Chaos and Love: A Review of Shane Crash’s “Forest Life”


There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight. Bafflement, suffering, and a sense of intractable ethical paradox are all, if they become intense enough or are sustained long enough, radical challenges to the proposition that life is comprehensible and that we can, by taking thought, orient ourselves effectively within it—challenges with which any religion, however “primitive,” which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope.    –Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System

Chaos, or unintelligible, un-interpretable events, says anthropologist Clifford Geertz, assails humankind from three directions: When one’s analytic capacities fail, when one’s endurance shrivels, and when one’s moral insight is defective or lacking. Is life comprehensible? Geertz says that religion seeks to make it so through its various orientating systems. In his new novel, Forest Life, Shane Crash faces these issues square in the face, and questions the role of religion in making the world intelligible. Pain, suffering, chaos, religion, coping mechanisms, human relationships: Crash weaves these themes together effortlessly. The setting is simple enough. A young man, reeling in the wake of a tragic accident, moves to the fringes of rural America to deal with his ever-increasing despair. He works to make sense of these events, but finds that they are inexplicable. Chaos threatens him from all directions.

Forest Life is an angst-ridden meditation on human pain and suffering. It is a story about hurt and despair, gut-wrenching emotional-psychological sadness, and human phantoms flitting in and out of the margins of awareness, hovering at the borders of (non)existence. Because pain is illogical, the story, too, is partly illogical; as a reader I found myself questioning Emmett’s self-depreciations and frequent disillusioned sessions of introspective despair. Especially in the early chapters of the book, I wondered if Emmett-qua-protagonist was too despairing, or unrealistically dark in demeanor and carriage. I found it hard to trust Emmett’s cynicism—I didn’t believe it. Emmett’s character seemed stilted; Emmett just didn’t work, for me. But hear me out–all of this changed as I progressed in the narrative. I finished a chapter—chapter three, I recall—and realized that I was invested in the characters, that I cared what happened next. I remembered that dealing with pain is never logical. I realized that by whatever literary magic or writer’s craft, Crash had transfixed my interest and attention. Maybe it was Crash’s prose. Maybe it was the striking similarities between Emmett’s struggles and my own biography. Maybe it was the art of intertextuality—a sequestered cabin in the woods (think: Thoreau’s Walden), the serene lake, the physical attraction between Emmett and Maraye, the Tolstoy and Camus allusions. I imagine it was a combination of all these elements. Regardless, I found myself irrevocably invested in the narrative of Forest Life.

I also found myself consistently moved by Crash’s prose, captured by the in-between-dialogue parts of his writing that reflect the protagonist’s thoughts as he meanders around in the forest and by the lake. Crash has managed to essentialize experience through evocation, and in particular, the experience of suffering. Crash’s descriptions are profoundly embodied. Emmett’s pain is not just psychological but registers itself in his very cells, in his limbs, in his body. The alcohol numbs the pain, of course, but further blurs the boundaries between reality and subconscious fantasy. As readers, it is easy to empathize with the Emmett. I (we) know his pain. I (we) feel the ways his sadness and his overriding sense of helplessness gnaw at his consciousness and knot his stomach. Emmett is in pain—Crash paints this in broad brushstrokes. Emmett is alive—he exists, yes—but this existence is frustrated. Life is inexplicable; even religion fails to provide answers. Death is tantalizingly attractive to those whose lives pulse with despair and unaccountable hurt. When it hurts to breathe, when every breath is a focused exercise in inexplicable suffering, death is a viable solution.

Forest Life reads like a Cianfrance film. It’s dark, gritty, and emotive, but chalk full of fleeting glimpses of ecstasy and, for lack of a better term, joy, in a relational sense. In Cianfrance’s anti-romance, Blue Valentine, it’s human relationship  that is the source of the film’s wonder, the source of its pleasure. But it’s also the harsh reality of relationship that is also the unraveling of the characters in the end. Analogously, Crash’s prose at points shines although the subject matter is painful. The repeated descriptions of Maraye’s skin are themselves metaphors of what could be; they’re metaphors of the unlikely possibility of healing and loving, of quasi-reconciliation, of hope. These descriptions of beauty and attraction, of Maraye’s pale, glistening skin and sheer sundresses, are consistently undercut by Emmett’s cycles of guilt and turmoil. Yet, these descriptions of attraction and wonder represent Crash’s best writing.


