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Friday, August 23

GOOD STUFF or WEîRE PULLINÍ FOR YA, ROCK STAR! When Joseph Coonan was a camp counselor 27 years ago. Mark Bedard was 12. Bedard alleges that Connan molested him. Bedard, like many who were molested as children, was tormented by the memory and married late. He told a close friend at his bachelor party. The friend said he too had been molested by Coonan.

Coonan went on to get a degree in psychology, teach, and get himself ordained. Beddard recently went to the bishop, who removed Coonan pending an investigation. Beddard says 15 others have alleged they were molested by Coonan.

Are the allegations false? Two circumstances suggest that they are true

Their number: the state police have received 15 complaints

The nature: Coonan has, accoding to the newspaper article, an unusual fascination with urination and defecation:

Mr. Bedard's allegations are similar to those of others who have come forward to say they remember Rev. Coonan as someone who wanted to be in their presence while they urinated or defecated.
Mr. Bedard said the alleged sexual abuse happened during a camping trip, where Rev. Coonan urged a number of boys to urinate on trees, explaining that the scent would confuse the dogs that belonged to drug dealers. He said Rev. Coonan confided that he was working in conjunction with the police to thwart drug dealers.
ñHe was very articulate. He could tell a story. He was interesting. He was like an Orson Welles type, that was his persona,î Mr. Bedard said. ñHe talked a lot about a lot of different things, witchcraft, working for the police and helping them get rid of the drugs. He always encouraged all of the boys to express their sexuality by running naked and skinny dipping.î
It was during one of these camping trips, Mr. Bedard said, that Rev. Coonan ñchecked on me and sexually molested me. I have been for a long, long time embarrassed about this. I've questioned my saneness about this.î

His pop culture approach to perversion in the alleged incidents is also present in his style of preaching.

After CoonanÍs removal his parish exploded with support for him. Why was Conan so popular? His parishioners have put up hundreds of messages on the web site. Here is a portrait of Coonan by his parishioners:

After moving to the Worcester area over ten years ago I could not find a Church that I felt comfortable joining. That is until I stepped into St. John's and listened to Father Coonan's untraditional and refreshing approach.

He is a different kind of priest that captures everyones attention. I tell my friends about him and they think it is cool that he can combine a song and a poem that gives meaning to the weeks gospel.

I only go to St.Johns because Fr. Coonan is a great speaker and plays very good music. I'll always support Fr. Coonan 100%,

I, like so many of your parishoners at St John's, have experienced a renewed "faith" in our religion because of you and your ability to bring God to our level.

After a long absence from the church out of total boredom and a total lack of interesting spiritual guidance provided by many a parish priest Father Coonan was reccommended by a friend. After attending mass with Father Coonan I felt my spirit renewed and learned "Good Stuff" every week. I am really grateful for Father Coonan and his message it has given me a lot of hope.

He began each Mass with a declaration that "I am the greatest sinner among you", thanked all for their faith and their presence, and acknowledged that the members of the congregation were
not all Saints.He acknowledged the presence of racial minorities, street people, alcoholics (drunk ones), the poverty stricken, the mentally compromised, and gays. He welcomed all
for coming, being willing to listen to him, and for "trying".

I've seen you convey feeling through poetry, literature and music and sometimes the power of your meaning moves me to an unimaginable level. I think that a lot of people that "follow" a particular religion do so out of habit rather than belief because no one could ever make it understandable. You change all that by living in reality with "us" and by somehow, at the same time, really understanding what it means to follow Jesus and being able to express that in a way that any person can understand.

Father Coonan married us on October 21,2000. When we first met with him in the rectory, we felt right at home with his Harley Davidson statue and Jerry Garcia dolls below the Bishop's picture.

After we had been dating a while, we started going to Mass together at her church - St. John's. I remember being blown away by this Jerry Garcia look-alike who played Grateful Dead tunes (could you even do that in church?) and preached as if Christ might come back tomorrow. He could "talk the talk" and explained the gospels better than any priest I'd ever heard

Your masses are so funny and full of life. Most other masses said by other priests (excluding my great-great uncle, Msgr. Tinsley) are so dull they almost put me to sleep.

