Theology and Bullshit

To be honest, the end of the world has always scared the shit out of me. To be clear, I’m not referring to the threat of nuclear war or massive global climate change that would lead to massive starvation or a meteor striking the Earth and causing massive destruction the likes of which we’ve never seen or anything like that. Deep down, I feel like these are avoidable threats because (despite the fact the evidence of reality TV and the popularity of Daniel Tosh), mankind can be exceptionally clever sometimes. We know that our differences aren’t so vast and irreconcilable that nuclear war is ever an option, scientists are working every day towards solutions to our energy crisis, and we still have Bruce Willis so we are still safe from meteors (though I suppose we don’t really have NASA anymore, so that could be a problem).

Strangely, as realistic as these threats actually are, they have never worried me as much as the idea of the Book of Revelations interpretation of the end of the world.

As a kid, I was raised in a Missionary Baptist church and Sundays were devoted to preachers screaming from the pulpit about eternal damnation and seeking salvation. I was told that we were all sinners and that if I didn’t seek forgiveness from Jesus that when I died, I would go to hell. Not content with just Sundays, Missionary Baptist churches love to have “revivals” in which they have church every night to tell people how they are going to hell and they have to seek forgiveness. While one would think revivals would be more sparsely attended given that they occur during the week, they tend to draw in people from ALL AROUND the area in one extravaganza of guilt, shame, and fear.

Being told that I would go to hell if I didn’t seek forgiveness for something I didn’t do was bad enough, but being told that I HAD to seek forgiveness because God could make the world end ANY TIME that he wanted was an idea that severely fucked me up.

It wasn’t as if God was going to just turn the lights off. The way in which the Bible says that God will end the world is through some of the most horrific imagery that has been put to print (well, before Chuck Palahniuk started writing at least). If it were a movie, Baptists wouldn’t let their kids go to it (or maybe they would given their reaction to the violence depicted in the Passion of the Christ), but they are more than happy to share this on a weekly basis along with the psychological torment that it is the fault of everyone who isn’t “saved.”

My problem has always been that if God loved the world so much, then why would he be so callous and cruel as to just end it all of a sudden? The whole cosmology of God being this sort of BDSM master who punished us and forced us into servitude seemed really scary to me and for the people of my church to file all of that under the idea of “God’s love” was worse.

I could go on and on with this discussion of my psychological torment, but the opening sequence to Rick Remender and Eric Nguyen’s Strange Girl sufficiently displays every single fear I had as a child and some that I didn’t know that I had, so make sure you go and give that a read but just understand that for a long time, I had this fear in the pit of my stomach that the world would end because God is kind of a dick because that was what church taught me as a kid.

Fortunately, for the sake of my spirituality, I found Grant Morrison. Try to keep up with me on this one, because it could be a little convoluted.

In his introduction to Supergods, Morrison writes, “Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an Idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea.” But God is also a fiction not in the sense that He isn’t real (so please don’t take that as an atheist statement), but that God as an idea is used to justify anything and everything that people want. Anytime a natural disaster occurs there will be some preacher looking to make a name for himself (note that it is never a woman) by ascribing the cause to be God’s wrath on whatever axe they have to grind. There were even those who said that President Obama was reelected because God was punishing America for “straying from the path.”

Then, there is Superman; a being of pure fiction that can unite people more than God can because Superman is never used in a divisive manner. The core concept of Superman is always inclusive. Of course, this isn’t to say that Superman has never been divisive, but when people are divided on Superman it is because of superficial matters like a change in costume or a change cast members. Perhaps the most divisive issue in recent years was when Superman renounced his American citizenship in Action Comics #900. But even this story move was motivated by a sense of inclusion. He loves us all and cares for all of us and wants what is best for everyone regardless of race, religion, creed, code, sexuality, nationality, or anything else.

Some have compared Superman to Christ, but in an interview with Newsarama, Morrison went so far as to say that Superman was better than Jesus because Superman would have punched Satan through a mountain rather than be tempted in the desert. He not only combines the most powerful and wonderful parts of the Christian idea of God’s love, but he removes the exclusionary aspects of an orthodox interpretation of religion as well.

But it isn’t just the nature of God that has bothered me about Missionary Baptists; it’s the idea of salvation in general. One particular Sunday morning, I remember our Sunday school teacher explaining that she believed that God was so powerful that even a person in the “deepest, darkest part of Africa who had no concept of the name of ‘Jesus’ could have his soul saved by his grace.”

Some students asked what she meant by this. She went on to say, “Let’s say a group of people worship a false idol like,” she looked around and grabbed an arbitrary object, “like this pen. They believe the world was created by this pen and they pray to it. Even if they worship this pen, I believe that Jesus is so powerful that he can take a member of this pen-worshipping tribe and save their soul even though they have no concept of who he is.”

Immediately, I jumped upon the logical fallacy of this argument by saying, “But, wouldn’t they just ascribe whatever salvation they experienced to the pen? I mean, if they have no concept of the name of Jesus Christ, but they have the idea of a higher being, wouldn’t they just say that the Pen saved their souls instead?”

My teacher refuted, “I mean that Jesus would make his name appear to them.”

Which seemed just foolish to me because it didn’t seem like a big deal that people with no concept of Jesus could just as easily be happy by believing in ANY higher power, so I replied, “If the Pen is just what they call ‘God’ though, what does it matter if they don’t call Him the same thing we do? A cat is a cat, but it is also a ‘gato’ in Spanish, yet we don’t accuse the Spanish of calling it the wrong thing.”

I don’t recall how that argument ended, but I remember us just quickly moving on and that I only went back to that church for maybe a month more after that (just long enough to write our Christmas play in which Zauriel of the Bull Host of the Pax Dei teaches a man the true meaning of Christmas).

