Skip to content

Log Out



The following chapter will appear in the book Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir, forthcoming this June from HarperOne.


DRY LEAVES TUMBLE DOWN UNIVERSITY CIRCLE. A tree outside the dining-room window stands guard over my privacy. A pop-orange Bosch clock purchased on Etsy glares at me from the table. The timer functions for now, though the clock has stopped working, its hands hanging lifelessly at the six. My day proceeds in twenty-minute sprints. I break when the timer dings and rattles, get up, stretch, change the music, rearrange books. There was once a time when a student would, at least once each day, unlock the front door and tiptoe through the foyer and up the stairs to my wife’s office—a volunteer helping stuff envelopes or make phone calls for K’s nonprofit. But a year ago—or two or three—the nonprofit outgrew the third-floor garret and moved into a proper office. These days the house is quiet during work hours.

Charlottesville is full of apparitions but bereft of mystery. The town itself is as small as the towns I grew up in. Drive fifteen minutes from my house in any direction and you’re surrounded by horse farms, rolling hills, and antique barns. Drive fifteen more, and you’re traversing the lonesome upper hill country, with ole TJ himself preening over your academical village, where the southern nobility will come for reasons they do not fathom to drink the cup of knowledge, heading nowhere, like the world’s biggest bullshit artists.

Until the summer of 2017, our cosmopolitan elites encountered mostly looks of unknowing when telling people outside the region or abroad where they came from. It took a short history lesson on colonial America to get an “Oh, yeah. I’ve heard of that,” and only if you were lucky. But in August 2017, Charlottesville became #charlottesville, and suddenly you didn’t have to say, “Not Charlotte. Charlottesville. It’s where Thomas Jefferson lived. He had slaves.” You no longer had to recycle the university’s ridiculous boasting about Edgar Allan Poe (he lived in a room on the West Lawn for four months) and William Faulkner (he spent the least productive year of his adult life playing a fool on horseback and fox hunting drunk).

For the longest time, I found the town’s geography baffling and could not orient myself to the four coordinates. I could not tell you whether the regional jets landing and taking off in the same flight path overhead were northbound to Philly and New York, southbound to Charlotte and Atlanta, or westbound to Chicago. Sunsets shadow the circumference of hills, and railways slither through ivied traces in patterns that confound the inner compass.

In my first home, I could hear the foghorns of barges and ships angling in and out of Mobile Harbor. All the towns of my childhood lay near the Gulf; if not a short bike ride to the bay, an hour’s drive. And after I left the South for college, the places I lived hugged the shore: in Wenham, Massachusetts, and then Cambridge, the Bronx, and Baltimore. Oriented by water to the south or the east, I always knew where I was.

When we moved down to Virginia from Baltimore, K and I and our three children, it grieved me to think I’d lost the raveled city that had fed my soul and had come to feel like home. I was thrilled to land a job at a research university and even more to teach students whose backgrounds I better understood. (Who am I to cast aspersions, but I’d never found common ground with white Catholic northeastern Beastie Boys wannabes.) But I missed the energies of urban life. I missed the half-hour commute to and from work and the fire and fury of local talk radio. I missed the dinner parties with our Mount Washington neighbors, the bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs that our older son attended more often than confirmations—I’d not heard the word mitzvah until I was in my twenties.

Our first months in our new house on University Circle, I’d sometimes wake early on Sunday morning and drive the 162 miles to Baltimore’s Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation in time for the eleven o’clock service. Once I locked my keys in the car, delaying the trip back to Charlottesville for as long as it took the Pop-a-Lock dispatcher in Dundalk to find a driver willing to work on a Ravens game day. I couldn’t exactly explain why I returned to Maryland for Sunday worship—only gesture at what that cathedral held for me. All three children had been baptized there. There is a surfeit of material beauty there that captivated me during worship, so different from the stripped-down and formal churches of my childhood. And there was a tie-dyed woman who every Sunday stood up during the Prayers of the People and prayed for Jerry Garcia—that was a blessing I didn’t see coming.

Sometime after joining the cathedral, I was given the keys to an unused classroom, light-filled and right next to the pipe organ. On writing days I’d taken to attending morning prayer, and sometimes at odd hours I sat in the quiet of the sanctuary, captive to a silence I was only learning to call prayer. The cathedral, then, was not only a place I prayed but also a place where I wrote—and during those hundreds of hours of reading and writing about the Mississippi civil rights movement and the Christians who fomented and opposed it, I began to take apart and put together stories that, I was realizing, had been the scaffolding of my childhood, of my own education in those Mississippi schools and in my father’s church. One weekday morning, I sat in the sanctuary not certain I could write the book after all, and there’s no way to say what happened other than to tell you directly that Fannie Lou Hamer herself, then dead fifteen years, came to that sanctuary and comforted me.

