MLK Day Book Recommendation: The Story of Ruby Bridges


I had mentioned this book in a previous post called Desire, Choice, and Consequences, but for MLK Day, I thought I would bring it up again.

The Story of Ruby Bridges (Scholastic) is a non-fiction picture book that tells the beautiful story of a six-year-old black girl who faced incredible hatred from whites in her hometown of New Orleans when she became the first black child to attend Frantz Elementary School in 1960. Her determination not to be defined by the hatred of the whites who verbally abused her every day—and her willingness to forgive—is inspiring. It’s a great picture of what the gospel of grace has to do with social issues.

What are your favorite books about social justice?

Andrew’s Goat, Flannery O’Connor, and the Uses of the Concrete

goat

goat

Last night a reader named Andrew made a comment that I thought merited more attention than it might get as the fifteenth comment in a thread. He told the story of a goat to illustrate the idea that we can’t really think of abstractions except in terms of “concrete, observable phenomena that we have experienced with our five senses.” He wrote, “When I was a kid I had a pet goat that we mostly kept in a banyard, but ocassionally we would tether her to a stake to allow her fresh grazing areas elsewhere in the yard. One day I found that she had stretched her rope from the stake part-way around the base of a walnut tree, and was straining toward a clump of clover, just beyond reach. I saw that if she went back around the tree, then straight toward the clover, the rope would allow her to reach it easily. As it was her rope was making two sides of a triangle — if she took the hypotenuse, she could have the whole clump. So I tried to pull her away from the clover, to lead her back round the tree so she could reach it. This made no sense to her, of course, and she strained against me, her collar almost choking her. Only by grabbing her by the horns could I force her back around the tree. Then she could run straight for the clover and she began munching (with no sign of gratitude).

“I pictured this as a symbol of God’s leadership. It might sometimes appear that God is directing me away from what is good, even when he’s leading me toward what is best in the only way possible. With ignorance and short-sightedness, I might stubbornly strain against obedience, to my own detriment.

“So an abstract concept–God’s omniscience and loving guidance overcoming my sinfulness–was revealed to me by a concrete experience: a goat on a rope. Is it even possible to understand abstract truths that cannot be symbolized by the concrete? For me whenever I try to conceive of something abstract, in my mind it requires a concrete symbol.”

goatrope

goatrope

Andrew has a precedent in Flannery O’Connor. When it came to writing about writing, O’Connor was one of the very best. Here’s a long quotation from Mystery and Manners. This is from the piece entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” (pp. 67-68). As Andrew observed in his story about the goat, there’s no good way for a fiction writer to get to the abstract except through the concrete.

The nature of fiction is in large measure determined by our perceptive apparatus. The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses through abstractions. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what beginning fiction writers are loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions…

The Manicheans separated spirit and matter. To them, all material things were evil. They sought pure spirit and tried to approach the infinite directly without any mediation of matter. This is also pretty much the modern spirit, and for the sensibility infected with it, fiction is hard if not impossible to write becuase fiction is so very much an incarnational art.

One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.

Flannery, Milton, and Me

flannery

flannery

milton

milton

Most of you probably don’t know that I’m working on a biography of Flannery O’Connor to be released in 2012. This will be part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series of short biographies. (My 2010 Saint Patrick book is from the first round of the same series).
Flannery O’Connor, like me, was a Middle Georgian. She’s always been one of my favorite writers. But she’s more than a favorite writer; she is one of the twin poles of my writerly world, the other being John Milton.

I was in tenth or eleventh grade the first time I read Milton’s Paradise Lost. As they say in the romantic comedies, Milton had me from hello. His language soars so high, plunges so deep. Whole worlds opened up as I immersed myself in that strange music.

Milton’s language was foreign enough to stretch me, and his allusions were just obscure enough to make me long for the erudition required to enjoy Milton fully. My academic path was set: I wanted to know enough to understand Milton.

Readers of fantasy fiction talk about fantasy taking them to other worlds. That’s exactly what Paradise Lost did for me. I can’t say I mean that literally, exactly, but I do mean it more than metaphorically. I don’t quite know how to articulate this, but something about the foreignness of Milton’s language propelled me, for better or worse, beyond Middle Georgia’s gravitational pull.

