Gilead

 There are few books I can confidently say have changed me. Gilead is one of them. Near the end of the novel John Ames, a pastor and the protaganist, writes these words: “Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see.” I’ve often imagined the Christian life as a candle illumining a small patch of the world’s darkness. This image has its merits and, of course, biblical precedent. Gilead showed me the world as John Ames saw it, a world suffused with God’s light. It taught me that whatever the world’s shadows—and reading Gilead most recently I found quite a few I’d missed the first time—God’s light shines everywhere. To look at the world as if this were so, to expect light, is to see truly. 

Rowan Williams was once asked if there was any contemporary author that matched C.S. Lewis in rendering what faith feels like. He suggested Marilynne Robinson. This reader, for one, agrees. Gilead and its sister novels are books I look forward to re-reading many times. 

Hillbilly Elegy

 Accolades for books whose authors breathe the same air as their readers should be treated with more circumspection than ones whose authors are deceased. When that air is thick with the fog of politics, well, then outright skepticism is called for. As anyone who lived through last year can attest, there was plenty of fog. The admiration for Hillbilly Elegy, then, is understandable. It is not, in my view, merited. 

J.D. Vance grew up in rural Appalachia. His memoir details his childhood there, the instability of his teenage years, and his exit—as a Marine. Throughout, Vance tells the story of his community. The writing is fine and the stories are interesting enough, but neither are particularly revelatory. It’s when Vance splices in sociology that he gets into trouble. The seams—between Vance’s story and Appalachia’s—obtrude. The narrative begins to feel patchwork. In a year in which American attention was forced to turn, briefly, to the hinterlands of the nation, it is easy to see why Vance’s story was seized upon. He made it out of an environment of social instability, into Yale Law School, and then through the doors of a prestigious consulting firm. His story bridges worlds drifting apart. But it does not possess the secret reason for our recent political catastrophe and I very much doubt whether it will be remembered once that crisis has passed. 

The Duty of Delight

Since January I’ve been working my way through the diaries of Dorothy Day, the founder of The Catholic Worker. The diaries are entitled The Duty of Delight. The entries chronicle the day-to-day trials of living in one of the houses of hospitality Day set up with residents that, on the whole, were not easy to live with: most were transients, many were alcoholics, and a few were mentally ill. Though she’s better known for her public opposition to the American state—in the pages of The Catholic Worker and protests—what’s most distinctive about The Duty of Delight is the difficulty of following Christ in the quotidian. Over and over she writes of the necessity of being forbearing and forgiving, ready to find her own faults before judging those of her often irksome fellow residents. Reading these entries before bed has been a good daily reminder that the difficulty of discipleship consists in its ordinariness. Only when one is obedient in ordinary circumstances, Day’s life suggests, can one pursue truly Christian public action. 

 

 

 

Les Innocentes

 About halfway through Les Innocentes there’s a scene in which Mathilde, a French Red Cross student serving a convent of nuns who have been raped by Russian soldiers, is suddenly surrounded by the nuns. Amid the sea of the nuns’ white habits is Mathilde’s face, radiant with the joy of being embraced by these women. In a film as harrowing as Les Innocentes, its a poignant reprieve. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth comes to mind. Mary, surprisingly, is not mentioned in the film and that omission is mildly disappointing, since the story is so directly concerned with gender and faith. Still, this is a considered treatment of a serious subject. The theologian Robert Farrar Capon once wrote that “When you’ve got two truths that you can’t hold in harmony, you don’t solve the problem by letting one of them go. You hang on tight and hold them both in paradox.” Les Innocentes, to its credit, is mostly content to do this, holding before the audience the horrific act of violence of its premise and the Christianity of its characters. The result is a tense and difficult story that feels all the more real for its contradictions. For those with the eyes to see, there is much to see here.

