Although she attended Mass and didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, she was hardly the Catholic version of a “Holy Roller.” She never talked about her concept of God, and of our many conversations, I can’t recall more than a couple that included any talk about our beliefs or even religion. What little she knew of Roman Catholic doctrines, she learned in Catholic schools during the ‘40s and ‘50s. And she knew even less of theology in general, or the Bible itself; even in my generation, Catholics weren’t encouraged to learn about those things for themselves. She often expressed disagreement, or even disdain, for much of what she heard from priests and fellow parishioners. I was only partially joking when, during one of our conversations, I exclaimed that she believed even less than I, an atheist, of what the church teaches.
The real reason she sent my siblings and me to Catholic schools, she said, was that she felt it offered “a better education” than the local public schools—and, on the money my then-blue-collar father was making, secular private schools were out of the question. To me, that is consistent with what she once told me was the main reason she continued to attend mass on Sundays (and on weekdays during times of crisis): “It’s comforting. It’s something that doesn’t change.” In other words, although I don’t doubt that she believed in God and adored Jesus, I think that she saw the church and its educational institutions as things she could depend on when other things in her life changed or failed.
Of course, I do not share my mother’s trust in the church, and not only because I survived sexual abuse from a priest. Other experiences, including my formal education, and my inquisitiveness, would undermine my ability to believe. I think that my mother understood as much, and saw my loss of faith in both the church and in God as more or less inevitable. (As far as I know, she never knew about the abuse.) My mother sometimes talked about what she might have done differently: She would have gotten more education (she didn’t finish high school), developed a career of her own and had her children later than she did. I have to wonder whether her church-going habit would have withstood such changes.
As it was, she began to hold views, and engage in practices that would have been unthinkable in the church of her youth. She was never homophobic or transphobic, but she told me—years before it became a popular view—she thought people should be allowed to marry people of their own gender. She expressed that belief even before I “came out” as transgender and started my own gender affirmation process. Although she didn’t think abortion “is a good thing,” she understood that there are times when it’s better than allowing a child to be born to someone unwilling or unable to be a loving, nurturing parent. Oh, and she had a Do Not Resuscitate order, which was carried out along with her wish to be cremated.
Signing the order to remove my mother’s life support was “the hardest thing I ever had to do,” my father said. But he knew of my mother’s wishes, and he has the same wishes for himself. While he has never declared himself an atheist or agnostic, my father doesn’t have much, if any, more belief in the church, or religion generally, than I have. Nor does one of my brothers, even though he was baptized into another church; something he did, he admits, mainly to be accepted by the family of the woman he married.
My sister-in-law, however, is firm, even adamant, in her religious beliefs. So are my other two siblings, who have remained in the Catholic Church, and their spouses, who were raised by families more devout than ours. Not surprisingly, all of those in-laws and the two still-Catholic siblings disassociated themselves from me as I began my gender-affirming process. As you can imagine, having to deal with them for the first time in many years has been stressful. Just as difficult, though, is having to countenance not only their religiosity, but their smugness about it. They believe that the only way to mourn my mother, or any other deceased, is through expressions of their religiosity, including ostentatious prayers. They do not understand that my way of mourning is more private because, for one thing, I’m simply more introverted and, for another, I care more about the relationship I’ve had with the person I just lost than with any appearance of piety. To them, the fact that I will enter the church only for my mother’s memorial mass—and not for any other ceremonies or prayers—is proof not only of my immorality (why else would I “change” my sex? they ask) but also that I didn’t truly love my mother. In their eyes, only the Godly—which is to say, those who adhere to their religious practices—can truly love anyone; never mind that one sibling and spouse, at least, have constructed their lives to avoid contact with those of different races and economic classes from themselves.
My mother did not approve of their “holier-than-thou” attitude, let alone that they shut me out of their lives. But she still loved them. Likewise, she didn’t always approve of everything I did—including, at first, my turning away from the church and faith altogether—but she loved me. And I love her. That is all we have now; that is all we ever could have, or could have had—whatever else we did or didn’t believe in.
Recently, I found this essay among my late mother’s things. My grandmother had saved it with a cover sheet that said:
“Keep! (ObstacleChick)’s valedictorian speech at senior high graduation at (fundamentalist evangelical) Christian Academy, May, 1988”
It took me three weeks to summon enough courage to read this essay, as I knew it would be antithetical to what I believe today. I recall that my goal with this speech was to display my superior intellect before my peers and their parents and to present something that would be approved by faculty. These are my words as a Christian-school educated student (grades 5-12) who used education as a means to gain admittance into a top secular university. I believed these words at the time, and I considered myself superior to the vast majority of my peers whom I considered babies drinking the pablum of popular culture. While today I cringe at my parroting of the culture war indoctrination of my church and school, I am starkly aware of what was missing. Can you see it? This was a speech that I was required to submit to the English teacher and school administration for approval, and it was returned to me with no edits. Please feel free to comment. I’m just going to sit over here and cringe a little more at the 18-year-old I was trained to be 31 years ago.
It is often stated that society changes but people do not. This statement is true in the sense that the inner qualities of man remain the same from generation to generation. However, this statement should be expanded to include the fact that society, created by previous generations, affects those who live within it. Although it is difficult to characterize an entire generation, it is evident that young people, as influenced by society, are becoming increasingly insecure and pessimistic, and unless this trend is reversed, the future will not be very promising.
One reason for the condition of young people is the breakdown of the family unit. The parents of a child are to be responsible for nurturing their child so that he is able to become the best that he can be mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. Parents are also a source of security and encouragement for a child. It is also apparent that parents serve as role models for their children; since children, especially very young ones, are so inexperienced in life, they naturally imitate their parents, or the people to whom they are closest. Therefore, it is evident that parents play a very important role in the rearing of a child.
Unfortunately, many children do not have both parents, and in some cases, if both parents are present, there is so much unrest and disunity in the family that the children are not given the proper nurturing they need. Many children experience the pain and uncertainty of being torn between two parents who proceed to separate or divorce. Often, children become mere objects of which each parent struggles to gain custody. In cases in which the parents remain together, there is either disunity between them, or the parents simply do not have the time nor the desire to give the children the nurturing and attention they need. Therefore, the children become psychologically scarred and unprepared to fulfill their duties as members of society.
In addition to children who are products of broken families or families in which the parents do not fulfill their parental responsibilities, there are also children who desire to rebel against their parents and the values of their parents. There are many reasons for this desire to rebel, but the main reason seems to be the encouragement of the media and peers. The media present a certain image of what is and is not acceptable in order to be the “average” teenager. This standard invariably includes the characteristic of rebellion which often naturally occurs as a child begins to grow into adulthood and yearns for independence from parental authority. Since young people fear the insecurity of individuality — in other words, nonconformity to the “acceptable norm” — they eagerly imitate any image they see that offers an opportunity to “fit in” with what is acceptable to their peers, who can be cruelly intolerant of anyone who does not conform.
Today’s society is permeated with young people who are products of their inadequate family lives or their desire to rebel. In both cases, these children seek attention which they do not receive or do not accept from home. Therefore, they naturally seek it elsewhere. Unfortunately, they seek it from a world containing too many problems to deal effectively with those of neglected or rebellious young people whose unguided and uncontrolled presence only contributes to the growing problems of society.
Another reason for the condition of young people is the effects of society upon them. The world offers many deceptively appealing yet ultimately harmful attractions for which these young people, seeking security and a sense of well-being, eagerly grasp. These attractions assume many forms, a few of which are rock music, premarital sex, and drug and alcohol usage. All of these enticements, perhaps with the exception of rock music, previously were primarily presented to adults but are now forced upon adolescents who are not prepared to handle these harmful attractions. As a result, young people participating in these activities are injured mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically.
