Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

[Week 7 of the Imagination in Action reflection series. Theme this week: True Faith]

Is magic real? If so, what is its truest expression? These questions stand at the heart of Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.” The story is set in the 1800’s in an alternate history of England in which magic once existed. It follows various scholars of magic as they seek to reawaken the practice. I found this book fascinating, and in large measure because of the reflection that it offers on living faith. (Note: there is also a miniseries adaptation available on Netflix. It is not bad, but varies in a number of ways from the book and loses some of my favorite parts).

The first two paragraphs of the book provide a good context for how we can make a parallel with faith:

Some years ago there was in the city of York a society of magicians. They met upon the third Wednesday of every month and read each other long, dull papers upon the history of English magic.

They were gentleman-magicians, which is to say they had never harmed any one by magic – nor ever done any one the slightest good. In fact, to own the truth, not one of these magicians had ever cast the smallest spell, nor by magic caused on leaf to tremble upon a tree, made on emote of dust to alter its course or changed a single hair upon any one’s head. But, with this one minor reservation, they enjoyed a reputation as some of the wisest and most magical gentlemen in Yorkshire.

After this, the chapter describes how one of the meetings was disrupted by the question of why they never practiced magic, and the many excuses offered by the members of the society. They saw practicing what they studied as undignified and beneath their social station. Here we can see a parallel with the strength that faith once possessed in England, and the way that many of the “gentleman-theologians” of the 1800s had continued to study faith, but merely as something historically interesting, and not a living part of their life. Modifying the questions I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we can first ask “Is faith real?” Then, “What does its true expression look like in our lives?”

Is faith real?

I think many people discount faith because they think of it in terms of “blind faith.” I dislike this phrase because I do not think it is accurate to Christian belief. “Blind faith” implies believing something without evidence, and can easily lead into unhealthy or destructive expressions of belief. Although it is true that faith ultimately requires a step of belief, we do not make this step “blind” but can look at motives of credibility (reasons to believe). We might look at the predictions of Christ in the Old Testament (existing long before Jesus walked the earth) or accounts of His miracles. But, I think the most compelling is to look at the Resurrection and the transformation of the Apostles.

If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then why does Christianity exist? Some religions were the development of folk myths that did not face any particular challenge from the surrounding culture (eg the belief in the Greek gods). We can look at other religions that were accompanied by gains in wealth, military power, or public prestige in their early years. While it is true that after the time of Emperor Constantine Christianity became publicly accepted and there was the temptation to profess faith simply for its worldly benefits, this was almost 300 years after the time of Christ and cannot explain the origins of Christianity. The early followers of Christ had to embrace serious public difficulties in accepting the faith.

We have many writings from the first century of Christianity (many overlapping with the life of the Apostles) that we can look at – St Polycarp of Smyrna, St Ignatius of Antioch, St Irenaeus of Lyons, St Justin Martyr, or the letter of the Roman Governor Pliny to Emperor Trajan (to give a few examples). So, it is not credible to say that the account of Christ’s life was manufactured hundreds of years after His lifetime when there was no means of knowing the truth.

Most of all, I think we have to look at the transformation of the Apostles. St John Chrysostom points out that we have to wonder why they were afraid to follow Jesus while He lived (running away at the time of the crucifixion), but were bold to profess Him after His death. Why suffer and die for something you knew was a lie? Likewise, the claim that they all had the exact same hallucination and all held firm to it to the end seems hard to believe. These could have been disproven in the early years by presenting the body of Jesus still in the tomb. I think the most credible explanation is that they did encounter the risen Christ, and this was the source of their transformation. Therefore, we are not asked to accept a “blind faith,” but one that rests on solid witness.

What does faith’s true expression look like in our lives?

This leads us to our next question in regards to true faith: its lived experience. Returning to “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” we see that even if some of the magicians believed that magic actually had existed, it had no impact in their life. They felt more pressure to follow the social conventions of their time than what they studied. This is likewise a great challenge to us today. The obstacle to faith in many people may not be historical questions about the Resurrection, but the poor witness that we as Christians sometimes give. St James writes in the Bible that, “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26). True faith is built upon confidence in the words of Christ, and it is expressed in allowing transformation in our life. Too often we hold back in fear from letting go of the worldly promises for happiness: power, popularity, possessions, or pleasure. We see the good fruit of faith in the lives of saints and holy people we know, but aren’t ready (or sure) how to follow them.

I don’t write this to discourage anyone in their faith, but for encouragement to embrace the season of Easter. The transformation of the lives of the Apostles is not described as happening in a single day. Instead, Jesus spends forty days with them until the Ascension, strengthening them in their new-found faith. He then instructs them to spend nine days in prayer before receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost (the fiftieth day). It is at this point that we see them sent forth to begin preaching.

So, if our assessment of our life of faith right now leaves us feeling down, let us remember that Easter is not a single day. It is a season that stretches across those same fifty days that the Apostles experienced. It is a time to ask the Lord to give us strength and confidence, as well as a deeper outpouring of the Holy Spirit. This is difficult to do alone, and so I am going to change the focus of my reflections leading up to Pentecost. During Lent I looked mainly at our personal spiritual life. During Easter I will look at the mission of a parish and how connection with our parish helps to nourish this transformation of faith. God bless!

One comment on “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

  1. Fred Stavins says:

    Father. I sense an excellent understanding in you of what many think about in our every day thinking about our faith. You manages to bring out concrete ideas that are on my mind I know and i suspect on the mind of other. I share your writings with others because your ideas are very clearly expressed. Thank you.

    Like

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