A true-life pilgrimage to the home of Will Campbell

Will Campbell died on Monday, June 3. If you don’t know about him, read this: http://articles.latimes.com/2013/jun/08/local/la-me-0609-will-campbell-20130609.

In 2005, some of my dearest friends and I visited him at his home outside Nashville, and he served us communion with Tom T. Hall’s moonshine, labeled “Ark of the Covenant.” I stole his crowbar. The true story follows.

This is free to use with credit and links. It’s for the church kids.

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Chapter 10: Will Campbell’s Crowbar

My people, the evangelicals, have turned belief into law. They say salvation is about faith, not works, but when faith becomes a work, you have killed it, and it is dead, just like the law. When belief becomes the law, we must be set free from belief.

I recently resigned myself to my unbelieving faith, my faithful atheism, when some friends and I visited our old hero, Will Campbell. When most guys in their 40s have reunions with their college buddies, they go golfing. My friends and I make pilgrimages to the graves and homes of authors who have influenced us.

Actually, we’ve only done this twice. The first time was in 2004, when we met in New Orleans to visit the grave of Walker Percy. On the drive across Lake Pontchartrain, I drove and my four friends — Kyle, Russell, John, and Chris — shared a fifth of Early Times — Percy’s bourbon of choice.

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When we got across to Covington, we bought a case of beer and a cooler and drove to the monastery where Percy was buried. A monk pointed us in the direction of the grave. We found the grave, parked the car, and pulled out a cooler full of beer.

The five of us (a lawyer, two pastors, and two college teachers) sat down on the grave and read passages from his books, cried, and told stories about the old days when we were young and sad and discovered that a conservative southern Catholic doctor had a sign of hope for young northern protestant liberals.

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There was a fistfight.

When the dust settled, we read some more, drank some more, cried some more, and put messages for Dr. Percy in the empty bottle of whiskey. Two nights in the French Quarter — hot jazz, sweet barbecue, lots of hurricanes — couldn’t match the graveside conversation.

In May of 2005, we took our second pilgrimage, to Nashville, for the release of Reverend Russell’s book, Post-Rapture Radio. The book is a critique of the mega-church movement and the evangelical ascendancy, which, to a bunch of disillusioned evangelicals, looks like a sign of the end times. It’s also all about the good news.

Four of us (Chris from New Jersey, Kurt from San Francisco, John and me from Minnesota) played country music at the party, which was held in conjunction with a convention of “the Emergent Church,” a 21st century version of the Jesus People — evangelicals and fundamentalists who hope to do a better job of saving souls by being hip and relevant. Instead of long-hair and one-way signs, like the 60s Jesus People, it’s goatees and irony. And an occasional tattoo.

Russell, who started a church in St. Paul that’s gotten a lot of buzz among this crowd, is a reluctant icon of “emergent” — what the insiders call the movement. But Russell has no interest in saving souls. He thinks that’s what God does. He would rather enjoy people’s company and talk about good news. It was his idea was to be as unhip as possible by having my bad country band play at this event. It was also Russell’s idea to have an open bar at the reading, and the publisher sprang for it. I guess these emergent pastors aren’t as anti-booze as my evangelical fathers were. Every pastor in the room had a beer, but when they left we were surprised how many were only half empty.

The party went well. Russell read from his book. People felt like they were in on the joke. But we had really come, eight of us this time, to pay homage to Will Campbell, another old southern mentor, a Baptist preacher gadfly who was involved in the Civil Rights movement but was ostracized by some for befriending members of the KKK. He also toured with Waylon Jennings for a time as his cook. Some of us being country music fans, that was just another reason to seek him out. Russell had sent Will his book, hoping he’d write a blurb for the back cover, but he’d lost it. Twice. Undaunted, the Reverend Russell called him before we left for Nashville to see if we could stop by. He said we could, so after a morning of drinking and reminiscing, getting up on stage on lower Broadway to play our songs, and a lunch at Jack’s Barbecue, Russell called and asked if it was a good time for us to come out. He said it was.

