I’m going to use some ugly words in this essay. It makes me squirm whenever I have to do that, but in this case it’s necessary in order to make my point.
During the formative years of my life I spent every Sunday morning, Sunday evening and Wednesday evening at the Missionary Baptist Church in which my parents (well, mostly my mother) raised me. I got to know that church’s teachings very well: I was one of those kids who took everything very seriously and listened carefully to what the authority figures – chief among whom was the pastor of said church – had to say. I was then (as now) a very impressionable, vulnerable person. This trait is sometimes described as “hypersensitivity.” It’s the reason that I became a musician. It is also the reason that I have taken “spiritual” things so seriously throughout my life: there’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve read the Bible much more closely than most Christians, and I’ve scrutinized the holy books of some other cultures almost as thoroughly. More importantly, I have reflected deeply on that reading: have tried to download it into my very cells. I’ve been open to it all, and believed it all. I need to enlarge a little on that in order to make my meaning clear.
I spend large portions of my time reading – and I’m not talking about the sports page, the stock market reports or People magazine. A lot of my reading is in geology, paleontology, mineralogy, astronomy, physics, biology, aesthetics, ethics, Marxist theory, history, religious studies… you get the picture. I’ve really never had much patience for “light reading:” my attention has always been captured by things that are much larger than I and that will long outlast me. My musical choices are pretty much parallel to my reading preferences: I have never listened to pop music, but I do fill parts of every day with the symphonies of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, Sibelius and others, or their string quartets and concertos. I also study those works closely: I own complete scores for most of them and know where to find those I don’t own.
In addition to reading and listening, I spend a great deal of time writing. As a matter of established routine, I usually write one essay per day. These are mostly not intended for public consumption, although I do share a few of them from time to time when they happen to address subjects of interest to certain of my friends. Even though I know that for the most part no one’s eyes but mine will ever pass over them, I write carefully: grammatically at the very least; beautifully if possible; and most of all with clarity. I revise my writing until I get it right. It is a discipline that I impose upon myself whether or not anyone else will ever see the results: I cannot expect my students to write well if I’m not willing to take the trouble to do it myself.
My reasons for writing are manifold, and one of the most important is this: until I have written about a matter, I often don’t know what I really think about it. That’s why my reading is often followed by a period of writing – writing in response to what I have read. It’s a form of reflection: reading without reflecting is like eating without digesting.
That is one of the reasons why I’m so impressed by that famous story in the eighth chapter of John (which, I’m sorry to say, appears to be a later interpolation into an already late and almost wholly fanciful Gospel account – but I will treat it here as though it actually happened). Before Jesus answers the Pharisees as to what should be done with the woman “taken in adultery,” he bends over and writes on the ground, as though he’s working it out. He makes the Pharisees wait until he has exactly the right answer for them, and is sure of it himself. That answer is one of the most impressive things anyone has ever said. It is irreconcilable, by the way, with capital punishment. No serious Christian can support the death penalty: Jesus’ reply to the Pharisees has settled the issue once and for all.
But notice this: Jesus knew the Scriptures as well as any of those Pharisees knew them. Jesus was just as aware as they, what penalty the Torah prescribes for women “taken in adultery.” He could – just like so many Christian fundamentalists do today – have simply quoted them “chapter and verse,” and then smugly stepped aside and watched the stoning, knowing that it was the will of God since after all “it is written.” But mere bibliolatry wasn’t good enough for Jesus, just as it’s not good enough for any thinking individual. Jesus went beyond the Bible of his day; his teaching transcended it – was better than Moses’ teaching. It seems to me that anyone who is truly Christian would learn something from this: that we must always seek the fairest, most merciful course no matter what the Bible or any other “sacred scripture” says.
