For Part , click here.
For Part , click here.
For Part , click here.
For Part , click here.
Choosing a coffee shop in a nice place like Oxford is a difficult and by no means insignificant matter. You can’t be sure where the best place to spend your two pounds is going to be, and you dare not waste your only chance of unearthing a secret gem of a place that only the locals know about. But at the same time you’re also don’t necessarily want to spend much more than two pounds, nor walk too far out of the way. It’s a tricky dilemma. More pragmatic types may be able to identify with black-ops precision the exact superior and economical place within a matter of moments. I, on the other hand, might easily waste half an hour or more in deliberation, traversing across the streets in search of the best way to make the most of my coffee time (I understood at the time how ironically self-defeating this is, and yes, I continued to do it). The trouble is, you never know if you’ve found ‘the one’. You wonder if you might be missing out on something. This is the curse of the semi-adventurous traveller. Obviously, you just need to get over it sometimes and pick anywhere and anything in the immediate vicinity to save yourself the hassle (hence, my ill-fated ‘all-day-breakfast Cornish pasty’ the previous morning). On this occasion, I eventually chose a little place on a street corner that looked unique enough, and had a decent view. It was also chosen because it seemed to make specialist milkshakes, which I found intriguing, despite the fact I wanted a coffee. It also had that irreplaceable mid-morning coffee shop feel about it; it was in the midst of that window of tranquillity in the day where all the business types have long gone but all the sleep-in types have not yet arrived; and all with the unmistakeable force of the mid-morning sun as it bursts through the glass and floods the tables with sheets of white glitter. Case closed. I set my stuff down and went upstairs to the toilet.
As I emerged at the top of the stairs I saw a curious sight. The only other customers who were up there were three twentysomething guys on a raised seating platform towards the back end of the room. They were huddled around a large six-person table, playing some kind of Warhammerish card game. A complex array of cards, notes, and pens were splurged out on the table. Upon seeing me, they all froze like antelope, stopped what they were doing, and simply stared at me. All of them. I might have thought they were embarrassed, but their stares seemed to point to the fact that I should be embarrassed. Being in a new place, I wasn’t sure if this meant I was somehow in the wrong for being there. Was the toilet closed and everyone knew except me? Had these guys actually booked the entire top-floor of the coffee shop (with exclusive rights to all toilets)? Was I somehow trespassing on their domain? Perhaps I was no longer in the cafe anymore and had somehow stumbled, Kafkaesque, into someone’s living room? I managed to find a way past these pseudo-mythic gatekeepers in the end, despite their continual head-turning and twitching in my direction, which continued unexplainably. I had no time to ask them what they were doing or why they persisted in their staring.
I was late, after all, for a coffee appointment with Jean-Paul Sartre.
Indeed, I recently realised that on my bookshelves lie so many potentially interesting books that I never have time to read. They simply sit there, judging me for my presumptuous decision to own them without reading them. This happens not because I don’t want to read them, but – as we always say about such things – because I don’t ‘make time’ to read them. Indeed, I book in dentist appointments, I book in phone calls, I book in sports activities, I book in friends for a coffee, but I rarely book in books – or, more specifically, authors. So, I thought, what a wonderful thing it would be to have written in your phone calendar: ‘Coffee with Spurgeon’, ‘Tea with Augustine’, or ‘Breakfast with Tolstoy’ – to imagine that when you are reading a book in a coffee shop, you are actually spending time with that author, and treating it like any other meeting. I have a new plan to list ten such dormant books on my bookshelves and book them in over the next year or so. I might not make all the appointments, but even if I only get to two or three of them, I’m sure it will have been worthwhile. What prejudice, after all, that we don’t book time in to hear the thoughts of dead people, as if those who happen to be (temporarily) alive are more worthy of our time.
Of course, it’s true that people who are living obviously do matter more than people who are dead in that we may influence, help, and love them in obvious ways, whereas dead authors can only help us. But another (more practical) reason we don’t ‘book in’ books is because we think they will always be there, always at our disposal, whereas another living person seems more fleeting. Where a book can be ‘booked in’ whenever you want, another person cannot. Unlike books, living people have better things to be getting on with than sitting on a shelf waiting to talk with you at any request. So, privileging such ‘real’ meetings does make sense on one level. However, in another sense, such logic is also marginally insane. That is, if other people are fleeting, so also are you, the you who supposedly possesses all this free and never-expiring time at your disposal to pick and read whatever and whenever you want. The reality is that in your own fleetingness and flurrying from place to place, you neglect many of those interesting people on your shelves who might help how you see and do all the other things in your life (and they just might also help some of those other living people in your life, too).
