[Editor’s note: John Jeremiah Sullivan‘s “Upon This Rock” is by now a modern classic of literary journalism: writer rents an RV, experiences a Christian rock festival (and certain revelations) with a bunch of guys from West Virginia. In a “Why’s this so good?” piece for Storyboard, ESPN The Magazine’s Paul Kix wrote, “What I love about any of Sullivan’s stories, but especially this one, is his command of the language. The man can flat-out craft a sentence. He can do pathos, he can echo (without mimicking) the flourishes of other writers, and he can do humor. … To feel this piece evolve as you read it is the true miracle of it.”]
Storyboard: How do you come up with your story ideas?
John Jeremiah Sullivan: I don’t know. Let me pass on that one.
How long was the writing process?
That’s a question I’d like to know the answer to. I have no memory of it. I know that I wrote it in this old house we lived in, in downtown Wilmington, on Dock Street. An old antebellum house. We lived on the first floor and we were there for a year. I guess I spent maybe a month from the first sentence to handing it over. But it could have just felt that way.
How did Darius and the rest react to this story?
I only talked to Darius and Ritter, but they forwarded the feelings of the other guys. They told me that they really enjoyed it as a story. And I was honored by that. In other words, they knew that I had been trying to do something as a writer. They kind of said, “Hey, we see what you did there.” They didn’t try to evade that I had sort of come out as a non-believer in the piece in a way that I maybe didn’t to them. I never lied to them about my faith, but I probably said as little about it as I could.
So they didn’t feel betrayed?
On the contrary, I think they were excited to get a lot of attention in Braxton County, on account of this piece. They’d relate to me in great detail how much their stock had gone up with girls from having been in GQ.
Ten years later, what’s your opinion of “Upon This Rock?“ How does it stack up to the rest of your work?
I’m always trying so hard not to think about my work at all. My hierarchies don’t tend to be very detailed that way. You’ve made me like it more with your questions. And not because of flattery, or anything like that, but in answering you I realize I still don’t know what was going on there. That tells me that what I wrote was not cynical.
“Upon This Rock”
by John Jeremiah Sullivan
It is wrong to boast, but in the beginning, my plan was perfect. Why did you begin the story like this? It’s rather wonderful; the nod to Genesis, the acknowledgement of one sin, even as you — in your boastfulness — are guilty of another… It was one of those sentences that came before I’d given it any thought, if that makes any sense. I have no memory of wondering what the first sentence would be. It just seemed obvious, at the time, as part of the mania of these reporting assignments. I read it now and it sounds like it’s beaming in from another planet. At the time, it seemed like the most transparent way to begin the piece. Did you decide on it early in the drafting process? Yeah, it was a rare case of the first sentence of the piece being the first sentence that came to me. Sometimes it’s fun, when you can get away with it, to fossilize the actual circumstances of these assignments in the writing of them. I always got a kick out of that with New Journalism, the way the texture of that world, of the actual milieu—not of the subject, but of the reporting itself; the magazines; the newsroom—gets trapped in the writing of the piece and recorded. I had this anecdote about having wanted to go to another festival and the whole thing falling apart. It happened to be true, you know, that I ended up at the Creation Fest, not just by accident, but I wasn’t even meant to be there. That little story gave me that. You mention New Journalism. Was that a big influence on you? Oh, yeah, massively. I mean, this piece is talking to Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss.” That’s one of the pieces people point to as the Big Bang of New Journalism. Interesting. I wouldn’t have put two and two together. Well, I shouldn’t make too strong a case for that reading. Sometimes a writer’s take on your own stuff is so excessively idiosyncratic. I was very much inside that mindset, you know, living in New York and writing for magazines and trying to learn from the people who’d done it in the most interesting way. People like Gay Talese.
I was assigned to cover the Cross-Over Festival in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri, three days of the top Christian bands and their backers at an isolated midwestern fairground or something. I’d stand at the edge of the crowd and take notes on the scene, chat up the occasional audience member (“What’s harder—homeschooling or regular schooling?”), then flash my pass to get backstage, where I’d rap with the artists themselves: “This Christian music—it’s a phenomenon. What do you tell your fans when they ask you why God let Creed break up?” The singer could feed me his bit about how all music glorifies Him, when it’s performed with a loving spirit, and I’d jot down every tenth word, inwardly smiling. Later that night, I might sneak some hooch in my rental car and invite myself to lie with a prayer group by their fire, for the fellowship of it. Fly home, stir in statistics. Paycheck. Have you ever been tempted to do this, to file something paint-by-the-numbers? If I ever did it, I didn’t know I was doing it. But that doesn’t mean I never did it. But it was never a conscious decision, like “Oh, I have to file this fucking thing…”? I was too ambitious for that. I felt like I had something to prove, probably, especially early on. So doing it that way wouldn’t have appealed to me enough to get me through the torment of the assignment. And I don’t know many journalists who do that, consciously, so it’s definitely a strawman, to a certain extent. Which isn’t to say that we don’t write badly, all the time. But the paint-by-the-numbers thing, I was trying to imagine the guy that I would believe was writing that story, if I’d picked up GQ in the airport and was reading it on a plane and thought, “Oh, God. Here we go…” I tried to embody that guy as fully as possible.
But as my breakfast-time mantra says, I am a professional. And they don’t give out awards for that sort of toe-tap, J-school foolishness. I wanted to know what these people are, who claim to love this music, who drive hundreds of miles, traversing states, to hear it live. Then it came, my epiphany: I would go with them. Or rather, they would go with me. I would rent a van, a plush one, and we would travel there together, I and three or four hard-core buffs, all the way from the East Coast to the implausibly named Lake of the Ozarks. We’d talk through the night, they’d proselytize at me, and I’d keep my little tape machine working all the while. Somehow I knew we’d grow to like and pity one another. What a story that would make—for future generations. To what to degree do you imagine your stories before you start reporting? In an ideal scenario—the ones that go well—you’re planning situations that you won’t have control over, you know? Almost setting up little laboratory experiments and inserting yourself into them. You include enough elements that you can feel pretty confident that, when they start jangling together, something’s gonna happen. But, at a certain point, if anything interesting is gonna happen, it’s gonna need to be out of your control. Of course, I make that sound like a general principle. It kind of happened with that piece is a way that was just lucky. My take on writing a story is that you have an idea of what it should be and the more you report, the further away you get from what you want. The real work is to gradually put the story back together. Is that what it’s like for you? The trick with that is, nine times out of 10, your story is going to molt out of its original conception. You always think you’re telling a slightly different story than you end up telling at first. And usually you end up getting the assignment on the understanding that you’ll be writing a slightly different story. In my experience, when I’ve really had control over the reporting scenario—I could put certain people in a room—there’s often a weird disappointment that comes along with it, because you find that you’ve kind of foreclosed on the possibility of something really crazy happening. Not always, but many times. This is just to say that I’ve had better luck when I’ve been a little bit more passive in determining how things will go. You’re engineering opportunities for these unpredictable things to happen.
The only remaining question was: how to recruit the willing? But it was hardly even a question, because everyone knows that damaged types who are down for whatever’s clever gather in “chat rooms” every night. And among the Jesusy, there’s plenty who are super f’d up. You write ‘fuck’ a couple of times subsequently; why pull your punches here? Were you trying to embody the people you were writing about? Yeah, there was some of that. It was a little bit idiomatic. That’s what I kept hearing people say. They didn’t like to say ‘fuck,’ but they’d say ‘f’d up.’ But I don’t know. I don’t want to defend that. I look at that and I think I probably didn’t know what I was doing yet, with using that word. I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to use it. I was kind of half-stepping a little bit. I was never really satisfied with that part of the piece. It’s the only moment in the story where it feels like you’re sort of mocking them. Well, I was. To me, I was still in that register from the beginning. I mean, I do begin by mocking them, but the piece is not mocking them, you know? I read something recently; someone was talking to Adam Phillips, the essayist, and he was the only person I’d ever heard cop to this thing. Which I thought is something I do, and it’s something I’ve been almost a little embarrassed to admit: I’ll often, if I feel like I’ve said something stupid or wrong in a piece—and this is what we’re talking about when people get into that whole conversation, as insufferably pretentious-sounding as it is, about the “I” and the self and the first person and all that shit. There are some real issues involved. Because when I’m writing, if I say something that’s wrong or off base, if I think it’s wrong or off base in an interesting way—if I think the reader’s seen through it and that it might lead to a certain connection, or to seeing the whole thing in a clearer way—I’ll sometimes let it stay there. Which does show some kind of fundamental remove from the whole idea of this first person nonfiction thing. Which it is, being a direct rhetorical statement, in the old fashion sense, you know? It puts you on a weird ground. If you really know what you’re doing, you don’t belong there somehow. He preferred it that way, evidently.
So I published my invitation, anonymously, at youthontherock.com, and on two Internet forums devoted to the good-looking Christian pop-punk band Relient K, which had been booked to appear at Cross-Over. Whose idea was this That was all me. But the idea of recruiting some passengers was cleared by the magazine. That was part of my mandate. I have a hard time imagining a magazine, now, allowing this, because of the insurance risk. Yeah, and probably at the time it was just a stupid, weird thing to do. But you remember those days. Yes. I pictured that guy or girl out there who’d been dreaming in an attic room of seeing, with his or her own eyes, the men of Relient K perform their song “Gibberish” from Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…But Three Do. How could he or she get there, though? Gas prices won’t drop, and Relient K never plays North Florida. Please, Lord, make it happen. Suddenly, here my posting came, like a great light. We could help each other. “I’m looking for a few serious fans of Christian rock to ride to the festival with me,” I wrote. “Male/female doesn’t matter, though you shouldn’t be older than, say, 28, since I’m looking at this primarily as a youth phenomenon.”
They seem like harmless words. Turns out, though, I had failed to grasp how “youth” the phenomenon is. Most of the people hanging out in these chat rooms were teens, and I don’t mean 19, friends, I mean 14. Some of them, I was about to learn, were mere tweens. I had just traipsed out onto the World Wide Web and asked a bunch of 12-year-old Christians if they wanted to come for a ride in my van.
It wasn’t long before the little fuckers rounded on me. “Nice job cutting off your email address,” wrote “mathgeek29,” in a tone that seemed not at all Christlike. “I doubt if anybody would give a full set of contact information to some complete stranger on the Internet…. Aren’t there any Christian teens in Manhattan who would be willing to do this?”
“Oh, I should hope not,” I blubbered.
A few of the children were credulous. “Riathamus” said, “i am 14 and live in indiana plus my parents might not let me considering it is a stranger over the Internet. but that would really be awsome.” A girl by the name of “LilLoser” even tried to be a friend:
I doubt my parents would allow their baby girl to go with some guy they don’t and I don’t know except through email, especially for the amount of time you’re asking and like driving around everywhere with ya…. I’m not saying you’re a creepy petifile, lol, but i just don’t think you’ll get too many people interested… cuz like i said, it spells out “creepy”… but hey—good luck to you in your questy missiony thing. lol. This dip into a Christian chatroom works beautifully. Do you do things with an eye towards how they’ll eventually play out in the story? Yes. I’m always trying to do things that I think will be good for the story. It’s just funny how often the ones that end up working when the thing turns into a piece of writing are not the ones you’d intended. That was the perfect example. In fact, I think when I started out I envisioned that the whole piece would probably be this long van ride. I was just imagining dark, American highways and a van, with some totally apocalyptic born-agains. That would’ve been a great story, too, possibly. It didn’t pan out! And the Internet thing became part of the experience. If you tried to force it, it would seem, well, forced. But that’s what I mean about things getting captured, things getting almost preserved in the process. We’re lucky that that can happen, because that’s how we do some of our best reporting and observing. It’s funny, so often when you read historical journalism you’re just grateful to them for being kind of dumb recordings. The best example of that, I think, was a New York Times story about the last hours of Abraham Lincoln’s life. It was almost a minute-by-minute account. It’s so straightforward; “2:52 o’clock — Pulse 48 — respiration 30.” There’s nothing particularly beautiful about it, or stylish. But you’re grateful for precisely those qualities. Yeah. It was the highest task that could have been accomplished in that moment.
The luck that she wished me I sought in vain. The Christians stopped chatting with me and started chatting among themselves, warning one another about me. Finally one poster on the official Relient K site hissed at the others to stay away from my scheme, as I was in all likelihood “a 40 year old kidnapper.” Soon I logged on and found that the moderators of the site had removed my post and its lengthening thread of accusations altogether, offering no explanation. Doubtless at that moment they were faxing alerts to a network of moms. I recoiled in dread. I called my lawyer, in Boston, who told me to “stop using computers.”
