Creation, the Western New York Version (an Iroquois Creation Story)

CREATION, THE WESTERN NEW YORK VERSION

AN EXPLORATION OF THE IROQUOIS CREATION STORY

j. SNODGRASS

The Middle East must be nice this time of year. I mean, yeah, random bullets flying and nuclear tinkering and all, but I imagine the weather is really good. And when I’m out walking and it feels like the wind is going to rip my face off, maybe a desert climate with the occasional gunshot wouldn’t be that bad. As a matter of fact, in this Western New York winter I can’t even think about getting shot without thinking about how warm the bullet would be. A little ball of molten led or whatever, hot metal lodging in my skin…ah, heat… And I don’t personally want to die in a nuclear inferno, but when I’m out shoveling the sidewalk and the wind screeches in my ears, the idea of melting takes on a certain charm. Maybe this morning Middle-Eastern forecasters are saying “The weather is warm and sunny, scattered drizzles of hot bullets and a chance of atomic firestorm.” I don’t know – I can’t listen to Middle-Eastern weather-forecasts at home, because if I did I’d wake up the next morning and my wife would be gone, off to live in a dry, sunny desert wearing five layers of black. She hates the winter.

As a new year begins I can’t help thinking about the Middle East because I was raised on Middle-Eastern creation stories – in the Bible, creation begins at the meeting place of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which would be in modern-day Iraq. And the people were naked and not ashamed, which clearly means it wasn’t snowing – if I was standing naked in ten-below-zero and the only woman on earth was squinting at me, trying to figure out what a “man” was I’d be plenty embarrassed. If the Biblical creation had taken place in Western New York the whole story would have been different – the people would have been wearing coats, pulling the wings off bisons (and that, children, is how the buffalo lost its wings) and asking, “Did Hell freeze over? Does that mean the Bills have won the Superbowl?” And God would be asking “Why did I make pizza grow on trees? For goodness sake, eat this fruit before you get scurvy!”

This is only conjecture – I don’t know that that story would have been like if it had taken place here.

But there is a creation story that takes place here, the story told and retold by the original inhabitants of Western New York, the Iroquois. When we hear the Iroquois creation story, we say “A woman fell from the sky with a handful of seeds, that’s just mythology.” Right – the talking snake is biology, and God cursing all babies for a piece of fruit stolen by Eve is theology but the woman falling from the sky is mythology.

The Iroquois creation story is not about decrees and crime and punishment. It begins with cooperation – a woman is falling from the sky and birds come around to help. A turtle offers her a place to stand and a muskrat dives down to bring her some dirt. And she falls in love with this place. Which, maybe the turtle didn’t expect – according to Iroquois legend it’s still down there below us. But it’s also a reminder – we’re not just standing on lifeless dirt, we are held up by the goodness of a creature. Guests on the back of a turtle. My children would love that, they would really understand it, and it would add a touch of charming wonder to their lives. I wish I could believe that I was living on the back of a friendly turtle. But then I would have to re-think my whole attitude toward automobiles and disposable diapers – “sorry, mister Turtle, but we’ve gotta put a little more salt on your shell so my tires can get a grip” – if I was a turtle’s guest I wouldn’t want to disrespect it like that.

In honor of this hospitable creature, the Iroquois actually refer to all of North America as “Turtle Island.” Which I think sounds a little funny. But then I have to wonder – what would a United Nations meeting be like if our country was announced as “Turtle Island”? It would make us sound friendlier. Like we didn’t take ourselves so seriously. “And now, a few words from the president of Turtle Island.” I like it. And we may have to change our national name in a few years anyway, nobody wants to hear the words “America” and “United States” these days – maybe we can call ourselves “Turtle Island” again.

The woman who fell from the sky receives a warm Western New York welcome. One minute she’s falling from the sky, the next she’s surrounded by new friends and they’re helping her find a home and move in. I remember when we moved to Buffalo, people were so excited – “You want to live here? Let me help you! So you won’t leave!” And the sky-woman doesn’t just sit around, and she didn’t come empty-handed – she’s brought gifts, seeds and creativity. She decorates the new land, she brings new life. The animals welcomed a vulnerable stranger, a refugee from another world, and she turns out to be a goddess, enhancing their lives in ways they never could have imagined before.

And as her last act she creates creatures, twin sons, who will continue the work of creation. She dies in childbirth. I don’t know how my children would feel about that part of the story. I was reading a childrens’ book adaptation of the story and they took that out, instead they had her ascend to the sky from whence she came. And I thought it ruined the whole thing, not because I have anything against this goddess, but because it meant skipping over my favorite part of the story. When she’s dying and asks her newborn sons to bury her, and she tells them that corn will rise up through the ground from her body.

It’s my favorite part of the story because she chooses to stay. Here in Western New York, not to go back to the sky-world, but to continue to be a part of human life here. She doesn’t abandon her sons and wander off to paradise, she wants to keep feeding them, and all the children that will come after. She could have cursed them – one of her sons tore his way out of her body and killed her, she could have cursed all human life for all time. But she doesn’t. She forgives, and she becomes the food, the sacred bread of life. And the Iroquois would remember this story as they grew and harvested and ate their corn. The woman who was killed by her own child still wanted to feed him. That’s very powerful, and it’s very real. If one of my children killed me, I bet my dying words would be “don’t forget, there’s a can of chicken soup in the pantry, go warm it up, you look thin.”

After she dies, we see another form of creativity in the story. Male creativity. Twin sons, always competing with each other – a friendly one who makes little gentle animals, and a mean one who makes bigger, dangerous animals. That’s how guys do creativity – we can’t just sprout life out of our bodies, we need other guys to compete with. The mean twin makes winter, and the friendly twin rises to the challenge, creates spring. I sort of wish he would make spring right now – I feel like we’re stuck in a time of winter and meanness. But spring will come again, the friendly twin is always more powerful.

In the story, the mean twin one day announces that he should be ruler of all the land, and challenges his brother to a contest to see who can move a mountain. And he strains and struggles and huffs and puffs and blusters and tweets with all his might, but the mountain will not come at his command. Then he turns to his brother, the friendly twin, to see if he can do better. His brother says, “see for yourself” and when the mean twin turns around he hits his nose on the mountain, it’s come right there. Bumping his head on the mountain, it reveals his true face, twisted and distorted. And he pleads with his brother, afraid of being sent away from the beloved land, and they make a deal that he will provide humor and medicine. The one who wanted to be king instead becomes the first clown. And he keeps his word. It turns out, he’s not evil, he just needs to feel important, useful – the world needs some unpleasantness, even some meanness, but it cannot be the ruling force in a healthy world.

The friendly twin created man and woman from dust, saying “You shall enjoy yourselves upon the earth in order to multiply from generation to generation. And here are vegetables and herbs to sustain life from the fruits of the earth, which shall grow forever.” I like teaching this part to my college students, because they’re so accustomed to commandments that start with “Thou Shalt Not.” But here the creator gives three commandments: Thou shalt enjoy thyself. Thou thalt make babies. And thou shalt eat thy vegetables. I’m very good at two of these. Making babies, it turns out, is a breeze. Raising four of them is hard – maybe I was too good at following that commandment. And eating vegetables, I’m good at that too. But enjoying myself, that’s hard. My religious upbringing taught me that there’s something bad, something shameful, something wrong with being human. And even though now I get to make up my own mind about religion, I still can’t seem to escape a Middle-Eastern crime-and-punishment, shame-and-damnation view of human life. Why should Middle-Eastern stories be so pessimistic? The weather’s great! Maybe a warm dry desert climate is good for preserving ancient grudges and being a fundamentalist, because you don’t have these seasonal changes. Winter reminding us of how much we all need each other – in a blizzard, our need for warmth and relationships is more important than our alienation, our shared fragile humanity matters more than our differences.

The Native creation story from this area reminds me of what I love best about Western New York. A warm welcome for the stranger, even if the stranger is like no one you’ve ever met before. Cooperation and inginuity. Even some competition, which can be productive even if the other guy is a total jerk. …I don’t believe that as strongly as I used to, but in my milder moments I can still agree in principle. And this Native Story contains a deep love of this place, this land – I know if I died and someone offered me a choice between going off to the sky-world and staying here I’d want to stay in Western New York, and keep looking for ways to help my children.

Some of you out there might think that sounds naive – Western New York isn’t really like that. We don’t love this place, we’re stuck here, and we don’t welcome outsiders and we don’t cooperate. Well, if you think that, please, don’t say it in front of my wife because then she’ll pack up the children and move to Arizona and I’ll have to go too. And I don’t want to live in a desert. So do me a favor – if you think that Western New York is not a paradise where we welcome and cooperate, then make it a place like that. Because I want my children to love this land, and to appreciate this special place (even in winter!), as much as the Iroquois do. I was raised with a cultural belief that the holiest land in the world is off in some desert on the other side of the planet, but I have come to believe, personally, that the holy land is right here. That’s a Native American teaching I can believe in.

