[Transcript from an interview exclusive to The Nervous Breakdown.]

Milton: Since Halloween was last night, and October 31st is his birthday, I am here talking with Satan, on Skype, from his holiday villa Pandaemonium deep in the depths of Hell. Satan, let me first wish you a Happy Birthday!

Satan: Gee-wiz, thanks, John. So kind of you to call. I am touched, really, I am. I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for you. And may I say you look marvelous for a 400-year-old? What is your secret? Who is your surgeon? You could pass for a teenager. It must be the poetry—Paradise Regained.

Many reviewers have described Breaking Up with God as “brutally honest.” Do you wish you had been less forthright (or even fibbed some) when writing your memoir?

I am a terrible liar. I can’t lie to save my life, so it would have been impossible for me to write a memoir that wasn’t true. I have asked reviewers what they meant when they called my book “honest,” and most responded by pointing out that it is unusual for people to make themselves look bad in their own writing, which made me realize that being called honest is not necessarily a compliment. I didn’t write the book to create a flattering version of myself (I hope the author photo does that work for me). I wrote the book to try to understand how I went from almost being a priest to not calling myself a Christian anymore. That said, I understand that memoirs—like identities, like theologies—are constructions.

 

What do your parents think about your breakup with God?

It doesn’t bother them at all that I no longer call myself a Christian. They raised me with a healthy dose of suspicion and taught me to be a critical thinker who asks questions. They understand that the book is about breaking up with a particular version of God—the man in the sky who watched over me and protected me when I was good and punished me when I was bad—not about breaking up with all versions of God. My parents have always cared more about what I do with my life than about what I believe, a sentiment that is mirrored in the sorts of theologies to which I tend to be attracted. I sent them a draft of my book before it was published. I thought that was a fair thing to do given they both make appearances in the book. My mother was not upset at all about my journey out of institutional Christianity. She was, however, mortified that “everyone in the world” was going to read about me having sex in the back seat of a car.

 

Do you think you’re going to hell?

I don’t believe in hell. I also don’t believe in a God who would send someone to hell based on whether or not they believed in God or that Jesus was the son of God. That seems very narcissistic to me. I can’t stake my life—or my afterlife—on a God who would peer inside my mind and look only for himself. Enough about me, I imagine this God saying. What do you think of me? I also don’t understand why we need to invent an afterlife when there are already so many people suffering in various forms of hell on earth. I am much more concerned with trying to end suffering now.

 

What if you’re wrong?

I think “What if I’m wrong?” is the most important question we can ask ourselves. I call myself an agnostic. Although “agnostic” is a philosophical term, I claim it for primarily ethical reasons. My mentor at Harvard, the theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that the question of God’s existence is not a question human beings can answer. As a result, it’s time to start asking different theological questions: How are we to live? To what causes should we devote ourselves? How will we make the world a more just and life-giving place for everyone? It seems to me that we get in the most trouble and do the most violent things to other people, animals, and the environment when we forget that our ideas about God might be wrong. This is one of the biggest dangers that can come with religious belief—instead of recognizing that God is a mystery and that no human being can speak for God, some believers put their own words in God’s mouth. They use God as a way to justify mistreating others.

 

You’re a theologian who doesn’t believe in God. How does that work?

You don’t have to believe in God to be a theologian—just like you don’t have to be a politician to study political science or a bird to study ornithology. The word “God” is out in the world doing all kinds of work, good and bad, liberating and oppressive, and I understand my role as a theologian to be evaluating the effects of people’s beliefs. My theological project is both critical and constructive. I don’t really care what we believe; I care how our beliefs influence the way we live in the world.

 

You’re a scholar of religion. Do you have any marketable skills?

I am really good at reading. Is that marketable?

 

No. Reading is not a marketable skill. Name three things you are good at doing.

Reading, grammar, and predicting how much my groceries will cost in the checkout line.

 

Name three things you are not good at doing.

Skeet shooting, orienteering, and acting.

 

What does your writing practice look like?

I do my best writing early in the morning. It is imperative that I start writing before my critical brain is awake, before my censor starts telling me my writing sucks, my book is stupid and makes no sense, and I should just give it up and stop pretending to be a writer. So much of writing—so much of any creative activity—is about cutting through self-doubt and self-sabotage to make your way to the page. I have to work hard to get out of my own way. I have to work hard to trust myself.

 

What are you writing now?

