Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen

[1] Regular readers of The Journal of Lutheran Ethics may be surprised to see a review of a novel in this issue.  Most of the reviews in these pages are spent, correctly, I think, on considerations of non-fiction and scholarly books that are concerned more directly with ethics and theology.  Occasionally, however, a novel comes along that rewards an intentionally ethical reading.  When that novel is by one of America’s best known chroniclers of contemporary life, the case for consideration is good.  When the novel situates itself in the life of a clergy family and in the midst of the life of the church, the case is even stronger.

[2] Readers of Franzen know that he’s always been a thoughtful critic of contemporary society. Cloaked in fluid prose and captivating characters, Franzen can’t avoid letting big issues roil below the surface of New York Times bestsellers, be it modern capitalism in Freedom, or the joys and woes of the modern family in The Corrections.

[3] In Crossroads, the first of three novels in series, Franzen sets out on a startling and substantial theological and ethical consideration of what it means to live, and act, in the midst of the drift and ambiguity of daily life.

[4] A bit of the plot will help situate the rest of the consideration, and here Franzen draws from his own Christian past. The time is 1971, and Associate Pastor Russ Hildebrand toils through days of middle-aged ennui on the staff of First Reformed Church of New Prospect, Illinois.  His senior pastor is off writing a book, and his hatred of Youth Pastor Rick Ambrose for his role in his forced departure from the burgeoning Crossroads youth group seethes well above the surface. Complicating matters further is Russ’s lust for a younger, widowed parishioner who he thinks will make him happy. You’ll be forgiven if you move through the book thinking that Russ isn’t much credit to his vocation.

[5] Russ’s family members are just as complex. Russ and his wife Marion are settled unhappily in daily life and soon we realize that she has her own middle age struggles and secrets.  To start, Marion hasn’t told the whole story of her past to anyone in her family. She’s depressed, unhappy, and seeing a therapist when she says she’s at an exercise class.  The core of her story unfolds in a wonderful flashback in an extended therapy session and to say more would be to ruin the joy of reading it for yourself. She’s the most human of the bunch, in my view, and she steals more scenes than she should.

[6] Their four children, Clem, Becky, Perry, and Judson round out the core family and aside from Judson, who is too young to be much more than a foil, they too are fighting demons and situations of their own. Clem rebels in shocking ways against his father’s high pacifist morals and even higher hypocrisy. Becky’s high school years are marked by a search for God that has an earnest and confusing reality. Perry, largely unsupervised and burdened by an intellect rare among mortals spirals ever further downward in an effort to find a modicum of self-protection from a bracing world.

[7] The kids lives, well, everyone’s actually, swirl around Crossroads, the hip, cool, rapidly growing youth ministry of First Reformed Church.  Crossroads is led by the charismatic youth minister Rick Ambrose, and as with much in youth ministry you can never tell as you read if it’s going very well or very badly.  It’s growing, at any rate. Kids love it, not always for the purest of reasons. It is the group’s summer mission trip to the Indian Missions in Arizona that brings all of the pieces, such as they are, together.

[8] If the description sounds like a recipe for so much melodrama, I hear you. The good news is that it never gets to that point. In fact, Crossroads is a decidedly unmelodramatic book.  It is to Franzen’s great credit that he can create three dimensional characters grappling with the very standard, sometimes sordid, problems that come from being mortal, sexual, emotional beings and keep it from being just a soap opera.

[9] But it’s not just the writing that saves the book. It’s also the sense of moral and ethical vision that Franzen brings to the character’s lives.  Whatever moral mischief Russ is rationalizing himself into, however deeply Marion or the children struggle and suffer, Franzen sets them up as meaning-making, ethical actors.  They aren’t here for our entertainment. They may not know it, and certainly not all of their actions are right, but Franzen’s characters are, like us, trying to act meaningfully in a complex world.

[10] This raises the question of whether Franzen has a meaningful ethical program here and I believe the answer is yes.  Crossroads is the first volume of a trilogy and I think there’s something bigger here than just a good story.

[11] Start with defining the ethical frame. Franzen’s characters, like us, live in time. They are subject to the past, the present, and the future. It’s certainly not unique to Franzen, but he’s acutely aware that our ethical struggles exist because as humans, we have a nearly unique ability to second guess ourselves as we assess the three dimensions in which we live our embodied lives. Because we see past, present, and future, we live lives that are always open to critique, always possibly wrong, and we go through our days acutely if not consciously aware that the future derives from the decisions we make today.

[12] Russ, for example, wants a different future, one that ironically looks like a past he loved. Marion regrets her past, and wonders if the present is punishment or grace. Perry finds the present unbearable and will go to increasingly great lengths to avoid being conscious of it at all.

[13] It is our keen sensitivity to time’s passing that raises the thoughts, actions, and difficulties on which ethics bears.  An ethical life seems to be, for Franzen, less a set of rules or codes and more an awareness, a consciousness that things matter, and that you only get to do them once.  It’s the ethical life as the act of consideration, not as the definition of the right path. Untying ethics from outcomes, Franzen depicts the ethical moment as the moment of consideration.

[14] The ethics of creaturely life are ethics in and under the real, fallen desires of our own life in time. If the problem is time, the solution lies in how we see it.  Coursing under the surface of Crossroads is the idea that ethical action becomes possible when we see the world anew. The novel is full of moments of new seeing, when something that seemed one way, now looks different.  This too happens across all three timeframes.

[15] Our pasts, even when we are young, are scattered with hurts and damages, joys and victories. Ethical reflection can happen only when we become able to think about the past in an open way, disarming the hurts and no longer trying to reclaim the joys. The present can often feel monotonous. Ethical reflection begins when we accept the sameness of daily life and are willing to sit in those times. Our future is unknown and can be a source of great confusion. Ethical reflection grows from being able to see and accept the open nature of the future, seeing it as gift rather than threat.

[16] Creaturely life, in all its banality, has ethical importance. Indeed, it’s the only possible site of ethical importance. In a world of entertainment and distracting spectacle it’s good to see a novelist of Franzen’s stature bring to the top of the bestseller list a novel that grapples with real, ambiguous human life, in a way that showcases how the decisions we make draw on all we are, all we want to be, and everyone we interact with.  The result is a novel that is enjoyable on its own merits, while giving good food for thought to clergy and others.



Will Bergkamp

Will Bergkamp holds degrees from The Moody Bible Institute, The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, and The University of St. Thomas.  He is currently the Vice President for Business Development and Publisher of the Fortress Press Academic, Education, and Ministry lines at 1517 Media.