The Saga of Lars Swelland
Finally a nice spring day in
And on the other side of the stone is a single grave, that of Martha Swelland, my grandmother’s mother. The plot originally belonged to her and her husband Lars, and she’s been waiting for him there since 1927.
Judging from the pictures I’ve seen, Lars Swelland was probably the handsomest of my great-grandparents. My dad told me that I resemble him when I’m thin, and that I always resemble him in temperament. He came to
But he was a creative man too. He liked to carve wood and tinker with things. He built himself a camper and went on road trips out west in it. “It had the first mechanical turn signal I ever saw,” said my dad. “It was a carved wooden arm that swung out on a pivot to make the standard hand turn signals.”
Lars had beautiful handwriting, I’m told.
Around 1926, according to the family story, his wife Martha (who is remembered as the sweetest of women, and I can well believe it if she was anything like her daughter, my grandmother) came down with serious gall bladder trouble, and her doctor recommended surgery (I’m a little vague on this. It could have been kidney stones.) Martha, however, had a phobia about being operated on. She delayed and delayed, her pain increasing.
Finally along came a “doctor” with a patented new machine to remove gall bladder (or kidney) stones without surgery. It was based on the use of a vacuum tube.
Lars and Martha opted to allow this man do use his machine on her.
The machine ripped the stones out of the living flesh, and she died suffering terribly.
Lars had always been a melancholy sort of man. He became morose and lost interest in life. My dad remembered seeing him walking through the fields alone, his hands clasped behind his back.
Finally he retired from farming. He built a house in town and rented the farm to one of his sons.
Then came the Great Depression. One month Lars’ son missed the rent, and Lars didn’t have the money to make his payment to the insurance company that held the note on the farm.
He received a single dunning letter from that company.
The next day he got on a train for
The insurance company tried to reach him by telegraph, to explain that it wasn’t the end of the world. They were willing to work with him on the payments.
If he got the telegram he paid no attention to it. He’d had enough of the
The farm was lost to the family. His children were bitter.
Lars ended up not in the place where he’d grown up, but on an island called Tysnes in the Hardangerfjord, a beautiful place even by the standards of that beautiful country, and a popular vacation spot today. He made a living by helping out in other men’s fishing boats. He wrote back to the children, asking if they could send some money to buy a boat of his own. But there was no money in those days, even if they’d been inclined to send it.
In 1940 the Germans occupied
He died of a stroke in 1942. His children did not know until the liberation in 1945.
In 1994 Dad and I traveled to
Half-way there I realized I’d left the map back in
I inherited the papers for the cemetery plot in Kenyon from Dad. Unless something like the Great Tribulation intervenes, I expect to be buried there, in Lars’ place.
I hope Martha doesn’t mind.
Arming our youth
My brother Moloch reports this from my youngest niece, just back from traveling in
I don’t think I’ve mentioned that I have two brothers, Moloch and Baal (names slightly altered to protect their reputations). Moloch is a pastor in A Very Large Lutheran Denomination Which Shall Remain Nameless, and serves a country church in
Yesterday we were together up at Baal’s place for the high school graduation of his eldest son. All went well, and other schools could learn from the graduation ceremony, which was trussed up and subdued in under an hour. The commencement speaker spoke less than fifteen minutes, I think.
I hope this is the wave of the future. So many great social impulses spring from
I believe I can safely say that my graduation gift was a hit. When my nephew opened the package, his eyes lit up and he said, “Wow! A sword!” He told a friend on the phone, “I just got the best graduation present ever!”
It’s a Viking sword, needless to say, the Paul Chen Hanwei Practical Viking Sword, which is inexpensive, not intended to be sharpened, and built like a crowbar for brutal use by actors and reenactors. (For every actor there is an equal and opposite reenactor.)
I also gave him a copy of John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart. (I can hear the intake of breath from here. Yes, I know Eldredge is weak theologically. I suspect he’d be the first to admit it. But I love his books for their vision of unreduced, un-Oprahfied, non-neutered Christian manhood. It’s a manhood I can probably never aspire to. But I salute it from afar).
Why did I give a sword and a book on manhood to my nephew? Was it an attempt to undo some imagined deficiency in the way his parents brought him up?
Not at all. My nephew, I’m pleased to say, is tall, good-looking and appears pretty self-confident. He’s an honor student, an athlete, and if the number of kids (including cute girls) who chose to stay late on graduation day at his house is any evidence, he’s popular. He has not missed out on the manly arts either, having been taken on camping trips several times a year ever since he was small, and having slain more than one deer.
