Friday, October 19, 2012

Discomfort In The Pew

This particular preacher was quite a character. He liked to preach with the mic off, because he knew he could — and would — project to the back of the balcony without amplification.

And this particular listener was in his early-20s — just old enough to see with absolute clarity through the skein of some 2000 years of received wisdom. A perilous age, especially for men.

The preacher was going on and on about this truck he'd seen in some convention centre somewhere — this big truck, this monster truck, shiny with chrome and powerful beyond all reasonable measure. But it was in the showroom. It wasn't there to do anything, just sit there and look impressive. This truck looked like it could move mountains. But nobody bothered with even starting the engine.

And was this not the perfect metaphor for the Church — even our church — here, today? We look so good, but when are we going to start the engine and demonstrate what we can really do? When are we . . . .

Etc., etc.

The listener had his hands clamped on the pew below him, to keep from standing up and walking out — or worse. All that sap, running through such a green tree. He was tempted to spring up and ask, “Why? So we can have more suburban churches?”

Suburban churches — no, that wasn't quite what was bugging the listener.

“So we can keep killing art with our 'message'?”

Here we go, now we're cooking.

“Look at our bookshelves.”

Preach it!

“Look at the movies we make. Look at what we've done to rock 'n'rollAre we to do that with every vibrant thing on this planet?”

Yeah, well. I stayed seated and kept my mouth shut. Friends had dropped similar neutron-bombs of indignation in their family churches, and it helped to recall the unanticipated fallout zone of embarrassment that followed.

I asked myself different questions. Like, “Why get so worked up? If people want to shower and dress up for this sort of thing, why piss in their punchbowl? Why not, instead, take the hint and stay home?”

So that's what I did. Until I didn't — because every home is haunted . . .  

"Angry Mennonites" -- and me.

During a recent visit, my father surprised me with a question: “Do you read any of the 'Angry Mennonites'?”

I asked him if this was a formally defined group, like Gertrude Stein's “Lost Generation” or Lauren Bacall's “Rat Pack,” and he admitted the term was amorphous, but commonly used among his peers. Who were the usual suspects, I wondered. He came up with the expected list: Miriam Toews, Patrick Friesen, Di Brandt, Sandra Birdsell — basically the only Mennonites receiving what passes for prestige treatment in Canadian publishing. I said they could be difficult to avoid, but I somehow managed.

A bit of a dodge, that. The truth is I've read enough of all those guys to know I have no interest in the larger monologue. If asked about the moral/immoral legacy of the Mennonites and the psychic burdens their theology and pieties place on the individual, I can fill in the blanks pretty quickly all by myself. In fact, I have filled in the blanks.

Last winter as I prepared to attend my grandmother's funeral, my wife pressed a notebook to me and said, “You should start writing. Now.”

So I reminisced as I flew to the prairies. It was pleasant, for the most part, but there was no escaping the single largest fact in all this: I had physically removed myself from the environment I grew up in, putting considerable geographical and spiritual and “Lifestyle” distance between me and the clan that raised me. You want grievances? Scribner doesn't make a large enough notebook.

Which probably cuts to the heart of my father's concern. His question was likely a dodge, to begin with. The question he probably meant to ask was, “You're not an angry Mennonite — are you, son?”

Well . . . yeah, Pop: I'm afraid I am.