Friday, February 4, 2011

Affecting Scenes

On Wednesday I posted about a powerful image that has stuck with me from childhood--the idea of "always winter, but never Christmas" from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Thinking about that image and why it's so powerful and evocative reminded me of this quote from G.K. Chesterton's The Everlasting Man about another idea and why it is so powerful (note: for those who don't like to read my long quotations, I've bolded the pertinent portion--consider it the "best parts" version, my gift to you):
The sort of modern critic of whom I speak is generally much impressed with the importance of education in life and the importance of psychology in education. That sort of man is never tired of telling us that first impressions fix character by the law of causation; and he will become quite nervous if a child's visual sense is poisoned by the wrong colours on a golliwog or his nervous system prematurely shaken by a cacophonous rattle. Yet he will think us very narrow-minded, if we say that this is exactly why there really is a difference between being brought up as a Christian and being brought up as a Jew or a Moslem or an atheist. The difference is that every Catholic child has learned from pictures, and even every Protestant child from stories, this incredible combination of contrasted ideas as one of the very first impressions on his mind. It is not merely a theological difference. It is a psychological difference which can outlast any theologies. It really is, as that sort of scientist loves to say about anything, incurable. Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterwards, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savour of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. But the two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined. . . . It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians, because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. . . . There is really a difference between the man who knows it and the man who does not. It may not be a difference of moral worth, . . . but it is a plain fact about the crossing of two particular lights, the conjunction of two stars in our particular horoscope. Omnipotence and impotence, or divinity and infancy, do definitely make a sort of epigram which a million repetitions cannot turn into a platitude. It is not unreasonable to call it unique. Bethlehem is emphatically a place where extremes meet.
Indeed, the Christmas story is one story well told whose images stay with me and are often remembered. Here are some other images, some with commentary, others without, most of which I'll try not to spoil for you if you haven't read them:
  • The onion from The Brothers Karamazov (this is a picture of grace that continually returns to my mind)
  • The epic chase at the end of The Man Who Was Thursday (this confuses me but draws me into the mystery of God)
  • The soup with Tin Lurvy in Peace Like a River (this helps me to remember to be more hospitable)
  • The beginning of Les Miserables, with the bishop (this scene still brings tears to my eyes just remembering it)
  • The grass in The Great Divorce
  • The opening of The Mayor of Casterbridge, where the man sells his wife (this is one of the most disturbing scenes I've read, but it is powerfully described and a scene I remember)
  • Almost any story involving Elijah, but particularly his encounter with the widow from Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 (this story is so powerful to me, and it helps me to remember to be generous)
  • The story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 (this story is so evocative, and it helps me to remember that obedience is more important than logic sometimes)
  • Almost the whole of Don Quixote (which could be why it is my favorite book and why I want to read it over and over again)
There are many more, but these are the ones that come readily to mind.


  1. "And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."

  2. The bishop from Les Mis brought me to tears, too. I think about him every day.