calvinism, Christianity, and the weight of the gospel

I’m studying 14th-17th century literature right now at Keble– I can hear you all groaning.  I was wary, but it’s actually been incredibly interesting.  I’ve learned a whole lot (I hope).  Of course, you can’t talk about this time period without breaching the subject of the different Christian sects of each time.  I, honestly, have loved this: I have been able to write my essays on God’s grace and mercy.  I have been able to commune with John Donne (my love) and attend lectures on religion in the Elizabethan era.  I was assigned Augustine for reading.  But a few weeks ago, our class on Calvinism hit me like a load of bricks.

Let me first clarify.  The class was on 17th century Calvinism, and it brought up a lot of uncomfortable things.  Calvin believed that man’s free will would cheapen God’s sovereignty, and so God controls everyone; he also chooses his elect and rejects the reprobate on seemingly arbitrary whim.  Because of this, you can never really know if you’ve been saved or not, and you can never know if you’re going to heaven or to hell.  According to Calvin, God even causes the rejected to feel like they have experienced God’s grace and Spirit.

This mentality wreaked havoc on the people of the time period.  They assumed God was punishing them for sins or for their own reprobate status; people even convinced themselves that, although they believed in Christ, they were still going to hell.  I’m not saying this was Calvin’s intention; I’m just saying that regardless, this is how it was taken by people of the 17th century.

Can God fairly and justly punish someone who He controls completely? This is when I realized that my greatest fear is not a nonexistent God; my greatest fear is that the universe is ruled by a cruel and arbitrary tyrant.

Do I believe this? I don’t think so.  If God were not good then our idea of order and justice and morality would be a sham, and the fabric of the universe would unravel.  Do I wrestle with questions I will never be able to answer on this earth? Yes, constantly.

The reactions of my classmates were telling.  They responded to the cruelty of Calvinism in a way that triggered their moral outrage, their sense of right and wrong.  And perhaps we can cite this same sense as evidence of a loving and justice-seeking God.  God, of course, does not have to follow the rules we make up for him.  But my heart sank as they spoke of these concepts as nonsense and rubbish, as they conflated this with Christianity and with Christ himself.

I cannot believe they are the same thing.

The constant fear of hell that Calvin expresses is not Biblical. Romans 10:13 tells us that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved”; 1 John 3:19-20 that “This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” We have assurance in Christ – John has even written: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.”  We are confident and assured – we know.

But I still came out of that class with a realization: regardless of Calvin, and regardless of what others believe, people will still go to hell.

It haunted me for days. It still is, honestly.  That day I sent frustrated messages to my parents as I tried to reconcile these concepts of agency and sovereignty.  I sat on my bed at the thought that my classmates, the strangers I pass on the street, the homeless man on the corner, the musicians behind each song I listen to, the friends I share my life with – that they could all be barred from heaven.  And I wept.

I think this is the proper response.  A friend told me that when we draw close to the heart of God, we become grieved for the same things He grieves for.

I don’t know how all of this works.  I hate that people have to go to hell.  I don’t understand how, if God can harden people’s hearts to keep the Israelites in slavery or soften them to accept the Holy Spirit, he can’t just do this for every human being on earth.  I have heard of dream-vision conversions, and I can’t understand why God will not send them to every living person on this earth.

But I trust him, and I think that this deep, heaving grief is also God’s response when we refuse him.  I think that free will has to exist, because without it, love cannot.  Without it, we have no choice to accept or reject.  But I trust God because I believe these things about him: that He is sovereign, and that He is good.

I trust that I cannot fathom the idea of hell as he can. I trust that he, as the ruler of the universe, knows better than I do.

I’m sorry if this feels like a cop-out.  I know it must.  But the simple truth is that I do not understand, I will not understand, and I will mourn.  And as we follow these truths out to their logical conclusions – as we struggle with these things – we act on where they take us.

We cannot simply weep over the non-Christians in our life and in our world.  We cannot mourn them as though they have already been damned.  There is hope for every human being in Christ, and we are mandated to share it: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16)

This is the scariest part.  There is a piece of me that does not want to post this, because if I do, I become a hypocrite if I don’t tell others of the grace and glory and beauty of Jesus Christ.  So that’s probably a good reason to put it up here.

