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Johnathan Franzen's new novel Crossroads tells the story of the family of Russ Hildebrandt, the associate pastor of a liberal suburban church, from which he has been ejected from Crossroads, sort of a youth group at the church, basically guilty of a charge of simply being unrelateable. Part of the story focuses on the reluctant, but ultimately radicalizing experience of joining Crossroads for two of his children, Becky and the wayward stoner Perry.
Perry is led to the group by friends who then confront his substance abuse, and urge him to join the group for his own good, where he ultimately, because of his uptight sister's early participation, realizes he's a lesser person in the eyes of these peers he thought had begun to accept him.
There is a lot that happens in this novel, but I want to focus on the group itself, its leadership (Ambrose, in particular, who I will discuss in a moment), and its ethos in being the countercultural outlet for church kids led by rebellious pastors seeking refuge from conscription in the Vietnam War, with militant attitudes about correctly interpretting the teachings of Jesus.
In Franzen's memoir, The Discomfort Zone, he describes a similar group (no doubt upon which Crossroads is based) called Fellowship. A core tenet of both groups is confrontation, vulnerability with each other in order to reinforce the organization, and essentially become comrades in the way Franzen's own pastor, and his avatar Ambrose, believes Christ aligned himself with his disciples.
The problem is that guys like Bob Mutton, upon whom Franzen based this charismatic teacher of youth, is that for all his self-assuredness, he was a young man himself, facing his own set of challenges coming to terms with being a thoughtleader for a class of young people who look up to him as a spiritual leader, as much as their educator and clergy, himself:
“Parents complaining because their high-school youngster spends too much time at church!” the St. Louis Globe-Democrat exclaimed in a full-page article about Fellowship in November 1972. “Parents forbidding a high schooler to go to church as a punishment!” Some parents, both inside and outside First Congregational, thought that Fellowship might even be a cult. Mutton in poor light was mistakable for “Charles Manson, and it was unsettling how much the kids looked forward to Sunday nights, saving their favorite, most worn-out clothes for the occasion and throwing fits if they missed even one meeting. But most parents recognized that, given the state of intergenerational relations in the early seventies, things could have been a whole lot worse. Mutton had the trust of the church’s senior minister, Paul Davis, and key support from several leading church elders who had gone on early Arizona trips and come home sold on Fellowship. A few conservative congregants complained to Davis about Mutton’s style, his cigars and his obscenities, and Davis listened to the complaints with active sympathy, nodding and amiably wincing and repeating, in his extraordinarily soothing voice, that he understood their concerns and was really grateful that they had gone to the trouble of sharing them with him. Then he closed his office door and took no action of any kind.
Mutton was like a bass lure cast into a pond that hadn’t been fished in thirty years. No sooner had he taken over Fellowship than he was mobbed by troubled kids who couldn’t tolerate their parents but still needed an adult “in their lives. Kids came and told him, as they’d never told anyone else, that their fathers got drunk and hit them. They brought him dreams for his interpretation. They queued up outside his office door, waiting for individual conferences, suffering for not being the lucky person alone with him behind his closed door, and feeling that not even the joy of finally getting into the office could compensate for the pain of waiting. Everybody and his brother were doing drugs. Kids were watering the family Gilbey’s and dropping acid in school bathrooms, smoking specially adulterated banana peels, popping parental antihistamines and grandparental nitroglycerin, consuming nutmeg in vomitous quantities, filling empty milk cartons with beer and drinking in public, exhaling pot smoke into stove hoods or the absorbant insulation of basement ceilings, and then heading on down to church. Three boys from good families were caught toking in the First Congregational sanctuary itself. Mutton sat for hours trying to follow the words of a founding member of Fellowship lately released from the mental hospital where a lysergic brain-scrambling had landed him. When a Fellowship girl informed Mutton that she’d got drunk at a party and had had sex“with three Fellowship boys in rapid succession, Mutton brought all four kids together in his office and, asserting a kind of patriarchal prerogative, made each boy apologize. A different girl, whose parents had confronted her with contraceptives that they’d found in her bedroom, refused to speak to them unless Mutton was summoned as a mediator. He was part Godfather and part Sorcerer’s Apprentice, implicated in the lives of more and more families.”
