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       False Icons and Sacred Cows, p.1
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           Nathan Allen
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False Icons and Sacred Cows

  False Icons and Sacred Cows

  By Nathan Allen

  Copyright 2017 Nathan Allen


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  Chapter 1

  “Jesus knew Satan was at work in that very hour,” Fr. Gerdtz intoned from his pulpit. “The devil had already enlisted Judas to betray him, and Christ knew the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem was being empowered by the principalities of Hell. He was also aware that a devil-inspired mob was coming shortly to take him prisoner. That was when Jesus said to the disciples, Satan, the undead one, is coming.”

  Fr. Gerdtz paused when the snoring in his church became too loud to ignore.

  He lifted his eyes from his notes and scanned the room for the source of the disruption. It wasn’t long before he identified the culprit. The pews were sparsely filled; only seventeen people had bothered to drag themselves out of bed that morning to give thanks for all the Lord had blessed them with. It came from the back row, where a tattered pair of mismatched shoes stuck out from the end of one pew. He didn’t need to see the shoes’ owner to know who was responsible. It was the same man who interrupted his sermons on a near-weekly basis. His name was Jefferson Slade, a local vagrant who frequently stumbled into his church to sleep off a heady Saturday night of cheap liquor, public nuisance and lascivious behavior. He was at least grateful that Jefferson was sound asleep, and not heckling and muttering profanities as he sometimes would.

  Thirty seconds had elapsed since Fr. Gerdtz last spoke. None of the parishioners appeared to have noticed. Many had their heads bowed and bibles open, although it was fairly obvious they were doing this to disguise the fact that they were really looking at their phones.

  A sinking feeling of disillusionment took hold as he surveyed what remained of his congregation. Thirty-six years ago, when he arrived here from Vienna, he frequently addressed packed houses. Parishioners would arrive an hour early on a Sunday morning to snare a good seat, then wait a further thirty minutes at the end just to let him know how much they enjoyed hearing him speak. But that was a different era altogether. Now his entire audience could carpool home in a minibus.

  Crowds had steadily declined over the past four decades, and only a dedicated few remained. The majority were closer to the end of their lives than the beginning. They were the ones who wanted to make peace with the Lord and reserve their place in heaven before being trampled underfoot by the inevitable march of time. But the older crowd was thinning out, their numbers waning with every passing year, and a younger generation was not stepping up to take their place. The church was fighting against irrelevance, and it was a fight they were losing.

  He returned to his notes and pressed on.

  “Evil, of all kinds, has risen to an exceeding height in this world, and highly exalted itself against God, Christ and the church. Satan has highly exalted himself and greatly prevailed. By his subtle temptations, he brought about the ruin of the whole race–”

  A snort erupted from Jefferson Slade’s open mouth, and Fr. Gerdtz lost his place once again. The cathedral’s vast emptiness gave the sound additional volume. The high walls and ceilings amplified every one of Jefferson’s involuntary interruptions, reverberating for seconds afterwards.

  Fr. Gerdtz closed his eyes and exhaled through his nostrils. He prayed that the Lord grant him the strength to carry on in the face of these constant challenges.

  The parishioners filed out of the church in a slightly hurried manner following the conclusion of the service. Fr. Gerdtz found himself speaking with Lance and Colleen Robertson, a couple in their early forties who had been coming to the St. James Church for many years. He had known Colleen since she was a young girl. He had officiated at her wedding to Lance, and he had baptized their infant daughter Briony. But as was the case with many families, their Sunday attendances were growing further and further apart. It wasn’t unusual for entire seasons to pass by without an appearance.

  “We’re sorry it’s been so long,” Colleen said, wheeling out the same excuse Fr. Gerdtz had heard many, many times before: “It’s just that we’ve all been so busy.”

  “I understand,” he said. “It can be difficult to find the time, especially in this day and age.”

  A small part of him died upon uttering these words, embarrassed by how completely devoid of meaning they were. He resisted the urge to point out that his weekly church services demanded less time than a single episode of those HBO dramas Colleen and Lance obsessively devoured. He often overheard them talking about how far behind they were in their viewing schedules, and the great lengths they would go to when setting aside time to catch up. They spoke as if scripted television was some arduous chore that had been enforced upon them against their will.

