I read Paul Thigpen’s My Visit To Hell for a couple of reasons. One is a secret - and yeah, I’m gonna keep it a secret for a while; I can do that. The other reason is that I’ve been fascinated with Dante’s Inferno since my early Dungeons & Dragons days - and Thigpen’s novel promised to be a somewhat faithful retelling and/or update of the epic classic. Which it, thankfully, was.
I bought the trade paperback without knowing much about Thigpen. I didn’t know that he was a converted Catholic with an evangelical background (and I think he was still a Protestant evangelical when he first wrote My Visit To Hell). I also didn’t know that Hell was actually touted as a “Christian” novel.
I won’t say that I WOULDN’T have read the book had I known. I consider myself a Christian - a dismally bad one, but one nonetheless. Plus, I’m the kind of reader who believes that to become a better reader, thinker, and ultimately, writer, one needs to read expansively and inclusively. I mean, I TRIED to read Ulysses. On the other end of the scale, I TRIED to read R.A. Salvatore’s shitty-ass Drizzt Do’Urden fantasy novels.
I’ve certainly read “Christian” literature before - and not just C.S. Lewis’s brilliant work. Hell, I read Paul McHenry’s terrible, terrible, terrible Code Name: Antidote. You can ask some of my closest friends about that time in my life - you’ll love some of the answers.
Paul Thigpen’s novel is much more readable, interesting, and imaginative than CN:A, but it still got on my nerves to read a book like that. And by “like that”, I mean a book filled with less than savory characters who are in tense, less than pleasant situations, who still never, ever, never, ever say ONE swear word. Not one.
Not one “shit”. Not one “fuck”. Not one “asshole”. Not even a “bitch” or “cocksucker” or a “damn”. Unless you count “damned” as referring to the cursed individuals in Hell. And, of course, there’s the word Hell itself.
Other than that though, in Thigpen’s world, not even the nasty rapists and murderers who inhabit Hell are willing to say anything remotely blue. While I understand Thigpen’s audience and publisher, and their need to keep it “clean,” I found it ridiculous and incessantly annoying that - while people were running around naked, getting graphically blasted by fire and radiation, getting hacked to pieces by horrific demons and torturers, NOT ONE OF THEM EVER SAID A SWEAR WORD.
I think the nastiest thing anyone was called was “bucko.” Even the demons kept it clean.
Were that the worst thing I could say about the novel, though, I think I could give it a glowing recommendation. After all, no swearing is a pretty minor nitpick, no matter how annoying it was.
And I WILL give it this limited praise: Even though the not-swearing thing was annoying, even though it distressed me to no end that Thigpen reveled in saying CUSS instead of CURSE or SWEAR (he’s a Southern writer, too, folks), and even though some passages were sophomoric and trite, the book entertained me. Occasionally, the scenery was inspired. For instance, the level of Hell for suicides was creepy and sad in perfect proportions.
This brings us, though, to the title of this post and my greatest criticism of Thigpen’s novel: in a book that could have been sooo interesting, and for Christian readers so inspirational, and for non-Christians so informational, Thigpen decided to dwell overly long on certain evangelical “hot topics” that would likely have stopped many people - those who don’t already believe as he does - from reading further.
Can you name two topics which evangelical or “devout” Christians tend to dwell on that turn people off - so much so that people who might otherwise be receptive to the POSSIBILITY of a divine “God” and an encompassing plan for the universe say, “Fuck that - you guys are a bunch of hateful-ass judgmental bitches,” and either dismiss or reject altogether the entire premise of Christianity or religion in general?
If you said ABORTION or HOMOSEXUALITY, then take the pie - it’s yours.
What the fuck is it with “Christians” who set aside the most crucial of all God’s commands - that YOU LOVE GOD, AND THEN TREAT OTHER PEOPLE AS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE TREATED - in favor of bile and vitriol, and the condemnation of circumstances and lifestyles that they do not understand, or even care to try to understand? No wonder so many people reject religion - it’s hard to believe in a God who cares more about what you do with your own body than He does what you do to other people.
