Everlasting Is the Past
Walter Wangerin Jr.
Rabbit Room Press, 2015
Paul J. Pastor
The Suspension of Disbelief
When I was 19, I inexplicably spent $11 of my limited student bankroll on a used first-edition hardcover of Walter Wangerin's The Book of the Dun Cow. Looking back, I'm sure that I only justified the purchase because of a stunning woodcut illustration of a spur-wearing rooster on the dust jacket. I had not heard of the book, did not care particularly for first editions of anything, and had never heard of Wangerin, though his name seemed familiarly German.
It was a Friday night that I bought it. By Saturday at noon, the book had been read.
Dun Cow was a cosmological medieval barnyard epic, as if Animal Farm had made fumbling love to John Bunyan's The Holy War. It was as Seventies as avocado countertops, sure, but it worked, and achieved an immediate timelessness for me. The farmish, mythic world felt familiar to a book-born country kid feeling a little urban and ideological displacement. It was like meeting kin at a family reunion—finding that a stranger has your nose, your cheekbones. This Wangerin spoke the rural, pastoral language of my imagination.
The world of Dun Cow was a curious amalgam. The Bible's God (I thought it was him at least) walked among the clouds like a man in his garden, and simple barnyard animals were all that guarded the cosmos against Wyrm, a Latin-intoning, earth-imprisoned monster, aching to ascend through a widening chasm in the earth to sweep down the stars with his tail. Wyrm (to my clapping delight) was horrifically Lovecraftian in nature and in motive, hungering for blood and chaos, held underground in some divine prison system that neither the reader nor his animal "keepers" were allowed to comprehend. The royal rooster Chauntecleer did not even know his role as warden. The bird's only weapons against a swarm of evil were a set of spurs and a daily liturgy of prayer-like cock-calls. A tiny crowing Order against gibbering, chthonic Chaos. Dun Cow's was a world of danger, a warm world to be sure, but one where the cold of death and undoing was an active, personal presence, resting under everything like a malevolent, rising iceberg.
I found it hard to decide whether Chauntecleer was even the hero. He was certainly not the wisest creature in the tale, nor the most loving, nor the strongest. He was brave, but that bravery quailed before the end, and though he was ready to die for his family and friends, I knew as well as he did that such a sacrifice would be meaningless in the face of a maggotted evil older than galaxies. I related to the cocky rooster who began so self-assured, then had his self-confidence plucked like tailfeathers as friends died around him, as his little kingdom was overrun by troubles he was powerless to halt, as the earth grinned open to swallow his world.
In the hands of a writer of less skill and sincerity, I firmly believe the book—with its scraps of Latin, its semi-allegory, and its deep sentiment—would have collapsed under its own weight, like a Jenga tower made of chicken bones, the literary equivalent of a novelty tune. But it didn't. Walt pulled it off. It worked. And what is more, it tasted like a book does when a book tells you the truth.
I didn't feel bad about those $11.
There's been a man's writing career between the release of Dun Cow in 1978 (which, my first edition did not inform me, won the National Book Award) and Everlasting Is The Past in the early summer of this year.
Wangerin, a longtime professor and writer-in-residence at Valparaiso University after years in the pastorate, has produced a body of work that by volume alone is impressive. His work has been prolific (something like thirty novels, plus children's and shorter works), largely well received, and consistently personal (in 2010, Letters from the Land of Cancer intimately detailed his struggle with the disease). He's shown no reticence toward bending his considerable imagination in service of fictional accounts of the lives of Jesus and Paul, nor even to novelizing the entire bible (The Book of God).
With this personal canon behind him, I was unsurprised when the press release accompanying by copy of Everlasting began, "It is not uncommon for Christian writers of a certain stature to pen a memoir, the better to share more of themselves with their devoted readership." Wangerin, quite definitely of a "certain stature," had more to share. The book that accompanied the release was beautiful, artfully designed and produced, looking as if it was covered with watercolor paper.
The contemporary Christian memoir has behind it a richly populated tradition of self-reflection: Augustine's Confessions, Julian of Norwich's Showings, Therese of Lisieux's Story of a Soul, C. S. Lewis's Surprised by Joy, Madeleine L'Engle's A Circle of Quiet, and countless other narratives that use personal experience and devotion to point to a larger Christian path. The legacy of such works is incalculable, not only from a literary perspective but also from a spiritual one.
Fred Buechner, in the introduction to his own (second) memoir, Now and then, wrote: "if you tell your own story with sufficient candor and concreteness, it will be an interesting story and in some sense a universal story." Buechner further casts his memoir as "a call to prayer." (Such calls are universal.)