My academic career was a journey away from home. Being a scholar is mostly a matter of talking smart—which is to say, talking less and less like I talked normally. As it turned out, I was a skilled enough linguist to pick up this second language quite easily. And as a specialist in Milton, I burned with an Anglophilia that was tinged with a disdain for American arts and letters. Twain was nice. Faulkner was brilliant. Can you imagine, I thought, what they could have been if only they spoke the Mother Tongue?

But if Milton took me to another world, Flannery O’Connor brought me home again (this was years after my academic career was over and I was again free to read what I wanted to read and like what I wanted to like). It was Flannery O’Connor who made me see the artistic power that inheres in my native tongue. I don’t just mean American English, or even Southern English, but Middle Georgia English.

There are turns of phrase in O’Connor’s stories (and even more in her letters) that I’ve heard all my life but never expected to see on a printed page. I’m not talking about local color. I’m talking about a writer giving voice to the deepest of truth in speech that is beautiful and soul-stirring, but not elevated. It’s earthy speech, O’Connor’s native tongue. And the fact that I share her native tongue has made a huge difference for me as a writer. It has given me tremendous confidence to know that my lived experience—the language, the people, the social dynamics, the landscapes—is the stuff of great art. I don’t make any particular claims for Middle Georgia. My native tongue is no better than anybody else’s. But to see what Flannery O’Connor did with it was a gift and a legacy.

Strawberry Girl: Pay No Attention to the Cover

strawberrygirl

strawberrygirl

A reviewer on Amazon mentioned that Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl has the most misleading cover ever. I completely agree. The cover (not to mention the title) of this Newbery novel from 1945 gives the impression that this would be a sweet little book of exactly the sort that never quite makes it to the top of my stack. Nevertheless, I read it a few years back because I was reading everything I could find about pioneer Florida. This book astonished me. The same Amazon review I mentioned called the book “a seething concoction of barely contained violence and danger.” I agree with that too.
The Strawberry Girl of the title is Birdie Boyer. She and her large family are new to the barely settled Polk County, Florida, where they intend to grow strawberries and other fruit. They are hard-working and thrifty, very capable and determined to bring beauty and civilization to the scrubby pine and palmetto forests of Central Florida. Their nearest neighbors are their polar opposites. The Slaters are lazy and shiftless, convinced that the sandy soil of Polk County can’t yield produce. “Can’t raise nothing on this sorry piece o’ land but a fuss,” one of them says. As was the custom in Florida at the time, the Slaters let their cattle roam free, catching them about once a year to sell or butcher. Which leaves them the rest of the year to drink and fight.

The Slaters’ free-range principles collide with the Boyers’ horticultural efforts, and things get ugly in a hurry. Not what you would expect from that Strawberry Shortcake cover illustration. There’s a lot of meanness and ugliness in this book, and a sweet, lovable protagonist trying to pick her way through the middle of it. I wouldn’t recommend handing this book off to your fourth-grader to read on her own, but it could make for some great conversation if you read it together.

I think of Strawberry Girl as The Yearling lite. Like The Yearling, it’s a very accurate and un-sentimental depiction of frontier life in Old Florida. It’s not even half the length of The Yearling, which can a little long for young readers. I do have one quibble, however, and it concerns the dialect. Lois Lenski obviously did good research and took good notes when she visited with “Cracker” families in Florida, but in a number of places their language doesn’t quite ring true in her story. The rhythms aren’t quite right. And for some reason, non-native speakers of Southern English have a devil of a time with the “fixing to” construction. They know that Southerners say “I’m fixing to,” but they have a hard time knowing exactly when and under which circumstances they say it.

City Scenes: The Subway

I walked past a Subway sandwich shop in downtown Nashville the other day. In the booth by the window sat a lovely young woman in a sequined dress. She had the saddest look on her face–a look that said, “You put on a sequined dress, you expect good things to happen; you don’t expect to find yourself in the Subway eating a sandwich at two o’clock in the afternoon.”
The young woman raised her sandwich from the table, but before she got it to her lips, her courage failed her. Her face crumpled, he sandwich dropped to the formica, and she gave herself over to a piteous sobbing.

A New Thing


“I am doing a new thing,” God said. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” The weak things of the world will shame the strong. The foolish things of the world will shame the wise. And the King of Heaven will be born in the muck and filth of a stable, attended by goats and jackasses and hardscrabble shepherds. The hope of Christmas is that God has done a new thing—that he has made a home among people who have a hard time feeling at home here themselves.

