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By Erin McGraw
I’m happy to once again welcome my friend Erin McGraw as a guest columnist to The 8th Day. Erin is the author of six books of fiction, most recently Better Food for a Better World: A Novel. — Debie
Some years ago, when I was teaching at a public university in the Midwest, one of my graduate students slipped into my office. A little wild eyed, she closed the office door and stood backed up against it as if she were facing a head wind. “I need to talk to you,” she said.
I thought fast of the possibilities — sexual abuse? Other violence? Pregnancy? “What’s going on?” I said.
Her voice was nearly strangled. “I want to write about Jesus.”
It was the 1990s. The academic atmosphere was clenched in those days, and carefully policed. To admit to Christianity in university circles was to invite ridicule from people who believed that Christianity was shorthand for close-mindedness, bigotry, and willful ignorance. Not long before this conversation I had lost a friend when I happened to mention to him that I went to church. “Do you…believe?” he asked. Then he stopped answering my emails.
“Sit down,” I said to my student as gently as I could. “Everything’s going to be fine. It’s just a subject, like any other.”
Pants on fire. If Jesus were just a subject like any other, she wouldn’t have been huddled in front of my office door. And she wouldn’t have felt the need to talk to me in particular.
I didn’t exactly keep my religious observance under wraps, but I didn’t advertise it, either. My attendance at Mass — daily when I could manage it — wasn’t something I mentioned, and neither were the retreats I made. Still, I wrote a lot about the Christian writers of the 20th Century such as Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene, and I wrote a lot about saints, and I kept funny religious doodads on my desk. If a person was paying attention, she could figure my allegiances out, but I thought of myself as a stealth Christian, somebody doing — I hoped — God’s work without much fanfare. To the extent that I analyzed my posture, I hoped that I was enacting some good P.R. for Christianity, so that people predisposed to dislike Christians might think, “Hey, maybe they’re not so bad after all.”
The levels of self-congratulation in that attitude make me now want to shoot myself, and so does the unexamined cowardice. I didn’t want to face opprobrium any more than my student did. If someone had asked me, “Are you a Christian?”, I would have said yes. But people didn’t ask that question in my circles, and I knew it.
My student and I talked for a long time about strategies and codes in writing, relying heavily on James Joyce’s famous battle cry: “I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” Artists are not the same thing as preachers, and we who are not preachers are not called on to preach, I told her.
The student survived her workshop and went on to write beautiful books and live a coherent, praiseworthy life that is notable for its clarity of purpose. And me? As academic contempt for Christianity has gradually lifted, I have gradually become more open about my faith. One way to state this is to say that I proclaimed my message as the audience became more predisposed to listen. Another is to say that I became emboldened to speak when it was safe to do so.
I wonder whether a special anteroom exists in Purgatory for the weak willed. The martyrs held up for our admiration are those who proclaim their God in the face of torture and death, not the ones who hold back and hope very much that they won’t be called upon. But I’m not sure I would do the world any good if I attempted to prophesy, with my habit of finding exceptions to broad statements and my bone-deep conviction that God, whose vision is larger than I can even conceive, must find us side-splittingly funny. I know I wouldn’t have helped my student if I’d encouraged her to march into her workshop class with a ringing, unconditional affirmation of her living Lord to an audience prepared to mock such a statement. In that case the only hope, as I saw it, was stealth, finding a way to portray and proclaim a Christian life and waiting for the audience to catch on. I believe that still.
I suspect that prophets and would-be prophets don’t always make the best company. People who are utterly certain of themselves, their faith, and their God are often rotten listeners. Busy proclaiming the truth they know, they are, I think, prone to miss the revealed God right before them. No one knew this better than the deeply pious and deeply funny Flannery O’Connor, who repeatedly portrayed prophets as socially disastrous souls with poor communication skills and terrible hygiene.
Plenty of people would say that stealth Christianity is no Christianity at all. Ours is a faith that wants to be proclaimed, as Good News wants to be shared. But is it possible that the Good News doesn’t want to be shared in so many words by me? And that sometimes a message is best delivered quietly and repeatedly, like gentle rain softening the earth? I can only hope so. It is the defense I will bring before God who will, I hope, laugh.
Image credits: (1) Yahoo.com.