I will confess that I feel uncomfortable telling other people about Jesus.  I’m scared they will avoid me, and I’m scared they will shy away from preaching and proselytizing.  I’m terrified.  But I can’t hold my own discomfort as more valuable than the lives of my brothers and sisters.  If you love someone – really love someone – you are compelled to show them the cure for eternal death.  Penn Jillette, an atheist, says this:

“If you believe that there’s a heaven and a hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life, and you think that it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward—and atheists who think people shouldn’t proselytize and who say just leave me along and keep your religion to yourself—how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”

I know this is really heavy.  It’s been weighing me down.  But to forget would be folly.

My fellow Christians: hold me accountable.

My non-Christian friends:  I love you so dearly.  I do not want you to die.  I love you deeply, and that is why I tell you this:

We’re sinful.  When God gave us everything, including our very lives, we rebelled against him.  We chose death.  But God does not want us dead.  God is love itself, and God enacted this plan – he saw us in our suffering and sent us a remedy.  Jesus came to earth as God in human-skin so that he could take the penalty that we deserved.  He died – God took on the pain and death of humanity – for love of us.  We’re humans, we’re nothing compared to an eternal God – and yet he loved us.

He rose again from death, he defeated death itself.  For you.  And here’s the deal, now – we are offered grace.  We are offered redemption and future perfection and life with a wonderful and life-giving God.  If we take him up on the offer, we have to give up some of our idols and sins.  We have to serve God instead of our friends or careers or desire for money or fame or pleasure.

But it’s worth it.  I can’t express how much it is worth it, how content you can be when your worth is derived from the love God has for you instead of from your own accomplishments.

Ask me about this.  Tell me how weird this sounds, how improbable it is, tell me honestly what you think and why you cannot consider it.  I’ll tell you how much it’s worth it.

Peace, my friends.  Thanks for sticking this one out.

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teen fiction vs. real love

[being human: the absence]

As I was planning out my next post (which should be around sometime soon), I realized that there was an article I’d written a few months ago but had forgotten to put up here.  It goes very well with the theme of the next one – what it means to be human – so I thought I’d present them in loose connection.  When supernatural stories extol the glories of non-human creatures, we can become muddled in what it actually means to be human.

Earlier, I saw a Facebook ad for yet another teen-novel-turned-movie.  I wonder if it’s any good, I thought.  What followed was a dinner’s worth of entertainment as my friends and I read its cheesy quotes out loud.  I considered it harmless entertainment, the equivalent of a dime novel or an amusing television show.

However, as I continued to peruse the teen romance section, my laughter began to subside as I realized it wasn’t as harmless as a poorly-worded sentence or characters clearly designed for self-insertion.  When it comes to how we look at love, these books are warping our perceptions in a disturbing and even dangerous way.

If you walk through a typical “paranormal/dark romance”, there’s a formula that applies for nearly every book.  The protagonist is a “normal” girl, klutzy and a little socially awkward.  All of a sudden, a dark, broody, devastatingly handsome boy swoops into her life (who may or may not stalk her or watch her sleep at this point).  He seems to hate her, but secretly, he’s just fighting his profound attraction to her and has to keep it a secret for (x) reason.  There’s a deep, sudden, sometimes literally electric connection, and they are plunged into a passionate romance that seems oddly serious for two teenagers.  Enter a possible love triangle or vague villain, and we’ve got our story.

Am I generalizing? Sure.  There are some gems in the teen section that deal with real-life issues, beautifully written histories, and a more balanced view of love.  However, they are few and far between.  As a real, live teenage girl myself*, this is an issue that worries me, especially when I notice that the Classics section in my local Barnes and Noble has been moved to accommodate the newest Paranormal Romances.

What are these books teaching?  It isn’t “just a story” because literature carries a heavier burden than that.  It pumps more fuel into the cultural engine of perception and expectation and shapes the way that we think about our world, for better or for worse.

