Folks were passing around this story and I was like, Damn, someone wrote a story about the Butcher’s theology.
One explanation for how Indo-European gods spread across Europe was that they left female deities in place. You can argue that the Deyous-Pater/Jupiter/Zeus/Tyr/etc. god is pretty much, at core, the same dude. But Hera is not Frigg. The theory is that there were these local land spirits–goddesses, if you will–and the “foreign” god and His followers come into the area and set up worship of the new god by insisting that he married the most prominent of the land spirits. So, you’re not really changing religions so much as modifying.
That idea: that you change a people’s religion by marrying the land and its goddess off to the new god.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the reason there’s a devil in Christianity. When humans are so willing and so capable of evil, and with Christianity’s good explanation for evil–we have evil because humans are sinful by nature and it’s only through their relationship with Christ that they can be changed and steered from that nature–why does evil also need an outside explanation? Especially one that is so often depicted as a direct threat to God?
I posit that the devil is often doing the old things we expect from new religions. He’s exciting and seductive, he’s supposedly not that much different than what you’re doing now.
This is, I think, why the Devil rules Hell. There were a lot of underworlds in Europe that the Devil could have ruled (and, in truth that the poets sometimes give him), but the one to stick was the underworld with a local female spirit.
I had a weird, but really interesting morning yesterday. I spent it with a guy who told me about how he’d changed his life after a DMT trip.
Apparently, taking this trip made him realize that he hated himself and that a lot of the destructive or unproductive things he was doing with himself were because of this self-hatred and he realized that this self-hatred was stupid because we are just a small part of a large and mysterious universe. A tiny speck.
So, he got his shit together. He went to counseling. He started a vigorous and interesting religious study that’s now very meaningful to him. He’s made peace with himself.
It’s not the kind of conversation you think you’re going to have with a stranger on an ordinary day, but I feel really honored to have had it.
I told him how I always experience Two Boots as a weird, mystical place. Not in a grand “woo woo” way, but just in a mundane, but nicely strange way–people dancing or singing along to the music, interesting conversations being held, that kind of thing. So, we went there for lunch and a woman at another table was eating her pizza and wearing a huge gold crown.
“See?” I asked. “I told you so.”
Talking about religion is tedious and boring. Religious experience is like a vivid dream. To you, if you have it, it can shake you to the core. Hearing about someone else’s religious experiences? As dull as hearing about someone’s dreams.
Also, maybe this isn’t that weird. Maybe I did know about this before and just don’t remember that I knew.
All that being said, I’m going to say something about religion.
Every October, I take nine evenings and set aside some time to hang out with my ancestors and see what kinds of visions my subconscious might dredge up.
This October, I had a vision that I was in a room with a loom, but the loom was set up very strangely. It hanged down and, as the weaver worked it, she moved the done cloth up at the top. She unrolled more thread to work on somehow from these big stone or clay weights that hanged down beneath the work.
I couldn’t make sense of it, exactly, how the weights worked, how the loom itself could possibly make sense. I drew a picture of it and it still made no sense to me, so I put it out of my mind, figured it was symbolic, allegorical.
Those are the weights, set up exactly how I saw. That’s the loom, but it makes sense, because it’s not relying on someone who doesn’t understand what she’s seeing to make sense of it.
This is a style of weaving I don’t think I knew existed before October. I don’t remember knowing it anyway. If I did know it, how did I not know it in a way that made more sense to me?
But I saw it.
And today, I saw it.
I’m shaken. I’m not sure what it means, if anything. But I’m shaken.
Last night, the little old ladies in my audience told me two ghost stories. One was about a woman whose son died in World War I–Bobby. He had gone to Vanderbilt, before dying in the war, and she became convinced that he was possessing or being reincarnated into a squirrel on Vanderbilt’s campus. So, she would come to campus all dressed in black and call out “Bobby, Bobby!” until a squirrel came up to her and she would know that was her son. She would then feed him and hang out with him. And then she died, but, of course, this didn’t stop her behavior. A couple of the women swore they’d seen her in the 40s and 50s on campus.
I love this story both because of the possessed squirrels, which, I’m sorry, is just awesome and because the hauntings double up. She is haunted and then she haunts.
The second thing they told me about was the Bell Witch. But not any part of the story I’d ever heard before. Apparently the Bell Witch used to haunt the streetcar lines. The drivers would all the time see a dark haired woman riding to the end of the line, but when they stopped at the end of the line, she’d vanish.
I have many feelings about the Bell Witch and the story of what happened in Adams has been debunked to my satisfaction. (In short, I think it’s clear that the first book about it was a piece of fiction kind of in line with what I do–taking real historical figures and making them legendary. Some clues to this effect are that Andrew Jackson never mentions traveling to the area or confronting the witch and, most importantly, that the whole way the witch works is far more Victorian than early Republic. In other words, the witch haunted like fictional Victorian ghosts haunt, not how people really understood the same phenomena before the Spiritualist movement. But that fiction was taken for fact and here we are.) But I’m growing more and more sure that debunking the story of the Bell Witch really misses what’s going on here.
Because, after all, why would the Bell Witch, a supernatural entity from Adams, a good hour north of Nashville, haunt the Nashville streetcars? Why would she appear in the mirrors of anyone who said “Bell Witch” three times in a dark mirror? Folks from Middle Tennessee don’t have “Bloody Mary,” they have “The Bell Witch.”
