Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The First Temptation of Christ

“And when the tempter came to him he, said, ‘If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread.’”

— Matthew 4:3

“Tuesday night, at the Bible study,

We lift our hands and pray over your body

But nothing ever happens.”

Sufjan Stevens, Casimir Pulaski Day

Chapter 6 was badly gutted in the course of writing Chapter 5, but it is healing. I have gone back and added two or three pages near the beginning in which I more fully explain the nature of the spell that I was under, and a bit of what it’s like to inhabit another dimension.

As always, revelation is the base on which the edifice is built. Not the world-shattering revelations I was given when I first wrote the chapter, on the nature of evil, the flamingos, and what not—those have all been shipped out now to Chapter 5 and points beyond—but revelations about the particular nature of my enchantment. The first one is this—that I really did enter another realm on Doppelganger Day; as Tyler said two summers ago, when he first read the story, “You went in; you went in, and you didn’t come back out.” I remained in that realm until my Senior year of college. Thus, in a very real sense, I know what it’s like to exist in another dimension; I’ve done it. Literally I’ve had an experience which people read about in fairy tales. And it was terrible.

The second revelation is, a spell was laid upon me so that no one would listen when I tried to tell my story. This spell was only broken, like the others, in my final year of college. Mr. Blankenship, Ginger, Taylor, Allison, all treated the story with varying degrees of unseriousness. By the end of my freshman year, I had given up trying to tell it. The first person to listen with anything other than bemused incredulity was Bethany, on the night of December 1, 2007. And she was deeply serious about it. It was like finally hearing a therapist or counselor tell you that throttling your child is not a method of punishment which decent parents typically employ—all your life long you had suspected as much, but to hear someone say it is almost unbelievably relieving, and you don’t feel quite as crazy, or as guilty about it, and you kind of want to cry a little and hug the therapist.

“Merciful heavens,” said Bethany. “Your town was like a Frank Peretti novel.” And, now that I’ve gone back and reread The Visitation, I can see that she was right.

The Visitation… I read it in the first week of 2002, in the weeks after my arrest for over-zealous prophesying, and once or twice more in the following year, but strangely haven’t read it at all since the events of Senior year. In retrospect, it is almost eerily resonant. The narrator, Travis Jordan, is, of course, a former Pentecostal pastor, and the book is really two separate stories woven into one. The first story recounts his youth and growing up, his early zeal to take his town for Christ, and an interminable list of shattering experiences—a Bible study that becomes a weekly forum for delivering prophecies that becomes, in the end, an avenue for healings that never occur; a relationship with a girl who moves away, becomes a Unitarian, and marries someone else; a vision-fueled trek across the continent to Minnesota, where, after eagerly explaining to a series of counselors at the headquarters of Billy Graham Ministries that God has sent him there to play the banjo, he is given an application and sent out the door; a church healing service that goes badly when the girl at whom the prayers are directed falls into a diabetic coma.

For much of the book, even as he marries and becomes a pastor, Jordan struggles to believe in the reality of God. (I don’t say “struggles to believe that God is real,” because there is a subtle, but enormous distinction between the two.) It is this part of the book, I can see, that affected me most, though, strangely, it is the second story—in which diabolical miracles are breaking out everywhere and the town is in chaos—that more closely resembles my own experience. After the double humiliation of his trip to Minnesota, and the breakup of his first relationship, he writes (with a certain trace of bitterness):

And then the dominoes began to fall.

That’s the caveat that comes with being ‘led by the Spirit’: if you dare to question one thing, you have to question everything.

With Amber gone, what did that say about all those visions, signs, and prophecies that God supposedly gave us? What did the Minneapolis debacle tell me about my encoded prophecy scribbled on the wall of the crab boat? Could I finally admit that boxcars with a big letter ‘I’ on them belonged to Intermountain Railways and were commonplace in most every major train yard in every major city in the country?…

As to the Kenyon-Bannister prayer meetings, the original fire had gone out for want of logs on the hearth. The Kenyons and Bannisters were still having their meetings and I suppose Mr. Kenyon was still the bishop of the island, but nothing more remained.

