AMBITION: Essays by Members of The Chrysostom Society
edited by Luci Shaw and Jeanne Murray Walker (Cascade Books, 2016).
Review originally published in Christian Courier in July 2016.
I happened to revisit Doris Lessing’s ambition-themed short story “Through the Tunnel” around the time I read Ambition, so it hovered over my experience of the book. Lessing’s story is the tale of a young British boy named Jerry who trains himself to swim through a dangerously narrow passageway. He sees other boys do it first, and does it to be like them – to prove himself worthy of friendship and respect. His eyes and nose bleed and his lungs nearly burst during his triumphant dive. The scene is thrilling, but also frightening. Should Jerry be admired for his risky, pride-led act, or chastised for it?
Ambition’s personal, often lyrical essays also acknowledge that ambition can be viewed as both a virtue and a vice. Its authors belong to The Chrysostom Society, a community named for Early Church Father John Chrysostom.
Some of these essays point to the acts and passions of biblical figures – such as Adam and Eve’s shame-laden grasp for power in the garden and Apostle Paul’s admirable evangelical zeal. Most of them include a lively variety of references to the worldly famous – literary greats, actors, explorers, spiritual leaders and other celebrities.
It is the personal anecdotes, however, that give this collection confessional heft and bold humour. For these writers, the allure of public glory is linked to the drive for publication. They caution the reader to be careful – to check oneself against Christ’s example. “Celebrity and fame, the bastard offsprings of unfettered ambition, often come at a cost to soul and spiritual health,” warns Luci Shaw.As these writers wrestle with the triumphs and trappings of artistic ambition, they also encounter personal struggles. The splendor of celebrity does not diminish the pain of a family member’s Alzheimer’s or cancer. The pleasure of publication does not instantly ease the pressure of parental or peer expectations. These essays dare to recognize that human suffering and frailty cannot be ignored in pursuit of a lofty goal. After all, Christ himself demonstrated that embracing weakness is a means for revealing the Kingdom.
The standout moments in this collection directly examine what remains fallow when ambitions are filled by prizes and titles and other achievements. “Maybe the best service that ambition can provide is showing us the never-ending unwieldiness of our egos,” Erin McGraw observes in her witty, metafictional reflection.
Bret Lott’s compelling essay, written in second-person, is rooted in his confusing experience of receiving acclaim from a sales-boosting celebrity on the same day as the sudden death of a friend. In the midst of his puzzling blend of pain and joy, he resolves to make gratitude to God his goal – without minimizing mystery and difficulty of life.
In Eugene Peterson’s essay, the celebrated pastor describes how three authors – James Joyce, Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry – led him out of “rapacious ambition” and the rush of selfish busyness. Rediscovering the sanctity of the ordinary made him a more attentive leader. “I never know how Christ isgoing to appear in another person, let alone a congregation,” he concludes – a beautiful expression of Christian humanism.
Ambition always exists in community – in a space of comparing benchmarks and following in footsteps. This collection offers a vision for ambitious communities that are supportive, fruitful and faithful because they remember this: Our actions do not determine our worth in God’s eyes.
This brings me back to Doris Lessing’s story. In the end, young Jerry is brimming with pride over his great dive, but he says nothing to the only family member with him: his widowed mother. Perhaps this is because hisact was about self-acceptance rather than proving himself worthy to her; he is already secure in her love.
We cannot hide our successes or failures from our Father. What we can do is aim to use our gifts to please and glorify him – and find delight in that challenge. In her essay, Diane Glancy writes, “As a Christian, my personal ambition is to belong to God.” Ambition eloquently invites us to live into this belonging by trusting that – whatever the results of our deep striving – God will always call us his beloved.