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BOOK RELEASE: ROMANCING THE MINOTAUR

ROMANCING THE MINOTAUR: SEX AND SACRIFICE AND SOME GREEK MYTHOLOGY

“A brief and comical glance at the roots of Greek Mythology. Psychedelic drugs, supernatural sexuality, and human sacrifice entwine in the legend of a princess, a hero and a monster on the island of Crete.”

I’m very excited to announce (finally) the completion and release of my book about the Minotaur legend.  Below are the front and back cover images, an explanation of the aims of the book, and then an excerpt examining the Greek concept of “Heroes.”  The book can be ordered directly through Createspace, or through Amazon.com, and if you know me personally I’ll have copies soon.

FROM THE INTRODUCTION

Why write a book about Theseus and the Minotaur? Not to spoil the ending, but this book is not really about Theseus and the Minotaur at all. As a student of Daniel Quinn, I study what it means to be human, and how that has changed since the transition from migratory foragers to settled farmers. I’m particularly interested in how social and gender dynamics have been shaped by this transition. And while reading Robert Graves and James Frazer I was struck by three topics: 1. Crete, an advanced ancient civilization ruled primarily by women. 2. Ancient kings who were sacrificed after a year in power. 3. Barbaric invaders who overran ancient matriarchal cultures, and the vestiges of feminine power that remained. At some point in the study I was reminded of the Minotaur story, an ideal frame for linking these three topics. Also, having just moved to Buffalo NY, I see totem bison heads everywhere, sometimes with human bodies.

And so this book will be organized in three sections, corresponding with the three central figures in the Minotaur story. The first will explore the Cretan queen-priestess and princess-apprentice, how these two characters are actually a single figure at different stages of life, and how she fits into the cultural context of ancient Crete. The second section of this book will explore the Cretan king Minos and the Minotaur (which literally means “Minos-Bull”) and how they represent a merger of Cretan island culture with the barbarian mainland culture. The third section of this book will be about Theseus as a representation of the barbaric warriors who finally destroyed Cretan culture, incorporating elements of it into what would later develop into Classical Greek culture. It is the goal of this book that when we return to the Minotaur story at the end, we’ll see it with more depth and clarity, and rather than classify it as “Fact” or “Fairy Tale,” we’ll see that it contains a certain “truth” about this historical transition.

EXCERPT

HEROES..?

The word “Hero” can be defined as someone willing to make personal sacrifices to protect or save others. The firefighter who charges into a burning building, risking his own life to rescue someone they’ve never met, is an example of a cultural icon we associate with the word “Hero.” The origin of this word is the name of the goddess Hera, whose veneration is much older than “Greek” culture. Hera and her priestess representative would have a son/lover/victim, a sacrificial king called a “Hero” annually sacrificed for the protection of the community. We can see an example of this tradition and its gradual mutation in the mythical relationship between Hera and her stepson Heracles.

Mythologically, Hera’s husband Zeus was the mighty king of the gods but also a real creep, better known for his philandering than his philanthropy. On one of his rampages he sired Heracles upon a Theban queen and later brought the infant to suckle from his sleeping wife Hera, who awakened and shoved the baby, causing a spurt of lactate to splash across the sky becoming “the Milky Way.” Enraged with jealousy, Hera schemed to kill Zeus’ love-child, sending serpent assassins and many of the monsters in the obstacle course known as the Twelve Labors.

The mythical biography of Heracles is a mosaic, combining stories of many kings over the course of centuries, and in the ongoing conflict with Hera we can see a gradual male rebellion against female power. As his name suggests, the earliest men called Heracles must have been kings sacrificed to the great goddess, and the myth of Heracles’ child-slaughtering “madness” must represent a transitional stage in which kings delayed their deaths by sacrificing children. Then the Heracles kings launched something of an inquisition, killing off priestesses (represented as mythical monsters) to establish a male warrior authority. The myth of Heracles born of almighty Zeus and a humble mortal mother represents the final stage, in which divine paternity is all-important while maternity is insignificant, a total reversal of the king’s original role as son/lover/victim of the goddess. So it’s true that Hera was always trying to kill Heracles, but not out of irrational jealousy – it was just part of her yearly routine, a sort of spring cleaning.

The battered victims of Heracles’ rapacious rampages appear in mythology as chaotic monsters. Now it’s true, as we’ve seen, that priestesses were really dangerous, especially to kings. But did the Greeks really believe in these supernatural demons? I don’t know. Did the ancient Israelites really believe in the literal parting of the Red Sea? I generally see Biblical “miracles” as reports of real events so good that we can only understand the feeling by imagining a divine victory over the very nature of the physical universe. I see Greek “myths” as something else, reports of real events so heinous and distasteful that we can only stomach them by imagining a divine victory over savage cannibal monsters. In the Bible, runaway slaves are so overjoyed to find freedom that they say the Red Sea parted for them. In Greek stories, barbarians who ravish and butcher a colony of nuns tell us that a hero has throttled a nine-headed serpent.

Theseus’ role-model (and according to some sources, his cousin) Heracles was also well known for going around bullying women. But when Heracles ravaged a girl or pillaged a matriarchal society, his spin-doctors usually transformed his violated victims into monsters like the Hydra, “a beast portrayed on Greek vases as a giant squid with heads at the end of each tentacle. As often as he cut off the Hydra’s heads they grew again, until he used fire to sear the stumps: in other words, Achaean attacks on the shrines, each [guarded by] nine armed orgiastic priestesses, were ineffective until the sacred groves were burned down. The Stymphalian birds, who killed “men and beasts by discharging a shower of brazen feathers and at the same time muting a poisonous excrement, which blighted the crops” were historically a college of orgiastic Arcadian priestesses. The man-eating mares of Diomedes turn out to be wild women in horse-masks charged with chasing and eating the Thracian king at the end of his reign. Cerberus, the underworld’s guard-dog may have represented priestesses of the trinity-goddess Hecate whose heads stood for youth, womanhood and old age. The serpent Ladon was guardian of Hera’s garden and priestesses.

Another Greek hero, Perseus, heroically blinded three old lady fortune-tellers (he claims they were dangerous), then decapitated the terrifying snake-haired Medusa, “whom the Argives…described as a beautiful Libyan queen decapitated by their ancestor Perseus after a battle with her armies, and who may therefore be identified with the Libyan snake-goddess Lamia.” He then used the severed head to rescue a chained princess from a seamonster, although it has been suggested that “in the original icon, the Goddess’s chains were really necklaces, bracelets and anklets, while the sea-beast was her emanation.” In other words the seamonster was the princess’ protection from domineering jerks like Perseus: the damsel wasn’t in distress until the hero showed up and debilitated her.

The tradition of using mythical monsters as symbols for vanquished female leadership goes all the way back to ancient Sumer, in the story of the young storm/warrior-god Marduk slaying and dismembering the chaotic seamonster Tiamat, who was actually his own grandmother. And as I tell my college students, when we walk into a room to find the crumpled body of a bludgeoned old granny with a large blood-spattered brute standing over her, we should think twice about accepting his testimony that she was a dangerous beast. History and mythology are written by the winners, but the barbarians of Sumer and Greece could hardly be accused of narrative chivalry.

The Minotaur may at first seem out of place among these female monsters – he is undeniably male, and the myth situates the Minotaur as Minos’ punishment and Minos’ problem. Theseus’ defeat of the monster is, by extension, a defeat of Minos, the creature is even named after Minos. But while the Minotaur is masculine, the head of the sacrificial bull with its moon-like horns, and the ovarian cavern in which he resides are clearly symbolic of feminine control over life and death. A closer look at the story actually reveals that Minos’ monster was really defeated by Ariadne, the insider who aided Theseus. “The monster faced the season of his doom: where other heroes failed, [Theseus] the son of Aegeus, led by young Ariadne, walked the maze, and, winding up the thread that guided him, raped Minos’ daughter and sailed off with her to leave her on the island shores of Dia.” (Ovid, Metamorphoses)

[Footnote citations have been removed from this excerpt]

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“SOME GUY” – Protest and Reformation

On this 500th anniversary of the first act of the Protestant Reformation, I was invited to give a sermon about one of my favorite historical figures, Martin Luther (a runner-up for the name of my fourth child, but William Wallace won out).  This was a lot of fun to write.

 

SOME GUY

In my college courses I assign students to give reports in class, generally on topics I personally find to be boring. Things that are important to be able to say were covered, but I’m not interested enough to teach it myself. And some student presentations are profound, some presentations are…a polite, constructive way to say it would be “profoundly idiotic.” And I think I heard the all-time champion this week, something so comical that, before repeating it I’m legally required to say I take no responsibility if your laughter makes the walls of this building fall down. A student assigned to explain worship habits in the Lutheran Church (boring) got up and said… “The Lutheran Church was started by a guy named Martin Luther.”

