The road to my gun range is riddled with churches.
Every other Sunday I wind up into the mountains, driving the switchbacks to higher altitude, around farmhouses and ramshackle ranches crumbling in the woods. And along that country road are the quaint little houses of worship with neatly-trimmed lawns and parking lots crammed with sport-utility vehicles. Every turn seems to bring another holy place, Baptist and Presbyterian, Universalist and Catholic. Signs push brunches and bingo.
I, of course, am on my way to blow shit up. I just pass by muttering, cruising the turns smooth so the loose boxes of shotgun shells won’t slide all over the trunk.
As they’re praying to their Lord, singing hymns to the friend they have in Jesus, I’m dusting off the ammunition and blowing inanimate objects out of the American sky, reveling in nature, be it snow or sun or whatever else their fickle God has brought to my steadfast mountains that day.
The happy church families are generally getting out just as I’m on my way back. The traffic on that one-lane country road piles up quicker than small change in a brass collection plate.
Especially the way this faithful flock drives. They cut me off – the caravan proceeds like they’re on the highway to heaven – like they’re the Donner party overloaded with provisions. The backs of their cars are plastered with stick-figure families, Jesus fishes, and bumper-sticker manifestoes of their faith – of how they are the Elect.
They drive like idiots. Slow, ponderous, veering across into oncoming traffic.
But far be it from me to point a heretical finger at these people. I too have read the Bible’s sordid tales of rape and generations. I went to Sunday school at dawn every week. Hell, I’m even an ordained minister in some circles.
Truly, most thinking people have some kind of faith to get them through each night. Whether it’s a belief in Jesus, quantum physics, government subsidies, Allah, or just oneself – we all need some bedrock to keep our foot on while the world turns on its axis, and we hang on tight.
But watching these people drive in their own calm little world intrigued me enough to revisit that old time religion. To go back to not only the underpinnings of my formative years, but also those of my country – to scrape clean the primordial American crucible. After all, I’m a gun owner, and therefore an ugly American, myself. One needs to understand one’s own history, and that of their countrymen, too. Otherwise they can and will surprise you in the least welcomed way possible (see: 2000 Presidential election).
So on Eastertide, I went back to the beginnings. Out of deference to the Savior, I skipped the range.
“The God that holds you over the pit of Hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes that to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.”
“I don’t know why you can’t help your father with the gutters – he could fall off that ladder at any time. Any stiff wind. He can’t move like he used to.”
One of those tirades is from Jonathan Edwards, an 18th century preacher. The other is from my mother. One is a middle-aged suburban wife and grandmother, and the other one was a teetotaling asskicking Puritan who terrorized thousands of souls into submission through nag-fests such as the epochal “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” You decide which is which (see answers below).
I go back to Edwards, cynical fuck he may be, because he is America. His words may as well have knocked up this fertile land, planted the seeds of American exceptionalism in this dark soil. The extreme comparisons, the bluster and empty threats, the blunt diction. His language is that of “Axis of Evil” and “Evil Empire” and Jerry Falwell and the Republican primaries. He made the mold. And that mold means simplicity, black and white, us-and-them lines drawn in the apocalyptic sands of approaching Revelation. It’s John Wayne ordering the swarthy fellow to put ‘em up and then shooting him straight in the gut; it’s intervening in exotic lands oceans away because you know what is Right; it’s stuffing your face with freedom fries; it’s also the salty taste of justice sandbagged, underhanded, in the dark, without a word of warning.
It’s everything Cormac McCarthy spelled out in Blood Meridian, from seeing the child pale and thin… all the way to the Judge progressing over the hellish fiery plain.
Because the adage goes that America is the land of opportunity – a New World of promise and hope. In a way it is – but only because it is the final refuge of the unwanted, the “tired/poor/huddled masses,” etc.
According to the latest statistics, the U.S. remains just a shade under eighty percent Christian. The Pew Research Center researchers and other eggheads are true inheritors of the Enlightenment, convinced that humankind is heading toward some far-off bright horizon of peace and reason. They believe Americans are gradually becoming less faith-driven, less reliant on their collective reptile brain. But they can’t cover the fact that we are a superstitious and believing people – that we move in mysterious ways that even the oil companies can’t always comfortably predict.
Which returns us to the value of the value of fire and brimstone: why it plays well in America – and why it gets Presidents elected (see: color-coded terrorist threat/doom levels).
Churches sprung up in these forests precisely because the unwanted came here to have the freedom to let their freak flag fly. You can preach whatever you want, tell the rabble any shit they want to hear. You can also go blow shit up in the mountains, if the spirit so moves you.
So it’s been a solid three centuries of living free, worshiping, and laying up our treasures in heaven. Together we dangle over that fire, reveling in the danger we dodged back home among respectable civilizations with social strata.
But throughout it all, we wait for the end times. We practice our aim, every Sunday or so. Some aim words skyward, others use their 12 gauge.