Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Not Your Usual Book Report. Narcissus and Goldmund

I recently read Hermann Hesse’s “Narcissus and Goldmund.” Before he wrote “The Glass Bead Game,” for which he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946, “Narcissus and Goldmund” was considered his literary triumph. There is good reason for it. Through the novel, Hesse explores Nietzschean thought and Jungian archetypes through a medium of entertainment without losing his audience along the way (evidence: I read this in two nights and it was very hard to put down).

The story begins in a cloister when a young boy comes to study at the school. Narcissus, one of the cloister’s gifted teachers, takes the boy, Goldmund, under his wing and begins to open his eyes to his true nature. Goldmund initially wants to become a monk, like his good friend Narcissus, but Narcissus makes him realize that he is entirely unsuited to a monk's ascetic life. Where Narcissus is a thinker, a man of ideas and the abstract, Goldmund is an artist, a man of the senses and passions.

Narcissus realizes that waking up this dormant nature within Goldmund and urging him to pursue his true self will most assuredly result in him leaving the cloister and possibly destroy their friendship, but this is a cost that must be accepted. As Narcissus himself states, “My goal is this: always to put myself in the place in which I am best able to serve, wherever my gifts and qualities find the best soil to grow, the widest field of action. There is no other goal.” In this case, Narcissus serves Goldmund by revealing to Goldmund that he needs to consider another life trajectory. It is an interesting goal and likely one of the few selfless actions in the book. I resonate with both the goal and the action. I myself have made some important life decisions based on finding "the best soil" for my gifts and qualities and I admire the desire to use these to help another person become the very best person he/she can be. This is, in my view, a consequence of "loving my neighbour." Of course, I disagree with Narcissus in how this should be done and the reason for helping someone become "the best them," but our conclusions are similar!

As a result, Goldmund goes off into the world and pursues a hedonistic life. His driving force? Lust. Lust for women. Lust for freedom. Lust for life. Here it is appropriate to give my judgment on the book. I don't recommend it. The good parts of this book (interesting commentary on relationships, morality, purpose of life, etc.) did not need explicit sex or murder scenes. I did not need to know the details of Goldmund's hedonistic life for me to understand who he became. This book contained much that was not "noble, right, pure and lovely." As such, I cannot in good conscience recommend it. Sin was not presented as sin, but was seductively presented as justifiable and possibly even good.

In any case, the story continues and toward the end of the book, [SPOILER ALERT] Goldmund returns to the cloister. Narcissus does a bit of good ol’ psychoanalysis and explains that Goldmund’s hedonistic living was an escapist mechanism. He says, “So you find yourself surrounded by death and horror in the world, and you escape it into lust. But lust has no duration; it leaves you again in the desert.” Despite this succinct analysis, most of the book is spent pursuing and praising the hedonist's life. Goldmund does seem to gain some maturity in his last years (maybe? kinda sorta?), but it's not really clear what exactly he learns and what of his younger life he actually deems foolish. It's a disheartening ending because Narcissus' observation is entirely correct: Goldmund experienced all life had to offer, but he was left in the desert with a life of few worthy accomplishments (a few great art pieces, but no moving acts of unselfish love, no obvious character growth, ... nothing of eternal significance). Goldmund's hunger is not satiated with women or the vagrant's life.

One of the things about this book that greatly saddened me (an emotional response to a book is just a fact of life, so a purely intellectual book review is not a holistic picture) was the religious positions of these two men. Narcissus is essentially a Platonist. His religious life in the cloister has not affected him in the least except to provide him with the ideal climate in which he can pursue a life of the mind. His pursuit of truth and learning has not led him to the ultimate Truth. 

