Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Jesus Beat Me Up

(A short story of the fictional variety. Please note that I do not share my narrator's conception of "virginity".)

I lost the unthinking faith of my childhood when I got old enough to start thinking critically; not in the sudden, momentous way one loses a wallet or one's virginity, but in the gradual, trickling fashion one loses the memories of a long-dead grandparent, which fade each day they're left unthought of until nothing remains but a vague sense of past warmth, so distant and dim it might have happened to a character in a book you once read. That's how it was with me and Jesus.

If there is a God, he/she/they/it must surely curse puberty as its greatest enemy. How many of us, after a decade or so of trusting now-I-lay-mes, abandon the cold comfort of prayer for the more tangible nighttime consolations (and much more immediate gratification) of masturbation? How many of us, in the earth-shattering self-absorption of our changing bodies and developing minds, put away thoughts of the divine along with all our other childish things? How many of us, with the new-found cynicism of the morbid young teenager, declare religion a false hope for children and the feeble-minded, and commit to a far more sophisticated preoccupation with existentialism, Bauhaus, and still more masturbation?

I'm extrapolating, of course. If puberty was for everyone the Christ-killer it was for me, this world would have no priests, no street-corner God-botherers, no thoughtful theologians; and I no longer subscribe to the adolescent arrogance that once convinced me all priests and God-botherers and theologians were stunted creatures arrested in a childhood state of denial. Truth be told, these days I envy the God-botherers their faith. I admire the strength of will it takes to believe in anything other than the abyss. When I hear them speak of experiencing God's love, of “just knowing” something is out there, of having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, I no longer snort in derision; instead, I find myself wishing I knew how to convince myself that any of this was true. I wonder if a large segment of humanity really does have access to a plane of existence that is closed to me. And then I wonder if I had my shot at finding it, and I blew it.

It happened at about 3:07am on Wednesday, July 11th, 2007, a few hundred feet shy of the rim of Mt Kilimanjaro. I was climbing with a group of friends from university. This was the final day of our ascent, and we had risen shortly after midnight to tackle the steep scree slope that was to take us to Gillman's Point by sunrise, and from there along the crater rim to the highest point in Africa. I never made it as far as the rim.

At 16,000 feet, the air was thin and bitterly cold. Every breath seemed to empty me of more oxygen than it took in, and each step up the treacherous slope was punishing to my lungs and body. “Do Your Ears Hang Low” was looping incessantly and infuriatingly in my head. On top of all that, altitude sickness had been targeting me with a vengeance since Horombo.

For the third time within half an hour, I stumbled to my knees behind a rock to vomit up what little was left in my stomach. Even through the thermal layers, I could feel the sharp icy scree digging into my legs as a fresh paroxysm convulsed me forward onto my gloved hands. For a moment I rested there on my hands and knees, sucking the last little chunks of vomit from between my teeth and spitting them into the shameful little patch of dark brown bile. Gasping in lungfuls of thin, piercing air, I wiped the involuntary tears from my eyes onto my shoulder, and that was when Jesus appeared to me.

He was barefoot in jeans and a Penn State T-shirt, and even in my miserable state I knew that was impossible, but I barely had a second to register that thought before he kicked me in the face.

More in surprise than pain, I reeled backward. Jesus stepped calmly forward and kicked me again, this time in the stomach. Through all my layers, it barely hurt, but I was so weakened by altitude and exhaustion that the force of the kick sent me sprawling.

His face inscrutable, Jesus leaned over and grabbed me by the throat. My gloved hands scrabbled uselessly at his bare one, as with steely grip he hauled me up and slammed me against the big rock. Everything swam as I fought for even the too-thin air surrounding me, and then Jesus' fist smashed into my nose.

My whole head rang with shrapnel from the explosion of pain. The stupid song was still repeating, amped up to a screaming volume in my ears, as Jesus punched me in the face, again and again; weirdly, exactly in time with “Do Your Ears Hang Low”.

When I felt pummeled to the limit of my endurance, sure that one more punch would tear through my skull like tissue paper, Jesus suddenly let go. Dazed, plummeting toward unconsciousness, I slid back to the ground. From my pulverized face, I looked up at the figure – who did not seem to have exerted himself at all – with one thought filling my mind: What the fuck?

Jesus smiled mildly, delivered one final kick to my crotch, and sauntered away down the mountainside.

