Book Review

"Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life" by Alan Jacobs

Christopher Benson
Alan Jacobs
Wednesday, January 7th 2009
Jan/Feb 2009

Alan Jacobs lifts the title of his book from Hamlet, but it could just as easily be a description of the Roman god Janus, whom Ovid invokes in his poem "Fasti": "Two-formed Janus what god shall I say you are,/ Since Greece has no divinity to compare with you?/ Tell me the reason, too, why you alone of all the gods/ Look both at what's behind you and what's in front." Unacquainted with his neighbors to the east, Ovid thought a retrospective and prospective god was peculiar to the Romans. Jacobs is intimately acquainted with Yahweh, the God of the Bible whom we might regard as the Judeo-Christian analogue of the pagan Janus. Like Ovid, Jacobs invokes his all-seeing God in a book that explores how Christians-avoiding the dangers of presumption and despair-can discern a shape and meaning in their lives to tell stories with both comeliness and counsel.

Looking Before and After is drawn from the Stob Lectures that Jacobs delivered in 2006 at Calvin Theological Seminary. Who better than a trained literary critic, in possession of a storied imagination, should exhort the church to think narratively about individual lives? Indebted to the narrative turn in theology of the last twenty years, Jacobs worries that "in serious Christian reflection, questions about the shape and fate of community have come to displace the language of personal conversion, transformation, and development from the central place such language held in Christian discourse in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century" (3).

There is a disconnect between the academic trend of communalism-articulated by Lesslie Newbigin, Stanley Hauerwas, and Alasdair MacIntrye-and American Christian culture, which remains fixated on personal spirituality, as the popular movement of "journaling" indicates. Underneath "the layers of narcissism and sentimentality," Jacobs excavates the salutary technique of "writing as a means of spiritual self-monitoring" (4). From the early church (Augustine, Antony, and John Chrysostom) to the Puritans (John Beadle and Richard Rogers), the spiritual journal framed the discrete events of life in order "to plot the graph of God's work in our lives" (6). While Jacobs bemoans "the triviality, even fatuousness, of many current ways of talking about 'our stories,'" he does not support an abandonment of "the traditions of personal narrative or testimony as tokens of misbegotten 'individualism'" (8). Instead, he argues that "what we need is better and more responsible and more coherent personal stories, not the complete subsumption of all personal narratives into group narratives" (8).

Jacobs is a skilled diagnostician of irony, observing that increased storytelling has coincided with decreased communicability of experience: "We tell our stories, all right, but we don't think of them as offering counsel in wisdom" (9). Why? His answer is surprising, especially because it comes from a literary critic. In the past, the locus of storytelling was the home, neighborhood, and church. Now the locus of storytelling is the theater, cinema, and novel. Moreover, "technical advice has superseded counsel" (9). "Formulaic 'testimonies' of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity" survive from a bygone culture (10). Jacobs calls for an expansion beyond "testimonies of conversion" to "testimonies of imitation and vocation" (10). Agnostic on the question of whether human beings are "natural" storytellers, he does believe that Christian discipleship obligates proper storytelling, marked by honesty and humility for the purpose of edifying the church and evangelizing the unchurched.

By sharing his own testimony, Jacobs points to the difficulties of communicating experience and offering counsel. Like many of his students at Wheaton College, he lacks the decisive moment that typifies the conversions of Saul on the road to Damascus, Augustine in the Milanese garden, and Dwight Moody in the Boston shoe store. Drawing on the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a twentieth-century Russian thinker, Jacobs finds relief in knowing that all Christian testimonies, however divergent, belong to the same "speech genre" that the apostle Paul describes as a movement from the life of Adam to the life of Christ. Testimony differs from the genres of autobiography, biography, and memoir because it does more than detail "one damned thing after another"; it alone "commits its user to making a full account of her life's course and direction, of its shape and form" (24).

