“Wounded as De Vries was, he stumbled forward in the manner he knew: by writing. He rendered the world as precisely as he could, with violence, beauty, grief, and humor intermingled. The way they always come.” – Jonathan Hiskes
I read this little classic for the first time in college, in 2002, and have been re-reading it just about every year since. It seems every time I do, I find myself reading it in a different way. DeVries is a former Dutch Calvinist, like myself, and this somewhat autobiographical novel follows the journey of one Don Wanderhope, “a sort of reverse Pilgrim trying to make some progress away from the City of God.” This journey is begun, and punctuated, by grief and tragedy, but as DeVries’s bread and butter was satire, he fills it with humor from pun to gallows. It’s a lively, beautiful, and heartbreaking read, and it’s a tragedy in itself that more people haven’t heard of this book.
This is maybe the tenth time I’ve read it, and the impetus this time around is to revisit the history and doctrine of the Dutch Calvinism which are Don’s jumping-off point. One of my own writing projects is touching on these same themes, and I like how DeVries presents it in this book. He makes it at once accessible to those who have no frame of reference for the faith (I’ve often lent copies to friends who want to understand where I come from more) and those who are steeped in it (how often do you see ‘infralapsarianism’ as a punchline?). In my own writing I want to be able to do the same.
It’s also still personal, and not just academic, for me to read this again. I’m continuing on my progress away from the City, and I find comfort in the fearlessness with which Don faces the darkest questions of human and divine existence (One of the most poignant scenes in the book is a debate over the existence of God, between a secular Jew and an ignorant Roman Catholic, set in a children’s cancer ward.). The book ends with no clear resolution on the questions, either, which I find oddly comforting.
There’s a road down which I and Don have traveled, one that mirrors a spectrum of human religious belief that I’ve come to see as broadly applicable: on the one end, there is a lack of answers born of ignorance or unquestioned acceptance, which one might call fundamentalism. In the middle, where the questions start, are a collection of answers which make varying degrees of sense and have varying degrees of benefit and harm to individuals and societies. This middle is where most of the religious and theological beliefs lie. Through that, at the other end, one finds a lack of answers again – born this time of more, not less, questioning than doctrine can stand up to. This is where I find myself, and where Don comes to at the end of the novel, and while it’s less safe and protected, there’s a freedom and beauty to the mystery here.
And it’s in this place that I’m beginning to re-engage in the writing process. I think about that scene from The Dark Night Rises in which Bruce Wayne can only escape the prison pit by leaping without a rope. And – who doesn’t want to think of themselves as being like Batman every now and then? – I feel kind of like that. At this place, without the safety net of doctrine or religion, I find myself braver, more willing to take risks and leaps – not of faith, but of mystery. Much of religion is constructed around fear, but when that falls away, we’re capable of much more than we ever thought possible before. Don, in The Blood of the Lamb, was able to endure more than I would wish for anyone to have to endure. Along with everything else, the book is a reminder that I, also, am capable of such strength.