James C. Schaap
"Confessions of a Christian Writer"
years ago my wife told me the story of an old high school friend of hers,
who had, back then, become pregnant and quit before graduating. In
the years which followed, this woman suffered more than her share of marital
woes at the hands of the father of her children, the man she'd married
and stayed with, even though his behavior frequently didn't warrant her
devotion. Then something happened. At mid-life, the woman's
often prodigal husband finally began to see the error of his ways with
such clarity that he wanted to tell the small church in which he'd been
born and reared that he had truly left the old man of sin somewhere behind
in the dimly-lit haunts of his sad past. "Sam's going to make a 're-profession'
of his faith," my wife told me.
It would be a Sunday night worship, she'd said, and even though I didn't know the man or his wife, the idea of this Sam confessing in this striking setting seemed too rich to miss. "Let's go," I told her. "It'll be a nice drive."
"Nah," she said.
I was surprised.
" If we go," she said, not spitefully really, "you'll just write about it."
She didn't say that angrily, as if she'd wished she'd married the cattleman she could have and not the writer she did. She didn't say it as if to mock her husband's work. She said it emotionlessly, as if the fact were as much a given of her life as her shoe size.
I've lived with that line for years, and often, even today, it hits me in a way it wasn't meant to--as a scolding. It was, after all, the analysis of a woman who never set out to write the great American novel or an epic poem, a woman who reads perhaps more passionately than I do, and who has likely sparred with her husband's devotion to writing as if it were a mistress.
The line "You'll just write about it" has come to characterize, for me at least, some of the reasons why a small community, proud of its devotion to the Christian faith, can have so much difficulty producing writers and artists of significant quality, writers who hold to their task as deeply as they hold to the faith.
I don't think I know the whole answer to questions about the writer and his or her relationship to such communities, but I would like to pose a few that, for me at least, are not at all academic, questions such as the one suggested by my wife's line--"you'll just write about it." One I've wondered about myself, for instance, is this: when, in the name of art, do writers simply "use" people, people with real human souls?
Writers who are serious about their faith are not the only ones writers plagued by such questions, of course. Those with no deep commitment to God or his people can still feel the pangs of conscience when "using" people. A few years ago, Connie Chung was roundly criticized for reporting a remark made to her in confidence, when the mother of Newt Gingrich mentioned in an interview--"off the record"--that her son had once called the wife of the President of the United States a "bitch." Mr. Gingrich, I'm sure, is not alone in that opinion; but his mother's mention of her son's remark was gloriously scandalous and therefore imminently newsworthy, and very much worth breaking the trust Mrs. Gingrich invested in Ms Chung with the "off the record" remark. When Ms. Chung used the line, she lost her job; such a breach of confidence is assumed more than professionally uncivil.
But every journalist knows that in order to get the real goods for a story, one wears two hats: one of them personable, reassuring, friend-like to the person being interviewed; the other scheming and devilish. But imaginative writers often find themselves in a similar predicament. John Gardner tells a story of happening on an over-turned pick-up in a gully off a lonely road in the hills of upstate New York. When he opened the drivers-side door, he found a woman pinned between the seat and the steering wheel, blood all over. He claims he had to remind himself to be human, because his mind immediately began scribbling details on to an imaginary pad so as to help him remember the situation with the exactness necessary to render it convincingly in a story.
At least one of my own problems with "using" other human beings stems from the act that I believe I can easily by guilty of breaking God's command to love one's neighbor. I tell myself, of course, that my using material and characters from life around me is really simply writing "the truth." In Sam's case, I would have made my snooping morally responsible by claiming that what happened in that church is a microcosmic study of what happens in the experience of all many of us--husbands, wives, and children. We come to understanding something of our own folly. If we'd gone that night, I would have sat in that church, trying to absorb every look, every smile, every wary eyebrow, in order to universalize the event into all of our experience, to tell the thematic truth about the human condition. But my wife wasn't wrong--I would have "used" poor Sam the sinner/saint to that end.
(Even as I write this, I want you to note how easy it is for me to use language which robs the man of his individual dignity--"Sam the sinner/saint" I just now called him.)
I know damned well that I'm far from pure, that daily I must fight the good fight of faith, not only as the forces of contrary spirits assemble in the world around me, but also as those spirits wing themselves hither and yon within the chambers of my own heart. And I wonder sometimes whether God Almighty looks down on me and sees my eavesdropping as righteous explication of his world--the truth, in love--or simply skullduggery brandishing an artistic license.