…I see we’re holding back the gales and wails of laughter here, which is very mature of you – my students managed not to giggle and as the teacher I also had to struggle to hold back the laughter I felt bursting from inside. Now I know what you’re thinking – “That’s just silly – of course Martin Luther had no intention of starting a ‘Lutheran Church’ – he just wanted to fix Roman Catholicism.” It’s true, but that’s not the real punch-line here. This nineteen-year-old actually said “A guy named Martin Luther.” Some guy, some random guy.

Martin Luther needs no introduction. But this college student felt he did, and the introduction he gave was “a guy.” Arguably the most important man in human history (and if not the most important, definitely in the top five) whose courage changed the course of human thought, identity, and understanding… But to a nineteen year old he was just a guy. …And still I see nobody’s howling with laughter, so now I’m wondering…maybe Martin Luther does need some introduction..? I do hate to explain a joke. But for Martin Luther I’ll make an exception.

THE “HOLY” ROMAN EMPIRE

Two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire had grown to incredible power as a military force, extoring the wealth of Europe by running a basic mafia protection racket: pay up ten percent or else. Or else what? Or else something bad might happen (and if a country refused to pay, something bad did happen – the Roman army showed up and totally obliterated them). But after centuries everybody got tired of it, even Rome got tired of it. Plunder, plunder, yawn and plunder… And so they decided on another way of maintaining their economic power in Europe: they ditched old Jupiter’s predatory eagle and adopted a new mascot. Ironically, the mascot they chose was a guy they had killed for telling people not to pay taxes, some guy named Jesus. The Roman Empire became known as the “Holy” Roman Empire, and instead of bullying nations with military power, they extorted individuals: pay up ten percent or else. Or else what? Or else something bad will happen…after you die.

They invented something called “Purgatory,” a debtor’s prison, a place for dead-beats who hadn’t given enough money to the Roman Church, and there they would be burned and tortured for hundreds or even thousands of years to “purge,” purify them of the sin of not paying for enough sacraments. It was like God’s own Guantanamo Bay. This new supernatural protection racket was a tremendous success – maintaining the Roman military legions had been expensive, but conjuring nightmares with legions of imaginary demons was cheap. Because it was all talk. Perhaps the greatest bluff in all history. “Purgatory” is nowhere in the Bible, but most Europeans could neither read the Bible nor undertand it when it was read to them, because it was only available in Latin. Which is strange, because the Biblical books were originally written in Hebrew and Greek. But Rome decreed it was only holy in Latin, and then made sure that nobody outside the Church could learn to read it. Because it turns out, when you actually read the Gospels, you find that the Romans, tax-collectors and Pharisees are actually the bad guys.

In the 1500’s, priest and bishops were tax collectors, mafia thugs for the Empire, charging for sacraments such as worship services, confession, baptism, communion and funerals. There had been a time when they’d had to know something about the Bible, but by the 1500’s anybody could rent a bishop’s vestments and raise as much money as they wanted, as long as the Vatican Godfather got the cost of the costume rental. They could also raise money by charging people fees to visit “relics,” meaning bones and skulls (supposedly) of dead saints – someone would find a thigh-bone in France and say “truly this was a thigh of John the Baptizer!” and never-mind that there were thirty other churches claiming to have John’s thigh-bone on display, people would show up and pay to kiss the bone and pray for healing or money or a new mule or whatever a medieval peasant might want.

And on top of all this, the Church began its greatest fund-raiser ever: selling indulgences. “indulgences” were coupons you could buy to get such-and-such amount of time deducted from your stay in purgatory (or you could buy it as a gift certificate for your dear departed aunt or some other relative). And if you spent enough, you could skip purgatory altogether and literally “buy a stairway to Heaven.” Expert salesman Johann Tetzel famously said “When a coin in the box rings, a soul from purgatory springs,” and his sales-pitch was that buying enough of these coupons could purchase salvation even for someone who violated the virgin Mary herself. The magnificent Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City (supposedly built on top of the skull of St. Peter) was funded by selling God’s forgiveness to illiterate peasants.

And that’s when we meet Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, professor and priest in Wittenburg Germany. Hearing of this, he felt that something had gone rotten in Rome. So he wrote an open letter to his small congregation, with ninety-five reasons that they should not be buying these tickets to paradise. “It is certain that when the penny jingles into the money-box, gain and avarice can be increased, but… Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better work than buying pardons [and] if the pope knew the exactions of the pardon-preachers, he would rather that St. Peter’s church should go to ashes, than that it should be built up with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep.” Martin Luther doubted that the Pope could be involved, or even possibly know about this swindle. But later in the letter he wondered, “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money?” (Ninety-Five Theses #28, 43, 50, 82)

Luther had vented his frustration, and maybe he slept soundly that night, having got out his anger and warned the members of his small-town parish. But there were three things he did not expect. One – someone immediately tore down his letter. But they didn’t burn it, they put it in a new invention: the printing press. Hundreds of thousands of copies circulated in Europe, and it turns out a lot of people shared Luther’s anger at this scam. The second thing he probably didn’t expect was to die of old age, but the church was taking a short break from rebel-burning, and he actually survived. The third thing he probably didn’t expect was that the anger of Christian Europe would explode into wars and persecutions (mostly about economics, but also a little bit about theology), that whole nations would rebel against Rome, shattering Western Christianity into thousands of pieces, and by the nineteen sixties, a battered and weary Catholic Church would actually make the changes he’d called for.

Luther, a good Catholic monk, had set out to fix the Church, to “reform” it, and in this he ultimately did succeed. But in the process he also re-formed Western identity: national identities which emerged from under the boot of the Roman Empire (also nationalism, the individual’s sense of self in relation to a country), and personal identities – the whole concept of the individual making choices about how best to reach salvation, this was unheard of before Martin Luther inadvertently broke the monopoly of the Roman Church. Ideas of personal identity, choice, liberty, the “right” to rebel against tyranny, all of these emerged from the Protestant Reformation.

The freedoms that emerged from the Protestant Reformation are nearly impossible to measure, because we think of personal liberty as “truth” that is “self evident.” But concepts like “rights” and “liberty” and “pursuit of happiness” were totally unknown in medieval Europe. Here’s an easy example: Hearing about Martin Luther’s rebellion against Rome, King Henry VIII of England decided to rebel against Rome as well, largely because of “taxation without representation” – a lot of English money was going to the Vatican, but the king of England could not get the Pope to bend a rule about divorce. England was essentially a colony of the Roman Empire and declared its independence. Without this precident, the English colonies that we know today as America would never have even imagined the possibility of breaking away from England (and if Europe had been all Catholic during America’s Revolutionary War, France would have sided with England and not against them, and the colonies would have been crushed into eternal submission). Without Martin Luther there would be no America – we would be a colony of England, and England would be a colony of Rome. And the Pope would still be holding all our dead relatives hostage in purgatory unless we bought enough coupons to get them into paradise.

I could literally stand here all day, explaining the many ways in which “a guy named Martin Luther” changed history and all our lives. Without “a guy named Martin Luther” there would have been no Charles Darwin, no Elvis, no Camille Paglia, and definitely no Martin Luther King (maybe such a man would have lived, but he would have been named after someone else. And he wouldn’t have crusaded for freedom because nobody would have known what “freedom” is if it wasn’t for “a guy named Martin Luther.”) As a matter of fact, without Martin Luther, I would be giving this sermon in Latin, and they still wouldn’t have translated the Bible into English, so most of you would have no idea what the Bible said or what I said about it, and then I’d end by saying “don’t worry if you don’t understand, just give me five bucks and I’ll release your dearly departed grandmother from purgatory” and you’d say, “Well, I guess that’s what the Scripture readings must have been about.”

THE WHISTLE-BLOWER

I do occasinally learn things from college students – and the student who referred to “a guy named Martin Luther” actually did teach me something, when he said that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenburg door on October 31st, 1517. I thought – who cares what day he did it? Then I realized that right now, October of 2017, is the 500th anniversay, and I felt a profound sense of urgent responsibility to raise awareness, let the world know about this thing that happened 500 years ago. Still, a monk nailing what was essentially an angry blog-post to a church door five hundred years ago might sound like old news now. So what does this act have to do with us? What message can we take from this, in our present time of anger, division, unrest?

