Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Sacramentables!

When I wrote my "non-book" of Christian Top Ten Lists back in 1992, one of the lists was "Top Ten Changes in the Church by the year 2050." And the item 7 on the list was, "Bread and wine in one tiny pill!"

Well, they've done it. I went to a church in my neighborhood this past weekend (long story, short version: I was taping interviews) and as I entered, I was handed a program and this, which I had never seen before:



There's a better picture here. It turns out they're now making communion in handy to-go combo cups, with the wafer right there in the top. No mess, no waiting, no crowding the aisles--and of course it's grape juice, not wine. The only thing missing is any actual sense of holiness or, God forbid, human touch.

The Catholic in me was horrified. The whole point of communion is to have an actual encounter with the body and blood of Christ, which is why you need a priest there in the first place. This sort of get-Christ-to-go approach could hardly be more blasphemous. The ecumenical part of me, though, was more ambivalent. Since it seems like superstition anyway, what better way to completely neuter it of any miraculous aura than to get a communion that was mass-produced by a machine?

Ultimately, though, I'm saddened by it. Not because it's tacky, though of course there's that. But because it's a symptom of what too many fundamentalist churches do when they misread the Bible. They get the bare score but none of the music. In his 1977 book Fundamentalism, James Barr points out that evangelicals tend to have an extremely empty theology: they believe in the virgin birth, not because virginity or Mary or any element of the story is a matter of great theological impact or reflection; it's because if you believe the Bible, then you have to believe a number of things in a checklist: the Flood; Adam and Eve; the Virgin Birth, etc. The important point is not the Virgin Birth itself; the important thing is checking it off, and then, having checked it off (thereby proving that you're not a liberal), to move on to the real center of contemporary Christianity in America: quiet times, Bible study, prayer and personal growth. A topic that has been the subject of Christian art for centuries has become, in Bible literalist hands and for all practical purposes, a mere shibboleth.

So in a sense, the Sacramentables are a symptom of a very real tendency in evangelical Christian thought: with no sacraments, no art, and a minimum of distracting symbols, the only reason they have communion is because the Bible tells them to. So why make it more important than it needs to be? A wafer in a prefilled thimble-sized plastic cup is as puny and comma-like a communion as you could conceive of. Of course, they'd never get rid of it entirely--that would be unbiblical! But they definitely show what they think about the Bible's demands by how they dress it up. (I should add, by the way, that this was a Pentecostal church, so you can also see how, in their interpretation of the Bible, direct communion with the Holy Spirit through tongues and miracles knocks a silly old wafer into a cocked miter. So I'm not saying they're spiritually starving, per se; I'm saying their focus has taken them way out of the mainstream of history and tradition.)

In the end, I think I'd prefer an actual meal--shared meals are part of religious ritual even in hunter-gatherer societies--with real wine and actual broken bread (no wafers please!) and no spiritualizing mumbo jumbo, so you could focus on what's really happening: the people, the conversation, the nourishment that all shared meals provide. Whatever all that adds up to, I think it's pretty clear that the Sacramentables offer the exact opposite.

You know what else it is, though? It's pretty fucking hilarious. Encapsulating the entire communion into that little package is just asking for abuse. I mean, how could a juggler resist?

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7 Comments:

Blogger Laura Toepfer said...

This is very helpful, Dave, as of course the Anglican Communion is going through this right now. The notion of the checklist you must believe simply because you must believe it is a very illuminating one. I'm not telling any altar guild about these little to-go kits, though.

8/06/2008 11:56 AM  
OpenID toonhead-npl said...

This'll sell like ho(s)tcakes in L.A. where you can get a therapy session on your cell while you're on the freeway.

8/06/2008 2:37 PM  
Blogger Chad E Burns said...

Dave- this was brilliant--I think it is my favorite post and piece ever.

I want to post a link to this on my blog.
Great job!

Chad Burns
roastedreligion.blogspot.com

8/06/2008 10:57 PM  
Blogger Chad E Burns said...

I have to leave one more comment. The more I read this post-the more it resonates. I grew up pentecostal, and I know exactly what you mean about "empty theology"-sorry for offense to any pentecostals reading this-and shibboleths. I always felt communion could and should be more. When I converted to Catholicism I was surprised at how the whole "Holy Eucharist" fit into my own personal approach I had been doing for myself every communion time in my former pentecostal church. With the exception of "the actual body and the actual blood" I understood the honor, reverence and sacredness completely from the Catholic church.
One of the things I was most offended about was when our church decided to replace the communion Welch's grape juice, with some sort of generic juice blend that didn't taste like grape juice at all but some sort of red sugar water with "fruit flavors". I remember complaining to friends, family, deacons, the pastor--that the very leats we could do is have a high quality brand-name grape juice for communion--it is , after all, (representing) the blood of Christ. Not everyone but many looked at me like I was crazy-they didn't se the big deal and if we could save a couple of dollars, that would make G-d infinitely more happy. :)

8/07/2008 9:13 AM  
Blogger Briallen said...

I ordered your nonbook on Amazon! Can't wait!

8/09/2008 11:46 PM  
OpenID 530nm330hz said...

Chad:

I'm curious where a grew-up-Pentacostal-converted-to-Catholic would have picked up the habit of writing "G-d".

(Signed, a grew-up-Conservative-now-leaning-towards-Othodox-Jew)

8/10/2008 10:21 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Briallen, if you find the book, please remember it was written when I was 22, and I composed the whole thing in about two months. So the work is likely to be a little on the slipshod side. My REAL book will be much better!

Oh, also, they defanged my satire, so 'Top Ten Least Popular Precious Moments Figurines' became 'Precious Children Figurines', 'Billy Graham's Turn-Ons' became 'Turn-Ons' in general, and so forth. The only specific reference that I think survived was a reference to Heritage USA.

8/10/2008 10:57 AM  

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