Signs and Signals

faked by Wednesday, February 22nd, 2006

Religious content ahead! Don’t say you weren’t warned, because I have it on good authority that lies make Baby Jesus cry.

If I came up to you on the street and said, “Guess what my favorite news story of 2006 so far is!” and you answered, “Dick Cheney shooting that guy in the face,” I would say, “Wrong!” But first I’d probably say thanks for taking the time to participate in my little rhetorical gambit, as most passers-by are rightly a-feared of being accosted by strangers who want to buttonhole them, and I appreciate the way you didn’t scream or mace me or blow your little pea-less whistle or invite me up to see your etchings. Then, I’d tell you my real favorite news story of 2006 so far is this one, about the St. James United Church of Christ in Limerick, Pennsylvania—and thanks to The Sween for alerting me to it! It seems that the good folks at St. Jimmy’s had selected a somewhat troublesome verse for their church slogan, namely Luke 4:7, which reads, “If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.”

See, now, that probably doesn’t sound too strange to the untrained ear, but those of you who know your Luke might recognize those lines as being delivered by the father-in-law of Petey Wheatstraw, Ol’ Scratch, Timmy Poke-Staff McOuchington, Dick Cheney’s Racquetball Partner, he of the cloven hooves and the killer goatee—The Devil, I say, Satan himself. As Miss Alberta, your fourth-grade Sunday School teacher, the one who never got married and whose too loud laugh (really more of a desperate, keening wail) and slick, sweaty palms were responsible for the gradual decline in attendance in the fourth-grade Sunday School class until it was just you and Skeeter, the kid who rubs snot in his hair during children’s choir performances (I mean still, even though he’s not in the children’s choir anymore)—anyway, as she would have known right off, those lines come from Jesus’ 40 day trial in the wilderness, when Satan shows up to tempt him all kind of ways.

So, needless to say, Luke 4:7 is assuredly not the sort of slogan you want for your church. And OK, ha ha, the church put a bit of devil-talk on their Web site, is it really such a big deal? Is it really indicative of some larger problem within modern Christianity that you’re going to feel the need to go on and on about now, possibly segueing into some tenuously connected autobiographical anecdote? Oh hell, it is. Quick, Verna, get the axe, we may have to chop the door down if he’s bolted it from the outside. What’s that? You say the axe is made of cheap plastic and papier-mache? Hell. See if you can salvage any of the parts to make a gouging implement of some kind. Use it on me first if you love me.

When I read the story about St. James, I thought immediately of Barry Hannah’s recent Paste essay, “The Maddening Protagonist,” on the frustrating and unsettling ellipses, absences, and paradoxes evident in the gospels when you read them anew and seriously and closely. He writes of Luke’s gospel, “The Christ child’s appearance is meek and glorious. The Lamb of God has arrived. But within the space of a single page of St. Luke we’re met with a pre-teen child who, of all things, is uncommonly rude by any earthly parent’s understanding… [A]lmost instantly he defies us to love him.”

For Hannah—I’m not sure if it’s more or less appropriate to keep speaking of him as a “hell-raiser” after his recent conversion, but he’s certainly still in the business of raising all sorts of things that people would prefer remain deeply interred—modern Christians are unlikely to feel any of the panic, doubt, and vertigo that he describes upon encountering this and other such paradoxical passages, for no one is actually reading the text in the first place. As he writes, “Thousands of pastors have memorized the work and pontificated on it without an honest reading. You’d hear more honest confusion and less braying rhetoric from the pulpits if the Bible were actually confronted even by Christian-leaning ministers.”

Hyperbolic and hackle-raising though his claims are—I mean, this is Barry Hannah here, folks—they ring true with my experiences of evangelical/fundamentalist Christianity in the South. (And I know evangelicalism and fundamentalism are not exactly the same, but there’s not what you would call a bright line dividing them, and especially in ruralish churches like the one I grew up in, you’ve got people from all along that spectrum under the same roof.) The issue arises, I think, from the notion of Biblical “inerrancy,” a complicated concept that can mean a whole lot of different things to different people and let’s not get into that right now, please. But it meant, for the people I grew up with, that we should, as my Uncle Tom once succinctly put it (quoting someone else), “read without interpretation.” You see the problem here. All reading is interpretation, after all, especially when you’re reading a translation. To read a text as polyvocal and pieced-together as the Bible “literally” is, in fact, a radically deconstructive reading practice, and we know deconstruction is a tool of the Devil, look, they start with the same two letters. So does depth-charge, and that’s just more evidence that God loves submarines.

