Protestant Narratives

About a month ago Donald Miller, author of the highly popular non-religious-postmodern-Christian memoir Blue Like Jazz came out with a new book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, which is more or less an account of trying to make his life interesting enough for a movie, and reflections on what kinds of stories our lives are or can be. I read the first three chapters, a synopsis, and a few reviews, on the basis of which it’s easy enough to criticize, for all the same reasons as Blue Like Jazz – much of the writing, especially his dialogue, is cutsy, straining to be clever, and far too aware of its own authenticity. I had, in fact, begun to write a post about just that quality as it continues to manifest itself in this new book, when I shrugged, thought “what’s the point?” and realized that his style is what it is, and if I were actually talking to him I would probably find it charming. And besides, if that were all there is to him I wouldn’t bother reading or writing about him at all.

Well? Why is he so interesting? Well, there’s the unusual style, the charming anecdotes, the affection for his friends – but there’s also something else that makes a number of people exclaim why, it sounds like he’s writing about my life! or those are exactly the difficulties I’ve run into! and are pleased that it’s a good book, but most pleased to find that they are not alone. Which is to say, even if he’s not writing to my concerns, he is writing to someone’s, and a substantial number of someones at that. The main theme – make your (or rather my, because he’s not given to exhortation) life into a story worth telling has a little Purpose Driven Life (Rick Warren) and a little Epic (John Eldredge) in it, but from within a very different sub-culture. A globe trotting, post-modern, emergent church sort of sub-culture. Whether any or all of them have a viable solution for their given demographic, there must be something legitimately wrong for these books to be so wildly popular. My first reaction was to be irritated with the writers, because they are imprecise and overstate their aims – especially Eldredge – and none of them is an especially good writer. That’s hard to get past. And besides, I use different language than I do.

Especially in the cases of Eldredge and Miller, I’m suddenly reminded of Unamuno calling Protestantism an ethical religion, as opposed to an eschatological one. And, I’m wondering if that shows itself in the narrative of the Church, and eventually of each person within it. There’s Pentecost (dramatic conversion), then centuries of who-knows-what/falling away, then the Reformation (recommittal), followed by a few more centuries of this and that; wars, revivals, falling away, splitting apart, and so on, to be followed eventually by the Rapture. So for the individual there’s a possibility of seeing life as a conversion, followed by many years of more or less doing what one ought, perhaps with a falling away and recommittal in there somewhere, and then death. So the question comes up: what’s with all those years of more or less doing what one ought? That’s in no way inspiring. It can be rather insipid, in fact. So Warren has his Ministries, Eldredge his Adventure, and Miller rather quirky narrative structure, that involves a lot of restlessness (road trips, biking across the country, hiking in Peru, etc). Perhaps one could beat on drums, eat meat, hunt in Alaska, and engage in other adventurous diversions. Well, that’s alright, but it has a flaw – in addition to being a touch elitist with all the time off work and plane trips involved, traveling hither and yon is quite beside the point when it comes to good narrative. Very often it’s a substitute for a decent story, in fact. But what if the narrative were eschatological rather than linear. Which is to say, what if after becoming Christian a person now had available to them not only normal time, but also an option of entering into eschatological time (in Greek Chronos and Kairos time)? Of course, it’s difficult to write in eschatological time, though Charles Williams gives it a very good try, but life can do some interesting things that stories can’t. Some of the easier examples of this is in the liturgical life of the Church (come on, you knew I was going here, right? I always end up going there…), where they’ll say that today Christ is lifted up on the Cross, or today has salvation come into the world, or today Christ enters Jerusalem on a colt – and means it quite literally. In which case one could say either that they’re nuts and are speaking nonsense (as Hobbs would), or else there’s something peculiar going on. The Liturgy is also considered to be both in natural and eschatological time – hence how the Eucharist is offered both eternally in the Kingdom, and in particular churches on earth, because they’re really the same thing somehow.

