Monday, July 14, 2008

Corpus Crikey

Update: 2008-07-14 17:22 -- minor wordsmithing

I was going to embed this video at the end of this post, as something of a punchline, but (this'll shock you) I ended up getting a little long-winded. Since I was afraid you'd never get through to it, I decided it would be better to offer it up front. You might wish to reserve it as a reward for muddling through what follows, or you might be of the school that believes, Life is uncertain, eat dessert first. Or, you might think, The last shall be first. Your choice.

I was thinking recently that back when I still went to church, people seemed to have more of a sense of humor. Take it away, Tom:

(alt. video link)

What brought one of my all-time favorite songs to mind? Glad you asked.


Once upon a time, I was an altar boy in our local Catholic Church. If some biographer ever feels compelled to chronicle the life of Dude the Obscure, it may be noted that this experience was probably the first step towards my becoming an atheist.

As any fan of the theater will tell you, a backstage pass can diminish some of the on-stage magic. No, no, no. I'm not thinking unfondly of some fondler. The worst problems I ever had with Catholic priests consisted of them oversleeping and me having to go over to the rectory to wake them up for the 6:45 mass. Terrifying, but only for a moment, and without lasting damage.

No, the magic began to disappear the first time I saw the supply closet.

As you may or may not know, an important part of the Catholic Mass involves a rite variously called the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, or Holy Communion, in which pieces of bread and a cup of wine are consecrated by a priest, and shortly thereafter, distributed to those in attendance (some restrictions apply). The ceremony is meant to recall a meal that happened about two millennia ago, frequently referred to as the Last Supper, at which bread and wine were identified by Jesus with his body and blood, and given to those at table with him. I'm a little murky about how metaphorical Jesus was being here, given the amount of times the story has been retold, not to mention re-translated, since.

I worried less about such weighty theological considerations back then, of course; the important thing for me as an altar boy was not to miss the cue line, "Do this in memory of me," at which point I would ring some bells.

Shortly after the Last Supper (ten, eleven, or twelve hundred years later, depending on who you want to believe), there arose a notion called transubstantiation, a term describing the belief that the bread and wine really, really, really changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Several centuries after that, some guys got together and made this view official. Some other guys disagreed about this, for which they were summarily burned at the stake. You could look it up.

Again, I'm not sure how aware I was of all of these details back then, but I did know enough to be horrified when, in gathering things together in preparation for the one of the first masses at which I ever served, I opened the supply closet (remember the supply closet?) and saw a perfectly ordinary brown cardboard box, inside of which was a perfectly ordinary clear plastic bag, inside of which were thousands of ... what the priest at hand quickly assured me were perfectly ordinary wafers of unleavened bread.

The horror ramped up when he told me, "Wait. Those are too old. Throw them out and open a new box."

"You mean ... throw them in the garbage?"

"Yes. Not to worry. They're just crackers."

He did, of course, go on to remind me that it was the rite of the Eucharist that made the difference. I did not ask about throwing out said crackers post-rite -- such a thing was beyond my ability to imagine then.

In a somewhat related event that occurred before I ever donned a cassock (or was it a surplice?), a mass was held at my own house. As I recall, it had to do with a going-away party that my parents were throwing for a priest friend of theirs who was shortly to depart for a long stint of missionary work in Ecuador. And, him being a priest, and my parents and pretty much everyone else there being Catholics, this probably seemed like a good way to kick off the party. Now that I think about it, breaking bread, drinking wine, and Do this in memory of me seems entirely appropriate to the occasion.

The problem for me started when my mother showed me, ahead of time, how the Eucharist part was going to work. She had baked a loaf of bread and cut some of it into small cubes. "That's not real Communion!" I insisted.

"Teaching moment!" my mother doubtless was happy to think. She explained about the difference between leavened and unleavened bread, how back in the days when you lived in a small tribe in the desert and might have had to pick up and move at a moment's notice, you couldn't afford to be messing around with yeast (even if you could get it), let alone wait hours for the dough to rise before baking. And that bread without yeast was less susceptible to mold growth. And, anyway, how this is all part of symbolism and ritual, and that I'd understand such abstractions better when I got a little older.

Not completely convinced, I later ate my cube of bread, post-consecration, but not without suspicion.

Something must have stuck, though. Toward the end of my time as an altar boy, our church switched to whole wheat wafers. By then, I was happy about this change, precisely because they seemed more like bread. They also had an added advantage: they were easier to swallow. The earlier version served at our church tasted exactly like Styrofoam, even fresh out of a new box, and exactly unlike Styrofoam, seemed capable of instantly absorbing all the saliva in my mouth. The point is, I was able to snicker when other members of the congregation, politely called "grownups," lobbied the pastor of the church, insisting that the new-fangled hippy disks were … yup, not real Communion.

