on redemptive endings: Acts 16

IMG_1202

read Acts 16.  I don’t know about you, but if I have ten minutes in an airport bookstore, I will open every novel I can find and read the first sentence.  You can tell a lot from first sentences.  They’re inspiring.  They open the imagination.  They make you wonder about what’s coming next.  They make you want to turn the page.

Last sentences, however, are another matter.  Writers seem to find it hard to end fiction well.  While I love compilations that claim to provide the 100 best first sentences of novels, I cringe at compilations claiming to give the 100 best last sentences.  If you look at the american book reviews link, for instance, you’ll find a lot of authors ending their books with an overt reference to the fact that they’re ending their books: a cop-out.  Like, Okay.  I know you’re ending your book.  You’re saying good-bye.  You don’t want to.  And you’re not sure how.  But please stop making me conscious of it.  I want your art to be un-selfconscious.  Isn’t that why I’m reading you?  Don’t I want to lose myself? So please don’t remind me I’m just reading a novel.  I want my fiction to remain fiction.  I want it to transport me into another world that is so beautifully imagined it feels true.

The most openly self-conscious ending, perhaps, is this:  “And you say, ‘Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino.'” –Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler (1979; trans. William Weaver)

I know many a scholar would claim these are genius finishes, flouting tradition, breaking open the novel and revealing its guts – but to me, as a writer, they smell of guts.  They reveal the inner workings of the novelist because that same novelist has reached a fork in the road–then turned and heaved a pitchfork back at their reader in frustration.

One of the problems, I think, is a fear of redemption.  Some think literary fiction must stay dark.  It cannot have an uptick.  There can be no purpose for the drear of the story.  And so it can’t move past its beginning.  A novel based upon the morality that everything sucks and p.s. everything sucks, has nowhere else to go. It either has to end where it started; end with things worse than where it started; or not end at all (which is what is happening when a novel ends by telling you it’s ending).

While in a previous post I extolled a recent New Yorker story by David Gilbert called Member Guest, I neglected to mention that for me the ending of this beautifully written story falls a little flat. The problem of the ending goes deeper than just a failure of gender imagination.  The problem is that by resisting redemption, it flies in the face of human desire.  It flies in the face of our longing for Eden.  It flies in the face of what we all deep down know to be true: this life is not all there is.  There is a purpose to our suffering.  There is a divine destiny at work.  There is a divinity that cares that weaves all woe into wonder.  There is redemption. That’s a long way of saying that there is a God who promises to bring good out of bad. Romans 8:28.

There are many ways to get that message across in fiction.  You can do it in a subtle way.  That’s called literary fiction.  Or you can bludgeon your reader to death with it.  That’s called lowbrow fiction (the brow being low because of said bludgeon).  It’s a difference between good writing and bad.  It’s not a difference between literary and commercial, however.  Great literary fiction must have at least a kind of redemption.  It’s inescapable. Why?  Because the best literary novels are true.  They’re true in a fundamental sense.  They speak truth. That’s why there are lots of articles about how literary fiction is good for you.  They bring forth for the reader truths about the human existence of which the reader was only dimly aware.  They bring hidden things to the surface.  They do it well.

The new Bond movie, for instance, is clumsy.  The camera closes in on a hunting knife, and you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the arch villain will end up with the knife in his back.  The biggest ouch is not therefore when the knife cleaves the villain’s back, but when the knife is first introduced.  The pain comes when the viewer sees the clumsiness of the moviemakers. Chekhov said (although it is open to debate whether he actually ever said it) that if a rifle is hanging over the mantle in the first act, it needs to go off by the end of the third act.  Chekhov didn’t say that the writer needs her characters to discuss that rifle.

“Gee, look.  There’s an old hunting rifle.”

“What?  Sorry.  Didn’t hear you.”

“I said, look at that hunting rifle hanging over the mantlepiece.  That thing hasn’t been used in years.  Wonder if it still works?”

Chekhov said to let the rifle merely hang there.  Dangle it.  Foreshadowing is called fore-shadowing not fore-clubbing. A writer shouldn’t hit her reader over the head with hints of what she will do.  That’s the difference between good writing and bad.  But all writing needs foreshadowing, I think: by which I mean a setting up of what is to come.

