Material Dimensions of Spiritual Friendship

Wesley Hill’s new book Spiritual Friendship is not an easy read. It’s short, yes, coming in at under 150 pages. But in that space Hill manages to be disquieting on a subject that is often taken for granted–specifically, the question of how we form and maintain intimate friendships. Part historical survey, part Biblical analysis, and part personal reflection, Spiritual Friendship manages to be informative and insightful but also unnerving and challenging. Rather than a full review, I’d like to briefly summarize the themes in the book and then respond to some of the questions that it raises. Since Wesley grounded his exploration of friendship in his experiences and friendships, I’d like to do the same as I recount some of what my wife and I have learned from our time in inner-city Baltimore.sf-book-cover

The first part of the book looks at the situation we are in with regards to friendship, using the author’s own experience as a celibate gay Christian as a jumping-off point for how much more anemic our honor of friendship is now–particularly same-sex friendships– than they apparently used to be. He assigns as much blame for the decline in friendship’s power and privilege to the modern instinct that boils every interaction down to its sexual nature as he does to the reactionary traditionalism that wants to elevate marriage well beyond all other human relationships. What we’re left with nowadays is friendship as purely voluntary, thus making the idea of intimacy and mutual comfort wholly dependent on the whims of our friends. Wesley’s Christianity Today cover story from last year covers many of these same themes in a more compressed fashion, which lead to a great discussion of vowed friendships in particular here at Mere Fidelity.

In the second half of the book, Wesley gets more personal as he looks at how difficult these intimate friendships are to build and maintain. Regardless of one’s stance on questions of gay identity, it is hard not to be moved by the quandary he puts forth: gay and lesbian Christians who choose to honor the Biblical teaching by remaining celibate (and all Christians who don’t marry) are shut out of the intimate companionship that marriage provides– erotic or not– and so far have been left to their own devices to find ways to ameliorate the attendant loneliness and isolation they face.1 He relates the moving story of how one particular friendship fell apart and concludes the book with a chapter about how his local church has been trying to find ways to foster friendship–and how powerful the Eucharist in particular can be in unifying us as a community. However, these relationships are still incredibly vulnerable to the mobility many of now experience as we transition from wherever we grew up to wherever we study to wherever we find a job thereafter. While never really resolving the tension inherent in this mobility, he emphasizes the importance of friendships that require serious commitment to one another, particularly as they give us the opportunity to suffer together and share in the burdens that come to all believers–not just the celibate.

There’s obviously a lot more in the book than what I’ve summarized above, but I want to emphasize that the book left this reader feeling incomplete, asking more questions than when I started. I suspect that this is by design, though it is a book that stands on its own even as it complements the body of work accumulating at the blog Wesley helped to start (http://spiritualfriendship.org/). The three lines of thought I’d like to explore are: What else has fueled our cultural denigration of friendship besides our changing cultural mores, and can we change these upstream factors? How do we think about intimate spiritual friendships across class lines, and is there a particular call to suffer there? Finally, to what degree does our understanding of the local church and its mission affect how we forge our friendships– or is it the other way around?

As with many historical blindspots, it’s easy to think that marriage’s preeminence in human society has always given our romantic relationships the same cultural baggage we see now. Wesley makes the case, on the contrary, that friendship has shifted “from a public, tangibly beneficial relationship to a private one that [has] no agreed-upon aims or ends other than the continuance of the mutual attraction itself.” I agree that this is how we tend to look at friendship (and that it’s bad for us), but I think that the same statement could be applied just as well to the relationships we have with our neighbors, family members, and even spouses.

What’s more, the hollowing out of intimate relationships doesn’t just marginalize sexual minorities. The plague of loneliness isolates older people and puts them at higher risk for death or disability. The mentally ill suffer from social exclusion and stigma that only makes them more vulnerable. Even one’s socioeconomic status is clearly affected by one’s relationships–all of which I see every day in my inner-city medical practice. There’s a work of art in my office made by a patient describing one of the worst parts about homelessness: “Nobody cares what you do.” The poignant fantasy that keeps recurring in Wesley’s book is that of coming home to an empty apartment at age 60–but that is reality for more and more people who are disconnected from their communities and families. Wesley makes the case very well that this is a huge issue facing those who have chosen lifelong celibacy (and he uses new parents several times as an example of people who struggle with loneliness), but his analysis is equally relevant to others whose life circumstances or health will isolate them. Thus, the questions he raises in his book regarding how to make friendship better are all the more important for us to face in the church today.

