White Tribalism Goes Mainstream

The new neighbor from across the street–the one with the Trump sign in his yard, rebel flag across his garage windows, and Nazi flag on his son’s basketball backboard–walked into the party wearing a shirt that said on the back, “Better a wolf of Odin than a Lamb of God.”

The Will to Devolution, up now at Eclectica.


image, vangogh.teespring.com


The Gay Worm Turns

I have two equality stickers on the back of my car, one pasted right on top of the other so it looks like only one. The reason? Not long ago, after I finished classes and office hours, I walked out to the faculty parking lot and discovered someone had taken their ballpoint pen and dug a deep X through the equality sticker on my back window. I had no way of knowing who did it, so I simply waited for the Human Rights Campaign, which I support, to send me another one. Until I covered the defiled sticker with an intact new one, the angry reminded me why the sticker needs to be there in the first place.

When you have some free time, please spend a little of it with my essay The Gay Worm Turns. It is another from my collection about leaving Fundamentalist Christianity, up now at Atticus Review.


image, shop.hrc.org



“Rae”, is published in Drunken Boat. It is an excerpt from my novel Eternity Rowboat, which once had the working title The Calling. Other excerpts from this novel are published in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Pithead Chapel, Letters, Rock & Sling, and Relief. If you like this excerpt, you can find most of the rest here on my blog as Calling excerpts.




image,  commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_woman%27s_hands.JPG

An Atheist and a Saint


“You don’t believe in God?” I ask my girlfriend Liz.

It’s a legitimate question in Lynchburg, Virginia, a city whose population of Baptists is on par with Salt Lake City’s Mormons. Finding an atheist who is out around here is like spotting a yeti.

We approach the one traffic light on the way back to Liz’s apartment from the college where she teaches economics. It is dark out, almost ten at night. She’s hunched forward in the dull orange glow of the streetlight, hugging her coat closed. Without saying a definite yes to my question, she makes it clear. She turns her head down in the cold car as if laying it on a pillow, the bottom half of her face disappearing into shadow.

“Is that a problem?” she says.

“No,” I say. “Should it be?”

I begin to wonder why it is not. Though I left the Baptist faith of my childhood, I do still believe in God. What will it mean for our relationship that she does not?

We just came from a Richard Dawkins lecture at her college, which had been billed as a discussion of his book The God Delusion. Dawkins did not, however, spend the forty-minute talk arguing against belief in the supernatural, or some kind of divine reality. He had his rifle loaded for a single deity. Dawkins, a small, mild-looking man with a smooth British accent and ironic tone, stood at the lectern with a wry smirk and insulted Yahweh, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Old Testament. He ended his rollicking diatribe by calling God a “megalomaniacal meany.”

Of course, Dawkins knew he was only a few short miles from Fundamentalist Christian Liberty University, where all philosophy courses are apologetics classes. He also had to have seen the rows of Liberty students—whole classes complete with teachers—who are unmistakable around town in their unofficial uniform of J. Crew khakis and polo shirts. They took notes feverishly, flipped through books and Bibles, scrambled and shoved to line up at the microphone when he finally opened the floor for questions.

The Liberty students hit Dawkins with all the classic argument for the existence of God. They had a zeal and blustering pride typical of youth. Each kid appeared certain that Dawkins would cave before his or her argument, the old atheist would be publicly put to shame (or possibly even converted?) and the student would be the Young Champion of the hour. A seasoned professional, Dawkins slew these college kids one after the other, never flustered, never without a hint of a grin, never raising his voice.

For over an hour Liz and I watched students scramble up and down the aisles, flipping through their apologetics books, coached and goaded by their teachers. Eventually Dawkins stopped impugning the character of God and instead insulted the intelligence of anyone ignorant enough to associate with “that school on the other side of town.” The argument broke into little swirling eddies, none of them going anywhere. The undaunted kids were still lining up to get at him as we slipped out and made our way back to Liz’s apartment. Several times in the evening, I had noticed Liz nodding her agreement with Dawkins, and so I asked her about her unbelief.

I had just that week pulled the novel The Plague off my shelf and started reading it again. It had been twelve years since I’d last read it, and I was having a far different experience with the book this time around. At the time of the Dawkins lecture, this question was already in my mind: Why do I have such an affinity for Dr. Bernard Rieux, the protagonist of this novel? And why do I, a believer, feel such a sense of communion with the atheist writer Albert Camus?


In the early chapters of his phenomenology of religion God, Guilt, and Death, Merold Westphal writes of two basic human reactions to the idea of an Ultimate Other, however that is defined across religious traditions. These reactions he calls ambivalence and resentment. Though expressed in different ways, these are the reactions of believer and non-believer alike.