No, I wasn’t responding to my nephew’s home life, but to our common life; the life of our culture. This promising young man is walking into a world that believes, as an article of faith, that there is nothing, nothing, nothing that men, as men, are necessary for. Not fatherhood. Not combat. Nothing.
I think a young man nowadays needs a sword and an Eldredge book.
Then again, this morning Brother Baal put his youngest son (also a likely fellow) on a bus at church. He was going to an event billed (according to the flyer) as a “Worship/Paint Ball event”.
Maybe there’s hope after all.
Evan came to the Summer Reading Program as a 14-year old from Mississippi and from one of the lowest-rated schools in the nation. Evan's teacher, Annette, described him as a very curious child but discouraged from his disadvantaged circumstances and no one believing in him except his teacher. Evan speaks of his "life changing experience" at Great Books Summer Program. "Evan will never be the same again," gleams Annette.What would you think if a publisher, say Penguin Classics, promoted classic literature as great summer reads? Maybe they would offer special editions with new or at least sound essays on the work in question. I would pass on Kafka for something like this, but I would be tempted by Hawthorne or Ralph Ellison, Thoreau or Langston Hughes. I suppose publishers think these works are promoted enough through schools and attention to literary awards. But what do you think? A good idea?
Long blog today
…because much has occurred, and I’ll be going out of town tomorrow.
I came home this evening to find a message on my answering machine. When I played it back I got a recording of music from (apparently) a classic rock station. It just went on and on until I stopped it.
Does anyone know why this would happen? Is it some esoteric method for hacking into my computer connection or something?
Well, I’m going on the
In a way I’m not sure why I’m doing this. Well, I’ll be seeing
I guess brutal self-analysis (I don’t do any other kind) would indicate that I do it out of pride. There’s a certain prestige to cruising, and lecturing on a cruise ship has a cachet (“See the world! Have people with limited entertainment choices pay attention to you!”).
Anyway, I’m sailing August 13 on the Celebrity cruise ship Centennial. If you book through this blog, I’ll get no credit whatever, but at least I’ll know I’ll be traveling with the Best People.
James Lileks laments our pathetic
OK, I’ve never actually been to
I didn’t leave
But I never felt at home in
But I missed having it to hate.
Spring doesn’t mean a thing in
I felt like an alien in
So when I got the chance to move back, I came like a shot.
“Salesman, I’d like a hairshirt in a size Extra Large, please. I’ll put it on here. Ah, that feels better.”
There’s something about living near your roots too. I can’t imagine living long anywhere but
I have an idea for a story about two brothers (Norwegians of course). One becomes a sailor and sails around the world, having adventures and seeing exotic places. He dies in a foreign port, on the far side of the globe. The other brother stays on the home farm and never travels twenty miles from it. He dies in the bed in which he was born.
In their final thoughts, each of them thinks how bitterly he envies the other.
Because you can’t go home again, as Lileks observes, even if you’ve never left. They keep changing it on you. The places where the most important moments of your life happened disappear, or get altered beyond recognition. The house where I grew up (for instance) burned to the ground on a bitter winter’s night back in ’87. The new owner’s son was running the wood stove too hot, and he and his wife ended up standing in an arctic wind in their night clothes as sheets of aluminum siding sailed into the air and flew away, to land in fields a half mile off.
(Oddly, I had recently finished writing Wolf Time. And in that book I burned down a house modeled after that very one. You think I don't write powerful prose?)
The older you get the fewer places you can point to and say, “I did this or that here.” They’re constantly erasing your past.
Until finally you die, of a lack of corroboration.
I do expect the Spanish Inquisition!
I’ve noticed that in the comments section we tend to divide up along Protestant/Catholic lines. Even in the 21st century, the ancient animosities still simmer.
I think this is good.
Oh, I’ll grant that we’ve entered an era where we have to take the allies we can get. The fish-eaters (the ones who actually practice, anyway) are generally on the right side on issues like abortion, assisted suicide and homosexual marriage. They might be a little wobbly on the death penalty, but I’m pretty sure that’s a ruse orchestrated by the Jesuits, to lull us into a false sense of security and promote their campaign for world domination.
