The Face Of My Soul: Pondering the Picture of Dorian Gray

“Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed.”

Oscar Wilde

 

“Beauty? Let me tell you something- being thought of as a ‘beautiful woman’ has spared me nothing in life. No heartache. No trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless and it is always transitory.”

Halle Berry

 

One of the reasons we read literature is because it asks us to grapple with the hard questions of life. It suffuses us in difficult subject matter. In “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, Oscar Wilde asks us to reflect upon art, Oscar Wildebeauty, influence and sin. Wilde is part poet, part wit, and part philosopher. His writing is lyrical. It is a thing of beauty in itself. I would come to certain sentences and write “wonderful” or “beautiful” in the margin. Here are a couple that I admired: “She was a curious woman, whose dresses always looked as if they had been designed in a rage and put on in a tempest.” And: “He was trying to gather up the scarlet threads of life, and to weave them into a pattern; to find his way through the sanguine labyrinth of passion through which he was wandering.”

The story revolves around three main characters. An artist, named Basil Hallward, a young man named Dorian Gray, and the aristocratic Lord Henry. The story begins by a visit from Lord Henry to his friend Hallward. They are discussing the full length portrait Hallward has just painted of a young man of extraordinary beauty, Dorian Gray. Lord Henry admires the work as the best Hallward has ever done. During this visit Hallward confesses to Lord Henry that he will never exhibit Dorian’s painting because he has “shown in it the secret of my own soul.” He then describes to Lord Henry the fact that in first meeting Dorian Gray he felt afraid because he felt he had met someone “whose personality was so fascinating that, if I allowed it to do so, it would absorb my whole nature, my whole soul, my very art itself.”

Of course Lord Henry wishes to meet this young man who has so fascinated his friend. Hallward says, “Dorian Gray is to me simply a motive in art. You might see nothing in him. I see everything in him.” It is as if Basil Hallward has found the perfect muse for his art. A young man who exemplifies a beauty and naivete that is unspoiled by the world and that inspires Hallward and gives a transcendence to his art. Hallward essentially admits, though not in explicit terms,that he “worships” Dorian Gray. He tells Lord Henry how he has flattered Dorian dreadfully. Yet he also admits that Dorian can be “horribly thoughtless” and “seem to take a real delight in giving me pain.” He says further, “Then I feel Harry (Lord Henry) that I have given away my whole soul to someone who treats it as if it were a flower to put in his coat, a bit of decoration to charm his vanity, an ornament for a summer’s day.”

Lord Henry is now very curious to meet this young man Dorian Gray whom Hallward is so taken with. Hallward strenuously objects. He says to Lord Henry slowly and painfully “I don’t want you to meet him………..He has a simple and a beautiful nature……Don’t spoil him. Don’t try to influence him. Your influence would be bad. The world is wide, and has many marvellous people in it. Don’t take away from me the one person who gives to my art whatever charm it possesses; my life as an artist depends on him.” Lord Henry feels he is talking nonsense. In walks Dorian Gray. Lord Henry gives his initial impression of Gray: “Yes , he was certainly wonderfully handsome with his finely curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once.” Dorian is almost immediately fascinated by Lord Henry. Basil warns Dorian not to listen to him. He says, “Don’t pay any attention to what Lord Henry says. He has a very bad influence over all his friends, with the single exception of myself.”

The Picture of Dorian GrayDorian is intrigued. He says to Lord Henry, “Have you really a very bad influence, Lord Henry? As bad as Basil says?” Lord Henry replies, “There is no such thing as a good influence, Mr. Gray. All influence is immoral…….because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.” Then he explains to Dorian his philosophy of life, “The aim of life is self-development. To realise one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself.” He goes on to further expound his philosophy. “I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression, to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies………the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”

Just as Dorian has become indispensable to his artist friend Hallward, dominating him with his personality, so Lord Henry will become to Dorian. Dorian comments about Lord Henry’s views: “The few words that Basil’s friend had said to him – words spoken by chance, no doubt, and with willful paradox in them – had touched some secret chord that had never been touched before, but that he felt was now vibrating and throbbing to curious pulses.” At one point Lord Henry comes outside to find Dorian drinking in the fragrance of a lilac bloom. “You are quite right to do that,” he tells him. “Nothing can cure the soul but the senses, just as nothing can cure the senses but he soul.” Dorian draws back. He is afraid of Lord Henry. Dorian says, “Why had it been left to a stranger to reveal him to himself? He had known Basil Hallword for months, but the friendship between them had never altered him. Suddenly there had come someone across his life who seemed to have disclosed to him life’s mystery. And yet what was there to be afraid of? It was absurd to be frightened.”

Lord Henry warns Dorian he should take care not to become burned by the sun. “What should it matter?”cries Dorian. “It should matter everything to you, Mr. Gray. You have the most marvellous youth, and youth is the one thing worth having. Now wherever you go, you charm the world. Will it always be so? ……….You have only a few years in which to live really, perfectly, and fully. When your youth goes, your beauty will go with it, and then you will suddenly discover that there are no triumphs left for you, or you have to content yourself with mean triumphs that the memory of your past will make more bitter than defeats. Every month as it wanes brings you nearer to something dreadful. Time is jealous of you, and wars against your lilies and roses……..Live the wonderful life that is in you. Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…….a new Hedonism. That is what our century wants.”

It is as this point in the story that the artist finishes his picture and turns it for Dorian to inspect. Wilde writes, “when he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure. A look of joy came into The Picture of Dorian Grayhis eyes, as if he had recognised himself for the first time…..The sense of his own beauty came on him like a revelation. He had never felt it before. “How said it is,” he remarks, “I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older that this particular day of June…….If it were only the other way around! If it were I who would always be young, and the picture was to grow old! For that I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” Lord Henry makes some comment here about how that Basil would not like that very much. That this would be “hard on his work.” Here Dorian turns on Hallward angrily, “I believe you would Basil. You like your art better than you like your friends. I am no more to you that a green bronze figure. Hardly as much I dare say!…….How long will you like me? Till I have my first wrinkle I suppose. I know now that when one loses one’s good looks, whatever they may be, one loses everything. Your picture has taught me that. Lord Henry Wotton is perfectly right. Youth is the only thing worth having.”

Dorian soon comes to Lord Henry and tells him he is in love and engaged to be married to a poor young actress named Sybil Vane. Dorian himself is of a more respectable class and is privately wealthy. Lord Henry, being the disillusioned man that he is, instructs Dorian on love. He tells him, “Never marry at all. Men marry because they are tired, women because they are curious; both are disappointed…….When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving oneself, one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls romance.” Dorian persists in his declarations of love for Sybil. He invites both Basil and Lord Henry to see her perform. Her perfomance is a disaster.

It turns out that since she has fallen in love with Dorian, she now sees acting as a fraud. The stage was where she once “lived her life.” She can no longer do so she tells Dorian because real life and real love now mean more to her than acting. Dorian is disillusioned both by her performance in front of his friends and in her new philosophy of life. In the same way he accused Basil Hallward of being more interested in his art, Dorian seems to have been more interested in the actress Sybil Vane, than the real person Sybil Vane. He says to her after the performance, “You have thrown it all away. You are shallow and stupid! How mad I was to love you! What a fool I have been. You are nothing to me now. I will never see you again. I will never think of you. I will never mention your name……How little you know of love, if you say it mars your art! Without your art you are nothing.”

When Dorian comes home that night, as he enters his residence his eye falls upon the painting that Basil had painted of him. Wilde tells us, “He started back as if in surprise. Then he went on into his own room, looking somewhat puzzled……Finally he came back over to the picture and examined it. In the dim arrested light that struggled through the cream colored silk blinds, the face appeared to him to be a little changed. The expression looked different. One would have said that there was a touch of cruelty in the mouth. It was certainly strange….Cruelty! Had he been cruel? It was the girl’s fault not his. He had dreamed of her as a great artist, had given his love to her because he had thought her great. Then she had disappointed him. She had been shallow and unworthy. And, yet, a feeling of infinite regret came over him as he thought of her lying at his feet sobbing like a little child. He remembered with what callousness he had watched her. Why had he been made like that? Why had such a soul been given to him?……But the picture! What was he to say of that? It held the secret of his life and told his story. It had taught him to love his own beauty. Would it teach him to loathe his own soul? Would he ever look at it again?……….It had altered already, and would alter more. It’s gold would wither into gray. Its red and white roses would die. For every sin that he committed a stain would fleck and wreck its fairness. But he would not sin.” Dorian decides he will make amends. He will go to Sybil Vane and try to love her again.

In the morning Lord Henry comes to tell him of Sybil Vane’s suicide. Dorian wonders why he cannot feel this tragedy as much as he wants to. He knows it does not affect him as it should and that he does not feel wounded. He wonders if “life has still in store for me anything as marvellous.” Lord Henry assures him, “Life has everything in store for you, Dorian. There is nothing that you, with your extraordinary good looks, will not be able to do.” “But suppose I become haggard, old and wrinkled? What then?” Dorian asks. “Ah then,” says Lord Henry, “then my dear Dorian, you would have to fight for you victories. As it is, they are brought to you.” Instead of mourning Sybil’s death, Dorian and Lord Henry go to the Opera later that evening.

From now on, morning by morning Dorian sits before his portrait, “wondering at it’s beauty, almost enamoured of it. Was it to become a monstous and loathesome thing, to be hidden away in a locked room, to be shut out from sunlight that had so often touched to brighter gold the waving wonder of his hair? The pity of it! The pity of it!” He wonders at the prayer that he uttered and how it has come true. Yet he decides, “If the picture was to alter, it was to alter. That was all. Why inquire too closely into it? For there would be a real pleasure in watching it. He would be able to follow his mind into secret places. This portrait would be to him the most magical of mirrors. As it had revealed to him his own body, so it would reveal to him his own soul.”

At first Dorian places his painting behind a screen to hide it from view. But when Basil comes to visit and requests to exhibit it, Dorian decides the portrait must “be hidden away at all costs.” Paranioia grips him. He places a rich purple cover over the picture and has it moved upstairs to an empty room which he now keeps locked. “Yes that would serve to wrap the dreadful thing,” Dorian notes to himself. “What the worm was to the corpse, his sins would be to the painted image on the canvas. They would mar its beauty, and eat away its grace. They would defile it, and make it shameful. And yet the thing would live on. It would always be alive………His own soul was looking out to him from the canvas and calling him to judgement…..How ugly it all was! And how horribly real ugliness made things!”

Around this time Lord Henry gives Dorian a book. It is a poisonous book that fills Dorian’s mind with poisonous thoughts. He begins to sink down into a life of sordidness and sin. “Yet the wonderful beauty that so fascinated others……never seemed to leave him. Even those who heard the most evil things against him, and from time to time strange rumors about his mode of life crept through London and became the chatter of the clubs, could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him.” Yet privately the portrait kept changing. Dorian describes it: “Looking now at the evil and ageing face on the canvas, and now at the fair young face that laughed back at him (in the mirror he held)…..the very sharpness of the contrast used to quicken his sense of pleasure………He would examine with minute care, and sometimes with a monstrous and terrible delight, the hideous lines that seared the wrinkling forehead, or crawled around the heavy sensual mouth, wondering sometimes which were the more horrible, the signs of sin or the signs of age…..he would think of the ruin he had brought upon his soul.”

Then it came to pass that he could hardly be separated from the picture at all. Now Dorian was so afraid someone would see his secret he had elaborate bars placed upon the door. “It was still true”, Dorian notes, “that under all the foulness and ugliness of the face, the portrait still preserved its marked likeness to himself.” Though he lived his life in wanton luxury and gorgeous splendour, it was said that “there were not a few who distrusted him.” Women who had wildly adored him, were said to “grow pallid with shame or horror when Dorian entered the room.” Wilde notes, “It was remarked that some of those who had been most intimate with him, after a time, appeared to shun him.” Yet, these whispered scandals only seemed to increase for many his “strange and dangerous charm.”

The Picture of Dorian GrayFinally his good friend Basil Hallward comes to confront Dorian on these terrible rumors he is hearing about him. He asks him how come so many young men who have associated with Dorian have now come to ruin? He says to Dorian, “You don’t want people to talk about you as something vile and degraded. Of course you have your position and wealth, but position and wealth are not everything. Mind you I don’t believe these rumors at all. At least I can’t believe them when I see you. Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed.” He wonders aloud if he really knows Dorian. But Basil decries, “Before I could answer that, I should have to see your soul.” At this, with a bitter laugh of mockery, Dorian decides to show him the portrait. “You shall see it yourself tonight!” he cries.

After Dorian tears the curtain from the portrait, “an exclamation of horror broke from the painter’s lips as he saw in the dim light the hideous face on the canvas grinning at him. There was something in the expression that filled him with loathing and disgust. Good heavens! It was Dorian Gray’s own face that he was looking at! The horror, whatever it was, had not entirely spoiled that marvellous beauty……His own picture! What did it mean? Why had it altered? He turned and looked at Dorian with the eyes of a sick man.” Dorian reminds Basil of the prayer he had uttered about his own portrait and how it has come true. The portrait changes, while his beauty remains unaltered. Basil says to him, “I worshipped you too much. We are both punished.” He urges Dorian to pray for repentance. “It is too late,” replies Dorian. “Don’t say that”, says Basil. “You have done enough evil. Don’t you see that accursed thing leering at us?” At this Dorian glances at the picture and a feeling of hatred for Basil comes over him. In a fit of rage he murders the artist who had painted the “face of his soul.” Aferwords Dorian is able to go and sleep peacefully.

Yet, Basil’s murder will haunt Dorian for the rest of his life. The portrait now shows blood dripping from one of Dorian’s hands. He ends up enlisting the help of one of the young men he has ruined to help him get rid of the body. The man is unwilling to help him, but Dorian threatens to expose a secret he knows about him, so the man is forced to participate in the cover up of the murder. Later this man commits suicide. Still Dorian is unable to find respite from the guilt, even though he tries to “cure the soul by the senses” by going to “the opium dens.” In the end, unable to live with himself or the mirror of his soul, Dorian attempts to destroy the painting itself. He stabs it repeatedly with a knife. When the servants enter the room they find hanging upon the wall “a splendid portrait of their master as they had last seen him, in all the wonder of his exquisite youth and beauty. Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. He was withered, wrinkled and loathesome of visage. It is said that “It was not till they examined his rings, that they recognised who it was.”

Dorian Gray is a story for our times. It is a beautifully crafted and well thought out piece of literature. Wilde definitely displays his brilliance here. He asks us to consider many things: Influence, beauty, art and sin. Let’s look at the first of these which is influence. Wilde himself influences us with the idea that “all influence is immoral.” Certainly we see here the intersection of two powerful influences on the young life of Dorian Gray. Influences that once set in motion, will ultimately destroy him. I don’t agree with Wilde that all influence is immoral. Nor do I agree that to influence is to simply make someone a parrot of oneself. What I think Wilde does show well with his inimitable genious is the power of influence. The first influence on Dorian is Basil Hallward. Through Basil’s flattery and ultimately his exquisite portait, Dorian becomes self aware of his beauty. No sooner is he exposed to this fragile gift God has bestowed upon him than it is stolen away by the cynicism of Lord Henry. Lord Henry has experienced much of life and has found it disappointing. Lord Henry is not wrong to say that youth will fade. Yet what he introduces into Dorian’s life is much more. He exposes him to fatalism. He tells him in essence to have the courage to live out every hedonistic desire he has because once youth is gone, there will be nothing more for Dorian to live for. The combination of the influence of these two men place Dorian’s life on a tragic trajectory. Hallward has given him a permanent memorial to the fleeting gift of beauty. Lord Henry has already taken away his hope that life can have any meaning. This is a challenge for us. Do we influence people for good or evil? Do we bring hope, life and meaning to their lives? Or do we bring death and despair?

Lord Henry’s philosophy is nothing new. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul talks to two groups of philosophers in Athens – the Stoics and the Epicureans. The Epicurean’s believed that “seeking happiness or pleasure” was the primary goal of life. The Stoics placed reason and thinking about feeling. They tried to live in harmony with natue and reason, suppressing their desire for pleasure. Lord Henry is an Epicurean and so are many, many people today. Their philosophy could be summed up, “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” This philosophy ultimately leads people to despair as they ruin their lives by indulgent pleasures. There is little thought or focus on love for one’s neighbor. There certainly is no understanding of God or view of eternity in place. I think Oscar Wilde is really putting forth his own views in the voice of Lord Henry.

Both Lord Henry and Basil Hallward reduce Dorian to something less than he really is. By worshipping Dorian, Basil reduces him to an object. Dorian objects to this by telling Basil “he cares more for his art than for him. Dorian in turn does the same thing to Sybil Vane. Dorian worships Sybil and so reduces her as well. Just as Dorian worried that Basil would not be interested in him if his beauty faded, so Dorian lost interested in Sybil when she failed him as an actress. This exemplifies that all idolatry leads to disillusionment. Lord Henry reduces Dorian as well. He expresses the idea that Dorian’s life will only be meaningful while he is beautiful. Once his beauty is gone, so also his life will be gone. Thus Dorian’s prayer to keep his outer beauty at the expense of his soul. The conclusion of the story shows us the wisdom of Christ’s words: “What good is it if a man gains the whole world and yet forfeits his soul?” Though he had everything the world says is important: wealth, beauty, position, ultimately it is meaningless because of the corruption of his soul. A double life gets extremely heavy to bear.

Wilde asks us to ponder both the meaning of art and of beauty in this story. Lord Henry tells Dorian that “beauty is a form of genius – is higher indeed than genius because it needs no explanantion……it has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.” In the preface of the story Oscar Wilde writes a number of philosophical statements. He begins with: “The artist is the creator of beautiful things.” He ends with “All art is quite useless.” One could say that this sums up Wilde’s philosophy of life. God is in fact an artist. He is a creator of beautiful things. One of the things he created was human beings, some of whom are very beautiful indeed. Yet without a knowledge of his creator, man does sink down into meaninglessness. It is only with the understanding that he is a created being, made in the image of God and designed to have a relationship with his Creator, does man gain meaning. Without this understanding, beautiful people become as useless as beautiful art.

