Inferno, The Birth of Christine 


Christine Messner was a large baby, nearly ten pounds, and Selma was in labor with her for twenty-seven hours. Zachariah forbade her from accepting anything for the pain, owing to Genesis 3:16, so Selma was in quite a bit of distress throughout. While the doctors had not known the gender, based on how much weight Selma had gained, she and Zachariah assumed the child would be a boy. 

When she learned she had a girl and Zachariah had left the hospital, Selma took this as a bad sign. She wondered if, perhaps, her husband had done the math, or if, maybe the news that his new child wasn’t the son he had prayed for so vigorously throughout her pregnancy was too much for Messner to bear. In any event, his lack of enthusiasm signaled to Selma that the worst was still to come. 

She had to call her brother Alvin to come pick her up and take her and the baby home. As she expected, Zachariah wasn’t there. He was most likely at work or the church, which is where she could count on him being when he wasn’t at home. 

In fact, Zachariah had taken a drive into Macon to a strip club he sometimes visited when he felt he needed to renew his purpose. He wasn’t titillated by the dancers or their bodies and never interacted with them. He just sat away from the action, observing, judging, filling his mind with images of fire and brimstone, and all the inhabitants swimming in a lake of fire. If he ordered any food, he’d pay for it without leaving a tip then venture forth, back into his existence fueled by his hatred and disgust. 

See, Zachariah had already determined that he hated the girl. He knew this from the moment the words left the nurse’s lips at the hospital. His hatred for her knew no depths, but he chose to take a pragmatic approach to the situation and ask himself why God had chosen to test him in this manner. He resolved that he would not be found lacking and at first, imagined himself some evening after Selma had gone to bed, placing a pillow over the child’s face and holding it there as she stopped squirming. As he drove, however, a new idea replaced this one. Smothering her would be too kind, too easy, and he wanted to be sure nothing for her would ever be easy. 

Inferno 


Zachariah Messner was a stern and pious man, a deacon at the Messianic Holiness Congregation, a small church in Houston County, Georgia, near Perry, with no known affiliations to any of the recognized Christian denominations. A man with few pleasures in life, he believed himself to be head of his household and insisted his wife arise at least a half hour before him to start breakfast and would not allow a morsel to be consumed before the morning prayer was said. He started and ended each day with a reading of the Bible, and was always mindful of how those around him perceived his and his family’s actions. Those who knew him often commented on his steadfastness and piety. He clung to his beliefs, not because he felt them in his heart, but because they made the world manageable for him.

In this same congregation, was another deacon, James Frederick, and there was no one more different than Messner. Frederick was a jovial man, who enjoyed the presence of others and made those with whom he interacted feel comfortable and more certain in their beliefs. While Messner was rigid and unyielding in his faith, Frederick could read between the lines and recognized the subtle shades of gray that existed in all interactions. One could claim Frederick’s motto was “always forgive” while Messner’s was “never forget”. Frederick also opened each day with a prayer, but while Messner’s tended to be shallow and self-serving, Frederick concentrated on those in the congregation most in need of guidance and assistance. Needless to say, the two were frequently at odds over church doctrine, with Frederick an unapologetic believer in the Apostle Paul’s message of love and fellowship, while Messner called for a rigid adherence to dogma.

In his thirties, Messner met and married Mylene Tucker, an attractive woman twelve years his junior, with a good heart and a pleasant disposition which contrasted sharply with that of her husband. Despite this, their marriage seemed happy as they anticipated starting a family. Within a few months, Mylene announced she was pregnant, but just two months in, she miscarried. Nevertheless, the couple persisted and six months after her first conception, Mylene was expecting another. This one, too, ended abruptly, establishing a pattern that would recur again and again. As it became a predictable occurrence, Messner took to blaming Mylene, attributing her inability to carry a child on some moral failing he had yet to ascertain. Her once cheery disposition withered, as Zachariah found more and more ways in which she failed in her devotion.

The end finally came in the ninth year of their marriage. Zachariah found some lipstick she had purchased and severely chastised her for catering to her vanity. She swore she only did it to help out her friend who was selling cosmetics, and had no intention of using it. Still, Messner was merciless in his condemnation, and ordered her to spend the day reading the Bible and atoning for her selfishness. That evening, when Messner arrived home, he found Mylene dead in the bathtub having cut her throat using one of his straight razors. On the mirror, written in the lipstick, were the words, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit”. Messner wasn’t long in finding another wife and less than four months after burying Mylene, he married Selma, the thirty-five-year-old spinster sister of Alvin Porter.

