“I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation”: A Review

Good readers, it has been too long.  The heady mixture of finishing my MLIS degree, working 20 hours a week (plus volunteering for at least two organizations), and applying for jobs simply drained even my ability to write empty, apologetic three-sentence posts here on the blog.  But the good news is that A) I graduated and am done with homework, which B) means that work doesn’t suck up all my free time, and C) I have secured a job.  All of this means that I hope to continue from where I left off—in fact, I hope the blog widens the angle of its lens a bit, so that it can share a little of my ideas about my new home when I move to take on my new job.  Chicago is deeply tied into the idea of America, and I’ll be living there: I can’t help but think it will affect my thoughts about this project, and hopefully spur me to complete the thing before I am old and gray.

Of course, having said that, this post will not advance me in the Pulitzer journey.  This spring I was given two reviewer’s copies of books, which I promised to review on this blog, so posts about them are really an imperative. Today’s review is of an e-book written by a friend: specifically, a book entitled I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation! or, Losing Faith for the Avant-garde Christian by Tim Mathis.  Until recently, Tim was a youth leader at an Episcopal church I attend, and his memoir (which is available at Amazon) relates his spiritual experiences up to, and including, his leaving the church, the Christian faith, and the ministry.  Tim’s blogged about these experiences, and he and I have talked a bit about them.  Tim’s memoir pulls no punches, and he expects no less from me, so this will be an honest assessment.

Tim’s book does some things very well.  He evokes the pain and confusion that many experience as they grow up evangelical in America—as someone who grew up in a similar community myself (but who feels much less scarred by it than Tim does), I recognize the limits and the pitfalls of that kind of adolescence, and I think more people should.  If you didn’t grow up evangelical, there are things you don’t understand about many of your fellow citizens that I think you’d be well advised to learn about.  Tim’s memoir is one way to get there: you’ll see high school and college, particularly, through the eyes of someone who did his best to live out devout piety (sometimes a bit too aggressively) but who looks back on these events now with a little incredulity at how far he’s come.  He sees the foibles and the feebleness of the Episcopal Church with clear sight as well: Tim was well-connected in the church, and well-situated to see it at its worst.  Episcopalians would do well to hear and heed the lessons implicit in Tim’s journey—the hurdles the church has yet to clear, and the roadblocks it places in the paths of many.  And (reaching outside religion just a little) Tim’s account, overall, is really a story of how someone grows up in relation to authority—questioning it, challenging it, abandoning it, seeking it, rejecting it, and more—and presents a sort of “coming-of-age tale” for Americans of a certain generation who may see some of themselves in Tim, independent of any religious convictions.

But I can’t simply shower the book with praise. Tim’s writing out of a very raw place, which yields some good results, but it also leaves the book often feeling a bit chaotic and disjointed.  There are a lot of thoughts he never quite finishes, and by the end of the book, while it’s clear that Tim knows and appreciates the differences between his boyhood evangelical faith and his work as an Episcopalian minister-in-training, it seemed to me that he conflated the two far too often.  That conflation comes out of  sincere woundedness Tim feels about Christianity as an institution, but that sincerity doesn’t make it an accurate exploration of what Tim’s really angry at.  At least,the end of the story feels so raw to me that I have difficulty sorting things out about how Tim really feels and what he is really upset about.

