I Sought Order

This do I teach:
The more you seek security, the more you are haunted by insecurity.
The more you desire surety, the more you are plagued by change.
The more you pretend to permanence, the more you invite suffering.
The more you do for control, the less you do for joy.
–  Ecclesiastes 1: 15-18

It seems we have the whole of life backward.  We want what we cannot get, and we reject that which we have in abundance.  We want the world to fit into a neat and understandable package. What we get is a jumble of experiences from which we fashion a life.

We want life to fit our story about life; instead we find ourselves in a swirling soup of ever-changing events some of which seem to make no sense whatsoever.

So Solomon is correct: The more I crave security, the more I am haunted by its absence. The more I seek to maintain the status quo, no matter how hurtful or damaging to me and others, the more things slip through my fingers and change against my will. Indeed — and this is his main point — my will does not much matter. Things happen whether I will them to or not. Reality does not give a damn about what I want; it just does what it does.

Our task then is simply to be fully present to whatever is happening now. When we are fully present, we seem to know what to do. Doing become effortless, choiceless. We are not weighing options but simply taking up the task that the moment presents.

My friend Leon is Chaplin at a local hospital. We cover for each other when one of us is out town. Late one evening I got a call from his hospital about a family whose mother was dying. Leon was unavailable, and they asked me to drive to the hospital and help in any way I could.

When I arrived at the hospital, a woman had just died and the family was being ushered out of a room by an orderly. I asked the family if they had a chance to pray with her mother and say goodbye. They had not and the orderly was kind enough to let us back into the mother’s room to be with her for a while longer. I encouraged the family to gather around their mother and take turns speaking to her — telling her they loved her, that they would miss her and that though it was sad, it was okay, that it was her time to die. As they spoke to their mother, the dead woman’s eyes suddenly filled with blood and thick red tears began to stream down her cheeks. I have never seen this happen to anyone before, and neither had her family. They stop talking and just stared, their bodies tense.

Part of me was horrified. I had performed this kind of service for people many times and this had never happened before. If I had thought about what to do, I suspect I would have left the room and called for a nurse. But I did not think about it. Instead, I sat on the bed, took the woman’s head in my arms, and wiped away the blood with a towel that had been hanging on the bed rail. I nodded to the family and encouraged them to continue speaking to her. I did all of this is if it was the most natural thing in the world. And at the time it was. After I left the hospital and returned my car however, I began shaking all over.

I still feel that I did the right thing and I learned something in the process. The lesson I learned was not simply what to do in this particular situation; rather, I learned the wisdom that comes when we are simply present. I did not have a set procedure to handle the situation we faced. In fact it was not a “situation” that needed handling. It was simply a family grieving, a mother bleeding, and a rabbi with an access to a towel.

This is what I mean by being present to the moment.  Nothing magical or extraordinary, just life as it is – often messy and rarely scripted. The more I empty myself of self and of the quest for surety, permanence, and control that defines the self, the more I am at home in the chaos of my life. The less we imagine what our lives ought to be, the more we can be present to what they really are. And in this, grace – an ease of doing – that we cannot imagine as long as we seek to control and manipulate things to our end.

Anyone who’s read even the first few pages of Genesis knows the Bible is riddled with contradictions and questionable behavior written about someone we assume to be an all-knowing and loving God. In the first two chapters alone, the authors can’t agree on what day plants were created, or if man arrived before or after the animals. Throughout the Old Testament, God assists in genocide, He burns people to death, and He orders severe punishments for seemingly innocuous crimes like wearing dissimilar clothing material or being careless with menstrual discharge.

Non-believers often seize upon the Bible’s apparent inaccuracies and atrocities when casting doubt upon God’s existence, and it’s difficult to argue with them. If these are the divinely inspired Words of God, why should there be any mistakes at all? Have such mistakes been placed there to test our faith? Is God’s mysterious behavior a conscious act on His part to separate His true followers from the pretenders? And if so, what would be the point of such a test? Surely God must know well ahead of the rest of us who will succeed and who will falter.

Questions of this nature have plagued man for as long as he could conceive of himself having been borne from supreme beings. Biological at the source, but philosophical in practice, nearly all of us carry doubts about the reasons for our existence. Are we here for some purpose? Is there order to the universe? Are we alone?

We do not want to be alone.

And so, in ways too numerous to count, we seek spiritual peace. Some of us read only the oldest, pre-Christian writings of the Tanakh. Others follow the iron will of the Catholic church, at least until one day some of them decide there is a way to be closer to God. Some of us move across the ocean, far from the original holy land, and find guidance in a reinvented Christianity with new holy lands much closer to home. We pay enormous sums of money to an organization founded by a pulp science fiction author and try to find the ancient alien inside each of us.

For most of my life, I was a lukewarm Catholic. My childhood attendance at Mass was reluctant, and once I left for college, I swore I’d never go again. But then I married a Catholic woman who gently encouraged me to return. Soon enough I’d fallen back into the routine and gradually became immersed in the community of my church, chairing fund raising events, playing basketball in the school gym, hitting the links with some of those same buddies. On Sundays, the Father would select a story from the Bible, usually the New Testament, and deliver a homily that challenged parishioners to be tolerant of their fellow man. Judging by the various conversations I either participated in or overheard among my friends there, most folks listened politely to the Father and agreed with him on principle because he was, after all, discussing the Word of God. I don’t know many who studied the Word with any level of detail, though. Being a member of the church was simply a fact of life, no different than a native Bostonian being a fan of the Red Sox.

My rejection of Christianity and organized religion in general coincided roughly with the election of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI on this very day six years ago. Ratzinger’s positions on homosexuality and condom use caused me to reexamine my own, and coupled with America’s (too) slow acceptance of gay rights, I began to seriously doubt the authority of religious figures whose basis for morality was scripture I already knew contained many structural and moral ambiguities.

I became angry with the Church for what I perceived to be hypocrisy. The Vatican coddled ordained sex offenders but condemned a wide swath of humanity who chose to employ birth control or engage in consensual sex with adults of the same gender. But soon I realized these individual political positions were symptomatic of my larger problem within organized religion, which was to conceal prejudice behind the unassailable rules of a magical supreme being. And it wasn’t just Catholics. Or Christians. Or believers in various Abrahamic religions. It was anyone who brandished spiritual belief as a weapon, no matter the source material.

And once the curtain fell, all the absurdities I’d ignored for years mushroomed into unavoidable obstacles. How could adults in the 21st century, with so much information and contradictory evidence at their disposal, still believe in a magical man in the sky? When did we decide it was acceptable to merge pagan symbols like bunny rabbits and colored eggs with the rebirth of God’s zombie son? Why did Christian Americans, so proudly individual, so unworthy of charity and state support, advocate a spiritual belief system whose core message was eternal salvation? How on earth could capitalism and Christianity coexist? Even thrive?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I doubt I ever will. But after a period of spiritual readjustment, I realized those answers were not important. The path to personal enlightenment and self-actualization was not to understand why others do the things they do or believe what they believe. And it was certainly not my place to judge others for what they believed.

What matters to me is what I believe. Nothing more.

Every one of you reading this has been blessed with the miracle of life, with consciousness; you are privileged to be a member of the only known animal species on earth capable of asking such questions. But with that privilege comes a curse, the knowledge of your own mortality, and the possibility that life is nothing more than a tiny, accidental mutation of cosmic evolution.

Navigating such a universe is not an easy task, and none of us should be blamed for the paths we choose to peace, as long as those paths don’t infringe upon the rights of others.

When I think of my own path, I think of Genesis 2 and 3, which introduce the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam and Eve disobeyed God and ate the fruit from this tree, which opened their eyes to their own nakedness. In return, God banished the two from the Garden of Eden and cursed them to a gritty, mortal existence. Their rebellious behavior constitutes our original fall from grace.

But to me, in these opening chapters, the Bible tells me everything I need to know about Christianity. Given the choice between nuanced knowledge and simple bliss, between rebellion and obedience, I’ll take the rebellious knowledge every time. In my estimation, humankind’s questions about the nature of itself, our rejection of the status quo, our ever-upward understanding of our tiny-yet-significant place in this beautiful universe, is the true miracle.

Grace isn’t something from which we’ve fallen. Grace is something to which we aspire, that we strive toward every day. If we ever manage to get there, ever so humbly, God will be waiting for us, a welcoming smile on his face.

Because in the end, God is us. He’s the best we have to offer.

That any of us have to offer.

You.

Me.

Anyone who aspires to grace.

When I was fourteen, I stood before the deacons of my church and lied.

The deacons sat in a half circle of red and gold armchairs that seemed incongruous with the church’s Puritan ancestry. A small group of my peers sat behind me, waiting for their turn to speak, truth or lie.   I told them all I believed in God, that I believed Jesus was the son of God, and that human beings were made in His image.  The head deacon knew I was a liar, but he liked me.  When I finished my statement of faith – required for confirmation – he threw me a few softball questions.  One deacon tried to catch me in the lie.  She asked me why I hadn’t talked about attending church, about the congregation, in my statement.

I told her, and the rest of the room, that I believed in the ability of the individual to navigate his or her own way through the complicated, conflicting, confusing world of faith and belief. For me, independent inquiry and intellectual and spiritual curiosity were more important than participation in a congregation.  I quickly added that I did acknowledge the value of a pastor’s leadership, and the ability of the congregation to infuse my own spiritual quest with needed energy and knowledge.  Lying again.  They let me in.

On confirmation day, the pastor grabbed my arm. “Listen to my sermon,” he said. “You’re its inspiration.”

The pastor, at the pulpit, told the congregation that one of its newest members had inspired him to grow as a Christian in a way he had never considered before.  He said that the independent spirit of this young person had moved him to preach that day about individual curiosity, introspection, and honesty.  Don’t say what you think is right to believe.  Say what you believe, listen to others, and you’ll grow.  I was beaming. I had fooled them all.

Then, we, the about-to-be confirmed, approached the front of the congregation and knelt in a half circle on the red carpet. We waited for the pastor and the deacons to walk to each of us, lay hands on our heads, and pray.  I was last in the half circle.


***


The pastor taught our year-long confirmation class himself. Congregationalists don’t like ritual and pomp, and they certainly don’t pay much attention to the Catholic obsession with saints. So it came as a surprise when the pastor told our class about his latest idea to make confirmation more exciting — each of us were to be assigned a saint, based on his assessment of our spiritual needs and personalities, and we were to research that saint and find a spiritual connection to their story. We each got a pendant in a white cardboard box, and the pastor explained to each of us his decisions.

Mine was Saint Anne, Grandmother of Jesus, the patron saint of housewives, women in labor, miners and poverty. The pastor said he saw Saint Anne as part of my nature, the part that made me exceptionally strong-willed.

I thought, “Is this a joke? housewives, poverty, and labor? I’m going to be a doctor, a pathologist. I’ll be neither poor nor pregnant.”

On the pendant, Anne held a book. She wasn’t looking at the book. She was staring up to the sky, to God. This saint was meant for me somehow but the joke would be on the pastor. I decided Anne was studious, well-read, and wise. She was the grandmother of Jesus, the holder of precious knowledge beyond her time. I imagined Anne reading the Book her grandson would pass to the world two generations early. I thought of her as a happily silent prophet, who would treat those close to her with odd bits of information, and revel in their misunderstanding and confusion. Unlike tragically misunderstood Cassandra, Anne was content to be the only one who knew the full meaning behind her eccentricities. Like most artists, I thought, she’d be best understood once she was long dead and the rest of the world caught up.