Theirs wasn’t a particularly loving marriage. For one thing, changing wives had not changed Messner’s fortunes in starting a family. Just as Mylene before her, Selma endured numerous difficult pregnancies, which all ended within the first two to three months. Rather than look inward and wonder if, perhaps, he was the cause, Messner instead blamed Selma’s lack of devotion on their misfortunes. As a result, Selma became despondent, and finally sought out Deacon Frederick for advice and counsel. He invited her to his home so he could counsel her in private. After this had gone on two or three times a week for nearly a month, Selma once again found she was pregnant. When she made it past four months, Messner’s spirits were raised, and when Selma made it to term, Zachariah was certain the Lord had finally given him the son he hoped to mold into the perfect Christian warrior.

At last, Selma announced the time was at hand and Messner drove her to the regional medical center, where he waited in the maternity ward for news. Finally, a nurse emerged and called his name.

“Congratulations, Mr. Messner. You have a daughter.”

“A girl,” Zachariah said with little enthusiasm.

“That’s right.”

Zachariah took in the news, shook his head and walked out of the hospital. Selma named the girl Christine.

Mockingbird, Brian

Mockingbird Title Image
Brian Sanger sits in the Starbucks at 1776 Peachtree Street, halfway through a venti, black, dark-roast, Ethiopian coffee, and an almond scone, and looks over a piece of music he’s composing. He typically prefers Caribou to Starbucks, but has no car, since his was totaled in an accident early the previous year, and doesn’t live close enough to the Caribou at Ansley to pop in whenever he feels like it, plus, he’s hooked on the Blue Note blend his friend, Claire Belmonte, convinced him to try a week or so before. He can easily walk from his apartment to the Starbucks on Peachtree, near Coach and Six where he works as a maitre’d, so he stops in every few days to stock up on coffee, try out whatever dark roast they’ve brewed up that day, and work on his music. Certain days, Claire joins him if she’s worked a club nearby.

When Brian arrived in Atlanta, the Braves were in the middle of their “worst to first” season and the city had won the privilege of hosting the Olympics the previous year. While he never considered himself much of a sports fan, aside from high school football games he had to attend with the band, he found himself getting caught up in the fervor surrounding the team, but usually couldn’t afford to attend games, instead watching them when they were on the television at bars he inhabited. He was glad the Major League strike ended the previous season and is happy to be supporting the team again.

In addition to becoming a baseball fan, Brian has spent much of his first first few years in town familiarizing himself with the gay scene in Atlanta and it was here he met Claire, who had gone to work as a bartender at his favorite hangout as soon as she turned twenty-one in ’94. She explained that she’d been working as a waitress in restaurants and bars while attending junior college and had grown tired of the men hitting on her. In gay clubs, they either left her alone, or chatted her up on the topics of the day while she mixed their drinks. Plus, she found, the older men left better tips.

Almost as if on cue, Claire enters and looks around. Spotting Brian, she gives a quick nod, then stops at his table. Brian regards her as a rather formidable woman, very close to his own height of six foot three inches, and well-proportioned, with long dark hair she usually pulls back, especially if she’s working. Today, she’s letting it flow freely. She doesn’t meet the conventional standards of beauty, but Brian still considers her extremely attractive, with expressive brown eyes and a charming smile she only displays to those she knows well. To everyone else, she’s an ice princess.

“What are you having?” Claire asks.

“Today’s dark roast.”

She seems less than enthused and dumps her bag onto the seat beside Brian and goes to check out the pastry counter.

Claire has a non-distinct “Atlanta” accent, which she’s worked hard to cultivate since she arrived there as a teen, but when she and Brian are together, she ditches it in favor of her original middle Georgia vernacular. She grew up less than fifty miles west of where Brian had been raised, far enough away for it to take coming to Atlanta for them to meet. Claire has quite a complicated past, which she’s been gradually revealing to Brian as he gains her trust. He knows she came from a deeply religious family and can easily imagine what that meant for a young woman coming of age in rural Georgia. Her difficulty in trusting people tells him much of the story. Learning more about what Claire has experienced deepens his conviction to bring his sister Charlotte to Atlanta when she finishes high school, hoping to spare her from the fate of their two sisters, already married and starting families.