The same is true of redemption.  The American book review link above includes the last sentence of Jane Austen’s novel Emma in its list of 100 best last lines: “But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” –Jane Austen, Emma (1816).

Personally, I would never have included that sentence in a list of best last sentences.  Despite the hint of irony never far away in Austen which the almost rescues the sentence, it’s boring.  But then I like hardly any of the last sentences on that particular list. But the reason I don’t like that sentence is the same as the reason literary mavens think they don’t like redemption.  For anyone in fiction to talk of the perfect happiness of anyone isn’t true.  No one is perfectly happy, not for long.  But that doesn’t mean redemption isn’t true.  It just means that you have to be careful, nuanced and honest when you talk about redemption.

So what is redemption?  What is happiness?  What is joy?

The thing is, you can talk yourself into perfect happiness if you use the language of faith.  You can remind yourself to count your blessings.  You can be thankful.  You can trust God in the bad and the good.  Doing this works.  It changes everything.  It IS redemptive.  It is truth, too, because it’s based on faith that Christ on the cross took all the bad on himself and left us with good.  He took the hunting knife in His back, so we could walk free.  It’s based on believing with all our heart that everything sad will come untrue, as my pastor and best-selling author Tim Keller puts it.  It’s based on believing in heaven, and the redemption of Eden, and all things being made new.

So perfect happiness here now is true and it isn’t.  It’s true if we reframe our experience.  It’s true if we look at our lives through the prism of faith.  But it’s also not true, because bad things do happen. God promises to work “all things” together for good for those who believe.  He doesn’t call all things good.  Rape, murder, hate and estrangement do happen.  Innocent people suffer.  See Acts 16:19, 23.  Bad things happen a lot. And they’re bad.  But ultimately we get through those things with God at our sides, holding our hands, whispering to us that it’s alright, everything’s going to be okay, he’s going to make it all work out in the end, we’ll see.

But we have to trust Him.  It means that on this earth, if we’re listening to Him, he will close some doors and open others, and we’re not sure why.  Acts 16:7, 9 and 31. It means we may suffer even when we’re innocent; but if we trust God in our trials, we might find that we’re there to help someone else.  Paul, for instance, gets beaten and thrown in prison for healing a slave girl – and the jailer and his whole household end up being saved.  Acts 16:30-33.  That’s good coming out of bad.  But the beating and the jail are still bad.  So the redemption of the jailer is only part of the good.  In this true story, Paul is the Christ figure, the innocent one who suffers to save someone else.

The full good that is being worked out is the love of Christ. It’s the relationship that we can all have with God.  In the safety of that relationship, everything is made beautiful.

That’s redemption.  That’s good coming out of bad.  It’s truth.  It’s powerful.  It’s real.  It’s poignant.  It’s what we long for.  More than that, it’s what we were made to long for.

And here is one last sentence from that list: “He waited for someone to tell him who to be next.” –Brian Evenson, The Open Curtain (2006).

We are all waiting for someone to tell us who to be next.  There’s sorrow in that sentence.  It’s poignant.  We’re all so malleable.  We’re bowing at an unknown altar, waiting for other humans to give us shape.

And yet there’s also hope in that sentiment if we see it through the lens of Christ’s love.  God is telling us that the next person he wants us to be is the hero.  He wants us to know we’re loved beyond our wildest dreams.  He wants us to know His love.  He wants us to believe that union with Him gives us the peace and joy we’ve always wanted and never known how to find.  He wants us to live our lives out loud, as if we are answerable to Him, and Him alone – which we are.  Hebrews 4.  We are answerable to the One who loves us, who made us for Him, who made us for a relationship with Him, and who has redeemed our every mistake by taking the punishment on himself so we can live in victory.  That’s so literary it’s breathtaking.  And if every writer wrote from that place, we would all be sitting around reading novels until kingdom come.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com in A Chapter a Day, my blog on Scripture, literature, life and love on November 12, 2012

words that hang like magic in all our skies: Acts 15

Acts 15.  This week’s New Yorker story, written by David Gilbert, captures the thoughts of a fourteen year old perfectly.  He reminds us of what it’s like to be bored yet unable to think of something to do; separating from our friends yet needing them; embarrassed by our parents yet loving them; rejecting snobbery yet succumbing to it; jealous of our brother and yet adoring him.   “Member/Guest” by David Gilbert, The New Yorker, November 12, 2012.