The relationships described in these novels might seem exciting, but they definitely aren’t healthy.  In reality, you will be disliked without that aloofness masking any great affection.  The idea of stalking or very forcefully approaching the girl is written off as romantic in the books due to the fact that the two are “fated” to be together.  In reality, though, that’s called “breaking and entering” or possibly “assault”.  It’s assured us that behind the broody, mysterious stranger lies a deep secret.  If you’ve ever read Wuthering Heights you know that this isn’t a new invention, and although this kind of person might seem interesting in novels, they’d probably be a dangerous partner in reality.  These novels continue to perpetuate a culture in which violence against women is written off as romantic; it’s possible that young readers, internalizing these themes, will mistake abuse – whether physical or emotional – for “secret” affection.

Additionally, teen romance novels focus on a relationship centered so heavily on physical attraction that the personalities or character qualities of the characters are diminished or even destroyed.  These authors, as Faulkner would say, write “not of the heart but of the glands”.  Here, love is built on nothing but the lovers’ baseless passion for one another, and in reality, a relationship spun like cotton candy out of sickly-sweet infatuation quickly dissolves when faced with any sort of storm.  Metaphors aside, half the marriages in our country end in divorce.  When books like these are telling us that in order for love to be real, it must be electric and filled with drama, is it any wonder we end up confused in reality’s romantic endeavors?

As the two begin to say things like “you are my life”, they become so mutually obsessed with one another that their relationship is the only plot point that matters.  And while romance is an important part of life, there’s more to our own stories than a relationship with our significant other – our relationships with God, our jobs, our callings, and our adventures.  The kind of love depicted here might seem selfless because it’s other-obsessed, but upon closer inspection, the character is operating out of his or her own desperate craving for relationship.  As humans, we tend to idolize things, and this does not exclude worshiping other people.  When we derive all our meaning from another equally fallible human being and expect them to be as perfect as the characters we envision, they won’t be able to fulfill that need.  They will disappoint us, fail us, and let us down.  We are human.

I think this is why such a huge percentage of the love interests in teen fiction are inhuman creatures, whether that describes vampires, werewolves, angels, or demons (which presents a whole different brand of theological stickiness).  Because they aren’t programmed to fail like we humans are, they can be perfect, finally fulfilling the void that we’ve felt in our lives.  Young adult fiction is overflowing with supra-human partners because, as humans, we desire a personal relationship with a perfect, protective Divinity who can finally grant us the fulfillment and purpose that we seek.

If we want to know what true love really looks like, we should not look to paranormal romance; instead, we should look to this Divinity who came down and sacrificed himself for us.  When we become filled with God and worship Jesus instead of our significant other, we’re freed to participate in a relationship without the pressure of perfection.  For followers of Christ, we can look at a relationship as a partnership of two people striving toward the same goal – to glorify God – and reacting gently, sacrificially, and intentionally with one another.

Although it requires physical attraction (Boaz first found Ruth attractive before he fell for her, and take a look at Song of Songs) romantic love doesn’t center on that, but looks at the heart – the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4).  It isn’t other-obsessed but other-serving.  It doesn’t need to be forceful or dramatic because there is freedom and grace.  Take a new look at the oft-parroted 1 Corinthians 13.  Love may not always be dreadfully exciting, like when your spouse leaves hair in the shower drain or forgets to flush the toilet.  But truly caring for someone means seeing them for who they are, flaws and all, and loving them in spite of it.  That is, after all, what our God does for us.

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Read this:  Jane Austen. The subtlety of her love stories is dazzlingly refreshing (and perhaps an acquired taste).  Emma, Pride and Prejudice, and Northanger Abbey are my favorites.  Ask me about it!
John Donne.  Is Austen too chaste for you? Donne (the cad!) strikes a glorious balance between body and soul with his witty, sacred, and profound poetry.  http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/donne/donnebib.htm (Take a special look at “The Extasie”, “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”, and “Holy Sonnet XIV”.

*I was 19 when I originally wrote this! I’ve just turned 20 a few weeks ago.

tragedy

When I first set out to write this, I was thinking in purely literary terms of the four genres of expression – comic, tragic, lyric, and epic.  My friend texted me last week after I read the Waste Land, “What do you think the purpose of tragedy is?”

In light of this week’s nearly apocalyptic events, however, I think it apt to discuss, at least a little bit, the purpose of tragedy in literature and in our own lives.

