The movies are onto the search, but they screw it up. The search always ends in despair. They like to show a fellow coming to himself in a strange place—but what does he do? He takes up with the local librarian, sets about proving to the local children what a nice fellow he is, and settles down with a vengeance. In two weeks’ time he is so sunk in everydayness that he might just as well be dead.
—Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
A few years ago, I went to a memorial service for a friend I’d grown up with. We had surfed, played music, caused the usual teenage trouble. Then we’d lost touch, and then he’d died, too young. The memorial was outside the break on the southside of Oceanside Pier, in North San Diego County, and so a group of us paddled out together. Somehow since high school, we had become construction workers, Christian philosophers, small business-owners, stoner Buddhists, taggers-turned-graphic designers, parents, DJs, marketers, addicts, reformed addicts, and on—probably the usual mix of any random sample of forty people. As is traditional for surfer memorials, we formed a circle sitting on our boards. Held hands. A few people said some insufficient but good words.
Then the seal appeared.
It was a harbor seal. I don’t think I’d ever seen one this far from the harbor. It blew a jet of air out its nose as it appeared in the middle of our circle. Then it swam the circuit, looking each of us in the face, bobbing its head punkily left and right, a kind of grin under its whiskers. Eventually, it dove down and disappeared for good.
It moved like the friend we’d lost, we’d say afterward. Some people felt comfortable saying the seal was him, coming to say goodbye. Others hedged, not willing to ascribe a certain meaning on the moment or tried to justify the seal’s behavior with other explanations. Everyone got goosebumps.
It was a mystery. The best kind. That makes you pay attention. That you can explain yet still doesn’t give up its strangeness to explanation. That leaves all that possibility left intact, all that not-knowing circling it like the ripples radiating out from where it breached the surface, having come from its invisible origin and then, just as soon, returning to the depths of its invisible destination.
* * *
On the surface, noir and Evangelical Christianity may seem like opposites. One is enraptured with human depravity, the other obsessed with moral purity. It’s easy to forget, though, that this religious obsession is borne out of a fervent belief in the hopelessness of human nature—redeemed in one way only. (Bring out the crucifix.)
When I began writing The Churchgoer, I was following an intuition, a sense that in the 21st century Philip Marlowe—Raymond Chandler’s post-WWII detective—wouldn’t be the product of war and modern disillusionment but would have instead “survived” being an Evangelical preacher. There’s a poetics to certain ethical stances. I was exploring a sense that there was something related in those worldviews: the noir investigator and the spiritual leader. As I worked on the book, I began to see the deeper connection. At the heart of the matter is how each relates to mystery itself.
* * *
Noir and our present form of Evangelicalism both came to prominence in the early 20th century and were shaped through a shared set of cynical cultural forces. Industrialism, war, and American imperialism created economic boons at the top and deep disillusionment for those in a position to face down its consequences. These consequences became the themes of noir: urban migration and the cruelty of cities; the inhumanity of powerful institutions and their agents; the depravity of the rich and those who want to be rich; that double helix of capitalism and violence threading through our cultural DNA and into discord across class, race, sexuality, gender, and beyond; a grim, moral determinism; the supremacy and inevitable perniciousness of sex.Noir and our present form of Evangelicalism both came to prominence in the early 20th century and were shaped through a shared set of cynical cultural forces.
At the same time that readers began to appreciate the bleak comforts of James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett, American Christianity began to change in response to the same complex modernizing forces. To counter new ideas friendly to women’s suffrage, socialism, and other movements, titans of industry invested heavily in Evangelicalism to create a committed, nationalistic, and economically laissez-faire public that was coincidentally good for business. At different stages throughout the 20th century, Christian leaders were given significant financial backing to marry their often fundamentalist doctrine to libertarian ideals (certainly not a stretch for many branches of Evangelicalism).
Southern California, where The Churchgoer takes place, plays a repeat starring role. For example, in the late 1930s, James W. Fifield Jr. was the proto-Prosperity Gospel preacher in Los Angeles. He was bankrolled by industrialists and, through his Spiritual Mobilization network, spread a gospel that not only were the rich deservedly so but that the New Deal welfare state was working against God’s will in providing a safety net for the poor. These ideas were often made not only palatable but desirable through the tactics of the burgeoning self-help industry, in which change is possible but only by the individual—personal salvation by another name. This was at the same time Dale Carnegie’s Win Friends and Influence Others and Napoleon Hill’s Win Friends and Influence Others would be published and shape our cultural sense of responsibility and success, with a similar underlying logic: that everything is controllable, and everyone can “win” the game of late capitalism, if they only followed these clear steps. The goal of all of this was an antidote—to mystery, to uncertainty, to chaos.
As the century progressed, new versions of this formula would appropriate current cultural forms and thrive: Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel in Orange County, California, and an old-school preacher if there ever was one, hitched his star to Lonnie Frisbee—a queer hippy “Jesus Freak” who tripped his way to God and drew hundreds to Smith’s nascent church. Calvary popularized pop music-style worship music and casual, conversational-style preaching, often taking place at the beach (followed by Pacific Ocean baptisms). But its core theology remained as deeply conservative as a Southern Baptist’s. (Eventually, the tension between Frisbee’s gifts and his secret sex life reached a breaking point, and he was forced out. He went on to help establish Vineyard Church and the career of Greg Laurie, of Harvest Crusade fame, before dying of complications from AIDS.)
Throughout the twentieth century, we’ve seen megachurches in drive-in movie theaters, televangelism in all of its glories and guises, stadium spectacles like Harvest, cross-over Christian rock like Jars of Clay, DC Talk, Switchfoot, and P.O.D., and the high-fashion Evangelicalism of today, with Justin Bieber as its face and Chris Pratt acting as an apologist for churches that present as contemporary and cool, while providing cover for, among other positions, anti-LGTBQIA and anti-feminist theologies, warmongering to advance end-times prophecies, and a libertarianism that wreaks havoc with human lives and the environment.
