Resurrection Day: The View from Southwest OklahomaFeatured — By Keaton Lamle on September 3, 2012 at 4:57 am
SYNECDOCHE: Though it appears that with every new year the amount of people you meet who have rejected organized religion in favor of nothing/“spirituality” seems to increase, it is just as true that religious differences remain battle-line issues in many parts of the South and Midwest. Oklahoma is no exception. I remember being five years old, not understanding what a Baptist believed that a Methodist didn’t and playing in the sandbox with my neighbor who was a year older and probably four inches taller, and smugly saying, “Well, I’m Baptist.” “I’m Methodist” he would reply. And we went back and forth with those exact two combative statements for probably 4 minutes. The situation was vaguely hostile and I have no idea what we were trying to accomplish.
“Truly decent, innocent people can be taxing to be around.”
-David Foster Wallace
The Uncanny (Ger. Das Unheimliche – “the opposite of what is familiar”) is a Freudian concept of an instance where something can be familiar, yet foreign at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar. (See Uncanny valley)
Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize.
-the wikipedia entry on “The Uncanny” circa May 2012
APRIL 06, 2012 I have been asked to the Resurrection Day party, even though I am not Presbyterian. As I nervously saunter from car to shindig one thing is obvious: The 12 pack of craft brew I am brandishing will be the only alcohol at the event that wasn’t brewed by one of the attendees. Before I can really recover from bending down to ice my embarrassingly store-bought beer, I am accosted by a fellow who introduces himself thusly: “The name’s Jason. Born in Walters1. Live near Cache2.” He has the most genuine country accent I have ever heard, looks strikingly similar to Glen Campbell in True Grit (LaBeef!), and I am not sure I have ever met a friendlier person. Sporting tight (and stylish) khakis and a semi-western frilly tucked-in shirt of the sort whose name escapes me, Jason has the most pronounced sideburns I’ve seen since the 1990s and is smoking a huge and ornate pipe. Before the night is over I will see him shred on no less than 4 instruments- violin (“fiddle”?), upright bass, acoustic guitar, mandolin. I am genuinely sad when small talk obligations pull Jason to the other side of the party.
I have arrived about an hour late and the buffet is still full, albeit with a few conspicuous absences: There is a noticeable abundance of turkey and a suspicious lack of ham. I decide to fill up on a beer and several slices of cheesecake (this would prove to be a rookie mistake), with a couple of handfuls of tortilla chips dotting my plate for good measure. During my time at the buffet I run into the hostess of the Resurrection Day Event (whose baby appears to be securely wrapped around the front of her body with some sort of miracle infant towel-strap, probably homemade), a friend I haven’t seen in a couple of years who, like the virgin Mary, is by now obviously pregnant (she asks about my wife, who is absent as a result of a minor family emergency), and two elders of Lawton, Oklahoma’s B*********** Presbyterian Church, whom I have met before. To my surprise they remember me before I have really figured out where I know them from. Small talk is made for about twenty minutes. We discuss the party host’s (a guy who I attended a Baptist church with as a kid, he is about 6 years older than me) quick ascension in Presbyterian status. Apparently he is the youngest member on a pastoral search committee and this is notable, somehow. While we are talking it occurs to me that one of these men is the father of an eccentric delinquent whom I worked with at a restaurant for a while. At the time that I knew him, the kid had dropped out of the military (he told me that the marines felt that they were holding him back, seeing as he was “too smart”) and was working as a busboy. The last I had heard of him, the guy had put on his old military uniform, constructed a sort of homemade body armor, grabbed an air rifle, and headed to the park down the street from my house, where he engaged in a shootout with local police, who surrounded him and opened fire. The busboy was shot, as were a few police officers. Albeit, not by the busboy. Apparently friendly fire is extremely common when members of a circle shoot towards the center. A firefighting friend told me that one of the officers was injured when he forgot to park the police car he was driving, instead simply jumping in front of the vehicle, weapon drawn. He partially ran himself over. Lawton firefighters love to goad Lawton policemen, and apparently this event caused a lot of chuckles down at the fire station.
Later in the evening I will see the former marine/busboy-who is apparently neither in the hospital, nor jail- for the first time in years when I accidentally kick over his beer while walking through the garage in search of a restroom. When I offer to grab him another bottle and ask what he was drinking he informs me that it is a home brew and was the last one, the indication clearly being that I have wrought irreparable damage, and that the situation is beyond recovery. I will skulk off. But for the moment I am talking to his father, thinking that a man this socially well-adjusted can bear exactly 0% of the responsibility for the strange park “massacre” while discussing the ins and outs of home brewing. I decide that our jovial encounter has been a moderate success, tell the elder so, and saunter towards a barrel of fire that catches my eye. This party is both awkward and sublime.