I think the hint is in the rise of the importance of the Bell Witch Cave. Pretty much any time you have people of European descent talking about a woman who lives hidden under the earth, they’re telling you, without knowing it, why the story has staying power.
The Bell Witch, I think, is, at least functionally, an American hidden folk. There are lots of hidden folks in European folklore. They’re not all the same. An elf is not a huldr is not a troll is not… and so on. But the very general idea that there’s someone to whom this land is important, who lives on it with you, and who’s responsible for the success or failure of your time on that land, who might steal your children, and who lives under or in the ground is wide-spread and old in European folklore.
There are theories, too, that most of the sky gods in European pantheons are actually the same god whose name got mangled as languages changed–Zeus is Ious Pietor is Jupiter is Tor is Tyr, etc. But their wives are not at all alike. Even in pantheons that we think of as being really closely linked, like the Greek and the Roman, Hera and Juno are different in really, really important ways. And Frigg is not much like either of them. The theory is that, much like the Catholic church came into an area and said, “Oh, those gods you’re worshiping? Those aren’t gods. They were just very holy people. They’re saints! Keep on worshiping them, just put your money in our collection plates now!” that the Indo-European sky god’s followers ingratiated him with local tribes by figuring out which local land spirit was beloved enough to function like a goddess-consort and then, in those communities, the sky god became her husband. A wandering Jovial (ha ha ha) dude with a local gal in each place he traveled for business.
In other words, the notion of a supernatural woman-ish land spirit who has a sacred cave and a set boundary of land she cares for and bad stuff she can get up to if you cross her is ancient. And since it can be talked about as if it’s a metaphor and not in conflict with Christianity, it’s the kind of folk belief that lingers.
I think that’s what the Bell Witch is doing for Middle Tennessee. True or not is almost beside the point. She is now the spirit of the place. The female energy we sense in the landscape.
As an aside, I’ll just say that I only have seven more blocks to go! I’m really excited about piecing this together and seeing how it turns out. And seeing if I have enough yarn to put it together…
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Josh Duggar. Well, no, I’ve been mostly thinking about his wife and wondering if she’s going to be able to overcome her upbringing and do the things that will protect her children from a guy who has touched children before and who lies about his current immoral activities.
Sometimes, I wonder if it’s weird to still be concerned about morality. What I even mean by morality. But I think I mean something like morality being the things we agree to hold each other to that are not harmful to us but help guide us to be kinder and more generous than we might otherwise be. I know I’m using “morality” to mean something very different than what the Duggars do.
But I’m mostly fascinated because it’s interesting to me to see these folks living by a set of rules they would impose, and in fact are working to impose, on the rest of us, under the guise of it being for our own good. And it seems to me that there’s a pretty clear promise, a very attractive promise, that, if you follow these rules, your life will turn out okay. That’s what people are buying into, the idea that there’s some right way to live and, if you can suss out what it is and do it, everything will be okay.
At a point like this, do they just try harder to live the right way? Is there some moment where they might realize that they’ve been doing something wrong? And/or could they realize that the whole premise is a lie? There is no secret path that, if you can discover it and follow it, will guarantee that your life will work for you.
There is only striving and questioning and failing and trying again. That’s why other people try to teach their kids to be curious, critical thinkers, even if it means they’re occasionally bratty monsters. This is why feminism, even if women are often bratty monsters. Because people have to make their own ways in the world and it’s easier if they have some sense of themselves as being capable of it.
The kind of lifestyle the Duggars promote gives an illusion of safety and certainty. But look at Josh’s wife. If she follows the tenets of her religion, her family is not safe and its future is uncertain, because Josh is a terrible leader. And she could sit around hoping that, somehow he figures it all out and becomes a good leader and deserving of the loyalty she believes a wife should show the head of her household, but every day she spends waiting for that to happen is a day her children are at risk.
I don’t think she’ll do the right thing, because the right thing in these circumstances is considered wrong and sinful by her religion and her family (and his), so even seeing it as the right thing or an actual possible thing, would be very difficult for her. But I hope.
One thing I keep seeing is this idea that the people in the church should just be armed. Like some NRA dolt blamed the pastor for not having a gun.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad’s friends, the black pastors, and how many of them, now that I look back on it, seemed fully aware that they could die in the practice of their ministry. I don’t think I ever worried about this with my dad. I worried the stress of the job might kill him. I hated what the people in his congregations did to him, often behind his back, but in front of me. But I never thought he was in physical danger. And so, even when terrible things were happening to my dad’s friends, I didn’t take seriously my dad’s fear for them. I didn’t understand then, as a child, that this is a place where people do kill ministers. I thought they were just jumpy because of MLK.
I say this because I want you to get how stone-cold and deeply ignorant I was, even as my dad was trying to wrestle with a truth he never hid from us.
Now, though, I see. I think. At least better than I did.
Here is the thing about arming people in church, as I see it. My dad’s friends were almost always in danger from people in their congregations, sometimes more broadly their communities, but usually it was someone in a predominately white church who resented having a black pastor. Should a pastor arm himself against his own people? Or are we just saying that white people and black people can never be each other’s people? That the only way for black people to be safe is to just always assume white people are the enemy?