And, granted, in times like these it makes sense to close ranks with our ancestral enemies, since new enemies have arisen who don’t even make interesting comic sidekicks. Much as we might like to shoot at our new Catholic allies, it makes more sense to shoot at our enemies.
But someday secular humanism will collapse onto the ash-heap of history with other outmoded philosophical fads like Phrenology, Freudianism, and reality television.
Then we can get back to unfinished business.
You think I’ve forgotten the battle of Lützen? Huh?
Actually I have. But you get the idea.
And I do remember that Diet of Worms you guys forced Luther to eat!
I need to eat a little crow.
I stated in this space a while back that I was certain that nobody with any brains really thought the movie “
I’m vindictive when it comes to
I got to thinking about my favorite movies today. I used to latch on to certain movies in my youth, going back to see them over and over. I’d drag friends and family to them. I don’t do that any more. (It might have something to do with the fact that I have almost no friends anymore.)
Movies that fell into this category were:
“The Three Musketeers” (1974). I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun in a movie. Nearly a perfect swashbuckler, firmly based on the Dumas novel and a script by George Macdonald Fraser, author of the Flashman books.
“The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976). I saw this movie thirteen times, if I recall correctly, back in the days when you actually had to go to a theater and buy a ticket to see a movie. This was Clint Eastwood at his popular best, before he started trying to impress the Cannes Film Festival judges.
“Popeye” (1980). Yeah, I know it was Altman at his most self-indulgent (but then he's always at his most self-indulgent). And Harry Nilsson’s songs gave evidence of a bad drug habit. But the script and characters were pretty faithful to the original E.C. Segar comic strips (you wouldn’t know this if you’re just familiar with the animated cartoons), and I idolize the character of Popeye, which Robin Williams had down cold. The climactic rendition of the old Popeye song delighted me.
“Local Hero” (1983). It’s the only Bill Forsyth movie I like, but I like it a lot. It’s the story of an American oil company representative (Peter Riegert) who’s sent to buy an entire Scottish town so that his company can blow it up and build a refinery. I think what I love most is the setting, a remote Scottish fishing village. I’m the descendent of
More recently I’d have to say that my favorite movie is “Joe vs. the Volcano” (1990). Here’s a movie that utterly confounded the hostility to
Speaking of cruises, I got an e-mail recently from a company that arranges “edu-tainment” for cruise lines. I’ve worked for them before. Back in 2003 their representative contacted me by e-mail, having found my name on a list of resource people maintained by the Sons of Norway. Their scheduled lecturer for a cruise from
It seems that they have a similar emergency now, needing a couple speakers for two
What’s odd is that they approached me just as they did the first time – by way of a search of the Sons of Norway list. Apparently the company has no record of my ever working with them.
On second thought, maybe that’s a good thing.
In praise of pain
One reason I was out of sorts yesterday was that one of my big toes hurt. This happens from time to time, usually when I’ve been neglecting my exercise. I worked out on my Nordic Track last evening and took a walk this morning (late shift at the library today), and feel quite a lot better now.
Pain is like that, most of the time. It’s not a curse of Fate, or demons playing with us. It’s a message from our own bodies saying, “Something’s wrong here. You need to notice this thing and do something about it.” In my case my arthritic toe (or whatever the problem is) is a red light on the control panel of my consciousness, reminding me that I’ll really be much happier if I do what I ought to do.
I was chatting online with a hopeful writer the other day and he commented, “I need to make things harder for my characters”. A common problem, that. Perhaps it’s one reason why so many great authors have been jerks. Jerks know how to hurt people, and sometimes enjoy it. And hurting your characters is crucial to the process of creating fiction.
It’s a counterintuitive thing we ask of authors. We ask them to give us characters who are appealing. Characters we can care about. Then we want them to take those appealing, sympathetic characters and put them through hell on earth.
Many writers find that hard to do. I do myself. But when we succumb to the temptation to be kind and gentle with our characters, we lose any hope of writing an exciting story. And even our characters (to the extent that they exist in our and the reader’s imaginations) lose out, because they don’t learn much.
One of the weaknesses in the theatrical version of the movie “Shadowlands” (in my opinion) was that the screenwriters had Lewis repeating the formula, “God whispers in our joys but shouts through our pain” over and over. It seems to have been intended to demonstrate how negative Lewis’ religion was before he got Saved By Romantic Love.
This was wrong because a) Lewis didn’t repeat the formula all that often, and b) even if he did, he’d have been right.
