Wednesday, April 4, 2007

My Chocolate Jesus

Religion, and religious people, what a pain in the ass.

Now it’s John Paul on his way to sainthood because some sad nun in France says he cured her of Parkinson’s. Not her fault. She’s working off the silly pill they slipped into her as a child.

Mother Church itself, that’s another thing. Mother has Mozart’s Requiem on her side, the stained glass windows of Chartres – all those schools and hospitals. But she also has those old men in dresses claiming they’ve got the power to intercede with the Almighty to set aside his laws of nature for a single individual. Not to stop kids from dying of diarrhea at three or becoming genocidal at eleven. But to help one nun get better while thousands of others don’t.

God knows you can’t blame a nun-guy for trying. It doesn’t hurt to ask. But what’s this crap about John Paul having all this clout with the Big Fellow? That old bastard was the conservatives’ tool for bringing power back to the Vatican after John XXIII threatened it with fresh air. Spent his life working against abortion and birth control and liberation theology to bring misery to millions. Worked against bringing dignity into gay and lesbian lives, did our JP. Saint, my left butt cheek.

And they want us to respect religion. You’ve got to admire their chutzpah.

I know there’s another kind of religion. The Mozart kind. The inspirational kind, the focus on something greater than ourselves. Trouble is, the crappy kind has been getting a free ride from the transcendental kind for way too long. It’s time to hit the delete button.

I live in the land of feel-good Jesus jivers. I’ve tried ignoring them, but they’re like a chronic case of the hives. Organized American religion has a one-two punch. Mind control on one side, flat earth bozotude on the other.

No kidding. There’s a Georgia legislator introducing legislation to disallow the teaching in Georgia schools that the earth goes around the sun.

I know it’s not about burning folk at the stake, but it is about stupidity and injustice. While this lawmaker may be an extreme nutcase, have a look at the IRS returns of the Falwells (teletubbies are fags), Robertsons (lesbians are witches) and Dobsons (take those kids away from their gay daddies or they’ll rape them) of this nation if you think they are without influence. Or check out how many times the White House has taken their calls in the last seven years.

No matter how many times the Jimmy Swaggarts and Jim Bakkers are exposed, another opportunist comes along to bilk the gullible. Ted Haggard goes off for some religious “therapy” and in three weeks his church makes the proud announcement that this “curse” of homosexuality with which he has struggled all his life has been “cured.” The Aimee Semple McPhersons and Billy Sundays come and go and until recently their influence has been on the wane. Today, though, Robertson and Falwell and Dobson talk about how lesbians cause hurricanes, and current presidential hopefuls still come kiss their asses when they do.

For a little perspective, we’re not as badly served as the secularists and good religionists in Muslim lands where the cultural value leads to hacking women to pieces and teaching kids to strap bombs to their bellies. At least we can write books and plays and turn them into top grossing movies where Jesus comes home from a hard day walking on water and makes babies with Mary Magdalene. Artists can dream up concepts like the “Piss Christ” and carve two hundred pounds of milk chocolate into an anatomically correct Jesus, and live to blaspheme another day.

Ironically, we’re freer to have at the Christians than the rabid Muslims these days. Norton has apparently refused to publish a cartoon depicting a jihadi driving a Ryder truck with a nuclear bomb in back with the caption: What Would Muhammad Drive? So we yield. Chocolate Jesus OK, Mohammad with a bomb, no can do. It’s not just toxic religion that’s the problem; it’s our own inclination to give in to toxic religion.

Once upon a time, before the apple fell on Newton’s head, before germs, before the earth started moving around the sun, all the world was magic, and there was nobody to keep the religios from dancing on your face.

Then came science, and technology, enlightenment notions of human equality and all that good stuff, and religion had to get off center stage. So to speak. In some places.

Since then, hundreds of books have been written on the battle between science and religion, the compatibility of science and religion, the incompatibility of science and religion, and you can pretty much take a stand in this confrontation anywhere you like. Modernity, like democracy, is taking centuries to unfold and sometimes, as in present-day America, it's one step forward, two steps back.

Like all social science categories, (society, ethnicity, nation, civilization...), the terms culture and religion are highly porous. There’s lots of overlap and sometimes you look at one and see another. At the moment, religion seems best understood as a subset of culture.

