That night Jane gave me a lift home after we closed the shop. “Hey, do you want to come to church with me tomorrow morning?” she said. We were driving down my block. I knew that Jane had been religious once but now she was as debauched as any of my contemporaries—not that religion necessarily precluded debauchery, but in Nashville it seemed to circumscribe it in guilt and make it novel. Neither was the case for Jane.
I hesitated. “Maybe?”
“It’s my old church—they’re very nice people, open to everyone. I haven’t been there in months, and I’d like to go. And there will be a big lunch afterwards with a family at their house nearby.”
“I’m down,” I said. Free meals were hard to come by, and I could never turn one down. And admittedly I did think it could be interesting. Perhaps I would learn a thing or two. The last time I’d been to a church service had been easily twelve years ago, when I’d gone with a friend after a sleep-over. Not that middle school Dan was religious, hardly. I looked towards God with complete indifference. And twelve years later I was still indifferent, but now this indifference was tinged with an intellectual skepticism. I considered God as a living cultural artifact and a source of the ideology that structured the consciousness of my country; he was also simply a part of my language, in the sense that “God knows,” and “oh my God,” etc., figured in my lexicon. In short I was, a priori, critical of religion in detached sort of way. Yet I had never truly entered this sphere of which I was skeptical, and it seemed that perhaps I should, to see what is was all really about.
So she picked me up at around 10 the following morning. First we stopped at the coffee shop to get something to drink. “I’m going to church!” I said to Jay, who was behind the counter. He gave me a quizzical luck.
Soon we were out of the city proper (if Nashville even has a city proper). Jane turned onto a long, winding, country road. I admired the bucolic countryside and the occasional mansion. “That’s an old plantation,” Jane said, gesturing to her left. Sometimes I forgot that we were in the South. Jane told me that this area was, in fact, one of the richest suburbs in the country, populated by country music stars and other big shots. “And WASPy, moneyed descendants of slave owners,” I added cynically. There was no denying it.
After we passed the last mansion there was nothing but wide open land. If only I could say more but in my mind different countrysides are confused, and I no longer know which countryside belongs to which country. The windows were open, and a warm breeze came through.
The church was situated amidst all this. It was a small, unremarkable building with a couple dozen cars parked outside. Nothing awe-inspiring. Jane and I smoked a cigarette before entering. She took the butts and put them in her car. One shouldn’t litter on a church parking lot, I suppose.
The sermon had already begun but it wasn’t so solemn that a few people couldn’t turn their heads and wave to Jane and me. Perhaps they thought she had brought her new boyfriend to church. The interior was bigger than I’d thought it would be, but like the exterior, hardly majestical. There were lots of children whispering to each other and giggling, along with a few babies crying out now and then, as babies often do.
I listened attentively to the sermon. Jane had told me that the guy—his title, if he had one, escapes me—was rather intelligent, but not the best of public speakers. He was a shortish, portly middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a casual, conversational way of speaking to us, the worshipers, if that’s what we were. “Think about Madison Ave…” he said, pausing awkwardly and looking around. “How many of you have been to New York city and been to the shops on Broadway and Madison Ave?” He stopped again and a few people raised their hands. Perhaps these interrogative pauses were calculated but they didn’t seem to carry much weight to me, I just wanted him to get to the point. “Now when I lived in New York, I used to walk down those blocks and look into the shop windows and see all the designer clothing and bags and things like that.” He paused yet again. Maybe he was just stretching it out he so he could fill the allotted time. I could imagine some powerful orator charging these lines with meaning, like Robert Duvall in The Apostle, but this guy was no Robert Duvall, and his delivery was rather humdrum. “And then you go down to Canal Street, and you see all the fakes: fake bags, fake watches, you name it, there’s a fake.” He looked around, as if what he had said was profound. “Now this goes back to to what we were talking about before. These things aren’t authentic, they’re cheap knock-offs. The same goes for name brand foods—if you buy the generic, you’re not getting the same quality…”
I had know idea where he was going with this, or what he’d talked about before we arrived.
“…and it is similar with God. We must worship him authentically—we must worship the authentic God.”
I wondered what constituted an inauthentic god, or inauthentic worship. He moved onto a new theme but I could no longer pay attention. I was too stuck on this bit about branding and advertising, which, if I’d understood it correctly, seemed highly problematic, sacrilegious even. Not that I actually disagreed with him, or thought he was wrong; it seemed
to me that branding and marketing did indeed create a kind of idolatry around consumer goods that was more similar than dissimilar to the way God figured in peoples’ lives. But it seemed obvious that this idolatry for goods was unequivocally artificial, and merely an illusory need created by the advertisers. So how was God any different?
