Thursday, March 3, 2011

Go Tell It on the Mountain

In the spirit of penance, Owl just finished James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. Owl is inordinately fond of Baldwin’s Another Country which is a sprawling pulsing joy of a book studded with glittering passages on art, love, identity, race, and sexuality. Charisma radiates off of the pages. Radiates!

Owl imagined Go Tell It on the Mountain would be even better because it’s so famous. It was not so.

Go Tell It on the Mountain is ostensibly about John Grimes’s spiritual awakening on his fourteenth birthday. Baldwin takes a few rambling detours through time and space to delve into the Grimes family’s checkered past which spans across post-Civil War emancipation in the rural South to Harlem in the 1930s. Go Tell It on the Mountain is John’s story and it’s also an examination of religion and the black migration. While Baldwin rejected his Christian roots at age seventeen, Go Tell It on the Mountain is evidence of how far those roots go. It is filled with Biblical allusions, visions from the Holy Spirit and religious ecstasy.

Therein lay the problem.

Owl could not relate. Owl could not even understand. 

Owl was brought up by a cultural Hindu and a Buddhist who believed in karma but not so much in dharma. The result is on her good days Owl is an agnostic. On her bad days she’s an atheist. On her really bad days she gets down on her knees and prays. To something. She’s not sure what. It varies depending on the particular type of really bad day. This is not so much religious belief as desperation. 

Religion is a balancing act for Owl
In college Owl followed a friend to church out of curiosity. She was expecting an analytical sermon on a Bible text that would inspire her to behave. Instead people sang. Some people danced. Almost everyone cried. A few people asked Owl for money. Owl huddled in a corner clutching her wallet and did not know where to look. Everywhere there were people swaying to bad guitar music, their arms lifted to the sky, their cheeks wet with tears.

Still, Owl could not help staring.

She had never seen so much emotion packed in one room.

She’d never felt so utterly apart from so many people.

It was overwhelming.

Since then, Owl has always wondered, what separates the people who believe in God from the people who don’t? When people say God spoke to them, what are they actually hearing? God? Some reflection of themselves? Both? Can a person choose to believe in God, the way you may choose to leap off of a cliff, or is belief something that comes upon you, as naturally and unaffectedly as opening your eyes after you have been asleep?

Or, rather more frightening, does God only decide to speak to some people and not others?

Owl has rather envied and admired people who are religious, and at some level completely failed to understand them because she has no such belief herself. She feels as if they have some super power that she lacks, an ability to see more, hear more, perhaps feel more. She respects religion, she finds it a little miraculous that somehow across centuries and continents people independently managed to come up with God, or gods, or call it any name you like, but the same concept of belief in a higher power.

At most, Owl can see that the world is large and uncertain, therefore frightening. Children look to their parents for protection against the world. But who do parents look to? The idea that there is a higher being with more love than a parent, and more power than a parent is comforting. Necessary even.

Owl can understand that much, but that’s about as far as it goes—a logical argument that has nothing to do with crying from joy or hearing a voice speak inside of you.

What Owl wanted from Baldwin was some understanding of what it feels like to believe in God, especially since Baldwin was someone who was profoundly religious and later rejected this. Instead, she found Go Tell It on the Mountain impenetrable.

Part of this was because there are a myriad of Biblical allusions and Owl does not know her Bible. Word on the street is Baldwin pulls off some really spectacular pyrotechnics with regard to the Biblical allusions, but Owl is not convinced these pyrotechnics were worth it. What is the point of a book on a culture, if it is utterly un-understandable to people who were not brought up in the self-same culture?

Another part of this is because the characters are so steeped in religion they don’t seem to exist outside of it. It is hard to imagine who they are outside of prayer, outside of the church. Because Owl can not relate to them outside of church, she can not follow the characters back inside the church. From the get-go they are in church and she is barred from them.

Owl believes that reading someone else’s words is the easiest way to understand their point of view. Look at someone and you see another face. Read their writing and their voice enters your head, becomes your own.

