Monday, August 1, 2011

Walker Percy on Presbyterians and Pentecostals

The Pilgrim Looks at Presbyterians and Pentecostals

Several years ago, I decided I would read all the novels of Walker Percy and his boyhood friend, Shelby Foote. I completed the last Percy novel, The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), on July 15, 2006, (for some reason I write the date of completion on the last page of books I read).  
Recently I read Pilgrim in the Ruins: A Life of Walker Percy which brought to mind an excerpt from Percy which D.G. Hart posted on The Old Life Theological Society ( The title of the last novel is, as biographer, Jay Tolson explains, Percy’s attempt to put a name on “the complex of cultural attitudes” he discerned in “the phenomenon of legally sanctioned life-taking related to a larger cultural malaise.” (“Legally sanctioned life-taking” is abortion.)

I do not know for sure why I am so attracted to and fascinated by Walker Percy, but I am. One reason I know is that I find him a fellow pilgrim. He seemed sometimes, to borrow a line from Kris Kristofferson, to be “taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.” But, while he wrestled with faith, he never quit believing and following such light as he had. 

He is one Roman Catholic I very much hope is in heaven. Percy was not born a Roman Catholic. He was born into a liberal Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. (See echoes of that below.) He came to reject God altogether and to embrace science and empiricism. It was only after he married and moved to Covington, Louisiana, that he took instruction and entered the Catholic Church. He was a mystery to his friend, Shelby Foote, who had no faith at all. 

During his terminal illness Percy said, “I’ll tell you what I’ve discovered is that dying, if it comes to that, is no big thing, since I am ready, prepared for it by the Catholic faith which I believe. What is a pain is not even the pain but the nuisance. It is a tremendous bother (and expense) to everyone. Worst of all is the indignity.” One night not long before his death he said, “Don’t ask the Lord to keep me here. Ask him to have mercy.”

The main character, Tom More, writing about his Protestant wife:

Later Ellen experienced a religious conversion. She became disaffected when the Southern and Northern Presbyterians, estranged since the Civil War, reunited after over a hundred years. It was not the reunion she objected to but the liberal theology of the Northern Presbyterians, how, according to her, were more interested in African revolutionaries than the divinity of Christ. She and others pulled out and formed the Independent Northlake Presbyterian Church.

Then she became an Episcopalian.

Then suddenly she joined a Pentecostal sect. She tells me straight out that she has had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ, that where once she was lost and confused, seduced by Satan and the false pleasures of this world, she has now found true happiness with her Lord and Saviour. She has also been baptized in the Holy Spirit. She speaks in tongues. 

I do not know what to make of this. I do not know that she has not found Jesus Christ and been born again. Therefore I accept that she believes she has and may in fact have been. I settle for her being back with us and apparently happy and otherwise her old tart, lusty self. She is as lusty a Pentecostal as she was a Southern Presbyterian. She likes as much as ever cooking a hearty breakfast, packing the kids off to school, and making morning love on our Sears Best bed, as we used to.

She loves the Holy Spirit, says little about Jesus.

She is herself a little holy spirit hooked up to a lusty body. In her case spirit has nothing to do with body. Each goes its own way. Even when she was a Presbyterian and I was a Catholic, I remember that she was horrified by the Eucharist: Eating the body of Christ. That’s pagan and barbaric, she said. What she meant and what horrified her was the mixing up of body and spirit, Catholic trafficking in bread, wine, oil, salt, water, body, blood, spit - things. What does the Holy Spirit need with things? Body does body things. Spirit does spirit things.

She’s happy, so I’ll settle for it. But a few things bother me. She attributes her conversion to a TV evangelist to whom she contributed most of her fortune plus a hundred dollars a week to this guy, which we cannot afford, or rather to his Gospel Outreach program for the poor of Latin America. I listened to this reverend once. He’d rather convert a Catholic Hispanic than a Bantu any day of the week. . . .

Catholics have become a remnant of a remnant. Louisiana, however, is more Christian than ever, not Catholic Christian, but Texas Christian. Even most Cajuns have been converted first by Texas oil bucks, then by Texas evangelists. The shrimp fleet, mostly born again, that is, for the third time, is no longer blessed and sprinkled by a priest.

Why don’t I like these new Christians better? They’re sober, dependable, industrious, helpful. They praise God frequently, call you brother, and punctuate ordinary conversation with exclamations like Glory! Praise God! Hallelujah!. I’ve nothing against them, but they give me the creeps. (The Thanatos Syndrome, pp. 353-54)


Adam Parker said...

That is a great quote. I just finished reading The Moviegoer. It was my first Percy book, but it won't be my last.

Anonymous said...

I am a big fan of Shelby Foote's novels. Discovered Percy through Foote and then Flannery O'Connor.

Good work.