Mr. Smith Goes to Montana (and finds Jesus)
It is hardly unheard of for someone to drop acid and see Christ. Barry Smith, however, got things backward. The Aspenite did, indeed, experiment with LSD and did, in fact, see the Son of God. But the two happenings did not coincide; they seem instead to be distinctly separated. Smith chalks up his abandonment of his long-held Christian beliefs to LSD, and when, some years later, he saw Jesus – lived in Christ’s basement for two months, no less, and played a lot of hacky-sack with him – it was in a time of complete sobriety.Smith was raised a Southern Baptist in Greenville, Miss., which may well be the very heart of the Bible Belt. The Aspenite – a humor columnist for The Aspen Times, a traveling audio/visual worker, and an aspiring blues player – went to Christian schools. For a year he lived in Greenville with his uncle, a preacher, and his aunt, a Sunday school teacher, both of whom attended church not only on Sundays but Wednesdays as well. It was an upbringing that did not encourage questioning of one’s faith.”I bought into it. Hey, I was 8,” said Smith, sitting at the kitchen table of the cozy but chilly West End residence where he is a caretaker. “I found it pretty terrifying. The Southern Baptist God is not a chummy one. But there’s no out – even if you’re walking real carefully, you’re going to piss him off. And the worst way to piss him off is to say you don’t believe in him. So that’s not an option.”I was a little Christian soldier.”Acid, Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman’s 1938 invention, was the beginning of Smith’s slide into godlessness. Smith, whose move to California’s Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, at 14, caused a disruption in his unquestioned faith, waved goodbye to his Southern Baptist beliefs at the age of 19 – “around my third acid trip,” said Smith.”Thanks to the use of hallucinogenics, I had renounced my religious upbringing as much as possible,” he continued.”Or so I thought.”
***Presently, Barry Smith, now 38, doesn’t attend church and is unaffiliated with any religion. His existence is not godless: “I have my own God – and we’re getting along great,” he says, in a statement that seems as accurate as it is jesting. But a good laugh, his morning cups of coffee, Monty Python member John Cleese and Smith’s wife, Christina Patterson, all rate well ahead of Jesus Christ in a listing of things that afford Smith comfort and joy.So how did it come to pass a decade ago, that Smith gave up his career as a dishwasher as the Snowmass Conference Center, stuck out his thumb and hitchhiked to Missoula, Mont., there to find the reincarnation of Christ?That question is at the center of “Jesus in Montana,” Smith’s original one-man show that debuts this weekend, with shows Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m. at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre. The show, directed by Lynn Aliya, is presented by the Mojo Studio and Aspen Stage.For those who know Smith as a humorist – his output includes a book of comic poetry (“Ode to Mustard”), a comedy CD (“The Astounding World of Dirt,” credited to the Flicker Noise collective), and an award-winning short film (“Diary of a Flagger,” which won best comedy short at Boston’s Zoinks! Film Festival) – he assures that his search for Christ was not a search for comic material. The religious adventure predated any thought of a career in humor. “I wasn’t doing this to write a one-man show,” said Smith.It was the Gulf War, version 1.0, that opened Smith’s mind back up to the idea of God. Whatever fears LSD may have erased, whatever illusions it may have replaced, the Gulf War re-instilled in Smith. The images of bombs falling on Baghdad, Saddam Hussein’s threats of annihilation of the United States, put the fear of God back in Smith.”I was 25 and thinking, this is serious, this is the end,” said Smith. “‘The Mother of all Battles’ – that can’t be good.”And there I am, left without God. It’s that whole ‘no atheist in a foxhole’ thing. But I’m in Snowmass Village, which is a pretty cozy foxhole.”
His fear restored, Smith was in an ideal frame of mind to be led back to the Lord’s door. “I was in the state of, what the hell is going on with the world and what can I do?” said Smith. “That’s when I met someone who told me Jesus has returned and he’s living in Montana.” (Smith won’t reveal “someone’s” identity, but notes that he still lives in the Roaring Fork Valley, and the two are no longer on speaking terms.)Smith and three fellow local believers hatched a plan to hitch separately to Montana, proselytizing all the way, and meet up at Jesus’ home in Missoula. Jesus turned out to be a retired chiropractor who went by “Doc” – “calling him Jesus was just too weird,” said Smith at the center of a small sect that wanted to re-establish the word of the Bahai faith. Doc was not a particularly charismatic guy, but Smith was not disappointed. Based on some “direct Biblical references and fulfilled prophecies,” he came to believe that he was in the presence of the Son of God.”He was not your cookie-cutter cult leader,” said Smith. “It wasn’t supposed to be about charisma. It was about studying the prophecies.”After two months of Bible studies and hacky-sack while living in Doc’s basement, Smith and his group returned to the Roaring Fork Valley eager to share the big news. They established the Bahai Center in Basalt, with Smith as president, and went “into full conversion mode,” said Smith. The mission lasted three years before it came to a crashing halt. Smith wouldn’t reveal what caused his latest parting with formal religion; he doesn’t want to spoil a dramatic moment in “Jesus in Montana.” But he swears it’s a biggie.”Getting out of it, there was an exciting ending,” he said. “An ending of biblical proportions. But it’s not giving away too much to say that I’m not involved anymore.”***Though he agrees that his Jesus episode is a story that writes itself – especially since he became a humor writer soon after the Montana trip – it took Smith nearly a decade to bring the story to the stage. First, he says, he needed to prove that he could stand onstage alone and perform. So three years ago, Smith performed David Sedaris’ “The Santaland Diaries” in Glenwood Springs – and then got to work on “Jesus in Montana.”
An experienced audio/visual guy whose credits include the 2004 Clinical Ultrasound Conference and the Diagnostic Imaging National Symposium, Smith conceived his show as a multimedia extravaganza, with extensive use of photos, graphs and charts. “I’ve sat through a lot of really boring medical meetings with slide show and Power Point. And sat there thinking you could really do some funny stuff with this format,” he said. Then at last year’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Smith saw “Dave Gorman’s Googlewhack Adventure,” a one-man show that featured extensive photos, charts and graphs. Smith was equally disheartened and encouraged.”When I saw Dave Gorman, it was ‘holy shit! that’s the show I’ve just written,'” said Smith. “On the one hand, I thought ‘oh no, people are going to think I’ve copied him.’ On the other hand, I thought, ‘hey, you can really do this.'”More central to “Jesus in Montana” than the technical wizardry is the lingering question: Why? Why did Smith believe – and go on believing for three years – that an unimpressive retired chiropractor in Montana was the second coming of Jesus Christ?”As I’ve been telling this story to friends over the years, that’s always the question,” said Smith, who has plans for another one-man show, about his year as a squatter in England. “Generally, someone tells you Jesus is here, you give him some change and keep on walking. But I didn’t – and that’s the big question: Why?”The partial conclusion he has come to is that he was just ready to hear it.”I thought there was very good evidence,” said Smith. “With 12 years to look back on it, I guess I was just ready to believe.”I mean, Jesus is alive – that’s good news, right? Jesus is here and everything’s going to be OK.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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