Something Short of Redemption:

John R. Muether
Tuesday, June 12th 2007
Jul/Aug 2001

An enduring metaphor in the most popular of Christian devotional literature, from John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress to Charles Shelton's In His Steps, is that of pilgrimage. This is to be expected, because Scripture itself enjoins us to imagine the life of faith as a journey: we are traveling toward a destination we have not reached.

Can the same observation be made of American fiction, but in this case that it, too, is replete with the metaphor of pilgrimage? In Reflections on America Jacques Maritain observed that "Americans seem to be in their own land as pilgrims, prodded by a dream. They are always on the move…. They are still far from being a settled people." This restless searching is common in much of American literature. In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, generally regarded as the "great American novel," Jay Gatsby's quest for the American Dream was as near and yet elusive as the green light across the bay. Freed (or so he thought) from history, from family, and from tradition, Gatsby tried to reinvent himself, but his Gnostic flight was futile, because ultimately we cannot untether ourselves from the worlds we inherit, as Nick Carroway discovered: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Of course, it may seem tautological, and therefore trivial, to observe that modern American fiction-or literature in general for that matter-tends to organize itself around the theme of pilgrimage. After all, in the most general sense, all literature describes some sort of quest or journey, if not a literal odyssey at least a figurative search for meaning and purpose, or an Edenic return to the past. And yet, a study of this theme may still prove fruitful if it opens a window to see what Americans are escaping from and searching for.

Two contemporary writers who display this theme prominently in their works are John Updike and Douglas Coupland. In the vast corpus of John Updike's literary output, only one book carries the overt theme of pilgrimage, S., his hilarious account of Sarah Worth's renunciation of her suburban safety to become a disciple of a Hindu cult leader in Arizona. But a careful reading of Updike will uncover other pilgrims, albeit ones who are in no hurry to flee vanity fair, but rather enjoy the dazzling lights and seductive songs of this world. "We are all pilgrims, faltering toward divorce," a lapsed Catholic says in The Music School. Updike's work abounds with faltering, middle-class American pilgrims, but none so much as Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, the ex-athlete and lustful protagonist of Updike's Rabbit tetralogy. The pattern of his life is established in the first book, Rabbit, Run: "with an effortless gathering out of a kind of sweet panic growing lighter and quicker and quieter, he runs. Ah: runs. Runs."

Douglas Coupland's first book, Generation X, coined the term for his generation. That work and subsequent titles (such as Shampoo Planet, Life After God, and Girlfriend in a Coma) are road novels with narratives premised on travel, such as long drives through the Pacific Northwest or the desert Southwest. The forbidding loneliness of these trips invites reflection on the howling wilderness that modernity presents to the alienated lives of Coupland's twenty-something characters.

What links these two authors stylistically is their description of the breathless pace of modern life. Both Updike and Coupland offer, in the words of the subtitle of Generation X, "tales for an accelerated culture." Updike wrote the Rabbit series in the present tense (an unusual literary device when he began in 1960) to heighten the pace of the narrative, creating a cinema-like sense of action flickering quickly before the reader. Coupland does the same in much of his work, and if the pace is quick in Updike, it can seem dizzying in Coupland.

The two novelists also report contemporary events in journalistic fashion to underscore the fast-forward character of modern times. The television set dominates Rabbit's world and all of Coupland's novels, and references to popular culture abound. (Spy magazine once poked fun at the frequency of pop culture references in the Rabbit series. Here is its count of TV series references, according to Spy (October 1990): three in Rabbit Run, 19 in Redux, 26 in Rich, and 38 in Rest.) Writing over the course of four decades, Updike chronicles the distress of the American middle class over the second half of the twentieth century, from the turbulent '60s to the AIDS-ridden '90s. It is enough to wear out the athlete in Rabbit. Rabbit Is Rich begins with the energy crisis of the late '70s. The "world is running out of gas," Angstrom laments, and so too, we discover, is Rabbit.

The point it seems, for both authors, is that for modern Americans, pilgrimage is inescapable. The journey lies in experiencing the unprecedented change of our culture. Long before James Gleick wrote the book Faster, Updike and Coupland understood the frenetic character of our times. We privilege speed over direction. One must be moving fast; where one is going is irrelevant. If the threat to Rabbit is aging, Coupland's protagonists fear obsolescence ("Dead at 30 Buried at 70," is a Generation X chapter title). Mid-life crises are reserved no longer for the forty-somethings; but woe to anyone incapable of maintaining the pace. "How twenty minutes ago," as a Coupland character is wont to exclaim.

If modernity has conquered time, it has also eliminated space. Many of Coupland's characters wander through non-places-airport hubs, middle-class suburbia, or the vast emptiness of the desert Southwest. In his Grateful Dead travelogue, Polaroids from the Dead, Coupland notes, "everybody travels everywhere. 'Place' is a joke." As a result, we are rudderless and "denarrated." In Life After God, the narrator worries he speaks with an "accent from nowhere…the accent of a person who has no fixed home in their mind."

