Fire Sermon: A Novel by Jamie Quatro (New York: Grove Press, 2018. 224 pp)

Jamie Quatro holds an MA in English from the College of William and Mary, and an MFA in fiction from the Bennington College Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Ploughshares, McSweeney’s, The Kenyon Review, VQR, and Agni. Her debut collection, I Want to Show You More, gained critical acclaim and Fire Sermon is her debut novel. Quatro teaches in the MFA program at Sewanee, The University of the South. She lives with her husband and four children in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

Hooked on a Feeling

What’s the theological significance of a feeling? What weight should we place on those gut instincts—the emotions that flood our souls and leave us helplessly clinging to whatever flotsam surging through the violent deluge?

When one considers the foundations of American Christendom—or more accurately, Evangelicalism—the role of emotion varies from congregation to congregation.

For some of the more spirited denominations, the entire experience is hooked on a feeling. For other traditions, the proper approach is to squeeze emotion in a vice so that all that’s left is a husk of reason and logic—apologetics really.

Christians serve a God incarnate, one that took on human flesh and experienced every thought and emotion we all have encountered.

Picking at the Seams

But, if you pick at the seams of these theological traditions, certain questions become increasingly prominent.

Consider, for example, the human design. We know our original wiring is considered good. The creation narrative confirms this belief. We know sin enters the world and separates creation from creator.

But here’s the tricky part. Christians frame sin as personal choice. Adam and Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit and every sin since then affirms the choice beneath the iniquity.

While such a narrative might make sense in a binary view of the world, human psychology and ethics suggest a more nuanced worldview. An elementary reading of these disciplines suggests our volition is strikingly flawed—that choice isn’t as black and white as we might believe it is.

The Intersection between Orthodoxy and Human Nature

Here at this intersection between orthodoxy and human nature rests the narrative framework of Fire Sermon.

Daringly, it asks if the erotic nature hard wired into each of us might have a theological component to it. In other words, maybe the concept of lust isn’t a sinful as many Christians believe it to be.

In prose spanning multiple styles, author Jamie Quatro splices together the internal turmoil of our protagonist, Maggie, as she considers the weight of an affair she has committed against her dogmatic Evangelical beliefs.

The Marriage Bed

On one side, she is more-or-less happily married with two kids. Granted, the marriage started on the foundation of obligation—Maggie having given herself to Thomas in college and following through on the principles of one partner for life.

“Back in her own dorm, her roommate asleep, she goes into the bathroom and washes herself with soap and water. She changes into her pajamas, kneels on the rough blue carpet beside her bed, and confesses to the God who has already seen what she’s done (and can you, reading this, forgive the self-indulgent, almost laughable repentance, berating herself for what is only normal, and expected? But recall: she is barely eighteen, her first kiss was only a year ago) that she has sinned. Fornicated. Had sex before marriage. Something she’s sworn she would never do” (15-16).

On the surface, the marriage functions, but in the master bedroom, sexual politics are much thornier.

The Paramour

On the other side, James represents that which is forbidden, emotional, poetic—literally. What began as friendly correspondence between a scholar of poetry and a scholar of theology turned into an emotional, then physical affair. This man is the man preferred.

“The safe way to let yourself fall in love with someone who isn’t your spouse: imagine the life you might have together after both your spouses have passed away” (4).

In the aftermath, Maggie struggles to reconcile her beliefs with her feelings. How can that which feels so physically right be so mentally wrong?

The Unconsuming Fire

Years of internal debate leads her to some interesting suggestions. Perhaps, we are meant to yearn. Perhaps, the fire we feel for that which is forbidden is not only a part of our design but also a part of God’s intended plan for our lives.

“Apart from the Law we are all addicts.
Apart from the Law there is no Eros.
But obedient to the Law—faithful inside it—we learn to long acutely. And longing, unsatisfied, lifts the gaze. Flesh to spirit, material to immaterial. Forbidden love as tutelage. As if God wants us to feel it, requires it, in order to reach us” (190).

For many, such a suggestion is also heretical. But, how then shall we address the clear wiring that points us in this direction?

A Path Toward Righteousness

Quatro appears to define two clear paths. In one direction, you fight tirelessly against your own nature, fall short, and condemn yourself to a life of misery for missing the mark.

In the other direction, you embrace who you are, accept that intense longing and sexual desire is par for the course, and lean in to it, allowing yourself to be fully human.

Behind these paths is a question about what it means to be human and how living relates to the divine. Are we called to live completely within our bodies as the acceptance of the human experience we are given? Or, are we forced to deny ourselves, live incomplete for the sake of our theology, and suffer for the rest of our lives?

Your answer to that question likely provides the logic behind whether or not you will like this book.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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