So, it’s no wonder that some Christians begin to use the text as a talisman, something to be displayed but not read (or at least, in Hannah’s words, read but not confronted—perhaps that’s a less inflammatory way of putting it). It becomes a marker of identification, not a site of interpretation, a bit of lamb’s blood smeared on the door so that the divine hand can click Its ineffable pen and tick off a sacred box on the heavenly notepad that’s wedged between pages of the Book of Life. Or something. The text signifies because of its presence and prominence, not because of its content.

This is how embarrassing situations like the one at St. James’s arise, even though the church, as a whole, seems to be a much more liberal sort of place than the sorts of churches I’d identify with the ideology of unreading that I’m discussing here. The webmaster (Steve-O—should that be “webservant”?) has explained that the mistake was caused by a random Bible-quote generator that they got off the web; a reasonable explanation, but that’s exactly my point—grab any old quotation from the good book off the Web, the thinking goes, and plug it in here, and it’ll work as a banner for our church, regardless of what it actually says. The point is, it’s from the Bible! This is also why the Church Sign Generator can provide someone like me with job-crushing hours of entertainment; the juxtaposition of the bizarre authority somehow implied by even just the digital image of those little plastic letters with the silliest message you can imagine is pure delight.

Perhaps it would be stretching a point to note that we learned all our Children’s and Youth Choir tunes from popular 80s evangelical marketing sensation Psalty, an anthropomorphic hymnal who would appear to church groups and teach their kids songs. Psalty was a living book who could never be read—you had to take his word on the matter of what words were inside his pages. After all, since his face was on the top of his book’s spine, this would mean that his pages would correspond to his ass, and it’s not polite to go rummaging around someone’s trunk in church. Gaze upon Psalty, ye mighty, and despair:

Psalty totally isn't creepy in any way.

Actually, it’s a lot creepier when there’s someone actually in a cardboard Psalty suit, as Carl Trotter’s mom always was at our church. I mean, always. We had to get her some help, finally. Anyway, I don’t watch Comedy Central’s Drawn Together, but if they can somehow get the license to Psalty or a reasonable knock-off, I might tune in. But, though I’m sort of kidding about Psalty, this attitude is not uncommon elsewhere in the church; I hate it when churches project the lyrics up on a screen instead of pointing to a page in the hymnal, because I want to see what verses we’re leaving out, what the origins of the song are, what hymns are on nearby pages, and so on—all those opportunities for interpretation and strange encounters that PowerPoint neatly closes off.

But and so, this brings me to a stranger anecdote concerning me and this style of fundagelical un-reading, one that I’ve started to tell at least once before and couldn’t quite find a way to articulate. As cynical readers will have noticed, I’m much better at relating dumb things that my family has done, or that have happened to me, than I am relating troublesome stuff I’ve participated in directly. But here’s the story: so, I’ve written once before about a summer of particularly thick racial tensions in my hometown. Every Southern memoirist has at least one Tense Racial Summer, so I guess I’m in good company there. Anyway, as I wrote then, there was a group of African American picketers who’d set up shop across the street from a popular convenience store and teenage hang-out to protest the alleged ill treatment, perhaps even assault, of a black woman by the store’s owner.

This was also the summer that our wee little church got a new Youth Director—in fact, our first Youth Director, that role having been previously filled by whoever’s mom felt the strongest neurotic compulsion to be around her kid all the time, which is to say, my mom. Greg was a swell guy, cool without being stereotypical-youth-minister-extreme-awesome-dude cool, easy to talk to, infectiously enthusiastic, and, it seemed to my high-school self, wise, wise, wise. And he liked Bruce Springsteen, which was really all I needed to know. If the Anti-Christ comes as a Bossoholic, my immortal soul might be in peril, I’m just saying, so I’m counting on you folks to keep me away from the tattoo parlor if the U.N. falls under the leadership of a charismatic potentate who wants to unite all the nations of the earth under one banner, especially if that banner is the banner of ROCK. Or Satan.

So, Greg’s apparent wisdom is why what we did one sweltering Mississippi night seems so strange. Wait. Don’t take that sentence out of context. Well, go ahead and do—maybe it’ll drive our site traffic up. Fed up with the whole racial tension thing—though honestly, we were probably mostly fed up with not being able to go to the Quik Stop without being made to feel guilty by the protestors—we decided that we would do this: we would make up new signs, signs with Bible verses on them instead of whatever slogans the picketers had come up with, and sneak down and swap them out under cover of night (for some reason they left their signs there overnight, piled behind the building). So we found every verse we could that was about loving your neighbor or loving peace or turning the other cheek and so on, and we scrawled them on thin posterboard with smelly markers.

