Too Close for Comfort
Rod Dreher on Liberal Christianity
As part of Generation X, I am (or so demographers say) temperamentally inclined to irony. Our sort will watch a rotten ’70s-era sitcom on Nick at Nite not in spite of its awfulness, but because of it.
This helps, sometimes. It is hard to keep one’s sanity when confronted with someone as mischievous, and even wicked, as, say, a high official of the World Council of Churches praising the Rt. Rev. Fidel Castro. Because I try to be amused, not disgusted, I tend to view the pious pronouncements of religious liberals as a form of church camp.
So when a book publicist unaccountably sent me a copy of The Close, a personal account of a young female seminarian’s first year at the Episcopal General Theological Seminary here in New York, I read the book jacket, and immediately begin to salivate.
A Different Religion
Chloe Breyer, it turns out, is the daughter of Stephen Breyer, an associate justice of the US Supreme Court, and an unreconstructed New England liberal. There she was on the back-flap photo, a tiny, curly-haired sprite, swaddled in a winter jacket, her eyes sparkling.
The back cover carried enthusiastic blurbs from Desmond Tutu, Jane Holmes Dixon (Episcopal suffragan bishop of Washington, D.C.), and the usual liberal Protestant suspects. I couldn’t imagine the thing was worth reading—which is not, you understand, an impediment to wanting to read it. I decided I’d take the book along for the half-hour subway ride back to Brooklyn, get a few kicks, and discard it.
But on the way to the Times Square train, I got to thinking that this irony, this smug, schadenfreude-based taking pleasure in someone else’s errors, is pretty unattractive. I had recently attended a Catholic dinner and sat next to an editor of America, the liberal Jesuit magazine. We didn’t talk religion, but he was altogether delightful. If I only gave serious attention to the conversations and writings of fellow Christian traditionalists, didn’t I risk falling into triumphalism and self-righteousness? Ms. Breyer’s memoir might be good for me.
Before I boarded the train, I resolved to read The Close all the way through, and to keep an open mind as much as possible. I needed to reacquaint myself with the way a liberal religious mind works, if only to understand why we orthodox believers of whatever stripe (I myself am a Catholic) so often seemed to practice a different religion altogether than liberal members of our own churches.
Well: Breyer begins The Close by discussing her own “marginal” Christian background. Her father is a non-observant Jew, her mother an Anglican who, by her daughter’s account, went to church because the hymns reminded her of her English childhood. She says she first felt her calling to the priesthood in 1988, during summer vacation from college. In Texas, she met an aged “cowboy missionary” who impressed her with his intellect, spirit of awe, and sense of adventure.
No small number of us have considered the ministry after meeting such people. Such epiphanies are usually the starting points for periods of deep reflection. But Breyer gives no indication of having done any serious thinking about God between her Texas awakening—she found the old man’s Jesus talk “alien,” but liked his style, she writes—and entering the seminary.
Rod Dreher is a contributing editor to Touchstone. He is a senior editor and blogger at the American Conservative and author of How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, and Live Not by Lies: A Survival Manual for Christian Dissidents. He is Eastern Orthodox and lives with his wife, Julie, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. They have three children.
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