A healthy dose of Christian disbelief or “holy skepticism” would serve as a much-needed antidote to the soft-core spirituality that saps much of contemporary Christianity, especially in its evangelical expression. An anti-doctrinal sentimentality often rules the worship and the art of our churches, where self-serving emotions are exalted over true mystery. The church of our time needs a theology that repudiates all saccharine substitutes for the hard thinking that Christian faith requires.
As in so many other matters, Flannery O’Connor foresaw our reduction of transcendent faith to sentimental subjectivity. She likened it to the scientific process whereby the wings can be bred off chickens to produce more succulent white meat. O’Connor said that it is possible to breed the moral and theological sense out of people in a similar way. She described our current generation as a brood of wingless chickens. This is what Nietzsche meant, she explained, when he declared God dead. It also means that nihilism is the atmosphere of our age, the gas that we all breathe, whether inside or outside the Church. The Church has made Christianity nearly indistinguishable from the coziness of a warm blanket and the kindliness of a golden heart. With typical starchiness, O’Connor added that “a golden heart would be a positive interference for the writing of fiction.”
What sustains both faith and fiction against such incipient nihilism is Christian disbelief. O’Connor explained the need for religious skepticism in a letter to an Emory University freshman named Alfred Corn, later to become a distinguished poet and anthologist. This shy student had written in 1955 to say that he was vexed by the intellectual doubts his professors had created. Their questions had put his faith in terrible jeopardy, and he asked O’Connor what he should do. To believe in God, she replied, is not to avoid such doubts and difficulties but to undergo a lifelong combat with them. Faith is indeed a gift, she added, but it is a gift that must be constantly cultivated and enlarged. Faith grows and deepens through concrete acts of charity, she explained. These deeds are prompted, in turn, by a discernment of the divine image in other persons. Only sacred sight can perceive their true worth. Such holy seeing is invigorated by imaginative more than abstract thinking. O’Connor concludes her letter with splendidly keen counsel:
Even in the life of a Christian, faith rises and falls like the tides of an invisible sea. [Faith is still] there, even when [you] can’t see it or feel it, if [you want] it to be there. You realize, I think, that [faith] is more valuable, more mysterious, altogether more immense than anything you can learn or decide upon in college. Learn what you can, but cultivate Christian skepticism. It will keep you free—not free to do anything you please, but free to be formed by something larger than your own intellect or the intellects of those around you.
O’Connor believed that Christian dogma is what forms the Christian imagination into something larger than our own intelligence or the intelligence of those around us. Knowing that the word “dogma” is a pejorative term for most Americans, O’Connor boldly capitalized it, confessing in the upper case that “My stories have been watered and fed by Dogma.” She rejected the popular view that dogma divides while ethics unite and that, since the practical and the useful are what truly matter, we can dispense with dogma. So long as everyone loves Jesus, according to the prevailing sentimentalism, doctrinal claims can be shelved. O’Connor believed, on the contrary, that dogma must be central rather than peripheral. It is the distilled essence of God’s self-identification in Israel and Christ, and thus the true means for understanding both ourselves and the world. “Dogma is an instrument for penetrating reality,” she declared. It “is about the only thing left in the world that surely guards and respects mystery.”
For Flannery O’Connor, “mystery” is not synonymous with “puzzle” and “riddle”—for those conundrums that balk the mind and stifle all understanding. Nor is mystery another name for a spirituality so vague that it cannot distinguish between John of the Cross and Max Lucado. “To St. Paul and the early Christian thinkers,” wrote Claude Tresmontant, one of O’Connor’s favorite biblical scholars, “[mystery] was on the contrary the particular object of intelligence, its fullest nourishment. The musterion [a Greek word that can also be translated sacrament] is something so rich in intelligible content, so inexhaustibly full of delectation for the mind that no contemplation [of it] can ever reach its end.”
Such delectations of mind and imagination also require Christians to make unmistakable declarations about what we do not believe. We cannot avoid the fact that Christian faith is inherently polemical. Every doctrinal claim implies its counterclaim, every affirmation its negation. Karl Barth learned this lesson in his encounter with the Nazis, who pronounced his writings illegal and who banned him from teaching in German universities. In response to the Nazi evils, Barth led the Confessing Church to develop the Barmen Declaration, a document wherein every credimus [we believe] is followed by its corollary damnamus [we reject]. The first article, for example, declares that “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Lest the Deutsche Christen of the Nazi church (or anyone else) mistake what this means, a clear reference to der Führer follows: “We reject the false doctrine [that] the Church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events, powers, figures, and truths as God’s revelation.”
