C. Baxter Kruger’s newest book, Patmos, is currently being widely reviewed. Its ostensible theme is radical mysticism, the union of humanity with God, contained in the oft-repeated slogan, “Separation or Union.” For many people the notion of humanity’s union with God, or even the slightly less radical notion of the union of Christ with his own body, is relatively unfamiliar.
On the one hand, Patmos seems intended for college-educated, theologically aware readers who are relatively open to “new” theological ideas. On the other, its protagonist, a Mississippi theologian named Aidan Macallan, is portrayed as a man who never met a clichè he didn’t like, who habitually amps his emotions through a Marshall stack cranked up to 10 at a Who concert.
Patmos Genre: Satire
It occurred to me, roughly half way through the book, that the appropriate genre label for Patmos is satire, and that the character of Aidan is the satiric representation of both Christians in general and more educated Christians. I have to emphasize the book’s genre as satire in order to justify, and I mean this literally, to justify Aidan’s excruciating portrayal.
I could be wrong, but it seems to me that C. Baxter Kruger deliberately intends to arouse distrust and disgust. Distrust, that his book not be accepted as a font of wisdom, that his audience not continue to worship the sanctity of a printed page, possibly not any printed page. It is possible that this says more about me than about the author, but at several points Kruger points to a hermeneutic of suspicion. First distrust, then disgust at Aidan’s insipid shallowness.
Patmos Cultivates the Hermeneutic of Suspicion
For example, Kruger attempts to lull his more traditionalist readers into relaxation, and lower their guard to his most subversive theme(s). Before the exploration of the reality and depth of apotheosis and deification, there is a preemptive affirmation of commonly held beliefs. In addition to many familiar and comfortable bromides, there are numerous affirmations of conservative beliefs in Patmos. Kruger’s St. John affirms 1) the inspiration of Scripture (38), 2) the existence of something called orthodoxy (38-39), 3) the existence of heresy (39), 4) that the writer of The Gospel of John was an eyewitness to he events contained therein, 5) the early dating of the entire Johannine corpus (the Gospel of John, the Revelation of John, and the Johannine epistles) (44), 6) the evils of assimilation (read: syncretism) (passim), 7) the Trinity (passim), 8) defends and models didactic ministry, and 9) the rejection of the “pious forgery” understanding of Deuteronomy (125).
Monestized Hierarchicalism Acceptance
Related to practice in discernment (read: distrust), or logo-skepticism, are “The Patmos Shuffle” (ch. 5), “Secrets” (ch. 21), and “Apostolic Fishing” (ch. 22). I think, however, that while the label logo-skepticism is a relevant label, that a better way to label this theme is Monetized Hierarchicalism Acceptance (MHA).
The Bible is multivocal when it come to hierarchy. David and Solomon were both kings blessed by God, but God told Samuel not to worry about Saul’s selection as king, that the people were not rejecting prophet, but rather God. Paul said that teachers are among God’s gifts to the church, but John disagreed.
But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true–it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in [koinonia] with Christ. (I John 2:27)
There are similar conversations about money and employee remuneration.
Kruger comes down firmly, though indirectly (read: slyly, with a lot of cheek), in favor of hierarchy and financial support. Thus we have MHA: Monetized Hierarchicalism Acceptance.
In the middle of the “Secrets” chapter there is an episode that is initially puzzling, occurring after mentions of “The “Patmos Shuffle” and Ophis’s Crop-Dusting. “Ophis,” from the word for serpent used in The Book of the Revelation, is the Patmos’s label for Satan. After the mentions of the shuffle and crop dusting, both Kruger’s St. John and Aidan burst out in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
“Shame is Ophis’s crop dusting! The Patmos Shuffle!” “I burst out in a sudden fit of laughter, and my whole body shook. I fell backwards hitting the sand, and then I started pedaling my legs like a cartoon leprachaun…. We found ourselves caught up in a spasm of hilarious cackling,… overwhelmed with such laughter, then rolling around the beach like we had gone mad” (161-2).
This laughter episode seems to go on and on and on. They obviously find something hysterically funny, but not something immediately evident, at least not to me. At this point I got “that detective look” on my face, one of this St. John’s signature looks.
The “shuffle,” as in “The Patmos Shuffle,” refers to a con job, to the magic of misdirection, of getting the audience to look up and to the right when the real action is down and to the left.
