THE NEW YORKER, June 15, 2015
The passage that recurs in my life is that of Jacob wrestling the angel. For many artists, it is a metaphor for the struggle to subdue one’s talent so that it collaborates with one’s ambitions to create.
I cannot separate the Bible from my father. In the middle of his life, he became a Christian Scientist, I don’t know exactly why. The questions one might ask of the dead pile up, and it is only one question I might ask him. He worked in an office on a high floor of a building in New York City, and from things he said later I pieced together the impression that he had begun to feel deeply anxious when he had to pass an open window. In addition, he had painful headaches.
Our family might have been better off if he had taken a more worldly approach, if he had occupied a couch in an analyst’s office, say, but maybe not. Some people can’t take self-examination and collapse instead of getting better. Or shed their old lives for new ones, the way some people survive car wrecks that kill everyone else. More than the Catholics or the Episcopalians (there were no Baptists in our town that I was aware of, and Judaism was far too mysterious and challenging an engagement for my father), the Christian Scientists promised wonder-working in response to hardship and suffering, or at least that was my understanding as a child. They had very few metaphors. No one talked about streets paved with gold or mansions waiting in heaven. They insisted on the need for unshakable faith and the recognition that a person was constantly being tested. The version of God I remember from my father’s Sunday-school class was a mixture of Old and New Testament forms—part crazy man out of control, a psychopath, as Harold Bloom has written, and part reformed divinity. The Christian Science Church also flattered the vanity of the practitioner by giving him or her the sense of having taken up a modern form of worship, one without Latin or candles or men in robes who claimed obscure knowledge and swung pots of smoke. Its appeal was similar to the appeal of Zen for a more refined crowd, the sense that you saw through the pretensions and knew that God didn’t stand behind chants and funny hats, he stood behind faith. Christian Science riddles were not about trees falling in the woods when no one was around but about how, after being prayed for, someone had risen from his or her deathbed and returned to life. My only intersection with Christian Science as an adult was receiving from a friend a copy of “Science and Health” given to her by J. D. Salinger, who had written notes in the margins concerning the pages he thought applied to her circumstances. Letters from Salinger with religious advice are so common, I learned, that collectors shun them.
The Christian Science church occupied a Victorian house on a street of other old houses in a neighborhood that had once been prosperous. The service took place in what I think would have been called the parlor, which had a bay window. There were no pews; the practitioners sat on folding chairs, as if for a meeting someone had called to deal with an emergency. The service had no splendor, no sense of long-lived ceremony or comfort. You were made to feel, in a plainspoken way, that, if you fell short of the necessary faith, you would pay for it with your well-being. You would get sick or become crippled from polio, and God would turn his back on you… [+]