Like any double English Language and Literature major I entertained ridiculous notions of actually being able to write and one day do so for a living. In the course of such folly, obviously, there were exercises in emulation. If I could have snapped my fingers and written like anyone it would have been Raymond Carver, the master of the contemporary short story. Simple, unassuming, pure, observant and painfully revealing about the ordinary, Carver was the man-of-the-hour. In the summer before my last year of college I…don’t tell anyone this…I attempted to combine Carver with Vonnegut with Salinger to write something of a rip-off to the latter’s great American novel.
I got about one-hundred hand-written pages before I collapsed under the weight of my own buffoonery and trashed it. Then real life made me become a teacher for those too cool for school instead. George Bernard Shaw rang in my ears for, well, a while: “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” Ouch.
And now my inner-Rodney King is getting worried. I fear it may turn out to be true that I not only imbibed too much irreverent Vonnegut but have also succumbed to his contrariness—or at least that of his ancestor, Samuel Clemens.
Though one of his closest friends was a minister, Mark Twain mocked the Christian religion. Some have called him more of an “interesting disbeliever” than today’s altogether dismissive Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens or the sanctimoniously self-assured Bill Maher. Whatever such distinctions may be drawn, one thing was for sure: Twain’s more acrimonious diatribes as a social critic were reserved for religionists generally and Christian ones specifically. Those nostalgic religionists who have managed to sentimentalize The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn simply because it exists in the past may not realize he was rattling his finger at their own ancestors (psst, it really wasn’t abut a boy and his “Boy” drifting carefree on a river one summer’s day filled with hijinks). But whatever has kept them from that understanding might be cleared up by something published posthumously. In his essay The United States of Lyncherdom he seems to have in view those who export culture by way of religion, those named missionaries:
In China, almost every convert runs the risk of catching our civilization…We ought to think twice before we encourage a risk like that; for, once civilized, China can never be uncivilized again…O compassionate missionary, leave China! Come home and convert these Christians!”
And in response to Andrew Carnegie who suggested that America was a Christian nation, and (however unwittingly, tangentially and minutely) helping to make the point that since certain conversations aren’t new the world really doesn’t change one way or another:
“Why, Carnegie, so is Hell.”
And when, shortly after becoming President, Roosevelt declared that “In God We Trust” should be stricken from the coin, as it “carried the Name of God into improper places,” Twain told the same Carnegie he found the motto to be one that is “simple, direct, gracefully phrased; it always sounds well—In God We Trust. I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true.”
As I keep engaging fellow religionists and hear myself responding to what I consider more and more to be the silliness of religious fantasies concerning what they wish were true about believing sinners and their world, I am finding that, despite some serious differences between a Christian secularist and an unbelieving one, truer manifestations of Calvinism and observations like Twain’s have a lot in common.
While much of what Twain reacted against in American religion was the very thing someone like me does—what some have tagged as “moralistic, therapeutic deism”—it seems he was perhaps unfortunately just as duped by its cousin, Romanticism, when he uttered that, “…the life of religion is in the heart, not in the head.” (As he aged, the New York Times eventually rendered him another “austere moralist” who was better back in the day when he was just plain funny. Jon Stewart, I see those gray streaks in your side burns, so take note.) If Christianity could be at all redeemed for Twain it would be that the faith really does makes bad people good and good people better—even if it never happens. As a Calvinist, I say it never happens because that is not its intention in the first place; rather it is to reconcile sinners to God, whereas Twain might say it never happens because Christianity isn’t true. In other words, from all accounts, he was no believer. He was as finally wrong about true religion as he was right about how many of its adherents interpreted it for the here and now. Twain could likely be counted amongst those who conclude that just because its adherents are more often than not silly-hearts that he had every justification to excuse himself from it. I understand, as I used to think that same way as well. But just because physics were behind Hiroshima doesn’t mean physics can be dismissed. Too bad for him he probably never understood that one could retain his dim views on how religionists bring their religion to bear on this temporal life and yet confess unswervingly to their more eternal devotions.
If anything is true of me it is that I never learn. In a second I am going to try on my Clemens-cap as a truly persuaded believer. Before I do, it is helpful to remember two things about the literary device called hyperbole. First, it falls under the rubric of exaggerated speech and is not to be taken so much literally as it is figuratively in order to make any variety of points. Second, the reader who understands this writing convention yet simply dissents from the points being made earns the right to either respond in kind or move on; but if the reader confuses figurative speech with literal and thereby fails to grasp the points entirely and gets his panties in a bunch, it is not the fault of the writer. (Hint: if any of the below are rendered “antinomian” it can be confidently assumed that said confusion has likely taken place):
To those religionists for whom it is bad enough to confuse their kingdoms but add insult to injury by not understanding that educational choice is a matter of Christian liberty, “Public schools should be thoroughly secularized and Christian kids ought to be in them.”
To those religionists who refuse to admit on pains of being charged impious that they do a lot more imperfect maintaining of their more immediate world than triumphalistically changing anything outside a personal radius of about six feet and want to enroll us all in legions to transform the world by way of the Big Apple, “But I love New York City—I wouldn’t change a thing.”
To those religionists who still employ the C-word against our false-religionist friends from Utah and who have recently entertained not only the Constantinian notion that a Mormon President would be bad for Christianity but the religiously bigoted idea that the same would be dangerous for America since he can’t even figure out true religion; and to those who imply the Muslims are coming to gobble up our first-born’s any minute now, “Muslims and Mormons are wonderful people. I wish there were more of them. My wife and I need more babysitters.”
To those religionists who would rather blur the lines of antithesis and think the world would be better off with more believers in it instead of the church nurturing her existing ones, “I’d rather meet my Christians in church, not every square inch of the world.” (I’m thinking here of two phenomena: the faith-based initiatives of religious conservatives and progressives, and those who applaud the church discipline of Nancy Pelosi and John Kerry for a particularity of their statecraft.) To those religionists across denominational traditions who agree that the gospel has some “direct bearing on and obvious implication for the ordering of society” but, for the life of them both, can’t agree on what that should look like when the stated principle is applied, “Watching Methodists fight would be fun if it weren’t ruined by one or the other threatening a Romanist ecclesiastical sanction—that’s just a low blow of desperation.”
Ok, the steam boat captain has me quite beat. I won’t ever be up for any Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prizes for American Humor, but that was fun if not a tad cathartic.