I've been invited to give a talk about books and faith and naturally I have a few favorites I'd like to discuss with the folks who come. What has become increasingly apparent to me is that many books, especially fiction, seek to explore what the spiritual world might be. In the process they often help to redefine what we understand about spirituality, and therefore about our faith in it (or lack thereof).
Perhaps one could go even further: any book that is any good will inevitably ask difficult questions, even questions that have no answers - and so to some extent will push the boundaries of existing understandings about faith.
Literature, in general, seeks to show through words that which cannot actually be stated in words. That's why poetry evokes far more than it defines. That's why a passage of Jane Austen suggests more than it says. We are asked to be part of the process of making meaning - and each one of us will make a slightly different meaning.
Perhaps one could say that all writing, all books, question faith. In the process of doing so they may actually help to build that faith into something stronger than it was before.
It's time for a huge shout out to the wonderful people at Fox Hill Village, in Westwood, who were the enthusiastic participants in my Jane Austen lecture series this month. It isn't often that one gets to talk about such a deeply powerful author with a room full of folks who are insightful, engaged, and wise - and the resultant experience was remarkable, all around.
These days so few people seem to know 'the classics' at all, and few people seem to care that they are missing out on a writer who can tell us, still, a great deal about what is amiss with our society. This gathering of minds showed me otherwise.
Did we talk about present day politics? Did we talk about posturing politicians? Did we make reference to some of the eternal values of being human and alive? Yes, we did.
Recently I read with interest Peter Schjeldahl’s piece on Renoir in The NewYorker, (“Skin Deep”, Aug. 26, 2019) and discovered with relief that I was not alone in finding Renoir’s nudes to be puzzling. Those skin surfaces, as smooth and featureless as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade inflatable, had always troubled me. The article prompted me to think again about those huge thighs and buttocks (were his models really that large?) matched with the tiny facial features scrunched up in one corner of the face, framed with luxurious tresses – it all seemed bizarre to me.
It seems that even Renoir's models were surprised at the images he produced, and were puzzled at how little they resembled the sitters.
After reading Schjeldahl’s comments it occurred to me that these chocolate-box colors, this cheesecake presentation, were enmeshed with the exaggerated size of the hips and groin. The effect is to emphasize the genital area – the very area that soft porn wishes to draw our attention to. Renoir, surely, delivers a version of soft porn, but by exaggerating the areas of sexual interest he also subverts the male gaze, asking, as it were, “Is this what you want? Really?” It’s a balancing act of superb perception.
Getting older, I tend to notice that the face I encounter each day in the mirror is looking more and more like my father's. I see this with amusement - since I spent quite large portions of my youth saying I would never, ever be anything remotely like my parents. Yet here I am. Their DNA is now mine, suitably mixed, and I even have some of their mannerisms. So, if that's the case, who am I as an individual? Am I an individual at all? If I look like my parents then what's to stop me thinking like them, being like them, despite the surface differences I cling to?
Our age is obsessed with the idea that we're all unique - and so we are - but we are also very clearly linked to those who came before us. How would it be if we stopped trying to be people who aren't like the rest, and started accepting that we're not as special as we think? How would it be if we stopped saying, "How can I make my mark on the world?" and started saying, "How can I continue the good work that generations before me have done?"
There's much more to travel than simply arriving - although with our air-conditioned cars and our earbuds we tend to block out the physicality of moving from place to place. That can be a sad loss in our awareness and in our ability to communicate about who we are.