Memorizing Milton


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It is too facile to say that Basinger’s journey—from a boy with a tangible belief in sin and grace to the man drunk on knowledge who rejects God—neatly mirrors man’s own fall from grace as depicted in the Bible. But the parallels are hard to ignore.

A native of Minnesota, he never knew his father. He was raised by a single mother and also bounced back and forth among several foster homes. The Mennonite Church in which he was raised was a constant, stable force in his otherwise erratic world.

“I believed that God was absolutely real,” he says, “watching everything I did.”

He had been such a fervent and fluent believer, he thought he was destined for the ministry. But in 1954, while in Chicago debating with a few theologians, he had a “spiritual crisis” that stopped him in his tracks.

“The idea of God became absurd to me,” he says.  His faith had become “ridiculous,” his suitability for the ministry out of the question.

“By rejecting an explicit call I felt I had received, I totally changed the course of my life,” he says. “Instead of going to seminary, instead of a life dedicated to the Lord, I said, ‘To hell with it.’ And proceeded to (timidly) defile my little temple of the Lord in all the usual ways.”

Yet Basinger could never really sever the ties with the faith that had given his young life meaning. He found himself in churches all over the country as he traveled, singing along with the choirs many of the words that he once felt with conviction but now recited as a sort of fanciful indulgence.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face;
And the things of earth
Will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace.

That peculiar tension—holding belief at arm’s length without ever having really let go—was where Basinger found himself in 1993. Although for years afterward he shrugged off his choice of Paradise Lost as the work to memorize as a lark—he had wanted something long, he wanted it to rhyme, he wanted to be able to perform it—he can now see it as a reconquest of his old faith, where the forces of Sin and Grace are in constant battle in the world.

“One hell of a strong argument can be made that we are hardwired genetically to be just plain bad,” he says. “That certainly explains a lot of what goes on in the world in terms of groups hating other groups to death. Metaphorically speaking, why not just call this genetic madness evil? So, yes, I believe there is evil in the world and it isn’t going away anytime soon.”

And it certainly is present in the first lines of the epic:

Of man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, tell one greater man
Restore us, and regain the blissful seat. . . .

Memorizing Milton

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