Confessions of God's Perfect Child
We went to church every Sunday when I was growing up, and I supposed other people in that little Indiana town were doing the same, but they were going to more ordinary and obvious churches. The other people in town were Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians, along with a few Catholics, and their churches were made of stone and brick, and they had steeples and bells. Our church was a converted frame house on a quiet side street. On the lawn in front of the house, in a glass case, was a signboard with a black background and white letters that were changed from time to time, announcing the topics of free lectures given in our church, to which the public was warmly and eagerly invited. One topic that showed up often was Mary Baker Eddy’s favorite rhetorical question: ARE SIN DISEASE AND DEATH REAL?
We were Christian Scientists—or my parents were. From an early age I was a doubter disguised in church-going clothes, and I can barely remember a time, if there was one, when I believed what I was expected to believe, as opposed to faking it—as opposed to mouthing homilies at tactical moments (“God Is Love” was a shrewd choice because no one could argue with it or prove you didn’t mean it). My parents thought their faith answered all questions but for me the answers only raised more questions. I was much too young to understand the religion’s history and to grasp that Christian Science might made have made more sense—if it could ever have made sense—at an earlier time.
The mental-healing system called Christian Science was developed in the 1860s by Mary Baker Eddy, the daughter of a New Hampshire farmer; Eddy had had been a chronic invalid for much of her youth, and she despaired of being helped by doctors. No wonder—the state of medicine was abysmal. Drugs were as likely to poison as cure you, surgeons were often no better than butchers, hospitals were hotbeds of contagion, and as a consequence, alternative-healing movements sprouted up everywhere, especially in New England. Mesmerists, Spiritualists, and mental-healers of all sorts held forth from the stages of local theaters and grange halls and weather permitting, in tents.
As times changed, these faith-healing movements faded away, and soon their names (like “New Harmony”) were known only to social historians. The great exception to this natural attrition was Christian Science, which not only survived into the age of modern medicine but thrived; by the middle of the twentieth century, it had become prominent and prosperous. This surprising success was all the more reason for my parents to trust I would follow their faith, but it just didn’t take. Or as my parents would have said, I just didn’t get it.
By 1950—the year of my story, when I was twelve years old—I knew Christian Science was not for me; but I also knew how disappointed my parents would be when they found out, and so I kept this to myself. I continued going to Sunday School and I tagged along with my parents to church, and every week I heard Mary Baker Eddy’s credo—the “Scientific Statement of Being”—read out from the pulpit.
There is no life, truth, intelligence, nor substance in matter. All is infinite Mind and its infinite manifestation, for God is All-in-all. Spirit is immortal Truth; matter is mortal error. Spirit is the real and eternal; matter is the unreal and temporal. Spirit is God, and man is His image and likeness. Therefore man is not material; he is spiritual.
I let the high-toned abstractions of this credo wash over me without thinking too much about their content, swaying along with the King James cadence and invariably perking up at the final phrase—He Is Spiritual! (Church is Over!)—which the reader always treated to an extra shot of brio and volume. This was followed by thumping chords on the organ that ushered us up the aisle.
It was a feel-good moment but the good feelings faded quickly enough, and they vanished completely if I ever asked myself what Eddy meant by all that. I was too young and untutored to parse her “Scientific Statement of Being” closely, but even a twelve-year-old could suspect something hollow at its core, and balk at her claim that matter is unreal. The world was evidently and palpably real, and my concern in those days was how to experience more of that reality more quickly.
And yet, according to Eddy—according to my parents and my Sunday School teachers—the world I hungered to experience wasn’t real at all. It was “mortal error.” Which meant what? I tried as best I could to work this out. I grasped the notion that the word error must refer to an illusion—a mistaken perception that should be corrected—but what exactly was the error, and once it was corrected, what then? What was the effect of this correction? This seemed tortuous to me, and I couldn’t follow it.
I kept these doubts to myself, but the more my parents tried to persuade me, the stranger their faith seemed to me. So strange that I was beginning to be embarrassed by people who seemed to actually believe it.
