My (Unusual) Lenten Reading

During Lent I have been reading a book about hate. Well, truthfully, it’s not my Lenten reading, but my selection for our next book discussion group.

And since we meet April 8, the day after the Final Four college basketball national championship game, it’s fitting that it’s about the long-time rivalry between North Carolina and Duke. The author, Will Blythe, is a Tar Heel fan as I am. And equally a foe of Duke.

To say he is obsessive is way too charitable. But he does admit this in his sub-title: A Thoroughly Obsessive, Intermittently Uplifting, and Occasionally Unbiased Account of the Duke-North Carolina Basketball Rivalry.

But this is more than a sports book. It is funny and literate, an exploration of culture and human nature, and the search to understand our obsessions, our loves and hates. Blythe goes one day to discuss his obsession with a Presbyterian minister he likes. On the way he muses about basketball as “the common religion that binds us together” and how in church as a boy he had to fight to stay awake and listen to platitudes.

I had been drowsy all those years because church was boring. The Presbyterian theologians of the twentieth century somehow reduced God from a voice out of the whirlwind to a gentle breeze whispering through the parking lot, from an awesome mystery into a civics lesson, from the power and the glory to the friendly and concerned. That’s if He was around at all. So that attendance at University Presbyterian church struck me as largely an exercise in being good, in should and shouldn’t. You rarely encountered joy or terror. You were rarely if ever possessed with the spirit. Larger spiritual hungers went unaddressed. Now there are good things to be said for such moderation in the face of divinity (the wilds of spirit life teem with their own dangers), but I am speaking of the bad. This was religion as a Rotary Club meting. This was religion as ethical culture. This was religion as a dead magnet with no power to attract, offering comfort and duty and nostalgia in place of the shock and disorientation of genuine spiritual feeling.

Or so it seemed to my demanding and bewildered heart. Admittedly, I was an extremist. I wanted burning bushes, voices from that whirlwind, visions of ladders to heaven, wrestling matches with angels. I wanted to know God’s true name. As a13-year old in the grips of religious despair, I even went so far as to ask Jesus if he wouldn’t mind appearing on my bedroom wall right next to the picture of Che Guevara. (From Will Blythe. To Hate Like This is to be Happy Forever. 285-6)

I read this and am chastened. This is Lenten reading indeed. It makes me wince in repentance. How could we ever make The Story about Jesus on the way to the cross, about the cosmic contest between sin and salvation, so tame? How could an (admittedly) classic sports rivalry command more passion than Good Friday and Easter? How could we commit the sin of making Jesus boring? And how may God strike terror and joy into the heart of Will Blythe? I can only imagine how he would write if he fell in love with the God who loves him so passionately! I hope that happens before the final buzzer.

Leighton Ford

March 2008.

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