I am writing a novel about a conscientious objector during World War II. I am also working on two edited volumes—one about Christianity and torture and one about artists’ responses to torture.

 

You spend a lot of time writing about torture. You must be fun to hang out with.

Is that a question?

 

Are you fun to hang out with?

It depends.

 

Do you think you and God will ever get back together?

It’s possible, I guess, but unlikely. Right now we’re seeing other people.

“It is erroneous of the public to believe that the crusades’ only goal was to drive Muslims out of Jerusalem and the Holy Land,” Scott McElroy, a 57 year-old computer consultant of Las Cruces, New Mexico, exclaims. “The crusades were launched against all enemies without and within. Take the Albigensian Crusade, for example. The church had to fight Cathar heretics to preserve itself. These deviants lived in France, in the heart of Western Civilization and Christendom, but they had it all wrong and had to be uprooted.”

McElroy is soft-spoken, and only an occasional widening of his eyes betrays the fervor with which he pursues his dream of calling Christians in America to arms and fight all those, “who condone evils in His Church.”

McElroy was a hardworking family man in his early forties, when a spiritual crisis shattered his peace. “I was looking around me, and I couldn’t fathom why I wanted to lead this life I was living at the time. Sure, my kids gave me great pleasure, but beyond my doorstep the world I had once loved had ceased to exist. Teenagers listened to aggressive and loutish songs, my next-door neighbors were homosexuals living openly in sin, and strip malls were covering every inch of open space. Abortions were legal, people had premarital sex and spread AIDS, and I thought, I can’t go on doing nothing about all this.” His priest was understanding, but even in the ranks of the clergy McElroy sensed “the presence of homosexuals and deviants.”

In 1985, on his way home from a convention in Albuquerque, his car gave out. “There I was, stranded on the side of the road, and I’d had enough. I screamed, I kicked the car, I actually took a screwdriver from the toolbox and punctured the tires.” McElroy laughs, shaking his gray head. “I went nuts. But then, suddenly, out of nowhere, a voice said to me, “It’s not your car. It’s your life.”

McElroy turned and his anger subsided. He stared at the figure in front of him and fell to his knees. “He looked exactly how I had imagined Him,” he says. “Long hair, beard, white gown – all the portraits I’d seen of God’s son in church, they were true. They got it right.”

Jesus told McElroy to walk away from the car, into the desert. After about a mile, He bade him to kneel down. “And this cactus in front of me, whoosh, it goes up in flames.”

Jesus then instructed McElroy to take the cross against homosexuality, abortion, and bad education. “AIDS is a plague and shall continue as long as you condone homosexuality. There will be suffering and it shall go on until the sinners have been stopped. AIDS is a penance from my father, the Lord, and the sinners will either see the evil of their ways or perish.”

Then Jesus continued to bemoan the fall of education, abortion, and euthanasia. At last he ordered McElroy to gather true believers and fight these evils. When the cactus had burnt down, Jesus disappeared, but not before demanding, “Pray! Pray, but act, too. Prayers without action are like placing a feast on a dead man’s grave.”

McElroy has built a shrine at the location of his first meeting with Jesus, and he returns often to the site, to speak with Jesus and ask Him for guidance.

He had heard of the crusades, but it took him several months to research the holy wars and to figure out a way to start his own. “You know, these lords and knights had large estates, sold land to afford the pilgrimage. So why had Jesus chosen me? I was a computer guy.”

He started out by printing flyers and mailing them to churches around the country. The first few years were quiet, but slowly, he says, “a storm was gathering.” Every month he was receiving messages from Jesus and the Virgin Mary at the shrine in the desert, and he mailed them diligently to his subscribers.

McElroy’s project experienced a quantum leap with the advent of the Internet. It allowed him to post holy messages as soon as he received them, and to reach people who were not organized in churches. “I finally knew why Jesus had chosen me,” he confesses. “I knew what to do with the new technology.”

“What doomed the crusades of old,” he explains, “is that it was never a grassroots movement. The popes and bishops, they didn’t want everyday people to join, because they couldn’t fight, couldn’t afford horses, and held up the warriors on their way to the Levant. So it was only an elite fighting to free Jerusalem. And Jerusalem was lost again soon enough.”

McElroy adds, “Today, everyone can afford arms, can afford to travel, and we will seize that opportunity. I’m not a preacher, but the web allowed me to reach out to my brethren. The Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ is ready to strike.”