We live in an age where beauty reigns supreme. There is hardly a woman in America who feels she “measure up” or is “good enough” when it comes to meeting the beauty standards women are supposed to live up to. We are bombarded constantly with images of beautiful people in movies and magazines. We spend billions annually on consmetic surgery, cosmetics and other things to enhance our outward facade. Yet we spend little time and energy on the development of our souls. Wilde challenges us to consider the things we automatically attribute to beautiful people. As Lord Henry tells Dorian, “ Now you do not have to fight for your victories, they come to you.” So many things are just handed to beautiful people aren’t they? We automatically assume they are trustworthy, smart, successful, talented, popular. We really do fall at their feet and worship them. We have a hard time believing they could be corrupt. We think it is not possible that they could be evil. Yet we see this is exactly what Dorian was. Wilde is challenging us to confront our stereotypes of beauty.

And what of art? Is it meaningless? I don’t believe it is. Oscar Wilde’s story in itself is a thing of art. It is well crafted and beautifully written. We learn a lot from it, not only about Wilde, but about ourselves. A great artist ultimately reflects and point to the greatest of all artists, which is God himself. Not all art helps us to see God. Not all art is good. Some of it is pure rubbish. Good art always transcends. Every piece of music that Bach wrote was written ‘solo de gloria’, to the glory of God. His music stands the test of time as great art because it lifts our eyes to the heavenlies. Wilde’s art stands the test of time as great literature, because it makes us ponder the great questions of life.

Where Wilde really excels in this story is in his depiction of sin. In describing the altered portrait that Basil Hallward sees Wilde says “the leprosies of sin were slowly eating the thing away. The rotting of a corpse in a watery grave was not so fearful.” It’s interesting to think of sin like leprosy. Sin is not a disease, but it functions a lot like a disease. It slowly wears away at the inner life of a person, just as Dorian’s portrait altered over time. Leprosy is a disease which damages the nerve endings in the skin. So the person who has leprosy may put his hand in the fire and not realize he has been burned. So sin has the same effect on a man. It hardens his heart so that each time he commits that sin, he becomes a little more callous to it until he can no longer even feel sorrow for committing it. This callousness of heart is a far worse condition than leprosy. It is interesting that the first change in the portrait is reflected in the mouth. A touch of cruelty in the mouth.

The book of James says, “the tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” He says that “It is set on fire by hell itself and it sets the whole course of a man’s life on fire.” (James 3:6) Dorian Gray’s words were so cruel to his fiancee that she took her own life. The same day he learned of her death, he went to the Opera that evening. Even at that young age Dorian was cruel without remorse. Worse yet is enjoying cruelty. Basil Hallward noted Dorian’s tendency to “take a real delight in giving me pain.” In the end Dorian sinks from sadistic cruelty down to hatred and murder, though in fact he murdered from the beginning with his tongue. The man Dorian enlisted to help him get rid of Basil’s body tells Dorian, “You have gone from corruption to corruption, and now you have culminated in a crime.”

How does one know exactly that they are in the presence of an evil person? Certainly Dorian’s image made it hard for anyone to believe that he could be capable of hideous things. We all know people like that don’t we? There are many people who hide behind facades of good while carrying out terrible crimes. We just can’t believe the “nice, little old man” could be a sexual predator, or the hockey coach could be beating his wife at night, or that the mother who sings and plays her trumpet in the choir could be a stalker. How can these things be possible? Double lives are more than possible. They are very probable. Eventually Dorian’s reputation cannot be contained. I find it the most interesting that it was the people who knew him the most intimately who eventually shunned him. This is a lesson about evil one needs to note. One cannot always tell at first if they are in the presence of an evil person, but over time they cannot hide their nature completely. There is a natural revulsion we feel in the presence of evil. Sometimes we only become aware of that revulsion slowly. That is a lesson to be noted.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was Oscar Wilde’s only novel. It may as well have been his autobiography. Wilde lived his life much in the vein of Lord Henry’s philosophy. Married with two children, he lived lavishly and Oscar Wildedressed like a dandy. He was known for his acerbic wit and was a brilliant conversationalist. At the height of his fame as a playwright he was engaging in a homosexual affair with a young man named Lord Alfred Douglas. He ended up suing the father of his lover, the Marquess of Queensbury for libel. That ended up backfiring on him. The trial unearthed evidence to support Queensbury’s charges. Though Wilde dropped the charges, he ended up being arrested and after several more trials he was charged with gross indecency with other men. This resulted in him being sentenced to two years hard labor in prison. After his release he travelled to France. Destitute, he died in Paris at the age of forty-six.

How is it that a successful man of such intellect, talent and brilliance could have come to such a terrible end? Wilde himself admitted in his poem “De Profundis, “I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small, can be ruined except by his own hand.” He also wrote: “The Gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senselessness and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a Flaneur, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in search for new sensation.

What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady or a madness, or both. I grew careless in the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.”

Wilde exemplifies many things in this statement. One is that the problem of pursuing pleasure as the end goal of life, is that it eventually bores you. Eventually in order to find stimulation, one must descend into perversity. Lord Henry belied this sort of cynicism. He had “been there, done that, tried everything” and was essentially bored. Wilde is like so many men of genius who reach the heights: they begin to believe the laws that apply to ordinary men do not apply to them. In his arrogance Wilde thought to defend himself against sins he had actually committed. It is so ironic that he could write lucidly about the end of a life of sensual ease and sordid pleasure for Dorian Gray, but could not see that end for himself.

He like Dorian, surrounded himself with men of poor company. Did he really believe he could outrun such influence? That he could outwit the effect of sin? Pride always makes one believe one can accomplish impossible feats. In the end all that he felt that was left for him to embrace was humility. De Profundis is essentially a treatise on suffering. I understand most sharply when he said he could “not bear his sufferings to be without meaning.” That truly is the one thing about suffering which is essential. It must have meaning, or it is unbearable. My only wish is that Wilde’s suffering could have led him to more than humility. My greatest desire for him is that it could have led him to God.
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The Destruction of Othello

Every year in the city where I live they have a Shakespeare Festival. The festival is free and offers the opportunity to watch one of Shakespeare’s plays on an outdoor stage in a beautiful local park. The evening was nice and balmy when we went to see Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. In this play Othello is Moor, a general in the service of Venice. He has recently secretly eloped with Desdemona, the daughter of Brabantio who is a wealthy Venetian Senator. Barbantio is not happy about the marriage, but is unable to do anything about it because Venice is on the brink of war with Turkey. They both wish to control the island of Cyprus. Othello is sent off to Cyprus, but the war is diverted when the Turkish fleet is destroyed at sea. At this time Othello is appointed to be the Governor of Cyprus and to assume command there. Othello chooses a rich young officer to be his Lieutenant by the name of Michael Cassio. Iago, who is an ensign in Othello’s company, is outraged that he was not chosen for this position. He is so angry and envious, that he sets out to destroy Othello. Othello

Iago works his plan in a variety of ways. First he enlists the help of a rich young Florentine by the name of Roderigo. Roderigo is in love with Desdemona, and Iago promises that if he helps him, Iago will help Roderigo gain Desdemona’s love. Next he works to discredit Cassio. He urges Cassio to get drunk one evening and then incites him to fight Roderigo. Because of these actions, Cassio loses his post and Iago is now named Lieutenant.

Merely gaining the position however, is not enough revenge for Iago. Iago now moves to poison Othello’s opinion of his wife. He implies through innuendo that Desdemona has been unfaithful to Othello. Since Iago’s wife Emilia works as an assistant to Desdemona, Iago is able to obtain a special handkerchief which was given as a gift to Desdemona by Othello. He then plant this handkerchief among Cassio’s belongings. Cassio upon finding the beautiful handkerchief gives it as a gift to Bianca, a courtesan with whom he is having an affair. Othello sees the exchange and is thus convinced his wife has had an affair with Cassio. Othello then asks Iago to kill Cassio. Iago again appeals to Roderigo to help him kill Cassio. During the fight Cassio is wounded by Roderigo, and Roderigo is killed by Iago to silence him. Meanwhile Othello, enraged and unconsolable with the thought of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness, kills his wife. Emilia upon discovering her murdered mistress, weeps as she tells Othello that is was she who gave the handkerchief to Iago. When Iago comes in to inform Othello of the battle, Emilia outs him as a liar. Iago promptly stabs her. She dies embracing her slain mistress. Othello realizing he has fallen for the machinations of a liar and has killed his love as well as lost his honor, then kills himself.

There are many moral lessons one could take away from this play. Yet the most powerful one of all for me, was the devastation that just one liar can do. When I asked my husband what he thought of the play, he said he felt that Shakespeare had made his characters too “dumb” meaning they so easily fell for everything Iago said. I disagreed. I have seen firsthand the machinations of a liar at work. People are SO easily manipulated. We automatically assume people are trustworthy if they have all the outer “credentials” of being so. We almost never assume someone is setting out to deceive us, and that by very defnition puts us behind the curve.

Light Breaking Into the DarknessThe woman I knew who was a pathological liar, made simple requests of people that on the surface did not seem malicious. They quite willingly did her bidding, unaware they were helping her with her schemes. She also used the technique of innuendo. She might not come out and directly slander someone, but she would play on people’s emotions to leave them with a false impression of people she hated. For example she would “look sad” when someone’s name was mentioned. This implied that the person was “hurting her.” The manipulated person would then feel sorry for her and jump to her defense. She should have received and Oscar. She was the best actress I have ever met. She convincing lied to almost everyone and pathetically duped even her own husband and family. It is true that some people do have the spiritual “gift of discernment.” There are some among us who discern the characters of others more easily than others. They feel a certain sense of pride in that “they would never be duped by anyone.” Yet I wish to say that there are some people who are so masterful at lying and deceit, that they can fool even the most discerning. In truth most of us are easily manipulated and deceived by cunning liars. The woman I referred to did not deceive everyone, but those she did not deceive, she silenced, just like Iago. She did not physically murder people, but she murdered them with her tongue by slander. By slandering their reputation, she ensured that people would not believe them even if they tried to tell the truth about her.

Most people do not think they have any enemies as vicious as Iago. Yet if they are worth their salt as a Christian they have a personal enemy even more malicious than Iago, the devil himself. A lot of people don’t believe in an entity called “Satan.” They do not think he is a real being. Yet scripture clearly declares that Satan was indeed a created being, the most beautiful in fact of all of God’s angels. Angels are God’s messengers. They also worship God around his throne. Satan’s beauty was his downfall, and he desired to be like God. So the Bible tells us he was cast out of heaven and took a certain number of angels with him, which we now refer to as demons. Iago represents the main characteristics of Satan: Iago was a liar, a murderer, and a thief. Satan stands as an enemy to every Christian and he wishes to destroy them, just as Iago hated and wished to destroy Othello. Satan is more vicious, more cruel, more cunning, more sadistic, more deceitful, more malicious, more hateful than Iago ever dreamed of being. He works a lot of his deceit just like Iago did, whispering innuendo’s into our ears. Some of his favorites are: “If God is good, would he really let this happen to you?” “Maybe God doesn’t really love you, maybe he has abandoned you.” “Are you really sure God is going to take care of and protect you?” He always places doubts in the Christian’s mind about God and about his word. He whispers in people’s ears about fellow Christians, getting them to doubt and hate each other, much as Iago got Othello to doubt his own wife. He knows he is a defeated enemy, but he wants to create as much damage as possible on his way down, and he does it quite effectively. The story of Othello is most of all a sobering reminder of a very real enemy and the destruction he wishes to do.

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People Of The Lie: A Critical Analysis

“The only question of ultimate significance is whether the individual soul will be

won to God or won to the devil.”  – M. Scott Peck

Cover of the book People of the LiePeople of the Lie: The Hope For Healing Human Evil  is a dangerous book, so says author M. Scott Peck. Its contents “have the potential to harm, to cause pain, and the misuse of its information may harm others.” In offering a critical analysis I hope I will indeed handle the content of his book with care. Peck declares that “Jesus Christ is Lord and that his commitment to Christianity is the most important thing in his life and is, he hopes, pervasive and total.” Though he and I are in agreement about this commitment, I am not in agreement with all his viewpoints in the book.

Attempts to define evil will always be somewhat elusive at best, because it seems to evolve. Yet because it is ancient, and because all God’s created beings act with a certain degree of order, I think there are things we can say about evil with certainty. Peck identifies the first of these: Evil people are people of the lie. Thus the title of the book. What does he mean? He writes in his book of various encounters he has had with what he believes are evil people. Some are clients. Some are parent’s of clients. Some are exorcism’s that he has witnessed. Though he admits that very few evil people are willing to submit to psychotherapy, he writes of at least one evil woman he worked with at length. In his various encounters with evil people, one thing that often results is confusion. Why? Because lies confuse. And as he says so well, “evil people are people of the lie, deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception. He talks about if a therapist finds himself confused by a patient, one of the questions he needs do ask is “is the patient doing something to confuse me?”

I think Peck is very on the mark to call evil people, “people of the lie.” The devil is described as the Father of lies.

The nature of his activities are clarified: he comes to steal, kill and destroy, just like the proverbial fox in the hen house. Only the fox kills to sustain his life. Evil doesn’t kill of necessity. It kills out of many motives such as wrath, pride, vengeance, cruelty, malice, envy, or even pleasure, but it does not kill out of necessity.

If an individual soul is not won to God, by default he is won to the devil. So I think we can say with certainty that evil people will be liars, and their behavior will also exhibit the nature of stealing, killing and destroying. C. S. Lewis once remarked that “deceit is habit forming.”

Proverbs chapter six includes a list of seven things that are abominations to God and one of the seven is a lying tongue. People often think about the fact that lying to each other is wrong, but they rarely think about the fact that lying to themselves about their own behavior is equally wrong. God hates lying because it by very nature destroys community. You cannot at once love your neighbor while simultaneously deceiving him. In dealing with an evil person one is almost always at a disadvantage. When people set out to deceive you, as liars do, you are already behind the curve. It may take you months or even years to come out from under the deception to understand what you are dealing with. Such is the power of a lie.

Peck describes this well. He says “The feeling a healthy person often experiences in a relationship with an evil one is revulsion. The feeling of revulsion may be almost instant if the evil encountered is blatant. If the evil is more subtle, the revulsion may develop only gradually as the relationship with the evil one slowly deepens.” Revulsion, he notes, is a “powerful emotion that causes us to immediately want to avoid, to escape the revolting presence. And that is exactly the most appropriate thing for a healthy person to do under ordinary circumstances when confronted with an evil presence: to get away from it. Evil is revolting because it is dangerous. It will contaminate or otherwise destroy a person who remains too long in its presence. Unless you know very well what you are doing, the best thing you can do when faced with an evil is to run the other way. The revulsion counter transference is an instinctive or, if you will, God-given and saving early-warning radar system.”

I don’t know if I would call it “counter transference” or just God-given “intuition” that gives us warning that is beyond reason. The most evil person I have ever known has been a woman. What makes her the most evil person I have ever known is that she is evil that disguises herself behind good.

2 Corninthians 11:13 says “For such people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will correspond to their means.”

She is the only person I have ever known where I felt the revulsion Peck describes. The revulsion developed slowly the more I came to know her. It reached the point though where I was extremely uncomfortable whenever I was in her presence. When I am in her presence I can “sense” it even if I cannot visually see her. That is very eerie.

If the first characteristic of an evil person is that they are a liar, not only to others but also to themselves, then the second characteristic is that they are murderers.

I John 3:15 says that “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” The scripture describes Satan as a murderer and says he has been a “murderer from the beginning.” Peck says, “Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has in short to do with killing. Specifically, it has to do with murder – namely unnecessary killing. Killing that is not required for biological survival.”

We see that murder entered the world very quickly after the fall of Adam and Eve. Cain murdered his brother because he was of the evil one and because his brother’s actions were righteous. He murdered him out of wrath and envy. He cared not that he was his brother. He cared only for himself. Evil people not only commit physical murder they also try to kill the spirit, in fact this may be an even greater pleasure for the evil one. “Let’s let him live, but destroy his soul.”

One of the ways evil kills the spirit is by oppressively controlling and using another human being. By very definition evil is parasitic. It feeds off the life force of others and saps them of vitality. Peck notes: “it wants to quell independence, to discourage people’s capacity to think for themselves, to diminish originality, and to keep people in line.” In this way people’s very lives are stripped from them. This is murder.

Evil by very nature is a thief. No one likes to be ripped off. We feel very angry when we are cheated. We feel particularly devastated when the product we have been sold is a “person” and that person turns out to be deceiving us as to who they really are. That is one of the most bitter experiences on the planet.

Since evil people are very adept at making the victims of their evil look like the perpetrators, one is doubly punished. Not only has one been sold a lie, but then the liar turns around and makes you look like the bad guy.

That is the silencing effect of evil. Abuse is about silencing. So evil is not only a thief in personage, but evil also rips you off of individual goods. The most severe thing it can rip off from you is your life, as we have talked about in the above paragraph. It can rip you off of love, of passion, of a good reputation. It can rip you off of money, possessions and property. It can rip you off of vitality, truth, life. It can rip you off of your very soul, and this is its most deadly aim of all.

Peck is right when he says that the only question of ultimate significance is whether a soul is won to God or the devil. One can only be won to God by the truth. The devil tries to come and “steal” the truth from an individual who hears it, thus prohibiting him from finding Christ who is the “way, the truth and the life.” These purposes are the polar opposites of the purposes evil.