The Neapolitan Quartet

 The roads in Burundi are well-paved, for the most part, but narrow. Since much of the country is mountainous this makes for harrowing turns. I remember clutching the seat in front of me—the centifugal force pushing me to the side—as we slid around another semicircle of pavement blind. I felt something similar reading these books. They might be called a story of friendship, of growing up, of romance, of life in Naples in the mid-twentieth century. But all of these descriptions fail to capture the pell-mell energy of the books and the danger one senses waiting behind each turn. The energy and the danger spring from the relationship between the protaganist, Elena, and her best friend, Lina. “Friend” isn’t quite the right word: It feels more like a rivalry sustained by mutual obsession. The two revolve around one another like twin stars. Though the friends drift apart throughout the course of the four novels, fate—and the pull each exerts over the other—always brings them hurtling back toward one another. As a reader it was impossible not to get sucked into the vortex. A year later, I’m not sure I’m out yet. 

Cooked, Digested

I watched the first episode of Michael Pollan’s docu-series Cooked. It was a little meat-heavy for my taste and predictably suffers from the pop-science/”explain everything to me” tone that is fashionable these days. Still, some parts I did enjoy, not least of which was the revelation that kiddo-Michael Pollan once gave his pet pig named Kosher to James Taylor (yes, that one) who had a pig of his own, Mona, in whose presence Pollan’s pig immediately perished. A few other things above in writing and pictures, and below in type:

01. One of the main benefits of cooking is that it reduces chewing time. Primates spend half (!) their waking hours chewing.

02. I thought this–from a man working in a butcher shop MP profiled–was good advice: “Use the money you would spend eating out and take it to a butcher shop or a farmer’s market. I guarantee you’ll get more meals, healthier meals, and honestly better meals than you would eating out.”

03.Something I didn’t know: Much of the flavor for meat comes from the wood with which it is cooked. The wood itself contains plant material that flavors the meat and when juice from the meat drips onto the wood that changes the smoke the wood gives off.  

04. Pollan closes out with this quote (paraphrasing here): “A passive consumer is the identity I am least proud of. I prefer my identity as a creator, a maker and cooking allows me to be that.” I think that’s a big part of (1) the crises of identity many young people experience, since they aren’t taught how to make things and so don’t and (2) the interest in do-it-yourself-ism, from brewing beer to crocheting. This winter I’ve enjoyed doing the latter, and as I’ve written before, learning to bake has been really good for me

I’m not sure yet if I’ll finish off the series. If I do I’ll post my notes here. Happy Mardi Grad y’all. 

A Room of One’s Own

Why have there not been more great works of art by women? This is the question around which Virginia Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” spins. Its widening ellipses—one almost sees them on the paper, the pendulum swinging from the still point above—trace a path from Jane Austen to Christina Rossetti to Woolf’s own day. The reader need not recoil from dizziness, though, since the whole is balanced by Woolf’s confident, conversational tone. One almost feels one is with her, trespassing on the college green and pulling tomes from the shelves of the British Library. One wishes it were possible, she seems so amiable. For all her dissent from the norms of her time she has none of the shrill of a dissident and all of the dexterity of a wit. How deftly she skewers her opponents! Her case is admirably simple: a lock on the door and a check in the mail are necessary to write great work. Who are we to disagree? It is just these, she says, that have been denied women until the present time. Without privacy and material independence we cannot expect great art. Let us be glad she was afforded both. 

Wit and Wisdom

I recently reread G.K. Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy. I’d liked it when I first read it a few years ago, but at the time I hadn’t been sure what to do with some of Chesterton’s more dubious assertions and hadn’t given it too much thought. I’m not sure I’ll give it too much thought this time either—I don’t think it’s the sort of book that needs it—but I do want to register here that I found it thrilling this time, from start to end. The man has style. Unlike most of the books I read—serious books about serious subjects—Orthodoxy is blessedly free of self-seriousness, however serious the subject matter. I can’t think of another nonfiction book I’ve found half as fun. That’s a testament to Chesterton’s command of English, since sustaining a light tone without being merely frivolous is a good deal harder than telling it straight. Of course, Chesterton puts it better himself: “Solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light.”

