In his new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, David Dark tries to find a common playing field of human culture and devotion that reclaims the term religious from those who misuse it.
Sapientia sat down with him at Calvin’s Festival of Faith and Writing to talk about growing up a culturally engaged Christian, the audience for his book, and what is currently at the top of his “attention collection.”
N.B.: The following transcribes an excerpt of that conversation. For the full audio, see below.
Encouraged to Dabble
I’m going to first ask: It’s clear you’re a reader . . . among the many things you are interested in—you call them your attention collection. Could you start by telling us a little about your journey as a reader and as a consumer of art?
Well, I was encouraged to dabble widely as a child. Comic books were very important to me. I like telling people that my first published writing was in the letters column of the Fantastic Four. My mom and dad cultivated within me and my sisters and brother a desire to dabble, a desire to follow up on things, and a desire to explain our enthusiasms to ourselves and others. And so, though we were church people, we were never anti-culture. We could watch the Love Boat and Fantasy Island—but not Three’s Company; Three’s Company was not allowed—we could watch just about anything if we could offer an explanation of why we were drawn to it.
With reading, Richard Adams’s Watership Down was a big one—one of the first books that I read out loud, lengthy passages with my mother on a long trip. She put books in front of us. If we ever wanted a book, she would buy it for us.
Also, Twilight Zone, Star Trek, any sci-fi or comic book or fantasy that had a kind of longevity to it.I’m a bit of a completist in that, if someone tells me I need to watch Breaking Bad, I have to start at the beginning, and I think a lot of that comes from the comic books and being obsessively interested in what other people were interested in—whether it was Dungeons and Dragons or something like that. So I can very easily refer to those things as traditions, because that’s what they are.
Participating in Traditions
We’re maybe getting into the heavy stuff a little quickly, but that’s where my brain goes. Just because when you talk about these things as traditions and being a completist—I think about, in comic books, that it feels pretty daunting sometimes to get a sense of, what is Wonder Woman or what is Superman.
Traditions, too, are not necessarily things you can get a complete grasp of. I’m interested in pushing on that a little bit. If a tradition is revitalized with every generation in a community, I think you’re right that there’s a sense of these things having a tradition, but what about a person like me who says, Yeah, I like the new series of Wonder Woman and I watched all of Breaking Bad because that felt important, but I don’t know if I’m going to watch all of Parks & Rec or whatever it is.
That’s right. That might be a good way to say something else. I have friends who, when they say, “What are you reading?” I’m hesitant to tell them because I know particular friends will think, “Ooh, I should read that,” or, “I’ve got to get to that.” Things that are there for our enjoyment can become “shoulds.” I know I’ll never be a completist, ultimately, with any of these traditions, but part of the love of the things and the fathomlessness of traditions is the idea that you never will get to the bottom. You’ll never get to the bottom of every interpretation, every way of reading it.
I suppose part of what I do as a teacher, both as a teacher of literature and religious traditions—the idea of being a professional or an expert in either of those seems really inappropriate and wrong to even possibly insinuate. But I feel like part of my job, both with the Bible or with Walt Whitman or with Shakespeare, is to communicate to people that these traditions are for them in ways that they might not yet know—and that they’re invited.
In some of my composition classes I put on the syllabus, “Books are people talking.” And I’m wanting to communicate these are real people, with real investments, real concerns, who are throwing a kind of party of thoughtfulness and good humor and even lamentation and sadness. And literature is a party that you’re invited to. The Bible is a party that you’re invited to.
The Bible gets a little trickier because often one has students who have mistaken a particular interpretation of the Bible as that which the Bible says, so one of my big jobs is to say, “No, I mean you can say that, but you need to know that that thing that you say the Bible says, is perhaps a very dubious interpretation of a few Scriptures that can be better read in lots of other ways.
We All Have Attention Collections
I want to ask you to paraphrase briefly what you mean in the book by “attention collection.”
That we all have songs, memories, anecdotes, maybe books, maybe films, that we treasure for good reason, because they either articulate pain, longing, confusion, hope, that we have yet to find a better articulation for. It could be anything. It could be a line from a commercial. Part of what I’m trying to do with the book is to get folks to both take stock, level with themselves concerning what’s in there (heart, mind, imagination), and be a little less sheepish in owning what’s in there.
My personality is such that, if I see a movie that I really like, I want to tell people about that movie. I think that’s the hunting and gathering we get to do. [. . .] By arguing that we all have attention collections, and that we’d all do well to talk about them, to be a little less prone to call them “guilty pleasures” as if that’s all there is to say about my love for Walking Dead—I’m trying to get people to be quicker to note that their love for a particular show, song, artist, is valid and information-laden in a therapeutic way, because I think life’s too short to pretend we’re not devoted to things.
Addressing an Audience
When I see the title [of your new book], it looks to me that this is a book written for those “spiritual but not religious” people, or perhaps the “nones” from the Pew study, which you mention, but at the same time I look at the binding, and it’s an IVP book. That seems to me practically limiting your audience. Could you describe who your book is for?
I break the rule. You’re always told with book proposals and selling a book that you’ve got to reduce it to an elevator pitch and you have to have a specific type of person in mind. As you’ll note on the opening page, I try to cover a lot of people, saying this goes out to those for whom religion is poison, brainwashing, a nightmare that you’d never wish on anyone. And of course that would be aimed to people who view religion as this thing that got done to them that they have to leave behind, as well as those who know folks who they think of as fundamentalists, people who can’t change their mind and won’t change the subject.
And I just keep on going, because I also have in mind those who want to say, “I don’t need religion, I’ve got Jesus.” And often a person who speaks that way can have their life divided between that which they call their worship, their quiet time,and then whatever they pay their employees, whatever they do for a living. So I’m trying to take on the unexamined deployment of that concept because I do think it’s at the heart of a lot of heartache in our day.
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