I’m not sure I’ve ever learned anything – really learned, I mean, as opposed to acquiring mere data – without some kind of pain.
I’ve often thought that God’s curse on Eve in Genesis 3, frequently cited by feminists as proof of the essential sexism of the Judeo-Christian tradition, might be taken, in part, in a more general sense. “I will increase your pain in childbirth,” says the Lord. That’s true for all of us, men and women. Nothing in this fallen world (I think) is born without pain. These are the terms under which we live.
I enjoyed last night’s episode of “CSI”. The excellent script involved one of the investigators, Nick Stokes, getting kidnapped and buried in a box.
This was a bad situation. But the writers made it worse. They set up a mechanism in Nick’s box that cut off his air supply from time to time (I won’t go into details, in case you want to catch the re-run).
Nick figured out a way to fix that problem. Good for him.
Only his fix created a new problem he’d never considered. This new problem was really awful, one which doubtless gave millions of viewers the heeby-jeebies. It was so unbearable that Nick came close to using the pistol his captor had left with him to end his life.
But behold! The appearance of this new problem was actually the thing that allowed Grissom and the other CSI’s to figure out where to look for Nick.
Redemption in suffering. Salvation through pain. This is good storytelling. And as I’ve said before, I believe that good storytelling is not just an emotional thrill ride. It’s a reflection of the true nature of life, something that helps us to live better and more wisely, and to get a peek at the greatest Mysteries of all.
The magazine has several online parallels, one on the Christian media market. Left Behind, which was rejected by several publishers before Tyndale House accepted it, The Purpose-Driven Life and it's precursor The Purpose-Driven Church, The Prayer of Jabez, and a number of other strong sellers in religious non-fiction have convinced corporations to wade or jump into the Christian publishing pool. Left Behind alone "brought in more than $650 million and helped establish Christian fiction as a huge market." Now if only we could publish something truly worth reading.
Thomas Nelson has styled New Testaments as fashion magazines, spinning the timeless Scriptures as modern advice, and found the market they wanted. Now they have several versions of "Bible zines." I shouldn't complain when things like this are published for willing buyers. I probably should hope they do someone some good. But I'm not encouraged by a Christian retail industry which seems to pursue trinkets over gold, elementary Sunday School over seminary, local bluff view over Grand Canyon. I want to hope for the best, but this paragraph captures my impression of the majority of the industry.
"I write for the people who don't like to read," says inspirational author Max Lucado, who also pastors a megachurch [and] has sold more than 40 million books.Oh, for the day when we publish strong sellers written for those who not only enjoy reading, but love English as well. And I think that day is coming.
Pass me over some of that aggressive, will you?
Today was not a bad day. But things didn’t go quite the way I’d planned, so I find I’m out of sorts. I’d be surly if there were anyone to surl at.
I was supposed to get a new (used) desk in my office at work today. I was told, “Give us a call when you’re ready for it, and we’ll have somebody bring it up.”
So I cleared my old desk, unplugged the computers, called down to say I was ready, and waited.
The desk never appeared.
I’m very certain there were good logistical reasons why the desk job didn’t get done. And I didn’t complain. I was calm. I busied myself with non-desk work.
I have a reputation as a patient man.
It’s a total lie.
I am not patient. I am passive-aggressive.
My strategy in life (one that’s done me no good whatever) is to pretend I don’t notice when I’m overlooked. Then, if I’m lucky, somebody will eventually pick up on the omission and feel terrible that such a thing has been done to someone who handles it so well. Very often nobody does notice. But when they do, I get my pitiful rewards.
Now, of course, I’m trying to impress you with my honesty in being so open and self-aware.
(Sigh) The heart. Deceitful.
Writers who make history more interesting and more accessible are valuable. They disabuse the public of the notion that history is boring and dry; only about dates and cold facts. Greenberg seems caught up in the progressive intellectuals trap that holds that only that which challenges the conventional wisdom or that requires "critical thinking" is somehow worthy. What he forgets is that the kind of engagement he is looking for is beyond the capability or interest of many readers. They don't have the time to dig into the issues and debates of academic specialists and many aren't interested in dense arguments. They are too busy and too tired after work to choose historical scholarship as a hobby.
I swear I don’t mean to post about
I made a sudden and radical (for me) decision today.
I’m going to Høstfest in
Because Sissel Kyrkjebø will be singing the first night.
