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.

The Lord’s fences begirt us round

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Stone fence in Weardale, County Durham. Photograph by John Short

Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!
      Parents first season us; then schoolmasters
      Deliver us to laws; they send us bound
To rules of reason, holy messengers,
Pulpits and Sundays, sorrow-dogging sin,
      Afflictions sorted, anguish of all sizes,
      Fine nets and stratagems to catch us in,
Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,
Blessings beforehand, ties of gratefulness,
      The sound of glory ringing in our ears,
      Without, our shame, within, our consciences,
Angels and grace, eternal hopes and fears.
      Yet all these fences and their whole array

      One cunning bosom-sin blows quite away.

George Herbert’s brilliant poem, “Sin (I)”, has two purposes: to express gratitude for the Lord’s spiritual fortification and to awaken our heart’s vigilance against the ambush of sin. Like watchmen, we are prone to falling asleep, leaving our heart unguarded. The opening line of the poem – “Lord, with what care hast thou begirt us round!” – sets up a catalogue of fifteen (de)fences against sin that serve us well as long as we remain alert to the enemy that hides within (“one cunning bosom-sin”). Picture sin as that wooden horse wheeled inside the fortress of our heart, promising goodwill but unleashing chaos. Here are how each of the fences offer a protective enclosure to the sinner:

  1. Parents first “season” us with moral principles that strengthen us for the pilgrimage ahead.
  2. Schoolmasters deliver us to “laws” (moral and natural) and “rules of reason” (logic) that order our universe, morality, and thought.
  3. Holy messengers (or clergy) shepherd our religious belief and practice.
  4. Pulpits (sermons) and Sundays (worship, catechism, fellowship) nourish us with the living Word in a community of faith.
  5. Sorrow “produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:10).
  6. Afflictions sanctify character through trial.
  7. Anguish deepens steadfastness under pain.
  8. Fine nets prevent us from a descent into debauchery or damnation while the Lord’s stratagems outwit the snares of the Enemy.
  9. Bibles reveal millions of surprises (revelations) about everything of importance in heaven, earth, and hell to make us wise up about reality.
  10. Blessings beforehand and their ties of gratefulness develop a spirit of thanksgiving that shelter us from grumbling or disputing (Phil. 2:14).
  11. The sound of glory “ringing in our ears” gives us hope about the future perfection of creation and the second advent of Christ.
  12. Shame humiliates and humbles us from further sinning.
  13. Consciences give voice to the law written on the tablets of our hearts, lest we forget (Prov. 3:3, 7:3).
  14. Angels guard us from “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12) while grace empowers us with the grit to go on when we are tempted to give up.
  15. Eternal hopes and fears about our ultimate destiny encourage obedient living today.

So, are ever safe from the threat of sin? Herbert rests in a paradoxical truth: the fences of the Lord fail us when we fail them. The force that blows “these fences . . . quite away” comes from the inside-out rather than the outside-in. Therefore, we are never truly (de)fenceless unless, like the Trojans, we accept a peace offering from our Enemy.

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“Designs executed in a controlled rapture”

And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:28-31)

This evening I led a seminar on John Updike’s brilliant short story, “Pigeon Feathers,” described here by The New Yorker:

In moving from Olinger to Firetown, David Kern, fourteen, tries to work off some of his disorientation by arranging books. In “An Outline of History,” by H. G. Wells, he slips into Wells’ account of Jesus. That night David is visited by an exact vision of death. The definition Webster’s Dictionary gives for soul, “Usually held to be separable in existence” is at first comforting, but when the assurance leaves him he asks Reverend Dobson at the catechetical class of the Lutheran church about Heaven. Dobson’s answer, “That Heaven is like Abraham Lincoln’s goodness living after him,” is not enough for David. He talks to his mother & afterwards realizes that he has hurt her with his worries about death. For his birthday he receives a Remington .22. His grandmother asks him to kill the pigeons in the barn. As he shoots them, he has the sensations of a creator.

As David buries the birds, he suddenly becomes arrested by the beauty of pigeon feathers. There he finds “the hint, the nod, he needed to build his fortress against death.” With verbal virtuosity, Updike’s final paragraph contains a design argument for the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. I am awed by how Updike writes.

He dug the hole, in a spot where there were no strawberry plants, before he studied the pigeons. He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests. Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.

Life is like a wheel

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Images drive ideas. That is the most salient take-away from my writing instruction at journalism school. When my pastor quoted a letter from Catholic priest, Henri J. M. Nouwen, the well-chosen image pressed itself on my mind, communicating a deep spiritual truth.

Life is like a wheel. God is the hub. By focusing on the hub of life you come closer to God. The closer you come to the center, the closer you also come to each other. Everyone travels on a different spoke, but as long as we travel to God we travel to each other. What about that image for a bike specialist?!

Source: Henri J. M. Nouwen, Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life

A world of endless cross-reference

How do you see the world? That question arose as I read Rowan William’s New Statesman article, “Everything Is Illuminated,” on the Welsh painter and artist, David Jones (1895-1974). According to Jones, modern man views the world as isolated atoms, whereas pre-modern man viewed the world as symbolic connection. A sacramental theology will be needed for us to perceive the “endless cross-reference” again.