In many states, an armed militia, with secret meeting places and hidden weapons is taken for granted. McElroy spoke to many militia leaders in Michigan and Oregon and was impressed with their organizations’ degree of sophistication. He and Siegfried Newman, the brotherhood’s treasurer and owner of a regional chain of supermarkets, keep in close contact with militia leaders to learn about modern warfare and guerilla tactics.

“Once we’ll call our knights to arms,” Newman, one of McElroy’s first followers, declares, “they will turn out in great numbers.” The brotherhood is said to have armed members in all fifty states. They intend, in Newman’s words, “to rise and root out evil, drive it out of our great nation and back to Hell.”

The crusades of the Middle Ages were sanctioned by the papacy and carried out by kings and emperors. Who will legitimize the brotherhood’s crusade?

“You’d be surprised,” Newman says during a recent meeting in the living room of his comfortable home on the outskirts of Las Cruces. The air conditioning is fighting off the 110-degree afternoon, and three glasses and a giant pitcher of iced tea have been set out by his Mexican-born maid. Newman is in his fifties, dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and red tie, despite the weather. He carries a pronounced paunch and has a red face, and his every gesture seems forceful and determined. “Politicians at the very top want us to succeed,” he says, without divulging names. “We have brothers in state legislatures, in the courts, and even on Capitol Hill.”

Once the Brotherhood of the New Knights for Christ becomes active, McElroy and Newman imagine, their first target will be the city of Las Vegas. “It will be our first big test. We’ll shut down the brothels and casinos. We will be merciless against everyone who stands in our way and raises their hand to interfere with our cause,” McElroy says between sips of iced tea.

The new crusaders will drive armored pickups, Humvees and trucks, and will carry handguns and rifles, machine guns and light artillery. They don’t expect casino owners to lie down without a fight, but “once we take Las Vegas, our numbers will increase dramatically. People will realize how strong we are and what we are capable of doing. We’re all about character, and the good Lord is with us. We’ve had four million red cloth crosses shipped to our brothers in arms, and we will wear them as proudly as our forebears. Who can stop us?”

Skirmishes with police, the National Guard or the Army, McElroy hopes to avoid. “Will people get killed? Sure,” he admits. “Will innocent, righteous people be harmed? Absolutely not. Once the government recognizes that we are after the heathens, the deviants, and evildoers, they’d better back us. We are strong enough to even march against Washington if that is the Lord’s will.”

Newman even counts on support from the armed forces. “Soldiers are Christians too and hate to see our nation defiled by smut and people who close their eyes to lewdness. In the end, we will fight side by side. This is a big movement, not a flash in the pan. Forget Waco, forget McVeigh. That’s not us. We are businessmen, family men, we’re the people. We will be the tidal wave that sweeps the dirt off our nation.”

After Las Vegas, Newman expects to take Los Angeles. “Maybe it’s an obvious choice, but think of the Big Whore of Babel. Would you spare Babylon just because everyone knows how bad things are? Of course not. Los Angeles will once again become a desert, without celebrations of black masses, and voodoo priests dancing through rings of fire in producers’ mansions.”

“There are places that shouldn’t even be there,” McElroy chimes in. “L.A. was built in the desert as a toy for the rich and perverted. Does anybody need the city? I don’t think so.”

Once Sodom and Gomorrah have been razed, how long will the New Knights fight their holy war?

“Is there an end to the War on Terror? To the war on vice? I think the answer is No,” Newman says. “And we will not stop until homosexuals will repent, until the Bible will be taught in our schools again. And then we might be able to put down our arms and once more let our president lead the country, a president who believes in God and His kingdom and is willing to sacrifice the few for the welfare of our country.”

“But that is the future,” McElroy concludes. “Today we must fight. It is time to get down on our knees, pray, and take the cross once again.”

Day One

Because I have my father’s proclivity for drinking and my mother’s lack of grace, I trip on a loose stone of the homemade fireplace while cleaning up after the party, and land my right hand, dominant, in a nest of glowing coals.

OK, don’t be silly.

I’ll try.


So, a poet?

Apparently
so?

I am honored
& humbled,
both.


That’s not poetry, it’s just format.

Yeah.


Why do you do that?

What?


The staggered line break thing.

This publisher guy told me people need lots of white space on the page these days because our attention spans are so shot.


That’s it?

That and a stint through Nashville songwriting while studying wisdom books like Ecclesiastes & the Tao.


Ah.

