Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Ironic Christian's Companion

The Ironic Christian's Companion: Finding the Marks of God's Grace in the World
Patrick Henry (Riverhead Books, 1999)

"This book is about the grace of God, but not about magic, and certainly not about anything easy. It's about something simple, that God can be trusted but not taken for granted..."

Patrick Henry is a middle-aged straight white Christian religious scholar, the son and grandson of clergymen, but we ought not to hold any of that against him--he's still able to grasp the uncertainties and ironies of our walk in the world in a helpful way. He is not an elegant writer like Kathleen Norris, nor a scintillating story-teller like Annie Lamott, but he might well find a place near them on your devotional shelf.
In particular, Henry has overcome his background and training as a scholar: he has (by noticing that he needed to) recaptured the ability to experience the Bible as story, rather than as the object of hermeneutical autopsy. The Ironic Christian's Companion is full of stories, from God's challenging Moses with the faith of his father, to the early oeuvre of Dr. Seuss. Few of them are original or unique to Henry, but it matters not: this book is meant as a companion for the journey, and a commentary on some things we already knew but haven't noticed lately.
The other handicap that Henry has overcome is the temptation of certainty. "I have had to learn to listen to the God whose ways are not my ways, whose thoughts are not my thoughts", he says; (and later) "...but resistance to certainty has proved for me a solid ground of hope." Think how many of the things scholars have been certain of, that the scholars of other ages have found to be dead wrong. This is not a reason to believe nothing--there is plenty of fertile ground between a gullible (and perhaps impossible) certainty in pre-packaged truths, and the modern dogma of what-you-see-is-all-you-get.
That ground between is room for intelligent questioning, and for the kind of answers that widen the scope of the questions so that what seemed like opposing answers are dissolved in larger perspectives. Was Jesus human or divine? The answer is not one or the other; to say that He was both, utterly, enlarges the question to something like its proper magnitude as one of the central koans of Christianity.
I particularly appreciate Henry's notes on the life of the mind. If God loves the childlike, does He shun the thoughtful? Another koan. "I have at times experienced my mind as alien, as the nub of the contradiction between what I know and what I feel." But as Saint Augustine tells us, "we can truly know only what we love." It's not that knowledge is not valuable; especially by sharing it in community, we can often enlighten and encourage one another. It's just that any one seeker's knowledge is incomplete, and liable to error; and without love, it helps us not at all.
When we embody what we know in what we love, then our faith will give rise to acts of trust; love will give rise to generosity and gratitude; hope will give rise to prayer. All these things happen especially in communities of friendship, where we celebrate and share our various strengths and weaknesses, offering one another courage and a loving vision of hope.

June 2005

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