Thursday, March 27, 2014

Pilgrim's Progress

Class Sessions are summarized consecutively below:  Page numbers refer to the Oxford World's Classics edition of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.

March 26 Session:

John Bunyan is sentenced to the local jail in 1661 for preaching in a Baptist conventicle.  Confined for what becomes a  period of 12 years, he gives himself to writing, and is enabled to get several books published. His fourth book is Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, a moving spiritual autobiography in which he details the steps that led to his conversion and the discovery of his gift for preaching.  Grace Abounding reveals him to be a very sensitive man with a meek and humble bearing with a deep sense of gratitude for the working of the grace of God in his own life, and one with a deep sense of purpose and perseverance.

Having a burden for evangelism and pondering how he could fulfill his calling while incarcerated by writing of the Christian life, he discovers the power of imaginative presentation through allegory.  In his "Apology" for Pilgrim's Progress, he writes:  "And thus it was:  I writing of the Way / and Race of Saints in this our Gospel-Day / Fell suddenly into an Allegory / About their Journey, and the way to Glory / In more than twenty things, which I set down; / This done, I twenty more had in my Crown, / And they again began to multiply, / Like sparks that from the coals of Fire do flie . . . "  The result was a book that from that time until the present has had an popularity second only to the Bible in influencing people to the Christian way.    

Being by trade a tinker--one who traveled from house to house mending pots and pans for the peasantry--the metaphor of a journey came quite naturally to his mind.  As he walked across the picturesque English countryside carrying his tools and anvil (which alone weighed some 60 pounds) upon his back, he would meet fellow pedestrians, pass the time of day with them, and, being preoccupied with the Gospel, engage them in discussion of Christian realities.  As all who have done it discover, beginning to talk about the Gospel tends quickly to bring certain attitudes to the surface, and Bunyan skilfully depicts this.

Haply, he came upon a very basic archetypal image:  that of a pilgrim making a journey into the unknown.  It is the journey of Abraham, the life of faith. In addition, it is important to bear in mind that it is an inner journey.  Christians who conscientiously live their lives are on a journey involving them in serious inner struggles, struggles that unbelievers, not on a similar journey, tend to dodge, dismiss, or capitulate to.  For the Christian, finding righteous solutions is essential to the journey's success.  Each of the characters Bunyan's pilgrim meets expresses an inner voice that he himself had felt, and he skilfully makes the careful reader feel them as well.

At the outset, Bunyan's Christian  is depicted as being in great distress because of the weight of his burden of guilt.  Refusing to heed his family and neighbors who misunderstand his concern and would compel him to stay, he flees, wanting to escape the wrath to come. The book in his hand tells him that "it is appointed unto men once to die and after that the judgment." His meeting with Evangelist, which initiates his journey, has especial imaginative power. "Do you see yonder Wicket-gate?  The Man said No."  The reference is to Matt 7:13:  "Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few."  The call to the Christian life is a call to righteous living, a difficult and demanding undertaking in a world in which the majority of people either have little concern for or are disdainful of upright living.

Christian does not see the gate; he only discerns dimly "yonder shining light."  The depiction captures the wavering sense of uncertainty, together with the compelling call, that is the life of faith.  "Keep that light in your eye, and go up directly thereto, so shalt thou see the Gate. . . ."  Faithfully undertaking day by day to "follow the light" will unfailingly yield the desired outcome.

Note the three perspectives that are introduced at the beginning and pertain throughout the work.  First, that of the Evangelist, who clearly gives directions and help.  Second, that of family and neighbors, who fail to understand and therefore scoff.  Third, that of the Pilgrim, existing somewhere between, who feels the call to follow the Evangelist's instructions and, in so doing, must face and successfully resist all who would deter him.  The text continually presents these three perspectives.

He Christian meets Obstinate, the voice that declares what he is undertaking is utter folly and should be rejected outright.  Next is Pliable, the voice that is attracted to the glorious outcome promised, but who, when they encounter the Slow of Dispond, quickly retreats.  One thinks of all who turn back when they encounter "the hardness of the Way."
 
The "Slow of Dispond" metaphor depicts the sense of guilt for sin the Christian feels at the outset of the journey.  Help instructs him that he should "look for the steps," that is, rely on the promises of the Word, such as that contained in Psa. 40:1:  "I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry.  He drew me up from the pit of destruction, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure."

Worldly Wiseman belittles Christian, advising first that he get rid of his burden and second that he go to the house of Mr. Legality.  One is reminded of all contemporary attempts to dismiss the sense of guilt as mental illness, for which, if it persists, one should consult a psychologist.  Living a respectable life is sufficient. Evangelist appears, sternly discounting all advice of Worldly Wiseman and renewing his insistence on Christian's pressing onward to the Gate.

Finally arriving at the Gate, Christian is taken to the house of the Interpreter, who proceeds to instruct him by showing him a series of 7 scenes, the import of each the text makes clear.  Of especial interest is that of the Fire burning against a wall, continually being doused by the Devil, but secretly being nourished and maintained by Christ.  The scene compellingly suggests the dual nature of Christian experience.  On the surface, Christians are beset with the efforts of Satan to defeat them.  This is the level of appearances, the conscious struggle to do the right thing in terms of all the affairs of life.  But covertly--on a level of which Christians are not consciously aware--are the gracious workings of Christ maintaining the "fire," that is, providing grace that enables a triumphant outcome, steadily working to bring appropriate good out of the apparent adversities of life.  

April 2 Session:

Having acquired the knowledge necessary to begin his journey, Christian arrives at the Cross.  "At the sight of the Cross," his burden disappears to his great relief.  Three angels appear, bestowing upon him the peace of sins forgiven, the raiment of righteousness (he is justified), the mark on his forehead (he is sealed by the Holy Spirit), and a roll (he is given all the promises of final salvation).

Of especial interest is Bunyan's refraining from theological explanations as to the efficacy of Christ's death, etc.   Being an adherent of Reformed theology, the temptation must have been strong to explain the substitutionary nature of Christ's death.  But he avoids all abstract expositions, desiring--admirably so--to keep the focus upon Christian's inner experience.  The Christian walk is motivated primarily by the capitulation of the will and the energies of desire that lead to obedience to Biblical precepts, not by intellectual analysis and rumination on Christian doctrine.  Not that the latter is unimportant; later experiences of the journey reveal its proper place.

