Roland in the Moonlight by David Bentley Hart (Review)

This book is simply a delightful, enjoyable, thoughtful, moving, profound and engaging book. David Bentley Hart has already done the world a service with his previous works on everything from the character of God (The Experience of God) to the problem of evil (The Doors of the Sea) to Christian history (Atheist Delusions, The Story of Christianity) and the problem of hell (That all Shall Be Saved). He’s also written essays on wide-ranging topics and translated the New Testament.

In this book, Hart defies easy designation of genre. I suppose it might be best to qualify this as a memoir, but that’s not really correct. Perhaps it is some sort of fiction, as much of the book is conversations between Hart and his dog, Roland. And, I mean, we know dogs don’t talk, let alone write poetry, edit memoirs and pontificate on consciousness.

Do we?

Perhaps this book is philosophy, as large segments are reflections on consciousness and materialism. There’s bits on religion and theology as well though, with the funniest bits being Roland continually insisting that Hart is actually a Hindu.

Whatever genre it might be qualified as, this may be Hart’s best book to date. I say that as someone who has learned a ton from Hart. I hate to too easily call people or books “life-changing” but I think Hart’s writing (especially The Experience of God) has changed my life. But in his other works, Hart wrote as a theologian and philosopher. Sure, he was a bit more snarky and sarcastic in tone than other theologians I’ve read. In his essays he showed a wider range and I think its that range that flowers in this book.

In other words, this book is delightful and entertaining to read whether you agree or disagree with any of the philosophical ideas. Roland is a wonderful character Hart has created (or simply an extraordinary dog Hart has the privilege to talk with). I would compare Hart’s writing here to Marilynne Robinson, Frederick Beuchner, Anne Lamott or other all around fantastic writers (I’m sure more well-read folks than me could have others come to mind).

For a long time I’ve noted that too many Christian theologians are not imaginative enough. In previous generations we had writers like CS Lewis, George MacDonald, GK Chesterton and others who wrote fiction as well as their writings in theology and philosophy. Hart here reveals his imagination and I would love to read novels or short stories he might write (I know he has a collection of short stories which I’ve never read…maybe I should).

All this has been about Hart so far, but this is Roland’s book. Hart writes of Roland:

“We loved him at once and unreservedly, of course, as only a degenerate and soulless monster would fail to do on first coming to know a puppy. Even so, none of us just then even remotely suspected what an inscrutable and mighty soul entered our lives” (5).

Much later Roland tells the legend of how a great wolf saw early humans, piteous and weak, and laid aside his wolf nature to become a dog and help the humans survive. Dogs saved us, so the stories say, and without dogs life has no meaning.

Roland is delightful. He spends much of the book editing Hart’s great uncle’s papers and many of these poems end up in the book. I am not a big reader of poetry, but maybe I should try. Hart’s great uncle is almost as much a character in the story as Roland is. An unapologetic pagan, Hart is surprised to find his uncle had sympathy of the Christianity of his youth and wrote some poems with Christian themes that we find at the end of the story.

He also wrote poems with Buddhist themes. There’s a lot here on religion and more traditional Christian believers will find a lot to criticize. Of course, after his book on universalism, Hart probably has few traditional Christian readers left and I doubt he’d give a care if they are critical. He’d probably say they’ve lost too much imagination as, in one of the best parts of the book, he considers the most fundamentalist believers among us to be mere atheists trying to believe in belief:

“What’s a militant Latin Mass Catholic or a white evangelical fundamentalist from Tennessee other than an atheist who’s convinced himself that he truly, truly, truly believes by inverting his total, inescapable inward nihilism in the mirror of his despair? He doesn’t believe. He merely believes that he believes” (328).

Through read such reflections on belief and unbelief, nature and matter, I found myself, to be honest, looking for fairies and saying hello to trees. Roland affirms early on that he sees fairies and there is a melancholy tone throughout of what Western humans have lost. I’d say there are echoes of Charles Taylor’s writing on our secular age, an age of disenchantment. Roland, like the kids among us, can see. So one day while reading this book, I went for a walk with my dog. I tried to keep my eyes open to the sounds of birds and trees, chipmunks and blades of grass.

Then just yesterday we were on a family hike. I asked my nine-year-old daughter if she thought fairies lived in these woods.

“Of course,” she said. “And there are mermaids in that lake too.”

Adults like me who say we believe in God and the supernatural may smile, knowing there’s no such things as fairies. Roland would say my daughter sees what I’ve lost the ability to see. I mean, why wouldn’t there be fairies and sprites and pixies and spirits? Who said our disenchanted dead world is the real world?

Maybe we all need the wisdom from dogs and kids to remind us the world is more vibrant with life than we imagined.

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