SPOILER ALERT: The following post contains a passing reference to the conclusion of the show LOST.
The most popular book on Christianity today — at least 120 weeks on the bestseller list, many of them at the top — is Heaven is for Real. It’s the true story of a four-year-old’s near-death experience, in which he recalls going to Heaven and meeting Jesus. Another bestseller, Proof of Heaven, has spent more than 60 weeks on the list. It was written by a neurosurgeon who had his own near-death experience during which he also met people on the other side. Also consistently floating around the top ten is Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Jesus, which is the latest in his Killing [Famous Person] series.
I haven’t read any of these books and I don’t plan to.
Based on the tantrums I have seen four-year-olds and Bill O’Reilly throw, I don’t hold out much hope for either Heaven is for Real or Killing Jesus. Proof of Heaven has more promise, but even ostensibly scientific “proof” (which, by the way, has been challenged) that heaven exists doesn’t shed light on the mystery and complexity of what is actually happening here on Earth (see: the last episode of LOST).
I recognize the hypocrisy in being judgmental on this topic, but that doesn’t change my low estimate of most books on Christianity. A visit to the “Inspirational” section of today’s bookstores is a stroll through a lion’s den of reductive, blinkered positivity and self-help-righteousness, and little of the self-reflection, complexity and counter-intuitive discovery that you might find in other books. Like, say, the Bible itself.
Fortunately, all is not wilderness. Two recent volumes — Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, and Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense — are welcome contributions to what we talk about when we talk about faith.
RECOMMENDED LISTENING WITH THESE BOOKS
Califone, Stitches. Another fantastic album from a fantastic band. Stitches is littered with religious imagery — Magdalene, Moses, St. John’s beard, Esau and Jacob, trying to get born all over again, etc. I don’t claim to know what it means, but that is kind of the point. Try the title track or “Moses.”
My Bright Abyss is the more solemn and solitary of the two books. Wiman, a poet and the former editor of Poetry magazine, was diagnosed with a rare blood cancer on his 39th birthday. In the wake of the news, he took up an exploration of his life and faith that became My Bright Abyss.
To call the book a recovery narrative or a “bad news to Good News” faith journey falls far short of the mark. In truth, most descriptions I’ve tried to come up with feel inadequate. Better to explain it like this: Abyss opens with an unfinished poem, in which Wiman finds himself searching for the words to somehow describe his relation to God. The remaining 170 pages of memoir, theology and poetry are him working to finish the stanza.
What makes My Bright Abyss so special, in contrast to so much of what we hear in today’s Christian conversation, is Wiman’s searching and humility in the face of such extremes. Deeply painful and life-altering events, things like cancer, tend to push people toward certainty on questions of destiny, justice and/or God (or lack thereof). My Bright Abyss is built upon Wiman’s recognition of not knowing: “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day.” And, “Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God.” No tangible evidence of Heaven; just an enduring faith despite the Hell on Earth that is cancer. No sinners “killing” Jesus. Nothing that is “not-God.” Imagine the strength it takes to summon gratitude under the circumstances Wiman endured. As Andrew Sullivan said of My Bright Abyss, “I’ve waited my entire adult life to read a book like this.”
Francis Spufford, the author of several works of non-fiction, including the excellent Red Plenty, is up to something different — from Wiman, and from most other books on these topics. Rare is the self-identified “religious” or “Christian” book that sets out to explain in the preface why there will be so much swearing and foul language in the pages ahead, or that uses a catch-all shorthand for human sin: HPtFtU, or the Human Potential to Fuck things Up.
RECOMMENDED LISTENING WITH THESE BOOKS
Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City. Again, no clear message, but a mess of ideas about faith, life, death and whatever comes after. Unbelievers, Everlasting Arms, Worship You, a headstone/lifetime right in front of you and everyone I know. Try “Ya Hey” (i.e Yahweh — “you won’t even say you’re name/only I am that I am”) or try and spot the possible religious imagery in the “Diane Young” video.
Spufford’s experience is particularly British, where “it is more likely that people would deny they went to church even if they actually did.” In his home country “the very idea of faith carries a quiver of unease.” This is easily translated to American Christians, particularly those who find themselves uneasy when trying to explain their faith in mixed company. The cultural dynamics may not be the same, but there are good reasons why thoughtful Christians might feel, as Spufford puts it, “embarrassed” to confess their belief. Spufford is at ease with his own faith, and works enthusiastically to bring others into his fold. Compared to Wiman’s wrenching explications of pain and faith, some of the observations and epiphanies may feel a little thin, but Unapologetic is less a quiet excavation of personal matters than a full-throated exclamation out on the street. The important lessons are still there, however. Namely, that Christianity is hard — “At any given moment you can have it sharply demonstrated to you that where we live, events are not governed by what people deserve.” — and that there is more to faith, and more worth exploring, than popular perceptions may indicate. Christianity is “something that provides one good-enough solution to a set of fundamental human needs.”
– Michael Moats