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Homer, Lolita and hope in the darkness


WORLD Radio - Homer, Lolita and hope in the darkness

We join professor, author, and pastor Dr. Jim Hamilton to talk about the transformative power of stories—even stories we might not expect. How can stories show us hope in the darkness?

KELSEY REED: Hello, and welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. At Concurrently, we approach the news through a discipleship perspective. We tackle the challenging topics in culture and current events as learners and fellow laborers with parents, educators, and mentors of kids and teens. We consider the whole person, promoting growth in knowledge, attitudes, and action in the world. And we welcome you to join the conversation. I’m here with Jonathan Boes. Jonathan and I love to hear from you. Please send in your questions or comments by way of a voice recording or email to newscoach@wng.org.

JONATHAN BOES: So here at Concurrently, if you’ve been following us, you know that we often come back to this idea that, what we hear in the news, it’s not just facts. These are stories. They’re stories of people, places, events. And as Christians, we know that all of these smaller stories are actually part of a bigger story, that we’re not just sitting in this string of random events spiraling towards some sort of chaos. We’re actually in the midst of a history-spanning story authored by God. And we refer to this as the Redemptive Narrative. We’ve devoted space to this idea on our podcast and on our blog, and today we are returning to the topic of story. And we are so excited to be joined by our guest, Dr. Jim Hamilton.

KELSEY: James M. Hamilton, Jr., is Professor of Biblical Theology at Southern Seminary and Senior Pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church at Victory Memorial, both in Louisville, Kentucky, where he lives with his wife and their five children. In addition to his biblical theology, God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment, Jim has written Typology—Understanding the Bible’s Promise-Shaped Patterns, and his most recent commentary is the two-volume work on Psalms in the EBTC series. With Alex Duke and Sam Emadi, Jim is part of the BibleTalk podcast team. We’re thankful to have you on the program. Welcome.

DR. JIM HAMILTON: Thanks. Glad to be here.

KELSEY: So Jim, we pursued a conversation with you today because your thinking was reflected in an article my dad recently shared with me, “The Story Is Greater Than the Darkness: Storytelling and the Light of the Gospel,” which we will link in our show notes so that you can follow along, listener. We deeply resonate with the conclusion. The challenge for Christians today is not merely to read literature, lest they mindlessly devour books, but to embrace them with a spirit of childlike wonder, captivated by the beauty of grace and hope of ultimate victory. So we want to dive into this intentional engagement of story, technology, and media, even as we’ve begun our year that way, at Concurrently. Our first episode of the year, in case you don’t know about it, was actually on AI and how it is transforming culture. So we want to be really intentional to think about, how do we engage the culture of the day? And some of that has been through carefully looking back at practices over the course of January’s recordings. What are these practices of liturgy and literacy that we need to keep in mind? And so today, we’re so thankful that we get to look at the importance of mindfully engaging story with you. So to start off, I just would love to hear—I heard you were an English major. So how has that played into your theological studies and expression and just your role as a pastor?

DR. HAMILTON: Yeah, thanks for that. So great question. So I think when I was in college, I was groping for the truth. I was trying to find truth. I was a believer, but I hadn’t really grown up in a church tradition that was strong on either expository preaching or conveying systematic, theological kinds of ideas. They were conservative. They proclaimed the gospel. But they hadn’t really built up my worldview from the Bible and from the historic Christian faith in terms of its systematic theology. So as I read these novels, I was really trying to figure out how life works. And interestingly, there’s a literary critic who has basically said that, in Western culture, as the Bible and Christianity have been eclipsed, people have turned more and more to the literary canon to try to find direction for life and to try to find meaning and significance and purpose, and it’s almost as though literature replaces the Bible in terms of people’s imagination and worldview formation. So for me, this is what I was trying to find in literature, and approaching these books as stories with good teachers was almost like having these good teachers doing expository preaching of these novels. And it made it so that, when I finally was exposed to expository preaching, my ears perked up. And I was really interested in learning and understanding the Bible in the ways that my best teachers had explained the works of great literature and, in my own life and career, my studies, and in teaching, that’s really what I’m trying to do, is help people to understand the meaning of the Bible in the terms of the worldview story assumed by the biblical authors themselves.

