Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World
Little, Brown and Company, 2016
224 pp., 26.00
Through the Gates of Hades
Dennis Covington crosses lines you're not supposed to cross. It's his charm, his power in nonfiction. It's how close he gets, how radically vulnerable he becomes to his subject. As a writer, he seems driven by something more desperate than a desire to simply bear witness.
This was the key to his now-classic Salvation on Sand Mountain: Snake Handling and Redemption in Southern Appalachia, written twenty years ago. As a newspaper reporter, he was covering the story of a snake-handling preacher on trial for murder after a rattler bit and killed the man's wife. But soon Covington, attending services at The Church of Jesus with Signs Following, got bitten by the Holy Ghost, joined the church, nearly forgot about writing a book, and took up serpents himself.
The book he eventually wrote pulls us in with him, across the line between outsider and insider. Together we undergo the shouting, frenzied summoning of direct mystical experience amidst things we fear and a people we discover might truly be our own.
To read Covington's newest book, Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World, is to feel that undertow once again. But this time, it pulls him, and us, into darker places than rooms full of reptiles and Pentecostals.
When I first met Dennis Covington, more than four years ago, I didn't know he was just weeks away from setting out on the fraught quest that would become this book.
He was the visiting author at our small writer's residency on the windy shores of the Pacific Northwest, and on the first night he turned our small lecture room into a snake-handling church service. It was more of a performance than a reading, straight out of Sand Mountain. Somehow he harnessed the energy, the music, the shouting call and response in Alabama drawl, all the yearning and wild certainty. He transported us. This aging man, lanky and underdressed, with bright blue eyes, he sang. It lifted the room into another register.
But the next day, like snakes in their cages, all of that was put away. I found Covington sitting alone in the small dining area.
I was eager to connect with the man. I'd just read Sand Mountain, and I felt I had found my guy.
I had been trying to write about—and so make sense of—my own experience of divine contact: when I held the hands of felons in a county jail. I'd begun as a volunteer chaplain years earlier, but I ended up finding fellowship among Mexican gang members, welcomed into their world as they embraced me. I'd seen in Covington's years with the snake-handlers not just a similar story of crossing over into unlikely communion, but the ability to name a yearning I'd also discovered in the jail: a faith that can handle—literally—the paradox of sensing God's presence while simultaneously holding what the world calls evil.
In the MFA program, I'd been looking for spiritual writing that modeled this. And I'd started traveling to Guatemalan gang prisons; so how to do spiritual travel writing well? My recent study of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love wasn't enough.
Covington and I spent all afternoon hunched in a corner of that dining room, talking about Ciudad Ju´rez, across the Mexican border from El Paso. Turned out we'd both been reading Charles Bowden's eerie account in Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields. In this hellish landscape, ruled by drug cartels, there are dismembered bodies buried everywhere, rape is routine, enemies are tortured in acid baths. We talked about Bowden's vision of the city as foretelling America's future, a free-market apocalypse. The nightmare subconscious of our addict nation, just on the other side of a drying-up river.
Covington and I both wanted to go.
Without saying it, I think we both had a sense that real questions about God's existence, or face, in this age had to reckon with Juárez. We'd both read in Bowden's book about a curious fellowship in the desert outside Juárez: a "lunatic asylum." There El Pastor, a former alcoholic and boxer and radio personality who had felt touched and called by God's insistent mercy, had taken in dozens whose lives the city had destroyed. Those whose brains were twisted by meth and cocaine. Those who'd never speak again after witnessing (or committing) horrors now locked inside their heads. They survived together, like lilies in the desert, off donations and each other's broken kindness.
In a violent world full of bad religion, this was a disturbingly real—and unnervingly tender— manifestation of faith. A church inside hell.
Covington—or, now, Dennis—said he was leaving in a few weeks to visit. He'd been in touch with Bowden, who'd invited him to come for Easter, to witness El Pastor and those in the asylum burn an effigy of Judas in downtown Juárez. To drive out Satan from the city.
I not-so-subtly invited myself. We'd go together!
He—much more subtly—dodged my proposal.
Four years later, I opened a fresh hardback copy of Revelation and read about those very days I'd missed in Juárez. They take up the two opening chapters, probably the most chilling and beautiful in the book.
In "Seven Days in May," Covington interlaces morbid newspaper clippings from each morning's El Diario ("Someone ordered the murder of two women in a bar last night. The first bullet-riddled body was found open-mouthed at the entrance …") with his own more intimate reporting of daily life inside the asylum, where he lived for a week with the patients.
In May the patients who were not in their cells and otherwise physically able were marching or dancing from one end of the courtyard to the other, some like whirling dervishes with their heads thrown back, and Pastor insisted that a thin, childlike man I'll call Angel sing a song. He'd been cutting pineapples for lunch.
The moment Angel began to sing, I knew I was in the presence of mystery ….
