The Burning Bush

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Category: Classic
Date Published: 1932
Number of Pages: 472
Print Price: $19.98
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How would one educated in modern sciences, reared by a single parent with secular, progressive ideas, especially trained in religious skepticism—deal with an emotional crisis? Would he order his life clearly and coolly according to the dictates of reason or would he find himself confused and bewildered without a knowledge of and respect for the tried-and-true ways, without grounding in a religion and its faith?

These are the questions asked by Sigrid Undset over 82 years ago in her novel The Burning Bush. She answered them from an explicit and potent point of view and with a certain well-founded vehemence, a vehemence that made a doctrinaire novel of it.

The Burning Bush shows a young man, Paul Selmer, a young scientist, struggling with some sort of compact with himself and the world. Insensibly he is attracted to the Catholic Church, to the sure authority of its Magisterium, to the rigor of its self-discipline. The Catholic faith helps him to bear with equanimity a series of misfortunes, to aid his brothers and sisters who, like himself, have run wild (and amok) upon life and made a hash of their lives. He emerges with a hard-won, and grimly joyous, fortitude--a spiritual athlete.

The story is told against the background of Norway. The Catholics Paul meets in his pilgrimage toward maturity are brought in casually, almost accidentally, yet as a whole they become the most important factors in his growth. They are universally serene and stable, each drawn as recognizably individual.

Here is an idea fused in the living stuff of fiction with such art that one is compelled to accept its validity. A way of life that is authentic and sane, and yet so explicit, so exclusive of alternatives, that a person not in sympathy with it is compelled to question and wonder. In her other novels, Undset dealt with people in the Middle Ages who were struggling between two civilizations, an old and a new, between an outmoded paganism with its narrow loyalties and the new Christian society with its insistence on social responsibility and respectability. In The Burning Bush, Paul turns from the chaos of the new world to the security of the authentic and in so doing bids the reader to also cross that bridge. The Burning Bush is a novel that charts our civilization’s full circle.

It might also be ventured that The Burning Bush is a novel that registers Sigrid Undset’s full circle. Raised by progressively-minded atheists, Undset realized while still a teenager that ideologies and their burdensome “isms” fell short of giving meaning to the world and its humanity. Then came World War I and the years afterward which only confirmed (what contemporaries such as Virginia Wolf could not see) that liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, and pacifism would never work because they could not speak to the depths of human nature. It should be no surprise, then, that like her protagonist, she eventually came “home” to the Catholic Church. This, then, is the origin for the Paul Selmers of her fiction: genuine men and women living boldly, never in denial of that strength, but providentially delivered to the promise of a life in and with Christ. Reading The Burning Bush we enter into Paul Selmer’s conversion, but we also enter into Undset’s staggering, irresistible illumination. It becomes ours, because, perhaps we recognize our own underlying hunger for happiness, our tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to all, insufficient unless it is realized by the truth in the original Christian church.

Undset has given a world's old solution to an age old problem and shown its validity, and she has answered those questions in terms of her day (and ours): her young scientist is submerged in the mystic. Sin, repentance and redemption may be hard words for the twenty-first century to hear—so many use them awkwardly or without conviction when speaking about their contemporaries—but The Burning Bush does not hesitate to confront us with them, revealing their truths, truths that are never out of key.

Published some eighty odd years ago The Burning Bush remains a mighty good read that is truly relevant to our times and more than confirms Undset’s re-emergence in the 21st Century as a challenging, fervent and thoroughly Catholic voice, one that propels us onward and onward still, through the traps of history and impotent current trends, toward what our Church calls a well-ordered spirit, one willing to accept God’s supernatural grace.

Original Language: English
Book Dimensions: 6.9 x 5 x 1.5 inches

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G. E. Schwartz is the author of Only Others Are: Poems, World, and Thinking in Tongues. His blog, REGAIN'D, is a meditation on faith found in deserts, both metaphorical and actual. He lives in Upstate New York.

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