Monday, March 22, 2010

Why The Delay?

Sorry, kids, I'm wrapped up this week with homework, an exam, and prepping a conference presentation for next week.

Also, and once I eventually get to it I'll expand upon this more, I'm not really looking forward to this second installment of my religious story. Like many trilogies - Back To The Future, Star Wars, Look Who's Talking - this second part will end on a bad, uncertain note. A lot of it are memories I don't particularly enjoy revisiting.

Once I have some downtime, though, I'll do it. I promise. It will be good for me, and good for you as far as learning why I walked away from Christianity.

Until then, consider me on sabbatical.

As much as I wish I could just sit around reading and writing all day on subjects I gave two shits about (as opposed to, say, this 400-word biography of Haydn I have to write), I'm pleased to say that the conference presentation I'm working on is Zappa-related, dealing with his 1984 album Thing-Fish. That I am looking forward to.

Until then, peace.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Ask Me Anything

Why am I doing this?

(For those of you interested, I will be submitting Part Two of my religious saga in the next 36 hours.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Religious History, Part One: The Good Christian Boy

I'm tentatively entitling this entry with the suffix "Part One," as I'm going into this thinking there's a lot of ground to cover. There might not be. We'll see.

I would also like to preface my story with a big fat warning that my experiences are just that: experiential. They are subjective, and they are incredibly personal. Any reference I make to Christianity applies to the Methodist-Baptist upbringing I encountered, not Christianity as a whole. We'll get more into specifics when I reach that point in my story.

Let's begin at the beginning.

I was born into a Methodist family, which meant I was baptized before I could even form a word. My maternal grandfather had been a Methodist minister, retiring before I came into the picture. From all the recollections I hear from my mom it sounds like she was raised in some bizarro version of The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons. Her parents were traditional, but not overly strict fanatics. Then again, my mom was also a fairly well-behaved preacher's kid, a status as intrinsic to the culture of Protestantism as ushers, deacons, trustees, and organists.

I don't remember too, too much about the Methodist church we attended in my hometown of Seymour, Indiana, other than the distinct sound of the pipe organ, the hospital-green paint job, and the overabundance of old farts in the congregation.

When I was four, one of the pivotal moments in my early life came upon my parents purchasing the Encyclopedia Britannica. I'd fallen in love with reading early, and this only boosted reading from mere hobby to obsession. At five, I knew the names of the Presidents, Prime Ministers of Canada, and could tell you a pretty good amount of information about the Second World War. Later on, I would try reading passages from the Bible, but by and large I thought it was boring, although using the index to find passages discussing sex made for some interesting reads.

(Not that it contributes to this discussion all that much - or maybe it does - but I didn't learn until 2nd grade what the actual sex act was, and it wasn't until a year later that I learned sex was where babies came from. No shit.)

A new pastor came when I was in 2nd grade, and he has some pretty backwards ideas. Long story short, he told my mom that she "couldn't serve two Gods" because of her visiting another church...the other church being the Baptist church.

Whatever, it didn't involve me all that much, though I can't help but wonder how differently I might have turned out growing up Methodist rather than Baptist. Who knows, maybe I would have grown up with a version of Christianity I found acceptable.

Anyway, we became Baptists shortly thereafter. The idea of immersion baptism bothered me. I don't quite know why, it just did. Maybe it was the resemblance it bore to the bullying practice of "dunking" at the swimming pool...I'm not entirely sure. Mom, Dad, and my older brother Eric were all baptized during the same service. For my parents, who (I'd like to at least hope) had acknowledged Jesus of Nazareth as their savior many years prior, this was their admission of membership to the church. For Eric, this was a significant step in his religious growth.

The procedure was one I didn't understand until Eric did it. At the end of the pastor's sermon, he would have a call for anyone wishing to accept Christ, during which time the final hymn would be sung and Bruce (the pastor) stood in front of the pulpit. Eric went forward, talked to Bruce for a bit, and then he, my dad, and a deacon and deaconess went off into one of the Sunday School rooms where they talked and prayed.

Eric was given this tract from Chick Publications, and it scared me just a little. (By the way, readers, do take the time to click through when I provide links.) The guy didn't seem to do anything all that wrong, but he wound up in a lake of fire.

