f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of <i>Saint Maybe</i> – Unorthodox and Proud of It

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Day 2 of Saint Maybe – Unorthodox and Proud of It

There’s a church in Saint Maybe and it’s very much a church that could exist in the real world. But it doesn’t, it’s fictional. Imaginary. Not real. I’m stressing this issue because it’s doctrinal teachings are unorthodox.

The Church of the Second Chance is a small community of believers who believe in some things that fly in the face of both main-line and evangelical models. The church has tried to prohibit sugar, alcohol, tobacco and other unnatural stimulants from being used by parishioners. The church also has a deep focus on faith lived, not just said.

Here’s a description of the church as heard from the perspective of a young boy listening to its history.

“He liked hearing about Church of the Second Chance…how Reverend Emmett, an Episcopal seminarian and the son of an Episcopal minister, had gradually come to question the sham and the idolatry—for what was kneeling before a crucifix but idolatry?—and determined to found a church without symbols, a church without baptism or communion where only the real things mattered and where the atonement must be as real as the sin itself….”

Atonement is one of the driving themes of the novel. Members of the church must stand up in service during a time called Public Amending and confess their sins. Then, in their life they must try their best to atone, physically, for those sins. Another passage, after the pastor tells a character that simply apologizing for his sins doesn’t mean he’s forgiven.

“ ‘…anyone can do that much! You have to offer reparation—concrete, practical reparation, according to the rules of our church.’

‘But what if there isn’t any reparation? What if it’s something nothing will fix?’

‘Well, that’s where Jesus comes in, of course….Jesus remembers how difficult life on earth can be,’ Reverend Emmett told him. ‘He helps with what you can’t undo. But only after you’ve
tried to undo it.’”

This is the kind of theology unlikely to make you any friends with most denominations around the country. But I think that’s just the point. Anne Tyler knows what’s standard practice. She knows that a Protestant pastor when asked by a believer if asking for forgiveness is enough will always say: “God has forgiven you.”

Tyler throws a curveball and has her pastor say, “Goodness, no.”

A.) It’s engaging. B.) It leads to fertile ground for a novel.

The question is whether it’s ground we can or should walk on as “CBA Christian” authors. Notice that the book doesn’t disallow grace, but it’s certain a Jamesian, contextual grace—dead, if not for works. So this isn’t really heresy as much as just a doctrinally tenuous position.

One answer might be that we can use this set-up…so long as, by the end, the “correct” doctrine is in place and we get a little sermon about the true nature of grace and Jesus’ atoning blood.

Saint Maybe, you shouldn’t be surprised, doesn’t take that tact. It does cast a discerning eye on the church and its policies—especially through the years as characters age—but there’s never a systematic theological dissertation. And I was fine with that. But others might not be. A sin unrepented might sway a nonbeliever. A worrisome doctrine might convince the wrong mind.

What’s our responsibility in this issue?

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Go to Day 3 (final day) of our discussion of Saint Maybe.