Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/30/2011

A man can’t save his self from whatever it is

Parker's Back?

Parker's Back?

My late ex-wife, before I ended the charade and she found her famous husband, would throw her head back and laugh her unrestrained and infectious laugh on a Sunday morning and say that I was going to “organize” the church. She loved puns, for the play on words and for her own ability to pile meaning upon meaning with them. The thought of my “organizing” anything was (is) absurd.

Last Sunday I organized St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church once again.

. . .  I discover in my own necessarily limited experience at dinner tables . . .  you may let it be known that you are a Gnostic, a Manichaean, a Branch Davidian, a Mahayana Buddhist, a Nudist, or a believer in the sanctity of bumble bees and people are likely to smile approvingly and ask how you got that way. But, if you hint at being an atheist or so declare, you will meet . . .  always an immediate change of subject (1).

John McCormick (1918-2010) published this small essay back in the days before the culture wars and religious correctness took over the intellectual life of America, even of the Sewanee Review. McCormick was British but spent most of his life in the US. His PhD was from Harvard. He taught at several universities, the last 28 years of his career at Rutgers. This was after he was in the US Navy in WWII and had qualified as a Matador in Spain.

Those – dying then –
Knew where they went –
They went to God’s Right Hand –
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found –

The abdication of Belief
Makes the behavior small –
Better an ignis fatuus*
Than no illume at all –

(*A phosphorescent light that hovers or flits over swampy ground at night—an illusion.)

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Parker’s Back,” Obadiah Elihue Parker, when his tattooist who is about to cover his back with a picture of Christ asks if he’s gone and got religion—if he is saved—says, “Naw, I ain’t got no use for none of that. A man can’t save his self from whatever it is he don’t deserve none of my sympathy” (3).

O’Connor isn’t above a good pun herself. Obadiah is a Hebrew prophet (his name apparently means “servant of God”) who denounces a lot of hypocritical religionists (read his book in the Bible yourself). Elihue is the young man who tries to set the record straight after Job’s three friends rough him up verbally (with friends like Job’s, no one would need enemies).  I’ve reread Elihue’s longwinded speech (Job, chapters 32-37) and can’t quite figure it out (never could). I’m pretty sure the anti-religionist Parker has the name Obadiah Elihue for some specific reason that O’Connor thought was a good joke. At least an incredibly effective pun. The atheist is the Servant of God and God’s apologist who sets up the scene for God (in spite of his destroying Job’s life in order to win a bet with the devil—nice guy, that God) to trounce Job verbally and say, essentially, “It doesn’t matter how much you suffer; I made you, and you’ll do as I say, even if I have destroyed your life in order to win a bet.”

“A man can’t save his self from whatever it is he don’t deserve none of my sympathy.”

Well, now. “Whatever it is” seems to have a lot of people by the throat these days. Starting maybe with Elihue’s God. Gotta be saved from Gay Marriage, from Abortion, from Muslims, from Big Government, from Terrorism, from Labor Unions, from Obamacare.  My (totally unscientific) hunch is that most of the people who think others are in need of salvation from these things also think they (we) need to be saved from our sins, or the God that Elihue is defending will, in fact get us.

Oh, my. How disrespectful (to say nothing of sacrilegious and impious) can I be?

Fortunately, I’m not alone in my impiety. At any rate I’m not alone in my understanding that a

. . . believer in one set of truths may of course be a non-believer with regard to a separate set of truths. What unites both is the certainty that the truths in which they believe necessarily must be accepted by all right-thinking people, and that to question such truth is to display apostasy (4).

Here’s where things get sticky for me. I don’t want anyone to think (because I don’t think so myself) that I am rejecting what is said and sung at a church that I organize. I just don’t know, that’s all. And I’m pretty sure I “can’t save [my] self from whatever it is” because of my inability to figure out whatever it is. And the “it” has more ramifications than religion. For me, politics has always been pretty much like religion because

[u]ntil quite recently, liberal political and philosophical thought . . .  was firmly in the agnostic camp. This world view sometimes—but erroneously—termed “secular,” ‘ was the product of a particular age and time. It now appears that we are at the end of its moment, an era that . . .has actually been quite brief (5).

servant of God?

servant of God?

I don’t like where this is headed. Liberal thought is no longer in the agnostic camp? I want to reject Chibundu’s assertion that

far from being agnostic about faith, neoliberalism now enshrines certain dogmas as pillars of society that need no empirical validation for their legitimation. This neoliberalism furnishes less a method of thinking through issues than a series of rehearsed dogmas, unquestioning adherence to which is essential for membership in the “community of civilized peoples” (6).

I cut to the chase. Just as I don’t understand the “it” of the church services at which I organize, I don’t understand

. . .  liberalism’s . . . deification of “democracy” . . . neoliberalism’s invocation and treatment of the ideal of democracy [that] is representative of a much broader phenomenon in neoliberal methodology: a tendency to convert ideals into dogmas. . . [an approach] not uncommon to successful religions. . . [which ]identifies an admittedly desirable ideal, insists on its acceptance as necessary to human salvation, and discriminatorily excommunicates some who appear unwilling to subjugate their views to the decreed norm, while exempting others from its rigors (7).

Of course, the “neocons” are really the “neolibs” in disguise.  They are all pretty much the same. Forcing regime change on a country (or even helping one segment of its society overthrow another) may not, in fact, be “necessary to human salvation.” NATO’s aid to Libyan rebels may fall into the same category of “subjugat[ing] their views to the decreed norm” as Marcus Bachmann’s work to save gay folks.

So I’m ready for the screams of outrage. It’s a good thing, I suppose, I can’t “organize politics.” And fortunately I have no prophet complex, Obadiah or otherwise. My political atheism will probably demand an immediate change of subject.
(1) McCormick, John. “The education of an atheist.” Sewanee Review 103.1 (1995): 77.
(2) Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Mundus Publishing. NOOK Book. Web. January 2011.
(3) O’Connor, Flannery. “Parker’s Back.” Everything that Rises Must Converge.” New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965 (219).
(4) Chibundu, Maxwell O. “Political Ideology as a Religion: The Idolatry of Democracy.” University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, & Class 6.1 (2006): 117-157.
(5) Chibundu op. cit.
(6) Chibundu op. cit.
(7) Chibundu op. cit.


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