Introduction for My Soon-to-Be “Published” E-Book Hilaretic

Let me know if this reads well.

Well, I’ll Be Damned
By Dan Kelly

I knew I’d grow up to be a writer. It never occurred to me I’d be a church reviewer.

Heck, I didn’t even come up with the concept. Brett McNeil, former Chicago Journal editor did. A decade ago, as Brett mentions in his foreword, Tom Frank of the Baffler introduced us at a party. Brett was looking for writers; I was looking for ink, money, and ego satisfaction. As two ex-southwest suburban Chicago kids we got along famously, and he asked me to send him a few clippings and pitches to get a feel for my work.

Writing for the Journal had one stipulation. Journalistically land-locked, it covered the beat bordered by Lake Michigan, Cermak Road, Lake Street, and Western Avenue. As long as I stayed within those boundaries, I could write about anything I liked. I confessed to Brett I was familiar with the area only in macrocosm, so assignments were appreciated. He said he’d think about it.

A few days later, Brett called and asked, “Dan, how’d you like to be a church reviewer?”

I laughed, then cursed myself for not thinking of it first.

I told him it sounded great, but what exactly did he have in mind? Visiting various houses of worship in the area, primarily, and approaching the experience as if I were critiquing a play, making notes about atmosphere, accommodations, and entertainment value. Mainly, I should answer the question “What’s going on in there?”

Therein lay the idea’s brilliance.

Houses of worship are surrounded by invisible, consensual force fields, most humans having an aversion to entering holy places not their own. Funny that, because—with a few exceptions, and with only minor etiquette requests—the doors are usually open to all comers. How else, gentle reader, do you think religions expand and thrive?

Whence comes this reluctance to enter religious buildings, much less to attend other religious services? Bigotry, mildly warm to boiling, is one reason. If you were raised in a particular faith, part of your inculcation likely involved a variation on the theme of “WE are right, THEY are wrong, and what’s more, THEY are DAMNED.” Even in the 21st Century some people still believe the earth will yawn wide and gobble them up if they nibble a cupcake from another faith’s bake sale. More likely, it’s based on the fact that religious services, lacking in visible sex and violence, just aren’t a big draw. If you skip mass on Sunday, it’s doubtful you’ll visit Friday afternoon Salat at the mosque, or Saturday Shacharit at the synagogue, for funsies.

Largely, I think, it’s based in fear. Fear of evangelization and harassment by goony-eyed true believers. Fear of accidentally offending the regulars by desecrating a chalice or toppling the tabernacle—risking public humiliation or a sacrificial dagger in the heart. Fear of, in short, the unknown. Cultural terra incognita exists in the heart of the Chicago Loop.

“What’s going on in there?” I visited several services to find out.


Church reviewer wasn’t an entirely precise title, but Brett and I agreed a church reviewer I’d be, whether I was visiting a cathedral, temple, synagogue, mosque, or Chicago’s Stonehenge equivalent (Daley Plaza?). House of worship reviewer just doesn’t sing, yes? If I was approached by one of the religious elect during a story, I never used the term church reviewer. I’d say I was the Journal’s religious writer, covering the neighborhood deity beat. I remained visible but unobtrusive. I’d sit in the back, accept all literature passed my way, surreptitiously took notes, dropped  in a couple of bucks as an admission fee at collection time, and generally avoided making an ass of myself. A devout introvert, I would have left it at that, but Brett (a damned extrovert) pressed me to speak with the parishioners and resident clerics for the human touch. I received a few suspicious looks when I identified myself (they always seemed a tad disappointed I wasn’t a potential acolyte), but largely I was welcomed. The services weren’t all barn-burners, but I was rarely bored. Burned out on Catholic Mass Repetition Syndrome, even the driest service was interesting simply because I had no idea what the hell was happening. As theater, I liked it better than real theater.

Brett had one other rule: “Don’t leave them crying at their altars.” I understood that to mean, “Don’t be a dick.”

