Robert Farrar Capon has gone to be with the Lord (1925-2013), and there are a couple of nice retrospectives here and here. For sheer exuberance in writing, that man had few who could keep up with him. In the great cross country race for the colorful metaphor, he was the kind of runner who could climb trees during the race to allow the other runners time to catch up. I would have said the “trees of hyperbole,” but that would have been pushing it, even for me.
I want to argue (now briefly, later, at greater length) that there is a connection between a grasp of the unmerited grace of God and colorful writing. Here is Capon, making the foundation of this point:
“The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace – bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly.”
Now I grant that nothing is very tidy in this world, a datum that Capon was most capable of pointing out. In fact, Capon himself was one of those untidy data. He was so into grace that he is fully capable — in places — of sounding like Marcion after a couple of beers. But like Antole in Wodehouse, we must learn to take a few roughs with the smooth.
Here Capon is on how God created the world.
“So they shouted together ‘Tov meod!‘ and they laughed for ages and ages, saying things like how great it was for beings to be, and how clever of the Father to think of the idea, and how kind of the Son to go to all that trouble putting it together, and how considerate of the Spirit to spend so much time directing and choreographing. And for ever and ever they told old jokes, and the Father and the Son drank their wine in unitate Spiritus Sancti, and they all threw ripe olives and pickled mushrooms at each other per omnia saecula saeculorum, Amen.
It is, I grant you, a crass analogy; but crass analogies are the safest. Everybody knows that God is not three old men throwing olives at each other. Not everyone, I’m afraid, is equally clear that God is not a cosmic force or a principle of being or any other dish of celestial blancmange we might choose to call him. Accordingly, I give you the central truth that creation is the result of a trinitarian bash, and leave the details of the analogy to sort themselves out as best they can.”
The point is much larger than Capon . . .
Wycliffe is called the Morning Star of the Reformation, but I think we need to start calling Chaucer the poet laureate of that great gloaming of grace. John of Gaunt was the patron of both men, and there are good reasons for understanding Chaucer as among, or sympathetic to, the Lollards — the followers of Wycliffe. This makes some of our virginal librarians nervous, because of The Miller’s Tale and such like, but Chaucer himself published a postscript that said heh, heh, went a little far sometimes. When the wineskins burst, grace sometimes gets on the floor. That is why the grace of God even gives us clean-up crews — we need the virginal librarians too. Like Lucy, I wouldn’t feel safe around Bacchus until Aslan were near.
Find me a place where grace has gone, and taken deep root, and I will show you a place where vivid prose flourishes. We find a man like Tyndale at the headwaters of the obvious, and the Elizabethan supernova came from somewhere. For the most rambunctious specimen from that era, I would offer up Martin Marprelate, the man who gave us the immortal line of the bishops who had “learnt their catechisms and were past grace.”
And Peter Escalante has done some excellent work on the Italian humanists, who predated the Reformation, but who contributed mightily to it. His lecture this last week at the grad forum for NSA set out a tantalizing set of clues to pursue along these lines. What I need to do, actually, is learn how to read faster.
Napoleon once said that imagination rules the world. That is very true, but we need to add something to that. We must choose between the corrupted imagination, the escapist imagination, the despairing imagination, and — here it comes — the forgiven imagination.