In the end, the experience inspired in me a distaste for the whole Cross-Over Festival, and I resolved to refuse the assignment. I withdrew. This amounts to a prologue. Why did you include it? There are so many ways it could have been written. There’s that van ride we talked about. There was a really interesting political piece that another writer could have done about the way Republicans were recruiting at these Christian festivals. It was a blind man’s elephant of stories that could’ve been told. The one I was interested in had to do somewhat with cycles and with the fact that the whole phenomenon is age-related. And for that I needed this interaction between somebody from the older generation—the narrator, the reporter—and these kids. And for him to turn out to have been someone who had been through the same experience. And that’s not something that was conscious before the reporting, but it became conscious during the writing.
The problem with a flash mag like the Gentlemen’s Quarterly is that there’s always some overachieving assistant, sometimes called Greg, whom the world hasn’t beaten down yet and who, when you phone him, out of courtesy, just to let him know that “the Cross-Over thing fell through” and that you’ll be in touch when you “figure out what to do next,” hops on that mystical boon the Internet and finds out that the festival you were planning to attend was in fact not “the biggest one in the country,” as you’d alleged. The biggest one in the country—indeed, in Christendom—is the Creation Festival, inaugurated in 1979, a regular Godstock. And it happens not in Missouri but in ruralmost Pennsylvania, in a green valley, on a farm called Agape. This festival did not end a month ago; it starts the day after tomorrow. Already they are assembling, many tens of thousands strong. But hey—good luck to you in your questy missiony thing. lol. I love that your cast of characters is not limited to the ostensible subjects of the story; already we are introduced, if only briefly, to your lawyer and your editor, and we haven’t even gotten on the RV. It’s a bit like breaking the fourth wall, but for journalism. Why did you do it? wish I had an intelligent answer. Sometimes when you get into questions about things you’ve written a while back, it’s actually impossible to recover any of the thinking. Why did that feel natural? What was I trying to do with the whole beginning of the piece? What was the Freudian project? I was trying to destroy that character, the narrator. I was trying to destabilize and delegitimate him. By destroying yourself at the beginning, aren’t you sort of putting your thumb on the scale, so that the reader feels more charitable towards you as the story progresses? Because, ultimately, you don’t fuck these people over. But at the beginning these seems like a possibility. That’s probably a good way of putting it. I mean, I could say, “No, I wasn’t doing that,” but that’s among its many benefits as a rhetorical strategy. And to that extent it has about it the bullshit of all self-deprecation. Or at least the self-deceived quality of all self-deprecation. But the only defense I can make for it—the only reason I would say it’s justifiable in this piece—is that, in the end, I didn’t know, and don’t know, where exactly I stand on most of the larger questions in that piece. There is an ambiguity at the center of it that was real. So, in that sense, it’s less pushing their thumbs down than just playing with something that is highly unstable. Sort of tossing it from hand to hand.
I made one demand: that I not be forced to camp. I’d be given some sort of vehicle with a mattress in it, one of these pop-ups, maybe. “Right,” said Greg. “Here’s the deal. I’ve called around. There are no vans left within a hundred miles of Philly. We got you an RV, though. It’s a twenty-nine-footer.” I’m interested in these quotes. Were you recording the conversation? And, if so, do you always record or document conversations that are, seemingly, beyond the scope of the story? Did you have to train yourself to do this? I wish you could ask around, but I think I’m known as a fairly clean factcheck. My dad was a reporter. I know how to write a kind of sloppy shorthand. Back then, I was recording a lot. Like all those campfire conversations, those were recorded on digital recorders. I might not even do that as much now. I’m better at note taking. I’m better at knowing what I’m going to want to remember, so there’s not as much to get down. When I was in high school, I really dove into Mencken’s books on the American language, and I really like writers like John O’Hara, who are trying to trap those little combinations of American words, where we give ourselves away a little bit. So I can’t remember what it was that Greg said when he called, but it was just something that seemed at once so decent and so wildly inappropriate to the reality of the experience. I wanted to get it down. Also, there’s kind of inadvertent personal anthropology going on there, just because of the way I both grew up and came up in the business—growing up in a household with a reporter, spending a big part of my childhood at the newspaper, and then immediately going into magazine work out of college. It was very kind of ink-stained, and I think it gave me a sense of community with the people I was working with. It was really fun. And when I pictured my audience, it was sometimes them, you know? Not always, but sometimes. That can quickly become a weakness. That could quickly give way to an insideryness. Here I think I was more trying to wield it. But, of course, I would think that. Once I reached the place, we agreed (for he led me to think he agreed), I would certainly be able to downgrade to something more manageable.
The reason twenty-nine feet is such a common length for RVs, I presume, is that once a vehicle gets much longer, you need a special permit to drive it. That would mean forms and fees, possibly even background checks. But show up at any RV joint with your thigh stumps lashed to a skateboard, crazily waving your hooks-for-hands, screaming you want that twenty-nine-footer out back for a trip to you ain’t sayin’ where, and all they want to know is: Credit or debit, tiny sir?
Two days later, I stood in a parking lot, suitcase at my feet. Debbie came toward me. So often, writers don’t attach names to secondary characters, for fear of cluttering up a story with useless information. You exhibit no such fear. How much thought did you give it? I’d be curious to go back and see if there was some discussion about it during the editing of this piece. I feel like there may have been. It’s an example, again, of when you zoom up like this and look at the little moments, it’s so easy to understand how this stuff gets messy almost instantaneously. Right? Because you look at that one little detail, of the two of them coming out of that trailer, and the different lenses you could apply to it. In one, you’re a New York Times reporter and you’re writing about their business, and you’re going to use their full names. And, in that way, extend an agency to them that is pretty significant. In another, you don’t mentioned their names at all. They become part of a background wash, sort of an impressionistic wash that you’re going to use to suggest something about the city. I do this weird in-between thing, because to me they’re very vivid in the story. They are characters in the story, but I want to be able to write about them in a way that I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing if I were using their full names. So there’s also maybe a little bit of cowardice there, or at least politeness; depends on how you look at it. But there’s also something else. That in-between space—between no names and first and last—is a friendly approach. It signals to the reader that you’re going to treat your characters as human beings and not caricature them, to the greatest extent possible. I hope that’s true, at least at the time. They were the kind of people who let you know what their names were very quickly. That detail, in a way, comes in with the use of the names, without having to be said. It does suggest something very quickly about what kind of people they were–very upfront, very informal. I think is says a whole lot, more than describing her physically or whatever. In some ways, it’s a lot more important. I love hearing you say that, but at the same time my little devil says, Well, you wanted to say that she has very big arms. You couldn’t say that unless you made her a character. You wouldn’t have said it if you’d used her full name because you think it would hurt her feelings and you were fairly confident she would never see the article. But I think you earned that line. If you hadn’t, it would have been gratuitous and mean. I hope not. Wendy Brenner makes fun of me for that line every time she sees me. She thinks it’s a terrible line. It did make me look at my work and see, like, do I have this tendency to want to get people visually, physically, very quickly? Is that sort of hypertrophy a little bit, when it comes to women? And probably it’s impossible not to have a little bit of bias, one way or the other. But I found that I just tend to do it in general, with men and women and children, to establish a kind of photographic presence for them. Sometimes you include a detail because it was true and it was impossible not to notice. She was a very large women wearing one of those shirts that stops right at the top of your shoulder, that exposes your whole arm and your armpit. And she was directing me around, so she kept kind of lifting the arm in a Charlton Heston way. And you’re not going to go, You know, I’m not going to mention this. She was a lot to love, with a face as sweet as a birthday cake beneath spray-hardened bangs. She raised a meaty arm and pointed, before either of us spoke. The thing she pointed at was the object about which I’d just been saying, “Not that one, Jesus, okay?” It was like something the ancient Egyptians might have left behind in the desert.
“Hi, there,” I said, “Listen, all I need is, like, a camper van or whatever. It’s just me, and I’m going 500 miles…”
She considered me. “Where ya headed?”
“To this thing called Creation. It’s, like, a Christian-rock festival.”
“You and everybody!” she chirped. “The people who got our vans are going to that same thing. There’s a bunch o’ ya.” Were you recording all this? If not, how do you remember the intricacies of human speech? Ya instead of you, for example. I know that if I were taking notes, I wouldn’t be able to get that. Really? It’s interesting how people are wired. Because that’s precisely the thing I’m trying to listen for, is distinctive, little vocal rhythmic patterns. I don’t know what it is. I’m better at that than at information. I usually feel like information I can just fill in later. That’s a good wavelength to be on. I agree. That’s how we differentiate ourselves from one another. I can see myself having a recorder in my hand as we walk around the RV lot. But it’s too long ago to really remember. What I’ve always had, and I’ve done it since I was in high school, is that habit of running off constantly and doing furious notetaking. Immediately after? Immediately after. Pulling off of roads, running into bathrooms in bars, or at people’s houses. Did you always carry a notebook? Always. You still do? Oh, yeah. God, I feel like I can’t go into the bathroom…I’m not even all that great a notetaker or a diarist. It’s more OCD slash gearhead. Well, it works for you. Writers have all sorts of strange habits, even if they don’t seem strange to them. Look at Gay Talese and his shirtboards; I couldn’t do it, but it obviously works for him. After a while, you’re doing whatever will keep the writer alive and functioning.
Her coworker Jack emerged—tattooed, squat, gray-mulleted, spouting open contempt for MapQuest. He’d be giving me real directions. “But first let’s check ‘er out.”
We toured the outskirts of my soon-to-be mausoleum. It took time. Every single thing Jack said, somehow, was the only thing I’d need to remember. White water, gray water, black water (drinking, showering, le devoir). Here’s your this, never ever that. Grumbling about “weekend warriors.” I couldn’t listen, because listening would mean accepting it as real, though his casual mention of the vast blind spot in the passenger-side mirror squeaked through, as did his description of the “extra two feet on each side”—the bulge of my living quarters—which I wouldn’t be able to see but would want to “be conscious of” out there. Debbie followed us with a video camera, for insurance purposes. I saw my loved ones gathered in a mahogany-paneled room to watch this footage; them being forced to hear me say, “What if I never use the toilet—do I still have to switch on the water?”
Mike pulled down the step and climbed aboard. It was really happening. The interior smelled of spoiled vacations and amateur porn shoots wrapped in motel shower curtains and left in the sun. I was physically halted at the threshold for a moment. Jesus had never been in this RV.
What should I tell you about my voyage to Creation? Do you want to know what it’s like to drive a windmill with tires down the Pennsylvania Turnpike at rush hour by your lonesome, with darting bug-eyes and shaking hands; or about Greg’s laughing phone call “to see how it’s going”; about hearing yourself say “no No NO NO!” every time you try to merge; or about thinking you detect—beneath the mysteriously comforting blare of the radio—faint honking sounds, then checking your passenger-side mirror only to find you’ve been straddling the lanes for an unknown number of miles (those two extra feet!) and that the line of traffic you’ve kept pinned stretches back farther than you can see; or about stopping at Target to buy sheets and a pillow and peanut butter but then practicing your golf swing in the sporting-goods aisle for a solid twenty-five minutes, unable to stop, knowing that when you do, the twenty-nine-footer will be where you left her, alone in the side lot, hulking and malevolent, waiting for you to take her the rest of the way to your shared destiny?
