This article is part of an ongoing series titled “Books that Changed My Life.” Autobiographical reviews of books that changed our lives for the better and sometimes for the worse.
A list of the girls I loved as an upperclassman at Cedarville College, a fundamentalist-evangelical school in rural Ohio, 1997-1998:
1. “Marjorie” – a pietist mystic, who talked always of ‘intimacy with God’ and might have relocated, full-time, into a prayer closet had she lived in the Middle Ages
2. “Heloise” – an intellectual Calvinist, who looked for God in books, such as the Bible, or Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathusthra (dead or alive)
3. “Michelle” – another mystic who liked to throw “praise parties” with guitars and djembes and Michael W. Smith songs but who was also in my logic class, so I figured she might be as smart as Heloise
This is a story of how some books made me fall in love with a different sort of girl. You would think books would have made me love Heloise more, but she didn’t love me back, and you can’t keep loving someone who doesn’t love you, so this is not a story about Heloise. Like all stories about women named Heloise, it would be a tragedy.
Okay, one sentence about Heloise: When I was a junior, she and her ilk had me reading Reformed guys (they were all guys) like Michael Horton, James Boice and David Wells, back through Charles Hodge, John Owen and Philip Melanchton, even back to St. Augustine, a Roman Catholic, of course, whose dim view of human nature made him a favorite amongst the Calvinists. As a senior, though, I started reading the postliberals from Yale, Hans Frei and George Lindbeck.
Frei was interested in reclaiming the Bible from the “historical critics” who wanted to prove (or disprove) the claims of Scripture by external research in science or history, giving The Good Book back to the Church, where we use it to orient our lives, whether or not we believe every jot and tittle. Writing The Nature of Doctrine, his colleague Lindbeck followed the German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in describing theology as “the rules of a game” or a “grammar” that sets boundaries for our thinking but also gives us freedom for creative experimentation. So when a Christian Crusader screamed, “Christus es Dominus!” while hacking off the head of a Muslim, those words he uttered were not true, Lindbeck argued. And so, “Christ is Lord,” becomes not a proposition of truth, as in Reformed thought, but a “rule” that must be made meaningful through experience in community. In other words, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love one to another” (John 13:35). These postliberals, I wrote in one of my senior papers, understood Christian faith as “adopting a whole new way of life and thought by entering the community of Christ-followers.” What matters for the Kingdom of God is not what we believe but how our lives point to the cross and the empty tomb — God’s presence in suffering and the hope of Resurrection.
Postliberals were also called “narrative theologians,” and as a writer, I felt drawn to the story, the narrative of the Creator sacrificing His only Son to express Love for His creatures, the Son invading the danger zone of earth to rescue those he loves. The Gospel continued to woo me, almost 20 years after I had decided to believe, not because it was true — who really knows? — but because it was beautiful.
Letting go of my quest for precise theological and pietistic formulae in favor of the mystery of story, my heart was open to someone who was not an intellectual like Heloise nor a mystic like Marjorie. I was ready for a Romantic, a girl who might not always know why she believed this or that but who appreciated and incarnated a beauty of body and a beauty of soul. Her name was “Lily,” but my friends and I had taken to calling her “The Eastern European Figure Skater Girl” because of her thin frame, long, dark hair, sharp facial features, and elegant style. I concerned myself with the spiritual life, the intellectual life, the higher things, but I still had an eye for a cute girl and prided myself on my thrift-store fashion. I was like the underpaid, bookish lawyer Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth. Lily loved Victorian lit, and Wharton was at the top of her list. In this story, Selden’s romance with the big-spending Miss Bart seemed impossible to both of them. Selden had
the stoic’s carelessness of material things, combined with the Epicurean’s pleasure in them. Life shorn of either feeling appeared to him a diminished thing; and nowhere was the blending of the two ingredients so essential as in the character of a pretty woman.
On our first date, we went to a recital in the music department and then for dessert at The Winds, a fancy treehugger café in the hippie town of Yellow Springs where dessert was all I could afford. Lily talked about playing tennis and how she’d wanted to go off to Cambridge in England or medical school at the University of Kentucky or to become a fashion model but her mom had made her stay near home at Marshall University before she transferred to Cedarville. I don’t remember what else she said, but I do remember thinking she was not the Kentucky “trailer trash” that Ohioans liked to joke about but probably from a rich family that raised thoroughbred racehorses or something. Was she trying a little too hard to impress me? Having grown up in New Hampshire, where Massachusetts friends thought we were “hicks” and would ask if we had Little League and cable TV “up there,” I knew about having something to prove. Doesn’t everybody try to put their best selves forward on the first couple of dates? She was smart — an English major and a writer, but not like me, less analytical, more artistic — a poet, maybe. So what if she fell asleep in my favorite professor’s philosophy class?
