I won't pretend to be objective during this interview. Let the record show I've considered Stan a friend and an essential part of Eclectica Magazine for over two decades now, and I was sort of "there" as the pieces that became this book were birthed. I wasn't there in person, of course, nor can I lay any claim to inspiring them, but I did have the honor of publishing them as entries in the magazine section we call the Salon, a place for opinion and exploration.
Stan used to contribute somewhat more straightforward work to the Salon, although I wouldn't want to imply anything about him or his writing is ever conventional. But around 2010, he got weirder, and here again, I wouldn't want to imply anything derogatory. It's just... the pieces were getting harder to classify, even for a publication striving for eclecticism. Were these op-eds? Memoirs? Short stories? Poems? Sermons?
What the heck was Stan doing? So, to begin...
TD Stan, what were you doing?
SJ What was I doing? Getting increasingly weird! You got that right. To be honest—and I don't know that I have always been honest about this, even with myself—ten years ago I was cracking up, going bonkers, trying to find the words and forms to express my condition.
I don't think I really understood it at the time, but I was either going through a spiritual crisis or a spiritual awakening. In the midst of it, the difference isn't always clear—or even actual. It never is. You pull yourself together by falling apart. I was just trying to keep my head above water.
If I was in the water, words were my lifeboats. I was trying to find a way to express something very large in me, something that just kept growing but couldn't be put into words. I was like a lobster who had outgrown his shell. I had to discard my habitation (during this period, I also left my beloved New York City), so I could grow a new home—or burst.
Accordingly, I looked for ways to use language to intentionally point out the inherent limitations of language—not out of some kind of snotty nihilism or smug postmodernism (which isn't to say I haven't been snotty or smug in my writing), but because the very large thing in me could only be approached with language that announced its own limitation. This was the price of admission. It was just too ineffable—too uncanny—to trifle with. That thing was just too big for words.
But that's all we've got, right? Words? It was sort of like trying to get an escaped cat back into the house. You can't just go up to it directly; you have to kind of sidle up to it, watch it out of the corner of your eye, pretending you don't give a damn about it, as you prepare to pounce and snatch it up and bring it back inside the house where it belongs. It's very stressful.
I tried everything—like you said, memoir, poetry, sermons, etc.—and mixed it all together, reaching for some kind of Whitmanesque "I contain multitudes." I borrowed huge chunks of technique from the "Pope of Surrealism," Andre Breton: his automatic writing, manifestoes, and psychoanalysis of chance encounters; his writing as wish-fulfillment; his vicious juxtapositions and fur-wrapped wooden shoe in the works, forever reaching for a Luddite revolution of consciousness.
For a while, I hit upon the dream as a literary form, where things don't have to be merely what they are, where meanings are fluid and articulated in silence and insinuation, and the profound can mix with the transitory, just like in real life, only easier. That series appeared first in the Salon section of Eclectica, and was included in my first book, A City on a Hill, as "A Republic of Dreams."
For a while, I tried the form of parables, another way of using the heightened artificiality of form and style to point to itself, and thereby, toward something beyond itself. I mean, that's how icons work, right? They heighten artificiality so the soul doesn't have to worry about falling into idolatry (literalism), and can therefore, free of caution, armed with double vision, open itself to the divine in its midst. A finger pointing at the moon, not to be mistaken for the moon itself. Parables. That was my second book, Down the Plymouth Road, also first published, serially, in the Salon section.
This current book, The Harrowing of Hell, all of which also appeared first in some form or another in the Salon (I'm sensing a pattern here), just doubled down on the whole project. By the end of the book, I found myself shamelessly trying to articulate a nakedly religious experience I had had—or rather, had been having—for the last ten years. I wanted to speak it. Own it. Proclaim it.
I have been amazed Eclectica could find a place for this sort of stuff. This weird stuff. I mean, by all rights, given the times, especially given the ugliness of the voices of my right wing evangelical brothers and sisters, who have dominated the public sphere, spewing hate, ignorance and fear, claiming to speak for Jesus and all Christians, while supporting Donald J Trump... there really shouldn't be a place for this sort of stuff in the secular world. But it's not like it belongs in the church world, either. I'm between two worlds.
