American gods

I’m currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Though I have long been a fan of the cinematic adaptations of his books, this is the first time I have actually read Neil Gaiman. I wasn’t sure what I should expect but I didn’t expect this. The book is weird; not China Mieville weird, but weird nonetheless. The basic premise is that the gods people have believed in over the millenia do exist. But they somehow are brought into existence through our faith and when we no longer believe, they are left in this weird, immortal, limbo. America is filled with the old gods, like Odin, who immigrants brought with them. These old gods are now being squeezed out by the new gods of American culture.

But while the premise is interesting, it lends itself well to some introspective thought on what is America and what defines Americans. Gaiman explores this somewhat through his main character’s extensive traveling with Mr. Wednesday (Odin):

“It’s almost hard to believe that this is in the same country as Lakeside,” he said.

Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”

“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.

“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the green-back, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.” 

Living in a Tri-State region, I’d have to agree. While there is much that unifies us, there is a tremendous difference in culture between the populace of the three states. In addition, being a transplant, I have an outsider’s perspective on where I live and it is very different from where I’m from.

So what does unite us? Gaiman makes the case that Americans are a very religious people: we worship lots of different gods. I’m always happy when I find something in pop culture echoing the Reformed faith. As John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols”  We worship our government:

“As they passed their first signpost for Mount Rushmore, still several hundred miles away, Wednesday grunted. “Now that,” he said, “is a holy place.” Shadow had thought Wednesday was asleep. He said, “I know it used to be sacred to the Indians.” “It’s a holy place,” said Wednesday. “That’s the American Way—they need to give people an excuse to come and worship.”

We worship technology and television. Even Media is a goddess in Gaiman’s book. Shadow is confronted with the god of tv in a hotel room when Lucille Ball starts to talk to him out of the tv:

“It’s not Lucille Ball. It’s Lucy Ricardo. And you know something—I’m not even her. It’s just an easy way to look, given the context. That’s all.” She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.

“Who are you?” asked Shadow.

“Okay,” she said. “Good question. I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”

“You’re the television? Or someone in the television?”

“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”

“What do they sacrifice?” asked Shadow.

“Their time, mostly,” said Lucy. “Sometimes each other.” She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gun smoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

So imagine my surprise when yesterday, while watching Anthony Bourdain’s show Part’s Unknown he made a keen observation. This observation came while visiting Las Vegas and it had to do with another god we have come to worship. His commentary starts at around the 1.05 minute mark. Truly, if anything shows it, this scene shows us what “the kingdom and the glory” we have come to worship as Americans.

All of this leads to a pertinent question: when we worship something that doesn’t give life, are we truly living? In American Gods, the main character Shadow is confronted with this conundrum by his dead wife. I’ll end with their exchange:

“I’m alive,” said Shadow. “I’m not dead. Remember?”

“You’re not dead,” she said. “But I’m not sure that you’re alive, either. Not really.”

This isn’t the way this conversation goes, thought Shadow. This isn’t the way anything goes.

“I love you,” she said, dispassionately. “You’re my puppy. But when you’re really dead you get to see things clearer. It’s like there isn’t anyone there. You know? You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.” She frowned. “Even when we were together. I loved being with you because you adored me, and you would do anything for me. But sometimes I’d go into a room and I wouldn’t think there was anybody in there. And I’d turn the light on, or I’d turn the light off, and I’d realize that you were in there, sitting on your own, not reading, not watching TV, not doing anything.” She hugged him then, as if to take the sting from her words, and she said, “The best thing about Robbie was that he was somebody. He was a jerk sometimes, and he could be a joke, and he loved to have mirrors around when we made love so he could watch himself fucking me, but he was alive, puppy. He wanted things. He filled the space.” She stopped, looked up at him, tipped her head a little to one side. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings?”

He did not trust his voice not to betray him, so he simply shook his head. “Good,” she said. “That’s good.” They were approaching the rest area where he had parked his car. Shadow felt that he needed to say something: I love you, or please don’t go, or I’m sorry. The kind of words you use to patch a conversation that had lurched, without warning, into the dark places. Instead he said, “I’m not dead.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “But are you sure you’re alive?”

