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Two Good Books for Questioning Christians

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Guest Post by Karuna Gal

Bruce often directs questioning Christians to read books by Bart Ehrman. I wanted to suggest a couple of objective and scholarly books that a questioning Christian might also find useful. Both these books have never gone out of print and are available on Amazon, Kindle, and through bookstores. Your library may carry them, too. One of the books is about the historical Jesus and the other talks about millennialist and messianic groups.

When I was still going to church I would buy books about Christianity, and after I read them I would donate them to my church’s library. There was one that I couldn’t bear to give away, though. I found it when I was going through my bookshelves recently. It’s called The Changing Faces of Jesus by Geza Vermes, and it was published in 2000. (By the way, Bart Ehrman has an admiring post about Vermes on his website.)

Geza Vermes was a great scholar who wrote about the Dead Sea Scrolls and the historical Jesus. Vermes had a remarkable life. He was born in Hungary to Jewish parents. His parents converted to Catholicism for safety when Nazism was rising, but in spite of that, they were sent to concentration camps where they died. He survived and at one point became a Catholic priest. But eventually he left Catholicism and returned to Judaism.

He did an important translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls into English. And because of his Jewish origins, education, and experience as a practicing Christian at one point in his life, he was uniquely suited to be an expert on the historical Jesus. He wrote a number of books about Jesus, including this one.

In “The Changing Faces of Jesus” Vermes begins with an examination of how Jesus is depicted in the Gospel of John. Then he works his way back through the images of Jesus in Paul, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Synoptic Gospels (Luke, Mark, and Matthew). Finally, Vermes makes a pretty solid case about who the real Jesus was “beneath the Gospels.” I also liked how Vermes shows that Jesus was one of many Jewish miracle workers and messianic figures of his era, and Jesus wasn’t as original as he’s made out to be.

Vermes also has an epilogue at the end of the book about a dream he had after he finished writing the book. It’s my favorite part of the book, and, no, I’m not going to tell you why. You will have to read the book yourself and find out. The book is well written and easy for laypeople to understand.

The second book that I want to add to the list is When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group that Predicted the Destruction of the World. (In an earlier guest post I mentioned that
this particular book dealt the death blow to my Christian faith.) Written by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, it was published in 1956. It first gives a historical overview of how messianic and millennialist groups, even when their messiahs don’t show up, or the world doesn’t end at the appointed times, often continue to carry on with their beliefs intact and even strengthened. The authors also follow a contemporary group of Americans who believed that superior beings from another planet were coming to take them to a higher planet, due to the group’s “higher density” compared to other Earthlings. Even though that event did not happen on the predicted day, some of the group stayed together and kept believing. Here’s a great quote from the beginning of the book:

A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point. We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.

I hope other people will recommend solidly researched, objective, and interesting books for those who are questioning their Christian faith.

Happy reading and healthy questioning!

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

My Last Witness

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

In previous essays, I’ve talked about sexual abuse by a priest and other misfortunes that were related, directly or tangentially, to the Roman Catholicism in which I was raised and the Evangelical Christianity of my early adulthood. Still, in some ways, I’m lucky: It’s been a while since anyone has made a full-on effort at “witnessing,” proselytizing, or converting me to any system of belief.

One of the last real attempts was made by a student during my first year of living and working as a woman. As far as anyone knew, I was the first faculty member to make such a “transition” (which I now call my affirmation) and within seconds, or so it seemed, of announcing my intention, everyone in the college knew about it. Some saw me as a novelty; others, I felt, were genuinely supportive; still others said all the right things to my face. And a few, maybe more, thought I’d see the “error” of my ways.

Two in the latter category were waiting for me to end my “experiment:” a gay male professor and a gay male student who were convinced that I would realize that I was really one of them. But I was in my mid-forties and had been through more than a few “experiments” in my time—including, I am ashamed to say, a marriage—which, if nothing else, taught me what I’m not. Others included a female faculty member whose flirtation I’d reciprocated during the previous year, even though, naturally, I had no intention of pursuing anything else with her.

