If you take I-40 up from Asheville to Lexington, near the Tennessee/Kentucky border you will encounter a massive store called “Adult World,” emblazoned with multiple red XXX signs. Just down the road from this store there is a giant white cross.
We were returning from a trip down to Savannah and passed this place by; Josh decided that we were going to stop and take pictures, because it was just too perfect. I certainly didn’t mind; I was in a slightly silly mood that day, and as much as I love my faith and my God, I also love the opportunity to not take either too seriously. Plus, in my inexperienced state, I thought the side trip could perhaps be educational.
We got off the highway at Exit 117; there’s a gas station, a restaurant, Adult World, and the cross. That’s it. As I recall, a dirt road ran up into the hills, but there was no other indication of traffic coming through this little corner of the South except towards the world’s most enormous adult-content store. We pulled into the parking lot and broke out the cameras. Brenton whined about not being able to get the angles right; I pointed out that we were taking a picture of a giant cross next to an equally giant porn store, and that aesthetics didn’t enter into it.
The store itself was not educational after all. I will not disturb you with the details, except to point out the epitomizing characteristic of the place: the men’s restroom was painted pitch black, the paint looking suspiciously recent — and thick. Despite these precautions, some determined fellow had already gotten his phone number up on the wall.
The cross was at least 50 feet tall, and was apparently made out of some relative of aluminum siding. Up close it looked rather cheaply constructed, although sturdy enough. I had to scoff. It was obvious that the cross had been put up in opposition to Adult World, in challenge to the sinfulness of the place. But as far as I could see, all the cross was managing to do was draw in more customers; the irony of it was too powerful a draw. Many college students on a road trip would probably have stopped at Adult World anyway, just for a giggle; the cross essentially made it mandatory.
It was nearing sunset as we got back on the road and drove north. The clouds were pink and gold Chinese dragons in the low light, dancing above the old Appalachian hills. Admiring the sky, I remembered that it was Good Friday.
Good Friday always sneaks up on me. Ash Wednesday is the real surprise, but Holy Week is long enough after it that I forget the calendar again. If I’m lucky I get a reminder on Palm Sunday, but sometimes I can just coast through to the day itself, forgetting.
I was raised a good West Coast Liberal Quaker, so holy days really weren’t in my upbringing. Quakers were established by George Fox, who felt that either all days were holy or none, thought that “church” was a term best applied only to Christendom as whole, and only grudgingly allowed meetings — the substitute term for congregation — to be held weekly on the traditional Sunday. Fox was very much a back-to-basics man who distrusted most of the apparatus of the organized religion of his day, and did away with almost all of it. As such I couldn’t name most of the seasons of the traditional Christian year without a little prompting. Holy Week, according to Fox, is no more holy than the other 51. I think Fox was probably right… but still, there is something fascinating about Holy Week for me. I love the drama of the Easter story too much to simply ignore it.
So I am not entirely a typical Quaker — although the “typical Quaker” is likely a myth. I will at least note Palm Sunday and Maunday Thursday. Easter is, of course, an easy joy. But Good Friday holds my attention like none other.
This is how the story goes:
2000 years ago, give or take a few, a man was executed as a criminal during the festival of Passover, with the cruel and casual efficiency that was the particular Roman blend. He was probably named Yeshua ben Yusef, a native son of the backwater town of Nazareth — although some said he had been born in Bethlehem. He had made at least one prior visit to Jerusalem. He was the son of a simple country carpenter and a young woman, who had probably borne him at the age of sixteen or so. He had become rather highly regarded as a rabbi and a healer, reputedly even curing leprosy, the great plague of his age. The crowd loved his speeches and his cleverness in dealing with the fearful and jealous priests.