Darkness. Light. Contrast. Beauty. Chaos. Cadence.

It makes you sound
more profound
than you
really
are.

And in songwriting, the economy of words. Saying so much with so little.
Right or wrong, I tend to choose song over story. But to have both is the sweetest magic.


Example.

Guess I shoulda
known
by the way you
parked your car
sideways
that it
wouldn’t last

bangbang. bang

Is it the rhythm? The story? The melody? If you take it apart it dies a little, so it must be alive. Kind of nonsensical, really.

So what is it?

Emotion. And emotion can be so senseless. Make me feel something. Give voice to my secret joys & private pain that I cannot find the words for. Teach me something about myself I did not know but sorely need to learn. That’s always been my goal: To speak from the secret place and try to make people think & feel something. Because the forces of lethargy & distraction are legion.

It helps to be mysteriously spiritually smitten & given to magical thinking.


I liked when that quirky girl wrote: “You are one dark-ass bastard but you write about Jesus in ways that somehow don’t offend me.” A lot of people feel you are fixated on the religious stuff.

I’m an absurdist at heart & art is my apologetics.

Maybe. Man, I don’t know. If I have any religion, that’s it. I don’t know. But I know
that I hope and I believe that hoping is greater than knowing because I’ve gotten to the
point where I know a lot less and hope a lot more.


So, sir, are you a poet?

I don’t know…


Heh.

…but I know I love the power of the words. Words change the world. Can I leave you with a Scripture?


What am I going to say, no?

John 1:1

In the Beginning
was the Word.
& the Word
was with God
& the Word
was God.

& the Word
was Life


If that’s the Beginning, what about the End?

There is no end.

The Words never End.

I started and finished Jesus Angel Garcia’s new book, badbadbad, on a flight from Baltimore to California.  In those six hours, I read more sex scenes than I’ve read in the past five years.  It’s one of those books that will keep you from putting on your headphones and watching the lamely re-edited in-flight movie (something I’d never even heard of was playing on this flight).  Music runs through the novel  (go to www.badbadbad.net for the playlist) in a way that makes the book feel like a loud, thrilling, invigorating concert. A concert about sex, religion, music and violence.

I’ll get one thing out of the way first of all, to address whose in the know, and as a point of interest for those who aren’t. “Akata” is to some a pretty nasty word. It’s Nigerian Pidgin deriving from the Yoruba for bush civet cat, and is used as an epithet for Americans of African descent. Some people claim it’s not derogatory in intent, but I don’t really buy that given the context in which I hear it used most of the time. It certainly leaves an offensive taste in the mouth of many Nigerians, especially in diaspora. Yeah, taboo language sometimes marks the most superficially surprising vectors. Nnedi Okorafor, author of the recent fantasy novel Akata Witch (Viking, 2011 ISBN: 978-0-670-01196-4), is well aware of the controversy she courts with its title. It takes an extraordinary book to put such an abrasive first impression into the background, and in short, I think Nnedi has well accomplished this.

I can’t save the world, but I want to save the world. This has always been the case. Many times as a child, I thought I could save the world or otherwise do the impossible. Many times, I was proven wrong.

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?



My mother-in-law has told my two sons, four and six years old, that when people die, they become stars in the night sky so they can watch over the people they love.

Several media outlets have revealed that the US Army has been administering a “spirituality test” to determine whether soldiers are fit to serve. The Army has argued that people who are spiritual have better morale and are more likely to recover from severe trauma. This could have some merit, and the Army would rightly be attracted by the cost savings of prayer over, say, paying for lifetime psychotherapy and mental health care for wounded and disabled veterans.

Before my father lost his faith in the church and became a psychologist, he was quite an inspiring preacher-although he had a humorous knack of confusing words at dramatic moments in such a way as “to bring the house down” as my choir director mother put it.

He could, for instance, raise his arms in that gentle entreating way of his and request that the congregation all stand…”Please rise now and turn to face the person next to you…and give them the Piss of Keace.” (His “splash” of gin prior to each service may have had some influence on this tendency. I certainly always relished it when he would say things like, or try to say things like, “the Apocrypha and the Pseudopigrapha” after his third splash. I didn’t know what he was talking about then, but it made me giggle.)