Nor does he place the experience of receiving salvation in the Palace Beautiful--i.e., the church.  Bunyan is not suggesting baptismal regeneration.   The receiving of salvation is a private, individual matter of the heart. Between that experience and the reception into the institutional church stands the Hill Difficulty, atop which is the Palace Beautiful; i.e., the Baptist conventicle.  In ascending the hill he encounters several characters representing seriously mistaken understandings of the nature of the Christian journey.  Simple, Sloth, and Presumption see no necessity to walk the Narrow Way; they have no interest in upright living.  Formalist deceives himself by assuming that adherence to outward rituals are all that is necessary; Hypocrisy seeks to deceive others by pretending to be something he is not.  Neither allow their Christianity to effect their inner beings and lead to earnest obedience.    

Entering the Palace Beautiful requires meeting certain standards.  Entering necessitates complete commitment: the lions at the door (probably a reference to British authorities--to worship elsewhere than in an Anglican Church was for several years in Bunyan's time forbidden by law) must be defied.  The genuineness of the pilgrim's intentions must be established by his thoroughly testifying as to his inner experience and commitment.  That the pilgrim must then earnestly open himself to acquiring the basic Christian virtues is depicted by his interactions with Prudence, Piety, and Charity.

Christian's core motivation is movingly given as he responds, in response to Prudence inquiring why he wants to travel to Mount Zion:  "Why, there I hope to see him alive, that did hang dead on the Cross; and there I hope to be rid of all those things, that to this day are in me, an annoyance to me; there they say there is not death, and there I shall dwell with such Company as I like best.  For to tell you the truth, I love him, because I was by him eased of my burden, and I am weary of my inward sickness; I would fain be where I shall die no more, and with the Company that shall continually cry, Holy, Holy, Holy."

Having been outfitted with armor (Eph. 6:14 - 18), Christian leaves, accompanied by Discretion, Piety, Charity, and Prudence, for "it is an hard matter for a man to go down into the valley of Humiliation."  There he enters into serious combat with Apollyon.  Bunyan is underscoring the truth that to move through the world practicing Christian virtues is inevitably an humiliating experience, as sincere Christian behavior is not only counter to the values of the world, but it is also often viewed with disdain and ridicule.  The temptation is strong to capitulate to the ways of the world, as the interchange between Apollyon and Christian shows.  In spite of his astute responses to Apollyon's arguments, Christian is almost defeated in combat.

His victory, however, is occasioned by the intervention of grace.  In the text (p.59) one sees the tide of the combat turn abruptly by the sudden presence of the words:  "But as God would have it."  The reader is reminded of the emblem Christian saw in the House of the Interpreter depicting Satan as trying to douse the flames, while Christ stands covertly by "the backside of the wall" pouring oil on the fire.

That episode of Christian proceeding to pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death is shaped by Bunyan's own experience, detailed in his spiritual autobiography "Grace Abounding," of extended depression early in his Christian walk.  Later in the text, as Christian and Faithful muse on their past experiences, Faithful states he had "sunshine all the way" through it.

At the end of the Valley Christian comes upon the strewn remains to bodies before the cave wherein Pope and Pagan dwell.  The reference is to the martyrdom of Christians, something that was a real possibility in Bunyan's time.  Some hundred years before, during the reign of "Bloody" Queen Mary, some 300 Christians were burned in the fires of martyrdom as she attempted to restored Roman Catholicism to England, and during the period of the Reformation an untold number of Christians met  with similar experience.

April 9 Session:   

St. Paul writes in II Cor 4:18:  ". . . we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."  One of the strengths of Pilgrim's Progress is the way Bunyan illustrates how these two levels of reality work themselves out in a Christian's life.  As his Christian emerges from the Valley of the Shadow of Death (65), he remarks he is glad for three reasons.  The second is:  "For that he perceived, God was with them, though in that dark and dismal state; and why not, thought he, with me, though by reason of the impediment that attends this place, I cannot perceive it." Note the play on the word "perceive" with which the passage begins and ends: he perceives what he cannot perceive.  So it is with a Christian's experiences in life.  One's faith perceives what one's senses cannot, that is, that God is constantly caring for his own in all the affairs of one's life.

Christian sees the sun rising as he proceeds on his journey (66).  The sun/Son pun is apparent.  One may recall the Evangelist's instruction to Christian back when he began his journey to the Gate (11):  "Do you see yonder shining light . . . . Keep that light in your eye. . . ."  Christian is proceeding with a strengthened sense of that light.

He next encounters Faithful.  Their initial meeting conveys an important spiritual principle.  When he first sees Faithful, he cries:  "'Stay, stay, till I come up to you:'  but Faithful answered, 'No, I am upon my life, and the Avenger of Blood is behind me.'  At this, Christian was somewhat moved, and putting to all his strength, he quickly got up with Faithful, and did also over-run him, so that the last was first.  Then did Christian vain-gloriously smile, because he had gotten the start of his Brother:  but not taking good heed to his feet, he suddenly stumbled and fell, and could not rise again, until Faithful came up to help him" (67).  Thus Christian, prompted by the low motive of competition, stumbles spiritually, and though on the physical level he thought he was "first," Faithful--who was "last"--is first in terms of true reality, that is, the spiritual.   One may muse on the book's title, and perceive that a "pilgrim's progress" is to be measured in spiritual terms.

The lengthy account which Faithful gives to Christian on the events of his past journey shows that God works with each person according to that person's particular personality and spiritual needs.  Faithful is apparently of a more sensual nature that Christian, and the temptations, and their deliverances, that have beset him are peculiar to his needs.  He has struggled with "Adam the first" together with Adam's three daughters, "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life."  When Faithful sees that he is about to become their slave, he fights an intense fight with Adam the first, and is almost overcome until "one came by, and bid him forbear" (71).  Thus the Spirit of Christ has intervened at a crucial and given Faithful the victory.  One may recall I Cor 10:13: "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to men.  God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it."

Other than that, Faithful says he "had sunshine all the way," as opposed to the "deep ditch, dangerous quagg, and fires of hell" that beset Christian through his nightmarish journey through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

As the two proceed together, they meet Talkative, who is greatly curious about the Christian life and loves to discuss it.  Christian, however, warns "he is a very sorry fellow. . . Religion has no place in his heart," and advises Faithful how to be rid of him:  ask him about the quality of his everyday life.  The amount of space Bunyan gives to this episode underscores that he saw such people as Talkative doing great disservice to the Church and the cause of Christ.  Being Christian is a matter of obedience from the heart to Christ's precepts in ones everyday relationships.

They are overtaken by Evangelist who warns them concerning Vanity Fair, the city they inevitably must enter: ". . . the way to the Celestial City lyes just thorow this Town, where this lusty Fair is kept; and he that will go to the City, and yet not go thorow this Town, must needs go out of the World" (86).  ". . . In every City, bonds and afflictions abide in you," he forewarns (85).  The problem lies in the inner struggle they feel as they face the various attractions and trials of the town.  Every sincere Christian has inner struggles the unbeliever knows little if anything about.

