Saturday, September 12, 2009

Among the Believers

One of the ways the college in my hometown raises money during the fallow months of summer, is by renting the campus out to conferences and conventions. The college is a small, Presbyterian institution that started as a teacher's training school which grew and prospered. It is still a conservative place, made briefly famous in a Supreme Court case some years back, when the college won the right to maintain sexually segregated dormitories for it's unmarried students, despite receiving federal money. (Should give you some idea of the atmosphere.) It has a beautiful little campus dotted with Georgian revival brick and local stone, wide lawns, wooded walks, and a picturesque bridge across a charming creek. In high school, my friends and I used to picnic and just hang about in a small, walled garden near the chapel. It boasted a lovely railed view down the side of the hill to the creek, a sundial and a surprising degree of privacy. Whatever the garden's name actually was, the gate to the garden had two stone pillars, crowned with what looked like artichokes, and so we called it accordingly. Many a high good time was had there, and many a sultry, dull day was wasted. More than one experiment in romance was made on the grass behind the walls of the Artichoke Garden. Curiously, no one seemed ever to much notice us, and we were seldom hassled by security, in the summer. Some of my friends from town worked as waiters during the summer conference season. The little garden was a convenient place to meet. Again, rather oddly, no one attending the various conferences and religious meetings seemed ever to stroll out and about when we were lolling on the grass or draped across the memorial bench. They might have passed unnoticed, but none came in.

I went for a walk on the campus when I was home this summer. There were, that week, Baptists everywhere. A conference of Baptist youth or some such was in residence. It was a Sunday afternoon. Church services had apparently just concluded. I was a little conspicuous in a beard, shorts and sandals, but no one challenged my presence there. In fact, as I walked among them, I felt a familiar, if all but forgotten, incorporeality. I was made to remember just how we local mongrels moved so freely among the faithful all summer; we simply did not exist for them. We moved among the Saved, but were obviously of the World: boys and girls both with long hair, wearing cut-off jeans, smoking cigarettes, laughing. To acknowledge us, even in passing, would have been to break the spell of that specially sanctity that comes with retreat. We might be thanked for a ladle of mashed potatoes in the cafeteria, but the courtesy, and the contact, were strictly a function of habit and utility. I don't even remember a single soul trying to save even one of us.

I didn't search out the little walled garden, as I'd planned. It was a very hot day. There were entirely too many well scrubbed, buttoned up Fundamentalists milling dreamily about in long pants, short-sleeved dress shirts and somber ties, even the little boys. The girls I saw that day all had their hair swept modestly up and were all in long skirts, even the little girls. When I was a teenaged interloper, thirty years ago, I'm sure there must have been just such people wandering about with just such Bibles, visibly bristling with annotating notecards and colored tabs, but this trip, they rather put me off my nostalgia. I cut my walk short, got back in my car, and drove back down the hill to town, where I had happier errands to run.

Being this week at a booksellers convention, I was reminded of the indifferent, yet off-putting Baptists I encountered again just this past July. As I was strolling through the vendors' show, I happened to hear a representative of small, specialty press telling a prospective buyer from small Christian bookstore in a remote western place -- I made a point of reading the buyer's badge and noted the location of her store -- that all of this publisher's romances were, "designed to appeal to wide audience of women," but that the buyer needn't worry that the novels, despite their slightly suggestive covers, would actually "shock anybody."

"The values are all there, believe me."

That emphasis is mine, but it does convey something more of the sound of the pitch as well. I didn't linger long enough to hear any response from the bookstore owner. My presence was not acknowledged, save for one cold and suspicious glance from that rep, when she saw my badge and knew I wasn't among her customers. I might have been no more than a passing shadow at that moment, so pass on I did. I wondered as I wandered thereafter just what the assumption was that was being made about the potential readers of those books. Working where I do, I am unlikely to have much occasion to sell such books, though I have no reason to think we wouldn't, happily. Working in a major independent bookstore in a large city, I have the luxury of indifference to any opinion not directly effecting the sale of a book. We can judge best by our sales. Ours is not a store that needs much to worry about our customers' values, as such. Our stock, proudly, represents the widest possible divergence of opinion; religious, political, and cultural, and we may trust our customers to decide entirely for themselves what book, and what kinds of books, they wish to read, or ignore. As independent booksellers in a big, liberal city, we are not often questioned about the values in the materials we sell, and seldom concern ourselves with the morality of either our books or their readers. I understand that not all booksellers are situated so, or would choose to be. But I do marvel at the almost conspiratorial tone of that rep.

