Friday Essay: Things with Feelings

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Bilbo Baggins is small, but he is more than a little human.

Growing up, I had a distinct preference in books and movies for human characters. I did enjoy stories about non-human characters. I loved the farmyard gang of the Freddy the Pig series, the classic Winnie the Pooh, the rascals of Uncle Remus and the relatable Garfield. You will notice a few commonalities – these are animals (or stuffed animals in the second instance)  and they exist in a world with humans.  But generally speaking, I prefer human characters. Especially in comparison to anthropomorphic inanimate objects.  I never knew why, but lately, I’ve been doing some thinking on the question – why do I prefer actual human characters over anthropomorphic ones? I believe my preference boils down to an understanding of what it means to be human.

It is generally understood that the most important aspect of a character in any story is their relatability. This does not require similar life circumstances, it merely requires the character to have motives, qualities, and struggles which the reader or the watcher can understand. I’ve never had to travel with a group of dwarves to their ancient mountain home to recover treasure and haggle with a dragon. But I understand Bilbo’s conflicted desires of adventure and home, the earning of respect and the development of confidence. Is this all there is to relatability, however? Is it simply a matter of relating to feelings? I recall reading an observation (in the form of a screen captured forum thread) to the effect that Pixar’s basic modus operandi is to create a story where something has feelings – toys, cars, bugs and of course even feelings themselves. I admire the creativity I suppose but I’m a little tired of humanity being boiled down to a matter of simple feelings.  I relate to Mr. Baggins on another level, a level I do not relate to with Lightning McQueen or Woody or even, honestly, Winnie the Pooh. Bilbo might be a “Hobbit” but biologically he is a human, just a little smaller than normal.

To be human is about more than feelings. My human existence involves a very physical dimension. I have two hands, ten fingers, two opposable thumbs, two feet, I walk on two legs in an upright position, I eat food that digests in my system and comes out again; I breathe, I have lungs and a complex arrangement of internal organs that protest if I injure them or eat the wrong food, I have blood flowing through my veins and a heart that quickens its pace when I run or get excited;  I can ache but also enjoy delights of a chilly breeze on a fall morning or the smell of sawdust. I can relate to actual human characters on a very fundamental level because I can imagine myself walking in Bilbo’s non-existent shoes and feel as he felt. If Tolkien’s Hobbit were an oak leaf or a potato, I would lose that level of connectedness.

Are these all exclusive to humans? Some are, some are shared with animals. But therein lies the fundamental flaw of anthropomorphic characters for me – they cannot be fully human. Animals come closer to emulating humanness than inanimate objects but only because they have the advantage of sharing basic physical experiences such as touch and smell. And yet, even with animals, the further a character is from the mammalian species, you lose more and more physical commonality. As a side note, I realize not all people share in some of the experiences I just listed. There are those unable to see, walk, talk, hear or those without limbs. But that does not negate the fundamental humanness of these abilities and experiences. After all, not all humans have the emotional capabilities either. But even those humans with “disabilities” share in the physicality of humanity. The issue is not about what do all humans do but about those experiences generally related to being human.

Am I saying that anthropomorphic characters are bad? No, they have their place. But I am leery of how heavily populated children’s media is with these wannabe humans. I am worried because of the message entire generations have internalized about what it means to human, a diluted half-truth that takes from them the full drama of humanness in all its ugliness and beauty. As a Christian, I believe that man is made in the image of God. I also believe that God the Son became perfect man, and lived a human life. Jesus experienced human life in its full physical and emotional state – he was truly man as the old creeds say. If humanity is something God himself made and did not disdain to share in, I think we should take care to preserve a full understanding of our humanity. Especially in the arts.

Friday Essay: Generational Community

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Robinson Crusoe is one of my favorite literary works of all time, both narratively and thematically. Defoe’s classic is packed with insights into the nature of man and especially man as an individual and in relation to society, or in this case the absence of society. In February of 2017, I wrote an article for Reformation Bible College on the subject of society in Robinson Crusoe and how the absence of community is Defoe’s commentary on the need for companionship. In that article, I wrote:

However, it is the sheer absence of any society that proves to be the greatest nemesis to our hero. He successfully meets and overcomes the challenge of food, housing, and clothing; he even finds methods of making pottery, a luxury to a man in Crusoe’s dire situation. He establishes three houses and keeps a cave as an emergency storage unit. He grows wheat and makes bread. He also tries to brew beer, though he is unsuccessful in this endeavor. But despite his abilities in these areas, he cannot overcome his loneliness […] For Crusoe, all of his work is pointless if he has no one to share it with. He might as well be dead. 