Perhaps we need a new Barmen Declaration for Christian faith and writing in our time, a theological manifesto setting forth the things we do not and will not believe, precisely because we believe in Jesus Christ. The theologian Christopher Morse has developed such a theology for the Church amidst its current status confessionis. In Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief (1994), Morse argues that faithful skepticism is a biblical no less than an ecclesial imperative. Already in the New Testament it is made evident. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit,” we read in 1 John 4:1, “but test the spirits to see whether they are of God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” The Gospel of Mark shares this same disdain for untrue claimants to the Truth: “And then if anyone says, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (13:21–22). If even an angel from heaven should preach a false gospel, says St. Paul, “let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:9).
These unspecified deceiving spirits and false prophets and fake Christs are to be broadly understood, Morse claims, as anyone or anything making wrongful claims to our attention and allegiance. Christians are called to name these Antichrists and to refuse them our fealty—even as we are also required to disbelieve those dogmas that have ossified into lifeless propositions. Yet Christian disbelief does not mean a principled doubting of everything. Such radical skepticism soon slides into a cynicism altogether as sentimental and self-serving as the easy optimism it rejects. Christian disbelief is, instead, a positive testing of what is true and false by a single criterion: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God” (1 John 4:2–3).
There are many so-called Christian “spirits” now at work in our churches which deny that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh.” These gnostic and discarnate forms of Christianity are especially evident in the sappiness of what passes as contemporary Christian culture. This is not to say that sentimental piety always produces flaccid faith. There are many staunch witnesses to the gospel who are sustained by art more saccharine than sacred, and by worship more superficial than substantial. Such devout souls live out their Christianity in ways that transcend the limits of their piety, even as many of us academics must be saved in spite of our better taste and more orthodox theology. Yet the spiritual outrages being committed in the name of Christ cannot be dismissed as mere passing fads. They have come virtually to dominate the evangelical Protestant world.
Consider the following examples from a so-called Christian Book Fair. A T-shirt company called Living Epistles advertised a sweatshirt labeled “The Lord’s Gym.” It featured not Arnold Schwarzenegger but Jesus Christ as the pumped-up, steroid-loaded body builder. He is pressing himself up on a pile of rocks, blood gushing from his crown of thorns, with an enormous cross on his back that reads “The Sins of the World.” The caption beneath dares us to “Bench Press This!” On the other side of the shirt, Jesus’ palm is pierced with a railroad spike and covered in blood. Inscribed beneath are the words “His Pain, Your Gain.” Other T-shirts shout such slogans as “Salvation Is Not for Wimps,” “Jesus Loved You So Much it Hurt !”, “His Blood’s for You,” and “God Made Grandmas So Kids Could Feel His Hugs.” Bumper stickers declare that “Real Men Love Jesus” and “My Boss Is a Jewish Carpenter.” A key-chain featuring a soccer ball contains the slogan “Jesus Is My Goal.”
Such spiritual pap can be made to fill even book-sized containers. Consider, for example, one of the fair’s prize-winning titles: Lord, I Haven’t Talked to You Since the Last Crisis. Another much-touted work, Jesus Christ, CEO, describes our Lord as an executive who turned twelve ordinary men into managers of the most successful company the world has ever known. A fresh infusion of Christian skepticism would disdain such books, even as it would help deliver publishers from the temptation to get rich by manufacturing toilet tissue with the words “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” printed on every sheet.
There are many other examples of Christian kitsch. At an Easter service held in a South Carolina Baptist church, puppets popped up from behind a screen and wagged their muppety heads while singing “I Found My Thrill on Calvary Hill” to the old Fats Domino tune. Twenty miles south of Nashville, a Christian entrepreneur named Charles Budell has set up a miniature golf course in which windmills and water-hazards have been replaced by biblical obstacles. There Christian golfers can tee off at the Garden of Eden, get past the Devil, and end up in Heaven. Along the way, one putts into Noah’s Ark, drops onto Mt. Sinai, and visits the tomb of Christ. On the seventeenth hole, the ball disappears into a shaft with Satan’s picture on it, only to emerge beneath a red cross. “See,” says Budell, “you beat the Devil.” Angels are seated near the seventeenth hole, where the ball sinks into an opening with the word RAPTURE emblazoned above it.
