Matthew Mason Posts
May 22, 2013 by Matthew Mason
As I’ve read, thought, and written about same-sex sexuality over the past few months, these are some of resources I’ve found helpful, and which I think will be particularly helpful for pastors. I don’t agree with all of them (some of them contradict each other), but they’ve all helped me to clarify my thinking and to understand the issues better. I’ve rated them for ease of reading on a scale of  to , where  is simple and accessible and  is highly technical. This is by no means a comment on which books are better or worse.
If, with a gun to my head, I had to recommend just three, they’d be Gagnon, Hill, Ash, and the Q&A on same-sex marriage by Alastair Roberts. Okay, that’s four, but one of them isn’t specifically about this issue.
Biblical and Theological Considerations
Robert A. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practise: Texts and Hermeneutics. This is surely the definitive treatment of the biblical materials. 
Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation, A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics. This is far wider ranging than simply issues of sexuality, but it covers the key texts and places them in the biblical-theological context in much briefer compass than Gagnon. Between Gagnon and Hays, I regard the biblical case against same-sex sex as clearly established. 
Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God. Not a book about same-sex sexuality, but the best book I’ve encountered on marriage. It provides the essential framework for thinking about the Bible’s teaching on all aspects of sex and sexuality. Scholarly and pastoral: the work of a true pastor-theologian. 
Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality. Hill describes himself as “gay,” Christian,” and “celibate.” In this beautifully written, moving book, he describes his experiences and offers helpful theological reflection. He romanticizes marriage, and is wrong to see it as God’s solution to loneliness, but with that caveat, this is the best book I’ve read on the topic, and the one I frequently recommend and lend to people. 
Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert: An English Professor’s Journey into Christian Faith. Butterfield was tenured professor of queer theory at Syracuse, an LGBT activist, and a lesbian in a long-term relationship, until she met a conservative presbyterian pastor called Ken Smith. This is a stunning account of her “train-wreck” conversion, which offers tremendous insight into the virtues of the LGBT community, and pain of conversion, and the importance of simple Christian hospitality coupled with the truth and power of the Scriptures. It’s slightly marred by later chapters in which she unnecessarily moves on to arguing rather forcefully for some quirky distinctives like exclusive unaccompanied psalmody, and classical Christian homeschooling. Marvin Olasky has a wonderful interview with her that gives the highlights of the book. [1-2]
Andrew Sullivan, Love Undetectable: Notes on Friendship, Sex, and Survival. In these very personal essays, Sullivan, a leading advocate of gay marriage, writes movingly about his sexuality, the plague of AIDS and its devastating effects on the gay community, and the virtues of friendship. I disagree with much of what he writes about sexuality, but the book provides a valuable insight into the struggles, pains, longings, and joys of many gay men, and reminds us that in talking about sexuality we aren’t just addressing an “issue,” but are seeking to love and serve real people. 
Roger Scruton, Sexual Desire: A Philosophical Investigation. Scruton is an English philosopher and perhaps our most important public intellectual. This is a lengthy, penetrating, and lucid philosophical discussion of sexual desire from a personalist perspective. He is reluctant to condemn same-sex sex, but nevertheless offers an insightful interpretation of the ways in which it is different from desire for someone of the opposite sex. 
Michel Foucault, A History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction. This is his dense, provocative, and game-changing exploration of the the way power, knowledge, and discourse have related to shape our sexual understandings and practices since the seventeenth century. Whatever you make of his arguments, he’s undeniably brilliant with immense analytical gifts. He’s also hugely influential, not least on later queer theorists. I’m still absorbing it, and hope to blog more about it in due course. 
Jenell Williams Paris, The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sexuality is Too Important to Define Who We Are. Paris is a Christian anthropologist, and in this short book she brings her anthropological training to bear, exposing the way in which contemporary western understandings of sexual identity are cultural constructs, not biblical categories. 
Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. A lucid defense of the traditional definition of marriage as a comprehensive conjugal partnership, a union between a man and a women. The writers avoid “religious” or moral arguments, focussing on philosophical arguments concerning the definition of marriage, not on same-sex relationships more broadly. 
Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson, “What is Marriage?” This article from the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy contains the core arguments that make up their later book. 
Alastair Roberts, “Questions and Answers on Same-Sex Marriage.” and “The Institution of Marriage, Same-Sex Unions and Procreation.” Alastair has written some of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read on this issue. These two lengthy blog posts are the best place to start in thinking about how to address this issue rigorously and winsomely.