We all can't wait to see you up on the alter, tapping your foot while listening to the Grateful Dead.

We had found Father Joe Coonan. The rock music, the sermons, the "I am just like you" keep us all coming back week after week. Your message is for all of us. We miss you terribly and pray
that you are well and will return to us very soon!

But, this week I remembered when Father Joe played "Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell- In the song she sings "don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'till its gone" I never knew what a special priest Father Coonan was untill he was gone.

While I believe whole-heartedly that you are innocent, I believe that your admittedly sinful past is a testament to your own faith. Furthermore, your EMPATHY for other sinners, and people in pain has led to the enormous following that extends well beyond Worcester County. We're pullin' for ya, rock star!

You are human, mellow, and forgiving. Your words come from the heart, always inspired, never dull, and never from a written script. You are compassionate, yet realistic. You welcome all regardless of who or what they may be. You know sin and you know forgiveness.

The way you speak to me in your sermon is more than inspiring and hopeful, it gives me purpose and want to go out and be a better person. Please remember what you teach; to be strong when things go badly, being at the bottom of the circle won't last, and so much more than i can print.


Coonan was a great entertainer ¿ he brought God down to the level of his parishioners, who had found religion dull and no fun. Connan made it fun. He preached pop psychology with an accompaniment of the Grateful Dead and with a veneer of Christianity ¿ at least this is how his parishioners see him and that is why they love him and want him back.

CoonanÍs bishop suspended him (following the new policy) as soon as an allegation was made. Bishops have not done that in the past, with terrible consequences. But the reaction of CoonanÍs parish shows why bishops have been so reluctant to remove priests. Pedophiles are frequently wildly popular priests. Many Catholics find their religion boring and want to have fun and be entertained at mass.

Priests therefore cultivate personality cults: dribbling basketballs at mass, skipping down the aisle and playing the kazoo and all the other bizarre scenes that try to keep the laity from the dread fate of boredom.

Pedophiles are often good con artists; they know how to exploit the weaknesses of their victims. That is how they can win over kids, how they can get parents to trust them, how they can convince bishops it is all a misunderstanding, and how they can be the best show business priests of the diocese. The laity wants a laugh a minute or pop psychology or maudlin sentimentality instead of the Gospel and the priest gives them what they want. When the allegations of criminal sexual misbehavior come, the laity leaps to the defense off their entertainer priest, fearful that the worst thing in the world threatens them: boredom.

11:36 AM

Thursday, August 22


I know the term's a cliche, but it's a cliche because Hannah Arendt nailed it: most of the evil we encounter in the modern western world really is banal, but it's still evil. OnCNN Connie Chung Tonight Ms.Connie Chung of CNN News interviewed two Americans who are shortly going to fly off to another country to have a baby cloned, and the doctor who is going to do it. They „ the pseudononymous "Kathy" and "Bill," and a Dr. Panos Zavos of Lexington, Kentucky „ talk about making up a child as if they were talking about getting a bigger house or a new car, though they do declare that God wants them to do this.

They will, by the way, kill the cloned child if she's "defective" „ "absolutely" willing, says Bill. They don't want just "a child," they want a perfect child. What do they think the child is going to think even if she makes it, if she learns that their love was entirely conditional on her being up to their standards? Isn't she going to wonder what they will do with her if she stops meeting their standards?

Anyway, read the interview.

10:55 AM

Wednesday, August 21


According to Sally Lehrman writing in The San Francisco Chronicle on"The virtues of promiscuity," anthropologists have found that

"Slutty" behavior is good for the species. . . . Women everywhere have been selflessly engaging in trysts outside of matrimony for a good long time and for excellent reasons. Anthropologists say female promiscuity binds communities closer together and improves the gene pool.