Brian is the oldest and only son in his family, raised mostly by their mother after his father died in an accident at the agricultural plant where he’d worked most of his adult life. Brian sang in the choir at his church and was the drum major in his high school marching band, as well as playing in the brass section. He’s also accomplished on the piano and organ. When she was a toddler, Charlotte would sit nearby while he was practicing, enrapt by the music. When she got older, and began exhibiting signs of echolalia, Brian worked with her to help her try to communicate and would intercede when one of their siblings or a kid from school made fun of her. When she started writing lyrics as a teenager, Brian set them to music. His background in music and his involvement in their church made it almost inevitable that he’d be approached about taking over the choir when Gladys Phelps, the previous director, retired at age ninety. It was here where Brian gained the attention of Todd, the son of their pastor, Kenneth Williams.

Growing up, Brian had been in several relationships with much older men, usually under the guise of taking private music lessons or performing odd jobs inside the house, always with the utmost discretion, given that these men had far more to lose than him. Todd was the first person close to Brian’s age who had shown any interest in him, and Brian didn’t know how to interpret that, given that Todd was married and had two little girls at home. Todd had been relentless in his pursuit, however, and finally coaxed Brian into a clandestine relationship, which was mostly carried out at Todd’s house on days when his wife was out running errands or attending church functions. Brian suggested that it might not be the best idea to have their encounters at Todd’s home, but Todd insisted they’d have complete privacy. This proved to be wrong when Todd’s wife, Myra Lynn, showed up unexpectedly, after her women’s devotional group ended early, having found the book of Revelation too cryptic to be digested in a two-hour lunchtime conversation. After most of the screaming and yelling had devolved into tears and apologies, during which time Brian hastily pulled on his clothes, he bowed politely to the couple and excused himself with, “I’ll just be on my way now.”

Two hours later, when the call came from Pastor Williams, Brian had already written his letter resigning as choir director, and packed his bags, and loaded up his car, since he knew it was probably best not to stick around. He gave his mother a somewhat expanded explanation about what had happened after she’d already heard an abbreviated version from the pastor, and left a letter for Charlotte, letting her know he’d stay in touch, and renewing his promise to bring her to Atlanta when she graduated. Once his meeting with the pastor was concluded, he hit I-16 west toward Macon, and from there, took I-75 north to Atlanta.

The End of History 

While many might believe life on Earth would be simpler if we could all be brought together under a single, unifying philosophy, no one can come to any sort of agreement on what that should be. Every social, political, economic, and religious movement since the dawn of civilization has sought to unite people under a common set of beliefs, or economic system, or way of life. Utopian movements speak of such a time, when everyone finally agrees on a guiding set of principles as the end of history. This does not mean the end of human advancement, just the end of our struggles to find a system which best promotes that advancement.

Few can doubt that the old order is swiftly passing away and a new one is taking its place, but rather than controlling how the future will develop, I see people like the current administration in the US as a catalyst for finally destroying what’s left of the old ways of thinking. They’re the last gasp of the tribal mentality dying out. Once they and their cronies are done, it’s up to the enlightened throughout the world to pick up the pieces of what’s left and start over.

We are seeing, on the world stage, the beginnings of a global movement aimed at protecting the environment, insuring peace and prosperity for all, encouraging women and protecting them from such brutal practices as enforced marriage and genital mutilation, and respecting individual rights and beliefs. We need to take the initiative to insure that what develops promotes the goal of uplifting and empowering all people. Philosophies such as that of the Taliban, which holds that it’s okay to shoot a teenaged girl in the face for wanting an education, are so abhorrent that they deserve no place in the discussion, and humanity will be best served when such ideas are wiped from the face of the Earth.

Race, religion, politics, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status, are all used to exclude people. Remove these as barriers and we all have a seat at the table. The truth is constantly being revealed to us. It’s not written in any particular book nor does it come from any particular period of world history, but it’s always there, always speaking to us in everything that exists, and all that occurs. We should stop assuming any one set of beliefs should predominate and start embracing the uniqueness of each individual. In a universe of infinite possibilities, we exist. We should strive to make the most of this opportunity.