Because it is the attraction in which most young people openly participate without a great deal of parental interference, one must first examine rock music. Many believe that this music is harmless, merely a characteristic phase through which the majority of youths pass on the way to adulthood. It is viewed as a trend that has benignly existed for the past thirty years and will probably continue as a part of being a youth. Upon closer examination, one is able to realize the adverse effects this music has upon the bodies, minds, and emotions of youths.
Music is an important part of the lives of most people. It is used as a means through which to express emotion or even to produce a specific emotion. Music is also a means by which people celebrate worship. Allan Bloom in his work The Closing of the American Mind defines music as such:
“Plato’s teaching about music is, put simply, that rhythm and melody, accompanied by dance, are the barbarous expression of the soul. Barbarous, not animal. Music is the medium of the human soul in its most ecstatic condition of wonder and terror….Music is the soul’s primitive and primary speech (p. 71).”
Therefore, it is evident that music is an important device through which man is able to express himself.
Since rock music is not just one specific type of music but is characterized by various forms and names, it is difficult to specifically define. However, its lyrics primarily contain three major themes — sex, hate, and a hypocritical version of brotherly love (p. 74). Its rhythm, as young people are aware, has the beat of sexual intercourse (p. 73). Because one naturally responds physically and emotionally to the rhythms and lyrics of music, young people listening to rock music begin to unconsciously respond to its presentation of uncontrolled and misrepresented sex. Through rock music, young people are made aware of subjects which they are too immature to fully understand and experience. Therefore, they view a normal part of life in a perverted and immature manner.
Rock music exalts premarital (and extramarital) sex as well as drug and alcohol use as being socially acceptable and normal. As a result, many young people are led to believe that in order to be accepted as “normal” as presented by the entertainment industry, they must participate in one or more of these activities. This participation, in addition to being a way to gain security, is also a form of rebellion against authority. Therefore, one may conclude that rock music is not as harmless as many believe but is really an agent encouraging young people to rebel against authority by participating in activities which are traditionally unacceptable.
The activity probably most advocated by the media — movies and television — is premarital sex. Many young people view the lack of participation in this activity as a social stigma or, in other words, a lack of peer acceptance. Unfortunately, this uncontrolled behavior has produced many adverse consequences such as sexually transmitted diseases or unwanted pregnancies. Many young people are physically and/or psychologically injured as a result of this exploration into an activity with which they are unable to cope.
Another activity in which many youths participate is alcohol or drug usage. One reason some young people participate in this is in order to escape problems which they cannot or will not attempt to resolve. The resulting “high” they obtain after using these substances can offer a feeling of well-being which they do not know how to receive any other way. A greater number of youths use these substances to gain peer acceptance; if they refuse to use drugs or alcohol, they are often treated as social outcasts. In order to avoid this isolation, many young people give in. Unfortunately, some young people die or are permanently scarred as a result of their experimentation with these substances.
Up to this point, one can see that many young people participate in ultimately harmful activities in order to deal with their insecurities. Of course, it is natural for young people to possess a certain amount of insecurity, for they are struggling with the effects of maturing into a unique individual. However, it seems that young people of this generation possess insecurity to a greater degree than preceding generations. This increase is basically due to the effects of modern society upon young people.
Modern society is permeated with many problems. The family unit, which is the core of society, is rapidly deteriorating. There is friction between groups of people within society. Many baffling, communicable, and incurable diseases exist. The world economy is highly uncertain and unstable. Nations are unable or unwilling to coexist peaceably. The list of social, economic, and political problems continues indefinitely.
Often, when young people are made aware of the various problems within society, they become pessimistic, realizing that these problems cannot be easily solved. They realize that they will be presented a world that is so tainted with problems and will be expected to resolve them, or at least to prevent them from becoming worse. One cannot but wonder how these young people, as generally unprepared as they are presently, will be able to create a decent world within which people can exist relatively contentedly. Of course, as one can see, this lack of preparation is not entirely the fault of the young people, for it is difficult for young people to grow up successfully in this society, but unless this trend is reversed, the future cannot appear to be very promising or attractive.
The relationship between society and the members of society is a unique one. The state of society depends upon its members, and the members are influenced by the society in which they live. The state of the future of society depends upon the attitudes and preparation of young people to deal with the problems presented to them. However, when the young people are not adequately prepared, the future of society suffers. Therefore, one may conclude that because the young people of this generation are generally insecure, pessimistic, and inadequately prepared to take their place within society, the future will not be very promising unless this trend is reversed.
One of the important things about growing up Southern Baptist is the concept of “believer Baptism.” This means that unlike other Christian sects which practice infant baptism, members of the Baptist faith choose their own timing for Baptism, based on when they feel they are ready. Many of my peers did this when they were around the ages of 8-14 (I was 12), often after a youth retreat or some other special service directed toward youth. There was no small amount of peer pressure and/or family pressure involved. The family pressure existed because (a) parents want to make sure their kids “get saved” so that they can enjoy eternity in heaven not go to hell and (b) parents often viewed it as a personal failure if their kid didn’t make a profession of faith; no one needed their Christian parental skills to be judged by the Smiths and Joneses in the congregation. Peer pressure played a role because (a) it was easier to make a profession of faith en masse with other youth rather than being the center of attention and going it alone, and (b) kids didn’t want to be gossiped about any more than usual by their peers as being “lost” or “unsaved” or “worldly.” There were some who may have chosen baptism as adults, particularly people who did not grow up in a church or who never had experienced baptism, or perhaps someone who had been baptized as an infant but wanted to have his or her own believer baptism experience. A lot of Baptist churches don’t consider baptism in other churches to be “Real Baptism.”
As children in the Baptist church, we would attend Sunday school on Sunday mornings, followed by the church service. Wealthier churches that could afford staff or could recruit volunteers would have a separate Children’s Church for the under-12 crowd. There was a time when our church had a Children’s Church, and I much preferred that to being in Big Church with the adults. Big Church was really boring. I liked the music, but once the sermon started, I was bored out of my mind and had to find ways to occupy myself while the preacher was giving his sermon. I was supposed to look interested or at least to behave and not fidget, but it was really hard. I would occupy myself by counting the chandeliers, counting the windows, counting window panes, counting the number of boards on the ceiling, or counting pews. Sometimes I would count how many people were wearing a certain color, then move on to the next color. Sometimes I’d try to read the words of the songs in the hymnal or less often would try to read the Bible, but the language of King James’ English was cumbersome. Big Church was just torture.
At the end of each service, there would always be the Altar Call. A mood-setting song was sung by the choir and congregation (often “Just As I Am”), and the preacher would stand at congregation level in front of the altar so that any who felt called could go down front and profess their faith in front of the entire congregation. Occasionally someone would go, but there were far more people who “rededicated their lives to Christ” or went to pray to confess some sin. Those who went forward to “get saved” or to rededicate their lives to Christ would shake the preacher’s hand, and then one of the deacons would take the person aside to ask questions and fill out a card with their information. The questions were generally about whether the person recognized that they were a sinner in need of God’s saving grace, and did they accept that Jesus died on the cross and rose again for their sins. Then when the song was over, the preacher would pray and thank God that a new believer had come forward, and after the prayer everyone would file forward to shake the hand of the new believer. Then we would all go home. At a later service, there would be a Baptism. The church usually tried to schedule several people together because performing the Baptism took a lot of work.
Because my grandfather worked afternoons and evenings, he had mornings free to do other things. When I wasn’t in school, he’d take me along with him on whatever errands he was doing. A lot of times we would go to the church so he could work on the air conditioning or refrigeration equipment that needed tending. He did this pro bono as a member of the church. He was a deacon and for a while was on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, so he took responsibility for making sure the church was taken care of in whatever way he could.
