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David Dark: Light from Dark
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David Dark is an American writer, the author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons and The Gospel According To America: A Meditation on a Godblessed, Christ-Haunted Idea which was included in Publishers’ Weekly’s top religious books of 2005. Following years of teaching high-school English, he is now a doctoral candidate at Vanderbilt University and is teaching in both a university and a prison setting. A resident of Nashville, he is married to singer/songwriter Sarah Masen. David is a firm believer in the value of questioning . . . especially one’s faith. Heretical? Listen in on this animated conversation with Gloria Gaither!

GLORIA: I loved your book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything.

DAVID: Oh, thank you.

GLORIA: I argued with you sometimes in the margins, which is great. I don’t give two cents for a book that doesn’t make me say, “Now wait a minute . . .” But in general I just so agree with the question you raise. I guess I just love the whole “learn to love the question and then maybe you’ll live yourself into the answers.”

DAVID: Then let’s get started!

GLORIA: This whole magazine issue is on doubt, and your book was the perfect one for it. It’s also my book club choice!

DAVID: Excellent. Well, thanks for doing that.

GLORIA: This is where I’d like to start: Why is questioning sacred?

DAVID: I think questioning is a pilgrimage. I think that a relationship without questions is not a relationship, and in our relationship to God, questioning is permissible; actually, I see it as a kind of biblical imperative. Not you can have faith and questions, but you have no faith without questions. Questioning, problemetizing, feeling skeptical, doubting is the action of faith. I think it was Elie Wiesel who said that we seek God primarily through questions, and if we mistake our relationship with a living God for a kind of fake optimism in answers that we don’t actually believe, or we are merely absorbing or reciting unsatisfying answers to questions that we ask once, and then pretend that we’re done and no longer in a place of struggle or crisis, then I think we’re confusing the attempt to be kind of a good advertisement for God as opposed to being a seeker of God. So seeking, questioning, redemptive skepticism—I think that’s all part of testing spirits, part of being a good worshipper, being a person who tries to be a witness to Christian faithfulness — as opposed to being a bearer of right information.

GLORIA: In the scriptural history for this, there are always false gods or people who would love to be God for us.

DAVID: Yes. I think of Meister Eckhart’s prayer — “God, rid me of God.” That’s a very scandalous prayer if we believe that our wholeness or our health or our salvation depend on holding to a particular concept of God. But if we believe that God exists outside of and in spite of our concepts of God, that’s a very appropriate prayer to keep journeying forward, rather than settling for a bad picture or a bad vision of God. I think that is the work of resisting false gods — moving beyond them and not settling for our present understanding of God as somehow definitive or complete in an idolatrous way.

GLORIA: In a world of relativism and designer religions, what measuring stick does one use to find the answers to our questions — based on what?

DAVID: I think the biblical witness gives us a God who sanctifies the neighbor, and sanctifies creation, and has a kind of always sanctifying imagination for the world—the deeply redemptive imagination. And I think that our measuring stick, rod, standard, needs to be the question of neighbor love, justice, genuinely redeeming cultivation; then the false gods in that sense are the gods who fail to call us to that sort of lived faith practice—those that make the needs of other people on the lowest part of the hierarchy. Seeking the true God is recognizing that culture is non-optional: that this faith is inescapably social horizontal. Rather than a kind of vertical faith, it’s always you and me in the garden alone . . . looking for something more horizontal. And going back to the I John business, that any claim we make concerning love of God has to be hashed out somehow in love of other people.

GLORIA: In the living-out part, don’t you think that the test that we were given in scripture about how to assess both how the Holy Spirit is working in us and if other spirits are valid is also our test to use to see if the God that is being represented to us is the real God, in that He will have all of these qualities — love, joy, peace, tenderness, kindness, forgiveness, long-suffering — those fruits of the spirit work both ways, do they not?

DAVID: Yes, I believe they do. And I think all of those fruits—again, inescapably social —always connected to our relationships to other people, and I think to the Jesus in the temple at the beginning of Luke, saying “I’ve come to declare good news for the poor,” and that all of those fruits are known, again, horizontally. And those relationships are always the verification of an always incarnate faith, rather than a kind of disembodied faith that could be reduced to a one-on-one thing. I think of the Lord’s Prayer which (I tried to remind students of sometimes) is always “Our Father,” rather than “My Father who art in heaven.”

GLORIA: In this regard, do you feel any caution lights going on in our current pop definition of worship? “Praise and worship” music is always vertical. Where is the “living out” part?

