Theology and Literature: Isaac Watts and the “Event”

I’ve been entirely remiss about including a final installment of this “Theology and Literature” series. The simple routine of life’s proceedings — going to the library, mailing a postcard, eating a bagel — has gotten me off track, or, rather, kept me on track. But that track, in its rigidity, has not been wholly conducive to writing something reflective. I’ve been trapped in a flow of events that somehow has managed to be fairly uneventful.

This idea of eventfulness brings me back to a enduring memory from my nine-month-long stint of studying in Britain, from which I have only recently returned. Back in March, I took part in a ten-day, cross-country pilgrimage that stretched from Oxford, England to Walsingham in East Anglia. It was cross-country in a double sense: our group of two dozen pilgrims carried a nine-foot-long crucifix in three person, three minute shifts 20 to 30 miles per day. We crossed through fields populated by sheep and fat pale hogs and passed by Norman churches with slanted roofs and skewed tombstones in their uneven churchyards. Our first or second evening, we stopped in a church in Bicester for mass. Near the end of the service, we sung a hymn that struck me to the core. I can’t quite explain why. I had actually studied the hymn in an literature class, though I only realized that a few minutes later. Tiredly reading the bare words in preparation for class discussion, however, had not impacted me quite as much as singing them among a chorus of pilgrims and parishioners.

The hymn was “When I survey the wondrous cross”, one of many written by the 18th century English hymn-writer Isaac Watts. A contemporary of his, a certain Charles Wesley, allegedly claimed that he would have traded all the hymns he wrote (and he wrote some 6000) to have written just this one. The verse that really caught my attention in the church that evening was the following:

His dying crimson, like a robe,

Spreads o’er His body on the tree;

Then I am dead to all the globe,

And all the globe is dead to me.

These four lines capture the “Event” of Christ’s death on the cross with such vivid precision — the robe-like curtain of death spreading over him — yet, the most striking feature of this verse for me lies in the spectator’s reaction to the “Event.” The last two verses describe the death the spectator suffers as Jesus himself dies, and the subsequent death of the world in the darkness of his Savior’s passing. Usually, artistic renderings of the Crucifixion focus on Christ’s death, yet here attention is redirected to the death of the spectator and the world that follow from surveying that wondrous cross. Watts masterfully reflects this in the form of hymn itself, which employs chiasmus, the inverted mirroring of words in a pair of lines, to represent the cross: “dead” and “all the globe” switch places from the third line to fourth line, forming an X structure (Chiasmus comes from the Greek letter for X, Chi). What’s more, the subject “I” transforms into the indirect object “me,” as the spectator fades into the background, dying as Christ dies. The loss is made personal, which, I suppose, explains why the hymn struck me as it did.

In a subjective sense, the “Event”-ness of an “Event” resides in the response of the perceiver rather than in the physical constitution of the perceived alone. Occurrences are memorable not just because they are bright or loud or enormous, but because they strike the individual in just the right spot of his or her circumstances, tear a hole in the fabric of the everyday, and settle into his or her memory. Most Events are Events only in the minds of a few individuals primed to receive them. Doubtless, few of my fellow pilgrims would recount that hymnal moment in the church as I did. Though some Events certainly resonate with large group of people, often appealing to a national consciousness, such as in the inauguration of a president or the end of a war, even these occurrences are tinged and colored by an individual’s experience before they solidify into an “Event.”

The Gospels do portray the Crucifixion as an “Event,” one that has been internalized and assigned significance by individuals, rather than a banal historical occurrence lacking deeper meaning, however grand it might seem. In John’s Gospel, we hear how Mary stood near the cross as John, the beloved disciple of Christ, said to her, “Woman, behold your son” (John 19:26). John experiences his own “Event”, as Christ responds to the disciple, “Behold, your mother” (John 19:27), which happens to be an important moment for mariology, as Christ identifies Mary’s role as a spiritual mother to others. In the Synoptic Gospels, the centurion and the good thief comprehend the import of Christ’s death in their own way. Watts captures this personal angle tremendously well in his literary of this occurrence turned “Event,” so well, indeed, that the hymn produced an “Event” in my own life.

When reading becomes eventful, when you can point to a passage and say, “these words induced this or that lasting emotional resonance in me that I can recreate (or at least reproduce a scent of) by re-reading” — that’s when you know you’re reading the right stuff.


Literature and Theology: David Foster Wallace and Christianity from Without

In my last post on Faulkner and Biblical Interpretation, I examined the idea that theology should be understood more like literature (seen as a network of symbols and themes conveyed through a master narrative), and that literature should be read more for its theology (how it speaks to the heart, as the Bible does for Faulkner’s Isaac, rather than to the analytic mind).

In this post, I intend to reflect on a passage from another work which, again, does not deal chiefly with theology—a scene in the short story “Mister Squishy”, the first in the 2004 collection Oblivion: Stories by David Foster Wallace. I featured this passage in its 2-page, single-sentence entirety in a past post, but this time I want to isolate and explicate several theological details.

The scene takes place as Terry Schmidt, a middle-aged marketing analyst, directs a focus group on a new line of Mister Squishy brand confections while simultaneously directing his own internal monologue plagued by fears of inadequacy and mental isolation.

Without further ado:

“Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and –knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was probably only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he’d watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg’s cap’s public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under the left arm or the way any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other’s arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine. . .

“Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context  of the mystery of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and trans-rational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were” (31-2)

Two particular features animate this passage: first, it articulates a nuanced view of the theological layer of reality, especially from a writer who approaches Christianity and theology as an outsider. Though Wallace tried out various churches, (once entering Catholic RCIA and marrying a Catholic convert, according to D. T. Max’s biography) he never seemed to adhere to a specific religious creed, as D. T. Max speculated in an interview with The Atlantic: “I don’t think the Judeo-Christian God ever satisfied him. I think he found it hard to put his skepticism away and feel faith.” Second, it delves into the mind of a character, granting the reader immediate and intimate access to his crippling fears and lofty speculations.

