Saturday, September 27, 2008

What's So Funny About Faith, Hope & Love?

Just before I sat down to read a chapter from Churched, the new book by Matthew Paul Turner, I heard a radio report on secret tapes from inside Wahabi mosques in the United States. Muslim women were teaching one another that the Quran demands that adulterers, among other offenders, be stoned to death.

I had the sneaking suspicion that these women were being taken out of context and willfully misinterpreted. Secret tapings of Bible studies on any given day, I'm convinced, could yield a very similar expose about Christianity in the United States; people in the Bible get killed by stoning for any number of offenses, including mouthing off to their parents or even in some cases for being from the wrong tribe.

Meanwhile, in a country with substantial Muslim and Christian populations, and with rampant adultery and child-parent back-talk, stonings are almost nonexistent. While I'm sure there are acts of violence in the United States motivated by religion, it seems to me that for the most part such readings of sacred texts boil down to little more than talk.

I don't care for this kind of fear-mongering; I think it's an unfair and unproductive way of interpreting an unfamiliar culture. There's another way--a better way, I think--to do it: by being funny. This is the approach Turner takes in Churched.

Full disclosure: Turner is a "friend" of mine, even though we've never met. We run in similar virtual circles on Facebook and attend some of the same conferences in professional American Christianity. He read my review of Jesus Laughed by Robert Darden, posted here last month and on Burnside Writers Collective a few weeks later, and asked me to review Churched for him, which I was happy to do. He sent me an advance reader copy, so I don't have the final text, which means that any quotes I post here may not match up with your copy of the book.

Turner is a humorist, and he's a Christian of the evangelical sort, who grew up in the fundamentalist tradition in America. I did not; I grew up Catholic and migrated to evangelical Protestantism as an adult. So I read this book as a sympathetic outsider; it's painfully hard for me to believe that such churches exist, even though I've visited some. Turner writes the book as a sympathetic though critical insider, someone who has noticed the nuttiness that attends fundamentalism, who has moved into a post-fundamentalist adulthood but can't shake the family ties that bind him to his history. I've read some memoirs from people with similar upbringings to his that served as a kind of cathartic purge; the adult memoirist justifies his or her current convictions by sacrificing his or her upbringing on the altar of ridicule. That's not Turner's way; he honors the ethics of humor that Darden spells out in Jesus Laughed.

We chuckle with Turner, and presumably with some of his family and friends who grew up with him, over the silly antics of Pastor Nolan--from his much-hyped annual boxing match with the devil to his intricate theology of male haircuts. We groan at the strained efforts of teachers at the church school to relate every lesson, whatever the subject, to the lordship of Christ and the fallenness of the human race. We cringe as churchfolk go public with their faith, manipulating children and cajoling adults into admitting that the fundamentalists are right, that everyone else is wrong.

There's a sadness to Turner's humor that emerges late in the book, however. Maybe it's the inevitable disillusionment of adolescence or the inevitable breakdown of finite humans striving for a contrived perfection in a semi-public setting. Turner makes occasional vague references to seeking therapy that would seem like jokes if they didn't seem like foreshadowing, and the moment when he discovers that the pastor and elders are conspiring to make the congregation think they're converting more people than they are--cooking the conversion books, so to speak--is almost tragic.

I can't review this memoir without drawing particular attention to Turner's coloring book, both because I'm such a geek about such things and because it's among the more biting passages in the book. Here he uses the unconvential colors of green and orange to fill in Jesus' robes.

"I'm coloring Jesus the same colors as Aqua Man," I said, looking down at my paper. It made perfect sense for Jesus to look like Aqua Man. . . . I was pretty sure his miracles didn't happen telepathically, but he certainly used some kind of super-hero strength to make those fish obey him. . . .

"Just make sure you leave his face white, okay?"

"I was going to." Everybody in the class knew Jesus was white.


Only someone from the inside, with a lingering conviction that the Pastor Nolans and Mrs. Snovers that populate his stories share a common humanity with readers from the outside, could tuck such a scandalous observation into such a book and keep us interested in his characters. They are, like all of us I suspect, often innocent in their own guilt. They remain blissfully unaware of the power they sometimes yield and the harm they sometimes do. Turner is a good humorist in part because he's a good human being, and Churched is a good book because of Turner's conviction: sometimes the talk of faith doesn't live up to the power of the gospel.

5 comments:

Dave Carrol said...

MPT was right... it's an excellently written review.

Open your Eyes... said...

You have such a way of writing your words. I want to read this book. I don't really believe in any faith but the reviews I have read for this book make me hungry to read more. I sure hope this comes out in the UK! x.

Bob/Sir Pent said...

Isn't Faith, Hope, Love an album by King's X?

Jenn said...

Serpent . . . yes.

Dave--great review. I'm with OYE--it makes me want to read the book.

Angela Hart said...

Great review. As a therapist, I have seen that cross section of which you speak, when it all breaks down, deconstructs, and one must build it back up again and find the meanings therein. A true grace when the rebuilding is comedic in tone; it dignifies the tragic. Look forward to reading!