You may not know Sissel’s (admittedly challenging) name, but you very likely have heard her voice. She did the background vocals for the movie “Titanic”. No, it wasn’t Celine Dionne.
Sissel is, in my opinion, the greatest living singer in the world. If you’re gullible enough to order an album on the basis of recommendations from a total stranger, her best albums are “Soria Moria,” “Innerst i Sjelen” and “Sissel i Symphoni”. Oh yes, and her “Glade Jul” album is the best Christmas album you’ll ever hear.
The Viking Age Club goes to Høstfest every year. Høstfest is the largest Norwegian-American celebration in
This year I shall be there. If it turns out to be a bad time for the librarian to be gone, they’ll just have to limp along without me. If I’m scheduled for surgery I’ll postpone it. If one of my brothers dies… yeah, OK. I’ll go to the funeral.
But I’ll never let him forget it.
My ticket is purchased. I am so there.
I don’t imagine I’ll get a chance to meet her. She’ll probably fly away the next morning (she never spends time in the American Midwest. The east coast, the west coast, yeah. But never Scandihoovian Country. Sissel, trust me! You belong in the red states! [And
Today is Syttende Mai, the 17th of May.
That does not, however, mean that today was the centennial day.
This is because
And yes, I’m going to tell you why, whether you want me to or not.
At that point (1814, you remember), the Norwegians decided this was the perfect time to write their own constitution and declare independence.
The king of
For the next 90 years, the Norwegians celebrated May 17 every year, waving red-white-and-blue flags, telling Swede jokes, and making speeches about how they deserved to be independent.
In 1905 the reigning king of
Tomorrow, the roots of the Balkan conflict, and a celebration of my favorite Croatian situation comedy.
My favorite point of theology
Last week I wrote about the Hardest Question of All in theology. I was thinking in terms of evangelism – talking to people about God. I still think the question, “What happens to those who never heard the gospel?” is the hardest to deal with and to explain to outsiders. “Your grandmother’s in Hell. Get used to it,” may be a theologically impeccable formula, but it doesn’t win friends.
Today I want to talk about what is (in my view) the neatest apologetic argument I know. Your mileage may vary, of course. I didn’t think of it myself, needless to say. I got it from C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I suppose Lewis got it from somebody else too. He would have been suspicious of an argument that was original to himself (and rightly so).
The argument goes like this: You ask someone, “What’s the most important thing in the universe?”
99 out of 100 Westerners (I don’t know about other cultures) will answer, “Love.”
It’s a cliché. You hear it everywhere, especially in songs. “All You Need Is Love.” “What the World Needs Now Is Love, Sweet Love.” “Love Makes the World Go ‘Round.” (If you think I don’t know any songs written after 1980, you’re pretty much right.)
So then you ask, “Why do you think that is? Why is love the greatest thing in the universe? Why are we all so sure that a human emotion is the solution to all our problems, the greatest good of all?”
Most people won’t have much of an answer. The primacy of love isn’t something they think about. It’s part of the atmosphere they’ve lived with all their lives, their cultural wallpaper; the great orthodoxy of our civilization which it is heresy to question.
Then you spring the Christian answer: “Love is the greatest thing in the universe because it's the very nature of God. The Bible says, ‘God is love.’”
Now here’s the neat part. You go on to talk about the doctrine of the Trinity, the very doctrine that most people find incomprehensible and pointless.
Ever hear this question? “What did God do for all those millions of years before He created the earth?”
The doctrine of the Trinity answers that question. “God was having a good time. He was in a wonderful, joyous, creative relationship among the three Persons of the Godhead. He didn’t create the world because He was lonesome. He had the best kind of company. He created the world because He wanted to spread the joy. You might say He wanted to throw a party.
“The doctrine of the Trinity teaches (at least we say this in the West; the Eastern Orthodox can’t use the argument quite so well) that the love between the Father and the Son is so intense and personal that it actually constitutes a third Person – we call that Person the Holy Spirit. This love relationship is central to what the Trinity is.
“And that’s why ‘Love is the answer’. Because it’s God’s very nature. Love brings us near to God because it’s what He is.”
To me, that’s a pretty neat argument.
"Well," said Pooh . . . "The fact is," said Pooh . . . "Well, the fact is," said Pooh . . . "You see," said Pooh. . . . "It's like this," said Pooh, and something seemed to tell him that he wasn't explaining very well, and he nudged Piglet again.
