Chuck_Klosterman_But_What_If_Were_Wrong

This week on the Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Chuck Klosterman. His new book, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As If It Were the Past, is available now from Blue Rider Press.

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david_schickler

Schickler!  Tell us about your new memoir The Dark Path!

It’s about how I pursued the Catholic priesthood in my youth and early 20s.  Here are some very real obstacles I faced:  Quicksand.  Neo-Nazis.  The tango.  A psycho student who wanted to kill me.  A nympho hotel concierge who wanted me to kill her, in bed.  Oh, and true love.

widget_custom_image_1_1371909154“No, push them over.”

“David, sing ‘Rainbow Connection.’ I knooow it’s your favorite.”

“Hey, David,” said my sister’s friend Tina Cosgrove, who already had an amazing figure. “I hear you like Beth Vandermalley.”

The other girls made teasing Oooo sounds at me. I tried to defend myself. “Oh yeah, Tina, I hear you like Phil Kincaid.”

Everyone shut up. Tina burst into tears. Her pile of girls fell and they all started patting her back.

“David, what the hell?”

Your Excellency,

First, congratulations. As the Administrator for the Vatican Secret Archives, you have one of the best job titles imaginable. Seriously, that is a comic book name.

Now I know that the Vatican’s Secret Archives aren’t secret in the common sense of the word, but almost no one knows that, so you might as well run with it. I mean, you’re already subject to so many horrible rumors and conspiracy theories anyway, what with the Illuminati and Dan Brown and the Knights Templar. So you might as well have some fun with it.

I take a seat next to Sophia, who’s got a sprained ankle propped up on the table. Across the room is Margaret, with long legs and a flawless manicure, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. I recognize her from Mass, and soon learn that in contrast to her outspoken personality, she’s a former contemplative nun. On my other side is Agnes, with a broad smile and a glittering scarf around her neck, also a former nun, from an order that works among the poorest of the poor. Elizabeth, with curly dark hair and leaping hand gestures, is wearing red and getting everyone water, and it turns out that she too briefly lived in a convent after she finished high school. As they introduce themselves, more details are forthcoming: Margaret is retired and has been with her female partner for twenty-five years; Agnes is a theology professor and writer, with two kids in college; Elizabeth works for an educational program and volunteers everywhere. I am, by decades, the youngest woman there.

So, you’ve written a book about returning to Catholicism in a historical moment when the institutional Catholic church looks like a bunch of right wing nut job lunatics? Does that mean you’re a right wing nut job lunatic?

Far from it. I mean, I teach at UC Berkeley, dude (you don’t mind if I call you dude, right? I mean it in a feminist, gender-neutral sort of way). That’s clue number one. Clues number two through ten thousand have to do with the fact that I’m a thinking feminist who believes in social equality for LGBTQ people and has what you might call a socialist fantasy life. A lot of Radical Reinvention is about understanding the difference between the hierarchy of the church and the people on the ground. Catholics are not some sort of monolithic mass of Pope worshipping automatons.

 

On Super Tuesday, after a blast of last-minute organization, Rick Santorum won the North Dakota caucus. I spent a strange and happy chunk of my kid-hood in the city of Minot, barely an hour from the Canadian border, and I attended the St. Leo’s parish school downtown, just blocks south of the Souris River and the giant red neon sign of the Bridgeman Creamery. Because this was also a time when my parents happened to be grassroots crusaders in the anti-ERA, anti-secular humanism textbook battles of the late 1970s, I feel a sense of déja vu to see Santorum win in North Dakota.

This is another way of saying I watch him win and feel about ten years old.

My last year of college I dated a charming pixie from the august, tree-lined burgh known as Winchester, Massachusetts. She was sweet and funny and doing her damnedest to feel slightly less middle-class, if only briefly. I sported a beard, drank too much and wrote pithy little stories about eating the rich. We were determinedly hip and sophisticated, which in those days meant we had to bear our souls utterly, immediately: in the span of a few short weeks we revealed everything, from past lovers to surgery scars, favorite movies to worst deeds (she claimed to have once stolen a car, but not really: it was her friend’s dad’s car, and all she did was park it two streets over). It was actually the first night we kissed (hours before the kiss itself) that we discovered we’d both been raised ostensibly Catholic. “Oh, yeah,” I told her, “Sunday school, First Communion, all the way through Confirmation.”

“You must have been adorable in your little altar boy outfit,” she suggested.

I raised an eyebrow and said, “I was never an altar boy.”

“Of course you were,” she insisted. “You had to be.”

