Monday, September 28, 2009

There's Seven People Dead on a South Dakota Farm

I’d never read Charles Brockden Brown before I was forced to for my comprehensive exams. I’d always thrown his Gothic novels in with the short fiction of Edgar Allan Poe, and so my distaste for Poe always kept me away from him. In last night’s fit of insomnia (it’s strangely appropriate), however, I read through the entirety of Wieland, an interesting if not successful novel.

Warren Barton Blake calls Brown the world’s first novelist of ideas. I’m not qualified to make that call, knowing almost nothing about Continental fiction, but there’s little doubt in my mind that Wieland is a novel fixated upon an idea. What I noticed, however, is that Brown’s fixation on this idea is in constant tension with his desire to (a) provide a tidy moral to the story; and (b) make sure we know that he doesn’t believe in the supernatural.

The idea at the center of Wieland involves the possibility of divine revelation, and its central question is, “If you think God is speaking to you, how do you know?” It’s a good question, for sure, and one that has been a major concern of Western culture ever since Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac on that mountain. Kierkegaard, for example, wrote his most philosophically successful book on the subject, praising Abraham for suspending every ethical principle he had to obey the terrible commands of God.

When I reread Fear and Trembling earlier this year, I was made uncomfortable. In a year in which the tanking economy and whatever power you want to ascribe to Satan has driven numerous men to kill themselves and their families, it is not possible to read the story of Abraham or any speech in praise of him in a blasé fashion. If divine revelation is inherently subjective (and for Kierkegaard it nearly always is), and if it always goes against prevailing moral and logical systems (and for Kierkegaard it nearly always does), how can we simultaneously praise Abraham and condemn the out-of-work banker who slaughters his entire family? Couldn’t God be speaking to the latter as much as the former?

Kierkegaard presents this argument almost before we can, but his response to it is frustrating at best. If a parishioner hears the priest praise Abraham, goes home, and kills his own son, it is the priest’s fault because “he hadn’t known what he was saying”—because he hasn’t taken the story seriously enough. But that doesn’t offer those of us who do take the story seriously much to go on, and the question still stands: If religious decrees are personal, and if they can go against morality, how can we wholeheartedly condemn the man who murders his family?

Well, Charles Brockden Brown raises the question, however briefly. We are presented with a family of religious fanatics. The elder Wieland (we’re never given his name) is a model of Kierkegaardian belief, a sect unto himself, one that admits no outsiders and refuses to judge outsiders. One night, he refuses to do something God commands and spontaneously combusts; his wife kills herself soon after, leaving their children orphans. (Literary historians: Is this the first instance of spontaneous combustion in literature?)

His son and daughter grow up as “bosom companions,” as the old novels are fond of saying, and soon become the center of a very tight-knit community of thinkers and gadabouts. Then a mysterious stranger blows into town, and everything falls apart. The end result is that the younger Wieland, in a fit of religious frenzy, ends up murdering his wife, servants, and children; further, he insists that, while he certainly performed the act, he is not morally culpable for it because “my deed was enjoined by heaven . . . obedience was the test of perfect virtue, and the extinction of selfishness and error.”

Had Brown left it here, we’d close the novel with something big and important to think about; in fact, had he left it here, it would have been the biting statement against the Second Great Awakening I think he meant for it to be. But he doesn’t. Instead, he reveals that nothing at all supernatural has happened, that in fact that mysterious stranger was a ventriloquist who tricked Theodore Wieland into the murders. In wrapping the novel up this way, Brown takes a fantastic open question and shuts it tight—depending on your perspective, he either lets God off the hook for Wieland’s crimes or else makes Him nonspeaking or nonexistent, and neither of these options is anywhere near as interesting as what the novel could have been.

So, two hundred years later, let’s tear out those pages of the book and let the question stand by itself: Assuming you believe that God spoke to Abraham and told him to kill Isaac, on what basis can we tell anyone that any horrible thing they do does not come from divine command? What do we make of this most horrible story of the Hebrew Bible?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Esther's Version

Last time I wrote on John Updike’s Roger’s Version (please note the warning at the top of that page), I went somewhat outside the field of my own expertise and talked about the homosocial undercurrent that runs all through the novel. I returned to the book again this week while studying for my comprehensive exams, and this time through I focused much more on the theological parts of the novel than the sexual parts.

