4. Screw that lady

—The Isley Brothers, “Who’s That Lady?”

Charles presses print and hears the printer wake up and begin spitting pages. He stretches and shakes himself. I think I’ve finally got it, he thinks. After numerous false starts he’s finally satisfied with his approach to the character of Jesus. Yah, he thinks, pulling a Marlboro from the nearby pack, this is just sacrilegious enough to make them think. Jesus, the son of a rich man! A man who made up stories about his origins because he knew no one would believe the soul of a rich man. It’s just what Chip and I were talking about the other day.

Charles gets up and goes to the closet to get his coat. It was rarely cold enough in Miami to need it, but Charles felt naked without a sport coat. And besides, a coat was essential to mask the smell from his pits. Charles has bad B.O., and often changes shirts as many as six times a day, shucking them into a stinking pile in a corner of his closet. After years in Florida, his only concession to the muggy heat is to give up the tweed and wool in favor of linen jackets. Grabbing the sheaf of papers off the printer, Charles hurries out the door.

I must show this to Chip right away, he thinks. He takes the four flights of stairs two at a time down to the lobby. While crossing the street to the church, Charles runs his mind back over his chapter, stroking it as if it were a cherished pet.

As he walks into the church parking lot, he notices an unfamiliar car. Rats, Chip must have someone in with him. I’ll probably have to wait.

Chip makes a little money on the side working for a pastoral counseling center. They primarily send him couples with marital difficulties, usually from other congregations. As Charles walks into the office, he can see that Chip’s door is closed.

“Rita, is he busy?” Charles asks the church secretary, a voluptuous dark-haired Haitian with a taste for figure-enhancing yet somehow prim clothing. Charles has had many erotic dreams about her but has never gotten up the nerve to even ask her out for a drink.

“Yes, he’s got a couple in there with him. But they should be out soon, their hour’s almost up. How you doin’ Charles?” Rita leans back in her chair and stretches, pulling the material of her blouse tightly across her bosom.

Charles tries not to stare. “Oh, fine. I finished a chapter that I’m pretty excited about and I can’t wait to show it to Chip.”

“Well, have a seat. Do you want any coffee or anything?”

“Thanks, Rita, no. I’m fine.” Charles sits in one of the worn chairs in the waiting area and glances at the old pile of Sports Illustrateds on a nearby table. I wonder what his congregation thinks of Chip’s choice of waiting room reading matter? Any other minister might stock uplifting religious magazines. But Chip has just about every old Sports Illustrated containing an article about Nebraska football.

He turns his attention to Rita, studying her perfect olive skin and examining the swell of her breasts beneath the demure blouse. The only thing that belied her otherwise proper appearance were full lips she always painted bright red. I’ll bet she’s a real hellion in the sack, he thinks. God, what thoughts to have in a church waiting room! Still, she’s quite the hottie . . .

Chip sticks his head out of his office, and, seeing Charles, grins and says, “I see my 12 o’clock is here!” Charles, a bit embarrassed at the thought that he would need religious counseling, sticks out his tongue, but, failing to assemble a snappy comeback says instead, “Yeah, I need it bad,” while glancing meaningfully at Rita.

“Rita, could you set the Taylors up for next week, same time? Chuck, I’ll be with you in a minute,” Chip says and closes the door. A few minutes later a middle-aged, rather frumpy couple walk from his office, eyes straight ahead, and out the door.

Chip is speaking on his desk phone when Chip comes to the door, but beckons for Charles to come and sit. Charles slumps into one of the guest chairs and puts his feet up on the desk, inadvertently pushing over a stack of papers that cascade onto the floor. Chip mouths, “You idiot!” but waves Charles back into his seat as he rises to grab the papers.

“OK. Talk to you later. Be good,” Chips says, and cradles the receiver with one hand while sweeping up a few of the papers with the other.

“What’s with them?” Charles asks jerking his thumb in the general direction of the departed Taylors. “He likes her clothes,” Chip says.

“Well, so what?”

“Well, he likes them a bit too much . . . he wears them from time to time.” They laugh. Neither is particularly aware of the breach of confidence Chip has committed.

“So, is the problem that they fight about who’ll wear the new red pumps and push-up bra on Saturday night?” Charles asks.

“The problem,” Chip says, “is that they are deeply committed Methodists, and Methodists don’t do that sort of thing.” Chip says this with a sad smile and a shake of his head, as if to say, “They don’t get it.”

