Jun 15, 2009

They are stuttering the name of God

This, this, this is Sodom and Gomorrah

He shouts and paces the space on the English street, stomping and shouting and waving the red-bound Bible and pacing like something is about to break loose. People turn to watch him, this wild man who calls up metaphors of animals and anger, and he shouts to them and at them and tries to get them to hear.

"This," he shouts. "This! This, this is Sodom and Gamorrah!"

The St. Martin's market is mad. Cultures are clashing there and the people are surging and swarming over the streets and the stairs, the squares and the stalls and the mall. On one end refugees are performing outside the art museum, singing "Aye yay, aye yay" and beating on drums while goth kids gather like debris in the park where the grass is gone. Down the street a man plays a horn while another man plays another horn and a drunk man dances with a sash that says "cancer research." A street performer juggles. A woman smokes with her daughter. A bobbie eats yogurt and an old man talks too loud on his phone. In the underground stalls a 300-pound woman sells sex-fantasy wear, a woman in a burka shops for high heels and there's Indian silk for sale and Iranian rugs, a pile of probably pilfered watches and cell phones and hats and Bob Marley's face on a bong. A bookseller sells romances out of shoe boxes. An English couple with faces each 100 years old shout out a seller's song which sounds like it's ancient and like it was just invented today: She shout-sings "12 eggs, very large eggs -- ONLY A PO-ouND!" and he shouts in an upswing "oh my gOSH!" She shouts and waits a beat and he shouts an answer and then she shouts again:

12 eggs! Very large eggs!
ONLY A PO-ouND!
-- oh my gOSH!

12 eggs! Very large eggs!
ONLY A PO-ouND!
-- oh my gOSH!

In a book store coffee shop a girl reads psychology notes and looks out a glass window -- an archingly sleek and modern glass window with the message TRANSPARENCY! MODERNITY! CATHEDRALIC UNDERSTANDING! -- and out that glass window is a very old church that looks like a fortress, complete with stone parapet spires. At another table at the coffee shop a girl starts a story that's supposed to be funny and it starts "so last night I had a one night stand and this morning when I woke up I just let go a fart."

Outside the preacher paces and shouts, paces and repeats his sound-byte sermons and says "worship the most-high God! Worship the most-high God! Worship the most-high God -- this, this, this is Sodom and Gomorrah!"

That's probably not the perfect city to pick to compare to when you're preaching in a city center, because there were no preachers sent to the cities in the plain. There were angles there, but no message, no preacher, no salvation coming and no order to repent. In Sodom and Gomorrah in the scripture, God decides to destroy and then he does. There's a man who wants to save the cities in the story and he makes a bet with God, but he loses his bet on goodness and God wins and gets the destruction he wanted. He wastes the city with salt and falling fire. This man, though, this preacher in Birmingham preaching Sodom and Gomorrah and saying SodomanGomorrah like it's one word in his West Indies accent, he believes we can still repent. He still believes in grace and hearing, salvation and turning and kingdom coming and peace and so he preaches out of a hope, even if it's hidden by the faces he makes and self-righteous sound of shouting.

He'd probably do better to compare the city to Ninevah. In Ninevah one prophet said God is full of anger, and great in power, and will by no means clear the guilty, and another said, Who knoweth whether God will not turn and repent, and turn away from his fierce anger, that we not perish? In Ninevah, the prophets didn't always know what they were saying. The prophets were sometimes surprised. The prophets were often mad, pacing and waving, stamping and acting like animals about to break, floods about to rampage, the holy spirit about to speak. In Ninevah, the prophets didn't bet on the goodness of mankind, but they preached and they hopeed in spite of themselves. They never expected the reception of grace, the open embrace of peace and love, justice and forgiveness, goodness and understanding, and they were sometimes surprised. They stumbled to say what it was they wanted to say about God, stuttered to say he was righteous and far away, far above all others and all powerful and knowing and mighty and above all the things of men and beastial things and above other kinds of kings and gods. They spent a lot of time trying to say what it was they wanted to say about God. They yawped and hooted, trying to say. They bawked and howled, cawed and cockadoodle-dooed. They didn't always know what it meant.