KELSEY: I know that my first love was literature. I have to admit, my first love was not necessarily biblical literature, although when my dad, who was also a pastor [when I was] growing up, when he would preach, that made the story come alive for me, that was in scripture. So I resonate deeply with what you’re saying, and learning about humanity through the canon, the literary canon, and then recognizing that we, as believers, or even as any man, that the way that we truly know ourselves is when we look long into scripture and see the way that the Lord tells us who we are, and how we balance that with our stories that we tell about ourselves. So I resonate with that so very deeply. So tell me a little bit more about how not just the theological studies made the word come alive, as you saw story and saw genres, even—I’m recognizing you naming the genres. But now, how does that work out in practice as a pastor, and even as a father?

DR. HAMILTON: Yes, great question. So I think that all of the biblical authors had a common worldview. And a worldview consists of an overarching master narrative, or metanarrative—a story of how the world began, what’s gone wrong, what God’s going to do to fix it, and how everything’s going to culminate. And I’m convinced that, in the way the biblical authors tell the story, they also mean for their audiences to derive other kinds of information, like systematic theological truths, doctrines, dogmas, these kinds of things. They also mean to communicate how things in general are supposed to work. So, you know, a great example of this is Genesis 2, where we’re told the story of the man, of God making the man and the woman, bringing the woman to the man, and the man has this poetic, excellent exclamation. And then the narrative says, “Therefore, a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” And that “therefore” is exactly the way that the master story functions to deliver both doctrinal kinds of truths—“this is what marriage looks like”—and then moral behavior, ethical kinds of standards—“this is what a man and a woman shall do.” So the way that truth and moral standard and even, you know, values, and these sorts of things are derived from the narrative—I think this is the way that all the biblical authors intend the story to operate. And then, building on that, I think it’s demonstrable that later biblical authors, say someone like Isaiah or David or even John and Paul in the New Testament—I think they’re learning their worldview from Moses. And they intentionally mean to plug into the story that began with Moses, even though they don’t say it the way we would say it. So for instance, the Gospel of John begins, “In the beginning was the Word,” and that obviously corresponds to, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” But John doesn’t put it the way that I would put it, if I were teaching it. You know, I would say something like, “Now John wants to plug his gospel into the story that began with Moses.” Well, that’s not what John does. He shows, as it were, as he tells, and he doesn’t explain in the way that, say, an expositor or theologian would explain. He’s just expecting people to see the quotation, and then derive a conclusion from the allusion to Genesis 1.

KELSEY: So they have to be comfortable with story. There’s a presupposition that they’re familiar with the way that a story unfolds. That’s what I’m hearing when you’re telling me, so it’s not just this “let me systematize, let me give you the logic, let me explain my explaining,” and they’re explaining and all of those things. No, it is this—it sounds like it’s more all-consuming than that, in that it’s speaking to not just the mind—there’s this this way that it informs the heart. So I’m hearing all of that in what you’re describing. And I may need you to make sure that my definitions are in place here. But what I’m also hearing is one of those literary devices that is known as typology. Am I hearing already being referenced in what you’re describing?

