M I C H A EL
Ian Fletcher, former tele-atheist and current academic, lived in New
Canaan, New Hampshire, in a farmhouse on a dirt road where the mailboxes were not numbered. I drove up and down the street four times before turning down one driveway and knocking on the door. When I did, no one answered, although I could hear strains of Mozart through the open windows.
I had left June in the hospital, still shaken by my encounter with
Shay. Talk about irony: just when I allowed myself to think that I might be in God's company, after all-He flatly rejected me. The whole world felt off-kilter; it is an odd thing to start questioning the framework that's ordered your life, your career, your expectations-and so I had placed a phone call to someone who'd been through it before.
I knocked again, and this time the door swung open beneath my fist. "Hello? Anyone home?"
"In here," a woman called out.
I stepped into the foyer, taking note of the colonial furniture, the photo on the wall that showed a young girl shaking hands with Bill
Clinton and another of the girl smiling beside the Dalai Lama. I followed the music to a room off the kitchen, where the most intricate dollhouse I'd ever seen was sitting on a table, surrounded by bits of wood and chisels and glue gun sticks. The house was made of bricks no bigger than my thumbnail, the windows had miniature shutters that could be louvered to let in light; there was a porch with Corinthian columns.
"Amazing," I murmured, and a woman stood up from behind the dollhouse, where she'd been hidden.
"Oh," she said. "Thanks." Seeing me, she did a double take, and I realized her eyes were focused on my clerical collar.
"Bad parochial school flashback?"
"No... it's just been a while since I've had a priest in here." She stood up, wiping her hands on a white butcher's apron. I'm Mariah
Fletcher," she said.
"Father Michael Wright."
I grinned. "Busted." Then I gestured to her handiwork. "Did you make this?"
"I've never seen anything like it."
"Good," Mariah said. "That's what the client's counting on."
I bent down, scrutinizing a tiny door knocker with the head of a lion. "You're quite an artist."
"Not really. I'm just better at detail than I am at the big picture." She turned off the CD player that was trilling The Magic Flute. "Ian said I was supposed to keep an eye out for you. And- Oh, shoot." Her eyes flew to the corner of the room, where a stack of blocks had been abandoned.
"You didn't come across two hellions on your way in?"
"That's not a good sign." Pushing past me, she ran into the kitchen and threw open a pantry door. Twins-I figured them to be about four years old-were smearing the white linoleum with peanut butter and jelly-
"Oh, God," Mariah sighed as their faces turned up to hers like sunflowers.
"You told us we could finger-paint," one of the boys said.
"Not on the floor; and not with food!" She glanced at me. "I'd escort you, but-"
"You have to take care of a sticky situation?"
She smiled. "lan's in the barn; you can just head down there." She lifted each boy and pointed him toward the sink. "And you two," she said, "are going to clean up, and then go torture Daddy."
I left her washing the twins' hands and walked down the path toward the barn. Having children was not in the cards for me-I knew that. A priest's love for God was so all-encompassing that it should erase the human craving for a family-my parents, brothers, sisters, and children were all Jesus. If the Gospel of Thomas was right, however, and we were more like God than unlike Him, then having children should have been mandatory for everyone. After all, God had a son and had given Him up. Any parent whose child had gone to college or gotten married or moved away would understand this part of God more than me.
As I approached the barn, I heard the most unholy sounds-like cats being dismembered, calves being slaughtered. Panicked-was Fletcher hurt?-I threw open the door to find him watching a teenage girl play the violin.
She took the violin from her chin and settled it into the slight curve of her hip. "I don't understand why I have to practice in the barn."
Fletcher removed a pair of foam earplugs. "What was that?"
She rolled her eyes. "Did you even hear my piece at air?"
Fletcher paused. "You know I love you, right?" The girl nodded.
"Well, let's just say if God was hanging around here today, that last bit probably sent Her running for the hills."
Tryouts for band are tomorrow," she said. "What am I going to do!"
"Switch to the flute?" Fletcher suggested, but he put his arm around the girl and hugged her as he spoke. As he turned, he noticed me. "Ah.
You must be Michael Wright." He shook my hand and introduced the girl. "This is my daughter. Faith."
Faith shook my hand, too. "Did you hear me play? Am I as bad as he says I am?"
I hesitated, and Fletcher came to my rescue. "Honey, don't put the priest in a position where he's going to have to lie-he'll waste his whole afternoon at confession." He grinned at Faith. "I think it's your turn to watch the demon twins from hell."
"No, I remember very clearly that it's your turn. I was doing it all morning while Mom worked."
"Ten bucks," Ian said.
"Twenty," Faith countered.
"Done." She put her violin back in its case. "Nice to meet you," she said to me, and she slipped out of the barn, heading toward the house.
"You have a beautiful family," I said to Fletcher.
He laughed. "Appearances can be deceiving. Spending an afternoon with Cain and Abel is a whole new form of birth control."
"Their names are-"
"Not really," Fletcher said, smiling. "But that's what I call them when Mariah's not listening. Come on back to my office."