We are living, [David Jones] wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Talk to yourself

In chapel this week, my colleague quoted a profoundly wise statement by the British evangelical minister D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cures:

The main trouble in this whole matter of spiritual depression in a sense is this, that we allow our self to talk to us instead of talking to our self. Am I just trying to be deliberately paradoxical? Far from it. This is the very essence of wisdom in this matter. Have you realized that most of your unhappiness in life is due to the fact that you are listening to yourself instead of talking to yourself? Take those thoughts that come to you the moment you wake up in the morning. You have not originated them, but they start talking to you, they bring back the problem of yesterday, etc. Somebody is talking. Who is talking to you? Your self is talking to you. Now this man’s treatment [in Psalm 42] was this; instead of allowing this self to talk to him, he starts talking to himself, ‘Why art thou cast down, O my soul?’ he asks. His soul had been repressing him, crushing him. So he stands up and says: ‘Self, listen for a moment, I will speak to you’. Do you know what I mean? If you do not, you have but little experience.

The main art in the matter of spiritual living is to know how to handle yourself. You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’–what business have you to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’–instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way. And then you must go on to remind yourself of God, Who God is, and what God is and what God has done, and what God has pledged Himself to do. Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God’.

What does singleness teach the church?

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El Greco, “Saint Paul” (1610-14)

From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:

Singleness tells us, for starters, of a radical dependence on God. In marriage, it is tempting to look to one’s spouse to meet all one’s needs. But those who live alone, without the companionship and rigor of marriage and sex, are offered an opportunity to realize that it is God who sustains them. Catholic writer Henry Nouwen suggests that this dependence is the unmarried person’s primary witness to the married. In singleness, says Nouwen, “God will be more readily recognized as the source for all human life and activity. . . . The celibate becomes a living sign of the limits of interpersonal relationships and of the centrality of the inner sanctum that no human being may violate.” Unmarried people are asked to specialize in “creating and protecting emptiness for God,” an emptiness that everyone, married or single, needs to maintain. This, perhaps, is why Aquinas spoke of celibacy as a “vacancy for God.”

In singleness we see not only where our true dependence lies, but also who and what our real family is. Singleness reminds Christians that the church is our primary family. In an era in which the church is known for prompting “family values” but not social justice, in an era in which families are so exhausted from an endless round of after-school ballet lessons and late-night work-related e-mail sessions that they sleep through Sunday morning worship, in an era when middle-class Americans hurtle across exurban sprawl in our SUVs and then zip through our subdivisions and into our garages without ever speaking to our neighbors, this is a very important lesson indeed.

Marriage, and families, can be sources of grace, but they are not the primary source of grace. The primary source of grace is the church. Single people witness to the Christian hope that the kingdom of God unfolds not principally when we nurture our nuclear families, but, as theologian Stanley Hauerwas explains it, when we show “hospitality to the stranger. . . . As Christians we believe that every Christian in one generation might be called to singleness, yet God will create the church anew.”

***

Single Christians remind the rest of us that our truest, realest, most lasting relationship is that of sibling: even husband and wife are first and foremost brother and sister. Baptismal vows are prior to wedding vows. (Inversely, insofar as marriage is essentially an opportunity to learn, in concentrated form with one other person, what being a sibling in Christ means, married people can instruct single people in some slices of the sibling relationship.)

Marriage and singleness remind us of and resonate with different moments in God’s relationship to His people. As St. John Chrysostom wrote, marriage “is the image of heaven,” and celibacy is the image of the kingdom, “where there is no marriage.” Married people—as the frequent scriptural analogies between marriage and Christ’s relationship to His church make clear—mirror God’s relationship with His people eschatologically. At the end of time, when the kingdom of God is consummated, when Christ returns, there will be a huge wedding feast between Christ and His people. Paul gets at this in Ephesians 5: “‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” The church, as a collective people of God, become the Body of Christ. Marriage, in this way, instructs the church in what to look for when the kingdom comes—eternal, intimate union. 

And singleness prepares us for the other piece of the end of time, the age when singleness trumps marriage. Singleness tutors us in our primary, heavenly relationship with one another: sibling in Christ.

Related

What does marriage teach the church?

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Micer Marsilio Cassotti and his wife Faustina (1523) by Lorenzo Lotto

From Lauren F. Winner’s book, Real Sex: The Naked Truth About Chastity:

In the Christian grammar, marriage is not only for the married couple. Insofar as marriage tells the Christian community a particular story, marriage is also for the community. Marriage presupposes fidelity, and married people are a sign to the church of God’s own radical fidelity toward all of us. He loves us, and is faithful to us, when we cheat on Him. He loves us, and is faithful to us, when we insist that our love has died on the vine. Marriages are made in part to remind us of God’s relentless fidelity. 

And marriage tells the church about the communion and community that is possible between and among people who have been made new creatures in Christ. It hints at the eschatological union between Christ and the church. As ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio has put it, “Marriage consists not simply or even primarily of a personal relationship. Rather, it crystallizes the love of the larger church community. The couple is not just two-in-one, but two together within the whole, with specific responsibility for the whole. . . . They must persevere in love, because the community needs to see God’s love actualized among God’s people.” 

The inflections of community are important because they get at the very meaning of marriage. Marriage is a gift God gives the church; He does not simply give it to the married people of the church, but to the whole church, as marriage is designed not only for the benefit of the married couple. It is also designed to tell a story to the entire church, a story about God’s relationship with and saving work among us.