Friday 23 April 2010

Irresistible Grace: 'Brideshead Revisited' revisited

This post has been written by Greg Thiele, an Associate of CASE and a regular contributor to the CASE blog

In 1945, English comic novelist Evelyn Waugh completed what was to become his most successful and popular work: Brideshead Revisited. Waugh, a Catholic, indicated that the theme of the novel was “the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters”. 

(It should be noted in passing that the Catholic understanding of grace differs – significantly, at points – from the evangelical one. There is not scope here to consider such differences; but in any case, the essential notion of grace – God’s free, unmerited favour and blessing – seems to be at work in the novel in a way that most evangelical Christians would recognise.) 

The novel describes the dealings of the main character, Charles Ryder, with the aristocratic Flyte family.  Ryder, a disillusioned WWII army captain, finds himself unexpectedly back at Brideshead, the Flyte family’s stately home, where, in flashback, much of the action of the novel takes place. He recounts his friendship, at Oxford, with the troubled younger son, Sebastian, and his relationship with other members of the family, including his eventual romance with Julia, the beautiful elder daughter.

The young Charles is an agnostic, dismissive of the “narrative” of the Christian faith, and finds the Catholicism of the Flytes incomprehensible. The Flytes themselves represent a wide range of levels of faith and piety. The paterfamilias, Lord Marchmain, had effectively been forced to convert to Catholicism in order to marry Teresa (Lady Marchmain). When we first meet Lord Marchmain, we find him estranged from his wife and living openly with a courtesan in Venice, with a deep hostility towards both his adopted faith and his spouse. Lady Marchmain, on the other hand, is “popularly believed to be a saint”. The elder son, also named Brideshead, and the younger daughter, Cordelia, reflect their mother’s faith. The other son and daughter, Sebastian and Julia, physically alike, are similar also in their problematic relationship with the family religion.

As Charles’s friendship with Sebastian develops, we find the latter sinking into alcoholism and depression: a result, it seems, of his inability to deal with the demands and expectations of his family – especially those of his mother – exacerbated by issues of personality and character. For Charles, the magical world of wealth and privilege which he had entered through his friendship with Sebastian evaporates when he is dismissed by Lady Marchmain, due to having given Sebastian money to support his drinking habit. “Henceforth”, decides the young Charles on leaving Brideshead for what he assumes will be the last time, “I live in a world of three dimensions - with the aid of my five senses”. The older Charles, the narrator, ironically affirms that he has subsequently learned that “there is no such world”.

Ten years pass. Charles is married, though estranged from his adulterous wife. It is thus that he meets, for the first time in many years, Julia, who by now thoroughly regrets her own foolish, early marriage to the absurd Rex Mottram – a self-made man and politician who is the butt of a good deal of the novel’s humour. Julia’s marrying Rex had entailed her officially rejecting her religion, due to his having already been married and divorced. Charles and Julia embark on an affair, and in due course find themselves living together at Brideshead.
The novel’s climactic episode involves the return of Lord Marchmain to Brideshead, and his eventual death (Lady Marchmain having died several years earlier). In scenes of heightening tension, watching her father die, Julia gradually comes to see that she cannot continue to live her life in rebellion against God: trying to “set up a rival good to God’s”, as she later puts it. Kneeling at the foot of her father’s bed, she prays that he will give a sign that he repents and accepts God’s forgiveness.

A priest is in attendance to administer the last rites – the same priest whom Lord Marchmain had some weeks earlier sent packing. Charles challenges the priest: “Father Mackay,” I said. “You know how Lord Marchmain greeted you last time you came; do you think it possible he can have changed now?” Father Mackay responds:”Thank God, by his grace it is possible.”

It is while witnessing Julia’s anguish that Charles begins to sense in himself the need to receive the same grace and forgiveness for which she is praying on her father’s behalf. Almost in spite of himself, he kneels behind the woman he loves, and prays the simple prayer:”O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin“. In a scene of extraordinary power and pathos, Julia’s prayer (and, we may assume, Charles’s) is answered.

Father Mackay’s parting words to Charles are illuminating: “I’ve known it happen that way again and again. The devil resists to the last moment and then the Grace of God is too much for him”.

Lord Marchmain dies, and Charles and Julia part forever.

Back in the present (“one grey morning of war-time”), his reverie past, Charles pays a visit to the small chapel on the Brideshead estate. There he prays (“an ancient, newly-learned form of words”), and begins to understand the purpose of the “fierce little human tragedy” in which he had played a part. The Holy Spirit is like the wind, blowing “wherever it pleases” (John 3:8) – and God’s grace will manifest itself in the most unexpected ways and situations.

At one point in the novel, Lady Marchmain reads from one of G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories, which speaks of God’s kindness and mercy in holding on to those who wander away from him: “I caught him (the thief) with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread”. Such is God’s irresistible grace. For those of us whom God has called, but who at various times in our lives have wandered far from him, such a thought - the essential message of Brideshead Revisited - is immensely comforting.

Saturday 17 April 2010

Christian Perspectives on the End of Life: Talks available NOW

As outlined in a previous post ('Dying Well') CASE hosted its second medical ethics conference on the 27th March 2010 titled 'Christian Perspectives on the End of Life'. It was a follow on from our first medical ethics conference in 2009, 'Medical Ethics: Perspectives on Life and Death'. The speakers were Rev Rod Benson, Dr Russell Clark, Dr Megan Best, Kate Bradford and Dr Frank Brennan.

The talks in MP3 audio file format are available free from the CASE website (links below).

Rev Rod Benson an ethicist and public theologian spoke from the Bible on a 'Biblical View of Death'

Dr Russell Clarke a geriatrician provided a medical perspective on what it means to age in his talk 'Attitudes to Ageing: Biological and Biblical Insights'.

