Emily’s First Question: What separates the Bible from Grimms’ Fairy Tales?

Patheos Blog




Emily’s First Question

Published by Michael Novak at Patheos.com on January 23, 2015

 EMILY: What separates the Bible from a book of moral fables such as Grimms’ Fairy Tales?

GRANDPA: The Bible confronts you with a choice about your future. It lays a challenge before you: to accept God as God, or not; and to accept His offer of friendship with Him, or not.

The wonderful books of fairy tales and folk tales in many different languages amuse you, frighten you, delight you – but they do not give you such an abrupt challenge, and do not call you to change your life at a radical level.

One thing someone pointed out to me, and then I learned to see for myself, is that every book in the Bible, especially in the Jewish Testament, hinges on a free choice. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Abraham with Isaac, King David – all were faced with choices to make. In one chapter, King David is faithful to his Lord, and in another, he betrays his Lord. Thus the overwhelming questions we learn to face are: What will I do next? How do I intend to change my life, or to go on living in the same path?

We wouldn’t know unless God had revealed it, that the Creator is essentially a force for good, even for love, not a malicious Creator or an absurdist. The Jewish Testament does not reveal everything all at once. It limns characteristics of the Creator little by little, and it also sometimes makes a sketch and then does it over, altering it. To do this, the Bible uses many literary genres, many tones of voice, many points of view. Some stories are told a little ironically, almost playfully. Some have a seriousness that clearly intends to say: “This is the literal truth. Pay attention.” One hears this tone of voice in the Ten Commandments, for example, and in many other places.

The essential point of the Jewish Testament, in my view, is that the Creator of all things – that immense power revealed in terrifyingly tempestuous seas, the crack of thunder, and blinding flashes of light, the sort that teach us how helpless we are out on the high seas in the middle of a storm, sheltered only by the wooden sides of a boat – is not hostile to us. On the contrary, He invites us to be His friends, even to live in Him and He in us.

Sometimes too, we see all around us only meaninglessness. We call on God, but there is only silence, only emptiness, only dark and dry desert air. We can find testimony to this experience even in the most celebrated of believers, such as Mother Teresa, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. John of the Cross. Whole books have been written to guide us through the dark nights in which God allows us to experience abandonment and pointlessness.

Given the range of experiences it gives us, human life of itself is not altogether clear about whether God is hostile to us or friendly to us.

The Bible from start to end makes two loud and clear points: in it, the Creator warns that we will be much besieged, left alone in a desert, buffeted, without any sense of meaning or solace or comfort. Even God’s son, Jesus, was reduced to saying as He hung upon the Cross: “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?” On the other hand, and at the same time, the Bible tells us that the Lord, despite all these bitter trials, gathers us under His arm as a hen gathers its chicks, and that He extends His love to us. His is not always a sweet love, but sometimes a trying and testing love.

Maybe some people want a God who is always sweet, always giving comfort, always giving consolation. That is not the God described in the Bible, either in the Jewish Testament or in the Christian Testament. Consider the story of Job. Consider the story of Jesus – or, for that matter, of the eleven Apostles who met horrific deaths. (Tradition holds that St. John the Evangelist alone died a natural death, at Ephesus, which we visited with Nana just weeks before her death.)

If you are seeking only sweetness, you ought not to come to Judaism or Christianity. “Those He loves, He makes to suffer.”

Reading these texts slowly and often, meditating on them, one is driven to conclude that the Jewish God and the Christian God – without question, they are related – is a tough God, raising up a tough people. But the overwhelming evidence of existence is that He conceived of this universe and created it out of love, out of goodness, out of outward-going generosity, even in the face of our own betrayals, turnings away, sin, and sometimes malice. The Bible rams this point home more concretely and more deeply than Plato in his Symposium and Aristotle in book 12 of his Metaphysics. 

God does not want in return the friendship of slaves; He wants the friendship of free women and free men. As the much-loved French poet Charles Péguy puts it:

When you once have known what it is to be loved freely, Submission no longer has any taste. All the prostrations in the world Are not worth the beautiful upright attitude of a free man as he kneels. All the submission, all the dejections in the world Are not equal in value to the soaring up point, The beautiful straight soaring up of one single invocation From a love that is free.[1]

 EMILY: Admittedly I find this answer somewhat unsatisfactory since the hinge of your explanation is that the Bible asks a person to face moral choices and free will; yet nearly every coming-of-age story could be said to do the same thing, just in a more structured narrative. In fact, after your explanation I am MORE inclined to read the Bible much in the same way I would read Alice in Wonderland.

