Brother Cobweb was released by Open Books Press this Easter. The novel revolves around a Midwestern Pentecostal church and family, but it is broader in its criticisms, reaching from the seeds of Mormon abuse out into Catholicism and its wider social structures.
We sat down with its author, Alfred Eaker, for an interview.
Novena: Open Press Books lists your book as fiction, yet your author biography states you were actually raised in a Pentecostal church. How much is fiction? How much is fact?
Alfred Eaker: The narrative itself is composed as a fictional one, but it was inspired by a lifetime of experiences and observations.
I modeled the composition of the bible itself; there are slivers of historicity filtered through symbols, metaphors, and parables.
Despite the horrors in it, there’s also a lot of humor, which was necessary for me and I included a bit of popular art references. I guess I was channeling Warhol, who, by the way, was quite the devout Catholic.
Speaking of being Catholic, you converted to Catholicism?
In the early 90s. Amaya Engelking, the poet from Gospel Isosceles, was gracious in her advanced review of my book in that she stated it would have been easy for the character Calvin to wash his hands of religion and proclaim himself atheist. The world would applaud, but ultimately that would be too safe a bubble of unimaginative atheism.
I was very humbled by that. She got it. So, yes, I am Catholic. However, she intuitively pointed out something that Calvin says in the novel: “The Church needs me more than I need it.”
That’s true of all of us, because it is we, the laity, that is the Church, not the hierarchy. It needs us prodigals.
Writing the book reminded me of something that Bishop Fulton Sheen said: “Sometimes the Church creates prodigals through our indifference, neglect, and abuses.” Yup.
You consider yourself a prodigal then?
I hope so.
Yet, you have degrees in theology?
That’s the best path to be a prodigal… Yes, I have a bachelors in Catholic theology through Saint Mary of the Woods and a Masters of Theological Studies in the Arts through the ecumenical Christian Theological Seminary.
I’ve also spent a lot of time with the Franciscans; the Conventuals, the Secular Franciscans, and the Franciscan Hermitage in Indianapolis.
You said there were slivers of historicity in your novel.
More than slivers, actually. The various abuses, suffered by multiple characters, were inspired by factual abuses. The sermons in the novel are verbatim. It’s odd, I often forget what I did yesterday, but I remember those sermons like I just heard them. They left that big of an impression, but it was hardly a good one.
I’ve joked that being raised in a radical right-wing Pentecostal Church was hell, but it had moments of unintentionally-inspired surrealism. I write what I know of and so a lot of characters are composites of multifarious persons.
Calvin, Reverend Harry, Nancy, and Luke are composites. I did that to maintain a character arch, giving Calvin a beginning, middle, and resolution.
You wrote this over a long period of time.
Twenty-Six years off and on. I only recently realized that when a friend reminded me that I wrote a first rough draft in 1994. I then wrote it as a screenplay, but was never satisfied with it or its ending, so I rewrote it as a novel and I’ve been working on that nonstop for about six years.
Why did you decide to write it as a novel?
I was inspired by something the Dalai Lama said: “We need more storytellers.” Besides, writing it as history verbatim would have been so broad as to be messier and too complicated. Plus, it would have proven boring.
Who the hell wants to read a standard biography and who am I anyway? This was more fun to write this way.
I imagine it was also a struggle?
A lot of that proverbial blood, sweat and tears, but I won’t go into that per se on a personal level, but aesthetically it was a struggle as well.
When I first sent this out to potential publishers, one person wrote back that I write like a painter. I’m sure I do.
This was the same publisher I had written and forewarned that I brass-knuckled religious right fundamentalists. The publisher wrote back, “no, you napalmed them.”
Did you send this out to many publishers?
Only a few. Of course, I received three or four rejections, but even they were gracious and predicted I would find a publisher.
All of them said I needed an editor. When Jennifer Geist of Open Press Books wanted to give it a shot, we both looked at samples of editors and agreed on Carolina VonKampen.
I’m indebted to both Carolina and Jennifer. It’s apt that two women helped me shape it.
Having read the book, I think I know why, but tell me; why apt?
