When I was a child, God’s salvation truth felt tidy: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God saved him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9). That’s Scripture. Even a five-year old could get that. She could tuck it, tiny as a tract or a gumball, in her pocket.
My need for salvation was clear, too. Even putting to one side the daily guilt for whatever I did, which was being written up in God’s book, I had dreams. There were the many-colored flames of hell’s darkness, with bodies swimming through flame waves; what I think must have been the Beast—an anteater, chasing me, snorting me up the chute of his terrible snout.
So naturally, I decided to get it, salvation. One night, I slipped away from my family, who were finishing up supper at the yellowy pine kitchen table. The living room offered only winter deep dark. I knelt down and prayed to accept Jesus into my heart. The weave of the cushions was rough against my elbows as I leaned on my own hands.
I came out of that dark living room into the light of the linoleum kitchen. “I did it,” I said. And that was getting saved.
Looking back, this astounds me. It’s so bare a memory, fashioned in simple sketches for each instant. I thumb them like a flip book to make them come alive again, look closer. I’m not sure I get it anymore. What even happened there, in the dark? And what exactly did I do when “I did it”? I am still thinking about that salvation. I have not gotten it yet.
On His Way
James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain tells the story of a Harlem boy, John Grimes, as he gets saved during a Pentecostal Holiness prayer meeting.
The outlines of the story are as simple as the classical unities could require: it all happens in one day, a March Saturday in 1935, John’s 14th birthday. That morning, John wakes to the mystery of himself in between, not yet. He is plagued by spiritual, sexual, and vocational tension. Looking in the mirror during his dusty morning chores, though he can discern the details of his face’s features, he can’t figure out what holds him together: “the principle of their unity was undiscoverable, and he could not tell what he most passionately desired to know: whether his face was ugly or not.”
Everyone says he’s going to be a preacher, “like his father.” He’s the supposed good boy in the family, but he knows he’s sinful—he hates his father and has untoward sexual desires. That birthday, he surveys the path, which forks sharply: one way leads to the holiness of the saint in the church and the other to the evil of the world with its pleasures of sin for a season—and death at the end. His future in the church, then, seems hardly able to be resisted: “not until the morning of his fourteenth birthday did he really begin to think about it, and by then it was already too late.” Thus the novel seems to give away the ending on page one: it’s all a foregone conclusion.
The plot follows along in simple enough steps. John burns his birthday money at the forbidden movies, feeling even there in the dark that he’s been found out—for the film blazes that the wages of sin is death. And just in case the screen veils things too much, John’s brother gets stabbed while he’s out, just reinforcing what awaits the recalcitrant sinner.
When he goes to fulfill his janitorial duty at church and stays for Saturday tarry service, John finds himself lying “astonished beneath the power of the Lord.” In a dark vision, he descends into a loveless underworld and calls on the mercy of the Lord, who appears for a moment and brings him through. He comes to himself by church time Sunday morning, “saved,” and “coming” and “on [his] way.”
Prayers of the Saints
Of course, it’s not that simple, even if it is tidy in outline. The thick middle of the story, “The Prayers of the Saints” tells the spiritual backstory to the storefront church. It reveals to the reader everything that John doesn’t know about John’s aunt Florence, his step-father Gabriel, and his mother Elizabeth. That is, it uncovers what the silences and disconnection in his family hide, the unacknowledged racialized history behind John’s desire for the glory and power of the sinful world.
“The Prayers of the Saints” shows us not just what is going to drive John to the church, but also how history and the individual life come together in all of the characters, driving them toward the high tower of the church. Craig Werner calls that thick middle of the novel a “Faulknerian excavation of history,” which is fair enough, for it is likely, if John never learns it—and possibly even if he does—to bury him in its dirt. No wonder he’s called John Grimes.
“The Prayers of the Saints” is also as fair an exploration as you might find of how sin spreads beyond the individual’s soul-in-need-of-saving—permeates towns, regions, cultures, worlds. The novel makes it clear that the malignancy of slavery has mutated and spread during Reconstruction through the lymph of the body politic.
