Monday, January 13, 2014

The "Everything's Okay" Gospel

Roy Page (with Sarah Horton), A Letter to Evan: An Average Dad's Journey of Discovery and Discernment Through Divorce

Oklahoma advertising executive Roy Page’s life shattered one year: Alzheimer’s took his father, his promising athlete son required invasive surgery that sidelined him from key games, and his marriage collapsed. Page’s sixteen-year-old son Evan got lost amid the catastrophes. So Page wrote Evan a letter, trying to bolster their relationship while resolving his own foundering life. That letter grew into this sadly self-serving Christian memoir.

I wanted to like this book. Authors have penned many thousands of pages about divorce and its family impacts. But most focus on small children; nearly-grown youths get short shrift. Page could’ve closed a glaring gap in this field, if he’d opened himself to his own shortcomings. However, he squanders the opportunity, spinning a mix of personal anecdotes, capped by gnomic morals that exonerate himself and trivialize what’s really happening.

Page essentially fails the Dave Test. Reverend Frederick Schmidt invented the Dave Test when his accepted seminarian bromides didn’t comfort his brother Dave through terminal brain cancer. Schmidt submits all Christian axioms to ten questions; Page fumbles, by my count, eight. These include, but aren’t limited to: “Can I avoid using stained-glass language?” “Can I give up my broken gods?” And most fundamentally: “Can I say, ‘Life sucks’?”

No, Page cannot say that. He cannot just be there with Evan, hurting. Instead, he performs appalling verbal gymnastics to justify why his divorce was inevitable, but not his fault; why prolonged physical absence doesn’t make him less present; why his time-consuming business demands were acceptable from a Christian man with a family. In Page’s telling, only vague abstractions are ever his fault. Cruddy circumstances just happen to him.

After dribbling out details for chapters and chapters, Page finally divulges the narrative of his divorce around the two-thirds mark. It’s the familiar story from his economic bracket: he ran the business, she ran the house, and their worlds scarcely intersected. Eventually, separate lives, lived at cross-purposes, ended their relationship long before courts vacated their marriage. They became two strangers, linked by their house and kids.

Except Page’s telling stays really, really abstract. In ten pages, he never says anything more specific than “The more passive I became, the more resentful she was of the burden of responsibility she carried.” Many marriages survive passivity and resentment. Why not his? People who know Page have posted counternarratives online, which aren’t mine to repeat. Briefly, people use vague, noun-free sentences to deflect banalities like blame or remorse.

This tone permeates Page’s entire memoir. Life’s blessings, like a successful business, resourceful kids, and community standing, Page treats in detail, praising God and his own ingenuity. Setbacks, like his twenty-year marriage’s collapse, remain fuzzy and accidental. Page tries to model his fathering skills on God’s Fatherhood, but in ways that don’t require him to actually be physically present for his wife and children.

Notably, while Page extols churchgoing and Christianity as family ethics, I counted only two Scriptural citations in a 200-page book. He quotes Jack Canfield, Babe Ruth, and Bill “Falafel” O’Reilly far more than God’s Word. For this white, upper-middle-class professional, Christianity is about what you get, not what you give. Page compares himself to Job, but only for the earthly goods Job lost and regained, not the pained debate.

Jack Canfield and BillO become what Schmidt calls “broken gods,” those man-made placebos that fail to sustain in dark hours. Instead of purging accumulated artificial reassurances, Page doubles down on the status quo, reassuring himself, and Evan, that everything’s okay, God’s in control, and weekends spent hunting and fishing make us family. Given the chance to make a new life with his son, Page opts to retrench his existing habits.

Instead of calling believers to new life, Page’s gospel ratifies this life, and this world’s standards. It requires no taking stock, no repentance, no change. It lets Page continue his jet-fueled former life unhindered, provided he darkens the church door often and uses Christian lingo. For Page, Christianity is a shield, an appurtenance he uses when need arises, when he, like everybody, clearly needs complete resurrection from this world’s ways.

Roy Page strikes me as a man who believes sincerely without examining deeply. He hasn’t purged worldly influences from his moral framework, and therefore justifies himself without needing more than cosmetic changes. Page and Reverend Schmidt could profitably have long, deep conversations, because Page is still a work in progress. He just doesn’t realize his own need, because his worldly privilege has shielded him from life’s harsher buffets. For now.

No comments:

Post a Comment