Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Old-Time Religion

The Door has finally published online the astonishingly good article about its CEO, Ole Anthony, which I originally read in the December 6, 2004 edition of The New Yorker. It is a flat-out great. I knew nothing at all about Anthony prior to reading it, but by the end I had decided he was the spawn of the unholy miscegenation of evangelical Christianity and the fictional worlds of Cormac McCarthy.

In the summer of 1958, Anthony was sent to the Marshall Islands, in the South Pacific, to calibrate his sensors against a newly designed hydrogen bomb. The Air Force had estimated that the explosion would be equivalent to 3.5 megatons of TNT, but it was equal to 9.3 megatons instead.

Standing on the shore of an island thirty miles away, Anthony watched the target island disintegrate in a blinding flash. A few seconds later, the blowback hit him—a shock wave of wind and sound so powerful that it knocked him into the water. Anthony's body still bears traces of the explosion.

His blood is so marked by radiation that a doctor once told him he should be dead. His flesh is pocked with more than four hundred lipomas—hard, fatty tumors, strung under his skin like knots in a clothesline.

[. . .]

For early Christians, he came to believe, after poring over religious calendars, their faith had a kind of stereophonic depth. Every major event in the Gospels seemed to fall on or near a Jewish holy day: Christ's birth on Rosh Hashanah, his baptism on Yom Kippur, his crucifixion on Passover.

Eventually, Anthony organized a Bible study along the same lines: a small group of believers, around the size of a minyan (no fewer than ten), who are dedicated to parsing Scripture, verse by verse, according to the Jewish calendar.

"He thought it could be a businessmen's breakfast," Anthony's friend John Bloom told me. "He was a big Republican, and he thought he would get all those guys. But that wasn't who showed up. Who showed up were the scum of the earth, as Ole used to call them. All these hippies and people who had never worn a suit in their lives. And of course they all had problems." Anthony would try to keep the discussion scholarly. He would open the Talmud or the Torah, turn to some cryptic line, and start to tease out its meaning with his Greek and Hebrew dictionaries. Then things would fall apart.

"It's a strange fact, but when you study the Scripture seriously it brings out all this stuff in people," Bloom says. "You'd think you were going to read the Book of Ephesians and suddenly someone was saying, 'Oh, my crack-addicted sister came over last night and slapped my daughter.' And that's what you ended up dealing with."

Bloom calls this the "fistfight stage of Trinity Foundation." He was working as a writer for Texas Monthly at the time, in an office across the hall in the same strip mall, and became fascinated by Anthony—his bizarre life style and utter lack of concern about it, his foul mouth and fervent theology. "He was relentless," Bloom later wrote in a Dallas magazine.

"He was a charging Brahma bull breathing Scripture out of both nostrils." Late at night, when Bloom was writing on deadline, he'd sometimes hear shouting and the sound of furniture being thrown around across the hall, followed by slamming doors and squealing tires.

Later, at some local dive, he'd ask Anthony what all the ruckus was about. "Romans. We're still studying the Book of Romans," Anthony would tell him.

"What specific aspect of Romans is causing this level of interest?"

"Well, we were talking about your place in the body of Christ. And I told one guy his place was to be a pimple on the ass of the body of Christ. I just said it. It just came out."

"And he didn't agree?"

"A lot of these people are clinging to their miserable little self-images. They don't understand that it's about God. It's about them, but only the part of them that contains God. They still think they're special."

Anthony's crankiness was oddly consistent with his theology. In the first century, his studies suggested, new believers were ritually rebuffed three times before they were allowed to join Christian communities, so he strove for the same effect.

[. . .]

Anthony was sitting at the far end of the room, feet propped on a chair, a wooden cane within arm's reach. Mornings are his best time—his only good time, really—but even then his face is often haggard with pain. Twenty-five years ago, he sat down in a steam room at his health club, tucked his legs under the bench, and touched his left heel to a live wire that a workman had left hanging from the wall. The shock threw his head back so hard that he cracked a joint in his jaw, and seared the nerve endings on his left side, from ankle to ear. Heavy doses of relaxants and various misguided therapies have only exacerbated the condition over the years, so that Anthony now spends much of the day in his bedroom, racked with muscle spasms.

"Peace is really what we're searching for," he said, swivelling his fierce gaze around the room. "But a life without suffering is meaningless. We are like hunks of quartz, and our real identity is a vein of gold inside it. Whenever we prefer someone's interest over our own, whenever we lay down our lives for someone, we knock off some of the quartz and reveal the gold."

Anthony has never expected his preaching to become popular. "It costs you your hopes and dreams," he says. But he believes that if just a few more people in every community shared his values they could transform society. There are some three hundred thousand churches in the United States and, on any given night, some six hundred thousand homeless people. If every church could adopt just one or two of the homeless, he says, a seemingly intractable problem might be solved.

Ole Anthony and I are probably miles apart when it comes to religious conviction and political persuasion, and we'd almost undoubtedly dislike one another, but I'll be damned if he's not an interesting son of a bitch.