Around us, the patients had fallen silent. Some folded their palms together and lowered their heads in prayer. These were the people—some addicts, some criminals, all afflicted with mental and physical disorders—who'd been rejected even by their own families and left to starve and freeze in the rubble of a city whose citizens were being slaughtered for money and sport.
In the fourth chapter, "The Years the Locusts Ate," Covington reviews his troubled history with church: quietly expelled from the snake-handling congregation decades ago, for a sermon he preached on women being equally called by God to minister; asked to no longer teach Sunday school at the Birmingham Baptist church he attended with his wife when they co-wrote Cleaving, nakedly confessing their infidelities. He'd been wandering ever since, a kind of outcast himself.
"I could have stopped there," he writes, "in Juárez and devoted myself, as Pastor did, to loving the unloved." But Covington does not stay. "I didn't know then what I know now, that I'd found something powerful at the asylum, something worth staying for."
This is where the book, and his journey, takes a severe turn.
"Instead I went to the Middle East, to Antioch in particular"—to where the early church first gained the nickname "Christians." But now, the region is engulfed in the terror of modern civil wars. From the Juárez asylum, Covington sets his course toward ISIS.
On the flight from JFK to Istanbul, Covington sits next to a woman who also questions his trip. She tells him if he's looking for faith, "maybe you ought to just take care of your brother," whom he'd recently put into a nursing home in Texas.
This triggers a chapter of childhood history: when he was still a boy, his older brother returned from Vietnam carrying the horror of war back into the family home. Young Covington was terrified of his adult brother's raging, his biting, and his growling heard from the attic bedroom.
So, a subtext surfaces. Is Covington running toward the fires of hell on this planet as a way to flee his own pain, to be consumed in suffering hotter and more heroic than his own? Is he, as an adult, trying to confront the horror in the world that touched his brother?
Covington admits these possibilities, among others. That's the kind of trust he builds with readers, that helps us follow him anywhere: he's not going to hide anything. No pretense of purity in his search. He knows that faith, "the substance of things unseen," mixes with a murky blend other kinds of substance and history running through our veins.
Reading his fragmented chronicle (he makes five return trips to Syria, crossing warzones), I thought about Jesus' words when founding his church, his ekklesia, in Matthew 16: "On you, Rock, I establish my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it." Jesus implies that his church's raison d'etre is to defy the boundaries of hell, the realm of death.
It's as if Covington, despite his exile from formal congregations in his wandering search for "faith," and despite his stated disillusionment with the church, has this original DNA of The Church in his blood.
I wondered if his hell-bent spiritual search reveals, deep within this post-church narrator, a heart-compass from Jesus' original direction. And maybe Covington's stumbling journey reveals the kind of troubled paths the church should be treading. Maybe that's the revelation.
The problem in these ventures, however, and in these chapters, is that Covington goes alone.
His only frayed fellowship is with a few translators and international journalists he meets along the way. There is no El Pastor, no assembly of tender mercy within hell.
And so it becomes less and less clear what he is looking for each time he risks his life to cross another line.
This is Revelation's odd integrity: as readers we are pulled into the authentic experience of a true spiritual search. That is to say, desperate, full of wrong turns and increasing risk and inevitable suffering—as if your life depended on it. Covington brings us into the difficult work of sifting through the broken pieces of his life, so that we are pushed to look through our own failed answers for the real question, all as the stakes get higher. In this way, Revelation is the opposite of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.
Gilbert had mapped out with her publisher the three destination countries she would visit, the three questions she would enjoy asking, before even leaving New York. Unsurprisingly, she returns home happier, more deeply tanned, in love, with a perfect balance of divine pizza memories and a good yoga practice.
Covington, on the other hand, returns with his brain damaged by a vacuum bomb in Aleppo. And he's bashful that maybe he lost what faith he had out there as well.
This is theology of the cross. Covington goes where we do not want to go. Not just to Juárez and Syria, but spiritually, psychologically—as he did with the snake-handlers. This time, his writing takes us with him into the trauma-affected mental space where linear, logical narrative is not so tidy or easy to control.
Maybe true spiritual writing should not leave us satisfied on the last page. Rather, it should create an ache inside the mind and spirit that can only be resolved with risked prayer and action in our lives.
As a reader, I wanted Covington to return to the Juárez asylum—to the congregation of others mentally and physically damaged by the fires of the world, a place that could hold people like him, now, and people like his brother, together, in a forgotten kind of faith.
I asked Covington, when we sat together on a panel recently, if he ever thought about going back. He smiled, said that El Pastor had actually given him an open invitation—in direct contrast to the congregations he'd left in the South—to return and teach the patients there. To teach the Bible.
Four years after the first time, and both our books later, I tried inviting myself again. I said we could go, do it together. He said he'd think about it. And that, in the meantime, he could tell me how to get there, to see for myself.
Chris Hoke is the author of Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders (HarperOne).
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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