This guy was from Vacaville, CA, which is on the fringes of the Bay Area. I called them backwards-assed country fucks only because Eddie Murphy makes that phrase sound great when he and Nick Nolte go into the redneck bar in 48 Hours.
I met my friend in a European country in the mid-80s, because my family had moved there for my dad’s job and he left his mom’s household (guess why) to live with his dad, who was a USAF colonel (IIRC) assigned to some kind of installation in that country. I took him to a store I’d found that sold English-language comics, RPGs, and fantasy/SF books, and I showed him the Elric comics, which is how he came to tell me about his stepfather.
I was outraged on his behalf, but also baffled that later he insisted that evolution was “an impossible theory” and Jesus created everything. I didn’t understand how he could fail to see that these people were full of shit and moreover were our enemies.
One of my clues that my SB church was a bit different from the typical was when I realized that the local parish priest and our pastor were friends. To be fair, that was after a string of much more conservatively minded pastors.
I love a good stereotype as much as anyone, but yeah, truth is there is a lot of diversity even in such communities as southern Protestants. One of my good friends as a teen was the son of the music director at a big Methodist church. We played D&D at their house and used his dad’s office in the church to play wargames and stuff on Sunday afternoons.
OTOH, there were of course plenty of the hellfire and brimstone types running about, complete with book burning, tee-totaling, and sex shaming, etc. Though really, in my experience, the people most likely to be pulled over for DUI were these ultra-conservatives, especially the pastors.
I guess I’m lucky. I recall dimly being sent to Sunday School, but the circumstances make it clear that this was more about just having something to do. We were living in Panama, in the US housing near Balboa, and I’m sure my parents just wanted something to do with us on a Sunday morning in 1966. After a few years that stopped, and I was never sent to church again. I recall as an adolescent going with friends to their church a few times, because I wanted to, not because anybody made me. It was probably a combination of curiosity and the desire to feel less like a weirdo. But it was tedious and uninteresting and after a couple of times I never went back.
On the other hand, I’m completely enchanted by old cathedrals, basilica, chapels and mosques, and can spend hours wandering through them. And I have many times been in one where services are going on. I always feel a kind of admiration for the ritual of the thing, particularly people praying in mosques, or during a Catholic mass in a language I don’t understand, whether Latin or something else. I’m always completely aware that I’m something of an intruder into something that I’m not part of, and of course I’m always conscience not to interfere or otherwise detract from the experience of worship.
None of this really translated for me when a service is in English, in an ordinary, modern church. There, the whole thing just seems silly to me, and then I really can’t imagine why anyone spends an hour of their weekend listening to some person moralize at them, and then hits them up for money for the privilege of the experience.
I think you have hit on one of the great truths about religion, particularly Christianity (though quite probably others too), which is that a great part of the appeal is the mystery. The sense of other-worldliness, of things beyond your ken, of a power or powers that hovers just outside of your ability to touch it but which nevertheless makes itself felt to you…those things are powerful. The building, the language, the ritual actions, all being acted out or interacted with by a group of people, this creates transcendence for many people. No one knows what is or what will be, but they can believe together, and that creates a reality of its own.
Admittedly, I’m similar to you, except that I generally prefer religious buildings when services are not going on, or when they are mostly empty. There is definitely a sense of something in many churches, for instance, and synagogues (have not been to many mosques), that is to me the residue of all the emotions people bring in to those places rather than any particular quality of the buildings themselves.
Oh, me too! As someone who likes to take pictures, the ideal is an empty cathedral or mosque or synagogue, and that’s what I’m after. I managed to be the second person into the Hagia Sofia early one morning, and had it nearly empty for about half a hour or so.
But sometimes you take what you can get. I have been quite pleasantly surprised by the welcome westerners can get in mosques (in places like Morocco and Turkey, anyway) as long as you follow the customs and are respectful during prayers and hold your photo-taking until after the believers have gone. And we spent a wonderful afternoon one day being shown all around a small, deserted, very old mosque by the imam, who didn’t speak a word of English but nevertheless unlocked the place for us and invited us to explore every part of it.
I’m not sure about Islam, but in Judaism, the synagogue is not a sacred place per se, not like a church’s consecrated ground. The Ark is about the only “holy” place with any special characteristics. The rest is essentially a community center. Still, the feeling (and oddly sometimes, the smell) is very similar at times to that of many churches.
