The Metacultural Gospel

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A Cord of Seven Strands
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I want to tell you about my best friend, Nathaniel. When we were getting to know each other, Nathaniel told me that he was God come down in human form. I thought for a moment and said, “If that’s true, you aren’t doing a very good job of it.” He laughed, and said, “You’re probably right.”

Where can I begin to describe him? Perhaps you’ve had this experience. When there’s someone you don’t know very well, it’s easy to say “Yeah, I know him. He’s that hockey player who tells the worst puns.” But when it’s someone you’re close to, best-buddies intimate with, then words fail you. I could begin by saying, “Nathaniel was a construction worker,” which would leave most people with two impressions. The first impression is that he was strong and had calloused hands, which is true. The second impression is that he wasn’t much in the brains department, which is out-and-out false. He didn’t have too much in the way of formal schooling — stopped after getting his high school diploma — but Nathaniel was absolutely brilliant. I still remember the time when I had him over at my place, reached on my shelf, pulled out the Oxford Companion to Philosophy, and read aloud the entry for ‘aestheticism’, and then began a devastating critique. I don’t remember his whole argument, but the first part pointed out that there was an assumed and unjustified opposition between aesthetic and other (i.e. instrumental) attitudes, with an argument that seemed to challenge aestheticism by pointing out that there are other ways of viewing art. He asked if one would challenge the activity of working by pointing out the legitimacy of eating and sleeping. Nathaniel was the first kindred spirit I found in philosophy and other things; he challenged and stretched me, but he was the first person I met who had also thought things I thought no one else would ever understand.

I’d like to explain a little more about the conversation where I told him that if he was God come down in human form, he wasn’t doing a very good job of it. How can I put this? It wasn’t that he was inhuman — certainly not the sort of thing usually conjured by the term ‘inhuman’, with some sort of indecency or cruelty or monstrosity. He was human — he just challenged my conceptions of what it meant to be human. (I thought I was unusual!) Being with him was like realizing one had woken up in a different world — in so many little ways. He fit in, but he wasn’t like anybody else.

One of my first shocks came when I saw him chatting, naturally and freely, with some support staff at my office. At first I thought that they were for some reason old friends of his, but he disabused me of that notion. When we talked about it afterwards, I realized the extent to which I had treated support staff like part of the furniture. He seemed to be able to talk with everyone — young (he’s one of few adults I’ve known who could enter a child’s world and really play), old, rich, poor, American, international, it didn’t matter. He could enter the house of a Klu Klux Klansman for dinner and then leave and spend the rest of the evening with a follower of Minister Farrakahn — being on friendly terms with both. He was very good at entering other people’s worlds — but he had very much his own world. And there were a thousand little things about it — like how, in his letters, he always wrote ‘I’ as ‘i’ and ‘you’ as ‘You’.

I was talking with him about Harold Bloom’s treatment of cultures as caves (as per Plato’s “Allegory of the Television, er, Cave”), when I came to the strangest realization. Nathaniel did and did not live in a culture. He did live in American culture in the sense that he spoke the language, literally and figuratively, enjoyed hamburgers, and couldn’t handle chopsticks to save his life. You might say that he spoke the culture as would a foreign anthropologist who had given it a lot of study, but I wouldn’t. He owned American culture. But at the same time, he didn’t pick up any of its blind spots. I had given some thoughts to something I call metaculture — something that happens when a kid grows up exposed to multiple cultures, or when someone is really smart and just doesn’t think like anyone else does, and doesn’t breathe his host culture the way most people do. I had been aware of something metacultural in myself, where I felt like I was a composite of cultures and eras, with something that wasn’t captured in any single one of them. I was groping towards something from below, when he had it, all of it, from above. Where I started to climb up to the mouth of the cave, he descended from the world above and met me. I had thought about the phrase “the wave of the past” as an inversion of “the wave of the future”, challenging the worship and even concept of modern progress, where each age gets better than the one before; I had been aware of something of real merit grasped by ages past that have been lost in our mad pursuits. And then Nathaniel showed me the wave of Heaven.

Nathaniel spent most of his life as a construction worker. He did a better job at seeming ordinary than I do at least; only his mother Camilla seemed to be able to even guess at who he really was. His family was visiting someone at Wheaton College, and — before I go further, there’s something I need to explain about Wheaton.

Wheaton College is a devout place, a religious Harvard if you will. And their approach to religion has its quirks. The temperance movement, which condemned God’s creation of alcohol as evil, made a practice of having people sign a Pledge to abstain from alcohol. Wheaton College is one of few places where that practice is alive, and required of every member. Of course they say that they are not making a moral condemnation, but only a prudential measure, but their actions, even what they call their prohibition (which forbids most dancing as well), are deafening.

At the reception, they ran out of soda, and ran out of punch. Camilla kept tugging on Nathaniel’s sleeve and asking him to do something. Finally he told them to fill a cooler with tap water — then drew off a cup of the beverage and sent it to the administrator in charge.

It was champagne.

The champagne was dumped, the cooler rinsed out, and filled with water, and it somehow held champagne again. I was embarrassed enough to be drinking champagne (the best I ever tasted) out of a plastic cup. But the administration had a more serious embarrassment to deal with — but I am getting off topic. I was impressed with their response — they are better than their Pledge — and Nathaniel was still welcome on their campus after that happened.

There are other cases where response to his eccentricities did not receive such a positive response. There was one time when we were visiting a really big church, and (after some really impressive instrumental music) the lights were dimmed, and an overhead projector began to display all sorts of computer graphics, and then there was a gunshot, and another, and another; the overhead image disappeared. The gunshots continued; someone turned on the lights, and there was Nathaniel, holding a powerful handgun, shooting the projector. (It was such a strange thing to see a pacifist holding a gun.) I think he emptied a total of about three clips into it, before putting the gun into his pocket. The people around him were cringing in fear, but not terror, or perhaps you could say terror, but not fear; they were afraid, but not of the gun. I think some of them were a little afraid of whatever would make a man angry enough to fire a gun in a church.

