The boy with a thorn in his side, part 1: Saint Simulacra.

18 Oct

Part 1: St. Simulacra

(being a not-so-spiritual autobiography with many moving parts)


There’s an image, in the great comic The Invisibles, of a crying boy trying to pull out the nails from Jesus’s feet. He can’t. Jesus then turns to him and says, “I’m not the god of your fathers. I’m the stone that breaks men’s hearts.”

This sums of Christianity for a lot of people. Including me.

When I was in school, I was taught that we all crucified Jesus. And, like Peter, we all betray him. Every single day. It was the early eighties, with a newfound alignment between prosperity and morality, the Reaganomics city-on-a-hill suburbs, baby! America was God, in a weird sort of way. Sin led to destitution and poverty. Good living led to wealth and prosperity. Every year was year zero.

The story is that every person crucifies Jesus every day with our decision to sin—an impulse we inherited from Adam and Eve. We scour his back with nine-tails. We plunge thorns into his forehead. We pierce his side with a spear. We laugh at his suffering. We betray his teaches. We betray God. And the man. We betray in small ways, little acts of cruelty, evil thoughts, and in big ways, with denunciations, murder.

I never fell for this particular strand of guilt. It feels too much like a simulation of the real thing, a substitution of our actual shortcomings with actions that have and had nothing to do with us.

I also had plenty of other guilt to carry around.

In fact, I’ve never really bought into historical guilt as an idea. I refuse to feel bad, for example, that I was born into a world that privileges white males. I’m aware of my own privileged status. I work for justice and fairness in the world. Isn’t that enough?[1]

Anyway, my Christianity was a mash-up of direct experience with God and institutionalized beliefs. As a Southern Baptist we had less stock in rituals. Or, rather, we didn’t refer to them by that term.

I believed in Jesus, and felt him when I prayed. And when I didn’t. He was a whispery glow, an invisible halo, a sight pressure on my shoulders and chest. A constant threnody.

Partially because of my background, I’m interested in subjective religious experience. I guess this makes me a mystic. The Gnostic tradition values direct interaction with the divine over dogma or ritual. I would, too.

Jesus to me was a decent guy, wise but with a good sense of humor, humble and easy-going, a bit stern every once in a while but loving and intent on making the world a better place by easing suffering. God was something else, a crazed stentorian being that in my imagination was sort of an enormous cloud with tentacles. Sometimes an embittered old fisherman with glowing golden eyes. He was a scary fucker. Unknowable. Without qualities. A shadow out of time. This view only elongated with time. Beyond good and evil and therefore, no longer good.

Jesus good, God not good—this is the basis of a certain strand of heretical Gnostic thought. Arianism was the idea that the New Testament God and the Old Testament God were different dudes, and they were fighting an invisible war over the future of humanity. Deranged creator god—the god of the flesh, or in the other words, the devil—and righteous true god of the spirit. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman.

God and Jesus?

That stone and those hearts.

Which brings me back to comics, The Invisibles, mystery religions, pulp science fiction, Gnostic thought, and how they all jumbled together in my young brain. (see The Devil’s Lonely Boy, my first blog post!)

I was beginning to see the world in a Manichean context: two equal gods, one light the other dark, at constant war with each other. (This idea didn’t go away, it just evolved into a machine/spirit clash. Dan Simmons lays out this same thing in his very fine Hyperion saga, with a machine god duking it out with the human god. And Richard Brautigan sort of applies a similar idea in his great poem, “Machines of Loving Grace.”)

This complicated, pulp-inspired comic book cosmology was detonated by a single event, which I didn’t notice at the time.

I read Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt. A novel about an selfish, non-descript, smug, harried middle-aged man. It’s astonishing, funny, mean-spirited, satirical and ultimately redemptive. It’s the first great work of literature I read on my own accord.

Babbitt led to The Secret Agent. And The Secret Agent led to Gravity’s Rainbow. And that was it. I was hooked. I was converted. I fell in love.

It was a painful process. I also began to write in earnest.

The agnosticizing forces of modernity—the pulverizing power of the study of philosophy, history, science, and literature—worked on me, but slowly. Years passed. I stopped going to church. I read heretical texts. I drifted from the faith. I was haunted by God’s absence, and haunted by his presence.

I was, in two words, fucked up.

The inherent contradiction of an omnipotent god in a flawed universe never went away. Nor did the problem of suffering, evil. Or of black holes, red shift of stars, parallel universes, those goddamn birds on Galapagos. All of these problems, strangely, brought to the fore by the Silver Surfer.

The Silver Surfer works for Galactus, a deranged god who has near-omnipotence. Galactus is also eternally hungry. And the only thing that sates his hunger is planets. The more life on the planet, the more sustenance it offers. The Silver Surfer roams the enormity of space looking for suitable planets for Galactus to eat.

And he eventually finds earth.

The Marvel Universe never knew what to do with the plethora of evil gods, cosmic deities, Asgardians, Greeks, and mainstream Christianity. Jack Kirby, probably the most important creator of comics of all time, was a closeted Gnostic, and he marbled in all manner of Gnostic beliefs into the foundations of the Marvel Universe. I absorbed them, and they’re still there.

As my more coherent, mainstream, codified beliefs fell away, these darker, Manichean beliefs augered in my thoughts.

Strangeness remained.

More to come . . .


[1] I know that it (probably) isn’t.


One Response to “The boy with a thorn in his side, part 1: Saint Simulacra.”


  1. NBAW, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell. | simoneandthesilversurfer - August 31, 2015

    […] Maxwell is also tapping into what one author described as the occult superstructure of childhood. He is haunted by his former self, the now-disappeared culture and lifestyle of his pre-teen years. (We all are, aren’t we?) […]

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