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In the New Testament’s Book of Acts, a mere eleven verses tell the story of Ananias and Sapphira, two sadsack converts who were caught defying the rules of the first Christian community in Jerusalem and promptly “gave up the ghost.” Based on these records, mainstream religion treats them as thieves who got what they deserve, and as far as we know the story ends there….until Ananias wakes up in his counselor’s office at the Middle Realm division of Pearly Gates, Inc.
With the help of the archangel Gabriel as a world–weary case worker, Ananias must untangle the circumstances of his abrupt passing, and grapple to understand why his beliefs did not give him a free ticket to Heaven. What he learns through his purging process gives an entirely different meaning to the concept of salvation, and teaches us that, no matter how bureaucratic and exclusive it can seem through our black-and-white-colored lenses, Divine mercy leaves no one behind.
In the spirit of The Last Temptation of Christ which inspired it, Waldo Noesta’s debut story challenges every literal assumption we make about the Good News of Christianity while affirming its essence. As an antidote to rigid fundamentalism and scriptural idolatry, it offers in its place a spiritually progressive vision based in the Perennial wisdom that Christianity shares with other faiths, as well as basic human values like compassion and self-sacrifice. The result is a cleansing of the lens through which we view the ancient teachings on timeless metaphysical truth, a discourse on the role of fresh insight in keeping those teachings relevant and vital, and a joyful celebration of life and love.
This 13,000-word short story was written as part of The Camerado Chronicles, a stream of theological consciousness-meets-road journal project that covered a period of incredible creative and spiritual growth for me in the second half of 2004.
I was driving for a long-haul trucking company, spending weeks at a time alone at the wheel of an 18-wheeler crisscrossing the country. I had just finished the first draft of what would later become The Peasant and the King, and put that on the back burner to simmer while a whole kettle full of new ideas about the role of belief in the religious life was coming to a hard boil.
Under the guidance of my spiritual mentors, the late, great Virginia Moss and her daughter Betty Pickett, I was bringing their pan-Perennialist insights to an intentionally wide variety of religious services in the far-flung places I found myself each week. I worshiped with Lutherans in Duluth, Pentecostals in Joplin, Latter-Day Saints in Brigham City, Utah, and an all-black AME congregation in West Philadelphia. I did a Catholic mass in québécois French on the outskirts of Montréal, and in Southern California Spanglish in the Mojave Desert. I had a day of mindfulness practice with a Thich Nhat Hanh-led community in Vermont, and I made mochi with Japanese Buddhists in San Diego. Throw in some Shabbat services, a masjid in Michigan, Christian Science lessons in Massachusetts, and some Unitarian Universalist sing-ins, and that might cover all of the most interesting outliers. This was not a search for the right place to call home –I already knew that was with Virginia and Betty at their farmstead retreat in Kansas, “The Middle of Everywhere.” (“A gathering place for those who have not where to lay their head,” it was called.)
The idea behind their pan-Perennialist practice  was to learn how to experience the Divine in as many cultural contexts as possible, bring the details home to share with fellow nomads, and let Virginia distill from it the Perennial dharma, the universal metaphysical Truth at the core of our diverse personal experiences. The end goal for each student was to learn to make this translation him/herself —verbally at first, then with a precognitive recognition of Divine reality as the basis of understanding, so that one might be able to think in different theologies like a polyglot thinks in different languages.
The majority of those random sojourns for me were spent with independent Protestant churches. For better or worse, as an American, the “Western Orthodox” theological bloc of mainstream Protestantism is the predominant faith of my people, and to be of most service to them, I figured, I should learn to speak their spiritual language most fluently. That, and they always have the best coffeehouses, especially on the West Coast where I found myself starting to gravitate.
While Pez King was being written, I was working on a dedicated assignment in Oregon that had me running from Medford to Portland and back each weekday for eight months. This allowed me to lay down some temporary roots in the small hippie town of Ashland, where I found the Siskiyou Christian Alliance, a church from the Calvary Chapel network, I was lured in by a Christian surfer-punk show at their Upper Room Coffeehouse, and stayed for the organic, fair trade brews and ultrafriendly vibe. The Calvary Chapel is a “denomination” (they don’t like that shoe, but it fits) that is very prominent on the US West Coast. They cultivate a laid-back, caffeinated hipster atmosphere very much in sync with the local culture, and compared to other evangelical organizations their tolerance of interpretation and dissent from the official teachings was fairly high.
But the Bible, read literally and with some latitude for figurative language where it suits them, was still considered the final word on all spiritual matters in the Calvary Chapel network. And so, like all other Protestant churches before it, the Siskiyou Christian Alliance was a square hole where my round peg felt unwelcome, the kind of place where keeping quiet about my unorthodox beliefs was the price of maintaining friendships. But they were solid friendships with good people, forged by their genuine neighborly love and a deeper sense of personal involvement than I’d ever allowed myself to have with a religious community.