She got me there, as Debbie and Jack had promised, not possibly believing it themselves. Seven miles from Mount Union, a sign read CREATION AHEAD. The sun was setting; it floated above the valley like a fiery gold balloon. I’ve now read the story a number of times and this sentence really sticks out. You do not often use similes. Why did you do that here? In a funny way, it ties right back into your question about notetaking and recording. When I’m writing, one of the ways I make decisions about whether or not to trust certain comparisons is whether they came to me sort of pre-cognitively, as themselves, or whether I worked my way towards them. I trust the ones I worked towards less, because I suspect the reader can kind of feel, deep down, the labor. So this is the kind of thing that I can remember with a polaroid clarity from that reporting, driving down that road toward the farm; it being the one nice moment of the drive because I knew I’d survived. I was pretty sure I was going to make it, and I relaxed maybe I tiny bit. And I remember having that visual impression; it reminded me of a helium balloon, the way it was kind of floating above the landscape. I fell in with a long line of cars and trucks and vans—not many RVs. Here they were, all about me: the born again. On my right was a pickup truck, its bed full of teenage girls in matching powder blue T-shirts; they were screaming at a Mohawked kid who was walking beside the road. I took care not to meet their eyes—who knew but they weren’t the same fillies I had solicited days before? Their line of traffic lurched ahead, and an old orange Datsun came up beside me. I watched as the driver rolled down her window, leaned halfway out, and blew a long, clear note on a ram’s horn. When something like this happens—something so perfect as to be nearly unbelievable—do you think, “This is a gift”? It would be cool to think so, but no. It’s too much a process of selection. Your mind is battening on those moments when they happen. I do remember, though, that I had the recorder going as a I rolled up to the campsite, and I can remember being on the phone with [Greg] Veis in New York, and listening to the blast of the ram’s horn. It’s perfect. There are not many moments like that, even in the greatest pieces. When you say it, maybe I answered too quickly and glibly. I mean, that was really fucking strange. Probably if you go to a lot of these festival, maybe it happens a lot. Maybe it’s a thing, people blow their ram’s horns. But I didn’t see it happen the whole rest of the time I was there. And she really did do it as I entered the compound.
Oh, I understand where you are coming from. But that is what she did. I have it on tape. She blew a ram’s horn. Quite capably. Twice. A yearly rite, perhaps, to announce her arrival at Creation.
My turn at the gate. The woman looked at me, then past me to the empty passenger seat, then down the whole length of the twenty-nine-footer. “How many people in your group?” she asked.
I pulled away in awe, permitting the twenty-nine-footer to float. My path was thronged with excited Christians, most younger than 18. The adults looked like parents or pastors, not here on their own. Twilight was well along, and the still valley air was sharp with campfire smoke. A great roar shot up to my left—something had happened onstage. The sound bespoke a multitude. It filled the valley and lingered.
I thought I might enter unnoticed—that the RV might even offer a kind of cover—but I was already turning heads. Two separate kids said, “I feel sorry for him” as I passed. Another leaped up on the driver’s-side step and said, “Jesus Christ, man,” then fell away running. I kept braking—even idling was too fast. Whatever spectacle had provoked the roar was over now: The roads were choked. The youngsters were streaming around me in both directions, back to their campsites, like a line of ants around some petty obstruction. They had a disconcerting way of stepping aside for the RV only when its front fender was just about to graze their backs. From my elevated vantage, it looked as if they were waiting just a tenth of a second too long, and that I was gently, forcibly parting them in slow motion. A lovely, quiet nod to the Old Testament—I think? Did I read into that too much? You’re dead on. That was one of the things about this piece that was fun, trying to stitch in as many Old Testament verses as possible. You do it so quietly. There must have been an overwhelming temptation to sprinkle them in there. Yeah, it comes down to the question of why it felt natural. That’s so hard for me to answer, most of the time, because a lot of time when you say it felt natural you mean I was moved to do it before thinking about it. The phrases would occur and something wanted to let them in. If there was any conscious aspect to it, it was the desire to get in a little bit of the culture that I had been exposed to with that born again group in Columbus, Ohio. That was one of the great gifts it gave me, the sheer exposure to this 2,000-year-old tradition of writing and criticism and poetry. And so for that to have been one of the warps in the fabric, that felt right. How do you decide what tone to adopt for the story? Does the material dictate the tone? That’s a good question. I guess I’ve come to associate the feeling of the material dictating the tone with things going well in the piece. And when I find myself dictating I feel like it’s gotta be a form of compensation, on some level. How much of the tone is the result of how you view the world, and how you view people? An enormous part of it, I can only assume.
The Evangelical strata were more or less recognizable from my high school days, though everyone, I observed, had gotten better looking. Lots were dressed like skate punks or in last season’s East Village couture (nondenominationals); others were fairly trailer (rural Baptists or Church of God); there were preps (Young Life, Fellowship of Christian Athletes—these were the ones who’d have the pot). You could spot the stricter sectarians right away, their unchanging antifashion and pale glum faces. When I asked one woman, later, how many she reckoned were white, she said, “Roughly 100 percent.” I did see some Asians and three or four blacks. They gave the distinct impression of having been adopted. In this paragraph, you toss out a bunch of stereotypes; then you, more or less, spend the rest of the story humanizing and distinguishing your characters, so that we forgot these convenient templates. Why include them at all? Just to knock them down? I think there’s such a thing as a necessary knocking down. In that piece, whatever has happened to it since, it was written in a specific context for a specific magazine, at a time—and I suppose this has only gotten worse since—when everybody was just so sure they knew what they thought about every question. There was just a lot of intellectual party line voting going on. And GQ‘s readership—their demographic—was a lot wider than that of most of the other magazines I was writing for at the time, and had written for. And I wanted to take advantage of that. I felt like there was a tiny, little window of opportunity to communicate with the red states and I kind of wanted to reachieve a sort of rhetorical neutrality with some of those pieces, to see if they could possibly be nudged. Does what you know about your readership affect how you write for certain publications? I could only answer that on a per-piece basis because there have been times when I’ve been very conscious of trying to resist it, and needing to find the most quiet, interior place and to write from there. And consequences be damned. Then there are other times when you think this is something that could be embraced. The third thing is you’d have to be a robot to not be registering it on some level. And I guess because I really love early-18th-century journalism, and read a lot of it, I see that they’re recognizing something about the specific circumstance, like the dialogue that’s happening. That can take on its own interest.
I drove so far. You wouldn’t have thought this thing could go on so far. Every other bend in the road opened onto a whole new cove full of tents and cars; the encampment had expanded to its physiographic limits, pushing right up to the feet of the ridges. It’s hard to put across the sensory effect of that many people living and moving around in the open: part family reunion, part refugee camp. A tad militia, but cheerful.
The roads turned dirt and none too wide: Hallelujah Highway, Street Called Straight. I’d been told to go to “H,” but when I reached H, two teenage kids in orange vests came out of the shadows and told me the spots were all reserved. “Help me out here, guys,” I said, jerking my thumb, pitifully indicating my mobile home. They pulled out their walkie-talkies. Some time went by. It got darker. Then an even younger boy rode up on a bike and winked a flashlight at me, motioning I should follow.
It was such a comfort to yield up my will to this kid. All I had to do was not lose him. His vest radiated a warm, reassuring officialdom in my headlights. Which may be why I failed to comprehend in time that he was leading me up an almost vertical incline—”the Hill Above D.”
I’m not sure which was first: the little bell in my spine warning me that the RV had reached a degree of tilt she was not engineered to handle, or the sickening knowledge that we had begun to slip back. I bowed up off the seat and crouched on the gas. I heard yelling. I kicked at the brake. With my left hand and foot I groped, like a person drowning, for the emergency brake (had Jack’s comprehensive how-to sesh not touched on its whereabouts?). We were losing purchase; she started to shudder. My little guide’s eyes looked scared. This is terrifying. If I were in this situation, I cannot imagine having the wherewithal to observe and remember this in such detail. How did you do it? Well, it became a comic scene in the telling, but in the moment I not only feared for my life, or at least my physical safety, but I was also looking at the real possibility that I was going to hurt some people or kill some people. Nothing about that scene on the hill was exaggerated. It was just insane and homicidal what happened, you know. I haven’t had many experiences like that in my life, maybe three or four, that when they happen the brain goes into a kind of iPhone mode and things get preserved with an almost weird clarity and specificity. I can imagine surviving, but then not remembering how. Yeah, I know what you mean. And if you’d been there watching me, I’m sure I would have looked like a person who was just lost and confused and scared. But, for some reason, the way I react to them I can later go back with an almost regrettable frame-by-frame memory and relive them.
I’d known this moment would come, of course, that the twenty-nine-footer would turn on me. We had both of us understood it from the start. But I must confess, I never imagined her hunger for death could prove so extreme. Laid out below and behind me was a literal field of Christians, toasting buns and playing guitars, fellowshipping. The aerial shot in the papers would show a long scar, a swath through their peaceful tent village. And that this gigantic psychopath had worked her vile design through the agency of a child—an innocent, albeit impossibly stupid, child…
My memory of the next five seconds is smeared, but logic tells me that a large and perfectly square male head appeared in the windshield. It was blond and wearing glasses. It had wide-open eyes and a Chaucerian West Virginia accent and said rapidly that I should “JACK THE WILL TO THE ROT” while applying the brakes. What does this mean? He was saying, “Jack the wheel to the right.” That was his intensity… Oh, I feel like an idiot. I thought maybe it was a Biblical reference. Maybe people have not understand that line for 10 years. Jack the will to the rot! Some branch of my motor cortex obeyed. The RV skidded briefly and was still. Then the same voice said, “All right, hit the gas on three: one, two…”
She began to climb—slowly, as if on a pulley. Some freakishly powerful beings were pushing. Soon we had leveled out at the top of the hill.
There were five of them, all in their early twenties. I remained in the twenty-nine-footer; they gathered below.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Aw, hey,” shot back Darius, the one who’d given the orders. He talked very fast. “We’ve been doing this all day—I don’t know why that kid keeps bringing people up here—we’re from West Virginia—listen, he’s retarded—there’s an empty field right there.” Were you recording this? Part of it was being a little bit more green than I am now. I tended to just charge around with my recorder in my hand. I’d seen people do that on TV. I probably would’ve put one of those “PRESS” things in my hat, if I could’ve. Now, it seems so much like insisting on your role and it creates a real distortion. But if you’re doing it in a totally naive way, maybe it can almost help. It sounds like you were pretty upfront about your role as a journalist. Oh, yeah. Definitely. It was almost a way of introduction. It’s something I got in the habit of doing. It’s a great icebreaker, for one thing. It’s a show of respect. It is true that it makes for a more honest scenario, but you’re also inviting them to perform. I think that’s only true for the first couple of minutes. After that, people really do forget about the tape recorder. If you talk to someone long enough, you get to whatever they’d be saying anyway. Exactly. That is so true, and important for young reporters to know. It’s less about technique than about persistence. There’s just all kinds of bullshit you have to go through first. You’re getting through your own bullshit. Their bullshit. The inherent bullshit of the scenario. In most cases, it takes time for them to say things they mean. You’ve got to be willing to make time for that. Right. The best piece of advice I ever got was from Albert Maysles. He said, “Whenever you’re thinking of turning off the camera, keep shooting for another 30 seconds.” I think this is true in journalism, too. It never hurts to keep waiting. The devil’s in the follow-up questions. That’s a beautiful piece of advice. It’s fun because you can almost lure the reader into a kind of complicity. There are moments when I feel critical of the writer or the characters or the piece. And the writer is also critical of them, at that moment. We’re almost doing it together, you know? When I was living in New York and doing all these first pieces for magazines, my wife was in grad school at NYU, studying cinema. And there was this filmmaker, Jean Rouch, that she and her friends were talking about. I was really struck by the thing of how he would bring the people from the village in and he would film them watching the film. Two things about it were really powerful to me: both the subversive element, the deconstructive element, and the kind of deliberate element, but also as a way of reestablishing control of the narrative. That’s something that’s not even especially admirable, but it’s definitely going on in all experiments like this.
I looked back and down at what he was pointing to: pastureland.
Jake stepped forward. He was also blond, but slender. And handsome in a feral way. His face was covered in stubble as pale as his hair. He said he was from West Virginia and wanted to know where I was from.
“I was born in Louisville,” I said.
“Really?” said Jake. “Is that on the Ohio River?” Like Darius, he both responded and spoke very quickly. I said that in fact it was.
“Well, I know a dude that died who was from Ohio. I’m a volunteer fireman, see. Well, he flipped a Chevy Blazer nine times. He was spread out from here to that ridge over there. He was dead as four o’clock.”
“Who are you guys?” I said.