Obviously I’m not very good at articulating what I’m trying to say, but I hope there’s a touch of it that makes sense. The thing is, I’m convinced that one could, if one were very dedicated, spend most of one’s life in a cave in the desert, and have as much chance of things being interesting there as if one were to buy a ranch and raise horses and go searching for bears and whatever else. Not exactly that it doesn’t matter, but – well, it only matters incidentally. If you’re in the cave and also in the heart of the mystery of the eschaton, that is. It would, however, probably make a very dull movie. The thing Eldredge and Warren and Miller rightfully recognize as insufficient seems to be the possibility of giving up on living in that other time and manner at all, and to simply go to work, come home, eat dinner, talk to the wife, go to sleep; perhaps go to church in the same way on Sunday, and so on, without some other layer there (like K’s Knight of Faith?). So he and Miller go for an obvious solution, which is partially true: get out and do something! It’s partially true, because we’re creatures of habit, and it’s got to be really difficult if not impossible to start appreciating other dimensions of life while doing the exact same thing, simply by trying. Kind of like doing anything else you have no experience with simply by trying – it doesn’t often work that way. But on the other hand going on an Adventure is as likely to be simply another enjoyable distraction as anything else if the other sense of things isn’t there first.

Writing both this and my previous post on blessings, I am struck by a fundamental difference between traditional (Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic) Christianity and modern Protestantism that would preclude me from ever writing an adequate reply to Miller, Eldredge, or anybody else who laments that we so often spend our lives in tedium without the other dimension of adventure and story – sacramentalism. Not so much in the sense of the seven sacraments, though that are a bit outside of time and in the Kingdom, but simply in what sort of place we imagine the cosmos to be. Of course we believe in specific sacraments like Eucharist, Baptism, Ordination, Unction, and so on, but primarily because we also believe that Creation is the kind of place where that isn’t a total break from the order of things – only from the order of things in fallen humanity. Creation is much more like a Charles Williams novel, where Forms can break in and start causing havoc. It’s the sort of place where today Christ is born (well, actually, today, the Theotokos lifted her veil of protection over a church somewhere, but in any event…), and things are really subtly different on holy days, things are really somehow different when they’ve been blessed by the church, and so on. But for the most part we’re missing a sense – the noetic one – and can’t tell, kind of like we can’t tell if there are angels or demons around.

Huh – this is looking kind of interesting; I wonder if it might be worth writing an actual essay on (the kind where I go to some trouble to make sense, that is)?

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6 thoughts on “Protestant Narratives

  1. I thought I left a comment here. In any case, these remarks are interesting. It leads me to wonder whether the mostly Protestant Quest to find God’s Will comes from wondering: what do I do now that I am saved

  2. You are definitely on to something. But I need to play devil’s advocate. (That’s my job). Are there any “pop culture” orthodox or catholic authors? Are there scholarly evangelical authors? How do we know it is the denomination and not the culture that makes Miller, Eldridge and Warren unique?

    • An example of a “pop” Orthodox writer might be Franky Schaeffer of Frederica Matthews-Green. The former is horrendous – he’s like the former Catholics who go around complaining about how they used to worship idols, only instead he’s a former Protestant who goes around bemoaning Republican Evangelicalism in the most outragous terms. Frederica is better – she writes books for newbies on what O. services are like, why we venerate Mary, how she used to like feminism but it has gone astray, and so on. I don’t know what “pop” Catholic authors are like – do you?

      I think that it is true that Protestantism is more liable to be over the top when it comes to embracing cultural fads than Orthodoxy or Catholicism, but that Catholicism is becoming more suceptible as it becomes less formally liturgical. One definition of a heresy (as opposed to a belief that is simply not Christian at all) is that it takes a truth, and emphasises it to the exclusion of, or against other truths – often because they can’t stand a paradox. To avoid that, it’s extremely helpful to have the other thruths so thouroughly embedded in your prayers, actions, songs, etc. that it’s nearly impossible to forget. Like if somebody’s prone to emphasize the intimate love for God, as many youth songs do – well, that’s legitimate, but it’s important to also emphasize His otherness, and repentance, and other things like that.

      The difficulty in Protestantism is that when they forget something, they have a habit of *really* forgetting it, or if they emphasize something it’s emphasized to the exclusion of other things. A couple of examples: Wild at Heart. Say there’s a retreat – it’s easy enough to spend the entire time doing adventure, emotionally fulfilling man stuff, without anything else as a kind of reality check. Or 40 Days of Purpose: not only the Bible studies, but also every sermon, the songs, and video clips were revamped in accordance with the trend of the year. So, take Orthodoxy, or a goodly portion of Catholicism (there are some exceptions, like the Salpointe retreat I went on, to which I heartily object) – there’s a theme for sure. There are also morning prayers, Matins, Vespers, Liturgy, daily readings, Jesus Prayers, mealtime prayers, and other set things that *may not be significantly changed for any reason* That’s important.

