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Credible Threats (Lent 9)

Credible Threats (Lent 9)

It was easier to believe in Satan than in God. We were cautioned against disregarding the devil—his greatest trick, etc., etc.—and I was perhaps over-vigilant about keeping him in mind. Not that I intended to think of him at all. It felt almost like a curse, like he wouldn’t leave me alone. When I opened my eyes at night I expected to find him standing next to my bed. When I walked out of the bathroom after brushing my teeth, I expected to find him outside the door, waiting to carry me off to hell. I imagined him not with a spiked tail and horns, but as an ordinary man with a leering Cheshire Cat grin. I would know he was the devil because he would be waiting for me someplace he shouldn’t be (my bunk at camp, the closet in my bedroom), looking at me with the dark pleasure of someone who’s just said check and mate.

Fear hove up around me as I lay in bed, and I’d try to tamp it down by reading the Bible. My grandmother had picked out a few especially comforting passages for me. The danger was that opening the Bible accidentally to the wrong page—seeing one of the terrifying passages in Revelations, a dream of Daniel’s—would make things worse. And even if I got straight to, say, Psalm 23, every line that assured me that God was on my side also reminded me that the dangers I feared were real. 

Satan was everywhere in those days–supposedly Satanic cults were running nursery schools to groom children for sacrifices, metal bands were openly embracing devil worship. The news was chock-a-block with serial killers, the theaters filled with horror movies. I felt porous to all this fear—a glimpse of an ad for a scary movie as I passed through a room where my parents were watching TV could sink me into a kind of misery I can’t describe except to say that I spent years of my childhood convinced that I would be murdered. It was just a matter of where and when. I was on the lookout everywhere. And since Satan was involved, there was little I could do to stop it, and no place it couldn’t find me. I imagined knife blades spinning out of cracks in the wall, severed hands grabbing me by the ankles, dead-eyed babies sucking my soul out of my mouth. All I could to to save myself was hold the Bible up as a kind of shield, hoping it would buy me a little more time and a less terrifying death when it came.

If my short experience as a Creationist had long after-effects (mostly intellectual, mostly valuable), my longer experience of this satanic fear had an even more durable, visceral, and damaging legacy—one that well outlasted my belief in God. I was intermittently afraid of being alone the dark until I was in graduate school. On solo backpacking trips I’d every night lying awake in my tent wondering whether it would be better or worse to see my murderer’s face before he hacked me to death. I couldn’t talk sense into myself. I was a grown man lying in the woods in the pitch black dark miles from anyone at all, yet certain that some possessed psychopath would happen upon me out there in the wilderness at just the very moment he had an urge to kill.

It was an egotistical fear, to be sure: why would I be the one singled out for dismemberment? Why should evil descend on me, leaving everyone around me unscathed? But it was the dark mirror of the belief I grew up with, that Jesus took a personal, intimate interest in everything about us, was with us at every moment, there to comfort us in any difficulty.

There were times I wondered whether in order to get rid of my fear I had also to get rid of my faith.

Believability (Lent 8)

Believability (Lent 8)

I started 8th grade at a new school—after seven years at public schools in Virginia, I was going to an Episcopal boys’ school 40 minutes from home. The school took boarding students starting in 9th grade, but the middle school was day students only. My class had 8 students. As middle schoolers and day boys we were the school punks, perhaps worse even than the seventh graders who had the advantage of looking still like cute kids while we were croaking our way into adolescence.

I liked the school. Eighth grade is not a bad time for an awkward boy to be in school apart from girls, for one thing. I liked having to wear a coat and tie to school every day, liked learning to feel at ease in what the previous year had been uncomfortably formal clothes. It felt like a major step toward growing up.

Most of the education we received there was as secular as it had been at public school. There was daily chapel to endure, but our other classes—English, Latin, Math—were standard issue. We took Bible class but it was more like a another English class than religious instruction. Only in science did I really feel the fact that we were in a school not bound by the Establishment Clause. We were doing earth science—I remember writing a paper on the Chernobyl disaster and the mechanics of a nuclear meltdown, for example. But our middle trimester was entirely given over to a thorough explication of Creationism. We learned a dozen different methods, from re-reading ambiguities in the fossil record to measuring the depth of the dust on the moon, to prove that the universe was only a few thousand years old. We watched a series of movies that laid out arguments methodically and—to my 8th grade mind—convincingly. Any objection I could imagine was pre-empted, every shred of evidence for a Darwinian reading of natural history undermined by pointing out a bit of evidence that couldn’t be reconciled to that narrative but made perfect sense in a story that began 6000 years ago with an act of God.