The broad hint in her recommendation, at least to my ear, was that the only means of avoiding the potential of offense to that bookseller's customers was in assuming not only a commonality of religious opinion, literary taste, and delicacy of language, but of danger. It would seem that the only way to successfully sell books to the ladies most likely to frequent such a bookstore in search of romantic fiction, or so at least that publisher's rep seemed to be suggesting, was to make sure, beforehand, that readers were well protected not so much from the temptations of the flesh, as these books were being sold as adult romance novels after all, but from any consequent exposure, either surreptitious or even unintended, to any book, or even hint, that might cause the bookseller's customers to question her commitment to orthodoxy. Now that was a little shocking to me; that a bookseller, even in such a specialized niche, should need such reassurance.

What, exactly, would be the consequences anticipated, should a book not so thoroughly vetted as to its conformity to "the values" presumably shared by its author, publisher, seller and reader, fall into the hands of some unsuspecting Christian woman in a small western hamlet? Does anyone suppose, first of all, that she would be so corrupted by reading an ill-considered romance novel, one that did not presumably recommend chastity before marriage, that she would then abandon hearth and home, become some newly liberated, sexually wanton predator, wandering the village streets at night, propositioning random strangers? I can't imagine even the most reactionary paranoid assuming any such influence for a book in contemporary culture, not with all the grave potential for sin elsewhere. Thin edge of the wedge, I suppose, but pretty thin nowadays, I should think. No. What was being suggested was nothing to do with the danger to anyone's soul. It was an appeal to commercial self interest that was being made. It was the customer, rather than the devil and all his works, who was being used to frighten the bookseller off from any but the safest, most obvious choice of stock, the bookseller who was being reassured, and warned to trust no one not entirely of like mind, even among her customers. Romance readers, evidently, can turn on you. Best not to stray too far from tables that feature biblical advice, even in their less obviously evangelical titles, if one is in the business of Christianity, if one doesn't want to risk being judged harshly, or even put out of business by one's fellow Christians.

I have very little contact, as I've said, with the particular audience of readers at whom these romances are aimed. I can't help but wonder about the lives of the women in that bookseller's community, about just how many of them might indeed be shocked by anything that might be found in even the most salacious romance novel, or by a local independent bookstore selling such books. I do wonder just what they would do, should they find a black sheep among the white. The rep may not have been entirely cynical in suggesting it might be best, for an independent business woman, to avoid antagonizing the sensibilities of one's community.

One of the most shocking things I've recently witnessed as a consequence of the well-organized and coordinated efforts of the Wild Right to demonize their opponents in the national discussion of health care, has been the indifference with which the vast majority of the rest of us have dismissed these latest examples of willful ignorance and fanaticism as laughable. It would behoove us all to remember that, for such people, we do not quite exist. For them, we are but the shadows cast by the sinful, secular chaos that whirls around them and from which, only their God and the strong shield of their faith protects them. We are confusion, abstract and sinister. Humanity is vested, for them, in the conception of the soul and the damned -- all of us -- constitute a challenge, an ongoing opportunity to evangelize, but ultimately, for those who refuse salvation, a source of corruption, temptation and a judgement. The great irony for the fanatic, is that the democracy that protects them from persecution for their beliefs is also the greatest danger to their sanctity. They must be ever watchful, even of romance novels published by a presumably godly press, and of the shadows that lengthen all around.

We ought not to just laugh at these people, though history has proved the power of sense, science and ridicule in reducing their numbers and sway considerably, because the joke may turn out to be on us, not because they are right -- they are wrong -- but because they do not take lightly any challenge to their insularity, and they have powerful friends. Moving amongst them, even briefly and in passing, no matter the happy or familiar setting, no matter the infrequency with which I am confronted with that failure to reflect in the eyes of true believers, I find the chill can still wipe the smile from my face.

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