How can you be a Christian, let alone a Christian minister, believing that your first duty to your flock is to protect yourself from them? How can you square turning the other cheek with carrying a gun with the intent of using it on any congregant that wishes you harm?
I don’t think you can pray and study with someone for an hour in genuine fellowship and keep one hand on your gun in case things go south. They’re just incompatible. Either you close yourself off to almost everyone in your church and only have genuine fellowship with those few people you intimately trust or you leave yourself open to being vulnerable to those who would harm you.
Christian churches can’t be open and be safe.
But a lot of this advice, to go back to my first point, also, assumes that the threat is always external. That someone from outside wants to do harm to people inside. My dad’s friends didn’t have that experience. The threat was from inside the church. And, if the Church is doing what it says it wants to do–spreading the word of God–then Christians have to be open to fellowship with strangers, who then are brought into the group.
What people are calling for is for Christians to be something other than Christian in order to be safe.
I have my issues with my dad, but I respect that he believes with his whole heart that people can be redeemed and changed by Christ’s love. (I have my grave doubts, myself.) I also respect that he knows that some people aren’t going to be. You sit across from 10 white supremacists and maybe only one changes his ways. I know my dad knows the other nine are still a danger.
I think he still believes it is his obligation to make himself vulnerable to scary people in order to reach them.
Again, he has his drawbacks, but, at least when it comes to racial justice, my dad wants everyone in church to be “us.” That’s what he’s worked for his whole life. That’s what his friends have put their lives on the line for, over and over.
A racist walking into a church and killing nine people can’t ruin American Christianity. American Christians deciding it’s safer to take precautions against “them” rather than trying to be open to folks becoming a part of “us” will.
I can’t begin to tell you how it feels to look at that list of victims and see how many have “Rev.” before their names. I can’t tell you how sad and scared it makes me for my dad’s friends, who somehow have to get up in the pulpit on Sunday, have to open their Bible studies to whoever says he needs it on Wednesdays, knowing that racists have no respect for the sanctity of the church and, in fact, that they’ll target ministers.
My heart is with them.
My dad’s cousin’s kid is making an elaborate necklace of Thor’s hammers. I say “kid,” but he’s my age. We sit with him at family functions and behave in rambunctious ways while egging each other on. And we’re Facebook friends, but I don’t know him any better than that.
I do know there are a limited number of reasons a man would have a collection of heathen pendents. And we can rule out “white supremacist.”
So, I laughed.
I think that the Old English love of riddles captures something of the way they approached life: life is a puzzle, but one to be encountered with joy and wit rather than despair. A lot of art is mimetic, but the relationship between riddles and reality is ironic, playful, tricky. Something similar can be said of the two modes of art, ‘realism’ (mimetic) and Fantasy (ironic).
The Anglo-Saxon world from which Tolkien took so much inspiration saw the universe as a riddle, and prized an ironic stance with respect to it. Not that courage and loyalty and strength were unimportant (of course, they were vitally important), but that a warrior hold his strength lightly, that he face death with a smile, that he fight more fiercely in the teeth of certain defeat. I am not talking about flippancy, or a more clumsy disrespectful. I am talking about accepting that there is a mismatch between our human abilities to understand and the brute fact of the cosmos.–Adam Roberts, via i09
I started last night. Last year’s was not usual, not… not good, but not what I had hoped for. It turns out that you can’t sit that close to Death for real and then come hang out by the gate again for comfort or wisdom or whatever. They shoo you off, encourage you to remember but not linger.
But, I’ll be honest. A ritual like that can leave you feeling like maybe the magic is over–whatever it was doing for you at one point in your life, now that you’re at another, it can’t do it for you anymore. And the truth is that I do imagine that there will come a day when I might stop, when I might give up on it. I feel that impulse in myself every year, to believe that it’s stupid or means I’m crazy or at least foolish. Even though I think it does important things for me.
This is one of the important things it does–it shows me things about myself that I otherwise cannot see. How I will let go rather than feel foolish, even if the thing I’m letting go of brings me great pleasure. My investment in believing myself to be so fucking smart isn’t always good for me. I am trying to learn to be gracefully foolish. Or even gracelessly. I’m trying to be willing to be shown to know nothing.
And I’m trying to learn to be open. I feel like I spent the first twenty years of my life never being able to say no to things. I spent the next twenty years learning to say no and to not feel bad about it. I’d like to spend the next twenty years learning some balance between the two–to be open to things and people while also not feeling like my own will has no meaning.
Anyway, I was glad to get back at it.
I’m fascinated to learn that the very first mention of Herne the Hunter is in fucking Shakespeare. He’s a ghost, not a god.
Well, except that now he is a god. At this point, you can’t unring the bell.
I think the most satisfying curse in most cases is just where you aim for the person troubling you to get back what they’re putting out in the universe.
But I notice that, in books, people always realize they’re cursed. It’s rarely so satisfying in real life.
Even when it’s just mundane–when people’s lives are going poorly because they just keep making stupid decisions–people have a hard time seeing their own role in their misery.
I have half a mind to email this to David Fowler, just to watch him seethe.
I’ve been thinking about that Aquinas nun running all over telling kids that masturbation makes you gay. It’s more than that. Apparently distant, unloving fathers and being molested also make you gay. Being gay might doom you to having hundreds of sexual partners. And on and on. Aquinas is defending her. She’s apparently out there showing God’s love.
