An Alley in Chicago


“How can your Gospel be so interesting, and you who speak it so G— D— dull?”* A poet who teaches preaching told a group of us that that was how she began a course on preaching after having heard homilies by her students. Merely to quote that question here, so out of place at the end of a biography of an unfailingly interesting servant of the interesting Gospel, is to remind the reader of an experience we have just had together. Rare it is to run across such a life in the late 20th century American church. One envies Margery Frisbie the hours she spent interviewing, digging, observing, and writing.

Not long ago I brought to a ministerial-professorial colleague the biography of a Protestant pastor who flourished a half century ago. He glanced at the Table of Contents and the index, noted all the events generated by the subject of the book, all the people whose lives the minister had touched, and said: “What a signal of how times have changed; which one of us would merit a biography, and whose biography would hold the attention of readers?” As I read An Alley in Chicago, the most obvious feature kept coming to mind: Jack Egan has been on the scene, shaping events in Chicago, being where trouble needed to be stirred up, comforting where that act was in place. Where were the rest of us? We need a book such as this to keep up the jabbing and prodding. Where were we?

On the sidelines. Reading about Egan’s doings. Checking up with Father Hesburgh or Cardinal Bernardin: “How’s Jack Egan doing these days?” Being in the suburbs. That, at least, is where I was between 1956 and 1963 when the priest was taking on the University of Chicago, where I had studied and was eventually to teach. (Lucky for me that I was not on the scene, I thought as I read: whose side would I have been on, had I been where it would have been necessary to choose?)

Karl Marx famously commented in a thesis on Ludwig Feuerbach: “Hitherto the philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” On the sidelines, reading, checking up, being elsewhere, were places and acts which positioned so many of us to interpret the world. Egan, however, has been changing it, by dint of personality, a delicious squandering of his unmatched energies, learning from experiences—such as being felled by illness and untrue friends, being lifted by the Christian Good News and people he helped—and by embodying so much of what a “city priest” is called and ordained to do.

One note at the very end struck me as less than true, out of place, but not unanticipatable. Author Frisbie must have slowed Egan down long enough to get him to reminisce. He speaks of the effects of aging, his tiredness, his feeling that “not much came” out of his efforts, that “nobody seems to care.” The positive consequence of such thinking is Egan’s awareness that a day comes when one does get to pass the work on to a new generation. The sad corollary is the haunting thought that maybe Egan thinks that what he here said is true, that “not much” resulted and that “nobody seems to care.”

Of course, never does as much come from efforts as one might have wished. Many achievements turn to ashes, get covered with dust, stop being acknowledged. For almost a generation the nation has been learning the lesson that it is fashionable not to care about the city, about social justice, about the Church’s being called and ordained to seek results and stimulate care where injustice reigns. One should also note that most people whose circumstances and lives are changed for the better never do know who were the agents of change. God knows.

Father Hesburgh and I, while providing the bookends for this biography, are both drawn to commenting on Monsignor John Egan, who would protest that since this is not a life but a story of a life, we should also note the book and the author. To those who have read it, who have been carried along by lively prose written by someone whose genre captures the pace and verve of its subject, Margery Frisbie’s writing needs no commending. But I do want to lift out what might be overlooked: the fact that this is a book of theology.

Classifying it thus is not a design somehow to elevate it, to make it sound more important than a mere biography—or, for those who are unmoved by theology, to damn the book with misplaced praises. My intention is to suggest how we can keep on seeing “how much comes out of” Egan’s life, how we can extend the reasons for “somebody to care.”

The point can become clearer if we compare. Colleague Langdon Gilkey has written a shelfful of duly footnoted, referenced, profound works of systematic and constructive theology. But a generation from now people are likely to continue taking most from Gilkey’s narrative Shantung Compound, a reflection born of his own experience as he tried to make sense of Gospel, human nature, and human purpose while a prisoner of the Japanese in China during World War II.

Here Frisbie generously quotes Egan doing something similar about God and humans, not in a prison camp but in a city of magnificent vistas, great extremes, soul-imprisoning injustices, and occasional breakthroughs by a Catholic church and Christian people. Not a few of them are sinners who let Egan stir them up, “manipulate” them, as Frisbie finds some of them noticing that he is allowed to do. An Alley in Chicago is narrative theology. Egan becomes a paradigm—to use the postmodern word—or an exemplum, to retrieve the medieval and thus more expressive one. He embodies and exemplifies that interesting mix of gifts and cicumstances, shortcomings and slight stabs of saintliness, fallibilities and occasions for eucharist, which God must enjoy in priests and other sinners, having made them so evident in the ones who get to do some changing of the world, who provide reasons for others to keep on caring.

My poet friend when reading this life will be experiencing “narrative theology,” which means talking about God by telling stories of humans. She will not find it necessary in this case to contrast the interestingness of the Gospel with the damn dullness of those who profess and speak it. By keeping the story central and the interpretation minimal, Margery Frisbie has stayed out of the way, and thus served narrative theology well, while keeping all of us interested. For those who have been looking for exempla, models and molds, An Alley in Chicago will have turned out to be right down their alley. Pass it on.

—Martin E. Marty
    The University of Chicago

* I use dashes instead of letters because I am a Protestant who does not want to jar the sensitivities of Protestant readers, of whom I hope there may be many, and to provide an excuse for this footnote, because I thought this book needed a footnote.