No Thanks, I'm Quite Happy with Finitude

"Read the book! Read the book!"

How those words still ring, still make me wince. Apparently religion loses any redemptive value whatsoever unless delivered to the masses at an ear-splitting 120 decibels, in the highest register worthy of a soprano, frequently trumpeted by serrated vocal cords, most always housed within a Southern drawl. A popular misconception when I studied linguistics early in college was that the Appalachian dialect, cut off as it was from the original source, reflected Elizabethan pronunciation. That was later refuted, I believe, and thank goodness. Can you imagine the guy I'm about to describe, intoning:

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate...
In undergraduate days, the gang at 249 Norton Street would gather round the radio every Sunday night at 10:30 to tune in the Old Time Gospel Hour on KAAY out of Little Rock, Arkansas. Unbelievably, this was the same 50,000 watt, clear-channel station which used to air Beaker Street, that bastion of tie-died tee-shirts, suspicious acrid smoke and underground rock, whose patron saint was surely Dr. Timothy Leary. I've described this radio blue microdot more fully in the boisterous chapter Tiny of my memoir. Some station manager certainly understood the concept of prostitution: "you pays your money, you get your show."

So, anyway, we would tune in each Sunday night just to hear what the foes were up to. Oliver B. Greene was the hierophant extraordinaire. To this day, his throat-rending shrieks, which no doubt permanently deformed the plastic diaphragm of whatever cheap Japanese microphone they plopped in front of him on the dais in his Temple, reverberate in my memory. Presumably, thick layers of sputum coated the mic grill. 

While listening to the incoherent rants, I tried to visualize his tabernacle. It was no doubt some hideously stained canvas-sided tent, purchased second-hand from a failed carnival, still reeking from the ejectamenta of humiliated rhinestone-bangled elephants forced to stand on hind legs, or the B.O. of bedraggled sway-backed old paints having borne the burden of overweight busty bleach-blonde barebacks barely belted in bursting bustles, all at least fifty years of age, trying to look twenty--greasy curls (lathered with tar soap once a month whether needed or not), never alluring, except to out-of-work stevedores who don't object to greasepaint applied by a spackling trowel.

That's what my mind's eye always conjured up. Come to think of it, the uses of that imaginary tent probably hadn't changed much in the 75 years it took for the walls to finally succumb to foetid rot. It's all show-biz, isn't it? I mean, what's behind the curtain is never pretty. But that never slowed down the flow of fair-goers in bygone days--and then Dr. Greene's congregants, to be sure.

For religion is performance art, too, just not nearly as entertaining as dancing bears, or clowns squirting each other with water bottles, or exotic Spanish maidens hurling daggers at some idiot in a majordomo's outfit strapped to a spinning oak turntable.

This is the tent I imagined Oliver B. Greene orated within. Actually, it's an indecency to apply that verb here. Religion always embarrasses me, for I was raised a human being through no choosing of my own, pure dumb luck. Humans are supposed to be the "rational animal" and yet they invented religion.

Yes, embarrass is the very word.

You know how at winter Olympic events there is a panel of three judges, each holding numbered cards (0-10), which they flash at the conclusion? In what you're about to hear, I have often envisioned the judges Demosthenes, Cicero and Churchill, surely the premiere rhetoricians ever, tuning in, ready to render their verdict.

What score do you think they awarded?

See for yourself... here is the illustrious speechifier who so enlivened Sunday nights at 249 Norton Street. This two-minute clip says it all: 

Whoa! That cuts to the chase, doesn't it! I can't begin to tell you how many mornings I wake up tossing and turning in a cold sweat after nightmares of locusts. (The smoke from the bottomless pit I can handle, having played countless gigs with the East Side Pharaohs at the Bodega Bar on Front Street.)  But goddammit, how about those relatives who drink and gamble and lie and cheat! What's Oliver bellyaching about? I would have given anything to grow up in an environment like that, close relatives or not.

Apart from all the continual  free sex it provides the lucky few behind the pulpits, knee-tremblers in the confessional as it were, what exactly is the appeal of religion anyway? The study of mathematics has killed far fewer people over the ages (some seven orders of magnitude less by my count) so I guess I'll stick with it as a more wholesome activity.

In any event, why does religion have to be so loud? 

Next installment: Quotation Marks Are Not Saran Wrap

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