Peck makes some other distinguishing comments about evil people. He notes that evil people cannot necessarily be defined by the illegality of their deeds, nor even the magnitude of their sins. For example there may be a person in prison who has committed a crime. Their act was evil. Perhaps it was even a very great evil act.

For example, let’s say a mother has murdered the drunk driver who killed her son. Her act is evil, but she herself may not be an evil person. Peck makes the point that evil people are defined by the consistency of their sins. He says, “their destructiveness is remarkable consistent.. This is because those who have ‘crossed over the line’ are characterized by the absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness.” Not only that but as Peck also notes, evil people also exhibit extraordinary willfulness. This definitely rings true of my experience with evil people.

He says, “They are men and women of obviously strong will, determined to have their own way. There is remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others.” They exhibit a “malignant narcissism” in which they and they alone count in the universe. Moral choice involves consideration of others. For the evil person, there is no choice. They simply exert their will. They want what they want, and it doesn’t matter the cost to others to get it. Others are merely extensions of their ego. They feel themselves to be “above the law.”They are entitled to have what they want.

King Ahab, one of the most notoriously wicked kings in the Bible, sulked because he could not have a man’s property. His wife, who was just as renowned for evil as he was, said, and I paraphrase: “Don’t sulk darling. I will just arrange to have the man murdered.” Problem solved.

Despite the fact that evil people display a malignant narcissism, the kind which we often display as infants, I am not sure if I would call evil a kind of immaturity as Peck does. If evil people are immature almost gives them an excuse for their behavior.

We often excuse children for what they do because “they do not know any better.” (Folly is bound up in the heart of a child). Children need to be trained. They need to be taught to make good moral choices. Yet even children who are taught right from wrong, can choose to be evil. Their choice is not out of immaturity, out of willfulness. They have become vengefully uncaring of anyone other than self. I see evil less as immaturity and more as sloth.

Evil people know the right course. They do not want to make the effort to be good. That takes too much work. They only want to “look good.” As Peck says, “They lack the motivation to be good. It’s even more serious than that. In a certain sense all people apart from God are bound over to sin and can only sin. Yet evil people have given into sin and do it habitually. However some evil people intensely desire to “appear good.” They are cognizant of social norms.

Thus it is that C.S. Lewis once said, “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.” To be evil is to be by definition morally lazy and to be a coward. It must be noted however, that not all evil people care about their reputation. Some don’t give a rip that they are evil and even enjoy the reputation of being so.

As Peck points out, evil people are common. Not only are they common, but their evil actions are subtle.

This is a point I feel most people seem to be ignorant of. The average person thinks the evil people are in jail, and that the cops are chasing down the others who are yet to be put behind bars. Yet there are many, many evil people who exist who are not in jail. Many who have committed crimes and are so good at deceit, lies and manipulation that they have not been caught. This could be the little old lady down the street, the grocery store clerk, your business partner, the choir member, or your pizza delivery guy.

In 2007, Michael Devlin, who was an Imo’s Pizza manager, was arrested for the kidnapping and sexual abuse of two boys. He had held one of the boys hostage for four years. He lived in an apartment in a sought after suburb. He didn’t even try to hide his victim. He allowed the child to ride his bike in the apartment parking lot.

Most people seem “shocked” at these kinds of events, which tells me that they perceive evil as something that is far removed from them. Evil is not far removed. Evil is around us all the time and it is subtle, very subtle, in addition to being very disturbing and extremely dangerous. To not understand this truth is to be naïve. In kids videos, evil people always “look” evil. They dress in black and look menacing. In this world, evil people can be some of the most physically beautiful people you will ever meet, with impeccable manners. Why else have some of our poets described the devil as “a Gentleman?”

Let’s look now at what Peck describes as the “thesis” of his book. Peck, since he is a psychiatrist, is partly writing the book out of what he sees as a need for evil to be “studied.” He states clearly that the thesis of his book is: “That evil can be defined as a specific form of mental illness and should be subject to at least the same intensity of scientific investigation that we would devote to some other psychiatric disease.”

A part of the reason he feels that evil need to be “studied” is so that evil can be “healed.” He states: “The attempt to heal the evil should not be lightly undertaken. It must be done from a position of remarkable psychological and spiritual strength.”

He gives three reasons why he believes people struggle with the idea of evil as a mental illness.

First, we think of illness as suffering, and evil people often don’t seem to suffering. They in fact think that there is nothing wrong with them. Yet Peck points out, the absence of our knowing we are diseased, does not in fact mean that we are not. For example, we may have the condition of heart disease many years before we actually experience the symptoms of heart disease.

Second, we struggle to see evil as a mental illness because to us someone who is ill must be a victim. He says, “We tend to think of illness as something that befalls us, a circumstance over which we have not control…..a curse in the creation we did not anticipate.” He makes the point however that we often have an active hand in bringing on disease, such as the alcoholic who eventually succumbs to cirrhosis of the liver.” His point is that although they have a certain degree of responsibility for bringing on their illness, we still consider them ill.

The final argument against labeling evil an illness is “the belief that evil is a seemingly untreatable condition. Why designate as a disease a condition for which there is neither known treatment nor cure?” Peck says, “The fact that we currently do not know how to treat evil in the human individual is the best reason to designate it a disease. For the label of disease implies that the disorder is not inevitable, that healing should be possible, that it should be studied scientifically and methods of treatment should be sought. It is, he states, “the central proposition of this book that evil can and should be subjected to scientific scrutiny. We can and should move form our present state of ignorance and helplessness toward a true psychology of evil.” Peck says that “The designation of evil as a disease also obligates us to approach evil with compassion.”

To be blunt, I cannot agree with the very thesis of Peck’s book. First and foremost I do not believe that evil is a disease. Secondly, though I think certain truths can be said about evil, many of which I talked about above, comprehensively I don’t think evil can ever be fully “defined.” Finally, I do not think evil can be “cured” by psychotherapy.Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Although evil has some similarities to disease, it is not a disease. It can be similar to a disease in that when evil people practice and give in to evil, it corrupts that whole person. It is also “disease like” in that it is harmful and can destroy not only the host but others (disease spreads). Like a disease, the destructive nature of the person’s evil may not be transparent for a long time. Though he acknowledges that men can live in such a way as to bring on a disease in their body, I think too many times the “disease model” makes men think they are not responsible for their choices. “I can’t help that I am an alcoholic. It’s a disease.” Similarly one could say, “I can’t help it that I only think of myself, I have narcissistic personality disorder.” Too often men use the disease model to excuse themselves.

Since the advent of psychology, moral categories have gone out of vogue. We no longer talk about sin. We talk about “Borderline Personality disorder.” I for one get very sick and tired of hearing about “Borderline Personality Disorder.” Just once I would like someone to have the courage to say “what they did was evil.” Never have we looked so intensely into ourselves and yet seen ourselves with less clarity. Peck defines illness as “Any defect in the structure of our bodies or personalities that prevents us from fulfilling our potential as human beings.”

Evil is much more than a deformation of personality. Evil is much more than something that prevents us from fulfilling our potential as human beings. Evil is persistent, pernicious sinning. To sin is to violate God’s moral law. It is direct rebellion against one’s Creator. Sin destroys a man at his core. Sin also separates a man from God and from his fellow man.

Secondly, I don’t think evil can be “studied” like a scientific endeavor. This is not to say that certain things cannot be said definitively about evil. Yet evil manifests itself in so many ways and forms how could one ever define them all? Peck felt evil should be studied so that we could understand it and then humanely treat it. He says, “I do not think that we shall come any closer than we are today to understanding and, I hope, curing human evil until that healing professions name evil as an illness within the domain of their professional responsibility.”

I am not quite sure how Peck can reconcile this statement with the one he made earlier about “Jesus Christ is his Lord and that his commitment to Christianity is the most important thing in his life and is, he hopes, pervasive and total.” Nothing could be more antithetical to Christianity than to say evil is an illness that can be healed by psychotherapy. To think the healing of evil is within the reach and scope of man is not only arrogant and foolhardy, but nullifies the very need for a Savior. Why should Christ have to die on a cross if we had within our grasp the hope of healing ourselves of our own evil? The only hope now or ever for the healing of evil is the finished work of Christ on the cross.

The apostle Paul makes clear in the book of Ephesians that men without the spirit of God are dead men. Men only have the life changing, transforming power of the spirit if they have place their faith in Christ. Only God’s spirit can radically transform dead men to life again. Until a man is changed by the transforming power of God he is bound over to sin. Even if an evil person would submit themselves to therapy, which even Peck admits they rarely do, it would be futile to discuss their evil behavior with them.

Evil can only be curbed and contained and this with great force and consequence. This is why we have police officers surround a murderer with guns, handcuff him and then put him in a jail. This is why the angel grabbed Lot by the scruff of the neck and pulled him back inside. Lot was standing outside the door of his house trying to reason with the men of Sodom who were insisting on raping the visitors he had at his house. Evil people, by definition, are not reasonable. As was stated earlier, not every person in a jail cell has given themselves fully to evil, though every person in a jail cell has done an evil act.

Chuck Colson works with the prison population because he believes they can be redeemed. But the redemption he offers those in Prison Fellowship is the same redemption he discovered himself: the redemption of the cross. He even tells a story of visiting a jail where he asked the warden how many of the prisoners were “mental cases.” She replied, “all of them.”

He was appalled by this reply. Then he relates this story: All the prisoners were treated with “therapy.” “Therapy” for one of the prisoners included being escorted by a female guard to see a movie. On the way to “therapy”, he overpowered the guard, raped her, then murdered her. One only needs to hear this story to know the power to cure evil is, and has always been, only by the grace of God. Man’s only hope is to bow in humility before his creator and acknowledge there is nothing that can be done to cure his condition but to accept Christ’s death on the cross as payment for his sin. If Peck wants to work with an evil person in therapy, his work must begin there.

A Critical Look at Steinbeck’s “The Pearl”

Those who long to be rich, however, fall into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”
1 Timothy 6:9-10

 

John SteinbeckIn 1939 John Steinbeck wrote a novel called “The Grapes Of Wrath.” It was a runaway success and achieved commercial fame. The novel was about farmers from Oklahoma who, devastated by drought that had plagued the land, moved west in search of work that could earn them a living. Steinbeck for his time, was considered a radical California writer. This new book also brought controversy, because he seemed to be making a statement that perhaps communism was the way to settle ecomomic disparity in the United States. The book was essentially about poor people and how their lives were changed by evolving industry. The public responded with a backlash of persecution toward Steinbeck for writing about marginalized society. Instead of enjoying his fame and the money that came with success, he experienced deep self-doubt and went through a period of reexamination of American values.

As a result of this time of reflection, the novel “The Pearl” was written. The story is a parable, and it’s title is meant specifically to make readers reflect upon the biblical “pearl of great price.” In Matthew 13:45 Jesus says, “Again the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.” The parable is not implying that to follow God means you must live a life of ascetisim. It is implying that there is nothing more important than to seek God himself and eternal life with him in heaven.

Steinbeck takes this parable and writes about it literally. His story revolves around three main characters: Kino, Juana and Coyotito. Kino and Juana are a poor Mexican couple. Kino earns his living by diving for pearls. Coyotito is their beloved infant son. Steinbeck cuts right to the chase and puts us in suspense in chapter one as we read about Kino and Juana watching a scorpion slowly descend on the ropes of the “hanging box” that their precious baby is laying in. With baited breath they watch it’s movement until finally the baby laughingly reaches up and grabs the rope. The scorpion falls and the thorned tail of the scorpion finds its mark on the baby’s shoulder. Steinbeck introduces a number of elements here. First we see a foreshadowing of the fragility of their “true” pearl, baby Coyotito. Steinbeck also introduces into the narrative here a device which he uses throughout. He contrasts the “song of family” with the “song of evil.” Kino and Juana are simple, illiterate, working class people. Their dialogue in the story is limited. So Steinbeck uses this “music” both to express mood and to replace dialogue. Desperate, Kino and Juana take the baby to the local doctor, who is an evil, brutish wealthy white man. He refuses to treat the baby because the couple have no money. After Juana applies a poultice, the couple do the only thing they know to do: they go out in their little boat so Kino can dive for pearls.

Juana prays that day that they can find a pearl so they will have enough money to pay the doctor. Kino, not only finds a pearl, but he finds the “pearl of all pearls.” Steinbeck describes it: “There it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was as large as a sea-gull’s egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world.”

The rest of the story is about the unfolding of Kino’s life after he finds the great pearl. The whole town becomes wrapped up in his story. This is the way Steinbeck tells it: “Every man suddenly became related toThe Pearl By  John Steinbeck Kino’s pearl, and Kino’s pearl went into the dreams, the speculations, the schemes, the plans, the futures, the wishes, the needs, the lusts, the hungers, of everyone, and one person stood in the way and that was Kino, so that he became curiously every man’s enemy. The news stirred up something infinitely black and evil in the town; the black distillate was like the scorpion, or like hunger in the smell of food, or like loneliness when love is withheld. The poison sacs of the town began to manufacture venom, and the town swelled and puffed with the pressure of it. But Kino and Juana did not know these things. Because they were happy and excited they thought everyone shared their joy.” Steinbeck here defines that infinitely curious thing about wealth: the one who has it is never quite sure of people’s motives in relating to him. One thing for sure, Steinbeck lets you know that people certainly aren’t happy for you if you have it.

Kino quickly understands he must sell the pearl, lest someone try to steal it. Kino also has his own dreams wrapped up in the pearl. His dreams are not for himself, but for his son. He hopes to sell the pearl so that he will have the money to send his son to get an education. Kino sees his son as the savior of the family, the one who can deliver them from poverty. The townspeople watch Kino and Juana closely. Steinbeck writes, “All of the neighbors hoped that sudden wealth would not turn Kino’s head, would not make a rich man of him, would not graft onto him the evil limbs of greed and hatred and coldness. For Kino was a well-liked man; it would be a shame if the pearl should destroy them all.” Steinbeck slowly asks us to consider shifting our perspective from the pearl being an object of great worth to an object of sheer evil.

The corrupt town doctor, learning of Kino’s find, suddenly reverses his decision and comes to “help” the baby. Preying upon Kino and Juana’s ignorance he gives the baby poison, only to come back an hour later to “save” the baby with the antidote, all the while telling them he is saving Coyotito from the scoripion venom. The doctor’s sole goal is to see if he can possibly detect where Kino has hidden the pearl. We see here that the pearl puts Juana and Kino’s greatest treaure in peril and we have already seen the fragility of Coyotito’s life. Later that night Kino awakes. Juana asks him, ‘Who do you fear?’ Steinbeck writes, “Kino searched for a true answer, and at last he said, ‘Everyone.’ And he could feel a shell of hardness drawing over him.” Juana says, “This thing is evil! This pearl is like a sin! It will destroy us…..Throw it away Kino. Let us throw it back into the sea.” Later in the narrative Juana tries to do just that, and Kino ends up beating her. Thoroughout the story Juana remains the voice of reason and we see Kino’s character begin to be corrrupted by the pearl.

Kino goes the next day to sell the pearl, and runs up against another injustice: the corrupt pearl buyers. There is more than one buyer in the local town, but they all work for one man. So they try to offer each seller the lowest amount they can give. When Kino brings the pearl in they tell him that it is worthless, that it is a ‘novelty.’ Yet even in his ignorance, Kino knows this is a lie. He decides he must journey to the “big city” to see if he can get a fair price. Kino’s brother Juan Tomas, understands that the local buyers have most likely collectively cheated their people for years, yet what Kino is undertaking is very ambitious and has never been done. Tomas’ warns him, “There is a devil in this pearl. You should have sold it and passed on the devil. Perhaps you can still sell it and buy peace for yourself.” Kino tells him with eyes that are hard and bitter, “it is my misfortune and my life and I will keep it……This pearl has become my soul. If I give it up I shall lose my soul.” In an effort to keep his dreams alive, Kino has to descend into a morass of evil. Before all is said and done, he has beaten his wife and killed several men. Being hunted by trackers, he and Juana flee with their son. Kino manages to kill the trackers, which is his only hope of escape, but not before the one with the rifle ends up killing Coyotito, who is hidden away in a cave with Juana. Steinbeck describes Kino and Juana’s abysmal return into town with their dead son wrapped in a bundle. In the end, Kino with Juana at his side, throw the pearl back into the sea. Kino has learned that “power accrues to those who already have it” and also that “greed corrupts the soul.”

John SteinbeckThe Pearl is a distinctively American story that is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. How many American’s have come to the end of their lives and realized they have sacrifed too much for the attainment of this ideal we call “the American dream?” In America we often feel that the “pearl of great price” is something called “success.” Success ususally gets dumbed down in translation to “having a lot of money.” Success is the prize we run after and that is the thing we sell everything we have for. The things American’s “sell” to attain this goal are very costly. We sell our marriages, our children, our health, our time, our money, our very lives. Once success is achieved, American’s like to live their insular lives amusing themselves to death. They do not like to be reminded of something as sordid as poverty. They don’t like to admit that not everyone really does have an equal chance of achieving the American Dream. The Pearl is a direct expression of Steinbeck’s very personal experience of achieving the American dream and finding it wanting. He is asking us to consider whether the cost is worth it. Steinbeck called The Pearl “a brutal story but with flashes of beauty.” He indeed shows us the brutal toll of the corruption of greed in a simple, stark, straight-forward narrative that challenges American ideals to the core. He asks us to consider what our true treasures are. Though not a Christian, it is interesting that Steinbeck alludes to the Bible and the “Pearl Of Great Price” by choosing the title that he did for his novel. The only difference between when he wrote and today is that today many would not automatically understand that inference to scripture.

