Sometimes, life doesn’t make sense.
The reason isn’t always something big, and it’s not always personal. It can be brought on by catastrophe as well as a simple dream deferred. Family pets die, and phones get dropped. Mothers get cancer. Applications are rejected. Breakups happen. Companies fail. Life, especially when it falls short of our expectations, can be a profoundly disorienting experience.
So when life does not make sense, we should remind ourselves that we are living in a story, and that we can trust the author.I have recently been walking through such a season of confusion in my own life. As one not “musically gifted,” however, I needed to find an outlet other than emotive songwriting (looking at you, T. Swift) by which to find rest for my soul. I can’t paint, I lack the disciplined attention necessary for Netflix dramas, and I’m far too good a Baptist to give myself over to drink. So, I found myself with only one place to turn: literature.
G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, for better for worse, is powerfully comforting to me. It follows the adventure of one Gabriel Syme, an undercover London police detective tasked with subverting an anarchist movement dedicated to the overthrow of Europe. Syme’s experiences grow stranger and stranger as he successfully infiltrates the Supreme Anarchist Council, ultimately assuming the office of “Thursday.” Confronted by an insidious enemy, one who “is not trying to alter things, but to annihilate them” (82), Syme battles against time, his fellow council members, and the terrible visage of “Sunday” as the world seemingly falls apart. I won’t spoil the ending here, but suffice it to say that Syme’s foreboding sense that all is not as it seems is more than validated by story’s end.
Perhaps that is why I like the book so much. Like the characters in Chesterton’s novel, I need reminding that God, as the children’s tune goes, indeed has the whole world in His hands. I suspect I am not alone in my need.
Kenneth Burke once argued that literature should be understood as “equipment for living.” By this he meant that literature should be read as conditioning its readers to face certain situations—in his words, it is “designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images”—and should therefore be appreciated as a strategic choice. One should prudently seek to “direct the larger movements and operations in one’s campaign of living,” and part of that task requires the cultivation of certain literary appetites. To adopt the metaphor of nutrition, we should be mindful of what we “eat.” As Burke put it,
So the wise strategist will not be content with strategies of merely a self-gratifying sort. He will “keep his weather eye open.” . . . He won’t sit on the side of an active volcano and “see” it as a dormant plain.
Often, alas, he will. The great allurement in our present popular “inspirational literature,” for instance, may be largely of this sort. It is a strategy for easy consolation. It “fills a need,” since there is always a need for easy consolation—and in an era of confusion like our own the need is especially keen. (595)
Our artistic diets, in other words, prepare us for life. They teach us not only how to read books, comics, films, rap albums, or video game dialogues, but also how to interpret and react to the real situations of everyday existence. Thus, believers who gorge themselves on cheaply consoling wish-fulfilling art (including several recent “Christian” cinematic releases) will likely find themselves bewildered by a real world that cares little for their tender pieties and which writes them off as naïve (if not worse). If literature equips us for living, then a steady diet of artistic candy will only serve to prepare us for life at a carnival. We are, after all, commanded to eat meat.
“Each work of art is the addition of a word to an informal dictionary,” Burke writes; it “is the strategic naming of a situation” or the singling out of “a pattern of experience . . . representative of our social structure” (596). Stated another way, the movies, TV shows, graphic novels, and other art forms we consume instruct us to view the world in particular ways; they inculcate not only habits of viewing, but ways of seeing, and thereby equip us to embark on our “campaign” of life.
If one grants Burke’s premise, then the next question is “what type of art best equips one to live a faithful Christian life?” I should point out here that this is not an argument about genre or medium—there are video games that inspire awe just as there are hardback books that squelch the soul. But the issue remains. What type of artistic diet will prepare Christians for life in this world?
To answer that question, we must diagnose the world around us. And when I look at the American society in which I live, I see a place tearing itself apart. Alt-right bots and “the resistance” clash across every conceivable internet platform. Our major cities are segregated by class. Americans increasingly cluster in like-minded ideological enclaves, fueling political polarization. University campuses are now sites of actual physical violence and rampant sexual assault. More than one in three Americans today has been given a prescription for some type of painkiller—and that’s before we even address why people need them. The overall work rate (signifying any employment) for Americans over 20 . Fewer than half of U.S. children live with a mother and father in their first marriage, and a quarter of American children are being raised without any father at home. We are bowling alone, coming apart, and inhabit an age of anger (or so we are told). We suffer no shortage of reasons to feel confused, disoriented, or that life is unfair.
And I haven’t even mentioned race, sexuality, or the nation’s skyrocketing incarceration rates.
