[Re-posted from earlier today]
So there we were this morning, on a summery day, surrounding a coffin, offering prayers. David’s evangelical Christianity was omnipresent – and a cultural novelty for me, as a Catholic. First off, the coffin was never laid into the earth. It stayed there and remained there as we left. Were his very young kids the reason? I didn’t ask. But in this letting go, dirt was not shoveled or thrown over the casket, which was closed. We left it hanging. Rather, at the very end of the day’s festivities – and they were festive, not funereal – we all let go of balloons into the sky. They drifted upward, looking like little sperms, with wiggling trails of ribbon beneath them, looking for a heavenly egg.
I saw John DiIulio and his wife, Joe and Victoria Klein, along with Ralph Reed, who visited David in his final agonies, along with many of David’s uniquely eclectic posse. The service was in David’s evangelical mega-church, and infused with the surety of physical resurrection. The idea of our getting new bodies in Heaven – perfect bodies without tumors or HIV or wrinkles – has always seemed a little strange to me. If it’s true, then it must be a very different kind of existence. I remember after my friend Pat died of AIDS that I had one searing dream about him, in which he seemed extremely real, completely recognizable, yet utterly different in appearance: transfigured, but still Patrick. Perhaps that also accounts for the bewildering variety of the accounts of the risen Jesus in the New Testament. But it may also be our refusal to see the person in his or her final form: sometimes, as with AIDS, awfully deformed, or with a brutal brain tumor like David’s, wracked with pain, his face aged not just by time but by disease. We want these things not to continue. We want our dead friends and family to be remembered in the best of their prime, as if they were photo-shopped by Vogue.
I have never been to a mega-church service – which is something to be ashamed of, since I have written so often about evangelicalism’s political wing. And it was revealing. The theater was called a sanctuary – but it felt like a conference stage. There were no pews, no altar (of course), just movie-theater seats, a big complicated stage with a set, and four huge screens. It looked like a toned-down version of American Idol. I was most impressed by the lighting, its subtlety and professionalism (I’ve often wondered why the Catholic church cannot add lighting effects to choreograph the Mass). The lyrics of the religious pop songs – “hymns” doesn’t capture their Disney channel infectiousness – were displayed on the screens as well, allowing you to sing without looking down at a hymnal. Great idea. And the choir was a Christian pop band, young, hip-looking, bearded, unpretentious and excellent. Before long, I was singing and swaying and smiling with the best of them. The only thing I couldn’t do was raise my hands up in the air.
This was not, in other words, a Catholic experience. But it was clearly, unambiguously, a Christian one.
There was little sadness – and no purgative drunken wake. We were told not to wear suits and dark clothes, so the crowd was in greens and blues and whites (Joe bought a special pink plaid number just for the occasion). And the reason for this was quite obvious: almost everyone there, including myself, were completely sure that a) David was still there and b) his death was something to be celebrated if you loved him. He was certainly looking forward to it. His extraordinary wife, Kim, was effervescent and stunning in a white dress. She has been through hell and back several times in the last decade. And yet she wore that toll lightly today. The tears were for another time. The sobs for another one too.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that so many of us have come to view evangelical Christianity as threatening, and in its political incarnation, it is at times. But freed from politics, evangelical Christianity has a passion and joy and Scriptural mastery we could all learn from. The pastors were clearly of a higher caliber than most of the priests I have known – in terms of intellect and command. The work they do for the poor, the starving, and the marginalized in their own communities and across the world remains a testimony to the enduring power of Christ’s resurrection.
In some way, this was David’s last gift to me. His own unvarnished, embarrassingly frank belief helped me get over my prejudices against evangelicalism as a lived faith. His faith strengthened mine immeasurably, especially when we were among the first two to bail on the Bush administration in its first term. It was not a shock that his last day above the ground opened up more windows and doors in my mind. He doubtless hoped it would.
I feel no grief. I remain, as someone once said, surprised by joy.
(Photo: Carl Court/AFP/Getty.)