One of Herman Melville’s best-known, and strangest, short novels is “Bartleby the Scrivener.” It is a story told in the first person by a Wall Street lawyer in the 1800s who needs to hire an additional law clerk, one who will copy legal documents. Such a clerk was known as a scrivener. So, he hires a man by the name of Bartleby. He is a quiet man, but he balances the temperaments of the other two clerks in the office, Turkey and Nippers, and he does top quality work. However, one day, when asked to proofread a document, a quite normal expectation of his job, he replies with words that he will repeat time and time again, “I would prefer not to.” No explanation given, no reconsideration, just “I would prefer not to.” This is an answer that he will give to any number of requests from hereon in. He does less and less work and simply stares at the brick wall outside his window. In time, he even refuses to go home, wherever that might be, and lives in the office all day and all night. When asked to leave, he simply replies, “I would prefer not to.”
His employer, who finds it difficult to take a hard line with him, is ultimately forced to move his offices to be rid of him. That works for the lawyer, but not for the new tenants, as Bartleby continues to live in the offices, or on the stairs when they force him out. The lawyer goes back and tries to reason with him. He even invites Bartleby to live with him. But always he gets the same answer, “I would prefer not to.” Finally, he quits trying to reason with him, and even visiting him. Some time later, he learns that the new tenants have had Bartleby forcibly removed by the police, and that he is now residing in the Tombs, a guest of New York City. He visits him and finds him in an even more morose condition than ever before. He bribes a jailer to make sure that he gets enough to eat, but when he returns a few days later, he is told that Bartleby has died of starvation. To every meal he has been given, he has said, “I would prefer not to.”
The interest in the story, of course, has to do with its eeriness, which comes from its unnaturalness. It is not natural to take no interest in life, or one’s own welfare. It is so contrary to what human beings are like that explaining what is wrong with Bartleby is an industry in literary criticism. Years ago, when psychological analysis passed for literary insight, it was frequently argued that Bartleby suffered from a deep clinical depression. That, however, simply belabors the obvious, and provides no real insight whatsoever. Of course, he is depressed.
Perhaps a better explanation comes from the writings of the ancient desert fathers of the church, the ones who fled to the deserts of Egypt in hopes of spiritual enlightenment. Their lives were arduous and their task required great focus. As a result, they also discovered all the things that can destroy attention in the human being. One of them they called acedia, which has usually been translated as “sloth.” But it is not quite “sloth” as we talk about it, which is a sort of laziness or slowness. Acedia is a spiritual disease, and it is perhaps best understood by its frequent nickname – “the noon time demon.” It is the sort of indolence that comes upon us after a morning of good work. About noon our minds start to wander. We can’t focus. We start checking our email and surfing the web, or organizing the items on our desk. That sort of pointless distractedness can go on a long time, and, once it begins, we often find that we can’t get started again on what we need to do. We lack the will. We need a jump start in interest, but nothing will do it. Now, most of us get over it. Often, caffeine helps. But it can persist, especially with respect to big projects, like writing dissertations or books, or spiritual discipline--things requiring long term attention. If it does, over time, one enters into a self-defeating state of mind. Even as we know what is in our interest, we can’t do it. We stare at what we need and we don’t take a step towards it. We may even believe we don’t need it. Yes, that can be a depressive state; but the ancients surely got it right when they saw it as a spiritual disease, for its destructiveness is in the spirit. The problem is less the emotional affect, which may or may not be present, and more the refusal to move towards what is needed for one’s health and spiritual best interest.
Now, I think this may be a good description of Bartleby’s condition. Some time after his death, the lawyer learns that Bartleby had once been a clerk in the dead-letter section of the Post Office. He realizes that dealing with dead letters all the time would have been disastrous to anybody of Bartleby’s temperament. Why? Well, I would suggest, it is because words and writing are meant to communicate. They are the link between human minds and hearts. To have to deal every day with words that were written with great intent – telling someone that she was loved, telling a family member that someone has died – and to know that they will never be read is to face the frustration of the deepest human purposes. To have that as your daily work is to face meaninglessness in a very pointed way, especially for one whose living is a matter of copying words. It is perverse and pathological to reach Bartleby’s state, but it is perhaps no surprise that after time, one who faced that every day would start to say, “I would prefer not to.”
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus complains that the generation to which he speaks is like a lot of sulky children who will not dance when the flute is played, nor will they even mourn when things are sad. When John the Baptist came, they wouldn’t listen to his message of repentance; when Jesus comes eating and drinking with his disciples, celebrating the dawn of God’s kingdom, they treat him like one who has no morals or sense. In short, they respond to every invitation to the kingdom by saying “I would prefer not to.” They are not depressed. They do, however, refuse to take up the invitation to the dance. They do refuse to move ahead towards their own health and spiritual interests.
