I did something bad yesterday. If you saw that girl cracking open John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Pulphead at Barnes and Noble, careful not to open it too wide (breaking the spine would have meant buying it) that was me. A friend recommended “Upon this Rock,” the first essay in the collection, and I had neither the patience to wait for its library return nor the funds to buy it. So, I eased it open in the store, stuffed the words into my brain, placed the physical book back on the shelf (unharmed) and left, carrying the ideas with me.
The essay was an example of a fun trend in writing that involves finding an unstudied subculture to examine and describe. Homeless people, raw-foodies, Trekkies. People who develop a set of insider rules and codes and group affection. Yeah, it could be kind of offensive. It has the possibility of objectifying and isolating. But, I was delighted to hear about this one. You see, this one was about my subculture. Sitting at the Starbucks bar in Barnes and Noble, reading a paperback, I was eavesdropping on a description of myself.
In 40 pages, Sullivan examines that wild creature, the Evangelical; specifically, Evangelicals at the Creation Festival – a massive Christian rock festival in Pennsylvania. Braced for hyped-up Christians raising their hands and singing aloud with Relient K and Switchfoot, Sullivan rents a trailer and camps out at the festival for the weekend. He makes friends with several Christians in the campsite adjacent and describes their exotic ways to the reader, as well as detailing his own teenage experience with Christianity. In the last paragraph, thousands of concert-goers, holding lit candles, fill a field with light as Sullivan looks on from afar. He ends the piece with a mixture of admiration and distance.
Sullivan did his homework. He became fluent in Christianese. He delved into attitudes and motivations. He knows how to write in a way that creates and decorates a world into which the reader can go confidently.
And what an enchanting feeling, to see a story decorated with my world by someone who lives outside it. My creative writing professor told us to find the lingo of our subject and casually reference it in a fluent, comfortable way throughout our writing. It tickled me to see my mother tongue become this thing clearly researched, hammered out, and assumed as a foreign matter.
My giddiness about my subculture’s objectification being obvious, an explanation of it is probably necessary. After all, it’s usually upsetting to be classified and talked about.
But, Sullivan is a mature writer and thinker. He wrestles with his subjects. On the one hand, he states (clearly but not belligerently) that he is not a Christian and won’t be becoming one. But, he has such clear respect for Christian beliefs and Christians, both those in his past and present, that I know and feel that I’m getting a fair hearing. Which means I feel proud when he praises and responsible when he critiques.
I walk away from “Upon this Rock” with two major take-aways (besides the lesson that puns make the best titles. Christian Rock, Upon this Rock – get it?). First, I got a rare glimpse into how Christians look in their element to one respectful non-Christian. If you’re wondering, we look a little funny and seem to have no musical taste, but we also appear very genuine, lively, and loving.
Second, I learned a bit of what it means to describe respectfully. I came to the essay ready to mount the emotional defensive, if necessary. It’s a familiar stance for me. I’m a woman; I’m used to reading explanations of my “people” that I have to be ready to defend my way through. However, I quickly realized that there was no bitterness and no attack in this objectification. There was an opportunity to see myself and my “people” honestly viewed through another person’s eyes, which is an enlightening thing. I felt flattered and dignified by his description.
I hope that I can also learn to write so thoughtfully and with such affirmation of those outside my circle.