St. Anne, praise her, helped me take pleasure in my secret knowledge.


***


Finally, the pastor and deacons reached me.  He had handpicked crosses for each of us to wear.  Most of the girls had large, silver crosses with embedded jewels.  Mine was plain, small, gold, with flared edges, more like what he gave to the boys.  The pastor and the deacons placed their hands on my head, and the pastor leaned in close and whispered in my ear:

“I know you have hardened your heart, and I pray to God that one day He’ll open it.”

They finished praying, and the newest members of the church stood up to lead the congregation in a hymn.


***

 

I had lost my faith about three years before this moment. I don’t remember when, exactly.  It was before I saw the pictures of the Mengele experiment victims, but after the death of my grandmother.

Nowadays, I ask other people to tell me how they found God, and they ask me to tell them a story, too. Have I lost mine? If so, where do I search for God? Testify. Fair’s fair, but there’s no story.  So, what do you say: truth or lie?



Picture a suburb of Cleveland. Even if you have never been to one, you probably have in mind something very much like Brooklyn, Ohio, a nondescript village of tidy lawns and aluminum siding. Living here, it would take a leap of faith to imagine yourself at the center of anything, much less of everything. Fortunately, leaps of faith are the forte of Gerardus Dingeman Bouw, the president of the Association for Biblical Astronomy and the country’s leading proponent of geocentrism.

In the field of Bible science, young earth creationism is the liberal position. A tiny but fiercely dedicated contingent of scholars holds the more conservative belief that a literal reading of the Bible reveals a universe in revolution around a fixed, central point: the earth. Bouw, who holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from Case Western Reserve, has dedicated his adult life to proving this proposition scripturally and scientifically.

The geocentrist movement is not as well known as the creationist movement, nor as well organized or funded. Bouw earns his living as a professor of computer science at a small liberal arts college. The Association for Biblical Astronomy, which exists almost entirely as a web site and a quarterly journal, is run out of a cluttered spare room in Bouw’s Brooklyn home.

In 1992, Bouw self-published a 400-page book titled Geocentricity (the ABA prefers this term, to distinguish its discipline from classical geocentrism, which postulated a patently absurd universe of concentric, independent spheres). Geocentricity lays out not only a defense of geocentrism, but a reminder the stakes. The Bible, Bouw writes, is replete with passages that describe, in plain language, an immobile earth encircled by the sun and stars; there are 26 verses that speak of the sun “going down” or “setting,” and 30 that describe it as “rising.” These are not mere figures of speech, warns Bouw. “If God can not be taken literally when he writes of the ‘rising of the sun,’ then how can he be taken literally in writing of the ‘rising of the Son?’”

Mainstream creationists (if I may be allowed the term) argue that the seemingly geocentric passages are merely God using the “language of appearance,” or divinely-inspired men speaking from a human perspective. This is the liberal tendency that makes geocentrists apoplectic. “Phenomenological or anthropocentric,” sniffs Bouw:

either God inerrently inspired the wording or He did not; either the Bible is trustworthy or it is not. There is no middle ground. There is no room for compromise. After all, both the anthropocentric theory of inspiration and the phenomenological-language theory are forms of accommodation where God is said to accommodate his wording to the understanding of the common man. Good though that may sound on the surface, accommodation still maintains that God goes along with the accepted story even though he really does not believe it.

It does not help when, for instance, the Answers in Genesis web site caps its dismissal of geocentrism with the observation that “the question of the earth’s physical position is less important than the spiritual reality of God’s love for his people” — precisely what Christians who accept evolution say about the physical creation of man. “It’s inconsistent,” Bouw told me. “you can’t say that one part of it is more credible than another part just simply because you feel uncomfortable with what it says there.”

Bouw is 65, a shambling professor with wire-rim glasses and a pen clipped into his shirt pocket. He speaks gently, with a hint of a Dutch accent, but his face reddens easily, a trait emphasized by his crown of white-gray hair. Bouw emigrated to the States, by way of Canada, as a teenager. He had been raised in the church, but while pursuing his science degrees at American universities, he decided that he was an atheist. He changed his mind again, however, shortly after earning his Ph.D., when a presentation on neutron stars at an American Association for the Advancement of Science convention persuaded him that life was inherent in the universe, which meant there must be a creator.

“I decided that if there was a God who was involved with his creation, then there should be a manual about running earth,” said Bouw. He began studying the great religious texts of the world and was halfway through Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel Time Enough for Love, when he decided to try the Bible instead. “I started reading it from cover to cover, basically looking for any internal contradictions that were inconsistent with an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God, and, basically, I couldn’t find any.” Bouw now says that God must have guided him to a King James Version, since it is the only accurate, contradiction-free translation.

Bouw did not recant his belief in evolution, however. That would come two years later when he picked up a tract from the Institute for Creation Research called Have You Been… Brainwashed? To his shock, Bouw realized that he… had. Now that he understood the limits of science, he went back to the Bible. “I found that the scriptures could help coordinate my scientific knowledge,” he said. “Some of it I would have to forget or unlearn, but quite often the result of what I unlearned was much more valuable and much more comprehensive” than the original knowledge. While reading the Bible, he made his mantra, “What must I forget next?”

The scriptural evidence for geocentrism goes beyond references to the rising and setting of the sun. There are also repeated allusions to the stability of the earth — Bouw’s favorite is Psalm 93:1: “[T]he world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved” — and passages about God’s heavenly throne, which, for arcane reasons that take up six pages of Geocentricity, strongly suggest a stationary earth.

The Geocentrists’ most treasured verses are ones in which the sun fails to move as expected. Job 9:7 says, God “commandeth the sun, and it riseth not.” This clearly can not be a case of the sun appearing not to rise, because it is the sun to which God addresses his command. It’s true that this line is spoken by Job, who, as a man, may be mistaken, but Bouw believes this passage is a prophetic reference to an incident known as Joshua’s long day, which constitutes his most compelling scriptural evidence. Joshua 10 recounts a day in which, according to God’s own words, “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.” An obvious rejoinder is that if God had said the earth stood still, no reader until 16th century would have understood him. Bouw labels this the central heresy of the modern — that is, post-medieval — church. “Most Christian scholars over the centuries have been of the opinion that God needs them to make his truth known,” he writes, “that God is incapable of explaining certain matters to man without that help.”

Bouw also has no patience for the observation that much of the Bible is meant to be poetic. “Poetry is every wit as truthful as prose,” he insists. The real problem is not that science is overtaking the Bible, but that it has yet to catch up. “As man’s knowledge increases, the number of such ‘poetic’ passages in the Bible is steadily decreasing,” he claims. I tried probing Bouw’s philosophy for inconsistencies but found few. Most Christians since Augustine have held that God does not literally have body parts — hands, feet, a face, even wings — as described in the Bible; these are “figures of speech about God,” in the words of Answers in Genesis. Bouw disagrees. Of course God has hands, feet and wings — the Bible says so. Bouw explained that as far as he is concerned, the Bible only uses metaphors when “even Adam could have recognized them.” So trees don’t really have hands, because no one in history would ever have heard Isaiah 55:12 and taken it literally. But if Adam could have read a Bible passage describing the motion of the sun, he wouldn’t have known it was meant to be figurative, therefore it can not be.

In 1975, Bouw joined the Creation Research Society, one of the first organized institutions of contemporary creationism. While training himself to forget the teachings of “science falsely so called,” Bouw came across an article in the CRS journal about the diversity of opinion among creationists. In passing, the writer mentioned the extreme case of one Walter van der Kamp, an advocate of geocentrism. Recalled Bouw, “I fired off a letter to Walter asking, in effect, which scriptures?”

Van der Kamp, it so happened, was another Dutch-Canadian. “As a foreigner in Canada, you are not always accepted,” mused Bouw. “You can either let it defeat you, or you can decide, Why don’t you show them?, and I think that’s pretty much how Walter and I handled it.” Van der Kamp came to creationism relatively late in life and had not gotten far in his research when something began to trouble him: if Genesis 1 clearly states that God created the sun and the moon on the fourth day in order to rule an already existing day and night on an already existing earth, when did the earth begin to move, and how did we ever get the idea that it was the earth’s rotation toward and away from the sun that caused day and night, rather than the light that God so dramatically created in Genesis 1:3? Besides, would God really have created a planet, set it into orbit around nothing, then four days later placed a random minor star at the center of that orbit? Obviously, something didn’t add up.

“Having come this far in reading about the matter, I found myself in a quandary,” writes van der Kamp in his memoir, a work of irresistible Old World charm.

All books and everyone consulted warned me that it would be worse than preposterous to contradict and dismiss the results of three centuries of observations. On the other hand, it was equally difficult to swallow the view that Holy Scripture fobs us off with fictions presented as factual truths; and that it does so in a rather clear prosaic style. What is more, though sauce for the geocentric goose then ought to be no less a sauce for the creationist gander, I still refused to bend the knee to Darwin and his proselytes. Their tedious, inane prattle about something called “Nature” through endless ages evolving and adapting the stupendous variety of living creatures disgusted me. “Nature,” with a “somehow- intuitively-acquired” understanding of all physical sciences, “somehow” perfectly synchronizing the tiniest individual evolvements for stabilizing countless finely-tuned ecosystems? And this for the most divergent climatic conditions? No, never!

There was still the little matter of science, of course, but that proved less difficult to overcome than van der Kamp expected.

Whatever I read, whomever I asked, nowhere could I find a physically and logically sound refutation of the Bible’s Earth-centered picture. The textbooks took our annual revolution around the Sun to be so self-evident that no further verification was necessary. Anyone accosted about the matter assured me that, as everyone knows, Copernicus had settled the point long ago. “Proof?” The answer evoked by all my queries came down to: “Why should we have to prove something we know to be true?”

Van der Kamp wrote up his findings in a 1967 pamphlet called The Heart of the Matter, which he sold to friends for $2 and mailed free to leading creationists. For the most part, it was met with either scorn or silence, though van der Kamp did receive some encouragement from Harold Armstrong, a co-founder of the Creation Research Society, who confessed that he had secretly harbored geocentric sympathies for years. By 1971, van der Kamp had enough of a following to justify the founding of the Tychonian Society, named for Tycho Brahe, the brilliant 16th century astronomer who briefly staved off Copernicanism. (The Tychonic System — in which the sun revolves around the earth and the rest of the planets revolve around the sun — was an elegant and nearly workable model that forms the basis for modern geocentrism.) The first Bulletins of the Tychonian Society were handwritten and mimeographed, but as they became more professional, or, at any rate, typed, they found a wider audience, and van der Kamp began earning invitations to major Bible science conferences.

It was around this time that Gerard Bouw got in touch with him. Eventually Bouw would succeed van der Kamp as president of the Society, and rename it the Association for Biblical Astronomy. (Van der Kamp died in 1998.) But the two men did not click well at first. Bouw believed in the hard evidence of scripture and astronomy, while van der Kamp’s approach was more philosophical. “I just don’t trust philosophy — never have,” Bouw told me. “They don’t know anything for sure.”

Bouw began his own investigation of the geocentrism. “I had a job at that time, a part time job, selling menswear,” he said. “And we had to keep busy, you know, we couldn’t stand still in that job; you have to keep walking the floor and rearranging the shelves or whatever all the time. And so that gave me some time to think about it. And as I thought about it, I wondered, you know, There really isn’t any objection against it. There is no scriptural objection against it, and there is no scientific objection against it, so why do I have problems accepting it?