Oh, and there were a few female students who tried to appeal to the twilight of my maleness. When I taught as a man, more than a few students—mostly female, but a few males—tried to pique my interest, shall we say. Now, I don’t think I was, or am, particularly attractive, though in those days, I was in really good shape. (Cycling!) A few students, I know, were trying to appeal to me, if subliminally, in a sexual way to win my sympathy, an extension on a deadline or a higher grade. Others, though, saw me as the male figure they’d never had in their lives. “You’re the first man who really listened to me” said a night student in a job and marriage that exploited her. Still another interrupted the advice I was giving her about her essay to exclaim, “You’re looking into my eyes!” I apologized. “No, it’s OK,” she explained. “Most men look at my body, at my breasts.”

Years later, I would glance into Glenda’s eyes — by which, I must say, I could see why more than a few people were mesmerized. (Think of Gigi Hadid.) We were discussing one of her assignments and she noticed, as many other people have, that I make a fair amount of eye contact, mostly to gauge how, or whether, someone has received what I’ve said or conveyed. (People have also noticed that I pay attention to facial expressions and body language, which may be a result of some of my experiences.) But if I was looking for a gateway to Glenda’s mind, she was seeing my glance as an opening.

“You know, the enemy is deceiving you.”

I asked her to explain.

“You know, The Enemy.”

It was 2004: The Cold War was more than a decade past and China wasn’t on most people’s radar. “Who do you mean?”

She sighed. “Satan.”

I politely explained that, as our relationship was professional and we were working in a state-sponsored secular educational institution, I couldn’t discuss religious beliefs. (Truth is, I didn’t want to.) Trying to make her condescension seem like concern, she intoned, “Don’t let him fool you.’

Over the course of the semester, I met with her several times. Her work was average, maybe a bit better, but she was consistent and diligent. And she made as much use as anyone has of my office hours. She made a lot of eye contact, most of it, I realized, not instigated by me. She leaned on my desk and, I noticed that over the course of the semester her attire had become, shall we say, more tailored. During our discussions of her work, she dropped in comments about “the Lord,” “my Savior” and “Jesus.”

At the end of our last class, she barged in front of me and flashed her final paper. “I have to talk to you about this.”

“OK.”

“I deserve a better grade.” (She got a C-)

“All right. Tell me why. Did I miss something?”

“I know I should have gotten a better grade.”

Mustering my patience, I asked her to kindly explain herself.

Silence.

“I know I should get a better grade.”

“Please, tell me why.”

A long silence.

“I know I’m not perfect. Tell me what you think I missed.”

Another silence. “Look, I’ve graded hundreds, maybe thousands, of papers and assignments. Nobody could be right every single time. Nor could I. So, perhaps, I was wrong. But I’m not seeing it. I was hoping you could explain.”

Still another silence. “I just know I deserve better grade.”

Once again, I politely asked her to explain.

“Alex (not his real name) got a B.”

He’d struggled early and I wondered whether he’d make it through the semester. But I saw gradual improvement that could have been explained by sessions in the college’s writing center or other extra effort. I said as much to Glenda.

I saw a tear roll from the corner of her left eye. I tried to soften my tone as I said, “Well, his hard work is showing some results.”

“I helped him,” she blurted.

“W-what do you mean?”

“I helped him.”

“How did he get a better grade than you?”

“I wrote his paper.”

“OK. Maybe I’m not the smartest person in the world. I don’t understand. How did he get a better grade than you?”

Her faucet opened. “I was just trying to help him like God wanted me to!” she wailed.

“God wanted you to cheat?”

“No, the Lord wanted me to help him. When I finished his paper, I didn’t have enough time to finish my paper.”

I waited for her to ask for a chance to revise her work. Thankfully, she didn’t. I was about to order her out of the room. Thankfully, I didn’t have to: she left. I never heard from her — nor about The Enemy or her Lord — again.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Religion From The Outside

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A Guest Post by ObstacleChick

Recently I visited Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. According to Wikipedia,  the UAE became a nation on December 2, 1971, when 6 emirates joined together. A 7th emirate joined on January 10, 1972, thus forming the UAE as it exists today. We were fortunate to be in Abu Dhabi on the 50th National Day of the UAE which was celebrated with fireworks, music, and city-wide decorations. As of 2013, the 9.2 million inhabitants of UAE were comprised of 1.4 million citizens and 7.8 million expatriates, most of whom are from Southeast Asia (particularly from India) and Africa. The population is mostly male with 2.2 males per female. The state religion of UAE is Islam, and it is not an exaggeration to say that there is a mosque on every other street corner. Calls to prayer are broadcast 5 times a day, and it is common to see devout Muslim men praying out in the open if they are not in a private prayer room or a mosque that allows for them to do so in relative privacy. Human rights concerns are definitely an issue in UAE, and fortunately we did not commit any crimes punishable by 60-100 lashes or worse, death by stoning.

