The Way of Weakness

October 30, 2013

ImageJ.I. Packer recently published a short volume on an uncommon topic; weakness.

J.I. Packer, Weakness is the Way: Life with Christ our Strength.Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 128 pp.

I recently finished studying 2 Corinthians for my New Testament class with Andy Naselli and Packer’s book captures a major portion of Paul’s message in that letter: God triumphs in our weakness by providing sufficient grace.

Justin Taylor shares more of Packer’s story and this video by Crossway tells more about the book.

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The Less Known Lewis

August 22, 2013

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Young Lewis

Recently I have immersed myself in the biography and writings of C.S. Lewis.  This is all in preparation for the upcoming Desiring God National Conference in September.  Yet, it also follows my pattern of choosing a “Great Man from History” every summer to study.  My custom is to read a biography of the man and then one important work he has written.  I’m approaching Lewis a bit differently.
Since Lewis is widely known among my peer group and those with whom I interact, I’ve decided to select and relate on this blog stories of Lewis’ less observed life and more obscure books.  For example, I read yesterday his 40-poem book Spirits in Bondage: A Cycle of Poems because it was his first major publication yet hardly read today.  Interestingly, Spirits in Bondage reveals Lewis worldview before his conversion to Christianity.  He wrote the poems between 1915-19 as a pupil of his private tutor Kirkpatrick, during a brief stint as an Oxford student and finally during his experience as a soldier in WWI.  His poems demonstrate his struggle to make sense of the world and yet his streak of romanticism.  There are such titles as “Satan Speaks” or “De Profundis” where he speaks of the evils in the world and God’s distance from his creation.  Satan rules the world and God is a distant, uninterested creator.  In other poems Lewis writes about nature in soaring words and romanticized images anticipatory of his future descriptions of nature in his novels.
Speaking of novels, I have also started reading Till We Have Faceswhich is the last novel Lewis wrote.  It is certainly well-loved by many of Lewis’ admirers but definitely less known and read than the Chronicles or even his Space Trilogy.  Lewis wrote this novel with the help of Joy Davidman. She not only edited, offered criticism, and typed up a manuscript for him she was the inspiration for the story.  He dedicated the book to her because it was during a time that he had “no ideas for stories” that he had gotten to know her and because a conversation they had in which they bounced ideas off one another for a story he was inspired to write the novel.  Indeed, Sayers reports in his biography of Lewis, Jack: A Life of C.S. Lewis, that Joy contributed material to the book herself.  This is far more than the average reader may know about Joy and Jack’s relationship.  The heart of their relationship from the beginning revolved around ideas and intellectual banter.
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These stories show something more than the typical bio provided for Lewis: a quaint Oxford professor who wrote great children’s stories, important Christian apologetic works, and enjoyed weekly meetings with the Inklings where they smoked, drank, and criticized each other’s works.  All this is true, of course, but not complete.  My aim is to expand that bio of Lewis by relating some of his less known works and sharing stories that reveal unique aspects or seasons of his life.

Well, we have survived six months of winter and a blizzard in April which cancelled  classes at the University of St. Thomas a week and a half ago. I enjoyed the night off from school, but I felt strange texting Zach  My class is cancelled tonight. Too much snow. Today, however, was glorious and warm. We changed from 35 degrees to 75 overnight, and the shock was incredible. I suppose it is what it might feel like for Christ to come again, late in time but unmistakably.

This is what the last few days have felt like:

 

We live in a land of eternal winter

Spring, we thought, might have come

Weeks and weeks ago

Then the snow came. More snow. (More snow?)

Too much to drive through even at the end of April.

When we had prayed for rain, it came frozen in white crystals.

And while it fed the earth, the flowers could not bloom.

 

Then came  the day forty degrees warmer than the day before

And Spring was here unmistakably.

The air itself was different when we slept and woke.

And the sun licked our skin.

But the cold earth reminded us that

The ice and snow had been there–

Long and cold for half a year.

 

Spring had come,

In a flash, in a twinkling of an eye

We had life abundantly and greens

So green, the colors burned our eyes.

 

And by it we knew deep within

that you would surely come again

 With sprouting shoots

Bright enough to blind and sharp enough to pierce human skin.

And you would bring eternal spring 

To our endless ice age. 

