Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Brother's keeper


He was a fool in the sense that he didn't or couldn't or wouldn't resolve, intellectualize, evade, the tensions of his faith but lived those tensions out, torn almost in two by them at times. He was a fool, I suppose, in the sense that he was an intimate of the dark, yet held fast to the light as if it were something you could hold fast to; in the sense that he wore his heart on his sleeve even though it was in some ways a broken heart; in the sense that he was as absurdly himself before the packed lecture hall as he was alone in his office; a fool in the sense that he was a child in hihs terrible candor. A fool, in other words, for Christ (Now and Then, 16-17)
That's how Frederick Buechner pays tribute to Prof. James Muilenburg, a role model and one of the 20th century's most influential theologians, a scholar who helped translate the Bible into the Revised Standard Version, and held a chair on the faculty of Union Theological Seminary during Buechner's years as a student. Other names on faculty offices loom larger today--Tillich, Niebuhr; but none affected Buechner as deeply as James Muilenburg.

James Muilenburg was born just a few miles from where I'm sitting, just north of Orange City, Iowa, about twenty years after his parents moved to northwest Iowa from Pella, along with the original band of immigrant Dutch to settle here. They were looking to homestead good and what they considered to be open land. In a sense, such humble beginnings makes the James Muilenburg story quintessentially American. The estimable theologian came from little more than bare ground.

Which might be true, but the facts suggest something more. That the Muilenburg family was not rich does not mean something valuable didn't happen in that farm house, something that didn't happen in thousands--no, millions--of other frame dwellings in 19th century rural America. The Muilenburg children got educations, and not simply a high school education, a rare commodity anyway in those days. They were also sent to college, even the women, something almost unheard of even in Dutch Calvinist Siouxland. 

Prof. James went off to Hope College, then the University of Nebraska, then Yale. Among the neighbors two miles of gravel roads from town, he was likely the only one with a Yale Ph.D. That he was a deeply religious man has to be in part attributable to his Dutch Reformed upbringing. After all, his immigrant grandparents claimed they had both economic and religious motivations when they explained their reason for emigrating. The Muilenburgs were people of the book, people of faith.

James's brother, Cornelius, was also a Ph.D., and pastored most of his professional life in Michigan. Two of their sisters, both college-educated and never married, taught school during their entire lifetimes. Another sister, post-retirement, became a dorm mother at Northwestern College and is remembered even today for her quiet personal faith.

Then there's Walter J., a brother who went off to the University of Iowa in 1915, and became a writer, a novelist who achieved some hefty status early on in his professional life. Walter's Prairie, now almost totally forgotten, even here where he grew up, is a pioneer story in the tradition of Giants in the Earth. Prairie is depressing saga that embraces the literary naturalism he must have come to know during his education, a determinism that transforms human beings into laboratory rats. Two hundred pages into the novel, Walter J. Muilenburg is still calling the central character, "the farmer," as if Elias Vaughn had no identity of his own.

Because "the farmer" didn't. Not, at least, according to Walter J., and naturalist tract he's peddling in the novel. We are, none of us, no more than the sum of our parts, the simple pawns of powers so much beyond our perceptions that human choice, free will, the opportunity to change or alter the direction of our lives is depressingly futile. Reading Walter J. Muilenburg's Prairie isn't fun because the story is almost totally joyless. The central character, Elias Vaughn, is driven to cut out his fortune from the endless open spaces on the American Great Plains, a landscape that he clearly loves. What he can't know is himself, his motives, or those he thinks he loves.

Early in the novel he stamps the dust off his boots when he walks away from his unforgiving, Bible-reading father to strike out on his own out west, but then obviously turns into a living, breathing, unforgiving recreation of everything he despised about his father. He becomes what he hated because, well, Muilenburg would have you believe that's the way it goes. Prairie is a novel of ideas--maybe even brother Walter's own sermon.

His testimony in Prairie, when contrasted with James's, as Buechner remembers him, seems polar opposite. Imagine the two of them, day after day, milking a half-dozen cows together, sharing stools, forking manure, haying, cultivating corn and beans, listening with to their father read the Bible to them and their sisters after every last meal. Think of all three boys together in a bedroom in the unheated upstairs of a farm house just south of town. Two of them will become dedicated men of the cloth. One of them will seemingly walk away. 

Did Walter leave the faith, become the prodigal? I don't know. I wish I did. He's buried here, just a mile or so from where he grew up, the only one of the three brothers who is. He left few traces, never married, no children. When he was dying, he had nowhere else to turn, no other place else to call home.

Was Walter J. Muilenburg happy? I honestly wish I knew. 

There's something quintessentially American about the whole tale of the Muilenburgs too, don't you think? They are not all alike and neither are we. Walter J.'s life is itself proof that his literary naturalism is bogus. The Muilenburg brothers were not rats in a lab. They had choice. In important ways it seems, they walked away from each other, seemed fully different. We are not pawns, not helpless victims of some power more vast than we are. Our destinies are not somehow jerry-rigged to self-pilot. 

What's more, it seems clear that Brother James the theologian knew the darkness very well, the darkness his novelist brother might well have felt. Buechner says his beloved professor used to tell his students to live in a way that wouldn't allow anything like blind faith. 

"Every morning when you wake up, before you reaffirm your faith in the majesty of a Loving God, before you say ‘I believe’, for another day," Prof. James Muilenburg, younger brother of Walter, used to tell his students, "read the news with a record of the latest crimes and tragedies of mankind and then see," he'd say, "if you can honestly say it again."

I can't help wonder how brother James thought about brother Walter. What he had to know very well was something about problems of being a brother's keeper.