I hadn’t really known the answer to that question before.  I’d read Oedipus, Hamlet, Lear, Death of a Salesman, and related to them in a deep, basic way – I could feel the twisting of my gut as the inevitable suffering played out.  And there’s a lot to be said of it – it reminds us of the inevitability of our own mortality, provides us with a cathartic pity and fear so we can better live our own lives.  It shows us that there are forces at work far outside our own power.

All these are important – wildly so.  But there is one more, very simple thing that I realized while reading through Eliot’s Waste Land for the thousandth time: tragedy shows us the brokenness in the world and in relationships, and, by our deep, instinctive reactions to the events, shows us that things were never meant to be like this.

We live in a gloriously constructed world, filled with great beauty and a great potential for love, experience, and happiness.  At the same time, however, I think that we can forget its inherent brokenness – even as Christians, we tend to think that we are basically good, that this world can make us happy, and that we don’t really need anything else but ourselves.

Until, in a week of darkness, a city is bombed and riddled with bullets, a plant explodes and levels everything in its path, a sinkhole opens in the middle of a city, deadly letters are sent to world leaders, an earthquakes shakes miles of nations, and an already hurting country is bombed, its civilians murdered.  Oof.

Seeing this is so, so hard.  I’m not going to go into detail about the problem of pain here, about what God’s doing, or how He could possibly let these things happen.  I don’t know.  Thankfully, I’m not Him.  That can be so hard, and so frustrating, and so painful to see families broken and people grieving and souls hurting so desperately.  But I do know that He’s got a plan in all of this.

I do know that this world was once a beautiful thing, where relationships with God and people could be whole and lovely.  And I know that we sinned, and we used that free will to break that relationship with God – and consequently, everything else fragmented as well.

This is the world that the Waste Land shows us so precisely, a fragmented, perverse, and lost world.  Critics have labeled it as a generational issue with “the modern world”, but there’s a reason we’re still reading the poem.  In our era of flickering images and sound bites and texts and tweets, we’re more fragmented than we’ve ever been before.  Relationships were already cracked, but this constant “connectivity” has widened those cracks until they nearly splinter apart.  We’re more isolated than we’ve been.

But here’s the great beauty of this revelation, this painful truth about our world: it’s where the gospel starts.  We think to ourselves so often that we aren’t that bad and that we don’t really need God.  This realization of the state of our world – more than that, the state of us – leads to either despair or resurrection.

We live in the Waste Land, and we can see that.  But the Waste Land also lives in us, which should scare you.  Eliot’s whole poem hovers on the edge of a knife, between death and resurrection.  The bones of the Phoenician sailor are at the bottom of the ocean, the land is dry and cracked and broken.  But, something begins to stir these dead bones, and the thunder cracks across the sky, waiting.  We hover on a rebirth into eternity.

When we begin to see our own brokenness, we see that we need to be rescued, and that we can’t do it on our own.  As mortals, we will fail, and die, and the tragedy will end with a poisoned sword or a watery suicide.  But God saw this broken world and came down into it as one of us, and he died – and when he rose from the dead to new life, the healing began.

If we accept our brokenness, we can now accept the salvation that’s so freely offered to us.  Eliot did, and was able to find new life in Christ five years after the hopelessness of this poem.  We come to hopelessness so that we can understand hope when it is offered us.  If we live in Christ, we live forever, and we live in hope of healed people and a healed world.

The dead bones of the drowned Phoenician sailor don’t die, “but doth suffer a sea-change, into something rich and strange”.  So then do we.  The rains fall upon the thirsty, dry ground, and we learn how to love each other again.  It has to start here, on an individual level, where the Waste Land of your soul is inhabited by a loving, personal God who revives you and brings you back to life.

As hard as we try to instill goodness into people, this world will still be broken while Satan roams it.  Does this mean we should stop fighting against the brokenness, accept the evil in the world, and give up? By no means! The devil has no power where God is concerned.  He can only bend what is already good and try to break what God has already created.  We can fight against him.   And sometimes it’s awful.  But we have the hope of an empty tomb with us, and that is more powerful than any desolate, hollow Waste Land.

