My home town Seattle was largely settled by escaped Scandahoovians who were chased from northern Europe by the dark climate and dour Lutheran outlook. They came to America, only to find the Great Plains already dotted with thousands of other Scandahoovian settlements, hunkered down in the bitter cold winters and broiling summers, and still haunted by a dour Lutheran outlook: the ancestors of the people who settled Lake Wobegon.
So they headed West, in a hurry to get as far as they could from whatever was East. They shed the politics, ethnic fracases (in those days, mostly the “Irish problem” of which us Sheas are but one chronic manifestation), and especially religion of all that was east of the Rockies by the time they settled in the Puget Sound region, “surrounded by acres of clams” as one old song goes. Only one thing remained out of their heritage: niceness. They thought that would be enough.
It wasn’t. For the process of shedding Christianity left Seattle–the most unchurched city in the most unchurched state in the union–a sort of living laboratory for demonstrating the truth of the old Chestertonian maxim that “If you stop believing in God, you don’t believe in nothing, you believe in anything.”
Seattleites became big believers in anything. Surrounded by all this natural splendor of mountains, evergreens, water and still more mountains, Seattleites naturally believe that everywhere should be like here and that basic Scandahoovian niceness is and ought to be natural to all the world. We are perpetually surprised when visiting New Yorkers make fun of us for stopping at crosswalks or some ugly basketball player with green hair spits on one of our Sonics just to intimidate him. We watch people on TV cut each other’s throats in exotic places like “Algeria” and wring our hands and say “Can’t we all just get along?” We sincerely believe the best way to face down a world riven by war and terrorism is to Visualize World Peace, to channel “spirit guides” or to get a new bumper sticker. In short, we don’t really believe in sin, we believe in something called “spirituality.”
An open-ended word that. It bespeaks airiness, like a breeze through lace curtains. No choices to be made. No suffering to endure. No martyrs, virgins, crosses or death. Just the bodiless, weightless voice of a counselor affirming you in your okayness and advising you to breathe deeply and “Be Here Now.” We’ve gone about as far as you can go in inventing a warm and cost-free spirituality of Niceness.
And yet, in the midst of all this, we Seattleites keep finding awkward things popping up among us. Things like Ted Bundy, the Green River Killer, and Kurt Cobain, dead by his own hand. Things like a thriving heroin subculture which has made Seattle the Heroin Capital of the US. Things like an exponential growth in gangs, crime and generally nastiness.
In fact, there has grown up in Seattle an entire culture of nihilism, despair and death which has been energetically exported via grunge music for over a decade. And it exists and thrives side by side with the Cult of Niceness. For Niceness has, in fact, created a house swept clean and empty, the perfect way to discover that when you stop believing in the devil, he does not thereby feel obliged to stop believing in you.
The existence of real evil and of real love is all that makes sense of the Easter story. It was real evil, not poor communication, low self-esteem or underfunded libraries, that crucified Jesus. It was real death that squeezed bitter tears from his eyes. But it was real love, not cost-free Niceness, that faced the reality of betrayal, scourging, mockery, a crown of thorns and crucifixion. For love is not bodiless and weightless. It bears wounds and rises–bodily–from the dead.