If it is a mystery, we too have a right to preach a mystery.
THE ONLY BOOK I ever remember throwing away is Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping. With great fanfare and what I took to be Christian zeal, I tossed it into a dumpster by my college dorm. To this day I don’t remember what I found so disturbing. High praise indeed for Robinson’s bewitching art. With fans like me, who needs a reviewer’s damnation?
But this private book-burning ceremony seems as authentic an expression of my former piety as any of the Bible studies I led or prayer retreats I made or converts I struggled to win. Given the choice at an exit poll in 1984, I wouldn’t have hesitated to identify moral values as my top concern in the election—the question itself would have felt redundant—but that voice-vote would have told you almost nothing about the reasons for my zeal, and not much, frankly, about evangelical ambitions.
The devoted evangelical lives on high alert. In conversion, he casts himself out toward a moving trapeze, and when the bar catches his hands, he holds on for life. This is where he lives, net or no net, spectators or empty stands. Every circumstance offers a fresh challenge to keep holding on, to prove faithful. The rescued believer stays serious as a consequence and leads a life of tremendous vigilance and alarm. Having been saved is always before him; saving others is always in tow.
The literary echo of the evangelical posture sounds from The Great Gatsby, in which Nick Carraway longs for the world to be “in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” He would have found his soldiers easily in the ranks of my college friends, who reminded each other, quoting scripture, to “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ,” a verse that comes back to me almost two decades later with the ease of a childhood song, and with a kind of moral terror. There is a quality of uneasiness driving the evangelical to a life-or-death piety. Consolation after all must be equal to despair. Shoreless need must find an infinite God or none. A contrast with the writer John Updike highlights this dynamic of desperation. Updike has addressed religious experience with great seriousness in his work. He ventures over and over to its existential brink, but only, it seems, so that religion can settle the nerves and let life proceed. You have your Kierkegaardian moment, and then you’re free to have sex, as if to prove Nietzsche’s point: “a matter that becomes clear ceases to concern us.” For Updike, faith allows the believer to move on to enjoy the experience of life. And while Updike’s intuition may be more reasonable—and sane—for the evangelical, quivering to know the will of God is his life, not simply the solution to life’s riddles. He is a compass needle trembling to stay fixed on the will of God. The goal is not to find true north once and for all and then relax, but to hold to that pole despite constant movement and opposition. Who knows when the next storm will brew?
The anguish of the believer striving for inner obedience will be clear to anyone who has been immersed in the evangelical world. There is a kind of correlation between all the promises of peace, the assertions of joy, and the reality of inner turmoil. Since, as we used to tell each other, the Lord comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, it was by any measure better to be afflicted. When every thought, and not just every action, must be obedient to Christ, and faith is fidelity to what you cannot actually sense, the result is a formula for zeal, to be sure, but also for pious stress, and even breakdown. I know something of this firsthand. And while my experience is momentous for only one man, it is nonetheless a window looking into a world that warrants both criticism and respect.
After college I spent four years in London working with John Stott, a man dubbed by the former Archbishop of Canterbury the “unenthroned pope of worldwide evangelicalism.” Columnist David Brooks touted Stott as the leader people should know—not the likes of Jerry Falwell—if they want to understand evangelical beliefs. John Stott never married, and, at least when I worked at his side, he rose daily before five am, then spent the entire day at his desk or the lectern, in meetings, or, quite literally, on his knees. One of my predecessors, observing John waking himself up in a foreign land several time zones from home, captured his single-mindedness: “He sleeps with the same concentration with which he works.”
At the time John and I were perfectly matched: I remember, as part of my own discipline—this explains all!—reading Calvin’s Institutes every day with my breakfast. I prayed as I walked to John’s flat every morning. On my day off I did laundry and wrote letters. During the week I was all over the city, running errands for John, chasing books or references in libraries, picking up overseas guests. I remember leading a group of Egyptian pastors on a tour of London, and once, in those pre-internet days, I went to the crypt of Saint Paul’s Cathedral to check the Latin wording on Wren’s memorial. We spent weeks at a time at John’s Welsh coast retreat and traveled together to India, Africa, and Manila. The days were blissfully unpredictable, gloriously full.
