Tag Archives: julian barnes

Faith and Literature, a Vocational Intersection, Part 2

Jim bestIn October, 2014, I was invited to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to participate in the festivities for Homecoming Weekend, and for the inauguration of their 10th President, Dr. Paula Carlson. It was such an honor to be there. I had the privilege of preaching for the morning chapel service, and then serving on a panel for a symposium that President Carlson had called dealing with the relationship of faith and literature, a particular interest in her own research and writing.  I shared the dais with three esteemed academic scholars, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College), Dr. Peter Hawkins (Yale University), and Dr. Robert Schultz (Roanoke College). Each of us were to give some remarks with respect to our vocation and the intersection of faith and literature. What follows is the completion of my remarks.

Some novels help us to get at the big questions, like “Who is God?” “Is there a God?” “What is the meaning of life?” I’m thankful for those books in modern literature. I think of Walker Percy and Iris Murdoch, to name a few. I love Percy’s novel, The Second Coming. The aging protagonist of the story sets up an experiment to try to prove God’s existence. I think it’s a pretty clever premise, and Percy has my admiration for coming up with it. The whole experiment goes awry, as you might expect; the main character ends up falling in love and what plays out is a most unlikely romance where we get a glimpse into true compassion and care. Isn’t that enough of a proof of God’s existence?

There are lots of great novels out there that through story help us to work out what it means to live faithfully. I could give you hundreds of examples, but let me tell you about just one.

I have a sister two years younger than me. We had a very different relationship with our father. Dad died three years ago; as he grew older, my sister seemed to me more and more to engage in ancestor worship, describing him as a loving, doting father, whose children were always at the center of his life, and for whom he always made time. I have much more mixed, even more negative memories of my dad. Shortly after he died and as I was trying to process some of this, I read Julian Barnes’s novel, The Sense of an Ending. In that story, Tony Webster, retired and living alone, tells a story of a pivotal event when he and a close circle of friends were undergraduate students. He tells the narrative with great confidence. In the second half of the book, a letter arrives which provides documentation that he has created an entirely different narrative from what actually happened.

Reading and reflecting on Barnes’s novel gave me a window into the tentative reliability of my own memory. The moment of grace came when I realized that my own memories are mostly likely a shadow of what really happened, and enabled me to embrace the positive along with the negative memories of my father.

I want to conclude by saying a few words about my vocation as a writer.  Pastors write. That’s what we do:  newsletters, correspondence, weekly bulletin blurbs, sermons; that’s what we do. Through the years, I have become fairly adept at stringing words together coherently.

My foray into writing fiction came almost accidentally. I had come through a very painful conflict situation in my parish in which I was at the center of some parish convulsions. We came out of it and began a very positive and fruitful time of ministry at that congregation. One of the things I learned was that my whole identity had gotten too wrapped up in my role as pastor. I needed to have something to engage my time, my energy, and my creativity apart from work and even apart from my family. About that time the Naples Daily News advertised a class that was being offered at the Naples Philharmonic Center the Arts. A novelist and former film critic for the New York Daily News was offering a class in short story writing. I took a couple of classes from Hollis Alpert. More importantly, he became an informal mentor, encouraging me to keep writing, and even encouraging me to work on something larger. My first novel was a way for me to practice that craft, and also to tell some truth about the church and life in the church as a pastor, and of the complexities of human relationships.

I continue to work on my fiction writing.  I also blog. As Christians — or, really, any people of faith — we have to be actively engaged in the world. We have to let our faith speak about what’s going on around us, about life and about how we act and react. My blog is one more way that I can do that.

Thank you for the opportunity to share with you a few reflections on important things.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I’m a reader. Some books I enjoy, some I don’t, and lots are in-between. Occasionally, I read a book that has a deep impact.

A few weeks ago, finished a book like that: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This 2011 Booker Prize winner appeared in my office around Christmas time as a gift from a member of Faith. I say that because I’m not sure it’s a book I would have picked up based on the dustcover description.

Barnes has written several novels and it’s clear that he is a master of his craft. The book is well-written and the plot wonderfully inventive. As a writer myself, I’m interested in the writing process and I kept asking myself, “How did Barnes think of that?”

The story opens by recounting a friendship between four English boarding school students. The narrator remembers events that happen after they finish boarding school and go off to university, including a romance that ends badly. In a happening pivotal to the story, she ends up with one of his friends.

The second half or so of the book jumps decades forward to the narrator as an older man, retired and now unexpectedly in contact with the woman he once lost to his friend. Who remembers what, how accurate are the memories, and what path has led them to where they now are in their lives — these are the questions that drive this part of the story.

And these are the questions that have driven me to some significant reflection on my own life. There’s no such thing as being in control of our lives. There are too many things that happen that simply happen — we are recipients or victims as the case may be. On the other hand, there is also the possibility of guiding the trajectory of our lives by the decisions we make, the work that we do, the values and priorities we set. So, the question is, to what extent will I simply be reactive to what happens around me? Or will I use some of my energy, determination and persistence to push my life in a certain direction? And if there are changes that I need to make for that to happen, am I willing to shake up the status quo ante with which I have become comfortable?

Here’s another big one that I’ve been thinking about: to what extent do we remember with any accuracy at all what has happened in our distant past. My father died last September. I’ve said publicly that my father’s life was in some ways tragic. I feel like he never quite found his calling and was always dissatisfied and restless. The most he ever stayed with any employer was 5 years, and usually it was more like 3 years. That, of course, meant lots of instability and change for our family.

After dad’s death, I began a writing project to go back and record what I remember of my father from my earliest memories up to the past few years as his health declined and  he died suddenly in the fall. I found that memories of certain events jogged my memory to other contiguous events, things that I hadn’t thought about for years and years. So I wrote much more than I expected. And the narrative became not just a narrative of my memories about my father, but of my own childhood and our whole family. I tried to recount with joy and appreciation when I could, and to be honest about the whole thing, not trying to gloss over the struggles. As a result, my memories were not always complimentary.

So, now I’m wondering. How much of what I remember and what I’ve written really happened? How far off have I wandered into my own interpretations of those events?  I’ve been around long enough to know that our memories never reflect exactly what happened. They are always conditioned by so much subjectivity. As I was I reading The Sense of an Ending, I realized that I’ve lived with the arrogance of convincing myself that I had written an accurate and definitive description of what my father was like as I grew up. But that’s wrong. The best I can say is that I’ve recorded what I remember; and it’s heavily influenced by the trajectory and events of my own life, and indeed, the very things I’m experiencing in my life in the present.

At the very least, I’ve determined that I’m going to shy away from language of certainty about what has happened in the past, and I’m going to seek to live with a little more grace, not only in my memories of others, but also as I hear others tell their own stories.

One of the signs of a good story is the reflection it prompts on the part of the reader. On that score, The Sense of and Ending gets two thumbs up.