“Dubliners” by James Joyce

Is it helpful to look at Dubliners as “[a] series of epicleti” or as “epiclets”?

Considering the ambiguity of “high” modernist texts, the reader welcomes any indication of the author’s intentions for a work. For instance, one cheers James Joyce’s description of Dubliners in a 1904 letter as a boon: “'[A] series of epicleti… I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” Some critics have interpreted “epicleti” to refer to “epiklesis,” the word Catholics and Greek Orthodox Christians use to refer to the invocation of the Holy Ghost at the Eucharist. Thus, each short story would be a symbolic invocation or Eucharist.[1] Other critics, however, have read Joyce’s unclearly-written word as “epiclets,” which would characterize each story as a little-epic. Thus, with Dubliners, one finds it difficult to defend only one interpretation of a modernist work as valid, even if one believes in authorial intent. Reading the stories as invocations or as little epics helps the reader to the extent that it encourages one to notice Joyce’s plot structures, diction, and symbolism.

“The Sisters”

Although Joyce may have changed his conception of Dubliners as invocations after 1904—or never intended them to be invocations at all—one finds it helpful to read “The Sisters” as showing the failure of invocation and what Joyce sees as the detrimental effects of Catholicism on Irish society. The first Dubliners story, it cannot be read well as a “little epic”—it bears only negligent resemblance to Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey either in its structure or imagery. One could construe the story into a “Telemachy”-like structure: the narrator describes his ordinary life learning from the priest,[2] which is disturbed by the priest’s death.[3] The priest’s death could be seen as a call to adventure, as the narrator feels “freed” by his death.[4] But one cannot stretch the story any further to adhere to a Homeric epic structure.

In contrast, “The Sisters” reads well as a story of invocation. It begins with the death of Father Flynn, a priest who took his duties very seriously, perhaps too seriously from the narrator’s point of view—and certainly from Joyce’s. According to the characters, Father Flynn was “queer” [5] because he believes he committed a sacrilege: “It was that chalice he broke.”[6] Father Flynn apparently dropped the chalice used for the Eucharist during Mass. Yet the reader remains uncertain to what extent this was a sacrilege: “[T]hey say it was all right,” Eliza says, “that it contained nothing”[7]—that is, it did not contain wine that the invoked Holy Spirit had transformed into Christ’s blood. Nevertheless, the story’s first invocation destroys Father Flynn.  Because he “was too scrupulous always,”[8] Father Flynn feels as guilty as if he had actually spilled Christ’s blood: “That affected his mind,”[9] Eliza says. Father Flynn’s “queer”[10] behavior manifests itself as a preoccupation with confession: one night, other priests find him “sitting up by himself in the dark in his confession-box, wide-awake and laughing-like softly to himself.”[11] Notably, the two topics the narrator recalls Father Flynn teaching him about are “the duties of the priest towards the Eucharist and the secrecy of the confessional”[12]; because of his error, Father Flynn cannot mentally separate the Eucharist from confession. Even when the narrator dreams of the priest, he realizes that Father Flynn “desired to confess something.”[13]

Yet as a priest who receives confessions and prays for his congregation, he has no one to whom he can confess besides the Holy Spirit.  In the story’s second invocation, Father Flynn hides in “his confession-box” at night and “invokes” the Holy Spirit to intercede on his behalf.[14] Although Father Flynn feels his “invocation” to be absurd—while he prays, he appears to be “laughing-like softly to himself”[15]—it appears that his invocation was, in the end, successful. Twice Eliza refers to Father Flynn’s “death” and “corpse” as “beautiful.”[16] Although “he was not smiling,”[17] he looks “peaceful and resigned.”[18] Joyce describes Father Flynn’s face as “copious,”[19] which usually refers to an abundant amount of food. Father Flynn has, in death, come to mirror the Eucharist: the bread and the wine are united in Father Flynn’s coffin as his body and the “chalice.”[20] Thus, Joyce’s diction indicates that Father Flynn’s second invocation was successful—he has died reconciled with God and with himself. Yet Joyce undermines the Eucharistic image of Father Flynn’s death with his final line: “when they saw that, that made them think that there was something wrong with him…” (ellipsis in original).[21] As the last, open image is of Father Flynn confessing his sin, the reader feels that Father Flynn will continue his invocation, “laughing-like,”[22] throughout eternity, in complete paralysis and futility. 

Furthermore, the narrator’s won attempt at invocation fails: during his visit to the deceased priest’s house, the narrator “pretended to pray” but cannot “gather” his “thoughts” because he is distracted by the physical world: “I noticed how clumsily her skirt was hooked at the back.”[23] Joyce undermines the entire idea of “invocation”—although the Incarnation sanctified the physical world, and physical elements undergo apotheosis at the Eucharist, both events have failed. If the physical world still bars people from communing with God, then the physical world has not been redeemed: the narrator unwittingly undermines invocation as he wanders “along the sunny side of the street, reading all the theatrical advertisements in the shop-windows” instead of praying for the priest’s soul.[24]

Reading “The Sisters” as a story of invocation or an “epicleti” thus helps the reader see Dublin’s religious inertia. The story both begins and ends with Father Flynn’s “paralysis,”[25] trapped in a futile Catholic society. In contrast, the narrator has been “freed” from the priest’s freezing influence, and can enjoy walking in the sunshine.[26] Thus, Joyce reveals that by abandoning the Catholic faith and its rites of invocation, Ireland may ameliorate its paralysis.