DAVID: Yes, I am very troubled by the market category of worship, especially of worship music, especially to the extent that it’s always, always vertical. My singer/songwriter wife, who performs under the name Sarah Masen, was told by folks within her label that the more horizontal view, the more social view of worship music was admittedly more biblical, but it was categorized to be sold as worship music, which was always associated with the more vertical thing. Joy MacKenzie [Homecoming’s editor at large] and I used to talk about a worship chapel at our high school which often seemed more like a “get away from it all” moment than a time in which to become reinvigorated in living out love of God through love of others, through study, through art, through expression. And Joy used to say that they might as well be smoking pot during that hour if it didn’t somehow impact their relationships with one another, teachers and other students. That form of worship often seems like more hallucinogen than a space in which to commit our lives anew to God’s good purposes and to creatively figure out what that’s going to look like.

GLORIA: If our worship doesn’t result in actions in our relationships and also I think self — (well I guess the old-fashioned word is conviction) I don’t think you get in the presence of God without saying, “Oh my, I’ve got to change some things here.”

DAVID: Yes, that’s right.

GLORIA: I think conviction is almost missing, and it’s like we are defining this tiny little God that just approves of everything and He wants to give us this euphoric experience, rather than saying, “What does this demand of me? How have I fallen short, and how can I live this out with better reality?”

DAVID: That’s right. It needs to be a revisioning of our day-to-day experience each time, a renewed conviction. When you say conviction, I think ‘cut to the quick’, that somehow our imaginations are stopped short, and we’re drawn into confession of sin, for one thing, where we’re able to recognize our own dysfunction in view of our renewed commitment to imagining the world, the kingdom that God is bringing.

GLORIA: How do we apply the gospel—this news that God indeed loves us and He is not going to be satisfied until we are indeed perfect here or there, as His work is in us. How do we apply the gospel, the words of Jesus, the cardinal tenets of our faith, and the model of the early church, to the blogging, Twittering, iPhone, Internet world we live in?

DAVID: Well, I think of Jacques Ellul, who said that a computer is not a companion, it’s a vampire — I think there’s some real truth to that. I don’t think that’s all that can be said about computers, Facebook, Twitter, that kind of thing. I think always, my mantra that I’ve employed lately ( and I think I’ll probably write a book with this title at some point) is the phrase, “Insert soul here.” In that whenever we’re looking at a screen or using these electronic communicative appliances, that we maybe at least visually have a sticker or a label on the bottom that says “Insert soul here” to remind us that worship isn’t something that we do primarily in chapels or church buildings, but worship is what we’re doing with our lives all the time, and that we are possibly, in our relationship to these media platforms, entering into a kind of psycho-covenant of false intimacy where we often will ignore the more difficult relationships with other bodies and with other people, so as to get the quick fix of a more immediately social intimate feeling of communication with someone far away — or someone who doesn’t know us as well as the people we’re living with. So I think always, always questioning and always asking ourselves the question of what faithfulness will look like and how we can deploy and employ these tools redemptively is necessary — never letting ourselves think that the quickness of it or the technological magic feeling of it is somehow an end in itself.

GLORIA: I remember somebody saying when I was growing up, “The person you are is the person you are when the elevator door closes.”

DAVID: Yeah, I believe that.

GLORIA: These days, I think employers and great universities are coming to this conclusion: after they have read all the grade point averages, all the work-service recommendations, all the recommendations of friends and professors and teachers, they say, “OK, now give me your password to Facebook,” because maybe it’s not the elevator anymore, maybe we really are who shows up on Facebook.

DAVID: No doubt.

GLORIA: And even that is false, so if we’re lying on Facebook, does that really make us a liar? In the most intimate sense, that has ever been true.

DAVID: Words like covenant and faithfulness and worship — if we let it be applied across the board, rather than that we have an idea of a worship service — it is what we’re doing all the time. One line that I was really happy with in the Sacredness book is the idea of “Show me a transcript of everything you’ve texted, e-mailed, and said or spoken all day, along with copies of your receipts, and I’ll show you your religion.”

GLORIA: That’s your worship, isn’t it?

DAVID: Yeah, and the idea that any of us are more or less religious than the other—when we apply the topic of worship that broadly— doesn’t really stand any longer.

GLORIA: You present a whole section on interpretation, for that is what we’re always doing when we try to let the Bible speak to our daily choices and actions. We have to say, “OK, what does this mean to me now in this context?” What part does listening play in valid interpretation?”