Dictionary Time: Con Job
A con job is an act or instance of duplicity or swindling, an act or instance of lying or talking glibly to convince others or get one’s way. The glib explanation for these spasms of hysterical laughter is that the Holy Spirit has a sense of humor. But preachers have been saying that “God has a sense of humor” for a very long time; so I have to say, “Nothing to see here. Move along.” What is notable, however, must be what it is that these two men find so absurdly funny.
Clue number one to this hysterical joke is “The Patmos Shuffle” (ch. 5). Clue number two is “Apostolic Fishing” (ch. 22). With the obvious reference to the Great Commission, some details of apostolic fishing seem quite evident. The laughter’s subversive nature becomes more evident when the phrase fishing for “trapped fish” is paired with the Roman pursuit of the Initiate and the Master up the ravines of Patmos.
All in all, apostolic fishing is a predatory activity based on observation and experience, which are then used to develop a technique that can be taught to others. “Good Lord! Trapped fish!” (168)
Much or all of Patmos is intended for pastors and Christian creatives — more or less intellectual Christian leaders, and this focus can be seen clearly in what I call the No-Secrets Sandwich. The bread consists of two chapters: “The Patmos Shuffle” and “Apostolic Fishing.” The ingredients of the sandwich are in “Secrets” (ch. 21). Without commentary, let me run through the familiar ingredients inside the sandwich.
- “There are no secrets in the kingdom of light.” (163)
- “When we met Jesus on the first day, at the first moment, we knew that he could see right through us. Believe me, that rattled us.” (163)
- “The burden of our sin depends on secrecy, darkness, hiding, pretending…. Confessing our fears to Jesus’s ‘I am” within us more clearly.” (164)
- “Our secrets — the very things that we hate and loathe and pretend are not so — they become the way of victory?” (164)
Following the sandwich metaphor, the “secret” ingredient between the bread in this sandwich isn’t too flavorful. As important as it is to prevent the damage of harboring guilty secrets, the idea itself — that we’re only as sick as our secrets — is no secret. No, the flavor of this sandwich not what’s between the slices, it is in the bread, and this bread seems intended mainly for an audience of Christian pastors and writers. The bullet-point secrecy outline is sandwiched between two slices of rye bread. Slice one is a reprise of “The Patmos Shuffle” chapter and slice two is “Apostolic Fishing.”
Again, the Patmos Shuffle refers to a con job, to misdirection, getting the audience to look up when the real action is down low. In the main discussion in “The Patmos Shuffle”, Aidan more or less suggests that John take his presentation out for a tour on the road.
The Dirtiest Motivation for Ministry: Money
Kruger discusses the “TV preachers . . . who are always wanting money.” Televangelists are notorious for asking for money, for making outlandish statements and promises–some being utterly bizarre (e.g., God’s 1987 threat to kill Oral Roberts), in the pursuit of that money. Pastors, technically speaking, have a similar job: evangelism. Since most pastors operate within the institutional confines of Christendom, they share a similar need for money. One major difference is that, compared to the local pastor, the televangelist is in possession of finely honed money-raising techniques, whereas traditional pastors — not so much.
Another major difference is that, compared to the televangelist, the pastor may not like to ask for money, or even refuse to preach, for example, on tithing. Their callings didn’t involve on broadcast studios, cash, and cars. Some pastors struggle with the ethics of finances, the issue of knowing, or refusing to know, who their “big givers” are, which is directly related to showing favoritism.
Many pastors remain conflicted, however, having joined themselves to organizations that require massive amounts of institutional maintenance (“churches”), a requirement not emphasized in the recruitment process. They thought they were signing up to be evangelists, healers, and teachers, not business administrators, sales managers, and promoters. Thus, some pastors hide in secrecy, hide that inevitable need for cash, denying or at least minimizing the need for cash as a motivation in their preaching.
“Of course, this is why we write and preach”
Note: one phrase Kruger uses as a sure-fire red flag that something cheeky is going on are the words “of course.” It seems to me to be as reliable as the word wink, and I’ve never seen so much winking as in Patmos. In the middle of giving a respectable explanation of why preacher’s preach, Kruger’s St. John says, “Of course, this is why we write and preach. As we proclaim the truth of all truths, Jesus, the living Word, the great ‘I Am’ reveals himself in us , shares his eyes with us” (147). Apparently without fail, the words “of course” introduce one of those unquestioned, unexamined sound bite rationales for why we Christians do what we do. Significance to the present discussion: In reality, “We preach to keep the doors open, to finance our hobby, and to put food on the table until we are old enough to retire.”