 

-B

Around here, we are getting ready for our biggest party of the year. Tomorrow is Easter. I always found Easter a funny celebration growing up. We said it was all about Jesus, but all we did was talk about what Jesus did for ME. He seemed valuable only because my forgiveness and my eternal life was valuable. It wasImage rather odd. Add that to the bunnies, and the eggs, and the flouffy dresses under which I wore turtlenecks because it was still freezing in Wisconsin, and it wasn’t particularly my favorite holiday.

 In high school N.T. Wright, via Dr. Matt Colvin, changed my appreciation of Easter forever. Up until that time, I had always loved Christmas more (likely for selfish reasons of my own nativity in that festive advent season). Reading through the very first verses of Romans, however, in our makeshift classroom in the kitchen of North Cincinnati Community Church changed that. Dr. Colvin merely asked us why the resurrection was so important.

I answered what I had always thought was the answer to such a question: Jesus’ death paid for my sins. Sure, this was true and gloriously so. But it failed to answer the question. Dr. Colvin hadn’t asked what was so important about Good Friday, but the import of Easter.

My quickly-modified answer must have included something about Josh McDowell and the historical necessity of the resurrection. We were told in Scripture that Jesus would rise from the dead. We believe the bible. For the bible to maintain its claim, Jesus must rise from the dead. Sigh of relief that he did so we don’t have to be embarrassed.

I had another answer too. I knew from 1 Corinthians 15 that Paul’s argument for our resurrection was predicated on Jesus rising from the dead.  Furthermore, in this same passage, Paul insists that if Jesus does not rise, my sins are actually not forgiven (1 Cor 15:17). This is a curious argument of Paul’s considering sacrificial lambs didn’t come back from the dead. They just had to die to make propitiation for sin, but we will take Paul’s argument at face value but we will have to come back to that in a minute. Nonetheless, the forgiveness of my sin is contingent on his rising and my some-day rising is contingent on his rising. Now the resurrection of Jesus is good news for me personally.

Both of these things are also true, but they are again insufficient. The greatest news of the resurrection is not merely that Jesus did was he said he was going to do and that I get to do it too. It appears to me to fall short in two important ways: 

First, it fails to tell me what the forgiveness of my sins is FOR and what my own resurrection is FOR. What am I supposed to do with it? I need to know what to DO with the new life I receive. Does the resurrection tell me what to do with my life?

Secondly, it fails to answer a niggling question: Why rise?  Is death just the hardest thing to beat? Is resurrection just the hardest miracle to pull off? Or is it a perk of God’s favor towards you, like a benefit package? Does it do anything more than sing to me, “Jesus loves me”? Does it tell me anything about Jesus and his standing with God?

The Apostle Paul helps us here. It took Greek with Dr. Colvin and The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright to see how.

In Romans 1, Paul trumpets that Jesus “was born of the seed of David according to the flesh and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness by the resurrection from the dead.”

Here Paul claims that when Jesus was born, his birth demonstrated that he was the son of David, but when Jesus rose, that rising declared that he was the Son of God.

Now, this idea that Jesus is God’s son should not surprise us. Jesus was called the son of God when out of Egypt God called “his son” and at his baptism and at the transfiguration. So what was the resurrection doing that those moments didn’t do, or didn’t fully do?

This is where Dr. Colvin clarified by appealing to N.T. Wright’s treatment of Jewish resurrection. In Wright’s book The Challenge of Jesus, Wright argues that first-century Judaism understood Resurrection as a judicial declaration on God’s part. It is the verdict passed by God that announced whether or not God has decided to uphold your claim. If you claim to be righteous, like David does throughout the Psalms, and God abandons you in Sheol, then you are not righteous. Sorry. If you claim to be the messiah of God, and you die, and you do not rise, you are a failed messiah, and God has not heard you. He does not approve your case. He contradicts your claim. Sorry once again.

If, however, you claim to be the son of God and you die, BUT GOD raises you. He established your claim and asserts that you were in the right to call yourself that. Yes, resurrection declares. You are the son of God. Now let’s not get confused with the logic here. If you never claim to be the son of God and you are raised (like Lazarus), obviously this does NOT make you messiah. That is not the claim that God is upholding by raising you. Resurrection is an approval verdict. What is approves varies on the claims being made by those God is raising. When God review my appeal: “I am justified in Jesus” and he grants me eternal life with him, it will be his way of approving that claim. It is God way of saying, “Yes, this is true and worthy of all acceptance. You are might right with me in Jesus.” 

