John, Fred, and Me: How Literature Begets Belief
When I was six years old I stepped into the batter’s box of my first ecclesiastical crisis. It would become, among other legends, the first showdown between a heat throwing father with a wickedly good curve, and his son, who, no matter the count or the inning, swung for the fences. I remember my dad taking the time one Sunday after church to explain to me what heaven would be like. He just wanted me to know the basics; a little about its golden streets and jazz music. It’s perfect! He said several times. And perfect was the only word that my sports obsessed brain was capable of snatching from the air. The word perfect, to me, conjured up the smiles or stop action shots printed on the baseball cards of MVP pitchers: Cy Young, Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson. Something in me cracked like a corked bat.
“Perfect?” I asked. “Then how do you win at baseball?”
I watched the glow diminish from behind his glasses and curl into an eyebrow bend of confusion. “What do you mean, son? Win at baseball?”
I was quick to the root of the dilemma, “If everyone is perfect, how do you win?” I said.
It was clear he wasn’t following. My brain was hoola-hooping through logic, spinning premises’ in my mind that outnumbered by the thousands Michael Jordan’s rings. A perfect game is no runs, no hits, and no walks. It’s 27 up; 27 down. This made sense to me. But add to that formula the perfect batter. Does he hit a home run every time? A base’s empty grand slam like it’s some sort of miracle? If it’s always a strikeout and always a homerun, it’s always a contradiction.
After a long silence, my dad finally answered, “There is no baseball in heaven. We will all just be with God.”
I didn’t understand. There could be golden streets and jazz music, but…
“No baseball?” I asked skeptically.
“No, there won’t be any need.” He answered, as if that might help calm me down.
I wouldn’t find out until high school how closely my limited, six year old language echoed a Nietzscheian aphorism, “If there’s no baseball, heaven must be a boring place.”
I wasn’t melancholy or depressed as a child, in fact, I was an ADHD mega-goob. I can’t even recall wearing much clothing until age 12; which, coincidentally was the same year that three houses in our neighborhood went up for sale. If I wasn’t outside, dragging action figures and a portable cardboard fort through mud puddles or over jiggly bushes, then I was inside, self-sentenced to solitary confinement in our hall closet, guarded by a legion of musty coats and reading Calvin and Hobbes by the beam of a “Rugrats” flashlight.
It was at about the age of thirteen, when the clothes went back on and I outgrew the crawlspace of the closet, that I stopped dreaming about the big leagues and heaven and reading the Sunday Funnies. Instead, I sat in a steel chair in our backyard, around the corner where no one could see, listening through fat DJ headphones to anti-everything music while I drew flip-cartoons into the corners of my history books.
During the first couple of years of high-school I read only school textbooks and philosophy. A big kid I knew gave me a copy of James W. Sire’s, The Universe Next Door. It was a simple and concise introduction to the prominent worldviews held over the course of the 20th century. It broke the wooden pickets that were holding back the world I felt leaning its nose over to my side of the fence.
I quickly became addicted to Philosophy. The Greeks were fossils, but none knew virtue like they did. They loved the body and the mind; and sutured those two together with that indefinable ghost of inner matter called the soul. “Know your self by yourself” Socrates said. Plato led the charge in the direction of the unseen self, “How can we realize the difficult sublime issues without a spiritual soul? And how can we judge it?” At age 15 I was becoming impressionable, insecure, and uncomfortable with my outside; and so I clung desperately to those ideas that cultivated a valuable inside. I believed these men.
Actually, I believed anything.
There were lulls and leaps in my study, philosophy that bored me and others toward which I felt intellectually or ideologically indifferent. There were also those great gods among men whom I wanted to understand beyond survey or source text; I wanted to comb the ticks from their minds. It was the Enlightenment that upped the stakes. To those men who lived in its wake, it was Truth itself that needed to be put on trial.