Wrestling with Kierkegaard

Have I mentioned how brilliant The Hyperion Cantos is? I’m nearly finished with the Scholar’s tale. It is a retelling of Abraham and Isaac. Throughout the second half, the scholar is wrestling with the ethics of Kierkegaarde. Then it hit me: Kierkegaarde’s teleological suspension of ethics! Fear and Trembling! The Hyperion Cantos may be one of the most nuanced books I’ve ever read.  If you aren’t well read, you’ll miss so much!  I wonder how much I’ve already missed?

Best books of 2014

Tim Challies reads a lot of books. Probably the only person I know of who reads more books than Challies is this guy. So when I saw that Challies.com had posted the Best Books of 2014, I thought I’d share it with you. I must confess, I was a bit surprised by two things:

1) I haven’t read any of those books

2) I haven’t heard of many of them.

What about you? What are your best books of 2014?

The Hyperion Cantos

Well, I’ve finally got around to reading the Hyperion Cantos.  This is a brilliant work of literature. I rarely recommend a book before I have finished reading it but this time I will. If you appreciate a well crafted plot conveyed through beautiful words then read this book. Picture the Canterbury Tales set 1,000 years in the future. The book is full of references to other works. This quote just prompted this post:

…in the end, my friends, it is character which wins or loses immortality upon the vellum. Haven’t you ever harbored the secret thought that somewhere Huck and Jim are— at this instant— poling their raft down some river just beyond our reach, so much more real are they than the shoe clerk who fitted us just a forgotten day ago?”

So yeah…. go read it.

Reading Plan for 2015

Do you have a reading plan? That is, do you put some thought into what you read and when you read it or do you read like you eat at a buffet: because it is there and it looks good?

I try to have a reading plan. The one I currently follow I find hasn’t turned out to be as effective for me as I thought it would be. Right now, my reading plan is:

Devotional Reading

  1. This includes first and foremost reading the Bible. I read the Bible every day, following the ESV reading plan, whereby the end of the year I’ll have read the Old Testament once, the Psalms and New Testament twice.  I’ve been following that plan for a number of years. This will not be changing.
  2. I’ve started also reading D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God which is available on the Gospel Coalition. I just read Carson’s commentary on the Scripture that day. Probably only about 33% of the time do I even read the chapter he is referencing. I’m more interested in his thoughts on the Scripture. This will change.
  3. Finally, every day I try to read a short passage from some devotional work. For example, currently that is John Owen’s the Mortification of Sin. This is going to change.

Improvement Reading

  1. Every day I try to read a chapter from some book that encourages improvement in some area: fatherhood, being a husband, pastor, better listener, whatever. While this has led to me reading some very helpful books, and I hope some positive change in my life, this is going to change too!

Pleasure Reading

  1. What’s life without a little fun? Finally, I try to allow myself to read a “pleasure” book on a regular basis. This may be fiction or non-fiction–just so long as it is something that I want to read for the sake of reading it.

Last week, a friend shared this article by Eugene Peterson on his relationship with John Calvin’s theology. He shared the article with it because in an off-hand way, Peterson mentions that he reads Calvin’s Institutes every year. Now, this kind of fed my overactive guilt complex. For years I have been trying to read Calvin’s Institutes in a year. Shamefully, I have never actually read the entire Institutes. I’ve read Volume I or most of Volume I several times but I’ve never gone the distance and finished both volumes (the Ford Lewis Battles translation).  It is actually fairly manageable if you plan to read it over the course of an entire year. If you read approximately 5 pages a day, in a year you will have read both volumes. I’ve tried to do this for many years. I start well, but something always comes up and then suddenly I’m behind and before you know it a month has passed and the amount of reading I need to do to catch up is too daunting.

Just as Calvinism is more than the doctrines of grace, it is also more than Calvin’s Institutes. Nevertheless, it feels wrong to name myself Reformed and to not have read the second most important work of the Reformed faith (the first, of course, being the Bible). But, my goal for 2015 is to read the entire Institutes of the Christian Religion. To do so, I think I’m going to have to revamp my reading plan.

Here is my new plan:

Devotional

  1. I will continue to follow the ESV reading plan I currently use.

General Reading

  1. Rather than also trying to read a devotional work, improvement and pleasure reading I’m going to scrap that plan, at least for this coming year. Instead, I’m just going to focus my attention on one book, whatever it might be. I’ll try to put variety in it, a book of the Bible in-depth, some work of improvement, and also works of pleasure.
  2. Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’m going to embark on this quest yet again. 5 pages a day. If something happens, which it inevitably does, and I fall behind, my hope is to put then put aside whatever I’m currently reading at the moment until I’m caught up with the Institutes.

