Friday, October 02, 2020

Denny Reflects on The Mitford Novels

I’m sitting here in the pre-dawn quiet enjoying a cup of coffee and thinking about the beauty, relevance, and rich significance of what I’ve taken recently 
to calling “Mitford ministry”; that is,actions of Christian service that emphasize the values (and even the methods) that one sees portrayed so winsomely in the ministries of Fr. Tim Kavanaugh in Jan Karon’s heartwarming series of Mitford novels. 

Yes, I’m aware that some of Karon’s following relish the Mitford books as “escapist fiction,” enjoying them because the small town charms and eccentric characters present a welcome relief from lives that some readers might feel are either too hectic or too humdrum. I understand the sentiments of such readers because I too love the sheer pleasantness of the novels. However, from my first Mitford book (which I must confess was postponed for way too many years after Claire first started encouraging me to read them), I have found a wealth of spiritual conviction and challenge amid all the charm. Karon is a superb writer and storyteller but her talents are used not merely to entertain – as wonderful a purpose as that is – they also guide, equip, and encourage. For in and among her vivid place descriptions, fascinating characters, humor, literary references, and “page-turning readability,” Karon presents life lessons for the Christian that are winsome, memorable, and remarkably persuasive. 

 Let me mention another angle I take on the Mitford novels that might surprise those of you who know my longstanding appreciation of G.K. Chesterton. That angle is simply this – I believe Jan Karon’s Mitford novels are among the most Chestertonian literature around, celebrating as they so effectively do such blessings as home, family, friendship, courage, forgiveness, compassion, humility, sacrifice, food, what might be described as “local patriotism,” and an orthodox Christianity that is revealed in both precept and practice. A stretch? Not really. For beyond the abundant novelties and paradoxes which one relishes in Chesterton, the core values he celebrates in Manalive, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, The Flying Inn, and so many of his other novels, essays, and poetry are the very values I’ve mentioned above. 

 But it is not only the values of G.K. Chesterton I encounter when I’m in Mitford, it is also those ordinary, day by day acts of Christian love which Frances and Edith Schaeffer underscored were the stuff of “true spirituality.” Indeed, the early years of L’Abri reveal how devotedly the Schaeffer family sought to live out the same Chestertonian (and yes,“Mitfordian”) virtues I listed above. The Schaeffers argued the necessity of a solid intellectual understanding of Christianity while also insisting that the disciple’s lifestyle be marked by personal holiness, humble prayer, an appreciation of God’s handiwork, and an intense desire to serve the Lord through practical love towards others. 

 Did Jan Karon find inspiration for her novels from these saints? Maybe a bit. Maybe not at all. But that’s not the important point. Rather it is that Jan Karon, G.K. Chesterton, and the Schaeffers were all moved by the Holy Spirit to use their art (and/or their preaching, journalism, and personal walk of sanctification) to stimulate love and good deeds among their fellow believers…and to present a winsome apologetic for the gospel to unbelievers. But before I conclude “my musings on things Mitford,” let me reiterate the most important life lessons with which Fr. Tim Kavanaugh (and other characters and plot situations in the Jan Karon novels) refresh and challenge me. 

 1) The overarching value of personal spirituality. Over and again, Karon illustrates the beauty of the fruits of the Spirit in one’s life. And this means patience and forgiveness in dealing with “very draining persons;” spending time in both personal and corporate prayer; commitment to spiritual disciplines; personal development, including reading the Bible and other quality literature; and seeing divinely-inspired duty in such practical things as washing dishes, walking the dog, and preparing meals. 

 2) Devotion to marriage, family, and community. This includes such practical things as writing letters to one’s spouse; care in selecting gifts; hospitality of a variety of forms, including letters, calls, entertaining, and visits; ministry to children, the aged, and the sick; “home loyalties,” including support for one’s church and local businesses; and engaging joyfully in the dominion mandate in projects both big (building a new wing of a hospital or adopting a child) and small (gardening or restoring a nativity set). 

 3) Evangelism and discipleship that’s willing to be “in for the long haul.” 

 4) The “attitude of gratitude” for God’s creation, His Word, His will, and His plan of salvation through the gracious and substitutionary work of Jesus Christ. I would add that Karon also stresses thankfulness for the simple, beautiful things of life. For instance, Fr. Tim and Cynthia aren’t chasing the latest technologies or methods; they find happiness and contentment in warm blankets, a snuggling pet, a complement, a snowfall, a handwritten letter, a lunch at the diner with friends, an old book, a restored piece of furniture, a poem, a cup of tea, the moonrise, and so much more. They even seek to live with an “attitude of gratitude” when God brings challenges, disappointments, and trials their way. 

 Like millions of other readers, I would probably have thoroughly enjoyed Jan Karon’s novels and found a wealth of spiritual stimulation in them even if, for decades earlier, I hadn’t sought to live out the virtues taught me by Chesterton and the Schaeffers. But having done so has made the Mitford novels a very special treasure for me. Thank you, Jan Karon. 

 So, for art that doesn’t merely seek to imitate life but rather to enrich and deepen it with examples of lives well-invested for the Lord…lives reflecting personal sanctity, gratitude, joy, endurance, hope, and extremely practical “small dose” ministry which beautifies and blesses, Jan Karon’s Mitford novels receive my highest recommendations.