WRITING IN THE NEW YORK TIMES in late 2020, Ayana Mathis made a strong case for the enduring appeal of James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. Her effort involved citing Baldwin’s own account of faith’s lingering significance to him after he formally rejected it:
Baldwin’s novel…is an act of bearing witness to the bitter realities of his life as a young man—and to the Black church as a place of existential and spiritual nourishment, even as it was parochial and unyielding. Perhaps Baldwin left the church because he knew he would not have survived its stifling rigors, and had little desire to try. Certainly the exacting and capricious God of his upbringing…was anathema to him. And yet in his 1962 essay “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin wrote of his vexing childhood religion: “In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare.” The church inspired him with its music, its pathos, its soaring rhetoric, the stalwart and fragile souls of the faithful—these were dear to him and find full expression in Go Tell It on the Mountain. I am struck anew by the scope of this slim novel, at once an indictment of the faith Baldwin left and an enduring testimony to its power.
What makes Mathis’s appreciation so persuasive is her sense of the felt struggle that informed both Baldwin’s experience of faith and his writing about it. There’s a push-and-pull power to the novel’s representation of religious experience, culminating in its protagonist, John Grimes, asking a family member near novel’s end—as he’s about to make his Stephen Dedalus–like flight—to remember and remind other members of the church that no matter where else he goes, and what else he does with his life, he was once part of their world, their church, in a real way. His wanting recognition of the validity of his time in the community necessarily requires his validating it, even after it no longer orders his sense of self and purpose. In other words, religious experience in Go Tell It on the Mountain cannot be reduced to either its teleological affirmation or rejection, while its representation carries with it the refracting, variously shattering charge of autobiographical investment—imaginative and intellectual and emotional, all reordered away from living in and for the church to the writing of a novel about living in and for and then leaving the church.
With the obvious exception of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, no other first novel comes to mind that renders with such felt force what it means to live or not live a religious life. Reading Go Tell It on the Mountain—and also Baldwin’s later essays about his life in and beyond faith, and likewise Mathis’s moving, convincing appreciation for finding so much of her own religio-imaginative experience in the novel—I felt I was being provided with the revelation of a time and place and people from exactly the perspective and sensibility I seek in religiously serious fiction. It’s intimate but not captive, ardent and argumentative rather than merely outraged or apologetic.
Obviously, autobiographical experience, even matched to extraordinary artfulness, cannot be the lone standard against which to measure the accomplishment of a novel. Unless she’s a time-traveling psycho-anthropologist, Hilary Mantel writes remarkably alive-feeling historical fiction that’s demonstrably uncoupled from any direct personal connection to her source material. And who knows if, what, where, and how autobiography informs Elena Ferrante’s fiction. My point, in turning now to two new novels about religious experience, is that while Baldwin offers the highest possible standard (with Joyce and his hellfire Jesuit homily-writing behind him), the combination at play in his work needn’t be the exclusive, or even primary, criteria for measuring other such efforts. Mantel’s oeuvre offers a convincing, more general case that research and observation can suffice to create captivating and stirring fiction, while Ferrante’s work suggests, at base, that curiosity about how much a writer’s personal experience is informing her storytelling is pointless: when the storytelling proves so damned good, it doesn’t matter. I think most writers would be happy to find their work located somewhere on the Baldwin-Mantel-Ferrante spectrum. Daniel Hornsby and Chelsea Bieker have each recently published promising candidates, at least based on credentials: Hornsby’s debut came out with Knopf and earned a “Briefly Noted” nod from The New Yorker, while Bieker’s enjoyed positive attention from NPR and Entertainment Weekly alike.