Finally, one of the important questions tied up with how Christians address the issue of same-sex marriage in the public square is the question of the usefulness and validity of arguments based on natural law. David Bentley Hart had a stimulating piece in March’s First Things arguing that natural law arguments will prove unpersuasive for those who do not share the metaphysics that undergird them: “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws.” Edward Feser responded with “A Christian Hart, a Humean Head.” Peter Leithart and Alastair Roberts have also had a stimulating back and forth on the issue, Leithart denying the usefulness of natural law arguments, Roberts insisting on them. Leithart begins with “Gay Marriage and Christian Imagination.”Roberts responds with, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage are Usually Bad.” Leithart responds by saying, “The World Can’t Hear Us on Marriage.” And Roberts responds again by asking, “Can Arguments Against Gay Marriage Be Persuasive?” Judge for yourself.
May 20, 2013 by Matthew Mason
In his fascinating and wide-ranging The Face of God, the English philosopher Roger Scruton argues, against popular materialist conceptions of humans, that we must be considered in two distinct ways. We are animals, objects within the world of objects, susceptible to investigation by means of scientific inquiry. But we are also far more. A purely scientific account of what we are overlooks something vital about us. We are not simply objects; we are subjects. We are not only things within the world; we are persons with a perspective on the world. And, as persons, we are distinguished by, and constituted in, I-You relations: personhood is relational. The human world “is ordered by concepts that are rooted in dialogue, and therefore in the first person perspective.”
If we consider humans only from the perspective of science, this personal perspective disappears. We are not simply animals with brains, hard-wired to behave in certain ways. We are persons with minds, who make choices for which we are accountable to one another. In order fully to account for human persons, we cannot simply analyse our behaviour from the perspective of neuroscience. This may help us understand some of the causes for our behaviour. But it will never help us understand the reasons we behaved that way, because reasons are inherently personal. Without this (inter)personal perspective, our behaviour is reduced to something less complex than it is; and we are reduced from subjects to mere objects.
Therefore, if I look for myself solely within the world of objects, solely from a scientific perspective, I may discover many things about my biology. But I will disappear. I will be unable to see myself from a first person perspective. Similarly, I will no longer see you from a second person perspective, as a “you”. Rather we will be reduced simply to objects, known only from a third person perspective.
Now, if this is true of us, asks Scruton, what of God? If we investigate the question of God’s existence and presence in the world with the eyes of science, “it is impossible to find the place, the time, or the particular sequence of events that can be interpreted as showing God’s presence. God disappears from the world, as soon as we address it with the ‘why?’ of explanation, just as the human person disappears from the world when we look for the neurological explanation of his acts.” (45)
But, what if God is a person like us? What if the new atheists materialist worldview has rendered him invisible in the same way it has rendered us invisible, by asking the wrong questions? Perhaps God is present in our world in the same way we are, as a person. But, if that is the case, the way to know his existence is personal, via an I-You relationship. Says Scruton, “The God of the philosophers disappeared behind the world, because he was described in the third person, and not addressed in the second.” (45). And, we might add, he never addressed us from his perspective in the first.0 Comments
 The Face of God: The Gifford Lectures 2010 (London; New York: Continuum, 2012).
May 15, 2013 by Matthew Mason
Would that the Church of England’s bishops spoke publicly with the clarity and insight of Matthew Parris.
[T]his, in summary, is my charge against the Anglican modernists. Can they point to biblical authority for what, on any estimate, amounts to a disturbing challenge to the values assumed in both Testaments? No. Can they point to any divinely inspired religious leader since to whom has been revealed God’s benevolent intentions towards homosexuals? I know of no such saint or holy man. Most have taught the opposite.
Can they honestly say that they would have drawn from Christ’s teaching the same lessons of sexual tolerance in 1000, or 1590, or indeed 1950? Surely not, for almost no such voices were heard then.
In which case, to what does this “reform” amount? Like changes to Church teaching on divorce or Sunday observance, the new tolerance gains its force within the Anglican Communion from a fear of becoming isolated from changing public morals. Is that a reason for a Christian to modify his own morality? I cannot recall that Moses took this view of golden calf worship. Whispering beneath the modernisers’ soft aspirational language of love and tolerance, I hear an insistent “when in Rome, we must do as the Romans do. Times have changed.” Gays in particular should be very wary of that message; some of us remember when it was used against us, and such a time may come again.