Furthermore, if Jesus is also claiming to carry the sins of the world to the cross, and God hears and approve this too, his resurrection IS the declaration that his people’s sins are forgiven. God has received his sacrifice. He has heard the announcement of his son and approved it. That makes sense of Paul’s declaration in 1 Cor 15:17 that if Jesus is still dead, we know our sins aren’t forgiven. If Jesus is still dead, then God didn’t hear him.

Jesus is bringing about our pardon on the cross. And his resurrection announces that that pardon is verified verily, verily.

But his resurrection announces something more: It tells us that he is most certainly the one we have been waiting for. Zach and I will party tomorrow because God has declared beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus is his Messiah. If he is Messiah, he is the king who will save his people and rule them. He is the king like David, born of David, and greater than David. The resurrection is not merely good news because I receive great benefits like forgiveness and future resurrection, though I do and for them I am thankful. The resurrection is a judicial judgment of God: This is my beloved Son, officially and fully and finally. This is the messiah of God. This is our king.

Thus, the resurrection gives me something to do with the forgiveness of my sins and my eternal life. It tells me what they are for: to worship and serve King Jesus. 

I recently finished one of the many iterations of the Myers Briggs personality test.  I think I’ve scored differently the 3 times I’ve taken it since my freshmen year of college.  I’ve taken other tests such as StrengthFinders and Grips-Birkman Blueprint and each have revealed different things.  This makes me wonder, what is its real value of these tests?  

First, I conclude that these things do not present absolute truths about me.  Plenty of others confirm this fact.  The tests suggest trends or tendencies rather than absolutes.  Humans are far to complex and adaptive to their situations for any be-all-end-all personality test.  That is why there are so many of them.  Yet, each can still be useful.  I consider them to be a snapshot of where I am at right now in my life.  Maybe in 20 years after I’ve taken them a few more times I’ll really be able to say with more confidence what my personality type really is  Right now, however, I hold on to the conclusions very loosely.  

Second, if you take the personality test with a group of other people you are more likely to gain from it.  We are comparative beings.  We understand ourselves so much in light of who others are.  Once I figured out that I scored as an ESTP (and relearned what that means) I wanted to know what everyone else had scored.  I couldn’t really determine what this meant without comparing myself to others.  I respond to others personalities and influence theirs. So knowing who they are and their tendencies helps me understand me.  There is a danger in this, of course.  I may want to be someone else.  Some of the Myers Briggs profiles sound better to me than others.  It is easy to envy others after taking this test.  Fight that. 

Which brings me to the final comment.  Learn from these test and then move on.  They should not radically change how you live.  They are thermometers not compasses.  You may make small adjustments or learn how to better relate to others but this should not make you into a new person.  If it does that, then you’ve defeated the very purpose of taking such tests.  Its suppose to provide a picture of who you are not create a new you.  So learn something from that picture of you, take it to heart, apply it to how you live,  and then move on!

Therefore, hold to these tests loosely.  Learn from others personalities.  Discover something new about yourself and then keep on living.

~ Z  

Last night I had posted my most romantic reflections of two years of marriage.. Let me give you the back story so that no one worries about us.

We are, truth be told, doing quite well. It is just that Valentine’s Day has a way of making someone reflective, even if the memories are hardly romantic.

In 2010, just two months before our own wedding, Zach and I were in a car accident that totaled our car. It was quite the mess; two days after I had received said car, a day after I had changed the title into my own name, and the morning that I posted an insurance check to Cincinnati Auto Insurance, we were choking on the air bag dust behind the shattered windshield of a totaled Honda. The woman arrested on site at that intersection for her lack of a driver’s license among other important documents… and for a false vehicle registration took away more than an accident citation for failure to yield on a left hand turn. According to the cop at the accident site, an injury would have been the only thing to make this accident worse.

This is why, in the middle of all the chaos and the disappointment of missing our dear friends’ wedding, Zach and I were almost relieved to find something else to divert our attention while we waited for my parents to come and rescue us from the scene of the accident– even if we found our diversion in exploded Turkish beers.

The second incident is no less true… my wonderful husband really did go into some sort of shock from dehydration (or something like that) while flying home from his trip to Turkey (one he took a year after I did). But for a doctor on board, the pilots were prepared to land in Iceland… and, yes, Efes really did explode again in his shoe.

And yes, we laugh at both absurd circumstances now.

This year’s Valentine’s Day, Zach and I were struck by the hilarity in emergency. Sure, chaos almost always makes a good story later on, but there is something about the intrusion of a new character into that chaos who can retell the whole story for you. Such intrusions have a way of redeeming even a tragic September car ride or a college trip.

