Monday, January 13, 2014

He Makes Peale Appealing

Visiting the Sins of the Son 
upon the Father

Norman Vincent and Ruth Peale

"Paul is appealing; Peale is appalling." I think I first heard that at church when I was a boy. It was meant as a pithy contrast between Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and the great of Apostle. 

Marble Collegiate,
 NVP's Church 
Peale, minister of the Reformed Church in America's famous Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, proclaimed the power of positive thinking, Paul the power of God unto salvation.  Peale preached pragmatic optimism, Paul supernatural redemption. Peale's religion was psychological, Paul's theological. Peale's gospel was of salvation from negativity by a "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps" change in thinking and acting helped in some way by the spirit of Christ. Paul's gospel was of salvation from sin and judgment by grace through faith in the atoning work of Jesus in and by whom God intervened in history. Paul's successors were such as Augustine and Luther, Peale's such as Schuller and Osteen.

I should never have thought that I would find Norman Vincent Peale appealing, but his son John has managed to make him so, at least by way of contrast - between Peale (Norman) and Peale (John).

I first heard of John Peale's memoir listening to Mississippi Public Radio as I was driving one Sunday to conduct a service. I have appreciated other accounts of difficult relationships between fathers and  sons, such as Christopher Buckley and William F., Nick Flynn and Jonathan, Pat Conroy and Don.

But this account disappoints as not even Franky Schaeffer's Crazy for God does. For one thing it desperately needs the work of an editor. The author repeats himself not only repeatedly but eventually ad nauseum. Perhaps an editor could have tidied and tightened the words to make the book more readable and more interesting.  But that would also have meant a much shorter book which we are doubtful would have been acceptable to the author.

John Peale
John Peale is now in the second half of his eighth decade. He is one of three children of Norman Vincent and Ruth Peale. He went to a prestigious prep school, graduated from Washington and Lee University, and studied at the University of Chicago. He obtained his PhD in philosophy from the University of North Carolina and taught at Longwood University. He is also a minister of the Reformed Church in America. 

Norman Vincent Peale
Along the way, he departed from his father's conservative and Republican sympathies and became a liberal Democrat and social activist. He also became a self-described alcoholic. He remains active in Alcoholics Anonymous as a member, sponsee, and sponsor. He has survived serious health challenges with cancer and heart disease.

He and his wife have traveled extensively all over the world. John has a special interest in China where he has visited on many occasions and where he spent a year teaching. He and his wife now live in comfortable retirement in Charlottesville, VA.

Here's the shocker: he has problems with his famous father whose fame he could not match. He feels there was a distance in his relationship with his father, a distance that his mother abetted by serving as the gatekeeper to her husband to whom and whose work she was fully devoted. His father travelled a lot and worked a lot. The younger Peale feels the older Peale did not give him enough attention once the younger reached high school or later show enough interest in his life and work. John Peale has deep and great resentments toward his father and his mother. 

He professes to have largely resolved these resentments, but the professor doth protest too much. Even his letter to his deceased father, which he wrote to "make amends" as one of his AA steps, reads as self-serving and still resentful. In fact the whole memoir comes across like across as one more of the kind of self-obsessed, parent-bashing, all too earnest stories that are so common in AA meetings and literature - the kind where one is supposedly showing humility and self-knowledge while in reality saying, "Look at me!" 

One event especially stands out in John Peale's mind, his father's reaction when he chose to go to Union Theological Seminary in New York. Norman wrote "Dear John. I do not know why you are going into the seat of my most implacable enemies. Love, Dad." No doubt that stung (as no doubt the son's decision stung the father). Norman seems to have chosen a rather distant and impersonal way of communicating his displeasure, and there is little doubt that the form of communication says something about the way the elder Peale related to his son, perhaps particularly when there was potential for conflict. But that seems to have been the whole of the father's protest. There was no disowning of John, then or later. Despite the father's disappointment with the son's choice of seminaries, when John was ordained, Norman Vincent participated giving the charge. 

John believes as well that his father never really approved of his choice of the life of an academic, though this seems to be based on what the son feels more than anything the father ever said or did (according to John his father never asked how is career was going). The younger turns this to his own advantage surmising that his father was insecure about his own academic credentials. Again, in the "doth protest too much" vein, John Peale keeps reminding us that he was/is a fine scholar, who had a great career, and received many honors. I do not know how other philosophers or the institutions at which he taught or his former students regard John Peale, but I do know he is not content to tell us once or twice but must keep on telling us how accomplished he is as an academic.

Despite all that John Peale says about the neglect and distance he experienced in his relationship with his father, it appears even in this biased telling that John Peale's parents were there for him at important times. He tells of his parents traveling from New York to see him in a play at his prep school. (BTW, one thing he does not resent is his parents' sending him off for his high school years.) He tells of nice vacations and on them of focused family time with his parents, both in his youth and his adulthood. When John experienced serious complications after gallbladder surgery in Chapel Hill, he awoke in intensive care to both is his parents standing at his bedside. This does not sound like uncaring parents to me.

Whatever else they may have withheld, the senior Peales did not withhold money. Peale enjoyed the privileges of growing up in a well- to-do and prominent family in New York. Never did Peale have to live the way graduate students and small college professors who must rely on their own resources live. It seems that despite the health crises and psychological issues (and there is no denying the reality of either) of John Peale's life, he enjoyed the advantages of being well-supported by his parents during their lives and left well off by them after their deaths.

I persevered through this book because I kept thinking that "there must be something more to this story." However, when I came to the end, I was left with the feeling "there is no there there." 

This is a dog bites man story - unremarkable except in this sense that every life is unique and valued by God. Families are messy. Relations between fathers and sons are often complicated - especially perhaps when fathers are highly accomplished and famous. Parents fail; children disappoint. A great many people wrestle with questions about their significance. Life is hard, harder for some than others. But so what?  Psychic pain is real. But is Norman Vincent really the cause of John's? 

This memoir lacks  the ability to stand back and look at one's own life with a sense distance, honest self-criticism, and at least a little amusement. Life is a tragedy but at least sometimes a comic one. Above all this memoir lacks the grace of another alcoholic's, Brennan Manning's A Ragamuffin's Memoir: All Is Grace.

We used to think two or three times before speaking ill of the dead, especially of family members and especially in print. No more. Not in this memoir.

The one thing this memoir did accomplish was to make me to think more positively of Norman Vincent Peale than I did before.

1 comment:

Steve said...

Maybe the older created the self-centered younger (hello, self as god)? In which case, maybe the elder got in the younger's death-whine more or less what comes with self-aggrandizement. In which case, older loses (ahem) appeal.