Besides, isn't it really a species of pride to believe that my higher goals here--a rendition of the human character universal--somehow excuses me from seeing people as human, and not fictive constructs?
One more anecdote. A few years ago, an old friend of mine, the Western novelist Frederic Manfred, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died six weeks later. In many, many ways, Fred Manfred was my hero. Born and reared in the Dutch Calvinist ethos at the beginning of this century on the Great Plains, he wrote books that made me think seriously about writing.
Accompanied by a long-time friend of his, I visited Fred in the hospital in his last days. On the drive up, his old friend told me how disappointed he had been in Fred, who had not really taken the time to visit his brother--also in his eighties, but marginally retarded--just before his brother had died. "And Fred doesn't even live that far away," the man said. "My goodness, it was his own brother."
Then we visited Fred. We talked for an hour, our last conversation with him before he died. When the death of his younger brother came up, Fred turned to me. "You know, Jim," he said, lifting his hand as if he were holding a pen, "I could never get him just right on paper. I always thought it would be great to write a story from the point of view of someone like him--to catch his unique way of seeing things, of thinking."
Here was the old novelist on his death bed, talking about his recently deceased brother, lamenting not so much his brother's death as his own inability to bring his brother to life on paper. It seemed to me then that the novelist loved the imagined version of his brother more than he loved the man in the flesh.
Thus can writing--and art--whenever it locates its materials in human behavior, by its very nature, isolate those who take up the pen from those with whom they live. Furthermore, my faith in a loving God makes the equation even more difficult for me than it does for those who don't share a similar faith. I know who it is I'm using.
Let me add a second troublesome conflict. Does the process of writing, by its very intense nature, take one out of the world around us? Someone once said that the novel, of the forms of narrative, is the only sizable manifestation of an individual vision. Writing for stage or screen or tube requires the interplay of other art forms--the actor's response to character, the cinematographer's use of setting, the director's overall vision of the piece. Novelists construct stories very much alone--in my case, in a basement. A novel is an individual act.
Perhaps there is something romantic about the process, fleshing out an entire world from the confines of one's own mind. Dozens of times people have asked me how I do it in the tone of voice one might use when addressing a magician.
The process may not be as mystifying to those of us who write as it seems to those of us who only read, but the loneliness and isolation it requires can be a threat to someone who believes that loving God is one-and-the-same as loving one's fellow man. In the quarter century I knew him, I believe Fred Manfred was likely more at home in the world of his novels than he was in the community outside his door. His immersion into the imagined worlds he was creating, an immersion required by the craft, worked unrelentingly to keep him out of the real world.
People wouldn't write if they didn't love it; but most novelists would say, I think, that writing a novel is hard work, if for no other reason than it makes intense demands on the life and soul. My wife knows the syndrome well, understands the degree of absorption required to create a world which can be known only, in the process of its creation, to the single human resident who lives there.
I'm trying to cast the old issues of the relationship between writer and community in ways they aren't often addressed when Christians in the arts talk about our work. What I'm interested in is what keeps the work of Christian writers from being as strong and vital as we might think it ought to be, and it seems to me that sometimes the work of writing itself is simply going to be more difficult to those writers who are serious about their faith as they are serious about their craft.
A Christian artist holds dual citizenship in a manner that can be singularly difficult because the Christian faith carries the commandment to love and care for other human beings--the required characteristics of living in community--while writing demands an isolation that is both required by and a result of our locating the raw materials of story in the lives of those around us. Writing requires a subtle positioning--not unlike the Christian life itself, I suppose--to be in the community, but not exactly of it.
But there is more to the problems facing Christian writers than the two I've just attempted to explain. I'm going to continue to use my friend Fred Manfred to define a third. He used to say that writers needed to nurture a specific voice within them, a voice he called the "internal commentator," an inner voice I can explain only by example.
I have taught writing and literature to a variety of audiences and have found that only the young and old dare ask one question when they meet me. Most teenagers and adults are courteous and civil when we shake hands, but children and old people are far less concerned with decorum. When, following a speech or reading, I ask for questions, little kids, like their great-grandparents are likely to dispense quickly with propriety and move immediately to what is most striking about my appearance. "How'd you get that scar?" they say, pointing to what has been a notable part of my appearance for as long as I can remember. That's often their number one question.