One amazing marvel we visited was the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Completed in 2007, it is the largest mosque in the UAE.  According to Wikipedia, the cost to build this marvel of architecture was about $545 million. After we visited the mosque, my husband and I discussed how many resources were used to build incredible religious structures such as mosques and cathedrals, money that perhaps could have been spent on feeding, clothing, and caring for human beings. Are these incredibly beautiful houses of worship designed to appease a deity, to show fealty to a deity, to show off to nonbelievers, or to convince human worshippers that if they follow this particular religion their afterlife reward will be as grand as the magnificent house of worship? The reasons could be any combination of these or perhaps others I have not considered.

As we walked through the mosque, the tour guide, a knowledgeable young Muslim man, explained all the wondrous features of the mosque. When we visited the interior prayer sanctuary, we saw a wall that featured the 99 names of the deity. Infidel that I am, I couldn’t help but think of the Jay Z song “99 Problems” and chuckled to myself. There is a separate prayer room for women, one in which the occupants can neither see out into the main prayer room nor be seen. Gotta keep those women hidden away so men won’t be tempted to lust! My husband and I joked later that men and women are separated for prayer so that Brother Abdul won’t be tempted to check out Sister Farah’s voluptuous posterior outlined by her abaya.

Muslims are obligated to pray 5 times a day. The five daily prayers include: Fajr (sunrise prayer), Dhuhr (noon prayer), Asr (afternoon prayer), Maghrib (sunset prayer), and Isha (night prayer). Each prayer must be completed within a certain period of time. As each prayer time is tied to the rotation of the earth, ancient Muslims excelled in the study of astronomy in order for prayer times to be as accurate as possible. With modern technology, calls to prayer (the Adhan) are recorded and played from the mosques; but in ancient times, an individual was responsible for calling out the prayer times at each mosque. I don’t know what the Quran says about praying in public, but we did see a few men praying in public when there were no prayer rooms available in the location at prayer time.

In this post, I won’t get into the topic of Muslim women’s dress codes and how they are tied into patriarchy, rape culture, the demonization of women’s bodies, and control in general. When we visited the Grand Mosque, I had to wear an abaya and hijab, and I was surprised at the feelings wearing those garments invoked. I felt invisible, like I was not a person. Of course, that was my experience, and I cannot speak for how other women may feel when they wear these garments. If you are interested in finding out more about Muslim women’s dress codes, I recommend Pious Fashion: How Muslim Women Dress by Religious Ethicist Elizabeth Bucar of Northeastern University. Dr. Bucar does an excellent job of recounting how the hijab is used and viewed in 3 different Muslim cultures.

On one of our days in Abu Dhabi, we went on a tourist excursion that included dune crashing in a 4×4 SUV, riding camels, sandboarding down a dune, seeing a falcon show, and a belly dancing show, and enjoying dinner outdoors under the stars. It was cheesy but highly enjoyable! Joining us in our SUV was a family from Tehran, Iran – mom and dad, college-aged son, and middle-school-aged son. The college-aged son spoke fluent English, and the mom was quite proficient as well. We had a great time learning more about each other’s countries and cultures, agreeing that government tensions are meaningless among individuals getting to know each other. Their first question was Trump or Biden, and we announced unequivocally NOT TRUMP and apologized for the travesty that was the Trump administration. We also disabused them of the notion that all Americans carry guns, wear cowboy hats and boots, or are rappers and drug dealers. We learned that all Iranians are not supportive of the Ayatollah or Islamic government, nor do they all wear traditional Arabic garb. They also pointed out that while they were all born into Islam in a Muslim country, they themselves do not believe in any of it and are apostates. However, they cannot be open about their unbelief because technically, in Iran, apostasy is punishable by death. They asked about atheism in America. We told them that we were born into Christian families and are now atheists, but that even though our country’s Constitution supports religious freedom and apostasy is not legally punishable, there still exists a social stigma against atheism. We noted that just as there is a mosque on every other street corner in UAE, in parts of the USA there is a church on every other street corner. The Indian driver of our SUV joined in that he was also nonreligious, but as a resident of UAE he has to keep that information to himself. Apostasy is a punishable offense in the UAE as well, and he could be deported for openly declaring atheism. We all agreed that while religion can have useful elements of community and comfort, it can often be weaponized against people in order to oppress and control.

