Who Will Deliver Me From This Body of Death?

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?

Romans 7:24

There’s a moment in The Understudy1 when the novel shifts focus from what it means to be human to what it means to be religious. It’s a question introduced by an AI that’s a hybrid of microchip and flesh-and-blood tissue. Wondering aloud at his mistaking someone as religious, Attik is asked in turn: Are you a religious man? Are you religious? Without hesitation this organically grown hybrid replies, Of course. Human in every way except for his brain, he knows without a shadow of a doubt that his being is subject to contingencies, therefore dependent on a higher power. He knows too that this is an instinctively religious apprehension.

Attik is no Frankenstein’s monster. Yet this perfect invulnerable being has his fall. He is human after all. His is a body of death, just as the humans who designed him, full of rebellious and covetous desires. As he realizes just how human he is, he recognizes the need for absolution, for peace and reconciliation with the One who gave him and all humanity the gift of being.

Towards the end of the novel, Attik finds himself in the ironic position of a priest.

He knew the ritual. He had the bread and wine. It only wanted a God to make it body and blood now. …

They were all orphans here.

God could make a priest out of anything, metal or mud.

Whatever you were made of, you borrowed your blood, anyway.

Following Attik through the novel, one is following the growth of a religious man and, in a sense, traversing anew old ground, the fall and redemption of mankind, the journey to God. Which is what makes this sparely written scene so poignant and tinged by the piercing cost of sacrifice: the bread is Christ’s own flesh, the wine is Christ’s own blood shed on the cross.

And [Jesus] took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

Luke 22:19-20

As Attik intimates, we are all orphans: that is, until we find our home in Christ Jesus by way of his flesh and blood, his body the torn veil into the holy of holies where we can have eternal communion with God.

And as Attik finds, we are all religious, whether or not we choose to acknowledge the contingency of our being or not. We don’t have control over our lives, not even our own desires. We all need to be set free from the bondage of sin and death. And who can deliver us from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7: 25)


1For more on this novel see post below; click here for author’s blog.

Charles Dickens & George Frideric Handel: Two Quotes

This is a first in my “Two Quote” series, since it sets side by side not only a written quotation but a musical one.

It’s rare when music is mentioned in literature that I feel inclined to dwell much on it but when the writer is Dickens and the composer is Handel, well, naturally I took the bait. Needless to say, the comic nature of poor Bella’s father’s grimly melodious characterization of his marriage took flight. But then Dickens always did have a way of making you literally laugh through your tears, perhaps even his own as he was at the time estranged from his wife.

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Our Mutual Friend was his last completed work and, as if in a farewell gesture, Dickens throws into it the unrestrained comic genius and dramatic flair of his first novel (The Pickwick Papers, 1837) which brought him the acclaim he richly deserved. In the excerpt below, the “Dead March” from Handel’s dramatic oratorio, Saul, is made to dance to the sorrowful notes of Reginald Wilfer’s portrait of married life.

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Mrs. Wilfer, writes Dickens, “is a tall woman, and angular,” necessarily so according to the matrimonial law of contrasts, her husband being “cherubic.” “It is as you think, R. W.; not as I do,” comprised a part of her deceptively submissive repertoire of aphorisms with which she managed him. Only to Bella, his eldest daughter, is Reginald Wilfer able to relax his guard and venture into unfettered conversation.

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Dickens Considered In Media Res

It’s a rickety, rollicking ride I’m on
Reading Uncle’s “Our Mutual Friend”
On the tide of the Thames as it rolls
Along, dragging me in its mysterious wake
With Veneerings and Rimtys and inspectors
That lurk behind the John Harmons
Who could be the Srivatis and Vikrams
And Chandras hawking rumors by the Ganges
In the myriad scenario of humanity’s flow
Under the pen of a master storyteller caught
In the blood-spun net of familiar lives
Spent on the banks of labyrinthian rivers
That wend to shores around the world
And stay to balance on my fingertips.