So, we’ll see what happens. Wish me luck. Keep me accountable.

Feed: A Review

I’ve been reading a number of books lately. Some had great potential and then fell apart so completely I could barely finish them. Of particular note in that category was Emissaries from the Dead by Adam-Troy Castro. Fortunately, I just finished a book that surpassed my expectations and proved to be not only very engaging and entertaining but thought provoking, and paradoxically, depressing. That book is Feed by M.T. Anderson. Feed First, a note on the genre. Feed is a science fiction novel classified as young adult literature. As a father of 3 girls, with one being a teenager, I wouldn’t want them reading this book. In the church, a young adult is someone who is post-high school, usually post-college age. But in literature, young adults start at Middle School. Were this book to be turned into a movie, it would be rated R for language, drug use, underage drinking (?) and sexual innuendos. So let me be clear: I do not think this is a book for young adults.

All of that to say, it is a very well written book. Feed takes place far in the future. The Moon, Venus and I think Jupiter are all colonized. The earth is falling apart. People live inside domes with each dome having its own climate system, including the sun, rain and Clouds(TM). Earth is dying: there are no forests, the oceans are filled with glowing advertisements you can see from the air; animals are nearly extinct and seemingly everyone is sick and dying. People have lesions (but it is fashionable so that is okay); as the story progresses most people go bald because their hair falls out. The health of everyone is so bad that by the time the characters are introduced, no one has been able to conceive a child naturally for generations. Everyone is grown in a conceptionarium.

Earth is divided between America and the Global Alliance who are in a perpetual state of near war. The background for the book seems to be some sort of conflict between America and the Global Alliance over South America and America’s annexing the moon to be the 51st state. However, the details of that conflict are never flushed out since the main characters don’t really care about much of anything. They are too busy being distracted by the Feed.

In M.T. Anderson’s world, everyone has a chip implanted into their body that interacts with their entire nervous system. This chip connects them to the Feed. The Feed is basically a future form of the internet. But it bombards your brain and senses. There are audio implants for music, advertisements, books, information, movies, television shows, shopping, all of this stuff projected directly into your brain. The companies that use the feed create a data-based consumer profile of each person based on their shopping preferences, conversations, mood swings, etc. So everyone, all the time, is constantly bombarded with suggested products to buy.

The main character, Titus, comes from a well-to-do family and is friends with a number of wealthy teenagers including one named Link. Link’s family have old money and Link is actually a clone of Abraham Lincoln! They head to the moon and there Titus meets Violet. Most of the story follows Titus and Violet’s romantic relationship. Violet’s father is a college professor of “dead languages” (which turns out to be computer code) and Violet is homeschooled because her father realizes that nearly everyone has become a braindead consumer. People cannot even write.It turns out that Violet’s feed chip is going bad and it is slowly killing her. Titus only learns of this after he falls in love with her. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot so I’ll stop there.

The book is written in the first person and Anderson did a great job of creating dialogue that is foreign enough to feel removed from my world, but easy enough to understand. The decadence of Titus’ social circle is conveyed extremely well. Consider the first few paragraphs of the book:

“We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.

We went on a Friday, because there was shit-all to do at home. It was the beginning of spring break. Everything at home was boring. Link Arwaker was like, “I’m so null,” and Marty was all, “I’m null too, unit,” but I mean we were all pretty null, because for the last like hour we’d been playing with three uninsulated wires that were coming out of the wall. We were trying to ride shocks off them. So Marty told us that there was this fun place for lo-grav on the moon. Lo-grav can be kind of stupid, but this was supposed to be good. It was called the Ricochet Lounge. We thought we’d go for a few days with some of the girls and stay at a hotel there and go dancing.

We flew up and our feeds were burbling all sorts of things about where to stay and what to eat. It sounded pretty fun, and at first there were lots of pictures of dancing and people with romper-gills and metal wings, and I was like, This will be big, really big, but then I guess I wasn’t so skip when we were flying over the surface of the moon itself, because the moon was just like it always is, after your first few times there, when you get over being like, Whoa, unit! The moon! The goddamn moon! and instead there’s just the rockiness, and the suckiness, and the craters all being full of old broken shit, like domes nobody’s using anymore and wrappers and claws.

The thing I hate about space is that you can feel how old and empty it is. I don’t know if the others felt like I felt, about space? But I think they did, because they all got louder. They all pointed more, and squeezed close to Link’s window.”