"It's like this," said Piglet quickly. . . . "Only warmer," he added after deep thought.
I see no reason to spend your life writing poems unless your goal is to write great poems.This fascinating article is available on poets.org, which will undergo a nice redesign soon. Also on poets.org, John Brehm writes of the poems he has yet to write:
An ambitious project--but sensible, I think. And it seems to me that contemporary American poetry is afflicted by modesty of ambition--a modesty, alas, genuine ... if sometimes accompanied by vast pretense. Of course the great majority of contemporary poems, in any era, will always be bad or mediocre. (Our time may well be characterized by more mediocrity and less badness.) But if failure is constant the types of failure vary, and the qualities and habits of our society specify the manners and the methods of our failure. I think that we fail in part because we lack serious ambition.
I'm so wildly unprolific, the poems
I have not written would reach
from here to the California coast
if you laid them end to end.
And if you stacked them up,
the poems I have not written
would sway like a silent
Tower of Babel, saying nothing
and everything in a thousand
Just making it worse
Yesterday’s post raised a lot of comment, as I guess I expected. I want to dig myself deeper into the hole today.
There is a talk-show host in
This broadcaster is Jewish. In a recent program he explained why, although he respects Christians, he cannot accept Christian doctrine.
“If I were to believe the message of Christianity,” he said, “I’d have to believe that a Nazi prison guard, who murdered thousands of Jews, would have the opportunity to go to Heaven if he repented on his deathbed. At the same time I’d have to believe that his Jewish victims all went to Hell. I can’t accept such a doctrine.”
This is the tension caused by our doctrine of Hell, even among people who are well disposed toward us. You may think I’m about to suggest dropping the doctrine so that good people like this broadcaster can be included within “our circle”. But I’m not.
What we see here, I think, is precisely what the apostle Paul (who certainly should have known) meant by “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11).
The offense of the cross is that it doesn’t offend drug addicts. It doesn’t offend prostitutes or death-row inmates.
The cross is an offense to the best of us. The more virtuous a person is, the more the cross offends them. Miserable, suffering sinners aren’t generally offended. Nice, virtuous people who’ve worked hard on their character are.
“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” (Matthew 9:13, NIV)
Fish and a can of worms
Just so you can sleep tonight, I’ll let you know that my friend Aitchmark has informed me that my mystery “colostomy-fish” is called a “plecostomus”. He tells me that it can be kept small by giving it a small place to live, one of those aquarium decorations that’s hollow inside. Plecostomi, he says, are nocturnal and like to have a hidey-hole during daylight. We have three hidey-holes in the tank already, and so far our specimen has shown no interest in them. A day-owl, I guess. A party fish.
Today I’ve been thinking about The Hardest Question Of All. And no, it’s not (in my opinion) the usual question: “How can a good God permit suffering?” That’s the Hardest Question if you’re just dealing with theism; contemplating whether to believe in a personal God or not.
But once you become a Christian, or start considering the claims of Christ, the Hardest Question changes (though it’s related). In a Christian context, the Hardest Question is, “If salvation is through the Blood of Christ alone, what about the people who never heard the gospel and never got a chance to believe?”
The traditional Protestant view on what happens to the “virtuous pagan” has been (correct me if I’m wrong): “There are no second chances after death. The tree lies where it falls. Since everybody deserves to go to Hell, God is being merciful in saving anybody at all. He should be thanked for saving the few who will be saved, not criticized for giving the rest what they deserve.”
Catholics have had the doctrine of limbo for some time, believing (if I understand them correctly) that the virtuous pagan (and unbaptized infants) will spend eternity in a sort of shadow region, bereft of the joys of Heaven but suffering no more than general melancholy in a gloomy place (kind of like my average day).
I’d like to open myself to a hailstorm of criticism by suggesting that the traditional Protestant view is scripturally inadequate. No, I’m not going to argue for universalism. But I am going to argue for a prudent agnosticism in this particular matter.
I’ve read the Bible more than a dozen times, and I can’t recall (I’m open to correction here) any passage that explicitly states that all people who die without hearing the gospel will go to Hell. What I find is almost complete silence on the subject. It’s not a question that seems to have exercised the minds of biblical writers at all.
The only hints about the fate of the unevangelized that I can recall come from a couple passages that suggest, but do not define.
In Luke 12:47-49, Jesus says in a parable, “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” That suggests to me that the final judgment will involve some kind of consideration of the opportunities a person has enjoyed in life.