In reading modern Philosophy I feared the heavy handed Russians; the despairing existentialism of Dostoevsky. I couldn’t even pronounce his name. The French, to me, were gestures among Germans. Rene Descartes: “I think therefore I am?” I was starving myself so I could win a state championship in wrestling. Cognitive thought hardly determined my existence; hunger reminded me I was real. I skipped Voltaire and went to Sartre and Merleau-Ponty. But when I found that Sartre abandoned his pacifism and invited activism against the German occupation, I admit, I was disappointed. I didn’t like hypocrites. I didn’t like myself. Camus nearly became a favorite. He spun absurdity into logic; meaninglessness into meaning. However, in my own intellectual arrogance, all of that appeared to refute itself and so I abandoned that too.
I met honest Christians in the Church my parents forced me to frequent who warned me about David Hume. My best friend from that church, Ben, a man devoted to his God, had been buried existentially in doubt regarding miracles by Hume’s staunch and practical naturalism. I imagined a bulldog when I opened Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, biting the body off my best friend’s higher power with four inch fangs. Instead I met a high-nosed Scotsman hidden beneath a powdered wig. Bald and afraid.
It was in an alpine nook, high in the frozen Alps of Germany, that my anger towards God for taking away baseball met a writer, whom some god unknown and unwanted, had also stripped of the things he loved. Friedrich Nietzsche, full of angst and aphorisms, sitting in a fire heated refuge above a glacial cliff renounced with zeal the god he never believed in. This was a man to whom I could relate.
The Birth of Tragedy burned with more anger than I felt God ever could. The molten eyes and flaming nostrils of the psalm-god began to cool to impotence, the white outrage slowly disappearing into the icy landscape of the Alps. Soon, God was swallowed by a deep crevasse, and all that could ebb into my vision through the hundred years that separated Nietzsche and I were his brighter words which loomed beacon-like atop an aging mountain secreted by snow. It was revenge that connected us, I think. We were two who had been extinguished in the heat of God’s glory; a thing selfish men handle worse than selfish children.
The dance of Dionysius converted me into a happy pessimist whose feet would grow more and more victorious with every stomp of skepticism I preached to others and myself. I read on: Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Twilight of the Idols, The Gay Science, Beyond Good and Evil, Ecce Homo, Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche’s Journals. In November 1887 he wrote, “In Heaven, all the interesting people are missing.” I remember nothing else from the day I read that; not the place, not the time, nothing of what I ate a few hours before (or didn’t), or what kind of warm sensation of strange elation overcame some abstract area in my stomach or along my spine. I remember the timelessness of the moment. It dropped me back into a scrawny six year old body that knew nothing but candy, fear of coodies, homerun records and perfect games. If there’s no baseball in heaven…
From then on Friedrich became my good friend, Fred. At the age of seventeen he had enough mustache to share to make me feel like a powerful man. We went everywhere together, him hulled up in the quiet anger of my backpack, the same time conversing with me, a steadily growing inner dialogue about the ignorance of others in the unrest of my brain.
Fred loved chaos. Dancing too. While reading his books I felt like a Dionysius in ecstasy; gone mad with the rhythm of poetry turned into music unheard by others. I could hear the power of the symphony in his words, calling forth a crescendo of catharsis, culminating: “And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” I wanted to dance, to dance right out of the ocean and beyond the tide that he called man. I wanted to give birth to tragedy by standing alone in my life of art, and to do it dancing with the chaos of a holy sun.
But life proves that all things must burn out; ebbing tides always recede. No matter how hard we dance, we tire. Man is man because he is a part of the order, because he is able to reach down into himself, not because he is able to reach out beyond himself. The Superman comes down, dwells among us, and then returns to his place in the heavens.
It wasn’t until my first year of college that I began reading fiction again. I was living in the turbulence of insomnia, depression, a finally diagnosed Obsessively Compulsive and Disordered brain that refused interaction with the world outside because it desired inner perfection. I read or exercised constantly, ate little, and slept never. My Grandpa died, and so, the Jesus he talked about every Saturday when we gardened together died too; and right there with me was Fred, baring his knuckles to help me beat the mercy out of his dead body should he ever try for a resurrection.