Ritter answered. He was big, one of those fat men who don’t really have any fat, a corrections officer—as I was soon to learn—and a former heavyweight wrestler. He could burst a pineapple in his armpit and chuckle about it (or so I assume). Haircut: military. Mustache: faint. “We’re just a bunch of West Virginia guys on fire for Christ,” he said. “I’m Ritter, and this is Darius, Jake, Bub, and that’s Jake’s brother, Josh. Pee Wee’s around here somewhere.” I wondered about this. You introduce us to the main characters so neatly. Is this really how it happened, or did you meet a lot of other kids and decide that, among them, this group would make the best subjects for the story? In other words, did I choose them from among many potential groups? Yeah. Were there other options? Or did life really happen this neatly? I’m not being skeptical, just curious. I know exactly what you mean, but all I can do is refer to the literality of the description of that scene on the hillside. And the terror of it. And the gratitude I felt toward them. I’d just gotten parked. They were the first people I’d exchanged more than a ‘hello’ with. So it was equivalent to the ram’s horn that way. They just came along and jumped in the RV. How soon after you met them did you realize you had something with them? Almost immediately. At the top of the hill, once they’d stabilized the RV, they just started talking so much and so quickly and everything they were saying was really interesting. It wasn’t purely a journalistic instinct. It was also that human instinct, of going to a place where you don’t know anyone and you’re totally isolated. There’s a friendly group that invites you to bond with them. That was lucky. Yeah. I was going to have a hard time taking care of myself, clearly.
“Chasin’ tail,” said Darius disdainfully.
“So you guys have just been hanging out here, saving lives?”
“We’re from West Virginia,” said Darius again, like maybe he thought I was thick. It was he who most often spoke for the group. The projection of his jaw from the lump of snuff he kept there made him come off a bit contentious, but I felt sure he was just high-strung.
“See,” Jake said, “well, our campsite is right over there.” With a cock of his head he identified a car, a truck, a tent, a fire, and a tall cross made of logs. And that other thing was…a PA system?
“We had this spot last year,” Darius said. “I prayed about it. I said, ‘God, I’d just really like to have that spot again—you know, if it’s Your will.” Were the boys at all reluctant to talk to you? How did festival attendees generally react to you? They had absolutely no reluctance, which was a thing that had to do with their evangelicalism, too, because they immediately sensed it as a witnessing opportunity. It was reminding me of when I’d been in their shoes, and what that kind of thing would have seemed like—somebody from a satanic New York magazine saying, “Tell me about your faith!” And they’re thinking, “Oh, he’s got me. He thinks I’m a dumb hillbilly, but really I’ve got him.” There’s a script waiting there for you. One of the great gifts of that piece is they were also interested in subverting that script. Were the rest of the attendees just as willing to talk? Was the evangelical spirit widespread? Yeah, here’s where I got lucky, from a technical point of view. I found people who considered themselves to be at odds with the rest of the festival. That’s what was good about it. They weren’t trying to be representative in any way. They were involved in violent opposition with certain aspects of the festival. It was just a really nice observation point; in a literal sense, too, because they were way up on that hill, so I could see the whole festival in a way that was, when I think about it, kind of special.
I’d assumed that my days at Creation would be fairly lonely and end with my ritual murder. But these West Virginia guys had such warmth. It flowed out of them. They asked me what I did and whether I liked sassafras tea and how many others I’d brought with me in the RV. Plus they knew a dude who died horribly and was from a state with the same name as the river I grew up by, and I’m not the type who questions that sort of thing.
“What are you guys doing later?” I said.
Bub was short and solid; each of his hands looked as strong as a trash compactor. He had darker skin than the rest—an olive cast—with brown hair under a camouflage hat and brown eyes and a full-fledged dark mustache. Later he would share with me that friends often told him he must be “part N-word.” He was shy and always looked like he must be thinking hard about something. “Me and Ritter’s going to hear some music,” he said. You seem to love your characters. Do you find difficult to write about people if you don’t like them? Has that ever happened? Yeah, I can think of times when I met people who seemed particularly loathsome. I’m trying to ask myself in the actual case how I handled it, and I think what I ended up doing was relying on quotation a lot. Like, I remember this one guy—I won’t say who he was, because God knows what’s happening with him now—but he was a kind of bodybuilder, super-right-wing Christian guy. And he was telling me about how he’d gone to rehab six months earlier for a pill addiction and about how, when he got in there, he realized that God had placed him there so that he could witness to the other people in the rehab facility. This kind of fantastic, narcissistic contortionism by which he’d wrapped it back around to make it a self-deifying moment. I couldn’t do anything better than that, so I think that’s what I do. It’s probably a form of shutdown. I just go in record mode. In a case like that, do you worry, when you sit down to write the story, that you’re not being as honest in your depiction as you would otherwise? You know, the fear of objectification and the desire not to be people who objectify has maybe led us to be a little unrealistic about objectification and what it means. Just in the sense that, we don’t actually have any other way to look at one another. And I make an effort just to be okay with that level of objectification that exists as almost background radiation. It’s just part of being human. And not to let it freak me out so much that I then don’t make the effort to enter as fully and as acceptingly into someone’s psychology as I can. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the way you learn the most, and that’s what you’re doing as a reporter. You’re trying to get the most intelligent take on the social dynamic you’re observing. That’s actually how you do it. Empathy is indivisible from that.
“What band is it?”
Ritter said, “Jars of Clay.”
I had read about them; they were big. “Why don’t you guys stop by my trailer and get me on your way?” I said. “I’ll be in that totally empty field.”
Ritter said, “We just might do that.” Then they all lined up to shake my hand.
While I waited for Ritter and Bub, I lay in bed and read The Silenced Times by lantern light. This was a thin newsletter that had come with my festival packet. It wasn’t really a newsletter; it was publisher’s flackery for Silenced, a new novel by Jerry Jenkins, one of the minds behind the multi-hundred-million-dollar Left Behind series—twelve books so far, all about what happens after the Rapture, to people like me. His new book was a futuristic job, set in 2047. The dateline on the newsletter read: “March 2, 38.” You get it? Thirty-seven years have passed since they wiped Jesus from history. The Silenced Times was laid out to look like a newspaper from that coming age.
It was pretty grim stuff. In the year 38, an ancient death cult has spread like a virus and taken over the “United Seven States of America.” Adherents meet in “cell groups” (nice touch: a bit of old Commie lingo); they enlist the young and hunger for global hegemony while striving to hasten the end of the world. By the year 34—the time of the last census—44 percent of the population had professed membership in the group; by now the figure is closer to half. This dwarfs any other surviving religious movement in the land. Even the president (whom they mobilized to elect) has been converted. The most popular news channel in the country openly backs him and his policies; and the year’s most talked-about film is naked propaganda for the cult, but in a darkly brilliant twist, much of the population has been convinced that the media are in fact controlled by…
I’m sorry! That’s all happening now. That’s Evangelicalism. The Silenced Times describes Christians being thrown into jail, driven underground, their pamphlets confiscated. A dude wins an award for ratting out his sister, who was leading a campus Bible study (you know how we do). Jerry Jenkins must blow his royalties on crack. I especially liked the part in The Silenced Times where it reports that antireligion forces have finally rounded up Jenkins himself—in a cave. He’s 97 years old but has never stopped typing, and as they drag him away, he’s bellowing Scripture.
Ritter beat on the door. He and Bub were ready to hear some Jars of Clay. Now that it was night, more fires were going; the whole valley was aromatic. And the sky looked like a tin punch lantern—thousands of stars were out. There were so many souls headed toward the stage, it was hard to walk, though I noticed the crowd tended to give Ritter a wider berth. He kind of leaned back, looking over people’s heads, as if he expected to spot a friend. I asked about his church in West Virginia. He said he and the rest of the guys were Pentecostal, speaking in tongues and all that—except for Jake, who was a Baptist. But they all went to the same “sing”—a weekly Bible study at somebody’s house with food and guitars. Did Ritter think everyone here was a Christian? “No, there’s some who probably aren’t saved. With this many people, there has to be.” What were his feelings on that? “It just opens up opportunities for witnessing,” he said. When I originally sent you this draft, I’d said that you don’t depict any witnessing scenes. But now I wonder if you really were depicting them—they just weren’t as overt as I imagined they would be. Oh, my God! Yes, man! It was a masterpiece of witnessing, on their part. You’ve identified the secret, the lowest theme of the piece. They totally got me. Were there any things that you left out of the story? Anything that you regret? Yeah, a whole day spent with the photographers. GQ sent a couple of photographers and a photographers’ assistant to the festival. And they hooked up with me one morning and we ended up spending the whole day together. These two really beautiful women who just dazzled the guys on the hill. It was just amazing to see. They would just get paralyzed around these two super-sophisticated women from SoHo. And unfortunately, Jake, one of the guys, thought that if he told them they looked like they should be in Playboy…It was an awkward day. You read that piece and you know how strange and overwhelming it was to be at that festival to begin with. And then to be walking through with the two of them, and sort of watching the evangelical youth of America react to them, that was like its own novel. To have included it in any way would have been to take the thing totally off the tracks.
Bub stopped suddenly—a signal that he wished to speak. The crowd flowed on around us for a minute while he chose his words. “There’s Jewish people here,” he said.
“Really?” I said. “You mean, Jew Jews?”
“Yeah,” Bub said. “These girls Pee Wee brung around. I mean, they’re Jewish. That’s pretty awesome.” He laughed without moving his face; Bub’s laugh was a purely vocal phenomenon. Were his eyes moist?
We commenced walking.
I suspect that on some level—say, the conscious one—I didn’t want to be noticing what I noticed as we went. But I’ve been to a lot of huge public events in this country during the past five years, writing about sports or whatever, and one thing they all had in common was this weird implicit enmity that American males, in particular, seem to carry around with them much of the time. Call it a laughable generalization, fine, but if you spend enough late afternoons in stadium concourses, you feel it, something darker than machismo. Something a little wounded, and a little sneering, and just plain ready for bad things to happen. It wasn’t here. It was just…not. I looked for it, and I couldn’t find it. In the three days I spent at Creation, I saw not one fight, heard not one word spoken in anger, felt at no time even mildly harassed, and in fact met many people who were exceptionally kind. I realize they were all of the same race, all believed the same stuff, and weren’t drinking, but there were also 100,000 of them. What’s that about? What’s your theory? You know, I’ve always felt funny about that line. I couldn’t bring myself to get rid of it. I didn’t quite know what I meant. It was something that occurred to me. It was one of those things that seemed maybe worth capturing as a moment in the thought process of the piece, even if it was kind of faulty as a moment. Was it true? Yeah. True in the sense that you saw nothing unpleasant. Because you know how unlikely that is, right? Right. And I guess that’s all that I was saying. Maybe that’s why I wanted to keep it, because it serves as some kind of crack in the piece. It’s hard not to admire it. And, if I remember, I’ve been withholding admiration up to that point. A small part of me reacted to that line by thinking, “Bullshit.” And I don’t doubt that it was true, but it just seemed so antithetical to human nature that I couldn’t believe it. You know? That’s one reason the line sticks out; when you put that many people together, someone is bound to piss someone else off. So why didn’t that happen? It’s something I’ve come to associate with gatherings like that. Part of the general static of them. So it was the absence of it that stuck out. I mean, there was a lot of peace and love at Woodstock, but two people also died. Right. There was a lot more peace and love here. Maybe that’s the thing; it forces this associative chain back to the fact that the message they were bringing with them from the hinterlands, that we were so afraid of—that I was so afraid of—politically, also had kindness in it as one of its tenets. But was it only kindness toward the group? That’s where it got knotty.
We were walking past a row of portable toilets, by the food stands. As we came around the corner, I saw the stage, from off to the side. And the crowd on the hill that faced the stage. Their bodies rose till they merged with the dark. “Holy crap,” I said.
Ritter waved his arm like an impresario. He said, “This, my friend, is Creation.”
For their encore, Jars of Clay did a cover of U2’s “All I Want Is You.” It was bluesy.
That’s the last thing I’ll be saying about the bands.