My prayers for safety, justice, and deep healing are with Boston, West Texas, China, Iraq, Iran, and the rest of our world.  May God bless and renew you.

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Read thisThe Waste Land, T.S. Eliot ; Mark 13:8 ; my other friend’s post

suffering and human agency

I offer this as part apology and part explanation of my recent absence from this blog.  Last Thursday, we held the long-planned Veritas Forum at my school, for which I was the Forum Director, and, more terrifyingly, the emcee.  We brought in John Lennox from Oxford to speak to one of the hardest questions to answer: why suffering exists if there is a God who is both loving and powerful.  Why can’t He just stop that suffering?

I’ve spoken to several people about this.  Honestly, the answer that I give to most of them is that I don’t know myself, but if God is great enough to be in control, He’s also got to be great enough to have his own reasons for doing things.

I’m in the business of making connections and gleaning information, though, and Dr. Lennox pointed out several interesting things about this problem that we face.  Mostly, it brought up the idea of our own free will as a cause for much suffering.

Firstly, God is not a stranger to suffering.  He didn’t sit back and leave us to our own pain.  He has mourned over our suffering and sent His own Son – his own person – to a broken and needy world to take all of our pain onto Himself.  God understands suffering because He’s gone through it with us.

The next part.  Dr. Lennox mentioned that after an earthquake in New Zealand, he was reading a book about plate tectonics, and here’s the thing:  in order for us to survive here, the tectonic plates need to shift.  It’s a beneficial action.  However, the world is flawed, and when these plates grind against one another, you have an earthquake.  An earthquake isn’t just a fluke, but a malfunction of a necessary system.

And it hit me then that even this stems from the gift of free will.  When man fell, death, decay, and brokenness entered into our own flesh, yes – but they also permeated the fabric of our world itself.  Everything dies, and everything tends to entropy.

“For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (Romans 8:20-21)

Creation groans to be freed from death just as we do, caught in our sinful decision.  “But couldn’t God have done better?” we ask.  “Couldn’t he have created perfect things that wouldn’t screw everything up?”

“Well, we can do that,” John Lennox responded.  “They’re called robots.”  Because eradicating the possibility of sin and suffering also eradicates the possibility of love.  We have free will so that love, one of our greatest gifts, can exist, extended from God to this world.  A mandated love is really no love at all.  C.S. Lewis, as usual, puts it beautifully:

Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.  A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating.”

There can be no yes without the possibility of a no.  It’s beautiful, really.  John says that we know what love itself is by looking to Christ, who suffered so greatly on our behalf! (1 John 3:16)  If the only way to experience a world of love is to take a world of suffering with it, I choose to take them both.

 

This free will, however, leads us directly to the thought that has plagued me this past week, though: after the influence of society and the power of God, how much agency do I have as a human being, acting in my own power?  If God controls everything, then which of my choices are my own? How does this free will impact my own life?

I’m beginning to understand, perhaps a little bit more, now, that although God is omnipotent, He still allows me to make my own decisions.  Of course there are the ones that I can’t control – death, nature, information that comes to me.  But I choose how I react, and although God may tell me things, I may still rebel.  When He tells me to follow Him, I still have to follow.

And that’s hard for me, because I am prone more to inertia than to action, to stability than to change, and to indecision more than what I choose.  In part, I’m terrified of where I’m going, because I don’t know it.  I’m afraid that I will regard an opportunity with indecision until it passes and I live with regret after that.

Yes, I want God to be in control of my life; I submit it to him.  But I also have to stop using that as an excuse to stop making my own decisions.  He hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of boldness, and this is where that great paradox of humble confidence has its inception.  It’s hard to do anything purely, without an ulterior motive, and this includes seeking the Lord.  I want Him desperately, and I seek to serve Him – this is true.  But it is also true that I am human, and selfish, and frightened.

I don’t have agency figured out, and I don’t think I ever shall.  It’s one of those knotty paradoxes that I am beginning to conceive, a great and intriguing both/and.

The two givens of the theorem:

a) God is omnipotent and in control of our lives

b) We have been granted free will to shape our lives.

