[From the editor: The following article is (loosely) based on (mostly) actual events. In fact, we cannot promise that any of these events transpired as related in this story. We can, however, promise you that Nathan has taken (not) a little artistic license in order to present you an article that will make you laugh and think, and we think that’s alright in its own way.]
“You wanna know something weird?” my brother said.
“I thought you’d never ask,” I replied, gazing into a half-empty glass of Coke. My brother was pacing around behind me in our mom’s kitchen, dribbling a plastic ball. My brother is one of those guys who, no matter where or what the circumstances, can find a plastic ball to pace around and dribble.
“So, for like the last week, I’ve been asking every guy I know, and—” He stooped to pick up the ball. “Do you ever daydream about, like, a crazy gunman coming into church? And—”
“Sure,” I interrupted. “In my version, I’m in the bathroom when he comes in and starts blasting away. I sneak up behind him and stab him in the neck with a pen.”
“Yeah, but did you know that like every guy in the church daydreams about that?”
I leaned back in my chair. “Of course.”
That’s one of the huge draws of being an older brother. When your younger brother reports on some rudimentary fact of human nature that he only just discovered, you can lean back in your chair and say of course.
Anyway, my brother smiled the smile of man who realizes he’s just met a co-conspirator. “You think about that too?”
“Every guy has fantasized about that since the beginning of time. It’s just one of those things, y’know?”
“That’s so weird.”
“So what happens in your version?” I asked.
“I tackle him to the ground from the side, grab his piece and waste the jerk.”
(He may not have actually said “jerk.” It’s hard to recreate true brotherly dialogue for family magazines.)
“Do you think,” my brother asked, “it’s just because we’re violent morons that have seen too many movies?”
“That’s a reason,” I said. “But, I think it’s just, like, y’know, like I said, a thing.”
“Yeah,” my brother said. “A thing. Deep.”
“You know what I mean. It’s a thing. All guys, men, males, whatever you wanna call ’em, we all do it.”
I felt we were in danger of meandering into profundity, as males sometimes do in conversation, but I remained cool-headed and managed to steer the conversation back to the relative merits of the finale of Breaking Bad.
A week and a half later I was in the living room of one Jacob Mentzel, editor of the fine periodical known as The Warhorn. The time was 2:30 in the morning, when all the best work on The Warhorn takes place. I was sitting in an easy chair, Jake was lying on the floor. He’s the kind of guy who lies on the floor with his head propped against an empty chair, instead of just sitting on the thing. Is it more comfortable, does he think it makes him cool, is it like a hipster thing to use furniture in a post-furniture way? Maybe we’ll never know.
Anyway, I don’t remember the context, but suddenly Jake said, “So what happens in your fantasies about a gunman coming into church?”
I shrugged. “I stab him in the neck with a pen from behind.”
Jake nodded. What I said made sense. But Jake imagined his story a little differently. “I run at him, absorbing the bullets in my own body. Sometimes he’s out of bullets by the time I get there, and I tackle him to the ground. But mostly I’m just buying time for someone else to take him out. The point is I take the bullets, I have to decide to meet God—ready or not—and the day gets saved one way or another.”
I shook my head, I had to set my buddy straight. “The force of just one bullet would knock you to the ground,” I told him. “It’s not a movie.”
“I think it depends on the caliber of the bullets,” Jake said, wounded to his core.
“It’s a piece of metal fired at the speed of sound. Force, velocity, science, all that crap. Google it.”
“At least mine makes more sense than sneaking up behind him with a pen.”
“I have the element of surprise.”
“Yeah, but a pen? What are you, Jason Bourne?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Next time I’ll try and remember to make my delusional macho fantasy more realistic.”
Jake smirked. “Mmhmm.”
I sunk deeper into my chair, he shifted his weight on the floor. The clock on the wall ticked the way that only a clock at 2:30 in the morning can.
“You’re both idiots,” Jake’s wife murmured, half-asleep, from the couch. If there’s one thing women don’t get, it’s the glory of an utterly pointless conversation that goes into the early morning.