Impatient with the small talk and excited about his new vision of Jesus, Charles thrusts the manuscript at Chip. Chip is a little surprised at his enthusiasm, but smiles, grabs the wad of print, tilts his chair back and wades in.

“Get us a coupla beers from the mini-fridge, willya?” Chip says. Charles crosses the room, grabs two cans of Bud from the fridge, pops them both and hands one to Chip. He’s always amazed at how unlike a standard preacher his friend is. Beer in his office, in the middle of the day? Chip thinks nothing of it. He’s more like your jolly, profane best bro than he is a preacher.

Charles sips his beer and tries distractedly to occupy himself while Chip reads. He gets up and wanders the room, examining the pictures on the wall, the book titles on the shelves, the toppled paper stack still spread out on the floor, the city street outside Chip’s window. While cruising the bookshelf a second time, Charles idly wonders where Chip keeps the vintage porn he knows his friend buys with a passion verging on obsession. His wife Trixie wouldn’t approve, so Charles is sure Chip is keeping it in the study. After much deliberation, Charles decides it’s behind the picture of the Madonna on the wall behind the desk. He can imagine the safe that is set in the wall, with an old-fashioned dial set in burnished gray metal.

Chip’s porn is relatively soft core: old issues of Playboy, Penthouse, a few Hustlers, the odd ancient Stag—nothing too depraved. Nonetheless, Chip is devoted to the magazines and has freely admitted to Charles that he has been a regular masturbator all his life. He calls it his deep relationship with Madame Hand.

Charles sits back down and again puts his feet up, feigning nonchalance. After a few moments, he fidgets in his seat then pulls his feet off the desk and stands up again. He’s always uncomfortable when someone is reading his work, even his clients. In addition to his weekly column in the Miami Herald, opinion articles for national magazines and atheist blogs, and short stories in sci-fi mags, he takes several business writing jobs a year, yet it always drives him crazy when the client wants to read his work in his presence. What do you do while they’re examining your life, your thoughts committed to paper, he thinks. I should have brought a book. At least I could be pretending to read while I’m waiting. I wonder if Chip will get out some of the porn for me if I ask?

He wanders over toward the Madonna picture and stares out the window at the incredibly bright pavement. Girls in halter tops drift past the window in high-heeled sandals. The single-story pastel homes across the street bake beneath the palms. This neighborhood seems far from the art deco section of Miami Beach with its crass and compelling time warp ambiance, where Charles yearns to live. The area is in a different, less affluent time warp. Only six miles west of tony North Beach as the crow flies, the neighborhood might just as well be in a different country. The church itself, with its Haitian influence, is a spot of color amidst fading, peeling, sad houses with scruffy, sandy patches of front lawn.

How in hell did Chip get to be pastor of a freakin’ Haitian church anyway? Charles is surprised he’s never asked his friend this question. He knew Chip had served two stints with the Peace Corps in Haiti, but he was so not black, and so not Haitian. Yet his congregation loves him, and he’s never had a problem with the racial divide. In fact, everybody loves Chip, without exception. Wonder what that feels like, Charles thinks. I’m a bit of acquired taste myself. Charles has always had few friends and his introversion has often been mistaken for aloofness.

Chip is stirring. As he concentrates on Charles’s chapter, he scratches his nose, and under his desk, he slips off his shoes. He idly reaches beneath the desk and pulls off his socks. Still reading the manuscript, Chip crosses ankle over knee and begins picking his feet. This is a trait that Charles finds particularly disgusting. Chip never thinks to ask if it’s OK, but immediately becomes shoeless and odoriferous whenever he comes over Charles’s place. Charles takes this somewhat as a compliment—Chip is so comfortable with him that he feels right at home. Still, these huge hams of feet—although they don’t really stink, their aroma does tend to permeate the room.

Now Chip scratches behind his ear as if an insect has bit him.

Jesus, Charles thinks. When is he going to finish? It’s only 4,500 words, for Christ’s sake. Chip burps loudly—another endearing trait. Finally, he looks up.

“Interesting.”

From his time living in Minnesota, Charles knows this is a Midwesterner’s dodge—either a mask of annoyance, or contrary feelings, or an excuse for having no reaction or understanding at all. At least he didn’t say “different,” the Midwestern kiss of death.

“What do you mean interesting? My old roommate used to say interesting whenever he didn’t understand something.”