  “But it’s been great seeing you today,” Lance said. “We always look forward to your services. We really should try and do this more often.”

  This last comment produced an involuntary but nonetheless audible huff from Briony, Colleen and Lance’s now-teenaged daughter. Briony had clearly been dragged along today against her will. She was the only person in attendance under the age of forty, as well as the only churchgoer Fr. Gerdtz had ever seen wearing a t-shirt with the words “BITCH, I’M FABULOUS” emblazoned across it.

  Lance shot his daughter a stern look, imploring her to show some manners. Briony failed to take the hint. “Can we go now?” she whined.

  “In a minute honey,” Colleen said.

  “But we’re going to be late!”

  “Briony, it doesn’t start for another four hours,” her father said.

  “Only the first two hundred people through the doors will get to meet Krystal!”

  “Calm down, sweetie,” Colleen said. “There’s still plenty of time.”

  “Don’t tell me to calm down!”


  “You know how much this means to me! If I miss out it’s all your fault!”

  Briony stormed off towards the family car. She climbed into the back seat and slammed the door closed.

  “Teenagers, huh?” Fr. Gerdtz said with a raised eyebrow. It was his attempt at lightening the mood, but at that moment he was relieved to have taken a vow of chastity.

  “We’re taking her to see Krystal Blayze after this,” Colleen said by way of explanation. “She’s been talking about this non-stop for weeks.”

  The vacant look on Fr. Gerdtz’s face suggested he didn’t have the slightest idea who Colleen was talking about.

  “You don’t know Krystal Blayze? Oh, she’s a massive star. She’s doing a book signing at the Beverly Center today.”

  “She’s an author?”

  “No, she’s ... well, she has released three books. But she’s so much more than that. She’s a model, a DJ, a lifestyle blogger, she has her own TV show, a skincare range. She designs swimsuits, she’s appeared in a Chris Brown video. She’s across all media, really. Young people totally love her.”

  There was a marked rise in enthusiasm as Colleen spoke. She appeared almost as excited about meeting this Krystal Blayze woman as her fourteen year old daughter. Fr. Gerdtz got the impression Colleen was turning into one of those mothers terrified of middle age; the type who believed that by sharing her daughter’s interest
s and being her best friend she could cling to the last vestiges of her fading youth.

  The family departed a few minutes later, leaving as soon as they’d invested the minimum amount of small talk so as to not appear rude. The last of the congregation milled around until about eleven a.m.

  Fr. Gerdtz was about to head back into the church when his attention was drawn to the guttural sounds emanating from around the corner. He looked across to see Jefferson Slade, now up on his feet and somewhat conscious, hunched over the newly-planted daffodils and dry-retching every few seconds.

  He briefly considered ignoring this unpleasant distraction and continuing on inside, but decided the Christian thing to do would be to check in on Jefferson and make sure he was alright.

  A sigh of exasperation spilled from his mouth as he made his way over. He knew he was supposed to welcome everybody to his church with open arms, but Jefferson was a never-ending test of his patience. He wasn’t alone in feeling this way; the police often picked him up following complaints from local residents and businesses regarding his offensive behavior. They would leave him in the care of a nearby nursing home, but he never stayed long. He would stick around for a day or two, mostly to harass the nurses and antagonize the other residents, then disappear in the middle of the night. These days the police mostly left him alone, just so long as he didn’t push his luck too far.

  “Are you feeling alright, Jefferson?” Fr. Gerdtz asked in a tired voice.

  Jefferson heaved. Unintelligible noises blurted from his mouth; a cross between a dead language and gobbledegook. It was the indecipherable dialect of a man at the lowest point in his hangover. A string of brown bile hung from his chin. He smelled like dumpster refuse.

  Fr. Gerdtz looked away in distaste. “Do you need me to call someone?”

  Jefferson spat twice on the grass and staggered off towards the road, no doubt looking for someone else to torment.

  Fr. Gerdtz watched him as he left. He was becoming more and more convinced that Jefferson had been sent by the Lord as a test of his faith.