Theological Idea(l)s as Immaterial Ideals

Overtly, this passage discusses marriage theologically as “not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls” in which husband and wife are fully known by one another in what the “Church” calls “the Holy Sacrament of Marriage.” While worthy of discussion, marriage will not be the focus of the analysis. Rather, the implications that Schmidt draws out from the sacramental nature of marriage interest me for their insight into the higher-level reality of theological concepts.

Along with the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, Schmidt regards sacramental marriage as “miraculous and trans-rational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life,” meaning that they appear “not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star,” which reminds one of one’s own limitations.

Wallace does well to describe theological ideas as guiding principles, as ideals that layer over reality. Though the Crucifixion and Resurrection are much more grounded in history than other transcendent notions, such as Original Sin and human dignity, it is important to realize that theology does not concern itself merely with hard-data and events, but with the meaning of those phenomena, hence becoming multi-dimensional. The Crucifixion, for example, is both the Roman execution of Jesus of Nazareth on a wooden cross in first century Palestine and the fulcrum of Salvation History, an act of pure sacrifice that mirrors and redeems Adam’s Fall through the fruit of a tree as the incarnate God suffers the death of mortal man, which serves as a guiding principle of Christian devotion and love.

Some aren’t willing to see these immaterial dimensions. A skeptic might respond that a man’s death on a cross has nothing to do with the sins of others, that no measurable redemption occurs (remember, though, that we are also told that the Crucifixion is “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” [1 Cor 1:23]). This materialist skepticism is the same sort of attitude espoused by Steven Pinker as he dismisses belief in the human ‘soul’ in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.[1] But Wallace gestures at the higher realities of these concepts, concepts which spiritually guide our lives rather than physically describe them. C. S. Lewis (metaphorically) describes Christianity in a similar way, not as some identifiable feature of the world, but like the light of the sun that allows him to see the world at all.[2]

C. S. Lewis, Light, and Looking Along

And to C. S. Lewis I turn to explain the second feature of this passage from “Mister Squishy”; the way in which Wallace allows us to inhabit the character of Terry Schmidt, to look along with him rather than at him.

In an essay titled “Meditations in a Toolshed,” Lewis distinguishes between looking at a ray of light—a thin stream of photons projecting through the hole of a toolshed roof—and looking along that same ray—a, quite literally, enlightening experience by which the sky and treetops beyond the toolshed are illuminated. While ‘looking at’ limits the viewer to analytics and data, ‘looking along’ immerses the viewer in a view-altering experience.  This is the difference between measuring the pulse and temperature of someone who is in love, boiling the experience down to hormones and neurology, and actually being in love oneself.  Pinker’s nonphysical human soul substance vs. the sensation of being a soulful human.

Wallace succeeds twofold in looking along. Not only does he embody the experience of a corporate employee paralyzed by the “thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine” and invite the reader to do the same; he also views Christian doctrine as a non-Christian not by scrutinizing as an outsider looking in but by adopting the Christian perspective as an outsider looking along.

Conclusions: Literature as View to the Soul?

Wallace’s engagement with Christianity and theology in general takes a similarly empathetic approach. In a section of The Pale King, an IRS agent reflects on how he belittled a Christian for her ‘coming-to-faith’ experience only to realize in the wake of his own vocational epiphany that “enormous, sudden, drastic, unexpected, life-changing experiences are not translatable or explainable to anyone else , and this is because they really are unique and particular” (206). His short story “Good People” (which would become part of The Pale King) inhabits the mind of a Christian dealing with his unexpectedly pregnant girlfriend, quoting esoteric Bible verses and grappling with Christian conceptions of sexuality and moral responsibility. Even more hidden away, a passage in Infinite Jest describes God’s presence in the world as the flow of water that two fish fail to recognize despite its pervasiveness.

“Mister Squishy,” along with nearly all of Wallace’s Oblivion: Stories focus on the interiority of human characters, spinning minute verbal details into brilliant literary expressions of self. From the literary bits emerge a narrative guiding by thematic ideals and a glimpse into human lives, albeit fictitious ones, that ordinary discourse rarely permits. Yet, we do not take these stories as just words, nor people as mere particles arranging into a complex chemical chimera of personhood. Literature enkindles a narrative, a holistic structure, a soul. For the world, theology endeavors to do the same.


[1] Pinker reasons that because human bodies consist of only biological parts just as machines consist of mechanical parts, we have no more reason to believe that the merely material apparatus of the human gives rise to a soul than we have reason to believe that your laptop’s metallic assembly (or, to be more fair, a Star Trek android) gives rise to one. To start, this is a poor comparison. Machines and organisms exhibit markedly different behaviors which lead us to believe that there is something about organisms that is simply categorically different from inorganic matter—there is a certain “livingness” that differentiates what Peter van Inwagen calls “composites” (any living being) from mechanical replicas. Perhaps we can pin down this “livingness” as consciousness. Moreover, Pinker’s analogy wholly misses the point of what is meant by a ‘soul.’ In the book, Pinker defines a soul as an immortal entity “made of some nonphysical; substance, which can part company with the body” (10). The question is, what would a nonphysical substance look like? How could Pinker’s view be falsified? Do we need some kind of invisible petroleum jelly to constitute the soul? I find this approach rather foolish. If one could quantify or observe a nonphysical substance through physical means, it would necessarily be physical. When we talk about nonphysical, immaterial things, we are invariably talking about ideas that ‘map on’ to reality—essences, ideals, “something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful” to quote Wallace. We should think of the soul as a reality, but not a material reality. Rather, it is a reality that is endowed into and hence emerges from the material arrangement of the human body. Recall that Paul talks about resurrection as involving bodies, too: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:44). I would go so far as to say that if there is organized organic matter, there is spirit in some sense (as consciousness, essence, perhaps?), even if not in the immortal, subject-to-judgment reality of the human soul. The body-soul relationship certainly demands some heavier, more rigorous thinking on my part.