The other major hurdle that this book never clears for me is that, increasingly as the memoir goes along, this is a memoir about spirituality that has nothing to do with spirituality.  It has a lot to do with the brokenness of human communities, of the arbitrary nature of human authority, and with Tim’s frustration with rituals he finds empty.  But Tim doesn’t spend a lot of time wrestling with Christianity as a faith and not an institution.  Every now and then there are hints of Tim’s spirituality and how it’s changing, or a quick paragraph about Jesus.  But mostly he walks past those things as if they’re not there.  And for me, it becomes like reading observations of a cafeteria written by someone who doesn’t think food exists (or who thinks that it has no purpose, if it does exist)—it’s just a lot of confusing lines and people with trays and useless implements, and it’s irritating that those ladies won’t let all those poor people out of the little room until they extort some money from them.  Given that 99% of the people actually inside the cafeteria are there for food, I guess I’d like to hear more about why the observer is rejecting that hypothesis.  Ultimately this leads Tim to make remarks I think are too glib—while I definitely recognize that his connection to Ann Holmes Redding is very different than any connection I can claim, I think the suggestion that she was persecuted for being a black woman in George W. Bush’s America (to paraphrase Tim pretty accurately) is really to miss the point.  Tim’s welcome to think differently about faith and meaning than other people do, but I’d like him to explain it—in part because I suspect he has some important things to say, and I’m disappointed that they’re going unsaid.  And in part because an alien anthropologist reading the memoir could easily be forgiven (especially if they started reading half-way through) for completely missing why churches exist, what it means to reject a Christian “belief”, or how a religious service could be anything but a boring calisthenics class.

So what’s my overall take on Tim’s memoir?  I think it’s a must-read for some readers—essentially for evangelical and mainline Christians who wonder honestly what makes some people who seem so dedicated to the faith just up and leave. Tim’s story isn’t everyone’s, but it’s real and he’s not holding back things to make it easy for anyone: you have to respect that.  I think the memoir would be of real interest to another group—that is, Americans who have little connection to religion, and who are always just a little puzzled by what draws so many of their countrymen into religious activity.  Tim offers a set of explanations for this, that arise in part from family, in part from his personality, and in part from his ability to see church as something other than a source of beliefs.  I don’t think it’s fair to hold up Tim as a “typical” churchgoer, but he’s typical enough that I think it would help a lot of people get a broader sense of what religion is for a lot of folks.  Stepping outside those groups, I’m honestly not sure how this book will strike you: Tim unloads a lot of raw emotion on some very narrowly focused issues and communities, and you’re either fascinated by that or you aren’t.  I’m glad I read the book, not just because I know Tim, but because I want to understand how someone like Tim—so similar to me in many ways—can reach such a different place in life than I have.  If you read it, I guarantee you’ll start talking back to Tim (either singing “Amen!” or arguing loudly at the page), and talking with other people about what you’ve read, and I suspect the end of those conversations will leave you wiser than before.  That’s a good thing for a book to do, and for that reason, I can give this memoir a rating (on my unscientific Rosenzweig scale) of “I suggest you give it a try, even though it will upset you—or maybe because it will”.

And now I close, as is usual, with a brief quotation from the book, which I hope will cement for you whether you have to track this down or not. This is from Tim’s introduction to the work:

This book hasn’t become an argument against religion. The popular trend these days seems to be to argue logically against the madness of traditional Christian belief, and the social damage caused by religious institutions throughout history. I’ll talk quite a bit about what I have believed, and about the way that I was affected by involvement with the institution, but it really isn’t my goal here to talk about how bad religion is. I wrote throughout as a reasonably educated person committed to science and common sense and all that, and it’s not like I spent my life as a brainwashed fundamentalist and suddenly came to some revelation about how horrible it all was (although I did move through something like that process at one point in life). I don’t even really know whether to define what I’ve done as apostasy, because the line between what I was as a practicing Christian, employed as a minister in God’s church, and what I am now as an a-religious agnostic is so thin. I’m no expert. But this is a story about how I got to the point of quitting church, after moving through a broad scope of expressions of Christian faith, after spending thousands of dollars on education in Biblical Studies and Theology, after travelling the world on pilgrimage and after allowing Christianity to define my identity for 30 years. So, even if this isn’t an argument for leaving religion behind, I suppose it is an explanation of why I have. I didn’t set out to present a story about apostasy, but that’s how it’s ended up.

