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Franzen and faith at the crossroads

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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, and ecclesiology are now under the world literary spotlight.

 

'It’s a telling and deep study for people of faith about how acting on poor theology can create personal, family, and social chaos, topped with a reminder that grace is close by when we stand at the crossroads.'

 

In the same era Crossroads is set, French literary theorist Roland Barthes published his influential essay, The Death of the Author. Impacting literary criticism for decades, it held that an author’s background, beliefs and intentions when writing a work are irrelevant. The work should be judged as it appears on the page.

Today’s climate for literature’s reception and critique might be described as the ‘rebirth of the author’. A writer’s race, background, culture and beliefs are often the first points of reference for appreciating their work. And authors’ intentions are likewise scrutinised through the same grid, as interviewers and readers seek to discover from the writer precisely how their words should be interpreted.

After reading and enjoying Crossroads’ powerful study of the psychology of belief, seeing so much of my own and others’ Christian journeys in it, I was tempted to find out more about Franzen’s background and intentions. Against my normal Barthes’-driven instincts, I was intrigued about what role Christianity has played in Franzen’s life and what he believes. I was interested to know to what extent his insights into faith and belief were personal and to what extent research based. Why did he decide to look so closely at faith and belief in this novel, and did he mean Crossroads as a parody of belief, or were his sympathies split?

I stood at the crossroads, but I chose my normal path. I accepted that my position as a Christian meant I read the novel a certain way, and that was enough.

It was enough for me to be reminded, through Russ, particularly, that people can interpret circumstances and others’ behaviour as constituting God’s providence for them, when it is merely their own wishful thinking that God will support their selfish agendas. That prayer can be just a dialogue with the ego, and even moments of genuine grace between people, evidenced in a compelling scene between Russ and his ‘frenemy’ and Crossroads leader Rick Ambrose, can be later manipulated to serve our personal agendas. And then to see, through Russ’s circling from marriage and career despair to fulfilment in both, the way God is shown, often in Crossroads, to always work for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28).

Russ, Marion, and their daughter Becky’s faith journeys remind us how easy it is to take our understanding of God and manipulate it for our own ends. How we can justify our poor choices and behaviour through our little deals with God, which might actually be deals with God’s counterpart. How cults can start and people can do evil in the name of the God they purport to love.

If Franzen meant his novel as, to an extent, a parody for non-believers, or as a straightforward exposure of religious hypocrisy for the same audience, then he achieved those ends. But, at the same time, it’s a telling and deep study for people of faith about how acting on poor theology can create personal, family, and social chaos, topped with a reminder that grace is close by when we stand at the crossroads.

 

 

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne writer and his latest book is Matters of Life and Faith (Coventry Press, 2021)

Main image: Main street, USA (KeithBishop / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Paul Mitchell, Crossroads, review

 

 

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Existing comments

Your last sentence, Paul, is a masterful conclusion to a compelling review - especially in its affirmations of the importance of theology and the availability of grace. Thank you.


John RD | 11 February 2022  

Barthes needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, which I'm glad you did, Paul. Franzen has been well and truly done over by the large American critical apparatus, which includes fellow novelists, who I suspect could be just a wee bit jealous of his success. From memory Franzen comes from the Midwest, which has some very deep Catholic and Lutheran roots, as well as being on the fringe of the Bible Belt. Russ and his family seem very Bible Belt Evangelicals to me. Praying to God also involves the reciprocal duty of listening hard. I am not sure how well Russ listens. I think what Franzen leaves us with is a paradox. What, is indeed, the spiritual status of Russ? Where is he going? Anywhere? A fair question.


Edward Fido | 12 February 2022  

Sounds like Franzen has taken Mars Hill as his metaphor. Australia offers much evidence of the rise and fall of this too, as does the history of Protestantism: charismatic leaders, stagnant or diminishing congregations, responding to social and cultural stimuli.

Franzen operates within a set of truths that, as Barthes would argue, are complex and layered and may not, over time, relate to each other except as a demonstration of how complex truth actually is.(Barthes shows that 'fake news' has nothing to do with the veracity of an article. It is used to discredit complexities that one neither likes nor understands).

Barthes critique of religion is typical of his period; but religious preoccupations inflect his discussion of religious communities. His notion of neutrality is asserted against the didacticism of faith. He demonstrates strong interest in mysticism. His discussion of Pascal and Proust resonate with religiosity. His mother’s Protestantism leads him to discuss the possibility of a faith without violence. Barthes’s distinction between politics (an object of suspicion) and the political (a value to be affirmed) importantly clarifies a similar distinction between religion and the religious.

Warm appreciation to Paul Mitchell! He hits the mark for publication in a Jesuit review.


Michael Furtado | 15 February 2022  
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‘….a set of truths that…are complex and layered and may not, over time, relate to each other except as a demonstration of how complex truth actually is…. 'fake news' has nothing to do with…veracity….It is used to discredit complexities that one neither likes nor understands….’

Just work backwards to the simple truth from the nerve that is going to be jarred by a circumstance that someone will exempt from moral obloquy because truth is supposedly complex.

To Gary Cangemi’s Umbert the Unborn, the thinking foetus, the complexities of other people’s psychosexual lives, devolving over the quarter of a billion years of hominin existence, is all fake news caused by other people’s dislike or misunderstanding of the simple truth of a scalpel through the cranium.

Licence is the unreasonable making of third parties to pay for one’s idea that truth is complex. Perhaps, another cartoonist might come up with a cartoon strip called Tiggy the Trophy Child to explore the complexities of other people’s dislike or misunderstanding of the simple truth of living without a natural parent who could be available were s/he not unready, unwilling and unable.

Because all that is true, secular or religious, comes from the same divine teaching source, something held to be a truth but which operates outside and in contradiction to the college of truths is a lie.


roy chen yee | 16 February 2022  

I'm glad to see the comments here have moved into areas beyond the scope of my 800 words. Fascinating set of comments to read, many thanks, Paul


Paul Mitchell | 17 February 2022  
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Indeed, Paul. As a fellow writer for ES, I delight in the Jesuitical mischief of its sponsors, which impels them to source and endorse cutting-edge pieces of the kind that would never be published in conventional Australian Catholic media.

On a par with the Oxford Dominican publication, 'New Blackfriars' as well as the occasional piece in 'America', 'Eureka Street' has an exciting, experimental Australian feel to it.

One challenge for ES, that NB hasn't, is that ES is a target of heresy-hunting Catholic fundamentalists, who sometimes flood its columns with posts ranging from the entertaining to the ridiculous, universally opposing rather than engaging with ES' raison d'tre.

This is a negative consequence of the small Australian market, which in Australian Catholic sub-cultural context, is vulnerable to the reactionary broadsides of those breast-fed on Santamaria. No such precedents, fortunately, for the Brits, but plenty in America!

I think, since the bizarre tone of such posts doesn't belong here, a better strategy would be for ES' editors to forward all such correspondence onto 'The Leader', 'The Record', 'The Catholic Weekly' and 'The Advocate', which is where such sublime and interesting prejudices would well and truly resonate with others who happily publish there.


Michael Furtado | 26 February 2022  

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