She had dropped out of the sky, landing on her tiny, pale, bare feet.
The extremes of summer and winter merely whispered to her. She had stopped wearing shoes decades ago.
During her flight, she was buffeted by brief gusts of cold air. The clouds threatened rain, driven by a hurricane on the Gulf Coast. The unexpected cold air promised a tet-a-tet between the cold front from the south and the warm weather typical of this time of year.
Out of habit, Dorothy pushed open the door with a hint of stealth, allowing her hand and arm to test the gap between the world outside and the world within. Nothing happened. It was a public gathering place and, as always, it posed no resistance.
She came to this Burger King often. As was her habit, Dorothy entered – ignoring the “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” notice – and found her way to her favorite booth. She enjoyed the massive plate glass window that looked out on the black asphalt parking lot and the always insanely active highway. She savored the phosphorescent lighting on her shoulders, the impossible curvature of the plastic booths. So uninviting. So unreal.
She wanted to be here with other human beings, even if she was no longer one herself. The chatter of children lifted her spirits. The sound of delighted screams made her shiver slightly as toddlers burst through the door that led outside to a playground molded in grey plastic to look like a castle. Then there were the mumbled comments of old grandmas and grandpas about doctors and medicine and grandchildren and arthur-ritis and friends who had disappeared lately into the wilderness of Alzheimers. Dorothy even enjoyed watching the employees eke out their meager existence. She liked to think she could pick out which had the sense to let the drudgery roll off their back and which would take it personally, becoming tired, bitter and listless. She didn’t care. She was beyond all that. But she liked to watch.
She had immersed herself in this experience for several minutes when suddenly her meditations were shattered by three entirely unexpected men who gathered 'round one of the cash registers. She was fascinated by their clothing. Clerical collars with a white square at the throat. Long sleeved black tunics that reached past their waists all the way to their ankles and their buffed black shoes. Dorothy normally sat completely still in the restaurant, her expression frozen as she stared out the window and listened to the fast food clamor. Now she stared openly, her mouth hanging slightly open. She had never seen men like this in real life. Certainly not in her years growing up in the mountains of North Carolina. Not even in the twelve years since her family had moved to Macon, Georgia. Only on TV.
Of the three men, two were older with thinning hair combed over pale scalps. One had absurd basset hound jowls that hung past his chin. The other was stooped slightly with some sort of curvature of the spine. Dorothy remembered the right word: scoliosis. Dorothy had seen plenty of it in her day. He also wore thick rimmed glasses so that he looked like a mole. The third priest, however, was a young man, perhaps in his twenties. His thick brown hair was cut short, just shy of military style. His strong chin showed a hint of six o’clock shadow and his bearing was rather virile and upright. He seemed separate from the other clerics – starkly different somehow and not because of their age gap. He wore the same black uniform, yet Dorothy sensed he was almost from another world.
She was pleased that – as the priests carried their trays to a booth – all three glanced in her direction, their eyes pausing to take her in. Her strawberry blonde hair hung in little girl locks over her shoulders. She was high breasted, her chest pushing at the buttons of her older brother’s red checkered lumberjack shirt. Wrapped tightly in a pair of very old Levis worn almost white, her legs were long and slender. Her toe nails were painted red and the vivid blue of her eyes could make a man’s heart skip a beat. Or stop altogether. The priests chose to sit in the booth directly across from her. That was what she had wished. Within her realm of influence, they had little choice in the matter.
Dorothy was raised Primitive Baptist. This meant walking to a tiny, white wooden church in the pines, developing a tolerance for preaching that went on for hours, and, for reasons she had never understood, no musical instruments. No organ. No piano. Each and every sermon ended with an altar call and Dorothy had responded several times, trotting down the aisle to accept Jesus Christ as her Personal Lord and Savior. She had accepted him seven, maybe eight times. This was not uncommon in her congregation because the preacher talked about little else. She had often wondered as a child whether the preacher, his wife, and children sat around the house talking about accepting Jesus all day long.
