The conviction confliction sermon

A CERTAIN DIVA DAUGHTER of a certain hotel magnate claims she found solace in religion during her (28-day-long) trials and tribulations. She says reading the Bible (when asked to cite specific passages, she – and her publicists – would rather not elaborate) has given her the strength she needs to make it through her (haute couture) tough times.

What if the heiress found a different spiritual path? Say, the Nation of Islam. Would she have emerged from her rough time behind bars with the name Paris X? Would she make a pilgrimage to mecca for the next Simple Life show? Would she be photographed for the cover of People wearing a burqa? Would the teeny-bopper crowd leave the malls for the mosques?

We’ve concocted religion – this special mix of shame and hope – to make you always feel conflicted. Sure, bold confessions of faith are easy for badass bazillioneers. But then again, you’re pretty sure Ms. Hilton has never had to defend her faith in Fiume, your neighborhood bar. It’s a one-room, urban speakeasy with no sign and no owners. The place is populated with all sorts of local weirdos – addled public transit enthusiasts, Republican Rastafarians, squatters, uhuru movement agitators, Jewish Hindus, guys who live in shacks under the Walnut Street bridge, bloggers, urban hillbillies, retro-grungers.

So you’re at Fiume talking to your friend CJ (okay, “friend” is a stretch, but you do get a nod from her whenever you walk into the bar, and she is MySpace friends with your friends). CJ reduces you to a sort of middle-school adulation. She’s pretty but tough as shit (once she beat up three – yes three – UPenn frat boys when they tried to block her bike with their armor-plated SUV) and her boyfriend is the cutest thing a septum ring ever dangled from.

Anyway, she’s complaining about the assholes – every conceivable permutation thereof – that she serves at the bakery. “And the worst are the Christians,” she says. “They’re on their way to church, but they don’t tip and get all nasty and impatient. What’s wrong with those people? Seriously, I wish the lions had finished them off back in the day.”

You feel that twisting in your chest again, like there’s a rag being wrung out in your ribs. What would Paris do (W.W.P.D.)?

“Uhm… well, I’m a Christian,” you say. CJ looks at you like you just said you eat babies. Fact is, you probably wouldn’t be much better than little miss “jail, like, taught me a lot about God” at defining what it means to be a Christian. But you do feel that you’ve seen this Jesus pop up every now and again … more often than, say, Puxatony Phil on Groundhog Day. Though not as often as he apparently does for Paul Crouch or Jerry Falwell.

You think this Jesus was into a wholly un-American economy of grace. You imagine he was more similar to Malcolm X than to a Precious Moments figurine. When Saint Peter tried to get his Karl Rove on and groom Jesus for political office, this Christ turned around and called him “Satan,” as in “get thee behind me.”

You want to say to CJ:

“That Jesus, to you, is the fat lady in a trailer park giving her last can of food-stamp Spam – which she was just, just about to open for herself – to a mewling stray cat.

“That communion is not God stamped out into tasteless cracker-shape, but an indication that lunatic generosity is possible.

“That following Christ means something. Something as atypical as what squatters do, or stranger. It’s not sweating out your sins in a John 3:16 aerobics class or going on a fruitof- the-spirit-weight-loss guaranteed diet. More like walking the streets, towing Humvees behind you, which are bound to your shoulders by barbed wire.

“That redemption is a wintering quarter-moon, barely bigger than a finger-nail clipping, half-glimpsed from a moving train.”

Instead, you say: “Yeah, I mean, whatever. I kind of am, but it’s not that big a deal to me.”

Rachel Toliver is a writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Issue 10

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 10, Summer 2008, 30 Sermons You'd Never Hear in Church.

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