Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Sunday Morning, Wednesday Night

Today I read Kim Cooper's book In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, an essay on the the Neutral Milk Hotel album, which I posted about last month. It's a good book, part of Continuum's intermittently terrific 33 1/3 series, and one bit struck me. The second song on the record begins with lead singer Jeff Magnum crying, "I love you, Jesus Christ," and I was a little surprised to learn in Cooper's Book that Magnum meant this entirely in earnest, not merely from a musical character's point of view, and certainly not ironically. One listener is described as having been initially "repelled" by the lyric, and it occurred to me how much of what I consider the best contemporary art, music, and literature is essentially secular, and that religion, in the public sphere, has largely become the provence of authoritarians and political opportunists.

I am not without my own eccentric spiritual awareness, and I am acutely preoccupied with the big questions about human existence. But, institutionally speaking, I'm an agnostic. That said, I am not repelled by earnest expressions of religious faith. I am repelled by the all too common and extraordinarily shrill hypocritical ones--the kinds I was alluding to in the previous paragraph. Mangum's lyric moves me, though, and I started wondering if I could think of any good religious fiction.

Well, Flannery O'Connor. She's the main one. (Her faith is kind of a deal-breaker for some people, but it deeply endears her to me.) Has anyone read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead? I suspect I would like it, having loved Housekeeping, but haven't gotten to it yet. Dostoyevsky, of course. And Rhian likes Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. Most others I've tried seem soppish to me--Updike's In The Beauty Of The Lilies is the one that springs most immediately to mind. (I don't dislike Updike, but he bugs me more often than he amazes me. I like Of The Farm and all the Bech stories quite a lot...and his book reviews and other nonfiction. The rest...eh. One of these days I'll post about why Roth is way better at bad men than Updike is, but not today.)



Jonathan said...

I would highly recommend Paul Elie's wonderful book THE LIFE YOU SAVE MAY BE YOUR OWN: AN AMERICAN PILGRIMAGE. The title is borrowed from an O'Connor story, of course, but the book is a study of four Roman Catholic American writers: O'Connor, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Percy's THE MOVIEGOER is also excellent.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I too love Walker Percy. And The Seven-Storey Mountain is wonderful.

Maybe my favorite story of spiritual exploration -- nonfiction -- is Janwillem Van De Wetering's The Empty Mirror, about his stay in a Zen monastery. He's very cranky about the whole thing. I identified powerfully with the crankiness and his bumbling attempts to get his hands on the Zen thing.

Anonymous said...

That last comment was Rhian, not me!!!

Trevor said...

I know what you mean about being surprised by expressions of Christian faith in odd places. It's my own prejudice that an artist couldn't produce nuance, subtlety, or complication, because they were so blinded by the blacks and whites of religion. Not so.

It's happening more often in indie circles, though you get some questionable expressions in mainstream rock. (Creed's declarations remind me more of Pharisees than disciples.)

The most obvious example of an artist who seems sincere in his faith is Sufjan Stevens. He produced one of the best, most lush and gorgeous "Christian" albums: Seven Swans. Not for nothing, one of the songs on the album is called "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."

Stevens' faith seems sincere because he deals with it in complicated ways. On the lauded Illinois album is a song called "Casimir Pulaski Day" that finds him angry and frustrated with God over the loss of a friend to cancer. Sounds treacly, but it's quite moving. The last line is "And He takes, and He takes, and He takes . . ."

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I have mixed feelings about Sufjan Stevens, but "Casimir Pulaski Day" is an excellent song...

I suppose what it comes down to is that I respect personal honesty and moral depth, in whatever form they come. A great artist uses his faith--in whatever--as a way to explore the moral complexities of the world, not as a way to obscure them, and the good stuff we've been mentioning does exactly that.

Anonymous said...

How about Denis Johnson? Especially Fiskadoro and Already Dead. Also some of the poems.

J. Wing said...

Hey! Wing here. I just found this blog. Very cool stuff.

Have you ever heard Mason Jennings? He wrote this song called "Jesus, Are You Real?" If you like that sort of honest expression of faith and struggle, I would recommend it. I don't really know what his beliefs are, but the song is profound in a way.

Here is an excerpt:

"All I do is doubt you God
all I do is love you God
all I do is question you
what else can I do?
This world was never solid ground
the past is coming back around
all I do is search for you
what else can I do?
And when I say I search for you
I mean I search for peace
I search for hope
I search for love
and one day for release."

Anyway, you just have to hear it. Very simple acoustic song, but very raw.

JohnFox said...

I actually liked Gilead even more than Housekeeping. But I read Gilead first, maybe that influenced it. Flannery O'Connor is the first religious author to spring to mind as well, but Walker Percy is the one everyone mentions next. Overall, I agree that most fiction that I like is secular as well, most likely because I can't find much good religious fiction (that isn't thinly veiled tracts, or that isn't terribly crafted). A good journal to watch for up-and-comers, however, is IMAGE.