GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough; 5
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: 10
Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89). Poems. 1918.
As a former English professor, I had the privilege of getting to know God better through the imaginative use of language, exemplified so well by Hopkins in the poem above. He teaches me to value contrasts and differences in nature, to see beauty in the tame and the wild, to see God behind it all.
My good dead friend, George MacDonald wrote, “But God sits in that chamber of our being in which the candle of our consciousness goes out in darkness, and sends forth from thence wonderful gifts into the light of that understanding which is His candle” (“The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture”, 1867). We can look for God’s truth through human art because humans are made in God’s image, including God’s creativity.
I found a truth about trauma and forgiveness in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, how impossible it is for an enslaved self to forgive, and how necessary it is to forgive oneself. I learned that writing a novel can be the novelist’s struggle toward forgiveness from Anthony Burgess and his A Clockwork Orange. I learned it from the 21st chapter, the one omitted from the first American edition by his editors.
I learned about how it is possible to hate slavery and still be racist from Beloved and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I learned that no one ever really knows the whole truth about another human being from A.S. Byatt in Possession. I learned that God’s grace may come via a lunatic trying to choke a good middle-class woman in “Revelation” by Flannery O’Connor. She also had something to say about being grateful for the body we inhabit in “The Temple of the Holy Ghost.”
I learned from Oliver Sacks that quirks in the way the brain functions can open new windows into what it means to be human in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He also taught me that healing might be way more painful than losing a part of oneself in A Leg to Stand On.
C. S. Lewis in The Silver Chair taught me that God oversees all, even when we bungle every instruction, and, in The Last Battle, that it is possible to dwell in Paradise and think it a smelly stable if one prefers certainty to faith. In Till We Have Faces, he taught me that we must not feed our own need for love at the expense of another human being, and that each human will have her own day of judgment and redemption with God. George MacDonald in Lilith taught me that what I clasp tightly to myself is lethal, and that I must give it to God, even if I have to lose my hand to do so. He taught me to believe that God is better than I can even imagine and that simple obedience is the place to start knowing God.
George MacDonald also taught me that human art is a form of communication, and like all communication is composed of fragments that we must work with in order to experience anything like understanding. We treat it with respect because behind it is a human being who is saying something, and who, like us, is made in the image of God.