Three Ways Of Feeling Disenfranchised By Orthodoxy: William Hale White, George Harrison and Jack Kerouac

Odds are, you missed this excellent little piece by Paul Zahl when it was published […]

Mockingbird / 7.9.09

Odds are, you missed this excellent little piece by Paul Zahl when it was published in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of the Mark Rutherford Society, Ed: Nick Wilde. We thought we’d reprint it here:

The initial reason I became interested in the novels of “Mark Rutherford” (aka William Hale White) was because of his way of being a Christian. Ever since his expulsion from theological college, he never felt himself to be an actual part of the Christian Church. He could not break away from some core Christian convictions and ideas, but nor could he go to church. He said this often, and even to his children. Yet as we all know, his books and letters and journals are full of religion! Specifically, his work is full of an inward, lifelong, and also extremely well informed struggle with Christianity as he had received it in orthodox Dissent.

William Hale White did not regard himself as a credal Christian, but his works are full, absolutely and undeniably full, of a wrestling with those very deep preoccupations of Christians with Original Sin as the normal human condition and with Christ Jesus as the Deliverer, or Savior, from that normal condition. Almost always, White comes across as a wistful Christian, someone who looks (back) on traditional Christianity with admiration yet also with disappointment for its failure to leaven the lump of his own life. No more wistful words occur in all of White’s work than the closing sentences of his “John Bunyan” (1910):

We cannot bring ourselves into a unity. The time is yet to come when we shall live by a faith which is a harmony of all our faculties. A glimpse was caught of such a gospel nineteen centuries ago in Galilee, but it has vanished. (pp. 49-50)

For myself, as a member of the Mark Rutherford Society and as a Christian minister whose life has come straight up against reality, reality which is a brick wall in relation to so many common aspirations for happiness and satisfaction, William Hale White’s work is a courageous and almost unflinching engagement to deal with reality, yet from a Christian point of vantage. The fact that Hale’s life story was filled with “reality”, with sorrow and impasse, makes his religious grappling with that reality enormously appealing or convincing, and also instructive.

In the light of Hale’s struggle, combined with his refusal to give up the relation of his struggle with traditional Christian ideas and hopes, I have also become affected over the last couple of years by the music of George Harrison. ‘George Harrison!’ you say. ‘ I thought he was a Hindu.’ He was. Harrison left his childhood Roman Catholicism quite early, and in mid-career as a Beatle adopted the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita as the mainstay of his life. This is visible in everything Harrison wrote and composed from the 1970 classic album “All Things Must Pass” right on through to the last record he worked on, entitled “Brainwashed”. Not only is Krishna the hero and be-all of Harrison’s work, but Jesus gets some nice mentions, too, as time goes on. Harrison was something of what we today call a “Gnostic Christian” toward the end of his life, although he prayed to Krishna right to the end.

Where the comparison of William Hale White, who had an allergy to “theosophy” and almost anything resembling what is today called “New Age” or “Eastern” spirituality, with George Harrison is interesting lies in the fact that both were “bruised reeds” in relation to Western orthodoxies, yet both were religious Englishmen. What White would find in Spinoza — a universal form of acquiescence and resignation in the face of natural law and the givens of life and nature over which human beings seem to have little control — Harrison would find in the broad sweeps of “Eastern”-style resignation. Both men were drawn to theories of controllessness, both were receptive to universal ideas of God found in the life of Jesus as they understood it, and both were on the distinct margins of conventional Western religiosity.

May I add one more “boundary” figure? This is the quite hot (just now) American novelist Jack Kerouac, whose classic novel On the Road had its 50th anniversary in 2007. Kerouac is the subject of a massive and authoritative exhibition in 2008 at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Many people think that Kerouac was a Buddhist. He was a Buddhist, for a period. But he was also a Christian of broad sympathies, who returned very passionately to the Roman Catholic Church toward the end of his life. Like his near contemporary Andy Warhol, Jack Kerouac was a “hipster” artist who was actually interested almost solely in Christianity. On the margins of American literary culture, Kerouac wrote about religion, and never stopped writing about religion. When you realize that religion, first Christianity, then Buddhism, then, later, Christianity again, is the core theme of Kerouac’s several novels, not to mention his journals and also the great many oil paintings he created in later years, then you can spot, again, an artist of the highest quality who, like “Mark Rutherford”, was portraying reality, indeed the suffering reality of life, in the context of Christian ideas. All this is set out systematically in an elaborate new “coffee table” book produced for the New York Public Library and written by Isaac Gewirtz entitled Beatific Souls: Jack Kerouac on the Road (Scala Publishers London, 2007).

As a Christian minister and an admirer of William Hale White, I am fascinated by the comparisons that such an exhibition evoke, and not to mention the work in music of George Harrison. These three were all religious men, to their toes. Each had left formal Christianity. Each also, however, was attracted to Jesus and his teachings, in relation to the sufferings and transiency of life. I have recently told my Episcopal congregation, in Washington, D.C. , that I wish I could imagine a conversation of Hale White with the later English artist George Harrison — Harrison was so mild-mannered that I think Hale would have listened to what he had to say — and also with the American (French-Canadian) writer of “stream-of-consciousness” novels Jack Kerouac, who could not ‘shake’ his Christianity nor fully embrace it (except at the very end).

Aren’t you interested, too, within our secular era, in artists who refused to throw out the ancestral religion completely but were also locked in the normal life struggle with suffering and transiency? After all, Christians of any stripe, and possibly religious people of almost any stripe, are wanting to ask questions of reality by which the possibility of God, or even just some universal essence of love, call It what you will, can co-exist with reality. I see “Mark Rutherford” locked in a pretty big struggle to bring things together in the light of Christianity, just as George Harrison was fixed upon religion as the dialogue partner with all life as he perceived it, and just as Jack Kerouac observed the world through his acute sensorium in the light of his religious quest.