Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Not a Theology Textboook: The End of the Affair

So this is the first in what will hopefully be a decent series on books that I love or found useful theologically (most of them if not all of them will be books by Christians) but which are nowhere near being theology proper, or as a literal creed of their authors, and should probably not be read as such, even if the total amount of theological error attained by such a reading is small. Now you might ask, what do I mean by a theology textbook? I mean something that is either designed primarily to teach/explain theology and/or advance the work of theology proper in a non-narrative format. Thus, for instance, The Catechism of the Catholic Church is a theology textbook. St. Augustine's De Catechizandis Rudibus is a theology textbook. St. Augustine's Confesiones is not. That does not mean it's not beautiful theological writing, but its aims are more mixed between reflection/exposition/speculation than DCR, which is essentially a catechism, not a narrative.

The End of the Affair hit a bunch of key themes for me. Oddly enough, the meaning of Christian love between persons wasn't a theme that I felt was so big in the book. I think there's a fair amount of it that gets practiced by the characters (some of them, anyway) but that's not really so much the point. I think a bigger point is how we can come to Love God, even in circumstances which aren't always quite so awesome, or even if we're people (always!) who aren't quite so awesome. Now a relative of mine who read this particular book didn't seem to get much out of it except that the characters were all idiots. (I haven't spoiled anything there; this fact will be readily apparent to most readers within the first fifty pages.) And that's part of Greene's charm. These idiots are loved by God, and God uses their messed up lives to draw them closer to Him.

In that vein, one of the big ideas here is that faith in God need not start with Love for God, or even with belief. This is true intuitively true if we think about it. We have all heard of the more irrational sorts of atheist who declares to hate God, and might as such be just a step away from faith. But more-so I think many of us have either had, or heard of, the experience of having faith that God is there before we actually have faith that God can truly be loved and trusted. Another big theme of the book is how one can fight God every step of the way on something--even on being Loved, and still yield. We really don't want to give up control. In their idiocy these characters demonstrate that time and time again, but they also demonstrate how they are not actually beyond redemption. God's Love, for Greene, is bigger than the fact of our sin or our Original Idiocy. And it uses what's there; the old creation doesn't just get replaced by the new; it gets transformed, which means sometimes that bitterness and cynicism have to be transformed, slowly and painfully.

I happen to believe the error is smaller for Graham Greene's The End of the Affair than it would be for many other books--including much of the theology proper I've been assigned in my day--but that doesn't mean it's nonexistant. Some persons, at least according to his Wikipedia article, charge Greene with giving sin a "mystique," a charge which I sort of understand, even if I don't agree. I'm more than willing to bite the bullet and suggest that maybe Greene has done so somewhat, but I doubt he did it intentionally, and I'd invite critics along those lines to consider that that's part of how sin gets us at the outset: It projects a mystique. One of the things Graham does well, is show us what happens when that projection is broken.

Besides this, I suppose it is possible that Graham Greene has given us too much optimism about what God can do with a broken situation...wait, what am I saying? Too much optimism about the power of God? Nevermind!

I'm not going to pretend that I have more of a problem with this book than I do. Obviously in trying to find things to criticize, just to offset my praise of Greene's work, I'm going to run into error myself, unless I really know why I disagree with what I'm critiquing. I guess if there is any real criticism to be made, it's that at least here Graham Greene is focusing on the depths of sin and rebellion against God in a way that not everyone will really find helpful, and which might even be scandalous to people at the wrong points in their theological career. But that's okay, because it's intended to be a narrative about how Grace steps in to save us, not as an exposition of the same. It is, quite perfectly, not a theology textbook.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Dan! I really enjoyed your commentary on this (great!) novel! Greene really did do a fabulous job showing us how every situation ultimately works in accordance to God's plan; nothing we do is ever so terrible that He cannot bring something good out of it! Your commentary reminded me of Literary Catholicism, specifically the last day of our discussion on Silence, when Fr. Charlie made the comment that [I'm paraphrasing here]: God's plan is like GPS. He doesn't bring about our salvation necessarily through a single path that ends if we mess up. Instead, it is "recalculated" and continues from were we are, because God can (and does!) bring about good from "wrong turns". Ultimately, any abuse of free will can not frustrate or thwart God's plan for our salvation. (At which point he said "If Jesus Christ, who died for your sins, wills you to be saved, good luck getting damned!") LOL oh, how I miss that class...

Thanks for the reminder Dan :-D I am looking forward reading more of your commentaries!! Keep up the great insights!

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