Monday, October 21, 2002

Forbidden Fruit!

So, I skipped a day, making a mockery of the pattern that I had just identified. But I was busy with my new Sims, creating my primary neighborhood of all-male families and singles with homonymic last names (Kweeyer, Faghette, di Fahrei, Gnelleigh, etc) and lots of groovy furnishings. God, how I love this Deluxe Edition! It's ever so cool! The Sims even stand differently (using an elegant fashion-model contraposto instead of just standing about like cigar-store Indians), walk more realistically, and dress more outlandishly (aside from my imported skins, there are all these lovely costumes like Harlequin, Troubador, Emperor, etc.) Of course, at this stage I am building and decorating and socializing only... once I have the neighborhood filled, I will go back and manipulate their lives a little more, educating them and getting them into relationships with each other and sending them off to their little jobs with a hot breakfast in their little bellies.

So yesterday, aside from my Sims, I went to church with the Grandmother. We hadn't been in weeks and weeks, I was starting to get used to not going again, when suddenly Grandmother wakes up early on Sunday morning with enough energy to set her hair and dress herself, so she wakes me up and off we go. When we got there (a little late), the singing was just getting underway, and I got to revel in my intense dislike of the church's musical director. He's one of those people who feel the need to draw attention to themselves by fair means or foul, usually settling for foul since he has very little talent and no looks and pretty much nothing to recommend himself to anyone's attention in the first place. Such people leave a bitter taste in my mouth and an undisguisable sneer on my lips.

I should hold up here, before I get too far in bitching about the church as it is now, and give you some background on what it used to be like. See, my Grandmother has been going to this particular church for about forty years; it is part of a national group called Church of Christ, and describes itself as Nondenominational Reform (not to be confused with the Church of Christ that describes itself as Holiness, which is pretty much a fringe movement). I grew up in this church, and most of what I know of Christianity, both good and bad, comes from this church. But it isn't the only thing I know about Christianity, because all the women in my early life had Religion of some sort, and so I got a sampler of various forms of Christianity (mostly Protestant).

My other (maternal) grandmother was Presbyterian, and went to church dutifully every Sunday and probably prayed dutifully every night, but it was all duty, and one could tell. My stepmother was raised Lutheran, but she and Daddy didn't make too great a habit of churchgoing (Christmas and Easter, pretty much), until at one point they decided to join a Wesleyan church for some reason I don't remember. My Mother, on the other hand, has a mania for finding new churches and being reborn in Christ every few months (I swear she's been baptized at least three times since I've known her), and with her I visited so many different kinds of churches — from Pentecostal to Catholic, Episcopalian to Baptist, pretty much anything with a Christian theme — that I got a pretty fair idea of what the rest of the forms of Christianity are like, as well.

So, returning to the Church of Christ... as I said, I grew up in that church, going every Sunday that I spent with Grandmother in childhood and then all through my teen years; even when attending various churches with other relatives, I considered myself a part of Grandmother's church and remained loyal to what I knew of its tenets (particularly that one does not take communion until one is baptized, and that one is not baptized until one is old enough to know what one is doing and is ready and able to make a lifetime commitment to Christ). When I was really little, we would go to Sunday School, then sit with Grandmother in the Children's Room (a soundproof room in which people with small children could see and hear the sermon without the rest of the congregation having to see and hear their squirming, whining little brats); later, when I moved in with Grandmother, I became active in the Youth Group, going to Bible Camp every summer and First Friday Fellowships every month.

All through this period of childhood and youth, I had a secret worry: I didn't really believe in God. I wanted to believe in God, I felt I was expected to believe in God, and I hoped that pretending to believe in God would someday turn in to really believing in God... and in the simplicity of my young mind, I didn't know the difference between belief (i.e., trust and faith) in the Christian version of God and believing that God exists... and so, while actually I believed in God (insofar as I wanted to believe that He existed and wanted to be part of His people, the Church of Christ), I did not really believe that He exists. As I look back, I realize that my ideas of God were mixed up pretty closely with my ideas about Santa Claus (an old man in a white beard who gives you stuff if you're good), and once I discovered that Santa Claus didn't exist, I began to believe that God didn't exist, either. But I went through the motions, anyway (everything short of Baptism, which I knew would require Absolute Faith), hoping that Epiphany would come and I would be Saved.

