An intimate pointed out to me recently that when it comes to literature, I have a distinct preference for a specific sort of narrative: that of an unbeliever coming face to face with the possibility of a religious awakening, and then, after staring long into that profundity, choosing to turn away from it. I protested this idea at first, but after she pointed out the kinds of writing I point to as my personal models for writing about religion, I had to concede that she had a point.
For example, take Next Year in Jersualem, one of my favorite essays, published in Rolling Stone in 1977. Ellen Willis writes about her powerful attraction to orthodox Judaism after seeing her brother embrace it; she goes so far as to move to Israel and take up studies under a Hasidic rabbi. Willis finds, however, that as much as the religion appeals to her, and more than that, makes sense to her, she cannot reconcile it with the feminism that is the foundation of her ethics. In the end she returns to America still questioning the logic of her decision, though secure in its rightness: “I was leaving Israel, with all the intellectual questions unresolved, because in the end I trusted my feelings and believed in acting on them,” she writes. “Though I might use logic as a weapon against uncertainty, I did not, finally, have [my brother]’s faith that it would lead me to the truth.”This pattern – an initial skepticism, an embrace of faith and its sublimity, a turning away from those things, an ambiguous return to a secular world – repeats in so many of the works I love best: I see it now in John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Upon This Rock and Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, other stories of people who come to the edge of belonging, but never quite do. “They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of,” Sullivan writes about the camp of young men he befriended at a Christian rock festival held at the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. “Because knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were.”
Why do I love this pattern so much? My first instinct is to say that these are simply the works I find most compelling and beautiful, and that it’s all coincidence, but that would be too easy, and dishonest, besides. What makes these essays so rewarding lives in their structure of encounter and return. The narrator’s doubts about religion, and their desire to participate in religious belief anyway, is a key part of what makes this kind of essay work.
When the author of an investigation into religious life is a devotee of the religion, there is a tendency for the work to either be an entirely internal critique, addressed to co-religionists, or for it to be evangelical, devoted instead to persuading the convertible to be converted. There can be good work in those modes, but I find they lack something, that they keep the reader at a certain distance in order to achieve their aims.
By contrast, the skepticism of the narrator in these essays allows for a more honest evaluation of religious experience. Because these narrators neither begin nor end their stories as true believers, there isn’t the sense that they are trying to sell the reader on anything – not even on their own skepticism, which is usually laced with regret. The ambiguous state of these narrators, who feel an earnest desire for religion and yet find they cannot accept it, allows for an account of religion that is neither proselytization nor an account of a freak-show.
This stance is a dangerous one, requiring an author to expose herself to criticism from both believers and non-believers, but any honest account of religious experience must be rooted in vulnerability. This formula isn’t the only way to achieve that vulnerability, but that feeling has to be present somehow; otherwise what might have been vital instead reads like an advertisement.The best essay of this type is, coincidentally, also the best essay ever written – James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Although (rightfully) remembered today mainly as a visionary account of race relations in America, it stands just as much as a record of the experience of black religion as it stood in the middle of the 20th century. The first half of The Fire Next Time traces Baldwin’s youth as a rising star in a church in Harlem and his eventual disillusionment with Christianity. “Being in the pulpit was like being in the theatre,” Baldwin writes:
I was behind the scenes and knew how the illusion was worked. I knew the other ministers and knew the quality of their lives. And I don’t mean to suggest by this the “Elmer Gantry” sort of hypocrisy concerning sensuality; it was a deeper, deadlier, and more subtle hypocrisy than that, and a little honest sensuality, or a lot, would have been like water in an extremely bitter desert. I knew how to work on a congregation until the last dime was surrendered – it was not very hard to do – and I knew where the money for “the Lord’s work” went. I knew, though I did not wish to know it, that I had no respect for the people with whom I worked. I could not have said it then, but I also knew that if I continued I would soon have no respect for myself.
Baldwin’s submersion within, and apostasy from, Christianity prefigures the main portion of his essay, an encounter with the head of the Nation of Islam, Elijah Muhammad. Baldwin portrays the Nation of Islam in a light that is, if not wholly favorable, at least fully aware of why the Nation’s message was spreading through parts of the black community at the time. The Nation of Islam provided a pro-black theology that countered the overwhelming narrative of white supremacy black Americans are faced with daily. “The white God has not delivered them,” he writes. “Perhaps the black God will.”
Baldwin’s meeting with Elijah Muhammad is a uniquely tense moment, not because of any outward sense of impending violence or discord, but because of how close Baldwin and Elijah were in many ways. Both had, as their prime motivations, the problem of racism in the United States; both believed that American society had to fundamentally change if there were to be any of hope of it surviving. But ultimately their visions for what that revolution would have to look like were so different that there could be no agreement. Where the Nation of Islam called for separatism, Baldwin instead proffered a belief in some kind of reconciliation between black and white America, something he describes in nearly mystical terms.
When Baldwin takes his leave from the house of Elijah Muhammad, his description makes plain his longing that their two visions of the future could coincide with one another.
It was very strange to stand with Elijah for those few moments, facing those vivid, violent, so problematical streets. I felt very close to him, and really wished to be able to love and honor him as a witness, an ally, and a father. I felt that I knew something of his pain and his fury, and, yes, even his beauty. Yet precisely because of the reality and nature of those streets – because of what he conceived as his responsibility and what I took to be mine – we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies.
I have read The Fire Next Time a dozen times since I first encountered it in a writing seminar, and that phrase – we would always be strangers, and possibly, one day, enemies – brings me to a pause every time I read it. While racism is the greater evil throughout The Fire Next Time, Elijah Muhammad and his theology is the most visible antagonist to Baldwin’s own philosophy, and yet Baldwin allows such tenderness in this moment, such yearning, and such resignation to the distance between the two of them. This admission of humanity is the foundation on which the rest of the book and its searing arguments rest; The Fire Next Time would crumble to dust without it.
I took over as the weekend editor of The Wild Hunt a bit under four months ago, and one of the things I am discovering comes along with the job is the need to recognize one’s own taste in writing, both as a guide for what to publish and as a reminder of one’s own biases when editing work that is strong but written in a mode outside one’s preferences. As someone who edits writing about religion, in particular the dazzling variety of idiosyncrasies we call modern Paganism, I find it instructive to look at what is appealing in religion writing in general, whether that writing touches on Paganism specifically at all. The sensibility that I find leads to some of the finest writing on religion is this voice that combines the skeptical and seeking, and I hope it is a sensibility that you will find present – among many others! – in our columnists’ work here.