First of all, we can forget that Martin Luther loved the Church – he was a monk after all, he’d given up a lot to show his devotion (and he would hate this sermon because of the way I’ve been talking about the Church, but here I stand, I cannot say otherwise, God help me). And he expressed his love of the Empire, we could call it patriotism, by reminding the Empire of how far it had fallen from its professed ideals. He did this in his own town, by communicating with his own neighbors. And he didn’t burn down the local church in a fiery rage, or paint obscenities on the door, or stand there foaming at the mouth and shouting – he wrote an intelligent essay, and posted it for people to read (and, in today’s terms, we could say his post “went viral”).

He challenged the Empire, not out of hate, but out of hope that it could improve, get back to basics, repair itself. Martin Luther was one man standing up against the (debatably) “Holy” Roman Empire itself, saying it’s not right to hold dead people hostage, and definitely not to demand ransom-money for their release. He blew the whistle and he was blacklisted, excommunicated – not only fired from his job, he was forbidden to ever take communion again! In expressing his thoughts to a small community, he opened a Pandora’s box of scandal, recriminations, even wholesale warfare. But ultimately, the Empire did address his grievances. And as a side-effect, the Western world advanced from medievalism to modernity.

Of course, five hundred years later, a lot of Americans want to move back from modernity to medievalism. Bring back the old monarchy, divine right of kings, put the women and minorities back where they were in the 1300’s. Bring back the Dark Ages, ironically with the help of the internet – who could have imagined that access to unlimited information would lead to such an intellectual Dark Age? We’re less culturally literate now than we were a hundred years ago! Exhibit A: the number of Americans who don’t know who Martin Luther is. “I dunno, some guy…”

In these times we live in, we’re involved in a cultural debate: should Americans have the right to protest against injustice? Do we have a right to stand up for ourselves and others, if we feel we’re being exploited? Come to think of it, that’s the wrong question – “rights” you can take or leave. Do we have a responsibility to stand up for ourselves and others, even if it should invite a storm of anger and contention? All over the news this month, football players and Hollywood actresses are faced with these questions. In standing up for themselves they receive an incredible outpouring of support…and an incredible outpouring of hostility, even hatred.

Some people think that speaking up for change is a sign of disrespect. I would say that quietly grumbling, pushing anger down inside is a sign of disrespect, when you say “why bother speaking up? Nothing’s gonna change,” that’s a sign of disrespect – a belief that the institution can no longer be maturely reasoned with. And letting that anger build itself up until it bursts out in childish shouting and violence, that’s a sign of desrespect. But to calmly, intelligently stand up and state your case, that is a sign of respect, because it’s a sign that you believe that the institution can still think, can still reason and be reasoned with. I think that, 500 years later, there’s still a lot we can learn from Martin Luther’s example. And that our institutions should take a warning: the Roman Empire chose not to engage in a reasonable conversation about his grievances, and as a result it lost a lot of its power.

On this five hundredth anniversary of the first act of the Protestant Reformation, I think we must all remember the power of peaceful, respectful protest. An enduring legacy of “a guy named Martin Luther.”

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INVISIBLE PEOPLE (MAKE LIFE INTERESTING)

INVISIBLE PEOPLE (MAKE LIFE INTERESTING)

I remember getting picked up to go to a friend’s house when I was around seven. As we crossed a bridge in dusty post-industrial Ohio, I had sort of a magical experience. A small, luminescent object drifted slowly across my field of vision. When I tried to follow it with my eyes, it sped up and darted into a corner. But when I looked out again on the dilapidated Midwestern wasteland the thing drifted upward again like a shopping bag on a breeze, then again dove out of sight when I tried to focus on it. This went on for several minutes – was it some sort of spirit? Angel? Faerie? Finally I tried to tell my friend’s mom what I saw.

Not even looking over she said, “That’s trash. In your eye.”

It was a poor choice of words – first of all, no kid wants to hear they’ve got “trash” in their eye and second of all, we were in Cincinnati, everywhere you looked was trash. Being a preacher’s kid, I should have said “before you talk about the speck of dust in my eye, take the toxic landfill of single-parent disappointment out of your own.” But she was right – it was just a dust particle, one of the billions of insignificant specks that surround us and sometimes stick to our lenses. Thirty years later I still remember it, one of those defining childhood moments when there’s a little less magic in the world. Which, you know, in Ohio… If there was a charity to give more magic to the lives of Midwestern kids…I’d send them my whole vacuum bag and say, “Kids, when this dust gets in your eye, pretend it’s a faerie.” Actually, come to think of it, that would just be trash in their eye.

Still sometimes in the bathroom I see those little floating light-dots, but they’re not that mysterious (although, now that I think of it, I still have no idea what un-magical phenomenon they are, it’s enough to know they’re not magical, I don’t need to do a Google search to make life more boring). And as I get older I frequently see, out the corner of my eye, little gnome-like creatures darting around corners, mischievous elven pranksters that hide one of my shoes, but it turns out they’re just small children, my house is infested with them. And children are sort of magical, especially when they sleep (they’re kind of blurry when they’re awake, always in motion, I literally have to take a photograph if I want to get a good look at them). They dart around leaving mysterious messes and vanish when it’s time to clean up. And, being children, they have their own fascination with invisible people – ghosts and faeries and leprechauns and dwarves (although it turns out dwarves are real). They want to know about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, and before we eat they watch me close my eyes and talk to someone they can’t see. And when my children ask about invisible people I don’t say “that’s trash,” I just answer honestly, I don’t know.

SOCIAL VISIBILITY

In this last seventy years, there has been a recurrent running theme in the social and political debates shaping our culture: a theme of visibility. Who gets to be socially visible? In 1952, Ralph Ellison wrote a book about the plight of African Americans, beginning with the line, “I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination.” (Ellison 1952)

Confession time, I never got further than that in the book – once I figured out it wasn’t about the guy in the bandages I said “maybe I’ll read that when I grow up,” and then promised myself I would never grow up (and here we are). But still that unforgettable opening paragraph: I am invisible because people refuse to see me, they see only figments of their imagination. This was Ellison’s statement of race relations almost a century after the emancipation at the end of the Civil War. Maybe the Northerners wanted to free them, but they didn’t want to see them – not at work, not at school, definitely not at the dinner table. Segregated bathrooms and schools, diners, restaurants, even cities, and “Separate but Equal” laws were designed to make African Americans invisible. I heard recently that “Separate but Equal” is, apparently, now a thing of the past, which is fantastic. Somebody should bring that good news to our public schools.

And while we, as a culture, adjusted our eyes to the sudden visibility of black people, it turned out there were all sorts of hidden wonders waiting in the wings. Did you know that more than fifty percent of the US population is women? Yes, for those of you who are checking, there are some among us in this very room. But don’t be afraid. It turns out they’ve been here all along. But only very recently in history (appropriately named his-tory) have women become socially, economically and politically visible. This didn’t happen by miracles, it developed through struggle, a struggle every inch of the way. I don’t know why men have been so stubborn about it – my wife is a medical doctor, and she gives birth to babies. All I have to do is sweep the floors, walk the kids and cook dinner? Jackpot.

I could go on all day listing the victories in social visibility in these last decades. And there are current issues in social visibility that could start an argument that would last all week. There are still invisible people among us, some of them want to be known and acknowledged. I was reading recently about trans-gender individuals wanting to stand up and be counted, and also to sit down in the bathroom of their identification. I also read about white supremacists who feel emboldened to take their private hatred and become more publicly visible. And maybe it’s politically incorrect, maybe you’ll call me intolerant for saying so, but I don’t feel that comfortable sharing a public bathroom with neo-nazis. Do I think we should go back to having “White Only” bathrooms? So that everybody else can feel safer? No. I still dream of a unified America where my children can be judged, not by the color of Donald Trump’s skin, but by the content of their character.

NATIVES AND NAZIS

Last year during the height of election madness something fascinating happened. Thousands of native Americans, and Jackson Browne who I named my first-born son after, gathered to protest a pipeline running through sacred native lands. They got beaten with night-sticks, fire-hosed and bulldozed out of the way and the pipeline proceeded anyway. But the Native protests were not a total defeat – actually, there was a small victory. They did not succeed in blocking the pipeline, but they did get nationwide media coverage for their effort. Here it’s important to remember that this pipeline situation was not unique – big business and big pollution always see impoverished reservations as easy prey for exploitation, and there are always Native Americans protesting to stop them. That’s old news. But when members of three hundred tribes gathered together, they actually got some attention, reminding the nation that Native Americans and their land-loving traditions are still alive. Reminding us that “the Indian Wars” did not end in the 1890s, but continue, and we can’t just say it’s something ugly our ancestors did – we’re still doing it. This was a victory of Social Visibility.