David Kenyon had gone back east to college. Bernadette Jones had gotten pregnant—contrary to Mrs. Bannister’s prophecy, Barry the boyfriend never became a Christian and they never furthered God’s kingdom together. Karla Dickens was living in Seattle and pursuing a business degree, while Andy Smith had gotten his girlfriend pregnant, married her, and was currently trying to make a living as a composer and piano teacher…

We used to be young, unstoppable soldiers of the cross, led by the Spirit, taking the world for Christ as we marched arm in arm. There was going to be a great revival, starting with us. We were on fire and those who were lukewarm would have to get on fire too or eat our dust.

But my fellow soldiers weren’t there anymore. While I was chasing visions, signs, and prophecies all the way to Minneapolis, each of them caught a different train and left while I wasn’t looking.

In mid-October, I was eighteen, in love, full of the Spirit, and on a train bound for Minneapolis. By mid-January, I was nineteen and a nobody with nowhere to go, sitting on the bed in my room at home, plunking absently on a brown, fifty-dollar banjo and feeling a new and frightening kind of loneliness. Jesus seemed far away, and strangely enough, I was content to leave him there. I didn’t want to talk to him; I feared and distrusted anything he might say to me.

I was saved, sanctified, born-again, and Spirit-filled, but Jesus and I were strangers.

“I feared and distrusted anything he might say to me.” Therein, I think, lies the key to my entire experience these past seven years.

I begin to see now exactly what happened. It’s all so obvious, I don’t know how I could have missed it. My disdain for healing services, my fear of charismatic leaders, my continual suspicion that I’m trapped inside a cult I can’t escape, my suspicious uneasiness towards visions, words of affirmation, marriage prophecies, calling prophecies, inner healing prophecies, large-scale geopolitical prophecies, dream prophecies—even, or especially, the ones I make myself—the very substance of my faith, or lack of it, is bound up in this book.

I read it at a most impressionable moment—in the weeks immediately after my arrest, when I was hurt, and embarrassed, and soft, and sensitive, and open to correction. In a way, I must have felt like Michael Elliot, the young man in the story who accepts the role of John the Baptist for the false messiah, Brandon Nichols. Near the end of the story, he hears a voice telling him to walk off a pier and onto the water—he does so, with messy results. And I, I had just spent three months proclaiming to anyone who would listen that America was in terrible danger, and that unless we repented, we were facing a full-scale military invasion. And, you know, that might even be true; but the prophecies on which I based my proclamations were, in hindsight, almost laughably absurd; my manner had been impolitic and vaguely sinister; my zeal was fueled not so much by love for God, or even for my classmates, but a remorseless, unquenchable need to be right about something.

It’s time I forced myself to face this. The reason the first half of my most recent revision of Chapter 2 was so thin is because, once again, I lacked revelation about the dynamics at play. I was scared; I had thought I was a prophet, and I wasn’t; and, after reading The Visitation and Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle—in the same three-day period!—I began to question everything I thought I knew. In such a state, at such a time, I was dismayingly open to the possibility—especially if it was articulated by someone I trusted—that the world of visions, dreams, prophecies, and impressions was a self-deception crafted by the zealous from a need to feel important in a cold, lonely world. Reading through my journals now, it’s obvious to me that my long struggle with unbelief didn’t begin during my last year of high school, though it certainly helped; when I was twelve and thirteen I had earnestly, wholeheartedly believed that God was calling me to greatness, that He wanted me to be a writer, that my life would prove an adventure of the highest magnitude, and that He really, truly loved me. And then, something happened. My prophecies failed to come true. I was arrested. Other people were thrust into leadership on campus, or seized it, and I was left out in the cold. See the cat? See the cradle? I had thought He was choosing me for some unfathomably awesome purpose, and I waited, and I waited, and life passed me by. All before I turned sixteen. We all create a movie in our heads, and in my movie, I had taken on the role of the narrator in The Visitation—not a burned-out former pastor, but a burned-out high school student.

