Friday, November 05, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom: A Novel

Nearly a decade after publishing his prize-winning novel The Corrections, Franzen has done it again. Freedom is currently (November 2010) the most-discussed contemporary work of English-language fiction in the U.S. and Australia and who knows where else.

Freedom is the complicated story of an unfree, deteriorating middle-class Minnesotan family (parents Walter and Patty Berglund, children, lovers, assorted relatives, neighbours, friends, shysters and enemies) who battle all their lives with unresolved family-of-origin issues. Walter's main agenda - as also with his Swedish male ancestors - is to avoid facing the threatening realities of deeply-buried emotions. Patty's emotional life is dominated by the pain of her parents' preoccupation with high-flying professional and political  agendas, a date-rape incident, and of course relating to her one-dimensional husband.

Nearly a decade after publishing his prize-winning novel The Corrections, Franzen has done it again. Freedom is currently (November 2010) the most-discussed contemporary work of English-language fiction in the U.S. and Australia and who knows where else.

Freedom is the complicated story of an unfree, deteriorating middle-class Minnesotan family (parents Walter and Patty Berglund, children, lovers, assorted relatives, neighbours, friends, shysters and enemies) who battle all their lives with unresolved family-of-origin issues. Walter's main agenda - as also with his Swedish male ancestors - is to avoid facing the threatening realities of deeply-buried emotions. Patty's emotional life is dominated by the pain of her parents' preoccupation with high-flying professional and political  agendas, a date-rape incident, and of course relating to her one-dimensional husband.

Walter and Patty are university graduates. He's a naive, nice, corporate lawyer/do-gooder, who resigns from 3M and moves into nature conservation, working for a minerals magnate who wants to turn some of his ill-earned millions into saving a small woodland bird, the Cerulean warbler. You might judge (if you're naive) that this is triple-bottom-line stuff, but there's only one outcome that magnate is interested in...

Franzen's main offering is a many-layered analysis of the Berglunds’ marriage. He tells the story partly via the device of Patty's journaling for her therapist - which, oddly, is composed in the third person.

The Berglunds are, at the beginning, NQR (not quite right) caricatures, nonentities who are nevertheless redeemed at the end. (I won't spoil it by disclosing the story-line). The main message: nonentities are people too. If they're willing to be humble and vulnerable and name their demons, they (and their families/marriage) can be saved.

So there's really a collision of 'freedoms' here. Every prodigal is free to flee to the far country (New York etc.) to escape family-of-origin realities, but there, in the loneliness of various pig-pens, each comes to realize that there's no place like home, if only they could figure out how to reconstruct home from the debris of past hurts.

Sample: 'He'd needed an extra brother to love and hate and compete with. And the eternal tormenting question for Walter... was whether Richard was the little brother or the big brother, the f***up or the hero, the beloved damaged friend or the dangerous rival' (131). (Note: they're my ***'s. You'd better cope with the four-letter words here or you'll get distracted...).

(Client: tell me how all this generally resonates with your story).

Sex is a major theme. Mostly problematical sex. Like here: 'Walter was what he was, and he wanted what he was to be what Patty wanted. He wanted things to be mutual! ... Eventually after years of resisting, she managed to get him to stop trying altogether. And felt terribly guilty but also *angry* and *annoyed* to be made to feel like such a failure... Sex seemed to be a diversion for young people with nothing better to do' (140-1).

There's also spectacular sex, sex within intersecting love-triangles, feral sex, half-hearted sex, depersonalized sex, phone sex, date-rape, promiscuous American College sex, and lots of other kinds of sex you didn't think you needed to know about. (Speaking of which: do you know any other author who's described in somewhat graphic detail how someone retrieved a wedding ring they'd swallowed?).

On the sub-themes of endangered bird-species, and overpopulation, I noted these:

* 'Too many damn people on the planet. It's especially clear when we went to South America. Yes, per capita consumption is rising. Yes, the Chinese are illegally vacuuming up resources down there. But the real problem is population pressure. Six kids per family versus one point five. People are desperate to feed the children that the pope in his infinite wisdom makes them have, and so they trash the environment' (219).

* 'The low-end estimate of songbirds daily murdered by cats in the United States [is] one million, ie. 365,000,000 per year (and this... [is] a conservative estimate and did not include the starvation of the murdered birds' chicks' (545). Back on page 222: 'Every year in the U.S. one *billion* songbirds are murdered by domestic and feral cats... but no one gives a s*** because they love their own individual kitty cat'.

