March 22, 2009


Ludwig Feuerbach says a wonderful thing about baptism. I have it marked. He says, "Water is the purest, clearest of liquids; in virtue of this its natural character it is the image of the spotless nature of the Divine Spirit. In short, water has a significance in itself, as water; it is on account of its natural quality that it is consecrated and selected as the vehicle of the Holy Spirit. So far there lies in the foundation of Baptism a beautiful, profound natural significance." Feuerbach is a famous atheist, but he is about as good on the joyful aspects of religion as anybody, and he loves the world. Of course he thinks religion could just stand out of the way and let joy exist pure and undisguised. This is his one error, and it is significant. But he is marvelous on the subject of joy, and also on its religious expressions.

Boughton takes a very dim view of him, because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issue as much with those people as with Feuerbach. It seems to me that some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled. That has been the fashion for the last hundred years or so.

-Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

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March 20, 2009

Saint Maybe

The number of days since I had a substantial post for Ye Olde Personal Blogge has probably entered triple digits by now. With that in mind, and having just finished a really good book, it seemed like a good time to indulge in a little low-pressure composition.

One of the three courses I'm taking this semester is a religion and lit seminar on theodicy (the theological dilemma posed by evil and suffering in the world). I decided to take this particular class partially because of the professor that was teaching it, and partially because our course texts include films as well as novels (and other things). In fact, I'll be leading the discussion on Chinatown next month, and I'm looking forward to that.

It has been no surprise to me, in this course as in others, to be presented with a list of works that I've never read, and many that I've never heard of. One such book, which we read for this week, is Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler. Tyler is best-known for The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons (the latter won her a Pulitzer), but I've never read anything by her before.

Reading the back-of-the-book synopsis, I expected Saint Maybe to be a sort of grace-centered retread of 1980's Ordinary People, in which a teenager struggles to come to terms with the death of his older, "better" brother (for which he feels partially responsible) with the help of a compassionate psychiatrist. As it happened, there are some superficial parallels, but thematically it turned out to have more in common with 2007's Atonement. I'm actually thinking about exploring the treatment of grief, guilt and forgiveness in all three works for my final paper, but that is neither here nor there. (And, for the record, I know that both of the films I've mentioned are based on novels . . . I just haven't read them and don't know how faithful a comparison would be.)

Saint Maybe begins in 1965 and centers around the Bedloes, a very happy, normal American family living in Baltimore. Doug and Bee are both teachers. Their oldest, Claudia, has been married for some years and seems to be in a near-constant state of pregnancy (I believe the final count by novel's end was eight children). Danny, the middle child, is the family's golden boy. He is handsome, athletic, and well-liked by everyone. He is old enough to be out on his own, but still lives at home and has settled comfortably into a career at the post office. Ian is the baby of the family, a surprise that arrived several years after the first two. As the book begins, he is nearing the end of his high school career.

The even keel of the Bedloe's lives is mildly disrupted when Danny decides to marry Lucy, a divorced mother of two (Agatha,7, and Thomas, 3). Then, almost immediately after the wedding, Lucy announces that she is pregnant, and after only seven months, a baby girl is born "prematurely." Even Ian is perceptive enough to notice that little Daphne is not a preemie, and when he does the math he realizes that this is not even his brother's child. No one else seems to be aware of this, least of all his brother.

Ian is ruffled further when he begins to suspect Lucy of cheating on Danny. She frequently calls on Ian to babysit so she can spend her afternoons out on the town, but she never says where she goes and one day she returns wearing a dress that Ian knows she and Danny can't afford. Matters come to a head on the night when Lucy manipulates Ian into babysitting while Danny is at a bachelor party, even though Ian has an important date planned with his girlfriend Cicely (after which he hopes to lose his virginity).

Lucy promises to be home early, but she completely blows her curfew, and in fact Danny arrives home first, slightly drunk. Ian, furious, demands that Danny drive him home and then to Cicely's house. As they arrive at the Bedloes', his frustration leads him to blurt out his suspicions about Lucy and the new baby. While he is inside, Danny floors the accelerator and drives his vehicle straight into a stone wall at the end of the street, killing himself. A few months later, after Ian has gone away for his first semester at college, Lucy overdoses on sleeping pills and dies.

While he is back in town for the funeral, Ian happens to stroll past a store front with a neon sign that says "Church of the Second Chance" and slips inside. After the service, he stays to talk to the pastor, Reverend Emmett, who tells him that he will not be forgiven unless he at least attempts to atone for what he did. This conversation leads Ian to drop out of college, apprentice himself to a local carpenter, and devote himself to helping raise Lucy's orphaned children.

The novel follows him for the next 25 years as he basically dedicates his life to the quest for redemption, using his story to explore two extreme Christian doctrines of absolution; what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would call "cheap grace" on the one hand, and the works-based atonement model on the other. What emerges is neither easy or straightforward. Tyler seems to be saying that forgiveness (which, in this case, also means freedom from guilt), while it will be easier for some than for others, cannot be either assumed lightly or earned through extreme sacrifice.

In this case, forgiveness is something that has to be negotiated by the passage of time and the acquisition of wisdom. Ultimately, it is a process in which the journey is more important than the destination. Rather, I should say the journey is the destination (there isn't really a destination at all, I suppose). I don't actually have it all figured out, but I'm still turning it all over in my mind, and probably will be for quite awhile. I've finished reading, but I can't put away what I've read.

Tyler writes characters very well. This family felt completely alive and real to me, really almost to an alarming degree. I struggled, emotionally, to continue reading at a few different points, and I was caught off-guard by my visceral response. I actually had to stop at one point last night and watch a sit-com before continuing because I was alarmed by my strong reaction to the novel, and I knew I couldn't just lay it aside. For one thing, I had to have it done for class today, and for another, it's really a page-turner.

These days, if I'm even the slightest bit sleep-deprived, I'll be napping after a couple of pages of just about anything. In fact, earlier in the evening I had fallen asleep while reading Faulkner's Light in August, but Saint Maybe kept me wide awake until 4:00 in the morning, when I decided I had reached an adequate stopping place. I should note that these "adequate stopping places" become more frequent as the novel draws on towards its conclusion, though I'm not sure whether to regard this as a weakness or a necessity. Either way, by that point I had more than enough momentum built up to sweep me through to the end.

I probably can't totally pinpoint what prompted my reaction to the novel, and certainly part of it must be attributed to personal factors (certainly many of my classmates didn't have the same experience, though I didn't hear any stringent criticisms). Setting that aside, however, I was probably blindsided by two things.

First, the extremely effective shifts in tone and point of view. Each chapter is limited to the perspective of a different character, and the use of this device during the first third of the novel completely subverted my expectations for what the book would be like and how it would approach the story. The first chapter lulled me into a false sense of security, while the second presumably slipped right through whatever armor I had donned in response to the introduction.

Second, as I mentioned before, Tyler is just crackerjack with characters. Almost before I realized what had happened, I had become enormously invested in these people and their lives, which I then followed for decades through every sort of event imaginable, from births to deaths and everything in-between. It's a lot to take in all at once when you're reading about someone you care about, and it's not the sort of experience that many novels can pull off (though Lord knows they try).

I think I'll try to get Rachel to read this after she finishes the last book I handed her (I try to keep her literarily-occupied at all times). Obviously I would recommend it just in general. It was an absorbing and (for me) moving read, and also a work that I expect to find floating on the surface of my thoughts whenever I consider or discuss the topic of forgiveness in future.

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