Will’s cabin is tucked back in a patch of woods in a Nashville suburb, hemmed in by subdivisions and fast food franchises. We drove past a small house and over a ditch to Will’s writing cabin — square logs chinked with cement — where he was working at a pre-Windows computer. He met us at the door and invited us in. He sat in an old dentist’s chair; the rest of us scattered on a couch, a rocker, and the floor. Chris, a tall, curly-headed theology prof, offered him a beer, but Will said it was too early for him. The eight of us passed around the cooler, figuring Will, unlike most Baptists, would not be offended at our indulgence. This was, after all, the man who’d given us the term “barley glow” to describe that feeling you get after two or three cold ones in the afternoon (John, my lead guitar player, wrote a song about it that should be a country hit).

As we popped open our second (or maybe our third), Will broke down and had a Rolling Rock. Four of us had become acquainted with Will’s books at the Oregon Extension, where Brother to a Dragonfly was required reading. We’d turned two of the others onto the book, but two of our group, Presbyterian Parson Bill and Lutheran airport worker Neal had no idea why we were sitting at the feet of this old man in a dentist’s chair. They played along, and by the end of the day, they were disciples too.

As we sat around his cabin, the conversation bounced from Waylon Jennings and Jessie Colter to Walker Percy and Thomas Merton, who were all close friends of Will and his wife Brenda (or Sug, as we knew her from the book). We told Will about our visit to Percy’s grave, and Russell asked me to sing a song I wrote called “We’re All Going to Heaven,” which I did reluctantly. Campbell told us about Waylon’s cocaine addiction, claimed he was Percy’s “father confessor” (“He’d tell me things he’d never tell his priest”), and suggested that Merton’s death in Bangkok was not an accident. Will regretted not demanding to examine the body of “Father Louis,” the priest with whom he started the radical Christian journal Katallagete (from which our country band, “Cattle Gate,” got its second name. Google it and you might find some of John’s songs).

When I snuck outside for a smoke, I saw a picture of Merton on Will’s wall. He was sitting yogi-style with a funny smile and a Katallagete t-shirt. Next to his picture was a kitschy cartoon of a bird. “Look at the birds of the air,” the caption read — my favorite Bible verse.

I walked around the shack to a patio. A scrap metal angel stood beside a round fountain-like pool of algae-covered water — a baptismal font. I found a small, natural amphitheater, with a huge stone altar, half surrounded by a flagstone wall topped with a thicket of bamboo. An old Massey-Ferguson looked out of commission, and its companion disk was forgotten on the margin of the woods, half-hidden in a few years’ worth of weeds. The potatoes were coming up in the garden. Four tomato plants were held up by metal cages. The grass was long, dressed with white clover flowers. A martin house sat cockeyed and uninhabited on a pole.

Back in the cabin, Chris was asking Will about race and the church. Will said he was disappointed in the lack of progress the church had made during his lifetime. “I’m a member of an all-black church in Nashville,” he said. “The pastor is a good friend of mine, but I’m the only white person there, and to tell you the truth, I don’t feel very comfortable, and I don’t think they’re very comfortable either.”

He had nothing good to say about President George W. Bush. (“I’d take 10 Ku Klux Klans in exchange for one George Bush”), the Iraq War, which he called “evil,” or “that shithook, Little Billy Frist.” I asked him if he had any hope that the country would get back on track, thinking old Will would come up with something. “I’ve never been afraid for my grandchildren before,” he said, “but I am now.”

He said he told his kids to hang onto the 50-acre Mississippi homestead he still owns. “Go ahead and sell this place, but not that one. That’s in the middle of nowhere; no one’s gonna waste a nuke on rural Mississippi.”

On the subject of terrorism, he asked, “You ever been hungry?” We shook our heads. He told a story from his Mississippi childhood, about the first time he saw a classmate eating sliced bread. Will had a boiled sweet potato for lunch, and that bread looked awfully good. When the kid got to the heel, Will got the nerve to ask him for the last piece. “That’s my favorite part,” the kid said, gobbling it up. Will’s conclusion: “I wanted to kill him and walk over his cold, blue corpse. I hate that mother fucker to this day.” The message was clear: How can the inevitability of revenge be lost on our leaders when they are the first to practice it?