The priests – in black, all in black, she loved the black – set down their trays as they slid into the booth, stared at their food, then eyed each other. One of the two older gentlemen, the one with the jowls, smiled and cleared his throat. The older men had chosen to sit together on one side of the table, leaving the young man alone on the other. Dorothy waited, but, to her astonishment, not one of them lowered his head to say grace.
“Well, Edward, I’m glad to see that you’re settling in,” said Jowls, popping a single fry into his mouth. “As I said the day you walked through the door, we’re very glad to have you.”
The other elderly priest, the scoliosis victim, nodded, smiling indulgently. As he unwrapped his hamburger, he pushed his thick, black glasses higher on the bridge of his nose as if to see the food better.
“The man is ignorant,” the younger priest stated blandly.
The Mole ceased unwrapping his hamburger, then actually turned and looked around, apparently believing the younger priest meant some person who had just entered the restaurant.
“I’m sorry?” said Jowls.
“The Fundamentalist fellow who complained about my handout to the RCIA,” the younger priest replied. He produced a folded sheet from one of his pockets. “He wanted to speak with me, but I was on the phone with Mrs. Krampton. So I suppose he ended up with you, Mark.”
Though the young priest was handing the sheet to Jowls, it was the Mole who reached for the paper.
“Certainly, Monsignor Todd,” Edward replied.
Dorothy made a mental note: The younger priest was “Edward,” the Mole was “Monsignor Todd,” and Jowls went by “Mark.” The latter, Dorothy judged, was the man in charge.
“Well, Edward,” Father Mark said with chuckle, “I was hoping to ask you about that but had made no plans to be confrontational. You are correct: Mr. Califf did speak with me and he does have some concerns. But I think you may be misjudging him. After all, you hail from Boston, where I imagine Fundamentalists are rather scarce. It may be that Fundamentalism is regarded as a kind of sociological phenomenon. A side effect of poverty, lack of education. But, having served in this area for several years, I can assure you Mr. Califf’s faith is quite sincere. In fact, I would be surprised if he was more dedicated to the Lord than your average Catholic layperson.”
Again, he chuckled. But there was more an effort to diffuse the situation than genuine humor in his performance.
The young priest mumbled something under his breath and took a sip of coffee.
As Dorothy watched, Monsignor Todd, in a nasal tone which merely reinforced Dorothy’s impression of a large, black mole, spoke while tapping the paper with his finger. “So was Mr. Califf put off by the section highlighted here?”
“Yes,” Edward replied.
Monsignor Todd lifted the page closer to his face and read aloud.
“When Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do men say that I am?,’ Peter was the last to reply, proclaiming, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’ This, however, seems unlikely. It is probably a later addition to the text. It is impossible that a first century Jew like Peter embraced some notion of Christ’s divinity, a concept alien to the beliefs of all Israelites at that time or any other time.”
Edward put down his coffee and readily explained, “You see? Only a man like Califf – addicted to a literal reading of Scripture, his culture a carefully maintained bubble of pre-critical, pre-Enlightenment ideas – could have a problem with that reading of the text. There’s nothing to it, really.”
Monsignor Todd’s smile was benign, but he spoke in measured tones. “What then of the next verse? Doesn’t Jesus reply, ‘Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, Simon bar Jonah, but my Father in Heaven?’”
“And?” Edward said.
“Well,” Monsignor Todd began, staring at the paper which he still held in his hands, “Peter’s insight did not come from flesh and blood – that is, not merely from his own cultural perspective. It was revealed to him supernaturally by the Father. The Father in Heaven. There is no reason to think, therefore, that Peter’s confession of faith was ‘unlikely.’”
