In 2012, the Royal Institution of Great Britain hosted Terry Eagleton and Roger Scruton for an evening of conversation and debate. Here is the footage of that event:
The following poem first appeared in Images in Ink and, later as a reprint, in Red Truck Review.
“Just for the Summer”
They traveled from the cold forests and towns
of New England and Canada,
spent the night in hotels in Atlanta,
and did not consider
the family they did not have.
They rented Fords and Nissans
and loaded their luggage in the trunk.
They bought maps at gas stations
and ate breakfast in the car.
They sipped their coffee,
blared Bossa nova,
and made faces at locals in rest stops.
They snapped photographs at the Florida border
and rolled their windows down in Crestview.
They pointed at the peaches, oranges, and cotton.
They opined about old black men, overhauls, and fieldwork,
pointed at tractors and trailers,
and prattled about pesticides.
They were many, but they were two in particular.
The two who arrived
and kicked off their shoes,
and filled their blenders with ice,
their cups with gin and rum,
and said, “to hell with sunscreen.”
They walked hand-in-hand down the shoreline,
these two, marveling
at the baby-powder sand,
he chasing crabs,
she waving off seagulls.
They watched the sun sink
until they mistook where they were,
and, thinking back,
his arms around her once-little waste,
hers around his once-broad shoulders;
in self-supplication, joined
in prayer to themselves.
It was not until the seventh hour
of the third day
of the second month
that the sadness broke in,
through the back window,
in the darkness,
and made off with joy.
He was told in his dream how he should awake,
she in hers how she should die.
On the day when the skies turned black,
and the waves pummeled the shoreline,
and the creatures stirred and scattered,
there they were, facing the darkness,
two people, vulnerable beneath the heavens,
remembering their future, forgetting their past,
knowing that they didn’t know
what cannot be named.
They stood nowhere
and for something not themselves.
When the winds swallowed them,
they could taste their souls in their mouths.
The conversion narrative is an important genre in American history, one that played an indispensable role in the formation of our cultural and religious identity during the seventeenth century and the First Great Awakening. The genre as a practiced form hardly exists today, although its iterations are evident whenever a Christian states his or her “testimony.”
Allow me to share mine. The conversion narratives of two eighteenth-century American writers in many ways reflect my own Christian experience.
John Woolman, a Quaker, recorded his narrative in a series of journal entries. As a young boy, Woolman intuited the existence of good and evil and felt the manifest presence of a superintending God in his everyday experience. He learned of his own propensity for wickedness and felt shame and remorse whenever he sinned. He came to believe in the teachings of Jesus Christ, through Whom he found love and repentance. The teenaged Woolman, however, gradually abandoned his pious obedience to God.
“Having attained the age of sixteen years,” Woolman laments in his narrative, “I began to love wanton company, and though I was preserved from profane language or scandalous conduct, still I perceived a plant in me which produced much wild grapes.” Only through God’s grace was Woolman saved from his backsliding and led back to the path of truth and repentance.
When Woolman began to backslide yet again, God visited sickness upon him. “I was filled,” Woolman writes, “with confusion, and in great affliction both of mind and body I lay and bewailed myself. I had not confidence to lift up my cries to God, whom I had thus offended, but in a deep sense of my great folly I was humbled before him, and at length that Word which is as a fire and a hammer broke and dissolved my rebellious heart. And then my cries were put up in contrition, and in the multitude of his mercies I found inward relief, and felt a close engagement that if he was pleased to restore my health, I might walk humbly before him.”
Jonathan Edwards, a New England Calvinist and one of the last prominent American Puritan ministers, wrote what he styled a “Personal Narrative,” which opens with an account of his boyhood inclination for religious matters. The young Edwards experienced an “awakening” in his father’s congregation. “I was then very much affected for many months,” he says in his account, “and concerned about the things of religion, and my soul’s salvation; and was abundant in duties. I used to pray five times a day in secret, and to spend much time in religious talk with other boys, and used to meet with them to pray together.” The power of God energized the exuberant, young Edwards. “I experienced I know not what kind of delight in religion,” Edwards intones about these early years.
Like Woolman, however, Edwards began to backslide as he grew older. “But in the process of time,” he says, “my convictions and affections wore off; and I entirely lost all those affections and delights and left off secret prayer, at least as to any constant performance of it; and returned like a dog to his vomit, and went on in the ways of sin.” Also like Woolman, Edwards was struck with illness, pleurisy, which riled him with inner conflict and compulsive introspection. Edwards emerged from his illness both healthier and spiritually rejuvenated. Although still immature in his faith, he “felt a spirit to part with all things in the world, for an interest in Christ.”
My grandmother led me to believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior when I was in the third grade. She instilled in me an understanding of God’s grace and an equally important fear of his divine judgment. As I grew older, I, like Woolman and Edwards, suffered from my own forms of backsliding. I fell into the company of other boys who were not interested in religious matters. During my freshman year of high school, my appendix ruptured, and I nearly died after waiting two days to visit the hospital. At this time, fear for my life and the state of my eternal soul caused me to consult scripture and to pray to God with a renewed sense of urgency.
I was for a few years devout once again, attendant to God’s teachings and careful with my thoughts and actions. Still I found myself in college—and the immediate years thereafter—drifting from God’s teachings even as I acknowledged their authority and believed that departure from them was sinful. I delighted in Bacchanalian parties and festivities of a degree I can only imagine to have been comparable to those described by Augustine in reference to his own youth. My immersion in unholy and rambunctious activity was so complete that I continue to struggle to witness to others, afraid they may discount my message in light of my past sins.
It was not until law school, when I was diagnosed with melanoma and treated with major surgery, including the removal of two lymph nodes, that I truly turned back to God, but even then the process of regeneration involved backsliding and psychological intensity.
Since my marriage and the birth of my two children, I have sought after the Lord with more discipline and seriousness. I have matured in Christ and seek daily to understand the scriptures and God’s nature. I have learned that sanctification is a complex process that requires correction and tenacity, and I have found joy in my relationships with other believers and in the awesomeness and enormity of life itself. Like everyone, I am susceptible to certain sins. But I believe in the power of God’s saving grace, and, after much study and prayer, attempt to exercise the ability he has provided me to overcome my inherent limitations and innate propensity for sin.