Reformation Month: Day 29

31 Days, 31 Books

Here is a different angle on books on the Reformation:  A novel, a modern novel, and in fact, a Pulitzer Prize winning novel.  It is not about the Reformation, but it is about Calvinism.  More specifically, it is about an aging Congregationalist minister who is reflecting back on his life and heritage.  The book is set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa around 1957.  The pastor, John Ames, is in his 70s, but he is married to a young woman and they have a seven year old son.  Much of the story hinges on Pastor Ames’ remembering his family, particularly his father and grandfather who were ministers.  Also, he has a close friend, Reverend Boughton, who is the local Presbyterian minister.  Ames and Boughton are tied together by being fellow pastors and old friends, but also by Boughton’s son, who is named John Ames Boughton.

This is not an action novel.  Remember, it is about a Calvinist pastor, and an elderly one at that.  Much of the time, Rev. Ames is thinking about the number of sermons he has preached and the books he has read and the laborious duties of being a pastor.  He is also concerned about what will happen to his wife and young child when he dies.  Fathers and sons, mortality, the net worth and meaning of the labors we have done, the sorrows of seeing people who have gone astray, and love are the themes of this book.

Marilynne Robinson is noted for being an author influenced by none other than John Calvin.  See this article from Christianity Today.  I was introduced to her writings last year or so back when a friend from Tennessee, Jason Parolini, and a professor, Dr. Tom Wagy, both recommended the book to me at about the same time. (Neither man knows the other.)  Since that time, I have been amazed at how many references I have come across to Gilead.  Even President Obama has read the book and liked it, but don’t hold that against the book.

Calvinism has not produced as much literature as one might wish.  Neither has it produced literary theory as much as Leland Ryken, professor emeritus at Wheaton College, or I would wish. I will survey a few novels and novelists for their Calvinism and continue lamenting.  By the way, I am not counting some of the historical novels that are about Calvinists, such as the Scout series by the Dutchman Piet Prins.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe.  It has been decades since I read this, but I have never forgotten the conversion of Friday, which was a beautiful Calvinistic picture of conversion.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  I wish that every public school teacher who has used The Scarlet Letter for Puritan bashing would be forced to wear a scarlet I, for incompetent.  Hawthorne was not writing a history of the Puritans.  He had his theological faults, but he was using the Puritan culture as the setting.  Reverend Dimmesdale was a truly troubled man, and he was the minister, and he was guilty of adultery.  Much of the story is his failed efforts to get away from his personal sin.

Does it count if the author looked Calvinistic?

Moby Dick and Billy Budd by Herman Melville.  Moby Dick is one of the most expansive, wide ranging novels I have ever read and reread.  I have heard references to the white whale being God and connections between the story and Calvinism.  I just cannot make the connections, and I love the book.  In fact, I love the long, vast, oceanic middle section, which goes about 25, 000 pages.  I think the book is about knowledge.  How can we know reality?  How can we know the vastness and ways of a great white whale? How can we know ourselves?  I also think Bainard Cowan’s book on Moby Dick is helpful in this regard.  Regarding Billy Budd, he is certainly a Christ-figure.  Melville seems to be a man who was haunted by God, or close to the Kingdom, or actually a Christian.  I hope it was the latter.  But Melville is textured and layered.  I can find elements of the Calvinist worldview in his writings, but I find other visions as well.

In the Beauties of the Lilies by John Updike.  The first of the four main characters in this novel was a Presbyterian minister.  In fact, he had studied at old Princeton and had such teachers as B. B. Warfield.  But, in the opening section of the novel, he has lost his faith.  For a time, he stumbles on through the role of a pastor without faith.  His poor wife even tries to step in and pastor in his place.  In the place of his Calvinism, he turns to the movies.  The novel goes downhill from there.  I know Updike is often touted for being a writer who was a Christian.  I need a bit more evidence.

Light in August and The Unvanquished by William Faulkner.  Faulkner may have been a Presbyterian of sorts, or he may have been a Methodist.  He did read the Bible repeatedly.  He did present some powerful images of Christian characters, such as Dilsey in The Sound and the Fury.  In Light in August, young Joe Christmas is sent to live with the McEchern family for a time.  The McEcherns are Calvinistic people, with all the harsh sterness and condemnation of sin that is found in Calvinism at its best and worst.  But we have to grant that Joe Christmas is one warped character and is a reflection of the mixed up, messed up, sin-ridden heritage we all have.  Pastor Hightower in the book is a bit touched himself.

