February 11, 2018
Of William Faulkner's stories, maybe my favorite is As I Lay Dying. It is about a family of dirt-poor Mississippi country people named Bundren. “Poor White Trash,” is what people called them. Addie Bundren dies. Her husband, Anse, is lazy and not smart. They have five children: Carl, Darl, Dewey Dell, who is seventeen and pregnant, Vardaman, and Jewel, who unknown to Anse is actually Rev. Whitefield's son. Before Addie dies, she makes Anse promise he will bury her in Jefferson, her hometown on the other side of the river.
The story is tragic and comic. The Bundrens lay Addie in a coffin that Cash built, load her on a wagon and set out for Jefferson across the river. But it has been raining for days. The rising river washes out the bridge. Anse lacks the good sense not to try to ford a flooding river. The wagon tumps over midstream; the mules drown; Cash breaks his leg; they nearly lose Addie's body downstream. It now takes eight days to get to Jefferson. There is a bad smell from the coffin. Buzzards follow it and try to steal the body. Faulkner makes us laugh––and feel guilty for it.
Faulkner's people: Addie, Anse and the rest live in a realm of Faulkner's making. They and their world are his creation. They are made in his own image.
They cannot see or sense William Faulkner, their creator. Darl, who is a thinker, might guess that they live in a world of someone else's making: a world of fire, flood, and great misfortune.
Within Faulkner's world (which they do not know as Faulkner's world, but as the universe, they take for granted) they have their lives to live. They make decisions and reap the benefits or, more often, pay the consequences. Their author gave them freedom of will. If someone in the story were to suggest that they were all the creation of a greater mind they would wonder what he meant. What evidence was there of this greater mind’s existence?
If, after they dragged themselves exhausted and half dead out of the swollen river, Cash speechless for pain, as Buzzards circled overhead and dead mules washed on down towards the Gulf of Mexico, they were to stop and shake their fist at the grey skies, demanding to know why their lives were so wretched, and what kind of author would have prepared such pain and indignity for the works of His own hand, they would have received no answer.
If they became religious and prayed to their Creator, for guidance, strength, and help to meet the trials ahead, who knows whether they would receive any nudging that they could discern from their author's hands. And yet every move they made, every step they took, every place they saw, every moment they lived, was a move in Him, a step with him, a place of his making prepared for them, a moment alive in His hands. In Him, they live and move and have their being.
They could not know except by faith that he loved them. They could not know except by faith that he helped them. They could not know except by faith that he forgave them, again and again, their ignorance and sin against each other and against him. Of course, only God and William Faulkner know if William Faulkner would have been worthy of such a faith.
But suppose that he, the author, did love his world. Suppose he decided to enter the world of his making by writing himself into the story. Perhaps he would appear one day from out of a burning bush to Darl or Dewey Dell and say “I am Faulkner. I made you.”
Better yet, suppose he wrote himself apart as a man in his own world: Addie's son, but no father. The neighbors could suspect Rev. Whitefield if they would. But a son was born and grew up good and strong. He loved the people: ignorant and stupid and mean as they sometimes were, he loved them because he made them and they were his. He taught them about the author. He showed them how to live. They loved him but sometimes hated him for it too.
Suppose he kept for himself his author's power. He could write new sight for the blind. He could speak to Addie in Her box and say “Come Out:” and out she came. Call it poetic license.
Suppose that one day this son took Darl and Cash and Jewel and went to Arkansas to the mountains to commune with the author himself: Faulkner the creature calling upon Faulkner the Creator. And suddenly as he prayed:
The appearance of his countenance was altered, and his raiment became dazzling white.
And the three boys were sleepy but stayed up, and saw their brother transfigured. And a dark cloud moved in and surrounded them and they were terrified, and a voice from the cloud spoke:
“This is my son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”
When we can suppose like this, we are thinking like Christians. And we can now suppose that we are indeed living in a story written by someone else. If we searched all over our world, to the depths of the earth and the farthest reaches of the universe, we would see him nowhere but find him everywhere: not only in the fresh green grass on bluebird days, but also in the shadows and rocky barren places, and in the wind and the rain—both the darkness and the light.
And then we can infer that while we here are only a few characters in a cast of billions, and there is no telling whether our role is central or peripheral to the plot, we are important to the author who is involved in every detail and personally calls us each by name.
And maybe we can understand how, from our present point of view, there will naturally be a wide variance in opinion about the author: who he is, what he (or she) has in mind and what’s in store for us. Maybe we can understand in some moments why some are inclined to question the author’s existence, or at least his (or her) motives in writing a story in which things so often happen in such dreadful and confusing ways.
Then again, in other moments perhaps we catch a vision of the grand sweep of things. Or just notice how little pieces come together. The story as a whole may fill our hearts with all its joy and sorrow and we know that that it is good. We become believers.
Whether we right now consider ourselves true or tentative believers or just honest seekers, maybe we can now grasp the significance of St. Paul’s words: “Now we see as through a glass darkly, only then, face to face.” From where we stand, within the author's world, we cannot know his mind. All the things we sometimes want to know about why, when, or what will happen next and even to some extent what we are supposed to do today, this very afternoon, have their perfect and infallible answers in a world which is for the moment just a little out of reach.
At the same time, the truth that the author has involved himself with our story even to the point of becoming a creature himself means that we will never be totally in the dark. That we can count on.
Paul, who had an unusual encounter with the author on a country road, could claim to know a great deal about what the author has in Mind, but he did not claim to know it all or to have a perfect grasp of any of it. These are his inspired words in scripture:
Now our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect.
Until the perfect comes, until our knowledge is complete, until we see with our own eyes face to face, there is only one perfect thing. When we have it we have the spirit of the author Himself.
The perfect thing is patient and kind, not irritable, resentful, boastful or rude. It does not insist on its own way. It believes, bears, endures and hopes in all things.
We can, by reason of our faith in Christ, walk in this uncertain life sure of two things. The first is that our lives are part of a great story that has a beginning, a meaning, and no end. Its deepest mystery is the love of the author for the creatures of his own imagination, with whom he chose to dwell.
The other is that when we are lost and do not know which way to turn, there is a compass which unfailingly points the way the writer of this story would have us choose to go. Its name is love, and it “faileth, never.”