The Novelty of the Old

Throughout my schooling career, teachers have instructed me to say something new, to “contribute something unique to scholarly research.” This has always been frustrating because of its obvious impossibility. I cannot say anything truly new when scholars have been writing on the same subjects for millennia. Whatever ideas I possess have been discussed before, and unless I become the premiere expert in one subject, there will always be someone smarter, more knowledgeable, and more adept at writing to address the issue. One of the wisest men who ever lived said, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) I agree with him. Ideas circulate through the ages like perpetual spinning tops. Debates that are “new” today were widely debated topics among the Greeks, Romans and Medievals.

So it’s hard—almost impossible—to contribute something truly new to any discussion on a given  subject.

But perhaps that’s not the right goal. The trick, I think, is not to write something new, but to remind others of the relevancy of the old. Whether in fiction or non-fiction, book, movie or magazine, truth remains truth. Virtue will always be good, and sin will always be bad. Our definition of literary “good” should not be originality, but whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent or worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)

A good story is worth repeating. Movie theaters are full of remakes because film makers know they can make bank by retelling a story that has already proven its worth—is popular, moving, or exciting. Perhaps we need to rethink our standard of “good” as being new and different. In chapter four of Orthodoxy (currently available for free, with an introduction by friend of Evangelical Outpost, Matthew Lee Anderson), G.K. Chesterton writes:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeatedly unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.

Perhaps our desire for novelty and uniqueness is a result of our sin, and not a result of our cleverness or virtue. Yet we do grow bored. If every movie in existence was a remake of Casa Blanca, I would grow bored very quickly. I can only listen to so many repetitions of “Here’s looking at you, kid.”

The challenge, then, is to present old, good, tried and true ideas in ways that are fresh, capture people’s attention, and remind them of what is good, true and beautiful.

Chesterton’s Manalive is a fictional representation of this idea. Innocent woos his wife over and over in different ways to keep her loveliness fresh in his mind, and his desire for her close to his heart. He leaves home for months and traverses the entire earth, with the sole purpose of returning to where he started and having a greater appreciation of his life. He says at one point, “It was not the house that grew dull, but I that grew dull in it. My wife was better than all women, and yet I could not feel it.” Innocent continually rediscovers the wonder of old ideas by reliving them in new ways. He is a man fully alive, because he does not allow himself to grow bored but to rediscover the beauty of old truths again and again. That’s the definition of an insight: to experience a new understanding or appreciation of an old idea.

Aslan brought me renewed excitement of God when I was a child; Middle Earth continually reawakens my mind to the power of friendship and loyalty. Just because super hero tales are retold through books, movies and TV shows does not mean that their lessons of bravery, courage and virtue must become less potent. We can stop looking for new ideas—we won’t find them. Instead, we can learn to appreciate old ideas because they work. Truth is older than the sun, but is still exciting.

Theodicy of Glory

“A chance for Faramir, Captain of Gondor, to show his quality…”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

Caution: The following post contains a slight spoiler to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday.  Read the book and then come back to read this afterwards. I’ll wait.

 

Given an omnipotent, fully good and loving God, why do good people suffer?

That is the question for the ages. The suffering of bad people, of evil people, is (for some) an easier question. There is a notion of cosmic reparation, whether of impersonal karma or personal Justice, that provides an explanation on that front. But what of good people?

That, at least, is a question asked repeatedly by characters in G. K. Chesterton’s The Man who was Thursday, and the answers Chesterton hints at are some of the most incredible I have ever read.

But first, we must eliminate the greatest of the false trails apologists often stray down: that human goodness is never good enough in comparison to Christ’s perfection. This relativity, while actual, is nonetheless irrelevant. The goodness and righteousness even of fallen humanity is real enough and meaningful enough to be attested to even from the throne of Jehovah himself. I trust ye have heard of the patience of Job?

The question, therefore, is not one of goodness. Any answer which depends on any concept of “deserving” is no answer at all, but merely a dodge—a dodge in the finest tradition of miserable comforters and worthless physicians the world over.

Having avoided the dodge, we return to Chesterton, who illuminates a facet of theodicy that I have never before and never again seen illuminated so clearly and eloquently:

Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing? Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? … So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist. So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan  may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.’

This is what I have long thought of as the “theodicy of glory.” Without adversity, there can be no perseverance, only the potential for perseverance. Without overwhelming odds, there can be no valor. Without fear, there can be no bravery.

And without these things, each and every believer is subject to the great accusation that begins the conflict in Job. Without these things, we are unproven, untested, and even Satan himself could rightly claim to have persevered through suffering, while we ourselves could not. Without this, all the saints are open to the accusation that they loved God merely because they were safe, and not for any other reason.

Why do the people of God often feel alone? Why do they often suffer? Why do they, at times, seem to fight against the entire world?

So that they may stand firm despite their loneliness. So that they may remain resolute in their suffering. So that they may feel the same distress and pain as those who reject God, yet emerge victorious.

And by this, by their blood and sweat and tears, the people of God may earn the right to say with pride, “I have fought the good fight, though armies were against me. I have finished the race, though terrible obstacles stood in my path. And I have kept the faith, though the world itself tried to take it from me.”

Having passed through the fire and emerged triumphant, the saints will take no heed of the Accuser, for his talk is meaningless. And at the end, they will receive their crown of righteousness from nail-scarred hands and hear the voice which echoed from the cross of Calvary say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Thursday is, in many important ways, a parallel of the book of Job, and this is as far as the story of Job takes us. Thursday, however, goes further. Job (and Thursday himself) are thus free from the accusation of safeness and surety and happiness. But to Chesterton, the final piece of the puzzle is found when God—the same God who spoke out of the whirlwind in power and majesty—places himself on the cross and refuses to come down. In this way God himself puts the Accuser forever to shame, and proves that he is God and he is Good even when he is not safe, even when he is not happy.