There are no old people here. Every single RDE3 attendee seems to be between the ages of birth and 55, with spikes on the graph near 8, 27, and 40 (Later I notice a fairly decrepit Asian woman, but I am not sure she counts, as she is consigned to the couch, staying indoors all night, never really entering the decidedly-outdoor RDE). There is exactly one black person- a middle-aged woman named Ebony, and my Batman swimming shorts appear to be one of three commercial logos at the party4. These Presbyterians do not appear to be the most avid mall-shoppers. A cursory glance in just about any direction will reveal 10 year-olds smugly taking sips from beer-bottles that are adorned with labels that proudly announce, “Samuel Adams Chocolate Bock”, but actually contain home-brewed India Pales and Hard Ciders5. As I walk I try to keep the rules straight in my head: Logos and public schools are out (this will make sense in about three paragraphs), homemade stuff and under-aged drinking are in.
These are the thoughts coursing through my cerebellum6 as I approach the burning trash-can, and the Square-dance line (!) that has formed, impromptu, between the fire and a system of chicken coops. Someone is doing a decent job calling the dance, but I can’t really tell who it is from my vantage point. The dance is a cycle and, when lit by the interceding flame, becomes mesmerizing in the way that only the most rote and repetitive motions can be. I find myself staring at one kid in particular. He can’t be younger than 11, although he could be as old as 16 if his lanky frame is any indication, and he has this sort of painted on smile that is creepy in its lack of fluctuation. Jason solos on the fiddle, and for a second it almost seems like the scene is playing itself in slow motion and if I am not mistaken, reality takes on a grainy quality reminiscent of old photographs or those Dos Equis commercials. It should be comforting, but I am unnerved as his smile starts to looks like a grimace, like the facial expression of one who is either creepily aware or blissfully unaware of what is going on with their face. I chalk this up to my horrendous diet choices in the buffet line.
After a long and eventful trip to the bathroom (where I spill a sociopath’s beer) I return to the square-dancing scene. Truthfully, the bathroom trip was more about recalibrating my sense of reality, confirming that I had not somehow gotten drunk off of 11 oz of beer, than any actual need to relieve myself. It didn’t work though. I mean, I confirmed that I was not even a little drunk, that the weird feelings were probably diet/environment related, but if anything I felt worse after my jaunt into the house than I did during my first staring session with the awkward pre-teen square-dancer. Here is what happened (in present tense, to preserve immediacy):
As soon as I open the door to the house my heart sinks: There is a line to the bathroom. And there is but one bathroom. I distract myself momentarily by examining J.’s7 DVD collection8, eventually turning around to check the line’s progress. Before I process how much we have moved, the man standing in front of me in the queue offers his hand (what a friendly bunch!) and we make small talk. He is a military man from the Bronx, stationed at Fort Sill, attending B************ Presbyterian because his dad did the same when he was a military man from the Bronx, stationed at Fort Sill, because for any self-respecting Calvinist it truly is the only game in town.
A quick explanatory note on Presbyterianism. In all likelihood you are not picturing the right Presbyterian. There are two organizations in the U.S. of A that bear such a moniker. The first and decidedly larger of the two, the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America (or P.C.U.S.A), sometimes refers to the individual members of the trinity as Mother, Daughter9, and Holy Scent, ordains gay ministers, and generally tends to be more liberal than your average Christian congregation. This is not the denomination we are discussing here. The denomination we are concerned with split from the P.C.U.S.A in 1973 over some important theological matters and the role of women in church office. Deemed the P.C.A. (Presbyterian Church in America), this bunch is Scottish Reformed all-the-way: Calvin! Commentaries! Concubines!10 In short, this denomination is sooo conservative that most fundamentalist Baptists probably consider them to be psychotically liberal11. And if you happen to be a hermeneutically-right leaning Calvinist citizen of Southwest Oklahoma who also believes in the baptizing of infants, then you don’t have much choice but to go to B************12. And this is how the 22 year old from the Bronx found himself talking to me while waiting to use the commode.
“Yeah my dad had this church (B************) recommended to him by some higher ups in the denomination. They were pretty impressed with it.” he tells me with a surprising amount of gusto. He seems extremely stoked about finding a spiritual haven in an unfamiliar land.
“I hear really good things about it,” I say, admiring his genuine enthusiasm. “I have a friend who attends there. Several friends that do, really.”
“Do you go to church anywhere?”