You only get glimpses of the world and thoughtlessness that is prevalent. But it is presented in chilling and clever ways. Perhaps, my favorite demonstration of this is when Titus and Violet go “out in the country.” They find a filet mignon farm and visit it for their date:

It smelled like the country. It was a filet mignon farm, all of it, and the tissue spread for miles around the paths where we were walking. It was like these huge hedges of red all around us, with these beautiful marble patterns running through them. They had these tubes, they were bringing the tissue blood, and we could see the blood running around, up and down. It was really interesting. I like to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from.”

This passage pretty much shows you both the world the characters inhabit and their way of thinking. Filet Mignon comes from a filet mignon farm and seeing it makes Titus feel good because he likes “to see how things are made, and to understand where they come from.” This passage reminded me of the documentary Food Inc. People don’t like to think about the fact that their steak comes from a part of an animal and that animal has other parts. The industrial food system we now exist in has sanitized eating. Meat comes from the supermarket where we can find it neatly packaged and sterilized. In my opinion, our factory farms are not that different from the filet mignon farm Violet and Titus visit.

And that is the depressing part of the novel. Written in 2001, Anderson frighteningly predicted a world where people would be constantly bombarded by advertisements; a world where corporations create profiles of individuals and then tailor their advertisements to fit the interests of the individual people. On the flip side, toward the end of the book, Titus seems to have a moment of clarity regarding the meaninglessness of consumerism:

It turned out that my upcar was not the kind of upcar my friends rode in. I don’t know why. It had enough room, but for some reason people didn’t think of it that way. Sometimes that made me feel kind of tired. It was like I kept buying these things to be cool, but cool was always flying just ahead of me, and I could never exactly catch up to it.

I felt like I’d been running toward it for a long time.

Ultimately, Feed is a commentary on society and our interaction with our environment. Our environment is increasingly digitally based and exploitative of the world around us. While we keep creating technology that is incredibly brilliant, we seem to becoming more thoughtless. I often say that if we are going to say that evolution is true, we need to then start considering a theory of de-volution. When you consider how ignorant people seem to be and when you consider how few people seem capable of rational thought–Feed is, in some ways, happening now. Which is what Anderson says in a blogpost he wrote about Feed years later. I really encourage you to go over to his website and read it. ‘

And then read the book.

Nothing says “freedom in Christ” like consumerism!

So today is Reformation Day. Quite possibly, one of my favorite days of the year! Why? Because I’m a Protestant and I happen to take that very seriously. Today is the “birthday” if you will, of my faith. Although, I prefer to think of today as the day that the one, true, historic, apostolic, faith was “rediscovered.” A couple of Christian organizations are having sales in honor of the freedom in Christ we now have.

Dr. Timothy George, perhaps the most readable church historian currently alive, has written a brief piece reflecting on the Reformation for First Things. I’ve copied and pasted it here, since no one seems to click on my links.

“It was around two o’clock in the afternoon on the eve of the Day of All Saints, October 31, 1517, when Martin Luther, hammer in hand, approached the main north door of the Schlosskirche(Castle Church) in Wittenberg. There he nailed up his Ninety-Five Theses protesting the abuse of indulgences in the teaching and practice of the Church of his day. In remembrance of this event, millions of Christians still celebrate this day as the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation. October 31 is not a day for the ghosts and ghouls of Halloween but a time to remember the Reformation, especially what Luther wrote in thesis sixty-two: “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.”

But did this event really happen? Erwin Iserloh, a Catholic Reformation scholar, attributed the story of the theses-posting to later myth-making. He pointed to the fact that the story was first told by Philip Melanchthon long after Luther’s death. Other Luther scholars rushed to defend the historicity of the hammer blows of Wittenberg. In fact, the door of the Castle Church did serve as the official university bulletin board and was regularly used for exactly the kind of announcement Luther made when he called for a public disputation on indulgences.

But whether the event happened at two o’clock in the afternoon—or at all—is not the point. Copies of Luther’s theses were soon distributed by humanist scholars all over Europe. Within just a few weeks, an obscure Augustinian monk in a backwater university town had become a household name and was the subject of chatter from Lisbon to Lithuania. Today in Germany, Catholic and Protestant scholars alike are once again studying the Ninety-Five Theses and Luther’s lengthy explanations of them. This ecumenical study project is in view of the 500th anniversary commemoration of the Reformation in 2017.