A violent gang rape of Deborah, Florence’s childhood friend, by white men in the southern town where Florence, Deborah, and Gabriel grew up, illustrates the shame of victimization that warps the entire community: “No man would approach her in honor because she was a living reproach, to herself and to all black women and to all black men.” Racism crushes individual bodies and whole communities both. The constant threat of lynching and ongoing economic inequality that the novel describes not only twists Gabriel, an individual sinner, but breaks families and participates in a wicked racist sexism that reaches culture wide, and drives black people, women and men both, as refugees to a north different only in that it “promised more.”
Gabriel, John’s stepfather, comes to see the church as a possible way to get out of the sinkhole of his social and economic position:
For he desired in his soul, with fear and trembling, all the glories that his mother prayed that he should find. Yes, he wanted power–he wanted to know himself to be the Lord’s anointed, His well-beloved, and worthy, nearly, of that snow-white dove which had been sent down from Heaven…
Yet this longing for (“snow-white”?) love and meaning—unmet in the context of white social control in the south—has bent him into a mimic of what he wanted to escape: “He wanted to be master, to speak with that authority which could only come from God.” He’s a preacher abusing others, and he has a bloody secret on his hands. “He wanted to be master, to speak with that authority which could only come from God.” He’s a preacher abusing others, and he has a bloody secret on his hands. Click To Tweet
John gets none of this, of course. And mixed up with that back story, John’s vision and John’s salvation become all the murkier. Who’s to say that John won’t end up “like his father” in more ways than one, a preacher of God’s saving love with a heart full of the most sickening hate? He already hates his father, without being able to articulate why. Even if he is saved and on his way.
The year I got saved was the same year I was diagnosed with a rare, serious kind of cancer, embryonal rhabdomyosarcoma—stage 3, a chicken-egg-sized tumor of abnormally embryonic cells in my neck. It started with inexplicable pain—and no one knew why for a disturbingly (in retrospect) long while. One doctor told my mother I was over dramatic and crazy. (Not untrue, but a bit beside the point.) It became clear that someone needed to check it out, if only to shut me up. The surgeon, Dr. Brown came out of the OR crying.
Seeing his face, everyone panicked a little. My grandmother wailed, “She’s going to die!” There was a brief pause, and then one of my aunts did that teeth sucking thing. And then she said, “Ma. She’s not going to die.”
(I knew nothing of it at the time, being under anesthesia, wrapped in a pressure bandage tied so tight that my head would be permanently dented—a hairless line just where bangs were supposed to, in the 1980s, anyway, curl under.)
The girl in the next bed at Roswell Park Cancer Institute had the same disease, same stage. And she did die. She had been a violinist, just 11, the daughter of great string musicians whose loveliness and familial tenderness we’d admired greatly. We never heard any of them play. Her name was Rebecca Heatherington.
Frankly, I wasn’t so sure that I wasn’t on my grandmother’s side of the life-or-death question. I remember one bad time, when my mother said, “If the cancer comes back, do you want to do all this again?” (All this being face-wrecking surgery, maximum radiation that would leave me susceptible to severe sunburns for life, chemotherapy with horrible side effects, including pretty much constant vomiting during drug weeks, for two years, one drug of which leaked into my muscles and eroded parts of my arm musculature forever, that sort of thing). “Or do you want to go and be with Jesus?” I said, “I think I want to go be with Jesus.”
It didn’t really turn out to be up to me, of course. But what surprises me about that memory is the confidence of that moment with my mother. At least Paul hems and haws “I do not know which I prefer” between life and death. Sure, you might say, that’s just five-year-olds and Pelagians everywhere, lords of all they survey, wielding, they suppose, eternal life and death in their tiny fists thanks to an overweening version of free will that seems as much middle class and American as it does heretical.
