By Dan Clendenin
Dennis Covington, Revelation; A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World (New York: Little, Brown, 2016), 213pp.
Dennis Covington’s first memoir, Salvation on Sand Mountain (1995), was a finalist for the National Book Award for describing his experiences of the snake-handling spirituality of Christians in Appalachia. Covington, who has taught creative writing at Texas Tech University since 2003, was also a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. Like his first memoir, this one connects his own Christian journey in and out of faith with his family history, the current events and travels of his life, and the witnesses to faith that he sees in the people he meets.
Many people have wondered why religious faith and horrific violence are so often connected in our world. Covington is more interested in the how. He travels to places of extremity to discover faith not so much despite suffering and violence, but precisely in and because of that apparent absence of the presence of God. He quotes Kayla Mueller, the American aid worker who was abducted and then murdered by ISIS in 2015: “Some people find God in church, some people find God in nature, some people find God in love, I find God in suffering.”
In Juárez, Mexico, perhaps the most violent city in the world, he participates in an annual burning of an effigy of Judas, and spends a week at what he calls a “lunatic asylum” out in the desert (Albergue Para Discapacitados). The takeaway? The road to true faith begins by “loving the unloved. If only I could do that.” He also circles back to his years growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, during the civil rights years — his mother’s cancer and nervous breakdown, his brother’s life long mental illness, and his own alcoholism, bankruptcy, and psychiatric hospitalizations. “If you’re really looking for faith,” someone told him, “just take care of your brother.”
Most of Revelation describes Covington’s experiences on numerous trips to the chaotic and violent borderlands of Turkey and Syria, in particular Antioch and Aleppo. There, he experiences the sufferings of others, “a definition of faith as clear as any in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Among those who have nothing, and who have experienced just about the worst of everything, he also finds faith. One grief-stricken father, holding a headless little girl, put it this way: “We bring our case before God, before God alone, for mankind has failed us.”
Some of this reads like violence pornography. To his credit, Covington wonders if his explorations of human extremity suggest that he’s just an “aging narcissist.” He feels the sting of an encounter with a journalist from the Los Angeles Times: “He shook his head as though he had seen plenty of my kind before — dilettantes, adrenaline junkies.” At the end of his three-year search for faith in the midst of a genuine spiritual crisis, he’s “still not sure” about God, but he’s very sure that he has experienced the substance of faith in the lives of the suffering.
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