Just as the tsunami of attention for Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom began, I was looking for a topic for a Christian Legal Society talk at Penn Law School. As a result, I found myself, for almost the first time ever, reading a trendy book while it was still trendy.
The story centers on a couple named Walter and Patty Berglund, and their children Joey and Jessica. Walter is initially a lawyer at 3M in St. Paul, Minnesota, and later works for several environmental organizations. Patty is a former second team All-America basketball player at the University of Minnesota. The “freedom” in the title refers both to the Bush era promotion of free markets and political freedom, and to the characters’ efforts to find freedom from their relational commitments—Patty through a tryst with Richard Katz, a cool rock star who is Walter’s best friend from college; Joey by moving next door to live with his girlfriend and her despised Republican family.
An aside: the reviews I’ve seen invariably mention Franzen’s explicit references to War and Peace. I assume that Walter’s name is intended to echo James Thurber’s Walter Mitty (another frustrated dreamer); and Walter’s young Bengalese love interest Lalitha calls Nabokov’s Lolita to mind in ways both obvious and subtle.
Christianity plays only a tiny role in Freedom, in the form of a somewhat caricatured evangelical character who comes in at the very end of the novel. (Judaism figures slightly more prominently, when Joey gets mixed up with a neo-con character). But Franzen’s repeated suggestion that freedom isn’t everything we might imagine it to be made me think of the Apostle Paul’s discourse on freedom in Romans 6.
For Franzen’s characters, escape from a relationship invariably brings its own unfreedom, accompanied by its own unhappiness. The disillusionment usually involves sex, but my favorite illustration comes in a minor scene involving Walter’s visit with a brother who was dashing and disdainful of Walter in his youth, but has had three wives and is now nearly destitute. When the brother tells Walter that he stays out of his kids’ lives because he’s only capable of caring for himself, Walter says, “You’re a free man.”
Paul too teaches that the “freedom” we’re tempted to imagine is illusory. Those who reject the Gospel may be free from its strictures, he says, but they are slaves to sin. The Gospel offers us freedom from sin, but requires a commitment to Christ. The Bible offers a very different conclusion than Franzen’s characters, of course: while the wages of sin is death, Paul says at the end of Romans 6, “the free gift of Christ is eternal life.”
What can those of us who rejoice in “the free gift of Christ” learn from a novel like Freedom? The novel should prompt us to ask whether we’re living as if Christ is our real freedom, or whether we’re putting too much hope in political or relational freedom.
Borrowing from comments I’d heard at church several weeks earlier, I suggested two very practical steps the students might take to deepen their commitment to the freedom offered by Christ. The first is to think seriously about the importance of the Sabbath, and of taking time away from studies and work to be with God’s people. The second is to become involved in a local church, even if they are only here temporarily. Both are deeply countercultural, and often especially challenging for students.
Needless to say, the advice applies to me and to many of you, too.