All for the best. I love Updike, probably more than I love any other author, but I hate his sex scenes—truly, viscerally hate them. They’re almost always unnecessary (though my last post gets to some of the reasons they might be present in Roger’s Version), and as the author aged, they just made him seem like a dirty old man. It was not for nothing that he won the Lifetime Achievement Bad Sex award.

So let’s ignore the sex scenes and focus on the theological debate. Roger’s Version presents us essentially with two versions of Christianity. In one corner, we have Roger, a professor of divinity who loves Karl Barth even more than he loves fantasizing about his wife sleeping with other men but who has completely lost his faith, at least as far as the reader can tell. And in the other corner, we have Dale Kohler, a graduate student in computer science who sets out to prove God’s existence via computer.

We are set up to trust Roger and to distrust Dale—after all, this is Roger’s version; he narrates the novel, and the only time we’re privy to Dale’s thoughts is when Roger imagines them. We know that Updike followed Barth on theological matters, and so when Roger quotes The Word of God and the Word of Man and says things like this—

If [God] is omnipotent, I would think it within His powers to keep hiding. And I’m not sure it isn’t a bit heretical of you to toss the fact of God in with a lot of other facts. Even Aquinas, I think, didn’t postulate a God Who could be hauled kicking and screaming out from some laboratory closet, over behind the blackboard—

we are inclined to believe him. Dale, meanwhile, is annoying in his fundamentalism and his tunnel-visioned zeal; however much he knows about science, we are inclined to believe him an arrogant fool.

But as you get to know him more, you start to realize how perceptive he is in his analysis of Roger, who uses God’s unknowability as an excuse to do anything he wants to do, including (spoiler alert) sleeping with his niece late in the novel. (His moral sense, like that of so many Updike protagonists, is nonexistent; he refers to his incest/adultery as “a small secret to protect.”) So Dale is exactly right when he tells Roger that

You don’t want God to break through. People in general don’t want that. They just want to grub along being human, and dirty, and sly, and amusing, and having their weekends with Michelob, and God to stay put in the churches if they ever decide to drop by, and maybe pull them out in the end, down that tunnel of light all these [near death experiences] talk about.

What we have in Roger’s Version, then, are two competing versions of nonbelief. Roger recognizes that the whole Christian enterprise is built on faith, but while he memorizes everything about Christendom, he doesn’t seem to have much faith at all. Dale, on the other hand, belies his own claims at faith when he attempts to remove the need for faith, proving God like a mathematical theorem. Both of these are unsatisfactory.

The odd twist in the novel is that Dale himself becomes an object of faith about midway through. Roger’s wife, Esther, cues us into the move when she says that “Dale sounds like a rather touching young man,” a declaration which Roger is quick to inform us comes “on no evidence.” That Roger imagines Esther sleeping with Dale does give us a limited explanation for the inclusion of the sex scenes (though it doesn’t explain why they have to be so disgusting): These fantasies are neither psychosis nor prophecy; they are something concrete for Roger to put his faith in.

As my Salinger post hints, however, faith qua faith is not the issue; it must be properly directed to be helpful or meaningful in any real way. Thus, any religious leanings Roger’s fantasies about Dale and Esther reveal are tainted with the stench of Karl Barth’s Towers of Babel, false paths to a false God. These fantasies thus reveal Roger’s lack of faith in the Christian God even more clearly. All he has to trust in is sex, and not even his own sex: sex he may be completely fabricating between his wife and his worst enemy.

Again, the novel’s ending appears to confirm Roger’s theology at the expense of Dale’s. At a cocktail party, Dale talks with Myron Kriegman, a snide and fast-talking atheist who causes the young man to lose his faith nearly completely. Roger’s brand of fideism has seemingly been proven right—his faith, however mediocre and lukewarm, is safe from the proofs of materialism and the meanness of the world. It’s an ugly picture of faith for many evangelicals. Given the choice of being lukewarm and secure like Roger or being fervent but precarious like Dale, a lot of people would gladly choose the latter.

There may be a third way, though. In the novel’s final scene, Esther—who has shown absolutely no interest in religion heretofore—tells her husband she is going to go to church. Her reason is that she wishes to annoy her husband, but this is obviously a dodge. I have the feeling Updike is slyly offering us a third way at the end of the book, but I can’t figure out what exactly it is, what kind of faith is viable for him at the end of the 20th century. Is there a via media between her husband’s cold fideism and her (possible) lover’s hot rationalism? I may have to read the book a fourth time to answer that question.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Waxing Nostalgic

I never talk about my long-gone musical career on this blog, but I spent three years or so in what was more or less a band. We made three albums and an EP, and since I’ve come to grips with the fact that record labels are never going to beat down my door—and since I’ve chosen an alternate career—I’ve attached to this post a zip file with our entire recorded legacy on it. But first, a few words of warning, apology, and wistfulness.