“Yeah, I actually just helped plant a church. We meet in a conference center at the University.” I can tell that I am losing his respect with every word.
“What kind of church is it? What is it called?”
“Community Church. And it is no ‘kind’ of church really. Just sort of normal. Sin, salvation, the resurrection. All that stuff.” I tell him, secretly hoping that he thinks I am a decent Christian. He doesn’t respond, so I talk more and faster. “I guess our theology is sort of Baptisty if you had to get technical…”
A grimace has overtaken his previously smiling face. It must require a hideously strong disgust to overpower such a firm and capable looking jaw line. He looks ill. He looks frustrated. He looks like he might hit me. These thoughts race through my brain as he begins to chuckle menacingly, before retorting,
“Yeah I’ve been to a Baptist church before. In Georgia once. It was basically the only option is why.”
“Well we try to steer clear of that moniker. I don’t even think we are even technically affiliated with Bap…”
“Oh. What then? Are you guys Evangelicals?”
Good grief. He is relentless! I am fighting hard just to keep urine from soaking my pathetically juvenile Batman swimming shorts (Who am I? What kind of adult doesn’t change out of his cartoon swimming suit before a church party?) and trickling down into the white carpet. Then again, that contingency couldn’t be much more humiliating than the episode I currently find myself acting in. And at least the swimming shorts would dry quickly. I begin to give this escape route serious thought, putting the conversation on auto-pilot.
“Nah. We are maybe halfway between you guys and them.”
I am not specifying my pronouns. I am making no sense. I am a complete idiot.
“It’s real groovy. And you guys are groovy. This is just about the grooviest shindig I’ve been to. You know…for Easter.”
$%@#!!! I said “Easter”. It’s “Resurrection Day” around here. RESURRECTION DAY. Easter is pagan in etymological origin. Is it redundant to use both “etymological” and “origin”? How could I be this stupid? I begin to visibly squirm. I begin a sentence, but words will not come, and I find myself holding out a monosyllabic, “um” for upwards of 4 seconds. Heaven, in its infinite mercy, opens the bathroom door and as a small Presbyterian spills out the Reformed Sgt. puts me out of my misery with one final concerned/condescending (but mind-blowingly loving and sincere) look and says, “Well I’m gonna use this toilet in here.”, and turns around, shutting the door. The same gracious and goateed Presbyterian elder who saw me ditch the home-brewed cider walks over, casually whispers, “You know man, unless you’ve got serious business to attend to in there, there are dozens of trees all over this property. Just pick one.”
He is a saint.
On my way to pee I spill his son’s beer.
This night is both humiliating and magical.
Star-gazing and urination13 have freshened my senses. I have regained my resolve and once again find myself staring at the square-dance through the dancing flames of an old metal barrel. Jason is playing that same raggedy riff on the fiddle. The gangly kid is still dancing there, in his baggy-but-too-short khaki pants and his odd-fitting polo. The barrel fire dances with significantly more ease and grace. At this point the poor guy doesn’t really even seem to be dancing, so much as it seems like someone is dancing him. Here is what I mean: On Easter Sunday of my junior year in high school my family bought a 4 pound yorkshire terrier puppy. Being 17 years old, it wasn’t long before I began having fun at the dog’s expense. One of my favorite routines was to put on some music and grab the little guy’s front paws, stretching them as high into the air as was possible without causing the dog’s body weight to strain his miniature joints. I would gently bounce one paw, and then the other, causing him to convulse (in attempt to escape) in the most ridiculously rhythmic way you can imagine. It was fairly transcendent, and I deemed it his “dance”. When friends would come over they would say, “Have you ‘danced’ Lucky today?” and I would dance him for them. I suspect that you have had a similar puppy experience at some point in life.
As ridiculous as it sounds, this is the best way I know how to describe this particular Presbyterian’s gyrations. His arms and legs seem to move indiscriminately, as if controlled by some other (and decidedly un-benevolent) force14. His partner appears to have at least as much say over his motor skills as he does, and things could get out of hand any minute. And I realize that this young man is probably home-schooled (Many SW OK Presbyters avoid public school at all costs, sometimes even referring to it un-ironically as “Babylon”.), but on the off chance that he isn’t, we are dealing with a kid who square-dances to 19th century American roots music on Friday15 night, sings the Nicene Creed on Sunday morning, and eats lunch with a bunch of kids whose favorite song (if the high school kids on the internet are any indication) has a chorus that features the word “Ass” repeated sixteen consecutive times.16 And the song goes downhill from there. Suddenly the “Babylon” hyperbole begins to seem reasonable.
The Presbyterian zeitgeist is both contagious and revolting.
