Tuesday, May 17

A Farewell to Arts

Well, Ben House has done it again. Here he displays all the erudition and versatility of Umberto Eco. Who'd a thunk it? An historian and theologian with an artistic, satirical flair:

I’m jealous. I love literature and I love Reformed theology. Sad to say, but literary greats and Reformed theologians live in separate worlds. We have produced lots of theologians and preachers, but few poets and almost no novelists. The Anglicans lay claim to lots of writers ranging from C.S. Lewis to T.S. Eliot. The Russian Orthodox Church gave us Dostevsky. The pantheon of great Catholic writers is seemingly endless, and includes everyone from Chaucer and Dante to Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor. All too many great American writers were apostate, angry sons of Puritans and Calvinists.

But I discovered a tale of a Presbyterian who wrote a novel. This tale may explain why the literary arts and the precision and orthodoxy of Calvinists rarely meet, almost never marry, and even more rarely produce offspring.

Herman Wilville departed from his preaching and teaching duties for a season and wrote a novel. Titled, "The Reformed Comedy" and written in three parts ("Conversio," "Seminario," and "Pastorio," it covered the lives of three men who went from unbelief to faith. With its powerful opening line—“Call me Isaac”—people realized that this work was a literary masterpiece. The novel reached a length of some four hundred pages and was initially greeted with much praise and favorable comment.

For a time it reached the top of the Reformed Theological Society’s Best Seller list, offsetting Leopold Van Humsteders’ 672 page (plus two appendices of 38 and 61 pages) evangelistic tract Barthian Soteriology Reexamined in the Light of Amyraldian Ecclesiology. Wilville’s novel did so well that it began making an impact even on the more broadly evangelical community. (An evangelical publisher offered to break it up into three separate volumes and broaden its market appeal.)

A presbytery, quite orthodox and serious, became concerned at this point. The presbytery appointed a committee which appointed a subcommittee to examine the novel.

At the same time, a theologian and disciple of the famed logician Dr. Clerk began his own examination of the novel. Editors of two separate journals, very separate stemming from the all-wheat organic flour for unleavened bread vs. commercial flour for leavened bread controversy, each picked up copies of the novel to catch up on the hubbub. Even more amazing, at a conference, a young student overheard a quote from an elderly gentleman who heard it from a lecture given by a relative of Wilville made a decade before, and from that tidbit, constructed a whole systematic theology, supposedly based on the novel, which he did not have time to read due to his dissertation answering the critics of Humsteder’s tract (mentioned above).

Was it the committee or one of the journal editors? I don’t remember which, but someone realized that one of the conversion scenes in the book happened in this way. A character fell in love with a Christian girl. In order to please her and only to please her, he got baptized. “Shaking the water off his head,” Wilville wrote, “James realized that his life would never be the same again.” Certainly, after this passage was noticed, Wilville’s life was never the same again. A well-written critique linked the novel to the Socianians, the Saracens, the Jackson Five, and more deviations before settling on the fact that Wilville was teaching a false view of the sacraments.

That roar had barely subsided when it was noticed that another character, William, had been ‘converted’ in yet another unorthodox way. “William listened to the choir sing ‘Just as I Am.’ He found himself praying that they would stop! But they sang another verse, and then yet another. Unable to sit any longer, he burst from his seat and went to the front of the church.” The blatant Arminianism was too much to bear. After this passage was excerpted and reprinted throughout the Reformed communities (I’m not sure if this happened before or after the days of the internet), Wilville received numerous copies of Humsteder’s prequel, Heretical Synergism Examined in the Light of Pelagian and Arminian Scatalogical Hermeneutics (a mere 479 pages with only a 23 page appendix).

Admittedly, Wilville’s response was lame. He offered the notes and tapes from 47 different series that he had preached on the Five Points of Calvinism, but he refused to amend the passage in the novel. His slippage from orthodoxy to heterodoxy to the even more scandalous “H” word was now clear.

Errors in the novel continued to crop up like dandelions in a southern meadow. A quote from the Living Bible on page 241, a phrase from the "Book of Common Prayer" on page 402, a reference to a Catholic as a ‘dear Christian friend’ on page 53, and much to the chagrin of a few of the few, a scene where one of the converts longs for a can of beer after mowing the yard. Like the body of that poor dead concubine in the Book of Judges, Wilville’s novel was cut up into parts and sent throughout the kingdom and it aroused quite a bit of fury.