Steinbeck also certainly knocked down American’s number one idol of greed. It is clear from scripture that of all the idols that will inhibit one from finding God, greed is at the top. Jesus put is succinctly: “You cannot serve both God and money.” It is interesting to note that pearls must be searched for and that they are a rare and beautiful treasure. So although the moral of Steinbeck’s story is not to search for God, it points us in the direction of the parable of the Pearl of Great Price, and in that parable God himself tells us: Search for me! I am the rare and beautiful treasure you long for.”

Steinbeck learned the hard way that American’s set up and then love to watch the demise of their celebrities. The celebrity today is the American equivalent of the Gladiator. We put the celebrity in the ring to entertain us and then we like to watch him die. We only want our celebrities to amuse, not to make us ponder difficult questions. Upon achieving his pearl of “success” Steinbeck found it as bitter as Kino, and one wonders if he too would have like to have thrown it back into the sea.

A Black Sneering Coolness: Reflections On The Nature of Evil From Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

What is evil really? Webster’s defines it thus: morally bad or wrong; wicked. Causing ruin, injury or pain; harmful. Characterized by anger or spite; malicious. I can tell you for certain that evil is alive and well, but it is not a particularly popular axiom.

There are some men who have dared to admit the truth. Man indeed faces a great struggle, a war within the soul and a war against the soul by others. Robert Louis Stevenson in his story “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” describes the duality that resides in man. Speaking as Dr. Jekyll he says, ‘It was on the moral side and in my own person that I learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man. I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could be rightly said to be either, it was only because I was radically both. Describing the struggle that men face he says, “It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together, that in the agonized womb of consciousness these polar twins should be continually struggling.”Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll wished to escape the struggle of fighting against his warring natures, so he sought to separate himself by drinking an experimental potion. The potion would transform Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll could thus maintain two identities. As Dr. Henry Jekyll he would remain a co-mingling of good and evil, a doctor who chose to restrain his evil impulses to live a moral, respectable and upright life. Hyde, however, would be pure evil. In Hyde he could engage his evil nature to the fullest. Jekyll notes, “If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities life would be relieved of all that was unbearable: the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.” Thus Mr. Hyde was “born.”

All who met Hyde were repulsed by him. One man who collared Hyde after Hyde had just run down a child said of him: “He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought the sweat out on me like running.” He described him as having a “black, sneering coolness.” Mr Utterson. Dr. Jekyll’s lawyer friend, sought Hyde out. He desired to see who the upright Dr. Jekyll had left his fortune to. After laying eyes on him he said of Hyde, “O my poor Henry Jekyll! If ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend!”

Dr. Jekyll describes his transformation into Hyde: “There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, happier, lighter in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown, but not innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself at first breath to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and that thought in that moment braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations and in the act I was suddenly aware that I had lost stature.” This Jekyll attributes to the face that this side of his nature was ‘less robust and developed.’

Dr. Jekyll takes a first look at himself in the mirror: “Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter and younger than Henry Jekyll. Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil besides (which I must still believer to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body, an imprint of deformity and decay. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This too was myself. It seemed natural and human. In my eyes it bore a livelier image of the spirit and seemed more express and single, than the imperfect and divided countenance I had hither to been accustomed to call mine.

At first Jekyll was able to control the experiment. He drank the potion, turned into Hyde and participated in his licentiousness: “All that time my virtue slumbered, my evil kept awake by my ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion…” He continues, “The pleasures which I made haste to seek in my disguise were, as I have said, undignified. I would scarce use a harder term. But in the hands of Edward Hyde, they soon began to turn toward the monstrous. When I would come back from these excursions, I was often plunged into wonder at my vicarious Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydedepravity. This familiar that I called out of my own soul, and sent forth alone to do his good pleasure, was a being inherently malign and villainous, his every act and thought centered on self, drinking pleasure with bestial avidity from any degree of torture or another; relentless like a man of stone.”

After awhile though, the allure of being Mr. Hyde became too great. As Dr. Jekyll he was “growing towards an elderly man.” As Hyde he was “free from restraint, lively, young.” Stevenson writes: Henry Jekyll stood aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde, but the situation was apart from ordinary laws and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.”

Hyde had his own sleazy residence but could come and go at Dr. Jekyll’s at will. He had a key. One morning Dr. Jekyll awoke in his own bed at Cavendish Square as Edward Hyde. This marked a turning point. Dr Jekyll notes, “This inexplicable incident, this reversal of my previous experience, seemed like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgment, and I began to reflect more seriously that ever before on the issues and possibilities of my double existence.” He goes on to say: “That part of me which I had the power of projecting had lately been much exercised and nourished; it had seemed to me of late as though the body of Edward Hyde had grown in stature……..I began to spy a danger that, if this were much prolonged, the power of voluntary change be forfeited, and the character of Edward Hyde become irrevocably mine.”

Alas, Dr. Jekyll’s reflections came to late. Jekyll swears off becoming Hyde for two months, but in the end he succumbs again to the transformation. “My devil had long been caged, he came out roaring. I was conscious when I took the draught, or a more unbridled, a more furious propensity to ill………..I had voluntarily stripped myself of all those balancing instincts by which even the worst of us continues to walk with some degree of steadiness among temptations; and in my case, to be tempted, however slightly, was to fall.” Jekyll goes on to describe what it felt like to be Hyde: “Instantly the spirit of hell awoke in me and raged. With a transport of glee, I mauled the unresisting body, tasting delight in every blow; and it was not until weariness had begun to succeed that I was suddenly in the top fit of my delirium, struck through the heart by a cold thrill of terror. A mist dispersed. I saw my life to be forfeit, and fled from the scene of these excesses, at once glorifying and trembling, my lust for evil gratified and stimulated, my love for life screwed to the topmost peg.” Initially once he has transformed back into Dr. Jekyll, he is “smitten with gratitude and remorse.” and penitently prays to God. But later he says, “as the acuteness of remorse began to die away, it was succeeded by a sense of joy. He feels renewed in his effort to lead the good life as Dr. Jekyll. Hyde would be blamed for the murder and Jekyll vows to never become him again. “I resolved in my future conduct to redeem the past, and I can honestly say that my resolve was fruitful of some good.”

For a brief time Jekyll remains “good.” But it was as his own self, and “ordinary secret sinner” that “I at last fell before the assaults of temptation.” Jekyll muses, “There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul. And yet I was not alarmed; the fall seemed natural, like a return to the old days before I had made my discovery.” Jekyll’s fall came about just like King Nebuchadnezzar, with one proud thought: “After all, I reflected, I was like my neighbors; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at that very moment of that vain-glorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most deadly shuddering. These passed away, and left me faint; and then as in its turn the faintness subsided, I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde. A moment before I had been safe of all men’s respect, wealthy, beloved – the cloth laying for me in the dining room at home; and now I was the common quarry of mankind, hunted, houseless, a known murderer, thrall to the gallows.” From that point on Jekyll could not longer control turning into Hyde. He turned into him “at all hours of the night and day” and he would “leap almost without transition” into Hyde. He says,“The powers of Hyde seemed to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll.” Though Jekyll tries desperately to make a new draught, it is without efficacy. He believes his first formula had some kind of unknown impurity in it which he cannot now replicate. In the end the respected Dr. Jekyll is completely given over to the diabolical Mr. Hyde, a wanted murderer. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Stevenson’s story is essentially about a man who is living a double life. Granted he has found the unique ability to be a “truly separate self” when he is doing his evil, that the rest of us do not have the luxury of being. Though Hyde initially starts out as smaller and less developed physically, he eventually comes to be stronger than Jekyll and finally to overcome him totally. Stevenson is suggesting something here about our sin nature. The more we give in to it, the more robust it becomes. As Jekyll realized when he was Hyde, that sin nature felt natural to him. Giving in to it did not really seem like something foreign. One may think that the reality of a person living a double life is rare, especially one so drastically different as Dr. Jekyll versus Mr. Hyde. Perhaps in this extreme it is rare, but I in general a double life is not nearly as rare as one might think. For examle both men and women can be domestic abusers. By day they might seem like the nicest person you would ever meet, but at night they go home and are brutal to wives, husbands and children. Some of these people hold prestigious jobs and are active in community service and church. Yet the reality is, they lead a double life. If we really could see who they are, as their intimate partners see them, we would be as repulsed by them as people were by Hyde. Hyde exemplifies well many traits of evil. By nature evil is cruel. It is contemptuous, bold and brazen. Some evil people delight in their evil, which is to be sadistic. Hyde is man who thinks he can do what he wants and somehow get away with it. Many people who lead a double life do get away with it for a long time. Manypeople get away with sin in general for a long time. Yet even though Dr. Jekyll found a way to make a separate self who could be pure evil while he remained a co-mingling of good and evil, he found that the influence of that evil eventually consumed him. Jekyll was aghast at Hyde’s antics and tried to cover them over, which reflects the enormous energy one must expend to live a double life. The most powerful lesson of the story to me is that Dr. Jekyll did not “fall” as Hyde, but he “fell” as himself. The thing that brought him down was his own “simple, ordinary pride.” The greatest double life of all is to be self-righteous. It is to pretend to be good and virtuous and upright, when the reality of your heart is dark. Christ called such people “white washed tombs.” He said, “You people look good on the outside, but inside you are full of dead men’s bones.” Dr. Jekyll had begun to feel pretty good about his cover up scheme. In fact he felt so good about it, that he actually felt he was more virtuous than other men. As soon as he had that thought, Hyde took over and he was never again able to contain him. Perhaps the greatest lesson of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is this: Never think yourself a “righteous” man. This is the greatest form of pride, and pride always goes before a fall. Always remember that any righteousness you possess is simply that which has been imputed to you by Christ’s death on the cross. The greatest of all evils is to be a self-righteous man.

Reflections On “Losing It” A Memoir by Valerie Bertinelli

“Alcohol makes you feel better and then makes you feel worse and then remorselessly very bad indeed, but then alcohol will make you feel better again. It is the cure for the dog that bit you, and how easily you forget it is also the dog.”

Roger Ebert

Ever since Valerie Bertinelli wrote her memoir “Losing It- And Gaining My Life Back One Pound At A Time” I have wanted to read it. Valerie Bertinelli Author of Losing It

Finally, my opportunity came. I found the book at the Goodwill and grabbed it up for a dollar.

In high school I became a huge Van Halen fan. I was particularly fond of Eddie Van Halen thinking he was very cute. I remember going to see them in concert in Charleston, West Virginia. It was a blast. I was closest to the side of the stage Eddie was on. I was thrilled! He was indeed very cute and had a very nice smile. He also smoked like a fiend. He had a cigarette lit and positioned in his fret the whole time he was playing. Sammy Hagar was now the lead singer. I remember him running around high above on the catwalks and leaning out over them perilously, to my distress. He was a great showman, but he scared the heck out of me.

So I have to admit my interest in reading the book was primarily: What was it LIKE to be married to EDDIE VAN HALEN? I came away feeling respect for Bertinelli, thinking I could easily be her friend, and really rooting for her happiness. What was it really like to be married to Eddie Van Halen? Primarily hell. That is what it is like to be married to any addict.

In Cornelius Plantinga’s book, “Not The Way It Is Supposed To Be: A Breviary Of Sin” he talks about the relationship of sin and addiction. He defines addiction as “A complex, progressive, injurious, and often disabling attachment to a substance (alcohol, heroin, barbituates) or behavior (sex, work, gambling) in which a person compulsively seeks a change of mood.” He points out that “what drives addiction is longing….. a longing of the heart.”

He explains, “Addicts long for wholeness, for fulfillment, for the final good that believers call God. Like all idolatries, addiction taps this vital spiritual force and draws off its energies to objects and processes that drain the addict instead of filling him.

Accordingly the addict longs not for God but for transcendence, not for joy, but only for pleasure- and sometimes escape from pain.”

However as he soberly enjoins: “No matter how they start, addictions eventually center in distress and in the self-defeating choice of an agent to relieve the distress. In fact, trying to cure the distress with the same thing that caused it is typically the mechanism that closes the gap on the addict- a trap that might be baited on anything from whiskey to wool.” This fact is cleverly illustrated in the above quote from Roger Ebert, who himself was an alcoholic.

In truth Eddie Van Halen was an addict from the day Bertinelli met him.

Eddie Van HalenIt took her twenty years to come to grip with this fact and to divorce him. One really agonizes with her about this in reading the book. It makes you realize just how terrible it is to marry someone who is already in the grip of addiction.

It was clear that she really loved him and truly tried to save him, despite making her own mistakes in the marriage. At first she admits that she partied with him, and that was a way to be a part of his world. But this lifestyle got old and hard to maintain. So she pursued her acting career and he immersed himself in creating music and drinking and doing drugs.

Despite the birth of their child, Ed was not able to pull himself out of his living hell. Plantiga notes: “An addict makes and repeatedly breaks contracts with himself; who finds his longings narrowing and hardening into an obsession with things he knows will devastate his work, self-respect, relationships and bank account and who yet seeks compulsively to satisfy those longings; who thus finds his will split between wanting to banish an addictive substance from the earth and wanting to protect his private cache of it; whose addiction, as it moves through mild and moderate stages, first enthralls him in one sense of the word and then in the other-an addict like this often comes to believe that his “struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against……spiritual forces of evil.” (Ephesians 6:12)

He points out that the “Big Book” of Alcoholic Anonymous says “addiction is cunning, baffling, powerful and patient.” These words could describe the devil himself.

He offers the human being a powerful substitute for God, an idol called “addiction.” This substitute provides immediate pleasure. One does not have to wait for heaven, nor restrain the senses, nor worry about morality. Just take the drink, sniff the coke, smoke the weed and you are in paradise now.

At first it seems like a good trade, until you get hooked. Then you just live for the next time you can get drunk or high. You lose all for the addiction and you don’t even care. You become a shell of yourself. You live in your own isolated living hell, just you and the addiction. It must be so very terrible.

You can just look in the book and see the photos of Eddie as a young man and then when he is older. He looks horrible. The effects of the alcohol and drugs have ravaged him.

For Bertinelli the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Ed refused to quit smoking after getting tongue cancer and having a portion of his tongue removed. She finally admitted to herself then that he was not going to help himself. After finding cocaine in a wallet, she confronted him one last time before she left.

The book also chronicles her own battles with food addiction. In her efforts to cope with Ed and his addiction, she fought her own private hell with her weight. Being an actress only made that issue a million times harder as she had to constantly battle to slim down for roles.

One reads the book and gets the sense of two people who connected and were really wanting to reach out to the other, but the tragedy of addiction kept them apart. All sin isolates, but addiction isolates in a particularly pernicious and destructive way.

In the end Bertinelli won her own private battle and ended up losing fifty pounds and looking terrific. You feel thrilled for her as she loses the weight and ends up finding love too. Yet she still needs to find the ultimate fulfillment which is God himself. Until then, even these momentary victories will remain somewhat shallow.Addiction is the tragedy of idolatry carried to the extreme. When we try to put anything in the place of where the worship of God alone belongs, we come up empty and fall short. Our hearts were created to know Him and to worship Him. Until we acknowledge this we will always be digging empty wells and the buckets we pull up will run dry. They might provide some temporary pleasure, but when we put the bucket down the well again, it will bring up less water each time. So it is with sin.As C.S. Lewis says in the Screwtape Letters, “It is an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.” Sin does provide pleasure, but it is a counterfeit pleasure and each time we engage in it we will find it brings us less. To paraphrase Lewis, the devil cannot really offer any man a pleasure. He can only offer a man a perverted pleasure, one that leaves him more thirsty than he was before. Addiction is just the extreme form of this. Man has decided to turn to alcohol or drugs and make them the center of his life and worships them. At first they offer a return, but then he must have more and more to get the same effect. In the end the whole life withers and is consumed by the addiction.The vital energy needed to seek God is drained away. Could there be anything more tragic? Van Halen once wrote a song called “The Best Of Both Worlds.” In it Hagar sings,

“You don’t have to die and go to heaven
Or hang around to be born again,
Just tune in to what this place has to offer,
Because we may never be here again.
I want the best of both worlds,
And honey I know what it’s worth,
I want the best of both worlds,
A little heaven right here on earth.”

Every honest saint will tell you that this is not heaven and the pleasures this world offers pale in comparison to what heaven will be like. That’s the irony. To have the best of the next world you have to let go of the temporal pleasures that may be found here. As martyr Jim Elliot put it, ‘He is no fool, to give up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.”

Christ said is another way, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” The truly wise live for eternity.

Is There Anything More Important Than Serving God?

Do you ever notice how in life it is the simple stories that hold the most profound truths?

I want to look at one such ‘simple story’ from the Bible. In looking at it I want to answer the question ‘Is there anything more important than serving God?’

It is the story of Jesus visiting the home of Martha and Mary.

Martha and Mary
Martha and Mary by He Qi

It is a familiar Biblical story to many people. “Yes, yes”, we say. “We know. Martha was too busy cooking dinner for Jesus to be sitting at his feet listening to him. We need to be more like Mary who was attending to Jesus. Ok, I’ve learned the point of that story. What’s next?” Well, in truth, have we learned the point of that story? If we have, then why are so many Christians lacking in wisdom and maturity but instead are exhausted, worn out, harried, frenetic, self-righteous, critical servants? Perhaps we better take a look at the text again.

Jesus and his disciples are on his way to Jerusalem to face his final test in this world- his arrest, trial, conviction, and crucifixion. On the way they stop at the home of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus, close friends of Jesus. Martha is most likely a widow since she owns property. We are told some things about Martha in this text. We are told she had opened her home to Jesus. That is no small insignificant fact.

We are also told that Martha had a sister named Mary who “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” But Martha “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” Now in true sister form Martha was irritated that her sister was “loafing” and not helping “share the load” of the work.

So Martha does an interesting thing. She rebukes God.

