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Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Illinois Jesus

August 18, 2014 | by

A forgotten Midwestern religious sect and the strange novel it inspired.

An illustration from Six Years in Heaven.

The most confusing thing about the rural Midwest is the importance placed on being normal. Perhaps this comes from demographic homogeneity: there’s a comforting stability in being able to drive a hundred miles in almost any direction and find a landscape almost identical to the one from which you set out.

The Midwest is construed as a place where nothing happens—that being, it should be emphasized, a good thing. Native Americans once lived here, of course; but there’s no longer any sign of them aside from some low mounds and their continuing near-universal use as school mascots. When I grew up here, no one wondered why they’d left. Probably it was more exciting somewhere else. Who could blame them? It’s a fine place to leave.

But on returning, as I did recently, the effect is disorienting: this is a place where everyone is cheerfully convinced of the rationality of their insanity. I was never immune to this. In school, everyone was perplexed by race problems. We weren’t racist. How could we be when there weren’t any black people? We ignored that in Rockford, Illinois, ten miles away, desegregation lawsuits were impossibly still grinding through the court system. Likewise, we firmly believed that gay people weren’t something we had; we learned we’d had a Jewish family in our town only after they’d safely escaped. This seems ludicrous to me now, and things have undoubtedly changed since the turn of the century. With the arrival of the Internet and cable TV, the boast that newscasters were carefully trained to speak like us—because we, among all Americans, had no accents—isn’t quite as impressive.

In 1988, when I was ten, my parents moved to a five-acre farm between the rust-belt city of Rockford and the village of Winnebago. Not being from the area, they were naturally curious about the history, and one of them found a Works Progress Administration history of Illinois in the library. In that book, we discovered that the country road we lived on had once not been so somnolent. A block north of us, a large complex of buildings painted red bore the name Weldon Farm, but once it had been called Heaven. In the 1880s it had been the center of an obscure religious sect—still lacking a Wikipedia entry of their own—called the Beekmanites. A woman named Dorinda Beekman had declared herself to be Jesus, as one did in those days; she died after promising to rise from the dead in three days. Her considerable followers were disappointed until one of them, a red-headed man named George Jacob Schweinfurth, neatly solved the problem by explaining that her spirit had moved into his body. Many agreed; he and his followers, the Church Triumphant, moved into Heaven and lived communally, where he’d attracted attention as far away as the New York Times.

A block south of my parents’ place, the road dead-ended in front of a run-down house. A “bad” family lived there, and their children occasionally went to school with me. We would have called them poor white trash had we not been afraid of being beaten up. Their house, ramshackle as it appeared to be, had a history as well: it had once been Hell. Schweinfurth had lived in luxury in Heaven, arrayed with young women called Angels. Their husbands, had they any, and members of the group who’d fallen out of favor, were sent to Hell, where the work needed to keep the sect fed was done. Read More »

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“I Would Like to Write a Beautiful Prayer”

November 12, 2013 | by

Martha Sprieser, Flannery O’Connor’s roommate at the University of Iowa (Flannery O’Connor Collection, Special Collections, Georgia College Library, Milledgeville, Georgia)

Credit: Martha Sprieser, Flannery O’Connor’s roommate at the University of Iowa (Flannery O’Connor Collection, Special Collections, Georgia College Library, Milledgeville, Georgia).

Flannery O’Connor was a believer. It was at the end of every story: the appearance of holy ghosts, fiery furnaces, judgment day. It was in the twist of her knife. The way she would jam it in a character’s gut, turn it, then rip it up. To make sure she got all the vital organs. The end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—“‘Shut up, Bobby Lee,’ The Misfit said. ‘It’s no real pleasure in life’”—is the most Catholic thing ever.

