Cover image for The ironic Christian's companion : finding the marks of God's grace in the world
The ironic Christian's companion : finding the marks of God's grace in the world
Henry, Patrick, 1939-
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New York : Riverhead Books, [1999]

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273 pages ; 22 cm
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BT761.2 .H46 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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These days, the loudest Christian voices seem very sure about many things that might still be thought open for discussion. But modern life has few, if any, clearly drawn lines, no rules that always hold true. For Patrick Henry, there are no answers without loose ends, and God is full of surprises. His book is a companion, not a how-to manual -- a spiritual resource that is also an antidote to boredom and a teaser of the imagination. It is a guide to living with faith in a postmodern world.

In interlocking essays, Henry muses on the ambiguities of time and place, on paying attention, on hope and prayer. His book is also a journal of life as a professor of religion, into which are woven the observations of other writers he has encountered on his metaphysical travels.

Like Kathleen Norris, Patrick Henry brings a questing intelligence, humor, and great writing to his investigation of the relevance of Christianity in the modern age. The Ironic Christian's Companion does not pretend to answer the big questions, but in lucid, engaging prose it sets out to identify what they are.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

On the continuum of credence, the believer Henry addresses lies between Hugh Hewitt's Embarrassed Believer [BKL Ap 15 98] and the believer-in-exile John Shelby Spong spoke to in Why Christianity Must Change or Die [BKL Ap 15 98]. Ironic Christians, among whom Henry counts himself, concede they can't endorse all--or, at times, any--of any creed, yet they won't enlist in the nontheistic Christianity Spong advocates, for they still acknowledge God. They distrust "no-loose-ends" religious statements and answer enthusiastic evangelists exclaiming "Isn't that just like God?" with a sardonic "As if!" Henry discusses such theological matters as eschatology, the specialness of humanity, the divinity of Jesus, ecumenism, the exclusiveness of salvation, hoping and praying, and the religious life, always attending to the cavils reasonable people have with them as defined by Christian dogma. His tone is relaxed, sincere, and maximally accessible--he is no theological jargon spewer. He fully understands the ambivalence so many feel about both religion and irreligion, and he ministers excellently to such skeptical spiritual seekers. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Henry, executive director of the Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John's Abbey and University in Minnesota, writes in a breezy, conversational style that is likely to have considerable popular appeal. He describes his book as a "field guide," an allusion that should tip readers both to its exploratory tone and to its inherent invitation to exploration. Those who can comfortably meander among ambiguity, puzzlement and questions posed with varying degrees of clarity will find the approach congenial. As the title implies, "irony" is the guiding metaphor, both influencing and influenced by Henry's "conversation partners," ranging from Edwin Abbott (author of the science fiction classic Flatland), Lewis Carroll, Erasmus, Keats, and Milan Kundera to Mark Vonnegut, who was a student of Henry's. The range is dazzling. The experience of reading this book is something like sitting at the kitchen table with a garrulous uncle: connections and significance aren't always clear, but many of the stories are entertaining. And the sitting is therapeuticÄfor Uncle Patrick as well as his audience. Particularly in recurring references to the suicide of Henry's father, there is a sense of working through a constant experience of loss and ambiguity: "All that is solid melts into air." For the author, this calls not for despair but for exploration motivated by wonder. Henry identifies sources as "conversation partners," and he includes an "index" for pointers to God presented in the order in which they appear in the book. Those who require "neat, brief" answers rather than fieldwork are well advised to stay at home and heed Henry's warning that "this book is not for you." (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This is not a book for those who like black-and-white explanations. Henry, director of the Institute of Ecumenical and Cultural Research at St. John's University, MN, offers shared wisdom and teasers of the imagination for believers and skeptics attempting to live in a reasonably sane world. Two divorces and a father's suicide have left Henry wary of neat, pat answers. As in The Canterbury Tales, the reader will meet an uncommon mix of seekers, along with their suggestions, comparisons, and characterizations, each adding to the journey. The blend of the spiritual with the rational will delight many readers, some of whom may meet a God full of surprises‘Henry tells it as he experiences and sees it. Recommended for all libraries.‘Leroy Hommerding, Citrus Cty. Lib. System, Inverness, FL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One ON WHAT YOU WILL (AND WON'T) FIND IN THIS BOOK Am I one of them? You say it's for `ironic Christians.' How do I know if there's any point in my reading further?"     A fair question. And if you require a neat, brief answer, this book is not for you. One of the chief characteristics of an ironic Christian is an instinctive, abiding suspicion of no-loose-ends answers.     Catholic, Pentecostal, Methodist, Orthodox--these kinds of Christians are familiar. But Ironic? I'm not starting a new denomination. I can't remember the moment when I first knew that the term was right, but it serves to identify a way of being Christian that seems strange in these days when the Christians who are the loudest are very sure about many things that might be thought still open for discussion.     