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.

Arguing Against an Invalid Viewpoint

Today, as always, Christians find themselves in head to head disputes over issues they cannot compromise. No matter what creative thinking either side might apply, there are things they cannot and will not do. On certain doctrinal and social issues, there is no alternative perspective to the orthodox one. No amount of creative thinking and cumbayah singing can erase disagreement and attempts to relativize it look obsequious and sycophantic. When it comes to points of heresy and sin, Christians cannot honestly treat opposing perspectives as a sort of viable alternative to their own views. In view of the fact that telling opponents that they are wrong is an affront to their dignity—even telling someone they made a mistake slightly impugns their abilities—Christians must keep their own limitations in view as they continue to adhere to their own views. Continue reading Arguing Against an Invalid Viewpoint

Learning Compassion from Story-Truth: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Empathy is one of humanity’s best qualities. And it can also be the most neglected. When insurmountable obstacles confront a community, understanding and compassion from neighbors is often just enough to pull them through.

But what if the obstacle is something few can understand? What if it’s trauma from a perplexing and complicated war?

Earlier this year, ArtsWestchester featured Tim O’Brien’s war novel The Things They Carried as part of The Big Read, a program designed to encourage reading in communities nationwide. Attempting to increase in understanding and compassion, O’Brien’s partially-autobiographical work was intentionally chosen by ArtsWestchester so that readers could encounter some of the issues our servicemen and women face.

O’Brien himself explains that the similarities between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam are not primarily political, but human:

“Obviously there are differences [between the war in Iraq and Vietnam]” he said, “chief among them the absence of the draft. But there are enough similarities. These are wars in which there are no uniforms, no front, no rear. Who’s the enemy? What do you shoot back at? Whom do you trust? At the bottom, all wars are the same because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.”

Distancing his work from politics, O’Brien’s writing and public comments have continuously centered on the personal nature of war and its effect on individuals and relationships. Even in Hollywood, a move has begun from the mere “reenactment of battles” towards the personal.

While a war may be considered justifiable, the negative impact combat has upon the human soul is poorly understood. O’Brien attempts to draw out the truths of this impact by issuing his readers into the experience.

Rather than merely recounting events, O’Brien modifies the “facts” of his own memories, shifts the chronology of the story and emphasizes mystery and confusion, forcing his readers to emotionally face the psychological shock of his experience.

He explains his technique in The Things They Carried by distinguishing between happening-truth and story-truth. The former pertains solely to facts, whereas the latter attends to emotional truth and the pursuit of meaning.

The two “types of truth” seem pretty clear. Yet literary critic Tobey C. Herzog reports that O’Brien blurs the lines not merely in his writing but also in his public life.

In front of an audience at Wabash College, while O’Brien elaborated on an event depicted in his book, he allowed listeners to assume that the details he related were actually true. Because The Things They Carried is based on his life, the audience implicitly believed (without evidence to the contrary) that the events O’Brien described had actually transpired:

. . . O’Brien paused as the Wabash audience nodded knowingly at the story’s conclusion: Tim O’Brien had chosen to enter the army, to fight, and not to flee across the river into Canada. Then, after a dramatic pause, O’Brien confessed: the story was made up . . . the incidents on the Rainy River, so realistically described, simply did not occur in O’Brien’s own life.

According to Herzog, O’Brien argues that this deception introduces audiences to “the complex intermingling of facts, fiction, truth, lies, memory, and imagination . . .”  The realization of abstract truth is “truer” than facts; the human element deeper than the form.

O’ Brien recognizes that human beings empathize best when they share in other’s experiences. Since fictionalized stories convey abstract truths in a noticeably defined way than mere reporting, his work uniquely functions by “cutting to the chase.” He forces us to view trauma in war on a deeply personal level by rapidly putting us in uncomfortable positions as we read.

Many listeners in the Wabash audience were understandably offended by O’Brien’s trick, wanting to hear his “actual war-related experiences,” instead of grossly elaborated ones.

But at this time in our nation’s history, as we watch our friends and family go off on their tour of duty, seeking understanding of their war experiences may be one of the most compassionate thing we can do. O’Brien’s story-truth brings to light some of these experiences and ushers us into emotional realities otherwise inaccessible to civilians. ‘