For the believer, according to Westphal, ambivalence begins with the awakening to the ontological poverty of the believing soul. The realization is expressed in phrases such as this one from a Baptist invitational hymn I sang countless times as a boy: “Thou art the potter, I am the clay.” From our earliest years in Sunday School we are taught to say, “He must increase, I must decrease,” a mantra which only brings our attitudes into plumb with the already-established reality of our nothingness before God. Stickers are popping up in car windows around town that say NOT I, BUT CHRIST—the website advertised below the message without intended irony was at first http://www.falwell.com, and has since changed to http://www.trbc.com. A perfect example of this very ambivalence.

I, the believing soul, am drawn to God, to the All, but at the same time I am repulsed because of what it means about the nature of my own existence: when faced with the Ultimate, non-contingent reality, I experience what Westphal calls a deficiency of being, a realization that my very existence is small and worthless by comparison. At the same time, God holds out to me the only chance at giving my small, weak existence any real meaning. Could I be anything but ambivalent? Like someone standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, Westphal writes, or a toddler standing before a huge dog, I am simultaneously drawn in and repelled. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, as has often been noted, is a good example of this kind of believer’s ambivalence. Milton, a Protestant who opposing King of England, could not help feeling sympathy for his rag-tag band of fallen angels as they stood in defiance of the Dictator of all creation—for whose ways Milton had ostensibly set out to write a defense.

Nonbelievers experience ambivalence as a longing for something beyond material existence: for love that is truly love and not simply evolutionary impulses designed to propagate the species; for life to make some kind of sense; for existence to have real meaning. It is what Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” calls an “appetite for the absolute and for unity.” The absence of an Ultimate Other leaves a longing in the unbelieving soul—St. Augustine’s restless heart and Adrienne Rich’s lament about being an ice-fast rowboat gazing out at winter’s red light, with its own small gift for burning.

The ambivalence I’ve been talking about is rather self-centered. I don’t mean this in a negative way necessarily. I cannot not be at the center of my experience of the world, and therefore it is that experience which appears ultimate to me; I do however mature to realize that other individuals are at the center of their own experiences and, if I mature properly, I also realize that their experiences are no less important than my own.

This growing up does not make the ambivalence go away however. I suffer. I see loved ones suffer, and understand because I too have suffered, and I grieve for them. I learn to empathize with the suffering of complete strangers. At this point ambivalence shifts from its focus on the self in relation to God, to God in relation to humanity–the problem of evil and suffering. Particularly the suffering of children. The result is what Westphal calls resentment. This reaction is at the heart of the problem of evil, the reason many raised within a faith tradition turn to Atheism, and the central question of theodicy: If God is all-powerful, and all-good, then where does evil come from? At some point in her life the believer thinks, if I were God I would have created a world not marked by struggle and suffering, a world without blood and brutality. Surely God, being all-powerful, could have done better than this. It is a complaint about the way God is managing things: not only is someone other than me in charge of things, he appears to be royally fucking things up.

In The Plague, Camus’ protagonist Dr. Rieux echoes the bitter cry of Ivan Karamazov when he says, “until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” The disease ravaging Oran is no respecter of persons, and it tortures and destroys innocent children along with everyone else. Dr. Rieux is not equivocal about his conclusion: “since the order of the world is shaped by death, mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in him?”

As a youth, I heard more than one preacher quote Ivan Karamazov when he said if God is dead all things are possible, then point at the moral freefall of American culture as proof. Not only is this interpretation based on a questionable definition of morality, one focused almost entirely on sexual conduct and not on how you actually treat others (I had an African-American friend once lean over to me while we were listening to one such sermon and whisper, “Ask a black man how much worse things are.”), it is a total misunderstanding of Dostoevsky’s point. Camus understands that Ivan’s denial of God is far from a triumphal shout, because having a God who gives meaning and purpose to life is far more appealing than being able to misbehave without fear of punishment. Ivan is crying out that if God does not exist all manner of horrors are possible. Dr. Rieux looks around, sees that all manner of horrors are possible, and concludes that surely God must not exist.

Camus is known for his paradox of the Absurd, which is based on a dualism: we love and cherish life and existence, yet life and existence are marked by suffering, meaninglessness and ultimately death. It is absurd. The logical conclusion is nihilism and the only relevant question left is, according to Camus, why not just kill yourself and be done with it. Although Existentialism has gone out of fashion and become a sort of cultural joke, existentialists’ issues have not gone away.  The unbelieving side of resentment is simply the reasonable assumption that if there really is a good and loving and all-powerful God the world would not be as it undeniably is.


Liz works with the Lynchburg Neighborhood Development Foundation, an organization here in town whose work is among the poorest neighborhoods; at her job she champions service learning, teaching her students by taking them to work with community leaders in these neighborhoods on real economic problems. Her students must come face-to-face with the disenfranchised, know them as individuals, and treat them with dignity and respect.