An ironic Christian inhabits a world that is more "as if" than "just like," a world fashioned by a God of surprises. The grace of this God is mysterious, sneaky. Some Christians chalk things up much too easily, too quickly, to the grace of God. "There but for the grace of God go I" has the merit of not claiming too much credit for myself, but it implies that I have more of God's grace than the other person.     I trust God's grace but hesitate to identify it in particular cases. It often blindsides me, regularly catches me off guard, seldom hits me square in the face. When I know the grace of God, it's nearly always after the fact, usually long afterward.     Grace, as I have experienced it, makes me an ironic Christian. I cannot define "ironic Christian" in a few sentences. If I could, I'd not have bothered writing a book. The only way I can explain "ironic Christian" is to invite you to come with me into a world where I have found, and been found by, the grace of God.     This book is not an owner's manual. I'm not telling you how to fix anything. If you picked the volume off a self-help shelf, somebody put it in the wrong place. The book is a Companion --the fancy traditional Latin term is vademecum , or "go with me"--a combination of shared wisdom, spiritual resource, antidote to boredom, helper out of jams, teaser of the imagination, and, ideally, a good read.     In some ways, too, this Companion is like a field guide. I'm thinking of Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guides to the birds, which, he says, are "designed so that live birds could be readily identified at a distance by their `field marks.'" I find the term "field marks" especially helpful. I am concerned with what I have come to think of as the field marks of the grace of God. Since I usually discern God's grace at a distance and after the fact, not up close and at the moment, I am always on the lookout for field marks that can be seen in retrospect and from afar. I want to be very clear: In this book, I am not defining the grace of God. I'm saying what I have found it to be like. I make no claim that this Companion is in some universal or objective sense true. I hope it is trustworthy.     Some of what I say is autobiographical in the conventional sense: what I did, how I felt doing it, the reactions of others. I want in these pages to be a companion for you as many writers have been for me. The borders between reading and writing and living are fluid. I do not take time out from life to write, nor do I take time out from life to read. When I quote somebody, I'm not hiding. I'm introducing you to one of my conversation partners.     The grace of God is not linear, hence the absence of chapter numbers. The sections of this book are called " On this" rather than "This" because they open up more than they finish off what they're about. I take both cues and comfort from the title of a college admissions brochure that slyly offers A Question for Every Answer , and from movie director Jean-Luc Godard's response when another filmmaker, not a fan of modern cinema's haphazard adherence to chronology, harrumphed, "Movies should have a beginning, a middle, and an end": "Certainly, but not necessarily in that order."     The ordering of things in these pages isn't arbitrary, but it isn't sacrosanct either. It makes sense to read straight through. It also makes sense to jump around.     Stay with me, read on. You don't have to know at the start whether you're an ironic Christian. When you're done, you still might not know. Demand for guarantees far exceeds supply. But even if you're a non-ironic Christian, or not Christian at all, you might enjoy the journey. The root meaning of companion is "one who eats bread with," not "one who agrees with," and the best traveling parties, beginning with Chaucer's motley band on the way to Canterbury, are those with an uncommon mix of guests. Chapter Two ON LITTLE BROWN JOBS If I say right at the beginning that grace, amazing grace, has brought me safe thus far and will lead me home, it may seem that I am stuffing the rabbit into the hat so I can pull it out later. This book is about the grace of God, but not about magic, and certainly not about anything easy. It's about something simple, that God can be trusted but not taken for granted--a difficult simplicity that I didn't learn in kindergarten or even in college or graduate school. I discovered it along a way that twists and turns, where Yogi Berra's advice, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it," makes perfect sense.     What is it like to find, and be found by, the grace of God in this world? I doubt it's exactly the same for any two people. For me, it's not even the same from day to day. Two divorces and a father's suicide, hardly sufficient trauma to qualify me for Job's league, have been enough trouble to rouse instant suspicion of anyone hawking cheap grace. When churches leave "he descended into hell" out of the Apostles Creed--to protect Christ's honor, I suppose, or maybe to avoid making the congregation feel bad--I feel cheated. It's where Christ comes to a fork in the road and takes it. Christ's descent into hell is the guarantee of grace. Over and over again, grace has come as irony: an off-balance deflating of my pride, sometimes as funny as vaudeville slapstick; a gentle dismantling of my despair (when I'm really hopeless nothing is scarier than hope, so grace has to be indirect, sneaky); clarity when I'm too confused and confusion when I'm too clear. "As if" and "just like" It is extraordinary what a difference there is between understanding a thing and knowing it by experience. In this compact sentence, Saint Teresa of Ávila identifies grace as irony: it is the extraordinary difference . While the difference isn't usually as sharp as I "was blind but now I see," there is surprise around nearly every corner. If I say that I "understand" something, chances are that I have slipped it into an already stuffed file folder in a drawer that I have opened many times. "Now I understand" too easily equals "Oh, that's familiar after all." Knowing by experience, on the contrary, is very often startling, requiring a new filing cabinet, maybe even a whole new filing system. If astonishment has its effect, understanding itself is dislodged from the familiar. The world I have come to know through my experience is a place fashioned by, loved by, redeemed by a God who won't let us lock the box of surprises.     