Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Re-reading Literature

February 17, 2010

Now that I have a bit more time than I used to have, I decided to read some American literature.  Its a subject that has always fascinated me.  I think, however prejudicially, that America is a pretty special place, and I wanted to dig into the American psyche a bit more.

I went to the library and checked out some college textbooks on American Literature.  Now, I’m not totally illiterate on the subject.  I read a great deal of good American fiction when I was younger, and have continued reading it through life, although at a slower pace when I was busier.  I understood the elements of a story to be: the main character or hero faces a conflict.  The conflict could be a person, situation, or internal crisis.  The conflict gets resolved, and the story ends either with the problem overcome, or the hero learning something vital, which allows the reader to determine how he will then act on his new knowledge.  However, what I read in the Literature texts, almost exclusively, was something else.  What I read seemed to go like this: the main character is in despair, the book explores dark elements of the human psyche, the main character is searching for meaning or happiness or love, and the climax is discovering it doesn’t exist.  The story ends either explicitly with the character’s death, or implicitly, with the character’s disappointment in his or her quest.  It was all pretty dark, depressing material.  It was amazing that I didn’t remember reading very much of this kind of literature in my youth.  Then it hit upon me that perhaps the selection of literature in these texts is biased toward this very negative kind of story.

Searching farther, I read an article explaining the difference between popular fiction and literature.  I expected to find out that popular fiction was lacking description, had shallow, underveloped characters or the like.  Instead, the difference is that popular fiction has the plot I described above, with a conflict resolution and (according to the author of the article) a “happy ending”.  According to this auth0r, true literature described the human condition as it is, with all its “angst”, and lack of answers.  In other words, real life has no happy endings, and no answers, so to write stories that have either of these is to succumb to the lure of writing popular fiction (with the inferior motive of making money) instead of literature.  Another author stated it was impossible for any Christian fiction to ever be considered literature, because a Christian’s unique belief system precludes any “angst” or despair.

Well, all I can say is I wonder if the requirement to study American Literature in one’s first two years of college  is a good thing.  What if it leads those young, mostly teenage students to believe that life is nothing but despair and meaninglessness?  No wonder there are so many college students on antidepressants!  Their beliefs about life have been shattered.  This is totally unnecessary in my judgment, because there are quite a lot of very happy people in the world: people solving their problems and creating good and beautiful things for their families and their posterity.  The intellectual crowd may be the ones out of synch with the “human condition”.  They are staring in despair at a glass thats all but empty, sure there are no answers to their thirst.  The rest of humanity is out to find the faucet.

Is the Bible Believable?

December 2, 2009

Its a miracle the ancient scriptures were preserved so well and faithfully.  No other culture has such a vast collection of its ancient literature.  To think that Jesus read these scriptures is amazing and even more astounding is the fact Jews everywhere read these same scriptures today, two thousand years later.  Jesus gave credence to the Old Testament.  He quoted from nearly every book of it.  When He spoke about it, He spoke with authority.  Those were His Father’s words, God’s truth.  Since Jesus proved his own credibility through his miracles, his Resurrection from the dead and final ascension into the heavens, we can accept His assessment of the veracity of Old Testament scripture.

Best Selling Self-Help Books

October 7, 2009

For the past 30 or 40 years there has nearly always been a self-help book on the bestseller list.  Some of the personal stories are quite astounding and very inspirational.  I’m very happy for the people who beat addiction or crime and now have a nice life.  I saw a television interview with such a man.  He beat crime and drugs by changing his thinking and his self talk.  Now he is a best-selling author with a family and a nice life.  Very inspirational, but I caught myself thinking “now what?”  So many addicts were very successful people with a family and a nice life.  They all said their life felt empty, meaningless and without purpose.  A meaningless life is painful and drugs numb the pain.  And I asked myself “Where is God in this success story?”  It is from God we achieve our sense of meaning and purpose.  He made us all for a purpose and He tells us what the purpose is.  Without that taproot of purpose I’m like a rose I planted that blooms great for awhile and then dies for lack of a root system.  Getting off drugs is wonderful.  Getting off drugs without God has its limits.  If my car has an empty tank and I need to make a 10 mile trip, I can push the car 10 miles and write an inspirational book about it.  I may receive loads of admiration for my feat in achieving the 10 mile push through sheer will power.  I can also fill my tank with what the car was made for and drive 400 miles in that time.

The Dark Side of Young Fiction

October 7, 2009

The school librarian spoke animatedly about the trends in young people’s fiction.  From the child witches and wizards of the Harry Potter series, through the vampire series, to the futuristic struggles for survival under tyrannical powers, themes of good and evil are explored.  In a naturalistic world, the supernatural in these books is not off limits.  The one thing seemingly off limits is God.  Heroes fight evil, love conquers evil, yet what defines good and what prompts sacrificial love without God as the author of  good and love and the supernatural?  Children have an instinctual appreciation of good and love and God, yet the latter is consistently absent.  Why?


August 28, 2008

I just finished the book “Zelda” by Nancy Milford.  Its actually about forty years old, and I read it about forty years ago, although it means a lot more to me now that I’m older.  Zelda wasthe wife of the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.  They evidently were quite a pair in their day–always hitting the headlines for something outrageous.  She was the Brittney Spears or Madonna of her day, although she was not an entertainer. 