One might argue that such gross parodies of the gospel are too silly to be dignified with criticism. The atrocious sacrileges of so-called Christian culture would be laughable indeed were their effects not so deadly. T. S. Eliot once observed that our unconscious habits, especially our leisure lives, serve to shape our souls and form our imaginations far more decisively than all our deliberate efforts to acquire high culture. Neil Postman’s argument about America at large is even more alarmingly true of our evangelical churches: we are amusing ourselves to death. The Christian culture critic Ken Myers, editor of Mars Hill Tapes, rightly describes popular Christianity as being “of the world, but not in the world.” It espouses a worldly gospel of happiness and success that offers no serious engagement with the deepest needs and desires of the world.
This sub-Christian religion devoted not to the Fatherhood but the Daddyhood of God—a friend of mine calls it Kiddyanity—can be seen most vigorously at work in contemporary worship. There is no doubt that its emotional fervor serves to indict the Laodicean lifelessness of much traditional worship. Seeker services aim at introducing the unchurched masses of our post-Christian culture to the rudiments of the faith, teaching them the elementary truths of the gospel in ways that liturgical worship and doctrinal preaching might not. Yet I wonder whether childlike beginners in a dumbed-down, user-friendly Christianity will ever grow up—whether such seekers will ever become finders and keepers of the faith once delivered to the saints. It is more likely, I fear, that they will subject themselves to apostolic wrath. St. Paul warns against a permanent infancy in faith. He pronounces fierce judgment on the Corinthians who remain milk-drinking believers, never learning to eat the rich meat and to quaff the good wine of the gospel.
This new ease in Zion, this friendly familiarity with the Lord God of the cosmos, can be discerned in old-fashioned liberal no less than new-fangled evangelical churches. Edward Farley has recently declared that the relevance-driven worship practiced in old-line liberal congregations prompts one not to exclaim “holy, holy, holy” but “nice, nice, nice.” In his book A Far Glory, Peter Berger argues that we are witnessing “the triumph of triviality” even in traditional churches. With the anger of an Amos, Berger laments the frontal hugs that would bring sexual harassment charges in other settings, the vigorous applause that follows the choir or the soloist’s performance (as if the true audience were not God but the congregation), the raucous laughter that the preacher’s well-rehearsed one-liners evoke. “Sermons [in such churches] are political harangues,” Berger complains, “and ‘prayers’ the recital of political platforms.” Hence Berger’s bitter litany of liturgical offenses.
One could go on: To the embarrassed handshakes mislabeled “the kiss of peace.” To the preacher mounting the pulpit in full sacerdotal regalia, only to begin his sermon with a hearty “good morning.” To the dedicated removal of every vestige of poetic beauty from the language of the liturgy. . . .into prose resembling that of a mail-order catalogue. I think that what all these changes add up to is the statement that nothing extraordinary is going on, that what is happening is a gathering of ordinary people enjoying the experience of community.
Such loss of awe and mystery, such commodification of God into the service of our own needs, flattens the imagination of wonder and otherness. If God is only a kinder and gentler version of ourselves, there is nothing ultimate to inspire our worship or command our service. No wonder that Flannery O’Connor likened sentimentality in religion to pornography in art: they both cultivate immediate sensate experience for its own sake. In a similar way the poet and mystical writer Kathleen Norris protests the removal of the fierce psalms of lament and imprecation from contemporary lectionaries. These cursing psalms remind us, says Norris, that wickedness cannot be conquered by mere niceness. Without anger, she adds, even the praise of God dissolves into a “dreadful cheer,” a smiling blindness to the world’s woe, a gleaming-gummed oblivion to what Luther called the bruised human conscience.
Leander Keck complains in a similar vein that our churches have replaced “the theocentric praise of God” with an “anthropocentric utilitarianism.” This inversion serves to tame and domesticate the living Lord of Scripture by ridding him of his jealousy and wrath. God is “reduced to the Great Enabler [who] has little to do except [to] warrant our causes and help us fulfill our aspirations.” Hence Keck’s baleful assessment of contemporary Christianity: “The opening line of the Westminster Confession is now reversed, for now the chief end of God is to glorify us and to be useful to us indefinitely.”