While she was writing what would become Wise Blood, she was also writing A Prayer Journal. Literally, journal entries written during her time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, addressed to the Lord and asking for his help getting published. “Please let Christian principles permeate my writing and please let there be enough of my writing (published) for Christian principles to permeate,” she wrote. Also she kind of thought of God as a crazy lover. From November 23, 1947: “Dear Lord, please make me want You. It would be the greatest bliss. Not just to want You when I think about You but to want You all the time, to have the want driving in me, to have it like a cancer in me. It would kill me like a cancer and that would be the Fulfillment.” I am also from the South. I am also a writer. God was never anyone special. No one in my family took religion seriously. Read More »

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Underwear Life: An Interview with Francesco Pacifico

March 12, 2013 | by

9780374270445_p0_v1_s260x420Francesco Pacifico’s novel The Story of My Purity is narrated by Piero Rosini. This Piero seems like most other modern schlubs—thirty, overweight, bourgeois, in a sexless marriage, you know it—but the thing that makes him unusual is his deep belief in Christ. This is the most Catholic narrator in contemporary literature. He is also the funniest Catholic narrator in contemporary literature. And what happens to Piero is some kind of picaresque adventure that takes him from Rome to Paris and beyond, into all the problems of his innocence. What else do you need to know about Piero’s creator? Francesco Pacifico is also a translator from English into Italian, and translation is something we talk about a lot. In fact, he has almost definitely read more fiction in English than you have. And if an inglese italianato is the devil incarnate, then what does that make an italiano americano? I just mean that Francesco Pacifico is one of the least innocent novelists I know.

There’s a moment where Piero says “nobody’s Roman,” and this setting of Rome is crucial to the book’s opening. So my first question is, are you Roman?

I am, and I’m not. I was born in Rome and have lived there all my life. But I don’t know how to cook trippa and pajata, I know nothing of Rome’s cuisine pauvre, my family’s half-assed culinary traditions are half abbruzzese and half everything. My father’s side comes from L’Aquila, Abbruzzio, where my granddad’s family was big during the Fascist era, or so I’m told. My mother’s side is from everywhere, the hills of Sabina, and remotely Spain and France, and they travelled the country as my granddad was an engineer for the electric company—Milan, Genoa, Terni. I don’t feel Roman. You can spot a real Roman from miles. Savvy, gritty, ironic. I’m not.

And now—to keep with first things first—could you talk a little about this theme of purity? It seems such a gorgeously perverse subject for a contemporary novel. What’s the beauty of purity?

I experimented with not having sex for years. And I am a renowned lover of women. There was a time in my midtwenties where I thought of my life as an ongoing piece of performance art, and I realized the big thing I should try was to stop having sex. I had this romantic view of my love for my girlfriend being exalted and enhanced by abstinence. I became impotent. Read More »

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Conspiracy Theories, and Other News

January 15, 2013 | by

  • Literary conspiracy theories, anyone?
  • Paragraph is a new app that curates great short stories. (Yes, we are represented!)
  • And, inevitably, iambic pentameter bots.
  • What would Jesus eat? The subgenre of Christian cookbooks.
  • And ... the National Book Critics Circle finalists are announced.
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    The Other Election

    November 8, 2012 | by

    Computers, phones, radios, televisions, and carrier pigeons are chirping with talk of Tuesday’s hard-fought presidential election. The election is a time-honored American tradition. But long before there were exercises of democracy to occupy our collective attention, Americans were preoccupied with a different kind of election entirely.

    The Pilgrims brought their belief in predestination with them to Plymouth, and the Puritans planted the doctrine in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many are called, they argued, but few are chosen. Those chosen by God for salvation receive mercy, while the reprobate receive the justice they deserve.

    The question of whether or not one had been elected for salvation filled one’s wakeful days and dreaming nights. Read More »

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    Small, Good Things

    September 13, 2012 | by

    One of Mary Oliver’s poems begins “Something has happened / to the bread / and the wine.” A most unusual mystery, the comestibles have not gone the way of the plums in William Carlos William’s “This Is Just to Say.”

    Oliver’s wine and bread, as she explains in the second stanza, “have been blessed.” These two central elements of the Christian faith have been lifted from their ordinariness, isolated in order to show the extraordinariness of even the most ordinary of things. The bread and the wine join water and words to become what believers call sacraments: Eucharist is a sacrament made from staple food and festive drink; baptism is a sacrament made of clean, clear water.

    One way of understanding the sacraments, perhaps best articulated by liturgist Gordon Lathrop, is that simple things become central things. When Christians refer to the bath and the table, they refer not only to the specific sacraments of bathing and eating, but they point also to the sacramental character of every bath and every table. The setting apart of one table and one bath shows forth the splendor of all tables and all baths.

    That setting apart is the calling of Christians but also the vocation of the writer. Read More »

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