But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. —1 Corinthians 2:14
For many, if not most, unbelievers, unbelief is often not the result of a logical thought process, but of feelings. Prior to any, the existence of God and the tenets of religion are not so much inconceivable as unimaginable. In any society there are unspoken assumptions about what is real, what counts as evidence for a worldview, what can be imagined. Charles Taylor calls the set of these assumptions the social imaginary. During the Middle Ages, the imaginary included God, angels, the soul, blessings, prayers, sacraments, the value of sexual purity, the bliss of heaven. Today our imaginary is populated by the quantum vacuum, particles and fields, therapy and pharmaceuticals, cultivation of the self, and sexuality. I think the modern imaginary plagues believers; I know it plagues me. My doubts aren’t the conclusions of a set of syllogisms. They are the product of (indeed, they are the same as) a failure of imagination.
I was raised with a vague religiosity, part Jewish and part Christian, and I was an atheist by the time I turned thirteen. The secular imaginary is so ingrained in me that on my bad days, incarnation, resurrection, the beatific vision, God, any meaning at all, seem less than words, just phonemes shuffled at random. Blessedly, my days aren’t all bad. Still, even on my good days, faith isn’t my default setting; it’s an act of will. Not against the facts, and certainly not against reason, but against the cold. angular furniture of the secular mind.
I came to political consciousness in 1960; undazzled by the light from Camelot, I worked in the local Republican storefront stuffing envelopes for ol’ Tricky Dick. (Now there’s someone who’s looking better—if only he hadn’t been a criminal.) Four years later, having read The Conscience of a Conservative and now addicted to National Review, I was sitting in Madison Square Garden, a not-quite-sixteen-year-old, giving Murray Kempton dirty looks and singing, to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,”
Comes a man from Arizona destined to be president,
And he’s dedicated to the cause of better government,
Sworn to bring back law and order and restore democracy,
So all men shall be free.
Let’s put Barry in the White House,
Let’s put Barry in the White House,
Let’s put Barry in the White House,
Let Barry carry on!
I quote from memory; even Google has no knowledge of this campaign classic.
In high school and during the first couple of years of college, I was a big-government libertarian—national defense was one of the few permissible activities of the state, and I wanted a lot of it. A taste for T.S. Eliot, conversion to Christianity (at an Episcopal Church—this was thirty-one years ago) and the influence of college friends led me to traditionalism, mostly semi-serious: Booing Cromwell in the movie of the same name; waving a Union Jack at Queen Elizabeth II’s bicentennial visit to New York; reading the Manifesto of Las Palmas at the annual Franco Day picnic; attending Panikhidas for the as-yet-uncanonized Russian imperial family. It was a relief to self-identify as a monarchist; it disarmed leftist acquaintances and allowed me to indulge an above-all-that cynicism about the party politics of the day. It was satisfying to talk about the necessary alliance of throne and altar, and the social reign of Christ the King. But behind the traditional gesturing was still the National Review paradigm: keep markets free and carry a big stick.
I may have kept the paradigm, but around about this time I stopped reading National Review. I couldn’t work up much interest in its economic enthusiasms or its concentration on electoral politics. (For a while I switched to The New Republic, which at least had a robust and well-written book review section.) I still voted reliably Republican: Reagan, Bush I, Dole, Bush II (mea culpa). But I did so increasingly out of a sort of conditioned reflex, without enthusiasm. More and more, the level of political discussion was being set by radio call-in shows and snarky television panels. I stopped watching TV; I switched my radio listening to sports talk; I stopped reading the newspaper, except for (occasionally) the sports section. Even my online reading, when the net became the medium du jour, steered clear of news and political commentary. Party-political discourse seemed utterly predictable and hollow, devised to appeal to core constituencies obsessed with self-interest and/or single issues, consisting of vacuous slogans, trash-talking, and my-didn’t-that-feel-good hyperbole flung at the opposition.
Now, I know that politics has always been a clash of interests in which nothing is too low if you can get away with it. But along with the hoopla went serious thinking and serious debate about fundamental issues. I suppose television is to blame, both for its reduction of thinking to sound bites and campaigns to horse races decided by gaffes, and for the cost of using it, which has made politics a game only the rich can play.
Well, all this is not news; everyone seems to complain about it, but like life in the Grand Hotel, nothing ever happens. But now we find ourselves in a global economic crisis, a seemingly endless series of short wars abroad, a “war” at home that has us willing to surrender more and more of our liberties for a no doubt false sense of security, and most troubling of all, an accelerating concentration of wealth in the hands of a few with a concomitant shrinking of the white-collar equivalent of the yeoman class and a loss of social solidarity. And all this is in the context of an increasingly intrusive nanny state that seems equal parts Oprah and Nurse Ratched.
