Short Fiction: The True Believers

I thought this might be of interest for #TBT – a bit of original short fiction when I thought that was something I dug a lot…

This was way early from the past decade – a bit of shifting POV and philosophy about faith when I first started wondering about it. I wonder about it even more now, mainly because of those who call themselves people of faith.

Don’t know how much quality it is, but I’ll let you have a look anyway. If you want, leave some feedback in the comments.

The True Believers

By Jason Liegois

BC – Religion Summit Bjt.

World religious leaders meet in Orlando

By Zach Sullivan

Associated Press Writer

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – After several months of negotiations, representatives of the fundamentalist factions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam arrived in Orlando Sunday evening for talks on reducing religious violence around the world.

The meetings, sponsored by the American Religious Interfaith Council (ARIC), are scheduled to begin this morning at the Palm Island Hotel and Convention Center in Orlando. During the weeklong summit, delegates are expected to address issues such as methods to raise dialogue between religious groups, speaking out against terrorist activity and proposing peaceful alternatives to violence.

Although critics of the meetings have noted that some delegates are known to have ties to terrorist activities both in the Middle East and America, White House spokesman Larry Benitez suggested that those were the exact type of people that should be working to end worldwide religious violence…

 

By Tuesday night, the conference was halfway into the trashcan.

The conference had accomplished nothing other than passing a few pithy resolutions condemning violence in the most general of terms. The Jewish and Muslim delegations had taken turns accusing each other of supporting the elimination of the other from the Holy Land, and both groups had taken the Christian delegations to task for their “paternalistic” attitudes and general support of Western imperialism. The Christians denied it, of course, but even the coffee had turned cold.

It was at the end of the Tuesday lunch session when one of the ARIC hosts, the Rev. Richard Rodriguez with the United Methodist Church in Tampa, made a suggestion. He advised the ARIC board that six of the leading negotiators should meet that evening for an after-dinner social hour at one of the hotel’s penthouse suites. The management for the conference had set it aside but no one had occupied it yet. The board members brought the idea to each of the delegations. After some cajoling, they agreed to the gathering, which they set to begin at 7:30 p.m.

Everything was set by that time at the penthouse. Essentially an expanded two-bedroom apartment, the penthouse had a big bathroom complete with black marble hot tub, a cooking area and a large living room area complete with a love seat set up arranged like a big C in front of four large windows displaying Orlando’s skyline. The staff had cleaned out the suite’s wet bar and put in some more appropriate refreshments before leaving.

The two Muslims, the Grand Mufti Abdul Al-Jazerra of Saudi Arabia and Ayatollah Ali Khatmani of Iran, arrived first. Al-Jazerra, a chunky six-footer in his fifties with a wide nose and even wider grin on the rare occasions he smiled, was the head of the Sunni Muslim contingent. Khatmani was several inches shorter, many pounds slimmer and a decade older than his fellow Muslim was, with a heavily lined face that had a large nose that resembled a parrot or puffin’s beak. He represented the Shiite Muslim contingent. Both men wore their traditional robes, which had served them well in the warm spring Orlando weather.

Al-Jazerra turned around in a small circle to examine the room. “No one is here?” he asked Khatmani.

“We are probably the first to arrive,” Khatmani suggested. Their conversation was in Arabic.

“No, I mean, none of our hosts are here. I expected them to have some sort of mediator here or something, to keep us from strangling each other.” No ironic laugh followed.

“I think their intent was that this be an informal affair. A mediator might have… increased the tensions by themselves.”

“Perhaps,” Al-Jazerra conceded.

Khatmani noticed two large coffee makers set up on the kitchen area countertop. “Sheik, some coffee?” he said as he approached the area.

“Oh, I would, Ayatollah, but it’s so late in the evening, a few cups would keep me up all night…”

Khatmani examined the large metal containers and pointed to a taped label on the one on the right. “It says this pot has decaffeinated coffee.”

“Truly? Well, perhaps one or two cups then,” Al-Jazerra said. “No, don’t trouble yourself, Sheik Khatmani, I’ll get my own cup.”

They’d managed to sit down and take their first glance when the two Jewish representatives arrived, arrayed in black suits, skullcaps and side curls. The white-bearded Rabbi Haim Cohen was the oldest of the representatives that evening, having just turned 70 years old. Strangely, the hair on his head remained largely brown, and his build seemed to be more like a weightlifter’s than that of a Talmudic scholar. He would be serving as representative of Israel’s Orthodox population, while his companion, the slighter but more red-faced fifty-something Rabbi Michael Diamond, was representing Orthodox Jews in America.