Having visited a Muslim country and visited one of its holy sanctuaries, I am no closer to joining the religion than I was before. If I had grown up in UAE, the probability is that my parents would have been Muslim, and I would have been raised Muslim as well. Born in the Bible Belt, I was raised Christian because my mom and grandparents were evangelical Christians. When my children were young, we attended a progressive, liberal church until I decided to “take a break from religion”. As my children have very little memory of church and received no religious education, they consider themselves to be nonreligious. While there are converts to religions, the vast majority of people claim the religion of their parents. Or, as we are seeing to a greater degree today, people are leaving the religion of their youth.

It was interesting that in a vehicle with 7 people from 3 different countries, driving in a 4th country, all 7 of us were atheists. My anecdote is not intended to make a comment about the decline of religion; indeed, it was a coincidence that we were all of the same mind regarding religion, and it was evident which among us had suffered religious oppression at some point. However, meeting and conversing with these people confirmed that regardless of our heritage, background, ethnicity, we are all just humans trying to make the best of our situations. I am so grateful to be able to have these experiences that expand my world.
And not one of us felt the need to proselytize to the others . . .

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

He Told the Globe

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Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

It was exactly what I would have feared.

It was exactly what he feared.

His mother passed away without knowing two things about him. At least, he had never mentioned them to her. Now he was about to tell one of them to his father — like mine, a blue-collar Italian American of the generation that gave birth to Baby Boomers.

His mother had worked as a secretary. So did mine, among other jobs. My mother went to her grave having learned of one of my secrets, which is often conflated with his. My father learned of that secret — or, more precisely, truth — about me the same day, when I was about the same age as the man who is the subject of this post.

I am a transgender woman. He was gay. At the time of his fateful encounter with his father, that was still enough to make him a pariah, at least in some circles. That, and that he had AIDS. I have lost eighteen people to the disease — five of them between Memorial Day and Christmas in 1991. At that time, getting infected was a death sentence in every sense of the word: You lost your job, possibly your family and friends, and much else, before you lost your very life.

Of course, I consider myself fortunate not to have been afflicted with HIV. But if there ever was anything good to be said for it — especially in those days — it focused its victims, at least some of them. They did not fuck around; they knew they had no time for bullshit.

Which is why he had that conversation with his father. In the early 1960s, a boy named Phil Saviano attended St. Denis church in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts: the locale of the College of the Holy Cross (Justice Clarence Thomas’ alma mater). Later in that decade, I was an altar boy in the Catholic church nearly everyone in my blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood attended.

By now, you may have guessed (especially if you’ve read some of my earlier posts) what I’m about to say next. Phil and I were sexually abused by priests. To this day, I have not talked about it with my father or anyone in my family. But he would tell his father, some three decades after his experience. Not only that, believing that he was dying of AIDS, he revealed that he was about to talk with reporters from the Boston Globe.

His father was furious. “He couldn’t understand why in the world I would want to do that,” he recalled. For a decade, they were at a standoff over the issue. Then their parish, St. Denis printed a message in its church bulletin urging people to come forward if they had been abused. His father sent him the bulletin.

Turns out, the Reverend David A. Holley had ingratiated himself to a number of young boys, including Phil. A year before he had the conversation with his father — and Globe reporters — Saviano read a newspaper article saying that Father Holley had been sued in New Mexico for sexually molesting other boys. Until that time, he’d thought he and his friends had been the only victims.

