The Eight Day by Thornton Wilder: VI. Coaltown, Illinois, Christmas 1905

In the final chapter of Thornton Wilder’s novel, The Eighth Day, the reader sees Roger return to Coaltown. He speaks with Felicite Lansing, the late Breckenridge’s daughter, learning important information about his father. George Lansing confesses to the murder and flees to Russia. Roger also learns who the rescuers of his father were. The families enjoy the company of each other during this Christmas.

Question:

Throughout this entire novel, from the very beginning, the question of whether man is better or worse than before. Whether the ancients or the moderns are better. Whether man can change or not. Most of these passages that discuss this are either the narrator or Dr. Gillies, or another older character. In this final chapter we have Constance, who is young, but is even more young at heart, ask the following question:

Do people change any–while they’re growing up?” (p. 433)

Obviously there is change in each individual, but is their actually change between the generations? See a post on Bensonian for this.

Favorite Quotation:

The grandfather of Roger’s closest Coaltown friend, Porky, a member of the secluded church, Covenant Church, says this to Roger:

“You come from such a house. You are marked. The mark is on your forehead. There are billions of births. At one birth out of a vast number a Messiah is born. It has been a mistake of the Jews and Christians to believe that there is only one Messiah. Every man and woman is Messiah-bearing, but some are closer on the tree to a Messiah than others. Have you ever seen the ocean?…”

“It is said that on the ocean every ninth wave is larger than the others. I do not know if that is true. So on the sea of human lives one wave in many hundreds of thousands rises, gathers together the strength–the power–of many souls to bear a Messiah. At such times the earth groans; its hour approaches. For centuries a house prepares the birth. Look at this picture. Christ descended by more than thirty generations from King David. Think of them–the men and women, the grandfathers and grandmothers of Christ. I have heard a learned preacher say that it is probable that the mother of Christ could not read or write, nor her mother before her. But to them it had been said: ‘Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'”

He put his finger on the page and lowered his voice. “There are some names here of whom the Bible tells us discreditable things. Is that not strange? You and I would say in our ignorance that the men and women who were so near to bearing a Messiah would be pure and without fault, but no! God builds in His own way. He can use the stone that the builders rejected. There is an old saying, ‘God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.’ Have you heard it?”…

“The sign of God’s way is that it is strange. God is strange. There is nothing more childish than to think of God as a man.” He waved his hand towards Coaltown–“As they do. His ways to our eyes are often cruel and laughable.” He turned back a page in the Bible. “Here is the tree of Christ’s descent form Adam to Jesse. When Sarah–here!–was told that she would bear a son she laughed. She was an old woman. She bore Isaac–which means ‘Laughter.’ The Bible is the story of a Messiah-bearing family, but it is only one Bible. There are many such families whose Bibles have not been written.”…

“Can it be that your family has been marked? Can it be that your descendants may bring forth a Messiah, tomorrow or in a hundred years? That something is preparing? Your father fired a rifle; a man near him fell dead, but your father did not kill the man. That is strange. Your father did not lift a finger to save himself, but he was saved. That is strange. Your father had no friends, he says; but friends saved him. Your mother never left her house; she had no money; she was dazed. But a child who had never held a dollar in her hand sustained a house. Is that not strange? A great grandmother has reached out of her grave and spoken to you. Your father is right in this letter: there is no happiness equal to that of being aware that one has part in a design. ” Again he pointed to Coaltown: “They walk in despair. If we were to describe what Hell is like it would be the place in which there is no hope or possibility of change: birth, feeding, excreting, propagation, and death–all of some mighty wheel of repetition. There is a fly that lives and lays its eggs and dies–all in one day–and is gone forever.” (pp. 429-431)

I have qualms about what Deacon says. However, the passage is not without truth. First, I agree that “every man and woman is Messiah-bearing.” I believe that each human being is made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and that each human being presents us with the presence of God, along with the rest of Creation. Deacon seems to mean something a little different, however: that each human being has the potential to become a Messiah themselves–now that I cannot agree with. To put ourselves on the level of Christ, or even the potential to be “Christs” seems blasphemous. We are to be imitators of Christ, but we can never be Christ.

Second, Deacon discusses the strangeness of the gospel narrative, that things are done in “mysterious” ways. I agree. The gospel narrative is comic, even fantastic at times (See Frederick Buechner’s book on this).

Third, Deacon says something that perplexes me: “There is nothing more childish than to think of God as a man.” I agree with this statement, but it seems contradictory to what he is saying. It seems that if it is ignorant to think of God as a man, than isn’t it childish to think of man as a God or a Messiah?

Lastly, Deacon says: “Your father did not lift a finger to save himself, but he was saved. That is strange.” I think this reaches a truth of the gospel narrative. That each of us has not lifted a finger, yet Christ has saved us. That is strange.

Cross-Reference:

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