1. the book of ragtime
“They talk a lot about how we need to love and accept gay people and how the need to love and accept gay people is something we should talk about,” AK said on the car ride to All Saints Church in Pasadena.
Sure enough, when we tiptoed into the chapel (a little late, because God made comfy Sunday-morning beds, didn’t He-slash-She?) the woman-in-a-robe who was speaking was talking about gay people. And black men. How both groups needed love and acceptance. Recently she’d been at an event where a group had sung “Make Them Hear You” from the musical Ragtime.
My ears perked up as she read the lyrics (changing “ten million righteous men” to “ten million righteous friends” in good He-slash-She fashion). Hey! I knew Ragtime! I knew gay people! I knew Ragtime because I was gay people! Could it be a sign?
On the way to church, I told AK, “I haven’t been to church since high school,” but later I realized I’d probably been a dozen times. I was raised as a Christmas-and-Easter Christian with a Jewish last name (long and somewhat interesting story to be saved for a later blog entry). Even though I hadn’t tagged along to anyone else’s church since the fabulous Chinese New Year feast at Amy’s church circa 1994, I’d seen Baby Jesus born to teenagers in Nikes and togas at the Wayfarers Chapel in Palos Verdes a bunch of times.
Apparently I’d completely blocked those visits from my mind, though—probably because I also saw my mom memorialized there, in the beautiful glass chapel that now kind of makes me nauseous. I remember having some kind of quibble with the pastor (preacher? priest? The technicalities of religion are hazy for me—I know he wasn’t a rabbi or the pope, though), whom we were supposedly so lucky to book, because he was the same guy who married my parents at that same church in 1973. I thought he talked too much, or was too picky about how many flowers were allowed onstage (or whatever they call that thing at the front), or used annoying metaphors about boats.
I sat there defiantly, sobbing and quibbling in my lemon yellow funeral dress, as everyone around me seemed thoroughly touched. I wanted to like him, and to like church, because my dad did. But I also wanted to hate him, and hate church all the way on up through Christmas ‘05, because everyone else seemed to think they were so great. I was in no mood for the beauty of hundreds of candles reflecting off the glass ceiling like tiny stars-of-wonder-stars-of-night, damnit. After Christmas ’03, which was one big, angry, memorial service flashback as far as I was concerned, my aunt actually initiated a group hug. I was in no mood for group hugs.
And so if my contrary, yellow-dress self was going to have a spiritual moment, it was not going to be at the (genuinely lovely and ultimately innocent) Wayfarers Chapel. But, really, I’m almost always up for a spiritual moment, so when I walked in to a gay-folks-and-show-tunes sermon, following closely behind a girl who sounds so smart and sexy when she uses words like “liturgical,” it didn’t take long for me to get a few chills.
In a parallel universe, I would totally be dancing with snakes (in a churchy way, not the Britney Spears way). There but for the grace of my naturally cautious nature and secular SoCal upbringing.
3. the review
I dug All Saints because it was friendly and open without feeling watered down. There was no hellfire and brimstone, but it also wasn’t the equivalent of a big family dinner where everyone gets along just because they silently agree not to talk about certain things like Uncle Jeff’s Special Friend.
There was theater: baptism and stained glass. There was a mission: Chip in to buy solar-powered ovens so that the women and girls of Darfur don’t get raped while gathering firewood in refugee camps. It was direct and specific, and fiery in its own way. The congregation was generally quiet and polite, and although no one was spontaneously shouting “Hallelujah!”, I felt like the church had the necessary ingredients to counter the less savory aspects of those where people do.
All of this sounds like I’m reviewing the church. “All Saints gets four out of five stars,” or something. The prospect of which sounds really blasphemous, except it’s not, because for me art is church too, and both should be reviewed, if perhaps less simplistically than via a five-star system.
While I kid about snakes and am no friend of George W.-style religion, there is a lot about a lot of religion that is inherently appealing to me: introspection, mystery, philosophy, therapy, empathy, philanthropy, connection, self-improvement, music, wine and bread. (Seriously Dr. Atkins, why do you hate Jesus?) All are part of investigating how certain aspects of life are bigger than the sum of their parts, which is the best way I can describe what I think of as God-or-love-or-something-powerful-and-glowy.
And art, for me, better represents that bigger-than-the-sum feeling better than just about anything. Books (Bible included) are just little shapes placed in varying sequences on a piece of mushed-up tree. Music is just thumping on things and blowing air through things. But they add up to something that makes me cry or laugh or feel better about a breakup or resolve to take recycling more seriously.
4. the desert of the real, the garden of cal arts
A while back I started reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong; I’m not very far into it, so I’ll withhold judgment like a good Christian or a good book reviewer, but in the introduction she talks about how, as a secular humanist, she sees all the gods and myths that people have invented over time as evidence of the beauty of human creativity. And I thought, Why can’t the beauty of human creativity be evidence of God?
Deconstruction teaches you that reality is basically a bunch of made-up shit, which at first seems pretty depressing. Sometimes you even need two years of therapy after grad school. But the corollary to this is, Why can’t we just make up some really great stuff? Why can’t we construct the world? Why can’t the desire for God create a God that is as real as a mind-bent spoon? If nothing is real, everything is real.
So, um, anyway…that’s just a little armchair theology for ya. As much as going to church sent all sorts of ideas and feelings zinging through my brain, I am also a big believer in doing one’s homework. Seeing one Harry Potter movie doesn’t make you an expert on children’s literature, you know? But it’s also fine to get excited about that one Harry Potter movie, and to tentatively plan to maybe read one Harry Potter book if it happens to cross your path, and to respectfully mention to people in velvet Hogwarts capes that you like their capes.
So yeah, I feel completely unqualified to talk about any of it, but why did God invent blogs if not to give the meek a pulpit from which to share their uninformed glory?