Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content

by Alan Jacobs

Choose Life

Lessons from Wendell Berry and Yul Brynner.

Discuss this article

In 2006, Books & Culture, along with our sister magazines Christianity Today and Leadership Journal, is posing a single provocative question to an array of creative and influential thinkers: How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good? It is the opening question of the Christian Vision Project, a three-year exploration of next steps in the church's relationship to culture, its role in global mission, and its proclamation of the gospel.

One of the many benefits of this project is the chance to highlight a few individuals who exemplify evangelical Christianity at its best, at a time when mainstream media, abetted by our own foibles and follies to be sure, frequently highlight our vast and variegated movement at its worst. These voices may not shout the loudest, but they often have a great deal indeed to say, not just to fellow believers but to the wider culture.

Happily, Alan Jacobs' voice, familiar to readers of our pages, is being heard more widely recently, thanks to the publication of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis. A frequent contributor to the Boston Globe, First Things, The Weekly Standard, the Mars Hill audio series, and other outlets, Alan is an eminently readable writer because he is above all a reader, discerning in his choice of texts and unfailingly careful with his subjects, engaging them with what he has called, in his book A Theology of Reading, "the hermeneutics of love." As Booklist put it in their review of his collection Shaming the Devil, Alan is "the most personable of critics." Here it is evangelicalism itself that benefits from his personable critique.

Implicit in the question I have been asked to consider—" How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?"—is a judgment: that we followers of Christ are not now such a counterculture. It's a sound judgment, I think, and it seems to call for a particular kind of discourse: what that great scholar of early American culture, Perry Miller, called the jeremiad.

Miller tells us that the preachers of colonial New England, in an "unending monotonous wail," in "something of a ritual incantation . . . would take up some verse of Isaiah and Jeremiah with which to berate their congregants." After 1679—thanks to the hard work of a synod of preachers—they could even employ a prefabricated list of the twelve varieties of iniquity characteristic of New Englanders, "merely bringing the list up to date by inserting the new and still more depraved practices an ingenious people kept on devising." Miller was duly impressed by these denunciations: "I suppose that in the whole literature of the world, including the satirists of imperial Rome, there is hardly such another uninhibited and unrelenting documentation of a people's descent into corruption."

Well, don't think I'm not tempted. But it would provide more pleasure for me than edification for my readers. The problem with jeremiads is that they only convince people already in the Jeremiah frame of mind; everybody else is likely to say, "Whoa, it's not that bad, is it?"

And in any case, those who would rectify the weaknesses or errors of any body of people should keep two warnings in mind. First, when a community fails to live up to its own standards, as of course it will, that community will be laboring under some kind of illusion—some distorted or fanciful self-understanding. As Kierkegaard pointed out long ago, "an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed . . . one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion." When anyone sees a jeremiad coming, he or she, like the captain of the Enterprise, immediately begins deploying the shields. This is why the prophet Nathan approached that adulterous murderer King David with a little story about sheep.

But the most desirable goods, like the most deadly illusions, rarely yield to direct assault. Wise men and gurus, saints and cranks alike testify that happiness cannot be sought but can only be found in the pursuit of something else. C. S. Lewis wasted years of his life seeking the peculiar stab of longing he called Joy—only to discover in the end that, like a stray cat, it declined to come when called, but appeared when it was least looked for.

Similarly, we Christians cannot set as our goal the becoming of a counterculture for the common good. Nor can we directly seek the elimination of the vices and illusions that constrain our attempts to love our neighbors as we should. We will strip away our self-deceit and become a true light unto the nations only by seeking and becoming faithful to the call of the Gospel. If we eventually become a true counterculture for the common good, that counterculture (and that good) will simply be the product of our faithfulness.

All too often Christians think even of faithfulness as a means to an end, that end being (usually) something called "church growth." We think so because in our culture goals are always products: quantifiable goods that, because they are quantifiable, can be produced by techniques. Thus our true ancestor is Charles Finney, the 19th-century evangelist who believed that his evangelistic techniques were fully scientific: "The connection between the right use of means for a revival and a revival is as philosophically [i.e., scientifically] sure as between the right use of means to raise grain and a crop of wheat." Improvements in agricultural technique and improvements in evangelistic technique are, then, achieved by application of the same experimental practices— though I am not sure what the evangelistic equivalent of Cyrus McCormick's reaper is. It is truly wonderful that Finney and his many modern heirs fail altogether to notice that whenever the Bible compares soul-winning to agriculture it invariably does so in order to emphasize the inscrutable sovereignty of God: Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. And we never get an explanation of why the ground on which the sower sows is so variable in quality, in receptiveness to the seed of the Gospel. Obedience, not results, must be our watchword, and in one sense all I have to say is this: be obedient to Christ today.