Going along with Grandpa meant that I got to explore the church on my own. Sometimes I’d hide items or notes around the church so I could find them later or to see if other people found them. One Monday morning we went to the church while Mr. Hall, the janitor, was cleaning out the baptistry. For those unfamiliar with the term, a baptistry in our church was a special “room” behind the choir loft in the Baptist church. Ours had a tall window with a short panel of glass, and the tall window reached to the top of the peaked ceiling. Long red velvet curtains were closed when the baptistry was not in use, but when it was in use the curtains were pulled back to expose the huge backlit cross, lights were turned on, and one could see the water sloshing along the surface of the glass. When Mr. Hall cleaned the baptistry, he emptied the water through the drain in the floor, and he had hoses and a bucket of soapy water so he could scrub the surface. He showed me how he mopped the floor and walls and rinsed the area with a hose, and the water went down the drain. There were concrete steps leading down into the baptistry from the women’s changing room on the left and the men’s changing room on the right. He let me look at the white robes hanging in the women’s changing room. They had special weights sewn into the hem so the robes wouldn’t float up in the water. When men were baptized they usually wore their pants and a white t-shirt. Mr. Hall showed me the white robe and fishing waders that the preacher wore. The robe was just like the choir robes except white instead of red, and it also had weights sewn into the hem. I was surprised that the preacher wore fishing waders – that’s how he was always able to be finished so quickly after the baptism, because he never got wet! Mr. Hall told me that one time someone accidentally filled the baptistry with too much water which spilled into the fishing waders, wetting the preacher’s pants, and the preacher had to send his wife home to get him a pair of pants so they could conclude the service.
When you are baptized in the Baptist church, the practice is full immersion. Before your baptism service, there is a rehearsal with the preacher. You practice walking down into the dry baptistry, turning to face a certain direction, and the preacher shows you how to hold your nose. He will put one hand on your neck or back and one hand over your nose, and after he says “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” you have to be ready to hold your breath and to bend backward while he lowers you into the water. The pastor is well versed in bringing people back up really quickly so they don’t have to be scared of drowning. Then you walk up the steps into the changing room where your mom or another lady in the church is waiting to help you out of the wet robes, dry off with towels, and get dressed again. Some ladies use a hair dryer (the sound of which can be faintly heard in the sanctuary) to dry their hair while others just towel-dry it. At the end of the service, you go back out so that the church members can file by and shake your hand to congratulate you. After your baptism, you are presented with a certificate signed by the preacher and the chairman of the deacons, and you get some other religious gift as well such as a Bible or a devotional book. After your profession of faith and baptism, you are considered a full member of the church and can take part in communion with the other members. You can be gossiped about and judged, but you can’t lose your salvation because, once saved always saved!
I used to talk to nothing Not knowing it was nothing. I was told it was love. Sacrificial love. Unconditional love. Life-changing, whole-making love.
But it turns out, it was nothing.
The silence of the nothing broke me. Upended me. Toppled everything over, onto me. Crushed under the weight of what was gone. Devastated that it never existed. Barely breathing. Arms clutched to my chest. Holding the emptiness where beliefs once dwelled. Beliefs once tightly held Wrenched from my fingers When I screamed out desperately into the abyss and in return Nothing came.
Not the love that was promised. Nor wholeness. My brokenness remained. Unchanged. No savior to heal the wounds Un-rescued, abandoned Utterly alone in random chaos.
The silence of nothing echoes so loudly.
Listen closely to the silence.
“You are depraved!” is missing, too. Worthy-of-eternal-torment-for-being-born no longer the mantra Berating me over and over And over. Not even a murmur declaring me Evil, sinful, wicked, debased, weak, less-than. Every condemnation for merely being human is muted. Beautifully quieted.
The crushing weight of silence almost feels like wings now.
In every empty place There is now space To love, to forgive, to change Myself.
In place of the nothing there is me And always was. I could have flown sooner if only I had known. The thing holding me back Keeping me down Damning my soul was actually . . . Nothing.
One of my earliest memories is sitting on the floor in a church nursery, rolling a big ball to a little boy who would then roll it back to me. I was delighted with this simple game. An equally delighted adult was watching us. I can’t remember who she was, but I am sure she was smiling and encouraging us in our ball rolling. We were probably three or four years old. I felt safe, happy, and comfortable.
My family went to church every Sunday. I didn’t understand why of course, but it was always fun because there were other kids to play with. Eventually I outgrew the nursery and began attending Sunday school. In Sunday school the teachers were always ladies and they were always sweet. They taught us all sorts of Bible stories. It wasn’t quite as fun as the nursery had been, but it was pleasant and sometimes we got to color. We soon began learning about Jesus. We would sing “Jesus Loves Me” or the song about the wise man who built his house upon a rock, smacking our fists into our palms to show how good and solid the rock was. There was an important message in these songs, though I wasn’t sure what it was.
After a while, Sunday school took a more serious turn. Our teacher taught us about lepers. Lepers were people who had a terrible disease that caused their body parts to rot and fall off. Other people hated them and made them live far away. Only Jesus was kind to lepers. Jesus was better than other people. Like the Sunday school songs, there was an important message in this story. I still didn’t fully understand it, but so far, I liked Jesus a lot. I was glad he was nice to the sick people and he even helped one of them get well. I don’t remember the first time we heard about Jesus dying on the cross to save us, but the teacher started bringing it up every week. She told us it was very important for us to believe that Jesus died to save us from our sins. It had never occurred to me not to believe something an adult said, especially a teacher, so it seemed kind of strange that she thought we might not believe her story.
Around this time, I started learning to read. Thanks to TV, I even learned that all people did not use the same words as we Americans did. Some people spoke and wrote a language called Spanish. It had different words for things like “water” and “friend.” This was amazing. The subject of language came up one week in Sunday school when our teacher taught us about the Tower of Babel. In this story, God punished some men who tried to build a giant tower they could use to climb into Heaven. He did this by switching everyone’s words around. It all made sense now! That must have been where Spanish had come from, plus a whole bunch of other languages I had never even heard of. I found myself smugly wondering why God had written the Bible in English. I decided it must be because English was the best language.
It was the 1970s. Hippies were everywhere. Stores carried posters and signs with slogans like: “Keep On Truckin’,” “Peace,” and “Smile God Loves You.” One week our sweet Sunday school teacher had a warning for us kids. She told us not to believe the signs that said “Smile God Loves You” because they weren’t true. God did not love everybody. I didn’t think much about this warning at the time. I was already learning not to question the things I heard in church. As the years went by and I transitioned from a curious child into a quiet teenager, I grew frustrated with church. Those early lessons about kind and helpful Jesus didn’t mesh with the grown-up sermons about a righteous, angry God. The punishment doled out by God at the Tower of Babel seemed like a prank compared to burning unbelievers in Hell forever. I didn’t understand what we were supposed to do for Jesus. I knew that He had died for us wicked humans, but there was something crucial I was missing. Why did all these people spend every Sunday listening to the preacher talk about it? What was the point? Our preacher spent a lot of time and energy ranting about all these other preachers who had everything wrong. There was a long list of these false preachers. He also had a long list of behaviors that would not help you get into Heaven: praying, tithing, getting baptized, helping the poor, caring for the sick, winning souls, going to church, volunteering in church, building the church, studying the Bible, serving your community, and on and on and on. I got tense just listening to him talk about all the ways you could waste your time trying to be a good person. It was like listening to a song with an overly long introduction. I kept waiting for the tension to break and for him to finally say what we should do to get into Heaven, but he never did.
