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February 13, 2008

One of the lost concepts in American literature – one that has never really been portrayed that well, actually – is the concept of awe.  Most books have relatable heroes, whether American or not.  After all, we do not want to root for people we do not care about.  However, you rarely encounter a literary figure that inspires true awe in American fiction.  Even more important, America really has no concept of awe – of something or someone that causes you to step back and realize your smallness.  Americans have even taken the word “awesome” and morphed its meaning – instead of meaning something that inspires awe, it now simply means “cool”.

This is a result of our individualistic culture.   Americans style themselves as the can-do everyman, and this is the character that American authors tend to write about if they are writing about true heroes (as opposed to anti-heroes, which is a different discussion entirely).  Americans do not see themselves as small, but as people who can rise to the occasion all the time, every time.

One of the problems this engenders is how Americans see themselves in relation to God.  We tend to not realize that we need him, because after all, we are Americans – we can rise to the occasion and get to heaven, can’t we?  This is a false view of the gospel, and while this is a human temptation, it is also a particularly American one as well.

Other literary traditions at least have the concept of awe – of something that is amazing, terrible, but good.  Both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, both from the British tradition, wrote characters that inspire awe.  Gandalf, Galadriel, and Sauron are awesome (in the traditional sense) characters.  They are much more powerful than those around them, and you can’t help but feel that they are different in a disconcerting way.  You like Gandalf, but you also fear him.  Galadriel is beloved, but is also above those in the Fellowship.  Lewis creates the character of Aslan, and describes him in a way that teaches about awe – that he is more beautiful and terrible than anything people have seen.  Even modern British TV has an awe inspiring character – the Doctor from Doctor Who.  I love the show Doctor Who, and the Doctor is a character that inspires awe from those around him.  Some people fear him, and don’t want anything to do with this dangerous man.  Others see him as amazing, but he even causes them to pause at times, to back up and think about how much greater he is than them.

We need to see the awe around us.  While literature can help, ultimately, we need to recognize that God is both someone who loves us and is worthy of our following, but is also someone who is above us in a way that we cannot understand, and that causes us to be afraid at his power.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 13, 2008 1:47 pm

    Good post and I couldn’t agree more. Usually it’s good writing that instills a sense of awe in me. Reading a well-crafted novel by Cormac McCarthy or Don Delillo, a passage so perfect I want to smash my computer and give up writing forever. Science fiction, with its galaxy-spanning narratives, should be a province of awe but that has tailed off for me of late as I see less original thought in the genre and more formula, sharecropping of media tie-ins. Rather than look outside ourselves for our sense of awe, perhaps we should be seeking it in those vast inner spaces, moments of inspiration that come from nowhere. Just completing the final draft of a novel 3+ years in the making and I’m often blown away by a passage too good to have come from my brittle, modest talent. The feeling that some unseen collaborator typed those sentences.

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