Dr Megan Best a bioethecist and palliative care doctor spoke on 'The Ethical Dilemmas of Euthanasia'.

Kate Bradford (a former CMS missionary in Tanzania) and Anglican Chaplain at the Westmead Children's Hospital spoke on 'What Can We Say? Sharing Christian Faith With People Facing End of Life Issues.'

Dr Frank Brennan, a Palliative Care Physician spoke about 'The Ethical Challenges of Palliative Care'.

Dr Megan Best also presented a talk on the newer issue of 'Advanced Directives'.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).

Related Posts
& Resources

If you'd like to link to the site all six talks can be found here.

Talks by Dr John Wyatt at the 2009 New College Lectures titled ‘Bioethics and Future Hope’ (here)

Previous post on ‘Matters of Life and Death’ (here)

Other resources on medical ethics on the CASE website (here)

Case magazine on the theme 'Living and Dying Ethically' (here)

Sunday 11 April 2010

God Beyond Borders

The latest edition of Case magazine will be in mailboxes for subscribers in the next week. As Editor of the magazine I'm pleased with the edition, which challenges us to think biblically about our relationship to a world that is changing rapidly.

Global citizenship

We are witnessing massive recent changes in technology, nations and communities are becoming more culturally and linguistically diverse (while sadly many indigenous languages are being lost), there are constant changes in nation states, and we see shifting global wealth and power. I suggest in my introduction to the next edition that:
Increased human mobility and dramatic transformations in communication technology have helped to create a growing sense that people can no longer restrict their citizenship to the town, region or even nation. The impact of globalisation means that even if we never venture beyond the borders of our birthplace, the world will increasingly find its way to our doors. This is an age in which the traditional limitations on citizenship and responsibility to others are being questioned. There is a growing recognition of our status as global citizens, and of the new challenges and opportunities this brings.
In a week where the Australian government has been reacting to an increase in the flow of refugees seeking asylum in Australia (particularly from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka) by making it harder for them to gain asylum, it is a timely issue. This is just one aspect of globalisation that we need to consider. How do Christians think through issues like immigration and the increase in people seeking asylum?

The writers and their topics

Our writers bring a range of theological and disciplinary approaches to bear on the problems of life and the overlapping of local, global, national, and international spheres. How do we make sense of the various spheres of our lives and our world? What are the ethical issues created by the interrelation of these spheres? What new historical conditions has globalisation brought about, and what is (or has been) the relationship of Christianity to these conditions? In what sense can (or should) Christian community, identity, truth, action and love flow beyond and over borders? To help us reflect on these issues we have invited a varied group of thinkers to reflect on the issues.

Stanley Hauerwas explores the tension between universalism and particularism, and the way this impacts on how Christians see and engage with the world. He argues that the Christian experience of Pentecost where people learnt to speak as well as understand the language of others, gave the church a resource to sustain its ability to suffer as well as respond to those who suffer. We are people situated in particular linguistic communities, whose humanity depends on our ability and willingness to speak to one another. But the challenge, he reminds us, is living in a world where the linguistic and genetic consistencies never co-exist. While our common humanity and the hope of a future centred on Christ’s kingdom draw us together, our differences drive us apart.

Two major approaches to tolerance are explored by John Shellard (a PhD student at ANU), the group rights approach allows minority groups sufficient autonomy and freedom within state constraints to co-exist peacefully, but limits individual freedoms. The ‘liberal’ approach safeguards individual freedom of conscience and speech within the bounds of conformity to the state, but it can only operate where considerable common ground is shared. Shellard suggests that the challenge for Australia and other countries shaped by this liberal view is how to negotiate peace and individual freedom as that common ground shrinks. Toleration in such contexts will require us to engage as true ‘neighbours’ in the biblical sense that "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Matt 22:39).

Andrew Sloane presents a relational view of love and justice that is used to underpin an imperative for Christians to respond to global poverty. Poverty, he argues is globalised; there can be no innocent bystanders. Globalisation means that we are ‘related’ to the poor in distant places. Drawing on the idea of shalom – the Biblical vision of life in harmony with God and our neighbours – Sloane develops a relational framework that “allows us to affirm our obligations to all in our global system without making those obligations the same.”

Erin Glanville (a PhD student at McMaster University) examines globalisation in the light of the gospel. Rejecting a narrow conception of globalisation which focuses primarily on economic concerns, she draws our attention to its power for good in the connections and interdependence it allows between people and cultures. This globalisation touches every area of human existence, from the social and political, to the judicial, aesthetic, and religious. The latter she argues is almost completely lacking from contemporary considerations of globalisation. But religious faith is not just another factor that sits alongside others; it has a formative and unifying power for those who believe. Such an understanding should move Christians to reconsider their engagement with the world.

In our final article Matthew Tan (who teaches at the Australian Catholic University) considers how the Eucharist changes our conception of time, pointing not just to the past but also to the future. This he suggests should expose and challenge our notions of citizenship and move us to consider new possibilities beyond political states and borders. The Eucharist that speaks of our faith and unity in Christ should push us beyond conceptions of fellow citizens as those bounded by common national borders. The liturgical collapse of “...barriers between past, present and future time renders possible the historical living out of this eschatological life, however imperfectly.”

If you'd like to become a CASE Associate and receive four editions of Case Magazine annually, discounts on CASE events and access to all resources on the CASE website please follow the links.

Photo Credits

The Space Shuttle shot is courtesy of NASA and was taken from Atlantis in 1995. Technology does what was once impossible, we can now gaze upon our world from space.