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God’s Silence and “Silence”

Shūsaku Endō’s Silence (1966) is the novel about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan on which Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016)  is based.  The book’s central concerns are primarily theological, zeroing in on what true Christian faith looks like,  so I was intrigued to see the film’s overall favorable reception by some Christian as well as secular reviewers. Scorsese was quoted as saying that his movie was the culmination of a twenty-eight-year-old journey to bring the novel to life, and I expected some ponderous ruminations, albeit Hollywood-style, as a result. (Spoiler: After reading the book, I had no desire to see the movie.)

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Love and Poesy

A well-crafted poem, if I may borrow from a most famous one, is a thing of beauty and a joy forever. Yet a heart of stone can melt from one ill-composed, written in a child’s hand or a lover’s, with clichés and popular idioms. The eyes of love give flight to crippled syntax as it is read, and it is treasured beyond its worth.

But it’s risky business. An ill-timed laugh or a careless reception and it’s more than paper that’s shred apart. So what is it about writing poetry, particularly love poetry, that drives us to actually take the risk and make the effort to do it? Why commit such expressiveness of emotion to printed paper or screen and endow it with longevity far beyond its expiration date when beloved eyes can no longer see and it lies discarded, bequeathed to disinterested strangers?

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On Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

Her voice dragged me in, this old crone
who sat in her chair rigid like a schoolgirl.
It beat against the wisteria tendrilled heat
and the cloistered darkness where we sat,
my aunt and I, me home from school to the barren
bower of her past, where jilted desires hung unspoken,
an endlessly fingered bridal dress of twisted longing.

Continue reading “On Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!”

Understanding Thanksgiving, post-Thanksgiving Day!

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It’s after Thanksgiving Day and let the postmortems begin! I’m only half-joking. For many of us who rarely see family members because of time, distance, or circumstance, Thanksgiving Day gatherings simply add new scars to old wounds or put to sudden death relationships that hang by the most meagre familial ties. History looms over the proceedings, manacling participants to doomed conversations haunted by the past, bitter blasts that erupt from beneath the thin crust of apple pie amiability.

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A Study in Scarlett and Tolstoy

Shamelessly exploitative title, I know. Yet I couldn’t resist the Sherlockian/Scarlett O’Hara pun since after reading War and Peace by the venerable Tolstoy, I found myself thinking paradoxically of “little ole” Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Both are hefty novels dealing with the devastating effects of a war and both treat tenderly yet critically the time and place and culture their authors evoke: Tolstoy of Russia, Mitchell of the antebellum South. And both compel a strangely enduring fascination even (or most especially) over those who have little to no knowledge of these particular regions.

Why? Ah! There’s the element of mystery. And like Sherlock, we must follow what leads we have.

The word tempestuous comes readily to mind as one point of similarity, not least because of characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Melanie Hamilton, Ashley Wilkes, and Rhett Butler in GWW and Natasha Rostova, Andrei Bolkonsky, and Pierre Buzukhov in W&P whose compelling personalities exert their own unique power.

Then there are the war-torn times in which they live, themselves tempestuous. Here, looming over ambitions and loves, sorrows and passions, is the juggernaut of history that rolls over man and beast alike leaving devastation and loss in its wake. Napoleon marches through Russia; Moscow is looted and burned. Sherman marches through the South; Atlanta is burned to the ground.

The scale of suffering is immense, relentless, and implacable. Death, famine, sickness,  cruelty, vice, and various brutalities indiscriminately litter the landscape with their victims. And through it all, the inescapable question: Why? What is this unseeing force of history that yet deals such fury and hate, destruction and death by the hands of petty men and women grappling over thrones and kingdoms?