A couple of months into our dating, Lily slipped a note under the door of my study carrel in the basement of the campus library. “How is the Purple Book?” she asked me. That’s what she called Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, the 400-page tome I’d been plowing through all spring term. The postliberal hermeneutic inside pushed me toward an aesthetic appreciation of the Gospel. Lily liked the aesthetics of the book itself, like Miss Bart in Selden’s apartment:
She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between the puffs of her cigarette-smoke. Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure in agreeable tones and texture that was one of her inmost susceptibilities.
Our writing professor warned me about her. “She’s a romantic,” he said. “She’ll rebel against everything, and then when there’s nothing else left, she’ll rebel against you.”
If anything, that made me more interested. There was so much worth rebelling against in this world; couldn’t we rebel together?
The night I got back from Easter break, I called and asked Lily to play tennis. She didn’t want to play tennis but hinted she did want to see me. I didn’t get the hint. I felt another rejection coming on, but a day or two later I found what would become the first of many notes in my campus mailbox. She’d write them on fancy stationery and include fragrant flowers she’d plucked from one of the campus shrubs. We did play tennis later that week, and I learned she really wasn’t much of a tennis player. I played barefoot to try and even things out.
It was sitting in the grass out near those tennis courts on the edge of campus that I fell for her. I had dated some pretty girls in high school, but she topped them all: Round blue-gray eyes, dainty little nose, high cheek bones, and a long, regal neck put on display because she often wore her hair in a ponytail. Our professor seemed to think she had a future as a writer. She went to Bible study like a good Cedarville girl. One night around closing time at Meier grocers, I wanted to buy some sliced turkey at the deli, but Lily noticed the clerk was cleaning up to close for the night and suggested I get it another time. But it wasn’t her beauty or smarts, her spirituality nor kindness that captured me. It was her brokenness.
I learned that day in the grass that Lily’s biological parents had given her up before she could talk. She’d gone to live with Bootsie, her maternal grandmother. Joe, Lily’s step-grandfather, was “Dad” to her. Not only that, but Lily’s real mom lived just half an hour away in Dayton, and nearly two years into her time at Cedarville, Lily still hadn’t seen her. The mother had an on-again, off-again relationship with Lily’s father, who was living in Kansas at the time. When they had given her up, they were both working for the Department of Defense in Texas. They had jobs and money. They just couldn’t handle parenthood, or didn’t want to. What amazed me, despite all this, were Lily’s hope and enthusiasm, her humor and sense of wonder. If she was bitter at anyone, it was her grandparents, not her birth parents. I wanted to understand. She’d worn way too much make-up to our friends’ engagement party. What was she hiding? I couldn’t imagine there wasn’t real hurt somewhere deep inside her. I wanted to find it, and I wanted to heal it. I wanted to love her where her parents hadn’t, to erase the sense of abandonment she must have felt. Not only that, I wanted to bridge the gulf between them, to help her repair the broken relationship with her estranged parents. Her mom was right there, just a short drive away. How could they not reunite? I felt what Selden felt toward Lily’s pseudo-namesake, Miss Lily Bart, in whom my Lily saw herself and so did I:
Hitherto he had found in her presence and her talk, the aesthetic amusement which a reflective man is apt to seek in desultory intercourse with pretty women. His attitude had been one of admiring spectatorship, and he would have been almost sorry to detect in her any emotional weakness which should interfere with the fulfillment of her aims. But now the hint of this weakness had become the most interesting thing about her.
It was messy, sure. But my life, too, was messy. I’d recently learned the real story behind why my parents had been fighting my whole life: Dad had had a drug problem since before I was born. I’d watched him let Mom down over and over again, and I’d held her hand to try and make it OK. Plus, God Himself had gotten into the mess of humanity, sending His own Son to suffer rejection, persecution, and martyrdom. Lily had a story, and it might turn out to be a story of redemption, at that — narrative theology, in the flesh. I wasn’t afraid.
As it turned out, our writing coach was right. Wharton’s cautionary tale proved truer than Frei’s hopeful one. Lily and I ended up divorcing after seven years; a Romantic is hard to live with, and so am I. We have found some Resurrection, but not together. Narrative theology is great, but some stories have sad endings.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. This post is adapted from his spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World.