Dorothy watched the men carefully, entirely heedless of whether her open staring was rude. She had never heard a conversation like this in her entire life. It astonished her, in fact, that she had happened upon this event. It was very like the time she saw a large alligator, illuminated by the headlights of her truck, waddle across the highway as she approached at eighty miles per hour. So some people actually talked like this. Not only talked, but debated – earnestly if tactfully. In fact, she sensed that something about Edward had been laid bare by the monsignor, that a nerve was now naked and vulnerable.
But the young Father Edward merely chuckled – much in the manner of Father Mark – and took another sip of his coffee. Dorothy thought she heard him whisper something under his breath. She couldn’t make out the words. Perhaps it was just a patient sigh. Then the young priest made plain his response.
“Textual criticism, source criticism, and redaction criticism have all stated with one voice that Peter’s declaration of faith was a later addition. It clearly served the purposes of the church community long after Christ’s public ministry came to an abrupt end. Meier’s research alone makes that quite clear. And Meier has forgotten more than I will ever know.”
“You’re quite sure of that, are you?” Monsignor Todd continued to smile indulgently.
While Monsignor Todd leaned forward, continuing to study the handout, Father Mark – Dorothy observed – leaned back so that Todd could not see his face and gave the young priest a wink. Patting Monsignor Todd on the shoulder, he then said, “The methods of historical criticism are, of course, indispensable. The trouble comes when trying to convey their conclusions to the laity. Were you able to offer any helpful commentary, so the class might properly interpret the meaning of the text? If I remember correctly, Meier conjectured that Christ may actually have made this statement to Peter after the resurrection.”
Edward continued – not as one speaks with friends, but as one who refrains from giving away his entire hand in a game of poker.
He reached for a fry and chewed on it slowly. “Well, Bultmann – as you know, Mark – considered the literary genre proper to the Gospels to be folk tales. Myths which developed during the forty years between the Crucifixion and the writing of Mark’s Gospel. Even popular writers like Karen Armstrong are quite comfortable with the notion that the Incarnation and the miracle accounts are legendary.”
Dorothy felt a chill run down her arms and into her fingers. Her mind provided translation: In other words, Jesus never rose from the dead. Nobody’s sins are forgiven. Those times I ran to the front of the church, answered the altar call – I just burned a few calories.
In all her years, she had never heard such calmly rendered blasphemy.
She felt drawn to this young priest – all black and blasphemy. There was a kind of vertigo in her mind, like a pleasing beer buzz.
Monsignor Todd the Mole reached out one hand as if to touch Edward’s arm, but stopped an inch or two short.
“Edward, if I may,” he began with a touch of embarrassment. “As you know, I taught seminary for many years. If I may say so, there’s the higher criticism and then there’s the higher criticism.” He grinned sheepishly. “In one version, there is an a priori predisposition to reject the supernatural. Before any scholarly work begins, the miraculous elements in scripture are regarded as unscientific, impossible, the stuff of legend. Now, according to the methods of historical criticism, any demarcation between history and legend should be apparent in the form of the text. History and legend, in other words, should present differing literary approaches. But this is not the case here. A text in which Jesus reproves the Pharisees and a text in which Jesus performs a miracle – the form of both is entirely the same. There is no mention of once upon a time. So how does one declare the miracle legendary and the rebuke of the Pharisees historical? It must be on the basis of criteria outside the purview of historical-critical method. Don’t you think?”
“Not exactly,” Edward replied readily. “Source criticism would propose that the early church community needed to bolster their ecclesiology. So they created the text.”
“But the theory proposed by source criticism is conjecture, wholly imaginary. On the other hand, we actually possess the text itself as testimony that the event took place as described. The text trumps conjecture. Unless you reject the supernatural from the start.”
The monsignor sat back, shrugged, and raised his arms in affable disagreement. There was a certain energy in his approach, a kind of love for truth which Dorothy had sensed in the ministers from her childhood. On the other hand, there was no reproach in his argument. He was a good man, Dorothy decided, perhaps even a humble man. She actually felt a certain warm glow around her heart.
She nodded silently.
He would be the first to die.
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