Monday, January 31, 2011

Iconoclasm as Heroism in Spenser's Book One of The Faerie Queene (an academic essay by an orthodox rebel)

In Book One of The Faerie Queene, being enamored with and thereby enslaved to the signifier rather than the signified seems to adequately identify Spenser's iconoclastic (and thus Protestant) tendencies in literature. Of course, it's not as simple as saying that Spenser was a Protestant in the absolute sense. His sympathies with medievalism greatly irritated his puritan and humanist peers, who could not understand why he wrote a story about knights and dragons and dwarves and other such papist trappings. Nevertheless, Spenser still allows for iconoclasm to be a kind of heroism, even while he maintains his medievalist leanings.

This is not a difficult inference to make. Practically every incarnation of evil in Book One, whether they be man or monster, is some kind of deceiver, spellbinder, or (if I may coin of term) a sign-weaver. Error spews forth false doctrines, Archimago weaves illusions, Duessa lives for deception, the House of Pride is a thin yet flashy veneer covering the dungeons of the dead, and Despair twists scripture in order to produce suicide.

In response to these "sign-weavers" is an apparently iconoclastic retaliation. Error is beheaded (defaced?), Duessa is stripped, and Despair's deadly interpretations are thwarted by Una's reiteration of true grace. Even the Dragon's death is described as erosion, which is a type of defacement: "So down he fell, as a huge rocky cliff / whose false foundation waves have washed away." It seems as though the weapons of the enemy are the deception of false images, and the weapon of holiness is an iconoclastic resolve guided by the word(s) of truth (viz., of Una).

As already stated, Spenser's use of "sign-weavers" as enemies is more than mere anti-papist propaganda: it is a statement about the intimate connection between evil and falsehood as well as between goodness and truth.  Holiness is not simply Protestantism; holiness is reality, living in and being guided by the real (esp. the highest real, i.e., God). Still, since The Faerie Queene was not ashamed to dabble in sensationalist elements (elements that had deep correlations to the everyday lives and experiences of the common folk of 16th century culture), asserting Spenser's use of iconoclastic heroes and image-bound villains is not an unfair interpretation.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Friday, January 28, 2011

Why I Am a Writer (the confessions of an orthodox rebel)

G.K. Chesterton told a story once about a young lady that he knew. She had lived in mainland England her whole life and had never been to the coast, never been to the sea. Chesterton felt the need to rectify this and escorted her out there himself. They came to some random beach on the coastline and watched the dark green waves cresting and falling across white sand. Chesterton turned to the young lady and asked her what she thought. After a moment's hesitation, she said, "It looks like cauliflower." Chesterton would later say that he had never heard a more poetic statement.

Chesterton's assessment of that statement is why I love him. I don't always understand him, but that's not the point. It is his way with words that astounds me, how he understands the way that they work. I remember perusing some of his books online, and I got to his Father Brown collection. I only read the first line of the first story: "Between the silver ribbon of the morning and the green glittering ribbon of the sea, a boat touched Harwich and let lose a swarm of folk like flies." I stopped and immediately bought the book. I was in the middle of my college days back then, and I had no idea what to do with myself. All I knew was that I wanted that book and all the words it contained.

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a cartoonist, mostly because I spent hours doodling and also because Garfield the Cat had reached a cult-like status for me. By the time I was biologically mature enough to go to college, I began looking into graphic arts programs. One of my cousins and her husband were both graphic artists, so I took some samplings of my best stuff to show them. I sat at their dining room table one afternoon, passing graphite-laced pieces of paper back and forth between them and myself. I asked what they thought. My cousin said nothing because her husband beat her to it: "You draw well, but you really need to be a writer."

He was right. At that very moment, I knew he was right. His statement seemed absurd, yet it was completely true. As he would point out to me, every single picture that I showed them had been accompanied by a story. Every doodle was a scene, every piece a part of some whole. I was a writer. It was instinctual to me. I wanted to be one. I had always wanted to be one. I just didn't realize it until a graphic artist told me so.

