An Evangelical Pilgrimage
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Posts from — September 2009

Check Out the New Digs


The Burnside Writers Collective just launched it’s new site at a new address. I serve as Deputy Editor for the online magazine, and we are moving from a weekly to a daily publishing format. Beginning in October, I will be writing a regular column for the Writers Collective based on this blog.

September 14, 2009   4 Comments

Reflections on 9/11

Portland, OR :: Relevant Magazine asked me and a few other Burnside Writers Collective writers to briefly reflect back on the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. The article appeared today on Relevant’s website. It includes a short essay from Dave Johnson, but it doesn’t include a link to Dave’s blog, which is here.

September 11, 2009   No Comments

Here Be Dragons

Cape Disappointment Image

Portland, OR :: I spent a few days last week camping with my friends Dave and Andrew in southwest Washington, just across the Columbia River from Astoria, Oregon, and 100 yards from the Pacific Ocean. We made regular trips into the little harbor town of Ilwaco, where we discovered the region’s best clam chowder at Harbor Lights Motel, Restaurant, and Lounge, and the world’s best waitress, Sweet Ann, who moonlights as a stand-up comic.

I hung out on the beach with Dave for a couple hours on Thursday afternoon. Sitting in camping chairs, trying to read but frequently distracted by the magnificence of our surroundings, I decided I wanted to get wet – but not too wet. I rolled up the legs of my jeans and waded out into the water. I hopped over the first few waves, which were higher than I thought, but then I got pummeled. Soon I was completely soaked. I looked back to Dave, warm and dry on the sand. Those days camping were some of the last I’ll be able to spend with Dave before leaving Portland in October. I will be glad to carry that memory with me of my best friend doing exactly what he is supposed to do – reading a book, writing longhand on a legal pad, and laughing at me.

I returned to shore, stopping just beyond the reach of the waves, and I turned southeast. It was a symbolic, if predictable, moment. With nearly the whole country spread out before me, I was reminded of how very far from home my family will be traveling in the next year.

I also realized that since moving to the West Coast in 2001, and especially since we moved from California to Oregon in 2005, I am constantly taking my bearings relative to the Pacific Ocean. I may not be able to calculate precise distance, but I am always aware when I am getting closer, farther away from, or running parallel to it. Most often this is a subconscious awareness, but it is always there: my desk faces south; the ocean is to my right.

This internal GPS is useless for physical navigation, but my realization seemed significant. What does the Pacific Ocean represent for me – hope? home? the end of the line? I can’t say for sure, though it’s worthy of further reflection. What I know with certainty is that for five months, from October through February, the narrow roads my family will travel will run mostly north to south. But in late winter we begin to explore unknown longitudes. Americans instinctively range west. To turn east is to head into the past. Maybe that is where our country – and my family -  are meant to go.

I’m reminded of the notation medieval cartographers used to fill in blank spots on their maps: “Here Be Dragons.” The United States is moving out of adolescence and into adulthood. Kate and I are parents now, thinking a lot about legacy and the world Molly will inherit. And so we look back. Our history is the next frontier. Who knows what we’ll find out there.

September 9, 2009   3 Comments

Something Craggy

st jerome icon

Portland, OR :: I mentioned in an earlier post that I was strangely afraid to set off on this journey with only four or five books in my luggage. Today, reading Helen Waddell’s introduction to St. Jerome’s “The Life of St. Paul the First Hermit,” I found precedence.

St. Jerome spent five years as a hermit in the desert and had a miserable time of it, which was maybe the point. He told one of his pupils, the girl Eustocium, about how he would sit full of bitterness in his desert cell, reminiscing about happier times.

I learned today that Jerome took his books with him into the desert. “For many a year had I cut myself off from home and parents and sister and kin and what is harder than these, the habit of exquisite dining…,” Jerome later wrote. “But the library I had built up with such ardour and pains in Rome, I could not bring myself to do without.”

Helen Waddell writes that the desert drove Jerome not to silence, as it had the Desert Fathers and Mothers, but to the mastering of another language. “He must have something craggy to break his mind upon: and he found it in Hebrew.”

It can easily be argued that Jerome carrying his books to the desert was the best thing for civilization – Jerome’s language skills resulted in his Vulgate translation of the Hebrew scriptures. But was it best for Jerome’s season in the desert? I can’t help comparing Jerome’s story to that of the desert monk Serapion who sold his copy of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: “I have sold the book which told me to sell all that I had and give it to the poor.” Granted, the desert monks themselves would not have made such a comparison, committed as they were to non-judgment. And maybe it was enough that Jerome knew his limitations.

As for my own limitations: I don’t expect our journey to be as harsh as Jerome’s desert, but I’m concerned about being away from home without my books. I would feel…unmoored. On the other hand, maybe unmoored is the whole point. I have a tendency to retreat into books from the mundanity and volatility of real life. I rely too much on the words of others. I choose bookwork over field work, the library over the street, and prose over poetry.

I read today that when Kathleen Norris was attempting to unravel the tale of her religious heritage in “The Cloister Walk” and “Amazing Grace,” she felt like her mentor Elizabeth Kray, the longtime executive director of the Academy of American Poets, was looking over her shoulder, “listening closely to make sure that my language remained alive, and did not grow stale with preachiness.”

Norris scribbled on an index card some advice Kray had given her when Norris was working on her first essay about the influence of religion in her life. She installed the index card near her writing desk. It read: “You are in danger of making proper little genuflections to scholarship, when what you need is the poet’s voice.”

Norris elaborates: “A poem, after all, renders an experience that is more than mere opinion, idea, or doctrine. And it is as experience that a poem stands or falls, inviting the reader not to debate or argue but to respond with both heart and mind.”

And so here I will make my first rule: I can’t bring on this trip any scholarly books on American evangelicalism. I have until the end of February to read Mark Noll, Christian Smith, Doug Sweeney, David Bebbington, Alan Wolfe, and the other academics on my to-read list. I can read them as context for the pilgrimage; but not on the pilgrimage. I also can’t bring with me any work of narrative nonfiction which claims to take the reader on a journey through modern American evangelicalism. This means you, Jeffrey Sheler, Lauren Sandler, Randall Balmer, John Marks, Jeff Sharlet, and Andrew Beaujon.

In other words, once we leave the safety of the west coast (more on that tomorrow) I have to rely on primary sources – contemporary accounts, conversations, observations. But as a concession to my weakness – I too need a new language, something craggy to break my mind upon – I will replace the academic tomes with volumes of poetry. There is no Latin Vulgate in my future, but perhaps our journey will become a kind of poem.

September 7, 2009   5 Comments

Kathleen Norris :: A Prayer to Eve

kathleen norris little girls in church

Portland, OR :: I’ve been on a bit of a Kathleen Norris jag. First I read “Acedia & Me,” then “The Virgin of Bennington.” Next I’ll read “Dakota.” I plan to re-read “Cloister Walk” for an essay I have to write, and today I started Norris’ poetry collection “Little Girls in Church.” The first poem in the collection was so lovely, and so to the purpose, that I plan to post it somewhere in our RV/camper/trailer, when we get all that straightened out.

“A Prayer to Eve”

Mother of fictions
and of irony,
help us to laugh.

Mother of science
and of the critical method,
keep us humble.

Muse of listeners,
hope of interpreters,
inspire us to act.

Bless our metaphors,
that we might eat them.

Help us to know, Eve,
the one thing we must do.

Come with us, muse of exile,
mother of the road.

September 6, 2009   12 Comments