All this by way of introducing the latest thing that (better sit down for this part) has William Donohue outraged. (Hmmm. Googling donohue outraged returns only 41,700 hits. Clearly, Google needs a thesaurus.)

Via Abbie, aka ERV, I was led to PZ Myers's reports of the unfolding events.

Now, the thing that I have to say about all of this is that, in my calmer moments, of course I do not believe that Donohue and his ilk are representative of all Catholics. Or all Christians. Or all religious people. Farthest thing from it. Neither does PZ, and neither does ERV. (More on this below.) What I will say, to all of you who are of a more moderate and mature bent regarding your faith, is this: To my mind, and I'm not alone in thinking this, guys like Donohue won't be content until we return to those happy days when people who don't share his views are once again burned at the stake.

I'm exaggerating, you say? Browse PZ's blog and read some of the email and comments he gets.

Still not sold? Fair enough. Maybe it'll help to think about it this way: Extremism tends to provoke more extremism.

When wingnuts like Donohue run around untethered, claiming an allegiance with everyone of your faith, purporting to speak on your behalf, without moderates like you loudly and clearly condemning them, one of the reactions is going to be alarm from people who become, by definition, those on the other side. There will be an instinct to fight fire with fire. If you're the sort who thinks PZ Myers goes too far, if you find guys like Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, Maher, and Condell offensive, you might consider this. You might think about the amount of airtime given to the agents of intolerance, and how that leads to the impression that all religious people are like this. Certainly, a large number of sheep are willing to be herded by Donohue, Robertson, Hagee, Parsley, and all the rest. This may be because they don't get much chance to hear any other voices. Like yours.

It's not entirely up to you to address this, but it is partly up to you. And, at minimum, this ought to give you a little understanding for what provokes the so-called militant atheists.

Is there something a little tasteless about "desecrating the Host?" Perhaps. On the other hand, it seems to me that anyone of real faith, who truly believes in an all-powerful God, ought not get into a tizzy over what is, in the end, merely a concrete instance of a symbol of something that is supposed to be infinitely larger.

It's the same sort of idiocy that causes a hullabaloo when a flag is burned. The important thing is not that one specific piece of cloth. The important thing is the idea of The Flag, which is far more durable, and which in turn stands for something more durable yet -- all of our founding principles. People who really believe know this, and cannot be bothered by an act which is purely intended to provoke those few whose belief is rightly questioned and unquestionably immature.

All right. That's enough sermonizing. Let me close with this.

If you want to know what PZ really thinks about religion in general, here's an excerpt from a longer post of his:

This does not mean that scientists can't be religious. We can encompass irrational beliefs without regret and without obligation—I can, actually, look at my kids in a different way than I would an experimental subject under my microscope. I also do not pretend that I view my children rationally and objectively, untainted by emotion or history, and I'm not ashamed of that at all. So, a scientist should have no problem demanding one standard of logic and evidence in the lab, and dropping that demand when they go to church on Sunday.

If you want to know what ERV really thinks about religion in general, here's an excerpt from a longer post of hers:

First, to be perfectly clear, there is no reason why you should think you are on 'the other side' for believing in God. Certainly we could have some fun philosophical disagreements, but my evolutionary biology professors in college were a Quaker and a Lutheran. If they can come to terms with their faith and their science, I really dont have much patience with YE/OE/ID Creationists bellowing about the limits of their own deity. That is a personal problem, not an overlying theistic (or Christian) problem.

If you want a closer look at these sinister atheists, see the diavlog that ERV and PZ did Saturday, on

Obvious Antichrists, no?



Alastair said...

Good story Brendan.

Catholics are not exactly my favourite people right now, having invaded my town and set up their home base exactly in the middle of an imaginary straight line between my home and work.

Many minor inconveniences plus highly inappropriate government involvement plus a general dislike of religion equals a not happy Alastair.

About the only upside I can think of is that the recently introduced $5500 fine for being "annoying" is basically like a red rag to a papal bull. You can bet that all manner of pranks and gags and stunts will be pulled, some of them funny. Prediction: search YouTube in the next few months for "WYD Chaser", hilarity will doubtless ensue.

Twin said...

Excellent post, Brendan. It was interesting hearing a bit about your background.

And the comment about Google had me in stitches.

Brendan said...

Thanks, A and T.

A: Sorry to hear about the "there goes the neighborhood" problem. Please keep me posted.

Thanks also to Simon, who weighed in via email, and also included a link to his own thoughts on one aspect of the kerfuffle.