I have been a Christian all my life. I formalized my commitment to my faith as a high school sophomore, but I can’t remember a time – ever – that my faith was not a part of my life. That being said, aside from maybe CS Lewis and Tolkien, I am not really a fan of Christian fiction. As a writer and literature teacher, I have a hard time with the general lack of artistic quality. But as a Christian, I have trouble with the oversimplification of life’s problems and the seemingly easy solutions that one’s faith and one’s God offer in these stories. A simple prayer and a little faith is all it takes.
Which is one of the reasons I love Wallace’s fiction so much. His fiction – or at least a lot of it – is some of the most “Christian” writing I have ever read. He gives the most honest portrayal of Christianity anywhere. He writes about real people dealing with real issues and struggles, trying to figure out how God fits into the mess they have made for themselves.
Even though he is kind of a schmuck, I really appreciate Wallace’s treatment of Lane Dean, Jr.’s internal struggles over Sherry’s pregnancy. In Claudius-like fashion, he prays for reprieve, not repentance. He wants to do what is right, but doesn’t want to admit his wrongs. The jumbled prose, the internal wrestling… it’s all so… real.
And then Don Gately and his forced prayers to a God he does not even believe in. This “God as He Understood Him,” upon Whom Don Gately’s success or failure in recovery lie. Don is forced to depend on something he doesn’t understand and doesn’t really even believe in to keep himself clean and sober.
I love Gene M.’s f-bomb-riddled analogy of the cake mix:
“… just imagine for a second that he’s holding a box of Betty Crocker Cake Mix, which represented Boston AA. The box came with directions on the side any eight-year-old could read… Gene M. said all Gately had to do was for fuck’s sake give himself a break and relax and for once shut up and just follow the directions on the side of the fucking box. It didn’t matter one fuckola whether Gately like believed a cake would result, or whether he understood the like fucking baking-chemistry of how a cake would result: if he just followed the motherfucking directions, and had sense enough to get help from slightly more experienced bakers to keep from fucking the directions up if he got confused somehow, but basically the point was if followed the childish directions, a cake would result. He’d have his cake.”
How much of our lives – whether we are religious or not – is based on that childlike faith that we will get our cake in the end? I don’t know the “fucking baking-chemistry” of how cake batter turns into a delicious cake when placed in the oven for 25 minutes at 350 degrees. I just know that it does. I don’t know how or why an internal combustion engine works, but I know that it does work and that the one under the hood of my 2004 Honda Civic will get me to and from work each day. I have faith that these things will work and, most of the time, they do.
And for Don G. and his cravings for drugs, this act of getting down on his hulking knees and pretending to fumble around for his shoes and keys while praying to this God of His Own Making worked. After several weeks of this, the cravings begin to subside. And after a few months, he begins to forget that he’s not having cravings anymore. “He couldn’t for the goddamn life of him understand how this thing worked, this thing that was working. It drove him bats.”
“Gately’s complaint that there was no way something he didn’t understand enough to even start to believe in was seriously going to be interested in helping save his ass, even if He/She/It did in some sense exist. Gately still doesn’t quite know why it helped, but somehow it helped when Ferocious Francis suggested that maybe anything minor-league enough for Don Gately to understand probably wasn’t going to be major-league enough to save Gately’s addled ass from the well-dressed Sergeant at Arms, now, was it?”
And that, in my experience, is the beauty of faith. I consider myself to be a “recovering evangelical.” I grew up in a church and denomination that prided itself on knowing and understanding the Bible. Any question you may have, they had a nicely packaged three-point sermon or acronym to answer it. Everything was easily explainable.
While this upbringing provided an important foundation for my faith, as I grew older, I realized that life is a lot more complicated and these pre-packaged answers didn’t always work. Questions and doubts crept in, but rather than dismantling my faith, they strengthened it. I embraced the mystery and the uncertainty and the ambiguity. Like the father of the demon-possessed boy in the Gospel of Mark, my prayer became, “I believe, but help me overcome my unbelief.”
I have come to realize that I don’t have to understand the nuances and complexities of theology. I don’t have to reconcile every apparent contradiction. My faith is not based on my knowledge or understanding. Like Don Gately, I need something bigger than my minor-league understanding to save my ass. I need a major-league-sized God, one bigger than my ability to comprehend.
So, thank you, Dave, for creating Don Gately to give a voice to my own struggles in faith.