But I was a miracle—what else was I supposed to think? Cancer had tried to get me, but Jesus saved me. My dad got up and spoke at a tent meeting about my healing. And there were tongues and gospel music belting out of Mrs. Wright, who had recorded a real gospel record. He told them all about the Lord’s healing power, and I was the sign. We marked the anniversaries of survival. One woman my grandmother knew sent me a Madame Alexander doll every December for more than a decade for just the anniversary—each one as finely made as a human child, finer, even—for their own faces and hair were never as bent and cut away as my own. But it was all right if my face was ugly, because everything I did seemed to signify deliverance.
Cancer makes you kind of special like that, if you live with Jesus. Adults would say, “You were saved for a reason.” Strangers would remark upon my red hair (maybe not knowing I’d been hairless as an egg for years) and I somehow learned to respond, “Jesus gave it to me” and explain as a way of sharing the gospel. As if I were chosen for the disease—and chosen to live through it. I got very good grades. I made plans to become an oncologist, a cardiologist, a missionary–all fields that, it occurs to me, aim to save people.
In Go Tell It on the Mountain, John’s family attends the Pentecostal holiness storefront congregation Temple of the Fire Baptized. But the larger Harlem context also matters: their worship and work happens with other communities of black people living in Harlem during the Depression. In the novel, it’s still some 13 years before America will desegregate the armed forces, and 19 years before Brown v. Board will fail to really desegregate schools, and twenty years before the picture of Emmett Till’s mangled body will ignite a fire in Rosa Parks. John, and all of them in the failed promise of the North, are holding on, creating communities of resistance and worship and art and achievement.
The way Baldwin seems to show it working—how they hold on—is through a mental shorthanding. They operate by means of two-way categories—categories in which one of the sides is good and the other bad. There are saved people and there are sinners trying to entice them; there are black people and there are white people who want to kill them; there are men and there are the women who tempt them; there is light and there is a very present darkness. If they can just get themselves to be on the right side and resist the wrong, stand in the faith, they’ll be able to keep going. If they can know themselves saved, they’ll be okay—and if not in this life, then surely when the books are opened on Judgment Day when God leads them on home.
The Right Side
When I was 12, a mission called Teen Challenge came to our church–a ministry where addicts travelled around, testifying to how Jesus saved them and set them on the right path. I was wearing a rainbow sherbet striped dress–my favorite at the time–for the special meeting. It went like this–one guy would come up and share. And then, at the end, he’d belt out the verse of this song, call and response.
I got my mind made up
(all right! the rest of the guys would say)
And my heart is fixed
(oh yeah, they all shouted)
And I’m going with Jesus all the way
(and they’d all—we’d all—cheer)
And then all the other guys in the line would join in to respond:
He’s got his mind made up
and his heart is fixed
And he’s going with Jesus all the way.
And then another guy would come forward, and the whole thing would happen again.
At the end of the night, we knew the song by heart. They started passing around the mic, too, dragging around the long cord. And sometimes someone in the congregation would be waving their hand, wanting to sing, and sometimes they’d put that mic right in someone’s face, even if they didn’t volunteer. Most people sang. One girl I knew didn’t.
They didn’t put the mic to me. But I remember the gut cold feeling. I was sure that if they had, I would have sung. But I was also sure I would have been lying through my crooked teeth. I knew myself horribly. And, when they did the invitation for people to come to Christ, I raised my hand just at the “every head bowed, every eye closed” moment. Maybe I could make it true, and myself honest; I would go with Jesus all the way.
Turns out I was put to the testifying test right away. On the way to the car, the lead evangelist from the group stopped me: “Aren’t you the woman who got saved tonight?” he asked. “I remember you because of the dress.” (It was the first time I’d ever been called a woman). My parents were with me, and they were confused, “But Tiff, we thought you WERE saved.” I started to perish right that moment from embarrassment, everlasting life or no. I finally squeaked out, miserably, “I just. . . wanted to be sure.”
“That’s all right. I know the Lord ain’t as hard as Daddy.”
It’s funny, though, when you read Go Tell It on the Mountain, you see how Baldwin constantly breaks down all those dichotomies that would help the characters get themselves for sure on the right side.
