I recently read the book Last Mass by Jamie Iredell. For those of you who know me, it will become quickly apparent from my description here that this is not my usual kind of reading material. Last Mass is a collection of paragraph-long reflections on the history of Catholicism in California during the time of Junipero Serra and his contemporaries, mixed with the author’s own reflections on growing up Catholic in California and the experiences that led him to stop attending Mass in young adulthood. Although I stopped attending Catholic mass at age 20, for very different reasons than Jamie did, I still tend to get a little defensive when reading anything critical of Catholicism, or of European-American culture in general, although from the historical record one cannot argue the fact that that Europeans mistreated Native Americans. It is a story that needs to be told, so that we do not repeat such abuses in the future.
So in light of that, if this isn’t my usual kind of reading material why did I read this book? Simple: I knew Jamie as a teenager. We went to middle and high school together. We had several classes together over the years. I didn’t really hang out with him outside of school, but remember, I didn’t really hang out with anyone outside of school at that age. We lost touch after high school, as I did with almost everyone I knew, but we’ve been back in Facebook contact since 2008, so I’ve seen his posts about the books he’s writing and the pieces that have been published in literary journals. For a brief time last year, another of his books, I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, was being offered as a free Kindle download. I read it, and I really enjoyed it. That one was a collection of personal essays that felt kind of like reading a blog like this one, but more well written. He doesn’t know that I’m writing this, but I’ll probably tag him when I share it to Facebook.
Last Mass was very thought-provoking. Jamie has a way of connecting his stories about Father Serra with his stories about his own life in just the right way. It’s always interesting to read his stories, especially when he writes about himself at the age when I knew him. I never knew he did so many drugs, for example. While I do not share his conclusions about leaving the Catholic Church (I left for different reasons and opted instead to worship in a different branch of Christianity), I can relate to a lot of the struggles he shared, particularly those about the guilt and shame experienced within the normal bounds of puberty.
Any time I read about abuses perpetuated by Christianity in the name of the Church, such as the Crusades, the mistreatment of the Native Americans that the missionaries were trying to convert, or the acceptance of slavery within historical Christianity, it makes me wonder: How could they have gotten things so wrong? How could Father Serra and his contemporaries have misinterpreted God’s teaching to the point that natives were whipped and beaten for keeping their cultural practices, native women were routinely raped, and natives were plundered of their possessions? Of course, those who carried out these abuses were all products of their time and culture, and they should not entirely be judged by modern standards, but still, I wonder how the culture could have strayed so far from God’s teaching in the first place, with so few men or women of God standing up for the truth.
But there is a more important question here. What are we getting wrong today? What is it that Christians are doing today that seems perfectly normal in our culture, but blatantly contradicts the Word of God and will make future generations of Christians wonder what we were thinking? Is it our tolerance of divorce within the church? Our love of building big fancy church buildings while neglecting the poor in our own communities? Our desire to water down the truth in order to be accepted in society? (I don’t mean to be judgmental here, especially considering I have a lot of Christian friends who are divorced, and I’m not. But this is something I wonder about.) This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. The Bible is full of stories of God’s people grossly misunderstanding his teaching, and it will probably continue throughout history until Jesus comes back. The important thing to remember is that I should be making decisions as a Christian based on the Word of God, not based on what the culture says.