For all his success at building solidarity, he found disciples to whom he found he could not offer sufficient counsel:
“In September 1973, the month before the ninth-grade retreat at Shannondale, a gifted seventeen-year-old boy named MacDonald came to Mutton’s office and told him there were no more challenges in his life. MacDonald was the older brother of the girl who’d been so disappointed in my cheating at cards. He was about to start college, and Mutton didn’t follow up on the conversation; and a few weeks later MacDonald hanged himself. Mutton was devastated. He felt, at twenty-nine, overwhelmed and underprepared. He decided that he needed training as a therapist, and a parishioner at First Congregational kindly lent him five thousand dollars so that he could study with a prominent local Christian shrink.”
In the novel, Ambrose faces similar challenges with a youth congregation that includes the pastor's daughter, Becky, for example, who until joining Crossroads, had very strong opinions about how to execute upon the rest of her life. Having come into an inheritance with specific instructions for its use, she's bombarded by advice from her parents to recycle it back into the family, friends in Crossroads who urge her to do something similar, etc. and it's the first time she questions the certitude of her instinct. She is introduced do this alternative line of ethical reasoning, not necessarily wrong or worse or better, but malleable in a way she was unaccustomed to.
An early scene in the novel has her and Perry paired up for an exercise, one Franzen writes of similarly in his memoir, where you are to essentially unpack a vulnerable piece of yourself, and then unpack a barrier to knowing the other person better. This, for example, is the sort of bonding members of the group are doing at Ambrose's behest, in line with the tenet of conflict as an expression of love. Franzen's account, and indeed, the novel also include this sort of quasi-self-criticism session, where taking accountability takes the form of a public admission of guilt and, while perhaps not self-flagellation, self-subjugation to the mob's desire to openly express their scorn.
Mutton, in Franzen's case, perhaps saw himself too much in the gospels, which as later conflict might attest to, gets in the way of a functioning group:
“The man who trained Mutton as a therapist, George Benson, was Fellowship’s hidden theoretician. In his book Then Joy Breaks Through (Seabury Press, 1972), Benson ridiculed the notion that spiritual rebirth was “simply a beautiful miracle for righteous people.” He insisted that “personal growth” was the “only frame of reference from which Christian faith makes sense in our modern world.” To survive in an age of anxiety and skepticism, Christianity had to reclaim the radicalism of Jesus’ ministry, and the central message of the Gospels, in Benson’s reading of them, was the importance of honesty and confrontation and struggle. Jesus’ relationship with Peter in particular looked a lot like the psychoanalytic relationship:
Insight is not good enough. The assurances of others are not good enough. Acceptance within a continuing relationship which denies reassurance (it’s usually false anyway) and thereby brings the sufferer to an awareness of his need to evaluate and accept himself—this brings change.
Benson recounted his treatment of a young woman with severe symptoms of hippiedom—drug abuse, promiscuity, sensationally bad personal hygiene (at one point, roaches come swarming out of her purse)—and he compared her progress to that of Peter, who initially resisted Jesus, then monstrously idealized him, then fell into despair at the prospect of termination, and was finally saved by internalizing the relationship. “Mutton had first gone to Benson soon after he became an associate minister. He suddenly had so much influence over the teenagers in his charge that he was afraid he might start acting out, and Benson had told him he was right to be afraid. He made Mutton name aloud the things he was tempted to do, so as to make himself less likely to do them. It was a kind of psychic homeopathy, and Mutton brought the method back to his Fellowship leadership supervisions, where, every week, behind closed doors, in the church parlor, he and the advisors took turns making each other uncomfortable, inoculating themselves against temptations to misuse their power, airing their personal issues so as not to inflict them on the kids. Photocopies of Then Joy Breaks Through began to circulate among Fellowship advisors. The Authentic Relationship, as exemplified by Jesus and Peter, became the group’s Grail—its alternative to the passive complicity of drug-using communities, its rebuke to traditional pastoral notions of “comforting” and “enabling.”