I’ve been here too long.
Watching the dance, I realize that this could be anytime. This scene could have taken place in any decade of the 20th century. Set against the backdrop of a sloping field and some chicken coops, the panoramic really doesn’t contain any object that could enable it to be dated with any real accuracy if it were preserved as some sort of artifactual sepia toned-photo. Nobody is playing on cellular phones. The girls all wear ankle-length dresses that look suspiciously homemade17. As previously stated, none of the clothing immediately advertises a logo of any kind, and I am not about to try and get close enough to the back of a pair of khakis to see whether or not they are Levis or Lee or what. Imagine explaining the position of my face in that situation to somebody in this crowd.
The whole scene makes me feel vaguely pathetic. For as long as I can remember I have always been non-plussed by the idea of being without technology, specifically media. As a child (literally from 2 years old), I would require a fortress of entertainment before confronting any “primitive” situation. For some reason the thought of facing the outdoor family reunion without my Walkmen was paralyzing. As I became an adult the Walkmen was at various times accompanied by books, a Game Boy, an (allegedly) portable 9 inch TV/VCR combo (anybody who had to carry it argued that “portable” may have been a stretch), a Gaming console to hook to the 9 inch TV, a laptop, music production software, a portable studio, and playing cards. It is true that I am probably dodging reality with all this media that I must relentlessly entertain myself with. Neil Postman would vomit with rage and angrily ask why my parents indulged my weirdness18. As it is, the best insight I have into the situation is to say that it is no wonder I hate camping and spend the whole time wondering what movies are in theaters and whether or not Linda Cohn hosted the morning edition of Sportscenter. It isn’t that I don’t like “roughing it”. And it isn’t that I don’t participate in those types of situations (you know, walking with the grandparents, watching a square-dance, etc…) because I do. I just need a safety net. I need an escape route. I need a book in case things gets boring. Half of the time I don’t even use it. And when I do forget to bring it, I find myself sitting in line for a haircut, or sitting in my grandmother’s living room after everyone else has gone to sleep and cursing loudly about the wasted time, about the fact that I have gone fifteen minutes without consuming anything.
Nobody here has that problem. Whether or not they are being genuine, I cannot say, but each Presbyterian’s face proudly dons a look of complete contentment, of peaceful resignation to the situation. They are happy to be somewhere. With each other. Having fun. It occurs to me that it is difficult to imagine the pre-teen square-dancer playing basketball or watching gooey manufactured tween dramas on television. Try though I may, the only image I can manufacture of this kid is one of him soaking in a comically, mountainously oversized bubble-bath reading a biography of John Knox19. And what if that is the case? Huh? What if he does that? Is there some sort of price to pay for completely ignoring much of culture, just going on as if it didn’t exist? Is there even any value whatsoever in “culture” that repeats the word “Ass” sixteen times in a row before dissolving into pornographic nothingness? And since the answer appears to be “no”, doesn’t that mean that ignoring depraved idiocy might not be such a bad idea after all? For instance, if I had to choose between seeing my young son square-dance around a burning trash can or having him lurk around YouTube, taking sex ed from Nicki Minaj, which would I choose? Doesn’t the answer start to seem a little ridiculously obvious? But is that a result of an inherent oversimplification, a “new=bad” false dichotomy existent in all sorts of religious thought? Does reading Puritan literature from the pulpit in order to avoid more mainstream spirituality like The Purpose Driven Life in order to not end up like Nicki Minaj border on throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater? Is a rejection of pop culture in connection with the sacred actually birthed out of a fear that the latter has been rendered obsolete by the former? Are many people secretly afraid that the world that birthed their religious beliefs no longer exists, and that consequently those beliefs might not be worth much either in the strange new amalgam that has arisen to take the old world’s place? Is my inherent, only semi-intentional disassociation from this Presbyterian religious subculture in SW OK any less judgmental than the Presbyterian rejection of all things trivial? What sorts of postmodern sins have I committed by deeming the dominant U.S. religious culture “normal” and this one “deviant”? Who is the real pharisee in this situation?
