I know us blond action figure babes aren’t supposed to worry our pretty little heads with deep thoughts, but I sometimes find myself getting a philosophical problem in my teeth and having to worry it around for awhile like a dog with a hambone. You see this stuff that’s really huge, but nobody’s got an answer to it and it’s making people miserable. And you have to at least think it over a time or two.
The big one that’s barked at my heels my whole life (and actually seems to be getting worse) is this idea that the Spirit is some separate thing from the Flesh. And that it’s really good and all the mortal, physical, carnal stuff is shabby and second rate, if not actually evil and life-threatening. I’ve started to see this as one of the major issues that drives the world crazy and thwarts our souls.
In a lot of ways Baptists have it worse than most. Though there are those in even worse fixes for getting the minds fucked. The mind sort of generally being seen as the intermediary between these two opposite poles of physical and spiritual. Some sort of buffer state or No Girl’s Land. So what are you going to do but think it over? And what I could never think of is why one gets to be Good and the other has to be Dirty.
When I talk about Baptist excesses towards the Perils of Flesh, I’m talking about all the stuff they’re down on as being worldly snares and pitfalls. Most Protestant faiths take a dim view of drinking and fornication and nudity and drugs and such. But where Baptists are famous for taking it to extremes is dancing. Dancing will send you to hell just as quick as boffing the organist. Now think about that for a second. God says people shouldn’t dance? Is that sane? It’s one of the most beautiful, joyous things a human can do. You see little tiny girls hearing music, or even just getting happy about something and what do they do? They start dancing around. It’s an instinctive reaction to joy and love and all the things that lift your spirits.
I later found out that God didn’t actually say dance is bad in so many words. In fact, if you watched “Footloose” you probably know the Bible is just full of situations where people danced to praise the Lord. They just made up the whole “don’t dance” thing. The bastards. In their defense, I will say that it’s not so much solo boogying around that they condemn: it’s two people dancing together. Especially touching. Most especially of they’re dancing horizontal with no clothes on. Only kidding a little, because the Southern Baptist Convention tends to see all that as the same thing. They read two people waltzing together, much less doing the tango or lambada, as some sort of music-abetted foreplay. And, of course, it often is. But that’s no reason to tell kids not to go to sock hops and proms and raves.
At some point I figured out that the wickedness wasn’t in dancing itself: it was in what messed-up, nasty little minds saw in it. I think almost anybody looking at it would realize that. It’s not filthy for kids to want to get out there and shuffle, better yet to glide around holding each other. Duh. But you could make it that way by just putting on your “dirty glasses”. Which wouldn’t be that different from those X-ray specs you see for sale on the internet. Capable of looking through girls clothes, but not their underclothes. Or skin, come to think on it. Even X-ray technology has a boner for Dirty Undies.
But back to Deacons vs. Dancing, it seems to me to fit one of my MeeMaw’s old hominy grits sayings, “Any bugs in this house, you brung ’em.” What psychologists call “projection”. Fancy scientific term for “as within, so without.” You see what you are.
Meanwhile, what I was noticing was all of these beautiful things all around me. Even living in crappy little Deep South hogwallows. Anywhere you look, really. The sky lighting up at sunset, flowers, animals, other people. All this beauty all around. And if I could see it, it meant it was physical. And a lot of the really beautiful stuff was made out of flesh and blood. I had the usual thing for horses. They were so beautiful they damn near made me choke up or tear up to watch them sometimes. I mean, there it was. Beautiful flesh out there. But where were all these beautiful spirit things that were supposed to be better for us? And why did them being so much better mean there was something wrong with the real stuff than any half-wit could see was beautiful? There was a period in my life when I was sort of scouting for spirit beauty, spirit Good. And having trouble identifying it. And grown-ups were worthless. You ask them about it and they’d get all vague and start droning off about Lordly things stored up in your heart or heaven or some other unreal estate you couldn’t check out. The only thing I could think of when somebody mentioned spirit was this really, completely, tacky white dove.
I can’t remember which church it was in, but one of the bigger ones where Daddy was called to serve. And since they got steadily littler and grubbier, the dove church must have been somewhere we were when I was pretty little. They had this permanent baptismal font back behind the pulpit, and sort of up above the choir. In case you’re a Catholic or some kind of kneeling congregational, I don’t mean some little holy water fountain. I’m talking about something the size of a large hot tub where the pastor could stand waist deep, wearing his Herter’s hip waders and long white robe.
Because that’s the main event that Baptists are all about, right there. Baptism by immersion. It’s supposed to be a symbol for drowning your sins and emerging into the light, but they want to play it out in full dress rehearsal, full practice with pads. Daddy was one enthusiastic baptizer. He’d take newbies about to be born again and dunk them down until they were thrashing, praying over their soul the whole time. There was a joke, usually in black dialect, about a preacher dunking some sinner giving over his life to Christ. The preacher kept dunking him under and yelling, “Do you believe?” The guy would say, “Yes, preacher, I believes!” Then he’d get dunked again, and come up to hear old God’s Trombone yelling, “Do you believe?” About the third time, he got his head up, sputtering and spitting and the pastor called out, “Do you believe?” and he says, “Yes, preacher, I believes you’re trying to drown my black ass!”
