a guest post by Shelby
The premise of the Netflix dramedy Grace & Frankie is simple: two women in their seventies learn that their husbands are divorcing them in order to marry each other. As the pilot progresses, we learn that the husbands, Robert and Sol (Martin Sheen & Sam Waterston), are partners at a law firm and have been in love for twenty years. Their wives, Grace and Frankie (Jane Fonda & Lily Tomlin), hate each other, but soon realize that they can’t escape spending time together, because, well, what other septuagenarian has a soon-to-be ex-husband who’s just come out as gay?
The narrative that unfolds is one of unlikely friendship. Grace and Frankie move in together, not because they want to, but because they need to get away and have nowhere else to go but the beach house their families share. Throughout the show, they clash and quarrel as only a former cosmetics mogul and a hippie art teacher can do, but by the end of the first season, they’ve gained a grudging respect for each other. And best of all, they’re not alone.
Five years ago, I never would have watched a show like Grace & Frankie, and not just because Robert and Sol are gay. True, that would have been my biggest hangup, but the divorces, the cursing, and the frank talk about sex would have shocked me, not to mention Frankie’s fondness for pot and Grace’s for vodka martinis. In short, the show is messy.
And good Christian girls don’t watch messy shows.
I grew up quiet and homeschooled — a stereotype, though I resisted the label — and my highest aspiration was to see my books on the shelves of LifeWay Christian Stores. Though I read voraciously, I also read shallowly: my diet consisted entirely of inspirational fiction, a genre best described as “prairie woman meets Jesus and also gets her guy.” There were exceptions — I was an avid Trekkie and read dozens of the spinoff novels, in addition to writing fanfiction — but the raciest my writing got was a quick peck on the lips, and never before characters were married. It wasn’t until college that I dared to read & write sterner stuff.
College is what saved me. Assuming that my love of books would make for an easy four years, I enrolled at a private Christian university and declared an English major. Turns out, English majors don’t read inspirational fiction; they read literature, and literature is messy. And, as we all know, good Christian girls don’t do messy.
Halfway through my second semester, I had to write a paper on Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” The story was about an affair, and while the narrative was never explicit, it was morally ambiguous, and for a girl who thought premarital hand-holding would send me straight to hell, “The Lady with the Dog” might as well have been erotica. I couldn’t believe my good Christian school was forcing this down my throat.
As I gathered my sources and prepared to write, I was faced with a tough decision: stick with my professors and risk my soul in the process, or pick a different major.
I chose to stay.
I chose to stay, and I fell in love with Chekhov and Thoreau and Plath and Flannery O’Connor and a dozen other authors who have saved my faith and life.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The thing about college professors is, they teach you how to think, and when they teach you how to think, you start to learn to question, and when you start to learn to question, things sometimes fall apart. More specifically, I fell apart, and I had no idea how to put Humpty together again. Luckily, I had great professors, men and women who listened to my fears and refused to condemn me, choosing instead to offer books and affirmation and sometimes (often) hugs. Under their quiet tutelage, I learned that questions are okay, that faith is never easy, and that changing one’s opinion is normal and healthy.
That last one was a shocker, because I’d grown up believing that change was bad. Change was capitulation. Change was the devil at work in your heart. If you put one foot on a slippery slope, before you knew it, you’d be at the bottom. Dancing led to sex led to babies led to hell. Gay marriage paved the way for bestiality. Short stories about adulterers precipitated acts of adultery — you get my point.
However, as we worked through texts like The Bluest Eye and As I Lay Dying, my professors taught me that reading about humanity’s fuck-ups wouldn’t turn me into a bad person, just like thinking critically about dissenting viewpoints wouldn’t make me an atheist. It’s true, these thoughts challenged me, but they also rewarded and enriched me.
In a letter to a struggling college student, Flannery O’Connor writes, “Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. It’s there, even when he can’t see it or feel it, if he wants it to be there. You realize, I think, that it is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college.” Immediately after that, she encourages him to “learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free — not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.”
My women’s lit professor calls this her inner-knowing, that still small voice in her head (or her heart) which guides her on her spiritual journey. Another term for it is instinct. Like a muscle that becomes stronger the more often that you use it, your inner-knowing improves the more often you consult it. You become more in tune with your soul.
Since I’ve started listening, my inner-knowing has chimed in on all sorts of issues, from gay rights to American Horror Story to whether or not I should read Tess of the d’Urbervilles during the 2016 election. It’s a balance, and sometimes I find myself balking at the strangest things, but I’ve learned to trust myself, because even though I make mistakes, my instincts rarely do.
Julian of Norwich touches on a similar topic when she writes of a progressive revelation. Essentially, she argues that as your understanding of God deepens, your grip on doctrine loosens. You don’t lose your faith or Christian identity, but you do start to realize that nitpicking over instruments and women’s roles doesn’t matter in the face of God’s love. What matters is how well we communicate that love to ourselves and other people.
When sharing my spiritual journey, I tend to describe my post-college faith as “real” and “honest,” as if my pre-college faith were fake. On some level, I know this isn’t true — I have boxes of journals that prove I cared deeply about my faith back then — but it’s easier to dismiss myself as brainwashed and naïve. Really, though, I was just at the beginning of my progressive revelation — a revelation that will continue until the day I die.
Faith, like literature and life and the plot of Grace & Frankie, is messy. It has its ups and downs. In the beginning, as I sat in professors’ offices and watched my world implode, it was tempting to think that the damage was irreparable. My convictions had shifted so dramatically that it felt like I’d abandoned my faith. But it’s been five years, and I’m still here. I’m still struggling. I’m still praying into my pillow, “I believe; help my unbelief.” And that, to me, is proof of God’s grace. God’s grace upon grace upon grace.