Not wanting to outstay our welcome, we started gathering up the beer cans. Brenda had called to ask if we could help unload some big bags of bird seed, so Will and a couple of the guys walked over to the house. I headed back out to the patio, where I saw a rusty crowbar and slipped it in the pocket of my shorts, covering the protruding end with my shirt. Then I sang “Why Me, Lord” with Chris and Kurt (the Leghorns reunion), who walked up carrying a guitar. Somebody came and told us Will wanted us to stay a little longer, so I stashed the crowbar in the trunk, grabbed my guitar, and walked over to his house. We spent another hour singing, talking, and laughing with Will and each other.

Will sang, too.

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Brenda, who had recently had a hip replaced, limped out and joined us for a time. Pastor Kyle and our friend Bill, a Presbyterian parson, kept her company. Later they told me they asked if she and Will often have pilgrims come to visit. “Not as much anymore,” Sug said. “When you get old, they put you on a shelf.”

If there’s anyone that the American church needs to take off the shelf today, it’s Will Campbell. Racism and discrimination persist, yet the church is the least integrated institution in America; Christian social action and liberalism advocated by Will and Thomas Merton are vilified by shithook tyrants like Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, and Colson; the majority of evangelical and catholic Christians lend their support to a war that is an affront to Protestant and Catholic traditions.

Who better than Will Campbell to help liberal Christians figure out where they are and where to go from here?

It was past the dinner hour, so again we rose to go, but once again Will kept us there. He had been speaking most with John, the Catholic corporate lawyer who loves Will’s books and adopted him as a spiritual father that day. Will, using his cane, and John wandered back toward the cabin, while the others went in the general direction of the cars. Curious, I went back to the cabin and found John and Will, who was screwing the lid off a mason jar. The jar had a paper label that read “Ark of the Covenant.”

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“It’s whiskey,” John whispered to me. “Pure Kentucky sourmash. Made by Tom T. Hall.”

I nearly lost my footing. “Go get them other boys,” Will told me, so I went and rounded them up. As we stood in a circle on the porch, Will came out of the cabin door, holding the Ark of the Covenant at eye level.

Will’s hands were trembling, so John asked if he could hold the jar. “It’s my house,” Will said. “I’m the priest here.”

He took a drink and held it out to Russell, saying, “The blood of Christ.”

“Thanks be to God,” the Reverend Russell answered, taking a drink and passing it on to Parson Bill.

“The blood of Christ.”

“Thanks be to God.”

When it came my turn, I choked up but took a drink. As Russell said later, “I know you want to tell everybody you drank Tom T. Hall’s whiskey. But you didn’t. You drank the blood of Christ.”

I passed it on to Neal, and Pastor Kyle, and Professor Chris, and Kurt the musical genius, and the circle was complete.

As we drove back to Nashville, I thought about James Alison, about the high priest emerging from the Holy of Holies, bringing God to the people, the mercy seat, the ark of the covenant, the crisis of story and the funny coincidences I have encountered.

I thought about a sailboat in Lake of the Woods, and trips to the Boundary Waters, flasks of wine and whiskey, impromptu communions over the years. I thought about my lack of faith, my deep down gut feeling that it’s all fiction, and the warmth I feel for it in my bones, the sense that even if it’s fiction, it still might be the only salvation, and even if I don’t believe it, it still might be true.

This afternoon, as I was thinking about this, the small town weekly paper came in the mail, and in the little sermon column, a local pastor was making the same old claims in the same old way. He’s a pastor at a rural Free Church, the denomination my ancestors founded and that branded me an anti-Christian zealot. I had sparred with Pastor Bob a few times when I wrote my liberal columns for the paper. He once tried to respond to my 650-word column with an 1800-word letter to the editor. When I called him to tell him our word limit was 750 words, he wouldn’t talk to me. He made his secretary act as go-between.

Pastor Bob’s little meditation started off just fine, saying “we must not frustrate the grace of God thinking that we can live good enough lives to earn His forgiveness and then win heaven. The standard is too high. It is perfection. ‘Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.'”

How amazing, that an evangelical pastor would actually quote one of the difficult passages from the Sermon on the Mount (in the King James version, no less). From there, his argument got shaky. Our good works can’t save us; we are saved by God’s grace, so “Only by simple but sincere faith, trust in Jesus’ death on the cross for our sin, my sin, and only by believing in His victorious resurrection can we be saved.”

