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On not losing myself in a good book

One of the many nice things about working in a place full of intelligent and interesting people [1] is that they tend to know about such intelligent and interesting things. A slightly unfortunate consequence of this is that I can't seem to have a conversation with any one of them without adding to my already infeasibly long list of things I'd like to read/watch/listen to/learn about. Gone, for instance, are the days when I could dismiss the entirety of contemporary fiction as unworthy of my attention; enough of it has found favour enough with my respected companions that I must resign myself to the likelihood that some of it may have some merit to it after all.

Thus did I deign to read 'The Shadow of the Wind', a novel 18 years my junior. And -- *sigh* -- it quickly won my begrudging affection with its warmth, compassion and convicting insight; even, in places (briefly, mind, and inferiorly) prompting comparison with 'The Brothers Karamazov'.

The story is told from the perspective of Daniel, who is 11 when the novel begins and in his late teens for most of the action. Entranced by a book he discovers in the 'Cemetery for Forgotten Books', he attempts to find more by the same author (Julian Carax) only to discover that there is a dark mystery surrounding him and his work -- most of which has been destroyed. It seems there is a man bent on systematically tracking down, and burning, every copy he can get his hands on. Daniel is drawn in to the intrigue, and with his friend Fermin sets about piecing together Julian's history and the reason for, and perpetrator of, the fervid campaign against him. The plot (and style) is wonderfully film noir-esque -- corrupt policemen, femme fatales and Graham Greene references a-plenty. It is also, being a book about books, rich with allusion and celebratory pronouncements about the noble delights of writing ("a story is a letter the author writes to himself, to tell himself things he would be unable to discover otherwise", p444) and reading ("a book is a mirror that offers us only what we already carry inside us, [...] when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day" p484).

I was particularly pleased with myself for identifying a distinct Homeric theme -- Barcelona the Ithaca to Julian Carax's Odysseus; Daniel the pseudo-Telemachus (just like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce's 'Ulysses'); Fortuny the Laertes; Penelope the, erm, Penelope (bit of a give-away). There is even a definite Calypso and a probable Circe...but I don't want to drop any spoilers. (My self-satisfaction swelled all the more after a brief Google search indicated that no-one else has yet remarked on the connection. Or perhaps it was so obvious they didn't bother to mention it [2]).

Another recurring thread that struck me was the case against God, and (in contrast with the novel's predominantly nuanced and sympathetic 'take' on the diversity of humanity) those who believe in Him. Religious devotion is consistently associated with emotional and intellectual deficiency, misery, hypocrisy, and even violence. Jesus appears in sinister religious imagery, including an effigy with a "threatening, grim look" which Daniel envisions breaking away from the wall and pursuing him "with a wolfish smile" (p301). God is depicted as eternally silent:
"All he asked God was to show him how the three of them could be happy, preferably also in his own way…God, in His infinite wisdom, and perhaps overwhelmed by the avalanche of requests from so many tormented souls, did not answer." (p128)
"Jacinta spoke to God on her own, hiding in corners, without seeing him or expecting him to bother with a reply, because there was a lot of pain in the world and her troubles were, in the end, only small matters." (p261)
"How many lost souls do You need, Lord, to satisfy Your hunger? the hatter asked. God, in His infinite silence, looked at him without blinking." (p407) 
It is almost as though the author wants to somehow argue both the nonexistence of God and His culpability for the state of the world. A common, perhaps natural sentiment; reminded me of C.S. Lewis recalling the atheism of his earlier years:
"I maintained that God did not exist. I was also very angry with God for not existing. I was equally angry with him for creating a world. Why should creatures have the burden of existence forced on them without their consent?" (C.S. Lewis, 'Surprised by Joy', p115)
The anti-theistic case builds incrementally over the course of the story, and struck me as highly personal -- rife with bitterness, abhorrence and vulnerability -- and all the more compelling for it. However, it is an argument which operates on an almost exclusively emotional level, with little rational basis and with little reference to other perspectives or sources of information (that's an observation, not a criticism -- I don't think a writer of fiction is obliged to be balanced!)