For all the neuroticism and self-(un)awareness attached to many of these notions, the core question is, perhaps, sound: for radicals in the 60's, what better expression of humanism, and the message of Christ, could exist than a doctrine of caring about others as a reference for your spiritual health. Franzen mentions months at a time where no Bible had been seen, for example, but the leadership of Fellowship would deny the group had lost its way as a Christian organization. This is partly a function of, sure, many seminarians enrolling to avoid military service, and finding this an effective vehicle for the spiritualism that underlies that position, one which doesn't require being a Christian to abhor war and imperialism as well. Another counselor posits to the young Franzen that many of Jesus' miracles are attribute to the divine what is merely explainable by socialism, which is, itself, a compassionate act of supreme humanism.
Without going too deep into the plot of either of these Franzen texts, there's a case to be made that the conflict Franzen depicts is the spiritual crisis we wrestle with everyday, and that perhaps sometimes absent these groups, the conflict is perhaps not so pronounced. We do, however, reconcile these conflicts in every decision we make, guided by political or spiritual or simply intuitional ideology.
Mao Zedong in On Contradiction, writes:
As opposed to the metaphysical world outlook, the world outlook of materialist dialectics holds that in order to understand the development of a thing we should study it internally and in its relations with other things; in other words, the development of things should be seen as their internal and necessary self-movement, while each thing in its movement is interrelated with and interacts on the things around it. The fundamental cause of the development of a thing is not external but internal; it lies in the contradictoriness within the thing. There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes. Thus materialist dialectics effectively combats the theory of external causes, or of an external motive force, advanced by metaphysical mechanical materialism and vulgar evolutionism. It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another.
If the process of resolving conflict, not necessarily contradiction itself, but a willingness to acknowledge that much of life is this conflict, is the nature of being, then what does this say when applied to the scenario Franzen depicts in mid-century American Christianity? Well, it has a lot of relevance, but specifically that conflict for its own sake can either be insightful or, as in the case of Fellowship, accelerationist in its expression, devoid of utility if the goal was to synthesize something greaters. This is something Mutton realizes at the end of the Fellowship era at Franzen's church: his philosophy built a robust cadre of countercultural adherents, but how does this serve the interests of a broader ideological liberative movement?
“One weekend in 1975, Mutton and Symes and the other advisors attended a pastoral retreat sponsored by the United Church of Christ. The Fellowship gang rode in like Apaches of confrontation, intending to shock and educate the old-fashioned hand-holders and enablers. They performed a mock supervision, sitting in a tight circle while seventy or eighty ministers sat around them and observed. Inside this fishbowl, Mutton turned to Symes and asked him, “When are you going to cut your hair?”
Symes had known in advance that he was going to be the “volunteer.” But his ponytail was very important to him, and the subject was explosive.
Mutton asked him again, “When are you going to cut your hair?”
“Why should I cut my hair?”
“When are you going to grow up and be a leader?”
While the other advisors kept their heads low and the enabling and comforting older clergy looked on, Mutton began to beat up on Symes. “You’re committed to social justice and personal growth,” he said. “Those are your values.”
Symes made a stupid-face. “Duh! Your values, too.”
“Well, and who are the people who most need to hear your voice? People who look like you, or people who don’t look like you?”
“But what if your attachment to your style is becoming a barrier to doing what’s most important to you? What’s the problem with cutting your hair?”
“I don’t want to cut my hair!” Symes said, his voice breaking.
“That is such bullshit,” Mutton said. “Where do you want to fight your battles? Do you want to be fighting about your tie-dye T-shirt and your painter’s pants? Or do you want to be fighting over civil rights? Immigrant workers’ rights? Women’s rights? Compassion for the disenfranchised? If these are the battles that matter to you, when are you going to grow up and cut your hair?”
“I don’t know—”
“When are you going to grow up and accept your authority?”
“I don’t know! Bob. I don’t know!”