This news comes to us from the study of primitive tribes, where for several reasons it is assumed that women having sex with more than one man will help them survive, and even thrive.

More than 20 tribal societies accept the principle that a child could, and ideally ought to, have more than one father, according to Pennsylvania anthropologist Stephen Beckerman. "It begins to crop up in a lot of places," says Beckerman, who has reviewed dozens of reports on tribes from South America, New Guinea, Polynesia and India as co-editor of the newly released book, "Cultures of Multiple Fathers."

It is a well-written article, and worth reading. Some Christians will scoff at it, but there is no reason to reject the story's claims out of hand. They make perfect sense. Every culture gets sex wrong „ it's a fallen world, and something as great as sex is going to fall a long, long way. Female promiscuity may be these tribesÍ peculiar way of getting sex wrong. To put it another way, sluttishness may be the sort of thing from which Christianity could deliver them, as it could deliver the American male whose macho culture demands sexual conquests as a sign of success.

But as you might expect, the writer doesn't leave it there. She eventually invokes what might be called the "Margaret Mead Methodology," named after the anthropologist who wrote Coming of Age in Samoa in the 1920s. The natives of Samoa famously conned her into believing that they rutted like rabbits and had a simply smashing time, and her book reporting this made her career. (See this excerpt from Derek Freeman's new bookThe Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead. As Martin Gardner put it, "Margaret Mead's admirers will continue to raise howls of protest, but Derek Freeman's conclusions are unshakeable. Mead's reputation will continue to go downhill, and her most famous book has become worthless. The sad facts are detailed in Freeman's account of Margaret's gullibility.")

But nevertheless, modern Americans still love her methodology, even if theyÍve never heard of her. They buy it for the same reason she bought the SamoansÍ hoax: they want to believe it. It has great advantages over the Bible as an authoritative text.

Here is how the method works. One begins by proving that some behavior is natural, in the sense of being enjoyed by primitive people, who are supposed to be far closer to the basic human realities than we are.

Less than 50 years ago, Canela women, who live in Amazonian Brazil, enjoyed the delights of as many as 40 men one after another in festive rituals. When it was time to have a child, they'd select their favorite dozen or so lovers to help their husband with the all-important task. Even today, when the dalliances of married Bar ladies in Columbia and Venezuela result in a child, they proudly announce the long list of probable fathers.

. . . Anthropologists claim, good judgment aside, evolution has nudged women a bit toward promiscuity and sexual adventure. In all well-studied primates, females exhibit a polyandrous tendency when given the opportunity to stray.

Then one finds some way to show that the behavior works. It is no self-indulgence but a rational and effective way of living.

Some who cheat appear to be more fertile, and the offspring of most are more likely to survive. Fooling around appears to have helped our ancestral mothers equip their little ones for success „ the sexual equivalent of reading to them every night or enrolling in the after-school chess club.

Hawkes says females likely hook up with multiple males for safety „ a mother's strong emotional bonds with more than one fellow provide an extra protective hand in times of danger. An economic incentive promotes female infidelity in Bar society. All of the Bar children who had more than one father were more likely to survive into adulthood, fortified by small gifts of fish and game in times of scarcity.

At this point, one declares that all such behaviors are just social constructions anyway and ours (the modern, still sort of Christian way) is really not nearly so common as we would like to think.

"This model of the death-do-us-part, missionary-position couple is just a tiny part of human history," says anthropologist Kristen Hawkes, who has spent years studying the Ach, a Paraguayan people, and the North Tanzanian tribe Hadza. "The patterns of human sexuality are so much more variable."

Finally, one implies, without quite saying it, that the primitive behavior would work just as well for us, it being (though a social construction) more natural and all.

"Multiple lovers, that's just part of the life. It's recreation, just like races and running. It's all done in the spirit of joy and fun," says William Crocker of the Smithsonian Institution, who has studied the Brazilian tribe since 1957.