So, yeah, thank you, and you're right, the writing got weird. It makes me smile in recognition. But we have all been living in such weird times, haven't we?
TD These times sure feel weird to me, but then, I think it's something to do with the times in which we (if I may consider you a contemporary for the sake of this discussion) have lived until now. It's hard to know what is unique in these times and what is business as usual in the bigger picture.
The Harrowing of Hell. "Harrowing" isn't a word most of us use in everyday conversation. I'll admit I had to Google it to get a full sense of what I was up against. What I found was a variety of meanings. There's the adjectival one, which is "acutely distressing"; the agricultural one, which has to do with "breaking up and smoothing out the surface of the soil" for planting purposes; and then there's the Biblical one, which I gather is most, though perhaps not exclusively, pertinent here. Would you talk a little about what "Harrowing" means to you and how it came to be in the title of this book?
SJ Sure. I liked that the word could contain all those meanings, the acute distress and the agricultural, with its rich metaphor of breaking open the earth to spill/plant seed, and the miracle of growth, death, and rebirth. Specifically, though, the title refers to a motif in Christian Art and Theology. The front cover of the book includes Fra Angelico's version of this motif, his "The Harrowing of Hell."
Tradition has it that between his death and his resurrection, Jesus descended into the underworld and freed the captives. This came to be known as the "harrowing of hell," presumably because of the sense of breaking up the dirt, breaking up Hell—preparing it for rebirth and recreation.
"Hell," in early Christianity, however, didn't yet have the same connotation of eternal punishment as it would in later centuries. It was the underworld of Greek mythology, Hades, or the Sheol of Hebrew Scripture, a gloomy place of shadows, the land of the pitiful dead, Limbo, phantoms, ghosts bewailing their loss of substance like the thirsty spirits swarming Odysseus and crying out for the black blood of sacrifice when he descended into the underworld.
It resonated with me. Ghosts had been popping up in my imagination and writing for years. It had a Freudian angle with the return of the repressed. It pointed toward the spiritual dimension of deliverance and liberation. The harmonics were wonderful.
TD Speaking of "harmonics," it's pretty clear you've got an ear for, a love for, and a knowledge of music. Can you talk a little about that—the personal, spiritual, and literary place of music in your life and writing?
SJ Yeah. Wow. Music, in particular American music, has played a huge part in my life and writing. Maybe partly because when I was young, popular music played a very different role in young people's lives than it seems to now. It was tribal, and in the shadows of the 60s, generational. It was about who you were, who you hung with, and how you walked. If you listened to Earth, Wind and Fire and the soundtrack to Grease, you were part of a different circle than if you bashed your head to the Who. It was either Elvis or Sinatra, and never the twain shall meet. And if you listened to all of it, well, that just made you some kind of freak, and those were the people I wanted to hang with. I mean, that's where the fun was.
I found personas I could inhabit in punk, rockabilly, and honky tonk. The first time I heard Talking Heads' "Remain in Light," I became someone else. Hearing Prince sing "Let's Go Crazy," taught me I had a body and that it was made to move! And most especially there was Bob Dylan, not just the music and words, but the attitude. That voice! Man, it opened up all manner of possibilities and ways of being in the world for me. I mean, he was singing that way ON PURPOSE. And it was glorious!
Spiritually, music taught me there was something else. It didn't have to be Mahalia Jackson, but damn! when she sang, I knew there were different worlds and dimensions of existence because she took me there—just like Mavis Staples. The shouting, the moaning, the white glove night club hush of sister Mahalia singing the Lord's Prayer.
But I could also hear God in the blasphemy of Patti Smith, and I learned the truth of spiritual/dionysian ecstasy in the holy stupidity of Grand Funk Railroad singing, "'Come on dudes, let's get it on!'/And we proceeded to tear that hotel down," and Pete Townsend just smashing the hell out of that guitar with the feedback wailing and Keith Moon causing serious damage to the air with those sticks.
