The Reliably Spiritual Author Print E-mail

willner 02(Pacifica Literary Review Summer, 2017)

In Langston Hughes’ story, “Salvation,” from his autobiography, The Big Sea, he tells us that “going on thirteen” he was saved from sin—saved, “but not really.” At a special children’s meeting in the church, charged with the expectation that he would “see and hear and feel Jesus in your soul,” Langston waits while the minister asks the “little lambs” to come forward. Many do; a few hesitate. Most go to the altar. And there, by their voluntary presence, they are saved. But not Hughes and another boy, Westley. Neither budges; Langston is not feeling it. But, it’s hot, and the hymns keep insinuating, and the preacher keeps intoning, and the flock keeps expecting, until Westley finally capitulates: “God damn! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved,” he says to Langston, and so Westly goes to the front of the church. And he is saved.

Now, from every corner, the hanky-waving faithful and Langston’s family besiege him, the last straggler, to get up: they pray for him, “in a mighty wail of moans and voices.” And, though he thinks he wants to receive the Lord, nothing happens. He waits again. But still he can’t see Jesus. Seeing Westly, happily swinging his legs up front, Langston muses, “God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple.”

So, at last, Langston gets up and saunters to the front of the church. And he is saved. Voila! God and church propitiated. All the dominoes have fallen. That night, however, after the hurrahs of the family have settled and Langston is alone in bed, he cries. His aunt hears him and comes into his room. His tears, she says, are the Holy Ghost reminding him that he has seen Jesus. The everlasting has arrived in his life for good. But no, Langston thinks, his tears are his shame for lying: “I couldn’t bear to tell her,” he writes, “that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more, since he didn’t come to help me.”

How simply wrought and religiously portentous this 1940 confession is.

Several things are true. The initiation passed, the emotional purge exacted, Langston is saved in the eyes of the church members; he is saved by his conscience, the opposite of what his family treasures him for receiving; and he is saved by the querulous surprise of his self-disclosure. He knows that what they believe and what he believes—which each would swear to—are the same as they are different. Salvation and faked salvation—river and bank, sun and moon. Doesn’t this happen often whenever we are tapped to bow our heads in prayer for the dearly departed or to stand for the seventh-inning rendition of “God Bless America”? How many of us, caps in hand, embarrassed faces, dodgy hearts, relish little of what we’re supposed to and, instead, feel that the land-that-I-love or the deity-on-high fervor in the bowed head beside us is a public face we’re preternaturally unable to fake. The degree to which we hide the absence of belief is also the degree to which we hope such an absence might be acknowledged if not by them, then, at least, by us.

The story begins with church members meandering through the sleepy hymn, “The Ninety and Nine.” Despite the tune’s avowal that the lone stray sheep (little Langston), brought back to the fold, is the most blessed of the flock, another counter-certainty raises its head: there is no God except the God who isn’t there, a strangely satisfying hollow that awakens Langston’s conscience. Reverse salvation—that which is presumed to ground his life, the Weight of the Old Rugged Cross, he discovers he has no desire to lug. But that’s not the point. The point is, how does he, how do we live with ourselves if we protect others from knowing what we truly think?

How American to be in it and outside it. How American to pretend to be attached to the prevailing winds so that the pretending becomes the freedom. How odd that the writer confesses his strength as a failure, that which came, while young, with a cost. And how odd to have learned a kind of double speak that shielded those good gospel women who raised and loved him from his disbelief, women with whom he could never be, while young, his apostate self except in the guise of telling the truth—showing he was saved when he wasn’t and wouldn’t be. All this expresses itself in the tack of the artist whose sensibility the culture has already fitted him with because not only is the ambiguity there that day to guide little Langston through his community survival and into the honesty of his shame but that same ambiguity is also there the day he tells the truth whole by confessing to the lie.


My turn on Langston Hughes’ literary gem is meant to step lively into the minefield of the reliable and the unreliable narrator. Authors, of all stripes, create narrators to tell a or their story. In memoir, the narrator, the “I,” may be trustworthy or not; her trustworthiness is measured by the degree of innocence (naïve or youthful), sensitivity (regard for others and their points-of-view), and self-implication (holding herself responsible for what she thinks, feels, and does). To test that trustworthiness, here are some negative-leaning questions to ask. How fallible is the narrator? Is she telling the whole story? How would you know if she weren’t? Is she too full of herself as hero or savior, as healer or healed? Is she so uninvolved, a literary manqué, that she substitutes an authentic self for a projection, a type, a persona, a polemicist whose drama echoes Hollywood’s weaselly claim, “based on a true story” (see political campaign biographers or lie merchants like James Frey whose facts are fungible)? Does she present a narrator and a tale that lacks the verisimilitude or roundedness we prize in stories from dependable storytellers?

In short, a memoirist’s trustworthiness—the reliability of the writer’s claim that she is telling the truth—is the core question I have come to ask in my long reading career with life-writing, the one I find most germane to religious autobiography and spiritual memoir.

Donald Morrill lays out a way into this question with his article, “Character in Nonfiction.” The nonfictional/autobiographical narrator has a presence in the work as the subject and a presence in the life (obviously) as the actual writer. Indeed, the person the memoirist portrays, the “I” or narrator, exists parallel to his portrayal. “We are invited,” Morrill writes, “to wonder about the character of the nonfiction writer because we know he is interacting with his subject somehow,” the narrating “I” of the work. The actual author is “not just acting upon” that “I.” “He is wondering what the reader will also think about his character.” To what degree did the adolescent Frank Conroy, the pithy deviant of Stop-Time, guide the adult Frank Conroy? How interesting it would have been if you’d known Conroy to have wondered (or asked) this about him. (Would he have fessed up? Much exaggeration? Much truth?) It’s complicated. We are breaking—as most postmodern art requires us to—the dramatic convention of the “fourth wall” behind which the teller likes to hide: that’s not me in the corner; that’s the narrator I’ve created. But with memoir it’s part of the apparatus of the critic to inquire about the veracity of what the author claims to have happened.