It was not Luther’s intention to divide the Church, much less to start a brand new church. To the end of his life, he considered himself to be a faithful and obedient servant of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Though Luther renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun, Katarina von Bora, he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God and to point men and women to the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ.

On this Reformation Day, it is good to remember that Martin Luther belongs to the entire Church, not only to Lutherans and Protestants, just as Thomas Aquinas is a treasury of Christian wisdom for faithful believers of all denominations, not simply for Dominicans and Catholics. This point was recognized not long ago by Franz-Josef Hermann Bode, the Catholic Bishop of Osnabrück in northern Germany, when he preached on Luther at an ecumenical service. “It’s fascinating,” he said, “just how radically Luther puts God at the center.”

Luther taught that every human being at every moment of life stands absolutely coram deo, before God, confronted face-to-face by God. This led him to confront the major misunderstanding in the Church of his day that grace and forgiveness of sins could be bought and sold like wares in the market. “The focus on Christ, the Bible and the authentic Word are things that we as the Catholic Church today can only underline,” Bode said. The bishop’s views reflect the ideas of many other Catholic theologians since the Second Vatican Council as Luther’s teachings, especially his esteem for the Word of God, have come to be appreciated in a way that would have been unthinkable just a century ago.

The year 2014 marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Joint Declaration of Justification between the Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church. Like The Gift of Salvation statement issued by Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1997, the Joint Declaration represents a measure of convergence between Catholic and Reformational understandings of that article of faith by which the Church either stands or falls, to cite a favorite Lutheran saying. For example, the Joint Declaration asserts, “We confess together: By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping and calling us to good works.”

But convergence on justification does not equal consensus on all aspects of the doctrine of salvation. The framers of the Joint Declaration itself were forced to add an annex to the document delineating unresolved differences on simul iustus et peccator, Luther’s idea that justified believers are at one and the same time sinful and righteous before God. How justification and sanctification are related in the life of the Christian still continues to be debated. On these and many other issues related to authority and ecclesiology, the way forward is not to smudge over deep differences that remain between the two traditions but rather to acknowledge them openly and to continue to struggle over them together in prayer and in fresh engagement with the Scriptures. The way forward is an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.

Several years ago I was asked to endorse a book by my friend Mark Noll called Is the Reformation Over? I responded by saying that the Reformation is over only to the extent that it succeeded. In fact, in some measure, the Reformation has succeeded, and more within the Catholic Church than in certain sectors of the Protestant world. The triumph of grace in the theology of Luther was, and still is, in the service of the whole Body of Christ. Luther was certainly not without his warts, and we do no justice either to history or to his legacy by glossing over his faults and failures. (Remember: simul iustus et peccator!) But the question Karl Barth asked about him in 1933 is still worth pondering this Reformation Day: “What else was Luther than a teacher of the Christian church whom one can hardly celebrate in any other way but to listen to him?” ”

 

Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.

If you happen to have access to Netflix, I’d recommend you watch the documentary Print the Legend. Recently, I had the joy of getting to watch it. Print the Legend is a documentary following several 3D printer start-up companies, most notably MakerBot. I’ve been fascinated with 3D printers ever since I read the Great North Road. The author really did a good job of imagining the possibilities of 3D printing in that book. After watching the documentary I must say: I’m excited about 3D printing technology. Heck, if I had the money I think I’d buy one. I mean look at all of the sweet things you can print with your own 3D printer!

I couldn’t help but think we are on the cusp of replicator technology–ya know, the replicator that creates food and drinks in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Although maybe, even that isn’t that far off.

 

 

The Magicians: A Review

The Magicians by Lev Grossman: A Review.

**Spoiler alert** this is not a cliffhanger review, this is an actual book review.

Close your eyes for a minute. Closed? Okay, good. Now, I want you to imagine what happen if C.S. Lewis, J.K. Rowling and Frederich Nietzsche decided to collaborate on a literary project. What are you seeing right now? What you should be seeing is The Magicians by Lev Grossman. What an odd, perplexing, depressing, engaging and entertaining work of fiction. This story is literally the love child of the Chronicles of Narnia, Hogwarts and Nihilism. Quentin Coldwater is the main protagonist. He belongs to an upper middle class family and is exceptionally smart. The story starts out with him on his way to an interview to get into an ivy league school.  Though he is of advanced intelligence, he is obsessed with the fictional fantasy land of Fillory.

