic Mind (m2) would ask; but, I would venture, one that only an English mind could answer.

Let’s begin with a look at the English Mind.  As far as I have come to think of it (and with it), the English Mind is Creative and Cultured (E = mc2).  While the creative mind is responsible for imagining new possibilities and developing all the cultural activities (music, stories, poetry) that make life more than something “nasty, short and brutish,” Mathematics targets the lowest common denominator.  The Dutch philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd placed “Numbers” as the most basic type of knowledge one could glean in this infinitely complex universe; and who wouldn’t trust a Dutch philosopher?

T.S. Eliot, an early 20th century poet, once asked: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  Again, math is but the foundation of the temple of knowledge.  We have all heard that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but I think we might add that the study of English is the beginning of knowledge, while math is but the lowly beginnings of information.  I have no problem with math in the same way I have no problem with the bottom rung of a ladder: both are necessary to step on as you move upwards.

While the mathematician relies upon the dry, yeastless factuality of numbers, the English mind places these facts into the stories in which they make sense, thereby leavening the loaf of knowledge so it is not simply edible, but enjoyable as well.  Even Jesus, with his few years upon this earth, chose not to waste his time propounding mathematical theorems; rather, he gave us story upon story, demanding that his followers be good readers.  Christians, in fact, have been called “people of the book,” which is a badge we should wear with honour.

The English Mind, then, is a mind that knows how to step back and see the entire forest, not one which is content to count and cross-multiply the trees.  The English mind can see the world in a grain of sand or a handful of dust. When Graham Greene talks of earth as a “marble floating through infinite space,” he captures something so immense and sublime in one simple phrase that you can’t help but marvel at your smallness. The English Mind also steps forward, into the dark wood to see the individual trees. It observes the particularities of a place and the idiosyncrasies of a character, the motivations and machinations that make men and women tick and it records them down with the precision of a mathematician and the love of a saint.

And here the false dichotomy between the m2 and the English Mind really breaks down. The true mathematician, I assume, has a similar confrontation with the sublime in the presence of a concept such as infinity.  It would not be difficult to provide numerous examples of mathematical truths that boggle the mind; in fact, it would be as easy as pi.

But to get back on track; English is more important and will always be because it demands a more human way of thinking.  The ancients knew this, and classified it under the humanities.  Math, one of the sciences, was actually considered a handmaiden to literature and philosophy! Ironically, our culture now sees the humanities as something weak, something which needs defense, something which exists to serve the sciences by teaching literacy (as if knowing how to speak efficiently can lead to an abundant life).

Because of this, English has become the helpless victim of numerous, false stereotypes.  Here are the three most common:

1) Any answer in English can be right (ok, I’ll admit that’s somewhat true…)

2) English is an overly emotional subject which trains us how to get in touch with our feelings (frankly, I feel hurt when I hear this, and wouldn’t mind getting together with a group of other English folk to talk it out).

3) English is an easy way to get an A+ (the joke’s on you here; I mark everything with smiley and frowny faces).

So, as you can see, although English might be in disarray in our society, it is a truly superior discipline.  Now I could go on, but I’ve had this tongue in my cheek for far too long and must take care of it.  For my mathematically inclined readers, do not worry; I’ll be fine.