It grew increasingly difficult to keep my metaphysical distance and my head safe from their duality while my heart merged with theirs, something Virginia anticipated and encouraged me to feel. She taught all her students that we would not truly understand the Abrahamic faiths until we felt the pang of desire to align our beliefs with a community, to feel an integral part of something much greater than ourselves and much smaller than God, and damn if she wasn’t right about that.
(“But don’t give in to the desire,” she would add. “When you dance with Christianity, leave room for the Holy Spirit between yourself and the Bible.”)
My trucking assignment ended abruptly on the very day that I finished Pez King 1.0 (a kind way of saying I was fired for one too many late departures after all-night writing binges). It was time to go. The weekly routine of Interstate 5-times-5 was getting old, and I needed to shake up my education again.
But before I left Ashland, I made what even at the time seemed like an odd decision to get baptized by the pastor at SCA.
The ritual usually signifies the decision to join a church community, not leave it. Plus, I lacked the belief that anything supernatural was going to happen during the baptism. Yet there I was, in the frigid mountain stream waters of Ashland Creek, surrounded by fervent believers (to whom I was being saved before their very eyes), getting dunked in an ancient ritual of cleansing and new beginnings.
Perhaps there was no better time imaginable than that, as I was preparing to leave the comforting confines of their Biblical fidelity and go back out on my own. There is something about a public declaration and ceremony that takes an event from the open waters of life and makes an island rise up from, a place to sit and reflect on the whithers and wherefores that made it appear.
A few days later after a pensive bus ride, I was in Southern California to start my next long-haul job. As I moved into a new truck to prepare for my first three-week jaunt back into the heart of America, the dormant metaphysical gears started turning again, and the spiritual engine of the Middles’ eclectic non-dual thought, released from the small box of Calvary Chapel’s official teachings, was revving up. But there was, let’s say, a new octane level in the fuel, and for that I can only credit the SCA. Their sun-baked West Coast fundamentalism produced a simple, intellectually stunted yet ebullient kind of faith that I was going to miss. They were stoked about Jesus, in a way that I never could be about any one religious figure. It was too enmeshed in me to see each religion’s truth as a symbol pointing at something greater, a universal Truth beyond words.
At that point, the full impact of that understanding came to me, and I wondered….what if Jesus is the symbol and Christ is the Truth?
What if the finitely defined personage they worship and the infinite omnipresent Whole He represents have been fused in the image of Jesus Christ, such that the Christian assertion that “Jesus is God” is functionally identical to “atman is Brahman?”
After all, we know that “Christ” is not a surname, but an honorific title, taken from the Greek Χριστός, Christós, meaning “the anointed one,” alluding to the Israelite belief in a coming Messiah or Savior. Maybe, just maybe, I thought, to be “saved in the name of Jesus Christ” is to recognize that each individual soul is a reflection of the Divine –to see that this fusion of finite and infinite Being is actually our natural state of existence that we’ve managed to forget.
Maybe the basis for a universalist Christian mysticism is a hidden gem encoded in the most basic level of belief, a red pill theology that even the most ardent fundamentalist has tricked himself into ingesting without knowing it.
In Hinduism, the individual soul is atman, and Brahman connotes something analogous to the more refined Abrahamic concepts of God: The highest Universal Principle, the Ultimate Reality in the universe. It is the pervasive, genderless, infinite, eternal truth and bliss which does not change, yet is the cause of all changes. In non-dual schools of thought, Brahman is also the material, efficient, formal and final cause of all that exists. Brahman as a metaphysical concept is the single binding unity behind diversity in all that exists in the universe.
Could Christianity be providing the context to learn that “Christ” is exactly this as well?
I thought about the four paths of yoga, and how they each support a different facet of the human personality on the Hindu’s journey toward spiritual realization:
- Karma Yoga: the path of action and service. Usually called “works” in Christianity. Pretty basic stuff.
- Raja Yoga: the path of self-discipline, including among other things the more familiar yoga techniques such as asanas, pranayama, meditation, and kriyas. Though there are no equivalent to the asanas and kriyas in Christianity, much of the traditional contemplative practice develops the same kind of centering, meditative state through ritual prayer and focused breath. The emphasis on avoidance of sin overlaps the karma and raja paths.