About that time, the pastor got over being stunned and glared at him and asked, “How dare you fire a gun in my sanctuary?” He glared back and said, “How dare you take God’s sanctuary and making it into a circus? This is supposed to be a house of prayer and worship for all people, and you are making it into mere amusement, a consumer commodity. Is this church set up because these people do not have televisions, that they can flip on and be titillated? Church is a place to disciple men and conform them to God, not a place to conform religion so that it will appeal to spoiled brats. The reason that you are losing people to MTV is that you are doing a second rate job of being an MTV, not a first rate job of being a church. Cleanse this place of your vaudeville filth and make it a place where men are drawn into God’s presence to glorify him and enjoy him forever. If not, much worse awaits you than bullet holes in your projector.”

There was another time, when we were out of town for Easter and he came to the city’s First Baptist. Everybody was wearing business suits and really nice dresses — everybody but Nathaniel. Nathaniel was comfortably arrayed in bluejeans, a plain white T-shirt, and big, heavy, black steel-toed workboots.

There was an invisible stir, and about five minutes into the sermon the pastor stopped, and said, “Young man, I suppose you’d like to explain why the best you can give God on the holiest day of the year is clothing that teenagers wear to McDonald’s.”

Nathaniel, with perfect composure, said, “Yes, indeed. God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in Spirit and in truth, not in this set of clothing or that set of clothing, nor in this or that outer form of worship or ceremonial observance, nor some particular style of music. You don’t know who you are worshipping, if you think (because you can worship God by wearing nice clothes) that nice clothes are necessary for worship. The hour is coming, is indeed already here, when God seeks worshippers who will worship him beyond the external shells that their particular traditions have associated with worship. God is calling. Are you ready to answer?”

It was not long after that that we were out in a van, going to this camp. Duncan was driving; Duncan is a devout man, and a proud graduate of Jehu’s Driving School. He was blasting down the highway, which was virtually empty, and everyone but Nathaniel was involved in a very intense discussion; Nathaniel (don’t ask me how he does this) was in the back seat, with his head up against a pillow, sleeping. By then I noticed that a wind was rocking our car, and I realized why we were all alone on the road. There was a terrific thunderstorm going on all around, and as I looked out the window there was a flash of lightning, and several of us saw this big twister coming right at the van. I was barely collected enough to jump to the back of the van and shake Nathaniel awake, and asked, “Don’t you care if we die?!?” Nathaniel seemed irritated at having been woken up, and asked, “What’s the matter? Don’t you have any faith?” Then he turned to the storm — or the twister, at any rate, and said, “Peace!” And then, all of a sudden, everything stopped. The wind died down, the tornado dissipated, and within minutes we could see the sun shining. It was at that point that I wet my pants.

You have to understand, we were more scared after the storm stopped than before. Before then, we had a purely natural fear, the fear that we could quite possibly die. That was fear enough — I don’t mean to downplay it — but afterwards we had a purely supernatural fear, the fear that stemmed from watching a ?man? issue commands to inanimate nature and be immediately obeyed. Vulgar and base fears are about what harm can be done. There is a deeper fear that is a kind of awe, the kind of fear we sometimes experience in diminished form when we enter the presence of someone we respect. And at that point we were absolutely terrified. I don’t think we would have been any less scared had he already told us that he was God the Son, clothed in flesh just like you or me; at that point, it was as if a veil was lifted, and we got a tiny glimpse into the glory, the splendor, the light that were hidden in this friend who we ate with, who we talked with, and who could pin any two of us in wrestling. Tiny glimpse as it was, it seared our eyes; in retrospect, I’m surprised nobody fainted.

After Nathaniel let us have a couple of minutes to watch the storm dissipate and let us become properly terrified, he did one of the strangest things you could think of. He rebuked us for our lack of faith. At the time, I just sat there, stunned (so did everyone else), but afterwards, I began to have a glimpse into who he was, into his world, into the world that he invited me and invites you.

I am a metacultural, which means in part that I am able to think of my culture, and shift my own position in relation to it and other cultures. One of the things I had been thinking about is the strength of scientism in Western culture as it is now and has been for some time (not all of its history — not by a long shot). Many cultures have been cultures in which people can see ghosts, even if they’re not there — they are open to the supernatural; it is real to them. American culture is a culture in which people can’t see ghosts, even if they’re really there — we are closed to the supernatural; it isn’t real to us. Contemporary American culture is the result of monumental efforts to shut out the tiniest glimmer of anything supernatural; this affects not only how people think, but on a more fundamental level what they are and are not able to do. And metacultural awareness, and conscious rejection, of the effects of scientism does not translate into an immediate freedom in one’s emotions to believe in miracles.

The sobriety of a recovering alcoholic — hard-earned, the result of swimming upstream — is qualitatively different from the sobriety of someone who has never had a problem with alcohol. For the latter person, sobriety is something that flows easily, something that is almost automatic; for the former, it is something that is difficult, possible only as the result of vigilance. Something of the quality of this difference exists between many cultures of days gone by (and other parts of the world) and our own culture, with regards to belief in the supernatural. There have been places that have breathed the supernatural in ways that are not naturally open to us — and Nathaniel was at least a step beyond that. Sometimes I wondered — still do — at the task before us — as if we were recovering alcoholics, and he brought a bottle of 151, gave us each a shot glass, and said, “You are all going to drink some amount of this beverage and then stop, and not slip into drunkenness.” That’s something you do with people who don’t have a problem with alcohol. It’s not something you do with alcoholics. But then, it was just like Nathaniel to believe that we could do things we never would have been able to do by ourselves. And I trust him enough to believe that there was method in what seemed either madness or else the most profound naïveté: “C’mon. I as God incarnate can easily stop a tornado. Why could you possibly be afraid?” Over time, I have even been able to catch glimpses of the method to this divine madness. Beauty is forged in the eye of the beholder; when someone like that trusts you, he makes you worthy of his trust, even if you are not worthy of such trust to begin with.

Anyways, we got to the camp without (further) event, and went into a room; Nathaniel jumped up into the top bunk of the bed in the corner, and curled up so that he was sitting Indian style with his back in the corner, moving his fingers about as if he were playing a keyboard. (This is one of many facets of his private world that people who met him in public might never guess at, but he let his guard down around people who knew him. I’m not even going to try to document all his eccentricities; suffice it to say that this sort of thing was as natural with him as sitting on a chair.)

After changing my pants, I asked him, “What are you working on?”

He thought for a second, and said, “I’m trying to make a free translation of Bach’s Little Fugue in G Minor into English. I think there’s more of a connection between the muses than we think, enough so to make translation possible in some cases, if not nearly as easy or universal as translation between natural languages. Have you ever had a basic insight that could have found expression in different forms? I am not exactly trying to translate the finished product of Bach’s fugue, as to express in language what Bach chose to express in music.”

I asked, “What do you have so far?”

He played the theme and said, “Not much. I’m still trying to figure out whether to translate it as poetry or logic.” He paused, and said, “What’s on your mind?”

I said, “I was just thinking about church last Sunday. Most of the time I can ignore bad music, but this time the music was bad enough to be a distraction to worship. Why is it that most of the time-honored tunes we use to worship God were never intended to be sung sober, and most contemporary music does not reach even that standard? I don’t want to impose a burden on people of ‘You must appreciate highbrow music to worship here,’ but it seems that there is already a burden of ‘You must endure terrible music to worship here.’ I know that good music does not make worship, but it seems to me that bad music can break worship. If that music were translated into words, the result would be poorly written and poorly thought out.”

Nathaniel looked at me and said, “Sean, the brokenness of this world makes things goofy. I am setting something in motion that will rock the world. Until my work is consummated, until I have returned in glory, there will always be problems. You can see these things perhaps a little more readily than most people; you suffer from them too. You are right to be grieved; the same things grieve me. But you can still live in a world where worship is diminished, where there are laws punishing beggars for begging. The just have always walked by faith with a pure heart, regardless of how much vice is in the world around them. And they have never left my Father’s care.”

It was after that that we had a really good talk, and I viewed my metaculture differently after that point. I had seen it as a separation between myself and most of mankind; I started to see it as a way of being human, and a part of the catholic plan of salvation, even a part of the tools God was choosing to limit himself to in bringing salvation to the world. And I was able to understand how and why Nathaniel respected the monocultural majority as easily as he did.

In the morning, after a night’s dream-thought about metaculture, monoculture, and catholicity, I punched his bunk and said, “Hey, Nathaniel! How many metaculturals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

He said, “I don’t know, Sean. How many?”

I said, “It takes fifteen:

  • One to evaluate the meaning of the custom of replacing burnt out light bulbs and think of possible alternatives,
  • one to drive off to a store to buy a fluorescent replacement to an incandescent heat bulb, judging the higher price worth the lessened environmental degradation and longer time to replace the bulb with one like it,
  • one to read McLuhan and light a small votive candle, preferring the meaning of a candle to that of a light bulb,
  • one to go outside under God’s light and God’s ceiling to see as men have seen for the other two million, four hundred ninety-nine thousand, and nine hundred years of human existence,
  • one child to pull up a ladder, unscrew the bulb, and then dissect it to see how it works and whether he can get it working again,
  • one tinkerer to assemble a portable light center with ten 120-watt bulbs, wired in parallel, powered by an uninterruptable power supply and a backup generator,
  • five Society-for-Creative-Anachronism style re-enactor-ish metaculturals to try to use the occasion to grasp problem solving as understood by the monocultural mindset — one of them holding the bulb, and the other four turning the ladder,
  • one critic to point out that, of the last two segments, one wastes an excessive amount of money that could be put to better use, and the other is elitist and demeaning, monoculturalism being a legitimate and God-given form of human existence that has merits metaculturals cannot share in,
  • one to observe the variety of facets of the process of changing a bulb into a list, to become an immortal e-mail forward among metaculturals,
  • one to say, ‘This joke is taking way too long and is far too complex,’ and change the light bulb, and
  • one to stick her tongue out at him and say, ‘Spoilsport!'”

Without missing a beat, Nathaniel asked, “How many monoculturals does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

I thought for several minutes, trying to think of a good answer, and said, “I give up. How many?”

“One. You’re making things far too complex and missing what’s in front of your nose.”

The problem with people like Nathaniel is that they’re just too smart.

We went to breakfast in the dining hall, and after breakfast Nathaniel went up to speak. He cleared his throat and said, “Good morning. Do we have any feminists here? Good. In what I have to say, I’m going to draw heavily on a concept feminism has articulated, namely that rape happens and it should be worked against.

“The human psyche exists in such a way that rape is a devastating psychological wound. It’s not just like the sting of a scorpion, where you have a terrible pain for part of a day and then life goes on as it was before; it is a crushing blow after which things are not the same. Perhaps with counseling there can be healing, but it’s not something that gets all better just because time passes. Rape is worse than any physical pain; it is a different and fundamentally deeper, more traumatic kind of pain, a pain of a different order.

“I don’t know of anyone, feminist or not, who believes in rape because he wants to, because he hopes to live in a world where such things exist. Everyone I’ve talked with would much rather believe that there is nothing so dark. But it does exist, and disbelief won’t make it go away. That is why feminists are going to heroic efforts to promote awareness of rape, to tell people to be careful so that at least some rapes can be prevented.

“I am here tonight to warn you about a place, which I will call Rape because I know of no more potent image to name it. In fact, it is worse than rape, beyond even how rape is worse than a sting. I have given up much, more than you can imagine, to come here, and I will endure much, more than you can imagine, to finish my work, for one reason: to save you all from Rape. If you believed as I believe, you would crawl across America on broken glass to save people.

“You were created spotless, without flaw, and then you wounded yourselves and began to die. It is a fatal wound, one that causes your bodies to lose their animation after seventy years or so, and one that has far worse effects than the destruction of your bodies. Your consciousness will not end when you die; it will rot in a fashion that is beyond death, beyond rape, and it will rot forever. You are all headed for Rape, every one of you, unless you believe in me.

“There is much more I have to tell you, much more that I would like to tell you, grander things about a place of light and love. But that comes only after passing through this doorway. There is a place called Rape, and it is real, and it is more wretched than any vision of torment you can imagine, and I have come to save you from it. Follow me if you want to live.”

There was a fairly long and stunned silence after that point; all of the feminists were enraged that a man would take the concept of rape which belonged to feminism and trivialize it like that. All but one. Cassandra neither regarded the concept of rape as belonging to feminism in the sense of an exclusively owned property that others dare not tread on, nor regarded Nathaniel’s speech as trivializing rape. At all. This earned censure from the other feminists. She began to follow Nathaniel after that point; she didn’t quite believe his conclusions yet, but she had real insight into what would prompt a man to dare to say something like that.

As I reflect back, I can see how someone like Cassandra could live a very lonely life.

That night, Cassandra asked Nathaniel, “What is your favorite movie?”

Nathaniel thought for a second and said, “I don’t really have a favorite movie, but I was just thinking for a second about a movie idea that nobody has produced.”

Cassandra asked, “What’s that?”

Nathaniel said, “Opening scene, there is a prisoner shackled inside a dungeon cell, with armed guards posted around. Then it shows the hero and his assistants, armed with M-16 assault rifles and one silenced sniper rifle. They sneak up to the complex, the sniper neutralizing three watchmen along the way. One of the men knocks over a glass bottle, and chaos breaks loose when someone hears them and sounds the alarm. There is a big firefight, villainous henchmen dropping like flies. The hero releases the prisoner, and radios for a helicopter to come and pick them up.

“As the last of the hero’s friends jump on board the helicopter, one last henchman comes running out, firing a shotgun at the helicopter. The hero takes a .45 caliber handgun, and blasts away his knee.

“The rest of the movie slows down from the action-adventure pace so far, and follows the henchman. For the remaining hour and a half, the movie explores exactly what that one gunshot means to him for the remaining forty years of his life.”

Cassandra stood silent for a moment. I could see in her eyes that she was seeing the movie. Nobody said anything for a while; then Nathaniel said, “I want to talk with you more. I need some time by myself now, and then we can really talk.”

Nathaniel would depart from us, heading off where nobody could find him, to pray and be with God. This time it was over a month before he returned, and when he did, he looked like a skeleton with skin on — but he had this glow. He was very quiet, and it was a few days before he talked with us about what had happened.

He walked into the wilderness, until he came to a place under some evergreens, by a lake, and by a large stone. He slept on the stone at night, sitting and standing and wandering around in the forest during the day, and praying all the while. He had a sense that something was going to happen — something big, something that would take all of his strengths.

At the end of that time, he was starving, and (on a fifty degree day) hypothermic. He sat there, hungry, shivering, when the Slanderer appeared before him and said, “If you are God and not just a man, strengthen your body so that it will never be touched by hunger or cold, and then you will be freed from physical distractions to pursue your ministry.”

Nathaniel said, “I have come as a real man, with real flesh that feels real pain. My ministry is not furthered by selling it out. I would rather die as a real man than have a long ministry by having an inconsistent make-believe body that only affects me so far as is convenient.”

The Slanderer said, “You know, that movie idea of yours was something deep. How would you like to be able to make as many movies as you want, to have whatever influence over television and radio, newspapers, magazines, books and internet you care to have? How would you like — no strings attached — to have as much media influence as you want?”

Nathaniel said, “If my mission could have been accomplished by blasting pictures on the sky, I would have done that. That isn’t the type of influence I want. I want a real, personal influence where I teach people face to face and touch them. I want to give my friends hugs and kisses. I want something your media can never give.”

The Slanderer said, “My, you are picky about my gifts. Here’s a suggestion that should interest you. You are coming to offer a salvation, but a salvation that people can only have if they choose it — else they will suffer a torment beyond rape. Why not make everybody accept your gift?”

Nathaniel glared at the Slanderer and said, “Never! I have come to call brothers and sisters, not make computers. My world can be broken as it is only because my Father and I would rather see it broken than break our creatures’ free will. The metaphor of Rape is inaccurate in this, that it describes coercion from outside. The Place of Torment is self-chosen, and its doors are bolted and barred from the inside. Rape stands as the final testament to human free will, that my Father would rather see his creatures in everlasting torment than force them into Paradise. Get away from me!”

When Nathaniel said this, the Slanderer left him and angels attended him.

The next few days on the road were interesting. Several of the students at the camp went and followed us. We were on the road to a campustown, and I was beginning to perceive something different about him, something different in his awareness. He was putting weight back on, and there was something new in his eyes.

We arrived at a college campus; we were walking across the quad, and a young woman came up to us and said, “Help me! I am terribly sick, and neither the doctors nor Wicca have been able to make me better. I don’t know how much longer —”

There are times when you want to be someplace else, anywhere but where you are now. This was one of those times. The woman became very pale, and lost consciousness; Nathaniel caught her and lay her down on the ground. Then her body became stiff, and from her still, unmoving lips came an ugly, raspy, man’s voice, cursing and blaspheming God. Nathaniel alone was not afraid, but his face bore infinite gravity. He looked, and said, “What is your name?”

The demon said, “Our name in English is Existential Angst. Our name in our own language is —”

“Stop!” Nathaniel said. “I know that name, and I know that language, and you are not to utter either of them here.”

“Our name is Existential Angst,” the demon continued, “and she is ours, all ours, and so is this age.”

“She is not yours any more, nor is this age. I have come to set the captives free. Come out of her!”

The voice said nothing more, but there was an unholy presence so powerful it could be felt, and a stench like the stench of rotten eggs, and then they left.

The woman opened her eyes, slowly, as if awakening for the first time, and then looked at Nathaniel. She didn’t say anything, just looked, her eyes searching, filled with wonder. Finally, when she had seen what she was looking for, she said, “Thank you.” Nathaniel didn’t reply. He didn’t need to.

By this time, a crowd had gathered, and Nathaniel told Duncan to get a blanket from the van and buy her some bread and some Sprite. Then he looked around — the crowd was very quiet, with everybody looking at him — and Nathaniel stood up, and said, “You can plainly see that I have given something to this woman. What is no less true is that I have something to give each one of you, and you need it.

“Techies sometimes talk about a group of people they call 12:00 flashers. They call them 12:00 flashers, because their houses are filled with appliances with a flashing 12:00. What they mean by the term ’12:00 flasher’ is something deeper than just ‘someone whose appliance clocks happen not to be set’.

“What they mean by ’12:00 flasher’ is someone who wants the benefits of technology, but is not willing to try to understand how technology works or how to use it. Their appliances flash 12:00 because they will not in a million years spend five minutes experimenting with the buttons or read the manual to see how to set a clock. This mindset affects every bit of technology they own, and invariably something will break — quite possibly because it was misused — and then they will invariably wait until the last minute, when there is an emergency, and ask a techie to “just tell me how to fix it.” The 12:00 flasher is involved in a desparate attempt to cut a steak with a screwdriver, and when a techie begins to try to explain why he needs to set down the screwdriver and get a knife, the 12:00 flasher tensely replies, ‘I don’t have time to put down this screwdriver and go get a knife! I just need you to tell me how to cut this steak!’

“Friends, I am here to tell you that the 12:00 flasher phenomenon doesn’t just exist in technology. It exists in human relationships. And it exists in spirituality.

“It’s possible to get by as a 12:00 flasher. Nobody died because his living room was perpetually dark because he wouldn’t sit down and figure out how to unscrew the top of his lamp and replace the bulb. And, when technological disasters become unlivable, it’s usually possible to grab a techie, to the rescue. Never mind what it does to their blood pressure, techies usually can reduce an unlivable disaster to a tolerable disaster. But that isn’t how we were meant to live, especially not in relationship with God.

“What is a spiritual 12:00 flasher like? Well, they take many forms, but one thing they all have in common is that, consciously or unconsciously, the question they ask of religion is ‘What is the least I can do and still get by?’ That question is the wrong question. It’s like asking what the least a person can eat and still not starve. Never mind the fact that the experiment is quite dangerous; God did not make or want us to live just barely eating enough not to starve. He made us for rich, abundant live, far from starvation.

“Don’t be a 12:00 flasher. Don’t ask, ‘What is the least I can do and still get by?’ Don’t run to God in times of crisis, and then when the crisis is over, forget him and go back to life without him. If you have a crisis, by all means, run to God for help. He welcomes that, and sometimes he uses crises to draw people to him as never before. But don’t wait for a crisis to seek him out. Seek him out, prepare your spirit, work at a state of right relations with other people, while the going is easy. Don’t wait until you’re on a sinking boat to learn how to swim. Learn how to swim when you have free time and a swimming instructor.

“I was at the deathbed of an old man, a quiet member of the community who knew everybody by name, who always had time to listen to little children’s tales and who would tell his own stories to anybody who wanted to hear. When he was on his deathbed, someone asked him if he would like to hear some Bible verses. He smiled, and to everyone’s surprise, said, ‘No.’ Someone asked him, ‘Why not?’ He smiled again and said, ‘I thatched my hut when the weather was warm.’

“Dear friends, thatch your hut when the weather is warm. You might not be able when there is storm or cold. What is there to do? I wish to mention two things; they are a lifetime’s learning, and have been for me. Those two things are love and prayer.

“God loves you, and you are to love him with your whole being. You are to love everybody. Even your enemies? Especially your enemies.

“Physicists are in search of a grand unified theory, where all of the laws covering all physical phenomena boil down to a few equations that can be written on one side of a sheet of paper. In spirituality, religion, and morality, love is that grand unified theory. There are great teachings — of Creation, of repentance, of worship, of Heaven, of grace, of moral law — and for each of them, if you cut into them, cut below the surface, the lifeblood that they bleed, the hidden lifeblood that keeps them alive, is love.

“One of the most important expressions of love, one of the most important incubators for love to grow in, is prayer. The Slanderer laughs at our plans, and scoffs at our power, but trembles at our prayers. Wrap yourselves in a cloak of prayer; pray for other people even as you look at them in passing; pray continually. Prayer is a place where God transforms us, and where God and we working together transform the world. It is a time to step out of time and into eternity, and it refreshes and renews us. Pray incessantly, until you have callouses on your knees from unanswered prayers. You cannot change the world, at least not for the better, on your own power. Prayer is how God makes you into his children and prepares you for results, and then (on his own time — not yours) makes a lasting mark.

“Follow me, each of you, and I will draw you into love and prayer, into wisdom and truth, into live everlasting.”

The people were impressed with his teaching. He spoke as if he knew the truth, not as if he were just sharing his own perspective, his own personal opinion.

It was perhaps because of this that, when we sat down at dinner, a young man approached him and said, “You spoke unlike anyone else I’ve heard. Do you claim to know absolute truth?”

Nathaniel said, “Yes.”

The man said, “But we cannot know absolute truth, only relative perspectives. The quest for absolute truth has failed; all of the major thinkers of our era have renounced it. Who do you think you are to know absolute truth, God? Don’t try the old ‘You cannot make absolute statements against absolute truth’ card; we have perspectives we expect to be binding without being absolute.”

Nathaniel said, “As it turns out, I am God, but that is rather beside the point at the moment. You say that we cannot know absolute truth. I respond with a dilemma: are you making that claim as absolutely true, or as your own personal opinion? If you are making that claim as absolute truth, then it is self-contradictory, and therefore false, and therefore something I do not need to subscribe to; if you are making that claim as a mere statement of personal opinion, like your preference in ice cream flavors, it is therefore something I do not need to subscribe to. Before you respond, let me add nuance to this dilemma. I know that you would not say that your claim is absolutely true or a personal attribute, but somewhere in between. This dilemma gives you the freedom to choose a position somewhere between the two poles of absolute truth and personal opinion. Most dilemmas have a forced choice, one or the other. Not this one. On this dilemma, you may fall at a mixture of the two horns, that is, you are making a statement that is held to be 80% absolutely true, and 20% your own personal perspective. In which case, it is 80% incoherent, and 20% a personal attribute I can safely ignore. Or is it 30% absolutely true, and 70% your own personal perspective? Then it is only 30% incoherent, but it is 70% a personal attribute I can safely ignore. This dilemma offers you infinite flexibility in choosing how it affects you; the end result, however, is that your perspective is 100% a perspective I am free to ignore.”

The young man had nothing to say to this.

There were a number of people who were beginning to follow him at that point, and I began to see a strand running through his teaching. Perhaps the best way to begin with it is by voicing the intuitions it runs counter to.

An obvious reading of what he says is that mankind has earned everlasting torment in Rape, and he comes through and offers a way of escape — believing in him, and accepting a sacrifice that I didn’t understand at the time — and it is worth any amount of earthly effort and sacrifice to save one soul from Rape. So there are these people who have the good fortune to know about the escape, and they should devote their lives to making a difference, to saving as many people as they can.

That is true, and it is deeply true, and there is an opposite insight that is a deeper truth, one that is everlasting.

That insight says that the Father is omnipotent and is drawing people to himself, drawing people to share in the glory that God had before the worlds began, not only in a Paradise after death but here and now, in this world. In following Nathaniel, the escape from Rape is almost incidental in importance to communion with God, and our time on earth is as (Nathaniel was very emphatic about this) apprentice gods, whose time on earth is a time of preparation for the time when we will reign in Paradise.

The primacy of the second, mystical interpretation over the first, pragmatic interpretation is something Nathaniel was very emphatic about, and that has changed my whole way of viewing things. I didn’t understand it fully until a moment came when I slapped my head: “How could I not have seen this before?” I had been listening to the stories of a number of incredibly devout and incredibly dedicated people who were operating in the first mode, who were trying to make the biggest difference, and fell flat on their faces hitting futile barrier after futile barrier. It made no sense. Then I heard stories of people — Wesley, for one — who were like this, and fell on their knees and cried, feeling like utter failures, and in a beggarly, ragged, ragamuffin way, became mystics, sought communion with God. And God gave them that mysticism. Then, sometimes, if he chose, on his time, in his ways, he took some of them and gave them power within the context of that mysticism, and those people shook the world with a force unlike anything they could have ever imagined.

What I came to realize through this is that God wants communion with us, and he wants it so badly that he would rather see a devout, dedicated son working in utter futility, with no results for his toils and watching souls perish, than let some of his children act as mere tools without being drawn first and foremost into communion with him. Drawing people into his presence, not just in the future but here and now, is that important to him. God does not want tools. All the angels in a thousand galaxies are his, and if he needed help, he would not tell us. He wants sons and daughters, and he will have us be that and nothing less. My head still spins a little when I think of this.

This account is written so that you may know Nathaniel and the abundant life that he brings, that you may be drawn into communion with God, not just in the world to come but in this world. Therefore I ask you, when you reach the end of this paragraph, to close your eyes, thank God for ten things you’re thankful for, and spend five minutes contemplating God’s glory. Do it now.

Did you do it? If you did, wasn’t that wonderful? Wasn’t that the best part of the text? Didn’t you want to linger? If you didn’t — you’re not going to get to Paradise if you won’t let Paradise interrupt your reading of a text. This text exists to draw you into communion with God, and if you put the flow of reading ahead of that communion, you still have something to learn.

I’ve been thinking about how to explain what I want to say next, particularly to most Americans… perhaps the best way is to say that, to the American mind, ‘nice’ and ‘good’ mean almost exactly the same thing, and this is a perspective which Nathaniel did not share. Nor do I. ‘Nice’ is what is left of ‘good’ after ‘good’ has been flattened by a steamroller.

Nathaniel was, at times, very nice. He was someone who would look you in the eye and ask, “How are you?” — slowly, because he wanted to hear the answer. He wouldn’t just do this with close friends — he was just as ready with strangers whom he could see needed it. But there was something about him that most definitely would not be cut down to fit into being nice. He met with members of the religious community, but his interactions could rarely be described as diplomatic. He lambasted Evangelicals and Catholics on equal terms. He didn’t attack mainline Protestants, though. Never. Most of the time, when I mentioned them, he just shook his head and wept.

I’m not going to give a full list of the groups that Saint Nasty offended, primarily because my hard drive only has about nine gigabytes of free space. I do wish, however, to give an illustrative list. There are many more.

  • The gay community. After a thousand voices had droned on about how AIDS patients are the outcast lepers of our society, Nathaniel said, “The status of AIDS patients in our society is not that of pariahs, but that of sacred cows.” He challenged head-on the status of people who die from sexually transmitted diseases as martyrs, and furthermore laid bare how the movement lumps together acceptance and care of homosexuals, acceptance of them as humans, with a political agenda and lifestyle which kept them dead and miserable in their sins. “Come to me,” he said, “and I will give you freedom and vitality such as your movement would never dream and offer.” He loved gays too much not to strike down a whitewashed wall.
  • Business. Nathaniel asked, “Was economic wealth created for man, or man for economic wealth?” He called advertising a modern fusion of manipulation, propaganda, and porn, and took it to be the emblem of a mindset in which a business exists, not to serve customers, but to manipulate them into whatever will bring the most money into corporate coffers.
  • Consumers. He accused them of entering into a sorceror’s bargain to have wealth in our technology, being concerned with little as long as they had personal peace and affluence, and misusing wealth. He developed an argument, which I am not going to reproduce here, that both individual citizens and communities should take a good look at the Amish, not because they have a perfect solution, but because they are the one major group in America that does not automatically use every technology and service that comes out and that they can afford.
  • The tobacco industry. To quote him: “You do something that kills people, for the mere purpose of obtaining profit. You are the largest assassins’ guild in history.”
  • Feminists. His interactions with feminists were a little more complex than with some other groups, perhaps because of how deeply feminism has impacted not just a self-identified minority but the whole fabric of American culture, and because of how deeply he shared the concern of womens’ status. Some of his remarks were flat-out incendiary. He said that, if feminism has to identify an enemy, a feminism that identified men as the enemy could be tolerable, but a feminism that identified non-feminist women as the enemy was inexcusable. “Any feminism worthy of the name,” Nathaniel said, “must make the sisterhood of all women a central thesis.” I think I saw him weeping over feminism more than any other group: when we talked, I began to see them through his eyes: not Rush Limbaugh-style feminazis, but lost sheep without a shepherd, women struggling to work against a curse and doomed to futility and backfire from the start, because they did not understand the nature of the curse, and so were like a doctor, giving higher and higher doses of medicine for the wrong condition, and wondering why the patient looked worse and worse. He tried to explain the remedy to that curse, and tried to explain it to a great many feminists — a few of them believed him, but the vast majority were offended.
  • Academia. The most striking comment I remember him making was, “Hitler now stands as our culture’s single most essential symbol of evil, not because he slaughtered six million Jews, but because he does not have any advocates left in academia. There is another ideology more vile than National Socialism, an ideology that exceeds the Nazi body count by a factor of ten and has made blood flow like a river in every single country where it has come into power. Its name is Marxism, and it is considered perfectly acceptable to be a Marxist in academia, a breeding ground of every heresy and intellectual filth our society has to offer.”
  • Environmentalists. To them, he said, “You have defiled a concern for God’s earth not only with nature worship but also with racist, eugenic Malthusianism.”
  • Media, especially television. Most of what he said there were footnotes to Postman, Mander, and Muggeridge, and the rest wasn’t that important.
  • Sensitivity police. Nathaniel criticized them for “using gasoline to extinguish a fire.”
  • The pro-choice forces. Nathaniel criticized them for making a convenient redefinition of the boundaries of humanity and taking an attitude of “it’s not really there if you can close your eyes to it.” He said that on any biological perspective even, what grows inside a woman’s womb is an organism of the species homo sapiens, and that the question of whether a fetus is human or unwanted tissue is a philosophical question only in the sense that whether a woman is human or just a convenient rape object is a philosophical question — that is, if you deliberately set out to make yourself stupider than you are and tarnish the name of philosophy by making it a smokescreen to hide what is obvious to common sense, then and only then can you satisfy yourself by saying “that is a philosophical question to which my answer is unwanted tissue.” Nathaniel had other criticisms — one of them beginning by saying, “A real pro-choice scenario would be an undoubted improvement on the status quo,” — but I do not wish to repeat them here.
  • The pro-life movement. Nathaniel criticized them “for defending the sanctity of life from conception to natural birth.”

Anyone who has not been offended by Nathaniel has failed to understand him.

There are many events which happened which I will not attempt to narrate. Nathaniel was healing people of all kinds of brokenness — physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. He had begun to teach us that he was giving us his authority — even over demons. He was explaining that he would need to die and rise from the dead, although none of us understood — or wanted to understand — what he was saying. And, through all of that, there were moments, precious, timeless moments, when we could have glimpses of who he was.

To begin explaining one of those moments, let me say that I am not affected by stage magic. It isn’t just that I can (sometimes) see how a trick works; the actual illusion is only a tiny part of illusionism. It’s indispensable, but it is unbelievably tiny — I know, because I was once an amateur magician, and I disappointed my audiences by performing an uninterrupted display of clever tricks that were nothing more. The real life’s blood of a magic show is showmanship, something that is normally invisible: one of the marks of good showmanship is that the audience is oblivious to showmanship and instead wonders how on earth the magician did it. (It is incidentally true that, however much a good magic show makes audiences wonder “How did he do that?”, a good magician never tells his audience how it happened. It’s not protection of an initiate brotherhood’s closely kept secrets — all such “secrets” are perfectly accessible to someone with a library card and a little spare time, just as the substitution-cipher-weak verification algorithm used for credit card numbers is available to anyone who can go to a search engine and type “mod10” in the query box — but basic entertainment principle: people who find out how magic tricks work are invariably disappointed. That is why I never tell other people how tricks at a magic show work, even when I do know; figuring out one or two minor tricks makes someone feel smug and clever, but knowing how the big trick worked simply ruins it.)

I have spoken as if showmanship’s illusion is one-sided, as if it’s all up to the magician. And it is, in a sense. But in another sense, it isn’t. If I had been better as a stage magician and gotten farther, I would have experienced firsthand the difference between an audience that is excited, eager to see what is going on, or in high spirits, and one that is hostile, cranky with low blood sugar, or doesn’t really want to be there. The illusion is not one-sided; it is the creation of both parties, performer and audience, the result of their cooperation — only the performer’s cooperation is conscious and intentional, and the audience’s cooperation is unconscious and unwitting.

There is something that happened with me, something that has broken the illusion by breaking my end of the creation — conscious uncooperation instead of unconscious cooperation — something that was closely related to my learning what is actually going on in television, and why I don’t watch it. Now magic shows don’t work on me. It’s not that the illusion is broken because I can see how tricks work; rather, I see how tricks work because the illusion is broken. In Madeleine l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, on the nightmarish planet Camazotz, the man with red eyes gives Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace food. To Meg and Calvin it tastes like a wonderful turkey dinner. To Charles Wallace it tastes like wet sand. The man with red eyes can get into the chinks of Meg’s mind, and Calvin’s, enough to make an illusion mask how ghastly the food is. With Charles Wallace it doesn’t work; the illusion doesn’t work for him. I have been told I am very like Charles Wallace. I count it worthwhile that I am no longer automatically pulled by showmanship, particularly in an age where showmanship has taken a bloated role far beyond what any sane society would allow it. I count it my loss that I cannot now cooperate with the illusion even if I want to. (Nathaniel understands me on this score, and indeed has experienced the same awakening, but he can cooperate with the illusion. He also watches television for a couple of hours a month, only some of the time as a sociologist would.)

For these reasons, I was less than enthusiastic when Nathaniel showed me a flyer announcing a magic show for “children of all ages” in the bandstand at the park. I told him, “You go; I’ll stay home and pray.” He said, “Trust me.”

We went about half an hour early. Parents were sitting in the bleachers, and kids were running about on the stage. We sat and talked for a few minutes, and then Nathaniel poked a little girl who was running by. She giggled, and he chased her on to the stage, and then started playing with another child, and another. He began to tell stories, ask questions, talk with them, hold them.

It seemed only a moment that the sky turned lavender and fireflies danced, and I looked down at my watch and realized that over an hour had passed. The magician never showed up, but not one of the children went home disappointed.

Whatever Nathaniel had, it was better than showmanship, better than illusion. He had a pull, a charisma, that drew people to him — something that arose out of the love that flowed in his heart. I am no longer drawn by television because television is fake, because television does a spectacular job of covering how empty its center was. Nathaniel wasn’t like that. His charisma was an overflow of how full his center was. The meaning of this moment grew on me when I understood what moment it was, what time it was, that he had chosen to spend simply playing with children.

As the sky began to grow dark and mothers called their children home, I could begin to see — why hadn’t I noticed it before? Nathaniel was afraid, and emotions of — what? expectation? imminence? trepidation? — were emotions that I could begin to feel as well. There was a sense that something important would happen. He purchased a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, and called all of us to come into a deserted loft. We talked — really talked, about love, about too many things to mention, and then as there was a height of tension, he took the bread, and said, “Take this, and eat it. This is my body, which is broken for you. Do this in memory of me.” Then he took the cup of wine, and said, “Take this, all of you, and drink. This is the new accord in my blood, poured out for the forgiveness of sins.” Then he passed them around.

I talked with the others, years later; I was the only one who realized the significance of what was going on. There are still many people who have difficulty believing it, which is fine; there are a lot of things about Nathaniel that take a lot of believing. When I ate his body, I was taking, was drawn into, his community; when I drank his blood, I drank the divine life. The latter especially was precious to me in a way I cannot describe; I am a mystic, and there is something about the blood, hidden in the flesh, that… it is best not to talk too much about these things. I think some of them are things that it takes a child’s heart to understand.

He asked us to be with him, not exactly to pray with him (although I am sure he also wanted that), but just to have the human presence of someone who loved him, perhaps just to have any human presence — and all I know I could think about was how long a day it had been, and how much I needed to get to sleep. We were awoken by a knock on the door, and Nathaniel looked at me — ooh! That look broke my heart. He did not say anything. He did not need to.

Nathaniel was shaking when he walked out in front of a veritable mob, and asked, “Who do you want?” Someone in the crowd said, “Nathaniel.” He said, “I am the person you want. Get away from the building; you want me, not the others.”

I was watching from the window, and I watched in stunned disbelief what the mob began doing to him. Then I climbed down, and ran as if there was no tomorrow. I had no shoes on, only socks, and when I collapsed, in exhaustion, my feet were bleeding.

Somehow (providence?) the others managed to find me, and we were huddling in a room, the doors locked, bolted, and barred with furniture, all shades drawn, glued to the TV, demoralized, defeated, in abject bewilderment. I had thrown up all I could, and felt sometimes dizzy, sometimes hot, sometimes nauseated, sometimes all three. I was leaning against the window, desparately praying that my head would stop spinning, and that if there were any way possible for Nathaniel to have survived that assault —

Someone knocked twice on the window, right next to my head, and my head cleared.

I was struck with terror, pulled back from the window, and prayed aloud that whoever it is would go away.

I heard Cassandra’s voice loudly outside, saying, “It’s me, Cassandra! I’ve seen Nathaniel! He’s alive!”

I knew her voice, and my terror turned to rage, turned to what the damned call ‘righteous indignation’. I said, “Of all the sick jokes, of all the unholy blows that the lowest schoolyard bully would not dream of stooping to,” and poured out a stream of invective unlike any I have uttered before or since. I did not stop, did not even falter, when I heard her crying, nor when her tears turned to wailing. At the climax I said, “Unless Nathaniel stands before me, unless I feel the bones that have been crushed, I will never believe your sick joke.”

I felt a tap on my shoulder, and when I turned around, Nathaniel looked into my eyes, gazing with both love and sorrow, and said, “Sean. I am here before you. Touch every one of my wounds.” Then he touched me, and healed me of the sickness I had been feeling.

What could I do? I fell to the ground, and wept, and when I could stand I immediately left to go out and beg Cassandra’s forgiveness. She forgave me — instantly. She gave me a hug, and said, “I had difficulty believing it, too. You are forgiven.” I can not tell the depths of love that are in that woman’s heart. Then I returned, with Cassandra, and Nathaniel looked at me and said, “Sean, you are a metacultural, but you are also an American. What is real to you is largely what you have seen and what The Skeptical Enquirer says is real. You believe after having seen. God’s blessing is on those who can rise above your culture’s sin and believe these miracles without seeing.”

Nathaniel said and did many other things, far too numerous for me to write down. I have not attempted a complete account, nor a representative account, nor even to cover all the bases. (Other writers have already done the last of those three.) Rather, I have written to show you the fresh power of Nathaniel’s story, a story that is and will always be here and now. Do you understand him better?

Janra ball

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