Friday, December 18, 2009

Freak of the Week

I was reading a blog post the other day on a site called Antipodes on the topic of Mormonism, a religious movement that the author found just inane enough to be cute. It reminded me of a trip I took through Mormon country once, which I relate below, and got me to musing on the topic of religious movements and inanity, which so often go hand in hand.

Maybe twenty years ago I was driving cross-country with a friend and we were passing through Salt Lake City. We stopped to see Temple Square, home of the Mormon Temple and Tabernacle. I was secretly hoping to peek in a window and get a glimpse of a secret Mormon wedding, which was rumored to involve large undergarments and the ritual washing of body parts. We passed a booth with Lost and Found written in big letters across the top and a young man at the helm. Because he was handsome and because we were young and clever, we walked up and asked whether he was lost or found. “Oh, I'm definitely found!” he enthused. He handed us some maps and happy Mormon literature. We suppressed eye rolls and moved on. (The blogger at Antipodes tells me I missed an opportunity to tell him to get lost.)

If I didn't live smack in the middle of the Bible Belt I might find such ecclesiastical zeal cute, but being inundated on a regular basis with evangemania tends to strip any religious sentiment of adorableness for those of us who aren't religiously inclined. And when you have to fight for the right to teach science in a science classroom, it crosses the line to just plain asinine.

When I first moved to Kansas from California I was a little unprepared for the holy roller climate. I was a student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Lawrence being something of a hippie-liberal mecca in the middle of hard hat hell. Nevertheless. Every morning I would trudge up the hill toward campus and on an alarmingly regular basis, a scenario like this would unfold: Another student would come up from behind and match my pace. She would nod and say a friendly hello, comment about the heat/rain/snow, tell me how nervous she was about her biology test, ask, by the way, what was my major? I would be taken aback by her overt friendliness, but give polite answers. And then the bait would be thrown. There was a Bible Study class meeting that night at the Union. Would I like to come?

The students were always young and attractive and impossibly perky. No matter how fast I walked, and I was in good shape back then, they always managed to keep pace with me. It was weird almost, how regularly it happened. Different students, different days, same conversation. As if they were earnest little pinballs shot out at intervals from God's spring-loaded proselytizing machine.

It was always a fun conversation when I told them my major, which was, ironically, Religious Studies. I actually have respect for religious belief in a general sense and feel that everyone should have the freedom to practice their chosen faith, preferably away from me. I don't, however, think those beliefs should ever encroach on the state or the classroom or, again, on me. I have my own spiritual beliefs, which don't involve a church or a religious group and which I pretty much keep to myself, but which I find nourishing.  Religious pluralism is a wonderful thing if we all stay in our own backyards.

Probably my favorite class was called New Religious Movements--a class that we affectionately dubbed Freak of the Week. It was my favorite class for two reasons. One, because it's where I first met my good friends Amy Leigh and Matthew (and Matthew, who knew that 18 years and 4 kids later I would jet off to Australia with your wife? And Amy, who knew that we would toast marriages and divorces, and move triumphantly off to opposite coasts only to slink quietly back to Kansas, propping each other up with friendship and low humor? Rock chalk gestalt.).

It was also my favorite class simply because it was so bizarre. It met every Wednesday night and each week someone from a different religious movement would show up and open our minds ever so much wider. We talked auditing with the Scientologists, shook with the Shakers, broke nan with the Krishnas and were thoroughly confused by Jews for Jesus. The Moonies chose Matthew and me to represent the perfect man and woman in their explanation of the spiritual parents of humankind. I'm not sure if this was because of our stunning good looks or simply for the purpose of illustration. It's hard to say.

After dodging the Stepford Christians on the walk up to campus, I found the Freak of the Week class oddly comforting. It was almost as if I were back home in California and had merely driven over the hill into Berkeley. Growing up in California in the 70's, sampling the latest new religious trend was practically a rite of passage. My parents had embraced the consciousness-raising movement and sat through EST and Mind Dynamics and lord knows what other sales pitch. I wouldn't have known a Bible if you had thumped me on the head with it when I was a kid.

So, no, I don't find Mormonism cute, or most any religious movement that requires suspension of gray matter. From where I stand, deep in the heart of God's country, it's just not novel enough. Now, agnosticism, that's kinda cute. Secular humanism? Absolutely precious.

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  1. The Atheist Bible, it could be said, has but one word "Think"

    Emmett F. Fields

  2. Wow...that was some post!!!

    Like you I have my own personal beliefs that I don't share, but I will say they do not require a church or meeting of any kind, but it works for me!!!

    I acutally did some research on Mormonism for a college course I took...definitly not "cute".


  3. Hi A.I. - Nice to see you! I researched lots of religions is college, as you might imagine. It just seems to get worse the deeper you dig, no matter the faith. Whenever you try to erect walls around a spiritual concept, it just tends to get ridiculous, IMHO.

  4. IMHO, any belief that becomes institutionalized becomes stagnant and meaningless. Spirituality, OK. Organized religion, not so much.

  5. I was inivited to a mormon baptism once and went in hopes of glimpsing the sacred undies.

  6. Anon - I take, from your silence, that no sacred undies were viewed? Alas.

    Hi Mousie Cat - Nice of you to drop by!


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