I wanted to be in a band basically since I started seriously to music when I was twelve years old. And I knew even at that stage that I didn’t want to do live shows so much as I wanted to make records, lush records with hundreds of takes and dozens of instruments, records where I could layer sound upon sound until I came up with something transcendent.

That never happened. I had a band in high school that never did anything, and I mean anything, so when I got to college I was determined to make a career of it. Problem was, my personality was such that I couldn’t find anyone willing to spend an hour alone with me. So I made a “solo” record, a poorly written, poorly recorded little EP called Appalachia. It may be proof of its quality that my copy of it no longer plays, and so I am pleased to say that for all intents and purposes, it is lost to history.

That wasn’t what I wanted, though; I didn’t want to record into a computer microphone and play without percussion or bass. I wanted a band, a real band, one where all the members contributed ideas and maybe even songs and vocals. I had a friend who owned a studio, so I booked some time to make a real record; he also had a band, so I paid two members of it $50 or so to act as sidemen, both playing instruments other than their main ones. We knocked out a record called The Lame Shall Enter First in a few sessions. Thus The Shots of Perspective were born.

It’s a stupid name, yes, overly long and pretentious and any number of other things. (For those of you who are interested, the name comes from a line in a Vigilantes of Love song: “Take one shot of perspective, a couple more to kill the pain.” We would later hijack the second part of this line for a stopgap EP between our second and third albums.) The record’s title, too, is overly long and pretentious, a Flannery O’Connor reference put to entirely different use when we made the cover art a picture of Bible college students walking into chapel. Wordplay.

I had fun making the record, and it even gave me an excuse to spend some time with a girl I had my eye on. It’s hard for me to listen to it now, seven years later, though. I wrote most of the songs at the ripe old age of eighteen, and the lyrics are full of things an eighteen-year-old English major thought profound. I’m particularly embarrassed at the song “This One Is Not So Down,” an incredibly ill-conceived attempt at irony or hopefulness or God only knows what. You can tell I had taken English Lit. II that semester. (You should have heard the verse I left out. Or maybe not.)

My skills as a musician at this time were also rudimentary at best; you’ll notice there are no solos on the album (aside from a very poorly planned piano piece on “Iconoclast”), and there’s a reason for that: I had no idea how to play the guitar. I was so bad at it, in fact, that I had to remove the high E string from the guitar so I could play an F chord. (Actually, now that I think about it, there isn’t a true F chord on that record. I guess I removed that E string as a gimmick.)

And yet I’m at least a little proud of the record, especially given that it was my first real shot at this sort of thing. I think “The Pittsburgh Waltz” maintains its paranoia pretty well, especially with H1N1 potentially closing in on us just like the Spanish Flu did, and my Luxury tribute “Let It Be an End” still sounds pretty cool to my ears. (My producer, Jamey Bozeman, who was in Luxury, purposely mixed the blasted thing to sound as little like his erstwhile band as he could. My original plans were much more like the live version on A Couple More to Kill the Pain.) “Your Song” cops Elton John for its title, but the song itself was the best I could do at imitating Springsteen, and I am mostly pleased with the result.

I still didn’t really have a band, though—Jordan and Chris played in the studio, but if I wanted to do anything in front of people, I had to go it alone. So it was that I put up an ad on my college’s bulletin board. It got no responses. Finally, I somehow got in touch with a friend from high school who played bass, and Josh Altmanshofer, who worked with me at the college’s radio station, volunteered on drums after weeks of hearing me complain that I needed a drummer.

We played a few shows with this lineup and then decided it was time to make a second record. I was already more or less embarrassed by the first, and at that point in my life I was writing more songs than I knew what to do with. (I spent the summer as alone as I’ve ever been in my life, with no cable and no internet—so all there was to do was write songs.) We spent twice as much time on our follow-up, called Nothing Personal (after my friend John Hawbaker told me my initial title, Destined for Mediocrity, was far too self-effacing. Thanks, John. You were right.)

