Artificial Distinctions and the Family of God

From the moment he realized this Amory resented social barriers as artificial distinctions made by the strong to bolster up their weak retainers and keep out the almost strong.

This Side of Paradise p. 34

The “this” Amory resented were the cliques that formed at Princeton, which sought to insulate their members from outside interaction. Amory called these distinctions artificial. Hardly any of us are immune from such. This wasn’t social barriers based on race or even necessarily wealth. It was based on prior associations and then, to a lesser extent, people to be used to keep the clique intact. 

Princeton, a clique in and of itself—as Amory will see in the next to the last scene in the novel—was full of its own cliques, young men jockeying for position in a world where position meant something. 

Amory is going to come to resent social barriers even more as they will continually leave him on the outside—with more at stake than just being in the in-crowd at Princeton. And so it is no surprise that in that next to the last scene—a ride back to Princeton by a wealthy individual when Amory is penniless—that Amory finds himself promoting Socialism to the one who was able to give him a ride: oh, the irony. 

And Amory is not alone. We all want to belong, and our pride demands we belong to the right set. That is why the gospel is the best news. The barriers have been brought down. Belonging is assured. There is no need to jockey for position. Rich and poor, this high school and that high school, Mexican and Korean: the table has been set and you are invited to come and sit at the king’s table with others who sought to inhabit different cliques but now by faith in the death and resurrection of Christ are truly one with each other—brothers and sisters in the family of God, no longer hungry to keep out the almost strong. 

Because I’m Good At It

“Miss O’Connor, why do you write?” And I said, “Because I’m good at it.”

Mystery and Manners p. 81

Now there are plenty who write who are not good at it. But her point is a broader principle. We should do what we’re good at unless there’s a compelling reason not to. Hopefully this is true for the dentist and the car mechanic and the gardener. Why do you work on teeth or cars or in the dirt? Because I’m good at it.

However, very few are prodigies. It takes work to get good at something, so the beginning motivation may be “Because I like it.” But that’s no excuse not to get good at it, so that in the end, we might be able to say with equal vigor and truthfulness, “Because I’m good at it and because I like it.”

But each of these must be subservient to a higher good, a greater good. Our vocation—not just a job—but our calling, first and foremost is a calling from God. As Os Guinness points out, our calling is much greater than just a job. For if our identity is wrapped up in merely a job, when that job comes to an end, what does that say of our meaning on earth? No, our job may for a time align with our vocation or calling, but it is subservient to our calling. For example, I have been called to teach. That has looked like everything from social studies to 4th graders to Latin to high school kids to Greek to seminary students to theology to pastors to the Bible to the good folks at Christ Community Church. But it’s also looked like conversations about mushrooms and politics. I’ve had jobs that have had little if anything to do with teaching, but that has not changed my higher calling and thus it should have had no bearing on my identity or worth.

But all along, I have sought to improve how I teach. I have not simply rested on “Because I’m good at it”—nor do I think O’Connor did either. Nor does that mean that at some point God won’t say, “You’re done teaching. I’m calling you to something else.” So far he hasn’t. He may never or he may tomorrow. For there is a greater calling than even teaching: it is to love the Lord with all my heart and soul and mind and strength and to love my neighbor as myself. That can be done with any calling or with almost any job. 

Not Trying To Be Ugly

He’s not trying to be ugly to anybody. He just doesn’t know Jesus yet.

Onward p. 212

This is a comment from Moore’s grandmother to Moore when he commented about a tattoo on the arm of someone visiting their church when Moore was a kid. Whatever offense the grandmother may have taken, this was the right response to her grandson. When Paul was writing to the Corinthians about judging others he made a similar point. We are not to point fingers at those outside the church. We must, instead, make sure that we who claim to follow Jesus are walking in repentance and holding one another accountable. 

The world plays by different rules, and while we long for a culture that flourishes because it loves and follows God’s justice and righteousness, we will never achieve heaven on earth by forcing others into a mold they don’t know. And the world, as Moore’s grandmother rightly proclaimed, doesn’t know Jesus yet. And if we think knowing Jesus is just following a set of rules, conforming to a set of standards, then we don’t know him either. We can’t expect the world to understand the complexities of the ugliness of sin. Sure, many understand the ramifications of some sins, but in general, the world doesn’t see the deep scars formed on the hearts of men when they turn away from God’s intent. 

Instead, can we be kind and patient and loving toward those who might bring us offense? Zaccheus’s behavior was surely offensive to the Lord—preying on the weak has always roused God’s anger—yet Jesus engaged him in love and kindness, and this brought about a great repentance.

Sure there are people in this world who are “trying to be ugly,” but not every story is the same, and you and I are not mind readers. Can we treat one another as image bearers, some of whom just don’t know Jesus yet? 

A Gloomy View of Culture

A gloomy view of culture leads to meanness. If we believe we are on the losing side of history, we slide into the rage of those who know their time is short. We have no reason to be fearful or sullen or mean. We’re not the losers of history.

Onward pp. 203–204

I don’t think meanness is the only result of knowing one’s time is short. Apathy, excess, and positive productivity can all stem from a time-is-short view—even when that view has no god to cushion the blow, so to speak. But certainly rage is one manifestation of feeling like one is on the losing side of things. And this ultimately stems from pride. Pride tells us that we believe we deserve better. Pride knows it’s unfair how things are shaking out: the wrong side is winning while the right side is being pushed aside, marginalized, made to feel inferior. Nothing rouses pride’s fury like feelings of inferiority. 

But Moore is right: “We’re not losers of history.” Regardless of what cultures says, history is actually on our side. Novelty is not history. Both on the basis of what has been considered proper biblical behavior for centuries and what will be in the future (God’s eternal reign), we need not slip into rage or despair or apathy or excess. We can keep on keeping on with love and justice and righteousness where we are with what we have for as long as we breathe. That is the response to the temptation toward a gloomy view of culture. 

Grace: Not a Cover for Wickedness

Faith is not real without repentance, and faith is not like that of the demons, simply assenting to true claims. Faith works itself out in love. Faith takes up a cross and follows Christ. A notion of “grace” apart from lordship can provide cover for all sorts of wickedness.

Onward p. 201

Repentance. There’s the rub. I’m reminded of some lines from the song “Where I Began” by Caedmon’s Call. 

Give my purity and give my continence
But oh no, not yet. 
Like a coin hiding in the corner
Trying not to be swept
And I was trying not to be swept.

We want grace and the ability to stay like we are. Jesus wants us conformed into his image that the world might know of his goodness and mercy and love and beauty. There’s nothing beautiful about an unrepentant “Christian” bragging about Jesus with no discernible characteristics of his Lord. There’s also nothing beautiful about an unrepentant Christian who excuses his wickedness as no big deal because “it’s all about grace.” Don’t claim the Savior’s name if there’s no desire to embrace his humility and no desire to repent and let the Spirit bear fruit in your life.