In The Plague Dr. Rieux might choose meaninglessness, but he also refuses to follow it to Camus’ logical conclusion. He still behaves as if there were meaning to life. Throughout the plague he pushes himself to his physical limits combating the illness. He slaves with the devotion of Mother Theresa to alleviate suffering. He says that though he does not believe, he does feel he is on the right road in fighting against creation as he finds it and he believes we should “struggle with all our might against death.”

If you watch the man’s actions, it looks for all the world like a fitting answer to the bumper sticker: What Would Jesus Do? This. This is what he would do. But why? Why does Dr. Rieux persist in doing good when he honestly believes there’s no meaning to it? I think Miguel De Unamuno makes the distinction that answers this question. Psalms 53:1 says, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God…” Another phrase I heard countless times growing up. In his classic Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes that it is a true statement, the fool hath denied God in his heart; but, he goes on to write that one who denies God in her head because of despair at not finding him is not who is being described in this passage of Scripture. For Unamuno, a righteous and good person can conclude in his head that there is no God and remain righteous. But it is the wicked and foolish one who concludes this in the heart.

This head-heart distinction goes down easily for a boy who grew up in the Baptist church hearing preachers talk about people missing heaven by eighteen inches—the distance from the head to the heart. What is astonishing here is the radical change of paradigm, the tectonic shift of categories.

To Evangelical Christians, a heart knowledge of God begins with an emotional response to a call, a moment of contrition in which Jesus is asked to enter one’s heart. What follows this conversion experience in the believing soul is a matter of debate (when I was in seminary it was called the Lordship Salvation controversy). In this tradition, it is the Atheist—the one who says in her head there is no God—who is the fool. Unamuno stands this interpretation on its head, and I think rightly so. A character in The Plague wonders aloud to Dr. Rieux if it is possible to be a saint without believing in God. Unamuno’s answer is an unequivocal yes.

What would Jesus himself say to this? Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21) and Jesus says to him, “Ye must be born again.”I know the story well. But going back to it, I notice the shift in Jesus’ own words from belief in him to actions: “For everyone that doeth evil hateth the light…But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought of God.”

I looked back over the rest of the red-lettered portions of the New Testament, to see what Jesus has to say. In Matthew 21, he gives the parable of the two sons. The one son says to his father, “Yes I will do as you ask,” then does not; the other son says to his father, “No, I will not,” but then goes and does as he is asked. Jesus is quite clear that the son who says the no and does the yes is the one who is truly righteous. In light of Unamuno’s words above, this parable could be seen as Jesus’ approval of a man like Dr. Bernard Rieux. What might make easy-living Evangelicals a little uncomfortable here is that once the dust settles on these new categories, if an Atheist is in, who might be left out?

This discomfort will not be alleviated by flipping forward to Matthew 25 and read what Jesus says about those who will be blessed and those who will be damned. Here he does not mention a conversion experience of any kind, or the keeping of rules. He doesn’t mention belief at all. He does speak in specific terms about blessing for those who have struggled against real, physical human suffering, and damnation for those who have not.

Liz considers all this talk of blessing and damnation so much poppycock, and so would Dr. Rieux; however, Camus has embodied in Rieux what he considers to be the only course one who longs for meaning yet sees none can take: hold out for meaning in the face of meaninglessness by sheer force of will. Act. Act and the action itself will create meaning. Not any act will suffice though. In his 1957 Nobel Banquet Speech, Camus’ call was to “fight openly against the instinct of death at work in our history.” But in an absurd world void of meaning, is it not just as much poppycock to call for action of any kind, much less one kind over another?

Here we return to the unbeliever’s side of ambivalence via the Stoics, who would rather cut off their feet than admit they need shoes. Camus refuses to take the Stoic’s way.  He has the integrity to admit that his heart longs for the Absolute, even while his head will not allow it. Even if his reason gives him no comfort, he still refuses to lop off his desire in order to make the denial of its object more convenient. His position is not so far removed from Unamuno’s “transcendental pessimism,” in which, after conceding that the evidence of reason is not enough in itself to justify belief, he concludes, “Let life be lived in such a way, with such dedication to goodness and the highest values that if, after all, it is annihilation which finally awaits us, that will be injustice.”


We awaken and discover ourselves dropped into existence in media res, and it is impossible to lift ourselves above the flow of history to get a universal perspective. Like it or not, we are contingent; we owe our existence to something other than ourselves. Whatever we believe that something to be, we feel ambivalent toward it.

Even though the concept of evil is debated, there is no disputing the existence of suffering. Our natural reaction to senseless suffering—the suffering of innocent children—is anguish and rage. Our options are clear. If we act, our actions create meaning. The way I see it, being contingent as we are—and therefore being incapable of creating anything ex nihilo—the meaning we create with our actions is in reality a reaching down and drawing on an Ultimate meaning, an Absolute. God. The ability to create meaning through moral action is what Nicolas Berdyaev calls the Freedom of the Spirit, and he says it is clear evidence that humanity bears the divine image.

