If you’re looking for the key to Will Willimon’s new novel, Incorporation (Cascade, 2012), you can find it here:
More humiliating was his desperate need for this building. For twenty years he had deceived himself, telling himself and the world that Hope was nothing but a hulking millstone shackled to his neck. Tonight he knew it to be the other way around. Tonight he adored every neogothic, incongruous inch of this imposing temple–sunlight streaming through blue windows, the amplitude of the Great Hall, the substantial oak pulpit, the warm domestic intimacy of the Walter Rauschenbusch Lounge. Hope’s plumbing and circuitry, once derided as crumbling and decayed, now seemed immortal. Tonight nothing was eternal except that tower rising before him in the darkness. For ever and ever, amen.
If it reads as potentially over-the-top, then congratulate yourself for your insight. This whole story is ridiculous in the best, most honest way.
I haven’t been a part of a declining mainline church, but if Willimon has (and with his post as bishop in the United Methodist Church one would assume he’s seen plenty) then he ruthlessly lays it open for more posturing, gossipping, power-grabbing and self-righteous do-goodery than I could ever think of. Not that these same maladies don’t affect evangelical churches, but after having experienced other church-focused novels where the pastor in question pours his heart out to the Lord in intimate prayer, it’s quite a shock for senior managing pastor Dr. Simon Lupino to ignore a personal relationship with God and pour our his heart to the divorcee–or more importantly, to himself.
Some of my favorite parts included the several instances of Dr. Lupino’s sermon preparation. His intellectual struggle with the lectionary is Goldilocksian. Lupino is at his best avoiding the most challenging options while wringing the least objectionable/most inspiring out of what’s left. It’s hilarious, illuminating the struggle well-intending pastors face to keep the church going smoothly. Offended parishioners don’t tithe, and even the lectionary can be quite offensive to high-society apostles.
The staff is no help. Choirmaster Glumweltner and organist Grimball run their own fiefdoms. Johnson Quail is the hard-hearted executive pastor. Eleanor is the ignored children’s pastor, Cloe the put-upon executive assistant, Herb the retired pastor volunteer, Sam for building maintenance, and Stephen, the bewildered and awed youth pastor fresh from Princeton Seminary. Though no physical blood is ever drawn in staff meetings, the barbs and jabs around the conference table are sharp.
The church building is no help. Extravagant and old, everything threatens to explode or fall apart, from the pipes to the organ to the wiring. The expensive stain glass windows, depicting great humanists from history, mock Lupino in their achievement of Lupino’s dream: excellence. And then there is the dangerously sweltering organ chamber, waiting to trap those who dare enter.
Though human striving is exposed through the staff, members and church events, I appreciate most it’s relative lack of villainy–or maybe more accurately, its omnipresent villainy. Few characters are consciously doing evil, even if the mental and moral gymnastics to justify their innocence exhausts them. Everybody looks out for themselves–for survival if anything.
It’s the last point that hurts.I take this novel to be a humorous polemic, a silly prophetic parable to those who might get trapped by Hope’s mainline liberal materialist synergy of prestige and religion, but it’s kind of depressing to think that this behavior goes on in churches. Even if no member of any church or church staff had ever approached the mild level of selfishness demonstrated by these characters, something close had to have been experience by Willimon to write of these admittedly trite yet disappointing choices by people who should know better. All of us know–at least tangentially–of worse actions by church folk, but to be exposed to the inner-thoughts that go along with it makes me wonder if there’s any hope for Hope–or any of the other tens of thousands of churches in this country. How can we have a healthy church if everybody inside is sick?
And that’s why the book is a great read. Though it’s slow to get started and seemingly written on a college textbook level, it implores you to feel for these characters, for the church and for your own church staff.
Even as you cringe and pray, “There but for the grace of God…”