– B

What life looks like

February 15, 2013

After reading way too much poetry with my students today, I thought I would move out of poetry and into prose to celebrate the craziness of a life that is full of random chaos and so much good:

It was much as I had imagined it: the glance followed by the long scream that slowed and lengthened with time. But I had never imagined the alcohol. The four unmoved bottles still nestled in the truck had nonetheless emptied their yeasty brown all over my second-week lesson plans and our suitcases.

They entered this unexpected catastrophe so unexpectedly (I forgot Zach had insisted on bringing them) that they were almost welcome despite their added mess.

Turkish Efes, a celebratory gift to share with college friends in Kansas before a wedding, a taste full of the memories we had all shared on too many hours of bus travel. We would never make it to their Kansas wedding now. But somehow these bottles who had shot off their caps at the outrage of our delay and the force of the accident seemed to reach into the tragedy for a comedy. A wedding. A car wreck. And Efes. If the Turks had actually liked the Greeks, I would have sworn that those beers might had shouted “Opah” on impact.

I have though about banning Zach from buy Efes anymore. The story was no different for the two bottles he brought home from Turkey back in college, wrapped and smuggled in his tennis shoes had likewise exploded when he landed. He had almost grounded that flight in Iceland for an emergency medical landing when his body tried dying halfway across the ocean.

Only the beer could scream panic at the emergency and laugh that he had lived in a single, simple pop.

It sprayed all over his suitcase, and it ruined his shoes.

Perhaps the Greeks really do bottle the Turkish Efes. I will have to check the label next time I refused to let Zach buy it.

Opah!

Students, I know you are here. I know you haunt this blog. Oh sneaky internet-learners, you are crafty, but you are not alone. Since you read these posts, I will post about class and will extend our discussions here in the hopes that you think of it as a study break instead of more reading homework.
 
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Recently, one of you asked me indirectly why we had to read The Odyssey. You wanted to know if it had anything to do with the 21st century. You wanted a modern corollary. You wanted to know what it was good FOR. You wanted immediate, relevant application. What good is there in reading The Odyssey, Mrs. Howard? Someday, I am sure you will be a great businessman. 
 
Your classmate are probably better ones to answer this question that I am. You all are the ones who signed up for this course. What did you hope to gain from reading old, dead Greeks? Now finished with the ten-year Island cruise with Odysseus, you wonder: what is so great about one long shipwreck and lots of sea monsters?
 
We asked in class in what sense the Odysseus’ story was even true. After all, the Homeric stories were passed down by oral tradition. After all, it was all about man-eating monsters and visits to the dead. After all, Odysseus tells the bulk of his adventures in dream-like Phaecia as a story to entertain his guests for a bed and a meal. Odysseus is the sneaky man of twists and turns, and Homer is a blind poet. Why trust them at all? Why read The Odyssey?
 
We read because The Odyssey, along with The Iliad, The Theogany, and the pile of books on your bed that I have assigned for the next five months, offer glimpses at what it means to be human. 
 
What does a sea captain chased by monsters and loosing men teach about about leading? What does a wife left for 20 years teach about about fidelity?
 
Over Christmas Break, my husband and I went to see the new version of Les Mis. The movie moved me so. The stage production always has too. Why does this made-up story effect me so much? Because it is a human story. It teaches us about the human heart. It teaches us what to love and hate, and sometime what love and hatred look like.  Sometimes the picture is clearer, sometimes poorer. 
 
As humans, we know we are here on earth to declare the truth of things. Gerard Manley Hopkins would speak of need for things to “selve themselves:” to figure out what they are and declare what they be by being it. It is like a drama: figure out whose big story you have been cast in and play your part with all gusto. We are to go about the world around us trying to understand what it means to be human. We are then to be fully human. We are to distinguish what it means to be a man from being a woman from being a penguin. And then, as that man or that woman, we go off to the zoo to take cute pictures of that penguin.
 
We are aided in this work by the works of literature and history and philosophy most profoundly. They are like friends that come alongside of us and help us to see clearer and farther.
 
Sometimes books like The Odyssey confuse the issue. Homer didn’t love Jesus. He couldn’t have. We shouldn’t pretend he did. But in working through Homer’s critique of marriage (through a pagan’s eyes and pen), we begin to see something about a heart aching in the pain of this world. The argument in our mind starts to run… “If Odysseus wanted to go home so badly, how much more should …”, if “Penelope missed Odysseus so much, how much more should…”, “Could anything have convinced Odysseus to give up his hatred? Should something have? What in his worldview was sufficient to induce him to forgive? Is he justified then in his slaughter of the suitors?”
 
