Sunday, December 27, 2009

I have mentioned at least once before that I had recently read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I should have said that “I was almost finished reading it,” as I lacked about five pages to completion. Last night I finished it. The last page this time.

I find the book to be profound, especially in my great interest of the process of leaving the Church. I don’t say this regarding my own journey, but my frustration with the youth that flood out the back doors of the Church with the first chance that they get. I’ve quoted the odds elsewhere . . . I think it is well over 80% who leave.

My frustration is that I believe that we as Christians do our best, unintentionally, to drive them away.

This topic is close to my heart for several reasons. For one, I have two sons who are seriously considering (or consider themselves as having left) the Church (out of five children). One is sitting across the table here at Starbucks as I type this. I’m not worried as I still a Reformed thinker at heart and I trust that they will need to find God on their own terms. But they would be the first to say that there reason for leaving is the farce factors, which they were faced with in the various youth groups there were part of. I’m not saying that I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m sure I’ve failed as a father in many ways. One way was insisting that they attend these youth groups. I could add a lot of commentary at this juncture but that was not the point of this posting.

My point is the book. If I were a youth leader, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man would be required reading. Now you know why I could never make it as a youth leader (although I’ve tried) because just about every church in the country would throw me out the door on my ears for reading such a book at church. Not only is it written by a heathen, James Joyce, but it has the devil’s words in it, like “damn,” “hell,” and “deflowering a virgin.”

But this book deals with the concept of leaving the Church in such a deep visceral sense, that it would be a masterful way of dealing with the issue within the framework of a youth group. Of course, the other obstacle is that we have dumbed down our youth to the extent that they could never read Joyce, not without some re-conditioning that would a kin what happened in the book To Sir with Love (by E. R. Braithwaite). The youth groups today could watch endless football games on the big screen or watch a movie like “Transformers” and analyze if it was good or bad based on if it used swear words.

But to think philosophically would require some real discipline. Tiptoeing around the edge of another tangent I will add that I had to step down from a large youth ministry just a few months ago (as a board member) because I was disillusioned for the same reason. The major focus of interest of the group, and group leader, was caged fighting. Should I say more? There was absolutely no intellectual depth nor did they desire any.

But as a review, the book is about the life of Stephen, who is Joyce’s own alter ego. Stephen was brought up as a strict Catholic in N. Ireland. His family was poor but devoted to the Pope. They sent him off to the best Catholic schools. While still a teenager, and the story is too long to tell here, he ends up “renting” the services of a whore in Dublin.

He had guilt to start with. Then he heard a priest back at school preach a fiery sermon about sin and the consequences of sin . . . the fires of hell.

Stephen starts down this road of penitence. He tries and tries to remove the horrible guilt that continues to haunt him . . . to no avail. His subsistence penitence is misinterpreted by the monks and priest as simple devotion to God. He is asked, as the most devoted student in his class, to make the oath of becoming a monk in the Jesuit order.

To make another long story short, this forces his hand. Does he spend the rest of his life in this same, self-imposed misery of trying to win back God’s pleasure, or does he follow the call of his creative heart? He knew that the only way he could express his creativity (as a writer and poet) was to be willing to venture outside the mores of the Church and his Irish culture.

His friend, Cranly, acts as his priest-type (the one whom Stephen confesses his sins to) and guide. Cranly tries to the best of his ability to persuade Stephen to stay with the Church. He too is an artist but his art is not serious enough to him to threaten his allegiance to the mores of the Church. At this point, you can almost see, word for word, the discussion that plays out in the minds of our present day youth even though this book was written in 1904.

Cranly gives the reason for Stephen staying in the Church as,

1) People in the Church are more happy,

2) Leaving the Church would hurt his dear mother,

3) If his problem is simply that he doesn’t believe anything in the Christian narrative, then that is no big deal. Most of the people in the Church don’t believe it but just go through the motions of believing it to keep their local culture (family, friends, local church) peaceful . . . not causing any trouble in other words.

This would be a fantastic discussion to have over several weeks with our youth. But I got replaced in our present church’s youth group for letting them watch an episode of “Lost.”

How deep of a topic could be opened if you asked the youth group, with great candor, would their parents prefer that they, A) remain very active in the church, singing in the choir, leading Sunday school for the kids, etc, but not believing a word of it or B) believing the Bible completely, but not being involved with any organized church? I honestly believe that many Evangelicals would prefer “A” as long as their sons or daughters would never, ever bring up the fact that they don’t really believe anymore.

What would I do? Oh, I would much prefer to have these deep, honest discussions . . . that can be very messy . . . about evil in the world, is homosexuality a sin and how can we know that God is really there and them never darken the door of a church, than have them attend faithfully but never talking about their doubts. But that’s just me.

I was but a flat stone to Joyce’s book . . . skipping across the surface with only a millimeter penetration. I have a hard time reading Joyce, maybe because I’m not so bright myself, just one evolutionary mutation above the caged fighting. But I did do much better with this novel than Ulysses. I predict though, for every time I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man I would discover a deeper and more meaningful layer.

A couple of more points, neither which are related. One is that my daughter (20) and I climbed a small mountain yesterday. I’m very proud of her and how she thinks and takes on the world and her Christian faith. She was hurt as she spent time at one of her friends, evangelical, parents on Christmas Eve. The friend’s mom had noticed that Amy had a new ear piercing higher on her ear’s pinna. The lady told her how disappointed she was and how Amy may not be as good of a girl as she though. This is pure nuts. An alien from another planet would quickly realize how stupid we are to consider that a ear piercing in once place is good and three centimeters higher suggest that you have links with the Satanic world of influence.

My last footnote is that I got my second rejection letter from a literary agent regarding my manuscript, Butterflies in the Belfry, Serpents in the Cellar. If you have been there, you will know that it is difficult to know when to pull the plug on an effort and when to press on. I think this time around I will try at least ten agents before I give up. Most successful writers try at least than many.

The last footnote is that I just learned that I may be within an hour or two of being a grandfather . . .for the first time. Bryan’s wife, Renee just went into the hospital, a week and a half over due.

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