An enthusiastic reader of The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming writes:
I picked up your book because I read Sullivan’s blog and he was linking to rave, interesting reviews of it. But, the very title I think betrays the message. A cursory glance at the title might lead one to believe that you are indeed prescribing southern, small town living as the secret of a good life, in the way a self-help book might suggest more sleep, exercise and vegetables. Here is where I think the reviewers and marketing of the book have sold the story short. Although most of the fantastic reviews have focused primarily on your particular narrative about moving home, the value of simplicity and the profundity of suffering, I think one of the most important messages of the book–the dangers of idolatry–has been largely overlooked. The realization that your dad had idolized family and place in the same way that you had prioritized individual desire and career was, to me, the most poignant and universal aspect of the entire story. Your dad’s epiphany at the end of the book should encourage all Christians to work on identifying their idols, whether they are career, family, sexuality, city living, whatever.
I really appreciate that insight. Thank you. That back-porch epiphany I record in the book (and have recorded digitally, because of circumstances I describe in the book) was truly one of the most grace-filled moments of my life, and surely one of the greatest gifts my father has ever given me. And it just came, boom, out of nowhere, when I least expected it. In a back-porch conversation after Sunday dinner.
The problem that my dad, my sister Ruthie, and I had is that we each had our own idols — well, Ruthie and my dad had the same idol, but all of us had idols. My dad and I were left behind by Ruthie, and in the wake of her death had to deal with these idols. In my case, the grace God gave me through her passion caused a life-changing epiphany that made it possible for me to be reconciled in confidence to my home. And though my dad is not one for self-analysis or self-disclosure, I think that he would not have been able to have had the epiphany he had, or the liberating conversation he had with me that afternoon on the back porch, had Ruthie’s death and my moving back home not revealed something to him that changed his own heart.
The reader who wrote above recommended the book Counterfeit Gods by Tim Keller, the highly regarded minister who was her pastor when she lived in NYC. I looking it over, I’m struck by the aspect of the idols that Paw, Ruthie, and I served was that they were not obviously bad things, like Money, Sex, or Power. (Strictly speaking, none of those things are bad either, but they are so closely associated with misuse and abuse that we are rightly cautious of their effect on our moral sense).
In my own case, it was, I guess, Individual Fulfillment that was my idol. There is nothing wrong, and a lot right, with wanting to discover what one was made for, what one is good at, and wanting to find happiness and a sense of peace and belonging in the world. I had to leave my hometown to do that, and I’m glad I did. The problem is, our culture, and especially the professional class to which I belong, puts such a premium on Individual Fulfillment that it becomes hard to see that we can’t really live the unlimited, unfettered life. Even if we see it, as I eventually did in an intellectual sense, it is so hard to break those chains, and to see that we can find true fulfillment in limiting ourselves within stable relationships, and stability in place. We think that Individual Fulfillment is an ultimate good, when in fact it’s only a relative good. Thus we may not see how in seeking ourselves, and what we imagine is our own good, we fall short of the true mark.
In the case of Paw and Ruthie, their idol was Family And Place. Though they wouldn’t have put a theological spin on it, to fail to put the family and the land first was to sin, was to fail to be pious, in the classical sense of doing proper homage to one’s ancestors, and performing one’s duties. They did not see individual freedom as a good, not if it caused one to be disloyal to one’s duties to family and place. The idea that God would put a calling on one’s life that would cause one to desire something other than to be right here with family, on the place, was difficult to impossible for them to accept. The only reason in their mind that I could desire something other than they desired is that I was disordered in some way. They really did see this as a moral failing on my part, and as a sign of weak character.
The thing is, we were all wrong. An authentic and truthful life requires both freedom and restraint, held in equipoise. It’s very hard to do, and requires work, especially the work of self-examination, and repentance. And you never really do know if you’ve got it right. In Little Way, I worked hard not to romanticize small-town life, nor to demonize it. This is a great place, and I’m grateful to God that He changed my heart such that I could recognize and accept the great things about it. But it is not Utopia. Utopia doesn’t exist. We happen to live in a culture that in most cases disdains the limits that small-town and traditional family life imposes on the individual; in our culture, people like my sister, who stayed home and was satisfied with her life, don’t often write books, movies, or songs. Me, I was especially fond of the literature of alienation and exile, and of urbanity, because that was truest to my own experience and desire.
But it told only a partial truth.
But there is also a temptation, though a far less dominant one, to romanticize family and place, and to turn small towns and rural places into reverse negatives of the idealized city. You see this in ideological forms of country music. My dad and my sister held fast to this, just as much as I did to its opposite … and even moreso, as we aged.
But it too only told a partial truth.
The whole truth, I think, cannot be stated as a proposition, or reduced to a formula, or a set of ethical precepts. It has to be lived, and discerned through experience, through coming and going, through waxing and waning, and through loving each other and seeking together to order our lives rightly under God. In very broad Kierkegaardian terms, I was for a long time the Aesthete, and Paw and Ruthie were the Ethicists. Only in the Religious mode could we rightly join these two lesser modes, and put them in proper relation to each other, and to our own lives. Here’s a glimpse of what I’m getting at with this. But I need to think about this more, and to develop this insight further. Maybe there’s a novel in it…