More poppycock Liz would say. That doesn’t bother me. In a later discussion of the Dawkins lecture, she told me that she was put off by his comportment: he was smug, cocky, derisive of anyone who disagreed with his position. For example, when someone mentioned the fact that Antony Flew had backed off of his own Atheism, Dawkins said it was a pity; Flew was old and losing his faculties, but he “once had a fine mind.”

It’s impossible for me to say what Dawkins is like as a human being. He’d stepped up to preach his atheism in Lynchburg, Virginia. The fact that he preaches with evangelical zeal leads me to think his opinions are not simply a result of his disinterested study of the empirical evidence. I know that isn’t the case with Liz; she grew up being told by her Southern Baptist classmates on Georgia playgrounds that she and her entire family were going to burn in hell because they hadn’t asked Jesus into their hearts.

I think Rieux appeals to me so much because, whatever his stated belief, he is good. He acts as if there were meaning even if his reason tells him it isn’t true. Liz is good also, good and compassionate and fair. She lives her life according to a high moral code, and she is interested in justice, but not without mercy. These things I know about her. She doesn’t need a bracelet on her arm to remind her how Jesus would handle a situation; she has the moral compass in her heart.

When I asked her that night whether or not she believed in God, she finally said, “I don’t see enough evidence to justify belief.” Fair enough. I do see enough evidence to justify belief, and I am a believer. As much as my head might spin in disbelief, unbelief is simply not a living option. Yet the senseless suffering of innocents fills me with anguished questions for and about God. I struggle with the problem of evil–every honest apologist knows in his or her heart there is no final answer that can satisfactorily put this question to rest.

What do I do then? I strive to act with integrity, to live simply, taking only what I need and no more than my share. I endeavor to deal compassionately with others, trying to understand them as human beings with dreams and desires no less important than my own for their being different. I fight against injustice, suffering, and death wherever I find it.

This is Liz’s position as well. And this is why, driving back to her place after the Dawkins lecture, I was comfortable with her answer. While our heads disagree, our hearts are in perfect harmony. She stands on one side of the question of God, and I stand on the other, but we are looking in the same direction with a deep and human longing, a longing that rises from a shared place where sorrow and comfort mingle and flow regardless of belief. We are standing close together. In fact, we are so close we could easily lock arms.


“An Atheist and a Saint” was originally published in Rock & Sling.

-image  3.bp.blogspot.com

Ask, Seek, Knock


Another from The Calling, this excerpt first appeared in Portland Review


It is Andrew’s first day back at school in two full weeks. During Social Studies class, while Mrs. Combs talks about the different kinds of government—absolute monarchy, dictatorship, democracy, communism—Andrew daydreams. He can’t stop thinking about the stupid girl shoes on his feet.

Fuzzy blue on the sides, shiny blue on top, he hates the shoes. He hates his mom for making him wear them to school. He thinks that if somebody calls him a queer like Mr. Cox—who Ronny Stewart said lets other men put their dicks in his butt—Andrew will bust his head; he thinks he’ll get away with it too, this time, because of what happened to James.

Then the Lord impresses a verse of Scripture on his heart, one he’d memorized for AWANA last year while trying to get his Timothy Award: Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. What he wants more than anything in the world is to have those blue shoes off his feet and baseball cleats on.

He remembers how Jesus said in Matthew 17:20 that if he has faith the size of a mustard seed he can say to a mountain, Remove from here to yonder place; and it shall remove and nothing shall be impossible to you.

Then the Lord puts a hymn they sing in church into his head—it is a miracle happening, he knows it—and he can see and hear in his mind his dad out beside the pulpit, waving his arms all weird like he’s cursive writing on the air, his voice bellowing it out: Nothing is impossible, when you put your trust in God…Listen to the voice of God to thee, is there anything to hard for me?

Andrew has more than a mustard seed’s worth of faith. He is all faith; that’s how he knows Jesus will do it. Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, Jesus rose himself from the dead. Andrew doesn’t want a mountain moved. All he wants is his old blue girl shoes to turn into baseball cleats on his feet. Easy for Jesus to do.

Mrs. Combs is now talking about the Magna Carta, which took absolute power away from the king and gave it to regular people. All the kids are tired from just eating lunch. They’re slouched and still, except for Georgie Porgie Shamblin who is against the back wall twirling his hair. There is a pipe behind his head with insulation on it wrapped and hard like a long cast, only yellow not white; Georgie Porgie is digging at it with his pencil and flakes of stuff glisten like fairy dust in the air beside his ear.

