A couple of weekends ago, as a reward for grading research essays, I allowed myself to begin Brideshead Revisited (Evelyn Waugh). The one chapter per graded essay quickly turned into two, three, four, and I inhaled the novel over the course of two days. (Yes, I finished grading the essays, too; it did take two days instead of one.) I am now re-reading it, a little more slowly, and will laze my way through it with pen in hand this summer. It is worthy of many readings, and I only regret it has taken me this long to discover Waugh.
It is a framed narrative; the first-person narrator opens with a scene from his Army days in which he finds that his unit is being billeted at Brideshead, a family estate where he spent much time with his friend Sebastian as a young man and where he fell in love with Sebastian's sister Julia. This makes the novel one of my favorite types -- he goes back in time to his first visit to Brideshead and narrates the story chronologically from there, but comments on it from the later perspective as he does so.
The writing is of course superb. The story is poignant and breathtaking. It reminds me of Graham Greene and perhaps others I've read. They are Catholic writers exploring the place of Catholicism in the lives of their characters, and doing so without glibness or falsity. We are a fallen race, and this they show clearly. We fail, often spectacularly; we are frail, often beyond hope of improvement; but we cannot escape, if we are honest, our need for something beyond ourselves. And the fact that God is, that He is the Heavenly Hound seeking us, seeking us, that we cannot finally escape Him, that His grace is greater than our frailty . . . this informs the narratives in such a compelling manner that any thinking reader must be drawn to consider whether this be truth.
I have read some spectacularly good novels by Protestant evangelical writers. However, for the most part, novels from that perspective tend to present faith as the end of the matter. Like a Harlequin romance, but with the lover being Jesus, everyone lives happily ever after once they have "gotten saved." I suppose this is fine as far as it goes -- but for me that is not far enough. It leaves one with the idea that faith is about me and its object is to make me happy. Oh, and it automatically makes me good, of course.
But faith is about its object -- the triune God of the universe. And this God is not just a sentimental lover who wants us to be happy. He is a just and righteous God who wants us to be like Him. And this is what the Catholic characters in Greene's novels, and those in Brideshead Revisited, struggle with. They know they have a responsibility to God, they are well aware of what that responsibility entails, which is often a painful decision that does not necessarily make them happy -- and they cannot just throw it off and live as they wish.
And yet, when they accept that responsibility, whether it brings them some kind of temporal happiness or not, whether it looks like what others expect it to or meets the approval of others, there is a sense of "rightness" in their lives that confirms that acceptance. I am not saying this well, I'm afraid, but what I see again and again in these books is that the end of faith is not righteousness in itself (though of course we should strive to be righteous) but rather is desire for the God who is righteous.
I have heard many criticisms about placing too much emphasis on obedience, and I have seen crippling guilt and fear in people who do so. However, I am also sceptical about a total emphasis on grace, in the sense of "you don't have to worry about anything; God is gracious." Well, yes, He is, but He is also righteous and just, and the believer is not exempt from His discipline -- which means that He notices and cares when we are disobedient. So there must be a balance. Some guilt is a good thing: it makes us desire to do better. Understanding His grace is freeing; it allows us to fail without believing we are unloved.
What I love about Greene and now Waugh is that they do not gloss over this tension, nor present glib responses to the complexity of human nature in relation to the One who created us and loves us despite our fallen choices. They make me think, and they make me desire to be compassionate instead of judgmental and at the same time demanding instead of complacent. They make me want to be more like the God that glimmers through the pages of their texts.