The Magic Mountain and the Flatlands

by Matthew Raley The question I'm wrestling with these days is what to do about evangelical music. I have been arguing (here and here) that sacred music should edify people by bringing them together before God, but that evangelical music mostly doesn't try. Instead, it merely pleases groups as segments of the consuming masses.

I divert today into what may seem an irrelevant story, but I plead your patience.

I think too much attention has been paid to recent demographic changes in America and their impact on evangelicalism. For these changes to have any context, we have to examine developments farther back in Western culture. Today, I'll sketch some problems in modernism concerning human individuality, problems that shifted the foundations of art music generally, and specifically undermined sacred music’s mission to edify, as I'll sketch next week.

Consider Thomas Mann’s character Hans Castorp, protagonist of The Magic Mountain.

Hans is from a bourgeois family in Hamburg. In the decade before World War I, he is about to take up his business career as a shipbuilder. On the cusp of this flatland life of science and profit, he journeys to Davos, high in the Swiss Alps, to visit his cousin being treated for a lung infection in a sanatorium. Hans stays there seven years, during which he has a spiritual and philosophical journey.

What does this fictional bourgeois individual feel about his place in the world?

Reinhold Niebuhr, in his Gifford Lectures (The Nature and Destiny of Man, New York: Charles Scribner's Books, 1941), might have answered that Hans was enduring his own gradual destruction.

Many modernists saw the defining human ability as reason. Niebuhr called these the idealists, tracing their philosophical roots back to the classical anthropologies of Plato and Aristotle, among others. The individual human mind, through the sciences, mathematics, and philosophy, could express its greatness by mastering nature.

Hans comes from this rationalist, dominating culture: the shipbuilder from the flatlands.

But other modernists reacted against this view, as well as against its social consequences. They saw relatedness to nature as the defining human characteristic, a view which Niebuhr called romanticist. The romanticists saw primitive social forms and physical drives as more authentic than the machine-like operations of reason. For the individual to express himself, he needed to reach back to this natural vitality.

Which is why Hans stays on the mountain seven years. There, he is interacting with himself, with the mythic power of the altitude, the snow, the erotic, the night sky. The flatlands were not enough.

Niebuhr said (p 21),

The conflict between rationalists and romanticists has become one of the most fateful issues of our day, with every possible religious and political implication. Modern man, in short, cannot determine whether he shall understand himself primarily from the standpoint of the uniqueness of his reason or from the standpoint of his affinity with nature; and if the latter whether it is the harmless order and peace of nature or her vitality which is the real clue to his essence.

Hans is adrift in this confusion, listening to the perpetual debates of the other residents of Davos, who are a kind of microcosm of European social history and ideologies.

Niebuhr analyzed that history. The bourgeoisie rebelled against the feudal order during the Renaissance, and created the modern world through its relentless application of reason and science. “This bourgeois individual felt himself the master of his own destiny and was impatient with both the religious and the political solidarities which characterized both classical and medieval life.” (p 22)

Hans the shipbuilder ought to be on top of the world.

But by using his reason this way, said Niebuhr, the bourgeois individual destroyed his freedom. Niebuhr asserted that “he lost this individuality immediately after establishing it by his destruction of the medieval solidarities. He found himself the artificer of a technical civilization which creates more enslaving mechanical interdependencies and collectivities than anything known in the agrarian world.” (p 22)

By the 19th century, the bourgeois individual was longing to regain his freedom, and he tried through romanticism (pp 81-92). But early romanticism (e.g. Rousseau) dissolved him into a universal consciousness, and romantic nationalism (e.g. Schleiermacher) swept him into a racial collective consciousness, while romantic nihilism (e.g. Nietzsche) unbound him from every restraint and empowered him with cruelty to express his own will.

It is these debates that Hans spends his time listening to, and the reader waits in vain for some resolution that will transform the shipbuilder into a man of vitality.

Hans finally leaves the mountain and is swept into World War I. The reader’s last look at him is not as an individual, but as a soldier in a mass of others on a flatland industrialized battlefield.

In modern times, Niebuhr said, the idea of individuality is “a tragically abortive concept,” destroyed by both of the modern movements that tried to guard it, idealism and romanticism. We are still living with the impact of this failure, only further down the slope of degradation. The American consumer lacks any rationale for living as an individual in community. He wants to be himself. But his sense of community is so dessicated that he ends up looking and sounding like everyone else.

What this death of individuality did to music is the next part of the story.

Harry Potter and the Diversity Culture

by Matthew Raley One of the most common searches that brings readers to Tritone Life is some version of, "Should Christians read Harry Potter?" Readers land on a post from my Tough Questions series last summer.

