An Introduction to The Trinity Forum

Get Help Grappling with Great Works

No Undset?

I am a long and ardent admirer, and Sigrid Undset and her works. Unable to access many of her works, including newly reissued books, through our library or Link+, a statewide interlibrary loan, I turned to Zip Books. Through the Stanislaus County Library, this program seeks to provide books to readers not yet available in their library by ordering them from Amazon through a grant. To my surprise, in response to my questioning, the staff member behind the program in our country said books by Undset are “only held by university libraries and wouldn’t circulate in a public library.”

Indeed, most classics are filed under the teen section as students read them in high school. Unfortunately, there is little expectation that readers in this more rural setting will pick up the likes of Undset, Tolstoy, Dante or Steinbeck. And it’s a shame.

Kristin Lavransdatter, the latest Trinity Forum Readers

But it’s also true that these works can feel very long and intimidating. So it was with interest that I reached out to The Trinity Forum to review their recent publication, Kristin Lavransdatter, with an introduction of Jessica Hooten Wilson.

The compact booklet, which I learned is one of their quarterly “readers,” features an introduction by Jessica Hooten Wilson, excerpts from the approximately 1000-page, three-volume novel, and discussion questions.

And it’s Good!

The Trinity Forum boasts of its experts who write these introductions. My familiarity with this novel made it immediately apparent that Hooten Wilson knows this work inside and out. Hooten Wilson writes that Kristin “reveals to us what is timeless and permanent about being human.” The introduction also contained an excellent biographical sketch of the author’s life, drawing the connections between the author’s experiences and the titular character’s life. The analysis is fantastic. The booklet presents excerpts from the three volumes of Kristin Lavransdatter, with comments between excerpts that tie them all together, sharing the authentic “flavor” of the novel. The brilliance of Undset’s writing comes across quickly, and the notes link us to the very best parts of Kristen.

By giving such a well-crafted taste of a long work, this product could really help those of us outside the university setting approach these classics with confidence. Looking back after reading this, I realized I already owned another booklet by the Trinity Forum on Gerard Manley Hopkins with an introduction by Dana Gioia. Hopkins’s poetry was lauded but confusing to me. The Reader helped me understand how to read and appreciate this classic poet.

While Kristin does contain “spoilers,” for works of great depth and great length, having a sense of the narrative structure beforehand may actually help first-time readers enter in and see its depth.

The booklet ends with well-crafted discussion questions that could be used in a book club or even as essay prompts for high school and college students.

About the Trinity Forum

According to its website, The Trinity Forum seeks to bring the public the “best of classic literature and letters, introduced by today’s experts, and tailored for individual reflection and group discussion.” They do this through in-person events held in Washington D.C. five or six times a year, twice monthly online Zoom meetings, and quarterly Readers like this introduction to Kristin Lavransdatter that are mailed to members or can be purchased a la carte from their website. Those Readers follow the same format with expert introductions, excerpts or the complete work in the case of short stories and discussion questions. I’ve already put their booklet on T.S. Eliot in my cart to help me navigate “The Four Quartets” this year.

A membership with The Trinity Forum begins at $100/year. Members receive daily digest emails highlighting thoughtful content in books, articles and podcasts; quarterly Readers in the mail; and discounts on in-person events.

The Trinity Forum’s Founding and Vision

The Trinity Forum began in 1991 by Os Guinness and Alonzo McDonald to bring government and business leaders together to explore big ideas and connect Christian thought with other areas of life. According to Vice President Tom Walsh, the mission and focus of The Trinity Forum have evolved, particularly under the leadership of Cherie Harder. With the COVID-19 shutdowns, like many organizations, The Trinity Forum shifted its work online through Zoom. From those Washington D.C. and Nashville meetings that gathered 300-500 attendees, The Trinity Forum now sees 2000 registrants from all across the globe in its regular meetings. While in-person events charge a modest sum of $15 for members and $25 for non-members, online events are free. “We have a mission mindset about this access to things that can help people live wisely and well,” Walsh said.

Those meetings will focus on particular readings or invite presenters to dig deep into a topic, like the recent event discussing technology with author Andy Crouch and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Online Offerings

But for those of us beside the other shining sea, The Trinity Forum is exploring how to serve its recently widened audience best. The booklets can be used to form local reading groups or individually. Walsh said the Forum recognizes the challenges to people’s schedules to attend live Zoom events offered at 10:30 PT and 1:30 ET and is looking into how to give people perpetual access to the recordings.