“So what do our respective fantasies say about us as men?” Jake wondered.
“You don’t think anyone notices or values your sacrifices,” I told him. “You wanna have one moment where everyone sees you for the Superman you are, and then you wanna die like a martyr so we can all remember you as the hero that we took for granted before.”
“Eh. You think nobody loves you because you’re a monster,” Jake said. “You don’t want to disprove that you’re a monster, but you want to violently take out the bad guy and prove that even a monster has some use in the Kingdom of God.”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Actually, we’re both monsters,” he said.
In the silence that followed, the clock kept ticking and the fridge began to hum, and the room, although occupied by three people, had that mournful empty feeling of after midnight but hours ’til dawn. Outside the windows it was cold, and as dark as the pages of a closed book.
Later I walked home. At the time, I lived just across the street from Jake and Amanda. I unlocked my door and stepped inside, and toed off my shoes, leaving them in a little puddle of melting snow on the living room carpet. I flipped on the lights and walked into the kitchen. There was a Taco Bell wrapper lying on the floor next to the trashcan. The unholy truth of a bachelor’s life can be reduced to this: when a Taco Bell wrapper hits the side of the trash can and falls to the floor, there’s absolutely no reason whatsoever to pick it up. Not for a few days, at least.
I had quit smoking a week before, so in good conscience I knew I had to get rid of the pack that had somehow found its way into the pocket of my fleece. Only one way to do that, I thought, lighting up.
I started pacing from the kitchen to the living room, and back again and back again. I didn’t have a ball to dribble, but I had a cigarette to fumble with, and one’s as good as another.
I thought about my brother. I thought about all my brother’s friends. I thought about Jake and me. I wasn’t tired. I thought maybe I had some sort of amazing insight stuck in my brain that would turn to dust if I went to bed.
“Dear Lord God,” I said. And then, “Dear Father,” because I’m trying to teach myself to think of God as a good father.
“What’s the deal with us?” I said. “Is it just dudes or is there a chick version? Is it just me and my friends, or is it all guys? Is it just my generation, or has everybody always felt like this? Is it just a thing? Or does it mean something?”
I thought about persecution. We were working on the issue of The Warhorn that you’re reading now, the persecution-themed one, timed to hype our persecution-themed book.
“Father,” I said. “It’d be sorta nice to be fed to the lions.”
I realized this was not strictly true. I would probably dislike being fed to the lions quite a bit, come to think of it. But there was an appeal there for me, and maybe for a lot of guys. The Idea of being fed to the lions for my beliefs was sort of nice.
“Because it would afford an Ultimate Test,” I said aloud, more to myself this time. “Because I would either die for Christ or reject him and live for myself. Either way, I’d have to make a terrible, awful, no-good, Sophie’s choice, but at least I’d have made my peace, with heaven or with hell.”
I felt like I should kneel, I felt like I should insert more pious platitudes to make it feel more dignified and prayerish, but I think better on my feet—literally on my feet—and I wouldn’t quite get it all straight the way I wanted to if I was on my knees.
“I just want to make my peace with you,” I said to the Almighty God, staring at the floor like a fourth grader who doesn’t know the answer to the math problem.
Here was the ugly truth, I thought. Life has very few Ultimate Tests. The only two ultimate tests most guys ever have to face are marriage (even that’s not so ultimate anymore) and death. Instead life has lots of little obnoxious tests.
Did you take the garbage to the curb when your wife asked you? (That one was fortunately hypothetical for me.) Did you say hi to your awkward redneck neighbor when you got home from work, or did you pretend to be absorbed in something in your car until he finished his Swishers Sweet and went inside? Did you look at porn on the internet for the fifty thousandth time, or did you flee from immorality on the internet for the fifth?
These tests seem trivial, but the weight of failure, the guilt of a million unthinking, insignificant, tiny little sins against the Living God piles up. And at some point, maybe in your late twenties, it gets to you. You realize death isn’t as far away as it used to be when you were a teenager. You only have so many years of adulthood ahead of you, and if you’re lucky (okay, blessed), a few years of old age.