And what of the unbelievably cool, middle-aged, nice elder, the one who told me to pee on a tree? How does he fit in to all of this? Does he know something I don’t? Have I missed some axiomatic fact woven into the fabric of the universe? And why do I feel so weird about the whole scene? Is it because I just don’t fit in? Do I feel vaguely threatened by good conduct and self-sufficiency? If so, why? Is it because I practice neither? And what of Jason? How has he managed to unknowingly cultivate the least self-conscious, most appallingly hip persona I have ever seen, completely unawares? How does a man who presumably spends his days rearing dozens of kids and reciting scripture possess a swagger that would make the crowd at South by Southwest swoon? Where did he find the time to learn all of those instruments? Does God bless you with special powers when you become a Calvinist? And why does the demographic of this church seem to suggest that only ridiculously intelligent, semi-insecure people become Calvinists? Is it possible that theological leanings are directly correlated with personality bent? Do only smart shy kids make the reformed jump? Have I got the causality backwards? Do people who become Presbyterians just tend to get smarter, and kind of insecure as a product of their upbringing? Is the insecurity a product of not really fitting in? Of being “in the world but not of it”?
And why do I need to know so badly? Why does my mind race with all of these questions? Do I think I’ve missed something? Am I secretly evaluating this group for validity in hopes of making some decision about accepting or rejecting their beliefs? Is this what every non-religious person goes through in their friendships with religious persons20? If so, is it sort of funny that a former Baptist is going through same with Presbyterians? Are the ideological gaps between two Christian groups really as big as the one between those who believe and those who decidedly do not? Doesn’t it sort of seem ridiculous to suggest that as true? If these Presbyterians and I are so similar in belief then why do we feel so different? If these home-schooling, home-brewing Calvinists are sooo unbelievably different from me in practice then why do they feel so familiar? Why does this party in which I find myself continually and awkwardly out of place feel so much like home?
I’m not sure. I’m confused and I don’t know where these questions are coming from or how to answer them. I am also tired. Fairly decent people can be taxing to be around. When something is familiar, yet foreign it can create a feeling in me that is either uncomfortably strange or uncomfortably familiar. I experience cognitive dissonance as I am paradoxically attracted to and repulsed by something simultaneously. This usually leads me to reject the object/group/event in question as I find it much easier to reject than to rationalize.
1Small town about 30 miles SE of Lawton, OK. Famous for an abnormally large Baptist church and having a toll exit (with McDonalds!) on I-44.
2Small town about 10 miles W of Lawton, OK. Known for its girls basketball team and not a lot else. I once attended a Southern Baptist revival in this town. The kids I met there weren’t especially nice or fun.
3(Resurrection Day Event)
4The other two are advertising “Guinness” and are on two separate pieces of apparel being worn by the same middle-aged beard. Er, man. When I compliment his getup, he tells me that he asked his daughters whether or not he was “pushing it with the overmatching”. From the fact that he did not change I ascertain that they did not protest, but there is no way to know for sure.
5Upon first arriving at the RDE, I had giddily opened one of these Chocolate Bocks, expecting the sweet maltiness of a dessert beer. Needless to say, I was fairly disappointed when, after taking as big of a gulp as I could muster, I realized that I had actually chosen some sort of home-brewed multi-fruit cider. I may or may not have inadvertently cried out in surprise and set the bottle down next to the cooler, never to return. When I casually recite this sequence of events to one of the aforementioned Presbyterian elders, he simply responds with, “Yeah I saw that.”, leaving me with no choice but to awkwardly shake his hand and scurry off.
6Editorial aside: Neurologists aren’t exactly sure what role the Cerebellum plays in cognitive thought, but the sentence just worked, ya know?
7Aforementioned, previously Baptist party host.
885% of which is Dawson’s Creek!
9However good the egalitarian intentions may be, it seems odd to call Jesus- a human male with a clearly defined gender- “daughter”. It would be like calling Thomas Jefferson the “mother of the American revolution”, or the Madonna “Mary father of God”.
10This is a fairly dull paragraph, had to make sure you were still with me.
11Not unlike the way Gingrich fans feel about people who support Ron Paul.
12Predictably, this demographic consists of exactly 84 humans.
14I know that all necessary components for the perfect hyper-Calvinist joke/analogy are in here somewhere, but I just can’t seem fit the pieces together.
15I can’t really describe the tune. It isn’t really bluegrass or country or folk music. The best I can do is to compare it to the campfire dance song in Christopher Guest’s “Waiting For Guffman”.
16“Dance (A$$)” by Big Sean featuring Nicki Minaj
17In the event of a Zombie apocalypse, I am without a doubt siding with the Presbies. They seem to be self-sufficient enough to make anything.
18Probably because they knew how miserable most of those situations were, and secretly wished that they could be reading or playing Metroid, too. As a Baptist Pastor’s son you just spend so many hours in hospitals against your will, or at dysfunctional parishoner’s houses while your dad tries to talk the Mr. of the property off the roof, and to maybe slide that gun down too, if he could.
19Which I realize is creepy on so many levels.
20And wouldn’t this become exhausting, considering the sheer vastness of belief that is “out there”?