I think a lot of this decline in human relationships can be traced to individualism and consumer culture, and I’d argue that our uncritical use of technology and social mobility make this worse by giving us more power to isolate ourselves from the unlovable.2 However, it’s worth noting that architecture and economics play crucial roles here as well: if we don’t design the places that we live in order to interact with one another, we’ll self-segregate until we’re just alone with our screens all the time (while driving ourselves whatever distance we can tolerate to the school, restaurant, or church of our choosing.) Thus, if we want to promote the sort of friendship that Wesley wants, we’re going to have to push back against the forces that put each of us at a comfortable distance from one another. I think that one key way to do this (amplifying the final suggestion he gives in the book) is to increase our physical proximity to each other across the board and intentionally promote the understanding that more proximity should bring with it more responsibility to those that we are close to.

Of course, such proximity increases our vulnerability to pain. Wesley puts it this way: “Friendship is a call to voluntarily take up the pain of others, bearing it with and for them, by virtue of our relation to Christ.” When we pursue Christ, suffering is inevitable. How, then, do we count this cost? The challenge here is twofold: the question of exclusivity and the problem of mobility. At the end of Spiritual Friendship’s third chapter and somewhere near the end of the fifth, Wesley transitions from talking about one-on-one friendships to broader (but still intimate) circles of friends, particularly within the Church. One of the book’s few actual weaknesses is that he never addresses the question of whether or not the aforementioned vowed friendships would still be necessary if we had enough intimacy among our other friends. I think we can conclude that the latter is absolutely necessary, but a problem we have to consider with vowed friendship is that it requires (like marriage) a great degree of mutual interest and passion to even consider taking a vow to someone else. At the same time, our tendencies to self-segregate aren’t just isolated selfishness; we’re clustering by race and class in ways that perpetuate injustices. I don’t think that vowed friendship or a general increase in intimacy will necessarily make this worse, but I do think that we have to ask “who is my neighbor?” and view friendship with those who are different than us as an opportunity to share in the joy of the Spirit when our tendency otherwise would be to cluster together with those like us. And not just friendship–but the sort of suffering together my friend Mark described as a core feature of our church’s ministry in an inner-city community.

Having married a woman who was willing to move into a neighborhood very different than what we grew up with, I have seen the incredible benefits that come from our vowed partnership as we have learned to love our vulnerable neighbors (and learned how to love from them.) In this sense, then, I think the answers to a lot of the problems that Wesley raises lie less in how we perceive our friendships and marriages and more in how we perceive our churches and communities. If our churches aren’t centered around particular places and communities, but rather try to attract the best worshippers based on preferences and interests, we’re just carrying out another form of what Patrick Deneen calls “extractive liberalism”. Furthermore, a stronger focus on tying the spiritual community to the physical community will not only help us to welcome those who we’d otherwise pass by as we’re driving from one place to another– it will lower the barriers to life together as we live, work, play, and worship together.

One of the ways that this has played out in my life has been in communal living; Wesley briefly discusses his experience with it but doesn’t go much further than that, as most of his firsthand stories about shared living quarters “have ended with disappointment.” While I understand his reticence to jump in with any definitive pronouncements, I’ll go ahead and say that more families– yes, even families with small children–should open their homes to single adults. My friends and I may represent only a small sample, but I’m happy to say that we’ve had four housemates in five years of marriage and all involved have judged the experience as positive.3 Our other friends in the neighborhood–some single, some married–have reported similar blessings from this sort of fellowship. Much of this, I think, is because we all worship together and share the same commitments to loving one another. This has been particularly powerful when people in great need have taken up residence with us. While a lease is a far cry from a vowed friendship, it might be enough of a commitment to get us started.

Still, our temporal circumstances can change (of our own accord or not) and the limits that we put on ourselves to foster good relationships have become even more challenging to keep to in this day and age. Even if we commit ourselves to a particular place or people, we are less and less able to guarantee that we will be able to stay there–and for those of us who are called to small places, it may be even harder to find someone with enough shared passions to make the leap of faith and commit to one another. Many of us have come and gone through enough places that we understand the challenge that Wesley lays down when suggests that we “resist the allure of mobility.”