It occurred to me that church was vastly different from school. In school, you learned about a new subject, studied it, took tests on it, then you moved on to the next level. You repeated this process from first grade to second grade to third grade and so on. By the time you got to middle school, you didn’t keep going over the same topics you learned in grade school; you were expected to have them memorized so they could form the foundation of more advanced subjects. Not so in church. In church you went every Sunday, year after year, to hear the same lecture about how horrible you are and how you deserve to burn in Hell and how Jesus would save you from Hell if only . . . something. What that something was, I couldn’t quite grasp. I wondered if I was dumb. Obviously, every other person in church understood it, so why didn’t I? Confusion morphed into anger and I started to hate going to church. I was closing in on adulthood and longing for independence. It felt like church was keeping me trapped in childhood. My escape finally began when I left home for college at the age of eighteen. I was still a Christian, though I could not have described my actual beliefs to anyone who might have asked. I knew what I was supposed to say, but those Christian-approved words didn’t match up with the thoughts and emotions I kept inside. In college I made the shocking discovery that other people sometimes questioned the origins of the Bible. They talked about it as if it were any other book written by men. Even more shocking was the fact that college instructors now encouraged us students to think about these things. They wanted us to think! I couldn’t handle it. I decided they were all evil. Though I had problems with Christianity myself, it felt like an attack to hear others criticize the faith — my faith! Even so, I did begin allowing myself to think, just a little bit at first. This was the beginning of the end of my faith. It wasn’t until many years later that I finally left Christianity for good. It took a long time to get rid of the fear that I might accidentally come to the wrong conclusion and burn forever because of it. And it wasn’t until the advent of the internet, decades later, that I finally understood what our preacher was really saying all along. I had started reading online articles about Christianity in its various forms. When I came across a description of Calvinism, I realized that there was a good reason our preacher never told us what to do to get into Heaven. He did not believe it mattered one bit what we did, because God had already decided who was in and who was out.
I had heard this long ago, this doctrine of predestination. It hadn’t upset me too much back then, because I was so deep in fundamentalist brain fog that I couldn’t process the horror. It just didn’t sink in. Now I thought about all the convoluted, pseudo-intellectual gobbledygook I had heard masqueraded as wisdom. And I realized that the particular message of our peculiar brand of Calvinism did not require years of lectures to understand. It was as simple as it was cruel: God created some people to damn and some people to save. There is nothing any human being can do to change this situation so it is foolish to even try. I cannot describe the way this realization made me feel. I was astonished at how ridiculous it was, and at how many otherwise intelligent adults really believed that this was the sort of thing a righteous creator would do. It still gives me a strange feeling to think about how that church, which I first knew as a safe and happy place, was never anything more than a shrine to violence and injustice.
On August 15, Catholics will celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. That is, supposedly, the date on which the Virgin Mary was bodily hoisted into Heaven, thus ending her earthly life.
The day before, the 14th, just might be D-Day, at least in New York State. That day will mark the beginning of a one-year window in which survivors of child sexual abuse can file civil suits against their abusers, under terms of the Child Victims Act (CVA) passed earlier this year.
Nearly everyone expects a flood of suits to be filed that day. Some will have waited years, even decades for this opportunity: previously, if a child was molested in New York State, he or she could file a lawsuit or seek criminal charges until he or she was 23. Given what we’ve seen, it’s easy to see how this works against victims: it often takes decades for someone (as it did for me) who was molested or abused as a child to speak about it.
After the one-year window provided in the CVA has passed, victims can still file civil suits until age 55 and seek criminal charges until age 28. While these provisions are an improvement on previous statutes — which were among the most victim-unfriendly in the nation — the Empire State will still lag behind its heavily-Catholic neighbor Massachusetts, which gives victims 35 years to sue their abusers.
What galls people such as I, though, is that it took sixteen years for the state legislature to pass the CVA. Although I rarely have kind words for politicians, I must say that some members of the State Legislature–among them Assembly members Brad Hoylman and Linda Rosenthal, both Democrats from Manhattan — should be commended for their efforts. That it took so long is mainly a testament to how hard some organizations fought against them.
Will it surprise any of you to know that two of the main opponents of this Act–and its “window” in particular — are the Boy Scouts of America and — wait for it — the Roman Catholic Church? Although New York is one of the “bluest” states in the country, the Church still wields a fair amount of influence in the politics of both the state and New York City. Church leaders howled that the “window” will result in a flood of lawsuits that could impose “financial hardship” on the state’s dioceses and archdioceses. They have a point: California passed similar legislation in 2003, and within a few years, the dioceses of San Diego and Stockton filed for bankruptcy.
Still, the protestations of Church leaders in New York are at least somewhat disingenuous, if not entirely hypocritical. In claiming that the “window” could lead to thousands of lawsuits, the Church in New York is tacitly conceding that many children (and adults), over many years, have indeed been sexually exploited by priests, nuns and other authority figures such as deacons. But what is less-widely known is that, in a way, the dioceses of the state have implemented some version or another of the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP), which allows victims to file claims for past sexual abuse. There can be little doubt that this program was implemented because Church leaders knew that passage of the CVA (and similar laws in other states) was all but inevitable, and that by giving victims nominal compensation on the condition of confidentiality, they could forestall a number of lawsuits.
And, while some victims might reap substantial payouts for lawsuits filed under the CVA, it will probably take years to settle and collect. The IRCP process, in contrast, takes months, and therefore may appeal to older victims who don’t want to spend significant portions of their remaining years in a court case. I have little doubt that Church leaders knew this, too.
It will be interesting, to say the least, to see what happens to the individual dioceses as well as the church as a whole as a result of New York’s CVA. For years, individual parishes and Catholic schools (including the one I attended) have been closing, mainly in the five boroughs of New York City, but also in other parts of the state. While few people expect the Archdiocese of New York or the Diocese of Brooklyn to go belly-up, mainly because they still own lots of valuable real estate and other assets, it’s not hard to imagine some of the less-affluent dioceses upstate filing for protection.
I realize that I have focused on the effect the CVA will have on the Catholic Church. So have most of the media. As I mentioned, the Boy Scouts will also be affected. Although the Catholic church is the largest denomination in the State and City (though many claimed members have long since stopped practicing the religion, or even renounced it altogether), there are a number of other religious organizations that could be affected. Chief among them, I believe, are the Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox communities. (In Orange County, there is a village, Kiryas Joel, which is essentially governed by Satmar Hasidic interpretations of Halakhic law, and most of whose residents speak Yiddish.) In addition, there are a number of insular religious communities ensconced in upstate enclaves and some outer-borough New York City neighborhoods. It’s hard not to believe that some current or former members of such communities will come forward as a result of the CVA.
Whatever happens, I am glad that some people who suffered sexual abuse from priests and other religious leaders will have an opportunity, however brief, to break the hold of their abusers and hold them to account.
From 1993 to 2002, a unique show called “The X-Files” ran for a total of 9 seasons on Fox. Fans were excited in 1998 when “The X-Files” and in 2008 “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” movies were released in theaters. In 2016 and 2018, two additional seasons of “The X-Files” were released to enthusiastic fans of a certain age who had followed the series. The basic premise is that FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dr. Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are teamed up to investigate unusual cases that defy conventional solutions. Agent Mulder has an open mind regarding the paranormal and is up to date on mythology across cultures. Agent Scully is a trained medical doctor whose goal is to find scientific answers to the cases to which they are assigned. The conflict of believer and skeptic, along with a good dose of sexual tension, combined with stand-alone cases and overarching story arcs created a cult following that eventually became a pop cultural icon. One of the props designed for the show, Agent Mulder’s poster of a typical 1960s rendition of a UFO ship with the caption “I Want to Believe,” is a well-known image that sums up who Agent Mulder is and who Agent Scully is not.
I know a lot of Evangelical Christians who profess to “know” that their rendition of God is the One True Rendition of the supernatural. In short, they believe that their deity is omnipotent, omnipresent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient. Many believe that gods from other religions are either nonexistent or are demons or Satan trying to pass themselves off as deities in order to deceive followers from adhering to the One True God of Evangelical Christianity. Not unlike Tigger from the Winnie-the-Pooh series who states that “the most wonderful thing about Tiggers is I’m the only one,” many Evangelicals feel the same way about their deity. Yet when I have asked any Evangelical Christian what evidence they have of their One True God’s existence, they always fall back on “heart” evidence; they felt it in their “heart” so it must be true. Additionally, they may comment that human knowledge is inferior to God’s knowledge, or that we cannot rely on our own understanding as we are flawed, inadequate creatures (Proverbs 3:5-6; Isaiah 55:8-9). Some may say that their deity reveals himself in nature and in His Holy Word, the Bible. Like Fox Mulder, they want to believe.
I know Christians who say they cannot contemplate facing a day without knowing they have God overseeing and protecting them throughout the day. They derive comfort from thinking that their powerful deity is protecting them in their day-to-day lives, helping them find the closest parking spot at the supermarket, revealing the lost $20 in their jacket pocket, or protecting them from being in a car accident. Of course, when things do not go well, these folks attribute unfavorable circumstances to “Satan,” or to “sin,” or that “God has other plans” for them. There’s always a reason other than that their god doesn’t exist or that he is not a benevolent, all-powerful god who is striving to protect them. Like Fox Mulder, they want to believe.
My grandmother loved a song by William J. and Gloria Gaither called “Because He Lives.” I think it sums up how a lot of Christians feel about their God and their own attitude about their lives. That “life is worth the living, just because He lives.”
God sent His son, they called Him Jesus He came to love, heal and forgive He lived and died to buy my pardon An empty grave is there to prove my savior lives
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow Because He lives, all fear is gone Because I know He holds the future And life is worth the living, just because He lives
How sweet to hold a newborn baby And feel the pride and joy He gives But greater still the calm assurance This child can face uncertain day, because He lives
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow Because He lives, all fear is gone Because I know He holds the future And life is worth the living, just because He lives
And then one day, I’ll cross the river I’ll fight life’s final war with pain And then, as death gives way to victory I’ll see the lights of glory and I’ll know He reigns
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow Because He lives, all fear is gone Because I know He holds the future And life is worth the living, just because He lives
In response to my request for guest posts from liberal/progressive Christians, a reader I’ll call John Calvin submitted a thoughtful post detailing why he still, to some degree, “believes.” John is currently a minister in a mainline Calvinistic denomination. John feared his words would be seen as blatant hypocrisy, but I hope readers will listen carefully to what John is trying to say, and consider the deep emotional andpsychological struggles he faces every day. I know more than a few liberal/progressive ministers read this blog, including some who are atheists/agnostics and still preaching on Sundays. I appreciate John’s willingness to be honest about where he is in his life, and how he struggles with the existence of God. May his words be instructive and helpful.
I grew up in fundamentalism, the holiness variety, and was caught by all the claws of its well-designed trap. In my culturally deprived southern working-class environment, the church was essentially all I had. There was music — bad music, but it was music. There was poetry — bad poetry, but it was poetry. There was literature — bad literature, but it was literature. There was community, and it wasn’t bad. In a childhood of some moving around, the church became my hometown. It seemed full of warm, loving people. Now, though, after all these years, I greatly resent the fact that my spiritual life was entrusted to them. They should not have been in charge of it. Was the warmth and loving just one more tooth in the trap?
I’m sure I thought it was God’s will that I attend a denominational college; that I take a degree in Biblical Literature. I also married into the family of a pastor who used his fundamentalist conservatism as a weapon. Marriage among undergraduates in that school, especially for ministerial students, was almost expected. If you didn’t get married, you would probably end up having pre-marital sex, and there was nothing God hated more than that. After college, I went to the denominational seminary.
I never remember wanting or planning to be a pastor. You might say I didn’t take career planning nearly seriously enough. What I wanted was to understand the religion I found myself struggling to swim in. Being more of a seeker than was warmly welcomed at that seminary — where the truth, having once been delivered unto the saints, was already fully known, I transferred to an old, Eastern establishment seminary. The intellectual freedom I felt there was a wonderful breath of fresh air. By the time I graduated with my M.Div. I had departed my holiness denomination and become a pastor in a large, so-called “mainline” denomination. Frankly, I was worn out, had a family, was in debt, and didn’t know what else to do. (I was twenty-nine years old. I had started school at age four. I had taken a year off, twice, at different times, but essentially I had been going to school for twenty-five years. My diploma was written in Latin. I couldn’t read it. I still have no idea what the damn thing says. But it had better be good.)
A lot happened in subsequent decades. That large denomination I joined is a lot smaller now, partially, I’m sure, because of my feeble efforts. That cute little holiness preacher’s daughter I married, who could play the piano and sing like a bird (good one, not some crow or red-winged blackbird), told me she was embarrassed to tell people she was married to a minister, had a string of affairs, and finally left my sorry ass flopping in the dust.
I got out of the ministry for a while. Then I remarried, this time to a woman with no apparent pride and who didn’t mind being married to a minister, so I got back in. Now I am supposed to be retired, but I am still a part-time pastor, having the best time I ever had in the ministry. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. Most of the time I found being a pastor a painful and uncomfortable experience. (Hey, I never wanted to do it anyway, but the hooks were well set.)
Now, as to why I am still doing what I do. I guess I fit the definition of a progressive, liberal Christian, I prefer the term “cultural Christian,” which to me is analogous to someone being a cultural Jew rather than being a religious Jew. Some people might call me an atheist. I have called myself that on occasion, but only to myself. Whatever is left of my Christianity is bereft of any supernatural elements.
I understand the Bible to be the product of human beings, at its best a record of peoples’ interpretations of how God had worked among them. The Bible is clearly full of errors, contradictions, and outrageous mythological constructions. The idea of a perfect, inerrant Bible delivered by the hand of God is ludicrous.
While I believe it is possible that Jesus of Nazareth was not a historical person, I also believe it is possible that he was. If the things the New Testament says happened, it is amazing that none of Jesus’ contemporaries felt them important enough to mention, not even the matter of Jewish saints coming out of their tombs on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion. Seriously? No one thought to jot that down? “Hey! Guess what happened!” Still, it seems to me probable that there was a guy back there somewhere to build the legends around. Much of the New Testament is no doubt fiction, designed to present him as a divine prophesy-fulfilling miracle worker. Even so, I find the core of his teachings to be inspiring and, even if they are not totally original, potentially revolutionary. I think his teachings of love and compassion are especially needed in a world that is increasingly violent and hateful, most especially when so many of those who call themselves Christ-followers are enabling the hatred and violence. (“Christians have to keep telling people they’re Christians, otherwise no one would notice.”)
The Church that says it follows him is a humiliation and an embarrassment. It has done some good in the world, but it has done some horrendous things too. I am not convinced that Christianity is a net positive force in the world. If nothing else it is guilty of diverting peoples’ attention from important issues such as living with love and compassion, to minor ones. What the church most demonstrates is that humans are institution-building animals.
So, again, why do I keep doing what I do, and why would I have any hope of being anything other than a blatant hypocrite?