“No, I mean interesting. As in, really interesting, dickweed. What would Jesus have been like if he had been a one-percenter? Would the message have been the same coming from such a different vessel?”

“You mean, could God have inspired a rich man to say the same things a poor man would find easy to say?”

“Well, not exactly. The spirit takes different forms depending . . .”

“Depending on what? Isn’t the truth the truth? Isn’t there an absolute, as you are always telling me?” Charles moves from the window back to his seat, but does not sit down. He always thinks better on his feet.

Chip regards him silently for a moment. “Yes, the truth is absolute, I believe, but the expression of the truth varies with the individual. For a rich man, the truth may mean: Give all your riches to the poor, or in this case, proselytize for the Lord. For a poor man, the truth may mean: accumulate all the riches you can so you can help your family. You see what I mean?”

“I don’t see what this has to do with the kingdom of heaven.”

Chip scratches his stubbly chin. Despite his position as pastor, he can’t be persuaded to shave more than every other day. “Well, I don’t believe there’s just one path. There are as many paths as there are people.”

Charles won’t take such relativism from Chip, who in Charles’s eyes is a representative of dogma. “Didn’t he say I am the way?”

“The interstate takes you to all destinations. There is no requirement for entry; just find an onramp. And there are many exits, not just one. But there is one final destination.”

Charles is irate and leans over the desk towards Chip. “What the hell does that mean? Mumbo fucking jumbo. Religiosity for the sake of religiosity!” Charles feels he is somehow being attacked.

“No, I really mean it. The highway of life, the maze and the tangle of destinations. Who are we to say that a particular vehicle is not going to find the ultimate destination? It could be the Bangor, Maine of our dreams or it could be merely Pensacola.” Chip snickers.

Charles, confused by the concept and irritated by Chip’s attitude, says, “I don’t get it. What does this have to do with what I have written?”

“Well, what is it you think you have written, padawan?” Chip arches an eyebrow at Charles, drops one foot to the floor, elevates the other, and begins picking.

“Well what I think I am writing is an indictment of religion in general, and the whole idea that a simple carpenter, or a blood-thirsty Arab, or a Hebrew with a bad sense of direction and a God complex can be exalted and worshipped and codified into religions that have brought such misery to the planet. Any institution that brings about crap like the Crusades, all those nasty popes, Henry VIII, fatwas, war and famine, should be held accountable, that’s what I think, and that’s what I’m writing about. Frankly, I think religion should be banned or at least we should all be weaned from the idea that we must subscribe to a codified belief structure administered by a privileged few, whether it be worship of technology, sports, self, cars or other gods.”

“Such big words, beloved!” mocks Chip. “So, you’re against a spiritual life, an appreciation of something larger than yourself?”

“I believe in personal enlightenment, and although I hate the idea of self-serving bigots telling people what to think and how to be saved, I could support some kind of loose confederation of ideas, a communal or tribal feeling of closeness and common destination, with little dogma and, yes, an emphasis on spiritual life.”

Chip is not smiling now, wondering if his friend truly sees him as a self-serving bigot. He’s pissed by Charles’s rant and its apparent ad hominem attack on him.

“Would you ban love because some people sin because of it?”

Charles smiles and says nothing; he likes to get Chip’s goat.

Chip, now a bit red in the face, continues, “Think of all the monuments that came to be because of this terrible thing, religion—for the love of God. Think of all the good that religious institutions have done, all the refuge they have provided for the oppressed, all the comfort they’ve given the grieving. I grant you, in every human endeavor there are sinners, those who twist the goodness into evil, transmute gold into the base components of a man, but that fact does not invalidate the institution. Religion, which you defame, has exalted more than it has thrown down. Yes, I am ashamed of the Crusades, the error-filled popes, the Ayatollah, Al Qaeda, and fanatics of every kind. But I am not ashamed of the pious believers, who make all our lives richer by their devotion. Dammit, Chuck, it’s not black and white, as you say. Why pick on one imperfect human endeavor, the feeble attempt of man to appreciate God, when all human endeavor is imperfect? Why not pick on, on . . . NASCAR, for Christ’s sake, or Wall Street, or softball, or Mah-Jongg? It is not inherent in the worship of God to be deluded, yet some are still deluded.”

Chip has been leaning far forward in his chair, hands gripping the arms with white knuckles. He collapses back, and the chair emits a loud squeak as it bears his bulk.

Charles smiles a bit to himself. He really got the old guy worked up this time. “I’m not surprised you mentioned monuments. Don’t get me started on architectural excess in the name of the Lord.”