At the entrance of the Jews, both Muslims turned and acknowledged the new arrivals with a nod. “Good evening, gentlemen,” Al-Jazerra said in English. Although all of the attendees this evening had some proficiency with a language other than their own, they’d agreed to stick to English for the evening, it being the only language all six men knew.

“Grand Mufti, Ayatollah,” Cohen said as Diamond waved, then made his way to the coffee machines.

“Rabbi, some coffee?” Diamond offered, holding up one of the mugs.

“You are so kind, but let me see what else is available,” Cohen said, opening the refrigerator next to the kitchen area. “Perhaps… ah, there.” He selected a plastic bottle of club soda from the fridge.

The two Muslims had occupied the right-hand portion of the couch, so the Jews sat on its left-end side. Whether that was to give the Muslims space or put some space between them was unclear. Before having to engage in small talk, the Christian representatives made their entrance.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” the Rev. Jerome “J.W.” Cole called out upon entering the room and everyone greeted him in turn. The youngest member of the party at 40, Cole already had been an ordained Baptist minister for 20 years. A native of Kentucky, he preached to a flock in Jacksonville upstate while running a religious broadcasting service. Through a combination of open accounting, strict ethics rules concerning the behavior of male staffers around female counterparts and a general avoidance of political issues, Cole had avoided the pitfalls many of his fellow “televangelists” had not. In his navy suit and loosened tie, Cole looked like a renegade member of the Kennedy clan.

Monsignor Enrico Leone entered and exchanged greetings as well. The 55-year-old was dressed casually for the event in a thick cotton sweater and khakis, the Roman collar on his black shirt the only indication of his stature as a 30-year veteran of the Vatican bureaucracy. He was lean like the swimmer he was and what remained of his hair he’d shaven from his head. Ostensibly a member of the Vatican’s diplomatic corps, Leone had long been rumored to be part of the Church’s little known but respected intelligence service. He and other top Vatican officials were taking more of an active role in running the Church since the unfortunate coma of the Holy Father and the resulting confusion concerning whether a replacement for him could be named before his death.

Both men selected their drinks for the evening – Leone a coffee with cream and Cole a red can of Coke from the mini-bar. They sat down in the middle of the C-shaped couch, with Jews to their left and Muslims to their right.

For several seconds, no one said anything after greeting each other, but politely sipped their drinks and looked outside at the maze of and for lights representing Orlando. They could see a Boeing 747 take a controlled fall from the sky to the long light corridor that was Orlando International Airport, likely filled with pilgrims to the land of Disney.

Eventually, it was Cole, being the only Florida resident of the group, who decided it was his task to break the ice. “Beautiful city, isn’t it?” he asked no one in particular.

“Quite so,” Al-Jazerra, said. “An entire city essentially devoted to entertainment. Something that could happen only in the West, of course, but… very intriguing.”

“Well, Orlando gets visitors from all around the world, including many from the Muslim world,” said Diamond, who along with Cole was the only American in the room. “I remember visiting here as a little boy seeing all different types of people here, from the Middle East, Africa, Asia… there were more than a few Muslims around then and now.”

“Indeed?” Khatmani replied. “Reverend, what would you say is the attraction of this… Disney World and all the other things?”

“Well, at least my perception is, that Disney is trying to sell, for lack of a better word, America,” Cole said, slowly warming up to the task. “And they try to sell it in a package that is attractive and safe to all people, no matter what their background is.”

“It’s a small world,” Cohen said, then laughed at his comedy skills.

The comment seemed to finally relax the tension in the room. No one stretched out on the couch, but everyone’s posture seemed to lacking some of their steel bracing. Tonight would not be a tiresome rehash of the conference topics, but more of a philosophical exploration.

“Monsignor, do you have any thoughts on the city?” Al-Jazerra asked the Italian.

Leone nodded. “It seems a fine enough city, as far as its services and general cleanliness,” he finally said. “But there is something about it. I think it lacks a distinct geography, like, say, a Rome or a New York City. To me, it feels like it could be any city anywhere.” Turning to the Saudi, he smiled and said, “Am I making any sense?”

“No, I certainly understand your point.”

“I certainly think that Disney World has a distinct landscape to it, it’s own geography and unmistakable landmarks,” Cole said.

“The notion that an amusement park has more of this quality than the city that supports it… is an irony I’m not sure how to take,” Leone replied.