It does not take much to reach the realization that there is no big man in the sky, that the earth and its creatures were not zapped into existence 6,000 years ago. Still, almost every human culture has tried in some way to grasp something beyond itself. Some have called it “God.” That “something beyond” has had a powerful impact on humans and their histories. As it happens, more humans identify with Christianity than any other single religion, as they have been doing for 2,000 years. I think that’s significant. Even if it is an amazing shared delusion, is it not something that can be honored for what good it does contain, for what good it has done? Are we right when we say, “Well, all those people were idiots?” “Thank God, our intellect is so much better than theirs that we have it all figured out and can toss it all aside like ideas of a flat Earth or the belief that some chickens have lips.” Does not the tradition, if nothing else, deserve some honor?
Maybe none of that works. Honestly, I was at least a little uncomfortable writing it. But, as I said, I am a cultural Christian. This is where I was born. This is where my people are. We share history and ritual and community. I sit with them as they die. I pray with them then and there. Not because I am challenging God to alter the laws of the universe, but because I hope and think the prayer might help them. It is not about me. It is an act of service on my part, because the whole thing is so much bigger than me, and I am willing to accept the reality of mystery. I see no benefit in standing by a bed in a hospice and saying, “Well, I’m sorry you’re dying, but don’t expect God to hold your hand through this. You’re just gonna slip back into the darkness forever, so get over it.” I expect to slip back into the darkness forever, sooner rather than later, and I’m fine with that, but I don’t think I have a right to impose that on them, at least at that point. That work needed to be done a long time before that.
I do strive for authenticity in my preaching. I do not lie to people. I do not present the Bible as a magic book, but as a book written by real flesh and blood human beings. I do not pretend that Adam and Eve were real people. I straightforwardly acknowledge that evolution is true. At the same time, even though my cultural Christianity has lost its supernatural elements, I will never stand up on Easter morning and say, “Look folks, we know this never happened. Dead people don’t come back to life. If this was true we could at least expect the Gospels to get their stories straight.” I think of it as being respectful of people.
I do not encourage peoples’ belief in their mythological Father-God “up there” somewhere, and that the instant they die they’ll be reunited with their dead loved ones at Jesus’ feet by the crystal sea. Maybe I leave people to assume that I believe much of that just like they do, and maybe that all by itself makes me that blatant hypocrite. On the other hand, maybe that is what gives me the opportunity to move them along, little by little.
I genuinely care for the people in my parish. I embrace them with love. I try to educate them to have a better understanding of the Bible and what it means to be a Christian in these days, and I know that to some extent I succeed. I try, as gently as I can, to challenge their assumptions and presuppositions. I try to lead them to what I would like to believe is a more mature faith.
Sometimes, I think I must sound like a broken record, saying over and over, “Come on! Let’s live as Jesus said! With love and compassion.” I also feel like the voice of one crying in the wilderness when the vast majority of American Christians seem to be saying, “Screw that!”
I do not care about maintaining the institution of the church, which is too bad, because ultimately I believe that’s what parish ministry is all about.
I admit to being conflicted. Sometimes I think I would like to turn in my resignation and run out the door yelling, “Freedom!” I haven’t yet, and it is not because I’m getting paid. I do take the money, but if I stopped getting those big church bucks it wouldn’t change my life one bit. I guess I do it because for whatever reason it still matters to me. I’ve never been able to get those hooks out of me. I once asked a friend who seemed to have the same ambivalence about ministry that I had, after he had been fired as president of a seminary, “Would you do it again?” He said, “I would have to. It’s my curse.” I understood completely.
One thing for sure has happened. Here in my Calvinistic denomination, I have finally proved the truth of Arminianism. I have definitely lost my salvation. But, hey, heaven for the climate and hell for the company. Am I right?
And what if these so-called ‘racists’ had a point? You were right in objecting to their conditioned views but what if they were right about Negroes ‘not having souls’? Anyone can put on a do-gooder act.
Most crime in the US is within Colored communities. Are they the sons of Cain; cursed this way?
A long-time reader of Bruce’s blog posts, I was incensed by the implications of her comment, and thought I would write a reply.
Terra, let’s suppose just for a moment that you are right, that most crime in the U.S. is within black communities. I’m not granting that you are correct, but I’m supposing it for the purpose of this response.
Do you suppose it might be because of their childhood exposure to violence? That they saw their fathers hanged and their mothers raped? That they saw police violence used against their parents and brothers and sisters and thought there was no other way?
Do you suppose that it might be because they suffered (and continue to suffer) discrimination by law enforcement and the judicial system? You are naïve indeed if you believe that police haven’t targeted blacks for centuries for casual stop-and-frisk when they were doing nothing wrong, for the planting of drugs, guns and other “evidence” on blacks to cover up white crime, and for a plethora of other misdeeds against blacks. You are equally naïve if you believe that the killing of unarmed black men by police hasn’t taken place since forever. It is only now, when the citizenry has easy access to video cameras, that we are beginning to see this insidious, outright legalized murder of some of our citizenry. If you believe that discrimination in the judicial system is a thing of the past, then please consider the Supreme Court decision decided on June 21, 2019, that found that the prosecutor over the course of four trials used numerous dishonest methods to keep African-Americans off the jury at the trial of a black man. Flowers v. Mississippi, No. 17–9572.
Do you suppose that systematic discrimination in employment might be a factor in a higher crime rate among blacks? Do you suppose that government-sanctioned discrimination in housing and other economic deprivation might be a factor in a higher crime rate among blacks? Have you ever heard of redlining, whereby blacks were prevented from buying houses in certain neighborhoods? A great many U.S. citizens accumulate wealth in the form of real estate, making monthly mortgage payments that build up personal wealth. They then pass this wealth on to their children, making the lives of said children just a little bit easier. Redlining prevented blacks from buying real estate in wealthier communities, where the real estate values rose the quickest, thereby enriching the owners – but not black ones!
Do you suppose that family disorganization might be a factor in a higher crime rate among blacks? Perhaps black people are discriminated against in employment – not a far stretch of the imagination. Perhaps the scarcity of employed black men increases the prevalence of families headed by females in black communities, and this, in turn, results in family disruption that significantly increases black murder and robbery rates.
Do you suppose that the inability to post bail by many blacks might lead to a higher crime rate among blacks? When a black man is in jail, his family loses a source of income. Do you not suppose that the children of these black men might see crime as the only way to bring some source of income into the household?
You stated that Anyone can put on a do-gooder act, suggesting that Blacks might not have souls, but that they are acting as if they do. Tell me, Terra Blanche, how does one with no soul put on an act that might lead others to believe he has a soul? How do people with souls act? And how do people without souls act? And how do you tell the difference?
I am aghast that anyone today does not understand that, if any human has a “soul,” then all humans do, whether they are black or white or pink or purple or some other color. There is nothing inherent in one color of people which would grant them anything greater or lesser than any other color. To believe otherwise is truly racist. Let’s suppose for just a moment that you are right, and that blacks have no soul. Suppose an interracial couple gets married and produces children. Do these children have souls? Now suppose these children marry whites, and produce children of their own. Do these children have souls? Now, carry it on. When do these children attain souls? Or do they never? Do you subscribe to the “one drop of blood” theory? If so, SHAME ON YOU! There is no difference between black blood and white blood and any other type of blood. If you are injured and need a blood transfusion, would you demand that you only receive white blood? And if you receive black blood, are you tainted forever? Suppose for a moment that you have your DNA analyzed, and you learn that there is African-American blood in your genetic makeup. Does this mean you don’t have a soul, even though you thought you did? Terra, this line of thinking will destroy you! We are all the sons of Cain, or no one is. Bruce is right, you know. None of us has a soul. Whatever life force we have dies when we do, and we stop being. Our souls don’t go to heaven or hell. You have been lied to, Terra Blanche. There is no heaven or hell. There is only death at the end of life.