One effect of this turmoil is isolation. It’s a common trope. We Americans live increasingly insulated lives, often cut off from anyone or anything that might disrupt the narrative fidelity we’ve so carefully built for ourselves. Or, as Erin Straza put it in the March issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, “we shrink our worlds down to comfort zones containing people with similar backgrounds, abilities, intellect, faith, ethnicity, and ideals.” This phenomenon impacts groups as well.
Living in alternate realities has consequences. The fault lines in American society are never more apparent than when we deprecate the deceit and ignorance of the other side in their War Against What Is Obviously True. Battle cries of “fake news” or “alternative facts” arise from partisans who encounter any evidence with which they disagree. Both sides dismiss the other’s “reality” and narrative frame. Discussions on immigration, spanking, climate change, food choices, racism, marriage, affirmative action, schooling, feminism, sustainability, free speech, sexual identity, patriotism, and gender rarely fail to devolve into acrimony. For example, the (obvious) claim that Donald Trump’s swearing in ceremony did not witness the largest inaugural crowd on record was somehow contentious for some of his supporters; likewise, it is beyond dispute that Trump is the democratically elected and therefore legitimate President of the United States of America—a reality many in the “resistance” are loath to hear, much less contemplate or accept. Other possible illustrations abound.
So, what kind of literature could equip us, as Christians, for life in such a place? I’m not sure I have a definitive answer. However, the importance of being rooted in the identity, meaning, and purpose of the Christian life cannot be neglected. Major Christian thinkers such as Russell Moore (Onward), R. R. Reno (Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society), and Rod Dreher (The Benedict Option) all argue as much in their recent works. And a critical skill necessary for being grounded in the narrative that undergirds our lives as Christians—the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in its entirety—is the ability to understand story.
Which brings me back to Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. What better response to a culture in which division reigns and reality itself is a contested concept than to read the story of a man hounded by phantom pursuers and doubts of what is real, only to be ultimately delivered into certitude by the hand of God? The book contains many insights—equipment for living, if you will—for the American Christian today. Gabriel Syme, though he often feels as though “[t]he ends of the earth were closing in” (102), repeatedly rises to heroism and sacrifices himself in his drive to save others, just as we are called to mimic the example of a savior who came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Syme and his fellow detectives of Scotland Yard never abandon their mission to push back anarchism, despite the fact the command came from a person none of them has ever seen. They steadfastly maintain their faith, even when faced with the severest of doubt. As one particularly striking passage details,
Was he wearing a mask? Was any one wearing a mask? Was any one anything? This wood of witchery, in which men’s faces turned black and white by turns, in which figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people . . . Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. (189)
Yet, despite his uncertainty, Syme advances.
We dwell, as a recent article put it, in “a dissolving age,” a place where assurances are few and the epistemological ground can disappear beneath one’s feet. The Man Who Was Thursday equips us to endure this condition by reminding us that, no matter how out of control or desperate things may seem, there is a larger plan set in motion ages ago by none other than the author of our existence.
Like C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, Chesterton’s novel is fantastical and rife with bigger-than-life characters. Unlike Narnia, however, The Man Who Was Thursday takes place in a world not far removed from our own—early twentieth-century England. But beneath the more modern surface of the horse-drawn cabs, anarchist bombs, saber duels, and car chases, Gabriel Syme and his comrades are part of a much larger narrative going on behind the scene; they have been conscripted into the service of a higher cause they cannot see. There are few lessons more apt to equip us for living as Christians today. As Wheaton’s Kenneth Chase reminds us, “the Christian calling is to speak with as much eloquence as one can muster, all the while depending on the eloquence received to shape a narrative that coaxes faith in self and others” (43).
We all desire the security of being narratively grounded, of knowing who we are, where we are, and why we are. When the stories that order our lives—and therefore our understanding of ourselves as the characters in those stories—break down, it can feel overwhelming. As Christians, we should be especially attuned to this need. As Tim Keller puts it,
We are so deeply interested in . . . stories because we have intuitions of the creation/fall/redemption/restoration plotline of the Bible. Even if we repress the knowledge of that plotline intellectually, we can’t not know it imaginatively, and our hearts are stirred by any stories that evoke it.
The English word “gospel” comes from the Middle English word Godspell which derives from two Old English words: good and spell (story). In Old English “to tell a story” was “to cast a spell.” Stories captures the heart and imagination and give us deep joy. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Goodspell. It is the story that all other joy-bringing, spell-casting, heart-shaping stories only point to. What’s special about this one? It is the one story that satisfies all these longings—yet is historically true. (176)
So when life does not make sense, we should remind ourselves that we are living in a story, and that we can trust the author. Let us seek out literature, whatever its artistic form, that equips us to live as such. Let us read, watch, listen, and write so as see the “Goodspell” in every artistic encounter, and so to grow into the characters God is forming us to be.