Chip glares at Charles. “Look Chuck, the point is salvation. Not all followers will be saved. And, by the same token, not all followers will stray into these monstrous crimes and excesses you mention. That’s just the way it is; it’s a bell curve, the way it will be for any organized human endeavor.”

Charles says, “It’s just that religion purports to be different than these other activities you mention. Stock car racing doesn’t claim to offer truth; that’s your stock in trade, no pun intended.” Chip rolls his eyes. “While you make a good point about the incredible, hopeless wrong-headedness of most human activities, I can’t forgive religion, since it does claim to be above this, to be a path to truth and salvation. No, that’s wrong. Religion claims not to be the way to the truth, but the truth absolute.”

Both Chip and Charles are clearly weary of the conversation. “Let’s get back to my chapter,” Charles says. “I’m glad it’s thought-provoking. What did you think about the missionary Jew stuff?”

Chip thinks for a minute. “Not bloody likely, is what I think. I can see a Jew being interested in proselytizing, and it sure could get him killed, but I don’t see it succeeding to the point you mention in the chapter. Hundreds of thousands?”

“Yeah, I know. But that’s what a messianic figure needs: a borderline heretical proposition. And I know a few people who have converted to Judaism, mostly as part of marriage, but one of them, she converted as part of her own spiritual journey. From Lutheranism, for God’s sake.”

“Mere anecdotes, Chucko.” Chip smirks and picks up a partially smoked cigar from his desk ashtray and jams it into the corner of his mouth. “Is this guy in your chapter the Second Coming?”

“No. In this universe, it’s the first coming. Paulicism is based on a false messiah, St. Paul, who creates the religion based on a bunch of memes that were floating around the Middle East back then. I figure Paulicism is pretty close to Catholicism, just no Jesus. Paul either fabricated some other messiah figure, or chose himself. Since there’s obviously crucifixion, I’m thinking Paul is still telling the story of another guy who got condemned, but it might have been him. I’m not sure which way to go with that. I’m expecting many of the same parables and scriptures get written. That way I can quote them as necessary.”

“So, OK. That’s interesting, the business of there not having been a true Messiah at the time of Christ, and I like your idea of Paul making up the religion out of whole cloth from ancient messianic myths. I’d like to see you expand on the creation of Paulicism. Just love the name, by the way.”

“Yeah, I could do that, probably will. But where is this story going? That’s what I can’t figure. Does the rich modern Jesus still get crucified?”

Chip, who has been leaning back in his chair staring at the ceiling with fingers laced behind his head, rocks forward and contemplates the question. “Good question. As a rich man, He’s more likely to be taken seriously enough to be made king, or president, or something similar. But I still think he would be enough of a threat to the Romans, or whomever is standing in for the Romans in your chapter, perhaps the Bangladeshis, that he still would get crucified. Or maybe when the time came, he would feel he needed to masquerade as a beggar to get his message across.”

“The great pretender. I like that.”

Chip glowers at his friend. “That’s not what I meant, you nut job. Not a pretender, he would assume the identity of a beggar in order to show that the mean shall be exalted.”

“But isn’t that a lie? He’s not a beggar; he is already exalted. And he already tried that dodge when he created Jewish.com as a teenager with a false back story.”

Chip scratches his chin, selects a particularly long hair and plucks it. “True, but I think the point is still the same. Material riches are not what counts in the world beyond. And certainly, just being poor is not enough to get you exalted in the kingdom of heaven”

“Well it sounds like a decent prerequisite. What about the rich man, the camel and the needle?”

“Not really relevant. It only is a rough measure of the crimes a rich man must commit to achieve or maintain his position. And this is only the average rich man we’re talking about. Obviously, Jesús would not be the average rich man. Plus, you do have him, where is it,” Chip riffs through the manuscript. “Maintaining ‘heavy security around the temple and the building,’ and he knows ‘whom to pay and whom to ally with.’ So, you got a pragmatic sinner on your hands.”

Charles leans back in his chair thoughtfully, teetering on the edge of falling over. “I don’t know. I don’t know if this is really the way I want to portray Jesus.”

“Well, dude, what is your point, anyway? You know this type of treatment would be considered extreme blasphemy by many of my colleagues. Remember what happened to Rushdie. You looking for a fatwa or excommunication or a just a good old-fashioned Southern lynching, boy?” Chip leers like a good southern cracker lawman, and the cigar drops from his mouth onto his desk.

