THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide



Copyright 1996 by the author, Larry Stark

What do you mean, have I ever heard of Harry Clark? It was me covered his last lecture for the paper. It was me heard his dying words. Matter of fact, it was me went out to that old farm of his to interview him, when so many people first started talking about him. So you could say I got to write up the alpha and the omega of his career as an "Anti-Christ Evangelist" -- as people term it around here. Hell, maybe if I never wrote that interview the poor old geezer'd still be alive today.

What was he like? Nothing like he's painted, I can assure you. I don't think I ever enjoyed an interview more than the one with old Harry. I remember we both laughed a lot that afternoon. And I never once remember hearing him tell another person what to do, or what to think. At the worst, he'd sort of look at his toes for a silent while and then say, "Well, different people think different things, but in My opinion.. " And then he'd say his say, simple and succinct and direct, and then look up with a shy sort of smile and say "But I never had much education, so I probably could be wrong. What do you think?" And then, by gosh, if you Did say you thought different, he'd darn well listen!

Frankly, I don't think there ever was much too it all. A widower alone trying to farm one of those twisty-tilty chunks of Allamakee County gets a lot of time to think, and funny ideas come to a man. And Harry read an awful lot. He'd haul home a dozen or so books a week from the library, all sorts of strange stuff, and come back with lists of things most of which they'd have to chase down by inter-library loans. He'd send away to booksellers in Minneapolis and Chicago, and half the time they had to work hard to find what he wanted. When he died and his belongings were up for auction, Luther College Library bought all his books. They say it was one of the finest libraries of comparative religion and mythology in the entire state.

Not that Harry'd impress anybody as a scholarly type. He was just a quiet, pleasant-spoken Iowa farmer with a hobby, until those Jehovah's Witnesses began getting at him. His new neighbors dropped in one Sunday afternoon to bring him the Word, and went away shaking their heads. They talked about him to their fellow evangelists, and before long poor Harry had a steady stream of visitors eager to talk him over to their way of thinking. Harry'd listen, and after a while, shyly and simply, he'd begin to ask some questions. Finally, his visitors would go off shaking their heads and babbling about the experience.

I think he began to enjoy the conversations, and those who talked to him talked About him, and the reputation that finally captured the attention of my paper began to form. He irritated a lot of people. First of all, he liked to laugh. He found a lot of things and situations and concepts funny, but people of a more serious orientation toward life easily thought he was laughing at them -- though I doubt that was so. And then, he always asked a lot of questions, and so people -- particularly people who had to face the inadequacy of their answers -- felt Harry's questions attacked or challenged them.

Ultimately, people began siccing their favorite pastors on old Harry, and coming out to the farm to watch the debates. And eventually some of the regulars began saying Harry could out-argue Anybody on the subject of religion. That sounded, to those who heard his disciples bragging about him, as though there was this guy out on a farm in Allamakee County who was challenging all of Christianity. That was really where it all started, and that's when I got sent to find out what it was all about.

I spent several hours out at the farm, talking and listening. I may have been one of the first people who came without any personal doctrine I wanted to convince him was the truth. Instead, I asked Him questions, and that was maybe new to him too. people have said a lot about what Harry must necessarily have believed, but Harry himself made very few statements of that sort. What he did say, and it was the thing that annoyed evangelists of all sects, was that he was as yet unconvinced that Christianity was very unique or very attractive to him.

I asked him about that and, quite reluctantly, he gave some examples. He said there was a Brahman creation myth he'd read once that said God awoke in the void, and shouted in fear -- but then asked Himself "If there is nothing else except myself, why am I afraid?" And then God felt lonely, so He divided Himself into Male and Female, but the Female ran from His advances, and changed Herself into a Cow, into a Ewe, into a Nannygoat, into... all Creation. And God pursued and caught Her, and the abundant variety of the whole World is the result -- the world and all the creatures in it being, actually, the substance of God.

"That's a real pretty story," he said. "When you read the Bible, you see a picture of God as always standing Outside everything He has made. He must be terribly lonely, don't you think?"

Well, I hadn't ever thought. But I have thought a whole lot about that, ever since.

So, I wrote the story, and I guess after that Harry didn't get a heck of a lot of farming done, what with people coming out to talk either with him, or against him. And some of the people who just came out to listen began asking him to tell them what they Should believe. From all I've ever read or heard, Harry never did, really. But a lot of people thought he had. And, when he said he never could make any sense out of the concept of "sin" -- well, that was when he and his advocates got denounced as the AntiChrist.

