The Incarnation in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins

In Walker Percy’s apocalyptic novel Love in the Ruins, the protagonist Dr. Thomas More recalls a road trip with his ex-wife, Doris.  It is the epitome of a young married couple’s romp: full of passion, intimacy, and carnality.  He remembers the times they used to drive out to little motels on obscure roads and “swim in the pool, take steaming baths, mix many toddies, eat huge steaks, run back to the room, fall upon each other laughing and hollering and afterwards like dreaming in one another’s arms watching late-show Japanese science fiction movies way out yonder in the lost yucca flats of Nevada. “

After nights of young conjugal bliss, Dr. More, a practicing Catholic at this point in his life, sneaks out before Doris, who was raised Episcopalian but dabbles in new age and eastern spirituality, awakes. He finds some out of the way Catholic parish and takes communion. He then heads back to the motel, beaming and renewed, having “touched the thread in the labyrinth.”

Before, we get to the connection between the thread and taking communion, eating the flesh and blood of the incarnate God Jesus Christ, let us go with Dr. More back to that little motel. He returns to his wife, who just stirring and groggy and wondering how some simple ritual could renew a man, exclaims, “My God, what is it you do in church?”

Doris, who in Dr. More’s words has been “ruined by books” doesn’t understand how such an antiquated, and well, earthly service could renew a man. She has been ruined “not by depraved books, but by spiritual books. God, if you recall did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places.”

A little quaint Church with a “turkey raffle and Wednesday bingo” couldn’t possibly hold the key to understanding man’s role in the cosmos. It is the clean, pure, haughty spiritual books that lead Doris and her ilk astray, to “fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine.”

Dr. More, who since his divorce and the death of his daughter has become a boozy Lothario, reflects on his wife inability to understand how it is his experience at the church that renews him and makes him human:

What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning.

At the center of Dr. Tom More’s  religion, Christianity, is flesh and blood. Christ, the Son of God, became a man, a man made of flesh and blood. Christ is the incarnate God, literally God made flesh. The Christian God, the triune God, is not only the creator of everything and utterly greater than anything we can conceive, he is a man. The problem with Doris is that she thinks the answer to man’s malaise, the meaning of life, is mere spirit and not material.  The religion that saves Dr. More and the rest of mankind is spirit become matter. It is like the thread that guides Theseus in labyrinth. It descends into darkness, like Christ into the world, to save it from a monster. Instead of a minotaur, the monster is death.

Paradoxically, by valuing only the spirit, the high over the low, man becomes less concerned with the goodness of life. It takes the religion of a fleshy God to keep Dr. More grounded and moral. It is eating the flesh and blood of a God that becomes incarnate that allows  him to be faithful and loving to his wife, to eat big steaks, drink toddies, and stay up late watching cheesy science fiction movies. The further he strays, the more detached from the world and the less moral he becomes. The narrow faith of intellectual ascent, of “book learning”, of Doris that promises to purify man into spirit that is the error.

I saw a bumper sticker that read, “We are not humans having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” That seems to sum up “spirituality” pretty well. The human, the flesh and the blood, is illusory, a lower caste of experience. There is no correspondence between the world of blood, guts, dirt, and excrement, and the high according to that bumper sticker theologian. What more needs to be said about matter than that God became it? How can matter be entirely irredeemable? It maybe be corrupt until the Kingdom of God, but it is not too far gone. It must be remembered that humans are made in the image of this God. The high and low are intrinsically linked.

It is especially important, in an age that prefers feel-good spirituality over flesh and blood religion, to remember Dr. Tom More’s meditation. It takes a God that descends with us into the labyrinth. It takes nothing less than the coarse thread of God become man to save us from ourselves.

2 thoughts on “The Incarnation in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins”

  1. Well said, by both the commentator and by Percy. Sometimes I have to be careful not to forget and treat Percy’s writings as additional scripture.

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