This isn’t an academic concern for me any more than it is for Wesley; my wife and I are preparing now to move to South Sudan for the foreseeable future and say goodbye to the church and neighborhood we’ve grown to love. We’re following God’s call on our life by going to a place that is more vulnerable, just as we did when we moved into our current neighborhood. Our hearts are pulled in multiple directions and our minds affirm multiple overlapping but somewhat contradictory commitments. There aren’t any clear answers for us at the moment beyond the call to move to a new place and learn to love our neighbors there; until then, we will simply have to do the best to love the place where God has us at the moment. In that way, I have to end this essay the same way that Wesley ended his book: convinced of the beauty of friendship but still struggling to make it happen as I would hope.

You’ll have to read Spiritual Friendship for yourself to see how Wesley connects these dots for himself– or exposes other threads left to be explored. The need for intimate friendship and the practices that foster it is all the more pressing in our day and age, as our culture has not only drained friendship of its public social benefit but placed a variety of economic, technological and political counterweights against it. The local church can be a place to nurture this Christlike love, but first we must take full stock of all these counterweights and intentionally devote ourselves to balancing our lives such that they are less important than the places that we live and the people who live in them. Friendship can be an abundant source of Christ’s love– but we must cultivate our ecclesiological and cultural environments so that it can flourish.


  1. I won’t revisit the questions of gay identity or reparative therapy here except to say that rejecting the formulation of “gay Christian” still leaves the problem of spiritual friendship wide open and that even those who feel like they’ve experienced some success from reparative therapy will still have to deal with tensions inherent in same-sex friendships and find a marriage partner. 
  2. I don’t want to undermine how the Internet has been a blessing in particular for minority groups like gay and lesbian Christians who would otherwise may have suffered more in their communities without the fellowship they found online, but I think it’s safe to say that the majority of Internet users have to work really hard to make the technology serve our higher interests and callings instead of being slaves to it. 
  3. Admittedly, the woman who has shared our house for the past several years is one of the most supernaturally gifted people my wife and I have ever met in terms of patience and generosity. 
email

The Law and the Burden of Love in Harry Potter

In Les Miserables Victor Hugo told a number of miraculous stories, but none greater than that of its main protagonist, the former convict Jean Valjean. For those who don’t know the story, Valjean was a convict who worked on a chain gang for 19 years in early 19th century France for stealing food and then later attempting to escape multiple times. Upon his release he was granted a yellow passport which freed him, but also marked him as a former convict–thereby ruining his chances of finding good work or a place to stay.

Continue reading

The Narrow Vision of House of Cards

Spoilers below spoilers below do not blame me for spoiling it if you read this there are spoilers below. Ahem.

Since the debut of House of Cards‘ third season last week the reviews have been a mostly consistent blend of “meh” and “zzzz.” Those reviews are basically right, but a further point needs to be made about the show’s failings in order to understand why the show has gone from an exciting (if also horrifying) first season to a mostly dull and tedious third season.

It’s become a cliche to contrast the 2010s Washington-based hit TV show about politics, Cards, with the 1990s version of the same, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. In most ways the contrasts are obvious–Obama-era disillusionment with Clinton-era hopefulness, Obama-era crises with Clinton-era solutions, etc. But in one way the two shows look more alike than different: for both to be seen and to be in Washington doing political work are one and the same.

Near the end of West Wing‘s run President Bartlett’s former chief of staff Leo McGarry gives a memorable speech to the rest of the Bartlett staffers, telling them that they only have a short time left in the White House and that they can accomplish more good in that limited time than most people can hope to accomplish in a lifetime. Though quite different in how it sees the work done in Washington, Cards has a similar tendency.

Continue reading

Speak the Truth in Beauty: A review of ‘Echoes of Eden’

Rants about the state of evangelical art are a dime a dozen—exceeded in number perhaps only by the kinds of art-as-tract material they critique. Sadly, many of those critiques are justified (even if the ranting tone may not be). Many evangelicals treat the arts not as genuine goods in and of themselves, but instead as only one more way to point people to the gospel. Art certainly does glorify God and may be an element of people’s journey to faith in Christ. Whether it is a book on Finding God in The Lord of the Rings or the kitschy “art” itself, we have a long ways to go. At the same time, critique can only take us so far. We need a clearly articulated, theologically robust aesthetic, and we need to work hard to put that aesthetic into practice.

Jerram Barrs’ Echoes of Eden aims to provide both that clear aesthetic and a pattern to follow. In the first half of the book, Barrs develops a theology of art; the second half looks at an array of literary works to see what that theology looks like in practice.