In Charlottesville, nearly a year passed before I met our next-door neighbor. Around the same time, the old-money divorcée in the self-satisfied Tudor paid a visit, only to demand that our children stop cutting through her yard on their way to school. They were using a footpath on the border of her property to avoid a curve on busy Rugby Road. For a long time it felt as if all the bright land of Albemarle County held life in like a deep breath.


Charlottesville was not entirely unknown, of course, when K and I moved here in the first summer of the new millennium. And that was its own strangeness, to be back as a member of the faculty I had fairly despised as a grad student a decade earlier. The white scholar of indigenous American religions who once told me I could not borrow his lawn mower because it was the “Mercedes Benz of lawn mowers.” A Jansenist who’d refused to intervene when three women students complained of being sexually harassed by another Jansenist. The philosophical theologian who walked out of the seminar room in a quiet rage when questions were raised about Heidegger’s Nazism.

Why did I move back here? Was it only to resume psychotherapy with the woman I imagined had saved my life when I was twenty-nine?

Hired with tenure after teaching ten years at the least known of the four Loyolas, I felt, it must be said, an unworthiness to be joining one of the best religious studies departments in the country. One of my new colleagues—a bald battering ram of eloquence forged in a famous northeastern boarding school—told me point blank, “Charles, you are redolent of imposter syndrome.” His bluster took me by surprise. I’d worked hard in the decade since doctoral studies, written books, published technical papers in peer-reviewed journals, won awards. All of which I mentioned when I told him he was wrong. I did not have imposter syndrome.

I had an anxiety disorder, which of course I kept to myself. Early on in my first semester back at UVA, I noted in class that Marx had said the purpose of life was not to understand the world but to change it. And immediately I knew I was wrong. Not only had I botched the phrase but I cited the source as the Communist Manifesto. It felt like the time I attended a debutante party in Atlanta and told a girl and her escort that “I were glad to meet you” (the exact words that rolled off my tongue). I’d spent a month reading Marx with a research group at Fordham University and a sabbatical semester in Heidelberg studying Hegel’s phenomenology (where Marx found his dialectic, and where I found anxiety triggers). I tried to pause, but it was too late for retractions, and I couldn’t collect myself. A goateed PhD student informed me with a grim smile that the quotation could be found in Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, the eleventh thesis to be precise, and that the correct rendering was, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Later that semester, or maybe it was a different semester, I found myself lecturing from typed notes on a topic that in those years I could usually talk about with some competence. How, according to theologian M, let’s say, God is essentially act, while according to theologian P—archnemesis of M—the idea of God is better identified with being. It’s the whole transcendent versus immanent debate, and you’re in good company if your eyes are beginning to glaze over. And yet they were lines in the sand for the men and women—mostly men—who see pure doctrine on one side and heresy on the other.

But then, with the shock of a man who unwittingly hollers out a word or phrase of an interior monologue, I suddenly could not remember why the distinction mattered. Oh, if you stopped by for office hours, I could reach splendid heights on the story of modern theology as it came down to a standoff between the Swiss German Karl Barth and the German German Friedrich Schleiermacher. But with the midafternoon light bending toward sunset and the campus ablaze in serotine glory, I couldn’t remember a single thing about the distrust between the liberals and the traditionalists or what was at stake in whether one thinks of God on the basis of God’s transcendence or God’s immanence. The notes that had seemed so lucid the night before—that I had worked on until the early hours, that I had, let me confess, cut and pasted from my doctoral dissertation, and that had included an invocation of an article by my Doktorvater (that’s the German term for mentor/tormentor) entitled “The Being of God When God Is Not Being God”—looked as strange as hieroglyphics.

I could have called a quick break. Instead, I kept talking. I don’t know what I said, only that I lumbered onward, skipping entire paragraphs in my lecture notes to land randomly on a passage that made no sense without context, if it ever indeed made sense.

Then suddenly, amid that professorial debacle, an old memory nearly forgotten appeared: a childhood trip to Montgomery and a man in a white coat telling my fragile mother that her eight-year-old son needed a surgical tongue trim. And a diagram of an open human head and plum-red palate as thick as a Sunday roast. “Let’s slice it by twenty percent. You’ll be in and out in an hour.”

