Saturday, October 30, 2010

The unbearable lightness vs. the weight of glory

I recently read The Unbearable Lightness of Being, partly because some fellow poets recommended it and partly because I love the title and was curious to find out what it meant. Written by Czech writer Milan Kundera in 1982, the novel takes place against the backdrop of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and follows the lives of a man and the two women in his life. I found it to be a dark little book, depressing to read. I almost didn’t finish it, but I always seem to chug through until the end, hoping for some redeeming value. The “lightness of being” refers to the insubstantiality of life without ultimate purpose and of relationships without commitment. And this lightness is, indeed, unbearable.

As I was reading and reflecting, a contrasting phrase from the title of one of C. S. Lewis’ essays came to mind: “the weight of glory.” Of course, this comes originally from the apostle Paul who wrote to encourage the believers in Corinth: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all [“an eternal weight of glory” in other translations]. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Milan Kundera does speak truth, and I’m glad I finished the book. It’s just that he doesn’t know that the story has an alternate ending. I’m again impressed with the significance, the weight, of the gospel.

Another book I almost put down and then didn’t is Mary Karr’s Lit (2009). I checked it out of the library because I love memoirs by writers, especially poets. But again I found myself inside a very dark book. Slugging through the abusive childhood memories, the disastrous adolescent choices, the marriage that had “Danger!” stamped all over it from the beginning, I was tempted to just put it down. I happened to mention this to a friend at church, another lover of good literature, and she strongly encouraged me to keep reading. I did and was thoroughly surprised to find Karr’s tale turn into a conversion story, much in the same spirit as Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. The unbearable lightness exchanged for the weight of glory.

Since this is turning into a review of recent books read, let me mention the three I’m in the middle of now. (Two are non-fiction and one is a novel. I can only read one novel at a time.) Hal and I are reading together Greg Mortenson’s second book, Stones into Schools (2009), and find ourselves moved and encouraged by this man’s labor of love in setting up schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In the early mornings I am slowly reading through Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection (2010), the fifth book in his series on spiritual theology. Peterson’s book is a commentary on Ephesians, a spiritual reflection on the Reality of the church (as opposed to the reality of the church, what we see and struggle with on a human level) and how to live in the light of this Reality. And I’m just beginning the novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1995), partly to accompany my granddaughter who is reading it for her high school Latin American literature class, and partly because I’ve enjoyed other books by Julia Alvarez.

What would I do without good books? I’d enjoy hearing what you’re reading.


  1. It was interesting to read Milan Kundera's believable portrait of an imperfect but sympathetic Christian character in his first novel, The Joke.

    For several weeks I've been living inside David Grossman's latest novel, To the End of the Land, and I'm still only 55% of the way through. (On Kindle you can know these things precisely!) I imagine some critics will call the novel "overwrought" or something like that, and it really is quite dense, but I find myself completely captivated by his characters' lives.

    Thanks for your comments and recommendations!

  2. I have read this several times already and keep checking to hear what others are saying in response. Unbearable lightness contrasted with weight of glory serves both as a corrective and an inspiration. You did it again! I want to read these books and share them with my friends. Your writing reaches beyond those on your blog. Thank you.

  3. Nancy, enjoying your posts. This will be rather behindhand. I also have enjoyed Practise Resurrection, but I think it's about both the Reality and the reality of the church - its ontological existence as God's creation and the blood, sweat and tears of church as human experience!