Monday, January 21, 2013

“Gulliver’s Travels” Answers a Question

I was interviewed last week by the book editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about A Light Shining. The book was to be highlighted in a regular feature on the book page – Penned in St. Louis, which is a short interview (usually three questions).

However, we talked a lot longer about all kinds of subjects than the printed interview might indicate. And she asked one question that I had to think about at length before answering.

“Did you,” she asked, “have a purpose in writing this story?”

“No,” I finally answered. “I didn’t. It was simply a story to tell.” There was no motive, or goal I wanted to achieve, or hidden meaning I wanted to convey. Or, if there is one, it wasn’t intentional.

And yet.

Pastor Ron Edmondson of Immanuel Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky, told me a couple of weeks ago that Dancing Priest (A Light Shining’s predecessor) was one of the best explanations of relationship evangelism he had come across, and in a novel, no less. Surprised, I went back to Dancing Priest, and discovered three significant scenes and one shorter one in the book that supported his statement.

I had no idea. I think. How did that happen?

Then I read three chapters in Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior, which we’re reading this month over at The High Calling. Chapter Six is about Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. The chapter answered my question about Dancing Priest.

I first read Gulliver’s Travels in high school. I was 15, and like any other 15-year-old boy might be, I was more impressed with how Gulliver extinguishes the fire in the royal palace of Lilliput than the overarching themes of the book (and to think Swift was an Anglican clergyman in the 18th century!).

I read it again in college (I took English Literature with the English Lit majors while most everyone else took American lit). that’s when I fully understood that Gulliver’s Travels was a satire, a rather barbed commentary on society, practices and culture of early 18th century Britain. Swift skewered society and even barely disguised individuals, and I suspect he had great fun  doing it. But the work represents far more than a satire.

Gulliver’s Travels reflects the holistic worldview of its author,” Prior writes in Booked, “a man who could see how one idea ripples toward another, how one false notion can lead to disastrous consequences, and how one aspect of human experience touches the whole.” In the so-called Age of Enlightenment, she says, Swift knew just how limited man’s rationalism really was.

And still is.

One of the things my Christian faith has allowed, sometimes forced, me to do is to understand life is all of a piece, an entire entity, and not a collection of compartmentalized boxes that I participate in depending upon circumstances.

What this means, albeit imperfectly, is that my life at church on Sunday is my life at work Monday through Friday is my life with my family seven days a week – and is what I write in novels. My faith allows me to be the same person in all of these circumstances. It doesn’t mean I pull it off all the time; the key word is “allows.” My faith allows my life to be whole. I don’t have to wear masks; I don’t have to be a different person at work than I am at church.

When I wrote those scenes in Dancing Priest, I was drawing on my own experience. How the heroine, Sarah Hughes, is introduced to faith is almost exactly what happened to me; in fact, it’s the only deliberately autobiographical part of the entire book. The stories I write reflect my Christian faith, in its attempted wholeness.

It’s how Jonathan Swift experienced life – in wholeness.

Over at The High Calling, we’re reading and discussing Booked. This week’s discussion is on the chapters covering Gulliver’s Travels, Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller, and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.



Martha Jane Orlando said...

It is so true that as Christians, our faith defines us 24/7, permeates every facet of our lives. It's only natural for it, then, to be expressed in our writing as well.
Blessings, Glynn!

Adam Blumer said...

Very good and thought-provoking article. Yes, our faith shouldn't fall into compartments—it should affect everything about us. Thanks, Glynn.

Sandra Heska King said...

When I started to squirm, I appreciated Karen's reminder to situation Swift in his time.

And this: "The very separation of the physical from the spiritual was chief among Swift's concerns." Our faith should permeate every moment.

Laura said...

When I was a kid we had a condensed version of Gulliver's Travels (not sure if it was Reader's Digest, but we had some of those). I'm ashamed to say I don't remember much about the book--maybe says more about my age than anything. You always inspire me to want to read more, Glynn. I'll have to take this post with me as cleft notes when I do manage Gulliver :)

Doug Spurling said...

"My faith allows my life to be whole. I don’t have to wear masks; I don’t have to be a different person at work than I am at church." *love that* That my friend is the difference between hypocrisy & honesty, religion & relationship. "Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks (or writes) ~ Jesus.

Louise Gallagher said...


How we do one thing is how we do all things.

And sometimes, that's so hard to live by! :)

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