Echoes of Eden opens with a theology of creation and sub-creation. Barrs draws heavily on both the creation narrative in Genesis and the promise of eschatological restoration to argue that artistic activity as a subset of human vocation in general, is good in and of itself. Citing Tolkien, Barrs describes human artistry as “sub-creation” and argues that it is an essential aspect of the imago dei. Accordingly, he takes issue with any insistence either that art is a frivolity to be set aside or that it is valuable only if evangelistic. God’s creation was good, even before there were people to observe it. Indeed, there are beautiful things in this universe we have never seen and never will—sunsets on faraway planets and a thousand other splendors known only by their Creator—that have no apparent evangelistic purpose. Beauty is not an accident or a merely incidental element of our world. Rather, it is an attribute of the Triune Godhead, one so fundamental to the divine nature that it spills over in uncountable ways into the creation. People create because creating is a God-like thing to do, and we are God-like beings.

To buttress his argument, Barrs leans heavily on others who have written on the relationship of art and literature to Christianity, including John Calvin, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, G. K. Chesterton, Francis Schaeffer, and Dorothy Sayers. He rarely makes it more than a page or two in the first half of the book without citing one or another of these theological and literary greats. He draws on Lewis in particular, especially his article “Christianity and Literature”1 and his book An Experiment in Criticism. For Barrs, like his heroes, art is a necessary way of getting beyond ourselves and seeing the world as God has made it. It ought not be the mere reinforcement of what we already know, but something that challenges us and makes us grow in both understanding of and wonder at the world and people and God.

Barrs is not content merely to describe art, though. He also carefully considers artists. He argues strongly that we should see not treat artists as prophets speaking from some place of elevated insight simply by dint of their being artists. Rather, we should value them as craftsmen and craftswomen doing their work well—just as with any other vocation. To some, this might seem a demotion, but Barrs is intent to elevate all those other vocations along the way:

Sometimes Christians will insist that the only work that is truly worthwhile, pleasing to God, and spiritual is the work of serving the proclamation of the gospel across the world. This view suggests that if we were all truly earnest Christians, we would leave our ‘secular” jobs, in which we are simply making a living, providing for our families, and ruling the world, and we would all join the “sacred” work of mission. But if we stop and think about Jesus’s life, we see that he was doing so-called secular work as a carpenter or a fisherman for many more years than he was a preacher and teacher. It would be blasphemous to suppose that during these years Jesus was living in a manner that was not fully godly and completely pleasing to his Father in heaven. (21)

Accordingly, the vocation of the artist is not the calling of the visionary, but of the ordinary person diligently carrying out an ordinary calling. Continue reading

The Forgetfulness of Love in Harry Potter

There are two scenes in the Harry Potter series when Harry is able to successfully block the mental connection he shares with Lord Voldemort. The first is at the end of The Order of the Phoenix when Voldemort tries to possess him in the Ministry of Magic:

The second is halfway through Deathly Hallows after their escape from Malfoy Manor where Bellatrix Lestrange killed Harry’s friend, the house-elf Dobby. What drives Voldemort out? Initially Harry thinks that it is intense experiences of grief. But then he remembers Dumbledore and thinks that his former headmaster would that it is love.

Continue reading

The Demands of Love in Harry Potter

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (#6)

image credit: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/albus-dumbledore/images/7749338/title/albus-dumbledore-photo

In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Fleur Delacouer, a student from a French school of magic visiting Hogwarts, says that her school would never tolerate the silliness that is commonplace at Hogwarts: “eef a poltergeist ever entaired into Beauxbatons, ‘e would be expelled like that!”

JK Rowling’s series is filled with characters unusual not only for their characteristics, but for the way they are welcomed at Hogwarts.

Some of these are marginal characters–the schools many ghosts come quickly to mind. Others are much more important to the story. One teacher is a former Death Eater–a supporter of Voldermort, the main villain of the series. And yet he is welcomed at Dumbledore’s Hogwarts. Another teacher was expelled from the school when he was a student but allowed to stay  at Hogwarts and work as their gamekeeper. Still another is a werewolf, something of an untouchable in wizarding society yet he too is warmly received at Hogwarts.

Similarly, a certain amount of unusual behavior is also tolerated. Fred and George Weasley, the older brothers of one of the series’ protagonists, are the frequent culprits here as they are consummate jokers. Over the course of the series they play a variety of pranks on students and teachers, ranging from giving their friends candies that temporarily turn them into canaries to more serious “violations” like turning a section of the school into a swamp.