As Joyce continued writing Dubliners, it appears he followed his own advice and abandoned the idea of the stories as “invocation”—if he had intended them as “epicleti” in the first place. Although “Araby” could be read as an “invocation” story, it is actually more helpful to read it as a “little epic.” Joyce uses Catholic imagery in the story:  the narrator refers to his affection for his friend’s sister as a “chalice”[27] and describes the empty bazaar as marked by “a silence like that which pervades a church after a service.”[28] One could further point to the drunken uncle’s late arrival to dinner[29] and the “porcelain vases” that “stood like eastern guards”[30] as perverted images of the Eucharist. If so, Joyce shows invocation’s futility as in “The Sisters”: the narrator looks desperately “up into the darkness,” not into the light of God.[31] For the “Araby” narrator, invocation will not heal Ireland’s paralysis.

In contrast, one can read “Araby” as a sort of “Telemachy.” The story begins with a clear depiction of the narrator’s ordinary world at home[32] and continues with a call to adventure in the form of his friend’s sister: “her name was like a summons to all my foolish blood.”[33] After accepting her call, he endures various trials: “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.”[34] Having successfully endured his tests, the narrator takes on a greater duty: since his lady cannot visit the Araby bazaar, and he to go in her stead and bring her a gift.[35] Like Telemachos in Homer’s Odyssey, the narrator must leave his home to find something and bring it home. When the narrator reaches his destination, he cannot acquire a gift for the girl and must return empty-handed. While watching the young English people flirt, he realizes that he has idealized romance, and that love in the adult world is a Waste Land—the Englishwoman’s “tea-sets” and “great jars”[36] are as empty as his “chalice.”[37] Like Telemachos, the “Araby” narrator—the last of Joyce’s children protagonists—has come of age during his “epiclet.”

“A Little Cloud”

“A Little Cloud,” however, is more ambiguous; one can read it either as an invocation or as a little-epic. Joyce does not point the reader in either direction: for instance, he only uses Catholic imagery with Gallaher’s “catholic gesture”[38]; the “winds” in the Byron poem,[39] which could stand for the Holy Ghost; and Little Chandler’s son and wife, which could stand for the Christ child and the Virgin Mary.[40] If the final scene is an invocation, Little Chandler invokes himself and his own powers: “Could he not escape from his little house?”[41] “Could he, too write like that, express the melancholy of his soul in verse?”[42] When Little Chandler realizes that invoking his own ability is useless, he yells another request at his son: “Stop!”[43] Subtly increasing the story’s ambiguity, Joyce refers to Little Chandler’s wife and son as “a young woman” or “its mother”[44] and “the child” who is “Mamma’s little lamb of the world”[45] which could connect them to Mary and the Christ child. If so, then Little Chandler is rebuked for invoking his own powers instead of asking his family for help; his “remorse” at the story’s end would indicate he has learned that both his duty and his source of strength are with his family.

Yet one could also read “A Little Could” as an “epiclet” begun in media res. Little Chandler has previously received a call to adventure and refused it: “Eight years before” he sent his friend Gallaher out of “dear dirty Dublin”[46] to “the great city London.”[47] Now Gallaher returns from his quest with a boon for Ireland: himself and his accomplishments as “Ignatius Gallaher of the London Press!”[48] Gallaher’s homecoming acts as another call to adventure for Little Chandler, who feels that “[e]very step brought him nearer to London, farther from his own sober inartistic life.”[49] After a moment of “indecision”[50] Little Chandler opens the door into the bar—crossing the first threshold—and is greeted by Gallaher as “old hero.[51] His conversation with Gallaher awakens in him a desire to travel: “Could he go to London?”[52] Until the story’s end, Little Chandler does not realize that the adventure he needs is psychological, not physical: “A light began to tremble on the horizon of his mind”(emphasis mine).[53] Joyce shows that leaving Dublin will not necessarily solve Little Chandler’s problems—while he longs for someplace “beautiful,”[54] Gallaher can only tales of metropolitan “immorality.”[55] The story’s end suggests that Little Chandler needs to learn “to live bravely” at home.[56] One could read Little Chandler’s ambiguously-delineated wife and son as Penelope and Telemachos. Homer’s Odyssey is the tale of a man desperate to get home to his wife and son; perhaps if Little Chandler leaves Dublin, he will spend the rest of his life wishing he had stayed with his family.


The Dubliners stories, like other “high” modernist works, can be read in various ways due to their characteristic ambiguity. Thus, Joyce’s description of Dubliners as a “series of epicleti” would illuminate one’s reading of the work—if one knew precisely what he meant by “epicleti.” “The Sisters,” the first story, reads well as an “epiklesis” in the Catholic sense of “invoking” the Holy Ghost; yet the other stories lend themselves to multiple interpretations, including that of the stories as “epiclets.” Since one cannot know Joyce’s exact meaning by “epicleti,” attempting to find the story’s “meaning” using this idea is futile. Nevertheless, thinking of the stories as “invocations” or as “little epics” helps one to notice Joyce’s charily-selected diction and imagery, and thus to read Dubliners better.

[1] “James Joyce: Notes (1) – Textual History,” Ricorso: A Knowledge of Irish Literature, edited by Bruce Stewart (http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/j/Joyce_JA/notes/notes1.htm).

[2] James Joyce, “The Sisters,” Dubliners (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 10-11.

[3] Ibid., 7.

[4] Ibid., 10.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 15.

[7] Ibid., 15. 

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 15. 

[10] Ibid., 14.

[11] Ibid., 15. 

[12] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 11. 

[13] Ibid., 9.

[14] “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth in our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8: 26, KJV).

[15] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 15. 

[16] Ibid., 13.

[17] Ibid., 12.

[18] Ibid., 13. 

[19] Ibid., 12.

[20] Ibid., 12.

[21] Joyce, “The Sisters,” 16. 

[22] Ibid., 16.

[23] Ibid., 12.

[24] Ibid., 10. 

[25] Ibid., 7.

[26] Ibid., 10.

[27] Joyce, “Araby,” Dubliners (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1995), 27.

[28] Ibid., 31.

[29] Ibid., 30.

[30] Ibid., 31. 

[31] Ibid., 32.

[32] Ibid., 26-8.

[33] Ibid., 27.

[34] Ibid., 27.

[35] Joyce, “Araby,” 28.

[36] Ibid., 31.

[37] Ibid., 27.

[38] James Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” Dubliners (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 71.

[39] Ibid., 77. 

[40] Ibid., 78.

[41] Ibid., 77. 

[42] Ibid., 78.

[43] Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” 78.

[44] Ibid., 78. 

[45] Ibid., 77-9. 

[46] Ibid., 69.

[47] Ibid., 65.

[48] Ibid., 67. 

[49] Ibid., 68.

[50] Ibid., 69. 

[51] Ibid., 69.

[52] Ibid., 77.

[53] Joyce, “A Little Cloud,” 68. 

[54] Ibid., 70.

[55] Ibid., 72.

[56] Ibid., 77.


Leave a comment

Filed under Being a Bookworm, Oxford University

I’m Officially a Published Author!

http://atfiles.org/files/pdf/Fall10ATMagazinelores.pdf   (I’m on page 34!)

Thanks to the Advanced Composition class at my university, I have gained the skills to write and sell articles to magazines. With this article, I’ve become a freelance writer. I’m encouraged and excited.

Stay tuned for further adventures.


Filed under Randomness

Truth and Reality in “Crime and Punishment” and “Midnight’s Children”

“What’s real and what’s true,” for both the postmodern Salman Rushdie and the Russian Orthodox Fyodor Dostoevsky, “aren’t necessarily the same” (Rushdie 87). Although separated by 120 years, the two writers’ epic novels struggle with the same questions about the relationship between the physical world and truth. By the end of Midnight’s Children (1981) and Crime and Punishment (1865), both Rushdie and Dostoevsky promote “truths” that contradict the historical-physical world’s “facts.” The different “truths” determine the novels’ different ends: Rushdie’s multiplicitous, relative “truth” leads to despair, while Dostoevsky’s irrational, absolute “truth” leads to hope. 

In Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, truth is independent of facts. Truth does not reside in the physical world’s facts, but in how one interprets the facts. Thus, the same historical fact can mean different true things to different people. Early in the novel, Rushdie’s narrator Saleem defines truth: “True, for me, was from my earliest days something hidden inside the stories Mary Pereira told me: Mary my ayah who was both more and less than a mother…True was a thing concealed just over the horizon” (Rushdie 87). Truth, for Saleem, is not something imbedded in historical events, but in the stories one tells about the past. Saleem mentions his ayah Mary to clarify his view of truth as separate from historical or physical facts. Mary Pereira switched Saleem and Shiva when they were infants; therefore, while Saleem is the illegitimate child of William Methwold and Vanita Winkie in fact, Saleem is the son of Ahmed and Amina Sinai in truth. Saleem’s true identity is not constrained by the physical facts of DNA. Therefore, truth for Saleem resides in the story one tells about facts, not in the facts themselves.

Thus, Saleem does not become distressed when he accidentally reports erroneous facts. After he records the date of Gandhi’s assassination, he realizes he has offered the wrong date. The “error in chronology” (Rushdie 189) however, does not scandalize Saleem: “But I cannot say, now, what the actual sequence of events might have been; in my India, Gandhi will continue to die at the wrong time. Does one error invalidate the entire fabric?” (Rushdie 190). No, Saleem implies; one unintentionally incorrect fact does not undermine the story’s truth. After all, Saleem is telling the story of his “India”—not the historically factual India, but the true India that Saleem knew and experienced. Since Saleem cares more about the truth in his story than the facts of Gandhi’s assassination, he will not correct his mistake. The one historical error cannot disrupt the true story because truth is independent of facts.

On the other hand, in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, truth for Rodya and Porfiry—a former law student and a police officer, respectively—is rooted in facts or pieces of evidence: one can use one’s logic to reason from facts to truth. Influenced by nihilist and rationalist philosophies, Rodya believes truth is located in the physical realm—in facts such as events, objects, or actions. He repeatedly contrasts a tangible fact with an ephemeral and ethereal idea: “They have no facts, however,” he thinks, “not a one—it’s all a mirage, all double-ended, just a fleeting idea” (Dostoevsky 268). The image of a “mirage” that is “fleeting” emphasizes that a fact, its opposite, is physical and adamant. Moreover, Rodya characterizes a “fleeting idea” as “double-ended”—unlike a fact, an “idea” is uncertain and equivocal; it can mean more than one thing. Thus, in contrast to a “mirage” or “fleeting idea,” a fact according to Rodya is physical, absolute, permanent, and conclusive. For example, Rodya accepts Porfiry and Zamyotov’s behavior at the police station as facts; he attempts to reason from those facts to the true motives behind their behavior. When “Porfiry Petrovich suddenly looked at him somehow with obvious mockery,” Rodya analyzes Porfiry’s glance (Dostoevsky 253). According to Rodya, the fact that Porfiry would “wink” (Dostoevsky 254) proves a certain truth—that “he knows” of Rodya’s crime (Dostoevsky 251). Likewise, when Zamyotov says that Rasolnikov spoke “cunningly” (Dostoevsky 253), Rodya accepts Zamyotov’s choice of words as a fact and then tries to interpret it: “Why did Zamyotov add that I spoke cunningly?” (Dostoevsky 254).  According to Rodya, if truth exists, one can only reason to it by starting with facts.

But facts, according to Porfiry, are unreliable and deceptive. Thus, Porfiry’s definition of a fact includes intangible things such as psychology and human nature. Unlike Rodya, who believes that ideas are “double-ended” or inconclusive (Dostoevsky 268), Porfiry suspects physical “evidence” that can stand up in court as “double-ended”—from personal experience (Dostoevsky 340).  In one case, a man turned himself in for murder. Although the man “presented facts” and “described circumstances,” in the end the man turned out to be innocent (Dostoevsky 345). “When he learned that he had given a pretext to the murders,” Porfiry says, “he became anguished, stupefied, began imagining things, went quite off his head, and convinced himself that he was the murderer!” (Dostoevsky 345). If an insane but innocent man can use accurate physical facts to prove his guilt, then a wise policeman will not wholly trust facts.

Instead of trusting physical facts as a place to begin looking for truth, Porfiry turns to psychology: “It’s human nature that helps the poor investigator out” (Dostoevsky 342). Porfiry believes that psychology enables detectives to predict with “mathematical” precision what a criminal will do (Dostoevsky 340). He describes an intelligent and educated criminal’s behavior to Rodya, explaining why a good policeman would not bother to arrest such a murderer: “Psychologically he won’t run away on me, heh, heh!…He won’t run away on me by a law of nature, even if he has somewhere to run to” (emphasis in original, Dostoevsky 340). A sophisticated murderer, Porfiry says, will continually return to the police station because he wants to see how well he has tricked the policemen. As a “moth” will always hover by a “candle,” the intelligent murderer will never be very far from the police station (Dostoevsky 340). Therefore, even if the intelligent murderer has left the police with no physical evidence, the murderer’s own psychology will work against him, forcing him to surrender himself to the police. Psychological facts, for Porfiry, are a reliable source of truth.

Thus far, Rushdie’s and Dostoevsky’s views of truth have been opposites: Rushdie presents truth as independent of facts; Dostoevsky, as dependent on facts.  Yet by the novels’ ends, both authors complicate truth. In Midnight’s Children, Saleem makes ironic transition near his narrative’s end: Saleem began the story resigned to making factual mistakes if it meant avoiding life’s terrifying “absurdity” or meaninglessness (Rushdie 4); but he ends to story intending to distort historical facts to ameliorate his fear of Shiva. After relating his experiences during Indira Gandhi’s state of Emergency, Saleem informs the reader that his tale has not been completely accurate: “To tell the truth,” he writes, “I lied about Shiva’s death. My first out-and-out lie—although my presentation of the Emergency in the guise of a six-hundred-and-thirty-five-day-long midnight was perhaps excessively romantic, and certainly contradicted by the available meteorological data” (Rushdie 510). In this passage, Saleem notes two ways that his story diverges from historical facts. First, Saleem’s “excessively romantic” details embellish the “meteorological data” (Rushdie 510); yet the essential facts of Indira’s Emergency remain intact, and Saleem’s flourishes highlight a truth about the Emergency’s facts. (Rushdie 510). Second, Saleem’s “lie” about Shiva rejects the historical facts (Rushdie 510); Saleem does not embellish the historical facts to communicate truth, but rather hides the facts to avoid the truth.