Then the newly-elected president Donald Trump, who owns stock in the company and received campaign contributions from other pipeline stockholders, sent police in riot-gear to brutalize the protesters. In today’s nightmare nation, the president sends police in riot gear to beat up non-violent Native Americans, then sends police to defend a violent rally of neo-nazis and their freedom to spread hate. Then he picks a fight with black football players who protest against police brutality. Right now the most socially visible man on earth wields his power like a playground bully, shining his twitter spotlight to shrink is enemies, try to silence the news, and make people afraid to stand up for their constitutional rights to a fair hearing. Racists who felt silenced and pushed aside to make room for multiculturalism elected a monster to stand up for their right to blame “others” for their problems. And now they demand to be heard with all their bigotry and hate – and I want them to be heard. I don’t want them silenced, I want this festering filth out in the light of day, so we can all see its whining cowardice. And I don’t care if the rest of the world sees it – we’re a joke to them anyway, let them see our Homer-Simpson country voting to deregulate big business and un-insure the poor, and then blaming refugees when the jobs disappear and the children get polio.

I’m tired of hearing about “alt right” bloggers, so-called “trolls,” (did you know trolls are real?) hiding behind their computers, binging on pornography and medicaid opium pills, using twitter-feeds as sniper-rifles. If they’re angry about hungry, hard-working brown immigrants taking jobs away let them step out in the sun and say so, and we can all look at their pale, lazy, flabby bodies that refuse to go out and pick strawberries with the immigrants because it brings in less money than welfare. I want these “trolls” to come out from under their dank bridges and let us all see them for what they are. They want social visibility. I want them to have it. I want them exposed in the light of day, so their own grandmothers can tell them they should be ashamed.

CONCLUSION

These issues of public visibility will continue. Our grandparents had no idea about the visibility issues we’re dealing with now, and we have no idea what cultural debates will take place in the future. I wish we could learn from the Natives to treat the trees and animals like members of our community. Or too late we may find that we need them as neighbors more than they need us. And when scientists finally figure out how to communicate with dolphins? Wow, imagine the presidential campaign debates a year after that.

And meanwhile, children all over the world are still looking for invisible people to make life more interesting. Faeries, gnomes, leprechauns, sprites and spirits, ghosts and a heavenly host of other supernatural beings. My kids ask me – do they really exist? I don’t know, but I do know this – if they did exist, and they watched our intolerance for those who are different from us, our fear boiling over into hatred again and again… Then I would understand why they want to badly to stay hidden. Also the leprechauns must know that even a rumor of possessing a pot of gold and a rainbow really brings out the worst in people.

But when I think of the progress we’re making, learning to see the people our culture has pushed into invisibility…women, blacks, natives and a mosaic of other races and genders… There is something miraculous about it, almost like eyesight being given to the blind. And when we learn to see the person who is different from us, we might start to see some inner commonalities, maybe even more important than our outward differences. And when we start to see ourself in the other person, and see the other person in ourself, we gain valuable new insights into who we really are. The children are right. Invisible people really can make life more interesting.

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A PRIEST, A MINISTER, AND A RABBI: THREE JOKES

All my life I’ve enjoyed hearing, reading and memorizing jokes (particularly story-jokes with a dark twist at the end). And so I recently began compiling some of my favorite jokes, which may someday appear as a book. And while gathering my favorite “Priest, Minister and Rabbi” jokes I got an idea for some original ones.

A CHRISTIAN NATION, PART 1

The police officer knocked on the priest’s door and said “Father, I’ve got good news and bad news… America has finally been federally declared a Christian nation!”
“Wonderful! At last all America will bask in the true light of Christ. …So what’s the bad news?”
“Senate voted the national church is Baptist, so if you don’t jump in this tub right now you’re under arrest.”

A CHRISTIAN NATION, PART 2

The police officer knocked on the Baptist minister’s door and said “Reverend, I’ve got good news and bad news… America has finally been federally declared a Christian nation! And the Senate voted that the national church is Baptist!”
“Wonderful! At last all America will bask in the true light of Christ. …So what’s the bad news?”
“The Senate subcommittee also voted that your sermons are too long, your songs are too fast, and anyone caught hand-clapping will pay a thirty-dollar fine.”

A CHRISTIAN NATION, PART 3

The police officer knocked on the Rabbi’s door and said “Rabbi, I’ve got good news and bad news… America has been federally declared a Christian nation.”
The Rabbi pondered this, then asked, “So what’s the good news?”
“Jesus is the Good News! Now get on the train.”

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“Love Gerald,” a Short Play by j. Snodgrass

I was honored last month by the Off-Off-Broadway premier of my short play “Love Gerald,” produced by Love Creek Productions.  I actually wrote this about ten years ago, while taking a Seminary course about the literary origins of the Gospels (hopefully this short play is fun, but it was also a seminarian’s attempt to boil down hundreds of pages of John Crossan, Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar into an educational sketch/skit).  I would not normally post a play-script here, since I find them hard to read, but this one is pretty easy to follow, it just goes back and forth between two characters at a bus-stop.  And I believe this story fits in well with the themes and content of this site.

 

 

LOVE GERALD

By j. SNODGRASS

The Characters :

Sherry, 9

Rachel, 9

These girls are fourth-graders, but should be played by young adults.

The Setting : A Suburban Sidewalk, an early morning in September.

At Rise : SHERRY is standing there in a Catholic school uniform with her bright lunch-box and backpack next to her. She is reading from a beat-up spiral notebook, a childish drawing of a kayak on the cover with stars around it. She wears a necklace with a crudely carved wooden kayak on it. RACHEL walks over to her, also carrying a lunch-box and backpack.

RACHEL :

Sherry!

SHERRY :

Rachel.

RACHEL :

It’s so good to see you! Ready for the first day of fourth grade?

SHERRY :

I guess…

RACHEL :

When did you get back from camp?

SHERRY :

Two weeks…

RACHEL :

Two weeks! But you didn’t answer your walkie-talkie.

SHERRY :

I haven’t been taking calls…

RACHEL :

Oh. Well at least it must be nice…back in your own room again. With all your stuff.

SHERRY :

I haven’t been back to my old room. I told my parents I’ll be living in the attic. Stuff is just…stuff. Now I have this. And this.

(Shows RACHEL the notebook and necklace.)

RACHEL :

That’s a great necklace – you made it at camp?

SHERRY :

Yes.

RACHEL :

It’s a…banana?

SHERRY :

Oh, you of little understanding. It’s…a kayak… All the kids made them. Even after the counselors told us not to. “Arts and crafts is for crosses,” they said “Make another cross.” We carved these in secret…after lights-out…

RACHEL :

…But aren’t Christians supposed to…love crosses?

SHERRY :

Christians talk a big game about crosses, but have you ever seen them get on one? All my life I’ve listened to Father Houlihan talk about how he loves the cross, like he wants to spend the rest of his life hanging from it. But I’ve seen his hands. He’s never even tried.

RACHEL :

…All your life? Sherry, we’re nine years old.

SHERRY :

My birth certificate would say so. And the fact that I’m about to start fourth grade. But this summer, I’ve… This summer I’ve become a woman.

RACHEL :

Oh. I hope you didn’t do anything gross.

SHERRY :

No. …Actually, I did touch a dead bird with a stick, but what I really mean is… We’re friends, right?

RACHEL :

Best in the world. Except this last two weeks when you’ve been home but haven’t answered my calls…

SHERRY :

I’ve needed to be alone, dedicating myself… Rachel, something wonderful has happened…

RACHEL :

…Well?

SHERRY :

While I was at camp, one of the junior counselors…Gerald… He died.

RACHEL :

Oh my goodness.

SHERRY :

I know.

RACHEL :

And he was a jerk? And that’s why it’s good news?

SHERRY :

No, no of course not. He was…the coolest junior-counselor ever.

RACHEL :

Better than–?

SHERRY :

The best. Greatest. Coolest. And then one night, he… Well, it was hard to get details, but someone over-heard that he drank something and took a kayak on the river, and… And they found him the next morning…dead in the water…

RACHEL : (Hugs her)

I’m really sorry. This was right before you came home?

SHERRY :

What? No, it was our second week there. We had almost the whole summer to remember him, and think about him, make beautiful new words for old camp-songs…about Gerald…

RACHEL :

And you made kayak necklaces?

SHERRY :

All of us. Because we knew…he died for us… And all summer, the staff kept trying to tell us about Jesus who lived, like a million years ago in China or something. And we kept trying to tell them, now someone else has died. Right here, recently!

RACHEL :

But, I mean, didn’t Jesus…do special stuff?

SHERRY :

Gerald did special stuff. Stuff no-one else could do. Like on taco-night? He broke the all-time camp record by eating twenty-one tacos. We all saw him do it. And then he left the mess-hall, because he had to be alone. And I heard one of the other junior counselors say he was praying…to the porcelain god…

RACHEL :

Wow… What is it? The porcelain god. An idol?

