Against the Day Weblog

November 12, 2006

God Fearing – A New York Times Essay

Filed under: Essays — basileios @ 7:52 pm

The New York Times have an Essay today based on a passage from Against the Day by John Wilson editor of Books & Culture.

There’s been a lot of talk about the tantalizing announcement of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Against the Day,” coming later this month. But let me draw attention to a throwaway line from the one-page excerpt in the publisher’s catalog that may have escaped your notice. “It’s O.K, we’re open-minded,” says the leader of a gang interrupted in the midst of a robbery; “couple boys in the outfit are evangelicals.”

The setting is Colorado in 1899, but Pynchon has his eye on the present. And part of the job of a writer in 2006, so it seems, is to comment on evangelicals or “conservative Christians” more generally, the way that many writers in the late ’60s and early ’70s — novelists, poets, cultural critics, anyone whose opinions regularly appeared in print — felt obliged to weigh in on blackness, often with embarrassing results.

In their fictional guise, evangelicals and their kin — fundamentalists, Pentecostals and all manner of weird cultists calling fervently on the name of Jesus — are usually side characters, rarely protagonists, except, of course, in the alternative universe of so-called Christian fiction, where all the protagonists are evangelicals, and in coming-of-age stories in which a youthful protagonist attains enlightenment and leaves faith behind. Sometimes these fictional evangelicals are ominous figures: glassy-eyed pro-lifers hellbent on murdering doctors and bombing abortion clinics, or charismatic psychopaths like the villain in Henning Mankell’s “Before the Frost,” who is mentored by Jim Jones of Jonestown fame. Mostly, though, they are drawn in broadly satiric strokes (see for example the “moaners” of the First Resurrectionist Maritime Assembly for God in Carl Hiaasen’s new novel, “Nature Girl”). Charmless, ignorant, homophobic and either brazenly hypocritical or obnoxiously sincere, they quote Scripture unctuously and have bad sex.

“Darwin,” muses a clueless Pentecostal mother in Kelly Kerney’s novel “Born Again.” “Isn’t that the guy who thinks God is a monkey?”

A reader who moves from the fiction shelf to the stacks of reportage and commentary may experience cognitive dissonance. The evangelical buffoons who populate so many novels these days seem hardly capable of organizing a local witch-burning, yet their nonfictional counterparts are said to be on the verge of turning these United States into a theocracy. (See, for starters, Kevin Phillips’s “American Theocracy” and Michelle Goldberg’s “Kingdom Coming.”)

And if you wander from the bookstore to the multiplex, you may end up watching the documentary “Jesus Camp,” which shows young children being drilled to become “foot soldiers” in the culture war. “Evangelical Christians are perhaps the most powerful single force in American politics today,” Jessica Reeves warned in The Chicago Tribune, adding that the film offers “an enlightening and frank look at what … Evangelical America believes, preaches and teaches.” Reviewing “Jesus Camp” for The New York Times, Stephen Holden was reminded of the way in which “another puritanical youth army, Mao Zedong’s Red Guards, turned the world’s most populous country inside out.” Today, Holden concluded, “the possibility of a right-wing Christian American version of what happened in China no longer seems entirely far-fetched.”

That’s a scary prospect, when you consider that the Cultural Revolution — the orgy of violence and denunciation that convulsed China from 1966 to 1976 — ended with millions dead, many millions more in prison or laboring in rural “re-education” camps, and irreplaceable cultural treasures defaced or destroyed. Will the evangelical Red Guards soon be storming the Museum of Modern Art? How worried should you be?

Not very. Writing from one of the nerve centers of the evangelical conspiracy — the magazine I edit, Books & Culture, is published by Christianity Today International, whose flagship magazine was founded by Billy Graham — I can assure you that such fears are wildly overstated. To begin with, evangelicals are not by any stretch of the imagination a unified “force.” On the contrary, they — we — are notoriously riven by disagreement over matters large and small, from the particular translation of the Bible that should be used to the political implications of the Gospel, from the flavor of music most conducive to worship to the role of women in ministry. No wonder a new evangelical denomination or quasi-denomination is born every day.

Ever since Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority began making headlines in the 1980s, it has served the purposes of certain conservative activists and their ideological foes to exaggerate the influence they wield among evangelical Christians. In fact, it is both a strength and a weakness of evangelicalism that the “movement” lacks a center. Yes, a significant majority of evangelicals voted for George W. Bush. Big deal. At the moment, it appears unlikely that a Republican of any stripe will win the White House in 2008, though the Democrats may yet find a way to squander their advantage. So much for theocracy.

If many commentators give a false impression of evangelical unity, they also underestimate the fluidity of religious identities. My wife and I have four children, all of them raised in an evangelical setting. The two oldest, ages 36 and 28, stopped going to church when they were about 16. We pray that they will return. Our third child — after graduation from Graham’s alma mater, the evangelical Wheaton College in Illinois — converted to Catholicism along with her husband, also a Wheaton grad, who was home-schooled in a self-described fundamentalist family in Texas.

If you have raised your offspring to be freethinkers before sending them away to college, you may be horrified to learn that one of them has fallen in with Christians on campus and is lustily singing praise choruses. You may have an evangelical at your table come Thanksgiving. (Your mail carrier may be one of Them already.) Or you may have grown up in a secular Jewish family, not in the least observant, only to find yourself drawn into one of the flourishing Jewish renewal movements when you begin to raise your own children.

Many years ago, when I was teaching English at a large state university, I sat through part of a faculty debate on the problem posed by evangelical groups who were “proselytizing.” These professors, you understand, were fully committed to free speech — they’d swear to it, so help me Mario Savio — but they were concerned about the vulnerability of impressionable young minds to the seductive wiles of Campus Crusade for Christ, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and other such evangelical organizations.

I left while the hand-wringing was still in progress and walked across the campus, passing a row of tables. One displayed books published by Progress Press, including works by Lenin and some classics of Socialist Realism. The books were dingy, as if they had been sitting outside for a long time, but I was tempted by Viktor Shklovsky’s study of Tolstoy. The fellow who took my money — studious, by the look of him, and with hair almost as long as mine — wanted me, improbably enough, to become a Communist.

The university was a marketplace of ideas. Wherever I turned, someone was trying to persuade me to do something. A young woman in a fetching tank top wanted me to join the army of the credit-card indebted. (I had already enlisted and re-upped, foolishly, at great eventual cost before I was discharged.) A couple of beefy guys wanted me to drink beer and do whatever else fraternity guys do. But some ideas are more threatening than others. So the evangelicals were a problem.

Evidently we still are. But such is life in a pluralistic nation. Even as book after book sounds the alarm about the evangelical menace — coming in January, Chris Hedges’ “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America” — conservative evangelical activists are sending out fund-raising letters portraying themselves as a beleaguered remnant. The reality, as usual, is considerably messier.

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