For me, the biggest counter-argument to the non-existence or the indifference of God is Jesus -- who I don't believe is anything like the sinister scary Jesus of the novel, although, when I look at some religious imagery I start to see where such impressions may have originated. I was reflecting on this just the other day in the '14th and 15th century Italian art' room at the Ashmolean -- those pictures with the gold leaf and the disfigured faces and the claustrophobic postures [3] make me momentarily forget that Jesus was a real man in real history with a physical body just like ours, and they make me forget that he walked and ate and slept and talked to people and had friends, and they make me forget that he loved and showed compassion and drew a crowd and that the healings and miracles were marvellous precisely because they happened in this real, material world and not in some mystical, unfamiliar realm divorced from the reality that I know.
"And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd." (Matthew 9:35-36)
Secondly, Christians -- Yes, we have our problems; we really, really do. I know I'm not innocent of all the accusations the novel lays at the church's door; and I have been hurt by the failings of others -- quite painfully hurt, as I was growing up, by stuff that happened 'inside the church', so that I am by no means naive about the scope for damage. Indeed, I'm still healing from it...but the point is, by the grace of God, I am healing. This is just one of the many evidences I've seen for God's intervention in the world -- as well as Jesus and the accounts of the Bible -- transformation in my life and the lives of those around me, provision and answered prayer, genuine 'peace which passes understanding' (Philippians 4:4-7) in the midst of painful circumstances. So the novel might resonate with feelings that catch me in the tough moments, when prayers seem unanswered and things aren't as I want them to be, or when I sorrow at the pain and brokenness in the world, and that it should often be caused by Christians in general, or me in particular. But it can't answer to the cumulative positive evidence for God's presence in my life, which, in my more rational, contemplative moments, far outweighs the immediate hopelessness and prompts reasoned faith and gratitude in place of impulsive despair and resentment. "He leads me in paths of righteousness, for His name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." (Psalm 23:3-4)

So much for my reasoned response to Zafon's artistically delivered charges. That the book was so potentially affecting brought home to me afresh the power of imagination, and the importance of being vigilant, intentional and balanced in processing the things we engage with so as not to give them unchecked influence over our perception of reality. It's an exhausting reflection, quite frankly, that even my leisure pursuits should need be so fraught with mental exertion...

I worry when I see Christians appealing to the emotions without rational basis -- trying to stir up a feeling of faith or an atmosphere of spirituality which bypasses the intellectual faculties. To me, this just seems so far removed from what the Bible does and exhorts us to. Take the book of Acts, for example, which follows the apostles (Jesus' closest disciples plus Paul who came to follow him later) as they set about teaching and preaching and presenting the evidence for Jesus -- giving people reason to follow him. Their teaching was accompanied with signs and wonders, and people were powerfully moved emotionally and spiritually -- the Bible describes believers being 'filled with the Holy Spirit' and Christians today attest to that same reality -- but a) these were/are the work of God, not anything the apostles or any Christian could or would achieve in their own strength and b) they took place in harmony with an appeal to (and response of) the minds and understanding of those who heard the evidence. Here's one of my favourite passages, in which Paul stands before King Agrippa and Governor Festus in Caesarea, and explains his faith in Jesus, drawing on Jewish history and prophecy, his own personal testimony, and recent events:
“My manner of life from my youth, spent from the beginning among my own nation and in Jerusalem, is known by all the Jews. They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee. And now I stand here on trial because of my hope in the promise made by God to our fathers, to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly worship night and day. And for this hope I am accused by Jews, O king! Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?
“I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities.
“In this connection I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ And I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand upon your feet, for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from your people and from the Gentiles— to whom I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
“Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance. For this reason the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me. To this day I have had the help that comes from God, and so I stand here testifying both to small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, “Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.” But Paul said, “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words. For the king knows about these things, and to him I speak boldly. For I am persuaded that none of these things has escaped his notice, for this has not been done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” And Agrippa said to Paul, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” And Paul said, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains.” (Acts 26:4-29)
"This has not been done in a corner"... Paul's story sounded crazy to Festus, but it was clearly far more than a story to him, and he appeals to reason in encouraging Agrippa to look at the evidence for himself. It is possible to find other explanations for the world-shaking impact of Jesus than the ones offered by the New Testament (belief still requires faith -- but then, so does disbelief), but there isn't really any way of ignoring that impact, and it's hard to deny that it does demand an explanation of some sort. (For those thinking about thinking about such things, Luke and Acts can be a good place to start...)


[EDITED TO ADD: Just been listening again to a recent sermon [mp3] from our church by Keith Hagon, chief exec of the George Muller Charitable Trust -- one of the best and most encouraging descriptions of what it means to live a life of faith that I can remember hearing. Lots in there on answered and unanswered prayer...Quite a long intro though before he gets into the subject matter.]



[1] This may sound like shameless flattery but a) it's true, and b) the chances of any of them reading this are slim-to-none...precisely because they all have so many more intelligent and interesting things to do with their time.

[3] New theory: I'm just rubbish at Internet searches.

[3] Sorry, I appreciate that there have been and are to this day many for whom such depictions have a deep significance and beauty. I am open to the idea that it may just be my lack of understanding that causes me to find them unsettling and distancing -- nonetheless, such is my honest response at this time.

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