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Birds, Poets and Preachers

Every prisoner who can look outside his prison bars and see a bird in flight, or on waking hears its song, feels his heart drawn upwards in hope. So do those on beds of pain or suffering. The simple sight or music of birds accomplishes what songs and sermons cannot at times, wordlessly drawing our thought to heaven, to consider the power, the wonder, the love of God for His creation, even the least of us. “Consider the ravens,” said Jesus, pointing out the most common of birds. “They neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds!” (Luke 12:24)

skylark_tcm9-17036

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Francis Schaeffer & Dorothy Sayers

from Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? (1976)
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“No totalitarian authority nor authoritarian state can tolerate those who have an absolute by which to judge that state and its actions. Christians [have] that absolute in God’s revelation.”

from Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? (1940)
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5105N7SP7VL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_I believe it to be a grave mistake to present Christianity as something charming and popular with no offense in it …. We cannot blink at the fact that gentle Jesus meek and mild was so stiff in his opinions and so inflammatory in his language that he was thrown out of church, stoned, hunted, and finally gibbeted as a firebrand and a public danger. Whatever his peace was, it was not the peace of amiable indifference.”

Where All Books Lead

Every book that’s worth its salt leads me inexorably back to the only book that I read and re-read constantly, and which also happens to be the best-selling book of all time: the Bible. And let’s face it: all good books should do that, because every good story must have concerns that every one can relate to existentially, people, places, events that we can relate to, even identify with, and they must inevitably bring us back to the big questions in our life:

Why am I here? How can I know truth? What gives meaning to life? What should I do?

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So She Quoth

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Spitzweg, “The Bookworm”

There are some things I read or hear said that for some inexplicable reason, certainly not by design, stick in my head. Not only that, when I think of one, I seem naturally to think of the other. Or here’s a different scenario: during the course of a day or a week, I randomly encounter different texts by totally dissimilar authors and yet their ideas fall along the same lines and “fit” together in a startling way. Such unsought moments are blissful pools of mystery to a bookworm like me.

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A Fool and the Truth

I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the
contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the
name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all:
imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, flump, ninny, and fool.
The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I
was easy to take in. They said, "Gimpel, you know the
rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed?" So I skipped
school. Well, it turned out to be a lie. How was I
supposed to know? She hadn't had a big belly. But I never
looked at her belly. Was that really so foolish? The gang
laughed and hee-hawed, stomped and danced and chanted a
good-night prayer. And instead of the raisins they give
when a woman's lying in, they stuffed my hand full of goat
turds. I was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see
all the way to Cracow. But I'm really not a slugger by
nature. I think to myself: Let it pass. So they take
advantage of me.

—from “Gimpel the Fool,” by Isaac Bashevis Singer (trans. Saul Bellow), 1957

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Thoughts from John Bunyan

Maybe you’re like me and have no New Year’s resolutions given our past record on such resolutions have been rather abysmal. So, knowing myself, these thoughts from John Bunyan, written while he was in prison suffering for his faith, are ones I take into the New Year, so that I may be humble, vigilant, and faithful to my Savior Jesus Christ, through whose suffering and death, I have been made a new creation.

From John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (1666):

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When October Goes

Pumpkin

I know October hasn’t gone yet but the nostalgia, the sentimental overload of years gone by has settled itself in my thoughts like that old Johnny Mercer song …

And when October goes
The snow begins to fly
Above the smoky roofs
I watch the planes go by
The children running home
Beneath a twilight sky –

… and I have to shake my head to clear out the old mists and let the chill winds blow through me and bring me back to the present, new days, new breezes, new moments which go by too fast but will be savored in later years.

Yet as October goes, I can’t help but linger in it just a little longer, because there have been mornings when I’ve walked with someone “through the parables of the sunlight and the legends of the green chapels,” when the presence of that person beside me – in that moment, in that time – has impressed itself upon me because of the added presence of Another, an unseen Presence, all-encompassing and immediate, who in His infinite grace, mercy, and inscrutable wisdom had ordained that moment from all eternity, and there is nothing like the autumn sunlight to cloak it all in golden mystery. Relived, it becomes a golden moment once again, lost only to be recaptured as a foretaste of what yet awaits in that promised golden time still to come, and  I think Dylan Thomas, for one, would understand.

Poem In October

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In rainy autumn
And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sun light
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singingbirds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

—-Dylan Thomas (1914)

(On this his 100th birthday, listen to Dylan Thomas read his poem and be sure to check out an accompanying slideshow of what the poet saw.)