And so, when for reasons I could not identify, I began to lose my ability to read the Bible or tolerate church, and as my appetite for books became literary rather than theological, I became incomprehensible to John, and we could not speak about it. Then one day I broke down beneath the stress. Everything unraveled. John flew to Australia—I believe it was June—and I stayed behind in London to catch up on some reading for my master’s thesis. I had enrolled in the religion department at King’s College to study the Victorian crisis of faith. The honest doubt of our predecessors, the epic desire to believe on regardless, Francis Newman shuddering at the militant Jehovah, Mill choosing hell over the fellowship of a tyrant, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson’s nature “red in tooth and claw,” Samuel Butler, Edmund Gosse, all these were my habitat for two years. Their struggles were the measure for my own, their resolutions what I groped for without success. As a result, my seminar papers were all anecdotal. I couldn’t read enough about these spiritual nervous breakdowns. I was breaking down myself, and they supplied a vocabulary for my grief.
At the time I lived on the north side of Kensington Gardens, a student-poor neighbor of Charles and Di. From my Bayswater flat, I used to walk for hours at a time, west toward Notting Hill and Portobello Road, or, more often, south, across to Hyde Park, then on toward Piccadilly and Leicester Square, stopping at all the bookstores on my route, unloading my stipend on secondhand hardbacks that I could never afford to ship back to the States. On Fridays, at a newsagent tucked between bookstores on Charing Cross Road, I would buy the Times Literary Supplement fresh off the truck, then withdraw to a nearby café for the morning. The ironed pages had it all, a thrilling and never-ending range: Roman history, Renaissance music, Ford Madox Ford, Carson McCullers, Leibnitz, Auden, Whitman, Proust, Wittgenstein, Spanish architecture, Goya, western attitudes toward Islam, Gertrude Stein, the history of the pencil, madness and death…. The suggestion of expansion. The largeness Ishmael felt when the shoreline disappeared behind the Pequod. The ad they ran described me: you can either go to grad school, or you can subscribe to the TLS. Even though officially I was a graduate student, my imagination was shifting. My enrollment at King’s, I began to think, was an excuse not to go back to America yet. My Harvard and Yale were the café tables off Charing Cross Road (near the print shops I loved), or on the side streets flanking the British Museum, the lunch counter at the Onion by the Holborn tube, and the King’s student union, where the air held cigarette smoke the way the Thames simmered fog. I sat by the high wall of windows there, overlooking the South Bank. Barges drifted by beneath Waterloo Bridge, dragging long beards of foam. Hypnotized by the river, I fought to concentrate on my unsteady Victorians. The dynamic of disturbance reenacted the shuddering prelude to my Christian faith. If you enter religion with drama, you’re sure to leave through the same volatile passage.
One day I went to my office and found a box of books John had set by my desk with a note attached, asking me to sell them or else give them away. I hauled them down to Charing Cross Road. And it was while the bookstore clerk unpacked the box, examining each volume, that I noticed a copy of The Closing of the American Mind, which I had read about in the TLS, and on an impulse, I rescued it from the pile, escaped with it to a Bloomsbury sandwich shop, propped it on the countertop, and was transported by Saul Bellow’s preface, his celebration of a self-carved education, his distracted interests. He loved the streets too much for the rabbinate, and, small-town kid that I’d been, an Opie from southwest Virginia, I found myself pounding through London with similar zeal, convinced deep down that walking these ungridded streets (and not the seminars at King’s) would yield the insights I needed. Bellow shot pool when he should have been working; he read Marx and Whitman instead of syllabus texts. Now his preface dissolved inside me like a tonic, absolved my erratic streak, temporarily, and assured me I wasn’t suffering some psychological problem, an academic’s ADD. It seemed to me later this preface freed me before I realized I was bound. I sometimes told people that Bellow saved my life. (My personality, it seems, would chase redemption regardless.)
John flew to Australia for two weeks of lectures. I needed the time to catch up on my coursework at King’s. From postponing serious writing for a month, I had a long paper to complete, an introduction, as I thought, to my ultimate dissertation, which bore the grand title “The Moral Critique of Victorian Religious Belief.” I meant to argue that the teaching of Christianity began to strike educated minds as offensive, morally, that science and historical criticism were incidental to the real crisis of belief, that Darwin and German scholarship were straw men, in other words, though they were usually seen as villains. I aimed to catalogue this claim with two dozen brief biographies. There was no way it would fly in the modern academy. (A.N. Wilson’s later book God’s Funeral is a more massive version of what I had in mind.)
