Sunday, June 22, 2008
It is very dangerous to turn on the television in America on a Sunday morning. I just did and I was informed by Dr James Chappell that Westminster Abbey was built in 170AD. He also told the story of Thomas Parr - 'Old Parr' - who is buried in the Abbey. He was believed to have lived to the age of 152. The post-mortem was conducted by the great physician William Harvey who remarked on the child-like cleanliness of Parr's colon. In fact, the Old Parr claim has been discredited and the Abbey was started in 1045, though there was a shrine on the site in 616. But Dr Chappell had product to shift - a colon scourer called Dual Action Cleanse - and he wasn't going to let a few facts get in the way of his golf buggy and speed boat in Boca Raton. 'Death starts in the colon' was Chappell's primary claim. It's an old superstition. Confronted with the contrast between their exalted self-image and the horrors of excretion, people are naturally drawn to the conviction that cleanliness - getting the shit out of the way - is, indeed, godliness. There is an obvious religious structure to the idea. Excretion is an emblem of our fallen condition, of our guilt. Cleansing our colons may be sold as a medical good - though it definitely isn't - but its true appeal is salvific.
Which drive round the block brings me to Robert Iddiols comment on my post Raj and the Scientologists. Robert says I'm comfortable exposing Scientology but I am much more sympathetic to conventional religious practices 'even though both assert a similar torrent of bullshit.' (See - shit and religion again.) This is a good point, made better by my dismay at the beliefs of the inhabitants of the Yearning for Zion ranch. I seem to be distinguishing between good and bad religion. Robert finds this absurd because the literal claims of all religions are more or less equally preposterous. I think I can save myself from absurdity with two related claims: first, religion isn't about belief and, secondly, religion is dynamic. Fundamentalism of any type is superstition, the opposite of religion. Dr Chappel, the Scientologists and the FLDS in Texas are offering false certainties - false because they are certainties - that exploit our unease. In each case belonging requires absolute submission to a system which cannot be allowed to change over time - unless, as in the case of the FLDS under Warren Jeffs, it is to become even more rigid. It is also important that they are all relatively recent. Conventional faiths are all much older and the passage of time has made them diversify, change and adapt. This process is no threat to religion, the idea of a revelation unfolding in time is entirely credible. Science is exactly that. The consolations of religion are nothing to do with certainties, they are to do with our wonder and gratitude that such stories can be told at all and that, mysteriously, they express something about our predicament that can be expressed in no other way. Belief in this context is largely meaningless and fundamentalism an outrage. Fundamentalists are particularly ridiculous because, at every turn, the world refutes their position and they are obliged to twist these refutations into evidence that only they are right, that Dual Action Cleanse is, indeed, the only answer. In contrast, the dynamically, metaphorically religious cannot be refuted because they expect the world to disgust and amaze.
So, Dr Chappell, scouring colons will not take you to Boca Raton and your customers to the promised land because shit happens and that, a supremely religious statement, is my message to my congregation on this Boston Sunday.
Posted by Bryan Appleyard at 9:53 am