“Forty-one of the men aboard signed the Mayflower Compact,” Mrs. Combs says. She says, “A compact is an agreement, or a contract.”

Tall windows go along the whole wall of the classroom. The kindergartners are out on the playground in the bright sunshine. The kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Dye, has on a miniskirt and wobbles silently among the kids on her high heels.

Andrew closes his eyes and starts praying his effectual fervent prayer: Dear heavenly Father, he prays, I come to you today in the name of our savior Jesus Christ, to claim your promise that if I have faith, and ask, You will do what I ask. He prays, Father God, please turn these girl shoes into baseball cleats, and I will not forget to give You the glory for it. In Jesus name, amen.


The day before, after Sunday school and morning worship, Andrew had watched out the front window as Harry Taylor walked across the church parking lot after the rain stopped and knocked on his door.

Andrew opened it and Harry said, “I was thinking we could trade shoes for a while.” He looked down as he talked. He smelled like dog crotch. There was a dirty sweat ring around his neck.

Andrew could see how Harry would be nice to him. Harry’s dad had recently died, except he’d killed himself in jail and was burning in hell now. Andrew’s brother James had been saved, and was in heaven with Jesus. Still, Andrew could see how Harry would be nice.

All the other boys in the neighborhood were being nice to him too since James drowned; Andrew hadn’t been picked on or got in a single fight since that day. It was one more thing, like the sudden absence of James, that made Andrew believe something had shifted in the fundamental order of the universe.

The neighborhood boys, from Harry across the parking lot, to the ones in the row of houses along the riverbank to the bridge—Jimmy Gillenwater, Ronny Stewart, the Jacksons—were dirty, mean boys, on the welfare. They were stupid too, retards, impossible to talk sense to. They were like the Gillenwaters’ pit bull that one time held Andrew at bay across the wide puddle in the dirt road. Andrew kept saying, “Go home, Harley. Go home,” trying to sound mean, but the dog barked at him and stood there smiling with his tongue out, his eyes staring blank like a shark’s, like he didn’t know one damn thing in the world but how to bite somebody.

The Jackson boys always had their heads shaved bald so kids said they had lice. They had Frankenstein foreheads and confused eyes, and if you tackled them or punched them in a fight they didn’t even feel it. Larry Jackson was in Andrew’s class; his brother Robbie was in James’s. Those two boys played outside in the cold without coats on and their arms would be all red and chapped looking but they didn’t even know they were cold. Harry Taylor wasn’t any better: Andrew once saw him wipe out on his bike. The whole side of his leg and his arm were scraped and bleeding. And he just stood there grinning, saying, “Shit,” and “Fuck,” and “It don’t hurt.”

So there stood Harry, ready to trade his baseball cleats for Andrew’s Keds for a while. Andrew wanted those cleats; he’d been asking his mom for baseball cleats for months—he had begged; he’d even cried one night at the dinner table—but she said no. Harry’s cleats were black plastic with a white stripe on them. The left one had a split on the toe that, when Harry stepped down, opened like a puppet mouth and showed his dirty sock.

Andrew said to him, “You want to trade for real? You’re not messing around?”

“For a while, yeah. I mean it,” Harry said. He kicked them off and stood there in his mud-stained socks. He nodded earnestly. There was a scar above his left eyebrow; his eyes were pretty if you looked at them—handsome, not pretty; girls were pretty, boys handsome.

“Okay,” Andrew said. He sat on the front porch beside Harry and put on the cleats while Harry put on his Keds and pulled the laces so tight Andrew thought he might break them or cut off the circulation to his toes.

“We’re going to play Indian ball,” Harry said. “Or a real game if we get enough people.”

“I’ll play,” Andrew said.

So Andrew spent the entire afternoon in the clearing playing ball in the cleats. He hit the ball solid, he stole bases and slid like Pete Rose, he ran down impossible pop flies. Once he heaved the ball from center field all the way overtop of bald-headed Larry Jackson on second to Ronnie Stewart at home plate with only one hop. He lost himself in baseball.

Then his mom called him in to get ready for evening church. He ran in and said, “Can I wear these cleats to night church?”

She frowned at them.

“Please,” he whined. His church shoes were shiny blue and had a squared-off toe and fat heels; kids at church teased him, called them girl shoes.

She sighed and shook her head and left the kitchen, but did not say no, which meant if he didn’t mention it again, just did it, she couldn’t give him a switching—he’d asked; she couldn’t say he didn’t ask. He wolfed down his peanut butter bread and tapped drumbeats on the linoleum kitchen floor with the cleats. If he rolled his feet heel-to-toe he could sound like a bunch of running horses.