Hornsby’s Via Negativa is the story, told in first-person, of a septuagenarian Catholic priest who’s been kicked out of his Indiana parish because of his liberal tendencies, which include irregular liturgies and Zen gardening. In response, Father Dan transforms his car into a “mobile monk’s cell” and goes west. He does so to make amends with Paul, an old friend from seminary—who came out, left the priesthood, and invited Dan (in vain) to officiate at his Massachusetts wedding to a Unitarian minister. He’s also planning to confront, lethally, an older priest, a charismatic conservative, who abused that friend when he was a teenager, among many other young boys, and enjoyed an outsized presence in their local Midwestern Catholic world. While driving, Father Dan rescues a coyote hit by a minivan, which he names Bede, in keeping with his bookish appreciation of the Christian past, and the coyote in turn becomes a smart means, on Hornsby’s part, for projecting various possibilities for companionship, wildness, woundedness, and healing. Listening to Prince CDs in his car (“There is a real mystical theology to Prince, and I’m not being cheeky”), Father Dan encounters assorted American eccentrics and their small businesses, while also caring for the injured animal and reflecting on his decades as a priest, dating back to his entering minor seminary in the 1960s. Father Dan believes that at base, his great spiritual struggle is with acedia, the temptation to apathy and lassitude, and he quotes Cassian on the noonday demon to inform his estimation that this is “what I feel now, driving around in my car-cell. The farther I drive forward, the more the demon shows up to make me look back, telling me I’ve made no progress. I have no spiritual fruit.”
A meditative and melancholic priest in a car rambling across America, packing books of theology, an injured coyote, and a handgun; soundtrack by Prince: It’s an impressive premise, recalling Chekhov, Kerouac, Walker Percy, Graham Greene, and pick-your-Brooklyn-writer-with-Jonathan-as-a-first-name, but where is Hornsby in all of this? Self-evidently, Hornsby is not a retired Catholic priest, and I have no idea if he’s Catholic, but suspect he isn’t. This shouldn’t matter—the priests and nuns that Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Greta Gerwig have recently made up and put to work in their stories feel real because they don’t make immediate and easy sense from any vantage, and—just as importantly—because the little details of their lives and work feel right. An aging liberal priest who listens to cool music and cares for wounded animals and Zen gardens, who wants to shoot the abusive hypocrite who first hurt his gay ex-priest friend, who eats pot brownies and loathes “Eisenhower priests” and rolls his eyes whenever he encounters a “pre-Vatican II type” and laments other priests and members of the hierarchy who wage “a war on feminism, liberalism, and any art made after the Reformation”—this would all make sense as a Ben Lerner novel: as a deep postmodern joke of a fiction, written in 2020 but pretending to have been written in 1980 and thereby exposing how far removed we are, in our concerns and mores and active referents, from that period.
So why, then, did Hornsby pursue this effort? In part, as with Orson Welles’s creating Citizen Kane—the story of an old man’s life as a young man—while in his twenties, there’s certainly an imaginative challenge for Hornsby here, and perhaps doubly so if he’s not any kind of Catholic. Whether he is or not, there’s no observable evidence that the stakes of Father Dan’s life matter to his creator as anything other than affording that imaginative challenge. As much is evident in the novel’s many minor errors with respect to revealing a lived-in Catholic life, never mind a priest’s life. Annoyance overtook imagination while I was reading, because of repeated references to “services” and “congregations” in place of Masses or liturgies and parishes; because of the dubious notion that one bishop and one parish priest had a continuous thirty-year battle over the latter’s leftward ways; because of the basic bad math of men ordained before Vatican II still celebrating Masses around the country during Francis’s papacy (and who calls them “Eisenhower priests”? Or calls Notre Dame “Indiana’s Vatican”?); because of a cradle-Catholic-cum-priest reminiscing about “papist souvenirs” instead of papal souvenirs; because of an old Catholic remembering his “mother’s devotional Mary candle.”
That last one was imaginatively fatal, for me. Was it an Our Lady of Guadeloupe candle? Was it Our Lady Undoer of Knots? Our Lady of Fatima? Of Lourdes? Of the Immaculate Conception? Of the Immaculate Heart? Of the Snows? Of the Lakes? Of Mount Carmel? Of the Assumption? Of Victory? Of Sorrows? I could go on…but the point is, I cannot imagine that anyone who grew up Catholic and retains any memory of the visual and linguistic vocabulary of a piety-inflected childhood, however conflicted, would offer such a barren, technically accurate rendering of the prayer candles around the house. Likewise, how could a writer, Catholic or not, choose such an impoverished description compared to what could be riffed on with all of Mary’s many devotion-focused iterations?
