What inspired you to write Searching for God in the Sixties? What sparked your interest?
I graduated from High School in 1967, took a year off to see the world in the merchant marine, ended up in the McCarthy for President campaign, and landed at Harvard the next year in time for the first student takeover. I was in SF during the summer of ’68, when chaos was simmering, and in Chicago in August of ’68 when chaos erupted. I did the dope and lived the life. The sixties, as they did so many of my generation, made me. But what I have since read in academic discourse is never the reality I experienced. That came through instead in the literature of the times, and the underground comix, and the music.
At Harvard, I was introduced to the Puritans by Alan Heimert, Perry Miller’s colleague, and I discovered to my shock that the discourse of religion was not always the stupid idiocy my parents, scientists both who met building the atom bomb together at Los Alamos, had taught me. To my astonishment, Cotton, Hooker, Edwards all spoke to me. So I went to Harvard Divinity School to discover if the word “God” really did have any meaning.
This book is my lifetime effort to express what I have learned or failed to, to tie together all that education, plus a PhD in American Civ at Brown, plus years of teaching, to the reality of lived experience, to make a new narrative if you will. I once hoped to get it published by 1998 in time for the 30th anniversary of that great year, but the trade publishers found it too academic and the academic publishers found it too trade. I despaired several times that I would never climb out of that great canyon between them. But I kept going back to that itch. This is what I had to say, and I had to say it.
What’s the most important message for readers?
Too many messages clamor for attention:
1. Neither the head nor the heart can be trusted, neither logical planning and control on the left or libertarian laissez-faire romanticism on the right. Too much control is fascistic totalitarian arminianism—too much liberty is anarchy and antinomian madness—and there is no safe place in the middle. We sail up into the wind and can only tack back and forth to get anywhere as we desperately seek safe harbor.
2. The language of American religion means something beyond some social control moralism. And the sixties were less a rebellion against that American religious tradition than a powerful expression of it. Academia seeks discontinuities; I argue for a continuity of purpose from the Great Awakening to Woodstock: “Reformation Without Tarrying for Any!” foreshadowed Freedom Now! The Sixties were as American as apple pie or that great American hippie Johnny Appleseed.
3. Given the reality of the socially constructed cages we are trapped in, the Matrixes which we accept unknowingly, we have two choices. We can either make the cage as comfortable as can be for as many people equally as possible; Or we can try to break out of the cage, break out of the text, break out of Egypt, and seek some Zion on the other side of the wilderness, even at the risk of death and madness. “Much madness is divinest sense” sang Emily Dickinson. “So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense” wrote Melville. Norman O. Brown carried this line throughout the sixties, that we must break out of the cage of rationality and “common sense” and dare the wilderness of madness if we are ever to be truly free and “break on through to the other side.” This, and not the vote, is what Freedom means.
4. For the historians and theologians: it is time for a reconsideration of the old neo-orthodox sensibility. I respect Edwards and Barth and Niebuhr. The romantic enthusiasm of the sixties ended in Manson’s nihilism and led to post-modernism’s solipsism. Paglia was right: romantic rebellions against structure lead to decadence which ends up forcing a return to structure until the cycle begins again. Dualism is, rightly understood, more liberating than any monism.
Theological Discourse needs to be rescued from the fundamentalists and the secularists. Theory is what theology was.
Anything you had to leave out?
Probably not, but everyone I know asks what about this book? That thinker? This song? These movies? I wish I had included Bernadine Dohrn’s line “We were outside the law; the law was outside the law.” There is your antinomianism! But as it is, I should have cut and pared, not added. I am told the work is wonderful but too dense, like a nut cheesecake with chocolate one can only take a few bites from before needing to stop and digest a while.
What are the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
The political types, both right and left, have managed to create the idea that the sixties were a time of leftist, collectivist politics. But Camille Paglia is right to scorn such thinking. This was an era of mad individualism, not collectivism, of romantic essentialism, not social construction. The old lefties failed in their every effort to organize. Abby Hoffman was booed off the stage at Woodstock when he tried to get political. SDS lost 90% of its members when Progressive Labor seized control. The sixties were more libertarian than socialist and a lot of old hippies are Ron Paul types today.
And religion has come to be seen as a tool of the right. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Berrigan brothers would not recognize or be recognized these days. I blame Reagan who got elected by creating a political movement of the religious right. After 1980, anything religious was “them.” But I also blame the leftist secularists who allowed him to seize the flag of religion and wave it as his own alone. They allowed the same to happen to Old Glory, to their shame.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Two, in fact.
My own Baby Boom generation still trying to come to terms with what happened. As I say at the beginning, the sixties are to the rationalists a stumbling block, to the conservatives foolishness, but to those who were there some sense remains of something more important than the politics or dope or music. Something happened beyond one generation’s memory of its youth, something that I want to try to define.
And the other is the younger generation, my students, who also sense that something went down in their parents’ youth but have really no idea just what. Though many want to.
Hoping to inform readers? Please them? Piss them off?
Can I do all three? If not, I will piss them off by undercutting all their comfy narratives. I will force them to accept that even evangelical religious discourse is and has been meaningful. I will force them to rethink what they think they know, I will rescue American history from its cultured despisers. I argue in this book that George W. Bush was the last hippy, all gut and no rational logic, and Obama a throwback to the rational logic of Ike and Stevenson and not a child of the sixties at all. I refuse to leave anyone comfortable with his or her preconceptions. Iconoclasm is my game. If my chapter on Manson, not a defense but perhaps an apologia, does not raise howls, I will have failed.
