At a recent n+1 panel discussion, Malcolm Gladwell, James Wood, and Christine Smallwood discussed God as trade, unmetaphysical writers, and intellectualism versus how religion makes you feel.
Malcolm Gladwell’s hair is not nearly as exuberant as I was expecting. Then again, maybe I’m just sitting too far away to appreciate its full splendor. Apparently, ten minutes early is not early enough to get a seat anywhere but the second to last row of the New School’s red-and-white, egg-shaped Tishman Auditorium when a panel discussion, organized by the editors of the hip, intellectual periodical n+1, is mystifyingly titled “Evangelicalism and the Contemporary Intellectual.” It doesn’t hurt that the members of said panel are the feverishly respected British literary critic James Wood, culture writer and former associate literary editor of The Nation Christine Smallwood, and the aforementioned pop-science writer Malcolm Gladwell, whose latest book What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (Little Brown & Co. 2009) collects the journalists favorite New Yorker pieces.
The moderator is Caleb Crain, author of American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation (Yale University Press 2001), who introduces the panel with comments about how everyone accepts that there is a crossover between Jews in New York and intellectuals in New York, but the same does not apply to other religions, and especially not evangelical forms of most religions. Why is that? he asks. Crain also uses the phrase “dispensational premillennialism,” which I learn later means something like the belief that Christ is coming back, but in stages, with the first one as a kind of trial run where he only deals with people that still believe in him. There is a good chance this is not correct.
Malcolm Gladwell (whose New Yorker Festival talk on alcoholism was covered by The Rumpus) talks next. “I really do sort of regret that I don’t share my parents’ faith,” he says. His parents are “liberal evangelical Mennonites” and his dad is very much a fan of C.S. Lewis. The idea that he took away from his parents, says Gladwell, is that there’s really no down side to behaving as though God exists. “As they would say on Wall Street,” he says, “God is an asymmetrical trade.” This makes people chuckle. He says that, ultimately, it was too hard for him to reconcile faith and reason, and that’s why he’s not religious. He seems genuinely wistful about this, sort of.
Christine Smallwood has large glasses, several necklaces and excellent bangs. She opens by sharing that everyone says she “seems Jewish,” but she is not. Smallwood adds that people should probably think about her name being Christine before they jump to such conclusions. She was raised in a “corporate” megachurch and was saved at the age of 14 at a youth-conference-slash-Christian-rock-concert in Florida (cue laughter). She began to reject her parents’ religion soon after, but she’s still interested in evangelicalism––what she calls the “repetition compulsion”—the idea that you can never get saved enough. She also thinks most secular intellectuals have yet to find anything that comes close to how religion makes religious people feel. “How does intellectualism compete?” she asks. “What can you do to be beside yourself?” No one talks for almost a minute after she says it and then everyone claps.
This is hard to follow, but James Wood’s charming British accent and his anecdotes about his charming and austere, evangelical yet socially progressive Scottish and British parents do a pretty good job. The Protestant Church of England was big on “dubious music,” says Wood, and the Church also made his mother speak in an entertaining manner. “My relationship with my first girlfriend was ‘unedifying,’” says Wood. “And my untidy room was an example of ‘bad stewardship.” He is not religious now, but he is nevertheless amazed that so many writers can be so unmetaphysical. “How could you be so uninvolved with higher things,” he says, “with your soul?”
The question-and-answer session includes, mostly, collared-shirt-wearing men in their young twenties, with a few women in the mix. Questions range from what we can do about the unsavory direction evangelical Christianity has moved in the United States, to what we can do about how isolated intellectuals are, to what we can do about, generally speaking, evil. Gladwell reasserts his regret that he is no longer a believer, and wonders if the discussion about religion as an “other” doesn’t feel just a bit judgmental. Smallwood talks about the Bible as a good way to learn “deep reading,” then rejects the notion that faith and critical reason are at odds with one another, and doesn’t elaborate. Wood, who has written some pretty biting critiques of the so-called new atheists (see his August 2009 New Yorker article, “God in the Quad”) leans forward across the table and shares thoughts on Richard Dawkins, Isaac Newton and Mark Twain within five minutes. One questioner asks, after a pitchy speech, if the panel format is not, after all, an altar call. No one touches that one. The students in the row in front of me, with their laptops out, are whispering loudly, annoyed by him.
The last person in the question line is a rabbi, who expresses some disappointment that the panel focused so heavily on evangelical Christianity when there are other religions with evangelical sects that cause rifts and warrant discussion. In closing, he tells Smallwood that the Jews would be happy to have her. She laughs and says thank you.
Original Illustration by Sybille Schenker.