The God stories are roaring around a light-filled classroom on the third floor of a brand new campus building, mostly covered in snow.
Our space, at least, is warm and state-of-the-art, which means we have an optional screen awaiting any directional glance—think sports bar during big game—digital projectors at each “learning island,” surround sound and mood lighting with precisely four options.
The mood, though, has been hard to pinpoint. Mercurial, yes. From heavy to breezy to that certain electricity that can fill a space when someone is suddenly speaking for the collective, from the heart. We’ve already passed around tissues.
I’ve been anticipating this, waiting for it, wondering who will fill the seats and what they will have to say, where they might have landed—in faith or atheism or some permutation of in-between.
I told administrators that we’ve all thought or felt or rumored our way around the divine, the idea of it, of him or her, and therefore have both traction and vehicle for a story. The essay. Essai, your God story! The syllabus felt bombproof. Administrators said, Meh, sure, whatever.
It’s worth its hardcover price for his introduction alone, which provides a spirited and smart deconstruction of literary journalism, what Sharlet might describe as “mutant” nonfiction, the “so-called art of fact,” focused with all its perceptive intensity at the subject of belief.
We’ve already moved rapidly from Walt Whitman’s tender reading of scripture to a dying soldier to Zora Neale Hurston’s vulnerable rite of voodoo passage and will soon meet my favorite writer of contemporary nonfiction, John Jeremiah Sullivan, who will have “a colossal fucking go-to-pieces” at a Christian rock concert on page 379.
We’ll then move on to singular voices. Anne Lamott detailing her traveling mercies and Dennis Covington seduced by the serpents and those who handle them and Peter Matthiessen wandering through the Himalayas looking for snow leopards, blue sheep, the yeti, himself.
If it’s true that all theology is ultimately autobiographical, then God must both ignite and remain plausible within our human experience.
Plausibility, of course, requires faith, and within that spectrum—as well as without—I’m finding we’re all over the place, a spiritual medley with a shared third-floor view.
But that’s precisely my hope: that we still find community as writers, here and now, and even more so as spiritual beings who have all wrestled in some way with the “Bedrock of human existence—why we are here, where we are going, and how we can comport ourselves with dignity along the way,” which is how Philip Zaleski defines the genre of spiritual writing in the first place.
My hope is that we become mutually obsessed with this strange thing called belief, our own and that of others, and that ultimately we write well, that we agonize over the prose as we explore our experiences and interests.
Somehow I cling to the belief that the right story deftly written still brings light.
Any honest PhD candidate will tell you that our work can be isolating. Even though a great deal of our work involves interaction (teaching, office hours, comparing notes with colleagues, attending lectures, and sometimes venting with other students about how we never have enough time), the majority of our work requires great stretches of time spent alone.
I’ve always loved the etymology of kindness, which comes from kin—those to whom we are bound by choice or genealogy. And yet I often find kindness is most difficult to practice with my family—those who have witnessed just how unkind I can be.
Last summer, the book project I was in the midst of was mapped out on a drafting table in my writing space: sheets of paper with lists and quotes, photographs and maps, excerpts from 19th century books on gold mining.
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