The exotic “other”


At the Methodist Centenary, Columbus, Ohio, July, 1919

Was it a trick? Clare’s uncle could make coins disappear from closed fists and reappear in Clare’s ears, an act his mother assured him was no act of God nor even of a very clever man: “He just moves his hands the way the book taught him and makes you think you’re seeing something that’s not really there. If it was real magic, he’d be the devil.”

And this fellow lying on a bed of nails? To the naked eye, extraordinarily sharp nails.

“It’s just a show, darling.”

Well, he knew that! But how was this colossally long brown man doing it? Could all Indians do it? Was swarthy skin tougher than white skin? Did the cloth wrapped around the man’s head convey some special protection? Was he in a deep trance and did it make him oblivious to pain, or even to puncture? Clare needed to know because he wanted to do it.

While his mother, quickly bored with the sleeping giant, walked over to the Ganges to watch the holy monkeys cavorting on its banks, Clare conducted a closer investigation. It was apparent that the man wasn’t dead—his chest moved at regular intervals—Clare counted them up to fifteen. He even glimpsed the flutter of an eyelash.

Very tentatively, not wanting to wake this behemoth creature, he began to circle him. Round and round he went, sometimes on tiptoe, examining the spikes but from a respectable distance, observing that they only dimpled the man’s skin, that there was no blood. He had to know if they were real nails. Each time he circumambulated the platform he drew nearer, until he was so close he had to hold his breath for fear it would fall on the giant and rouse him.

Clare had never been so near a naked male chest not his own. He could almost feel the man’s skin on his fingertips—cool, taut, vaguely damp. He traced with his eyes the scant black chest hair down to the muscled stomach, to where the breech cloth began, and tried to imagine the size of what it concealed. It seemed to him that something moved and, startled into self-consciousness, he darted a glance up the long body to the man’s face: was the Hindoo watching him? No. Apparently not. He drew closer to be certain. The man’s face was soft and smooth. His slightly parted lips were full. He was, thought Clare, was beautiful!

He reached out and stroked a nail. It was hard and hot . . . .

“Claire! You get away from there! What if he’s dangerous?” hissed his mother. Clare jumped and fell back.

“Who dares to touch my holy bed?” the creature muttered and opened his eyes to glare at Clare.

What had he done? “Sorry sir, I’m so sorry. I just wanted to feel if your nails were real—I didn’t mean to bother you sir, Sahib sir. Really I didn’t.” pleaded Clare. The man’s eyes took the little tow-headed white boy apart. Then just as suddenly they dulled up and there was nothing more behind them.

“All of India is looking for the Unseen, for what is Really Real,” intoned the be-turbaned native. “I’ll do anything to find it. I’ve been lying here these thirty and more years,” He paused as people began to gather. “I’ve been lying here these thirty and more years looking for the Really Real,” he recited again.

Now there were several people circling the bed the way Clare had done, pointing, debating the materiality of the spikes in hushed tones. Sigrid Torkelson grabbed hold of her son’s hand and pulled him to one side as the great dark man slowly, gingerly, sat up. He looked around and frowned as if he were irritated that his sleep had been disturbed, but saw no recourse. People were here, he might just as well get up—and so, raising himself above the spikes with his powerful arms and pivoting his body, he jumped to the floor. Standing stiffly, expectantly, he waited, and so did everyone, until someone caught on and began to applaud. As people will do, the whole crowd clapped then and the man made a quick bow. He turned on his heel, and strode to a papier maché pipal tree with an urn at its base. He reached his hand into a hollow in the tree’s trunk, and Clare heard a familiar amplified scratch and then the crackle of a phonograph needle on graphite and a flute wavering exotically in the record’s warp. Then the sober giant bent down and pulled what appeared to be a heavy coil of rope from the urn. Cradling it in his arms, he took it to several ladies and gentlemen nearby to let them touch it. Yes, they agreed, it was only a rope, like one you’d see on any Ohio farm. Clare shyly waved at him to get his attention but the big man ignored him and his mother gripped him by the shoulders to stop him from bolder action. She was determined to keep him from making any more social gaffes with this frightening infidel.

The giant set the coil in the middle of the floor and squatted beside it. He began stroking it, moving his hands over it, reshaping the space around it. All the time he gazed at it as if it were dangerous and might strike if he glanced away for even a moment. Clare felt his mother’s hands tighten and heard her catch her breath at the same moment as he saw the rope move—almost imperceptibly at first, held in thrall by the snake charmer’s dancing hands, undulating to the music, then writhing on the floor like something alive trying to free itself. He slowly rose, his hands always moving, never stopping, and the creature began rising with him, spiraling, a serpent waking up, climbing the empty air above it, until it passed its master, until it had climbed so high it was almost to the ceiling and, Clare thought, craning his neck, it would break through the roof to the sky above like Jack’s beanstalk.

