Thursday, June 30, 2016

They continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown.

Joan Didion has long been on the periphery of my awareness. Fiction writer, essayist, exemplar of New Journalism. That was about it. Since I am not much of a fiction reader, she has never been high on my priorities.

In a used bookstore the other day, I came across a $2 paperback edition of The White Album, her second collection of non-fiction essays. Despite a desperate lack of space for more books, for $2 I'll try a new author.

Glad I did.

Wonderful passages of her observations about California and the US 1968-72 which were harbingers of things to come. Many of her sharp passages describe our circumstances today. Bitter fruit borne of naive ideas back then.

Take this extended passage.
Elder Robert J. Theobold, pastor of what was till October 12, 1968, the Friendly Bible Apostolic Church in Port Hueneme, California, is twenty-eight years old, born and bred in San Jose, a native Californian whose memory stream could encompass only the boom years; in other words a young man who until October 12, 1968, had lived his entire life in the nerve center of the most elaborately technological and media-oriented society in the United States, and so the world. His looks and to some extent his background are indistinguishable from those of a legion of computer operators and avionics technicians. Yet this is a young man who has remained immaculate of the constant messages with which a technological society bombards itself, for at the age of sixteen he was saved, received the Holy Spirit in a Pentecostal church. Brother Theobold, as the eighty-some members of his congregation call him, now gets messages only from the Lord, "forcible impressions" instructing him, for example, to leave San Jose and start a church in Port Hueneme, or, more recently, to lead his congregation on the 12th of October, 1968, from Port Hueneme to Murfreesboro, Tennessee, in order to avoid destruction by earthquake.

"We're leaving the 12th but I don't have any message that it's going to happen before the end of 1968," Brother Theobold told me one morning a few weeks before he and his congregation piled their belongings into campers and cars and left California for Tennessee. He was minding the children that morning, and his two-year-old walked around sucking on a plastic bottle while Brother Theobold talked to me and fingered the pages of a tooled-leather Bible. "This one minister I heard, he definitely said it would happen before the end of 1970 but as far as I'm concerned, the Lord has shown me that it's definitely coming but he hasn't shown me when."

I mentioned to Brother Theobold that most seismologists were predicting an imminent major earthquake on the San Andreas Fault, but he did not seem unduly interested: Brother Theobold’s perception of the apocalypse neither began with nor depended upon the empirical. In a way the Pentecostal mind reveals itself most clearly in something like Brother Theobold’s earthquake prophecy. Neither he nor the members of his congregation to whom I talked had ever been particularly concerned by reports in the newspapers that an earthquake was overdue. “Of course we’d heard of earthquakes,” a soft-voiced woman named Sister Mosley told me. “Because the Bible mentions there’ll be more and more toward the end of time.” Nor was there any need to think twice about pulling up stakes and joining a caravan to a small town few of them had ever seen. I kept asking Brother Theobold how he had chosen Murfreesboro, and over and over he tried to tell me: he had “received a telephone call from a man there,” or “God had directed this particular man to call on this particular day.” The man did not seem to have made a direct entreaty to Brother Theobold to bring his flock to Tennessee, but there had been no question in Brother Theobold’s mind that God’s intention was exactly that. “From the natural point of view I didn’t care to go to Murfreesboro at all,” he said. “We just bought this place, it’s the nicest place we ever had. But I put it up to the Lord, and the Lord said put it up for sale. Care for a Dr. Pepper?”

We might have been talking in different languages, Brother Theobold and I; it was as if I knew all the words but lacked the grammar, and so kept questioning him on points that seemed to him ineluctably clear. He seemed to be one of those people, so many of whom gravitate to Pentecostal sects, who move around the West and the South and the Border States forever felling trees in some interior wilderness, secret frontiersmen who walk around right in the ganglia of the fantastic electronic pulsing that is life in the United States and continue to receive information only through the most tenuous chains of rumor, hearsay, haphazard trickledown. In the social conventions by which we now live there is no category for people like Brother Theobold and his congregation, most of whom are young and white and nominally literate; they are neither the possessors nor the dispossessed. They participate in the national anxieties only through a glass darkly. They teach their daughters to eschew makeup and to cover their knees, and they believe in divine healing, and in speaking in tongues. Other people leave towns like Murfreesboro, and they move into them. To an astonishing extent they keep themselves unviolated by common knowledge, by the ability to make routine assumptions; when Brother Theobold first visited Murfreesboro he was dumbfounded to learn that the courthouse there had been standing since the Civil War. “The same building” he repeated twice, and then he got out a snapshot as corroboration. In the interior wilderness no one is bloodied by history, and it is no coincidence that the Pentecostal churches have their strongest hold in places where Western civilization has its most superficial hold. There are more than twice as many Pentecostal as Episcopal churches in Los Angeles.
Love that last sentence dagger thrust.

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