Goldmund, disappointingly, rejects a notion of god, or at least a loving god, and comes to a point of goddess worship. This goddess is an amalgam of his mother, the women he loved, and a general “mother earth” persona. Goldmund’s dream is to create a sculpture of this woman and apart from the fact that he would have done it in the art traditions of the Middle Ages, I cannot help but think it would have born many similarities to the traditional “Venus figurines” of the Paleolithic time period (see the Venus von Willendorf at right). His great epiphany is that joy and agony are not opposites as one might suspect and that the mother goddess is both a goddess of love and death. This conclusion leaves much to be desired. Although Goldmund embraces death, it is not because "to die is gain." Goldmund does not recognize that the relationship between joy and agony is because "we consider our sufferings joy" or "in our weakness He is made strong." In fact, Goldmund cannot even articulate why they might be related. With a broader spiritual understanding, I think he would have been able to find much of what he was searching for. Just as Narcissus' quest for truth should have led him to God, Goldmund's quest for love and freedom should have led him to the cross. After all, "it is for freedom that Christ has set us free" and "we love because He first loved us."

This book made me wish I were still studying philosophy though! Unfortunately, my books by Nietzsche are elsewhere and I'm too lazy to go check them out of the library, but echoes of "Thus Spake Zarathustra," "Beyond Good and Evil," and "On the Genealogy of Morality" were all over the place! I don't know much about Jungian thought, but I do know that the analysis of these two very different personalities and their interactions with each other and with others recalled the Myer's Briggs personality types (which are based on Jungian archetypes). I will spare you a detailed analysis on the philosophic and psychological statements made by the book because they would be 1) largely uninformed, 2) tedious (much citing and cross-referencing), and 3) likely completely counter to what the author was actually trying to say!

That's my take on Hesse's book. I will likely not read any more of his books, but I appreciated the opportunity to dust off some critical reading skills. Karen Kingsbury leaves a bit to be desired in meaty commentary, you understand...

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Advent and Sanctification

Hush. Hush.
Creation is waiting… in anticipation
Millennia have passed.
It is time.
He is come.
He. Is. Come.
With us.
Heaven come to earth.

Grace in the form of a baby.
Love bundled in swaddling cloths.
Joy giggling in His mother’s arms.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

In humility, He emptied himself,
taking the form of a bond-servant,
being made in the likeness of men.
Being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled Himself
by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.

The birth was for death.
Death was for life.
And life can be had abundantly.

God became man
That man might be saved.
He came to earth that we might have life.
He gave his life and so conquered death.
And so we die to sin and are born in Christ.

And yet. The story’s not over:
For, I do not understand what I do.
For what I want to do I do not do,
but what I hate I do.
As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it,
but it is sin living in me.  
I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.
For I do not do the good I want to do,
but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.
Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
What a wretched man I am!

And so it is that we,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
groan inwardly
as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship,
the redemption of our bodies.
In this hope we were saved.
We hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
And so.
Creation is waiting.
The story’s not over.
We wait in anticipation.
The second advent.
Hush. Hush.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Heritage of Faithfulness

For as long as I can remember, my churches (the ones that I was a part of--the ones that welcomed me) were non-denominational. That is not to say they didn't have any idiosyncrasies because they did--plenty of them! The difference was there was no heritage. No history. No journey. To some, these things don't matter. To me, they do. They inspire a sense of community, belonging. A realization that the saints who've gone before are still part of that community. Heritage creates an atmosphere of purpose--a sacred, reverent, holy purpose. A purpose that you will never be able to completely fulfill because it is one that can only be accomplished once all members of the community are working at it together.

My heritage is Mennonite. For many, Mennonites are known only as pacifists and, at the most, they are known for the simple life. This is true, but this is not by any means all there is to it. We are non-resistant. Not only do we see war as a direct affront to the Prince of Peace, we see any violent resistance as a human response to a situation that demands a soft answer, forgiveness, and God's grace. However, this is only one facet of this particular interpretation of the Christian faith. The Mennonites were also marked for their simplicity. They learned to take pleasure in the simple things--God's gifts to man rather than man's gifts to himself. But there is so much more that is part of being Mennonite. More that I haven't begun to learn, but this is my heritage.