DAVID: Listening is, I think (and we keep returning to language) a kind of paying heed. C.S. Lewis talks about many people, lots of people throughout history using scripture, but very few receiving it. In my Presbyterian tradition, whenever the Bible was read aloud, the person doing the lectionary reading said, “Listen now for the Word of God”—as in the Word of God is more alive than the hundreds of years of interpretation that have preceded this moment and the Word of God is always, is sort of ever ancient and ever new. What are we going to let it mean now, because the livingness of the Word will depend on our receptivity as we listen. And it is a bit of a struggle for those of us who were brought up on the Bible to . . .

GLORIA: . . . to hear past the words . . . So then, are you saying if we are really listening for the Word, it will make us listen to other people, and not have all the answers to tell them instead? Let me ask this a little differently, but just for focus — Why should we be suspicious then of people who have no questions, only have answers, and who want to do all the thinking for us?

DAVID: Because as people, we know ourselves to be finite. We know ourselves to be on a pilgrimage. I would say it’s a blessed finiteness. It is also the gospel, also good news that our perspective on the Bible and the state of the world is relative to where we’re standing, relative to our community, to our culture, that kind of thing; because it means we get to enter into this seeking of God’s whole kingdom, which will always be a work of learning, worship, receiving the beauty and the insight of other people and believing ourselves to have an infallible direct line to the Word of God doesn’t make for good community.

GLORIA: If I read the Bible correctly, that applies probably mostly instead of less to those who call themselves leaders — any of us — you included and me included. It seems that all the words of Jesus say you should quake in your boots more because you are not infallible and people are following you.

DAVID: Yes, and a word, a phrase, a popular phrase like servant leadership doesn’t quite get to it. I so just do not like the word leader; I think it often shuts down other people in the conversation.

GLORIA: You mention throughout your discussion the role of music, poetry, art, literature in bringing unchangeable truth to a changing culture. Why is art often more effective than say arguments or monologues— which I guess would include even sermons? I’d like to think people listen to sermons, but having given a few, I don’t think they listen to them nearly as much as song lyrics.

DAVID: Perhaps that is because we are more taken with story, and a song often tells a story. When someone says, “Let me tell you a story . . .” we prepare to listen in an unarmed way; we open ourselves to it, and we look forward to getting lost in it . . . and finding ourselves anew in the story, which is different than argument. I think these — the good art, the good poem, the good song — sort of cry reality, bear faithful witness to reality, sometimes even in a surrealistic way so that it convinces us; we find it undeniable, we find that it kind of pricks our explanatory bubbles. It’s explanation and argument give us something that smells of actual life and human experience. And our receiving of a Radiohead album or a Dostoevsky novel all comes back to us on how we are going to receive this — Will we believe these things? I think of author Dorothy Day remarking, when asked how she wanted to be remembered, that she wanted it to be as someone who read Dostoevsky well, which means so much more than “I want to be remembered as an activist or a saint” . . . or something like that.

GLORIA: It means, “I got it!” I think, too, when we hear argument, we mentally have our dukes up to get a counter-argument, whereas, of course, Jesus is the greatest model, because whenever any cynics pushed him in the corner with some ecclesiastical argument, he always backed up two steps and said, “Let me tell you a story,” exactly like you said, because therein lies a bigger truth than in any one of our arguments.

DAVID: That’s it! And the argument subjugates in a way, or at least threatens to, and I think of the saying that poetry (and I believe this can be said of song) . . . poetry emancipates rather than subordinates the listener.

GLORIA: Oh, I love that. I have to remember that!

DAVID: Yes, it sets you free rather than putting you in your place.

GLORIA: I love your ending quote, and I’ll let you respond to this, because I’d like to know how this has been true for you: “There are better ways of being in the world that await us by way of the questions we have yet to ask. It is by question that we are born again and again.”

DAVID: Oh, thanks—it is such a joy to hear those words repeated to me, by you. I would maybe go back to this emptying out to surrendering. If God is saving us . . . if God is our sustenance . . . we aren’t saved or made sane by our own attempt to coherence, our own attempt at making sense of things, but by pouring ourselves out as a living sacrifice to be filled up again. And that’s the very thing that Paul tells us about dying everyday. But I tried to cast it in terms of persisting in our questions rather than suppressing them, as if God is made insecure by the questions we have—to which we really can’t even imagine an answer. And I really wanted to stress that the Bible, in addition to giving us answers, gives us new questions that are so good that they haven’t been answered yet: How long will the wicked prosper? How long? . . . And in revelation, but that this is a way we move forward.

GLORIA: That’s certainly been true for me. Without the doubting, I would never have been a believer.

DAVID: Yeah, no belief without doubt.

GLORIA: Thank you so much, David. It’s been a delight.