As I said in the last post, some things are coming to a head in this section of Vanessa the Wonder-worker, and we’re seeing a little of how it looks when we encounter a heterodox world. That looks one way when Photini confronts a schoolmate and another way when Vanessa has conversations with James about his crisis of faith. But the situation that Vanessa encounters in this chapter is something else altogether, and it’s probably the most distressing to us — what happens when you feel like you’re really alone against an unbelieving world.
It all happens kind of quickly. When James needs to go back to the mobile office called Unit 6B, there is a little throng gathered around a new professor and it’s obvious that he is a kind of esteemed person to them. Caroline Sharp, the foundation president that we met earlier, is eager to introduce James to their new celebrity, and James is obviously eager to make his acquaintance. Vanessa probably feels a little left out, but that feeling only turns to something more acute when she finds out something about the new cultural center that Mrs. Sharp has made such a fuss about.
In order for the cultural center to be built, the beautiful old church has to be knocked down. And it’s obvious that the demolition isn’t a matter of practical concerns, but political ones.
Dr. Kelly hesitated briefly before answering, her features unreadable. “The Foundation felt that the church didn’t fit in with their plans. They said it didn’t send the right message.”
Vanessa waved at the miniature building in vexation. “What message? I don’t understand. Couldn’t they have moved it? It was a good place.” …
“And they’re going to love our new cultural center even more,” said Mrs. Sharp, her eyes flashing a warning at Dr. Kelly. “It will celebrate all the religious traditions from all over the world. A shabby old church would have been totally inappropriate.”
“Why?” Vanessa asked hotly.
“Totally inappropriate,” Mrs. Sharp repeated, ignoring Vanessa. “Our donors were very clear about that.”
The clear implication is that a Christian church — which to Christians is a little sanctuary in a mad world, a small earthly reminder of eternal Truth and Beauty — is too blatant an affront to be left standing near a cultural center. That’s the kind of thing that I think we have gotten so used to these days that it hardly surprises us anymore. I won’t bother to go into the reasons for it; we all know them much too well.
In Vanessa’s case, she might not have been expecting that kind of thing. And it only becomes worse when the glittering crowd takes the opportunity to mock the festival-goers and, by extenstion, Christians in general, and Christianity.
Did Vanessa have to make something out of it? Did she have to give an arch reply to Mrs. Sharp and then primly correct the professor, when he gets the number of psalms wrong?
I leave it to readers to decide. When she tells this story to Mary later on, she will find that the humble woman is not so sure that Vanessa did the right thing.
Personally, I’m conflicted. These are subjective decisions, and they call for discernment every time. There are times when a group that you’re part of begins jeering about faith issues in an openly irreverent way, or has some other conversation that is completely against our most cherished beliefs. What do you do? As a younger woman, I would get my hackles up and be sure to make some sharp response, telling myself that I was just being zealous. Maybe I was, but I was also being brash, ungenerous and usually quite impulsive. Worse, if the goal was to shed light, I would have to say that I failed on those occasions. On the other hand, I have also totally clammed up at times in those situations, and that didn’t feel right either. You’re never sure whether you kept quiet out of some Christian maturity, or if you just plain lacked the courage to stand up against the crowd.
Vanessa, being Vanessa, is never unsure about what to do.
“You do not correct someone like Professor de Konig,” James instructed her, fumbling for the car keys.
“But he was wrong,” Vanessa insisted self-righteously. “He’s supposed to be some expert on ancient manuscripts and he doesn’t even know how many psalms there are?”
“Listen,” James said, snatching open the car door, “He knows more than you’ll ever know in your whole life. That guy is a genius.”
“James, that guy is a jerk.”
Vanessa managed to pull her feet into the car before James slammed the door, but just barely.
I can’t help thinking “Good for you, Vanessa!”
Next week: Week Four, “The Man Born Blind”
On Tuesday: Chapters 23 & 24, where many things are revealed.=