One day when I was 17, I was privileged to be a part of that heritage in a small way. It was a communion and footwashing service and, after singing the beautiful hymns with a four-part harmony that you can only find in a traditional church, we partook of communion--the love feast. With the breaking of bread and the pouring of wine, we celebrated our Lord's sacrifice that made us free, but it was what was to follow that made the experience unforgettable. The women went to the back of the church while the men stayed at the front. We sang another hymn a cappella and as we paired up to wash one another’s feet, I found my grandmother kneeling by my feet. She tenderly bathed and dried them. As she sat back down, I knelt at her feet and repeated the gesture. Then, we both stood up and hugged and kissed each other. The holy kiss of the early church preserved two millennia later. It is through the beautiful past and rich story of a people group that these practices are kept sacred.

But over the following years, I discovered something. I discovered that I could bring this heritage with me. I could introduce it into other circles and share my wealth with others, and footwashing is indeed rich with meaning. You have heard it said that through marriage a man and a woman are made one flesh, but I found that through footwashing, two believers are made one Body, the Body of Christ. I have only participated in footwashing a handful of times, but I remember each experience vividly. My first time was with my grandma, but in subsequent years, I was to find this bond with a fellow student, a dear elderly couple, a respected elder woman, a stranger, and a very close friend. Each face is burned into my memory. These are my brothers and sisters. In this vulnerable act of submission, we touch the beautiful feet of Jesus.

In this way and many others, I stand on the rich heritage of my ancestors and I share this wealth with others and receive in kind. I’m claiming my thread in the heilsgeschichte and together may we weave a tapestry glorifying to God. Soli Deo Gloria.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Worms for Dinner

My first bump into failure (that hasn’t been successfully erased from my memory yet) was in 11th grade. The most earth-shattering thing happened to me: I got back a test with a grade less than 50%. I distinctly remember my teacher cautiously coming up to me and handing me the test and all the while telling me, “Katrina, this is ok. Physics is hard.” I don't remember what else he told me; I was busy keeping the water works at bay. I had failed. I had failed my parents, my teacher, myself, and God. The world was going to end. I might as well dig a hole and disappear.
At this point, worms for dinner sounded like my just desserts. I did recover from this melodrama. I know you were worried. But I've been learning something. No matter how many times I fail, God won't fail. His plan's gonna succeed and you know what His plan is? To prosper you. His plan gives you a hope and a future.

Do you remember Isaac? The kid who was almost sacrificed by his daddy. Well, he grows up and when he gets close to dying, he asks his oldest son to get some meat for a yummy stew before he blesses him. Well, his youngest son, aptly named deceiver, tricks his blind daddy into giving him the blessing instead. When Isaac discovers he's been tricked, he's distraught (at least I think that's what "trembling violently" means). He's just blessed the wrong kid! And instead of giving his oldest son the rich blessing he deserves, he tells this son that he's going to live by the sword and serve his brother. To Isaac and to anyone looking at this situation, it looks like a big mess.

But it gets better! Hundreds of years later, Isaac is commended for his faith in blessing Jacob and Esau as regards their future. That messy little situation was actually evidence of faith? How?! Could it be that because Isaac did not revoke his blessing to deceiver-son that Isaac was actually displaying a faith that God could deal with this failure on his part to bless the "right kid?"

You know what that means? Your failures are not failures of God's plan. His plan doesn't fail. If I fail in this physics venture I am currently undertaking (which always seems like a very near possibility!), it won't be a failure of God's plan. It's that plan in action! And my role is to dust myself off, accept His love (no worm-eating!), and look to see which direction the plan is heading now.

I have to be very honest with you though. I don't do this well. I still have my 11th grade propensity to burst into tears, feel like a failure, and wallow in it. I still moan about my lack of perfection, my inability to be the perfect Christian, and how I'm failing God. I throw very good pity parties. I'd invite you since misery loves company, but you might accidentally cheer me up and I don't deserve that. Isn't that ridiculous? Well, it looks ridiculous from the outside, but it almost feels like what a good Christian should do! If I'm a good Christian, I will be racked by grief at my sinful state and I will feel guilty for my faithlessness. What lies! No more worms for dinner. Let us feast on the Bread of Life.