Because, these days, they don’t hate you because you’re gay. They feel so very sorry for you because you’re gay because it means something bad has happened to you and you don’t have the necessary coping skills to do anything other than sin in response.
I spent much of the evening rolling my eyes. That an organization that sat back for decades while priests raped children is now going to turn around and lecture kids about proper sexuality? Bwah ha ha ha ha ha ha.
But it’s interesting, isn’t it? Let me back up and say that the Butcher watches a hell of a lot of The Young Turks and I often play video games while they’re nattering on. So, I half listened and then became transfixed by the end of this piece:
I’ve read my fair share of the Los Angeles files–the ones that are available pertaining to Tennessee–and I can attest that what Jimmy Dore is talking about here is pretty typical. Folks often know something is the fuck wrong. They act all surprised and outraged later, but they know something is wrong all the while and they blame the victims for forcing them to feel uncomfortable feelings. Dore’s biting observation that the priest just disappears and that everyone is encouraged to pray for him, like his is the most difficult journey being taken in the congregation is pretty much how it works. The suffering of the children is rarely reckoned with. And the safety of children wherever the priest might next land is just not considered.
And child-molesting and homosexuality are, of course, conflated in ways that totally are awesome for the hidden child molester–after all if child-molesting is the provenance of gay men and gay men are easily distinguishable from straight men through all these stereotypes we have about their behavior and looks, then you have no reason to worry about any priest that doesn’t hit those gay stereotypes.
But what we’re seeing is that, here, even the rear-guard can’t make the “gay people molest children” argument anymore. Now gay people are the victims of child molesters. So, now, finally, in a twisted way, the consideration for suffering is now extended to victims of child molestation. And gay people. Who are the same or something.
But I also want to point out that this is more of that “I can bring apocalypse” thinking. And let me be clear, I am not saying that people who feel like being molested ruined them in some way are wrong for thinking so. What I firmly stand for is your right to understand your own experience in your own terms. And I stand in hope of you not believing that is the only truth of your life. But the perpetrators of evil and the bystanders don’t get to rest assured (either in satisfaction or in guilt) that they have witnessed someone’s total ruination. They don’t get to point and say “Oh, you’re gay. That means someone broke you.”
To me, it’s just the flip side of what Jimmy Dore experienced–either victims are just treated like nothing happened or they’re now treated like something happened so devastating that they’re ruined for life. Either way, the starkness of those choices lets people off the hook. The problem is too small/too large for anything to be done about it.
They still get to use their homophobia as a shield to keep from seeing what’s going on in their midst.
One thing that confuses me, just a a fundamental level, are Biblical literalists. Like people who believe that the earth was literally created in six days. Which means that I’m conversely confused by people who think that an argument against Christianity is that the earth wasn’t made in six days. Maybe as someone who can’t ever remember not being able to read (I remember learning to write but I know I was reading long before then) and as someone who experiences the world as being almost indescribably strange and mystical, I just always thought those stories were metaphors–like a language that speaks to and has meaning to your soul first and then your brain scrambles to catch up.
I was reminded of that again yesterday at the doctor’s office, as I sat in front of a big machine and a woman peered deep into my eyeball, and took pictures of every inch of the back of it, and then made a giant map that would show the doctor this small portion of the landscape of my body.
Because I felt like a land there–a place that could be mapped. And I know that we think of goddesses being associated with the land and gods with being associated with the sky because of how a dude “plows the field” of his wife. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
But I swear, yesterday, I felt like I was realizing something different about what it means to be an embodiment of the land. Like some fundamental mystical truth was closer to being in a form I could articulate.
And, frankly, I’m not sure what that truth is. But the back of my eye tells you I grew up in Illinois. The shape I grew in is because of the land I grew on. Like, how much difference is there between me and dirt, in that case?
Everything about this story irritates me. Actual, ancient Vikings didn’t think the world was going to end this weekend. That’s a complete misrepresentation of, oh, everything. I can’t even imagine why an actual Viking would sit around predicting the end of the world. It just misunderstands everything about an Old Norse, pagan, worldview to think that this would even be a concern of theirs. The point was that even the gods die, but that things have a pattern. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but, in the Poetic Edda, the story of the end of the world is told in the past tense.
And, yes, there are many interesting reasons why this might be–the volva is merely saying what she saw in her vision and her vision is now over. Or that fate is set, so it’s completely knowable. Or, and my favorite, it’s an indication that time doesn’t work for the gods like it works for us. Balder is dead and has not yet died. Everyone knows how Balder will die and he is already dining with Hel. The gods fear Ragnarok and Ragnarok has already played out.
But old Norse folks had a very pragmatic view of death. Like, you might as well just do the shit that needs to be done because, if it’s your time to go, nothing you can do will forestall it and, if it’s not, nothing you can do will bring it on. But it’s also clear that no one thought you could know for sure how long a life you’d been granted. So, if you shouldn’t sit around worrying about when you’re going to die, why the fuck should you sit around worrying about when the world is going to end?