Coupland goes so far as to suggest that America at century's end is so incapable of narration that it cannot even be reckoned as lost: "I know you guys think my life is some big joke-that it's going nowhere," exclaims a fellow traveler in Life After God. "But I'm happy. And it's not like I'm lost or anything. We're all too f–ing middle class to ever be lost. Lost means you had faith or something to begin with and the middle class never really had any of that. So we can never be lost. And you tell me, Scout-what is it we end up being, then-what exactly is it we end up being then-instead of being lost?"

Updike seems to end his series on a similar note. Rabbit ends where the story began, on the basketball court, though Angstrom is now in Deleon, Florida, far from his hometown of Brewer, Pennsylvania. Deleon is a strip-mall-saturated new retirement city in southwest Florida, with endless development of national chains that repeat themselves as Harry drives through the depressing four-lane highways. These are not the "limitless gleaming white freeways that lead us off into eternity" that Coupland describes in Polaroids. For Rabbit, they have the sense of death: "On the telephone wires, instead of the sparrows and starlings you see in Pennsylvania, lone hawks and buzzards lie."

If these lives are accelerated, they are at the same time arrested because the frenetic pace of the culture ultimately exposes its soulnessness. Rabbit Redux begins with the 1969 moon landing, which strikes Rabbit as less about space than about emptiness. "Columbus flew blind and hit something," he thought, "these guys see exactly where they're aiming and it's a big round nothing." And the wife-swapping at the end of Rabbit at Rest only serves to reveal to Rabbit the vast emptiness of his adulterous lifestyle.

In Girlfriend in a Coma, Karen awakes in 1997 after a long coma to a world of remarkably changed technology, but also of teenaged-turned-thirty-year-old friends whose lives remain as transitory, superficial, and spiritually bankrupt as before. "The whole world is only about work: work work work get get get…racing ahead…getting sacked from work…going online…knowing computer languages…winning contracts. I mean, it's not just what I would have imagined the world might be if you'd asked me seventeen years ago. People are frazzled and angry, desperate about money, and, at best, indifferent to the future."

Perhaps what is most striking is that there is no sense of sacrifice in the wanderings of these pilgrims. In Rabbit, Run, Updike describes a sermon Angstrom hears from the Episcopalian Reverend Eccles. "It concerns the forty days in the Wilderness and Christ's conversation with the Devil. Does this story have any relevance to us, here, now?… Its larger significance, its greater meaning, Eccles takes to be this: suffering, deprivation, barrenness, hardship, lack are all an indispensable part of the education, the initiation, as it were, of any of those who would follow Jesus Christ."

Rabbit rejects the message. "Harry has no taste for the dark, tangled, visceral aspect of Christianity, the going through quality of it, the passage into death and suffering that redeems and inverts these things, like an umbrella blowing inside out." After the sermon, he runs from his wife again, who in a drunken stupor drowns their infant daughter, which prompts, ironically, the anti-pilgrim to experience himself the very suffering and "passage into death" that he rejected.

Together Updike and Coupland confirm Francis Fukuyama's thesis that we live at the "end of history," that is, the end of ideological conflict. Only there is nothing to celebrate, because middle-class consumers in liberal democracies do not live happily ever after. So tied is Rabbit to his world that its collapse spells an identity crisis in Rabbit at Rest: "If there's not a Cold War, what's the point of being an American?" Russia "kept this life within bounds, somehow." Without a competing superpower, "there's just Japan, and technology, and the profit motive, and getting all you can while you can."

A similar discovery overcomes Coupland in Life After God: "The price we paid for our golden life was an inability to fully believe in love; instead we gained an irony that scorched everything it touched. And I wonder if this irony is the price we paid for the loss of God." Even more graphically, listen to Hamilton Reese explain why he turned to heroin in Girlfriend in a Coma: "Don't you understand, Richard? There is nothing at the center of what we do…. No center. It doesn't exist. All of us-look at our lives: we have an acceptable level of affluence. We have entertainment. We have a relative freedom from fear. But there's nothing else."

Just as world-weariness overcomes Bunyan's pilgrim, so too does it finally catch up to these travelers. At middle age, Rabbit becomes the reluctant pilgrim, and the restless runner becomes the stubborn conservative who resists change. But death and dying do not present themselves as grave threats. For Rabbit, it is "enough," having lethargically told his son Nelson, "all I can tell you is, [death] isn't so bad." For Coupland's characters, death is often just another journey. As a woman in Life After God describes it, death is "like you're in a store and a friend drives up to the front door in a beautiful car and says 'Hop in-let's go on a trip!' And so you go out for a spin. And once you're out on the road and having a great time, suddenly your friend turns to you and says, 'Oh by the way, you're dead,' and you realize they're right, but it doesn't matter because you're happy and this is an adventure and this is fine."

And yet, Coupland often wonders if indeed that's all there is. This conclusion emerges after a desert sojourn in Life After God: "My secret is that I need God-that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love."