It is one thing for the philosophy-addled Walter van der Kamp to embrace geocentrism. But what does it mean for a man with degrees in astrophysics and astronomy to say that there is no scientific objection to it? The answer is found in something called Mach’s Principle, a hypothesis that was instrumental in Einsten’s development of general relativity. As understood by geocentrists, Mach’s Principle states that the motion of any object in the universe is never absolute, but exists only in relationship to the motion of all other objects in the universe. Predictions and measurements can be made using any chosen reference frame. “It matters little,” wrote Mach,

if we think of the earth as turning about on its axis, or if we view it at rest while the fixed stars revolve around it. Geometrically these are exactly the same case of a relative rotation of the earth and the fixed stars with respect to one another.

As geocentrists are fond of noting, Einstein himself wrote that all coordinate systems (CS) are equally valid: “The two sentences, ‘the sun is at rest and the earth moves,’ or ‘the sun moves and the earth is at rest’ would simply mean two different conventions concerning two different CS.” Although geocentrists reject relativity as an actual description of the physical laws of the universe, they accept it as a mathematical tool, and they wield it to show that a geocentric solar system — or martiocentric one, for that matter — is as valid as a heliocentric one.

In 2006, a Catholic geocentrist named Robert Sungenis published the first book in a planned two-volume set called Galileo was Wrong. At 1,147 pages it stands as the most comprehensive and sophisticated explanation to date of the science of modern geocentrism (volume two will discuss the geocentric teachings of scripture and the Church). As Sungenis explained it to me, geocentrists “are using modern science” to show that neither heliocentrism nor geocentrism can be proven. “So if there is no proof, then the whole thing is wide open for discussion, intellectual discussion. And then, if there is no way to prove through science — that is, relativity science — which one is correct, then we have to go to other places to find out which is correct.” Those other places being the Bible and, for Catholics, the Church fathers.

Having spent a considerable amount of time talking with creationists, I recognized fundamental similarities between their approach and that of the geocentrists: the emphasis on casting doubt on established theories rather than developing their own testable hypotheses; the claim that all they’re asking for is an open debate. And Sungenis also echoed creationists’ assertions that they don’t deny fossil evidence but merely interpret it in a different way. “We also have to backtrack on the experiments that were done that were interpreted in the heliocentric framework and ask if they can be interpreted in the geocentric framework,” he said. “And we find that that is the case. That is exactly the case. All the experiments have been done for us already, its just a matter now of showing the world that those very experiments don’t prove for modern science what they are said to prove.”

Another similarity between creationism and geocentrism is that when a typical scientific ignoramus — such as myself — encounters an expert in the field, he will quickly find himself drowning in a swamp of what sure sounds like science. At one point, Bouw sought to dismiss a common objection to geocentrism, which is that if the entire universe is revolving around the earth, the stars would have to be traveling faster than the speed of light in order to complete the rotations observed each day. “There are a couple of ways to object to that,” Bouw explained. “First of all, relativity does not deal with rotation, so rotation can be beyond the speed of light. But even if that’s not the case — even if you just strictly take the view that all you have is gravitational rotation — because E=mc2, when you use the formula for gravity, you have to replace the m by E/c2, and so then the centrifugal energy — the energy used as the centrifugal force, the kinetic energy there — and even the potential energy — are big enough that they increase the tension so much that the speed of light changes locally. The speed of light is dependent on the strength of the gravitational field: the stronger the field, the faster it goes. And so if the universe is being held together by gravity, out beyond even twenty billion light years or so, it’s still going to hang together. The gravitational tension is going to be huge, the speed of light is going to be tremendous — much larger, actually, than the speed of rotation — but the physics does work that way.”

Does it? You tell me.

Bouw got up from a worn living room chair and padded across the beige carpet to his home office. He returned a few minutes later with a contraption that looked like an even lower-tech version of something the kiddie-TV star Bibleman would use to fight atheists. The base was a wooden box, painted black, about two feet long. On top of that sat a metal cylinder topped by an intricate series of gears, platforms and industrial-grade rubber bands. In the center of this was a model of the earth. Jutting out to one side was the sun and, emerging from that on oddly-angled metal rods, Venus and Mars. “This is a geocentric orrery,” Bouw said. It illustrates the movement of the sun and planets around the earth.

Bouw plugged the orrery into a socket and flipped a switch. Nothing happened. He tried a few times, muttered a bit, made some adjustment, then flipped the switch again. There was a low hum and the sun began to circle the earth. Then Mars fell onto the floor.

“Oops.” Bouw stuck the Mars rod back into its hole. “All right, that’s the daily motion. Now let’s add the yearly motion.” He flipped another switch and the hum got louder. The sun continued on its course around the earth, now slowly rising as it moved. “There is the first day of summer,” Bouw pointed out. “You notice that the Northern hemisphere is getting the sunlight and the Southern hemisphere is not.” He hit the third switch and sun began to spin slowly, dragging Venus and Mars into their orbits. Then Venus collided with the metal arm holding the sun and got stuck.

Bouw scratched at his neck, then pulled both planets out of their holes and switched them. Now the orrery worked properly.

“Is this a one-of-a-kind?” I asked.

“No, there’s probably three or four of these that were made. There’s one in a school in Michigan, one is in a seminary in New Jersey and I think there is one in the Midwest somewhere.”

“A school? People teach this in schools?”

“Oh, yes. Church schools.”

I wondered how in-depth these lessons were. I felt I had the basics of geocentrism down, but talking with Bouw and Sungenis about the details, and reading their publications, I easily became confused. First I had to learn the meaning of phrases such as Michelson-Morley, Lense-Thirring and the Airy function; and then I had to unlearn those meanings in favor of what geocentrists said their meanings were. Next was the matter of embracing long-discarded concepts whose very names sounded ancient. Luminiferous aether? Really? And finally, and most disconcertingly, were the alleged physics proofs that unabashedly incorporated Biblical terms such as the firmament and the third heaven.

Geocentrists are used to skepticism, of course, and impossible to shake in their confidence. As creationists have with evolution, they have offered rewards to anyone who can prove, to their satisfaction, that the earth revolves around the sun. “That may have been a risky thing on my part,” said Sungenis of his $1,000 prize, not because he feared losing his money, but “because some people look at it and say, Oh this is really turning into a circus.” He did not want to lose the respect of the scientific community.

Robert Sungenis understands why secular scientists fight so desperately against geocentrism, despite its obvious viability. “There are philosophical, theological, cultural, social, financial ramifications to all this, that go deep into the psyche of man,” he told me. “Because if it is postulated that the earth is in the center of the universe, and people can show credible evidence that this may indeed be the case — I have run across so many quotes from so many famous scientists that say, if that’s the case, they more or less throw up their hands and say, it’s all over. Because they know that this cannot occur unless someone with design put the earth in the center of the universe. It’s even more devastating than saying that there is no evolution. Because this to them — and they all admit it, everyone of them I have read admit it — if this is the case, modern science has to start from square one.”

Sungenis is a traditionalist Catholic. Unlike Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton — a fellow geocentrist with whom Sungenis has politely debated cosmology — Sungenis does not outright reject Vatican II and the modern papacy. He does his best, however, to hold the church to his highly conservative standards. Throughout the 1990s, following his conversion from evangelical Protestantism, Sungenis was a respected and admired apologist in some circles. But his embrace of geocentrism in 2002 was viewed as something of an embarrassment. Several of his associates distanced themselves from him, with a few adding that they were further troubled by his hostile attitude toward Jews. Sungenis dismissed them as “a renegade assortment of ‘Catholics’ who simply refuse to accept my ongoing warnings about the Jewish, Zionist and Neocon infiltration into the heart of the Catholic Church today.”

Like Bouw, Sungenis holds the rash abandonment of geocentrism in the 16th century responsible for “all these problems in the world today.” Atheism, Marxism, Nazism, abortion, homosexuality — all of these can be laid at the feet of Copernicus. “People decided, Well, God told us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go — and they compromised,” moaned Bouw, “The Bible got weakened and weakened. Our faith in the Bible has weakened, the authority of the Bible has weakened.”

By the 19th century, Bouw writes in Geocentricity, “the revolution of the sciences spilled over into the political realm,” with the French and American Revolutions, and Britain’s bloodless revolutions, being fought to make the world “safe for the ‘free thinking’ humanist.” He adds, “‘Free thinking,’ by the way, is a euphemism for foul-mouthed, bigoted, intolerant, narrow-minded, superstitious, name-calling railers who oppress all those who feel free to think about and conclude for the existence of God.” Bouw’s home page on his university web site — which is filled with diatribes against abortion, immigration, and Martin Luther King — leaves little doubt as to his opinion about the effects of Copernicanism in America. The United States, he writes, is a Marxist, Humanist dictatorship which has “officially declared that all Bible-believers are terrorists and enemies of the state.”

Given the capitulation to heliocentrism, said Bouw, the demise of special creation was inevitable. “By the time evolution comes around, well, you gave in on the geocentric thing: Scripture teaches how to go to heaven. Fine, evolution has nothing to do with how to go to heaven, so there’s no contradiction.” Geocentrists view their work as a necessary component of creationism. “You can’t play both sides of the fence,” said Sungenis. “Either you’re going to do it the whole way or don’t do it at all. If you believe scriptures that are against evolution, then you have to believe the scriptures that are against heliocentrism. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. You can understand the plain meaning of scripture from the fourth grade onwards.”

It has been to the geocentrists’ great consternation, therefore, that mainstream creationists don’t see it that way. The broader movement’s initial openness to geocentrism, in the van der Kamp era, occurred at a time when both enterprises existed only on the fringes of society. But in the decades that followed, creationism, and then intelligent design, began to gain respectability — with the public if not with scientists — and the association with geocentrism became a liability.

“They are just afraid,” said Sungenis. “And they have admitted this. This is not something I am making up. They told us, We really don’t want to get into this issue, we want to downplay it as much as possible, because we don’t want to be embarrassed in front of the scientific world. If we come out saying that the earth is in the center of the universe and that man didn’t come from apes, that’s going to be enough to have them turn totally off to our arguments against evolution.” Sungenis and Bouw both claim that quite a few creationists are closet geocentrists — “including some bigwigs,” said Bouw.

It takes more than being considered too weird for young earth creationists to make geocentrists despair, however. “As long as people have some faith in Scripture, there’s a future for it,” said Bouw. “There are young people interested in it.”

I asked Bouw, “How many active geocentrists are there in the world, would you estimate?”

“Let’s see…” Bouw looked up at the ceiling, apparently doing some calculations in his head. “That I know of… about eight.”

Eight? Eight what — hundred?”

“Eight people. Who promote geocentricity actively, who have the capability of fielding questions.”

“Oh. But as far as people who may not be experts, but who subscribe to the point of view…?”

“Thousands? I have no idea. Millions, maybe?” About 200 people, said Bouw, subscribe to his journal, The Biblical Astronomer.

I pointed out that half the country accepts special creation. Did it disturb him that more people didn’t believe in geocentrism?

“I think about half the country does accept geocentricity. Surveys keep being published indicating that. Maybe it’s down to 40 percent now, but it used to be above half believe that the sun goes around the earth once a day.”

I raised my eyebrows a bit. Who would do a survey on geocentrism?

“Well, the survey is about the state of science education. It’s usually presented as confirming the appalling ignorance of the public — that they don’t even know the earth goes around the sun.”

