In August, I've been told, grown-up writers all go off to their summer homes on the Cape or Martha's Vinyard
, and live the simple life. Being a mendicant
scholar, my journeys have been purely in the mind: I read a good deal of the Durrell family, ordered some of Elizabeth David
's early cookbooks (very useful in Connecticut summer), and finally got down to finishing South Wind
. I also pondered the case of Thomas Kinkade
's fictitious New England, especially that in his book, Cape Light. Knowing how many people jump to conclusions
about New Haven
, and Yale University
, I thought it would be fun to demythify a key topic of New England life, specifically, the role of faith.
In Cape Light, "everything is the way it's always been": women are "famous" for cooking homey regional specialties like strawberry shortcake and clam rolls (Enormous tip-off: New Englanders don't deep-fry in their homes, clam rolls are take-out fare), there's a real-live soda fountain in the drugstore, and everyone looks and acts like a character out of Norman Rockwell. When two retired university professors open a coffeehouse ("the Beanery") people make fun of the silly names for the drinks, which after all aren't half so good as "Susan's famous coffee" at the diner, and cost three times as much! And above all, people have Faith.
Since everyone is from an "old local family", everyone's presumably WASP, and of 16th century Pilgrim stock. Therefore, everyone goes to the same church, Reverend Ben Elliott's simple white-painted meetinghouse on the Green. Though we're not told the precise denomination of this church, it's clear that it's fairly close to Thomas Kincaid's own avowed evangelicalism, which he terms "a simple faith": tacitly conservative, with a strong emphasis on the Bible and a moral code much like that of Pat Robertson. In this town Durham Light, a lighthouse on a point (apparently now overgrown by highly-saturated pastel trees) stands as a symbol of the abiding centrality of Jesus Christ as the personal Savior and Lord of all the residents. It's not mentioned whether there were any witch hangings in the area, or whether they ever stigmatized adultresses, but you can just bet that there'll be no trick-or-treating come Satan's Birthday, and that high-school girls wear modesty skirts under their minis while studying Creation Science.
Which makes about as much sense as having everyone openly worshipping Cthulhu. While it's true that member churches of the United Church of Christ, which is where all these Pilgrims and Puritans ended up after about six generations or so, have a tradition of independent thought, it's also true that, at least from the time of the Civil Rights movement onwards, they've been enthusiastically liberal in their views on social policies. Reverend Ben is actually more-than-likely to be Reverend Sam, if she's not Carol or Joan, a fiftyish woman who loves baroque chamber music and U2, and is looking forward to performing the town's first same-sex marriage. After all, this is the church, not only of Cotton Mather, but of Julian Bond, Oprah Winfrey, and, dare I say it, Barack Obama. And on the subject of multiculturalism....
It's worth pointing out that the Dutch/British/French settlement of New England is approximately four hundred years old. Just as fossilized microorganisms have changed through the slow metamorphizing of the rocks in which they're embedded, and even some cave art has changed through geological processes in and on their stones, nice New England towns, especially on the coast, are extremely unlikely to be purely inhabited by any one group or another whatsoever. For instance, looking over the hypothetical Green, you might notice two other buildings, more European in nature, Gothic and Romanesque, respectively, which belong to Trinity Episcopal and St. Mary's (Catholic) churches respectively, catering to the later colonists, Irish, Italians, and Portuguese that have settled in the area since those early times (Family-run -- not Olive Garden -- Italian/seafood restaurants are ubiquious, and tasty, and yes, they know all about making cappuccinos, lattes, and so on -- from their mothers). While the Catholic church still holds lock-step with Rome in matters of priestly celibacy, and still (at least on paper) holds to traditional values, a man with such a Celtic last name as his would hear "eh, Faith and Begorrah, why does a good boy like you have to do with a faith neither reformed nor Anglican, nor Catholic?". While the Episcopal church, for a time, was lampooned as "St. Midas", for its High Church liturgy and wealthy parishioners (especially among the summer residents), it, too, is socially progressive, and in any case, is centered on the Anglican Mass and Holy Communion (with appropriate music), not the pulpit.
As well as perhaps a Methodist, Presbyterian, or Lutheran church, or a synagogue, you might also see some other, smaller, churches, around town, whose names you might not recognize. Perhaps they might carry on the traditions epitomized in the "Simple Gifts" of the Shaker hymn? They might, if you consider The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing as they really were and are: simple, perhaps in art, but richly complex in theology. Fact is, as much as we're branded as being puritanical and "witch-burners", New Englanders are notorious for lusting after strange gods, a tendency that means that every few years, there's a revival, which invariably ends up with people joining faiths even more complex and politically progressive than the mainstream, which ends up with people espousing such theological oddities as The Oneida Community, Spiritualism, Swedenborgianism, Universalist Unitarianism, Christian Science, and, of course, Wicca, The Golden Dawn/O.T.O., TM, Zen, and various other New Agey meta-religions. We also are (or were) enthusiastic lodge members and joiners, meaning that New England towns are dotted with enough Masonic Halls, Odd Fellows Temples, Elks Lodges, Knights of Columbus, Lions Clubs, Grange Halls, and the like to make you start believing in the Illuminati, some (though not all) are religious or quasi-religious in nature. In short, we're more than fond of our witches: Salem was an embarrassment (if they really weren't really witches, shame on us for being superstitious, if they were, shame on us for not being religiously tolerant) but isn't it fun to believe in them? So we actually enjoy Halloween (any excuse for a party, especially in Autumn, our finest season) and fortunetelling, to the extent that you'll see Halloween parties in parish houses, fortunetelling at church fairs (as many did, srisly, back in the 1950's), and an occult bookstore/herb shop on the Town Green without anyone raising so much as an eyebrow. If Cthulhu were to be worshipped anywhere in New England, he wouldn't be a secret, as much as a mascot for some high school team.
So, where would Thomas Kincaid feel at home worshipping in Cape Light? Well, back a few miles, near the interstate, there's a couple of churches that are kind-of-evangelical, where they have a preacher who uses a microphone, and they have electric instruments, instead of an organ....but they're kind of well, for people who really aren't from around here...out where the cheap gift shops are, where they sell Thomas Kincade stuff....