You seem to value white skin. I do hope you realize that the Jesus you worship and adore was not white-skinned. He was a brown-skinned Jew of Middle-Eastern descent. How do we know he was brown-skinned? Because all Middle-Eastern Jews were brown-skinned. I realize that this likely creates a cognitive disconnect, because you probably feel deep affection for Jesus but little empathy for a Middle Eastern person. But it is the truth.
Your vision of a white earth will never happen. Millennials are accepting of people of all colors, races and gender stripes, and find discrimination against their friends and neighbors on the basis of gender or race appalling. They will be the salvation of our nation, and of the world. One day we will live in a world where people are accepted for who they are, not the color of their skin. And you and your kind will be a few tiny voices, crying in the wilderness because you have been cast out for your racist views.
I can recall when a yellow haze hung in coffee shops, transportation terminals, and other indoor public spaces. Most adults, it seemed, smoked. It was even socially acceptable to give a carton of cigarettes as a gift for Christmas, a birthday or some other occasion. I know: I gave cartons of Lucky Strikes, Pall Malls and other brands to aunts, uncles, godparents, and godchildren, even though I never smoked.
Most young people simply cannot imagine such a world. For one thing, the price of cigarettes has multiplied. For some people, that cost is a disincentive to start smoking; for nearly everyone else, it’s a reason not to wrap up cartons of Kools and Marlboros and tie them with colorful ribbons. If anything, most young people want to discourage their family and friends from lighting up.
It is not surprising, then, that in 2018, a lower percentage (15) of the US adult population smoked than at any time since such statistics were kept. Although more than 38 million Americans still smoke, the habit is less likely to be passed along inter-generationally: more than a few people decided not to pick up cigarettes after watching family members and friends struggle with, and die from, nicotine addiction.
Now anti-smoking campaigns like the ones initiated by the US Surgeon General in the 1960s have taken hold in Australia, Japan, and Canada, and even in countries like France, where lighting up a Gitane or Gauloise was part of the image of a soigne sophisticate. Throughout the developed world, rates of smoking are falling faster than a pack of Viceroys dropped off Big Ben.
So what have tobacco companies done? They’ve gone to China, Russia, Somalia and other low- and middle-income countries. Worse yet, though not surprisingly, they’ve targeted the young —I mean, the really young. In my travels, I recall seeing boys who hadn’t reached puberty lighting up and puffing in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. In those parts of the world, it’s even more common than it is in the US or Europe to see stores selling individual cigarettes, which is how most teens and pre-teens buy them. If anything, the tobacco companies are encouraging such practices: the teenager who buys a cigarette a day could easily become the adult who smokes a pack, or even more, a day.
Now, it seems, pharmaceutical companies are following at least part of the tobacco companies’ playbook. Although the opioid epidemic still devastates families and communities, prescriptions for OxyContin — the most commonly-used opioid painkiller — in the US have fallen by 40 percent since 2010. The overall volume of opioid prescriptions, which include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet) and other drugs, as well as OxyContin, has fallen by about a third since 2011. So the makers of those drugs have begun campaigns to encourage doctors to prescribe those drugs, and are even encouraging over-the-counter sales in countries where pharmaceuticals are less regulated.
In a sad, cruel irony, Mexico is experiencing its own opioid crisis, as its citizens are using the drugs to cope with the traumas of forced migration, gang violence, political corruption, and economic stagnation: problems brought on, at least in part, by the demand for those, and illegal, drugs in the United States!
Of course, tobacco and opioids aren’t the only means people in poor and developing countries use in their attempts to cope with the disruptions caused by the whims, decadence, and cruelty of richer countries — which, in some instances, were their actual or de facto colonizers. What I am about to mention has, in essence, the same effect on people who are poor, dispossessed and otherwise victimized through no fault of their own.
Not for nothing did Karl Marx call religion the “opium of the people.” Opioids are so named because they mimic opium’s ability to numb or kill pain. For many people, faith, prayer, and participation in religious rituals allow them to forget, if only for a moment, the terrible conditions in which they live, and to believe (or at least hope) that there will be something better after this life. This effect can be powerful enough to prevent the poor and powerless from seeing, let alone understanding or fighting, the people and institutions that keep them oppressed. For that matter, the narcotic of faith can actually keep people from knowing that that the people and institutions responsible for their misery have, as often as not, some role in the creation or propagation of the very religion that they’re being encouraged or forced to adopt.
I can’t help but think that the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Mormon, and Evangelical churches, as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other powerful hierarchical religious institutions, understand what I have just described. They also know that, to put it crudely (some would say crassly), folks, especially the young, in the developed world are no longer buying what they’re selling. While it’s true that the more extreme and depraved forms of Evangelicalism are having a heyday in the US (where they have the ear of their President and other powerful leaders), their hold on the U.S. can’t last. Their kids eat lunch with gay and gender-fluid peers as well as Muslims, Buddhists, and kids with no religion at all — and cultures very different from their own. Some young Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses will cling to their beliefs for as long as they can, but even for them, it’s not a sure bet that their faith will withstand exposure to the facts.
A few religious leaders have admitted as much, whether tacitly or explicitly. They know that the U.S. is not a “growth market.” Latin America won’t be one for long, and Europe, at least in the north and west, is declining or even dying as a “market” for their faith. As people in those places are exposed to more ideas, practices, and cultures different from their own — which is to say, as they become more educated — they simply see less reason, and thus have less need, to live their lives according to half-baked, warmed-over Bronze Age myths. If anything, those people, especially the young, see the harm that clinging to those ideas has caused the generations before them, in much the same way I and other people of my generation saw the harm tobacco and painkillers caused older members of our families and communities.
But the young, let alone their elders, in much of the poor and developing world have not yet seen the destruction caused by addictive substances, nor do they understand the corrosive effects irrational beliefs will cause them and their societies. And they are experiencing enough pain, whether physical or emotional, to try anything that might help them forget, even for a moment, that the one offering the opium or the opioid is, in fact, causing the pain. It is among these that the pushers of religion have their only hope of expanding their capital.
At least the third-world “market expansion” of western religions will have an expiration date. When that will come, I don’t know, but come it will: inevitably, someone will understand that addiction — whether to toxic substances or ideas — leaves the addict in a worse state than he or she was in with his or her pain. Oh, and they will also realize that those offering relief or salvation are the ones who caused their malaise and oppression in the first place. Then they will remember when the pall of that malaise and oppression hung in the air, and be happy their children won’t have to inhale it.
I hope you all have enjoyed Parts one and two of the WTF series. It has been fun remembering these rituals and practices from my evangelical childhood, and I am able to experience again how ridiculous these things seem to outsiders. Evangelical Christianity really is a subculture with its own in-group practices and rituals designed to indoctrinate and control its members. Please share with us any of your stories of WTF religious practices in the comments!
Rededicating One’s life to Christ
This was a popular occurrence as pastors would preach about sin, evil, and the necessity of living one’s life for Christ in order to glean the rewards intended for the faithful. During the Altar Call some people would come forward to declare before the congregation that they were committed to putting away their sinful ways and rededicating their lives to Christ. Whatever that means. Occasionally, if the person really thought he or she was bad (and the church needed to inflate its baptism numbers), the person would be rebaptized to show their commitment.
Prayer Requests (“Unspoken”)
Christians really, really, really count on the “power of prayer.”. They will pray for anything from the mundane (Lord, please help me find my car keys as I am going to be late to work) to the catastrophic (Lord, please cure my mom of cancer). Most churches will publish in the weekly Sunday morning bulletin a list of people for whom to pray, typically people who are ill or who just lost a loved one. Often at some point in Sunday school or in the service, there will be an opportunity for people to offer up prayer requests. Those who are shy about saying what it is they are requesting prayer will often say “unspoken” which means that they want people to pray for so-and-so’s unnamed issue, but God, being omniscient, will be able to determine what that is. (I felt like there were certain people who would ask for an “unspoken” prayer request because they just wanted attention and didn’t want to have to make up something).