Channeling the maternal divine. That’s an inherent aesthetic in the book and through all of my art.
As well as your Masters thesis on the Trappist monk Thomas Merton?
I don’t think I mention Merton in Brother Cobweb. He remains hidden but he’s there.
Very much in that connectedness, even through brokenness. Although the novel is set in the Midwest, mostly from the early 1970s through to the 90s, that connectedness is global, timeless, and shorn of denominations.
Calvin has an awakening moment in the novel, although he is too young to pinpoint or name it. There in the Midwest, in the middle of nowhere, he finds a pre-Vatican II European-styled parish, immediately identifies with it and the symbol of the Virgin.
Fr. Andrew Greely calls the Marian symbol the Mother Love of God. That was perhaps the most prevailing character of Merton’s spirituality and that’s throughout the book.
Jonathan Montaldo, who co-edited the Merton book Soul Searching reviewed the novel, and again that’s a humbling thing for me, but he wrote of the book being a rollercoaster of dropping and ascending.
That’s a Merton-like observation. My adult religious experience is atypical in having came into the Church through art and monastic communities, rather than parishes.
It’s odd because the Catholic Church has one of the richest mystical traditions in world history, but so many lay don’t know or practice it.
They’re either too caught up in dogmatism or spiritually dead pragmatism, or they’re what people call cafeteria Catholics. It’s more culture than practicing and that’s how we become engrossed in hypocrisy because you have to live it.
I think I’m an aesthetic Catholic who feels we desperately need a mystical revolution, so much so that I recently gave that title to a painting and am working on an art book with the same name.
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM recently gave an edifying homily where he talked about the “rules” of Catholicism.
The rules all stem from the golden rule and it’s called that for a reason and it’s living that hard rule that puts eventual paradise in our grasp. Living it is the most radical, rebellious life of all.
As an American Catholic, how do you perceive that European Catholics differ and how does that play into Brother Cobweb?
I should make a distinction that I am primarily addressing the abuses of Christian fundamentalism in Brother Cobweb, but abuses are hardly confined to organized religion. I did not leave the Pentecostal upbringing because of its physical abuses per se.
I left it because of its ignorance, its status quo pride in its own ignorance, its abundant conspiracy theories and paranoia, its vilification of science and humanism, and its inherent iconoclasm, which as an artist, offends me deeply.
Not all American Christians are fundamentalists of course, and they’re not even the majority despite the fact that they think they are.
The moral majority is neither. Morality, as they know and define it, is a patristic invention. What they should be espousing is ethics, not morals, but they don’t seem to know the difference and the result is ethical bankruptcy.
The character of American Protestant fundamentalists and American Catholic fundamentalists is only different on the surface but it’s essentially the same. Neither seem to know, let alone follow the words of Christ. American Protestants are more Old Testament legalism than Christ.
American Catholics will quote Pope Pius more than they do Christ and they have a real animosity toward Pope Francis, although they’re too hypocritical to say it flat out.
Francis is of the matriarchal model. Pius and Moses are of the patriarchal model, the “power over” model, advocation of the status quo, upholding institutions over people.
Adherents of the patriarchal model will do anything to persevere the patristic structure, even sacrifice their ethics and that opens the door to countless abuses and a cultish mindset.
I saw a recent example of this in an online community that was attacking Pope Francis on various issues. When they brought up the sex abuse crisis, I reminded them that he inherited this mess from his two predecessors, yet they never criticized Benedict or John Paul II. Why? The reply was revealing:
“Because they’re traditional enough. Sin comes and goes, but tradition must remain.”
I pressed, “So, in other words, if the Pope or Church leaders are traditional enough for you, you are willing to sweep the abuses under the rug, but if they’re not traditional enough, you won’t? Is that correct?” “Yes, that’s right.”
That chutzpah of the Rad Trad response reminded me why I wrote Brother Cobweb to begin with. It’s trench theology of sorts. I’m kicking over tables.
The abuses go on in European Catholicism as well of course. After all, there is the original model, but having been around longer, European Catholicism has learned from some of its mistakes. It sees the sin, as Francis points out, in unfettered capitalism, greed, and the cult of political personalities, it sees our harsh inhumane stance on immigration and our disregard for care of Creation.
You can’t read Christ’s discourse, “The Least of These” or His Beatitudes and support the stances of the religious right. You can’t read of Christ’ relationship to women or His Mother’s Magnificat in Luke and abide misogyny at any level.
European Catholicism is guilty as hell in keeping that nonsensical misogyny wet. All of this is antithetical to everything that Christ taught and preached.
Christ taught love and it’s a tough love and its dissonant and there’s nothing more provocative to the patristic and their enablers than the maternal.
Those categories of maternal and patristic are in no way confined to sexes. Women can be as patristic as men. Men can be as maternal as women, of course.
Too, fundamentalists get so caught up in redemption language, they ignore the fact that we have to imitate and follow Christ. He said so himself; “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me, and I will reject you from paradise when you fail to give shelter to the immigrant, food and medicine to the poor,” and he’s very clear and doesn’t mince words in his condemnation on love of money.
Fundamentalists have to bypass the whole book of James as well: “Faith without works is dead.”
In America, we tend to divide everything between sophistic labels of liberal and conservative. Merton astutely wrote that the Church has always been paradoxically traditional and revolutionary, so our identity politics is rendered two-dimensional.
Jesus of Nazareth never heard the words liberal and conservative when He walked this planet and He is the Church’s model for being traditional and revolutionary.
Yet, His teachings are very consistent regardless of what box we put them in today. It’s unconditional love He teaches. He is the quintessential matriarchal model. That’s why He forgave the adulteress, and defended the prostitute who washed His feet. Yet, it’s also why He forbade divorce as a rejection of unconditional love.
But in the novel you don’t hesitate to criticize or show the darkness.
Of course not. Criticism is of the constructive variety. Christ gave it and we should model that. Of course, that’s what got Him killed.
To quote Andrei Tarkovsky, you cannot show grace until after we’ve seen the darkness and, that’s very St. John of the Cross, of course.
That’s what we receive in the four gospels, that’s what we find in Paul Gauguin’s painting; “Self-Portrait With Halo,” Gustav Mahler’s Fourth symphony, Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” and the work of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali.
You don’t do the art in the novel. That is done by Todd M. Coe and together, you’re doing the graphic novel now.
I holstered my ego. Todd draws the way I drew when I was a child, although far better of course.
My own painting is mystical, surreal, and more philosophical than religious per se, so I could not have done the book justice visually.
Also, Todd isn’t religious at all so he gifted it an objective quality that I couldn’t. He held himself at bay in the novel. We are breaking our own chains in the graphic novel, The Brother Cobweb Chronicles.
Yet, even though we don’t physically see it, your art, your paintings are throughout the novel.
Yes, Brother Cobweb is an extension of my paintings. Only the medium is different. I suppose I’m channeling the advice of the late composer Pierre Boulez to be cultural omnivores and raid all the art forms to enhance one’s own medium.
Music plays a big part in the novel. How much does it factor into your painting?
100 percent, even when I’m painting in silence. For me, painting is meditation and often I’m listening to Mozart or Mahler when I paint.
Writing is slightly different, less physical. I need complete silence when I write. In both, I have to be away from everyone, mantle the recluse. That’s the only way I can do it.
You’re a prolific painter.
Very much so. When I’m not painting, I’m thinking about painting. I also meditate in prayer as I paint. It’s totally connected.
But again, that doesn’t prevent you from expressing some very brutal things?
Not at all because the world is brutal. Lack of love and loveless silence is brutal and you can only counter that with brutal love. That’s the channel for absolution and reconciliation.
There’s a reason that reconciliation is a sacrament and it comes only after the brutality of confession and penance. That brutality is mirror to those who slap material conditions on love and it is a self-mirror as well.
Regardless of wealth, or levels of education, we are all stupid and capable of betrayal, of doing horrible things, intentionally and unintentionally. So, I would like to think that all my characters in the novel seek, find, and receive absolution.