The episode--perhaps the most well-known of all Christian's adventures--is heavy with satire, concerning which Bunyan intends his reader to both laugh and cry.  (See Bunyan's own commentary that he gives in the poetic preface to Part II, p. 163:  "But some there be that say he laughs too loud / . . . .Some things are of that Nature as to make / Ones fancie Checkle while his Heart doth ake.")  The problem the pilgrims face is one of value:  in Vanity Fair all things are sold, that is, they are valued exclusively in materialist terms.

When Christian and Faithful speak "the Language of Canaan" and affirm they want to "buy the Truth," they cause such disruption among the populace--most oppose and jeer, but some are sympathetic and interested--that the authorities arrest, exam, and put them to trial.  The result is that Faithful is burned at the stake.  The trial is a travesty of justice, both hilarious and poignantly tragic:  the judge condemns Faithful in vilest terms before the case goes to the jury, and the members of the jury are of such immense prejudice that their verdict is inevitable.

"But he that over-rules all things, having the power of their rage in his own hand, so wrought it about, that Christian for that time escaped them, and went his way" (95).  It is God, however, that is in full control, and it is his will that Christian, after he witnesses Faithful's triumphant reception into Glory, continue on his journey.

April 16 Session

As Christian continues his journey, he is joined by Hopeful.  Why does Hope join him now?  Perhaps because of his experience in Vanity Fair.  He now is thoroughly convinced, in the words of an old country hymn:  "This world is not my home / I'm merely passing through / My treasures are laid up / Way up beyond the blue / The angels beckon me / From heaven's open door / And I can't feel at home in this world anymore."

There are, however, many from Vanity Fair who are sufficiently attracted to follow after them.  So they are joined by By-ends from the near-by town of Fair-Speech, together with a great host of his friends, among them Mr. Smooth-man, Mr. Facing-bothways,  and even the parson of the local Parish.  Bunyan is giving his assessment of the Church of England.  Mr. By-ends explains:  "Tis true, we somewhat differ in Religion from those of the stricter sort, yet but in two small points:  First, we never strive against Wind and Tide. Secondly, we are always most zealous when Religion goes in his Silver Slippers; we love most to walk with him in the Street, if the Sun shines, and the people applaud it" (98).  The rationalizing speeches of Mr. Hold-the-world and Mr. Money-love build their case for having all the riches of earth and heaven too.  Their core problem is that they lack any sense of sin.  Christian firmly gives the lie to their thinking with strong reasoning derived from Biblical examples (103).  That Christian is now buttressing his thinking with an abundance of Biblical references suggests the "progress" that our pilgrim is making in his own spiritual journey.  

They then come upon a "delicate plain called Ease" from which they see the little Hill called Lucre and listen to the enticements of Demas ("Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me. . ." II Tim. 4:10), who urges them to "richly provide for your selves" by digging is his Silver mine.  Were Bunyan writing today, he may well place the character Joel Osteen at this juncture, for the allurement of the contemporary movement known as the "Prosperity Gospel" is well depicted here.  The prosperity that is the legacy of the Christian is of a spiritual nature, which often is nourished by poverty, and most certainly has nothing to do with material prosperity as such.

All this thinking, nevertheless, has a certain lingering effect upon the pilgrims.  Hopeful remarks, "Let us go see."  The energies of hope by their very nature have a certain tendency to look longingly on earthly satisfactions.  The firm rejection that Christian offers (104) is another indication of the spiritual progress that he is making.  

As they proceed, they come upon a statue of Lot's wife, with the inscription "Remember Lot's wife."  She was disobedient to God's command, looking back upon Sodom with a covetous heart, and becomes warning to all future generations by being turned into a pillar of salt.  Our pilgrim's consider the warning carefully, as well they might, as they are about to follow a similar pattern.

The episode is a pivotal one in the text; Bunyan is emphasizing the role of memory in every Christian life.  It is vitally important. It is with the memory that we recall the promises of God, Scripture passages we have found especially meaningful,  past teachings from spiritual mentors, and our own past experiences--both spiritual victories and spiritual defeats--from which we are to learn.  It is by our memories that we ponder the providential workings of God in our pasts.  In the immediate presence of each new challenge on the Narrow Way it is easy momentarily to forget all this. Bunyan underscores this danger by presenting every failure of Christian to follow the Narrow Way a failure to remember.

After experiencing a time of spiritual triumph as they go on their way--they walk along the river of the water of Life--they come to an especially rough and difficult section of the Way and, seeing to their left By-Path-Meadow with its inviting paths, decide to follow them.  They soon discover that the farther they go on such a path, the more difficult returning to the Narrow Way becomes.  The traumatic result is their being captured by Giant Despair and imprisoned in Doubting Castle, a horrendous and grueling experience for them.  They counsel each other patience, advice which is very wrong in this situation.  Attempting to "wait out" the crisis only prolongs their agony.  After much misery, Christian "remembers" he has a key called Promise in his bosom, by which they quickly unlock all the doors and free themselves.

When does a Christian take such a detour?  Whenever one finds it especially difficult to do the thing one knows to be right and chooses to avoid an issue, to not take a stand, but rather to do the convenient thing at hand, though one knows it to be wrong.  One is quickly beset by guilt that imprisons and generates considerable misery until a person repents and again resumes the narrow way.  The key that releases one is the promise, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness"--I John 1:9.

It is instructive that doubt attends the leaving of the way.  The problem with Little-faith, whose story Christian tells somewhat later (121ff), is that he had fallen asleep upon the way.   The surest antidote to doubt is abandoning self concern in loving service to God and others.  The Christian active in love finds faith re-enforced.

After their release from Doubting-Castle, Christian and Hopeful come to the Delectable Mountains, where they are instructed by Experience, Watchful, and Sincere.  The counterpart to this is some spiritual retreat or period of instruction from Christian mentors--a time of fellowship and communion with saints.  There they are reminded of the various dangers along the way--the Hill Error, the Hill Caution, Doubting Castle.  In short, it is a time of being reminded of that which they already know.  "Then said the Pilgrims one to another, "We had need cry to the Strong for strength.'  'Ay,' the Shepherd responds, 'and you will have need to use it when you have it, too'" (119).

Nevertheless, neglecting the warning from one of the Shepherds, the Pilgrims are lead astray by Flatterer and, caught within his net, they find themselves helpless to get out.  Flattery, with its attendant self-congratulation, can paralyze a person.  A Shining One, who comes to release them, asks if they had not read the Shepherd's note, to which they respond they had forgotten!