Harry seemed to be saying that, if only Jesus Christ -- who was God Himself -- had ever been without sin, why then calling anyone a sinner was about as relevant as saying he was a human being, or a mammal. But then, he did say that from what he'd seen in the Bible, God Himself was a sinner, and so he Had no business pointing the finger at the rest of us.

Well, I'm not sure what all Harry actually did say. He never did write anything down, and the couple of tape-recordings I've heard of him in full cry don't add up to much. Still, some people said he quoted Jesus' statement that He had come to set brother against brother and son against father, that He would not leave one stone standing upon another when He was finished -- Harry said that sounded like the sin of pride to him. And he said very few people called the cursing of the fig-tree -- just because it wouldn't bear figs out of season -- a miracle, because it was a very selfish, mean-spirited miracle that no one could be proud of.

But what really got things stirred up was what he said about the Book of Job. If he's reported correctly, Harry said it shows God laying a bet on which way poor old Job would jump, and that sounded like the sin of gambling that a lot of people got condemned over. Then when some people insisted that it wasn't really a bet because God always Knew which way Job would jump, Harry said where he grew up betting on a sure thing was called cheating, and that sounded to him like another sin.

But that dragged Satan into the conversation. I think the enthusiastic audiences that were showing up to cheer and jeer went to Harry's head and got him cocky. That, and the fact that his supporters were much too quick to quote the juiciest of his sentences out of context. You take the line everyone remembers: "Unless you finally accept Satan into your life, you will never know peace this side of the grave." Now, it's my guess that what Harry had in mind was that old Hindu concept that everything and everyone, both saint and sinner, are equally God, and it's only people who make arbitrary distinctions. He also said, apparently, that to believe that God only did all the Good things, and He had no hand in holocausts, wars, earthquakes, or the still-birth of innocent infants, had to be a bunch of doublethink.

Now, if he were discussing philosophy in a college classroom with a group of serious moral thinkers, things like that would have made him a scholarly reuptation. Out on a farm in Allamakee County, talking to a passel of Born-again evangelists, he acquired a very different reputation indeed. Personally, I find a lot of truth in his advice that having at least one vice keeps a man from turning his virtues into vices by trying to force them on his fellows. But you know how a little joke like that can sound when you hear it third or fourth hand.

Well, some people began inviting him to speak. I suppose some churches thought his brand of quiet common-sense and bubbling wit might stimulate the congregation to think. And others probably invited him hoping they might be the ones to pin him once and for all in one final, overreaching heresy. The t-v and radio did pieces on him, and of course the papers -- and that quiet, laughing old farmer I'd talked to seemed to get swallowed up in his own exaggerated legend. Worst of all, a lot of people that had never heard a word he said worked up a really astonishing hatred of what they had merely been told Harry was.

Well, his advocates were convinced he really did have a message of importance, so they got up money for a speaking tour. They wanted to start at the Center for Faith And Life Auditorium at Luther College in Decorah, and to finish with Madison Square Garden in New York City. At least that was the talk. And immediately there was opposition. The auditorium was at first "unavailable", and then there were editorials about academic freedom, the right to assembly, freedom of speech. There were lawsuits and injunctions and heavy hatreds on both sides, before poor old Harry Clark finally rose to speak. And before he could say a word some wild-eyed young man in a three-piece suit called him a heathen, heretical Anti-Christian handmaiden of Satan and shot him six times with the biggest pistol I've ever seen in my life.

I was right up in front where I was hoping to hear what he really said, and while people were struggling with the gunman -- who later got off on an insanity plea, by the way -- I went up to see about poor Harry. He'd been hit in the chest and there was bloody bubbles on his beard when I turned him over, but he tried to say something. I bent close and said better not try to talk, but he grabbed both my lapels and yanked me down close to him. "Here my confession, please!" he whispered, and then "Forgive me Father, for I have.. " And then he went limp and was gone.

Well, when I reported those final words, there were a lot of smug editorials that tried to bury poor Harry Clark with them for all time. It was a lot like Robert Ingersoll the Atheist daring God, if He existed, to kill him in the next five minutes, and dying before the time was up. Harry Clark, everyone said, had come home to Jesus in his final breath, and that must prove that the AntiChrist and the friends of Satan hadn't a chance. But I'm not so sure. Some sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind likes to think that Harry was just taking his own advice about having one vice at a time. Even if the vice happens to have turned out to be hypocrisy, at least the old geezer had style!

2,085 words

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THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide