Thursday, August 13, 2009

Priming the Pump III

Ironies of Faith

I bought this book on a hunch. An informed hunch, however: I have long enjoyed the insightful, eloquent essays of the author, Anthony Esolen, published in Touchstone magazine and suspected that I would enjoy any book he wrote about literature and faith. Bolstering my hunch was the fact that Mr. Esolen is editor and translator of Dante's Divine Comedy, a poem I will be re-reading with my boys this year. My hunch was confirmed: Esolen writes not only on Dante's Divine Comedy, but also Virgil's Aeneid (read this spring), Augustine's Confessions (to be read this fall), Shakespeare, Tolkien, Dickens, and Dostoyevesky. Through these authors' great works of literature he discusses the Irony of Time, the Irony of Power, the Irony of Love, and the Mighty Child.

Since I've been thinking this summer about the relationship between humility, language, and knowing, I was pleasantly not surprised to find that Esolen's introductory chapters were grouped under the heading: Humility & Vision. Before filling out his definition of irony, Esolen illustrates the irony of humility through Robert Browning's, The Ring and the Book. He concludes:

"We judge by what we see, and unless we love deeply, we see ourselves." -and-

"For irony, as we shall see, has to do with what people think they know, or what they think they can expect."

And, the implications of Dante on the humility of knowing:

O Light that swell within Thyself alone, who alone know Thyself, are known and smile with Love upon the Knowing and the Known! (Paradise, 33.124-26)

And now we are primed for Esolen's definition of irony. First, a negative definition:

"Until fairly recently, most writers on irony have defined it as speech that means something other than (or opposite to) what is literally said. The problem with this definition is that it at once too narrow, too broad, and beside the point. Liars mean other than what they say, but the lie is not in itself ironic; and you may, with irony, mean exactly what you say, but in a way that your audience...will not understand. The definition is beside the point, since moments of dramatic irony, or what some have called 'irony of event' may not involve speech at all, but only strange turns of fate." p. 14

For his positive definition Esolen again draws from great works of literature and the truth of God's Word, using examples from King Lear, II Henry IV, and The Apostle Paul's letter to the Philippians:

"What do the cases have in common?...Each involves a problem of knowing. The irony lies in a stark clash between what a character things he knows and what he really knows. This clash is staged to let the reader or the audience in on the secret. We are, then, not merely watching ignorance, but ignorance unaware of itself and about to learn better...The irony reveals, with a kind of electric shock, order where randomness was expected, or complexity and subtlety where simplicity was expected." p. 15

Throughout the rest of this introductory section Esolen continues to draw upon literature and Scripture to make rich connections between humility, irony and the image of the Invisible God, and irony and the providence of God. Just one more beautiful example that I've been meditating on the past couple of weeks, and which I read just after hearing a sermon on Luke 14:

(picking up the story of Abraham and Isaac) "But the providential wisdom does not end there. Examine the celebrated icon of the Holy Trinity by fifteenth-century Russian artist, Andrey Rublev.

The genius of the icon lies in the profound theological insight. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, distinct yet as one, are the three angelic visitors to Abraham, sitting at table, while Sarah prepares the lamb. But the outlines of their robes form, in a kind of absent presence, the negative of the chalice: the cup of wine consecrated to become the blood of Christ, given for all. They are the ones invited to the feast, as Abraham thinks; but the truth is that they are inviting to their feast Abraham and all his descendants in faith. (Wow! italics mine.) And since they are announcing the conception and birth of Isaac, the artist has implied a long arc of providential meaning, extending from this moment under the terebinth trees of Mamre, to the birth of Isaac, to the 'sacrifice,' to the true Passover lamb, the Christ. God give himself wholly to man, that man may rise to enjoy the life of God...They (believers) will enjoy the wedding feast of the Lamb, himself, his own life, given as food to those he loves. (Rev. 19:9)"

And all this in only the first 58 pages of a 400 page book.

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