As I gained adolescence, another problem came up: I discovered my homosexuality, and no sooner had I discovered what that meant than I also discovered that God did not approve of such things and that I was going to go to Hell. Well, as you might imagine, that put an entirely different complexion on things. For I knew that, according to the Bible, to sin in the mind is the same as to sin in the flesh... and that even if I never acted on my "sinful" thoughts, the thoughts and desires (which I knew were not wilful but inborn) would remain and I would be damned.

As one does in the Church of Christ (whose only dogma is that "If it's not in the Bible, it's not part of Christ's Church," whose only creed is the absolute veracity of the Bible and that the Bible is the sole authority of the Church), when confronted with a doubt, you study. And so I studied... I read most of the Bible all the way through (skipping the Psalms and history sections of the Old Testament, the begats and poetry and narratives that had no Law in them), in the King James and the New International Versions. I discovered that the Bible was very clear that homosexuality was a sin, all of it, from sexual relations to social inclinations to the very thoughts in my head and motives in my heart. That even if I were to live a life of complete sexual self-denial, even if I were to pretend to heterosexuality with a wife and children and a put-on butch attitude, I will still be sinful in my very heart and mind and therefore damned.

"That's not fair!" I cried out. The whole concept of sin and damnation struck me suddenly as monstrously unfair, completely wrong... for if God created us, how could He give us desires which would not only lead to sin, but were sinful in and of themselves? Why? Now add that to the unadmitted but still worrisome fact that I didn't believe in the existence of God, and a perfectly natural train of thought presented itself: if I don't believe that God exists, why would I believe that Heaven and Hell exist? Why would I believe that Christ existed? Why would I believe that the Bible is true or even divine? Doesn't the entire shooting-gallery rest on an absolute belief in the existence of God? Which I don't have? And so I left the church when I was 18. I didn't tell Grandmother why I would no longer be accompanying her to church, I just told her that I wasn't going... that I was old enough to make these decisions for myself, and I had decided.

Of course I felt betrayed by Christianity, but more importantly I felt betrayed by God (who I didn't believe existed, mind you...) and so I embarked upon a hatred of God and religion that would last for a long time. But as with anything I hate, and with the habit of studying things that bother me well-learned, I made an extensive investigation of religion in general. I studied the Catholic Church, the charismatic evangelists, the practices and tenets of Islam, the various forms of Buddhism, the inumerable gods of India, the mythologies of dead cultures, and any other form of spirituality that I could find... but I studied them with an eye to disprove, to discount, and to disagree. I spent my efforts in comparative religion seeking to tear it apart, not to understand it. And so I made a grievous error in study: everything I did rested on contradictory theses, 1) that God doesn't exist and 2) that I hate God. You simply cannot hate something that isn't there.

[I seem to be getting in pretty deep here, when all I had intended to do was explicate a little about Grandmother's church so you would understand why I dislike the music director and this week's sermon so much... but it's interesting, so I shall continue]

Mainly, though, in this contradictory and close-minded study, I studied Protestant Christianity for its flaws... and continued delving into the Bible to root through its inconsistencies, its contradictions, and its outright untruths. I now find it rather amusing, the zeal with which I dismantled the Bible, but at the time I was exorcising the demons in my heart, the sense of betrayal which still stung me, and the loss of belief that my Grandmother still enjoyed; but I was also hunting for ammunition against those who use the Bible as ammunition against me and my kind, the Bible-Thumping Moral Majority assholes who were trying to force me and a lot of other people back into our dark and crowded closets at gunpoint. The thrust of my study became to counter all of the passages that were being cited as evidence that homosexuality was evil. But again, in this I was giving credence and power to an object in which I did not believe, and that is futile. On the other hand, it gave me a much better understanding of the book itself and how it came to be the way it is.