More than once he bewildered his attentive listeners with such variations on accepted wisdom as, “It’s easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a camel to enter the kingdom of God.” (Once the needle ended up in the camel’s eye and another time there were rich men searching for needles in heaven.) Despite some celebrated gaffes that caused an uproar of laughter, many slid by the majority of church goers only to end up in circulation around the Sunday afternoon dinner table, which invariably caused my father to spill gravy on his tie-such was his mixture of chagrin, disbelief and chuckling enjoyment at his own misstatements. You could never fault him for not being able to laugh at himself. As much as he loathed and shrunk and wilted at the slightest hint of a barbed criticism, if anything was ever funny, he’d laugh.

To his further credit, it must be said that he did excellent heartfelt weddings and his Easter services were always exceptionally meaningful. There were clearly some key aspects of Christian theology that were at odds with his personal beliefs and anything along the lines of harping on doing good grated on him-but he could blow the hell out of a theme like the Resurrection and the Life. One could easily imagine the stained glass windows coming to life on Easter Sunday.

My mother adopted a kind of player-coach role in the choir, often taking the solos for soprano (and sometimes for alto too). Although she could be abrasive, she always raised the standard. People kept in time and in tune, and if by some odd chance my father took to rambling, she had sufficient control of her team and music generally to be able to spontaneously introduce a piece that wasn’t listed on the hymn board. The songs never rocked as in a black Baptist church, but they occasionally soared and they never once sank or stank. (It would be impossible to count the number of thoroughly average people over the years my mother taught how to “dee-liver the message.”)

My father had no musical training whatsoever and not a clue about the volume and strength of his own voice (which could easily overwhelm the entire front row on even a packed morning)-and he often seemed to take a competitive stance toward the choir. Fortunately, he was gifted with a naturally pleasing voice, resonant and committed, with none of the “slushing and slurring” that so infuriated my mother in most others. At their best, they were a true President and First Lady partnership, and they were at their best when they were in partnership. Church was the family business and they were unquestionably good at it.

Which isn’t to say they didn’t have some considerable failures-of a relatively spectacular nature given the context. I was involved in perhaps the biggest one, although I’m exceedingly relieved to say I wasn’t the weak leak in the chain. That role fell to little Grace Kenneally.

If you know anything about the Protestant racket, you’ll appreciate the savor of winning back some Catholics, and the Kenneallys were a big Catholic family (just like the Gages who lived next door to us). Mr. Kenneally, whatever his first name was, was in retail and on the rise commercially. I don’t know what it was he sold, but it had something to do with house wares and he had a vast warehouse down on San Pablo, and was always passing out business cards and making fine tactical use of the after-service coffee time to shake hands and pass out ever more cards (I always wondered where he kept them all). His wife looked continuously exhausted, as perhaps a mother of six well might-but she was extremely proud of her brood and her tight clenched face would overly relax into a soft doughy mass when any compliments on their dress or demeanor came her way. (I got brushed and mussed and primped each Sunday myself, but I think those kids got a full military inspection.)

Gracie was the bright light in the bunch. Horace was her twin (who in their right mind would name a child Horace?). They were my age. Sadly, Horace had a speech impediment, so when it came time to assign roles for the young children’s contribution to the annual Christmas pageant, my mother made the decision to feature Grace, as a gesture of compensation to the image-conscious Kenneallys. It took a great deal of restraint on her part not to force the starring role on me, but she knew the game and what was at stake. Mr. Kenneally placed real folding money in the collection trays that went around each service-and did so with great ceremony. Horace was hopeless at speaking a word in public, Grace got the nod. An understandable move.

It was my father who insisted that the pageant not be an isolated event in the Sunday School, but that instead, it be brought right into the main service for all to see. Let the little children come unto me. Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all. Luke 18:17.

So, in my mother’s practiced wisdom, we practiced. We rehearsed our little asses off-for three full weeks. I had a line about the Wise Men following the Star. Gracie had five lines…including the big finale. It was a call and response deal that Mom wrote herself. Dad would say… “And who is Christ?”…and Grace would answer… “He’s Lord of Lords and King of Kings.” Easy.

I don’t know how many times we went over that. It seemed endless. And poor Grace was forced by her earnest socialite mother to be forever repeating that grand end line even when we weren’t in rehearsal. One would’ve thought the child was going spare the way she was always mouthing it to herself and to those of us sentenced to the same Sunday School-where there was always much talk of the Lamb of God and the Lamb lying down with the Lion-and then lamb served at the dinner table only a couple of hours later.

