Picture a baseball stadium full of Hasidim — somber faced, bearded men wearing black hats and frock coats. Their hair, by our standards, appears both a little ragged and severely uniform at the same time. Shaved close above the ears and in the back and then allowing for long, curled sideburns in front, (what they call payot), the bearing of these men feels eccentric, inquisitive, and a little peevish. They are listening to an older rabbi violently condemn technology and the internet, lamenting the absurdity of giving children Blackberries and iPhones. More pointedly, the rabbi appears to be challenging the men: what kind of people will they be? Will they be the people of God, the people of the Torah, or a people who merely subscribe to a common web site?
Now picture a Catholic nun, guiding people through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the Roman Catholic church’s two to four year long catechism for people who have married into the faith or who otherwise convert past childhood. “Every motion you make inside the church should be a kind of prayer,” she says. “You should arrive early, before Mass, by fifteen minutes and pray.” She was born in Ireland, this particular nun, but you don’t think of an Irish fiddle when you see her. You think of a black Irish storm thundering against the shutters. There is a grayness there, a dusty, iron celibacy that renders even her smile a little severe. “You will be more than just Christian,” she tells her charges. “You will be Catholic. And that’s very important.”
Now let’s imagine a Mormon family on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The tabernacle doors are open and you can see a glimpse of the massive organ and the choir. There’s a sea of people in their Sunday best. At the head of the assembly, one venerable old “general authority” after the next makes his way to the pulpit and extends a virtue lesson of one sort or the other — the subject might be honesty, chastity, obedience to parents, self-sacrifice. These are not usually trained theologians, but former heads of industry, lawyers, engineers, accountants, and they pepper their lessons with comic, homespun stories from their own lives. The jokes are generally pretty funny, but they are wrapped in holiness: there is a definite cadence to the Mormon homiletic. It’s low and sing-song and somewhere you will hear the words, “my dear brothers and sisters..” You are reminded that you are part of a peculiar people, “born under the covenant,” not like the outsiders, “the gentiles” at all.
Or picture the Islamic equivalent. I may be short on details, but I gather in some respects it’s pretty close: a “merciful” God demands your total obedience, your sacrifice, your devotion to his text. You memorize prayers. You take off your shoes. You engage in ceremonial washings. You wear special clothing, and you’re told, by virtue of your difference from the “outside world,” you are set apart, special, even holy. You are one of Allah’s servants.
This sense of mission and purpose and separation from the broader culture isn’t limited to religious communities. We’ve all seen civil servants lauding themselves as distinguished public servants, including obligatory praise for their special guild. We’ve seen actors up on the Academy dais, getting misty about the wonder of the movies and journalists embracing each others as the guardians of the truth. I’m quite confident that Bill Nye the “science” guy swims in his own sea of self-affirmation — as self satisfied as any member of the Spanish Inquisition. Mike Wallace once praised, when playing tennis with fellow Washington DC elitists, “that glorious sameness,” intimating, strongly, a sense that there were certain sorts of people who “got it,” and some, just beyond the tennis court, who never would.
I’m not sure what to do with this truth, other than to say that I’ve traveled in some version of these packs my whole life. I’ve been in the audience, feeling the glow, and I’ve watched others fall into everything from Scientology to Off-the-grid Christian dominionism. Oddly, I still take weird pleasure in hearing someone call me a “Stanford Man,” even though my view of the academy is very low–so low to the point I’m not sure what a college degree is really worthy anymore, and maybe that’s key to my reverie here: look back on your life and examine what gave you identity, what gave you confidence, which ideas made you feel special and unique?
Has any of that changed? Do you look back on what you were fanatic about and wince a little? Was there some teenage fashion standard that left you and your mother raging at each other in a way that seems utterly silly right now? Was there some theological abstraction you defended, passionately, only to conclude a few years later that reasonable people might be able to disagree on that, in good conscience, after all? Which of your previous passions seem downright absurd right now?
In my case, I’m a little humbled, even humiliated, by this process. I can remember thinking of “smokers and drinkers” as spiritually dirty souls, when my very pride was making me far more foul than any of them. When I re-examined the claims of Christianity, as an adult, I fell into a kind of pietistic holiness that wasn’t holiness at all. When my little girl, as a four year old, showed me the lipstick she had found and applied, I frowned at her in a way that caused her to feel ashamed, and me, now, a thousand times more ashamed of my pasty-faced legalism. I’ve dismissed entire genres of music. I’ve railed against “immodest” female clothing. I’ve picked theological fights with men who really on my side all along. I’ve signed onto political candidates who had no plan, no financing, and no campaign expertise just because I thought they were Godly men. I once thought there might be some way of getting back to 1771, of actually living the domestic simplicity of a world without workers compensation insurance and feasibility studies, but then I came to remember that any age that can actually put the Library of Congress on your smart phone might just be representing the Lord of Hosts in action on our behalf. I was so disgusted by Hollywood, and so confident in my skills, that I thought I could make films without even taking an apprentice course in the basics. In other words, I made the mistake of thinking people without a moral compass had no practical skills worth learning. And then I found out, much to my wounded pride, many of them were solid, God fearing people, in a very dark industry.
In other words, I’ve been a fool my share of the time.
I was never Hasidic, by the way, but picture me with the black hat, the payot and the sneer. I’ve been that guy — feeling a little righteous about not owning a Blackberry.
These aren’t happy recollections, but they are necessary, and they bring into relief what I do believe, and what I’ve never stopped believing. I think of my family, both my extended family and the little ones gathering around me, and I don’t think anyone can ever apologize for having children, for investing in friends, for planning a celebration, for marrying the girl, for working hard at something worth doing. I can’t apologize for building a home, and a tavern, and for feeding people, and teaching them the lessons of history. Through all my religious wandering, I am becoming more and more convinced of my own weakness–my utter depravity in truth–and my need for what I couldn’t quite imagine I needed in what my mother told me about my Savior. More and more, I’m sensing Him in history. I think of the Bay Colony, singing the words, “we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” and I’m there on that beach, with a wilderness in front of me, needing a leader in battle, someone who knows more than I do. Lately, when I can’t sleep, I just ask Him for rest, and the next thing I know, I’m awake a few hours later, brewing coffee and thanking Him for another day.
He’s still at the center of everything, and I don’t need any crowd to tell me so.