Like many readers, I read novels wearing more than one hat. Aside from my being a lover of contemporary American literature, I’m also an anthropologist of religion who studies, in particular, evangelical and pentecostal Christianity in the U. S. Obvious to any careful reader is a consistent polemic edge in Crash’s writing that works to problematize Christian (and more specifically, evangelical) culture in the U. S.  In classificatory terms, Forest Life is a literary corollary to the burgeoning theologies of those provocateurs known by many names: emergents; emerging churches; postmodern Christians; The Hyphenateds; progressive Christians; or the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). Whether Crash is conversant with these groups is unclear, but in the scheme of things this is where his work fits categorically and historically. Forest Life is a work of religio-cultural protest, one that seeks to separate the essence of Christian spirituality (often framed in terms of “love” or “justice”) from the traditional cultural trappings of Christian America (implying things such as anti-intellectualism, über-patriotism, pro-violence, ultra-conservatism, patriarchal conceptions of gender, and so on). There is a danger in such a critique; no matter how compelling is one’s charge against the sins of American Christians, one runs the risks of reifying simple caricatures of those groups in focus. Sometimes Emmett’s accusations of Christians are viable. Other times, they reproduce simple caricatures and (in my opinion) ultimately undermine the value of the respective literary scene. Yet, Emmett (or Crash, rather?) redeems himself; in chapter six, when Emmett attends a worship service with Jack and Maraye, he transcends his cynicism and caricaturizing tendencies in a freeing moment of empathy: “It strikes me that most of these folks are probably just contending with life and loss. My chest begins to ache for them. I stop seeing them as back-wood rednecks and townies. I see myself in their sad expressions. I am truly ashamed of my judgment.” Chaos, if only momentarily, is held at bay; Emmett sees himself in the Other, he recognizes the universality of suffering.

And while Crash’s polemics against religion might appear to some readers as somewhat redundant or at least overplayed—I agree to a point, by the way—Crash’s writing tone is reminiscent of other American novelists like Mark Twain or Kurt Vonnegut. But perhaps Crash will learn from Hemingway, another American literary giant, and make his critique more effective by showing instead of telling, showing via evocative story-craft. Polemics and provocations are literary tools that must be wielded carefully and applied with reserve; too much, and the character becomes nothing more than a political talking head. Sometimes concealing some point in an artful way is much more effective than rote explicitness.


With all of that aside, Forest Life is a refreshing and rewarding read, dark and provocative in parts, but bursting with emotion and life. It is a modern elegy, recalling the mournfulness and sadness of human existence while it simultaneously draws on the beauty of nature; in this sense, the book is reminiscent of the small body of early Anglo-Saxon poems, dark and somber, called The Elegies. Forest Life is a beautiful meditation on pain and coping, human frailty and resiliency, and the capacity to love, even while inexplicable chaos hovers all around. Crash demonstrates rare wisdom and insight for his age. I plan on reading the book a second time. Crash is a brilliant young writer, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for his next novel. Make sure to purchase Forest Life over at Civitas Press. Crash’s other publications, including a travel journal and collaborative essay project, can be accessed here. Check out his blog here.

On Nietzsche, Prosperity Gospel, and Suffering

Iconoclast philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (N), in his On the Genealogy of Morals, has it out for religion and religious. As the treatise progresses, he develops several critical concepts that bear the weight of his overall critique. In referring to Judaism and Christianity, in general, and what he calls the “priestly caste,” in particular, he proposes the concept of the priest. To this idea he ascribes a body of descriptions that are reiterated throughout the Genealogy. Priests, N says, reinforce what calls the opposites of “pure” and “impure.” But to be pure, he argues, means simply (and historically) to wash oneself, avoid certain foods said to bring about disease, avoid sleeping with prostitutes and coming into contact with blood. Famously, N classifies priests in terms of dietary prohibitions and prescriptions, sexual abstinence, and flight into the wilderness. Priests are anti-sensual. For them, “everything simply becomes more dangerous.” Everything is a possible contagion; everything is prohibited.