Those immediate questions are illustrative of what Manfred used to call "the internal commentator," a voice in all of us that, without hesitation, sidesteps social propriety. No matter how interesting my speech may have been, no matter how captivating the story, what little kids and old people have been thinking about is the scar on my face; they fashion their question from an inner voice all of us share and most, politely, repress.
That voice, Fred Manfred used to tell me--the one that dives beneath the subterfuge--is a voice that must be developed in a writer. If his or her work is to be true to what it means to be human, then that voice and that vision, that bottom-line truth-seeker must be heard. I believe Manfred is right. But as a Christian, I think that voice sometimes rises from attitudes that war against trust and faith.
In two terms as an officer in a local church, I've sat through professions of faith I really didn't believe. I watched as others told those making professions--young and old--that hearing such professions was one of the finest moments of holding church office--and I cringed. Often enough my internal commentator wanted to scream bullshit when others said the profession was wonderful. In my first term as an elder, I asked my father if elders ever turned down professions. Reluctantly, he said no.
It seems my internal commentator, if for no other reason than by frequent use, is more developed than the internal voices in other Christians I respect and whose innocence I sometimes envy. I don't trust smiley faces and teary public testimonies; like Michal, David's first wife, I'd have told the king that if he's going to make a dance of going to the temple, he should at least keep his robe belted.
But I pay a price for that skeptical voice--and I see that price exacted in others. Every semester I teach fiction writing, some sweet Christian student will come into my office almost in tears, shouldering a burden I recognize even though he or she doesn't know how quite to explain it. The problem is this: in all innocence, these students have begun to feel guilty about writing because their imaginations are pulling them into worlds they've been told to stay away from. What they've encountered is their heretofore unrecognized dark side; while a part of me appreciates what's happening, another is sad at the inevitable demise of lost innocence.
And yet, almost paradoxically, all these tensions I've tried to illustrate, tensions inevitable in writing, grow out of a dynamic relationship between artist and community, a dynamic from which the creative impulse springs and in which it thrives. Tension is essential to drive the creative act. The community which may well seem a problem to a Christian writer, is likely, by its problematic nature, a central prerequisite to his or her achievement, at least for someone of my era, someone raised in the shadow of a specific and defineable religious culture which wielded undeniable power. I'm convinced that part of Manfred's strength derives from the fact that he was born and reared in a community where the people wholeheartedly and proudly identified themselves as Christian. His own relationship to that community, something of a tangle throughout his whole life, was likely instrumental in creating his motivation to write. His being reared in a sheltered but powerful religious community gave him a slate replete with a dozen themes of comparison/contrast. Thus, the community which promises to sustain and nurture, but which can, even simultaneously, irritate and anger, creates a tension essential to seeing and feeling vividly.
Wendell Berry, in a wonderful essay titled, "Writer and Region," sets about to try to define the nature of the relationship between writer and community by discussing the failure of the final chapters of Mark Twain's Huck Finn. Berry claims that Twain's great contribution to American literature in Huck Finn was the liberation of regionalism from provincialism--he used the very specific to create the universal. Twain's failure at the end of the novel, he says--the return to fantasy by way of Tom Sawyer's appearance and Huck's wish to "light out for the territories"--occurs because the author has become the character. Huck cannot feel at home anywhere because Twain could not. Twain's own alienation from his time and place becomes Huck's, and the character's only consolation is essential Tom-foolery, an escape to the American West. The novel's failure, Berry says, is created by Twain's own inability to "imagine a responsible, adult community life."
What I have been talking about, in the broadest sense, is the difficulty of living in community, specifically for someone like me, a Christian writer--if I may use that phrase. Berry enables me to understand that difficulty when he defines community life as "tragic." Tragedy, Berry says, is the nature of things. Childhood fantasies fade, idealism wanes, we lower our own expectations as we grow older. Life itself, Berry would argue, is most often sad.
But only within the community, Berry says, can the Aristotelian virtue of tragedy--its catharsis, its cleansing--be experienced and even celebrated. What a beloved community offers to all of us, Berry says, is a place
that would return us to a renewed and corrected awareness of our partiality and mortality, but also to healing and to joy in a renewed awareness of our love and hope for one another. Without that return we may know innocence and horror and grief, but not tragedy and joy, not consolation or forgiveness or redemption.
