This year at the AWP convention we ran into a friend from grad school we call Chet. Chet is not Chet's real name; it's a name we gave him, in an effort to remake him into someone more southern -- kind of like how [an apparently hyper-sensitive spaz named (9/20)] Andrew Haschemeyer [who I don't know at all but spent years at UArk hearing about -- which is what this account is based on (9/20)] went to the U of Arkansas MFA program and Otis Haschemeyer [a name now well published and widely known, making him a public personage who anyone can talk about, really, whether he likes it or not (9/20)] graduated from it ...and went on to a Stegner Fellowship, and a publishing and teaching career, still (and forever) Otis. Arkansas does that to people. You walk in a William and you mosey out a Maynard. Miraculous place that Arkansas.
Anyway, we ran into our old friend Chet, and he encouraged us to submit to his new lit mag, Relief. Actually, it's not completely his, he's just part of the editorial board, but at any rate, Brian and I both kind of shook our heads: see, we're familiar with this project; he's mentioned it before. Relief is a Christian magazine. And what could Brian and I possibly have to offer a Christian magazine that would not make them all fall to their knees and start praying for an electrical storm to form right over our heads? But Chet, and his lovely wife Heather, who is also an editor for the magazine, convinced us to at least submit. They told us that they were not that kind of Christian magazine. That they were a Christian magazine that was interested in doubt and blasphemy and loss of faith. I looked them square in the eyes and said, but are you interested in publishing atheists? Absolutely, they both agreed.
So I sent I story that I love very much, but which I'd long ago despaired of having published. The story is called "On Earth," and it's about losing paradise. It's barely fiction -- as a child I was a Jehovah's Witness, and when my family left the church, it changed who I could be friends with. That's what the story is about. It's about being cast out into the world without really being sure why you've been rejected. And it's about the people who do the casting out: how they ought to know better. How especially those who have been persecuted themselves (my story features a very unforgiving Holocaust survivor) really ought to know better by now.
I love the story, and to me it is an important story. It was my way of digging my fingers into the soft clay of humanity and getting a grip on these things. But I know from the experience of workshopping it that non-religious people are put off by the religious content. At the same time, it is hardly a story of "God's love and redemption." It was only Chet and Heather's answer to that question -- but are you interested in publishing atheists? -- that convinced me I should send "On Earth."
I was really happy to get the word from them last week that they were going to publish my story. This makes three print publication acceptances in the past three weeks, after a year of only seeing my work published online, and it's only made happier by the fact that the story is so personal, and so near to my heart.
But I will admit, when I received a letter from Relief's editor (neither Heather nor Chet) saying, "I very much enjoyed the Garden of Eden motifs in 'On Earth.' The imagery is subtle but accessible and is just the sort of thing I would like to see a lot more of in Christian writing," I was flattered, but felt like the worst sort of hypocrite. Should the phrase "Christian writing" be tainted by my inclusion? Should I reject the term applied to my work? Questions of faith are central to the work I do, but is it "Christian writing"? It made me a little uncomfortable.
Still, few people reach a point in their lives when they refer to themselves as atheist without having first lived the tumult and torture of wonder and want, belief and doubt, thoughtfulness and superstition. As a child I once got into a streetfight about the souls of morning doves. I once started my own religion and organized an attack (and stoning) of a neighborhood "blasphemer." I have sought out understanding and transcendent experience my whole life, sometimes by logic and learning, sometimes by taking chances I'm lucky to have survived. I know that life vibrates with an unseen spirit that we do not understand. But the Bible was written by men, and God is a convenient fantasy.
I have to applaud Chet and Heather and the other people working on Relief. They are not like me: they are believers, and their belief is not something simple they keep in their pockets and pull out on Sundays -- it's essential to their lives. And while I do not believe in that, I respect that. But even more, I respect the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual openness with with they are running their magazine. I think it is very easy to fall into a closed system, dig the echoes in the chamber, and snuggle up in the warmth of that smugness. There are a lot of Christians in this world who give Christians a bad name -- who are making "Christian" the "new C word." But Chet and Heather and the people of Relief are not among them.
I hope you'll all consider checking out the work they do, here.