I finished Thigpen’s novel for three reasons: 1) because I’m a believer, I’m straight, and I’ve never been involved in making an abortion decision, so I was able to swallow my disgust at how much he dwelled on those topics 2) because I was curious, and 3) because I’m a completionist. Had I lacked any of those characteristics, I probably would have set My Visit To Hell aside and started on the stack of Hulk comics I have on my bedside table.
Lemme give you a bit of context. In Dante’s Inferno, and in Thigpen’s interpretation of it, Hell consists of ever-deepening circular levels, and the deeper you go, the more heinous the sin, until you reach the bottom where Satan himself is half-buried in ice, his upper half still able to reach and grab and chew. This lowest Hell, the Ninth Circle, is called Cocytus, and therein dwell the worst sinners imaginable - the traitors. In Inferno, we see Satan gnawing perpetually on the three worst traitors in Dante’s world: Brutus, Cassius, and of course, Judas Iscariot.
So, here you go: Circle Seven is the place for the violent - those who were violent to others (murderers and tyrants), those who were violent to themselves (suicides), and those who were violent against nature and God. Now, both Dante and Thigpen relegate gay people to this Circle - in fact, they’re placed in a deeper ring than both the murders and the suicides.
Let me ask you something. When you think of violence, do you think about gay people? Does Neil Patrick Harris make you shudder with terror at how he’s going to gut you with his codpiece? Do you think that the average gay guy deserves a place in Hell that’s DEEPER than Saddam Hussein’s? Than Ted Bundy’s?
Dante put what he called sodomites in that level of Hell because he lived in a medieval age and had a medieval mindset. Thigpen… well….
What Dante NEVER mentioned was abortion. But guess where Thigpen placed the parents of aborted fetuses? In Cocytus, just a little ways away from Satan himself. Even saying that abortion was murder, and putting the parents of aborted fetuses on the Seventh Circle wasn’t enough for Thigpen. Nope. Ninth Circle: traitors to family.
And it wasn’t that Thigpen offhandedly mentioned, “Yeah, that’s where the abortion parents are. Yeah, that’s where the gays are.” He DWELLED on it. Not exhaustively, but enough that you knew he was trying to make a point.
And by making that point, he distracted me from the other points he might have been trying to make. In doing so, he lost an opportunity. He could have given me a story that scared me so badly I had bad dreams - I mean, what’s more potentially frightening than a place of eternal torment and freaky shit? He COULD have given me - and think this was his intent - a story of redemption and salvation, one that pulled at my heart strings and made me exult at the main character’s rebirth and reawakening. But alas, Thigpen’s writing simply wasn’t powerful enough to overcome the things he threw in there that distracted me from his point, and he would have lost me had I not been determined to finish.
In the end, though I can’t say My Visit to Hell was in fact, a visit to Hell, it certainly wasn’t a cakewalk either.
Let’s start with these:
“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” -Matthew 6:24
“Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven.” -Matthew 19:24
But more than either of those, there’s this…
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” -Matthew 25:34-45
So when you read all that, does it sound to you at all like current Republican/Tea Party/conservative policy? Do the current mantras of unregulated, survival-of-the-fittest, “free” market capitalism make room for these Christian tenets, that supposedly came from the mouth of Jesus Christ himself? When a conservative goes off about the unfairness of a graduated income tax system, or the money wasted on welfare, or the evils of ensuring that everyone is entitled to adequate health care, do you think he or she has these Bible passages in mind?
I’ve been mulling over this post for a long time, and I’ve thought a lot about all the things I could say to drive my point home. In the end, I’ve decided that sort and sweet is the answer. So here it is, short and sweet.
If you DON’T adhere to any sort of Christian dogma - whether you’re atheist, Jewish, Muslim, or apathetic, then I’m not addressing you. Not in this post. For you and I, the debate regarding progressive ideals vs. corporate hegemony, of providing for the proletariat vs. letting them fend for themselves, has to be reserved for elsewhere and elsewhen. You may agree with me or you may not.