And if you weigh all the good things you’ve done with your life so far against all the bad, and you’re able to be sort of be honest, if only in a depressed and neurotic way, you realize your contribution to the kingdom of God is about as useful as a paraplegic’s contribution to the Summer Olympics.
That’s how I was feeling right then, anyway. “I wish I could go to the lions for Christ,” I said to myself. Or at worst, I thought, be the thief on the cross.
That was the truth behind the death-wish daydreams about foiling crazy gunman. Sure, there was lots of machismo pride that went into those things—even pagan dudes dream of being Bruce Willis for a day. But for a Christian guy, there was a special appeal. I wished I could pack an entire lifetime’s work of backbreaking sanctification into one violent sanctified act of contrition, be it by becoming lion chow, killing the crazy gunman, or dying to save everybody else from the crazy gunman. I wanted to start a new theology, Catholicism crossed with Charles Bronson.
“I don’t want Christ to die for my sins,” I told my Father and Creator. “I want to die for them myself.”
I waited for the lightning to strike. And then I thought I was blasphemous for waiting for the lightning to strike. And then I thought the lightning striking would really just be me getting my wish. Thank God for unanswered prayers, as Garth Brooks said.
God didn’t seem to be talking back to me. I thought about using the old flip the Bible open to a random page trick, but instead I went to bed.
No scroll came down from heaven on a beam of light answering all my questions and assuaging all my doubts and fears when I woke up. I’m no theology major, and I don’t want to cause undue consternation to those who are, but I’ve noticed scrolls do not tend to come down from heaven on a beam of light all that often in our present day and age.
But I did read Matthew 11:
“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force.”
Anytime I’ve heard that text explained, “violent” actually meant something like “vehement eagerness.” Of course, vehemently eager men taking the kingdom of heaven because they’re so gee-willikers-eager doesn’t sound as cool as the actual verse. Still, I thought it might have some bearing on my current existential crisis. That same day, my brother texted me:
Everything is a struggle for me. EVERYTHING.
By everything, of course, he meant sanctification. It’s a cinch, Kid, I imagined responding. Join my new theology, and all you gotta do is commit one bloody, glorious Signal Act of Contrition. Then you’re golden.
I asked more guys about the gunman fantasy. One guy told me, “It’s so funny you ask that. I was just thinking about it on the way to church today, and I thought to myself ‘I’ve gotta stop thinking about this stupid thing.’” His fantasy was that the gunman took a hostage, and he traded himself for their life. And then he incapacitated the gunman, he told me as an afterthought.
Another guy said that he just stood up and hurled a chair (we have detachable chairs), which sailed through the air in a perfect arc, and smashed the gunman in the face, problem solved. Some guys can’t bear to get their hands dirty even in their fantasies.
I was already working on this article, so I kept waiting for a big epiphany, if only for the sake of The Warhorn. It kept not happening. Actually, I don’t know if it ever happened. My heart is like the hour hand of a clock. It only ever seems to change while I’m looking away.
What did finally happen, for what it’s worth, happened at Jake’s house again, at 2:30 in the morning again, maybe a month later. Jake was sprawled on the floor in his customary position, I was taking a turn on the couch. Amanda, poor girl, had elected this time to enjoy the enticements of bed over the company of an increasingly moody husband and husbands-friend-guy.
Not that we were moody in a bad way. It was just another moody night. It wasn’t as cold and dark outside as it was last time, but it was 2:30 in the morning after all, and let’s face it, to some degree, at that time of night, you can always hear the ghosts whispering at the windows.
We had started much earlier on some business or other about The Warhorn. By some murky and misty path, we had finally arrived at what we wanted to talk about. If you’re anything like me, you never get to what you want to talk about until you’re reaching for your coat. And if you’re like me when I’m with Jake, reaching for my coat doesn’t happen until at least two hours after midnight.