What remains consistent or, if anything, only has become more amplified over this time are these dueling desires of Evangelical leaders. On the one hand, the success of Evangelicalism was predicated on this knack for creating a community and system of beliefs that was easy, clear, welcoming, uncomplicated—a respite from the chaos and a guide to surviving the heartbreak of modern life. On the other hand, Evangelicals increasingly came to identify themselves as the outsiders in contemporary life: maligned in an un-Christian culture, disparaged, disenfranchised, spat upon.The result is that the Evangelical pastor has ended up sharing a moral stance with the classic noir protagonist. Both present themselves as the sole keeper of certainty, truth, and morality, beset by a fallen world but not of it.
The result is that the Evangelical pastor has ended up sharing a moral stance with the classic noir protagonist. Both present themselves as the sole keeper of certainty, truth, and morality, beset by a fallen world but not of it (as memorialized in the once-popular NOTW, or Not of This World, stickers, t-shirts, and tattoos). He—and it was and is by theological definition male in nearly every case—is cool and calculating in domesticating mystery: anticipating it, being ahead of it, unsurprised by if not the master of its ambiguities, and able to show us the way. A preternaturally confident lone ranger in the spiritual west. A callback to a simpler time, a simpler form of morality, of masculinity, of truth—back when it was black and white. (It was never black and white.)
The Evangelical pastor is just another shade of the American cowboy, whose latter-day shadow is the American detective. A more recent incarnation of one of our most damaging myths.
* * *
This shared DNA between noir and Evangelicalism leads to a second irony. Because these are issues not with Christianity itself, exactly, but with the particular forms and cultures it has evolved in the U.S.—institutional problems, sociological problems—noir is the perfect genre for exploring the nature of these problems. Noir, like other kinds of “genre” fiction, has from the beginning been built to tease out how personal histories and moral beliefs are in tension with political and cultural systems, often from the perspective of a figure who can move across social strata.
And in reading great noir, like with that moment with the seal, the workings of the world—all its dark shadings, its complexities, and its sometimes difficult beauties—achieve a radiant meaningfulness in mystery that can border on the religious. You are awakened to a fuller understanding of hard problems of the self and society—of being on earth in the 21st century and of being, full stop—but not in a way that resolves their complexities into simple answers.In reading great noir, the workings of the world achieve a radiant meaningfulness in mystery that can border on the religious.
In other kinds of mystery stories, a dull mechanical plotting reveals itself as a series of tricks and tropes played upon the reader’s attention. It can be entertaining, but there isn’t real any mystery. You start to skip over the sentences, then the paragraphs, looking for the key words to tell you how it ends, to solve the puzzle—to let you get on with living your life however you were living it before you began reading. The mystery of contemporary Evangelical Christian culture is skip-ahead Christianity. From the TED talk-style sermons and pleasantly familiar music (ever wish Mumford and Sons would sing about Jesus? Wish no more.) to the warm embrace of conspicuous consumption, there’s no room left for any awe in the mysterious in its pursuit of comfort and entertainment through the terrain of the familiar. All answers are known, so you can settle in and consume the truth, in actionable, unchallenging nuggets, and trust where your story will end. There is a genuine discomfort or antagonism for the truths that come from doubt and uncertainty, from complication and contradiction—the truths of not knowing, and being thrust into the position of having to work through that not knowing, maybe forever.
If Evangelical Christianity had descended into pure entertainment, that alone wouldn’t be an issue. But, as a movement that tries to answer all questions for its followers, it also attempts to make clear who is good, whose sins to hate (while somehow loving the sinner), which values to hold, which political causes to vote for, and which ungodly men can yet do God’s work in positions of political power. It starts as a comfortable community in which to find friends, to get support—a place where the mad world’s volume gets turned down a notch and you can feel calm and certain—but becomes a place where contrary perspectives and ways of life are minimized, if not silenced. Instead of being where one might begin an earnest spiritual search, too many Evangelical churches are designed to be where the search is called off.
* * *
In noir, the tropes of the genre give way to glimmers of truth. This truth takes the form of mystery, the deepest kind. Not who did what to whom, with what weapon, in what room, but in boiling down the deep, unknowable mysteries of life: why we’re born, why the world exists, why suffering—causing it, being brought to it—is inherent in the whole business. A good noir brings you right into the heart of that mystery, into a state, as the Buddhists might put it, of clear, focused perplexity—or what Søren Kierkegaard might have emphasized as the need to, quoting from Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear in trembling.” It can get you back on the search.
In noir, that mystery, that not knowing, can take an almost solid shape and express itself in deep feeling. Georges Simenon could get you there in a moment in his roman durs. Patricia Highsmith did it over and over again. Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is my favorite of his (not unproblematic) novels, precisely for why it was derided by his literary agents as too soft: because, as Anthony Boucher described it in a review, “Marlowe is less a detective than a disturbed man of 42 on a quest for some evidence of truth and humanity.” He wrote it while his beloved wife was dying, and that searching consciousness bleeds through on every page.
And wasn’t religion one of the earliest tools we found to contend with capital “M” mystery? It’s a strange world when Evangelicalism—one of the largest denominations in the U.S. and quickly reshaping cultures around the world, displacing traditional beliefs and social structures to harmful effect in places like Africa and Eastern Europe and, as we’ve recently seen in Brazil, inflecting the political situation in familiar ways—when this peculiar American Christianity fuels individual and cultural arrogance and authoritarianism, while we can find more spiritual truth in noir. Strange that we find more meaningful mystery not in revelation, but in the questions we’re left with, in some of the darkest of places.
* * *