How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
[su_note note_color=”#d5d5d5″ text_color=”#91201f”]The following is a reprint from Volume 3, Issue 8 of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine: “A Matter of Conscience.” You can subscribe to Christ and Pop Culture Magazine by becoming a member and you’ll receive a host of other benefits as well.[/su_note]
“All right, then — I’ll go to hell.”
The classic scene in which Huckleberry Finn decides to do the “wrong” thing that is really right — not to sell out the escaped slave who has become his best friend — works so well because of dramatic irony. The reader knows, of course, that Huck is doing precisely the right thing, the noble thing, the Christian thing, by not ratting out Jim. It’s more powerful because Huck believes he is, by obeying his conscience, doing what is “wrong.”
It’s a scene that works because of a clear dichotomy: what seems wrong is actually right; what seems right is actually wrong. Huck Finn, guided by his conscience, does what the reader knows he should. It’s satisfying.
There isn’t always such clarity when it comes to the morality of stories, though; sometimes the moral orientation of a story isn’t advertised in a Big Obvious Event, but is buried in a morass of ambivalence. Sometimes there is no “I’ll go to hell” moment. The type of story I have in mind has less in common with Twain and more with Dante: “I found myself within a dark woods where the straight way was lost.”
I bought the 2013 short story collection I Want to Show You More by Jamie Quatro around the same time I picked up Sprinter, the second album by Torres (the pseudonym of the singer-songwriter MacKenzie Scott), and both would be more suitably epigraphed by Dante’s quote than Twain’s. Both works are by artists from the American South who are steeped in Christian culture, theology, and imagery, but whose art depicts morally conflicted, occasionally disturbing, and perhaps immoral scenarios—especially, but not limited to, potential blasphemy, apostasy, and adultery — in ways that are nowhere near as ironically clear as Huck Finn’s decision to send himself to hell by saving Jim.
Neither the book nor the album are “Christian” in the way evangelicals are accustomed to applying that adjective to fiction or popular music. While both women write from a cultural and even spiritual position that is accurately described as Christian, their work is not published by companies that bear the imprimatur of conservative Christian culture, and neither respects the taboos and shibboleths of evangelicalism (swear words, sex, and “liberal” politics abound). I’m sorry that I have to say this at all—and given the existence of Christian artists like John Updike, Walker Percy, Johnny Cash, and Sufjan Stevens, perhaps I don’t. But I’m painfully aware that even hinting that a work is in some way “Christian” is to set any audience up for preconceptions about what it will or will not be (thanks to what “Christian” means, in practice, when it refers to the fiction or music sections at Barnes and Noble).
What comes to mind is a deeper question about why and how we read works that are ambiguous and conflicted on matters of conscience.
It is important, though, to note that music and stories like those in Sprinter and I Want to Show You More will likely resonate more with people who have the lived experience of faith than those who do not. In addition, both are painfully conflicted on matters of conscience. Scott’s and Quatro’s characters seem driven to both holiness and sin, to fidelity and infidelity, toward God and away from Him. The crucial question, I think, when taking in their faith-soaked, conflicted narratives is not a handwringing, “Hey, is it OK to read this kind of smutty, sweary stuff?” What comes to mind is a deeper question about why and how we read works that are ambiguous and conflicted on matters of conscience.
But I have gotten ahead of myself: What is it about Quatro’s book and Scott’s record that should engender such a question? Both are unquestioningly beautiful; both artists are masters of their form. Quatro’s stories are strange and perfect. She can make funny, sexy, despairing, disturbing, and redemptive moves within a three-page story, and there are moments of sublime humanity throughout the collection — she can stop a reader dead in his or her tracks with a single word spoken by a young child to her father, or a glimpse of a gunman on a cliffside, or a falling pane of glass.
The central motif of many of Quatro’s stories is adultery (via phone sex, texting, and other non-physical channels), and the characters embroiled in the affairs acknowledge both the wrongness of their desires and the apparent kernel of goodness, twisted though it may be, in their love. Other stories have similarly ambivalent moral centers. A woman is overcome by a pure and divine love for her ailing husband and their children, but recognizes that her selflessness may destroy her. A young man longs for spiritual healing through a sacrament, but accidentally seems to find it in a more carnal way.