The saints in the novel, like Gabriel, seated high in the church, seem to have an army of skeletons in their closets. They tend to interpret events in their lives as signs of what they want to hear; they manipulate their sense of God’s voice and action in the world to their own advantage. Gabriel convinces two women that God wants them to marry him for a symbol—his own marked failure to love shows just how empty his signifiers are.
And the sinners in the novel do some of the best things. Everyone calls Roy, John’s step-brother, the bad boy, knowing he will meet a bad end if the Lord doesn’t change his heart. But Roy polishes the woodwork to a shine when his mother asks; he defends her even though he gets beaten for it. He chafes under the binary judgment: “You think that’s all that’s in the world is jails and churches? You ought to know better than that.” And bad boy Roy gets one of the best theological lines of the novel: “That’s all right. I know the Lord ain’t as hard as Daddy.”
John’s conversion experience, the climax of the novel, is another breaking down of oppositional categories. His coming to the light occurs within a dark, troubling, ambiguous vision. He travels through a dark underworld of abuse and hatred for his father, through the grave, and hell itself before seeing a great congregation of saints all dressed in white at communion. But the blood won’t wash off their feet, and it seems, even at the great riverside, their sin remains: “All struggled to get to the river, in a dreadful hardness of heart: the strong struck down the weak, the ragged spat on the naked, the naked cursed the blind, the blind crawled over the lame.”
The vision culminates in a single glorious moment, which is also full of ambiguity. Someone cries, “Sinner, do you love my Lord?” And then John sees “the Lord—for a moment only” and “the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with light.” And then “the light and the darkness . . . kissed each other, and were married now, forever, in the life and the vision of John’s soul.” The conversion moment—being called out of darkness into a glorious light—is also a deep mystery where darkness is somehow still part of the situation.
Demarcating Ourselves Special
I felt so ashamed the night of the recommitment debacle, even while wanting to go all the way with Jesus. But surely standing up was necessary for salvation! “I am not ashamed,” I memorized, “of the gospel of Christ. For it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth, first to the Jew and also to the Greek.” If I were ashamed, I would not be saved. For “whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.”
I had to push hard against being ashamed, and I had to try and get better, get sanctified. I took mission trips, listened to Christian music, fought for prayer in public schools, bore witness during my graduation speech, even added a little “PTL” to my signature. And we steeled ourselves, my sisters and me, by demarcating ourselves special in our minds. We set out a difference between those in our high school/youth group who were real Christians, on fire for the Lord, and those who weren’t really committed. I asked my sister about it the other day. I don’t know what we called it, she said, but I remember doing it.
Is it Real or is it Ironic?
Critics have never known what to do with James Baldwin and religion–especially in Go Tell It on the Mountain. Word is, that when Baldwin delivered the manuscript, the editor said, “What about all that come-to-Jesus stuff? Don’t you think you ought to take it out?” Baldwin gagged at the thought—doing so would completely eradicate the work. The novel was semi-autobiographical for Baldwin—the material, he said, that he needed to write if he were ever going to write anything else.
Go Tell It on the Mountain was Baldwin’s way of trying to get over that childhood religion, that he seemed to have walked away from in the ensuing years (“I’m nothing,” he said when Elijah Muhammed asked him about it. “I’m a writer”). In an interview with Studs Terkel, he described the difficulty of even finishing Go Tell It on the Mountain, saying “I was ashamed of where I came from and where I had been. I was ashamed of the life in the Negro church. . . and I ran from it.”
In The Fire Next Time, he did it even more, trying to explain what happened there, back then:
Every Negro boy. . . realizes, at once, profoundly, because he wants to live, that he stands in great peril and must find, with speed, a “thing,” a gimmick, to lift him out, to start him on his way. . . it was my career in the church that turned out, precisely, to be my gimmick.