If you saw the 2015 film “Spotlight,” this story — or, at least parts of it — may sound familiar. Shortly after meeting with Globe journalists, he asked officials at the Worcester Diocese to pay for his therapy. When they refused, Saviano sued the diocese. In the early stages of the case, he learned that seven bishops in four states had known that Father Holley, whom the church secretly sent to four different church-run treatment centers, was a serial child molester. (In 1993, Father Holley was sentenced to up to 275 years in prison in New Mexico. In 2009, still incarcerated at 80 years old, he died.) Church officials offered him a modest sum to settle the case on the condition that he sign a confidentiality agreement. He refused. “I’m not going to my grave with that secret,” he explained. “It would make me no better than the bishops.”

Finally, the church gave Saviano a $12,500 settlement and dropped the demand that he sign a non-disclosure agreement. “I think they figured I wasn’t going to be around much longer,” he said. But, by then, powerful new anti-AIDS treatments had been developed and he lived until last Sunday. He was 69 years old.

When you realize Phil lived for nearly three decades after the settlement, that amount of money isn’t nearly the windfall that it seems to be. If his life has any more parallels to mine than I’ve already mentioned, he’s spent at least that much on therapists and, possibly, medical help for conditions caused or exacerbated by his trauma. Also, while I don’t know much about him, it wouldn’t surprise me if, prior to coming forward, he’d lost jobs and educational opportunities as well as experiences with values that can’t be calculated at least in part because of his experiences. That he accomplished what he did is astounding: During the nearly three decades after his revelation, he advocated tirelessly for people like me and, among other things, founded a survivors’ network.

So, although Phil Saviano had to experience, at least for a time, exactly what I’d (and he’d) feared, he survived and showed us that we could do exactly what our abusers and their enablers didn’t want: Tell the truth about them and, most important, ourselves. (That is the essence of the “Me Too” movement.) It’s no exaggeration that it’s the (or at least a) reason why some of us are alive today.

He faced what he, what I, feared, what so many fear. If that doesn’t define a hero, I don’t know what does.

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

My Day Of Remembrance: 28 November 2021

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A week and a day ago, many of us — trans and gender-variant people, along with our allies — participated in Transgender Day of Remembrance. A now-annual commemoration, it was first observed a year after Rita Hester was found brutally murdered in her Boston apartment — twenty-three years ago today.

This year, hundreds of TDoR commemorations were held all over the world. Nearly all of them, including the one in which I participated, involved, among other things, each participant reading the name of a trans or gender-variant person killed during the past year. I was given the name of Iris Santos, about whom I knew nothing until I read her name and the date of place of her murder (23 April 2021, Houston, Texas) to the crowd.

As important as TDoR commemorations are to me, I have not participated every year. Reading the name of a complete stranger who could have been me always leaves me trembling from a storm of emotions: sadness, grief, fear, rage — and, even at this late date, guilt — among them. They stay with me long after the commemorations have ended. You might say that in some way I “adopt,” if not by choice, the victim whose name I’ve read. Sometimes it’s more than I can deal with.

While people normally feel sadness and grief over someone’s death, especially if they were close to the deceased, my guilt comes in part from knowing that I am old enough to be Ms. Santos’ grandmother — and that I could have been one of the names read rather than one reading her name. She was enjoying a meal at a picnic table when an unidentified suspect approached and shot her. Iris was “so young with so many things to look forward to,” according to Tori Cooper, the Human Rights campaign director for community engagement for the Transgender Justice Initiative. In that sense, and in the way she was brutally murdered by someone she didn’t know, Iris was like too many of us: Researchers at UCLA Law School’s Williams Institute report that trans people are four times as likely as cisgender folks to experience violent crime (including homicide) and most of those victims are, like Ms. Santos, trans women of color.

Another factor in my guilt — and rage — comes from knowing how too many other trans- and gender-variant people die — and how I almost became one of them. Although I cannot fault the organizers of TDoR, the commemorations leave out one group of victims that also are a disproportionately large — and unmentioned — part of our community.

According to Williams Institute researchers, “transgender adults have a prevalence of past-year suicide ideation that is nearly twelve times higher . . . than the U.S. general population”. In other words, between TDoR gatherings, trans adults are twelve times as likely as other Americans to have thought about taking take their own lives. Oh, but that’s not the worst news: “the prevalence of past-year suicide attempts is eighteen (italics mine) times higher than the U.S. general population. In other words, if one member of a group of 100 randomly-selected American adults has tried to take his or her own life during the past year, 18 members of a group of 100 trans folks has tried to end theirs.