Now straight up, that isn’t a wise thing to do. Yet we see it in ourselves don’t we? We too have been irritated with God when He is not “cooperating with our ministry plans.” We say things like, “Hey Lord, I’m under the load here. Couldn’t you send more volunteers to help with my great work I have going?” Martha implores God, “Tell her to help me!”

Jesus is very gracious with Martha. He rebukes her gently.

He says in effect, “Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed, Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

Now if you would ask many Christians the question I asked in the beginning, “Is there anything more important than serving God?” I think many would respond quickly and emphatically, “No!” Serving God seems to be the most important thing we could ever do with our lives. Yet, God himself intimates a different answer.

Martha and Mary by Velasquez
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Velasquez

Let’s look at some of the things Jesus teaches us by his words to Martha. First, Jesus implies in his words that how we spend our time has eternal consequences. He also is saying that some of our choices are better than others, particularly those that will reap eternal, versus temporal benefits. Paul himself elaborates this kind of distinction in 1 Timothy 4:8 “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” Translated: exercise is good, godliness is better. Jesus says the same here. “Hospitality is good. Listening to God is better.” Jesus commends Mary for her choice saying “It will not be taken from her.” What Mary learned at Jesus’ feet had value, not only for this life, but also the one to come.

Mary is commended by Christ. Why exactly is this so?

Is it only because her choice is better? It is not only because her choice is better, but it is also because the heart behind it is motivated by a higher goal. Mary’s highest goal was just to know Jesus better. Her’s was a position of humility, submission and dependence. She understood that we cannot serve Christ until we have received from Him. She had the right order. Jesus already told us, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothin

Martha and Mary
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary by Vermeer --- Vermeer's placement of the figures of Martha and Mary in relation to Jesus might imply that their actions are of equal weight. But is this what the biblical text implies?

g.” How often though do we spend our days in busy service, neglecting to just “be with God.”

Mary is also commended here for a deeper reason. Jesus said that the whole law could be summed up in two commands, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself.” He also tells us in the Old Testament, “To obey is better than sacrifice.” Mary obeyed. She chose to love God with all she had and thus she fulfilled the great commandment. In doing so she showed a heart of wisdom.

Which is the easier task, to sit or to serve? On first blush, sitting at Jesus feet seems like the easier task. After all Mary is not doing any “work.” Or is she?

One of the things that makes Jesus distinct is his counter-cultural attitude toward women. Pharisees did not have women disciples. They did not consider women as equals, and certainly not as logical enough to learn scriptural truths. Yet we see that Jesus treats women very differently. He treats them respectfully. He engages in theological discussions with them (i.e. the Samaritan woman at the well). He also teaches his women disciples (i.e. Mary). Sitting is actually the more difficult task. It requires that we be still. It requires that we listen. It requires discipline and an attitude of active thought (meditation). It requires us to understand how deeply we are dependent on God and need to hear his words to us everyday (humility). It requires an attitude of worship and awe for God.

Martha is described in the text as being “distracted.” She is “worried and upset” about many things. To be worried is to “have a divided mind.” To distract is “to draw one’s attention to a different object.” Life is full of distractions. We could spend our entire life dealing with them and never accomplish anything of value. Jesus teaches in the parable of the soils that the “worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth” can choke out the Word and its fruitfulness in our lives. This shows that distraction and worry are serious temptations for us to contend with if we truly desire to mature in our Christian life.

Martha and Mary
Christ in the House of Mary and Martha by Vincenzio Campi

Is there anything more important than serving God? Yes. Jesus teaches us here that it is more important to love God by seeking to know Him.

An opportunity is defined as: “A favorable, appropriate, or advantageous combination of circumstances.” There could be no greater opportunity than to learn the mind of God from God. That is the opportunity that Martha and Mary had. Yet if you lack wisdom you will not be able to make the best choice when the opportunity arises. That is why Moses prays in Psalm 90: “Teach me to number my days aright that I may gain heart of wisdom.” God promises if we ask for wisdom, He will supply (James 1:5) We need to ask for this wisdom so that we can do as Paul admonishes: “Be very careful how you live, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Inherent in wisdom is the understanding of the brevity of life.

This simple story is not just about Martha and Mary. It is the very situation we face every single day.

Every day we get to choose if we will pick up the Bible and listen to and learn the mind of God from God and to love him with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We cannot say that we have check marked off this story as “got that point” unless we are applying it. James says, “Do not merely listen to the word and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (James 1:22). If you hear the message that you should attend to God himself as first priority but don’t apply it, you deceive yourself, and so do I. We often think that we would obey God if only we were clear on what He expected of us. Yet here He makes it clear: ONLY ONE THING IS NEEDED. The truth is not that we are uninformed, it is that we are disobedient to what we know.

I pray for you a heart of wisdom to make the better choice, as I pray for myself.

When Life Hands You Lemons Make Puttanesca: Lessons from the Lemony Snicket booket

They say that everyone has a story.

I guess someday I thought maybe I would write mine. But it turns out that a book has already been written about my life. Not just a book, but a set of them. They are called: A Series Of Unfortunate Events.

Unfortunate, a word which here means having or marked by bad fortune; unfavorable or inauspicious circumstances.

I have to admit that I was intrigued by the book title and who can resist an author by the name of Lemony Snicket? My favorite pie is lemon pie. That must be why he was chosen to write my story.

Book one is entitled “The Bad Beginning.” Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad BeginningIn the book the Baudelaire children, Violet, Klaus and baby Sunny, who are from a wealthy privileged home, are suddenly orphaned. This is unfortunate event number one.

Then they are sent to live with their nearest relative who turns out to be the evil Count Olaf who is a member of a very suspect troupe of actors. His house is a horrible dilapidated place and he has a cruel streak, even slapping young Kraus across the face.

He makes the children do many tasks and one of the tasks he assigns them is to make dinner for his entire acting troupe. Given only a small amount of money the children head next door to the house of the kind Justice Strauss to read cookbooks from her library. Here they come up with the ingenious plan to make puttanesca, a recipe which consists of a sauce of sauteed olives, capers, anchovies, garlic, chopped parsley, and tomatoes served over spaghetti.

The children buy all the ingredients and make the dish only to have Count Olaf come home and tell them he expected Roast Beef. Yet another unfortunate event.

Though he might have wished me to reach this conclusion sooner, it took me till about the end of chapter five to realize the brilliance of Lemony Snicket. I understood then that he was writing a book to and for children who are facing the issue of child abuse and showing them he understood and empathized with their pain.

How does one write a book to children about that topic?

Snicket figured it out.

Maybe that wasn’t his aim. Maybe that’s just what I read into it. Maybe he just wanted to write a horribly unfortunate story with a horribly unfortunate ending and make a fortunate amount of money. I guess I will have to let the author himself weigh in.

Yet he describes very well many of the things abused children face: evil parents, verbal and physical abuse, squalid conditions, unfair demands, insufficient care, all with little or no chance to escape.

Snicket says: “I am sure you, in your life, have occasionally wished to be raised by different people than the ones who were raising you, but knew in your heart that the chances of this were very slim.”

So what do children do in these inescapable conditions? Baudelaire ChildrenFor the Baudelaire children “they figuratively escaped from Count Olaf and their miserable existence. They did not literally escape, because they were still in his house and vulnerable to Olaf’s evil in loco parentis ways. But by immersing themselves in their favorite reading topics, they felt far away from their predicament, as if they had escaped.” That so accurately describes how children cope the unbearable. They make a way of escape in their head.

It seems Snicket doesn’t give us a happy ending, or does he?

In a way he does by showing that the human spirit can still transcend. Life handed the Baudelaire orphans a lemon, and they made puttanesca.

The human spirit can escape the inescapable even if only figuratively. We can be trapped by terrible things, but we can still dream. The Baudelaire orphans would go visit Justice Strauss and lost themselves in the books of her library.

As Dickinson says “Hope is the thing with feathers- that perches in the soul- And sings the tune without the words-and never stops- at all-”.  For all those children out there who find themselves in a series of unfortunate events please remember that there is always hope.

Hope, a word which here means, grounds for believing something good may happen.

The Perils of Pinocchio: Lying, Laziness and Growing Up

I am always amazed when I read a children’s classic to my kids and come to find it is not the sappy story I remembered from childhood. I think this is due to the fact that my parents did not read me the stories in early childhood. I simply watched some Disney version of the story which is definitely a watered down version.

Of course, I had heard of Pinocchio. He’s probably the most famous puppet ever. The only moral lesson I really associated with the story was Pinocchio’s nose growing long when he lied. That’s about it. So when I sat down and read the full story to my kids I was astonished by it, which is what a good story should do.

The story is replete with moral lessons. However, I was incredulous to the amount of violence in it as well. We are always worried about our kids being exposed to violence, yet here it was smack in the middle of one of the most famous children’s story ever. Or perhaps was Pinocchio like so many of Grimm’s fairy tales, really written for adults?

First off I was surprised that he actually used the word “assassins” when referring to the Fox and the Cat in the story (the two rogues who are always ripping Pinocchio off). That is not a word you hear often in a children’s story. The version of the book I was reading was replete with classic illustrations from many different illustrators. In one part of the book Pinocchio gets hung by the assassins. So sure enough there in the book is an illustration of Pinocchio hanging from a tree branch! I don’t remember that in the Disney version.

Pinocchio has to go through many perils on his way to becoming a real boy. Upon finding Gipetto, he recounts them to his Father in one big rush of a story, just like a real little boy would. “Oh Father, you will never believe what I have been through!”

One of my favorites of his many adventures is when he meets a large serpent stretched out across the road.

Pinocchio Encounters the Serpent
This serious looking serpent ends up dying laughing
He describes it: “It had green skin, fiery eyes, and a pointed tail that smoked like a chimney stack.” He tries to wait for the serpent to move but that doesn’t work. Then he tries talking it into moving, but it doesn’t respond. When he attempts to go over it, the snake shoots up and Pinocchio stumbles back and falls. His head lands in the mud with his feet sticking up. This tickles the snake so that it laughs and laughs until it bursts a blood vessel and dies. Sometimes I have to marvel at people’s imaginations. Just the thought of a snake with a smoking butt makes me laugh. The fact that he died by laughing makes it even funnier. What a way to go. I hope I die that way.

I found that there were many moral lessons in the story, not just the one about the consequences of Pinocchio lying. Pinocchio has to learn many hard things the hard way. Proverbs says that “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child.” Pinocchio displays this over and over again. Unless we have good parents who help us navigate life when we are young, there are many dangers out there.

I could commiserate with Pinocchio and his naiveté and gullibility. I’ve met my share of Foxes and Cats in this life. The lessons you learn from being taken in by them are bitter ones. Assassins is really not too strong of a word for them.

The lessons from the story come in handy. My son was complaining about not wanting to go to school. I said, “Well you remember what happens to boys who don’t go to school? They become asses!” He looked at me wide eyed. (Pinocchio learned that boys who don’t do their school work and only play, get turned into donkeys).

Another theme of the book is about not being lazy. I read a portion of the book to my sons in an attempt to explain to them that laziness is not a virtue and that they most definitely needed to clean their room and keep up with that!

In the story I was touched by Gipetto’s care and concern for the puppet he made. It made me think about how God feels about me. How He is rooting for me to make it through the pitfalls of this life and to navigate the evil people of this world.

Pinocchio’s story is ultimately my own.

In the end we all learn with Pinocchio that a big part of growing up is caring for others more than ourselves. I can’t wait until I am reunited with my Father. I have quite a story to tell him, especially about the serpent with the smoking tongue I encountered on my path. She had a good time mocking me, but in the end I enjoyed crushing her head as I stepped on her on my way to my Father.

Why I Want To Smack Leonardo DaVinci

“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards.
I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made
reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees………Yet when I surveyed all that
my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless
a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”
King Solomon – Ecclesiastes 2:4-6,11

Have you ever met somebody who is uber talented, extremely good looking and wealthy to boot and they are complaining about some minor deficiency they possess? Did you find yourself having an unbridled urge to reach out and slap them? Come on. Admit it. You know you have. I felt that urge recently when I was reading a book about Leonardo Davinci entitled “Leonardo’s Horse.”   Leonardo Da Vinci's Bronze HorseIn the book they describe Leonardo. He was (at age 30) handsome with curly blonde hair. He had a beautiful singing voice and could play musical instruments. He could juggle, ask riddles and stage elaborate plays. In addition to being an artist and musician he was an engineer, architect, philosopher and astronomer. Apparently however there was one project that dogged Leonardo to his dying day: the bronze horse. The Duke of Milan got it in his head to honor his father with a bronze horse to be placed in front of his palace. Leonardo wanted to be the man for the job, and was in fact recommended. Leonardo felt that this would be “his mark on history.”

Leonardo began his work. First he studied everything he could about horses. He made numerous drawings of them in various stages of movement. Then he collected 58,000 pounds of metal- tin and copper. Once the metals were heated they could be made into the bronze they would use to cast the horse. There was one little problem however. No one had ever made a single pour of anything that large. The horse was supposed to be 24 feet high. He completed a clay model of the horse and presented it to the Duke at a special celebration. The people of Milan were thrilled! Yet he put off casting because he had been commissioned to do another work. The new project: painting the wall of a convent with a depiction of The Last Supper. No big deal. Just another day in the life of Leonardo. Meanwhile the French do a nasty thing and invade Milan. All the metal that had been collected for the bronze horse had to be used for weaponry. Eventually Leonardo and the Duke flee and the French destroy the clay model horse Leonardo had left behind. The project was never completed.

It is said that Leonardo was haunted by this to his dying day. Apparently Michelangelo taunted him for starting a project he could not figure out how to complete. Leo should have brushed him off. Seriously, what the heck did THAT guy know anyway? The book says that Leonardo became depressed at the end of his life and wrote in one of his journals: “Tell me, if anything has been achieved by me. Tell me. Tell me…….I have wasted my hours.” To begin with, somebody should have told him to chill out and that the “Last Supper deal” was “pretty good.” Secondly, someone should have told him that the “Mona Lisa chick” was “pretty cool too.” Heck she’s even smiling her reassurance. It is striking that for a world class artist he lacked one thing: Perspective. If there should be one thing an artist knows about it is perspective. I guess Leo had it for his paintings, but not his life. Obviously he was aiming for some fame. Yet no one can say for sure what will make them “famous.” Some people ARE famous for great works of art. Some people are famous for destroying great works of art and being burned at the stake for it. (Read the history of the Temple of Diana). Some have decided that “if you can’t beat em’, destroy em’.” Seriously though I wondered if Leonardo could come to the end of his life and wonder if HE did anything of value, what hope do the rest of us have? Us mortals who walk on two feet. Us regular people who feel thrilled when we are able to make a play dough sculpture that sort of resembles Yoda. Who are ecstatic when our kindergarten finger painting gets chosen for display. Who marvel when we successfully make proper Rice Krispie Treats. Who delight when we learn to tie our shoes. For us regular mortals, the bar for achievement is a bit lower. That’s why I feel a strong urge to get violent when Leonardo is lamenting his life’s work. In truth none of us will be able to completely evaluate our “life’s work.” Our life’s work will continue to play out it’s effects long after we are gone. All of us probably will have a “bronze horse of regret” at life’s end. Something we wish we could have completed, but didn’t . One thing is true however, our lives do matter. (Even the lives of us regular mortals) and how we spend our time is crucial. Someone once said that “Character is the sum of our habits.” For some of us that statement is downright frightening. It is a wake up call. How do you spend your time? Since you have innumerable choices of things you can do, how do you chose what is infinitely most important so that when you come to the end you won’t feel you “wasted your hours?” God became man and answered this very question. When Jesus was being offered hospitality at the home of his friends Martha and Mary, Mary sat at his feet listening while Martha was “busy and distracted with many things.” Martha rebukes Jesus for not asking Mary to help her. Jesus rebukes Martha saying “Mary has chosen what is better and it won’t be taken from her.” Clearly God says some things in life do have greater weight and priority, the number one being spending time learning about who He is. We could for example spend a couple of hours watching T.V., or we could spend a couple of hours reading God’s word. Two choices, two weights, two outcomes. The difference between them is like say the difference between making a bronze horse and painting The Last Supper.

Life. It’s all in the perspective.

Reference:  Jean Fritz, Hudson, Talbott, Leonardo’s Horse, (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2001)

 

Tangled: A Critical Analysis of Rapunzel

“The caged bird sings with a fearful trill

of things unknown but longed for still

and his tune is heard on the distant hill for

the caged bird sings of freedom”

Maya Angelou

Rapunzel's Tower

Before there was the Cohen brothers, there was the Brothers Grimm. Jacob born in 1785, and Wilhelm in 1786 were raised in the Kingdom of Hesse (what is now central Germany). Their father died when they were young, leaving their mother Dorthea to raise six children. The eldest two Grimm brothers became the hope for the family. They were sent to get an education and eventually became two of Europe’s most preeminent philological scholars. They became interested early on in preserving the folk tales of the common people. In an effort to preserve their heritage in the face of Napoleonic oppression, they set out to unearth “every folk story ever told in German tongue.” They painstakingly collected and transcribed the tales. The collection of the tales was a communal effort. Many of the fairy tales were either collected by listening to other women story tellers, or recorded by women assisting the brothers in their project. From that collaboration the brothers produced “Children’s and Household Fairy Tales”, which has become a modern classic selling second only to the Bible in Western cultures. From them we get such classic tales as Rumplestiltskin, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, and the topic of my story: Rapunzel.

Recently I had a mother say to me, “Oh I took my daughters to see “Tangled.” (Based on the fairy tale Rapunzel). I loved it! It was so great. Of all the movies Disney has put out recently, this one is my favorite. You must go see it.” So go see it I did. Obviously the movie aimed for humor and it was definitely beautifully animated. Yet as I watched it I found myself being moved deeply and I wondered if anyone really understood the themes and ideas behind Rapunzel.