Or, no, wait, there’s this: The fact that I didn’t think I heard a single interesting bar of music from the forty or so acts I caught or overheard at Creation shouldn’t be read as a knock on the acts themselves, much less as contempt for the underlying notion of Christians playing rock. These were not Christian bands, you see; these were Christian-rock bands. The key to digging this scene lies in that one-syllable distinction. Christian rock is a genre that exists to edify and make money off of evangelical Christians. It’s message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what’s more, it operates under a perceived responsibility—one the artists embrace—to “reach people.” As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism. Remember those perfume dispensers they used to have in pharmacies—”If you like Drakkar Noir, you’ll love Sexy Musk”? Well, Christian rock works like that. Every successful crappy secular group has its Christian off-brand, and that’s proper, because culturally speaking, it’s supposed to serve as a stand-in for, not an alternative to or an improvement on, those very groups. In this it succeeds wonderfully. If you think it profoundly sucks, that’s because your priorities are not its priorities; you want to hear something cool and new, it needs to play something proven to please…while praising Jesus Christ. That’s Christian rock. A Christian band, on the other hand, is just a band that has more than one Christian in it. U2 is the exemplar, held aloft by believers and nonbelievers alike, but there have been others through the years, bands about which people would say, “Did you know those guys were Christians? I know—it’s freaky. They’re still fuckin’ good, though.” The Call was like that; Lone Justice was like that. These days you hear it about indie acts like Pedro the Lion and Damien Jurado (or P.O.D. and Evanescence—de gustibus). In most cases, bands like these make a very, very careful effort not to be seen as playing “Christian rock.” It’s largely a matter of phrasing: Don’t tell the interviewer you’re born-again; say faith is a very important part of your life. And here, if I can drop the open-minded pretense real quick, is where the stickier problem of actually being any good comes in, because a question that must be asked is whether a hard-core Christian who turns 19 and finds he or she can write first-rate songs (someone like Damien Jurado) would ever have anything whatsoever to do with Christian rock. Talent tends to come hand in hand with a certain base level of subtlety. And believe it or not, the Christian-rock establishment sometimes expresses a kind of resigned approval of the way groups like U2 or Switchfoot (who played Creation while I was there and had a monster secular–radio hit at the time with “Meant to Live” but whose management wouldn’t allow them to be photographed onstage) take quiet pains to distance themselves from any unambiguous Jesus-loving, recognizing that this is the surest way to connect with the world (you know that’s how they refer to us, right? We’re “of the world”). So it’s possible—and indeed seems likely—that Christian rock is a musical genre, the only one I can think of, that has excellence-proofed itself. I love this digression. Why did you write it? At what point in the process did you include it? I know it was very important to me at the time. There may have been a sense of duty involved, having been sent by the magazine to cover a music festival, and realizing at that moment that I was going to be saying more or less nothing about the music. And wanting the reader to not worry about that or be distracted by that, and also using it as a way to signal without saying so that it was perhaps becoming a different kind of piece. That it was morphing.
It was late, and the Jews had sown discord. What Bub had said was true: There were Jews at Creation. These were Jews for Jesus, it emerged, two startlingly pretty high school girls from Richmond. They’d been sitting by the fire—one of them mingling fingers with Pee Wee—when Bub and Ritter and I returned from seeing Jars of Clay. Pee Wee was younger than the other guys, and cute, and he gazed at the girls admiringly when they spoke. At a certain point, they mentioned to Ritter that he would writhe in hell for having tattoos (he had a couple); it was what their people believed. Ritter had not taken the news all that well. He was fairly confident about his position among the elect. There was debate; Pee Wee was forced to escort the girls back to their tents, while Darius worked to calm Ritter. “They may have weird ideas,” he said, “but we worship the same God.” I guess I could ask this anywhere, but: What was the fact-checking process like? Did you turn over notes, phone numbers, recordings, etc.? I don’t remember the specifics of that story, because it was so long ago, but GQ was pretty rigorous. I’d say they’re up there on the top shelf with the magazines that really make a priority of factchecking. So I handed over all my notes and tapes, and the factcheckers called all the guys from West Virginia. That was pretty hilarious, because the guys were themselves on the phone. And they also talked to people like the festival organizer, who’d been there when the guy died in the food court. That’s always a strange phase of these pieces, for me, the factchecking. Because a lot of times you’ve moved on quite a bit from the reporting by the time the factchecking happens. And these people have become more mythical than real in your mind. And then they reappear and can seem almost a little ghost-like. For your most recent piece, in the New York Times magazine, how did the rigor of the factchecking compare, relative to GQ? It’s been consistent at the Times. With that story, we were doing that factchecking as we went. We had a whole research folder that a litte team of people had access to. Anytime a new document was generated, or there was a new interview transcript, it would show up in that folder. Because I knew that if we didn’t do something like that, the factchecking was just going to be a nightmare. That was one of those pieces, too, where the a lot of the reporting came down to the really obsessive attempts to narrow down certain facts. So by the time we got into the factchecking, I was feeling unusually confident about things. As opposed to having to dig around in the notes or finding out which expert to call.
The fire had burned to glowing coals, and now it was just we men, sitting on coolers, talking late-night hermeneutics blues. Bub didn’t see how God could change His mind, how He could say all that crazy shit in the Old Testament—like don’t get tattoos and don’t look at your uncle naked—then take it back in the New.
“Think about it this way,” I said. “If you do something that really makes Darius mad, and he’s pissed at you, but then you do something to make it up to him, and he forgives you, that isn’t him changing his mind. The situation has changed. It’s the same with the old and new covenants, except Jesus did the making up.”
Bub seemed pleased with this explanation. “I never heard anyone say it like that,” he said. But Darius stared at me gimlet-eyed across the fire. He knew my gloss was theologically sound, and he wondered where I’d gotten it. The guys had been gracefully dancing around the question of what I believed—”where my walk was at,” as they would have put it—all night. Was your religious background a help or hindrance during the reporting? Good question. For the piece that I ended up writing, it was a help because it became part of the subject matter. Or at least it was one of the guises that the subject matter assumed. But for the assignment, for the festival, that would be up for another person to judge. I’m sure there were levels to the reality there that I was missing, precisely because I did feel an intimacy with the people. I wrote it, in some ways, as one of them, as a person who had been one of them, and to a certain extent knew that he would always unshakably be one of them. So I knew that was the strongest piece that I had in me was to write it from the inside. And also, the piece really was, in a way, an attempt to extricate myself from the evangelical mentality, or to finish the process of extricating myself. That’s one of the things that made it a little painful, but super useful.
We knew one another fairly well by now. Once Pee Wee had returned, they’d eagerly showed me around their camp. Most of their tents were back in the forest, where they weren’t supposed to be; the air was cooler there. Darius had located a small stream about thirty yards away and, using his hands, dug out a basin. This was supplying their drinking water.
It came out that these guys spent much if not most of each year in the woods. They lived off game—as folks do, they said, in their section of Braxton County. They knew all the plants of the forest, which were edible, which cured what. Darius pulled out a large piece of cardboard folded in half. He opened it under my face: a mess of sassafras roots. He wafted their scent of black licorice into my face and made me eat one.
Then he remarked that he bet I liked weed. I allowed as how I might not not like it. “I used to love that stuff,” he told me. Seeing that I was taken aback, he said, “Man, to tell you the truth, I wasn’t even convicted about it. But it’s socially unacceptable, and that was getting in the way of my Christian growth.”
The guys had put together what I did for a living—though, to their credit, they didn’t seem to take this as a reasonable explanation for my being there—and they gradually got the sense that I found them exotic (though it was more than that). Had you not identified yourself as a journalist? And generally, how much about yourself do you reveal upfront to a source? I can’t remember at what moment I told them what I was doing, but it would have been the very next time I saw them after they saved me in the RV. Or maybe even at the top of the hill. But I always try to do that as quickly as possible. Slowly, their talk became an ecstasy of self-definition. They were passionate to make me see what kind of guys they were. This might have grown tedious, had they been any old kind of guys. But they were the kind of guys who believed that God had personally interceded and made it possible for four of them to fit into Ritter’s silver Chevrolet Cavalier for the trip to Creation.
“Look,” Bub said, “I’m a pretty big boy, right? I mean, I’m stout. And Darius is a big boy”—here Darius broke in and made me look at his calves, which were muscled to a degree that hinted at deformity; “I’m a freak,” he said; Bub sighed and went on without breaking eye contact—”and you know Ritter is a big boy. Plus we had two coolers, guitars, an electric piano, our tents and stuff, all”—he turned and pointed, turned back, paused—”in that Chevy.” He had the same look in his eyes as earlier, when he’d told me there were Jews. “I think that might be a miracle,” he said.
In their lives, they had known terrific violence. Ritter and Darius met, in fact, when each was beating the shit out of the other in middle-school math class. Who won? Ritter looked at Darius, as if to clear his answer, and said, “Nobody.” Jake once took a fishing pole that Darius had accidentally stepped on and broken and beat him to the ground with it. “I told him, ‘Well, watch where you’re stepping,’ ” Jake said. (This memory made Darius laugh so hard he removed his glasses.) Half of their childhood friends had been murdered—shot or stabbed over drugs or nothing. Others had killed themselves. Darius’s grandfather, great-uncle, and onetime best friend had all committed suicide. When Darius was growing up, his father was in and out of jail; at least once, his father had done hard time. In Ohio he stabbed a man in the chest (the man had refused to stop “pounding on” Darius’s grandfather). Darius caught a lot of grief—”Your daddy’s a jailbird!”—during those years. He’d carried a chip on his shoulder from that. Did all this information come from Darius, or were there other sources? Yeah, that was all factchecked. In fact, in my first draft I had it wrong. I don’t remember the specific mistakes I’d made, but I’d messed up grandfather, great-grandfather, threw in a cousin somewhere. There’s always a little twinge of embarrassment, when you know you’ve gotten something wrong, but what the factcheckers gave me turned out to be better. It turned out the people he’d been talking about were closer to him than I’d put them. There was also stuff he didn’t want me to use, stuff involving his dad that was really rough. But all this stuff came from Darius, not third-party sources or public records? Oh, yeah. I probably got it 75 or 80 percent from him, and all the other guys in the group talked about him. He was kind of a favorite subject of conversation, so I did get stuff on him from the rest of the guys as well.
“You came up pretty rough,” I said.
“Not really,” Darius said. “Some people ain’t got hands and feet.” He talked about how much he loved his father. “With all my heart—he’s the best. He’s brought me up the way that I am.”
“And anyway,” he added, “I gave all that to God—all that anger and stuff. He took it away.”
God had left him enough to get by on. Earlier in the evening, the guys had roughed up Pee Wee a little and tied him to a tree with ratchet straps. Some other Christians must have reported his screams to the staff, because a guy in an orange vest came stomping up the hill. Pee Wee hadn’t been hurt much, but he put on a show of tears, to be funny. “They always do me like that,” he said. “Save me, mister!”
The guy was unamused. “It’s not them you got to worry about,” he said. “It’s me.”
Those were such foolish words! Darius came forward like some hideously fast-moving lizard on a nature show. “I’d watch it, man,” he said. “You don’t know who you’re talking to. This’n here’s as like to shoot you as shake your hand.”
The guy somehow appeared to move back without actually taking a step. “You’re not allowed to have weapons,” he said.
“Is that right?” Darius said. “We got a conceal ‘n’ carry right there in the glove box. Mister, I’m from West Virginia—I know the law.”
“I think you’re lying,” said the guy. His voice had gone a bit warbly.
Darius leaned forward, as if to hear better. His eyes were leaving his skull. “How would you know that?” he said. “Are you a prophet?”
“I’m Creation staff!” the guy said.
All of a sudden, Jake stood up—he’d been watching this scene from his seat by the fire. The fixed polite smile on his face was indistinguishable from a leer. “Well,” he said, “why don’t you go somewhere and create your own problems?”
I realize that these tales of the West Virginia guys’ occasional truculence might appear to gainsay what I claimed earlier about “not one word spoken in anger,” etc. But look, it was playful. Darius, at least, was performing a bit for me. And if you take into account what the guys have to be on guard for all the time back home, the notable thing becomes how effectively they checked their instincts at Creation.
In any case, we operated with more or less perfect impunity from then on.
This included a lot of very loud, live music between two and three o’clock in the morning. The guys were running their large PA off the battery in Jake’s truck. Ritter and Darius had a band of their own back home, First Verse. They were responsible for the music at their church. Ritter had an angelic tenor that seemed to be coming out of a body other than his own. And Josh was a good guitar player; he had a Les Paul and an effects board. We passed around the acoustic. I had to dig to come up with Christian tunes. I did “Jesus,” by Lou Reed, which they liked okay. But they really enjoyed “Redemption Song.” When I finished, Bub said, “Man, that’s really Christian. It really is.” Darius made me teach it to him; he said he would take it home and “do it at worship.” Did you keep in touch with the boys after you finished the story? For awhile I was talking to Ritter and Darius, and now Ritter’s the only one I keep in touch with. I talk to him maybe once a year. He’s married now and he became a prison guard at one of the federal prisons near where they lived. The last time I talked to him he told me a story. In their town there’s been a military funeral and it was picketed by the Westboro Church. You know the ones with the “God Hates Fags” signs and all that? They knew they were going to show up so I guess these guys from the town—some of the guards and some firefighters and people who looked like Ritter, like they could pop your head off—had gone out and stood in front of the funeral. And they succeeded in keeping them far enough away that the guy’s family didn’t have to deal with the sight, which I thought was kind of cool.