Cole laughed. “True enough, Monsignor.”

Khatmani saw a television remote control in the middle of a coffee table itself seated in the middle of the space surrounded by the love seat. There was a big screen TV just behind the Jews on a wall. Seeing no one else reaching for the controller, he did so and turned it on.

The screen immediately came to life as a rap video from MTV flickered across it. Images of blacks draped in gold and ice, drinking champagne and cavorting with bikini-clad, coffee-colored women with plenty on top and junk in the trunk.

“Oh, no!” Khatmani said, dropping the controller and waving his hands as if to wave off an oncoming semi-tractor-trailer. All of the other clergy looked at where he was looking and flinched, although not as drastically as the Iranian.

Cole acted fast. He dived for the controller on the love seat and aimed right for the center of the TV. With the push of two buttons, the television flickered onto the Disney Channel.

Khatmani looked at all of the startled clergy. “I must apologize for that…”

Cohen waved his hand. “No need. That could not have been expected.”

“I swe… I’m always amazed at the depth of depravity on some of these entertainment channels here in the West,” Al-Jazerra said. “Their appetite for blasphemy and godlessness seems to have no boundaries.”

“Indeed, this culture here seems to promote such thought. I see it even in our brethren living in this country,” Khatmani said. “Often, the parents of children affected by that garbage send them to their homelands in Iran or elsewhere, so that they can learn a more holy lifestyle. A noble thought, of course. But what happens just as often as the reform of the child is that the child spreads his notions of materialism and sexual excess to the children in our countries.” Khatmani shook his head. “It is a difficult quandary.”

“I must say, that our rabbis in Israel face a similar quandary,” Cohen said. “We have Jewish parents send their children to Israel all the time for similar reasons and some of this corruption results. Not that some of our native Jewish population doesn’t have the same effect,” he allowed.

“Truly?” Al-Jazerra asked.

“Truly.” Both men’s eyes locked as Cohen finished that last statement. The notion that the two men had found something in common appeared to surprise them.

“I just want you to know that we’re aware of the kind of temptations that the media and other sources provide our young,” Diamond said. “It’s something that I know our younger rabbis discuss with me often. You try and do what you can, but it’s just so… pervasive.”

“I have to admit something,” Cole said. “A lot of the brethren in the Protestant faith discuss this sometimes, like sex and violence on television and in the movies. Especially when some of these pastors are trying to play politics.” Diamond and Leone laughed at that. “But there are a lot of problems that are connected to this that we don’t talk about, but we should. There’s the problem in this country with many people being concerned with material goods and money at the expense of everything else. It’s a problem that affects even many of my own fellow Baptists, I’m sad to say.” Cole was surprised to see the Muslims nod their heads first.

Leone looked at the TV screen. “What will be playing on this channel?”

“Let me look,” Diamond said as he grabbed a television guide. “Oh, look, it’s a double play of Toy Story I and II. Anybody interested in watching?”

“Why not?” Al-Jazerra said. “Let’s find out how Westerners create family entertainment, eh?”

“Well, if we are going to watch some films, it seems only right that we get some munchies, right?” Cole said.

He received nods of approval from around the couch. For holy men who abstained from alcohol, drugs and smoking, a sugar and caffeine feast was one of the few guilty pleasures left in life. Within 15 minutes, two young ladies from room service brought up a cartload of treats that threatened to spill onto the floor.

Khatmani had observed the women closely during their visit and afterward turned to Cole. “Reverend, I would like to know your position on this question of ‘women’s lib,’ as the women here phrase it,” Khatmani said. “Of course, the Grand Mufti and myself agree that women should have a free will and be treated with respect, but I am not sure that they have a place outside the home. What are your thoughts on this?”

“Well, unfortunately, a lot of women in America are required to work to support themselves and their families, Ayatollah. That’s just a fact. However, I do take exception to the idea of women and men being thought of as the same. Men and women have fundamental physical and emotional differences and to be blind to them is simply foolishness.”

Both of the Muslims nodded at the end of Cole’s speech. “A fine way of phrasing the point, especially for a young man,” Cohen said.

 

It was by the end of Toy Story that Al-Jazerra got into a friendly debate about whether passages from the Torah and the Koran said essentially the same things. Cohen supported this theory, although Al-Jazerra was not as sure.

“Well, why don’t we find out once and for all whether this is the case?” Leone suggested. “Are we not all scholars here, that can research this quandary?”