Here and Now


I was raised in a conservative Christian household, in an evangelical church, in the Southern United States, in the 60s and 70s. It’s doubtful anyone can tell me anything about Jesus I haven’t already heard. People ask when and why I lost my faith and my response is, I didn’t. I never really had any faith to lose. It’s easy to believe in a concept when one is only presented with a single point of view and simply accepts what one is told, and I did. People I respected and admired helped to form the basis for my initial “faith” and I had no reason to question what they told me. Once I started to scratch the surface, however, what I thought was my faith started to evaporate.

I have heard the explanations and the arguments in favor of a benevolent father figure watching over us, and I have rejected them. The universe is a vast and chaotic place which exhibits no signs of enforced order. I came to this conclusion totally on my own, of my own free will, and based on many observations with much study and contemplation on my part. My mind is my own and I take responsibility for the decisions I make. While I have read much on the subject from many diverse sources, I chose the lessons I took from those sources. I accept nothing at face value, and know that each person has his or her own perspectives, biases, thoughts, feelings, and limitations which color how he or she sees the world.

I believe all “holy” texts to be the work of the people, mostly men, who produced them, and were developed to serve a particular community at a particular time and place. According to the strictures of human nature, they are affected by the limitations and biases of those people. It’s dubious to accept a piece of literature as “the truth” when we are several thousand years removed from the original context in which it was written, and not reading it in its original format or language. What we call “The Bible”, for instance, has been edited and reedited throughout its existence and translated into languages that didn’t even exist at the time of its original conception. The translations with which we’re most familiar often come from translations of the original source material which has been lost to history. Faith in such a text means faith that every single individual or group who wrote, rewrote, edited, translated, or transcribed it always did so perfectly and without ulterior motives. Since humans are fallible, the work they produce cannot be without errors even if they believe it to be divinely inspired.

I believe that most creatures have some form of consciousness, but humans have developed a method of recognizing and documenting it. Anyone who has an animal in his or her household can attest to the fact that animals dream, and respond to those dreams. Do they recognize them as dreams, however? Humans do. We also have the capacity to examine the world around us and draw conclusions based on those observations. Despite this, we leave far too much to chance, hoping for a desired outcome, when, with a little ingenuity on our part, we could have more easily defined results. Science is one such method for insuring more predictable outcomes, yet many dismiss science or ignore its conclusions when they don’t match with a given set of beliefs.

If the conclusions of many contemporary religions are correct, then the only purpose for our lives on this Earth is to be tested to demonstrate our worthiness for entering heaven. Much like the Green Stamps my mother used to collect when I was a child, we’re storing up our thoughts and deeds in order to cash in when we get to the next world. To believe this, however, runs the risk of making life on this Earth totally meaningless in and of itself. I believe if we can train ourselves to live in the here and now, not focusing on some imagined future nor worrying about mistakes from the past, we may find a level of contentment we never before knew existed.

The Bible Tells Me So


Some years ago, the Reader’s Digest caused quite a stir by issuing a condensed version of the Bible. Televangelists were up in arms, some going so far as to burn the book and calling for an all out boycott of the Reader’s Digest organization. Despite all the outrage, no one seems to care that there are numerous versions of the Protestant Bible, different translations, different interpretations, different concordances, each of which alters the meaning of the text, sometimes significantly. Many still view the authorized King James Bible as the official version, totally ignoring that it was based on Greek and Latin texts which may not have agreed with one another.

Marcion, an early Christian leader with Gnostic leanings, in the second century, made one of the first attempts at organizing a canonical version of the Bible. His list included mostly Gospels and Epistles and none of the Hebrew scriptures. While his version was never considered authoritative by the emerging Western Church, it served as the scripture for his congregations for several centuries, and Marcion is credited among those who began the discussions that led to the Christian canon being formalized. Thomas Jefferson compiled his own condensed version of the Bible that included the sayings of Jesus and rejected books such as Revelation, which he described as “the ravings of a maniac”.

