Hammering at the Door

When I am dead, those who open my books will find other books inside.  It is there I rejoice, exclaim, argue, oppose, join with, categorically deny, question, comment, and generally respond to the author.  Recently, I was wading through the shoreline waves of one, who has in recent days, captured my attention.  Add yet another reaction to reading comprehension—conviction:

Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, and trouble will come to him—illness, poverty, losses, and then no one will see or hear him, just as now he neither sees nor hears others.  But there is no man with a hammer.  The happy man lives at his ease, faintly fluttered by small daily cares, like an aspen in the wind—and all is well.[1]

Anton Chekhov’s short story “Gooseberries” captures conviction, his little man hammering away.  It seems appropriate to begin a series on reading with the ethical purpose statement that books should change us.  A manuscript ought to awaken my conscience, prick my spirit, send me to confession, work both as cure and salve.

Louis L’Amour, an underappreciated “adventure novelist,” states clearly in his Education of a Wandering Man, “A book is less important for what it says than for what it makes you think.”[2] A wide variety of authors concur with L’Amour.  John Gardner says, “A brilliantly imagined novel about a rapist or murderer can be more enlightening than a thousand psycho-sociological studies.”[3] George Bernard Shaw employs the metaphor, “You use a glass mirror to see your face; you use works of art to see your soul.”[4] T. S. Eliot grasps a book’s unconscious impact, “It is the literature which we read with the least effort that can have the easiest and most insidious influence upon us.”[5] Eliot’s concern was well understood by Flannery O’Connor who believes the book to be knocking on the door from the inside:

The novelist doesn’t write to express himself, he doesn’t write simply to render a vision he believes true, rather he renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to his reader. . . . Your problem is going to be difficult in direct proportion as your beliefs depart from his. . . . I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts.[6]

“Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” my favorite definition of preaching, seems appropriate for the conviction produced by reading.  Consequences from the little man’s hammer blows may sometimes be background noise, but the impact is never inconsequential.

Children’s stories continue to convict me, impacting my thinking.  The Little Red Hen warns me against being a so-called “friend” who wants to take, not give.  “The Sword of Damocles” compels me to be wary of desire for power.  Rat and mole wander into the august presence in chapter seven of The Wind in the Willows, teaching me both to fear and rejoice in The Almighty.  Yertle the Turtle, the Dr. Seuss classic, warns me away from pride, leading to a (literal!) fall.

My life has no transformation without hammering on my soul.  In our day of 24/7 entertainment, none other than Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren remind me,

Television, radio, and all the sources of amusement and information that surround us in our daily lives are also artificial props.  They can give us the impression that our minds are active, because we are required to react to stimuli from outside.  But the power of those external stimuli to keep us going is limited.  They are like drugs.  We grow used to them, and we continuously need more and more of them.  Eventually, they have little or no effect.  Then, if we lack resources within ourselves, we cease to grow intellectually, morally, and spiritually.  And when we cease to grow, we begin to die.[7]

Read or die.  Augustine in his Confessions explains that it was a child’s voice that extolled him to “take up and read” that compelling him toward the verse in Romans 13 that changed his life.

Perhaps the greatest example of hammering conviction can be found in Nehemiah 8.  In the First Testament, Hebrew people would often have God’s Word read to them.  After a long sojourn in exile, Judah is back in her homeland again.  Language skills atrophied, Nehemiah had to translate and interpret Scriptural injunction,[8] contextualizing true Truth for his listeners.  “All the people wept as they heard the words of The Lord declared to them” (v 9); understanding the reading sent Israel away “with great rejoicing” (v 12).

Samuel gives us a first hand account of truth knocking on the door.  The prophet used the Hebrew word shmah powerfully connecting with Chekhov’s metaphor.  Shmah occurs nine times in 1 Samuel 15.  In the context, Saul is about to rebel against God for a second time.  The English reader can pick up the narrative repetition by watching for the words “hear,” “listen,” and “obey.”[9] Shmah records a three-fold impact on the hearer.  We recognize and understand the words being delivered through our ears to our brain.  Listening communicates comprehension; we know what we should do with what we have heard.  But the first two do not count if we do not enact the correct response of active compliance in the third place.

Robert Coles in his must read The Call of Stories summarizes reading’s import: “The gnawing irony persists that powerful poems and poignant prose can affect us, excite us, cause us to see more clearly, yet not deliver that daily hammer-blow Chekhov prescribed.”[10] I hope that people do not have to wait until I’m dead to read my words; I hope I do not die before I act on them.

Mark Eckel listens for the hammer every day as he teaches at Crossroads Bible College.

[1] Anton Chekhov. 1947, 1966. The Portable Chekhov. (Viking): 381.

[2] Louis L’Amour. 1989. Education of a Wandering Man. (Bantam): 100.

[3] John Gardner. 1978. On Moral Fiction. (Basic): 106.

[4] George Bernard Shaw, a quote from his plays Back to Methuselah.

[5] T. S. Eliot. 1935. Religion and Literature.  In Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. (Faber and Faber): 100.

[6] Flannery O’Connor. 1957, 1969. Novelist and Believer. In Mystery & Manners. (Reprint: Farrar, Straus, Giroux): 162.

[7] Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren. 1940, 1972. How To Read a Book. (Revised, Simon and Schuster): 346.

[8] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Jr. Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. (Revised: Nelson): 24.

[9] Hermann J. Austel. 1980 shmah. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. (Moody): 2:938-39.

[10] Robert Coles. 1989. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. (Houghton Mifflin): 197.

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