I’ve never been a religious person. I’ve given that life a shot, but it just wasn’t for me. The practicing of a religion, the observance of certain rules, and the quixotic quest to stay pious in this day and age just didn’t strike me as doable. I decided, instead, that I’d try to be more like a relative who I once heard remark, “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual.”
I’ve found, over time, that even the latter can be a difficult task to pull off, and that maybe the entire idea of á la carte spirituality is a fallacy. Without some sort of structure, or some system of faith, you can’t be spiritual. You can be decent, you can be good, and you can find fulfillment outside of the boundaries of religion, but being spiritual takes some degree of belief — and as James Baldwin’s 1953 debut, Go Tell It on the Mountain shows, those systems of belief can weigh you down just as much as they can lift you up.
Baldwin knew this better than anybody. He knew both the sacred and the profane through his time as a teenage Pentecostal preacher. As Baldwin the holy man made his name, Baldwin the thinker grew up and started to see the cracks in religion, eventually drifting away from the pulpit to Greenwich Village, and eventually to Paris. Commenting on just how different the world he was raised in was from the world he discovered, he would note in an “Art of Fiction” interview with The Paris Review, “When you are standing in the pulpit, you must sound as though you know what you’re talking about. When you’re writing, you’re trying to find out something which you don’t know.”
As I reread Go Tell It on the Mountain, I thought about how, although his semi-autobiographical novel serves as a commentary on the restrictions the church — any church — puts on people, Baldwin doesn’t come across as angry or spiteful about it. Instead, he is informed by his past. We are good, but we can be evil. We try hard, but temptation can get to the best of us, and rot us from the inside. Baldwin illustrates this particularly well with “Gabriel’s Prayer,” from the second section, and “The Prayers of the Saints,” which begins with Baldwin thinking Esther is an evil woman who has the devil in her. A person with loose morals who is put in front of the young preacher not as temptation, but for salvation. Yet what Baldwin so brilliantly does is flip things around, and we find that it is Gabriel, not Esther, who is the true sinner. He is the one who initiates the affair, and he is the coward who hides the truth, that he paid Esther to leave town to have his son, Royal.
That’s a big part of what makes Go Tell It on the Mountain a novel we’re still talking about all these years later. It looks at race, it looks at class, and it studies the family dynamic, but the book’s greatest quality is its insight, through the framework of finding and losing religion, about human nature: none of us are perfect, we’re all capable of sin no matter what we believe, and those sins can stay with us for the rest of our lives.