The rumors are true. The panoramic new novel from Jonathan Franzen is about, among many other things, a church youth group. Crossroads, the name of both the book and the group, may even be the finest work of fiction ever written on the subject. Which is not meant as faint praise so much as an acknowledgement of the peculiarity of a work like this coming into existence in the first place, much less in 2021.
Crossroads is not the sort of youth group that most contemporary readers will associate with the term, however. There are no Bible studies, no prayer circles, no games of capture the flag, no tracts. Instead, the group bears a distinctly mainline Protestant character, albeit in its early-1970s incarnation, the period in which the novel is set.
The language of the group (a ministry of the fictional First Reformed Church in New Prospect, Illinois) is more psychological than spiritual, its character more in line with the confrontational self-help ethos of the support groups that were gaining traction at the time than the “Big E” evangelicalism that was emerging alongside. Crossroads paints a picture of a bygone era, one when cigarettes outnumbered guitars in the church parking lot by a factor of ten.
Groups like Crossroads may be relics at this point, but they are not an invention. I witnessed a similar group explode out of a Congregational church in Connecticut during the late 1990s. Franzen chronicled his own involvement in a nearly identical outfit in his essay collection The Discomfort Zone.
We first encounter the group at the zenith of its near-cultlike popularity during Advent in 1971. Charismatic leader Rick Ambrose has managed to convene an impressive throng of misfits and “popular kids” alike. This alienates the group’s founder, associate pastor Russ Hildebrandt, which (in classic pastor’s-kid fashion) only attracts Russ’s own progeny to join. Yet Ambrose is no charlatan; what’s on offer on Sunday nights at First Reformed is, in modern parlance, authentic. And Franzen renders it so with uncanny precision and sympathy. This is the opposite of the reductio ad absurdum that characterizes most popular depictions of church life.
Many of the broad strokes will be recognizable to those who’ve logged serious youth ministry hours, either as a member or leader. The urgent sense of purpose, the outsized emotions, the unavoidably hokey icebreakers, the all-important mission trip (and its attendant fundraisers), the ever-pressing hormones, the performative vulnerability, the oddly fierce power struggles. The dramatic possibilities are so fecund that it’s surprising more writers haven’t tried to utilize the setting.
Of course, saying that Crossroads is about a youth group is like saying Infinite Jest is about tennis. The group serves as a backdrop for a series of interlocking crises faced by the Hildebrandt family during that winter and spring. There’s Russ, the sincere and socially conscious associate pastor undergoing a midlife crisis and lusting after one of his parishioners. Then there’s his acerbic wife, Marion, buckling under the burdens of a disastrous young adulthood that can no longer be ignored. We also meet their children: 15-year-old Perry, a drug dealer with a debilitatingly high I.Q.; his social butterfly of an older sister, Becky; and Russ and Marion’s eldest, Clem, a conscientious skeptic tied in knots over his Vietnam draft status.
Each chapter is told from the vantage point of a different family member, their individual turmoil coalescing in tandem with that of their kin, though not always in reference to it. Franzen’s plotting and pacing throughout is something to behold, evidence of a writer at the height of his powers. The prose is deceptively simple and full of humor.
But don’t let the literary hoopla fool you: Crossroads is so gripping that readers will likely be overjoyed to hear that it is the first volume in a proposed trilogy. Franzen has dubbed the project A Key to All Mythologies, a name that will ring bells for lovers of English literature, referring as it does to the eternally forthcoming tome that the insufferable scholar Mr. Casaubon never finishes in Middlemarch.
As Franzen explained in an interview with the West Coast literary journal Zyzzyva, his adoption of the title was “mostly a joke.” It derived from his annoyance with so-called New Atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who purported to have themselves discovered “the key to all mythologies.”
People think that religion is dead. … It’s this sort of snotty 13-year-old’s notion of human psychology to make a career out of sneering at people who actually recognize that everybody’s got some kind of faith.
This claim—that everyone has some kind of faith—might sound like the sort of cliché that gets bandied about in lesser youth groups. Alas, it also happens to be true—and Franzen places that observation at the center of the book. We watch as each Hildebrandt attempts to soothe their inner pain by putting their faith in differing objects. Russ looks to the bedroom, Marion to the therapist’s chair, Perry to narcotics, Becky to religion (and romance), Clem to self-abnegation and service. They are each seeking after some element of goodness, a pursuit which seems to unleash chaos and hurt just as often as benevolence.