To be both ironic and Christian is to know, with a knowing deeper than doctrine, the simple, unnerving truth that the visage of faith is not the happy face but the masks of comedy and tragedy, alternating, unpredictably, between laughter and tears, sometimes crying and laughing at the same time, or even, on occasion, crying because it's so funny and laughing because it hurts so much.     An ironic Christian, suspicious of how things seem at first glance, looks at Andres Serrano's notorious "Piss Christ" photograph of a crucifix in a jar of urine and wonders whether the effect is to sully Christ or make piss holy. Being plunged into urine would hardly faze one who has already descended into hell. And if God really became a human being, isn't piss part of the package deal? Some fastidious, non-ironic souls in the early church admitted that Jesus ate (the Gospels told them so), but insisted that he didn't digest, since he would then have had to shit. They couldn't bear to think that God's swaddling clothes might be dirty and need changing.     In Serrano's photograph, what looks like crystal-clear blasphemy makes, on deeper reflection, a profoundly faithful point. It works the other way too. The Golden Rule, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," widely regarded as the best thing Jesus ever said, could surely, we suppose, be classified as undeniably good. But the Golden Rule can wreak havoc on relationships. I was once called upon professionally to handle a tense standoff between two people, he an off-the-charts extravert, she an off-the-charts introvert. He interpreted her withdrawn behavior to mean what it would mean if he acted in the same way: "Please come to my assistance." He (the extravert) did unto her (the introvert) what he would have done unto him--and things got progressively worse. He thought he was being a help, she thought he was being a pest. In a world of Myers-Briggs personality types, the Golden Rule must be applied with caution.     Many Christians are sure that God made a "just like" world, where blasphemy is blasphemy--"I know it when I see it"--and faithfulness is measured by the fervor with which one asserts the bumper-sticker litany: "The Bible: God said it, I believe it, that settles it." They recoil from an "as if" world. They can imagine nothing to be said in favor of the Serrano photograph or against the Golden Rule. The ironic Christian, who knows an "as if" world and the God who made it, certainly does not claim that all blasphemy is masked piety or that all Scripture must be taken with a grain of salt but does insist that very few answers are given in advance, and even those that are may not be easy to understand.     Once upon a time the term "Christian" meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around. But these days "Christian" sounds pinched, squeezed, narrow. Many people who identify themselves as Christians seem to have leapfrogged over life, short-circuited the adventure. When "Christian" appears in a headline, the story will probably be about lines drawn, not about boundaries expanded.     This book is for Christians who think that what was true once upon a time can be true again and should be true always: curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity, a kind of booster rocket to be jettisoned when spiritual orbit is achieved. They are part of the payload.     We are all explorers, telling each other what new things we have seen and heard. I will report to you some of what I have come to know. I take my cue from Anne Sexton: "A story, a story! / (Let it go, let it come.)" Notice that she does not add "and I will explain it to you." A writer friend of mine says that the best advice she ever got was "Show, don't tell." Though I do not have the poet's trust to let the story just go and come--I can't always resist the urge to tell--I suspect that I am closest to the truth when I am least intrusive. One of Anne Sexton's unexplained stories shows that she knew something about God that I have come to know too. She imagines playing poker with God, sure that she will win because she holds a royal straight flush, stunned when God holds five aces: "A wild card had been announced/but I had not heard it."     Maybe you won't see the same things that I do, or you'll see the same things in another way. My effort to recover and restate a Christian vision is only one of many. Such efforts are taking place in pulpits, library carrels, publishing houses, in soup kitchens and homeless shelters and AIDS hospices, in refugee camps and Sunday school classes and church choir rehearsal rooms, in monasteries, prayer breakfasts, potluck suppers--wherever people are trying to figure out and figure forth the Christian life in a world not particularly interested in a Christian agenda shaped by the ironic, wild-card God.     Annie Dillard, appalled at the blandness and smug self-assurance that characterize some Christian worship, says that when we go into church "we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews." I write mainly for Christians who know what Dillard is getting at, and who will be glad to hear that there are honest ways to be Christian besides being surer than they can be. I don't understand Christians who have everything figured out, and I don't envy them. I get nervous when things stay put, are cut and dried. Having it all figured out in the name of Christ is no more appealing to me than is the "explained world" that a Soviet writer thanked Lenin for bequeathing him. I would like it to be said of me, as has been written about one of my heroes, Czech Republic playwright and president Václav Havel: "Everything interests and astonishes him as if he had just seen it for the first time." "As if--for the first time": an ironic Christian knows new, knows fresh, knows surprise, but does not know it all. This book is about a Christian way of knowing. It is not about the Christian way, but I suspect that I am not the only one for whom the Christian way talked about here rings true. (Continues...) Copyright © 1999 Patrick Henry. All rights reserved.