For a guy so full of phobias that there’s no elbow room at Hotel Fear in my head, people are sometimes curious as to why I don’t suffer one of the most common sources of terror: speaking in front of crowds.  Glossophobia is extremely normal.  I suspect it’s one of evolutions tricks for keeping metaphorical cooks out of the allegorical kitchen.  If we’re all talking at once, who can be heard?  The internet will prove to be some kind of experiment in that regard, I expect.  Thing is, I’m not what most public speakers appear to be: confident.  I’m not.  Beneath the surface all kinds of phobias are vying for the next private room to become available.  Over the weekend I had a public speaking engagement, and that made me consider this again—why doesn’t it bother me?

Although the answer to “why” questions will always remain provisional, I have an idea.  It’s kind of creepy, but true.  In my fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught that my life was being taped.  You see, it goes like this: since the book of Hebrews says “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” some Fundies like Jack Chick illustrated this as an outdoor cinema in Heaven.  Or rather, in the clouds just outside Heaven.  Here you’d be summoned, buck naked, as soon as you died.  Other nude souls would gather round the big screen and your entire life would be projected for all to see.  Since everyone’s dead there are apparently no time constraints.  As a kid I realized that I was being watched.  All the time.  Now, I’m not conscious of this constantly, but I did translate it to public appearances.  We’re all, it seems, actors.

With a lifetime of performing experience, by the time I was a teen I wasn’t afraid of public speaking.  Introspection was a big part of my psyche, and when I had a speaking engagement, I knew that I had to be conscious of what I did and said, because people would be watching me.  I learned to play the part.  I did take a college course in public speaking, and even a preaching course offered by the Western Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church, but both of these were long after I’d begun taking public speaking roles.  I make mistakes, of course, and early on I learned to laugh at them before the audience did.  We were all being taped, after all, and there’s no outtake reel before the pearly gates.  Strange, but true.  If you’re afraid to speak in public just remember—you’re being watched, all the time.

Punch Bug

There’s no other reason for buying a Volkswagen Beetle than making a statement.  We bought ours in 2003, before they got squashed.  Mechanically it has been a good little car, but, despite the fine engineering, the hood latch is made of plastic.  And we all know what plastic does.  Yesterday was sunny and a Saturday so I spent at least four hours trying to get the hood open.  (Unsuccessfully.)  Now, I’m no gear-head, so I watched a video on YouTube that 23,000 views (some 22,000 of which were me) on how to work around this major design flaw.  After three hours in the sun I had my face pressed to the bumper, trying hard not to think of all the bugs that have met eternity there, so I could see up to where the inaccessible latch smugly sits.  No tool in the history of humankind can reach it. After another hour I gave up, although just one weekend before this trick worked.

YouTube is an alternate universe.  There, latches can be made to work.  Men who appear larger than me can wedge their entire hands in that unforgivingly tight space while my knuckles are going to take days to heal.  They use simple tools that trip well-oiled springs and their engine blocks are revealed to them like the commandments on Mount Horeb.  Clearly I am not counted among the blessed in this mechanical paradise.  I do pretty well at this kind of thing if someone shows me how, but with a broken hood-latch you’re working by faith with car parts unseen.  Kind of like wrestling with an angel at night.

I did notice among the YouTube videos an unexpected sense of tradition.  The new Beetle (although ours is well over a decade old) has the engine in the front.  The original Beetle (one of which I drove until the cost of parking in Boston compelled me to sell it) famously had it in the rear, making the front the trunk of the car.  That nomenclature has persisted despite the passage of time and changing the facts.  In my mind the front of the car, where the engine is located (or so I hear) is called “the hood.”  The rear is “the trunk” (more spacious in the new Beetle, as I know from experience).  Although the design and layout have changed, the old language remains.  It seems to me that all of this conforms to a belief in special revelation.  Once uttered it cannot be changed.  Or opened, apparently.  Please excuse me, but after all this typing I’ve got to get some ice for my knuckles.

