By John Wilson
If you can discourse learnedly on the theology of Jonathan Edwards or the varieties of Buddhist monasticism in Japan, if you pore over texts in ancient Hebrew or New Testament Greek, and especially if you are seeking employment in some such discipline, there's a good chance you're in Toronto today for the joint annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature.
During this year's gathering, which began on Saturday and ends tomorrow, you may have taken time—even if you're not a New Testament scholar—to see the James ossuary and hear experts debate its authenticity. In the hotel restaurant, perhaps, you found yourself rubbing elbows with Hans Küng. And last night you may have joined the crowd for an interview with the Magus himself, Jacques Derrida, whose "religious turn" Bruce Benson has clarified in the pages of Books & Culture.
In the aisles of the publishers' exhibits, the new emphasis on Islam—already apparent last year in Denver, in the wake of 9/11—is striking. Also notable is the continuing fascination with "lived religion," with behavior and practices and ways of organizing experience. While there's plenty of foolishness and perversity on display, both in the bookstalls and in the sessions where papers are delivered, there's also a wealth of superb scholarship, and I'll come away with a list of people to contact and books to review. (It was good to see that Making Time for God: Daily Devotions for Children, the book by New Testament scholar Susan Garrett and systematic theologian Amy Plantinga Pauw featured in this space last month, is already in a second printing.)
Two of the books that made the biggest impression on me at this year's meeting—so much so that I had to read both of them straight through—stand aslant not only to scholarly talk about religion but also to the familiar churchy language of Christians. On the surface, the two books—both of which will be published in March or thereabouts—could hardly be more different. Betty Smartt Carter's Home Is Always the Place You Just Left: A Memoir of Faith, Restlessness, Obsession and Grace (Paraclete) is a ruthlessly unsparing spiritual autobiography by a writer with deep evangelical convictions. John Spalding's Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City (Harmony Books) is an insouciant collection of pieces reporting on religious behavior, observed with calculated detachment. Carter's literary ancestors include St. Augustine and the rigorously self-scrutinizing Puritans; Spalding writes in the great theological tradition of Hunter S. Thompson, Woody Allen, and P.J. O'Rourke.
But despite these differences, which extend well below the surface, the books have a real affinity. Carter's lacerating honesty (a quality rarely encountered in evangelical memoirs) is inextricable from her sense of the absurd (an even rarer jewel in evangelical writing, autobiographical and otherwise—there seems to be an unspoken prohibition against acknowledging absurdity, as if to do so were tantamount to blasphemy). And running beneath the delectable absurdities in Spalding's accounts of a casino chaplain, the Christian Wrestling Federation, the John Wesley House and Museum of Methodism, and other such phenomena is a recognition of the restless hunger for God that animates spiritual autobiography from The Confessions to the present.
In religious studies circles, "subversive" is a term of endearment, though it's getting pretty threadbare. (What happened when the village atheist got a Ph.D.? He started teaching religious studies—and no doubt gives a paper every year at AAR/SBL.) But if you want some truly subversive reading, Carter and Spalding won't disappoint.
It's one thing to confess in the grand manner of Augustine—or of the givers of personal testimony who were a regular feature of my childhood churches: to confess to having been a Great Sinner before finding Jesus. (Nowadays such confessions seem to embarrass everyone.) It's another matter entirely to acknowledge, as Carter does, the ongoing struggles of one who has known Jesus as long as she can remember but who hasn't been able to rest in him. And more, to reveal oneself neither in the ritual language of the women's Bible study nor the subtly self-flattering language of the contemporary tell-all memoir but in all one's ridiculous, frail humanity.
To do all that, and yet to end with the sure comfort of Jesus' presence: that is positively subversive.
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea | How we became hedonists. (Nov. 18, 2002)
Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 11, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Angels in Heaven | A game that's more than a game. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Number One with a Bullet | America's foist family as a tool for evangelism. (Oct. 21, 2002)
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)