Anyway, my project never got off the ground. My mind was shutting down, and, physically, I could no longer work. The thought of reading or writing was nauseating. I developed a protective repulsion to print. To cope, I found myself stretching short study breaks into long ones, long breaks to whole afternoons loose in the city. For days at a time I did nothing more productive than slip into matinees on the cheap and then walk around the West End for hours at a time, a folded TLS in my jacket pocket. In place of regular meals, I drank cup after cup of coffee. At night I stayed up all hours, sitting on the faux-marble balcony of my flat, smoking cigarillos until three or four in the morning, waiting for something to happen in the dark windows lining the other side of the street. But of course nothing ever does when you’re looking for it.
One day I woke up particularly bad off, dizzy and unstable, and when a shower failed to cure me, I wandered down to the Village Café in Mayfair. A corner building, it faced a trendy cobblestone plaza. At night you could spy high-class hookers strutting past the pubs, while in the morning the square was sedate, almost lethargic. Inside the café, jazz ballads leaked from the walls, and indifferent waiters let you occupy your table until the lunch crowd poured in. Business cards were pressed under the glass tabletops, and artwork, for sale, filled the walls. I ordered chocolate cake and coffee, but I could barely hold the fork. I was trembling, and it took this passing paralysis to make me realize I had to do something. That I needed some aid. I headed straight for a student travel agency and booked a flight to New York. I had friends on the east coast. I could track someone down and spend a few days away while John was Down Under.
The decision behind me, I searched out my regular haunts: a matinee at the two-pound cinema near Chinatown, a dinner of ice cream at the Häagen-Dazs on Leicester Square. My Scandinavian waitress wore pink eyeglasses. I remember her still. The jukebox played Frank Sinatra. What are you doing in the city? I wanted to ask her. Why don’t we share the city? I longed to say. Sitting there, I thought, this is what it comes to. A bit part in a scene from “Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” As evening fell, the square grew crowded, and I walked over to browse my used bookstores again. In one of the shops, I spotted a UK first edition of Mr. Sammler’s Planet, no dust jacket, but otherwise a pretty good find. That book and a carryon were all I took with me the next morning. A college friend in Philadelphia was flexible and generous enough to receive me on short notice. I still remember our greeting in the fortress of Thirtieth Street station.
“This all you brought?” he asked, relieving me of my bag.
“My only plan,” I told him, “is to read this one book.”
And so I took Mr. Sammler every day to an underground coffee shop on the campus of U. Penn. A few windows sat high on the walls, and ceiling fans ratcheted over the tables. The carpet was worn like billiard felt. I sat beneath one of the windows for light, and reread the book that in college had foiled my understanding. Artur Sammler, with his one good eye…. Only this time, by God, I nailed it.
Philadelphia was hot. Undergraduates, for the most part, were gone. My friend’s work left him flexible, unpressured in the summer, so we stayed up late eating hoagies and chips on his screened-in porch. He was curious as I tried to outline my crisis of faith, which I reproduce as best I can from memory:
“It doesn’t describe enough anymore,” I said. “It leaves too much out of the picture.”
“Like what?” he replied, incredulous, I think, and hurt. In college we had been soul mates battling the campus for Christ, and now I sat rejecting all he still lived for.
“It’s not important,” I said. “I’m not sure how specific I can get.”
There were these other things out there—cities and literature and people holding on to different things for life—I couldn’t get at it. It was like those pictures you see sometimes of the universe, where at first the solar system is everything, but then as the vantage pulls away, the planets dissolve in the Milky Way, and then the Milky Way too dissolves in a near infinity of galaxies. How to give words to this? The creator of the universe becomes a human being and walks among us, and I wanted something bigger?
I told my friend about Bentham’s attempt to make British penal codes humane, and how that made people realize the cruelty of Jehovah’s justice in the Bible. “I will call no Being good,” Mill said, “who is not what I mean when I call ordinary beings good.”