Slowly though, my anger wore me out. I wasn’t landing punches; I was slapping the air. With God dead, and myself blindfolded, I was swinging a baseball bat at a piñata that didn’t even exist. “Swing! Batter! Swing!” Fred shouted in my ear. But I had not the energy for such anger as he had. Besides, I didn’t believe in baseball. I didn’t believe in God. I dropped the bat, peaked out from underneath the bandana wrapped tight around my head, and saw nothing before me but a tree where a Piñata might have hung if I hadn’t already proved it gad no candy guts.
I needed something to relieve the pressure of that god-quenching semester. I pulled out of the garage a neglected cardboard box filled with paperbacks, all of them sealed with the approval of a golden Newberry Medal. The Phantom Tollbooth, Summer of the Monkeys, Hatchet, The BFG, White Fang, Holes, The Giver, Where the Red Fern Grows; name anything by Louis Lowery, Rohld Dahl, or Madeline L’engle; I read it all.
Those books were like balloons, pumping helium into my brain, which by this time in college was so swollen with toxic axioms and bad metaphysics that Children’s literature struck me like a virgin cigarette. They carried me up to heaven, but as the stories ended, they hurled me back down and left me homesick. They left me wanting more.
Still, I had full access to my grandpa’s personal library. He had taught American literature to High School Juniors for 30 years, so his shelves were dense with Modern American Masterpieces. His favorites were John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Conner, Hemingway, Salinger, and Graham Greene. I recognized the names and decided to start with the short stories. I was in no position to commit to a novel.
I must have ignored the assignment in high-school or during my first semester in college, opting instead to read something I assumed was less dull, like Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, because the title A Good Man is Hard to Find glared at me from the brittle pages of my grandfather’s book with an accusing familiarity. I was instantly interested in O’Connor’s “Misfit” as his appetite for murder was leaked into the opening scene of the story with a daring hint of foreshadowing accompanied by a racists grandmothers incessant worry over a possible altercation. O’Connor’s portrayal of the Misfit through the crudely human dialogue and obscenely sad personal story had me gripped in a troubled empathy. Drawing near to the height of the stories emotional energy, I was bit by an image that was already, though quietly lurking, within me.
‘Jesus was the only One that ever raised the dead,” The Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He shown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but thow away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl.’
It was Pascal. The Misfit, in an evil, but maybe inevitable, perversion of Pascal’s wager, not only invited me into literature both as an aesthetic art of language as well as a vehicle to dissect, discuss, and explore philosophy, but also handed back to me the baseball bat with which I had killed God. I stared at my empty palms after I put the put the book down. I could wield an imagined meanness only if there was no Jesus. But if there was, then I had no right to swing at him at all; I could only drop the bat and worship him.
It was a strange giving and simultaneous taking away. A gift handed over so I could hand it right back.
With what I can only describe as Christian devotion, I read thoroughly the pages of each of my grandpa’s books. Highlighting, underlining, and in the margins, recording those thoughts and feelings I was having as I submitted myself to each inspired line.
Reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, more than any other book or even tangible moment in my life, was the hinge pin on which my world turned. It opened to me the varying paths away from a spiraling determinism headed for despair, and instead, toward a landscape of open trails, one of which blazed the brightest: Christianity.
“Now, there are many millions in their sects and churches who feel the order, ‘Do thou,’ and throw their weight into obedience. And there are millions more who feel predestination in ‘Thou shalt.’ Nothing they may do can interfere with what will be. But ‘Thou mayest’! Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win.” Lee’s voice was a chant of triumph.
Adam said, “Do you believe that, Lee?”
“Yes, I do. Yes, I do. It is easy out of laziness, out of weakness, to throw oneself into the lap of deity, saying, ‘I couldn’t help it; the way was set.’ But think of the glory of the choice! That makes a man a man. A cat has no choice, a bee must make honey. There’s no godliness there…
…I feel that I am a man. And I feel that a man is a very important thing—maybe more important than a star. This is not theology. I have no bent toward gods. But I have a new love for that glittering instrument, the human soul. It is a lovely and unique thing in the universe. It is always attacked and never destroyed— because ‘Thou mayest.’”
More important than a star because the human soul shall never burn out; because it need not remain suspended aloft, divided against its will to dance within the universe for which it was created; because it is not in dying that the star of the human soul falls; but in its living, comes down without dissolving, and rains on earth a glittering dust that is both of this world and otherworldly.
