I'm back with a BONUS POST for this week. (My goal is to produce one blog post per week, to be released on the weekend, but this week I'm producing an extra post, to celebrate the launching of my Patreon.
That's right! For the cost of just one coffee a month, you can buy ME a coffee a month while ALSO showing your appreciation for BTW. With a deal like that, it would be bad stewardship not to become a Patron.
Don't worry, my articles will never, ever go behind a paywall. My Patreon is there if you'd like to say thanks for what BTW is doing.
And now, let's revisit Nathan and his family.
Two years later, Nathan and Amy were blessed with a son. Matthew (NOT named after the Bearded Taliban guy) was dearly loved by his parents. By this time Nathan no longer trucked for the mill but for another firm. Although he was absent from home almost as many nights in a week as he was present, he played with Matthew whenever he was there. I think that this last sentence is intended to set up the contrast between Nathan's care for his son, and his care for his wife.
Paul visited his cousin at regular intervals. It was plain to see that Nathan adored his son. "Is he as committed to his wife?" Paul asked himself countless times, but he never came up with a satisfactory answer.
One evening Paul left his cousin's house with a heavy heart. Nathan had arrived home from two days of trucking just moments after Paul pulled in the driveway. Paul watched open-mouthed as Amy rushed out the door with the baby to welcome Nathan. Her face glowed with the joy of seeing her husband. Paul was cut to the heart to see that Nathan did not return her smile. Instead, he appeared sullen and preoccupied. Paul could feel the tension in the air. He climbed into his car, and with a wave of his hand, he said, "I'll be back later." He did not want to infringe on their private time.
That's an unusually long passage to open with, and normally I would cut it short and summarize, but I think it's important to include because it sets the stage for this chapter of the Nathan saga.
Tension is building between Nathan and his wife, and he is depicted as caring more for his son than for his wife.
The thing that frustrates me is this: How was Nathan supposed to greet Amy? Paul was standing right there. If he had embraced her, or kissed her, that would have been inappropriate, in Paul's eyes, and he may have suspected the outward expressions were intended to hide the deeper issues in their marriage. (That is literally preached ALL THE TIME by these ConMen.)
Yeah, I guess he could have smiled. But there's not enough information here to draw a major conclusion.
Anyhow, Paul ends up staying and the tension evaporates as the evening progresses, and Nathan tells stories about his experiences on the road. To Paul, they seem "hollow stories." No doubt stories of the mundane events at the welding shop are much more fulfilling than "hollow" trucking stories.
The next day, Paul spoke to his father. "I am concerned about Nathan. Something does not seem right between him and Amy."
"What do you mean?"
"It's hard to explain, and I don't want to jump to conclusions. (Paul proceeds to draw conclusions.) But it seemed to me that it was all right if I asked questions about trucking, but when Amy asked, he grew irked. He answered her questions more vaguely than you would answer Mother if she asked you the same things."
OK. This one can go two ways, and maybe Nathan is in the wrong here. But maybe it's a case of everyone contributing to the problem.
On one hand, Nathan may have an axe to grind with Amy for any number of reasons, and resent her asking questions because he doesn't respect and honor her.
On the other hand, given the air of suspicion around his trucking, and the assumptions everyone has that he's up to no good, it's possible that Amy's questions are loaded, and that Nathan resents being grilled every time he comes home from a trip.
Both possibilities are equally possible here, and while, in the long run, I have some sympathy for Amy, she is a product of her culture, and she definitely contributes to Nathan's alienation by failing to understand and support him at key moments.
Paul's father sat deep in thought. Finally he said, "This is a matter we want to pray about. Nathan's wife and son need him at home. But he can't be forced to work at something else against his will.
I do know that the ministers have been trying to help him see that his trucking interests are not helpful for him or his family life."
AHA! YOU'RE TELLING ON YOURSELF!
Boy, is that last sentence ever telling. The fact is that the church is powerless to stop Nathan from trucking, and they aren't even willing to try.
But how can the church be powerless? They regulated every detail of Nathan's life from his clothes to how he conducted his wedding. But they can't stop him from trucking, because if they try, they know he will leave.
Controlling groups are always like this. I watched this happen at the religious college I attended. The people who didn't care if they were there or not got away with everything, and the college bent the rules to their whims, while the students who desperately wanted to be there were hounded and nit-picked over every minor detail.
Ostensibly the ministry needs the immense power they are vested with to help people do the right thing, but it turns out that when the power will actually do some good, like helping Nathan's marriage, or preventing child abuse, as opposed to protecting the world from a rampant outbreak of errant elbows and dually trucks, they are completely powerless, and if this doesn't lay bare the lie at the heart of the ConMen system, you are probably willfully blind to it.
So, the church leadership, knowing that Nathan can't be brought to heel by their usual strong-arm tactics, is forced to stand by, wringing their hands and hoping to the Lord that something changes, and conveniently forgetting all the guarantees that they made to Nathan's parents that if they would walk in the paths of the church, everything would be A-OK.