In the original version there was a woman who greatly longed for a child. After a long while it seemed that God was going to grant her wish. However the woman’s house overlooked the garden of an enchantress. In that garden was some beautiful rampion (rapunzel). Every day she longed to have some of the rampion. She felt she would die if she did not have it. Her husband climbs down into the garden and steals some and she eats it in a delicious salad. The next day she longed for it three times as much. So her husband dutifully steals some more, only this time he is caught by the enchantress. Greatly angered the enchantress agrees to allow him to have it if he will give her the child once it is born. So when the child is born the enchantress appears, names her Rapunzel and carries her away. The child grows up to be very beautiful with magnificent long hair, fine as spun gold. At the age of twelve, the enchantress shuts her in a tower, which lay in a forest and had no stairs nor door, but had a little window at the top. When the enchantress wanted up she would call for Rapunzel to “let down her hair” and she would climb up. Rapunzel passes the time by “letting her sweet voice resound.” One day the King’s son hears the singing and it deeply touches him. He eventually sees how the enchantress climbs up. After she has gone he too calls for Rapunzel to let her hair down. Climbing up he asks her to marry him. He is to bring a skein of silk with him every time so they can weave a ladder and escape. However, one day Rapunzel gives away the secret that she has been seeing the prince  (apparently Rapunzel is very beautiful, but not too bright!). The enchantress cuts Rapunzel’s hair in a rage and banishes her to the desert, where Rapunzel gives birth to twins. When the prince comes the enchantress tricks him into climbing up. Instead of finding Rapunzel he finds the enchantress who gazes at him with “wicked and venomous looks.” He escapes by jumping out the window, but he is blinded by thorns when he lands. He roams about for some years lamenting the loss of his wife, until eventually he wanders into the desert and hears her beautiful singing. Rapunzel’s tears wets his eyes and his eyesight is restored. He leads her and their children to his kingdom and they live happily ever after. Definitely different than the Disney version for sure.

Let’s look at the themes. First we see the mother’s longing for the forbidden rampion. Here we are once again, back in the garden of Eden. The man is involved by getting the food for the woman. Once she has the rampion she “longs for it three times as much.” It reminds me of what C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters. In describing pleasure Screwtape’s uncle reminds Screwtape that demons cannot produce a single pleasure, they can “only encourage humans to take the pleasures which God has produced, at times, or in degrees in which he has forbidden.” He says, “an ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula.” We see that played out here. The woman eats the forbidden rampion, and then her craving increases for more. The end result of her eating the forbidden rampion is that she must give up that for which she originally longed: the child. The forbidden pleasure cost her the real pleasure which was the child.

In the Disney version of the movie Rapunzel is shown in the tower enjoying her solitude by doing various seemingly fun activities such as painting. Yet what Rapunzel represents is a very real reality for many people in this world. Kris Mohandie wrote an article for the Journal of Threat assessment called “Human Captivity Experiences.” He makes the point that “captivity provides a unifying theme to describe the dynamics that underlie many victim experiences.” What are some of the very real ways people live in human captivity situations? Here are a few: being a victim of domestic abuse, being stalked, human trafficking, prostitution, cults, being kidnapped, slavery. The first example is one that is widespread and common. Though you may not realize it, you know many people who are living in human captivity situations and you are affected by them living in this captivity. Let me say without equivocation that if you have an understanding of that, or even greater if you have experienced it first hand, you know for sure that captivity is hell. Though Disney tries to make captivity look fun, there is absolutely nothing fun about it. When you watch the movie, if you understand that, it is sobering to see Rapunzel in the tower. It’s gut wrenching. What do we do for the meanest criminals? The ones who behave the worst? We put them in solitary confinement. That is what Rapunzel is in. The only human she is allowed to see is the one who is cruel and mean to her. Believe you me, that sums up many a battering relationship. It is absolutely anguishing in reality to see a person cut off from others. It is exquisite torture to experience it. Only something evil would do that because it is mercilessly cruel.

What Rapunzel also represents is that try as you may, the human soul cannot be killed. Though she is in almost complete isolation the one thing the enchantress can’t take away from her, try as she may, is her voice. What does she do in captivity? She sings. It so beautifully depicts Maya Angelou’s poem. You can cage a bird, but you can’t cage it’s song. We could enslave African Americans, but they sang their beautiful gospel songs while working in the fields. We kept them down to a degree, but never totally. The human spirit endeavors to be heard. That is part of why I am writing this blog.

On a brighter note, the story reminds us all of the great story that has and is unfolding. The story of Rapunzel is the story of all humanity really. We have all been taken captive by evil, the evil of our own sin. We find ourselves trapped in a tower of this sin with no escape. Yet God in his mercy saw the anguish of this condition and heard the voice of our laments and sent a prince to rescue us. Christ came to free us from the bondage of being enslaved to sin. In “Tangled” we see Rapunzel rejoicing greatly at her release. She is ecstatic! She is dancing, skipping and squealing! She is rejoicing! And so should we. The great Prince has come and we have been set free! That is the greatest news that any man could ever hear. I wonder how many people who watched “Tangled” truly understood what they were watching? I hope after reading this post you do not miss the points. They are astonishingly relevant to everyone.

References:

Paradiz, Valerie. Clever Maids: Te Secret History of The Grimm Fairy Tales. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1994.

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. First Touchstone Edition. 1996.

 

Pop Culture: Big Mac for the Mind

hamburgerIn his book “How Now Shall We Live” Chuck Colson challenges that the first step to examining “the worldview behind pop culture” is to find “ a workable definition of pop culture.”  So combining different thoughts Colson  suggests in the chapter we might say that pop culture is: “a new culture, mass produced and standardized, light in substance and meaning,which transcends particular ethnic groups and invades all cultures.”  He states that “the call to redeem popular culture is surely one of the most difficult challenges Christians face today, because pop culture is everywhere, shaping our tastes, our language, and our values.”  Perhaps one of the greatest challenges it poses is the threat to becoming a person of substance.  As he points out in the chapter, most aspects of the Christian life require discipline and concentration.  What pop cultures offers us is easy distraction, mindless entertainment.

In the documentary “Supersize Me”, a man decided to see what the effects on his health and body would be if he ate McDonalds at every meal for months.  The film documents his daily visits to the food chain and the end results.   Aside from the obvious result of just being sick of eating fast food, he gained weight, looked gross, and felt sick and sluggish.  Anyone who watched the film would think twice about eating fast food.  Yet we daily infuse our minds with a diet which is no less healthy.  Colson refers to Marshall McLuhan’s famous adage “the message is the medium.”  What this means is that it is not only that the content of pop culture is of little substance, but so is the form in which it comes.  Pop culture is full of forms which require us to use our intellect very little.  The form is such that it is meant to be entertaining but little else.  One example is the book “Twilight.” It is an enormously popular book and netted 70 million dollars as a movie on its opening weekend.   Not bad for fluff.  A friend of mine suggested we read it.   I picked it up and read the first paragraph and then put it back down.  I said, “Forget this. Let’s read the greatest vampire novel of all time. Let’s read Dracula.”  I wanted to see if Bram Stoker could really depict evil as I have encountered it.  He did not disappoint.  The book was riveting.  Half way through the novel I had already looked up twenty vocabulary words I was not familiar with, and that’s not just because I am stupid.  The book had weight and substance.  It required me to come to it with curiosity.  It made me grapple with evil.  It engaged me in thought.  It was a long book, which required discipline to finish.   In short it was a classic.

If we want to be weighty people, people of substance, we have to look at our diet.  We have to, as Colson challenges, read things that “challenge our mind and deepen our character.”  We must strive to feed our minds and listen with our ears to things of excellence. There is no more excellent thing upon which to feed than the word of God itself. What kind of people would we be if we stopped watching t.v. And used that time to read the word of God? We would be transformed and the effects would be eternal.

Colson, Chuck. How Now Shall We Live. Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 1999.

Searching For Mercy: Lessons from Huckleberry Finn

“Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” Matthew 5:7

One of the things that I appreciate about Twain’s writing is that you can be reading along enjoying the experience similar to laying on a bank watching the clouds float by. Then all of the sudden he twists the plot and you feel as if cold water has just been thrown in your face. He does that at the end of Chaper 23 of Huckleberry Finn. The main character Huck is running away from his abusive father and a local slave Jim is running away from his slave master. Circumstances bring them together and Huck decides to help Jim. Since then they have been rafting down the Mississippi River. At this juncture Huck and Jim are having a conversation about the carpetbaggers that are now tagging along with them. Then Huck goes to sleep and waits for Jim to call him for his watch. Jim unselfishly doesn’t call Huck for his turn. When Huck wakes he finds Jim sitting with his head between his knees,”moaning and mourning to himself.” Huck understands without being told that Jim is mourning for his family. Huck notes to himself that Jim is a good man. He begins talking with Jim about his wife and young children. Jim tells him about the time he treated his “little Lizabeth so ornery.” She was only four years old and had caught scarlet fever. He tells Huck that she eventually gets well. Then he relates to Huck:

“One day she was a stannin’ aroun’, en I says to her, I says, “Shet de do’” She never done it; jis’ stood dah, kiner smilin’ up at me. It make me mad;en I says again, mighty loud, I says “Doan’ you hear me?-shet de do’!” She jis stood de same way, kiner smilin’ up. I was a-bilin’! I says: “I lay I make you mine!” En wid dat I fetch’ her a slap side de head dat sent her a sprawlin’. Den I went into the other room, en’uz gone ’bout ten minutes; en when I come back, dah was dat do’ a stannin’ open yit, end dat chile stannin’ mos’ right in it, a-lookin’ down and mournin’, en de tears runnin’ down. My, but I wuz mad. I was gwyne for the chile, but jis den- it was a do’ dat open innerds- jis den, ‘long come de wind en slam it to, behine de chile, ker-blam!-en my lan that chile never move’! My breff mos’ hop outr me; en I feel so-so-I doan’ know how I feel. I crope out, all a-tremblin’, en crope aroun’ en open de do’ easy en slow, en poke my head in behine de chile, sof’ en till, en all uv a sudden, I says pow! Jis’ as loud as I could yell: She never budge! Oh Huck, I bust out a-cryin’ en grab her up in my arms, en say, ‘Oh ed po’ little thing! De Lord forgive po’ ole Jim, kaze he never gwyne to forgive hisself as long’s he live!” Oh she was plumb deef en dumb, Huck, plumb, deef en dumb-en I’d ben a treat’n her so!” Upon reading those words I cried. Jim describes so movingly in his slang how he discovers for the first time his daughter has been rendered deaf and dumb due to the scarlet fever infection. To his dismay he has punished her for not carrying out an order she could not hear.

If someone should ask me what should most prominently define a Christian I would say: love. However a close second, and intimately tied to it, would be mercy. Any person who is truly resting in Christ’s work alone for his salvation must by default be merciful. Yet when I look for mercy among Christians I am ashamed to say I often find it absent. It struck me how much this passage portrays what really goes on among our interactions with people. We come upon someone and they smile at us. We have no idea the burden they may be carrying. Yet when they do not act as we feel they should or respond as we would hope, we judge them privately. Then instead of seeking understanding we go up and slap then in the face. We slap them with our self-righteousness, we slap them with our condemning attitudes, we slap them them with platitudes, we slap them with advice, we slap them with gossiping behind their back, we slap them so hard we send them sprawling. Then later we find out that her husband left her, he just was diagnosed with cancer, she went bankrupt, she buried her only child, he was just widowed. We are stricken. If only we had known! If only, then we would have been merciful. Mercy is not a difficult skill to master. It does however require humility. It requires us to understand that we are all on equal footing. That but by the grace of God we would be walking that same road. Mercy, as Tozer defines it, “is God’s active compassion.” If God could be so merciful to save us, how could we not extend mercy to our fellow traveler who is in the same pit as we are? Active compassion looks like: listening to understand, being quiet, offering a hug, bringing a meal, sitting with the lonely, crying with the heartbroken, putting an arm around the grieving. It mostly involves presence. The wise in heart know that when encountering the hurting, shutting their mouth is a blessed relief. Job said of his worthless counselors : “Your proverbs are maxims of ashes.” (Job 13:12)

I myself have been sorely in need of mercy these past few years. I have searched for it, but have found it in the rare few. Mostly my pain has been intensified by all the slaps. To be misunderstood is a very lonely place. To be misunderstood and mistreated even more so. God forgive us all for being such poor representatives and for failing to extend to others the mercy they so desperately needed.

The Death of Injun Joe: Reflections on God’s Providence and God’s Mercy: Lessons from Tom Sawyer

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom and his crush, Becky Thatcher, get lost for several days in a cave. Out of candles, hungry, and desperate Tom and Becky spend those days in the cave fearful and almost feeling as if death is inevitable. Miraculously Tom finds a way out and the two escape. The townspeople are joyously relieved as they had been anxiously searching for them. Judge Thatcher, Becky’s father, makes sure no other children will get lost in the cave by having a big door put on the entrance. At this news Tom turns white as a sheet because while in the cave he discovered that “Injun Joe” was also there using it as a hideout. Earlier in the book Tom and his friend Huckleberry Finn witness Injun Joe murdering someone in the graveyard. Tom later testifies to this at a trial. Injun Joe escapes and Tom remains in fear of him. Tom says, “Oh judge, Injun Joe’s in the cave!” When they reach the cave the sorrowful sight of Injun Joe’s dead body awaits them. He was lying stretched upon the ground with his face close to a crack in the door, as if to look longingly upon the light of day until the last minute. Tom is moved because he knows first hand “how this wretch has suffered.” They notice clues around the cave as to how he has been living. He had been trying to hack through the door with his bowie knife, a fruitless endeavor. He had been eating bits of candle left in crevices by visitors to the cave. He had also caught and eaten a few bats. It had not been enough to sustain him and he had starved to death.

Injun Joe also left evidence of how he was trying to keep alive by drinking what water was available. Twain says this: “In one place near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherin he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock tick- a dessert-spoonful once in four and twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new, when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British Empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was “news.” It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history and the twilight of tradition had been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need? And has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come? No matter.” It is here on this point I want to reflect. In reading Twain it amazes me that though Twain does not personally come to terms with his maker in his life, God still uses Twain’s incredible gifts to bring Himself glory nonetheless. In this statement Twain is pondering, just for a brief moment, both the providence and mercy of God. Theologian R.C. Sproul once defined God’s providence as “God’s seeing something before hand.” but he also said that the Doctrine of Providence “includes more than simple foresight with respect to a deity. Providence involves far more than just seeing what is taking place. God has the authority and power to change what he sees and to bring about whatever he desires to bring to pass.” Sproul challenges that “the broad question of providence is one of the most fascinating, important and difficult doctrines in the Christian faith because it deals with the difficult questions.” Twain just for a minute contemplates if God in his providence would have formed this stalagmite over all those thousands of centuries because in His mercy He knew it would provide some water to a dying murderer. Wow. What a question to contemplate. Most people feel that if there is a God he surely has abandoned His world or is merely a spectator of events here. Even if we feel that God might be involved, we think that his providence is only contained to what happens in this lifetime. Twain pushes us farther. Though he doesn’t put it in these terms he in essence says “what if God’s providence was unfolding for you millions of years before you were born?” I am particularly moved and also in awe of the thought that God could know, was thinking about and forming over millions of years a drink for a dying evil man who didn’t deserve it. That is just one man, just one situation, just one drink, in one moment in time. Can you contemplate just for one second how complex God’s interweaving of Providence is in his world? His providence doesn’t just involve people, he has all his creation at his disposal to bring about “all that he desires to pass.”

Church CrossPeople in our day don’t feel that God is involved in His world. Yet there are examples of his involvement screaming out to them all the time. Let me give you a recent example. In October 2010 sixty-four year old real estate broker Ed Rosenthal was hiking in an isolated canyon deep in Joshua Tree National Park when he lost his way. He survived six harrowing days in the remote scorched canyons. The one thing he was in particularly short supply of was water. He had left two huge bottles back at his hotel. He said simply “Your mouth turns to sand.” In desperation he tried drinking his urine, but he could not stomach it. Not being particularly devout Rosenthal prayed for rain. Ten seconds later it rained. In his words he “lay down in amazement as the drops wet his parched tongue.” A drink for a dying man from God’s creation. Twain already predicted it. He just asked us to think about how long that rain had already been formulating. When I think of God’s providence and mercy in these terms I am in awe. It’s more than I can imagine. I can only hold it in my mind a second and then it’s too much to entertain. It’s not that God is not involved in His world. It’s just that we fail to perceive and attribute His providential work to Him. We attribute it to luck or chance or worse yet we think nothing at all. God wants us to know him. He speaks all the time. In order for Mr. Rosenthal to hear him God arranged in His providence to meet him in the desert. A desert is a good place to get people’s attention. It’s the most barren, desolate place on earth. It’s harsh, unforgiving, merciless. In this sun scorched setting at the point of Rosenthal’s greatest desperation and need, God spoke. God spoke and drops of tender, merciful rain came down. Rosenthal said “There was definitely a miracle. I am much more religious now than I was. Seriously. I prayed for rain and it rained”, he marveled. “My conclusion is that God is real. Really. I have to tell you. God is real.” There it is. God finally getting the man’s attention. In the man’s own words he acknowledges that he now knows there is a God. He marvels. Yes, he marvels. That’s what men do when they meet God. These kinds of events which showcase the providence of God happen all the time, we just do not marvel at them or attribute to God the praise, awe and adoration he deserves for them.

All of us are born into this world dying men. From day one we are in the same desperate condition as Mr. Rosenthal. Sin has separated us from God and a relationship with him. Yet God in his Providence for all humanity sent Christ to be the sacrifice to pay for our sins so that we might be restored to Him. In a sense all events in history are either a providential lead up to Christ’s coming, or a providential play down to His return. It’s not just that the whole story of the Bible is about him. It’s that everything for all time and in every way is about Him. He is, as He says, the alpha and the omega. Today, right now, God is speaking to you. Do you recognize yourself as a dying man in need of a drink? Have you accepted his beautiful cup of water? Christ. Our only hope.