I think we’re on to something here

As a work-from-home housewife in a small town, access to these materials is a boon for creativity, maintaining the intellectual life, and finding delight that transcends the mundane day-to-day while also enlivening what I have to offer as a mother and educator of my children. I highly recommend their work, particularly these Trinity Forum Readers, to look deeper into life’s big questions beyond the algorithms and passing media passions that surround us.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Undset for the Masses

I have Sigrid Undset on my mind these days.

Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash

Never heard of Sigrid Undset? You are not alone. 

Undset lived from May 20, 1882, to 10 June 10, 1949. She lived in Norway until 1940 when she moved to the United States to escape the Nazi occupation. She returned to Norway in 1945. Her parents were atheists and Undset considered herself agnostic for much of her life. Like many others, the First World War created a crisis of faith for her, culminating in her reception into the Catholic Church in 1924. Undset won the Nobel prize for literature in 1928 for her epic works set in the middle ages titled Kristin Lavransdatter and The Master of Hestviken

When Undset writes, she is not merely telling a story.

She paints a portrait of a person. What makes her one of the greatest authors of all time is her ability to peer into the fullness of an individual and share the story from that person’s point of view. Every human being has strengths and weaknesses. Every human person has a limited understanding of himself. Events happen, sometimes very big events and sometimes very small events that wake up in us the truth we needed to know or they are the straw that finally breaks us to do what we know to be right. Very few of us get it right the first time. We have illusions of what we can do, of what we are strong enough to withstand, of what we like or dislike. Under these illusions, we may find ourselves in circumstances we never expected.

Undset, unlike so many authors, is capable of seeing the full range of human experience.

She causes you to love a rake like Erland in Kristin Lavransdatter. You pity the hard-hearted daughter of Olav Audensson. You sympathize with the bourgeois bored housewife in Images in a Mirror, and like her, you wonder, is there more than this? Life with four children does seem a drudgery. What took the spark out? These are all questions we ask ourselves in similar situations. Undset saw that even in the most mundane, routine lives, we are still alive, still thinking, breathing, looking about us, and more than anything else, we are still longing. 

What will we do with this longing?

The time and period in which Undset writes are so pivotal in grasping the magnitude of her questions are asking. She lives in a secularized Lutheran anti-Catholic modern world of artists and writers to whom love, truth, and beauty are ideals of a distant past with no bearing on today. Marriage is nothing. Divorce is nothing. Sex outside of marriage is nothing. It all comes to naught. We have not even free will, only what we feel.

What a perfect backdrop to place a woman who married for love, bore children she loves, and is loved by a faithful hardworking husband who will find a way to give her the rest she needs after an illness. 

Undset wrote, Images in a Mirror in 1917, six years after the startling and heartbreaking Jenny (1911), two years before her marriage fell apart while on holiday (1919), three years before she published Kristin Lavransdatter (1920), and seven years before she converted to the Catholic Church (1924). 

These dates matter intensely when we consider the values of which Undset writes.

For the artist who moves from atheism to Christianity the jump in worldview is considerable. We see her through her characters, searching, responding to that longing that there must be something more. Undset is not afraid to write herself into her characters. What makes her magnificent is that she does not do only this, she also considers and explores the multiple facets of those her characters encounter. 

It is not always perfect.

I’m not sure Vegard is as clear as he might be in the beginning, the only time the reader is allowed his perspective. I want to go back and see, is this man, this salesman, she later calls him, painted as fully as he might in the beginning? Perhaps not.

Nor are those in the life of Paul, the protagonist of The Wild Orchid and The Burning Bush. In those works, we never see beyond his perspective. The outside characters are flat when compared to the depths of those supporting roles in other works. And yet, Paul himself is a little obtuse when it comes to what he sees in others. Like many artistic temperaments, he is consumed by the fire that burns within him such that he cannot see straight. He is lit from within and pursues the ideas as much as he humanly can.

In Images in a Mirror, Undset also considers the artistic temperament from the way an outsider reads to it to how it is truly experienced. With so many competing passions, the artist follows the one that cries the loudest. But that voice must be quieted if we are to do what is right.

Did Undset face these same issues?

I have not yet read her autobiography or biographies on her. It can wait a little longer. To explore and consider the fictional characters created by this remarkable woman is enough for me right now.

I think it’s probably always best to start with what is considered an author’s best work. Kristin Lavransdatter translated by Tina Nunnelly may be the best place to start. For a collection of her lesser-known works, check out the selection at Cluny Media.