A Rut in the Road

Making my way through Their eyes were watching God I came across this passage describing the plight of the lead character Janie, “She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods -come and gone with the sun.”

In this book Zora Neale Hurston describes Janie’s plight as she attempts to manage her own identity in a time when women had little opportunity to do so. Through a series of marriages and relationships Janie navigates a patriarchy that attempts to keep her pigeonholed within the limiting expectations of a woman’s place in the world. The tension Janie feels throughout the book is palatable and profoundly timeless as the history of the world to date dictates that there is always an attempt being made by the powerful to define those thought to be without power. And most of us know what it means to be without power in some circumstances. Some of us more than others, but everyone has a story to share of moments when we felt as if our options were limited. Or as Hurston describes Janie, “A rut in the road.”

Growing up at the end of a gravel road that was infrequently maintained by the County, taught me a few things about ruts in the road. Chiefly, they taught me not to violate the pattern lest I wanted to end up stuck in the mud or in the ditch on either side. Before I could drive, I learned this lesson from my mother. She assumed the responsibility of taking me to church. Generally it was mom driving, me in the passenger seat, and my paternal grandmother in the back seat. Mom and I were generally quiet, but Ma had no issues filling the awkward silence with her latest revelatory insight from God. We were always treated to a sermon before the sermon we would hear at church. On Wednesday nights in the winter our midweek service started at 7:30 pm, which meant that we would drive to church after the sun had set, which made navigating the gravel road which had been reduced to mostly mud after a winter snow or cold rain virtually impossible. But because in our Pentecostal world there wasn’t a legitimate reason for missing church, we would press on like trailblazing pioneers.

One particularly treacherous night, my mom jumped out of the ruts, resulting in us becoming stuck on the side of the road. We sat there for a few minutes as Ma continued her sermon, and Mom lamented our circumstances dreading the thought of having to walk the mile back home in the cold to interrupt Dad’s evening alone. But we weren’t that far from our nearest neighbor Stan. And I was volunteered to walk to Mr. Stan’s house and ask him for assistance. Stan was a gentle and agreeable fellow who was always eager to help a neighbor in need, and this time was no exception. After making it to his house and sharing with him our plight, he slipped on his boots and his winter coat and we road back together in his farm truck. After surmising that our level of “stuckness” would require some time to resolve, he suggested that in order to avoid being late for church, that the best plan of action would be for him to retrieve his family’s vehicle, take all of us to church and then return to liberate our vehicle and pick us up after service. Which he did in a timely manner. Stan knew that church was important to us, even though he, like my Dad, did not attend. Stan was the best, always exhibiting Christian virtues without claiming to be one. This was my first encounter with Stan’s kindness, the first of many that I would experience throughout my life. A kindness that we would not have experienced on that night had my mother successfully stayed in the ruts.

My Pentecostal heritage delivered to me some well worn ruts. Among them biblical literacy, emotive worship styles, and systematic rubrics for interpreting Scripture. But the ruts also inhibited me from experiencing the larger world, a world that God likewise created and had called good. Marginalized mud that was labeled heresy in my narrow doctrinal worlds, I have now discovered to be rich with layers of truth that I would have never discovered had I chosen to remain guided by the theological ruts in my denominational road. Good, if albeit imperfect people, like my neighbor Stan were waiting just off my beaten path to show me wonderful acts of kindness and insight. These people inhabit all kinds of Christian denominations, world religions, and some aren’t believers at all, but they aren’t usually found on well traveled roads. And I do recall Jesus saying something about “Narrow is the way.”

In Pentecostal Modernism, Stephen Shapiro and Philip Barnard juxtapose the works of the writer H.P. Lovecraft with early Pentecostals. Lovecraft was primarily known for his work in the pulp fiction sub-genre of weird fiction, which mixed fantasy, horror, and science fiction into commercial narratives made popular in publications like Weird Tales. The genre, like Pentecostalism, argues the authors had a way of “magnetizing and amplifying the reader’s own doubts and insecurities…Lovecraft understood that the ‘true weird tale’ was ‘more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule.’ It was a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces…a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.” Weird fiction like Pentecostalism attracts an audience based on its promise to unveil hidden truths and untapped power. Or as China Miéville astutely observes, “Weird fiction writers are in a lineage with those religious visionaries and ecstatics who perceive an unmediated relationship with numinosity -Godhead itself.”

Numinosity or Numinous was a new word for me, I had to look it up. It means “having a strong spiritual quality, indicating or suggesting the presence of a divinity.” This word made me immediately think of the luminosity which is the intrinsic brightness of a celestial body. I recall that growing up in my Pentecostal church we didn’t rely too much on external lights but rather trusted the internal lights of spiritual revelation. More specifically we were taught to trust the numinosity of our leaders. But what often resulted was a weird fiction that emphasized control and conformity, eventually the well worn ruts they delivered to us turned out to be novel graves of isolation and fear.

In Their eyes were watching God, Janie eventually finds a certain sense of liberation but only after a great deal of personal suffering and loss. But I’m stuck by Hurston’s poignant description of her “emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods -come and gone with the Sun.” My personal spiritual epiphanies have most often come in the form of disturbances. Disturbances illuminated by external circumstances in the light of the Son of God and not by trusting the internal whimsical numinosities of self appointed spiritual gurus.

Ruts in the road are safe but rarely exciting or illuminating. Get out of the rut. Your version of kind Mr. Stan awaits.

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