Last Christmas Day my pastor, Martin Johnson, spoke of his youthful habit of walking in the forests of British Columbia at night, guided only by moonlight. It was remarkable how far he could see by that meager illumination, how delicately beautiful the landscape was. The only problem was that he couldn't see where to put his foot for his next step, and as a result he took plenty of tumbles. The light of Christ, said Martin—the light that is Christ— is just the opposite: it illuminates with perfect clarity your next step, but blots out the surrounding territory. Christ is the Word of God, and the psalmist tells us that that word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path: it shows us where to place one trembling foot, but it does not make us authoritative cartographers of the whole territory. It's worth remembering that when people ask Jesus the cartographic kinds of questions—"Will many be saved or only a few?"—Jesus tells them to mind their own spiritual business. I think that if we try to formulate a plan for becoming a counterculture for the common good—if we draw up a map and an itinerary—we may well receive a similar rebuke. "What is that to you? Follow me. One step at a time."

Yet there is a sense in which a focus on today's obedience makes a long view possible: it does not yield a map, but it does yield a confidence that he who has called us is faithful, and will conduct the whole Church to her journey's end. About a dozen years ago, Pope John Paul II agreed to answer some questions posed to him by an Italian journalist named Vittorio Messori. (His answers ultimately became the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope.) One of those questions concerned demographic predictions that Muslims would outnumber Catholics by the year 2000: "How do you feel when faced with this reality, after twenty centuries of evangelization?"

To this inquiry—with its freight of implicit worry—the pope replied placidly. After all, Jesus Christ himself proposed a still more frightening question: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8)—will there be any faithful believers at all? And yet this same Jesus, John Paul reminded Messori, had already given this word of comfort to his fretful disciples: "Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for the Father is pleased to give you the kingdom" (Luke 12:32, italics by JPII). The whole business of counting the adherents of religions in order to find out which of them "has a future" is a process at best distracting from, at worst hostile to, true faith.

The same trust prompts John Paul's successor Benedict to accept the possibility that the Roman Church may become smaller before it becomes larger. That is, the Church must insist on the integrity of its witness, because only such countercultural integrity will save the church—and therefore serve the common good—in the long term. Benedict has no interest in deliberately making the church smaller; rather, he wishes to make the church faithful, and if that has the (temporary) effect of reducing numbers, because there are people who will not wish to add to their lives the extra effort of becoming disciples, then so be it. One prays that this not happen; one recognizes that it very well might. George Weigel points out that Pope Benedict is fond of quoting the old Benedictine maxim Succisa virescit—"pruned, it grows"—but as every gardener knows, the immediate result of a vigorous pruning is an apparently lifeless remnant: it is only in the next season that the luxurious growth appears.

Bodies of believers with a briefer history and shallower roots in the great tradition of Christian orthodoxy may find such assurance harder to come by. If we evangelicals habitually think locally and in the short term, that is because our very existence is local and short-term: we have to will a connection with historic orthodoxy. Still more must we pray for and earnestly seek the confidence that the Father is pleased to give us the Kingdom. And it is my belief that—both for our own well-being and for the common good—we need to find ways to perform the assurance that we are supposed to have, the confidence that the One who has called us is faithful beyond our ability even to imagine. Only when we act upon that assurance can we enact a sign: that is, only in that way does our confidence become readable. And what might such a sign be?

I think it would be wonderful if some large and wealthy American church would have to cut staff and programs (or better yet, actually have to close its doors) because it had given far too much money to foreign missions or the needs of local people. Not every such church, just one—or three or four, maybe—on the same principle that made my son's doctor, when Wes was five or six, check for the reassuring presence of cuts, scrapes, and bruises on his arms and legs: if he didn't have those, he was too timid. Unmarked limbs would have shown that Wes was keeping himself safe, but at the cost of failing to learn, failing to develop— failing, indeed, to find out what he could do as well as what he couldn't. How delightful it would be to drive past an empty megachurch and tell an unbelieving friend that the congregation couldn't pay their bills after they gave too much to rebuilding churches in New Orleans.

