Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Another Lesson from the Classics

Donn Taylor

            It seems obvious, when one stops to think about it (which we usually don't), but the truth is that we develop (grow) in the direction of our thoughts. That's one reason we need literature: to tell us important things that in the everyday busy-ness of life we fail to recognize. And this particular truth that was recognized by several of the best writers.

            Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1850 treated it directly in his story "The Great

Stone Face." In that story there is on a mountain a giant rock structure that resembles a face, one whose "features were noble, and the expression was at once grand and sweet." In the valley below there is a legend that someday a man will appear whose face resembles that face and whose character and life exemplify the good qualities seen there. A boy named Ernest in that valley gazes at the face and spends his life looking for the man who will fulfill that legend. Many men lay claim to it, but all have flaws that belie their claim. At length Ernest becomes a lay preacher and once, while preaching beneath the great face, his congregation sees that his face has become like the great one on the mountain. But Ernest does not believe them, and continues to look for someone else to fulfill the legend.
             Earlier, Percy Shelley mentioned that principle in Prometheus Unbound (1820). The Titan Prometheus is bound to the Caucasus rock by the tyrant Zeus as punishment for not revealing a secret peril to Zeus. At one point in his torture, Prometheus is confronted by three Furies, who are “ministers of pain, and fear,/ And disappointment, and mistrust, and hate,/ And clinging crime….” This is the height of the Titan's torture for, as he says,

                         Whilst I behold such execrable shapes,
Methinks I grow like what I contemplate….”

Prometheus' greatest pain as he looks at the evil Furies is his feeling that looking at them makes him become like them.
            But John Milton was there before Shelley. In one brief incident in Milton's great epic Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), an angel comes face to face with the fallen angel, Satan. The confrontation brings the good angel pain, the worst of which is feeling himself dragged toward becoming like the Fallen One.

            Whether these literary giants derived that principle from their own experience or from the Bible, we do not know. But the Bible, of course, frequently treats this theme. In the negative sense we have Eve (Genesis 2:6): "When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise," her actions moved in the direction of her meditation. And many passages recommend positive meditation, such as Psalm 119:15-19 (all biblical quotations from NASB):

                        I will meditate on Your precepts
                        And regard Your ways.
                        I shall delight in Your statues;
                        I shall not forget Your Word.

            Paul, of course, in Philippians 4:6 gives a specific command regarding the direction of our minds: "Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worth of praise, ponder these things."
            This does not mean that we are to be unaware of evil, or of things with lesser values, for Paul also writes (1 Thessalonians 5:21) "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." And Jesus advised his disciples to be "shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves." So we are not to be unaware of evil, but we are to perceive it, reject it, and direct our thoughts to things of positive value.
            Why would I recount these mentions of meditations in a blog devoted to writers and writing? Because I have yet to read a contemporary Christian novel which develops the theme that, like Promethius, we grow to become like what we contemplate.
            So my challenge to fellow writers is to write a novel that does develop that theme. When written, it will have little or no competition in the Christian market.
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