A religion needs a compass. Logic alone does not point the way and religion adds to the general stick of human reasonableness a new directional needle – if it adds anything at all. I cannot read the Gospels in any way other than as declaring that this was revealed to man by God through Jesus. Revelation, therefore, not logic, must lie at the core of the Church message. You cannot pick and choose from revealed truth.
Matthew Parris, ‘No God would not have approved of Gay Bishops’ in The Times, 9th August 2003. HT: Ed Shaw0 Comments
February 7, 2013 by Matthew Mason
Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology have just published an article of mine that originated as a paper for the SAET summer symposium in 2011. It’s an exploration of how Kevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine helps us think about the importance of catechesis in the local church. SBET have graciously allowed me to post a pdf offprint of the article . It’s called Back to (Theo-drama) School: The Place of Catechesis in the Local Church, and is published in this issue of the journal.
The article doesn’t have an abstract, but if it did, this is roughly what it would say:
In contrast to earlier eras in Christian history, most notably the patristic period and the Reformation, the contemporary church suffers from a lack of serious catechesis. This article builds on Kevin Vanhoozer’s Drama of Doctrine to argue for the necessity of a recovery of catechesis if the church is to foster faithful discipleship. It argues that Vanhoozer’s theo-dramatic approach to doctrine could valuably shape the practice of catechesis, which should be regarded as training for the church’s fitting improvisatory participation in God’s drama of redemption. After considering the contemporary catechetical malaise, this article outlines a theo-dramatic catechesis that focuses on studying the script(ures) with wise performance as its goal. Throughout, it draws not only on The Drama of Doctrine, but also on the catechetical wisdom of previous generations of Christians, most notably Augustine and Zacharius Ursinus before concluding with a call for pastors to return to viewing themselves not only as preachers and leaders, but also as catechists.
December 3, 2012 by Matthew Mason
More Wallace Stegner, this time from Crossing to Safety, his final novel, one rich with descriptions of landscapes so vivid you can sense them, his virtuosic use of list sentences, and insights into writing, friendship, and what makes, and cripples, marriages.
In late middle age, Larry Morgan looks back:
What ever happened to the passion we all had to improve ourselves, live up to our potential, leave a mark on the world? Our hottest arguments were always about how we could contribute. We did not care about the rewards. We were young and earnest. We never kidded ourselves that we had the political gifts to reorder society or insure social justice. Beyond a basic minimum, money was not a goal we respected….But we all hoped, in whatever way our capacities permitted, to define and illustrate the worthy life. With me it was always to be done in words; Sid too, though with less confidence. With Sally it was sympathy, human understanding, a tenderness toward human cussedness or frailty. And with Charity it was organization, order, action, assistance to the uncertain, and direction to the wavering.
Leave a mark on the world. Instead, the world has left marks on us. We got older. Life chastened us so that now we lie waiting to die, or walk on canes, or sit on porches where once the young juices flowed strongly, and feel old and inept and confused. (12f)
And, as he reminisces about a paradise of friendship and rural retreat, this hint of impending disaster:
Eden. With, of course, its serpent. No Eden valid without serpent.
It was not a big serpent, nor very alarming. But once we noticed it, we realized that it had been there all along, that what we had thought only the wind in the grass, or the scraping of a dry leaf, was this thing sliding discreetly out of sight. Even when we recognized it for what it was, it did not seem dangerous. It just made us look before we sat down. (172)
November 26, 2012 by Matthew Mason
In this series of posts, I have been building a case that we need to re-read the Jacob narrative in the understanding that Jacob was a blameless man. But, as we seek to rehabilitate him, it’s important to grasp his relationship with his parents. How are we to view Isaac and Rebekah? This question is important in chapter 27, where Rebekah tells Jacob how to trick his dad into conferring on him the firstborn’s blessing.
We learn what the parents are like by seeing how they relate to their sons: “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game, but Rebekah loved Jacob.” (Gen. 25:28)
Why did Rebekah love Jacob? It is commonly assumed that we can finish the sentence something like this, “Rebekah loved Jacob because he was a home-loving momma’s boy.” Esau was a real man — wild at heart; Jacob was a sally. But the Bible resists our childish notions of masculinity. Esau was hairy not because he was a Sean Connery action hero, but because his appearance revealed his bestial nature; he was a half-man, and he was driven by animalistic desires. Hunting is not bad, but perhaps the description of Esau as “a skillful hunter,” is intended to recall Nimrod, “a mighty hunter before Yahweh,” son of Ham and founder of a false religion at Babel (10:8-10). And, in any case, the Scriptures tell us why Rebekah loved Jacob. She loved him because God loved him.