That is why we read the Odyssey. That is why we watch Les Mis. That is why we make and eat homemade bread, go star gazing, and play basketball in the backyard with friends. It is a part of our human role, our human drama. We were made to know and declare what really IS with ever fiber of our body. Everything that helps us do that is a worthy pursuit.
 
So keep reading, and I will see you in class on Tuesday.

Gilead: A Novel.

January 2, 2013

Gilead by Marilynne Robison slowly welcomes the reader into the thoughts of a dying small-town minister.  John Ames, the protagonist, declares that “You read the dreams of an anxious, fuddled old man…” (53). And indeed the first 50 pages seem quite befuddled, but the last 200 offer a beautiful reflection on human life by a man on the cusp of eternity.  This journal-like story written to his young son is laced with somber undertones and yet serene remembrances.

There are so many passages that beg to be read aloud that I thought I’d post ten of them here.  I hope they move you to reflect on this incredible life we live and the world in which we live it.

 

The twinkling of an eye.  This is the most wonderful expression.  I’ve thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them, or the humor of it.  “The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.” That’s a fact.  (53)

I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again.  I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that.  There is a human beauty in it.  And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.  IN eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the steers.  Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.  (57)

You and Tobias are hopping around in the sprinkler.  The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine.  That does occur in nature, but it is rare.  When I was in seminary I used to go sometimes to watch the Baptists down at the river.  It was something to see the preacher lifting the one who was being baptized up out of the water and the water pouring off the garments and the hair.  It did look like a birth or a resurrection.  For us the water just heightens the touch of the pastor’s hand on the sweet bones of the head, sort of like making an electrical connection.  I’ve always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and solace involved in the way we go about it.  Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water. (63)

Each morning I’m like Adam waking up in Eden, amazed at the cleverness of my hands and at the brilliance pouring into my mind through my eyes — old hands, old eyes, old mind, a very diminished Adam altogether, and still it is just remarkable.  What of me will I still have?  Well, this old body has been a pretty good companion. Like Balaam’s ass, it’s seen the angel I haven’t seen yet, and is lying down in the path. (67)

Remembering my youth makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it.  Whenever I think of Edward, I think of playing catch in a hot street and that wonderful weariness of the arms.  I think of leaping after a high throw and that wonderful collaboration of the whole body with itself and that wonderful certainty and amazement when you know the glove is jut where sit should be.  Oh, I will miss the world! (115)

The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of the morning.  LIght within light… It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence.  Or it seems like poetry within language.  Perhaps wisdom within experience.  Or marriage within friendship and love. (119)

I heard a man say once that Christians worship sorrow.  That is by no means true.  But we do believe there is a sacred mystery in it, it’s fair to say that…  I believe there is a dignity in sorrow simply because it is God’s good pleasure that there should be.  He is forever raising up those who are brought low.  This does not mean that it is ever right to cause suffering or to seek it out when it can be avoided, and serves no good, practical purpose.  To value suffering in itself can be dangerous and strange, so I want to be very clear about this.  I mean simply that God takes the side of sufferers against those who afflict them.  (136-137)

I do enjoy remembering that morning.  I was sixty-seven, to be exact, which did not seem old to me.  I wish I could give you the memory I have of your mother that day.  I wish I could leave you certain of the images in my mind, because they are so beautiful that I hate to think they ail be extinguished when I am.  Well, but again, this life has its own mortal loveliness.  And memory is not sickly mortal in its nature, either.  It is a strange thing, after all, to be able to return to a moment, when it can hardly be said to have any reality at all, even in its passing.  A moment is such a slight thing, I mean, that its abiding is almost gracious reprieve. (162)

If God is the Author of Existence, what can it mean to say God exists?  There’s a problem in vocabulary.  He would have to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence.  That is clearly a source of confusion.  Another term would be needed to describe a state or quality of which we can have no experience whatever, to which existence as we know it can bear only the slightest likeness or affinity.  So creating profs from experience of any sort is like building a ladder to the moon.  It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem. (178-179)

It seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord berates on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance — for a moment or a year or the span of a life.  And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light.  That is what I said in the Pentecost sermon.  I have reflected on that sermon, and there is some truth in it.  But the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply.  Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration.  You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness s to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? (245)

~Z

Robert Frost is a Liar

January 1, 2013

I like Robert Frost’s poetry. I do. I remember illustrating his poem Birches for Zach when we had just started dating. I sincerely regret not taking Dr. Sundahl’s course on Frost with my friend Julie way back in college. Even from the little Frost I did have with Dr. Sommerville, I learned much. I am still learning.

