Monday, March 16, 2009

Do the Math

This morning I read a column by Leonard Pitts, Jr. that expresses something I've been thinking, but hadn't been able to articulate quite so well. Here's a link to it, and here's the paragraph that made me exclaim out loud:

"What is the cumulative effect upon outside observers of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker living like lords on the largesse of the poor, multiplied by Jimmy Swaggart's pornography addiction, plus Eric Rudolph bombing Olympians and gays in the name of God, plus Muslims hijacking airplanes in the name of God, multiplied by the church that kicked out some members because they voted Democratic, divided by people caterwauling on courthouse steps as a rock bearing the Ten Commandments was removed, multiplied by the square root of Catholic priests preying on little boys while the church looked on and did nothing, multiplied by Muslims rioting over cartoons, plus the ongoing demonization of gay men and lesbians, divided by all those 'traditional values' coalitions and 'family values' councils that try to bully public schools into becoming worship houses, with morning prayers and science lessons from the book of Genesis?"

As he says, it's enough to make me feel like Losing My Religion.

Pitts, Jr. is careful to differentiate between believing in God and going to church, and he says he's reminded of the old movie Oh God, in which God says he doesn't go to church. I'm reminded of Philip Larkin's poem Church Going:

Once I am sure there's nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don't.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
"Here endeth" much more loudly than I'd meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

Reading this as a child, I felt fairly certain that the time "when churches fall completely out of use" was at hand, that it would happen in my lifetime. Now it seems that the churches themselves will remain and continue to be built, but with their outlandish proportions (ever seen a Texas mega-church?) and their funny signs (my favorite is "If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it"), and their informal guitar services, my sense that it is "a serious house on serious earth" has diminished to the vanishing point.

It's almost as if churches have become like 19th-century men's clubs, where those who know and like each other get together at set times, and whose members are not exactly welcoming to all, as ridiculed in this video.

What place is "proper to grow wise in" for you?


FreshHell said...

I love Larkin. And the word "pyx". I use to imagine that my (unwritten) first book of short stories would be entitled, "Southern Pyx". I think my place isn't a physical place. It's in my head when I read really good books. It's the cumulative effect of all the books I've ever read and ever will read.

Harriet M. Welsch said...

I love this poem. I too am a frequenter of churches, although I am more often looking for music. I think a lot of the disintegration of them has to do with our changing notions of community. I live in a small town where the single Catholic church still functions as a community center of sorts. There are many things I can't stand about it, but I go because it's part of living here and now. But it is not a place to grow wise in. I'm not sure it ever was. For me, as freshhell, the place to grow wise is in my own head. It is often a solitary place, but it is buttressed by many things -- half-hours sitting alone on the pier watching birds and fish, talking with wise people I've had the good fortune to meet, yoga class, choir practice, and occasionally even a church.

lemming said...

(obligatory nerd moment) You sound like the scoffers during the Second Great Awakening.

The mega churches thrive because in a society which now bowls alone (to quote the now classics article) poeple desperately need a community. They discover the church through teh great youth soccer program and end up at a service and, voila, a new member.

I cannot heard the word "just" in a prayer as the third word 9"Jesus, I just...") without cringing or succumbing to the giggles or both. My 60-something Episcopal rector says that I am uptight and need to adapt to the times. People between the ages of 40 and 65 are most resistant to change in liturgy. As I am not yet forty, thank you very much...

Dreamybee said...

It is sad that the celebrities of religion-The Bakkers, Swaggart, Ted Haggard, etc-are turning so many people off or are sending the wrong message to those that they attract. I grew up in Colorado Springs and saw first-hand all the money that went into the Focus on the Family compound, the New Life Church, the World Prayer Center. Working in a nearby restaurant, I also heard stories from the waitstaff about the cheap nature of the church groups that would come in, 20 at a time, sit for hours, and then leave $0.25 and a "tip" on a napkin about asking Jesus for salvation. Talk about hypocrisy. How about giving a lousy $10 to help your waitress feed her kids instead of chastising her for not having just come from your church?

I know that this does not personify all churches or church-goers, but it is the image that gets put out there and it is being put out there on a large-scale, and it is unfortunate.

There is something to be said for people gathering together (flocking? congregating?-whatever it is that the Bible says people should do which generally seems to support the formation of churches in the first place) in order to form and/or strengthen communities and support networks. It's important to know that you don't have to go through the rough times alone and that you will have others with which to celebrate your happy times; but, ultimately, I think a person's relationship with God has to be between him and God, not him and the church, or him and the Pope or him and the approving (or disapproving) members of the congregation. This point seems to get lost a lot, and I like that Larkin's character seems to remember it.

greeneyedsiren said...

I attended a 2 1/2 hour meeting of our church's Worship & Music committee last night. It's very possible to find people working hard to invest services with meaning. But the doing of it is harder work than many are interested in pursuing. Plus, arguments are inevitable, as I learned last night!

Jeanne said...

Lots of food for thought. Lemming, I'm particularly tickled to be compared to a scoffer, and I'd forgotten about "just" as the third word, which gives not only me but both my kids a similar reaction! We visited various churches before Eleanor was confirmed, and found the largest number of "justs" at the Baptist. Also Baptist and Lutheran ministers here repeated the moral of their sermons twice after stating it.

Teena said...

I was really hoping for some more math in this post. It talked about religion and poetry, which I guess are just funny kinds of math...

Jeanne said...

Sorry, Teena. See, this is another reason I've started using the title of whatever I've read as the title of my post. I meant the title to refer to how all the things Pitts Jr. mentions add up. He actually started the math metaphor.