Study Guide

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk Religion

By Ben Fountain

Religion

When people ask does he pray, is he religious or specifically saved or Christian, Billy always says yes, partly because it makes them happy and partly because he feels that's pretty much the truth, though probably not in the way they're thinking. What he'd like to say is that he's lived it, if not the entire breadth and depth of the Christian faith then certainly the central thrust of it. The mystery, the awe, that huge sadness and grief. (Human Response.68)

Billy was raised in Texas, which is, like, the heart of the "saved" homeland. Many, many evangelical Christians live in that part of the world, so saying that you aren't saved would basically be an invitation for well-intentioned lectures from people desperate to share Jesus's love. What's odd is that Billy probably does know more about mystery and awe than those avid evangelists do.

"You know what's funny," she said, "everybody around here's such a major conservative till they get sick, get screwed over by their insurance company, their job goes over to China or whatever, then they're like, 'Oooooh, what happened? I thought America was just the greatest country ever and I'm such a good person, why is all this terrible s*** happening to me?' And I was one of 'em, man. Just as stupid as the rest. I never thought anything bad would happen to me, or if it did there was a system that would make it all right."

"Maybe you didn't pray hard enough."

She coughed up a laugh. "Yeah, that must be it. The power of prayer, dawg." (Bully.159-161)

Although this is Billy's way of poking fun at the people who told his mother that her financial issues could have been solved by more prayer, Billy is echoing a belief that many people take seriously. And Kathryn has a good point, too: bad things happen to good people, and no amount of religion is going to make that untrue. Faith might give people a better way of dealing with the unfairness of life, but it won't stop tragedy from happening to people who don't deserve it.

[Norm's] blue eyes glitter with a special, no, a holy light, he is so completely certain of the Cowboys brand that God is surely on his side. What higher calling could there be? What greater good in life? Any profit to the team is truly God's work, and all creation must bend to His will. (All American.166)

Umm, yikes. Try telling that to a Redskins fan. And, um, forgive us, but we have a hard time believing that the big guy upstairs has a favorite football team…

Would any of you say you're religious?

"Each of us in our own way." Dime.

Have you become more so in your time over there?

"Well, you can't see some of the things we've seen and not think about the big questions. Life, death, what it all might mean."
(All American.230-233)

Dime's just trying to delicately dodge the question, since religion is such a touchy subject. You don't want to make a public statement about religion and war without having thoroughly thought it through first, folks.

"Did you do the USO tour last spring?"

"Oh my God NO and I SO would've gone but I only made the squad this summer. Listen, I'm DYING to do a trip like that, no way they're gonna keep me off that plane next time it happens. The girls who did it? They came back so enriched and that's the thing about service, people say, 'Oh, you're so good to be giving so much of yourselves,' but really it's the other way around, we get so much back. To me that's been the most satisfying thing about being a cheerleader, serving others. The spiritual aspect of it. Like it's another stage in the journey, the quest." She pauses; her eyes hold Billy's for a long, searching moment, and just before she speaks he knows what's coming. "Billy, are you a Christian?"
(Dry-Humping.80)

This is the first time we've heard that there's a spiritual benefit to wearing tiny outfits and waving pom-poms at overpaid athletes…but hey, who are we to judge?

"You've been tested in so many ways, I know. But a lot of the time that's how it works, life gets so dark until we think all the light's gone out of us. But it's there, it's always there. If we just open the door a crack the light comes pouring in." She smiles and ducks her head, emits a shy chuckle. "You know how we kept looking at each other during the press conference? And I was thinking to myself, Now, why out of all the people here does he keep looking at me and I keep looking at him? I mean you're cute and everything, you've got gorgeous eyes…" She giggles, regroups her seriousness. "But now I think I know why, I really do. I think God wanted us to meet today."

Billy sighs, his eyelids flutter and his head tips back, meets the wall with an understated thunk. For all he knows every word she says is true.

"We're all called upon to be His lights out in the world," she continues, brushing a pom-pom against his arm, and thirty seconds into the story of how she came to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, Billy quietly, slowly, firmly, reaches underneath her pom-pom and takes her hand. Because, why not. Because he's moved. Because in two days he's back in the s*** and what's the worst that can happen compared to that?
(Dry-Humping.88-90)

Although it sounds suspiciously like Faison is just regurgitating some of the phrases she's heard in church, there's no doubting her sincerity. Do you think she would be able to say these things in quite the same way if she had seen the kind of things Billy has seen? Or does this kind sincerity also kind of depend on a certain innocence (or ignorance) regarding the way the world really is?

To lead them in prayer Norm calls on Pastor Dan, a pleasantly weathered man dressed in the same shiny track suit as the coaches. Dear God, prays the reverend in a melodic southern voice, all crushed-velvet vowels and chunky consonants, please help us play to the best of our abilities. To conduct ourselves on the field in a way that fulfills your word and honors our faith. Guide us, lead us, protect us…With his eyes shut tight Billy is thinking of Shroom's comment that the Christian Bible is mostly a compilation of old Sumerian legends, not something he particularly needed to know at the time but which has afforded some solace during these past two weeks of practically nonstop public prayer. America loves to pray, God knows. America prays and prays and prays, it is the land of unchained prayer, and all this ceremonial praying is hard on Billy. He tries, but nothing comes. You close your eyes and bow your head and at the first thee or thine it's like the signal cuts out, not so much as a stray spritz of static comes through. The thought that others might be having the same problem doesn't much help, but awareness that something came before—Sumerians, Hittites, Turkmen, an entire UN of ancient civilizations—that the thee-thine formula might not be the last word?—for some reason he finds comfort in this. (XXL.121)

There's so much to unpack in this quote. First: seriously, Pastor Dan? In what way does football fulfill God's word and honor Christian faith? We're not buying it. Second: on a more serious note, religion is a deeply personal thing, despite all the public prayer Billy's been forced to participate in. Everyone is going to experience religion differently, and if thinking about Sumerians makes the Bible more palatable, then more power to you, Billy.

So what do you believe in? Billy doesn't so much wonder as feel the question thrust upon him. Ha ha, well, okay. Jesus? Sorta. Buddha? Hm. The flag? Sure. How about...reality. Billy decides the war has made of him a rock-solid convert to the Church of What It Is, so let us pray, my fellow Americans, please join me in prayer. Let us pray for the many thousands gone, and those to follow. Let us pray for Lake and his stumps. Pray for A-bort's SAW, that it may never jam in battle. Pray for Cheney, Bush, and Rumsfeld, father, son, and holy ghost, and all the angels of CENTCOM and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Pray that it's really about the oil. Pray for armor for the Humvees. Pray for Shroom, who may or may not have eternal life in heaven but who is most definitely f***ing dead here on planet Earth. (Walk.16)

Maybe Billy should look into Pastafarianism. But seriously, it's not religion exactly that Billy is taking issue with here. He's not against Jesus or Buddha or whatever. What he's against is the abuse of religion, and the way people seem to use their faith as an excuse not to see reality when it's uncomfortable.

Maybe the halftime show is as real as anything; what if some power or potent agency lives in it? Not a show but a means to something, something conferred or invoked. A ceremony. Something religious, so long as "religious" extends to such cold-blooded concepts as mayhem, chance, nature out of control. He feels the pull of a superseding reality that trumps even the experiential truths of a grunt on the ground—the blood on your hands, the burn in your lungs, the stink of your unwashed feet. Merely thinking about it sets off a pounding in his skull, not his headache but a heavier sonar throb deep in the lower brain stem. And very clearly the thought comes to him, that's where it lives. The god in your head, all the gods—is that what's happening here? He's too self-conscious and church-averse to accept a completely straight notion of god, so how about this—chemicals, hormones, needs and drives, whatever is in us that's so supreme and terrifying that we have to call it divine. (Raped.39)

It's amazing to watch Billy vacillate between wanting to be a Christian along the lines of Faison ("Sure, I'm saved. Praise Jesus and all that") and then veering wildly into atheism (as if there is nothing in between). It just makes you wonder what his views on religion will be in time, how they will have changed when he's a little older, a little wiser, a little less traumatized.

"You don't even know how good you are, do you? That makes it even better!" she declares with lip-smacking enthusiasm, then gives him a fierce fast hug, as if grasping a buoy before the storm tears her away. Billy practically keels over in a delirium of bliss. How wonderful, how absolutely holy to be appreciated for yourself, to be handled, petted, groped, pawed, and generally hungered over. (Future.96)

We thought that "holy" was an interesting word choice in this situation. Yes, being appreciated is something that totally gives you the warm fuzzies, but for someone who's so averse to church-talk, the use of the word holy is kind of a surprise. Maybe holiness and religion are not necessarily always linked together?