During the past year or so I’ve become utterly engrossed in the TV series Friday Night Lights.
No one in my family expected this. I’ve never liked football; if you asked, I’m not sure I could tell you what a yard line is. (That’s a thing in football, right?). And it’s a show about rural Texas, a place I spent a good portion of my youth trying to escape.
There are no wizards or magicians, no real mysteries, and only a couple of murders (in the widely panned second season, which I’ve mostly avoided watching). In other words, none of the elements that usually draw me into a show and sustain my attention over four or five seasons.
What it does have, in spades, is detail. When she was reviewing the first season for the AV Club, Sonia Saraiya smartly noted, “The show is almost impossibly rich with detail… what makes Friday Night Lights evergreen is how detailed and authentic the production is.”
That sense of detail was what hooked me during the first season, far more than the high school drama between Tim, Jason, and Lyla, or wondering whether Jason would ever walk again. I had never seen a show that so perfectly captures what it’s like to grow up in Texas. (Among recent movies, only Boyhood comes close). Again and again the show gets it right on the smallest levels—the late-night runs to Whataburger, a fridge full of half-eaten barbecue, a screen door looking out on a back porch that’s just a single slab of concrete with a potted aloe vera plant. The writers clearly did their research. I felt like I was watching a documentary about my hometown.
Ever since I left the weird cult a few years ago I’ve had this peculiar hunger. It’s a hunger for something I didn’t have as a child, and that’s a passionate curiosity to know the names of things, to know what things are. It’s a hunger to know the world, to rub the back of my hand against it and feel its texture.
Maybe it’s a writer thing, but lately, when I read a book, it’s not enough for me to know that a tree was climbed. I want to know more about this tree: was it a cedar? An oak? An elm? Did it have fruit or nuts? Is the street on which the heroine and the giant centipede are fighting made out of stone blocks or asphalt? Because I don’t think I can be fully invested in this fight unless I know what the street is made of.
In my newfound fascination with things I started a notebook where I listed every interesting detail in the books I read and the movies I watched—a list that ran for hundreds and hundreds of pages: types of clothes; types of food; different architectural styles; dances of the Regency era; types of trees found in West Texas. Things I had never paid attention to before I joined the cult had now become the only things that could hold my attention.
When I was young, growing up in a fundamentalist church, this kind of absorption in the world was discouraged. “Love not the world, nor the things in the world,” was a verse that got thrown at me a lot (and is still thrown at me, on occasion). In the twisted interpretation of faith that my mom practiced, the world was just a coded symbol waiting to be deciphered, full of mysterious numbers and coincidences and patterns. This wasn’t a world that could be known or loved, but one that could only be decoded.
And I think that lack of engagement with the world can actually starve a child. It’s a form of spiritual malnourishment that leaves us grasping and impoverished. In one of his novels Jasper Fforde mentions how the lengthy descriptive passages in The Lord of the Rings can nourish a person spiritually. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that within my cult, descriptive writing was preached against as if it was some kind of sin.
But now I’m finding that description, when it’s done well, doesn’t have to be flowery or purple. Description is just another word for the naming of things as they are.
So lately as I’ve been paying attention to things and asking questions, it feels like I’m reclaiming part of myself. At heart I’ve always been a person who’s absolutely obsessed with detail, but such fascination is anathema in a religious environment where the world is a place you’re trying to escape from.
And the reason so many novels marketed to Christians fail at the most basic level is because they don’t name these things, because their authors don’t know those things, because they’ve never taken to heart the advice of Rich Mullins and learned the names of birds and plants, the names of the constellations, the difference between a tulip and a redbud.
With a few notable exceptions (Rich Mullins among them—who could forget the moonlight spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills?), Christian culture has lost the art of paying attention to things. Open one of the Left Behind books at random, for example, and notice how lovingly the authors describe their weaponry and telephones, but what scant attention they pay to anything else—the natural world, what people look like, how people actually talk. Then contrast that with someone like Flannery O’Connor, whose every line conveys an understanding of the place in which she lives and the people who live there: an intensely religious woman in one story has “the look of someone who has achieved blindness by an act of will and means to keep it.” (One gets the sense that the Catholic Flannery knew her white Southern Protestant culture better than it knew itself).
And I think what ultimately separates good writing from bad writing, and good ideologies from bad ones, is the permission to be curious, to be utterly fascinated with the beauty and the horror of the world and the million small things that make it so beautiful and horrible. I don’t want to be part of your religion if your religion has no time for gelato or prosciutto or Michelangelo. I’m not interested in your justice movement if you’re not interested in hearing me rave about velvet pelisses and candied hibiscus flowers and green bean casserole with deviled eggs.
Because in the end, the naming of things has a sacramental power. It puts us in touch with the things themselves, and things—material things, the stuff of this good earth—are signposts pointing us to God. That doesn’t mean we have to love them for that reason. But they carry the divine spark because they come from the divine hand, and if we allow ourselves permission to love things, we may eventually find ourselves falling in love with God.