Two more books down, though they’re something of a detour from my plan…. I reread Charles Williams’ Descent Into Hell, which I’ve written about here and here, but before that I read Sera Beak’s Red, Hot & Holy, which was a strange and strangely rewarding experience. I’ll write a bit here about the juxtaposition of the two.
I happened upon Red, Hot, & Holy in the used bookstore where I work and was hooked, largely because it felt like what my eleven-year-old self might have written if 1) she’d had a lot less in the way of reality testing and 2) you’d told her to write a spiritual autobiography. This sounds like an insult, I don’t think it is — at least, not entirely.
Regarding reality testing, I am mostly with C.S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters that it’s overrated. Taking for granted that some indefinable sense of real life is, well, the best possible image of reality seems narrow-minded (although I’d also say that we should keep said indefinable sense around, since it gets us through day-to-day life without dying and can tell us important things even though it’s not the be-all and end-all). Plus, while I am highly skeptical about paranormal experience, what Beak calls “freaky stuff,” I can’t help but want to believe sometimes.
Regarding the rest — well, in many ways, my eleven-year-old self was a better, more interesting person than I am. For instance, she was a feminist, and at least as interested in goddesses as she was in God (I don’t buy arguments that God has to has to has to be male). She was a good writer when she wasn’t trying to sound like what I’ve described elsewhere as “a thirdhand parody of a valley girl” (I would, regrettably, say almost exactly the same thing about Beak….). She had a lot of nerve and courage and go-get-em vim and vigor. And, if she wasn’t as involved in New Age spirituality as Beak, she read a lot in the New Age sections of bookstores.
Beak, meanwhile, started out Christian-ish as far as I can tell and was something of a mystic from a tiny age (she lagged behind her family on walks to kiss trees and sidewalks with holy adoration and tended to identify her greatest interest as God). In college, she grew fascinated with erotic mysticism, associating it with the color red in her mind. From there she moved onto an interest in goddesses, especially the goddess Kali, who appeared to her through dreams…. Upon graduation, Beak got involved with New Age communities, but found herself limited because she felt a strong connection to the color red and all it symbolizes — the sensual, the individual, the material — while those communities are all about raising the vibrations, moving up the color spectrum literally and metaphorically to more spiritual colors, violet and white. Eventually she forged her own path, chasing after a figure she describes as the Red Lady, whom she came to identify as something like her own highest self, her essence outside time. This process she describes as “soul work” — getting in touch with your true self instead of letting go of the individual in favor of the transcendent. She sees great importance in this because it is through this ultimate identity that we know the divine, and she argues that favoring what she calls the divine masculine (spirit, transcendence, peace, white light, the abstract) over the divine feminine (soul, immanence, reality-as-it-is, the material) is a result of the patriarchy and not a basic spiritual reality. She eventually came to believe that part of her soul is Sarah, daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene who died young (though she assures us that she has no desire to convince the world of this).
To much of this Charles Williams, like many of you, would (to go a bit valley girl myself) be, like, um…., and walk away (well, CW had better manners than that, perhaps, but…). CW and some of you would probably sincerely worry for her soul. I worry a bit for her mind myself, but I applaud her for following her thought processes and intuitions and imagination further than most people dare to.
She is, however, a relativist, which, as you may know by now, makes me want to pound my head into things. She insists that we look for our own truths and doesn’t get into sticky issues like “if the proposition Mary Magdalene and Jesus were married and had a daughter named Sarah is true for Sera Beak and not for Meg Moseman, was it true for Mary Magdalene and Jesus? Do Beak and I live in different universes that nonetheless intersect enough for her to write a book that I can read?” I get the impression that relativism on spiritual topics is….pretty much a given in the circles in which she moves.
Charles Williams was, to put it mildly, not a relativist. In fact, I’m fairly sure that Descent Into Hell identifies refusal to acknowledge reality-as-it-exists-independent-of-one as the essence of the titular descent into hell. Beak reads almost like a case study in the ways of Gomorrah, his name for self-love and the unwillingness to escape the self. Williams is about embracing one’s infinite duties. Beak speaks mostly of breaking free of obligations to those around her, not embracing them; she certainly has nothing I noticed analogous to Williams’ Web of Exchange; and, like Wentworth, she even cut most of her ties to the outside world for the explicit purpose of getting cozy with pieces of herself.
Then again, though, perhaps the spiritual Way of a woman brought up in a society that expects her to be a nurturing, “perfect,” people-pleaser is bound to be more about following your star and doing what you want than the Way of a man whom society expects (by comparison, at least) to do as he pleases (although I find this a problematic description of Williams, most of whose life was a battle against poverty that, for instance, cut his college career drastically short). Could one suppose the Red Lady is something like Pauline’s doppelganger, her beautiful redeemed self? It’s fun (though decidedly, well, imaginary) to suppose that Beak is not flying in the face of Williams’ beliefs but updating them.
I don’t know and don’t want to know what Williams would make of Beak’s ditzy, flippant writing style (deceptively ditzy and flippant — she has a graduate degree in comparative religion from Harvard Divinity School, and every now and then she’ll drop some dizzyingly complex theological concept like an afterthought). For myself, I find it charming precisely because suggests authenticity; if Beak were trying to look attractive to other people, she would stop talking about how much she loves fart jokes (I mean, even if you’re a valley girl, isn’t that, like, such an eight-year-old boy thing to love?). I like her courage in leaning away from her spiritual, ethereal, angelic image in others’ eyes (an image I understood much better when I watched videos of her), though that image appeals to me much more strongly than the personality she projects in Red, Hot, & Holy. And I suspect some of the humor is defensive; in today’s society speaking seriously and reverently of experiences as strange as hers is extremely vulnerable.
Williams is, meanwhile, I truly believe, intellectually remarkable, and he is little recognized today not because he was a bad thinker but because the foundation of his thought is so foreign to most people (….and also probably wrong, but….). I wish there were Youtube interviews with him — it would be a delight to see his intellect, kindness, and charisma in action rather than reading about them and absorbing them secondhand from his writing. And while I harbor what many would consider an embarrassing fondness for both of these writers, I am (thank reality!) far from embracing the worldview of either.