Attention Collections and Sneaky Religious Stories: An Interview with David Dark

I had the chance to sit down with David at Portland Brew and ask him some questions about his relationship with the Art House and his new book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious. Over the course of an hour and several cups of coffee he waxed poetic, as any friend of David's will tell you he is wont to do (it’s one of the reasons we love him), and I was glad for once to actually record our conversation so that I could pass along bits I found hopeful and helpful. 

Stephen Lamb: You have a long history with the Art House, right? When did it start?

David Dark: I want to say ’89 or ’90. I was in college. I was a philosophy major—a double major in philosophy and English—and I met, maybe at a Peter Case concert at the Bluebird Cafe, two guys who seemed very interesting, Doug McKelvey and Nick Barré. Maybe Doug was wearing an Elvis Costello T-shirt or something. It was one of my first live music outings—I wasn’t even twenty-one, it was an eighteen-and-over kind of thing. And [from Doug and Nick] I started hearing that Bible studies were occurring at an old church building in Bellevue that they called the Art House, and later found out that Charlie Peacock and Andi Ashworth had bought it. 

Those days, Nick lived in the building in a dorm room kind of situation. But it was very up for grabs what that building might mean, what it might become. There were whisperings of it being like a L’Abri community type of thing, a space in which people could pursue their art, and I think a lot of people moved to Nashville believing, hoping, that that space was a place where they could land. Maybe they thought of it as a commune that would provide them with shelter and food for a while, maybe they were just excited about an idea of a community that was trying to figure out . . . I don’t want to say intersection, but a common vision of the meaning of God and the meaning of beauty and truth. 

So I started going to those meetings, and met Charlie and Andi after a while. There was Doug—writer, songwriter, illustrator, all-around Renaissance man of a thoughtful guy—and Nick, a fantastic realizer of some of what Charlie wanted to do in addition to the music. And they, along with Jay Swartzendruber, were these three slightly older guys who invited me into that community. I needed it badly. I was having a great time at Middle Tennessee State University, but I felt like the lone philosophy department believer in God there. And here I met guys who were into the Waterboys, U2, REM, who loved David Lynch and the Coen Brothers. They provided a community of discernment and affirmation that was pretty crucial to me. This might be skipping ahead a little bit, but it was actually Charlie who invited me to be a part-time correspondent/answerer and a part-time vision conjuror of what the Art House might be, after it was clear that it would mostly be their place of residence, and they were going to be doing less in the way of programming.

Charlie asked if I would like to do an Art House book club. And I think that was very crucial to my early sense of being a lifelong teacher and reader of texts with others. There probably weren’t more than four or five people at our Flannery O’Connor Wise Blood book club, or Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man book club. But having been kind of recognized as somebody who could do that well was very helpful when I started teaching high school. So my own seeking out of vocation was helped by what Charlie and Andi were doing very early on, around ’94, ’95.

SL: Wasn’t it around that time that you taught a class on The Simpsons, which led, in a way, to your first book?

DD: That's right. Eventually they asked, “What do you want to do?” Well, I want to do an evening of The Simpsons appreciation, where we invite folks out to watch an episode of The Simpsons and discuss it. And there were people who showed up presuming that it was going to be an evening talking about the dangers and the evils of The Simpsons. One parent arrived with her child and was like, this guy is going to explain to you why I should not let you watch The Simpsons. But after watching it, her hand goes up and she said, I think I might have misunderstood what was going on. Rather wonderfully she was a very open-minded woman who was eager to hear what I had to say, and by the end of it, I don’t know that they were wholesale Simpsons fans, but I think I might have addressed a crisis that existed in their household that would be viewed a little differently now. 

SL: The Catholic priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan is one of the individuals you bring to bear in this book, along with Ursula Le Guin and Wendell Berry and others. In one chapter, you articulated your gratitude for Berrigin by writing, “He is one of many voices I depend upon to keep me from abstracting myself out of the life of the world.” Besides Berrigan and The Simpsons, I was curious about other first voices you heard that you knew you would depend upon?

