Sunday, November 12, 2006

negative capability and evangelicalism

I recently received my Image Journal in the mail, which I greatly enjoy reading. But this issue contained some articles that I found about as comfortable as slipping on the proverbial hair shirt. One was a recollection by writer Todd Shy entitled, "Recovering Evangelical: Reflections of an Erstwhile Christ Addict". What made me sit up and take note of this particular piece was that Todd Shy was an assistant to John Stott, a man dubbed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury as the "unenthroned pope of worldwide evangelicalism". Our adult Sunday school is currently studying through the Stott classic, Basic Christianity. I read through it with a sort of morbid curiousity, trying to sort out where I stood in relation to this man's particular shift from categorizer of people to acceptor of the mystery of life itself. I did not agree with all of Mr. Shy's conclusions, but I had to admit I agreed more than disagreed.

One quote, "The anguish of the believer striving for inner obedience will be clear to anyone who has been immersed in the evangelical world. There is a kind of correlation between all the promises of peace, the assertions of joy, and the reality of inner turmoil. Since, as we used to tell each other, the Lord comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, it was by any measure better to be afflicted. When every thought, and not just every action, must be obedient to Christ, and faith is fidelity to what you cannot actually sense, the result is a formula for zeal, to be sure, but also for pious stress, and even breakdown. I know something of this firsthand. And while my experience is momentous for only one man, it is nonetheless a window looking into a world that warrants both criticism and respect."

I can honestly say I also" know something of this firsthand", and know of other people who know of it firsthand. I was greatly challenged personally by this assertion to ask how much of this is honestly true in my own life. I recall going to a Christian youth camp as a high schooler. The sort of pinnacle of the two week long camp consisted of going into a local park with the native heathens to "share our faith". As I walked through the park looking for a potential target of said sharing, I had to question where my faith even was I was so nervous and felt so guilty for not wanting to even be there or bothering people having fun and spending time with their families. We regrouped at the end of the day and I'll admit being intimidated and jealous of those confident teenagers who could skillfully articulate the day's activity in a meaningful context of actual faith. To me it was frightening and pointless, and I ended the day being consumed with frustration and a sense of deep failure.

I'm a long, long way from my youth camp days, and it is worth noting that within the time period I attended the camp my mother died of cancer and my father remarried an alcoholic. I survived those years with my faith intact. I think I learned, without knowing it, a place of being the author describes from a definition by Keats, "Negative capability, Keats wrote, is a state in which people are capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason." Mr. Shy goes on to explain, "Expansion of vision describes what I was after when I chased unchanging truth. Christianity is more consoling than literature, but literature more patiently lingers with the hard mysteries of life. It is more at home with our contingency." It was a "secular" book, Augusten Burroughs' memoir of his days as an alcoholic finding recovery (Dry) that finally helped me to release my feelings of deep grief over my son's situation. It did not answer my questions, but it did chronicle another human life within whose shadow I could find familiar comfort and that was all I needed at that moment.

The article opened with an admission that in his evangelical zeal Todd Shy burned a Marilynne Robinson book, and in the end quotes that very book. I'd like to end with that quote,"It appears to me that even very thoughtful people discover what terms they have made with themselves only as they live, which prohibitions are conditional, which absolute, and so on. So in the great matter of moral soundness or rigor or whatever, we are as great mysteries to ourselves as we are to one another. It should not be that way, of course. The human condition has an amazing wrongness about it. But if it is agreed that we are in this respect mysterious, then we should certainly abandon easy formulas of judgement."


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