So what I'm trying to say here is that I know the Bible... not backwards-and-forwards, not so much as to be able to quote it correctly (as you can see in the comments of the previous post) and at will, or even enough to look up relevant passages quickly (hell, I can't even do that with Wilde or Shakespeare), but enough to know what it does and does not say about various things, what positions it takes and which interpretations can be taken of various contested ideas. I've read it, and I think I understand it fairly well.

When I hit bottom with my drinking and found my way into the rooms of AA, I ran up against a rather common brick wall, a wall which an old-timer of some sagacity and humor always referred to as "God Issssssssues." One of the main things you need to do in order to perform the Twelve Steps correctly is to develop a belief in the existence of God and a faith in the efficacy of God as an influence in one's life. Like many alcoholics and most gay men, I felt I had been betrayed by God and that pretending to believe in something I didn't think existed was folly. But like many who come into AA, I was able to use the group itself as my Higher Power, and eventually I came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.

In that new degree of sanity, I did come to believe in the existence of God... I had made a habit of prayer and meditation, praying to Whatever Might Be Out There (on the advice of my sponsor), and one day I was praying and had the distinct sensation that I was being heard, that Something was listening to me and connected to me through the act of prayer. I knew enough about spirituality-versus-religion by this time to know that I should not try to define or even understand this sensation, but to simply trust it. And with that trust, I was able to believe in the existence of God... and then believing that God does exist, I was able to finally see clearly that God had not betrayed me in my youth... Religion had betrayed me, and claimed that it (the religion) was God.

Well, this opened up an entirely new line of thinking. I began seeing the Bible for what it really is: a collection of disparate writings almost arbitrarily assembled by people bent on social control; but also a book filled with wisdom on the human condition. I don't know whether or not I believe that Christ existed or was divine, but I do know that Paul (who wrote the Acts and Epistles) was concerned not with humanity's relationship with God (as Christ was) but with creating a Religion; and further that the various Popes and Kings who decreed that one book should be included while another was discarded, or who decided that this interpretation of Ancient Greek was correct while that one was apocryphal, had not been spiritual men but rather political operators. Remember that the lion's share of the Bible's injunctions against homosexuality are contained in the books of Leviticus (the laws of a nomadic tribe living in the desert, which were necessary for control and survival) and Corinthians I & II (letters from a former Hebrew to newly-converted Christians living in a Greek city dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite and world-famous for its sexual licentiousness). So if you can look at the contents of the Bible outside of the Epistles and the Laws (the portions concerned with social control), and if you compare the teachings of Christ and the stories of the Old Testament to the teachings of other wise men and the histories of other ancient cultures, you can see the wisdom and folly of the Human Race spelled out for your edification.

And seeing it thus, I was able to forgive Christianity for its betrayal of my spiritual needs, being merely one path of many, though a particularly thorny and winding path. And so I offered to start escorting Grandmother to church on Sundays (since she could no longer drive by herself, and hadn't been to church in over a year because of this). I felt that she needed the spiritual solace of her church the same way I needed the spiritual solace of AA and its fellowship, and that to deprive her of the opportunity to have a relationsip with God, in the only way that she can understand, would be wrong of me.

[And now we return to the Church of Christ, Grandmother, the music director, and this Sunday's sermon...]

One of the main problems in my dealings with my Grandmother is that hers is a mind of Faith while mine is a mind of Reason. She believes things, without question, so long as they come from a reputable (in her opinion) source; I prefer to neither believe nor disbelieve things, but rather to try and understand them, to investigate them until I am pretty sure one way or another. And this sort of Belief is what holds certain forms of Christianity together (according to my rather limited research). And, with this kind of Belief mindset, Grandmother is of course attracted to a form of worship that requires one to believe the most extraordinarily stupid things. Like the literal historical veracity of the Book of Genesis. Despite all that science (reason) has discovered about the creation of the Universe, the members of the Church of Christ believe that the World was created in exactly seven days, that the human race started from two people, one of whom was created from the bone of another who had been created from dust, and that everything really happened exactly as the Writer of Genesis says it did.