Well, not surprisingly, the sanctuary was full to fire regulation limits on the day in question. My parents didn’t mess around when it came to drumming up a crowd-or rather a congregation. My father even went so far as to initiate a FREE pancake breakfast on the same day, as a lure to the street people, who were beginning to show distinct signs of an increase in numbers. There was going to be no question that the Christmas pageant would be well attended, slackers or not. Every inch of every pew was crammed with flesh, however willing, whatever way their spirits were inclined. I’ve never smelled so much perfume and cologne in my life-which was a good thing as some of the park sleepers who took up the back rows more than balanced the equation, with body odor, felt, weary old denim, scabies skin and maple syrup.

It started out rough, when my father asked the assembled children, “Whose birthday are we celebrating today?” Billy Piper was quick to raise his hand and announce, “Mine!”

That got everyone snickering and threw off the timing of the recitals, but my mother icily reined us all back in. Slowly we made our way through the script, as the congregation shuffled patiently in the pews, eyes wide and hopeful that we’d pull off our respective parts.

And we did. We dee-livered the message as my mother would say. I got my star over the manger. Young Horace, somewhat thick of tongue and thicker of mind managed to raise his branch of holly at the correct moment. Gracie shone. In fact, we got some black rouse out of a mainly white house…until…until the grand finale.

I looked over at my father, thankful I hadn’t messed up my line, knowing that he was ever mindful of my mother, watching over all of us like the proverbial hawk. One step away from total success. One simple question in what he could make sound like a big booming voice. One simple answer from Gracie-and we’d be done. We’d have blistered it. Applause in church, which is unusual for white people. We’d be heroes-or at least have passed muster in my mother’s eyes-one step away from the patio and the remains of the pancake breakfast anyway.

So, my father stepped theatrically forward, right on cue, steady as he goes (it was definitely but a one splash morning). “And who is Christ?”

Cue to Gracie…

The whole congregation, even the street people, who were a little rowdy and unused to the stained glass and organ ritual, went stone still.

Grace, who’d done so well up to this point, suddenly paused. Her face froze over with an expression of pure terror. She’d forgotten the line. Gone.

There was a moment of awkward silence verging on pain…and then people started shifting and murmuring. Jesus, that sound can only be so loud in church.

My father, ever the optimist, didn’t grasp the nature of the crisis. He didn’t realize Gracie’s mind had gone completely blank. He thought it was just an opportunity to enhance the theater of the performance. He tried again…

“And WHO is Christ?”

“He’s Lord of Lords…and…”

And? And? And…?

Gracie just didn’t have the line-the final line. The closer! The cue for the organist and the choir. Everything was stopped. Stalled. Dead in the water. The street people were getting restless.

I watched my father peer over quickly at my mother, looming before her robed choir. It was beginning to dawn on him how serious the situation was. The Kenneallys (the entire clan other than Grace and Horace) were in the front row-and they were squirming with anxiety of the purest kind. Mr. Kenneally’s face had clouded over so darkly it looked like he’d never pass out another business card again. Mrs. Kenneally looked so clenched it seemed like she’d never pass water again. And one of the more degenerate street people my father in his enthusiasm for the event had invited in to witness the celebration of Christ’s birth was mumbling something about “Lord of the Bored” back near the doors.

My mother gave him one of her most piercing glances, as if to say, “This is all your fault-you never should’ve let those people in here.”

Of course it was too late to worry about that, and my father was never one to worry about a bad decision anyway-things would work out. He’d just try the line again.

And so he did. Same response. No response. Worse response! One of the ushers actually laughed. I heard my mother clear her throat (never a good sign). The fuse had been lit. She was fuming! She was about to cue the organist. She was about to unleash the choir to cover the debacle. The pageant was in disarray. There’d be hell to pay for this. Disaster. Apocalypse!

And then…and then

Then I saw a glimmer of illumination in Gracie’s eyes. The penny had dropped. She’d recovered. The horror was past. Her stage fright had evaporated. She’d remembered the words. She was going to pull the line and all of us out of the fire. She was back in time and in tune, and she was going to proudly let it rip with all her heart. My mother always said, “If you can say it-and you will say it-then sing it out! Make people sit up and take notice. This is not about being an eeny weeny quiet little mouse-this is about making the people in the back row know you’re alive!”

