Sunday, May 31, 2009

A Long Time Ago in a Starbucks Not Far Away

Curious about the title? Well Books and Bucks friends, this is the ridiculously late posting for James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain. By the way, that title always makes me think of the Christmas song with those lines. You know it goes like this: "Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born." These lines somehow seem quite fitting given the fact that bulk of the novel centers around faith or sometimes a lack of faith of the characters. Arguably the central character John is most directly impacted by this struggle of religion in his life. He is expected to have a forceful religious conversion experience, the kind that knocks a person off his/her feet and causes him/her to dance, shout, and possibly even speak in tongues, all signs of the Holy Spirit at work in that person. However, as young teen, John does not yet possess the faith that his elders believe he should have. In fact, at times I felt that John was being pressured to profess to this faith in much the same way a child may be pressured to perform in sports or academics. This type of pressure can be so overwhelming that at times it seems it would be easier to "fake it" in order to eliminate the pressure and dispel the questioning nature of those around one. However, John does not submit to this easy way out. Instead, the novel follows him through this process as well as providing the background story of his mother, his step-father, and his aunt (his step-father's sister). Each of these characters has had his/her own struggles both in the faith and outside of it, bringing to mind the question of what does it really mean to have faith at work in one's life.

A prime example of this question can be found in John's step-father who the reader discovers resents John because he is not his own son, though John is unaware of this lack of blood relationship. In his early life, he lived what could be considered if not a immoral life certainly not a religious one. However, his religious conversion far from tempering him and making him a more compassionate man seems to (or at least this is the way he makes it seem) provide him with the basis by which he casts out judgment on others. If they do not measure up to his almost impossibly high standards, then they are inferior and will be treated as such. This is particularly interesting and yet extremely pathetic as it seems his version of God and faith does not include forgiveness for transgressions or the frailty of man before God. The exception to this case can be found in the form of Roy, his biological son. Young Roy is in many ways his father's son as he too is wild, rebellious, and almost certainly destined for a bad end. However, rather than send down his wrath on Roy, he shows at times an infuriating sense of love, bordering on worship, of the boy, while casting John, the "good son," to the side. The irony is not lost here as this relationship brings to mind two Biblical father/son relationships: the stories of Jacob and Esau as well as the prodigal son, though at the end of the novel, Roy has not seen the error of his ways as the prodigal son does.

To return to the principal character John, he is caught in the conflict that seems to accompany a religious conversion experience, that battle between God and the material world. While he is expected to choose God, one might wonder at this choice given the hypocritical nature of some the religious figures. It makes me think of many people's argument against organized religion because they see it as filled with hypocrites who go to church on Sunday but live another lifestyle during the week. However, at the end of the book, John does experience the filling of the Holy Spirit that marks his fulfillment of the expectations of those around him. While it seems like this experience would bring a sense of acceptance, at least temporarily, from his step-father, this is not the case. Instead, it is almost as if his step-father does not truly believe John's acceptance of the Spirit is real. This lack of support along with the fact that life for John seems contrary to such a sense of fervor brings to to mind the question as to how long this passion can be sustained. Will John be able to feed and nurture his young faith or will it wither and die? Is it possible to sustain such fervor in the world? This is something I have to admit I wonder both inside and outside the discussion of the text as the acceptance of faith into one's life is found both in other literature we have read as well as the world we live in. John's struggle and seeming desire to feel what others around him feel brings to mind both Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin' and Annie Dillard's An American Childhood as this concept is addressed in each. Bragg recalls how he attended a small, cinder block church as a boy, and in this account he talks about how week after week he sat in the pew waiting to be touched by the hand that he believed was on all those around him. He desperately wanted to believe, but he says that that hand never touched him, igniting that passion of belief. Dillard too recounts the experience of attending church as a child and the shock with which she saw the boys around her in the act of prayer. To her it seemed that the possibilty of her peers actually possessing an active faith was beyond her comprehension. Baldwin leaves us as readers with this question unanswered, and perhaps this ambiguity is fitting by allowing the reader to answer this question for himself/herself by examining one's own beliefs system.

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