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Plan B: Further Thoughts On Faith
by Anne Lamott
Riverhead Books, 2005
(320 pages, $24.95, hardcover)
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
Anne Lamott has been praised for her “zany ardor for Jesus” and her “earthy candor.” Her use of the adjective “Jesusy,” enthused one Christian magazine, “endeared Lamott to her mostly evangelical audience at the 2000 Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.”
“We’ll have the Jesusiest time ever!” she cooed. At her Jesusiest, Lamott not only sounds but even looks like an evangelical: “I’ll buy a wwjd bracelet to wear for the day so I can forget about me when I’m on a radio or TV interview, and I’ll just remember him and ask myself, ‘What is his will for me?’” she says.
Yes, but is it his will for traditional Christians to read Anne Lamott? Is being “Jesusy,” whatever that means (and to me it is an offensive use of his name), enough to be promoted by traditional Christians when you support abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” (over one of which she has “presided”)?
This is a difficult question for me to answer, because as I read Lamott’s latest non-fiction work, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, I either felt like throwing the book across the room, or nodded, laughed, and thought her hilarious and ruthlessly honest. I wanted to throw the book across the room because of quotes such as this:
I feel that we began witnessing the end of the world in Super SloMo once George W. Bush became president, and some days it takes everything I can muster not to lose my hope, my faith, and myself. . . . I know that Bush is family, and that I am supposed to love him, but I hate this—he is a dangerous member of the family, like a Klansman or Osama bin Laden. . . . I will pray to stop hating him, and that he will not kill so many people, today.
She praises social diversity (“God, I love the Democratic Party,” she writes about the mix of people at a peace march) but is so distraught about Bush that she can barely bring herself to admit that she should try to love him.
Lamott does, however, when not writing about politics, lighten up, and therein lies her virtue, in more ways than one. As in Traveling Mercies, her first book about faith (where she showed more tolerance for politically conservative Christians), she shares her day-to-day struggle to live a Christian life and how God helps her through difficult situations, usually through some kind of epiphany.
As when she describes trying to come to terms with her mother’s death and her anger towards her mother. For two years, she kept her mother’s ashes in a “brown plastic box” in the back of her closet because her mother “was like someone who had broken my leg, and my leg had healed badly, and I would limp forever.”
Eventually, she takes both her mother’s purse and the box out of the closet and, unable to bring herself to do anything with the ashes, goes through the purse: Kleenex, band-aids, post-it pads, house keys, mirrors, a dozen Safeway receipts, HMO receipts, a tube of toothpaste, hand lotion, a lipstick, a compact, six cab company cards. Then she goes through her mother’s wallet, which contains 30-year-old library cards, membership cards for the ACLU, Democratic Party, and Sierra Club, two credit cards “which had expired before her mind did,” and photographs of her family.
Her purse, Lamott writes, said, “I’m a liberal, and a grandmother, and I keep my teeth clean and my skin soft. If I can’t remember something, I can write it down. If I get a cut, I’ll bandage it right away. Her purse made my heart ache.” She finally wraps the box of ashes in “birthday gift paper,” and later, accompanied by family members, scatters the ashes.
She admits—and this is what is appealing about her, that she does not lie about such things—how excruciating it is to forgive someone who has hurt you and how long the process can take.
I . . . didn’t forgive her for being a terrified, furious, clinging, sucking maw of need and arrogance. I suppose that sounds harsh. I assumed Jesus wanted me to forgive her, but I also know he loves honesty and transparency . . . this is how we make important changes—barely, poorly, slowly.
This is a theme that recurs in Lamott’s work: that people do not change overnight, but they do change.
But there is a problem in Lamott’s version of Christianity: She shows no or little concern for objective truth. Everything is subjective, up to her; she practices cafeteria-style religion. She declares, “I believe in the resurrection, in Jesus’, and in ours,” but when she feels called to teach a Sunday-school class remembers that “Mary Oliver said something to the effect that the best sermon she ever heard was the sun. I thought, That’s the sort of thing we’ll teach.”
But besides Mary Oliver, thank God, she has also read C. S. Lewis, and I wish she would study his essay, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” which includes the relevant quote, “Unless we return to the crude and nursery-like belief in objective values, we perish.” Lamott’s faith, though in its personal expression is lively, honest, and sincere, lacks the “crude and nursery-like” virtue of piety or reverence that makes one submit to the Christian tradition.
The irreverence that seems to have attracted some Christians has a cost. Using slang and jocular terms like “Jesusy” to describe ultimate realities is akin to clown Masses, a mistaken attempt to make God not so fearful to us. What it does instead is make God not so serious. The effect of the book is to make God the big, affirming, live-and-let-live liberal in the sky rather than the source of truth about himself, ourselves, and the world.
The philosopher Alasdair McIntyre wrote in After Virtue that the two sides in the abortion debate cannot meet because one side, the Christian, argues from an ethics devoted to life, while the liberal side argues from an ethics devoted to freedom that comes from Nietzsche. Lamott’s subjectivity and irreverence have left her on both sides, and undermined the witness she might have given—considering her honesty and her gifts—were she less confused.
If her faith is grounded in reality, in life, in Jesus, her personal philosophy, whether or not she is aware of it, is grounded in the pursuit of liberty or freedom. Jesus came to set us free, yes, but only through the truth. We cannot be free without the truth.
Those Christians who rush to hold up Lamott as a model of modern faith should remember that though her passion is admirable, her confusion of thought is not, and her promotion of false liberties such as legal abortion and same-sex “marriage” should not be passed over as if they were not important. False liberty can be infectious.
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.