Scholars agree that the earliest versions of most of the Gospels were written in Greek, a language neither Jesus nor his closest followers spoke or wrote. This would not have been unusual for the time, since only the most educated and specially-trained in society would have been able to write in Latin or Greek and most people spoke in the dialects common to the region in which they lived. Scholars have also noted many changes, transcription errors, and additions common among different texts of the same Gospel. Mark, for instance, in its familiar format, has sixteen lines added to the end of it that don’t appear in the earliest known versions, and once had a secret version that included extra lines, which was written about by early church fathers who considered it problematic but nonetheless regarded it as authoritative. The Gnostics claimed Mark had three versions, the commonly known version, the secret version, and an oral version Mark would only share directly with believers.

For many Christians in the United States, the English translation of the Protestant Bible is considered to be the inerrant word of God. This is despite the fact that the English language as we know it was not spoken by anyone when the material that made it into the Bible was being written and compiled. There is significant evidence to show that the works in the Bible are not rendered in their original form. One such example can be found in Richard Elliot Friedman’s work, The Hidden Book in the Bible, which recreates what Friedman has called the world’s first novel, that was chopped up and dispersed throughout the early books of the Old Testament. The Bible itself speaks of its incomplete nature, citing in Kings and Chronicles the very works on which these summaries are based and referring readers to them, and in other places, mentioning sources that are now lost to modern readers.

With any translation there are two problems to confront: comprehension, or, does the translator understand the material he or she is reading, and interpretation, is the translator accurately conveying what the material is saying. Translating from Spanish to Italian, for instance, may not yield many overt problems, because the languages are similar and come from the same root, Latin. Translating from Spanish into German will most likely pose more problems, since the languages have very little in common. Even so, the material being translated can have a huge impact on how successful the translation will be. A shipping list of common household items will likely be easier to translate than an epic poem, since objects are much easier to describe than ideas.

The task is compounded by cultural differences. People who live in a land-locked mountainous region are likely to have ideas and concepts that would be foreign to coastal, seafaring people, even if they speak the same language. If one is trying to convey a concept to someone unfamiliar with it, it’s helpful to have concepts with which to compare it, and it’s not always possible to find a reliable comparison. Perhaps the mountain dwellers have a word to describe the sound the wind makes as it rustles through the trees. Relaying that word to the seafarers will tell them what it means, but simply knowing the meaning would not convey the memories or sensations the mountain dwellers invoke when using it. Another example would be equating the Jewish concept of a Messiah, that is a ruler from the Davidic line of kings with the Pagan concept of the Christ, a dying and resurrected savior-king such as Attis.

The people who wrote and compiled the Bible lived in a much different world, under vastly different circumstances than we do. Ideas and concepts we take for granted would be as foreign to our ancestors as theirs would seem to us. We have their static words, but not how they used their language for day to day affairs, or to communicate important beliefs or rituals. Words can sometimes lose certain nuances when written rather that spoken, as anyone who has ever misread a text or Internet post can attest. Since many of the stories which comprise the Bible started out as oral folklore, how the storyteller told the story was often as important as the words being said. Describing a leader as “great” has a different meaning if the person saying it has a sarcastic edge to his or her voice and unless this delivery is recorded with the words, the meaning will be lost. Since we were not present to hear how these stories were told, we cannot be certain how they were intended. Finally, people in a culture can develop shorthand in communicating where they leave out concepts that are generally accepted in their society, assumptions a native would know without being told. Our society takes cars for granted. If we’re communicating with an isolated tribe in the Amazon which has mostly been shielded from modern technology, telling them we “drove” someplace won’t have much meaning for them.

One cannot claim the Bible is the inerrant word of God when there are multiple official versions of the Bible that are accepted as authoritative and which do not always agree with one another. If the Protestant Bible is the inerrant word of God, then how does one assess the Catholic Bible, which is older, contains more material, and which includes the Septuagint, which was the authoritative Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures for several centuries, up to and including the time of Jesus. While one can isolate portions of the Bible which may have sprung from what seemed to be divine inspiration, such as the Psalms, or Ecclesiastes, there are many more portions that exhibit obvious editorial oversight, such as the book of Judges, which constantly reminds its readers that the stories took place before Israel had a king. Mark is believed by most scholars to have been the first Gospel and was the basis for Matthew and Luke. In his Gospel, Matthew corrects instances where Mark erred, such as in relating the pronunciation of Jesus’ final words on the cross, or when Mark, not familiar with the geography of Judea, got place names wrong. Apparently the author of Matthew did not regard the author of Mark as infallible.