But if you DO consider yourself a Christian, and ESPECIALLY if you think that the Bible is the unerring Word of God (I don’t, by the way), then I don’t see how you can vote for the Tea Party and/or the GOP and still claim to follow Christ. Screw the debate about abortion. Screw the debate over whether Obama is Muslim or not - those are herrings tossed up to throw you off track, to distract you from what is truly at stake here. And I’m sure some Bible scholar MIGHT be able to dig up some passage which contradicts the ones above. I don’t care. The above passages are pretty clear, and they came directly from JESUS.
If you vote Republican and claim to be a Christian at the same time, how do you reconcile that? I think that if you can find a way, then you’ve fooled yourself.
I had an altogether different post planned for today, but now it’ll have to stew, because something about the situation I’m about to go off on really gets under my skin. I know why. Let me share.
First of all, you have to check out this Associated Press article for background: http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5huRzyn03vdl7KkdEwQBRc-ZmxuTwD9IMP7400?docId=D9IMP7400
Now, I know that I’m just giving this attention whore the attention he craves. I believe it highly likely that Mohler cares more about the limelight he’s getting from the press than he does about actually saving people’s souls, and I know I’m now partially responsible for feeding his need. But when I see something like this, it makes me bristle enough that I can’t remain stoic and let him slide quietly into irrelevance. Why? Because I think that Mohler and his ilk are doing their constituency - namely Christians - a huge disservice.
First of all, they’re off message. Christianity should be about establishing and maintaining a PERSONAL relationship with God, and then emulating the actions of God’s son in your everyday deeds. It should not be about railing against something that has absolutely NOTHING to do with the Christian faith - neither for it, nor against it. Leave things like this well enough alone and concentrate on the things which really impact people’s spiritual lives.
Second, when Mohler and the like go off on idiotic witch hunts like this, they inadvertantly fuel the fire of anti-Christian sentiment. Reasonable people don’t want to be included in the religion of insipid attention whores, and non-believers consistently look at stuff like this, shake their heads, and thank The Flying Spaghetti Monster that they aren’t imbecilic Christians.
For Mohler, I have just a few things I’d like to say:
1) Most people who do yoga don’t even think about it in spiritual terms. YOU are the one bringing that to the fore. Most people just think of it as a great way to get exercise. You say “the stretching and meditative discipline… is not a Christian pathway to God.” Well, duh. No one really claims it is. But then again, neither is running a marathon, or - on the opposite end - eating a cookie. But I don’t see you arguing against those things.
2) Distracting people from the “pathway to God” by dwelling on this crap instead of what you OUGHT to be dwelling on isn’t what God wants either. Get your priorities straight…. Although it is refreshing to see you going off on yoga masters instead of gay people for a change.
3) I believe that Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians that the body was the temple of God. As such, should we allow our temples to fall into disrepair? I think you’d agree that exercise is necessary to maintain the physical well-being of God’s temple. For most people, including me, YOGA IS EXERCISE. NOTHING MORE.
3) Before you go spewing bile about stuff you half understand, try it. You look like you could stand to do some vinyasas.
You MIGHT ask that question from time to time: where do poets and authors get the ideas/inspiration for their work? And every poet or student of poetry will tell you that just about any situation, emotion, or circumstance might wake the Muse and make her tell you to SIDDOWN, SHADDUP, and put pen to paper. The “places” from which poems come from are almost as numerous as the number of poems out there (I say almost because every teenage angst poem pretty much comes from the same place).
I thought it’d be interesting to share with you the etiology of one of my poems. It’s called ‘Create Me Again’, and here’s where it came from:
Strangely, I came up with the title first. You see, I used to pass time when I was bored in class coming up with what I thought were cool titles for songs that didn’t exist. I never wrote an actual song, but I organized the track listings for a whole lotta albums released by imaginary bands. You laugh. Whatever.