My dear mother, you took my hand and led me back to safety. To an afternoon matinee of The Sound of Music and then the highway home under the sunset sky. But hey, Mom, WTF?


November 2019: I wake at first light. Virginia creeper in serious need of trimming canopies the bedroom windows in soft autumnal violet. The line comes to mind: “His compassions are new every morning.” I read in a copy of F.B. Meyer given me by my grandmother that union with Christ is like “the Amazon River flowing down to water a single daisy.”

After coffee, I open my computer to a recent Gallup survey on religion and mental health. A research team at Baylor University studied 1,714 respondents who were asked such questions as “Over the past month, how often have you felt nervous, anxious, or on edge?” and “Does God help you feel better?” The subjects admitted to having prayed somewhere between “several times per week” and “once a day” in the preceding years. The researchers concluded that “prayer doesn’t ease symptoms of anxiety-related disorders for everyone.” Indeed, some feel that prayers are mostly desperate attempts to keep their shit together.

I must admit I find this not surprising at all.

Later that day, a box arrives in the mail with an Oregon return address. It contains a blue medicine bag so small it would not hold a vial of pills. This is one of the many items I’ve recently purchased online that I don’t need. Until just now, I’d forgotten about it completely.

Other such purchases include:

A cone-shaped hat made by a Japanese designer in New York, which, my dining-room mirror suggests, casts me as an effete Klansman.

A half dozen artisanally crafted tote bags from a boutique run by two friendly lesbians in Arkansas (which would be a tremendous help in my daily tasks and a thrill to sport if I had seven arms).

A versicolor print of the human heart featuring three comic-book heroes launched from the red beating organ to save the day.

A burlap work shirt that the bespoke tailor called “keen classic chore” but that sent fiery whelps down my neck, calmed only by cortisone cream.

A gun-metal-green storage box too narrow for CDs and too wide for business cards (which I hardly used), with a rusty bezel exactly planed against an interior slat that, the day I opened it, sliced my index finger and left a trail of blood.

Still, in recent months (my wife would say years), the written word sings to me of everlasting days, and I’m swayed by its lure and charm. Which is to say, I’ve lost control over book buying. I know of what Eudora Welty spoke when she said, “Of course I’ll not read all of these books.” But Eudora—who lived a hop, a skip, and a jump from my grandmother (Nan Toler: 917 Fairview; Eudora: 1119 Pinehurst); the two were friendly when they ran into each other at the Jitney Jungle, though Nana didn’t like her stories much and attributed her spinsterhood to bad posture and a weak chin—never had to deal with one-stop online shopping. I’ve clicked “Order Now” on treadmills, airplanes, and commodes, in bathtubs and barber shops, while sitting in my car at a red light and walking the dog in the afternoons. The rush of the click and the beep of the receipt immediately transported to my inbox ignite the hope that I will have time to devour them all.

I’d once lost a girlfriend in New England over books, a tall blonde Marxist evangelical named Maggs from Southern California who’d earlier in the semester surprised me with a hand job on Singing Beach—my first at Singing Beach, or anywhere—and would have been happy to go all the way. We were sitting on the steps of the college library. She said she enjoyed my company and wished things had turned out differently, but she could not compete with my mistress and was tired of trying; she needed to move on with her life. She was thinking of me and books.

Indeed, I loved words; the more floral, the more I loved them. Words might not always be safe or comforting, but words were familiar. Books didn’t make me feel guilty. I could arrange books on a shelf, view them with detachment or interest, touch them or leave them alone.

Do the math on this. It took a week and a half to get through a three-hundred-page thriller set in the rural South. What’s my plan for Osterhammel’s thousand-page The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century?

I don’t have a plan, but I do hope in the resurrection of the dead. I imagine heaven as a place of leisurely reading interrupted by pickup basketball games in which—thanks to my resurrected body—I’ll run without pain, regain my long-lost defensive skills, and maybe even dunk on occasion. Of course, to hope is not to know.


I didn’t realize it until long after they’d been purchased—plucked from a corner shelf at a shop on Elliewood Avenue, scooped up from the front table at Barnes and Noble, scavenged at the annual Friends of the Public Library sale—but in those early years back in Charlottesville I bought a great many books on the theme of nervous breakdowns: their etiologies, their choreographies, and how to survive them (or not) with flair. The Bell Jar, Lancelot, Tender Is the Night, The Awakening, Notes from Underground, Briefing for a Descent into Hell. What strikes me now, in the company of Miss Eudora’s insight, is that the books on breakdowns tend to be among those volumes on these shelves that I have read.

