Computing Across America, chapter 31
by Steven K. Roberts
Baton Rouge, Louisiana
April 30, 1984
Where it is a duty to worship the sun it is pretty sure to be a crime to examine the laws of heat
— John Morley
Snapshots of God. To label an empty canvas thus is perhaps a bit ambitious, for God is one of those subjects that tends to either draw people in with fists clenched or chase them away entirely. See? Some of you are on guard already, while others are glancing down the page with a sigh to see if this book is on the verge of degenerating into pedantry, rhapsody, or (worst of all) testimony.
But people have diverse ideas about God, and to sidestep them just because it’s an emotional subject would be as unfair as failing to mention Texas after pedaling my ass all the way across the grand and endless thing. Actually, a chapter called “Snapshots of God” could have appeared almost anywhere in here. So why Louisiana? Why not that haven of New Age spiritualism called “New Mexico”?
Well, mostly because it’s not that kind of chapter. And after all, this is the Bible Belt…
I arrived in Baton Rouge after 63 relaxed miles of country roads, riding under a gray almost-rain that could never quite get it together enough to fall on me. I did the first 25 miles or so with John, and just before we parted company he told me about an event that had taken place while I was in N’Awlins on sabbatical.
Angel had been lying across his bed, watching television. Hers is a body of legendary beauty, and he had gazed upon her, mystified at the way tan thigh flowed into white buttock like unto the wondrous passage from dawn into morning. Suddenly he felt the change come over him, felt the power surging through him, felt it happen…
“At that moment,” he told me, “I got religion. ‘Oh Lord, let me be worthy of this!'”
At my first Baton Rouge traffic light, I sat like a good citizen, awaiting the green. Commuters and shoppers peered curiously at me, and “Billie Jean” poured from three or four car radios at once.
To my right, a young man sweating in white shirt and tie stood shouting hoarsely at his captive audience of drivers, holding a Bible in his left hand while exhorting the passing heathens to witness the Word. Some listened; some pointed and giggled.
When the light turned green, he walked back to a friend waiting offstage. He handed over the Bible, and they chatted seriously for a moment, looking in the Book to verify something.
Then the light turned red and it was the other guy’s turn.
I rode to Louisiana State University and nosed about for awhile, as was my custom — stopping here and there to chat and get the flavor of the place.
Needing a new rear tire, I stopped at Precision Bicycles, just off campus. An exuberant and beaming fellow took one look at my bike and offered a place to stay: “I have a roommate, and it’s not much, but we would be honored and blessed by your visit.” He was obviously genuine.
Well OK, why not?
Talk about throwing the lion to the Christians!
I stopped at the apartment to wash away the sweat before dinner, pausing in the living room to look around at the collection of Bibles, pamphlets, religious plaques, crosses, and posters. All of their artifacts were iconographic. I was just coming to the conclusion that I was in the presence of some very hard-core Jesus freaks when my new friends, Paul and Matthew, spirited me off to dinner.
Ah, the Gumbo House. Boudin, gumbo, Shrimp Etouffee, and a beer for me. The food appeared on the table in a swirl of hot evocative smells, and I groped salivating for my spoon. Gumbo. Oh God, look at that gumbo!
Paul gently took my right hand.
Matthew gently took my left. Um, Hello?
And then they began praying — loudly, fervently, passionately. The thread passed back and forth between them like a game of spiritual hacky-sack, growing more elaborate with each volley as the players limbered up. I want my gumbo.
I gazed morosely into the slowly-cooling bowl, my hands imprisoned in the trembling grip of my enraptured hosts. The waitress arrived with a basket of garlic bread, and stood at the table unsure: uh, do I put this down, come back later, close my eyes, or what? I looked at her and shrugged. Hey, at least your hands are free.
People were staring. I had the crazy thought of dropping my face doglike to the bowl and lapping up my gumbo while Paul and Matthew rhapsodized about the miracle of this young man’s journey and the bounty of Thy table.
Gumbo. I want my fucking gumbo. The aroma of Tabasco tickled my nose, and a plump pink shrimp lay half-submerged in the thick stew of okra, rice, chicken, and dark Cajun secrets. A half-split steaming link of boudin beside the bowl spilt its spicy filling onto the plate. Little bubbles burst one by one in the frothy head of my cold beer. My stomach rumbled and the waitress waited; people watched and my hosts prayed.
With a bit of critical-path management, we could have taken care of all this before the food arrived — if we had started immediately after placing our order.
Of course, this is a rather intense part of the country, religiously speaking. It was here that I was handed a copy of Backward Masking Unmasked by Jacob Aranza, a young evangelist from Lafayette. The subject? “The tragic, shocking truth of rock ‘n roll music.”
I browsed the alarmist volume, discovering that songs by such diverse artists as Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Seals & Crofts, and even John Denver (oh, come on!) are anti-Christian, and that many of them contain backward Satanic messages. Black Sabbath maybe… but John Denver?
“Stairway to Heaven” was a classic example. Aranza called attention to the lyrics: “Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run there’s still time to change the road you’re on, and it makes me wonder…” What does this say when played backwards?
“There’s no escaping it. It’s my sweet Satan. The one will be the path who makes me sad, whose power is Satan.”
Perhaps 0.1 percent of the population will actually be moved to try this — the book is thus easy to accept as gospel (especially in the Bible Belt). After all, it’s by “one of the outstanding young ministers of America.”
If your expectations are strong enough, you can also see Jesus in a tortilla or prayers in a bowl of Alpha-Bits. Both have been well documented.
Don’t laugh. Only a year before, Bethany Baptist Church on the north end of Baton Rouge had staged a public record-burning. This sort of thing is not a joke around here.
And then there was Luke.
Luke’s not his name, and he wasn’t actually in Baton Rouge, so please don’t try to look him up. This is one of the more troublesome occurrences of the real people issue — a case where I could wreck a person’s career by revealing his actual identity. I think that would be rude after the warm hospitality he offered.
Luke was a Christian, all the way — he even taught science at a Christian school. He had been raised in Bible-belt fundamentalism, excelled in the performance of Christian music, and participated daily in prayer services. He was friendly, good-looking, and intelligent.
Somewhere in the Bible belt, we met. He gave me a place to stay, and our conversation ranged from the joys of sex to the motivations that underlie the creation of religions. These subjects proved us to be of vastly different worlds.
And so it came to pass that it was bedtime. I began unfolding the couch in his living room as the conversation grew strangely intimate. I kept getting hints that he was gay, but nawww… he couldn’t be — this guy was a hard-core Christian. But when he finished reading a short story of mine called “The Saxophone Man,” he said that the writing made him want to have sex with the author, that “anyone who could move me this much in five pages has to be an exquisite lover.” Hmm.
I tried to keep things philosophical. He shivered and alluded to the cold draft from the air-conditioner, eyeing me cozy under the covers. He compared the feel of male and female bodies, and observed that guys give better head. Oh no…
Suddenly he swallowed hard and huskily said, “Uh, Steve, this isn’t a sexual advance, but would you like to share a bed tonight?”
“Well, Luke, since that wasn’t a sexual advance, then this isn’t a rejection: No.”
Naturally, we talked about it. He was leading two lives: one in the Church, the other in an adult bookstore where anonymous oral encounters took place in the 25-cent movie booths. “I’m kind of a desired commodity,” he said with a wink.
“Luke, isn’t that a sexual sin or something? How can you reconcile a promiscuous gay sex life with fundamentalist beliefs?”
“What? I’m as straight as they come! Oh, those blowjobs? Well, with guys it’s just whoredom, but with girls it’s love-centered.”
A repressive culture that forbids the touching of women… who knows what might happen to raging youthful hormones in such a setting? I was reminded of the time, at the tender and still-virginal age of 17, when I had to fend off the advances of a fortyish priest who plucked me off the street and offered me “a more congenial place to stay” while I was waiting for a job on the barges near Chicago. I was anything but Catholic and had no reason to see the guy as larger-than-life, but yikes… he had smooth moves. He seemed genuinely hurt when I left to find a cheap hotel.
Dinner conversation over gumbo that first night in Baton Rouge had been loud and energetic — my hosts delivering their personal testimonies with the adrenalin-pumping bright-eyed fiery fervor of Rapture itself. I began to realize that they were serious.
Back in their apartment, with honeyed religious vocal and guitar on the stereo, I overheard Matthew telling Paul with love and compassion that he might perhaps be a bit overwhelming in the presence of others whose testimony is not as dramatic as his own. (He was rescued by God from the jaws of prison and the Satanic grip of drug addiction.)
“If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t tell you,” Matthew said gently. “It’s so hard sometimes.”
“Thank you for caring, and for sharing those thoughts with me…” and then there were weeping sounds, prayer, a love song to Jesus, and a discussion of how best to handle the next day’s Bible study.
Ah, those abrupt cultural readjustments! Was it only 24 hours since the end of the complex Hammond soap opera, a few days since erotic New Orleans decadence? I walked into their kitchen for a drink of grape juice and there was Paul in the living room, praying alone in the dark, his head down on the couch while syrupy music dripped out of the stereo system and puddled around his knees.
It was morning with Matthew, running errands around Baton Rouge, stopping for first-rate coffee and second-rate beignets. He was going out of his way to help me pick up a mail drop, buy parts at Radio Shack, and find a Xerox machine, and as we cruised around town we talked of life. The conversation returned to God as surely as had the farmers’ talk returned to strawberries.
“So, uh, how do you like your Toyota?” I asked, trying again.
“This car is a blessing straight from God,” he explained, piloting the old Corolla along Goodwood. “I was walking one day, thinking about my life, and I said, ‘Lord, I need a car, and I need it bad.’ That day I found her, and two weeks later I got the loan. Praise God.”
“I took her to Mexico,” he continued after my somewhat inadequate acknowledgment of the Miracle, “on a trip dedicated to the Lord. God directed a hitchhiker to come to me and put the Love into my heart to show him the Word…” Etcetera.
“Matthew,” I asked, “are all events caused by God? Is every random occurrence of daily life a miracle?”
He beamed at me, gaunt but joyful. “Absolutely!”
“God brought me to you, God makes gumbo appear on the table, and God’s making that woman over there blow her nose?”
His face clouded for a moment. It was clear I would be a difficult case. “Yes.”
I watched him closely. I had always thought that people with such beliefs were playing some kind of game, but I had never really paid attention to them before. He was absolutely serious. He lived in a religion that answered all the questions, cleared up all the mysteries, and provided powerful social support from others who believe likewise. The abdication of personal responsibility called “faith” is almost enviable, when you think about it.
I acknowledged that I don’t have all the answers; he stated that the universe obviously calls for an almighty being.
I spoke of the internal spark of human consciousness; he spoke of an external God.
I suggested that perhaps God is a creation of man, a way to attach a graspable notion to things unspeakable. I mentioned that religion sets the stage for guilt and failure — and that acknowledging autonomy need not leave one floundering in a faithless void. He shook his head sadly and affirmed the opposite.
But at least we could talk. I once made the mistake of reasoning with a couple of door-to-door Jehovah’s Witnesses, and one of them said, “Oh, I see you’re an intellectual. All intellectuals think like that.” Then she reached in her bag of tricks and handed me a pamphlet, specially tailored to set thinkers straight.
Yes, I suppose there’s a lot to be said for belief systems that tie everything together. Until relatively recently, Catholics believed in a sort of “spiritual economy,” with God keeping a tally sheet. It was an elegantly simple system: you accumulated sins in the liabilities column and good works in the assets column, whereupon a heavenly Lotus 1-2-3 software package would assess your bottom line and determine your eternal fate.
And if things began to get grim, you could appeal to the saints — exceptionally good people with a huge spiritual credit balance.
But all religions have one thing in common: a system of beliefs that imposes order on the infinite universe. Whether it’s spiritual bookkeeping, a Big Guy upstairs, a rigid moral code, or a step-by-step path to enlightenment, they all help people deal with (or at least ignore) that basic unspoken question…
What’s this all about, anyway?