The original story places Alice through a series of events and challenges that are really only connected by her progress through Wonderland, and during her journey she is constantly learning lessons of deep-thinking and morality, while being challenged and required to act and react along the way. While the figure of Jesus is that of a teacher, Alice is a student of the world, and yet I find myself learning many of the same moral lessons from Alice as I do through Jesus while reading the Bible. Jesus simply lacked the Cheshire Cat.

I say this not as a critical judgment of the Bible, but more for clarification.

 Why is the Bible treated so differently from other books of moral fables, especially given that there are many “kid-friendly” versions of the Bible and picture-book-style renditions of the stories within the Bible that can often be indistinguishable from other children’s books?

GRANDPA: I must think about this, and in the next installment of “Emily’s Questions” offer a reply.


Coming Down to Earth: “Grandpa, I Have Some Questions”

Published by Michael Novak  at Patheos.com on January 16, 2015  Just twenty years ago, my daughter Jana urged me to respond to a list of questions she had about God, how to live, sex, and other puzzles of life. As we wrote back and forth for nearly a year, she questioned my replies, and I kept trying again. From this filial exchange, Pocket Books published a volume called Tell Me Why, picked up by another publisher in the United Kingdom. Of all my writings, that book gave me the most personal joy to write.

Emily Alston Novak and Michael Novak
Emily Alston Novak and Michael Novak

Recently my very first granddaughter, Emily, fresh upon getting her degree in creative writing from the University of Iowa, has now asked me another series of questions. We think of it as Tell Me Why 2.0

It would be difficult to explain how much I love Emily – her first name is Emily, but ever since college days she has come to prefer her second name, her grandmother’s family name, Alston. Here is how our love began.

* * *

I was hoping in August 1993 that Emily would be born as predicted on August 2nd, the birthday of my dear brother Dick, who had died as a missionary in what was then Dacca, East Pakistan (today, Bangladesh) in 1964. Dick’s life had been cut short by a knife attack during Muslim riots against Hindus.[1]

As it turned out, Emily’s actual birth occurred on August 3rd, the day after what would have been Dick’s 58th birthday. Fortunately my wife, Karen, was in the birthing room (prudently she had sent me to the waiting room, knowing that I don’t react well to the sight of blood), so this is the story I have from Karen: Emily’s mother, Lucy, was suffering from a cold when she went into the delivery room, and then when the doctor finally held the delivered baby in his hands, Karen noted that the little girl was having trouble breathing and called out about it in the delivery room. The doctor was visibly annoyed by her voice, but the instant he looked at the child he called for the nurses to alert the Intensive Care Unit that Emily was on her way.

In memory, it seems to me that little Emily Alston Novak was not able to be put in the arms of her mother for a few more days (until Lucy’s cold was cured, and the newborn could safely leave the ICU). During that period the doctors allowed Karen and me to come hold the baby, on condition that we had properly gowned, disinfected our hands, and fastened on our hygienic masks. We didn’t want the baby’s first hours of life to be in a machine, we wanted her to feel warm and safe in the arms of her family.

Thus it was that fragile and threatened Emily Alston came to bond so deeply and so solidly, so spontaneously, with Karen and me in a way that has fused our whole lives. Ever since, it has seemed to me that Emily Alston had only to sense Karen or me in her proximity to want to push herself toward us or, as she got older, to run toward us on the instant she spotted us. In her first years, at twenty paces she would start running toward me and at the end simply leap into my arms. This went on for years. At last, she grew into so lithe and agile a preteen that when she ran down a long hallway and leapt into my arms she all but knocked me over. Later on, even bracing myself fully, I was no longer able to catch her as of old. It didn’t seem then (or now) as if our hearts stopped racing toward each other – only that I could no longer absorb the full momentum in her leaps.

I still feel as close to her as I did in those early years. In her presence, I melt.

So I was quite thrilled when in the first few weeks after her graduation from college she sent me a longish email with ten questions on which she wanted my replies.

There was no doubt I would receive her leap, brace myself for the impact, and try to reply. I knew she could respond and force me to get her point exactly, or rebut my first attempts. My first thought was to rearrange her queries in order of importance. Then I thought, “No, I will just answer each of them briefly in the order in which she asked them.”

Most of the questions had to do with religion. Alas, parents and grandparents today cannot rely on a host of supporting institutions to give answers to the multitude of questions a quick child naturally conjures up. And the mass media today are certainly no friends of Jewish or Christian religion. On the contrary, they constantly trivialize religion, treat it as irrelevant, even ridiculous. Far from assisting in educating our children in their faith, the media throw before them all sorts of misinformation. Having seen this already with my children, I was not surprised at the sorts of questions that Alston tested me with.

