The Theology of Comma-And

In one of my writing classes in college, I was taught to avoid “comma-and” sentences, those sentences that contain two independent clauses, separated by the most-boring-of-all conjunctions: and. There’s no flavor in comma-and sentences. There’s no life! No transformation! You’re just tacking on two ideas as equals, and that’s just plain boring. (See what I did there?)

But as I’ve become a theology student, I’ve come to love comma-and sentences–not for their dullness. I still choose to avoid them in my writing. But I love comma-and sentences for the “andness” of it all.

I have a professor, Dwight, who loves the word and. I guess he has a tattoo of an ampersand on his arm or leg, to remind himself of what he calls &ing, a dichotomy that humans as God’s children experience:

We are bad, and we are good.

We are sinners, and we are saints.

We are weak, and we are strong.

For most of my life, I’ve been told that we are comma-but sentences. We are good, but we’re really bad–the latter negates the former.

Bad Theology vs. Good Theology

My boyfriend Nate and I were eating ice cream the other night when I declared to him that Rabbit at Rest is probably my favorite of the Rabbit tetralogy. (Dr. Brown was right.) I told Nate it’s because of all the humanity in the book. Rabbit’s cocaine-addicted son Nelson goes to rehab and comes back a new man, one who’s finally able to stand up to his dad:

Again, Nelson is silent. Then: “… I keep trying to love you, but you don’t really want it. You’re afraid of it, it would tie you down. You’ve been scared all your life of being tied down.” (p.379)

I wrote “Finally!” next to this passage. Finally someone is able to name what’s true about Rabbit: he’s scared. He’s a flighty rabbit who wants to just get out, to find another hole to bury into.

I told Nate that I love this book because there’s something so real and true about these characters. The plot is interesting, sure, but it’s the characters’ transformation that engulfs me, that leads me to tears by the epilogue.

Nate told me that’s why he loves Wendell Berry’s books so much–what matters is not what’s going on exactly, but who the characters are in relation to other characters, in relation to the time and place.

“See,” I said to him, “this is why I love studying this stuff.” And a pause. “I suppose this is more philosophy and literature, rather than theology and literature.” Another pause. “Or maybe that’s what good theology is–showing people’s humanity, their good and their bad, all mixed together.”

I’m proposing, then, that bad theology is recognizing only one part of our humanity–our saintliness or our selfishness–or raising one side up higher than the other. We are saints and sinners; we are comma-and sentences. One doesn’t negate the other. They dance together.

Dynamic characters are comma-and sentences

Last week I got to write a paper on a fictional couple, analyzing their marriage based on categories given in my Marriage and Family class. I chose, of course, Rabbit and Janice Angstrom, putting them easily in the category of having a chaotic, violent, and yet fabulous marriage. But the bulk of the assignment was not to name which category they were in, but to discover where they exhibit both tenderness and strength.

This was much more difficult.

It took me a while to see where this couple showed strength and tenderness in their marriage. But once I thought of a few examples, I started thinking of more and more. As I finished reading Rabbit at Rest, I noticed that this couple was often strong and tender, even in the midst of ugliness and betrayal.

All well-written, dynamic characters, like humans, are paradoxes. They carry both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly, the tender and the strong. They are comma-and sentences.

(And that’s why we relate to them so well!)

About Lauren Sawyer

I am an assistant instructor at a graduate school in Seattle, Washington, and I hold a master of the arts in theology and culture. I love coffee, rainy days, and John Updike. Learn more about me at laurendeidra.com.

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