Also, apocalypse fantasies are for religions where there’s either pressure because of already occurring calamity–Why are we all dying from this strange rash? Oh, I predict the whole world is ending.–or because, fuck you, you’ll see I’m right when the world ends, you fuckers. Modern heathens aren’t under any more stress from already occurring calamity than the rest of our societies and Norse-ish paganisms aren’t exclusive. I can like Odin and believe that your love of Jesus is genuine and sincere. Just because Jesus isn’t the dude for me doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s real. And, I don’t give a shit if you think Odin is real. I’m not convinced Odin is real in the way people believe Jesus is real. And, of course, Odin wasn’t ever a person. And, even if you do think that Odin is as real as Jesus in the exact way Jesus is real, what polytheist is going to stand around going, “Well, these gods exist, but you’re delusional about those gods, so clean up your act, and worship like us, or you’ll be sorry!!!!” So, there’s no promise of final vindication in Ragnarok.
Not to mention that it’s hard for me to understand why/if the Norse would have thought that Ragnarok would have ended our actual world or if it was some kind of mystic metaphor. I mean, these are people who traveled extensively. They knew there wasn’t a serpent around the edges of this physical world. Yes, Midgard is our realm, but it’s also a mythic place. I’m not convinced that things that happen there have a 1 to 1 correlation with things that happen here.
But worse yet, this all appears to have started as a bit of a lark–as a way to advertise a cool event. And rather than take it as a kind of joking way to advertise a cool event, we’ve now got this nonsense, where news outlets are passing it off as an actual Viking belief.
I don’t have a big point to make about this other than “ha ha,” but I do have a small point to make. I think the mistake A&E and, in fact, the Robertsons have made here is to believe that there is but one type of conservative Christianity and it aligns with the one practiced by the Robertsons. See, the thing is that, as popular as the prosperity gospel is, it is, among folks who look demographically identical, also as unpopular. It’s a deep split in Christianity–can a rich person be a good Christian? Or, if you were a good Christian, would you have been giving so much away along the way that you would, in fact, not be able to be rich?
As a conservative Christian asked me, “Why should I listen to a rich guy’s opinion about what God thinks of homosexuals, since he’s not listening to Jesus about money?” And this is someone I think agrees with Phil Robertson about gay people.
So, it’s weird. It’s like the old “Preach, preach, now you’re just meddling” joke got short-circuited and people who should have been primed to shout “preach” at the first “gay people are wrong” remark all instead were like “who’s this hypocrite to speak for us?”
I mean, I think people like me turned away. But we weren’t that big a part of the demographic who watched the show. What should frighten people who think they’re marketing to conservative Christians is that that’s the market Duck Dynasty is losing. That indicates they don’t know that demographic as well as they think they do.
So, there’s a moment in the Ben & Sue project when Sue’s pissed that something’s done to her and she turns around and does the same thing to another character and Moll launches into this pondering of how radical Jesus’ idea of treating others as you want to be treated is, how hard it is for people to put it into practice. And nm was like “Um, that’s not Jesus’ idea. It’s so-and-so’s, and probably earlier than him.”
And I haven’t fixed this part yet because I’m not quite sure how I want to tackle it. One of the themes in my manuscript is the trouble with surety, how being certain you have the true interpretation of events no place good and how uncertainty, though harder, gets us closer to the truth. Kind of. And this seems like a good place to kind of reinforce that.
But it’s also got me thinking a lot about the problem of antisemitism at the heart of how a lot of Christianity is taught. Look at me. Even ten years ago, I would have told you that, if I was raised any way, it was to be not antisemitic, but respectful of the fact that people have different beliefs than I do, beliefs that are, yes, wrong, but not our business if they are so. And, once I moved places where there were Jewish people to knew, I knew and liked and became friends with people who are Jewish. Then my own beliefs changed and I let go of the idea that being non-Christian is some kind of mistake of imagination that will be cured, eventually, by the awesomeness of Jesus, which I’m sure made me a less obnoxious person to be friends with.
These days, thanks to the kinds of scholarship there’s been on sundown towns, it’s impossible for me to view my upbringing in white, Christian towns as a coincidence of circumstances. Those places were deliberately white and Christian and how they were kept white and Christian was mostly kept hidden from me as a child.
And just in my own being around a while, it’s impossible for me to not see how a lot of the ways I was taught Christianity involves a constant, implicit rebuke of a fantasy Judaism. And what I mean by “fantasy Judaism” is that it’s this made-up version of Judaism, this idea that, just by reading the Old Testament and other Christian scholarship on the Old Testament, you know what Judaism is. It’s a fun-house mirror version of real Judaism, except that the people who study the reflection don’t seem to ever realize that.
Here’s a good example of what I mean. I was taught that Jesus was an outsider to the Jewish power structures he was critiquing. The scribes and the pharisees were those people who were doing it wrong and Jesus was sent along to bring them and everyone else new information that supplanted the “rules” (Oh, how we loved to go on about how Jesus turned his nose up and people who paid more attention to the rules than to loving people, because how stupid that was. Only look at how Christians tread gay people. And then look at the words other Christians use to critique the Christians who use rules as an excuse to ostracize gay people–“They’re modern-day pharisees.” Don’t even deny it. I KNOW a few of you were getting ready to type that in the comments below. Because you, too, have been taught a version of Christianity that sets Jesus in opposition to Jewish people and Jewish social structures, even though Jesus was Jewish.). The scribes and the pharisees are the villains. Jesus is the hero. Don’t be like the scribes and the pharisees. Be like Jesus. Who had all new ideas.