Then he jumped up and jogged to the electric piano, which was on a stand ten feet away. He closed his eyes and began to play. I know enough piano to know what good technique sounds like, and Darius played very, very well. He improvised for an hour. At one point, Bub went and stood beside him with his hands in his pockets, facing the rest of us, as if guarding his friend while the latter was in this vulnerable trance state. Ritter whispered to me that Darius had been offered a music scholarship to a college in West Virginia; he went to visit a friend, and a professor heard him messing around on the school’s piano. The dude offered him a full ride then and there. Ritter couldn’t really explain why Darius had turned it down. “He’s kind of our Rain Man,” Ritter said.
At some juncture, I must have taken up my lantern and crept back down the hill, since I sat up straight the next morning, fully dressed in the twenty-nine-footer. The sound that woke me was a barbaric moan, like that of an army about to charge. Early mornings at Creation were about “Praise and Worship,” a new form of Christian rock in which the band and the audience sing, all together, as loud as they can, directly to God. It gets rather intense.
The guys had told me they meant to spend most of today at the main stage, checking out bands. But hey, fuck that. I’d already checked out a band. Mine was to stay in this trailer, jotting impressions.
It was hot, though. As it got hotter, the light brown carpet started to give off fumes from under its plastic hide. I tumbled out the side hatch and went after Darius, Ritter, and Bub. In the light of day, one could see there were pretty accomplished freaks at this thing: a guy in a skirt wearing lace on his arms; a strange little androgynous creature dressed in full cardboard armor, carrying a sword. They knew they were in a safe place, I guess.
The guys left me standing in line at a lemonade booth; they didn’t want to miss Skillet, one of Ritter’s favorite bands. I got my drink and drifted slowly toward where I thought they’d be standing. Lack of food, my filthiness, impending sunstroke: These were ganging up on me. Plus the air down here smelled faintly of poo. Why ‘poo’ and not, say, ‘shit’? Is this out of deference to the religious nature of the piece? I can’t answer it, man. Why did that make sense at the time. Something about port-a-potties…Maybe I had P’s in my head? Maybe I was still playing with a slight delicacy on the narrator’s part that went hand-in-hand with his slightly cynical professionalism? I don’t know. There were a lot of blazing-hot portable toilets wafting miasma whenever the doors were opened.
I stood in the center of a gravel patch between the food and the crowd, sort of gumming the straw, quadriplegically probing with it for stubborn pockets of meltwater. I was a ways from the stage, but I could see well enough. Something started to happen to me. The guys in the band were middle-aged. They had blousy shirts and half-hearted arena-rock moves from the mid-’80s.
What was…this feeling? The singer kept grinning between lines, like if he didn’t, he might collapse. I could just make out the words:
There’s a higher place to go
(beyond belief, beyond belief),
Where we reach the next plateau,
(beyond belief, beyond belief)…
The straw slipped from my mouth.
“Oh, shit. It’s Petra.” There’s a fair amount of you, John Jeremiah Sullivan, in this story. How do you ensure that you depict yourself with the same clear-eyed fairness you give everyone else? I don’t really have any hope of that. I don’t think you really can correct all the way against that distortion. It’s one of the perils of writing about yourself, and one of the reasons why sometimes it’s not the best thing to do. But I do think there’s a force in play, an effect, that comes with keeping your focus on the storytelling and on the narrative tension. Because I think if you’re maintaining your focus there and trying to keep that rope taut the whole time–whether it’s first person material or not–you’re gonna make better choices about what you keep and what you leave out. They’ll be made for the right reasons. Your interest still lies primarily with making something happen in the reader’s brain. And you’re going to be less likely to err on the side of self-indulgence. Storytelling can protect you against self-indulgence, but you can never get there all the way.
It was 1988. The guy who brought me in we called Verm (I’ll use people’s nicknames here; they don’t deserve to be dragooned into my memory-voyage). Why was he called Verm? Why did we call Jason ‘Verm’? God, I don’t know, man. He was always blowing snot out of his nose. He had chronic sinus problems and he was very dramatic–he’d pinch one nostril and fire the other. I don’t know. Did he like the story? He’s never told me he liked it. I think–I hope–that he respected it, having gone through an experience that was so similar to mine. I would have been disappointed if he’d said it hadn’t been true to what was really going on. But I’m not sure where he ended up with the whole God question. He was a short, good-looking guy with a dark ponytail and a devilish laugh, a skater and an ex-pothead, which had got him kicked out of his house a year or so before we met. His folks belonged to this nondenominational church in Ohio, where I went to high school. It was a movement more than a church—thousands of members, even then. I hear it’s bigger now. “Central meeting” took place in an empty warehouse, for reasons of space, but the smaller meetings were where it was at: home church (fifty people or so), cell group (maybe a dozen). Verm’s dad said, Look, go with us once a week and you can move back in.
Verm got saved. And since he was brilliant (he became something of a legend at our school because whenever a new foreign student enrolled, he’d sit with her every day at lunch and make her give him language lessons till he was proficient), and since he was about the most artlessly gregarious human being I’ve ever known, and since he knew loads of lost souls from his druggie days, he became a champion evangelizer, a golden child.
I was new and nurturing a transcendent hatred of Ohio. Verm found out I liked the Smiths, and we started swapping tapes. Before long, we were hanging out after school. Then the moment came that always comes when you make friends with a born-again: “Listen, I go to this thing on Wednesday nights. It’s like a Bible study—no, listen, it’s cool. The people are actually really cool.”
They were, that’s the thing. In fifteen minutes, all my ideas about Christians were put to flight. They were smarter than any bunch I’d been exposed to (I didn’t grow up in Cambridge or anything, but even so), they were accepting of every kind of weirdness, and they had that light that people who are pursuing something higher give off. It’s attractive, to say the least. I started asking questions, lots of questions. And they loved that, because they had answers. That’s one of the ways Evangelicalism works. Your average agnostic doesn’t go through life just primed to offer a clear, considered defense of, say, intratextual Scriptural inconsistency. But born-agains train for that chance encounter with the inquisitive stranger. And when you’re a 14-year-old carting around some fairly undernourished intellectual ambitions, and a charismatic adult sits you down and explains that if you transpose this span of years onto the Hebrew calendar, and multiply that times seven, and plug in a date from the reign of King Howsomever, then you plainly see that this passage predicts the birth of Christ almost to the hour, despite the fact that the Gospel writers didn’t have access to this information! So: This is a hell of a sentence. How long would you spend on such a sentence? Does it come easily? Is writing a labor? It seems like fits and spurts. It seems like pages will go with you in a semiconscious state and there’s so much happiness in that. But then I’ll hit paragraphs where the thing I’m trying to say is straining my ability to stand up with it a little bit and I have to step back and put some mental reading glasses on and do my best just to get it right. I, for one, was dazzled.
But also powerfully stirred on a level that didn’t depend on my naïveté. The sheer passionate engagement of it caught my imagination: Nobody had told me there were Christians like this. They went at the Bible with grad-seminar intensity, week after week. Mole was their leader (short for Moloch; he had started the whole thing, back in the ’70s). He had a wiry, dark beard and a pair of nail-gun cobalt eyes. My Russian-novel fantasies of underground gatherings—shared subversive fervor—were flattered and, it seemed, embodied. Here was counterculture, without sad hippie trappings.
Verm hugged me when I said to him, in the hallway after a meeting, “I think I might believe.” When it came time for me to go all the way—to “accept Jesus into my heart” (in that time-honored formulation)—we prayed the prayer together. When you write about yourself, do you check your recollections against those of others? (Verm, in this case.) Or is that not necessary? I didn’t, no. I knew what story I wanted to tell, and I was into material that overlapped with some of the most important experiences of my life. When I got to that part of the piece, I knew what I was doing. The factcheckers did talk to Verm, but I can’t remember if they called anybody else.
Three years passed. I waxed strong in spirit. Verm and I were sort of heading up the high school end of the operation now. Mole had discovered (I had discovered, too) that I was good with words, that I could talk in front of people; Verm and I started leading Bible study once a month. We were saving souls like mad, laying up treasure for ourselves in heaven. I was never the recruiter he was, but I grasped subtlety; Verm would get them there, and together we’d start on their heads. Witnessing, it’s called. I had made some progress socially at school, which gave us access to the popular crowd; in this way, many were brought to the Lord. Verm and I went to conferences and on “study retreats”; we started taking classes in theology, which the group offered—free of charge—for promising young leaders. And always, underneath but suffusing it all, there were the cell-group meetings, every week, on Friday or Saturday nights, which meant I could stay out till morning. (My Episcopalian parents were thoroughly mortified by the whole business, but it’s not easy telling your kid to stop spending so much time at church.)
Cell group was typically held in somebody’s dining room, somebody pretty high up in the group. You have to understand what an honor it was to be in a cell with Mole. People would see me at central meeting and be like, “How is that, getting to rap with him every week?” It was awesome. He really got down with the Word (he had a wonderful old hippie way of talking; everything was something action: “time for some fellowship action…let’s get some chips ‘n’ salsa action”). He carried a heavy “study Bible”—no King James for the nondenominationals; too many inaccuracies. When he cracked open its hand-tooled leather cover, you knew it was on. You shift, frequently but seamlessly, between the formal (“intratextual Scriptural inconsistency”) and the informal (“it was on”). How did you develop this style? Was there a writer on whom you modeled yourself? I have a weakness for high-low swooping. I’m swooping between registers. I don’t know where it came from. It’s always felt good to me to write that way, just in an animal way. I did go through a year in college when I did nothing but read Lord Byron, and I loved the way he could sound almost Roman in one line and in the very next seem to be speaking in English street slang. And I liked, specifically, how it made you look at those different words next to each other and wonder what they were doing differently. I think it also had a lot to do with my dad. He was one of those people. He was very well-read, a very literary guy, but also an ex-hippie. My dad loved Twain a lot. So his speech was a little that way. His friends have said that to me, in the years since I became a writer. They sometimes hear him, which makes me happy, because I used to love the way he talked. It was some of that old jive. And no joke: The brother was gifted. Even handicapped by the relatively pedestrian style of the New American Standard version, he could twist a verse into your conscience like a bone screw, make you think Christ was standing there nodding approval. The prayer session alone would last an hour. Afterward, there was always a fire in the backyard. Mole would sit and whack a machete into a chopping block. He smoked cheap cigars; he let us smoke cigarettes. The guitar went around. We’d talk about which brother was struggling with sin—did he need counsel? Or about the end of the world: It’d be soon. We had to save as many as we could.
I won’t inflict on you all my reasons for drawing away from the fold. They were clichéd, anyway, and not altogether innocent. Enough to say I started reading books Mole hadn’t recommended. Some of them seemed pretty smart—and didn’t jibe with the Bible. The defensive theodicy he’d drilled into me during those nights of heady exegesis developed cracks. The hell stuff: I never made peace with it. Human beings were capable of forgiving those who’d done them terrible wrongs, and we all agreed that human beings were maggots compared with God, so what was His trouble, again? I looked around and saw people who’d never have a chance to come to Jesus; they were too badly crippled. Didn’t they deserve—more than the rest of us, even—to find His succor, after this life? You write with the conviction of someone who is still a believer. I almost feel like it changed in the course of writing the piece. It was like I still had shrapnel of faith in my body. This piece was either the tweezing out of it or it motivated me to do that, subsequently. I know that the writing of this coincided with a real affirming up of my convictions as an atheist and a feeling that it was important to start saying that. I guess the boys’ attempt to witness to you was a failure. That’s true. I hope they’re not sad. They failed in their mission.
Belief and nonbelief are two giant planets, the orbits of which don’t touch. Everything about Christianity can be justified within the context of Christian belief. That is, if you accept its terms. Once you do, your belief starts modifying the data (in ways that are themselves defensible, see?), until eventually the data begin to reinforce belief. The precise moment of illogic can never be isolated and may not exist. Like holding a magnifying glass at arm’s length and bringing it toward your eye: Things are upside down, they’re upside down, they’re right side up. What lay between? If there was something, it passed too quickly to be observed. This is why you can never reason true Christians out of the faith. It’s not, as the adage has it, because they were never reasoned into it—many were—it’s that faith is a logical door which locks behind you. What looks like a line of thought is steadily warping into a circle, one that closes with you inside. If this seems to imply that no apostate was ever a true Christian and that therefore, I was never one, I think I’d stand by both of those statements. Doesn’t the fact that I can’t write about my old friends without an apologetic tone just show that I never deserved to be one of them?
