Another Week Ends

The Faith of the Queen, Les Misérables, Celebrity Forgiveness, and the Meaning of Life

Todd Brewer / 9.9.22

1. While studying theology in the U.K., one of my professors was once pushed by a student (not me) to defend the establishment, or the inseparability of church and state. After all, it seems pretty insane that a monarch could appoint bishops on the advice of the Prime Minister — can you imagine Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden choosing your next bishop? I think not. So what argument did the learned professor deploy on behalf of the establishment? “The queen is a godly woman.”

It wasn’t the strongest rebuttal, but he was right. I was once informed by the local bishop of a little-known and curious ritual. Before officially becoming a bishop, he had to meet with the queen in person, where he he was required to kneel directly in front of the sovereign and swear the oath of allegiance to her. While reciting the words, the queen grasped both of his hands and looked at him directly in the eyes with an intensity that almost frightened him. In addition to entertaining this inquisitive Anglophile American, the story was told to convey how seriously Queen Elizabeth took her role as the “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England.

The queen will be remembered for many things, but, as historian Miles Pattenden argues, her godly example might just be her most enduring legacy:

Queen Elizabeth personified Christian virtue for the next seven decades. She was constant, she was reliable, she was indefatigable, unstuffy, unshowy, and uncomplaining. She never demanded gratitude but toiled on regardless. And she displayed an intense commitment to God, which inspired her to find ways to embody values cherished by the British people. […]

Queen Elizabeth’s crown may not have been one of thorns, but its burden was nevertheless still barbed and weighty. A thousand photographers waited in earnest for a sign of annoyance, exasperation, arrogance, vanity, or aloofness. And yet in years and years and years, none came. […]

As a Briton, and as an historian, I felt an unfamiliar unease as the news unfolded last night. For me, as for most of my fellow countrymen, this is uncharted territory: a time without our great national leader, the only monarch we have ever known. Something has changed forever.

Queen Elizabeth’s response to such a crisis would surely have been to turn to Jesus — but to do so calmly, softly, and unobtrusively. We must place our faith in him to deliver us from evil now that she is gone, following her lead for how that is done.

Though she was born two years before the invention of sliced bread, the queen is not some relic from a bygone era. To my mind, she was a testament to the unchosen life. Unlike her abdicating uncle, Elizabeth II lived the life she was given, accepting her divinely appointed duties and responsibility. Her freedom was expressed in acquiescence, her joy within the limitation of sacrificial service.

See also at First Things, The Quiet Faith of Queen Elizabeth II

2. Run, don’t walk, to Caitrin Keiper’s essay in Plough magazine on Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Keiper zeros in on the book’s signature achievement: presenting a moving account of the gratuitous yet generative nature of grace and forgiveness. For those who don’t know, the protagonist, Jean Valjean, is figuratively purchased by the Bishop who forgave his sins and gave him some expensive candlestcks. Keiper writes:

This purchase can only be vicarious, for souls cannot be paid for from their own bankrupt accounts. The debt that this creates cannot be repaid to the creditor, but must be satisfied another way.

In the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matt. 18:21–35), a man is forgiven a great sum by his master, but for a small debt owed in turn to him, he throws the debtor into prison. The master hauls him up and asks why he could not show the same mercy that was shown to him. This is the only requirement that mercy has. The bishop knows he is just another sinner whose soul was once paid for too. What can he do but extend the same to Valjean? It is a contract with grace, a gift that demands only that it be re-given.

Rather than a voluntary and symmetrical arrangement between two parties, the contract with grace is a line pointing onward, stretching to infinity as it is passed on from one person to the next. It is not binding so much as it is liberating; unbound from “dark thoughts and the spirit of perdition.” 

As Victor Hugo illustrates, one-way love creates what mere commands could never do, creating an asymmetrically reciprocity. God gives in such a way that engenders a response, melting the sinners heart to love. This grace does not necessarily establish bonds of obligation, but bonds of affection whose reciprocity arises precisely because it is not compulsory. Or as Martin Luther wrote in his On the Bondage of the Will:

When God works in us, the will, being changed and sweetly breathed on by the Spirit of God, desires and acts, not from compulsion, but responsively, from pure willingness, inclination, and accord; so that it cannot be turned another way by any thing contrary, nor be compelled or overcome even by the gates of hell; but it still goes on to desire, crave after, and love that which is good; even as before, it desired, craved after, and loved that which was evil. (p 98)

3. Victor Hugo’s book might be a classic work of literature, but a recent NY Times article by Jessica Bennett on celebrity comebacks demonstrates how unfashionable forgiveness can be. Or more precisely, public forgiveness is usually bound to ideas of fittingness that, to my mind, can undermine the whole idea. Bennett cites researchers who note three essential ingredients to any redemption story:

Remorse (which … should be genuine and include an apology), rehabilitation (whether the public figures are taking steps to better themselves or, in the parlance of the internet, do better) and restoration (the ability to integrate what they have learned into public life).