So, that’s the reason I’ve been thinking so hard on nm’s “but this wasn’t new with Jesus” comment. Because, of course it wasn’t. There’s a theory (and I say theory, but it’s stronger than that) that Jesus was a pharisee, himself. That, if you look at what we know about his life and the intellectual tradition he’s so deeply versed in–which would mean knowing the intellectual tradition he’s deeply versed in–it’s obvious. Like the way you’d know that a guy with pocket scales deals a little dope, even if you never smelled it on him, knowing who Jesus quotes tells you what intellectual tradition he was a part of and that he was, indeed, a pharisee.
Now, at this point in my life, I like this tidbit. Because I know it can be harder to critique a group from the inside–that calling people you love and respect to task is often more difficult than standing on the outside yelling in. But it also undermines a lot about how Christians in this country see themselves as a threatened minority, since they see themselves as a threatened minority like martyrs and in the tradition of Jesus, the ultimate outsider.
And I’m not sure what it would mean for Christianity to more firmly reject the “refutation of Judaism” model.
But I know, when I saw nm’s comment, I felt like I had made my character a liar in a way I hadn’t intended, because I, myself, have been a liar in that fashion. And it’s not my own lie. I didn’t know better, but tell that anyway. Well, okay, it’s not quite that simple. I do know better now. And I lie to myself and to others when it’s easier, as a kind of shorthand way of signalling that I know the tropes of Christianity, which includes the refutation of the fun-house Judaism. But I didn’t always know it was a lie. When I first started telling it, I believed it was the truth–that Jesus was somehow in opposition to the very culture and religion he was clearly deeply engaged with.
And this is the part I wonder about–what does it look like to let go of the lie? What would a Church like that look like?
I have this fantasy that we can all just get along, that we can see people living different lives than us and say “Hey, butt-fucking is not for me, but you guys are obviously in love so, carry on, my fellow Americans!” Or maybe we say, “Oh, you know, I don’t really get the duck hunting part, but I get the part where the family clearly loves each other, so I’m just going to trust that the duck hunting is not for me but is not something I need to worry about.”
And I really like watching Duck Dynasty. I don’t need the Robertsons to be like me in order to recognize that they’re a loving family who’s living their values. But I do, in order to keep watching, need to feel like they respect my not being like them. And they don’t, so fuck ’em.
But I still fucking hate it.
Here’s another thing, and I admit that it strikes so close to home that I have a hard time thinking about it rationally. I get the idea of a man being the head of his household. Again, it’s not for me and not how I would organize my life or my family, but I get it.
Here’s the thing I don’t get. If you said to me, “Betsy, I’m putting you in charge of this group of people I deeply care about, some of whom are going to be incredibly dependent on you, and not only are you in charge of their physical well-being, you’re in charge of their spiritual well-being,” I’d be nervous as fuck and I’d be not only studying the guidebook, but I’d be humbled by the responsibility. I might fuck up but you know it wouldn’t be from lack of over-thinking every part of it. The weight of that kind of responsibility would weigh on me. And the weight of knowing that you’re going to come back and ask for an accounting of how I treated your loved ones? I’d be constantly going over the ways I’d fucked up in my head. I would strive so hard to be the kind of person who deserved the trust you showed in me and the responsibility you’d given me.
And you’re not God.
But I keep butting heads with this attitude that is all the “God put me in charge” with none of the commiserate “So, I should act like the kind of person who deserves this responsibility.”
And there’s fucking Phil Robertson talking about drinking and drugging it up and THROWING HIS WIFE AND KIDS OUT OF THE HOUSE. And then he finds God and now he’s all back in charge and the past is in the past. Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that, in his worldview, he still has to be in charge. It’s how it works. But is there any sense of what a huge second chance he’s gotten? Any remorse for how that had to fuck up his kids? Any sense that, knowing he’s the kind of guy that could fuck up that bad, maybe he shouldn’t be too comfortable being seen as an authority on anything?
There’s no sense that Phil doesn’t think he’s got a God-given right to do whatever the fuck he wants, damn the consequences, and it’s cool, because that’s just how things are. No sense that he’s got a God-given responsibility that he has already royally screwed the pooch on once.
It doesn’t make me angry. It makes me really, really anxious. Okay, think of submission this way. We are trapeze artists. I am the leaper who tumbles through the air and you, my head-of-household partner, are the one who must catch me. I do what you say how you say to do it when we’re performing the trick (marriage in this analogy) because I need you to keep me from plummeting to the floor.
Phil dropped his wife and kids. They hit the ground. And, yeah, he recommitted to paying closer attention to the guidelines of trapeze use. But he dropped them.
Maybe being a little humble about whether the trapeze act is for everyone is in order, when you know what can happen when it goes wrong.
But, not just in Phil’s case, but in other cases, I see a lot of an attitude that, if the women and children fall, well, it’s their own faults or that’s what women and children do, so what does that have to do with the heads-of-household? No indication of the proper sense of fear you’d think a person in that situation would have, if they truly understood the responsibility that comes with the authority they want to have.
I think one big problem with Christianity’s emphasis on Hell is that they’ve set up a dichotomy where Hell actually has an incredibly good quality–like the old saying about family, Hell is a place where, when you go there, they have to take you in. Everyone who is lost, who falls off the path, who wanders away–all the kinds of folks you worry about and don’t know how to help or where you will meet up with them again–ends up there.
