About Christopher Benson

Christopher Benson is an English Teacher. He earned a B.A. in Philosophy from Wheaton College, M.A. in Journalism from the University of Missouri, and M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John's College. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, First Things, Image, The Christian Century, and Christian Scholar's Review.

Confirmation Sunday: Grace and Grit

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Surrounded by the church, I am genuflecting at the altar rail in front of the seated bishop who is administering the sacramental rite of confirmation.

Even though I have worshipped as an Anglican for many years at Holy Trinity Brompton in London, St. Aldate’s Church in Oxford, Church of the Resurrection in Washington, D.C., Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, and now All Saints Church in East Dallas, today I finally received the sacramental rite of confirmation. The domestic creed of Anglicanism, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (1571), holds that “there are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism, and the Supper of the Lord.” Confirmation belongs to a different order of sacraments:

Those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel, being such as have grown partly of the corrupt following of the Apostles, partly are states of life allowed in the Scriptures; but yet have not like nature of Sacraments with Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, for that they have not any visible sign or ceremony ordained of God.

What is confirmation? Simply put, confirmation is a mature renewal of baptismal vows. The 17th century Anglican cleric, Jeremy Taylor, offers a clear definition in A Discourse on Confirmation (1663) by contrasting baptism and confirmation:

The principal thing is this: confirmation is the consummation and perfection, the corroboration and strength of baptism and baptismal grace; for in baptism we undertake to do our duty, but in confirmation we receive strength to do it; in baptism others promise for us, in confirmation we undertake for ourselves, we ease our godfathers and godmothers of their burden, and take it upon our own shoulders, together with the advantage of the prayers of the bishop and all the church made then on our behalf; in baptism we give up our names to Christ, but in confirmation we put our seal to the profession, and God puts His seal to the promise. . . . In baptism we are made innocent, in confirmation we receive the increase of the Spirit of grace; in that we are regenerated unto life, in this we are strengthened unto battle. 

As a candidate for confirmation, I reaffirmed my renunciation of evil, renewed my commitment to Jesus Christ, and committed to supporting and encouraging my local parish. When my bishop, Philip Jones—the Apostolic Vicar of the Anglican Mission in the Americas—laid his hands upon me, he said: “Christopher, as you enter this new season of life, know this: You are not alone. God will satisfy your deepest hunger.” I needed to hear those words because I am tempted to dine at a table of food that does not nourish my soul. Only the feast of the Eucharist satisfies. Reflecting upon the bishop’s words, this line from the Lord’s Prayer reverberated in my ear: “Give us this day our daily bread.” As the sign of the cross was made on my forehead with holy chrism, the bishop offered this prayer of confirmation from the liturgy:

Defend, O Lord, your servant Christopher with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until he comes to your everlasting kingdom. Amen.

In his sermon, my pastor, Jay Wright, emphasized that this confirmation prayer involves two G words: “grace” and “grit.” The grace language is “heavenly grace” and “Holy Spirit.” The grit language is “continue” and “increase . . . more and more.” Borrowing from Angela Duckworth’s highly popular TED Talk on grit, where she defined it as “the power of perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” Jay said that our long-term goal of union with Christ requires grit but it is only possible through grace. Grace enables grit. And why does the Christian need grit? The liturgy of baptism answers: I am up against “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” I am up against “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” I am up against “all sinful desires that draw [me] from the love of God.” For all these reasons, I need to be defended, as the confirmation prayer says, and the Lord alone can defend me in this vale of tears until I come, at last, wearied but not defeated, into his everlasting kingdom. I will not forget this special rite of confirmation.

On postmodern conservatism

In The Federalist obituary to Peter Augustine Lawler, a scholar of political philosophy and American politics, Yuval Levin summarized the thread that ran through all of his arguments:

Modern life, he suggested, is characterized by an effort to invent a highly individualistic form of the human person. This kind of person should be capable of unprecedented freedom, and therefore perhaps unprecedented happiness too. But it isn’t really possible for actual human beings to be so thoroughly individualistic. So actual human beings can never really be quite happy while playing the role that modern free societies assign them. That means they will be restless, and eager for a different role. That restlessness is a source of endless anxiety, but also of hope—because it sends us searching for a way of life better suited to who we really are. It means modernity will always be producing its own critics and always live in a kind of creative tension with itself.

Lawler described himself as “postmodern conservative.” Levin explains this curious appellation: “What people usually call postmodern is actually hyper-modern, in that it extends the modern project of deconstructing nature through reason to its absurd conclusion of deconstructing reason itself. Conservatives, by recognizing the limits of the entire project from the outset, can see more clearly where it was right and where it was wrong.” In an essay that Levin highly recommends, Lawler writes:

Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.

Levin continues: “The solution to this problem is not to abandon modern life and its fruits (as some conservatives might want to do) but to recognize its limits and address their consequences by finding ways, within modern societies, to treat people as more fully relational beings.” In National Review, Lawler argued:

So to be postmodern and conservative is to take our stand somewhere between the traditionalists and the libertarians. The traditionalists focus is on who each of us is as a relational being with duties and loyalties to particular persons and places. The libertarians — or, to be more clear, the individualists — focus on who each of us is as an irreducibly free person with inalienable rights, a person who can’t be reduced to a part of some whole greater than himself or herself. A postmodern conservative is about showing how a free person with rights is also a relational person with duties. The truth is that each of us is a unique and irreplaceable free and relational person.

Resources

What Christian education is NOT

From Calvin College philosophy professor, James K. A. Smith:

First, Christian education is not meant to be merely “safe” education. The impetus for Christian schooling is not a protectionist concern, driven by fear, to sequester children from the big, bad world. Christian schools are not meant to be moral bubbles or holy huddles where children are encouraged to stick their heads in the sand.

Rather, Christian schools are called to be like Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia: not safe, but good. Instead of antiseptic moral bubbles, Christian schools are moral incubators that help students not only to see the glories of God’s creation but also to discern and understand the brokenness of this fallen world.

While the Christian classroom makes room for appreciating the stunning complexity of cell biology and the rich diversity of world cultures, it’s also a place to understand the systemic injustices behind racism and the macroeconomics of poverty. Christian schools are not places for preserving a naive innocence; they are laboratories to form children who see that our broken world is full of widows, orphans, and strangers we are called to love and welcome.

In short, Christian schools are not a withdrawal from the world; they are a lens and microscope through which to see the world in all its broken beauty.

Second, Christian schools are not just about Bible classes. The curriculum of a Christian school is not the curriculum of a public school plus religion courses. While Christian education does deepen students’ knowledge of God’s Word, it’s not Bible class that makes a school Christian.

Rather, the Reformed vision of Christian education emphasizes that the entire curriculum is shaped and nourished by faith in Christ, “for by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1:16-17). Christian schools are not just extensions of Sunday school focused on learning religion; they are Christ-rooted educational institutions focused on religious learning.

Third, Christian education is not a merely “private” education. Christian schools are not meant to be elite enclaves for the wealthy. To the extent that Christian schools become pious renditions of “prep schools,” they fail to appreciate the radical, biblical calling of Christian education.

Source: James K. A. Smith, “The Case for Christian Education” in Banner (January 18, 2011).

On short fiction

From a 1824 letter written by Washington Irving:

I have preferred adopting the mode of sketches and short tales rather than long works. . . there is a constant activity of thought and a nicety of execution required in writings of the kind, more than the world appears to imagine. It is comparatively easy to swell a story to any size when you have once the scheme and the characters in your mind; the mere interest of the story, too, carries the reader on through pages and pages of careless writing, and the author may often be dull for half a volume at a time, if he has some striking scene at the end of it; but in these shorter writings, every page must have its merit. The author must be continually piquant; woe to him if he makes an awkward sentence or writes a stupid page; the critics are sure to pounce upon it. Yet if he succeed, the very variety and piquancy of his writings—nay, their very brevity, make them frequently recurred to, and when the mere interest of the story is exhausted, he begins to get credit for his touches of pathos or humor; his points of wit or turns of language.

From Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose (2001) written by Raymond Carter:

If we’re lucky, writer and reader alike, we’ll finish the last line or two of a short story and then just sit for a minute, quietly. Ideally, we’ll ponder what we’ve just written or read; maybe our hearts or intellects will have been moved off the peg just a little from where they were before. Our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree. Then, breathing evenly and steadily once more, we’ll collect ourselves, writers and readers alike, get up, “created of warm blood and nerves” as a Chekhov character puts it, and go on to the next thing: Life. Always life.

From a 1957 interview with Truman Capote in The Paris Review:

When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant. Whatever control and technique I may have I owe entirely to my training in this medium.