April 23 Session

The Shining One has a whip of small cord in his hand and, commanding to lie down, he chastises the "sore," while referring to the passage on discipline found in Heb. 12:3 - 17.  The Lord's disciplining of his own is not, it must be remembered, with a view to punishing as such, but to strengthening the child of God in righteousness.  It is one of the unfortunate aspects of our fallen condition that it tends to be the difficulties and adversities of life, rather than the times of success and unencumbered living that increase our sense of dependence upon God and our responsibilities to Him.  As many as the Lord loves he rebukes and chastens.  
As our pilgrims proceed, the pass through an Enchanted Land where they begin to grown "very dull and heavy of sleep."  Bunyan has in mind any period in the Christian life when a person is threatened with a spirit of complacency and indolence.  Christian and Hopeful decide to fellowship with each other by remembering, this time the working of God in Hopeful's experience.  The material ahead is heavy with theology.  Hopeful's experience rehearses again the process whereby an individual comes into a proper relationship with God.  It is followed by Christian's interaction with Ignorance, in which Bunyan presents through Christian a very precise theological exposition of the doctrine of justification.

Ignorance's position is that of a great many practicing Christians.  He affirms, "I believe that Christ died for sinners, and that I shall be justified before God from the curse, through his gracious acceptance of my obedience to his Law:  Or thus, Christ makes my Duties that are Religious, acceptable to his Father by virtue of his Merits; and so shall I be justified" (140).  But Bunyan sees such theology as inadequate in that it does not see Christ's righteousness as being imputed to the sinner at the beginning when he comes upon the Way by means of the Gate; i.e., Christ.  This apparently is the Certificate that Christian received at the Cross and that is necessary, the reader soon learns, for admittance into the Celestial City. We were told early on in the text that Ignorance did not enter the Way by means of the Gate.

Ignorance responds to Christian's exposition by objecting:  "What! would you have us trust to what Christ in his own person has done without us?  This conceit would not loosen the reins of our lust, and tollerate us to live as we list."  His objection finds authentication in those who--history shows--assume precisely this attitude: if God declares me to be completely righteous, what need have I to be much concerned about keeping the moral law?   It is the heresy of Antinomianism, a serious misunderstanding of the nature and purpose of the working of grace in a Christian's life.

Before coming to Beulah Land, the pilgrims meet Temporary, an individual at first very enthusiastic about his faith, but eventually one who fell back into his former way of living.  The reader may recall that in the parable of the sower some seed had a flourishing start but were choked out by thorns and thistles.

As they proceed through Beulah, their longings for the Celestial City increase.  There they are met by two men "in raiment that shone like Gold, also their faces shone as the light" (147), who tell them there are yet two difficulties before they are in the City.  Before them they see a forbidding River which--there being no bridge in sight--they must cross.  "Then they asked the men if the waters were all of a depth.  They said no; yet they could not help them in that case; for said they, You shall find it deeper or shallower, as you believe in the King of the place (147, 148).

The river is, of course, the experience of dying.  Hopeful has little trouble in crossing, but Christian gasps and flounders in the water, as he remembers his sins and shortcomings.  Hopeful admonishes:  "My Brother. . . these troubles and distresses that you go through in these waters are no sign that God hath forsaken you, but are sent to try you, whether you will call to mind that which heretofore you have receive of his goodness, and live upon him in your distresses" (148, 149).  Again, Christian has failed to remember the promises of Scripture and the working of the grace of God in his life.

Bunyan's superb description of their sights as they proceed towards the City is followed by their coming to the Gate, where they are admitted after duly presenting their Certificates.  Again, Bunyan is underscoring his view of the doctrine of justification.  As they enter, "they were transfigured" (153).  Glorification in Bunyan's view is instantaneous:  no Purgatory here.

Interestingly, Bunyan proceeds to offer a series of endings.  The first is from the standpoint of the narrator in the dream who looks after the pilgrims as they enter the City and catches a glimpse of the glories of the City, with its shining aspects and the singing of the redeemed.  "And after that, they shut up the Gates:  which when I had seen, I wished my self among them," (153) the dreamer longingly remarks.  This is a poignant dramatic moment, an emotionally appropriate place to conclude the text, but Bunyan is not through.

He turns our attention to the fate of Ignorance who confidently approaches the Gate but, alas, has no Certificate to present.  Thereupon, the attendants take him up and cast him into hell.  Another ending, but Bunyan still is not through.  "So I awoke, and behold it was a Dream," we read, and are positioned now with the man who fell asleep at the very beginning of the story.  Dramatically it is effective, as it puts the reader in a yet further remove from the entire vision.

Finally, Bunyan addresses us as readers directly in a concluding poem, charging us that we be ponder diligently his text and be careful to interpret it correctly.  

Assessment

No other Christian work, save the King James Bible, has enjoyed such an extensive popularity as John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.  Yet it conveys a very clear and unambiguous Christian message, and even affirms a more narrow theological position than many Christians are comfortable with.  What accounts for its astoundingly wide readership?

I think the answer in large part is that Bunyan depicts with remarkable imaginative verve the fundamental human condition.  The struggle that consumes Christian's attention as he journeys from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City is the basic struggle that exists in everyone and defines their lives.  It is that duality between the higher and lower aspects of the human consciousness.

The higher aspect yearns for the Ideal.  There is in people a longing to realize something higher and beyond, something ill-defined yet which exercises a compelling attraction.  It is for the Real, the Ultimate that is elusive, always beckoning from beyond.  It is the Way on which Christian strives to walk.

The lower aspect of consciousness is the everyday here-and-now reality of people's lives, the consciousness of always falling short.  Involved  in all the exigencies of life, things go amok, our desires are frustrated, we react in ways of which we are ashamed, we are restless and dissatisfied and long to be other than we are. Like Christian, we've missed the Way again.

People have various ways of dealing with this duality and its attendant guilt.  The most frequent is the following of disoriented desires that substitute a myriad of alternatives to the basic longing for purity and goodness.  In a fallen world filled with illusions people consume their lives by pursuing chimeras.

Bunyan graphically depicts many of the essential aspects of the Christian way:  the grueling sense of sin, the relief obtained by coming to the Cross, the ensuing purified desire to live uprightly, the array of temptations a person meets, and the guidance and strength brought by faith and hope.        

