By Anthony J. Elia
3 June 2015
REVIEW OF: The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, by Charles H. Featherstone
“Memoirs are the backstairs of history,” ~ George Meredith
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ~ William Faulkner
I first learned Czech from a Korean-born Slavic philologist at the University of Chicago. When I finally made it to Prague to study for a summer, my Bohemian-born teachers thought I spoke Slovak, because of my accent. Like Charles Featherstone, I took up this complicated and beautiful language; unlike Charles Featherstone, I didn’t learn it in the army and I never fully overcame the Slovak accent.
Languages and educations are funny things. They take you places like weary taxicab drivers, who pick you up after that long flight from Tijuana, Denver, or San Juan, and take you to a presumably safe place. But depending on the driver you’re given, you end up taking very different routes, and ending up in very different places. Life itself is like that, in fact. And sometime you don’t actually end up in safe places.
For some time I’d known that Charles Featherstone was writing a book, a memoir. I didn’t know what it would cover in his life, nor did I know that it would turn out to be the masterfully written volume The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death. What I did know was a guy named Charles and his wife Jennifer, who lived and worked in the community where I was employed nearly a decade ago. At least, I thought I knew Charles. But there is much more I now know. And I’m glad for that.
I don’t recall when we first met—maybe he does—but I do remember his personality: bold, maybe at times brash, but tempered; loud, but sensitive; shocking, but nuanced; intense, but reflective; passionate, yet withheld. Charles worked in the library, where I was a librarian. We often chatted, and had rather brief conversations, but conversations that seemed to be weighty, worthwhile, and meaningful. They weren’t the oft superficial, self-interested, or banal conversations one might have in most quotidian encounters. Charles had an earnest presence to his speech, his thought, and his spirit. I knew that I had to take him seriously. I also knew that he and his wife Jennifer were special people, who worked hard, sometimes struggled financially, and had big hearts—really big hearts. I once remember when Charles took up a job as a cab driver while in seminary. I’m sure I never told him this, but when I discovered his new occupation, it cemented in my mind that Charles was the real deal—a student studying for ministry who was compelled to work long shifts and drive around a sprawling city for low wages with unknown passengers, just to make ends meet: now that took a man with special character. I had a lot of respect for someone like that.
Charles is a big guy with presence, as he notes in his book, who is often misunderstood—“people are afraid of you” I think was the line one of his fellow students commented. I was never afraid of Charles. I actually found his assertive presence and booming voice refreshing. It was not make believe, this was no Disney-character saying grace over pot roast. But I think the real reason I wasn’t afraid of Charles was that he curiously reminded me of my grandfather, a life-long Lutheran himself, who didn’t take crap from anyone, and also commanded an imposing posture and presence.
My grandfather died about two months ago, and in that time since, I decided to read Charles’ memoir. And I’m glad I did, because it is a remarkable work. And reading it now, in the space of that lingering memory of my recently departed grandfather, who had a great deal of influence on me as a child, was a good time to read this book. The book made me think of these parallels in a very stark and real sense. My grandfather was a brilliant man, who spoke confidently, and could engage with just about anyone on any topic. He was also a man, like Charles, who was often misunderstood or mischaracterized. Charles is uncannily similar in this way, with the addition of some fairly fascinating world travel, a command of Arabic and Czech, and a damn good conversion story.
In some ways, it’s hard to write a review of a book by someone you know. You run the risk of being too soft, too obsequious, too flattering, and not honest enough. To quote Charles toward the end of his book, “I feel like a fraud” writing this review. But that’s not totally true. What I will make full admission of here is the lesson I learned from this memoir—being an honest and open writer will set you free. And so, in this way, I don’t “feel like a fraud” writing this. This book feels so honest—even if it is only one side of many stories (because, like any memoir, there may be people, who might contest certain episodes)—that I felt the reality of human existence in every page. I felt what one reviewer of this book called “ragged, raw, and real.” What I kept thinking as I went from page to page was “Saint Augustine would be jealous reading Featherstone!”—Augustine’s pear tree feels embarrassingly modest, like someone’s hair is out of place, compared to some of the torment, uncertainty, or betrayal experienced by the author of this memoir.