the man himself
the man himself

There are plenty of one-liners in Orthodoxy. My favorite is this subtle jab: “Students of popular science, like Mr. Blatchford, are always insisting that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.” It’s for good reason that Chesterton is still so often quoted today; He was a wit. But this might give the impression that Orthodoxy consist entirely of verbal slam-dunks, when each one-liner requires a great deal of preceding play to come off. Nearly all of them come at the end of a paragraph, as summaries of an argument he’s just laid out, and the paragraphs are just as lively as his famous one-liners.

At the end of a digression on language that begins the chapter “The Romance of Orthodoxy Chesterton writes this: “The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word “damn” than in the word “degeneration.” Orthodoxy is written with that principle in mind, which is one of the reasons it is so readable. Chesterton chooses short words whenever he can and avoids jargon altogether. The whole book is a good reminder that clarity of prose demonstrates clarity of thought and that confusion on the reader’s part often indicates the same on the author’s. 

But all this might lead one to think that Chesterton is merely a stylist, or worse, a sophist. Chesterton’s fondness for paradox might lead one to the same conclusion, since paradox is so often employed today by people too indiscriminate to tell the difference between a contradiction and a paradox or too lazy to do the same. There’s muscle, though, beneath the lovely skin of Chesterton’s prose. His wit is full of wisdom. Take this passage:

“We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage, to which we can return at evening. No one doubts that an ordinary man can get on with this world: but we demand not strength enough to get on with it, but strength enough to get it on. Can he hate it enough to change it, and yet love it enough to think it worth changing? Can he look up at its colossal good without once feeling acquiescence? Can he look up at its colossal evil without feeling despair? Can he, in short, be at once not only a pessimist and an optimist, but a fanatical pessimist and a fanatical optimist? Is he enough of a pagan to die for the world, and enough of a Christian to die to it?”

a fortunate find at Open Books - Pilsen
a fortunate find at Open Books – Pilsen

There’s something essential here about what it’s like to be a Christian, to believe that evil and good and sin and grace are real and to act accordingly. And it captures the excitement of living between these convictions, refusing to settle for just one or the other.

Sometimes one feels that Chesterton thought it would be too much effort to get up from his writing desk and see whether what he’d written was, in fact, the case. Sometimes he’s wrong. But he takes chances, and there’s something to be said for that. Much writing today is so modest in its claims one wonders if the writer has—not an excess of scrupulosity—but a lack of courage. I suppose I put up with some of the shortcuts Chesterton takes since I think he’s headed in the right direction. That direction is, of course, orthodoxy. It is as true today as it was in Chesterton’s time that orthodoxy seems a dull thing; a conformity to the theological standards of a bygone era. All the fun seems to be in rebellion. Orthodoxy, whatever its faults, demonstrates that precisely the opposite is the case. In Chesterton’s words, “It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.” Perhaps the best thing to say about this book is that, for all the wild gymnastics of its prose, Chesterton sticks the landing.

Speaking of God

Upon finishing Rowan Williams’ Tokens of Trust recently, I realized that it was the third introduction to theology I’d read in as many months. I hadn’t meant to read three books on this subject — I read, for the most part, at whim — but I had and so it seemed fitting to reflect on this subject. Here, then, are those reflections. 

Trust. That’s the gloss Rowan Williams gives to what’s usually called faith. By saying “trust” instead of “faith,” Williams is trying to restore the meaning of the word “faith” for Christians and make Christian language accessible to those who don’t speak it. It’s a helpful choice for the reader and a characteristic decision for Williams. A poet, translator, and theologian, the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s career has been marked by an insistence that words lose their meanings over time. It’s also been marked by an endeavor to restore those meanings, by restoring the oddness of Christian speech. 