The next morning was Andrew’s first day back at school after James drowned. It had taken the men dragging the river four days to find him in a bunch of brush piled against the bridge piling, because the snow melt had the water so high. The funeral had been on the next Saturday, and Andrew had stayed out for a week after that, eating food people brought and watching television. Now he had to go back. It felt like the first day of school all over again, like he’d been gone for a whole summer.

He climbed from the top bunk and stepped down onto James’s bunk, then jumped to the floor. He put on his school clothes and then sat on the floor beside the baseball cleats. He pulled them on and carefully tied the frayed laces. His other brother Ricky was still asleep in his bed; his mouth was open and flat on the mattress like a dog hit on the blacktop. Andrew could smell the number one—Ricky still peed his bed.

Andrew’s mom and Miriam were in the kitchen and didn’t even glance up as he strode in proudly with his cleats clicking across the linoleum.

“You’re up early, Drew,” Miriam said. She had on her denim school culottes and her powder blue Pinewood Bible Camp sweatshirt. She was at the counter packing their lunches. Three bags were lined in front of her, hers, Andrew’s and little Ricky’s.

His mom said, “You can sleep a little longer.” She was still in her nightgown that was thin as a slip. Usually she was up and dressed, with her hair all done and makeup on, even though she never had anywhere to go all day.

“Ricky did number one in his bed again.”

His mom didn’t say anything. She put two pieces of bread in the toaster and stood staring at it. Andrew sat at his place and waited. He swung his leg and clinked his cleat against the aluminum table leg.

The toast popped up. His mom buttered them by rubbing the butter stick right on the bread. She put it them on a white plastic plate with flowers on it and set them in front of Andrew with a jar of grape jelly. She pulled open the drawer and got a spoon and set it by the jelly jar.

He jellied his toast—the jelly was purpler than usual and glistened like slime in the kitchen light. His mom put a cup of milk, a sippy cup with the top off, in front of him and went into the bathroom and shut the door.

There was a hard knock at the front door.

“Get that,” Miriam said.

He said, “Why can’t you?”

“I’m making your lunch.”

He walked to the front door and opened it. It was just getting light outside. Harry Taylor stood at the door, a pink strip of sky above the mountain behind his head. He had on his Keep On Trucking t-shirt with the walking man’s big foot coming forward like it was going to step right off the shirt. The neck was all stretched out already. He had on Andrew’s Keds; they were muddy and wet.

“We have to trade shoes back,” he said.

Andrew said, “It’s just been one day. How ‘bout after school.”

Harry shook his head. “My mom said.” He smelled like dog crotch.

“But you got mine all wet.”

Harry smiled. “Creek last night. Almost caught a duck with my bare hands.” He held out his hands like he was holding a duck. He had a retard smile.

“I’m not trading back till mine are dry,” Andrew said.

“My mom said,” Harry nearly yelled.

“What’s the problem here,” Andrew’s mom said from behind him.

Harry said, “My mom said we had to trade shoes back and Andrew won’t do it.”

His mom looked at the cleats on his feet, then at the muddy Keds. She said, “Andrew, trade Harry back his shoes.”

With the heel of opposite feet Harry pushed his heels out of the Keds, one then the other. He stood flat-footed in his muddy socks. The smell of river mud rose from them and mixed with Harry’s own stink.

“But mom,” Andrew whined. “He got mine all wet and muddy.”

“Obedience,” she said.

He kicked off the cleats and flipped them out onto the porch. Harry picked them up and sat on the steps and put them on.

“You can wear your church shoes to school today.”

“No.” Andrew started crying. “I’ll wear them wet.”

“One day won’t kill you, young man,” she said. He could tell by her tone that the discussion was over. She said, “March up this minute and put on your church shoes.”


As Andrew walked down the hallway of Clay Elementary, even the other sixth graders moved aside and watched him pass, like they were in some kind of spell because it was his first day back, and James wasn’t with him. Some of them glanced down at his blue shoes.

Amber, his dad’s associate pastor’s oldest daughter, was against the wall. She had a fat round face with lots of freckles, and her hair cut short, which made her face look even fatter. She and Andrew hated each other. She’d been around a lot the past two weeks and things with her had gotten back to normal pretty fast.

She smirked at him. He clenched his fists.

Cindy Rogers said, “Hi Andrew.” She reached out to touch his arm, and then pulled her hand back. She was tall and pretty and her mom curled her dark hair every morning and made her walk funny to practice for beauty contests. Kids said she smeared dog poop on her face because she thought it made her skin pretty. That’s why nobody would touch her or they would catch Cindy germs and have to tag them off on somebody else before everybody called shots.

When he saw her reach out, Andrew stepped back and put his hands on his shoulders and said, “Shots.”

“Very mature,” she said. She turned around and walked her funny swaying walk into the classroom. She had to turn sideways to get by Jimmy Gillenwater and Larry Jackson, who were standing talking to Georgie Porgie Shamblin. Georgie had a habit of twisting the hair above his left ear so much that he had a bald spot there.  He got out of music class to see the school counselor.