DR. HAMILTON: Certainly. So, you know, I think a great illustration of this, in terms of literature, is to compare a novel like James Joyce’s Ulysses to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. You know, you drop into Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities, and the story is right there on the surface. And it’s a page turner. It’s easy to follow. It’s a gripping narrative, and you’re just swept along in it. With Ulysses, if you don’t know the Odyssey, you’re hopelessly lost. And you have to pay close attention to the intertextuality at work within the novel of Ulysses itself. He is constantly—James Joyce is constantly repeating things from earlier in the book, and alluding to Homer’s Odyssey in ways that are meant to inform the audience. And something like that is happening with typology in the Bible, as the biblical authors will quote earlier texts. This is one of the key indicators, I think, that we’re dealing with a type. A great example of this is in 1 Kings 13 when, after Rehoboam acts like a fool and the country is split into north and south, and they set up the two golden calves at Dan and Bethel, in the north, in the south, and then they quote Exodus 32, and they say, “These are your gods, O Israel.” And that allusion to that quotation of Exodus 32 is meant by the author of Kings to say to his audience, what they’re doing is an installment in the pattern of events seen at Mount Sinai, when they made the golden calf and they broke the covenant and brought down God’s wrath. And all of that whole sequence is meant to be evoked now in 1 Kings 13, when the author quotes that line from Exodus 32. And if you’re a discerning reader, and you know the Torah as the author of Kings assumes you will, when you see that, you immediately know this is going nowhere good. They are going to provoke the wrath of God, they’re going to bring down the curses of the Covenant, they’re going to be driven into exile, this is not going to lead to a blessing. All of those conclusions are conveyed through the quotation of that earlier material. And the quotation of that earlier material signals to the audience, there’s a pattern of events here that is repeating an earlier pattern. And as these patterns repeat, it’s like they grow in significance. Their significance escalates, though, so those are the two features of typology: historical correspondence, same people doing the same thing, you know, building a golden calf and then worshiping it, and attributing Yahweh’s acts to it. And then an escalation in significance. And I think that this particular pattern is going to continue across the Bible until you get really to Revelation 13, and I think we’re symbolically being shown something like the Antichrist. And there’s this beast that’s almost like a fake Christ, with a wounded head that’s healed, and all the world worships the beast. And what they say to the beast is what was said to the Lord and Exodus 15:11. They say, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” So this is like, again, a, quote, an allusion to Exodus 15:11. This meant to draw in all of this earlier story and tell you that you’re reaching the culmination of this pattern of idolatry.

KELSEY: So you’re helping us to already just unpack more of that argument for being well-read. And as you describe what you’re saying about that deep knowledge of scripture, so that you would be acquainted with the typology, with the patterns. I start thinking about Nehemiah, and I think about how, at one point in Israel’s history, they no longer had the Law, they no longer had the record in front of them, and that, when they found it, and when they read it aloud, how they wept over it. And I think of, when we lose a sense of our literacy, when we when we lose that connection, both to the story that forms us in terms of the record of scripture, but also those stories that inform us of who we’ve been throughout history, or that even help to imagine the arc of our certain belief patterns, our certain cultural patterns, our worldviews, as it were, that are most often, I see, worked out in fiction, in novels, in great literature, where we look at just those patterns of what is good? What is broken in man? You know, what does redemption look like or feel like? So there’s a great loss when we lose that connection to, of course, primarily scripture, but also the literature that can go hand-in-hand and help us understand who we are and our desperate need. So we’re reinforcing that argument of the importance for story for priming of the theological imagination. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about just that idea of the theological imagination?