In the weeks ahead I will be posting here Emily’s questions and my replies, occasionally, with her feedback and refinements.

* * *

The Novaks have been Catholic, so far as I have been able to determine, since at least the 1200s. The family originates in the “little Alps,” the Tatra Mountains of central Slovakia, the mountains that begin in the high Alps of Switzerland, and are still snow-topped when they descend into Slovakia, though much less towering than before.

Saints Cyril and Methodius brought Christianity to the Slavic countries and did much of their work in translating the bible into the Slavic tongue in the territory today called “Slovakia.” In a certain sense, the Slovak language may be thought of as the central Slavic language – closest to the Old Slavonic – out of which the many Slavic tongues went their various ways. (It is not that the Slovak tongue was first, rather that the Slovak lands were those in which that pivotal translation occurred.)

My dear wife Karen’s side of the family has three roots: one goes back to the Carvers of Plymouth Rock, to the younger brother of John Carver, the first governor of Massachusetts. The second line comes through her father, George Laub of Luxemburgish and Bavarian background. The third line comes by way of her mother’s mother, who married a Norwegian immigrant, Jan (John) Swenson. John Swenson and his brother were inventors who owned more than twenty-five patents each. Among their inventions were the stump-puller (winner of a gold medal at the Seattle World’s Fair, recognized as the invention “that opened the American West”), the extension ladder, a highly reliable and popular lightning rod, and a binder for harvesting which was bought by International Harvester.

English dissenters, later ancestors who were Baptist and Methodist circuit riders on the Iowa prairie, Norwegian Lutherans, German/Luxembuger Catholics – Alston comes of a very religiously diverse line indeed. She was brought up Catholic, although her mother Lucy (like her paternal great grandmother, of Carver-Swenson roots) was born a Methodist and became Catholic only later in life.

Emily was always taught to question. On the grounds that the Creator of all things was in the beginning the Logos, and is the source of all intelligence and intelligibility in the universe, a Jew or a Christian is safe in questioning, even has the vocation and duty to question, in order to imitate the Creator, and in order to come close to the Creator. Questions are not the enemy of faith. They are a participation in God’s own living intelligence. And the final resting point of questions, like their beginning, is in the eternal Logos.

In those traditions, a favorite metaphor for the Unseen God is Light, a Light that when approached, blinds. In another metaphor, this light is on a wavelength far too powerful for human receptors.

In this spirit, Emily and I joined one more time, by a leap of hers.

More to come.



[1] My sister, Mary Ann Novak, has written a brief but gripping account of his life and death, The Making of a Martyr (2014).

Inaugural Post of My New Blog "Coming Down to Earth"

Patheos Blog

A Recent, Much Blessed Trip to Lithuania

Published by Michael Novak at Patheos.com on January 12, 2015


First a short introduction to this new blog:

Much of life consists in coming down to earth. Since college days, I have always preferred Aristotle over Plato, because Plato steadily points upwards (too idealistic), and Aristotle’s hand is palm-down, accepting the imperfections of earth. “All knowledge begins through the senses,” he writes. From the first, I loved the coming down to earth of Raphael’s masterpiece, “The School of Athens.”

Moreover, Aristotle’s preference for coming down to earth, I found, fits better with God’s sending His only Son to earth, in mercy. A bit shocking, that the Messiah should come as a poor and undefended man, of low origins and among a far-off, small, and conquered people. Thus does God bring humans down to earth, sneak up on us from below, teach us to look for our sweetest hopes not toward greatness but to littleness – even brokenness and abandonment. I love the bleakness of Isaiah 53, my favorite text for meditation, which often stuns me through Handel’s Messiah.

Thus, I was delighted to make a recent, much blessed trip to Lithuania. All the little states of Eastern Europe need strengthening now by friends from the United States. They feel lonely and very threatened, watching the bloodshed in Ukraine. I remember Reagan reaching out to Poland during the bad days of 1981. American candles in the window, in solidarity.

But what brought me really down to earth was the humbleness of the 1920s convent in which St. Faustina had her vision of Divine Mercy (1933-1936). I was given a half-hour alone in the humble room of the apparition, and gifted two copies of the Ukrainian painting, loved by her, of what she had seen. (Not the happy painting done elsewhere from her written notes, but the dark one, the strong one, the tough one, in which she guided the painter directly.)