Great question, at least in my case.
The title of my book, the true title, always was and always will be “Jason Sham Too: with various options for a subtitle.” That is the last line of the Emily Dickinson poem which serves to structure the chapters. “Jason” was also a very popular name in the sixties. So it fits all around. It was “meant” to be. But every publisher and agent I sent the book to objected to the title: “too obscure,” “too off-putting,” “will scare readers away.” When I suggested to U of Del press “Jason Sham Too: Searching for God in the Sixties,” they instantly erased the title and went with the subtitle, no question, no argument, no permission. Sigh. After 12 years of failing to get a publisher, I was not about to argue. I went along.
I played with “Get back, Jo Jo” which brings in the Beatles and serves to highlight my sense of the return to neo-orthodoxy and its sense of human sin and limitations. But “Jason Sham Too” is still how I think of it.
How do you feel about the cover?
The only thing I got perfect, and it is the best cover of any book published in the 21st century, I swear. I had to find Crumb, not easy to do, and pay a lot of money for permission, but I was glad to pay every cent. I sent a review copy to The New Yorker’s Louis Menand who had reviewed my earlier book Sin Boldly! He sent me back an email thanking me for the book and praising the cover. That was it. I am still waiting for a review.
Is there a book you wish you had written? Why?
Call it a cliché, but my field is early American, and still the greatest book in the world to me, one I reread every year and still get moved to tears by, is Moby Dick.
Melville’s personal conflict between accepting the cage or breaking out of it was the force that drove that work. Once past his suicidal hypos and redeemed by that noble savage Queequeg, Ishmael accepted the world as given and cleansed his heart of the fiery hunt. This—the romantic—I understand. But Ahab pushed on into the “watery wilderness” determined to challenge the matrix and find out who or what lay behind its veil, even if to do so sunk the whole ship.
This otherworldly orthodoxy I also understand. Pip warns us that to seek for God is dangerous, that if we unscrew the true meaning of the cosmic text, our buttocks will fall off. But as Nietzche said, we are not cows content to just graze and go to the slaughterhouse. We have brains that think, think, think. I’m with Robinson Jeffers, another neo-orthodox favorite, who says in “Original Sin”: “As for me, I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man/ But we are what we are.”
What’s your next book?
Already begun, my next book is the continuation of my first book, Wilderness Lost. I begin with Edward Abbey asking why are we Americans so enraptured by the very word Wilderness. My answer is to go to the Old Testament, to the children of Israel escaping from Egypt, and seeing in that an escape from the Text. Derrida said there is nothing outside the text. He was wrong. What looks like void is wilderness, and scripture holds out the hope that we don’t have to work on Pharoah’s farm no more, that if we abandon structure and head out into that chaos, somewhere on the other side of that void is the promised land of true vision.
This is the heart of the American literature of the Wilderness. The feminists so dominant in academia these days have pushed the idea that all this American men in the wilderness literature from Cooper to Melville to Twain to Faulkner to Abbey to Into the Wild’s Chris McCandless and many more is nothing but “escapism.” Social constructionists all, these women believe that society is it and that we have a social responsibility to make the cage as clean and fair and equitable as we can and that any attempt to break out of the cage is simply running away from political responsibility. To which I say “Bullshit!”
Indeed, I posit an essentialist reason for this duality, that women are by nature nesters and need to create a home for raising children while men get their genes further into the future generations by roaming far afield. This means that social constructionism itself is a product of essentialism. All that emphasis on nurture is dictated by nature. This too will piss the ladies off. So be it. May I quote Paglia? “Male urination is an arc of transcendence; woman just waters the ground she squats on.”
So I see in the modern literature of nature and wilderness an attempt to break out of socially constructed reality and get in touch with some undefined “other.” I try not to define that “other” but I do point out that this same effort is what our ancestors meant when they talked of religion and God. I like nature writers like David Gessner (Sick of Nature) who constantly harps on the attempt to get out of his own skull, to turn off his own gray matter, and become one with his subject, to bridge the duality between us and them, to erase the curse of the Fall. Gessner does not see his quest in these religious and historical terms, but I think he should, as should we all.
Too much of modern thinking tries to cut us off from our past as if everything that happened before 1968 was nothing more than a long tragic history of dead white yur-apeein’-on-us males raping and pillaging and exploiting and lynching. Yes, that all happened, but there is something else too, something, as Faulkner said in “The Bear,” something in and of the wilderness
“not even a mortal beast but an anachronism indomitable and invincible out of an old dead time, a phantom, epitome, and apotheosis of the old wild life which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear….”
When Faulkner describes Sam Fathers as being like an old bear in a cage who suddenly, upon smelling the wilderness outside the cage, suddenly realizes that he is in a cage, suddenly smells not just the wilderness outside but the cage that controls him and roars, that is the “escape,” like Neo from The Matrix, like the children of Israel from Egypt, that Faulkner meant. There is more here than irresponsible white males running away from politics, far more. And it needs to be said again before the very idea of what the wilderness, and the “Fear of God,” really means is lost.
Anything else not in the first 10 questions the readers need to know?
This book will not supply anyone with any answers. Its final line is Increase Mather’s prayer “How long O Lord, how long, how long, how long?”; but I do hope it will help clarify some questions.