“Leave me behind.”
That’s how journalist and former 60 Minutes producer John Marks ultimately answers the “burning” question posed by evangelical Christianity. Reasons to Believe is not only about his reasons why, but is also a fascinating look at why the question has become so important for so many in today’s faith-seeking culture.
The question was posed to him during an interview he conducted with a couple in Texas while doing research for a 60 Minutes segment on the Left Behind series of book by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins. He expected the question, but had never attempted to “respond fully and completely.” He writes,
Once, though, I had [belief]. That was the most unsettling thing about the question. Don and Lillie McWhinney sounded utterly familiar to me. As infuriating as it was, the question posed by this upper-middle-class north Dallas man was oddly comforting, like words spoken in the voice of a grandparent long passed away. Nothing had changed in my hometown. I might have left these people far behind, but they had remained where they were, rock solid, unmoved by politics, culture, or society, or so I thought at the time, a force of immovable belief. I knew them so well that I almost wanted to accommodate them, answer in the negative just to acknowledge the old bond: “No, Don, of course I won’t be left behind.” But that was impossible. I had left the fold for good.
The book covers a two-year period of time in which Marks travels around the country – to places buried by time and others thriving with modernity, places far from the comforts of home and others in his own backyard – seeking the heart of evangelical America. He meets big-time pastors like Tommy Nelson, attends a super-church passion play at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, and rubs shoulders with nobodies manning soup kitchens, caring for the downtrodden and helping cleanup the devastation following Hurricane Katrina. There are statistics galore from both Christian and secular pollsters coupled with Marks’ own commentary, superimposing a very human face over the banality of numbers. The journalist side of Marks presents a clear picture of what it means to be an evangelical Christian in America today. He doesn’t seek to pigeonhole anyone or place all the Christian eggs in the same basket, but rather to present the facts as he sees them from the outside.
And yet it’s his own story which resonated strongest with me as I read. Marks was raised in a nominally religious family in the heart of the Bible belt, and the surrounding culture seeped in over a period of time and constant exposure. His recounting of his conversion through the ministry of Young Life while in high school will be a familiar one to many Christians today. And, perhaps, so will his tale of meeting the harsh realities of the world for the first time and having his faith shattered. I’ve been there and done that, and found myself shouting “Amen!” on more than one occasion.
And yet Marks seems to see a side of faith worth clinging to. For example,
[A]t times, it can be the most delirious of pleasures to believe, to sit within a circle of existence that extends back to the beginning of time and forward to the end of time while never leaving the most intimate circle of human contact. When Jesus tells his disciples about the lilies, he is telling them something about the way they are to live; how they are to live differently than others, how they are to relate to existence as if immortality and peace had already been provided to them; that the grace and beauty of the natural-born lily already belonged to them. This is not a message of superiority over others, in my reading. It is a statement of a reality that even the disciples had a hard time comprehending. We are born beautiful and we die beautiful, and nothing in this world can ever change it.
One of the pleasures of reading this sort of material is not only the soul-searching it induces but also the wealth of resource and inspiring material the authors use to present their narrative. As a result of reading Marks’ book, I now must go and pick up Kafka’s Castle. Alluding to the novel’s opening paragraph, toward the end of his own book Marks summarized,
To me, this image is mysterious and beautiful and terrifying; for all its simplicity, the paragraph places me at the very edge of what words can express about our existence. In my life, in this world in which I find myself, it is always late evening, and I am always just arriving. I can always see just enough before me to make out the road that I have just left, and the place to which I am headed, but not much more. I am always in transit, between the road and the town, never quite leaving the road, never quite arriving home. And yet what lies before me, invisible, is momentous. I can feel the presence of the world, even in the darkness and snow. The castle may not show itself, but it is real, inevitable and indelibly real, just as the world is absolutely real beyond our words and constructions.
But I also know that I will never see the castle. In this life, as I understand it, it will never be daylight and never be summer. The heart of this world will always remain beyond my sight, and I will never get to the gates of the castle until I arrive at my death. To me, this is not a statement of futility or alienation or isolation. It is not despair, and it’s not belief. It is an accurate description of what I have found, and what I have found is a world in which expectation is everything, satisfaction almost nothing. And I, as a human being, am always poised in that state.
In a world where absolutes are clung to with white-knuckled hands, there are few who would be so brave as to admit they don’t have all the answers; that there are mysteries that simply must be accepted in order for real, compassionate progress to become a reality. That is the message of Reasons to Believe, and it’s a powerful message indeed.
The only bummer is that, in a book so rich with information and insight, there is no index – that would have been most helpful. Perhaps when the paperback comes out . . .
For more information, visit www.purplestateofmind.com