And although I cannot fully understand this, I accept is as the truth of the matter.  We are free to make choices but also controlled by whatever consumes us.  But we choose what it is that consumes us.

I choose my God, loving and powerful Creator and Sustainer.

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A note: I’m aware this is an incomplete rendering of both topics.  Talk to me about it.

on revolutionaries

I’ve been a little bit obsessed with revolutionaries since seeing Les Mis, and although it’s waning now, I still wanted to examine why I felt so strongly for those who give their lives for what they believe in.

The revolutionary is otherworldly.  Men rarely follow mere mortals into death, but they will fight for stronger and more lasting things – ideas and the Divine.

I know that the trope of the revolutionary isn’t realistic, that revolutions today are bloody and futile and rash when there are other ways to revolt.  They’re desperate. But still I think that there is something attractive in the strength of ideals, because we are drawn to those who know for what they fight.

They have to be fighting for the right things, of course, because when you’re a revolutionary, you lose yourself almost entirely.  You become a man consumed, and at such a price, you’ve got to be sure that what you’re fighting for is worth the toll that it will eventually take on you, even demanding your life.

Something had unsettled me about Enjolras’ appearance in the Les Misérables movie, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  I realized the last time I saw the movie that Aaron Tveit’s (marvelously acted) Enjolras was both the youngest and the oldest looking that I’d seen.  His extreme youth reminded me that the Revolution of 1832 was indeed a student’s revolution where the boys who died for their beliefs were hardly older than I am now.  It also contrasted so heavily with the ancientness of his spirit that it shocked me.  Enjolras is a tired old man in a young man’s body, and sometimes, as the revolution consumes him, his weariness begins to show through the cracks, and I began to fear that revolution would rip him apart and burst through those seams.

In The PreludeWordsworth speaks of this same condition in his friend, Michel Beaupuis, the pre-Jacobin revolutionary in the French revolution of the late 18th century:

“His temper was quite mastered by the times,
And they had blighted him, had eaten away
The beauty of his person, doing wrong
Alike to body and to mind”

Wordsworth notices that the revolution has stolen his friend’s youth.  And yet,

“a kind of radiant joy
Diffused around him, while he was intent
On works of love or freedom”

This is why we love them.  We admire the ones that turn their words into actions, whose lives are so transparent that there is no discrepancy between their beliefs and their deeds – a life without hypocrisy that seeps from the heart to the external.  When someone can live their beliefs out, as Wordsworth would say, “truth is more than truth”.  As a side note, we want to love someone like that, too.  Love isn’t really love when it exalts the other into an obsession; instead, we want a partner in a shared love, someone that we can love as we are both consumed by a greater passion.

The revolutionary, in his purest form, rejects himself in order to serve others and even to die for them.  In order to create a better world for his people, he gives his own life to make theirs worth living.

I know that this is a common theme with me, but I don’t think there is harm in repeating it: we are all men consumed.  The question is, by what? And is it worth the toll that it’s going to take on us?

If we’re truly living out our faith, we should be as radiant as the revolutionary, and the love of Christ should be ripping out of our hearts in order to touch those around us, breaking us apart in the process.  We look to the most revolutionary act of history for our hope – Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)  He gave his life to redeem ours and to change the fabric of our world from that moment on.

And that’s something worth both living and dying for.

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Read this: all aforementioned works.

Hear this: In a bout of revolutionary fervor, I unashamedly give you this: SING

les misérables and the force of grace

I’ve seen the Les Misérables movie twice three times now.  I know all the words to the musical (I was a stellar chorus member in high school) and I was not disappointed with the movie.  This story is so powerful.  I’ll probably have something to say about revolutionaries quite soon (ugh!), but what most impressed me was the way that the movie didn’t shy away from the central message.  In Les Mis, I’ve hardly seen a more beautiful depiction of the gospel, especially in its most baffling component – grace.

The entire story tracks the lives of its central characters, weaving in and out of different people’s stories, and it can get confusing.  But grace and mercy are the threads that tie them all together as the story continues, and Hugo shows that even though we may want to ignore it sometimes, grace refuses to stay passive.  Each time, it becomes a crossroad of the most dramatic and life-changing proportions.

