Friday, April 6, 2007

How I Became a Sci Fi Catholic, Part 1

Photo by Johnelamper

This Easter is the one-year anniversary of my being Catholic. For that reason, and as a courtesy to the Catholic Converts blog, which loves to post such things, I decided it was time to put up my conversion story so I could explain how I became a Sci Fi Catholic.

This story may not have much of a narrative. My head is so full of books, things that actually happen to me don’t stick in my memory very well. In addition, some people who know me read the blog, and some of them, or people they know, are part of my conversion story, so I am intentionally vague in spots to protect privacy, and I simply can’t in good conscience mention some key events.

Rodney Stark, the sociologist who studied conversions to the Moonies before he turned his talent to the early Church, writes in The Rise of Christianity that he discovered many converts who show no discernible religious interest before their conversions tend to look at their lives differently afterward: they see life as a journey that has at last brought them to their new faith. Similarly, in describing his own conversion, G. K. Chesterton admits it is hard to remember why he became Catholic because he can’t easily remember why he wasn’t Catholic. I have similar trouble.

Stark may have missed the reason converts look back on their lives as journeys: It is because no one converts suddenly. A long series of life experiences and acquired knowledge will gradually bend a person to the religion he will eventually join. Looking back, the convert can identify some of these life events, even if he didn’t recognize them at the time.

The Early Years. Looking back, I can say I have always been, in a sense, a Sci Fi Catholic. My first memory of an encounter with the Catholic Church involves watching Short Circuit as a young child. There’s a scene in the movie where the robot Number 5 goes to a confessional. I had never seen one before, so I asked my parents what it was. I don’t remember their explanation, but I think they told me Catholics go to them to confess their sins to a priest.

The idea excited me. We were Conservative Baptists (that’s capitalized because it is the actual name of the denomination, like Southern Baptist), and I knew we didn’t confess to priests or pastors. Nonetheless, the confessional attracted me and I began to fantasize about being a pastor (a Protestant pastor, mind you) with a large Gothic church with all the trimmings, including a confessional where people could come for counseling, though not confession. Eventually, this fantasy world collapsed under the weight of its meaningless pageantry and I forgot about it.

After that, I developed an obsession with sci-fi and fantasy literature. This was the ‘80s, when the queen of kid lit was not J. K. Rowling but Beverly Cleary. The only book of hers I could stand was The Mouse and the Motorcycle because it involved a talking mouse on a motorcycle. I also enjoyed a book by Louis Sachar, There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, but only for the parts where the main character creates a fantasy world with his stuffed animals. The part in which he stops playing with them because of his increasing maturity annoyed me, and I am still rebelling against that kind of thinking to this very day. By the way, all my stuffed animals say hi.

I tried reading Hardy Boys and the much more creative Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, but they always disappointed me because they always solved the mysteries, which always turned out to be dull and uninteresting: the house wasn’t really haunted, the disappearing floor was an elevator, the superheroes who came to life were criminals who acquired realistic movie props, and of course, the ghost was really just Old Man Smithers in a costume, who dressed up and scared people because his business was failing. I got frustrated with a lot of books at that age, whatever age that was.

Later, maybe when I was seven, I discovered the book that changed my life. I found volume 6 of Roy Rockwood’s Great Marvel series, The City Beyond the Clouds. It starts out like any other hack boys’ adventure novel, and I thought it would be just another disappointing Hardy Boys story, but then the high-altitude aircraft with the raving scientist crashes into the lake, and soon the plucky Caucasian heroes are gathering guns and flying to a hovering planetoid to rescue a languishing heroine from the cruel and slimy hands of the evil king of the red dwarves, Lord Golo. They battle giant grasshoppers, snakes, some bulletproof monster with a bear’s body and a buffalo’s head, and the red dwarves themselves, who wield knives with their opposable feet. And these kids kill everything. I mean everything. This book was written in the first half of the twentieth century when writers understood that growing boys need manly stories with lots of violence so they can become strapping, healthy young Americans. Writers today, by contrast, think boys need to wear skirts and shut up and let the girls play.

Baptism. At age eight, I was baptized as a Baptist. This involved full immersion with water and the Trinitarian formula, so I was not re-baptized when I became Catholic. The funny thing about Baptist baptism is that it is believed to do nothing. Baptists do not believe in sacraments exactly, but in ordinances. My elders taught me that the only purpose of baptism is to make a symbolic, public pronouncement of faith. Even at a young age, that made no sense to me. There was virtually no other symbolism in our worship, for one thing, and for another thing, I could not understand why this ritual was so important if it accomplished nothing. I also figured I could make a more effective public pronouncement of faith simply by saying, “Hi, I’m Christian.” The uselessness of our two ordinances (the other being communion) nagged me through my childhood and early adulthood. I heard more than a few sermons on what baptism wasn’t or what the Lord’s Table wasn’t, but I heard almost nothing about what they were. What I did hear was unsatisfying.

In retrospect, though it would take me a while to come to this conclusion, I would have to say that Baptist views of these ordinances is shaped not by real theology so much as opposition to Catholic teaching; in other words, the Baptists say baptism does nothing precisely because Catholics say it does something. Baptists aren’t the only ones who do this: The Westminster Confessions contain much information on the absence of the real presence in the Eucharist, but little on what is in the Eucharist. Though some Evangelicals claim the term Protestant means protest in favor of something rather than against something, Protestants still define themselves largely by opposition to Catholicism.

When I reached thirteen or so, I went through the same process of rebelling and being generally intolerable that most young adults go through. (And yes, it’s time to call them adults when they reach puberty. I’ll have none of that “teenager” or “adolescent” nonsense on this blog.) At this age, I began detecting a sharp contrast between what I read in sacred Scripture and what I heard preached by the Fundamentalists around me.

Fundamentalism. I’m going to break for a moment to explain what I mean when I use the word Fundamentalist. Unlike your average news anchor, I don’t use the word as a veiled insult. Fundamentalist, properly defined, is not a word applicable to Muslims, Catholics, or anyone else whose doctrines do not descend from a particular strand of Evangelical Protestantism traceable to 1910, which saw the beginning of the publication of The Fundamentals. Fundamentalism is a reactionary movement, reacting to liberal Protestantism. Today’s liberal Protestantism, in turn, is largely a reactionary movement reacting to Fundamentalism.

The commonly recognized core belief of Fundamentalism, which my Conservative Baptist church espoused, is that the Bible should be read literally, or at least that’s how they usually put it. It’s an unfortunate way to put it, because anyone in his right mind believes the Bible and every other book should be read literally, even if it’s symbolic. A person can’t interpret symbols until he knows what they are, hence the need to read literally. What Fundamentalists mean when they say the Bible should be read literally is that it should be interpreted by means of, and only by means of, the critico-historical method. They are in agreement with scholars and many liberals on this point, difference being that scholars and liberals can use the method consistently and correctly. Fundamentalists must cheat and use other methods of interpretation if they are to maintain some of their favorite doctrines, such as the Servant Songs in Isaiah being references to Jesus. Such inconsistencies lead inevitably to the conclusion that Fundamentalism is a bankrupt strain of theology, however well meant in its intentions. It has no ability to cope with or explain the discoveries of archaeology or the “discoveries”--better called hypotheses--of modern scholarship. For that reason, Fundamentalism had done a good deal to drive away young adults from Christianity even though it has also done a good deal to bring people in. I must add that, to their credit, Fundamentalists have stood in the gap for Western culture, though their theological and moral confusion has often caused them to do more harm than good.

The Rapture. In addition to being Fundamentalist, my home church was Dispensationalist. I do not wish to get into the details of that here, so suffice it to say that Dispensationalists are the ones who believe in the pretribulation Rapture you read about in Left Behind. By reading my Bible and by reading science fiction, I came to the conclusion in middle school that the Rapture is an unbiblical doctrine. To wit:

1. It’s not in the Bible. The proof text for the Rapture is 1 Thessalonians 4.16-17. These verses clearly refer to the resurrection of the dead and translation of the living, not to a spiriting away of Christians in preparation for the coming of Antichrist. Later on, I would read William Everett Bell, Jr.’s master’s thesis, entitled A Critical Evaluation of the Pretribulation Rapture Doctrine in Christian Eschatology. Bell, an Evangelical, recounts the doctrine’s origin with Joseph Darby in the 1830s, notes its complete absence in scripture and early Church Fathers, and generally explodes it.

2. The Rapture doctrine fails the coolness test. Be suspicious of any apocalyptic notions that fail the coolness test. Since we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen anyway, our useless speculations on the subject should at least be cool. Getting whisked up to Heaven while all the action is going on down here is not cool, by which I mean, it would make a lousy novel. Left Behind proves me right on that one. See what sf can do for you?

Social Justice. So my first rebellion against my religious upbringing was disbelief in the Rapture, which is high heresy in some circles. My second was my viewpoint on social justice. “For the poor always ye have with you” (John 12.8) and “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thessalonians 3.10) appeared to be the mantras on the subject of poverty in my home church while other scriptures speaking more directly to the subject were ignored or watered down. I hesitate to write that, because my perception of others was probably distorted by my self-righteousness. Nonetheless, it is what I perceived; that disturbed and bothered me, and I did grow self-righteous as a result. This sounds foolish, and I suppose it was foolish, but the paradigm shift in my thinking began with one revelation; I don’t know how old I was or what day it was, but I remember I was leaning against the stove when it came to me: You don’t have to be Republican to be Christian.

I was a liberal on social issues from that moment, though, with some bumps, I maintained my conservative stance on the more clear-cut ethical matters.

My version of rebellion was different from that of many Fundamentalist-raised children; rather than leaving Christianity, I determined to go further into it, to be more Christian than anybody else. I fancied that I walked alone, the only One Who Had It Right. I did not realize at the time that this arrogance is almost by definition the Protestant mindset, or the mindset of any heretic. But I was not actually alone. I would later learn that my ideas about social justice, better articulated and without my errors, appear in papal encyclicals.

Read Part 2
blog comments powered by Disqus