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Franzen and faith at the crossroads

  • 10 February 2022
American novelist Jonathan Franzen has in his last three fictional works taken words that loom large in the collective consciousness and built worlds around them. First, it was Freedom (2010), then Purity (2015), and now Crossroads (2021). The latter title, of course, refers to a literal and figurative decision-making moment, but also the mythic locale where blues singers, notably Robert Johnson, made their pacts with the devil. And as Christians worldwide know, the ‘crossroads’ moniker has for decades been applied to Christian ministries, media, groups, and churches.

All of the above are live concerns in Franzen’s novel. The Hilderbrandts, a late 1960s’ church family in New Prospect, Illinois, led by liberal pastor Russ and his wife Marion, are on the thresholds of big decisions, some of which might be said to involve deals with the devil. And, in a nation also at an historical crossroads, much of the action results from the formation of the controversial but wildly popular ‘Crossroads’ youth ministry at Russ’s First Reformed Church. Even Robert Johnson’s famous ‘Crossroads’ song has a brief spin on the turntable when Russ gets chemically experimental with a divorced female parishioner.

Franzen is famous for authentically capturing both the sweep of history and the minutiae of human psychology and relationships. His breakout novel, The Corrections (2001), forensically studied the dysfunctional Lambert family as its generational values clashed, while Freedom centred on the Berglunds of St Paul, Minneapolis, as their green liberal values met economic and other social realities. In Crossroads, Russ and Marion’s mores and unresolved pasts bump against their parishioners, colleagues and children’s values during America’s Vietnam-era countercultural revolution, with cataclysmic results.

Franzen again tears off masks of hypocrisy, whether individual or societal, but with compassion for human suffering. What’s unique, however, about Crossroads in his oeuvre is the attention given to the practice and psychology of belief in God. Through detailed backstory and exposition of inner worlds, Crossroads investigates how belief and faith in God, or the lack thereof, impacts every aspect of a person’s existence — for better and for worse, Franzen reminds us.

Novels from Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Barbara Kingsolver, Morris West, Marilynne Robinson, and Patrick White, among many others, have covered this terrain. But it’s rare for a contemporary novel’s action to centre on a church community. And with Franzen, one of the world’s most widely read novelists, often considered America’s greatest living writer, undertaking this study, it means Christianity, theology,