Another element endemic to religious (Judeo-Christian) sensibilities, in N’s mind, is what he calls slave mentality and its resulting ressentiment: Essentially, this is all a turning-inward, a conniving self-introspection, self-denial, and suppression of animal instinct. Through the themes of priestly class, slave mentality, and ressentiment, all of these processes ultimately make the human weak and artificialized. The human rolls in his guilt—in his bad conscience—while he disavows the world and its pleasures. The ascetic priest, like the self-depreciating slave, internalizes one’s own drives and instincts. All of these issues, N argues, are part and parcel to religious sensibilities, and in particular, Jewish and Christian ones.

N published Genealogy in the late nineteenth century (1887), however, and global Christianity has continued to evolve and morph over more than a century and a quarter. Does N’s critique still hold? I study North American evangelicals, and among those evangelicals, am interested in one controversial form of thought and praxis: The Prosperity Gospel. Proponents of this economic- and theological-system are minor celebrities who run veritable media empires whose religio-discursive networks span the globe. One might spot these celebrities in the eclectically filled time-slots of programming owned by the Trinity Broadcasting Network and other Christian televising programs.

I’m at the early end of my research on televangelism, so I certainly run the risk of essentializing the issues and providing an oversimplistic reading of televangelistic ideologies. But for now, I can say with some certainty that Prosperity authorities invert N’s thesis, that is, they undermine his critique of Christianity-qua-asceticism, Christianity as ressentiment, and Christianity as embodied slave-mentality. Prosperity theologies are material theologies; they are theologies of the here-and-now. Prosperity Gospels underscore economic wealth and apotheosize the possession of material goods; they are quasi-hedonistic gospels that problematize Western Christianity’s widespread adoption of mind-body dualism by reinstating a theological justification of bodily enjoyment and pleasure.

Critics of the Prosperity Gospel, both in the news media and in Protestant theological circles, offer the following quote by itinerant evangelist and healer, Benny Hinn, as an example of excess, an instance of theological aberrancy:

I’m sick and tired about hearing about streets of gold [in heaven]. I don’t need gold in heaven. I got to have it now.

In the minds of the theologically “orthodox” (the term is a matter of perspective) such a statement is construed as bold, vulgar, un-biblical. But not the iconoclastic philosopher who died the opening year of the 1900s—not Friedrich Nietzsche, with his compromised digestion system and brilliant, sometime illegibly existential rants scrawled across the pages of his journals—N approves of Hinn’s gospel. The iconoclast condones such theological iconoclasm. For more on this comparison, see these new essays.

My question, for the curious reader, is: How do Hinn and company fit with N’s terminologies, especially concerning the beasts of prey and the empirically meek, but actually insidious, lambs? Concerning wealth, Hinn is given, and given, and given. (Or, does he take? Is there a difference?) Hinn rejects the ascetic ideal. He is, in Nietzschean parlance, active, moving, attaining. Might there be an aggressiveness to Hinn’s activity? Might there be a will to power?

“Man, the bravest animal and the one most accustomed to suffering,” writes N, “does not negate suffering in itself: he wants it, he even seeks it out.” Thus, I extrapolate: (i) Humans seek out suffering, but do so only if they can (ii) provide meaning for that suffering. (iii) The ascetic ideal offers that meaning. (iv) Prosperity Gospelers reject the ascetic ideal and (v) claim a way out of suffering to material and spiritual well-being. (vi) Suffering, for N, in some sort of (C. S.) Lewisian, “Pain is God’s megaphone” sort of way, is one sure part of human existence in the world of nature.

But it remains to be seen: If (or when?) prosperity fails in everyday life—if (when) promises of wealth and harvest fail to materialize for adherents who have bills to pay now—how will the proponents compensate, and will the masses accept and submit? Will prosperity authorities offer simple, critical explanations (i.e., you are not sowing enough; you have not faith enough)? Will they compromise, slightly, by validating suffering in limited ways (God will use pain to make you a better person), all the while continuing to uphold seed-harvest teachings? What is the future of the Prosperity Gospel in a post-capitalist, globalizing world?