DD: Well, The Twilight Zone came to me very early on. Star Trek. Star Wars. I think of all of these shows as traditions. Lupe Fiasco, being interviewed by Cornel West [at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music] years ago, was asked to say something about his religious background, and he said something like, “Islam, Christianity, Samurai, Star Wars,” and people laughed, but no one had any misunderstanding about what he was referring to in terms of being formed by the stories of Star Wars. I was encouraged to dabble widely by my parents, and I was encouraged to talk about whatever I was enthusiastic about. So if you follow Rod Sterling, the creator and primary writer of The Twilight Zone at an early age, and you believe him, there are certain bad ideas and mob mentalities that you’re always going to be skeptical about. I think the same is true of Dr. Who because it has this ethic—if you think twice instead of despising the idea of thinking twice, or of despising the idea of responding thoughtfully, that shapes so many things. And as I say in the book, I don’t think of these as secular influences that existed outside of my religious bubble. I do think of it as all one, that I receive the witness of Dr. Who writers and performers, all of those cultural offerings, into my own attempt to make sense of things. 

SL: That's good. I spent my 20s in a concerted effort to uncover some of those cultural offerings myself, since I grew up deep in the Fundamentalist bubble. We didn’t have a TV, we didn’t listen to any kind of rock music or hardly any kind of popular music for that matter. I was past twenty before I heard The Beatles for the first time, or Bob Dylan, or even someone saying that those artists might be worth listening to instead of simply being evil. In fact, your book about The Simpsons (Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons) was one of those early voices that pointed me in a new direction as I tried to find my way in the world. It was given to me by a friend who had used it, I think, to justify his enthusiasm for the show to his parents.

DD: I’m glad to have played that role.

SL: He discovered your book because he liked Sarah Masen’s music, did some digging, and discovered that Sarah’s husband wrote books.

DD: Oh, that’s terrific. I worry that we may be living in an age when fewer and fewer people read liner notes, read up on the folks who get through to them. It is all about following up. Enjoying the one Shakespeare line enough to want to read the whole play to see what else Shakespeare did, just to keep going with it. All this culture is there. Culture is a gift. We critique all manner of culture, but it is a gift. And it’s not: “I’m going to use The Simpsons to tell people about Jesus.” It’s: “The Simpsons is good, and let’s talk about how it is good, and how it enriches us.” The Art House was pretty essential in giving me the affirmation and the positive reinforcement I needed to find my voice.

SL: Yes. That affirmation, finding out other people are moved by the same things that move you—or are at least open to being moved by them—is so needful and important. I was recently at an event where I found myself in two different conversations about poetry, and I was so happy to have others share their enthusiasms with me. They told me about discovering or rediscovering Rumi and Mary Oliver, and I got to quote a Jane Hirshfield poem I had just memorized in recommending her work. You have this term in Life's Too Short that I adopted the first time I read it—“attention collections” describes those works of art that move you and that you want to share with others. I wish the poetry I love or essays or fiction that have recently captivated me came up more frequently in conversation, instead of endless chatter about sports or guns. So I’m curious: how do you bring up your “attention collection” in a group that only wants to discuss last weekend’s football games or how great open-carry and stand-your-ground laws are? How do you talk about the things that give you hope for the future without seeming uptight or elitist?

DD: Well, I think I listen—and I think people did this with me in various stages, I think people do this with me now—I listen for what I can affirm. I presume that people have treasured enthusiasms that are worthy of affirmation in some small way, and I try to find out what is it about the football game or even the legislation that seems to address a hope or a fear in that person. I start there and see where we can go. I do that in the classroom all the time, when I say something that leads a student to conclude that I’m not on their side. I try to provoke. I think everything I say I really believe, but I do try and direct it in such a way that it invites a sometimes passionate response, or at least that makes the person feel they must respond in order to be true to who they are. And once they do that, that’s not the end of the conversation. That’s the beginning of more questions.

SL: In Brené Brown’s new book Rising Strong, she writes about an experience of being really upset with the inconsiderate behavior of a fellow conference speaker and then telling the story to her counselor, expecting her counselor to back her up in her outrage. Her counselor asked instead, “Do you think maybe she was doing the best that she could?”

DD: Oh, my goodness.