So, for the next two hours of the next movie, that’s what he, Al-Jazerra and Cohen did. Each knew the holy books inside and out, and they all began to scan frantically through them.

The more they looked, the more they noticed the same themes appearing in each book. They included love for their fellow man, compassion toward the underprivileged, respect toward their elders and responsibility toward their families. Although the wording in the passages differed slightly from book to book, the intent of the divinely inspired authors remained the same.

“It is astonishing to believe, but it’s true,” Al-Jazerra said, after he downed his sixth chocolate mocha of the night with a dark chocolate bar chaser. “It appears that we as strong and true believers in one God have more in common with each other than anyone could have believed. Perhaps, we even have more in common with each other than some of our own co-religionists whose faith one might call lackadaisical. I wonder how this idea could be properly… expressed.”

“What you say has much wisdom behind it,” Leone said, halfway through a gallon container of kettlecorn. “But, there are also many… barriers between our faiths, if not our cultures. How can we properly address such a fact here among ourselves?”

“You’ve got a point,” Cole said, after finishing noshing on some of the Jelly Bellys he had sitting in a large glass jar in front of him. “I suggest that we follow the saying of an old song my mother used to sing to my sisters and me when we were young. ‘Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative.’”

Khatmani had finished all of the chocolates in a candy box he had and now started on the box itself, which was made of dark chocolate. “Well, why not explore the idea? What do we have to lose?”

“I’m for it as well,” said Cohen, who was sharing some of Leone’s kettlecorn. “Is everyone else in agreement?” A quick series of nods confirmed their willingness.

 

The rest of the conversation that evening was straightforward. The mood varied between that of diplomats setting forward a major treaty between nations and a group of young men giggling as they wrote a comedy sketch.

All of the delegates looked at the document they’d finally created at four in the morning, buzzed like junkies on sugar and caffeine highs. There was much agreement on the page, as well as a few compromises. The Christians agreed to go along with the Jews’ and Muslim’s dietary practices and Leone agreed – a little quickly, to the amusement of the others – that they did not need a celibate clergy. Bending to some of Cole’s concerns, the use of birth control would be allowed, but all agreed that abortion would not be approved of. For their part, the Muslims agreed to support sticking to one wife rather than multiple ones.

“This is an intriguing statement of faith,” Cohen said, “but what will our fellow brothers of the faith say to this?”

“I’m not sure, rabbi,” Cole responded, “but I’ll be interested to find out.”

 

Effects of Orlando conference run deep

By Danny Schaver

Chicago Journal Columnist

JERUSALEM  – Sunday’s handover of the Jerusalem UN Protectorate District (JUNPD) to representatives of the Council of the True Believers was one giant leap for the world into the unknown.

It also showed the world how far things have come in the one year since representatives of what would become the Church of the True Believers agreed upon their Articles of Belief, also known as the Orlando Articles.

Since the signing of the Orlando Articles, millions of Christians, Jews and Muslims – hard-line, very religious people who no one would believe leaving their faiths for something else – have flocked to what can only be called a new religion…

…What continues to amaze me is that the True Believers have managed to brush aside centuries of what seemed to be opposing teachings to create one religion. From my talks with True Believer priests, I came to realize that they do this by simply ignoring what is in conflict and emphasizing what the hard-line believers have in common. These include a strict moral code, distinct male/female identities if not rigidly enforced roles, and their shared vision of what religion should be. The True Believer Reader published just this month and featuring cross-references to lessons on moral beliefs such as truthfulness in all the religious texts, is a revelation.

I have to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of the True Believer lifestyle, although I do appreciate their effect of bringing the religions together. As for myself, I’ve been investigating The One religion; another movement also aimed at bringing the main monotheistic faiths together. It has found many converts to their faith from more of the liberal and moderate faithful. Many old-time religious leaders of all faiths are beginning to get nervous about their viability.

However, the greatest coup so far is the awarding of the JUNPD district’s administration to the True Believers. Combined with the Oslo II accords, the UN seems to have finally put to an end, or at least permanently cooled, longstanding tensions in the Mideast. Hard-line Jews and Muslims who might have put up a stronger opposition to the plan are now split deeply between the old-time and True Believer camps.

…For me, I think this year has proven that in the second millennium, religion has become more of a lifestyle choice than a set of Biblical, Talmudic or Koranic beliefs. What separate people now are not what they believe in, but how they believe in it, and I’m not sure that’s not a good idea.

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