Anyway, there we were, in the parchment-yellow gloom of lamplight, staring past each other, and both half listening to the drone of our own thoughts, in between each tick of that infernal clock.
“So I’ve been thinkin’,” I began.
“Why would you do a thing like that?” Jake asked.
“I have to admit,” I said. “It’s gotten to be kind of a habit. Sometimes I’ll have five or six thoughts a day”
“I hope never before dinner.”
“Anyway, I’ve been thinking.”
“So you’ve been thinking, have you?”
“I’ve been thinking,” I said.
“Yeah. I’ve been thinking about the whole crazy gunman fantasy thing. Y’know. For my article in The Warhorn. I need an ending. Actually, I need an epiphany.”
“Well, let’s trigger one. What have you been thinking about the whole crazy gunman fantasy thing?”
“It’s a shortcut for sanctification,” I said. “It’s the end of every Flanner O’Connor story ever written. It’s a signal act of contrition.”
“Deep,” Jake said. “Profound, even.” He eyed the staircase that led to bed and wife, like a kid in summer eying a swimming pool.
“Maybe I’m crazy,” I said. “But think about it. You, me, men, dudes, whatever. We spend our whole life—I spend my whole life—zigging and zagging down the straight and narrow. Sometimes staying in the yellow lines, sometimes careening all over the place. Why wouldn’t I fantasize about somebody giving me a jetpack?”
“Would a jetpack get you out the door any faster?” Jake said.
“I’ll jetpack you,” I retorted. We took a moment to savor our witty repartee. Then I said, “Here’s the thing: wouldn’t it be great to be fed to the lions? Or die foiling the crazy gunman? Go out in a big bloody bang, and save yourself all the work of doing God’s will by, y’know, being nice to your kids, or other people’s kids, or, whatever. Taking the trash out. Or witnessing to your neighbor.”
I sighed. Just a little sigh, not a big dramatic one.
“What’s the point?” I said. “Why did God do it? Why make us men? I mean, Men. Why put this violence in us, this urge, this excitement, this fervor, this whatever it is—and then the only outlet is, y’know, marrying a nice lady, getting a job, tithing ten percent, helping rake leaves at the church, maybe teaching a Sunday school class, or being on an outreach committee? Who cares? I mean, I know I’m pathetic. I know that. I know I wouldn’t really like any of the ‘glorious’ stuff I daydream about. But, without being a total jerk about it, it’s hard not to think that me and other men like me weren’t meant for something cooler. Then again maybe I’ve just been brainwashed by TV or something. Who knows?”
Jake was silent for a long time. He shut his eyes and rubbed his temples. When he spoke, it was just above a whisper.
“What I’d really like to do is work and then rest,” he said. “I always combine the two in a ridiculous muddle. But I’d like to just work and rest. Go to bed tired from a long hard day of battle, looking forward to another glorious battle the next day. Instead, I’m always sort of working, sort of playing, half asleep, half awake. Fantasizing about a gunman or being a martyr is really just fantasizing about escaping the fog. It’s about clarity. Like you said, it’s an Ultimate Test.”
“You’re monologuing,” I said.
“A task which increases in difficulty when you interrupt,” he said.
“I’ d apologize,” I said, “But why waste precious time you could be using to spout wisdom?”
“What was I saying?”
“I lost track around sub-point 14b. Something about the Ultimate Test.”
“Oh yeah,” Jake said. “What I was going to say is that it’s really just coward’s play.”
“The Ultimate Test is the coward’s way out.”
“Because it’s really about . . . relieving the tension of living by faith. Because living by faith means real, well, you know what I’m trying to say.”
“Sure you do.”
“Well, that would make one of us.”
“Work,” Jake said. “Real responsibility, real sacrifice. Small, pathetic, thankless.”
“I’m not tracking,” I said. “Or, more accurately, you’re not laying enough track.”
“I’m saying we want an easy way out. Of being a Christian. Of being a man. And the more difficult and glorious we imagine it, the better it feels.”