Defoe is showing us what God said in the Garden, that man needs companionship.  But instead of Robinson Crusoe, I want to talk about another staple of castaway stories, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and where the message in this novel both compliments and yet departs from Defoe. Unlike CrusoeIsland is not about isolation from one’s fellow man. We have a group of four men at the beginning, with some additions later on (or rather we have three men and a boy, but let’s not play at irrelevant semantics). But aside from surface differences, the books have deeper conflicts and thematic contrasts. Two major themes will be the focus here. First: Redemption of a single man versus Opportunity for mankind. In this theme, the novels differ. This will lead to the second topic: Incomplete Society, a theme where the stories share a common element but the authors approach the subject differently.  On a source note, while I prefer the recent translation of Island over the original (better rendering of dialogue and of course a correction of the  infamous alteration of Nemo’s last words from the more appropriate “Independence” to the cliched “God and Country”), I’m sticking to the original translation for this discussion because I have a hardcopy readily available and the differences are, aside from Nemo’s final words, not significant enough for me to warrant tracking down the recent translation.

As I said, in Island, the heroes’ see their circumstance as an opportunity, while in Crusoe, the hero’s dire situation serves as a means of personal redemption. Shortly after confirming their location is an island, the following manifesto is said by the sailor, Pencroft:

“If you like Captain, we will make a little America of this island! We will build towns, we will establish railways, start telegraphs, and one fine day, when it is quite changed, quite put in order and quite civilized, we will go and offer it to the government of the Union. Only, I ask one thing…It is, that we do not consider ourselves castaways, but colonists, who have come here to settle.” (78)

Pencfort’s declaration is crucial to establishing the tone of Island. Compare this to Crusoe’s “State of affairs” list, where considers the evil and the good of his situation. The “evil” is related to his loneliness –  “I am divided from mankind, a solitaire, one banished from human society (72)” – while the “good” consists in God’s providence and his deliverance from death – “But I am alive, and not drowned as all my ship’s company was (72)”.  Crusoe does eventually see himself as master of the island, but his understanding of his situation remains functionally the same. His efforts are toward colonization but survival and escape. The fundamental factor at play in their differing views, it seems, is society. For Crusoe, there is no society, which means his only purpose is to live with the hope of rescue and in the meantime improve himself. For Verne’s heroes – the colonists-  the situation is different, with a group of men stranded together. Naturally, their thoughts turn towards taking dominion of the island, transforming their new home into something like the world they once knew.  But what about Friday? When Crusoe eventually finds the native and is no longer a solitary man, his goal does not change. Is this merely a cultural or period distinction then? Can we reduce the issue to a matter of Crusoe not being a “Yankee”?

Culture and period certainly play a factor here, but in their differing circumstances and background, one similarity remains- neither Crusoe nor the Colonists have a true society. Crusoe recognizes this incompleteness – his first action upon finding and teaching Friday is to reconsider his ideas for escaping the prison of his island.  But what is this blind spot that the Colonists of Verne’s story ignore? The inability to guarantee the second generation. Crusoe sees the ultimate pointlessness of his work without others to share with or pass it down to. The Colonists see themselves as beginning a new American state,  but so long as only these three men and a boy are the sole inhabitants of the colony, the efforts have just as little meaning as solitary Crusoe’s.  Neither book mentions this idea, but it is a question and a conclusion the reader cannot escape: True society consists of both the current and future community.