And so here we are, with the “most intelligent president ever,” who’d prefer to rule by decree. And look around at the Congress. Are there any statesmen lurking there? And I’m not talking about Clay, Calhoun, and Webster; I’d settle for Bob Dole, Hubert Humphrey, and Sam Ervin.
And the “conservative movement”? What’s left of that? The Tea Party, Rush Limbaugh, Ayn Rand, Ron Paul, and the NRA? Frankly, these days I don’t care.
Just put me down as a post-conservative. I’m not a liberal in the contemporary sense, which seems to mean a libertine socialist; while I must admit that I’m inclined to re-read a little Marx these days, I’m not moving that far to the left. Neocon? No, I’ve never had the hots for Woodrow Wilson. Libertarian? Whoever John Galt is, he’s not me. Traditionalist? Not lately; I know something about history, and besides, I’m not that insecure. Fascism? That increasingly seems to be what we have now.
Here’s my political credo in a nutshell: “O put not your trust in princes, nor in any child of man, for there is no help in them.”
Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Long before my conversion, I knew I had to be Catholic—Roman Catholic. The few doctrines that divided Anglos and Romans, papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas, were no problem for me. And I was haunted by the feeling, slowly growing into a conviction, that on the moral matters that A-Cs often took a pass on, mostly the sexual ones, Rome was right and we were wrong.
But, as I tell my therapists, for me at least there’s a gulf between knowing something and doing anything about it. I’m change-averse by nature, and the bigger the change, the more averse I am. And this was a big change. For a while my hesitations centered on externals—polyphony, hymnody, incense, ceremonial, Anglophilia. But these were all secondary. The real rock of stumbling was in my own heart. There’s a whiff of playacting about Anglo-Catholicism; certainly there was about mine. For me the call to Rome was the call to get serious.
So I dithered for a while, disinclined to turn assent into obedience. Then, one after another, changes seemed to force themselves on me. The rector of our parish was fired by the self-perpetuating board of trustees; I seemed to be stuck in a dead end at work; my personal relationships were confused and confusing; and my mother was struggling with cancer and postoperative radiation treatments. One winter evening in a Catholic church I was in the habit of visiting on my way home from work I saw an announcement for a course introducing the faith to non-Catholics. I decided to give it a try.
It was hard to walk into the classroom the first night, and even harder, when the course was over that spring, to ask the old friar who taught it to receive me into the church. But a few weeks later, on Pentecost, I found myself signing the profession of faith and making my confession in the friary, then joining a small group of mostly Anglican friends in the church to be confirmed and receive Holy Communion.
And that’s that, right? Many conversion stories end at the font or the altar, with a few lines tacked on to assure the reader that the convert has reaped the fruits of his or her decision. Not mine. I’ve been a Catholic for thirty years, but I can’t say that I’ve made much progress in holiness. I confess the same old sins over and over, although I have managed to trade in one or two for some others. I go through periods of rebelliousness, indifference, anxiety, and despair, and I even spent a few years back among the Piskies (where, by God’s mysterious grace, I found Mrs. C). But wander where I will, somehow I always come back.
So what, dear reader, if reader there be, is the takeaway from this story? That HC can’t bear to face reality? That he misses his daddy? That he’s a fuming cauldron of resentments and unprocessed guilt and repression and . . . You get the picture; all plausible, after all. But for me, it’s this:
I could (which you cannot)
Find reasons fast enough
To face the sky and roar
In anger and despair
At what is going on,
Demanding that it name
Whoever is to blame:
The sky would only wait
Till all my breath was gone
And then reiterate
As if I wasn’t there
That singular command
I do not understand,
Bless what there is for being,
Which has to be obeyed, for
What else am I made for,
Agreeing or disagreeing?
—W. H. Auden, “Precious Five”
I ‘m a Catholic by faith, the son of a Jewish mother and a Southern Baptist father, and I live far from the Intermountain West. Yet ever since I walked into the Mormon pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, I’ve been fascinated by Mormonism.
At the fair it was the strangeness that captivated me: the farm boy and the golden plates, the armies of Lamanites and Nephites, the American theophany of the risen Lord, the spookily lit copy of the Thorvaldsen Christus. I gladly took home a handful of pamphlets and a copy of the Book of Mormon. I read the former and occasionally riffled through the pages of the latter, and filed the Saints away in my Weird Stuff folder along with Tarot cards and UFOs.