Kruger’s solution: take the need for cash out of the shadows and into the light, and have an uproarious laugh about it with your closest confidant, with your mentor. That is his apparent solution. And yes, you do hear a note of disapproval in that. It’s something that remains of an old tribal ethos I picked up, of maintaining a clear conscience, and not shipwrecking your faith.
According to Kruger (if we can believe that his St. John represents some aspect of his own voice), there is no place for crippling idealism or defeating purity. Our clerical and pragmatic embrace of Christendom requires MHA.
Cheek: a New Attribute of God
As I’m sure he would admit without shame, C. Baxter Kruger is a cheeky fellow, and his book Patmos is characterized by everything the word cheek implies: Impudent, irreverent, sometimes disrespectful, sometimes rude, and always quite cunning. Throughout the dialogue on Patmos, Kruger repeatedly describes Aidan and his own St. John as cheeky. And he doesn’t merely call them cheeky. The content of all the discussions, the content and substance of virtually every line of conversation is saturated with sly disrespect and ironic wit. People with a lot of cheek continually say and do things that must be hidden. They are shady, annoying people who play tricks on people. They are mischievous, and feel no shame in what is shameful or low class. People with cheek are brash, impertinent, even saucy, and can even rise to the status of cunning genius. (See “Cheeky”, Urban Dictionary website)
When not using the words cheek or cheeky, the narrator in Patmos (Aidan) a few times expresses Kruger’s St. John’s cheek with the words sly or slyly. Once or twice he describes some look on his face as the one he gets when he knows something no one else knows. Kruger’s St. John is most often described with the word confident, which is certainly Biblical enough. The word translated boldness in the Greek Scriptures is parhessia, which means “boldness bordering on arrogance.” On one occasion the narrator actually describes Kruger’s St. John using the word smug.
Now you think might think that I am making more of this cheeky cheek than is warranted, but I am not. Kruger elevates cheek to the level of an attribute of God.
“The Holy Spirit is cheeky too,” he said seriously, but nodding. “That may strike you as strange, but look for it and you will do well.” (90)
According to Patmos, God’s union with humanity includes everything about us, including the things about which we often feel shame, shame being one of the book’s major targets.
Following the secrecy-bullet-point-outline comes the chapter “Apostolic Fishing”, Kruger’s St. John begins to speak, and Aidan narrates, “He sounded like a Cajun starting a Boudreaux and Thibideaux tale”, thus reminding us of that piece of our disapproved common humanity that enjoys a dirty joke (167). I would remind the reader that in Galilee, Jesus put on his sandals one foot at a time and squat when he shat.
What I am about to write seems accurate to me. If people feel inclined to “finesse” it, or express it in a more “nuanced” or “subtle” fashion, so be it. But to me, here is the most significant theme In Patmos. A key element in Kruger’s understanding of Union is his unashamed union and experience of everything that causes us shame and guilt.
God is in perfect union with us in all our sly cheekiness, in all of the church’s financial exploitation of trapped fish, in all our frustrated and unfrustrated desire, in all the amusement and relief we derive from dirty jokes, in all of our deception and calculating technique.
Now if you’re like me, following a statement like the one above, the following Johannine statement comes to mind:
“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light, in him here is no darkness at all.” (I John 1:5)
There are several ways to go with this unfortunately categorical assertion. The most common way to respond is to take it as an encouragement, warning, or even a demand, to stop sinning, to stop bringing dark thoughts and shameful behaviors into our lives. If we are in union with God, such things have no place. I have long felt that this verse, and this interpretation, were dangerous and counterproductive, energizing scrupulosity and irrational guilt.
Another way to deal with the black-and-white absolutism of I John 1:5 is to rely on God’s grace and forgiveness, to know that when Jesus looks at us he looks through tinted lenses called “positional righteousness.” As explanations go, the idea of God’s willful ignorance, of choosing to not see what is clear to any intelligent person, makes God an odd character. There is a certain acceptable, psychological logic to this theological construct, but it often doesn’t seem to justify the shame-inducing effects of I John 1:5 on the poor, hapless church members.
The way Kruger puts forward seems to be this. Whereas we are in union with God through Christ, and whereas there is no darkness in God, therefore we are mistaken when we think that the “sin” in us is actually sin. If it is true that “in him there is no darkness at all,” and we are indeed “in Christ,” then we are mistaken when we think that all our impudence, irreverence, disrespectful rudeness, and cunning are dark and shameful. All our sly disrespect and ironic wit, everything we must hide due to social sanctions; all of our shady, mischievous deceptions, which would terribly annoy people if they only knew; all the low class, shameful things we do in secret; our brash, impertinent, saucy, and shameless behaviors — if God has declared through the logic of the Bible that these things are not darkness, even though their secret practice may rise to the level of cunning genius.