The effectiveness of such writings as stories is not based on the extravagance or drama of a life itself, but of the unseen meanings given by God to the events recounted. Augustine's libertinism, Julian's simple, shining vision of a universal "hazelnut," Lewis's childhood world of "Boxen" (populated by proto-Narnian talking animals), L'Engle's house at Crosswicks—all become shared symbols, shared milestones. The more specific the telling—the more personal the memory—the more resonance builds in the soul of the reader. And, elevating such books to the status of devotional literature, the consistent sightings of God, walking through a life like a man walks in his garden. The murmur of his voice. In each life, each story, this whisper, in a hundred permutations, from a thousand throats: There is meaning. There is grace. You are beloved. These testimonies give us hope that such a hand, such a voice, might be closer to our lives than we have felt. They call us to prayer.
Wangerin begins Everlasting at eleven p.m., driving a yellow VW convertible in a snowstorm. (This scene, in woodcut style, forms the cover image of the book. It is unclear if the car's destination is a mountain or a chasm.) A first-year seminary student, he has just lost his faith, or a severely Lutheran boyhood version of it. For him, losing that faith means losing everything: family, calling, more. He considers suicide.
The book is the story of the journey from a child's faith, to a man's faith, to a childlike man's faith. While that student drives down the winter highway, Everlasting flashes, returns to begin at Wangerin's childhood, then moves from his early to middle life—roughly from birth, well into his pastoral tenure at Grace, a colorful and beautiful (and aptly named) inner-city congregation in Evansville, Indiana.
Candor is here, though of an often cold, Lutheran variety that seems little warmed by letting the light in. Concreteness too, and wonderfully written—images teem of skittering leaves, of doll-like corpses, of chickens scrabbling in the Wangerin backyard. His prose is miniaturized, fitted like clock parts, each sentence turning the next. Just when you think you are witnessing an over-written sentence, he expertly surprises you. The book is paradoxically both spare and extravagant, and it will not be to everyone's taste. It's high craft, but he avoids pretense, and it works, as Dun Cow did. It's distilled, dense. Delicate. I love it.
Still, Everlasting is not without its flaws. At moments it feels writer-based, intangibly lacking a clear understanding of who is reading. One often feels witness to Walt writing to Walt. Sectioned into three movements ("The Seventh Seal," "Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones," and "Supernal Anthems Echoing,") the narrative's pacing occasionally glosses over large timespans.
Stories abound, good stories, of doubt and faith, losing and finding oneself, the practical, personal, economic, racial, and family tensions of a pastor and father whose diverse family moves into a tough black neighborhood in the inner city during the height of White Flight.
We get great stories, and a potent arc of a man finding (literally and symbolically) a home in Grace, but we don't get time for Wangerin's words to steep. Additionally, we get much of Walt the child, student, and pastor, but nearly nothing of Wangerin the writer and the artist—the very person many readers hope to find here. Yes, the one is the other, but besides a few fleeting references to early poetry and the Dun Cow's release, nearly all connections to his best-known works are themselves underground. Further, it's hard to argue that the book's not just too short. For all the sense and intention these omissions may have, by the time I was deeply relating with him, the book was over. It did not end too late to become universal, but it ended too soon to live up to its own power. As a story, it has more potential energy than kinetic, though the kinetic is powerful. (The fact that I wanted more is testament to the quality of the book.)
Little is said about Walter's relationship with his longsuffering wife Thanne, though she does gracefully intersect the narrative at memorable moments, usually of hardship, like the beautiful and red-throated Pertelote of the Dun Cow's world. (A 2008 interview with the pair revealed that Walter's commitment to his work came close to destroying their marriage, a story of grace that I dearly wish was developed here.) Walter's children (biological and adopted) are spoken of a bit more, but usually in relationship to third things: an attempted shooting in view of the Wangerin house's front porch, a complicated Christmas caroling session, visiting the doll-like corpse of a former church member. Parishioners and even houses seem to receive more meticulous care than many of the personal elements of home life that must have been shaping factors for the man. Again, I am here, engaged, eager. Give me more, Walt.
Additionally, there is no clear sense that the book truly finishes, only that it ends, fittingly, at a point farther down the road of faith (implied by that Volkswagen on the cover) that it maps. It ends in grace found in Grace, doubt swallowed by a faith that has gained strength from walking, from wrestling.
At first brush, I considered these elements flaws in a nicely crafted book. Reflecting further, I think that they're intentional, omissions or commissions in service of a particular kind of good personal storytelling, just not as thorough one as many readers will desire. Walt's telling is Walt here, or at least a version of Walt, as much as its subject is. On reflection, the occasionally lopsided narrative is forgivable in light of the deep love, human and divine, evident in moments of family connection. Further, the poignant and powerful stories of ministry at Grace highlight the power of that simple, complex place in the life of its young, white pastor. Grace itself becomes a family to Walt and his brood, a kind of coop that, like Chauntecleer, leads its leader even as he crows out the hours with prayer. The abrupt stop of the narrative, roughly corresponding with the end of Walt's pastoral tenure at Grace 22 years ago highlights this further—this is a selective work, not the memoir of a life, but the memoir of themes from a life. It is something better than thorough, a catalogue of hinge-points in a life, each of which forms the backdrop to an implicit whisper: There is meaning. There is grace. You are beloved.
