(Nonfictional) Techniques tracked:
-Positioning yourself-as-narrator as inside vs. outside the group you’re reporting on
-Using objects to communicate the above inside vs. outside status (the RV, guitars, mountain lion)
-Piquing reader’s interest in the subject with your own personal experience of it (and deferring this)
-Using immediate present-day journey (acute tension) to communicate magnitude of a (parallel) past journey (chronic tension)
-Creating a parallel structure that’s disrupted to demonstrate narrator/character’s change
In “Upon This Rock,” the opening essay of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s collection Pulphead, the narrator does not reveal that he himself was once a member of the group he’s purporting to describe until roughly midway through, a revelation that makes the reader recalibrate the narrator’s interest in the subject matter: it’s a turning point where we realize all of this stuff is a lot more personal and emotional for him than he’s been letting on.
He begins by describing his assignment like it was just another job he’d taken on according to the will of someone else: “…stir in statistics, paycheck.” The job happens to be writing about a Christian rock festival, and he describes how, wanting to get more of an insider perspective (contrary to the blasé tone of the opening paragraph), he attempts to solicit fans into joining him for the trip by posting a request on a web forum. But all the responses are basically that his request is creepy, until eventually his post is removed altogether. He winds up going to a different Christian festival (called “Creation”) than originally planned, alone, in a gigantic RV that is the only available vehicle left to rent in the area, and which comes close to killing many people at Creation when someone tries to direct him up a too-steep hill and it starts to slide backward. He’s saved by a group of Christian men that get him to the hilltop and then tell him there’s an empty field down below that the guides have been too stupid to let people camp in. The narrator requests to join their group:
“Why don’t you guys stop by my trailer and get me on your way?” I said. “I’ll be in that totally empty field.”
Note how the narrator is simultaneously trying to infiltrate while isolating himself physically. He winds up spending most of the remainder of the fest with this group, but before they come get him, we get an aside describing the plot of the novel Silenced from the Left Behind series: in the absence of Christianity, a “death cult” is taking over the U.S. population, a group that sounds, to the narrator, very much itself like Evangelical Christianity. When the guys do come get him, he asks how many non-Christians they think are at the fest, and they say that in a hundred thousand, there must be a few. The narrator observes there is absolutely no animosity among these hordes, which, as a veteran of large public events, he finds surprising and impressive.
Then, they reach the stage:
As we came around the corner, I saw the stage, from off to the side. And the crowd on the hill that faced the stage. Their bodies rose till they merged with the dark. “Holy crap,” I said.
Ritter waved his arm like an impresario. He said, “This, my friend, is Creation.”
The narrator then briefly describes why he will not describe the music itself, since its sole uncomplicated purpose is “to play something proven to please … while praising Jesus Christ.” Thematically, this piece is much more about the journey than the destination.
That night, one of narrator’s new friends’ party brings over a pair of “Jews for Jesus” to their site, who inform one of them that he’s going to hell for having tattoos. The narrator winds up having a long discussion with the group about their beliefs:
…they gradually got the sense that I found them exotic (though it was more than that). Slowly, their talk became an ecstasy of self-definition.
We’re approaching the turning point of the essay here: we don’t yet know what the “more than that” is that the narrator is parenthetically referring to here; we, too, thus far, have thought that his fascination with the group stems from exactly what he said outside of the parentheses—they are exotic, unfamiliar to him, because he is an outsider to their group. That is what he’s led us to believe, at least.
He describes more of their conversation, aspects of which reveal very divergent sides to the men:
“And anyway,” he added, “I gave all that to God—all that anger and stuff. He took it away.”
God in His wisdom had left him enough to get by on. Earlier in the evening, the guys had roughed up Pee Wee a little and tied him to a tree with ratchet straps.
An official comes to investigate the screams, and the men tease him.
I admit that these tales of the West Virginia guys’ occasional truculence might appear to gainsay what I claimed earlier about “not one word spoken in anger,” et cetera. But it was playful.
After that the group operates with “impunity,” and the narrator describes how some of them play instruments before he says:
We passed around the acoustic.
It happens so swiftly you might not have even noticed it: the narrator has just been subsumed into the group. It turns out he knows some songs that could pass for Christian, like Bob Marley:
When I finished, Bub said, “Man, that’s really Christian. It really is.” Darius made me teach it to him; he said he would take it home and “do it at worship.”
Here, very close to the turning point, it still seems like the narrator’s knowledge of something that could be interpreted as Christian and included in a Christian community is just a coincidence.
The narrator is alone when the turning point comes:
I got my drink and drifted slowly toward where I thought they’d be standing.
And let’s not forget the rich sensory rendering of this important moment:
Lack of food, my filthiness, impending sunstroke: these were ganging up on me. Plus the air down here smelled faintly of poo. There were a lot of blazing-hot portable toilets wafting miasma whenever the doors were opened.
Note the word choice here: things are “ganging up on me”—language that reinforces his isolation. He sees a band playing that it turns out he knows:
The straw slipped from my mouth. “Oh, shit, it’s Petra.”
