Friday, September 27, 2013

Guest Post: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

This week's post comes from another guest and a very old friend, Joshua Grubb. I was excited when Josh offered to review Les Miserables for Vintage Novels--partly because I'd already read the book, but didn't remember it clearly enough for a review--and partly because I knew Josh would do a fantastic job of digging into the book's deeper themes. I so enjoyed reading his review, and hope you will be just as interested and edified as me!

Les Misérables: How miserable can you get?

Les Misérables (by translation, the unfortunates or miserable ones), was published in 1862 – after the French Revolution, the fall of Napoleon and the 1832 and 1848 revolutions. It tells the story of several ‘misérables,’ brought or kept in a low station by “a social condemnation, which… complicates [with human fatality] a destiny that is divine.” However, before discussing the ‘social condemnations’ and the ideas in this quote, a summary of the story would be in order.

*Spoiler Warning*

The book moves slowly at first, detailing the life and circumstances (in some detail) of M. Myriel, a philanthropic bishop, who aids Jean Valjean to escape ‘justice.’ Jean Valjean is a convict sentenced to the galleys on the evidence of the implacable police inspector Javert, who thinks he has stolen apples. Partly through the bishop’s help, Jean Valjean escapes the galleys and establishes quite a lucrative business by inventing a new, cheap method of making jet. Through his prosperity, he promotes the wellbeing of other ‘unfortunates’ in the region around his factory by providing well-paid jobs and through charity. One person that does not prosper, however, is Fantine, who is brought to prostitution in an attempt to provide for her daughter, Cosette. Cosette is being ‘cared’ for by the despicable Thénardiers (a family with two daughters and three sons, one of whom is called Gavroche), who cheat Fantine of her money and treat Cosette as a slave. However, Jean Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed to care for Cosette. Before he can fulfil his promise, Jean Valjean is hunted out by Javert and is forced to leave his business, though he escapes justice and retires in seclusion on a fortune of six hundred thousand francs. While escaping, he manages to rescue Cosette from the Thénardiers and brings her up in comparative luxury.

The next character to appear on the scene is Marius, a young man with revolutionary sympathies.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by A Square (Edwin Abbott Abbott)

In 1884 an English schoolmaster named Edwin Abbott Abbott (or A ^ 2) wrote a novella exploring various concepts of geometry and mathematics, whose hero, a Square inhabiting a two-dimensional world, through a series of visions and visitations, comes to discover the secret the oppressive masters of Flatland have been concealing for centuries: the existence of a three-dimensional world.

Flatland is, in many ways, delightful. Abbott exercises wit and imagination to depict what it would be like to live in one two, three, or no dimensions--and what it would be like for an inhabitant of one to visit another. I learned quite a bit.

But in addition to being a mathematical story with plenty of insight on geometry, it's also a rather pointed satire. Some of it is quite funny. The King and sole inhabitant of Pointland is unable to imagine anything in the cosmos except himself, and when the Sphere from Spaceland descends from outside Flatland to enlighten our hero to the existence and wonders of Spaceland, and the humble Square (finally acknowledging the existence of a third dimension) posits the existence of a fourth, fifth, sixth, and infinite additional dimensions, the Sphere immediately disapproves.

There is also much political and social commentary, surprisingly for such a short book on such an esoteric subject. 

Flatland is only a very short and amusing read, full of geometry and irony, as well as being a classic of science fiction. I enjoyed it.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Guest Post: Dominion-Oriented Bibliophiles

Dear friends--
This week's post is from a dear friend of mine and fellow bookworm, Schuyler of My Lady Bibliophile. I asked Schuyler to write on a topic she addressed a few months ago on her blog, only not to pull her punches this time. I loved what she sent me and have great pleasure in presenting this knockout of a post on fiction and dominion!

Introduction

Most of us, if we were asked about our reading, would relegate it to the category of a favorite hobby--something we do after we clock out from our real work, when the kids are in bed and it's almost time to go to sleep ourselves. It's not important, we say, or particularly earth-shattering. It's just something we've always enjoyed--no different than gardening, or putting old cars together, or collecting stamps. Those who blog about books obviously take their love a little more seriously. But in all the conversations I've had with fellow bibliophiles, I haven't met one who calls their reading a mission--a vital part of their calling a Christian, and an indispensable activity that they would never dare to call trivial. A hobby implies that the activity in question can be dispensed with, and for bibliophiles, reading should be anything but dispensable.

With every book-lover I have met, there is one prevailing obstacle that prevents us from acknowledging that books are vitally important to us. It is a false understanding of passionate dominion.

This dangerous idea that we suffer from began just after the 1500 and 1600s, when the Church went through a sweeping era of Reformation. To counteract great transformation, the Devil often brings an equally prevailing error to infiltrate the Church. The counteract, of course, in this case, was the Age of Enlightenment. During this era, famous philosophers taught the ideas of religious tolerance, man-centered science, and skepticism of the unseen world.

Committed Christians reject religious tolerance and man-centered science. But even the conservative Church swallowed the Enlightened definition of realism. And this taught us that passion was foolhardy--hard-headed observation of the world around us was much better. Zeal was for children; rational adults moved into the hard-headed, emotionless, 'common sense' realm of industry and making a living. We're left, of course, with a guilty idea that we mustn't take anything in our lives too seriously, unless it's the daily grind of putting food in our mouths; certainly not curling up with a novel. And as making a living replaced dominion, so reading is no longer a vital activity, but an idle entertainment.

Today, non-readers scoff that reading, especially reading fiction, is a waste of any good Christian's time. So bibliophiles live a passionless life. Books are dispensable, stories are just that--stories. In the grand scheme of things, 'real' life is way better than anything we can find between the pages of a good novel.

