Quiddity

I recently finished reading Fredrik Backman’s 2012 bestseller, A Man Called Ove. It’s a well-written story about a man (called Ove, in case you were wondering) who is exactly as he seems, but not for the reasons you would think. Ove is a 59-year old man recently forced into retirement who stomps around his neighborhood all day enforcing the council rules and yelling at friendly, if a little inept, service people. He hasn’t spoken to his only friend Rune since Rune upgraded from a Volvo to a BMW.

Ove’s primary characteristic, it seems, is his devotion to his principles. This is at the heart of the story, since the people around Ove keep trying to get him to act contrary to his principles (like putting more money into the parking meter up front so he doesn’t have to go out to feed it every 15 minutes). Ove is who Ove is, and Ove won’t change who he is. He’s an entirely consistent character throughout the book.

As Ove’s backstory progresses, however, we learn that Ove is who he is because of the people in his life. His father, who died when he was 16, owned a Saab and taught Ove how to take it apart and put it back together again; so, Ove has never owned anything other than a Saab. Ove’s late wife Sonja was a loving and compassionate woman, and it is the memory of her that leads Ove to repeatedly help his somewhat clueless neighbors throughout the book, even though he sees them as helpless and moronic.

These two ideas—Ove’s strong and unyielding will on the one hand, and his character being formed by those he has loved on the other, seem at odds with one another. Are Ove’s choices ever his own, or does he act the way he does because of his influences?

I think Ove beautifully represents the reality of human willing as a caused reality, something I believe most Arminians are hesitant to admit. We act the way we act because of the people around us. This doesn’t take away the validity or dignity of human choice; it establishes it. For me to exist in the world as a real agent, capable of action, is for me to be able to act on others in such a way as to affect their decisions. I would argue that I cannot not influence the decisions of those around me. It follows that to say a “free” act of the will is therefore one in which the actor is uninfluenced and unmoved is actually to deny causality in the sphere of human willing.

Christian doctrine affirms that only God is from himself, and exists by virtue of his own life. Our life is derivative of and maintained by God’s life, ultimately, and by the lives of others, proximately. Only God is a se, existing by virtue of his boundless and uncaused life. We are who and what we are by the gift of God, a gift directly given by God himself through his Spirit and indirectly given by a multitude of forces and factors. But it is God as agent who uses these myriad causes to give us the shape of our lives. This is not inconsistent with will, but is, in fact, the foundation of it. Ove is not a se, but ab extra. This would be a problem if Ove were not a creature (which he is doubly), but both Ove and we ourselves are creatures. If our being and life are from outside ourselves, how can our willing be wholly interior and uncaused? The Arminian doctrine of free will is, I think, an unintentional denial of the uniqueness of God in reference to his willing as the One who is from himself, and the only One in whom we live and move and have our being.

Storybook Reversals

I still think that, for building a story which is all at once profound and hilarious, cogent and incredibly goofy, nobody does it like Terry Pratchett. In his Discworld novel Moving Pictures, a parody of the early film industry, the climax (SPOILER COMING, if you care to read Pratchett) presents a fifty-foot tall woman carrying a gibbering ape up the side of a ‘skyscraper,’ in a development which is entirely organic to the story. Fantastic.

A similar non sequitur occurs in the first (and only worthwhile) Shrek film. It plays on all our expectations for that kind of story: a valiant prince journeys forth with his sidekick, slays the dragon, rescues the princess, breaks the curse, marries her and lives with her happily ever after. But in Shrek, the hero is an ogre, the sidekick marries the dragon, and ‘love’s true form’ ends up being the form of an ogre for the princess. It’s full of that kind of dramatic reversal.

There’s something about the reversal of our expectations in stories which strikes us as hilarious, surprising, shocking, or profound. And it’s not limited to satire or comedy; examples abound in literature—and in Scripture, as it turns out.

At the beginning of the book of Ruth, the author tells us that the following events take place “in the days when the judges ruled” (Ruth 1:1). Then, after the initial context, we find that this is a story about two widowed women, one of whom is a foreigner, living in Israel. You don’t have to have a degree in literary criticism to know what will happen next. The last few episodes of the book of Judges paint a vivid picture of what happens to women in Israel during this period of time.

So we’re on the edge of our seats, so to speak, when the story gets rolling. And then Ruth goes to glean, and catches the eye of Boaz. Yikes, we think. Is this a wife-stealing story, or a raped-to-death story? Either way, it’s not looking good. But then Boaz treats Ruth kindly, and makes sure his workers do the same. Whew! Scandal avoided. But then, in yet another twist, Ruth’s dirty-minded mother-in-law tells Ruth to go to Boaz alone, late at night, after he has been working hard and drinking. Not the best recipe for sexual purity, but we all know what a girl’s gotta do to get ahead in Israel these days. And then the plot hits yet another switchback, and Boaz doesn’t end up touching Ruth until they’re all legal and everything has been done up according to Levite marriage law, sandal and everything.

If you watch Shrek enough, you may cease to be surprised that Fiona turns into an ogre at the end (Sorry about the spoiler, but it’s been, like, 20 years). But you shouldn’t; the reversal is a key part of the story. So it is in Ruth, and Jonah, and Abraham, and so many other narratives in the Bible. When the disciples get to the tomb and see it lying empty, we should gasp in surprise.

Don’t forget that the gospel is a story—the best story. The “what?!” at the crucifixion and the bigger “WHAT?!” at the resurrection—these are a part of the story too.

Worth Reading: Flannery’s Short Stories

Now this is just weird. I finished another book yesterday- that makes two for the day, and… yep, three for the year. Yesterday was a good day.

For the last few weeks I’ve been reading Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find And Other Stories, taking a story at a time, because, boy, is she whacked. I don’t mean that her stories aren’t good- they are. Very well written, and very heavy. Not the sort of thing you would want to read to children, most of the time. She has this way of putting her characters through their own private crucible to strip away their (1930’s Southern) comfortable illusions and reveal their true character. 

If you like short stories, like excellent writing, and like to be made to feel and think, then pick up a copy of O’Connor. You’ll enjoy it.

-Daniel

Worth Your Time: DailyLit

There’s this neat website I found a while back called DailyLit. If you like to read and can never find time, or like to read and just want another excuse, you’ll want to check out this site. They’ve got tons of free books (mostly public domain) that they’ve split into five-minute readings, and you can just enter your email address, pick your book, and they’ll email you one segment a day, or however often you choose. Brilliant idea. I’ve found it helpful because it gets me to read stuff I wouldn’t sit down to read for one reason or another- it just shows up in my inbox and I read a small segment. So simple, so elegant. Check it out.

-Daniel