Now I realized that I had seen these surveys. The National Science Foundation compiles them every year. Later I looked up the most recent one. Almost a third of the population responded “incorrectly” to the question, “Does the earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the earth?” That isn’t the near-majority that Bouw had thought, but when I reframed the statistic as counting not scientific illiterates but nascent geocentrists, it did give me some pause. It was beginning to seem that what separated the geocentrists from the creationists was not credibility but cultural sophistication. Who knows how far they could get with the same variety of edutainment — the museums, books and videos. I asked Bouw if he’d given any thought to livening up his approach.

Bouw said he could see incorporating geocentric exhibits into creation museums, perhaps a larger model of the orrery or a Foucault’s Pendulum, properly explained. “One of the things we’ve thought about doing is creating a video of interviews throughout history. You’re probably too young, but in the 1950’s Walter Cronkite hosted a series called The Twentieth Century, in which he conducted interviews with historical figures. [I am too young, but I suspect Bouw meant You Are There.] Well, we can do that kind of a thing.”

“Who are some of the figures that you might profile?”

“Oh, well Einstein for example. And he was womanizer, of course, so we could make some sort of a tongue in cheek stuff there.”

“How would that…”

“Oh Kepler!” Bouw interrupted. “You can make that funny or… what should I say? Because I think the evidence now is pointing to his actually having murdered Tycho Brahe. So, sinister, I guess.”

“What about something less elaborate in the meantime? A non-technical book for laypeople, or a school curriculum or lecture series?” Other than pity, I wasn’t sure why I was signing on as geocentrism’s publicity consultant.

“That takes time and an effort to do,” Bouw sighed. “And then of course I have my teaching responsibilities, and I don’t have enough money really to retire — well, until Social Security kicks in and just about doubles my retirement income. But that’s another year before I can do that, and at this point, I don’t know who I could delegate anything to.”

“Does it ever frustrate you that there are all these resources and vehicles for creationism and yet none for what you’re doing?”

“It did at first, but not anymore. What frustrates me more now is that people become interested in geocentricity, and they have talent, and then they decide to use those talents in promoting their own ideas, which are usually ineffective and not — well, they’re off the wall, let’s put it that way. They are not based on hard science.”

Bouw told me there are geocentrists in France who believe in a rotating earth and one in Scotland who has calculated the radius of the universe at a quarter of a million miles. There is even one geocentrist who believes the earth is hollow and we live on the inside. “I learned a long time ago that any kind of different idea draws intellectuals, and it also draws kooks,” he said. “For example, in the 1970s there was a freak organization — I would call them freaks, most people call them hippies — that believed in vortices. It bordered on occult metaphysics.”

I asked about a creationist named Marshall Hall. Hall made the news in 2007 when a couple of state legislators, one in Georgia and one in Texas, asked him to draft a memo on legal strategies for challenging evolution in public schools. The memo stirred up controversy with its claim that the Big Bang was really the creation myth of “the Pharisee Religion” — that is, Judaism. What drew considerably less attention was the name the web site Hall invited lawmakers to visit, fixedearth.com, on which he peddles his self-published book, The Earth is Not Moving.

“He’s a good popularizer,” Bouw said grudgingly. “I’m not too enamored of him. The best treatment he has is the involvement of Kepler with the occult, but he views everything as a conspiracy against the truth.”

“And you don’t?”

“No. I mean, yeah, the Devil’s got his hand in it, but a lot of it is man’s own fear of being ostracized.”

Most geocentrists are evangelical protestants, which leaves Sungenis even more isolated than Bouw. I asked Sungenis if Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apology to Galileo made his task more difficult.

“You know this was interesting, because I was under the impression, after hearing the commentaries about what John Paul II said, that he did apologize to Galileo. And I never read what John Paul II actually said. And when I actually read what he said, there was no apology there! What there was was a recognition of both sides of the issue. And the telltale comment was that he said, theology needs to keep up with science. And if that’s the case, well then, that means doors cannot be closed to scientific investigation. And if that is the case, then that means geocentric investigation is wide open. Let’s get these scientists and theologians to do what John Paul II told us to do: let’s look at the science again.”

“But shouldn’t the church apologize to Galileo? Because they didn’t just dispute his theories, they arrested him, they shut him down.”

“They were correct in making that judgment. They had some scientific evidence — they had Tycho Brahe’s model of cosmology — but they had the scripture, they had the fathers, and they had the previous papal statements. And so if they were going to be Catholic, they were more or less obliged to go by the tradition and the scripture.”

“I wasn’t talking about the argument against him as much as the principle of free inquiry,” I replied. “Letting him say his peace and debating it as opposed to preventing him from—”

“That was the point though! Galileo insisted not just in disseminating his ideas, he insisted that these were facts — and that’s when Bellarmine came down on him very hard, because he said, No they’re not facts. The most we’ll let you say is that this is a hypothesis. And the church was very willing to allow Galileo to say that it was a hypothesis. The church was always open to that idea. But when someone says it’s fact, that’s quite a different story.”

I thought it might help to bring the conversation into the 21st century. “Obviously there are people today who will say that certain things are facts that you don’t agree with. Would you argue that they should not be permitted to state things as facts if you can show that they are not factual?”

“Yeah, if there is no proof that something is a fact, I would definitely say, No you can’t say that it’s a fact. That’s what the case is against evolution, for example. It’s a theory. And yet many of these scientists who know that it’s a theory, treat it as a fact, and that is where I’d put them down hard in that the same way that the church came down on Galileo.”

“Are you talking about literally preventing books from being published and so on?

“Well, I mean, I am not going to be the judge of what the extent of the criminal liabilities or civil liabilities would be. All I am saying is, I want to encourage a scientist, if he is going to be fair, not to call heliocentrism or evolution a fact. And if they did… If I was a church authority like Cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo was a parishioner of my church, and I had the right to censor him, I would have done that, yes.”

I had thought there was a limit to how far back anyone would want to turn the clock. Now I wasn’t sure. In Walter van der Kamp’s memoir there is a point when he asks himself if by clinging to geocentrism, he isn’t merely repeating the error of ancient Christians who believed the earth was flat. And then he seems to wonder if that even was an error.

One should not so quickly deride these old-time pillars of staunch orthodoxy who predicted and feared that accepting the heathenish Ptolemaic sphericity in the long run would lead to the negation of God’s message altogether. It was Jerusalem contra Athens, revelation against human reasoning. In A.D. 748, Saint Boniface, apostle to the Germans, complained that a certain abbot, Vergilius, held the heresy of the existence of antipodes; and many of us, had we been there, might well have sided with the former’s literalism against the latter’s liberalism.

Are there still flat-earthers? The Flat Earth Society, an organization whose name is synonymous with delusion, died in 2001 along with its final president Charles K. Johnson, although it has recently been revived with unclear earnestness. The society, founded in 1956, grew out of a movement that began in England in the mid-19th century. Like geocentrism, flat-earthism was as much a religious belief as a scientific one. Members of the Flat Earth Society — there were reportedly a few hundred in 1980 — believed in the plain language of scripture. Didn’t God say he had “stretched out the earth” (Psalm 136:6) and could “take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it” (Job 38:13)? Even photographs of the planet from space — alleged photographs — could not sway them from God’s word.

For Sungenis, this was never an issue; the church Fathers had affirmed a spherical earth centuries ago. Bouw was more open-minded. “I investigated it, yes,” he said, when I asked him if the spherical earth was something he’d once thought he might be required to forget. “I don’t see that the scriptures teach a flat earth. But I have no problem defending a flat earth if I have to.”

“If scripture doesn’t teach it, why would you defend it?”

“Because it’s a theoretical construct. I can defend a spherical earth too. Just pick your geometry, that’s all.”

What does scripture teach? Entries on cosmology and cosmogony in seven different Bible encyclopedias and dictionaries are virtually unanimous in their judgment. The truth is, the authors of the Hebrew Bible never intended to describe their world in any scientific, or even proto-scientific, sense. They wrote of windows in the heavens that would open to allow the water beyond to fall onto the earth, even though they knew full well that rain fell from clouds and that water evaporated back into the sky. The language of the Bible “is frequently the expression of poetic and religious impressions of the world order,” says The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. “It ought not to be understood rigidly, as if all biblical descriptions of heaven and earth and the lower parts of the earth could be harmonized into a single structural portrait of the universe.” Indeed, the ancient Hebrews would not have understood the concept of such a portrait; to them, the world was only a collection of parts, not a whole.

And if one still insisted on assembling a unified picture and understanding it rigidly? Then the flat-earthers are more correct than anyone else. Certainly the Bible is not heliocentric, but neither is it geocentric, in the way that Bouw and Sungenis would have it. “There is no word in biblical Hebrew corresponding to the notion of ‘universe’ or ‘cosmos,’” says The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. The Bible can not describe the earth as the center of everything, because it does not recognize that everything even exists. If hammered against its will into a single cosmology, what the Bible describes is a universe virtually unrecognizable today: a flat disc, probably round, suspended on pillars sunk into a bottomless sea; stretched high above is a hard dome, also suspended on pillars; on the interior face of the dome are the lights of the sky, which travel from one end to the other each day and night; above the dome is more water, and above that, the dwelling place of God, who is shaking his head, one imagines, at the follies of the people below.

I found a scientist willing to read Robert Sungenis’s Galileo was Wrong. George Spagna is the chair of the physics department of Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and the director of the school’s observatory. Spagna agreed to give serious consideration to Sungenis’s research, a promise he found significantly harder to keep once he’d gotten about two-thirds of the way through the first chapter, by which point, he said, “I really wanted to be wearing rubber gloves.”

Spagna found numerous specific problems with Sungenis’s work — “His whole universe would flatten into a disc along its axis,” he noted, by way of example — and objected to the geocentrist’s “cherry-picking” of data and his use of quotes from scientists speaking to laypeople in an imprecise way as if they were scientific proofs. But his larger concern was with Sungenis’s central idea that since all reference frames are equally valid, you might as well accept the Bible as a tie-breaker. Such a priori assumptions are not allowed, Spagna said. “If we assume that this is a special place, then we can’t do science.”

But geocentrists, like creationists, don’t accept the agreed-upon definition of science. And if creationists have made headway in swaying the public on that point, why couldn’t geocentrists? “Am I crazy to imagine that 50 years from now, some school district in Kansas might be putting stickers on textbooks and demanding to teach the geocentrism-heliocentrism controversy?” I asked.

“Does it seem crazy that it could happen?” said Spagna. “No. It seems scary.”

Before I left Gerard Bouw’s home, he mentioned to me that his fiercest critics are his fellow Christians. “Non-Christians certainly don’t have a problem with the idea that the Bible is geocentric,” he said. “I am kind of amazed at atheists not taking the creationists to task about geocentricity.”

I studied Bouw’s face, but the comment seemed to be a general one, not directed at me personally. I continued as if the idea of using geocentrism to expose the foolishness of creationism had never occurred to me. “Why do you think they don’t?” I asked.

“I think they’re afraid to do it,” said Bouw. “Because they might lose even worse.”

Last night, a thunderbolt from the heavens struck a 62 foot tall statue of Jesus in Ohio, and burned it to the ground. The statue, originally titled “King of Kings”, has become known as the “Touchdown Jesus” by pretty much everyone who has seen it:

The fact that a statue of Jesus was struck by lightning is likely to cause quite a stir in some circles. How could this have happened? Is there more than a random weather pattern at play?