That endeavor permeates his book Tokens of Trust. Originally given as a series of lectures while he was Archbishop of Canterbury, it is a brief, readable introduction to the Christian faith. The book — like many introductions to theology before it — follows the structure of the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds. But if its topics is familiar, its treatment of those topics is not. Consider the discussion of God’s ‘Almightiness’: “God’s power is made clear in his patience and his capacity always to bring something fresh into a situation.” This is so, he writes, “because nothing outside himself can finally frustrate his longing.” This is hardly what comes to my mind when I think about God’s omnipotence, but it’s truer to the witness of Scripture than the image that does.

He demonstrates the same sensitivity to modern confusions on all the topics he discusses: Holiness, he explains, “isn’t a matter of achievement but of relatedness to Christ.” If we want to know what hell is, the best image is “of God eternally knocking on a closed door that we are struggling to hold shut.” Creation isn’t something God did way back when: it’s “an action of God that sets up a relationship between God and what is not God.” So too with angels, purgatory, the divinity of Christ, and the Church. He’s an adept translator of Christian doctrine, attentive to what was said by Christians throughout history and to how those words sound to modern ears. Like someone rubbing dust off of old trophies, each topic he touches shines as if it were new.

Like Rowan Williams, Robert Farrar Capon was an Anglican; unlike him he was an American. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding: where Williams’ introduction to theology is a model of restraint, Hunting the Divine Fox is a study in excess. His pudding contains talking oysters, a few choice profanities, and plenty to displease serious Catholics and Protestants alike. It’s a riotous romp through the land of theology. 

This is riotousness with a reason, though: Capon thinks theology has lost its flavor. “What does it matter,” he writes, “if I can prove that lobsters exist, if you’re not interested in seafood at all? The theologian’s real job should be to work up your enthusiasm for the Lobster Himself.” He performs his job admirably. Capon has a vivid imagination and he puts it to good use in this introduction to theology.  

Capon’s energetic exposition isn’t quite as dependable as Williams’, but there’s plenty to taste here, especially in his discussions of the sacraments. A sacrament is, as he puts it, “a signal instance of something that is true everywhere but effectively manifested here.” He uses that definition to reconsider all the traditional Catholic sacraments, leaving plenty for this Protestant to chew through. He ends with Christ. “Because this is a temporal world — and because in a temporal world no mystery is ever visible except under a sign,” he writes, “God sacramentalizes the Incarnation. He presents it under a supreme and effective sign in Jesus.” 

For all his flourishes, Capon has plenty of substance. Beneath his sentences lies thought, study, and years spent serving as a parish priest. He may not be to everyone’s taste — at times he isn’t to mine — but anyone who reads him will see that the restores the taste to theology. And that’s a gift. 

Then there is Robert Jenson, a theologian little read in the church, but widely influential in academia. That will change, hopefully, with the publication of A Theology in Outline. Like Tokens of Trust, this book was originally a series of lectures and so is much more accessible than most of Jenson’s other work. Jenson’s style — here as elsewhere — consists of concision, which means that every sentence yields rich rewards, if it is given sufficient attention. For example: 

The Christian creed says ‘Ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father.’ That is to say, heaven is the right hand of the Father; heaven is where God’s power extends. When God comes to us, he comes from where he wants to bring us. And that “from” is heaven.

Note how carefully Jenson arranges these sentences: each one builds on the previous, like the steps of a syllogism. Jenson’s other chief virtue is illustrated here too: the singularity of his opinions. The definition of heaven he gives here is hardly typical of most Christian theology, nor is his idiosyncratic understanding of time (hinted at in the quote), but both evince deep reflection on God’s revelation. 

And then there are the delightful moments when Jenson’s succinct prose and his singular opinions meet to make memorable sentences: Heidegger was “the 20th century’s wickedest philosopher”; Humans are “praying animals”; He believes in the devil because “there does seem to somebody out there laughing at us”; Christ is the rabbi who interprets Scripture as only its Author could.  