[2] “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see  everything else” – C. S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?”

Literature and Theology: Faulkner on Biblical Interpretation

Hey, there. I’ve been meaning to write this post for over a month now. At any rate, I have quite a load of theological thoughts to unload.

My plan (we plan. God laughs) is to write one brief post each remaining Sunday up until Easter (which is not all that far away) regarding the relationship of theology and literature. The two, in word and deed, relate quite closely.  To this end, I intend to analyze one terse but powerful snippet of prose in each post.

Many theological texts, not the least which are books of the Old Testament, constitute a kind of literature, where literature, broadly speaking, is an intensified form of language, one that moves beyond everyday usage through devices such as metaphor, symbolism, and allegory. Theology, as a discussion of deeper transcendent realities, often relies on literary devices to construct meaning. As Peter Hodgson writes in a book on theology in the fiction of nineteenth-century English novelist George Eliot:

“Theology and art are both ‘fiction’ –  a term deriving from the Latin verb fingere, ‘to form,’ ‘imagine,’ or ‘invent’ – in the sense that they entail a shaping, construing, configuring of the real in imaginative as opposed to empirical-descriptive modalities.”[1]

Whereas scientific, empirical study provides us with useful data about the composition and workings of natural systems, literature—and really art at large—constantly insists that objects, sensations, and experience possess meaning beyond the immediacy of their material composition. For example, a bird flying across the expanse of blue sky is not just a bird, but a manifestation of loneliness. If scientific analyses provide us with material descriptions, the arts provide us with a narrative of meaning.

Theology often draws from literature in this way, and literature, I contend, also draws from theology, even when a work does not explicitly deal in theological terms.

Faulkner, “The Bear”, and the Bible

This week, I want to look at a section imbedded deep in the forested terrain of William Faulkner’s short story “The Bear,” which tracks the growth of Isaac, a young Mississippian boy, in the annual hunt of a bear as old and thick-skinned as the trees that hide his fierce ursine form.

The section below, however, appears in the fourth part of the story in which the young boy has aged into a young man. When he debates with his cousin McCaslin, the text takes a theological turn:

 ‘There are some things He said in the Book, and some things reported of Him that He did not say. And I know what you will say now: That if truth is one thing to me and another thing to you, how will we choose which is truth? You don’t need to choose. The heart already knows. He didn’t have His Book written to be read by what must elect and choose, but by the heart, not by the wise of the earth because maybe they don’t need it or maybe the wise no longer have any heart, but by the doomed and lowly of the earth who have nothing else to read with but the heart. Because the men who wrote his Book for Him were writing truth and there is only one truth and it covers all things that touch the heart.’ And McCaslin

‘So these men who transcribed His Book for Him were sometimes liars.’ and he

‘Yes. Because they were human men. They were trying to write down the heart’s truth out of the driving complexity, for all the complex and troubled hearts which would beat after them. What they were trying to tell, what He wanted said, was too simple. Those for whom they transcribed His words could not have believed them. It had to be expounded in the everyday terms which they were familiar with and could comprehend, not only those who listened but those who told it too, because if they who were that near to Him as to have been elected from among all who breathed and spoke language to transcribe and relay His words, could comprehend truth only through the complexity of passion and lust and hate and fear which drive the heart, what distance back to truth must they traverse whom truth could only reach by word-of-mouth?’ (Faulkner, “The Bear” pt. 4)

Now read that through once more.

Powerful prose, no?

Two main theological points surface here: the Truth of the Bible, and the Bible as Revelation, an inspired text, humanly written and divinely mediated.

Isaac’s basic Biblical hermeneutics, that is, his means of interpreting scripture, are the following: the Bible is not a text that appeals only to the brain; rather, it is a text that resonates with the human heart, yet in a way that is clear and universal to “the doomed and lowly of the earth who have nothing else to read with but the heart.” Since the Bible speaks to the heart, it must speak in terms that the heart understands, that is, “everyday terms which they were familiar with and could comprehend.” These terms require the divine Word to be processed through the human heart, such that it not only speaks to the heart but also from the heart, “through the complexity of passion and lust and hate and fear which drive the heart.” This translation from divine knowledge to the human heart transforms and expands the simple perfection of God’s simple message by passing it through the filter of human language, yet this filter must be passed through for the message to be registered universally and clearly by the human heart.

Narrative as the Language of the Heart

Philosopher Peter van Inwagen raises a similar point about Revelation in an essay on Genesis: sure, God could have revealed the exact scientific details about the age and formation of the earth to ancient Hebrew scribes, but such descriptions, first of all, would evade understanding, “for the result would be inaccessible to most people at most places and times.”[2]

Second and more importantly, such a description, with the listing of epochs and the tracking of atmospheric oxygenation, would not communicate the higher level Truth, the narrative of meaning that Genesis provides. For narrative truth, one requires (sensibly enough) a narrative, as van Inwagen writes:

“These truths, I believe, truths related to sin and knowledge of good and evil, can only be shown by telling a very concrete story. . . . something which could not have been conveyed by a story about trees and a serpent but which certainly had to be conveyed parabolically—that is, by means of some story about the actions of concrete, picturable beings.” (141)

Sure, one could define concepts such as sin and salvation, but these definitions would not go too far, floating in the realm of the mind as abstractions. To reify these concepts, one must speak the language of the heart, not simply defining but demonstrating through narrative. The Bible, indeed, frequently speaks in narrative terms, from Adam’s Fall to Jesus’ parables, for the sake of explaining truths that don’t have the same heartfelt effect when merely stated. Love thy neighbor. Ok. But show me how.

