The Key to All Reductive Religions

Recently the very good (some contend great) American novelist Jonathan Franzen made a clean break of it: the luminary of a literary landscape that frequently eschews serious treatment of the sacred confessed to an ongoing preoccupation with “the inescapable nature of religion.” If the people who populated his National Book Award-winning The Corrections could be called “consumers,” the pilgrims of Crossroads: A Key to All Mythologies are inescapably homo religious. For Franzen, “it was attractive . . . to go back to a time before Christianity became almost a dirty word in liberal circles.” In a novel whose main family is headed by a pastor, children and spouses are defined against the core tenets of Christianity. Whether they reject the faith, return to it, or deform its doctrines to suit their desires, no one sits easily aloof from belief. This welcome fascination with religion, however, is undercut by Franzen’s reductive affiliation of faith with the “fundamentally irrational basis for everything we think and do and espouse”

In Crossroads, when religiosity and spirituality are on the scene, emotivism is everywhere. As Alasdair MacIntyre defines it in After Virtue, emotivism is “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling.” This emotivist ethos turns Christianity into a kind of guiltless pleasure. In his Triumph of the Therapeutic, Philip Rieff wrote that “Religious man was born to be saved, psychological man is born to be pleased.”

Russ Hildebrand has been publicly chided for employing prayers that are too exclusivist, too rooted in Scripture for the tastes of the nonconformist young. (Analogously, at home, his children ironize him for placing a pacifist ban on board games like Risk and Stratego, hand-making their own versions and hiding them under the bed). But in Crossroads nearly nothing is guilelessly sacred: neither his pacifist principles nor his fidelity to Scripture prevent him from flirting with Mrs. Frances Cottrell, a widowed parishioner whose husband has recently died in the war. Foxy and risky, smitten with the zeitgeist of experimentation, Frances woos Russ into getting high with her, but her willingness to take their affair further is hinged on his capacity to fulfill that essential Christian maxim. “You’re not allowed to see me,” she warns, until you “make peace with Rick.”

For all his palpable popularity, Rick Ambrose’s successes also have an underbelly. “I’m a little worried,” he confides to a Crossroads member. “I’m a little worried about what we’ve unleashed. What I’ve unleashed. I’m worried that, if it doesn’t end up leading us back to God, it’s just an intense kind of psychological experiment.”

Russ is oblivious to the younger pastor’s doubts. Lured by lust for Frances into feigning some semblance of forgiveness, he isn’t wholly oblivious to his own brokenness. He has just finished praying in private, worrying “that what I heard speaking wasn’t love of your Son but simply lust for Frances,” and his insistence on sincerity bids him admit that “‘making peace without love in my heart will only compound my offenses against you.’”

But when he enters the local celebrity’s sanctuary, he gorges on rage, spilling and spelling out his envy and resentment when his reconciliation rings hollow as hell. Rick welcomes his superior’s honesty, and as the old man’s rant runs on and on—in one of the novel’s most strange and yet entirely believable moments—he takes off Russ’ socks and starts washing his feet, resisting Hildebrandt’s bitter allegation that “You want to play Jesus?” By that logic, Rick counters, “anything we ever try to do to emulate him is grandiose.” Not a lick of satire shades this scene . . . but Russ’ feeling of God’s mercy immediately gives way to the yields of the confrontation: a growing chance to score points with Frances.

In Crossroads, all religious experiences or religiously motivated acts are inescapably layered with dubious designs ranging from the nefarious to the naïve. In one of the novel’s most sustained side stories, religious commitment intertwines with psychology. Yet, as the novel conjures it, psychological probing is no surrogate for redemption. This side story leads us through the long-ago agonies of the central family’s mother, Marion Hildebrandt—a former Catholic who waxes nostalgic for those days when “her only friend, if one could call an infinite Being a friend, had been God.” Christmas is coming, and the holy day has darkly ironic connotations for Marion. In her youth she experienced a series of psychotic breaks, an awful spiral that culminated with an abortion procured against the feast of Christ’s birth. For her, the season’s red decorations evoke bloodshed.

Still wounded by that season of fury, Marion takes refuge in psychotherapy with Sofia Serafimides, an MD, whose discreetly hidden office is akin to “a modernized confessional box, a not greatly secluded place to have the inside of one’s head scraped, with payment extracted not in future Hail Marys but in cash on the spot.” Finding her way into “Sophie’s box” (elsewhere called “the sanctum”), Marion realizes how much she needs to “unburden herself.” But “some things,” she insists, “were only for her and God” and the priest to whom she “once upon a time” confessed the abortion.

Absolved by Serafimides, she remains seriously wounded. This should shock no one: confession’s end is not therapeutic. Serafimides, though, is keen to Marion’s occlusion: “Is there something important you’re not telling me?” she asks, indicating that “when I’ve heard that tone of voice in the past it often turns out that the patient has experienced a particular kind of trauma.” Why does Marion refuse to seek healing?

Crossroads keeps you tracking the cast of lost causes because some of the “mythologies” are more compelling than the key with which Franzen unlocks them.

Marion resists the analyst’s suspension of spiritual judgment, which acknowledges only trauma, not sin: “I know I’m a bad person,” Marion professes, alleging that Serafimides fails to grasp the act’s gravity “because you’re not a believer.” Even after she tallies her “worst sins” Sofia makes Marion feel, at best, “more like very naughty” than in any measure concupiscent.

