In the Obituaries column of the stalwart Tribune newspaper this week, we learn of an elderly gentleman who finally shook off his mortal made-in-California coil. The very first paragraph reads thus: "Maynard Oscar Kirkland, 90, entered heavens gates in the early morning hours of Tuesday, April 27, 2010."
Death is no time to be picky about errant apostrophes such as the one clearly missing from "heavens". Instead we need to concentrate on who is not missing from the heavens, and that is Maynard.
Here I am back in a country where they indeed possess heaven's gates, something I've been away from for more than two decades now. How refreshing it is to be however briefly back in the United States, where God manifests himself not only in stately cathedrals and churches, but in all manner of capitalist enterprises and the minds of people I'd be loathe to have anywhere near my domestic pets.
Better still, I'm in Southern California which, with the exception of Utah, is home to more religious nuts per square mile than anywhere else on the planet. The Crystal Cathedral is in nearby Garden Grove, where the religiously idle don't need to get out of their cars for Sunday service since it's a Drive In church - just park and tune in to the sermon on the radio.
There's a cable channel here that I fear I am becoming addicted to; it's solely devoted to Christians, flashing constant messages that God Is Love and Jesus Saves, and by golly Jesus is indeed the only one saving judging by all the requests for donations from viewers. I like to settle down with my first vodka of the day and watch the afternoon kids' show where the Bible Boys battle it out against the Gospel Girls - and yes, it is in the afternoon.
That's not all; a kilometre away is the glitzy, bordello-ish headquarters of Scientology, where the likes of Cruise and Travolta hang out, conveniently situated in the very gay West Hollywood part of town. If you're all grown up and miss the fairy stories of your youth, then there's a religion right up your alley!
That's where I am, and I'm loving it.
My life has always been a succession of religious surprises. Regular readers of this column may recall I grew up in Sunnybank, a leafy outer suburb of Brisbane full of custard apple trees and anti-depressants. Think David Lynch's Blue Velvet in a blender with Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Up on the hill was St Barnabas Church which we attended every Sunday - either that or every Easter and Christmas, one of the two. I was Church of England, and since birth I was safe and happy knowing Jesus, the son of God, and his Father were looking down on Me.
They loved me, too. When I died, I would be transported up to the pearly gates where St Peter looked up my name in his big book. If I'd been good I'd go through heaven's gates and spend eternity there. If I'd been bad I'd be swallowed up in the roasting fires of hell to burn for eternity.
Sunday afternoons were spent at Sunday School. Sunnybank adults, whose admirable faith was inversely proportionate to their physical attractiveness, strummed guitars about Jesus and we all sang along, bobbing our heads to the left, then to the right, smiling and winking at one another. It felt good to be Christian and alive.
Such was my blinkered vision of the world until, at the age of 16, I won a scholarship, and the gigantic hand of AFS reached down and plucked me out of that world, and thrust me into a family in Orange County, California for a year.
A Jewish family.
We didn't have Jews in Sunnybank. We had a few errant Catholics who were tolerated but to my shame, the only knowledge I had of Jews was when somebody in the school yard tossed a coin into the air and shouted: "Jew scramble!" The adjective "Jewish" referred to anybody who was stingy - in neither situations did I ever stop to scratch my head and wonder what the word meant.
I am not being flippant when I say I was suddenly in a wonderful warm family who professed a religion that didn't believe in Jesus Christ! "Ah, he's just a fairy story," my big amazing host father would say to me with his broad mischievous smile when I enquired as to why his Bible stopped at the end of the Old Testament.
Such was my naivety that at 16 years of age I had no idea there were vast religions out in the big wide world that didn't believe in the same thing as the Sunnybank Church of Englanders. Suddenly the Catholics didn't seem so unpalatable. I slowly learned about the history of the Jews, the horrors of the Holocaust, and most importantly, how loving and warm and normal the Jewish community was.
Ten years after that I received another shock to my system when I first arrived in Thailand.
If it wasn't a surprise enough to discover a world where Jesus didn't exist then how about a whole country where God doesn't even rate a mention! Instead there was talk of karma, dharma and the Dalai Llama, with no interest nor desire for a smiling God who peeked out from behind the clouds, let alone his son. Buddhism to me has always sounded more like a philosophy, but thanks to a lot of mix-and-matching deities who were in Siam way before Buddhism arrived, it now looks a little more like a traditional religion with heaven, hell and the Lord Buddha sitting in for the Lord God.
No Jesus. No God. At each of these junctions on my personal religious highway (and there have been others, most notably the Hindi, Muslim and Nihilist intersections), I have always pondered the question: Okay, so which one is right? And if one is right, then logically the rest have to be wrong ... don't they?
I know for a fact from Sunday School's New Testament Bible readings that if Maynard really is standing at the pearly gates now, then all my Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist friends have to burn in hell for eternity, which, with all due respect to God, is a little unfair and ridiculous.
What do I believe? I believe that being exposed to all these beliefs step by step, and to those so fervently following them, has widened my sphere of reference and made me a more tolerant and accepting human being. In fact, I have done the full circle. I started off my life with the quirky Church of England Jesus thing, and now here I am in the bosom of the Southern California glitzy Bible belt.
Which one is right? I know. It's the editors of the Tribune. They certainly seem to have a hotline to the afterlife.
For all their grammatical shortcomings, they knew where Maynard Oscar Kirkland ended up.
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