It's happened again. You were minding your own business, reading a book for pleasure: a novel, say, or a memoir. You were immersed, scything through some nondenominational narrative about yard sales, say, or jai alai. And then zing, out of nowhere: the child-molesting minister. The perverted priest.
Recalling her sun-soaked, battle-blasted Rhodesian girlhood in Casting with a Fragile Thread (Henry Holt, $23), Wendy Kann invokes fat, grinning Father Milsch sneaking up behind her, "stubby fingers working up from my waist to vigorously massage my nipples ... moaning." In Dirk Jamison's memoir Perishable (Chicago Review, $22.95), devout Scoutmaster Gary coaxes his middle-school charges into a game of strip poker, using a porn-pictures deck and begging, pants off his erection "hard and small" to "play for sucks." Martin Moran's memoir The Tricky Part (Anchor, $14) dissects his long adolescent affair with a Catholic camp counselor that began in a bedroll with "him rising out of his cotton briefs, pulsing, I thought, for me."
They're stock characters these days, skulking in remembered doorways and imaginary sheds. They pray. They pounce. Sure, such freakos exist in real life. But so do marmots and rodeo clowns, and you don't see them popping up everywhere.
Talk about a recurring motif. Christians are embedded like almonds in nearly every new book about anything. A zealot telephones Jane Juska to call her "a fuckin' whore" and "a fucking whore" in Juska's memoir Unaccompanied Women (Villard, $23.95). Discussing medieval European anti-Semitism and nursery rhymes in Heavy Words, Lightly Thrown (Gotham, $20) this book and Juska's are also covered elsewhere in this issue Chris Roberts tosses in, "The United States is now home to some of the most fanatical Christians on the planet."
This year's big book news is clearly Christians. When it's not Pastor Bill writhing in Speedos, it's tocsins such as Madeleine Albright's The Mighty and the Almighty (Harper Collins, $25.95), Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy (Viking, $26.95), Robin Meyers' Why the Christian Right Is Wrong (Jossey-Bass, $22.95), Michael Standaert's Skipping Towards Armageddon (Soft Skull, $14.95), and Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming (Norton, $23.95); joshes such as Bobby Henderson's The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (Villard, $13.95); scholarly works such as Tanya Erzen's Straight to Jesus (University of California, $19.95) and Bart D. Ehrman's Peter, Paul, & Mary Magdalene (Oxford, $25); laments such as David James Duncan's God Laughs & Plays (Triad, $22.95), Rabbi Michael Lerner's The Left Hand of God (Harper San Francisco, $24.95), and Matthew Fox' A New Reformation (Inner Traditions, $12.95); and novels such as Tony Hendra's The Messiah of Morris Avenue (Henry Holt, $24), E. Lynn Harris' I Say a Little Prayer (Doubleday, $21.95), Miguel Delibes' The Heretic (Overlook, $25.95), Ariel Gore's The Traveling Death and Resurrection Show (Harper San Francisco, $13.95), and uh that popular one about an albino who kills for Christ.
It's open season on American fundamentalists, but Christians of any kind, from any time, will do. Later this year, look for Mel White's Religion Gone Bad (Tarcher, $24.95), Kelly Kerney's Born Again (Harvest, $14), Ben Carey and Henrik Delehag's Lose Weight! Get Laid! Find God! (Plume, $16), and The Sinner's Guide to the Evangelical Right (New American Library, $12.95) by Robert Lanham, who in less apocalopathic times brought you The Hipster Handbook. Like Che and Tintin, Christ is kitsch. This paper's Web site has a recurring feature called Jesus of the Week.
What do all these books say? Well, that Christians are pervs. And they're prudes. (Goldberg marvels at a South Dakota "purity" shop, operated by the abstinence crowd, that sells laminated Virginity Vouchers.) They say that Christians are idiots. And masterminds. That they're hilarious shit-kicking hicks. And tuxedoed tycoons. They're provincialists. Nationalists. Globalists. They're finessing closed-door conspiracies. They're shouting at the tops of their lungs while cramming their agendas down our throats. They're obsessed with Osama bin Laden. They're exactly like Osama bin Laden. They're pathetic wimps! They're seizing control of the world!
Some of these authors are angry. Henderson's "Pastafarian" liturgy say "Ramen," not "Amen" is all giggles and stripper jokes, but Henderson is a physicist outraged at the spreading acceptance of intelligent design. (He also netted an $80,000 advance.) Duncan is Christian: "I think Jesus is the bee's knees." But he calls "the right-wing hijacking of Christianity" a "reductionist ripoff." Some authors are afraid: Goldberg warns that being a secularist in today's America is "like being a lobster in a pot, with the water heating up so slowly that you don't notice the moment at which it starts to kill you." Echoing many of her colleagues, she lumps all religious extremists together in one big equivalent batch that collectively loathes the liberal West's "sexual openness, its art, the possibilities it offers for escaping the bonds of family and religion, for inventing one's own life. ... It makes no sense to fight religious authoritarianism abroad while letting it take over at home."
Faiths throughout history have kindled dreams of dominion. Nearly every religious body wants to rule the world. But these days some of those dreams entail more public stonings, severings, and cartoon-fueled riots than others. Ya gotta choose yer battles. America has always had Christian politicians, superstar preachers, and their stadium-swelling hordes, from Cotton Mather to Aimee Semple McPherson to Billy Graham and beyond. They, too, inspired rumors of brewing coups, but bupkes happened, even in much less liberal times than these when their battles would have been much less uphill. Writing a novel set in a fantasy future America, a theocracy where blasphemy and gay sex are felonies, surely made This Is Spinal Tap castmember Hendra feel racy and brave, but racy and brave like on a carnival ride, screamy and safe. No fatwas for him. He knows that. Yeeeees, the Christians have megachurches. Yeeeees, as Albright notes with alarm, the president thinks God got him elected. Yeeeees, Stryper arguably sucks. But these days, dogpiling on Christianity is as easy and comparatively risk-free as hopping on Pop.
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