Consider the first words God spoke to a human being:

And God blessed them, and God said to them, Bring forth fruit, and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the heaven, and over every beast that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, Geneva)

To fully subdue the earth, there must be the continuation of life, new generations – simply put there must be families and there must be children. All of these words are hated by the progressive elements of our society. The simple reason for why Verne, himself a devout Catholic and no stranger to these truths, ignores – or allows his characters to ignore – this element in their task of dominion lies in his target demographic (boys), and his focus on adventure and general avoidance of romantic storylines. But Verne’s personal views and literary intentions aside, I think the hubris of the Vernian Colonists in imagining themselves the conquerors of their island when they had no heirs to inherit their hard-won kingdom, reflects the hubris of our day in believing ourselves advanced and progressive while downplaying the importance of organic families, children, and generational heritage.

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In Robinson Crusoe, the lack of current society is an evident and explicit evil. In The Mysterious Island, the lack of a future society is a subtle but implicit evil that, thanks to their eventual salvation, is avoided.  The most meaningful and lasting legacy a man and woman leave are their children – not their work, not their achievements. These are good things but without future generations to enjoy them – they lose value. A great book is meaningless if there is no one to read it, a scientific progression pointless if no one will pick up the baton, a house dead if there is no one to live in it a hundred years hence.  Without future generations, there is no legacy, no important achievements. For a community to be true, good and beautiful, it must be generational.

Editions: 

Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe, Tom Doherty Assc: 1988

Verne, Jules. The Mysterious Island, Simon & Schuster: New York, 1946.

 

Friday Essay: “Jekyll in Hyding”

This is an edited version of an essay I wrote at Reformation Bible College. This is the second in a series I’m developing of Friday Essays. Because the original footnote format is difficult to transfer to a blog format, I include parenthetical footnotes with the author’s last name and the page number; all referenced sources are included at the end of the essay.
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Richard Mansfield portrayed both Jekyll and Hyde in a stage adaptation(1887-88); this double-exposure photo shows him in both roles  c.1895

Thanks to Universal Studios sensationalized cinematic version of Stevenson’s classic story in 1931, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has yet to receive a fully faithful film adaptation. Too often Hollywood turns this fascinating look at the naked human soul into a Halloween freak show about monsters and mad scientists. I have, however, seen at least one interpretation which tries to capture the intent of the original story. Produced for television 2003 and starring John Hannah, this particular version deviates from the book’s plot in many ways but most importantly by removing the physical change from Hyde. Nonetheless, it drives home the reality that Jekyll and Hyde are in fact one person, not two. The story is often seen as a narrative look at the tension between the good and evil in man, but I believe we must be careful not to confuse Jekyll’s view (a view clearly laid out in his letter to Utterson) and Stevenson’s view of man. Jekyll holds explicitly to a dualistic view of man’s nature. By contrast, Stevenson, I want to argue, actually holds that good and evil are not two natures at war in man. Rather, good and evil are conflicting characteristics of the one nature. Hyde is Jekyll’s hidden sin.

Hyde’s name is key to understanding his relationship with Jekyll. In the story, Jekyll never tells us how Hyde received his name- did his other self simply come with a predetermined name or did Jekyll select one? To understand why the name “Hyde”, we have to look beyond Jekyll and back to the actual author, Stevenson, who clearly intends a double meaning with his name choice. In Chapter 2, Utterson in his quest to find the mysterious Mr. Hyde comments to himself, “If he be Mr. Hyde, I shall be Mr. Seek (10)”. Hyde is homophonous with the word “hide”, a word that characterizes Hyde’s entire existence. From sneaking into Jekyll’s house almost instantly after his unmasking to withdrawing into the laboratory and his eventual demise, Hyde remains cloaked in a shroud of silence. Even Jekyll’s final confession declines to divulge the full extent of the depravities committed by his other self. Edward Hyde then is a metaphor or symbol of Jekyll’s hidden sinful life. Stevenson’s purpose is to show the hidden Hyde that all men possess the potential to be if the restraints are removed. For Jekyll, and presumably Stevenson, the restraints are societal conventions or the desire to be respected. Jekyll’s barriers come crashing down when he becomes Hyde, a state induced by drugs. Jekyll ascribes a neutral power to the agent of change, so I believe Stevenson wants to avoid a “Hyde is Jekyll on drugs” (although that is technically true) concept. Rather, when Jekyll takes the potion, he is removing his reasons for morality and his sensitivity to those around him. It is the reasoning process that leads to the rationalization of our sin. In the end, however, Hyde becomes manifest without the aid of the drug. Sin becomes his norm, and in terror, Jekyll adopts the primary characteristic of Hyde by hiding himself from the world. At one point, as he engages in conversation with Mr. Utterson and Mr. Enfield during the final period of intense seclusion, he begins turning into Hyde. Eventually, Hyde consumes him to the point where Hyde becomes the norm. By depicting the slow replacement of Jekyll by Hyde, Stevenson describes the festering and toxic nature of hidden and unchecked sin. Jekyll seeks to redeem himself by suppressing Hyde, not through revealing him and seeking forgiveness. Granted, Stevenson himself as a non-believer would be less inclined toward the concept of repentance and offers little if any redemptive hope for Jekyll’s situation. I find it odd that while occasional references to God and heaven are made, the Church is practically nonexistent in this story. Jekyll’s best friends are a lawyer, a subtle but important reinforcement of his condemnation, and another doctor, who displays the inability of science to deal with human nature. Since science fails him and the law can only judge him, Jekyll has nowhere to turn and inch by inch he succumbs to the power of his own deceitful heart, a heart wherein hides Mr. Hyde.