Zelda was raised as the much spoiled baby of the family.  Her father rarely paid any attention to her.  Her mother doted on her, thought everything she did was charming, paid much attention to the daring, or sassy things her daughter did as though they indicated genius.  Zelda was a young woman with no sense of purpose in her life other than to attract attention and to do things for effect.  It helped that she was very beautiful and intelligent.  She married F. Scott Fitzgerald when she was still a teenager, and his fame and wealth came too early for either of them to handle.  The marriage was almost doomed from the start.  Scott Fitzgerald was wrapped up in his writing and his friends.  Zelda was expected to fend for herself when Scott was writing, which really went against her grain.  She was always the center of attention in her family and hometown.  She had never learned to make real friends, but instead saw people as an audience to be worked.  She had a child while quite young, and because of their wealth was able to have nannys for her daughter, hence never really developing a significant mother-daughter attachment.  She had an affair of sorts during one particularly busy summer of writing for Scott, and that was a turning point for the worse in their marriage. 

Scott, for his part, was so wrapped up in his writing and his friendships he failed to see Zelda as having needs.  She was supposed to be available to him, but not need him too much.  As time went on, partying and alcohol became more and more of the fabric of their lives, and their lives became emptier.  Zelda was very jealous of Scott and began to try to have something in which she excelled so that he wouldn’t in any way be superior to her.  She tried and exhausted herself trying to be a ballerina, when she hadn’t the talent for it.  She tried writing, and indeed she and Scott became enemies, fighting over who owned the history of their lives which they were both using as their writing material.  Eventually they were destroying each other.

The authors premise was that Zelda was suffering from a “boredom of the soul”.  She never seemed to have a purpose other than her own promotion and her own pleasure.  She always said she was an eternal flapper.  To her a flapper was someone who always did whatever she wanted and took risks to get whatever she wanted.  Ultimately the utter selfishness, along with heavy drinking, slowly became her undoing.  The authors premise was that a person who draws so far into themselves that their communication becomes understood only to themselves goes mad.  Zelda did.

Novels aren’t Factual Truth

June 16, 2008

The novel has always told truth about people, relationships, culture, society and life in a roundabout way.  Through the thoughts and conversations of the characters, the reader gains an insight into how people think, what they believe, their motivations and emotions–at least in the time of the novel’s setting.  Today a new genre of novel attempts to tell truth more often found in non-fiction work, but tell it without the kind of research, footnotes, quotes and debate found in articles and essays.  The medium used to tell the author’s version of truth about some present societal or political debate is a lecture by one of the characters (usually portrayed as an expert of some sort), or fictional articles, fictional tv shows and the like.  The reader begins to believe the fictional characters and media in the novel are the result of well-researched, well-weighed, even-handed evidence.  Most often this is not the case.  The author is interested in the reader being persuaded to the authors point of view through the medium of a “page-turner”, the involvement of the reader’s emotions and the reader’s identification with characters.  As a result, a lot of readers change their opinion on many topics, but without the critical thinking and study expected of the reader of serious prose.  Its a free country, and speech is free, but these days readers need to use critical thinking when reading the “information” in novels, as much as they do when reading editorials.

Accurate Accounts of Jesus Life

May 6, 2008

Some time ago I mentioned in a post that one could learn of Jesus through reading the original four accounts of his life, death and resurrection.  I had a sarcastic comment asking if I had read original papyri.  What I meant were the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Recently a lot of attention has been paid to the “other gospels”, such as the gospel of Thomas, the gospel of Judas, etc.  These aren’t the original accounts.  The proponents of including these “other” gospels in one’s picture of Jesus, may or may not realize they paint a very different picture of Jesus than the accounts written by his friends and contemporaries.  Like any other religion, Christianity had unusual sects and splinter groups.  Groups who misunderstood the message were even more common in those early days because of the difficulty of travel and communication.  This makes the spread of the original writings all the more extraordinary.  Today we have more than 10,000 manuscripts or fragments of the original New Testament writings dated within a century or so of the time of Jesus.  This is more than we have for any other writings of the time, or even later!  The writings spread all over the Roman empire—all the places where churches were founded.  What else is amazing—the copies all essentially agree, and they agree with the gospels and epistles we have today, despite 1900 years and numerous translations.  In contrast, the “other” gospel accounts exist in one or two copies, and were found with Gnostic writings.  Gnostics developed their philosophy in the century following Jesus, and they tried to spiritualize everything—explain Jesus appearance and his miracles, including his resurrection as spiritual experiences.  They were in many ways like unbelievers today, they didn’t want to believe what the four original gospels said occurred.


The Gospel of Thomas was found in Egypt, written in Coptic.  What is interesting about that is Thomas is believed to have gone to India—indeed there are monuments to Thomas in India.  Orthodox Rabbis (who hardly have a dog in the fight where Christian scriptures are concerned) have stated the writers of the so-called “Gnostic” gospels have no understanding of first century Jewish thought, as the apostles would.


I would venture this, where the Christian canon of scripture is concerned.  Rather than “stifle truth”, the 4th century church leaders, solemnized a list of books that had been widely accepted as valid for many years.  Their other criteria  was the necessity of apostolic authorship or apostolic authority.  The book must have been widely disseminated and accepted by most of the churches.  There was, as there is today, much writing that has little to commend it.  If one were writing the history of the twentieth century, how much credibility should they give to the National Enquirer or the Weekly World News?  Indeed, how much credibility should they give to stories that circulated on the internet.  What if I, today, decided to write a fictional Civil War diary?  I might have some political or philosophical point to make, or I might just be interested in telling a good story, never mind the facts.  Should my “Civil War Diary” have the credibility of one written by someone who was there?  My own book would be found out by my lack of proper language use for the time, and my misunderstanding of the time.  Some of the Gnostic writings fall into this category, but all “other” gospels and epistles were written without any connection to the actual apostles and that inner circle.


So, the “original” accounts, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by people who were contemporaries of Jesus, who were in partnership with the apostles if not apostles themselves, and we have so many fragments, manuscripts and references to these writings in other manuscripts from the era, we can find them trustworthy as history, or else be skeptical of all history.