DECEMBER 21, 2017
IN HIS 2004 GQ essay “Upon This Rock,” about an excursion to the annual Creation Festival of Christian music and worship in central Pennsylvania, John Jeremiah Sullivan describes his take on the difference between rock music that happens to be made by Christians and “Christian rock” music:
Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility — one the artists embrace — to “reach people.” As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability. […] A Christian band, on the other hand, is just a band that has more than one Christian in it.
Assuming this is accurate and supposing it is applicable to other art forms, what are the implications for Christians looking to make an impact on (or through) popular (or high) culture? For individuals with the talent and gumption to look at an entire pantheon of artists and try to force their way among them, circumscribing their output entirely to a genre that “rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability” is clearly not the best route. According to Sullivan, “Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety.”
Denis Johnson, who died earlier this year, called himself a Christian, although he once told David Amsden of New York, “I’m sure you could find any number of Christians who could assure me that I’m going to hell.” To say Denis was a great writer is not controversial. There have been many eulogies and appreciations of his work written in the months since his death, and while many allude, in a cursory way, to the spiritual character of his writing, none that I’ve seen explore the details of the realities he described or questions he posed, much less Denis’s personal beliefs and religious experiences. The closest is Will Blythe’s moving New York Times Book Review essay “A Lot Like Prayer: Remembering Denis Johnson,” and in the course of writing this I encountered Justin Taylor’s insightful “Gonna Try for the Kingdom if I Can” in n+1.
I had the incredible good fortune to be Denis’s friend, and I know some of his beliefs concerning God and religion. I observed him practicing his spiritual disciplines, which included prayer and daily readings of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Bible, and A Course In Miracles. I am a massive fan of his writing. I believe Denis’s faith suffuses his writings, although I could be wrong about the ways the two correlate. While Denis was incredibly, and famously, open and vulnerable among his friends and acquaintances, I suspect this had the unintended effect of pushing the unknowable parts of his identity even deeper. I would hate for any reader to think I were trying to shoehorn Denis’s work into a literary genre akin to Christian rock music, but my hope is that readers will be edified through my sharing, just as I have been by Denis’s life and work.
Denis believed he was personally affected by miracles, that God is supernaturally active in individuals’ lives in profound and unexpected ways. God saved Denis from alcoholism and addiction through Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps. Denis named his Idaho property “Doce Pasos North” and dedicated two of his novels (Angels and Tree of Smoke) to “H. P.,” which, I assume, stands for “Higher Power.” I’m tempted to say that in the firmament of Denis’s beliefs, faith in a Higher Power at work through AA and the 12 Steps is the fixed star. Substance abuse and addiction figure prominently in Denis’s fiction and plays, and he always extends to his characters the possibility of the same grace that he himself experienced.
Getting clean through AA marks the dividing line in Denis’s life. In his 2000 Paris Review essay “Hippies,” he describes his youth as a “criminal hedonist” followed by growth into “a citizen of life with a belief in eternity.” AA meetings provide ritual, prayer, and fellowship that includes the sharing of struggles, confession, and accountability. Denis, who regularly attended meetings as long as I knew him, told me that he hated small talk and that AA meetings spoiled him in this regard — people there only talked about real, personal issues.
He also read Alcoholics Anonymous, the program’s so-called “Big Book,” throughout his sober life. In it, alcoholics working the steps are encouraged to use whichever religious tradition, if any, works for them — “We think it no concern of ours what religious bodies our members identify themselves with as individuals” — while the foreword to the Second Edition (1955) claims that AA includes “Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and a sprinkling of Muslims and Buddhists.”
I believe this perspective colored Denis’s thinking on religion. The last time I visited him, in 2015, something I said reminded him of an Emo Philips comedy bit that illustrates the absurdity of denominational hair-splitting, and he pulled it up on YouTube to share it with me. Viewed from the perspective of AA, doctrinal disagreements and accusations of heresy can seem like narcissism of small differences and thus suitable subjects for ridicule. This perspective dovetails with that of Denis’s hero Walt Whitman, who says in the introduction to Leaves of Grass, “argue not concerning God.” Denis felt that paying attention to or participating in these disagreements obscured the most important thing about God: He is active in one’s life.
Denis did get more specific in his faith, however. I know from many visits with him that he read the Bible regularly and found great, practical solace in it. The first time we met, in 2006, he told me he was a convert to Catholicism and that he had encountered Jesus during a Cursillo retreat. He said he had not been to Mass in years. I asked him if anything had changed in his faith since he wrote his “Bikers for Jesus” essay (from the 2001 collection Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond), and he said that nothing had.