We must not only believe, Pastor Bob says, but we must profess our belief publicly. So in truth, it is not God who saves us, nor Jesus’ atoning death on the cross, but we who save ourselves by believing the things Pastor Bob says we should believe and doing the things Pastor Bob says we should do. That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with evangelical theology. They bracket every sentence about “grace alone” and “saved by faith” with those three little words: If you believe.

Faith, to my people, is a work. You must profess your faith, make a personal decision, ask Jesus to come into your heart. This is the evangelical law. It is not grace. It is not salvation. It is not love, hope, or faith. It is capitalism. Tit-for-tat. Quid pro quo. It is a bribe we give to almighty God to keep him from punishing us. It is a magical incantation we recite to win the favor of a pagan deity. It is the opposite of faith, and it makes love impossible.

For the most part, I’ve been happier during the last ten years than I was during the first 30 — happier without faith than with it. But there’s still that sense of loss that makes me want to understand what happened. And there’s still a desire to belong to something or someone that I belonged to then. The church, maybe, or Jesus. But that requires belief. Or does it?

Two thousand years ago, when the Bible was being written and the memory of Jesus was still fresh in people’s minds, and only a generation or two had passed since his death, belief was one thing. Today, with that great gulf of time and competing explanations of the universe, belief is not so easy. It’s nearly impossible. Shouldn’t there be a Christianity for those who simply can’t believe?

Lately I’ve been asking my friends, some of whom are pastors, if you have to believe in God to be a Christian. The answer seems obvious. As soon as I ask the question, the Bible verses come back to me: “If you confess with your voice that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” “For whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall never die.” If you believe.

An old mentor, John Linton of the Oregon Extension, a college program I attended in the mountains over Ashland in 1984, was in town not long ago. He’s the guy who lay on his living room couch drinking Coke from a returnable bottle and twirling his stocking cap on his head when I showed up at OE on Valentine’s Day 1984 after spending the night in a gay man’s caboose after the girl I’d hitch-hiked 2,000 miles to see got slain in the Spirit.

I asked John that question when we were eating walleye sandwiches at the Grand Tavern in 2005. “Do you have to believe in God to be a Christian?” My friend and pastor, Reverend Russell, snapped, “I hate that question.” He’d heard it before, but he didn’t believe it was sincere. Russell thinks that if you’re born with God in the bone (a phrase my friend Chris coined), unbelief is not a real possibility. He thinks it’s still there somewhere, and I’m just posing as an unbeliever to impress people.

I got mad at Russell for humiliating me in front of one of my mentors. He apologized. John asked if I remembered Puddleglum, from the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis. I didn’t, so I went back and read The Silver Chair. Puddleglum is always looking on the dark side, but he happily leads the children through the moors, and whenever something needs to be done, he does it. Toward the end of the book, he and the children and the prince are under the spell of the queen of the underworld, who is trying to convince them that there is no other world, no Narnia, no sky, no stars, no Aslan. Puddleglum says even if that’s true, he is going to believe in it, because that imaginary world “licks your real world hollow.” It’s similar to The Life of Pi, where you’re given a choice to believe the story with the animals, or the one about cannibals and killers fighting to the death aboard a life raft.

But it’s not even a matter of believing. I can’t believe in the good story. The best I can do is live as if I believe it, or, as Puddleglum says, “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there’s no Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can, even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

John Linton is the one who gave me Jacques Ellul’s book To Will and To Do when I was recovering from heartbreak and fundamentalism at the Oregon Extension in 1984. The title comes from the verse in Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Therefore work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you to will and to do according to his good purpose.”

What a weird command: Work out your salvation, for God is working in you. It doesn’t make sense. Ellul’s argument in that book was that “the fall,” Adam and Eve’s sin, was a fall into morality, not a fall away from some moral code, some pre-existing law or a priori knowledge they were born with. The tree they ate from was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — not evil, but good and evil. Eating the apple meant they had fallen from a relationship with God to a relationship with a moral system.