It is the compelling imaginative presentation of these basic aspects of life that define the strength and on-going appeal of Bunyan's work.  From a more complete Christian point of view, however, there are some things to be desired.  Bunyan presents a meticulous mastery of the Reformed view of the doctrine of justification by faith, a view that is grounded in Paul's writings, especially in his Letter to the Romans, and insists that such understanding is essential for salvation.  It is, however, not the only way of understanding Paul's thought, and the fact that such rigidity of emphasis is not to be found in the Gospels, nor in the writings of John or Peter, let along James, should give one pause.

Christ plainly states that those who would follow him should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow--that is, obey--his precepts.  He defines the first and second commandments as loving God with all one's being and others as oneself. John emphasizes the need to love, and James affirms that faith without works is dead.  The problem lies not with Bunyan's understanding as such, but with his air of exclusivity:  to fail to agree fully with his abstract thought is to suffer the fate of Ignorance, cast down from the very Gate of Heaven into Hell.  Such spirit of exclusivity is the life blood of sectarianism, the bane of the Church through its long, sad history.

Not that a  Biblically based theology is unimportant and uninteresting; it is very necessary.  But it is the practice of love and the surrendered will that defines Christian maturity, not thought as such.  A church father rightly observed:  "By love God may be gotten and holden, but by thought never."  Such love issues in lives of self-sacrificing service.  True acts of love are motivated by the love of God and are a working out of the righteousness of Christ, in no sense one's own righteousness.  It is in denying self interest and in living Christ-obeying lives that God is glorified, not by thinking alone, however Biblically correct that thinking may be.

The more one is fascinated by Bunyan's work and moved by its depictions, the more one wishes the emphasis fell more on the primacy of love as that which binds the soul to God the Father,  follows Christ as one's guide and companion, and issues in lives filled with the Holy Spirit.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reading Group Syllabuses

The following Reading Groups are free and open to the public.  Join us.

                          SATURDAY WADE AUTHORS GROUP:  SYLLABUS

LOCATION: Saturday mornings, 10:00 - 11:00, The Lecture Room at the Wade Center, corner of Washington and Lincoln Streets, Wheaton, Il.

TEXTS: C. S. Lewis.  On Stories and Other Essays.  A Harvest Book
               George MacDonald.  What’s Mine’s Mine.  Johannesen.
               Dorothy Sayers.  Four Sacred Plays. The Camelot Press Ltd, London

Note: texts are available at the Wheaton College Bookstore at 20% discount with a certificate from the Wade Center.

DESCRIPTION: Among the many issues that C. S. Lewis discusses in his essays is: What really is the attraction of stories?  Why do people avidly read them?  In this collection he shares his own reasons for liking science fiction and fantasy, and for his favorite authors.  Let us read critically, comparing our own reactions to his upon the issues he raises.

In What’s Mine’s Mine George MacDonald takes us into northern Scotland, where the invasion of English money and privileged attitudes works agonizing hardship upon native Highlanders.  Thematically, the story focuses upon the deleterious effects of love of money, and of a doctrinally askewed Christianity, upon the human spirit.

In The Devil to Pay, Dorothy Sayers retells the Faust legend to make it a relevant exploration of the modern spirit.  Her Faust is the “impulsive reformer, oversensitive to suffering,” a man possessed by an urgent determination to rework reality “regardless of the ineluctable nature of things.”  As always, her thinking is astute and theologically provocative.

READINGS:

January 11: On Stories; The Novels of Charles Williams

18:  Class cancelled

25: On Three Ways of Writing for Children; Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said

 February 1:  Class cancelled.

8:  On Science Fiction; A Reply to Professor Haldane

15:  The Hobbit; Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings; A Panegyric for Dorothy Sayers

22: Sayers: The Devil to Pay, Preface; Scene I

March 1: Scenes II, III, and IV

8: What’s Mine’s Mine, Chapters 1 - 9

15: Chapters 10 - 16

22: Chapters 17 - 24

29: Chapters 25 - 32

April 5: Chapters 33 - 42

12: Chapters 43 - end



                    WEDNESDAY CLASSICS GROUP:  SYLLABUS

LOCATION: Wednesday afternoons, 2:00 - 3:00, The Lecture Room at the Wade Center, corner of Washington and Lincoln Streets, Wheaton, Il.

TEXTS: Flannery O’Connor: A Prayer Journal.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
“            ”      : Collected Works.  The Library of America.  
 John Bunyan.  The Pilgrim’s Progress.  Oxford World’s Classics.
 25 Books Every Christian Should Read.  HarperOne.

Note: texts are available at the Wheaton College Bookstore at 20% discount with a certificate from the Wade Center.

DESCRIPTION: “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate,” Flannery O’Connor wrote in her prayer journal.  We will be considering her understanding of those principles from her prayers, selected essays and letters, and how they are embodied in her novella, The Violent Bear It Away.

John Bunyan is also concerned with Christian principles, in terms of how they are to be expressed in a Christian’s daily life and thought.  Deeply grounded in Scriptural precepts, perhaps no text outside the Bible is a more comprehensive, vivid, and helpful companion for the complete journey of life than this one, widely proclaimed as the first novel of English literature.  

25 Books is an introductory anthology of classical Christian writings.

READINGS:

Jan. 8: Thomas a’Kempis, Imitation of Christ, 25 Books

15:  Calvin: Institutes, 25 Books

22:  Class cancelled.

29: Prayer Journal, Introduction; pp. 3 - 9
     “The Fiction Writer and His Country” pp. 801 - 806.
     Letters To A, pp. 942 - 944; To Dr. Spivey, 1102 - 1105.

Feb. 5:  Class cancelled

12: Journal, pp. 10 - 21
     “The Church and the Fiction Writer” pp. 807ff.
     “A Good Man is Hard to Find”
     Letters to J. Hawkes, p. 1125; To Mr.___, pp 1148 - 1149

19: Journal, pp. 22 - 29
      The Violent Bear It Away, Chapter I
      Letters: To C. Dawkins and to A., pp 1100 - 1102; to Sister Gable, 1182.

26 : Journal, pp. 30 - 40
      The Violent Bear It Away, Chapters II, III
      Letters: To J Hawkes, pp 1106 - 1110

Mar. 5: The Violent Bear It Away, Chapters IV - VII
       Letter: To Alfred Corn, p. 1170; To J. McKane, pp 1190 - 1191

12:  The Violent Bear It Away, Chapters VIII - end
       Letters: To John Hawkes, pp 1118 - 1119

19: Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress, 25 Books

26: Pilgrim’s Progress, to Christian at the cross

Apr 2: Read to Christian's meeting Faithful

9: pp. Read to Christian's joining Hopeful

16: Read to Christian's meeting with Flatterer

23: Read to end of Part I


Thursday, October 11, 2012

At the Back of the North Wind.5th

Just before the conclusion of the story, North Wind identifies herself to Diamond:  "I don't think I am just what you imagine me to be.  I have to shape myself various ways to various people.  But the heart of me is true.  People call me by terrible names and think they know all about me.  But they don't.  Sometimes they call me Bad Fortune, sometimes Evil Chance, sometimes Ruin--and they have another name for me that they think the most terrible of all."  "Another name" is, of course, Death.