I lost him. Why should my friend, with a single sentence, have felt the weight of my months-long angst, and all the preparation of the rest of my life? All philosophy, Nietzsche declared, is memoir. Theology is memoir too, revved with the soul’s adrenaline. I stopped relating my latter-day Victorian crisis—I didn’t want to convert him. But the daytime was all Sammler, and I pored through the story with ambivalent thrill—not wanting it to end: the book, the respite, the unreal jet-lagged moratorium, the beginning of something I couldn’t yet sense. I took my time reading Bellow, making haste slowly, as the old Latin proverb has it, and it felt like rescue, like driftwood in the ocean—the coffin Ishmael finds—something to cling to for a while, which is all that mattered at the time.
The whole interval was strangely powerful. Quickened with coffee (my demon rum), I read like a kid with The Catcher in the Rye. Helen Keller spelling water. And I thought, this is what I need, but I wasn’t sure yet what this was. All of which, of course, I would be helpless to communicate to John back in London. I had to leave. When? Right now. How could he feel the urgency on my behalf? His secretary, whom I adored, was baffled: why couldn’t I just pray? I loved her too much to say I didn’t pray anymore.
“Shortly after dawn,” Bellow’s novel begins, “or what would have been dawn in a normal sky, Mr. Artur Sammler with his bushy eye took in the books and papers of his West Side bedroom and suspected strongly that they were the wrong books, the wrong papers….” You think you’ve got it muddled, old man?
Back in London, the decision came easily to abandon the academy. It is a luxury, I know, and not always wise, this longing to wipe the slate clean (you only get so many starting-overs). If it is a gesture of weakness, of desperation, still it is weakness doing its best imitation of strength. Anyway, at the time, I was weak, and when you’re there you don’t worry about the nonessentials.
Relieved of vocation—relieved!—I roamed the West End buying up Bellow’s books, nourishment for the transition. Straight from Sammler, I went after Augie March: “I am an American, Chicago born….” But I could only read a few pages at a time. On my diet of coffee and chocolate croissants, I was nervous all the time, giddy, punchy. This felt dangerous, the mania in my breast. In those days it was a workout to read a chapter of a book. My nerves were still in trouble despite the release of a bold decision. I found out that crises take their time to unwind. If you’re lucky, and the springs don’t snap outright, they will take their antique time uncoiling.
To calm myself, to allow recovery, I started riding buses. I would board wherever I happened to be in the West End, climb to the top deck, and ride around London for hours at a time. In this way I traveled down through the city, on into the East End, south into Brixton, Wimbledon, Pimlico, north to Finsbury Park (the Freud Museum!), Golders Green, and Hampstead, west to Holland Park. I went wherever the buses would take me, and when they ended their run I would get out and board the next bus back. For the first time in months I was able to relax. On my lap I held the jacketless Augie March, and at each bus stop I would look down and read a few sentences, or a paragraph, as much as I could while passengers boarded and debarked. When the bus rumbled back out into the street, I held a finger in my place and leaned my head against the cool window, watching London pass without a plan, absorbing all the neighborhoods I would never set foot in. To this day I am convinced this is the way to see that city. Vast London sprawls for miles, but you can take it all in from the upper deck of a bus.
I remember one last moment with great vividness before I packed off for the States. John asked me to pray with him up in his study, and I knelt on the floor at his side, shivering like an alcoholic pushing a glass away, while, his face buried in his hands, John asked God to clear my mind. Incomprehensible. Inaccessible. Clear Todd’s mind. In conversion, Cardinal Newman writes, the whole man moves. But then, I wanted to add, the whole man moves the other way.
I don’t regret my evangelical days. I was naïve, but at twenty who is not? I don’t wish I had immersed myself in literature sooner. The thirties seem about right for reading Dostoyevsky and Melville. And I don’t wish John or my Philadelphia friend would have the same experiences I have had and come to their senses. The drive to convert is one feature of evangelicalism I am happy to have shed.