Fillory is the fantasy land featured in five children’s novels by Christopher Plover. They follow the Chatwin children who (are you ready?) live in England during the Great War. The children are sent off to the country side to live with their aunt and uncle because their father is off in Belgium, fighting the war and their mother has gone insane and has been committed. Over the course of the five novels they enter Fillory via various portals (such as inside a Grandfather clock) and go on various quests; befriend talking animals; become royalty; grow and age and then return to England only to discover that little to no time has passed. Sound familiar?

Quentin is eternally unsatisfied because, to him, life appears meaningless. He longs for the world of Fillory; he longs to be transported there and find adventure and heroism and escape from the sad reality that is every day life in New York City. Lucky for him, Quentin gets invited to an entrance exam at Brakebills. Brakebills is a magical prepatory school in Upstate New York. It is a lot like Hogwarts only the teenagers do the things you’d imagine teenagers would do when their parents are away. Quentin passes the entrance exams and is invited to study magic. He can’t believe it: there really is a magical world after all!

Unfortunately for Quentin, the initial excitement of this new world eventually wears off and he once again becomes depressed. He graduates school and moves to New York City with his girlfriend where he promptly enters a serious hedonistic lifestyle of sex, drugs and alcohol.  This descent into depravity only halts when Penny, an old acquaintance from Brakebills shows up with an incredible announcement: Fillory is real and he can take them there.

This news transforms Quentin as it appears that finally, he has found meaning to his life. He and his friends assemble and begin planning their grand adventure into the magical land of Fillory. Meanwhile, Quentin’s most important relationship (with his girlfriend Alice) falls apart because of infidelity. And so now, more than ever, Quentin urges the group to enter Fillory. They arrive in the land to discover something is seriously amiss. The local animal population quickly enlists them to travel deep into a mountainous cavern to retrieve the royal crowns and become the next kings and queens of Fillory. Then and only then, will everything be made right. They are even given fighting guides.

They finally get to their destination and serious, bloody fighting ensues. People get grievously wounded and some even die (I won’t give away all the details). The “good” guys win and reclaim the crown but no one wants it. It turns out the allure of the fairy tale proved too grisly even for the hedonists. Quentin awakes in a monastery run by Centaurs and takes a long time to recover from his energies and then spends more time learning and mastering his magical abilities.

Why he does that is still somewhat puzzling. Perhaps because he is still seeking meaning and purpose to life? Finally, he gets out of Fillory, returns to NYC and takes a cushy job at an investment firm that is run by Magicians. This means, he takes a meaningless job, doing no work, taking high pay and losing himself in the “multifarious meaningless entertainments and distractions with which the real world supplied Quentin. Video games; Internet porn; people talking on their cell phones in bodegas about their stepmothers’ medical conditions; weightless supermarket plastic bags snagged in leafless trees…It was all he had left, and it would have to be enough” (395).

Lev Grossman is a talented writer. His prose is beautiful and the imagery he creates is captivating.

Consider this description of Quentin trying to avoid thinking about his problems: “His mind was an icy pond constantly in danger of thawing. He trod on it only lightly-its surface was perilously slick and who knew how thin. To break through would mean immersion in what was below: cold, dark anaerobic water and angry, toothy fish. The fish were memories. He wanted to put them away somewhere and forget where he’d put them, but he couldn’t.” (373)

Or Grossman describing the power of words: “He’d started that little speech speaking normally and he ended it shouting. In a way fighting like this was just like using magic. You said the words, and they altered the universe. By merely speaking you could create damage and pain, cause tears to fall, drive people away, make yourself feel better, make yourself feel worse.” (334)

The book ends a bit unexpectedly with his friends reappearing and inviting him to return to Fillory. An invitation he accepts.

This was a hard book to read. I don’t want to say it was good, and it definitely doesn’t pass the Philippians 4.8-9 test. I felt a bit like I was reading a serialization of Breaking Bad. Reading this book, while engaging, was depressing. The main theme of this book was existence and meaning. Quentin is depressed because he cannot find any purpose to his life. When he spends a holiday with staying with his girlfriend Alice’s parents we see that this is a problem haunting everyone. Alice’s father spends his time redesigning their home. Currently, it is modeled after a Roman villa. Quentin compliments the authenticity of the home and Alice’s father responds, “‘It took me three years to put it together,’ he said. ‘Three years. And you know what? I’m already sick of it after two months. I can’t eat the food, there are skid marks on my toga, and I have plantar fasciitis from walking around on these floors. What is the point of my life?’ He looked at Quentin furiously, as if he actually expected an answer, as if Quentin were concealing it from him. ‘Would someone tell me that, please? Because I have no idea! None!'” (203)