SL: After she calmed down and talked about it with some of her friends, she came to realize that maybe it was true, and if so, it should change most of her interactions with others.

DD: Absolutely. People mean well, or at least they want to mean well. And those who only communicate in conversation stoppers aren’t generally people who are happy with that, but they just run out of ways of being social. So if somebody suspects or knows that I voted for a particular candidate for president and then they say something critical about that person in front of me, this may be completely nuts, but I generally assume that on some deep level, they really want to talk to me about it and they don’t know any other way of getting the party started. That may be foolishness on my part, but even if I’m wrong in concluding that, I think it’s probably better for me to assume someone is trying to be social with what they have rather than assuming that they’re trying to bring me down. Because if I think that they are trying to bring me down, I get afraid or I get angry and I’m not really able to throw the ball back in any helpful way. 

SL: Novelist Elizabeth Strout was in Nashville recently to talk about her new book, My Name is Lucy Barton. She was interviewed at the downtown library by Ann Patchett, and Ann told her that she had reread the novel that day, and, in what seemed to be a revelation for Strout, said, “I think what all your novels are about is the suspension of judgment.” I realized that’s why I love Strout’s novels.

DD: That’s really good. The suspension of judgment is our only hope. I place next to it the benefit of doubt, which I like to call the sacred benefit of doubt. That if we would be kind enough to ourselves and others to stop short of assuming we know or have gotten to the bottom of someone, we could avoid a lot of heartbreak and suffering.

SL: You return frequently in your book to the idea of community and the ways we help each other along. You write, “Human beings everywhere and in every time make it past or through or to the end of their long loneliness by believing other human beings who pass their own inspirations down through a long chronicling of plainspeak, of trying to say what they see. One true believer after another.” In Pádraig Ó Tuama’s new book In The Shelter (and I want to mention here that you introduced me to Peter Rollins, and I discovered Pádraig's writings via Pete, so thank you for that) he expresses a similar sentiment: “We tell stories in groups so that people can be believed, so that people can make meaning, so that people can carve and create kindness for another and eventually themselves.”

DD: That’s pretty fantastic. “Create kindness for another and eventually themselves.” I hope I’m doing something similar to what Pádraig is doing, with this book. And I think the little Art House anecdote I gave earlier speaks to that. I owe so much to those early extensions of intellectual and artistic hospitality from a few folks. Maybe I would have found it from somebody else, somewhere along the way, but group thoughtfulness is always from God, I think.

SL: As I'm sure you remember, your last book, The Sacredness of Questioning Everything, so resonated with me and with the conversations I was having that I kept buying copies from you to give to friends and family. I think I gave away something like forty copies all told (and at least a couple of those were actually read, I heard!). I want to pass along Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, yet I know that the title turns some of them off. Both those who say they want nothing to do with religion anymore and those who respond like my mother did when I mentioned the title, telling again the story of her father, a lifelong Fundamentalist pastor who, as he was being checked into the hospital for the last time before he died, drew himself up and responded to the nurse's question about his religion with "I don't have a religion, I have a Savior." (I think I would have had an easier time convincing some friends to read it if your working title had stuck: “Weird Religious Backgrounds: Mine, Yours, and Everyone Else’s.”) 

You address these differing views of religion in your dedication in a helpful way. I wonder how you would respond to George Lindbeck's definition of religions in The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age as “comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world." He goes on to say: "Not every telling of one of these cosmic stories is religious, however. It must be told with a particular purpose or interest . . . with a view to identifying and describing what is taken to be more important than everything else in the universe, and to organizing all life, including both behavior and beliefs, in relation to this.” 

DD: It sounds like Lindbeck is totally singing the song I’m singing, but he wants to say the word religion doesn’t apply unless there’s this extra weight of “we’re talking about real meaning, life and death stuff.” I get that. But I would say that our stories are way more sneaky than that. It’s very important to me that a commercial be recognized as a call to worship and as a religious expression. I think we are well served by letting religion name all of our ultimate concerns, including those that we pretend are not so ultimate to us. We of course do that with religion and politics when we say, “Let’s keep politics out of it, let’s keep religion out of it.” We’re saying “Let’s keep particular passions out of it so we can finish our meal.” But I think that is an avoidance. I think that’s a denial of connection, behavior, feelings, emotions that ultimately is untenable and destructive.