  Fr. Gerdtz arrived home mid-afternoon. He put out some fresh food for Samson, the long-haired Angora kitten he had recently adopted, and phoned his local pharmacy to arrange a prescription refill for his arthritis medication. He then switched on his computer and set about figuring out how to sign up for a Twitter account. This wasn’t something he especially wanted to do, but many of his colleagues within the clergy had been on his back for some time about the need to embrace new media strategies. He’d put it off for as long as he could before finally giving in. It was a last-ditch attempt at staying relevant, a kind of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude. He figured any medium that helped spread the word of God was worth investigating.

  Creating his Twitter profile took less than ten minutes. This was something he was quite proud of. He had always found modern technology to be rather intimidating, but the computing for seniors classes he had taken in recent years had gone some way towards demystify it all.

  He gained his first follower a few minutes later. It was Fr. Jenkins from the nearby United Church, one of the colleagues who had encouraged him to join social media. Fr. Jenkins had been on Twitter for several years now, and had amassed more than five hundred followers in that time. This played a large part in Fr. Gerdtz deciding to take the plunge and join up. It had been some time since he last addressed five hundred people at once.

  Fr. Gerdtz followed him back, and the two priests exchanged pleasantries and a few jokes.

  He then came across the Twitter page of Colleen Robertson from his church. Her most recent post featured a photograph of her and her daughter Briony, standing next to a young woman with peroxide-blonde hair and a dour face hidden behind a pair of giant cataract sunglasses. This, it appeared, was the world-famous Krystal Blayze. Briony wore an ear-to-ear smile in the photograph, while Colleen looked happier than she did on her wedding day. Krystal Blayze looked bored, like she’d rather be anywhere else than where she was at that moment.

  Curiosity soon got the better of him. He simply had to know what it was about this woman that made her so appealing, since Colleen’s explanation from earlier that morning hadn’t made a whole lot of sense to him. It was one thing for Briony, a teenager with a brain that was still developing, to illogically worship someone like this. But a grown woman, an otherwise intelligent wife and mother? He was definitely missing something here.

  He clicked onto her page to discover that Krystal Blayze had over six million Twitter followers. A few minutes later, he found that she had more than three times that number following her on Instagram.

  This revelation plunged him into a deep state of bewilderment. It wasn’t just the gargantuan number of followers. It was more the fact that she was famous for absolutely no reason at all. All this woman appeared to do with her life was post an endless array of photographs of herself in various states of undress for the pleasure of her anonymous, grammatically-averse followers. She was pictured reclining in a swimsuit on a beach, reclining in a different swimsuit by a pool, and reclining sans-swimsuit on a bed, as well as hundreds more showing her either shopping or partying. Scattered throughout was the occasional inspirational quote about self-acceptance and finding inner peace. None of her followers appeared to have noticed that these quotations directly contradicted the egoistical, materialistic lifestyle she openly promoted.

  But it only got worse when he learned that Krystal Blayze was far from an isolated example. There were hundreds, possibly even thousands of others just like her. Ordinary, unremarkable people who had cultivated huge online followings for no discernible reason. They possessed no unique talents, nor had they done anything to benefit anyone other than themselves. There was nothing particularly interesting about any of them. In fact, many appeared to be simply horrible people – self-centered, shallow, vindictive and extraordinarily vain. Most concerning was that this behavior was actively rewarded. An ostentatious display of wealth, or a childish Twitter feud, usually resulted in the offending parties gaining additional followers and becoming even more popular.

  Some indigenous cultures believed that part of their soul was lost when their photograph was taken. Judging by the evidence before him, Fr. Gerdtz concluded that whenever some dummkopf took their own picture and posted it online, several million brain cells were irreparably damaged. Here was incontrovertible proof that we were all living in a post-shame world.

  He kept on clicking over and over, unable to stop himself, viewing different versions of the same image. He saw young people pouting into the camera, shots in a mirror’s reflection, post-workout images, point-of-view beach snaps, and innumerable instances of people who believed that having their tongue hanging out of their mouths somehow made them edgy or subversive.

  [Side note: Hanging Tongue Syndrome is a condition prevalent in many types of dogs. It is caused by inbreeding.]