When I was growing up, the minister of our congregation was a very learned man, a man who had studied languages and history to the extent that he could discourse quite clearly on the various possible interpretations possible in the Bible, which is a document that was written originally in Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek, then translated into Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Late Latin, archaic English, and then modern English, before it got to us... though he was of the stated belief that the Bible was a divinely inspired and infallible document, he understood that humans were secular and fallible readers. He was able to argue it all in a scholarly fashion and present various possiblities of interpretation, which we should take up in our own studies and in our prayers and meditations with God in order to find the right Way; but for those who wished to be told what to believe (like my Grandmother), he would subtly give us his opinion of the most-likely-correct reading. He also pointed out, in the question of Genesis, that the idea that man descended from apes takes as great a leap of faith (a leap that Darwin and his followers made, long before any real evidence was available) as to believe that God created the human race from a single progenitor.

But that minister retired and moved to Washington about ten years ago, and the congregation has been falling to pieces ever since then. And I think what happened is that a cadre of people, like the current music minister (who is the son of the then-youth-minister), chose to take that opportunity to put themselves in the forefront of the congregation, to draw attention to themselves with noise and hullaballoo instead of by doing anything attention-worthy. These people fought for a complete change of leadership, they wanted a young and progressive minister rather than an older, tried-and-true shepherd. And so they hired this boy from Texas (whence the Church of Christ originates, I believe), practically wet behind the ears, with only two years of assistant-minister experience after taking his seminarian degree. And then this cadre of progressives started making changes in the liturgy (though they don't call it "liturgy," which smacks of decadent Catholicism), little things like conducting the Children's Sermon at the altar instead of in another room, like having four voices plus a music minister leading the songs with microphones and overhead projectors instead of just one conductor with a hymnal, like hanging devotional banners on the walls, like insisting on greater participation of women in the worship service, etc.

All hell broke loose, of course, with many elderly congregants simply leaving the congregation for the next nearest Church of Christ which held to the old ways. What they didn't understand is that you cannot have a congregation of human beings without some sort of dogma growing out of it... and old-timers believed very strongly that all this pageantry and entertainment in the worship service detracted one's attention from the purpose of being there: to worship God. They saw all this business of decoration and performance to be a move back towards the decadent and unbiblical denominational practices that the Church of Christ was meant to reform.

So now Grandmother's congregation is about a third the size it was under the former minister; it's now on the third new minister since the great one left, being unable to find someone who could return the congregation to its former size and devotion under the new bells-and-whistles leadership; and that little cadre of stupid attention-seekers are driving what's left of the congregation right into the ground.

This last Sunday (yesterday), the music minister (hereinafter "mm") got on my last gay nerve. First of all, most of the women in the congregation were gone on a women's retreat at the mountain camp that the church (by some strange miracle of finance) still owns; yet "mm" went on nevertheless with his favorite overly-complex hymns with four-range harmonies, despite the fact that there were maybe two sopranos and three altos in the entire room. What makes it worse is that he does not provide musical notation for the congregation to follow, only lyrics. And since the Church of Christ is still quite dogmatic in its refusal to use musical instruments other than the voice, one has absolutely no idea what note one is supposed to hit, or which rhythm one is supposed to adopt, until about the third verse (leaving, as I suspect "mm" designs, the four-piece "choir" and himself the only audible voices in the building). But before he got started on that piece of idiocy, he took time out to deliver a long and emotional yet shockingly dull homily about the grace of God and how lucky we all are that Christ died for our sins. Now, this man created this idiotic and unnecessary position of Music Minister out of the old service post of song-leader (who, in the past, chose hymns that complemented the sermon, directed the congregation as to which page that hymn occupied, then sounded the keynote on a pitch-pipe and conducted the rhythm, all very self-effacingly and with great dignity), and is now using it as a further platform to preach, an activity for which he is unqualified by either education or ability.

My eyes were rolling so hard I thought they'd fall right out of my head. Grandmother just grunted and ignored him. But I think that both of us agree that "mm" is one of the key players in the destruction of that congregation.

