Sunday, June 5, 2005

Angels and Virgins: The Faces of Fundamentalism

Truth is, or should be, a fairly simple matter: if it is personal, flexible, open, receptive, and continually growing, then it is truth, and it is alive. If it is fixed and written into the stone tablets of an exclusive monumentalism, then it is falsehood, and it is dead. Fundamentalism, in all its forms, is a violent ideology of death.

On a simmering afternoon of this early summer, I happened to be at Coney Island amid a thick and diverse throng of visitors. As I was waiting for my daughter to finish a turn in the bumper cars, a fellow in a bright yellow shirt passed me. I looked at the back of the shirt, which was decorated with a figure in a black fireman’s outfit who was being carried by two winged female characters on either side of him.

These women were portrayed as...well, one can only call them babes. They had voluptuous figures, long flowing blonde hair, and model’s faces with full red lips. Below the painting read the shirt’s message: “FDNY: IN THE ARMS OF ANGELS”.

I was reminded of the painting, reproduced here, which I had found in Jeff Sharlet’s essay for the May issue of Harper’s Magazine. It’s a painting by Thomas Blackshear, called The Vessel, and it hangs in the World Prayer Center of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, one of the epicenters of the evangelical fundamentalist Christian movement. The painting speaks for itself, but Sharlet’s observations on it are worth repeating:

[The Vessel is] a tall, vertical panel of two nude, ample-breasted, white female angels team-pouring an urn of honey onto the shaved head of a naked, olive-skinned man below. The honey drips down over his slab-like pecs and his six-pack abs into the eponymous vessel, which he holds in front of his crotch. But the vessel can’t handle that much honey, so the sweetness oozes over the edges and spills down yet another level, presumably onto our heads, drenching us in golden, godly love. Part of what makes Blackshear’s work so compelling is precisely its unabashed eroticism; it aims to turn you on, and then to turn that passion toward Jesus.

Of course, there’s no mention in any Biblical text that I’m aware of that gets into such erotic detail (though the Song of Solomon might qualify); and even the Koran—contrary to many Westerners’ assumptions—has nothing to say about the “72 Virgins” that we’ve all heard about since 9/11/01: the supposed reward that is given to any who achieve martyrdom in the service and violent practice of jihad.

The Koran, however, does wax sensuously on the topic of angelic virgins (without numbering them), much in the same vein as the Blackshear painting and the fellow’s T-shirt at Coney Island. Here is what one translation has to say about the Islamic paradise:

They shall recline on jewelled couches face to face, and there shall wait on them immortal youths with bowls and ewers and a cup of purest wine (that will neither pain their heads nor take away their reason); with fruits of their own choice and flesh of fowls that they relish. And theirs shall be the dark-eyed houris, chaste as hidden pearls: a guerdon for their deeds... We created the houris and made them virgins, loving companions for those on the right hand..."

To anyone who has read the ecstatic writing of Rumi, these kinds of images will seem both familiar and comfortable in a deeply spiritual—that is, a bodily—sense.

So where does fundamentalism come into this picture? Perhaps we can come to some point of perspective here by first remembering that Rumi was no more an exclusively Islamic poet than Blake was a Christian one. Then it will help to recall Sharlet’s impression of the Blackshear painting—how it is meant to turn you on, and then to turn you away.

Away, that is, from yourself—from your body and its inviolable connection with Nature. Thus, in fundamentalism, the eroticism is a passing expedient, meant to arouse energy toward a violent ideology of the Exclusive—a picture of a world in which the adherents of a narrow system of belief and behavior will be rewarded according to the same organic terms that Nature had already placed within them, before the birth of any religious creed.

This is how fundamentalism works: by deflecting the energy of our body’s sexual currents—the regenerative and universal quantum field of Love— and twisting it toward the demands of something inherently unnatural—the rigid self-images of what I have elsewhere called “cosmic racism.”

We will have more to say about fundamentalism in future entries here. However, you can learn all you need about discovering the way beyond fundamentalism by simply looking perseveringly within yourself.

As Rumi would say to all adherents of fundamentalism today:

There is no “other world.” I only know what I’ve experienced. You must be hallucinating.”
—translated by Coleman Barks, from Stephen Mitchell's anthology, The Enlightened Mind (HarperCollins, 1991).

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