Now, I know that the purpose of TDoR is to raise awareness of how too many of us are victimized through the hate and brutality of others—and that homicide is, unfortunately, one of the few crimes that can be verifiably linked to hate and violence. We cannot always know what was on the minds of trans, or any other, people who kill themselves: They don’t always leave notes recounting the personal, familial, professional, and societal rejection and exclusion they too often have faced—let alone the fears they might have, especially if they are young, at the prospect of living at the mercy of such prejudice.

If someone ends their life, or tries to, because they do not know how to deal with their gender identity and wish to express it — or, more precisely, the possible costs of doing so — it is generally known only to the victim themselves and, perhaps, someone to whom they confided. I know this because I tried to kill myself, in part because I simply could not imagine how I could live as the person I have always known myself to be — and because of two other people, one of whom I loved and another who might have become a friend.

(Herein, I will use male or female pronouns because during the time the people I’m about to discuss lived and died, “they,” “them” and “their” were not in use as gender-neutral pronouns and, therefore, the people I’m discussing used pronouns that reflected the gender to which they were assigned at birth.)

His body was found three days before Christmas. He — and I — were only a couple of years older than Ms. Santos was. Though we didn’t meet until our sophomore year at university, we had lived, it seemed, parallel lives: We were altar boys who attended Catholic schools in blue-collar urban communities. We played sports and did many other things expected of male children of our milieux—and a few things that weren’t. Oh, and while there were whispers about our sexuality, before and after we met, most people “read” each of us as cisgender heterosexual (or, at least, bisexual-trending-toward-hetero) males. I won’t say anything about my looks, but my friend — whom I’ll call Keri — was handsome-bordering-on-gorgeous in a young Antonio Banderas sort of way.

Although I tried to do the “dude” stuff, I felt an aversion to most members of the male gender. Keri, though, stood outside of that in a way I could not articulate at the time. I did not see him as I saw other men or boys, which is probably the reason I loved him. I also — if you’ll pardon a hackneyed expression—felt his pain. He felt trapped, as I did, and I now realize he knew it.

Which is why he called me the day before his body was found. I don’t remember exactly what he said as much I recall only a desperation in his voice. Occasionally, I hear echoes of that plea in others, but at the time it was unlike anything else I’d heard: It could have been my own. I think Keri knew that, and that I would show up at his place within minutes of our conversation.

He expressed a hopelessness, a despair I had never heard before — except from myself. “I can’t be who I am,” he lamented.

I could have said the same for myself. He knew that, even though I hadn’t. To this day, I wonder whether that was why he called. Did he want to hear me say, “Yes, I am a woman, too”? It would be years, decades, before I would. Instead, I held him in one of the longest embraces of my life and whispered, “Whoever you are, it’s wonderful, and I love you.”

As sincere as I was—I rarely used the word “love,” and perhaps will never say it often enough–it must have seemed like a platitude, at best. I was trying to console him in the way people try to comfort each other when they can’t, or won’t, truly experience another person’s pain. Much later, I realized that I could have truly loved him, or anyone else, only if I had been willing or able to acknowledge and act upon the truth about myself.

Still later, I realized that I didn’t “kill” Keri by not “saving” him that night. Although he might have lived — another fifty days, another fifty years? — had I given him what he — and I — needed, I came to understand — with the help of the therapist and social worker who worked with me during the first three years of my gender-affirmation process—that what killed him was the hatred, whether or not he experienced it directly, of the world around him. As Miguel de Unamuno wrote, Hombre muere de frio, no de oscuridad : People die, not from darkness, but from cold. The world, specifically, the human race as he knew it, was simply too cold for him, for anyone. He was frozen out.

In short, he was murdered by the world in which he lived, just as Iris Santos was by a random stranger with a gun. I could say the same for someone I met just before I started my gender affirmation process. Fran (not her real name) had lived with her boyfriend who, as she told me, “is the only person who truly loved me.” Her family — who included, I suspect, at least one person who sexually abused her—rejected her, ostensibly for her “choices”: She’d spent years recovering from, and relapsing into, addiction that lessened the pain of the work she’d been doing to support her addictions.