Naturally, there was nothing the guy could have said that would have inspired any real faith in me, but this point in particular seemed to collapse under its own logical problems, and if I had been religious, it would be more likely to turn me away from worship rather than encourage it.
The sermon concluded. I considered our orator, who seemed totally harmless, oblivious that his words could be taken such as I had taken them. I imagined raising my hand and asking him difficult questions that would undermine his theme for the day, but to what end? Perhaps he was simply a dupe of the system, too immersed in consumer culture to be able to see it for what it was and why equating aspects of it to religion didn’t help his cause. But what did I know about his cause? And wasn’t that self-righteous of me?
At the end of it we all shook each others’ hands, saying “peace be with you.” I’d forgotten about that part. When the first person took my hand and looked in my eyes, I found it hard to maintain my cynicism. A young couple with a baby in tow approached, their faces beaming and bright. “Jane! How have you been?” the wife said. I was introduced.
“We’re glad to see you here. Glad you could join us,” the husband said to me as I shook his hand. The baby was looking at me. I returned its stare and it smiled.
“You have a great baby,” I said.
More people came and greeted Jane, and I met them all. I couldn’t keep their names straight. They were all friendly to me, their handshakes firm, their eyes sincere. Had I expected to be treated with skepticism? Perhaps, it wouldn’t have surprised me. But I was in their world, and they were welcoming me in.
“So what brings you here?” one young man said when we were back in the parking lot. I told him that I worked with Jane and that she’d invited me.
“Well, what did you think?” he said.
“It was—interesting,” I said. The young man’s wife—in that setting I assumed everyone was married—was by their car and so he said goodbye, shaking my hand once again. Classic Christian fellowship.
Jane and I got in her car, and once we had pulled out of the lot—she didn’t want anyone there to notice—we lit up cigarettes. We were headed to a house a short drive away where we would have lunch. “Wait ’till you see it, it’s beautiful,” Jane said. I mentioned to her my reading of the sermon. “Yeah, you’re right, that’s kinda weird isn’t it?” she said, as if it had just occurred to her that my interpretation was legitimate. And that made me wonder: had I just missed the point, and instead brought out all of my post-Marxist mumbo-jumbo?
But there wasn’t any time to get into it, because we’d arrived. Before us stood a large two-story house set far back in a field. There was a garage with a basketball hoop on the driveway. A few children were playing ball. “Before we go in, let me show you this,” Jane said. She lead me to a small wooded area to the right of the house, where there was a tiny stream with a foot bridge over it, a hammock, and a shed. A black lab was tied up to a pole and it was trying to get at a chicken that was fluttering around. “Isn’t this so serene?” she said.
It was. I could have lain in that hammock all day, doing nothing but contemplating the trees swaying with the slight breeze.
“You’re going to have to help out with lunch. Everybody pitches in,” Jane said as we headed back to the house. Inside there were more kids and pets running around. It was anyone’s guess who they belonged to. I asked Jane for a little bit of history about the family and she told me that its patriarch was a lawyer—I’d met him earlier apparently—and its matriarch didn’t work, rather she raised and home-schooled the children. The youngest was one of the kids running around playing—he was 13—and the oldest a newly minted doctor about to begin his residency. It was as if they were from another era, or I should say, a TV show from another era, like a more pastoral 7th Heaven.
In the kitchen I shucked corn and washed the dishes that had been made from preparing our dessert. Suddenly a pretty girl walked in and stood beside me to grab something from the cupboard. We recognized each other from the coffee shop instantly, I had only flirted with her a few days ago. “Hey there!” she said. “What are you doing here? It’s Dan right?” Kindness and warmth radiated from her big smile. Her teeth were impeccable, white and straight, not the slightest bit of disorder.
“Yes, that’s right. I’m here with Jane.” Of course I’d forgotten her name—I couldn’t keep track of the all girls I spoke to, and it was better that way, in truth; if there was a record of all my stupid flirtations I would be too embarrassed to even think about it. “And remind me of your name?” I said.
“It’s Claire, nice to see you again.”
I assumed that she had been at the service, and I hadn’t noticed her. It was surprising to see her there, if only because I always assumed my contemporaries were, like me, indifferent towards religion. But I was constantly being proven wrong, first by Jane and now by Claire. Anyone in that city was possibly religious, whether they seemed edgy or boring or wholesome or debauched. Guilty until proven innocent, if you will. As for Claire—without a doubt she was too wholesome for me.
“This is my fiancé Richard,” she said when a young man approached. That settled the matter. We shook each others’ hands and I excused myself from the kitchen. The 13 year-old had told me there were some kittens in the backyard and I wanted to go play with them.