While Hyde cloaks the desires of Jekyll on the one hand, on the other he ultimately reveals those same desires. By the end of the book, Jekyll hates Hyde but only after Hyde ruins him. Even then, he writes in his confession:

But his love of me is wonderful; I go further: I who sicken and freeze at the mere thought of him, when I recall the abjection and passion of his attachment, and when I know how he fears my power to cut him off by suicide, I find it in my heart to pity him (43).

Despite all the horrors committed and the tragedy caused by Hyde, Jekyll cannot fully hate him. From the beginning, Jekyll wanted Hyde, but he also wanted the perks and privileges which attended his status as a respected doctor. Through his identity as Hyde, Jekyll indulges his inner lusts and while shocked at the deeds done in this state, he only truly renounces the activities and appropriation of Hyde after the murder of Sir Danvers. Jekyll is not the good side of the same being to Hyde’s evil part, or else he would have long before sought to destroy him. Even the doctor himself admits that Hyde “was wholly evil” and Jekyll “was still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had learned to despair (37)”. If the theory espoused is one of two natures, this requires Hyde to be pure evil and Jekyll to become pure good. Hyde is depraved in every fiber of his being, but he is not the totality of Jekyll’s depravity because Jekyll retains his own sinfulness. Hyde merely serves to exposes the true Jekyll.

Although Jekyll speaks of Hyde as a separate person who shares his consciousness, his denial flows out of a visceral reaction to Hyde and refusal to accept any deeper connection rather than a coherent and logical deduction. Far from being another individual, Hyde and Jekyll are clearly one and the guilt of Hyde is the guilt of Jekyll. As the final hours of Jekyll’s physical existence draw to a close, the bachelor describes Hyde as “knit closer to him than a wife” (43). If man is a duality as Jekyll believes then why are Jekyll and Hyde still one person, not two separate beings? Let us assume Jekyll’s theory for the sake of argument. Essentially, Jekyll believes man is not one but two, and the two can be “housed in separate identities” (35). If man is actually a union of a good and evil personality engaged in an internal war and Jekyll can extract the animalistic evil into its own personified state, then Jekyll ought to be without any evil or any negative characteristics. If we push even further, Jekyll and his evil alter-ego should not share the same consciousness. In the book, Hyde is never without Jekyll in some sense, nor Jekyll without Hyde. Hyde’s gradual ascent to primacy is not a removal of Jekyll but an unmasking. In using this analogy, Stevenson paints a bleak picture of man as but a savage dressed in fancy clothes and conventions to keep him from killing his neighbor. When the conventions cease to bind the conscience, the savage acts in accordance with his basest of desires. Despite his passionate insistence that he only shares a consciousness with Hyde, in his heart of hearts I believe even Henry Jekyll realizes Hyde is indeed part of him.

