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Essay

Why Believe in God?

Over the past few years, the Image staff contemplated assembling a symposium based on this simple problem. But we hesitated. Should we pose such a disarmingly straightforward question to artists and writers, who tend to shun the explicit and the rational? Or were we hesitating because the question itself made us uncomfortable?

Then, over the past year, a handful of manifestoes appeared criticizing religion as a corrupting social force, as vengeful, nonsensical wish-fulfillment, as closing people’s minds to science and leading to war and environmental destruction. Christopher Hitchens and the “New Atheists” have much to lay at the door of the faith traditions of the west. Hitchens calls religion “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.”

And so we were spurred into action in spite of ourselves. We put it to a group of writers, artists, filmmakers, and musicians: At a time in human history when, at least in the worlds of art and literature, belief can seem the exception rather than the rule, when religious faith is called not only out-of-date but malignant, why do you believe? Our goal has been neither to publish rebuttals to Hitchens et al. nor to host a debate, but instead to seek out brief meditations from the artists and writers who make up our extended community. Their responses are collected here.

 

 

Dennis Covington
The Persistence of Faith

ASK A WRITER a question, and he will inevitably tell a story. When people ask me who I write for, this is what I tell them:

Thirty-six years ago, when I was in the army and stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, I did some volunteer work at the Leesville State School for Retarded Boys. One of the children there was a thirteen-year-old named Lovado. He was humpbacked, he limped, and he had an unusual facial deformity: his eyes were on either side of his head, like a lizard’s. He was also so painfully shy that I never heard him speak. One night, though, I heard Lovado sing. He had a lovely, clear voice. I don’t remember the song, but I knew even then that the sound of Lovado’s voice would stay with me.

Three years later, in Iowa City, Iowa, I sat down one afternoon to write. I was between stories and facing that writer’s hell, the blank page, when I heard the voice of a fictional boy whose physical characteristics seemed to resemble Lovado’s. He said his name was Lucius Sims and that he, too, was a resident of that state school in Louisiana. The other boys there called him Lizard.

“My daddy was a Cajun out of no place in particular around Bayou Teche,” Lizard began:

I asked one time to see where he grew up, but Miss Cooley said the location could only be predicted, since the water rose and fell in that part of the parish. I know what it must have been like, though. On dirt roads along the bayou I have seen those houses with screen doors kicked in, flatboats overturned in the yard, and I can imagine my daddy out back on Saturday evenings, playing the accordion under the live oak tree while the grownups drank beer and danced, the air sang with mosquitoes, and the nighttime came down slow on top of them all.

I had the feeling, staring at the page, that I was not the writer, but the audience.

I didn’t get past the first chapter of Lizard’s story that spring, but I thought about him off and on over the years. I wrote notes to myself, sketched out scenes. I drew a diagram of the Leesville State School and invented biographies for other characters who might appear there.

It wasn’t until December of 1980, though, that I returned to the story and began writing Lizard out of that state school and onto the road with a couple of actors who were on their way to Birmingham, Alabama, to put on a production of The Tempest. The male actor, a cynical con artist and drunk, thinks that Lizard, because of his deformity, will make a great Caliban to his Prospero. The other actor, a gifted and ethical woman, disapproves of the idea, but relents, the state school being such a wretched place and the boy having no other way out.

I wrote religiously every day, typing on yellow second sheets and only occasionally striking a line or two. Each night I read what I’d done that afternoon. Then the story took an odd turn in a peach orchard by the side of the road where Lizard and the actors had camped for the night. There Lizard meets a sister and brother named Rain and Sammy who live alone in a pump house by a stream. Their mother, they say, died in a flood, pursued by a one-eyed snake, and they tell Lizard incredible stories about a silver bowl—a source of pure and eternally replenished water—that has been passed through generations to their mother and now to them.

I am by temperament a realist, and this was not at all the story I had been planning to write, but I was hearing this voice in my head, Lizard’s, and this was the adventure he wanted to have, so I wrote on through January and February. I was on fire. Sometimes I would toss and turn with the story running around in my head; once I woke up and cried “The preacher is the one-eyed snake!” My wife, Vicki, was perplexed but sympathetic. She had been reading each chapter as I wrote it, as supportive and encouraging an audience as a fellow writer can ever hope to have.

But I haven’t answered the question, have I? Who do I write for?

I wrote Lizard for the deformed boy—not to him, but on his behalf. By that I mean, of course, the deformed child who lives inside us all, that innocent spirit who is, as Czeslaw Milosz tells us, “entangled in the flesh.”

As for audience, I will tell you what I tell my student writers: the audience for our work is not on this earth. The students give me ironic looks, but I’m serious. What we should be about, I tell them, is making the best piece of work we can.

Who do we write for?

Why did God make man?

Like him, we are the first audience of the work we make, and though we know it is flawed, we eventually offer it up into the world anyway, where it has to make its own way and its own mistakes. It must figure out how to clothe its nakedness.

The ultimate audience for our work, though, is not of this world.

We are shells within shells. The writer is the first audience, holding the imperfect thing up, but the reader, too, is an audience, holding the imperfect writer and his work up, and successive generations of readers, when they pick up the book, are holding all the previous readers and the writer and his imperfect work, and the one who holds the generations in his hand is also holding an imperfect work.

I believe that we are all deformed creations, but in the eyes of the one who made us, we are infinitely lovely, as Lizard is to me now, thirty-three years after he first spoke.

If there were no maker, no generations of imperfect creations, no spirit entrapped in our ragged flesh, we would no longer be telling our stories, for we would have no one to tell them to.

 

Dennis Covington’s many books include the novel Lizard (Laurel Leaf) and the nonfiction volumes Salvation on Sand Mountain (Penguin) and Redneck Riviera (Counterpoint).

 


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