Mitford blues

Back in the days of my junior high fundamentalist phase, I used to read Christian fiction- mostly Janette Oke, who wrote lightweight dramas about frontier women praying their heathen husbands into salvation. Even then, I knew that the books were decidedly second-rate, and I've rarely returned to the realm of religious fiction. It's just too painful to watch characters as thin as the pages of the Bible faithfully endure cliched narrative arcs that are inevitably heavy on the Deus Machina.

Despite the bad taste in my mouth about Christ Lit, I'm halfway through the first novel in Jan Karon's "Beloved Mitford Series," warmly titled At Home In Mitford. The series vaguely appealed to me; the protagonist is an Episcopal priest named Father Tim. All the action takes place in Mitford, a fictional Southern town. I use the word "action" loosely. Sure, lots of stuff happens. A stray dog befriends Father Tim in the first chapter, just as loneliness was about to cast a serious pall on the rector's bachelor pad. A major climax in the first quarter of the books happens when Father Tim goes to the local Grille to drown his "sorrows," which include that his secretary doesn't like his dog and his vestry hired a housekeeper for him behind his back.

This is the depth of sorrow in Mitford. Everything is sweetness and light. Even the "troubled" young boy to whom Father Tim offers counseling is rendered in shades of rose. His roughest expression of angst so far entails complaining that the boys at school are going to "knock 'th poop" out of him. There is no real diversity in the town; everyone is Protestant, and so far as I can tell, everyone is white. The doctors and pastors are male, while the waiters and secretaries are female. Oh, and it goes without saying that the Mitford version of God is a He.

This book makes me cringe. And I really don't think that I'm just jaded by my proximity to urban areas racked with drugs and gang violence. I just find it hard to believe that small towns are bereft of substantial issues. Granted, middle-brow literature is not about to address the preponderance of crystal meth labs or the School of the Americas. But the depiction of a church community that is so blissfully ignorant of local and regional justice issues - let alone national and international justice issues - is perturbing. The faith cultivated by the members of Mitford's Chapel of Our Lord and Savior is totally solipsistic. Maybe that's a-okay for a narrative world in which only Mitford exists (save for Wesley, where parishioners go to Wal-Mart not to protest economic and gender injustice but to shop). But I fear that people read this book as an image of a sort of Christian utopia to be envied and emulated. This is the kind of world view that makes prophetic ministry fall on fallow ears. How can you preach about poverty when the center of the Christian community is an apple-pie bake-off?

There are lovely aspects about Mitford. The townspeople are portrayed as people who watch out for one another. And they are characters who trust God, and I admire (and envy) this. I don't want to belittle their goodness because it doesn't meet my criteria. But I think that domesticating the Christian faith - domesticating Jesus - is a tragedy and a loss. Jan Karon's portrayal of small-town Christian living can't replace the radical vision of the Kingdom of God as the telos of the church.

I can't help but wish I were rereading Haven Kimmel's excellent depiction of rural churchfolk in The Solace of Leaving Early. Her characters encounter suffering, grief, and doubt, giving their muscular faith a realism and poignancy born out of perseverance.

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