And it is beautiful.
There is an immediacy to it; it clung to me. And in some ways, the lack of resolution becomes a strength. Since finishing the book, I have caught myself pondering my life through Wangerin's, remembering his stories, his vivid, raw images. Somehow, his story hopped the fence into mine like a bold rooster, despite differences of time and place, despite difference of struggle. I felt a little more meaning, a little more grace. A little more beloved. It was a gift to me from Walt, for the second time in my life.
Candid and concrete, I guess.
Even today, Dun Cow dances for me with a lyrical innocence that convinces me it is a treasure. It explores, vividly, the boundaries of order and chaos, the feelings of creatures tasked with missions that are far beyond their nature to accomplish, the impossible paradoxes of faith and doubt and self-doubt, of free will, of providence, of surprises.
In Dun Cow it is the weak things of the world that can confound the strong. This is the principle that promises that the foolish things of God can upend the world's wisdom, that the meek shall inherit the earth, that the last shall be first in that Great Gettin' Up Mornin', that lions will one day rest with lambs, that a little child can handle vipers.
Everlasting, I think, is an extended meditation on this unfathomable truth. The suicidal doubter becomes the man of faith and sacrament. The poet becomes the preacher. The white man moves into the inner city, and discovers that much weakness is only hidden might—and all the while, choirs sing and roosters crow out the hours.
Both are stories of holding back the underground monster: Wyrm in the fiction, unbelief or unbelieving belief in the memoir. God, in both, is present. But in the way that a man who walks in his garden is present to the flowers.
I theorize that Dun Cow and Everlasting are two tellings of the same story—a story where God is very real, but at first glance appearing to his beloved creatures as an observer, inexplicably content to let his devoted workers bloody their feathers in a struggle for answers that may or may not ever come in a way knowable to them. The whisper of meaning, grace, and belovedness is there, but it is often quiet, in the same way it is quiet in a life. The plots of the two books come to climax and resolve, but not through grand or divine display—God's closeness is seen more through its effects than through direct theophany. Even the Dun Cow, the direct messenger of God, is an observer more than an active participant in the drama and suffering of the earth she serves. Grace is the conduit of its namesake attribute to its often-struggling pastor, but Wangerin seems to communicate it with a kind of learned passivity, a gentle and appealing humility born of honesty. This is the way it is, seems to be the sentiment. This is the way God is. It is his way. I am learning to trust it. There is encouragement to it, at least for those (like me) who have felt and questioned the distance of God to the cracks in his good earth. It reassures that closeness and intention are not always felt the way we choose. The hope here is honest. But it is not easy. God is his own, giving himself away, defending, providing, encouraging, redeeming, but never as Chauntecleer wishes and rarely as Walt expects.
"Marooned," as the pitiful, wonderful Canis Mundi Dog perpetually mourns in Dun Cow. "Maroooooooooned!" And he is the one who ends up saving the world!
I wonder whose voice is speaking through the dog.
"I want my land made new again," says Chauntecleer, feeling loss even after victory over the subterranean enemy. "I want the past scrubbed out of my soul. I want to never think of it again." The red-throated Pertelote speaks to him, of "that scrubbing of the past which you want so much, because it is confession. It is the new birth of the present, which you want so much because it prepares for deliverance. The one is separated from the other by forgiveness."
"Where now is my past?" Walt asks in the last words of Everlasting. "Where is the me that once was me but is me no longer?" Standing in the sanctuary of the church he led for 16 years, his mind swirls with images: the weddings and funerals he officiated, the Eucharistic moment, the traditional songs of a swelling choir.
Who is Walt? Where is he?
In the music. In the air.
He is all the countless ghosts of his past.
And I am preaching…
… Look: I am the child who enters the room where his father trimmed the Christmas tree.
I am the student considering suicide.
I am the man translating Jerome's Latin Bible and landing on the verse in Galatians which calls him into the ministry.
I am the newlywed, walking with my wife out of the church and into a high wind which blows her veil like a ship's sail over her head.
I am the father, raising chickens.
And I am preaching.
My past is so heavily present that I can scarcely bear it. But I am my past.
Forgiveness, of self, of God. Forgiveness, closing the chasm-like scar in the earth's face, large enough to gobble Volkswagens—about as big as the doubt a soul can carry. What opened it? Only a little thing—an egg, a question. But it grew to threaten the universe of one man, and perhaps, of all of us, though we did not know it.
It became a story about forgiveness. About faith. The past? Not scrubbed out, but newly born. Here, and personal. Maybe everlasting.
Paul J. Pastor is the author of The Face of the Deep: Exploring the Mysterious Life of the Holy Spirit (David C. Cook, 2.1.16).
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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