Churches

“I am here to run off the pain. I am here to synthercise the demons. I am here to ring the bells of Chvrches,” Billie tweeted in the lobby of the Riverside Theater, attaching a picture of a T-shirt on display at the merchandise table. Covering the chest was a cross turned sideways and X’d through a dark heart, the logo for Chvrches’ latest album, Love is Dead. Billie got a preview of the shirt just hours before at a Qdoba in South Milwaukee. “Don’t look now,” she whispered to her lunch date, like a character in a Daphne du Maurier story, “but that man is wearing a Chvrches shirt.” The date stopped baling the shredded lettuce of their burrito bowl and stared at her. “What?” Billie was pleased they had obeyed but agitated they were obtuse. “It’s my favorite band and they’re performing in Milwaukee tonight and I am going,” by now both of her hands were splayed on the table, hungry spiders. “Are they a Christian band?” They asked. The spiders twitched. “No,” she replied. “And no.”

“Has no one read Madeline L’Engle? You can’t be a Christian band, just like you can’t be a Christian writer, or a Christian artist,” Billie ranted on a call to her friend Lisa, on the drive back to her office, on and on. “You can be a Christian who has a band, or who writes, or who makes art. In Him we live and move and have our being: Sufjan Stevens talked about this in an interview. It takes the pressure off, it puts us in perspective.” There was a pause, then Lisa replied: “You know, Billie, it sounds like you really haven’t given this enough thought.” They both laughed, then there was another pause. “I just,” Billie picked at her steering wheel cover, “wish you were coming tonight.” Lisa sighed, “So do I.”

Billie had met Lisa and her husband, Quinn, at their parish, St. Rita, which was hosting a neighborhood association meeting in the basement. Lisa looked like a business casual version of Watts in Some Kind of Wonderful and Quinn’s face was the shape of an anime character, though not as expressive. It was only a few years after the subprime mortgage crisis, and unoccupied homes were being ignored, contributing to the decline of value and increasing the crime rate in Milwaukee, particularly in the area south of St. Rita.

The neighborhood association – composed of churches, businesses, nonprofits, residents – was organizing volunteer teams, and attendance was just low enough that to elude participation, or finesse an exit, was impossible. For those reasons, and better ones, Billie, Lisa and Quinn all offered to be on the home evaluation team; once a month, they received a list of residential addresses. They were supposed to visit during the day and circle the house, tracking its maintenance; instead, they cruised by at night, with one driving, one describing anything that seemed shifty and the other writing it down.

Following a few months of perfecting this system, they added to it: drinks afterward at Quinn and Lisa’s condo, which was built in the late ‘70s and had so many half walls and wide doorways that you could see a bit of every room from nearly every spot in the place. Soon, Billie was invited to a party, and then another, until she realized that Lisa didn’t actually like the condo unless it was being used as a venue.

The dining room always became the dance floor, with Lisa as playlister, mixing until everyone was whipped into a frenzy. Prior to every party, Quinn and Billie conspired to suggest multiple Chrvches songs each, in an attempt to force Lisa to include several, but she always stopped at two. “One per customer,” she would declare. When Chvrches came on, Quinn and Billie came on. People gave the floor, and if they didn’t, it was taken. Billie frequently needed more than one floor, more than one room, to fully express how wide and long and high and deep the songs made her feel; or rather, how much they sounded made of her feelings.

“[They] take a highly personal sense of turmoil,” Larry Fitzmaurice wrote in his review of their debut album, “and blow it up onto an arena-sized screen.” That turmoil was strong in Quinn, and though there were hints here and there, always at the parties, Billie didn’t quite heed them, or perhaps, didn’t want to? It was easy to assume that he’d drank too much. Lisa made assumptions for years, most of them pardoning Quinn and condemning herself: this was just how men were, she was just too disordered for a relationship, it was just a phase, if she just gave it more time, he was just upset, he was just so sorry. Until one night, when Lisa realized that sorry wasn’t sorry, it was sort of a bad doctor’s note, shown over and over again, excusing the sickness, establishing it as to be expected, exempting it from treatment.

After that night, Lisa moved out, and Quinn moved in on his friends, including Billie. But no matter how he moved, he remained at the center. Any fault was Lisa’s, any pain was his. In her mind, Billie kept seeing a book in her father’s office library, yellow with black lettering: People of the Lie: Toward a Psychology of Evil by M. Scott Peck. She hadn’t read it in over a decade.

