Thursday, November 12, 2015

Saints' Insides, Part 1

Milton wrote his great epic, so he said, to “assert th’eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to man.”  What it says about my theology, psychology, or spirituality I do not know, but for me the problem of theodicy has never been a particularly compelling one.  Moreover (though this is a separate issue), I am not convinced that attempting to assert God’s care for men, or to defend his actions in general, is a particularly fruitful way of proceeding for a Christian literary artist.  What comes off as majestic in painting or sculpture is apt on the page to seem overbearing, so that for every cool-headed Stanley Fish there is a legion of underdistinguished and underdistinguishing Keatses claiming Milton for the devil’s party.

Much more helpful, I think—if we are to talk about evangelization through art—than the image of a good God is the image of the good man—or it would be, could be, if it were ever done well—for two reasons.  On the one hand, it is broadly helpful (as Aristotle says) to begin not with things that are best known in themselves, but things best known to us.  God, in His simplicity, must be much better integrated (if I may speak so without heresy) than even the simplest of the saints; but we, fools that we are, have a better chance of understanding the saint than of understanding God.

The second reason is related to and perhaps an elaboration of the first.  The literary saint can evangelize in a way that portraits of God cannot, because in comprehending the saint the emotions as well as the intellect come into play.  God, though He is Love, is Love in such a peculiar way as to make our attempts at explaining Him either saccharine or paradoxical; and the language of paradox is suited at best for poetry.  I am not convinced that a metaphysical conceit or an objective correlative is much good for getting at God either; but they seem rather more plausible candidates, belonging as they do to the more pictoral or even musical side of art, than an extended narrative with or without an argument-driven plot.  Impressionism and philosophy are the best we are likely to do in coming to grips with God in art; open-faced philosophy has no place in literature, and impressionism is unsatisfying over an epic or novelistic expanse.

Dostoyevsky of course spoils my point by using both.   
But in The Brother Karamazov (to take one well-known example) 
the characters are so strongly developed that he can get away with it.

Rather than impressionism or philosophizing, the novel calls for activity on the part of the central characters, and most importantly the interior activity of the most central character of all.  The protagonist of a modern novel or drama is generally supposed to be quite active in this way—“conflicted” is one word sometimes used, approvingly or not.  It is generally supposed that the more conflicted a character is, the more interesting he or she will be; if a central character has no great moral conflict, we consider the work in which they appear to be of less artistic significance.  This is why Nolan’s Batman series and Inception are generally given greater respect than, say, anything Indiana Jones or Star Wars: all the films are obviously designed to entertain, and to entertain the masses; but only some of them pretend to do more—and they pretend to more in no small part by offering central characters who are more “interesting” than Jones or Luke Skywalker.

Thus, it seems that, though the saint—or, since so many examples come from the realm of the secular, the Hero with a capital H—may be more understandable than God, he is not necessarily more respectable.  Indeed, he is hardly more likeable; for the same people who take exception to God’s judgments and His tendency to recline in eternal bliss also find the Hero’s moral self-assuredness and invulnerability to temptation galling.  We do not like Aeneas; and we only find Luke and Indiana Jones tolerable because they are rogues as well as Heroes.

My question then—my problem, as a literary artist—is whether and how it is possible to create a Hero, and indeed a Saint, who is neither a rogue, nor a naïve, nor a bore.


  1. He has to be noble, right? And since nemo dat quod non for the author must somehow be noble too... Is that to simple?

    Also, your commentary on the ways of God, the ways of man seems good. Some might say if God became man it could solve the dilemma. :)
    That doesn't perhaps help the writer of literature much though.

    1. Partially, yes. But there's also the question of what the noble man is struggling about, and whether than can even be communicated convincingly to readers who aren't noble.

      Re the Incarnation: indeed! But yes, that would only increase the complexity of the problem facing a literary artist ...

  2. Aye. Alexandra Petri makes a similar point about the difficulty with working with the Superman character: see

    1. Agh. I now remember reading the Petri, but I forgot how much it annoyed me at the time. Not that she doesn't make good points ...