From a 1891 letter written by Henry James:

Make [the short story] tremendously succinct—with a very short pulse or rhythm—and the closest selection of detail—in other words summarize intensely and deeply and keep down the lateral development. It should be a little gem of bright, quick, vivid form.

From a 1925 letter to his father written by Ernest Hemingway:

You see I am trying in all my stories to get the feeling of the actual life across—not to just depict life—or criticize it—but to actually make it alive. So that when you have read something by me you actually experience the thing. You can’t do this without putting in the bad and the ugly as well as what is beautiful. Because if it is all beautiful you can’t believe in it. Things aren’t that way. It is only by showing both sides—3 dimensions and if possible 4 that you can write the way I want to. 

From a 1958 interview with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Review:

If it is any use to know it, I always to try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eights of it under water for every part that shows. Anything you know you can eliminate and it only strengthens your iceberg. It is the part that doesn’t show. If a writer omits something because he does not know it then there is a hole in the story.

From a 1972 interview with Eudora Welty in The Paris Review:

A short story is confined to one mood, to which everything in the story pertains. Characters, setting, time, events, are all subject to the mood. And you can try more ephemeral, more fleeting things in a story – you can work more by suggestion—than in a novel. Less is resolved, more is suggested, perhaps.

From a 1949 article written by Eudora Welty in The Atlantic Monthly:

The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery—not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful.

From a 2006 interview with George Sanders in The New York Times Magazine:

When you read a short story, you come out a little more aware and a little more in love with the world around you. What I want is to have the reader come out just 6 percent more awake to the world.

From the introduction to Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules (2005) written by David Sedaris:

A good [short story] would take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.

From Ways of Escape (1980) written by Graham Greene:

With a novel, which takes perhaps years to write, the author is not the same man at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. It is not only that his characters have developed — he has developed with them, and this nearly always gives a sense of roughness to the work: a novel can seldom have the sense of perfection which you find in Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the Dog.” It is the consciousness of that failure which makes the revision of the novel seem endless — the author is trying in vain to adapt the story to his changed personality — as though it were something he had begun in childhood and is finishing now in old age.

The apologetic necessity of holiness and art

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Throughout his life, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) has emphasized that the Gospel will be advanced in our post-Christian world through the via pulchritudinis — or “way of beauty.” Here is a famous quotation from him:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides, which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No, Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place in which beauty — and truth — is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell. . . . ‘A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology.’

Source: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, edited by Vittorio Messori (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987).

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Is literary representation an act of transubstantiation?

Here are some thought-provoking remarks from Louis Mendand’s New Yorker essay, “Imitation of Life,” on John Updike’s cultural project:

“Ulysses” begins with a mock celebration of the Eucharist—and so, in fact, does “In Search of Lost Time,” a cookie dipped in a cup of tea. The idea is that literary representation is an act of transubstantiation. Literature pulls the real up out of the realm of temporality and insignificance and remakes it into a form that will never decay and never die. There is nothing doctrinally religious about this conception of the literary act. It is at the heart of modernism. “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” Henry James wrote to H. G. Wells. That’s what Updike believed.

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The most persistent and mindlessly recycled criticism of Updike’s work is that he was infatuated with his own style, that he over-described everything to no purpose—that, as several critics put it, he had “nothing to say.” But Updike wasn’t merely showing off with his style. He wasn’t, as all those critics were essentially implying, masturbating. He was transubstantiating.

There was nothing secret about this. He explained what he was up to many times. “The Old Testament God repeatedly says he wants praise, and I translate that to mean that the world wants describing,” he once explained to an interviewer. In the preface to the collected Rabbit novels, “Rabbit Angstrom,” he talks about “the religious faith that a useful truth will be imprinted by a perfect artistic submission.” “The world is the host,” he has a character say in one of his short stories; “it must be chewed.” Writing for Updike was chewing. You can dismiss this conception of the literary vocation as pious or old-fashioned, but, if you do, you are dismissing Joyce and much of literary modernism.

Question: If you are a Christian, do you think literary representation is an act of transubstantiation? Should verbal art be compared to the Eucharist?