That was the revelation I had in Berkeley in 1987. Sin isn’t what we do wrong, but a lack of faith. It’s trusting in the law, our morality, instead of the goodness of God. For most Christians today, and most other human beings, that’s what religion means. It’s an ethical system that divides the good from the bad, the insiders from the outsiders. It’s the system Leviticus is based on, the system the Old Testament prophets denounced, the system Jesus overturned in the Sermon on the Mount, the system Paul rejected when he brought the good news to the Gentiles.

The good news is that morality is part of the bad news, the law from which Christians are supposed to be free, delivered somehow by Jesus’ death. The law (Paul and Jesus and the prophets said) didn’t result in obedience or righteousness anyway. Righteousness comes from freedom.

That’s what I discovered when I first read Will Campbell’s book Brother to a Dragonfly after trying to live according to the Sermon on the Mount. I learned that I couldn’t follow the law and that trying to follow the law made it impossible to love either my neighbor or God. I couldn’t love my neighbor because my neighbor didn’t give a shit about the law, and I couldn’t love God because God demanded that I follow the law, which I hated, and that my neighbor follow the law, and God was making my life miserable by making me follow it, and he was going to make my neighbor’s life miserable by sending him to hell for not following it.

This is the evangelical predicament. We love the law in all its forms so much (don’t be gay, don’t have an abortion, don’t drink, smoke, chew, or go with girls that do, don’t have sex out of wedlock, don’t listen to rock and roll, don’t vote for Democrats, etc.) that we hate our neighbors, and we secretly hate God for being such a goddamned legalist. Our hatred of God translates into breaking the ultimate law (love God, love your neighbor) which is exactly what Jesus said about cleaning the outside of the cup, whitewashed tombs and all that. It’s what the godless Lutherans have believed all along — simultaneously sinful and justified.

That’s what Will Campbell meant by “we’re all bastards but God loves us anyway.” Being a bastard is a huge relief, to one who has lived under the law. It doesn’t mean you’re bad; it just means you’re a lawbreaker, which means you’re human. It’s what fat, murdering George told Chris and me that night in the Ivy Room: We’re all children of God. That means we’re forgiven.

Two questions inevitably follow: (1) How do we get people to behave, then, if they’re free? (2) What about Hitler? Is he forgiven too? The only way I can answer the first is to say that if you’re still that worried about behavior, you probably aren’t aware of your own sinfulness, and you probably haven’t been forgiven. The only way I can answer the second is to say I wrote a song once that says Hitler is going to heaven, but I don’t like to sing it.

All that stuff makes sense to me — the Christian message about law and grace and sin and forgiveness. I believe it’s a life-changing message, especially for the church kids — those of us who grew up under the law. The problem is that I don’t believe in God anymore. One way I’ve dealt with that contradiction is to speculate that Jesus loved me so much he died. He knew the whole God thing was mostly trouble for me, so he pulled out of my life — died for me.

If belief becomes the law, we must be set free from belief. Fortunately, I am a victim of that circumstance. One of the few, by my count.

Lately Russell has begun to see my point about belief and Christianity. At the House of Mercy, we had a theologian in residence named James Alison. Alison is a gay catholic priest and writer from England who gave a month’s worth of sermons, seminars and Bible studies. He charmed us with his accent and his readings of the Bible, his knowledge of the Jewish and early Christian history, and his unusual ways of talking about faith. He came during and after Easter. One Sunday evening, Alison preached about the resurrection. He told the story from the gospel of Luke and said the symbolism of the empty tomb, with an angel at the head and foot of the empty shroud, was an allusion to the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant, upon which sat the mercy seat. He told about the old Hebrew priests going into the Holy of Holies, not to meet God there, but to bring God out to the people.

I stumbled into Alison’s work when I was doing research on “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson, a short story I was discussing with my class at the local community college. The story is about a little rural American community that takes part in an annual ritual of stoning one of its members to death. I first read the story in junior high and have never forgotten it. I’ve talked to many others who had the same experience, or who saw the movie version and were freaked out by it for years. When it was published in The New Yorker in the 1940s, it elicited more response than any work of fiction ever had, much of it vilifying Jackson as a witch, a blasphemer, or crazy — all of which she may have been. As I reread it, I began to wonder if it is so powerful because it is true, if there’s something about the scapegoat story that exists in our bones.

