New York Literati on Growing Up Evangelical
“Panels are the new party,” declared the moderator of a recent panel put on by n+1, the magazine-in-chief of New York’s determinedly serious set. If so, 2009 has been a year of downright revelry for the magazine. Areas of inquiry have included the ’90s, the hipster, young conservatism, feminism, and, on Tuesday night, Christian evangelicalism, featuring a trio of that subculture’s elite exes: Malcolm Gladwell and James Wood of The New Yorker and Christine Smallwood of The Nation.
Billed as “evangelicalism and the contemporary intellectual,” Gladwell, Wood, and Smallwood discussed how their intellectual lives were shaped by their religious backgrounds. Notably, evangelicalism was not portrayed as something one must inevitably cast-off to live a life of the mind; there were no narratives of recovery, of journeys from the darkness of ignorant faith to the light of reason. To varying degrees, all three panelists traced their thinking to their evangelical upbringings—yet not a one of them today is among the believers.
What remains in the absence of faith is the very question of secular life: how are we to feel deeply without access to the divine in everyday experience, warming our hearts with a love that is not of this world? And how are we to think?
Now: on to the thematically-arranged recap.
I know: we’ve heard enough about the Jewish New York Intellectuals, but it’s unavoidable. n+1 is a magazine that positions itself within the Partisan Review lineage. (My grandmother would’ve looked approvingly at the masthead while saying, “What nice Jewish names.”) Co-editor Mark Greif opened with a brief nod to the story on which he was raised—of Jewish immigrants rising from the ghetto and subsequently revitalizing American intellectual life. At various points in the discussion, Gladwell and Smallwood agreed that intellectualism, especially in New York, is assumed to be a Jewish enterprise.
The Formative Years
Gladwell described his upbringing in Canada as liberal evangelical (though his parents, brother, and sister-in-law have since become Mennonites). He seemed to understand his religious self in patrilineal terms, focusing on the story of his father’s faith in lieu of his own. We learned that his father, a mathematician who joined the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in college, has spent a lifetime trying to reconcile faith and reason. Ultimately, Gladwell didn’t find these efforts “convincing.” Yet he inherited his father’s project. Gladwell has found that writing, too, is an attempt to “to reconcile seemingly irreconcilable things.” “In form, if not in substance, I have remained within the evangelical tradition,” he concluded—a seemingly counterintuitive and therefore typically Gladwellian thing to say.
Wood described his British evangelical upbringing as theologically fundamentalist but politically liberal. Like Gladwell, Wood also began with the plot points of his parents’ religious lives before moving on to his own. Wood’s mother told his father, a former atheist, “If you want to marry me, you have to become a Christian.” And so his father willed himself into his mother’s faith, which Wood would later “defeat” with Dostoevsky: the liberating potential of literature and open discussion.
Smallwood grew up in New Jersey and attended a conservative charismatic church. The clergy wore headset microphones and relied heavily on PowerPoints, lending a “corporate” feel. Now in her late twenties, Smallwood’s teenage rebellion was not theological but political. “Like evangelicals, intellectuals suffer a crisis of how to live in the world,” Smallwood said, suggesting that secular intellectuals could learn from the institutional organization of churches—for example, the training of the young and outreach. It’s an interesting idea, but what would this look like in practice? n+1 study groups on college campuses? “What Would n+1 Think” bracelets?
Who? Oh! The Son of God didn’t really come up until the Q&A, when Smallwood termed her evangelical upbringing as falling within “the ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ school.” (The answer: something invariably better than one’s own best judgment.)
As in his review of Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Wood called for a “disappointed belief,” but stopped short of explaining what, exactly, that might entail. Again, Wood argued that the anger of Dawkins and the new atheists is its own kind of faith. “When my parents talk about God,” Wood said at one point, “I want to break in and suggest to them, “Really you know nothing, and this is just a projection.’” Kill the Buddha, James Wood’s parents!
Weaned on the Good Book, not surprisingly, all three cited its influence on their modes of reading today. Wood described himself as “marked” by the idea of “high stakes” in literature. How can some contemporary writers be so grounded in this world, Wood asked, “so uninvolved with the highest things, with the fate of your soul?” In turn, Smallwood credited the church with teaching her how to read a text closely, understanding its power, whether it be secular or holy. As a child, Gladwell loved hearing Bible stories because “you could go to church on Sunday, and the preacher would talk about what happened in Parliament that week in biblical terms.” It inspired him to see that “one book could encompass everything.” Who knew Gladwell’s bestsellers have biblical aspirations?
What to put in the hole left by the loss of belief? Alas, nothing, said Gladwell. “My life is less full and real as a result,” he said. “I don’t think I’m ever going to find anything as beautiful as that communion service.” Taking a momentary pause from the steady stream of witty anecdotes, he spoke poignantly of pain and regret: the once-believer’s lament after having gradually drifted away from faith.
As a never-believer—in any God, Christian or Jewish—I harbor my own regrets: that I will never have something that inspires such deep feeling that I will mourn its passing in such a way. From time to time, I’ve tried to believe—only to run up against a failure of imagination.
Who among us would not long—at least a tiny bit—for the affective piety of the evangelical? Indeed, Smallwood posed the all-important question: what in the life of the intellectual can possibly compete? “What can you do to be beside yourself?” Smallwood asked. Surely, it’s already hard enough to be even outside yourself—to escape the headspace of everyday frustrations and actually choose what you want to think about, Sontag gave her best to reach ecstatic bodily transcendence in literature and film. Her answer to Smallwood’s question might’ve been, simply, art. But then again, perhaps she didn’t know what she was missing. And neither do I.