Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, all 776 pages of it, was beach reading this past week. In addition to being one of those books that drips with brilliance on just about every page and is hard to put down, it brims with the kind of writing that, if you’re a bit of a writer yourself, makes you covetous of Tartt’s craft.
But what I found most fascinating about the book as it pertains to this intersection between life and God—and, not knowing a thing about Tartt’s religious or non-religious sympathies—is how Tartt touches on larger theological issues through the voice of her narrator, Theo, a boy who having grown up under the long shadow of family tragedy is a jumble of dysfunction.
In the plot, Theo survives some hair-razing adventures to be able to wax philosophically towards the end of the book about the meaning of life and death and questions about moral determinism as it relates to identity and to fate. He concludes that we’re hard-wired to be who we are, whether that is bad or good, and that we ultimately can’t do much to deter ourselves from being who we were born to be: “We can’t choose what we want and don’t want and that’s the hard lonely truth. Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us. We can’t escape who we are.” Depressing? Yes, although there’s something very much in keeping here with the apostle Paul’s own self-awareness in Romans that undergirds an explanation of what many Christians have since called “justification by faith”–”I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7).
But for Theo, with this realization of his own hard-wired nature comes a certain freedom, too—because as he has discovered in his own life, which when surveyed from afar might just appear as mere randomness, the bad stuff (that happens to him or that he does) can, in the turn of a dice, become the very best, good thing that could happen to him and for others, and vice versa: the seemingly good turn of events in his life can in the end be the worst thing that could happen. Theo’s newly discovered freedom lies in letting go of an internal need to be good or bad or to have control of the plot—so that tragedies and bad stuff don’t happen. Instead, he chooses to live in that “middle space,” as he calls it, which, as he defines it, is that place “between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality…a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic. And—I would argue as well—all love.”
And I would add, maybe not just love, but faith, hope and love together. These are the qualities of a life lived out in the middle space, between a gaping chasm of despair and a hovering sky of “pure otherness,” right where “despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.” The folks who have learned that they don’t need to justify themselves—to find some sort of existential justification for the way they’ve turned out and for the hard-scrabble cruelty of fate that has made them do what they don’t want or want what they don’t do—live here. In the middle. “Justification by faith” might be another way to name it. Theo’s transformation lies in his embrace of this middle distance:
“And just as music is the space between notes, just as the stars are beautiful because of the space between them, just as the sun strikes raindrops at a certain angle and throws a prism of color across the sky—so the space where I exist, and want to keep existing, and to be quite frank I hope I die in, is exactly this middle distance: where despair struck pure otherness and created something sublime.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The seam between death and resurrection is a thin one, but it’s there, always beckoning to a new creation. And maybe the best way to apprehend it (at least in this life) is to stand on the seam. In the middle.
I guess I’m with Theo.