SHERRY :

Nobody knows. Maybe his father…is one of those famous white statues…

RACHEL :

Well I guess that’s…pretty cool… Breaking the taco-record…

SHERRY :

And he could do more than just eat tacos. Once this little boy Jimmy fell down some stairs, and said his leg was broken? But Gerald touched it and said… “Yeah right, that’s not broken.” And then the little boy was fine! He even got checked out by the nurse – his leg was totally healed!

RACHEL :

Maybe it hadn’t broken in the first place.

SHERRY :

Well you can go ahead and explain it away with your fancy science. My dad said Jews like you never believe anything anyway. But I know what I know…

RACHEL :

…Jews like me? What’s that supposed to mean?

SHERRY :

Well…you know…

RACHEL :

No. I don’t.

SHERRY :

Well if you don’t know, then…then how should I know?

RACHEL :

I don’t know. But you’ve never said something like that to me before, and I’ve known you your entire life.

SHERRY :

That wasn’t my “entire life.” That was my past-life, my childhood, I don’t even think about those days anymore. My story started over because of Gerald. And I only told you about it because I thought you might understand.

RACHEL :

Well I want to understand. Because I haven’t seen you all summer, and now you’re acting different. And calling me a Jew – and you don’t even know what a Jew is.

SHERRY :

Of course I know. They killed Jesus and then tried to take over Germany or something, and then…went camping while everybody else fought a big war.

RACHEL :

Sherry, I can’t believe I need to say this, but… I’d appreciate if we would not discuss my religion.

SHERRY :

…Wow… Isn’t that what you said to Lindy last year on the playground?

RACHEL :

It’s what my parents taught me to say to anyone…who insults our people. And now you’ve made me say it to you…

SHERRY :

I…I can’t believe… I mean, you– We’ve always– You know what? You know what Gerald used to say? “Be chill.” That’s what he said. “Be chill.” And now I know you’ll never understand him, or me, because you can’t be chill. I have some reading I’d like to do. And when the bus comes, let’s… Let’s find separate seats, if there’s any left.

(SHERRY continues reading from the notebook.)

RACHEL :

Is that about…Gerald?

SHERRY :

I’m not talking to you. Not until you apologize.

RACHEL :

For what? You were calling me names.

SHERRY :

…Oh. Then I guess… Then I apologize. Yeah, it’s about Gerald. It’s the whole story. I mean, from the beginning of the summer until he…died…

RACHEL :

And you wrote it?

SHERRY :

We all wrote it. Everybody said what they remembered about him, and this one older kid wrote it all down and put it in order.

RACHEL :

But that’s your hand-writing.

SHERRY :

Yeah, we all had to make our own copies. Because the staff kept taking them away. Saying we should really be reading the Bible. But that book weighs a ton! And the words are so tiny! Who would sit down and say “Now I’m going to write this billion-page book, with little tiny letters no-one can read”?

RACHEL :

At least yours is in English. Another couple years, I’ll have to learn Hebrew. And people have always written it backwards.

SHERRY :

Alright.

RACHEL :

…Alright what?

SHERRY :

You tell me you don’t want to be picked on, and then you say you’ll have to learn to read backwards in another language.

RACHEL :

Tell me more about Gerald…

SHERRY :

I was just reading this chapter again, about the day before he died. We played Capture the Flag, and nobody realized it at the time, but really it was a game about how soon the whole country’s gonna be in on this.

RACHEL :

Worshiping Gerald?

SHERRY :

Yeah. Can’t you see? Capture? The Flag? And our team totally won, with Gerald as the captain, and afterwards we poured a pitcher of bug-juice over his head. Like they do at football games, to wash the coach from all his sins. And later Gerald…shared his whole collection of licorice jelly-beans with the team.

RACHEL :

Yuck. I hate licorice!

SHERRY :

He said he’d been putting them aside a long time. The pile didn’t look that big? Like maybe we’d each get one? But by the time he ran out we were practically all sick. He had enough for everyone…

RACHEL :

Probably because he hated licorice too.

SHERRY :

No, it was because… Because they were like a part of him, and eating them would have been…eating himself. It was our last meal together… And later that night, while we all slept, he snuck out of the cabin…

RACHEL :

This guy slept in a girls’ cabin?

SHERRY :

I meant he snuck out of the boys’ cabin, where he stayed. And he drank something called ‘the beast,’ and probably prayed to the porcelain god one final time, and then got into a kayak and said… “I’m doing this for kids everywhere. And life is like a river. And you can’t spell ‘children’ without ‘chill.’ And from now on, everyone who wears a kayak will remember me. And forgive people who don’t know what I’m doing.”

RACHEL :

…How do you know he said all that?

SHERRY :

Well, we had to use our imaginations a little bit, because no-one else was there. Actually there were a lot of ideas that didn’t get used. I thought he should’ve said something about how Santa and the Easter Bunny were secretly working for him all along, but then this kid Benny said there was no Santa and we got into this…like two-hour argument, all of us, anyway I wrote it into my copy. Here, along the side of the page… And if you like it, you could write it into…your copy..?

RACHEL :

My copy?

SHERRY :

Yeah, silly. That’s what we’ve been having this whole talk about. So you could learn to love Gerald too.

RACHEL :

Well Sherry, I don’t know…

SHERRY :

It’s a little late for not knowing. Why else would you have asked to hear the whole story? Or even talked to me in the first place?

RACHEL :

Because we’re best friends, and we always talk while we wait for the bus.

SHERRY :

You saw the kayak. This is all I talk about now. The new me.

RACHEL :

Yeah, I’ve noticed. The old you would’ve at least asked what I did this whole summer.

SHERRY :

I guess. But standing around talking about all that time would just be…living in the past. Gerald is all about the future. “I believe that children are the future.” I think that’s something he would have definitely said. As a matter of fact, that belongs in the book. All in favor? Aye. Okay. (Writes it in)

RACHEL :

When we were younger, we used to pretend we were aldermen, or hockey-players or fashion models. And that was fine, but… If we’re going to play pretend now, couldn’t we pretend something more exciting than…religion?

SHERRY :

Wait a minute. Are you calling my faith a ‘pretend religion’?

RACHEL :

…Well, I just watched you make something up and add it to the sacred scripture…

SHERRY :

Rachel, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but… I would appreciate it if we did not discuss my religion.

RACHEL :

Alright, I get it. I’m sorry. So…we can talk about something else?

SHERRY :

Fine. Tell me about your summer. Catch any cool bugs?

RACHEL :

Well no, not if you say it like that. We spent the summer here, all except this one weekend me and the twins had to go stay with my aunt Leah. She eats a lot because she’s lonely, and she’s lonely because she eats a lot.

SHERRY :

Maybe if she knew about…tacos…

RACHEL :

When we got back, half the pictures on the wall, and half the furniture, and all of my Daddy were gone. Mom said he wanted to spend time with someone closer to my age. So I don’t know, maybe I’ll have a big sister soon.

SHERRY :

Where is he looking? Shouldn’t a sister come from your mom?

RACHEL :

We still see him. Every few days he comes by, saying he forgot something, like a book or something. And Mom says “Eli, you know full well you packed that book. If there’s something you need to say then say it. Otherwise go back wherever you’re staying.” And she acts mad, but then she closes the door and cries.

SHERRY :

That must be really sad, to watch…

RACHEL :

It is. Especially for the twins. Then Esther asks when he’s coming back and Mom cries some more.

SHERRY :

You know, when I first saw you this morning, I wondered… Why? After all his time, and how I’ve changed, why am I running into her again?

RACHEL :

…Because we live on the same block?

SHERRY :

Yeah, but in the meaningful sense. Why? And now I know. I can help you and the twins. Gerald wants me to. He sent me to you.

RACHEL :

Sherry…

SHERRY :

We tell our parents to set up a sleep-over, we don’t need to tell them anything else. And then after lights out, you and the twins and me, I’ll bring some bug-juice, find some black jelly-beans

RACHEL :

…What is bug-juice, anyway?

SHERRY :

I don’t know, I don’t think it’s made from bugs. But I brought a canteen of it home with me. And, I mean, you don’t have to pour a whole pitcher over your head, just a few drops. And then you and the twins can be full members of Gerald, like a beloved member of his body, and it’ll help you to be chill.

RACHEL :

Sherry, I know you’re serious about Gerald, but… My Daddy leaving home is sort of…more serious…if you understand…

SHERRY :

Gerald died. For us. What could be more serious than that? At least your Dad comes over to ask for books. Gerald…never asked for anything… Except more tacos… “Keep’em coming,” he said. Don’t you see?

RACHEL :

Yes, he ate a lot of tacos.

SHERRY :

But he also meant… More importantly he meant that more kids should come to believe in him. “Keep’em coming.” It’s like he looked into the future and saw you and the twins in a room, and me sleeping over and all of us accepting him as our junior counselor of light. Because he died for us…

RACHEL :

Nothing in your story says he died for anything, except the speech you made up.