In terms of the writing, Kerouac taught me to "blow" like Charlie Parker. I learned to improvise and announce myself by listening to Television tear up the night with epic solos on "Marquee Moon." I heard the Big Music—and wanted to capture it in words. It was a whole other language, the bass buzzing in your belly like butterflies. Yeah. That's what I wanted.
TD You appear to be a voracious consumer not just of music, art, literature, and philosophy, but of culture in general. Of the things that make culture tick, ancient, recent, or present day. We're now in what has been proclaimed the Golden Age of Television (not the aforementioned band, which I gather was more circa 1977), so let's talk about the small screen. Julie and I, like maybe just about everybody in this time of COVID, have been binging a lot of really great TV. We just finished the second season of Ramy, which if you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend.
The New Yorker makes the case that Ramy, along with shows like Fleabag and The New Pope, is part of a trend in entertainment toward the spiritual:
"The secular has left us with no rules to break and, therefore, no more thrills to gain. Tradition titillates the aimless. In the era of Girls, sex was bad, in the sense that it was mundane. What better than faith to inject a hint of the sublime into the everyday, to elevate longing to the metaphysical?"
What do you think about that? Is it possible you're the new Barbara Mandrell, able to say you were religious when religious wasn't cool? Have you seen Ramy? And what, as a man of Christian faith, do you make of Islam? That last one is a purposefully loaded question I'm hoping you'll take in a number of different directions.
SJ Lol. Barbara Mandrell, huh? I haven't seen Ramy, so I got nothing. I'll have to check it out. As for the New Yorker quote, I agree there's been a trend toward the spiritual in popular entertainment—and in particular on American TV. I think I noticed it first with The Sopranos, and then, Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul. What was remarkable in these particular shows, was the psychological precision with which Evil—how it corrupts everything and everyone it touches—was chronicled. This was not indifferent. This was urgent and of the moment.
Contemporary criticism has seemed to characterize these shows as all about the antihero. I think those critics are missing the point. The importance of personality in the portrayal of Evil has been a recurring theme in western civilization from Paradise Lost—"Sympathy for the Devil"—all the way to Saul Goodman. Lucifer is charming, but that charm really only begs the question of Evil, itself, right?
I think to reduce these shows to meditations on the antihero is a mistake. The category is too small. It misses the social aspect. The Sopranos, for instance, ran from 1999 to 2007, a period that included Bush vs. Gore, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, the emergence in America of a virulent, dog whistle-free racism in the election cycle of 2008—and then went on to presage not only the age of Enron and Banks too Big to Fail, but also the new Trumpian Dark Age. So far, the 21st century has been the American century, part 2, but this time without its mask. Indeed, there's been something Evil grinning behind that mask. And we can't pretend anymore we can't see it.
This new, so-called Golden Age of Television feels like the soul of a nation trying to grasp and reflect itself back to itself—so it might wake up from its nightmare—reflect back to itself the time when it got harder and harder to believe its own bullshit. This, too, is spiritual—a crisis of faith in Civil Religion.
As for this more recent outbreak of spirituality in entertainment, it seems to be choosing the microcosm rather than the macrocosm. It's a matter of approach.
Like I said, I haven't seen Ramy, but I have seen Fleabag, and I absolutely loved the first season. Now, THAT made a spiritual crisis look fun! The second season, with the hot priest thing, however, just left me pissed off. I'm pretty sure I'm in the minority here, but, to me, it was just so cliche. I don't know if you remember the mini-series, The Thornbirds, but this whole hot priest thing is hardly cutting edge. The titillation felt like pandering—and so un-effing-necessary.
I mean, I enjoy a good titillation as much as the next guy, but sometimes it's just lazy. Our deep attention can be held without such obvious and literal fireworks. There is indeed, a place where sexuality and spirituality intersect, but it asks of us something more than tired tropes of the forbidden fruit. Yawn. You want to see temptation? I can show you real temptation, not a cartoon! lol.
Having said that, the portrayal of the spiritual growth and transformation of the main character, in the midst of her finitude and all the glories and humiliations of embodiment, incarnation, in the second season, was nothing short of astonishing.