They attach a lot of meaning to this, considering it’s just supposed to be a metaphor. Kind of like the Catholics saying that a cracker turns into the actual physical flesh of Christ (which for some reason is Flesh without being evil and corrupt). I remember this one revival preacher who put my daddy to shame on the entire issue. Let me explain that revivals are not regular services. They are held a few times a year and are sort of special events with visiting rockstar preachers and sometimes singers and musicians. It’s a sort of pep rally for the spirit, to revive your faith. They issue an invitation and if a dozen people don’t come forth to dedicate their lives to Jesus, it’s a failure. Maybe some people will bring their letter, which is sort of a license or pedigree from some other church saying, Yeah, he professed and we dunked him, so he’s good for membership, but that’s small potatoes compared to winning of new souls. So we’d get to hear somebody preaching other than daddy, which was almost always interesting, if not totally depressing. Because Daddy was not a great speaker. In fact, he was a bit of a dud. He was very smart, and knew the Bible frontward, backward and sideways, and nobody ever once in his life said he didn’t have a heart as big as the moon. But he was a snooze to listen to.
Not so the preacher-man I’m talking about. He was a ranter and raver of the Billy Graham school, with a golden baritone, wavy hair, and moves to burn. And the big thing that stuck him in my mind was his opinion on Baptism, and how the Catholics (who weren’t even considered Christians by most of us, which I thought was ironic since they invented the whole thing) were dead wrong about their feeble way of Baptizing a body. The way he put it, leaning over the pulpit at us and wrapping our heads in every word, was: “The Catholics (and you could hear the sneering quotes around the word) would have us believe that you can Baptize you, can wash away your sins, can celebrate the death of your old, sinful life and rebirth as a saved member of the body of Christ, by sprinkling some water over your head.” He paused a long, pregnant moment to let us savor the error and fundamental failure of that wickedly seductive concept before jerking upright and yelling, “Why, what would you think if you were to die and somebody propped your body up and sprinkled some dirt on your head and told you, ‘Brother, you just had yourself a funeral.’?”
So what I’m saying, they took the whole dunking thing pretty damned serious and didn’t mind going to some extra trouble and expense that not a tiny bit you stayed dry while you were getting your sins laundered. You were flat-out dirty laundry without the bleaching and enzyme detergent action of Jesus, and it couldn’t be handled in any half-assed manner. So they had their permanent dunking basin up there, and every couple of months there’d be enough backlock of newly saved sheep to do the trick. Daddy would get on his waders and robe, the newbies would all have nice white choir robes on with not much underneath, and they’d troop down one by one into the water, where Daddy would take them in his hands and lay them down into the water and drown their transgressions for ever in the everlasting fountain of blood flowing from the Savior’s veins.
Or more evidently, the lukewarm water in the Baptismal. This, you have to admit, is the signal moment in the life of a Christian. This is IT, what “Born Again” is all about. And this one Church burned that in pretty graphically. The sanctuary was very dimly lit and the only real light came from a spotlight focused on the gleaming white wall behind the Baptistery. And like I say, there was this white dove painted there, with kind of shimmering gold light around it. And when Daddy plunged the sinner under the water, they would dim the spotlight and somehow the dove would glow in the darker air, surrounded by the gold sheen. Then the light would come back up and the sinner would pop out trying not to gasp for breath, and enter his new life. I have to admit, it was pretty impressive. I would go goo-goo eyed every time. Even Pow would shut up and quit pinching us and playing in his pockets. Selah would go into spiritual conniptions. It’s a good thing Bethany wasn’t around then or she’d have had some sort of Jesus orgasms and ascended right on the spot.
But I couldn’t really pick up on much else to identify as spiritual beauty in the world. And at some point it popped into my head (dangled there, no doubt, by the Devil) that if the things of the Flesh are so much poorer and less Godly than the spirit, then why baptize our bodies at all? Why not just pull them in to some psychic car wash somewhere and scrub the pure spirit? I finally figured out that they saw baptism as a metaphor, a physical symbol (or idol, when you think about it) of the single major event of the spirit. And that they saw dancing as a metaphor for fornication in the mind.
I didn’t mean to get all churchy on you here, but this little face-off has bugged me my entire life. I ended up giving my life over to the Flesh in a big way. Not only glorifying in my physical beauty and nasty sensations, but actually selling tickets to the temple of my body. And I still kind of grope around, wondering what spiritual properties are out there that we can treasure more than the physical ones. But it always comes back to the same place for me. Beauty may be a physical thing that we only appreciate with our bodily senses, but it moves something in us, and raises our spirit. So it’s no big surprise that I ended up getting all wrapped up in beauty pageants.