Or: given all the thousands of American churches that have enjoyed the great satisfaction of moving from a high-school cafeteria or a storefront to a beautiful new building, wouldn't it be wonderful if just a few reversed that course? That is, if a congregation gave their building away so that it could house a Christian service agency (or indeed another, poorer church), and then found a nice gymnasium somewhere to meet on Sunday mornings?

Some will say that such actions would be reckless and improvident, a failure to meet the standards of "good stewardship." But this would be to confuse the prudence appropriate to the monetary affairs of the bourgeoisie with the very different prudence called for by the Gospel. Compelling here are some words written by the Christian historian Christopher Dawson seventy years ago:

The spirit of the Gospel is eminently that of the "open" type which gives, asking nothing in return, and spends itself for others. It is essentially hostile to the spirit of calculation, the spirit of worldly prudence and above all to the spirit of religious self-seeking and self-satisfaction. For what is the Pharisee but a spiritual bourgeois, a typically "closed" nature, a man who applies the principle of calculation and gain not to economics but to religion itself, a hoarder of merits, who reckons his accounts with heaven as though God was his banker? It is against this "closed," self-sufficient moralist ethic that the fiercest denunciations of the Gospels are directed. Even the sinner who possesses a seed of generosity, a faculty of self-surrender, and an openness of spirit is nearer to the kingdom of heaven than the "righteous" Pharisee; for the soul that is closed to love is closed to grace.

Christians, I think, need to consider these words carefully. We must ask ourselves whether we have, indeed, taken "worldly prudence" for good stewardship, and Christian generosity for recklessness. And we must remind ourselves that we can insulate ourselves from surprising uncertainties or setbacks only by the kind of false prudence that insulates us also from surprising blessings.

Indeed, we need to ask what, exactly, in our prudence, we are afraid of. Sometimes I suspect that it is God himself, or at least life itself. Many years ago the farmer and writer Wendell Berry came across an advertisement for a new John Deere tractor heralding the advent of an "earth space capsule" that would protect the farmer not only from the "noise and fumes" produced by the tractor's own engine but also from the vagaries of weather. Berry found himself first bemused and then disturbed by the idea of a farmer who doesn't like weather; but then he reflected that this ad might well have relevance beyond the world of agriculture:

Of course, the only real way to get this sort of freedom and safety—to escape the hassles of earthly life—is to die. And what I think we see in these advertisements is an appeal to a desire to be dead that is evidently felt by many people. These ads are addressed to the perfect consumers: the self-consumers, who have found nothing of interest here on earth, nothing to so, and are impatient to be shed of earthly concerns.

Too many church buildings, it seems to me—and I say this suspecting that, for all my caveats and self-warnings, the spirit of Jeremiah has possessed me after all— have become vast "earth space capsules," and it may be time to escape before the spiritual oxygen runs out.

The sign I ask that some of us enact is not, I think, a sign of renunciation—not that there's anything wrong with that—but of generosity. Giving is not renouncing. And if it turns out that we cannot do this, or something like it, then I think the least we can do is to admit that we have locked ourselves in our capsules and have no intention of coming out. We can write our confession and tape it to the door so passersby can learn who we are.

Our great exemplar, I think, should be Yul Brynner. The Russian-born actor knew that he was dying from lung cancer when he appeared on ABC's Good Morning, America in January 1985. And on that occasion he said that what he really wished he could do was to tape a publicservice announcement that would say, "Now that I'm gone, I tell you: Don't smoke, whatever you do, just don't smoke." He died ten months later, and soon thereafter his words were indeed presented to the world by the American Cancer Society—prefaced by an image of his tombstone. So we too, we who could not manage to give or renounce, we who could not risk falling down, just before we crawl into our capsules should affix a simple message for those passersby, and especially for our children: "Don't do what we did. Don't hoard, don't close yourself up in your own comforts and even your own virtues. Be open to love and grace: choose life."

More CVP articles from our sister publications are available on ChristianVisionProject.com. Also check out the Christian Vision Project's new video documentary, Intersect|Culture. The videos take you into the stories of ordinary believers who, by faith, changed their communities. The set includes a DVD with 6 videos and coordinating group curriculum.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis (HarperSanFrancisco).

Most ReadMost Shared