But today is the first of the year. It is a fresh start, and I am not afraid. And so, today, I will say it again. Robert Frost is a liar.

Though more popularly known for The Road Not Taken or Country Things, Frost pulls out his cynicism, this time against divine providence in his poem “Design”:

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I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth —
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches’ broth —
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?–
If design govern in a thing so small. 

The story is simple: once on a walk in the woods, Frost finds three white things one on top of the other. He doesn’t like it. It creeps him out.

The scene of a spider eating a moth is drear. It is dead. It is sad. But this poem isn’t really about sad coincidences. What bothers him more than the white trio, however, is the idea that some Being might have arranged it so. For Frost, accidental piles of white are creepy. Intentional heaps of white things are worse. The idea that someone would suggest that such a teeny, tiny pale scene of death had been arranged on purpose is a moral outrage.

Let’s examine the logic a bit more closely. To begin, we must quickly recognize that this poem follows Petrarchan sonnet form. It has 14 lines, with a nice break at line 8. That break we call a volta. It is the turn in the poem. The first 8 lines will set the scene. The last 6 lines will drive home the argument.

Given: A White Exhibit with a white moth, a white spider, and a white flower (Lines 1-8)

Premise 1: Design or intention in a tiny, insignificant, momentary, unimportant, white, death scene demonstrated belongs to an evil designer. (Line 13)

Premise 2: Either there is design in Exhibit White or there isn’t. (Line 9-12)

Conclusion: Therefore, if this is not mere happenstance, this is an evil scene by an evil designer. (Line 13-14)

Frost’s poem is an attack on the idea that God’s hand is in all things. Frost sneers at Jesus’ declaration that sparrows and strands of hair don’t fall without God’s arranging.

But notice Frost’s nuance. He does not come out in his poem and claim that the natural world has NO Designer. He could have. He didn’t. Instead, he chooses to argue, IF designer, then an evil designer. In Frost’s argument divine design is not an impossibility. It is simply WORSE that coincidence. He lets the reader determine. The reader can pass by the creepy moment, forgetting it quickly as an unfortunately coincidence or the reader can bring the divine in to the arrangement and walk away still traumatized out by the absurd (and morose) extent to which the divine chooses to involve himself in the natural world.

And this is where Frost is a liar:

I am willing to assume he saw the little trio of flora and fauna.

I am willing to assume that Frost really hated the idea of divine intent and intervention in the natural world (I would need help confirming that, but he did seem to hate HUMAN meaning in natural scenes like the swallows in “Being Versed in Country Things”).

But I cannot forgive Frost for his first premise, namely that design or intention in a tiny, insignificance, momentary, unimportant, etc. scene can only belong to an evil designer.

FALSE, Frost. By all that is good in literature, FALSE.

And here, Frost condemns himself. He calls his own bluff.

Let’s take the divine out of it for a moment. Instead, let’s use Frost himself as an example. Let’s pretend, say, that Frost is … a poet. Let’s pretend that Frost cares about communicating. He cares a lot, and so he labors over the tiny, momentary word choices and changes, and each fleeting punctuation mark, and every single line break in his poem. Every single word that Robert Frost writes and erases evidences intent. Each time and particularly at the moments of nuance and detail, he demonstrates his authorship. No reader panics at the though that Robert Frost chose to write a sonnet or that he picked “appall” both for its connotations of horror and its associations with the color white. We liked to see a poet show off, particularly when we notice his verbal gamesmanship because it tickles our pride too.  We like to know that the author is in control of his story down to the last period.

Frost is the great designer of this white scene in the woods. This poem is designed, all the layered white, and the witching, and creepy feeling, and the angst. Frost is a master; he scribbles in the tiniest article adjective modifiers in between the prepositional phrases and their nouns. He puts the periods in. And the dashes. Every last dash is his. From eight in the morning until supper, the design of things so small does not appall him at all. It was his day job. In the presence of an author’s design, we too, are not so terribly bothered. We like it a good deal, in fact. It makes a poem feel a bit more like a little world and our world to feel a little more like a poem.

~B