Rebekah is introduced in chapter 24 as a great woman of faith. Like father Abraham, when called she immediately left her home and family and went to the land of promise with the promise that she would become a multitude (24:55-60). Before Jacob and Esau were born and had done anything good or bad, God promised Rebekah that the older would serve the younger (v. 23). God elected the younger son to receive the birthright. Unlike Isaac, Rebekah believed God, and we may assume that her faith was counted to her as righteousness. Like God, Jacob she loved and Esau she hated (cf. Mal. 1:3; Rom. 9:10-13).
In contrast, why did Isaac love Esau? Isaac loved Esau because he loved his own belly: “Isaac loved Esau because he ate of his game.” (25:28) In chapter 27, this will be his condition for bestowing the blessing Esau (27:3-4). By this stage in his life, Isaac was a fleshly man, driven by his appetites. As such, he was a pattern for his foolish unbelieving son (25:29-34). There was a kinship between Isaac and Esau that went beyond shared blood; both despised God’s promise for the sake of filling their gut. The apple doesn’t fall far from the bough, and when it did Esau and Isaac were on hand to gobble it up before Jacob could say “birthright”.
From before his birth, Jacob had to wrestle with an older brother who despised God’s covenant but couldn’t bear to see his blameless brother inherit the promise (25:22-26). Like Cain, Esau was enraged by God’s favour to his younger brother, and vowed to kill him. But Jacob also had to wrestle with a father who no longer lived by faith, but by taste. Isaac’s eyes were no longer open, but like his father Adam, for the sake of food, he defied God’s clear instruction.
The story of Jacob is a story of life East of Eden; it is a story of a blameless man wrestling faithfully with his family for the sake of the promises of God. As such, it is a model for us, as we follow the Messiah who warned that he would set a man against his father and a daughter against her mother, and that a man’s enemies would be those of his own household (Mt. 10:34-37). If we want to learn to wrestle faithfully with our family when the Lord Jesus’ sword divides us from them, Jacob shows us how.3 Comments
November 20, 2012 by Matthew Mason
When I was an undergraduate music student, one of my professors gave us an exercise. He played the first four bars of a Beethoven piano sonata, then had us compose four more. After playing a few of our feeble efforts, he played Beethoven’s. Our naivete and Beethoven’s genius were exposed. Similarly, the old Sunday school trick of covering a word, or verse and asking, “What would you have written?” can be revealing.
Once the characters in Isaac’s disfunctional family have been introduced, the very next story tells how Jacob persuades Esau to relinquish his birthright. And at the end of the story, the narrator offers an interpretative comment: “Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Jacob swindled his brother.” (25:34). Dirty, rotten Jacob. He took advantage of poor, helpless, hungry Esau, and he manipulated his own brother in his time of need and weakness, and he thus revealed his character.
That is how we complete the story. But listen to what the Holy Spirit wrote: “Thus, Esau despised his birthright.” Wenham notes that this kind of explicit ethical lesson is rare in OT narrative. So we should take it very seriously. The story does not condemn Jacob; it condemns Esau. Jacob did not sin; Esau did. Jacob was a blameless man.
When Esau came into the camp, he was hungry and wanted food. Although Bruce Waltke suggests we should take Esau’s words literally, surely they must be hyperbole: “Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted….I am about to die!” (vv. 31, 33). As Jim Jordan notes, when someone is close to death from starvation, they don’t jump up after a meal and go on their way (v. 24b; Primeval Saints, 94). Esau is hungry, but his hunger is that of a child who comes in from play sighing “I’m starving!”
As we read the story, we must not forget that the birthright is not properly Esau’s. Ordinarily it would have been, but God has decreed otherwise (25:23). Jacob isn’t taking what does not belong to him; he’s asking for it back. In any case, Jacob’s demand is absurd: who, in possession of the birthright which, in Abraham’s family contained all the promises of God, would give it up for a meal of lentils? Had Esau any sense, he would have said “Forget it”, and prepared himself a meal. Jacob’s words were a test, and they revealed his brother’s wicked heart. Like Adam, Esau chose to eat and despised the promises of God.
