Confessions of a prodigal son
Two days before the beginning of Lent I took my first inquiry class, a one-on-one dialogue with my priest at St. Mary’s House. If I choose to do so at the end of seven weeks of study I’ll be confirmed as a member of the Episcopal Church.
It’s been a strange trip over the 15 or so years since I was baptized as an adolescent Disciple of Christ in rural Kentucky and then promptly began to turn my back on God. It probably started with the atheistic essays I published ‘— one by my cousin and one by myself ‘— at the age of 14 that got my personal ‘zine banned from Owen County High School. I think after that my estrangement grew with the sense that all this God talk had more to do with comforting people with abstract symbolism than addressing the real pain and joy of their lives.
It’s the most natural thing in the world to think of myself as an Episcopalian at this stage of my life. Being 31 feels a lot different than 14. As a former Protestant I’m attracted to the tradition, mystery and ritual of high mass in the Episcopal Church. In that way it’s similar to the Catholic Church, with which I dabbled for a few years, but more accommodating of independent inquiry. And like the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church has a strong tradition of practicing the social gospel of justice for the poor and opposition to immoral wars and the death penalty.
And yet I have to reflect on why I drifted from God in the first place. The high school essays certainly set off a chain reaction (the first line of my cousin’s piece was ‘“God is a bastard,’” if I remember correctly). I’m sure I grew to identify Christianity with the anti-intellectual climate of rural Owen County ‘— the stupid busy work, the unquestioning patriotic fervor of my classmates when the US military invaded Iraq in 1991 and my principal’s ham-handed move to quash my publishing efforts. Adam and Eve fell from grace because they partook of the apple of knowledge after all, and if knowing more than all these yahoos meant going to hell’… well, hell must be the place to be.
Aside from my cousin’s example, another pernicious influence got me started on my 15-year journey down the road of nihilism, secular humanism and Marxist idealism. It was Denise Giardina’s classic 1987 novel Storming Heaven, a fictionalized account of the fierce coal wars of the early 20th century in West Virginia.
The novel tells of a nurse who loved two men. She settles for her second choice when her first love, a fiddle-playing union organizer, leaves her. Her husband is on the side of the union too. He preaches the labor gospel, but only after some hesitation. He has to respond to the needs of his flock, and they are chafing under the control and abuse of the coal company. The union organizer periodically reappears in the nurse’s life. He tragically dies in a shootout with the coal company’s hired muscle, but not before leaving the nurse pregnant with his son. The preacher, long-suffering and patient, accepts the son and raises him as his own.
To me, it was pretty clear that the guy to be was the hell-raising union organizer, not the cuckolded preacher. Certainly the union organizer is the romantic figure, but he is also the one who clearly perceives the situation and takes decisive action to address the injustice. The preacher, in contrast, seems to need to filter his halting response to events through a tangle of theological abstractions. Not for me then.
Years later, as fiction editor at Southern Exposure (the journal of the Southern progressive movement based in Durham), I had the honor of interviewing Giardina. I told her how much her book meant to me. An Episcopal lay minister and 2000 candidate for West Virginia governor on the Mountain Party ticket, Giardina was horrified to learn that her book influenced me to turn my back on the Christian faith. She told me how in the late 1980s she had stood on a picket line in southwestern Virginia with miners striking against the Pittston Coal Company, which pulled out of a labor contract and began to scale back health and pension benefits for its disabled employees. The miners let her know that having a woman of the cloth on the line provided their struggle with an important measure of moral legitimacy.
So that’s a pretty attractive spiritual lineage. I now recognize that the preacher in her story is equally important to the union organizer; someone has to be there to pick up the pieces after the battle.
Social justice is certainly not the only reason I’ve embraced Christianity again. Since I returned to the fold I’ve come to value modesty, humility, patience, forgiveness and reconciliation very much as well. Those qualities ‘—’ elusive and yet always sought ‘— are part and parcel of the deal.
I’m glad to keep company with the heroine of my youth, Denise Giardina.
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