In January, I read both Beartown and its sequel Us Against You. I’d not found Fredrik Backman before—I’m indebted to my friend Sean Gladding for the recommendation—but he is an astonishing writer. More than just well-written novels, Backman really gets under the skin of the human condition. The relevant theological term would be that we are all sinners, in need of grace. Whether intentionally or by miraculous accident, Backman story-tells the heights and depths of this mystery.
Sinner is not a moral designation. A sinner can be righteous, self-righteous, or unrighteous: they can live a morally upstanding life; be wilfully blind to their own faults; or embrace an identity as an outsider to morality. But all are sinners: we all hide from others—to protect ourselves, or to protect them—all put apart, all draw up battle lines. Good people do bad things from good motivations, or simply surrendering to badness. Bad people do good things, sometimes from bad motivations and sometimes simply surrendering to goodness. We hold back when we ought to speak out, and speak out when we would have been wise to exercise restraint. In time, as Backman describes so well, we discover that we are all alike. The realisation comes to us as violent grace, a jolt to restart the heart, a fresh beginning. But how quickly we forget.
We can’t help but polarise. And this is where liturgy comes to the rescue. Liturgy, sacred words spoken habitually over and over a lifetime, form us in a particular way. They do not do unto us, but demand hard work of us—liturgy is literally the work of the people—in submitting ourselves to the grace we so desperately need but so fiercely fight against.
When we gather together to share Holy Communion, we begin with the Prayer of Preparation:
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is not a private prayer. We pray side by side with others, who each have their own God-given desires, just as we do. And we are forced to recognise, to acknowledge, that they, too, desire certain things, many of which are the very things we desire: to be known, to be loved, to be valued, to be safe from fear, to be of significance. Other people, no less than ourselves. There is no ‘Us’ and ‘Them,’ only we. Moreover, we are confronted with the truth that our desires, the ones we keep secret from so many people that they become secret to us, and the ones we wear on our sleeve, can get bent out of shape, become poisoned and poisonous—and need regular cleansing. This is as true for us as for the people standing to our right and our left. Desire is both common to humanity, and good. But—and this is also common to humanity—it needs tending to—and this not left to our own estimation, by turns too harsh and too indulgent, and so often simply tired to the bones.
Having so prepared ourselves, we move into Prayers of Penitence, saying:
Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault. We are truly sorry and repent of all our sins. For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for us, forgive us all that is past and grant that we may serve you in newness of life to the glory of your name. Amen.
Most merciful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves. In your mercy forgive what we have been, help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be; that we may do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with you, our God. Amen.
Week by week, we look at our lives, at ourselves and those we live alongside side, and take a stand against all that tears us apart, in which we are all complicit. We do so, knowing that we will never arrive at a point where the lessons are learnt, and we live in a utopia. No, we do so out of deep commitment to a particular place and real people, we can neither live with nor live without.
And then, week by week, we hear these words:
Almighty God, who forgives all who truly repent, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and keep you in life eternal, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
and we are washed clean, held close, somehow empowered to live another day.
In a polarised world, we need writers like Fredrik Backman—and not only for personal reading but for book group discussions. And we need liturgy. Both will help us live as characters in the story we find ourselves in.