Watch Touchdown Jesus Burn

People who watched the statue burn had a variety of reactions:

One woman said, “It sent goosebumps through my whole body because I am a believer. Of all the things that could have been struck, I just think that that would be protected. … It’s something that’s not supposed to happen, Jesus burning. I had to see it with my own eyes.”

Another woman was quoted as saying, “God struck God, I like the irony. Jesus struck Jesus.”

The sign for an adult store across the street was untouched.

Touchdown Jesus was constructed out of styrofoam, resin, fiberglass, wood and concrete. Total damages from the fire are estimated at around $700,000.

While I’ll leave the final conclusion to the theologians, I thought I would offer up at least a few ideas about how something like this could have happened. Please feel free to add to my list.

  • God has had enough of Big Butter Jesus video
  • Too many Obama voters in the church (Obama=antichrist)
  • Message from God (something about idolatry)
  • Stern message from Rio de Janeiro Jesus
  • Demonic terrorist attack
  • “Touchdown Jesus” victim of sabotage from other heavenly football team
  • Aliens mistook Touchdown Jesus for nuclear strike system
  • Failed attempt to raise Touchdown Jesus by alien tractor beam
  • Zeus has spoken
  • The statue was asking for it
  • God is actually Jewish
  • Jesus statue was in a pose of “drowning” – act of mercy from above
  • Flyby smiting…
  • Touchdown Jesus forgot to discharge static at the pump
  • Touchdown Jesus failed to follow up Doritos 3rd Degree Burn with Pepsi Max Cease Fire

·


“Shapeshifters,” says the missionary. He’s dressed in a grey suit and grey-checkered tie. He’s black. Looks like he’s in his mid sixties. He sits back in his chair a bit and laughs confidently. The old black dress shoes on his feet he plants firmly on the floor. There’s a Bible in front of him opened to some book of the New Testament.

A large black Rastafarian cuts him off. “What kind of god could make a serpent talk to someone?” he asks. He sits across from the missionary. His large round beret reminds me of the top of the Downtown Transit Center, minus the casino lights.

They look like they just met.

The missionary’s feet don’t budge. I mean, how could he be afraid talking to this giant of a stranger? The entire station is crawling with Jehovah’s Witness missionaries. This is their front line: just off the edge of Fremont Street. A ledge hewn in the chasm. Near rock bottom. A holler or two past the digital bells of cartoon slots and Wheel of Fortune games.

Outside the station, papers and bibles lay scattered on tables in front of transients.

Here on the inside, the missionary smiles at the Rastafarian and his idea of a talking serpent. “The same kind of god that can make a block of wood talk to someone. It’s called a ventriloquist,” he says.

I’ve seen a lot of well-dressed missionaries around the station. This guy wears a yellow shirt. It’s clean. Pressed. White paper napkins stuffed in his coat pocket poke out like a silk hanky. He wears glasses. I see his Bible opened to Luke. There’s a small stack of papers on the table in front of him. I see the word “watchtower.”

“I guarantee if you eat a pomegranate you’re not going to go, ‘Ahh!’” the Rastafarian says. His dreads poke from beneath his beret. He has a pointy beard and yellow eyes.

“It wasn’t a pomegranate from that tree. That was a special tree,” the missionary laughs.

The Rastafarian starts to get up then sits back down. “All pomegranates should have been descendents from that tree,” he says. “They should all be magical. But they’re not. What about the chariot that came down and picked up Elijah?”

“That was a dream. A vision,” the missionary says.

“Can a dead man come back to life? What bones can bring a person to life?” the Rastafarian’s voice booms. Not a single transient nearby stirs.

“It was an unusual occurrence,” the missionary says.

“An unusual occurrence? You don’t have an answer, do you? You don’t want to accept?”

“Accept what? What do you want me to accept? Son, what do you want me to do about that?”

A nearby drunk jumps into the conversation. His words slur. He looks like he’s spent at least forty days downtown on Las Vegas streets. “You have to go back to the beginning. They’ve been arguing this since the beginning of time. Nobody ever noticed that one lady, whatchamacallit. That Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend. She the one come down from the cave…”

“No, that’s not right.” The Rastafarian looks at the bum and laughs. “You know what that proves? You just proved that nobody was there.” He laughs again and turns to the missionary. “What kind of man walks on water?”

“A God who walks on water.”

The Rastafarian stands up and sits back down. He changes the subject. “How come these other people John baptized didn’t get godly powers?”

The missionary is soft spoken. “John didn’t even want to baptize Jesus. He said ‘I’m not worthy.’”

The Rastafarian gets up, turns his back. He has an I-can’t-take-this-shit look on his face, then sits back down while the missionary reads some verses from the gospel of Luke.

When the missionary finishes reading, the Rastafarian laughs. “You would tell Jesus how his own life was. You would do that wouldn’t you if you met him?” He wants to leave but then thinks up another question. “What about the darkness? According to the Bible there was darkness. Where did all that come from?”

“It didn’t come from anyplace.”

“Ain’t that something? So it was always just there. So he was just sitting in the darkness by himself?”

“He was part of the darkness. He could change it. He created it. He said, ‘I’m sitting here alone in the darkness, by myself. I’m lonely.’ So then he created Jesus Christ, I mean, Michael.”

A little black lady walks up to the table as if out of nowhere. She tells the missionary to ask the Rastafarian about wisdom.

“Are you finding any wisdom, any laws in what we’re discussing?” the missionary says. “Or is this just a conversation?”

The Rastafarian ignores the question. “Can you tell me how much the planet weighs?”

“I used to know.”

“Can you tell me how much badlands and good lands there is?”

“You can look it up.”

“What color is topsoil?”

“Dark brown.”

“No. It’s black. There are some things you know and some things you don’t know. I’m just checking. Tell me, what type of guy would have red eyes?”

The missionary thinks for a moment. “Albinos?”

“No, animals.”

“I thought you were talking about humans?” Even the missionary is growing tired. I can hear it in his whispers.

“No, I do mean what type of person. You see them at night. They glow.”

The missionary thinks again. “Someone genetically predisposed. Which way is up?”

The Rastafarian laughs. “Whichever way my head is.”

“The way your head is pointed?”

“No, whichever way my head is. I have two heads. One up here and one down low.”

“I can’t believe you went there,” the missionary laughs. He laughs deeply then gets up. “That puts an end to this conversation.”

The Rastafarian laughs too. He also stands up. “Alright Gerald. I’ll see you on Monday,” he says and walks out the door.










“We’re designed for worship.”

I’d heard it before, somewhere. People all giddy and into their sports teams like zealots at a witch burning. Or a stadium of screaming people in Kabul watching the Taliban blow heads off women.

Pastor Josh shakes hands like he’s one of the bros. It’s sometimes a bump. Other times there might be three or four parts to the process, followed by another bump. His paw is thick. He says, “dude” every two sentences like Hugo on “Lost.”

I feel like I’m at a sports bar and not church.

This is a mostly white church. I leave my dual ethnicity at the door. Actions are tempered. Not many people raise their hands like they even want to touch the feet of God. Me included. I’m usually too pissed off to raise my hands, or too torn up inside to even sing along. I don’t play games. I’m just one of the infirmed and I know this.

There’s indie rock on the stage. It’s all bass and drums. I go complain to Josh because he’s in the sound booth next to Nathan, who should be on stage shredding. Another shredder is missing. That would be my son Landen who is busy pushing carts at FoodsCo. I want the distortion. I want to feel like I’m about to watch Korn, U2, or the moment Wilco’s Nels Kline freaks on “Impossible Germany.”

“I’m four rows back and I can’t hear the violin,” I complain.

I don’t know if Nathan cares and I still can’t hear the shredding fiddler. I’m pissed. I get up and walk out of the church service.

Later I read Nathan’s Tweet: “Where’d you go?”

I scoot out the side door, walk into the daylight and head for the only security I know. It’s a bench over by the main building.

The main building is circular. It oddly resembles Space Mountain, which makes me think that Disney’s designers wanted one of their most popular rides to touch the cosmic alliance between science and a fancy American worship center. “We’ll make it look like a church. It’ll be our most holy of rides.” Until the Indiana Jones temple ride comes along.

“Ah, mom,” I say at the bench as if it could sprout a head of grey hair and some old freckled legs. I want its wooden slats to form a mouth and talk to me. I don’t even sit. I just stare down at it.

“I am so proud of your boys,” the bench says.

I wander into the main building. Some guy eyes me like I’m a jerk. I sit in the back row. All the children are missing. Everywhere there’s a suit, a head of grey hair, or some old floppy hat on a hairdo that looks like the twists of a vanilla soft serve cone.

A church choir sings hymns as if stale bread is good for the people. I start to touch a hymnal. I probably picked it up before. When my kids were babies. The books looked old then.

I wonder how long it will be before the rock band service becomes mainstream and takes over the Space Mountain sanctuary. I think about my twenty-year-old son, Jordan. He’s the fiddler. I’m missing him perform as I sit listening to the dying service. Even Space Mountain gets old. I get up and slip past the man who eyes me again.

Soon I’m outside. The hymns drift away as fast as they came. I pass the bench where my mom sat twelve years ago, dying on a Sunday morning. I imagine the ambulance sirens tearing along Victor Street. Somewhere during that day her chest got ripped open. She died.

I don’t care if I can’t hear my kid playing the violin. I hurry back to The Great Room. I sit in the back and eagerly listen to a song. Jordan’s fiddle bow is an apostle’s staff swinging along a horizon of strings. A few moments later, Pastor Josh talks about his favorite show, “Lost.” Then he mentions eating a hot dog outside of a closed Wrigley Field.

“The idol factory has started up in our hearts,” he says as I see images of factory smoke belching across the skies.

I put off posting until the final day of this month because it coincides with the Christian holy day with the coolest name: Spy Wednesday.  Not in the sense of the Gospel According to Ian Fleming, unfortunately, though that would be fitting considering that when Jesus was called before the Sanhedrin (Jewish high priests) and then sent to Pilate (the governor), it was for political insurrection.

That’s pretty spy-worthy.

Except the spy part refers to Yehuda ex Karioth, now known as Judas Iscariot, who conspired with the Sanhedrin to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver.  More contemporary accounts hold that Judas was actually acting on the will of Jesus, which makes it the sort of double-cross Ian Fleming loved.

While I’ve always understood why Christians mark Easter Sunday as their most holy day, I’ve always thought today is more important.

Because Spy Wednesday is also the day Jesus became Christ.

***

I was raised Catholic, and remained Catholic until my junior year of high school.  At that time, I transferred to a public school and broke from the faith before, two years later, I enrolled in a Jesuit college.  I didn’t know what that meant at the time and I worried how that education might conflict with one in science (I was already a declared pre-med major); science and religion have always been strange bedfellows.

There were a fair amount of priests on faculty, however, and I made it a point to get to know them so that I understood, better, what being Jesuit meant.  Wikipedia notes that Jesuits are known colloquially as “God’s marines,” but none of the priests I ever met seemed in any way militant.  Seriously, imagine your grandfather.  Or better yet, your grandfather’s brother, and imagine him both drunk and too old to be creepy anymore, and you’ve got a pretty good idea of the men I met.  They all had the sorts of smiles that stayed around their eyes long after their mouths were otherwise occupied, and they all seemed to wear cardigans.  They spoke softly, and sometimes called you “Son.”

To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what Jesuit means, as opposed to what Catholic or Christian or Free Presbyterian (or Locked-Up Presbyterian) mean.  So far as I experienced it, it means education, compassion, and service.

