Tuesday, November 1, 2016

On the road to find out

November 1, 2016
Los Angeles, CA

I have been considering a biographical essay on “what I believe” for awhile. Ironically, I’ve only chosen to write about it now that I’ve mostly lost interest on the subject. Why talk about belief specifically? Why not faith, or religion, or spirituality? A better word would have been “gnosis” or “knowledge” but I decided to avoid extremes and go for the modest, middle of the road, concept of belief. But even now, as I settle on this term, I feel myself being pulled this way and that and am sure I will have traversed many areas before reaching my conclusion.
            So, where to begin my  spiritual biography? I was raised in a Protestant home by relatively religious parents. Both my parents were from not particularly devout Catholic families. My mother rebelled against her upbringing and converted to Protestantism believing it was the more Biblical faith. That phrase, “Biblical Christianity” was something I took as a given growing up and which I find much more problematical now. But, that is a whole different issue. All of us kids were fairly involved in the church growing up. My most spiritual memories are connected to reading the Bible and singing hymns and praise and worship songs. I remember specifically being drawn to the incantatory power of the Bible. At the same time, I was always interested in writing and drawing. I loved drawing and imagining stories. I also liked designing my own role playing games, which I would force my brother to play. Later, while a freshman in high school, I wrote a 200-page fantasy novel. And the year after that, I became addicted to Japanese comics and animation. So, I had these two seemingly contradictory identities—my involvement in the church and my interest in art. There were practical questions I considered, such as, whether I should go to an art school or a local Christian school, but, more pressingly was the whole question of what to value. I felt aware of the division and knew that eventuality I would have to declare my loyalties, one way or the other.
The summer after graduating I went to a Christian retreat called “The Summit” that was designed to prepare high school graduates for the secular issues they would face in college. Although I had been to many retreats in the past, Summit felt different. For one thing, it wasn’t merely a passionate exhortation to be “on fire for God” but was designed to prepare Christians entering college to combat any anti-Christian ideology they encountered there. This gave it, in contrast with other Christian events of this sort, a uniquely intellectual atmosphere. We learned about evolution, Marxism, the basics of logic and philosophy, and Postmodernism amongst other things. The attractiveness of these ideas remained despite the intended purpose of teaching them for the sole purpose of enabling us to better refute them. I learned that I had a deep craving for knowledge that, for whatever reasons, had not been fulfilled in high school. These lectures opened up new and fascinating worlds for me, worlds I had only been dimly familiar with up until then. More than that, I now felt compelled to take a firm stand, although I did not yet know on what.
            One immediate change that occurred after this trip was that I threw away my entire collection of movies, comic books, and video games so as to devote myself more sincerely to God. I later spoke with my brother, who also attended this conference, and who spoke of it as a turning point for him as well. Unlike my brother, I was grateful for the new intellectual passion the event gave me, however unintentionally, while he felt betrayed for having been given a false view of ideas he later came to empathize with. I should mention, we went to this event with two other brothers, one of whom became extremely rigid and aggressive in his faith. But, more on him later. For now, I just want to say that I came to define myself in opposition to this other brother. If he was to be rigid and dogmatic I would be open and endlessly inquiring.
After giving up videogames I found that I had a lot of free time on my hands. I always loved art and I now felt that I needed to take my passion more seriously so I decided to learn what I could about classical culture. I started paying more attention to great works of art, classical music, and literature. It so happened that my mom and aunt were reading Les Misérables around this time. It looked interesting so I picked it up. It may have taken me 6 months for me to read, but I was nonetheless very engaged the whole time. The early scene where the priest’s saves the wayward Jean val Jean with that beautiful act of generosity and humanity, has remained a touchstone for me to this day. I began hunting around for other books that would consume my imagination as that one had. I had heard of The Catcher in the Rye and The Lord of the Flies. Their mere titles intrigued me. I stated asking anyone I knew who may know something about books. Although I hit a dry spell, I had now realized the kind of books I wanted to read. Things that were dark and transgressive, but that ultimately struck me as profoundly humane. I was listening to a lot of classical music at this time as well. I hunted around for live performances to see with what remained of that summer and found one in the twin cities of southern Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. There I attended a performance of Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion. Later I realized there was a great orchestra in my own backyard and so signed up for a year of concerts at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with a guy that remains my closest friend.
I did not begin college immediately. I worked a construction job and took community college courses first. It was in an English class I took in community college where I was given my first poetry anthology. Our teacher was clearing out her office and let us students take whatever books we wanted. I greedily swiped up the anthology. A second important event occurred in that same English class. We were given a writing assignment that led me to the local library and in turn to the great Yale literary critic, Harold Bloom. I faintly remember the assignment being something about finding a work of criticism, although I don’t remember writing anything about Bloom at the time. How I would love to read that paper now. The book was, of course, Bloom’s The Western Canon. Like most people, I kept coming back to Bloom for that list in the back of the book. I’d go to the library, scan the list and slowly work my way through it. Title after title. I would end up buying several of Bloom’s other books first, before I ever got around to buying and reading the Western Canon.