Baldwin takes Christianity and the Nation of Islam equally to task in The Fire Next Time for being gimmicks. In their demarcating so starkly those binary categories that allow them to wield power, love is collateral damage. He declares, “If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.” Baldwin never quite did, though—the religion is inextricable, the mysterious dark center of the word he was building in the world. In their demarcating so starkly those binary categories that allow them to wield power, love is collateral damage. Click To Tweet
After reading The Fire Next Time, many critics reinterpreted Go Tell It on the Mountain. Ah, they thought—he must be writing John’s conversion as a gimmick. Can’t be real.
In my own first reading, the year 2000, I was entranced—knocked flat on my back under its power—lying on top of my giant TA desk. I had never encountered a book that so powerfully evoked church experience. But the moment I finished, I had to go back. I wasn’t sure what to do with Baldwin’s conversion scene. Was Baldwin portraying it as real for John? As real for Baldwin? As only temporary, because it was doomed to fail? As completely ironic? I mean, Baldwin had all the shibboleths. He described all of it right—all the music and life and prayer and word, and the rhythm of the thing—even the feel when the church would “rock.” But I couldn’t make a call about the conversion—the signs weren’t fitting into either real or unreal.
Neither was satisfying. If I said it was real, then why did the book go back to the mess of the street after, with so little difference or hope for John and his family? Why did the section emphasize the non-healing of John’s relationship with his father? Why is there so much darkness and foreboding? On the other hand, if I said the conversion was not real, then how to explain the unequivocal line, “John saw the Lord”—even if it was just “for a moment”? And then I had to go back to that big fat middle of the novel, “The Prayers of the Saints”: what does the bigger story—the community, regional, national story—have to do with the conversion?
It bothered me more than a little. Maybe it was that somehow if Baldwin couldn’t write a true, convincing conversion of John on the threshing floor in the dark, after all that novel, then maybe nothing had happened in the living room in the dark there, long ago, for me, when it seemed so simple, when I described coming to the Lord as something that I’d done for saving me, myself, and I. But that seems melodramatic. It was convincing. But convincing of what?
I think the whole “Is it real or is it ironic?” question is just another dichotomy, and Baldwin, the novel amply demonstrates, breaks down such dichotomies. What if I read the ambiguous darkness, trembling, and grief of the conversion and its aftermath not as evidence for whether we read the conversion as genuine or ironized, but rather as a call to a thicker, more robust theology of salvation/conversion?
I mean something like this. The way I’d heard conversion stories as a child, when you experience salvation, you get peace and happiness because you’ve been forgiven. As the old song goes, you’ve got the “Joy joy joy joy down in your heart to stay.” Now, John does experience joy. But when I say Baldwin calls me to a more robust theology of salvation, what I mean is that the ambiguity in the conversion moment prompts me to investigate how the joy of salvation is more than the joy of being personally accepted into Christ’s kingdom. Rather, it is “a joy. . .whose roots. . .were nourished by the wellspring of a despair not yet discovered.”
Wait, what? Despair in joy? What does that mean? Of course, what John has “not yet discovered,” exactly, is the thick middle of the novel—the legacy of the lynching tree, the veil “between the world and me,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates would later describe it. Perhaps the “despair” mentioned is what theologians call the “not yet”—that unrelenting legacy of injustice that persists until Christ comes again. If so, then, the joy of salvation here is way bigger and more surprising and nuanced than the thrill of escape from a burning lake of fire. It is a joy emerging out of the trust in the proclamation of the “already” of Christ’s kingdom—a City of God that works justice because “righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Ps. 97:2).
A joy nourished by despair is a joy that (John doesn’t understand yet) acknowledges the not yet, and yet still asserts that God’s just kingdom can (and must! and does!) see (and be with!) the lynching tree. That kingdom can and will break down that veil or wall between people/races/cultures by declaring the two one, can do more than manage the individual’s messy business. That’s a joy unspeakable, and full of a trembling glory—a larger, more trembling joy and glory.