This is the true quest of the Magicians: the search for meaning. It is what propelled Quentin to pursue Brakebills. Time and time again, Quentin does something believing that it is now he will find meaning. While his friends debate entering Fillory we experience Quentin’s internal dialogue, which once again, circles around meaning. “Quentin lay back on the rug and stared up at the ceiling. He needed sleep, but this was no time for sleep…He tried to focus on Fillory, to make the good feelings come back. This would change everything. Yes, his universe had just expanded times a million, but Fillory was the key to it all. That creeping infectious sense of futility that had been incubating in his brain even since before graduation had met its magic bullet. Alice didn’t see it yet, but she would. This was what they’d been waiting for. This is what her parents had never found…But this, this was everything. Now the present had a purpose, and the future had a purpose, and even the past, their whole lives, retroactively, had meaning. Now they knew what it was for.” (263)

But, Quentin never found meaning and ended up accepting that fact.

I enjoyed this book because it effectively showed us what the world looks like when you believe that there is no purpose to existence. Honesty is missing in too often. Years ago I met an atheist who was depressed. I saw their and watched his wife try to cheer him up and he literally responded, “I just can’t bring myself to care. There’s no point to all this anyway.”

Another thing missing in this book is faith. Midway through the book, a dinner part is thrown. Richard comes and we learn that Richard is “in a quiet way, an observant Christian.” (232) But this is not true. Richard is a classical Deist. As the dinner moves forward, Richard begins to speak about faith. ” ‘Magic,’ Richard announced slowly, flushed, ‘is the tools. Of the Maker…There’s no other way of looking at it. We are dealing with a scenario where there is a Person who built the house, and then He left.” (233) That is the text book definition of Deism. But, whatever. Richard’s choice to bring up the existence of a deity gives Eliot, the homosexual of the group, the chance to launch into an angry tirade about God, especially judgment and morality. Eliot concludes, “No one gets punished for anything. We do whatever we want, and that’s all we do, and nobody stops us and nobody cares.” (235)

Unfortunately, Eliot is wrong. You may do whatever you want but there are consequences and even punishments. Later that evening, Eliot, Quentin and Janet engage in a menage a toi and as a result, Quentin ends up losing Alice, the only person who has ever made him happy. Actions have consequences and life does indeed have meaning.

Alas, iIf there is no God and thus, no purpose to existence then people are left with two options: accepting that there is no meaning and lose all hope or make their own meaning. This book shows Quentin trying to make meaning where there is none but realizes this is futile and then loses all hope as he accepts that there is no meaning and he cannot make meaning. It is clear that religion is not even an option for finding meaning and fulfillment and even joy for the characters.

Ultimately, I’d recommend this book to a discerning reader. The overall depravity of the characters is not too insulting because it isn’t graphic. The lack of graphic description makes some of the events all the more shocking. If you are tired of traditional fantasy, this is probably one of the most innovative plot lines I’ve come across in a long time. If you appreciate a well written story with a tight plot, this is a good book to read. But if you want something that, when finished, will leave you with a happy feeling–this is definitely not the book for you. This book is many things, but hopeful isn’t one.

Words to Ponder

I am currently reading an excellent work called Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich. I would absolutely recommend this work to anyone who is interested in the Second World War, or the amazing intricacies of everyday life in Nazi Germany or someone who is interested in the confessing church or the Holocaust (or probably some other topic too). Anyway, this quote grabbed me the other day:

“The abstruse doctrine of Original Sin, whence the need of salvation is said to arise, the Fall–and indeed the whole notion of sin as set forth by the Church, involving reward or punishment in a world beyond–is something intolerable to Nordic man, since it is incompatible with the ‘heroic’ ideology of our blood.” ~Schutzstaffel (Journal for the SS)

So guess what this means! If you feel that Original Sin is Augustinian (re: made up) or you feel the Fall was theoretical and not literal; if you happen to feel that human nature is basically good and not cursed; if you dislike the idea of sin (that is, moral truth) and finally, if you do not believe in the idea of a God who metes out eternal reward and eternal punishment then guess what: you’re in good company.

The Nazis agreed with you too.