Saleem has defended the first case as tactic to fight the meaningless he fears: a fact “can be made to represent many things, according to your point of view” (Rushdie 230). Understanding a traumatizing historical event from one’s perspective helps one defeat “absurdity” (Rushdie 4). Yet Saleem cannot justify the second case; he calls his story of Shiva’s death an “out-and-out lie” for which he feels “shame” (Rushdie 510). Because he fears Shiva, Saleem has slipped from relativism into deception and knows his culpability. One historical “error” made to avoid “absurdity” is honorable (Rushdie 190, 4); but an “out-and-out lie” prompted by fear of death forces the liar into the absurd. Saleem’s story—which began as a war against “absurdity” (Rushdie 4)—ends with despair: Saleem describes his own ignoble death and the endless cycle of “midnight’s children” who are “unable to live or die in peace” (Rushdie 533). Once Saleem abandons his truth that is independent of facts, despair alone remains. 

Yet Sonya’s truth—also independent of facts—gives her hope. In contrast to Rodya and Porfiry, Sonya does not value the physical world as a source of truth.  With a faith that contradicts reason, Sonya clings to a spiritual truth that she cannot articulate: God is just and good. Sonya, in spite of her factual suffering and poverty, refuses to doubt God’s love and provision. When Rodya lists the horrible things that will happen to her, Sonya insists that God will protect her: “God won’t let it happen!” “God won’t allow such a horror!” “And what would I be without God? (Dosteovsky 320, 321, 323). Rodya realizes that Sonya—a young woman of “character” and “education” forced by poverty into prostitution (Dostoevsky 322)—should have gone mad long ago. “What sustained her?” Rodya wonders. “What does she expect, a miracle?” (Dostoevsky 323). Finally Rodya realizes that Sonya’s truth alone keeps her from going mad. He calls her “a holy fool” (Dostoevsky 324); Sonya cannot articulate the truth in which she has faith. When Rodya laughs, “But maybe there isn’t any God,” Sonya can only protest nonverbally: “She looked at him with inexpressible reproach, was about to say something, but could not utter a word” (Dostoevsky 321). She cannot speak the truth, because the truth is beyond rational knowledge, beyond physical facts.

Nevertheless, Sonya’s truth ultimately triumphs. Rodya—still convinced that Porfiry has no facts—confesses his crime to Sonya and tries to extrapolate from the facts of his crime to the truth of his motivation. He offers six possible “truths”: he killed Alyona to rob her (Dostoevsky 412), to become a Napoleon (Dostoevsky 415), to support his mother and sister (Dostoevsky 416), because he was mad (Dostoevsky 417), because he “wanted to dare” (Dostoevsky 418), and because he wanted to see whether he “was a louse like all the rest, or a man” (Dostoevsky 419). He can logically support each truth with the facts; yet not a single truth sufficiently explains his crime. Each truth is limited to physical phenomena (hunger) and human nature (desire for power); yet truth, as Dostoevsky wants the reader to understand, is metaphysical. In contrast to Rodya’s multiplicitous, inadequate explanations, Sonya finally speaks the single truth that neither Rodya nor Porfiry can see: “You deserted God, and God has stricken you, and given you over to the devil!…you understand nothing, simply nothing!” (Dostoevsky 418). Sonya’s spiritual truth, not Porfiry’s psychology or physical evidence, alone convinces Rodya to confess. In the end, her truth alone draws Rodya to repentance: “Can her convictions not be my convictions now?” (Dostoevsky 550). Sonya’s truth—though its “infinite happiness” still contradicts the factual, “unbearable suffering” she and Rodya must endure (Dostoevsky 550)—brings them both “new life” (Dostoevsky 549).

At the end of Midnight’s Children and Crime and Punishment, Rushdie and Dostoevsky have both abandoned facts—Rushdie, for a death-giving lie; and Dostoevsky, for a life-giving truth. Thus, Rushdie’s work reveals that relativistic truth ends with meaningless and despair, while Dosteovsky’s novel shows that metaphysical truth leads to hope. If Dostoevsky is right—that spiritual truth transcends the physical realm—how important are facts to truth?

Works Cited

Dostoevsky, F. M. Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage Classics, 1993.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnight’s Children. London: Random House, 1981.

Leave a comment

Filed under Being a Bookworm, Torrey Honors Institute

“If We Ask Anything According to His Will, He Hears Us”

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we ask of Him.

–James 5:13-15

 Earlier this evening, I wrote a brief theology of prayer based on James. Now, I must contemplate the following question: “What do you fear to ask God for? Why do you not have confidence in that request? How can you find confidence in that request?”

I feel tricked. Two pull questions in one night about prayer? But I also know how dense I am—usually God has to repeat a point over and over until I get it. My assumption, then, is that there’s something God wants me to learn about prayer tonight. Tonight, as I can’t escape that I’m-about-to-cry feeling; as I’ve spent a day fighting the when-I-think-about-everything-I-have-to-do-I-feel-nauseated feeling; as I listen to Christmas music not to reflect on the miracle of God with us, but merely to stay sane. Tonight, I have something to learn about prayer.