Look how we’ve evolved in the U.S. since a few decades ago. When I was a kid, there was no more meaningful distinction than the one between catholics and protestants and we argued often and earnestly over who had the right take on God. Today, the cognitive territory staked out by American enlightenment protestantism is populated by catholics as well. Both value individual human rights over hierarchical authority and both divorce at a rate of 50%. Catholics practice birth control at a rate of 80%.

The line no longer runs between the catholics and the protestants, but between the authoritarians and the non-authoritarians. Toxicity is a cultural phenomenon and both religious groups fit into spaces on both sides of the cultural divide.

Catholic prelates tell the faithful not to vote for catholic John Kerry because he favors abortion rights. Protestants who, when pressed, will tell you catholics are all going to hell, join hands with authoritarian catholics to send the gays back to the edge of town. Culture-contained religion has become a much bigger force than transcendental religion in America.

You may want to argue that this gathering of forces once split over religious doctrine into a new gathering of political forces, with absolutists, both catholic and protestant, on one side, and non-absolutist catholics, protestants, Jews, secular humanists and others on the other side, is a sign not of religious resurgence, but of the colonization of religion by culture, one further step in the withering of religion altogether. But it would be a hard argument to make. Too many people prefer to see politicized religion as strengthened religion. In either case, what is strengthening is the wrong kind of religion. The kind that does serious harm to democracy.

There seems to be no neutral ground. My choice of “non-toxic” as a descriptor marks me as unfriendly to religion even when I'm trying to be friendly. A pro-religion insider would speak instead of the power of religion to channel the best in the human spirit – generosity, kindness, consideration and compassion. Creativity, even. Remember Mozart’s requiem and the windows at Chartres.

But there’s the rub. The spirit behind Mozart has as much in common with the spirit behind Falwell as a stained glass window does to a block of wood. It’s not the Mozarts representing religion in America; it’s the Falwells and the Robertsons and the Dobsons. And the Cardinal Laws.

Modern-day American religion is a two-headed monster. One head dreams of the good old Middle Ages when the world kissed the pope’s ring; the other remembers with great fondness that the world was once flat. As long as that is what religion is, serious people need to get free of this nonsense that we must respect religion.

Fortunately, there are good religious folk speaking out against the rot in their faith community. There’s Charles Kimball, for example, with his When Religion Becomes Evil. And Randall Balmer’s Thy Kingdom Come: An Evangelist’s Lament, Bruce Bawer’s Stealing Jesus: How Fundamentalism Betrays Christianity, Jason Berry and Gerald Renner’s Vows of Silence: The Abuse of Power in the Papacy of John Paul II, Paul Collins’ The Modern Inquisition: Seven Prominent Catholics and their Struggles with the Vatican, Peter De Rosa’s Vicars of Christ: The Dark Side of the Papacy, Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus, Robert Blair Kaiser’s, A Church in Search of Itself, and two books by John Spong, The Sins of Scripture and Rescuing the Bible. Criticism of Islam is harder to find, but it’s there, as attested by Mahmood Mamdani’s Good Muslim, Bad Muslim and Irshad Manji’s, The Trouble with Islam.

I’m writing about the American cultural war between traditional authoritarians and progressives, but it’s clearly a war which extends way beyond American borders. In Italy the archbishop head of the Catholic bishops’ conference recently suggested extending recognition of gay partnerships in Italy would open the door to incest. Not an ordinary priest, but a biggie in the hierarchy, mind you. Hands across the water from Father Malloy of Saints Peter and Paul in San Francisco, who writes that if gays and lesbians want to marry, they should marry each other. Two ignoramuses on the authoritarian side. Noteworthy is the opposition. In Italy a Turin newspaper carried the story of three priests who referred to the incident as part of the “Talibanization” of the church.

I’m struck with how common the appeal is that we “show respect for religion.”

I suggest there’s an idea that needs to hit the trash bin of history. I think it’s still true in a democracy that one of our most important rights is the right to be an asshole, and that extends even to those caught up in homophobia and the belief God wants them to oppose abortion, euthanasia, birth control or stem-cell research. But when people in positions of power and influence use their religious organizations to cause harm, there’s no reason to give these institutions a free pass. Gay activists have spray painted “(Archbishop) Bagnasco Shame” on the cathedral in Genoa, and some gay leaders have concluded that’s going too far. I’m not so sure.

We’re all so concerned about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater that we forget to ask, as a friend of mine once put it, “Doesn’t that depend on the baby?”

OK, let’s assume there’s a baby worth saving in there somewhere. How do you find him?

