Freaking Out Squares

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Jesus Loves Me, This I Know

While we're waiting for our intrepid blogger to figure out how the hell to load her Baltimore HonFest pictures up on here (Man! Traci Lords's biography was on A&E last night. Perfect timing! Except, well, not), let's all hold hands and noses and plunge into the swampland of Karla's BioDome known as That Olde Tyme Religion. Yes, you've read this story before, but remember what Tolstoy said about happy vs. unhappy families? Same logic applies here.

As I've mentioned in passing, I grew up in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the sole offspring of two atheist parents. Actually, I think my mother might have been more of an agnostic--she read Tarot cards and charted horoscopes--but for the purposes of this story, that's really just a technicality. The point is, neither of my parents had any use for organized religion. My dad was raised a Catholic out in Western PA coal country, and my mother was sort of hauled around to various Dunkard churches until my grandpa got fired from teaching Sunday school when he told his class that--gasp!!--you can't take the Bible literally! Cue Gargamel's theme! It's to my grandpa's credit that his aim in teaching this was not to give the schoolmarms running this outfit the finger, as would be my childish motivation. No, he simply wanted to give the kids a different and more humane method of interpretation. Or that's what he says. Anyway, it was the '60s, lines were being blurred and redrawn, and venerable institutions were being thrown out the window, et cetera and so forth, and my folks renounced the Lord and took up with each other and moved to Vermont to teach music and smoke grass and stare at the Northern Lights and say, "Wow...far out, man!" Through a series of incidents and accidents, hints and allegations (tm Paul Simon), my parents ended up back in Harrisburg, my mother's hometown, with a new baby and a landlord who would later gain notoriety for being the plumbing contractor at Three Mile Island.

A little bit about Harrisburg: Besides being the site of an almost-nuclear holocaust, Harrisburg is also the capital of Pennsylvania. Founded in sixteen hundred and something by a fellow named John Harris, who was famous for founding Harrisburg (anyone out there wanna weigh in on this? It's been 20 years since I took PA History--does anyone out there know if he did anything else?), Harrisburg is situated about forty minutes northwest of Lancaster, ground zero for the Amish, an hour and twenty minutes due north of Baltimore, nigh on two hours west of Philadelphia, and about three and a half hours southwest of the city I currently call home. And it's the capital. Oh, and crime buffs out there may be familiar with the Susan Reinert murders, which took place in 1979. The murderers and their victims were all from Philly's Main Line, but Susan Reinert's body was found in the parking lot of the Host Inn in Swatara Township, about ten minutes outside of the Harrisburg city limits, in a little patch of nothing right before you get on the Turnpike to go to Philly. I swear, that spot claims vast realms of my psyche as one of the spookiest areas on earth. Even before I'd heard of the Reinert murders, that whole area had the sensation, for me, of falling down a rabbit hole into a nightmarish wasteland of nothing and nowhere, with an eerie undertone of deja vu, almost as if I'd been reincarnated. I'm still convinced there was an area just like that in London, where I was killed in the Blitz. Ahem! Did I mention that Harrisburg is the capital of PA? Okay, that pretty much does it, then.

Oh, yes. Except for the religion. I don't guess I need to go into a big lecture on the Amish and who they are and what they do. Even if you haven't seen Witness, you know about them. You also probably know about the Mennonites, whom the Amish consider heathens because of their use of electricity and automobiles. (Yeah, well, the Amish cheat! They bum rides and use cell phones when necessary. I've seen this happen--I'm not making this up.) As my former memoir teacher explained to me, all religious sects that derive from the Anabaptist tradition, from which the Amish and the Mennonites got their respective starts, are considered Mennonite, even if the practitioners of said sects don't go riding around in buggies and wearing skullcaps. That Dunkard thing I mentioned a bit up the page? That's an actual sect, so-called because of...well, shit, I should do some research, now, shouldn't I? I will hazard a guess and say it's because they practice some kind of full-immersion baptism. The difference between the Baptists and the, um, Anabaptists is, the latter does not baptize its young. ("Young"--I make them sound like apes. Apes! How heathen. Run!) They may raise their children in the church, but the children are not considered members until they turn 18, at which time they may decide whether or not they want to keep the faith. Sounds nice? Yeah, I guess, except for the shunning part. That's not so fun.

The emphasis in the Mennonite faiths, as near as I can tell, appears to rest heavily on the group as a whole. It sounds kind of cool and Commie, but it requires a systematic erosion of the individual self. This may have served (and still serve, if you're Amish) its practical purpose back in the days of claim-jumping and barn-raising, but in this modern world, it's completely counterproductive. Then, too, without some kind of glue to hold it all together (in this case, God), it's not just counterproductive, it's utterly destructive. (Sorry.) And if you don't need to raise a barn...well, you get the idea.

So the thing about Harrisburg is, you have this strong Dunkard undercurrent without any real practical need for it, and whether or not you attend a Dunkard or Evangelical United Brethren church, as my mother did with my great-grandma when she was a wee one, that moral rectitude, that same belief that we-have-to-do-it-this-way-because-this-is-the-way-it's-always-been-done-and-what-do-you-mean-you-don't-believe-in-God-you-evil-strumpet just seeps into your bones, no matter if you're chanting in a Buddhist temple or casting Wiccan spells. I rather liken the migration and corruption of this faith to playing Telephone, wherein you'll start off with a phrase like "I just called to say I love you" and you'll end up with one like "Musty halls never contain blue gloves." And forever beating like a strobe light is the phrase JESUS IS THE ANSWER, over and over again until you have no choice but to agree. Game over. I surrender.

I shall leave you with this for now. Storm's a-comin', and I literally have not eaten a single bite of anything today. (And it's not for religious reasons, either.)


Anonymous Marcia said...

Hee hee. Evil strumpet. Why does that sound dirty? Christina Aguilerra dirrrty. Another funny thing in your post - and I will be quoting you on this (if I ever find myself giving someone a lesson on Central PA history) - is that Harrisburg was founded by a fellow named John Harris, who is famous for founding Harrisburg. Or did you really mean, as you wrote, that he "found" it? Like he was wandering up the river one day and found Harrisburg, just sitting there being boring. Isn't John Harris also famous for his banks? Or is that a chicken and egg thing?

I'm also very impressed by your Amish/Mennonite knowledge. Well, not so much impressed as concerned. Potato/pot-ah-to, I suppose.

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