But if Coupland's characters regret that they do not know God, neither have they made it their obsession to find him. A vague sense of some kind of afterlife pervades all of his work, typically expressed in retreats to primitive worlds-deserts, forests, or darkness-sites uncontaminated by modernity. Ultimately, it is a formless life: Coupland's preferred form of travel is disembodied floating, about which his characters often imagine. (In a personal interview, Coupland revealed how true it was that he was raised without religion, expressing surprise that Christian orthodoxy taught the resurrection of the body.) For his part, all Rabbit is capable of confessing is that "I don't not believe."

Not that American evangelicalism has made it easy for these seekers to find God. In a clever scene in Life After God, the driver presses the seek button on his radio "continuously prowling for new stations," while driving through the desert creating the effect of a double pilgrimage. Often all that is available is Christian radio, where preachers offer Jesus as if they are peddling sex. For Harry Angstrom, Christianity is just another commodity that is splashed on Florida highway billboards: "Easy Drugs, Nu-View, Ameri-Life and Health, Starlite Motel, Jesus Christ is Lord." As both authors see it, the commercialism of evangelicalism renders it weightless.

While we may acknowledge with Updike and Coupland that traveling is an inescapable metaphor for modern times, it does not follow that everyone is a pilgrim. Distinctions are necessary among pilgrims, wanderers, and drifters. When Angstrom confesses, "I guess, that somewhere behind all this . . . there's something that wants me to find it," Reverend Eccles is unimpressed with his wanderlust: "all vagrants think they are on a quest."

Eccles's skepticism is important especially for so-called seeker-sensitive churches to consider. In marketing the Church to browsers, while calling them "seekers," have we distorted the concept of pilgrimage beyond what is biblically recognizable? Have we confused pilgrimage with its counterfeit?

Moreover, for all their motion, the travelers in these novels have made very little progress. In Miss Wyoming, Coupland's latest and most serious effort, the two protagonists emerge from Damascan-like experiences that just don't seem to take. John Johnson, a burned-out Hollywood producer, recovers from a near-fatal virus while Susan Colgate, a former beauty queen and aging starlet, miraculously walks away as the sole survivor of a plane crash. Each sets out on foot, divesting themselves of both worldly goods and celebrity identity. But their reinvented lives are as sordid as their preconversion days, with casual sex and dumpster diving for their daily bread.

Pilgrimage, biblically speaking, is far more than ascetic renunciation. The letter to the Hebrews employs pilgrimage as a metaphor to underscore the transience of the present life and as a reminder of our hope in the life to come. By faith Abraham "sojourned in the land of promise, as in a foreign land" (Heb. 11:8). He and other saints of old lived as "strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland" (Heb. 11:13-14). Pilgrimage speaks to the fragile character of the Christian life and the need to persevere in the wilderness. We are striving to enter into God's rest, and not to fall short by way of disobedience (Heb. 4:11). The wilderness is no place to indulge the flesh. Rather, it reminds us that our salvation is in neither a completed nor an unthreatened state. So we must take heed lest we fall.

In the end, likening these stories to pilgrimage might prove too much of a stretch. Rabbit's movements are spontaneous and unreflective, neither deliberate nor intentional, and so, too, are Coupland's impulsive pilgrims. There is little that is finally discovered in these sojourns, no calling to a higher, nobler purpose, no sense that weariness leads to new strength or that deprivation produces greater riches. For Rabbit, life remains a zero-sum game. "The whole point of his earthly existence has been to produce little Nellie Angstrom, so he in turn could produce Judy and Roy, and so on until the sun burns out."

Still, for all its ambiguity, the road beckons these travelers. However uncertain, the journey entices. In the words of Miss Wyoming's Johnson, "This is the road we're talking about-the romance of the road. Strange new friends. Adventures every ten minutes. Waking up each morning feeling like a wild animal. No crappy rules or smothering obligations."

John Johnson brings to mind another character in American fiction. In Walker Percy's The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett travels to New Mexico in Gatsbyesque search for independence and autonomy: "This is the locus of pure possibility, he thought, his neck prickling. What a man can be in the next minute bears no relation to what he is or what he was the minute before." Barrett's thoughts are autobiographical, for Percy himself traveled from Mississippi to New Mexico, and discovered, in the words of his biographer, "a place without the complications of family or history, a place that felt as remote from the entanglements of the South as the moon." Yet this was not the promised land that Percy hoped to discover. "But now that he was living from second to isolated second in the rarefied atmosphere of pure possibility, he found that he was oddly dissatisfied, even a little fearful. His existence lacked gravity. If he could do anything, then what he was, everything that life had made him up to this point, was irrelevant."

For Percy, no less than for Updike or Coupland, the wasteland of post-Edenic America becomes an opportunity to display one's homelessness. But Percy's solution to modernity's denarration is not to run away nor to float away, but to find a vocation. The road can betray us. To set out on your own is to take on a burden, not to have it removed. Instead, Percy moved to New Orleans, converted to Christianity, and began his career as a writer. In Jay Tolson's aptly titled biography, Percy was truly a "pilgrim in the ruins."

Tuesday, June 12th 2007

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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