The break came during the winter of my junior year. I got a call from Verm late one afternoon. He’d promised Mole he would do this thing, and now he felt sick. Sinus infection (he always had sinus infections). Had I ever heard of Petra? Well, they’re a Christian-rock band, and they’re playing the arena downtown. After their shows, the singer invites anybody who wants to know more about Jesus to come backstage, and they have people, like, waiting to talk to them.
The promoter had called up Mole, and Mole had volunteered Verm, and now Verm wanted to know if I’d help him out. I couldn’t say no.
The concert was upsetting from the start; it was one of my first encounters with the other kinds of Evangelicals, the hand-wavers and the weepers and all (we liked to keep things “sober” in the group). The girl in front of me was signing all the words to the songs, but she wasn’t deaf. It was just horrifying.
Verm had read me, over the phone, the pamphlet he got. After the first encore, we were to head for the witnessing zone and wait there. I went. I sat on the ground.
Soon they came filing in, the seekers.
I don’t know what was up with the ones I got. I think they may have gone looking for the restroom and been swept up by the stampede. They were about my age and wearing hooded brown sweatshirts—mouths agape, eyes empty. I asked them the questions: What did they think about all they’d heard? Were they curious about anything Petra talked about? (There’d been lots of “talks” between songs.)
I couldn’t get them to speak. They stared at me like they were waiting for me to slap them.
This was my opening. They were either rapt or retarded, and whichever it was, Christ called on me to lay down my testimony.
The sentences wouldn’t form. I flipped through the list of dogmas, searching for one I didn’t essentially think was crap, and came up with nothing.
There might have ensued a nauseating silence, but I acted with an odd decisiveness to end the whole experience. I asked them if they wanted to leave—it was an all but rhetorical question—and said I did, too. We walked out together. This scene is so vivid! Had you thought about this memory a lot, or did it resurface when you wrote “Upon This Rock”? It’s a very vivid memory, even now. I can see the faces of the kids we talked to backstage. I can see the kids we were with in the audience. But there’s a reason for that. There’s a kind of optical illusion sometimes with writers’ memories. It may seem to the reader like, “Wait, that happened to you ten years before and you seem to remember it as if it were yesterday.” But from the writer’s point of view, like, that’s why I wrote about it. It made its way into the story because it was this really upsetting experience that messed with me and left a mark on me. See, your needle is always going to the places in your memory where things are most clear. Or, I should say, goes most naturally to them. Sometimes you’re digging for precisely the places where things aren’t clear, where you suspect that you need to do more thinking, do more scraping to say what was going on. To what extent did the stuff that you could remember so vividly dictate how you wrote the story? Hugely. And everything I’ve written. It’s how my brain works. The things that you can’t shake are oftentimes offering you a structure. They’re screaming these hints at you about what to emphasize and what can stand to be deemphasized. Because your brain has been making a story out of the thing, in the meantime, anyway. That’s all your memory is. So I trust it.
I took Mole and Verm aside a few nights later and told them my doubts had overtaken me. If I kept showing up at meetings, I’d be faking it. That was an insult to them, to God, to the group. Verm was silent; he hugged me. Mole said he respected my reasons, that I’d have to explore my doubts before my walk could be strong again. He said he’d pray for me. Unless he’s undergone some radical change in character, he’s still praying.
Statistically speaking, my bout with Evangelicalism was probably unremarkable. For white Americans with my socioeconomic background (middle to upper-middle class), it’s an experience commonly linked to one’s teens and moved beyond before one reaches 20. These kids around me at Creation—a lot of them were like that. How many even knew who Darwin was? They’d learn. At least once a year since college, I’ll be getting to know someone, and it comes out that we have in common a high school “Jesus phase.” That’s always an excellent laugh. Except a phase is supposed to end—or at least give way to other phases—not simply expand into a long preoccupation.
Bless those who’ve been brainwashed by cults and sent off for deprogramming. That makes it simple: You put it behind you. But this group was no cult. They persuaded; they never pressured, much less threatened. Nor did they punish. A guy I brought into the group—we called him Goog—is still a close friend. He leads meetings now and spends part of each year doing pro bono dental work in Cambodia. He’s never asked me when I’m coming back.
My problem is not that I dream I’m in hell or that Mole is at the window. It isn’t that I feel psychologically harmed. It isn’t even that I feel like a sucker for having bought it all. It’s that I love Jesus Christ.
“The latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose.” I can barely write that. He was the most beautiful dude. Forget the Epistles, forget all the bullying stuff that came later. Look at what He said. Read The Jefferson Bible. Or better yet, read The Logia of Yeshua, by Guy Davenport and Benjamin Urrutia, an unadorned translation of all the sayings ascribed to Jesus that modern scholars deem authentic. There’s your man. His breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what’s fragile and what suffers—there lies sanity. And salvation. “Let anyone who has power renounce it,” he said. “Your father is compassionate to all, as you should be.” That’s how He talked, to those who knew Him.
Why should He vex me? Why is His ghost not friendlier? Why can’t I just be a good Enlightenment child and see in His life a sustaining example of what we can be, as a species?
Because once you’ve known Him as God, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won’t slacken.
And one has doubts about one’s doubts. At what point in the writing did you decide to toggle between the festival and your own life? Was that your idea, or your editor’s? I should note that Joel Lovell was the editor on this piece. Greg was Joel’s assistant at that time, so he and I had gotten to know each other well. But this happened in the writing. I didn’t know how things should go until I started typing. It gave me something useful because each of the little section breaks created a little breath–a little puff of some kind–that gave me flexibility. But because one of the things I was trying to do was take the story from one of this asinine New York media guy to something closer to what I really meant about faith. And I needed to keep the reader with me the whole time. So those little jumps may almost function the way, when a magician is doing a trick, he’ll do something totally superfluous with one hand and just kind of shake it. I don’t want to compare this to magic, but I think maybe the strategy is similar. And what was the editing process like? Does your editor wield a heavy hand? That’s another thing I would love to know the answer to. I’d love to see the first draft and put it next to what we ran. I know that it was cut way down, so it couldn’t really be described as a line edit. Many thousands of words came out of it. How long was the original draft? Sixteen thousand words, maybe. It ran at about 11,000, so they took a whole third out of it. A big part of that third had to do with Stephen Baldwin. I really became fixated on him.
“d’ye hear that mountain lion last night?”
It was dark, and Jake was standing over me, dressed in camouflage. I’d been hunched over on a cooler by the ashes for a number of hours, waiting on the guys to get back from wherever they’d gone.
I told him I hadn’t heard anything. Bub came up from behind, also in camo. “In the middle of the night,” he said. “It woke me up.”
Jake said, “It sounded like a baby crying.”
“Like a little bitty baby,” Bub said.
Jake was messing with something at my feet, in the shadows, something that looked alive. Bub dropped a few logs onto the fire and went to the Chevy for matches.
I sat there trying to see what Jake was doing. “You got that lantern?” he said. It was by my feet; I switched it on.
He started pulling frogs out of a poke. One after another. They strained in his grip and lashed at the air.
“Where’d you get those?” I asked.
“About half a mile that way,” he said. “It ain’t private property if you’re in the middle of the creek.” Bub laughed his high expressionless laugh.
“These ain’t too big,” Jake said. “In West Virginia, well, we got ones the size of chickens.”
Jake started chopping their bodies in half. He’d lean forward and center his weight on the hand that held the knife, to get a clean cut, tossing the legs into a frying pan. Then he’d stab each frog in the brain and flip the upper parts into a separate pile. They kept twitching, of course—their nerves. Some were a little less dead than that. One in particular stared up at me, gulping for air, though his lungs were beside him, in the grass.
“Could you do that one in the brain again?” I said. Jake spiked it, expertly, and grabbed for the next frog.
“Why don’t you stab their brains before you take off the legs?” I asked.
He laughed. He said I cracked him up. This is perhaps the one moment in the story when a character comes off badly. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Jake seems sadistic. Why did you include it? Was there any hesitation on your part? On the one hand, it was definitely one of those moments I included because it happened. Because it was so interesting to witness, somebody who knew what he was doing. The minutiae of how he did. On the other side of the coin, it also seems like the most heavily metaphorically moment of the piece, because I was definitely trying to write a little crucifixion scene–a Passion of the Frog. The two ways of looking at it were together in my mind, almost inseparable, almost from the time I started writing about it. I wanted to get it down as clearly as I could, and I knew that in the context of the symbols I was playing with in the piece, it was going to figure. But how aware were you of how this would change the reader’s perception of Jake? It’s a small punch to the gut because until then you’ve felt pretty charitable towards these guys. That’s where you’re teaching me about this piece a bit. I totally see what you mean, and if I were coming to this as a reader, it probably would have the same effect on me. I would just be grossed out by the dude. But it didn’t feel that way to me when I was writing it because these were guys who lived off the animals they could kill. They weren’t into the hunting thing as sportsmen. They were into it as people who were still living a kind of frontier existence, when it came to that stuff. So the ins and outs of killing things, and disposing bodies, and just being generally not squeamish about sticking a knife into something’s brain, that was a big part of what they are. It was also a big gulf between me and them. I wasn’t the real thing, when it came to that stuff. I was able to connect with them as a fellow Southerner, in certain ways—things having to do with language and manners—but here was a place their authenticity outstripped mine. You can see that I’m just kind of horrified by what he’s doing there.
Darius, when he got back, made me a cup of hot sassafras tea. “Drink this, it’ll make you feel better,” he told me. I’d never said I felt bad. Jake lightly sautéed the legs in butter and served them to me warm. “Eat this,” he said. The meat was so tender, it all but dissolved on my tongue. Not every reporter, it’s fair to say, would’ve partaken of the frogs. Is it important to you to not do something–like, say, reject the offer of frogs’ legs–that would distance you from your subjects? I’m really an “eat the frog” person, maybe even in a self-punishing way. I’ve never said no to an offer of some kind of weird food. And that food turned out to be so good, I was shocked. But to the larger question: Usually when those moments come they feel like lucky opportunities to establish commonality with the subject and to get into a more participatory posture with the subject. Usually I’m looking to erode distance, to do everything but deceive in order to erode distance. So when those moments come, rather than seeming kind of intimidated, they feel like little windows. It would be really scary if somebody said, “Let’s go stick up a drug den.” That’s where you really don’t know if you should go along. What would you do? Knowing myself, I would probably say yes and then halfway there fake an injury, fake a seizure in the car, and have them let me out by the side of the road.
Pee Wee came back with the Jews, who were forced to tell us a second time that we were damned. (Leviticus 11:12, “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.”) Jake, when he heard this, put on a show, making the demi-frogs talk like puppets, chewing the legs with his mouth wide open so all could see the meat.
The girls ran off again. Pee Wee went after them, calling, “Come on, they’re just playin’!”
Darius peered at Jake. He looked not angry but saddened. Jake said, “Well, if he wants to bring them girls around here, they oughtn’t to be telling us what we can eat.”
“Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend,” Darius said, “I will eat no flesh while the world standeth.”
“First Corinthians,” I said.
“8:13,” Darius said.
I woke without having slept—that evil feeling—and lay there steeling myself for the strains of Praise and Worship. When it became too much to wait, I boiled water and made instant coffee and drank it scalding from the lid of the peanut butter jar. My body smelled like stale campfire. My hair had leaves and ash and things in it. I thought about taking a shower, but I’d made it two days without so much as acknowledging any of the twenty-nine-footer’s systems; it would have been stupid to give in now.
I sat in the driver’s seat and watched, through tinted glass, little clusters of Christians pass. They looked like people anywhere, only gladder, more self-contained. Or maybe they just looked like people anywhere. I don’t know. I had no pseudo-anthropological moxie left. I got out and wandered. I sat with the crowd in front of the stage. There was a redheaded Christian speaker up there, pacing back and forth. Out of nowhere, he shrieked, “MAY YOU BE COVERED IN THE ASHES OF YOUR RABBI JESUS!” If I were to try to convey to you how loudly he shrieked this, you’d think I was playing wordy games.