DR. HAMILTON: So I want to give you an illustration from ancient literature. I forget which author relates this, but there’s an ancient Roman author and, you know, often in the Roman world, learned people would know both Latin and Greek. And one of these ancient men made the comment, he said, “My father wanted me to be a good man, and so he had me learn the whole of Homer by heart.” So this is an individual who is claiming that he memorized both the Iliad and the Odyssey. And the reason he did this is because his father wanted him to be a good man. Now, the thing about story is that embedded in the story are all these assumptions about what you should value and what you should regard as noble and righteous and heroic and these kinds of things. And if you know the Bible, and if you embrace the Bible’s values, and then you go compare the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey, I think we would say—well, what they consider righteous and noble and excellent and good is actually really wicked and proud and evil. Because it’s sort of assumed, say, at the beginning of the Iliad, that these warriors can go and take these captive women as sex slaves. And then it’s kind of also assumed that if somehow, you know, Agamemnon has to turn his woman back over, it’s righteous of him to demand the one that belongs to Achilles. And then it’s also assumed that this detriment to Achilles’ honor, it can be righteously avenged by him pouting and not fighting for the Greeks. And so we can sort of explore all this story and expose, really, I think, its wicked premises, and the immorality of these people in their benighted state. You know, they don’t live in the light of the revelation of the scriptures. They don’t live in the light of the revelation of Christ. And yet, with all that said, with all that sort of critique of their values and their worldview, and their morality and so forth, it is still the case that Homer’s breadth of mind and exquisite descriptions are life-altering and heart-opening and glorious to experience. So there’s value in reading Homer, even though we don’t think that learning his stories is going to produce good people. But that’s also useful for us to know that, you know, there was a world, the Greco-Roman world, that thought those actions were righteous, that thought that these stories would lead to people being good. And those kinds of things are helpful for us to be aware of. I think the kind of discernment of differences between worldviews, and then also the kinds of formation that happens—as soon as we imbibe stories, you know, I think of C.S. Lewis saying, at numerous points in The Chronicles of Narnia, when he wants to critique a character, he’ll say something like, “this character hadn’t read any of the right kinds of stories.” You know, so the character hasn’t learned virtue. He hasn’t learned courage. He hasn’t learned that there are things worth more than his own life. And so he’s selfish, and he’s petty, and he puts himself in front of other people, and on and on. We could go like this for a while.

KELSEY: You’re making me think of just not only how we become acquainted with virtue, but in the position we are in, telling the news and telling it to children, there comes this point where we’re going, how do we engage with the bad news? How do we engage with those reports of vice, of brokenness and sin in the world? And so you are painting this picture for us to wrap our minds and even our hearts, our entire systems around—this concept of depravity. And however you might feel about TULIP, this idea of man’s total depravity—the “potential for evil” could be another way that we say it—in humankind, that we acquaint our hearts at appropriate moments. You know, hopefully we give our children a childhood. That is the desire. But they still also need to become deeply acquainted with the brokenness of their own hearts, the potential for brokenness. And so when we read story, when we start with something good, like C.S. Lewis, who acknowledges carefully this selfishness, the egotism of so many of those characters—I’m definitely thinking of Eustace Scrubb, I heard those descriptions there—that we are learning something about our, again, I use this term quite a bit, our desperate need for a Redeemer. So I think this is a great pivot point to ask this question of you to help us understand how everything points to Jesus. And maybe you can name some tools or questions that we could use to pass on to our listeners, as they teach their children, for how they can look at the world with this recognition that everything points to Jesus. Help us understand that.