Now that I’ve begun to teach classes in colleges, now that students and colleagues call me a professor and I hope one day to actually become one, I find I measure my own classroom performance against my experience in one particular class I attended more than a decade ago.  On the cusp of 32, it amazes me that a class I took as a sophomore in college, when I was 19 friggin’ years old, could be so developmentally important, but every year I realize just how much impact it’s had on my life.

That year, I took six credits of an honors seminar in theology, as required by the college’s curriculum.  I dreaded it; I was going to be a doctor, after all, and medicine isn’t about prayer.  It’s about knowledge and skill and precision, names of veins and arteries and the singular confidence that is picking up a scalpel and using it to cut open another person’s body, knowing you can help them, maybe even save them.

I am not a doctor because I realized I don’t have that confidence.

I didn’t realize it in that class, though.  That class was about other realizations, the kind of realizations so deep and fundamental you’re still making them a decade later.  Or at least I am.  I’ve always been slow like that.

My theology class was taught by a man named Robert Kennedy.  Jesuit priest trained in Zen Buddhism.  Tall and Irish.  Quick, piercing eyes that glasses did nothing to blunt.  When Father Kennedy listened to you, it made you want to say something that could change the world, because for a moment you believed you could.

We read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, but we didn’t consider it as a religious document.  We looked at its historical context.  After we finished Revelations, we began to read literature, including More’s Utopia and Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in more religious contexts, basically viewing each work through a lens of theological criticism just as we had applied feminist or sociological criticism in our literature classes.

When we hit the Gospels, they came as a revelation to me.  Not for content; I knew what they said.  I narrated the Nativity when I was in second grade.

What came as a surprise was the questions we raised about them.  Who wrote them?  Was Jesus a real person, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and on the third day rose again from the dead in fulfillment of the Scriptures?

Just asking those questions, nevermind the questions themselves, came as an epiphany for me; in those Catholic schools I’d attended, we weren’t allowed.  It could earn us detention.  Or worse.

***

When you ask questions in math or science, usually the answer is either an equation or an experiment away.  In literature and philosophy, five pages of well-argued bullshit do quite nicely.

History is different, though.  We want facts, evidence, citations, sources.  Or I do, anyway.  Maybe it’s the scientist in me.  When I consider life and its origins and evolution, nothing about it strikes me as so “convenient” that I require a deity to have initiated the process. There seems to be quite a bold leap from measurable, documentable evidence to “There must be an invisible dude in the sky.”

As with so many aspects of the Bible, problems with Jesus emerge when considering his life and story in the context of evidence.  There is, arguably, more circumstantial evidence of Jesus than of Shakespeare (four gospels versus a few signatures and a will), but Jesus didn’t write 30 plays.

Facts are hazy.  We know Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John by Anglican names—they were probably Matthaeis and Yuchanan, for two, and Marcus and Lucas, I suppose—but we’re not precisely sure who they were, when they were writing, or why.  By most modern academic agreement, the earliest gospel was Mark.  Mark was not an apostle, and he didn’t write until decades after Jesus’ crucifixion; most believe he was basically Peter’s secretary—Peter being Simon Peter, on whom Jesus declared he would build the Church, the building of which seems to have gotten in the way of Peter ever actually recording anything.  Most scholars in addition believe that two of the three other gospels—Matthew and Luke—were based on Mark and another source, called Q, and written several years later.

Those three—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are the synoptics, meaning they summarize the life, ministry, and execution of Jesus of Nazareth.  None of the authors actually met the man in question.

John’s is an oddball gospel; not only is it written in a completely different style, but John’s record of events don’t always coincide with the others’, to the point that he places the date for Jesus’ crucifixion in a different year.  John’s also the guy who wrote Revelations.  I’ve also heard that John is the guy who wrote while fasting on an island on which he consumed nothing but hallucinogenic mushrooms for a while.

I can’t argue the veracity of that claim, but it would certainly explain a lot.  Especially considering Revelations.

But the veracity of the Gospel accounts overall is something that’s fascinated me for years.  Some studies have claimed the most recognizable brands on Earth are Coke, McDonald’s, and Disney, but they seem to completely ignore Jesus (TM).  The Bible is the greatest-selling book of all time by several orders of magnitude.  Lately it seems like social media gurus have been talking endlessly about personal branding, and here’s the guy with the most powerful personal brand in history.  “Love your neighbor.”  “Blessed are the meek.”  He spoke in soundbites ready for mass consumption.

Except, of course, he probably didn’t.

Which is the part that’s fascinated me.  The separation of the man from the brand.

His appearance, for one.  A quick scan of IMDb lists numerous actors who’ve tackled the role: James Caviezel, Jeremy Sisto, Christian Bale, Max von Sydow, Willem Dafoe to name arguably the most famous (and I have no idea why I always think of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, but I could have sworn O’Toole gave the role a shot).  What you’ll notice is a bunch of white dudes of mostly European heritage.

Which, of course, Jesus was not.  The big geographical points of his story are Bethlehem, in Judea, and Nazareth, in Galilee.  Most of his ministry occurred in the latter until he traveled to Jerusalem, which was where he ran into all the trouble and was crucified.

The most famous aspects of the Judas story are the pieces of silver and the kiss.  The silver is incidental, but the kiss is important; without it, chances are the soldiers arresting Jesus wouldn’t have recognized him.  Because he was just a regular bloke, and being a regular bloke back then meant he was short, probably under 5’5”.  He was also Jewish, which meant he probably had a darker complexion, and while most accounts refer to him as a carpenter, he was actually a tekton, which is closer in meaning to builder, and probably a stone mason.  So he was a short, muscular, Jewish guy.

Not Christian Bale.

***

I think the more important aspect of the Spy Wednesday story, however, at least in Christian terms, is that it is the day Jesus became Christ.  The two words, nowadays, are so inseparable people sometimes confuse Christ with Jesus’ last name.

It’s not, of course.  They didn’t really have surnames then, not like we do.  There wasn’t a Jesus Jones and a Jesus Smith and a Jesus Washington.  People were identified, mostly, by where they came from, their parents, or their occupation; Jesus would likely have been Yehoshua ex Natzeret or Yehoshua bin Miryam—that is, Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus, son of Mary.  That latter because, remember, Jesus would have been an illegitimate child, and had no father.  This little factoid is interesting considering that, when Pilate offered the crowd a choice between Jesus and the other prisoner, that other prisoner was Jesus bar Abbas, literally “Jesus, son of the Father.”  Make of that what you will.

Christ, however, is not a name.  It’s a title.  Like doctor, or professor.  An honorific.  It means annointed, which is what Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom Jesus was staying on the outskirts of Jerusalem, did on Holy Wednesday.  She annointed Jesus with a luxurious oil.

This annointment is what made Jesus both Messiah and Christ.  Both terms simply mean annointed.

***

I think about all this right around now every year for obvious reasons, not least because I still wonder about that account.  I can’t break from my scientific mindset; like Thomas the Doubter, I need more evidence to be convinced of any of the supernatural aspects of the story of Jesus.  I find the evidence he existed, and preached, and was crucified, reasonably credible.  There are enough accounts by enough writers that I can say I think it’s pretty likely a man named Jesus lived during the early part of the first century, and preached about love and our neighbors and had some relaxed and groovy philosophies.  I’m reasonably convinced he was a bit of a socialist and believed in judging not, and for that he got on the wrong side of the government, who didn’t know what else to do with him besides crucify him.

And that’s about it.  Virgin births and miracles and resurrections from the dead: not only am I not even a little convinced any of those things occurred, but neither am I convinced they matter.  In fact, most days, I go so far as to note I think that the supernatural aspects of the story cloud the truth of the man and his ministry.

Then again, as Pilate so famously asked: “What is Truth?”

(Image from here, after a BBC program and subsequent Popular Mechanics issue that explored forensic imaging of Jesus. Fascinating stuff.)




My parents have always been for the most part caring, compassionate, and relatively non-abusive, but there was one notable episode in my childhood so shocking, so inhumane, that people are often rendered speechless when I gather the inner strength to discuss it.  Sensitive readers may want to stop here.  Because what happened was: My parents took away Christmas.

That’s right.  Up until I was in second grade, we were one of those happily confused inter-faith families, or as the terminology in our largely Jewish Chicago suburb had it, “Both.”  My brother and I merrily celebrated a liturgically incoherent mess of holidays.  We had no problem with a brightly colored Easter egg nesting on the Passover seder plate.* Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah peacefully coexisted, a harmonious fire hazard.  None of this troubled us.  We were psyched, as all self-respecting gift-greedy children would be.

And then it happened.  My mother converted.  To Judaism.  Our family joined a synagogue and enrolled my brother and me in Hebrew school.  Hebrew school! Sundays, plus Tuesdays and Thursdays after real school!  Just what kids want: more school, less Santa.

You can tout the “eight nights of celebration” angle all you want, but it is a fact held self-evident by Jewish children everywhere that there is nothing like Christmas.  Nothing like a fragrant tree decked in glittering ornaments, strung with tinsel and topped with a star, sparkly as the cosmos on a clear winter night in some storybook woodland scene.  Nothing like the fairy lands of shop windows, or street gangs of carolers in sweaters and fur muffs, or the zany secular mythology of the North Pole and elves and reindeer.  The Nutcracker and The Island of Misfit Toys and Frosty the Snowman.  Judy Garland singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.  Elvis singing Blue Christmas.  Ham pink as a newborn baby; spiced grenades of clove-studded oranges studded with cloves; egg nog, nectar of the goys.  Twinkle lights clogging gutters like accumulations of luminescent leaf mulch.  Padding down the stairs in footie pajamas (this has always been a key element of my Christmas fantasy, though never in my life have I lived in a house with an upstairs) to a wonderland of stuffed stockings like felted sausages hanging from the mantel and a pile of presents gathered beneath the tree as cozily as boxy woodland creatures seeking shelter from a snowstorm. Let’s face it.  Christmas is amazing.

My theory is that it is because I was given a taste of this superior mid-winter festival of lights, only to have it brutally taken away at around 7 or 8, arguably the age when Christmas is the greatest, that I am now so obsessed with it.  I love it.  Luckily for me, I married a gentile, who I make carry home a slightly-oversized-spruce from the stand in front of the CVS every December.  We listen to Christmas music and trim the tree and then I curse while digging knobs of wax from the Hanukah menorah. I watch It’s a Wonderful Life at least once a year – at least – and weep every time.   I have done crazy things in the name of Christmas.  I have gone to the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular.  My husband and I went with another “mixed” couple – she is Christian, her husband is Jewish and of course loves Christmas as much as I do.  The Jewish husband and I sat with goofy grins frozen on our faces all the way through the Rockettes’ toy soldier number, the Nutcracker suite and the ice skaters and the 3-D flying Santa.  Children in the audience were not half as amused as we.  Then, suddenly, at the somewhat-less-than-spectacular end of the show, there is this strange number involving robed nomads, live animals, and…baby Jesus in the manger?

The Jewish husband leaned over to me and said, grimly, “We’ve been tricked.”  I have to admit, this whole “reason for the season” finale was sort of a buzzkill.  I felt faint with guilt, and looked around sheepishly, as if the Congregation Solel choir director Roz Epstein were about to leap out of the orchestra pit in order to lecture me on the persecuted Jews in Russia, or the brave Maccabee children, or worst of all, the H-word.  Then we visited the tree at Rockefeller Center – CHRISTMAS!! – and stopped at the Edison for matzoh ball soup and latkes.