As a tale born out of a nightmare, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems better suited at first glance to provide horror material than a philosophical look into the nature of man (Balfour, 15). Yet Stevenson’s work has proven a significant literary voice in the question of good and evil in man. Stevenson is essentially Hobbesian in his view of man unrestrained, but he also shares some concepts with Scripture. While Stevenson was not a Christian, he nonetheless lived in age familiar with Biblical concepts and was himself raised in a Scottish Presbyterian home. Regarding a minister of the Church of Scotland in his lineage, Stevenson commented:

Now I often wonder what I have inherited from this old minister. I must suppose, indeed, that he was fond of preaching sermons, and so am I, though I never heard it maintained that either of us loved to hear them (Memories and Portraits, 112-113).

Scripture and Stevenson agree that all are prone to evil and that evil touches every aspect of our being (Rom. 3:10-23), that the heart possesses a deceptive nature (Jer. 17:9) and that sin is corrupting and consuming (e.g. Job 15:17-35; Ps. 38:5-8; Jn 8:34; 1 Cor. 15:22). James 1:14-15 provides an especially sobering and relevant commentary that applies to Stevenson’s story:

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death. (ESV)

Of course, Stevenson departs from Scripture in his lack of redemption offered. The gospel of Christ is not beyond any sinner, not even Edward Hyde. But all truth is God’s truth and Stevenson gives us insights that are worth thinking on regarding sin and its effects. And the most haunting truth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is this: The sins of Hyde consumes Jeykll because the sins of Jekyll feeds Hyde and we can easily see that Hyde is nothing less than Jekyll in hiding.

 

Sources:

Balfour, Graham. The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson, vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912

Stevenson, Robert Louis. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Wisehouse Classics Edition). N.p.: Wisehouse Classics, 2015.

————————-.  Memories and Portraits. London: Chatto and Windus, 1906

An Essay on True Courage

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King Arthur (Mel Ferrer) in a scene from Knights of the Round Table (1953)

The following is a condensed version of a longer essay I wrote for one of my classes at Reformation Bible College. The original, of course, contained footnotes but for this formatting, I am simply putting all the cited works at the bottom of the page or when necessary in brackets. Because I have condensed this version, you will find the sources list shorter than what is in my actual essay.

Introduction

Dabney: A Short Biography

Robert Lewis Dabney (April 5, 1820- January 3, 1898), is a fascinating and controversial figure in the history of American Presbyterianism.  From his rigid adherence to the Westminster Confession to his total and enthusiastic support of the Confederacy, Dabney has both detractors and admirers. Contemporaries describe him as being more like a biblical prophet than a theology professor, compared variously during his life to Elijah, John the Apostle, John Calvin and John Knox.  His preaching style has been described as prophet-like, not smooth and polished but more like “the Prophet Elijah” with an impression of “Didactic power.” Dabney retained a strong love for the South and Virginia in particular throughout his life, a love that is reflected in his ideology and practice. His fierce Southern nationalism and disdain for “Yankees” are central aspects of his worldview. When he died  (January 3rd, 1898) he was buried in Virginia, wearing a Confederate uniform.

Dabney greatly admired Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, seeing him as the ideal Christian warrior. Jackson was a devout Presbyterian who was said to “live in the New Testament but fought in the Old.”  A military genius, Jackson lead his troops to victory at the First Battle of Manassas and throughout the Shenandoah Valley campaign before being shot by his own men at the Battle of Chancellorsville. In the darkness and confusion, the North Carolina regiment believed he was the enemy.  During his recovery, the general developed pneumonia and died on May 10, 1863, at 3:15 PM. Dabney delivered his memorial sermon in 1863, “True Courage”, where he lays out his understanding of how faith produces courage, using the life and practices of the recently departed Jackson as examples of this ethic. 

Types of Courage

At its most basic level, “courage is the opposite of fear” writes Dabney.  At least in the common perception. This popular definition has truth and merit, but for Dabney, such a simplistic description is sorely lacking because it misunderstands the relationship of these two as emotions. To understand courage then, we need a proper view of fear.  In light of this connection, Dabney makes a distinction between fear as an emotion and fear as an action: “Fear may be described either as a feeling and appreciation of existing danger, or an undue yielding to that feeling.”  The presence of fear does not demand the absence of courage. In fact, for Dabney true courage implies “the existence of fear” and “a feeling of danger”,  for courage “is but the overcoming of that feeling by a worthier motive.” This relationship between leads him to consider three types of courage and they each respond to the emotion of fear. While they may intertwine and each possess some measure of rightness, they are nonetheless three different categories and flow from fundamentally different sources.