In the Autumn of 1998 I went to the Christian college, William Tyndale. There I decided to major in English literature, which I did for my first two years. I remember being very excited to take a philosophy and psychology course my first semester. The psychology course ended up being fairly soft and not impacting, but the philosophy course, like the English course earlier, proved pivotal, if only because it introduced me to my next obsession, Dostoyevsky and Russian literature. We read the famous “Grand Inquisitor” chapter from The Brothers Karamazov. A few years later I would start up a Russian literature club with two other friends. We got stuck on Dostoyevsky though and spent the year just reading his four great novels. Later, I met the friend who I went to Summit with, and saw he was reading Dostoyevksy’s Notes from Underground, which he was rather turned off by. His disinterest in the book only further confirmed its greatness to me and I eagerly and greedily picked it up the next day.  I also took several English literature classes those first two years covering many of the greatest works of world literature. I also continued to read a lot on my own. Notable readings included Don Quixote, Paradise Lost and Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad.
It was at this time that I realized how difficult writing was for me. Writing would remain an anxious undertaking for all of my undergraduate, and graduate school days as well. I write like I draw. I begin very sloppily and painfully. The words come out awkward and ill-formed. Then begins a process of endless revision where I occasionally catch glimpses of the imagined form.
These first two years I was also visiting a lot of churches and continued questioning my faith. I wavered between trying to rationalize Christianity and desiring to have some kind of religious, quasi-charismatic, experience. I felt there was too much that I could not rationalize and I also knew that I lacked the deep emotional and spiritual conviction of the charismatic believers. I knew that I did not like the idea of believing that the whole world needed or should be converted. I desired diversity. I enjoyed living in a world with disparate views. It seemed like a kind of hell to have a world full of single minded people. What I could believe in was the aesthetic power of reading literature.
My junior year I transferred briefly to Eastern Michigan University. I had become unhappy with the English department, which I felt was too small and not very challenging. I signed up for several classes at EMU and then, my first week, the whole school went on strike. This ended up being a very fortuitous turn of events. I had already learned that many credits would not transfer from Tyndale and, feeling like I might be delayed a semester as well, I decided this was all too much and so went back to Tyndale. I’m not sure how it happened but I ended up in a conversation with the head of the Middle Eastern Studies Department, Dr. Judith Mendelssohn Rood. I told her my situation and she quickly recruited me into Middle Eastern Studies program. All the magic and challenge that was missing from the English department was found in abundance in her courses. Although she, by and large, led the whole department on her own, the classes were still very rich and individual. For example, our class on Middle Eastern Literature met at a local Lebanese restaurant, and our class on Jewish, Christian, Muslim relations met at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington. I was amazed at Judy’s endless energy and enthusiasm. I felt like I finally found the intellectual environment I had been searching for.
During this time, I continued to read Bloom and visit different churches. I remember distinctly that by my senior year I was convinced that I was no longer a Christian. I wrote a paper for my class on World Religions where I expressed this. The professor tried to give me a D for the course, surely on the grounds that it was “un-Christian” although I was able to negotiate him into a low B. That last year was chaotic at Tyndale. With Judy gone, most of the excitement of school for me was gone as well. I trudged through, doing a lot of reading on my own. I started reading more poetry, I read more of the modernists including Yeats and Joyce, but also other figures like T.S. Eliot who I now feel ambivalent about. I read Bloom’s book, Omens of Millenium, which I sometimes consider, along with Agon, to be my favorite book by him (I would not read Agon until I returned from the Peace Corps three years later).
As I approached graduation I didn’t know what I wanted to do. After high school I had flirted with being a missionary. As graduation approached I considered the army or the navy. I thought that at least these options could give me the chance to focus on languages and so perhaps eventually lead to an academic career. I ended up choosing the Peace Corps and going to Uzbekistan.
I already feel like this biography is getting a bit long so I’m going to rush through and bring it to a close. The most important intellectual development to occur during my time in the Peace Corps was my introduction to the Romantics. I had brought two Bloom books, The Visionary Company and Bloom’s commentary on The Complete Poetry of William Blake. Along with these I had an anthology of English literature that included the first three cantos of The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and most of the major High Romantic British poems. I also brought a lot of Shakespeare and would later come across some Emerson, Whitman, and Nietzsche. Finishing the Peace Corps in 2005 I returned to graduate school. After receiving my MA in English Literature I moved to Boston and eventually ended up getting married, having a daughter, and becoming an English teacher.
I want to stop there and reflect on the evolution of my thinking over the years and so, hopefully, come round to the purpose of this essay—my feelings about belief, faith, religion, spirituality, gnosis. The best thing I did in those early years was read widely, and memorize poems. I expanded my horizon immensely and continue to do so. For many years I primarily shared the interests of Bloom, especially his gnostic and apocalyptic tendencies. The first poet I latched onto, oddly enough, was T.S. Eliot. Modernism in general was very appealing to me. I liked the density of the images. The juxtaposition of ancient and modern. The sense it gave me was that in linking modernity with the past it was in some way giving a full picture of life, a glimpse of the whole. Joyce, more than anyone else, epitomized this method for me. This was my earliest vision of what literature could be. It inspired a passion that has continued to evolve until today.

I was always fascinated with the idea of the epic and the promise that one could somehow capture the fullness of reality. It did not matter whether this was possible or not (of course it’s not). But the promise of it, the drive towards it, remains endlessly fascinating and moving for me. There is a line from the famous Renaissance author, Sir Thomas Browne, “Methinks there be not miracles in religion enough to merit an active faith.” This Faustian craving for more knowledge is what has inspired and driven me more than any other. But it is not merely an endless parade of facts, it is the belief that one shapes a vision of the world out of this knowledge that has most inspired me. This drive to both expand one’s view of the world, but in so doing consolidate and bring together one’s knowledge so that one forms an image of the world. It is what Shelley meant when he referred to poetry as being both the center and the circumference of knowledge. That is my understanding of the work of poetry. That is my belief.