Monday, March 4, 2013

Sitting on the sofa with God

The slow descent from love to indifference in The Painted Veil

As screenwriters often do, Roy Nysamer takes some liberties in the 2006 film adaptation of The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham’s story of longing, unrequited love and forgiveness set in 1920's colonial China. Unlike most movie treatments of novels it arguably improves on the source material. It's always a hazard translating well loved and well read authors like Tolkien and Jane Austen into cinema form. Tinkering with Maugham’s work is safer because like William Faulkner, admiration for him rarely translates into people actually reading his books.

Nysamer stays true to the novel's core while overcoming the overly compacted prose and underdeveloped characters. One of those characters is Mother Superior, a French nun who runs an orphanage in a cholera-infested region of China. Mother Superior is seen through most of the book and film as an imposing figure of faith and good works. Toward the end of film Nysamer adds an unexpected nuance as the nun confesses,

I fell in love when I was 17, with God. A foolish girl with romantic notions about the life of a religious. But my love was passionate. Over the years my feelings have changed. He's disappointed me. Ignored me. We've settled into a relationship of peaceful indifference. The old husband and wife who sit side by side on the sofa, but rarely speak. He knows I will never leave him. This is my duty.
If that statement does not achieve at least a flicker of recognition in the typical evangelical Christian (including those who gather in the conservative Presbyterian klatch I live in) it’s likely they’re just not paying attention. Disappointment with God, dashed expectations of the Christian life, ponderous duty and the easy inertia of indifference make up the true north of a large swath of modern Christian experience. The ballast for that observation comes from 27 years of work in ministry and the too often declension of my own heart.

In a recent blog post Erskine College professor William B. Evans notes a theological basis for this in my tradition's "school-text account of salvation" which has "considerable difficulty offering a coherent account of how the ongoing life of Christian nurture, faith, and obedience in the church are relevant to one’s eternal destiny." Or as a friend of mine recently put in an email, "Our spirituality often boils down to...just confess the right things and grind it out for 50 years." There are seasons of life where grinding it out is the best and only thing we can do. And I've long advocated (and still do) the view that obedience to God for dodgy motives is still emphatically preferable to disobedience. But staring down a lifetime of grind tempts many to find alternate ways to cope or run for the escape pod.

In The Painted Veil a man says to his estranged wife, "It was silly of us to look for qualities in each other that we never had." In that moment he realizes that both had latched on to external trappings of a genuine relationship. But without substance they were only temporary solutions and a means of distraction. The cacophony of calls to be grace-driven, more confessional, missional, culture-redeeming, city-transforming, authentic-worshipping, high-church, regulative-principled, faster-growing, radical, community-based, and better behaved all in some way have an umbilical attachment to the gospel and the Christian life. But they are often so much white noise as one is singled out as the magic bullet. Some have the disposition to saddle up and ride one of them through life. Most don't, so they try another one. After falling off so many horses Mother Superior's sofa looks like the best option.

An important pivot in The Painted Veil is the prevailing social attitude attached to divorce. In early 20th Century British culture the option of divorce was severely limited because for men it meant a loss of face and at least a slight disruption in social standing and rhythm. For women it was the terrifying prospect of fending for yourself without a support structure and lifelong alienation from friends and loved ones. For most professing Christians the option of completely abandoning the faith has a similar dynamic. Saving faith may (and, I think, usually does) exist, but any real difference it makes becomes an increasingly distant echo. So much to the point that the grind seems not worth the effort. But there is genuine comfort in the routine of church life, Christian friends, and the sociological familiarity of it all. These are hard to give up when the alternatives are considered. And then there is the usually unspoken terror of admitting that Christianity is possibly wrong, Jesus did not rise from the dead, we are alone in the universe, there is nothing past the grave and, "we are of all people most to be pitied." When we cross into this territory, that sofa of indifference looks like a pretty good option.

"But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead." I believe that. I've staked my life on it. But getting that through pastorally is made more difficult by the church not having the collective confidence to acknowledge that the formulas and confessions we rightly affirm may have less traction in static form. Addressing this can be done while protecting line-in-the-sand corollary issues, even culturally unpopular ones like biblical authority, sexual standards and gender roles. Church history tells us confessional restatement has been done as seismic cultural changes require it. But we act like it's heterodox or just not as important as "getting the job done".

I'm comfortable raising the issue, but confess I'm less so suggesting a solution. That's not laziness (well, some of it may be) but just realizing it's out of my skill-set. To be honest, I'd just be happy that if in my lifetime we could begin to see a shift toward at least approaching this apart from fear and loathing.

At the end of Mother Superior's confession she says, "But when love and duty are one, then grace is within you." That's not as precise as it should be. When the grace of the gospel is fully embraced, love and duty are one. 

And we can get off that sofa.

1 comment:

  1. Tom, your words really resonate. When I first heard the gospel (to the best of my recollection) from the lips of Josh McDowell 41 years ago and responded to the invitation to believe the gospel, I never would have believed that the Christian life could be so difficult, so full of questions and doubts, so full of disappointments. I must say as someone who, I believe by nature and training, is a theologian I find that when my struggles come more and more I find myself going, not to the "deep things of theology" but to the gospels and the life of Jesus for encouragement and strength. Two books of the Bible have become more and more precious (using the word with intent) to me over the past 10 years. II Corinthians and Hebrews. II Corinthians because it clearly shows Paul's struggles,pains and difficulties. It reminds me of the constant and difficult call to be "always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies". Hebrews because it reminds me that my Older Brother really was a man just like me, yet without sin and that be became a man not just to pay for my sins (as glorious as that is) but to understand via experience what it means to live in a fallen world so that he might "sympathize" (far too small a translation for the original word) with my weaknesses.
    At this season of Lent I would like to offer a word of encouragement to those for whom Tom's words also resonate. It comes from a recent post from my daughter Bethany's blog (one of the great things about Christians having adult children is that it being able to learn from them) quoting from Tom Wright's book for Lent. And for those who might object to a quote by N.T. Wright I would remind you that this is not by N.T. Wright but Tom Wright and as my daughter said to me when she was studying at Westminster and having to read a lot of Wright: "Dad, I like books by Tom Wright much more than books by N.T. Wright (and yes she does know that they are the same person, she just happens to be very insightful).