Evangelicals' visceral reaction to the Potter books continues to amaze me. The young wizard seems to symbolize their problem of how to guide children through the American diversity culture, the openness to anything and everything, without losing faith in Christ.

At Writing for the Soul, the annual conference of the Christian Writers Guild in Colorado Springs last weekend, this problem was a focus of attention, with Harry still being the reference point.

One catalyst for discussion was a keynote speech by Dr. Dennis Hensley, whose address on postmodernism was a tour de force of analysis and passion. He said that the negative view most pastors have of postmodernism needs to be revised. Postmodernism is indeed a tapestry of dangerous threads. But the increased diversity in American culture, the openness to other points of view, the humbling of Enlightenment arrogance are interwoven with threads of opportunity.

Dr. Hensley showed that our biggest opportunity as Christian writers is to create heroes who do not win their battles, but who successfully live in the moral universe God has created. Such heroes would be biblical: they would model submission to God's law in self-sacrifice, as Jesus did. They would also speak to postmodern imperatives, showing success through personal authenticity without empty triumphalism.

After such a rich address, the new cultural realities echoed in many conversations.

I talked with a Christian educator, asking whether he had tracked the spiritual journeys of his high school graduates. He had: "The majority are really struggling with their faith." They enter a culture teeming with sensual temptations, and saturated with moral and spiritual questions, and they flounder. My observations tallied with his: a deep crisis of faith incited by culture shock is now the norm.

Many believers, like my friend, assess the trials of young Christians honestly. Believers can see their kids struggling to keep and express faith in Christ without the cultural support past generations enjoyed. The response of compassion and grace is godly.

Still, many other believers are shocked by the diversity culture and its heroes. These believers will not countenance Harry, as if by pouring scorn on his popularity they can protect their kids from godlessness.

At lunch during the conference, someone asked me what books I've read to my boys. I said (trouble-making instinct freely acknowledged), "I read the first Harry Potter book with my 8-year-old. He loved it." Around the table there was silence, with one or two dangling jaws. My interlocutor said, "A pastor reading Harry Potter to his son?" Two other brave souls volunteered that they'd read the entire series.

That evening at dinner, Harry Potter came up again, and again I got surprised looks from around the table for saying that my son and I had read it. But we  discussed why Harry was so popular. A couple of writers said he was a well-drawn, living character. Rather than trying to make a "Christian" copy of him, they said, we should create vibrant characters of our own.

Artistic power won't save souls. But it might at least express Christ's truth.

In some ways, Harry speaks to postmodern children because he fits Dr. Hensley's description of a postmodern mythic hero. Harry succeeds according to a higher law, but doesn't always win. In other more important ways, Harry will continue to be a beloved character simply because J. K. Rowling has written classic stories.

For me, as a Christian parent, the issue is not so much the meaning of diversity culture heroes like Harry Potter. The issue is initiation.

Who will initiate my 8-year-old into the culture in which he must live?

If a postmodern true-believer initiates him, then my son will learn how to interpret this era, its stories, and its heroes from a point of view that may as well come from the Anti-Christ. Such is the power of the initiator.

But if I initiate my son into the culture in which he must live . . .

Answering Questions About My Novel

Last week, someone showed me a review of my novel Fallen on Amazon. The reviewer, Keith Hammond, made my day with some very generous praise, and then raised an issue that I've encountered often:

My only complaint is that the story seemed too personal and allegorical to be completely fictional. I would have preferred the book to have an addendum where the author directly talks about the issues or situations that caused him to write such a compelling book.

The first person to make this kind of comment to me was one my editors at Kregel, who, during our line-by-line slog through the manuscript, said that the dialog was "a little too good." He wondered what experiences I had plundered. After the novel was released, my secretary gave it to a relative, who finished it and made the hair-raising assertion, "Obviously, Raley's had an affair." Then there are the youth at my church, who have dissected the story with frightening precision, tracing eccentricities and obsessions from my habits into my narrative.

If only they were so devoted to their schoolwork.

So I guess I'd better tell all.

From start to finish, Fallen is invented. I didn't model any character on a person I've known, nor have I ever had to endure what Jim, the narrator, goes through. I've found that fictionalizing real-life scenarios and personalities almost always yields a flat story because there is too much authorial judgment on the characters and too little sympathy. A novelist needs to keep his cool.

Yet, for me, Fallen is a personal book. Mr. Hammond and others are right. The book is personal in this sense: almost every vile act I portrayed in the story was invented from what I have seen in my own soul.

When I drew characters for the story, for example, I tried to load them with contradictions. Jim loves his wife and daughter, but also treats them with selfish disregard. He wants to be gracious, but gives favor with calculation. Pastor Dave is an emotionally driven man, yet he disguises his motives by intellectualizing. Also, Dave wants to see himself as compassionate towards others, yet his core motivation is self-pity.