Mutton could have been asking himself the same questions. Fellowship had been meeting in a Christian church for nearly a decade, whole years had gone by in which no Bible had been seen, “Jesus Christ” was the thing you said when somebody spilled soup on your sunburn, and George Benson, in his supervision of Mutton, wanted to know what the story was. Was this a Christian group or not? Was Mutton willing to stick his neck out and own up to his belief in God and Christ? Was he willing to claim his ministry? Mutton was getting similar questions from some of the advisors. They wanted to know on whose authority honesty and confrontation had become the central values of the group. On Mutton’s authority? Why Mutton’s? Who he? If the group wanted to be about more than Mutton and the group’s adoration of him, then where did the authority reside? To Mutton the answer was clear. If you took away Christ’s divinity, you were left with “Kum Ba Ya.” You were left with “Let’s hold hands and be nice to each other.” Jesus’ authority as a teacher—and whatever authority Mutton and company had as followers of his teachings—rested on His having had the balls to say, “I am the fulfillment of the prophecies, I am the Jews’ gift to mankind, I am the son of Man,” and to let Himself be nailed to a cross to back it up. If you couldn’t take that step in your own mind, if you couldn’t refer to the Bible and celebrate Communion, how could you call yourself a Christian?”
The realization here is that if your expression of your values becomes a perceived barrier to accomplishing your goals as a self-styled activist, then which of these struggles is the important one to you? Self-expression, personal discovery is individually satisfying, but fails as a resolution to deep societal conflict addressable only by an organized public, one spiritual about enlarging the human spirit, not one's own belief in themselves. Mutton's failure here is manifest in how the group functioned, how its adherents turned this vigor inwards, rather than towards the issues in society they saw themselves as capable of modeling a better outcome for rather than movement building to that end.
Mao says this of liberalism, but it applies to individual motivations driving failure, where a class-conscious radical organization could succeed:
"Liberalism is extremely harmful in a revolutionary collective. It is a corrosive which eats away unity, undermines cohesion, causes apathy and creates dissension. It robs the revolutionary ranks of compact organization and strict discipline, prevents policies from being carried through and alienates the Party organizations from the masses which the Party leads. It is an extremely bad tendency.
Liberalism stems from petty-bourgeois selfishness, it places personal interests first and the interests of the revolution second, and this gives rise to ideological, political and organizational liberalism.
People who are liberals look upon the principles of Marxism as abstract dogma. They approve of Marxism, but are not prepared to practice it or to practice it in full; they are not prepared to replace their liberalism by Marxism. These people have their Marxism, but they have their liberalism as well--they talk Marxism but practice liberalism; they apply Marxism to others but liberalism to themselves. They keep both kinds of goods in stock and find a use for each. This is how the minds of certain people work."
The novel, itself, is about much more than simply this one aspect of moral crisis in the midcentury, however, I found this aspect, drawn from Franzen's own life, important framing. It frames a moment in American history where, for the first time, organizing was at its most mainstream and perhaps most openly influential; almost all gains made towards increasing democracy, such as it is, in the US came not from the Supreme Court or Congress, but from the organizers and activists who made the Court and Congress fear what might happen if they didn't accede.
According to Mao, "It is necessary not only to study the particular contradiction and the essence determined thereby of every great system of the forms of motion of matter, but also to study the particular contradiction and the essence of each process in the long course of development of each form of motion of matter. In every form of motion, each process of development which is real (and not imaginary) is qualitatively different."
The conflict, then, becomes, one between productive and unproductive collective expressions of morality, when and when not to prioritize individual motivations, and in embracing a Maoist attitude towards conflict, you find the balance in realizing substance occurs as a result of that process, not in the process itself as doctrine. The moral crisis described in these kinds of stories tangle with exactly this; Mutton deciding conflict is a virtue, conflict for its own sake leading to splintering rather than solidarity, Mutton's ministry collapsing, requiring a strong central authority to realign the group and its ideals, albeit as a fraction of force, rather than utilizing conflict as a tool to advance in the timeline, to create usable views and beliefs, rather than as a way to recurse over them in an endless holding pattern.