“It’s Just a little cold!” Mourning Ernest Hemingway

Guest Post by Mark Kennedy, ACSI Canada

That’s what my dear wife Ginny thought about my sniffles, scratchy throat and mild fever.

‘How could she possibly know that for sure?’ I thought in a spirit of congested misery. ‘What if it’s something much more  lethal, like beriberi or bubonic plague or the human version of Dutch elm disease!?!’

And furthermore, she said it on my birthday: that unwelcome annual reminder that 365 more days have been stuffed in the chronological backpack I’d be lugging across life’s portage, that an additional growth ring encircled my substantial trunk and that one more burning candle had been added to the conflagration that’s been gradually incinerating my faculties. 

Clearly Ginny didn’t feel nearly as sorry for me as I did when she bid a cheery farewell and flitted away for jolly revels with her sisters and other family members.

And there I was, alone with my thoughts, the ‘build-it-yourself’ plastic model kit of a Spitfire airplane she gave me and 3 unsympathetic and unruly dogs.

A bit gloomy and melodramatic, you say? Well maybe. ‘Cheer up,’ I told myself, ‘things could be worse’, I said, and thought about Ernest Hemingway. 

Now there was a man who managed to pack several lifetimes’ worth of suffering into 60 years of life. Along with collecting an array of war wounds, and a variety of physical injuries from high-risk adventures, he endured an emotional life that, according to one biographer, was “a chronicle of repeated suicide attempts, paranoia, multiple affairs and marriages”. And he tried to treat his pain with a mixture of spiritual nihilism, genuine courage and far too much alcohol. The consequences were tragically inevitable. Despite the wonderful literary achievements, the fame and the accompanying  financial security, his life was “an ascent that ran downhill; plenty that turned into a wasteland; a cornucopia whose abundance made hungry”, to use  Malcolm Muggeridge’s imagery.

If only Hemingway had had a biblical perspective on living he could have steered clear of at least some of those emotionally wounding experiences. He may even have avoided a bit of physical damage if he’d had a better understanding of what is and isn’t worth risking your life for. 

It isn’t like he never heard the Christian message. His parents were committed believers and the family attended a biblically grounded Congregational church where, as a teen, Ernest starred in one of the church dramatic production.  Yet he deliberately turned away from Christ and blazed his own trail without benefit of life’s only dependable guide and compass.

His books present consistent themes about physical courage but his characters, even the best of them, seemed to be consistently mired in moral ambiguity. He clearly admired people who dared to face death on safaris or in battles or in bullrings. But emotionally his heroes are often controlled by their passions and the author’s concepts of morality. In Eden, the serpent tempts Eve with the promise of “being like God, knowing good and evil.” In the real world, humanity continues to face the consequences of that experiential knowledge. But in the fictional worlds Hemingway creates, he becomes the god, omnipotently redefining good and evil according to his own whims – a colossal presumption that only works in fiction, never in reality. His own life showed that.

Hemingway believed his greatest work was The Old Man and The Sea. It was “the best I can write ever for all of my life” and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1952. His hero, a wizened Cuban fisherman named Santiago, sails his little skiff out into the Gulf Stream in pursuit of marlin. After several frustratingly unproductive days, he hooks, plays and bring to gaff an enormous fish. It is the pinnacle of a lifetime’s labour, a catch far beyond the aspirations of a simple fisherman. But as he sails home with the great fish lashed to the ship’s gunnel, sharks tear great slabs of flesh from it. And when he reaches shore, there’s nothing left of his magnificent catch but a skeleton.

Hemmingway hated it when commentators claimed to see hidden meanings in his stories, when they assumed his characters and plots somehow revealed something of himself. So maybe it’s just a coincidence that both Santiago and Hemingway found that their greatest achievements were what media mogul Ted Turner called “The empty bag of success”. Maybe that had nothing to do with why, at age 60, America’s most celebrated 20th Century author put the barrel of a loaded shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Maybe it didn’t, but it’s worth considering.

I know everyone is responsible for his decisions and their consequences. When a person has the opportunity to choose whether to receive Christ or not he is indeed “the captain of his fate, the master of his soul” in a sense far different from what William Ernest Henley meant in his poem “Invictus”. Nevertheless I couldn’t help mourning for Ernest Hemingway, or at least, for the tragedy of his ‘anti-faith’ life decision. When I considered his lean, flowing prose and his honest, precise style, how he could draw my senses and emotions into a trout fishing adventure on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or a lion hunt on an East African savannah, I couldn’t help thinking about the profound influence he could have had for God’s Kingdom.

But instead of the Hemingways of this world, God is stuck mainly with unimpressive folks with marginal abilities to build his kingdom – people like us.

>“Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.  But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. “ 1 Cor 1: 26 & 27

I’m pretty sure that’s where a lot of us in Christian schooling fit in, squeezed in somewhere among the foolish things I mean - and really, it’s a good place to be. That way, when God allows us to be part of the wonderful things He’s doing in our schools, we’re less likely to take the credit.

Then there are the other things we have that Hemingway missed out on: the love, truth and meaning that he failed to track down we’ve found in Christ. And despite our limitations, the Lord lets us participate in eternally significant things through Christian schooling. What could be better! Bull fighting? Shooting a charging lion before it dismembers you? It seems to me that there are some things worth living and dieing for – the advancement of God’s school system is one of them, but, at least to my mind, bull fighting and lion hunting don’t even make the list.
Well, as I lay there thinking about these things, I did cheer up a bit, quite a bit really.

So I stretched out on the sofa and tried to remember all the titles from Hemingway’s books to help me drift off to sleep, ‘The Green Hills of Africa….Death in the Afternoon…The Sun Also Rises…A Moveable Feast… To Have and To Have Not…… For Whom the Bell Tolls …’

And then I felt it, a long wet canine tongue sincerely slobbering in my right ear. 

“Ask not for whom the dog slobbers.” I thought, “It slobbers for thee……… and for doggie walk time.”

And I got up feeling pretty good, apart from the wet ear. 
“After all”, I thought, “it is just a little cold.”