My personal religious beliefs are complicated. Raised Roman Catholic, I currently attend an Episcopal church (the one my son was baptized in) and I participate in several of its services and events. I even gave tours of the building—a gentlemanly 1888 Gothic revival church—during a house walk. Yet, as much as I like the place and people, I’m not interested in converting just yet. In fact, I don’t think of myself as religious in the typical sense. I like to think I’m a philosophical Christian—the Beatitudes and the less judgmental parts of Paul’s letters are good guides to a kind, considerate life—with Deist leanings and a little Marcus Aurelius pragmatism thrown in. Nonetheless, I can see an excellent case for agnosticism. Maybe. I can’t say for sure.

Unlike the fundamentalist smart-asses on either side, however, I believe that—save that they harm none and admit the world works scientifically—there’s little point in denigrating or damning anyone for their religious beliefs. So, I guess I have a little bit of Buddhist and Wiccan in me as well.

While I knew I’d find a few laughs amongst the elect, I mostly wanted to play it straight, avoiding excessive snickering, ironical winking, self-promotion, or similar tactics from the hipster journalist playbook. Entering a house of worship and mocking the squares is too easy; so is entering a place in a state of pig ignorance, and I always read up on a religion before attending a service. No, I never wanted to convert, but I always wanted to learn. I remember a certain pop cultural critic saying (in so many words), “You can disagree with a religion, but you can’t just dismiss several thousand years of history.” Every religion has had its periods of evil insanity and pernicious groupthink, true, but if it inspires, for instance, the Book of Kells, Paradise Lost, and Tallis’ Spem in Alium, it can’t be all bad.

Don’t be a dick? Mission accomplished. Though one angry Christian Scientist letter writer disagreed. He also found me pretentious and thought I used too many $10 words. My goodness. Well, what can one say to that but, de gustibus non disputandum est?


I have my regrets, but only about what I didn’t or couldn’t do with the series. The Journal’s borders and demographics heavily favored Christian churches. Finding a Loop synagogue or a mosque was a cinch; locating a Hindu or Mormon temple, a Sikh gurdwara, or an above-ground satanic coven somewhere on LaSalle, Wabash, or Ashland? Not so easy. St. John Cantius was the single cheat Brett allowed me, but only because it was within driving distance.

The most disheartening service I attended took place down in Chinatown—the pagoda-like exterior belying the vanilla Christianity taking place inside. When the preacher fired up an overhead projector and starting his PowerPoint presentation on soul-winning, I walked out for the first and only time in my church-reviewing career. Curse the new American prosperity religions and their aversion to tradition and mystery! A Catholic kids’ pretend mass, conducted on a card table and using Nilla communion wafers, has more soul.

Then there were the folks who said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” The I AM Temple people were pleasant hosts, walking me through the mysterious innards of their astonishing 12-story building on Washington Street and telling me, very politely, they didn’t offer interviews or let non-devotees attend services because they feared misrepresentation. They were probably right. What I saw and the little bit of the service I heard piped into the waiting room pushed the envelope of sanity screaming off the ledge. I would have had a field day with the Munchkin-voiced lady screeching about the all-enveloping purple ray of righteousness—or whatever it was. They tried to sign me up as an I AM’er too, telling me I’d obviously been sent to them by (dramatic pause) SOMETHING. If that were the case I’d be the only Methodist Christian Catholic Muslim Scientist Baptist Et Cetera Jew in Chicago by now.


“What’s going on in there?”

Way back in Catholic grade school, one particularly old and odd nun warned us about the perils of attending other religious services (especially, for some reason, Baptists’—her tone suggesting they were satanic cannibals cabals). Such foolhardiness would only serve to confuse us, putting strange ideas into our heads and causing us to drift away not only from Catholicism but also religion, God, and Life Eternal. Funnily enough, being a church reviewer had the opposite effect. I started out a lapsed Catholic and I ended up, well, a wavering agnostic. Still, I learned a few things about what motivated my fellow primates by going where I wasn’t “supposed” to go, and I discovered there were more similarities than differences between us. Maybe that’s what worried Sister P.