Bennett details case after case of celebrity transgression, ranging from Will Smith to Martha Stewart to Johnny Depp, and alongside this relatively straightforward redemption narrative is the pesky question of worthiness, the degree to which one’s rehabilitation has been sufficient for the crimes committed. You have to read between the lines a bit, but Bennett expresses clearly how a low anthropology should inform the practice of forgiveness:

Cultural blind spots can be blind spots because we don’t know what they are at the time. Yet when it comes to mistakes made in the present, it’s as though there’s a collective empathy gap. We seem to lack the hindsight or grace or maybe simply the distance to be open to forgiveness or the idea that somebody could earn it or even to give the benefit of the doubt. […]

Indeed, we are living in an age of accountability, in which there are (rightly) calls for greater transparency and conversations about what’s right and wrong. But it is almost certainly easier to dismiss people as toxic or withhold empathy than to have to deal with the reality that many, many people make terrible, regrettable, sometimes near-unforgivable mistakes and we don’t have a clear ritual for reconciliation.

Bennett notes that, “we don’t have a very good way of talking about redemption or who should be afforded it.” I’d argue that the current imprecision and confusion when it comes to talking about redemption arises precisely because of a belief that redemption can be “afforded.” Taking a cue from the apostle Paul, grace is precisely so when it is given to the ungodly, unworthy.

4. Along these lines, Yolanda Piece had to list out her failures as part of an exercise for work. Given enough time to compile a mostly exhaustive list, the results were unexpected:

When I do the math, when I am brutally honest, my failures easily outnumber my wins. I confess to spending no small amount of time lamenting where I could be in life, who I could be, if I had not failed at some pivotal moments. It is humbling to accept that perhaps whoever we are, right at this very moment, is a reflection of the sum total of our failures and not just our successes.

But this is where God’s grace enters the picture. It tears up my list of failings and messes and reminds me how all things can work together so I may know the fullness of life. Each failure has been a learning experience and a building block in my spiritual journey … I am learning that while I have failed and will fail, again and again, I am still a beloved child of God. Not even my mistakes and missteps can separate me from God’s love.

Amen and amen.

5. In humor this week, the Queen had a pretty great sense of humor. Also, the New Yorker skewers employer surveillance with, “Things I’ve Achieved While Keeping My Slack Status ‘Active’

And Points in Case really hit their stride this week with, “How to Stop with the Negative Self-Talk, You Dumb Annoying Idiot” and my personal favorite, “In Addition to $10,000, Here Are Some Other Things I’d Like Forgiven from My Time in College“:

  • Playing “devil’s advocate.”
  • Choosing English as my major.
  • That one time I played flip cup but didn’t realize you were supposed to finish the beer before flipping the cup, thereby spilling beer all over my new dress from Forever 21. And then seeing no other option than sneaking into someone’s room, stealing their clothes, and stuffing my beer-stained dress into their sock drawer.
  • Smelling like a mix of Lay’s Potato Chips, Victoria’s Secret perfume, and Miller Lite for four years straight.

6. Regular readers might be weary of the frequency with which Nick Cave’s Red Hand Files are quote on this site. I’ve felt the fatigue myself. But I implore you to not overlook a gift simply because its regularity has devalued its gratuity to mere commonplace. Which is to say that Nick Cave is inspired right now and it should not be taken for granted. This week, Cave was asked “what is the point of life” and his response was anything but “42” — the point of life is love amid suffering.

To understand the point in life we must first understand what it is to be human. It seems to me that the common agent that binds us all together is loss, and so the point in life must be measured in relation to that loss. […]

Yet happiness and joy continue to burst through this mutual condition. Life, it seems, is full of an insistent, systemic and irrepressible beauty. But these moments of happiness are not experienced alone, rather they are almost entirely relational and are dependent on a connection to the Other — be it people, or nature, or art, or God. This is where meaning establishes itself, within the connectedness, nested in our shared suffering. […]

These often small, seemingly inconsequential acts of kindness, that Soviet writer Vasily Grossman calls petty, thoughtless kindness’, or unwitnessed kindness’ bind together to create a subterranean and vanquishing Good that counterbalances the forces of evil and prevents suffering from overwhelming the world. We reach out and find each other in the common darkness. By doing so we triumph over our collective and personal loss. Through kindness we slant, shockingly and miraculously, toward meaning. We discover, in that smallest gesture of goodwill laid at the feet of our mutual and monumental loss, the point.

7. And finally, hold on to your hats, because NEXT WEEK is the release of David Zahl’s fantastic tome, Low Anthropology!

To get a preview of the awesomeness, check out his article this week, “Why I Wrote Low Anthropology.

To order a copy, go here or here.

Strays:

 

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