Authority

It was only last year that I first encountered The Lord of The Flies by William Golding. I found a narration on Audible that was excellently performed by Golding himself. Just after finishing the book, Golding gave some concluding remarks, with an intriguing pronouncement at the end. I’m still thinking about it a year later. When asked about how to interpret the meaning of the story, Golding replied:

There have been so many interpretations of the story that I’m not going to choose between them. Make your own choice. They contradict each other, the various choices. The only choice that really matters, the only interpretation of the story, if you want one, is your own. Not your teacher’s, not your professor’s, not mine, not a critic’s, not some authority’s. The only thing that matters is, first, the experience of being in the story, moving through it. Then any interpretation you like. If it’s yours, then that’s the right one, because what’s in a book is not what an author thought he put into it, it’s what the reader gets out of it.

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While I’m aware that such matters of interpretation can be quite involved, I’ve never been able to fully understand declarations like these coming from an author. I wonder what Golding intended me to make of his admonition.

Of course, out of politeness I should assume that he means exactly what he says. He says there is no ‘correct interpretation’ of the story. The narrative envisions a little colony of shipwrecked boys as a struggling microcosm of society. Things go badly fairly quickly. Chaos and anarchy ensue. If I said the story was a Rousseau-like celebration of the innate goodness of humanity, rather than a stark portrayal of the Beelzebub within us all, would Golding simply have nodded and given me a pat on the back for my bold and independent reading?

What I suspect is going on is a blurring of hermeneutical edges that may have been trendy in Golding’s time. Perhaps it was cliché to be overly concerned with authorial intent, as prior generations might have been. It’s probably not a coincidence that there was a culminating backlash against all things authoritative in those days. The times, they were a changin’.

On one level, of course what the reader gets out of it is most important. If I manage to get anything out of the story, it will be through my own mind. However, since so I enjoyed Golding’s story, I wish that he was less flippant about his intentions towards me as his reader. I suppose that I wanted him to care that I understood him aright. In some way, my efforts to understand him would be my small part of honoring his efforts.

Anyway, if I decide to ‘have my own way’ with the story, regardless of Golding’s intentions, I will likely miss out on a more delightful reading experience. This is a point that Lewis makes in his Experiment on Criticism. When faced with the question of why we should pay any attention to authorial intent at all when we can simply have a grand time with our private understanding of the text (‘what it means to us’), Lewis answers:

There seem to be two answers. One, is that the poem in my head which I make from my mistranslations of Chaucer or misunderstandings of Donne, may not be so good as the work Chaucer or Donne actually made.

Secondly, why not have both? After enjoying what I made of it, why not go back to the text this time looking up the hard words, puzzling out the allusions and discovering that some metrical delights in my first experience where due to my fortunate mispronunciations, and see whether I can enjoy the poet’s poem, not necessarily instead of, but in addition to my own.

“Not necessarily instead of, but in addition to my own.” This is a fitting rejoinder to Golding’s suggestion. Where Golding says, “go ahead boys, have a good time,” Lewis suggests that we go back to Golding for advice on the best way to do that.

All of this reminds me, however, of Twain’s dire warning to the reader of Huckleberry Finn:

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.

Duly noted, gentlemen.

A Young Man Builds His Library in Hope

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right?
A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?
At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.
~James K.A. Smith, in a lovely post- Mortality and My Library. It reminds me of a similar statement Lewis gave in an address to students:
If I say to you that no one has time to finish, that the longest human life leaves a man, in any branch of learning, a beginner, I shall seem to you to be saying something quite academic and theoretical. You would be surprised if you knew how soon one begins to feel the shortness of the tether: of how many things, even in middle life, we have to say “No time for that,” “Too late now,” and “Not for me.”
This talk was published as Learning in Wartime. Do you feel the shortness of the tether? Like Smith, with God’s help, I will die reading. I’m also going to raise four readers. There is some measure of comfort in knowing that the quest will continue.

First Things 

​The woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman—glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice is made. . . . You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.

~ C.S. Lewis, First and Second Things, in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Eerdmans, 1994), p. 280.

Pagan Virtue, Continued.

51W5H+JR4DL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_A couple of weeks ago, I wrote an introductory post to present the issue of morality, Christianity, and other religions raised by sections of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I suppose I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. I’d like to think of my attempt to explore the question of pagan virtue as the musings of an enthusiastic inquirer rather than the sophomoric ramblings of yet another blogger. I’ll leave the decision of how I’m doing to you.

Pagan Virtue: A Tough Sell

The case for ‘pagan virtue’ looks bleak with the backdrop of the New Testament. Paul has no problem describing humanity as unrighteous and hostile to its creator. He also adds that mankind suppresses the knowledge of God that he’s been given. Quoting the psalmist, Paul adds that none do righteously, none seek after God. The case can easily be built further- the righteousness of man falls anemically short of the righteousness of God (Rom. 3) and, in one place Paul actually juxtaposes the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit, not human effort (Gal.5). I could exhaust you with a list of additional passages that affirm:

  1. Mankind resists obedience to God
  2. Mankind is unable to keep covenant with God
  3. Mankind (in his natural state) is unable to understand God

So, you might reasonably ask, why did I think it worthwhile to bring up the topic of pagan virtue at all? As I stated in my initial post, this question is foundational to any worldview and there are several pastoral considerations that warrant a thoughtful, prayerful, and humble wrestling with Scripture. I’ll consider those in the next post. For now, here are some reasons why I think the Bible sheds more light on the question than what I’ve presented above.

How wicked are we?

First, it’s important to note that no biblical author seemed to suggest that we are as wicked as we can be at all times. This point isn’t particularly hard to defend, especially when Scripture provides us with examples of what such a society might have looked like (cf. Gen. 6). I think that the theologians would have attributed this fact to the goodness of God- to a ‘common grace’ that we all experience. Man is depraved, but his depravity is not without its limits.

Justification by Moral Ability?

Secondly, we can build an interestingly un-Pauline train of thought when arguing against the possibility of pagan virtue. Some evangelicals sense that if it is granted that the Muslim, Hindu, Jew, or whomever is capable of choosing to consistently make morally correct choices, then that person must be in some sense exempted from God’s universal call to repentance. However, it can be argued that our virtue plays no role at all in our justification before God. It’s one thing to say that a pagan can be a decent sort of chap. It’s quite another to say that he has a righteousness he couldn’t provide -one that comes through faith in Christ.

A positive case can be made that people outside the Christian community understand and practice virtue. This will be more easily seen when we work out the practical extensions of our theology in the lives of people we know- not just the abstract pagan. I’d like to propose some of these threads of conversation in a final post. I think this area can and does affect our parenting, counseling, teaching, politics, apologetics, and more.