Taking the Point
My memory now forces me into forensic activity whenever I want to make lucid a vivid event of my past. So the story I'm telling is reconstructed to the best of my ability, and I know it has inconsistencies.
(It is only in more recent years that I've thought complete honesty was the way to go anyway; I used to make much more creative fabric out of my hole-y recollections of the past.)
When I was 15, the Wicked Stepfather was youth pastor of our college town's more conservative congregational church. As a basic component of his personality, W.S. loved to stir up controversy and for that reason alone, I believe, decided to take the youth group on a field trip to the Chicago Theological Seminary in the later 1960s.
At that time, Liberation Theology with its emphasis on social activism, was gaining ground among daring young seminarians,and a mixture of this philosophy, woven into the fabric of theistic existentialism, was what our tender young minds were exposed to during that intense three days.
I think W.S. got more than he bargained for ... and, in hindsight, I bet he had some explaining to do when the youth of the church returned and started spouting some of the revolutionary rhetoric in which we had been immersed.
What I remember most strongly is the intensity and monk-like quality of the young men who were teaching us. We were staying in what seemed like a monastery, communal living with barracks-type beds and awful food served at long tables.
There were about 12 of us ... probably seven girls, five boys. And there was much stirring and twitching when the lectures started.
But I was transfixed. They were telling us that our lives, intrinsically meaningless in their raw state, could be fashioned into sharp tools for the advancement of God's purpose. We must learn to take risk in this regard, to put ourselves at the front line, to "take the point."
There was a symbol for this: an arrow shape struck through with a perpendicular line. Its meaning was that one should seek to be at the point, in the avant garde, on the frontlines, doing battle for God.
The context of that (and this?) time was that we should fiercely battle injustice wherever we found it (remember that this is the time period immediately before the Chicago Convention and I would imagine some of the seminary's denizens were much caught up in that violence).
These earnest young men taught that true faith involved action, and sacrifice ... and only these would result in our redemption.
Adolescent intellects were expected to absorb CliffNote distillations of Kierkegaard and Tillich and Barth. I cannot render meaning for you out of the faded memory of those lectures. I most remember the tone, and the intensity, and the certainty.
That we could make meaning out of nothing, that this was God's wish for us, that we were soldiers in an ongoing war, and that if we denied our role in this war, we were lost.
It is only at this moment that I realize how much this sounds like the doctrinaire teaching of the Muslim imams, readying their own soldiers for war against the infidels.
But I was in America. And although after three days I was filled with the spirit, the process of diluting the message had already been implemented by W.S., who hadn't realized the contents of the box he had opened.
Reimmersed back into a world of clothes, boys, music and makeup, it didn't take me long to forget the impassioned speeches of the young men, however attractive I had thought they were at the time.
But imagine if there were no diversion of a prevalent culture to dilute the message. Imagine if the message itself was the prevalent culture, and truly seemed the way up and out.
Then you get a glimpse of how a teenager could strap a bomb onto his body, make his bravado tape of farewell and, welcoming redemption, step into a crowded marketplace and toggle a switch.