By Tommy Airey
“The time has come, God knows, for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”—James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name (1961)
“…and a little child shall lead them.”—Isaiah 11:6b
Warning: this essay contains graphic language that may be unsuitable for some adults.
On this date, exactly a year ago, Lindsay and I found ourselves on ancient Chumash land, now called “the central coast of California.” We took the shuttle up to Hearst Castle, the 40,000 acre “ranch” built for newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst and his wife, five sons and mistress. Early in the tour, our six-year-old nephew creatively resisted his boredom by making a game of how many nude statues he could find along the way. He was particularly fond of the penises, which made him giggle uncontrollably.
Almost immediately, Riley started recruiting us into his game. He brought attention to the omni-present penises by whisper-yelling one of our names and pointing with his index finger as close as he possibly could to the exposed genitals. Hey, Aunt Linds! Look, a penis! He pointed like he was preparing to stab it. Like he was going to skewer it and put it on the grill. It was obvious that he wanted to touch them so badly, but his mom was adamant that whatever he did on that tour, he’d better not touch anything. Especially the penises. His absolute favorites were the naked baby statues, which he would announce in an even louder whisper, Baby Penis!
Nephew Riley’s playful distraction was an act of resistance. There we were. The adults. Listening intently to old myths about the hard-working Capitalist who made it big last century. The indoor pool. The tennis courts. The movie theater. The exotic wildlife. The celebrity friends. The palatial guest rooms. The panoramic views. Meanwhile, Riley made damn sure that we would not miss the real action. And that we would never forget. There were penises on the property too. A whole fucking lot of them. A genital amusement park! Exposed for the world to see. Why would you pay good money to take a 15-minute shuttle up from Pacific Coast Highway on a brilliant, 60-degree cloudless January day? To see the penises, of course.
Riley’s game of penis hide-and-go-seek now serves as a parable for my own spiritual practice in 2020. Let’s finally face it: the conventional tour of America’s greatness is killing us. The myths and assumptions must be exposed. I don’t really mind the political polarization. It’s the propaganda coming at us from the three major brands of Whiteness that is grinding my soul into brick dust. While Evangelicals go down their Fox News holes, liberals go on clinging to clichés about kindness, diversity and tolerance. They claim that “love” is all you need. And vote for Biden because he’s the only one who can win. Because, you know, America’s not ready for a woman or a Socialist. The remainder of the white population seems totally committed to blocking out bad news or anything that might lead to relational tension. The bumper sticker I’ve seen on numerous SUVs this year sums it all up: Good Days Only. In vanilla spaces, the myth of America has never been so popular. Take the shuttle to the top of the hill and soak in the mythical greatness.
The reign of heaven, however, is like a 6-year old calling out penises. While the adults are captivated by deception, distraction and denial, there is a different dynamic percolating from the periphery. It is an alternative tour pointing out the awkward and inconvenient and downright embarrassing. It calls out the circumcised symbols that the colonial script utilizes to cut us off from our humanity. Confronting these scandals often causes shame to shake up white souls shaped by suburban family values and/or Suburban family vehicles. However, the alternative tour need not be a gigantic guilt trip.
This year, I’m committed to having a hell of a lot more fun exposing the myth of America. Let’s boycott the old tour and expose the imperial penises. They are everywhere, right in front of us, poking out scandalously in clear daylight. The big ass cross protruding from the church or hillside. Penis! The flag flying from the front porch or fire truck. Penis! The billboard bulging from the roadside meadow beckoning you to buy shit you don’t need. Penis! The red MAGA hat strapped on to the bald head of Uncle Ted like a misplaced prophylactic. Baby Penis! These aren’t funny, you say? I’m sure that’s exactly what the adults were thinking who paid full price for the Hearst Castle tour while my giggling nephew de-mythologized it.
For a book project on the Bible that I’m currently immersed in, I call this imperial myth-mocking exposé “the conspiracy theory.” It is a prophetic biblical strand that accesses truth, beauty and goodness via an alternative tour of the divine. Far different from the conventional gods of so many of our pastors, priests, parents and presidents. If it’s not the colonial script, then it’s the conspiracy theory. If it’s not sacrifice, it’s mercy. If it’s not profit maximization, it’s daily bread. If it’s not commodity, it’s relationship. If it’s not hierarchy, it’s beloved community. If it’s not the Lord God Almighty, it’s a divinity descending like a dove. If it’s not a flag-waving faith that glues God to patriotism and patriarchy, it’s a whistle-blowing faith that exposes what Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “the giant triplets of evil:” racism, militarism and materialism.
The Bible is dominated by the colonial script, but its pages also offer an alternative tour that calls out phallic fantasies dressed up as divinity. The Hebrew prophets creatively called out the penises all over the place. For those with eyes to see. I call this prophetic spirituality “the conspiracy theory” because most folk struggle to believe in a sacred story that cracks convention. Really? Come on. The crosses and flags and billboards and hats aren’t that destructive, are they? In fact they are. These seemingly harmless props make racism, militarism and materialism palatable for the masses.
The conspiracy theory is that there is a biblical God who is not governed by counterfeit appeals to greatness. The sacred symbols of the colonial script scaffold an unjust status quo by working at the deepest levels of human emotion. They take God’s name in vain. We succumb to their spiritual strength every time we minimize them. Unless we learn to notice and name their presence and power, we will never be able to resist and replace them.
If you made it this far, odds are that you, the reader, are silently questioning my sanity. Predictably, you doubt that William Randolph Hearst would commission that many penises on his property. It’s just hyperbole, you say. Exactly. This is also why I call it “the conspiracy theory.” It’s too incredible to be believable. Trust me: penises are perched all over the property. Please don’t take my word for it though. Go and see for yourself, Thomas. Travel to the central coast of California and take the tour. I know a 1st grader who would be more-than-happy to be your guide.
Tommy Airey (right: with Nephew Riley, lover of all statues) was born and raised on stolen, unceded Acjachemen territory (“Orange County, California”), was transformed by the thin place the Ojibwe, Huron and Odawa call Wawiiatanong (“Detroit River”) and has entered the sacred “hidden waters” the Molalla and Paiute named Towarnehiooks (“Deschutes River, Oregon”). He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.Net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018). He is learning from Nephew Riley how to call out penises that prop up the colonial script.