This problem is not only present in I John 5:1. Paul says some behaviors exist, “things that are shameful to even speak of.” (Sorry Baxter, Augustine did not introduce separation and shame into the Western tradition, but you already knew that! Yes, ya’ gotta choose your battles.)
If we live life in continual defeat, in continual guilt and shame, then this understanding of I John 1:5, this spin, if you will, must necessarily be at least examined, experimented with, tried out. The idea: what is socially proscribed is not in reality darkness. I myself am certain that, for many people, this third understanding of I John 1:5 is not constructive, that Kruger’s cheeky spin on radical union would be destructive, and necessitate extreme social sanctions to control their behavior. Some people would need to be cut off from their people, so to speak. But for others, for people sufficiently tamed, it may be a key to spiritual and emotional freedom.
Okay physician, say your patient has hemophilia. Are you writing a prescription for a blood thinner? And for the patient with blood clots — are you going to prescribe a thickening treatment like vitamin K? Different medications for different patients. “There is a time for every purpose under heaven.”
A brief note: I have felt for many years that the Twelve Step Tradition was more faithful to the priorities of Christian koinonia than any so-called church of which I am aware. The radical honesty about one’s own condition, the Tradition’s stripped-down, pragmatic statement of faith, and the total renunciation of Monetized Hierarchy are uniquely conducive to liminality, koinonia,and spiritual growth. And the doctrine that “addiction is a disease” removes the key element of the most destructive cycles of our common humanity. (Enter the search terms “lying amygdala” for an illustration.).
One with the “Circle of Life” Food Chain
All interdependent groups of organisms require food for survival, and except for organisms that subsist on minerals, crystals, or elements on the periodic table, we eat one another. We dine after a fashion that is sometimes parasitic, other times symbiotic, and — at some moment in the food chain — predatory.
Aidan and The Apostle spot food in the water. “Good Lord! Trapped fish!” (168) The Ancient Apostle shares with Aidan his fishing secrets, secrets based on careful observation of both the abundant food source and its environment, from which he has developed a definite and detailed technique.
There are two main events in the “Apostolic Fishing” chapter. After catching the fish trapped in the pools, John and Aidan spot that feared enemy we hear about earlier in the book. the Roman soldiers. “The Roman soldiers bore down on us like a swarm of praying mantises ready for he kill.” (169) The image of the Romans works on at least two levels, to 1) parallel the pursuit of the fish by John and Aidan, and to 2) echo the judgment and separation that Rome brought into the church. Also, “a swarm of praying mantises” easily describes the feeling of some people when descended upon by pious people seeking to convert them.
The fish struggled to escape the pair just as Aidan and his mentor struggle to escape the Romans. Their flight from the Romans is strictly symbolic, playing no role in the non-existent drama. Also, note that mantises are solitary hunters. They don’t swarm, and thus more resemble solitary preachers than clouds of gnats. The Roman soldiers are never a real threat, there is no drama, they are symbolic.
One can go quite a ways with Kruger’s analogy. Through his spokesperson, he faults the “Romans” for introducing judgment and separation into Christianity. In the “action” on Patmos, they symbolize some “natural” predator/prey dynamic. I will not discuss Constantine’s role in convening the Council of Nicea, but will simply mention Kruger’s total neglect of Constantine’s role in his history lesson to Aidan. Ya’ gotta choose your battles.
You can justify to yourself being “fishers of men”, making a living from a reliable protein source, as well as derive solace in your pursuit of the prey by understanding that not only is such fishing commanded by Jesus (Christian Ideology: religious and expansionist), but it is part of some “natural order of things” (Roman Ideology: naturalistic and geopolitical). Note: Soylent Green, New Seoul’s recycling program , and male guppies could be invited in to play around here somewhere, but not just now.
Cliché Master Aidan
What made Patmos such an unpleasant read were Aidan’s non-stop flow of clichés and his melodramatic emotionalism. Aidan can hardly speak one sentence without uttering a cliché. For example:
- “An idea popped into my head.” (192)
- “I am as blind as a bat.” (174)
- “A night sky that took my breath away.” (174)
- “My entire life flashed through my mind.” (179)
- “Till the cows come home.” (175)
- “…nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.” (78)
You might think I’m just stylistically picky. The problem is that, for at least 3/4 of the book, Aidan seems to utter between three and five clichés per page. Someone reviewed one of Kruger’s previous books and appreciated his downhome, folksy style. I’m assuming such clichés were what the reviewer was referencing.