Anyway, several of those titles to songs which didn’t exist actually resonated with me; they were bits of poetry in and of themselves - wordplays that, were they expanded on successfully, might have meant something. ‘Create Me Again’ was one such title. Think about it: it has a fairly resonating implication to it, doesn’t it?
Then, sometime in the early to mid nineties, I had a crisis of faith - I didn’t so much begin to wonder if God existed (I don’t think THAT happened until I was in my 30s) as I began to wonder if God had died or gone on vacation or written us off as unsalvageable and gone off to reinvent Moses as a four-armed blue-skinned alien on some faraway planet in a different galaxy. So, with that I had the theme of a poem which I wanted to write. All I needed was something to solidly tie it all together and give me the solid ground I needed to build from.
And then, somewhere in there, I recalled the story in the book of Daniel about Nebudchadnezzar’s dream of the statue made of precious metals but with feet of clay.
Everything clicked, and I had a poem. One day I wrote the whole thing in a single sitting, and several years later the Snake Nation Review published it. At the center of it is that multi-metaled statue, standing as a symbol of… what? Me? The nation? The planet?
However you want to apply it, you can. That’s what poetry’s for, if you ask me.
Finally, here’s the poem in question. Thanks for reading:
Create Me Again
The little multi-metalled statue
With baby soft clay feet
Stood on his tiny pedestal
“Create me again
In the likeness of another image
For if what I am is what you are
Then one of us is falling short
Of every expectation.”
A tear ran down his golden cheek
Along his silver belly
Splashed erosively in a hole
That was forming in the clay.
(Image from http://blackinkdesigns.com/diagrams.htm)
And… BTW, the crisis of faith is over. (God exists. Neener neener.)
This is always good for a laugh. Or a cry, depending on your perspective. As the months go by, I write this stuff down and when I feel like I have enough to entertain you for a few minutes, I post them. I’m no Mark Twain or Ben Franklin, but hopefully I’m pithy enough to satisfy your low standards.
- Of course, if you have high standards, then I’m glad you’re here.
- Begging is for people who don’t have Plan Bs.
- Don’t post political stuff on social media sites and then claim we’re gonna “agree to disagree” when people challenge you. YOU’RE the one who posted it. YOU’RE the one who’s drawing the line in the sand. If you want to agree to disagree, then don’t post that shit.
- Modern Christianity is the result of a series of misunderstandings.
- I’m working on a poem called The Keanu Factor. Guess what it’s about.
- One does not speak of chubby in public.
- I’ve already expressed my disdain for speed traps. Well, tickets for rolling stops are even more bullshitty. If an intersection is sooo dangerous that rolling through the stop sign after looking all ways isn’t enough, then it ought to have a stop LIGHT there.
- New haiku: Two thousand and nine || So many icons have died ||Now we have Kanye
- I am always impressed by the tenacity of soap operas, rabies, and religion. Of course, Guiding Light is going off the air and there’s a vaccine for rabies….
- I say “I love you, but…” way too much.
- Playing devil’s advocate WILL make people stop and think twice about the generalizations they make. Do it too much, though, and they’ll stop and think twice about talking to you.
- There should be a standard for how much the tooth fairy gives. All it takes is ONE parent giving away $10 a tooth to ruin it for the rest of us.
- I find a certain irony in the fact that this guy who thinks it’s funny to make fun of my writing on Facebook is reading and enjoying The Lost Symbol.
- I probably would have killed Gollum first chance I got, which means that Gollum wouldn’t have been around to bite Frodo’s finger off at the end, which means Middle Earth would have likely fallen into a second darkness. So I, too, could have …been guilty of a “preemptive strike” that actually screwed everything up.
- Buzzed driving is NOT the same as drunk driving.
- Garth Brooks came out of retirement. I find it hard to believe that any true artist - one with a muse on his shoulder bugging him to CREATE - could ever really retire.