The bishop is the first man who has shown Valjean any grace in a long time.  When the bishop welcomes Valjean into his home, the man is taken aback, stunned, and shouts out that he’s a dangerous convict – an outcast.  Instead of treating him as such, the bishop looks at Valjean as a friend, calling him brother.  This simple kindness causes an uproar in Valjean’s soul as he struggles with whether or not he should steal the bishop’s silver.  There is an entire chapter in the novel that compares the torment of the convict’s soul with a drowning man, saying that “the soul, going down stream in this gulf, may become a corpse.  Who shall resuscitate it?”  Reminiscent of Romans 7:24, Valjean’s hardened heart can only be softened by God’s power.  Valjean is a dangerous man because he has allowed hate to rule him, and when he is presented with love, he cannot accept it.  He steals the silver, effectively choosing imprisonment forever.

But.

The bishop pardons him, claiming that the stolen goods were a gift.  If the welcome into the bishop’s home was inconceivable, Valjean is now presented with the most life changing paradigm shift of his entire existence.  It is grace unbound.  He deserved imprisonment and death, and the bishop handed him love and life.  He was emancipated by this mercy.  He did not get what he deserved.  Grace forces a decision on Valjean, a stark contrast between life and death.  And he chooses life.

After being shown grace, Valjean effectively becomes a carrier, pouring the same love out into the town of which he becomes the mayor.  And then he meets Fantine, who has fallen so far from the beautiful, innocent girl that she was into a dying, miserable woman who has turned to prostitution in order to support her daughter.  She, too, has let hatred worm its way into her heart, and she despises Valjean for letting her be driven away from his factory.

Inspector Javert, the man ruled entirely by Law and not at all by gospel, is about to imprison Fantine when Valjean comes in to pardon her and take her to the hospital.  He becomes the agent of grace to the dying woman, offering her a choice.  And this action astonishes both Fantine and Javert:

“Javert felt that he was on the verge of going mad.  He experienced at that moment, blow upon blow and almost simultaneously, the most violent emotions which he had ever undergone in all his life… When he beheld that mayor, that magistrate, calmly wipe his face and say, “Set this woman at liberty,” he underwent a sort of intoxication of amazement”

Javert is shaken; however, he does not waver.  He resolidifies into the man of law that he was before, putting his shock aside.  Fantine, however, lets herself be repossessed by grace.

“Had she, then, been mistaken? Must she change her whole soul? She did not know; she trembled.  She listened in bewilderment, she looked on in affright, and at every word uttered by M. Madeleine (Valjean) she felt the frightful shades of hatred crumble and melt within her, and something warm and ineffable, indescribable, which was both joy, confidence, and love, dawn in her heart.”

Although Fantine dies, she has chosen life as well.  She had pleaded to die instead of her daughter, and this exchange of grace and life carries through.  Valjean shows grace to her daughter, Cosette, literally buying her out of bondage to the Thenardiers and raising her into newness of life.  Cosette innocently accepts the gift.

Grace changes the lives of all of these characters in a radical way, but it is a gift that must be received in order to be effective.  It forces a choice between death and life, but not everyone can choose to live in a radically changed world.

Least of all Javert.

I’ve heard people criticize the policeman for being overdramatic, but can you imagine what he goes through when Valjean sets him at liberty?  Javert feels as though he is going mad when he simply witnesses Valjean giving Fantine her freedom – how on earth could he rationally comprehend his state when Valjean, a convict and a sinner, shows grace to Javert himself, giving him back his very life?  The seams of Javert’s world begin to rip apart, and everything that he once knew is turned inside out.  Every paradigm that he had relied on in his life has burst apart, crumbling.  Javert’s world is ordered and clean, black and white, and in it, everyone receives what he deserves.  For him, there are no “minor sins”.  He leaves no room for grace in his adherence to the law, but yet, it finds him.

Javert’s world has been irrevocably destroyed.  Before, he could try to ignore grace, but now that it has been given directly and obviously to him, he cannot pretend that nothing has changed.  He must “stare into the void / Of a world that cannot hold” and choose between the desolation of what he knows and a new, very different, life.  He must choose, more literally than any other character, between life and death.

Because he cannot deal with the world as grace has colored it, he kills himself, choosing to leave it behind forever.

