Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Gospel in Fiction

Check out this passage from Wendell Berry's novel, A World Lost. It in the narrator reflects his conversations with this grandmother after the death of her son and his namesake, Andrew. The passage is the adult narrator's recollection of numerous conversations he had with this grandmother while he lived summers with her when he was about 10 and 11. As with all his novels (Wendell Berry competes with Robertson Davies as my favorite novelist), Berry speaks with a grace and depth that can't be appreciated properly with a quick read.

Uncle Andrew and Uncle Will and Uncle Peach [Uncle Andrew's ne'er-do-well best friends and regular partners in shenanigans] passed and returned in her thoughts and her talk like orbiting planets. They divided her mind; they troubled her without end. She could see plainly what a relief it would have been if she could have talked some sense into their heads and straightened them out. It would have been a relief too if she could have waved them away and forgotten them. In fact, she could do neither. They were incorrigible, and they were her own. In their various ways and styles, they had worried and vexed and grieved her "nearly into the grave," as she would sometimes say. And they also charmed and amused and moved her. They were not correctable because of the way they were; they were not dismissible because of the way she was. She loved them not even in spite of the way they were, but just because she did. With them she enacted, as many mothers have done, and many fathers too, the parable of the lost sheep, who is to be sought and brought back without end, brought back into mind and into love without end, death no deterrent, futility no bar.
Thus, Wendell Berry, A World Lost (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1996), p. 93.

Now my question is this: Has a theologian offered a better metanarrative for what God was doing in Christ, a better "back story" to the Incarnation? I would take some convincing, for it's all here: overwhelming love that roots not in the lovability of the loved one but in the the loving of the lover; prevenient grace that neither earned nor really explainable, except as mystery; the inability or refusal of Love to let go, regardless of the barrier.

While I find the entire passage almost painfully beautiful (a not-uncommon experience when one reads Berry), my favorit line may be this: She loved them not even in spite of the way they were, but just because she did. I think I'd find a way to fit this into a three-hour Good Friday service in reflecting on "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." Father, forgive them -- not despite what they are doing, for they don't know what they are doing. Forgive them in trueness to yourself and ourselves.

And let the people say "Amen."


Anonymous said...

Amen, amen, and amen! Thanks for this and again for pointing me to Berry's Jayber Crow.


Anonymous said...

RAR has, in turn, pointed me to Jayber Crow, with which I am almost finished. It is like a rich meal. I have now put A World Lost in my "to read" queue.
Another line that struck me square was "They were not correctable because of the way they were; they were not dismissable because of the way she was". One of those 'I wish I had thought of that' statements.

-C said...

"were not correctable because of the way they were..."

Something about this sits wrong with me. Everyone IS correctable to some degree. Sometimes those who are the least correctable are the ones who think, "I'm not correctable - I am who I am." And the truth is that none of us are who we were created to be, but all of us should remember who it is we were created to be. And we were not created to be "uncorrectable."

I think that's what made me uncomfortable with this particular phrase.

Dwight P. said...

I have pored over that phrase, and I can offer a different interpretation that might satisfy you, -C, without doing violence to the text or its intentions: I think that the point of "They were not correctable because of who they were" means that they could not be corrected by the loving one without violence to the integrity of the ones loved. Their incorrectability doesn't mean that they are hopeless, just that when we love (and by analogy, when God loves), we can't force correction on the loved one, no matter how much better the loved one would be for the correction, without violence to love. The very not-letting-go may and can inspire, empower, encourage the loved one to correct (in theology, we could say "to come to one's senses and become who one is meant to be").

But the power of the sentiment here is that precisely in not being able to live with the loved one, the lover is not willing to live without that same loved one. So it's a rif on "can't live with 'em; can't live without 'em."

Of course, this is analogical language -- we' talking about a novel, after all (though it's still a better proclamation of Gospel than most sermons I hear -- except when RAR and a very few others preach). We can't really, I suppose, say that God needs us: I got in trouble for merely suggesting that God changes because of the Passion (though I still think I'm right). But that God continues to love us in our uncorrectedness because His love doesn't allow Him to dismiss us is, for me, very powerful Gospel.

One could point to "Runaway Bunny," for a similar portrayal of unconditional love. "What if I ... ?" "You'll still be mine," the mother says. (Note the correctness of Jenson's claim, in "Story and Promise," that damnation is not a part of the Gospel's message; it is a possibility we pose for ourselves.

Does that make sense?