She learned of my gender affirmation process second- or third-hand: Someone had seen me “cross-dressing.” At first, she expressed disapproval — which, I sensed, wasn’t entirely her own. But she would ask me incisive questions about my “change”: What led me to it? How do I see the person I hope to become? How are my family, my co-workers, other people, treating me?

Finally, she confessed, “I admire you.” When I demurred, “I’m only doing what I need to do,” she said, “Well, I wish I could have.” She was about the same age as I am now which, she claimed, is “too late” to live the life she wished she’d had: as a man, with her boyfriend. “He doesn’t know I’m really I’m a gay man.”

Not long after, Fran washed down a bottle full of pills with another bottle of vodka.

She, like Keri, died from the darkness. In other words, she was murdered. Although I understand the purpose of Transgender Day of Remembrance, I really wish I, or someone, could have read their names, just as I pronounced that of Iris Santos a week and a day ago.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

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The Tyranny of American Christmas

happy christmas

Guest post by Karuna Gal

The English Puritans of the seventeenth century, when they were in power, outlawed the celebration of Christmas.”What a bunch of killjoys they were!” I thought, when I first learned about this in history class. “Who would be so harsh and mean-spirited as to actually cancel Christmas?” Although I don’t share the Puritans’ Calvinist theology or politics, I feel like a latter-day Puritan when it comes to having to submit to the relentless tyranny of American Christmas, this unholy season whose real God is mammon.

American Christmas tyranny produces “existential dread” as Christopher Hitchens put it: having to deal with week after oppressive week of the Christmas season.

Video Link

There is pressure to buy and to consume as American capitalism, already on steroids, flexes its
overdeveloped muscles while wearing a Santa suit or an angel outfit. And you feel the pressure keenly, no matter what your religious stance is.

People watch Hallmark Christmas shows or old classic Christmas movies ad nauseum, and you can’t escape hearing Christmas music everywhere you go. When I was a little kid it was the height of bad taste to put your Christmas decorations up more than a week before Christmas Day. This year I saw that someone put their Christmas decorations up on the day after Halloween. (The Nightmare Before Christmas movie may be pointing out how the Christmas season seems to begin at Halloween now. I
wish Jack Skellington had taken over Christmas permanently — nobody would want the presents he brings. But then again he’s been co-opted by Disney, which sells Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise on their website.) And need I mention the insane number of Christmas light displays, sucking up enormous amounts of electricity, and all the waste produced by discarded packaging and wrapping?

When a close family member died years ago I did not put up a Christmas tree or decorate for Christmas after his death. I was surprised to discover that I was relieved to have a good excuse not to “do Christmas.” There were no more Christmas trees for me in the years that followed. I gave away all my tree ornaments and most of my Christmas decorations, keeping the Christmas decor at a minimum. Sure, I’d listen to Christmas music a bit and would be with the family on Christmas Day, but I kept away from the madness of getting and spending and rushing around that seemingly possessed everybody, even Christians. What I did seemed to be much more appropriately “Christian.”

One time, during the Christmas season, I went to the mall to buy a few boxes of candy. After I did, I thought it might be fun to sit on a bench and watch the Christmas shoppers. Were any of them enjoying themselves? Nope! I saw nothing but long faces and hurried walking. The only person who was smiling was the musician playing his electronic keyboard in front of Sears. With Christmas looming, and maybe being forced to spend money they didn’t have, no wonder the shoppers all looked so grumpy. So much for the joy of the season. My experience as a retail clerk during the Christmas season also was quite instructive in this regard. Some of the rudest and most unpleasant people I’ve ever encountered seemed to “come out of the woodwork” then, and make us retail clerks miserable.

Churches, charitable and religious organizations milk Christmas for money. I’d bet that the ministers and priests of all Christian denominations are watching the Christmas collections plate or basket closely, hoping for a good Yuletide haul. How interesting that churches and corporate America work in tandem to push Christmas as a way to bring their fiscal year to a satisfying and lucrative conclusion.