The Margaret Mead Methodology is a very useful methodology, if you're a creep. It proves „ to the standard the man with his pants halfway off requires, anyway „ that sexual libertinism is natural and sexual restraint unnatural, and since being natural is always good, you ought to let go and have fun, just like the jolly party girls of the South American tribes.

This is why Coming of Age in Samoa made Mead famous. You want to have an affair with the babe next door, well, those darling little Samoans living in a state of nature are doing it all the time, and look how happy and fulfilled and innocent they are. Margaret Mead said so. It's scientific. Your feel guilty because you're a modern man afflicted with Judeo-Christian guilt, but just ignore it „ unnatural as it is „ so that you can enjoy the pleasures nature and evolution have provided for you.

IÍm afraid this is the idea these stories almost always promote. They begin with sex in the jungle, and end with Barney betraying his wife at the Hampton Inn.

* * * * *
Three other comments, while I'm on the subject.

First, you might note how useful evolutionary theory is to this project. It gives the writers a way to reconcile the idea that the sexual life they want to promote is ñnaturalî with the idea that all such customs and rules are social constructions no better or worse than any others. To use the popular jargon, it lets them ñprivilegeî the primitive against the modern. The moral instructions of Christianity are socially constructed, while the behavior of the adulterous women of the Bar or Ach or Hadza is evolutionary.

It is wired in, so to speak. ItÍs not so much constructed by society as given us by nature. That being the case, ChristianityÍs ñThou shalt not commit adulteryî can be relativized, but primitive ñfemale promiscuityî canÍt.

Second, you might also note that the writer, and perhaps the anthropologists she quotes, treats the womenÍs behavior as if it were not restrained by moral limits. I know almost nothing about the subject, but it does seem to me likely that each tribe would tell its women that they could have sex only with certain men or at certain times or places, and not with others, and these rules might actually be rather strictly enforced. As C. S. Lewis said somewhere, in explaining the universal existence of a moral law, cultures differ on how many wives a man can have, but none say that he can have any woman he wants.

The womenÍs ñselflessly engaging in trysts outside of matrimonyî may just be a form of polygamy, if disorganized polygamy. These tribes may have a settled moral order marked by restraint, even if they are nearly so restrained as we would like them to be. If they are, and it is hard to believe they are not, their "trysting" is not really the ñpromiscuityî the article claims it is, and not the precedent for us such writers as Ms. Lehrman imply.

Third, the Chronicle story may make some sense of a surprising fact noted by the religion writer Terry Mattingly in his latest column ("Missionary Cohabitating, Part II," not yet posted as I write). He is reporting on a study of the sexual behavior of American men and women.

The researchers found -- as expected -- that deeply religious men are much less likely to cohabitate before saying their vows. But, to their surprise, they learned that religious women are just as likely to move in before marriage as non-religious women.

4:23 PM

Tuesday, August 20


Reading About Quran Sparks North Carolina Flare-up of Culture Wars
by Yonat Shimron
c. 2002 Religion News Service
RALEIGH, N.C. „ In the 1920s, the North Carolina legislature banned the teaching of evolution in the public schools. In the 1960s, state lawmakers banned communists from speaking on state-supported campuses. This past week, a state House committee moved in to prevent the University of North Carolina from requiring incoming freshmen to read a book on the Quran, Islam's Holy Scriptures.
The move was the latest in what has been a mounting controversy since the university decided to require 4,200 new students to read a book called "Approaching the Quran: The Early Revelations," and discuss it at a two-hour orientation session on Aug. 19. Radio talk shows are abuzz. The major TV networks have chimed in. And last month, the required reading by Michael Sells, a Haverford College professor of comparative religions, spurred a conservative Christian group to sue the university in federal court on behalf of three unidentified UNC-Chapel Hill

I don't know how the writer of this piece got away with that opening. Notice how the banning of Darwin, the banning of Communists, and the attempt to block the required study of the Quran by incoming freshmen (don't they mean "freshpersons"?) at a state university are all linked together, a litany of stupid Southern tricks. The article doesn't say it, but are readers supposed to think smugly: "Oh, Southern white bigots"? Too bad there isn't a typographical symbol for a wink.

