"The test of a first-rate intelligence," F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, "is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I've often thought that if he was right, our town is sunk: entertaining whole multitudes of diametrically opposed ideas while retaining the ability to function is the chief business around here.
Last week, by happenstance, I found myself talking with two preachers, both of whom had powerful causes to urge. The first, an old Scotsman who's been a close friend for years, showed up with a newly written autobiography that he is taking around to the publishers, not for lucre but as a means of making his point, which boils down to this: that the church's job is not to put people through head trips about some theoretical salvation that has meaning only if one has oatmeal and rent, but to help the poor.
He is, perhaps, the most brilliantly gifted preacher in America, and was known in this town as a troublemaker. For he'd been called to the pastorate of a rich, conservative, downtown churh that liked black folks only as domestic servants, and poor people not at all; and had proceeded to bring the poorest of that church's neighbors not only into the community programs but into membership as well. Later, in defiance of the elders' orders not to do so, he had marched with his friend Martin Luther King Jr. at Selma and at other places. And still later, he's made that angust church the Washington headquarters of the Vietnam anti-war movement, with all sorts of scruffy people sleeping in the hallways -- which caused all sorts of fastidious millionaire parishioners to resign. And by writing the autobiography he was still making trouble because what it said, essentially, was this: that the present-day evangelical church, by moving to the right, was stepping into a pit that led straight down to hell.
Anyway, he wanted me to review his manuscript -- which was to say, his life.
This was easy to do because I thoroughly approved of him: of everything he'd done, and of about half of what he believed in -- although, as for that, it was to be doubted whether the public, which had made the pietistic biography of his predecessor a No. 1 best seller, would approve of his autobiography as much as I did.
Then, several days later, I was south of here interviewing a famous television evangelist, host of a nationally broadcast Christian talk show, who was currently taking in $1 million a week to spread the gospel, and who was to be a leader of the April 29 March on Washington in which he hoped to have a million evangelical Christians marching down Constitution Avenue in a call to national repentance -- wherein the prime sins to be repented of would be the 8 million abortions that had been performed since the Supreme Court declared that form of murder to be legit, as well as the undermining of family life that was being brought about by ERA militants, marchers who identified homosexuality with the Mardi Gras, and prayer haters generally. This country had to repent, he believed, or else be utterly destroyed.
While compassionate and generous, personally, this television evangelist had no truck with the kind of social gospel the old Scotsman preached -- the notion that you needed X amount of dollars before God made any difference one way or the other. And he had his own experience to shred light on that because, upon being born again, he had given away all his goods to the poor -- which had been an astonishment, to say nothing of an inconvenience, to his family. And, leaving the life of a corporate executive for that of a impecunious seminary student, he'd taken his wife and children to live in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where they'd had to fight rats and cockroaches over the soybeans that made up most of their diet. So he'd heard of poverty. And yet, life without God, he believed, was an aimless mucking around on an insignificant cinder before being dragged down quickly to meaningless death. And the social-action preachers, as he saw them, were deadly destructors who were building a cheerless barracks of a humanist future, aromatic of hopelessness and industrial wax.
And the truth is -- why not confess it? -- that I agreed with him, too, for the most part; thought the $1 million a week about right for what he was doing; and supported his March on Washington -- although its likely result, I thought, would be this: that the marchers would learn once and for all that those who came here to get other people out of their hair usually succeeded only in getting something out of their systems. But my brain was contorted from having been exposed to both him and the old Scotsman, and knowing better than to try and retain these two opposing ideas without exploding, I spent an entire morning in Dave's Garage down there in Virginia Beach, working on the car and thinking of nothing more than points and plugs and socket wrenches and which fish were running, and where, before the knots untangled and everything was smooth again.
In the aftermath, I found myself once more reflecting on the question that many in our town take to be central: whether there really is a side -- religiously, politically or socially -- that consists in not taking sides. And wondering whether our much maligned detachment from the passionate concerns that grip the rest of the nation is really, as has been suggested, due to our knowing so little of what goes on out there. Or whether it comes from being violently buttonholed on behalf of so many powerful, unreconcilable positions, that we at last come to know too much. And I wonder if we are not all "journalists" in our town -- not in that we write badly but in that we see too much and are obliged to find ways of cooling the brain. Such self-protectiveness is not first-rate intelligence in action, however, merely the civic lore of survivors who, having been taught in school that you could never learn too much, later learned that you could.