And really, no wonder I’ve gone through such a wasteful, howling world of trouble feeling any sort of kinship for the people who are close to me. It was only on reading this book again that I finally realized, I don’t actually really believe in anything we do. I go to healing services, and people give testimony of how they were healed, and I ascribe it to suggestion. The first night I meet Debbie, she informs me she’s had a prophecy for ten years that one day she would meet a man who was living, and writing, a series of novels like the Left Behind books, only in real life—a prophecy I’ve had about myself for years and years and years, to the point where every time anyone prayed over me, I asked God to tell them—and the moment she told me, I brushed it away as either a remarkably strange coincidence, or the work of the Devil (who is apparently much in the business of affirming people’s callings). I don’t really believe in healings, visitations, marital or any other kind of prophecy, direct, life-altering encounters of the sort that I’ve been having lately, words of knowledge, words of affirmation, or the transformative power of the Holy Spirit. No wonder I don’t really seem to know what I’m doing here! No wonder I lack the enthusiasm, the light, the exuberance of all my friends!

Incidentally… when I got to the part where Travis’s wife dies of cancer… I cried. I don’t know why. Women dying early in novels and movies always makes me sad. And then, later that night, I watched Up, and it required the rallying of all my resolve just to hold myself together—a foolish choice, perhaps, but one I felt necessary under the circumstances.

At first I was angry with the book. In many ways, it didn’t seem to be a Christian novel. As I wrote at the end of my newest revision of the sixth chapter, “It depicts a world where God seems altogether powerless, and sometimes even non-existent; there is a supernatural realm, to be sure, but it is not of God. The only miracles that occur in the course of the story, with one exception, are the work of Satan.” Now, however, I realize how intentional that was.

The revelation came to me on Saturday night during worship. I was in the bookstore reading Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth. There is a chapter on the temptation of Christ. Benedict explains that the first temptation of Satan—to turn stones into bread—is not a temptation confined to a single historical moment, for the Devil offers it in every age. “If You are the Son of God…” he says. “If You are God, prove Yourself. Feed the masses, they are hungry. If You were really good, it wouldn’t be a problem for You. Show Yourself. Why do You always hide Yourself?” Precisely the questions I have spent the last seven years asking.

There is a curious synergy here with The Brothers Karamazov—in which the Church accepts the three temptations so foolishly refused by Jesus, mystery, miracle, and authority—but also with The Visitation, in which, after pulling bread out of nowhere and throwing it into a crowd, Brandon Nichols basically declaims, “I am the better messiah! I provide for my people arafghhahahahrrraaaaaaaa…” eventually expending himself in an orgiastic riot of bitterness.

The Pope writes:

“Christ is being challenged to establish his credibility by offering evidence for his claims. This demand for proof is a constantly recurring theme in the story of Jesus’ life. Again and again he is reproached for having failed to prove himself sufficiently, for having hitherto failed to work that great miracle that will remove all ambiguity and every contradiction so as to make it indisputably clear for everyone who and what he is or is not.”

“That great miracle that will remove all ambiguity and every contradiction.” I remember writing in what was once Chapter 12, “The Madness of Mr. Blankenship,” about how exasperating it was that I could never definitively prove the reality of my experiences, one way or another. They always hovered on the threshold of ambiguity. Faith was needed. Yet the evil things that happened were somehow always clearer, more apparent. True, I had as much trouble proving them as I did anything else, but, as I’ve written before, they were much more showy, much more ostentatious, and their own veracity—for me at least—was never in doubt.

Yet God—where was He? Or, as the Fray sang a while back:

Where were You

When everything was falling apart?

All my days spent by a telephone

That never rang

When all I needed was a call

That never came

From the corner of First and Amistad

Lost and insecure

You found me

You found me

Lying on the floor



Why’d You have to wait?

Where were You?

Where were You?

Just a little late

You found me

You found me

Yet it is not in the nature of God to be abrupt and overt. He is there; He is there. But only the humble will see Him. The rest will go on searching for miracles, wonders, signs, and never hear the call of love.

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still, small voice.

Pope Benedict goes on to say:

“If you follow the will of God, you know that in spite of all the horrible things that happen to you, you will never lose a final refuge. You know the foundation of the world is love, so that even when no human being can or will help you, you may go on trusting in the one who loves you.”

And that is what I am learning. In the fourth chapter of my introduction to Aquinas, the author explains how the being of God is totally distinct from ours, except in the fact that it is being. We share the foundation of everything, being itself, with our Lord, and all that is, partakes on its most basic level of this primordial element. Thus, in a very real sense, the foundation of the world is God—is love. And “no good thing will He uphold” from those who seek His face.

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