As Cindy passed by Larry, she said, “Move, Frankenstein.”

He called her a bitch but moved and let her pass. Then he turned and looked at Andrew. Ronnie turned his head and looked at Andrew too.

Andrew felt his church shoes heavy on his feet, like those wooden shoes Dutch people wore. He ached to be out of them. He longed to have on baseball cleats.

Amber walked over to Larry and Ronnie—she didn’t even like those retards—and she said, “Andrew is wearing his girl shoes.”

Andrew shouted, “Shut up, pie head.”

She yelled back, “Girl shoes.”

Mr. Cox stepped out of the sixth grade classroom holding a stapler and said, “What’s the problem out here?” He had on parachute pants, all slick with zippers on them, and shoes he called turtles that had Velcro straps instead of laces. His dark hair was cut up over his ears but long in back and he had a big mustache. Ronnie Stewart called those shiny pants Mr. Cox’s queer pants. Ronnie knew about sex. He had, folded up in his shoe, real pictures he’d stolen out of his dad’s magazines. Andrew had seen them in the bathroom.

Mr. Cox said, “Get to your classrooms. Where’s Mrs. Combs?”

“Not here,” Larry said.

“Late,” another kid said.

Mr. Cox shook his head. “Go on,” he said. “Get in there and find your desks, or I’m going to start writing referrals.” When his gaze fell on Andrew, his expression went blank for an instant, then he walked over—with all the kids watching, and Andrew in his girl shoes—and put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder.

He said, “I’m sorry about James, Andrew. I really am.”

Andrew said, “If somebody else calls my shoes queer shoes, I’m going to bust their head open. I don’t care if it is a girl.”

Mr. Cox squeezed his shoulder and then patted. He said, “Go on. Get to class.”


Andrew sat through the morning hating his shoes. He watched Larry Jackson pick a slimy booger and take nearly all of math class, concentrating like someone playing Operation, to wipe it into Cindy Rogers’s curls without her or Mrs. Combs noticing. In Language Arts he doodled on his worksheet; he couldn’t concentrate, the shoes were all he could think about. He pretended to play his recorder in music. They had to sit in chairs around the reading rug for music. He pulled his shoes under the chair so he couldn’t see them. He went to lunch with his fists ready to punch anybody who as much as snickered at them.

Now he is back in the classroom, the Lord has just put the Bible verses in his head and he has just said his effectual fervent prayer for the miracle God has promised him.

He feels a change around his feet and rises close enough to the surface of his daydream to be aware of the classroom around him, but he doesn’t come out of it. He knows the transformation is happening, the miracle he’s asked for. Ronnie Stewart looks at Andrew’s shoes for a long time, and then looks up at Andrew. His face looks surprised. Andrew knows it is happening. He sneers at Ronnie. Ronnie slouches down more and puts his face in his open hand and yawns.

Mrs. Combs says, “So it was the rule of law, not the whims—whatever he decided to do simply because he wanted to and he was king—of some all-powerful King over in England.” Mrs. Combs sits on the edge of her desk in front of the class. She has big fat boobs, and presses the open blue Civics book against them while she talks. “The rule of law is what is important to remember,” she says. On the front of the book there is a big star painted like an American flag.

Andrew dives back into his daydream, sees himself hitting home runs at the little league field beside the junior high. He jogs around the bases in his new cleats and everybody’s mom and dad stand in the bleacher and clap for him. He sees himself at shortstop, diving and snagging line drives because the cleats on his feet have been made by God and give him extra-special traction.

After the game people will gather around him to ask how he did it and he will say I give the glory to God. He does all good things for his children, gives them fish not snakes. Get saved, he will say, get saved all of you.

His spirit soars. He believes with his whole heart, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God has done what he, in all good faith according to God’s promise, has asked. They are brand new, and leather, not like Harry’s cheap old plastic ones.

Mrs. Combs snaps her book closed and stands. Everyone starts sitting up and closing their books and leaning over to shove them into their desks. Mrs. Combs says, “Line up at the door for recess.”

It is time. Andrew closes his Civics book and leans over. He looks at his shoes.

Andrew’s heart jumps up into his throat and he gasps; he feels like he’s falling off a cliff.

Blue shoes. Girl shoes.

Everybody is lining up at the door. Desk legs scrape on the floor, paper rattles in desks. Sneakers squeak. Larry goes to the closet and gets the kickball. Mrs. Combs turns off the light. The wall of windows goes blinding bright, shines on Andrew like a mute accusing stare.

God hates him. God will not answer his prayer.

Andrew pushes himself up from the desk. He stands beside it with his arms hanging. He looks at the blue shoes. They look black in the dark room. Anger rises inside his chest. God has all the power in the world and could do this one little thing for Andrew and won’t.