No one is lost forever. They are someplace.
Hell works as something to fear if you feel certain that you are or could be good enough to get out of going there. And it works if you want to believe that you’ll get to gloat in the suffering of your enemies.
But for people whose pain is great or for people who’ve always been outcasts, doesn’t Hell at least hold the promise of there being some place that cannot turn you away?
I heard a story about a nun who lives in a prison, so that she can be there for her flock, so to speak, whenever they need her. This is the other problem with Hell. If Heaven is as truly wonderful as they say and Hell as truly awful, what good people would be in Heaven? You see suffering you think you can alleviate, don’t you try?
I’ve also been thinking about Hel, who a lot of scholars don’t think was always a person. Like, first it was a place and then, later on she became an entity. This is often framed in a way as to discount her “real”ness.
And yet, scholars also think that, way back in the day, the sky god would drift across Europe and get paired with every local land goddess, which is why Tyr and Jupiter have similar qualities, but Hera and Frigg don’t. So, if Frigg can be the personification of land, why can’t Hel? I don’t get it.
So, as soon as my dad got me in the van and got going 40 miles an hour, he brought up the Methodist Reporter piece. I was hugely nervous. I know it probably seems silly because I’m all the time fighting with my dad about this or that. But I don’t like to and never want to have a fight with him about religion because it is so fundamental to who he is as a person. I don’t want him to think that I think his life’s work is stupid or useless or to be mocked, especially because one of the things I most admire about him is his commitment and passion to ministry and his belief in a God so radically better than you’d think a guy like my dad would believe in.
But it turned out that he really liked the piece. He was just upset that I was upset at the ways he’d been treated as a minister. He quoted the Bible and tried to reassure me that, if, as a minister, you’re not pissing someone off, you’re not doing it right.
He said those things when I was young, too. But again, I think this is a place where we’re just going to differ. I think it’s fine for God to say to a grown person (or, hell–and maybe you’ll think this is weird, but I believe it–a child who He wants in the ministry eventually) that it’s going to be a rough go for him or her and sometimes the very people in his or her congregation are going to hate him or her. But God can’t expect me, as a child of a minister, to be okay with that. God can make that arrangement with my dad–This part is going to suck, but I need you to do it. God cannot demand that I watch the suffering of my father and pretend it’s cool. I can accept that my Dad has made an arrangement I would not and I can respect that and not try to talk him out of it or work to undermine him from doing it, but no, I cannot warp my heart so that it doesn’t pain me when the bad things he knew were going to happen happen.
It’s not fine and it never was. But I appreciate my dad trying to make me feel like it is and was.
The United Methodist Reporter, which, weirdly enough, is something I grew up reading in the bathroom, asked me to write some more about the ugliness of the United Methodist Publishing House building. So, I did. But it ended up being about more than that.
I feel weird about it. I told Jay, the editor, that I didn’t want to write something that fell into the dynamic of “Here’s how you’ve wronged me, Church!” where it seems like the complainer wants the church to beg them to come back, because they’ll change, they promise, they’ll change.
I don’t want to come back. But, as I get older, I find myself wanting to be at peace with the Church. As I grow stranger from it, it’s easier to see its good parts. But I am growing into a stranger from it.
Oh well, anyway, I hope it doesn’t hurt my dad’s feelings.
We had a weird lunch on Saturday. We went out for my mom’s birthday and it was me and the Butcher, our parents, the Red-Headed Kid, my parent’s minister friend and his wife (who were in town because their son and his wife live in Spring Hill and I guess meeting us at the Madison Red Lobster gave them something to do?), and their son and his wife (who is an exquisite jewelry maker).
Anyway, on the one hand, my parents really like this other couple. They are the kinds of buddies who see each other every couple of days up where they live.
On the other hand, lunch started awkwardly because the other minister insisted we pray before the meal and then he tossed the prayer to my dad. My dad loathes showy public prayers. You want to say a quiet private prayer over a restaurant meal? Go right ahead. But this nonsense? And there was a brief scripture-off where Other Minister quoted some verse about how God’s children shouldn’t be embarrassed to be known as such in public and my dad was all “Don’t pray in public like the hypocrites do” and then something about how Jesus says God already knows what’s in our hearts. And then there was a weird stoney silence. Then my dad prayed.
And later I was all “It’s the South, Dad. No one is going to be surprised by a group praying publicly.” But he was still kind of put out by it.
Anyway, that’s just to give you background.
The part I want to talk about is how, at one point, the Other Minister looked over at the Red-Headed Kid and was all “I see you have a Celtic cross tattoo. Why did you get that?” The tattoo is actually of a Celtic cross headstone.
And the Red-Headed Kid just goes right ahead and says “That’s where I buried my religion.”
Another deathly silence falls over the table.
“Excuse me?” The Other Minister asks. And then the Red-Headed Kid remembers that he’s also a minister and says, “I was raised Catholic. I’m messed up,” shrugs and turns to talk to the Butcher instead.
Then, Other Minister, I guess in an effort to keep talking about God or something, asks me if I have a church home! I said, “No” but that I take the folks over to Old Hickory United Methodist Church when they’re here. Again with some weird silence and my dad jumps in to tell them all about the minister there.
And then the wife asks me how I liked being a minister’s kid. And I was honest that there was a lot about it I didn’t like.
