Bryan John Appleby’s debut LP, Fire on the Vine, opens with “Noah’s Nameless Wife,” a deeply disturbing personal portrait of Noah’s Flood. If you haven’t listened to it before, go ahead and do that. I’ll wait.
Imagine the tumult of countless men, women, and children crying, moaning, and groaning into the air above the rising waters. Have you ever considered this? I’m not talking about loss of life. I am talking about the loss of lives—the actual creatures and humans that were cut off in those moments and days.
If you had been on the Ark (and in some way, you were if you are alive today) would not the cries of the dying earth ring in your ears for the rest of your life? When your “feet hit the [dry] ground,” would you not have a deep comprehension of the precious fragility of your life and the fearful cost of divine satisfaction? Even in the presence of the rainbow, would not the still ringing cries of the countless dead be a seed for doubt in your heart?
Bryan John Appleby was raised in the church, but visions like this one waylaid him in the city of doubt. He remains there to this day as far as I can tell. You can add to his number countless other artists (e.g., David Bazan) and sensitive souls who could not reconcile the concreteness of their doubts with the vagaries of their faith.
And to combat the apparent attrition of our youth, the church has attempted to construct a bypass around the city of doubt. You can see it even concerning Noah’s Flood. We paint emotionally neutralized, even cute, murals of it on the walls of our nurseries. We publish caricatures of the big brown boat and its crowded throng of Precious Moments animals—with at least one smiling giraffe, his perpetual neck poking out a wooden skylight.
We avoid the terror. We don’t want to picture the sky crumpling into the exploding earth with the pitch-black seed box of the Ark suspended between destructions in the waves as dark and hot as blood. We don’t want to imagine the subwoofer grumbling of the earth below the waters or the unrestrained thundering of the sea, the confusion of having no reference point that isn’t being uprooted and tumbled, the lightning flashes in the darkness that illuminate the bloodshot whites of the at once wide-open eyes of every spirit-enlivened creature brought together into the most primal and desperate community screaming out for and expending just one more breath.
That mural would never get approved for your church’s nursery, let me tell you.
But by straining to avoid—rather than confront—concrete doubt, the church has cut off one of the only paths to truly grounded hope. I firmly believe that an authentic hope cannot bypass doubt, but must pass through it. It may never really get entirely beyond it, actually. Sometimes doubt sticks with us like the hitch in Jacob’s hip—a constant reminder of our need. A hope that is not willing to harbor and process the harsher existential realities is simply not a real hope—it is at least not a mature or believable hope.
And it’s no wonder so many people leave the church when they start to internalize the doubt-inducing realities that any honest inquiry into the human condition will yield. We can’t combat this by offering sugar-spoon-fed answers and a shoulder-shrugging disposal of thorny questions. When we remain ignorant of all the challenges—intellectual, emotional, philosophical, personal—to our faith, we leave faith like a rootless plant tender in the morning just waiting to be burned out at high noon.
Francis Bacon famously said, “A little knowledge of science makes man an atheist, but an in-depth study of science makes him a believer in God.” I would remove “of science” from that. It’s true of any field of inquiry. It stands to reason then, that most Christians would be atheists if they knew only just a little more. But knowing only a little more is not at all what God wants for us.
If your knowledge of divine satisfaction and the consequences of sin ends at the Flood, I can see how you would end up thinking God is a monster. I don’t even blame you. In fact, your atheism might be out of charity: it’s more charitable to not believe in God at all than to think him vicious and cruel. This is like cosmic Pride and Prejudice, but you didn’t get to the part where cosmic Darcy is revealed as a hero rather than a jerk. You closed the book too soon. Or maybe you fell asleep. In Ezra Stiles’s words, you succumbed to the “weariness of half-discussed unfinished inquiries.”
But I must be honest: I believe it is better to have cracked the book if only for a few pages than to continue to allow the eyes of your faith to stay closed to the details of what you say you believe. The end of God’s story has not been written yet, but that doesn’t excuse us from looking into what’s already there. This isn’t a show that you should wait to binge-watch after the finale. This is one to pay attention to as it develops. The solution to this dilemma of doubt is not to stubbornly hold on to ignorance. It is to dedicate ourselves, no matter how troubling it is, to look at these things: to trust the Author and to read all the way to the end.
Because it’s not just about you. It’s about the doubters stuck in the pub at Doubt City, talking to each other about why they lost faith in the Author and stopped watching the series or closed the book. They’re reassuring themselves that they’re not missing anything. And you come in, and maybe you listen for a while, and you say, “Yeah I felt the same way about that episode, too.” Because you really know what they’re talking about. Their hang-ups are not unjustified. This story is brutal at many points, but it’s also not over yet. So we should be able to continue: “But I’m telling you, I’m watching the newest season, and I can understand a little better why the Author needed to do that in season 2. He’s really turning the whole thing around. I can see it now. You should give it another chance.”
That was part two of a discussion of the sublime and infinite. Part one is here: Training Wheels for the Infinite. I promise I’m going somewhere with all of this. Stay tuned for part three.