I shook my head. “Nope. Definitely not. I’m sure I’d remember something like that.”

She pursed her lips but was too polite to be incredulous. Sometime after one in the morning when she finally leaned in and said, “C’mere, you,” I suspect she still held in her mind the sweet, saintly image of long-ago me bashfully performing my duties at the priest’s side. Which was fine with me, I was picturing her naked.

A month later I took her home to meet the parents. We had a fine time basking in the warm glow of my childhood hovel, swapping stories about the old days for the girl’s entertainment. After dinner, my mother pulled out the photo album. I sat across the room, indulging the ooh’s and aah’s, the unchecked laughter at me in my purple bell-bottoms (why is that funny? it’s not like I bought them for myself, I was five). Then came the moment when the girl grew suddenly silent and serious. Her eyes narrowed before she looked up at me and said, “I thought you told me you were never an altar boy.”

“Beg pardon?” I asked.

She turned the album my way, and sure enough, there I stood, eyes appropriately downcast, hands folded in front of me, and dressed in the traditional white surplice over an ankle-length black cassock.

“That appears to be me,” I assented.

“Of course you were an altar boy,” my mother chirped. She turned to the girl, “He’s probably repressed the memory because he hated it so much.”

Sure, Mom. That was probably it.

The sex abuse cases that rocked the Catholic foundations were still vague whispers at that point, certainly in our quiet jerkwater. It was 1990, and we had no reason to expect we were witnessing anything more than the sad but limited dismantling of what had been a long-standing bad joke about priests and little boys. The girl thought it was odd that I didn’t remember, but I doubt she suspected anything sinister had happened. Of course, generally speaking, we all know better now, and I’d be both surprised and disappointed if in the years hence that girl hasn’t at least once recounted to a friend that she dated a guy in college who was . . . “Well,” she would say, “the thing is, he doesn’t remember being an altar boy!” And we all know what that means.

Over the next twenty years I took a perverse pleasure, whenever the opportunity presented itself, in telling people I don’t remember being an altar boy. You can’t always direct the conclusions to which people will jump, but this happens to be one of the topics with which you easily can. “Oh my god, really?” Me (grinning): Weird, right? “Yeah, um . . . Oh my god!”

I’ve only been trumped in my fun once, and I should’ve known better. I was sitting at the bar with my best pal Peaches, an inveterate smartass and steadfast match to my wit, especially after I’d faced him one evening while he was chatting up a young woman and turned to me for confirmation when he announced to her, “Well, I’m not completely full of shit,” to which I replied, “No, but it wouldn’t take much to top you off.” Yeah, I had it coming. So there I sat, telling my little joke for perhaps the two-hundredth time, when Peaches pulled out his smart-ish phone and asked, “What was your priest’s name?” I thought nothing of it, rattled off the name, and went back to my amusement. A few minutes later he handed me his phone and said, “Read ’em and weep, altar boy.”

And there it was, a real story in a real newspaper, Father X implicated in Catholic sex abuse scandal, multiple confirmed incidents.

He was a regular Jack the Diddler.

“Where’s your messiah now, funny guy?” Peaches asked.

What could I do? We got drunk and had many laughs, mostly at my expense.

But I thought a lot about Father X after that. He was a bald, obese, painfully myopic old priest: he had to use a staggeringly thick magnifying glass to read scripture. That’s about all I remember about him, except a vague recollection of his Elmer-Fudd voice. I can, however, say with absolute certainty he never touched me, not even appropriately. I don’t think he ever even looked at me. Believe me when I say, I don’t repress anything. I can tell you what I had for breakfast my first day of kindergarten: half a grapefruit, for some unimaginable reason (hell of a time to try out a new food on me, Mom). I can tell you the last time I peed the bed: I was nine and tried to blame it on the cat (volume gave me away). Nothing has ever hurt so badly or shamed me so deeply that I’ve dug a hole in my psyche and buried it there. That ain’t me.

Which leads to what I think is a rather obvious question, given what we know: why not me? I mean, I was cute. I had a near-perfect little boy body, thin and lean and mostly hairless. The pipe-cleaners hanging from my shoulder sockets made it abundantly clear I wasn’t strong enough to fight back. I wasn’t the incessant talker I am now, so I’m sure I didn’t give the impression that I’d tattle. So what was wrong with me? Why didn’t you pick me, Father X?