In researching the story, I kept coming across the name Rene Girard, a French literary critic who made a career out of studying scapegoat myths. And as I looked into Rene Girard, I started seeing James Alison’s name. Alison says he only has one idea in his theology, and it’s really Girard’s idea. This made me excited about his visit to our church.

One night at the church I was listening to him speak. Someone asked a question about losing faith, and Alison said a crisis of faith is usually a crisis of story. You reach a point where the story you’ve learned to tell about God and faith and yourself doesn’t work anymore because God has become so different that “God” doesn’t seem to make sense. God is transforming you, and part of that process is having no story, because our stories are our attempts to justify ourselves and to scapegoat our enemies. The inevitable questions followed: How can we get this faith? What should we do then? How can we get the children to behave? What about Hitler? Alison answered in cryptic ways. Stop thinking about it. Be ye transformed. Stop striving. Become a Buddhist. You can only behave if you are free. Where there is no law, there is no transgression. I am doing a work in your day that you would not believe if I told you. God is at work. We are unaware. Pray for the Holy Spirit.

Alison said God might be more like not-God. He said God is like “mmmph.” It reminded me of the old Hebrews’ name for God: YHWH. They gave God a name they couldn’t pronounce because to pronounce God’s name was to blaspheme, to diminish God, to make God a part of our system, our categories, our understanding. Which they did, by adding vowels to the name. YHWH becomes Yahweh or Jehovah. For Christians, it becomes God or Father or Lord, heavy with connotations.

I ran into Reverend Russell in the bathroom after the meeting. I said, “I know what he means.” Russell quoted the question he had mocked a few weeks earlier: “Do you have to believe in God to be a Christian? I guess the answer is ‘No.'”

“I’ve been wondering if lack of faith is closer to faith than faith is,” I said

“You might be right,” he said.

I realized the other day that I’ve known about Alison and Girard’s big idea for years, at least since 1994 when I finished the second version of my (still unpublished) novel. In the story, two characters are talking about God. One character, Leroy, says, “You gotta crucify him.” The other, Chris, says, “I thought I had, but it goes a lot deeper than I thought.” Leroy says, “I don’t think you’re ever through with it, because God, and your old man, and your own ego are all knotted together in your heart. That’s why you gotta crucify him. That’s how you get saved. Kill God, and the superego. Then your true self is set free, and the true God can be resurrected.”

“The true God,” Chris said. “The one who lets you kill him.”

Alison’s main idea, which he gets from Girard, is that Jesus is the scapegoat to end all scapegoats. According to Girard, in our bones we humans are creatures of mimetic desire. Going back to the caveperson days, and before, our large brains and complex catalog of facial expressions made us imitate each other and want what others of our group wanted. This mutual desire inevitably leads to murder, which requires justification; hence, the scapegoat myth, and its myriad manifestations in different cultures. We killed Og because he was bad. His death brought peace to the community. Therefore worship Og. Christianity and elements of Judaism, Girard believed, turn this myth on its head. Instead of God telling people to kill the evil one among them to save the community, suddenly God is allowing people to kill God as a final solution to the scapegoating problem. Christ’s crucifixion was meant to be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, the singling out and killing of an evil victim that would permanently assuage our need to single out and kill evil victims. Jesus took the blame. Therefore blame Jesus.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way. People turned Christianity into just another way of drawing lines, choosing victims, and killing enemies. The old-fashioned idea of substitutionary atonement, as formulated by St. Anselm, turned the crucifixion into a final sacrifice of a man to appease the wrath of bloodthirsty God, rather than a final sacrifice of a God to appease the wrath of bloodthirsty man. The resurrection, then, is a sign that even our ultimate act of scapegoating is not finally tragic. Death is, as Alison put it, “non-toxic.”

My people, the evangelicals, have followed St. Anselm on his backward pilgrimage to turn Christianity into just another religion. They have called Christ’s death God’s payment to himself for our sin instead of the result of our murderous desire mixed with God’s desire to be with us. That old theory of atonement is nothing but bad news, because it perpetuates the myth of the bloodthirsty God who, even if he has paid himself once and for all for our sin, is still a monster, and still requires something of us, namely, belief. And not just any belief, but the right kind of belief, which is proved not just by what’s in your head or what you say but by the way you act in the world, be it saying the rosary, confessing and professing, going to church on Sunday, heaping an altar with sweet-smelling orchids, killing enemies, or flagellating yourself with whips and chains. It’s all the same. It’s that old-time religion, and it doesn’t do anyone a damned bit of good.