Door to Door Canvassing
The primary way church find new members is to birth them from within. The secondary way is through recruiting new members from the community. In places like the Bible Belt, where I grew up, almost everyone was already a member of a church, so recruiting new members really meant poaching members from other churches. Larger churches with more resources have an easier time poaching new members than smaller churches. When a church has multiple programs for children and youth, along with modern facilities, that church is more attractive to families. The church I was in scheduled door-to-door canvassing occasionally, where there was typically a pot-luck lunch served after church to entice members to stay, and afterward we would be sent out in teams to knock on doors, hand out fliers, and invite people to our fantastic True Christian church. (I hated it.)
All Christian converts were encouraged to formulate and share their conversion story, which was called a “testimony.” Those of us who had been in church our entire lives had a pretty boring testimony. The testimonies that were the most impressive were from people who had been big sinners, like former alcoholics or drug addicts. These were people who were really encouraged to talk about how finding Jesus had totally saved them from lives of sin and debauchery and destruction and had brought them to a place of peace and light. Whether our testimony was grand or not, we were encouraged to share it with sinners in order to bring them to the saving grace of Jesus (and save them from eternity in hell).
Laying on of Hands
This was something done during prayer, either in a church service or in Sunday school or on a retreat. The higher-ups in the church (pastors, deacons, etc.) would lay their hands on the person being prayed over, and sometimes the entire congregation would come forward and touch the person and pray. The touching supposedly conveyed extra Jesus Power.
This was a symbolic gesture to show servanthood. In the Old Days, people traveling on foot and wearing sandals (as one would do in the Middle East) would get pretty nasty, so when they arrived at their host’s home, the host would offer water and supplies so they could cleanse their feet. A really great host would wash the guest’s feet. There was a story in the Bible of Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair as a sign of submission and love. Jesus supposedly washed the feet of his disciples as a sign of servant leadership. People who want to appear to be super Jesus-like will wash the feet of others, and typically it’s one in a position of leadership who will wash the feet of their underlings.
Because Baptists practice believer baptism and not in infant baptism (like the evil hell-bound Catholics) but still want to acknowledge when a child is born, Baptist churches will hold a baby dedication service. In our church, one Sunday per year all the parents of babies born within the year were asked to come forward to show off their future (revenue stream) soul for Jesus to be prayed over and shown off to the congregation. Parents were warned about eternity in hell and the importance of (indoctrinating) raising their child in the church.
The resurrected Jesus told his followers he would return to earth one day, only the Father knows when, so since 33 CE, Christians have been waiting for him to come back. Christians over the centuries have searched through Old and New Testaments to try to piece together what they think the timeline will be preceding, during, and subsequent to his return. There are disagreements about what will happen when, but it’s all scary to children/teens who are told they better be for SURE and for CERTAIN that they are saved or else they will be left behind with all the evil heathens if they aren’t ready and Jesus comes back and takes all the True Christians out of the world. Tim LaHaye’s popular “Left Behind” book series sums up one of the primary eschatological timelines known to (and devised by) True Christians®.
1979: Marla, a college classmate of mine, had just returned from a stint as a Peace Corps community health educator in Ethiopia. Her work entailed, among other things, teaching health and “life skills” to school children. She interpreted “life skills” in her own way, she told me. That meant she was “encouraging young women and girls to have agency over their own bodies” in a country where, even today, women’s and girls’ access to resources and community participation is restricted, even though they do most of the agricultural labor. (An Ethiopian co-worker has told me as much.) Among other things, she tried to teach those young women that they had a right to gynecological and reproductive health care—and to decide whether or not they were going to reproduce.
One day, Marla said, she had an “epiphany”: She realized what would do more than anything else to promote women’s health care, and cut the birth rate “in half.” It’s something that she found herself doing, even though “it wasn’t part of the job description.”
What was the most helpful thing Marla, with her degree in microbiology, did for the women and girls she met in Ethiopia? She taught them how to read. Most of them didn’t know how, in any language, when she arrived. Her literacy sessions, she said, were more effective than all of the lessons she gave in hygiene or contraceptive usage.
What Marla’s experience taught her has been borne out, not only in Ethiopia, but in other parts of the world. To put it simply, the more educated women become, the fewer children they have. And, the fewer children people have, the healthier those children are likely to be.
I found myself thinking about Marla’s experience after writing about how the Roman Catholic Church is rapidly losing followers in the US, western Europe and Australia. So are other traditional mainstream Christian churches. Even the children of Evangelicals are starting to drift away.
One reason why young people are disengaging from the Church is, of course, the clerical sex-abuse scandals. One need not be a victim of such exploitation to lose one’s trust, not only in priests and other “representatives of God,” but in the institutions they uphold. But even if people were not coming forward (as I did nearly two years ago) with accounts of long-ago molestation, the “shepherds” would have a hard time keeping the young in their fold and, needless to say, in their influence.
Church officials could blame the Internet, video games or any number of other things for the loss of young congregants. But if those leaders really want to know why they’re “losing Europe” and other places, they should pay attention to what Marla and others have observed.
Actually, they may have. Why else would they insist, even at this late date, upon female subservience? Why do they still teach that abortion is wrong, even if it saves the life of the mother?
I can’t help but to think that such doctrines are a tacit admission that churches need high birth rates—which, of course, means restricting the rights of women—in order to continue in their present forms. The vast majority of any church’s followers didn’t consciously choose to be members: Either their parents raised them to be congregants, or they made a “profession” or “admission” of faith under duress, or at a least without a true understanding of what they were pledging. The surest way to ensure growth in the church is, therefore, to have more children. And it’s in those areas where women are less educated and more oppressed—and thus give birth to more children– where the church is growing.
Of course, there are a number of reasons why educated women have fewer children. One is that the more time they spend getting an education, the later in life they’ll have children—which means fewer children. Another is that education shows women (and men) that whatever the rewards of having children, there are other ways to find fulfillment in life. They are less likely to “be fruitful and multiply” – as well as other Biblical dictums—literally, if at all.
Thus a cycle begins. Smaller families tend to be less religious, or at least less religiously orthodox, than larger families. While religiosity often leads to large families, it can’t be said that a lack of religion is a cause of smaller families. Still, the inverse correlation between piety and family size cannot be denied. And kids raised with less religious indoctrination are less likely to see the need for it or, for that matter, for having lots of kids when they grow up.
Oh, and if a girl in a small family grows up with an educated secular mother, she is also as likely to see the value of education as she is to not see the value of religion in her life. So, for that matter, is a boy: Moreover, he is less likely to believe that a woman can’t, or shouldn’t, do whatever a man can. If his mother can head a corporation or university, why not a religious institution? He, not to mention his sister, can’t be blamed for wondering why women aren’t allowed to say mass, let alone take on any other prominent role in the church. If that boy or girl has children, he or she is less likely to bring them to such a church.
Many observers are now talking about ways in which the church needs to do to “reform” itself. While the current Pope may be sincere in his intention to root out predatory priests and to re-focus the church’s mission on helping the poor, I am not holding my breath when it comes to the church’s position on abortion or female subservience. Call me a cynic, but I can’t help but to think if the Church is indeed “giving up” on Europe, it still finds hope in the Global South of high birth rates and other forms of gender inequality. There, the Church will continue to grow—until, of course, the women get educated and stop having babies. Marla was right, and Church leaders know it, whether or not they know Marla.