Since I haven’t a clue what it is, this blog post is going to be a lá Virginia Woolf or James Joyce—that’s right, stream-of-consciousness.

So here goes.

“What do you fear to ask God for?” (Resist the urge to edit the sentence’s preposition error!) I can trace my most common requests over the years:

I can’t remember a time when I didn’t ask for wisdom; it’s both the oldest and most persistent of my requests. I don’t think I’m wise, so I keep asking. I don’t know if that means God hasn’t given me wisdom, or if I just don’t see it.

 Every time we’ve moved, I’ve begged God for friends. Sometimes He’s given them; sometimes He hasn’t.

In middle school, I asked for courage and comfort, but mostly for answers. A friend died, and I didn’t understand how God could let that happen. I can’t say that I ever got what I asked for, but I did make it through.

In high school, I asked for perseverance, confidence, patience, strength, and joy. I know God gave me the first four. But joy?

I still ask for joy, alongside other things: peace, love, energy, and more wisdom. Now that I’m a quasi-adult, I ask for physical things, too: a job, a car, a place to live, a roommate, a mentor, a church, a top-50 grad school, a solid resume.

But what do I fear to ask God for? Well…I fear to ask God for things that hurt to think about. Things that, when they came to mind years ago, I could forget by doing homework. Now, when those things come to mind, I feel so sick that not even homework distracts me.

Sometimes, I do ask. But often I don’t. It hurts too much. And I suspect I don’t entirely believe that God is listening. If He isn’t, then by thinking about those things, I suffer for nothing. Even if He is listening, I don’t entirely believe that He’s disposed to give me what I ask. Which John says is absurd: “And this is the confidence that we have toward Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us” (1 John 5:14).

In my last blog post, I came up with two reasons why God might not give me what I want: (1) Either it’s inappropriate for me, or (2) I just don’t ask.

I know this. And yet I rarely ask.

It’s nonsensical. I value rationality. I can argue myself into or out of most things. But I can’t convince myself to ask for those things. I know my motivation is entirely emotional and irrational. And I hate it.

“Why do you not have confidence in that request?” I know the answer to that, too. But I don’t particularly want to share that on the Internet. Because it’s my heart’s little secret from my head. Typing it out would hut like nothing I’ve ever known.

“How can you find confidence in that request?” Ironically, it seems the only way I can find confidence in my request is if that request is answered.

I’m sorry I’m being so cryptic. But when Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked; who can know it?” he meant two things: First, it’s almost impossible to accurately understand what’s in a person’s heart. Only God can really do that. Second, even if someone has come to a sketchy understanding of her heart, it’s not something for other people to know. Aslan only tells you your story—no one else’s.

And so I’ll stop here.

 **Note to Dr. Vincent, if she reads this: I did my best.

Leave a comment

Filed under Philthy: Philosophy & Theology, Torrey Honors Institute

“Elijah was a Man Just Like Us” *insert skeptical expression here*

I had a high school teacher who loved to tell stories. He’d tell the same ones over and over until we had each one memorized. I can recite tales of little boys playing baseball in 1950s LA, high school guys navigating the prom in the 60s, and college guys coping with their ’Nam vet friend in the 70s. (I’m grinning as I type this, wishing I could take the time to tell each of those stories now.)

 One story he told over and over always started with the same sentence: “Elijah was a man just like us” (James 5:17, NIV). I can’t remember the context of the continually recycled anecdote (i.e., the point of telling it again), and I can’t even remember exactly how the Elijah story went. I think our teacher jumped around 1 Kings, relating a different Elijah escapade each time.

But I remember that sentence. “Elijah was a man just like us.” So when I was asked to scratch out a brief theology of prayer according to James, I thought of Elijah.

“The prayer of a righteous man,” James writes, “has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore fruit” (James 5:16-18, ESV).

I’m skeptical. Elijah was a man…just like me. Right. Even ignoring the awkward gender constructs on the English translation, I’m not convinced that Elijah was just like me.

So since that’s too confusing, let’s look elsewhere in James. Besides the end of chapter five, the two most important passages about prayer in the epistle are 1:5-8, 16-18 and 4:2-8. In the first section, James tells any Christian who “lacks wisdom” to “ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5). Great—if you feel like a fool, you can ask God for wisdom, and He’ll give it without checking (twice) to see if you’re on the naughty list.  But there’s a caveat—“But let him ask in faith, without doubting” (James 1:6). Three chapters later James adds another qualification—“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). So while God won’t give you something that’s not good for you, there’s only one fault that will actually put you on the naughty list: doubt.

Which raises a big question: What if you ask for God to take away your doubts? What if you ask for faith? Remember the man who told Christ, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24)? Knowing that God “gives more grace” to those who ask (James 4:6), the man asked Christ for more faith. He had enough faith to ask, but not enough faith for much else. Any prayer is founded in faith—even if it’s faith as small as a mustard seed. I couldn’t ask God for more faith if I didn’t have any in the first place. And I do hope (and pray!) that God doesn’t “reproach” me for my doubts, but rather gives more faith.

