Thursday, October 22, 2015

Slacking away at Religion

“Who would have thought you a slacker,” said Lady, imaginatively passing by my tables, “since I see you writing here all the time? But where is the parable for last week? You know, the one about the king’s son’s wedding? Though to preserve the Biblical flavor, perhaps we should eschew the Saxon Genitive, and call it the wedding of the son of the king.”

“That does sound better,” I told her. “And really, inventing this religion is much more of a bother than I could have imagined. I see now why Jesus is so completely inadequate, when it comes to the miracles and the parables. This week, for example, the readings are drawn from Ephesians and from John. So I checked that out, and got the usual adjurations about putting on the shield of God, since the devil…OK, let’s bring on the King Jame’s…”

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

“How prescient of the Bible to foresee the presidencies of George W. Bush,” said Lady. “OK—got that message. Now then, moving on to John?”

“Well, the reading—John 4: 46-54, with which I’m sure you’re intimately familiar….”

“I believe I was discussing the passage the other day with Elaine Pagels,” Lady replied.

“Yeah? The Harrington Spear Paine Professor of Religion at Princeton?”

“Yes, she calls, once in a while, when a particularly knotty problem presents itself….”

“Good of you to help out,” I said. “Anyway, you undoubtedly remember that Jesus, fresh from turning water into wine—a really superior miracle, by the way—now sets about healing the nobleman’s son. This he does telepathically, since the son is some distance away. Anyway, the nobleman returns home and finds his son was healed at the seventh hour of the previous day, which was just when the nobleman was talking to Jesus. So bam! It’s legit!”

“Good news indeed. So now you’re a parable and a miracle behind. Get to work!”

“You know, I begin to despair, which is a grave sin indeed. Because not only do I have to produce miracles and parables, I’ve also had to listen to three of the darkest cantatas ever written. And here, courtesy of the, is just a teaser….”

By Jesus' grace alone will there be
     comfort before us, and forgiveness,
     for due to Satan's deceit and cunning
     the entire life of humanity
     is a sinful abomination before God.

Lovely,” said Lady. “Nothing like that old time religion!”

“The problem is that Bach is all over the place, emotionally. There are four cantatas for the 21st Sunday after Trinity, and two or three of them are musical incitements to suicide.  Cantata BWV 38 is particularly bad, being drawn—again!—from the psalm ‘out of the depths I cry to you,’ though here it’s ‘out of deep agony I cry to you.’”

“Very nice,” said Lady. “Throwing in the word ‘agony’ does lighten the picture, doesn’t it?”

“Then there’s BWV 109, which is just as bad. In fact, it takes its inspiration from Mark 9:24, which, since you hobnob with the glitteriest of biblical scholars…”

“’I believe Lord; help me in my disbelief,’” finishes Lady.

“Well, you as a poet should understand that, and it may be that I do as well. But anyway, the first three or four movements are all about spiritual crisis, doubt, and lack of faith. And boy, is the music grim! Bach, when he wants to be, can be completely nasty! But then the alto sails in, and sweeps that all away, saying that God never fails anyone, no matter how dark that night of the soul is. Of course, what he doesn’t say is precisely when he will step in and give succor to the unbelieving. In my case, he’s waited for decades.”

“You have to persevere,” said Lady. “And perhaps do some mortification of the flesh. You know, you might fast for forty days and nights. Or have you considered self flagellation?”

“I refuse to consider it,” I told her. “Though I have contemplated doing a pilgrimage from Arnstadt to Lübeck—walking it as Bach did, when he went to see Buxtehude.”

“Excellent idea,” said Lady. “We could crowd-fund it—you can count on me for a generous contribution. But how long would it take?”

“Maybe ten days,” I told her. “Unless, of course, I choose to do it on my knees, which is getting a bit extreme, don’t you think? But the real question is what I do when, at the end of the journey, I arrive in Lübeck just as infidel as I started.”

“Very easy,” said Lady, “Walk back to Arnstadt again!”