In any case, it seems this more recent trend of spirituality in popular entertainment focuses on the personal, while the earlier and long running trend has focused on the archetypal. Point to be made, it's coming in from all sides, up/down, here/there, personal/archetypal. There is an urgency. These days of pandemic, the body politic is taking to the streets. The lies we told ourselves to keep our heads above water aren't working anymore. It feels like the soul of the nation is cracking up, falling apart, while the plague winds blow. It's a spiritual crisis announcing itself on an infinite number of screens, each reflecting every other screen. It's just amazing how evocative some popular entertainment has become. And just how vexing is the nonsense. (And yes, I do notice the correlation with my own spiritual crisis described earlier. America has always been a kind of mirror for me.)
Anyway, these days it looks like the soul is finding its best costumes on streaming services. Not to be overly melodramatic, but damn, my heart just leaps when I think of it. It feels like America is getting ready to leave its spiritual adolescence—and I say, it's about time.
Sorry, I'll climb out of the pulpit, I get worked up about this stuff. Lol.
Moving on. As a man of faith, what do I make of Islam? I recognize a family resemblance, but I should say my knowledge of Islam is primarily academic. T. S. Eliot argued provocatively that not everyone had a right to an opinion on religion. His point, as I recall, was that unless you practice a religion, you don't really know what you're talking about when you talk about that religion. I don't know what I'm talking about when I talk about Islam.
On the wider question of other religions, as a man of faith, objectively, I believe they are all equally valid. But subjectively—the only point of view that matters in religion, insofar as religion requires commitment and choice—the question is non-applicable. I figure it's kind of like romantic love. Love in the abstract isn't worth a damn. The only romantic love that matters requires a commitment and a choice between two concrete, particular, existing subjects.
In that sense, I don't really have anything to say about anyone else's relationship, romantic or religious (I mean, unless it's clear there is some kind of abuse going on). Still, every now and then, while we're all on the dance floor, and the band is playing, we all, all the different religions, catch each other's eyes, the eyes of folks in love, and smile in recognition. We work together ecumenically. We share some values. We share the beat. We share an instant. And then return to our partners, enlivened and ever more ardent. Love is infectious, but particular. And it doesn't need to erase all other loves.
TD Well said, all of that. I do hope you check out Ramy. I think you're going to appreciate it... a lot!
As you probably know from Facebook, Julie and I have a pack of little lapdogs living in our house. We walk or hike with them every day, and the inevitable questions from passers by are, "What kind of dogs are those?" "Are those all your dogs?" and "Are they all related?" The last question is particularly curious to me, since even a casual observer with a minimal knowledge of dog breeds can pick out markedly different anatomical traits. We have what is clearly a terrier mix, a Pomeranian mix, a yorkie mix, a chihuahua or two or four... okay, so a few COULD be related, and in fact two of them are litter mates, but all nine? The casual observer, though, sometimes needs help making distinctions when confronted with the unfamiliar.
All of that is a roundabout way of working into my next question. Earlier you laid out a some key differences between your three books, but to the casual observer, one might not see much daylight between them, given they're all so infused with your very singular voice, they share similar—if not the same—themes... for us, one of our dogs may be a pug mix, and one may have some dachshund, but when we think about them individually, we tend to focus on their personalities more than their lineage. You touched on this a little earlier, but what really differentiates these books for you on a personal level? And to ask a different question, which in some ways may be the same question, why Harrowing? Why not stop at City and Road?
SJ The major differences between the three books is when they were written or published. Somewhere along the way, I was struck by Jack Kerouac's sense that with all his individual "novels," if you want to call them that, he was writing one huge book. It was all part of the same story. His story.
That's what my three books seem to me. One unified story. E pluribus unum. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, the differences between the three are the differences of the stages of a spiritual pilgrimage—rungs on the ladder of the soul's ascent—my own pilgrimage and rungs.
In other words, I didn't stop at the first two, because, apparently, I wasn't done. At the same time, I can imagine a time when the writing stops itself, when the words stop coming. It could either be peace or torture. But, I mean, all things being equal, and just between you and me, at this point in my life, I would prefer some peace. lol. I've had my fill of the tortured life.