The rope trembled and the crowd oohed and Clare looked down to see the great man shimmying up it like a boy climbing a tree. But this was no boy, this was Clare’s great grim hero rhythmically pulling himself up a monster vine of his own creation, ascending, perhaps, even to heaven. The man reached the top. The recording abruptly ended, and in the amazed silence the only sound was the scratch of the needle on the turning record.
Suddenly, rudely, like someone sneezing in the middle of a silent prayer at church, voices trumpeted from a distance: “Onward Christian Soldiers, going on before….” Clare looked down the great hall past the bazaar, to the other side of a pagan temple, to see a whole choir of people filing in, making their way through water buffalo cutouts and live sacred cows, down a lane of pasteboard huts, professing God and Jesus Christ as they came. Remembering the dark giant, Clare spun around just in time to see the rope tumble down and the man vault to the floor with a handspring. Then the crowd closed in, and because of Clare’s short stature, he lost sight of him.

Where did all the liberal churches go? When? How? How it all began.

For many years of my life, I worked in media for national and international church organizations. I wasn’t quite a believer, but I was convinced that the world was in need of justice and love, and the work I did was calculated to bring that about. We were the left wing of the church, its liberal side, and our opposition was fundamentalist, evangelical, right wing, all that and more. At some point, I moved to Vermont and took my social action to the local level, as they say, working in a history museum. And a few decades later, I looked up and discovered  that something called the tea party had evolved and the only church anyone ever heard about was the right wing. The passionately devout people I had worked with who wanted to “make justice flow down like living waters” were no longer visible. The churches I’d known seemed to have disappeared. What happened; where had they gone?

For the next few days, I’m going to be in New York without a computer of my own, and so I thought I’d put a couple of posts up that take us back to the mainstream churches as they were in the United States at the start of the 20th century. Full of evangelical zeal, but also hungry for justice. Fascinated by the pagan “other” at the same time as they wanted to feed, clothe and convert him. Immersed in the new technologies, by photography and motion pictures. Setting out to change the world.

They were to be disappointed then, but now—now they seem to have nearly disappeared. I’m not planning to turn this blog into a search for them. That will come at another place and time. But this may be as good a place as any to start.


The Luminists

They said it couldn’t be done but there it was, a huge projector humming and buzzing with the wind from six fans to cool two 125 ampere lanterns. Six perspiring luminists labored over the mammoth mechanism, drawing one 5” x 7” slide through and then the next, projecting picture after picture on the 10,000 square foot eight-story-high screen. Thousands of people watched, horrified by the marriage of an Indian child bride to her elderly bridegroom, and thrilled at the baptism of hundreds of Indian villagers. Godfrey George Godwin was delighted all over again with the biggest lantern slide projector in the world: how wonderful that a magic lantern could paint the screen with facts. No one could distance themselves from this show. How could they fail to recognize the truth in the pictures in front of them?
G. G. Godwin loved photographs. He liked shooting them; he liked looking at them. Here was life captured and held fast—he studied it, was warmed by it, grieved for it and rejoiced with it. Above all, it was life he could take and infuse into the vision he wanted to communicate to the world. G. G. was a faithful and enthusiastic Christian and his vision was of a world saved by his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. His was not a Jesus he needed to appeal to for his own salvation: he had no doubt at all that he was saved. He had grown up in a Protestant parsonage, and sooner than he was able to read, sooner even than he was able to walk or talk, he had known that he was loved by God. No, G. G.’s Jesus was the embodied love of God who would save all the people photographed and—it went without saying—all the people looking at the photographs.
And so, on June 18, 1919, the first night of The Great Church Exposition in Columbus, Ohio, and every night thereafter for a month, the biggest lantern slide images in the world instructed Christians about the plight of the heathen and the missionary achievements of their church. The magnitude of the images moved the audience to exclamations of wonder. After the show, some of the gentlemen walked over to examine the projector. Thumbs-notched-in-suspenders, hats-tipped-back, they considered its mechanics while the six luminists, who were carefully shutting the machine down part by moving part, patiently answered their questions.
On other nights, a movie projector of similar girth ground out Lowell Thomas’s travelogues of the Holy Land. Many of the images were taken from an aeroplane and some even included war scenes. The audience, most of them churchgoers who were uncertain of the propriety of motion pictures and had seen very few, ducked and bobbed as the planes soared and dove across the screen. Their forebears had forbidden their children to read novels because they weren’t true. Movies made the line between truth and falsehood even more difficult to discern. But it had become clear that they must reconsider the medium since motion pictures, in the right hands, could apparently be used to report the truth. The right kinds of movies could be shown in church basements instead of peep shows and vaudeville houses.
A few people also began to understand that these pictures, with all their tricks of fade-outs, double images and odd and multiple perspectives, could be made to reproduce experiences of the supernatural and the transcendent. It was more difficult to say what that had to do with truth, if anything at all.