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Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant

[Note: this review was first published in Christianity and Literature]

Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and UnpleasantBy Alan Jacobs. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010. Pp. xiv + 154.

Reviewed by Matthew Barrett

The title of Alan Jacobs’ new book, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, needs interpretation. First, Jacobs has chosen the essay as his medium for communication and he explains why: “I love the essay primarily because it is the genre par excellence of wayfaring” (xiii). However, Jacobs does not have any type of wayfaring in mind, but particularly the wayfaring of the Christian who travels to the Celestial City but along the way experiences the great and difficult temptations that compete to deviate the Christian from the course of his sanctification. Jacobs explains in his typical, profound way:

An old phrase holds that to be a Christian is to be homo viator: the human being as wayfarer, as pilgrim. Wayfarers know in a general sense where we are headed: to the City of God, what John Bunyan, that great chronicler of pilgrimage, called the Celestial City – but we aren’t altogether certain of the way. We can get lost for a time, or lose our focus and nap for too long on a soft patch of grass at the side of the road, or dally a few days at Vanity Fair. We can even become discouraged – but we don’t, ultimately and finally, give up. And we don’t think we have arrived. To presume that we have made it to our destination and to despair of arriving are both, as Jürgen Moltmann has wisely said, ways of “canceling the wayfaring character of hope” (xiv).

Second, the sub-title of Jacobs’ book, Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant, is a modification of George Bernard Shaw’s Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant. “Some are celebratory, some are critical; most partake of both attitudes. You never know what kinds of things will turn up along the way” (xiv). Jacobs is not exaggerating, as is evident in the fact that his essays jump from the serious to the hilarious without allowing one to catch his breath. One essay may ponder the significance of tress and the next may reflect upon the fiction of Harry Potter. Most of the chapters included have already appeared in a previous venue. Put together, however, this collection of eighteen short essays by Jacobs displays his talent as a writer as well as his insight into the pilgrimage Christians travel. While all eighteen chapters cannot be summarized here, several deserve mention for their insight on various matters of life.

One of the beginning essays deserving attention is “A Religion for Atheists,” an essay confronting the scrutiny of Christianity by Alain De Botton. De Botton criticizes Christianity and religion in general, arguing that “no part of religion is true in the sense of being God-given.” Nevertheless, De Botton thinks it still important to preserve certain elements of religious practice (though not religious belief). De Botton calls this “A Religion for Atheists.” What are these elements? One example is the preservation of the cathedral because, says De Botton, it rightly makes us feel small inside and we recognize “the debt that sanity owes to such a feeling.” However, Jacobs sees through such a façade. Why, asks Jacobs, do we need cathedrals to have such a feeling? To feel small one can take a trip to other man-made structures like the Sears Tower or the Hoover Dam or the Millennium Dome. No, says Jacobs, the real reason for feeling small is that we are a “small part of something glorious, in which we can participate, find our place, find our purpose.” Indeed, “Cathedrals are celebrations of all that God has made, and they embody in their stone and glass the history of God’s dealings with his world and people made in his image” (24). Jacobs recognizes that we, as created in the image of God, cannot separate ourselves from the storyline of redemptive history in which we find ourselves in. But De Botton goes on for he thinks even atheists can benefit from the “kindness and virtue” of religion and can “try to counter the optimistic tenor of modern society and return us to the great pessimistic undercurrents found in traditional faiths.” De Botton follows the Jacques-Louis David who, during the French Revolution, painted in the name of a “Religion of Mankind” a “secularized version of Christianity.” De Botton wants all the benefits of a religion but without the “god” that comes with it. But again, Jacobs sees the flaw in De Botton’s proposal. History reminds us that not only the French Revolution but Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and communist China all tried to have a religion without a god. The result? The state becomes that god. From “the French Revolution on, these governments expended great energy, time, and money ‘to try to make us good’” and failed. Jacobs believes De Botton knows this which is why he insists on things like cathedrals to make us feel small because he recognizes that there must be pessimism. “De Bottom understands that profound optimism about human nature and the exercise of power . . . led earlier repudiators of God and the Church to build their secular religions in ways that encouraged the most horrific abuses imaginable” (26). De Botton wants the same worldview which repudiates God and Church to build his secular religion but of course without the “horrific abuses.” Jacobs concludes, “I sense, as I peer into the distance, yet another bureaucratic unit of the European Union arising, like Venus from the sea” (26).

Another essay filled with insight is “Opportunity Costs” where Jacobs reflects upon the craft of the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling. What, asks Jacobs, makes these novels so addicting, so alluring, so exciting, even for a “middle-aged man”? Jacobs gives reasons. Rowling does three things “exceptionally well.” (1) Rowling creates characters her readers really care about. These characters “possess some admirable trait (kindness, or courage, or wisdom) but are also somehow vulnerable” (62). (2) Rowling writes suspenseful plots. You must find out what is going to happen! And (3) Rowling creates an imaginative world that “people love to inhabit, even after they already know what happens in the stories.” These three reasons seem simple.  So why are they the key ingredients? “Many writers can do one of those things; a few can do two; hardly any can achieve all three” (62). All criticisms of Rowling aside, every writer can admire the ability of Rowling to combine all three of these talents.