And lack of passion is the biggest obstacle holding back bibliophiles from taking dominion for the Kingdom of God.

Why We Read With Passion

Dominion requires passion. Not just an acknowledgement that literature can occasionally be useful: but an out and out abandon in preaching its merits and its uses. If something is worth doing, then we must do it with all our heart and soul, and if we're truly committed to being Christ-honoring readers, we need to realize that much more is at stake than wiling away a half-hour with a good yarn. Until we acknowledge that reading is a vital part of the Christian life, and one worthy of excitement, dominion falls pretty flat.

The written word is powerful; some say it has triple the power of the spoken word. Certainly it lasts longer than any conversation, and therefore its potential for good or evil is that much greater. A novel is not merely a novel; a biography is not merely a biography; a book is a powerful unit of worldview indoctrination that will last far beyond an author's lifetime. Think about it: a man can get up and give a speech; half the audience will remember it for a few weeks, and then it will be forgotten. A man can turn that same speech into a book, and adults will still be reading it centuries later. I might add as well, that a man can turn the principles from that speech into a story, and entire families will be repeating it until the end of time. Clearly books have power. And if they have power, we should take dominion of that power for the Kingdom of God. Reading is so much more than putting words together. It's intellectual stimulation, the preserving of doctrine in lasting form, and a battlefield between God and the Devil for the minds of human beings.

When you put it in perspective like that, reading should require a lot more than casual interest on our part.

When we immerse ourselves into our favorite stories with infectious enthusiasm, we're abolishing two major strongholds: first, we're showing others that there is no such thing as a small issue in God's Kingdom; second, we're showing the world that literature is a living, breathing gift from our Lord.

Scripture, the very word of God, is a compilation of documents that shows us He takes a strong delight in the things that we have relegated to mere entertainment. Beautiful love poems, tales of conquering warriors, nations rising and falling, and mothers and fathers raising their families are all part of the Word, and were used as powerful teaching tools. Kidnappings and slavery, shipwrecks and runaways, every theme we find in man's literature, we find first in the Book of Books, wrapped up in God's plan of redemption for mankind.

Why get excited about books? After all, aren't they just a reflection of God's writing in His Book? Yes, and that's the exciting thing! We're called to be mini-Christs, imitators of God, and communicators for his Kingdom. He has graciously allowed us to participate in His dominion, and bibliophiles are given the special mission of taking dominion through the written word.

If our calling is to teach and reform in the area of literature, then we need to have zeal in doing so. Not the fan-girly kind. I'm talking about the earnest kind. A swift and earnest intensity that loves what God loves and hates what he hates, and realizes that if we are using our precious time to advance His Kingdom, than truth is at stake in every book review we write.

Romans 12:11 says "Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord." We are to be fervent, 'boiling over in spirit' about the business God has called us to--in this instance, the business of reading--having a mindset that in our book lists and recommendations, we are serving the Lord, not only with the reading we do, but also with the intensity in which we do it.

It is not wrong to have strong feelings about books. Nor is it wrong to get excited over them. When we refuse to have strong feelings in the first place, we miss so much joy and beauty that God wants us to partake in. Why do we have such a hard time throwing ourselves with passion into anything? Perhaps because, when we give way to zeal, to absolute abandoned commitment, then we lose control, and since the foundation of the world we have succumbed to the idea that man controls. Zeal and passion are forces so potent that they are beyond our ability to handle; and therefore, we must put them straight into the hands of Almighty God.

Certainly the excitement of reading itself is not the end goal. If we are to take passionate dominion, we must read what will best equip us to be more like Christ. The goal of dominion, after all, is to take something and make it obedient to the standards of God. This also means we read fiction passionately as well as nonfiction. The joys of fiction are often considered illicit ones by the Church at large, and it's an area of misunderstanding that needs some serious re-building to arrive at a biblical understanding of it. Even stories affect souls, teach worldviews, and shape minds. Those who consider fiction 'non-essential', or 'alternate reality' desert the field of battle and hand the victory straight to the Devil. Satan and his minions love to use the tools we leave for them.

Conclusion

God isn't honored by indifference. If we view one area of our lives as less valuable than another, we clearly need a different perspective on what living for Him really means. The sacred and secular divide is sucking out the life of the Church, and turning out a generation of young people who lack vision for the grand adventure the Christian live really is. We need a generation of confident bibliophiles, who recognize and value the love of good literature inside them. To have a zeal for something, we have to go out on a limb with it; to go against all the indifference that has infiltrated our cautious, reserved, and complacent blocks of pews, and show that God is just as anxious to have books conformed to His glory as he is any other area of life.

As a Christian, our goal is to read books that are good, with the kind of goodness that originates from God. But we are not to hold books loosely--to be afraid they will call us away from the Father. We are to be irrevocably attached to every good thing that He sends us. This is not idolatry. This is a fellowship with God that loves what He loves, abhors that which is evil, and irrevocably clings to good.

Books are not a playground; they're a battlefield. Reading is a vital exercise--it's the key that unlocks the gateway to the intellect, and that's a weighty door to open. Only the greatest excitement, the greatest commitment, the highest enthusiasm will enable us to accomplish such a glorious mission of taking it back for the glory of God.
--

Many thanks to Suzannah for hosting me today, and letting me talk about my favorite subject: the written word. :) Literature has always been a passion of mine from a young age, and I talk about it every chance I get. I hope this post has inspired fellow book-lovers to take their interest in reading even more seriously, and love books even better than before.

-Schuyler McConkey, My Lady Bibliophile.

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