Timothy Larsen: Why I’m fascinated by faithfulness

Oak tree in autumn

Bigstock/Hannamariah

Reading contemporary fiction, with its obsession with infidelity, got a Wheaton professor thinking about why he finds faithfulness far more interesting.

I know I don’t read as much contemporary fiction as I should. I’m a Victorian scholar, and thus I tend to gravitate toward the great novelists of the 19th century. And when I run out of those, I tend to turn to the not-so-great novelists of the 19th century. I’m a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson, of course, but somehow that does not feel as though it counts.

But I recently finished John Updike’s “My Father’s Tears and Other Stories” from 2009. At last, a major American writer of the 21st century! (I had forgotten that Updike was dead, which, when I figured it out halfway through the collection, sort of made it “count” as less contemporary in my own mind.)

“My Father’s Tears” contains 18 stories. This turned out to be too many. The repetitions increasingly annoyed me. There are two different stories with different characters that are both about bickering American couples touring Spain. There are three high school reunion stories, two of which feature the protagonist visiting someone from childhood who will not be at the event and then going on -- of course -- to meet an old flame or crush at the reunion.

I should have known what to expect. The Wikipedia entry on Updike lists under the themes of his work, No. 1: Sex. (Interestingly, Nos. 2 and 3 are United States and Death.)

This preoccupation is true of many American writers, perhaps especially ones born in the middle decades of the 20th century. Updike was endlessly, unceasingly fascinated by sexual infidelity. Personally, I find spiritual fidelity far more intriguing. In fact, I think all fidelity is interesting.

To adapt Leo Tolstoy (one of those great 19th-century novelists): “All unfaithful relationships are alike; each faithful relationship is faithful in its own way.” The way of a pair of lovers across the decades together is a mystery too wonderful even for the wise Solomon (Proverbs 20:28). Perhaps especially for Solomon.

I once watched a documentary about the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. We were supposed to be interested in all of his iconoclastic theories and claims, in postmodernism, in différance and deconstruction.

There was a quotidian scene, however, in which he was having a simple breakfast, buttering his toast and drinking his coffee with Marguerite Derrida -- his one and only spouse in life, the wife of his youth -- there at the table beside him.

They had been married for almost 45 years at that time, and were still together when he died a couple of years later. I was riveted. “Ask him about that!” I wanted to scream at the interviewers following him around with their microphones and cameras. Tell us, Professor Derrida, how one makes a marriage work for a biblical generation, how a young philosopher makes a promise at the age of 27 and is still there at breakfast making good on it 45 years later. How did you learn to make this enchanting magic of fidelity?

It is beyond my imagining how Updike could have continued to be intellectually curious about yet another fictional couple in which someone decides to stray. After half a century of writing such scenes, what could possibly have been left for him to wonder at?

It would be like watching a cooking show with demonstrations of yet another way one could mess up and make the food taste bad. It does not take much imagination to find a way to spoil a recipe. The most immature and undisciplined among us is capable of failed cooking. Surely the same is also true of failed marriage.

Garrison Keillor understood this. He had a couple of failed marriages, but he never foolishly imagined that he had thereby done something interesting. Keillor had the literary instinct to write his own collection of short stories with the alluring title “We Are Still Married.” The deep drama in that title is exquisite.

As I said, spiritual faithfulness is even more spellbinding. I’m turning 50 and have started looking up friends from my past that I have not seen for quite a few years. I went to a small Christian school, and thus pretty much all of my classmates were sincere Christians in their youth. (I did go to a high school reunion once, and an old flame of mine was there. That evening, however, was not by any stretch the most interesting thing that has happened in my life.)

Among my friends from yesteryear, those who have lost their faith endearingly expect me to be shocked and surprised. All too often, they imagine that they have done something interesting. It seems to them that losing one’s religion is a situation inherently infused with drama.

I listen dutifully. Here is the part where they’ve realized what hypocrites Christians are; oh, here comes the gracious concession that they are not the kind of unbelievers who like to mock and attack believers. Once again, we watch the cooking show demonstrate a way the recipe does not work, and it ends with an excited “Ta-da!”

There is a deep wisdom in trees. It is a wisdom I covet. How have you stood there for so long, oh mighty oak? Where did you gain such patience and fortitude, such steadfastness? You became a tree before I was born, and my children’s children could look at you and still observe, “Here’s an oak, standing in our backyard.”

There are trees alive today who lived through the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. There is a kind of mini-drama to a tree getting chopped down, but after you have seen it a few times, it is of diminishing interest. But I cannot imagine ever getting over the drama of sitting under a tree that is a living witness to what America was like before Columbus arrived. As St. Paul counsels us, “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you” (1 Corinthians 15:58 NIV).

S.T. Coleridge taught that we need both the forces of permanence and the forces of progress.

Progress is change that is good. The American story is the story of progress.

Such change must come and should come. Sometimes progress is the ending of a bad marriage or the abandoning of an untenable faith. These things are true, but they are truths that we know how to proclaim -- one short story after another. Everyone already knows how to celebrate progress.

Permanence, however, is a beautiful, alluring thing.

And now these three remain, St. Paul promises: faith, hope and love. I hope he’s right. It sounds interesting. Faithfulness is fascinating.