Mixing Discourses to Write About Religious Experience
Heather Walker Peterson
“In a culture where every phrase of God-talk has become a cliché, finding a new God-talk requires a journey into an unknown land; and dragons wait on the other side. To reach beyond the trivial, to use words about grace that are different from those used before, to give a startling new take on conversion, is to risk having stones thrown at one for heresy. The evangelical shorthand is not only simpler but safer.”
So ends a review of a novel published by a Christian house. The reviewer, Susan Wise Bauer, critiqued the conversion scene of the book for being “abstract” and dependent on “overused phrases.” Bauer went on to explain that she had committed similar errors: she once received a letter from the historian Mark Noll in which he gently commented that the “God talk” in one of her novels had floundered.
Bauer explains that “God-talk,” language about religious experience, lacks “vivid clarity.” Devout Christians are hard pressed to be theologically accurate in their writing, but unfortunately that accuracy is often limited to a logos-centered accuracy, an accuracy reliant on specific abstract words with specific definitions. The impact of the meaning, the pathos-centered or emotional accuracy, produced by fresh imagery, is lost.
When we believe there is only one right way to say something, then those words have become authoritative. The literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin understood the authoritative use of words through his experiences with the Russian Orthodox Church and the government of Lenin and Stalin. According to Bakhtin, if “discourse” is a social group’s language usage, “authoritative discourse” is a category that “demands our unconditional allegiance.” Certain words become all important, and then “the context around [them] dies, words dry up.” He states, “For this reason the authoritative text always remains, in the novel, a dead quotation, something that falls out of the artistic context (for example, the evangelical texts in Tolstoy at the end of Resurrection).”
What is a Christian writer to do?
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Writing about the need for imagination in biblical interpretation, theologian Kevin Vanhoozer insists that “God’s original intention for language—its design plan . . . was to be a tool for exploring the world, for interacting with other people, for getting to know God.” He argues against the postmodern view of “despair” toward language and instead insists on “delight”: “the main reason we can delight in language is that we believe language is God-given (and hence reliable), and that we believe there is something beyond language in which our poems, our propositions and our prayers all point: the reality of the Creator and the created order.” In this delight, “the imagination is both enabled and constrained” with the biblical text.
By applying tired theological wording to religious experience, Christian authors are ironically showing their despair of language—that if they don’t use the “right” words, their meaning will be misunderstood or truth will be misrepresented. Instead these writers have the opportunity to delight in language, exploring the world with words and creating a pathos-centered accuracy for their readers. It takes a fearless Christian writer to play with imagery that is not explicitly Christian and a wise one if imagination is to be constrained by the historic interpretation of scripture. Or it takes a writer with no fear of God and the Church. Perhaps that is why a conversion scene where I didn’t lift my eyes off the page and mumble, “Oh here we go,” was written by an author with no claim to Christianity—Mischa Berlinski, a self-described secular Jew.
David Walker, in Berlinski’s Fieldwork, is an adult missionary kid who meanders with members of the Lot of the Grateful Dead for four years.) One day he goes to the Lot, ticket-less, and hangs a pizza box around his neck, scrawling on it, “I need a miracle.” He is given a ticket, has a “bong hit,” and “somewhere in the second set, just after ‘Uncle John’s Band,’ when the miracle happened, and what could it be but a miracle? David heard the angels singing.” Jerry plays a hymn about the parable of the lost sheep that David knew from his childhood; he “felt his soul separate from his body and he knew that he had died and was being welcomed into Heaven. Now he had come Home.”
How does Berlinski get away with a convincing conversion scene (about two pages of text in the book)? He mixes discourses—what Bakhtin called heteroglossia. Throughout the book, Berlinski’s narrator, an outsider to the story, points out multiple discourses by capitalizing certain words. David was “welcomed into Heaven. Now he had come Home.” This blending of discourses is clear earlier in the conversion scene where there is a sense of a baptism or a partaking of communion from the Grateful Dead: “The day was so hot that Bob started spraying the crowd down with water from the stage—and in the audience, someone thinks: Those are little drops of Bob himself, floating out of that rubber hose, little refreshing drops of Bob himself.”
Berlinksi never brings up the name of Jesus, using only symbol and later the language of Shepherd in the song, so the authoritative discourse of evangelicalism is subdued enough that it does not deaden readers’ experience of the conversion but still refers to the theological source. Berlinski also draws in imagery that echoes the worldview of Thai or Chinese mountainous indigenous groups. After David’s soul left his body, it peers from Heaven down to where the people his family had missionized, the Dyalo, lived. For the Dyalo, when someone died or a baby was born, the soul had to be gathered from wandering, similar to the beliefs of the Hmong, who were influential in Berlinski’s creation of the Dyalo people.
Berlinski’s genius is in acknowledging through the various imagery the variety of explanations for David’s religious experience—biologically, the effect of marijuana; psychologically, the loneliness of separation from family and the emotional influence of music; and spiritually, the collective belief of the Dyalo as well as God’s working of David’s return to Himself. If Christian writers attempted this, they would likely be accused of universalism, of watering down the handiwork of God.
And yet wouldn’t the use of mixed discourses demonstrate a faith in a God authoring a complex world, a God making use of the Balaam’s ass of marijuana or unfolding the individual narrative of a psyche? There are usually multiple explanations for our behavior and experiences. But Berlinski doesn’t leave the scene with readers sorting through a mishmash of discourses. His final technique is one that Christians could emulate.
His narrator frames the conversion scene with one theological term: “miracle.” He mentions it at the beginning–“I need a miracle”–and end–“In the story that the Walkers told of themselves, this was the miracle that brought David back home.” For the Walkers, other interpretations or stories of David’s conversion were subsumed within the greater story of Christianity. Berlinksi, who conducted in-depth research on missionaries for his novel, shows his characters’ belief that David’s experience, despite its other explanations, “point[s]” ultimately “to a Creator and created order” (in the words of Vanhoozer).
This is writing that evokes life, lively rather than deadening, representing a pathos-centered accuracy along with a hint of logos-centered accuracy to remain true to its characters. This is writing to which fearless Christian authors, without despair for language or their readers, could rise.
Heather Walker Peterson, Ph.D., is a member of the St. Anselm Society in Colorado Springs. She has taught at University of Northwestern–St. Paul. She now writes and mothers two young and remarkably different daughters. She is on Twitter @languageNfaith.
This post was originally published by the John Jay Institute, and is re-posted with permission.