- Bhakti Yoga: the path of devotion and love for God and for the whole of creation – animals, as well as humans, and all of nature. Exemplified by the “greatest commandment” as told by Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37-39)
- Jnana Yoga: the philosophical path. The focus of this path is to gain the ability to distinguish between reality and unreality, and to use this power of discernment to attain knowledge of the Self through study, practice and experience. This is the yogic path with the least amount of correspondence to mainstream Christianity, but it is absolutely essential to the contemplative practices of Christian mystics.
When I first met Betty and Virginia, they told me I was the most purely jnana yogi they had ever met, and not in a good way. Most students who came to The Middle of Everywhere had been raised in mainstream religion and had a familiar foundation in karma, raja, and especially bhakti practices. They were searching for the “missing link” that would complete the spiritual experience. I, on the other hand, was a missing link in search of a chain. This would be much harder to impart, in fact it was suggested that I go with my jnana self and not spend much energy diluting my natural philosophical bent with fruitless quests for balance.
But that Wednesday morning, June 9, 2004 while moving milk crates full of notebooks into a new red Freightliner on the outskirts of Riverside, California, I got it….that fusion of devotion and good works and self-discipline with the philsophical understanding to see through the illusion of duality and the delusion of the isolated self. It all came together.
At one point a simple phrase popped into my mind: “I don’t believe in the Bible, but I believe in Christ.” That was it. That was my answer. Every church I had ever experienced worshiped the Bible; they did not recognize and honor and revere the timeless, spaceless, eternal presence and principle that is known in Christian circles as the Logos, the Word of God, the body of Christ –but is also known by other names and described authentically in other traditions. I had chosen to be baptized as a gesture of gratitude and submission to this Eternal Presence within us all, not to play out a ritual of mental subjugation to Bible worship.
And yet, even those who submit to the words and worship the symbols have aligned their sense of self with a concept that can help them make that leap out of dualistic isolation, because their “anointed one” is literally that fusion of finite humanity and the Eternal Presence. There simply comes a point in Christian spiritual practice where faith in the Presence must become precognitive and preeminent over the symbolic depiction of the Presence in verbal form. The words must give way to the Word.
I do not believe in the Bible, but I believe in Christ.-beginning of the first entry in The Camerado Chronicles
Another way to say it: I do not believe in the words, but I believe in the Word.
(believe in = put one’s faith in = commit one’s life to)”
“The Word” as a symbol for Christ was always an interesting concept to me. It was the English translation of what the original New Testament, written in Greek, called λόγος or “Logos.” This word had acquired many meanings in the Greek lexicon, but the literal verbal units on the pages of a book were not among them– those were λέξις, “lexis.” Logos had a broader meaning that included reason, and a basis for understanding. It was also adopted by many of the predecessors of pantheism to describe an ineffable ordering principle of the universe. Heraclitus (ca. 535–475 BC) was the first to use Logos as such; the Stoic philosophers identified the term with “the divine animating principle pervading the Universe.”
It was this concept of “The Word” that I meant in my introductory statement: not a person, but a Presence. A transcendent suchness that wraps all that exists into one seamless manifestation of non-dual Reality expressed as holy and divine, to be understood across cultural lines as the I AM that exists within and beyond the birth-death-rebirth cycles we perceive.
In Perennialist terms, this Presence is the “Highest Common Factor” that Aldous Huxley wrote about in his seminal work, The Perennial Philosophy. It is also the essence of Spinozan pantheism, the undifferentiated potential he called God which manifests in our world as thought and extension (Mind and matter). At the time, I was still culturally acclimated to Christianity, and wrote about it in a quirky Christian language attempting to sift the wheat of the Word from the chaff of words.
And good lord, did I write about it. I wrote like a speed addict in damburst torrents at the wheel, in a series of composition notebooks propped up on my lap, for about three months straight before I brought it home to Kansas in the autumn of 2004 to bounce it off Betty and Virginia. (Unknown to me, that was the last time I would see Virginia, who left her body the following summer.)
For the first part of the Camerado phase, I was also reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. As detailed in these passages direct from the book and the Chronicles respectively, the author’s wrestling match with his Greek Orthodox faith was a perfect mirror for mine with modern American Protestantism. His method of reconciliation –rewriting key scenes from the gospels to reflect his artistic vision of a true Christian response to life a fragmented world– was the direct impetus of this accidental story that sprouted and grew in the middle of my journal writing. What began as a piece of fan fiction in honor of the Divine Presence as portrayed by Kazantzakis ended up growing a nice life of its own as I modified it slightly over the years into its final form.
For what it’s worth, Virginia said it was her favorite part of the Chronicles. I feel her reading approvingly over my shoulder now as I write about it.
OTHER RELATED STUFF ON NOT TWO
- Read the passage from The Last Tempatation of Christ that inspired the writing of A&S
- Did Jesus Say Everything He Said? — An Introduction to “Ananias and Sapphira”