Jonathan Franzen on Growth

Pretty phenomenal soundbite from the Freedom author, being interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace:  “We have this […]

David Zahl / 9.13.10

Pretty phenomenal soundbite from the Freedom author, being interviewed on NPR’s Marketplace

“We have this notion in this country, not only of endless economic growth but of endless personal growth. I have a certain characterological antipathy to the notion of we’re all getting better and better all the time. And it’s so clearly belied by our experience. You may get better in certain ways for 10 years, but one day you wake up and although things are a little bit different, they’re not a lot different. And I think if one can get more accustomed to that somewhat more tragic view of life, that people would think yeah, ‘We don’t actually need to have a bigger and bigger house, and a bigger and bigger car, and more and more things in the house.’ That there might some way to think of the world in different terms, so it was more about being and less about growing.”
subscribe to the Mockingbird newsletter


36 responses to “Jonathan Franzen on Growth”

  1. Jim H. says:

    When I heard this interview I was prepared not to like him for some reason. Needless to say, he surprised me with his candor and lack of pretension. It was interesting to hear him talking about his friendship with David Foster Wallace too. This may be a bestseller to read.

  2. bls says:

    Can I just mention here, again, that this statement really does fly in the face of A.A. experience? Since Mockingbird appreciates the A.A. approach, I really have to point out that things are "a lot different" in recovery. If this weren't so, there would be no point at all in going through it. There is joy where there was absolute despair, for heaven's sake! Although I will note that in A.A. we say that "things may not be better – but we are better." But I still don't see how you can advance both ideas at once with any coherence.

    Are you arguing that the cultural notions of "endless personal growth" are mistaken? IOW, are you talking here about material possessions, or careers, or whatever is on the surface? If so, maybe I could agree with this – but A.A. is (as they say) "an inside job," and if there's no healing, there's literally no point at all in doing it. And I don't know anybody who ever thought that "endless personal growth" was supposed to be measured in terms of cars and possessions.

    And I'm also not understanding the need to be "declared righteous," in the Evangelical sense (as I've asked on another post recently). I believe we do make the same mistakes over and over again – but whoever said that life was about approaching personal perfection? Aren't we supposed to use our flaws – or to let God use our flaws – to God's own purpose? That's what A.A. is about – and it's in the Bible, too – but it still doesn't mean we don't get better.

    We do get better. We make mistakes again and again, often the same ones. Why does one need to negate the other? I'm just not understanding this, I guess….

    I don't mean to be rude or anything; I'm just trying to understand what's being said. The A.A. experience says the opposite of what you're saying here; we have to grow and change, or we don't survive.

  3. Matt says:

    1 Corinthians 6:11 comes to mind

  4. Fisherman says:

    "While the outer man is wasting away, the inner man is being renewed day by day." — The Apostle Paul (exact scripture cite not at hand) If anyone can provide, the scripture, I'd be grateful.

  5. bls says:

    Well, thanks – but that's just a proof-text, which may or may not signify what you or I or anyone else believes it signifies. In any case, it seems to address only one small issue I brought up, which was pretty much a throwaway in that comment on this post.

    But since you bring it up: why does God need to "see" us in any way other than as who we are – that is, as sinners? Why is "imputed righteousness" necessary? If Christ died on the cross for sinners, isn't that enough? Why would God need some other mechanism for forgiveness than the simple faith/repentance formula? Is this a way to allow those who feel deeply and terribly guilty (with or without reason) a way to find forgiveness? I could perhaps understand this, if so – but for most people, isn't this merely another kind of "Law"? To imagine, I mean, that we need to be seen as "good" in order for God to accept us? Why can't we just be sinners? Why can't we just be, in the words of A.A., "workers among workers, friends among friends, human beings among human beings"?

    I just don't really understand this, and proof-texts are no help, at least not for me.

  6. bls says:

    (Sorry, that last comment is addressed to Matt, not to Fisherman! It took me too long to type it, I guess…)

  7. Matt says:

    bls – my verse was actually agreeing (to a fair degree ) with your point.