One way you can separate out the toxic folks from the non-toxic folks is by listening to what they bring to the foreground and what they shove into the background. Non-toxic catholics focus on Vatican II, on the apology to the Jews, on the admission that Galileo should not have been arrested and prevented from teaching, on ecumenism, on defining the church as the “ecclesia” – the full body of believers, and not on church hierarchy, as well as on the “gift” of the Eucharist and other “mysteries.” Non-toxic evangelicals focus on the Beatitudes. Toxic catholics tell you to close your eyes, take off your thinking cap and leave the moral decision making to Rome; toxic evangelicals focus on the fire and the sword. Two kinds of Catholics; different Vatican Councils. One bible; different pages. Non-toxic religionists understand humanity to be about the endless reinterpretation of their sources of belief; toxic religionists about shutting down the brain and girding the loins for battle.

The toxics get nervous when they see the non-toxics working with the secularists, actually, but the very high correlation between peace and love and justice (non-toxic Islam and Christianity and Judaism, if you will) and enlightenment notions is not an accident. The argument is easily made it was precisely those folks in the non-toxic religious camp who came up with the Enlightenment, and not the other way around. In any case, the rule of thumb is you know a good Christian (Muslim, Jew) when you see evidence he/she is listening for the voice of God, and you know a bad one when you hear him/her tell you he’s heard it and you haven’t.

Non-toxics call natural laws, Darwin’s included, merely the mechanism through which God reveals himself in nature. Not only is there no conflict between science and religion but one takes the same attitude toward God one does toward science. One works with what one has got, and remains open to the possibility more information and deeper reflection will change your view of things. Openness spells freshness, freshness leads to generosity, generosity to compassion. We struggle to elucidate the dichotomies of red and blue, conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive, but the real line in the cultural war is between the open and the closed mind. There is no conflict between science and religion for the non-toxic because the ultimate value for both is an attitude of openness.

The toxic folk lack the imagination to understand a scripture written in a poetic vein by people long removed and far away, who work with different references to express hope and longing in imagination. They lack the most basic understanding of science as tentative explanation, and remain unaware how an immature appreciation of science leads to thinking there had to be dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden and kangaroos on Noah’s Ark. Instead of seeing poetry in these folk tales, as their non-toxic co-religionists do, they try to get their fat feet into glass slippers, and the transcendent turns to dust.

What a waste of perfectly good brain cells. If the evangelical protestants could just learn how to do poetry, they wouldn’t need to read the Bible as if it were an automechanic’s manual, and they’d leave gays alone to sing and dance and build families, they’d join with their non-toxic brethern to temper America’s lust for war, they’d put their money into charity and education instead of the political campaigns of crooks and liars.

The Catholic Church, while less dopey than evangelicals, is still capable of substituting medieval pseudo-science for science as when seeking a sufficient n to establish statistical validity for JPs powers. But she ends up looking like a little girl walking around in mommy’s heels. Cute. But hardly authoritative.

Walking on water? Virgin birth? Whatever gets you off, girls.

But hormonal treatment to kill Tchaikovsky and Michaelangelo in the womb?

Could we have time to think about that some more? Please?

Respect is earned, not given automatically.

When you were about building schools and hospitals, I felt good about you.

Today, you’re more about circling the wagons on your power, and I don’t want to play with you anymore.

I want my chocolate Jesus.

Guess which part I’ll eat first.


John Paul, Saint Candidate: and

Flat earth claims in Georgia:,-earth-flat,-jews-in-control-237370.php

Norton nixes Mohammad cartoons:

Piss Christ: Andres Serrano’s photo, made in 1989 of a crucifix submerged:

Chocolate Jesus:

Talibanization of the Catholic Church in Italy:

Gays should marry lesbians:

Bribing God to break his own natural laws for your individual benefit as opposed, say, to world peace and sparing children from death by diarrhea:

Madrassas as terrorist generators: a contested claim. I may be a victim of Bush Administration thought manipulation here. See, for example:

The issue still remains that madrassas teach doctrine to the exclusion of all other knowledge. Like putting alcohol into your gut where nutrition ought to go.

Making babies with Mary M.: I’m thinking of Kazantzakis’ Last Temptation of Christ to The Da Vinci Code, to name only the sublime and the ridiculous poles of that range of fiction.

Southern Baptist hopes for hormonal treatment to prevent homosexuality in the womb:

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