It was time for lunch. Two long narrow tables were pressed together. Each place was set, and the food was out on the table—turkey, mashed potatoes, asparagus, etc. It was a good spread, classic family cooking if I’d ever seen it. There were 14 of us there, and with the mix of ages, the young couples and old couples and the children, I was reminded of big family gatherings when I was little. Yet there wasn’t that same undercurrent of petty resentment and familial dysfunction that, even as a young kid, I’d been aware of, even if it had been beyond my full comprehension.
Jane sat to my left and to my right a graying, middle-aged man. I asked him what he did for a living. He worked for some sort of Christian publishing house that put out YA literature espousing clean living and other so-called family values. I didn’t like the sound of that. Of everyone there he was the only one who struck me as phony, and even more than me—certainly the most godless of the bunch—he appeared uncomfortable and stiff, as if he’d come to church for work reasons and now he had to schmooze with the people, and he didn’t understand the people. To me he was just a businessman like any other, only he happened to be working for a corporation that considered itself religious. I could picture him donating money to the republican party and other likely-homophobic institutions.
It was time to say grace. How could I have forgotten. Try as I might, I couldn’t really pay any attention to what was said, and every word of it escapes me now. But these people weren’t all sober and solemn in their faith, and after grace everybody had to introduce him or herself, as well as answer some sort of ice-breaker question. I loved this type of thing, as I was always able to come up with something clever. It’s a shame I can’t remember what it was I said, but you better believe it was witty. The whole table let out a laugh or two and my remark was even brought up later, as a running joke for the afternoon.
“So what do you do?” Jane’s friend, the matriarch, said to me once we’d begun eating. In this world of uncertainty, this is no easy question to answer.
“I work at the coffee shop with Jane,” I said, keeping it simple.
“Surely you must do something else, a young man like you.”
“Well, I uh—I suppose I write,” I stammered, not because I lacked confidence, but because I knew what the next question would be.
“What do you write about?” said the woman next to her.
“Oh, you know, auto-biographical stuff, stuff about relationships, that kind of thing,” I said.
“Uh—of a sort. ” I said. Jane guffawed. She knew my material. “Actually,” I added, “I just kind of write about being a lonely guy.” The people around me laughed and smiled. That was surprisingly gratifying; I’d unintentionally won them over, which, it occurred to me, I was often doing. Why couldn’t I be charming when I meant to be? Maybe that was a question for God.
As we continued eating, the atmosphere remained convivial and light-heated; no one spoke about faith, God, or Jesus, and I was never put on the spot to discuss my spiritual alignment. I was in a state of disbelief—it hadn’t seemed possible to me that such a gathering was even possible, whether it was motivated by common religious beliefs or something else. Everybody was so nice, while not lacking in sense of humor. My perspective was too rotted and rusted with cynicism to buy it, and yet I was doing just that, I was eating it all up and even enjoying myself.
As I helped clean up in the kitchen, I wondered if perhaps I was simply not of the right stock to partake of life in the manner of this wholesome group. And did I want to, anyway? Was I too much of a masochist? Did I want to meet a girl, the one if you will, and if not get married, at least embark on a partnership and start a family? And—I pushed this line of inquiry further—even if I wanted to, how would I go about it? Where was the future Mrs. Hoffman? Unquestionably, I was an inconsequential philander, hardly marriage material, but was I actually choosing that, or rather was I just a spiritual beggar of sorts, wandering around and taking whatever scraps of tenderness and love I could find? And the bigger question was this: were these people happy and wholesome and satisfied because they wanted to be, or just because they were lucky, chosen as it were, by God or by their genetics? But there was no God to do any choosing, and I rejected the determinism of genetics—so then what was it? And what about Jane? She had once wanted a life such as this, had even been married in fact, but that was all behind her now. She was probably as spiritually adrift as I was. Why were we that way? Of course there were plenty of reasons why, all of them sound and logical. But I still had the impression that there was something I was missing.
And maybe I simply didn’t want any of that, not that I knew what I did want. My desires were fickle and confused. Whatever the appearance, it was impossible that there wasn’t a subterranean level to this family. I was like Nathan Zuckerman, skeptically reflecting on the Swede in Roth’s American Pastoral—there must have been private tragedies and disappointments that were simply well-concealed beneath the bright, shiny surfaces.
After we’d finished cleaning up I told Jane I was going to take a walk by myself around the property while she chatted with her friends. I returned to the small wooded area next to the house. The dog was there and it ran towards me, barking. I offered it my hand and it sniffed it briefly, then walked away, indifferent. It was a warm, summer day. I lay in the hammock and looked at the sunlight shining through the trees. It was June; soon I would be moving away from Nashville, onto the next stage of my life. Everything was confused, so I just did my best to empty my mind and feel the light breeze on my cheek and the swaying of the hammock. After a while my phone buzzed. It was Jane saying it was time to go.