“Methodism in madness, eh?” Charles laughs. “Yes, I remember Rushdie and his years of hiding. And probing underpinnings of faith is rarely rewarded, is it?” He sighs. “I guess I don’t really know what I want to do here. All I know is that for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to write the story of Jesus. I never really felt comfortable with what the Bible says—all hearsay evidence and apostles’ interpretation way after the fact—and I especially don’t like the way religions have interpreted it. I think they have gotten it all wrong.” Charles considers for a moment.

“Rather, I feel they have gotten Jesus all wrong. Or not all wrong, it’s just that they’ve twisted what he said to fit preconceptions they have. He was a man, after all, but when do we see him sinning? I don’t know. I guess I really don’t know.”

Chip, recovered from his exasperation with Charles’s anti-religious rant, looks fondly at his friend. He retrieves the cigar from his desk and sticks it back into the corner of his mouth.

“You are exploring a different path for Jesus. You are enumerating one of the possible universes. Is it a requirement that Jesus be poor? I find this intriguing. Would a rich man’s message have been significantly different than that of a poor man? I think that’s an interesting idea. You’ve really got me thinking here.” He leans back in his chair, again laces his fingers behind his head, stares at the ceiling, and starts to hum “If I Were a Rich Man” while chewing the stogie.

Charles is a bit mollified. At least Chip is thinking about what he has written. Perhaps all is not lost. Perhaps he can find a way to get this damn book written after all.

“Well,” he says, “as you can see, this latest pathetic chapter grew out of our discussion the other night at dinner. Remember we were talking about what the manger means psychopolitically, and how although Buddha was a prince before being enlightened, Mohammed was an orphan; Confucius was from a noble family that had become quite poor. Remember? It was after many bottles of cabernet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t.”

Chip nods and holds his head in mock hangover pain.

“You know, we talked on about the Jewish tradition of being downtrodden, Moses, Abraham, David over Goliath, that sort of thing. So, I got to thinking: What would have happened if Jesus had been born to a wealthy family? Would that have changed his message that the mean shall be exalted and the mighty brought down? Does the messiah need a rabble-rousing attitude—an understanding of the lives of the least of us? Is the messiah a revolutionary or, as in the Jewish tradition, merely a holy anointed king who will redress all the injuries visited upon the Jews?”

“It’s true.” Chip says. “The Jewish scripture regarding the messiah does stress the worldliness of his reign, building the third temple and reclaiming Jewish lands and such.”

“Exactly. So, José is a wealthy captain of industry who lives in a palace with servants. Despite his social position, though, Jesús feels he needs to justify his worth. An otherworldly—other kingdom—reason why he is special. Since José is a distant father, often away tending business, the son talks often of his real father returning for him. You know, I thought it would be a hoot for María to be a doting, carping Jewish mother. Might put that in.”

“How stereotypical, beloved. I’d leave that out. You know, in both your chapters, there’s almost nothing about faith. You’re just describing events with no religious context.”

Charles thinks a bit before replying. Obviously, his friend is big on the idea of faith, but Charles has a real problem believing in the unseen.

“I think faith is humanity’s red herring. Unseen mumbo jumbo to enforce proper behavior, a convenient way to explain away some of the problems of life, like evil, and, ah, ah . . . hmmm. Rhetoric requires three points to an argument, let’s see, OK. Point 3: a sop to the downtrodden.”

Chip gapes at Charles like he’s said the stupidest thing ever. “That was some weird-ass argument, even for you. It’s not a red herring, mumbo jumbo or a sop. Faith has spurred mankind to do miraculous things: not just cathedrals—which I realize piss you off—and works of art, but lifting people out of poverty, enriching their lives with hope. All accomplished in the name of faith.”

“Well, as Andrew Sagan said, ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’ Where’s your proof that these wondrous things were the product of unseen benevolent powers rather than an inherent goodness in the human being? How can you believe without proof?”

“Dude, the whole point of having faith is to believe in something unseen. God’s influence is all around you.”

“Yeah, right. In all the horrible things he lets happen.”

“Free will, man.”

“A convenient concept to explain away the problem of evil.”

Chip points a finger at Charles. “Since we were cast out of Eden, we’ve had to find our way back to God—use our free will—to create the kind of reality that will gain us entry to paradise. The world is and always has been full of good and bad, for good needs bad, if only to enable us to make choices—free will. There’s always been evil, sin, injustice, greed, lust, hate, but also goodness, love, beauty, and joy. How can you have free will if there are no choices? Like Pascal said, ‘In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.’”