By linking together details in linear format, narrative passes on information in the same way that we experience it through the run of daily life. Toni Morrison said as much in her banquet speech after receiving the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature: “I believe that one of the principle ways in which we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative.” However, she did not merely say so, but went on to weave her own narrative to explain how literature combats oppression and gives voice to the voiceless.

A Narrative to Convey the Concept of Narrative

Perhaps to make sense of the abstract concept of narratives speaking better to the heart than mere statements of fact, I should tell a narrative myself. Better yet, I’ll let Scripture, the heart-speaking narrative in question, do it for me.

In 2 Samuel 12, Nathan confronts David about his adultery. While he could simple accuse David of stealing Bathsheba and condemning her husband to death, such a direct accusation of the monarch would be both uncouth and ineffective, so Nathan narrates thus:

“There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a great many flocks and herd. But the poor man had nothing except for a little lamb he had acquired. He raised it, and it grew up alongside him and his children. It used to ear his food, drink from his cup, and sleep in his arms. It was just like a daughter to him. When a traveler arrived at the rich man’s home, he did not want to use one of his own sheep or cattle to feed the traveler who had come to visit him. Instead, he took the poor man’s lamb and cooked it for the man who had come to visit him.” (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

Upon hearing the story, David becomes enrages and decrees that the traveler deserves to die, only to be told “You are that man!” Taken on its own, Nathan’s narrative convinces David of his guilt by speaking to his heart. Taken as a narrative within the narrative of scripture, the story testifies to the potency of narratives to communicate what plain statements cannot.

Conclusions: Reading with the Heart

I suggest, then, that we understand theology more like we understand a Faulkner short story than a logical proof, reading theme and higher level meaning conveyed by narrative. This isn’t to say, however, that theology does not have factual content to add as well—just look at the Gospels, where historical foundations and theological themes develop in the same narrative. The language of the heart and the language of the mind operate together in the same text.

Similarly, we cannot hope to fully understand literature by observing it through an analytic magnifying glass, dissecting metaphors and piecing together meaning. Literature, too, is something experienced with the heart, something that emotes and bleeds. Perhaps Susan Sontag is on to something when she demands an erotics of art in place of hermeneutics in “Against Interpretation.” For now, I’ll try to unify emotions and analytics by keeping Isaac’s Biblical hermeneutics in mind while taking them to heart.

More to come in a week’s time.

Cum caritate



[1] Peter C. Hodgson, Theology in the Fiction of George Eliot (London: SCM, 2001); 149.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, God, Knowledge, and Mystery: Essays in Philosophical Theology (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1995); 140.

What It Means to Be a Serious Man: The Book of Job and the Coen Brothers’ Retelling of the Jewish Scripture’s Chief Account of Personal Suffering

Some months ago I took a train to the north of Chicago to visit an old writer at his home. I had written an article about him for my university’s paper and had become rather enamored on his writing in the process. The essay of his that I had found most enrapturing concerned his wife’s advanced dementia and the death of his parents, ending on the line, “All any of us can do is show our love for each other – while we yet have the time.”

Yet, the man I met that day was nothing like the man I had expected to meet. He lacked the grandfatherly sentimentality of his essays. He was a man like many men. He spoke ordinary words. There was a coarseness to him, roughness from decades of life. It ran through the wrinkles of his skin, yes, but also through his speech, through what he said and how he said it. He said most of the great essayists he admired were dead. He said matter-of-factly, without any particular inflection, that his wife’s condition was only going to get worse. It struck me, while on the train ride back, that this wise writer was a serious man.

Who and what a serious man is, exactly, eludes quick definition. Somehow, though, I can recognize when I have met one, often after hours and in some cases years of retrospection. My father, for example, is a serious man, though the aspects of his seriousness I have only come to grasp in the course of my own maturation. Yet, what I mean by a serious man is not characterized by humorlessness or stolidity or even masculinity itself. There assuredly are women who fit the ‘serious man’ motif. Being a serious man is certainly a disposition rather than a singular emotional state, defined by essence as well as conduct. This disposition involves facing up to suffering and one’s own relative smallness with both courageous acceptance and un-enfeebled hope. It is a disposition that reminds me, most immediately, of the book of Job.

In an attempt to answer the question “What does it mean to be a serious man?” I want to explore this ancient Hebrew account of one man’s response to immense suffering as well as the relevantly-titled film A Serious Man, produced by the Coen Brothers as an oblique re-telling of the book of Job set in an American Jewish community in the 1960s. Through this exploration, I hope to uncover some of the defining aspects of the ‘serious man’ motif and grapple with the problem of suffering, which seems to go hand in hand with the story of any serious man.

The Man Behind the Book: Job

The book of Job belongs to the wisdom literature of Hebrew scripture and presents the account of a man who suffers greatly despite his righteousness. The book of Job, part folk tale and part dramatic poem, essentially aims to answer the theologically mind-bending question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, which can be thought of as a reformulation of the problem of evil. Thus, Job’s narrative constitutes a theodicy, an explanation of how God and evil can coexist.

Yet, the book is no theological treatise, for Job’s tale is a personal and moving one. The book is, after all, Job’s book, and it rightly begins with a description of who he is as a man: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil” (1:1)[1]. Job’s life is prosperous: he has land and many heads of livestock and children for whom he makes cautionary offerings to God, reasoning that “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts” (1:5). However, Job lives in land in which Satan goes to and fro, and when this satanic figure challenges Job’s righteousness by claiming that Job serves God only because he has been blessed with possessions and health, Job’s servitude and confidence in God are put to the test. In a rapid sequence of grave misfortunes—some natural and some perpetrated by other humans[2]—Job is deprived of his land, his horticultural welfare, his progeny, and his bodily health (in 2:7). What is Job’s response to this cataclysmic personal suffering?

“Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.’” (1:20-21)

Despite horrendous suffering, Job surrenders himself to the will of God, recognizing that what he has lost was not his inherently, but rather gifts of God’s benevolence, possessions which he would lose in death at any rate. Thus begins the discussion of what it means to be a serious man.

Though Job acknowledges God’s sovereignty, he struggles to cope with his anxiety at an existential level. In the remaining forty or so chapters, Job continues to lament his suffering and seeks an explanation through a series of speeches delivered by him and his three friends. We are reminded by the narrator that Job “did not sin or charge God with any wrong” (1:22), which confounds the theological sense of the group, which understands suffering as a punishment for sin. Thus, the trio of friends challenge Job’s claim to innocence and righteousness, for God punishes only the sinful.

Throughout the discourse, several thoughts are voiced that shed light on Job’s seriousness. First, Job does not ignore the weight of his suffering or refuse to confront the sorrow of his condition, which would amount to quietism; that is, doing nothing in the face of life’s struggles. Like most people, he demands answers. However, his refusal to content himself with simplistic solutions sets him apart. Though his friends repeat conventional wisdom about God’s retributive justice against sinners, Job desires “to speak to the Almighty and to argue [his] case with God” (13:3). Though the statement can be seen as hubristic and brash, Job’s desire for an audience with God seems to have more to do with his longing for definite answers than it does with his insistence on being mistreating before God. For Job, his friends’ threadbare answers are insubstantial compared to the eternal decrees of the Almighty, as Job describes:  “Your maxims are proverbs of ashes; your defenses are defenses of clay” (13:12). These strongly ephemeral terms of “ashes” and “clay” evoke a major thematic push of the book as a whole: the lives of humans are fleeting and insignificant before the grandeur of God. Job grapples with this unsettling notion directly rather than talking around the issue, saying, “My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle, and come to their end without hope. . . . As the cloud vanishes, so he who goes down to Sheol does not come up.” (7:6, 9). Very much in the vein of the book of Ecclesiastes, Job laments the ephemerality of life and the final separation from the world in death. Perhaps Job’s ability to face up to his relative powerlessness allows him to comprehend a world in which God’s rule—not his own—is supreme. And yet, a final aspect of Job’s seriousness causes him to extend his suffering beyond himself. Rather, than localizing his suffering, Job is concerned with a universal injustice, as he questions, “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power?” (21:8). This universal worry is only assuaged by a universal answer. First in the voice of Elihu, a younger man who has joined the discussion, and later in the voice of the Lord Himself, God’s divine knowledge and supremacy are adduced  to explain God’s ability to adjudicate on matters of justice hidden to humans. In the words of Elihu: “If it were His intention and he withdrew His spirit and breath, all mankind would perish together and man would return to dust” (34:14-15).

After accepting God’s supremacy, Job is vindicated, thereby demonstrating God’s ultimately just treatment of the righteous man; his prosperity is restored twofold and  he dies “old and full of days” (42:17).

Job’s seriousness, then, is built upon his encounter with suffering, to which he responds in a committed, forthright, and humble manner. Though he cannot expect to avoid suffering, he can make sense of it by framing suffering under the direction of an all-knowing God. This same message—that righteousness does not free one from suffering (but, perhaps, prepares one for it)—surfaces poignantly in a scene from Terrance Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, which portrays the American campaign against the Japanese in the battle of Guadalcanal during the Second World War. In the scene, the disembodied voice of a dead Japanese soldier speaks to his transfixed American enemy:

Are you righteous? Kind? Does your confidence lie in this? Are you loved by all? Know that I was. Do you imagine that your suffering will be any less because you loved goodness? Truth?

No. It would seem that righteousness does not disengage one from worldly suffering. Seriousness, though, may equip one to combat it.

A Serious Man

With these basic criteria for the ‘serious man’ motif, I’d like now to turn to A Serious Man. The film centers on a small-town, Jewish professor of physics named Larry Gopnik, whose life is suddenly upended by a series of tragedies mirroring those of Job: his family is taken from him as his wife demands a get (Jewish divorce) and his unassuming brother is accused of gambling and sodomy; his livelihood is threatened by the uncertainty of receiving tenure and a student’s attempt to bribe him; his land is threatened by a domineering neighbor; and, he begins to question where Hashem (God) is and what He wants from him. The movie unfolds masterfully, cycling between Larry’s familial rupture exacerbated by the intrusion of his wife’s lover, Sy Ableman, his work life confused by financial worries, his search for spiritual guidance from three Rabbis (à la Job’s three friends) and his son Danny’s preparation for his bar mitzvah. Not only does the movie build off of the book of Job, it also engages with other compelling Jewish archetypes, including the relationship of father and son (seen especially when Danny, newly bar-miztvahed, walks into the office of the elder Rabbi Marshak, from which his father has been excluded, and passes a conspicuous painting of the Binding of Isaac), the temptation of King David (seen when Larry, standing on his roof top to fix the ever-problematic TV antenna, glances at his neighbor’s wife sunbathing naked), and Jewish chosen-ness (expressed by Rabbi Nachtner in his frequent references to non-Jews as goys). What it means to be a serious man, however, remains a primary focus of the film.

Interesting to note is that Larry, the presumed eponymous “Serious Man,” is not once referred to as such. His refrain, much like Job’s, is “I haven’t done anything.” He does stumble to say, “I’ve, I’ve tried to be a serious man.” However, only Sy Ableman is referred to as a serious man by both himself and Rabbi Nachtner, likely on account of his commanding presence. Yet, he employs circumlocution to avoid talking directly about the extent of his involvement with Larry’s wife—very much in contrast to Job’s forthright engagement with suffering.