Animal Courage

The first of these is what Dabney calls “animal courage.” This form of courage, says Dabney, “is but the ferment of animal passions and blind sympathies, combined with an irrational thoughtlessness.” Animal courage is the raw, natural passion we associate with creatures such as the lion (“the lion-hearted”), essentially a pagan ethic. But this courage is based on ignorance. For Dabney continues, “the man is courageous only because he refuses to reflect” and “bold because he is blind.”  Animal courage may at first glance appear the most genuine, but the source is flawed. Once the danger is actually comprehended, there is no other foundation to support this courage. Hence, animal courage is not true courage

“The Spirit of Personal Honor”

The second type of courage that Dabney lists is what he calls the “spirit of personal honor.” This form of courage rests on human pride and sense of duty. Unlike animal courage, there is “a consciousness of risk, but it is manfully controlled by the sentiment of pride, the keener fear of reproach, and the desire for applause.” But the motive is “personal and selfish…therefore the sentiment does not rise to the level of virtue.” This form of courage is self-centered and self-glorifying. A man is courageous because he fears the societal shaming he will endure should he not be courageous. Ironically, it is fear that drives him to bravery. But this fear is unstable and subject to change. And, as Dabney says, the motive does not demand the name of virtue.  

Moral Courage of the God-Fearing Man

True courage then is the moral courage of him “who fears God, and, for that reason, fears nothing else.”  In this form of bravery, there is both “an intelligent apprehension of danger” and “the natural instinct of self-love desiring to preserve its own well-being”. However, these emotions are  “curbed and governed by the sense of duty, and desire for the approbation of God.” Unlike animal courage, fear is acknowledged and experienced. Unlike self-glorifying courage, the foundation is not the approval of man but the approval of God. “This alone is true courage,” continues Dabney, “ [and] true virtue; for it is rational, and its motive is moral and unselfish.”

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Synthesis

Dabney acknowledges that both animal courage and honor-driven bravery exhibit traits of true courage and may be “mixed in many breasts.  However, neither is complete and ultimately derive their unstable foundations from ignorance, arrogance, and idolatry. Thus concludes Dabney, “he is the bravest man, who is the best Christian. It is he who truly fears God, who is entitled to fear nothing else.

Marks of True Courage

So then, true courage flows from a right fear of God. But how can we recognize this courage and seek to cultivate it in ourselves? Dabney continues his sermon by detailing the three essential marks of true courage. All three characteristics rest on our fear of and faith in God. He also remembers the exhibitions of these traits in the life of  Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, but for the sake of flow I will simply highlight the marks themselves and skip over the mini-biographical sketches of Jackson except where his presentation of Jackson’s character contributes to his overall thesis.

Conduct Governed by the Fear of God

The man whose life is guided by a fear of God exhibits bravery because “the powers of his soul are in harmony.”   He is not unnerved by internal conflict between conscience and “evil desire”, for they are one and the same. Of course, we are sinners and we do not perfectly follow the commands of God, yet if our desire is to obey the Lord and both our conscience and desires are united in the single goal of honoring our Creator, then we have the courage of conviction. Dabney, pointing to the example of his friend Jackson, says that “every power of his soul was brought to move in sweet accord under the guidance of an enlightened and honest conscience” so “how could such a soul fail to be courageous for the right?”

I can think of other examples,  Biblical and historical, that demonstrate the relationship between conviction and courage. In fact, it is a Sunday school cliche to see men of the Bible such as Noah, Caleb, Joshua, Daniel or Paul as templates of standing for truth and godliness in the face of opposition but they rightly deserve that commendation. The apostle Peter, when confronted by the Jewish leaders declared, “We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29, ESV).”  Athanasius fought a lonely battle against the heresy of Arianism for the majority of his life. Martin Luther’s bold refusal to recant includes an appeal to his conscience. William Tyndale gave his life to bring the Word of God to English speaking people. All of these examples demonstrate for us that Christian courage begins with a firm conviction to follow the word of God, come what may.