But perhaps one of the best essays in Wayfaring, and maybe the most provocative, is “Blessed Are the Green of Heart.” In many of the Wayfaring essays, Jacobs is gentle in his reflection and quiet in spirit, simply observing the peculiarities of life. However, here we see Jacobs as a writer who has finally had enough. As the essay’s title reveals, Jacobs is addressing the hot button issue of being “green.” Jacobs qualifies himself at the very beginning,

Now, before I try to account for my discomfort, I wish it known that my family owns only one car (a six-year-old, four cylinder Subaru), lives in a house with only one bathroom, and recycles fanatically. I walk to and from work most days and fly rarely. My carbon footprint is perhaps one ten-thousandth the size of Al Gore’s. Moreover – and if this does not confirm my bona fides nothing will – I am even now writing a book called The Gospel of the Trees. If you’re looking for someone greener than me, your only options are the Incredible Hulk and Kermit the Frog.

Nevertheless Jacobs has a bone to pick with others who call themselves green, especially those who put together The Green Bible, a Bible which is a Green-letter edition (verses and passages that speak to God’s care for creation are highlighted in green). The Green Bible includes the contributions of Brian McLaren (poster boy for the emerging church movement), N. T. Wright (New Perspective on Paul advocate), Rick Warren (Saddleback mega-church pastor), the late Pope John Paul II, Wendell Berry (perhaps the only one greener than Jacobs himself) and others. The Green Bible even uses recycled paper (soy-based ink with cotton/linen cover). So why then is Jacobs, who is “Green” himself, so uncomfortable with such a project?  The reason is quite simple: The The Green Bible is “subjecting the whole of Scripture to one agenda – enfolding it in the single adjective green” and this is “I think, an ill-judged strategy for pursuing a worthwhile goal” (121). To use an analogy, Jacobs is reminded of a similar discomfort he experienced when attending a morning chapel service at Magdalen College when the chaplain concluded the usual, a benediction from Scripture, with the unusual, a quotation from Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Jacobs explains the parallel, “Lewis is indeed dear to me and to millions of others, but admiration of Lewis is not a prerequisite for participating in the rites of the Church. . . . To include Lewis’s words in worship, as part of the liturgy itself, is to suggest that those words deserve the same reverence that we grant to the Book of Common Prayer and perhaps – given the usual source of liturgical benedictions – Scripture itself” (120). The same logic applies to The Green Bible as Jacobs continues his criticisms: “The Green Bible presents us with a curious kind of natural theology: We start with things we know to be true from trust sources – Al Gore, perhaps? – and then we turn to Scripture to measure it against those preexisting and reliable authorities. And what a relief to discover that God is green. Because we already know that it’s good to be green – what we didn’t know is whether God measures up to that standard” (121). Jacobs’ point is well taken. If not careful, we tend to measure God by our standards. Moreover, why, asks Jacobs, the “Green” Bible. Why not the “Justice” Bible? “Could it be that greenness is a sexier commodity right now than justice or peaceableness?” Jacobs is piercing. Have we made the Bible fit whatever agenda is “cool” or “sexy” in our day, making that agenda the gospel itself? Jacobs exposes the problem once again when he writes that the strategy of The Green Bible “too easily conflates a particular agenda and the whole biblical message.” “If God is green, then are the green also godly? The essays in The Green Bible don’t do anything to discourage that line of thought” (123).

Being “green” has been elevated to such a degree by some evangelical Christians that what is then communicated by projects like The Green Bible is that “‘This is the stuff that really matters,’ which is another way of saying, ‘That other, nonemphasized stuff doesn’t matter as much.’” Moreover, The Green Bible teaches us that not only one theme (being green) is the most important theme, but it also “invites us to separate one theme from others, extracting it from the larger story of which it is a part” (124). The green lettering, prefatory essays, and study guide suggest that “this is the interpretative key to all of Scripture.” However, “that’s simply not a sustainable claim.” Jacobs has a point worth listening to. Are we painting the gospel story that Scripture presents in the color of our own agenda? Are we allowing one theme, like being green, to separate and extract all other themes from the larger story line of redemptive history? Have we made being green, as important as it may be, the new (and I would add, extra-biblical) condition for loving and accepting Christ as Savior and Lord? Is being green the new “second blessing” that makes one a more sanctified Christian than everyone else? Such questions as these expose the unsettling reality that occurs when we take a good thing and make it the most important thing, when we take an implication of the gospel and make it the gospel itself.

To conclude, these essays in Wayfaring by Jacobs are both pleasant and unpleasant as the subtitle says. Readers will in one chapter find themselves bathing in an ocean of words that are most pleasing and comforting yet in the next find themselves pinned to the wall, confronted by realities that are discomforting but nonetheless must be addressed if they are to be entirely honest as a Christian. Due to the variety of subjects covered by Jacobs, readers will not always find their interests addressed in each chapter (an impossible task for a writer to achieve anyway) and it may be the case that certain chapters are less intriguing as others. Nevertheless, Jacobs reminds us of the often neglected art of short prose. Such an art was perfected by C. S. Lewis, and Jacobs, not without the influence of Lewis, follows in this tradition.

 Matthew Barrett (Ph.D., The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University. He is also the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett has contributed book reviews and articles to various academic journals, and he is the author of several forthcoming books. He is married to Elizabeth and they have two daughters, Cassandra and Georgia.

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