He walked me past a generator and a snowblower, two abandoned horse stalls, and through a pine door. Inside, to my surprise, was a finished room with paneled walls and two stories of bookshelves. "I have to admit," Fletcher said, "I don't get very many calls from the Catholic clergy. They aren't quite the prevalent audience for my book."
I sat down on a leather wing chair. "I can imagine."
"So what's a nice priest like you doing in the office of a rabblerouser like me? Can I expect a blistering commentary in the Catholic
Advocate with your byline on it?"
"No... this is more of a fact-finding mission." I thought about how much I should admit to Ian Fletcher. The confidentiality relationship between a parishioner and a priest was as inviolable as the one between a patient and his doctor, but was telling Fletcher what Shay had said breaking a trust if the same words were already in a gospel that had been written two thousand years ago? "You used to be an atheist," I said, changing the subject.
"Yeah." Fletcher smiled. "I was pretty gifted at it, too, if I do say so myself."
"I met someone who made me question everything I was so sure I knew about God."
"That," I said, "is why I'm in the office of a rabble-rouser like you."
"And what better place to learn more about the Gnostic gospels,"
"Well, then, the first thing is that you shouldn't call them that. It would be like calling someone a spic or a Hebe-the label Gnostic was made up by the same people who rejected them. In my circles, we call them noncanonical gospels. Gnostic literally means one who knows- but the people who coined the term considered its followers know-it-alls."
"That's what we pretty much learn in seminary."
Fletcher looked at me. "Let me ask you a question. Father-in your opinion, what's the purpose of religion?"
I laughed. "Wow, thank goodness you picked an easy one."
I considered this. "I think religion brings people together over a common set of beliefs... and makes them understand why they matter."
Fletcher nodded, as if this was the answer he'd been expecting. "I think it's there to answer the really hard questions that arise when the world doesn't work the way it's supposed to-like when your child dies of leukemia, or you're fired after twenty years of hard work. When bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people.
The really interesting thing, to me, is that somehow religion stopped being about trying to find honest solutions... and started being about ritual. Instead of everyone searching for understanding on their own, orthodox religion came along and said, 'Do x, y, and z-and the world will be a better place.'"
"Well, Catholicism's been around for thousands of years," I replied,
"so it must be doing something right."
"You have to admit, it's done a lot wrong, too," Fletcher said.
Anyone who'd had limited religious instruction or a thorough college education knew about the Catholic Church and its role in politics and history-not to mention the heresies that had been squelched over the centuries. Even sixth graders studied the Inquisition. "It's a corporation,"
I said. "And sure, there have been times when it's been staffed badly, with people who think ambition trumps faith. But that doesn't mean you throw the baby out with the bathwater. No matter how screwed up God's servants are in the Church, His message has managed to get through."
Fletcher tilted his head. "What do you know about the birth of
"Did you want me to start with the Holy Ghost visiting Mary, or skip ahead to the star in the East..."
"That's the birth of Jesus," Fletcher said. "Two very different things.
Historically, after Jesus's death, his followers weren't exactly welcomed with open arms. By the second century A.D., they were literally dying for their beliefs. But even though they belonged to groups that called themselves Christians, the groups weren't unified, because they were an very different from one another. One of these groups was the socalled
Gnostics. To them, being Christian was a good first step, but to truly reach enlightenment, you had to receive secret knowledge, or gnosis. You started with faith, but you developed insight-and for these people. Gnostics offered a second baptism. Ptolemy called it apolutrosis- the same word used when slaves were legally freed."
"So how did people get this secret knowledge?"
"There's the rub," Fletcher said. "Unlike the church, you couldn't be taught it. It had nothing to do with being told what to believe, and everything to do with figuring it out on your own. You had to reach inside yourself, understand human nature and its destiny, and at that moment you'd know the secret-that there's divinity in you, if you're willing to look for it. And the path would be different for everyone."
"That sounds more Buddhist than Christian."
"They called themselves Christians," Fletcher corrected. "But Irenaeus, who was the bishop of Lyons at the time, disagreed. He saw three huge differences between Orthodox Christianity and Gnosticism.
In Gnostic texts, the focus wasn't on sin and repentance, but instead on illusion and enlightenment. Unlike in the Orthodox Church, you couldn't be a member simply by joining-you had to show evidence of spiritual maturity to be accepted. And-this was probably the biggest stumbling block for the bishop-Gnostics didn't think Jesus's resurrection was literal.
To them, Jesus was never really human-he just appeared in human form. But that was just a technicality to the Gnostics, because unlike Orthodox Christians, they didn't see a gap between the human and the divine. To them, Jesus wasn't a one-of-a-kind savior-he was a guide, helping you find your individual spiritual potential. And when you reached it, you weren't redeemed by Christ-you became a Christ.
Or in other words: you were equal to Jesus. Equal to God."