When I was at college, two things reinforced my interest in Mormonism: A graduate-student friend who was an acquaintance of one of the sons of an LDS apostle, loved to talk about the history of the church and his own visits to Utah. Here again, the accent was on the oddness. Then I took a class in American philosophy where Mormonism was taken seriously as the answer to Emerson’s longing for a new revelation and as a window into our American self-understanding. I pulled out my Book of Mormon and start underlining passages in I Nephi (it took me years to get much further). A Deseret Book catalog found in a Mormon chapel—very strange-looking books, and at fabulously low prices!—started me collecting Mormon books, and it wasn’t long before I fell into the world of Sunstone and Dialogue and Signature Books.
Then along came the internet and hundreds of websites and mailing lists and discussion forums. Many are the hours I happily passed (or, as my wife would say, wasted) clicking from here to there and back again, from official sites to Protestant anti-Mormon ones to ex-Mormons, apologists, bibliophiles, fundamentalists, cranks. When Sunstone began posting mp3s of its symposium sessions (the older ones for free), I loaded them onto an iPod to listen to while doing my evening chores.
What to make of all this? To Mrs. C. it’s an almost incomprehensible escape from reality, a frivolous squandering of temporal and financial resources at best, and a danger to my and the family’s faith at worst. To me, it’s a never-failing source of fascination, unique among the American-born creeds—which, like Christian Science and the Watchtower, are often tedious—in its creativity and its audacity. And in its current encounter with the wider culture and the acids of modernity, it provides insight into the negotiations and adjustments that all believers have had to make in a post-Enlightenment world.
Between the rigors (or not—I’m not very good at it) of Lent, a project I was working on, some frustrating dealings with the world below the mountain, and my usual taciturnity, I haven’t felt like writing for a while.
I wish I could say that mine has been a rich silence, and that I’ve returned here to share those riches, but it wasn’t, and I haven’t. So I’ll try to continue where I left off and see what suggests itself from there.
This post is very hard to write. The only way into it is to say what has to be said at the beginning: My son is fifteen years old; since the age of six, he has suffered from a serious emotional illness. This has resulted in a number of hospitalizations, emergency room visits, and a stay in a group home. He has had years of therapy and special schools and medication.
I wrote, “he has suffered.” In fact, all of us have suffered, his mother and I, and his four siblings, along with him. This illness has cost us tears and time and money; it has cankered our relationships with each other; it has flayed us to the nerves and made us afraid. It has kept me skating around the edge of despair, for him and for us. It has reopened old wounds and made new ones.
Sunday mornings are not easy here on the mountain. Our son’s resentments and irritation and anger and boredom and depression, always there under the surface, often show themselves then. This morning his talk suddenly became hostile and unpleasant, and his mother and brother went on to church without him. A reason for his mood soon surfaced—he was angry about losing his Sunday video/computer game playing time the day before—and after a half hour or so he was feeling better.
Today everything settled down. But in the back of all our minds is the chance that it won’t, that he won’t, settle down, that he will go too far down the road he’s chosen. And that will mean a 911 call and police and paramedics and an ambulance ride to the emergency room and a struggle over insurance, because, as of right now, he doesn’t have any.
The wounds every member of our family bears are unique to him or her. For me, the most painful is the knowledge that when I look at my son I look at myself, my own weakness and anxiety and depression and fear and, worst of all, my own stubborn and cruel self-absorption blown up from sixteen millimeter to CinemaScope. And with it the thought that it was I who passed all this on to him.
There are nights when I go to bed dreading what might happen the next day; there are nights when I go to bed too tired to care. There are nights when all I can pray for is another day’s endurance; there are nights when I can’t pray at all. There are nights when I’m up half the night worrying about his future: Will he ever go to college? Will he be able to support himself? Will he manage to stay out of the hospital? Will he manage to stay alive?
After my son had calmed down, we went to church together, to the big parish church down one hill and up another. On the way back we laughed, and he sprinkled snow down the back of my neck. A father and his son, just like all the others, on a bright sunny winter afternoon.
Picture a small room, longer than it is wide, with a door leading into a kitchen. Two pine bookcases, stained brown, stand on either side of a window. Against the opposite wall is a bed, and in the bed a ten-year-old boy is lying in the dark pretending to sleep. Half under the pillow, half covered by the blanket is an old gray portable radio. His father is asleep in the big bedroom (he gets up at 5:30 to go to work). From the living room, on the other side of the thin wall by the boy’s bed, he can hear the sound of the television and his mother’s laughter. From the radio comes some music from Forbidden Planet and then a man’s voice.
