River Jordan is one of those people who decides to love you and then she just does. Ever since I first met her about fifteen years ago, I’ve always felt folded up in the calming light she possesses, and I don’t think it’s ever been on better display than in her new upcoming book, Confessions of a Christian Mystic.
The book is so wonderful because it is so much like River: down-home, keenly intelligent, funny, lyrical, and deeply honest. It’s a book that stays with you, so I was very happy to talk more about it with her for Parnassus in advance of her event at the store on March 29. Here’s our conversation.
– Silas House, author of Southernmost
Silas House: You very clearly define your notion of what it means to be a mystic this way: “Someone who desires to live and breathe and move in the presence of the divine.” I love that you lay that out so plainly for us to see. Would you say this book is a way for you to encourage others to take up this way of being?
River Jordan: I think it’s a great way for me to remind myself how to be. As in, remembering to breathe, to contemplate, to be divinely connected while watching a movie or riding a bike or grocery shopping. So that in essence the everyday mundane details become a part of this big, mystical, wild adventure of a heartbeat that is our lives.
SH: In the book you talk about how the word “Christian” is so loaded these days. Some people hear us identify that way and they instantly assume they know everything we believe. Many of us are constantly being forced to say, “I’m not that kind of Christian” because of particular groups co-opting the word. What do you say to the people who might hesitate reaching for this book because of that word in the title?
RJ: The first thing I’d say is, I understand. I’d be hard-pressed to reach for a book with “Christian” in the title because I’d think, a) I’ve already read whatever it has to say, or b) I don’t want to read it because I have preconceived notions of how it’s going to preach something to me.
My hope is that the words “Confessions” and “Mystic” also being a part of the title will create a unique combination of words. I hope people will at least pick it up to peruse, discover it is a fusion of faith and fiction and essay and fall in love with the strange little genre-buster that it is. I’ve had passing conversations with writers such as David Dark and Rick Bragg, who both loved the title. I respect both of them so very much that when they gave wonderful nods of approval I felt I was on the right track.
In the bigger picture, it occurs to me that many of us are not talking about our faith very much. We’re talking about great stories and music, fiction and movies, and where the greatest new Thai restaurant is; but apparently the conversation that features the Christian faith as we know it to be true is not part of our cultural mainstream. If it were, we wouldn’t cringe at the word or have need to defend it. There is room for a great conversation to be had right now regarding who Christians really are. If I could do one thing with this book that would make me extremely happy it would be to eradicate the need for Christians to have to say, “I’m not that kind of Christian.”
SH: I love the moment where, as a child, you realize that “the dominion of God was wider than the tangible skies.” One of the things I take from your book is that you believe the mind of God is too big for us to understand, so we just have to do the best we can. Would you agree with that?
RJ: I completely agree. You’re referencing the story where I was five and my house burned down on Christmas day and so as a result my mother and I were flying to Germany to live with my Army Daddy. I completely expected to see Heaven and God’s throne right out there off the wing somewhere. I had one of the greatest epiphanies of my life right then and there at the ripe old age of five. I realized I couldn’t just put God in a box of my expectations. We keep doing our best on some days and our worst on others and God keeps meeting us right where we are. That’s one of the magnificent, mystical things right there.
SH: One of the things I love most about this book is its lack of judgment. I’m never feeling preached to, or taught, yet I’m learning throughout. Is it challenging to avoid that kind of writing in a book like this, or do you think that’s just how you naturally talk about these profound issues?
RJ: You learned something? Share with me over a good beer sometime what you learned and maybe I’ll learn it, too. That sure was unintentional. As for judgment: I was raised (and still am) Episcopalian. Maybe that contributed to my not being judgmental of others. Or maybe it’s because I’m always such a mess, so far from perfect, that for me to even think of being judgmental is ridiculous.
SH: I love the concept of the Steering Wheel Prayer, or the “SWP,” that you’ve come up with in this book. I’m going to be using that. Can you share that with our readers here?
RJ: In the book I describe what I consider the power of the Steering Wheel Prayer. It’s when you have reached the bottom of your rope, don’t know how to hang on anymore, and put your head on the steering wheel because you are down to your last dime or ounce of energy and you just don’t know how to go on. And in that moment, God shows up. That’s happened to me twice in dramatic ways where I had truly reached the end of my rope and didn’t know where to turn or how to go on. And something amazing happened each time. I also share a story about a rascal of a marketing guru who drops F-bombs like nobody’s business and I adore her writing. She writes about an end of the rope moment she had where she put her head on the steering wheel and said a prayer. She said an angel didn’t show up but she got this great idea immediately that got her out of a world of homeless trouble. Actually, I think that was the answer to her prayer.
But yeah, now people think of it as the old SWP. The only time I think I’ve actually seen an angel was an immediate result of an SWP. But the story’s not in the book. I promise to tell it at the book launch party.
SH: “In the quiet place, we find ourselves. And we find God,” you write, emphasizing the importance of retreats for one’s self. You write about the way books, films, and music have revealed divine moments to you, too, because they allow us to go still via contemplation. Can you talk about how consuming art can be a kind of retreat, too?
RJ: I’m fascinated with the act of creation, of the idea of artists partnering with the Divine muse to bring us all great works of art like Star Trek and The Maltese Falcon. I say that as a fan of both of those just because I think art is holy and we don’t have to put some kind of sticker on it like, “This is holy art because it is religious and all other art falls in this other category.” When we enter into the gates of sitting with a great book, put in our ear-pods to listen to our latest favorite song (mine happens to be “Ring the Bells” by Johnnyswim) or buy that ticket to catch a movie, we are entering the holy ground of story.
Is that a time out? You bet. A respite for weary souls. All of these incredible creations from all genres and art forms are expressing our passions and purposes in this thing we call space and time. Great art breaks us open and fills us up. It reminds us to be fully alive all the moments of our lives, not just moving mechanically through our days. And it whispers to remember that we are not alone, not alone, not alone. That someone large, ancient, and full of love watches and weeps with us. And that we are in this eternal story called being human together. It’s better when we hold hands to cross the mountain.
Silas House is the author of five novels, including, most recently, Southernmost. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and a former commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. House is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers and is the winner of the E. B. White Award, the Nautilus Award, the Appalachian Book of the Year, the Hobson Medal for Literature, and other honors.
Join us for a launch party to celebrate River Jordan
Author of Confessions of a Christian Mystic
Friday, March 29, 2019
6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books
This event is open to the public and free to attend!