  8. bls says:

    "While the outer man is wasting away, the inner man is being renewed day by day."

    Now, this, I can agree with. So is Franzen saying (if he's not measuring "endless personal growth" with cars and possessions, that is) that "endless personal growth" as conceived of by the (ironically) "12-Step industry" is futile and wrong-headed?

    Maybe even that I could agree with, since the "12-Step industry" is (mostly) merely corporate blather. Or is this all just analogy? Maybe that's what you're doing here, but I keep hearing this theme of "we don't get better" come up, and I don't think it's right. I think Fisherman has given us a much better example.

    Is the worry that if we get better, Christ will have no further interest in saving us? Well, not to worry – we certainly don't get perfect (thank God)….

  9. bls says:

    Sorry, Matt – I guess I don't understand that, either. The text you quoted speaks of "justification" – which to me is just about the same as "imputed righteousness." Can you explain the difference? I don't see it.

    But perhaps that was not what you were referring to, and so I'm sorry if I took you wrong.

  10. Matt says:

    I'm agreeing with your notion that on specific points in our lives, there may in fact be progress. When Paul says "such were some of you," he is saying that some believers in the church were changed by God. Now I acknowledge that there may be (many) cases where that "change" is slow, incremental and hard to measure. But Paul is quite clear that in many cases God may in fact move in such a way that a person leaves behind an old life. They emphatically do not leave behind sin altogether, however, and we should note that in any case, our right standing before God has nothing to do with our own works, but instead rests solely on the finished work of Christ on the Cross

  11. StampDawg says:

    Hey BLS! Always so nice to see you on here.

    On another thread (Lauren's discussion of Barth) you asked why we need to be declared righteous. Weekends are often a little slow around here, but it looks like today you are getting some action over there.

    Again, always a delight to see you around the blog. Best, SD

  12. bls says:

    OK. But why must we have "right standing before God"? Doesn't God see us as we are and forgive us, just as Christ did from the cross?

    On the other hand, Christ did say "Forgive them, for they know not what they do," which implies a kind of righteousness (in ignorance), I suppose. Do you think Christ means not to forgive those who did know what they were doing?

    Why the need for pretend righteousness, is what I'm asking?

  13. bls says:

    Thanks, StampDawg; will check it out….

  14. Josh says:

    I think it's important to note, too, that what Franzen's talking about here isn't necessarily a moral progress. It's at least partly about accumulating wealth and status symbols to yourself. A lot of the seeming contradictions between AA and Franzen's quote disappear, at least for me when considered through that lens.

    Let's not forget, either, that in the context of "Freedom", growth is mostly talked about in terms of the rupturing economy due to material excess and overpopulation.

    Both AA and the sickness Franzen has diagnosed point towards the same thing for me, and it's got something to do with a kind of modern idolatry.

  15. bls says:

    Fisherman, the citation is from 2 Corinthians 4 (one of the readings for the Burial Rite):

    " Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."

  16. Matt says:

    We're saying the same thing – our righteousness, our "right-standing," is only the result of Christ's work on the Cross. Without his work, we have no right-standing, and are therefore condemned to hell and death. We are saved from it, and reconciled to God, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

  17. Fisherman says:

    Seems like when the world starts talking about growth, its not "good" growth. Think infomercials.
    The marketers are just trying to sell us something we don't actually want or, in our deepest part, really need.
    A friend of mine shared this quote: "That which we feed grows, that which we starve dies." Some good things need to grow, others bad things need to die,or at least, be starved. Another saying, which is biblically and experientially based: "The problem with a living sacrifice, is it keeps trying to crawl off the altar."
    I grew up reading Time magazine. An article in Time about an author questioning the ways of the world?? Seems interesting . . .

  18. Todd says:

    bls – I would like to think that it's possible to affirm both Franzen's bleak realism with AA's hope in a higher power's intervention. I would go so far to say that one believes in the latter, than the former must be true as well. We are broken and hopelessly powerless, yet God liberates and makes new.