If somebody was to say, as people have said, “Wow, Radiohead seems like a religion to you,” my response is, “I know!” That’s absolutely the case, because I’m not just listening to Radiohead as a casual listener. I don’t know that there’s such a thing as a casual listener or a casual reader. But I try and skip straight to what I’m being accused of and say I don’t just like Radiohead, I believe Radiohead. I am moved by what they’re up to. I want to be up to the kind of thing they’re up to. And I can say that about so many people and artists and filmmakers. So that too is part of what the book is trying to do. It’s saying, let’s not front any longer. Let’s not pretend that that which we love is not what we love, because life is too short to avoid going deep with the people around you. Which is what we do when we start saying, this is what I’m into right now, and I think you should check this out.

SL: Exactly. And your book is a caution against dismissing other people’s passions as if there could be no common ground for why something resonates with someone, as if they’re not speaking to the same deep desires to be known and figuring out how to live compassionately in this world.

DD: Absolutely. Different stories, different experiences, different personality types. There are some personality types who are committed to God’s kingdom as they understand it, and who will never accept my understanding of particular Bible verses. And I can’t accept theirs either, because we are each constitutionally incapable of doing it. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t feed poor people together, reform the prison system, do all kinds of things.

SL: I’m reminded of a piece David Brooks wrote several years ago where he talked about the term coined by Dreyfus and Kelly to describe what it feels like to be a part of a crowd in a stadium when a touchdown is scored, or when your favorite band is playing your favorite song and everybody is singing along at the top of their lungs. They called it “the big whoosh,” or something like that. The moment at the end of this year’s Superbowl halftime show where everyone was singing together felt like the halftime moment when Paul McCartney led the audience in singing “Hey Jude.” That kind of communal experience.

DD: Yes. You can’t hold the big whoosh in contempt. I mean, I think you have to, to the extent that it paints a very broad brush over injustice, degradation, that kind of thing. But that which calls out to a human heart—there’s a reason for that. And we’ve got to look hard at that reason. Make sure it’s not leading to mob violence. But celebrate it to the extent that it’s trying to pull the curtain back on what’s really happening, facts on the ground kind of thing.

SL: It’s been seven or eight years since your last book was published (not counting your PhD thesis) and you’re now teaching Religion at Belmont. Do you feel like that has changed this book?

DD: I think with every book I figure out how to write . . . I used to say accessibly, as if I have this depth going on that I have to figure out how to make simple. So I don’t say that I’ve learned how to write accessibly anymore; I think I’ve learned how to write better. Even before I finished the PhD I was in the prisons and in college classrooms teaching composition classes. And I think the work of trying to take my big ideas and the things I’m passionate about and make them of interest to undergraduates has served the work well. More than ever, my writing and my teaching are one activity, it seems. I did languish for a moment when the only work available was adjunct work. When I didn’t have students with whom to discuss questions, the writing—at least this kind of writing—would not come. But once I had that going again, it could flow, and it was all of a piece.

SL: And for that, I, at least, am grateful. Thank you for your care with words, and for this new book. I am looking forward to the conversations it provokes.

Stephen Lamb lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he works in the music industry as a copyist and orchestrator. Last year, he wrote his first composition for voice and chamber orchestra, a setting of poem by Rumi. It was performed by a 22-piece chamber orchestra and featured David's wife, Sarah Masen, on vocals. The video is on YouTube.

David Dark is the author of The Sacredness of Questioning Everything; Everyday Apocalypse: The Sacred Revealed in Radiohead, The Simpsons, and Other Pop Culture Icons; and The Gospel According To America: A Meditation on a God-blessed, Christ-haunted Idea. His latest book, Life’s Too Short to Pretend You’re Not Religious, was released by InterVarsity Press in February. Following years of teaching high school English, he received his doctorate in 2011 and now teaches at the Tennessee Prison for Women, the Turney Center Industrial Complex, and Belmont University where he is assistant professor of Religion and the Arts in the College of Theology.

The Library and the Wilderness: My Life with Theodore Roosevelt

My Daughter's Village