I’m risking ending on a goopy ecumenical note, so I should add a few less Pollyannan thoughts. I’ve got to admit, a few times, at the services, I heard things I didn’t agree with—particularly in the “WE are right, THEY are wrong” category—or which reminded me of something atheist par excellence H. L. Mencken wrote:

“There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly.”

Regardless, the more services I attended, the more consistency I saw in human ideals. Pushing past the hellfire rhetoric; the “My Ancient and Opaque Holy Book Is Better Than Yours” battles; and the occasional Neanderthal to medieval attitudes about this or that chunk of the population, at base every service was about community, sharing, and interacting with other humans in the quiet confines of a special building. I may not have agreed with everything I heard (and fortunately, I never heard anything particularly loathsome or brain-dead), but I never saw anyone get hurt or hurt anyone else by sitting in a house of worship, alone with his or her thoughts and god. Frankly, it was always a nice break from the rest of the week, if not the world.

Dan Kelly, November 2010

Grisly, Man

I recently finished a double-bill of non-survivalist media by reading Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and watching Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man. The thread running through both works is obvious—young to youngish fellow enters the Alaskan wilderness to escape civilization and become one with nature, eventually perishing when nature proves a terrible host. They’re both fine, entertaining works that provoke interesting debates—both external and internal. As you’ve come to expect, however, I’m less interested in discussing the works themselves than the way in which the stories were told and debated.

Treadwell and McCandless were anti-establishment, outdoorsy fellows who preferred to sleep under the stars, live off the land, and groove on all the natures, man. McCandless graduated college, gave away all his money, and hit the road for three years, telling everyone who’d listen that he planned to rough it in Alaska’s bleak wilderness. When he finally made it, he lasted about 112 days before succumbing to starvation at the age of 23. Treadwell had a couple of decades on McCandless, was a former substance abuser, and had walked away from a failed acting career. He eventually decided to enter Katmai National Park to observe and interact with the park’s brown bear population. After 13 summers of filming and, in his mind, befriending the grizzlies, he and his girlfriend were mauled and eaten by one.

The instant reaction of most people, particularly Alaskans, was to write off both men as nut-jobs without a lick of goddamned sense. Anger is an understandable reaction. Humanity’s history is a record of divestment, not reunion, with the wild. Our species left Nature behind because Nature tried hard to kill us. The idea of entering that world without the skills, supplies, or technological advantages, humanity developed to deal with Nature’s cruelty, is romantic, yes, but also highly unrealistic—if not inane.

Looking at both men’s lives the similarities are unavoidable. McCandless was a child of privilege from a relatively stable family. Predictably growing disgusted with his life of wealth, comfort, talent, and achievement, he ran the opposite way at full tilt as soon as he came of age. For three years McCandless hoboed across America, working shit jobs and living in a tent on the outskirts of town. Like a modern My Man Godfrey, he decided living on the edge of poverty and associating with peripheral humans was somehow more real than the life he was already living.

While McCandless’ resilience and resourcefulness are impressive, his sense of duty and loyalty appeared highly mutable. Anyone reading Into the Wild will nod sadly at the stories of McCandless’ issues with his father (who, at his worst, seems to be a demanding but caring hard-ass [Later note: Sean Penn’s Into the Wild suggests spousal abuse, though it’s not entirely clear what was happening or how often.), and understand that urge to escape Daddy’s gravitational pull. But how many readers, I wonder, note that McCandless abandoned his beloved sister without a word as well?

Krakauer touches on this selfishness in his and other adventurers’ lives, but fails to make more of it. In Krakauer’s descriptions, McCandless comes across as a twitchy savant with an entirely self-constructed personality (going so far as to assume the trail name of Alexander Supertramp). McCandless engages in multiple poses as a literary rebel, vagabond, social activist, and philosopher of nature, all performed with overweening self-awareness. It’s funny then that—despite being a former college journalist and avid reader who chose to pursue a Jack London by way of Walden lifestyle—McCandless is silent, or at least non-reflective about his adventures. The grievously brief notes he left behind, scrawled in the margins of his heroes’ books, are terse unto meaninglessness. As a writer I wonder why he bothered going if he wasn’t interested in communicating what he found.

