I had been sitting in the little coffee house on Magazine St. in New Orleans for a while trying to write and enjoying the music of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday and the ceiling fans turning slowly overhead in this old building. The sound of the coffee beans and the steamer and the smell of the coffee dripping and people talking with the music in the background was a perfect accessory to the hundred year old architecture and surroundings. New Orleans. The Caribbean city in North America. I love the city so. It is a labyrinth of sight, sound, flavor, and experience that always takes you deeper into history and mystery. Every house has a story, as does every neighborhood. You can't know anything real about New Orleans as a tourist. You just can't. New Orleans is not the French Quarter – not really. I mean, it was once, and in a sense, it still is in the same way that the tip of an iceberg is the part of the iceberg that everyone sees. But, the real New Orleans is what happens everywhere else every day and a tourist can't see it. It takes time to see, just like a good Red Beans & Rice takes hours to cook correctly. You don't really see New Orleans until you sit it in for a while and let it slowly wrap around you. New Orleans has to be meditated on and sipped slowly and that takes longer than a day or three or even years. When you spend time in this place, you are changed by it in unique ways.
I was in this coffee shop on a Friday in New Orleans in early Spring waiting for Rod Dreher, the New York Times bestselling author of The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and conservative journalist. I have been reading Rod's writing for a couple of years and enjoy his take on culture, politics, faith, good food, travel, family, and a host of other things. Rod writes in a confessional style, bearing his soul for his reader and inviting them to join him in his journey of discovery. His classic line when he posts a quote from another article is, “you really should read the whole thing.” And, Rod makes you want to read the whole thing. Or eat the food or travel to the place or pray the prayer. That is the mark of a good writer and Rod is definitely a great writer. So, when he sent me an advance copy of his new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life Changing Wisdom of History's Greatest Poem, I was excited to dive in. Then, knowing I'd be spending some time in Louisiana, I asked Rod if he'd like to meet. He lives north of Baton Rouge, but said he'd be in the city on Friday, so we set it up. Great!
Rod came in the coffee house a little disheveled, wearing a blue blazer, round black glasses, and mussed hair and beard. He fits the bill of the Southern writer and intellectual quite well. Without even introducing ourselves formally, Rod begins to tell me the story of his long Friday lunch at Galatoire's (a New Orleans institution) with friends and how he accidentally dented his wife's SUV while parking moments ago and how, with a slight smile on his face, he was sure his wife would kill him, but not really. Immediately, I was in Rod's world and we were old friends talking about our day. Rod ordered coffee and then we dove in to conversation about life, faith, and Dante and what led him into this book and the lessons learned. We talked about a lot of other things and we both told stories about what God meant to us and how life takes strange turns. It was a great conversation and gave me good insight into the man who wrote this treasure of a book. Rod is a genuine seeker and lives the journey that he writes and writes what he lives. I told him that he was becoming a theologian of sorts with the writing of this book, even though he doesn't write in a technical way. His look was one of surprise at that, but I think that anytime we are thinking about God we are thinking as theologians, in a sense.
Rod writes thoughtfully and invitingly about Dante Alighieri, the medieival Italian poet from Florence (1265-1321). Dante is not someone that I have paid a whole lot of attention to in the past. I knew that he had written the Commedia and had heard of the three parts of it, Inferno, Purgatoria, and Paradiso. But, beyond knowing that he was a big deal in the late Middle Ages and that we get a lot of our ideas about Hell from Dante, even if they are not necessarily Biblical, I did not know much more.
In his late 40's, Rod tells how he had entered a “dark wood” in life and could not find his way out. The book starts where his previous book about the death of his sister, Ruthie, leaves off. Rod was a journalist living on the East Coast and was profoundly affected by his sister's life and death. Upon her passing, he and his wife Julie and their children decided to leave the world of journalism in the Northeast and return home to small town Louisiana to reenter community and life with family. Things did not go as he hoped, though, and family conflict arose driving him into a deep depression that dramatically affected his physical health. He was falling and could not find his way out of the hole. Then, one day, Rod stumbles upon Dante's Commedia in a book store and a path toward freedom began to slowly unfold for him.
“Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood, For the straight way was lost.” ~ Dante's Inferno, I:1-3
That is how Inferno opens up and upon reading those lines, I was hooked. They described well how I felt myself. Forty years old and having been in full time ministry for 15 years, I had begun having trouble seeing my own way forward. What did God want me to do next? Where was my road going? I had lots of questions and few answers. So, I asked for a sabbatical from my church and was graciously granted one. For the past many weeks I had been reading, praying, traveling, and seeking God for a renewal and refreshing of His call and for a restored intimacy with Him that would give me the renewed ability to see the world through His eyes. Then, I get this Dante book in my email from Rod and have the chance to meet him. As I begin reading it, I am suddenly in the bookstore with Rod – in the dark wood with Rod and Dante – and recognizing that my own straight way was lost. How would I get out? I wanted to read the whole thing.
Rod takes the reader into Dante's world and travels with him through Hell and Purgatory and then up to Paradise. Rod is Eastern Orthodox, who used to be a Catholic who used to be a Methodist and was an agnostic in between. And, he writes about a Late Medieval Italian Catholic poet. So, as a Protestant/Evangelical/Baptist, there is much that I do not agree with in both Rod's theology and in Dante's. I told Rod that and told him I would write that in my review and he said he completely understood and expected it. But, I also told Rod that as he wrote about Dante, there were sections where I thought, “that's Evangelical theology right there,” and I realized that when the Orthodox journalist writes about the Medieval Catholic poet and the Baptist pastor recognizes his own theology showing up in places, then we are stumbling into what the Anglican scholar/philosopher C.S. Lewis called Mere Christianity. And, even though I disagree with Rod and Dante and Lewis on certain things, it is encouraging to see the things that do bind us together, namely the person of Jesus Christ and His love for us. In other words, as Rod said at the end of our conversation after we had prayer together on the corner outside of the coffee house on Magazine St., “we are all on the same team.” Yes, and since we all see through a glass darkly, as Paul said, it is good when the light of Christ shines through clear enough for us to all see Him together.
I won't give an outline of the whole book, but the one thing that jumped out to me about what Dante and Dreher can teach Baptists is the significance of the spiritual journey of healing and restoration with Christ that we all need because of our deep brokenness. When Rod writes about the insights that he gained from Dante and how he met with his Orthodox priest and received soul care and guidance and how his Southern Baptist therapist helped him even further, I realized that much of what we call discipleship as Baptists is often simply the passing on of information in an institutional setting. Our goal is often trying to get people to the place where they can do evangelism or ministry instead of seeing them be made whole, as though we don't realize that personal wholeness has its own value. And, maybe that is why it often works so poorly for us. The human heart is a complex thing and we are broken and suffer in deep ways because of both our own sins and the sins of others against us that wound us deeply. Scripture speaks to that, but it seems that we often want quick fixes and steps to be taken so we can get on with producing results and fail to realize that we are all on a journey and that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who leads us to still waters and green pastures if we would let Him. Dante talks about sin and the flesh and its consequences and he shows the way out of it through grace and forgiveness and pilgrimage and through following the better way of Jesus.
Again, there are a lot of things theologically that I disagreed with both in Dante's writing as well as in Dreher's take on it. I'll let the reader discover those things himself if that is what he is looking for. But, then again, I am used to reading people from outside of my camp and I do not have to fully agree with a writer to appreciate what they are trying to get across. I warn the Baptist who is looking for a Baptst take on Dante that you won't find that here. But, maybe that is good because maybe seeing what Dante is saying through Dreher's perspective can give more insight than if he were interpreted from within our own theological tradition.