Perhaps the subtlest manifestation of sentimentality is to be found in the triumph of the word “spirituality” in Christian discourse. At its best, this new concern with the spiritual life reflects a laudable desire to make Christian faith a matter of the heart no less than the head, a discipline of devotional practices rather than a repetition of doctrinal propositions. Though he prefers the older word “piety”—with its deep rootage in Roman history and Calvinist theology—J. I. Packer offers a succinct positive definition of Christian spirituality as an “enquiry into the whole Christian enterprise of pursuing, achieving, and cultivating communion with God, which includes both public worship and private devotion, and the results of these in actual Christian life.”
If at its noblest the spirituality movement serves to revitalize Christian devotion, why substitute a name so gaseous and gossamer that it means nearly everything and therefore hardly anything? Are the practitioners of spirituality to be regarded as spiritualists, and thus as adepts in spiritualism ? Will seances and necromancy soon follow? We entangle ourselves in such questions whenever we seek to avoid the offense of the gospel, its scandalous particularity and finality, its thorny refusal to be made one faith among others.
With uncanny prescience, C. S. Lewis anticipated our current obsession with spirituality. In his space novel of 1944 called Perelandra, Lewis depicts his demonic scientist Weston as an advocate of an immanentist life—worship that has remarkable parallels to contemporary spirituality. Weston has contempt for the notion of a transcendent God who creates and judges and redeems the world. He will have nothing to do with the incarnate Lord who requires that we worship him rather than his creation, who commands that we live not for this world alone but for the Life beyond life. Weston’s anti-theistic philosophy proves predictably anti-humanistic, as the denial of God issues in hatred of humanity. Weston worships not God but the unsupervised and impersonal life-process. He scorns “mere” humanity in the name of a vitalism as vacuous in its rhetoric as it is vicious in its ethics:
The majestic spectacle of this blind, inarticulate purposiveness thrusting its way upward and ever upward in an endless unity of differentiated achievements towards an ever increasing complexity of organization, towards spontaneity and spirituality, swept away all my old conception of a duty to Man as such. Man in himself is nothing. The forward movement of Life—the growing spirituality—is everything. . . . To spread spirituality, not to spread the human race, is henceforth my mission. (Emphasis added.)
Our rampant desire to reduce knotty particularities to spongy generalities has led a cynical friend to confess that he grabs first for his wife and then for his wallet when he hears this gnostic word “spirituality.” William Temple spoke similar wisdom when he declared Christianity to be the world’s most materialistic religion. Redemption is an outward and public and visible thing wrought by the flesh-assuming, world-inhabiting God. The objective work of Jesus Christ is the center of the Christian life, upon which all subjective conversions are based, themselves enabled by God’s own gift of faith. Our “decisions for Christ” announce that our faith is indeed intentional; it is uniquely ours, not just the product of our parents or the community that nurtured us. Yet even the deepest personal encounter with God can never be commensurate with the gift of salvation itself. An evangelical reporter is said to have asked Karl Barth, when he was visiting this country in 1962, whether he had ever been saved. “Yes,” Barth is rumored to have replied. “Then tell us about your salvation experience,” the reporter eagerly requested. “It happened in a.d. 34, when Jesus was crucified and God raised him from the dead.”
Those who have turned the WWJD acronym into a fashion item—donning decorative wear that asks What Would Jesus Do—ignore this fundamental distinction between Christ’s objective work and our subjective appropriation of it. As the Son of God slain for the sins of the world, Jesus has a life qualitatively different from ours. To ask what Jesus would do is to assume that we are his qualitative equal. The theologian Diogenes Allen puts the matter exactly the other way around. He starkly observes that, in a certain sense, Christ does not need us: “Jesus is Lord because of who he is, not because he has followers. . . . He is Lord because he is the Son of God. It isn’t because of us that he is the Son of God.” A more faithful question needs to be asked, even if it cannot be reduced to an acronymn: “What does Jesus Christ, because of his unique life and death and resurrection, uniquely enable his disciples to do?” The difficult answer is that he is the only Savior who, having accomplished their redemption, enables his followers to do works even greater than his own (John 14:12). Like the Baptizer in Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece—the long-fingered prophet who points away from himself to the crucified God—we can make witness, in both word and deed, to the salvation that we ourselves could not possibly have accomplished.