1:18 PM

ROWAN WILLIAMS' HAIRY LEFTISM: Writing in The Spectator (London, not American), the sociologist Digby Anderson analyses the latest book by the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. Though the book is titled Ponder These Things: Praying with Icons of the Virgin, the Catholic-minded Anglican should not get too excited.

I feel that his own 'hairy lefty' ideas „ they are not ideology, more standard Sixties reflexes „ slip almost unnoticed into the argumentatively undisciplined atmosphere of meditation. ThereÍs a lot rightly about becoming open to God and His love. Then come little ideas which are much more controversial, how, for instance, we postpone 'the encounter with God because religion is far easier to manage than God'. Remember that little mantra of fabricated opposition, God good, religion bad. There are few kind words about church hierarchy and dogma; 'it should understand that it does not always understand' and not worry 'about where its centre is'. Yet the Orthodox Church which Williams uses so much here would not dream of talking as if religion and God could be separated and opposed. Williams's own Anglo-Catholic background would have taught him that the Church and its religion are Christ's continued presence on earth. Its ordered succession ensures the sacraments he so values.

It is difficult to illustrate this mixture of questionable ideas and devotional convention more clearly precisely because the two are interwoven. If the ideas were laid out in a systematic way, they would be much easier to see and, I suspect, to quarrel with. This matters. Dr Williams is to be Archbishop of Canterbury. He is going to be a 'radical', we are told. By this is meant that he will regurgitate ideas fashionable among an intellectual elite half a century ago, an elite whose dominance over the Church has helped reduce it to its current low ebb. That will certainly be very dull. What is interesting is that unlike Dr Carey, it looks as if he might advance them in what his friends would call a highly sophisticated and his enemies a highly slippery way. That will keep us on our toes and at least pass the time while the Church continues its radically assisted decline.

Williams is one of the band of new liberals who are genuinely learned and thoughtful and even traditional but use their learning to undermine what had previously been thought Christian doctrine and morality. They begin by reminding us that we cannot capture God with our thoughts and words, which is undoubtedly true and worth remembering. But then, just a few paragraphs on, and without any real argument, they are claiming that the thoughts and words we do have aren't much use. Or at least „ these liberals can be awfully cagey „ they can't be used in the way we had always used them, as telling us something fairly definite about God and about what He wants us to do. For that is "religion," which is bad, though how praying to the Virgin Mary with an icon is any less religious, is beyond me.

By the way, also well worth reading are Anderson's comments on the decline of "ecclesial religion" in England, given on an Australian radio program called The Religion Report. "There's not the tiniest earthly grounds for optimism," he says, and goes on to prove it.

11:08 AM

Monday, August 19


From Peter Steinfel's "Beliefs" column in Saturday's New York Times:

An Alternative to Monogamy
The Unitarian Universalist Association may soon be asked about a boundary problem. Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (U.U.P.A.) are coming out, "hoping to take their place beside the divorced, the intentionally single, gays and lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people as fully accepted people," according to a report of a June 22 workshop at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly held in Quebec.

The group defines polyamory, the report says, as "the philosophy and practice of loving or relating intimately to more than one person at a time with honesty and integrity."

The group is quick to distinguish polyamory from "swinging" or "cheating." Polyamory "involves intentional open long-term loving relationships," not recreational or covert sexual activity. U.U.P.A. speakers at the workshop left open whether polyamory was "a choice or a genetic predilection," the report said, but they urged that being "openly polyamorous" should be as accepted as being openly gay and not subjected to prejudicial "labels such as 'adulterer.' "

So far, the group is only "related" to the Unitarian Universalist Association and not a formal "affiliate," a status that would require a vote by the association's board.

"The board would have a lot of questions about how their agenda fits with the values and principles of the organization," said Janet Hayes, the Unitarian Universalists' public information officer. She called the group "cutting-edge in the sense that its time has not yet come „ but I wouldn't want to say it won't."