To Berry, real joy is attainable only in community.
The pantheon of great American writers includes many embittered and alienated souls. Already in my first year of teaching, a quarter century ago, I remember a high school student asking me if one had to be a drunk to be a good writer. Even Tolstoy is instructive here--a truly great novelist with a powerful Christian worldview, but a human being sadly unfit to live with his fellow image bearers.
I am not asking for pity, but I wish to make very clear the difficulty of doing the task Berry commends--to write honestly, authentically, truthfully, while remaining a part of one's own "blessed community."
Covenantal theology is, for better or for worse, a significant aspect of the theological vision with which I was reared and to which I still give testimony. The story of the Creator of the Universe is the story of his relations with his people--his long-suffering grace extended to those who never seem to get it right. The relationship between God and man, mediated by Christ Jesus our Savior, while personal, is certainly also communal: "On this summary, the whole law hangs--love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself." It's taken me almost fifty years to recognize something that to me seems inescapably true: living in loving community may well be the most difficult enterprise any of us face. That's why the Bible both commends and commands it.
But oblige me a few moments for a story which speaks to all of these questions, a story which is not at all fiction. It is a story of growth and maturity at the expense of another human being, a fellow member (althought alienated) of the community in which we both lived.
In 1970, I was a senior in college, living in small Iowa town, in an off-campus apartment of a couple deeply concerned, legitimately so perhaps, with the spiritual health of the boys who lived in their basement. Our rent paid some of their bills, but they didn't like us.
Every Sunday morning we used to hear Christian music coming from upstairs--galloping silly music composed of equally noxious parts of barbershop harmony and cheap grace--from upstairs. We were sure that it came through the heater vents to wake us to our duty of worship, their music their weaponry in the battle with the devil who'd secured a beachhead in her basement.
In that basement apartment, we quite regularly received telephone calls from someone we didn't know, calls which had begun already a year earlier when we lived in a different apartment. At first, those calls were simply silent; then, when we began to talk, a hesitant voice emerged--a man's, a voice that wanted to engage us as males.
The calls continued for more than a year, and we came to believe that our initial perception was wrong: this caller was not some kooky friend of ours--someone who would, someday, spring the whole truth on us and laugh. That's what we'd thought at first, when we'd started talking back to this guy in the sexual lingo he desired. We started feeding his frenzy for kicks--ours. But when the calls kept coming, what had seemed a joke, became a strange and dark mystery. I am not proud of the language I used over that phone. On that line, I was a sinner. But all of us wanted to know who the caller was, and the only way to do that was to draw him out of his cover.
Once in a while we'd talk him into a rendezvous--time and place--where a sexual event we'd described lusciously would finally transpire. "I'll meet you a mile out of town, at the hatchery, in half an hour," the voice would say. We'd put down the phone, laugh, and watch the clock; then a few of us would pile into a car, two in the back seat with baseball bats, another driving, often enough me, who was, I'm sorry to say, better than any of the others at leading the guy on.
Why did this nameless person call our apartment? It was the late sixties, and in the small town where I went to school, I'm quite sure I a carried a jaunty rebelliousness which our landlord determined to be product of our unbelief, but which this man quite likely thought emerged from a willing soul and body. I was anti-war in the tight Calvinist and Republican culture of northwest Iowa, and, rebellious as we were, fit subjects of his fantasies.
The thirty minutes he would set for our clandestine meetings was long enough for his conscience to work; he never showed up. We'd be sitting out on some lonely country road, laughing, really--at ourselves, at the image of two guys with baseball bats in the back seat. We had nothing to fear, but the man did scare us. He was, after all, a mystery, someone so cranked with libido that he couldn't stop calling or talking dirty. None of us wanted a thing to do with his fantasies. But we kept playing him, like a fish on a lightweight line, because we wanted to get to the bottom of this eerie mystery.
But there were other reasons to discover his identity. I wanted to authenticate for all the world that beneath the pseudo-righteousness of the small-town Dutch Calvinist life around me lay a seething pit of demons straight from Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Our caller was primary evidence of real and desperate sin in Zion--the Zion that had attacked me by way of Sunday morning musical grenades and its zealous support for the Vietnam war. Exposing this libidinous creature from the underworld would show a chink in the armor of righteousness. That too is why I wanted him.