Trusts in and Accepts the Providential Will of God

The second mark of true courage is absolute trust in the sovereignty and providence of God. Given that Dabney’s sermon is delivered in a memorial for Gen. Thomas Jackson, the best summation of this trust is found in the general’s own words spoken to Capt. J.D. Imboden in the aftermath of the First Battle of Manassas:

Captain, my religious belief teaches me to feel as safe in battle as in bed. God has fixed the time for my death. I do not concern myself about that, but to be always ready, no matter when it may overtake me. Captain, that is the way all men should live, and then all men would be equally brave. [John Selby, “Stonewall Jackson as Military Commander” (New York: Barnes & Noble Publishing, 1968), 25-26. ]

This faith and trust in the will of God is not a fatalistic acquiescence, but rather a recognition of God’s providence.  Dabney cites Luke 12:6-7, where Jesus tells his disciples, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God…fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

The Christian has full trust in God’s sovereignty. Dabney beautifully situates this trust in the context of the war which ravaged his day, declaring that God’s control extends even to the trajectory of a single bullet in the chaos of battle:

Even when the thousand missiles of death, invisible to mortal sight, and sent forth aimlessly by those who launched them, shoot in inexplicable confusion over the battlefield, His eye gives them each one aim and a purpose, according to the plan of his wisdom.

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Even though we may not know the special will of God for us and our endeavors, we rest assured that His plan is “wise, and right, and good.” The time and the place are in his hands and this assurance gives us boldness.

Fears God More Than Man

The third and final mark of true Christian courage resembles in many aspects the first. But there are distinctions. “Fear of God” in this context is less about obedience and conscience and more about having a proper perspective of the eternal and immortal. The believer has no need to fear man because he is “united by faith to Christ, adopted into the favour of God, and an heir of the inheritance in the skies which is as secure as the throne of God.” Scripture constantly points beyond the now to what lies ahead. While we do not discount the importance of the present world, our hope is in the world to come. The Christian does not fear death because we serve the One who conquered death. Again speaking to the darkness of his day, Dabney encourages his listeners with the reminder that should the believer’s body “be smitten into the grave” he knows that “the resurrection day will repair all the ravages of the sword, and restore the poor tenement to his occupancy, ‘fashioned like unto Christ glorious body.'”

Jesus himself assures us that we need not fear what man can do to us, for he can only harm the body (Matthew 10:28). The Christian from whose soul the stain of sin has been washed in the Redeemer’s blood is the “invulnerable man.”  This is not denying his natural desires to avoid bodily pain and death but these emotions are counteracted by the faith he possesses. “The clearer the faith of the Christian,” says Dabney, “the more complete is this victory over the natural fears”, for his faith gives his soul a “substantial, inward sense of heavenly life” that more satisfying and real than the carnal. Dabney again holds up Jackson as an example: “His soul, I believe, dwelt habitually in the full assurance that God was his God and portion forever.” This relationship between our faith in the life to come and courage is at the heart of Dabney’s theology of courage. It is not a courage which comes from us, but from God and assurance in his promises.

Synthesis

These three marks all relate to the same principle, that our relationship to God determines our attitude toward life, which together forms the foundation for courage.  The first is ethical, the second theological and the last eschatological. We can summarize all three points by saying that if we seek to obey God’s commands, trust His providence and believe His promises we have the true, biblical foundation for courage.

Final Thoughts

Even though generally we are not threatened with physical danger in our day and age, we still need to stand for truth.  Dabney’s threefold template is beneficial in that regard. We live in an era when the concept of heroism is unpopular,  and this old Southern Presbyterian provides a helpful antidote to our apathy for courage. Scripture is full of heroes but they all reflect the true Hero, Christ, who came to Earth to secure the salvation of his people. And, as Dabney himself points out:

Jesus Christ is the Divine Pattern and Fountain of heroism. Earth’s true heroes are they who derive their courage from him.

Primary Text:

Dabney, Robert L. True Courage: a Discourse Commemorative of Lieut. General Thomas J. Jackson.  (Richmond, VA: Presbyterian Committee of Publications of the Confederate States, 1863.)
Secondary Sources:
Lucas, Sean M.  Robert Lewis Dabney: A Southern Presbyterian Life. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Pub., 2005)
Davis, Donald A. & Wesley K. Clark, Stonewall Jackson: a Biography (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)