“Bikers for Jesus” includes the clearest description in Denis’s oeuvre of his relationship to contemporary American evangelical Christianity. Describing his visit to the Eagle Mountain Motorcycle Rally sponsored by televangelist Kenneth Copeland in the 1990s, Denis writes:
In the heart of someone who might have just stumbled onto this rally, the man from Idaho, let’s say, fifteen years a Christian convert, but one of the airy, sophisticated kind, the whole business is a millstone — if he’s going to Heaven, shouldn’t he be more excited? Is he going to Heaven? In his questions, his doubts, his failure to submit unconditionally, hasn’t he been nothing but a cruiser, a shopper? Impressed with the drama of his own conversion — but as drama, rather than conversion — was he ever really broken? And more important, was he ever really healed?
This questioning of his own faith and sincerity is not surprising in the context of his familiarity with Jesus’s teaching that people will be surprised at the Final Judgment regarding whether they are counted among the saved or the damned (Matthew 25:31–46), and Paul’s teaching that Christians are to work out their salvation “with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
Denis recounts — not uncritically — the messages preached to him and the fellowship he shared with other attendees over the course of three days, and his reaction is one of increasing approval: “The white buckets ride the rows. On the first day the Idaho man put ten dollars in, twenty dollars on the second day. This time it’s a fifty.” The 1992 story collection Jesus’ Son, which is almost universally beloved by worldly literati and was recently hailed as a “modern masterpiece” by John Williams in the New York Times Book Review, was authored by a man who donated money at an event sponsored by the Reverend Kenneth Copeland, one of Earth’s ripest targets for ridicule.
“Bikers for Jesus” also contains details that point to Denis’s willingness to believe in God’s continuing revelation. When Denis encountered people who claimed to be hearing God’s voice, he tried to take them at their word. One particular exchange at Eagle Mountain seems to justify his faith in this approach:
The Idaho man introduces himself to the nearest person in his row, a middle-aged black woman who turns out to be Nancy, from Chicago. “God is saying something,” she says intensely as they shake hands, and won’t let him go, staring into his eyes … “He says you’ve been seeking, and just go ahead, you’re doing fine. He says you got a cross in your back, but that’s healed. And He says be sure and take a pen and a notepad with you, so you can write things down.”
The man turns away, but something about what she’s said strikes him now — more than the coincidence of the pen and the pad and the seeking. “Excuse me,” he says, returning to her. “Nancy, did you say something about my back?”
“You got a cross pinching your right back, down low. But it’s gone now. He fixed it yesterday.”
For four months the Idaho man has been undergoing weekly treatments for a pinched sciatic nerve in his lower right back. It hasn’t occurred to him until this minute that it didn’t bother him last night and hasn’t bothered him all day. “I believe you’re right,” he tells Nancy.
“You didn’t want to ask for healing,” she says, “but He healed you anyway.”
“Do these little incidents happen to you very often?”
While all believers necessarily employ heuristics to address claims of supernatural revelation, Denis’s stance was skewed, more than anyone I have ever met, toward curiosity and the reservation of judgment. He was drawn to claims of miraculous new revelation just as he was drawn to settings of political collapse and anarchy (in Liberia, Somalia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere). He believed his encounter with Nancy was a miracle from God. Denis also visited the Children of the Light at their Agua Caliente commune and recorded their stories of miracles in his essay, “Three Deserts.” This attitude toward the miraculous, that “[m]iracles are natural. When they do not occur something has gone wrong,” is actually one of the principles listed in the first chapter of A Course in Miracles.
In “Hippies,” Denis references a friend of his, “Mike O,” who at the Rainbow Gathering dispenses “information about the Course in Miracles, a heretic sort of gnostic brand of Christian thinking that doesn’t recognize the existence of evil and whose sacred text is mostly in iambic pentameter.” I met the famous back-to-nature hippie “Barefoot” Mike Oehler of Idaho in 2006, and after I overheard him speaking with Denis about the Course I bought a copy and attempted to read it. When I saw Denis in 2008, I told him I had not been able to make much sense of the book, and he sympathized. He told me he only read the Workbook section, and he gave me a copy of what he called the “Reader’s Digest version” of the Course: a slim paperback with cartoon illustrations called Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald G. Jampolsky, MD.
A Course in Miracles, which resembles a Bible, is purportedly a divinely inspired text that failed to fully convince the person who wrote most of it down. Beginning in the mid-1960s and over the course of several years, psychologist Helen Schucman heard an inner voice and transcribed what it said with the help and encouragement of her colleague Bill Thetford. The voice claims to be that of Jesus Christ, who teaches that the world we perceive is an illusion and that the way to return to God is through love and forgiveness.