Yet for all the imprecision, chaos, and oddity that marks Hogwarts, there is an order to it, else the school wouldn’t function. But it’s the nature of that order that merits close attention. It’s not loose per se. Minerva McGonnagall, one of Rowling’s most enjoyable characters who is played by the delightful Maggie Smith in the movies, is a strict disciplinarian. And when students are given detention or some other form of punishment, it is enforced. But standing behind this order at Hogwarts is the thing Dumbledore speaks of in nearly every extended monologue Rowling gives him: love. And this love causes the school to adopt a radically different order than that of the world outside Hogwarts where the technocratic, bureaucratic Ministry of Magic rules. (Spoilers below the jump)

Continue reading

Curiosity and Love in Harry Potter

harry-potter-virtue-curiosity

I’m currently enjoying my biennial tradition of reading through the Harry Potter books. This is my fifth time through the books and I find that each time through I seem enjoy them at least as much as I did the last time I read them. I’m taking notes as I go through and am attempting to turn those notes into blogs.

If there is a signature sin of our day, you could easily argue that it is curiosity. Thanks to the internet we are inundated with cheap media, making it easier than ever to plunge ourselves into a well of information for no reason other than the lack of anything better to do.

In a post at Reformation 21 about lust, Brad Littlejohn wrote:

The “curiosity” that sends the bored or weary mind browsing for pornography is often little different from the impulse that has already sent the same mind back to Facebook ten times a day to look for new notifications, or rushing to your inbox every time you hear a chime.  In its digital form, pornography has united the age-old human desire for sex with our age-old propensity to seek diversion in the new and different, and offered almost unlimited and effortless “satisfaction” of both impulses.

This curiosity that Littlejohn is describing should be familiar to anyone who has ever begun mindlessly clicking on various links from social media only to discover that they’ve spent an hour online and have no lasting memory of any of it. And like all sin, this curiosity has a touch of madness about it. In Orthodoxy GK Chesterton notes that the mad man isn’t the man who has lost his reason, but the man who has lost everything except his reason. His mind moves in a perfect circle–an impossibly small one that offers no help to the man as far as accurately perceiving reality is concerned, but a perfect circle nonetheless. So it is with this digital-age version of curiosity. There is a sort of completeness to it–the archives of Wikipedia alone could occupy a person for a lifetime, let alone the many blogs, journals, and other forms of–forgive my use of this wretched word–“content” available on the web.

Continue reading

The Politics of It’s a Wonderful Life: A Dialogue with Chris Schaefer

An old high school friend tweeted: “It’s a Wonderful Life has be the most anti-Tea Party movie ever.” I rakishly tweeted back: “False.” Rather than attempting to hash out this disagreement within the confines of 140 characters, we resolved to do a Gladwell vs. Simmons sort of thing, exchanging long-winded emails to see if we could hash it out.

My friend, Chris Schaefer, has led a peripatetic life ranging from Oklahoma to Morocco. As of late, he seems to have settled in Paris. We agreed to let him have the first word:

Chris: I was being a good American and doing my annual Christmas-time viewing of It’s A Wonderful Life when I had this moment. It was one of those eyebrow-scrunching, lip-twisting, just-wait-a-second-there moments: Conservative Americans cherish Frank Capra’s classic, and yet important parts of the film don’t seem terribly conservative. I wondered if conservatives’ appreciation for family, faith, and community in the movie doesn’t cause them to miss echoes that the original audience would have picked up on immediately.

It's a Wonderful Life It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 right as the United States was exiting an extremely difficult decade and a half. There’s a reason why Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to describe those who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. Two of the greatest challenges that animate the film are bank runs and lack of affordable home ownership–the difficulties of The Greatest Generation in Bedford Falls as it were. These two issues play out in significant ways. George Bailey doesn’t go on his own honeymoon because he has to use his own personal savings to pay his clients who are caught up in the uncertainty of a bank run. And the entire business concept of the Bailey Building and Loan was based on providing home ownership for the poor of Bedford Falls, which was not so much a business as a non-profit social organization if we can take Potter’s critique and the bank-examiner’s presence as any indication.

So what happened between the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945? The New Deal. And in the New Deal, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed through the creation of two organizations that addressed both of these issues. The Banking Act of 1933 created the FDIC (whose sticker you will inevitably find on your bank’s window), guaranteeing deposits up to a certain amount. The bank run in It’s a Wonderful Life happened just before its creation, and so for viewers in 1946 it served as a scary reminder of how things used to be before the Democrats pushed through the New Deal.

