What Is Real Life--Really?
By Audrey Stallsmith
"Being on the tightrope is living," Karl Wallenda once said. "Everything else is waiting." Unfortunately he's not the only person who considers "real life" to be synonymous with "boring!"
Those types only endure the everyday, supported by occasional thrills and the vague expectation that something better is going to show up eventually. But most of us never get that surprise inheritance from a rich uncle--so popular in novels. Just occasionally, however, a shaft of glory reminds us that we don't need that uncle when we have God for our Father.
The truth is, of course, that we are surrounded by marvels every day of our lives. The idea that a dead brown seed could suddenly sprout roots and life is--on the face of it--preposterous. But so is the idea that a miniscule "seed" in a woman's womb could turn into a pudgy and squalling baby.
Real life can be fascinating, once you forget what you think you already know about it. Especially once you fully comprehend that real life will be the determining factor for where you spend eternity. Suddenly it acquires a larger element of danger than all the movie thrillers that ever kept you quivering on the edge of your seat.
"We are to regard existence," G. K. Chesterton writes, "as a raid or great adventure; it is to be judged, therefore, not by what calamities it encounters, but by what flag it follows and what high town it assaults. The most dangerous thing in the world is to be alive; one is always in danger of one's life. But anyone who shrinks from that is a traitor to the great scheme and experiment of being."
The real life that seems so dull to us is--in reality--strewn with pitfalls and danger. Every day we are stumbling over unseen angels or demons, engaging in a life or death struggle for our souls and those of others. And every battle won or lost inches us closer to ultimate victory or defeat.
"Good and evil," Lewis warns us in Mere Christianity, "both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance. The smallest good act today is the capture of a strategic point from which, a few months later, you may be able to go on to victories you never dreamed of. An apparently trivial indulgence in lust or anger today is the loss of a ridge or railway line or bridgehead from which the enemy may launch an attack otherwise impossible."
It can seem an infinitely slow process at times. "It may be hard," Lewis admits, using a different metaphor, "for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."
Of course, evil attempts to distract us from the importance of our daily decisions. One of the demons in Lewis's The Screwtape Letters advises another that "Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it 'real life' and don't let him ask what he means by 'real. . .' they [humans] find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things."
Fortunately for us humans, the demons have to contend with our vague recollection of where and Who we came from. As Chesterton reminds us in Orthodoxy, " All that we call spirit and art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forgot."
This causes atheists to have their doubts also. As Lewis, who once was one, could report in Christian Reflections, "The atheist too has his moments of shuddering misgiving, of an all but irresistible suspicion that old tales may after all be true, that something or someone from outside may at any moment break into his neat, explicable, mechanical universe."
The truth is, of course, that none of this is either neat or explicable. Take my hardy hibiscus plant, which stands taller than me, has 20 or so stalks and can produce as many dinner-plate sized flowers at a time. I know that it came from a dry brown seed smaller than a pea. But, when I look from a similar seed to that plant, the whole thing still smacks of magic!
Not to mention that a bird, by simply sitting on some larger hard round things for an established number of days, can turn them into baby birds. Humans, of course, spring from even smaller beginnings and are even more endlessly fascinating. "It is in our own daily life," Chesterton notes in Charles Dickens, "that we are to look for the portents and the prodigies.'
After all, every day we run across characters stranger than those in Dickens! At what should have been a boring baby shower the other afternoon, I was watching a woman who appeared as bony as if she'd dropped in from drought-stricken Somalia. But my sister informed me that she had looked like that for years. I could only ask myself, "Why? What glitch in her history or personality has made her that way?"
As a novelist, I can entertain myself for hours with these sorts of questions. And, as a quiet, background sort of person, I've had have plenty of opportunity to study people. I've long since concluded that we are definitely weird--all of us! But each person is off-center in a different way than the next. So, while a character's conversation may be boring, that person--him or herself-- can't be. As C. S. Lewis put it in The Weight of Glory, "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal."
In A Jane Austen Education, William Deresiewicz points out that Austen's genius was recognizing the importance of the everyday. With the possible exception of Mr. Darcy, most of her heroes and heroines were not the larger-than-life or phenomenally attractive characters so popular with modern romance authors.
"Austen was not against romance," Deresiewicz notes. "She was against romantic mythology." For her, "the key to happiness was letting life surprise you." In other words, she didn't think fictional life any more interesting than the real kind!
After all, in what novel have the stakes ever been as high as they are in real life? Austen's protagonists knew the importance of their moral struggles, which is something that more blasé modern characters seem to miss altogether. Protagonist literally means "first combatant," and that is what we all are in the fight for our eternal lives.
Too many modern theologians and geneticists want to postulate that everything is already decided, that our so-called "choices" are actually inevitable. But scripture makes it clear that is just wishful thinking on their parts, and that we won't "take" the kingdom of heaven without a violent and determined struggle.
I recently read that extremely popular novel The Shack and had some major objections to it. It didn't particularly bother me that God the Father was portrayed as a black woman, since He--being a spirit--has no sex nor race. So any image of Him can only be symbolic. I suspect this image was chosen because black women are often stereotyped as being more forgiving, emotional, and loving than white women. And I can see why the author, having been abused as a child, would crave a wholly reassuring God.
But the novel completely ignores some portions of scripture--in, for example, its assertion that God has never been disappointed in His children. Which directly contradicts most of the Old Testament!
Whether or not the author meant it that way, the book struck me as an effort to "tone down" God.
Emphasizing, as it did, what might be called the "feminine" elements of forgiveness and mercy over the "masculine" ones of justice and punishment. I'm using quotes here, because I don't think those elements are actually specific to either sex. Most mothers are actually very good at doling out justice--and sometimes more inclined to do so than fathers are!
Perhaps the author of The Shack wanted to assure us that everything is going to be all right for us in the end. But, since that depends on our choices, it's something we can't know for sure until we reach heaven.
As my pastor pointed out this week, nobody is safe. Some of the most holy men in the Bible made disastrous blunders in their old age. And some of the nastiest "squeaked under the wire" by repenting at the last minute. But would we really want to do without what Chesterton calls in A Miscellaney of Men "spiritual liberty and danger. . .a doubtful and romantic future in which all things may happen?"
When we accept Christ, after all, we are accepting the Lion along with the Lamb, the Old Testament God along with the New. And finally returning, with a jolt of both awe and familiarity, to the One who made us in the first place.
Faith means believing our Creator loves us and has our best interests at heart, even when it doesn't seem that way. Like all good parents, after all, God sometimes has to contradict us and point out the error of our ways. Perhaps even have an angel stand in our way with a drawn sword, as he did with Balaam!
So we often try to get around Him, by making Him over into a god who approves of everything we want to do. As He asks angrily in Isaiah 44:10, "Who but a fool would make his own god. . .that can help him not one whit!" No, the tame deity we dream up for ourselves--being constructed of very thin air--soon proves to be entirely ineffective. So we had better learn to deal with the real One, even when He seems to be fighting us every step of the way.
Our freedom may be scary, but it is ours--whether we want it or not. And the real God can be frightening at times too. But He is even more fascinating than the real life He created, simply because we can't understand or control Him.
Even Balaam's donkey knew that it is folly to keep on in the way that God doesn't want you to go. But we half-witted humans will persist in doing it. And, because He loves us, our heavenly Parent will do whatever He can to save us. So--as Jacob who wrestled with Him can testify--things may get brutal at times.
"If any message from the core of reality ever were to reach us," Lewis says in The Problem of Pain, "we should expect to find in it just that unexpectedness. . .which we find in the Christian faith. . .the rough, male taste of reality, not made by us, or, indeed, for us, but hitting us in the face."