So on the night we discovered who he was, I wouldn't let the man talk about any half hour deals. "Five minutes," I said. "I'm sick to death of your saying a half hour and then not showing up--five minutes, that's it." I called the shots. "I'll meet you out at the road east of town in five minutes."
"Twenty minutes," he said.
"Bullshit," I told him. "I'm saying now--you hear me?"
But I wouldn't let him rest. "Now you be there," I said. "Don't go thinking about this, you hear? Get in your car and get out there. I've had enough of your promises."
Again he consented, and the conversation ended.
We took off. Two guys stooped in the back seat, once again armed with baseball bats. I was in the drivers' seat. I don't have any recollection of this man's ever using my name in a conversation and I wasn't the only one he'd spoken to in the dozens of calls he made to our apartment, but we assumed he knew us individually--our faces, our voices. We assumed that, if he showed up, he'd be looking specifically for me because that night I'd spoken to him.
For ten minutes we waited. The road on which we were parked was just off what Iowans call a "blacktop, so there were a couple dozen cars, maybe more, in ten minutes. Then I spotted one which I'd seen go past previously: a Country Squire station wagon, distinguished by a doused back light. It went east, then came back west into town, then went back east again and turned on the next gravel road and stopped, a half mile away but very visible on the treeless prairie landscape.
"This guy that went by before--" I said, "he stopped. He's parked up on the next road."
The guys in the back looked for themselves at the place where a single tail light lay a red cloud behind a black spot in the night. Out front, the funnel of his headlights jutted out over the road.
"He's just standing there. He's not moving. It's like he's waiting," I said.
"Go on," one of my friends said. "Take it slow. See what happens."
I edged out on to the blacktop, turned toward that Country Squire, then crept up the road; he moved forward just as slowly as I was approaching him, measuring our pursuit.
"It's gotta' be him," somebody said. "Got to be. Get him."
So I hit it, an old Buick equipped with an engine big enough to power a half dozen cars today. The front end came up and we blew down the blacktop toward the gravel road where he was accelerating just as quickly as I was.
By the time I turned, he was already a quarter mile ahead of us, that single taillight burning through a cloud of gravel dust. I wasn't born and reared in Iowa. I wasn't at all accustomed to driving on gravel, and once the speedometer reached a bit past fifty I started to feel as if the wheel could jump out of my hands and catapult the three of us to ignominious death on a secluded country road. The guys in the back seat told me to go faster, because as we passed the mile roads, one after another, we were losing him. Iowa is not as flat as some people think; rolling hills keep visibility to less than a mile. Whoever was at the wheel of that station wagon was more accultured to country roads. I flew over eight miles of gravel, blew through intersections, climbed hills, then bellied out below; and when we finally came to a highway, he'd beat us to the next town by a long ways. We'd lost him.
We had no more than a week of college life left. We weren't about to give up. What seemed clear to us was that if he'd come back to the town where we lived, he'd likely take the highway, rather than gravel again. So we parked the Buick just up another mile road, at a spot where we could see the cars that passed on highway before us, and once again we waited.
I wish I could remember what we talked about then, because it must have been serious. We'd never been so close to him or so sure this mystery voice was about to be outed--that's today's language of course--outed. I honestly believe I was not a homophobe. I didn't hate this man or his voice. Not really. To me, he was, and still is, more fascinating than repulsive, more victim than a criminal. In this story, I know my sin very well; but I don't believe it was, at that moment, hate.
Twenty minutes after we'd lost him, a wood-paneled Country Squire with one doused taillight passed our corner and we took off in pursuit. Just in case he'd take gravel again, someone else was behind the wheel of the Buick, an authentic Iowan. I was in the back seat. Whether or not I had a bat in my hand, I don't remember. I think not, because by this time our proximity to the climax of the mystery had already changed us. In a way, what we were up to wasn't sport anymore, and we certainly didn't fear him. We simply wanted to know who he was.
So when he turned left, back towards the town where we all lived, he ran, like he'd done before. He floored that Country Squire so that all the way back home to we were going at speeds far beyond those printed on the speedometers of most of today's cars.
We got up behind him, but from the back we didn't recognize what was little more than silhouette. I can only guess at his fear at that moment, for when he'd slow down before passing a car, we'd come up right behind him and throw our brights all over him. He must have begun, quite slowly and therefore painfully, to die.