Searching online, she found a list of patterns that Peck associated with evil and lost hope as they seemed more and more recent and familiar: consistently self-deceives and, consequently, deceives others; projects their sin onto a specific target; is unable to see from the viewpoint of their victim. “[God] said, ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’ By this statement – so often quoted out of context – Jesus did not mean we should never judge our neighbor,” Peck writes. “He went on to say, ‘Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ What he meant was that we should judge others only with great care, and that such carefulness begins with self-judgment.”

Billie saw herself in Quinn, a self that she had judged – in her writing, in counseling, in misty-eyed, tight-throated conversations with confidantes – but she could not stop judging it now: the self that, when others were complimented, felt insulted; wanted to be great more than good; traipsed after chastity while looking back at whomever had just whistled; high on oneself, the center of gravity, toppling over, pulled downward.

“Forever” had been one of their favorite tracks, and now, as the lead singer Lauren Mayberry sang it in that “cutting, aching, triumphant, fragile, and weightless” voice, Billie remembered dancing to it with Quinn, thrashing her hair with each forever; the chorus was all forevers. He bought the tickets for the three of them months and months ago. When Lisa decided on a divorce the day before the concert, Quinn e-mailed the general admission ticket to Billie, along with “I don’t want to see you.” The feeling was mutual, but it was not the only feeling; there were others, and they were phantoms, gliding through Billie, resisting grasp, every one sad.

On each side of the stage was a lit cross, tilted sideways, making an X. At the right moment, Mayberry leaned against one with the weight of her entire body and glared at the audience, as if daring them. Billie took a picture and texted it to Lisa. Between every song, she texted, urgently, tersely, as if the concert would no longer exist if it was not made text. The encore was “Never Say Die.”

Weren’t you gonna be sorry and weren’t you gonna be pure?
Weren’t we gonna be honest and weren’t we gonna be more?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?
Didn’t you say that? Didn’t you say that?

Billie exchanged numbers with some cute guy who had stood next to her; she would not call him. Walking down the aisle, she occasionally paused to pick up trash, baffled as to why people did that. Where did they expect it to go? In the lobby, she considered the T-shirt again, but it was just too expensive, so she walked into the night, the crowd behind and before her, until they weren’t anymore. At an intersection, in her periphery, it appeared as if a man wearing one of Quinn’s hoodies was waiting for the walk signal to change. She didn’t turn.

Theodicy

God is good.

I rehearse this, in my mind, trying different readings. None of them are believable.

God is sometimes good.

Like a traffic light is sometimes green? How automatic, even arbitrary.

God can be good.

This seems better; after all, if you undercase the first letter and add an “o” in the middle, God can be good.

I have a conflict of interest. I have accepted gifts from God my whole life…an otter keychain (with real fake fur – I found it on the ground somewhere when I was a kid. I put it on my key ring – which at the time was all keychains and no keys – for a long while, at least as long as I refused to wear jeans because they weren’t comfortable), and parents to rejoice in my adoption of this miniature mammal, and enough food to feed him, and a bedside table to put him on, and a bed to fall asleep in as I stared at him, deciding the next day’s adventures.

What about the other ones. The ones who only see the back of God’s head as He’s watching a movie. A movie about their struggle. They try to tap him on the shoulder, but they can’t reach, they try to scream, but their voice is snuffed out. The prisoner who races in pale terror to tell a guard an inmate is trying to rape him, only to hear the vacant response: “just let him. Get it over with.” The young woman held captive by her father, physically, emotionally, sexually abused into believing that he is a godly man.

This is not “the problem of evil,” which makes it sound like something that can be calmed by calculators, or rational conversation. This is just incomprehensible. How can He watch this movie? How could He allow this movie to be made?

I don’t know. So I ask Mindy, a friend who’s done everything, and had everything done to her, and still came to the God conclusion.

“What do you think about God and evil?”

“God and evil?”

“Why does he allow it? How can they co-exist?”

She pauses, then mumbles thoughtfully, “God and evil. All right, let’s get to it.” She looks out the window. “If God…if God stopped people from killing and raping and stealing, then…we’d all be mechanics.”

I look at her. “Mechanical?” I ask.

“Yeah, right. And if he stopped people from killing one another, there’d be overpopulation.”

“Oh.”

“But it’s wicked,” she says, and her remaining teeth put aside their differences and work together to form a smile.