* 'Walter had never liked cats. They seemed to him to be the sociopaths of the pet world, a species domesticated as an evil necessary for the control of rodents and subsequently fetishized the way unhappy countries fetishize their militaries, saluting the uniforms of killers as cat-owners stroke their lovely fur and forgive their claws and fangs. He'd never seen anything in a cat's face but simpering incuriosity and self-interest; you only had to tease one with a mouse-toy to see where its true heart lay' (548).

The central metaphor - until you get to the denouement at the end - is not freedom but duplicity. It's Franzen's long sermon on the topic 'How Should We Then Live?' Someone on wrote: 'The apocalpyse, when it comes, clears the way for a postlude, set in Minnesota, that is as haunting as anything in recent American fiction. Visiting her daughter’s university, Patty observes a stone engraved with the words, “USE WELL THY FREEDOM”. The warning is there throughout. With its all-encompassing world, its flawed heroes and its redemptive ending, “Freedom” has the sweep of a modern “Paradise Lost”.'

Well, you get the idea. Professional reviewers and book clubbers (the 'chattering classes') will like it (there are glowing reviews in the NYT, Time, the Economist, etc.) but the comments by ordinary folks at - innocents who are prepared to say the emperor has no clothes -  often only give it one or two stars out of five. Franzen has too many contrived conversations and improbable happenings (like a 19-year-old arms dealer traveling to Poland and Paraguay to make procurement purchases of spare parts for broken-down military trucks in Iraq).

I had three '!!!' moments: Walter's 'Welcome to the middle-class' speech (to which I responded, aloud, 'yoo-hoo!); a beautifully lyrical paragraph (485) on the wonders of bird migration; and a moving set of reconciliations towards the end (when I cried).

A little warning or two: for me this novel started slowly, but 'took off' about half-way through. Franzen could have reduced the number of characters by a third (to help folks with a 73-year-old brain to remember who's who). And he's verbose - maybe he'd have said more in 30 percent fewer pages. He writes brilliantly, of course (but not as fluently as John Updike), offering a lot of detail about this and that which had me skimming paragraphs.

If you enjoyed this you should also read Garrison Keillor (funnier), Tolstoy (who's in a league of his own) and John Updike (a better wordsmith).

Rowland Croucher

November 2010

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Understanding the Bible: Three Helpful Volumes

These three books have different target-audiences. Philip Fogarty SJ 'Navigating the Gospels: John' aims to help the Catholic faithful get to grips with the essence of the purpose and teachings of the Fourth Gospel. Dean Drayton's 'Which Gospel? Three New Testament Perspectives' is an excellent summary of the NT's understanding(s) of what 'Good News' really means. And 'The Children's Bible: New Revised Standard Version' is aimed at young people.

1. Philip Fogarty SJ, 'Navigating the Gospels: John' is written by an Irish Jesuit, a former headmaster, whose aim is to reinforce the essential belief-system of Catholics against the unhelpful emphases of liberal theologians on the one hand and Protestant fundamentalists on the other. To the liberals he affirms Jesus was God; to the fundamentalists Jesus was truly human. 

Although he's done his homework in terms of the way the fourth gospel was put together (we learn a little about the sitz im leben of the Johannine community in 80-110 AD, especially their need to be encouraged in the basics of the Christian faith after being driven from the Jewish synagogues); and how this gospel was written and later redacted etc. there are hardly any references to the findings of biblical scholars. This book is a simple paraphrase of the stories and 'signs' in John, with a final chapter quoting the Second Vatican Council's statement on what it means for the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. A good, readable introduction especially helpful for Catholics who are beginning their quest to seriously understand this important New Testament gospel.

2. Dean Drayton is a well-known scholar-missiologist in Australian Uniting Church circles. This book - Which Gospel? Three New Testament Perspectives' - gives a helpful overview of various understandings of the notion of 'The Gospel' throughout Christian history, and suggests that all of them were lacking something important when put side-by-side with key New Testament emphases. Essentially, the Gospel is 'the Gospel of God' - it's God's initiative - not just a temporal/eternal palliative for individuals' needs for forgiveness, happiness etc. Again, although Dr. Drayton has read the scholars and is familiar with the findings of modern literary-historical criticism, very little of this is cited in this volume, which is aimed to help study-groups of thoughtful laypeople (with excellent prompts for personal and group reflection at the end of each chapter).