So obviously, our thinking was what you might call blinkered. We were like Jimmy McMorris in Jujitsu for Christ (have you ordered your copy?), who takes the pulpit in an all-white Mississippi church during the Civil Rights movement and preaches a sermon against hate—the hate of a black man for his white brother, of course. Groan. Preaches Jimmy Mac, “Today I am challenging our darker Christian brothers. Can you honestly say there is no hate in your heart for your white brother? We read in the papers every day how terrible it is to hate the Negro, and under God’s law of love, this is true. But it is equally true…” As Roger says: “I’m gone throw up.” As Mr. Gandy says “to the God he had quit believing in but not quit talking to”: “Sho is a lot of different kids of white people…. Made too many of the wrong kind, though.”

I’ve never been able to figure out exactly what we were thinking would be the result of this little escapade, exactly what sort of logic we were working with. But I thought of this incident while reading that Barry Hannah essay, and I think maybe there’s a connection. We didn’t like what the protestors were doing—that they were disrupting our ease and comfort, though we may have had nobler if misguided ideas about spreading a message of “why can’t we all just get along,” albeit executed with much cowardice, since we weren’t about to say anything to the convenience store owner or our parents or anyone like that—and so we were using the text of the Bible talismanically, as a way of trying to ward off what we did not like. It didn’t matter what the Bible said; it only mattered that we were Bible people, and these other people were bothering us, and so we would attack them with the icons of our holiness, icons that we had never really looked closely at in the first place. Smug, smug, smug. We simply presented the text as a symbol of supposed superiority; without reading—or confronting—it, the text becomes simply a blank page on which we can see our own imagined goodness reflected in a most flattering light, with gilt edges and red letters. Ha ha, laughed we, twirling the mustaches we couldn’t grow, still can’t in fact, now they are holding up signs that say the opposite of what they think they say! We are diabolical geniuses! Wait, not diabolical. Divine. Right?

They used the signs. I don’t know if there was any discussion about the signs being changed, or if the switcheroo was even noticed, as many people came and went from the protest site over the course of its few weeks. And I would like to say that when, driving by the protestors the next day or the next week, I saw them holding aloft picket signs adorned with Bible verses, and thus I experienced an epiphany, a moment of conviction, a heart-rending burst of understanding that there was, in fact, no difference, no conflict between the message of the Gospels and the messages of these protestors, that I was suddenly able to see things through their eyes and realize how poorly I understood the world, and the religion, that my teenaged self thought I knew so thoroughly and completely. But, you know, I didn’t. That took longer.


17 Responses to “Signs and Signals”

  1. gorjus says:

    This is stunning, complex stuff. I concur heartily with your sentiments regarding the reading of the Bible or other Christian texts. Of all books, shouldn’t this be the one we do read for hidden meaning, symbol, and truth? Shouldn’t the book we base our lives around—or ask others to base their lives around—be subject (and subjected) to the strictest scrutiny?

    Once it was the tasks of the foremost scholars to ferret out inconsistencies and work dutifully to explain them away through logic, reason, or faith. How else would we have discovered Q[uelle]/Logia (or attempted to refute it?), or the alleged Markan priority? Close readings revealed the similarities and differences between the Gospels. An indifferent reading does not seize upon the wonders of the Bible.

    The demand to read the Bible uncritically is founded in fear. It comes from knowing that “hell” is nothing more than Gehenna (that really terrible garbage dump outside of town) what you are supposed to be afraid of, if not the devil. It makes you wonder—once you learn that the creation component of Genesis is the most recently written part of that book, and that Adam simply means “man” and Eve means “living”—if we even have a creation story.

    But it makes the stories real, and makes you think, and makes you wonder. The Bible is not a concrete, easy, unified text. It’s contradictory, profane, and downright bizarre. We should grapple with that, instead of turning from it.

  2. Dr. Wagner says:

    stellar. very well summed and revealing. I do like reading what you write, sir.

  3. sween says:

    Wow. Great post. (Sorry for the weak level of my commentary —my brains are still stuck on zombie/kitten/monkey mode. Please give it time to clear out.)

