Review of “Teach Us to Want” by Jen Pollock Michel

Jen Pollock Michel, Teach Us to Want: Longing, Ambition, and the Life of Faith (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014).

Although I’m not generally a fan of devotional books or meditations on the Christian life, this one caught my attention for its prominently Augustinian theme: desire. As we have inherited from the church father through Luther, desire—the orientation of the will quite apart from any rational calculus or free decision—is the great challenge, the great mystery, the great inexplicable something in us that necessarily attaches itself to a good and will cause us untold misery until it attaches itself to the right good. Being utterly unattached is not an option, and it is not a good. As Michel rightly asserts, “Desire is primal: to be human is to want” (29).

This not being a patristic monograph, she doesn’t draw us into the discussion through straightforward exegesis of theological writings or even of the Scripture, though Scripture is there in abundance. In keeping with the genre, a not inconsiderable amount of the book is exegesis of Michel herself. We learn of her youthful indiscretions, abruptly interrupted by a powerful conversion experience; the bitter grief of her father’s sudden death during her college years, her brother’s suicide, her sister-in-law’s death due to cancer, and finally a miscarriage; we hear about an extramarital flirtation, the challenges of raising three children growing exponentially when their company is joined by unplanned twins, and a great deal about her longings to become a writer (a bit too much, by the end, in my opinion—after all, we had the proof in our hands).

The confessional aspect doesn’t have a voyeuristic feel, though. There are no gritty or salacious details, no exploiting the grief. The fact is that it’s impossible to talk about desire dispassionately, and Michel earns the right to her conclusions by both her frankness about her own passions and her listening carefully for the guidance of the Scripture. It’s a compelling combination. She ultimately realizes that, “[a]lthough easily corrupted, desire is good, right and necessary… Growing into maturity doesn’t mean abandoning our desires, but growing in our discernment of them” (200–201).

Oh, discernment! Nothing like that notion to put an end to simplistic solutions. And there are no simplistic answers where desire is concerned because desire is as varied as the objects it fixes on. For years Michel struggled with a popular simplistic solution: “I was beginning to confidently believe that the only way of discerning what God wanted me to do was, in every case, to find the path that seemed least desirable and most difficult” (18). Natural inclination, personal affection, inborn talent were all seen as snares away from the appropriately miserable road to obedience. It was a relief to her to learn that it’s a heresy called gnosticism to sneer at earthly desires and needs like food, home, and companionship; she relays here delight at how Thomas Aquinas makes virtue and desires partners, not enemies.

Altogether, the book is a good way to hear large swaths of biblical narrative and teaching, linked together along the theme of desire; I can imagine it working well as an adult study group book. I do wonder, though, how well it would play outside an environment of obvious bordering on excessive piety and Christian commitment. Michel comes from that nebulous yet powerful form of American Christianity called Evangelicalism, and she can assume her readers’ extreme concern to read the Scripture right, lead a good and holy life, and be right with the Lord. I’m not sure how it would sound to borderline or complacent Christians, as it seems like it could be misinterpreted to justify everything one is doing anyway. Pastors will have to make their own call on this one.

On a related topic, I noted with interest certain “self-correctives” to Evangelicalism that Michel skillfully wove in among her narrative and exegesis. Not all biblical characters are heroes, she gently points out, nor are we expected to be heroes either. The Lord’s Supper as a supper is more than the mental act of “remembrance”: not quite a real presence teaching, but sensing the poverty of the sacramentology she’d been taught. It is not wrong to invest in the upbuilding of earthly life—in contradistinction to those who scoffed at her children’s bilingual education, asking whether it will matter that they speak French once they’re in heaven. Faith is struggle, not placid psychological certainty, and change is not primarily our choice but God’s work in us: “We aren’t necessarily doing best when striving most” (28). She advocates confession, not as a formal church practice but as a Christian habitus. And she recognizes that Christianity is not an individual endeavor but requires a community—while remaining fully aware of the dangers of community (something I rarely hear the usual critics of “modern individualism” acknowledge openly).

If anything disappointed me, it was the absence of any sustained reflection on the political and economic implications of what she was saying. Perhaps that was an Evangelical instinct, to draw back to the personal level, or perhaps to avoid another volley in the so-called culture wars. Certainly we don’t need yet another earnest Christian of either the right or left telling us how a particular lifestyle is or is not in keeping with God’s good design for our lives. Nevertheless, there are structural and social implications for a Christian analysis of desire. The desires that we do find ourselves with in North America today are so profoundly shaped by advertising. How do we discern the borderline between legitimately acquired or given desires and those that have been exploitatively insinuated into us in order to make a buck (or ten million)? How do we deal with a culture of greed, which Paul rather shockingly identifies as idolatry (Colossians 3:5)? Well, maybe this will be Michel’s next book.

Probably the best praise for a book is the difference it makes in your own life. Michel makes a case for praying honestly: not self-editing as we go because we know perfectly well that many of our prayers are illegitimate, but just letting it come out because it behooves us to know what’s in our own hearts. So I tried it and was surprised at some of what surfaced. God had never been fooled by my careful petitions, but I had been. I will try it again, and often.

We don’t always get what we want. And we don’t always want what we get. Michel’s book is a kindly, accessible guide to sorting through those realities in a Christian perspective.

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