This teacher was, I think, an outlier even in our ostensibly Christian school .It certainly wasn’t school policy to teach against evolution. The next year, our 9th grade biology teacher, fresh out of college, hadn’t even been warned that sitting among his class of 20 students were 8 boys whose hands would shoot up any time he made a casual reference to some foundational bit of evolutionary biology. “Actually,” we’d say, “that’s not true,” before regurgitating some “fact” we’d picked up the year before.

Evolution was going through a relatively untroubled time then, as far I could tell: most Christians accepted it, at least in general outline. I grew up hearing that the “days” of Genesis were metaphorical, and that it was perfectly consistent with a faithful reading of the Bible to accept certain claims of evolution. There was no reason God might not have used the mechanism of evolution to shape creation; the only real beef with it was the idea that it could all have happened by random chance rather than being benevolently guided by God.

So our earth science teacher was out of step with almost everyone I had ever encountered in the church or out of it. But—especially to an 8th grade me—that almost made him more credible than less. The knowledge he was passing on to use was occult and scandalous: we could shock even our parents with what we learned in that class. Some of the arguments I was able to spin out were on points so arcane that nobody I knew even imagined they were up for debate. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that she might need evidence to defend the point. The reflex of people I confronted with my claims was to laugh them off, not to refute them; to dismiss the teacher as a nut rather than to explain why he was wrong.

But of course new facts did come along, and the idea that the earth had been set spinning fully populated with all its fauna and flora mere millennia ago came to seem ridiculous even to credulous me. What didn’t change was my memory of having been convinced—completely—to believe something so counter to fact.

It gave me a sense that you could have a completely coherent, rational system of thought that existed in parallel and at odds with another coherent, rational system of thought. It planted in me the idea that the world might yield an entire other set of meanings if only you had the key to it—not that everything was suddenly susceptible to rereading, but enough of it to make life and its meaning itself feel unstable.

In a way, that teacher’s lesson ultimately made me even more skeptical of my own community of faith—not because I thought their belief systems were inherently less credible than anyone else’s, but because they were just as credible as anyone else’s. What made a belief system powerful? A story—a way of taking the chaos of the visible world and stringing it together on a line of narrative. In the absence of provable claims, I didn’t see how you could ever be sure whether one story was better than another. We were all telling ourselves stories, convincing ourselves of something in a way that made it feel foundational. It all started to look provisional to me instead.

Vale of Tears (Lent 7)

Vale of Tears (Lent 7)

At some point I had to accept that my emotions were not to be trusted—that even the great upwelling of heartache and love that demanded resolution by some dramatic turn toward God was more to be questioned than acceded to. Was I feeling the stirring of the Spirit, or was I just particularly susceptible to the music we were listening to? What I found powerful in the moment of those feelings was the way the act (or performance) of coming clean, making yourself vulnerable, reducing yourself to a heap of contrition, could generate sympathy, an arm around the back, and a feeling that you might start again. That was the promise of our variety of Christianity, the opportunity to start over, forgiven and redeemed, and I found it addictive. What do we want in the world more than the chance to be transformed into something better?

As I understood it, you needed to give your life over to Christ only once to make it stick. Like marriage, it was a lifelong promise, in effect even when the going got dull. I made that commitment early on, before I was 10, I suspect. I remember I was at my bedside, with one or both of my parents on hand. After I prayed on my own behalf, we prayed together And then my parents told me that while I felt good right now, I should expect the shine to wear off, difficulties to continue, doubts to creep in. My life would not be magically straightened out, but I would have someone to turn to in all those moments when it got twisted. I remember feeling especially grown up in how I took that news, though I’m sure I was also disappointed. I desperately wanted a lot of my problems to vanish. But I was pleased that my parents trusted me to bear the truth, and proud that I’d pleased them, as I lived to do.

My disappointment grew when, later, I saw my first proper altar call. I don’t think it was at a Billy Graham crusade, though it’s possible it was (my family were fans). But the emotions there were through the roof, and watching people awash in tears stumbling down the aisles to give themselves over, I felt I’d perhaps wasted my conversion by having it so early and so quietly.

Fortunately there were plenty of opportunities to renew my commitment, to reaffirm my faith—perhaps I’d drifted a bit, let material desires interpose between Jesus and myself; perhaps I had just had an unusually heavy load of sinful thoughts and needed to dump them—and these invited the same kind of spiritual carwash, same public catharsis. I knelt at the rail of our church in tears more than once while my father put his hands on my head and prayed over me, a weird kind of parallel and public intimacy to our relationship at home, which was already emotionally close if complicated.