Was Solomon the Wisest Man Who Ever Lived? Lessons from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Old worn BibleThe short answer is yes. Of Solomon the scripture says: “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment; the breadth of his understanding was as infinite as the sand on the seashore. Solomon was wiser than all the men of the east and all the sages of Egypt. He was wiser than any man, including Ethan the Ezrahite, or Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol. He was famous in all the neighboring nations. He composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs…….People from all nations came to hear Solomon’s display of wisdom; they came from all the kings of the earth who heard about his wisdom.” 1 Kings 4:29-32,34.

I personally have the utmost respect for the wisdom of King Solomon. I read the book of Ecclesiastes often, and marvel at the book of Proverbs. Let it also be said that God chose the wisest man who ever lived to write a whole book dedicated to the beauty of sexual love: The Song of Solomon. Solomon admonishes us in Proverbs 3:13 “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom and the one who obtains understanding. For her benefit is more profitable than gold. She is more precious than rubies, and none of the things your desire can compare with her.” He also says in Proverbs 4:5-7 “Do not forsake wisdom and she will protect you; love her and she will guard you. Wisdom is supreme – so acquire wisdom, and whatever you acquire, acquire understanding.” I directly attribute the wisdom of Solomon for being a guardrail for me, literally saving my life.

In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, the main character Huckleberry is fleeing his abusive father. Huck has staged things to look like he was murdered. He chances to meet up with Jim, the slave of a woman who has helped Huck. Jim has fled his master and is trying to make it to a “free state.” There he hopes to earn enough money to buy back his family. The story chronicles their adventures as they raft down the Mississippi river. As they are floating along one day, Jim and Huck debate the merits of King Solomon’s wisdom. Huck is explaining to Jim what kings do. He says: “And other times when things is dull, they fuss with the parlyment; and if everybody don’t go just so he whacks their heads off. But mostly they hang round the harem.” Jim says, “Roun’ de which?” “Harem” answers Huck. “What’s de harem?” Jim asks. “The place where he keep his wives. Don’t you know about the harem? Solomon had one; he had about a million wives.” Huck says. “Why, yes, dat’s so; I -I’d done forgot it.” says Jim. “ A harem’s a bo’d’n-house, I reck’n. Mos’ likely dey has rackety times in de nussery. En I reck’n de wives quarrrels considerable; en dat ‘crease de racket. Yit dey say Sollermun de wises’ man dat ever live.’ I doan’ take no stock in dat. Bekase why: would a wise man want to live in de mids’ er sich a blimblammin’ all de time? No-‘deed he wouldn’t. A wise man ‘ud take in buil’ a bilerfactry; en den he could shet down de biler-factry when he want to res;.”

I was reading the book to my sons. When I got to the part about the “blimblammin” I stopped, laid the book down on my chest and laughed. I laughed long and hard. I laughed a deep, belly heaving laugh. My sons looked at me and began to laugh too. I honestly cannot recall that I have ever laughed that hard at something written in a book. Twain’s true gift to mankind was his humor. Jim’s down home wisdom just struck me as so funny. The thought of all the wives arguing, and the racket and headache that would create for Solomon just broke me. As a woman, one has to roll one’s eyes at the idea of men and their need for a harem. To think it might give them a headache is an irony so funny as to keep one laughing for hours. I can just hear King Solomon now, “I am sorry wife number 343, I just don’t feel up to it tonight because all that blimblammin has given me a severe pain in my head.” Now you have to admit,that’s funny.

It is clear from the book of Ecclesiastes that Solomon sought to understand the depths of wisdom but also that of folly. We also know from the book of 1 Kings that all of Solomon’s many wives led him astray. “He had 700 royal wives and 300 concubines; his wives had a powerful influence over him. When Solomon became old, his wives shifted his allegiance to other gods; he was not wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord his God, as his father David had been.” 1 Kings 11:3-4 This is a sobering fact considering the breadth of wisdom Solomon had. It confirms what he himself said in Ecclesiastes 10:1 “Like a fly in a perfumer’s ointment, so a little folly outweighs much wisdom.” Solomon’s “little folly” was women. They were irresistible to him. They were the fly that ruined the beautiful fragrance of his relationship with God. If only Solomon could have had a friend like Jim. Maybe then he could have seen the wisdom in givin’ up those blimblammin women.

How To Be A Proper Murder Witness: A Lesson from Tom Sawyer

“A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies.”

Proverbs 12:17

I had always heard that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the epitome of adventure stories for boys. I am sad to say I hadn’t read it until I read it this year to my sons. I had the typical expectations. I figured it would be full of mischief, piracy, hooky from school, fishing, exploring caves, crushes on girls, etc. Things were going along as expected until I got to chapter nine: “Tragedy in the Graveyard.” It was right then that I knew this was no ordinary adventure story for boys. When Tom and Huck witness a murder it brought me up short. Twain took his fishing line and cast it out into deep waters. He let us know right then and there that if you came to this book for an unthinking read, go fish elsewhere. This was a guy who was going to make us wrestle. I loved him for that. In a biography of Twain by Ward, Duncan and Burns they talk about that Clemens life and Twain’s art were filled with undercurrents and unseen treacheries. They quote William Styron: Twain’s exuberant and almost irrepressible humor is almost always colored by this understanding that life is not one big yuck, but is a serious event in which horrible things happen.” I can appreciate that, because my life has been filled with unseen treacheries and I like how Twain makes us consider the meanness of life.

Tom and Huck are hiding out in the graveyard when they become the unwitting witnesses to a murder. Muff Potter, a local drunk, and Injun Joe have come out to dig up a body for young Dr. Robinson. However Injun Joe is there for other reasons. He has a personal vendetta against Dr. Robinson because the doctor’s father had once had Injun Joe jailed. As the boys sit wide eyed in horrified silence behind the tree they witness the argument between the two which ends with Injun Joe stabbing the doctor. Since Muff Potter had been knocked unconscious by the doctor, he doesn’t know what transpired. When he comes to, Injun Joe informs Muff that he is the murderer, but the boys know the truth. Muff is eventually arrested and held in a small jail cell awaiting trial.

In the intervening time we become privy to the private thoughts of the boys. They are very scared holding the knowledge of this private, horrible secret. After much debate they eventually decide to take a vow of silence, fearing that Injun Joe might kill them. Yet their gnawing conscience is stricken over the fact that if they don’t speak up Muff may take the punishment for a crime he did not commit. To ease their guilt, they smuggle “small comforts” to Muff through the bars of the jail window. Twain describes the two boys as they hear Injun Joe tell what happened: “Then Huckleberry and Tom stood dumb and staring, and heard the stonyhearted liar reel off his serene statement, they expecting every moment that the clear sky would deliver God’s lightnings upon his head and wondering to see how long the stroke was delayed. And when he had finished and still stood alive and whole their wavering impulse to break their oath and save the poor betrayed prisoner’s life faded and vanished away, for plainly this miscreant had sold himself to Satan and it would be fatal to meddle with the property of such as power as that.”

Twain makes us consider a lot here. All of us would like to think that if we would witness a crime that we would be a truthful, courageous witness for the innocent. However, I think we all would think twice if being a truthful witness meant we might be murdered for telling that truth. Being a witness is risky business. Even if it didn’t result in our death, we could still be paid back with harm by telling the truth. Our cowardice increases when we see an evil man tell a bold faced lie and God does not immediately strike him down. We too would wonder about “messing with the property of Satan.” This is a struggle I am intimately acquainted with.

Eventually Tom does reveal the truth and Muff Potter is freed and Injun Joe escapes and becomes a fugitive on the run. It is a very courageous act on Tom’s part and from then on he lives with the dread and nightmare that Injun Joe will return and kill him. For all his faults Tom really shines here. He shows us how to be a proper murder witness: we tell the truth, even if that truth might cost us our life. Perhaps we could say the moral of the story is: It is more noble to be a dead truth teller than a live coward.

Dracula: Lessons Learned About The Nature Of Evil

My friend came bringing me a paperback copy of the book “Twilight.” I read the first paragraph and said, “Forget it. Let’s read the greatest vampire novel of all time. Let’s read Dracula.” I wanted to find out for myself first hand if Mr. Stoker really understood evil as I had experienced it. I wanted to know if he could “bring it.” I was not disappointed.

The main protagonist is Jonathon Harker. He is a solicitor and has been retained by Count Dracula. So he sets out for Transylvania to do business with the count. The first thing we notice in the story is that he is warned not to go. An old lady says to him, “Do you know where you are going, and what you are going to?” She was in such evident distress that I tried to comfort her, but without effect. Finally she went down on her knees and implored me, not to go; at least to wait a day or two before starting.” Lesson one: evil is distressing. Most of us seem to be a lot like Harker, rushing headlong towards evil ignoring the signposts. What we find waiting for us is distress.

The first thing Harker notices when he meets Count Dracula is his prodigious strength as he helps Harker into his carriage. Harker says “His hand actually seemed like a steel vice that could have crushed mine if he had chosen.” Lesson two: evil is strong. Scripture tells the Christian “greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4) God always reigns supreme. Yet in this life, evil people wield great power. The most evil people I have fought against in this life I have been delivered from. Every single one. They held more earthly power. They could “win” against me, but they could not “win” against God in any ultimate sense. He defeated their ability to dominate me.

Harker describes Dracula. “Within stood a tall man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere.” Lesson three: evil is ancient. Our foe has been around a long time. Count Dracula says to Harker, “Welcome to my house! Enter freely and of your own will!” Lesson four: evil is inviting. To invite by definition is to make a polite, formal or friendly request to someone to go somewhere or do something. An invitation to do evil or get involved with an evil person rarely seems foolhardy. Evil often portrays itself as kind, helpful, caring. But any kindness it shows is merely a means to entangle it’s victim deeper. I once wrote a sonnet about the devil and I described him as debonair. He comes with such manners and grace that it seems like you are being invited to the White House rather than to death. Count Dracula continues, “Welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.”

Lesson five: evil costs. It’s interesting to note here that the count invites Harker in and tells him he is free to come and go. We shall soon chillingly learn this is not the case. Satan is the master at presenting a temptation and making it look so attractive that you are distracted as to what it’s going to cost you. Then we like rather dumb sheep run toward the slaughter. He doesn’t have to come up with new temptations. He just plays the same old records over and over. The Count says to Harker, “You may go anywhere you wish in the castle, except where the doors are locked, where of course you will not want to go.” Lesson Six: evil is capricious. Capricious is derived from the root word “capriccio” originating in the 17th century denoting “a sudden change of mind.” From Italian, it literally means “head with the hair standing on end., hence horror.” Once an evil person has drawn you in, you find to your horror as Harker did that the rules have suddenly changed. Before Harker entered the castle Count Dracula said he could come and go freely. Once Harker is in the castle, he now says he can go “anywhere in the castle, except where the doors are locked.” Stoker brings us along for the ride as Harker comes to realize slowly over time that he is the only person in the castle other than the Count. We also come to the sickening realization along with him that the Count has locked him in and there is no way out. Thus we come to Lesson seven: Evil is a trap. We read with a deep sinking in the pit of our stomachs: “I went out on the stairs, and found a room looking towards the South. The view was magnificent, and from where I stood there was every opportunity of seeing it. The castle is o the very edge of a terrible precipice. A stone falling from the window would fall a thousand feet without touching anything! As far as the eye can reach is a sea of green tree top, with occasionally a deep rift where there is a chasm. Here and there are silver threads where the rivers wind in deep gorges through the forests. But I am not in heart to describe beauty, for when I had seen the view I explored further; doors, doors, doors everywhere, and all locked and bolted. In no place save from the windows in the castle walls is there an available exit. The castle is a veritable prison, and I am a prisoner!” When I read those words I understand them in a very visceral way. I literally want to vomit because I understand so clearly how Harker feels. I know, understand and can empathize with his feelings of helplessness and despair.

Harker begins to get to know the Count through their discussions. He is trying to learn what he is like. Count Dracula says in describing himself. “I have been so long master that I would be master still – or at least that none other should be master of me. lesson eight: Evil wants control. Satan’s original sin was pride. He wanted to be like God. In other words, he wanted to be in control. Tozer in his book, “Knowledge of the Holy”, makes clear that the root of all idolatry is placing oneself in the position of where God should be. “Sin”, he says, “has many manifestations, but it’s essence is one. A moral being, created to worship before the throne of God, sits on the throne of his own selfhood and from that elevated position declares “I am. That is sin in it’s concentrated essence; yet because it is natural it appears to be good.” An evil person has placed himself on the throne, but that isn’t enough for him. Evil wants to be in control not only of self, but also of others. C.S. Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters: “…the ruthless, unsmiling, concentration upon self is the mark of hell.”

Harker also learns of Dracula’s strange aversion to mirrors. He says to Harker, “Take care how you cut yourself. It is more dangerous than you think in this country.” Lesson nine: evil is dangerous and destructive. This one is pretty self-explanatory. When we engage in evil or get entrapped by an evil person we will experience harm or injury. Then seizing the shaving glass, he went on: “And this wretched thing that has done the mischief. It is a foul bauble of man’s vanity. Away with it!” and opening the heavy window with one wench of his terrible hand, he flung out the glass which was shattered into a thousand pieces on the stones of the courtyard far below.” Lesson ten: Evil cannot bear to see it’s true self. It is probably more accurate to say that evil not only cannot bear to see itself, it literally cannot see itself even if it wanted to. It is pointless to discuss evil with and evil person. Just ask Lot. Evil is not reasonable. It is not interested in change. In the book of James, the author compares the Word of God to a mirror. James says the man who reads God’s word but does not apply it, is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and then walks away forgetting what he looks like. Evil men react as violently to the Word of God as Dracula did to the mirror. They don’t want to hear it. It cuts them to the core, exposing who they really are. Deep down they know the truth, but the suppress it. When Count Dracula sees the cross Jonathon is wearing around his neck it says, “his eyes blazed with a sort of demoniac fury and he suddenly made a grab at my throat. I drew away, and his hand touched the string of beads which held the crucifix. It made an instant change in him, for the fury passed so quickly that I could hardly believe that it was ever there.” Lesson eleven: Evil hates love. Nothing looks more stupid to evil than love. It looks insipid, foolish, ridiculous. And nothing exemplifies love more than the cross. Christ dying on the cross for the sins of evil men is a love beyond measure, so evil hates that more than anything else. The Apostle Paul puts it like this, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Harker writes in his journal, “When I found that I was a prisoner a sort of wild feeling came over me. I rushed up and down the stairs, trying every door and peering out of every window I could find; but after a little while the conviction of my helplessness overpowered all other feelings. When I look back after a few hours I think I must have been mad for the time, for I behaved much as a rat does in a trap. When, however, the conviction had come to me that I was helpless I sat down quietly-as quietly as I have ever done anything in my life-and began to think over what was best to be done.” If you are not feeling profound empathy for Harker here you should be. Lesson twelve: evil destroys hope. In the book “Bold Love” Dan Allendar says this about evil: “Evil strips people of their hope. Evil not only betrays, but also attempts to entrap the innocent in bondage. Bondage is a form of slavery that dulls the senses and steals from the soul a vision of what could be…evil kills hope by deadening the soul through bondage and terror.” We see this so clearly in Jonathon’s actions. At first he analyzes all his possible options. When he realizes there are none he sits down like a beaten dog in silence. He is feeling the weight and the oppression of his situation. He is experiencing helplessness and despair. He begins to do what all captives do: he tries to figure out how to make the best of living in confinement while hoping against hope there is still some way out. Harker notes in his journal: “He knows well that I am imprisoned; and he has done it himself, and has doubtless his own motives for it, he would only deceive me if I trusted him with the facts. So far as I can see, my only plan will be to keep my knowledge and my fears to myself, and my eyes open.” Lesson thirteen: evil deceives. No one in their right mind would get involved in a relationship with an evil person. No one in their right mind would fall for a temptation that would cost them their life. Yet it happens to nearly everyone of us. We all have been deceived by evil. We all have felt its sting. Some of us have literally been entrapped by it. We certainly all have been harmed by it. The most bitter experiences of my life have involved entanglement with evil people. I am not saying that I do not have evil in my heart or that I have never done evil actions, I have. What differentiates a Christian from an evil person is not that we do not have evil in our hearts and they do. What differentiates us is that the Christian purposely refrains from doing evil, and when he does do evil, he repents of his actions.

Harker now tries to learn more and more about the Count in some desperate attempt to find a weak spot. He notes, “I have had a long talk with the Count….In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate.” Lesson Fourteen: evil is proud and arrogant. Probably every sin ever committed originates from pride as it’s source because it is pride that makes us desire to place ourselves above God. If the evil person has a weakness, it is always pride. Harker now realizes the irony of all situations of captivity: his safety depends upon his captor. He says in his journal: “God preserve my sanity, for to this I am reduced. Safety and the assurance of safety are things of the past. Whilst I live on here there is but one thing to hope for, that I may not go mad, if, indeed, I be not mad already. If I be sane, then surely it s maddening to think that of all the foul things that lurk in this hateful place the Count is the least dreadful to me; that to him alone I can look for safety, even though this be only whilst I can serve his purpose. Great God! Merciful God!” Lesson Fifteen: evil is pragmatic. Evil people do not view others as “people” but as objects. They are objects to be used in the furtherance of their kingdom of self. Once the person’s usefulness to the evil person is done, that are discarded or worse. Jonathan knows his life is only as good as his usefulness to the Count.