Here are some gems I marked to provoke thought:

* Bidden or unbidden, God is present

* Hebrews and Luke shun the term 'the gospel'

* The early church focussed its message on the resurrection of the crucified Jesus rather than his message of the Kingdom of God

* Isaac Watts' hymn 'When I survey' (c. 1707) is one of the first to use the personal pronoun

* Wesley was the last English-speaking mass-evangelist to have had a University education. (Others, notably Dwight D. (sic) Moody and Billy Graham weren't in that league)

* Liberal and Fundamentalist alike are rationalists

* The biblical God is not a 'democratic' God of choice, but a God of power

* The key understandings of the Gospel should arise from our 'aboriginal' (Drayton uses that generic adjective four or five times in this little book) documents, the texts of the New Testament.

Again, readable, thoughtful, useful for church adult study groups...

3. Children's Bible (New Revised Standard Version, Abingdon). 

Here's a colourful edition of the most popular version of the Bible in use in mainline Christian churches, targeted especially for young people. The colourful illustrations would appeal mostly to four-to-eight year olds; the helps (glossary, maps, summary-paragraphs throughout etc.) to eight-to-14+ year olds, and the paragraph titles (Colloquy ! etc.) to 14-plus year olds. You choose the age at which you give this to your child/ren. As Evangelical churches and Sunday Schools still mostly use the NIV translation, this one might have to sit on the shelf at home for further study. 

Rowland Croucher

July 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010


by Rowan Forster and Rowland Croucher
The comments by Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer about clergy ‘rushing for cheap headlines’ by getting involved in political statements, and the subsequent debate got us thinking…
Barney Zwartz, in his article on meddlesome priests (The Age, Opinion, 2/9), notes that the Judeo-Christian faith is not only about personal piety, but also social justice. Interfering clerics and prophets have, for 3000 years, been the bane of those who benefit from an unjust political system.
Take for instance that troublesome Baptist minister, Martin Luther King. He really should have kept his nose out of political issues, and kept his dream to himself. The duly elected Governors of Alabama and Mississippi were doing just fine until he came along. Why is religion getting mixed up with human rights?
Then there were those interfering archbishops, like Desmond Tutu in South Africa and Janani Luwum in Idi Amin’s Uganda. They should have left their political leaders alone, to govern as they saw fit. Same goes for Cardinal Jaime Sin in the Philippines under the enlightened rule of Ferdinand Marcos, and church leaders who opposed Pol Pot in Cambodia.
And what about Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador? If only he’d kept his mouth shut, he might still be alive. As for the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoller in Nazi Germany, they should have stayed inside church cloisters instead of blundering into political activism.
Closer to home, meddlesome clerics like Tim Costello and Ray Cleary shouldn’t be shooting off their mouths about gambling and other social issues. Don’t they realise gambling addicts have a democratic right to sacrifice their homes and families and commit suicide if they want to, without interference from religious do-gooders?
And it’s not just clerics, either. Look at all those religiously minded laymen and women who have meddled in matters that don’t concern them. Like William Wilberforce dragging his Christian faith into the slavery issue, or the Earl of Shaftesbury interfering in the politics of child labor and other forms of exploitation. Or William and Catherine Booth meddling in issues of social and economic inequality, and founding the Salvation Army.
Then there’s Elizabeth Fry interfering in the field of prison reform; Florence Nightingale who founded the modern nursing movement; Cicely Saunders who founded the modern hospice movement; Henri Dunant who founded the Red Cross; and other meddlesome religious zealots who founded Alcoholics Anonymous, Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, Opportunity International, World Vision, TEAR Fund, and a host of other enterprises that can be traced back to a religious motivation.
Is a world without religious interference what we really need? The resultant welfare bill would send all governments flat broke. Expediency would be more likely to triumph over conscience, and brute force over moral persuasion. There’d be less of a check on the excesses of genocidal tyrants, murderous despots and ruthless pragmatists.
New Testament Christians, as Karl Barth pointed out, faced the dilemma of relating to Nero’s Rome, which in Romans 13 is a divinely-ordained institution to be obeyed, but in Revelation 13 is ‘the beast from the abyss’. When governments invoke order at the expense of freedom, tyranny usually results. But, yes, freedom without order is anarchy. The Christian social philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr used to say ‘There is no peace without power, and no justice with power.’ So a Christian has two responsibilities: to support legitimate law and order, but also to promote social justice.
Christians with a social conscience – whether clergy or not – have a biblical mandate to get involved in political debate. Pericles put it well: ‘We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics minds his own business. We say he has no business here at all.’