One Sunday afternoon my parents invited a Christian Science family, new to the town, for a visit. I knew “visiting” meant that the grownups would sit around and drink tall glasses of iced tea, sprawl in their chairs and talk and talk, talking about nothing as far as I could tell, a prospect that filled me with anticipatory stupefaction. But that day I was in luck. The visitors had brought along their son, a boy about my own age, and the grownups asked me to take him out and show him the neighborhood.
We lived on the outskirts of town, on a street that slalomed downhill in a lazy S; as the street descended, the houses grew smaller, and ours was near the bottom—a two-story stucco house painted bluish-grey. We had a small front yard and a covered front porch that led into the living room, which filled one side of the house; on the other side was a large kitchen, with a table where we ate all our meals, and small room called a den, with a black and white television. Upstairs were three bedrooms and one bathroom.
Hardly an auspicious beginning but it was the best my father could do; at that time, he was a travelling textbook salesman for Henry Holt, covering a territory made up of southern Indiana and all of Kentucky. I suspect that my parents merely tolerated the house, seeing it as a necessary step toward better things, but it was just fine with me. I had a bedroom to myself, upstairs in the back of house where I could lie awake at night listening to lonely whistles from the Monon Railway and to country music from WLS in Chicago. Outside my window there was a tree with branches that brushed the side of the house when it was windy, and I often thought about sliding down the trunk of the tree and running away, although I had no idea where, or even why I wanted to go. In front of the house, across the street from us, was a vacant lot where the neighborhood kids played baseball and football; in back was a weedy yard that became a hill, and at the top of this hill was a porous barbed-wire fence.
That was where I took my Sunday afternoon guest. I showed him how to pull up the bottom strand of the barbed wire, which we called bob-wire, and slip underneath, and then we stood at the top of the hill, surveying the scene. See that building over there, I said, over toward town? That’s the auction barn. Ever been to one?
On summer afternoons I liked to ride my bike up to the barn and lurk unnoticed at the doorway, peering in, sniffing the manure and straw, listening to the auctioneer—thity five foty foty foty, come again, foty five, fity fity heah fity. I was impressed by the concentration of the buyers who sat up in the bleachers, legs spread and elbows on their knees, and I wondered how they knew which cow they wanted to buy, and how much to bid.
But the auction house wasn’t open on Sunday, so we went down the other side of the hill, into a ravine and along a stream that ran through it, heading for a small stone outbuilding, the size of a witch’s house in a fairy tale. For some reason, this odd little house had been built over the stream. It had mottled fieldstone walls, no windows, a corrugated tin roof that drummed loudly if you were inside when it rained, and a padlocked door that was warped and loose. It was easy to pry the door open and slip inside.
There was no floor, just earth and rocks and the stream flowing through them. I liked the vagueness of a place that contained nothing but damp, shadowy air, that could be anything you wanted—often it figured as a refuge from rival gangs, rustlers, Indians. Someone said it had been built by a florist, to keep his flowers cool, and I suppose that might have been so, but it didn’t matter. We sat on a stone ledge and watched the stream and listened to the mossy silence, but after a while that got boring, so we went out and climbed up the big hill that lay between us and home. In the winter this was my favorite sledding hill because it had a mound at the bottom that shot you up in the air, an extra thrill at the end of the ride.
We reached the top of the hill and started down the other side, moving through a stand of high grass that brushed against our legs and came up to our waists, which I thought was fun—it seemed like wading through a dry lake—until I noticed the bees. I heard them before I saw them: a high-pitched hum that seemed to come from everywhere at once and was getting louder. We stopped and stood still, to avoid calling attention to ourselves. We had walked into an ambush. We were surrounded by a horde of bees, a foraging army of bees, and not small ones but fat, black bumblebees. I knew nothing about allergies, about reeling from a lethal sting, had not heard of killer bees, I was simply afraid of bees, especially huge bees in massive numbers.
I don’t remember if I said anything—if I did, it must have been along the lines of the joke about Custer’s last words, which I thought was hilarious (look at all those Indians)—but I remember with complete clarity what my young friend said.
“The bees will not hurt us.”
I might have been reassured by this if I thought it was something he had learned from National Geographic, yellow stacks of which lay on the end tables of most houses, or from a school project on insects. But it wasn’t that.
“The bees will not hurt us,” he said, “because they are God’s perfect children. Just like we are.”