Worse still, as well-read and pastoral and thought-filled as Father Dan is, so far as I can tell, he never prays, thinks about celebrating Mass, or even reflexively makes the sign of the cross. But here’s the kicker: When he finally meets a bedridden, dying Father Bruno in a nursing home (staffed by seminarians, it seems), steeling himself to shoot him, he’s interrupted by a young priest—tubby, bland, conservative—who’s come to offer Communion. Father Dan observes that the old predator “lurched forward and took it on his tongue like a trained dolphin.” That’s a good description, combining a critique of rote religious practice with a sharp sense of senescence. But then, there’s this: “The priest placed the other half in my hands, and I ate it.” The young priest departs, and the story continues.
You’d think an introspective old priest struggling with his faith and his church would spare a moment for the Eucharist—whether to hate on it, reject the claim of transubstantiation, declare his indifference to it, feel conflicted by whatever appeal and effect it still has…but there’s nothing. Instead, a few pages later, when Father Dan is chasing after the coyote in a Washington mountain range, we’re told that “The moon was the color of an apricot” (MFA+ writing) and that Father Dan’s transcendent moment of union is with an uncaged wild animal: “For a minute there, I wasn’t chasing him, but running with him, part of the same dark thing as him.” Fittingly, the coyote ends up biting him…“right in the middle of my palm. A half-assed stigmata.”
I would have loved writing this review fifteen or twenty years ago, nursing a grudge against Hornsby for being further along than I was in professional literary terms, and on what I perceive as my own imaginative turf, no less. Instead, I feel kind of awful right now, reviewing a first novel like this. Perhaps we can assign all of this criticism and complaint to my own cradle Catholic scrupulosity and my intellectual rejection of the ideological premises animating Hornsby’s storytelling. But I’m fairly certain that a Boomer Catholic who went all-in on the deep left side of Vatican II and saw only retrograde authoritarianism in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI would likewise find little to recognize, or to need to reckon with, in the faith life and world of Via Negativa. It strikes me that Hornsby, as a likely outsider to a religious tradition and related ways of life that are imaginatively and conceptually rich for a storytelling project, created an insider-outsider as his way to explore this terrain. I just wish he’d demanded more of himself and his writing in pursuing religiously attuned ideas and evocations—say, by making Father Dan committed, still, to the Divine Office or a righteous hater of liturgical folk music; or by making Father Bruno genuinely funny and also evil; or by making Paul a self-involved jerk and also wounded by abuse. Those combinations would create tensions and vitalities that cannot be neatly contained, that instead disrupt our expectations and experiences, as writers as much as readers; they keep the noonday demon of a settled imagination at bay.
I think it’s safe to say—or I pray to God this is the case—that Chelsea Bieker is not drawing on direct autobiographical experience with her new novel, Godshot, which is about a fourteen-year-old girl’s experience of abuse, abandonment, pregnancy, and everyday cult life in drought-ridden rural California. Blood, shit, vomit, and baptismal cola are far more abundant than fresh water, and that’s the problem Pastor Vern wants to solve. To do so, he’s decreed that every newly menstruating teenager in Gift of the Spirit Church is to be impregnated by a male of his choosing; he is convinced that upon the birth of these children, under the auspices of his church, water will return to the parched fields of Peaches, a small town in the Central Valley where failing crops have driven many men to suicide, including Lacey May’s grandfather.