The only other character who describes himself as a serious man is the Yiddish husband from the enigmatic opening to the movie, which involves a Jewish couple welcoming a traveler into their home. Here, the man’s declaration of himself as serious stands in contrast to the superstition of his wife, who suspects that the visitor is a dybbuk (a sort of malevolent spirit). Does this mean that a serious man is a rational man, a man who reasons toward truth? A later scene in the movie suggests that the man intent on rationalizing everything, oddly enough, is the one most likely to be perplexed by the world and be too incapacitated by uncertainty to face the world seriously. As Larry stands before a board chalked with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, he announces, oxymoronically, that what we know is that everything is uncertain—we can never really know what’s going on. The spectral Sy Ableman, though, retorts “one can see it’s subtle, clever, but is it convincing?”

While reason may resolve logical dilemmas, Larry, like Job, needs something more existentially convincing to conquer[3] suffering.

While the movie deals with serious tragedy, it is not without humor, which seems to show that a serious man need not be humorless. Rather than a means of brushing away questions, the movie’s humor tends to illuminate seriousness. For example, when Larry consults the ebullient junior rabbi with his concerns about losing track of God, he is told to look at the world through a fresh set of eyes, that even a parking lot can evoke the wonder of God if considered with the perspective of “someone who isn’t familiar with these autos and such.”

The scene recalls the superficial responses of Job’s friends, though it is not without truth—God is present everywhere. The problem, really, is in the presentation, which is decidedly unserious.

Two further details add some clarity to the Coen’s take on suffering and seriousness. First, an epigram appears on screen before the prologue, an old Jewish saying: “Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you.” What is this? An injunction against over-interpretation? A command to bear through suffering without giving it much thought? Maybe it’s simpler than that.

Second, the movie ends on a brilliantly-executed dual cliffhanger: Larry’s doctor, whom he has seen at the film’s opening, requests an in-person meeting to discuess some foreboding X-rays; meanwhile, Danny stands before a gargantuan, grey tornado, as dark and obscure as his father’s potential prognosis. With an understanding of Job, the scene carries prominent theological meaning: first, Job’s children are killed by “a mighty wind,” and the storm threatens to do the same to Larry’s son. Second, in the Hebrew scripture, God speaks to Job from the tempest, reminding him of his uncertain human knowledge. Thus, the torrent in the film might stand both for destruction and divine knowledge. And what message emanates from the storm? The words of the film’s title song by Jefferson Airplane, listened to by Danny throughout the film and uttered by the rabbinically wise Marshak as Danny enters the office: “You gotta find somebody to love.”

A simple message, indeed.

Simple conclusions

In the foreword to a collection of short stories titled Slow Learner, the postmodern writer Thomas Pynchon asserts that a serious man is one who writes about serious issues, namely death and suffering. It seems, though, that what one writes about does not suffice. Rather, how one writes is what matters, for humor that resorts to escapism and simplistic remarks that seep with sentimentality cannot do justice to the problem of suffering, which is perhaps the central problem of human life. Similarly, a serious man is not defined merely by what one does but how one does it, for what a serious man does is clear—he bears through suffering. What makes him a serious man is how he does so—with the understanding that his suffering is not somehow special, but rather a part of a universal scheme, to put the matter a bit crudely.

But, the film’s ending reminds us that more is called of the serious man: he is called, simply, to love. Though the command may seem simple, its truth lies in its presentation. A love that is humble, committed, and selfless. A love that is serious. Like that of Jesus, who, through his selflessness and example as suffering servant, is undoubtedly a serious man. So, I am reminded of the words of another serious man I met not too long ago: “All any of us can do is show our love for each other – while we yet have the time.”

Cum Caritate (With Love),

–Contagious Caritas


[1] All quotations are from The New Revised Version of the Bible.

[2] I make this distinction to demonstrate that both natural and manmade evils befall Job, meaning that no single agent acting maliciously against Job; rather, the entire system of the world has, for the moment, conspired against his material well-being.

[3] To convince, deriving from the Latin vincere “to conquer”

Healthy Thanksgiving

There is a holiday in the United States that is most likely to be thought of as a day celebrating gluttony. It’s Thanksgiving.

I am challenging myself right now to do everything a little more healthily. I walk to class instead of driving. I am counting my calories. I try to make healthy food choices when I can. I think that this is going to flow into Thanksgiving too. My challenge for myself this year to live gratefully. But this doesn’t just mean saying,”Thank you,” a little more often than usual.

This year, I am going to focus on all of the things I consider myself lucky to have, be, and do, and pray in thanksgiving for each one that I encounter. I am going to keep a notebook with me, and scratch down each person, thing, place, or anything else I am thankful for. At the end of the day, I will commit to writing a thank you note to each person on the list, and making a $1 donation (still deciding on the charity) for each item on the list that is not a human being. I’ll post a summary of my list here after Thanksgiving, and complete the notes just as quickly as I can, but definitely by Christmasz

So, here’s where you come in: I want you to join me in this. Spend one day being totally grateful.

Here’s to us, and Happy Thanksgiving.

Contagious Caritas Reboot

Hey there:

Are you looking forward to reading more theologically enriching content on CC? If so, that’s good, since we have more articles on the way. It not, I have a few paragraphs to convince you that having a quick read will be well worth your time.

New enterprises are underfoot here at CC. Charlie is looking to write a new film review / biblical exegesis (it’s been in the works for a while now) on the Book of Job in the same spirit as his article on Ecclesiastes and in light of the whole scriptural canon. Noah may be well on his way to writing about his Re-version experience (update to come). And a number of articles will be getting a theological/philosophical reboot in the wake of recent conversations, see especially ‘A Quick Look at Faith and Evidence’ and the lengthy ‘On Free Will, or Did I Have a Choice to Write this Article?’ The latter will be getting a major theological and philosophical facelift after Charlie gets through The Oxford Handbook of Freewill and David Foster Wallace’s senior thesis on fatalism, published by Columbia University Press in Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. That’ll take a while, so don’t expect that update until around Christmas time (an Advent surprise).

