"It [the State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men." ~ H.L. Mencken
Arturo Bandini in front of his typewriter two full days in succession . . . the longest siege of hard and fast determination in his life, and not one line done, only two words written over and over across the page, up and down, the same words: palm tree, palm tree, palm tree, a battle to the death between the palm tree and me, and the palm tree won: see it out there swaying in the blue air, creaking sweetly in the blue air. ~ John Fante, Ask the Dust
Today was supposed to be Palm Sunday. Not the Sunday before Easter commemorating Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, that's still several weeks away, but a warm Sunday afternoon in March that I planned to set aside to work on a proposal for a new book for Angel City Press. Upon returning to Los Angeles last year after a five-year, self-imposed exile in Northern California, the first thing that struck my eye--and continues to do so to this day--are the palm trees. These tropical and subtropical monocotyledonous trees with their simple stems and remarkable crowns of fan-shaped leaves are everywhere you toss a gaze. In my first 20 years of living in L.A., I never noticed their inundated presence in this city of dreadful joy. I simply took them for granted. So I'm planning a book, a high-quality photo essay on the Southern California palm and its strange juxtaposition against neon signs, against towering pillars of concrete and steel in Century City, palms jutting from hard, cracked sidewalks in the no man's land of East Hollywood and in front of topless bars in the Valley, and the replica of Philadelphia's Independence Hall at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, framed in the sway of palm trees. Another photo essay book I wrote in 1996, Ebony Erotica, continues to make money for the publisher eight years after publication, and I was confident that I had another winner with the palm tree proposal. But then one of the minions of Christ came calling in the form of a rebuttal to an essay of mine earlier published at Strike The Root that dealt with, among other things, Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ. In my essay, I eschewed organized religion and asserted that God is where you find Him, and often that is not in a church with your nose stuck in a hymnal or on your knees on a prayer rug facing Mecca. As the character of Helen Harland, the Unitarian Universalist minister in Michelle Huneven's brilliant new novel Jamesland, says: "I believe that this relationship with the other--God, if you will--is transformative, regenerative, and essential for a life lived fully . . . (but) specifics cause all the trouble. It's insisting on this or that point of orthodoxy or doctrine that has led to wars, inquisitions, burnings at the stake." My essay was also an obituary of sorts for my sweetheart's father, a way of setting right the perfunctory obituary that ran in a local newspaper after his death last February. I invoked the belief of Virginia Woolf that nothing really happens in life until it gets memorialized on paper and suggested that there was a religious corollary to that notion. When I posted a link to my story online in the Literary and Writing Forum at Craig's List, most of my friends, fans and detractors agreed with the basic points of my story. "Organized religion is the death of the spirit and motivates humans to behave at their worst, which we know can be pretty darn nasty," wrote one reader from Sacramento. And then came the comments, an assault on two flanks really, from a reader we will call BMJ. Responding to a segment of the story that addressed moral intolerance in the Muslim faith, as illustrated by the horrific tale of an Iranian death squad dispatched to murder an expatriated countryman who was dabbling in hardcore porn, BMJ wrote: "Our friends the Persians have come up a number of times on this forum. They are a particularly interesting people to me because they are, from ancient times, an Aryan race, and they are to this day, despite the efforts of the Muslim majority, the keepers of one of the most important Aryan religions, Zoroastrianism. They are one of the few non-Jewish peoples to be represented favorably in the Hebrew scriptures, no doubt because their emperor Cyrus freed the Jews from Babylon. "Since 1979, Iran has been ruled by the Ayatohlla Khomeini's fundamentalist Muslim theocracy. Contrary to a popular belief, the organized religious response to prostitution, pornography, and sex slavery is not of one stripe, whether Christian or Muslim. The main difference, as I see it, between the Christian response to the sex trade and the Muslim response is that in countries where the majority of people are Christian, we see democratic governments established, with separation of church and state, and a culture that recognizes the role of religion as a discipline to transform the soul, rather than to structure society by limiting the freedom of the people. So as a result, when you tell a Catholic priest that gangsters are selling children for sex on the streets of San Francisco, he does not have it in his power to arrest and punish the slave-trading panderer; he must petition the executive branch of our secular government, which of course works closely with the gangsters themselves to protect the slave market. "Similarly, when someone in America sells pornography, the Christian churches usually complain to the government, and try to raise awareness among their followers, whereas when somebody does this in Iran, they simply stone him to death. So while exploiting women and children is contrary to the tenets of both religions, in Christian countries we see a reaction that is opposed to the exploitation, yet tolerant to the point of absurdity, whereas in Muslim countries we see draconic intolerance." I agree with some of BMJ's thoughts here but I need only to point to the rancorous, theology-fueled debates in this nation over abortion, prayer in the classroom and same-sex marriage to illustrate that the Christian faithful are indeed doing everything within their hypocritical and strangulating powers to "structure society by limiting the freedom of the people." (For the record, I am morally opposed to gay unions in marriage but I also find it equally morally reprehensible to even consider a Constitutional amendment to give such moral opposition the full force of law.) And then BMJ addressed The Passion of the Christ directly: "I have tremendous respect for anyone who takes a stand that he knows will be wildly unpopular. For Mel Gibson to make a movie that could be considered offensive to Jewish leaders was probably the boldest move anyone in film could ever make. To make it with uncompromising artistic integrity and fidelity to the Gospels took real courage, the sort of courage that, I'm sorry to say, a man does not find until he takes a good long look into the abyss. What a man finds there is the proper subject of religion, and that is exactly what Gibson portrayed in his film The Passion. "Virginia Woolf is not religion, and neither is your article. As clever as your similes may be, they will not save anyone from hell (like the kingdom of God, it's all around us). Yet Christianity (yes, even the organized sort) has saved personal friends of mine from insanity and death. There is love in the world, Rodger. If we proceed from this fact, I do not see how we can arrive at any belief that is contrary to the fundamental teachings of Jesus. Yet we could very well arrive at arguments contrary to those made in your article. That is because your article is not an exercise of religion. "The true nature of religious revelation cannot be expressed in human language. Usually it just sounds crazy--look at Philip K. Dick's hallucinatory revelations. When you attempt to put the religious experience into words, the best you will ever get is a myth, a potent image that contains far more information than the words themselves are capable of expressing. The very best kind of myth is the kind that awakens the most powerful part of the soul and moves it to action. That is what Jesus and his disciples did, and that is what Gibson portrayed in his film. "The Passion is a film about a man whose faith sees him through unspeakable evil. It is a play about integrity and courage in the face of human power. To make this film required tremendous faith. To equate your article with this accomplishment is, well, blasphemy. But since we live in a Christian nation, you probably don't have to worry about being stoned to death." I have news for BMJ. News he may not want to hear, but he's going to hear it anyway. If the words of Virginia Woolf--yes, words, BMJ, like the words in the Bible that you hold close to heart, words that you claim are incapable of expressing the religious experience--if these words put me one step closer to a transformative and regenerative relationship with a higher power--who are you to dismiss them than nothing more or less than a well-intentioned but feral lap dog at the heels of an intolerant school of theocratic thought? And there's something else I find religion in: the glorious and completely impractical palm trees looming over the L.A. skyline that the late Warren Zevon wrote "look like crucified thieves." I hope Angel City Press agrees with me.