That’s not true. Millions of people’s lives are made better by religion (Christianity, Buddhism, neo-paganism, Satanism) every day, helping them quit drinking or make friends or find a mate or be a better husband/wife/father/mother/sorcerer, but that old time religion won’t save them in any real way, and it won’t save the world, because it will continue to justify the symbolic or real killing of scapegoats. For those of us born under the law, born into religion (the other white church kid fornicators and me — nod to Dr. Chris Boesel again), it is not only not helpful, but it is bad news, harmful, destructive, leading to sins and dysfunctions and possession by innumerable and unnamed demons.

When belief becomes the law, you must be set free from belief. As Willie once said, “Perfect man has visited the earth already, and his voice was heard. It is now time for the voice of imperfect man to be made manifest. And I have been selected as the most likely candidate.”

The book of Romans says, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” and “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ.” Faith is the opposite of sin. Sin is not hearing. It’s deafness to the truth, a state of silence. Faith is hearing the good news, which is, in part, consciousness of sin — our own deafness. Faith is knowing your own faithlessness. Those who don’t believe may be no farther from the truth than those who believe so strongly that they are not aware of their unbelief.

As Doug Frank, another prof at Oregon Extension, once said, “The difference between the atheist that is me and the atheist that is Freud is that God told me I was an atheist.”

When I was a kid, we sang about “blessed assurance” and told people they had to be certain Jesus died for them in order to be saved. If we weren’t certain, we had to go forward to get born again again. My friends and I were never certain of anything, so we had to get ourselves out of hell. The Bible and Will Campbell and Walker Percy and Flannery OíConnor and John Linton and Doug Frank and Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and Rene Girard and James Alison gave us a hand. Mostly, though, we helped each other douse the lake of fire with beer and whiskey and late night conversations.

I’m still not certain of anything. I’m more convinced it’s all a fiction than I am that Jesus died for me and rose again. But this I believe: If there is a God, or a YHWH, or a “mmmph,” he/she/it understands our uncertainty and doesn’t demand certainty, or belief, or faith, as we’ve come to understand it, when everything around us tells us it’s all a fiction. The good news, if there’s anything good about it, is that hearing in a silent world is not required, nor is right behavior, right thinking, confession, profession, or sacrifice.

All that’s required is hearing, and hearing has nothing to do with us, and everything to do with the speaker, who comes uninvited to our barrooms and dump trucks and even churches, and we can know her by her scent. We know she is not the one who divides, who scapegoats, but is the one who says every knee shall bow, and when I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto myself, for I did not come to judge but to save. We are all lost, like Adam and Eve and Noah and Abraham and Moses and David and Ahab and Jezebel and Peter and Paul and Mary. That is the message of the only God that can actually save the world. It doesn’t matter what you call it (God, Goddess, mmmph, Harvey, not-god) or where you find it (Bible, Koran, Bagavad Gita, The Simpsons). The only God that can save the world is the God who says we are all the same in our ignorance, we take small sins too seriously and large ones not seriously enough, and I will have mercy on all of you — not just the ones of a certain color or a certain set of beliefs or practices.

It’s a sign of the church’s lack of faith that it is so hell-bent on conversion. We don’t believe that God is as good as the average human being. The average human being would forgive people for not knowing the truth, especially if the truth had been hidden from them. Yet my people, the evangelicals, taught us that the Lord would punish unbelievers (Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, pagans, Catholics, Lutherans) in the lake of fire, whether they had ever heard of Him or not. My people would quote Paul here, saying, “Who are you, the clay, to tell the potter what he can do with his vessels?” Well, I’ll say this: If the potter says he loves his clay and then demolishes it, I will stand on his coffee table, point my finger in his face and call him a liar.

Jesus said, “whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven,” and whatever two of us agree on shall be done. Why not loose the whole world, swing wide the pearly gates and invite everyone to the wedding feast? Are you with me?

