To children, the world is charged with magic. One thing means another: Rain looks like tears, so rain means God is sad, and thunder is the angels knocking down bowling pins. It is simple for a child to believe that a very pretty lady must be very good, darkness means monsters, and something bad happened because of a bad word uttered in secret. Growing up means ditching this metaphorical imagination, facing the reality of cause and effect—it rains because of boring scientific facts, there are no monsters in the darkness, and swearing can’t kill your dog. An adult who believes in magic, who pairs physical reality with something else, we call superstitious, or whimsical, or crazy.
That scraping away of the mystical, while useful to modern science, can prove disastrous for literature, given that metaphor is the stuff of art. Makers of metaphor imagine two unlike things as somehow linked, and compare them in order to provoke a shock of recognition in the audience. They help us see familiar realities in fresh ways. But if rain is “only” a certain kind of precipitation, nothing more, then we end up short-circuiting imagination’s work; we may even lose a God who cries.
This has been rough on religious literature—particularly for Protestants. Many evangelicals (especially non-charismatic, Bible-studying, rarely-hand-raising evangelicals like me) have worked hard to strip religious practice of anything smacking of superstition. In this environment, when art explores faith, it tends to be either relentlessly didactic (here is a story that will show you how to live) or built on clear, obvious analogies.
Catholics, in their persistent veneration of the mystical (culminating in the belief in Christ’s real presence in the sacramental bread and wine), have retained the elements of magic and metaphor. As a result, they have produced some of the best literature of the 20th century, writing that resonates far beyond church walls. (Think, for instance, of Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Evelyn Waugh.) Even authors with conflicted relationships with the church (Graham Greene springs to mind) find themselves grappling with cause-and-effect and God’s mysterious, un-wrangle-able grace.
In general, Christians tend to see sin and righteousness as matters of cause-and-effect, no matter how much we speak about grace. If a man is in prison, he has been punished for wickedness. If a man is respected and talented, he has worked hard and made good choices. We can wind up writing and favoring tales with distinctly good and bad guys, tales in which the good guy wins and the bad guy gets punished or “redeemed.”
Nothing Is Safe
I don’t mean to make Protestants the villain here. There are failings on all sides, religious and not. But if we’re serious about writing books that matter and mean something, we need to pay attention to writers like Chris Hoke, whose debut memoir, Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders, made skeptical me cry, sit upright, and see my reality anew.
(Full disclosure: Hoke and I graduated from Seattle Pacific’s MFA program together, and so I first encountered the rough outlines of this book in small, intense writing workshops. That only serves to both increase my amazement at the result—they were good then, but they’re breathtaking now—and lets me say, in complete honesty, that Chris is gentle, fiery, modest, and absolutely the real deal.)
Wanted is a collection of essays about Hoke’s work at Tierra Nueva, a ministry targeted at prisoners, outlaws, gang members, undocumented immigrants, and others at society’s margins. Hoke, a minister’s son and Berkeley graduate, works in the Pacific Northwest, but the book takes him across borders: into Mexico, past TSA agents, and into prisons where he discovers men who have lived on the outskirts but seem to have deeper insight into grace and faith than he does. He sits at their feet. He fishes with them. He sings with them. He weeps at their funerals.
Nothing about Wanted is safe. Hoke’s character rarely speaks aloud in the book, preferring to let his friends—homies, they mostly call each other—do the talking, which means the reader may initially be startled (or delighted) to encounter slang, colloquialisms, and profanity (one chapter has an f-bomb in the title, after an inmate’s tattoo) outside their familiar range of vocabulary. Some of the most powerful chapters challenge the reader’s comfortable preconceptions—of the prison system, of race and prejudice, of who convicts really are, and, in one barn-burning chapter, of the nature of schizophrenia.
Such work is fraught with social complications, especially when the writer is a white guy from Seattle with a graduate degree who can leave the prison whenever he pleases. Hoke is aware of his own position of privilege, but what sets him apart is that he sees his vocation as spending this privilege—this “insider” knowledge, as a member of a polite branch of society—on behalf of those who need it. And he is firmly convinced that the people he encounters are beloved of God, that even the most hardened criminal is a teacher with insight into Scripture, into parables, that no seminary degree can impart.
Ultimately, Wanted is not really Chris Hoke’s memoir. It is a true tale shaped by an imagination that sees the world as metaphor—as parable. Hoke’s greatest strength as a writer is drawing parallels between what happens and what it means, in light of things that Jesus said. “I confess,” he writes, “that these portraits are shaped less by a journalist’s sensibility and more by the images that continue to haunt me throughout the day and sometimes into the night.” For Hoke, those images function as icons rather than photographs—not merely pictures that show what happened, but windows onto a greater reality. Wanted is not a tourist’s jaunt that sentimentalizes and fetishizes the exotic lives of others; it grabs readers by the neck and forces them to see their own soul in the real world, the actual world that exists.
Which means that what he sees and hears is different from what I might see and hear. One night, Hoke is laying in his bed at Tierra Nueva, listening to the two men on the other side of the wall—men who have seen more of the world than he ever can—whispering to one another:
Many nights I fell asleep, or woke, to the sound of Ryan and Ramón’s cackling back and forth, one-upping dirty jokes in their mix of Caracas-Juárez slang that I could never understand. Their laughter nonetheless made me betray my eavesdropping and laugh loudly on my side of the wall, which startled them into silence for a moment before laughing all the more. The prophet Isaiah describes the angels he glimpsed in God’s presence—seraphim, or fiery ones, on either side of the heavenly throne—calling back and forth, something he heard as holy, holy, holy. Most of those nights I think I was hearing the same.
Hoke writes about fly fishing, about communion in solitary confinement via smashed candy Atomic Fireballs, about tattoos and motorcycles and close calls with authorities, about hearing strummed guitars and the voices of abandoned children. But he’s never just writing about these things. Every one of his stories, on one level, is about something that happened. On another level, they’re about things that happen over and over, in the jails of the Pacific Northwest, in the slums of Mexico, and all around the world—and also in our own hearts.
A Memoir of God’s Story
That is why we need writers like Hoke—writers gifted at moving beyond bare analogy to create modern-day parables. Everything he observes registers as a metaphor for something bigger, as a lonely echo of a cosmic story. That he does this as a plain-spoken guy who hangs out with gang members may scandalize some readers. Murderous convicts not always getting their due? Men with sinful pasts not having to clean up their acts and go to church before they sense grace? Forgiveness for the broken but unrepentant?
Then again, Christ’s parables screwed people up in his day. The apparently righteous are sent away from heaven, the prudent are reprimanded, and the comfortable are left to rot. A parable, wrote the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon in Parables of the Kingdom, “is used not to explain things to people’s satisfaction but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all their previous explanations and utterings.”
Capon, who had a metaphorical imagination of his own, also wrote (in Between Noon and Three: Romance, Law, and the Outrage of Grace) that “the parables are, one and all, about the foolishness by which Grace raises the dead. They apply to no sensible process at all—only to the divine insanity that brings everything out of nothing.” Wanted is a memoir of God’s story—of the divine insanity that looks at the broken and brings out not the glue, but the magic wand, causing tears to rain down while healing begins.
Alissa Wilkinson, CT’s chief film critic, writes the Watch This Way blog. She is assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City.