Sunday, October 20, 2013

God's Doughnut Holes

Today I experienced "Contemporary Worship" in a mainline Protestant church:  coffee, orange juice and doughnut holes as you enter the sanctuary (you may take doughnut holes in napkins and drinks in styrofoam to your seat if you'd like, but there are no decent cup holders in the pews--only those little shot-glass sized receptacles for sullied communion glasses); hippie-ish female pastor in jeans with a kind of Amish-quilt shawl/stole and a headset microphone; several jeans-clad female song leaders with tambourines and other noisemakers; sappy lyrics to songs projected on huge over-chancel screen; music piped into and projected out of great rock-concert amplifiers positioned on either side of the Holy Table.

The actual "service" was a kind of rambling mishmash involving the announcement of upcoming fundraisers, the sharing of "joys and concerns," the signing of "fellowship sheets," the telling of a saccharine "children's sermon" (ostensibly to two children) but clearly intended to induce childlike happy feelings in adults, the preaching of an "adult message" also clearly intended to induce childlike happy feelings in adults, the delivery of a sprawling, improvised pastoral prayer and, to punctuate it all, the almost unendurable congregational mewling of the lyrics to a half-dozen vapid "praise songs" (in which "home," "throne," and "come" supposedly rhyme and whose canned synthesizer music is accompanied by "live" tambourines and jingle bells wielded by the song leaders).

It was almost too self-consciously folksy and mindless
to bear, but since my sister and I were visiting our beloved 87-year old aunt--a devout churchgoer--it would have been singularly churlish to refuse her invitation (expectation, really) to accompany her to this "contemporary worship" experience at Zion United Church of Christ, Waukon, Iowa.  Besides, the coffee was pretty good, actually--as were the doughnut holes.

Today's sermon (for adults) was based on the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (Luke 18, 1-8). It's a parable I didn't remember--about a persistent widow who unrelentingly demands justice from a judge who respects neither God nor public opinion.  Ultimately, she simply wears the judge out and he grants her justice--not because he sees the rightness of her case or because he gives a damn about her personally, but because he's just plain sick of her wheedling.

The moral of the story supposedly concerns the power of prayer and the necessity of "not giving up."  God, apparently, will eventually get so weary of our demands for justice that he will, at last, accede to them.  Well, I suppose that's at least partially good news:  so there is a way for really determined people to make God be fair.  Prayer says Luke/Jesus, if it is "faithful and unceasing," will, eventually, get us some kind of humane treatment.

But the assumptions underlying this parable are decidedly unpleasant:  God is here likened to the unjust judge--an all-powerful entity who has no particular attachment to what we humans consider "justice."  He is, moreover, an all-powerful entity who is capricious, arbitrary and subject to the strategies of lobbying and pressure-politics.  Justice, it would seem, therefore, is an entirely human, not a divine, concept--and the only way justice can be obtained, if at all, is by "manipulating" God--by never letting him off the hook, or--so to speak--by eating all his doughnut holes.

Unsurprisingly, the pastor delivering today's sermon chose not to dwell on God's injustice--or on the absurdity and the cruelty of the universe.  Rather, she focused on the widow--and on the widow's psychology.  The woman's refusal to accept injustice, her commitment to making persistent demands even in the face of seemingly endless indifference--these traits, the pastor insisted, were what gave meaning to the widow's life and allowed her, in a sense, to define herself vis a vis God and even, again in a sense, to prevail against the arbitrariness and insensitivity of the universe:  she became greater (to paraphrase Pascal) than that which destroyed her.  It seems to me, then, that in this parable, prayer rather resembles "revolt" in Camus's philosophy or "engagement" in Sartre's--a way of leading a fully authentic and worthwhile life in the face of an absurd world.

So--I now continue where the pastor did not venture--I guess we should go ahead and pray (or rather, keep on demanding justice; never, never giving up; bombarding the SOB in charge with our complaints). Though God (or the unthinking universe) will undoubtedly remain as inhuman and uncomprehending as ever (N.B.: Jesus does not say that the judge's "nature" changes), yet nevertheless, YOU, like the widow, will be changed; YOU will begin to feel that your life has acquired shape and sense; and thus YOU will find that your demand for justice has, indeed, somehow been met--even in God's eternally unjust courtroom.

And YOU did it:  YOU ate up all God's doughnut holes and you went home feeling vindicated!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Holy Shit!

Hagiography, of course, is not about hags.  Mostly, as it turns out, it's about virgins, torture, and titillation.

For example, in about 1368, St. Catherine of Siena (later a Doctor of the Church) had a vision in which Jesus proposed spiritual marriage to her and offered her his dried-up foreskin as a wedding ring.  She put it on, but it was apparently visible only to her, since the "real" prepuce was displayed, until 1983 (when it quite mysteriously disappeared) in the Church of the Holy Prepuce in Calcata, Italy.  Not to worry, though.  At least 18 other equally authentic Holy Foreskins have been venerated in diverse churches throughout Europe. It has also been proposed (by the "scholar" Leo Allatius) that at some point the One True Holy Foreskin ascended into heaven and became the weirdest of the rings of Saturn.

For somewhat more gruesome titillation, we have St. Lawrence, who was grilled alive on a specially-designed gridiron.  No one knows whether barbecue sauce was applied, but the saint supposedly chastised his grillers for their careless technique. "I am well done; turn me over."  Lawrence's prototypical Weber Grill is piously preserved and venerated in Rome's church of San Lorenzo in Lucina.  More famously, though, the St. Lawrence Gridiron is a barbecue restaurant in Boise, Idaho--they have a food truck.  With black-humored (charred?) logic, St. Lawrence has become the patron saint of cooks.