And I kept on exploring and testing belief. I went on to study at Princeton Seminary, where I found myself reading a great deal of William James, and then I decided to teach and work on a novel myself, because as everybody knows, teachers have so much free time. There have been stretches when evangelicalism seemed oppressive to me, but mostly I feel a kind of critical respect. A truce, not a conquest or surrender. When critics point to the agenda of the religious right, it is often fundamentalism that they fear or despise. Evangelicals straddle the issues with more ambivalence. They can be productive in dialogue because they care about persuasion and not just victory. They can be civil as well as passionate. They mimic the Jesus of the gospels more than the one in Revelation. But where evangelicalism is more textured than severe fundamentalism, it also ravels at the edge, and the same weave that gives it its beauty threatens to pull the whole pattern apart. I want to use Keats’s famous definition of negative capability to frame an ongoing dilemma in evangelical thought, a dilemma evangelicalism can’t escape without abandoning its identity, and which happens also to be the issue that marks my departure from my former convictions.
Negative capability, Keats wrote, is a state in which people are “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason.” On its surface, the statement is generous toward religious belief. A realm of mystery is acknowledged, which can’t be encompassed by the human mind. In this open realm, why can’t faith enter the picture, not to resolve the paradoxes but to abide in them? Certainly evangelicals appreciate and speak of mystery. Dogmas like virgin births and triune gods and predestination are not easily explored with reason. However, evangelicals, like fundamentalists, insist that clear, revealed truth is preserved in the Bible, and so they must decide when a recognition of mystery is the right response and when an allegiance to clarity is demanded as an article of faith. Controversies in evangelicalism look less like those carnival political panels on cable and more like Talmudic debates. When, because scripture is clear, must we insist? When, because it is not, must we abide in mystery? Saint Anselm observed that even the blind man can feel the warmth of the sun. For the evangelical, blindness is temporary; in the end, God who is light will make all things clear. Meanwhile, as Anselm suggests, he is sure of the presence of the sun.
The person who finds himself balancing these uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts without resolution sways in different ways. For him, the contingency of knowledge is the very condition of his freedom and his life. He is like Gloucester in King Lear, whose blindness becomes the realm of his knowing and not a precursor to greater sight. The gods have baffled Gloucester, and he has baffled himself too: “I stumbled when I saw.” Gloucester is mastered by paradox, not put in suspense. Contradictions define him rather than preparing the way for leaps of faith. But the evangelical abides in mystery, certain of future clarity. And that certainty casts its shadow as dogmatism and intolerance.
The dogmatism of the evangelical is robed in real compassion. Think of a lifeguard up on a stand, convinced a distant swimmer is drowning. There is nothing rational or irrational about saving the victim. It is the instinct appropriate to the lifeguard. It is the duty he has. In conversion the evangelical has not only been pulled from the ocean, he has been given a chair and told to watch for others drowning. The problem, to the evangelical, is that we are all drowning, and so conversation does not involve the question of whether we are in danger—or simply swimming—or whether we should flee from the ocean—or use it as a passage—the evangelical is already in the elevated chair and claims, as a consequence, a privileged perspective, a different kind of knowing.
The beauty of genuine negative capability is that it has power, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Brodsky, to “elongate the perspective of human sensibility.” Literature may not propose to save souls, but it more wisely works to provoke our recognition. It is the breeding ground of negative capability: precisely in our moments of suspension we might—might—see more. For this erstwhile evangelical, elongation of perspective is enough. Expansion of vision describes what I was after when I chased unchanging truth. Christianity is more consoling than literature, but literature more patiently lingers with the hard mysteries of life. It is more at home with our contingency.
As an example of how literature works without seeking resolution, take the moment toward the end of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians in which the narrator prepares to confront a brutal officer:
I stare through the window at the faint blur against the blackness that is Colonel Joll. My cloak flaps, I shiver from the cold, but also from the tension of suppressed anger. An urge runs through me to smash the glass, to reach in and drag the man out through the jagged hole, to feel his flesh catch and tear on the edges, to hurl him to the ground and kick his body to pulp.
As though touched by this murderous current he reluctantly turns his face towards me. Then he sidles across the seat until he is looking at me through the glass. His face is naked, washed clean, perhaps by the blue moonlight, perhaps by physical exhaustion. I stare at his pale high temples. Memories of his mother’s soft breast, of the tug in his hand of the first kite he ever flew, as well as of those intimate cruelties for which I abhor him, shelter in that beehive.
