Persistent Concerns

I was teaching a senior elective a couple of years ago called “Christian Authors,” and I remember trying to teach my kids about this idea of the “persistent concerns” of a writer– the issues that an author keeps coming back to, over and over again, in story after story, book after book. It’s a hard thing to teach in a one semester course because you can only really see it if you have read lots of things that one person has written.

A wonderful professor of mine in college, Dr. Roper, mentioned something like this in our literature class in Rome. He compared the act of real, honest writing to the rather unattractive image of scratching an itch that just won’t go away. And great writers, I suppose, are those people who keep scratching perpetual itches.

So, think about your favorite author– someone whose wide body of works you have read. Think of this person’s novels, short stories, essays, letters–whatever you have gotten your hands on over the years. Aren’t there certain threads that keep pulling on each other again and again? Isn’t there this sense that, somehow, every story he ever wrote is somehow the same story? Or perhaps there is an image or moment that keeps coming up over and over– not in a way that is forced, or even intentional–but nonetheless unmistakably patterned on another scene you’ve seen her try to articulate before?

You may have discovered this phenomenon long ago, but when I finally did, I felt like I had stumbled upon a small revelation: most writers, even the really great ones, keep writing about the same darn things.

And for most of them, it’s just one thing. Maybe two. Three at most.

It may look like lots of different things. C. S. Lewis wrote about everything from lions in wardrobes and men traveling to Mars to older demons teaching young devils the ways of temptation–but, in the end, wasn’t he always really writing about that mysterious, unbidden joy and longing? Lucy follows it, Ransom is baptized in it, Screwtape tries to kill it, Orual stifles it, Reepicheep plunges into its depths– but it’s always there. The most beautiful passages in all of Lewis’ stories and apologetic works describe that longing he called “joy”.

For Austen, one obvious persistent concern is marriage. For Flannery, it’s that violent intervention of grace. For Dostoevsky, it seems to be something like human suffering and the beauty of God.

What are the persistent concerns of your favorite writer? What questions or ideas do they keep going back to?

My kids actually notice this phenomenon all the time with the very few authors the curriculum demands they pay attention to more than just once, but they express their recognition with something less than awe: “Ms. Shea, why does Shakespeare always write about relationships with trust issues?”

I don’t mean to ignore the complexity and nuance of what great writers and poets do–but I believe that considering a large body of someone’s work in this way can help us find a more meaningful path towards knowing him better. When I was assigned the onerous Junior Poet project in college, and had to absorb all the writings of a particular chosen poet, I found that sitting back and asking myself rather simply about Richard Wilbur’s persistent concerns helped me to see connections in his work I had been too overwhelmed to appreciate before.

I bring this idea up because something occurred to me today as I was thinking about the Feast of Christ the King– a feast, I admit, that never has captured my imagination or spiritual feelings in any powerful way before. Gaudete Sunday always does, the Easter Vigil does, the Visitation… and lots of other minor memorials. Most of them probably have some kind of connecting thread to one of my own persistent concerns. But not the Feast of Christ the King. It’s the feast that lets me know that I can finally get excited for Advent, and that has been about it.

Yet for some reason today, as I was listening to a podcast about this last Sunday in Ordinary time and thinking how the whole kingship thing doesn’t really resonate with me, I remembered a priest asking once, in a homily perhaps, “Do you know what Christ talks about most in the Gospels?”

I remember my mind flitting through a list of possibilities. Love? No, too obvious. The poor? Mm, Jesus acts always with them in mind and heart, but how often does he actually use the word “the poor” besides in the Beatitudes and “the poor you will always have with you”? Maybe forgiveness– or something nobody would say, like bread? Fish? No. Ah, of course. Abba. Father. That must be…

“The Kingdom.”

What?

“The Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven as it is called in Matthew. The Kingdom is what he loves to talk about most.”

I remember being rather astonished and almost… disappointed? Not love? Not hope? Really, Jesus? What you talk about most is “the Kingdom”? What even is that?

Even now, as I write this, I decided to do a quick Command+F (mac!) search. In the King James translation of the Gospel of Matthew, the word “kingdom” appears 57 times. In Mark, 21. In Luke, 46. In John, only 5 (!).

As a comparison, the English word “love” occurs 57 times in John, 18 times in Luke, 10 in Mark, and 16 in Matthew.