The recrudescent nineteenth-century theology of Christian subjectivism finds its literary equivalent in the current Christian chic of salvation through autobiography alone. Thus the current rage for telling one’s own story as if it were God’s story—when, by contrast, we are called to conform our fallen and false stories to God’s one true Story. An important Christian writer recently declared, when asked about the sources of her art, that she writes entirely out of her own experience—her family, her friends, her church. Another avowedly Christian author confesses that doctrine no longer matters to her. She finds her audience in the many Christians who gather to praise Jesus without squabbling over their beliefs. Surely this is to forget that the gospel liberates us from subjective emotionalism, giving us new lenses for perceiving both ourselves and our world, delivering us into the great unexplored realm of the Not Merely Me. Luther in his 1535 lectures on Galatians declared that the gospel of God “snatches us away from ourselves, so that we do not depend on our own strength, conscience, experience, person, or works, but depend on that which is outside ourselves, that is, on the promise and truth of God, which cannot deceive.” Christian art consists not in the transmission of often deceptive autobiographical experience into fictional guise, but rather its radical transfiguration into the one undeceiving form: the form of the Cross and Resurrection.
Christopher Morse cites Matthew’s inclusion of the Old Testament figure of Rachel right in the midst of the Christmas story as an example of such cruciform narrative art. “Along with the sound of wise men and shepherds, of the angels and all the heavenly host praising God and singing,” writes Morse, “there is this other sound—the sound of ‘a voice heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.'”
In the Genesis narratives, Rachel is depicted as the mother of Jacob’s last two and most beloved sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Her life had begun brightly when Jacob kissed her and wept for gladness at finding a Hebrew woman to marry amidst the unwanted Canaanite women. Yet Rachel’s lot in life soon proved unhappy. Not only did her father Laban inveigle Jacob into marrying her sister Leah, but Rachel’s long-deferred marriage to Jacob remained childless for many years. The fertile Leah was a reproach to her, having borne Jacob eight sons. At last God took away Rachel’s shame by giving her Joseph, the future rescuer of his family. But in bringing Benjamin into the world, Rachel “travailed, and she had hard labor,” as Genesis 35:17 bluntly states. She died in childbirth and was buried by the roadside. Jeremiah remembers Rachel’s grave alongside the path the Israelites took into exile, and he hears her still refusing all consolation. Like these exiled children of Abraham who have no prospect of returning, her children are no more.
Yet Jeremiah also hears the voice of comfort addressed to Rachel and to all who suffer with her. “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears. . . . There is hope for your future’” (Jeremiah 31:16–17). It is this hope that Matthew picks up from Jeremiah. Herod has slaughtered all the young sons of Israel, and yet there is hope for all the world’s Rachels in this singular Child who has been spared. But it is a dark kind of hope, a hope that points (as Luther saw) to this same Son who will be forsaken on the Cross. This is no easy consolation, no sweet and sentimental assurance that everything will work out well. It is the faith that begins in disbelief, in the rejection of all false comfort. “By not believing in any consolation short of God’s own descent into hell in Christ,” Morse declares, “the refusal of Rachel becomes a faithful witness pointing to the Resurrection.” God alone, the God of Golgotha, can provide solace that is not saccharine. All surrogate hopes must be disbelieved.
Peter De Vries’ novels give fictional life to the disbelief that eschews oleaginous substitutes. I am not here claiming De Vries to be a Christian in what he affirmed, only in what he negated—namely, in his refusal to be cozily consoled when the children were no more. Many of De Vries’ readers know that his most celebrated novel, The Blood of the Lamb (1962), has autobiographical origins. Both De Vries’ sister and his own daughter died young. After his sister’s death, he once told me, his mother refused ever again to sing in church. Yet their minister, in making a pastoral call, had the gall to inquire about her silence, failing to see that this Dutch immigrant mother was a latter-day Rachel, refusing to be comforted by anyone but God—and perhaps not even by him. De Vries lets his mother’s voice be heard when his narrator, Don Wanderhope, loses his own brother to pneumonia. In the novel as in life, a minister has come to proffer the hope that Wanderhope knows to be bogus. He will not take solace in a God whose sovereignty makes him the direct cause of every occurrence, both human and natural. Hence Wanderhope’s poignant wail of disbelief:
My sensation, rather than fear or piety, was a baffled and uncomprehending rage. That flesh with which I had lain in comradely embrace [was] destroyable, on such short notice, by a whim known as divine? . . . Who wantonly scattered such charm, who broke such flesh like bread for his purposes?