If every prayer is founded in faith, then any old prayer “will save the one who is sick” (James 5:15). And any of us who prays is just like Elijah.

Even though I have that sentence ringing in my head—“Elijah was a man just like us”—I’m not entirely sure that’s the point. “Every good and perfect gift is from above,” James reminds us, “coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

I’m not like Elijah. I’m human, and I have some smidgen of faith—but I know I’m not like Elijah. Nevertheless, I know that Elijah’s God and my God are the same. He doesn’t change. He gives good gifts. He is light, and in Him is no darkness at all. He gives wisdom to the foolish and uses them to shame the wise. He gives more grace.

I might not be like Elijah. But I can pray to his God anyway, trusting that the Father of lights still gives good gifts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Philthy: Philosophy & Theology, Torrey Honors Institute

Savoring Stories that End: How We Can Save the Film Industry from Sequels

There’s not much to do at 7 p.m. when it’s still 103-degrees and windy in the Eastern Sierra town of Bishop. Your best option? Watching a movie in the air-conditioned Bishop Twin Theatre, the only theatre in town. Twice my dad and I have topped off breathtaking mountain hikes with breathtaking Christopher Nolan films—The Dark Knight (2008) and Inception (2010).

To our surprise, we almost didn’t get seats for The Dark Knight. The movie had opened a week earlier, but apparently half of Bishop’s 3,428 residents turned up to relive Nolan’s Batman Begins sequel. And “relive” is the right word—watching the film in a packed-out theatre was more a relational experience than an aesthetic one. We all gasped, laughed, sobbed, screamed, and cheered in unison.

This summer, Dad and I anticipated the same ecstatic movie-watching when Inception premiered a week before our trip to Bishop. Again, we expected to fight a mob to get good seats.

Not so.

The theatre was nearly empty. A grey-haired couple demurely speculated behind Dad and me, nine boys in baggy jeans bickered across the aisle, and three couples my age made out in the second row. And that was it. Needless to say, the movie-going experience was not the same.

The Dark Knight gathered over twice as much gravy in its first three weeks in theatres as Inception did in the same time frame. Yet most people applaud both films’ artistic excellence. The average critic gave The Dark Knight an 8.5/10[1] and Inception an 8/10.[2] That .5 difference doesn’t warrant such a drastic difference in revenue.

What explains The Dark Knight’s massive $1 billion paycheck[3] and Inception’s comparatively measly $8 million?[4]  Not the economy—the “Great Recession” was in full swing during The Dark Knight’s 2008 release and had struck out by Inception’s 2010 release.[5] So let’s try this hypothesis: The Dark Knight was a sequel, but Inception was an original idea.

 Sequels have been money-making ventures from Hollywood’s start. Thomas F. Dixon, Jr. directed Hollywood’s first sequel, The Death of a Nation, in 1916. According to film scholar Mevlyn Stokes, Death was a “clear attempt to cash in on the success” of The Birth of a Nation (1915), a controversial and profitable film directed by Dixon’s colleague, D. W. Griffith.[6]

Though film sequels appeared in the silent era, Hollywood produced only two or three sequels per year for the next six and a half decades. But everything changed in the 1970s and early 1980s, when four sequels smashed the box office: The Godfather: Part II (1974), The French Connection II (1975), Jaws 2 (1978), and The Empire Strikes Back (1980).[7] In the post-Star Wars world, sequels are the most profitable films by far. Since 1980, eleven of the thirty-one worldwide top-grossing films were sequels, and another ten spawned sequels.[8]

Summer 2010 continued this trend—four of the five worldwide top grossing films were sequels. Moviegoers around the planet spent $9.6 billion on Toy Story 3,[9] $737 million on Shrek Forever After,[10] $692 million on The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,[11] and $622 million on Iron Man 2.[12] The only exception was Inception, which has earned $823 million worldwide thus far.[13]

Hollywood makes sequels because we’ll pay to see them. But why do we? Do we merely wish to spend our money on something familiar?

Our willingness to watch sequels isn’t simply economic. After all, sequels didn’t start with The Death of a Nation in 1916—they’ve been around since Homer followed up his visceral Iliad with the delightful Odyssey. Homer didn’t write the Odyssey to drum up drachmas. If neither Achaeans nor Americans spurn sequels, people must naturally crave endless stories.

Humans are narrative creatures. We explain the universe and process traumatic experiences through stories. We understand who we are through stories.

Humans are mortal creatures. More than anything, we fear death. Since stories explain life, a story’s end is a kind of death. An original film—with no promised sequel—aggravates our death-anxiety. To avoid that negative emotion, we flock to flicks like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) and Spiderman (2002) that guarantee sequels and virtual immortality. As Cobb tells Eames in Inception, “Positive emotion trumps negative emotion every time.”