He was still ahead of us when we came to town. We drove right through town, following him, until we reached the only stop signal in town, which was red. He could have run it, I suppose, but maybe he simply decided the chase was over. I wish I knew what was in his head, because if I did, I'd better understand him today. I think I know something about the aggression created by repressed passion, and I think I understand something of his own rapacious hunger to satisfy something in himself--something that must have been more than simply sexual. But what I remember is that when we pulled beside him he never once looked at us even though he knew exactly who we were--he had to. He didn't turn his head.
What I felt at that moment can only be described as horror. When we saw him, we knew who he was, but what I will never forget is the shape of a baby carrier, the kind that once hooked over the front seat, juxtaposed against his profile. No child occupied that seat that night, but in my mind there was a child seated there, a child whose father we'd unmasked, a child whose father would never be the same, a child who would, resultingly, never be what he might have been had we not chased the man down. That baby carrier silhouetted against the gaunt face of a local business man, a deacon in a church I occasionally attended--that image I've never forgotten. Two years of obscenity--by caller and call-ee--ended when the mystery was solved with a face we knew in spite of that fact that he never looked at us. We outed him that night; but when I saw that baby seat, I knew that what we'd outed was much more than a voice and an obsession. I'd gained exactly what I'd wanted--in-the-flesh proof of an unseemly world beneath the surface of good Christian living we had always been led to believe was the very path of righteousness. But having found the proof of sin, we were the ones who wanted to repent.
But the story isn't over. Our guilt prompted immediate contrition. All three of us knew that something had to be done the moment we'd drawn the veil away from that gaunt face and found something more human than diabolical. Even though we were in the middle of exams, the three of us went directly to the office of the campus pastor; and we told him, just as openly as I have told you, what had happened. We were sickened by what we'd done and what we'd seen in that Country Squire.
There are moments in this story when I recognize how adolescent I really was, even though by societal standards, I was an adult. What I remember best of that scene in the office of the college pastor is my shock at his lack of surprise. I had thought of the campus pastor as the high priest of innocence, but the man had obviously known the obdurate nature of the human heart long before. He showed no shock, only sadness. We told him we were sorry for what we'd done and that we thought the man in the Country Squire needed counseling. He assured us he would talk to the man, and get back to us. He did, a day or so later. He told us the man had confessed that he'd been our caller and had accepted his need for counseling.
And that ends that chapter of this long story.
When I left college a few days later, I knew only that I wanted someday to write stories. I had no job, no girlfriend, no sense of where I'd go that summer or the next year, but I did have the odd conviction that someday I'd return to the Iowa town which I'd spent a good deal of my time deriding for its prudish provinciality.
That summer I found a teaching job in rural Wisconsin, the state where I'd grown up. I determined I would go to graduate school after two years of teaching, and I did, married to a girl who had graduated from the same college I had, the very same year, a girl I had never dated. We spent four years in Arizona before the college where we both had matriculated asked me to return to teach. Many good Christian folks, I know, shook their heads at the prospect of my return. I know that's true--they've told me. But I had been a successful high school teacher, had a masters degree, and had returned to the church, even though God had never left me.
It was years before I heard another word about the man who drove the Country Squire. But I learned he'd divorced his wife, left his family and the community. Years later I told this story to a friend in a late-night conversation, and he told me the man in the Country Squire was his relative. He said the man had become an alcoholic and lived on the street. My friend told me that more than once he and his wife worried about whether or not they should respond when this man would call from a city nearby and ask for help. They didn't know if they were "enablers," victims themselves, who cleaned up messes that were more likely to end only when the man in the Country Squire took up the cause of rebuilding his character and his dignity on his own.
In the following years I saw the man in the Country Squire very infrequently on the streets of the town where I now live--spotted him once, I remember, walking behind the community center, gray and balding, still tall and gaunt and stooped, a man marked forever by my mistreatment of him. Maybe three times in twenty years, I saw him briefly, never face to face. I know people who are related to him. I know people who likely know his story better than I. I don't know his wife or his children or where they live.
A month ago I was in a self-pitying mood, too busy for anything but correcting papers and keeping up with teaching; and I was hungry. It was late at night, so I went to the convenience store at the end of the block because in the inside the door of the milk cooler there are cellophane-wrapped pieces of cake--banana, butterscotch, and carrot. I wanted, Calvinist-style, to salve my self-pity with a fat piece of cake.