McCandless comes off as a sweet, dim, arrogant, but highly functioning kid, however, beside the sweet, dim, arrogant, but severely damaged Treadwell. While McCandless’ decision to enter the wild with minimal supplies can at be ascribed to an addle-pated search for adventure and self-actualization, Treadwell’s decision to not only live amongst the grizzlies but also approach, nay, interact with them, was incomprehensible. Watching Grizzly Man, directed by weirdo-collecting  weirdo Werner Herzog, we have to opportunity to see and hear the pre-mauling Treadwell. He is sincere, excited, committed, and completely sliding off the rails. His ongoing, self-directed pep talks… His creepy baby-talk with the bears, foxes, and other critters that cross his path… His rants against the park service, which apparently dealt with him with an exorbitant amount of patience… The segment where he palpates a bear turd with an awe reserved for views of the Grand Canyon… If there’s a segment where he sounds sane, I can’t remember it.

It’s saddening, because his message—preserve nature and protect the bears—is a necessary one. By film’s end, however, you can’t really tell what good Treadwell did, or even if he was out there for reasons other than ego. His role as a filmmaker seems tacked on—a pose even—but that might be Herzog’s fault, who pastes together the hapless man’s footage to suit his needs, only commenting favorably on the parts of the film—several minutes of waving, whispering, wind-blown grass—where Treadwell is off-camera.

At least Treadwell has his chance to speak from beyond the grave, an opportunity not afforded McCandless’, who remains a bearded wraith in the few photographs he snapped of himself. Interestingly, I started watching Sean Penn’s film version of Into the Wild. I noted that Penn and Emile Hirsch flesh out McCandless beyond Krakauer’s series of vignettes showing “Alexander Supertramp” as a predictably rebellious post-adolescent of tremendous emotion but outstanding shallowness. If we had footage of McCandless disjointedly declaiming his adulterous father and cushy upbringing while babbling about social activism, transcendental philosophy, and Doctor Zhivago, would we find him more or less sympathetic than Treadwell? Would religions, or at least religious feelings, erupt in others?

McCandless and Treadwell have their defenders (residents of the edge who favor ambiguity and taking risks without taking precautions always will), but this is not surprising. It’s a human quality to look at the more romantic segments rather than the whole of lives like McCandless’ and Treadwell’s. The positive reaction to their “sacrifices” goes back centuries. We see it with the Christian Desert Fathers—often wealthy men (the poor already know only sacrifice, after all, which somehow cheapens it) who shed their worldly possessions, cut off ties with their families, and entered the wilderness to search for a greater connection with God and personal and spiritual gnosis through self-denial. To a part of the human population, any human willing to subject him or herself to suffering must be extraordinary—ordinary people just don’t do things like that.

People traveled through inhospitable climes and environments just to chat with St. Anthony the Anchorite through the crack between the tomb he lived in and the boulder rolled in front of it. I wonder what he told them that kept them coming? Probably a reiteration of the example of Christ and his admonishment to reject worldly things, take up your cross, and join him. Not that Jesus was an original thinker in that regard. Diogenes suggested the same thing, albeit in a nastier way. But according to legend even Alexander the Great was in awe of that foul-smelling, -speaking, and -behaving cynic, saying that if he couldn’t be Alexander he would want to be Diogenes. Again, anyone so off-putting must be on to something. We must seek their approval; we must realize we can never achieve the pain and failure they’ve experienced. That didn’t prevent Alexander from ruling the known world, of course.

Unconditional compassion is a worthy goal, but it often becomes entangled in rationalization. People can be so compassionate it blinds them to incredibly asinine behavior. I find it staggering that in the face of the evidence—McCandless’ insistence on not carrying the basics for wilderness living; Treadwell’s anthropomorphizing of the Katmai bears—people continue to sew angel wings onto them. No one’s life should be defined or criticized for a single act of self-injuring foolishness; but systematic, life-ending foolishness? Hell, it should be open season on that all year long.