The summer of 1995, a bunch of my friends who had gone to church camp accepted Christ and were baptized. Oh, church camp...again, a topic we'll return to at greater length shortly. I remember our counselor asked us to pick our favorite Bible passage. Mine was Revelation, chapter 16, which describes seven angels pouring "Bowls of God's wrath" onto the Earth.

What did I get out of it? That God isn't messing around, and that Jesus was coming back. I remember coming home crying because one of the kids in the neighborhood said Jesus was "an asshole." A student at my elementary school said he didn't believe in God and I told him that he should, otherwise he would go to Hell. (That kid actually became one of my best friends in high school...again, this will come full-circle later.)

In short, I was a parrot. A parrot who had had the fear of God put into him. I had developed a fascination with Revelation. The thought of all the vivid imagery, of catastrophic events, beasts, dragons, God's wrath, and people being sent to Hell simultaneously captivated and terrified me.

Start 'em young, I guess.

No one put any pressure on me to do it, I put the pressure on me all by myself, but I finally decided to overcome my fear of an immersion-based baptism and accept that Jesus of Nazareth suffered, died, forgave all the sins of mankind, and then rose from the dead. I made this decision at the ever-so-informed age of eight.

Look, I enjoy looking back on my early years with the sort of tongue-in-cheek good-natured humor that permeates so many good cartoons, memoirs, and stand-up routines...but I can't even pretend to joke about this. It was totally okay with my parents, my pastor, and an entire congregation that an eight-year-old boy was committing himself to a belief system that he had little knowledge of, centered around a big (boring) book that most of them hadn't even read.

Eight year olds can't vote, can't drive, they eat soap if they swear (or at least I did...), can't work, and they aren't expected to fulfill many obligations other than to complete their homework, get along with their classmates, and wipe their own asses. And yet this, choosing a philosophy you were expected to follow for life at age EIGHT, was totally okay?

I've been around the block enough now to know that all across the board religion is something handed down from parent to child, assuming - not hoping - that it will take. My fiance Shelley was raised Jewish, and her apostasy has driven her father to self-loathing induced alcoholism, thinking he's somehow failed as a human being and a father. That's not even a worst-case scenario. Shelley follows a blog about a girl who was raised Orthodox Jew and is now shunned by her family for leaving the faith. One of my newer readers told me he is a "skeptical Sikh." Another reader, a dear friend of mine since 8th grade who I always knew to be a Pentecostal Christian, told me he and his wife are at a stage in their life where they're seeking out their own answers.

On one end of the spectrum are Muslims calling for death to all apostates. On the other end is my friend Nick, born and raised Baha'i. When he came of a certain age, he said, "Well, I guess I'm a Baha'i." His mother said, "No, you will find religion on your own!" He's still a Baha'i, but not before he did some independent investigation himself.

In short, it's good to know I'm not alone and bad to know that this is fairly common in any organized religion.

One thing my Christian upbringing taught - and NEVER sat well with me - was that non-Christians went to Hell. My parents have the Universalist sentiment that "those who haven't known Jesus" are saved, putting my youthful query of whether or not bushmen in the Kalahari desert were going to go to Hell when they died. (Yes, I asked that.)

Then came another pivotal point in my upbringing, and that was having two fire-and-brimstone lunatics for Sunday School teachers, named Kim and Craig. They were a married couple, with a son a year older than me and a daughter my younger brother Nick's age. And every single week, our lessons had less to do with Moses, Noah, Jesus, or John the Baptist and more to do with the events of Revelation, the Anti-Christ, the Final Judgment, and tales of Satanist rituals involving child abduction/sacrifice.

One night I told my younger brother a distilled (and probably slightly embellished) version of all the crap I'd been told in Sunday School, causing him to freak out and tell my parents. They asked me where I heard it, so I told them the truth. The next week, I was in the 6th-grade Sunday School class my dad taught. He almost minored in religious studies when he was in college, so we would read stories from the Bible and discuss what the moral of the story was, all with a good smattering of my dad's goofy sense of humor (which, along with his innate hatred for talking on the telephone, I've inherited from him).

I was still plagued by the apocalyptic Christianity I'd been exposed to. Matters were made worse when my church's youth group trekked to Kentucky for a Christian music festival called Ichthus. It wasn't the music - in fact, a pre-fame Sixpence None The Richer played a new song of theirs called "Kiss Me" at the Friday night show. It was that I encountered more of those damned tracts.