The Course also refers to a concept called the “holy instant.” I don’t claim to understand it, but to the extent that the concept describes how much import can be packed into a moment of subjective experience, I see a relationship between it and Denis’s writing. Some of the most moving and memorable passages in Denis’s stories deal with radical subjectivity and time slowing down, especially in moments on the border between life and death, and how these moments reorder the characters’ priorities: Bill Houston’s death in the gas chamber in Angels (1983); Grandmother Wright floating endlessly in the sea after fleeing the fall of Saigon in Fiskadoro (1985); Nelson Fairchild Jr. making his way, bleeding, down to the beach of the Lost Coast in Already Dead (1997).
There are other echoes of the Course in Denis’s books. The narrator of The Stars at Noon (1986), a sometime-prostitute who insists that Nicaragua in the year 1984 is Hell itself, states: “Anger is fear. Lust is fear. Grief, excitement, weariness are fear — just feel down far enough, look hard enough.” This thought aligns with the Course, which simplifies all human experience to two reactions or choices: love or fear. There are probably more such examples, but it would be difficult in most cases to determine whether Denis’s use of metaphysical concepts and vocabulary springs from the Course or from orthodox Christianity, as there is substantial overlap.
Did Denis believe in the Course? All I know is that he used it. I think of his use of it in the context of his remark to David Amsden noted earlier — it could be that Denis did not want people categorizing him, boxing him in, from either within or without Christianity, with all the judgment and baggage it carries in our culture. Denis was a storyteller fascinated by the question of who has authority in spiritual matters, but he didn’t want to force a set of answers on his readers. He was not a theologian, but he knew what worked for him.
Denis was a Bob Dylan fan (he was the first person I ever heard suggest that Dylan deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature), and it may be that in living out his faith he was reacting to or mirroring Dylan’s conversion experience. A final point regarding Denis’s use of the Course: it is something I am personally grateful for, because meeting me — a stranger who approached him at a gala — presented him and his wonderful wife Cindy with an occasion to choose either love or fear, and they welcomed me and offered me friendship without reservation. This seems like a miracle to me, looking back.
When I first traveled to Northern Idaho and met with Denis, he was still writing Tree of Smoke. The first night I stayed at Doce Pasos North, I slept on a sofa bed in Denis’s office with a draft of the novel sitting next to me in a cardboard box. I noticed Denis had handwritten notes taped up by his desk. One was from Emerson: “God will not have his work made manifest by cowards — SELF RELIANCE.” Another said this:
If I’m some kind of James Hampton
and this is some kind of Throne of the Third Heaven,
if it’s two thousand pages
and two hundred years,
SO BE IT.
A photo of the Throne, Hampton’s midcentury religious art assemblage, was taped up underneath. Readers of Denis’s poetry will not be surprised at this reference to Hampton’s famous work; Denis’s collected poetry was published in 1995 under the title The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly, and it includes his poem of the same name, which describes a visit Denis made to the Throne with the painter Sam Messer:
Sam and I drove up from Key West, Florida,
Visited James Hampton’s birthplace in South Carolina,
And saw The Throne
At The National Museum of American Art in Washington.
It was in a big room. I couldn’t take it all in,
And I was a little frightened.
I left and came back home to Massachusetts.
I’m glad The Throne exists:
My days are better for it, and I feel
Something that makes me know my life is real
To think he died unknown and without a friend,
But this feeling isn’t sorrow. I was his friend
As I looked at and was looked at by the rushing-together
Of this vision of someone who was probably insane
Growing brighter and brighter like a forest after a rain —
And if you look at the leaves of a forest,
At its dirt and its heights, the stuttering mystic
Replication, the blithering symmetry,
You’ll go crazy, too. If you look at the city
And its spilled wine
And broken glass, its spilled and broken people and
You’ll go crazy. If you stand
In the world you’ll go out of your mind.
But it’s all right,
What happened to him. I can, now
That he doesn’t have to,
It’s not hard to imagine the Throne as a sort of visual analogue to A Course in Miracles. Both Hampton and Schucman had private conversations with God, and the message imparted to each was “FEAR NOT,” the highest words written on the Throne.
Denis appreciated, sought out, and befriended outsiders, mystics, and misfits, past and present. They included Julian of Norwich, mathematician/philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and the anonymous author of the 14th-century religious text The Cloud of Unknowing, in addition to Hampton and Schucman. I was blessed to be one of the misfits.
Finally, Denis believed in the power of prayer. In 2007, he told me that he had had an addiction relapse while in Vietnam doing research for Tree of Smoke, and that prayer was what saved him. He and I prayed for one another as we both went through cancer diagnoses and treatments. I was surprised when he died, because he had shared that his treatment for liver cancer was successful. I had thought he was in the clear. I now suspect he was simply adopting a perspective increasingly aligned with the eternal. One of his last emails to me paraphrased the message Julian of Norwich received from God: “All is well, all will be well, all was always going to be well.”