The following months proved that Nathan was living is spiritual defeat. He was showing a growing restlessness. The more time he spent on the road, the more dissatisfied he became at home. It was a vicious cycle. Many times Amy was hurt because of his growing irritability, even with Matthew.
If I would hazard a guess, I would say that Nathan enjoys the hours and days on the road out from beneath the all-seeing eye of the church and its agents, and that coming home and being back in that environment is super frustrating and causes conflict for him.
If this is the case, it is obviously something he needs to work out with Amy, but the ability to feel safe while communicating frankly about his feelings appears to be non-existent.
With that said, he's not treating his wife and kid right, and that's not OK.
Skipping ahead, the church eventually says enough is enough and excommunicates Nathan. I assume that this is the result of an ultimatum of some kind, which he fails to honor.
Time passes, and Paul's father decides to give Nathan an alternative to his trucking job by offering him a job in his welding shop.
Nathan acts uninterested at first, then surprisingly accepts the offer.
This is an interesting turn of events, and one that raises a lot of questions for me.
Clearly, Nathan seems to be trying to stay connected, and may be feeling the alienation with his family and want to remedy it. He's clearly willing to give up his lifelong dream of trucking to give welding a try, so as to rebuild the relationship with his family.
The fact that he is willing to work for his uncle, even though he is excommunicated indicates the lengths he is willing to go to in order to try to make it work, and bridge the gap.
Once again, we see Nathan trying, in his stumbling way, to find some kind of equilibrium in his life. He clearly cares about his family, and wants to be the man he should for them.
Three months later, it became obvious that Nathan had lost interest in welding. At first he had shown a keen interest and had learned to weld with precision. Paul enjoyed the months of working shoulder to shoulder with his cousin. Not that they shared similar spiritual interests, but Paul had a burning desire to help his cousin. He was frightened about where Nathan's obsession with trucking would take him. Maybe his father and he could still influence Nathan for the good.
But it did not work that way. Eventually, Paul needed to tell his father that Nathan carried a small radio with him and listened to country music when his father was absent.
OK. So maybe that first sentence wasn't accurate.
I think it's strange that Nathan is continually depicted as restless and unsettled and can't commit and jumping from one thing to another, when it's clear that the guy is able to hold down a trucking job for years on end.
Maybe the problem wasn't that Nathan got tired of welding. Maybe the problem was that Nathan had all he could hack of MennoStuff in three months and remembered why he wanted to go trucking to begin with.
You know how it had to have been, as an excommunicated man, working shoulder to shoulder with these people for months at a time, constantly watching his words and the stuff he talked about and knowing what they think of him.
Three months was long enough.
I would guess that very few of my readers who have left a strict community like Nathan's would last more than three months working for an employer in that community.
It was a dark day when Nathan walked away in anger after his uncle Harold reprimanded him. "I thought I had made it clear that we would not listen to that type of music in my shop. I took for granted that you understood that a radio is banned here as well as in our homes." So, did you make it clear, or did you take it for granted that he knew? Can't have it both ways.
"Nathan, I am concerned about your soul. The Bible says, "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world--'"
"Are you saying I'm not a Christian?" Nathan interrupted defiantly.
"What do you say?"
"I say you are judging me."
"Nathan, be honest with me. Something has gone wrong in your life. God does not have first place." The same thing could be said for most ConMen churches, but we won't go there.
"You are judging me again." Angrily Nathan grabbed his lunch box and mouthed over his shoulder (mouthed?), "I won't be coming back to work here anymore -- too many rules." I gotta give Nathan this. He has the guts to walk away from a situation that isn't working for him.
So let's talk about what's happening here. I want to start out by saying that Nathan is kind of being a jerk for a few reasons.
1) Any job has rules about acceptable conduct on the job, and if he was asked not to listen to the radio, and he did anyway, that's not OK.
2) Nathan is being a troublemaker. He knew what the expectations would be when he took the job, and he chose to ignore them.
3) He was being sneaky about his violation of the rules, and hostile about his employer's requests.
Now, with that said, I also think that it was a little unfair for Harold to make those requirements of Nathan. They were completely unnecessary. He could have said, "Hey, I get that you're not a church member, so whatever you listen to is on you, but I don't want you playing the radio when my employees are around."
I can't help but feel that, as important as Amy having Nathan at home allegedly is to them, their church standards are more important, and that's really sad.
Nathan decides to go buy himself a truck and become an owner-operator, because that's where the real money is.
So he gets himself a bright red (of course) Peterbuilt (yes, that's how they spelled it), and he's off to the races.
Of course a new truck means payments, which means more time on the road, and soon, Nathan is gone for weeks on end.
Amy doesn't complain because she knows that she was warned about his inclination to trucking.
Then one day...
Paul had less and less in common with his cousin. He had not talked to him for months when one afternoon he was in the hardware store and heard Nathan's voice before he saw him.
"How come your hair changed colors?" Paul heard Nathan asking someone. He rounded the end of the aisle to find Nathan talking to the cashier. Ummm, Nathan, your flirting game needs some work.
"Didn't you ever hear of dyeing your hair?" she asked. "I always wanted to be a blonde."