If I had known at the outset that Patmos was a satire, it is possible I wouldn’t have twice been tempted to stop reading. I would have realized that Aidan’s love for clichés and his over the top emotionalism weren’t the result of bad writing, but a deliberate attempt to help the reader feel Aidan’s uttter shallowness. And that is a positive accomplishment, instead of telling the reader that Aidan is shallow, show it, show it to the point that the reader feels it, feel Aidan’s shallowness and experiences reverse peristalsis.
At one point Aidan offers this description of St. John: “The apostle looked at me like he had just taken his first bite of Spam” (149). For me it was worse than Spam. It was as if I had just faithfully finished Dr. Darden’s 3-Day Anchovie Diet. (See also Robert Darden, Heftige Übelkeit, 2d ed., Fromme Scheiße Verlag GmbH & Co., Würgender-Gestank, Germany, 2012.)
One of the most irritating features of Patmos were Aidan’s innumerable emotional affectations. Aidan trembles so often that I was tempted to wonder if he had a neurological condition. On a few occasions Kruger mixes it up with a more intense shudder, and even more intense is when he begins rocking. But the absolute topper are the two or three occasions when Aidan clutches his chest. Aidan’s trembling is not sprinkled in four or five places throughout the book, but more like five or six places in each chapter.
This seems to me to be due to Kruger’s all-too-successful technique in enabling the reader to actually feel the revulsion experienced by the Spirit and the Bride when confronted by religious cliché.
The fiction of this narrative spans a mere three days. More frequent than these “physical manifestations of the Spirit” are Aidan’s ceaseless narrations of how he feels or how he says something. He is continually filled with awe, wonder, and amazement. He is several times unable to take it all in, and less frequently feels like he will burst. Condensing an intense, three-day experience into 227 pages is a quite a feat. This leads me to make a personal observation.
I am an intense, serious kind of person. My habit, developed from my youth in a G.A.R.B. church and from my training in evangelical hermeneutics, is to do close readings of the text. And when you do close reads, not forcing Scripture into a predetermined system but allowing, for example, its gnostic-influenced lines to stand in their ethereal light, and those narrative inconsistencies that uncover attempts to obscure politic intrigue, you will never again be content to be spoon fed pablum paraded about as meat.
I have had a number of life-altaring experiences. And the really significant ones do last at least three days. And a moment-by-moment account would be intense. I have experienced Aidan’s rocking, and have clutched my chest, and felt overwhelmed. And the revelation of the Bride’s transcendent union with the Son (becoming one flesh with him), the realization that I and all of my companions had been incorporated into the Godhead, was one of the very experience that prompted my own shuddering, chest-clutching, and dread. It lasted well over three days, and I deal with the fall-out to this day.
While studying at Simpson College, Jeremiah 15:19 impacted me deeply.
“If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless, words, you will be my spokesman. Let this people turn to you, but you must not turn to them.”
Like Aidan, “I blurted out” worthless words, with no filter between my brain and my tongue. I learned to practiced silence. I still remember the first moment — ever — that a thought entered my mind, that I reflected on it, and made the choice not to utter it. While most people learn in childhood not to blurt out everything that enters their head, I didn’t experience that until I was a ways into adulthood.
Like Aidan, I lived with suicidal ideations for many years. Undiagnosed bipolar disorder, hardwired and genetic, had me in suicidal depressed for months at a time. It’s been so long since I wanted to die, decades. Thank God for the Providential care of a loving wife who read the mental health articles in Good Housekeeping. (Hon, I miss you so much.)
And, as I think C. Baxter Kruger would encourage, I have learned to accept my “shadow.” Better to manage impulses that ensure the survival of the species than to wallow, defeated, in crippling guilt. Paul and Luther would agree with that, I know. When I first read Civilization and its Discontents I furiously despised the work. Years later, when I re-read my photocopy, including curses and imprecations I had scribbled in the margins, I realized that I had absorbed Freud’s dangerous truth completely.
So, these are highlights from my marginal notes, cross-referencing, abbreviated concordance, and a sample of reader-response criticism, and confessional response. If you decide to buy a copy of Patmos: Three Days, Two Men, One Extraordinary Conversation, you’ll have an idea of what to expect.
Patmos: Three Days, Two Men, One Extraordinary Conversation, by C. Baxter Kruger. Published by Perichoresis Press, Jackson, MS, 2016.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.