Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 1

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

 —William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium”

 for Tom, with Kierkegaard among the dark Danes


 Three years ago, as my mother lay dying, her youngest sister, Carolyn, died unexpectedly in Texas. Mom dispatched me from my home in Ohio to the funeral, as her designate. Instead of returning to Florida to see Mom again, one last time, I made my way to a vast Southern Baptist Church outside Dallas. Mom and I had a vexed relationship, our harmonics clashed, and that was something I could do.

The minister delivering Carolyn’s eulogy was a kid fresh out of seminary. Irritated as I watched him flail his feet around for all to see behind a clear-glass pulpit, it occurred to me that postmodern style had gone way too far. But then, my boyhood church had had a terrifying plexiglass baptismal tank front and center.

“Carolyn is in heaven with the Lord,” he said. “And she’s in a physical place with a physical body.”

“Amen!” said a beloved uncle, the last of the sons of Delbert and Mittye Rounsaville, Atoka, Oklahoma. My surviving aunts murmured their assent. My cousins and I sat in silence, realizing, perhaps for the first time, that we’d entered a new realm of adulthood. We sat among children of the latest generation—we were their age when we’d first met our Aunt Carolyn.

On her last morning, Carolyn, recovering from surgery, had done her Bible study in bed. She told her twin sister Marilyn, who checked on her, that she was going to rest. Then, apparently in her sleep, she died. A blood clot, they said.

I called Mom to tell her about the service. “It was beautiful, Mom. Aunt Carolyn was really loved. Everyone was there, and people from the church. You would have loved it.”

That was true as far as it went. But I’d been shocked to hear a minister take for granted a belief in a physical afterlife. Accustomed to mild Methodist guidance for twenty years, in a college town in Indiana and in a rural Ohio church, I’d forgotten the literalist notions I must have heard as a boy in the Southern Baptist church.

Our baptismal tank in our small church was kept sloshing. And someone had to get saved every service. Always I sat, rigid with fear, willing myself to invisibility. Once in high school I attended there with another Winn Dixie bagboy, a sweet pothead, who wept and rose, marched his tear-streaked face down the aisle.

In Dallas what truly appalled me was my sense, heightened after chatting with him, that the boy preacher didn’t believe a word of what he’d said. He wanted to comfort, I suppose. But his fancies and his deceitful mien left me feeling ill and angry.

“Everyone’s working on the same problem,” my uncle, a Baptist deacon, told me after the service, surely sensing my angst. “But Christianity got the answer. Some others came close. But it’s like math. There’s only one right answer.”

I was torn between admiration at his certitude and outrage at his blindness. One thing that’s always fueled my hope: the similarities of the world’s great religions.

But my uncle wasn’t too sure, even, about Catholics.

He said he was put off by their emphasis on opulence and on Mary. I understand the former—so many poor people have given so much to that rich church—but after lots of thought I decided I like what to me goes along with it: their use of icons. In a Catholic church, an image of Jesus, sometimes life-sized, dies in agony on the cross; giving Jesus a body makes him both more real and more potent a symbol for those who feel nailed to their own crosses. Of course, there’s something to be said for the way Protestants have purified the cross, turning a torture device—it killed slowly by preventing the crucified from exhaling—into an object of worship. As for Mary, I like the diversity—another human character to identify with—and the way she counters the church’s sexism. Protestants go to the opposite extreme: Mary’s almost missing.

Whenever I get really depressed, I think I should become Catholic. Just submit to its flawed authority, join its humbled masses. Then I realize I’m probably Protestant to the core.

(Merry Christmas, Tom.)

Next: I cower before the mighty Hitchens as before that dread baptismal tank.


Filed under evolutionary psychology, MY LIFE, religion & spirituality

9 responses to “Christopher Hitchens, God & me, pt. 1

  1. You did it again, Richard. I am in the midst of writing a memoir chapter called “Getting Saved” about raising my hand in a revival meeting at age 11. The combination of Christopher Hitchens’ death (and all the resulting hoopla from all points of the religious-atheist spectrum), Christmas morning, and your blog post give me a lot to ponder in my heart as I reflect on a different kind of fundamentalism. Merry Christmas.

    • Hi Shirley—I admire the courage of your eleven year old self. I hope these three posts ultimately will redeem my cowardly younger self! If not my timid older self. Anyway, to cut to the chase on Hitch, he was willfully and perhaps temperamentally tone deaf.

  2. Good morning, Richard. As usual, a beautiful piece. I await related posts. I was that young minister for a time–frequently torn between “What would comfort?” and “What do I believe?” At one point I left the ministry behind, not expecting to return. I did return a few years later, but only after I had promised myself that (1) I would never again say what I didn’t believe (that left a lot of silences) and (2) I would not insist that others agreed with me and (3) I would not argue with those who didn’t agree with me. This worked our fairly well. Also, I realized that people would understand my belief system better if they noticed what I never said.

    • Wow, Dave. Despite what I wrote, I was not thinking of this situation much from the preacher’s perspective—I saw the poor kid more negatively—and now I see he must have been on the horns of a dilemma. What a hard row it must be to have a genuine spiritual sense and call to faith, yet to find that at odds with dogma or with what the congregation wants and thinks.

      Also, I feel humble wading into this because much smarter people and writers than me (Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy) have expressed faith in what I cannot believe, though I am trying to be the kind of believer I can be.

  3. My last Southern Baptist funeral will be my last (I’ll probably have to eat those words). When the preacher, who was old enough to know better, asked a very ecumenical gathering to bow their heads, close their eyes and raise their hands if they would give their heart to the Lord today (in the middle of the funeral), I came very close to walking out. I was raised in that tradition and nearly drowned in those chilly baptismal waters at the tender age of six. Now, at 60, I find great comfort in the Book of Common Prayer and the concept of holy hope over certitude.

    • Amen, Beth. My father was one of those dry-eyed Episcopalians. I attended an Episcopal service on Christmas, down here where I am visiting, in Melbourne Beach, and liked it a lot—very intellectual sermon compared with the Baptists I’ve known.

  4. Despite my being neither Catholic nor Protestant nor any of the designations (Hitchens articulated my atheism as well), I am still drawn to that “sensual music” in which there is radiance and awe, certainly an end to intellect. Music spurs writing; it lends its forces to us for the sake of a common esthetic. Words and their rhetorical display in Hitchens’ prose and speech are true because of the mesmerer as much as the message. Language and its ability to deceive us is a spirituality of sorts. Merry Xmas, Richard.

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