So I abandoned the graphic arts programs and enrolled in a literature program, because I figured (as only someone cusping the age of twenty could figure) that I could learn how to write by simultaneously writing often and reading great writing. Thus I spent four years as a fish out of water, surrounded by academic bookworms concerned with theories and research. I just wanted the books themselves and their words, words fitly spoken, burning like stars or cold like steel. After all, I had bought Chesterton's entire Father Brown series on the merit of its first sentence alone. Another time, for kicks and giggles I sat down and read T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. During "Burnt Norton," I got to these lines: "Garlic and sapphires in the mud / Clot the bedded axle tree. / The tilling wire in the blood / Sings below inveterate scars / Appeasing long forgotten wars." For some reason my whole chest felt like it was burning, and my head felt cleansed and clear. I read all of his poems soon after.

Only two of my professors seemed to really understand how I felt. One was Dr. Kieth Callis, a wry man with a small mustache and a thin strap of messy gray hair. He was a true academic and scholar, but he also loved the written word for itself. On occasion during class, he would be reading something (usually Shakespeare) and he would constantly interrupt himself with "oh that's just beautiful!" I came to understand this sentiment firsthand. Last year I was teaching an English literature class, and we were reading through The Faerie Queene. When Redcrosse Knight reached Lucifera's House of Pride, I read the line: "and underneath her scornful feet / the dauntless dragon lay." I paused. It was beautiful, and I let the class know it.

The other professor was a creative writing instructor. His name was John Walker, and he was paralyzed from the collarbone down. He spoke with a soft, soothing voice and always waved a limp hand in the air whenever he was making a point. His class was the only one that I purposefully took twice, and I often frequented his office. On one such visit, he asked me to pull a book off of his shelf and hand it to him. It was Hey Jack!, a book by Barry Hannah, his old creative writing teacher. He flipped through it, his hands moving like flippers, and read to me the first few sections of the first chapter. I remember standing mesmerized. Every sentence was perfect, and not a word was wasted. It reminded me of Chesterton. I bought the book about a week later and devoured it.

Reading Barry Hannah reminded me why I wanted to be a writer, why I loved writing itself. It's the words, the power and beauty that they can have, how they can fit together so perfectly, bouncing off of each other like light between a thousand prisms. There's music in them, a submerged symphony desiring excavation, and every note I hear (either from myself or others) makes me want to dig deeper. There's that image in the Bible from Ezekiel of the dry bones coming together to form a standing army. That's what writing does: it makes the bones live. And that's what I wanted to do.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Shakespeare meets Twilight: The Serious and the Sensational in Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene (an academic essay by an orthodox rebel)

I think that, if anything else, Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene ought to be an encouragement to other writers. We often think that a true literary work must avoid the ludicrous trivialities of "sensational" literature: one needs to be serious, and very serious about one's seriousness. Spenser, however, was not ashamed to dress up his "seriousness" in children's clothing. He took the best of what would have been considered "sensational" to the Elizabethan culture of England and used it to make a masterpiece. To put it in contemporary terms, it is as though he dressed up Shakespeare in the garb of Twilight.

Of course, Spenser dealt with extremely "serious" issues, e.g., archetypes, Platonic imagery, and various moral, theological, and political themes. However, he felt it necessary to dress them all in the imagery and language of a fairy tale: knights on quests, princesses in peril, wizards and sorceresses, dragons and monsters, giants and dwarves. There were even elements of conventional patriotism and nationalism (like St. George the Dragon Slayer, the patron saint of England). Spenser did this on purpose: a fairy tale would capture and keep his audience's attention faster and better than anything else.

C.S. Lewis, in his book Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, said that if one is to properly understand and enjoy The Faerie Queene, one must approach it as a fairy tale first. To approach it primarily in any other way (viz., scholastically) will only result in you drowning in the dense layers of meaning behind every image and event. A good example of this is the Giant Orgoglio. In an essay titled "The Orgoglio Episode in The Faerie Queene," S.K. Heninger, Jr., argued that Orgoglio must be seen as emblematic of God's judgment against the Roman Catholic Church specifically, the Anti-Christ in general, and Pride ultimately. All of those elements, however, no matter how true, must not distract us from the fact that Orgoglio is first and foremost a giant: a foe of knights, a thing of myth and fairyland.