Why hasn't MacDonald told the child listener this sooner?  Isn't this the central idea of the the story?  Yes, considered from an abstract point of view.  But there is another understanding that from a spiritual standpoint is much more important:  the understanding of the heart.  It is this MacDonald wants to instill within the child's thinking.  As much as possible, he wants to keep a purely abstract grasp, with all its negative emotional connotations, at bay.

As we have remarked before, he has many Biblical passages in mind, uppermost among them James 1:2:  ". . . whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. . . ." and Romans 5:2: ". . . we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.  And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us. . . ."  Like Paul, MacDonald is wanted to shape positively the reader/listeners attitudes toward trials and suffering and linking them closely to hope.  The imagination is proving to be a powerful tool for his purposes.

Diamond contrasts with other characters, mainly Nanny and his father, in this regard.  Admirable as both are in many characteristics, neither is thinking in terms of hope.  Nanny is a plucky little materialist who undergoes extreme difficulty and hardship, but she ridicules faith and hope, and therefore must be taught through severe trial:  her illness.  Joseph is an honest, hard working man, doing his best to fulfill his role as husband and father, but because he is a grumbler, lacking an active faith and hope, he also must endure trial.  His trial comes in the form of Ruby, the horse that Mr. Raymond deposits with him in order to discern what type of man he really is.  Raymond's purpose is God-like:  "He had met Diamond's father and liked him, but he had decided to test them all before he did anything as good as he would like to do for them" (Chapter 27).

The above passage in which North wind identifies herself is in the context of an extended conversation on the nature and value of dreams, and their relation to our waking life.  This is a concern that surfaces often in MacDonald's writings.  Diamond's concerns that his dreams have no reality beyond that of his own dreaming  mind echo those MacDonald himself has felt.  But he consistently comes to the conclusion expressed here by North Wind:  "The people who think lies and do lies are very likely to dream lies.  But the people who love what is true will surely now and then dream true things.  But it depends too on whether the dreams are homegrown, or whether the seed of them is blown over somebody else's garden wall" (306).  The validity of one's dreams is directly related to one's spiritual stature before God, and is very much an individual affair.  Because Diamond is what he is, she assures him:  "I don't think you could dream anything that didn't have something real like it somewhere" (300).  But she also reminds him that he couldn't remember the song he heard the angels sing.  The final reality of heaven is quite beyond what eye has seen, ear heard, or has entered into the heart of anyone (I Cor. 2:9).

The narrator muses concerning Diamond:  "It seemed to me, somehow, as though little Diamond held the secret of life, and that he was himself what he was so ready to consider the lowest living thing--an angel of God with something special to say or do" (287).  Clues to the nature of this secret of life lie in the many truths of the heart that are expressed throughout the text.  The poem "Where did you come from, baby dear?" offers one:  every individual life is a gift from God and expresses--in terms of what it has the potential to become--a thought of God (267, 68). Some of the others are: The only true possession is the possession of love (269).  Everyone loves something; life consists in loving rightly (277; shades of Augustine and Dante here!).  The greatest wisdom in life is foolishness to all who do no possess it (279).  Many others from the text could be added.

  The fairy tale is the best vehicle for conveying such truths, truths that are at the same time simple, profound, and so applicable to life at its core.  This is why the Inklings all celebrate such stories.  Chesterton in Orthodoxy expresses the core idea:  "My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery. . . . The things I believed most then, the things I believe most now are the things called fairy tales.  They seem to me to be the entirely reasonable things.  They are not fantasies:  compared with them other things are fantastic. . . . Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense" ("The Ethics of Elfland")."  At the Back of the North Wind" is by any measure an excellent example of such a story.

Friday, October 5, 2012

At the Back of the North Wind: 4th session

In Chapter 15, Diamond's family find themselves in new living quarters, "the mews."  The mews is that area behind the London homes, consisting of an alleyway with adjacent stables and living quarters for the hostlers' families.  Here Diamond's father is reduced to the humbler position of London cabman.  He is, however, gladdened by the opportunity to buy is beloved horse, Diamond, for use now on the London streets.

That Diamond the boy shares the same name with the horse is emphasized at the very beginning of the story, and their association plays a prominent role in the story throughout.  What is the point?  In the Book of Revelation, Chapter 6, the black horse--Diamond's color--signifies economic hardship and famine, realities that bear upon the family, but there must be a greater significance then that.

Further imagery teases.  Association with either the horse or North Wind occupies a great portion of Diamond's life.  He maintains a healthy attitude towards both and is most comfortable when seated on the back of either one or the other.  The relationship to each is, however, quite different.  North Wind is the mysterious Other to whom obedience, submission, and trust are essential.  On the other hand, he must learn to make the horse obedient and submissive to him.  He learns to kindly control the horse and care for it, harnessing its energies to fulfill his purposes.  In short, he must care for the horse, whereas North Wind takes care of him, and it is crucial to the quality of his life that he maintain a healthy attitude towards each.  Were he not to have utter faith in North Wind, or were he to be cruel or neglectful of the horse, his life would be plunged into uncertainty, misery, and gloom.

Just as North Wind signifies the unseen spiritual world, governing events over which we can exercise no human control, Diamond the horse signifies the natural world, of which Diamond the boy is very much a part (hence the identity of names), and which he must learn to steward and  properly control for his own betterment.  Together, the two encompass all of experience outside of human relationships.

MacDonald's basic point is that both realms are sacramental; that is, they are channels offering grace.  How one is related to each determines the nature and quality of one's life.  Everything in life is fraught with potential blessing.  One's attitudes determine how and to what extent grace is realized.  Life means us well; our attitudes are crucial.  I think this is one of the reasons Christ had in mind when he remarked:  "The eye is the lamp of the body:  So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.  If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness" (Matt. 6:22, 23).  How one sees the world shapes the nature of one's experience in it.

Diamond's exemplary grasp of this truth makes him himself an instrument of sacramental grace:  he wants to befriend people and help them.   This is why so much of the fairy tale is devoted to Diamond's life on earth after he as visited "the back of the North Wind."

