Friday, September 20, 2013

My Braaaains: Overrated? Overheated? Or Just Missing?

This is going to be a bit helter-skelter, so bear with me. I'm here rearranging the words in my review of David Bergen's The Matter With Morristhe single most pleasurable read for me this year, and my current Favourite Novel From A Member Of My Tribe — when the randomizer of our household music machine spits out this chestnut:

Sally's into knowledge
Spent her years in college
Just to find out nothing is true
She can hardly speak now
Words are not unique now
'Cos they can't say anything new

You say humanist philosophy is what it's all about?
You're so open-minded that your brains leaked out!

Some Christian Rock lyrics for you, courtesy of a young Steve Taylor, circa 1983, which, in their blunderbuss way, take aim at the heart of The Matter With Morris.

I cringe to admit it, but at the time I thrilled to hear (young) Steve Taylor's droll delivery of those particular lines.

I was 18 years old, getting ready with the rest of my buddies (Mennonites, with precious few exceptions) to begin post-secondary education. I was also an earnest Evangelical — ditto, my mates. And we were aware that one of the risks attending post-secondary education was getting too smart for Church. Through the past 13-plus years of Sunday School we'd taken note of all the surly older brothers and sisters who left for a semester, then returned at Christmas with a dark new energy and a poisonous contempt for the Gathering of Saints. Surely not I, Lord.

Taylor's derisive snort didn't so much address the issue as turn tables on the stereotype — which, for a nervous 18-year-old, was good enough.

"Next stop: Bible College!"

Thirty years later, I remain a church-goer. And I call myself Christian, even if some in the flock would dispute the claim. The young Steve Taylor might not go quite that far, but he'd probably consider me deeply entrenched in the “Brainless” end of the spectrum.

Converting from one seemingly definitive state to another — even Apostasy — takes a lot of work, and I've better things to spend my energies on. I say this as someone who, briefly, in my 20s, considered converting to Judaism. The fact that I'm still a spineless* Mennonite probably reveals just how seriously I applied myself to that particular thought experiment. It struck me as a staggering commitment of energy, for limited returns.

Prior to this, a zen roshi I'd been spending some time with (Whisky Prajer, ever the dilettante — and why not?) suggested, “Stick with a religion for as long is it's useful.” I took her to mean it might be time to shed the old wineskin, but as I considered Judaism I began to comprehend the flip-side of the koan: I still needed the eggs. Better, then, to apply those qualities I found admirable in the alternative religion to the one I had grown up in.

So: brainless as charged — but sincerely so.

This is why I pay attention to conversion stories — the more dramatic, the better. What prompts a person to reboot into a seemingly alien Operating System? And does it take? How, and how deeply?

I tend to think there is less change happening than is being proclaimed, and religious history is liberally peppered with rascals and knaves keen to prove me right. Sergei Kourdakov is one such: a Russian defector who went from Communist-trained heavy, groomed to persecute hapless Believers, to penitent Believer himself. The Persecutor, Kourdakov's “memoir,” was a staple in the libraries of Evangelical churches, including the one I grew up in. I read the book when I was 10, credulously swallowing his sordid stories of rounding up furtive fellowships and subjecting them to all manner of humiliation and indignity. So promising a persecutor was our Sergei, that he was duly summoned to Brezhnev's high command, where he witnessed first-hand Empire-sanctioned orgies. The book's end-note indicated that Kourdakov had told his American friends that if he were to die in mysterious circumstances, they would know his former overlords had caught up with him. Needless to say, Sergei was dead at the time of the book's publication.

When I mentioned my reading material to my father, he took a deep breath, then said he had serious misgivings about what was being . . . sold here. I'm not sure what led my father to think he smelled a rat,** but some three decades later an independent documentary, Caroline Walker Pallis' Forgive Me Sergei, lays out a damning counter-narrative to the one I read as a child. In her review of the film, Katherine Jeffrey writes,

Ultimately [Walker Pallis] is forced to confront the overwhelming evidence that the central events of The Persecutor are not merely embellished but completely fabricated. No corroborating witnesses can be found anywhere Sergei lived, though physical descriptions of the cities are accurate and personal names are real. Christians in Petropavlovsk deny that the violent purges the book describes ever happened. Some of the villains of Sergei's childhood turn out to be ordinary or even admirable characters. Among Sergei's military acquaintances and childhood friends whose names and photographs appear in the book, and to whom passages of The Persecutor are read on camera, some react with shock or indignation, others with simple incredulity. The idea that one would lie in order to get ahead in America is unsurprising to them, but they resent having been used as (typically repugnant) narrative props for an outrageously fraudulent story.

It seems one needn't be predisposed to “humanist philosophy” to be so open-minded as to allow one's brains to fall out.

"Oh for T-shirt with witty caption!"

Speaking of humanist philosophy, now's a good time to give a shout-out to the Poindexters at The Christian Humanist. Although I'm predisposed to playing gadfly and leaving snarky comments on their blog and Facebook page, and they are predisposed to rapturous declarations common among academics and serious-minded religious types, my admiration for their attention to the apparatus is genuine. They take seriously the Protestant Imperative, which I enjoy and commend them for. Excelsior, dudes!

*“No brains, no spine, he's much too shy!”

**Possibly the fact that Sergei was shacked up in a Colorado cabin with a 17-year-old girl when it happened, and that the gun that killed him belonged, like the cabin, to the girl's father.


Nate Gilmour said...

Thanks for the link and (what I take to be) the compliment!

--Poindexter Gamma (NPG)

Darrell Reimer said...

You're welcome -- and thanks for dropping by!

Joel said...

I enjoyed this post. My own journey is different than yours, but I enjoyed reading your take on it nonetheless. As you say, it is important to pay attention to conversion stories--and spiritual journies--to try and map out where other people are in relationship to ourselves, and how they got there.

Darrell Reimer said...

Thanks Joel. I suppose most of us are in the process of converting, if only into our "adult" selves (he types hopefully).