None of these experiences felt false to me at the time, though. They were important rituals, reminders of what mattered to me, re-encounters with the Spirit. Even the last time it happened—in high school, at a Christian youth retreat in Myrtle Beach—it felt, in the moment, authentic and overwhelming. We were holed up there for a weekend, most of it in a hotel conference room where we sat on the floor—in circles, leaning up against one another, indulging every opportunity we got to make physical contact with one another. Three or four buzz-cut guys just out of college played camp songs on acoustic guitars and we all sang along from xeroxed songbooks, an inexplicable feeling of heartache and desire slowly building as the day wore on. Kids started getting emotional. Beautiful girls started crying and leaning heavily on the beautiful boys who always happened to be right there to cry and lean on them. It was maddening, this mix of lust and chaste sincerity, the mix of innocuous music and spiritual purge, and soon enough I too was in tears, grieving for my sins, wanting also to be transformed, healed, given over to God, and if possible also to Chrissy in her soccer shorts and Sambas a few yards away. Instead I was scooped up by a warm-hearted counselor, ended up swaying tearfully in an arm-in-arm circle of people singing along to some sad camp song.

What shook me days later, when I thought back on it, was not how sexual longing had insinuated itself into even my spiritual experiences—sexual longing infects everything teenagers do. I knew how to recognize and quarantine it intellectually if not physically. What struck me instead was how much it was just music that led to my meltdown. In retrospect it had been so predictable, so clearly the way the day was programmed to work. I was embarrassed at how mechanistic it was, how completely I had fallen for it.

I grew up in a family in which crying was neither unusual nor discouraged. I was never told that boys shouldn’t cry, though crying out of pain or frustration was not of the same order as crying out of love or from some encounter with the profound—beauty or remorse, or instance. Tears signified depth. In the context of church, they suggested some encounter with holiness, the divine. 

We think of tears as significant, emphatic, unambiguous acts of expression—“crocodile tears” and sorry, officer, I had no idea! tears notwithstanding. The meaning they convey is rooted in the body, produced in an act of total engagement. Like physical pain, a foot against a stone, it seems irrefutable. A body in distress is not a body to be argued with. It’s making its position clear; it’s begging for mercy, for a reprieve from the machinations of reason, the compromises of dialogue. To cry in a room full of people is a kind of speech but also a way of putting yourself beyond speech, to move entirely into the realm of the extra-verbal. It requests a physical response rather than a linguistic one.

Yet the memory of my tears at that retreat is shaded by feelings of shame and betrayal. In retrospect, I felt like I’d been manipulated—and that I had willingly assented to being manipulated. It cast a shadow back over all kinds of ecstatic experiences I had had prior to that, and it cast a shadow forward, too. I began thinking of thoughts I had listening to music as akin to thoughts I had high–suspect, even if they were compelling. 

If you aren’t swayed by reason and can’t trust the response of your body, what do you know, and how?

My Saints & Prophets (Lent 6)

My Saints & Prophets (Lent 6)

  1. Marilynne Robinson
Alec Soth/Magnum

Faith always sounds like an act of will. Frankly, I don’t know what faith in God means. For me, the experience is much more a sense of God. Nothing could be more miraculous than the fact that we have a consciousness that makes the world intelligible to us and are moved by what is beautiful.

Paris Review Fall 2008

If she is a believer, what argument could I possibly raise against at least giving it a try?

Forms of Faith (Lent 3)

Forms of Faith (Lent 3)

My mother said something close, once, to what O’Connor said to Corn.

I don’t know how old I was–maybe 11 or 12–but I know I was young enough to be nervous about what I felt I had to say to her. I’d been mulling it over in my room and finally worked up a head of steam and went downstairs, where I found her folding laundry on the dining table.

“Mum*? I don’t know if I believe in God anymore.”

I know I was young, too, from her reaction. She didn’t seem alarmed. Instead, she put down the shirt she was folding and said the last thing I expected, given the stakes we’d been led to believe attended questions of faith. 

“That’s ok.”

Having doubts, she explained, was a perfectly normal part of being a Christian. Think of Thomas, who’d demanded physical proof of the resurrection before he’d believe it—not one of the Gospels’ heroes, maybe, but the kind of model you could be thankful for in moments like this. She herself had had struggles, she told me. What mattered, she told me gently, was that I had already given myself to God, and so all of these thoughts were occurring within the safe boundaries of my having been saved. God would not abandon me in my moment of uncertainty—and in the long run, my doubts would strengthen my faith rather than threaten or diminish it. 

I felt a superficial relief after that—first that she wasn’t angry, or even worried; second that the crisis I’d imagined I was having was all comprehensible within the framework of belief, of the church. I was in no danger. I was grateful to my mother then, and have remained so since, fo taking a broad view, reacting to what I’d worried a was a terrible confession with enough equanimity to assure me that everything was going to be ok.

But even when I was young I think I also felt disappointment fringing my sense of relief. Perhaps I’d wanted more of a scene, more concern—I was a child who often fantasized about being at the heart of a crisis. But also: was there something in her response that didn’t take my doubt seriously? How could God stand by me in my doubt if God didn’t exist? Maybe it felt good to be reassured that my feelings were normal, but those assurances made sense only if you took as a given the very assumptions that I was questioning.

