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Posts Tagged ‘Civil War’

Sometime in mid-2012, I turned to Jesus.

There wasn’t a day when I had a big spiritual experience, or made a conscious decision. So maybe some people will say I’m not really converted or not really born again. Maybe they’re right; I get nervous about it sometimes. But I do know that on January 1 of 2012 I still identified as a pagan, but on December 31 of 2012, I was a committed little-o orthodox Christian.

I hadn’t been much of a pagan in awhile, to tell you the truth. I was not particularly pious by then. I had pretty much totally stopped making offerings or praying or singing hymns to the gods at all. My paganism had sputtered out into just thinking pagany thoughts every now and then and reading pagan blogs. I was more into the Civil War, Southern literature and country music than I was into the theoi. And I tried to hold it all together into some sort of broad paganism that could include all of that stuff, but it didn’t ever really seem to fit right (Stonewall Jackson was a Presbyterian who talked about Providence all the time, Flannery O’Connor was deeply Catholic and it intensely informed all of her work, and Jesus is all over country music), and it was increasingly evident that the paganism was slipping away.

I also started getting more interested in pagany things that leaned a bit back Christianward. Tarot. Arthurian stuff. In fact, that was one of the first tipping points, really. I read Keith Baines’s rendition of Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur in the spring of 2012, grail quest and all, and it moved things in my heart. I was back to thinking about Druidry and Vedanta a bit (again, trying to hold it all together). I read Gareth Knight and underlined all the references to Jesus and the Trinity (there are a lot). I started looking into the Gnostic gospels. I picked up some books about esoteric Christianity. And within a really short amount of time, I was earnestly reading the Gospel of John and then the rest of the actual Bible.

At the same time, my kids were getting older and getting literate. My oldest (then six) was starting to get interested in the Bible and Bible stories. We always had tried to be multireligious (my paganism, my beautiful and sexy wife’s Christianity), but it was plain that the kids liked Jesus best.

Flashing back for a minute–the day I knew I was going to marry Katyjane was the day I came back from Chattacon with my buddy James and we went straight to a Young Single Adult broadcast at church. I looked around for a place to sit, and I sat down by my friend Daniel. But then, a few rows up, I saw Katyjane, sitting by herself. So I hopped back up and went up to sit next to her. And when I sat down, it felt so insanely right. I was in trouble. I knew I wanted to sit next to her in church for the rest of my life.

So going to church with Katyjane, and now with my kids, was important to me. Even if I was a pagan. But we hadn’t been going to church regularly since we moved to Chicago, and I kind of wanted to start again. Especially since my kids were showing interest (and pWning me with the Bible, which is a story I’ll tell in another post). So my mind was inclined in that direction.

As I said above, I was also listening to a lot of country music (I still am), and that also meant basically relentless exposure to Jesus. I could not help but think about Jesus Christ because the music I listened to mentioned him over and over again and it moved me. It was troubling, uncomfortable, and kind of exciting.

But again, there was no moment of clarity. No road to Damascus (unless the whole year was my road to Damascus). I mentally made peace with some sort of Green, liberal, vaguely Hinduish pagany kind of Christianity, but that was clearly just a threshold to walk through, since I spent basically zero time grappling with that. Instead I was just on a straight trajectory to orthodoxy. I picked C.S. Lewis back up and read Miracles, and was blown away by how much I had just glossed over things like the Incarnation when I was first grappling with Christianity as a post-Mormon.

That’s important: I left Mormonism mostly because I had an increasing sense that Mormonism and Biblical Christianity were not the same thing. But I really struggled with Christianity in the years after that because my notion of what Christianity is was really limited to the teachings of Jesus and the Atonement. I think I had an acceptable handle on those, but I understood them in such a radically different context that I just could not make the direct transition, and I didn’t realize the pieces I was missing. even when I read about them I just kind of glossed over them as secondary. No wonder I struggled.

But this time, coming to Christianity with fresh eyes after a couple of years of pagan detoxification, it was all just totally new, and totally amazing. I just found myself hungering for the Bible and for Jesus and the more I consumed, the hungrier I got. I still feel that way. Reading the Bible just makes me want to read the Bible more.

So Jesus just sort of gradually sucked me in.

By the end of the year, we had moved to Baltimore (that was unrelated, but not irrelavent), I was reading the Bible and praying every day for the first time in years, I was devouring N.T. Wright’s New Testament for Everyone, and I believed in Jesus Christ, my prophet, priest and king and my only savior. And then I spent 2013 continuing to grow. We were baptized. We joined a church. I kept reading the Bible. I prayed more. I put my trust in Jesus. I even read Augustine!

I have to eat a lot of crow to write this, and of of the reasons I have held off on spelling it all out is fear of being called out for wishy-washiness. “Oh, Kullervo’s found a different religion again. Must be a day that ends in -y.” I don’t have an answer for that either, other than to swear that this time it’s different. But of course I can say that all day. I can say that through all my pagan years, I always had a sneaking suspicion that I would eventually come back to Christianity, that like C.S. Lewis I had to learn to be a good pagan before I could learn to be a Christian, but I realize that’s easy to say and hard to believe. Maybe it doesn’t matter because it’s ultimately between me and Jesus anyway.

