God's a Joke

The Sunday-morning hymns have been sung, the body and blood consumed, and the prayers offered for the sick and the shut-ins. Now it's time for the Reverend Jeffrey Eernisse to harass his flock.

He leaves the pulpit and swaggers down the aisle. "Give me your wallet," he commands a guy sitting up front. Sheepish, the guy hands it over. Jeffrey, a goateed GenXer, demands that other churchgoers surrender their watches, earrings, even eyeglasses. Most of his victims grin; no one appears remotely shocked or worried. In the 11 years that Jeffrey has been at Second Christian Church, the little evangelical congregation has grown used to Lettermanesque stunts like this. A white-haired lady looks flattered that Jeffrey wants one of the rhinestone Js pinned to her jacket. Rowdier church members don't wait to be shaken down; anxious to horn in on the act, they volunteer their valuables, waving them in the air so that Jeffrey will take them.

Only a Hispanic teenager, sitting near the back, balks at Jeffrey's request. He has demanded one of her butterfly clips. She looks at him blankly for a second, then slowly, reluctantly, removes the clip, pressing her hand against her falling hair as if stanching a head wound.

Triumphant, Jeffrey returns to the pulpit and piles his loot on top of it.

"We Christians," he announces, "are thieves."

By inner-city standards, the congregation doesn't look at all shady. They're mostly working-class, Anglo and Hispanic, either over 60 or under 40. Sunday-morning regulars. Good citizens. Nice people.

Jeffrey continues: "We will steal anything that isn't nailed down."

He's accusing them -- churchgoers! -- of being thieves.

"And that's the way it should be."

They don't look offended or outraged; they're smiling, intrigued, waiting for the punch line. Jeffrey hopes, though, that they're at least a little bothered and confused. He hopes that they're wondering whatever happened to thou shalt not steal. He hopes they're wondering what in the name of God is going on.

Saturday night, before that service, Jeffrey went to a friend's house to see Dracula in Istanbul, a low-budget '50s film shot entirely in Turkish. His friend Kate, the high priestess of a Wiccan coven, was at the video-screening party, too. Last year Jeffrey performed her marriage to a Unitarian. Before the ceremony, he gave the couple his usual full-bore Christian counseling, saying how a married couple's relationship should reflect God's relationship with the church; he thought this particular pair would do a good job of that, better than many Christian couples. The wedding was outdoors at the Orange Show, and at the end, a rainbow appeared, God's stamp of approval. The only thing that even mildly marred the affair for Jeffrey was that a couple of Kate's fellow Wiccans seemed hard-pressed even to make small talk with him -- ugh, a male Christian minister. Intolerant Wiccan geeks, he thought.

But Kate, of course, is very cool, and so, in a vampire-nerd way, was the Turkish Dracula -- far more faithful to the Bram Stoker book than any English-language movie, so faithful that the horror-movie fanatics didn't need subtitles to understand what was going on. The tape was a copy of a copy that a friend of a friend had once taped off Turkish TV. The sound was warbly and distorted, the picture was grainy and black-and-white, and Jeffrey enjoyed it the way only a connoisseur could: as a piece of film history, interesting not by itself, but in context.

Jeffrey is constantly puzzling out the significance of things, looking for insight in unlikely places. He likes explaining the importance of deathly dull passages of scripture, the begats and the dietary laws and the precise boundaries of the Promised Land. He finds enlightenment in Montrose, Houston's little patch of Gomorrah, because it's so gothic, because the contrast between the light and the darkness is extreme; the light is easier to see there than in the suburbs. He even treasures his videotapes of bad Bela Lugosi films -- partly because even Bad Old Bela is still Bela, but partly because Jeffrey especially enjoys mining the dreck for its small, interesting snatches of dialogue, the little flashes of interest buried in the schlock.

Even Jeffrey's stories about his kids have a point. When he watches horror movies at home, his older son, four-year-old Japheth, usually hides in his room. Japheth will watch some of the wolfman movies, too, but only while clutching his little plastic wolfman figurines. Jeffrey's conclusion: It's Japheth's way of controlling the monster, containing the evil.

Naturally Jeffrey can talk at length about the Christian symbolism embedded in horror movies. Werewolves stand for sins of the flesh, the spirit made slave to the body. Monsters like Frankenstein embody the random, uncontrollable dangers that scare us precisely because they're senseless -- cancer, car accidents, hurricanes, evils not so much malicious as unthinking. Vampires represent Satan, and the dark seductiveness of evil.

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Lisa Gray