      Even if we for some unfathomable reason decided to have a Writing Your Life Story retreat, and read Miller and Eldredge there, and talk about how to have an interesting life story, what would happen (assuming it’s a reasonably normal parish) is that there would be standard Matins, breakfast (with a 50/50 chance of being vegan), followed by an introductory talk. Then everybody would be sent out to think about the talk, and would do something else instead. Then they’d reconvene and have a lecture on the lives of the saints, wherein there was a discussion on how interesting their life stories are. Then they’s eat lunch. At some point there would probably be a discussion on how suffering is important to an interesting life story, and they would wonder if the Russian idea of podvig is applicable. Then Vespers, dinner, and some amusing activity involving stories.

      So, what I think I’m getting at is that what makes Evangelicals unique – and not *all* Evangelicals, to be sure, but most of the ones in church leadership – unique is that they have both the ability and willingness to stop everything and pursue some new agenda, and the only thing putting a check on it is the Bible. Is this making any sense?

  3. It does make sense to me but what seems might be helpful to you is a thoughtful and rebellious Evangelical who would want to stick up for some of the things we think are less than sensible. There are Evangelical writers such as Alan Jacobs who think and write very well. So yeah, I suppose that it is plain that Protestants are more prone to fads than Catholics and Orthodox.

    • You might find this interesting: http://magnoliamountain.wordpress.com/2009/09/30/the-new-evangelical-scandal/

      I’m certainly willing to grant that there are serious, thoughtful Evangelicals who write well, and that they are surely closer to believing truely than silly, trendy Evangelicals. I’m likewise willing to grant that it would be unfair (or at least unprofitable) to compare the silly Evangelicals with the serious Orthodox theologians. I don’t think that’s what I was doing. It’s certainly not what I want to do. It’s not even especially interesting to compare the best Evangelical writers with the best Orthodox or Catholic ones – that’s not a valid comparison, because it’s pitting a hundred or so year old denomination against 2000 years of saints and writers. Indeed, even among modern writers, I’d just as well not *compare* an Alan Jacobs with an Alexander Schmemann or a David B Hart.

      This is getting way off topic from the original post, though, which is not dealing with theologians, but with normal(ish) people like you or I. And the fact of the matter is, if you’re an normalish interested person at an Orthodox (or presumably traditional Catholic) parish, you’re going to hear about liturgical theology of eschatological and teleological time wafting through the effulgent numonosity, theosis, consubstantial unions, ousia, noetic perception, and several hundred saints. You’re probably not going to hear much about Franky Schaeffer, either. If you’re a normalish person at a church like NWBC or Faith Community you’re going to hear about practical ethics, the Purpose Driven Life, womens ministries, Wild at Heart, “give over the steering wheel,” and your idea of an interesting life will be based on the Apostles and William Wallace. And, yeah, I know I’m overstating the matter.

      EDIT: Furthermore, the reason Ev. folks give for using Warren’s language rather than Jacobs’ is that it is too difficult for somebody to come in off the street having been raised by athiests with no respect for Western culture and understand what on earth anybody’s talking about. In fact, there’s an implication that it would scare people away, who would be intimidated and figure that only cold, dead snobs would pray in words words like “hypostatic” or “effulgent.” Actually, friendly people wouldn’t even use Ev. speak, like “bought by the blood,” because someone educated neither in Christianity nor anything else might be confused. That is a failure of education, or culture, of institutional integrity, and ultimately a failing of meaning, because at least “hypostatic” is learnable, whereas many of the “easy” terms of the seeker friendly movement are not precise enough to be learned at all.

      (I didn’t mean to get that ranty! I’m not even irritated. I just consider it incomprehensibly daft to suppose that, even though there may be a word for the thing you wish to signify, it’s better to go through life giving differing or inexact or inacurate accounts of your theology because nobody can be bothered to learn the word. Like th SEI thing, where you teach the same thing you would teach using certain words, but without those words.)

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