But I wanted to finally write it all out, mostly so that I can refer back to it in some other posts I want to write and not have to give a lot of background every time.

So there you have it. There’s a lot of different ways to look at that I guess. Country music and the Bible turned me to Jesus. A good Christian woman turned my heart to God. The Holy Grail and the blood of the Lamb called me straight from heaven itself. I finally dropped the pretense of exploring spirituality unbounded and settled down like I was always going to do anyway. However you want to look at it, that’s how it happened.

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I’m about two-thirds of the way through William Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust, and few things in the world could make me happer. It’s not my favorite of Faulkner’s novels by any stretch (obviously I like Absalom, Absalom! best, but I also have an immense love for The Reivers, The Sound and the Fury and A Light in August), but just reading anything at all by Faulkner makes me feel comforted and at home. I get lost in it and I resent having to come back out. Reading Faulkner is like holding your head underwater, except instead of water it’s the human experience filtered through the complicated, painful and exquisitely beautiful legacy of the South, deeply rooted in place, and written in hypnotic prose that tastes like river water, blood and a humid summer twilight. And unlike water, you can breathe it. It’s not easy to breathe–it’s heady–but you can breathe it. And it’s insidiously addictive.

I started reading books generally in a more disciplined fashion about two years ago when I began picking up westerns. My rule is that I read no more than one fiction and one non-fiction book at a time (short stories and short story collections don’t count), and I finish the one (or intentionally decide to not finish it, which I have done a number of times) before I pick up the next. This keeps me from meandering through the first thirty pages of book after book with no direction and no sense of satisfaction and never finishing or appreciating anything. It’s been a good system, and as a result I very well may have read probably more books in the last two years than in the ten before that–certainly better books.

Like I said, I started with westerns and enjoyed them immensely, but via Cormac McCarthy I wound up transitioning from westerns to my true love, the Southern literary tradition. Simultaneously, I transitioned from westerns to Civil War obsession, which is deeply and inseparably related to Southern literature, but is a topic for another day. I like McCarthy’s westerns quite a bit (although I think I may prefer All The Pretty Horses to Blood Meridian), but his early East Tennessee novels (Outer Dark, Suttree and The Orchard Keeper; I have not yet read Child of God) captured me and held me under a spell the way the cowboy books don’t. Maybe it’s because I was raised in East Tennessee. Maybe it’s just because they’re good books. Probably both, but for me they are also ghost-haunted and harrowing, and they capture perfectly the stillness and terror and the deep longing I have for those wooded hills. I have ancestors who crawled out of those mountains more than a century ago, and I feel them wriggling in my blood: when I read McCarthy, they are roused and they answer.

But McCarthy also put me in a mood to go back and re-read Absalom, Absalom!, which I had not read since high school, and I was done. It was finished. Since then I have been working my way determinedly through the Southern canon and having an honest to God hard time trying to figure out why I would want to bother reading anything else.

I read nearly everything Flannery O’Connor wrote with grotesque and gleeful abandon. I read James Dickey’s Deliverance while every muscle in my body was tense for nearly the entire read (I had to stop periodically to relax and breathe). I mourned for the loss of William Gay just days after I finished Provinces of Night. I’m slowly working my way through Shelby Foote’s Civil War. I’ve read Carson McCullers and James Agee.

And today I’m reading Intruder. I’m not sure what’s next; I have deliberated re-reading Suttree, but I have a long list of what I want to read and a big bag of used books sitting on a shelf downstairs. And all too often, with whatever I am reading, I just wish I was reading Faulkner instead.

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Hansen’s moody historical novel chronicles the events leading up to the murder of Jesse James at the hands of his friend, Robert Ford, and then continues to follow the events of Ford’s life until his own murder years later.

That said, the book is not primarily a story. First and foremost, it is a dual character sketch of James and Ford. Hansen works hard to get into each of the title characters’ heads, and the results are powerful and stunning. James and Ford are starkly different–it is significant that in a scene where Ford names off all of the ways that he and James are alike, nearly every fact he mentions is superficial and ultimately laughably meaningless.

The book’s sole necessary evil is in the second chapter, where the narrative breaks and goes into a historical account of the life of Jesse James up to the book’s present. It’s good–for straight history it stays quick and pithy–but it is a bit of a jarring break from the semipoetic narrative of the preceding and subsequent chapters. The high point, however, of the history, is the focus on James’s relationship with his wife, Zee. It is sweet, romantic, dysfunctional, and heartbreaking. Jesse James was clearly madly in love with his wife, but he was also madly in love with himself, and as a result his wife spends her life in his shadow, and so after his death, is left with almost nothing.

The most striking thing about the book is how Hansen zooms in to sensory details–he draws attention to a gouge left by Robert Ford’s pistol on a chair, for example, so vividly that it is almost as if like Hansen is draping and weaving the narrative around these particular pointed, concrete details.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is not encessarily a quick read, but the book is not overly long either, and it has a way of drawing you in and keeping you there. It’s a poetic, psychological historical character sketch about two fascinating outlaws, and I recommend it.

8.5/10

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