“So, it’s like that, eh? OK, buddy. 1-2-3-4, I declare a quote war: ‘Absolute faith corrupts as absolutely as absolute power.’ Eric Hoffer. You go.”

Chip says, “’Absolute atheism starts in an act of faith in reverse gear and is a full-blown religious commitment.’ Jacques Maritain. And I’ll give you a twofer: ‘Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. MLK.’”

“So, faith is like falling down stairs in the dark? Ha! ‘Faith: not wanting to know what is true.’ Friedrich Nietzsche.”

“Oh no you di’n’t! Quoting Nietzsche, that lowlife! ‘Atheists are like fish who don’t believe in the existence of water.’ Anonymous.”

“Anonymous, or you just made it up!” Chip opens his mouth to reply. Charles holds up a finger and says, “I know, I know. Just kidding. I’ve heard that one. You didn’t like Nietzsche? How about a quote from another horrible human being who got at least one thing right: ‘Faith is the worst curse of mankind, as the exact antithesis and enemy of thought.’ Ayn Rand.”

“You’re really pissing me off now, ‘cause I know you hate Rand. ‘To sustain the belief that there is no God, atheism has to demonstrate infinite knowledge, which is tantamount to saying, “I have infinite knowledge that there is no being in existence with infinite knowledge.”’ Ravi Zacharias.”

Once again, Charles is stunned not only at the breadth of Chip’s learning, but at his encyclopedic memory. He might lose the quote war by running out of quotes. He replies, “’Religion is the masterpiece of the art of animal training, for it trains people as to how they shall think.’ Arthur Schopenhauer.”

“’If you believe in an unseen Christ, you will believe in the unseen Christlike potential of others.’ Anthony Burgess.”

“’Every man, who reasons, soon becomes an unbeliever.’ Baron d’Holbach.”

“’One person with a belief is equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.’ John Stuart Mill.”

“’Religion is like a blind man looking in a black room for a black cat that isn’t there, and finding it.’ Oscar Wilde.”

“’As for those who fear their Lord unseen, for them is Forgiveness and a great Reward.’ The Quran.

“The Quran? Cripes. What’s a good Methodist like you doing quoting the Quran? Ummm. Ummm. Hold on. I’ve got a list of juicy quotes on my phone.”

“Well, if you want to cheat . . . I’m gonna stay with my own prodigious intellect, learning, and memory.” Charles sticks his tongue out and blows a raspberry. Chip crosses his arms and starts humming the Final Jeopardy tune.

“OK. OK.” Charles fiddles with his phone, scrolling madly. “Where is that damn file? Here it is. Ah. OK. Another great one from Eric Hoffer: ‘Take man’s most fantastic invention—God. Man invents God in the image of his longings, in the image of what he wants to be, then proceeds to imitate that image, vie with it, and strive to overcome it.’ Eric Hoffer, my man!”

“‘Faith is to believe what you do not see; the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.’ Saint Augustine.”

“‘Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.’ Tim Minchin.”

“‘The man who flies an airplane… must believe in the unseen.’” Richard Bach.

“Was that from his crappy Jonathan Livingston Seagull?” Charles asks. Chip shrugs his shoulders. “I dunno. I just read it somewhere.”

Charles scrolls on his phone. “Ah! One of my faves. ‘Christians keep saying that the God of the New Testament is completely different and more moral than the God of the Old Testament, not realizing what an insanely irrational argument that is. If you knew a man who was a serial murderer his entire life, committed genocide, demanded child offerings and crushed entire cities, would you suddenly start trusting him when he suggested crucifying his own son to make up for it?’ Joshua Kelly.”

“I have to admit, Kelly might have had a point. ‘So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.’ 2 Corinthians 4:18.”

Charles says, “And while we’re on the subject of the Old Testament: ‘The Old Testament is responsible for more atheism, agnosticism, disbelief—call it what you will—than any book ever written; it has emptied more churches than all the counterattractions of cinema, motor bicycle and golf course.’ A. A. Milne. Winnie-the-Pooh got teeth!”

“‘Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.’ Hebrews 11:1.”

“Great, Bible Boy! Let’s see.” Charles scrolls his list. “This next one’s probably apocryphal, like the Bible itself, but it’s a fave: ‘Eskimo: “If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?” Priest: “No, not if you did not know.” Eskimo: “Then why did you tell me?”’ Annie Dillard.”