In a monograph I perused one afternoon, I found the observation that in fin-de-siècle fiction the “new woman” was prone to nervous disorders—the novelist’s point being that her ideals were too advanced for her hidebound culture. It’s no surprise that I was attracted to such an argument, which twined into one fine floss my own sophistication and a critique of the clutches of Christian choreographies I simultaneously relied upon and deplored.

Still, the novels and histories of madness couldn’t hold a candle—well, maybe Plath could—to stories of the Complete Nervous Breakdown I’d heard throughout childhood. My grandmother always had a story about somebody she knew who’d broken down. One involved a niece whose husband proved impotent in the marital bed. I think it was the man in my grandmother’s story who cracked under pressure, but it may have been the woman. The woman, my grandmother said, had moved to Arizona and joined a cult. The man attacked the family attorney with a hatchet and then went home, fixed himself a cocktail, donned one of his wife’s dresses, and took a seat on the porch to await the police. (So I’m guessing it was the man who cracked.) Other stories followed the short tragic drive from Jackson to Whitfield, where a friend or friend of a friend had been committed in the state lunatic asylum, after which, everybody knew, nothing would ever be the same.

My mother talked a lot about nervous breakdowns too. While Nana would as soon tell her story over a plate of fried oysters at the Mayflower Café as in the privacy of her own kitchen, Mother spoke in hushed tones of white people gone mad and swore me to silence. She was partial to tales of ladies with refined tastes snapping under pressure.

I had stories of my own. My piano teacher’s husband—once a prominent lawyer—lived in the back room of their home near the city cemetery. Each week I shambled through the same Bach minuet, getting nowhere, while the poor man banged around in his quarters. It sounded like a moving crew in there. Sometimes he would appear in the hallway of the music room, take a polite bow, and silently clap his hands. I silently shrieked in terror inside from head to toe.

You had to be careful. A line ran from the bedroom to the madhouse through the parked car and the cheap hotel, from hanky-panky to the CNB (Complete Nervous Breakdown). Both my maternal intimates agreed on this—and neither spared graphic details.

Now it strikes me that the shape of these stories is, while unmistakably southern, essentially Christian, the parallel lines of the complete breakdown and my total depravity merging finally into the one either/or: redeemed or damned; pure or impure; all-in or lukewarm; possessed of the mind of Christ or strapped into a white paneled van on the way to Whitfield. A word could heal or wound, edify or shred. I never knew where I stood with the one or the other. Fear was the only constant. Too much depended on the right word spoken.


A car guns its engine at the corner, screeches through the sharp curve, and passes my house going the wrong way on the one-way street. It happens about once a month that a student behind the wheel of an enormous SUV will turn on to University Circle at the intersection near Lambeth Field, ignoring the one-way signs. How there haven’t been more serious accidents—only a few in the twenty years I’ve lived on the street, and no fatalities—is one of the mysteries of college life. Another being why students are not falling off rooftops and poorly constructed balconies on the hour. The weather is warm and getting warmer.

I walk onto the front porch for a look, as the car ascends the hill back to Rugby Road without a head-on collision or killing a pedestrian. For the moment, I hear only the roar of cicadas, rattling their tiny tymbals like drums in the aging pines.

I offer a prayer of gratitude. It’s become my only prayer, most often whispered as a benediction of duty, free-falling late at night into the ethically sourced, soft-jersey oblivion of rest: “Thank you, dear Lord.” Is this how it feels to die a happy death?

The air is soft and warm. This is the best hour of the day. The hour of concentrated stillness. When things done and mostly left undone reach a juicy ripeness. The westering sky burns orange beyond the tree line. If I were standing in a field, I would raise my hands to the sky and welcome the night.



From the book Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir by Charles Marsh. Copyright 2022 by Charles Marsh. Reprinted by permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.



Charles Marsh is a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia. His books include God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, and Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which was shortlisted for the 2015 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography and won a Christianity Today Book Award.




Image depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

+ Click here to make a donation.

+ Click here to subscribe to Image.

The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Receive ImageUpdate, our free weekly newsletter featuring the best from Image and the world of arts & faith

* indicates required