    I do not come from a community with a large and/or vocal evangelical/fundamentalist population, so a lot of my experience with this sort of behaviour has always been second- or third-hand, but I always found the unwavering acceptance of a group of texts that had gone through so many centuries of questionable translations and transcriptions a little on the perplexing side of things. But maybe that’s just me.

    Of course, maybe I’m biased, having had the most atheistic upbringing of just about anyone I’ve ever met—I was in a church maybe three times in my life by the time I was 16. Religion was NOT part of my upbringing AT ALL.

  4. KoE says:

    Isn’t it the apex of irony that education was once promulgated for the sole purpose of teaching people to read the bible but that very few people now read anything with any real purpose, especially not the bible? You couldn’t be more correct about people who have memorized whatever verses suit their purpose but have less than zero time for anyone who wants to analyze biblical passages. This is no different than brain-dead conservatives who keen on and on about the supposed liberal view of the Constitution as a “living” document, evincing both a Marianas-deep ignorance of what reading actually is and a religious faith apparently made out of balsa and Dollar-General-brand transparent tape.

    Stunning post.

  5. dot says:

    i think it’s funny! ! ! ha ha ha. everyone freak out! we are all going to hell!

  6. brd says:

    For those with a Psalty kind of background:
    30 seconds of “Telling the Truth” should shed light on this discussion.
    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. wah says:

    great post. I love the church sign generator.

  8. Sue says:

    When I read:

    “Quick, Verna, get the axe, we may have to chop the door down if he’s bolted it from the outside. What’s that? You say the axe is made of cheap plastic and papier-mache? Hell. See if you can salvage any of the parts to make a gouging implement of some kind. Use it on me first if you love me,”

    I thought you had started speaking in tongues.

    But, aside from that, two thoughts:
    1. Psalty! Why oh why didn’t the Jews think of that? That’s the only thing my childhood was missing–sort of.

    2. You must publish this type of writing in a book collection, sooner rather than later. I do not speak lightly when I compare you to David Sedaris.

  9. Thanks for everyone’s feedback and insight. Gorjus, that wikipedia article about Mark’s gospel is particularly interesting in light of another Barry Hannah essay—he wrote the introduction to Grove Press’s recent edition of The Gospel of Mark (as part of their series of individual books of the Bible introduced by famous writers and musicians and what-not). He makes some of the same points there that he does in “Maddening Protagonist” about what a strange and at times apparently incoherent story Mark’s gospel often is (and how he finds that incoherence, and particularly the apparent imbecility and incompetence of the disicples, comforting).

  10. Darren says:

    Speaking of Mark . . .

    A couple years ago I read through the Gospels for the first time since becoming, you know, a welfare-loving, baby-hating, anti-American hippie, and I really got a kick out of this passage:

    “Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. ‘Where did this man get these things?’ they asked. ‘What’s this wisdom that has been given him, that he even does miracles! Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Jesus said to them, ‘Only in his hometown, among his relatives, and in his own house is a prophet without honour.’”

    Doesn’t that “only in his hometown” line come off as incredibly sarcastic? I mentioned to some friends that I thought for sure Jesus was telling a joke there, but they didn’t buy my theory.

    Great post, Prof, but how does the evangelical Bible study fit in here? Most devoted Christians in my circle spend at least one evening a week—and a few minutes every morning, not to mention Sundays—studying the Bible, meditating over it, and trying their darnedest to “unpack” its mysteries. Granted, those studies typically operate within a fairly tight sphere of theological and ideological assumptions, but I would go so far as to say that evangelical Christians often have a higher regard for literacy than the typical American Philistine.

    (Has anyone else here seen The Squid and the Whale? If not, you should, and then you, too, will be using the word “Philistine” in your day to day conversations.)

  11. Yeah, D, that’s a good point about Bible study, and my intent wasn’t to tar all evangelicals with the brush of un-reading, ‘cause that wouldn’t be true. What I’m talking about, and I think what Hannah’s getting at, is an extreme version of that “tight sphere of theological and ideological assumptions” within which many people read the Bible.

    I don’t think that that un-reading is the sole defining characteristic of modern evangelicism, by any means, but I do think that it’s one significant strain within the culture—perhaps moreso in the South, perhaps not, and perhaps it’s a class thing, too—that is always battling it out with the more open-minded reading that we know many people do. I’m probably conflating evangelical and charismatic theologies too much, too, but then, they were pretty well conflated in my hometown. I had a whole thing on how End Times eschatology, which looks like analytical reading, but sort of isn’t, fits into this scheme and maybe is born out of the tension between reading and un-reading, but then I figured, heck, there’s a reason that Slacktivist link is in the sidebar, and I’m not gonna say anything smarter than him.