SHERRY :

It’s true, we don’t know why he was in that kayak, only Gerald and the porcelain god know that. But he was probably on his way to get something for us, or find a new camp for us to settle in where we wouldn’t have to sing songs about blood. What’s important is that he was probably rowing against the tide, and that can mean all sorts of important things.

RACHEL :

Or maybe it doesn’t mean anything.

SHERRY :

That’s a matter of faith.

RACHEL :

But what can he do? Can he bring my Dad back home?

SHERRY :

He could be your new father. He understands all kinds of kid sadness. And if you start believing in Gerald, maybe… Maybe the porcelain god could be your father too. We’re still working out the exact relationship–

RACHEL :

But I don’t want some statue showing up at my soccer games…

SHERRY : (Pulls a kayak necklace from her pocket)

Rachel, the bus is almost here. I want you to take this…I made it, now I realize, for you…wear it, and just… Just see how it makes you feel…

RACHEL :

I… I can’t.

SHERRY :

Of course you can. And you can borrow my book, and read the story for yourself.

RACHEL :

No, Sherry. I’m sorry, but… I don’t think Gerald is what I need right now.

SHERRY :

He loves you.

RACHEL :

I appreciate it.

SHERRY :

I’ve dedicated my life to Gerald. And it’s made me everything I am.

RACHEL :

I’m happy for you.

SHERRY :

And if you can’t accept that… If you can’t accept Gerald into your bosom, then…I don’t see how we can be friends anymore…

RACHEL :

Then I guess when the bus gets here…we should find separate seats…

SHERRY :

I’ll be in the back, with the cool kids, harvesting a flock.

RACHEL :

I’ll be in the front with the sad kids whose parents split up this summer.

SHERRY :

Then I guess this is good-bye.

RACHEL :

Yes. I’ll miss you. The old you.

SHERRY :

And I’ll miss the you that…could have been.

(They embrace.)

THE END.

 

 

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THE SECOND COMING (CAPTAIN AMERICHRIST)

THE SECOND COMING

In 1845, Frederick Douglass wrote in Life of An American Slave, Appendix “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference — so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels… I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me… They attend with Pharisaical strictness to the outward forms of religion, and at the same time neglect the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith. They are always ready to sacrifice, but seldom to show mercy… Such is, very briefly, my view of the religion of this land…revealed in the words, deeds, and actions, of those bodies, north and south, calling themselves Christian churches, and yet in union with slaveholders. It is against religion, as presented by these bodies, that I have felt it my duty to testify.”

In 1919, William Butler Yeats wrote a poem called “The Second Coming”

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;

Surely the Second Coming is at hand…

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

 

CAPTAIN AMERICHRIST

Christopher Columbus once declared, “God made me the messenger of the New Heaven and the New Earth of which he spoke through St. John in the Apocalypsis.” Columbus sailed at a time when the Old World, Europe, was collapsing under the weight of its own greed. Overpopulated and environmentally degraded, soon to erupt in massive economic wars thinly disguised as theological disputes between Catholic and Protestant. Suddenly beyond the unknown waters a new Eden appeared, filled with innocent naked Adams and Eves for the Catholic Spaniards to corrupt and infect and rob and enslave and slaughter in the name of Christ. Thor would have been proud, Zeus and Marduk and Ra would have been impressed. If there was a Devil, he would have been tickled pink. But Jesus might have been a little bit confused. “Um, so you met these people who lived like the birds of the air, like the lilies of the field, and you…what? And you said my name while you did it?”

It can get very confusing, looking at the career of Christianity here in the New World – a resume written in native blood, slave-ship manifests, ledgers of crooked money-lenders, houses of prayer heaped with the last pennies of widows. As a Bible teacher, it looks to me like the confusion comes from imagining that the Israelite Jesus has something to do with the New World Christ. The mental acrobatics involved in relating the swarthy vagabond of Galilee with the triumphant platinum Christ of America will only give you a headache. The New Heaven and New Earth Columbus stumbled upon would need a New Christ, and as we’ll see the American Christ grew right here on American soil, and has adapted with us as an expression of our cultural ideals. Today the American Christ is economically competitive, politically conservative, militaristic, racially exclusive, judgmental of women, disgusted by the poor and the outcast. Captain AmeriChrist loves the flag, the fetus, and the rifle. In the South they think the Second Amendment is one of the Ten Commandments: Thou Shalt Own GunS. And by “South” I mean “South of Canada.”

Before we roll into this, I should make a few things clear. First of all, I am a Seminary graduate, but I don’t get a commission for selling subscriptions to salvation, and I don’t know or care which franchise chain-church sells the best crackers. Second, I’m not here to painstakingly explicate a cosmic Christology, nor to explore who Jesus might have been “historically” in his own sociopolitical cultural context – right now I’m interested in exploring American proposals and sales-pitches about the Christ. Jesus “the answer” has been continually reshaped as new questions have arisen in American social and political history. Americans view Jesus through a kaleidoscope of mirrors, reflecting our highest ideals and lowest desires. And whether you believe in him or not, we all live in Jesus-country.

SWEETEST FRIEND

We are told that Jesus landed on the shores of North America with the puritans but it’s not really true – when we read the documents, the covenants, the letters and sermons of Pilgrims we see a startling lack of references to the peasant Jesus or the kingly Christ. Puritans were far more interested in the Torah’s Old Covenant God who promised land in exchange for righteousness. The Pilgrims were delivered across the waters and, like the freed Egyptian slaves, found a land filled with nature-loving pagans and quickly set about to purify the new Promised Land in the name of a conquering God.

The American Jesus was not really born until over a century later, and he was born right here in Western New York during what scholars call “The Great Awakening.” Gloomy pilgrims in drab colors would grimly reap their harvests, then leave their farmsteads and villages, swarming into the wilderness for camp-revivals – the Woodstock Festivals of Puritanism, people shouting and swooning and speaking in tongues (also some anonymous sex in the woods – a good way to keep Puritan towns from getting too inbred), whipped into frenzies over fire and judgment with tag-team preachers raving about an angry God dangling sinners over the pit of eternal flame. And just when it seemed all hope was lost, the preacher would mention a friend, a humble and idealistic young attorney named Jesus, willing to speak in your defense at the Judgment. If you paid his retainer.

It’s hard for us today to appreciate the originality of Jesus the frontiersman’s friend, characterized by a soft-cheeked, sad-eyed sweetness. Because Protestants rejected the Catholic mother-worship of Mary, frontier Jesus had to combine the virgin-mother and son. We can still see this androgynous, sometimes clearly effeminate demeanor in their hymns and paintings. This period’s image of Jesus is most historically significant in the counter-reaction it produced: the American Christ briefly experimented with gender-bending, and fathers have been whipping him into shape ever since, forcing Jesus to become more and more manly for three hundred years.

CIRCUMCISION

The American Christ was secretly circumcised by the Father of Modern Biblical Scholarship, Thomas Jefferson (who, in his free time, was also President). In the Capital at night, Jefferson sat up with eight Bibles and a razor-blade, trimming the magic from the Gospels until he’d carved a slim document – The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth (1804). Jefferson himself explained, “In extracting the pure principles which he taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests…as instruments of riches and power [for] themselves… There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man…which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” But a strange thing happened – Jefferson with his razor had circumcised Jesus, but it was the stuff he cut away that would be kept and adopted by the new American Christianity, while the teachings and sayings and justice of Jesus were left behind, like throwing out the baby and keeping the foreskin.

In 1823, the American Christ was reborn in one of his most fascinating manifestations about eighty miles from here, in Rochester, when a farmboy named Joseph Smith claimed to have met with a glorious angel named Moroni who lent Smith special glasss to decode mysterious hieroglyphics in a solid-gold book, and reported that the true natives of America were actually Hebrews who fled Israel during the Babylonian Invasion in 586 BCE. Some were then cursed with Red skin for breaking the Jewish Covenant, they vented their fury in viciously persecuting the true white-skinned Israelite-Americans to near-extinction. Fortunately, after the Christ’s resurrection, he came to America and reconciled them in the glorious name of himself. But then the redskins relapsed into their pagan ways and killed off almost all the white Israelites. In desperation, Moroni hid their sacred book in Rochester for fourteen hundred years until he could reveal it to young blond handsome Joseph Smith.

Whether or not we accept this as fact, we must acknowledge the very real historical response. In the 1830’s, with a lot of people feeling guilty about the Indian genocide, Smith’s visionary scenario offered an answer to some very pressing questions: If Christ was king of the world, when did he find out that America existed? And if he knew, why not try to save them? Answer: he had, but most of them refused to listen. And shouldn’t Christians feel bad about Indian genocide? Answer: if the Indians were guilty of Christian genocide fourteen centuries earlier, then it was only fair. And why was the Biblical worldview so confined to the Middle East, if the true Christian Manifest Destiny was here? Moroni’s golden book revealed that the Biblical Garden of Eden was actually located in Missouri.