Which they also seemed kind of taken aback by. Her son was like “I thought it built character.” Which, you know, fine, but I’m not sure that’s an unalloyed good.
And they asked the Butcher about going to California and he was all “I failed,” which made me a little sad. And then I threw in something about being excited for Rose’s arrival.
So, you know, there it was–these kids who don’t go to church, who don’t have their shit together, who hang out with people who are pissed at God. And we’re all teasing my parents and laughing at each other. And finally even the wife joined in on it, which was a great relief, because, otherwise, it was just going to be us and an audience.
But I came away feeling like the Other Minister both looked down on us and was terribly jealous of us.
So, that was weird.
But I sometimes even see that in my dad–that he wants happiness, but he doesn’t trust it. Like it’s some fleeting illusion that might tempt you away from God.
At some point, it came up whether the Red-Headed Kid was worried about going to Hell (I can’t remember if the Other Minister brought it up first or if the Red-Headed Kid made some joke about it), but it just struck me as such a stupid thing to worry about. Like what kind of asshole wouldn’t let the Red-Headed Kid into Heaven? It’s ludicrous.
But even among Methodist ministers, there’s this belief in the God as Abusive Parent model, in which you have to sit around and appease, appease, appease or else the punishment rains down.
And I realized at lunch, this is what’s killing the Church in the United States. We’ve undergone a great cultural shift. We marry for love. When we feel mistreated or unappreciated, we can easily dissolve those unions. Parents “tough-love” their kids out of the house. Kids decide they can’t have relationships with their abusive parents. We have a cultural expectation that we are in relationship with people where both parties are benefiting from it or we don’t have those relationships. It’s not always worked out that way, but that’s the overarching cultural narrative.
We choose who we love.
But the Church–as a whole–still serves God out of fear. Even when it gives lip-service to serving God out of love, when you spend enough time observing the sales pitch, even the one ministers give to each other, you see what it comes down to. Don’t say that, do this, pray this way, etc. or God’s going to be pissed.
And He gets so pissed, so easily, that he will torment you for eternity if you can’t manage to appease him in the brief decades you have on earth.
If your friend were dating a woman like that, you’d do all in your power to steer him away from marrying her.
Don’t get me wrong. Even if the Church were suddenly like “yes, God is love, real love, not love redefined as abuse” and acted like it, I just can’t change my heart. I just can’t experience there being only one god. I don’t foresee some way that I could ever become a Christian again, but it’s much more likely that I’d become a Christian than I’d ever become a monotheist. It’s just contrary to my experience of the world.
And the Butcher doesn’t seem to believe in the divinity of Christ, so he’s out.
But someone like the Red-Headed Kid might be open to an experience of God that wasn’t fear based. But I know my dad’s friend put the day when the Red-Headed Kid might go back to church for his own reasons (and not to mollify his mom) further off.
I hate this story. I hate the Christian supremacy of our daily paper running story after story after story about Christians and their god doing even the most mundane crap people in a religion are supposed to do as if that’s news and nobody with other belief systems gets to have those belief systems presented to the public as an ordinary force for good in the community. I also hate that God is quoted as if He’s a person but that the reporter then never follows up with the Source.
So, we get to hear all about what God told this pastor to do, as if it’s a real thing, but there’s no fact checking?
I mean, if I told a reporter that Bill Clinton said I had nice hooters and therefore I was going to go work at Hooters, even if I did indeed go working at Hooters, wouldn’t the reporter want to check to see if Clinton said that to me? There’s no “Lyle said God told him…” or “Lyle interpreted the dream to mean…” It’s all “God said…” “God wanted…” Did the reporter talk to God?
(This story would be awesome if the reporter did. It could have also been salvaged with “When asked to speak on the record for this story, God had no comment.”)
And I’m sorry but who has ever heard of God saying “Go do this hard crap for four days and here’s exactly why.”? I defy you to show me one place in the Bible where anyone gets called to do anything difficult and they are given a full and clear explanation of why they should do it and what they should get out of it, let alone that they only have to do it for a few days and then they get their lives right back how they were.
I mean, my god, when Jesus told the rich kid to take all he had and give it to the poor, he didn’t mean “And then go out and get your old life back and go on with things.”
When God decides to fuck with you, you stay fucked with. You don’t do four days of unpleasantness and then make a triumphant unveiling like something has happened to you. Either that or God has dropped his standards. I mean, how convenient that you don’t even have to miss a Sunday of work?
And why couldn’t the pastor just go talk to the homeless people in his community and see what they need/want? He could have gone to them as a member of the community, not as a tourist playing homeless.
Plus, I’m sorry. But the problem with being homeless isn’t that you have to sleep outside or navigate charities or hide from the police. It’s that you have to do those things without knowing when or if you will ever be able to stop doing them. Four days on the street, when you KNOW your wife is coming to get you on Friday, when you KNOW you could call her at any time to come get you right then, isn’t a reasonable approximation of homelessness. It’s urban camping.
There’s a book that is a collection of these that one of you recommended to me and I tried to buy it, but Amazon couldn’t get it for me. It’s hard to articulate how these make me feel. I look at them and I feel like something is working on my brain right below a level I’m used to feeling my brain firing on.
But I feel really drawn to them, like I’m seeing something that means something to me, only I never knew it.