Of course, given what mainline liberals believe about sex, individual autonomy, the nature of Scripture, and the authority of Tradition, these people are right to demand of other liberals the right to "relate" (now there's a euphemism) to more than one person at a time. The average liberal may still believe in monogamy -- of the temporary sort called "serial monogamy" -- but his belief that one ought to have sex only with someone to whom one is committed is, on his own grounds, an irrational and perhaps superstitious clinging to a tradition and to social mores he does not believe in.

And so one can plot the trajectory of this one easily enough: starting with the Unitarians and ending with the Episcopalians, the Evangelical Lutherans, and the mainline Presbyterians. Once you have become a sexual liberal, and replaced the Do's and Don'ts of Christianity with some idea of sex as self-actualization, you cannot rationally resist anyone who wants to be more liberal than you are, and there will always be someone more liberal than you. You want contraception, someone else wants easy divorce. You want easy divorce, someone else wants homosexual marriages. You want homosexual marriages, someone else wants threesomes. You want threesomes, someone else wants children. You want children, someone else wants cats. And his reason for wanting cats will be just as good as yours for wanting contraception or easy divorce or homosexual marriages.

At some point, of course, most sexual liberals will say "But I don't want that!" But nevertheless he cannot say no to the man more daring than he. (More daring, I mean, as the sexual liberal thinks it, though "more depraved" is the more accurate term.) To resist his proposal to increase sexual freedom „ meaning receiving wide social approval for having sex with more than one person within a shorter period of time than hitherto allowed „ you must give a reason for resisting, and reasons have a way of ruling out many things you would like to keep ruled in. A reason for saying no to threesomes may well turn out to be a reason for saying no to homosexual marriages, and a reason for saying no to homosexual marriages may well turn out to be a reason for saying no to easy divorce, and a reason for saying no to easy divorce may well turn out to be a reason for saying no to contraception, and then where will you be? Having to be faithful in thought, word, and deed to your wife, that's where.

Hence you must never say no to any expansion of sexual freedom, even if you do not want to go so far yourself. And hence my certainty that the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness will eventually succeed, not only in the Unitarian/Universalist Association but in the mainline churches and elite society as well. As a friend commented, eventually the New York Times, which just announced that it will run announcements for homosexual unions on its wedding and engagement pages, will run "polyamory" announcements too. And the mainline churches will develop rites to "bless" them, while trying to find some way to pretend that polyamorousness is a Christian way of living.

3:58 PM

THE WAGES OF INCOMPETENCE IS A REALLY NICE HOUSE: The Irish Independent reports that the diocese of Ferns has bought a retirement residence for Bishop Comiskey:

The Diocese of Ferns has paid ¸234,000 for a retirement bungalow for its former bishop, Dr Brendan Comiskey who resigned in April amid controversy over his handling of allegations of child sexual abuse against the late Fr Sean Fortune.

For that amount one gets a decent little cottage. For example, the Ferns real estate web site lists one house at about that price with:

´ Entrance Hall
´ Living room with timber floor and ornate fireplace
´ Kitchen/Diningroom
´ Conservatory
´ 4 bedrooms (Master en-suite)
´ Bathroom
´ Utility room
´ w.c. room

Additional Features:
´ Double-Glazing
´ Oil-Fired central Heating

Price: IR£ 190,000
Euro 241,250

Sean Fortune. Quite a character.

He committed suicide in March 1999. The Washington Post reports:

Eleven days earlier, Fortune, 45, had been arraigned on 29 charges of sodomy, indecent assault and gross indecency for sexual assaults on eight boys during his time as curate in the nearby village of Fethard.

He cut a dashing figure in his dull fishing village:

Fortune was more than six feet tall and in later years weighed nearly 300 pounds. He dressed like a cross between an archbishop and a rock star -- he often wore the full soutane of flowing black cape and robe, a pink skullcap, a chain with a crucifix on it and a large, gold signet ring.