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3 comments on ““I Hope I Was Wrong About Eternal Damnation”: A Review

  1. Tim Mathis says:

    James! This is a brilliant review – thanks so much for taking the time to write it, and to write it so thoughtfully! I really appreciate the gracious honesty – I’ve heard (at length) primarily from folks who identify strongly and love the book (to the point of ignoring its weaknesses) and folks who are so upset by it that they’re responding at emotional levels of sadness and anger, so it is fantastic to have your input. I think you beautifully capture the emotions it aroused while also identifying some genuine limitations in the whole endeavor.

    I’ll try not to babble on too much here, but I’m excited that you’ve pointed to some things that I didn’t necessarily identify in myself when I was writing (and a few that I did, and avoided including intentionally and probably foolishly).

    It was a conscious decision to focus the book primarily on the narrative events of my journey rather than the spiritual logic behind my decisions, in part because I really think that painful emotional experiences drove my theological/religious decisions more than the quest for God, so to speak. Someone else has said that it’s really a book about how place shapes belief, and I think there’s some truth in that (adding to place, situation, and adding to belief, spirituality).

    In the year since I’ve been out of ministry, I’ve realized that a major source of my spiritual issues was the bad choice that I made at 18, to pursue ministry as a career because I thought it was what I should do, rather than what I wanted to do. Having worked now in a job that I really like, and that really fits, I realize that forcing myself into a role that wasn’t natural to my personality (obstinately, for 12 years) compounded into the anger, guilt, and frustration that comes out so clearly in the book (but which I didn’t initially identify in myself, even in writing), and deeply affected my sense of what it means to be a Christian, and a member of a Church. I think that’s eventually why I ended up scampering off in fight or flight self-preservation mode, rather than bowing out gracefully.

    Your comment about overly-conflating my evangelical experience and Episcopal experience is right on, and isn’t something I fully identified until recent months, and am still processing.

    And I think that in identifying the chaotic, disjointed nature of the narrative (which I’ve been aware of, and decided to leave ‘as is’), you hit on the chaotic, disjointed range of emotional and intellectual motives that ultimately drove my decision to quit. But probably more importantly (and less self-servingly) you hit on the nature of the book as an amateur endeavor, devoid of editing, training, and professional polish. I released the final version in a rush, with the intention of flagging a transition, and kind of on a whim, which is why especially the end is such a mess.

    And I laughed out loud at at the extortionist lunch ladies in your cafeteria analogy :).

    Putting this out has been a real learning experience for me, not just as a writer, but as a person. I genuinely do appreciate your input, not just because it might help me to sell a copy or two, but because you’ve given me some nuggets of insight into my attitudes towards my religious experience. I’m honored to call you a friend James, and wish you and Betsy all the best in your move to Chicago! Looking forward to more brilliant critiques of (much better) books in this space in the near future.

    Tim

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks, Tim, for responding with such grace and kindness to a review that’s less glowing than you could have hoped for. 🙂 I hope it’s clear that I have a lot of respect for your choice to engage in the project, and that I’ve gained a lot from reading your book! Thanks for these comments, too, because they help emphasize something that I think is important—this isn’t over for you, you haven’t sealed up “faith” or “religion” in a box and turned your back on it, you still want to engage your mind with this. Even if you ultimately remain in exactly the place you are, it won’t be because you’ve shut yourself off to the conversation, and I think that’s really valuable. We need more people to think this deeply about who they are, and what matters to them. I look forward to reading another Tim Mathis production (whenever it comes out!), and to more conversation in the future as you and I continue to explore the paths that we walk down. Cheers!

  2. Tim Mathis says:

    Thanks James – I’ll be sure to send you a copy of the next one, which I’m aiming to finish by the time I start back to school in Fall. That’ll probably mean that it’s a lot rougher then this one, and even less Pulitzer (or even ‘Following Pulitzer’) worthy. But this new one is written out of a much more peaceful place, due in large part to the things that I’ve learned through the process of writing and publishing the first, and interacting with gracious folks like you.

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