I think Granma Rosa Millard in The Unvanquished is a better picture of Southern Calvinistic plunk.  She is just such a lovable and fiesty character that it is hard to resist her.  In typical Faulkner fashion, she too is a bit unstable.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, a.k.a. Samuel Clemons.  Clemons was raised Presbyterian and his funeral was preached by a Presbyterian in a Presbyterian church.  I have wished him to be a believer, but have more hope for Melville, Faulkner, and James Fenimore Cooper than for Twain.  One of the most powerful critiques of Calvinistic preaching is found in Tom Sawyer.  After some awful singing of the choir, the preacher prays a prayer that “narrows the elect down to such a small number as to hardly be worth the saving.”  Huckleberry Finn is filled with lots of social criticism.  I recently read of a book that attacks Twain for his blaming Christians for slavery.  I think Huckleberry Finn is a powerful loud speaker calling society to repent of plain and obvious sins.  Only the sins weren’t plain and obvious, even to church members.

Broderick Crawford brilliantly portrayed the wily, crooked Willie Stark in the movie version of the great political novel All the King’s Men.

All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren.  Warren was not a Christian, but in this great political novel, there is a powerful testimony to Calvinistic theology.  Willie Stark, the key character and villain, told his political goons to find some trash on the upright and honorable Judge Irwin.  They insist that he is clean.  Stark then replies that he attended Sunday school as a child at a Presbyterian church.  From the teachings he learned there, he learned that everyone has sinned, that we are all depraved and wicked.  Sure enough, then, but with a little digging, some dirt is found on the judge.

[The exact quote from the book is this:  Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something.” And he told me to dig it out, dig it up, the dead cat with patches of fur still clinging to the tight, swollen, dove-gray hide.                          Thanks to Jason Parolini for this.]

True Grit by Charles Portis.  Mattie Ross, the young girl from Yell County in Arkansas, is in search of a man of ‘True Grit’ who will capture her father’s slayer and bring him to justice.  There is not much that keeps Mattie from heading out to the Indian territory and bringing the criminal to justice herself.  Mattie has ‘True Grit,’ and she is a Presbyterian and a Calvinist.  Because of the watering down of Presbyterianism on the frontier, Mattie was in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.  But, she is not happy with the weakened Calvinism of the Cumberland Presbyterians.  She is for the doctrines of Predestinatin and Election as strongly as she is for bringing her father’s murderer to justice.

The Catholics have more than their share:  Graham Greene, G. K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Caroline Gordon, and pat Conroy.

The Episcopalians have C. S. Lewis and Jan Karon.

The Orthodox Church has Dostoevsky…enough said, but they also have Solzhenitsyn.

Calvinists who have produced so many theologians and preachers still have some work to do in the field of fiction.

Who have I overlooked or left out?

4 thoughts on “Reformation Month: Day 29

  1. Thanks for linking to me. I’m thrilled to have found your series and can’t wait to enjoy more of it.

    Although I have only read your last few posts, I suspect you have probably missed two little-known authors, Simonetta Carr who writes mostly for young people about church history, and Christine Farenhorst who has been writing historical fiction for years. As for contributions to literary theory, you can’t skip Peter Leithart.

    • Thanks Annie. I am certain that I have missed quite a few authors who have written historical novels. I just thought of Douglas Bond. Thanks for the other two names. Yes, to the Leithart reference. I was really thinking about writers in the tradition of American literature and not so much on literary theory. As you know, blogs are often written in haste and more can usually be said.

  2. Ben,

    I recently read Billy Budd after hearing a reference to it in a sermon and I was knocked out! The writing was absolutely exquisite (to my ear) and of course the story was compelling with John Claggart as the personification of evil (in the Platonic sense and NOT the Calvinistic sense according to Melville) and Billy Budd as the personification of good with its conflicted outcome by way of Starry Vere and ending with a remarkable poem. This short story then inspired me to take up the imposing Moby Dick which I found also to be very well written and therefore a lot of fun to read (never mind all of the apocryphal hue and cry about the difficulty of whale oil). That is a bunch of rubbish to paid no nevermind to. Melville is an absolute giant. Lets hear three cheers for the Northeastern Whaleman, author and postal worker. jp

    • It took me a few readings to begin realizing just how good Melville is. Some people are put off by the vast middle section of Moby Dick, but every time I read it, I find more and more beauty or meaning or power in it. And at times, Melville is hilariously funny. Melville’s poetry is good also, but rarely noted. I’ll definitely join in the 3 cheers.

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