Just as Rowan Williams makes words strange, Robert Jenson makes doctrine strange. At a few points he makes claims that make me genuinely uneasy — God’s identity occasionally sounds like it depends on the world’s — but his vast knowledge of theology makes engaging with him fruitful, even if doing so knocks me off balance. He shows what it is like to talk about a God that has “thrown everything off balance” (in the memorable words of one of Flannery O’Connor’s characters).  

Each of these books is a fine introduction in its own right. If you want a primer in Christian belief, or a graceful re-imagining of the same, Tokens of Trust is the choice. If its imaginative life you seek, look no further than Hunting The Divine Fox. And if you need to be knocked out of complacency, read A Theology in Outline. Each offers, in Jenson’s words, a “taste of Christian theology, that unaccustomed food.” With so many books that make theology just another very serious chore, each of these is a welcome reprieve from all that, an invitation to (in the words of one of my favorite theologians) “a rowdy banquet of those who gather, famished and thirsty, around Christ.”

Space for Friendship

I met my best friend in fourth grade. Tim was new to my school and to the city. Our first playdate was spent rummaging through my giant bin of K’Nex for pieces to construct our skeletal skyscrapers, mostly in silence. He was, like me, naturally bookish and reserved, so it did not take long for us to become friends. Our friendship was built around things we both enjoyed — construction toys, Lord of the Rings, and math — which, as we aged, became activities embedded in communities and institutions— after school Algebra, AYSO soccer, youth group and Academic Decathlon. As middle school ended, and with it the imperative to have a best friend, my social circle expanded, but Tim and I would continue to be friends through high school. 

Since then, I have given up K’Nex: I have found other ways to spend time with my friends. But I miss the materiality of my childhood friendships; then ‘being friends’ meant constructing a fort together or sharing an earbud on the busride home. Like many graduates of private colleges, I now live and work far from many of my friends from college. I’m very happy to live with my closest friends, and yet even with them I lack the common purpose and space our college’s campus supplied. 

And so I was eager to read Wesley Hill’s new book, Spiritual Friendship. I have followed Hill’s work since I read his first book Washed and Waiting, an elegant reflection on being a gay Christian called to celibacy. Now a Professor of New Testament at Trinity School for Ministry, Hill brings a more capacious perspective to this book, while still supplying the personal urgency that animated his first.

The problem with friendship today, as Hill sees it, is that it is a relatively weak bond. Freudian suspicion, an unhealthy exaltation of marriage, and the premium we in the West place on personal autonomy, Hill says, have made it hard to be good friends. All true, and I think Hill is right to focus on the last, perhaps most actionable cause. As he says, “What we need now isn’t disinterested, disembodied companionship. We need stronger bonds between brothers and sisters in Christ. We need ways to voluntarily surrender our freedom and independence and link ourselves, spiritually and tangibly, to those we’ve come to love.” While this way may require us to sacrifice our freedom to choose, it gives us the freedom to be something, that is, a friend.

What kind of friendships does Hill have in mind? Here he is at his very best, leading us at a dash through the history of friendship. Fittingly, he brings along a whole company of friends: theologians Pavel Florensky and Dietrich Bonhoeffer drop by, as do writers aplenty — Iris Murdoch and Tom Stoppard — along with screenwriters and visual artists. The primary figures, though, are C.S. Lewis (especially “The Four Loves”) and Aelred of Rievaulx, whose own treatise supplies the name for Hill’s (and for the group blog Hill helped create). It is in Aelred’s time that Hill finds the prototype he is searching for: the practice of “vowed friendships.” Up until the modern period, vows were a way for friends to affirm their mutual commitment and ask publicly for their communities to help them uphold their commitments to one another. 

In the second half of his book, Hill sets forth a vision for what “vowed friendship” could look like today. Overall this is a helpful and perceptive vision, though I wish Hill had provided more. I appreciated his inclusion of the story of the failure of one of his own friendships; a sobering and necessary reminder of what is at stake in any relationship of depth. In the closing chapter he recommends some specific practices to enrich our friendships: acknowledging our need for friendship, choosing to stay with friends, and practicing friendship in community. It is this last practice I would like to examine in a bit more depth.