John Updike’s “non-judgmental immersion”

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John Updike visiting Harvard University in 2000. Photograph by Brigitte Lacombe

John Updike is our time’s greatest man of letters, as brilliant a literary critic and essayist as he was a novelist and short story writer. He is and always will be no less a national treasure than his 19th-century precursor, Nathaniel Hawthorne. 
— Philip Roth

I am beginning to explore the fiction of the post-war American writer John Updike. “My subject is the American Protestant small-town middle class,” Updike said in a 1966 interview for Life magazine. “I like middles,” he continued. “It is in middles that extremes clash, where ambiguity restlessly rules.” Upon his death in 2009, Updike’s friend and fellow storyteller, Joyce Carol Oates, wrote: “I never knew how serious John was about his Christian faith—or, rather, the Christian faith—though some sense of the sacred seems to suffuse his work like that sort of sourceless sunshine which illuminates an overcast day.”

In an article for The New Statesman, Judging John Updike,” David Baddiel writes some things of interest not only as they pertain specifically to Updike but generally to fiction:

The issue of Updike’s greatness hangs over this new biography by Adam Begley, who tries in his introduction to dismiss any anxiety that the subject of this long, insightful and meticulously researched book may be a second-rank talent by asserting: “Predicting his eventual place in the pantheon of American literature is . . . no more useful than playing pin-the-tail with the genius label.” This anxiety, though, reflects a fairly consistent category error in American critical circles. Updike’s central creative project – like that of Jane Austen, George Eliot or Joyce but, I would contend, more extremely, perhaps more artfully, even than any of those – is, in his own phrase, to “give the mundane its beautiful due.”

He is the great poet of the ordinary life, of domesticity, of life as most people live it – as opposed to Saul Bellow, who writes mainly about life as deep-thinking intellectuals, academics and writers live it (and who was considered, mistakenly, a better writer throughout that time when the “Great Male Narcissists”, in David Foster Wallace’s phrase, ruled the literary cosmos). The problem for gravitas-chasing critics such as Bloom and Wood was that Updike writes small – and they mistook this for the size of his talent. “Small” doesn’t really do him justice. A better word would be “microscopic”: using the microscope of his extraordinary prose, Updike reveals and articulates the largest mysteries of life.

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As well as being an intricate portrayal of the man, Updike is also a sustained, very fine work of literary criticism. It is particularly good on Updike’s artistic amorality. By “amorality”, I don’t mean that there are no moral principles underlying his work but that there is – as regards the behaviour of his main characters – an absence of blame. There is a problem with the way people read novels now, most obvious in Amazon reviews, in which readers consistently confuse whether or not a novel is good with whether or not they “like” the characters. Generally, readers imagine that if they don’t like the characters in a novel, it is a bad book.

To make matters worse, whether or not they like the characters is usually based on whether or not the characters behave nicely. All of this is a disaster for literature and particularly for Updike, whose characters never behave nicely or, indeed, evilly – they just behave like people do, in a flawed way. “People are incorrigibly themselves” was his motto in creating his people.

In a lecture that Adam Begley quotes, Updike defines his “aesthetic and moral aim” as “non-judgemental immersion” and he followed this throughout his career, achieving its apotheosis most completely in the character of Harry Angstrom in the Rabbit series. No religious writer (he was a practising Christian all his life, and Updike’s infusion of smallness with significance is generated by a sense of seeing everywhere – in a pigeon feather, in a golf swing, in sex – the divine) has ever been so non-judgemental.

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He just lets his characters – and their damaging conflicts between duty and desire – stand. As William Maxwell, his editor for many years at the New Yorker, once wrote (in a letter comforting him following another critical accusation of shallowness), his fiction is always “concentrated reflection”: the mirror is never skewed by morality.

This, I think, is another reason why Updike has so many detractors. Ever since F R Leavis wrote The Great Tradition, there has been a school of literary criticism that has demanded that great novelists also be great moralists: that the job of the writer is not just to reflect the world but to tell it the difference between right and wrong.

That is a mistake. A good writer leaves that decision to the reader; a great writer challenges our preconceptions of right and wrong by forcing us to engage and sympathise with characters who confound those preconceptions. The job of the artist is not to pardon or pass sentence upon the world but simply – or not simply, for this is the difficult thing – to show it and its most complex and most difficult truths.

Updike’s lodestar for the novel was, as Begley points out, Stendhal’s contention: “A novel is a mirror carried along a high road. At one moment it reflects to your vision the azure skies, at another the mire of the puddles at your feet.” Updike wrote in the way he did because his mirror was extremely bright and his road was very long – it was America and the world beyond. He wrote in the way he did, in other words, not because he had nothing to say but because he had everything to say. 

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