Contrarily, narrators and characters in fiction have little or no existence outside the work. At least, the flesh-and-bone link between writer and fictional alters is much hazier. (OK, there’s probably some of Mattie and Rooster Cogburn and LaBoeuf in Charles Portis, the omniscient author of True Grit, but still that possibility is really beside the point.) This relationship between actuality and representative actuality is, in Morrill’s terms, “the primary bargain of nonfiction.” Ultimately, the degree to which the bargain is honored, feels balanced, or, shall we say, is mutually assured, sustains the book’s trustworthiness.

If the text’s claim is, as in the case of St. Augustine’s Confessions or St. John’s Dark Night of the Soul, a representation of what has happened internally to each man, why do we believe the representation? Why believe the Buddha, of whom no YouTube video verifies his existence let alone his experience, six years under the Bodhi tree to produce enlightenment? I think the problem here is that such profound internal and life-changing experiences of spirit would not be made out of whole cloth. All memoir, but especially the spiritual journey, beacons the assumption that readers do or, at least, should trust the author. We assume the confessor wants to testify. Wants to relieve himself of a burden via confession. Fine. But if the experience is entirely the author’s alone, absent the verification of an “authority” or a witness, shouldn’t we be more not less suspect about the rendition? We can’t just let sincerity—as in the currently fashionable sincerely held religious belief—be the yardstick. (What about the sincerely held secular belief most everyone shares with freedom of speech?) After all, with religion and spirituality we are talking of experience either extra-worldly, visionary, or, as Billy Collins has said, “beyond verbal description.”

Every writer who works toward or out of “faith alone” trades in the import/export business of unreliability. Because of its inner seal, a religious/spiritual claim in writing cannot be anything but unreliable. To ventilate such due, an author has to a) emphasize the self-significance of the tale; b) have witnesses who validate or differ about the experience, preferably both; c) enlist a ritual tradition whose self-deliverance has been time-tested (say, trekking the Appalachian trail as opposed to the Zen of dog-walking); and d) fashion a sincere narrator whose honesty we associate with serious-minded thought and action. In short, the spiritual author creates a believably literary narrator or risks sounding ridiculous.

Let’s examine the two primary bargains in “Salvation.” First, that Jesus got him to go to the front of the church and second, that Langston just went up there of his own free will because Jesus failed to nudge him. The first posits a truth that directs our behavior from the outside, though it may be thought of as an inner push or conscience; the second posits that such truth is untrue because it can be faked or, in certain people, wisely managed because there are painful consequences to those who mess with the religious sanctity others, especially members of one’s family, hold dear. That Hughes conveys both is remarkable. What’s more, he conveys something stronger—moral ambiguity. No story is wholly reliable and no author can be wholly believed. Whether fiction or nonfiction, narrative authors build characters with stark fallibility if they wish readers to trust the unverifiable ideas of their creations. A character—think Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment—has to plumb her reliability as her story.

With “Salvation,” the fallibility of little Langston’s faith is everywhere present in the story. The piece discloses a significant struggle the author has with faith; the family members and Westley, in particular, are his witnesses who see his going up front as success and failure; it’s a historical and public means to salvation in charismatic or Baptist-style churches (see James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain); and the tale oozes self-revelation, more powerfully apt because such deliverance is not what Christian churches prefer.

There’s something even bigger. I trust Hughes not only because he scores 100% on the believability index but because one’s personal salvation cannot be fully known by others and, thus, must retain some level of doubt—from the author. In other words, it’s easy to fake salvation for a crowd of believers but it’s even easier to fake it for oneself. How will anyone know—leaving aside gospel women and preachers and the public spectacle of testifying—whether one is saved? How in the world is coming to the front of the church during the high drama of an evangelical threshing salvationally guaranteed, that when you die, the pearly gates will open? You may be saved in the moment—all the little lambs that day were “saved,” even the tricksters, Westley and Langston—but the question-inviting-and-begging of such flings is the actual legacy.

Anyone can conjure the “evidence” of things unseen (ghosts and spirits and highways to heaven), but, with spiritually oriented writers, one presents the competing evidence as well—while things may be unseen, they may also be seen for their unseenness, if you will, for their unreliability. In his Confessions, Augustine has doubt but it is about the worthiness of his character; he never accuses God or Jesus of failing him. That’s a whale of a difference from Hughes. Indeed, Hughes defers to the knowingness of the child. Just as the church tricks children into public admission—heed the call and let the Lord in—the child, in his honesty, must say where the rabbit is hidden. Saying that makes him a reliable witness of the deception.

The child, Langston, is saved by the truth that he wasn’t saved. He lies to himself and then refuses to tell his lie (which itself is a kind of private revelation) to his family until many years later, nearing forty, when he finally owns up in The Big Sea. There, the family, if they read the story, may understand that real faith is not a matter of raw belief. It is a matter of tenacious conscience. We like to think that deeply witnessed faith is by nature preferable to deeply witnessed disbelief. Don’t be misled, Hughes argues. If the faith is in anything, it is in the child’s instinctual adaptation to the paradox of belief: that what is true is the degree to which my truth may also be expressed as your truth, and vice versa, so that both are valid.