TD It does seem, as one survives the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, that "peace" becomes ever more enticing. Did you ever get into The Walking Dead, or Fear the Walking Dead, or similar shows or movies? I ask because death is never too far away in your writing, but I don't get a real strong apocalyptic feel from you. Is it fair to say you're not into zombies, and if so, why not?
SJ I haven't ever seen any of those shows. But I wouldn't say that it was because I had something in particular against zombies. I didn't watch them because Mary, my now deceased wife, wouldn't let me. She had veto power over the remote. Lol. Though she'd never seen any of them, she'd taken a notion that she hated them. Which was bizarre because she was completely obsessed with The Night of the Living Dead, which we both first saw as young children in Chicagoland on channel 9, on Creature Feature, and which scared the shit out of us so that we both had nightmares for years.
In fact, every Saturday night, late, there was some local access cable channel here, in Lansing, that played it. While I slept, preparing for Sunday morning, Mary never failed to watch it. Week after week. Telling me about it each and every Sunday afternoon, as if she had seen it for the first time. So, I never could understand what her problem was with The Walking Dead, etc. She was very unpredictable.
But for whatever reason that whole genre never really sparked me. I could take it or leave it. I've never been a huge fan of dystopian films or books either—though I can watch them, and even appreciate them. I love Blade Runner, for instance. Instead, I think I fell in love with black and white noir films, which in their own way were dystopian, if not apocalyptic.
TD I love noir, but I confess I love dystopic works as well. Noir strikes me as having as a core ingredient the quintessential loneliness of the masculine American figure who has to literally figure things out for himself, often while beset by threats from all quarters—the criminals he's hunting, who often want to make it personal ("We're not so different, you and me"), the authorities, the femme fatale. Again, though, with a few exceptions that turn the genre on its head, noir is very masculine and very American and very white. But the dystopias... there we have what I think of as a more inclusive and about as on the nose metaphor for human existence as you can get. We are all "the walking dead." We're all walking down that Road—whether we conceive of it as yours or Cormac McCarthy's, deciding which of the people we encounter can be trusted to join us, and one by one, those people we let into our circle are taken from us, often in terrible ways, until finally we find "peace"—or more likely have it inflicted upon us. I'm not sure why I find watching this stuff comforting rather than depressing—harrowing even—but it might have something to do with my irreligiosity. Without the safety net of divine meaning, love, and an afterlife, I take solace in a kind of inoculation against the abyss. A reminder to savor the journey since I have no faith in the destination.
One of the things I love about having a conversation with you, Stan, is that you come at religion from an entirely different angle than many of the religious people I know personally or know of in the public sphere. I'm a generally non-religious person myself, but yours is an angle I find more palatable than most. In America we have a lot of religious voices, and most of them strike me as caricatures. From snake oil salesmen like Osteen and Bakker to nutjob demagogues like Hagee and Robertson, on down to celebrity entertainers like Huckabee and Sharpton, we've got a uniquely American abundance of people like this. And by this, I mean people who it seems to me aren't in it for the love you describe so much as the fulfilment of baser motives.
What's your take? Are you willing to throw shade at some of these figures? And, to be purposely provocative, what would you say to someone like me who suspects maybe a preponderance of our problems in this nation (and world) can be tied to religion itself? I mean, I've always felt that on a personal level, whatever gets us through the day—one day at a time, sweet Jesus—so long as it doesn't harm others, can't be a bad thing. But I wonder if sometimes the presence of religion in our personal lives and in society, even when it's a good thing, doesn't keep us from actually addressing deeper problems.
SJ Am I willing to throw shade at Osteen, Bakker, Hagee, Robertson, Huckabee and Sharpton? Well, first, let's pull Sharpton out of the mix. Having watched him for many years, it seems to me that he is no longer the man he was in the Tawana Brawley years. He's grown. Deepened. At least, that's the way it seems to me. Much respect.