"The sun was bright and diaphanous: a thin white wine. Its light barely touched people’s bodies, gave them no shadows, no relief: faces and hands formed patches of pale gold. All these men in overcoats seemed to float gently along a few inches above the ground. Now and then the wind pushed shadows over us which trembled like water; faces lost their colour for a moment, turned chalky white. It was Sunday; boxed in between the balustrade and the gates of the villas, the crowd flowed away in little waves, to disappear in a thousand rivulets...And how many children there were! Children in prams, in arms, held by the hand or walking stiffly in twos or threes in front of their parents. I had seen all these faces a few hours before, almost triumphant in the youth of a Sunday morning.
Now, dripping with sunlight, they no longer expressed anything but calm, relaxation, and a sort of obstinacy... [These people] had only one day in which to smooth away their wrinkles, their crow’s-feet, the bitter lines made by their work during the week. Only one day. They could feel the minutes flowing between their fingers; would they have time to stock up on enough youth to start afresh on Monday morning? They filled their lungs because sea air is invigorating: only their breathing, as regular and deep as that of sleepers, still testified that they were alive. I walked along stealthily, I didn’t know what to do with my hard, fresh body, in the midst of this tragic crowd taking its rest."
For a Christian, of course, it is even more powerfully moving, because we know something that this observer (and most of the crowd he is watching) doesn’t know, which they could know. Such a passage is an example of one of Sartre’s particular observations being strikingly profound. But then when you step back and look at the entirety of the way ‘Antoine’ (Sartre) perceives and engages the people around him, you see how deeply, deeply flawed and deluded it really is. This is because the whole enterprise of seeing people and things in this detached kind of way locates ‘the self’ at the top of the universe, with absolute freedom to see the world around it as it chooses fit. Whatever happens to occur in that person’s head simply is how it is, regardless of anything that might ‘occur’ inside any other person’s head. This is the fatal poison of ‘existentialism’ when adopted as the primary way one engages with and interprets the surrounding world.
At the same time, however, I seem to share a great affinity with such an approach, in spite of how ludicrous it actually is (and I know many of you do, too). We enjoy reflecting on the world around us and creating structural meaning from the data, people, structures, and customs we see going on before our eyes. This is, after all, essential to all literature, in one way or another. And it isn’t (always) wrong. It can be extremely fruitful, enjoyable, creative, and essential to realising what it is you actually think about things. Even if some people do this a lot more than others, it’s just the normal process of anyone’s mind as we each take in what’s going on around us and try to interpret what it means. You could even say that those who do this as Christians are simply ‘existentialists’ who happen to have found the Truth. For that reason, of course, we cannot be existentialists in any genuine sense because that’s not actually how our universe works. This is because our lives are lived in response to the ultimate stimulus of the universe: God. This God also happens to be an ultimate person with whom we can interact beyond the confines of our own skewed imaginations and flawed wills. And although inward reflection is so vital and helpful, when left unbridled it can easily become egotistical and delusional, and runs the risk of turning other people into objects rather than seeing them as living beings whose wills and imaginations might also make an impression upon us. If the meanderings the Sartre-esque mind are left untethered, the “I” gets to impose itself (inwardly) upon what everybody else is and what everybody else ‘means’. A glance down an average page of Nausea you see a great multitude of “I’s”. Granted, it’s a 1st-person diary so that’s inevitable, but it is nonetheless indicative of how someone like Sartre actually thinks we ought to think: “I” is king. That’s the kind of reflection that should be alien to those who know the One who emptied the “I” of all its bloated significance (before filling it up again). Yes: Jesus.
I’m not sure how much can be done to ‘engineer’ this kind of reading except to be aware of how vital it is that we have an appropriate ‘scene’ into which the power of the Word may invade (which is really nothing more complicated than connecting your spiritual life to everything else you’re doing). Without such a scene, the abstract truth that Jesus said “Come out!” to a dead man may easily sail over our heads in the same way a seagull does. We know the seagull is up there, but do we care? Are we going to turn our head? There are thousands of seagulls, just as there are thousands of glorious truths we might choose to contemplate. But why should we look up at that particular seagull? We may only take notice if it affects us directly, whether by ‘invading’ us from above in the usual unpleasant fashion, or by swooping down to snatch our chips from our hand (where I live, this actually happens to people regularly – Scottish seagulls have no shame nor do they follow any sort of social or anthropological convention). We ought to allow Scripture to invade us like this from time to time. The Holy Spirit is at work in all of this, of course, but the way we read is not irrelevant, and it allows us to partner with Him in some way.
This, of course, is another reason to go for coffee with interesting dead people. They give you a context for what you actually believe, and they remind you (indirectly) not to go cold on those things you think you know so well. This also, I think, should help us not to take up residence inside our heads forever but to move out for the love and good of others.