A moment later, the guide found me, curled up and bleeding, too tired and hurt even to weep. He and my friend Terry between them got me back down to Kibo Hut, and nobody ever mentioned the bruises that discolored my face for weeks afterward. At times I wondered if anyone else could even see them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

For The Last Time, He Is Not My Boyfriend

I grew up with two brothers who are more or less the best people I know, so it's perhaps predictable that all my life I have tended to form very close friendships with dude-type humans. Equally predictably, all my life I have had to combat the constant “tee-hee, it's like you're dating” juvenilia from those around me.

In kindergarten and first grade: Hal is not my boyfriend, Marshall is not my boyfriend, Davis is not my boyfriend (actually he kind of was, but we were six or seven).

In prep school: George is not my boyfriend, Gregory is not my boyfriend, Nikit is not my boyfriend.

In high school: Eystein is not my boyfriend, Chris is not my boyfriend (and if I sort of wanted him to be, it was a very confusing time in my life and I was working a lot of stuff out).

In university: Sam is not my boyfriend (though if I had a pound for every time someone legitimately thought he was, I could easily pay off my student debt).

In grad school: Tyler is not my boyfriend, and would you all please stop saying that he is?

Maybe the first couple of times it was funny, on account of the sheer outlandishness of the whole idea. But with enough repetition it becomes, frankly, problematic.

Constant reassertion of a bullshit heteropatriarchal narrative, in such a way that any objections can be countered with “jeez, can't you take a joke?”, is a time-honored bullying tactic of the Heteropatriarchy Police.

I know you all still think it's funny. But to me it's starting to feel as though the Heteropatriarchy Police are saying, “Hm, two single opposite-sex humans are spending a lot of time together, but with 0% chance of romance on either side. We'd better put a stop to this before the whole bullshit heteropatriarchy collapses! Everyone, quick, start mercilessly pummeling them with the language of romance so they get the message that their friendship as it is is not okay.”

I hate what this narrative says about the power differentials of gender and sexuality. I know if we were both dudes, or both women – or probably even if he were the gay one and I the breeder – we wouldn't get anywhere near this amount of teasing. And I hate what it says about the supreme importance of romantic relationships in our society. I know we only get this much teasing because we're both single. For comparison, I recently mentioned my friend JT to my little brother (who, lest we forget, is one of the best people I know); my brother said in a jokey voice, “Is he your boyfriend?”, but when I said, “He's married,” my brother dropped the entire subject. So apparently a friend's marital status can end the “is he your boyfriend” jokes, but the basic fact of my, you know, sexuality can't? A marriage certificate allows two opposite-sex people to be platonic friends, but the fact that one of them is gay doesn't?

Why does the concept of a very deep, meaningful, 100% platonic friendship between a dude-person and a lady-person blow so many people's minds? Hell, even if I was straight we could still have this sort of friendship. It's not like we're inventing the wheel here. There's even a TV Tropes page for our relationship. Truth be told, I expect better from the denizens of a campus that prides itself on its inclusivity, queerness, and all-round challenging of the kyriarchy.

In conclusion, take your bullshit heteropatriarchal narrative and shove it up your arses.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

You Are A Boring, Selfish Jerk

It's a fundamental tenet of my theology and my anthropology that admitting you are a boring, selfish jerk is the first step on the lifelong road to not being a boring, selfish jerk.

The trouble is, sometimes I find myself unable to take any other steps.

When I haven't written anything in a while, it's usually because I've been getting bogged down in self-recrimination. There's no point. I have nothing to say. God, I am such a boring, selfish jerk.

External validation doesn't really help. In fact, my psyche can get quite creative in trying to reconcile the cognitive dissonance of, say, having many awesome friends whilst knowing myself to be a boring, selfish jerk. At best, I am cheered that I have at last developed some ability to pretend to other humans that I am not (entirely) a boring, selfish jerk.

After all, what is human interaction but a continuous endeavor to pretend to one another that we are not (or, to put it less cynically, to try not to be) boring, selfish jerks?

And how am I supposed to live out the sacred mantra Be True To Yourself when even I can't stand my true self?

I think seminary probably has a higher-than-average concentration of people who loathe themselves. I think an acute awareness of and furious frustration with your own total depravity can be a very powerful motivating factor to orient yourself toward the Ultimate.

Sometimes, though, it swamps you. It's not that life doesn't go on. It's not that you don't still have plenty to enjoy and be grateful for. It's just that you go about it all stooped under the consuming burden of self-knowledge. And what are you supposed to do with that?