But this adoration worried the priests yet more. The rumor was going around that this back-country preacher was going to be acclaimed the Messiah, and his entry into Jerusalem a few days before had certainly shown signs that he was planning a takeover. The priests knew the power of Rome, and had no intention of losing their flock (or their own heads) for the sake of this loose cannon. They were, perhaps, joined in this concern by one of the man’s own disciples, who for love of God or love of money was willing to sell his teacher out. The priests arrested the troublemaker on the not-implausible charge of blasphemy, since everyone was calling him the Son of God. But somewhat to their dismay, they were unable to get him to say anything blasphemous, treasonous, or even mildly irritating in the presence of the local authorities. Eventually the Roman governor was persuaded to hold the man in prison. The rabbi’s disciples were, by and large, nowhere to be found.
The next day, with the utterly reliable fickleness of the mob, the crowd turned against their recent favorite, perhaps motivated by his refusal to sweep away the soldiers with a wave of his hand or do other such tricks. They demanded his crucifixion. As the Romans were used to carrying out executions for even less cause — you don’t get to dominate the known world without getting your hands dirty — the deed was soon done.
Afterward they said that the earth was rocked by a violent quake, that the curtain before the Holy of Holies in the temple was rent from top to bottom, and that the sky turned black for the man’s death. These may have been added to the story for dramatic effect, or perhaps it was just a naturally tumultous day in a geologically active area. But if there ever were a time for the elements to rage, that would have been the moment.
He had come among us to instruct us and to save us, or so we’re told, and he was doing both on Golgotha that day; he had shown us how to live, and then he showed us how to die. He lived as we did and died as we did, so that he would know, with utter clarity, what it is that we suffer.
Of course, the story doesn’t stop there. Inside of three days, the tomb would be empty and the man who was God and the God who was man would be walking in the garden. It would still be possible to dismiss this as simple legend, propaganda thrown up by His disconsolate followers, though the string of astonishingly unlikely conversions that followed the purported resurrection would then be inexplicable.
Personally, as I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t know — or even care — if this tale is true. As for its inner truth, however… well, for that I say the Easter Story is the perfect story. We are storytellers by nature, and this is the tale that we were born to tell. Death and resurrection have been in our stories since long before Golgotha, and we have gone on making stories just like it ever since. The redemptive hero who dies and lives again is at the core of all human myth. The lessons Jesus taught take the common story and make it brighter still.
So: Good Friday matters, even ignoring the question of its literal truth; it matters even to an unconfirmed, untutored Quaker boy like me.
I first learned of Adult World and its attendant cross from Jo, who was my closest friend for a good two or three years in college. Jo lived in Asheville, a town she clearly loved as much as I loved her, and so she passed the incongruous cross innumerable times in her trips back and forth from the North Carolina hills to the Indiana cornfields where we went to school. She told me the story of how the erotic superstore had gone in, and how the local churches had evidently decided that a massive aluminum cross was the best possible response. It was a typical Jo story.
In those days I put more effort and thought into being Christian than I do now, so Jo presented me with a bit of a spiritual dilemma. First, I wanted her rather fiercely, and if she had not gently and immediately turned me down, I would have happily shattered several of the commandments with her, probably without regretting it once.
Second, and of deeper theological significance, Jo was not Christian at all. In fact she had cheerfully accepted her damnation as a given, and had made plans with her friends to hold a barbecue in Hell. As I recall, it was going to be a potluck, and her job was to bring the pickle relish. According to some statements in the Bible and just about every statement on the subject from every established Christian church ever, this meant that she was going to go to Hell, and it would probably be no picnic.
Jo’s no saint. You probably could have neatly tallied up a hundred ways just in her activities of the few years I knew her in which, by the rules in the book, she deserved death and damnation. I was not about to sit by while this happened. On the other hand, I loved her so completely that I could say, without the slightest hesitation, that I would not change a thing about her.
This caught me in a cruel fork. I would not judge her and her actions, and I would never ask her to change anything, let alone convert. Yet according to virtually all the branches of the Christian church, I was obligated to do exactly that if I wanted to see my beloved escape the Devil’s clutches.