But, what’s more, we are excited to announce that we are looking for more contributors!!! A rigorous and rich understanding of theology is recommended but not required. Actually, in light of our mission to ‘spread the light from one heart to another,’ we are looking for contributors of diverse and charitable theological backgrounds.

Cum caritate,


William James Was Something of an Intellectual Genius When it Came to Religion

Bill James–Great Man

The 19th century American psychologist and thinker William James was, in short, the Victorian version of ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World.’ He attended elementary school in Paris and Geneva, aspired to be a painter in Rhode Island, embarked on a journey through the Amazon Rain Forest, was admitted to Harvard Medical School, trekked across Europe, and read philosophy at Berlin University. And this was all before his real academic life had even begun.

As an instructor of physiology, psychology, and philosophy at Harvard, James rebranded the term ‘religious experience,’ exploring the high-brow, cerebral (literally) concepts of consciousness and mind long before modern brain scans and neuro-physics. This was only several decades after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, a time before modern scientific advancements and global warfare–James (1848-1910) would not live to hear about the first shots fired across the trenches of World War I.

Yet, James lived in an age in which faith, that is, religious faith, came into serious doubt. Even before James earned his M.D. and got down to business redefining our understanding of religion, the British poet Matthew Arnold wrote in his 1867 poem “Dover Beach”:

The Sea of Faith

Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.

But now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating, to the breath

Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world.

1867 and already people are claiming that “The Sea of Faith” is waning? Someone call Sam Harris in here! He has to see this.

Doubt is nothing new for humanity. Neither doubt of faith nor doubt of God has burst forth from out of nowhere. The difference nowadays is how ubiquitous the doubt is, but, moreover how much it is taken for granted. This, for James, was the problem—the demand that we must doubt until we have “sufficient evidence.” James did not understand religion to be rationally self-evident like that. For James, as much as for St. Augustine, Jesus, and just about every saint and thinker in the history of the Catholic Church (not to mention the great thinkers of other faith traditions–from Siddhartha to Mohammed), religion was and is primarily about faith.

This point James makes clear in a lecture he gave at Harvard, later published in the 1897 collection The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. If only it was still a popular read today.

In the first few sentences, James describes his own lecture as “an essay in justification of faith, a defense of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” James sets out to explain why it makes sense, why it is justified to believe religiously.

First, James discusses the options we have in our lives, that which we decide ‘to believe or not to believe.’ He categorizes the options in these opposing pairs: living or dead, i.e., relevant or irrelevant; forced or avoidable, that is, one in which we are either forced to choose one thing or another, or one we can simply dismiss, e.g., “either accept my theory or go on without it” gives us no choice (we choose either way, by deciding to accept or, as the only alternative, going on without, regardless of whether we reject it or just decline to answer) vs. “either call my theory true or call it false”; and momentous or trivial, i.e., there’s a lot riding on the choice or there’s not.

As James limns, the decision either to accept God or go on without God is a (a) living, (b) forced, and (c) momentous option. Such an option is, as James classifies it, a genuine one.

However, James says we encounter a common problem when attempting to engage with this genuine option: many people seem to think that any religious belief, belief that doesn’t have “sufficient evidence” is a belief we should avoid at all costs.

Putting aside the question of what would constitute “sufficient evidence,” James observes plainly that very little of what we actually do is motivated by the purely logical side of our thinking: “Evidently, then, our non-intellectual nature does influence our convictions. . . the state of things is evidently far from simple; and pure insight and logic, whatever they might do ideally, are not the only things that really do produce our creeds.” (emphasis mine)

James goes on to explain that we are absolutist by instinct, individuals who “dogmatize like infallible popes.” We always think we’re right. In spite of this, James urges us to allow our beliefs to be flexible, for “there is but one indefectibly certain truth, and that is the truth that the present phenomenon of consciousness exists.” This is the foundational truth that the 17th century French philosopher René Descartes expressed in the Latin phrase cogito ergo sum, I am thinking, therefore I exist. This consciousness, this absolute given that I (we) think at all, that I (we) believe anything, is the infrangible certainty. Beyond that, we must have faith of some variety, for there is no other belief out there that some person doesn’t think (without contradicting himself) is downright baloney.

Amidst this uncertainty, James concludes that we have to allow ourselves to believe religiously that is, without “sufficient evidence,” since gauging what “sufficient evidence” actually is requires some sort of “sufficient evidence” in and of itself. There is no bell that goes off in our heads when we know we’ve broken through that precious space between evidence that is sufficient and that which is inadequate. As James eloquently writes:

“To preach skepticism to us as a duty until ‘sufficient evidence’ for religion be found, is tantamount therefore to telling us, when in the presence of the religious hypothesis, that to yield to our fear of its being error is wiser and better than to yield to our hope that it may be true. . . . This command that we shall put a stopper on our heart, instincts, and courage, and wait—acting of course meanwhile more or less as if religion were not true—till doomsday, or till such time as our intellect and senses working together may have raked in evidence enough—this command, I say, seems to me the queerest idol ever manufactured in the philosophic cave. . . if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell in us tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell.” (emphasis mine)

To believe religiously, in something, in anything, is an option thrust upon us in the trials and uncertainties of life. It is a genuine option we cannot walk away from, because walking away is itself a choice, when the option is presented to us as “Believe religiously or go on without it.” But this isn’t just philosophical trickery. Our lives demand it. James ends his speech with a quotation from Fitz-James Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity  which I would like to end on, too:

“In all important transactions in life, we must take a deep leap into the dark”

Cum Caritate,


Wise Words From a Wise Man

Ever heard of David Foster Wallace?