Thus, Heninger, Jr., rightly points out that "Spenser has done an admirable job of sublimating the serious argument so that on the level of simple narrative-plot Orgoglio is quite convincing in his role of giant in a fairy tale. He carries His heavy allegorical burden without impairing the childlike wonder and excitement which attends the adventure" (emphasis mine). That is the necessary point. Spenser had a very "serious argument" to get across, but he also wanted that argument to be heard by all. Therefore, he used the "sensational" elements of his own period to endear his "heavy allegorical burden" to a mass audience, an endearment that worked in his time and can still work in ours.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Homily 21: God > Temple (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"I tell you, something greater than the temple is here." Matt. 12:6

The Pharisees rebuked Jesus' disciples for supposedly breaking the Law. Jesus, in turn, rebuked the Pharisees for not seeing the One whom the Law points to. The problem with a Pharisee is not that they are religious. Their problem was that their religion was greater than God. For them, the shadow trumped the substance, and the Law (and its trappings) where higher even than God Himself. This was not a statement of logic that they ever spoke. It was a fact of experience that they continually lived. God walked in the flesh amongst them for three years, but they could not see the Lawgiver for the Law. That which was meant to lead to God had taken God's place, and now the very means by which they were to see became their blindness.

A Pharisee, then, is not a legalist; a Pharisee is an idolater. Antinomian types (and other "gutless-gracers") can be just as much a Pharisee as a legalist. That is because a Pharisee is not one who makes rules about how to get to God, but rather rules about who God is. They set up an image of God based on their own logic and/or experiences and then say that the matter is settled forever under heaven. Legalists certainly come from such stock, but so do antinomians.

We all create an image of God out of our logic and experiences. It is not wrong per se; it is the natural way that we comprehend things. What is wrong is when we say that our image is the end of the matter, and defend it to the death against all comers, even God Himself. That is the way of the Pharisee, the idolater. Our image has become graven--set in stone. We must not be surprised when God brings the hammer to them, breaking our self-made and misused icons until we finally reach reality.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Homily 20: What Did You Expect? (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"Jesus began to say unto the multitudes concerning John [the Baptist], 'What did ye go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind?'" Matt. 11:7

The Christian life is full of the unexpected, mainly because life is full of the unexpected. Those who try to fit life into some form of carefully systematized scheme are the first to go mad, because life will not fit the scheme, or else they have to break life in order to make it fit. To remain sane, they must either give up their scheme or ignore entire areas of life and thus amputate parts of their humanity. Most prefer the latter, because they have idolized their scheme above all other gods.

Concerning John the Baptist, Jesus said to the crowd, "What did you expect? Whatever it was, it was not what you got." That is a truth about all life, especially the life of the Christian. Our expectations are always foiled, and whether we are grievously disappointed or gloriously surprised depends on whether we see God or our personal creed and doctrine as the master of life. We all have personal creeds and doctrines; we all have our little ways of understanding and processing the world. They are not, in and of themselves, bad. The question is, when life and God (who is the master of life) upset your personal creeds and doctrines, will you have enough faith to let them go?

"For we know in part, and we prophesy in part" (I Cor. 13:9), i.e., we have true knowledge, but it is not yet complete. There are things that we do know, doctrines and creeds derived truly and accurately from Reason and Revelation, truths about life and God. However, no matter what we do know, we do not know it all, and the sooner that we realize and accept our limitations, the happier we will be. The man who tries to mount the insurmountable, to cross the infinite ocean and make it finite, he is the one who grows weary and mad with life. He is attempting to be Creator when he is merely creature, and he will find himself unable to take the strain.

Our schemes and plots, creeds and screeds ultimately do not matter. Our relationship with the One who is above all schemes does. Real knowledge exists, and it is wonderful to find; but it is never complete in this life, and every time we claim that it is, even on some tiny area of life, we make ourselves god of that tiny area. Can we allow ourselves to be small enough to see that God is God? Life will be a confusion and terror until we do.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

I Built a Little Snowman (a snow-day poem by an orthodox rebel)

It snowed today, about six or so inches deep. I love snow, and as I busied myself with my outdoor merriment, I took to making little snowmen (maybe ten inches tall) and setting them around the edge of our frozen pool. As I made them, I started saying this little poem over each one, like a  blessing or something. Poetry and snow: it was all magic and fun!

"I built a little snowman.
He stood so white and tall.
I fear the sun will show its face,
And I will see him fall.

Stand tall, my little snowman.
Hold off your melting tears.
And I will build you yet again
Through all the frozen years."

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

"Sometimes I wake, and, lo, I have forgot" (poetry from an Original Orthodox Rebel)

The following are sections from George MacDonald's devotional Diary of an Old Soul:

"Sometimes I wake, and, lo, I have forgot,
And drifted out upon an ebbing sea!
My soul that was at rest now resteth not,
For I am with myself and not with thee;
Truth seems a blind moon in a glaring morn,
Where nothing is but sick-heart vanity:
Oh, thou who knowest, save thy child forlorn.