Gracie gave a slight but confident nod to my father. Cue me again. Have faith in me. She nodded to my father, who had faith in scabbed people scratching themselves audibly. She put it right back onto him, the one person in that whole high ceilinged room, who would never have gotten into a fight but who would never ever have knocked back any dare if it came to a matter of faith and a possible good outcome. My father knew he’d been challenged where he lived-and he stepped right in close and dee-livered that cue line as if he’d never said it before…

“Tell me Grace, who is Christ?”

“He’s Lord of Lords!” Gracie belted out.

“Yes?” my father interjected for theatrical effect. “Yes…?”

Gracie screwed up her pretty little face and literally bellowed…”And…HE’S KING OF THE JUNGLE!”

Faster than you can blink, my mother flagged her arm and commanded the organist and her choir to hit it-the Hallelujah Chorus at full bore. But not even that onslaught of music could drown out the laughter or the awful mechanical and pastry settling sound of the retraction of the Kenneallys’ egos. It couldn’t even outdo my father’s own hilarity. He buckled over double in his shiny ministerial robe and just plain guffawed in weeping gratitude for this new insight on the nature of Christ Our Lord. He chortled. He whinnied. He held nothing back. I tell you, if it was funny, my father laughed and you did too. And if it was very funny, then he gave birth to some new emotion, right in front of you.

“I knew it!” one of the homeless men shouted with Old Testament conviction and then proceeded to give a spirited “roar” for the Christ child. My mother did her best to lift the decibel level of the choir, but she couldn’t match the lion’s roar-or the further explosion of mirth it triggered in my father. I doubt seriously if any church has ever shaken with so much joyful noise. People were physically clutching their stomachs trying to contain themselves.

What followed was decidedly different. The Kenneallys made it through the after-service Christmas party with a grim, stoic calm (without Mr. Kenneally passing out a single business card). They were never seen in church again, which is a sad ending to the story, for little Gracie had done exactly as my mother had instructed. Plus King of the Jungle has a nice ring to it-and very possibly a lot more Christmas spirit than King of Kings, which to my ears sounded a bit too much like one of Mr. Kenneally’s ad slogans.

To make matters even more pointed, my father mistakenly tried to sum up the proceedings and smooth things over once we were back at home and seated at dinner, by remarking as philosophically as he could sound, “Well, you know what they say about show business. Never work with kids or children.”

To which my mother replied with a frosted glare, “The line is, never work with kids or animals, dear.”

Of course that only got my sister and me started once more. I think it’s safe to say the gravy fairly flew that day.

For years after, the very softest suggestion of anything even vaguely like “King of the Jungle” would bring up my father’s belly laugh, tears streaming down his face. From that day forth, we were never without a means to cheer ourselves up at short notice. And as it turns out, we’d damn well need it.

Humans like to say things like ‘the human spirit’. They like to think it means something, that it’s what’s special about them. That it separates them from other animals. There’s that new movie out, 127 Hours, starring James Fracno, about that guy, Aron Ralston, who got his arm caught under a big rock when he fell into a canyon, and he had to cut the arm off with a really dull multi-purpose knife. The movie’s about, like, ‘the human spirit’.

This is a continuation of a series of personal observations about my native country on its golden jubilee. For items 1-16, please see part 1. For items 17-32, see part 2. In this final installment I include a few observations I’ve culled from my father’s memoir of his life in Nigeria and abroad “Seeing the World in Black & White.” (SWBW) (AWP, 2006)¹

33. Modern Nigerian literature, ever vibrant, is certainly on the up. Young as it is Nigeria has already had an early generation of great writers, household names such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka, not to mention the likes of Cyprian Ekwensi, Amos Tutuola, Christopher Okigbo, Flora Nwapa, Buchi Emecheta, and even the prolific pulp novelist Dan Fulani. It’s almost too much to ask for more, but as it happens, we have much, much more with new generations exploding on to the scene, including poets Chris Abani, Uche Nduka, Olu Oguibe and lesser known contemporaries such as Chinweizu. But the real earthquake manifests in novel form, with the emergence of the likes of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Helen Oyeyemi, Sefi Atta, and Nnedi Okorafor. I can’t pass without a word for the recently deceased poet and playwright Esiaba Irobi. One of the neat aspects of these 21st century blossoms is that so many of them are young women.

“omg. this girl is a wack-a-doo.”

-The Denver Post


Finally. Somebody has noticed my pumpkin. A major newspaper has mocked my belief that the picture on this pumpkin looks like Jesus.

I have sent pictures of the white pumpkin with the natural growth markings that look like a figure to quite a few media outlets now, with nary a word.