Friday, April 14, 2017
Clickbait: Facebook, Identity, and Religioin
Today is both my eighth anniversary on Facebook, and Good Friday. I was reticent about using Facebook when it was new. I had looked into MySpace, which seemed ugly. Many of my friends insisted that one could customize it to make it look however one wished, it didn't seem worth the effort. But a friend, who has since left Facebook, made me an administrator of a group, so I investigated the new kid on the block. The clincher was something that Mark Zuckerberg had said, I think in response to criticism that Facebook didn't allow anonymous users: 'One identity'. Kinda like what Jesus said: 'If thy eye be single.'
I became a user of Facebook, and many of my friends are from church, either from the meat world or from the virtual world. They are nice people, most of them. So I have reticent to write this because I don't want to suggest that I am condemning them. Yet as I have gotten older, I have more and more come to think of my and many of my friends' continuation in the church as an example of Stockholm syndrome.
I grew up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a town that was then in Southern Baptist captivity. Bidden or unbidden, the thinking of the place, the gestalt, was presented to nearly everyone as a sort of individualistic calvinism. My conversion experience, something everyone was expected to have, came as a result of a nightmare. I still remember it. I was nine years old, and I dreamed that I was being pursued by a rhinoceros. Somehow my mother, who had heard my noises and come to comfort me, as I lay in my colonial maple bed in a room with sky blue wall paper covered with airliners, somehow she turned my nightmare into a religious experience. I should give my heart to Jesus, and I wouldn't have to fear the rhinoceros. (I'll let patient reader do other kinds of interpretations of that dream.) So, the next Sunday, to the tune of 'Footsteps of Jesus', I walked the aisle and got saved. A few weeks later, on a Sunday night, I got dunked, and was given a collection of tracts which explained the faith. I don't remember what they said, but I remember how they smelled.
I outgrew the Baptist church, went off to college, and thought I was free of christianity. But its basic tenets of guilt and its narrow morality were so much a part of the society that I was deluding myself. I got married. It would, I thought, cure my homosexuality, even though I didn't even allow myself that thought consciously. My wife and I avoided church for a while, but the time came when we moved to a new town and wanted to meet some 'nice people, and thought that they would be at church, and they were.
What does one do when one lives in a culture based on original sin and one is an original sinner--at that time in thought, not in deed. I had not technically slept with a man. (Except for one college room mate with whom I shared a bed; I deeply loved him, but was deathly afraid of showing it. But that's the tale for another night.) I went into the grace business: seminary, ordination, the full catastrophe. Divorce followed, and although I thought I would never again be a professional christian, most of my friends were still in the church. The people I met at gay bars were in the church. I became lovers with the pianist of one of the major Memphis churches. I attended an episcopal church whose senior warden I would meet sometimes on Fridays at the local leather bar.
Then I moved to Santa Fe, and met more liberal churchmen. It was and is odd. The 'real church' is the nice people with whom one hangs out. The Westboro Baptist people are not really christians. It's like nice nazis in the Third Reich saying that the people who ran the ovens weren't real nazis. I became orthodox, trying to convince myself that the total depravity of humanity was only part of western, Augustinian christianity. Duh.
Stockholm Syndrome. We have, at least my generation, been so immersed in the guilt and sin prison that we think it is good. I want to distance myself from that understanding of the world as much as I can, but it is not easy.
So, how to be authentic in one's identity? One of my friends, a nice person in just about every way, said when I began to appear on Facebook as 'other than christian'. that if I became the sort of atheist who thinks religions are evil he would find it a bit over the top. Do I think christianity, islam, the whole caboodle kit of religions, are evil?
I have been pondering that question rather intensely the past few days. I recently read Max Tegmark's 'Our Mathematical Universe', in which he tries to make sense of identity over time, comparing it to a soft pink worm that wanders through spacetime. A slice at any point is a now. How much a part of my identity this Good Friday afternoon in the Year of our Lord 2017 is the boy I remember being frightened by a dream one night in 1955? How is that memory more 'I' than the memory of how 1956 automobiles looked and smelled, or of the colour of the plastic baskets that held the hamburgers I ate for lunch most warm Sundays when my family made its weekly trip to the drive in on Gee Street? It is very easy to convince myself that the balance of the influence of christianity on my life has been evil. It was the desire to appear moral that led to my marriage, to the one time I spanked my son, to living a lie for years.
What about the balance for society beyond myself. Good Friday is a particularly confrontational time to consider that, I think. It is the day when the church focuses on an act of torture which is somehow claimed to be the salvation of the world, or at least central and necessary to that salvation. I think of how many saints are identified by the instruments of their tortures. How many folks know that St. Lawrence is the patron of the barbecue grill? When christianity was the religion of the downtrodden and tortured, I can understand how making an act of 'torment and shame' a source of salvation was helpful. But as soon as the church got power, it began to torture. Identity is such a problem.
So, in as much an effort of full disclosure as I can, I am writing this and sharing it. I want to make it clear that I am not blaming the church or its members. I am not claiming myself to be other than a willing victim, at least not after I was aware enough to realize that giving my heart to Jesus would not prevent nightmares. I have been a collaborator, an enabler. I want to stop, I want my identity to be one, my eye to be single. but damn. The gospel may be fake news, but it has such a seductive soundtrack.