Tongues Like as of Fire
(Tightrope Books, 2015)
What does it feel like to have your most fundamental beliefs destroyed? Perhaps like an earthquake. An initial foreshock, a premonition of disaster as your principles are challenged. A rift, ever so slight as your convictions give way, and suddenly the world drops from beneath your feet and you realize that you no longer know what is true and what is not.
Perhaps it feels like the end of the world.
How interesting it must have been, then, for a tiny collection of custodians, wait-staff, laundresses, and other disenfranchised lower-class worshipers at 312 Azusa Street, Los Angeles, to hear in a building that had most recently been used as a stable, where swarms of horseflies still gusted as an itinerant African American preacher, the son of freed slaves with no theological education, had gathered them to worship, on April 18th, 1906—only four days after the first sermon on Azusa Street—that the great city of the West, the “Gateway to the Pacific,” San Francisco, had been destroyed in a matter of hours. That 80% of the city had been charred by fires caused by ruptured gas lines, that broken water mains made the fire department unable to combat the fires, that—in an effort to create “firebreaks” by dynamiting buildings—the fire department had caused more destruction and blazes, and that the fire chief himself—who could better have orchestrated the battle against the flames—had been killed in the initial tremors. In sum, a total of roughly 3,000 people perished. These congregants would have been interested to learn the news of the destruction because they were praying ecstatically for something very like this. They prayed to hasten the end of the world.
But again, what does it feel like to have one’s fundamental beliefs shattered? I try to imagine an alternate reality where science is somehow “proven wrong”—perhaps the Second Coming even occurs. The happy void of my atheism is suddenly nothing but a falsely held pretense. There is, in fact, a divine hand in every flicker of a protozoa’s flagella; white dwarfs and neutrinos dance against a heavenly backdrop in perfectly, intelligently designed Christian choreography. I would feel betrayal. Shame. Disbelief. I would feel outside. It would represent my own spiritual earthquake.
Ken Murray’s solemn and entrancing debut novel, Eulogy, concerns such a spiritual earthquake. Or perhaps the aftershocks of such a quake. The spiritual life concerns that of William Oaks—a solitary man who works as a paper conservator of rare books at the Royal Ontario Museum. William, however, is not simply solitary; he is a 29-year-old virgin, who has never had a romantic relationship and whose interests include trance music and self-mutilation. His predilections find an outlet in Terry, an attractive young woman whose interests mirror his own. They get serious; they fall in love. But not for long.
A sizable part of William’s difficulty is that he is a recovering Evangelical whose parents are practicing members of Hillsview Independent Pentecostal congregation. William’s problem isn’t so much his erstwhile faith, but his parents, whose own problems are as numerous as the daily reminders of coming Armageddon. His parents, it would be understatement to say, do not get along. Their only sustenance is a diet supplement called “Slender Nation,” a kind of pyramid scheme in the vein of Amway. That is, they are sales reps as well as their own best customers. William is a man now without faith or connections, whose only interest is in maintaining his rigidly enforced solitude.
So what does it feel like to lose your faith? William Oaks could tell you, but you might not have been inclined to ask the worshippers of Azusa Street. Their devotion was only fortified by the news of the devastation in San Francisco. They were the first members of the Pentecostal church, led by William Joseph Seymour, who had come to California by way of Louisiana, Houston, and Indiana to preach the word of god through ecstatic speech and bodily movement. The Pentecostals are an ecumenical movement—a synthesis of mostly Christian elements—but the primacy of their early beliefs was in glossolalia: speaking in tongues. Pentecostals stress the immediate experience of the spirit of god and his actions through them in sign gifts—prophecy, trances, ecstatic states, divine healing, even levitation. They believe in the inerrancy of the bible, a literal interpretation of the scriptures. They are America’s mystics.
And so how did William Joseph Seymour come to represent the largest denomination of Christians in the world? Indeed 26.7% of all Christians, a full 8.5 % of the world’s population and fastest growing religion on earth? The truth is that he didn’t. For someone with such an important role, he has been largely muted by history and the racism of the first half of the 20th century.
As with many fundamentalist turns in major religions, Pentecostalism is, in a way, a reaction to and against secular modernity. It represents a spirituality that feels persecuted and endangered by the perceived crisis of technology and scientific progress. In fear of adulteration, its practitioners withdraw from secular society and attempt to forge their own, a culture set apart, untouched by the day’s evils.
Recently there has been a spate of non-fiction about leaving fundamentalist faiths. These books, many of which center on abandoning Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Judaism, include Leah Vincent’s recent Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood, and Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament. These memoirs seem to have already settled into a genre of defined standards: a kind of cultural voyeurism of insular communities. Less told have been, and perhaps even less frequently fictionalized are the tales and complicated aftermath of leaving Christian fundamentalism (the exception perhaps being Mormonism, which has a burgeoning list of ex-member memoirs).
William Oak’s crisis of faith has been ongoing, nearly he was first born again as an eleven-year-old in 1981. The crisis that drives his life in the novel, however, occurs with the death of his parents. The news comes only months after William vows never to return home after a particularly jarring interrogation, resulting in the revelation that he is no longer a practicing Christian. So rattled is he by the encounter, that he breaks off his relationship with Terry. William, perhaps Pentecostal in his bones, knows that their death was deliberate, that his father sought to expedite their end as he hoped to expedite the second coming.
Returning to his hometown of Otterton, Ontario, William is called upon to offer the eulogy at the funeral. Having made no peace with the church he blames for much of his family’s tribulation, William is unable even to concede to the other bereaved that his parents are in heaven.
What brings a man to be attacked by the mourners at his parents’ funeral? This is the question at the crux of Eulogy. In answering the question, both family and church history is illuminated in the novel, with alternating scenes of flashback detailed as “Notes on a Eulogy.” In these chapters, past damage is revisited. The isolation felt when one is ostracized from the larger community and the rippling effects of that isolation through the years. The consequence of a marriage between two people whose “sex made me, and maybe that was it,” who “killed each other, slowly, mercilessly, for more than thirty years—a prolonged murder-suicide.”
William’s problem is one of connection. It is an inability to connect with others because of the self-segregating walls erected by his family’s faith. It is his heartbreak at his own faith not having lived up to that of his parents. It was, after all, William who introduced them to the church. Speaking of his mother and her salvation:
She came to church the next week and it was exactly like the week before except nothing was new to me and I felt no joy. Mom got the joy this time.[…]People would have thought that my tears were joyous, when really it was closer to heartbreak because whatever had washed over me the week before was not washing over me tonight.
This is the novel’s true gift—the heartbreak of belief not being enough. William at one point says of his faith: It just didn’t work out for me. We are left to watch him attempting to pick up the pieces of a father’s delusions, a mother’s cruelty, a marriage built on “malice, barely contained,” religion that sees the world-at-large as evil and hopes joyfully to hasten its end.
It is a conspiratorial and paranoid life, keeping people at bay, proclaiming love and acceptance while turning one’s back on one’s fellow man, evangelizing and attempting to indoctrinate while simultaneously rejecting that which doesn’t align with one’s own beliefs. It’s something difficult for the secular world to understand—the daily challenges to one’s of faith—a minute earthquake at every confrontation with modernity. Eulogy is a serious, graceful novel that interrogates the roots of a particular strain of family unhappiness and, in the plumbing of William’s history, perhaps offers a glimpse at a measured kind of redemption.
ContributorRyan D. Matthews
RYAN D. MATTHEWS is a writer and editor in New York. He is at work on a novel for which he has received fellowships from the Jentel Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, the Terry Family Foundation, and Can Serrat International Art Center. You can find him at ryandmatthews.com.