Religion in the City

It’s 5 a.m., so what are all these people doing here?  On the highway.  It’s still dark and I’m on my way to the choice of public transit that will take me to New York City.  You see, telecommuting is never 100% city-free.  Somehow I’d been thinking that once we’d gotten away from New York things would be quieter.  Then I remembered that in two decades, if current trends and models continue, nearly half of the US population will live in just eight states.  New York and Pennsylvania are two of them.  Those of us who’ve moved here to get out of the rat race have made our own little mouse race, I guess.

Being in the city after an absence of almost three weeks was a shock to the system.  The first things I noticed were how loud and crowded it was.  In the summer Manhattan has, I was forcefully reminded, lots more tourists than the winter months when it feels like, as one comrade says, Leningrad.  As always when I’m in the masses on the streets, I think about how religious New York City is.  And how secular.  It is, I suspect, a cross-section of American (and international) beliefs.  People come here looking for something transcendent.  Otherwise, why leave home?  Tourism can be a sacred industry.  It brings people from different places together and, in the best of circumstances, forces them to get along with one another.

There are plenty who seek to convert those who are different.  On my way to Penn Station last night, as the light was beginning to fade in Herald Square, I woman had set up a portable mic and speakers.  She was preaching, ignored, to the evening crowds.  Among the strangers are those who believe differently.  Those who are ripe for conversion.  It’s all part of New York’s background hymn.  Then on the sidewalk I spied, scrawled in chalk, “Repent and obey Jesus — Heb 5:9;” the writing on the walk.  “And being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him” the selected verse reads.  We can overlook that it says nothing about repenting.  This is, after all, the melting pot where religions encounter, mingle, and blend.  Even the Fundamentalists must feel it from time to time.  The traffic home at 10:30 p.m. is quieter.  The day, I will learn, is not over yet.  Such is religion in the city.

Order of Melchizedek

WhyPriests?A considered reflection from a long-time believer is a force never to be taken lightly. Garry Wills is a lifelong Catholic and an intellectual. His book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, was recommended to me by a friend and it is indeed a book that raises most profound questions. To someone born Protestant, such as the current writer, many of the arguments Wills marshals are strangely familiar. Many were lobbed in Fundamentalist harangues where clergy that believe in a literal six-day creation proved surprisingly adroit at finding the chinks in Catholic armor. The New Testament says nothing about the Christian movement having its own priests. And even the explicit command that seems to have come from Jesus—call no man father—is immediately reversed once priests become a fixture in a priestless faith. Wills explores the origins of these practices not to tear apart the religion of which he remains a loyal part, but to suggest that religious tolerance is the only proper solution. It is amazing how much of Catholic thought goes back to the disputed book of Hebrews with its mysterious Melchizedek.

While I have never been a Catholic, I have always been haunted by the idea that my religion was some kind of innovation. After all, the stakes were beyond stratospheric. If you pick the wrong one, at least according to what I was taught, Hell awaits at the end of the day. Then I discovered that my own Fundamentalism also had a history. We were called Protestants because we protested Catholicism. As I moved into the Methodist tradition, at least there seemed to be a continuity—John Wesley was an Anglican and Anglicans were really kind of English Catholics. Or so it seemed. Naturally, I became an Episcopalian since going Roman seemed like it came with exceptional amounts of accretions that were clearly not biblical. Such accretions are much of what Wills explores. Traditions that become doctrine. And exclusive. Those on the outside can hope for Purgatory at best, and the very Hell I was trying to avoid remained a distinct possibility. Who was right?

Religions suffer with time. The faith that Jesus seems to have proclaimed had already altered by the time Paul put pen to parchment. Ask any Gnostic. Already, within just three decades, the question became “now what did he say again?” And what exactly did he mean? The core of that message seemed to be love above all else, but that doesn’t make for sexy doctrine. Exclusivity achieves what love could never accomplish. Wills explores how sacraments evolved, and how Scripture became a sword dividing believer from believer. His most sensible solution? Its time to get beyond priests. He doesn’t actually suggest doing away with them, but asks Catholics why they don’t consider closely the implications of their roots. Melchizedek takes on a stature greater than anyone seems to have imagined for an imaginary figure. And a lifelong believer here asks the most basic of questions: what is Christianity truly about?

