[Ryan] Cannibals and Cathedrals: ‘The Road’ (2009)

I am part of the set-up crew at my church. We meet in a grade school gymnasium, and the set-up crew is held in unusually high regard. There are a few reasons for this: The first is that we meet each week at six in the morning. Church begins at ten, or thereabouts. Between six and ten, we set up rods and curtains, sound-proof the floors and corners, pitch a neon cross at the head of the makeshift stage, and more. This is all rather time consuming, and needs to be finished before the band arrives for practice. No one wants to do this particular work, and reverence generally accompanies the work that people avoid; So the set-up crew is held in high regard, and is very small.

But there is another reason: One of the elders, Jared, describes our work as “transforming a gymnasium into a cathedral,” which has always struck me as a bit hokey, but it does get at my heart-strings. Cathedrals are intersections at which heaven and earth “meet,” in a sense. Complaints about their artistry are misdirected: The stained glass and wood carvings; The raised ceiling; The smell of incense and sanctity are not an end unto themselves. These buildings are vessels, the logic goes, engineered to usher their inhabitants into recognizing, for however brief a time, the “here-ness” of God. In some sense, then, mercy is a place. I, the writer, am a Southern Baptist (I’m awful sorry about current events, by the way), as is the church I am describing. We are not known for our “magisterial bent.” But a cathedral is a cathedral, and a space becomes one not by conception, per se, but by transformation.

I am marrying a woman who loves Cormac McCarthy. She was among the first non-professors to recommend his now famous novel The Road to me. Naturally, I had powered through it as an undergraduate but never particularly enjoyed it. His prose, though measured and precise, struck me as cumbersome – and the doom so pervasive that I missed the point entirely. It took her gentle goading, a few years ago, to rouse me from my uncritical stupor. “It’s a book about cathedrals,” she told me, and I was intrigued.

Cathedrals had always been an interest of hers, which I learned early on in our friendship, years before we ever began to date. We ran into each other at the library often. She would ask me what I was reading, and it was always some priggish German theologian; I would ask her what she was reading and it was always about cathedrals, or Gerard Manley Hopkins. Our mothers are angry that we did not get together sooner. I suppose we have the rest of our lives, though.

She explained that The Road is, at the bottom of things, about “the miracle of human goodness,” which I think is also a pull-quote on some editions. This may not surprise anyone familiar with McCarthy’s aphorism, that “There is no God and we are His prophets.” Around the same time, another friend, soon to be a groomsman in my wedding, lent me the film. I figured I should revisit both. They resonated more deeply this time around. The nameless man and boy we follow are scavengers. They have to be. There is no alternative in the universe they occupy. The man’s old enough to remember a time when it was different. The boy’s young enough to have grown accustomed to the circumstances. As far as one can see, the remnants of humanity have become ignoble savages; cannibals, quite literally. When the social contracts have disintegrated, hell is other people.

The boy is a cathedral. “Are we carrying the fire?” he asks his father, desperately and often. What fire? It could mean a number of things, but critics seem to think it’s an allusion to that pillar of smoke, fire, or light that followed Moses and his cohorts through the wilderness; The presence of God, Cormac’s God, Who does not exist and Whose prophets we are, indissolubly. The “human spirit,” perhaps, although McCarthy could take issue with that terminology. Perhaps a “World Soul,” a capital “Self,” some “Human Nature,” worth preserving, however marginally, and planting in the ground to grow up and multiply: The seeds of that “cultural mandate” laid out in Genesis chapter 2, to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the Earth and subdue it.”

Although, of course, “subdue” has never meant “subdue,” at least as we understand it. And instead it means quite the opposite, as Richard Bauckham has shown, and Ellen Davis, hordes of eco-theologians and environmentalists; Even Peter Singer, in his occasional moments of lucidity, raging against “anthropocentrism” – human supremacy, so to speak. Untethered from its Christian moorings, to “carry the fire” still implies, at some level, to take up afresh our given role as stewards of the cosmos, not as despots to “subdue” or conquer the elements, but to build a world that looks like the Trinitarian community that birthed us ex nihilo.

That is to say, to “carry the fire” implies a thicker humanism, one so thoroughgoing that it decenters humanity, properly speaking. It goes further than Mirandola and rests alongside David and his choir director, content to take our place among the “community of creation,” as non-monarchs, “caretakers,” – insofar as we can be – in a community tethered together by mutuality and peace. This vision is not “utopian.” Assuming that it’s God’s design, it’s probably the only practical option we have. All of which is to say that cathedrals serve quite the opposite function as gymnasiums. There’s nothing wrong with competitive sports, although I’m certainly no good at them. But cathedrals, if they are cathedrals and not gymnasiums, are “community gardens,” in a sense. They cultivate quite the opposite of competition. They rekindle our commitment to cooperation, to help, or they should. And they have to, unless they are gymnasiums. God, as Christians understand (but perhaps not Cormac McCarthy), is what happens between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. You cannot speak about God-without-persons. There is no God sans the Son, sans the Spirit, sans the Father. We are created by this God, who is three persons, distinct from one another, but one God. The human community, in bearing the image of this God, is essentially characterized by “difference” and “cooperation,” mutual love and respect – not competition. By agreement amidst diversity; We are not each other, we are not the same, we are not alike. But, over against the observations of Foucault and the insistence of his forebears, this does not, or should not, carry with it the looming threat of violence. We “carry the fire” together.

The morning of March 29th this year, I woke up early, showered, and opened up my Bible. I couldn’t focus because the day ahead of me was going to be long. Instead, I prayed in half-sentences and gibberish; Around nine, a vehicle arrived at my doorstep. My parents and I stepped inside, and waved to Elyse and hers. It took us to Cathedral Park, which is split in two by the Willamette River. After arriving, we paid the driver and sat down on the curb.

Elyse and her family arrived, along with her best friend. My heart was beating loudly enough to alert her to what was coming: We trekked up the grassy incline till we reached the lookout. From certain angles, the beams of the overhanging bridge form what looks like a cathedral.

The view was sublime. Slowly, our families made their way to the corners of the overlook; It was just the two of us now. I apologized for being so hackneyed, and got down on one knee. I told her she was the cathedral, as far as I was concerned, and asked if she would like to marry me. She would, she said. And one of us, probably me, made some silly quip about “carrying the fire” together, like everyone must, and we laughed, and went to lunch.

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