Inception, this summer’s only non-sequel blockbuster, can help us understand our need for never-ending stories. The protagonist, Dom Cobb, is an “extractor”—in other words, he uses sci-fi technology to steal information from a person’s subconscious while he or she dreams. Cobb hopes his team’s last assignment will enable him to return home to his children, who have been orphaned by their mother’s death and father’s absence.

Cobb uses the dream technology to relive moments with his wife Mal that he regrets. Mal is dead; his life with her is over. Cobb promised Mal that they’d be “together forever.” Now that she’s gone, he wallows in a dream-world in which his wife isn’t dead. “In my dreams,” Cobb says, “we are together.”

For Cobb, ceasing to dream about Mal would mean accepting her death and the reality of life without her. As the plot progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb can’t complete his last job—the job he needs to go home to his kids—unless he confronts his grief. To go home, Cobb has to overcome his death-anxiety. To move forward into a new story, Cobb must allow the old one to end.

To enjoy a new story, we must allow the old ones to end. Our favorite characters, like all mortal things, must die.  It’s scary—a story’s end reminds us of our own deaths. But if we want filmmakers to produce original art instead of slipshod sequels, we need to savor stories that end. To save the film industry, we need to confront our death-anxiety and realize that we and our beloved characters won’t be “together forever.”  We need to echo Cobb’s words to Mal: “I miss you more than I can bear, but we had our time together. I have to let you go.”

[In case you’re wondering, I did love Toy Story 3.]

[1] “The Dark Knight,” Rotten Tomatoes, http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_dark_knight.html (accessed November 28, 2010).

[2] “Inception,” Rotten Tomatoes, http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/inception.html (accessed November 28, 2010).

[3] “The Dark Knight,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=darkknight.html (accessed November 27, 2010).

[4] “Inception,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=inception.html (accessed November 27, 2010).  

 [5] The National Bureau of Economic Research Business Cycle Dating Committee, 20 September 2010 Report, http://www.nber.org/cycles/sept2010.html (accessed December 1, 2010).

 [6] Mevlyn Stokes, D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Film Ever Made” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 268.

[7] Michael Avila, “What Was the First Movie Sequel?” Life’s Little Mysteries, http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/what-was-the-first-movie-sequel-1043.html (accessed November 27, 2010).

[8] “Yearly Box Office,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/yearly.html (accessed November 27, 2010).

 [9] “Toy Story 3,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=toystory3.html (accessed November 27, 2010).

[10] “Shrek Forever After,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=shrek4.html (accessed November 27, 2010).

 [11] “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=eclipse.html (accessed November 27, 2010).

[12] “Iron Man 2,” Box Office Mojo, http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=ironman2.html (accessed November 27, 2010).

 [13] “Inception,” Box Office Mojo.

Leave a comment

Filed under Film & Telly, Newbies

Thoughts about Suffering

1 Peter begins with Peter establishing his readers’ identity in Christ. His audience of “elect exiles”[1] has two loyalties: the greater one to God’s kingdom (“elect”) and the lesser one to their earthly country (“exiles”). These people are “exiles”—they are Jewish and Gentile Christians scattered throughout Turkey who belong in Israel. Peter defines their earthly identity as a lack: as they have lost their homes, their identity in a homeland is something perishable. But they have an “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading”[2] identity in God. Our identity, Peter insists, is not what we do, or where we are from, or what we have. We are who we are—God’s “elect”[3]—by God’s “mercy”[4] and “power”[5] alone.

 God’s mercy and power defines us as His. And only God’s mercy and power will allow us to endure suffering. “In this you rejoice,” Peter writes, “though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials.”[6] You will delight in your identity in Christ, Peter asserts, when suffering comes. Only your identity in Christ—which is “guarded”[7] by God’s power and mercy—will sustain you.

 “Therefore,” Peter continues, “preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation.”[8] Peter then charges the “elect exiles” to holiness, but even that second command is grounded in the first.

What’s the independent clause in Peter’s sentence? “Set your hope fully on the grace.” Subordinate  clauses? “Preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded” and “That will be brought to you at the revelation.” So the main clause is not the command to prepare your mind for action, but rather the command to “set your hope fully on the grace.” “Preparing your minds for action” modifies the main clause, describing how or why you “set our hope fully on the grace.” Why is that important?

It’s important because preparing for action is so much more exciting than setting your hope on something. One is physical; one is metaphysical. One sounds daring; the other, demure. Nevertheless, Peter’s primary command is to set your mind on grace—to set your hope on who you are in Christ.

The point Peter makes is this: Simply preparing for action will not sustain you in suffering. No matter how many years you spend in seminary, how many languages you learn, or how many kung-fu moves you master, you will not endure suffering unless you hope in who you are in Christ’s grace alone.  Learning who you are in Christ is the only way to prepare for suffering.

[1] 1 Peter 1:1 (ESV)

[2] 1 Peter 1:4

[3] 1 Peter 1:1

[4] 1 Peter 1:3

[5] 1 Peter 1:5

[6] 1 Peter 1:6

[7] 1 Peter 1:5

[8] 1 Peter 1:13

Leave a comment

Filed under Philthy: Philosophy & Theology, Torrey Honors Institute