In the Jacob narrative, when we write the wrong melody to conclude the opening theme, we miss how it recapitulates what has come before and is in turn developed at the music’s climax. The story of Jacob and Esau is a recapitulation of the story of Cain and Abel. God favours a younger brother over the older; and the older is full of rage and vows to kill his sibling (27:41). And as a result of the fury, one of the brothers is exiled from the land (Gen. 4:11-16; 27:41-45; 28:1-5). But this time the righteous younger brother is exiled and the murder is prevented, and this opens up the possibility of a different ending. Because God loved Jacob and kept his covenant (28:10-15), the story is also a resolution of the conflict of Cain and Abel, for it ends in return to the land and reconciliation between the brothers (chap. 33).
The story is also an early exposition of the climax of the symphony. Esau is a type of the older son of God, Israel, when confronted with a blameless younger Son who has come to claim the inheritance promised by his Father. Proverbs promises that “the upright will inhabit the land / and the blameless [tamim] will remain in it.” (Prov. 2:21). And so it would be for Jacob. But like Jesus, first he would have his throne stolen by a usurper and be exiled, before being restored to his inheritance.6 Comments
November 16, 2012 by Matthew Mason
This is the second in a series of posts attempting to rehabilitate the reputation of Jacob, our father in the faith, and to argue that in portraying him as a villain we lose important lessons for ourselves.
At the beginning of the Jacob narrative, the author of Genesis gives us the key for understanding the events of Jacob’s life. He tells us that Jacob was ish tam, a tam man: “Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a ___ man, dwelling in tents.” (Gen. 25:27) But how to translate the adjective? Most versions opt for “quiet” (e.g., RSV, NIV 1984, NRSV, ESV, HCSB, NJB); AV has “plain”; NASB “peaceful”. The latest NIV, in a reckless attempt to get as far away from the Hebrew as possible, paraphrases “Jacob was content to live among the tents.”
Ordinarily, though, tam and its cognates mean “perfect” or “blameless”. According to NIDOTTE,
In Heb. the concept integrity is for the most part expressed by the root tmm and its derivatives. It occurs in various forms and functions more than 200x in the OT, conveying the meaning of that which is complete, blameless, just, honest, perfect, peaceful, etc.; hence an attribute or an attitude that reflects genuineness and reliability. (IV.306)
To get a flavour of the words’ meanings, consider these representative texts (drawn from NIDOTTE):
vb. tmm, “to be finished, completed; to be or to make blameless”.
E.g., The work on the temple pillars was “completed” when they were erected (1 Ki 7:22); pillars are perfect when erect.
The ethical meaning is found in Ps 19:13: “Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; / let them not have dominion over me! / Then I shall be blameless / and innocent of great transgression.” Also, in Job 22:3: “Is it any pleasure to the Almighty if you are in the right [righteous] / or is it gain to him if you make your ways blameless?”
adjective/noun tamim: “whole, perfect, blameless”
“and he said to Aaron, ‘Take for yourself a bull calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, both without blemish, and offer them before Yahweh.” (Lev 9:2) “For the upright will inhabit the land, / and those with integrity will remain in it.” (Prov. 2:21) “I was blameless before him, / and I kept myself from my guilt.” (Ps. 18:23) “This God – his way is perfect; / the word of Yahweh proves true” (2 Sam 22:31 = Ps. 18:31)
Often, this adjective refers to a group that contrasts with the wicked: “[David’s enemies are] shooting from ambush at the blameless / shooting at him suddenly and without fear.” (Ps. 64:4). “Behold, God will not reject a blameless man, / nor take the hand of evildoers.” (Job. 8:20).
Significantly, tmm is used in descriptions of godly men in places where their godliness is striking and important. So Job: “There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1; cf. 1:8; 2:3)
Within Genesis, this happens on two other occasions: “These are the generations of Noah. Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (Gen. 6:9). “When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1).
Thus, the evidence from the rest of the Hebrew Bible, and especially from the way Genesis describes major characters, points strongly to the translation, “Jacob was a blameless man.” And this in contrast to wicked Esau and wicked Laban, and, as we shall see, wicked Isaac.
Obviously the text cannot be claiming sinless perfection for Jacob. But, although the language discomforts us, the Bible fairly often describes people as blameless or righteous, or as having kept God’s laws (e.g., Noah, Gen. 6:9; Abraham, Gen. 26:5; Job, Job 1:1, 8; 2:3; David, 1 Ki 3:14; Ps 26:1, 4-6; Zechariah and Elizabeth, Lk 1:6). I suggest the same is true of Jacob. Following James Jordan’s gloss on this verse, Jacob was “righteously mature” (Primeval Saints: Studies in the Patriarchs of Genesis , Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001, 93).