Another example. The way I understood it as a child, salvation is sort of the first step in getting better as a person (call it being “sanctified”). And so, because sin is taken care of, we can be glad about that, can feel our sin wiped away, and can expect to get better. But according to the third section of Go Tell It on the Mountain, the material surrounding John’s conversion, Gabriel and Florence don’t seem to change through the course of the novel and the relating of their long histories—and Florence admits it. Her “prayer of the saints,” requires a confrontation with the unloving acts she’s committed (abandoning her dying mother, driving away her husband) as well as its sources in her inherited self-hate (culturally programmed in her by a racist society). Salvation thus isn’t just a disappearing of sin or a self-willed self-improvement or uplift—it’s a reckoning, a justice that tells the whole story.
And while Gabriel would like to avoid the reckoning that comes with salvation by asserting the sign of the forgiveness of God, Florence doesn’t let him escape. She demands a better sign: “Where’s your branches? Where’s your fruit?” She has evidence for the blood on Gabriel’s hands from his dead wife and plans to use it against him: “When I go, brother, you better tremble, ‘cause I ain’t going to go in silence.” The use of the word “tremble” there brings us again to the necessary justice of God’s kingdom: as Psalm 97:4 declares, eerily, “His lightnings light up the world; the earth sees and trembles.” Interrogation light? Bringing sin out of darkness into the light? Whatever it is, it’s a trembling justice.
Knowing Whence You Came
When I think back to how Baldwin has impacted my outlook back then in that first reading, I’m not sure I’d have been able to articulate any of this thicker theology of salvation that I think the novel calls us to. I can only say that with John, it set me “on my way”—in a thrilling combination of trembling joy and trembling justice. In the years since, rereading the novel has led me toward the idea that salvation doesn’t engender unmitigated happiness, but occurs—must occur—concurrently with a furious lament of injustice, a commitment to paying the cost, a trembling at the reckoning requirement for justice. The joy of salvation is a trembling thing—it requires a reckoning—and Baldwin’s novel tells that on the mountain a thrilling truth: that even “the mountains” themselves melt like wax before the Lord, before the Lord of all the earth.”
There was—and is—plenty to separate us, James Baldwin and me, John Grimes and me. But Baldwin was still alive when I was kneeling there against that rough couch, five, in the dark. We shared residence on the same planet at the same time, and citizenship in the same country. I needed as much of a Faulknerian excavation of history as Baldwin’s character John—I, too, needed what Baldwin describes in “Down at the Cross” as “know[ing] whence you came.” My conversion took place in a small house on a lonely street called “Spook Hill” in a small town in upstate New York that–I’d learn a dozen years later–held Ku Klux Klan rallies during John Grimes’s days–and has households that sport Confederate flags to this day. I wouldn’t learn that for years. Literature has brought me some of that knowing–the bigger story of the town (and the world). Perhaps unlike Baldwin, I don’t want to get over getting saved. Click To Tweet
Perhaps unlike Baldwin, I don’t want to get over getting saved. And I couldn’t be more grateful for the heritage of faith into which I have been born–I say with the psalmist in all passionate earnestness, “Truly I am your servant, Lord; I serve you just as my mother did; you have freed me from my chains.” And my earthly father has a lot in common with my heavenly one. But Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain makes me want to keep getting better at understanding what “saved” means—the mystery of it in light of a bigger history than the individual. Go Tell It on the Mountain has been for me about the theological push that literature offers—the push back into the Scripture and theological tradition that ask me to reconsider my experience and let the gospel grow in me. This novel pushes me to see the ways the Scripture describes a gospel far more capacious than my understanding of “getting saved.” John Grimes’s conversion and my own have everything—everything—to do with the family story, the national story, the world story, the whole-creation story.
The amazing thing to me now is that a man trying to escape Christian faith wrote it more rightly mysterious in fiction, truer to our partial knowledge of the faith, than I was getting it by living it (or trying to) for real.
 I’m grateful to my colleague Esau McCulley for noting Psalm 97’s kingdom pairing of righteousness and justice—and their link to doctrines of justification by faith in the kingdom of God.