method of lizzy

preservations… for posterity

Eloquence where you wouldn’t expect it

Awhile ago I stumbled upon a GQ article about a guy who travelled to a large Christian rock music festival to see what all the fuss was about. I’ve heard of these festivals before, they’re kind of a Christian version of Woodstock. Hoards of kids converge in a rural location to hang out and listen to music. Sounds like it could be fun, and an interesting enough phenomena that someone should cover it, right?

Enter John Jeremiah Sullivan. His article, cleverly entitled “Upon This Rock“, starts the way you’d expect. It’s self-deprecating and tongue in cheek as the author describes his experience road tripping by himself in a 29-foot RV. The first half of the article continues as a fun story with witty observations about a religious culture that many people are ignorant of. Things change as the author gets personal, suddenly coming out of the closet about his own evangelical experience as a teenager. He spent several years of his life as a committed, devout Christian. I don’t doubt his sincerity. Nonetheless, it all unraveled one night when he discovered that his attempts to convert lost souls were, well… lame. Sullivan’s issues with Christianity are completely philosophical in nature. He muses about when his faith started to falter:

The defensive theodicy drilled into me during those nights of heady exegesis developed cracks. The hell stuff: I never made peace with it. Human beings were capable of forgiving those who’d done them terrible wrongs, and we all agreed that human beings were maggots compared with God, so what was His trouble, again? I looked around and saw people who’d never have a chance to come to Jesus; they were too badly crippled. Didn’t they deserve—more than the rest of us, even—to find His succor, after this life?

What makes this article so refreshing to me is that the author is not bitter. I would expect him to be mocking or patronizing. Instead he is honest and candid. Culturally speaking, he likes Christianity. He never comes out and says it, but he seems to have a certain fondness for the Christian culture. He was “dazzled” by his first encounters with Christians. While he pokes some fun at a few of those that he meets, he certainly has no disdain for them.

In between his recounting of the festival experience, Sullivan expands on his philosophical issues in a an eloquent manner:

Belief and nonbelief are two giant planets, the orbits of which don’t touch. Everything about Christianity can be justified within the context of Christian belief. That is, if you accept its terms. Once you do, your belief starts modifying the data (in ways that are themselves defensible, see?), until eventually the data begin to reinforce belief. The precise moment of illogic can never be isolated and may not exist. Like holding a magnifying glass at arm’s length and bringing it toward your eye: Things are upside down, they’re upside down, they’re right side up. What lay between? If there was something, it passed too quickly to be observed. This is why you can never reason true Christians out of the faith. It’s not, as the adage has it, because they were never reasoned into it—many were—it’s that faith is a logical door which locks behind you. What looks like a line of thought is steadily warping into a circle, one that closes with you inside.

Despite what his head tells him, his heart longs for something else:

My problem is not that I dream I’m in hell… It isn’t that I feel psychologically harmed. It isn’t even that I feel like a sucker for having bought it all. It’s that I love Jesus Christ.

“The latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.” I can barely write that. He was the most beautiful dude. Forget the Epistles, forget all the bullying stuff that came later. Look at what He said. Read The Jefferson Bible. Or better yet, read The Logia of Yeshua, by Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia, an unadorned translation of all the sayings ascribed to Jesus that modern scholars deem authentic. There’s your man. His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what’s fragile and what suffers—there lies sanity. And salvation. “Let anyone who has power renounce it,” he said. “Your father is compassionate to all, as you should be.” That’s how He talked, to those who knew Him.

Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can’t I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?

Because once you’ve known Him as God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won’t slacken.

And one has doubts about one’s doubts.

I don’t know if the average reader can appreciate Sullivan’s eloquence. I can’t say for sure, but I think it might be one of those things that you have to to have experienced in order to understand. I’ve been on both sides of religion; I’ve hopped the fence back and forth. I’m always surprised by the length of time I manage to stay on either side before I’m ready to hop over again. So Sullivan speaks to me in a way that few other have. Doubts about doubts are familiar to me.

The article concludes with lines from a Czeslaw Milosz poem:

And if they all, kneeling with poised palms,
millions, billions of them, ended together with their illusion?
I shall never agree. I will give them the crown.
The human mind is splendid; lips powerful, and the summons so great it must open Paradise.

Sullivan concludes, “That’s so exquisite. If you could just mean it. If one could only say it and mean it.”

I appreciate Sullivan’s honesty. I admire his candor. This couldn’t have been easy to write this piece.  He’s honest. He’s genuine. I only wish to be the same.


April 19, 2007 - Posted by | christianity, culture, philosophy, religion, theology

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