He was a con artist, who squeezed money out of the Irish government and poor widows.

He also launched a community employment project using government funds. Locals say he had up to 30 unemployed people at a time on its rolls, sweeping streets, painting houses and operating a nightly bicycle patrol of the houses of the elderly. Each participant got 60 to 70 Irish pounds per week, and Fortune skimmed 5 to 10 pounds from each -- for "administrative expenses," he told them.
Fortune cajoled and bullied the elderly and the infirm into paying for blessings. He charged for blessing fishing boats and graves, and for hospital visits. One elderly woman paid him 50 pounds a week for blessings that she believed helped keep her alive.

That was the least of his faults. He liked to rape 15 year old boys, a difficult age. Kids get upset, kill themselves, the parents make a fuss.

Her son Peter shot himself in 1988 at age 23, one of four Fethard youths to commit suicide around the time of Fortune's reign, and she believes the priest's activities were at least part of the reason.

Bishop Comiskey finally had to do something with Fortune:

Comiskey appointed him director of the National Association of Community Broadcasting.

There were more schemes. Fortune founded a phony journalism institute and collected more than 100,000 pounds per year from students taking night courses, according to press reports. He produced religious radio programs for RTE, the state-run broadcast service. During this time, according to O'Connor's book [A Message from Heaven], he raped a 15-year-old boy in a recording booth.

Then the BBC aired the story, and Comiskey had to go into early retirement, in a suitable residence paid for by his diocese (as money is fungible, the bijou residence was in part paid for by money contributed by the parents of the boys who committed suicide after receiving FortuneÍs attentions).

IsnÍt forgiveness a wonderful thing if you are a bishop? Being a bishop means never having to suffer in a rented apartment, no matter how many peopleÍs lives youÍve ruined.

7:54 AM

Sunday, August 18

STEINBECK THE FIRST RATE SINNER: I am on vacation in Cape May and picked out Travels with Charlie from the rental houseÍs shelf. Steinbeck decided to go to church when he traveled across America. HereÍs what happened in Vermont:

The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been long since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that or sins arenÍt really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church. The minister, a man of iron with tool-steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us that we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right. We didnÍt amount to much to start with, and due to our own tawdry efforts we had been slipping ever since. Then, having softened us up, he went into a glorious sermon, a fire-and-brimstone sermon. Having proved that we, or perhaps only I, were no damn good, he painted with cool certainty what was likely to happen to us if we didnÍt make some basic reorganizations for which he didnÍt hold out much hope. He spoke of hell as an expert, not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well-stoked, white-hot hell served by technicians of the first order. This reverend brought it to a point where we could understand it, a good hard coal fire, plenty of draft, and a squad of open-hearth devils who put their hearts into their work, and their work was me. I began to feel good all over. For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness, and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to the trouble of kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity. I hadnÍt been thinking well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasnÍt a naughty child but a first rate sinner, and I was going to catch it.

ƒHe forged a religion to last, not predigested obsolescence

Pity Shanley, McCormack, Daily, Law, et al werenÍt treated to such sermons. Where are the Presbyterians when you need them? The New Oxford Review in its anti-universalism campaign has suggested that an unspoken universalism made the scandals possible. Everyone (except maybe Hitler and CEOÍs and polluters) is going to heaven, so why be scrupulous about a few sexual sins?

Anyone with a keen sense of GodÍs wrath toward evildoers (which the prophets and Jesus as heir of the prophets preached) would have second thoughts about raping a child, or brushing it off by sending the sinner to a cushy hospital for a few yapping sessions.

God cares enough about me and my actions to threaten eternal torments if I donÍt shape up. God reminds us that our actions can have eternal consequences, that under the surface of our bourgeois lives heaven and hell lie hidden, and at all times we are but one step through the curtain into one or the other.

(My wife says that Steinbeck didnÍt change his ways, but maybe he would have been even worse without this astringent reminder of his sinfulness.)

2:30 PM

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