Postmodernism – in the circles that I usually find myself, it can be a worse thing to say than any four-letter word imaginable. And, these are the same words that Anne Lamott uses occasionally throughout her book, “Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts On Faith.” Not that I have a problem with those words – after all, it was my roommate who said concerning his sister’s new boyfriend, “Yeh, Davey, I think you’ll like him. He’s a Christian, and he drinks and swears.” Concerning the book, however, I definitely have mixed feelings. I came across this book last Wednesday when I was working with one of my new coworkers, someone who I’ve come to look up to in not a few ways, despite the fact I’ve known him an entire three weeks (he has borrowed my DVDs of “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” and likes them – seriously, how bad could he be?). He himself goes to a more emerging church than I’ve ever set foot in. We talked about Donald Miller, and he said if I wanted to read something more “edgy,” to pick up Lamott. Although I think that the subtitle of the book is quite misleading, as there isn’t much in the book about faith (let alone faith that is saturated in grace that is utterly free), I think there are definitely good things that we conservative evangelicals can glean for our own spiritual lives. All this, of course, with utmost respect to my friends and family members who glean a lot more out of this than I would. But what’s the point of learning and growing if we aren’t dialoguing about it?
Probably the most striking issue at heart here is the matter of truth – and that comes at no surprise. In today’s secular world, truth has become so relative that we accept those who hold antithetical views solely because there is no standard to call one “right” and one “wrong.” This seems to serve as the foundational presupposition of Lamott’s work. After all, she admits that she was nurtured by various families – Catholics, Christian Scientists, Jews, and her own agnostic father (3). Later on, she claims that spirituality of any kind is what enables people to have meaningful lives (100). And this may be true to an extent. People who believe in something do seem to have more purpose in their lives, but only those who know Jesus as their Savior have real purpose.
She isn’t shy about her own past in coming to Truth: “I was thirsty for something that I will dare to call the truth, so I read a lot of East Indian poetry and sat in the little chapel on campus and tried to pray” (27). And: “Still, I had never stopped believing in God since that day in Eva Gossman’s class. Mine was a patchwork God, sewn together from bits of rag and ribbon, Eastern and Western, pagan and Hebrew, everything but the kitchen sink and Jesus” (41). Combining her variety of spiritual backgrounds to her drug and alcohol usage, as well as her sexual promiscuity, as well as the era in which she grew up, it is little wonder she has arrived at the Christianity that she has.
And that is a Christianity that, as it seems to me, has so very little hope: “And since this side of the grave you could never know for sure if there was a God, you had to make a leap of faith, if you could leaping, across the abyss of doubt with fear and trembling” (27) And: “I had the cracks [in my life for the hope to shine through,] but not the hope” (40). When she lost one of her best friends, Pammy, to cancer, she grieved her so much (72), but never seemed to come to the realization that, yes, we are to grieve, but our grief is to be immediately comforted in hope of the rapture in the resurrection. I mean, we have huge emphases in the New Testament regarding the hope we have (1 Cor 15 and 1 Thess 4-5 come to mind off the top of my head). One of the most comforting things to me about my relationship with God is the hope that I find in it. I can’t fathom what it would be like to live apart from this hope – and it is something that seems to be so lacking from Lamott’s worldview. It is dreadfully obvious from her disdain for eschatology: “[On a plane, I was sitting next to] a man my own age who was reading a book by a famous right-wing Christian novelist about the Apocalypse. A newspaper had asked me to review this book when it first came out, because its author and I are both Christians – although as I pointed out in my review, he’s one of those right-wing Christians who thinks that Jesus is coming back next Tuesday right after lunch, and I am one of those left-wing Christians who thinks that perhaps this author is just spiritualizing his own hysteria… I remembered saying in the review that the book was hard-core right-wing paranoid anti-Semitic homophobic misogynistic propaganda – not to put too fine a point on it” (60). Now, I’m not defending the date-setters and the hyper-typers, but it is no coincidence that so much of the Bible is prophecy, that so much of it is as detailed as it is. The prophets of the Old Testament, the letters to the Thessalonians, Revelation, they are all meant to educate believers on what is going to happen, and for me, that means such a great influx of hope knowing how things are going to turn out, even if I don’t know all the details. I don’t need to wonder what heaven is going to be like, as Lamott does: “[Snorkeling,] the water is not crystal clear, and there are not a million brilliantly colored fish to watch, but if there is a heaven – and think there really may be one – it may be similar to snorkeling: dreamy, soft, bright, quiet.” Or: “I was also thinking of a priest who said that sometimes he thinks that heaven is just a new pair of glasses” (200). When so much is said about future things, how can one be so disdainful and nonchalant about it! This is a foundation of hope!
Now, if she were here sitting next to me, I’d expect vehement disagreement with this next point. There were times where she’d say something, and I’d chuckle heartily because of what she was, in essence, affirming! Note: “Now. Maybe you think it is arrogant or self-centered or ridiculous for me to believe that God bothered to wiggle a cheap bolt out of my new used car because he or she needed to keep me away for a few days until just the moment when my old friend most needed me to help her mother move into whatever comes next. Maybe nothing conscious helped to stall me so that I would be there when I could be most useful” (114). I’m sorry, but if this isn’t a Calvinistic commentary on her car’s breakdown, I don’t know what is! What she calls “arrogant” and “self-centered,” I call the “sovereignty of God!” I have these moments multiple times a week, if not a day, and all I can do is look up and praise Him for it!
