If two men write bestselling memoirs about their spiritual lives and both are from rural Louisiana, both are committed Christians who freely discuss their faith, and both have some claim to be men of letters—one has a Masters’ degree in English and the other has written for some of the top publications in the country—you might expect that their stories would have some basic similarities. But, as you can guess from that prefacing sentence, that is not the case. In fact, you probably could not find two more dissimilar spiritual autobiographies published in the last two years.
One man has eschewed the trappings of intellectualism and so embraced the hunting and fishing ethos that pervades rural Louisiana, that to others across the country he is its most well known representative. The other loves nothing better than a good conversation about the unique perspectives of Southern writers accompanied by a glass of bourbon. In fact he enjoys this so much that he began an annual Walker Percy Festival in his hometown that attracts academics and intellectuals from all over and includes a bourbon tasting.
So how does one reconcile such divergent approaches to the Christian life as these two men take? Are they even part of the same spiritual family?
Well, of course they are. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkin’s observed that the just man
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Christ—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
Different though both men may be, they are just two of the many places Christ plays.
Happy, Happy, Happy
Phil Robertson is the Duck Commander, reality TV star, family patriarch, hunter and fisherman extraordinaire, member of White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, and author of the story of his turn from the devil’s ways to the way of the Lord in the book Happy, Happy, Happy: My Life and Legacy as the Duck Commander. If you have not read his story, it is an amazing account of the mysterious way God changes our minds. Robertson frequently refers to his life before Christ as “before I repented” and his conversion is a living example of the what the word repentance means: to turn.
What a turn Robertson made! He was one wild, lustful, drunken, violent, selfish, not-very-nice person. He lived exactly the way he wanted to live, even to the point of exiling his long-suffering wife and three children from his home and life. He was not a man anyone would ever envision becoming a respected elder in his church. But his wife and her newfound church friends prayed for Robertson and eventually the God-shaped hole in our hearts that Pascal talks about required filling in Robertson and he became a Christ follower. His story is probably not so very different from a lot of dysfunctional family stories, but since his has a happier ending than most and because everyone knows who Phil Roberston is, you ought to check it out. You may not really know Phil or his family as well as you think.
Sad, Sad, Sad
Rod Dreher, in contrast, found rural Louisiana and the outdoor lifestyle his family practiced so oppressive that he fled his home for the excitement and intellectual stimulation of Washington, D.C., and New York City. He thrived in this environment, becoming a well respected writer for such publications as the New York Post, National Review, and the Wall Street Journal. He got married, homeschooled his kids, and wrote a book called Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, gun-loving organic gardeners, evangelical free-range farmers, hip homeschooling mamas, right-wing nature … America (or at least the Republican Party) exploring how some conservatives had embraced organic, environmentally conscious, counter-cultural lifestyles usually associated with liberals.
Dreher had as a youth rejected the Methodism his family had practiced and had decided God wasn’t really important to his life. But he was shaken out of his teen-age smugness by a trip to Chartres Cathedral (his mother had won the trip in a raffle). Dreher said the complexity and harmony of the space the medieval builders had constructed “overawed” him and started him on a quest for the God who could inspire such beauty. His journey brought him to the point where he was finally received into the Catholic Church. His faith grew, but the Catholic priest child abuse scandals of the early 2000s caused a crisis of faith that sent him fleeing from Catholicism. Now Dreher and his family are members of the Orthodox Church.
In 2011 Dreher’s younger sister, Ruthie, who stayed in the family community of Starhill near the town of St. Francisville, was diagnosed with cancer, and Dreher was forced to think about what it was that he and his family most valued in life. His sister was a well-loved teacher in the local school, and the whole community rallied around her family, giving sacrificially of their time and money to help. Dreher and his wife Julie found themselves longing to be part of such a community where people depended on each other and were concerned about each other’s welfare. Exciting metropolises are not places that care about you.
After his sister died, Rod and his wife decided to move back to St. Francisville and raise their kids near Dreher’s parents and Ruthie’s husband and children. The book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: A Southern Girl, a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life describes this mental and physical journey back home. It is also a beautiful story of a woman of fierce loyalties, an un-nuanced belief in right and wrong, and an abiding faith in God. As Dreher makes clear in his title, Ruthie Leming was someone to emulate. But the book also chronicles the deep rift that existed between Dreher and his Starhill family. As much as Dreher valued community and family and desired to embrace it by moving back to St. Francisville, all was not well between him and his father and between him and his now-deceased sister.
Can You Go Home, Again?
Coming home did not heal the old hurts and grievances that had probably existed since the time Dreher was a little child. Certainly, there was not the violent dysfunction that existed in the Robertson family, and certainly the Dreher family loved each other. But Rod was not like his father or his sister, or probably most people in Starhill. He was a sensitive, bookish soul who lived in his imagination a little too much for his practical father’s taste. Ruthie loved to hunt and skin squirrels and deer. Rod would dutifully hunt with his father and sister, but one particularly traumatic day, Rod shot what he thought was a large squirrel only to learn that he had wounded two babies—and he sat and cried. That was only one part of the trauma. His father, coming upon this scene, was appalled and embarrassed, and he berated Rod—a memory Dreher still smarts over.
Daddy Dreher wanted a son just like himself—and he is sorely disappointed to realize he was not going to get that. And as anyone who has ever seen the movie Dumbo or Happy Feet or read any Harry Potter books or sung “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” knows, being different makes for a hard life and difficult relationships with parents and friends—until, of course, your oddity turns out to be just the thing to save the day. But in reality, there is usually never a “we need your bright shining nose to guide the sleigh” moment. You may leave and find the Island of Misfit Toys where someone with your particular skills is appreciated, but it is highly unlikely that your former tormenters or disappointed parents are ever going to see the use of that honking red nose. And that kind of different sets up a son who craves his father’s appreciation and approval (and what son doesn’t crave that?) for grave disappointment.
In fact, this disappointment nearly sent Rod to the grave. At the end of the Little Way book, Rod learns that his sister also had held things against him. She seems to have felt that his attempts to introduce his family to the world he had experienced in his travels were just a way to show Ruthie that the ways of Starhill and his family weren’t as good as those he had encountered away from them.
The Little Way of Ruthie Leming ends on a hopeful note, but in fact these familial conflicts and unhealed hurts sent Dreher into a physical and mental tailspin that was debilitating him, leaving him very unable to enjoy this newfound community life he had been craving. But the story how Dreher dealt with this spiritual crisis is the topic of another post.
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