The Single Piece of Good News in a World Drowning in an Ocean of Blame

One more jaw-dropping passage from Robert Farrar Capon before we let him rest in peace […]

David Zahl / 9.16.13

One more jaw-dropping passage from Robert Farrar Capon before we let him rest in peace (for a bit). This comes from the preface to The Romance of the Word, written in 1994 when that collection was first issued. Instead of introducing the book(s) proper, he used the opportunity to compose a short autobiography, and it is a truly stunning piece of writing–essential for anyone interested in the great man’s work or life. Thankfully, Google has made the whole thing available online:

69147Back to the turning point. Simply put, something I took as a personal tragedy occurred in my life in late 1974. I give you no details, except to say that what happened was largely my fault and that the experience was devastating. But I didn’t even being to understand it until, in 1975, I attended a clergy conference conducted by Jim Forbes. Over three days he hammered home the message that the only reason the church cannot rise from its moribund condition is that it will not die–that for as long as it tries to hang on to the life it thinks it has, it will never enjoy the gift of resurrection from the dead that God gives it in Jesus. “Jesus came to raise the dead,” he said–not to teach the teachable, reform the reformable, or improve the improvable. As I later came to put it myself, the only ticket anyone needs to God’s party of grace and forgiveness is, by great good luck, the one ticket everybody has: death.

Only after that–and only bit by bit–did I begin to understand the tragedy. I was not just devastated, or hurt, or ill-used, or broken; I was dead. Unless you have been through such an experience, you may find this overblown; but my life, as I had known it, was over, gone, kaput. If I ever lived again–and it was inconceivable to me that I could–it would not be by my hand.

You want to ask me, of course, “But what about all the positive parts of your life that were still in place: wife, children, work, success? Was it fair of you simply to write all that off as gone?” You miss the point. All those goodnesses remained exactly as they were. I did not write them off; I died–just as suddenly and certainly as if I had been run over by an eighteen-wheeler. Fairness or unfairness, guilt of innocence, blame or exculpation had nothing to do with the case. My life-designing capabilities were not impaired or in need of remedial treatment; I just didn’t have my life anymore.

But far from being a sad state of affairs, that turned out to be the best news I had ever heard. My death was not the tragedy I first thought; it was my absolution, my freedom. Nobody can blame a corpse–especially not the corpse itself. Once dead, we are out from under all the blame-harrows and guilt-spreaders forever. We are free; and free above all from the messes we have made of our own lives. And if there is a God who can take the dead and, without a single condition of credit-worthiness or a single, pointless promise of reform, raise them up whole and forgiven, free for nothing–well, that would not only be wild and wonderful; it would be the single piece of Good News in a world drowning in an ocean of blame. It was not all up to me. It was never up to me at all. It was up to someone I could only trust and thank. It was salvation by grace through faith, not works.