In the midst of ambition and striving and disappointment and homework and housework, it all seems very unlikely. As Chesterton wrote, “our peace is put in impossible things.” So rather than wrestle with impossibility, we enfeeble our expectations. We reduce Christmas to an experience we can stage-manage, something we can make marvelous for our children, something we can do something about. That sort of Christmas can’t begin to bear the weight of our longings.

Let’s all remind each other of what we often forget: God is forever at work, bringing wild impossibility to bear on the things we struggle to keep under our own control. Here’s to something new, even impossible this season and in the new year. Merry Christmas.

Voyage of the Dawn Treader Movie: My “Review”

I went to see the Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie over the weekend. I liked it. I thought Will Poulter, the boy who played Eustace Scrubb, was brilliant. I would go so far as to say his Eustace Scrubb is better than the Eustace Scrubb in my head when I read the book. He will henceforth be the Eustace Scrubb in my imagination in a way that, say, the Prince Caspian (or, for that matter, the Reepicheep) from the movie won’t be.
The things I love most about Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader are things that simply don’t translate to film. I’ve always loved the fact that for all the outward splendor of the story and for all the conflict and potential for conflict, the most interesting action happens within the characters. So, for instance, in the battle with the sea serpent, Eustace strikes a blow that makes absolutely no difference in the outcome of the battle, but it’s hugely significant insofar as he doesn’t run from the battle but enters in–and we know we have a whole new Eustace. Or consider Lucy’s inner struggle when she reads the spell for surpassing beauty in Coriakin’s book of incantations. I love that scene in the book, but I don’t know how it could be conveyed in a movie. And, for the most part, I don’t much like movies that are about people’s inner states. I’ll read a book if that’s what I want. Certain scenes felt “messed up” to me, but once I thought about why they didn’t feel right, I couldn’t make any suggestions as to how they might be fixed.

Like a lot of Narnia fans, I was disappointed in the “un-dragoning” of Eustace. It seemed to have been stripped of much of its spiritual significance. If I didn’t have to get ready for a Christmas party, I would get into it. I will say, however, that if I had taken my six-year-old to a movie and she saw somebody getting his skin peeled off, I would have been barking about that too.

So to summarize: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie is good. There were some things I didn’t like, but for the most part those things simply come down to the fact that movies are different from books. I’m stating the obvious here. I hope you’ll forgive me.

South Georgia Scenes: The Armadillo


My brother-in-law Tom is my man on the ground in South Georgia, Land of the Anecdote. I’m hoping to convince him to write the occasional guest post; in the meantime, he has provided me with a few amusing anecdotes. Tom came to visit last weekend, and he told this story of industriousness and missed opportunity.

Back in the seventies or eighties, when armadillos were still a novelty in South Georgia, a friend of Tom’s was poking around at the Altamaha River when he ran up on two little boys, one of whom was holding an armadillo he had caught. The man wanted the armadillo. He offered to pay the boy a dollar for it.

The boy who caught the armadillo wasn’t sure. He had worked hard to catch the armadillo, and he valued it at more than a dollar. It sounded like a good deal to the second boy, however. “Take the money,” he said. “We can go get us some ice cream cones.”

The boys argued back and forth for a little while, and the man waited for the upshot. But while they were arguing, the armadillo wiggled loose and skittered away. The first boy stood in mute astonishment. The second boy stomped his foot. “Dang it,” he said as the armadillo’s scaly back disappeared into the palmetto. “There goes my ice cream.”

A Long Way From Home

My eight-year-old’s cub scouts served supper to a group of homeless men through Nashville’s Room in the Inn ministry, and I had the privilege of sitting at table with a man I’ll call Roderick and hearing his story. I thought you should hear it too.
Roderick looked to be in his fifties. He was a handsome black man with a well-kept beard and intelligent eyes. He wore a green army coat. His hands, like the hands of all the men who ate with us that night, were chapped and battered, but nothing else about his appearance telegraphed his homelessness.

“Where do you sleep most nights?” I asked him.

“At the Rescue Mission,” he said.

“How many men are there on a given night?”

“About eight hundred,” he said. “Some are there for a couple of nights. Some are there for a months. I don’t know they stories. I try to talk to folks, but a lot of folks at the Mission don’t want to tell anything about theyselves. Some of them’s got something to hide, some of them’s ashamed. Me, I like to tell my story. It does me good. I don’t know what other folks has been through, but I been living on the streets for twenty-one years.Read More

Finding Self, Forgetting Self–Post 5 of 5

WA2N

WA2N

At the end of my last entry about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Lord Rhoop had been rescued from his solipsistic nightmare and was settling down to his first good rest in a long time. This last section addresses Reepicheep’s pursuit of Utter East. This fifth post in the series is the conclusion of the chapter titled “Finding Self, Forgetting Self” in my book, The World According to Narnia.The new VDT movie releases December 10.

Rest isn’t the ultimate goal of self-forgetfulness. Even Rhoop, when his sleep is over, will sail back to Narnia and get on with his life.  Not Reepicheep, though. His obsessive wish is for the “utter east.” He will sail, then paddle, then swim if he needs to, ever eastward, ever closer to Aslan’s country. “And when I can swim no longer, if I have not reached Aslan’s country, or shot over the edge of the world in some vast cataract, I shall sink with my nose to the sunrise.” He is the picture of pure focus. Aslan’s country is his telos, his end, in every sense of the word: the end of the world, the end of his life, the goal and purpose toward which he bends his every effort.

Reepicheep’s desire is the same desire the apostle Paul speaks of: “I press on to lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of” (Phil. 3:12). In his single-mindedness, Reepicheep forgets everything, counts it as rubbish compared to the destiny that laid hold of him in the dryad’s cradle song long before he was able to lay hold of it:

Where sky and water meet,
Where waves grow sweet,
Doubt not, Reepicheep,
To find all you seek,
There in the utter east.

Paul continues, “Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13–14). That goal, of course, is heaven, the country of his true citizenship. And there in heaven, “the body of our humble state” (v. 21) will be transformed into glory—the shining brightness of perfected honor. That’s what the overwhelming brightness of the sun in the Last Sea is about. It is glory, the light of Aslan’s Country.

Ramandu, the gatekeeper of the End of the World, is a retired star, and every day, with every fire-berry he eats, he grows a little brighter, more glorious in preparation for his return to his place in the heavens. Every day the Dawn Treader sails closer to Aslan’s country, the sun grows in its glory. It’s a brightness that would dazzle the travelers’ eyes under normal circumstances. But the brighter the sun grows, the more they are able to take in its brightness. In the Last Sea, the water itself is drinkable light. The sailors have no need for food when they drink the stuff, nor sleep either. It is life to them: “They felt almost too strong and well to bear it.”

Drinking the sweet waters of the Last Sea, the travelers on the Dawn Treader are literally partakers in glory. But they aren’t merely taking glory in, they are becoming glorious themselves. Everything about them grows more glorious. “We do not merely want to see beauty,” Lewis writes in his sermon “The Weight of Glory.” “We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”6 On earth we are always outside the beauty we observe. The glory of heaven is to shine with the same beauty that breaks our hearts on earth.

Glory in the biblical sense isn’t merely brightness; it’s the brightness of honor, of accolade, of good report. Reepicheep’s obsessively cultivated honor is just a shadow of the honor he will exude in Aslan’s Country. For the truest and highest honor is the approbation of the Judge of Heaven and Earth: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:21 niv).

To bask in God’s approval—it may sound like the ultimate vanity. But, as Lewis argues, it is the purest, even the humblest pleasure of the creature, to please the One who made you for his pleasure. “There will be no room for vanity then. She will be free from the miserable illusion that it is her doing. With no taint of what we should now call self-approval she will most innocently rejoice in the thing God made her to be, and the moment which heals her old inferiority complex for ever will also drown her pride.”7

In Aslan’s country, all selves will be free—and their freedom will be a freedom from the self. Eustace’s self-absorption will be a distant memory as he absorbs glory and is absorbed into it. Lucy will no longer care what her friends say about her behind her back, overwhelmed instead by the loving words the Lion speaks to her face. The darkness of Lord Rhoop’s inward hell will be flooded by the light of Aslan’s Country. The last we see of Reepicheep, he is headed for that country, completing the journey he has pursued so long and so hard. Forgetting himself, forgetting the world, forgetting everything that lies behind, he goes up, up, up, to be welcomed into the heart of things.

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