As for the others, more to the point, I would say without hesitation that what they spew from their pulpits is anti-christ—and by that I don't mean the mythological/symbolic figure in the Book of Revelation—(and every other horror movie made in the 70s)—but the adjectival form of the word found in other places in the New Testament. What they preach is a perverted version of the Gospel. What they proclaim is a lie. The truth is not in them. Anything else? Lol.
All kidding aside, they have become the public face of Christianity for so many folks—and that just effing sucks! They don't represent my experience of the faith, or even my experience of the people in my congregation—not even remotely. All things being equal, I could just ignore them as being beside the point—but they are doing so much damage, they are hurting so many people. It's obscene. I wish I could just shout it from the rooftops: this is not who we are! Please don't judge us by these charlatans! But, yeah, I have to own it. That kind of ugliness is in my family. It's true.
As for what would I say to someone like you who wonders if religion is the source of most of the world's problems, I'd say, I love talking to you about religion too, but here, I'm just going to have to say with all due respect, that you might be being naïve.
Religion is a powerful identity marker, which makes it very attractive to those seeking power. Used adroitly, religion can be a boon to all manner of criminals, dictators, pedophiles and terrorists, providing cover and authorization to do whatever they damn please, and feed their sociopathic narcissism in any way they can imagine. Jim Jones. David Koresh. Wolves in sheep's clothing.
Because religion, or at least the Abrahamic religions, are communal, norms are enforced by the believers, themselves. This makes them especially susceptible to being co-opted by powerful figures or interests who have the means to either set new norms or make norms themselves meaningless, allowing them to complete an unchecked freedom. There's a reason Trump had that photo-op in front of a church, with him holding a Bible (upside down), after having ordered peaceful protestors to be gassed.
But it would be a mistake to assume that if you got rid of all religions, these same folks or interests wouldn't find some other identity marker to use to fulfil their own will to power. The 20th century is a good example. The world didn't need a theological conflict to fuel the trench warfare of WWI, Nationalism and communal bellicosity worked perfectly well.Hitler, who was contemptuous of Christianity, found quite enough excuses to ignite the Holocaust besides conflicts over the acceptance of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah. The Soviets seriously discouraged religion and created show trials and the Gulag. The Chinese carried out the Cultural Revolution without the benefit of religion. And the Khmer Rouge had ideology. Even with the religiously-based terrorism of the latter part of the last century and the early part of this one, the terrorists were always a small minority among the faithful.
Point being, it's naïve to think that religion is the culprit. There's a Mystery here. Why do human beings sometimes behave so incredibly cruel and callously toward one another—toward mother earth?
TD Point taken about Sharpton. It was unfair of me to lump him in with Huckabee. I did so because he's a TV personality with perhaps an undeserved reputation for opportunism. I'm happy to grant, though, that when Sharpton swoops in on the latest racial injustice, he is doing so for reasons other than his own self-aggrandizement. However, I suppose I'd have to then grudgingly give Huckabee the same allowance when he swoops in to defend a County Clerk for not granting gay marriage licenses. So there are different levels of perversion when it comes to men "of God," a whole Kinsey scale of failing to embody the ideals of Jesus while one claims to speak for Him.
As for indicting religion, I might have been inexact in my wording. What I meant to ask, is it possible religion, while it doesn't create humanity's problems, makes us more adept at avoiding less destructive solutions?
I'll give an analogy of what I mean, which might resonate with you given some of what you've said above. When I was nearing the end of my 20s, I had a bit of a mid-life crisis (my father died in his early 40s), culminating in the end of a long-term (13 years) relationship that began in high school. I had always been what I strove to be "honest to a fault," an expression my mother often used to describe my absent father. What I realized during those crucial late-20s moments of crisis, though, was that as hard as I'd striven to be truthful to myself and others, I was replete, awash, inundated with bullshit. And not your run of the mill bullshit, but antibiotic-resistant bullshit. I came to realize my commitment to truth telling had just made me a better liar.
At the age of 50, I've at least accumulated enough awareness and humility to know I'm still full of shit and lacking in humility. A sliver of truth in the face of my own dogma. What concerns me about religion is that it is self-deception on steroids. We've had similar conversations about this in the past, but here I come at you again... why religion at all? Or if at all, why come back to it after your own existential crisis?