As Dreher follows Dante and his guide, Virgil, through the Inferno, and Purgatory, and then up to Paradise, I realized that what Dante is actually writing about is the journey of sanctification and I found my own idols being confronted – things that I had never noticed before. On several occasions, I put the book down and prayed as I saw that I had, often unknowingly, pursued even good things as a means to an end for my own benefit or had looked to others for the affirmation that only God could give. Like Dante, and Dreher, I would confess my sin and then, by God's grace, experience an amazing freedom and lightheartedness that would come as God's peace and freedom would invade my heart. I learned from Dreher the truth of what he says here:
Loving wrongly can lead us to make idols—that is, to treat things as sacred, which though good, are not sacred. Things like romantic love, food and drink, work, family, patriotism, art, scholarship, science, sports, literature, even religion—all these things can be idols if we allow our passion for them to rule us like gods.Whatever idol you worship—and all of us, religious or not, are tempted by idolatry—the ultimate idol you worship is yourself. no discerning reader gets out of Dante’s inferno without having had at least one soul-shaking encounter with their ugliest self. And here’s the hard but necessary truth: it’s nobody’s fault but your own.
I hear Tim Keller echoing in my ears from his book, Counterfeit Gods. Or, CS Lewis. And, I realized that in my own life, I had made an idol out of being effective in ministry and getting things done and being a good leader and pastor and that when those things weren't working out the way that I wanted, frustration entered in. But, while it is good to want to serve God well, the frustration came from trying to get my identity from it and looking to others to meet needs that only God could meet. Realizing this was like a cleansing bolt of lightening to my soul and I freely confessed and thanked God that He would be so gracious as to be the One who satisfies, whether I was “successful” or not.
There were many other insights like that and it was the combination of story, poetry, and Rod's own confessional writing that got me thinking deeply about my own life and ministry and some of the barriers to God and people that had developed as I looked for success/affirmation in places that it could never really be found.
Another aspect of the book that I talked with Rod about was how it was a book about a Christian journey but it was not a Christian book, per se, though it could not help but be one. What I mean is that this would bea good book for someone who is struggling with life but doesn't know why, even if they are not a believer. It was applicable to everyone. The invitation that Dreher gives to the reader to join him and Dante in a journey of discovery is one that could lead the reader to face some significant things in his own life and he just might find God there, waiting for him like He has been all along. Like New Orleans, it is a book that you journey into to let it work on you and shape you.
Rod writes about Dante at the end of his section on Purgatorio before he enters Paradiso in this way,
From those most holy waters I came away remade, as are new plants renewed with new-sprung leaves, pure and prepared to rise up to the stars. ~ [Purgatorio XXXiii:142–145]Our pilgrim has come out of Egypt. He has crossed the desert of Sinai. now he is ready to see the Promised Land. If you stop here, you will have traveled far enough to grasp the secret of the Commedia, the Holy Grail itself: The meaning of life is found not in serving the self and things of the senses, but in serving the Higher Power that unites and orders and transcends all created things. we call this power God, and it is in God that we live and move and have our being.For Christians like Dante Alighieri and me, that Higher Power has a name, Jesus Christ. He is the incarnation of love. He is the way, the truth, and the Life, and no man can reach unity with God, or theosis, except through him.
In many ways, this is a secular book of discovery written by a Christian about the journey of healing that Christ provides out of self and toward oneness with God. It is a remarkable achievement. I told Rod that my hope was that many would read this book and join Rod and Dante on their journey to God. Rod speaks to a wide audience of Christians, nominal religionists, and people of all different faiths and of no faith at all.
There is so much in Western literature, art, and tradition that speaks to the existence and glory of God. Part of speaking to this culture, I think, is digging down into the depths of history and recovering both the good and the bad and showing how God spoke to us in the past so we can hear Him again today. Diving into Dante might be a way to do that for those who think that they are not interested in what the Bible has to say about the meaning of life. As Dante ascends, we just might find ourselves ascending with him.
You really should read the whole thing.