It seemed that at one point, the subcommittee examining the novel had hit upon a useful literary technique for properly critiquing the novel. Each page of the novel was placed side by side with the "Confession of Faith." Every phrase or word not found in the "Confession" was marked in red. For example, when Isaac, the main character, fell off the roof and uttered a mild oath, it was ruled that such a saying did not accord with Chapter XXII, “Of Lawful Oaths and Vows.” And the subcommittee was determined to be faithful to the "Confession" above all else.

One good thing about the novel is that it did spur the writing of several book length critiques and responses. These works were theology, not fiction, so they were of a higher standard than Wilville’s fabrication. Among the best known were "Reformed Comedy or Tragedy? A Reformed Examination of a Unreformed Heresy and Wilville—Prophet of Darkness and Error and Falsehood." Even the ever-resourceful Prof. Leopold Van Humsteder contributed a chapter titled “Wilville, Barth, and Servetus Compared” in a festschrift dedicated to a most orthodox gentleman. In seventy three pages, he got to the heart of the book—somewhere.

Wilville left his pulpit and presbytery under a cloud. He forsook his literary career and his preaching calling. For years, he seemed to have disappeared off the map. The last known reference to him was as follows: In a small community, a quiet man was having lunch with the pastor of the community church. The quiet man confessed to having changed his name years ago from Wilville to Illwill. “Wilville?” the pastor said, “Hmm. When I was in college, I read a novel written by a man with that name. It led to my conversion to Christ. That’s why I became a preacher.”


Jared said...

ha! That's great...but it also brings up a point that's been on our minds: perhaps one of the reasons for the reformeds' lack of involvement in the arts (fiction included) is that it seems to be much easier to "cross the line" than it is in, say, engineering. Engineering doesn't depend on others' perception for its status as "good" or "bad"; it depends on whether the building/bridge holds. But fiction and sculpture and painting gives much power to the observer, the perceptor.

Not that this is any excuse not to be involved; rather, it's a good reason to teach our children how to communicate better, both more passionately and more clearly.

C Grace said...

As far as the reformeds' lack of involvement in the arts go, especaily fiction, it goes back to world view - Classicism verses Romantism. Reformed theology attracts those who are of a Classical mindset- order, rules, logic. To write a good novel you need to be a Romantic. You can't worry about "crossing the line" or the novel will fall short. Good fiction (actually all art) comes from the heart not the head. It involves passion and mystery and the impact goes beyond what mere words can convey. That is why the "Passion of the Christ" is so moving - it speaks to the heart and soul of a person - and why it was produced by a Catholic not a Presbeterian.

This dicotomy of Classical bent verses Romatic bent -head verses heart- is one of the huge divides that needs to be crossed to reunite the body of Christ. The head sees danger in the wildness, the illogic, the lack of order in the heart. It is afraid of the powerful longings for transendence and intimacy. (This I think is why Protestants feel so out of place at a Catholic mass. The theology of the thing is only a minor reason the real reason is that we can't connect with the heart of it. We don't understand the atmosphere) While the heart thinks the head is a kill-joy with it's rules and regulations. But we need both. The head needs the heart to teach it what true worship, passion and joy mean. That total abandonment of the beloved to her lover. The heart needs the head to keep it from pursuing false loves. In the Bible God rebukes both the adulterers who were pursuing other gods and the legalist whose theology and practice was right but who had no passion.
In his article Ben brillantly captures the essence of the problem those who who are more used to operating in the Classical mindset have - that little critiquing voice - always disecting and examining - "Does it fit the mold? Does it follow the rules?" How do we turn it off so we can jump in and just enjoy? I would suggest we all make sure we get plenty of doses of good Romance- Read Tolkein, Lewis, Dante, and George MacDonald and let ourself get lost in the story rather than disecting the theology of it. Another more modern author Iwould suggest is John Eldridge.

Christian said...

So here is something that I have ben wondering. Does Ben House have a blog? I have not been able to find it. Does he has a website? I was tring to find one about 6 months back and gave up.

PB said...

There's also the issue of the literary merit of Wilville's work. Chapter 5 ('Picnic at Paradise Cove') basically devolves into a sermon. And chapter 19-24 is a tract (almost identical to one Wilville wrote in the 70's - "Against the Hare Krishna and Other Cults").