SJ As for your own crisis concerning honesty and being full of shit (I feel you, man!)... from my point of view, this is an essentially religious or spiritual crisis. And the fact that this crisis seems to have either resulted in, or consisted of, a realization of your own bullshit, far from being an argument against religion—from where I sit, is damn near archetypally religious.
This is a human issue. This is a spiritual issue. Institutional religions are, among many other things, (many admittedly negative), custodians of bodies of practical knowledge, and conceptual models to figure out how to navigate this world after having caught the scent of your own bullshit. Whom do you trust? How do you change? How do you stop stinking? How do you shape and mold your world to be a better place?—because the realization of your own bullshit is intimately related to your awareness of the systemic bullshit of the societies we collectively create and inhabit.
So, when you ask "Why religion at all?" I want to say, "Why be human?" There is a religious dimension to humanity, in which existential questions are asked and addressed. Practical questions. It's about how you acquire savoir faire—know-how—the knowledge of how to make it through. But here's the thing: just like anything else, it's not like it's pure. It's messy. I'm not making any excuses, but long after you've realized that things are broken, you still have a need to find a way to heal.
Of course, it is possible to use institutional religion to avoid dealing with deeper problems. But if you are so motivated, it's never going to be hard to find a way to use anything to avoid dealing with deeper problems. What religion is also—institutional religion—is a curated body of experiences of those who have gone through these things before you. Maps. Travel tips. FAQs. What works, what doesn't? What do you have to watch out for? I can hear sister Mahalia singing, "How I Got Over!" right now!
As to why I "came back to religion after my existential crisis," I mean, I'd have to say I never left my religion—in fact, my existential crisis was an expression of my religion. I needed to grow and I was being resistant. I cracked up. Par for the course. But I had a wealth of experience, what the Bible calls "the cloud of witnesses," at my disposal.
It's like this: a few months after Ms. Mary died, I got deathly sick. I went to the ER and got diagnosed with pneumonia. I have no memory of the first several days in the hospital, but the doctor told me later that if I hadn't come in when I did, my oxygen levels were such that my inner organs would have started to shut down. I was down and out. But I survived—unlike my wife—I didn't die. But that not-dying had to be integrated into my living. I mean, what does it mean to be alive when she's dead?
My church rallied around me—and loved me back to life. That's just true. They were the face of the Christ for me. They loved me back to life. It was an earthquake in my soul. Tombs were opened. I came back to life.
Religion is access to the power to raise the dead.
TD Maybe that's why those zombie shows don't resonate with you. They take resurrection, in the form of reanimation, and make it something to be feared, something mindlessly evil in the most reductionist sense there is. You're in the opposite business.
Invariably when you and I talk about religion, politics, or your writing, the subject of Evil comes up. I recall you once making a very strong analysis of Evil as reductionism. Whereas Good creates and builds, Evil reduces and destroys. Not to take away from that analysis, which I believe is spot on, as a non-religious person, I generally stay away from using the word Evil, particularly when it's capitalized, given my resistance to the idea of angels and demons prowling around anywhere other than in our overactive imaginations. But here we are discussing religion, politics, and your writing—the three things are all intertwined of course—and Evil did indeed come up earlier in this conversation. Many people, however religious or secular they might be, have given over to describing the current President this way. As dismayed as I am by his words and actions, I still don't want to give him that.
One of my former wrestlers—a military helicopter pilot now living in Texas—bemoaned on FB the other day that people during this COVID crisis are assholes. "People are assholes." Those were his exact words. And it struck me that he may have just hit on a unifying theory of human suffering and/or human conflict (which maybe can be generalized as the same thing). The Hobbes vs Rousseau question of whether we are inherently good or evil strikes me as a moot argument. Freud's whole Id vs Ego thing may be a more elegant way to express it, but here in the age of Trump, I think the bottom line, and the best way to express it, is we are all assholes. Some of us are less or more malignant assholes than others. Some of us have subverted, tamed, or even harnessed our assholery, and some of us have done the opposite. Trump is not only our high priest when it comes to assholery, but his rallies provide a nurturing environment for assholes who otherwise feel threatened by the constraints of so-called civilized society.
