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Kahm's skills as a raconteur were surely honed at the Extemp, as perhaps was his proclivity to sophistry, particularly in relation to the existence and character of God, on which he has many colorful opinions. For several decades now ("about 50 years"), Kahm has been writing a book about the teachings of Jesus, some of which, he says, "are as modern as a rocket ship." In the book, which he means to call The Jesus Nobody Knows, Kahm says he connects the philosophy of the Greek physician Hippocrates to the teachings of Jesus, in search of "ideas that are in accord with modern scientific thinking." Kahm says that Adam and Eve should have been Atom and Eve. "Jesus was born in the wrong time and the wrong country," Kahm often says. "He should have been a Greek." Kahm is constantly making notes for additions and revisions to the text. "That's what makes it so hard to finish," he says. "It's like a dog going back to its own vomit." The book is already 500 or 600 pages long and fills a large cardboard carton near the typewriter.
Both Kahm's parents were Jews, although "neither of them ever set foot in a temple. My father told me the Bible was a bunch of fairy tales. I take the viewpoint of modern science. Proof is what matters. I do not believe that Samson's strength was in his hair. I don't believe that Joshua made the sun stand still. I don't believe that demons are the cause of disease. I'm not an atheist in this sense: Thomas Paine said, 'You have only to behold the vast machinery of the universe to realize that no man could have created it.'"
Kahm's mother believed in God. "When I was a child," Kahm says, "my mother would never punish me. Instead, she said, 'God will punish you.'" Kahm nods his head mournfully. "Instead, God punished her. She died horribly. She had cancer for 20 years and was in and out of the hospital." Kahm is the kind of agnostic who talks a lot about God and frequently adopts a Promethean anger at humanity's lot. "If we are all God's children," he says, "God should be punished for child abuse."
One afternoon, I spot a list of diseases on Kahm's desk; it is two columns long and covers everything from crib death to yellow fever. Kahm says it is research for the book, a detailing of God's treatment of his people. "They say that God loves us," he sneers. "Well, that's a fucking lie." Kahm bears the most animosity toward organized religion. "Thomas Paine once said religion is about two things: money and power. Neither has anything to do with God. You manufacture a product which is invisible and after one buys it, there's no evidence it ever existed." This makes him truly indignant, and when it comes to the folly of religion, he does not easily tire of the feeling. Some of Kahm's theology depends on word play or syllogism: "Science is fact without certainty, and religion is certainty without fact," he says. Or: "They build churches to reach up to heaven. Little do they know that half the time the steeples point the other way!"
Kahm often talks about a letter he sent unknown years ago to the Religion department at St. Olaf college, in which he condensed many of his arguments about the endeavor he jokingly calls "saving Jesus from the Christians." No one wrote back. To Kahm, this is a clear forfeit. He takes it as yet further proof of his rectitude.
Kahm does not know what comes after death and argues that it makes no sense to worry about it. The executor of his estate, whom Kahm met at the Coffeehouse Extempore, is 37 years old and the director of the Minnesota Atheists. One thing Kahm would not want to do is live life over again. "Think of all the toothaches. The heartaches. The embarrassment. The disappointment. All creatures have an instinctual fear of death, whether you're a fly or a human. It doesn't make a whit of difference. You die anyway."
Back in the 1950s, Harold Kahm had an episode of writer's block that lasted a full year. "It was as if someone had put his hand inside my brain and turned something off," he says. He got a day job by starting his own company to sell ballpoint pens; soon he had five salesman under him, at which point he sold the company. Recently, Kahm has been challenged to complete the usual 1,000 words a day--a modest total for him. His typewriter ribbon ran out three weeks ago, and when he couldn't readily locate a replacement, he felt relieved. "The executive editor at Bantam, Allan Barnard, who visited me twice here in Minneapolis, is retired 15 years. He may be dead," Kahm says. "I don't know anyone in publishing anymore." On another occasion, Kahm hypothesizes that he has become too lazy to write. "Besides," he says, "I can't see any reason in it.
"Most of my books don't amount to much," he says. "The average non-fiction book is hack-work. Any job is a hack job. You just do your task. If you work for General Motors, you don't design cars. You screw in bolt #643. If you work for a newspaper, the newspaper needs copy, and you fill it. If you have a cause--gay liberation, for example--or if the writing comes from the heart--anger, the desire to help people, the desire to smash evil--now that's not hack work.
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