Thinking About Belief

Novelist Clyde Edgerton Considers Faith, Fundamentalism, and Free Thinking

Best-selling author Clyde Edgerton’s ninth novel, The Bible Salesman (Little, Brown), is the story of Preston Clearwater, a car thief who picks up hitchhiker Henry Dampier, a 19-year-old Bible salesman.

When Clearwater offers Dampier a lift on the road in post-war North Carolina, he convinces Dampier he is an FBI agent in need of an associate. Dampier joyfully seizes the opportunity to lead a double life as both a bible salesman and a G-man.

But Dampier’s fundamentalist upbringing doesn’t prepare him for the complexities of his new life. He falls in love, questions his religious training, begins to see he’s being used, and realizes that he is now on his own in a way he never imagined.

David Sedaris told USA Today, “I read a galley recently on a trip to Greece. I howled with laughter. It’s called The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton. Now I have all his previous books to enjoy, too…How good it feels to throw back one’s head and howl with a great comic novel. The ‘burial tuck’ alone should make The Bible Salesman a classic.”

A Statement About Belief
By Clyde Edgerton

I think about religion a good bit. And I write novels in which characters think about religion. In my most recent novel, The Bible Salesman, the main character is reading the Bible on his own for the first time and throughout the narrative he is confused and delighted and puzzled by what he reads. His thinking sometimes reflects my own, but managing and understanding my character’s “belief” or “unbelief” was not difficult because I had relatively good control of his mind and the influences on it, and what he experienced, whereas with my own mind, what is out there staring at me is a universe of scrambled information and judgments and feelings. And while I believe there is a design of some sort going on out there (in the physical universe), I don’t believe it’s run by anybody. At least not by anybody human beings can or will ever be able to clearly contemplate. And so at this point in my life a basic question is “Why worship something you can’t even contemplate?”—because if you can’t contemplate it, how do you know, beyond hearsay, that it deserves worship?

My own thinking has gone through several general stages regarding “belief” over the past sixty years or so and my characters are often stuck in one of those stages and I manage sometimes to squeeze some humor from their thinking. I will list below the approximate stages I’ve been through. I do this assuming that some readers have comparable stages and that comparisons might be interesting.

1. Fundamentalist Believer Unable to Make Decisions Contrary to Creed

I accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was seven. My family attended a Baptist church. I guess there is a sense in which I made a decision to do this (walk down the church aisle on my own and take the preacher’s hand and tell him that I believed in Jesus, meaning that I believed that Jesus was the only begotten son of God) however I had been prepped for this act by my mother and church leaders, all of whom made it clear to me that if I did not publicly accept Jesus then I would go to hell after I died. I had no reason not to believe what I was told, and every reason to believe. During this stage I was hearing the stories of David and Goliath, the Good Samaritan, Jesus, John the Baptist, Miriam and Moses, Isaac and Abraham, and these and other Bible stories amazed me. They are still amazing (I went back to some of them while thinking through The Bible Salesman), and though I’m just now writing only about stage one, I must say that these stories still seem precious in a way. In what way?—well, not so much because of their plot—though some are smokers—but because of my relationship to those who told and read those stories to me, over and over: my mother and my church teachers. They were good people. Good to me, anyway.

I just read Christopher Hitchens’ book, God is Not Great (or some of it anyway), and it seemed exactly right, exactly rational, an important and real and ethical and moral and good statement. But there’s a part of me that is somehow resistant, that can’t turn loose of those stories (and I’m not sure that’s what Hitchens would have me do.) A question I ponder is this: Without “religion” as it was practiced in my culture—something bad to Hitchens and others—would I have had the kind of experiences as a child that somehow got me interested in art and metaphysical questions? We didn’t have books in my house beyond the Bible and some paperbacks I started bringing home in the eighth grade, and there were no magazines except Boys Life. The Bible was my main literature. And here I hear the position: “Just because it was good for you doesn’t make it good for humankind.” No, but . . .

2. Fundamentalist Believer Capable of Decision Making

I was able to go to church some on my own after I left home to go to college and then serve in the Air Force but I didn’t go often and I didn’t think about “being religious” as much beyond going to church and also believing in the divinity of Jesus.

3. Episcopalian

At some point I started attending an Episcopal church fairly regularly. As a part of church activities I “helped out” migrant workers, and I was not unproud to be a part of such action. I looked down on fundamentalists, on their ignorance, on their unwillingness to ask questions, to inquire, to think. I was no longer convinced that Jesus was the literal child of God. In church services, however, I recited the Nicene Creed, unable (or unwilling) to grapple with my willingness to say one thing while believing another—in other words, to grapple with being a hypocrite.

4. Non-believer?

Well, wait—the question is not exactly right. Are you a believer or a non-believer? What I cannot (given the way my brain works) believe in are “miracles”—the kind that involve magic beyond the “forces of nature”—and I can’t believe in the ability of anyone to see into the future. And neither of those parameters seem to have much to do with how we behave toward other human beings, such behavior being the bottom line, since it involves the survival of the human race. That survival is something most of us agree is a good thing.

And if God or Allah or Whomever meddles directly in all the affairs of humans, by answering prayer and so forth, then I want no part of that show. No part of a God who hands out the kinds of deformities that our present one does. (As I write, I realize the arguments and positions I’m working around are old hat—but that doesn’t make them less interesting.) When I hear someone say something like, “God was good to me,” I am astounded, and also not astounded (since I grew up hearing that). Think of what that judgment means to the poor soul who just lost a hand in a farm machine.

Not long ago I read Jesus and Yahweh, The Names Divine, by Harold Bloom, and came to understand more clearly the Jewish tradition of debating questions of the sort I’ve hinted at here. I felt jealous of that custom, while wondering about the usefulness of debating matters not pertaining to how we can help each other. But maybe some of those questions, seemingly irrelevant to concern for our neighbors, eventually come around to that concern.