Thursday, April 15, 2010


Mark Durie, The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom (2010)

Critiquing Islam, some can be so "truthful" they come across as bigoted (one Christian politician wants "no more Muslim immigrants"); others are so "politically correct" they can be guilty of appeasement. Mark Durie, in this well-researched book, works hard to "speak the truth in love". An expert on the language and culture of the Acehnese, Dr Durie has published several books and many articles on Christian-Muslim relations.

Throughout Islamic history, conquered peoples could convert to Islam, die by the sword, or accept "dhimmi" (inferior) status and pay tribute under sharia law. A benign explanation of dhimmitude (like Wikipedia's) emphasizes "protection", "guarantee of minority peoples' rights" etc. Mark isn't so sure. Rather, these subjects – Christians, Jews and others - are often denied basic rights and personhood. Consider, for example, the two million lives lost - many of them Christians - in the Sudanese jihad; in Egypt or Turkey it's difficult (and in Saudi Arabia impossible) for Christians to get permission to build churches. Many other examples are cited.

Durie 'tells it like it is'. Example 1: Why do Muslims - one in twenty of Denmark's population - comprise the majority of the country's convicted rapists? 2. "Even in non-Muslim societies some Muslims can be aggressive and confrontational in pressing for their rights, and yet take offense when non-Muslims insist on theirs". 3. "The Muslim world has not to this day apologized to non-Muslims for jihad and dhimmitude. Muslims have not confronted their bitter past". 4. "The precedents for violence in Muhammad's life have absolutely no parallels in the life of Christ".

But what about the Old Testament? And the sometimes bloody history of Christianity - forced conversions, Crusades etc? I'd also have wished for more insights from Muslims living in Western countries (like the mysterious U.S.-based Turkish educator Fethullah Gulen, who asserts that "Terrorists are as bad as atheists, and both will go to hell”).

A fascinating chapter links historic Islamic psychology to episodes of rejection in Muhammad's life.

It's a great read: and I learned a lot from chasing many of the excellent footnotes on the Web.

Rowland Croucher

John Mark Ministries



Mark's response:

I have written elsewhere a comparison of violence in the Bible and the Quran, including the Old Testament, but Christian violence was not the subject of this book. The book is also not intended to be a comparison of Christianity and Islam. It would have grossly distorted its presentation to have gone in that direction. One of the problems of the current culture of political correctness and self-inculpation is that one is not allowed to analyse Islam without criticizing Christianity at the same time. Self-inculpation becomes a knee-jerk response. This is debilitating and illogical. Let us give Islam the respect it deserves, and treat it on its own terms. Christian crimes throw no insight on the problem of understanding the dhimma - they are quite irrelevant.

Yes, I could have dealt with the mythology of the crusades as an act of aggression against peaceful Muslims, and referred readers to e.g. Robert Spencer on this. However I already had material like this, e.g. in reference to the Andalusian 'golden age' mythology, and did not really wish to rehash the already widely-available material on the history of Islamic jihad.

In fairness, I did acknowledge the origins of some fo the dhimma laws in the Christian Byzantine legal treatment of the Jews. (I used that comparison with Jesus to help people understand Muhammad, not to try to make an comprehensive comparison of Christianity with Islam).

Fethullah Gulen is by no means a moderate, but a master of taqiyya. He is widely understood to be driving the Islamization of Turkey. I will send you a few articles. There are liberals in the Muslim world, and you are correct, I did not engage with their proposals. This is because of irrelevance. They tend to overlook or downplay the issue of dhimmitude and have little relevant to say about it. In some cases they just lie, for example Tantawi (recently deceased) has a commentary on 9:29 in which he claims past Muslim scholars have shown that dhimmis enjoy equal rights with Muslims. The scholars he cites actually say exactly the opposite. I could have used Tantawi - a 'moderate' of sorts, despite his anti-semitism - as an example of deception and denial, but I already had plenty of that.

In all fairness, I did cite some Muslims who are concerned about the treatment of non-Muslims and have been willing to speak up about it. I have written elsewhere on the issue of "reforming" Islam and the difficulty of achieving this. However the lived reality of non-Muslims under sharia law today shows a trend towards sharia implementation, not liberalization. There is no global liberal Islamic movement comparable, say, to Reform Judaism, only isolated individuals, whose voice is marginal and very existence is threatened.

Mark Durie


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