Saturday, August 20, 2011

Beach Reading 2: "Freedom" by Jonathan Franzen

Preached Sunday July 31....

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

~Galatians 5:1, 13-14

What would the story of your life sound like if it were written by one of your neighbors? Not friends, mind you. Rather, the people with whom you share the neighborhood, those who see you coming and going on the street where you live. How would they tell the story of your life? What things do you think they would pick out to mention—the color of your house, the make and model of your car? The number of children you have, the fact that you live alone? What would they know about you with certainty, and what could they only guess?

The novel “Freedom” by Jonathan Franzen is bookended—it begins and ends—with a panoramic view of the main characters from the point of view of their neighbors. The Berglunds are the family in question, Walter and Patty and their children, Joey and Jessica. The first chapter gives us twenty years of their lives in twenty-four pages, as seen by those who simultaneously know them with a kind of distance and detachment, and who at the same time know them better than you’d think.

We learn how they came to a decaying neighborhood of St. Paul as young newlyweds, and set about renovating an old Victorian house they got for a song. We learn that Patty had been a basketball star in college until she blew out her knee. Here she is:

Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles… she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of Public Radio, the Silver Palate Cookbook, cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint; and then, Goodnight Moon, then zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.[i] Patty is a go-getter whose primary concern, whose vocation, is her family.

Walter, on the other hand, is a corporate lawyer who is really considered too nice to be a lawyer. Still, the twenty-year panorama hints at some kind of enormous and unpredictable change that has come upon him over the years. After the children had gone off to college, Walter and Patty decamped to Washington DC, where he made some kind of spectacular mess of his professional life; he is described in a national news story as arrogant, high-handed, and ethically compromised, adjectives that didn’t make sense to the neighbors who knew him as the kind and smiling man who adored his wife and children and cared about the environment so much that he rode his bicycle to work.

What caused one of the children to have a falling out with his parents, and move across the street to live with the neighbors whose daughter he is dating? Why did the beautifully tended Victorian house become increasingly dilapidated as the garden and lawn went to seed? What was the nature of the unhappiness that clung to the Berglunds like a toxic cloud? What happened to Walter and Patty and their children? How did they get from here to there, and is it possible to get back again? Just a few of the plot points of this long and engrossing novel include, second chances, neighborhood class warfare, the rise of a rock star, the development of a bird sanctuary, extramarital affairs, a college job with a company that sounds suspiciously like Halliburton, and a fatal car accident. Yet, one could easily sum up the book by saying it’s the story of a marriage, and a family, and the uses and limits of personal freedom.

What do we mean when we speak of “freedom”? The dictionary gives us about eleven intertwining definitions, including “personal liberty;” “autonomy;” “independence;” and “the ability to choose between alternative actions.” Freedom is a treasured notion for us Americans—it is one of the great concepts that drives everything from our conversations about the debt ceiling to our opinions on things like marriage equality. And—not surprisingly—we tend to disagree, as Americans, on which things make us either more free or less free. For Patty, certain things that happen to her—a trauma in high school, for example, and the way her parents respond—seriously challenge her freedom. This is true of all of us: Our ability to act with autonomy, or to choose well from various options, can depend on forces partially or even entirely outside our control. It can be as simple as an accident of birth that determines whether one is able to act or even feel “free.”

John Calvin, the grandfather of Presbyterianism, recognized this when he made the point that we are not as free as we tend to think we are. Calvin believed that, because of original sin, free will in human beings has been so damaged that we are unable to choose the good without God’s intervention on our behalf, intervention in the form of grace. And I think we all have seen the truth of that, whether in our own lives, or those of others we see around us, or even in the biblical narrative. Here I’m thinking of Jacob—a character so engaging and enthralling, at least in part, because he continually chooses to do things that get him into so much hot water.

Patty Berglund is a character like that. While the first and last chapters tell the story of the Berglunds from the perspective of their neighbors, there are also two long chapters that tell the story from Patty’s perspective. She writes an autobiography at the suggestion of her therapist, titled “Mistakes Were Made,” and it’s there, in her pages, that I found myself most absorbed and moved.

A number of us here at UPC have spent the last year immersed in a book called SoulFeast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life. Not only have we been reading it; we’ve been trying it out, trying it on, doing things like fasting and reading scripture and praying. One of the chapters of SoulFeast is called “Of Conscience and Consciousness: Self-Examination, Confession and Awareness.” I thought of that chapter as I read Patty Berglund’s autobiography. Mistakes Were Made. The simple act of writing can give us a perspective on our lives and our actions that we miss when we simply think or talk about them. There is something about the act of committing our stories to paper that is surprisingly powerful. When we pick up a pen or sit down to a blank screen at the computer, we can be taken by surprise at the things that pour out of us. We can find in them those hints of grace that can lead us out of the mire of our abysmal choices and stuckness. At least, that seems to be what happens to Patty.

“For freedom Christ has set us free,” Paul tells us. But Paul is crystal clear that freedom is not a synonym for lack of constraint. We are called to freedom, yes, but a very peculiar kind of freedom: the kind of freedom which enables us to choose to love one another as we love ourselves; the kind of freedom in which we are willing to give ourselves in service to and for one another. The kind of freedom that can sing, “Blest Be the Ties That Bind.” We are called to the kind of freedom in which, even when mistakes are made, we are able and willing to seek reconciliation, to ask forgiveness, even to learn and grow. And mistakes will be made, because we remain gloriously and maddeningly human. True freedom, it turns out, does not mean the state of being unfettered. It is one of God’s great paradoxes, that we are more free when we bind ourselves in love to others. We are always most free when we step into the stream of God’s grace. One of those eleven dictionary definitions of “freedom” is “ease and grace (of movement).” Freedom is ease and grace within the boundaries of God’s love.

The story our neighbors could tell about us might be dull or fascinating, filled with inaccuracies or dead on target. But the real story of our lives is the one we write with every choice. The true story of our lives is the one in which we are not the lone central character, but are always listening for the whispering voice of our first and most constant life partner, God. The truly exciting story of our lives emerges when we learn to use our freedom for others, for the tie that binds us, for love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Jonathan Franzen, Freedom (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), 4.

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