One dealt with an otherwise good girl having sex, getting gonorrhea and AIDS, but then finding Jesus thanks to her doctor. Another featured an exceptionally Semitic-looking Ebenezer Scrooge accepting Jesus. Another explained that evolution is a lie before expounding upon original sin.

There were two others that had the most profound impact on me, though the "Earthman" tract embodies one of the central tenets I was taught. The first one is called "The Curse Of Baphomet." Never mind all the crap about the Masons - though until sometime in middle school I really thought they were some evil organization - it suggested that there really were forces of evil out there, perverting men's minds, deceiving them, and sometimes winning.

It also triggered my fascination with the occult and its symbology. I don't believe in the occult, I think it's all horse-shit, but it is intriguing in the same sense that I was fascinated reading about the religions of Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece as a kid.

The other one, the real behemoth, was "The Last Generation." I can't emphasize enough how much this tract frightened, mortified, and haunted me. It scared me to think there could someday be a reality as depicted in the tract, a world where religion is outlawed and men are tortured to death for their beliefs. The thought of a Rapture frightened me, mostly because I had some behavioral problems at school and at home - it had me convinced that I wasn't a good person, and that someday the angels would blow their trumpets, as I had been told by Kim and Craig, ushering in the soul harvest and the Rapture...and that I would miss it.

(Better get some eye-soap ready. Remember, you can't really un-see things.)

The picture of Jesus near the end of the tract...

...with its vacant stare and all the accompanying tales of judgment, Hell-fire, and all-around bad things that I'd been hearing for the last few years, kept me awake at night. I slept with my door open, and could see down the hallway in my house, which could get very dark. Laying on my right side, I would see that face, hovering in the darkness. Even now, at age 23, I find it to be a very unsettling image. It's the eyes.

I would wrap myself up in my blankets like a cocoon/burrito, lay on my left side, and get as close to the wall as possible. Sometimes at night I would hear the nearby whistling of a train and think the trumpets had been sounded and that I'd missed the Rapture. This happened several times, and I would panic in the middle of the night, grabbing the flashlight I kept in my bedside table and one of my books on The Beatles I'd gotten from my grandparents and simply read until the sun came up. Sometimes I'd listen to The Who's Tommy on my Walkman. Eventually in 6th grade it went away.

The next few years were pretty uneventful until 8th grade, with one exception. At junior high church camp, in my "fat" phase (where I briefly had tits, sensitive nipples and all, before starting puberty - it's like my body was briefly considering being a woman), on the last night after campfire and all that there was a "special program." There was a long path in an open field lit with coffee cans filled with kerosene. At the end of the path was a massive cross...except there was a body on it.

For a brief, stupid 12-year old moment, I thought it might have really been HIM. I then thought, 'Oh, probably just one of the counselors.' Nope. It was a paper-mache likeness of Jesus, with baby blue construction paper on a string forming his teardrops and red construction paper on strings all over to represent blood. The camp leader then spoke to us, telling us in fairly gruesome language what all Jesus endured during the crucifixion and everything leading up to it.

Everyone else around me was at the very least sullen, their arm around someone else and at the most bawling. I just stood there, hands in pockets, wondering why everyone was so upset over an incredibly fake scene. I was unmoved.

This whole concept of me being unmoved while others around me were crying their eyes red was something new for me. I'd overcome my fears (for the most part, though that fucking picture still creeps me out), and I'd read many times the story of his execution. I was past the point of it making me cry...and yet that seemed to be the purpose.

I walked away from everything that night realizing how it worked. They tell you the story, which involves a man being persecuted by the state, sold out by his peers, tried, and subsequently brutally beaten and then crucified. During those three days, he was in Hell, in spite (allegedly) never doing anything wrong while on Earth. The details of this are played out for dramatic effect, eliciting feelings of guilt and sadness - "He did this for YOU!" - and then it's like a forced confession during an interrogation. You're supposed to crack.

In many ways, that humid June night in 1999 was the beginning of the end for me with Christianity, though I didn't know it then.

Stay tuned for Part Two, though until then let me end with a song. No, not one of mine. Those all involve two chords and generally crappy lyrics. This song I first heard in Kenneth Anger's 1979 re-edit of his film Rabbit's Moon. It ties in with me having the ultimate bout of nyctophobia for most of 1998. Click here if the embedded video isn't working.