Early on in the story, when North Wind and Diamond observe the beleaguered Nanny sweeping her London street crossing, Diamond wants her to be helped, and when North Wind tells him she cannot, but he could, he leaves her to befriend Nanny himself.  Why cannot North Wind  help Nanny?  She is a tough-spirited little girl with a good heart, and is living in the most deplorable of conditions.  But she lacks the proper attitude towards the unseen spiritual world; she lacks faith.  When Diamond tries to tell her of his experiences, she dismisses them utterly as foolishness.            

North Wind asks Diamond, "Do you think if you don't see it happen then nothing is being done?" In the course of the story, Nanny takes seriously ill.  Diamond and Mr. Raymond, who also is ready and eager to help those in need, get her into a children's hospital where, through their instrumentality and Nanny's dream (which is sent by North Wind), she is set on a course that issues in a much more satisfactory life.

MacDonald also teases reader by using red imagery.  In the hospital, Nanny is given a ruby ring whose color fascinates her and triggers her dream, a dream which has an intriguing quantity of red imagery in it.  The dream takes her through disobedience to repentance and initiates her into a different course in life, one in which she is taken into Diamond's home and is trained by his mother.  Red is also the color of Ruby, the horse that through Mr. Raymond is given to Diamond's father as a test of his integrity.  The red horse in Revelation Chapter 6 signifies misery, strife, and war.  In MacDonald's thinking all such has a great potential for grace.  Mr. Raymond announces the principle in his fairy story "Little Daylight":  "I never knew of any interference by a wicked fairy that did not turn out to be a good thing in the end."

The child who is receiving MacDonald's story is learning that people in adversity need the help of other more fortunate people.  But in every aspect of life, attitudes of love and concern are essential.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

At the Back of the North Wind.3rd

At the end of Chapter 8, after Diamond has awakened from his adventures in the cathedral, he goes out into the Coleman's garden to see the effects of the storm during which North Wind sank a ship, and he sees that a tree has fallen, smashing the summerhouse.  A kindly clergyman is surveying the damages and, seeing Diamond, remarks to him that he wished we all lived at the back of the north wind.  His interest piqued, Diamond asks where that is, to which the clergyman responds, "in the hyperborean regions.  The hyperboreans of Greek mythology were a people reputed to live in an unidentified country in the far north, a people renowned as pious and divinely favored, adherents to the cult of Apollo.

In Chapter 9, when Diamond is again with North Wind, he asks to be taken to her back, she responds that would be very difficult for her since she is herself nobody there, i.e., there is no adversity of any kind whatsoever in heaven.  She adds: "You'll be very glad some day to be nobody yourself.  But you can't understand that now, and you'd better not try.  If you do, you'll probably start imagining some outrageous nonsense and make yourself miserable about it" (86, 87).

MacDonald captures here a truth that is at the very heart of Christianity.  It suggests the central paradigm of Christian experience, and the nature of God himself, for agape love is completely self giving.  Christian conversion begins with a choosing of Christ over the self. Christ states this truth many times in such statements as "he that would gain his life shall lose it, and he that loses his life for my sake and the Gospels will gain it to life everlasting,"  and "if any one would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me."  Being "nobody someday" depicts Christian maturity--which all Christians strive towards in this life but no one completely attains.  It will be fully realized only in the afterlife.

It is important to grasp this truth.  Most people have an ongoing inner quarrel within themselves, regretting or criticizing what they did over against their sense of what they should have done.  The contemporary poet Dana Gioia has a provocative poem that captures an aspect of this inner unrest, which begins:  "Just before noon I often hear a voice, / Cool and insistent, whispering in my head. /  It is the better man I might have been, / Who chronicles the life I've never lead. /  He cannot understand what grim mistake / Granted me life but left him still unborn.  /  He views his wayward brother with regret  /  And hardly bothers to disguise his scorn . . . ."

But such struggle is not the Christian ideal.  Rather, it is to do one's best to forget about oneself:  to be rid of self-concern altogether.  The self is to be denied and forsaken.  Attitudes of Christian love focus one's attention upon the desires of God and the needs of others, together with a willingness to do what is within one's power to do to meet those expectations and needs.  One's best efforts are always inadequate, but the successful Christian life consists of that glad, on-going consciousness of God's presence in one's life, confession of one's shortcomings, claiming forgiveness, and gladly renewing one's efforts.  His yoke is intended to be easy, his burden light.  I think this is a part of what Christ had in mind when, in the Sermon on the Mount, he counsels:  "do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. . . . But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness . . . .  Each day has enough trouble of its own" (Matt. 6:25, 33, 34).    

After a difficult and strenuous journey, Diamond arrives at the threshold of the afterlife.  While he is ill and in a deep dream or coma, North Wind puts him on a yacht and maneuvers it to sail into the wind.  He momentarily loses her company, than finds her "sitting on her doorstep," and is told he must walk through her to enter into the land at her back.  Some adversity--illness, accident, or whatever--precedes everyone's entry.

At the beginning of Chapter 10 the narrator announces his difficulty in describing Diamond's experiences there, for Diamond not only could not recall much about them, but also found extreme difficulty in describing anything he could recall. "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man, what God has prepared for those who love him" (I Cor 2:9).   One thinks of Paul's inability to describe any of his experience of being caught up into the "third heaven" (II Cor. 12).  He said he heard inexpressible things, things which no man is permitted to tell.  That he describes his experience in the third person--"I knew a man," he says--suggests the complete change of one's nature that must take place before a person can know the full joy of heaven.  "When we see Him, we shall be like Him. . . " John remarks in I John 3.  We shall all be changed, Paul assures us.  When Christ spoke of the afterlife, he focused attention upon God, not on any descriptions, for oneness with God is the requisite and essential condition.

Diamond does have some vague recollections.  He remembers a river there, and one may recall Psa. 46:4:  "There is a river which makes glad the city of God."  That a little daughter whom the gardener lost will one day return suggests the coming Resurrection, as does the fact that those whom Diamond met "looked as though they were waiting to be gladder some day."  However, they are able to climb a certain tree and from that vantage point observe those whom they love on earth.  MacDonald is echoing here Heb. 12:1:  having recalled the great heroes of the faith who have gone before, the writer remarks:  since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. . . ."  But Diamond doesn't care to return, because he feels as though he has never left it, and he wants to help those on earth whom he loves.  This deep sense within him of the certainty of Christian hope and the crowning delight of its fulfillment is that which explains his motivations for his preternatural behavior in the ongoing episodes of the tale.

