Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Finding Paradise Lost

Poetry is not a literary format I readily enjoy. For me, sitting down with a Shakespeare play lends itself more to boredom and frustration than anything else. However, I happened to marry an English major who practically adores the seventeenth-century poet John Milton. After hearing Shannon explain the intriguing premise of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost, I finally agreed to read through the poem with her.

Having finished, I can heartily say two things. First, there is no way I would have ever completed the poem without Shannon as my guide; she constantly provided explanations for the epic similes, archaic language, and Renaissance spelling. Second, and maybe paradoxically, I heartily believe that Paradise Lost is one of the greatest poems ever written in the English language, worthy of study and admiration. It is rather like digging for gold: hard and dirty business, but providing a wealth of reward.

Why do I enjoy Paradise Lost so much? One reason is the mesmerizing nature of the story. Milton took what we know from the book of Genesis and fleshed out the details so convincingly that the characters come to life. I felt like I knew Adam and Eve after reading the poem. Their pleasant perfections are so beautifully described that I got a greater sense of just how sad and tragic the Fall really was. Milton’s work may not be historically accurate in every way, but I would not be surprised if at least some of the extra-biblical events he portrays actually took place. What Milton imagines in this poem fits wonderfully within the framework of the Scriptural narrative.

Another reason I like Paradise Lost is because of its theological richness. It may not be flawless, but it brilliantly addresses or illustrates such doctrines as the nature of Satan, the nature of man, the glory of the gospel, the beauty of marriage, the goodness of sex, the perversion of lust, and the difference between law and gospel. In particular, Adam and Eve’s romance radiated the intoxicating nature of marital love. Their innocence and enjoyment of pure, unadulterated pleasure gave me a higher view of God’s institution of marriage—and it has helped me to enjoy my own marriage even more.

Milton has crafted a true masterpiece, of which I am now a huge fan. And since studying this poem has provided me with such joy, my wish is, if at all possible, to encourage others to peruse and enjoy Paradise Lost as well. Toward that end, I have decided to blog through all twelve books of the poem, focusing on the passages and topics that stuck out to me.

Before getting started, I need to make several clarifications. First, I will be writing about this poem from an amateur’s perspective—albeit, with the help of my wife (and her Masters in English). I am no scholar and this blog series is not designed to be comprehensive. (If you want to explore Milton’s epic poem from a literary—and Christian—perspective, I highly recommend A Preface to Paradise Lost, by C. S. Lewis.) Each of my blog posts will consist of two parts: 1) a simplified summary of the book’s contents (based on Milton’s own summary contained in the poem), followed by 2) my meditation on the doctrines and narrative elements that I found particularly interesting. If there are any Milton scholars out there who notice inaccuracies or mistakes in my posts, the fault lies with me alone.

Second, I will be using a version of Paradise Lost with modern spelling. Thus, the phrase “justifie the wayes of God to men” (Book 1, line 26) becomes “justify the ways of God to men.” This will make our study much easier.

Third, the format of the poem itself. The poem does not rhyme; rather, it is told in blank verse (the same format used by Homer and Virgil), with each line consisting of ten syllables. As an epic poem, Paradise Lost begins in the middle of the story—Satan awakening in Hell after being cast out of Heaven. As the story progresses, the first half (including the angelic rebellion in Heaven and Satan’s expulsion) is told via flashbacks.

If you would like to follow along with an online version of the poem, I would recommend either the Dartmouth College Milton Reading Room text or the Electronic Literature Foundation (ELF) text. The Dartmouth version has the original spelling, but it also includes a summary of each book and a plethora of study notes throughout. The ELF version has updated spelling, and the entire text is searchable, allowing the reader to search for a word or phrase with ease.

Many books, plays, and movies claim to be one of the “greatest stories ever told.” I am inclined to think Paradise Lost is one of the rare stories that actually deserves such a title. I hope you will join me over the next several weeks as I attempt to explain why.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

2012 Booklist: Classics, New and Old

We have looked at the first five of my top ten reads from 2012. Here is the second half of my list.

The Horse and His Boy, C. S. Lewis
Historically, I have not been a huge fan of the Narnia series. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that I found this story to be quiet entertaining. While the ending may be a bit anticlimactic, I thoroughly enjoyed this particular tromp through the world of Narnia.

Spectacular Sins, John Piper
This book attempts to reconcile the sovereignty of God with the problem of suffering through a unique approach—by delving into six Biblical stories of “spectacular” (i.e., large and important) sins in the Bible: the rebellion of Satan, humanity’s fall, the pride of Babel, the sale of Joseph, the “tainted” kingship of the Davidic line, and Christ’s betrayal by Judas Iscariot. Piper seeks to show how even the most spectacular sins fail to nullify God’s good purposes—that evil is ultimately used by God as the source of its own suicide. If you struggle with questions like, “Why doesn’t God restrain sin and calamity more often?”, this book could prove useful.