I glanced up at the clock. It was 2:45. “Do they pay you to say this kind of stuff at the pastor’s college?” I asked.
“Here’s what really happens,” Jake said. “I wake up in the morning in the midst of a battle. I don’t even know it. I dodge an arrow by happenstance, and then another one hits me in the gut when I’m not paying attention. But . . . to wake up every day with a kind of sober carpe diem. To charge joyfully into battle. And then rest and repeat…”
“I just wish I could see the battle,” I said. I curled my feet up and lay down on my side with my head on a cushion. “I’m down with the charge joyfully part. I just never know which direction to charge.”
Jake opened his eyes. “I don’t either. Not all the time. Satan sends the fog in, and if the Christian life is about anything, it’s about the Spirit quickening us to rub the fog out of our eyes, again and again.”
“To see what?”
“It’s about whether I leave my shoes in the middle of the floor when I come in or whether I love my wife enough to put them up.”
“Sure,” I said.
“It’s about whether I check on the kids before I go to bed, and wrap an extra blanket around them so they won’t be cold. It’s about taking an extra thirty seconds to make the bathroom nice before I leave it.”
“Cleanliness is next to godliness,” I said.
“It’s about what moms do. It’s about Amanda putting a billion sequins on a little pink bike, so Lucy can think it’s really cool and then peel ‘em all off again. But that’s just the fun part. It’s about Amanda doing the dishes day in and day out. Cooking dinner. Over and over and over again. Mundane. Boring. Trivial.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Mundane. Boring. Trivial.”
“You know what the problem with us is?” Jake said.
“We’re not dreamy and artistic enough.”
I thought for a moment. I thought for a moment longer. “You’re right,” I said.
“I’m always right,” he said. “It came out of my mouth, therefore it was right.”
“You’re just a humble vessel of the truth,” I said. “You are always right. It’s your least admirable quality.”
He nodded. I nodded.
“Shucks,” I said. “Checkmate.”
“Yep,” he said.
I sighed again. “I’m not dreamy and artistic enough. Not romantic enough, actually. I probably need to watch more TV.”
“Eh,” Jake said.
I was still trying to fit it all together snugly in my head. “So,” I said. “The romance of sanctification. We only have one life, we only have so much blood running in our veins, let’s see how much we can do with it, let’s take those talents that God gave us and really make ’em pay out the nose.”
“Right,” Jake said. “God bought us with His Own Son’s life, we can never really repay him of course, but it’s an adventure to try, and with the Spirit quickening us, who knows what might happen?”
“Yeah,” I said. “And by God’s bizarro grace, we can make even make our death count for something better than in Bruce Willis’s whole oeuvre.” I mumbled oeuvre because I’m never quite sure how to pronounce it.
“Right,” Jake said again. “And the problem with us is—”
I interrupted. “The problem is not that there’s no romance in taking out the trash. Or putting the sequins on your kid’s bike. The problem is that we’re not dreamy and artistic and romantic enough to see it. Because we are the violent men taking the Kingdom of God by force. If we really are Christians, there isn’t any other kind of man we can be.”
“We are the violent men,” Jake said. “And we do, in some humble way, have the glory of suffering for our Savior. It just happens, for most of us, in slow motion.”
“And we wanna get it over with in a big cinematic bang because we’re impatient,” I said. “Because we’re—well, there must be some word for what we are.”
“That’s what I was looking for.”
“Awesome,” Jake said. He hoisted himself up, off the armchair, and stood. “Will that do for an epiphany?”
“Anyway it’s a good ending for my article,” I said.
I walked home and didn’t smoke because I’d run out earlier that day and hadn’t got a chance to buy any. I stepped into my apartment, took off my shoes, laid my coat across the couch, and crossed into the kitchen.
There was that Taco Bell wrapper, just where I’d left it. I stooped and swept it up with my fingers and dropped it in the trash.
“Eat your heart out, Charles Bronson,” I said.