Yet, despite his dazzling prose, despite his enormous gift as a writer, Baldwin shut the church door on Owl’s face, and she can’t tell if this is the way the book was written, or this is the sad truth of religion. Either you believe or you don’t. If you do, you understand. If you don’t, you will not understand, and there is nothing anyone can do or say to make you understand.

Owl will not lie. As soon as she finished Go Tell It on the Mountain she read the Spark Notes version.

It did not help.


  1. Your experience with Go Tell It on the Mountain reminds me of my experience with Black Elk Speaks. I wanted to read about what it was like to have an intense belief (in the Ghost Dance) and then to have your experience prove it wrong--what happens then? How do you regroup and go on? (I mean, I know it's different for different people, but I wanted to hear what it was like for Black Elk.)

    But the beginning of the book was all about his visions, which were full of native symbolism, but which--well, it's like other people's dreams. They're hard to get into. And symbolism that isn't personally resonant... isn't personally resonant. And I realized, I didn't want hagiography, I wanted insight into dealing with the destruction of your belief system and what you create in its place--if anything.

  2. The owl thing is cute. ^^

    Now following!

  3. "What is the point of a book on a culture, if it is utterly un-understandable to people who were not brought up in the self-same culture?"

    What, you mean to say there are NON-CHRISTIAN HEATHENS IN AMURRICA?

    At one point (I mighta mentioned this before), John from the MDSPCA and I were talking about how we reached our atheist ways, and he - having achieved it by hard work and much anguish - was absolutely hornswoggled at the idea that my parents simply *raised* me areligious.

  4. @Gilrandir
    It took me forever to figure out that America is actually quite religious. By forever, I mean like...I read an Economist article about how A'm'ca is the most religious developed country.

    Something that continues to fascinate me is that the majority of people in the world are religious. 16% are non-religious. How is it that so many people hit upon the same concept but got at it in such different ways?

  5. Re: taking a while to Get It> Reminds me of this -

    Even now, I'm surprised by occasional revelations of my classmates being religious (Christian, obviously). Polite people refrain from speaking about such things - in fact, polite acquaintance-strangers generally try not to touch upon religion, politics, or sex, the three big landmines of conversational topics.

    Re: same concept> Same concept of "must have religion", you mean? Well, I subscribe to the "God/religious-ecstasy center in the brain" theory, with a modulating dose of "basic need to construct narratives/explanations and personify/anthropomorphize".

  6. @Gilrandir
    I like the sensibility of that post.

    It's strange because people do avoid talking about religion, but it's also such a big part of their lives that you can become friends with someone and yet never really know them at all because religion isn't talked about/can't be talked about.

    God/religious-ecstasy center in the brain? There's a part of our brain that needs to believe in God?

  7. Please re-read Anna Karenina. Levin's struggle is mesmerizing. Although I know you have read it before, I find that each time I re-read it, I find something new in it, some new complexity--perhaps you will find the experience the same? Anyway, if you want high-quality writing coupled with questions of spirituality, you can't beat Tolstoy's Levin.

    If you want a different spin on the same spiritual questions, then I can recommend some Dostoevsky. But, based on your past experiences with him, I think you'll enjoy re-reading Anna Karenina more. And, we can talk about it (More exciting for me than you, perhaps, as I've lost my Russian Lit. outlet).

  8. @blindinsight

    Will do! I keep meaning to and then arghleblarghle. But yes, it's long overdue for a reread. What was the translation you recommended again?

    Do recommend the Dostoevsky--which volumes in particular? Are we talking the Bros K? And yes, yes, we should have some good old fashioned rippin' apart books time. I need a good read. I'm struggling through Emerson right now and he's not doing it for me.

  9. Hello, Owl. I came across your blog on BookBlogs and thought I would stop by and visit. I love what you have going, so now I'm following!

    Please feel free to stop by mine as well.


  10. Still here, promise. Just struggling to squeeze words out. Reading is so much easier...