Perelandra, C. S. Lewis
Years ago, I read through Out of the Silent Planet, the first in C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy. I enjoyed the first chapter and found the rest to be rather boring. However, Shannon began reading through the trilogy in 2012, and she absolutely loved Perelandra (the second book in the series). I agreed to let her read it to me after she finished it herself. I enjoyed this book much more than the first. As something of a “retelling” of Paradise Lost (although that is a simplification), Perelandra delves into some incredibly interesting theological material. This story contains one of the best descriptions of holiness and one of the best depictions of evil I have ever read; it is the highlight of the trilogy for me. (I read about 100 pages from the middle of That Hideous Strength, and Shannon described the rest of the book to me as she read through it.) I thought the last chapter of Perelandra, which is heavily influenced by the Psalms—and which even Shannon found boring—was powerfully beautiful.

Worldly Amusements, Wayne A. Wilson
It seems that most of the Christian commentary I have read on Hollywood and entertainment comes from people who are either fully immersed in culture (with no real ability to tell the forest from the trees) or fully removed from and ignorant of Hollywood (with no real ability to tell a tree from a dump truck). That is why I so greatly appreciate this effort by pastor Wayne A. Wilson, a student of films and a student of Scripture. Unlike many Christian “authorities” in our day, he discerns and explains the difference between a film’s message and its method. Chapter 3 investigates what church history has to say about the theater (dramatic portrayals of real or imagined stories), gleaning some helpful principles that directly apply to the medium of film. (I hadn’t realized that spiritual heavyweights such as Tertullian, Richard Baxter, Blaise Pascal, William Wilberforce, Charles Spurgeon, and John Wesley had strong opinions on such matters.) His commentary on the Biblical view of public displays of sexuality versus public displays of violence are the most insightful I have ever seen. Chapter 7, “The Law of Love,” in which Wilson examines how nudity and sexual acts affect the actors themselves, is especially enlightening. He also develops a comprehensive description of what constitutes good art. To call this book “well rounded” is an understatement. It is truly a modern day classic.

Erasing Hell, Francis Chan & Preston Sprinkle
A lot has been said about Hell in the last couple years. When Francis Chan announced by video his plans to weigh in on the matter, I was struck by the tone of his announcement: passionate and humble. His book carries that same spirit. Chan and Sprinkle exemplify what I think are two essential elements in discussing a topic like this: a firm commitment to follow the teaching of Scripture (regardless of the consequences) and a firm commitment to demonstrate love and compassion. Chan’s heart is for people—not to win a theological argument. Many in our Western Christian subculture—including myself—have too often been defined by a stringent devotion to sound doctrine without an ounce of love for people. This book challenges such lovelessness, and it convicted me on more than one occasion. It is amazing how easy it is to read this book, considering the amount of material covered. I highly recommend it.

2012 Book of the Year

Obviously, this award isn’t exactly current. I’m evaluating books I read in 2012, not books that were published in 2012. This is simply my attempt to shine a little more light on a book I deem worthy of special attention. And this year’s award goes to Worldly Amusements, by Wayne A. Wilson.

With his feet firmly planted on the solid ground of Scripture and his finger expertly planted in the wind of culture, Wilson strikes what I think is the perfect balance required for evaluating a topic such as movie watching. He is a lover of film, but he has not succumbed to the seduction of the entertainment industry. It has been said that the church is strengthened by persecution from the world and weakened by seduction from the world. In a culture where the entertainment choices of Christians and non-Christians are practically identical, Pastor Wilson shines the much-needed light of Scripture into the heart of his readers. His discernment and Biblical wisdom are exemplary. I was challenged, convicted, and encouraged all at once. Applying the Biblical principles Wilson expounds on has already garnered much fruit in my life—particularly in my marriage. My standards for movie watching have been forever altered—for the better.

Rest assured, I will talk about this book in more depth in the future. In the meantime, I recommend picking up a copy and reading it for yourself. Whatever the case, Worldly Amusements wins my unimportant-but-not-unenthusiastic Book of the Year Award for 2012.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

2012 Booklist: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

At the start of another year, I thought it would be fun to list my ten favorite books from 2012. “Favorite” might be a bit of a stretch, simply because I only read fifteen books. However, I don’t need to bore my audience with a review of Buying and Selling a Home by the editors of Kiplinger’s Personal Finance Magazine (although I would actually recommend that book to first-time home buyers).

Because Shannon and I enjoy reading to each other, some of the books on this list were read to me. Hence, my occasional reference to “our” thoughts and responses in some places.

Due to its length, my list of top ten reads from last year is divided into two posts. The first five books are below. The second five will be featured in next Tuesday’s post, accompanied by my highly coveted* Book of the Year Award.