"Thy fishes breathe but where thy waters roll;
Thy birds fly but within thy airy sea;
My soul breathes only in thy infinite soul;
I breathe, I think, I love, I live but thee.
Oh, breathe, oh, sink--O Love, live into me;
Unworthy is my life till all divine,
Till thou see in me only what is thine."

The Gospel vs. The Cheats of Modern Christendom (as explained by an orthodox rebel)

"And, behold, they brought Him a paralytic lying on a bed; and Jesus, seeing their faith, said unto the paralytic, 'Son, be of good cheer: they sins be forgiven thee.'" Matt. 9:2

Jesus' primary concern while on this earth was Sin, viz., its forgiveness and subsequent eradication: "And ye know that He was manifested to take away our sins...that He might destroy the works of the devil" (I John 3:5, 8). Any religion, and especially any branch of so-called "Christianity," that does not begin with the fact of Sin and the fact of Christ's forgiveness of Sin has absolutely nothing to offer humanity.

There are many sincere yet misguided people out there who see planting trees and building hospitals as the cure-all for men's souls. It is never a cure if it leaves us still separated from God by Sin. Erecting hospitals and rebuilding homes are wonderful acts of love, but they can only touch symptoms. The true cause of all human misery is Sin, and no man can touch that. Only God can and only God did in the person of Jesus Christ.

The gospel is not reupholstered furniture, medical services, or a western education. Here is the gospel: "The Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins" (Matt. 9:6). If we do not offer mankind that first, then everything that we do offer them will be a mere insult added to injury. What good will all our best efforts do for them on the day of holy judgment (Heb. 9:27)? It is not our good acts or actions that save people. It is not even the mere love of God that saves people. What saves us is the love of God manifested in this particular way, that "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). This is the gospel: there is no other hope but Him.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Homily 19: Into the Calm (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"And behold, there arose a great tempest in the sea.... Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great clam." Matt. 8: 24, 26

Christ is the calm in the midst of the storm. This is easy to accept when His calm spreads over the storm itself. The real trick and test is to realize His calm while the storm continues to rage. "He was asleep" (vs. 24): that is His calm while the storm winds blow. His disciples misunderstood this: "Master, do you not care that we perish?" (Mark 4:38), and, of course, we do the same. We misread His peace as apathy all the time. We assume that if God really cared about what happened to us, then he would calm the tempest that threatens our lives. We never once stop to consider that if God is truly with us, truly "in the boat" with us, and yet is not fretting about the whirlwind about us, then why are we fretting? "Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?" (vs. 26). We thought that we knew our situation better than God did, but all of our wisdom was mere unbelief.

"The men marveled, saying, 'What manner of man is this...?'" (vs. 27). If there is calm in our life, its true benefit lies not in itself but in the One who brought it. The sudden moments of peace, when the winds finally die away, are meant to point us to Christ, the Prince of Peace. Every moment of evil is a chance to trust Him; ever moment of good is a chance to realize Him. In the dark, we cry, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him"; and in the light, we sing, "My Lord and my God!"

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011

Homily 18: The Christian Imperative (as preached by an orthodox rebel)

"And a certain scribe came and said unto Him, 'Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest.' And Jesus said unto him, 'The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.' And another of His disciples said unto Him, 'Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father.' But Jesus said unto him, 'Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.'" Matt. 8:19-22

This is not about aestheticism nor cold and cruel detachment. This is about the one and only rule of Christianity: Christ first, Christ last, Christ always. Christianity is about following a Person, not adhering to a rulebook or code of ethics. It is true that this Person that we follow is the embodiment of the perfection of all the rules and codes, but that is why we follow Him: He will lead us where we could never go or find. He will lead us to that perfection. He will lead us to Himself.

"Follow me," says the God-man, and that is the imperative. Following Christ may very well lead you away from house and home, and it may not. It may sever all familial ties, or it may strengthen them. The point is that those issues become peripheral rather than central. The central issue is whether or not you are following Christ. That is the mainspring. All else becomes shadows, not because they have no importance whatsoever, but because their importance becomes secondary to the one needful thing, viz., Christ Himself. Follow Him, and "the dead [will] bury their dead," i.e., all other things will be handled (c.f. Matt. 6:33).

-Jon Vowell (c) 2011