Jesus said “the kingdom of heaven is in your midst.” Maybe what he meant to show us was how close we are to turning everything upside down. It’s there for the taking, but everyone has to take it all at once, like a port key. Let’s all grab hold and be transported to another world.

It’s sad that we find it so difficult to believe in the good news, because a belief in the salvation of the world could be the most liberating message in history — far more liberating than “I once was blind but now I see.” When I was growing up, I felt warmth toward the people I considered “saved” or “in the fold.” I accepted them and loved them. There was no way to hate them or think they deserve any kind of pain or suffering.

But part of my problem — and that of my fornicating friends — was that I felt that way towards everyone. We loved the bad kids, all the bad people, because we were bad. But our Sunday school teachers and pastors didn’t seem to feel the same warmth for their enemies as they did for their friends. They talked about saving souls, but they never went to bars, where the souls were in need of saving. Same goes for the present-day evangelicals and fundamentalists. They blame lesbians for 9/11. Liberals like me appall them. They apparently feel like they are good and right and therefore feel justified in denouncing, disliking, or even hating their enemies.

The beauty of Will Campbell’s definition of Christianity, and of the Christian doctrine of sin, and of Jesus’ statements about casting the first stone and taking the log out of your eye, is that those statements level the playing field. When we’re all sinners — not once sinners who have now been perfected — when we’re all sinners, we can’t hate the sinners anymore. We feel warmly towards them, as warmly as we do toward our brothers and sisters and fellow churchgoers. Imagine feeling that way toward everyone, feeling that everyone in the world, from the New Guinea pagan to the Peruvian Catholic to the Libyan Muslim to the Indian Hindu, is equally blessed by the saving grace of God. Imagine that God does not hold their lack of faith against them — just as he doesn’t hold our own doubts and weak faith or overconfident faith against us.

Doesn’t it suddenly change the way you look at the whole world? Doesn’t it fill your heart with love? Imagine that we’re all brothers and sisters, which, if you go back far enough, we are. How can you declare war against your brothers and sisters, who are equally in the embrace of God? We can only hate and kill when we draw a line between those who are “in” (those like us) and those who are “out” (those unlike us). And no one is better at drawing those lines than religious people, because they have God telling them that their lines are God’s lines.

But imagine if all the lines are our lines, and none of the lines are God’s lines. Imagine that God is the great eraser of lines — like the lines that divided the Jews and Gentiles in the early church. They were meaningless lines, based on whether your foreskin had been cut off, and whether or not you ate certain foods. Imagine true freedom from the law — the kind of freedom Paul talked about. Imagine freedom from the law that says you should/shouldn’t pray five times a day, you should/shouldn’t drink alcohol, you should/shouldn’t go to church on Sunday, you should/shouldn’t sprinkle/dunk, drink wine/grape juice, drive a Hummer, kill animals, burp after meals, cover your head, sleep with someone of the same sex.

Imagine loving your enemies, whether it’s Bill Clinton or George W. Bush, Saddam Hussein or Rush Limbaugh, the homosexuals or those shithook fundamentalist TV preachers. Imagine that all those rules are cultural and God transcends those rules and wants us to transcend those rules. Imagine that sin is not a list of bad behaviors but a lack of understanding of the grace of God, an inability to hear the great “Yes” God speaks to creation. Imagine that we are all equally sinful because we rely on the lines we draw and the lists of sins we compile, rather than on the forgiveness and mercy and love that we say are at the heart of all our religions.

Imagine that the fiction is true.

Copy of group copy

You can listen to my music at reverbnation.com/brettlarson

Contact me to tell this story (and others) or play my songs at elmerbond@mac.com

Follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/elmerbond

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3 thoughts on “A true-life pilgrimage to the home of Will Campbell

  1. Yikes Brett! Reading this was insane!…and I related to it completely…you put my rambling to shame…looking forward to meeting you…I’m not as ‘literate’ as you…but I enjoyed your mention of Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery’….I still have check my calendar…I just happened on this thing by fate….are you really free all week? I don’t want to mess up a block of time….I’m thinking Mon. or Tue. …Bo

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