Note that this list is not numbered—and is most certainly not listed in order of importance.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Suzanne Collins’ writing draws you in and keeps your attention. I found the story to be quite engaging. The first person narrative format, which took some getting used to at first, added a palpable sense of immediacy. Throughout the book, Collins made sure to make me feel exactly what she wanted me to feel at all times. She is a great manipulator of emotions. The critique of “violence as entertainment” is needed, although it can be hard to draw a line between portraying violence and glorifying violence. Collins isn’t entirely successful in this regard—although the movie based on this book was. (In my opinion, the film adaptation of The Hunger Games is one of the few times when the cinematic treatment excelled the quality if its source material. It toned down the most objectionable parts of the book and heightened the integrity of the book’s thematic weight.) This first installment of the trilogy ends on a bit of a downer, so it’s a testament to Collins’ craft as a writer that I still liked the book after finishing it.

Paradise Regain’d, John Milton
Having read the majestically superb Paradise Lost in 2011 (although Shannon and I technically finished the book in 2012), I was ready to delve into the fairly obscure, and much shorter, sequel. While this second poem fails to reach the poetic and narrative grandeur of the original, it is still a worthwhile and rewarding read. If you think it ludicrous that some scholars consider Satan to be the hero of Paradise Lost (as I do), this poem serves to solidify that belief. Satan is clearly the antagonist in Milton’s eyes: a macabre fiend dedicated to destroying all the good and beauty of God’s creation.

Tempted and Tried: Temptation and the Triumph of Christ, Russell D. Moore
After reading through Milton’s poems on the loss and reclamation of Paradise, I thought it could prove helpful to read through a theological/practical book on the temptation of Christ in the wilderness. I am not a huge student of Russell D. Moore, but I greatly appreciate his grasp of Biblical truth and his evenhandedness when it comes to modern political and social issues. Even so, I did not find this book particularly helpful. Others have noted Moore’s ability to communicate creatively and effectively, but I kept being so drawn to his creative word choices and sentence structure that I missed much of the flow his arguments and the points he was trying to make. So yes, his ability to craft words is, in a sense, superb. But if his flowery language keeps drawing attention to itself, it could very well be considered poor writing. There were some good points buried in here, but I didn’t walk away with much to show for it.

Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins
I enjoyed roughly the first fourth of this book; it developed the characters in an engaging way. And then the story succumbed to a serious case of déjà vu, from which it never fully recovered. The repeated and graphic violence causes the message of the first book to unravel, as Collins relies more heavily on violence as entertainment—which she explicitly condemned in the first book.

Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
Yes, we pretty much read these books back-to-back. Despite their problems, they are somewhat addictive. As we worked through the third installment in the Hunger Games trilogy, however, Shannon and I became more and more frustrated with the main character’s psychological Ping-Pong action. The trilogy started out dark to begin with, but by this third book the story delves into such gross and detailed violence that we were practically sick as we worked our way toward the conclusion. In fact, we were fairly disgusted with most of the proceedings, up until the last couple of pages. I don’t quite know how Collins did it, but we ended up being okay with how things ended. Again, Collins has an amazing ability to get you to feel exactly what she wants you to feel. Even so, whatever Collins tried to say about violence in her first book succumbed to the hypocrisy of her stylistic choices during the rest of the trilogy. Overall, we would not recommend this series.

Coming next week: some new and old classics.

* A better phrase might be universally disregarded

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

What’s in a Name?

You may have noticed some changes taking place around here lately. Several weeks ago, I updated the layout and design of the blog. It is slightly more modern, but without completely abandoning the ancient, historical feel I intended at the beginning.

Now the big revisions have taken place: switching the URL from 4scores.blogspot.com to capstewart.com, and replacing the original blog title, Four Scores and Seven Films Ago, with a new title, Happier Far.

When I first created this blog in January of 2006, I decided on a title that incorporated my love of American history and my affinity for instrumental motion picture scores. The lengthy subtitle of the blog gave me practically unlimited freedom to write about whatever I wanted:

Art. Life. Joy. All find their greatest expression in and through one Source: the Creator of the universe, the Savior of the spiritually dead, the Fountain of lasting pleasure. Apart from Christ, art is a mere distraction, life a mere triviality, joy a mere fable.

In changing the URL, a new blog title seemed appropriate as well. I may still comment on the arts and pop culture from time to time—especially movies—but my main focus here is the study of God, and I wanted a blog title that expressed that focus more explicitly.

Choosing a new name for my blog proved to be a strenuous mental exercise. I wanted a phrase that both hinted at the overall theme of my writings while also referencing an important historical work or figure. The possibilities I came up with included Inconsolable Secret (C. S. Lewis), An Infinite Happiness (Henry Scougal), Paradise Regain’d (John Milton), Pilgrim’s Progress (John Bunyan), A New Affection (Thomas Chalmers), Recovered Paradise (John Milton), and The Sovereign Joy (Augustine of Hippo). Most of these choices, I discovered, had already been taken by other bloggers. Even the mash-up Pilgrim’s Paradise had been snagged.