In the collection’s most disturbing and thought-provoking story, “Demolition,” a church congregation gradually — “spoiler alert” seems too mild here — becomes a sex cult. It begins realistically, but the story moves into much weirder, allegory-like territory as the congregation moves to a cave and is taken over by a deaf-mute atheist who encourages the parishioners to engage in orgies. The churchgoers notice their children have refused to join them in the cave and that they appear to be building shelters and singing hymns—more traditional and expected expressions of faith.
If there is some sort of allegory here, it’s not obvious. Christian capitulation to culture? The ease with which people can be seduced by new ideas, maybe? Kids know better than their parents? There’s no obvious answer; just the wreckage of a destroyed church.
There’s a line in Quatro’s collection about the Arizona desert feeling like an inherently god-forsaken place, where there is no natural revelation and the heavens do not declare His glory. Torres’s music, too, suggests a barren landscape, an almost feral world where knowledge of The Good is not obvious but hard-won, bittersweet, and not entirely positive. On “Strange Hellos,” a woman tells a friend she forgives her, but cannot decide if their relationship is one of love or hate. On the title track, a pastor loses his job to a porn habit. On the album’s final track, “The Exchange,” Scott sings of being unable to shake her malaise, though she “pray(s) to Jesus Christ incessantly.”
Scott, like Quatro, can deliver devastating one-liners, made more so by her gorgeous voice, thick and deep and feminine. Through the record’s nine songs, she unpacks an unfinished life story of running both to and away from church, family, relationship, and expectations — “the Baptist in me chose to run/ but if there’s time/ I’ll choose the sun,” she concludes on the title track. And like Quatro, Scott often refuses to take sides as a narrator. It’s never quite clear who is a friend and who is an enemy, or which relationships are beneficial and which will lead to ruin.
If we haven’t looked evil right in the eyes and sized it up, aren’t we kind of going to be at a disadvantage when it comes calling?
This seems purposeful and appropriate —Scott writes about trying on new identities in “New Skin,” reminding listeners how young and unsure she still is. In the same song, she hints at a deeper theme on the record: “If you’ve never known the darkness/ then you’re the one who fears the most/ …if you do not know the darkness/ then you’re the one I fear the most.” The implication is profound; if we haven’t looked evil right in the eyes and sized it up, aren’t we kind of going to be at a disadvantage when it comes calling? Similarly, if we won’t acknowledge the brute awfulness of the world, aren’t we lying to ourselves? What else might we be getting wrong? Scott communicates this not only with her lyrics, but the way she can shift between dark and light in the tone of her expressive voice.
Sprinter and I Want to Show You More are works that depict life with or without God as conflicted, confused, and disturbed. But both Quatro and Scott seem to suggest that there is a deep, wounded, and hard-won faith to be found in the midst of sin and suffering. In Quatro’s final story, a woman decides to end her affair, embrace her husband, and forgive herself and her (would-be) lover, saying: “I was thinking of Eve and her apple, or whatever kind of fruit it was; how she was driven by delight to share the taste with the one she loved, and it ruined them both, but God, knowing this in advance, loved them anyhow.” And on “The Harshest Light,” Scott sings, “Yahweh said eat of my body and you will see/ But eat of that tree and you will be free of me.” Which should be emphasized? The tragedy of sin or the inevitability of grace?
The answer, at least as I read it in these works, is neither, or both. Art like this forces us, in a way, to inhabit ambiguous and conflicted moral terrain. And to be honest, when I listen to these songs and read these stories, I feel both resonance and disgust. It’s up to me to figure out what to do with that. Is the disgust healthy, or is it a sign I need to be more broad-minded about art? Is the resonance a recognition of a fellow-pilgrim on the path of faith seeking understanding, or does it mean I, too, have lost my footing? For now, I’m not sure I can come to a conclusion.
Of course, we all must find a way through the darkness in our own lives, and perhaps this art, and our subsequent feelings of resonance or disgust, are guideposts from our own consciences. Maybe taking in art that revels in moral ambiguity is a kind of compost for the soul—something rotten that will bear beautiful fruit.
Image: The Guardian
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