When Fiction Strengthens Faith: Willa Cather and Love for the Local

We live in Southern California. My driver’s license and return address stamp have told me so for more than a decade, but it is only recently that my heart has been telling me the same. It seems strange that, in a time when everyone seems to be fleeing our state, God has been growing our roots physically, spiritually, and relationally deeper into it.

Many who visit here fall quickly in love with San Diego’s perma-perfect weather. Tourists are captivated by her coastline and tummies are tantalized by her taco trucks. But this love is a surface sentiment that largely ignores the brokenness of our city.

Ours is not a blind love for our local region. The longer we have lived here, the more I see the ugliness underneath the shiny veneer: the systemic housing issues, the promiscuity, and the prevalence of sex-trafficking break our hearts. So do the girls who strut the streets wearing next-to-nothing who have bought the lie that they are their bodies alone. The fact that so many here do not know their right hand from their left (to borrow a biblical phrase from the book of Jonah) leaves me in tears at least once a month.

But this is not a post about Southern California, it’s a post about learning to love where you live in an eyes-and-hearts-wide-open kind of way. God often uses fiction to strengthen and buttress my faith. And lately, as I read Willa Cather’s classic novel O Pioneers!, I found myself resonating with the protagonist Alexandra’s realistic but resilient love for her land. While we are clearly not homesteaders, God has called us to pioneering ministries on the West Coast.

The Heart of a Pioneer

As the daughter of a Swedish pioneer, Alexandra Bergson knew first hand the hardness of the Nebraska land. Cather captures this harshness writing, “In eleven long years John Bergson had made but little impression on the wild land he had come to tame. It was still a wild thing that had its ugly moods; and no one knew when they were likely to come, or why. Mischance hung over it. Its Genius was unfriendly to man.”

Despite summers of drought and pestilence, Alexandra continued to love and invest in the hard land even after the death of her father left her in charge as a young, single woman. When family after family gave up attempts at pioneering and homesteading to head back to already-tamed East Coast cities, Alexandra exclaims, “Sometimes I feel like I am getting tired of standing up for this country.”

Yet she persisted in her pioneering spirit and anchored her heart in Nebraska. Returning from a trip to look at some farms nearby, Cather writes the following about Alexandra’s love for her locality:

“For the first time, perhaps since that land emerged from the waters of geologic ages, a human face was set toward it with love and yearning. It seemed beautiful to her, rich and strong and glorious. Her eyes drank in the breadth of it, until her tears blinded her.”

While I don’t drown in the beauty of our desert landscape marked with light brown, dark brown, and sandy brown, my eyes fill with tears when I think about out city and its people. I find myself crying as I pray for God to open people’s eyes to the glories of the gospel here in Southern California. I, too, grow tired of defending our love for this lost place and its particular people who are stamped in the image of God. I know our California politics are progressive and that it is considered a land of hippies, fruits, and nuts, but God has good in store for people here. He has sheep that have not returned to his fold.

Loving the Place of Your Exile

It did my heart good to find a fictional character who embodied a pioneering calling to a particular place. So often I find myself dreaming of greener pastures or easier spiritual climates. I want to feel less lonely and less like an exile. For the sake of comfortability, I want to be surrounded by an abundance of people who think like me, look like me, and approach the world the same way I do; however, God has called us to a place where those people are hard to come by. Sometimes I am tempted to grow embittered by the dryness of our desert-like spiritual climate which mirrors our physical draught-stricken soil.

God used Willa Cather’s Alexandra Bergson to strengthen my faith this week. Through this fictional character, I saw a picture of what it might look like to live out God’s calling to his elect exiles, as seen through the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

Thus say the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I h ave sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters…Multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I send you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare (Jeremiah 29:4-6&7).

Alexandra loved her land and its people in the way that God asked the exiles in Babylon to approach Babylon. This is the same way that I imagine God wanted Jonah to love Nineveh: with an honest, persistent, eyes-wide-open love. For when Jonah ran away to a more tame and comfortable land, the Lord rebuked him and reminded him of his love and pity for such a lost city (Jonah 4:8-11).

When we are tempted to run from our posts or begrudge the places of our callings, may we borrow God’s strength and love for our locations. May we ask God to give us his eyes to see the same places with a different sight.

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season, we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunities, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith (Galatians 6:9-10).

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