Yet that rundown does not do justice to the many dimensions Franzen brings to bear. To his great credit, none of these characters is reducible to a single motivation or set of interests. They all contain multitudes, especially Marion, who ranks among the author’s most shimmering creations. Still, the Hildebrandts are first and foremost a family, and a clergy family at that. (Fellow PKs will find a cringeworthy amount of resonance in some of the descriptions of life in the parsonage—moments of sweetness, too). As such, the shadow of the Almighty hangs over the proceedings from the word “go.”
In fact, what distinguishes the book more than anything is that Franzen takes the religious lives of his characters as seriously as they do. Russ and Marion’s faith may differ in shape, but neither is portrayed as puerile or escapist. Their beliefs are sustaining and genuine. Likewise, Becky’s conversion may not be devoid of the self-righteousness that often afflicts new believers, but neither is it devoid of tenderness. The only characters who give any real consideration to Perry’s sincere if inebriated questions about the nature of (his own) goodness are clergy.
Longtime Franzen readers may be surprised by the pinpoints of light scattered so generously throughout Crossroads—Becky’s jaw-dropping showdown with her rival Laura, Russ’s persistence with a Navajo malcontent, Perry’s devotion to baby brother Judson, Clem’s public defense of his humiliated father. Somehow, none of them read falsely. In fact, I cannot recall another work of recent fiction that captures the experience of answered prayer with such accuracy. Or has the audacity to include an actual foot-washing, free of sentimentality and satire.
And that’s where Franzen’s gifts shine most brightly. Harrowing accounts of marriages disintegrating are not hard to come by; a scene of spousal reconciliation and grace like the one Franzen pens toward the end, however, is nothing less than a literary unicorn.
As the action plays out and the tension builds, Franzen demonstrates an unwavering and at times eerie grasp of the inner game of tennis believers play with God, the moments of confidence that exist alongside the doubts, the realizations that accompany the rationalizations—in other words, what it’s like to have a relationship with a living God. He effectively portrays what a spiritual epiphany feels like and what it feels like for life to go on afterward.
No wonder journalist Ruth Graham tweeted that Crossroadscontains “some of the deepest, most complex depictions of what sincere Christian faith means in real people’s lives that I’ve ever read.” Those depictions are all the more incisive for not being cordoned off from the actual concerns of adult life. Mental illness, infidelity, abortion, socioeconomic oppression, financial anxiety, intrafamilial estrangement, the prisons of self-pity and regret—very few stones are left unturned.
Not that Franzen lets any of his characters off easy; they are fully drawn, the same fluctuating mixture of the sacred and profane that constitutes all believers. Their pursuit of goodness is not insincere; it is simply marred by self-interest and subject to the same contingencies that make all assertions of righteousness so tricky.
If there is a theology that emerges in the book—and Franzen has claimed there isn’t, strictly speaking—it is not the theology of Crossroads (the group). Ambrose and his team posit that God is found most reliably in the gaps between people, in communities devoted to rigorous honesty and service. None of that is bad, per se, or even necessarily antithetical to historic Christianity. Nor does Franzen portray it that way.
But the group espouses a view of religion that seems to be entirely horizontal. And when Russ tries to inject a more vertical dimension—invoking not only the Bible but the name of Jesus—he is resolutely shut down. It is hard not to read this non-theology as a metaphor for the collapse of the mainline which birthed it—a sort of book-length illustration of what Thomas Bergler observed in The Juvenilization of American Christianity: that many of the cause-centered youth who filled out these groups realized pretty quickly that you can do social justice a lot more nimbly without the baggage of institutional religion.
Marion gestures prophetically in that direction when she points out that, despite its raging popularity, the group has yet to yield a single fresh congregant in adult church. Of course, she has never had much esteem for the youth group. Perhaps she has experienced too many tragedies and reversals to gravitate toward a Christianity that speaks to budding activists rather than established sinners. In truth, her faith may be the lodestar that unlocks the rest of her family’s drama, with a vision of God that can only be described as cruciform, in which all roads lead not only to a cross but an empty tomb.
Collective disaster behind her for the moment, readying herself to board an Easter plane to face a husband and son shattered from self-inflicted wounds, Marion encapsulates her family’s journey—thus far, that is:
She wasn’t afraid of what was still to come, wasn’t afraid of seeing Perry and dealing with the consequences, because her feet had found the bottom and beneath them was God. In coming to an end, her life had also started.
David Zahl is the founder and director of Mockingbird Ministries. He is the author of Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do about It (Broadleaf Books).