John Ames—the fictional Iowa pastor conceived by novelist Marilynne Robinson—is a worldly saint.
In Gilead, Ames is the aging father penning the wisdom of his last will and testament to his young son: "Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like a transfiguration," he writes. In Home, Ames looms in the background, troubled to forgive and love his namesake, Jack Boughton, the prodigal son of his oldest friend. In Lila, Ames is the improbable husband of a morally circumspect woman half his age: "Somehow [Lila] found her way to the one man on earth who didn't see [the blemish of her life]."
As a pastor and friend, husband and father, John Ames has lived devotedly, if imperfectly, for the kingdom of God. But he's loved the world, too. "It has seemed to me sometimes," he writes in Gilead, "that the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life."
In Becoming Worldly Saints (subtitled Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life?), Michael Wittmer may have imagined someone as holy and human as John Ames. Wittmer's central thesis—that we can serve Jesus and enjoy our lives—will sound paradoxical, if not blasphemous, to some. Doesn't Scripture sever the interests of heaven and earth? Doesn't it insist that gaining the world requires the forfeiture of our souls (Matt. 16:26)? Without dismissing the call to self-denial, Wittmer rejects the notion that eternal purpose is always irreconcilable to temporal, earthly pleasure.
‘If You Enjoy Being Human...’
Becoming Worldly Saints traces the cohesive story of salvation between Genesis and Revelation. This recapitulation recovers a lot of earthly good, especially for readers who grew up, like Wittmer, singing about the rapturous occasion of the "roll being called up yonder." From the doctrine of creation, Wittmer defends material enjoyment. If God made a good world for us to inhabit, we should take "wholesome" delight in created good without guilt. Arguing from the Incarnation and Resurrection, Wittmer defends "God's enthusiastic embrace of the material world." His argument has eschatological import: Heaven is not a sky kingdom, which we'll inhabit in ghostly form. Heaven is coming to earth in the form of a city, and through faith in Christ we'll become residents of the New Jerusalem in resurrected bodies. "If you enjoy being human and you enjoy being here, you are going to love the new earth."
While Wittmer affirms a worldly faith that embraces earth, he is also careful to emphasize the priority of heaven—and the purposes of redemption. He warns against finding ultimate satisfaction and meaning in the things of this world. "The pleasures of creation must not lull us to sleep. We are at war, and we must never forget our heavenly calling." To love the temporal world is good; to love eternity is best. “Everything counts, but some things count more. They just do. If God is the source of all value, then everything matters, and those activities that focus most on him matter most of all."