And while this may not always put my reason at ease, I can say, along with Thursday, that it puts my heart and soul at ease.

On the Merits of Naming Your Main Character After a Day of the Week

The Man Who was Thursday, by G. K. Chesterton, is one of the greatest books many people will never read.

After posting my thoughts on Job, I revisited Thursday. I often do this: I have it on my computer, on my kindle, and a physical copy (although that never gets used anymore). I’ve read it more times than I can count, whether from the first page to the last, or just random bits and pieces here and there. And I wanted to talk about it, because I think you should read it: Yes, you. I don’t care who you are, I don’t even care if you’ve read it before. You should read it. Continue reading On the Merits of Naming Your Main Character After a Day of the Week

Making Christianity Delicious

Recently, our pastor spent a few minutes talking about Colossians 4:6, specifically the lines, “Let your speech be always gracious, seasoned with salt.” He brought in a box of waffle fries from Chick-Fil-A, telling us that he had ordered them without salt, just to see what they would taste like.

They were terrible. Continue reading Making Christianity Delicious

There is Nothing, Son, Under the Gnu: Or, Originality is Overrated

If you want to make a name for yourself, a good way to start is to attack something people believe without question. The broad-minded will hear you, the doctrinaire will attack you, and everybody else will check you out just to learn why everyone is so excited. “Blind” faith can be a sort of scurvy of the mind, so it is right to disturb the unopposed from time to time. On the whole, though, originality is overrated. Continue reading There is Nothing, Son, Under the Gnu: Or, Originality is Overrated

Irish Impressions: An Old Book Dealing with Racism, Politics, and Ireland

In 1919, G. K. Chesterton published the book Irish Impressions, a book examining the conflict between England and Ireland. That same year marked the beginning of the Irish War of Independence, which ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 and Ireland’s rise to dominion status within the British Empire. Chesterton’s book gives keen insight into what caused bitter contention between England and Ireland.

In Irish Impressions, Chesterton lays out the cultural misunderstandings, historical abuses, and other errors that caused so much bad blood between England and Ireland. Sympathetic to Ireland’s plight, he gives a very human treatment to the problems between the two countries and systematically condemns England’s treatment of Ireland. The foremost quality of the book is the human examination of the problems at hand.

Chesterton dispenses with isms and sociological models. He examines the Irish people in the context of European peasantry and explains their anger as a response to slights against their dignity and honor, not a response to political programs and agendas. He gives the example of and English tourist bargaining with a peasant in Europe to illustrate:

When a peasant asks tenpence for something that is worth fourpence, the tourist misunderstands the whole problem. He commonly solves it by calling the man a thief and paying the tenpence. There are ten thousand errors in this, beginning with the primary error of an oligarchy, of treating a man as a servant when he feels more like a small squire. The peasant does not choose to receive insults; but he never expected to receive tenpence. A man who understood him would simply suggest twopence, in a calm and courteous manner; and the two would eventually meet in the middle at a perfectly just price. There would not be what we call a fixed price at the beginning, but there would be a firmly fixed price at the end: that is, the bargain once made would be a sacredly sealed contract. The peasant, so far from cheating, has his own horror of cheating; and certainly his own horror at being cheated.

He goes on to say that the English had cheated the Irish out of a political compromise they had negotiated, so the Irish were smarting from that reversal. In another place, he gives an example of the difference between the industrial and the peasant mindsets. He was driving down an Irish road, and to the left the harvest was not gathered because the workers were on strike; on the right, peasant farmers had brought in the harvest and their grain was not rotting in the fields. Whatever the cause of the strike, “the big machine had stopped, because it was a big machine. The men were still working, because they were not machines.”

While Chesterton exposes the plain injustices wrought against Ireland, he also tackles the delicate matter of how the Irish went wrong in their thinking. Normally someone condemning his own country’s sins would hardly dare to address the victim’s sin, but Chesterton goes for it. For one thing, he upholds nationalism as the antidote to imperialism: “Nationalism is a nobler thing even than patriotism; for nationalism appeals to a law of nations; it implies that a nation is a normal thing, and therefore one of a number of normal things.” The Irish went wrong when they tried to turn their Irish-ness into something special beyond the honorable national identity that it is. He also criticizes the notion that he would speak for Ireland because he is somehow Irish: if he had to be Irish to speak in favor of the Irish, he could offer nothing objective against England.

Chesterton is clearly an Englishman in writing this book, and he describes when he went on tour in Ireland to recruit the Irish to fight in the First World War. He appealed to the Irish to see the war as something that indeed concerned them, that fighting with England against Germany was in Ireland’s best interests as a nation among nations. Although Chesterton criticizes the folly of the 1916 Easter Rising against conscription in Ireland, he also affirms the nobility of those who revolted. He concedes that it would have been difficult for any people to join their oppressors to fight against evil, and England’s attempts to raise volunteers were damnably clumsy.

As far as Irish Impressions may serve as a lesson for modern racial reconciliation, it primarily teaches two things: we have to treat people as people, and we have to legitimately give them good things to work with. Chesterton notes that the Irish did not trust English promises, and says that whatever the English decide to give, they really have to give it. He even speculates that the Irish would be satisfied with the autonomy granted by dominion status rather than full independence, if only the English would grant that. The Irish political leaders fighting for independence ultimately accepted dominion status under the terms of the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921 and only left the British Commonwealth in 1949, although they ceased to act like a Commonwealth member some years before. What resolved the long conflict between England and Ireland was a negotiated agreement that both sides ultimately kept. Although the full history is much more complicated and includes the Irish Civil War, a modicum of reconciliation occurred with the signing of the treaty.

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