Then, we jump cut to 1988. We get the whole story of how the narrator, for a period as a teen, came to embrace Evangelical Christianity and then abandon it. This is a turning point because it’s a revelation that changes everything. The narrator has worked hard to establish himself as an outsider to the group thus far, while being pushed incrementally closer to insider status as we’ve gone along. Now, at the center of the essay, we get an account of when he was all the way on the inside. We don’t feel it’s too sneaky that he hasn’t revealed his Christian past yet (at least this reader doesn’t) because this, seeing Petra in the present day, feels like a natural place for him to remember this period of his past, since, as we’ll learn as the story of it unfolds, getting an opportunity to meet this particular band when he was a teenager is what led him to realize he had doubts about the church and to ultimately leave it. The fact that the narrator doesn’t declare his Christian past at the essay’s outset feels a natural manifestation of his shame and emotional turmoil surrounding it. Looking back, you can feel that he knows the trip will bring up difficult things for him, but it’s like he avoids dealing with them until he’s confronted with them directly, which is something a lot of us readers will be able to identify with. So we forgive him for not revealing this up front, and the fact that he hasn’t revealed it until now itself reveals his vulnerability, making us sympathize with him.
Once his Christian past is revealed, all his past actions are thrown into a different light. Take his aforementioned reading of Silenced, during which he notes:
Adherents meet in “cell groups” (nice touch: a bit of old commie lingo); they enlist the young and hunger for global hegemony while striving to hasten the end of the world.
When we get to the turning point flashback unfolding the story of his Christian past, we learn that he, too, met in “cell groups.” His reading of the Silenced death cults that are supposed to be a product of the absence of Christianity as themselves Christian demonstrates the extent of his own conflicted attitude about the religion, which is, in fact, what it turns out this whole essay is about.
The narrator ends up leaving the church when he’s supposed to talk with the members of Petra about Jesus after their show, and in the room where he’s supposed to meet them, he finds two mute boys who won’t respond to him:
This was my opening. They were either rapt or mentally damaged in some way, and whichever it was, Christ called on me now to lay down my testimony.
The sentences wouldn’t form. I flipped though the list of dogmas, searching for one I didn’t essentially think was crap, and came up with nothing.
There could have ensued a nauseating silence, but I acted with an odd decisiveness to end the whole experience. I asked them if they wanted to leave—it was an all but rhetorical question—and said I did, too. We walked out together.
He uses concretely located physical gestures—walking out of the room—to show us he’s leaving the abstract institution of the church. Now, he’s an outsider again.
Like stories in fiction, pieces in nonfiction often operate on the interplay between chronic (past) and acute (present) tension. The chronic tension for this narrator is that he was once in the church and left it. The acute tension is his trip to Creation, which will cause him to confront this past. His past with Christianity follows the trajectory of outsider-insider-outsider, and he presents his present journey to Creation in the same way, beginning with himself as an outsider, then being inside Creation, then being included in a group inside Creation, and then, as we’ll see, moving far enough out again to provide us an expansive view of himself as an outsider looking in for the essay’s conclusion.
Interestingly, even when the narrator is “in” Creation and closer to being part of the group, he’s still reinforced as an outsider—he notes all the looks he gets coming in with the gigantic, obtrusive RV:
They had a disconcerting way of stepping aside for the RV only when its front fender was just about to graze their backs. From my elevated vantage, it looked as if they were waiting just a tenth of a second too long, and that I was gently, forcibly parting them in slow motion.
There’s an outsider on the inside if ever there was one. This insider-as-outsider in the present narrative of his Creation trip mirrors the way he was an insider-as-outsider in his Christian past—even when he was a Christian, he never really felt part of the group, which is eventually why he had to leave.
The narrator concludes the flashback about his Christian past with:
Once you’ve known Him as a god, it’s hard to find comfort in the man. The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being—the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things—the pull of that won’t slacken.
And one has doubts about one’s doubts.
This is what Creation is bringing to the surface for him: the question of whether he really should have left the Church.
Returning to the present at Creation after the extended flashback, there are rumors of a mountain lion. The Jews for Jesus girls return and inform the group they’ll go to hell for eating cooked frog legs. Note the essay’s parallel structure here: these girls appeared right before and again right after the turning point flashback. They show that members of the group the narrator potentially feels condemned by are also themselves condemned and outsiders to other groups.
The narrator then has an emotional reaction to a man having a heart attack and dying at his feet in the crowd, hears Stephen Baldwin saying crazy things on a stage from his trailer, and rereads Silenced. Then he meets up with the guys, who show him a newspaper headline telling him the mountain lion is not believed to be a threat. It starts to rain and they all go in the narrator’s giant unused RV. The narrator has avoided showering so he wouldn’t have to use any of its complex systems (reinforcing it as a symbol of his isolation), but now it comes into cathartic use, enabling him to repay some of the hospitality the group has shown him. They play guitars together again (parallel structure, remember).
The narrator goes with the guys to Creation’s culminating ceremony—an enormous candlelight vigil—but, after one’s parting request that when he writes about them, he can say they’re crazy as long as he says that they love God, splits off for a lookout point where he can see the entire massive crowd. He recalls being part of such candle-lighting ceremonies when he was a Christian, and now thinks about his recent acquaintances (the candlelight recalling how their faces were illuminated by the campfire during their talks), and how they have the strength to believe in what he never could. He has returned, at the end here, to a firmly established outsider position relative to the group, but it’s a more connected, sympathetic outsider-ness than what he began with: this is the change that takes place in him in the present. Even though he’s an outsider, he’s gained a more meaningful perspective on, and thus admiration for, those on the inside. He seems to be at peace at the end, signified by the final line: “I left at dawn, while creation slept.” For the parallel structure, we might expect a description of the journey back to match the rather elaborate one we got on the way in (Prefaced by “What do I tell you about my voyage to Creation?”) and the breaking of that parallel here reinforces his peace: there was a struggle to get in, but there’s not one to get out.