Now I have a child of my own, and I am looking forward to raising her in the same cross-cultural, multi-region, theologically-nonsensical way I was almost raised.  Kids in New York don’t need religion anyway, do they?  Aren’t they all sort of intellectually inclined, automatically agnostic and slightly Jewy by default?  Perhaps we’ll celebrate Purim with a fat hamentaschen from a Hispanic-owned Manhattan deli (why DO they always have hamentaschen anyway?).  Surely we’ll take her to see the huge Menorah being lighted via forklift in Central Park.  But no matter what else may happen over the course of her childhood, even if her irreligious parents turn to Allah or Buddha or Scientology, even if her most fervent desire is to celebrate Kwanzaa, even if she should spontaneously become a devout Hasid, that little girl is having Christmas.  Whether she wants to or not.

*I know, I know, this never really happened. Stop freaking out, Dad.

The atheist and the believer walked together on the path that followed the highway, looking for light.

Everything visible was dampened gray, as if some colossal waterlogged blanket was thrown on top of their sky and hung there, dripping. Incessant raindrops had been pricking their faces for over two hours, and the cutting wind foretold the road ahead without visible end. The others had gone ahead, and they couldn’t see anything except for the highway to their right, the miry path directly in front and the snow-quilted fields to the left that were melting reluctantly in the cold rain.

The panorama was muddy, leaden, soppy.

“That’s the thing,” the believer explained, whose face was hidden behind his poncho, “Of all the religions in the world, even though they say different things, you know, in the details, the principal belief –what everyone believes– it’s the same.”

“Really?” the atheist questioned. “Didya know that of the twelve official world religions currently in the world, one doesn’t agree.”

“Which one?”

“Jainism.” The atheist looked at the believer, who kept looking ahead. “From India,” he continued, “it’s the only religion that’s completely atheistic,” he detailed. “They don’t believe a God exists, nor do they believe in life after death. And in order to obtain salvation, instead of amassing wealth to guarantee a comfortable ending, they give up all their worldly possessions and go on ascetic pilgrimages. They wear surgical masks over their mouths and towels are their only clothes. They hold a little broom and carry a bowl to beg with. They sweep, walk and beg. The surgical mask is so they don’t swallow insects when they breathe and they use the broom to keep their paths clear of insects so they don’t step on ‘em as they walk. They have complete respect for all sentient life, as if it were a part ‘uh their own redemption. In fact, they believe that every soul’s the architect of his own salvation.

A long silence passed. The only sound heard was their plastic ponchos crinkling in the cold wind, constant and indifferent. The wide face of the atheist fully protruded from the hood. His white skin foregrounded the wrinkles that had been ridging around his eyes and his constantly contorted brow, as if he were perpetually aghast of everything around him. His enormous round head almost buried his moist face, and his unkempt beard gave him an air of indifference. He raised his walking stick and, looking at the believer, asked, “Whaddya think?”

The believer, whose friends called him B, did not meet his look and kept walking.

Interesting,” he responded, looking straight ahead.

Together they walked on without more words. The wind intensified. Suddenly a monotonic whistle resonated.

The atheist, whose friends called him A, tensed his brow and focused on B.

B looked at A; A extended his hand and tugged on B’s poncho softly.

The whistling stopped.

“You know,” B spoke, “ever since we got out here and started walkin’, I’ve spent a lot of time alone. And when I’m walkin’ through all this nature –even when it’s rainin’ like this— and I hear nothing but my own footsteps, and the breeze, and the birds chirpin’, or cows mooin’, and I’m surrounded by all this incredible beauty, all I can think of’s how much everything—even the silence—is God. There’s nothing in any of this experience that isn’t.”

B looked at the A and added, “God is everywhere.”

The atheist just walked, his head cocked upward.

After a long pause J asked, “What do you think?”

B looked a little to his left and caught A a few yards behind him in his periphery.

“Interestin’.”

Further down the path A had to stop to readjust his boots, and before he bent down to do so he told B that he didn’t have to wait for him.

“No, man,” B replied.

From time to time they drew a waft of pollution from the cars; apart from that, they only breathed  the cold, the absence of scent. They kept walking together at a labored pace.

B asked A when the rain was going to stop, and B said he had no idea.

A asked B how far they were to final town for the day’s walk, and A said he really had no idea but would guess around 8 kilometers, which meant 2 or 3 more hours depending on the stops.

Without realizing they arrived upon a simple, lonely village adorned with a only few houses that was completely deserted.

The rain had diminished to a drizzle. B said he had to stop to attend to something.

“You can go on, if you want,” he offered.

“Naw, man,” A declined, shaking his head and reaching into his pocket, “I’ll wait for you.” A pulled out a pouch, grabbed some tobacco and rolled it into a piece of paper.

Both stopped in front of the only bench in the village. J removed his poncho, unhooked the straps of his backpack and threw it on the bench. Standing without the mass of gear and adornments he looked like a pallid cartoon rabbit. He took out a black kit, undid the zipper and, with a machine inside, pricked himself on his index finger and squeezed quickly with his other hand’s index finger and thumb. He sucked the blood dot that formed. He lowered his eyes on the apparatus and squinted.

To A, B always seemed like he was on the verge of smiling even when he wasn’t. Around his mouth, with the twenty-few years he had, wrinkles were setting in early from too much near-smiling. Concrete lines of happiness at which A looked with distant curiosity.

A scruffy dog emerged from behind the opened slit of a barn door and slowly approached the pair. A lit his cigarette, reached into his pocket, pulled out a plastic sack and dropped down to his knees like a catcher. “C’mere boy,” he said smiling, the cigarette perched unlit between his lips.

The dog approached A, sniffed the dried fruits that were proffered and turned away trotting down the path from where the travelers came from. A threw the nuts toward the dog, who looked back in feigned interest and then kept moving on.

Suddenly the rain picked up again. B put away the kit, strapped on the backpack and, with the help of A, the green poncho. He pulled out a candy bar from his pocket and unwrapped it.

The backpacks under the ponchos gave them hunchback appearances, like a pair of erect human-sized turtles.

They returned to their heavy pace, still looking for light.


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“Are you Jewish?”

Believe it or not, I get asked that a lot.

Yesterday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a pair of Lubavitchers approached me on the street, shofar in hand, and mumbled under their breath (as they do):

“AreyouJewish?”

I stopped.

“Why do you want to know?”

The young man, adorned with a scraggly beard and side locks said nothing, but a tiny smile raised from the corners of his mouth. He waved over a third Lubavitcher, an older gent, from across the street as if to say: “We got one!”

Our mini-minyan was in place.

Black Hat #1 opened his siddur and pointed me where I should begin to read the blessing.

With an apologetic smile, I said, “I’m sorry. I can’t read Hebrew.”

“Then you can repeat after me.”

So I did.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leshoma kol shofar.  Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higianu la’zman ha’zeh.”[1]

Then Black Hat #2 began to blow.

A few minutes and 100 varied blasts later, we all wished each other L’shanah tova and I went on my way to the Red Hook IKEA.

* * * * *

“But are you Jewish?”

My great-grandparents were married in Northern Poland, near the ever-changing Lithuanian border, in 1915.

A few years later, Walter and Sophia Wayner were America’s newest Polish Catholic immigrants. They settled in Connecticut and soon after, my first-generation American grandmother, Edith Stephanie, (aka “Georgie”) came along.

She converted from Catholic to Anglican to marry my grandfather, Ralph, and they had six kids, one of whom is my father, who converted from Anglican to Catholic after marrying my devoutly Catholic mother.

Every year, Dad and I shop for my mom’s Christmas presents together. It’s our annual “Daddy-Daughter Day”; a tradition we’ve had for as long as I can remember.

My mother gives us a list that usually looks like this:

  • Clinique perfume
  • Jewelry
  • New nightgown
  • Latest Danielle Steele novel
  • L’eggs (Suntan)
  • Peanut M&Ms
  • Gum

A few years ago, I thought I would mix it up and break my mother out of that darn Danielle Steele rut. I thought she might get a kick out of Carl Hiassen. So my dad and I were in the Barnes and Noble parking lot and just about to get out of the car when, for whatever reason, I asked him:

“What was Grandma’s last name? I mean, before they Americanized it?”

“I don’t know, Waynerowski, Waynerowitch. Something like that.”

And then under his breath he snarkily muttered,

“Polish Catholic my ass…”

I nearly gave myself whiplash.

I had just moved across the street from a hip Upper West Side Reform synagogue and Friday night people-(read: Hebraic Hottie)-watching was my new favorite pastime.

“Are you kidding me? You mean we could be Jewish? Do you know how that opens up my dating pool in New York? I can finally join JDate! That’s awesome!”

My mind began to spin with scenarios of Sephardic spooning with tantalizing ‘Tribe’smen. I had been attracted to Jewish men, culture, men, food, men, humor, men, tradition, men and men for as long as I could remember. I was ecstatic!  I could finally legitimately pepper my language with exotic words like Nu! And Oy! And Mishpocha! I would get into a schmozzle with a yenta who talked about my zaftig tuchas and how I would end up with a pisher if I didn’t cut back on the number of hamentashen I was noshing.

I would be a shiksa goddess no more.

My father looked at me with a sharp and uncharacteristically violent glare. He seethed through a clenched jaw:

“We. Are. Not. Jewish.”

It was said with such a note of finality, that I knew that I daren’t push the issue.

But boy did it get me thinking.

* * * * *

“So you’re not Jewish?”

Walter and Sophia were married during what was then, The War to End All Wars. As we all know from innumerable World History classes, just as that war ended, tens of thousands of people began to flee Eastern Europe because a small group of disgruntled German soldiers, led by a young punk named Adolf, decided the world would be a better place if it was Judenfrei.

The Jewish tradition to change one’s name after a change in nature dates back to the Biblical times when Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel. It’s also an old Jewish superstition to change the name of a sick man in order to “change his luck.”

So it comes as no surprise when Lev Davidovitch Bronstein became Leon Trotsky, Israel Isidore Baline became Irving Berlin and “Wojnerowicz” became “Wayner.”

They were so easily assimilated.

Does it prove that Walter and Sophia were Jewish, though? No. Of course not.

It was highly suppositional at best.

However, my father’s knee-jerk reaction did inspire me to write a film (fictional) about it.

* * * * *

When I gave an early draft of the screenplay I had written to my mother, she called me the moment she finished reading it. She was in tears. She loved it. She asked me:

“Would you like your grandmother’s menorah?”

WHAT????????????????

Turns out, Walter and Sophia Wojnerowicz-turned-Wayner had brought their “Polish candelabra” with them to America…

…and a pair of candlesticks.

My mother had salvaged them from the discard pile when they packed Georgie up and sent her to a nursing home, riddled with Alzheimer’s.

* * * * *

(Pause for me to reel once again from how weird that was…)

* * * * *

“So you are Jewish?”

I’m never sure how to answer that question anymore.

“Yes. Well, no. Actually, I don’t know. Maybe?”

When word got out that I was researching the subject, my father’s side of the family closed up tighter than a Kosher deli at three o-clock on Friday. This is a group of people who commonly refute things written by ‘those’ idiots at the ‘Jew’ York Times.

I have been forbidden to write about any other family nuggets that have leaked from my grandmother’s loosening lips as long-repressed memories are finally being released. I’m also not allowed to talk about it to my Dad or his side of the family, except as a total piece of fiction, and under no circumstances am I allowed to mention it to my grandmother.

It bothers me, though. I want to know. I’m dying to know.