Soon after the Pen incident, I started reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles and I was able to reconcile this idea. The members of King Mob’s cell of Invisibles all have their own unique religious experience which transforms them into gnostic magic warriors preparing the world for the evolution into our next form of life known as the Supercontext (whoops . . . um . . . spoilers). Dane views his particular experience as an alien abduction and then seeing Christ on the cross. With tears streaming down his face, Dane frantically paws at Christ and laments that he “can’t get the nails out.”

As a Missionary Baptist, I connected to this scene (minus the alien abduction) because it strangely echoes the religious experiences that I’ve heard people testify to during revivals and church sermons. The newly saved explain that they had witnessed a light, or envisioned a boat on a vast sea, or that Christ “spoke” to them and reassured them. They say that the experience is always different, but that “you’ll know it when it happens to you.”

Does this mean that the 70 year old ladies who attend church every Sunday are somehow secretly Invisible agents? I don’t know, but I like to think so. However, I don’t think they would agree that their interpretation of salvation is the same as Lord Fanny’s transformation in the temple of the Aztec gods that made him into a transvestite witch. But, these two ideas are ultimately the same even if they are so very different.

Dane sees alien abductions and Jesus on the cross because that is part of his individual consciousness that allows him to process the ideas of a higher power. Lord Fanny sees skeleton gods in a temple because that is what his mind can accept in order to process the ideas of a higher power. This is no different than the salvation that people experience or the idea that a Pen can create the world (which, by the way, is perhaps the most poignant and powerful symbol that my old Sunday school teacher ever could have accidentally chosen . . . and, of course, makes me think of The Filth).

But, it’s the conclusion to The Invisibles that makes me really write about all of this subject today. Of course, the last issue of the series takes place today, December 22, 2012, the end of the Mayan calendar. The day the Mayans predicted the world would end. Of course, a Christian preacher had predicted that the world would end last year sometime but everyone believed the Mayans over him because there aren’t any Mayans around to look like psychos on 24 hour Mayan networks.

People have worried about it and made movies to capitalize over the fear because Hollywood knows that people get worked up over their fictions and it will do anything to capitalize off of that fear. And so, the end of the world is the most powerful, damaging fiction of all no matter who has predicted it. It can easily be used to divide people up by forcing narrow views of one culture onto another under the premise that refusing to do so will lead to worldwide destruction. It plays upon the inevitability that everything with a beginning has an ending and that our ending will be a grand one indeed. Baptist preachers like to say that God destroyed the world with water during Noah’s time and when he destroys it again, he will use fire which has always lead me to argue (because I’m a Captain Planet fan) that God still had earth and wind to use, so I didn’t think that EVERYTHING would be destroyed (maybe the world will REALLY end when God decides to destroy heart).

Yet, The Invisibles presents a very different apocalyptic prediction. Instead of the world ending in fire and brimstone with the lost souls going to hell, an enlightened humanity evolves up into the next level of consciousness, the Supercontext – a message that could ONLY be told in a comic book. As the world ends, Dane looks out from the panels and directly at the reader. The panels are crumbling apart to show Dane’s reality shifting. No simple novel could convey this idea as powerful as Morrison and Quitely can on the comic page and that’s why comics are so beautiful and wonderful. We, as human beings, are reading a two-dimensional world and seeing its evolution into something else. Maybe Dane evolves into us and then we will evolve into whatever beings are looking down at us.

Dane reassures, “Nothing ends that isn’t something else starting.” An idea that Christians don’t necessarily disagree with because the Book of Revelations mentions the creation of the New Jerusalem when the world ends. But, the moment that gets me every time is when Dane quotes his friend Elfayed, “We made gods and jailers because we felt small and ashamed and alone . . . we let them try us and judge us and like sheep to slaughter, we allowed ourselves to be . . . sentenced. See! Now! Our sentence is up.”

Human consciousness creates ideas and these ideas limit us until we create new ideas to create a new reality. The doomsday predictions we have made will become self-fulfilling prophecy if we don’t come up with new ideas and that’s what The Invisibles does. The end of the world doesn’t end in earth, fire, wind, water, or heart. The end of the world isn’t an end at all; it’s another step and isn’t that more comforting than a vengeful God who punishes because he’s pissed at us?

Now, I’m not saying that any of this is universal truth. I hope that none of this has come across as a denouncement of Christianity, because that is not at all the purpose. My intention isn’t blasphemy in the least. I’m not saying that Christianity is an inherently evil institution that should be overthrown because I don’t believe that. There are plenty of ideas that people pull from Christianity that make people into good, honest people. I would even go so far as to say that there are more good ideas that people pull from Christianity than bad ones as evidenced by the MANY Christians that I know who are in firm affirmation of gay marriage. I still believe that God exists, but I acknowledge that I could be completely wrong.

I don’t think Grant Morrison is a messiah or that he is a prophet or anything like that. He poses interesting ideas that have helped me through a lot of theological problems more than any preacher ever has.  His comics have helped me understand more about life than anything else that I’ve ever read, but that doesn’t mean that he’s right or that you should believe it too. And I have by no means interpreted The Invisibles in any sort of depth here beyond what it means to me. For that, you’ll have to turn to Patrick Meaney’s fantastic book on the subject.

What I’m trying to say is that personal experience is the only thing that matters. I can’t dispute any person’s personal experience because I did not experience it and neither should anyone else dispute my own experience because it was uniquely mine. The only thing I absolutely know for sure is that when I was a kid, I was taught some pretty crazy things that scared me into believing that the world is a dark, horrible place but super-heroes saved me from that because that is their job.

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Jack L. Smith is a drifter and a writer.

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