Joseph Campbell (who I believe was raised Catholic) would lament that the Church jettisoned the Latin mass, since ritualized language is a preeminent aspect of religious and mythic culture in most places and times. Oh here, someone has a quote online:
There has been a reduction of ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church, they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language and into a language with domestic associations. The Latin of the Mass was a language that threw you out of the field of domesticity. The altar was turned around so that the priest’s back was to you, and with him you addressed yourself outward. Now they have turned the altar around and it looks like Julia Child giving a cooking demonstration—all homey and cozy… They have forgotten that the function of ritual is to pitch you out not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.
I’m sure not everyone was always electrified by a Latin mass back in the day (in fact, I know from my parents’ stories they definitely weren’t). But at the very least, there’s a tension of values between making worship relatable to a congregation and making it mysterious, mystical, or simply other than the everyday. There’s a lot of evidence these days in Catholic communities that the youngest members are coming for the extraordinary, the unfamiliar, the highly ritualized aspects of worship, and that a lot of the methods of outreach that were used in the 80s and 90s to make masses and events contemporary and relatable just totally don’t appeal.
You know, that reminds me of the debates about literature in middle and high school. Should students read contemporary stories, or stories that reflect the world and community they know? Which one is more engaging? Maybe the answer is different for each student, depending on their taste for the exotic. But in my kids’ school they definitely seem to lean more toward the latter, the recent and familiar. My kid who just entered college is getting Shakespeare for the first time–thanks to an Ethics for Engineers class, of all things!
Oh yeah, these debates have been going on for ages, and probably always will. I’ve been through my share of such discussions in higher education for sure. Personally, I think it comes down to a few things. One is the need to familiarize people with the cultural frameworks they will have to navigate after school. This often entails learning about the so-called classics, but also should include things that shape the current zeitgeist. Another is the perceived value of texts, qua texts. Here, you can easily fit Paradise Lost and L.L. Cool J.'s “The Message” into the same pigeon hole, for instance.
The problem with focusing too much on the so-called classics (many of which I, personally, quite love) is that such study can easily become more antiquarian than emotional, or even analytical. In addition, it can perpetuate a sense that nothing modern is worth knowing about, thus preserving what is largely the output of the infamous DWEMs (dead white European males) as the One True Culture.
The problem with focusing too much on the contemporary is that, well, it’s contemporary, and in our digital age a lot of works have the lifespan of mayflies. What seems vibrant and vital one semester might be utterly forgotten the next (though nothing is truly forgotten in the age of the Internet it seems). Sequential graduating classes might have radically different exposures to cultural artifacts, which for each class at the time were “the thing” and seemed Very Important.
So, as in many things, a mix is best. Except winter weather. Give me snow, or give me rain. Do not give me sleet or the dreaded “wintery mix.”
I just remember having to do a thing on The Confessions of Saint Augustine and wondering why.
This wasn’t a theology class or anything, it was some random English/Lit class. Dude wrote it in Latin and it isn’t literature so much as a autobiography. Also the time frame was the infamous “I’m just going to assume you don’t have other classes, homework, work or a life,” which is usually the case. So read this dense, boring theological book and then guess what I thought was important about it and do it while you’re at work.
I sometimes let on that I was raised Catholic or am “supposedly Catholic” or whatever (‘practicing Catholic’ is just too… aggro for my circles)… and I feel like the gut reaction of 50% of people is like
‘oh, you think people are going to hell’?
and I’m like
‘no, I like rituals’
The flip side of this is sometimes people bat around the word “hell” like… “I’ve been through hell”… and I’m like ‘man… you don’t know what you’re saying’; not in a judgemental way… it’s just that… that word means something different to me.
Call it a delusion or whatever you like, but I feel that it’s a real place… you can’t get there without knowing, and none of us have been there. It may not even have anything to do with the afterlife, if such a thing exists.
Christians certainly need to be modest about what they think they know about hell. Pope Benedict’s language was appropriately couched, I think, when he said something like we “can have a reasonable hope” that no one ends up in hell for eternity, that all are saved. Which is not the same as saying it doesn’t exist.
Not surprisingly, NT Wright has a smart take on it:
He’s done a lot in his writing to shatter the preconceptions most Christians have about heaven (he speaks in that video briefly to that point, about not going to heaven, but rather heaven and earth coming together in the end), and it seems like that has implications for hell as well. If only more Christians heard this stuff…