Though Marion was manipulated and cajoled by a controlling landlord who secured the abortion in exchange for favors, she will not deny her willful collaboration with evil. “I was guilty,” she says, skating against the emotivist incline of the times. “That’s an objective fact,” “different from a feeling,” she states, naming the man who helped her secure an abortion as “Satan,” “a stickler when it came to contracts . . . by following through with his side of the bargain, punctiliously delivering her to the doctor and paying for the abortion, he deprived her of victimhood.” Through a sick “quid pro quo” with which “she was complicit” and so “couldn’t claim ignorance or innocence,” she’d “knowingly committed adultery” and then “she’d knowingly sold herself to pay for the murder of her baby.” Sofia is no match for Satanic annihilation.

Marion accurately conceives of Satan as no mere “charmingly literate tempter, or a funny red-faced devil with a pitchfork,” but “pain without limit, annihilation of the mind”—a chilling affiliation of herself with the Adversary. The scene leading up to the abortion, in which the seducer and accomplice is both Satanic and not necessarily literally Satan—carries reverberations of Lucifer’s visit to Ivan in Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, a novel which Franzen calls “one of the greatest things ever written.” This coupling of the literal level with metaphorical and mystical meaning gestures toward great and terrible spiritual realities that our symbols and signs can only begin to map. Inevitably, “confessing her worst sins to a psychiatrist was nothing like her Catholic confessions,” for there was “no pity for her sweet Lord’s suffering on the cross for what she’d done.”

In Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch contends that in the therapeutic culture of contemporary America, “mental health” becomes the “modern equivalent of salvation.” Far from saving us from sin, Lasch says, psychotherapy seeks to “adjust” us to the world in a way that will minimize our guilt and maximize our tolerance of ambiguity. As Marion’s section of the novel makes manifest, whatever may unite the Catholic Sacrament of Penance and the prerogatives of psychotherapy, the two practices have entirely different ends. “It is sometimes said that psychoanalysis is a substitute for, the ‘ersatz’ of, the confessional,” Jacques Maritain observes, an analogy that is “completely inaccurate,” for two reasons. First, he argues in “Freudianism and Psychoanalysis,” it would be an illusion to assume that “confession exercises a curative power on neuroses and psychoses. Its aim and object are not therapeutic.” And then, whereas psychology sets out to explore the irrational unconscious, confession “is in itself an act of reason and of will” which fosters salvation even if it fails to cure the psyche: “a neurotic who goes to confession overwhelms his confessor with the deliverances of his neuroses.”   

As Franzen conjures it, Marion’s Catholicism was in part a kind of “morbid” obsessive introspection, saving her sanity through the “soothing . . . transactions of the confessional,” but he also depicts its potency quite beautifully as an architectural rehabilitation which allows her to see, beneath the “immensity of the Church’s edifice, the majesty of its history,” that her “sins, grievous though they were,” could be counted as “tiny drops in a very large bucket—richly precedented, more manageably antique.” Lacking that edifice now, her sins’ container is pathetically small.

As Jacques Maritain argues, psychotherapy inflicted an irreversible punishment upon “that conceited, pharisaical personality which rationalism has built up” in order to “deny all the evil and the irrational . . . in order to be able to enjoy the testimony of . . . conscience.” Franzen’s novel makes palpable Maritain’s point: Freud and his fellow discontents exploded the “whitewashed sepulchers” of enlightenment. Yet neither Freud nor his therapeutic children could put mankind back together again

Although, in the wake of a psychotic break, she had once believed that “the Church had saved her life,” Marion discarded its strictures upon marrying Russ, a pastor who “placed so much emphasis on Jesus’ ethical teachings, and thereby straying so far from the concept of mortal sin, were making a mistake.” Once it is “uncoupled from transcendent beliefs or metaphysical structures,” sin becomes a blindspot of the privileged rather than an inherited fissure in human nature. “Guilt at [Russ’ church] First Reformed wasn’t all that different from guilt at the Ethical Culture Society. It was a version of liberal guilt.” As Franzen paraphrases her point in an interview, “It’s kind of a watered-down thing, like: Try to be nice to poor people.”

Instead of easily reducing “immorality” to either socially constructed taboo or the phantasmagoric projections of clichéd “Catholic guilt,” Crossroads inhabits Marion’s soul so completely that it renders the contours of evil as mysterious and rightly vexing. Amidst an illicit affair, the most “damning” self-talk Russ receives is “all white people were frauds, a race of parasitic wraith-people, and none more so than he.” But any attempt to circumscribe evil by treating it as a “version of liberal guilt” would flagrantly deny the abyss of darkness Franzen fathoms.

In “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Franzen’s late friend David Foster Wallace rallied the literati to “have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles,” to “treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction,” to “eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.”

In Crossroads, his best novel to date, Franzen steers clear of hip fatigue, and his reverent treatment of religious experience as central to U.S. life makes for some riveting reading. (And, though I wish he were visited by a chaster Muse, even his characteristic sex scenes aren’t as gratuitous and aren’t as gross as in page-skipping Purity or Freedom.) But the near-absence of a single-entendre anything ends up fostering a hermeneutic of suspicion. Nothing is a single entendre in Crossroads. Perry, the pothead son, who’s trying to get clean proclaims what appears to be the novel’s harsh dispensation: “If you’re smart enough to think about it, there’s always some selfish angle.” All good deeds have dubious origins; all good creeds might be makeshift masks.

Still, Crossroads keeps you tracking the cast of lost causes because some of the “mythologies” are more compelling than the key with which Franzen unlocks them. If familial power plays are sustained until the final page, forgiveness between Russ and Marion arrives also, albeit very late. The reckless, self-destructive acts of the Hildebrandt family leave the children scattered and scarred, and one is nearly lost to suicide. Precisely because forgiveness doesn’t erase sin’s natural consequences, the arcs are cathartic enough that they leave the lyrics of the Robert Johnson song  singing in your soul for reconciliation:

I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
I went to the crossroad, fell down on my knees
Asked the Lord above, “Have mercy, now, save poor Bob if you please”