When I walked in the door of that convenience store, I saw the man in the Country Squire standing behind the counter, twenty-seven years later and just one block north of the spot where his profile against the silhouette of a child's safety seat was set forever in my conscience. The night we pulled along side him, when we had reflected on who we'd found, my roommates and I came to understand something of why he called us all those nights in 1970. We had often stopped in at his place of business--not the convenience store--at a time when he was just closing up shop. We'd drop in to buy something, and in those moments I'm sure we'd talk to him, even though I don't remember what I said.
So when he spoke to me that night just a few weeks ago--the night I saw him for the first time in 27 years--what he said was not the first word he'd ever spoken to me face to face. But it was the first time he'd said a word since a night we'd both never forget.
"Hello, Jim," he said.
He named me. Without hesitation, without reluctance, without dropping his eyes, with no seeming guilt or shame, he named me, just like that. Just as Adam and Eve named zebras and tulips, horned toads and the cedars of Lebanon, he named me; and with that name created a control that overpowered me because I wouldn't and didn't name him. I know his name very well, but I couldn't bring myself to address him because right then I was the one who refused to acknowledge my sin. I bought my cake and left.
Just a few nights ago my wife hung up the phone and said that she'd read about some technology which would register the caller's number immediately, technology that would have made a long chase completely unnecessary years ago-- technology that would have ended a mystery much, much sooner--technology that might well have prevented him from calling so frequently, had he known we might discover his identity so easily.
You see, we've been getting calls lately--often between five and six. No one speaks when we answer; often enough the line goes dead immediately. But a few days ago, there were two calls--one of which I took. The caller didn't say anything, but neither did he or she put down the phone. "Hello," I said, conscious of my wife on another line. "Hello?" again, and then again a third time. Then, a pause, and then finally, the click. That's what made my wife nervous.
I didn't think of it right away--as you likely are now. It didn't dawn on me to call all of this old story together like I have. The man in the Country Squire must be sixty at least; his mark--me--almost fifty. The surges of passion that once prompted him to pick up the phone and call us had to have diminished. What's more, I can't believe that anyone would be that foolish. But then, during my college years I couldn't believe that anyone would put his whole life on the line for what seemed nothing more than shock talk and heavy breathing.
But years ago I led him to believe something which perhaps his tattered psyche and addled emotions haven't allowed him to forget. I led him on.
Maybe these calls aren't his. Maybe our digits are close to some family's whose phone rings off the hook. I don't mean to indict this man again. To me, it seems almost impossible for him to be the cause of our anxiety.
Then what brings him to the forefront of my consciousness? Simple, guilt, the gift of a Christian ethos I was reared with. The still, small voice of my conscience shivers yet at his image in that station wagon, the child's seat in front of him. But his naming me two months ago in the convenience store is to me just as haunting as seeing him at the downtown stoplight.
"I don't even dare to say it," I told my wife a few nights ago, when we were talking about the phone calls.
Anxious as she was, she looked at me in complete innocence.
"You remember I told you who I saw at the store--"
"You don't think?"
"I don't want to think," I said.
And, of course, I don't know.
What I do know is my guilt--the gift, as Garrison Keilor says, that keeps on giving.
Anyone who knows fiction understands that in most first-person narratives the story-teller becomes the central character because he or she is the mode of our perceptions. The long story I just told you does not belong only to the man in the Country Squire--the alien, the outcast, the marginalized, the man who does not or can not live up to the community's sense of righteousness created in part by the fervent and fearful couple who owned our basement apartment.
I am the central character of the story, what I've told you amounts in a way to a public confession of sin. This is a story told to a community I think I understand, a community who, because of a shared faith, will believe the odd story I've just told you, including the fact that the man in Country Squire had suddenly, after an absence of almost thirty years, made another significant appearance in my life, in a the same town, just a block away from a moment neither of us will likely ever forget. You trust me with your faith in my version of the truth. And my joy in telling you grows, in part, from my belief that you believe me. That makes us, in a way, community.
What is a community? Sociologists can answer that question more completely than I can, but let me simply offer this: a community is a group of people who share an unwritten system of beliefs and values, despite the fact that those values are not codified.