There is some possibility this was snake-oil, but it was powerful medicine for the guilt and shame of the Native Holocaust. Smith’s vision had the power to bend time and space, change the past, alter the genes and cultural identities of ancient peoples, a brilliant experiment in what we today might call “alternative facts.” Whatever we think his raw material was, Smith the alchemist turned it into gold, and it was no fad – the Church of Latter-Day Saints boasts 15 Million members today (add up all the Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans? Mormons still outnumber them). And it’s no surprise that Joseph Smith’s trusting flock turned out for Trump, after the failure of their own Mormon candidate Mitt Romney.

THE GREAT DISAPPOINTMENT(S)

In the 1840’s, another Christian fire was lit here in Western New York that still burns brightly today, and would dramatically re-shape American Christianity. A man named William Miller spent two decades studying scripture, particularly the books of Daniel and Revelations, and found a message that was both thrilling and disturbing: Daniel 8:14 says “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller then deduced that the days were actually years, and if you started counting when Atraxerxes of Persia commanded the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple in 457 BCE, then the Biblical Apocalypse must be in 1843! Or 1844! Now I don’t want to get you all worked up and frightened, so I’ll just say right now that Miller’s many followers experienced what religious historians call “The Great Disappointment.” They showed up to exult in rivers of blood, plagues, earthquakes, disasters, and Jesus riding on a horse with a sword coming out of his mouth, slaughtering non-Christian men, women and children, as we read in Revelation 1:16. But God disappointed them with a fine spring day.

But then a miracle happened – after the disappointment from Miller’s original prediction that Christ would destroy the world by March 21, even more people showed up for his corrected prediction that Christ would return on April 18th. And after that disappointment, even more people showed up when he predicted that it absolutely must be October 22, 1844, which…spoiler-altert, also didn’t happen. Finally, William Miller concluded that the Bible itself must have contained an error, due to some ancient copyist’s mistake. He died five years later, but gave unto American Christianity a valuable lesson: the Apocalypse sells, and no matter how many times you’re wrong in predicting it, you still get paid and even more people will give you even more money the next time you predict it. The Millerite movement did lose some of its members, but it did not die – actually, disappointed Millerites spawned a new church called “Seventh Day Adventists,” based on the belief that Christ could come at any time, and today there are twenty to twenty-five million of them.

In the 1860’s, Americans got excited about the Revelation again, when Jesus’ end-time prophecy seemed to be coming true with “wars and rumors of wars…Nation will rise against nation…Brother will betray brother to death.” (Mark 13:7-8, 12) The Apocalyptic fury of the Civil War was so great that when Abraham Lincoln was martyred for the sins of the people, his cadaver was actually resurrected by taxidermists and put on a train for a national farewell tour. And so began the long, bleak period known as Civil War Reconstruction, which began in 1865 and ended in November 2016 when the Confederacy was finally fooled into believing it had taken over America. …Just kidding about that – the Civil War Reconstruction period will not end until America is history.

CAPITALIST CHRIST

In around 1882, a Baptist minister struck gold by writing a lecture called “Acres of Diamonds,” which launched him on a forty-year world-wide tour in which he delivered the speech over six thousand times. The man was Russell Conwell (the name should have been a tip-off) and he delighted audiences with what became, essentially, the American Sermon-on-the-Mount: “I say that you ought to get rich, and it is our duty to get rich… Money is power, [and] you can do more good with it than you could without it… If you can honestly attain unto riches, it is our Christian and godly duty to do so. It is an awful mistake of these pious people to think you must be awfully poor in order to be pious… I sympathize with the poor, [but] to sympathize with a man whom God has punished for his sins, thus to help him when God would still continue a just punishment, is to do wrong, no doubt about it, [and] let us remember that there is not a poor person in the United States who was not made poor by his own shortcomings… It is all wrong to be poor, anyhow.” (Russell Conwell, c1882)

Conwell was a brilliant man who preached that great wealth was a sure sign of God’s great trust in one individual, and poverty was a sign of God’s punishment (his announcement that the poor were impoverished because of their own sins and weakness would have been fascinating to recently freed slaves, but most were too busy job-hunting and share-cropping to attend these lectures). We may not remember Conwell’s name but his truth is marching on – as a matter of fact, it has only grown more powerful, with millions of impoverished Christians fooled into voting for politicians who will slash the social benefits of the poor to fund massive tax-breaks for the wealthy. Jesus did once say “Whoever has [much] will be given more; whoever does not have [much], even what they have will be taken from them.” (Mark 4:25) But he was talking about faith, not finance. Worse yet, these poor voters have been bamboozled into blaming their financial problems (caused by the Wall Street they voted to deregulate) on even poorer people – minorities and refugees.

Many of my college students today believe that Jesus was comfortably middle-class (fascinating, since the “middle class” was not invented until 1914, and only lasted a hundred years). The Bible clearly tells us Jesus was homeless and unemployed. And most of my black college students still can’t help but see Jesus as a Germanic caucasian with blue eyes and blonde hair. But once we’ve seen some of the ways in which the Christ seed, planted in American soil, has produced unique plants and strange fruit undreamed of in Galilee or Rome or Europe, it’s no stretch to imagine any number of fantastical mutations – Jesus the gun-toting redneck, Jesus who loves the fetus but lacks compassion for the hungry child, Jesus the fiscal conservative, Jesus who rejects evolution but embraces social-Darwinism. Jesus who wants to “bomb the shit out of” the Middle-East.

Today we’ve glanced at only a few of many strange mutations of Captain AmeriChrist, and each of these has contributed an important piece to our present situation. Because it’s been building here in the dark heart of America, a desire for this new Christ to finally manifest himself in the flesh. A Second Coming of Christ with blonde hair and ruthless business skills, a Christ who could destroy the Chief Priests of news and the Scribes of government, bull-whip the scientists from the Temple, tear it down and rebuild it as his own theme-park. A new Christ who could bend time and space, changing the very nature of “truth” and “fact,” re-molding intellectual foundations. And maybe, just maybe, this new Christ would succeed where the old one had failed – to destroy the world itself, as the Bible promised (nevermind that the book of Revelation says people will be ruled by a demonic, capitalist Anti-Christ for a while before the real white-Christ returns).

Donald Trump is a savior and messiah, and although there is not a single Jesus-bone in his body, he is the physical manifestation of the American Christ. It’s been gestating, festering and mutating for centuries and every time it’s popped its head out we laughed, but it never disappeared, it only went underground to gestate and fester some more, and now that it’s emerged into the light we find it hideous, we’re horrified because we don’t know the history. Donald Trump is the real American Christ, and the Christians who elected him were not confused or misguided – it’s ridiculous to ask “How could you vote for someone so different from radical compassionate peasant Jesus?” American Christianity has no place for Jesus the Palestinian rebel (if he came back today he’d be tied to a rack in Guantanamo Bay). And as we gasp in horror that Trump has lied or broken something or hurt someone or stumbled us closer to human extinction, his supporters only love him more because he is manifesting the Christ power they want him to have. You want to shake people and shout “Think about the future!” But they are – an apocalyptic pie-in-the-sky future for which they consider themselves well-prepared.

Some of us talk about plague and famine and global meltdown as if they were bad things, but like everything else it’s a matter of opinion. Even to say “It’s true that humanity wants to live another generation” or “It’s a fact that hatred will not produce happiness” or “It’s illogical to put the foxes in charge of guarding the chicken-coop.” You’re bringing a pillow to a gunfight – religious fanatics will not be swayed by profane earthly trifles like “truth” and “fact.” Religion will not be reasoned with. Trying to understand Christianity today… We all know some reasonable, compassionate Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, but this is a tiny disappearing fraction of the Church. The growing, overwhelming majority of American Christianity is an apocalyptic death-cult, clamoring for a blond Messiah to light the fuse and make the whole thing go boom.

In October 1844, a man who’d heeded the call of William Miller and traveled to see the Biblical apocalypse with all its burning and plague and famine and earthquake and massacre and atrocity, stood heartbroken as the sun shone and the birds sang. He later reported, “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before…We wept and wept until the day dawned.” Scholars call this “The Great Disappointment.” The failure of Jesus Christ to destroy the world in the 1840’s. And if our new Christ, Donald Trump, fails to destroy the country and the world, Christian American will weep and weep – they’ll call it the Great Disappointment Part II, and like most sequels it’ll be less funny than the original. The good news for the rest of us is, Donald Trump is really good at disappointing people, especially people who put their faith in him. And if he should fail to destroy this world, and the Christians wail and gnash their teeth while birds sing and the sun sends its rays through the clouds, I think I’ll be okay with that.

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