The time I spent in the studio making this record was likely the best time of my life. I have dozens of studio stories—many of them unrepeatable on a family blog such as this one—but I get the feeling that you mostly had to be there to get the jokes. At least, my wife never laughs at them.

(Okay, just one: We were mixing “Everything That Keeps You Down,” the first song we recorded for that record, when I referred to the band as S.O.P. Jamey, no doubt delirious with the hours spent in the studio, replied, “Yeah, but if you were the Shots of…BEAR PLANTATION…you’d be S.O.B.” Told you you wouldn’t get it. Incidentally, we always swore we’d make a disco record under that name, but as I’m in Tallahassee and Jamey’s well on his way to becoming a priest, that’s apparently not going to happen. And so it goes.)

I can still listen to Nothing Personal: the songs are way better, for one thing, but it’s the production that really stands out to me five years later. An example: Jamey and I self-consciously stole the background vocals from “The Only Living Boy in New York” and the percussion from “The Boxer” for “Sing It on TV” as a gift to Josh Altmanshofer, the biggest Simon and Garfunkel fan I know—and the results are beautiful, at least to my ears. The record is loaded down with synthesizers, maybe to a fault; I said at the time that we were aiming for a 1970s sound (you can hear us come close on “…Until You Do”) but hit the ‘80s instead. I think the synths sound pretty great, or at least as tasteful as synthesizers can in rock songs. (Their shining moment is the third verse of “Amy,” where we decided to pull out everything else. I love that part.)

I wasn’t much better as a musician. I play a few solos on the record; I like what I did on “…Until You Do” and I’m decently satisfied with the double solo on “Something with a Girl in Summer,” but I could not possibly be more embarrassed about the last two minutes of “The Diamonds in Her Hands.” It’s Jamey, Jordan, and Garth Rivers (who would join the band full-time not too much later) who shine on guitar here. And once again I took the opportunity to invite a girl I had a thing for to sing on the record; if anything can save “Diamonds,” it’s Lisa’s vocals.

A Couple More to Kill the Pain was hastily thrown together because we knew I was moving to Omaha and figured we wouldn’t get a chance to do another record. It has two live tracks, an outtake from Nothing Personal and a bunch of demos.

Our magnum opus, our best album if you ask me (and who else are you going to ask when we only sold 50 or so copies of any given record?) is our third, Anywhere but Here, which took a good three years to record and mix, not because it’s so intricate but because I moved to Omaha and got really lazy. After I recorded my many parts, Garth and Max flew out from Georgia to record additional guitar and to help me mix it. (Josh Altmanshofer moved to China, apparently permanently.) We nearly had a fist-fight a couple of times, but I ended up fairly happy with the results. None of us are the engineer Jamey is, and you’ll notice that several of the tracks are so “hot” that they “clip.” I’m particularly embarrassed by my hatchet job on Garth’s only song, “It’ll Be Over Soon.”

I’m proud of these songs, most of them anyway. I’d put "Ruthless" (the going vote for our best song), “Success Lives Here” or “I Don’t Know What to Think” up against any indie rock or alternative country song of the era—even if the latter never sounded right without the duet vocals. (The gal who was supposed to sing them and I agreed never to speak again, which makes it hard to organize the recording session.) And I finally have a guitar solo I love—the monstrosity at the end of “I Am Bound to Her”—even if the other members of the band, not to mention my wife, never agreed with me.

Anyway, here you have it, the entire recorded legacy (a mere 38 tracks) of The Shots of Perspective, a band no one ever really heard of. We were never going to make the big time—I realized this after the second record came out, and that made it all the better. Our practices and recording sessions turned from an attempt to be successful into an attempt to stay alive, personally and collectively. We took over the college chapel, turned our amps way up, and sang my pretentious—but maybe pretty good sometimes—songs. I hope you find something to like here; there’s a lot of me in them.

Shots of Perspective discography

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why Franny Glass Lost Her Mind: More on Religion without Belief

Every misunderstood teenager loves J.D. Salinger, and most adults find themselves drifting further and further away from him as they get older—or at least from Catcher in the Rye. Since I never much liked Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters or Nine Stories, that leaves me only with Franny and Zooey, one of the few truly great American novels about spiritual crisis.