Jesus House Walks

Last week’s house walk was a success. I worked at St. John’s Church as a docent and gofer Saturday morning and afternoon, switching between explaining the Christian symbology topping the lancets on the Advent Window, and setting up canopies, tables, and chairs for the beans and brats feast the church laid out for all visitors. I truly enjoyed myself—it’s rare that I have a live audience, and rarer still when they actually want to hear what I have to say.

After weeks (well, days) worth of study and practice, I was ready to show every interesting item between the narthex and sacristy. As it turned out, I was put in charge of showing off just the sanctuary and chancel—stage three of the tour as I explained to the house walkers.

Sorry, permit me to provide a quick glossary. The narthex is the entrance; the sacristy is the back-stage area where the priests and servers prepare for the service; the sanctuary is at the front of the church, while the chancel is the area surrounding the altar. At least that’s what I was told. I always heard the sanctuary comprised the interior of the church, and while I’d never encountered the word chancel before, I’d heard of the apse—the recessed area occupied by the altar, the tabernacle, the reredos, and other furnishings. (Didn’t understand a single word in the previous paragraph? I completely understand. For me it all comes from a Catholic boyhood and a little Wikipedia skimming. I won’t commit the sin of pride though—the sanctuary and chancel were more than enough, and I had the pleasure of describing three of the church’s prize possessions.

St. John’s is a small church. The congregation numbers at, I think, around 120 or so parishioners, and the building is the size of a large house. While not as sprawlingly awesome and ostentatious as the Catholic Holy Name Cathedral or St. James’, the Chicago’s Epsicopalian cathedral, St. John’s seems large even in its smallness. It reminds me of a nautilus shell, compact and curving into itself.

Just missing the Gothic Revival, but no doubt heavily influenced by it, St. John’s was erected in 1888. For chronological perspective, that’s the same year Arthur Conan Doyle dreamed up Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper was murdering prostitutes in Whitechapel. Chicago’s Irving park—the northwest neighborhood St. John’s is situated in—was somewhat calmer back then. If memory serves, the area was originally called Grayland, because Sheriff John Gray (the first republican sheriff elected in Chicago) owed much farmland there. Gray announced that the tract of land located at Byron and Kostner was available to anyone who promised to build a church. The Episcopalians—who were currently meeting in  masonic halls and a room above a local pharmacy—took the challenge and constructed the current church.

Records state that the church was built by the Cookingham Co. My research turned up no such firm, though I did encounter another one named Cookingham and Clarke in a Trib article from 1886. Cookingham and Clarke announced that they were constructing “Chinese dwellings” (i.e., pagoda-inspired homes) in Ravenswood, another Chicago neighborhood. I haven’t looked into this yet, but I’m hoping that the “Chinese dwellings” were constructed and can be located (I doubt it).

Here’s where things get interesting, yet murky, so we must use a bit of conjecture. Cookingham of Cookingham and Clarke was a fellow named Peter. He had a brother named Theron who lived in Irving Park and worked as a contractor. The very helpful Mr. Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s redoubtable cultural historian, found a family photo of the Cookingham’s and posited (but admitted that this is not a certainty) that Theron very likely was the contractor, and Peter likely could have been St. John’s architect. My research turns up ads announcing applications for builder’s permits by a W.H Cookingham as well, leading me to think this was a family operation. Tim suggested the Britishness of their surname lends some credence to the Cookinghams being Episcopalians. Sounds like an excellent starting point for further research.

On enters St. John’s through the narthex on the west side, passing through two red doors. According to tradition, the doors are painted red to symbolize entering the church under the protection of the blood of Christ. Sounds like it’s more of an Episcopalian tradition, and an image search for “red doors Episcopalian church” seems to bear this out. Ascending the stairs and entering the nave—the area containing the pews and aisle—the visitor can note two gothic revival elements.