This is not a one-time complaint of our Lord. He voices it in various ways throughout the Gospel of Matthew. Next week, we will read the Parable of the Sower, which includes the stories of those who heard Christ’s words, but never acted on them, or who soon grew bored of them, or who let other interests distract them. Elsewhere, Jesus continually complains about the Pharisees’ reaction to his message. They should be the ones who know better than anyone else. They should jump at the announcement of the kingdom. Yet, they are the ones who refuse to enter in themselves, and who also take the key of knowledge away so that no one else can enter, either. In all these cases, these are people who are saying, in one way or another, “I would prefer not to.” And in each case, they are acting in such a way that they are going against their own self-interest, moving to a state of no longer caring about or thinking about what is really worth their lives.
But, of course, that is not simply an ancient problem. It is the very problem that Christ’s Church faces today. On the surface, the present resistance to God’s invitation to the eternal dance would appear to be the result of a formidable intellectual challenge to religious faith. Among many of the tribe of scientists, it is sufficient to say, “I am a scientist” to justify indifference or hostility, as if that were justification for rejecting a word spoken to the heart. We have recently witnessed the phenomenon called the “new atheism.” While the spate of writing that fueled it seems to have dwindled, the idea still hangs around. But, it is not really an intellectual issue. The intellectual challenges are not unanswerable, and in many of those who write about them, they are not really that formidable. The issue is really far more personal. What seems to be an issue is the number of those who say, “I would prefer not to.” The church faces a culture that just is not all that interested.
There is little doubt about it. Empirical work has been done on the issue. In a well-funded, massive study conducted over a number of years into the religious habits of first youth, and then young adults, the sociologist Christian Smith has claimed that the young adults of today who are not in churches, and who are increasingly not in church, are not particularly hostile to Christianity or any other religion for that matter. It is fine, they just are not interested. They know virtually nothing about it, and to the degree that they think about religion at all, they subscribe to what has been called “moral, therapeutic deism.” That is to say, the point of religion for them is to be a good person, although forgiveness is an expectation for any failing. Religion is only there to help people in what they want to do, although it does not demand anything of them, and God is pretty much a vague principle, not a God who enters into human lives. God should not be up in your business, nor should anybody else, they think. You don’t need a church, therefore, and you aren’t interested in the call to life that the church issues. It is way too much to ask. So, whereas, once upon a time, we were justified in believing that kids who disappeared from churches would someday return, now very few of them do anymore. They see little point in it. They are not coming back. Of course, it is not simply generational. There are a whole lot of people out there saying, “I would prefer not to.”
What can be done about that? Something needs to be done, not so much for the church’s sake, but for the sake of those who live in a world where life horizons have shrunk to the small playground of personal interests and worldly successes, for the sake of those who have sold their idea of their humanity so short, for those who have been promised the heavens, and said “I would prefer not to.”
But, let us realize that if anything is to be done, it has to be done with precisely that idea in mind, namely, that the world is selling itself short, that it is wallowing in wide-spread spiritual acedia. Sure, that means that churches are shrinking. It is hard to pay staff and keep up buildings unless you have a critical mass of pledging members. But, to worry first about this problem is to think about our message in such a way means that we ourselves will sell it short. Once we start to think like consumers, and worry about our sales figures, then we will worry mainly about what other people want, and not about the good that God promises them. When that happens, we start tailoring our message to the lowest common denominator, to what will please people. We start thinking that the latest technology or advertising will do the trick. We will debate whether our standards are insufficiently low. But, what will please people who are saying, “I prefer not to?” Not what they actually need, and what they need, not want, should be what we have to give.
So, what is to be done? One thing. We ourselves need to stop saying, “I would prefer not to,” when confronted with the life and community that the Gospel promises. What we have to offer the world is the life we live. We need to be a community of love and concern. Nobody out there is going to be convinced that we have the kingdom in sight when we wait to come to worship depending on whether the minister is dynamic or not, whether we like him or her or the music or anything else, waiting to decide whether we would prefer to or not prefer to.
Not everybody will join this community or any other church. Since God first promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation, there have been, and there always will be, plenty of people who are going to say, “I would prefer not to.” It is a great mystery why that is. It isn’t in their own best interest. But, on the other hand, there will always be people who do see the greatness of the promise, and the great love that is behind that promise. And, as long as there is a community that actually lives that way, that acts and believes the way it is supposed to act and believe, then there will always be people whose hearts will respond in joy and who will want to be a part of that community. All that it takes is for people here to say in response to God’s invitation, “Here I am. I want to.”