Each of these contradictions -- and many others in my characters, male and female -- has its origin in some struggle of my own for integrity. I simply implanted my hypocrisies within the quite different personalities of my characters. I hate confessing this procedure, because it makes the story feel like public nudity. But that's what I did.

The same is true of the relational struggles that the book portrays. I put my follies into all of the marriages and working partnerships. I invented the male characters' misconceptions of women, from their flippant infatuations to their ordeals in marriage, out of similar misconceptions of my own. While the power struggles among church leaders in the book grew out of the invented scenarios, my own anger in sympathy with each character showed me how the struggles would deepen.

The crimes in Fallen, then, were not written as veiled reports but as shame-faced extrapolations.

There are two important differences between my approach and the method of fictionalizing personal experiences.

First, as a matter of technique, memoirs-as-novels start with scenarios and create characters to fit, which yields a false story. A human being is not a robot. Fictional human beings cannot be robots and be true. So I started with characters and then shaped the scenarios. Every day I wrote, the characters surprised me.

Second, I would only write a memoir-as-novel to vent bitterness. I may be unusual in this tendency, and other authors might have other motivations. But, as a matter of repentance, I don't write to vent. I used to. Creating a little world in which all of my judgments are validated can be satisfying. But writing such things does not edify anyone. I found the method of spreading my darkness among many characters to be sanctifying. Instead of judging the sins of others, I was able to examine my own.

This is a method that I feel bound to follow. The subject matter of Fallen does not need more angry scribblers. But, I hope, a repentant one might do some good.

Graham Greene and the Sinner's Prayer

I'll put one of my fears out there: I fear that, week after week, we pastors describe an experience of conversion that no one has. The Authorized Conversion happens when someone "asks Jesus into his heart." The act of praying this prayer, evangelicals have taught, transfers a person from darkness to light. It is the moment of salvation. Preaching drives toward it, and testimonies feature it. When we ask each other how we "got saved," we are asking about the circumstances that led to praying the prayer. We count the people who pray it, and we tell them to write the date and the hour in their Bibles.

But in my own experience, praying the sinner's prayer was only one step in my salvation -- a defining step, a step that summed up what the Lord had been doing in my five-year-old soul, but not decisive. As I remember growing up, I can see many points that were clearer, more specific. There was a day in the fifth grade, for instance, when I was in despair because I had no friends. At recess, I retreated to a far corner of the schoolyard to pray, and found friendship from Jesus.

For me, salvation is the fruit of many defining experiences and decisions, not one. And we seem to induce spiritual lethargy when we teach people to rely on a single prayer.

In high school, I saw how people went forward for tearful prayers, but almost never showed any change later. I constantly meet Christians who, in an effort to know that they're saved, have repeated the sinner's prayer so many times they've lost count. Like many of my generation, I'm suspicious of conversion numbers, even cynical that anything good comes of guiding more people through the steps. Indeed, evangelical doubt over the sinner's prayer seems to be a primary cause of the movement's splintering. Emergents and Calvinists both put the altar call at the top of their lists of "what's wrong with us."

There are modern Christian movements that have connected more vigorously with people's experiences.

Graham Greene wrote a novel decades ago called, The End of the Affair. He told the story of an adulterous woman whom God lures out of sexual immorality. It was a story that reflected not just Greene's experience, but the experience of many English contemporaries -- Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge, and C. S. Lewis being only the most prominent.

While I might have problems with Greene's theology, there is no question that literature like his shows how conversion happens in post-Christian culture far better than anything evangelicals have written.

Evangelicals need to make a lot of changes. They need to separate their political and cultural resentments from their proclamation of the gospel. They need a revival of the arts so that they can nurture people emotionally with truth. They need to understand the real characteristics of the people in their churches.

But, fundamentally, evangelicals need to rearticulate what conversion is.

The conversions I see are slow. There's the young woman who attended church in Orland for three years before startling her friends by announcing that she believed in Jesus. She told me she found Christ not by being miserable, but by being happy -- and realizing that it wasn't enough. Then there's the older man who had "prayed the prayer" decades ago, but who only found assurance of salvation when he went camping alone last summer to seek the Lord.

So one of my goals is to describe the conversion experience that people actually have: the slow, step-by-step acquisition of an art under the direction of the Master. Real Christians fumble with faith, making crude brush strokes and mixing their paints poorly. But the Master keeps instructing and the apprentice keeps fumbling. Sometimes the apprentice slips into the zone with his faith, but he slips out again. The Master just keeps him painting, painting, painting, until one day the apprentice realizes that his faith lives.