My new novel, Pope Mary and The Church of Almighty Good Food, is raising lots of eyebrows so maybe I should write something about it. The story takes place in the rural countryside which should be no surprise to readers familiar with my books. But this time the subject is very controversial for a lot of people: the closing of so many local churches. The inspiration for the book came from the closing of a little rural Catholic church that I can almost see across the fields from my place. Perhaps some churches do need to be closed because of dwindling congregations, but this one had the money and parishioners to keep on going just fine. Friends asked me why I cared, since I’m not a church goer anymore. First of all, I care because I think many small churches are closing for the same reason small farms are closing, that is, false notions about economics. The general thinking is that it is more profitable to cram more people into fewer, bigger churches just like it is more profitable to cram more hogs into fewer, bigger barns. I don’t buy that kind of banker talk anymore. Secondly, to me it is a matter of justice, not religion. That church was built and paid for (some of them were my ancestors) before there was a bishopric or diocese in this area. I don’t see how church authorities can close it against the will of the people who worship there.
Anyway, this dispute went to court, and unlike any other case I know about, the judge ruled against the church authorities. He ruled that this was a matter for civil law not church canon law and that the protestors could indeed hold legal title to the property. The upshot was that the protesting parishioners got their property back, not as a bonafide Catholic church anymore, but as a place they could meet for various community exercises like marriages and funerals. This was really an extraordinary court victory but it happened too far out in the countryside to attract public attention. So I decided to write a novel inspired by it.
That’s how it started out anyway, but when I get involved in writing novels, or anything else, the words end up going in directions I never envisaged, in this case rather far from the real event that inspired it. The fictional characters finally told me to go sit in the corner and let them handle the affair, which I was only too glad to do. Eventually, they figure out what they are going to do with the church that they have won title to, but can no longer use for regular church services. They turn their place of worship into a glorified restaurant and farm market of local food with nearby farmers kicking in land around the church for community gardens. So successful were their efforts that the pro-bishop forces and the anti-bishop forces decide to sit down together and eat in peace.
The heroine of the story is Pope Mary, so-called derisively by her critics, the pro-bishop supporters, and in good humor by her anti-bishop supporters, because she is forever brazenly pontificating on all subjects religious or agricultural and invariably turns out to be right. She has returned home from working at the Chicago Board of Trade, is farming with her father and gets drawn into the conflict mostly against her will. She is much more interested in another young farmer who just happens to be the grandson of the hero of my novel The Last of the Husbandmen.
The other main character is a seemingly mild-mannered priest who is having grave doubts about the theology he is supposed to uphold. He likes raising horses and sheep more than he likes quoting the bible and ends up being called the Lone Ranger because of his habit of riding his horse to the rural churches he is in charge of, to save on gas, he says as an excuse. The Lone Ranger and Pope Mary get involved in all sorts of adventures, from trying to figure out who broke down the locked church door to who scammed the diocese out of the closed church’s money, to how the bishop and the local government agricultural officials got outwitted, to who is in love with whom. Things turn out well for almost everyone and if you can get through the book without laughing at least once (even if you are a bishop) I’ll give you your money back.
Anyway, I was half way through the writing before I realized what my characters were telling me. In all religions (well, all Christian and Muslim sects anyway) the consumption of food is at the center of the worship ceremonies. The Eucharist or Communion service in Christian sects and Ramadan in Islam are really centered on spiritual and physical celebrations of eating communal meals, the Last Supper over and over again. Food really does, in an ecological sense anyway, transubstantiate or consubstantiate into body and blood, no big mystery about it. Food is supposed to be sacred, not fast. Maybe I should have titled the novel “Holy Food,” to go with my other book, “Holy Shit.”