Franny and Zooey is really a collection of one short story (“Franny”) and one novella (“Zooey”), but the two are so intimately connected that there’s not much point in reading them in the abstract. They deal, like much of Raise High and Nine Stories, with the devastatingly clever and heartbreakingly unsuccessful Glass family, the obvious inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. When the youngest sibling, 20-year-old Franny, has a nervous breakdown in a restaurant after committing herself to The Way of the Pilgrim, a 19th-century Russian theological volume, she returns home to the family’s New York apartment, where she is counseled, lectured, and ridiculed by her older brother Zooey.

The Way of the Pilgrim seeks to answer the question of how one prays without ceasing, one of the New Testament’s more difficult commands, and its answer is to repeat the so-called “Jesus Prayer” (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me [, a miserable sinner]” to oneself, mechanically at first, until one means it at the very depths of one’s soul. It is the act of following this advice that makes Franny faint in the restaurant and return home.

At first glance, Salinger seems like he would be a spiritual brother to James P. Carse, who recommends in his book that we divorce religion from belief and focus on the nondogmatic wonders of the universe. After all, Salinger is famously interested in nearly all religions, especially Christianity and Buddhism, and sees them all as streams leading to the same vast ocean. And indeed, according to Zooey, part of Franny’s problem is that she uses the Jesus Prayer to swap a consumerist dogma for a spiritual one:

You talk about piling up treasure—money, property, culture, knowledge, and so on and so on. In going ahead with the Jesus Prayer . . . aren’t you trying to lay up some kind of treasure? Something that’s every goddam bit as negotiable as all those other, more material things? Or does the fact that it’s a prayer make any difference? I mean by that, is there all the difference in the world, for you, in which side somebody lays up his treasure—this side, or the other?

In other words, Franny takes Jesus’ warning in Matthew 6:19-21 and makes it into an ugly and exclusionary dogma, one that she uses to separate herself from other people, putting herself inside the fold and others outside it—the very essence of belief, according to Carse. Further, Zooey prefers to remove the very notion of sin from the formulation, noting with satisfaction that “none of the adepts in either of the Pilgrim books puts any emphasis—thank God—on the miserable sinner part.” Religion becomes something malleable, something to change with the times—an orientation rather than a doctrine. Carse would be proud.

And yet the end result of the book is to suggest that Carse couldn’t be more wrong. One of the best-written parts of The Religious Case Against Belief is a long section where Carse presents us with dozens of Jesuses, that is to say, dozens of interpretations of Jesus. One can use the footnotes and play “name that Christ.” The point, though, is that, as Carse says about the results of the Protestant Reformation, “One Jesus is as authentic as the next.” He elaborates:

All of this gives the strong impression that the New Testament as we have it is a somewhat errant representation of a true text that hovers somewhere behind it, unseen, even unseeable—a precise and accurate account of what Jesus said and did. Apparently no one is granted the talent or privilege to state it exactly as it is. As a result, we remain necessarily ignorant of the “true” text. It is inconceivable that Christians will someday reach total agreement on what the text may be.
Thus, Rudolf Bultmann can give us “a mysterious Galilean preacher whose proclaimation to the world (or kerygma), although encased in mythic thinking we know now to be false, still causes us to confront our own inauthenticity” while George W. Bush gives us “a private voice guiding elected leaders responsible for America’s salvific mission to the democratic world,” and that is, to a large extent, just fine with Carse, since the “real Jesus” is undiscoverable.

Zooey disagrees. Sure, The Way of the Pilgrim has turned his sister into pious trash, into a sanctimonious twit—but that’s not her real problem:

I don’t think you understood Jesus when you were a child and I don’t think you understand him now. I think you’ve got him confused in your mind with about five or ten other religious personages, and I don’t see how you can go ahead with the Jesus Prayer till you know who’s who and what’s what.

Franny’s problem is that she’s tried to turn Jesus—who, fictional not, is a real person, at least according to Zooey—into St. Francis of Assissi or their brother Seymour or God knows what else. One Jesus is not, in other words, as good as another; it matters who you pray to, and if that’s not doctrine exactly, Christians have always known that doctrine flows from one’s conception of Christ—and that that conception can be more or less accurate, something Carse doesn’t seem to recognize.

None of this in any way disproves Carse’s book, of course—Franny and Zooey are fictional characters created by a man who’s so maladjusted that the only reason we’re still sure he’s alive is that he sued someone earlier this year. And in real life, true Christians seem to be far less well-adjusted than other people—and I think that’s actually how it’s supposed to be, if neurosis is the inability to create a cohesive self; after all, Christians are all but commanded to live in two worlds at once.