Generally, however, commentators dismiss this understanding of tam given what happens next: Jacob looks like a crook, so how can he be blameless? Gordon Wenham, in his fine Word commentary, is representative, and concludes that Jacob was “complete in himself,” self-contained, quiet (Genesis 16-50, WBC, Waco, TX: Word, 176). NIDOTTE does list a possible meaning of tam as “quiet,” but, strikingly, only cites Genesis 25:27 as evidence.
What would happen if we suspended our disbelief and tried this reading on for size? What if, for a moment, we allowed that tam might mean here what it commonly means, and we allowed that to inform the way we read the ensuing narrative. That is what we’ll do in the next few posts.
November 14, 2012 by Matthew Mason
Who would win the prize? Among the ranks of the great men of God, there are a number of strong contenders for the prestigious title, “Most Slandered Man in Christendom.” Clearly there is some honour in it, for so they also treat(ed) our Lord.
For a while, Athanasius had it by a length. But, since the sixteenth century, Jean Cauvin has led him by a nose. And, although fêted in the West, in the East (and among certain wrong-headed social trinitarians), Augustine is making a strong bid on the inside.
But, at this stage in the race, the leader by a couple of lengths is none of the above. The most slandered man in Christendom is…our father in the faith Jacob: a blameless man throughout his life, rejected by his father, despised by his brother, swindled by his uncle, and slandered by generations of preachers ever since. Robbed of his birthright by his father, robbed of his bride and flocks by his uncle, he has been robbed of his reputation by us. But God is faithful to his promises: Jacob received his inheritance, his Rachel, and his sheep. Now, contrarian to the last, I hope to restore to him his name.
In the next few posts, I hope to make a case that in his dealings with brother, father, and uncle, our father Jacob was just what Genesis tells us: a blameless man. I hope also to make the case that in misreading the story and portraying him as a scheming villain, we miss powerful lessons for our own lives.2 Comments
November 13, 2012 by Matthew Mason
Wallace Stegner is my latest literary crush. Boy, he could write. Near the end of his life, in “Letter, Much Too Late” Stegner wrote to his long-dead mother. In tender, understated prose he breaks the reader’s heart:
I think you were also born with a normal complement of dreams and hopes and desires and a great capacity for intellectual and cultural growth, and had to learn to suppress them.
Your life gave you plenty of practice in both controlling and suppressing. You were robbed of your childhood, and as a young, inexperienced woman you made a fatal love choice. But you blamed no one but yourself. You lay in the bed you had made…
Just now, thinking about you, I got out The Big Rock Candy Mountain and found the passage in which I wrote of your death. I couldn’t bear to read it. It broke me down in tears to read the words that I wrote in tears nearly a half century ago. You are at once a lasting presence and an unhealed wound.
But it is the opening that is so devastating.
In three months I will be eighty years old, thirty years older than you were when you died, twenty years older than my father was when he died, fifty-seven years older than my brother was when he died. I got the genes and the luck…
Instead of being embittered, or stoical, or calm, or resigned, or any of the standard things that a long life might have made me, I confess that I am often simply lost, as much in need of comfort, understanding, forgiveness, uncritical love—the things you used to give me—as I ever was at five, or ten, or fifteen.
Fifty-five years ago, sitting up with you after midnight while the nurse rested, I watched you take your last breath. A few minutes before you died you half raised your head and said, “Which…way?” I understood that: you were at a dark, unmarked crossing. Then a minute later you said, “You’re a good…boy…Wallace,” and died.
I knew how far from true your last words were…
Obviously you did not die. Death is a convention, a certification to the end of pain, something for the vital-statistics book, not binding upon anyone but the keepers of graveyard records. For as I sit here at the desk…[y]ou are alive and luminous in my head.
And then, near the end,
You’re a good…boy…Wallace. That shames me…Here I am, nearly eighty years old, too old to be capable of any significant improvement but not too old for regret.
As pastor of a congregation of young people, I need these reminders. For death is no mere convention. It binds us all. One day, if they have the genes and the luck, the young people I serve—now so fully alive— will be three months from their eightieth birthdays, and near their death. And memories in someone else’s head, no matter how luminous, will not keep them alive.
But death is no unmarked crossing in the dark. Which…way? Jesus. By what light? Jesus. To what destination? Jesus, and through him, his Father. And for those who remain, as long as they remain, his comfort, understanding, forgiveness, and uncritical love. Therefore, we proclaim him, that on the day we watch them take their last breath, we may present each one mature in him.2 Comments