It was easy to see why, in seminary, this had been taught as heresy: the basis of Christianity was that there was only one God, and
He was so different from man that the only way to reach Him was through Jesus. "The biggest heresies are the ones that scare the Church to death."
"Especially when the Church is going through its own identity crisis," Fletcher said. "I'm sure you remember how Irenaeus decided to unify the Orthodox Christian Church-by figuring out who was a true believer, and who was faking. Who was speaking the word of God, and who was speaking... well... just words?"
On a pad in front of him, Fletcher wrote GOD = WORD = JESUS, then spun it around so I could see. "Irenaeus came up with this little gem. He said that we can't be divine, because Jesus's life and death were so different from that of any man-which became the very begin 264 ning of Orthodox Christianity. What didn't fit this equation became heretical-if you weren't worshipping the right way, you were out. It was sort of the first reality show, if you want to think of it that way: who had the purest form of Christianity? He condemned the folks who got creative with faith, like Marcus and his followers, who spoke in prophecies and had visions of a feminine divinity clothed in the letters of the Greek alphabet. He condemned the groups that swore by only one gospel-like the Ebionites, who were attached to Matthew; or the
Marcionites, who studied only Luke. Just as bad were the groups like the Gnostics, who had too many texts. Instead, Irenaeus decided that
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John should be the four cornerstone gospels of what to believe-"
"-because they all had a narrative of Christ's Passion in them... which the Church needed, in order for the Eucharist to mean something."
"Exactly," Fletcher said. "Then Irenaeus appealed to all those people who were trying to decide which Christian group was right for them.
Basically, he said: 'We know how hard it is to figure out what's true, and what's not. So we're going to make it easy for you, and tell you what to believe.' People who did that were true Christians. People who didn't were not. And the things Irenaeus told people to believe became the foundation for the Nicene Creed, years later."
Every priest knew that what we were taught in seminary had a
Catholic spin put on it-yet there was an incontrovertible truth behind it. I had always believed that the Catholic Church was evidence of religious survival of the fittest: the truest, most powerful ideas were the ones that had prevailed over time. But Fletcher was saying that the most powerful ideas had been subjugated... because they jeopardized the existence of the Orthodox Church. That the reason they'd had to be crushed was because-at one point-they'd been as or more popular than Orthodox Christianity.
Or in other words, the reason the Church had survived and flour ished was not because its ideas were the most valid, but because it had been the world's first bully.
"Then the books of the New Testament were just an editorial decision someone once had to make," I said.
Fletcher nodded. "But what were those decisions based on? The gospels aren't the word of God. They're not even the apostles' firsthand accounts of the word of God. They're simply the stories that best supported the creed that the Orthodox Church wanted people to follow."
"But if Irenaeus hadn't done that," I argued, "chances are there would be no Christianity. Irenaeus united a whole mass of fragmented followers and their beliefs. When you're in Rome in A.D. 150 and you're being arrested because you confess Christ as your savior, you want to make sure that the people beside you aren't going to turn around at the last minute and say they believe something different. In fact, it's still important today to figure out who's a believer and who's just a nutcase-read any paper and you'll see how anger, prejudice, or ego are all routinely passed off as the Word of God, usually with a bomb strapped to it."
"Orthodoxy takes the risk away," Fletcher agreed. "We tell you what's real and what's not, so you don't have to worry about getting it wrong. The problem is that the minute you do it, you start separating people into groups. Some get favored, some don't. Some gospels get picked, others get hidden away underground for thousands of years."
He looked at me. "Somewhere along the line, organized religion stopped being about faith, and started being about who had the power to keep that faith." Fletcher ripped off the sheet of paper with Irenaeus's equation, leaving a clear, blank slate beneath. He crumpled the paper, tossed it into his trash can. "You said that the purpose of religion was to bring people together. But does it, really? Or does it-knowingly, purposefully, and intentionally-break them apart?"
I took a deep breath. And then I told him everything I knew about
None of us were getting any sleep, but it wasn't for lack of trying.
Crowds have their own pH, and the remarkable thing is that they can change in an instant. The people who had been camping out outside the prison-who were featured in a countdown every night on the local news
(MR. MESSIAH: DAY 23)-had somehow gotten word that Shay had been hospitalized for an injury. But now, in addition to the camp that was holding a prayer vigil for Shay, there was a very vocal group of people who felt that this was a sign, that the reason Shay had been hurt so badly was because
God decided he had it coming to him.
They got louder, for some reason, after dark. Insults were hurled, fights were picked, punches were thrown. Someone sent the National Guard down to patrol the perimeter of the prison and keep the peace, but no one could shut them up. Shay's supporters would sing gospel to drown out the chants of the disbelievers ("Jesus lives! Bourne dies!"). Even with headphones on, I could still hear them, a headache that wouldn't go away.
Watching the eleven o'clock news that night was surreal. To see the prison and hear the resonant shouts of the mob outside echoing the broadcast on my television-well, it was like deja vu, except it was happening now.
There's only one God, people shouted.
They carried signs: JESUS IS MY HOMEBOY-NOT SATAN.