Eric Metaxas is such a mensch. He and I became friends back in New York in the spring of 1998, when we met at a communal table at the Pain Quotidien on the Upper East Side. This, before any of us had accomplished much of anything as writers. It has been such a pleasure seeing Eric’s relatively recent success as a writer, because I know how long and how hard he (and his family) suffered for years as he struggled to establish himself as a writer. Eric is the real deal: as generous and faithful and encouraging in real-life as he is in his public and professional persona.
And he is a celebrity in my household because he’s the co-author (along with illustrator Tim Raglin) of one of my children’s favorite storybooks: Uncle Mugsy & The Terrible Twins Of Christmas. When Eric came through town this fall and visited here in St. Francisville for a few hours, my two younger kids thought he was just another one of Mom and Dad’s friends from Somewhere Else. When I told them that he is a Christian and the author of that big fat Bonhoeffer book on our bookshelf in the den, they didn’t really get it. I explained who Dietrich Bonhoeffer was, and why the work Mr. Eric did in telling Bonhoeffer’s story is so important, and that Mr. Eric’s book had sold hundreds of thousands of copies around the world. They thought that was nice, but only that. But when I told Lucas and Nora that he is the author of Uncle Mugsy, they couldn’t believe their boring old parents knew somebody that cool. Sometimes, neither can my children’s father. That’s Eric on the left, sitting on my front porch, with Uncle Mugsy on his lap, and flanked by Lucas and Nora (as is my practice, I don’t show the faces of my kids on this blog).
Today is one of those times. I just saw that Eric, writing in Christianity Today, named my book The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming as one of his Top Five Books For Nonbelievers. I really appreciate that, in part because Little Way is not a book of apologetics, and is not pitched at a religious audience. The story I tell is inextricably bound to religious ideas and themes, because they existed in the life of my sister, and in my own life. The book in part takes up the question of what it means to live a good life, and how we deal, theologically and otherwise, with the question of why good people suffer. Had I meant to write a book of theological inquiry, I could have done so. I had many more thoughts and reflections about the religious aspect of the story, but I left them out because that wasn’t really the story I wanted to tell. My sister Ruthie was a strong believer in Jesus Christ, but the particular qualities of her faith were not theological, or theologically conscious. For her, faith was strongly a matter of doing, not of theological reflection — and that is one of the stark differences between us that I limn in Little Way. A book that would have been more intellectually satisfying to a religious readership would not have been a book that was as true to my sister’s actual story as Little Way is.
I haven’t asked Eric why he chose Little Way as a good book about Christianity for nonbelievers to read — I only discovered he had done so about an hour ago, when my publisher’s office let me know — but this news made me wonder why a Christian would see this book as something he would recommend to nonbelievers I thought about it a bit, and here’s what I came up with.
Little Way doesn’t try to make an argument for why one should believe in God. Rather, it shows what life is like for people who believe in God, and who have to face a life-and-death crisis (my sister’s terminal cancer) that puts that faith to the test. The book shows how people approach God in different ways, and how those different ways of relating to him guide, for better or for worse, their reactions to the crisis. The book shows that God is not a divine butler, or Mr. Fix-It, and that some problems cannot be solved, only endured — and that this is in the nature of things. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist, but it does mean that things like my sister’s early death from cancer invite us to enter into the mystery of faith more deeply than we otherwise might have done.
Most importantly, though, I think Little Way shows how deep the workings of sin and brokenness go, even across generations, and how the Christian concept of grace works to redeem and transform — if we let it. The most gratifying reaction I receive from the book’s readers is their appreciation for the fact that Little Way isn’t a sentimental journey in which all the emotions are tidy and clean, and all the loose ends tied up in neat bows. As many, many readers tell me, real life is like that; the fact that I held up Ruthie, and my family, and my community, and myself as flawed people made the goodness celebrated in the narrative more realistic (the CBC’s Anna-Liza Kozma spoke to this in her review the other day). The core of the book is how the grace that came through my sister’s reaction to her own cancer transformed my embittered view of my hometown, and helped me to see it with different eyes. It’s not that I had been wrong before, but that I hadn’t seen the whole picture. Grace helped me to do so, and helped me to heal. On the other hand, the big revelation I received after Ruthie’s death showed that grace can be refused, and that even our saints often have feet of clay. That shock, and all that came (and has continued to come) in its wake, raise questions of what it means to love, to forgive, and what it means to be strong in weakness and weak in strength. Again, grace is sufficient to redeem and to renew, but only if it is received and acted upon. Little Way raises the question (but does not answer, because we are still living the question) especially relevant in the culture of the American South, about whether our Christianity is a divinized form of Stoicism, or something else. And: is the Christian faith something that baptizes our own desires, and/or gives us a framework within which to judge others … or does it put us under judgment too? If so, how? What are the advantages and the limitations of an intellectual approach to faith? What are the advantages and the limitations of an anti-intellectual approach to faith? Can we think about things too much? Can we fail to think about things enough?
Little Way is not a Christian book, per se, but it is a story that addresses universal questions within a particularly Christian framework, and shows how Christians try to live out the answers, despite our own frailties. Perhaps my favorite of all the Little Way reviews came not from a Christians, but from Yuval Levin, who is Jewish, but who loved this book that is saturated with Christianity all the same. He wrote:
Rod Dreher’s new book, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, which describes the life and tragic death of his sister, is the most powerful book I’ve read in years. It overflows with that inexplicable mix of joy and pain that a writer can only achieve when he is telling the truth. And it speaks especially profoundly to the power of home, and to the mixed blessing that is a life lived among people who know you at least as well as you know yourself. If, like me, you live very far away from the place you were born, you will at times find this book almost unbearably difficult to read. But only almost, because you will also find in it a moving affirmation of the sense that most of us can only discern rarely and vaguely in the bustle of our daily lives—the sense that beyond our petty vanities and momentary worries, beyond arguments and ambitions, beyond even principles and ideals, there is a kind of gentle, caring warmth that is really what makes life worth living. It is expressed through the words and acts of people who rise above themselves, but it seems to come from somewhere deeper. Maybe it’s divine, maybe it isn’t, but it’s real, and it effortlessly makes a mockery of a lot of what goes by the name of moral and political philosophy, and especially of the radical individualism that is so much a part of both the right and the left today. And it’s responsible for almost everything that is very good in our very good world. If I had to define what conservatism ultimately means for me, it would be the preservation and reinforcement of the preconditions for the emergence of that goodness in a society of highly imperfect human beings. But politics is of course only one very crude way to strengthen and protect those preconditions. A powerful story that brings us face to face with that mysterious something can do far more. And this book tells a mighty powerful story. Well worth your while.
You do not have to be a Christian, or a Jew, or even a theist to appreciate The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. But it is not a story that could have been told, because it would not have been lived, were it not for the fact that everybody in this book believes in God and His mysterious working in our fallen and suffering world. Just this weekend, I received an e-mail from a reader who said that he loved the book for many reasons, and that the spiritual content of the book shook him up, and made him realize that he needs to engage with his church life instead of merely going through the motions. Maybe that’s part of why Eric Metaxas recommended the book to nonbelievers. I dunno.