Perhaps the most moving moment occurs when Beckett’s mother rants about another member at their beach club in the Hamptons named Mrs. Lord.  “Mom went on about the high heels at the beach, the desperate social climbing, those sunglasses like she was the Jackie O of Toledo – she was on a roll – and that slutty daughter of hers, that drug-addict son, that husband who humps anything that moves.  They all laughed because she was funny, Beckett’s mom, and smart, and years ago, had been almost beautiful, but Beckett silently begged Mrs. Lord to escape.  Run away, run away.”

We know that the person Beckett most wants to run away is not Mrs. Lord but herself.

Beckett imagines her friends as thinking of her as “too scared to live in a bikini world.”   Who can’t relate?  Aren’t we all too scared to live in a bikini world?

And don’t we all find ourselves like Beckett, caught in a tangled web of our own inadequacies?  Don’t we all find ourselves laughing at cruelty – and then urging the hapless victim to run away, knowing the person we want most to be able to run away is ourself?  But when the problem comes from inside your own all too human heart, how CAN you run away?  We are all, in a sense, like a fourteen year old girl, trapped in the summer, unable to escape ourselves, unsure even where we would run if we could.  The adults, recognizing that Beckett is bored, suggest places for her to visit the following summer – Cambodia, India or camp – but only once, in the entire story, when Beckett speaks to an unbearably lonely sad figure of a man who serves as “homeland security” for the beach club (“a Long Island Heathcliff”), do we, and perhaps Beckett herself, discover where she really wants to go: Rome.  Beckett adores Latin.  She waxes poetic discussing her love of this long dead language:

“‘It’s a supremely stupid thing to be good at.  It’s not even a real language anymore.  It’s like being fluent in Braille, that’s what my mom says.  And I’m not even that great at it  I just have a good memory, and I like puzzles.  But the words themselves, you know, the Latin itself, it’s really …’  She searched for the right word. ‘Really lovely to look at,’ she said, ‘and lovely to read aloud, and then you get to the meaning, what’s underneath those words, and it’s even lovelier, because you’ve made it your own, if that makes sense.'”

It does make sense.  It makes perfect sense – even for those of us who never studied Latin, or if we did, never ‘got’ it.  There’s something that each of us loves.  There’s something that makes each of us perk up.  There is something that lifts us higher than the mundane world of jealousy, snobbery, wanting people, rejecting them, needing people, being hurt by them, being restless, wanting ice cream, feeling fat – the world of Beckett evoked in this little gem of a story.  These somethings fly out at each of us in unexpected moments – rabbits escaping from the magician’s hats of our lives.  We grasp at them, and hold them for a moment, until they elude us again.

Is that the sum of the human existence?  To have passions in this world that sustain us, and to which we can devote all too short attention – because so many other things call to us, things outside us, and most of all things within?

The wonderful news is that there is another way, another hope, another calling, which answers all of our own and Beckett’s longings – spoken and unspoken.  There’s a more beautiful way, a way that her love of Latin hints at but will never completely satisfy.  There is a truth that is really lovely to look at.  There is a love that has a meaning underneath the words, and it’s even lovelier.  Because that Love is a person, and He makes us each His own.

That love, of course, is the love of God.  And nowhere is it more movingly described than in this 15th Chapter of Acts, when Peter stands up to the people who want to impose the rule of circumcision on all believers — even grown non-Jewish men who have no interest thank you very much in going under the knife especially in that part of their anatomy –and says:

“We believe that we are all saved the same way, by the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.”

Acts 15:11.  Those words are like the sky-writing that Beckett looks at when she tries to describe why she loves Latin.  Those words hang like magic in all our skies.  Look at them.  Look at the word “all” in there.  All of us – every one – are saved in the same way.  There is no distinction among people.  In the face of that truth, our snobbery melts away.