Having returned, Diamond learns that the ship North Wind sank was Mr. Coleman's, who is not such into economic woes.  MacDonald muses:  "It is a hard thing for a rich man to become poor, but it is an awful thing for him to become dishonest, and some kinds of business speculation lead a man deep into dishonesty before he realizes what he is doing.  Poverty will not make a man worthless--he may be worth much more when he is poor than he was when he was rich; but dishonesty goes a long way toward making a man of no value at all" (Chapter 12).  Economic poverty is a much more fertile soil that economic riches for the growing of spiritual fruit.  MacDonald illustrates this principle throughout his writings.

The suggestion contained in the title of the story has now been fulfilled, but the story itself is but one-third over.  What are MacDonald's intentions?  They are, I think, twofold.  He wants to develop the very important principle that a good grasp of Christian hope offers primary motivation for a person actively working in the world to effect good.  He also wants to dismiss any notion that, in a world permeated and controlled by God's providence, a person may simply be a passive observer of God's working his will.  The great truth is that Christian hope clearly grasped enables one to be a sacramental channel of grace to needy people in a world of spiritual poverty.  God bestows upon willing people the great privilege of His working through them to accomplish His will.

So the child who is listening to this story being told receives a model of excellent behavior.  One cannot but think by comparison of the dearth of proper models for young people in our culture today.  Why so few?  The primary reason is that our thoroughly materialistic society no longer believes--as MacDonald's Victorian did--in any transcendent spiritual reality, let alone Christian truth.  So Diamond's selflessness seems ridiculous to most.  The degenerative state of all the arts in today's culture, with the type of values most often commended, offers abundant evidence.




Thursday, September 27, 2012

At the Back of the North Wind.2nd

The text contains a number of subtle references to Scripture.  For the concept of North Wind herself, MacDonald must have had Job 30:22 - 23 in mind:  "You snatch me up and drive me before the wind; you toss me about in the storm.  I know you will bring me down to death, to the place appointed for all living" (NIV).  These images are especially relevant to today's reading.

At the beginning of Chapter 4, North Wind tells Diamond, ". . . I'm afraid you might not be able to keep hold of me, and if I dropped you, I don't know what would happen; so I've made a place for you in my hair."  Like most children, Diamond likes to feel ensconced in a small, cozy place, and he is delighted with the nest she weaves for him.

In Chapter 5, when she next takes him on a nocturnal journey, she startles Diamond into disbelief by announcing to him that tonight she must sink a ship.  Incredulous, because he is confident she cannot be cruel, he wonders what will happen to those passengers who will be drowned.  She assures him that he is right:  she "can do nothing cruel, although I often do what looks cruel to those who don't know what I'm really doing." She only takes them to the back of the north wind, a place into which she cannot go (there will be no adversities whatsoever in heaven), and therefore about which she knows nothing.  She differs in this regard from the great-great grandmother of the Curdie stories by having limited knowledge.  "I get blind and deaf when I try to see my back," she says; "I only pay attention to my work."

Much is being suggested throughout this episode.  MacDonald is indeed undertaking a difficult subject, but if he is to succeed in fully establishing in a child's mind a Biblical attitude towards all adversity, suffering, and death itself, he has little choice.  The artistic deftness with which he accomplishes his task cannot but evoke much admiration.


He is endeavoring to honor the mystery of God's working in his world, a mystery that must remain as such until that time foreshadowed in Rev. 15:3 - 4, when the wrath of God has been complete and angels intone:  "Great and marvelous are your deeds, Lord  God Almighty.  Just and true are your ways, King of the ages.  Who will not fear you, O Lord, and bring glory to your name?  For you alone are holy.  All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed."  Until that time one is to rest in the confidence that God can do nothing unjust.  

In Chapter 6, when she is taking him out upon the night she is to arouse the ship-sinking storm, Diamond persists in voicing his dismay that sinking a ship is "not like you."  She reminds him that the North Wind he knows is good, and since there cannot be "two mes," "the other me you don't know must be as kind as the me you do know." Diamond's submissive response is theologically nuanced:  "I love you, and you must love me, or else why would I have started loving you?  How could you know how to put on such a beautiful face if you did not love me and the rest?  No.  You may sink as many ships as you like . . . ."

When, at the beginning of Chapter 7, Diamond asks North Wind how she can stand sinking a ship, she responds that she is "always hearing . . . the sound of a far-off song" that "tells me everything is right, that it is coming to swallow up all cries,"  to the extent of swallowing up all the fear and pain of those to be drowned, so that they will sing it themselves.

For biblical justification for this theological position, MacDonald would not doubt point to such passages as Isaiah 45:6b,7:  "I am the Lord, and there is no other.  I form light and create darkness; I make weal and create woe; I the Lord do all these things;" and Amos 3:6:  "Does disaster befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?"  He is confident that nothing happens that is not motivated by his love and shaped by his justice, and that when the mystery of God's purposes is ultimately revealed, all nations shall worship Him, as stated in  Rev. 15:3, 4 quoted above.
 
One cannot but recall Jeremiah's affirmation in Lamentations 3:19ff:  "The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me.  But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:  The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every  morning; great is you faithfulness. . . . Although he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone."  

A person cannot, of course, expect that MacDonald would erect a complete theological treatise in a children's story, but one cannot but admire the artistic deftness with which he does treat the subject.
If the reader wants a more complete examination of this very challenging issue, advancing a carefully thought through and theologically provocative handling of the subject, one is advised to consult David Bentley Hart's, The Doors of the Sea:  Where Was God in the Tsunami?

To avoid Diamond's witnessing the sinking, North Wind deposits him in a cathedral while she executes her mission.  When he finds himself on a narrow ledge high up in the dome and cannot feel North Wind's presence, he panics, then suddenly finds himself in North Wind's arms.  Questioned as to why she left him, she replies "Because I wanted you to walk alone."  She does not want to pamper a coward.  "I wasn't brave by  myself," he muse, "It was the wind that blew in my face that made me brave."  "You had to be taught what courage was.  And you couldn't know what it was without feeling it:  therefore, courage was given you. . . . a beginning is the greatest thing of all. To try to be brave is to be brave."

Again, the truths here are powerful:  Diamond's being made strong by North Wind's blowing in his face suggests the fact that experiencing adversities in a Christian spirit does serve to strengthen a person; and every person who would be virtuous must exercise courage to perform the virtue.  One cannot name a Christian virtue that does not require moral courage to realize.When Diamond, dreaming in the cathedral, overhears two apostles complaining about the church having to perform acts of charity, he is certain they could not be true apostles, but sextons and vergers (gravediggers and janitors).  Throughout his career MacDonald had a lover's quarrel, so to speak, with much that he saw as false in the established church, and  he does not hesitate to instill in a child's mind that, while there is much that is beautiful in the church, there is also that which is inconsistent with a true Christian spirit.