Then they both laughed peals of laughter.
This is a prime example of the gritty realism and believable characters that Mennonite literature is so famous for, and I hate to break into the middle of this ultra-realistic conversation, but I simply cannot forbear.
Obviously this conversation is meant to indicate that Nathan had a free and loose and frequent association with this hair-dyeing clerk.
But everything about this exchange is cringe turned up to 11.
Nathan isn't half as suave as he apparently thinks he is, and both of them are laughing so uproariously at something that is so mundane and non-humorous, that I wonder if Nathan is unable to tell the difference between someone laughing with him and someone laughing at him. Either that, or the clerk is REALLY into him.
In the real world, this is simply not the way this conversation would go.
More likely would be something like this,
Nathan: How come your hair changed color?
Clerk: Are you serious right now? There's this thing called hair dye women use sometimes.
Nathan: Oh, yeah. I think I read about that in a Gospel tract once.
Clerk: That'll be $5.73
More awkward silence.
The clerk doesn't respond.
"Have a nice day."
Nathan walks out the door in awkward silence.
Fade to black.
But we must stay true to the narrative laid before us. Nathan and this unnamed clerk are in the midst of their peals of laughter when Paul rounds the corner.
In the movie version (starring Adam Sandler as Nathan and Patrick Adams as Paul), this is where the Imperial March starts playing.
Nathan's laugh was cut short when he saw Paul. Undoubtedly leaving the clerk to finish her unrestrained peals of laughter, only to trail off as the awkward tension builds. He stammered an embarrassed "Hello."
"Hello," Paul returned. "I didn't know you were in the area."
"This afternoon I am," Nathan answered. He seemed to be in a hurry to leave. Paul left too as soon as he had paid his bill. Which is what most people do. Like, what was planning on doing? Did he normally hang out at the store for a while after he paid his bill? Eating sunflower seeds or something?
By the time he was out the door, Nathan was already pulling onto the street.
This is something that really bugs me about conservatives. They make you feel awkward about doing innocuous stuff, by acting weird and judgey about it, and then interpret your discomfort as a sign that your conscience is bothering you, when the fact is they're just being weird.
Take watching movies for instance. I don't feel weird or convicted or condemned or guilty about watching movies, but I would never watch them around my conservative family, and if they suddenly walked into my house while I was watching a movie on my big screen, I would quickly turn it off and feel awkward because I would know all the thoughts they were thinking, and how they were debating if they should warn me about the state of my soul or something. So they make everything awkward. And I know that when they left, they would sadly talk about how I know that it's not good, and that's why I looked so guilty, because their consistent testimony convicted me.
I don't blame Nathan for bugging out. What was he supposed to do? Stand around in the parking lot shuffling his feet and pretending he wasn't chatting with the clerk, all the while knowing that Paul knows and is all concerned, but is going to just make small talk and pretend it never happened?
There's no point. And all the little games like this are one of the things I really enjoy not missing about being part of the ConMen.
"I would not have believed that Nathan would be so familiar with a worldly woman had I not heard it with my own ears," he told his father when he got home. "
"'Evil communications corrupt good manners,'" his father quoted.
Not only had Nathan lost his reserve around women, but also, like the prodigal son, he had begun feeding on the husks of the world.
"He says I don't know how to have fun," Amy told Aunt Martha in tears when she stopped in one evening to help her process sweet corn for the freezer. "He has started going to the movies with some of his trucking friends, and he gets upset if I disapprove in any way."
Amy, I gotta award this point to Nathan. You DON'T know how to have fun. I mean, I've read your literature, and I know what your churches promote and the very idea of fun is frowned on.
So you can be sad that he WANTS to have fun instead of being sober and reserved or whatever, but don't be complaining that he says you aren't fun, because you aren't. You aren't allowed to be. So it looks like you have a decision to make. Is the church right, or not? (Spoiler alert: they're not)
Exactly one year after Nathan had walked away from his job at Uncle Harold's welding shop, he also walked out on Amy. "Our lifestyles are too different," was the only reason he gave to Amy. Amy was heartbroken, but her pleading was to no avail. The future looked ominous and frightening to her.
OK. This is plain ugly, and I will never excuse a man abandoning his wife. Even if Nathan did feel the need to move out, because of the tension in their marriage, abandoning his wife and son is plain wrong.
This is why I have said from the beginning that I definitely do not approve of or support the wrong road that Nathan goes down. But I will also reiterate that I feel that this course was not inevitable and that the community contributed to it in a thousand different ways.
For months, the church prays for Nathan that he will repent and return to his family, and that fall, Nathan calls Paul to inform him that he is repenting. His truck broke down and he was stranded in the middle of nowhere, and realized that he had no money and no friends, and basically recapitulates the story of the Prodigal son.
He repents and decides to return home and give it another try.
He's going to come home.
He's going to give up his dreams.
He's going to sell the truck.
He's going to settle down.
He's going to submit to the church.
Stay tuned for the final installment, where we learn if Nathan actually is able to hang in there, and whether his family assists him in that commitment.