At the end of last year I picked up John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection, Pulphead. I’d never read any Sullivan, but I’d heard some good things, I’m a fan of a good essay, and I’m always willing to take a punt on a writer who gets tagged with the ‘next David Foster Wallace’ label. The first essay in the collection is called Upon This Rock (originally in GQ), and it is quite the introduction. Wild-behind-the-eyes American essayist goes to a Christian rock festival? Why did none of you tell me about this sooner?
I was soooo ready to be a sceptic. American Christianity is a strange and alien beast, even to someone who is a Christian and generally spends time in evangelical churches. British evangelical churches are not, from what I can tell, like American evangelical churches. I’ve never been on that particular field trip - nor have I been to any of the USA that isn’t coastal. And then, while Britain’s Christian festivals often give me the collywobbles that’s more because I don’t like being in large crowds of people who all believe the same thing. Yes, even when I believe the same thing too (you know, the big picture stuff). But my freak outs aren’t about the general theology, so much as they are about the lack of space - both physical and mental - and trend towards socially normalised cultural uniformity. I assume that the American ones are bigger and more so, but not really on any factual evidence.
Basically my general understanding of American Christianity is pretty touristic: gathered from my watching of various wrangles across the internet and a lot of popular culture (see especially, Jed Bartlett-channeling-Aaron Sorkin vs the conservative evangelicals). And from that, I’ve not collected a very positive impression of the culture that Sullivan was off to write about. It’s not my space. It’s weird and alien. There are absolutely certainly some good people in it. Some of them are probably my specific kind of people, as well as being generally good natured. But it probably still wouldn’t be my space even if it weren’t such an absolute foreign country to me.
But that doesn’t mean I want someone else to contribute to that list of unsympathetic portrayals. I’m way tired of people writing about crackpot Christians that makes the crackpottery about a perceived irrational belief in a non-existent God. Heaven knows there are plenty of other things you could write about us and our various crazinesses - for we are very imperfect in very many ways - without blithely assuming that we’re fundamentally wrong. Sure, you can argue that we’re fundmentally wrong, that’s fine - but it would be really great if you could do that properly, rather than reaching for the lazy shorthand of, ‘These people, they sure are BAFFLING, right?’ That just undercuts your whole argument, whatever it is, because it says to me that you don’t care to get acquainted with the subjects of you’re writing, you don’t have any empathy for them and you don’t take them seriously.
Anyway. Mr John Jeremiah Sullivan, it turns out is very canny writer. He sets himself up as exactly the kind of writer I’m terribly sceptical about when it comes to faith, but with a nice line in self-depreciation:
“I had failed to grasp how ‘youth’ the phenomenon is… just traipsed out on to the World Wide Web and asked a bunch of twelve year old Christians if they wanted to come for a ride in my van.”
Still, he held my attention, scepticism on the back-burner, by keeping the style rolling along and the fact that he wasn’t completely dismissive of the the people he met, even though they clearly weren’t his people, and then started reeling me in with a very cute - and acute - assessment of the Christian Rock world:
“So it’s possible… that Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself.”
(I admit it, I snorted. Sorry, Jars of Clay, but I did own one of your CDs once. I never really listened to it, but everyone at church had them…)
And then, he sucker punched me with the best piece of writing I have ever read about American evangelicalism, its deep appeal, and the problems that arise when its teenagers go off to college and start asking questions. Because it just can’t hold it together in that situation (it's not alone - a school of any thought system or religion is going to have the same problems when its adherents start asking questions), and unless you’re a very fortunate person it can be really hard to find another strand of Christianity that you feel like you can belong to - especially as a half-formed adult. And so, you leave it behind, and you become a non-Christian, by definition. Except, as Sullivan’s writing shows, it really isn’t that simple - even when you think it is
“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… And one has doubts about doubts.”
I mean, I have doubts about not having doubts. Sometimes I do feel like a sucker for having bought it. The dividing line between me and John Jeremiah Sullivan isn’t a wafer of paper, it’s a grain of sand on a scale tilting one way or the other. And when he says at the end, “Knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were,” it feels to me like what he’s saying that the strand he once embraced doesn’t hold enough to be the truth of life to him, and like he’s missing something. Because before he says, “One has doubts… ” he talks about all the things he loves about Jesus, and all the stuff that’s in the gospel, and those things - those things are the things I believe and that make me choose Christianity.
I’m not saying that John Jeremiah Sullivan’s wrong, or that he doesn’t really believe what he thinks he believes and that if he only spent half an hour with me I could convince him of that. I think he’s a better and more nuanced reader of a particular strand of Christianity than I am, and I can tell he loves the people in that strand in a way that I would, probably, honestly, struggle to follow. I’m just saying I find it sad that there was no space for him to spend time with those ideas within a Christian community, and to see that kind of love of Christ and that kind of exploration and questioning are a strand of the Christian faith.
And that I loved the piece.