What do you think? Are you ready to sign on to the idea of replacing the Ten Commandments with a single, general admonition not to be an asshole?
SJ Well, I'm not sure that the two are mutually exclusive, but yeah, "people are assholes." Lol. It's pretty hard to disagree, right? But this notion didn't just occur to your wrestler, it's Western Civilization 101. It's the classical Christian doctrine of Original Sin—(which, I would argue is a phenomenological description of what it feels like to be here—to exist).
"Check it out. If all people are assholes, then that means you're an asshole, too. But if all people are assholes, at what point could you have chosen to not be an asshole, insofar as you are a person and all people are assholes? And if there were never that point, then how can you be held accountable for being an asshole?"
And yet, at the end of the day, it's not like you, yourself, aren't still an actual asshole, and by virtue of your very existence, continue to perform your assholery all up and down the street in which you live, causing all manner of damage to other people, many of whom you love. You're effed from the get go, thrown into a system you didn't create, that is fundamentally corrupt, and insofar as that system shaped you, necessitates that you too are corrupt—and yet you are, nonetheless, individually responsible for it all, insofar as you participate, are shaped by, and benefit from, a corrupt system. I mean, like systemic racism, right?
"We're all assholes." Indeed! But how did we get that way, and is it possible to somehow break free from the cycle and stop being an asshole? And if so, what would that look like?
So, basically, I'm saying that the Ten Commandments represent a particular Bronze Age answer to the question of what it looks like to not be an asshole. It's an attempt to articulate what it takes: You can't do this. You can't do that. You're going to want to tread lightly over there.
Point being, saying "people are assholes," is only just the tip of it—I mean, unless you want to just stop there: There's nothing that can be done. We're effed. And doomed.
But if you aren't willing to go full nihilism, you're going to have to start asking questions like, if all people are assholes, how is it possible that some people are a little less assholish than others, which would imply that it is possible to not be entirely an asshole, which begs the question of the possibility of ceasing to be an asshole, altogether.
Which is a long way of saying—returning the twinkle in your own eye, Tom—no, I'm not ready to switch out the Ten Commandments for a general admonition to not be an asshole. Lol. I'm being a little silly here, of course, but my point is that getting rid of institutional religion wouldn't make these questions go away—or help in the necessary articulation of the issues.
But what I really want to talk about is... Evil! And whether or not Donald Trump is Evil. As you know, this whole notion of Evil is something I come back to again and again like a dog worrying a bone. But I don't really have an answer for that question. Is the President Evil? I'm not sure it is possible for an individual to be Evil—and yet, I have experienced what I could only describe to myself as Evil occurring through an individual. It is possible to be a conduit.
I had an elderly parishioner once, who was recently divorced, much against her will, who one Mother's Day, called her son and told him to come quickly and bring the grandkids. In a panic he herded them into the car and drove over, just as my parishioner, having doused herself with gasoline, while sitting in the car in the garage, with the garage door open, knowing that the grandkids were on the way, lit a match just as they got there. The grandkids saw her body on fire. It was Mother's Day.
I knew this woman. Had listened to her sorrow and anguish, before the flames. Her rage. I sat with her. Prayed with her. I could never say that she was Evil in any way—I loved her—she was family—and yet, when I think of what she did, of the damage she caused, the generational damage, I have no problem saying that Evil occurred in her.
Evil is occurring in Donald Trump. And he's an asshole. Lol.
TD Stan, without a doubt, it's a pleasure to converse with you, and I'm certain we could continue in this vein for many hours, but out of respect to anyone who might still be reading this, we should probably give them an opportunity to get on with their day, or maybe to move on to reading something else. I hope some are inspired to give your books a try, which will afford them direct access to your remarkable breadth of ideas and words, free of my interference.
SJ Thanks, it's always a pleasure. Folks can find my books on Amazon.
TD Yes, there's a link with the cover thumbnail at the top of the page. In addition, if anyone just has to have more of back and forth between you and me, I'll include a couple links to previous interviews here:
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