With my typical hopeless romanticism and adolescent stubbornness, I responded by deciding that all the branches of the Christian church could go hang, and by coming to the conclusion that if Jo really did need saving, I would go straight to the source. Oh, how I prayed for her! Never once did I pray for her to change. I just wanted God to let her in anyway. I was sure it could be arranged.
The giant white cross bothered me for years. It took me three more Good Fridays to figure out why.
Adult World’s cross was not made from the most expensive materials, but sheer bulk and the strength necessary for the structural integrity of anything fifty feet high must have required considerable money. The money bothered me the most — surely there were people who could have been fed, clothed, and housed using those funds? Considering that the cross seemed singularly ineffective as a deterrent or as a silent call to repentance among Adult World’s clientele, the money seemed particularly ill-spent. The sins committed at or as a result of Adult World do not, in my estimation, require such an extravagant symbol in response. First off, I do not consider sex an automatic sin, and what happens between consenting adults ought to stay there. Moreover, I’ve no doubt that plenty of people shopping at Adult World are not Christian. To their minds, those rules don’t apply to them, and the cross will hardly bring them back. (It would be like expecting Americans to rally around the Soviet flag.) At any rate I will not attempt to compel them to follow our rules, since the acceptance of the Truth must either be entirely voluntary or entirely meaningless. Finally, unless someone was somehow inspired by Adult World to go out and rape — a thing I find a little unlikely, as anyone willing to rape probably needs no inspiration from erotic merchandise — it seems to me that any sins committed as a result of this peculiar store must be entirely personal. Those sins, if indeed they exist, are matters primarily for the sinner and the Almighty. And I have no doubt the Almighty can handle said sins with more grace, skill, and success than the cross-raisers ever could.
Another thing that bothered me was the use of the cross itself. The cross has a magnificent story — once the emblem of criminal behavior and of death, it has been exalted into the symbol of salvation and new life. The crossed beams have been redeemed just as we have. Yet we have somehow cheapened it; it can symbolize harshness, rigidity, and judgment as much as saving grace, and it drives off as many people as it welcomes.
The cross-raisers of the Adult World region certainly reduced its power further. By making the cross so large as to be ridiculous, by positioning it in such obvious and ineffective opposition to the erotic wholesaler, whoever built it turned that particular cross from an object of veneration to a target for mockery. I should know — I’ve done some of the mocking. It was, perhaps, yet another manifestation of that almost maniacal eagerness to be Christian, to be saved, and to be seen as Christian. This spills over into an effort to “save” everyone else, will they or no, that I and so many other people find off-putting. Christians, in their zeal to evangelize and make the world pure, have wound up pushing away many millions simply by not knowing when to shut up. Unwise evangelism does far more harm than good, for no one can be compelled, bribed, or cajoled into a real conversion. The giant aluminum cross of Adult World is much the same. It is loudmouthed. It is ineffective. It is boastful. It is, in some way, silly. It cheapens all Jesus stood for, and undermines all his words.
Finally, on yet another Good Friday, my objections have crystallized. That accusatory cross is an emblem of all that is gone wrong with Christians in this country these days. That cross is the epitome of holier-than-thou. It is the Pharisee praying loudly in public so everyone can see how holy he is. It is the crossed beams in our own eyes as we reach forward to pluck out specks from another’s. It represents all the sins we cannot see in ourselves as we fixate on sins of our neighbors.
So: I have learned a thing. Much as I love Jo, the fate of her soul is not a matter for me to decide. That is between her and the Divine, and if I know the two of them at all, they’ll be able to work something out without my help at all. Not that I’ll ever stop blessing Jo. And I have learned this as well: the greatest power in the universe is the Almighty Wind. The One can do what we cannot. We choose to follow the One, or not; the One chooses to save.
All our fixation on sin gets in the way of the great commandment: love thy neighbor. Just as I loved Jo without judgment or reservation, so must we love each other, forgiving everything. After all, that’s what Good Friday is all about. That’s how Jesus spent his last moments on the cross. And that’s how the One works.