Thursday, June 14, 2007

Fighting Fanatics with Delight

Maybe one reason Christopher Hitchens' hot new book "God is not Great: Why Religion Poisons Everything" grabs me so primally as a preacher's kid is that I know in my gut the suspicion fundamentalists have for what I might call "the good life" -- those dangerous and wily worldly pleasures. It's not just his contention, offered in comments at an interview Ted and I attended at BookExpo in New York last weekend that "religion is the most important fallacious explanation of life and its meanings," but, as he added in his acknowledgement to novelist Ian McEwan, that "the natural is wondrous enough for anyone" without a supernatural overlay.

Fundamentalist religion as I knew it was rooted in repudiation: it deeply mistrusted the body, calling for women (in Ohio versions of the burka) to cover their bodies. It was very uneasy about art or any kind of decoration; wasn't too comfortable with music except of the sacred sort; it rejected dancing, rejected wine, and certainly did not talk of pleasure except as a seducer into sin. As I wrote in Night Blind, "It was sometimes hard to keep straight what we were saying yes to, except homegrown roughage and modest silence."

My mother, a person of great sensual appreciations, never trusted the "holiness" movement for just that reason. Her natural instinct was to welcome, not to repudiate, the world. I've often criticized my father for falling into the tight-lipped fanatic school, asserting it was my mother's essential joi de vivre that saved me from fanaticism. But then I remember the raredos.

It's a story many of my friends have heard and reheard -- about how my father tried to make a wooden screen, what he called a raredos, for one of his churches -- artfully decorated, painstakingly hand-carved with a symbol he found particularly moving -- tumbling bunches of grapes, signifiers of fruitfulness and ripe harvest. The church members mutinied over this intrusion of art into their bleak chancel and made him take it down. In a twist of wonderful irony, it became the headboard behind my parents' bed. (the photo above is of an antique raredos in the UK).

Driving home from school the other night, I caught a snippet of something on NPR that struck me so powerfully that I determined to remember it -- only a few words stayed in my brain, and then when I got home I forgot to pursue it. But tonight I finally found it -- an interview with the Egyptian writer Ali Salem interviewed by Dick Gordon on "The Story." In describing what he thought might be the road to peace, Salem said the extremists had to get jobs -- something to be proud of so that they would not be "miserable." He said, "what characterizes the fanatics is that they don't find on earth anything delightful."

And according to Hitchens, for related reasons, growing bands of religious fanatics are craving the Apocalypse, consumed by a massive and communal death wish. "They want it to be over," he said in New York.

Could this be the answer to the world's chaos -- to protect and stand up for and restore delight?

I suggest we start with jobs for artists and robust funding for the arts -- before the fanatics' misery overtakes us all.

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