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of this work is the ability of Charles to convey the emotive, visceral pain of his experiences. When he talks about being wronged or hurt or bullied or even pigeon-holed, you feel his anger, his rage, his presence of mind; you also want to come to his rescue, talk to the people with whom he placed his trust and then let him down, or figure the best way out of a tricky situation. At least, that’s what I felt. And perhaps that is because I know Charles, and many of the actors in his life drama, which in broad terms is either a passion play or a fools’ opera. Either way, it’s powerful and complex, and incredibly important to recognize and respond to.
When I first read the book, I thought that maybe he spent too much time on his youth and childhood. But as I considered it further, the duration of those sections is important—they are powerful, expressive, sad, profound, unexpected, heartbreaking, and real.
For about a quarter of the book, Charles transports you into that world of childhood, youth, and adolescence, as if you were reading Tolstoy’s reflections. He emerges with a fair share of scratches and wounds, and subsequently (or consequently) seeks outlets—in the army, in writing, in Islam, in Solzhenitsyn, and finally in Jesus.
The path that Charles takes us down remarkable and surprising. The characters he encounters, talks to, prays with, thinks about, or protects himself against are a Who’s Who of characters out of a post-modern Dickens novel—from street gangs in Chicago to Mexican restaurant mascots in Dubai, all the way to encounters with Elridge Cleaver and members of the U.S. Congress. The themes of the book are part- spiritual wanderlust, part tale of survival, where each of these narratives comes together to find a place and meaning for Charles. His life moves through the continuum of change and adaptation to environments. It is also a life marked by a persistent hope—a hope that every so often pops up its little head, to make sure all is clear.
Amid all this, something happened. What happened was 9/11.
Charles lived through September 11th. He literally was there, when it happened; in the buildings of the World Trade Center. And he recounts the horror of this moment, those moments, and the experience of slowed time, crisp and clear blue skies, sunlight, whizzing sounds, thuds, crashes, and the gnashing of metal, glass, and concrete, as the planes impacted. He smelled the burning that day; he saw people falling hundreds of feet to their deaths. He felt the pain and anguish of the day. And amid this, his religious identity was tested.
I don’t know how many people went through conversions that day. I don’t know how many people had the initial pangs of questioning their faith. But this memoir is the only one I know that has grappled with such a distinct theological shift, from the foot of the tragedy.
In so many ways, the events of that September morning brought Charles to church, and ultimately to seminary. And in so many ways, the experience of 9/11 seems to be the turning point of the narrative. Yet, when I finished the book, I wondered if the turning point was later, in seminary—or, maybe the turning point is the end of the book, the realization of an unknown future in light of all the tragedy and hardship endured? I say this about Charles’ time in seminary, because like many things associated with “the church,” and with organized religion, many of us have grand and holy expectations of goodness, because…, well, because it is the church. And yet, we find that institutions are all guilty of sins of behavior, hypocrisy, omission, commission, and inconsistency. Charles does not seek power in the church, but I think he did seek goodness, acceptance, recognition, and some sort of truth—whatever that truth may have been. Facing the realities of any institution and its centralized or diffuse powers, especially when cloaked (or hidden behind) the language and love of the Gospels, can be a sobering, if not traumatic experience; and one that is often troubling to those who go through any such process of religious participation or education. And because of this, I wonder if this is the true turning point of this memoir.
I know this was a difficult book to write, and probably even more difficult book to publish, especially considering what implications or blowback it might create. I’m glad he wrote this book. I understand that the decisions of the church and the bishops involved in his case have responsibilities, and have made their decisions. At the same time, if I were in a church community, and a church leader was able to be so articulately open about their “sinful” past, I think that a community would feel like this was refreshing, engaging, and open; something that was desired in a religious leader. But maybe not. Not all faith communities in the church are like that. We are human beings with human foibles and failures, as people, as communities, as churches, as leaders. People also like to be inconsistent, while requiring their leaders to be consistent. We’re a funny breed.
Having read this memoir, I feel like if I had a cabin in the woods somewhere, I’d give it to Charles and Jennifer to let them enjoy the simple life and write more books like this. I know that Charles has other stories. I’ve heard them. And I want to see more in print.
Like Faulkner said, the past is not dead. It’s not even past. I can see that clearly from this book.
God bless Charles Featherstone. God bless his wife Jennifer, and give them peace and stability in the roughness of this world we call home.
Now go out and buy this book. And go buy a dozen copies for your friends, and their friends.
PS- if I were doling out stars, this would be a 5/5. Most definitely.