My guilt in that story is itself the real story, a guilt that prompts me to read the furtive silence on the other end of the phone today as a ghost, 27 years old. That guilt stems from more than the way I toyed with passions. It arises from a deeply embedded sense of sin and darkness, and I've outed it tonight because I knew you would understand, and, in the manner of classical tragedy, experience your own catharsis for secret sins uniquely your own. But I know also that I am telling the story to an audience who will not only feel pity and fear for themselves, but also extend forgiveness in a pattern that is more clearly that of Christian tragedy than Aristotelian.
If you understand the story I've told and the manner by which I've told it, it's likely that you too are drawn to the twin principles of the darkness of the human soul and the brilliant because divine light of grace. You too understand that neither is cheap, that neither is cute, that neither can be quickly understood or ever satisfactorily dismissed.
I live today in a community of 6000 people. I teach at a college which requires a shared faith commitment of those who teach here, a specific theological commitment not all of you might share. By definition, communities have walls, restrictions. Although the standards for admission change in time, there are standards. Communities, whether they are based on creed, gender, race, shared experience, or profession, make demands upon us. They require a form of servitude, of servanthood. They require us to give.
I could not read this essay at the college where I teach, not because of what it says about me, but because the history it publicly dredges up is the same history a man from whom I bought a piece of carrot cake is likely trying very hard to put behind him. That I've told it to you at all is a calculated risk I'm taking--that neither the man in the Country Squire nor his relatives will ever see the story I've told you. But that I couldn't tell the story here is fact of life in this community, a fact I think I have to live with if I want to stay a part of what Berry calls "the beloved community."
Do I? Reluctantly, sometimes even angrily, I have to answer yes, for some truths in my heart--and a conscience created by a commitment to the Christian faith--weigh even more heavily upon me than my desire to tell the stories my judgment tells me are the best that happen, day-to-day, in the lives of people with whom I live and pray. My own believing heart tells me it is simply wrong, sinfully wrong, to violate the dignity of another human being in the quest for a great story. What I'm confessing to now is a form of censorship, self-censorship, which limits my freedom on one hand, but allows me the benefit of a blessed community.
But I've already told the story. If you've come this far in the essay, it's already behind you. I've broken my own code--in a way, violated my own standards and theirs.
Why? Because each of us lives in more than one community. And while the house in which I live stands on 3rd Avenue in a small Iowa town, what I've written has, if I've done my job, come to life in minds thousands of miles and likely many months away. For you, too, as I've said, form a community, a community perhaps not quite so literal and omniscient as my neighbors, my colleagues, and the members of my church; but a community nonetheless, a group who share certain interests and, I'm quite confident, a belief that there are greater truths than the ones we ourselves create and define.
In college, I thought the world of Stephen Crane. I liked the terseness of his line, his impressionistic eye, and his journalistic determination to get the facts and get them right. I admired The Red Badge of Courage, but for reasons I don't understand very well today, I loved Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. Oddly enough, what also drew me to Crane was the fact that he was a marvelous baseball player, and I'd loved baseball long before I loved reading or certainly writing stories. But Crane lived a short and tempestuous life, whose frenzy was created by his own will to burn himself out, a man, in part, in search of love, the kind of love I believe one can receive most fulfillingly from his or her "beloved" community. life. He died of tuberculosis before he reached thirty.
Sometimes in the wee hours of the morning, I sit before my computer typing electronic blips on a lit screen that can, at a touch of a button, vanish. I field ideas and situations from my experience, from life around me, from the community of which I am a part, sometimes maybe at the expense of folks in identifiable Country Squires. I let those characters and situations play in my imagination, filter them in some ways unknowingly through what I am and what I have become, allow them to be shaped and controlled in some determined way by unwritten values deeply embedded in me in an effort to investigate the very crucial issues of the human heart.
And in those moments I wonder what I could be if I would simply toss my faith and the restrictions it plies upon my craft. I wonder if I could reach a higher level, if I could be a Hemingway or a Twain. I wonder if my profession of faith doesn't limit my professional abilities. But then again I know how much that very commitment--by virtue of its graces and its restrictions--has given me more than I've ever estimated--not only character, but, just as importantly, theme.
Listen to Flannery O'Connor in "The Fiction Writer and His Country": "I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that. I don't think that this is a position that can be taken halfway or one that is particularly easy in these times to make transparent in fiction." She reanimates me, gives me strength and courage, like community can. She is my sister.
As are, in a special way, those of you who listen and believe.