1. Take a broad view of the scene and you’ll notice that the aisle is eventually bisected by a horizontal stretch of area between the pews and the sanctuary, forming a cross—not by accident.

2. The hammerbeam roof, composed of several large pieces of timber that take the weight and thrust of the roof and transfer it to the church’s stone walls. The problem is that St. John’s doesn’t have stone walls, and 20 years ago they noticed the walls were pulling away from the sides under the roof’s weight. A photograph from the archives shows the beams were about 2 1/4″ out of plumb. Not good. Tie rods and support bars were installed and painted well enough to blend in with the wood. I sure do like that hammerbeam roof—gives the place a mead hall feel. Christ the Viking.

Most of the stained glass windows at St. John’s were installed during the 60s and 70s and have pretty but bland Renaissance-inspired appearances. With the exception of the 1988 window, which takes full advantage of that era’s love of jagged abstraction. The sanctuary, however, features Irving Park’s oldest, intact stained glass window known as the Advent Window. The Advent Widow is the gift of the Children League of the Holy Child, a group formed before the church existed by a Mrs. Florance (the church’s Tennessee marble baptismal font is dedicated to her). After reading the Apostles Creed together every Saturday, Mrs. Florance and the children would sew squares to be sewn in turn into quilts and sold. From 1888 to 1924, the Advent Window occupied the west wall, while the church entrance was set in the northwest corner. In 1924 they dug a basement, and the church was shifted two feet northwards. The narthex was constructed, and the Advent Window was reset in the sanctuary’s northeast wall.

Directly across from the Advent Window you’ll find the church’s 110-year-old Kimball pipe organ. The W. W. Kimball Company was mostly known for piano manufacturing and sales, but from 1890 to 1942 they also built pipe organs. St. John’s organ was dedicated in 1900 by local organist/fin de siecle rock star Harrison Wild—a gentleman of great talent and tremendous mustache. The organ was once operated by a bellows, operated by wee boys who sat behind the organ and pumped it during the service. Later on a pipe was run into the church and the organ was water-powered before eventually being converted to electric. Wild wasn’t the only individual who tickled the ivories at St. John’s. Herbert E. Hyde, a child prodigy, played it from age 13 to 16. Hyde later went on to play for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church up in Evanston. Hyde spread out into the theater as well, writing music for children’s musicals and plays, including one written by Lord Dunsany, proto-scifi/fantasy writer and figure of great inspiration to H.P. Lovecraft.

The final object of pride is the reredos against the chancel’s rear wall. Installed in 1944, the reredos features four paintings by painter and parishioner Theon Betts. Mr. Betts came from an artistic family, and I mean that in the strictest sense since every one of them, from Daddy on down was a brush-slinger. Theon’s brother Louis was likely the star of the family, though not a household name (he did, however, render an impressive portrait of lumber magnate Martin Ryerson, currently residing at the Art Institute of Chicago). Theon was no slacker, however, and turned out four subdued, dreamy paintings of St. Francis, Mary, St. John, and St. Thomas Aquinas.

The tour passed through the sacristy, which once held a small chapel with a fancy, but now MIA, altar. The fun part came at the tour’s end in the back rooms. Once a much larger room, it was divided by drywall into several classrooms in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this covered up a sweeping ceiling and all traces of the former gymnasium—save for the very loud bell attached to the east wall, which once marked the rounds during the boxing matches they once held up there. OLD-FASHIONED EPISCOPALIAN BOXING MATCHES. Awesome.

I don’t have any especially whacky house walk stories. The crowd was attentive and well-behaved. The only true eccentric was a guy in a trenchcoat with fresh facial scabs, who first asked me if I was “the reverend” and then advised me that our kitchen fire extinguishers weren’t of the correct grade (he recommended K grade extinguishers). My fellow guides, especially Angela, the church historian, were all lovely people. One of them, Olive, was good enough to snap a picture of me. Behold, Mr. Dan Kelly: DOCENT.