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Essay

The Road Ahead
Voices for the Next Twenty-Five Years

Many gifted artists and writers of faith working today were just learning how to read and hold their crayons when Image was founded. They never experienced the culture wars of the eighties that weighed so heavily on an older generation; theirs are a different set of influences and concerns. Do they still need evidence that art informed by faith is alive and well, or is that now a forgone conclusion? We asked a handful of younger writers how and if Image’s mission and focus resonate with them, and what they need Image to be.

 

Molly Patterson
Written in the Book

I GREW UP GOING to church every Sunday. Though I stopped attending at some point, my childhood seems located as much as anywhere there, in the sanctuary of Normandy-UMC in North Saint Louis County. It had pastel stained glass in diamond shapes and a high whitewashed ceiling with dark wooden rafters. The minister’s voice echoed beautifully in the space. At Christmas, ropes of artificial pine hung from the balcony, tied up with red velveteen bows, and in the spring the windows were opened to let in the scent of lilacs and cut grass. I haven’t been back in twelve or thirteen years—I stopped attending in high school and my mother later changed churches, so now it’s with a different congregation in a different church that I sing “Silent Night” by candlelight each Christmas Eve. Perhaps for that reason alone Normandy-UMC remains (shall I say it?) sacred in my memory.

When I was young, religion was simply this: a community I knew within that sanctuary. I liked singing the unchanging hymns and I liked saying the Lord’s Prayer: Our-Father-who-art-in-heaven-hallowed-be-thy-name. I liked the dissonant harmony of many voices saying these words all together. I liked my mother’s singing, always a full note flat, and my father’s deep bass, and the high soprano of Mrs. Weinstock, the choir director, floating like a white dove high above us all. At home, I don’t remember reading the Bible on my own, but I prayed silently every night before I went to sleep. As a child, I was terrified by the thought of eternity, and it was reassuring to think there was someone in charge of that wide space, that endless time.

I don’t remember deciding to give up my religion. It seems to have happened by accident. In high school I got a waitressing job and I worked the Sunday brunch shift every other week; it hardly seemed worth attending church on the weeks in between. On those brunch shifts I ran around scribbling down orders for pancakes and eggs, refilling endless cups of coffee, wiping sticky syrup from the tables and slapping paper placemats down on the still-wet surface. The after-church crowd came in around noon or twelve-thirty. They were buttoned-up and hatted. They wore stiff, squeaky shoes. But now they had the smell of bacon and coffee in their noses, and there was music in their ears—the restaurant played a mix of oldies and easy listening (I remember Van Morrison’s “Moon Dance” followed by “Ebony and Ivory”)—and the men took off their jackets and the women smiled benignly at their children, and though I wasn’t going to church myself anymore, I still felt part of it somehow, as if I were fulfilling a necessary part of the Sunday ritual.

Years later, when I was in my mid-twenties living in San Francisco—trying out a safe version of bohemian life in the city, waiting tables four days a week so I could devote the other three to writing—the church crowds had receded far into the distance. I was waiting tables on Sundays again, this time at a quaint café famous for its eggs benedict and gingerbread pancakes. On the weekends, people stood outside for up to two hours to get a table. But this was a very different clientele than the one I’d served as a teenager in Saint Louis. These were not the families who prayed together. These were the fleece-clad couples on their way to long hikes in the North Bay; the hung-over twenty-somethings wearing sunglasses in the fog; the older parents of young children, wrestling complicated strollers through the crowded restaurant, on their way to the heated back patio. Outside, the gray morning turned into a sun-splashed afternoon, and no one thought of doing anything with their Sunday other than having fun.

No one I knew in San Francisco went to church. I had friends of various ages and many of them had been raised in one religion or another, but there was a presumed secularity to the culture that no one questioned. The only active Christians I knew were coworkers, half of whom were Mexican and Catholic and wore gold cross necklaces under their kitchen whites. We joked about finicky customers’ orders (hollandaise on the side, eggs poached medium, fruit instead of potatoes and not so heavy on the melon, please) and I asked about their families back in the Yucatán and they asked what it was like growing up in the big blank Midwest. But not once do I ever remember talking about faith. I don’t know what role it played in any of their lives. I don’t know if they minded working on a Sunday morning for any reason other than that it held you back on a Saturday night.

In graduate school in Ohio, I made friends with another writer who was—and is—a fervent Christian. She wasn’t secret about her faith, but she didn’t feel comfortable, either, she told me, discussing it with many people in our writing program. I told her I wasn’t a believer, but that the assumption of baseline agnosticism in our community troubled me sometimes. It bothered me that the word “Christian” was often a stand-in for “conservative,” and that to many in our circle, religious belief seemed incompatible with creative pursuit, as if a writer could believe in nothing other than words. I didn’t believe this was true. And yet, when I helped my friend move apartments after our first year and packed up shelves of books about Jesus and faith and the Christian life, I found myself thinking, How can you read this stuff?

Religion is not inherently political, but neither is it inherently artistic. It can be one or the other, or neither, but seldom can it be both. This is because politics and art work in opposition: the first aims to simplify while the second embraces complexity and searches out contradiction. If you’re an artist and you’ve already ceded religion to the politicians, then you have no way to write about it other than cynically.

But this doesn’t feel right to me. Faith isn’t simple and religion at the broadest level doesn’t belong to any political party. I am interested in religion, I think, as it interacts with culture: cultures that take it in whole or that crash up against it, as well as cultures that recede from its shore like the tide. The novel I am writing centers on Christian missionaries in late-nineteenth-century China. My story collection contains one piece about a Vincentian priest and another about a present-day Methodist church. Here are culture and religion painting the grand canvas. But here, also, are the faces that populate the picture.

I am a fiction writer, and in the end, it always comes down to the character I discover on the page. More and more, I find that those people have deep and complicated relationships to their Christian faith. They find that their churches are changing. They can’t keep themselves from crying when they hear “The Old Rugged Cross.” They’re missionaries in places where other gods’ footprints have already imprinted the soil, places where their faith is tied to power in ways they don’t understand and can’t control.

My goal is to be fair to my characters, which is another way of saying that I want to be honest. For myself, the honest truth is that I was raised in the church and was comforted by my religion until it fell away like a robe and I found that I wasn’t able to pick it up and wind it about me again. But this is just one version of the story. For others, there is no robe; for others, it’s skin and bones. And if the devil is in the details, then God is, too. Those pastel windows, those hymns, the deep voice of the preacher filling the big empty space—all that means something to me, and it’s not simple nostalgia. It’s faith, of a kind: faith in the details. As writers, we’re always practicing this same arithmetic: add up all the pieces and figure the sum. It should equal something that resembles the truth.

 

Molly Patterson teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin in Eau Claire. Her stories have appeared in a variety of magazines, including The Atlantic and Iowa Review, as well as in the Pushcart Prize anthology. Her debut collection, Just Because You Can, is forthcoming from Five Chapters Books.

 


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