I just finished reading John Irving’s masterpiece A Prayer for Owen Meany, and I have no intentions of getting over it anytime soon.
I am admittedly late to the party on this contemporary classic tale of two boys “bonded forever by childhood, the stunted Owen Meany, whose life is touched by God, and the orphaned Johnny Wheelwright, whose life is touched by Owen.” It is the most haunting novel I’ve ever read. I would put it on the same high and holy shelf with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (now and always my favorite book across genres) and Frederick Buechner’s Godric. These books have convinced me, while I am not a fiction writer, that it is impossible to capture the beauty and force of the gospel in non-fiction as powerfully as in fiction. There is a reason that it was the stories Jesus told (and the story Jesus was) that kept the crowds coming back. There is a reason that the gospels devote such considerable attention to Jesus’ own practice of storytelling. There are so many things about the Father Jesus came to reveal that simply could not be told or lectured about–the only medium that would work for God’s heart to be revealed to humans was “let me tell you a story.”
I consider preaching to be sacred work, and I try to perform it with due reverence. I have felt, and in fact felt it again preaching on the road in Oakland, MD this weekend–the alien presence that is God’s Spirit come upon me and take my words places I could never aspire to take them on my own. Preaching is foolishness, but it is the foolishness God has chosen to proclaim the gospel. And yet I am so aware at the end of a book like Owen Meany or Gilead of how inadequate the format is to tell God’s truth with the elegance of a fully-orbed story. If I felt like I could communicate as much gospel in one sermon as I get in a book like this, I would be tempted to retire tomorrow.
So alas I’m writing under the spell of a powerful witness. Like all great faith in fiction, A Prayer for Owen Meany mines the depths of our doubts in order to take us to the heights of gospel hope. Like all great faith in fiction, it has magic and mystery and wonder that cannot be fully accounted for in human language. It would be a criminal act to share anything here that would spoil Irving’s novel for you; I wouldn’t consider such a thing. Go buy it today and read it for yourself.
But as it is Thanksgiving and I haven’t had the time nor inclination to post a list of things I’m grateful for or whatever, I did want to at least offer a bit of a Thanksgiving meditation via A Prayer for Owen Meany that requires little context to understand nor significant spoilers to communicate. It comes late in the novel from the mouth of Johnny Wheelwright. You don’t need to know anything about the characters referenced to get the sentiment revealed:
…I’ve become the kind of believer that Pastor Merrill used to be. Doubt one minute, faith the next–sometimes inspired, sometimes in despair. Canon Campbell taught me to ask myself a question when the latter state settles upon me. Whom do I know who’s alive whom I love? Good question–one that can bring you back to life. These days, I love Dan Needham and the Rev. Katherine Keeting; I know I love them because I worry about them–Dan should lose some weight, Katherine should gain some!
As it is Thanksgiving, the question at hand is “who’s alive whom I love?” It is indeed a gift that can bring us back to life. To have people to cherish and people to worry about and people to miss is an unspeakable gift. God revealed Himself uniquely to us through Jesus of Nazareth, the uniquely begotten Son of Love. There will only be one of Him. And yet the miracle of incarnation, even as we now begin to set our sights on Christmas, is that God keeps on making Himself known through flesh and blood. In the absence of an incarnate Jesus as He was experienced in the gospels, we are given the body of Christ. More specifically, we are given the gift of bodies, the many people who comprise one body as mysteriously as the three in one God. As Father, Son and Spirit are one, as are we.
The love and heartache we share with and for each other is evidence of God and evidence of grace. For each of these gifts in my life today (and by that, I mean people), I bow my knee to give thanks.