  12. Mr. Mooch says:

    I believe evangelicalism, or at least my experience with it, is a system of in or out. Just like owning the right reebok hightops in 1987, you don’t want to be out and more importantly you don’t want others to think you are out. Look at your uncle’s quote, about ‘not interpreting’ the bible. It is a REAL (if, i think, made up) notion that once you’ve been bathed in the blood of the lamb, come to jesus, born again, etc. et al…well, then the word of god is REVEALED to you. you GET it. if you don’t get it, well you might not be really saved now, huh? It facilitates an elementary understanding of a complicated theological work. moreover, it works to deny an intellectual challenge to 1 dimensional understandings of the bible. If you don’t get it like I get it, you must not be a good christian. Of course evangelicals took up this mantle hundreds of years after Catholics perfected it in some of the bad old days of the church.

  13. That’s an interesting point, Mooch. I was just thinking of my religious college experiences while composing a follow-up to my comment to Darren. It’s true that “literacy” was prized among that evangelical community, but not because it meant that all that Bible study you were doing was going to result in “honest confusion,” as Hannah puts it, or a new encounter with the Bible, but because it was a good means of demonstrating that your “Christian walk” was proceeding at a smooth and regular pace. That is, there was plenty of morning, evening, weekly and Sabbath reading of the Bible, but it was a reading that was meant to shore up preconceptions long-held and to indicate one’s righteousness and, to be frank, marriageability. So yeah, “literacy” was prized, because it meant you could check off “early morning Bible study” on your Christian Walk Timesheet, but “analysis” or “openness” or…maybe none of these terms are right…were not prized in the same way. That may be a characteristic of 18-22 year-old religious folk in a way that it isn’t of a characteristic of Christians who’ve actually lived life a bit, though.

    I hasten to add that what I’m describing doesn’t apply to any of the evangelical folks we know in common (and who could stand to stop lurking and post a dang comment or two, people!) And I also hasten to add that this isn’t a dismissal of the importance of ritual—of doing that reading, even when it seems meaningless or pointless.

  14. KoE says:

    These last few comments remind me of a “friend” I had in high school who made it his goal in life to turn me into “a New Testament Christian” (his words – apparently, the fact that I had been raised Catholic carried no spiritual weight and made me dwell far too much on the Old Testy). Of all the illuminating encounters he and I had, the most significant were the times during bible readings when he told me that my readings of particular passages were wrong. Nothing like a little Raderian exclusionism to really welcome one into the “tight sphere.”

  15. carson says:

    Prof. Fury—If anyone ever catalogs “The Great Moments in Blog History” 100 years from now, this post with the Psalty picture should rank in the top 10.

    The rest of the post is brilliant, as well. I work in my church’s jr. high group, and it can be extremely frustrating, cause they’re all church kids who think they’ve heard everything before. So much of Jesus’ weirdness gets filtered out. The jr. highers (or even myself) would never think of Jesus being sarcastic and having a sense of humor. It just seems like a sad, somewhat poetic declaration delivered with those big Cavizael eyes.

  16. brd says:

    The other day I was walking to the post-office with a friend. I asked her to go to church with me for noon Eucharist the next day. Her facial expression told me more than I understood exactly, so I asked her, “Would you consider it wrong, a sin, to go to my church?” “Yes,” she said.

    Curious, I said, “Do you think it is a sin for me to go to my church?” “Yes,” she said.

    Curious, more, I said, “Do you think that I am redeemed, saved, i.e. going to heaven?” Air got thick. “No,” she said, quietly choking.

    “That’s a problem,” I said, “isn’t it, not going to heaven? What should I do?” “Read your Bible,” she said.

    I think I’m in trouble.

  17. Lawson says:

    wow, waaaayyyy late i know, sorry, but if anyone’s still around i just wanted to leave a quick scribble on the whole church sign thing – which i agree with entirely the whole ‘symbolic weight’ these things carry by virtue of their positioning – like the only authorised, accepted and ubiquitious propaganda our society knows.

    but, to add a little anecdote of my own, i distinctly remember a favoured family pastime of ours was driving along the highway to our town and looking out for the hilarious new pun-message that was left on our local church – the kind of stuff it often read (“Feeling Down? Come In For A Free Faith Lift!”) is kind of like a welcome reprise from everything you’ve mentioned – like christianity recognising and admitting that it’s literally one big joke and just rolling with that, no?