In God We Lust

One of the entrenched ironies of human mentality is that reason will not suffice to change religious views. Many studies have repeated demonstrated that faith is impervious to logic, and this has appeared with Ektachrome clarity in the case of Warren Jeffs. Rev. Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has painted himself into a mental corner that makes the logic of legal proceedings appear as slapping the idiot. Logic and faith do not connect. Any Christian who has read the letter to the Hebrews should know that. Nevertheless, Rev. Jeffs, having illogically dismissed his team of lawyers, has been attempting a divine defense to justify his alleged sexual abuse of minors. He remained silent during his opening statement, despite judicial advice that such a tactic might harm his case. Breaking silence yesterday with a nearly hour-long sermon, faith responded to logic and was found wanting.

Society at large fails to consider that studies of religion have been carried out from multiple angles over many decades. We have erudite studies of the philosophy of religion, the psychology of religion, the anthropology of religion, and the sociology of religion. They all point to the human origins of this phenomenon, often demonstrating that a basic disconnect remains when religious belief is brought into the harsh light of logic. Neurologists and biologists have explored the utility of religion as a survival tactic, and evolution seems to have blessed it. Yet trial lawyers, judges, law enforcement officials, and politicians—often themselves religious individuals—are charged with apprehending and convicting others who simply take their religion to extremes. Religions make untenable demands on adherents. God has a poor record of turning up in the courtroom. His divine statements are absent from the stenographer’s tape.

Not knowing the details, it is difficult to find much sympathy for Rev. Jeffs, should he be found guilty. Yet at the same time, his interpretation of religion differs only in a matter of degree from other religious sexual ordinances. Is it normal for a clergyman to live a lifetime of enforced celibacy? Although signing on the dotted line may indicate a tacit agreement with church policy, what young man can clearly anticipate the pressures of decades fighting biology and psychology? Yet the practice is perfectly legal. Until the nearly inevitable inappropriate results squirm out. Public rancor runs high, as it should, against child molesters. The children are innocent victims. The perpetrators, however, believe themselves to be following divine dictates. It would seem that much suffering would be ended if God would go on the record here, so that we might have solid evidence with which to judge the case. If it please the court.

Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez, AP, from The Seattle Times

Popes and Props

Something to believe in?

Like the pain from an old sports injury (or Sarah Palin), the Shroud of Turin just won’t go away. Decades after radio-carbon dating demonstrated what many had suspected all along – the shroud is a medieval devotional replica – true believers are still trying to find ways to prove that the cloth is physical evidence of the resurrection. Never one to shy from controversy, Pope Benedict XVI has endorsed the authenticity of the forged artifact. No matter how far science goes, it seems, it just can’t pry the hands of a needy faith off that piece of fabric.

The Shroud of Turin first appears in the historical record only in the sixteenth century. Prior to that a back-story has been composed that takes it all the way to the first century in Jerusalem. Hungry for proof of the truth of their conviction, thousands of Christians fervently believe this sheet is the tangible evidence of resurrection. What seems to have been forgotten in this whole debate is the Bible itself. Not one of the four divergent Gospel accounts of the resurrection (some of the most wildly disparate material in the whole of Sacred Writ) mentions the miraculous capture of a resurrection photograph. The Gospel writers, never shy about flashing miracles across their narratives, do not tout an artifact as proving the resurrection. The force of apostolic conviction was enough for the first century crowd.

Believers in the modern world lack such conviction. Too many forces in the natural world conspire against the supernatural. A faith shaken by science and the competition of hundreds of other religions desperately needs a sky-hook on which to hang certitude. Yet the Bible itself speaks to this very issue. “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” the writer of Hebrews declares. It seems, however, that true believers throughout history feel a little more comfortable with something palpable, just in case faith is not enough.