Thursday, March 17, 2011

Not a Theology Textbook: The Last Gentleman

This is the second of a series of posts I started way too long ago about books that are theological, but not theology textbooks.  Example of a theology textbook: Justo L. Gonzalez's The Story of Christianity. Example of a theological non-textbook: Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. While a good non-textbook should mesh well with Christian teaching, it may not mesh equally well on all points and should not be read like a theology textbook.

The book I'll be talking about in this post is The Last Gentleman by Walker Percy. The book is about baptism. I'm only halfway joking. I find that with Percy novels thus far, I can pick a featured sacrament, "the modern world," sex, or hope, and say "this book is about X", and I'll be at least somewhat right. So for the fun of it, if nothing else, I insist that The Last Gentleman is about baptism.

The Last Gentleman concerns the adventures of Will Barrett, an amensiac engineer--custodian--who falls in love with a woman named Kitty Vaught at first sight and sets out to pursue her.

The book's theological tones become more apparent as the story picks up, and Will awkwardly courts Kitty. This leads to his eventual involvement in her family and their affairs, especially with her dying brother, Jamie and brother Sutter. Percy has a lot of things to say about love, hope, despair and sex as Will journeys from New England to the south.

Barrett's world is alienated, and he feels out of place. He is miserable when others are happy and only happy when things are going seriously wrong. When he falls in with the Vaughts he begins to find his place again.

At one point in his journey, Will meets a member of the family named Val Vaught, who has up and joined a nunnery after being influenced by a sister in a social work program. Val is said to be religious, though not in the conventional sense, and the reader discovers later on what this means. She is a gem of a Percy character, and expresses well a common Christian struggle:
‎I believe the whole business: God, the Jews, Christ, the Church, grace, and the forgiveness of sins [...] I'm meaner than ever. Christ is my lord and I love him but I'm a good hater and you know what he said about that. I still hope my enemies fry in hell. What to do about that? Will God forgive me?
One theme that is prominent is the theme of sacrament as a hope for the world. In his travels Will discovers pieces of a correspondence between Val Vaught and Kitty's other brother, Sutter. The correspondence he reads gives the reader a good dose of Percy's recurring theme of the world, really, needing the Church if it is to be human, and what the world will do if the Church is not available.

Ultimately the winding series of adventures that Will has come to their completion on the points of hope and salvation. Accidents and amnesiac incidences that turn out, in the end, somewhat providential or at least for the best, are a big element of the book.

If the book goes wrong it is in overemphasizing the usefulness of the paths of sin as providential. The book's use of the theme of hope may strike some Christian readers as being too vague, and some readers (this one among them, sometimes) may be uncomfortable with Percy's use of sexuality for his philosophical ends. The theme of sacrament is there, but it is milder and less obvious than may suit the taste of some readers. Percy is not a comfortable writer, and not everyone will be comfortable with this.

In the end Percy paints a wonderful portrait of a wanderer eventually finding his way to a sort of home and helping to bring some hope to others along the way. It is not an overtly religious journey, though it is spiritual and sacramental, and as I will insist, with at least some degree of seriousness, it is about the sacrament of baptism. In this novel Percy cannot contain his Catholicism, not that he would want to. Barrett's journey from a sort of homelessness to a sort of home, to a place where he can help give hope, and Percy's portrayal of faithful and philosophical Catholicism along the way, help make The Last Gentleman, in an awesome way, not a theology textbook.

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