It’s Good Friday, and in Sewanee that means that at noon a large cross will be slowly carried from the School of Theology to All Saints’ Chapel by various members of the university and community. Following the Way of the Cross will be many people I know and admire, some of whom have provided me with spiritual solace at troubled times in my life. Sometimes I go out to watch the procession. Other times I cringe at the public display of piety and remain in my office. Once or twice over the years I’ve joined in.
“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him,” Julian Barnes famously remarked in a 2008 New York Times editorial. This statement might well be called the creed of Christian atheism, a concept I first heard about this summer at Oxford when I happened to be seated for dinner next to Brian Mountford, Vicar of the University Church in Oxford, who had written a recent book on the topic, Christian Atheist: Belonging Without Believing. The book explores “the challenges that reason, science, doubt, and modernity throw at orthodox belief,” according to Mountford’s website.
I appreciate the honesty of Mountford’s engagement, and understand implicitly what Barnes means by missing God, the loss of context. My son goes to a school where there is mandatory chapel, and my other son will join him there next year. It will be up to them to decide if they believe, but I at least want them to miss God if they do not. The religious service is simply a part of my son’s schooling, as is athletics. He talks more about the latter, but I know he is paying attention to the former.
Yesterday , my son’s soccer team was playing an away game, and so I hopped into my car after work to go watch. I didn’t play soccer as a boy, nor did anybody I know, but I love watching him play. It was an hour’s drive away through the Tennessee country, and my various radio presets had all begun to fade out the further I got from home. A spin around the dial wasn’t turning up much–some Bon Jovi here, a drippy country ballad there, nothing worth listening to. It’s at times like this that I switch to AM radio.
When I was little, my father listened constantly to AM radio in the car, and the static in the reception was a part of the listening experience. There was always a sports talk-show on, and guys with heavy accents would be complaining about the latest atrocity. On the weekends, there was Irish music. Lots of the Irish Rovers, the Clancy Brothers, or Frank Patterson. It all seems a long time ago, in some distant place. When I was young, I tell my students sometimes, I never knew a Protestant. Everybody in Boston, it seemed, was either Irish, Italian, Jewish, or Greek. Our shared culture was the Red Sox, and we were all very devout about that. But to my students or my children, the local teams, the Irish music, the fuzzy reception–none of it makes much sense.
As I’m driving on the backroads, it’s nothing but static on the AM dial. Static, and preachers. Bible quotes jump out between bursts of surface noise. Crackle crackle so loved the world crackle crackle the way, the truth and the crackle crackle kingdom of God. It’s Holy Week, and there is a sense of urgency and enthusiasm in the preachers’ voices. I did not grow up around Evangelicals and the booming confidence of their testimony has always been foreign to me, though I’ve lived in the South for a long time now. Through the white noise, I strain to make out what they’re talking about. I flip around these stations of the cross, but each one sounds the same. I make my way down the road, to bold proclamations of truth, obscured by static. Crackle crackle, Who do you say that I am?