  19. bls says:

    Hi Todd: I do understand that the First Step is the first step – that it's necessary to recognize the hopelessness of the situation before we can begin to change. So maybe that's the point here – that Franzen is openly talking about this.

    (It feels like deja vu all over again, to me. Didn't we already have this lesson a scant 40 years or so ago? The Beat Generation and then the Sixties, etc.? Well, there's nothing new under the sun.)

    But perhaps people don't want to change. Perhaps they are comfortable enough as things stand, and we'll all have to hit bottom a lot harder.

    Matt, for some reason it feels different to me. The whole "imputed righteousness" thing for some reason makes me very nervous. But, I do agree we end up in the same place, at slightly different angles. Thanks.

  20. JDK says:


    We'll keep jumping around on different posts!

    The same thanks for your insight goes for this one too.

    I think that your comments are revealing a weakness in our, for lack of a better word, phenomenological apologetic.

    I do think that this way of attempting to connect theological truths to the experiences of life keeps us connected to reality, but as a convicted proponent for trying to find "new and persuasive words,"I am painfully aware that, like all persuasion, sometimes it fails.

    Sometimes, people don't see any need for anything we've got to offer and no re-framing the words or translating them into something else will change that fact, because there is something of the central message that is being rejected.

    My sincere prayer is that everyone would hear and see and affirm their need for redemption, forgiveness and salvation, but I'm wary of redefining these terms so generally as to make them acceptable to everyone whether they know them or not. Agreeing that you have a general sense of unworthiness, loneliness, insecurity, etc. . is connected to but not identical with a confession of Faith.

    In other words, sometimes I feel like in an attempt to reach agreement on "what ails us," we lose any connection to the "more radical diagnosis" of the "more radical Gospel."

    This is why a "higher power," can "save" people from drinking in AA–this is something different, though not altogether disconnected (as we are wont to write/say), than what Christians would call "salvation."

    Here at Mockingbird, we're doing all we can to build a bridge between the "message of the Cross," and the gnawing, uncertain and pervasive despair that seems to creep up on just about everyone, but you can lead a horse to water, as they say. . .

  21. Todd says:

    Hi bls – I'm afraid to say that I wasn't around 40 years ago! Please do explain how we're revisiting something 40 years old – I'd love to hear this from a different perspective.

    But I do think that Franzen affirms the hope for change while arguing against it. He says "And I think if one can get more accustomed to that somewhat more tragic view of life, that people would think yeah, 'We don't actually need to have a bigger and bigger house, and a bigger and bigger car, and more and more things in the house.'" A tragic view of life results in a radical reorienting of priorities so that material things no longer have a hold of us. This is no small thing.

    But I agree, the desire to change is truly born out of the experience of being "rock bottom". For better or worse I find that there's always a new low to be found since it is the nature of life (and sin) to always create new ways to prop myself up and impede the inevitable.

    Jady you said: "Agreeing that you have a general sense of unworthiness, loneliness, insecurity, etc. . is connected to but not identical with a confession of Faith" – I couldn't agree more!

  22. bls says:

    "Sometimes, people don't see any need for anything we've got to offer and no re-framing the words or translating them into something else will change that fact, because there is something of the central message that is being rejected. "

    Yes, I agree with this. I keep thinking that the cross – the crucifix – is the way in to this "central message." And maybe this is even more true today when it is so shocking for many people.

    But there's nothing wrong with talking about life on earth, either; it's a struggle everybody understands at some level, and art/music/film/drama is a terrific way (and always has been) to talk about it. That's the whole point.

    You're right that AA is different, at least in some ways. My central preoccupation in life is, in fact, "How"? And "how can that answer be used to heal people who aren't alcoholics or addicts"? I'm pretty well convinced it can be, but am not sure how yet; that's why I'm still trolling around talking about this. I'm more and more convinced that healing is the central message of the Gospels, as well – so I don't think I'm that far off-base. I once read, in reference to A.A., that "the cleverest diagnosis of these troubles is of little benefit if the patient dies."