That’s 129 to 101 in favor of “kingdom” over “love”, folks. And we know there are (at least four?) different Greek words for love, and John employs different ones throughout his Gospel, and so that 101 number would go down quite a bit if we distinguished the different actual Greek words being translated with the one English “love”. (For a brief but interesting summary of key Greek words in John, see this website.)

But the consistent word for Kingdom, βασιλεία or Basileia in Greek, appears 162 times in the New Testament according to Wikipedia–and most of those instances are from the lips of Christ himself.

Okay, so even if this priest was exaggerating, and even if you did more searches and found out that another word appeared more frequently, it’s clear that “the kingdom” is certainly a persistent concern of Jesus.

So why, I wondered, isn’t it a persistent concern of mine?

Partially, perhaps, because I don’t fully understand what the kingdom is. It always seemed synonymous with the Church or with heaven, or perhaps with the new creation–and those identifications are all true. Yet still it is only in the context of the term “kingdom” that I ever identify those already mysterious concepts with one another.

I remembered vaguely that in Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict reflects on the meaning of “the kingdom” quite a lot, so I searched for his explanations:

“‘Kingdom of God’ is…an inadequate translation [of the Hebrew malkut and the Greek basilea]. It would be better to speak of God’s being-Lord, of his lordship” (emphasis added, 56).

“He, who is in our midst, is the ‘Kingdom of God,’ only we do not know him (cf Jn 1:30)….He himself is the treasure; communion with him is the pearl of great price” (60-61).

“The Kingdom is not a thing, it is not a geographical dominion like worldly kingdoms. It is a person; it is he. On this interpretation, the term ‘Kingdom of God’ is itself a veiled Christology. By the way in which he speaks of the Kingdom of God, Jesus leads men to realize the overwhelming fact that in him God himself is present among them, that he is God’s presence.”

Mysterious still.

But at least I’m beginning to think about the Feast of Christ the King in a different way–that is, I’m actually thinking about it.

It’s a feast that celebrates the consummation of that kingdom, the already-but-not-yet reign of the one true king.

And then I remembered–how did I not see it before–how so many of Jesus’ stories are about the kingdom, how one must be “like a little child” to enter it– how the teacher of the law who answered him wisely was “not far from” it — how the poor in spirit would “inherit” it — how it is like a treasure in a field or a pearl of great price.

He even seemed, sometimes, to struggle to put it into words for us–as sometimes we all do when we are talking about what we love best: “What is the kingdom of God like? To what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that a man planted in a garden… To what shall I compare the kingdom of God? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed with three measures of wheat flour…” (Luke 13:18-20).

There is much more, of course, to think about here. Like the kingly gifts he received from the magi as a poor infant, or the mockery of his kingship that he suffered at the hands of the Romans. The crown of thorns and the purple robe and the “King of the Jews” notice by Pilate take on a new poignancy when you reflect on how much Jesus loved to preach about the kingdom. And that pointed question we actually heard in the Gospel this Sunday from Pilate touches, rather deeply, on the whole mystery of what Jesus meant by the term:

Pilate said to Jesus,
“Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own
or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I?
Your own nation and the chief priests handed you over to me.
What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.
If my kingdom did belong to this world,
my attendants would be fighting
to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.
But as it is, my kingdom is not here.”
So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say I am a king.
For this I was born and for this I came into the world,
to testify to the truth.
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

John 18:33-37

Perhaps as we get ready for Advent– a season full of persistent concerns I can more easily relate to like waiting and hope– I can first pause and reflect, in this last week of ordinary time, on one of Jesus’ favorite things to tell stories about: his Father’s Kingdom.

Zašto-je-narod-vikao-»Krv-njegova-na-nas-i-na-djecu-našu«


2 thoughts on “Persistent Concerns

  1. The translation “kingdom” has always bothered me because the word is related to kinship: the king is the leader of your family group.

    Is Benedict suggesting that the Kingdom isn’t about God being “rex” but about his being “dominus”? (Rex = one who has treasure, related to “rich”; dominus = one who subdues, related to “domicile.”)

    1. That’s a good question. I’ll have to go back and read that chapter of his more carefully– my vague impression of it is that he is trying to critique the sense of “kingdom” as being some kind of project we can establish. He wants to show that kingdom has much more to do with the presence and closeness of God. Both dominus and rex are connected to power, and Benedict, as I recall, was trying to reframe the concept of kingdom away from that notion.

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