Real Bible Studies: Genesis, The Birth of Isaac


Throughout the book of Genesis, YHWH has been telling Abraham that his descendants will one day possess the land of Canaan, which usually meets with skepticism from Abraham. His sometimes sister, sometimes wife, Sarah, is barren and said to be well beyond the age when women could produce children. YHWH has gone so far as to change Abraham and Sarah’s names, and introduce the ritual of circumcision to Abraham to prove he means business. In Genesis 21, YHWH walks the walk instead of just talking the talk, and Sarah conceives and gives birth to a son, who they name Isaac. Abraham is said to be one hundred years old at the time, so we must assume Sarah is close to that age, since she’s been with him all along.

Of course, nowadays, we know one hundred year old women are no longer capable of giving birth, and most would have no intentions to do so if they could. Assuming she was a legend and not a myth, Sarah was probably in her early to mid-50s, a considerably advanced age for a woman of that time, and would have been perceived as too old to give birth, though it is still a possibility at that age. Genesis later records that Sarah dies before Abraham, and given how difficult childbirth is for a woman of any age, the rigors of a nomadic lifestyle, in addition to her advanced age would have made the process much more hazardous. Why it was deemed necessary to wait so long is one of the enduring mysteries of Genesis. In all probably, the story that’s recorded was influenced by the legend of Abraham fathering a child at an advanced age, which suggests Ishmael and Isaac may not have been his only offspring, since prominent men were allowed to have as many wives and concubines as they could support, and Abraham is constantly said to be one of the most prominent. It’s unlikely he was really one hundred, since the life expectancy wasn’t more than forty to fifty, and his many swashbuckling adventures, such as saving Lot, would have meant that he’d have needed to be exceptionally spry for his age, but he could have been in his sixties or seventies, which might have seemed like a hundred to people not accustomed to living past forty.

Speaking of Ishmael, the birth of Isaac creates problems for him and his mother Hagar. Genesis tells us Sarah catches Ishmael “mocking” during the celebration of Isaac’s circumcision. She orders Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, and Abraham isn’t happy about it, until he receives word from YHWH that Ishmael will also be the progenitor of a significant tribe, just for being Abraham’s son. Abraham gives them some provisions and water and they wander out into the desert. When the water runs out, Hagar puts Ishmael under a bush and moves some distance away from him, so she doesn’t have to watch him die. YHWH hears Ishmael crying and sends an angel to tell Hagar everything will be okay, then leads her to a well. Later, Hagar finds him a bride from among the Egyptians. From here on, we’re done with Ishmael until Abraham dies.

Abraham’s old pal Abimelek makes another appearance. Readers will recall that when these two met in the previous chapter, Abimelek tried to take Sarah as his wife, believing her to be Abraham’s sister and much younger than she actually is, which prompted a vision from YHWH to tell him it wasn’t such a good idea. Now Abraham approaches Abimelek about a well which is being disputed by some of his people. Abimelek seems stunned to hear about the situation with the well in question and he and Abraham agree to enter into a treaty over it, known as the Treaty of Beersheba. Finished bestowing Abraham with another sweet deal over water rights, Abimelek heads out with his army commander back to his kingdom. Abraham plants a tamarisk tree, and calls on the Eternal God, something we’ve not heard YHWH called in Genesis before, which concludes the episode.

There’s not a lot of obvious embellishment with the story, though some details raise some questions. As previously stated, it’s not clear why it was necessary to constantly remind Abraham that descendants of his, several hundred years in the future, will inherit Canaan. Obviously, readers with several thousand years of hindsight will understand the significance of these promises, but it’s not clear what a nomadic herdsman is supposed to do with the information. Abraham seems to have spent most of his time guiding his sizable flocks and herds throughout the region from Babylon to Egypt, telling people his wife is his sister and using the fallout from it to craft deals for more livestock, water, and grazing lands. He must have been a towering figure in the folklore to occupy such an important place in the history of the Children of Israel, though the stories in Genesis don’t always demonstrate why that is. He has certainly seemed very resourceful and shrewd, and his relationship to YHWH is unparalleled among most in the Bible, with the possible exception of Joseph or David.