“‘We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.’ Buddha.”

Charles give a big mock sigh, “Your story has become tiresome. You have disturbed me almost to the point of insanity . . . There. I am insane now.”

“OK, Dieter, is now ze time on Sprockets vhen ve dance?”

Charles smirks. He’s running out of quotes, though. “Here’s my last one, a bookend to the Sagan quote: ‘What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.’ Christopher Hitchens. Oh, wait! My all-time favorite: ‘Prayer is like masturbation. It feels good to the person doing it, and does nothing for the person they’re thinking about.’ Don Baker.”

Chip erupts in laughter at this last. “That’s a great quote! Who is this Don Baker guy?”

“He’s a computer geek from Texas, big in the Free Thinker movement. He calls Christianity a meme, a mind virus.”

“Kinda like that brain virus in your first chapter, eh?”

“Yeah. He runs a site and organization called Christianity Meme. His idea is that the Christianity meme arose via natural selection and thus is a product of cultural evolution. As such, it is an amoral meme, and it is not bound by its own professed moral principles. And also, this virus is not subject to the normal error correction of living organisms, if you consider a virus living. Thus, errors can be introduced and perpetuated without check. Of course, you could argue that in Catholicism, the Pope is error correction, but we’ve seen where that has led.”

The two men sit silently for a few minutes, drinking their beers.

Charles breaks the silence. “All this talk about unseen realms, heaven, hell, faith. It just seems so distant, and there seems no way our rational minds can touch these truths. So, I just don’t know what the point is.”

Suddenly there’s a loud shout and a wolf whistle from the street outside. Charles, disturbed by the interruption, glares out the window. “I mean, what’s the point of fleetingly glimpsing the beautiful women in their halter tops passing by your window?”

The two men move to the window and peer out. The shadows are a bit longer, but the street is still atomic bright.

Charles jabs his finger at the window. “We can’t touch them; we can’t directly experience them. There’s little chance they’ll ever have anything to do with our lives. Yet we still watch. We are still interested in their progression down the boulevard. Something about their experience connects with something inside us. In the case of this analogy, the connection is one of lust, but I am comparing lust to love. Lust to salvation, if you will. And I’m not at all sure I believe in salvation. I think the chances of me being saved are about as large as the chances of me bedding that woman there.”

He points out the window at an incredibly lovely figure as she walks past them and continues down the street. She has an impossibly narrow waist and luxurious buttocks. Her figure is crowned with a fantastic bust line, neither too large nor too small, that swells up and down with the rhythm of her stride. As if she feels the gaze of the two men, she tosses her hair their way before disappearing around the corner out of sight.

“My friend, let’s find out,” Chip says, clapping Charles on the shoulder before firing his stogie in the general direction of his ashtray. The big man stabs his feet into his ever-present flip flops, grabs Charles’s arm, and drags him out of the office, through the secretary’s office and out the door to the hallway.

“Wait,” splutters Charles, but Chip has him firmly in tow as they burst out upon the sunny street. The heat of the Miami day strikes them like a punch, staggering Charles briefly.

“Come on,” says Chip as he takes off around the corner. Charles follows the lumbering big man reluctantly. They run for a block or so, but fail to glimpse the beautiful young woman. Chip is breathing heavily when they stop.

“Damn…sonofabitch…shit!” he says, trying to catch his breath. “We missed her.” Charles is similarly winded and already starting to sweat through his linen jacket. “What the hell was that all about?”

“That, my friend, was the leap of faith. You gotta believe before you’re saved. You can’t tell me that if you had met her you would not have been changed fundamentally in some way, maybe even saved. Or married. Who can say? Damn. I wish I knew.”

“You see? That’s just it. I don’t think it would have meant, or changed, anything! She was just a shout in the street. Dammit, Chip. Why must you be so goddamn optimistic?”

A big smile spreads across Chip’s face. “Same reason you got to play the faithless pessimist all the time, bucko! C’mon, let’s go get a milkshake and some lunch. I’m broiling.” Chip puts his arm across Charles’s shoulders and turns them both around. “Say Charles, me boy, did you hear about the Buddhist who walked into a pizza parlor and said, ‘Make me one with everything?’”

Cackling like a demon, Chip leads his groaning friend down the frying pavement in search of air conditioning and ice cream.

Read on . . .

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