But it seems important to me that it’s the loss of doctrine—in the form of a biblically accurate portrait of Christ—that causes Franny to momentarily lose her mind. If Christianity recommends a certain loss of self, I think Carse recommends an even greater and more malicious one.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Book Review: 'The Religious Case Against Belief'

As the debate between the neo-atheists (or, as I prefer to call them, the nü-atheists, since Hitchens and Dawkins operate with all the subtlety and grace of Fred Durst screaming for the “nookie”) and their rivals, the neo-apologists, heats to a fever pitch, we’re seeing more and more voices insert themselves into the middle of the conversation. Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God and Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution are the two most prominent books of this sort. I haven’t read either of these, but I want to, and I’m planning on reading Wright, at least, and reviewing him on this blog sometime soon.

James P. Carse’s The Religious Case Against Belief predates both of these books, but it has slipped between the cracks to a large extent. Carse is professor emeritus of religion at Harvard University and an avowed agnostic; with this latter fact in mind, upon reading the title of his book, it’d be easy to assume that it’s another screed against those idiot Christians, tempered, perhaps by some sort of social defense of religion as a necessary institution for the survival of civilization. It is not.

Instead, Carse divides the world of faith into two factions: We have on one hand “religious” people, whose world is “more complicated, often foggy, sometimes hidden, and increasingly varied” (111); on the other, we have believers, whose worldview

thrives on conflict, depends on the clarity and restricting power of its surrounding boundaries, has a one-dimensional understanding of authority, possesses a kind of atemporality that denies any possibility of an open history, and builds on a severe form of self-rejection.


On the on hand, we have people interested in asking questions; on the other, we have people interested in providing answers—even if those answers are arbitrary and given in response to questions that don’t even have answers.

Carse, much to his credit, does not limit believers to members of any particular confession, but extends it to a wide variety of -isms: Marxism, nationalism, Nazism, Maoism, creationism, and, yes, nü-atheism. He is also magnanimous enough to point out that the association of Evangelicals with Nazis is not an equation of evil or of degree but merely of orientation: the world of the belief system is narrowly defined and discourages thought.

Against the systematic theologians of the spiritual and materialist worlds Carse sets a few examples of genuinely religious people: Jesus and Buddha, of course, but also Galileo and Abraham Lincoln. What these figures have in common is something Carse calls “higher ignorance”:

What we see in [Galileo’s] life is that there is no end of truths, and not one of them beyond challenge. There is always something new and unexpected to be learned. What drove him, in other words, was not his knowledge but his ignorance. He knew that he did not know. He also knew he never would know it all.


This is undeniably an attractive proposition. Carse is essentially calling for a humility in the face of the wonders of the universe, and who’s not for that? The answer, of course, is believers, who all believe “that they have been brought to the end of their ignorance” (59). When he puts it that way, of course, it’s hard to come down in favor of belief over religious, and since he describes the two as essentially incompatible. “When ‘true’ believers claim that their convictions have been validated by a given religion,” we are told, “they are patently unaware that in doing so they have just rejected it” (4).

Thus, religions cannot have any kind of doctrine, at least not in their capacity as religions. Instead, religion is something akin to poetry, which, Carse declares (arbitrarily, in my opinion) “does not translate into belief, or into rational thought of any kind. It can be little more than a random insight, or a puzzling oracular declaration” (102). Like Oscar Wilde, who famously says in “The Critic as Artist” that “Beauty reveals everything, because it expresses nothing," Carse has poetry (and with it, religion) performing as nothing beyond aesthetic spectacle—it may suggest, but it never says.

Curiously, he includes in the category of religious texts both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, large chunks of which are explicit and specific laws and more-or-less systematic theology. Carse claims that these texts are “a glorious confusion” and that their “power lies precisely in the fact that every attempt improve [them] is doomed” (118). We can’t interpret these books; all we can do, if we want to remain intellectually and existentially honest, is to “join in to make a joyful noise of our own” (118). Poetry stirs us to create more poetry, which, when Carse talks about it, often sounds more like turning cosmos back into chaos.

Oddly enough, although he instructs us that religion must be separated from belief, he maintains a very heavy division between the various world religions, each of which “has an identity that sets it apart, so far apart that it cannot even be said that one religion is like another” (138). This is where I got confused. If religions are not permitted to have doctrine, what is it that sets one so clearly apart from another? If I am not permitted belief, can I worship Shiva and the Goddess and still maintain my particular identity as a Christian?

