When I first conceived of this essay, I imagined it would be purely literary. Then, the presidential election arrived with all of its turmoil. I suddenly cared very little about aesthetics and the nuances of figurative language. I was at a loss until I remembered that much of Baldwin’s writing came to exist during moments of American crisis: the civil rights movement and its aftermath, the decimation of the Black Power movement, the rise of Reaganomics, the devastating AIDS epidemic. Baldwin was forged in the crucible of an America perpetually teetering on the edge of self-destruction, unwilling to heed the warnings of those who understood the immensity of the peril. The result of that heedlessness, as we’ve seen in these pandemic months, is quite literally death. It occurred to me, then, that John’s experience, and Baldwin’s novel as a whole, is an act of bearing witness to the bitter realities of his life as a young man — and to the Black church as a place of existential and spiritual nourishment, even as it was parochial and unyielding.
Perhaps Baldwin left the church because he knew he would not have survived its stifling rigors, and had little desire to try. Certainly the exacting and capricious God of his upbringing — these characteristics that, not coincidentally, also describe Gabriel Grimes — was anathema to him. And yet in his 1962 essay “Down at the Cross: Letter From a Region in My Mind,” Baldwin wrote of his vexing childhood religion: “In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and very rare.”
James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time:
The church was very exciting. It took a long time for me to disengage myself from this excitement, and on the blindest, most visceral level, I never really have, and never will. There is no music like that music, no drama like the drama of the saints rejoicing, the sinners moaning, the tambourines racing, and all those voices coming together and crying holy unto the Lord. There is still, for me, no pathos quite like the pathos of those multicolored, worn, somehow triumphant and transfigured faces, speaking from the depths of a visible, tangible, continuing despair of the goodness of the Lord. I have never seen anything to equal the fire and excitement that sometimes, without warning, fill a church, causing the church, as Leadbelly and so many others have testified, to “rock.” Nothing that has happened to me since equals the power and the glory that I sometimes felt when, in the middle of a sermon, I knew that was somehow, by some miracle, really carrying, as they said, “the Word” — when the church and I were one.
Michael Warner, from his essay “Tongues Untied”, on listening to a lay teacher at his family’s Pentecostal church:
Every Wednesday night without fail, as this man wound himself through an internal deconstruction of the entire Calvinist tradition, in a fastidiously Protestant return to a more anthropomorphic God, foam dried and flecked on his lips. For our petit-bourgeois family it was unbearable to watch, but we kept coming back. I remember feeling the tension in my mother’s body next to me, all her perception concentrated on the desire to hand him the Kleenex that, as usual, she had thoughtfully brought along.
Being a literary critic is nice, I have to say, but for lip-whitening, veinpopping thrills it doesn’t compete. Not even in the headier regions of Theory can we approximate that saturation of life by argument. In the car on the way home, we would talk it over. Was he right? If so, what were the consequences? Mother, I recall, distrusted an argument that seemed to demote God to the level of the angels; she thought Christianity without an omniscient God was too Manichaean, just God and Satan going at it. She also complained that if God were not omniscient, prophecy would make no sense. She scored big with this objection, I remember; at the time, we kept ourselves up-to-date on Pat Robertson’s calculations about the imminent Rapture. I, however, cottoned on to the heretical engineer’s arguments with all the vengeful pleasure of an adolescent. God’s own limits were in sight: this was satisfaction in its own right, as was the thought of holding all mankind responsible in some way.