(As a side note: While we were trying to come up with variations on Pilgrim’s Progress for a blog title, my wife Shannon suggested Pilgrim’s Ogress, which indeed had not been taken. She thought I could write about our married life, with her as the ogress. As you can tell, I dismissed the suggestion.)

Ultimately, I decided on a phrase from Paradise Lost for the title; I love Milton’s epic poem so much (as well as its oft-neglected sequel, Paradise Regain’d) that I felt compelled to include it. The phrase “happier far” comes from the closing section of Paradise Lost, where the archangel Michael tells Adam of a happiness that exceeds that of living in paradise—a paradise within. Having God dwell within you through regeneration is better than just dwelling in paradise (see John 4:14 and John 7:38). Indeed, God can put a gladness in our hearts that exceeds that which is caused by earthly success (Ps. 4:7). And even in the midst of trials, we can experience an inward peace that surpasses all understanding (Phil. 4:7). It is far better to take paradise with you wherever you go.

Admittedly, Milton’s language, while timeless in its beauty, is hard to navigate. But with Shannon—and her Masters in English—as my guide, the world of Milton has been opened before me, rewarding my wandering steps with great vistas of linguistic and narrative majesty.

For the subtitle, I chose a quote from Augustine’s Confessions, which is an eloquent description of the joy found in a resurrected life. It is a testament to Augustine’s wisdom that I have read so little from him and yet have been so greatly affected by him—probably because I have studied great writers who likewise have been affected by him.

Combined, the new title and subtitle of this blog succinctly explain one of my main goals: to embrace and enjoy the greatest Treasure of mankind. As the very source of all true art and life and pleasure, God Himself dispels our inferior affections with gospel affections. If my readers experience a greater degree of these “new affections” (as Thomas Chalmers called them), I will consider my efforts on this blog a success.

You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Surprised by Sin

Last week, we briefly touched on the foresight of God. He can see what lies ahead and He can fulfill His plans for the future. As Isaiah 46:10 points out, only God can declare the beginning from the end. Or, as the NLT puts it, “Only I can tell you what is going to happen even before it happens.”

It’s hard to surprise someone who sees what’s coming before it gets there. When nothing is unexpected, nothing is shocking. There is plenty in life that surprises us, but nothing is unexpected to God. This truth can encourage the Christian who finds himself surprised and disoriented by his sin.

For example, see how God’s foreknowledge informed Christ’s interaction with Peter in Luke 22. During the Last Supper, Jesus revealed something that He knew was going to happen: 
And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.” But he said to Him, “Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death.” Then He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me.” (Luke 22:31-34)
Peter looked at the current state of his heart and perceived fearless devotion. Jesus looked into the future and discerned fearful desertion. And yet, look at how Christ responded to this knowledge.

First, He did not speak out of spite or anger. On the contrary, He displayed love and tenderness. Jesus addressed Peter by repeating his name—something the Lord did whenever communicating His intimate and affectionate knowledge of someone (see Luke 10:41, Acts 9:4).

Second, He affirmed His advocacy of Peter. Even though Satan had malicious plans, Jesus interceded on Peter’s behalf, ensuring that the disciple’s faith, though frail, would stop short of failing.

Third, He reassured Peter that he would return to faithful devotion to the Lord. It’s almost as if Peter’s future sin was a non-issue. Jesus already knew about it, and because He knew His crucifixion would pay the penalty for that sin, He was free to move beyond that and encourage Peter. In fact, Jesus went ahead and instructed him on what to do once he had returned: to strengthen the faith of other believers.

We are familiar with how the next several hours unfolded. Jesus was arrested, the disciples fled, and Peter denied that he even knew the Lord on three separate occasions. His third denial was made in close proximity to Jesus: “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how He had said to him, ‘Before the rooster crows today, you will deny Me three times.’ So Peter went out and wept bitterly” (Luke 22:61-62).

The Bible doesn’t tell us what kind of look Jesus gave Peter. Who knows what the disciple saw in his Master’s eyes at that moment? There may have been pain and grief. Whatever the case, I would venture to say there was no malice or wrath—only love and pity. After all, it is the goodness of God that is designed to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). And what did Peter do immediately after locking eyes with Jesus? He experienced godly sorrow, followed by genuine repentance.

Today is the beginning of a new year. We may make predictions or resolutions related to 2013, but there is much we do not know this year. One thing we do know: it is inevitable that our faith will falter in the future. We may not know when or how. But as Christians, we can know that God has already seen our future failings. And while we may be surprised by our sin, God has already provided an Advocate to stand in our place. As a result, what we will receive from God is mercy and not wrath, grace and not punishment. If anything, that is what should surprise us.