Well, after that was over and we sat through the communion (Grandmother takes communion with great seriousness, and also makes me sit on the aisle so I have to pass the plate and tray to her while the usher or deacon almost palpably notes that I do not partake), and then the Children's Sermon... which was actually kind of interesting. The Youth Minister (formerly the person who looked after the teens; but there aren't any teens in the congregation any more, so he now looks after the children, which used to be the sole province of the women of the congregation) was expounding, in the simplified and rather patronizing manner of a pre-school volunteer, on the human-nature tendency to desire forbidden fruit. He used for his example the common maternal injunction that one can play in the front yard but cannot go out into the street. Any child worth the name will of course desire nothing more than to step out into the street at the first opportunity: for if it has been forbidden, it must be good fun. But then, once out in the street, one usually discovers that the street isn't fun at all — there are no toys there, no grass, no trees — it's only dangerous and dirty. I thought that was a fairly good point, though it neglected to mention the fact that one does, eventually, have to go out in the street.

So then we get into the sermon, which contemplates the desire and consequences of forbidden fruit, using for example the (true and exactly literal) story of Adam & Eve and the Serpent. The minister (who is not very attractive and also has the worst haircut I've ever seen) expanded on the text of Genesis, using this little trick that he must have learned in Seminary in order to cement things in the minds of his (by implication learning-disabled) congregants: he projects his outline items in huge yellow letters on a blue ground over his head, and then repeats the words in that item twice. If I had a professor who did that, I would have thrown my books at him. But in church, I have to just sit there and take it. Usually I can place my mind elsewhere, far away in a happier and smarter place, but this Sunday I just couldn't take that mental walkaway, and so listened to the entire idiotic sermon which said nothing original and made the most trite and damaging possible conclusions: that human beings are bad by nature, and we have to be forever vigilant against temptation lest we offend the majesty of God (who put those temptations there in the first place).

So then, once the sermon is over, there is another hymn (this one so complex in its harmonies that even the choir can barely manage it... remember that "mm" has absolutely no musical talent, just overweening ambition and a little training), during which time people with prayer requests may talk to one of the deacons. Then came the part of the service that always pisses me off, no matter how tolerant of other people's beliefs I try to be: the Community Prayer, in which the minister will inform us of a particular single prayer request, and then we are meant to silently pray on that item for one minute; then the next, and the next. When you get up to six or seven prayer requests, this exercise become exceptionally tedious. But what makes me angry is the nature of these requests: almost invariably, the prayers request a very specific outcome of continued life and health for some loved one, or specific material blessings for oneself or one's friends.

To me, when you ask God for a specific outcome, you are telling God what to do. What kind of nerve does that take? Are we supposed to think that God, who is all-knowing and all-powerful, gives a rat's twat which outcome we prefer? Does one believe that one can alter God's will, which knows no time and no force, to match our own wills? Does one ask God to make someone, inluding oneself, do or not do a specific thing, even though He in His infinite wisdom granted all of us free will? No wonder I always got God and Santa Claus mixed up in my childish mind, if I'm supposed to go sit in God's lap and tell Him what I want.

Why not just shut the fuck up and ask what God's will for me is? Which is what I do, and that is my belief so I try not to expect it of people who believe differently. And God does not require my indignation on His behalf. It just seems to me a great disservice to God to expect Him to do things contrary to His own will, just because that's what we want. God created us as mortal, and so to ask Him that this or that person not be sick or die is ridiculous... and it leads to crises of faith when God doesn't deliver that which we want, or when God allows evil to exist because He made us free to choose good or evil of our own accord.

So when I got home from church, I changed into comfortable clothes and turned on the computer and played with my Sims, for whom I am God. And they are always telling me what to do... but then, I can smite them at will, which can be fun (though I usually feel guilty afterward).

Who sings that song that goes "tell me all your thoughts on God"? I'm pretty sure it wasn't you... in fact, I am surprised you're still with me after that lengthy of a diatribe. So for all your perserverence, here is a little reward, my own idea of Heaven. XOXO!

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