Skeptics of "narrative wholeness" assume that "life as it is lived is not storylike" (25). English novelist Martin Amis sighs: "The trouble with life…is its amorphousness, its ridiculous fluidity. Look at it: thinly plotted, largely themeless, sentimental and ineluctably trite. The dialogue is poor, or at least violently uneven. The twists are either predictable or sensationalist. And it's always the same beginning; and the same ending" (25). More alarmingly, British theologian Paul Helm despairs: "The Bible does not, it seems, promise that a person's life will form a discernible pattern with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Many lives are completely patternless or marked by tragedy….It would be completely false to Scripture to suppose that in order for people to be assured that the events of their lives are ordered by providence for a good end, they should be able to discern some overall pattern or 'story' in their lives" (64).

With the skeptics, Jacobs admits that "lived experience" should not be confused with "composed narratives" (26). Against the skeptics, he argues: "The inner logic of the testimony contains not only the claim that we can narrate our lives but also the claim that we should be able to do so….'Always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you' (1 Peter 3:15b)" (28). Jacobs brilliantly employs the Pauline metaphor of the body to assure the Christian of narrative wholeness: just as there are different members that belong to one body, so too there are different Christian stories that belong to the "One Story" of Christ himself. If the disciple has trouble recognizing the pattern in her life, she should look to the One who gives the supreme pattern of crucifixion and resurrection. The disciple is invited to become what C. S. Lewis calls a "little Christ"-dying and living with Jesus.

While Jacobs assures the reader of narrative integrity, he also disabuses the reader of narrative uniformity. Continuing the body metaphor, the arm is not the same as the leg. We should expect "an extensive repertoire of Christian life genres," otherwise our testimonies are "inadequate" to the manifold workings of the Holy Spirit in our lives (29). With impassioned rhetoric, Jacobs says, "If the church cannot cultivate the 'fundamental and dynamic' discipline of analogical discernment-the discovery of how different lives in different times and places belong nonetheless to the same genre-it has no hope of making disciples of Christ and therefore no hope of survival" (35). His example of the analogical imagination is worth citing: "The ability to see that when Mother Teresa of Calcutta speaks to the graduating students at Harvard she is doing something very like what Paul did when he spoke in the Areopagus of Athens, and that, when she returns to Calcutta to resume her ministry among the dying, she is doing something very like what St. Francis of Assisi did among the lepers of northern Italy" (34). When imagination is in short supply, Christians testify with vapid uniformity instead of vigorous heterogeneity, thereby diminishing "the roster of saints" (30).

Much of this review has focused on the first half of Jacobs' book, which lays the foundation for the second half where the author explores the role of memory in testifying, distinguishing between false and true forms of hindsight; the strong belief in providential care, avoiding the finalizing interpretations of despair and presumption; and how the One Story of Christ confers meaning and dignity upon all human stories.

Like other writings from Jacobs, Living Before and After elicits admiration for its creative inquiry, winning prose, and prudential wisdom. The library of his mind is wide open, making use of literary narratives from Augustine, Livy, George Eliot, Sren Kierkegaard, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, W. H. Auden, William Cowper, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Henri Nouwen. In a work of practical theology, he justifies the use of literary narratives because the post-Reformation "belief in the possibility of the formal integrity of human lives, though often expressed in novels, is largely a product of Christian anthropology that finds its origin in Scripture, its full flowering in Augustine, and its rediscovery in the Protestant autobiographical genres….It is only appropriate that this mode of narration be reconnected to its moral and intellectual source: Christian theology" (10-11).

If I may hazard some constructive criticism in an otherwise praiseworthy book, the reader will likely accept Jacobs' charge to develop "a stronger, deeper consciousness of the many life genres of the Christian faith," but feel ill-equipped because he does not provide any instruction on how to develop this consciousness. Familiarity with literary and historical narratives would help, but they are not sufficient. Presumably, Jacobs would exhort us to create an ethos in church where testimonies of conversion, imitation, and vocation are told. Guidance here would be appreciated. Additionally, the reader may wish that Jacobs would go even further to explain the purpose of thinking narratively about individual lives. He claims the purpose relates to "the health of the church" but seldom elaborates (39). Readers will forgive the author for these shortcomings because, substantively, he has given us much to ponder and, stylistically, he chose a "terse and suggestive" treatment instead of "expansive and detailed" (ix).

Wednesday, January 7th 2009

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

J. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church