I believe in the value of reflection, particularly in light of new information. I don’t wish to pin everything on Father X, but give the devil his due. Here I sit, a man in his early forties who has experienced a long and satisfying sex life with some truly delightful women. I don’t scratch shallow troughs in my skin with a knife, don’t wake up crying in the middle of the night, don’t hate my body (although I kind of should). I’m a lot of this and a whole lot of that, but goddamn if I’m not pretty fucking normal. Rejection, whatever form it takes, always comes with some cost.

Perhaps I should just get over it, but I confess, it has been on my mind constantly, so much so that during a recent trip through the family photo album with another excellent girl, something caught my eye and inspired what I consider to be a damned solid theory. Stretched out side by side in my narrow bed, we flipped slowly through the 1970s. There I was again as an altar boy, there in my fuzzy footie pajamas, there in my purple bell-bottoms, and a page later, a picture I had neither seen nor thought about in decades (because it was my sister’s birthday party and thus I wasn’t the focal point): there I stood in a pair of Lee jeans, back-to this time, and immediately the words I’ve heard a thousand or so times in my adult life from the mouths of friends and loved ones rang out in my head like the bells of Notre Dame: “Pull up your pants.” At this mild admonishment I invariably shrug and halfheartedly hitch, meantime explaining somewhat apologetically that I have no ass (it’s true, I have none). It wasn’t until the moment I saw myself from behind in that random Polaroid from more than thirty-five years ago that it finally hit me: I have never had an ass. And clarity washed over me like a rape shower.

I understand you now, Father X, and I forgive you your failure to trespass against me.

You, sir, were an ass-man.

Lucky me.

My common law stepdaughter decided she too wants to be a writer and I can’t help but feel a little proud, like it’s because of me. This nice and very human feeling is quickly overshadowed by jealousy; what if she ends up being better than me? What if she makes it and I don’t? Yes, I have professional jealousy of an eleven year old. That’s pretty pathological.

I’m typically jealous of everyone everywhere at all times. This probably stems from insecurity. I’ve occupied about every position on the social stratosphere as you can imagine; I’ve been sought after, ostracized, ridiculed, praised, told I was beautiful, assured I was ugly. I was approached by two drunken men one evening. The first declared I was pretty, one of the prettiest girls he’d even seen, while the other was less than impressed with me. It’s telling that I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was basically the polar opposite of his buddy’s heady acclaim. 

Now what would you make of that? I mean, how do you process that information? Does one cancel out the other? Are they both right? The opinions of strangers mean less and less as I get older, but still that anecdote is a pretty good summation of my life. One part praise plus one part ridicule. Earning your begrudging respect one word at a time, if at all. It’s a constant uphill climb and I am a lazy asshole.

It’s a cliché but people really do either love me or hate me. There is no middle ground. I’ve had people (parents, teachers, peers, etc.) hate me on sight, and many of the people I’ve counted as friends confided that before we became close they too hated me. I take this as a source of pride. Anyone can be pleasant and kind and have people like them. To take someone with genuine ill feelings towards you and bring them around seems like an accomplishment I didn’t think I was capable of. But it’s also a bit depressing. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not all that likable and charm is far out of my realm of capability.

After reading Hitch 22 I decided to take the Proust Questionnaire (which you should take as well: http://hoelder1in.org/Proust/fill_questionnaire.html ). The second to last question asked my current state of mind and I wrote ambivalent. After thinking it over I decided I’m in a constant state of ambivalence. I’m in love with the world and hate it miserably. I think humanity is awesome and grotesque. I think I am the worst person in the world while also believing that I’m better than everyone else. Is this inability to choose an indicator of severe mental illness or a healthy way to cope with an ever changing, fluid life? I’d have to say it’s both.

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.

Every year one of my Jewish friends will try to explain how lame Chanukah is and how it couldn’t possibly stand up against the awesome power of Christmas. With a junkie’s conviction they tell you how much they love all of it: snow! Reindeer! Stop animation TV specials and the mountain of presents under that glorious tree, with the needles that smell like they’ve been hauled out of some magical forest just yesterday!

On Faith

By James B. Frost

Essay

My mother is the most appropriate religious person I know. She prays daily, goes to church whenever she can, volunteers at a local homeless shelter, gives money to charity, reads book after book about religion, and never once talks about it to the faithless, unless of course they ask. It hurts her, deeply, that of her seven children only one remains religious, and yet as she’s aged, she’s learned to keep her hurt to herself as best she can. Every once in a while she slips up and mails me a news clipping—something about the evils of the latest Harry Potter book—but I’ve reached an age where, given the depth of her beliefs, I see this as restraint rather than proselytizing.

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.)




“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.