Regardless of the answer, though, I don’t think it will change much for me. I’m not Religious. God knows I’ve tried all sorts of Religions (note the capital “R”) and nothing really fits. I’ve basically settled on the wagon wheel theory of God – so many different spokes bound together and all of those spokes leading to, essentially, the same place.

However…

On the one hand, it would feel amazing to have been a part of the crowds of well-dressed Jews on the banks of the Hudson on Tuesday night, as they performed the Tashlikh. It would be fun to hang with mychallah-back girls in the ‘chood. It would be a mitzvah to go down to my bubbe’s retirement home and convince the residents to vote for Obama – and to do so as part of a project so hilariously named “The Great Schlep.” (Be sure to click that link.  You owe it to yourself to watch Sarah Silverman’s video plea.  I just couldn’t make it embed itself on this page.)

But on the other hand, I don’t want to be like Seinfeld’s dentist who converts just for the jokes.

As a person who grew up extremely white and culturally devoid, I find my xenophilic tendencies overpowering at times. Maybe this is just the latest phase of my ongoing passion for the “other” and once I become a part of it, I will throw it away like so many other things before it.

And yet, I still can’t help feel that this might be something bigger than that.

* * * * *

“AreyouJewish?”

When the Lubavitchers have asked me that question in the past, outside of their Mitzvah tanks on Union Square where you can lay tefillin and pray in the park, I’ve always shaken my head and gone on my way.

I don’t know why I stopped yesterday.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been inventorying my life lately. I feel like it’s time to slow down a little, reflect on all the major changes that have happened over the past several months and start anew.

Come to think about it, it’s about this time every year that I tend to look back on things and reassess. I’ve always associated it with a new school year, I guess. Instead of stocking up on No. 2 Dixon-Ticonderogas and pristine spiral-bounds, I prefer to take stock and wipe the slate clean.

Reinvent. Rinse. Repeat.

I don’t know, maybe it is a Jewish thing.

Maybe I’m meshuggenah.

Or maybe it’s just because that Sephardic sidewalk studmeister was totally and completely



[1] Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has blessed us in his commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar.  Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.

SACRAMENTO, CA

It wasn’t until I was about 23 years old that I was able to face my family with the fact that I no longer believed in the Mormon religion. And even then I didn’t really face them. They found out in bits and pieces. The most obvious sign was the divorce, which I never told my parents about directly. They heard about it from my younger siblings. Through my siblings they also learned of my tattoo (oh my!) and my drinking (this hasn’t been verified, but I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about it by now). And of course the whole living in sin with my boyfriend for the past two years probably tipped them off as well.

At first they would try to get me to come back around. They’d question me about my beliefs and ask when I had been to church last. When I avoided their questioning or outright changed the subject they’d get upset, angry even.

But then they just backed off. I don’t know what it was that made them stop asking – perhaps the realization that I wasn’t going to change my mind based on their prompting – but they did. And now they’ve taken on a new tack: Acceptance. Well, sort of.

When I see them now, which isn’t often, my parents will gingerly ask me about my boyfriend and whether we have plans to get married. We don’t. Conversation over. If my tattoo is showing, my mom will complement me on it, even though I know she doesn’t approve of it. I’m always tempted to remind her of what she used to tell me when I was a teenager and I’d ask to get a tattoo or a belly button ring, which was, “You can do whatever you want when you turn 18, but not until then.” I never do say this. Instead, I just reach back and pull down my t-shirt so it’s covered again, and try to act as though she hasn’t said anything at all.

I often wish I had a better relationship with my parents (and my siblings for that matter), but when the opportunity to forgive presents itself, I find myself acting like a bratty teenager. I’ve spent many of the past ten years trapped among guilt, self-loathing and regret as I worked my way out of a religion in which I’m not sure I ever believed. My parents seem to have forgiven me, or at least are willing to look past my breach of trust, for leaving the church. But somehow I still haven’t been able to forgive them for judging me so harshly in the first place.

I’ve begun trying to make amends, but years of bitterness and hateful words have made it a difficult path. I find myself constantly having to bite my tongue when I’m with my parents so there won’t be any flare ups. In the past I’ve been able to spend no more than a few hours among my family members without a huge fight breaking out. But my last visit with them was actually somewhat pleasant, aside from the constant praise from my dad, and one particular sibling, that I’ve really grown up. Apparently acting civil toward people you can barely stand is a sign of maturity.

I don’t know how long the civility will last though. Each perceived wrong brings back the bitterness. Things like when my sister Katijona calls me to ask if I’ll be visiting this weekend for Peter’s baptism. I told her I didn’t even know about it so, no, I wouldn’t be there. Four days really isn’t enough time to plan for a trip to Utah. I couldn’t stop myself wondering if my parents didn’t invite me for fear that I’d turn another child against the church. After all, Katijona, of whom I’ve written before, remains unbaptized (which, of course, is my fault) and shows no signs of accepting Mormonism. When we spoke yesterday, she told me that the bishop asked her if she’d like to get baptized along with Peter this weekend. Her response? “I barely even come to this church, why would I want to get baptized?” Ha!

But I shouldn’t be laughing. I shouldn’t be proud that this 13-year-old girl has more gumption and resolve than I did at age 23. This is the thing that drives a wedge between my parents and I. But how can I not want to give her a big hug and tell her I’m OK with her decision?

I fear my parents (and some of my siblings) will be at odds with me for many years to come.

In college I worked one summer as a line cook in a 120-seat restaurant of a small hotel in Florida.

Although I had no formal training as a cook, I was able to bypass the usual progression from dishwasher to busboy to line cook, going straight into cooking because my friend Tony Spagnolo worked on the line.

Kitchen_2

“It’ll be fun, you and me working together all summer,” he said. Sure, I thought. What’s the worst that could happen? Food poisoning? Injuring myself or someone else with sharp implements? So I went to work.

It was grueling, hellish, fast-paced, chaotic, and for the most part, unrewarding. Of course I made some amateur mistakes, but I also did some good things and I learned a few things along the way. I also got to date a number of hot waitresses, but that’s another story.


SACRAMENTO, CA-

There was a time when my little sister, Kati, and I were practically inseparable.

Kati loved coming to my house because she got all of the attention. There weren’t seven other kids battling for love and affection. Just her and me.

Rebeccaadler34

Kati spent holidays at my house. I made here green eggs and green milk for St. Patrick’s Day. Donald and I would make Easter egg hunts just for her. She had her own Christmas stocking hanging up at our house.

It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want Kati around. Kati just didn’t want to be around them. My family’s house was always in turmoil. My parents were always fighting. The kids were constantly battling against each other. And Kati, being the smallest, was often lost in the fray.

There were more than a few times when Kati asked if Donald and I would adopt her, but I always declined. I told her she wouldn’t have as much fun with us if we were her real parents because I’d make her do her homework and go to bed early.

No, it was much better this way. I got to be the fun big sister who dressed up like a ballerina with her (sorry no pictures). I stayed up late making her ice cream sundaes and reading her Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I wouldn’t let her watch the movie until after we’d read the book).

One other thing I remember about my years hanging out with Kati was her birthdays.

Rebeccaadler34c

Our family has never been big on birthdays. My mom always said if she let one of us have a birthday party then all of us would want a birthday party. And in my house that amounted to a birthday party almost every month, sometimes twice in one month.

It just wasn’t happening.

But Kati always got a special birthday when I was around. For her third birthday I invited all of my friends out to dinner as though it was my own birthday. We just went to some little diner and I didn’t expect it to be too big of a deal.

But it was. Everybody brought her gifts and balloons and cards. And the waitress brought here a huge sundae with sparklers. And everybody sang Happy Birthday to her.

I don’t know if she even remembers that now. It was quite a long time ago.

The last birthday I got to spend with her was her ninth birthday (the one pictured above).

I had returned from France just three days prior. But I had promised Kati I’d make her birthday special. I got my other sister, Jess, in on the plan. We decorated my apartment. Set up a karaoke machine and invited both Kati’s and my friends over to celebrate. It wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, but I think Kati still had fun.

About a year later my family moved to Idaho, taking Kati with them. Every year after I’ve told Kati I’ll come visit her for her birthday, but I’ve never been able to make it. I’ve missed three of her birthdays now.

Kati and I had grown apart a bit anyway. I’d been gone in France for eight months and I think she felt a bit abandoned. Also, I stopped having her over as often because my parents blamed me for Kati’s not being baptized.

In the Mormon religion children don’t get baptized until they’re eight years old, ostensibly because they want people to make their own decision as to whether they believe and want to be a member of the church.

As you’ll soon see, this isn’t actually the case.

Kati had put hers off for the first year, saying she wanted to wait until I got home from France. It was a good strategy for her. She got to deflect the attention to me. My dad called me up in Paris and said, “Kati isn’t getting baptized because of you.”

That’s what he said.

He asked me to talk to her, to plead with her to get baptized before she turned nine. I told him it wasn’t that big of a deal and he could schedule it for the month I returned.

I thought Kati really did want to get baptized. I thought she just wanted to wait until I was there for it.

But several months later Kati still wasn’t baptized.


I thought it was just my parents being irresponsible as usual. After all, I wasn’t baptized until I was almost nine too. Not because I didn’t want to, but because my parents just never bothered to schedule it and send out the invitations.

So why were my parents so concerned this time?

Well, it turns out that Kati flat out told them no. She said she wasn’t getting baptized.

Now the pressure was on.

One Sunday evening I went to raid my parents pantry for groceries. When I arrived I was surprised to find my dad and Kati in the living room with two missionaries while the rest of the family seemed to be hiding out in the kitchen.

“What’s Kati doing in there with the missionaries?” I asked.

“They’re trying to make her get baptized.” my brother told me.

“What do you mean? Of course she’s going to get baptized,” I said.

“No, she won’t,” my brother said. “They come here nearly every week and every week she tells them no.”

“Seriously?”

“Yep.”

At this point I went searching for my mom, who was hiding out like everyone else.

She told me the missionaries came twice a month, but Kati wasn’t budging.

People, this is a nine-year-old kid. Children do not tell adults no. They do what everyone else does. And in our family and our circle of friends, everyone else gets baptized.

After this I was intrigued by my sister and her strength to stand up for what she, in this case, doesn’t believe.

Of course, although my heart was swelling with pride, I didn’t tell her that. It would for sure be my fault if I encouraged her on this path.

Moving on…

Today Kati is 12 years old. She’s made it more than four years without getting baptized, even after my parents moved her to Utah last summer.

The missionaries continued to come while they lived in Idaho.

And Kati continued to tell them no.

Every so often, when I called my mother, and trying to not sound eager, I would inquire about Kati and the missionaries.

Exasperated, my mom would say, “The missionaries still come on Sundays. Your dad won’t tell them to leave her alone.”

This week though two of my sisters came to visit and I found out that my mom finally put her foot down.

The story as relayed to me by my sister:

The bishop of their new ward came to my parents with Kati’s church records.

“There seems to be a problem with your daughter’s records,” he said.

“No, there’s no problem,” my mom said.

“Well, it says here that she’s not baptized yet,” he persists.

“Yes. That’s not a mistake,” my mom says.

“Oh, well…”

“No. That’s the way she wants it and that’s the way it’s going to stay. If you send even one missionary to our house I’m going to leave the church for good. I will not allow any of my children to step foot in this church again. Got it?”

And the missionaries have stopped coming.


UPDATE, November 2009: I just learned, via Facebook, that Kati is getting baptized. Apparently all the church had to do was give her some space.