Wednesday, April 30, 2008

John Marks' "Reasons to Believe": Book Review

After a polite Jehovah's Witness came to our door recently and we politely declined his message, my wife wondered if he thought we'd be damned. John Marks asks himself the same question. The book's subtitle {"One Man's Journey Among the Evangelicals and the Faith He Left Behind"} indicates his investigation into his teenaged embrace of, his young adult rejection of, and his mature return to investigate those who practice a born-again Christian faith. He holds out, unable to reconcile the demands of submission with the caprices of a god who witnesses abundant evils committed in as well as in spite of a loving god's name.

Powerful themes, and Marks as a veteran journalist takes them on boldly yet sensitively. The book, as he tells us early on, was one he's been waiting his whole life to write, and it shows. As he's only two years younger than me, I admit my own interest piqued as his own tastes in rock and his own pop culture connections often intersected with mine. And, any author who cringes at the thought of a heaven full of music in the key of Chicago or Blood, Sweat & Tears-- not to mention a preacher's promise of paradise full of ourselves acting like "five year olds"-- gains in credibility as far as I'm concerned. Like him, I favor the sounds and the example of Billy Zoom of X much more!

While the publicity for the book pushes the saved-or-damned conundrum, most of Marks' study's far less dramatic. He's not criticizing the right of people to have a faith that condemns people to hell if they are not baptized and accepting of Jesus as their own savior (he finds such an element, according to the Barna polls he cites, if taken seriously at levels of committment to be only about 7-9% of the U.S.) but the right of such a bloc "to assert their belief as a national religion." (16) "Can a pluralist democracy absorb and support an exclusive, nonpluralistic belief at the heart of its system?" (16) Although the extension of such an argument falls outside the book's scope, the dangers of fundamentalist surety or evangelical righteousness certainly connect with movements far greater in numbers in the rest of the world.

Marks wonders if he's betraying himself if he gives in and returns to the comforting "call" that moved him as a younger man. He weakens if barely, but determines as the narrative progresses to remain true to himself, as a committed secular student of a phenomenon he examines from a skeptical yet respectful distance. His dual identity as one who knows the insider's lingo yet stands apart from accepting it actually increases his ability to talk to believers, who understand that Marks will not distort or misunderstand or betray what they share with him about the challenges of their faith.

His father, when his teen son became "saved," predicted "You just wait. It starts with this, and it'll end up with him not believing in God at all." (230) Marks makes much of his own very comfortable suburban Dallas roots, and shows how his family's roots lie in a mainstream Protestantism which has been eroding under the triple assaults of three disparate movements, the fundamentalists now under retreat, the evangelicals gaining, and the Pentecostals flourishing. His research reminds us that contrary to media stereotypes, fundamentalists and evangelicals remain distinct, and he explains why the latter's more emotional style fits better with the megachurches and outreaches of millennial American attitudes.

His book, however, in following such trends does often bog down in interviews, recounting dutifully conversations with pastors and workers without much verve. Chapters on post-Katrina church efforts, homosexuality, his stint in Germany that led him as a college student away from his faith, the Christian music scene, or the Young Life youth movement are all informative, but rarely rise above that function. There's a lot of quotes that remind you more of an extended feature by a reporter in a newspaper series rather than a book that ties its threads together more tightly. Towards the end, a few of these strands turn up again and connect, but much of the pace slackens for long stretches, dulling interest and goading you as a reader to wait for Marks to recount his own story to perk up the cultural or personal relevance again. Too many of these pages kept me restless, and chapters often end suddenly or on the off-note of hesitation. He speaks often of his own doubts and uncertainties, past and present, and here's when he's strongest. The book combines reportage on the religious scene with some history, some sociology, and some theology, and ultimately, Marks uses the book to work out his own guilt at "losing" his faith and reclaiming his humanist creed, shaky a substitute it may be, as more honest for him.

"I had 'lost' my faith, in that I had wanted to keep it, but couldn't sustain it. The world laid out by the Bible, the reality of it, just seemed to nullify with the years, taking one blow after another till I could no longer hold on. I had seen human cruelty that sank my ability to buy the idea of a sovereign ruler of the universe. The faith didn't help me to understand; it closed off avenues for knowledge." (252) In his interviews with such Christians as Niki missionizing in Iraq, Colonel Birdwell surviving 9/11 at the Pentagon, Daniel at Biola, or his guide Don, Marks takes great care to present these people as having earned our respect, as being tested greatly by the God they love, while Marks insists upon his own autonomy from their faith that impels them to draw him into their closed circle of the elect, according to their inerrant reading of chapter and verse and their strict standard of salvation.

Finally, as when Marks places his own existentialist (he does admire Kafka's "The Castle") views against those of a believer who saw her husband and her fellow missionaries die in Iraq on a clandestine missionary foray, he arrives at a irrevocable truth both Christians and humanists may shrink from, even though it is the logical outcome. Honesty demands he says what he thinks. Niki's sacrifice of her husband and brethren in spreading news of God gains her a reward in heaven. As Marks does not believe in God, he will drop into everlasting torment. Or, she's deluded, having gone from her dream into reality-- a hostile land where her good news was despised and her friends and spouse were murdered. Her loss remains unredeemable, her sacrifice is based on a lie.

Marks concludes: "These two interpretations are incompatible. They are mutually opposed translations of the same original text and cannot be squared. Their two hells cannot coexist. If one is true, the other must be false. Or both are false, and the truth of existence lies elsewhere. Theoretically, we are free to choose, But I suspect that Niki McDonnall will stick by her story. The question is whether I stick by mine." (197)

Marks raises many such uncomfortable issues. Those on homosexuality, women who fear men, and roles of youth at camps all could have earned even more attention. Most of all, I would have liked more discussion about the ties between evangelicals and Jews. As Marks' wife and son are Jewish, Marks' own consideration of his eternal fate intersects intimately with his family. This poignant and disturbing relevance of the talk of dispensations and being "under heavy conviction" and being left behind at the Rapture before meriting, if one holds out, endless suffering certainly deepen the impact of Marks' study. He holds back somewhat, I sense, from fully delving into the complicity of some Christians with the cause of Zion as the manifestation of the End Times simply because the realities that such alliances mask prove too eerie.

A few errors have been remarked upon by other Amazon reviewers. I add that Texas "Catholic" University's likely from the context of its graduate before and after college to be "Christian;" Meister Eckhardt does not have an "e" after the "k;" on an "October day" in Prague's Jewish cemetery it'd be impossible that a "Jewish holiday, Sukkoth or Purim, had shut the place down." (352) The former commemoration, yes; the latter feast that takes place in January or February, no!

Marks rarely indulges in his own philosophizing, being at heart a direct writer for all his learning, but he hits the target: pulling at our loyalties are a pair of "great forces." Memory tugs us back "to our childhood, our roots, our homeland, our God. Desire flings us forward, to our future, our mate, our children, and, sometimes, to our death." He fights reductionism, but stays "certain that every human being lives on some kind of the line between these two poles and finds a balance, or doesn't, at one end of the other of a spectrum." (266)

He wonders in the final pages-- looking ahead past the 2008 election and a shift away from the "politics of faith" at least in the White House-- if such a desire as many have for the apocalypse filters into a "death wish for the world." He ponders evangelical panic at the declining acceptance of "bible-true" faith collides with technologies alternately denigrated by many Christians and embraced by many "dispensationalists" who wish to use them to hasten annihilation by "spiritual warfare." The victims of such divinely-guided wrath (nothing personal as his "saved" neighbors assure him), would be the likes of Marks, his family, and the majority of the people left behind on earth.

(Posted to Amazon US today.)

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