DR. HAMILTON: So I think that in the Bible story, within the narrative that begins in Genesis and continues through the Old Testament, there’s a logic that is being worked out, that I think Moses believes and understands. And I think Isaiah, particularly in Isaiah 53, he believes and understands this logic, and he’s communicating out of his understanding of this logic. And then Paul really crystallizes it in Romans 5. And what I’m alluding to is the way that, because of what Adam did in the garden—and you know, by the way, this is where, I think, the Christian story, and the story in Genesis of God making an original man and woman is really vital for believing the gospel. Because in this story, the actions of that one man have ramifications for all people, at all times, in all places. And sometimes, you know, people will, I think, misread the Bible, and they’ll suggest, “Well, maybe Adam’s sin hasn’t really affected all people everywhere.” And to that kind of suggestion—which, if you want to read the writings of Peter Enns, you can find him saying those sorts of things—I want to say, well show me some people living in the Garden of Eden, naked and unashamed. And there just aren’t any anywhere on this Earth. Nobody on this Earth is living in an unfallen state, with no fear that they’re going to be somehow misused or treated in a way they don’t want to be treated if they are, you know, totally exposed to the world, as Adam and Eve were innocent and safe in the garden. So I think that, in the logic, Adam’s sin has resulted in all people being alienated from God. And in this story—one of my PhD students, Tom Sculthorpe, has recently written a really good dissertation that demonstrates that where God is the realm of life, and to be out of the presence of God, even if you’re physically alive, in a sense, is to be in the realm of death. So when Adam and Eve are driven out of the garden, it symbolically communicates, in the day they eat of it, they died, because they’re driven out of the realm of life, where God is. And then the question is, what’s going to happen now? Is the creation going to be ruined? Is the project over? And I think that when the Lord begins to speak in Genesis 3:14-19, at that point, I think Adam and Eve are expecting, “We’re going to die.” Genesis 2:17, “and the day you eat of it, you will surely die.” We’ve eaten of it, now we’re going to die. But the Lord tells the serpent in Genesis 3:15, he says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman.” And you know, Romans 10 says, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” And I think the word of God there caused lightbulbs to flash in her mind. And she begins to think—enmity, that sounds like ongoing conflict. So not only am I not going over to the serpent’s side, I’m not dying, because I’m going to have ongoing conflict with him. I’m not going to be on the evil team, and I’m not dying immediately. And then the Lord says, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed”—and now I think we’re thinking things like, oh, not only is the woman not going to die. The man is not going to die, because they can’t have seed unless they have both. So they’re both going to resist evil, and their seed, their offspring, their descendants are somehow going to overcome. And then, as the story begins to unfold, I think we see, all over the place, they are looking for the seed of the One that they are hoping for, the One who is going to rise up and bruise the serpent’s head and make it so the judgments of Genesis 3 are rolled back.

So you know, they have Cain in Genesis 4:1, and she says, “I’ve gotten a man.” And in Hebrew, it says “et Yhwh,” and that could be—it almost could be read that she’s saying, “I’ve gotten a man who is Yahweh.” So, you know, I think probably the translations that render it along the lines of “I’ve gotten a man with the help of Yahweh” are correct, but clearly she’s looking, I think, for the Genesis 3:15 Promised One. Well, Cain murders Abel. And then Seth comes along and she says, “The Lord has appointed me for me another seed in place of Abel, for Cain murdered him.” She’s looking for the seed of the woman. And then Noah’s birth. His father, Lamech, says, “This one will give us rest and relief from our painful toil on the ground which the Lord is cursed.” And that’s alluding to Genesis 3:17-19. And it’s as though they’re expecting, when the seed of the woman arises, it’s going to be resurrection from the dead, and New Heavens and New Earth, and we’re going to be right back in the presence of God in a new and better Garden of Eden. So I think that that understanding of the beginning of the story helps you to see that the biblical authors within the Old Testament, their hope for the seed of the woman is kind of like—if we were to ask, you know, Nick Saban and Bill Belichick have just retired from coaching. And if we were to ask Bill Belichick to explain some of the crazy things that he did, his policies across his coaching career, I think every answer would be, “I’m trying to win football games.” You know, why do you treat people the way that you do? I’m trying to win football games. And on and on we could go like this. And every answer would be, “I’m trying to win football games.” If we were to ask Old Testament authors, why are you doing it this way? Why are you telling this story? Looking for the seed of the woman. Why is Israel required to do this whole Levitical code of conduct with reference to the tabernacle? We’re trying to preserve the line of descent for the seed of the woman to come. It all comes back to that. In the storyline of the Old Testament, everything flows out of the hope for the seed of the woman, and the Lord Jesus arises as the seed of the woman. So I think those starting points position us to see how the entirety of the Old Testament points to Christ.

KELSEY: We’ve talked about Andy Crouch a good amount in the podcast to this point. And one of the things that he’s famous for saying is that we need to have a “good news to good news” theology or “good news to good news” story. When we teach our children about the gospel, it starts in the proto-evangelion. Is that how we pronounce it?

DR. HAMILTON: You got it.