The difference in what O’Connor told Corn didn’t hit me until now—my mother’s response was similar in shape but not in substance. In O’Connor’s formulation, doubt wasn’t just a normal bump on the road of faith—it wasn’t something I should expect to see dissipate on its own, or even that I should expect to overcome. For O’Connor it sounds like doubt was an essential component of faith, another face of faith. If God were entirely knowable, what kind of God would it be? Doubt is the substance of faith. If it were not, we wouldn’t call it doubt—we’d call certainty, or ignorance. Doubt is not simply a lack of knowledge: it is an ontological condition. 

A few years after Mother Theresa died, some letters she’d written came to light that gave the lie to the idea that her strength had come from her clear sense of connection with God. “Where is my Faith,” she wrote. “[E]ven deep down right in there is nothing, but emptiness & darkness–My God–how painful is this unknown pain–I have no Faith–I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart–& make me suffer untold agony.” There were many of them, letters in which it was revealed that she had not always felt she had access to God, had questioned every aspect of her faith, her vocation. I found these cries from the dark not only comforting but moving, even persuasive as arguments for faith—not simply in the sense of thinking “oh, if Mother Theresa had doubts then it’s ok for me to have them, too,” but in the sense that it demonstrated the inseparability of faith and doubt, that the darkness and the hope were twinned. 

Faith is a struggle, my church taught. But not O’Connor’s struggle or Theresa’s struggle. In our church, the struggle was in fighting against your sinful nature or in being in conflict with the fallen world. It was a struggle against temptation, against assimilation. The existence, goodness, and accessibility of God were givens. The religion of my childhood was built around the idea that each of us can have a “personal relationship with God,” that we walked with a Jesus who was a kind of perfect friend. In my own family, God’s existence is considered indisputable because God had revealed himself personally and unambiguously to each believer in the house. My family say they could no more choose not believe in God than they could choose not to believe in the front door. A common conversion story arc in our circles included some sentence like “I wasn’t looking for God—I didn’t even want to believe. But after that, I had no choice but to believe.” If there were those of us in the family who hadn’t had those experiences, well…that was too bad, I guess.

Though it is my instinct to doubt the accounts my family give of their conversions, I try not to. They are unambiguous about having seen God’s hand intervene unmistakably in their lives, from the day he first stopped them in their tracks and said “come with me.” I have at least to consider the possibility that I have just not (yet) been called up.

It’s uncomfortable—even embarrassing— to talk about this. When I am drawn face against the glass of my religious upbringing I find myself contemplating a terrible choice: Is my family crazy? If they are not crazy, am I damned?

In writing these notes during Lent I am in part exploring what other options there are—what forms faith can take other than the ones my family presented me. But I love my family very much, and no small part of my drive to explore faith comes from a desire to close this last gap between us. If I were to find faith, but it weren’t one my family recognizes, will I have been glad I did?

Family photo, age 10-ish.

* Long story.

Lent 1: Introduction

Lent 1: Introduction

Lent arrives with a familiar feeling of obligation, a feeling that tugs at me though I have no reason to acknowledge or honor it. If I have ever believed, it hasn’t been for a long time.

The word “Lent” is so simple, and I associate it so entirely with deprivation, abstinence, spiritual cleansing, that it hadn’t occurred to me until today to wonder where it came from. It’s a word that has come to seem almost onomatopoeic—an illusion generated perhaps by its rhyme with “repent,” or because it is such a gentle, fluttering, plaintive word, a tongue to the teeth, a wet leaf flicked by the wind. It seems a word designed for the use we give it now.

But “Lent” comes from an old English word for spring. It’s simply a designation of a season. Associating Lent with fasting, with Christ’s season in the wilderness, must grow out of an historical necessity. After the long winter, the storehouses are nearly empty but the ground is still too cold to replenish them. Spring—Lent—is a season of starvation, ironically butting up against the season of abundance and rebirth. Making a spiritual discipline of it is making a virtue of necessity.

New York is the first place I learned to understand how spring could be cruel. In the south, spring comes on fast and easy. Here it approaches and recedes, torturing the weather, tempting you to plant seeds, then crippling your sprouts with late frost. It’s also the first place I’ve lived where I saw regular people walking around on Ash Wednesday with ashy crosses on their foreheads. It came as a surprise to me, who’d grown up in the Christian south thinking of New York City as a wildlife preserve for pagans and atheists, to see this public demonstration of piety on the subway platforms. Perhaps the austerity of Lent is easier to embrace in a place like this, where spring isn’t a riot of flowers and sweet peas.

I’ve made symbolic (and secular) sacrifices for Lent in the past–I’ve given up meat, sugar, alcohol, sleep. This year I plan not to give something up but to meditate on something I lost long ago, think about a hunger I already feel.