Hi, neighbors. This is Long John once again. We’re around from midnight to 5:00 five mornings during the week, and of course on weekends we’re around till 5:30, and that means we’re on the air for some 36 hours. And during that time it’s my pleasure to talk with many interesting people.
The boy has stumbled on this show by accident, The summer before, in a camp infirmary, he had read an old issue of Mad magazine with an article in it titled “The Night People vs Creeping Meatballism.” Though it was illustrated in the typical Mad style, it was an essay, the sort of thing that usually didn’t appear in the magazine. The essay contrasted the Night People, who were hip and interesting, with the Day People, who were Creeping Meatballs. The author was a man named Jean Shepherd, described as a “disk jockey” on a New York radio station. The boy left camp with three resolves that August: he would never go back to camp, he would find Jean Shepherd on the radio, and he would make himself a Night Person.
Back at home, the boy took the family radio into his room and tuned in Jean Shepherd on WOR. It was obvious at first listen that he wasn’t a disk jockey. Oh, he played music, but it was short clips of songs like “The Sheik of Araby,” accompanied on the Jew’s harp. The music punctuated the stories Shepherd told, stories about his his boyhood in Hammond, Indiana, his work in the open hearth, his time in the army. Mixed with or instead of the stories, there were readings of George Ade or haiku, reflections on the iniquity of New Jersey, and commentary on the passing parade. The boy was well on his way to becoming a Night Person, but the end was not yet.
Then, one night, after a holiday spent with the relatives in Brooklyn, the boy lay exhausted in the backseat of the family car. It was very late; the boy asked his father to turn on the radio. Jean Shepherd was not there. Instead, there was a man with a born salesman’s voice interviewing a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. The boy was curious, and soon tried to stay up past Jean Shepherd to listen to this new program. One night the show featured a man who claimed he had ridden on a flying saucer. The boy was hooked. He was now a Night Person.
It was hard to smuggle the family’s radio into his room, and even harder to hide it under the pillow, but somehow he managed. And into his ears poured the strangest assortment of people he had ever heard: not just flying saucer contactees, but mediums, skeptics, radiesthesists, builders of psionic devices that operated even after their circuitry hadbeen replaced with schematics, a barber from Brooklyn with headgear that allowed him to communicate with the Space Brothers (the original tinfoil hat?), and the inimitable Otis T. Carr, the designer of the world’s first flying saucer with antigravity propulsion. When Long John’s book, The Way Out World , came out in the early ’60s, the boy rushed to Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue to buy a copy. It was the first newly published book he had ever bought.
I listened to Long John through the sixties and into the seventies. He moved from WOR to WNBC, where he had two or three shows running in different time slots, and when NBC switched to a music format, he moved to WMCA, where he co-hosted with his wife, the former model Candy Jones, and as the cancer that was to kill him progressed, spending less and less time on the air. When he died in 1978, I felt as if part of my life had died with him. I listened to other late-night talkers through the years—Barry Farber, the Amazing Randi (briefly), even, when desperate, Larry King—but none of them (nor Art Bell nor, heaven forfend, George Noory) could hold a hoodoo candle to LJN.
Now what, you may ask, did listening to Long John do for me? Well, it made me a Night Person, which only marriage to a morning person could ameliorate; it caused me to doze my way through first-period classes in high school; it filled my brain up with stuff that, as my wife will gladly tell you, is of less than no use. But useful or not, it’s stuff that remains with me all these years later, stuff that spills out of my mouth at the least opportunity, sometimes amusing for my listeners, but, I’m afraid, more often boring. And it introduced me to a way out world of wackiness that has given me hours and hours of good clean fun.
Since those long ago Long John nights, the paranormal has become mainstream; what used to be called the occult turned into the New Age and from there into a seemingly endless source of romance characters and “reality” TV shows. I’ve always seen “alternate spiritualities,” as they’re sometimes called, as ersatz religions, as me-centered substitutes for God-centered faith, and as such, they have never appealed to me. I’m not a believer in the influence of the stars or dowsing or spirit trumpets or incantations or visitors from Aldebaran. I do get a certain frisson from, if not suspending, then slackening my disbelief and imagining that Bigfoot is lurking in the forest and the deros are pursuing their evil experiments in the bowels of the earth. And I wonder how otherwise normal-seeming people can not so much suspend their disbelief as toss it away.
If I have my wish, the next time I wake up in the middle of the night there’ll be an old gray radio at my bedside. I’ll turn it on, tune over to the left of the dial, and hear the voice of Long John Nebel. In the meantime, there’s the Interwebs; you can listen to Long John here.
And check out The Paracast, where a few of those voices of yesteryear (plus a whole lot of new ones) can be heard weekly, at any hour you like.