Back to virgins. St. Cecilia was an Roman noblewoman who "sang a song to the Lord" in her heart while she was being married to Valerian, with whom she later refused to have sex since, in her conversion to Christianity, she had consecrated her maidenhood to Jesus (he must have quite a collection). Thereafter, somehow, (because she preferred singing to sex?) she became the patron saint of musicians--especially, er, organists, I imagine.

St. Margaret (of Antioch) and St. Catherine (of Alexandria) were both virgins who like Cecilia consecrated themselves to a mystical union with Christ and were therefore martyred by villainous and pagan anti-feminists. Though Catherine was condemned to die on a spiked wheel, she managed by philosophical right- thinking to make the nasty instrument disappear into thin air.  Alas, her mental energies could no longer prevail when her captors ingeniously severed her head from her body, thereby endearing her to frustrated philosophers everywhere, for whom she has become the patron saint.  As for Margaret, well, she was swallowed by Satan disguised as a dragon, but since the cross she carried irritated his belly, he found it necessary to expel her via some orifice "down there" (like childbirth).  So naturally she, too, was beheaded and became, in memory of her delivery from Satan, the patron of childbirth.

Even the Catholic Church itself admits that there is little evidence that either St. Margaret or St. Catherine ever existed, so it is a bit of a surprise, I suppose, that these were the two saints (along with St. Michael, an archangel and thus, by definition, non-existent) who were supposedly appointed by God to speak with authority to Joan of Arc regarding her perhaps ill-advised mission to save France from England (just think:  if she had let the English win, French would have become England's language and America would be speaking French today. Zut alors.).

Joan of Arc, by the way, did indeed exist--and like most holy females--acquired sainthood by virtue of being a virgin--with a twist, though--since rather unusually, she was a virgin who put on men's clothing and then assumed the macho profession of soldier.

St. Sebastian, on the other hand, was a macho soldier who acquired sainthood by taking OFF men's clothing and posing for queasily BDSM-type portraits as a sexy male virgin.  The favorite subject of medieval and renaissance artists with homoerotic penchants, Sebastian is nearly always portrayed as an achingly beautiful naked youth bound to a tree and mortally penetrated by countless phallic arrows. Don't ask and don't tell, but seductive Sebastian has become the patron saint of both athletes and macho military men. In the 20th Century, he could have made it big as one of the Village People.

Then, hee hee, there was St. Hilarius (I'm not making this up) who was a pope sometime or other and didn't do much of anything.  As far as I can determine, he is not the patron saint of anything either. Very papal, but not as titillating as the name leads one to expect.

So let's check out another virgin of dubious authenticity--St. Barbara--who, much like her namesake city in California, seems rather more fairy-tale fantastical than real.  Legend has it, nonetheless, that Barbara was (what else?) a pious virgin, dedicated to remaining hermetically sealed and to spending a good deal of her life locked up in a tower.  In the end, though, she went the way of most pious virgins, getting her head chopped off--and by her own father, no less.  Though God inexplicably failed to save Barbara, He did manage to punish the wicked parent by striking him dead with a bolt of lightening.  Hence, by association, Barbara (not the father) has become the patron saint of artillerymen, firearms and fireworks.  NRA please take note of Barbara's feast day, which is still observed by Orthodox and Anglican Christians: December 4.  If you can't light a candle, light a couple firecrackers.

And now, the Big One. (You knew this was coming, didn't you?) By far the most popular saint, of course, is yet another virgin--the Virgin Mary--better known, perhaps, as Our Lady (of Something or Other). The "something or other" is sometimes a place where she supposedly appeared to someone (e.g., Lourdes) and sometimes a character trait (e.g., "Sorrows," "Perpetual Help") she supposedly possesses.

Our Lady of Lourdes, for instance, appeared to simple-minded Bernadette (a.k.a. Jennifer Jones) in a grotto in the Pyrenees announcing that she--the Lady--was also the "Immaculate Conception."  Obviously too dim to process this mind-boggler, Bernadette promptly set about scratching a hole in the ground from which, mirabile visu, a spring sprang forth, whose waters can now be purchased by modern-day pilgrims in Virgin-shaped plastic bottles with heads that screw off when one wants to take a sip.

Our Lady of Fatima, for her part, appeared to a passel of little Portuguese kids and scared the shit out of them by making the sun whirl and dance and bounce around.  She also told them three big secrets which they, in turn, related to priests and popes etc. (via a game of ecclesiastical Chinese Whispers) and which predicted things which may or may not have come true, especially the third, which might still be "sealed" and is probably about the end of the world. Look for further information in the next book by Dan Brown.

(I note, in passing, that the Reverend Pat Robertson also receives regular secrets from divine sources--though as a Protestant, he probably gets his info directly from Yahweh, not from any intermediary Virgin).

My favorite Lady is Our Lady of Guadalupe--I even have a pretty icon of her on my living room wall (it goes nicely with my d├ęcor). Not that I find this apparition more credible than any of the others, mind you, but I have a strong sentimental attachment to this brown-skinned Lady who, way back in 1531, supposedly spoke to the perhaps fictitious Juan Diego in Nahuatl (not an easy language for a Lady) and delivered to him (on his cloak!) a brightly-colored image of herself that differs considerably from the traditional portraits of vacuous, blue-garbed Ladies of Spain and Portugal and France.  I think of it, in fact, as a vivid but unpretentious 16th Century "selfie."

BTW, almost all biblical scholars (except those who completely despair of ever knowing anything whatsoever about Jesus of Nazareth)--all these scholars acknowledge that Mary, far from being a perpetual virgin of the Catherine, Margaret and Barbara sort, was in fact the mother of several children other than Jesus--most notably "James the Brother of the Lord" who is mentioned prominently in Acts and the Pauline epistles (Galatians) and was the leader of the initial Church in Jerusalem.

Holy Shit, eh?