This is the main weakness of Carse’s otherwise elegant and compelling argument. In the end, religion divorced from specific beliefs seems like it should end up with every religious person in the same large pot, perhaps the Unitarian Universalist Church, where from my understanding you don’t need to believe in anything in particular. Carse points out that Christians don’t agree with one another on some very large issues; this is true, but it’s also true that the glue that binds them together is belief in some even larger ones.

In the end, then, Carse seems to want us to replace the specificity of belief systems with a more-or-less vague religious impulse—that “sense of wonderment at the vastness of the universe” that atheists sometimes talk about to replace the gods they do not believe in. This is a very, very serious suggestion—one that would almost completely destroy the structures of religions as we know them. Beliefs are serious business, and to pretend that religions could get along without them would be closing your eyes to what they’re really made of.

There is one type of believer whom Carse likes and respects, by the way: the kind who says,

“My faith has uncertainty, even outright doubt, woven right into it. Nevertheless, I embrace the risk of a leap into the unseen.” I want to emphasize here that this kind of belief, with an acknowledged unknown at its heart, is not the kind that has led to the Age of Faith II with its absolutisms, its certainties, its martyrdoms, and its inevitable drift into violence and warfare.


The belief he describes is a Kierkegaardian one, built on the Dane’s “teleological suspension of the ethical” (later renamed by scholars the “leap of faith,” a phrase Kierkegaard never uses). What Carse doesn’t seem to recognize is that Kierkegaard’s leap is toward a very specific God, a personality, in fact, one who has rules and laws and who demands an obedience and a set of beliefs, even if He makes the leaper suspend them momentarily. A leap into the dark only works if one is leaping in the right direction.

That’s not to say I hated this book. Carse has some very interesting things to say, especially if we temper some of his points. We can adopt his notion of “higher ignorance,” for example, and recognize and admit that we don’t know the metaphysical structure of the universe—in fact, we can’t know it—the way that we know more certain things in everyday life. But that doesn’t mean we should just chuck beliefs out the window, not as far as I’m concerned.

The Emergent Church in particular will find a lot to like here, particularly in Carse’s exposition of religion as composed of communities and his call for legitimate dialogue between believers and non-believers of every philosophy and theology. And Evangelicals of a more traditionalist stripe will definitely appreciate his defense of faith against the nü-atheists. But I’m just afraid Carse takes things too far—instead of a Reformation of belief, he wants an abolition of it, and I just don’t see any way to do that and make religion vital and meaningful.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Freedom's Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose

Walker Percy, it’s strange to say, was brought to his strengths as a Catholic novelist by Jean-Paul Sartre, perhaps the 20th century’s most famous atheist. Confined to a sanitorium by tuberculosis, he made it his project to read through the literary and philosophical existentialists. After he was brought to theism by Kierkegaard, he came across Sartre, whom he loved. As biographer Jay Tolson explains, “Percy’s enthusiasm for Sartre may seem strange. After all, Sartre’s militant atheism could not have been more different from Percy’s convinced fideism. But Percy found the difference a tonic and a challenge” (238). He may have needed Kierkegaard and Gabriel Marcel to help him bring Sartre’s ideas into a Christian context, but Sartre is clearly a much bigger influence on him than most of his Kierkegaard-happy critics notice.

I didn’t notice it either until I started reading through Being and Nothingness with Nathan Gilmour. The whims of my reading list for my comprehensive exams have dictated that I read Percy’s Lancelot while still in the middle of Being and Nothingness, and the two books play off each other in ways I never noticed before. I’ve written about Lancelot before on this blog without really understanding what Lance’s quest for sin is really about; Sartre explains most everything.

This is, at its bottom, a novel about freedom and responsibility, about one’s relationship to one’s past self and about the lies one tells oneself in order to live comfortably in the present. In his old life, Lancelot was marked by bad faith. He instructs Percival to “Imagine a man sitting in Feliciana Parish for twenty years practicing law (yes! “practicing”), playing at being a “moderate” or “liberal” whatever that is, all under the illusion that he was living his life and was not even aware that he was not.” It’s a sham; it’s pretending to be something he’s not; it’s attempting to force oneself into an objective role.