That was the year The Jack Benny Show—which we had been listening to for years on the radio—started to appear on television, and now we could see how Benny looked when he delivered his trademark response to anything that struck him as outrageous or absurd. He would adopt a hip-shot stance, put his hand under his chin and turn his head, looking into the distance as he said, in his high, penetrating, age-of-radio voice, Well! It was a laugh-cue, and Benny milked it, with a smile that said, Now, really, have you ever heard anything so ridiculous in your entire life?
I had been weaned on the idea of God’s Perfect Child—it was every Christian Scientist’s favorite Mary Baker Eddy saying. It was the pithiest distillation of her central syllogism: since we are spiritual beings (we may appear to be physical, but that is only false appearance), and since spiritual beings are reflections of Divine Truth, it follows that we can only be perfect. If we are God’s Perfect Children, we need never be sick. Or injured. Or bitten by bumblebees.
I knew the meaning of God’s Perfect Child as well as anyone, but I was appalled that someone my own age would repeat the maxim aloud, voluntarily, and with what sounded like a sincere belief in its truth. I looked at him and looked away. We stood listening to the innumerable bees. Then we inched our way forward and walked slowly down the long hill while the bees, busy doing what bees do, paid us no attention.
The new family left and went back to some other part of town, where other people lived. I saw them sometimes at church, but never anywhere else. Did I ever wonder why I never ran into Christian Scientists at school or at the gym? There were not that many Christian Scientists in town, or anywhere else, and there never had been.
This was a secret carefully kept by the Mother Church in Boston, which had good cause not to reveal how few Christian Scientists there were—even at its peak, sometime in the 1940s, national Church enrollment had barely topped 400,000. In our tiny town there were only enough people to fill half the folding chairs in the first floor of a small house whose supporting walls had been removed to approximate a nave. Not many children climbed the steps to the second floor, where Sunday School classes were held in small rooms. We were assigned to the rooms according to age. On the Sunday I am remembering here, I don’t think there were more than three or four us around the card table, including the teacher.
“Why, son, don’t you know, that’s just Old Air?”
That was the Sunday School teacher’s answer to my question. I can’t remember what I asked him, but evidently my question had expressed some uncertainty or worse yet, some doubt, since it called up an emphatic and unequivocal answer. The teacher leaned across the card table and spread his arms. .
“Just Old Air. That’s all there is to it.”
I gathered that Old Air was a personification but I didn’t know what it meant.
“What is Old Air?”
He labored to explain that Old Air meant something which seemed to be the case but was not: an appearance mistaken for reality. In general terms I could grasp this. OK. But why would air be a good word for expressing this idea? Maybe because an appearance was vacant, like air? You could work it out that way, I supposed, but why Old? I heard him out, but the notion of Old Air remained, for me, puzzlingly vague and opaque.
The puzzle was solved one day when my eye lit on the cover of a Christian Science journal—it could have been in the church or the Reading Room where my mother volunteered or on the coffee table of our living room or in the bathroom, which was called “the library”—Christian Science is a wordy faith, and its publications were everywhere in my world. What caught my eye was the title of an article in the journal, and in that title, a single word. Error.
That was it. Not Air but Error. The teacher had been talking about one of Mary Baker Eddy’s conceptual cornerstones, Error, which for her was the dark and polar opposite of Truth. What the teacher meant to say was, That might seem true to you, son, but it isn’t—it is only Error. But his Error came out as Air. Some of the more hardened Hoosiers in Southern Indiana spoke with a drawl that had drifted across the river from Kentucky, a mix of lazy vowels, blurred consonants, and dropped g’s. When the teacher answered my question, he spoke in pure Hoosier Hillbilly, and to add to my confusion he had thrown in a touch of aw-shucks diminution: Why that’s jus’ ol’ air!
That was the same Sunday School teacher who once tried to explain the Seventh Commandment—Thou shalt not commit adultery—by telling me a story about a bottle of milk.
Our milk in those days came in clear glass bottles. The change to homogenization would happen soon but for the moment, all bottles of milk had a familiar and to me unappealing look—the transparent neck clouded by a clot of thick yellowish cream that had risen to the top. What if—asked the teacher—what if you took a bottle of milk and poured the cream off the top? And then, what if you added water until the bottle was full again, and put the cap back on? (The cap was a flat hat of crinkled paper, easy to tug off and crimp back on.) What if? Well, the bottle of milk, now full again—with the cream removed and water added—would be adulterated.