During the last Georgia legislative session (back in February, to be precise), a bill came before committee which would lift the statewide ban on alcohol sales on Sunday. The bill failed. While in the state of Georgia we are finally allowed to purchase alcohol in bars and restaurants on Sunday, alas, we cannot go to our local grocery or liquor store to purchase something we can enjoy in the privacy of our own homes.
Now a new effort has begun to lift the ban, and grant the decision to allow alcohol sales to individual municipalities. While the original effort focused on lobbyist efforts, this one will focus more on publicity and public awareness. In a sense, that is one of the purposes of this post – to let readers know what has happened, and what they can do to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
According to Zak Koffler of the Young Democrats of Georgia, during the presentation of the bill earlier this year, “Members of our state legislature decided to pander to the religious extreme to gain support for their campaigns for higher office. Among those leaders are names that you will be hearing a lot of in the near future: David Shafer, Casey Cagle and Eric Johnson.” Indeed, Shafer, Johnson and Cagle are considering running for either the state governorship or lieutenant governorship in the future, and the money and influence of the powerful fundamentalist lobby is an important political consideration.
Some points for you to consider as you explore further:
- I am biased, and shamelessly so. In some articles I wrote elsewhere, I covered the details of why the ban makes little sense: the first one is here, the second here, and the final one here.
- Support for this bill is bi-partisan. Politicians on both sides of the aisle recognize that “safety” concerns are mostly bogeymen, that revenue from Sunday sales will help area businesses, national businesses, as well as government coffers, and that the ban on Sunday specifically is a direct violation of the separation of church and state.
- Everyone involved recognizes that religious extremists are not the only people who oppose the bill. Some other businesses do as well – but they are a small and not nearly as “persuasive” group. Also, and yeah this is kind of callous on my part, their losses would be minimal compared to the gains everywhere else.
- This is not an “attack” against religion. The truth is, this is a blow for personal freedoms. What you do on Sunday should be up to you: if you want to spend the day interacting with your God, then you should be allowed to do so. By the same token, if you want to get a six pack and watch the game at home then… you should be allowed to do so.
“Whatever we once were, we’re no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers….” – Barack Obama
This caused quite a stir when Obama said it during a recent speech in Turkey. I’ve heard a lot of reactions from Christian friends I have – many of them flat out saying that he’s wrong, that we are indeed a Christian nation.
Well, guess what. We ARE NOT a Christian nation, and I don’t honestly believe we ever were or were meant to be.
What we are, and what we should be proud of as Americans is that we are a free nation, where Christians are free to be whatever they want to be with very little fear (notice that I didn’t say non-existent fear) of persecution or retribution.
The reason it may seem to some people that we are a Christian nation is because many of the principles of essential Christianity – that which is the least encumbered by denominational dogma – also happen to be at the core of capitalistic democracy and/or republicanism: ideals like self control, self reliance and determination, generosity, acceptance, hard work, patience, perseverance in the face of adversity, and a belief in the possible achievements of common man.
I don’t think there was ever a conscious effort on the part of our forefathers to create a Christian nation. It just so happened that the founding fathers were at least intellectually familiar with the ideals of Christianity and recognized them as strong ones – strong enough that you could imitate them and base a nation on them. But those ideals are not exclusive to Christianity, not by a long shot.
Now, I have to acknowledge that indeed, many of the people who immigrated to the British colonies in America came to escape religious persecution, and the majority of those were Christian. But I think that, rather than making us inherently Christian, the main effect this had was to make us sensitive to such persecution – and adverse to it as well. (Some may say there are growing exceptions nowadays to this sensitivity and aversion to religious intolerance. Ironically, here in the U.S. most of this insensitivity seems to actually come from the Christian right.)
I also have to say that what’s true of American Christians today – that they can exist in our nation (mostly) unhindered – now holds true for people of other religions as well, be they Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, even atheist.
And that was the point of Obama’s speech – that we are NOT strictly a Christian nation, which would imply that other religions would not be tolerated. Instead, we are something that I think is much more vital and powerful: we are a nation whose citizens need not fear because they believe in a different version of God than their neighbors.