Or am I reading it wrong?
In Acts 17, where Paul is preaching to the Athenians, he says “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent” (verse 30). This can be taken in several ways, but it seems to me to say at the very least that God acknowledges the problem of ignorance.
Now here’s the other side of the conundrum. To suggest that there could be any way to be saved outside of the Blood of Christ absolutely cuts the bottom out of the Christian religion. Take it away, and there is no Christianity. Take it away and Christ was a fool.
Because the Christian religion teaches that Jesus went to the Cross to pay for our sins. If there was an alternative way to be saved – if one could be saved, for instance, by being an observant Jew – then Jesus could have saved Himself a whole lot of trouble and pain by just telling people to do that. If there’s an alternate method, easier than the Cross, then Jesus was not even a great moral teacher. He was a bloody idiot.
How do I think my way around this? My answer (your mileage may vary) is agnosticism on the subject. I don’t see a clear scriptural prescription, so I don’t feel justified in making definitive statements. I don’t know what happens to the virtuous pagan, or to the virtuous Jew. I’m willing to live with that. I know that God is good and just. I have to leave it to Him to solve the problem in a good and just way, a way which He is not obligated to explain to me beforehand.
And here’s something I think important to notice – anybody who’s in a position to think about this question no longer has a personal stake in it. If you can ask the question, you’ve heard the Gospel. Therefore the issue is academic for you.
Am I being wishy-washy here? Trimming a bit?
If one of you loses an eye, don’t come running to me!
I had good news last week. The Viking Age Club has scheduled another live steel combat practice session. We had our first about a year ago, and haven’t been able to find another date until now. But on a Saturday in early June we’ll gather again to practice our deadly art.
I’m a member of the Viking Age Club of the Sons of Norway, a Viking living history group that does exhibits at various ethnic festivals (mostly) around the Upper Midwest. I consider it research for my writing, and it’s also a chance for me to sell books.
But mainly it’s an opportunity to play Viking with much better toys than I ever could have gotten when I was a kid.
I cannot tell you what a lift that first combat practice gave me. I have no illusions of having any hidden talent as a great swordsman, but the opportunity to use a sword in some kind of systematic way – to do something with a sword – buoyed my spirits incredibly. I suppose the second time won’t be quite as good. But I’m still looking forward to it.
Any Freudian innuendoes about what a sword might mean to a middle-aged celibate are probably correct.
If you go to the Viking Age Club’s website, you can see photos of me at a couple club events. Click on Club Photos and Movies and select “Syttende Mai 2004” and “Viking Feast 2005” (parts 2 and 3). I’m also in the Viking Feast Movie, which you can click on over to the right. I’m the guy in the red shirt at the very end who looks like he’s checking his watch. What I’m actually doing (Vikings don’t wear watches) is making sure my silver bracelet isn’t about to fall off.
One of the best things about being a Viking is the opportunity to accessorize.
I bought a fish for the library today.
(There’s a sentence I don’t believe I’ve ever used before.)
The library where I work has (for reasons I won’t go into) a 20-gallon fresh water aquarium. When I came to work in March, an algae eater was resident there. I can’t remember the thing’s proper name. Something like “colostomy”. An ugly, long, big-headed fish about the size of a Studebaker. I think the student assistants were afraid of it. Shortly thereafter they persuaded one of the other students to take it for his own. I have an idea he meant to batter fry it and invite all his friends over.
However, since the creature’s departure, algae has flourished in the tank, and we’ve had to clean it more often (or rather the assistants have had to. I’m happy to let them carry on such duties as long as they remain under my dominion). They’d been asking me to get a replacement, and today I did.
The new fish is much smaller than his predecessor, but I have the pet store guy’s assurance that he’ll grow to be as horrendous as Algae Eater Part I. It was a pleasure to see him exploring his new surroundings, partaking of the fuzzy green smorgasbord we had laid out for him. I wanted nothing from him but to eat algae. He wanted nothing but to eat it. One of those wonderful win/win situations that are far too rare in life.
The way I read 1 Corinthians chapter 12, it seems to me the church is meant to be like that. God did not create us primarily to have careers, or even to be spouses and parents. Before anything else, God intends us to be members of His Church – working organs in a living Body. Each of us was designed to do a specific job in that Body. We will never be happy until we find out what that job is and begin to do it, like a jolly colostomy-fish in an aquarium.