At a certain point Jonathon realizes a few others are present in the castle. He looks and sees three beautiful women. He describes them: “All three had brilliant white teeth that shone like pearls against the ruby of their voluptuous lips. There was something about them that made me uneasy, some longing and at the same time some deadly fear. I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips.” Lesson Sixteen: evil is seductive. To seduce means “to lead away.” An evil person is so ugly inside that it doesn’t seem fair that outwardly they should look so beautiful. Yet it is often true. Since beauty is sometimes overwhelmingly disarming and irresistible, we find ourselves drawn toward evil. Here Jonathon declares his desire to be kissed by these women who are in fact vampires. Sometimes to be seduced by evil is to be seduced to our death.

The Count intervenes before the women can kiss Jonathon. “As my eyes opened I saw his strong hand grasp the slender neck of the fair woman and with giant’s power draw it back, the blue eyes transformed with fury, the white teeth chomping with rage, and the fair cheeks blazing with passion. But the Count! Never did I imagine such wrath and fury, even to the demons of the pit. His eyes were positively blazing. The red light in them was lurid, as if the flames of hell-fire blazed behind them.” Lesson Seventeen: evil is angry. If I could pick one trait that would exemplify every great villain in every great story it would be that they are angry. The Bible indicates that unless we deal with our anger quickly it festers and gives the devil a “foothold.” A foothold is a position from which further advance can be made. Evil people have allowed this foothold and are often consumed hatred and filled with rage. It is easy to sin and engage in evil, if first we have allowed ourselves to remain angry. The scripture tells us “In your anger do not sin; when you are on your beds search your heart and be silent.” It is interesting that it advocates being silent. So much of the destructiveness of anger comes about through our words.

Count Dracula speaks to the women: “How dare you touch him, any of you? How dare you cast eyes on him when I had forbidden it? Back I tell you! This man belongs to me!” Lesson eighteen: evil is possessive. To be possessive is to show a desire to own or dominate. C. S. Lewis describes this desire well at the beginning of The Screwtape Letters: “Even in human life we have seen the passion to dominate, almost to digest one’s fellow; to make his whole intellectual and emotional life merely an extension of one’s own – to hate one’s hatreds and resent one’s greivances and indulge one’s egotism through him as well as through oneself. His own little store of passion must of curse be suppressed to make room for ours. If he resists this suppression he is being very selfish.” The women mock the Count for being able to love. Dracula says “Yes, I too can love; you yourselves can tell it from the past. Is it not so? I promise you that when I am done with him you shall kiss him at your will.” Lesson Nineteen: evil is parasitic. The Count thinks he can love, but all he can really do is suck the life blood from others. Now he promises the female vampires that they can use Harker after he is done. Continuing to speak of the way humans try to dominate others C.S. Lewis says this, “On earth this desire is often called “love.” In hell I feign that they recognize it as hunger. But there the hunger is more ravenous, and a fuller satisfaction is possible. There, I suggest, the stronger spirit – there are perhaps no bodies to impede the operation- can really and irrevocably suck the weaker into itself and permanently gorge its own being on the weaker’s outraged individuality. It is ( I feign) for this that devils desire human souls and the souls of one another.” This perfectly describes the life of the vampire. They have to gorge on others to survive. Human predators are no different.

Harker keeps watching Count Dracula to learn more about him. One day he sees the Count emerging from a window. “My very feelings change to repulsion and terror when I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and being to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings….What manner of man is this, or what manner of creature is it in the semblance of man? I feel the dread of this horrible place overpowering me; I am in fear – in awful fear – and there is no escape for me; I am encompassed about with terrors that I dare not think of.” Lesson twenty: evil causes fear, anxiety, dread. When Harker thought things couldn’t get worse one day he watches the Count emerge wearing Harker’s clothes. He writes in his journal: “I drew back and watched carefully, and saw the whole man emerge. It was a new shock to me to find that he had on the suit of clothes which I had worn whilst travelling here, and sung over his shoulder the terrible bad which I had seen the women take away. There could be no doubt as to his quest, and in my garb too! This, then, is his new scheme of evil: that he will allow others to see me, and they think, so that he may both leave evidence that I have been seen in the towns or villages posting my own letters (which the Count dictated to him and forced him to write.), and that any wickedness which he may do shall by the local people be attributed to me. It makes me rage to think that this can go on, and whilst I am shut up here, a veritable prisoner, but without that protection of the law which is even a criminal’s right and consolation” Lesson twenty-one: evil frames others for its deed. I know exactly what this feels like and can commiserate with Harker’s rage. I have watched in helplessness as an evil person manipulated others to make me look as though I had done something wrong. Then those “others” came and accused me falsely. It was maddening. You feel murderously enraged because you are helpless to defend yourself because the evil person has made it look so convincing. It’s like the bully who taunts another kid. If the kid hits back or defends himself, he often is the one who gets in trouble, while the bully walks. Sometimes not being able to take vengeance is a very tough command to follow.

At one point Harker asks the Count if he can leave. The Count leads him to the massive front door which is unlocked! Harker opens the door. He describes it: “As the door began to open, the howling of the wolves without grew louder and angrier; their red jaws, with champing teeth, and their blunt clawed feet as they leaped, came in through the opening door. I knew then that to struggle at the moment against the Count was useless. With such allies as these at his command, I could do nothing.” Lesson twenty-two: evil has allies at its command. Evil people are masterful at persuading others to do their bidding. Allender and Longman in Bold Love, describe it like this: “An evil person regularly and masterfully portrays his motives and behaviors as innocent. Others just do not understand. He is deceitfully gifted in making the victim of his abuse feel like the perpetrator of harm. When the victim protests and exposes the abuse, he will accuse the victim of being too sensitive, emotional, troubled, or unreasonable. He portrays himself as the real victim, cruelly misunderstood and falsely accused.”

Harker explores the castle further and one day finds the Count laying in his coffin. Harker writes: “He lay like a filthy leech, exhausted with his repletion….There was a mocking smile on his face which seemed to drive me mad……..A terrible desire came upon me to rid the world of such a monster.” Lesson twenty-three: evil is a mocker. In this way evil mimics Satan who is our ultimate accuser. Allender and Longman write: “Contemptuous mockery is the language of accusation. It is the bony finger that uses shame to cut through our defense to the fragile, lonely parts of our heart. Few experiences are as difficult to endure as being the object of someone’s cackling contempt. Mockery is the weapon that evil uses powerfully to strip its victim of a sense of self and life.” Psalm one tells us not to “sit in the seat of mocker.” Mockery is the mark of an evil man.

Harker closes: “I was again a prisoner, and the net of doom was closing round me more closely…..What shall I do? What can I do? How can I escape from this dreadful thing of night and gloom and fear? I must find a way from this dreadful place. And then away for home! Away to the quickest and nearest train! Away from this cursed spot, from this cursed land, where the devil and his children still walk with earthly feet! At least God’s mercy is better than that of these monsters, and the precipice is steep and high. At its foot a man may sleep – as a man. Good-bye, all! Mina! Does Harker escape the castle? How? I shall leave you to read the book and discover. Certainly we do not mine all there is to know of evil from these chapters, but Stoker describes for us an exceedingly malevolent figure whose characteristics define many of the marks of evil.

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. First Touchstone Edition. 1996.

Stoker, Bram. Dracula. Dutton: Penguin Group. 2009.

Tozer, A.W. The Knowledge of the Holy. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1961.

Allender, Dan B., and Tremper Longman. Bold Love. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992.

Sitting in the Seat Of Mockers

In Psalm One King David says “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates both day and night.” What does it mean to sit in the seat of the mocker? To mock by definition is “to tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.” It also means “to make something seem laughably unreal or impossible.” One does not have to read very far in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to understand that Twain definitely sits in the seat of the mocker. Despite his prodigious talent, or maybe because of it, Twain could not make peace with his maker. In their biography of Twain, Ward, Duncan and Burns note that “Twain knew from the start that God was the greatest dramatist, and much of his genius can be found in simply getting out of the way of a good story. He took for granted that God was everywhere, but Twain’s own search disappointed him continually.”1

In the chapter entitled “The Pinch Bug and His Prey” 2 Twain describes a church service. Of the choir he says “The choir always tittered and whispered all through the service. There was once a church choir that was not ill bred, but I have forgotten where it was now.” Of the announcements: “Rev. Mr. Sprague turned himself into a bulletin board and read off ‘notices’ of meetings and societies and things till it seemed that the list would stretch out to the crack of doom….” Of the prayer: “And now the minister prayed. A good, generous prayer it was, and it went into details.” Having grown up attending a Baptist church in a small town I personally find these images hilarious. Believe me I sat through every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday evening service the church had, and not a few of them had tittering choirs, a list of announcements as long as the constitution and droning prayers. Yet despite the frailties of our human worship, those services made a deep impression upon me that remains to this day. I am deeply appreciative for that heritage.

When Twain describes the preaching he says “The minister gave out his text and droned along monotonously through an argument that was so prosy that many a head by and by began to nod- and yet it was an argument that dealt in limitless fire and brimstone and thinned the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving.” When I read this I must admit I laughed. Twain is riotously funny. Yet that is the very danger of mockery. It makes what is serious seem “laughably unreal.” What the above statement told me was that Twain knew quite a bit. If you are familiar with the idea of the elect, you have more than a passing knowledge of Christianity. The Bible makes clear that we are creatures meant for eternity and that all of us have an eternal destiny to be spent somewhere. Making hell seem amusing gives men the idea that they can be complacent in their lives about finding God. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is not a man in hell today that thought he would be there. As the famous puritan preacher Jonathon Edwards says “Men flatter themselves that they will escape hell.” Twain continues “The minister made a grand and moving picture of the assembling together of the world’s hosts at the millennium when the lion and the lamb should lie down together and a little child should lead them. But the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy.” What Twain is describing here is more than “a great spectacle.” What he is describing is the return of the King. When Christ returns in his glory. The Bible makes clear that Jesus Christ is the only hope man has to be released from his imprisoned state as a sinner and be restored to a relationship with God. Someday Christ will return and it will be the most glorious entrance any King ever made and “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:9-11 ) It is clear in his writing that Twain is working out his struggle both with life and with God and he draws us into it. When Twain says “the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy” he means they were lost upon himself. He is searching for God, but he cannot find him. He can’t find him because Twain sits in the seat of mocker. One can only find God by humbling himself and sitting in the seat of worshiper. That is to acknowledge that we are the creature he is the creator and we will never understand all. We must believe and have faith. God has given us many and numerous reasons to believe, as many as the stars in the sky. He has given enough reasons and proofs that men of the highest intellect should be astounded. The problem of faith in God is never due to God not providing enough evidence, it is due to man not being willing to humble himself in the face of such astonishing, overwhelming clarity of truth.

1Ward, Duncan and Burns, Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography (New York: Knopf, 2001).
2Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1974).

Never Trade For The Bully Taw: A Lesson From Tom Sawyer

In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer1 Mark Twain describes one of the most infamous scenes in literary history: Tom Sawyer sitting back watching others whitewash the fence he is supposed to be painting and actually paying him for the “privilege” of doing it! The first person Tom tries to swindle into whitewashing the fence is his Aunt Polly’s slave boy, Jim. Jim comes ambling along to go draw water from the well. Immediately Tom ambushes him. He tries to talk him into trading chores. “You whitewash a little while I go get some water.” But Jim has been forewarned by Aunt Polly not to make any stops and to beware of Tom and his schemes. Since he is hesitant Tom has to offer him some sparkles. He pulls one of his treasures out of his pocket. It is a white alley. Jim eyes it. Tom says “White alley Jim! And it is a bully taw!” In terms we understand: Jim, it is one heck of a beautiful marble! Jim says, “My! Dat’s a mighty gay marvel, I tell you!” But before Jim can fall for the temptation Aunt Polly swats him with her slipper and he goes a runnin’ to do his chore. Tom is downcast. He knows all the boys will make fun of him for having to work on a Saturday. Then he has, as the writer notes, “Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.” He figures if he makes whitewashing look fun, all the kids will want to try it. His next victim, Ben Rogers, is not so lucky as Jim. He falls for the bait. Tom makes whitewashing look so attractive that Ben gives up his delicious, juicy apple or the “privilege” of doing Tom’s work. The rest of the kids fall for the same act, and likewise give up their treasures. At the end of the day, Tom is a rich man and the fence has been painted while he sat back and idly watched the spectacle.

Now reading this story makes us chuckle. It seems funny on the surface to watch Tom shrewdly manipulate all his friends and become wealthy to boot. It really does seem very funny indeed and you are about half-way through the laugh when it dies in your throat. All the sudden you realize that every person in history, including yourself, has been the dummy on the receiving end of the deception. The only difference is that the trades have been much more serious. We aren’t just giving up apples. We are giving up much more valuable commodities. With remarkable accuracy Twain outlines the Devil’s age old strategy. First Satan starts with distraction. We are on our way to carry out our task and he shows us a bully taw. It catches our eye. We stop to look. Then we begin to dialogue with the devil. Pretty soon he has convinced us to give up a greater treasure for a piece of junk. Then he sits back and laughs at us when we make the trade. Sometimes it takes us awhile to see we have been duped. When we finally realize it, we jump back in dismay and surprise! Later in the book, Tom performs his trick again. He trades the treasures he gleaned in the whitewashing scheme for “tickets.” These tickets were supposed to be earned by learning Bible verses. Tom is able to trade in his tickets to get a Bible. About Tom’s victims Twain remarks: The boys were all eaten up with envy- but those who suffered the bitterest pangs were those who perceived too late that they themselves had contributed to this hated splendor by trading tickets to Tom for the wealth he had amassed in selling whitewashing privileges. These despised themselves, as being the dupes of a wily fraud, a guileful snake in the grass.” One can almost sense Twain’s personal pleasure here as his protagonist “seems” to outwit God himself by getting the prize of a Bible again without doing the work. Twain often sits in the seat of mocker and makes religious folk out to be dimwitted. Yet it’s not just those who believe in God who are easily duped. We all have been duped and we all despise ourselves for the folly.

In a million different ways we have whitewashed many fences in our lives. We always remember too the person who duped us. We know them by name and usually feel great bitterness toward them. None of us likes to be ripped off. I think of one of the greatest Tom Sawyer’s of our century: Bernie Madoff, a name now synonymous with greed. He bilked billions out of many investors with his Ponzi scheme. Many people lost their life savings. Madoff’s son recently committed suicide unable to live with himself after the fallout of his dad’s arrest and imprisonment. It can seem that life is composed of the Tom Sawyers, and the rest of us dummies who get bilked by them. But in truth the Tom Sawyer’s of this world are being deceived by Satan too, “that guileful snake in the grass.” His trade with them is: do this immoral thing and reap the reward. For awhile it works. They sit back, eat their apples, and watch the painting with amusement. But in the end Satan gets them too. They have traded their eternal souls for the brief pleasure of a few worthless earthly trinkets.

Someone once asked Madoff what he felt about all the people he robbed. He said,”F*#k my clients!” As I said, they trade their soul. Here is the moral of the story: Never trade for the bully taw.

1Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1974).

What Susan Boyle and Bilbo Baggins Have in Common

“I knew because my mother told me that God had given me a path to follow and I would gradually find out what that was. I liked the idea of being on a special journey that God created just for me. I always tried to remember that other people’s opinions about me didn’t matter. What mattered was the path that God had laid out for me.” -Susan Boyle

I must say one of the highlights of my year was going on You Tube and watching the video of Susan Boyle perform at the Britain’s Got Talent semi-final. When she walked out in that ridiculous outfit and then gave that wiggle I was sold. I loved her immediately. Then when she opened her mouth and blew them away with those pipes I was smiling like the Cheshire cat. Then I read her book: Susan Boyle, The Woman I Was Meant To Be. When I found out that she had some learning difficulties and had been made fun of and bullied a lot of her life I loved her even more. It is so satisfying in life when the underdog wins. She mentioned that this year she was going to perform for the Pope. Take that you wee bullies! I hope that throws you on your arse. Actually Susan didn’t have a bad word to say about those who had mistreated her and seemed to be taking her new found fame in stride. It was very touching to hear how much love and admiration she had for her mother who had cared so well for Susan her whole life. After her mother died Susan was really at a loss and struggling to find purpose. It is exactly at this juncture that she makes the decision that forever changes her life: to try out for Britain’s Got Talent.

In the book she describes getting ready to go for the semi-final. She got up early and put on her dress, finishing off the outfit with black tights and white open-toed shoes. Then she set off in the early morning sloshing through the gray dismal rainy day and getting her feet wet in the puddles. It took six bus exchanges to get her there and though she made it on time they did not have her listed as being a contestant at that time slot. She had to wait many, many hours to get her chance to perform but she was determined to see it through. By the time she got to go out on stage it had been a long day for the judges slogging through very little talent. Apparently Simon Cowell heaved a weary sigh when she told him what she wanted to sing: “I Dreamed a Dream from Les Miserables.” Not a very auspicious beginning for world fame. Yet that is exactly what it was. It was a great delight to see crabby Simon Cowell beaming at the end. Isn’t it great when we get smacked in the face with our prejudice and come up short?

When she left that morning for the semi-final she talked about how she felt like turning back and going back to bed in her nice cozy home. That is exactly how Bilbo Baggins felt in The Hobbit. He was about to embark on the adventure of his life and all he really wanted to do was snuggle up in his hobbit hole and have a second breakfast with tea. Many times during his adventure which involved dwarves, elves, trolls, wargs, goblins, wizards, a slimy creature called Gollum and of course a fantastic fire-breathing dragon guarding a treasure, Bilbo thought longingly of his hobbit hole. Tolkien describes their journey: “It was a hard path and a dangerous path, a crooked way and a lonely and a long.” Yet both Bilbo and Susan exemplify the axiom: nothing ventured nothing gained. They both pushed themselves out into the wider world and came back with treasure. If that doesn’t give you the inspiration to go for it, nothing will. Who knows? Maybe you will get to sing for the Pope.