When Wanderhope’s own daughter Carol dies of leukemia at age eleven, his disbelief is no longer partial but total. He refuses to find any relief in the notion that her death is the work of God’s beneficent will. Instead, he engages in his own willful inversion of the central Christian claims. It is not Christ who is slain from the foundation of the world for the sins of the world, but little Carol herself who is the innocent creature needlessly destroyed. The fountain filled with blood has been drawn not from Emmanuel’s but from this helpless child’s veins. Wanderhope thus addresses the dying Carol as his “lamb,” and he strokes her hair as “precious fleece.” He describes her needle marks and incisions as “stigmata.” Carol dies at the very hour when other children are frolicking their way home from school, even as it is also the hour of Christ’s death: three o’clock in the afternoon. The abandonment that occurred at Calvary may not have been the great act of substitutionary atonement wrought by God in Christ, De Vries suggests, but a fearful sign of God’s perpetual truancy amidst human anguish.
One wonders whether De Vries the ex-Calvinist might have been rescued from such horrible fears if he had been taught a doctrine of divine sovereignty that did not insist on God’s omnicausality. Calvin chose his adjective carefully when he declared that “All events are governed by God’s secret plan.” That God’s providential will for the world is not transparent but hidden from human sight requires that we walk by faith, that we struggle through the valley of doubt as well as the shadow of death. Yet if God’s work were completely concealed, human history and individual life would be random and rudderless, the chaotic product of an accidental universe. Both Catholic Scholasticism and Protestant Orthodoxy sought to steer a middle course between such false notions of divine transparency and divine opacity by insisting on the distinction between first and second causes. God’s primary will does indeed superintend the working of all things together for good (Romans 8:28). Yet there are secondary causes—both natural and human, at once free and contingent and necessary—that may temporarily deflect even if they do not finally defeat God’s providence. Sentimental Christianity spurns this distinction, trying instead to make evident the God who remains hidden even in his incarnation. It encourages either cozy feelings of assurance that the Lord makes everything work to our benefit, or else cozy communities assured that they are God’s only hands and feet in the work of peace and justice. Christian disbelief disavows both sentimentalities.
Even with sentimentalism set aside, we are still left to deal with the terrible death of Carol Wanderhope. In the scene that follows it, De Vries hints at the one true way to avoid the twin evils of divine omnicausality and godless accidentality. Don Wanderhope had bought a cake for Carol’s birthday, but he had inadvertently left it in the Catholic church where, on the way to the hospital, he had stopped to say one last desperate prayer for her recovery. Staggering both from grief and from the liquor he has drunk to numb it, Don remembers the cake. He returns to the church to get it. In a gesture of pure metaphysical fury, Wanderhope flings the confection in the face of the crucifix hanging over the church door. Yet just as Jeremiah hears God answering the inconsolable Rachel, so does De Vries reveal a strange solace in this act of defiance. A bleary-eyed Wanderhope sees Christ wiping the icing from his eyes “very slowly, very deliberately, with infinite patience. . . . Then the cheeks were wiped down with the same sense of grave and gentle ritual, with all the kind sobriety of one whose voice could be heard saying, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me . . . for such is the kingdom of heaven.’”
Just as Jacob wrestles with the angel all night until he has been blessed, even if his battle with God leaves him permanently lamed; as Jeremiah protests that God absconds behind the blank wall of Israel’s exile; as the Psalmist laments that the wicked prosper while the faithful and the righteous languish; as Koheleth complains that life is a great weariness under a sun that also rises and also goes down without producing anything new; as Job angrily contends with the God who has subjected him to unspeakable suffering without due cause; even as Rachel mourns in Ramah that her children are no more—so does Peter De Vries have his characters decline all comfort that is not real comfort. Don Wanderhope refuses to believe that his daughter’s death is either the mechanical execution of a divine plan or the random result of godless chance. His encounter with the cake-spattered Christ suggests, instead, that God has strangely subjected himself to the sin and rage of his people. This is indeed a dark revelation, and De Vries claimed to be no more than a backslidden unbeliever. Yet his fiction makes powerful witness against the soggy spirituality of our age, confronting us with a Cross which demands our disbelief in all sentimental substitutes.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor at Baylor University. An earlier version of this essay was delivered at the Calvin College Festival of Faith and Writing, April 3–4, 1998, in Grand Rapids, Michigan.