A Review of
In the Middle of Things: Essays
Reviewed by Mark Jenkins
I sometimes wonder if one of the greatest accomplishments in life is to arrive at the age of 60 a less grumpy person than one was at the age of 30. If so, I have failed. Because grumpy is probably the best word to describe myself when I first laid hands on Meghan Florian’s collection of essays, The Middle of Things.
I hasten to add that my ill-temper had nothing to do with the content of this book. It was more the promise made by the publisher on its back cover: “In the tradition of classic essayists from Virginia Woolf to Annie Dillard…” It is, of course, the standard overpromise intended to sell books.
Not unsurprisingly, The Middle of Things doesn’t (quite) live up to that promise. Nonetheless, the further I read in Florian’s essays, the greater I came to enjoy her company. This young author may not – yet – be a new Dillard or Woolf, but her voice is clear, strong, and often compelling.
The opening essay introduces us to some of the author’s personal background and what is clearly a central passion of her life: the pursuit of philosophy, specifically, the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard. Beginning with a charming account of a weekend getaway from her summer fellowship at St. Olaf College’s Kierkegaard Library, she deftly draws us into what – in the hands of a less capable author – could be a dry retelling of her college years. The child of Christian Reformed Church parents (with the strong scent of Midwestern conservative evangelicalism), Florian matriculated at Hope College, a stronghold of reformed Christian values and practices. I have heard many stories about Hope (my brother lives a few short blocks from the campus), including what is an incessant, unverified, assertion that its tenured faculty must sign a statement declaring allegiance to Jesus. True or not, this awareness made me nervous.
What I found, though, was the compelling account of the author’s maturing faith: her authentic struggle to reconcile her Michigan “bible belt,” evangelical heritage with her expanding horizons. Studies in bible, religion and philosophy – along with good mentoring – challenged much of what she had previously known to be true. “The bible had not dropped from the sky in one piece,” she writes. “It contained contradictions, dare I say flaws, with which I did not know how to cope.” Such studies, combined with a spring break “mission trip” to Los Angeles where she was confronted with a raw, radicalizing inner city poverty and injustice, led her to come “face-to-face with the faith I was basically trying to leave, but somehow couldn’t quit.”
Most, if not all of these essays, touch upon Florian’s experience of being a woman in an male-dominated field of study. I was saddened to read that the same kind of patriarchal abuse of women so prevalent when I attended seminary still holds sway. Florian’s academic advisor at Duke Divinity School purposefully misrepresents what courses are available to her in her first semester. Ironically, Hope College ends up looking positively progressive alongside the unsubtle sexism of the seminary. “I would notice the undercurrent of professors subtly discouraging students from academic work relating to gender. I would also observe who was more likely to be allowed to test out of core courses and skip those prerequisites that were holding me back. Genitalia had something to do with it.”
In 1982, incoming students of my seminary (also a male-dominated southern institution) were required to adopt inclusive language in writing, speaking and preaching. So I was disheartened to learn that, years later, Ms. Florian “had to listen to my (church-history) professor drone on and on whilst refusing to use gender-inclusive language.” But then again, only last year a member of Duke’s faculty wrote to his colleagues, encouraging them to boycott a training session on how to recognize and combat racism. (“A New Battleground Over Political Correctness: Duke Divinity School” New York Times, 9 May 2017.)
And we are surprised to learn that Ms. Florian couldn’t wait to get into a class taught by a woman, any woman?
In another, equally striking essay, she reminds us that Amma Macrina, elder sister of Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, is still judged by her approximation of personal characteristics that are, by definition, male. “Virtue and virility – from the same Latin root, virtus. Meaning courage, excellence, character, manliness.” All this she details in the context of an insightful and clever essay about academic dress codes and the difficulties of male professors in accommodating their jacket-and-tie expectations to the presence of female colleagues.
Myself the product of an earlier generation, I was at first surprised to read (again from the publisher) that this collection is “part feminist manifesto.” Having been raised and educated during “second wave feminism,” I found elements of her essays at times to be at odds with much of my (antiquarian?) understandings of feminism. But there is a wonderful freedom here to survey such topics as the prototypical fashion of Audrey Hepburn, the strange and often demeaning world of on-line dating, the feminine qualities of one’s hair, and the strange and strained attractions of marriage. With Ms. Florian’s bona fides I would not dare to challenge her on any of this.
This book is worth multiple readings. If anything is lacking, it is not so much a grace of writing, for it is most assuredly graceful and compelling, but rather in the breadth of experience that only a long, carefully examined, life can impart. Little doubt, given time, Ms. Florian may ripen into a voice that is more than that of Woolf or Dillard – a voice that is her own and no other’s – which, of course, is all that any good writer can really aspire to.