  Something about this troubled him greatly. Even if he wasn’t able to properly articulate his concerns, the fact that such superficiality was not only condoned but admired made him fear for the future of the human race. He had long suspected the world was becoming more tolerant of the gauche and the obscene – that much was obvious when the country saw fit to elect a boorish orange-faced buffoon from a reality television show as its president – but only now was the full extent of this diseased culture evident.

  Celebrity had metastasized to become the new opiate of the masses. Fame was the sole aim for millions rather than the byproduct of hard work and success. Rampant consumerism and mindless celebrity worship infected every square inch of society. Everybody wanted to be somebody, and nobody wanted to be just anybody.

  The public, too, was consumed with the lives of these vacuous fame-chasers, deliberately shutting out anything from the real world that might penetrate their own blinkered existence. It was a phenomenon that had spread to all segments of media. In that day’s newspaper, a suicide bombing attack in Jakarta that left thirty-three people dead was a
llocated just a small fraction of page fourteen. News of a Hollywood divorce and a rapper’s new shoe line both received much greater coverage. What was once relegated to the gossip section now polluted the entire newspaper.

  Fr. Gerdtz removed his glasses and rubbed his tired eyes. He was getting older, and the modern world was leaving him behind. He was so far removed from the younger generations that they may as well have arrived from another planet. They lived different lives and had different values. They no longer had any need for the church, preferring to give their attention to the unlimited entertainment options available twenty-four/seven on their massive TVs and devices that fit comfortably in their pockets. Trying to compete with that was like trying to nail custard to a wall.

  His whole life had been in service to God, and now he feared it would all be for nothing. His entire existence may have been meaningless. At this rate, the world will have moved on from religion within a decade. It would all be forgotten, a relic from a bygone era. Fr. Gerdtz’s legacy would be that he was part of the generation that allowed spirituality to wither and die like a neglected pot plant.

  A moment passed, and a sense of helplessness took hold.

  He did what he always did during times of uncertainty and soul-searching. He bowed his head and clasped his rheumatic hands together in prayer.

  “I don’t know what you expect me to do,” he whispered solemnly. “Am I wasting my time here? Should I give up and simply accept this is how the world is today? Is there anything I can do to make a difference? Or are there better ways for me to devote my energies towards helping people?”

  He was silent for a long time.

  “Please, Lord,” he said, a ripple of emotion entering his voice. “It’s rare that I ask for help. I know there are many more in much greater need than I. But I just need a sign. I need to know if there is something I can do.”

  There was a knock at the door.

  Fr. Gerdtz froze. He opened his eyes and looked up at the clock. It was 9:38 p.m. Much later than he thought. His time spent on the internet just sucked the hours away.

  He was conflicted about what to do next. Should he answer the door? This was an odd time for visitors, and he wasn’t expecting anyone. But the knock occurred immediately after he asked the Lord for help. Was that a coincidence, or was God actually listening? He often told his followers there were no coincidences in life, and that everything was part of God’s divine plan. Whoever was on the other side of that door – even if they were unaware of it – would be able to provide guidance in his hour of need.

  He rose from his seat and tentatively approached the door. His eye moved to the peephole. There was no one out there. Probably just some kids playing tricks. Tonight was Halloween, after all.

  He turned the lock and unhooked the chain, then stepped out into the dark night.

  The security light came on, and the area lit up. Funny, he thought. Whoever knocked somehow did so without activating the sensor. He looked left and right, but he could see no one around. Maybe he had imagined it. Maybe his mind was going in his old age. Or maybe it was nothing more than wishful thinking.

  A light breeze blew, and a sharp chill brushed against his skin. Today had been a day of unseasonable warmth, but the night air had turned unexpectedly frigid. A shiver rippled through his body.

  Then he saw the parcel.

  It was right in front of him, inches from his feet. By now he had been outside a couple of minutes, but had only just noticed it. It was almost as if it had materialized out of thin air. A more logical explanation was that it had been there all along, but he had failed to notice until then. He recently had the prescription for his glasses updated, but his eyesight was still poor once the sun went down.

  The parcel was about the size of a shoebox. It had no note, or anything else to identify the sender. It was wrapped haphazardly in pages from a softcore pornography magazine.

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