* * *

Novak-headphones-Lithuania-300x232So, twenty-five years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and after flying from Miami (85° F), there I was in cold and chilly Vilnius, Lithuania (-28 ° F) last November. Last year, 2014, was special year for remembering the great, almost miraculous things that occurred, quite humbly, in the tearing down of the Wall. (This past October, I was also called to Krakow and to Prague for sobering celebrations – and present worries. In Prague, the banner for the conference read: “Democracy, it hurts to think how much we loved you in 1989.” Practicing self-government is a wearying task.)

In Vilnius, I did not hear public worries about another Russian threat. But in private, a young reporter admitted how friends of hers were thinking they should delay marrying, maybe think of emigrating. Russian propaganda is insistent in sowing such fears by publicly accusing Lithuanians of “not behaving well.” Barely disguised threats suffice to sow uneasiness.

The recently begun rotation of 350 American troops into and out of Lithuania, I am happy to report, helps to quiet nerves. A good decision, of which more are needed. The American ambassador there had me over for an hour, and I came away reassured that someone is watching.

In Reagan’s time, during threatening Soviet maneuvers on the Polish border and the imprisonment of hundreds of Solidarnosc activists, there were lights of solidarity lit in millions of American homes, and day after day Lady Thatcher and Reagan made small military and financial moves to rebuke Soviet leadership. Two years before, Pope John Paul II had visited Poland for “nine days that changed the world.” And the Soviets lost their nerve.

Tiny little Lithuania, about 3 million persons, together with its neighbors Estonia and Latvia, feel far weaker than the Russian Bear, and look longingly for stronger responses from the United States and NATO.

It was sad to see how the brilliant hopes of just twenty-five years ago seem so threatened now by erasure, and how asleep leadership in the West is – either asleep, or weak. Burying their heads in the already falling snow.

And yet the lights shine bright in the modern streets of newly built-up Vilnius with its shiny glass buildings. The great Christmas tree just went up in the Old Square around the Cathedral in Old Town. Heroic efforts of restoration during the recent twenty-five years have brought most of the desecration of Old Town by Stalin and Hitler up to freshly painted and refurbished, inside and out.

If tradition is the democracy of the dead, then the generations of the last 500 years of Vilnius’ Old Town are still alive today in the dialogue in Lithuania’s soul. The last of European countries to be Christianized only 600 years ago, courageous and tough Lithuania may still be today (with Ukraine) the closest of all the formally annexed Soviet lands to being a “land of the free, and home of the brave.”

I told audiences that delicious joke about the “Baker-Schevardnadze Pact” of the first Bush administration: a straight-up trade: We get Lithuania, the USSR gets Massachusetts. (The two tallest Lithuanian basketball players on the Soviet team would then bring the U.S. the basketball gold in the next Olympics). The Lithuanians liked being thought of as a land of the free, home of the brave… And when I said “Massachusetts” many in the audience turned to each another chanting “Taxachusetts!”

Among the oldest heroes of Vilnius are three Russian Orthodox monks who threw their bodies against pagan marauders when the latter tried to sack the Church of the Holy Spirit. Today their three mummified remains, in Franciscan-like habits, lie just inside the front portals of that church, as if ready to rise up and to repel again all invaders from abroad.

Since the 1920s, Lithuania suffered the horrors of Stalinist church destroyers, then the Nazi slaughterers of some 70,000 Jews in Vilnius alone, and then again Soviet emptiers and sackers of churches, and burners of homes. Assassinations, barbaric tortures, banishments to the prison-camp Archipelago – what furies were unleashed for more than thirty years.

And yet this is the very city wherein Our Lady of Mercy, swathed in gold, brilliantly reflects the sunset above the Dawn Gate in the ancient walls. And where Poland’s saintly missionary of Divine Mercy, St. Faustina, first saw her visions in the 1930s, in an old and relatively uncelebrated convent (beside an orphanage). This is the city where martyrdom brought out the height and depth of God’s mercy. Down to earth, indeed!

The name mercy goes straight to the heart of God, St. Thomas wrote. Misericordia is God’s heart pouring out to les misérables. God goes to the lowly. Down to earth.

The Archbishop of Vilnius, Gintaras Grušas, a Lithuanian American from California, takes it as a duty to build a fitting shrine to Divine Mercy, and to make the poor convent of Vilnius a pilgrimage center. I hope it will attract many pilgrims who attend the World Youth Day in Krakow in 2016. It is not a long trip from one to the other. Since St. John Paul II deeply cherished the message of St. Faustina, I heartily, heartily recommend it.


Image from my private files.