For decades now, James Wood has been writing about his Christian upbringing, but he has gotten progressively worse at it. For instance, compare his 1996 essay in the London Review of Books with his new piece in the New Yorker. Both essays emerge from the same perspective: a kind of bemusement at the world he was raised in, an attempt (one he knows will have limited success) to explain that world to an uninformed and possibly uninterested audience. But in 1996 he certainly knew what Christians think and believe, whereas in 2020 he seems to have forgotten — and doesn’t seem interested in recollecting, either.
Let me draw my examples from a single paragraph:
Modern Christians in the West like to think of themselves as believers who have left behind any cultic relationship with a usable God. Doubtless not a few of them harbor a special disdain for American Evangelicalism, with its gaudy, prosperous instrumentalism. Certainly, if belief were plotted along a spectrum, at one end might lie the austere indescribability of the Jewish or Islamic God (“Silence is prayer to thee,” Maimonides wrote) and at the other the noisy, all-too-knowable God of charismatic worship, happy to be chatted to and apparently happy to chat back. But it is still a spectrum, and, indeed, any kind of petitionary prayer presumes a God onto whom one is projecting local human attributes. In this sense, you could say that Christianity is essentially a form of idolatry.
The quote from Maimonides is accurate but scarcely to the point, especially as an intended contrast to “chatty” evangelicals, to what one of E. M. Forster’s characters calls “poor little talkative Christianity.” Does Wood think Jews don’t talk to God, and don’t believe He talks back? Does he think Jews don’t petition God? Has he never heard of the Psalms?
The difficult, unspeakable Jewish God becomes the incarnated Jesus, a God made flesh, who lived among us, who resembles us. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer blamed Christian anti-Semitism on just this idolatry of the man-God: “Christ the incarnated spirit is the deified sorcerer.” They called this “the spiritualization of magic.” Evangelicals are hardly the only Christian believers to draw this Jesus, the deified sorcerer, near to them. I’m reminded of that whenever I see professional soccer players crossing themselves as they run onto the field, as if God really cared whether Arsenal beats Manchester United.
Again, one has to wonder what Wood is thinking — or rather not thinking. Can he not imagine any other reason for an athlete to pray than to secure victory against his opponents? If he were to ask players why they cross themselves as they come onto the pitch, he would learn that the great majority of them are praying to be protected from injury. Many players pray for everyone on both teams to be so protected. Javier Hernandez, the Mexican striker, kneels and prays on the pitch before each match to thank God for the opportunity to play the game.
And yet it does not occur to Wood that there could be any explanation for praying before an athletic contest other than pleading for conquest. He cannot imagine any reason for drawing near to Jesus other than siphoning some of the power of a sorcerer. But surely there was a time when he knew these words: “Come to me, all who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.”
At one point, early in the essay, Wood writes of his account of his childhood church experiences, “I know how unbalanced this is. I’m sure I should have seen all the human goodness and decency — there was plenty of that around, too.” He writes as though, having not seen the goodness and decency then, he is somehow forbidden to see it now. He just plows ahead with what seems to me a studied incomprehension, an almost desperate determination to put the least charitable, least human, construal on every manifestation of religious belief and practice. I almost want to ask him what he’s afraid of.