Javert and Valjean are not so different, really.  They both wanted to serve God.  While Valjean was consumed by hatred, Javert let legalism take over his soul.  They both were shown grace in part, and then in its full glory.  But Valjean had the strength to follow God’s path, and Javert, while telling himself that he was following the Lord, followed his own humanity into death.  When Valjean leaps into the river to escape Javert, it is a baptism.  When Javert does the same to escape Valjean, it is death by water.

I think that we forget how powerful a thing grace is.  It’s either life-altering or life-destroying.  It is a force to be reckoned with, and yet, we take it for granted every day.  We deserved to die, and Jesus showed us his pardon, setting us at liberty and raising us from death to life.  “You are free,” He tells us, like Valjean, “and there are no conditions”.  Well, that’s not entirely true – He has traded places with us, giving up His life.

How will we respond? We cannot ignore it.  We must either accept this gift in love and let it transform our lives and our very selves, or we must throw it aside and choose to die instead.  We cannot live as we had before.  We must return the favor by giving Him our lives.

This is the heart of Les Misérables, and I love seeing the ripple effect of grace as it reaches each person.  Valjean is showed grace and then shows it to others.  This is a perfect picture of how Christians should live their lives every day.  We have been shown grace by someone even more wonderful than the bishop of Digne, and we can’t keep it to ourselves.  We continue to pass it on, mimicking God’s grace in the lives of others so that they too can show grace to the people they encounter.  It’s beautiful.  And if we truly understand how powerful a movement grace should be, it cannot be kept a pretty secret.

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journalling

I am in favor of journalling.  As catharsis, as a thought-process, and as a recording of not only events, but the way that God moves through them and your feelings and perceptions in them.

I finished my most recent journal a few weeks ago, and it was an odd feeling.  Accomplished, yes.  I realized that almost all of it detailed my summer and its decisions.  Each successive volume that I complete seems to cover a shorter and shorter span of time.  That’s a good thing, I think, because it means I’m writing more and more about less trivial things.  Looking back on Volume 1, which spanned several years and simply kept a record of events, I’m glad I’m growing.

I thought I’d post the last few pages of this one.

I’m sitting on my bed, per usual.  My desk is cluttered, and I haven’t used it.  I have three Czech Mucha posters above my desk, and it’s no secret that Hamlet is my favorite.  My super classy bookcase. Posters: El Greco, Rene Magritte, Sherlock, Vertigo.

I’ve finally opened the window, and a cool breeze is drifting in.  I can hear it softly moving the trees.  It’s carrying fall, and the seasons will change and change again until I am grown and dead and gone, and then they will continue to change.

I’ve been trying to name the breeze in the leaves.  It’s not quite an ocean. The best I can do is to call it breathing, living.

I’m reminded of the moment when Aslan approaches the statues in the White Witch’s castle, breathes softly on them, and brings them back to life.  Yes.  It’s carrying magic.

Deeper magic.

And God’s been breathing softly on my heart, and I know He’ll continue to do so as I turn and grumble and strive and harden.

It’s apt that this journal, filled with so much anguish and confusion and so many places, faces, worries, and miracles should end on such a note as this.  It isn’t what I expected. I was going to write about my doubts in writing, my feelings of inferiority in fiction, and my fear.

No.  Instead, I speak of peace, of changes, and of growth.  I speak of the God who breathes life into my own heart as surely as He moves the trees with an unseen power.

I worry, and I strive.

But there is One who takes my worries and shoulders my strivings, bearing them to death and beyond.  There is One who forgives and gives me life and stills my frantic soul.

So.

I will write.  I will write and write and look forward and backward.  I will live and not just exist, I will follow my God wherever He leads and trust in Him.

I will not write for others, afraid of their judgement.

I will write for myself a small bit, and for my readers, if they exist, and I will write for my God.

May the God of peace and life-giving breezes melt your frozen soul.  May the God who has the power to move mountains and dig rivers, who deserves all awe and glory yet loves us still, and who has the power to move our broken hearts in an immensely personal way, be with you always.  In the name of our LORD and Savior Jesus Christ,

Amen.

On to Volume 5.

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