PS - A lot of the information here I'm disclosing for the first time. There's stuff here I don't even think I've told Shelley. Not fishing for compliments or anything, but writing this - for what I thought was of interest to you, the reader - has actually helped me learn more about myself.

PPS - Thanks for reading.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

This Is Protesting?

I found out last night from both a CNN report and an email from my editor at the Kingsman that there were to be mass protests at colleges all across the country today.

This immediately planted seeds in my mind of picketing, chants of "Hell, no, we won't go!", tear gas, and maybe even a storming of the vice provost's office. The notion of the power being forcefully clutched from the oppressive fingers of the plutocrats currently running our country's educational system and returned to the people, the students isn't some bullshit romantic ideal. It needs to be reality, especially since Obama's proposal of freezing spending in almost all departments (including education) to fund our nation-crippling wars.

We should be pissed.

Instead, lectures were hosted (on campus, no less) for students who were essentially skipping class. What was solved? Nothing. What impact will this have? A mention in the school papers, maybe a soundbite for the local news, and that will be it. This was publicized on CNN the night before it happened. If the cops had wanted to bust some heads, they would have known where it was going to happen.

Last night I attended a lecture about a group of Native Americans who visited Palestine. They talked about the mediocre healthcare in their own communities in the United States, sometimes having to sacrifice a whole day waiting without seeing a doctor. I leaned over to Shelley and said, "And yet that fucking healthcare bill is dead in the water!"

Maybe the bad guys really have won. Harry Reid doesn't care about whether or not I have access to decent healthcare. He cares about getting this bill passed so his name will go down in the history books, while ensuring his re-election bid this November. The people running the universities don't give, to use one of my favorite phrases from Steve Albini, "two splats of an old Negro junkie's vomit" about your education. They want your money. They want you to buy football tickets. They want you to spend $40 on a textbook you can buy at an independent store for $25, which is still too much for what is little more than pulp, ink, and ideas.

They want it to cost so much that you're swallowed in debt payments for the next twenty years, just in time for you to send your own offspring to school so the process can start again.

At Brooklyn College, I see students from East Asia, the Caribbean, and East Europe who are either first-generation immigrants or immigrants themselves; in them, in the stories I've heard, I'm constantly reminded that there still is an American Dream, and it sure as Hell isn't one of picket fences and 2.3 children. It's about upward social mobility, it's about not living and dying as a busboy or mindless menial work.

If there really is going to be a tuition hike as a direct result of spending freezes in our national education budget, some portion of this contingency of people - in many cases, the first in their families to pursue higher education - will suddenly find themselves unable to afford college. Learning really does come with a price tag. This should not be the case. This is criminal.

Americans balk at the notion of the caste system in India, yet we turn a blind eye to a capitalistic parallel on our own soil. If you're born poor in this country, unless you put your nose to the grindstone (and amass some student loan debt along the way), you're going to die poor.

Meanwhile, if you're born rich, you're going to die rich, even if you fuck up and blow your daddy's inheritance money on feeding your drug and alcohol addiction and shady business deals. Hell, you can even become the most powerful man in the world and make things even worse for those groveling ants you have cutting your grass.

This has to change. Where is the Barack Obama we fell in love with on the campaign trail? Where is the Barack Obama who promised an end to Reaganist plutocracy? Where is the Barack Obama that Dr. Cornel West proclaimed in February 2009 when he visited IU was ushering in a new era, "an age where you don't measure success by the money you earn, but rather by your own greatness!"?

Guantanamo Bay is still very much open. Our war in Afghanistan is escalating, not coming to an end. Iraq - still happening, still a daily hell for its citizens, not that we'd be hearing about it in the press. The USA Patriot Act? Oh, yeah, that thing...yep, still in effect. Health Care is turning into a series of compromises and surprisingly slimy behavior from the Democrats in the Congress that we thought would turn the tide after the midterm elections in 2006.

And now this. Education, something that should be as fundamental as healthcare, a chance for breaking the barriers of one's class and making something of yourself, is about to be taken away from a good chunk of this nation's students.

Students, don't just assemble and exchange ideas. Get angry. Get vocal. We voted this guy in based on what was supposed to be more than same-old, same-old campaign rhetoric. It's in our hands.