Early on in this book, I was glad to be condemned for presumptuous reading. Yes, Pastor Vern is a seething, conniving creep of a beta male pretending to be an alpha-omega male, but he also suffers from hay fever and tells Lacey as much during an early interview. “‘No trees blooming, no grass, but still, allergies,’ he mutters, wiping his nose.” With this detail, Bieker challenges us to read more closely, more carefully—this will be more than a provocative novel of religious extremism and extreme misogyny against which defiant collective womanhood resists, endures, and prevails, with failing, flailing mother-daughter, multi-generational, and romantic relationships mixed up along the way. Godshot is all of that, and screamingly so most of the time, but Bieker’s talents are most in evidence, and the book is most interesting, when she’s not trying so hard to bring together the worst parts of the Bible with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Emma Cline’s The Girls, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
In the main, the mix of dysfunction, manipulation, violence, despair, and end-times atmosphere in these stories points to what Godshot entails. Lacey May’s self-destructive mother is banished from the church community with her predatory boyfriend after her recurrent alcoholism comes to light, thanks to a dramatic betrayal on Lacey’s part. In turn, Lacey May lives with her grandmother Cherry, who collects and stuffs rodent carcasses and likes to be scratched in unreachable places while she tells stories from the past and schemes to get into Pastor Vern’s good books. They are poor: when the toilet stops working, Cherry makes Lacey May dig a hole in the yard, and they put a lawn-chair over it, with “a hole cut out of the seat.”
After Pastor Vern certifies Lacey’s menstrual status, she’s forced to have sex with Lyle, a born-to-lose mumblecore millennial looking to make his way in the cult. Lacey learns that she’s pregnant, which is also known as being “Godshot”; that the baby inside her is “Church property”; and that she can expect to be treated well (such as wellness can be found in a drought-time cult), as long as she obeys Pastor Vern’s various dicta and gets along with the other girls in the Bible study, all of whom are also pregnant or faking it with pillows to please Pastor Vern, a self-deluded deluder.
Meanwhile, Lacey May finds more meaning and possibility in the friendships she forms with a brassy sorority of phone-sex operators in town, and eventually she figures out a way to reconnect and try to reconcile with her mother, who is living and stripping under duress in Nevada. A sequence of search-and-rescues eventually ensues, daughter for mother and mother for daughter, just as the story reaches its ostensible climax, a water-seeking forced-labor religious ceremony—the “Birthing Day”—that involves a golden machine gun, many shots fired, terrified and entrapped teenage girls, and a police intervention.
All of this is well-plotted and affirms solidarity among a community of women of all ages who have to deal with deranged and controlling men and the warping awfulness of cultish religiosity—but you kind of know all that and agree with as much, from the start. Other than Vern’s hay fever and Lyle’s indifference to sex, in the main, there’s not much to surprise you about Godshot.
But when Bieker turns her attention away from the easy work of detailing the extreme contours of daily life in a white-trash cult and instead attends to Lacey May’s fraught inner life, the results are far more memorable. Reading a pregnancy guide, she comes across a question about whether she’s dreaming about “‘pink bows or blue trucks?’ The truth was I’d dreamed of neither. It seemed I was already a terrible mother.” Later, moving well past Pastor Vern’s sense of things, Lacey May wonders “If God was something separate, something not religious at all,” and eventually, while visiting a beach for an impromptu baby shower, she has a crisis of belief that yields a durable plan for her life and the life of her child:
If all my believing years I still didn’t understand God, then that meant there was a life outside my own, that there were still yet other things I didn’t understand, but could come to know if I wanted. I let the possibility of the world slowly unfurl before me. Any thought that I could give this baby away evaporated as if it had never existed. A new power ran through me, something of the earth. My tears fell into the salt bath. I felt right there that anything great could happen.
Whether or not Chelsea Bieker ever had a baby shower on a beach, or watched one from a behind a rock, or read books about them, or imaginatively transposed baby showers that took place in food courts or church halls or basement apartments or in-laws’ condo party rooms doesn’t matter. She has created, in this passage, exactly the kind of revelatory self-insight and unexpected resolve—that demanding interplay of humility, transcendence, relief, conviction, and hope—that we all look for when we turn to novels about our lives in and out of faith.
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto. His most recent book is Original Prin (Biblioasis).