Book Review

"Pulphead: Essays" by John Jeremiah Sullivan

David Zahl
Thursday, November 1st 2012
Nov/Dec 2012

It's time for those of us who thought Twitter was a passing fad to admit we were mistaken. Indeed, the 140-character social media forum seems to be only picking up steam with each well-documented and commented-upon day. And while it remains as resistant as ever to rhetorical subtlety, the communicative juice it wrings from its ration of letters is nonetheless more varied and substantial than one might have thought. In a world that seems to favor headlines and sound bites over attenuated reflection, is the long form essay (or "long read" as it's come to be known) an endangered species? The answer, probably, is yes. That is, unless you've just read John Jeremiah Sullivan's superb collection, Pulphead.

It's rare indeed that a single work contains enough gravity to rejuvenate an entire art form, and certainly it would be a premature assessment here. But these fourteen essays, taken as a whole, do make a convincing case, at least as far as the younger demographic goes. Sullivan possesses the same knack that all great essayists do: he can make something uninteresting interesting. He can take something we don't care about (e.g., obscure American naturalists and MTV's The Real World) and find a way for us to do so. More than a few reviewers have noted the similarities in tone to the late David Foster Wallace, and one can certainly see where they're coming from. Like Wallace, Sullivan invests himself fully in his pieces, subverting the cynicism of his generation to deconstruct himself as much as any of his subjects, and in the process, reaches behind readers' defenses to their lonely, beating hearts. The net effect is a deeply humanizing one. Plus, he is extremely funny.

Also like Wallace’indeed, like any honest writer born after 1960’Sullivan's language and frame of reference are inescapably pop cultural. But that doesn't make them any less sophisticated. In fact, pop icons such as Michael Jackson and Axl Rose inspire a number of Pulphead's most touching moments and memorable turns of phrase. These men are as self-defeating, controversial, and hard to love as they come. Yet rather than approaching them with journalistic detachment, unmitigated irony, or sentimental curiosity, Sullivan comes at them from a predominantly empathetic standpoint. The pieces almost function as illustrations of Roland Bainton's famous comments on Martin Luther in Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Abingdon Press, 1987):

Those who are predisposed to fall into despondency as well as to rise into ecstasy may be able to view reality from an angle different from that of ordinary folk. Yet it is a true angle; and when the problem or the religious object has been once so viewed, others less sensitive will be able to look from a new vantage point and testify that the insight is valid (283).

In reference to Michael Jackson, for example, Sullivan observes that "his physical body is arguably, even inarguably, the single greatest piece of postmodern American sculpture," before going on to reflect on how MJ also came to symbolize the "pathology of pathologization." When it comes to the contemptuous Rose, Sullivan rightly dubs him "the only indispensable white male rock dancer of his generation," before recounting an absurdly reprehensible episode that landed the teen Axl in jail. Sullivan traces the inheritance of sin in the singer's life and does so without letting Rose off the hook for his complicity, discounting the cards that were so clearly stacked against him, or overlooking the towering gifts and charisma that God nonetheless bestowed upon him. It's not an adoring portrait or a self-righteous one: it's a compassionate one.

For our purposes, however, the real virtue of Pulp- head‘indeed, the reason for expending valuable space here’lies in the opening essay about Sullivan's trip to the Creation Festival, or what until recently was known as "The Nation's Largest Christian Music Festival." It's a piece he originally wrote for GQ under the title "Upon This Rock," yet it remarkably lacks even a trace of the animals-in-the-zoo condescension (and/or barely disguised disdain) that characterizes almost all such attempts to report on evangelical subculture. Even when he's composing what may be the most incisive critique of the contemporary Christian music genre ever put on paper’he calls it "the only excellence-proofed genre"’his matter-of-fact tone and irenic reasoning are refreshing in the extreme. Who could argue with the following?

[Christian rock] is message music for listeners who know the message cold, and, what's more, it operates under a perceived responsibility’one the artists embrace’to "reach people." As such, it rewards both obviousness and maximum palatability (the artists would say clarity), which in turn means parasitism.

Still, it's one thing to sympathize with the mechanics of the much-maligned genre, but quite another to do so with the hand-waving Bible-thumpers themselves. And to adopt Sullivan's candor for a moment, he is a lot more generous with what he finds at Creation than most Reformation Christians would be’certainly this reviewer.

Instead, Sullivan gets to know his fellow attendees. He sits with them, he laughs with them, he eats with them, and most importantly, he listens to them. In other words, he allows himself to be vulnerable. In one of the most beautiful sections of the book, Sullivan recalls his own "Jesus phase." But, as he writes, "a phase is supposed to end’or at least give way to other phases’not simply expand into a long preoccupation." That is, he doesn't harbor the usual emotional baggage or resentment. "It isn't that I feel psychologically harmed. It isn't even that I feel like a sucker for having bought it all. It's that I love Jesus Christ…. [Christ's] breakthrough was the aestheticization of weakness. Not in what conquers, not in glory, but in what's fragile and what suffers’there lies sanity. And salvation." Amen!

The kicker of the piece, indeed of the book itself, comes in a phrase that I've found myself repeating ever since I read it’one that's come in handy both in my own thinking and in my dealings with others. In reference to the faith that he's gradually let go, Sullivan admits, "One has doubts about one's doubts." It's as good a rephrasing of Mark 9:24 ("I believe! Help my unbelief!") as one is likely to find in the pages of GQ‘at least this year. What's more, the sentiment is indicative of Sullivan's contribution to our increasingly (and perhaps irredeemably) fractured conversation about Christianity: namely, he writes in the gracious tone of its founder. And that, my friends, is something to tweet about.

Thursday, November 1st 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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