KELSEY: And that very, very first pronouncement, that there is going to be a Redeemer—we have to recognize how early that comes in the record of scripture. And you’ve just helped us recognize, again, that it is on repeat, and that they were expectant. And it helps us with our appetite and our expectancy as well. So what a lovely thing to remind our parents and listeners who are educators. We are telling the story. And we are telling the story with expectancy. And we have the opportunity to tell it in everything that we do. Whether it’s with our words, or with our actions, that we are stirring that sense of appetite for what is to come, and that we are looking. That’s something that I remember strongly about even what I’ve understood of Jewish history—this expectancy, that there is something about the way that they practice their traditions, their repetition of the story, that urges us towards this appetite for what’s to come. So I’m so encouraged, and want to encourage that idea, to pass it on with just a hope and joy. It’s that repetition of Advent. I love Advent, so I bring it up any time I can, that we’re looking for the Savior to come.

DR. HAMILTON: One of the things that I was thinking, as you were reflecting, is the way that I think both the depravity you were alluding to and the hope that is founded on Christ—ultimately, they’re depicted in a book like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, even though he doesn’t explicitly connect the dots. So, you know, Cormac McCarthy, in that novel, The Road, which—if listeners haven’t read, I would strongly commend that. That book is, I think, one of the great books of our era. In that story, it’s like a post-apocalyptic world. It’s as though a nuclear war has happened. And all the civilizational guardrails are gone. And there’s a man and his son, and they’re on the road. And the man is trying to protect his son from these marauding bands of cannibals. And there are no police, and there are no governments, and total depravity is fully and completely on display in that book, even though it never uses the phrase. And as the man and his son proceed, it’s clear that they’re operating on hope. They never articulate what the hope is. But it’s clear that they’re hoping. They’re hoping for a better world. And as Christians, we know that the real foundation for that hope is the scriptures, and sort of the contours of that hope would include things like what Christ has accomplished on the cross, and His promise to return and to judge evil and to make all things new. But in the course of the book—this is one of the great things about literature—Cormac McCarthy has the man and his son encounter various religious alternatives. So at one point, they encounter this beggar on the road. And McCarthy doesn’t identify this figure as a representative of Buddhism. But the way that he describes this guy, it’s almost like he’s describing the Buddha himself. And they show him kindness. The man and his son show kindness to this figure, who is like the Buddha. And then, as they begin to proceed on their way, the man stops, because the son is the one who’s actually shown the kindness. And he says to this Buddha figure, “Are you not going to thank him?” And what’s being exposed is that, in a sort of Buddhist understanding of the world, there’s no grounds for gratitude. There’s no grounds for gratitude to that young man who showed him kindness, and there’s no grounds for the hope that the man and his son are living out. And so it says—McCarthy, in story form, is comparing and contrasting a kind of Christian approach to life that flows out of the Bible’s teaching, with a Buddhist approach to life, and the values and moral behaviors and expectations and things like this, that that are not there in Buddhism. And this is the kind of thing that McCarthy is showing his readers. But again, he’s showing, not so much telling. He’s not preaching. He’s letting you behold this.

JONATHAN: I tried to convince my book club that The Road is a fundamentally hopeful book, and they weren’t buying it. They weren’t buying it.

DR. HAMILTON: I’m surprised. Absolutely.