And speaking of the gender of God, one of the things that really bothered me throughout the book is the ambiguous use of the pronouns “him” and “her” to refer to God: “I got out my note to God. I said, Look, hon. I think we need bigger guns” (133). And: “I wouldn’t put anything past God, because he or she is one crafty mother” (152). Or: “God must have been in one of her show-offy moods” (242). And yet again: “Veronica [her pastor] stepped to her side. ‘God is an adoptive parent, too. And she chose us all. She says, “Sure, I’ll take the kids who are addicted, or terminal. I picked all the retarded kids, and of course the sadists. The selfish ones, the liars…”’” (254-255). Should we think of God as masculine in the sense that men are masculine, maybe, maybe not. Nevertheless, it is pretty evident that we are to think of Him as masculine, as every pronoun, name, and title in the entire Bible is in the masculine, not feminine form. Again, this is a reflection of the worldview of truth that people bring to Christianity. They want to keep what they see as the best of their old lives (in Lamott’s case, community, feminism, and liberal politics) and force it to mesh with a biblical worldview – and in some cases, it just results with disaster.
In other cases, it works phenomenally well. Their focus on community, forgiveness, and love is something that evangelicals have lost sight of in a grievous way. She tells the story of a choir member in her church, Ranola, who was not at all happy when an HIV-infected, former homosexual, Ken, started attending their church (64). And this is where evangelicals fail. Miserably. I’ve heard it said once, or maybe read, that the only acceptable sin to an evangelical is one in the past: “I used to struggle with pornography. I used to shoot up every weekend. I used to be a womanizer. I used to steal. I used to do this, I used to do that. But now I am perfect!” This completely takes away from the fact that we are not yet perfect! If we have to keep deceiving each other, tricking each other into thinking that we have already arrived, all this does is hinder fellowship and sanctification. This is not to say that we take sin lightly, but that we take into account that we are all still “in process,” and that we need to love each other as we are. I like to think that when I’m with other believers, there should be no awkwardness, no “getting to know you” stage. After all, we share the most personal bond any two people could ever share – the same baptism of the Holy Spirit. As believers, we are more a part of each other than anyone else in the entire world. And if we have that in common, that right there is all I need to know in order for me to automatically consider someone a friend. If that’s in place, I feel as though that “connection” is already there. Maybe that’s a little too mystical and all that, but I believe it with my whole heart. That’s one of things that I love about working at the market this summer. I know that the people I work with, even if it is not all of them, are believers. It immediately makes it a more enjoyable experience for me, and I feel as though I am able to relate differently because of it.
Kudos if you’ve made it this far. I’m leaving so much out that was thought-provoking, yet here I am anyway babbling on. Couple more thoughts. Again, I love the idea of community, but in the subchapter, “Why I Make Sam Go To Church” (99-105), the answer is not “to learn more about Jesus” but “to be a part of a loving community.” Indeed, the whole Jesus-faith-salvation-hope-death-and-resurrection thing is a rarity in the book, and this makes all the parts I agree with feel very unsubstantiated, because we left out the reasoning for all the practice. We are a community because of grace. We have hope because of the resurrection. We have life because of Jesus. Instead, the community is more important than Jesus; love is more important than hope and faith (but not in the 1 Corinthians 13 way). And what has this done to Sam [her son]? “His spiritual views are changing; sometimes he says he doesn’t believe in only Jesus now. He says, ‘I believe in all the gods now,’ but that may be just to torture me” (267). No wonder! And she says it so nonchalantly as if it is a decision to be made lightly, or one of no consequence!
Alright, alright. Time to wrap it up:
“I do not at all understand the mystery of grace – only that it means us where we are but does not leave us where it found us” (143). Good description of what grace does, but not really the heart of what grace is.
“Not all people happen to love the taste of rye bread soaked in goat urine. I myself don’t mind it” (185). I, myself, hate it. Give me something stronger for the love of Pete!
On comforting others:
“I believe that when all is said and done, all you can do is to show up for someone in crisis, which seems so inadequate. But then when you do, it can radically change everything. Your there-ness, your stepping into a scared parent’s line of vision, can be life giving, because often everyone else is in hiding – especially, in the beginning, the parents. So you come to keep them company when it feels like the whole world is falling apart, and your being there says that just for this moment, this one tiny piece of the world is OK, or is at least better” (163-164).
“Even when we’re most sure that love can’t conquer all, it seems to anyway” (264).
All in all, it was an interesting read and I’m glad I did it. I may edit some of this as time goes on, but oh well. Thoughts? Questions? Snide remarks? There’s so much to wade through when it comes to the philosophy of postmodernism, and I’m by no means an expert, but I’m continually trying to see the good in it all and not throw the baby out with the bath water. Like I said, when it comes to love and community, evangelicals have a lot to learn! We need to realize that we are still sinners in need of grace. Granted, I like how I view things in terms of the marriage of theology and practice. If I didn’t, I’d be hypocritical to hold them. It’s just that there is so much grace in the Christian life, and that grace is meant to be shared and to be reveled in, and especially to be appreciated with others within the community. On the flip side, however, is the fact that the Bible is filled with so much about God and what He has done for us, does for us, and will do for us in the future. To ignore the depth of that information is just as bad as to divorce ourselves from love and community, as if theology is all that matters.
As the most awesome Paul Benware has said, “Sometimes the people who have experienced God’s grace the most are the most effective to be in ministry.”