Sherpa on a sacred mountain
The importance of... searching for answers. David Dark helps us ponder a God "peculiarly willing to admit questions."
"I believe deliverance begins with questions." This programmatic statement begins an intriguing exodus that traverses the commentary of Jon Stewart, the writings of Dostoevsky and the music of Arcade Fire in its desert wanderings. Cultural critic David Dark leads us out into the wilderness in search of what he calls "cosmic plainspeak," words which carry "that disruptively truthful expression that engages our religiosity â€¦ rearranging the way we see." As we listen to the questions, raised in poetry, lyrics and myriad other ways by these "cosmic plainspeakers," Dark believes those unenviable dinner table topics—sex, politics and religion (and a few other controversial items too)—might be opened up in a way that is actually life-giving, and what is more, faithful to the God of the Bible.
So the journey begins: first, with a story. In a quaint little town, a tightly-knit community lives in daily fear of an eminent member named (with a fair dose of satire) "Uncle Ben." Peppering their daily conversation with admiration of Uncle Ben's goodness and love and striving to keep in step with his demands, they meet weekly in a dank furnace-furnished basement to listen to Uncle Ben's new rules and celebrate his "love" for them—the "love" he shows by not throwing them in the furnace. "Uncle Ben" forms a foil for Dark's own explorations and, as one might guess, represents what he understands as a perniciously common view of God in the Western religious consciousness. While Uncle Ben in the story refuses questioning and demands unthinking allegiance, the God of the Bible seems a bit different, Dark muses, peculiarly willing to admit questions. Perhaps God is not quite as "Uncle Ben"-like as we might tend to think?
In fact, this is just the aim of Dark's book: to show that God is nothing like our "Uncle Ben" at all, but is seen in the Bible respecting and affirming the questions raised against him—even occasionally provoking and demanding them. Instead of a flat collection of statements to be carefully assembled and given our unhesitating assent, the Bible is "a broad, multifaceted collection of people crying out to God—a collection of close encounters with the God who is present, somehow, in those very cries." Sometimes too these voices conflict (Dark even hears that fearsome word "contradict" lurking in the background here) and push us on further in our search for the God beyond all our understandings of him. And this not because our ideas of God are too big, but precisely because they're not big enough—God is more God than we will ever know.
By this point, worries about relativism and denial of absolute truth may be creeping in. And, yes—"Of absolute truth, none of us are knowers," Dark says. This is not cause for concern, however, if by it we understand simply that we can grasp neither God nor the world. But how are we to know anything about God with all this perpetual questioning and these conflicting (if not "contradictory"!) voices? Dark is not unaware of this concern, and leaves us with a bread-crumb-like trail of helpful landmarks. Scattered throughout the book are some key words that hint toward what some of the answers might be, words such as "hope and love," "humility," "peace," the "cross," "justice," "joy and wonder." Of course, figuring out just how God is related to or has all these qualities (or may want us to have these qualities) is the long journey of sacred questioning to which Dark invites us, but he doesn't leave us hung out to dry.
At the risk of allowing some to pack Dark up in a box labeled "emergent" and ship him off, it should be noted that those who have read Brian McLaren will be in familiar territory. Some of the questions raised in McLaren's A New Kind of Christian reappear here, though not in McLaren's narrative style or bold phrasing. While McLaren pairs the questioning dialogue of Neo with a pastor, Dark brings the reader herself directly into dialogue with a number of "cosmic plainspeakers," poet-prophets such as Johnny Cash, Jim Wallis, and (the highschool English teacher's favourite) William Shakespeare. Dark's journey, on which he acts as the reader's Sherpa, is certainly a more comprehensive project than McLaren's novel. Nevertheless, the two share similar impulses, questions and influences—influences which could be labeled "postmodern," were that not such an abused term.
In a sense, Dark as Sherpa is an apt metaphor: the book itself is structured as a journey, first pulling the rug out from under the religious commitments North American Christians hold most dear (sometimes unreflectively), then slowly dropping succulent hints, like fruit on the side of the long path upward, until at last he has led us out onto a grand plateau, surrounded by the majestic mountain range of the divine space of sacred questioning.
It is here, just where the book ends, that our own questioning begins in earnest. For after tracing Dark's questioning of God, religion, language, media, history-telling, politics and the future (among other things), we are left—if we have followed his lead—perhaps unsure of some of our former commitments but quite sure that God is there, present in the space of our questions, giving blessing, life and the name of a new future in our life-long wrestling together in the dark.