John Steinbeck is no theologian, but God was somewhere within those pages, in the chant of Lee’s triumph, above the stars and below them—inside of me. Maybe, I am, to God, a shining instrument, both created by him and created to choose him.
He gives us the dust of himself that we may give him the dust of ourselves.
“Lord,” I prayed, “Thy will be done.”
It is always over a bad cup of coffee and never a good beer that I am transported back to these peculiar origins. It happens when I meet up with an old friend from back in High School; he is usually fairly conservative. We always meet up at the same Starbucks Coffee down the street from my parent’s house where I remember riding the distance of the parking lot in “borrowed” shopping carts. It’s always shortly after the obligatory, “How you doin’s?” and “Whatch’ya been up too’s?” that God joins our conversation.
During one of these routine meetings I was asked by a friend who my favorite theologians were. These are the kind of questions I like answering. Teasing a reader with carefully loaded syntax, so that the final words hold all the force of the blow, is one of my own favorite poetic devices. The author manipulates time and perspective, turns over the words of the line, and then cuts the shin bones of convention out from underneath a person with one unexpected detail. I think of the tendon bands straddling the delicate necklace of the collarbone, the deepening impression of shadow between the cleavage of breasts. I think about the piano music of the fingers, plucking the buttons above the veil before the blouse finally falls slowly away. And then BAM! The laughing assault from an evil faced jack-in-the box jumps out of the shirt and the moment is spoiled.
I tell my friend what he wants to hear. Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, that German guy, Dietrich Something-Or-Rather. I say Athanasius, Calvin, Edwards, Merton, St. John of the Cross. Then I trickle in a few plausibles— John Milton, John Bunyan, John Donne, John Muir.
I add Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene. They’re a good group of Catholics, I say.
Then the less commonly known theologians. My friends with two names: Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Carl Sandburg. My friends with three names: William Carlos Williams, Edward Arlington Robinson, Wystan Hugh Auden, Thomas Sterns Eliot.
And then the lesser knowns: Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck.
Finally, the most unknown of them all: my good friend, Fred.
My buddy looks at me confused. He has never heard of St. Fredriech, but only because I don’t say Nietzsche.
I tell my buddy about baseball, and the around the corner place where I deconstructed the world. I tell him about High School and the Alps and about Grandpa. I tell him all about the things Fred said; about how he was right, and at the same time, got it all wrong. I tell my friend that Fred was a pretty tough critic of the church. He thought Paul was a bit of nut-job, but then again, Fred was bonkers himself. He didn’t necessarily buy the whole salvation through faith alone doctrine. He was maybe a little confused, misunderstanding the totality of what Paul meant, but he did encourage me with force, as one day I meditated on his words:
“The Christians have never practiced the actions Jesus prescribed them; and the impudent garrulous talk about the “justification by faith” and its supreme and sole significance is only the consequence of the Church’s lack of courage and will to profess the works Jesus demanded.”
He was right. I, at least, needed to change my attitude. I justified being a non-participant in the good works of the church as well as in my own sanctification on the basis that God would except me as I was. Wrong. God was calling me to participate. As an artist: to become a co-creator with him.
As a Christian, I acknowledge that life I not about me; that the intellectual knowledge I hunger for is an insatiable craving for acceptance wholly separate from God; I often want to be loved for being “better than”. I feel I have to dance perfectly before the audience of my piers to gain approval or special status.
It is never so with God. He tells me he is the only one I need to dance for. I can Salsa poorly, shoulder-dance, break dance and break my hip, shimmy and pop and gyrate—I can do ballet up a wall of rock, make words string up their shoes and tango across another person’s brain. This is enough.
God wants to dance with me. The dips, the spins, the marches of victory, the hands, like two praying, are simply to be laced.
We people of faith, I have come to understand, are those that are dancing, and likewise thought insane by those who can not hear the music.
“We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once,” Fred would say. So I told my friend, “Fred was right. Only, don’t dance alone.”
Fred refused to believe in a God who couldn’t dance. Mine can, in fact he does, and loves it when I waltz with him.
I welcome your beliefs!