In 1938, Fannie Mae was also created at Roosevelt’s behest in order to increase home ownership and make housing more affordable. Both of these programs were pushed through against Republican opposition, and both would have benefited the residents of Bedford Falls–those who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying” in the community, as George so passionately put it. George’s support for the poor on these issues would have recalled the Democratic rhetoric, while Potter’s heartless commentary on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poor would have echoed the anti-New Deal Republicans.

Don’t take my word for it, though: these leftist echoes scared the FBI. A 1947 FBI memo (pdf, pg. 14) indicated concern that the screenwriters were closet Communists and that the portrayal of bankers and rich people was highly suspect. Now, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI wasn’t always the most level-headed of organizations, but the fact that they were concerned about the leftist tones of It’s a Wonderful Life means that some aspects of the film resonate in different ways today.

So what’s your call, Keith? Am I missing something? Or, in their deep appreciation for the film, do conservatives today ignore the historical and political context of It’s a Wonderful Life?

Keith: I am one of those conservatives who loves It’s a Wonderful Life and actually believe that the film encapsulates a lot of my small government, pro-family political philosophy. While I’m glad to have my presumptions challenged, I think that you’re wrong to say that this movie is anti-capitalist.

I will grant your presumption that we should consider the historical situation at the time of this movie’s release to help us understand how certain scenes would be understood. Like Scalia at the movies, we should consider the original public meaning, right? But we’re not merely asking a purely historical question, right? I’m not particularly interested if some FBI agents struggled to separate the idea of a bad banker from the idea that all bankers are bad. I’m similarly nonplussed by the question of whether Republican identifiers would have been torqued by watching the film in 1946.

Political coalitions have shifted quite a bit in the last two-thirds of a century. Back then, it was not unusual to be for both higher government spending and traditional family values. Indeed, as both parties were rather conservative on social issues, the economic divergences played a larger role in determining voting behavior. Today’s political fault lines obscure these differences. Now, if one is for traditional family values, that identity tends to dominate and make differences of economic regulation seem comparatively minute. All that is to say, that it could be that the folks who wrote this film were both “conservative on social issues” in some sense that we can recognize, while still advocating for leftist solutions to some of the economic issues of the day.

However, I don’t actually see how the movie supports left-leaning economic policy. The movie exults in the way the Bailey Building & Loan helps Mr. Martini escape Potter’s rental slums. You suggest that scene would be a comeuppance to those dastardly anti-New Deal Republicans who opposed the enactment of Fannie Mae. Actually, I bet those Republicans supported the end of the policy–getting folks into their own homes–and merely objected to the efficiency or constitutionality of the means. To see it your way is like maintaining that today’s GOP is against children eating lunch and that a movie showing a non-governmental actor providing lunch to hungry kids would be a real dig against conservatives.

On the contrary, when I see the Bailey Building & Loan helping folks escape the slums, I see a for-profit company improving the lives of its customers. When I see George foregoing his honeymoon and keeping the Building & Loan afloat through the bank run, I see the entrepreneurial genius benefiting everyone around him. When I see George providing private charity to Violet (or even the otherwise unemployable Uncle Billy), I see a demonstration of how a freer market with less of a public safety net would actually work.

Who needs Fannie Mae, the FDIC, or even Social Security when you’ve got George Bailey?

But beyond these incidental plot twists, don’t you see how the actual thrust of the movie is conservative? George Bailey denies himself and his desire for freedom and travel, and ties himself again and again to the small town and community. He was derogatory of his “not much a businessman” father, but eventually became his father and, in doing so, blessed everyone in Bedford Falls. Isn’t that conservative? Continue reading

Sacred Loneliness and Sacred Comfort: A Review of Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’

Jonathan McGregor is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis, where he’s writing about twentieth-century American literary intellectuals and Christian social thought. You can follow him on Twitter.

 

There’s a moment in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2005) when the old preacher John Ames nearly loses control of his storytelling voice to a torrential repetition of the word “just”:

I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed…. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness…. (emphasis in original)

This passage epitomizes Robinson’s aesthetic. She shows us how all things exist in excess of themselves, if we pay them the proper attention. You can feel her exerting that same restraint to keep from using “just” in every sentence, even when she’s not writing in Ames’ voice.lila_0

But “just” does find its way into the first sentence of her new novel, Lila (2014), which gives us the backstory of Ames’ mysterious second wife. It opens: “The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.” Unlike Ames’ anecdote of purity and lavishness, the scene here is of dirt and privation. Robinson sets Lila’s sheer “mystery of existence,” to use a phrase that she acquires from John Ames later in the book, against the meanness of her circumstances. The girl is just there, a commonplace miracle amid squalor.