Andrew’s eyes adjust as he pushes down the urge to cry. Fuck them. Fuck them all to hell. He’ll show them queer girl shoes. Square toes are perfect for kickball. He’ll boot it over the fence into the street. Better yet, he’ll knock the ball down the bank into the river and end the game for good.

He looks out the windows. The playground is empty in bright sunlight. The swings hang still. A jean jacket is balled up beside the monkey bars.


Belief and Belonging: Against Groupthink

Belief and Belonging

Last week I went and watched my son graduate from Virginia Boys State. After the ceremony, I waited through waves of boys in identical white shirts and blue shorts for him to emerge, and when he did, his shoulders were slouched and his eyes tired.

In the car I asked him, “How’d it go?”

He shrugged.

“Did you have a good time?”


“Did you learn anything?”


“Nothing at all?”

He said no, he hadn’t learned anything.

I kept pressing him, and eventually said, “If you had to give someone your takeaway from this past week in one sentence, what would it be?”

Without pause, he said, “Republicans are assholes.”

All rising seniors, the boys were there for practical learning on how government works. They broke up into cities and formed governments, with adult counselors to steer them clear of a Lord of the Flies week. The boys ran for various offices, they competed and negotiated with other cities.

They made promises for votes. They traded votes for political favors. In Evan’s final analysis it came down to “a big popularity contest.”

I can understand why he would find a week like this unpleasant. He’s reserved and bookish. He has strong opinions, but in large groups he watches from the fringe, keeps his opinions to himself. Politics is a game he can’t play.

But something deeper was troubling him about the week. “You had to think their way or you were shunned,” he told me. He went on to describe how boys with dissenting opinions were marginalized and shamed by boys and counselors alike.

In the final service, the boys sang a song, and as they repeated it in rounds, it began to sound more like a chant than singing, several hundred strong young male voices calling out, “What does the Lord require of thee?” and the response, “To seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before your God.”

“Three boys were sent home because they said they were atheist and didn’t want to go to the religious services,” Evan told me as we drove home. He shook his head. He rubbed his tired eyes.

In order to drive out and watch Evan graduate I had missed the Bar Mitzvah of my friends’ son, Spencer. My family came into the house shortly after Evan and I got home, talking about how impressed they were by Spencer’s Shabbat morning service. The d’var Torah, his commentary on the week’s reading, was on the old familiar story in Numbers about Balaam and the talking ass and the companion passage, Micah 5:6-6:8.

My daughter thought it was the best thing she’d ever heard in a religious service when Spencer introduced his homily by saying he was glad he got this passage because it gave him the opportunity to see how many times he could crack his brother and sister up by saying “talking ass.”

After that, Spencer gave his exposition on the very passage the boys were singing two hours away: It has been told of you O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you—Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

When he got to walk humbly, Spencer proclaimed, “I don’t know if I believe in God or not and religion isn’t how I make my decisions every day.” He said, “I’m still working on what I believe about God,” and called it a “developing relationship.”

My sister, who was raised Fundamentalist Baptist as I was, wept as she watched Spencer stand before his congregation and speak honestly—and even more, as she looked around and saw that no one was scandalized, no one outraged, no one red-faced and angry.

How different this is from anything we ever experienced in a religious congregation. How different it is from Evan’s experience at Boys State.

I do not want to talk about politics—it only comes up because it is impossible to describe Evan’s week without doing so. I do not want to contrast one religious tradition with another either.

This is about the contrast between two ways of being in community: on the one hand is a closed and fearful view of the world, a constant worrying that if the boy doesn’t toe the line, vocalize assent to the letter of the law, then he cannot be trusted, cannot be a part of the community.

On the other hand is an open view, a willingness to let the boy express what he actually thinks. This comes from a place not of fear, but of confidence. Everyone in education knows that the strictest disciplinarians in the classroom are the ones most afraid of losing control.

This technique might keep order in a classroom, but it serves no good purpose in the realm of belief. As William James points out in Varieties of Religious Experience, you cannot believe what you do not believe—there are living options and non-living options, and you cannot breathe life into a non-living option; fake it till you make it is a call to nothing more than shoddy self-deception.

Robert Penn Warren writes that it is possible to be a “heretic in the truth.” Even if what the boy proclaims is true, if he embraces it because he is coerced, cajoled, shamed, then he doesn’t have the truth at all. A faith foisted on him is no faith at all.

I am not idealizing; I know this synagogue has had its share of drama. It is inevitable when so many personalities come together in community. But here is what my family observed: The Agudath Sholom congregation embraced this boy even as he stood and proclaimed his doubts.

It was a beautiful service.

Originally posted at “Good Letters,” July 25, 2013