He was a smart dude. He graduated double summa cum laude from Amherst College with a senior thesis on the philosophy of free will (or an argument thereof) and a creative work that would become his first novel The Broom of the System. He would go on to write essays, short stories, speeches and novels, the most famous of which may well be his colossal volume Infinite Jest.

But it wasn’t only his accolades and  accomplishments that made Wallace grade A smart: he knew people. He knew their experiences and was eminently aware of what was going on in the world around him, perhaps to a fault.

Here are some words from a short story of his called “Mister Squishy” from his 2004 collection Oblivion: Stories. I find them (i.e. the words) philosophically and theologically rich, and also touchingly personal. Give them a gander. You can figure out the rest.

Cum Caritate,


“At various intervals throughout the pre-GRDS presentation the limbic portions of Schmidt’s brain pursued this line of thinking—while in fact a whole other part of his mind surveyed these memories and fantasies and was simultaneously fascinated and repelled at the way in which all these thoughts and feelings could be entertained in total subjective private while Schmidt ran the focus group through its brief and supposedly Full-Access description of Mister Squishy’s place in the soft-confection industry and some of the travails of developing and marketing what these men were experiencing as Felonies! (referring offhandedly to nascent plans for bite-sized misdemeanors! [sic] if the original product established a foothold), at least half the room’s men listening with what’s called half an ear while pursuing their own private lines of thought, and Schmidt had a quick vision of them all in the conference room as icebergs and/or floes, only the sharp caps showing, unknown and –knowable to one another, and he imagined that it was probably only in marriage (and a good marriage, not the decorous dance of loneliness he’d watched his mother and father do for seventeen years but rather true conjugal intimacy) that partners allowed each other to see below the berg’s cap’s public mask and consented to be truly known, maybe even to the extent of not only letting the partner see the repulsive nest of moles under the left arm or the way any sort of cold or viral infection the toenails on both feet turned a weird deep yellow for several weeks but even perhaps every once in a while sobbing in each other’s arms late at night and pouring out the most ghastly private fears and thoughts of failure and impotence and terrible and thoroughgoing smallness within a grinding professional machine you can’t believe you once had the temerity to think you could change or make a difference or ever be more than a tiny faceless cog in, the shame of the industry that you’d fantasized over and over about finally deciding to make a difference with a hypo and eight cc’s of castor bean distillate was better, was somehow more true to your own inner centrality and importance, than being nothing but a faceless cog and doing a job untold thousands of other bright young men and women could do at least as well as you, or rather now even better than you because at least the younger among them still believed  deep inside that they were made for something larger and more central and relevant than shepherding preoccupied men through an abstracted sham-caucus and yet at the same time still believed that they could (=the bright young men could) begin to manifest their larger potential for impact and effectiveness by being the very best darn Targeted Forum Group facilitator that Team Δy and R.S.B. had ever seen. . . . Or maybe that even the mere possibility of expressing any of this childish heartbreak to someone else seemed impossible except in the context  of the mystery of true marriage, meaning not just a ceremony and financial merger but a true communion of souls, and Schmidt now lately felt he was coming to understand why the Church all through his childhood catechism and pre-Con referred to it as the Holy Sacrament of Marriage, for it seemed every bit as miraculous and trans-rational and remote from the possibilities of actual lived life as the crucifixion and resurrection and transubstantiation did, which is to say it appeared not as a goal to expect ever to really reach or achieve but as a kind of navigational star, as in in the sky, something high and untouchable and miraculously beautiful in the sort of distant way that reminded you always of how ordinary and unbeautiful and incapable of miracles you your own self were, which was another reason why Schmidt had stopped looking at the sky or going out at night or even usually ever opening the lightproof curtains of his condominium’s picture window when he got home at night and instead sat with his satellite TV’s channel-changer in his left hand switching rapidly from channel to channel out of fear that something better was going to come on suddenly. . .” (31-33).

Letters from a German Church

In Germany, Pentecost (Pfingsten in German) is an official bank holiday, a federally recognized day off from work and school during which shops are closed and families tend to gather to celebrate or relax during the short respite. In the Christian world, Pentecost carries yet another meaning as well: it commemorates the “birthday of the church” 50 days after the celebration of Easter when, according to Acts 2, the Apostles received the Holy Spirit in physically manifested tongues fire.

Candles in ChurchTonight, I saw such tongues of fire warp the wax of candles placed in the aisles of a church in Germany. Beneath each candle a note presented a message illuminated by the fire burning above, the only light in the cavernous midnight space. Some of the notes were as short as a few words; others, sentences long, series of questions, piercing remarks. Here are a few translated from the German.




Space of Silence


Who am I?

………….How many sides are there to me?

Which ones do I like?

………….Which do I not?


When was the last time you were really in love?


“We remain a secret to ourselves, but our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3)


“In normal life one is not aware that the human being ultimately receives more as he gives, and that thankfulness before all else makes life rich. One is quick to overvalue his own works and deeds in his self-importance against those that one has accomplished only through [the help of] others.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer




Comparing oneself to others is a great means to diminish one’s happiness.

Happiness often comes as a surprise.

Many people see their happiness in the future. Happiness is a way of seeing things. Happiness is when one sense that one is useful to others.


“Does happiness mean that one cares for the happiness of others? Happiness is when one is loved as one is. Happiness is when one rightly celebrates. Happiness is when one feels alive all around.” –Francois Lelord


Times of pain as times of love?….. We live in paradoxes


What were the happiest, thickest, richest times?

……………..What was given to me?

Where have I succeeded?

………..For what am I thankful?


Silence, please.

Pfingsten kommt noch. I’m thankful to have stumbled across this place, (really I was invited in), because happiness does often come as a surprise, and the best times seem to be those sent with others upon whom our happiness depends, upon whom we depend for so much.

–From a church in Germany, in the presence of God, who is pure presence. Cum Caritate