Lila sitting on the steps of a house, or a house of God—perched uneasily on the edge of community, family, or faith—is an image we meet throughout the book. It’s an image that captures Lila’s dogged but radiant individuality. Robinson must be one of the only living writers who can exalt philosophical individualism and make it sound beautiful and compelling. In this book, every person is an orphan before they are a daughter or a son—or a wife, or a worker, or a preacher. And we carry our indelible orphanhood with us into whatever family, community, or vocation eventually takes us in. Late in the book, Lila thinks of her infant son:

She was glad she had seen the boy brand new, red as fire, without a tear to give to the world, no ties to the world at all, just that knot on his belly. […] That orphan he was first he always would be, no matter how they loved him. He’d be no child of hers, otherwise.

I can’t remember reading a book so dominated by the word “loneliness.” Nor can I recall a novel where loneliness is so sweet and yet so terrible. Sometimes Lila fears to be left alone; sometimes solitude is her only solace. At the low point of the book, stranded in a St. Louis brothel, Lila descends into the coal cellar “to be quiet with herself.” After giving all she has—even her one inheritance, a well-honed knife—to her madame, Lila discovers in the solitary darkness that her only durable possession is her self.

For Robinson, to be alone is a religious experience, a simultaneously harrowing and comforting encounter with the divine in the self. The constant, unmediated presence of God in human inwardness, which Robinson traces back to the doctrine of the imago dei, is the theological sine qua non of her art. (Sometimes, she presses this emphasis so hard as to almost conflate God and the self.) In Lila, the feeling of human loneliness comes paradoxically to signify divine presence, even when it is not explicitly glossed as such.

Loneliness may be a constant theme of Lila, but it’s hardly the end of the story. That child on the stoop is soon swept up into the arms of Doll, a wild and resourceful old woman with a marked face and a wicked blade, who shepherds Lila into young adulthood the best she can. “Doll may have been the loneliest woman in the world, and she was the loneliest child, and there they were, the two of them together, keeping each other warm in the rain.” Robinson renders their hard life together as migrant farm workers, new territory from her previous domestic fictions, convincingly. Their sense of time is defined by sun and seasons, their sense of space “a whole world of weedy, sunny, raggedy fields with no names to them. Only that one name, the United States of America.” Lila and Doll’s intense bond blurs the distinction between self and other. In the solitude of the brothel coal cellar, Lila converses with her memory of the dead Doll. To be with Doll is to be with her self.

Lila loses Doll, but she gains the “beautiful old man,” John Ames. That gain assuages, but cannot replace, her loss. The consolation of their marriage is a difficult grace for either John or Lila to accept. Nevertheless, the outcome of their courtship is never in doubt; even for those who haven’t read Gilead, we learn early in Lila that the pair are married in the book’s present. The drama of their love story, then, is one of personal transformation: How did that abandoned child on the stoop become Lila Ames, wife of an elderly preacher and mother of a little boy?

As Lila’s acquaintance with John grows, so too does her acquaintance with Christianity. Her dramatic encounter with the Bible is one of the most remarkable parts of the book. Lila steals a Bible from John’s church and buys a notebook and pencils with her small income. She copies biblical passages into her notebook wholesale. She has a knack for finding the difficult parts; she’s especially enamored of Ezekiel. But it’s just those hard sayings, which cause John to stumble, that draw Lila in. “It could be that the wildest, strangest things in the Bible were the places where it touched earth,” she muses, as a tornado touches earth.

Lila never shies from the difficult parts of Scripture, and she never hesitates to ask John hard theological questions, either. Her attraction to the wild things of the Bible does not lead her to embrace of the doctrine of hell, for example, and she can’t imagine wanting a Heaven without Doll in it. When Lila puts the question of eternal fate to John, the preacher dodges and qualifies and finally falls back on the mystery of God’s grace. Despite John’s often faltering answers, Lila insists that the language she learns from John has allowed her to name parts of her life that before were nameless, and even to think new thoughts:

Could she have these thoughts if she had never learned the word [existence]? “The mystery of existence.” From hearing him preach. He must have mentioned it at least once a week. She wished she’d known about it sooner, or at least known there was a name for it. She used to be afraid she was the only one in the world who couldn’t make sense of things.

Like most married couples, Lila and John spend a lot of time talking past each other, misunderstanding each other, wounding and forgiving each other (though they have wider gaps in age and life experience to overcome than most). A fantastic and frangible, if hard-won, skein of trust holds them together. Lila’s tie to Christianity is like that, too—a baptism she once tried to wash off, an unrelenting attraction to the Bible, an acknowledgment that the vocabulary of mystery meets a human need that it also discovers.

Lila marries the style and themes of Robinson’s earlier novels. The third-person narration of Home (2008) was a departure for Robinson, and it sometimes fell flat. Lila, however, is light on its feet. The novel’s free indirect discourse moves with great suppleness into and out of passages more thickly textured with Lila’s dialect. This style gives us intimacy with Lila’s perspective without presuming on her interior voice. Lila’s life, first with Doll and then with John, brings the concerns of Housekeeping (1980)—wilderness and feminine community, abandonment and consolation—together with those of Gilead—theological language and its limitations, perception and grace. For readers looking for a way in to Robinson’s corpus, this makes Lila the new best place to start.

Like the Ames’ marriage, though, these stylistic and conceptual bonds are uneasy and tentative, even when they’re graceful. If marrying John forces Lila to make her peace with community and its consolations, it also forces him to do justice to her freedom. If John’s theology gives Lila words for old impressions and new thoughts, her questions force him out of his complacency to reckon with her razor-edged experience. Robinson would remind us that tradition needs untamed experience to keep it sharp, and community needs wild individuals to keep it alive. Likewise, she would remind us that tradition expands the mind; it does not restrict it. And if loneliness is sacred, then so is comfort, which we can only give each other when we’re together.

Engagement is Discipleship

As Christians face more direct opposition from cultural powers, we should consider Rod Dreher’s recent discussions of the Benedict Option and the Jeremiah Option. The former represents a more “separatist” approach to cultural or political engagement and the latter embraces “assimilation” as a means of cultural survival. The struggle to maintain our Christian identity against a cultural onslaught that delights to seduce us into impotence has never been easy. However, it is crucial to recognize that engagement is an element of discipleship and the immanence of our witness is part of our obedience. If the Benedict Option is to represent a faithful community, it must be a witnessing and serving presence that bears the cost of following Christ.

Counterfeit, culturally acceptable Christianity is more dangerous to true faith than active and virulent persecution. This point is not disputed among most thoughtful Benedict Option supporters (indeed, Rod’s post about it is one of the best), but it is important to take up first because isolation from the world is not only unfaithful but poisonous to faith. Heeding James’ command to not be “polluted by the world” will often protect us from the seductive lies of the Satan, but it can also just as easily seduce us into Pharasaism. Most of us have read or met former Christians who have been inoculated against the faith by harsh, legalistic religiosity. In these cases, misapplication of the principle behind the Benedict Option has done harm to souls because of the inherent danger in isolation. Increasing the distance from a world in need proportionately threatens both individuals and communities; we need to intimately know the lost people and broken communities we are called to love in order to temper and strengthen our witness to them.

If we look to the Bible, we see that this is because God’s commands to evangelize and disciple are consistently linked with our prosperity as the people of God, from The Great Commission to the Kingdom parables or God’s instruction to the church in Philadelphia. Our faithfulness to doctrine is inseparable from our engagement with the world; as Jesus’ power was so great that the touch of the bleeding woman made her clean rather than Him unclean, so our interactions with the fallen world participate in God’s redemption of it. This is not a call to passively consume cultural products or merely imitate trendy practices, for a facile familiarity with other perspectives will only breed more ignorance. Instead, we need to spend time listening carefully to people whom we know and speaking boldly once we have demonstrated our commitment to them.

A community that is consistently interacting with lost neighbors and taking our stand at the gates of Hell must also hunker down regularly for the sort of intense reflection and spiritual isolation that the Benedict Option cherishes. This is where the Benedict Option apologists are most insightful: it is in contemplation, rest, and tightly-knit community that we are primarily given what God entrusts us to give away in turn. However, without a constant inflow of both needy souls to bless and lost opponents to challenge us, our faith will become as atrophied and grotesque as an athlete who eats the 10,000-calorie Olympic diet but never competes in a race. Just as our questions and doubts are shaped by the ends to which we ask them, so our rest and retreat are shaped by the ends for which we undertake them. Continue reading