You may have heard the story of how I first came to read Walker Percy’s wonderful collection of essays The Message in the Bottle, but then again you may not (or you may simply not remember). Back in 1975 (almost fifty years ago!), when that book appeared, I read Hugh Kenner’s review of it in the pages of National Review. Before I had even finished the piece, I knew that this was a book I must read at the first opportunity. I called Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena; no, they did have it coming but they hadn’t received it yet. Then I called B. Dalton in Hollywood. Yes, they had one copy. I asked them to hold it, promising I would be there later that day.
Wendy and I drove to B. Dalton, and I paid for the book. On the way back home, Wendy mentioned that she needed to stop at Kmart. While she was in the store, I stayed in the car in the parking lot and started Percy’s book. When Wendy got back to the car, she saw that I had been crying, and she was concerned. I told her I was crying because the beginning of the first essay in the book was so wonderful. She was relieved, and she asked me if I would read the beginning of it to her when we got home. I said yes.
That (long) first essay is called “The Delta Factor.” It comes with a delicious subtitle: “How I Discovered the Delta Factor Sitting at My Desk One Summer Day in Louisiana in the 1950’s Thinking about an Event in the Life of Helen Keller on Another Summer Day in Alabama in 1887.” You may be wondering what exactly the “Delta Factor” is; I urge you to read the essay. What I want to zero in on here is the striking fashion in which the essay begins: with several pages of questions, one after another. Here’s the very first one: “Why does man feel so sad in the twentieth century?” Here’s another one, a couple of pages in: “Why was it that when Franz Kafka would read aloud to his friends stories about the sadness and alienation of life in the twentieth century everyone would laugh until tears came?”
I hope you will check out this essay if you’ve never read it, or revisit it if you have. But I mention it here for another reason. Just lately, a youngish scholar, whom I don’t know in person but who is respected by some people I think highly of, circulated an observation that struck him as deeply insightful: “white evangelicals” are people who don’t have any questions. That’s patently absurd, of course, but the comment won assent from others and continues to circulate.
Now you may say, well, he’s just trying to get a rise out of people; he knows that’s silly. Which would be worse: to say it just to poke people with a stick and get them stirred up, or to mean it, to attribute such an attitude to millions of people?
You might be saying, about now, that it’s all too common to fetishize “questioning” and belittle solid faith. I agree. But the assertion about white evangelicals goes well beyond that; it’s a dehumanizing caricature. And that is what made me think of Percy’s essay:
Why do young people look so sad, the very young who, seeing how sad their elders are, have sought a new life of joy and freedom with each other and in the green fields and forests, but who instead of finding joy look even sadder than their elders?
Around the end of this year, my friend Dan Taylor (that’s Daniel W. Taylor to you, bud) has a novel coming from Slant Books, The Mystery of Iniquity. It’s a terrific book. Dan (who taught at Bethel University in Saint Paul for decades) has “questions”; he also has faith. The same is true, as Joseph Ratzinger observed in his superb Introduction to Christianity, of “unbelievers,” who wonder whether they are wrong.
“Questioning,” of course, isn’t evenly distributed. Those of us less beset by “questions” than some others have no reason to brag, nor can we assume it will always be thus. Which reminds me of another of Percy’s questions: “Why does it make a man feel better to read a book about a man like himself feeling bad?”
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books and senior editor at The Marginalia Review of Books.
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