That’s the essence of bad faith for Sartre. In the most famous section of Being and Nothingness, he gives the example of the waiter who
applies himself to chaining his movements as if they were mechanisms, the one regulating the other; his gestures and even his voice seem to be mechanisms; he gives himself the quickness and pitiless rapidity of things. He is playing, he is amusing himself. But what is he playing? We need not watch long before we can explain it: he is playing at being a waiter in a café.
The problem with bad faith is that it is an attempt to treat oneself both as subject and object, as both being-for-itself and being-in-itself. This formulation is impossible for Sartre. His problem with God, in fact, is that He would need to be both being-for-itself and being-in-itself, an impossibility. So any act of bad faith—of self-deception as regards one’s freedom—is an attempt to be God.

The solution, one might imagine, is to be authentically oneself. Not so fast, says Sartre, and offers us another example. He gives us a closeted homosexual and his friend, who gets annoyed at his bad faith and demands “that the guilty one recognize himself as guilty, that the homosexual declare frankly—whether humbly or boastfully matters little—‘I am a paederast.’” The friend, too, is in bad faith, since he “demands of the guilty one that he constitute himself as a thing, precisely in order no longer to treat him as a thing.”

Attempts at “authentic” living are, in other words, yet another type of bad faith. Sartre acknowledges that to end the state of bad faith, one needs a “self-recovery we shall call authenticity” but immediately says that “the description of [it] has no place here.” To my knowledge he never presents such a solution. His view of the world becomes cynical—we’re all trapped in self-deceit (including, it seems, Sartre himself), and there’s no way out. Percy might present such a way, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

As the waiter plays at being a waiter, of course, Lance plays at being a liberal lawyer—he fits himself neatly into the role and does all the things he is expected to do in that role without questioning them. He’s broken out of this habit by his discovery of his wife’s infidelity; when he discovers that his daughter does not belong to him, he also discovers “my freedom. I can’t tell you why, but the second followed directly upon the first.” The reader knows the reason, however: It’s that his bad faith has been revealed to be a sham, and Lancelot realizes that he’s able to do anything he wishes.

The end result, however, is that he ends up literally imprisoned. I will direct you to my post about Karl Jaspers, Emerson, and Milton, where I finally solve the problem of religious existentialism once and for all. (Note my irony, please.) We see it again here. Lance improbably likes his imprisonment; he is “glad to be here.” Sartre would no doubt define this as a further manifestation of bad faith, but Percy has other ideas. The prison (or more probably the mental institution) is a submission to a higher power, and furthermore, it is voluntary; he says that “Yesterday I simply got up, went to my door, opened it, and went out in the hall.” Thus, his suspension of freedom is largely self-enforced.

And that, Percy seems to be saying, is what breaks us out of bad faith—it’s what allows us to move from potential freedom (which is, after all, the way most of us live—we’re free but we don’t really acknowledge it) to submission to a higher authority to genuine or actualized freedom, which is why Lancelot ends the novel out in the beautiful countryside of Virginia. But he needed to submit himself to the mental institution in order to do so.

If this schema sounds familiar, it’s because it basically conforms to Kierkegaard’s spheres of existence. The aesthete is free, although he acts for all the world as though he is not. The ethicist voluntarily submits himself to an ethical system. The religious personality is given true freedom once he takes the leap away from that ethical system. For Percy, as for Kierkegaard, the whole thing revolves around God; we see this when he reproduces the lyrics to Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee”:
Freedom’s just another word, Lord, for nothing left to lose
Nothing ain’t worth nothing, Lord, but it’s free
Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobby sang the blues
Feeling good was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee
Fans of Kristofferson will immediately notice that Percy adds two Lords to the lyrics, suggesting an added religious dimension to the song’s exploration of freedom. If freedom is indeed just another word for nothing left to lose, then Lance receives his freedom by having his illusions shattered. His illusions were all he had to cling to.

The novel’s violence becomes clear now. Man’s humanity is bound up in his ability to do the wrong thing, i.e., his freedom. To put this in Sartrean terms, man, confronted with vertigo on the edge of the cliff, absolutely must be able to jump. This is why the modern world’s elimination of sin bothers Lance so much—if man cannot sin, if he cannot do something truly terrible, he is not a human being. So in order to become a human being again, to truly break out of his bad faith, he must kill the movie director and accidentally/on purpose set fire to his old life. It is in this way that he is confined to the mental institution that will eventually bring him genuine freedom.