Tag Archives: literature

Faith and Literature — A Vocational Intersection

Jim bestIn October, 2014, I was invited to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa to participate in the festivities for Homecoming Weekend, and for the inauguration of their 10th President, Dr. Paula Carlson. It was such an honor to be there. I had the privilege of preaching for the morning chapel service, and then serving on a panel for a symposium that President Carlson had called dealing with the relationship of faith and literature, a particular interest in her own research and writing.  I shared the dais with three esteemed academic scholars, Dr. Jacqueline Bussie (Concordia College), Dr. Peter Hawkins (Yale University), and Dr. Robert Schultz (Roanoke College). Each of us were to give some remarks with respect to our vocation and the intersection of faith and literature. Today I offer the first section of my remarks. I’ll follow with the second installment on Thursday.

I suppose we all have a variety of ways we could frame our vocational journeys. Here’s one for me:  my vocational journey has been one of seeking the truth, seeking after The Truth, trying to understand the truth, and how we can live truly before God, with each other and in the world.

Having lobbed that opening salvo, let me step back for a minute and tell a little about myself. I grew up as the oldest child of Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod (LCMS) parents; my grandfather was an LCMS pastor. I came to this institution (Luther College) at age 18 intending to be a musician. I discovered that music was much more an avocation for me than a vocation. In other words, I didn’t want to work that hard or practice that much. I felt like I had to figure out quickly what I wanted to do with my life — a misplaced notion, to say the least. I determined pretty quickly to pursue a vocation as a pastor in the church. Because I had been raised to observe a sharp distinction between denominations, I transferred to an LCMS college, eventually attended an LCMS seminary and entered pastoral ministry. I was very much steeped in the notion that theology was a set of propositional truths. My job as a pastor was to make sure people knew the truths necessary for their salvation.

The first 15 years of pastoral ministry was a long journey of discovery towards authentically engaging the scriptures, the church, people, and what it means to be a pastor. I discovered through experience that story is fundamental, basic, and essential to human existence. We eat, sleep, poop, have sex — but mostly we tell stories. When we talk to each other, that’s what we do. Some of us tell stories exceptionally well. Those stories help reveal the truth — about life, about God, about being human, about how we relate to each other.

Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite novelists. For years, he was the chair of the Creative Writing program at Stanford University.  He used to tell his students, “We have no agenda but to tell the truth.  Of course, what I’m getting at is the deep truth about human life that is not always accessible through mere facts.”

Jesus told stories.  His parables are known far and wide both inside and outside the church.  When we try to understand Jesus’ parables, we have to know that they tell the truth slant, to use a phrase of Emily Dickinson. They evoke rather than prescribe. That’s true also of literature and the way it speaks to matters of faith and life.

An important discovery and a really life-changing vocational moment was when I came to see that the Christian faith is fundamentally relational; it is not propositional, it is relational. The mystery of the Trinity is a relational mystery, not a propositional truth. Throughout history, God has interacted with people relationally, not propositionally. God bids us to live with one another relationally. Relationships don’t rest very well on propositional truth. It just may be that the only way to even begin understanding anything true about God is to tell stories about how God is and what God does, which is exactly what the Hebrew and Christian scriptures do.

We can treat relationships clinically; when this happens do this; when that happens, do that. There’s some value to such exercises. We learn a lot and we learn differently through story. In the Wendell Berry story, Jayber Crow, Jayber, an introverted, balding bachelor-barber, has a deep affection for Mattie Keith Chatham, an attractive neighbor-girl. Mattie grows up, marries the local all-American boy,  bears, rears, and begins burying their children. When he realizes that Mattie’s philandering husband Troy will never be faithful to her, Jayber breaks off with his own girlfriend, and vows to be the husband Mattie deserves, even though his relationship with her will always be one-sided.  As Jayber’s one-sided passion for Mattie grows, so does his compassion, and he is able share in the sufferings of all his neighbors. In this story, romantic longing becomes the seed not only of a deep and broad human love but also for salvation itself.

(In the next installment, I offer more examples from a few of my own favorite authors, and reflect briefly on my vocation as a writer.)

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I’m a reader. Some books I enjoy, some I don’t, and lots are in-between. Occasionally, I read a book that has a deep impact.

A few weeks ago, finished a book like that: The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. This 2011 Booker Prize winner appeared in my office around Christmas time as a gift from a member of Faith. I say that because I’m not sure it’s a book I would have picked up based on the dustcover description.

Barnes has written several novels and it’s clear that he is a master of his craft. The book is well-written and the plot wonderfully inventive. As a writer myself, I’m interested in the writing process and I kept asking myself, “How did Barnes think of that?”

The story opens by recounting a friendship between four English boarding school students. The narrator remembers events that happen after they finish boarding school and go off to university, including a romance that ends badly. In a happening pivotal to the story, she ends up with one of his friends.

The second half or so of the book jumps decades forward to the narrator as an older man, retired and now unexpectedly in contact with the woman he once lost to his friend. Who remembers what, how accurate are the memories, and what path has led them to where they now are in their lives — these are the questions that drive this part of the story.

And these are the questions that have driven me to some significant reflection on my own life. There’s no such thing as being in control of our lives. There are too many things that happen that simply happen — we are recipients or victims as the case may be. On the other hand, there is also the possibility of guiding the trajectory of our lives by the decisions we make, the work that we do, the values and priorities we set. So, the question is, to what extent will I simply be reactive to what happens around me? Or will I use some of my energy, determination and persistence to push my life in a certain direction? And if there are changes that I need to make for that to happen, am I willing to shake up the status quo ante with which I have become comfortable?

Here’s another big one that I’ve been thinking about: to what extent do we remember with any accuracy at all what has happened in our distant past. My father died last September. I’ve said publicly that my father’s life was in some ways tragic. I feel like he never quite found his calling and was always dissatisfied and restless. The most he ever stayed with any employer was 5 years, and usually it was more like 3 years. That, of course, meant lots of instability and change for our family.

After dad’s death, I began a writing project to go back and record what I remember of my father from my earliest memories up to the past few years as his health declined and  he died suddenly in the fall. I found that memories of certain events jogged my memory to other contiguous events, things that I hadn’t thought about for years and years. So I wrote much more than I expected. And the narrative became not just a narrative of my memories about my father, but of my own childhood and our whole family. I tried to recount with joy and appreciation when I could, and to be honest about the whole thing, not trying to gloss over the struggles. As a result, my memories were not always complimentary.

So, now I’m wondering. How much of what I remember and what I’ve written really happened? How far off have I wandered into my own interpretations of those events?  I’ve been around long enough to know that our memories never reflect exactly what happened. They are always conditioned by so much subjectivity. As I was I reading The Sense of an Ending, I realized that I’ve lived with the arrogance of convincing myself that I had written an accurate and definitive description of what my father was like as I grew up. But that’s wrong. The best I can say is that I’ve recorded what I remember; and it’s heavily influenced by the trajectory and events of my own life, and indeed, the very things I’m experiencing in my life in the present.

At the very least, I’ve determined that I’m going to shy away from language of certainty about what has happened in the past, and I’m going to seek to live with a little more grace, not only in my memories of others, but also as I hear others tell their own stories.

One of the signs of a good story is the reflection it prompts on the part of the reader. On that score, The Sense of and Ending gets two thumbs up.