Axl Rose and Michael Jackson Attend a Christian Rock Festival: Reviewing Pulphead

I was honored to be asked to review John Jeremiah Sullivan’s somewhat recent essay collection […]

David Zahl / 11.16.12

I was honored to be asked to review John Jeremiah Sullivan’s somewhat recent essay collection Pulphead for Modern Reformation magazine a few months ago. As readers of this site will know, the book made quite an impression. MR has been kind enough to allow us to reprint a hefty portion of it. They’ve made the full thing available for free on their site, but if you’re not a subscriber, this is your chance to rectify that oversight! Especially since subscribers not only get to read Michael Horton’s incisive look at Antinomianism in the current issue, but our very own Ethan Richardson’s “Radio Revival: The Truth-telling Parables of This American Life”. So in the immortal words of Tom Haverford, go ahead and… treat yourself:

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…

For our purposes, however, the real virtue of Pulphead—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.