KELSEY: Absolutely, it’s so interesting. We don’t have this concept of hope, as believers, that’s a “hope against hope” mentality. And by contrast, the way that we deal with suffering allows us to have that true hope, that’s not unfounded, in something that is accomplished on our behalf and a promise that is connected to that faithfulness that has already occurred, that we point back to. We see, again, by contrast, the juxtaposition of the Buddhist mentality that has to erase all suffering by erasing all other emotion, all desire. You know, that hope, it communicates something of a desire for something to change, for something to be different. And you can’t have that in a world that is trying to just stifle those things as a way to navigate this obstacle of suffering in the human condition. So I was thinking about a book that I just recently finished, as you were describing this, and Anthony Doerr—he’s become just back on the screen with the work that’s being done to translate his great book, All the Light We Cannot See, into a media form recently. So I’ve been diving back into his work. Something recently came out, I think it was in ’21, it’s a book called Cloud Cuckoo Land. And it’s interesting, its connection to what we’re saying about book and story, and about preserving stories so that we can understand ourselves, and all the little vignettes of story that surround this one story that is from Greek—well, it’s one of the potentially “lost texts,” that is how the story goes. One of these old stories that gets lost through the years. And so, so many of our touch points. But this story doesn’t avoid suffering. And it’s another one of those books that helps us to carve out our theological imagination. It’s not this, as we’ve talked about before, systematized logic—“This is how you deal with suffering; this is how it’s explicated,”—but that we are but we are tenderly ministered to by the story of the gospel, the story of scripture. And if we know Christ, we are also tenderly ministered to by these great works of literature. So I want to ask this question as we engage, for parents who are teaching children in how to not merely mindlessly engage literature: What are some recommendations that you might have for how we help one another to consume story well?

DR. HAMILTON: That’s a great question. So I think the most important thing here is that we have to come to the stories as people who are grounded in our Christian faith. We have to come to these stories as people who are prepared to evaluate what we’re being shown in the story against the Bible story, and to measure, really, this story by the Bible story. And that, if we do that, it will help us to see what authors are doing. So I’m going to throw in a caveat here, that’s sort of like a, you know, a caution label. And I got your approval beforehand, so I’m going to go ahead and talk about Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita. This is a book that, when I was exposed to this in college, I did not yet have the theological, biblical wherewithal to respond to this book, I think, in the way that Vladimir Nabokov wanted people to respond to the book. And the bulk of this is a book—the story of the book is of this man named Humbert Humbert, who has married a woman who has a daughter, who at the beginning of the book is preteen, and as the book progresses, she grows to be like 13. And then, eventually, at the end of the book, they revisit her as an adult. Well, [Humbert's wife dies in a car accident]. And then the rest of the book is, it’s the story of his shocking, grievous sexual abuse of the daughter. The book never uses a dirty word of any kind. The language is altogether clean. It never describes anything in graphic detail. But Nabokov is one of these authors who makes things happen in your mind. By what he does say, the rest of the detail is filled in in your imagination. But he doesn’t describe things in ways that are graphic, and he doesn’t use any foul language. The book was initially banned as pornography, and then only eventually was it, you know, allowed to be translated and read. And in that whole process, Nabokov said, “When people understand my book, they will view me as a rigorous moralist.” And what he’s saying is that what he’s depicting is something that is supposed to be repulsive, something from which he wants his audience to recoil. And I think that this book is deeply sanctifying. But I also think it only works in a Christian culture. So as Humbert Humbert, you know, tells his story, he recounts how there have been cultures that are okay with pedophilia, and that are okay with adult men marrying child brides. And so he’s trying to justify his—Nabokov clearly views this behavior as sinful, and as destructive to Lolita. And yet, his character is trying to justify his sin. And this is why I say it’s only in a Christian culture that the book is going to have its intended effect. And this is why I say you have to be a grounded Christian to be able to receive the intended effect of the book, because you’re supposed to be shocked. You’re supposed to be horrified. And then you’re supposed to take the next step, which I think what Nabokov wants people to do, is recognize the way that Humbert Humbert’s loves are disordered. He loves the wrong things. And the way that Nabokov shows this is the woman that he married, Lolita’s mother, she loved Humbert Humbert. She was a great wife to him. She was everything a man would want in a wife. And he arranged for her death so that he could abuse her daughter. And I think what Nabokov is communicating is, we should want the things that are righteous, and we should resist all desire for evil in our lives. And I think he wants his audience to step back from the book and ask, he wants us to ask ourselves: How are my loves disordered? How and where do I love things that are forbidden? In what ways do I desire things that are not what God intends for my satisfaction, but are actually prohibited? And then how do I reorder my loves so that I don’t do the Humbert Humbert thing, just to a lesser degree? And I think the book is really showing us the evil of sin. But again, you know, when I first approached this book in college, in my Literature A class, one of my classmates was a devout Christian. We were both devout Christians. But neither one of us had biblical theological training. And this friend of mine—the professor said to us at the beginning of class, we’re going to read—I think it was 11 or 12 novels—across the course of the semester, you can skip one. And my devout Christian classmate got to this novel, realized what it was about, and said, “I am not reading that.” And, you know, I think that’s a result of not understanding how to how to bring your Christian faith to bear on the content of this novel, and then benefit from it in the ways that I think its author intended us to benefit from it.

