Chris Hoke Wanted
Chris describes his work with Bob Ekblad in Skagit County, Washington State among migrant workers and, mostly, young men involved in lives of crime.
That bald description is about as empty as it could be of the reality he describes, of his personal search for God and his finding him among the desperate. Chris did not fit with convention, with theology and pastorship of a nice clean church, though he did study the theology – he just found his place among the ‘outsiders’, as indeed did Jesus merely by coming among us, but explicitly in who he associated with. Chris listened to the stories, went to court, stayed up through the night, laughed, sang and cried, all recounted in the gaping wound between the beautiful descriptive prose as he describes the Skagit valley, and the distress of the men, who come to trust him and pray with him. The cruelty of much of the prison system is too great. But Chris is their pastor.
This again is very reductive! There are perhaps two strands that wind their way through the book. One is the author’s searching, probing quest for God, so the personal element is ever present; the other is the array of men we meet, some with a chapter devoted to them, but two in particular who we return to time and again. One of the stories in particular brings the two elements together, so this is something I would like to outline, in part because it brings out an important theological theme (that runs through this website).
It concerns a young man who had killed his father, is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, and is visited by Chris in an institution. Chris speculates about what it is that causes some people to hear ‘voices’ that are not their own more clearly than do others, and posits a sort of inner antenna that is highly sensitive, and which can be broken, or pick up the wrong signals. There are hints, no more, through the book of the author’s own theological pursuits, but this is the one point where he is explicit, referring to Abraham Heschel’s book Prophets – where we find this idea of men who were unusually sensitive. The young man in question had not been going too well in terms of being a good boy, so his mother took him on a trip to Cambodia where he had an unusual and dramatic encounter with God, with love; it was not a flash in the pan thing but a real life changer; he began to talk to people wherever he went, he would know things and words would come unbidden, and they too would encounter the love of God; he would speak in churches . . . but it all changed . . . at a youth camp.
One night around the campfire, the night each week when the young preacher hopes students are most listening, when they are encouraged to “make a decision” to give their lives to Christ, Connor was listening very closely. And he made the opposite decision.
“The preacher, he kept talking about ‘the cross, the cross, the cross!’ How Jesus suffered on the cross and that it was God punishing him, that it was a punishment we all deserved. I guess it freaked me out.”
Chris talks a little about this theology which ‘looks . . . bloodthirsty’, about a ‘god of wrath’, rather than Jesus, the God of love. Then he says
Connor, with his hypersensitivity to evil, was immediately more sensitive than most to such theology. . . Do I believe this? he asked himself. It caused him to lose trust in the more direct, mysterious channel he’d been dialled into that year that had filled him with a grace like pure music . . . His Jesus Freak stage was over.
It was after three years that he began to hear voices again, but this time from another place, voices which he resisted, pondered and eventually yielded to, and killed his father.
Well, that is the sort of story the author tells, with his own reflections, and much of it concerns a dark world, the dark world, we might add, into which Jesus came. If the rejection of ‘penal substitution’ doctrine is too hard, it would be better not to read the book. However, the author’s connections typically do the same; Brad Jersak calls the penal substitution theory ‘heresy’. (I suspect he is right.)
There is a counter-balance to the darkness, which is beauty, particularly in nature. Chris himself finds considerable peace working in a nursery and then discovers fly fishing, an art he shares with his friends from the streets; there are some lovely descriptive passages which then weave in with the spiritual landscape:
[When the trumpeter swans arrive], in the weeks ahead, the large white birds’ honking and morphing Vs pass just overhead, heralds of winter’s advent. When the rest of us are sealing up our windows, they descend from the northern arctic to fill our emptied skies and our muddy fields with their otherworldly beauty. They fly so low you can sometimes hear the air in their feathers, hear them breathing in labor.