The observation I have just offered is one that occurred to me early in life, and that I eagerly shared with my Sunday School class, only to discover that it was not welcomed in that church where I grew up. It brought me into conflict with the authority figures in that church: the pastor, my Sunday School and Baptist Training Course teachers, etc. And the viewpoint that I inevitably developed from it later got me excommunicated. This brings me to the central point of this particular essay:
The church where I grew up was a very exclusive club. It was made perfectly obvious, week after week, exactly who was welcome there and who wasn’t. The person who made it most obvious was the pastor, a warped, twisted, grandiose, gaseous blivot named Carl Johns. I heard Brother Johns rail weekly against “niggers,” for instance. That’s the word he freely used. I once heard him attempt to draw a laugh from that monolithic congregation by saying from the pulpit, “We don’t have to call chiggers ‘Chegroes,’ so why should we have to call niggers ‘Negroes?’” He got his laugh (what’s a pulpit for?).
He also railed against every other church in town: none were as faithful to the Bible as ours, and even those that aspired to be had got much of it wrong. The Civil Rights movement twisted his panties into a Gordian knot, especially the involvement of Martin Luther King Jr. who, to Pastor Johns’ chagrin, was also an ordained Baptist minister. He never read a word King wrote, and wouldn’t have understood it if he’d tried, yet King was in his rifle sights Sunday after Sunday. So were the protestors of the Vietnam War, when that came along. Needless to say, our congregation did not include – did not tolerate – “niggers,” “chinks,” “liberals,” “queers,” “atheists” or other undesirables with equally ugly names. The only difference between that church and the Ku Klux Klan was the costuming.
The aforementioned “undesirables” weren’t welcome in that church, not because of bad behavior, but because of who they are. Never mind the fact that some of the deepest, dearest, most brilliant, most decent and loving people I’ve ever known wear skin tones that are several shades darker than mine: those people would have been turned away at the door had they dared try to enter and worship there. It was no different from what regularly happened at the 64 Hub Truck Stop just down the road – a loose assemblage of service station, restaurant and motel that my father had a hand in running. If a black family attempted to enter the restaurant, my dad would bar their way and inform them that if they wanted to get something to eat, they’d have to go around back to the kitchen. (He was busy cooking some books one day when such a family made the attempt and he told me to go do his dirty work for him. I refused. My break with him – a rift that never healed – began at that moment.)
The church of my childhood was a hotbed of the most appalling ignorance you’ve ever encountered. One time my Sunday School teacher explained why it was that “men are trying to go to the moon instead of the sun” (this was during the run-up to the first Apollo mission). It’s because the Bible tells us that the moon is the ruler of the night, and also informs us that men love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil. He offered this explanation in all seriousness. It’s no wonder such overt racism was so comfortably at home there. Has there ever been a racist who wasn’t as ignorant as shit?
During the past eight years – the total span of my time as a Facebook addict, I’ve participated in various “discussion” groups that are run a lot like that church I attended during my childhood and adolescence. I quickly discovered in some cases that I was not permitted to participate in the discussion, nor were many of my friends. Why is that, I wondered? Are we nonbelievers insulting or hostile or dangerous? Does our presence lower the average IQ of the group? Does our presence cause the neighbors to talk or their property values to go down? Yet our posts were swept clean at least once per day by various zealous administrators whose mission in life seems to have been to create a board – a kind of online church, I guess you could call it – free of the taint of such as us. It had nothing to do with what we posted (I don’t believe we tended to be disrespectful or rude), but with who we are. In some cases those administrators said as much.
What kind of person excludes other human beings because of who they are? How is that different from the whites-only country clubs that used to be a regular feature of this nation – enclaves of privileged palefaces who excluded blacks, Jews, and anyone else who didn’t match their own description? Can anyone seriously imagine Jesus doing that? Jesus, who dined with “publicans and sinners?”
I seldom attempt to participate in such groups these days, but the memory of those encounters is still fresh enough to make me think now and then, may God (if any) have mercy on those who would rather slam the doors shut than open them wide. And may God (if any) help a world where door-slamming is considered a virtue. As Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”