I didn’t like milk and I hated cream, and I could not imagine anyone wanting cream that badly. Could the craving for cream be so common it got a commandment of its own? I didn’t believe it. I thought Thou shalt not commit adultery was about something else, and I soon found out what it was.
“Slipping Around” was a country-and-western song written and first recorded by Floyd Tillman, who got the idea “about three o'clock in the morning, at an all-night cafe on the way home. There was a telephone nearby, and a lady was talking on it. I couldn't help but overhear the conversation. She said, 'Now, Honey, you call me, and if a man answers, hang up.' I thought, 'Poor girl, she's just like me . . . slipping around.'" Ernest Tubb recorded it next and made it a hit, but the song’s true triumph still lay ahead. It came in 1950, when Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely’s duet version of “Slipping Around” shot up to Number One on the Hit Parade and stayed there for a solid six months.
Theirs was a catchy version, happily sung and brightly produced, with the amplified country sound just then coming into vogue—electric guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, and roller-rink organ. Whiting and Wakely start out in unison and go on to exchange verses, having such a good time you can almost forget they are singing about longing and loss, passion and desperation.
Seems we always have to slip around
To be together, Dear
Afraid we might be found
I know I can't forget you
And I've gotta have you near
But we just have to
Slip around and live in constant fear
I heard “Slipping Around” everywhere that year. I heard it at the Hilltop Café, mingled with the aromas of French fries and ketchup, I heard it at the Monon Grill on the edge of town, and I knew it was playing in places I couldn’t go but could imagine, like the bar on the courthouse square, beside the bank that Dillinger robbed, and at the roadhouse nine miles outside of town, called Nine Mile, the source of tales of bloody fights in the parking lot and brutish sex in the back seats of Oldsmobile 88s. I heard it most often at the Five and Dime store, downtown on Main Street, where I liked to hang out after school before going home.
I knew even then that the Five and Dime was tawdry but it had a certain magic for me anyway. Something beckoned me down the unfinished wood floors and dim aisles where plumbing supplies and plywood were sold, work overalls with bibs, and boots with steel toes, and over toward the pet section, with its chirping birds and hamsters, and the candy counter— for a nickel a bored but sympathetic woman would scoop up a few jellied orange slices and slide them into a waxed paper bag—and the music department, which sold sheet music, ukuleles and kazoos, portable phonographs in miniature suitcases, and records—the familiar 78s and the new, surprisingly small and light 45s. The woman in charge of the music department spent most of her time playing the latest hits, in the hope someone would buy the records. For months it seemed that every time I came in, she was playing “Slipping Around.”
I hope some day I'll find a way
To bring you back to me
And I won't have to slip around
To have your company
Oh, you're tied up with someone else
And I'm all tied up, too
I know I've made mistakes, Dear
But I'm so in love with you
In the aisles of the Five and Dime I learned about adultery, and I was reassured about the reality of the world. The world was real. Sin was real. And sin was the blood-jet of poetry and song. “Slipping Around” might have been lightweight country pop but for me it would lead to Lucia di Lammermoor, Anna Karenina, and Paolo and Francesca, on the fateful day they leaned together over the book, the day they read no more.
A door had opened. It led to a world that was tempting and dangerous, thrilling and risky, but real. It was all real all the time—sin, disease, and death—real from beginning to end. When Hank Williams sang, “I’ll never get out of this world alive,” he knew what he was talking about, but only in the world could you forge an immortal soul.
What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
St. Mark’s question is well-suited to the didactic aims of the Mother Church, and therefore it is often included among the Bible citations—the “Weekly Lesson”—read from the pulpits of Christian Science churches each Sunday. And therefore I heard it often when I was growing up. I always recognized it as rhetorical—I knew there was only one right answer—but eventually it dawned on me that you could reframe Mark’s question, to make it less binary, and the answer less binding.
Could you live in the real world—could you be an imperfect creature of flesh—and still be soulful? Still be spiritual?
I surely hoped so, because I wasn’t born to be God’s Perfect Child. I was sure of that. I was born to be imperfect.