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Growing up, what I loved about K’Nex was that each creation did something: the sum of these spindly sticks and their connectors was more than their plastic parts. I built clocks and tanks, roller coasters and vending machines, and with them won a few minutes of appreciative attention from my parents. My friendship with Tim was like the K’Nex towers we’d first bonded over: a structure that was composed of the pre-made forms of our adolescent activities, that ultimately did something: brought us together. Without the institutions — our AYSO league, Chicago Public Schools, Academic Decathlon — and the communities within those instutitions — our soccer team, our after-school algebra group, our Acadec team — our friendship would have had no space to form. 

In adolescence, friendship’s uses are obvious: friends make crowded cafeterias tolerable, help us with our math homework and, in the secrecy of a sleepover, listen to us talk about things we never could otherwise. These uses, and the friendships that form because of them, come from finding and spending time with friends in common spaces: a cafeteria, a soccer field, an attic. It is no surprise, then, that I formed my best friendships in college, in the confines of the classroom, dorm floor, and cafeteria. 

After college, though, those common spaces dropped away: most of my life in Chicago is spent in spaces of intimacy or anonymity. In spaces of intimacy, I can enjoy time with friends in the quietness of their apartments, but these spaces lack the communal character that, as Hill points out, friendships need to be sustained and to extend beyond themselves. Meanwhile, spaces of anonymity — buses, bars, supermarkets — afford few opportunities for striking up friendship, since they lack the constancy and constraint of a common space (unlike, say, a small town grocery store). Common spaces, ones where we can’t choose who is there, but where there is the possibility of repeated encounter, are hard to find after college. Perhaps increasingly so in our society, if the success of companies that enable us to choose who we spend time with (Uber, Tindr, GrubHub etc.) is any indication. 

Hill rightly notes that our ability to always choose debilitates our friendships. But he underestimates, I think, one of the ways our premium on choice has undermined our friendships: the loss of common spaces. This is bad for finding friends — as Alan Jacobs once pointed out in a Digital Literature course, when we can always choose, serendipity can’t operate— but it is worse for deepening existing friendships, since friends often need the support and purpose that come from outside the perimeter of their friendship. For Tim and me, that support and purpose came through our school, our church, and our soccer league — spaces made possible by institutions. For my parents, these same spaces enabled them to make and deepen their own friendships. Single people, though, like myself and Hill, are not bound by necessity to institutions in the same way children and their parents are, and for that reason are less likely to reap the benefits of the common spaces institutions create. And as singleness extends later — the average age of marriage for Americans is now 29 for men and 27 for women (the highest in modern history) — or is lifelong (for those, like Hill, called to celibacy), that will apply to more people. 

If Hill is correct that “friendship can and should be understood along the lines of a vowed or committed relationship, much like a marriage or a kinship bond” (and I think he is), then the common spaces where friendships can be found and flourish will need to be revitalized. How can that happen? To Hill’s helpful suggestions at the end of his book, I would add that we might start by checking our innate distrust of institutions, by more readily putting up with places where we don’t know everyone, and by committing to a few common spaces. And perhaps the best common space to commit to is a local church. Sunday morning is one of the few times during the week where I am in a space with strangers and have a realistic chance of striking up a friendship. It is certainly not always an easy place to meet people. But at its best it can be, as my pastor put it in yesterday’s homily, “a school for love.”

“The life of the Christian community has as its rationale — if not invariably its practical reality — the task of teaching us this: so ordering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as the occasion of joy,” Rowan Williams writes in The Body’s Grace. If the church is to fulfill this calling, it will need to take more seriously the vocation of friendship and work to make spaces for Christians to live out this calling. Spiritual Friendship is a welcome introduction to that endeavor.