For years I’ve dreamed of being in a church situation where people exercised their gifts in this way. I believe that a church like that would turn the world around, ease highway congestion and find the place where all the lost socks go.
But of course to have a church like that, you’d need to be in deep, intimate fellowship with other believers.
There’s always a catch.
Maybe I should learn to eat algae.
Learning to love rejection
I’m almost embarrassed to say it. It’s such a truism. A writer needs to develop a thick skin. Among the many disciplines the writer must learn – pruning and polishing prose, learning to extrude so many words per day, studying the markets – you’d better include dealing with rejection.
Oh yes, I’ve been angry at editors in my time. I remember taking a particular story through a score of drafts, cutting and burnishing and weighing each word. I sent that story off, personally satisfied that it was as good a story as I could write. And, since I’d been published by this magazine before, I took it for granted that this story would make the cut.
But the editor sent it back. Not quite up to standards. I remember going for my daily jog (I was jogging in those days), fuming. “If this story isn’t good enough,” I thought, “then I might as well give up. Because I can’t write better than this.”
But I got over the anger. I sent the same editor other stories, and I did get published again. I was learning all the time, refining my craft. Just as children aren’t aware of their physical growth, I wasn’t aware of my progress as a writer. But the progress was happening, and dealing with the rejection was part of that progress.
A short memoir appeared in Writers Digest magazine years back. I didn’t keep a copy and don’t know who wrote it. But the gist of the thing was this:
The author had taken a writing course in college. The final assignment was to write a story. When the author got his story back, the instructor had written on it something like, “I’d give it up if I were you. You’ll never be a writer.”
Naturally he was crushed and demoralized. But he kept writing. Eventually he became a professional journalist.
One day, years later, he ran into that college instructor. He asked him, “Do you remember that story you criticized? What was it about it that was so awful that you wrote such a thing?”
And the instructor replied, “Oh, I wrote that on all the stories. I figured, if a student had what it takes to be a writer, he wouldn’t let a criticism like that stop him. And if he couldn’t take a criticism like that, he’d never make it as a writer anyway.”
Now that’s brutal pedagogy. I hope the guy’s contract wasn’t renewed.
And yet… he had a point. He was giving each student a forestaste of something that certainly awaited them in the writing business if they persisted.
They had a saying during pioneer days – “The cowards never started, and the weak died on the way.”
If you want to be a writer, make up your mind to be a pioneer.
“Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13b-14, NIV)
Mother’s Day as an observance is no longer important in my life, but growing up it was the holiday I hated most, bar none.
I had to put up with humiliation most all the time, but at least I didn’t usually have to lie about it. It was enough, ordinarily, just to say nothing.
But on Mother’s Day, my teachers would always assign the class to make a Mother’s Day card or to write a Mother’s Day poem. And since I was known to be one of the best writers and artists in the class, my card and/or poem was expected to be especially nice.
That meant not only lying, but lying with style.
If you have a good mother, hug her tight today. She’s made sacrifices you’ve never imagined, and given you things you don’t even know about.
Here’s a thought about parenting, while I’m at it. I know the last thing you parents want or need is advice from middle-aged single guys, but let me lay it out here and you can pick it up or leave it lying as you please.
You know how you sometimes want to yell at machines -- a copier, say, or a computer? You tell the thing very clearly what you want it to do, and it will not do it. You keep trying and it keeps giving you results you don’t want, or no results at all.
It is very clear to you at that moment that the machine is defying you. It is purposely trying to drive you crazy. You want to scream at it and punch it. Sometimes you even do.
But you know, really, that the machine isn’t trying to get your goat. It’s just a machine, a device without motives or intentions, operating on the rules by which it was programmed. It’s obeying those rules precisely. The problem, in the end, almost always turns out to be that you don’t know how to ask it in a way it understands.
I’d like to suggest that sometimes (not always, certainly) it’s the same way with your kids. Granted, there are times when they’re testing the boundaries and defying you. But sometimes they’re honestly obeying you as best they understand you.
Just something to bear in mind the next time your kids are driving you nuts. Probably of no use. But I thought I’d mention it.
I was just informed by a reader that a family friend of his, a young man on whom my novel Blood and Judgment "made a big impression", recently received Christ as his Savior.
This humbles me. It’s earthen vessel time. I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ comment in a letter that he hoped, if he was fortunate, to be given a small stall in Heaven near the great mansion reserved for Balaam’s ass.