In Sodom and Gomorrah the cities were silent and doomed, laying in the plain, vulnerable and in the way and no one there tries to say anything about God. In Ninevah, there's chatter and tumult and people talking and trying to say. Sometimes they say it like "blood." Sometimes like "love." So the pacing preacher would have been better to compare Birmingham to Ninevah, if he was going to pick a city out of the prophets. In Birmingham he is shouting out about the most-high God and another man is up on a step ladder taking questions about God. His Bible is flopped open and young men in sunglasses and polo shirts and young men in mohawks and big boots challenge him, saying to their friends "ask him this, ask him this." A soft-eyed West Indian is wandering around saying the spirit was moving, saying how it is moving and he didn't believe it until it moved through him. In Birmingham people are trying to say. They are stuttering the name of God there. They are taking it in their mouths, like the Eucharist. They taste it on their tongue and they taste something more, some unarticulated more. A Muslim man sits at a table with books offering answers and he sit there with a quiet, long-day smile. His books say they have 96 answers about Islam and offer solutions and explanations for how Muhammed was proven a prophet by the Jewish and Christian bibles. A black Muslim with newspapers pursues black men and women while they are shopping, pushing the papers on them, leaning in earnestly to say why they ought to understand and how they ought to understand the rightness and the righteousness of God. In Birmingham a Marxist man is shouting out about a con, calling on the working class to come together and really see, and that is the stammer of the name of God too. The refugees sing "aye yay, aye yay" and a wide-eyed, red-eyed man blows a trumpet to the tune of All the Saints, accompanied by recording on a little plastic speaker.

The Saint Martin's market is mad. Groups of girls wander around in unexplained costumes of fairies and princesses. Old men make jokes which are probably meant to be obscene but which don't make any sense anymore. People, non-stop, get their picture taken next to a misshappen bull. A man with a funny-looking head sells balloons and a farm girl, looking saggy and bored, sells cherries. An withered Iranian man watches his hats like they might walk away and another man eats a mango and another says "let's go, come on, lets go." On the stairs in the street by the church people stand and talk and sit and smoke and walk, endlessly streaming both ways. Inside the mall the escalators endlessly cycle on all three floors, the left side down and then up and then down and the right side up and then down and then up. Each side is stuffed with people, lines of people, never-ending amounts of people passing through the center of the city. The people move in groups and clumps and the metaphors that come to mind are mostly of water, floods and streams and waves, swells and spills and seas, but especially floods, with the people covering everything, walking everywhere, filling the spaces up to the edges and over too. The people overwhelming. The people deafening. The people masses moving without apparent order, their motion like swelling and sound a sweeping a swirl a roar of words.

And maybe the question for the preaching man is what does he say in the face of this, this facelessness and this feeling of flooding, this human race endlessly pacing by him as he tries to say something, tries to talk into the push of people so overwhelming they can't be characterized except by recourse to metaphors of floods and faceless washes. And what do you say? What do you say if you're selling shoes or eggs, coffee or an old church, sex fantasies or God, politics or any answers at all? Even God sometimes stutters and stammers at this. In Ninevah, God said, Behold, I am against thee, and he called himself the Jehovah of armies. He said I will uncover thy skirts upon thy face, and I will show the nations thy nakedness and defile you. And also in Ninevah, God also repented of his armies, his dreams of destruction and rape, his rage and his promises of shit and shame. He repented and said, I sayeth I love these people, I forgive and give grace and I care about them, even though I don't know them. But, as the prophet said in the ancient seaport city, who knows what God will say. We can only say what we will say, as we try to articulate and answer these faces, as we pace up and down in the square or wander around down there, in Birmingham, at St. Martin's, watching and saying "this, this, this ..."