    I want to work at this very simple level, first, because I understand it. Then we can talk, if you see what I mean.

    Thanks for the conversation, again.

  23. bls says:

    Oops, sorry, Todd.

    It's things like 1950s "Beat Culture" that I was referring to. And even this.

    Reactions against the postwar "materialist" 1950s. The "Beat" movement also often involved "seeking" via (especially) Eastern religion/philosophy, poetry, art, etc. (including drugs, of course). And it influenced Bob Dylan and others who came later on – and the whole 60s era, really. "Anti-materialism" was a big focus, and "seeking," again. (The Beatles got into this, too, with trips to India for "Enlightenment" – and LSD.)

    The quote above seems very much along these lines to me – although there are also some differences.

  24. paul says:

    I like JDK's observation very much, that sometimes no amount of re-framing the message will do, simply because there is something in the message itself which is being rejected.

    Sometimes, or at least in my own experience, I have believed so much that a change in the 'formatting' would succeed, and then ended up trying too hard. "Fruchtlos!"

    The flip side of this is that sometimes a very traditional or conventional presentation actually succeeds in getting through.

  25. paul says:

    Oh, and one other thing:

    Jady's observation can be extended to dating.
    In other words, if she or he doesn't really like you,
    no amount of 'tweaking' will work.

  26. Michael Cooper says:

    JDK's and Paul's comments are so good. I have not yet watched Paul's talks, but perhaps "new words to covey the old message" might be an even better description than "new persuasive words". Sometimes the old words no longer accurately convey the old message, and this causes some people to reject , or accept, something that is not the gospel, because they can no longer hear or understand the gospel message using the old words. Now,"new" alone is not necessarily better, and may be a lot worse, and even with "new" words that are better a person may reject the gospel message, having really HEARD it through the new words. But at least they have rejected the actual gospel, and not something that the old words now actually obscure. In those cases, rejection is actually tremendous progress.
    This problem is similar to translation: the best translations are never the most literal, because ironically the literal rarely presents the original as it actually is. The plain Truth requires a lot of artifice.

  27. Michael Cooper says:

    Actually, "actually" might be one of the old words that I need to ditch!

  28. Jeff says:

    Re: paul's comment

    Perhaps this is an important note to follow the conversation from before about "coolness" in the church. People don't buy "cool" ministers perhaps because they are naturally suspicious of the same product in new and improved packaging?

  29. JDK says:


    I couldn't agree more. I love the analogy to translation–that is EXACTLY what we're trying to do.

    I do think that true rejection occurs, but, with you, I'm hoping to provide as authentic a "translation" as possible.

    Thankfully, we've been blessed with one of the all-time great "Gospel translators":

    All singing now, "Paul, we appreciate you:)"

  30. StampDawg says:

    Two more thoughts, in line I hope with what Jady and Paul and Jeff (etc.) have been saying.

    One is that translation is often a pastoral act. The bearer of the message often needs to find what is the obstacle for the person he is speaking to — and address that.

    Another is that the very testimony of the four gospels is that the message of grace actually does incite opposition much of the time. There are three reactions they document: collapsing in tears and gratitude, terror, or rage and a desire to slay. As C.S. Lewis observes, "there is no record [in the four gospels] of anyone expressing mild approval."

    Many thanks to our brother in Christ BLS for all his thoughtful comments!

  31. bls says:

    Sister. Sister in Christ, and all "her" thoughtful comments, that is.


  32. StampDawg says:

    Well for some reason I was sure that you had mentioned you were a guy! Obviously not!!!

    Well it's far better to hear that you are a Sister. We have way too many guys here as it is.

    Again, welcome and thanks for posting.

  33. bls says:

    That's what I get – pretty often, actually – for using initials.

    Thanks for the thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *