Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sacred and Profane: Holy S***!

Mircea Eliade. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. W. Trask. London: Harcourt, 1987. ISBN: 015679201X.

I have read this book several times (in translation and in French). If I could sum up its message, it would be something like this. According to many different ancient human cultures, there are two kinds of activity, one sacred and the other not. Sacred activity has purpose. Profane activity is meaningless. Sacred activity recurs in measured season (as the year passes, the season changes, life progresses: think of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8). Profane activity just happens (as my toddler wanders here or there, alternately stuffing food in his mouth and spitting it out randomly). All activity is profane until someone, some god makes it sacred. Space is profane until gods use it to build worlds (of which our mortal temples are just models). Time is profane until gods measure it into regular seasons that construct the year (and repeat it endlessly in expanding cycles). Words are profane (mere noise, meaningless twaddle) until gods use them and give them meaning. In ancient cultures, every meaningful event in human life is presumed to exist as an iteration of divine activity: gods did this, so we do this. (Gods were born, so we are born. Gods ate food, so we eat food. Gods avoided plowing with ox and ass yoked together, so we avoid this. Gods got drunk [or didn't], so we get drunk [or don't]. Gods had sex, so we have sex. Gods killed adulterers, so we kill adulterers. Gods built homes, so we build homes, and so on and on.) Determining what gods did and did not do at any moment in sacred time becomes an important activity in ancient societies, too difficult and time-consuming for the average peasant, and so priests are created: ritual adepts with formulae for revealing what a god did (or would do), and (therefore) what we (as a community) should do. These formulae involve all kinds of interesting craziness, e.g. casting different kinds of lots, feeding special animals (and observing how they eat), performing sacrifices (and examining the entrails for signs left by the gods), watching the weather, performing special rituals in a temple, consulting holy books (the Tablets of Destiny, the Vedas, the Torah, the prophecies of the Sibyl, the Koran, etc.) or astrological charts.

What does all this have to do with four-letter words in English? Plenty! I still remember the first time I came across "cuss words" (as they were then known). I was about five years old, in kindergarten, and during recess one day I happened to be playing with a friend of sorts (we weren't particularly great friends, but I still remember his name--LeGrand--and his long, blond hair) near a trailer that had been set up in the schoolyard (perhaps as some kind of temporary classroom). We had just learned to read (more or less), so when I saw graffiti on the trailer I naturally started reading it off. I read rather scornfully, since the words didn't meaning anything to me: "F***, s***, -- what is all this nonsense?" LeGrand was horrified: "Don't say those words! Those are bad, bad words!" He looked genuinely upset, and I was somewhat surprised: if these words were so awful, how come I had never heard of them? Shouldn't someone have warned me that the world might end early if I uttered one of the deplorable words? We left the trailer, and I forget about cursing. We never cursed at home, so they just did not come up: my family expressed anger and other strong emotions differently (though my mother would occasionally say, "Bull!" when she thought someone was exaggerating the truth: it took me years to learn the rest of the expression, which she was too polite to utter).

For years, then, cursing was a meaningless (profane) activity, as far as I was concerned. I had no need for strong words, as I had no need for strong drink. When people told me God had no use for such things either, this made perfect sense. Then I went on an LDS mission to Spain (one of the most linguistically abrasive countries in Europe, in case anyone wants to know). Suddenly, I was listening to people curse all the time. Everywhere I went, people were constantly calling me out: "Cabrón! Hijo de puta! Maricón! Mamón! Testículo de Jehová! Me cago en Diós y tu madre, boludo! Véte a la mierda, capullo! No me jodas, gilipolla!" The gist of these insults was pretty easy to understand ("Leave me alone, you religious moron!"), and eventually I understood what they were actually saying. The strangest thing was how important context could be in determining what somebody really meant, especially with the word coño (c***), which could be a term of affection or an insult depending on the speaker's tone. While I came to understand cursing a little better (having to deal with it constantly), I still had no real use for it, and the Spanish curse words didn't really mean much to me. They were just words, interesting souvenirs from my journey into an alien culture. (I still laugh when I remember one young elder who naively asked the waitress at McDonald's if he could have an ice cream cone: unfortunately, his pronunciation of the word cono was a little off.) I was not offended by them. (Good thing, too, since if I had been I would have spent my whole time abroad seething and would probably have given myself an ulcer!) Even though I understood cursing better (on an intellectual level) after my mission abroad, it was still meaningless (profane) to me. I had no place for it, no need to express the emotional energy and intensity that I could sense only vaguely in others.

Then, several years later, I had a faith crisis. My crisis was a long time building and involved many factors. From an intellectual standpoint, it started when I read some Mormon apologetic work and became really interested in church history; from there it took me years, but I eventually had read enough to know that what I learned over years of church meetings (sacrament meeting, Sunday School, priesthood meeting, seminary, institute) was not anything like real history. (The church's versions of its own history leave out or obfuscate important information, e.g. the multiple accounts of the First Vision, the fact that Joseph Smith was a folk magician, Nauvoo polygamy, the fact that the Book of Abraham is in no way a translation of the Egyptian Book of Breathings.) From an emotional standpoint, it began when I hit puberty and started to experience myself as a sexual being (i.e. evil spawn of Satan). Over the years, I put myself through a lot of emotional hell because I was intellectually convinced (1) that the church was what its leaders say it is and (2) that it had the tools to fix my "problems" with sin and guilt. When it finally became clear to me that neither of these was true, i.e. that the church was not what it claims to be (intellectually) and that it could not relieve me of sin or guilt (worse, it would gladly load me with these permanently to make me docile to leadership), I was angry.

I had been angry before, certainly. I had been late somewhere or forgotten something or done something stupid and said, "Bother!" (Even on the mission, I never joined other missionaries in a rousing chorus of "Fetch!" To my ear, this sounded even sillier than ordinary swearing.) But this was different. I felt that I had based my entire adolescent and young adult life on a lie. (I look back with shame on moments like the one when, as a missionary for the church, I mistakenly informed two evangelicals that their story of Joseph Smith's First Vision was historically inaccurate; if I had actually known my church history, after more than a decade studying it actively at church, I would not have made that mistake. I would not have lied to them. I don't like it when an organization I love and trust uses me to tell lies.) Worse than that, I had tortured myself pointlessly for years in a misguided effort to master my sexuality (which was never out of control). I had trusted the most vulnerable parts of my fledgling self to a judge in Israel, winced as he branded them with divine justice (as prescribed by Spencer W. Kimball, prophet, seer, and revelator), and then watched in despair as I had to repeat the process over and over again (since try as I might, no amount of repentance would make the sex go away: I was not sexually active with anyone, nor like to be since I could not stop wondering whether I might have committed the sin next to murder every time I woke up during a wet dream). The more I thought about this, the more betrayed and disillusioned I felt. Not only had the church played me for a fool (intellectually: they got me to fib for them in Spain) and used pathological guilt to control me rather than heal me, they also had the gall to stand between me and my immediate family, who, as faithful members, would be duty-bound to reject their son and brother as an evil apostate now that I was done believing in the prophets' fairy tales and confessing to the prophets' bishops. (Fortunately, my family proved more forgiving than some, but I had no way of knowing a priori that they wouldn't cut me off the way others have.) The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I wasn't just angry. I was pissed. And cursing suddenly made sense. It became sacred.

This brings us to God. The God of the Old Testament (assuming here for brevity's sake that there is only one) has no problem cursing people out, e.g. "I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall" (2 Kings 9:8) and "Behold I will corrupt your seed and spread dung upon your faces" (Malachi 2:3). Or in other words, "I will kill every last one of those motherf***ers!" (to Jehu, Ahab's successor who fulfilled God's curse by exterminating the old king's family) and "Hey, I'm going to f*** you up and shove s*** in your faces!" (to the temple priests against whom God sent Malachi). While my salty translations are not perfectly accurate (since curse words vary widely in time and space), they are not inaccurate either: God wasn't being nice or polite, and his expressions were most certainly very crude. And even the more circumspect Jesus (who tells us to stick with ordinary "Yes" and "No" in Matthew 5:37) calls the Syrophoenician woman a little bitch (κυνίδιον) in Mark 7:27 (though some have pointed out that the diminutive makes it a term of endearment, i.e. something like cute little bitch). The Apostle Paul continues the tradition of cursing: "I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung (σκύβαλον), that I may win Christ" (Philippians 3:8). In other words, "As I long as I have Jesus, I don't give a s*** about anything else!" So, if God and his ministers swear (as they do), why don't I? Well, until my faith crisis, I didn't really have any need to. I still don't, for the most part, but every now and then my righteous indignation boils over (usually when I think about big corporations using people like tools), and I sing songs like this ("Drunken Lullabies," from Flogging Molly).

Must it take a life for hateful eyes
To glisten once again
Five hundred years like Gelignite
Have blown us all to hell
What savior rests while on his cross we die
Forgotten freedom burns
Has the Shepherd led his lambs astray
To the bigot and the gun

Mormonism is not as old as the Irish conflict, but we Mormons suffer from the same crazy human mentality that sees only black and white, good and evil, Catholic and Protestant, God and Satan (1 Nephi 14). We relentlessly attack the evil in others and in ourselves, refusing to compromise because that would mean the end of civilization (and/or victory for the other side, which we regard as the anti-Christ). We are so drunk on this all-or-nothing idea of civilization that we seem willing to give up almost anything and anyone to save it: we lie about our past; we put ourselves through rigorous emotional torment; we spend time and money gratuitously denying other people the blessings of marriage and divorce; as a church, we write every dissenter off as a wicked apostate, no matter how thoughtful or respectful his (or her) individual position. Like the Irish, we bring war in the name of peace (though ours ceased to be a shooting war long ago, thank goodness). Before my faith crisis, I couldn't really see all of this. More to the point of my subject (sacred and profane), I couldn't appreciate a song like "Drunken Lullabies," with its cursing, its blasphemy (how can the Good Shepherd lead his lambs astray?), and its blatant disregard for the correlated Word of Wisdom. (Though, if we go by the original document revealed to Joseph Smith, beer is actually recommended: as long as the Irish refrain from whiskey, they can have as much stout as they please and still be good Mormons!) Today, this song is sacred for me: it moves me as profoundly as any hymn ever did. It is about a human tragedy that I can personally relate to.

Another sacred song from Flogging Molly is about the mess that is the city of Detroit post-bailout ("The Power's Out"):

Yeah the power's out
Well there's f*** all to see
Yeah the power's out
Like this economy

Guess it's par for the course
Unless you're a blood-sucking leech CEO, CEO

So I guess the Good Lord has forgotten about me, yeah
And me like himself my old trade's carpentry, yeah
I could build him a cross with one hand behind back
And the other three nails 'case he gives me the sack

A few years ago, this song would have meant nothing to me. Before I woke up to find myself betrayed by the church, I didn't worry about betrayal, really. I was intellectually aware that it existed, but I had nothing personal invested in it, no raw emotions on the line. Then, one day, I found myself unexpectedly abandoned by God and excoriated by his leaders (whom I could not approach directly with my problems, because they would just tell me to shut up and repent or get the heck out of their church). At the same time, I was growing up enough to know something about how corporations work, and I realized that God's leaders weren't the only people telling me (and other poor fools like me) to shut up and repent or else. I started listening when politicians and university presidents spoke. I noticed when fellow citizens and students got royally screwed (and then shoved under the rug if they made too big of a stink about it). And I realized that I don't have much sympathy or respect for many of the people who exercise power in modern corporate America. Specifically, I am tired of being lied to (by liberal and conservative leaders alike) and used (to fund ridiculous economic schemes designed to save businesses that should have adapted or died years ago, including our federal government with its Ponzi schemes disguised as social services). To the extent that leaders lie to me and abuse me, I don't like them (no matter how noble they say their cause is). To the extent that I thought I could depend on them before they failed to make good on their word (which is generally too lightly given), I really don't like them. I need a way to express my dislike, a meaningful (sacred) outlet for this righteous indignation. But I am not a violent person. I am actually not a very angry person. So I just sing angry, cynical songs and then go about my work, tending my own little garden with Voltaire's Candide. It is amazing how much better I feel towards lying leaders after I have flipped them off.

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