And look at the word saved.  In the truth of that word, all our pretenses of being fine thank you very much just as we are melt away.  All of our need to feel better than anyone else dissolves.  When Beckett listens to her parents argue, she thinks: “Day after day, they sawed each other in half, yet they always managed to emerge whole at the end of the evening, nineteen years of semi-miraculous ta-dah.  What was the illusion, Beckett wondered, the love or the hate?”  Neither is the illusion, in most human relationships, at least ones that have weathered the storms; there is both love and hate.  We don’t want it to be that way, and yet there it is.  The hate sinks into our flesh like shark teeth, and we can’t extract it on our own.  We need saving from ourselves.  As Beckett so truthfully thinks after admiring her friend Natalie’s superior bikinied body: “there must be a Natalie in every group, Beckett figured, even ugly girls must have their Natalie, a Natalie upon whom you wish a little hardship and maybe, on sleepless nights, a full-blown tragedy, a Natalie who elicits the worst in you and confirms your own petty sense of self.”  We don’t want to feel jealousy – yet at times we do.  We don’t want to wish anyone harm – and yet ugly thoughts creep in when we least expect or want them.

But recognizing these truths about ourselves – whether through reading fiction, through being self-reflective, or through holding up to ourselves the mirror known as Holy Scripture – is ultimately a good thing, not bad.  Because God comes not to condemn us, and make us feel bad.  He came for the opposite reason.  He came to save us, and make us feel wonderful despite ourselves.  He came to say: “I know.  I know what you can be like.  I know your petty thoughts.  I know your ugly jealousies.  I know your insecurities.  I know your hatred in the midst of your love.  I know your snobbery in the midst of your judgment of other snobs.  I know it all.  I just want you to know it, and ask for forgiveness.  And you will be washed cleaner than any ocean can do.  Because I adore you.  I have a plan for your life.  And if you just spend time with me, I’ll help you sort through all the irrelevancies and focus in on the pathway I’ve carved for you and you alone.”

There lies the transforming truth we all crave.  There lies the language dormant in us all – the language of distinctive distilled love.  There lies the dead brought suddenly to life.  For we are all saved the same way, through the undeserved grace of the Lord Jesus.  We don’t need to deserve God’s love – He loves us.  That’s the good news, because none of us are perfect enough to “deserve” anyone love’s – not even on our best days.

And yes, absolutely, in moments, we feel ourselves shine.  We all have moments of splendor in the sun where we know ourselves to be immortal.  We all have moments where it feels like we’re living in that breathtaking dive from the high diving board — the kind of stupendously high diving boards that are now banned due to litigation fears but on which those of us who did, in fact, get bored at country clubs on the beach in the summer once challenged ourselves on.  We love those high dive moments.  We touch the sun.  Our bodies arch like birds.  We are more than the sum of our parts.  We know – and yet even as we know – we know these moments won’t last.  We’ll crash into the water, usually with at least one limb misaligned and therefore hurt.  It’s like Beckett waxing poetic about Latin.  She will lapse back into a stammer of her “like.. like… likes” at any moment.

But there is a divine dive into which we can all enter at any moment and linger.  There is a perfect arch of splendor in the sun which we can all achieve and retain.  And the beauty of this divine dive is that we all embark on it the same way.  We embark on it the way I once stepped off the high dive at my country club: with tremendous fear and self-loathing and wanting to be brave but knowing I was not.

God knows we’re afraid.  That’s why He comes to us.  We are all like children crying out from our beds awaking from a nightmare, screaming for our parents, hoping against hope that they’ll hear us even though their room is at the other end of the house.  God hears our every cry – even the ones our own parents can’t or won’t hear.  Our parents, after all, are as mortal as we are.  Some of our cries are too painful for them to hear, because they suffer from the same fears, perhaps as yet unacknowledged, and don’t want to confront them in themselves, let alone in us, the children they love.  Our parents fail us most when we need them most – paradoxically for the very reason that they can’t bear to fail us.

But God is the parent of us all who is never afraid to confront anything.  On the cross, Christ already confronted the worst that hell had to offer.   He died to give us the gift of grace – the one true language of love – the language of life – that says: “I give you all that I have, and all that I am, and I’ll never take it back, no matter what you do or say or think, because I’m in love with you and always will be.”

That’s the truth we all seek.  It’s the gift of grace that saves us all.  There’s no distinction.  It’s available for every one of us the same way.  God asks only that we ask for it.  He loves us too much to force us to do anything – even take the first step off the high dive.  But if we take that step – despite our fears – we discover that instead of stepping into a deep desperate fall from grace, we float up to heaven.

posted by Caroline Coleman in carolinecolemanbooks.com in “A Chapter a Day” on November 9, 2012.