What do you do with all that self-loathing?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Gospel of the Living Dead

I just read a book called Gospel of the Living Dead, in which theologian Kim Paffenroth analyzes five great zombie movies (Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead 1978, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead 2004, and Land of the Dead) from a Christian perspective. Though he stops short of making this explicit, Paffenroth traces a through-narrative of the four Romero films that pretty clearly mirrors the trajectory of Jesus' death and resurrection.

A crucial theme of Romero's first four Dead films, and something very few of his disciples have ever picked up on, is the development of the zombies. Night of the Living Dead presents the ghouls as nothing more than the mindless flesh-eaters we all know and fantasize about shooting; Dawn begins to hint that there is something more to them than just the cannibalistic instinct; Day portrays a zombie beginning to develop rudimentary skills and basic emotional ties; and by Land of the Dead the zombies have their own more or less functional city alongside the humans. Paffenroth reads the movies as increasingly optimistic, traveling from the utter bleakness of Night's wonderfully nihilistic ending to a degree of hopefulness for human/zombie coexistence by the end of Land.

This also is pretty much how I read the crucifixion and resurrection.

Consider: the death and descent of the zombie uprising, with all the hellishness that entails, is the very thing that undoes materialistic, capitalistic, kyriarchal society – Romero is famous for his fierce social critique, and Paffenroth does a fine job of unpacking the films' criticisms of racism, sexism, class inequality, rampant consumerism, and so on – and ultimately allows for the rebuilding of a better world. Now this could be read in the traditionally eschatological way (there's a reason we call it zombie apocalypse), but I prefer a non-eschatological theology that sees this death-and-resurrection narrative as the narrative of the daily taking up of the cross.

Redemption only comes through the utmost suffering. The zombies, like all of society, must lose their souls in order to regain them. They die to self in order to be reborn as a new community. Only by losing our lives can we gain life; only by dying could Jesus defeat death.

Compare Mark C. Taylor's Erring, a “postmodern a/theology” which declares the post-Hegel world to be a world without God, self, history, or book. These four concepts are dead, and something new must be built in their place – something radically new: an erring, mazing, de/constructive, relational freeplay that does not resort to oversimplifications or hierarchized oppositions. Something, in fact, rather like human/zombie coexistence.

I've never understood why Nietzsche's “God is dead” pronouncement shocked anyone. I mean, what do Christians believe happened on the cross? Isn't the crucifixion really the moment that kills God, self, history, and book; that kills the transcendental signified, the ultimate referent, the Logos? And isn't it only by this death that it can rise again, new and different and wonderfully strange?

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Unwanted Thoughts Syndrome

There's this messed-up thing my brain does sometimes, usually when I'm lying in bed at night hoping to switch off (though sometimes in the middle of my daily life, which is scarier). Typically I'll have been engaging in one of my favorite meditative practices, wherein I enumerate the people who mean a lot to me. I take a moment to think about each of them in turn, expressing my gratefulness for their presence in my life and asking for God's blessing on them.

And that's when my brain suddenly sabotages itself, unleashing a scenario where I learn that a parent, sibling, or best friend of mine has died (almost always in an auto accident). Now I'm careening down the path of emotional responses to the terrible news: my chest tightens, pain wells in my abdomen, and I'm picturing a future where I never get to see this individual again. Just like that, they're gone. I try to rein in the morbid fantasy as quickly as I can, but sometimes I get as far as composing a full-blown eulogy, and quite often tears are making themselves known before I manage to get the vision under control.

I can think of a couple of psychological explanations for these little episodes. I think they have an apotropaic function: like, if I can make myself experience the emotional distress of losing a dear friend, this will somehow convince the universe to leave all my friends alive (because The Universe, as a conscious being bent on dispensing suffering to all humans without discrimination, will see my distress, assume it's already killed someone I love, and therefore move on to murdering the loved ones of someone who hasn't experienced this distress? Hey, these are rationalizations, not rational thoughts). I also suspect, though I'm a little ashamed to admit this, that they're kind of practice – just checking, for the inevitable day when I will lose someone I love, that my emotion circuits are correctly wired and I am in fact capable of having the “right” emotional response.

What I want to know is: is this normal? Do other people experience little horror-fantasies like these, bubbling up unbidden in the silence of the night or in a moment of unguarded thought, or is there something wrong with me?