I was staggering through the food stands when a man died at my feet. He was standing in front of the funnel-cake window. He was big, in his early sixties, wearing shorts and a short-sleeve button-down shirt. He just…died. Massive heart attack. I was standing there, and he fell, and I don’t know whether there’s some primitive zone in the brain that registers these things, but the second he landed, I knew he was gone. The paramedics jumped on him so fast, it was weird—it was like they’d been waiting. They pumped and pumped on his chest, blew into his mouth, ran IVs. The ambulance showed up, and more equipment appeared. The man’s broad face had that slightly disgruntled look you see on the newly dead. This scene is a bolt from the blue. The first sentence is so quiet, so matter-of-fact, I almost missed it. How did you decide what tone to take with this event? Yeah, it was. People talked about it a lot. I remember when the factcheckers called the guy from the festival, he mentioned me. He said, “Oh, I remember there was a reporter there when that happened. I wondered if anybody was going to write about it.” It was a definitely a thing that the people who were there were not going to forget. For me, it was especially upsetting because the man looked almost exactly like my father, who had died from a botched operation almost two years before the festival. He was a big, heavyset guy with a white mustache. It really spun me around. But writing-wise, I wanted to use it most because of that woman. Because I was just kind of stunned by it, as an observer. My face went white, I couldn’t really speak or anything. But she was so collected and so sure… Collected, yes, but also in a way, incoherent. Yeah, incoherent in the context of what we believe, and what that narrator believes. The comfort that she’s offering is based on false premises, so it’s a comfort that’s almost more painful than the original wound. But there’s also such a beauty to it, as a gesture. She knew that this guy’s soul was spilling straight to God, that it was already with God. We were here in this place, and he was just surrounded by prayer. That was striking to behold, even if you couldn’t go along with it. And I suppose when I got back to the trailer and freaked out, and started crying, that was what had settled on me. But it’s funny, his resemblance to my father was a big part of my reaction. But I didn’t feel like I could include that detail. And now I look back and wonder why. There’s so much confession in that piece, and so much first-person stuff, but for some reason that didn’t feel right. It felt manipulative or something. Has there ever been another story where you actually saw someone die? I would have to think about that. Really? Yeah. Only because of stories like Katrina and stuff like that. I’m sure it’s the only time I’ve ever watched someone expire, but I’d seen dead bodies.
Others had gathered around; some thought it was all a show. A woman standing next to me said bitterly, “It’s not a show. A man has died.” She started crying. She took my hand. She was small with silver hair and black eyebrows. “He’s fine, he’s fine,” she said. I looked at the side of her face. “Just pray for his family,” she said. “He’s fine.”
I went back to the trailer and had, as the ladies say where I’m from, a colossal fucking go-to-pieces. I kept starting to cry and then stopping myself, for some reason. I felt nonsensically raw and lonely. What a dickhead I’d been, thinking the trip would be a lark. There were too many ghosts here. Everyone seemed so strange and so familiar. Plus I suppose I was starving. The frog meat was superb but meager—even Jake had said as much.
In the midst of all this, I began to hear, through the shell of the twenty-nine-footer, Stephen Baldwin giving a talk on the Fringe Stage—that’s where the “edgier” acts are put on at Creation. If you’re shaky on your Baldwin brothers, he’s the vaguely troglodytic one who used to comb his bangs straight down and wear dusters. He’s come to the Lord—I don’t know if you knew. I caught him on cable a few months ago, some religious talk show. Him and Gary Busey. I don’t remember what Baldwin said, because Busey was saying shit so weird the host got nervous. Busey’s into “generational curses.” If you’re wondering what those are, too bad. I was born-again, not raised on meth.
Baldwin said many things; the things he said got stranger and stranger. He said his Brazilian nanny, Augusta, had converted him and his wife in Tucson, thereby fulfilling a prophecy she’d been given by her preacher back home. He said, “God allowed 9/11 to happen,” that it was “the wrath of God,” and that Jesus had told him to share this with us. He also said the Devil did 9/11. He said God wanted him “to make gnarly cool Christian movies.” He said that in November we should vote for “the man who has the greatest faith.” The crowd lost it; it seemed like the trailer might shake.
When Jake and Bub beat on the door, I’d been in there for hours, rereading The Silenced Times and the festival program. In the program, it said the candle-lighting ceremony was tonight. The guys had told me about it—it was one of the coolest things about Creation. Everyone gathered in front of the stage, and the staff handed out a candle to every single person there. The media handlers said there was a lookout you could hike to, on the mountain above the stage. That was the way to see it, they said. What was your relationship like with the media handlers? Were they a constant presence? I think they would have liked to have been more of a constant presence. I mean, they were waiting for people like me. They had been training, you know, and the people who organized the festival knew that secular media would be coming. And they wanted to interact with them, they wanted to shape their perception of the festival. They wanted to witness to them. They themselves were born agains who prayed after every shift. Although they were not overbearing about it. That was part of what I mean when I say they had trained. They were pretty savvy. What was funny is the guys kind of saved me from them. Thinking back, that’s really what happened. The festival people I’m sure hated that I spent the entire time with them, because they thought I was spending time with a bunch of lunatics. I remember there was one woman named Faith who came to the campfire one night, she was one of the media people. She was really sweet. Did she try to pull you away? She definitely let me know about other available activities, in case I wanted to do something else. I know that I wrote about her, or at least mentioned her name in one of the drafts, but the fact that her name had been Faith held me back. I felt like it was going to be too over the top. It’s funny that that’s where you would draw the line. Yeah. Fair enough. It’s arbitrary.
When I opened the door, Jake was waving a newspaper. Bub stood behind him, smiling big. “Look at this,” Jake said. It was Wednesday’s copy of The Valley Log, serving Southern Huntingdon County—”It is just a rumor until you’ve read it in The Valley Log.”
The headline for the week read MOUNTAIN LION NOT BELIEVED TO BE THREAT TO CREATION FESTIVAL CAMPERS.
“Wha’d we tell you?” Bub said.
“At least it’s not a threat,” I said.
“Well, not to us it ain’t,” Jake said.
I climbed to their campsite with them in silence. Darius was sitting on a cooler, chin in hands, scanning the horizon. He seemed meditative. Josh and Ritter were playing songs. Pee Wee was listening, by himself; he’d blown it with the Jewish girls.
“Hey, Darius,” I said.
He got up. “It’s fixin’ to shower here in about ten minutes,” he said.
I went and stood beside him, tried to look where he was looking.
“You want to know how I know?” he said.
He explained it to me, the wind, the face of the sky, how the leaves on the tops of the sycamores would curl and go white when they felt the rain coming, how the light would turn a certain “dead” color. He read the landscape to me like a children’s book. “See over there,” he said, “how that valley’s all misty? It hasn’t poured there yet. But the one in back is clear—that means it’s coming our way.”
Ten minutes later, it started to rain, big, soaking, percussive drops. The guys started to scramble. I suggested we all get into the trailer. They looked at each other, like maybe it was a sketchy idea. Then Ritter hollered, “Get ‘er done!” We all ran down the hillside, holding guitars and—in Josh’s case—a skillet wherein the fried meat of some woodland creature lay ready to eat.
There was room for everyone. I set my lantern on the dining table. We slid back the panes in the windows to let the air in. Darius did card tricks. We drank spring water. Somebody farted; the conversation about who it had been lasted a good twenty minutes. The rain on the roof made a solid drumming. The guys were impressed with my place. They said I should fence it. With the money I’d get, I could buy a nice house in Braxton County.
We played guitars. The RV rocked back and forth. Jake wasn’t into Christian rock, but as a good Baptist he loved old gospel tunes, and he called for a few, God love him. Ritter sang one that killed me. Also, I don’t know what changed, but the guys were up for secular stuff. It turned out that Pee Wee really loved Neil Young; I mean, he’d never heard Neil Young before, but when I played “Powderfinger” for him, he sort of curled up like a kid, then made me play it again when I was done. He said I had a pretty voice.
We all told each other how good the other ones were, how everybody else should really think about a career in music. Josh played “Stairway to Heaven,” and we got loud, singing along. Darius said, “Keep it down, man! We don’t need everybody thinking this is the sin wagon.” The RV scene is beautiful. How did you strike a balance between letting yourself get caught up in the beauty and fervor of the music and maintaining just enough distance to be observant? Well, I suppose that’s one of those moments when you’re almost having to become a different person in order to write about it. Because I’m pretty positive that, in the moment, in the RV, I was totally present. It was really fun and a bonding moment. And I’d been on my own for a couple of days and we were eating well. That was one of those cases where afterwards you have to go back and replay the mind movie, to say what was happening in almost a dry, kind of reportorial way. You weren’t really reporting at the time, but you were conscious. When you’re covering a story, do you ever let yourself go completely, or is it impossible because of that voice in the back of your mind that says you’ve got to pay attention? It happens for moments, almost in a kind of swoon. It usually happens when I’m having such a good time that I forget that my existence in that scenario has brackets around it. And then there’s a kind of painful snapping-to.
The rain stopped. It was time to go. Two of the guys had to leave in the morning, and I needed to start walking if I meant to make the overlook in time for the candlelighting. They went with me as far as the place where the main path split off toward the stage. They each embraced me. Jake said to call them if I ever had “a situation that needs clearing up.” Darius said God bless me, with meaning eyes. Then he said, “Hey, man, if you write about us, can I just ask one thing?”
“Of course,” I said.
“Put in there that we love God,” he said. “You can say we’re crazy, but say that we love God.”
The climb was long and steep. At the top was a thing that looked like a backyard deck. It jutted out over the valley, commanding an unobstructed view. Kids hung all over it like lemurs or something.
I pardoned my way to the edge, I love that; you suggest your dialogue without actually saying it. It’s fun when one verb can suggest another, when you can make a verb sort of piggyback another into the sentence without actually having to take up the space. And yeah, you can’t visualize that any other way, right? where the cliff dropped away. It was dark and then suddenly darker—pitch. They had shut off the lights at the sides of the stage. Little pinpricks appeared, moving along the aisles. We used to do candles like this at church, when I was a kid, on Christmas Eve. You light the edges, and the edges spread inward. The rate of the spread increases exponentially, and the effect is so unexpected, when, at the end, you have half the group lighting the other half’s candles, it always seems like somebody flipped a switch. That’s how it seemed now.
The clouds had moved off—the bright stars were out again. There were fireflies in the trees all over, and spread before me, far below, was a carpet of burning candles, tiny flames, many ten thousands. I was suspended in a black sphere full of flickering light.
And sure, I thought about Nuremberg. But mostly I thought of Darius, Jake, Josh, Bub, Ritter, and Pee Wee, whom I doubted I’d ever see again, whom I’d come to love, and who loved God—for it’s true, I would have said it even if Darius hadn’t asked me to, it may be the truest thing I will have written here: They were crazy, and they loved God—and I thought about the unimpeachable dignity of that love, which I never was capable of. Because knowing it isn’t true doesn’t mean you would be strong enough to believe if it were. Six of those glowing specks in the valley were theirs.
I was shown, in a moment of time, the ring of their faces around the fire, each one separate, each one radiant with what Paul called, strangely, “assurance of hope.” It seemed wrong of reality not to reward such souls.
These are lines from a Czeslaw Milosz poem:
And if they all, kneeling with poised palms,
millions, billions of them, ended together with their illusion?
I shall never agree. I will give them the crown.
The human mind is splendid; lips powerful, and the summons so great it must open Paradise.
That’s so exquisite. If you could just mean it. If one could only say it and mean it.
They all blew out their candles at the same instant, and the valley—the actual geographical feature—filled with smoke, there were so many.
I left at dawn, while creation slept. The last line is perfect, almost laughably so. When did you think of it? It would have been when that double meaning of creation occurred to me, and I don’t know when in the process that was. It’s funny, I’ve sort of turned on that line in the years since I wrote the piece. I hear it now as kind of last line-y. I remember asking a woman about another poet’s poetry and she described it as “very poem-y.” How would you prefer to end it? Take it out entirely? I’m not sure what I would do. I’m glad I don’t get to mess with it. Because the instinct at the time was the right one. I have to believe that in order to go on writing. It sounds off to me now, because I’m not the same person who wrote the piece. But the example of John Crowe Ransom is always there for anybody who gets too tempted to go back to try to update their stuff to too great an extent. You don’t quite know what you’re doing there. So I’m glad it’s there. It sounds pretty.