What’s saving your life right now?
That’s a question Barbara Brown Taylor explores in her memoir Leaving Church, and a question whose power has stuck with me. It’s a question worth thinking about and, truth be told, a question I often don’t have a concrete answer for.
Today I do.
What’s saving my life right now is the novel Sun House by David James Duncan. Jon Hiskes has already written a lovely review of Sun House for us, so I won’t attempt to duplicate that. Instead, I want to invite you to think with me about a few passages from the book.
I’m ready to declare it my book of the year, even though I’m only on page 112 of 776. (Another reason I’m not going to write a review.) Yes, I am wide open to the possibility that maybe in the next 664 pages Duncan is going to lose his touch and also lose me. But so far, this book is utterly remarkable.
Although I am a fast reader, I am reading Sun House slowly. In one way, that can’t be helped. The pages are big and the font, though not small, isn’t as large as one encounters in other books. Earlier in the fall I read Abraham Verghese’s The Covenant of Water, which also weighs in at over 700 pages. Publishers don’t tell you these things, but my guess is Duncan’s book has at least 30,000 more words than Verghese’s. Though having a similar amount of pages, Sun House has far more words. The difference is in how the books are laid out. (A short digression: I remember pre-historic times when I wrote on a typewriter and couldn’t easily manipulate fonts and margins and spacing and an instructor would say “A four-page paper is due” and that meant something.)
Anyway, I am reading Sun House slowly. I am savoring it. Dare I say I am reading it devotionally?
While talking with her father, a character says, “Words can be like a sun, doing for the heart what sunlight can do for a field.” You can’t just keep reading after a line like that. At least I can’t. I have to stop and take it in. I have repeated that line, attributed in the book to John of the Cross, several times in an effort to get it lodged into my brain. The line was the perfect thing for the character to say, but it also fits my experience with the book. The words of this book have been sunlight in the dull gray slush of December in West Michigan.
More than that, the words fit my experience as editor of the Reformed Journal. Another digression: A decade or so ago, I was one of those guys enchanted by sticky notes and white boards, who liked to get groups together to talk about their mission and vision and raison d’etre. Then I met Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell, who has almost a violent dislike of such gatherings. Because of Steve, I have tried to lighten up. But if we ever were backed into a corner and needed to say why the Reformed Journal exists, this is it: Words can be like a sun, doing for the heart what sunlight can do for a field.”
Or how about this line from Sun House: “And as generals, kings, presidents, popes, CEOs, and others have demonstrated throughout history, when the deeply wounded go inwardly blind, then pretend, with panache, that they can still see, they become monumentally destructive.”
I shared that with a friend who leads a graduate program in leadership. It’s already been placed on next semester’s syllabus.
One way to get a handle on what that line means is to ask who immediately comes to mind. Answering “Donald Trump” is too easy. So are various despots like Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, and Mao. How about just the worst boss you’ve ever had? I’m not by any means lumping your bad boss in with Hitler, and, on top of that, to progressives I will say be careful with your comparisons of Trump to Hitler. Please do not trivialize the Holocaust. What I am simply saying, and, I believe, Duncan is saying, is that untold harm comes from the emotionally wounded who don’t acknowledge their pain. They wind up hurting innocent people.
Here’s an example from a figure who fought for the good guys and was on the right side of history: Field Marshall Bernard Law Montgomery, who led Operation Market Garden, the biggest Allied fiasco of World War II. (See or read A Bridge Too Far for full context.) He was full of himself and incapable of humility. Monty went to his grave maintaining Operation Market Garden was 90% successful. 90% success, in this case, equaled 100% failure. Tens of thousands died unnecessarily. It didn’t have to be like that. But his pride made it so. The story goes that in his retirement, Montgomery was the lay reader one Sunday in his Anglican church and opened the Bible and read, “’And the Lord said to Moses,’ and quite rightly, I might add . . . “)
Let me give one more example of the delight I’m taking in Sun House. A teenaged character in crisis begins to articulate his first misgivings about God, unaware that his thoughts are not original thoughts, unaware that he was stumbling into what Duncan calls “the old ‘God’s will versus free will’ question, an existential dilemma so redundantly posed that it has created a veritable wallow in humanity’s intellectual history. In the suspicious warmth and smell of that wallow, armies of the mud wrestlers known as ‘theologians’ have been tossing one another about for centuries.”
Oh how I love every bit of that, from “suspicious warmth and smell” to theologians as mud wrestlers. I love books that are profound yet also make me laugh repeatedly.
In his review, Jon Hiskes spoke of Duncan’s playfulness, which is on full display in these lines. A master is not only at work but also at play in Sun House, and mere mortals like me (and you) do well to pay attention. That’s what’s saving my life right now. Two weeks before Christmas, what’s saving yours?
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