KELSEY: That’s really helpful. We use this methodology around Concurrently, that is a portion of a larger tool. It’s from our A in SOAR, for those listeners who are familiar with the SOAR methodology that we employ when we’re looking at something carefully. And that analysis section is where we think about, what can we challenge? What should we challenge, as well as what we can affirm, all through a biblical framework. So what you’re saying lines up with this tool that we’re seeking to impart. We ask those questions because we recognize that, in order to see ourselves clearly, and in order to see the world clearly, we must have that biblical foundation, that story just saturating just our lives, that we might then approach any other story through that best of stories.

Something about what you were saying reminded me, again, of what it looks like for us to gaze into scripture, and to not be the man who forgets what we look like when we look at scripture, but to be the one who turns away from scripture, remembering what it has said about us. Then there’s this other thing that came to mind, as you were talking about the depravity in Lolita that is definitely communicated as a depraved state of mind, and that it was The [Picture] of Dorian Gray that came to mind. I’ve seen it in a live theatrical production that was excellent in terms of how it conveys that image profoundly. And I’m maybe mixing these stories a little bit, as I as I come away synthesizing what we’re thinking about when we look into scripture to see ourselves as we truly are, and then this false self projected onto the world, but that the portrait or the mirror is telling you exactly who we truly are. As in the story of Dorian Gray, we look into the word, we look into the world, to understand more of who we are and more of who God is. And there’s ample opportunity. And that ordering of loves, that falling more deeply in love with Christ for what He has done for us, that comes through this rich engagement of His word, and His world. So I’m just so thankful for this very rich conversation. And before we pivot towards the end, I want to give you a chance for any other thoughts that you might want to share with us before I ask for a final benediction from you today.

DR. HAMILTON: You know, I once heard David Powlison say something that really rang true with me about literature. And he said—David Powlison, of course, was a biblical counselor who had studied psychology and was very learned. And he made the comment that novels were more helpful to him for understanding human beings than much of the scientific, you know, psychological literature that he had read. And I think that, for pastors, for parents, even just for people, for us as human beings, there’s a depth of understanding that comes through the appreciation of stories, and through the experience of sort of getting out of our own head and into somebody else’s life and living with them in the context of this story, that helps us to grow in wisdom. So I think that reading fiction, and good fiction, what we might call moral fiction—and I would classify this book Lolita as moral fiction—this kind of material, I think it really can sanctify us, can make us better Christians, better people, more understanding, more Christ-like.

KELSEY: Thanks so much for your thoughts. And I feel very much vindicated in terms of what I chose to study and how I choose to spend my time. Just thank you for the encouragement that you’ve brought today. And would you be willing to close us with a benediction, and then I’ll tag us out?

DR. HAMILTON: Gladly. Now may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good, that you may do His will, working in us that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

KELSEY: Amen. He has equipped you for the work.



Show Notes

We join professor, author, and pastor Dr. Jim Hamilton to talk about the transformative power of stories—even stories we might not expect. How can stories show us hope in the darkness?

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study. Sign up for the News Coach Newsletter at gwnews.com/newsletters.

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

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