He looks out at me, his eyes searching my face. The dark lenses are gone. Must he too suppress an urge to reach out, claw me, blind me with splinters?
The novelist’s ability to evoke conflict without judgment makes the eventual release here more powerful. We experience the narrator’s contempt without a hint of the coming glimpse of Joll’s humanity: even the despicable colonel was once a child, comforted by a mother, and enjoying the small delight of a kite string’s growing weight. Coetzee does this without implying a conversion experience; the insight adds to the narrator’s attitude toward the colonel without simplifying it, and then the echo of empathy returns—not as a closing circle, but as a spiral. If the colonel shares the narrator’s contempt, could he also share the recognition of humanity? We aren’t told, but we wonder. Our perspective elongates.
Another example occurs in David Bezmozgis’s celebrated short story “Natasha.” Here a sixteen-year-old narrator spends most of his time in his suburban basement getting high and sharing certain rites of passage with a cousin. Every day when his cousin arrives, the narrator sees her legs flash past the small window near the basement ceiling before she enters the house. At the story’s end, when he loses his cousin to someone else, he feels grief and betrayal but also a kind of resolve. He has matured. And the essence of maturity, Bezmozgis suggests, is the empathy we learn from hard experience. The narrator, still hurting, walks home and, “drawn by a strange impulse,” crouches down and looks through that basement window, but this time from the outside: “I had never seen it from this perspective,” he thinks. “I saw what Natasha must have seen every time she came to the house. In the full light of summer, I looked into darkness. It was the end of my subterranean life.” Such moments are simple but charged. They are less resolutions than fresh ruptures that expose deep and hidden and momentous things about being human.
I still sometimes talk to one of my college friends about our old beliefs. He remains evangelical, as I do not, and when he makes a claim that something is true he insists he is only being loyal to the authority that Jesus claimed for himself. “Who is this,” the gospels report the disciples wondering, “who even the wind and waves obey?” This rabbi, Jesus, “speaks with authority, not as those trained in the law.” These responses are reflections of astonishment, of surprise. A perspective elongates here as well. But if the response isn’t freely experienced and actually felt, belief is obedience to tyranny. And maybe benign tyranny, as Plato suggests, is our best hope. If that lifeguard is right, and the swimmer is drowning, it seems ludicrous not to drag him to shore. Worse, it seems callous. And this is what it feels like to be evangelical. You go out into deep waters to save, and you do so because you love. But the assumption that you are perched above the water and that the person you’re addressing is drowning prevents real empathy. You will never understand that person’s mystery until you abandon the need to move her where you are, to leave her where you yourself don’t want to be. Because every evangelical knows, in the end, that the act of conversion is a mystery. It can’t be explained why billions of people deny or ignore claims that seem to the evangelical so utterly irrefutable. It can’t be determined when or how a person will suddenly see the truth. Evangelicals present a careful sequence of arguments or evidence that builds a coherent case for Christianity’s truth, but at some point the sequence dissolves into the indescribable. It is as if a person provided reason after reason why you should love Mozart, but then, in the end, resorted to playing the music and waiting for your response. In this way, evangelicalism is at least as much an aesthetic as it is a metaphysic. Here is how to make your life profound. Listen to this symphony. Follow this man who speaks with a prophet’s authority. Elongate your perspective, but do it in this way.
I spend a lot of time reading literature now. It’s not that I don’t find theology interesting or religious beliefs worthy of respect; they are both. It’s just that the complicating provocations of the best literature plumb deeper and reverberate more broadly, and I crave that expansion. I even went back to Marilynne Robinson recently, with a little bit of sheepishness and now a great deal of gratitude. For destroying her book, I owe her the final word—almost:
It appears to me that even very thoughtful people discover what terms they have made with themselves only as they live, which prohibitions are conditional, which absolute, and so on. So in the great matter of moral soundness or rigor or whatever, we are as great mysteries to ourselves as we are to one another. It should not be that way, of course. The human condition has an amazing wrongness about it. But if it is agreed that we are in this respect mysterious, then we should certainly abandon easy formulas of judgment.
I disagree only that there is a wrongness about it. The mysteries are what they are and will be, and we have a right to as many as we can claim and endure.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.