For a tonic to American Christmas tyranny, join the Reverend Billy and the Church of
Stop Shopping
for some pointed musical commentary about consumerism, and then put up a Festivus pole on December 23rd, raising a glass (or several) of spiked eggnog to the memory of those dour old Puritans, who maybe weren’t all wrong about Christmas excess.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

The Time My Southern Baptist Grandma Had Whiskey

jack daniels whiskey

Guest Post by ObstacleChick

Before I became a mature ObstacleChick, my mom and I lived with her parents and her maternal grandmother just outside Nashville, Tennessee. My grandparents were active in their local Southern Baptist Church: my grandfather as a deacon on the Buildings and Grounds Committee, and my grandmother who served sometimes in the choir, as a Sunday school teacher, as a Women’s Missionary Union teacher, and on the Pastor Search Committee. We attended church services three times a week (twice on Sunday and again on Wednesday evening). When my grandfather wasn’t working, he was doing something at the church, helping people in the community, or hanging out at the local gas station/convenience store connecting with more people to help in the community.

Grandma was a strict complementarian who ran the household on a hierarchical structure. She considered Grandpa to be the head of household, and thus we were all instructed to obey him. Grandma’s mother was next on the totem pole as we are supposed to “honor our father and mother that our days may be long upon the earth”. My mom and I were somewhere way down the line, and Grandma considered herself to be the obedient servant. Grandpa did not subscribe to the complementarian plan, and he taught me that I should prepare myself to become a financially independent person, but he did not spend a lot of time arguing with Grandma’s sincerely held beliefs unless she tried to ban TV again. That’s when he used his executive privilege to ensure that he could watch his favorite sports teams and WWII-era movies.

Grandma’s sincerely held beliefs were often dictated by the latest culture wars that she heard about on Christian radio. I think she meant to be as obedient to what she thought God wanted from his creatures as she could possibly be, but she had a long laundry list of what was considered appropriate and inappropriate behavior. For example, she would not play any games with a regular deck of cards because she believed that decks of cards were tools of gambling. Grandma would not consume alcohol in any form, and she didn’t even want to patronize a restaurant that served alcohol. She never went to the movies and only watched the news on television. Substitute swear words were omitted from her vocabulary. Christian media were the only media sources that Grandma partook in (except for the evening news).

When I was 15 years old, I had pneumonia and Grandma had tuberculosis. You can imagine the amount of coughing that was happening in our house. Both of us were prescribed cough medicines, but nothing was working well. My grandfather was at his wits’ end, so he went to the store and brought home a bottle of whiskey, some lemons, and honey. He proceeded to make his family’s cough suppressant concoction from these ingredients plus a heavy dose of sugar, and he told Grandma and me that he wanted us to try it because it had worked when his grandmother (who by all accounts had been a skilled healer) gave it to him and his siblings. I thought, cool, I’ll be able to find out what whiskey tastes like. Grandma, however, was incredibly distressed. She was caught between the two sins of consuming alcohol and disobeying her husband. Unable to decide which was the greater sin, she told Grandpa, “I am only taking this because you’re my husband and I am supposed to obey you, but I do not agree with consuming alcohol.” I am pretty sure that was the first night in a while that anyone in our house got a good night of sleep as Grandpa’s home remedy soothed the coughing beasts. I guess after a good night of sleep, Grandpa took pity on Grandma and did not ask her to use his cough concoction again. Of course, I continued to use it despite the fact that whiskey tasted nasty, even with copious amounts of lemon and honey. My mature ObstacleChick version made with Fireball is much tastier and works better (in my opinion) than the over-the-counter cough syrups. I wonder which Jesus would have preferred?

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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How I Missed Hale-Bopp

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A Guest Post by Ian

I recently discovered a podcast called Here Be Monsters. I was trying to find a funny story I had heard a couple of years ago on public radio. The story involved someone dressing up as a Sasquatch and a dog called Motley Crüe Jon Bon Jovi. It’s an entertaining story that you can find here.


I really enjoyed re-hearing the story and thought there might be some other stories I’d enjoy, so I started listening to random episodes. I enjoyed some, while others didn’t really catch my interest. But the presentations were excellent and I loved the audio quality. The sounds are very crisp and the music is relaxing.

Fast forward a couple of weeks, and I’m listening to an episode about Marshall Applewhite and the Heaven’s Gate cult.

In the story, they talk about the Hale-Bopp comet. For those who don’t remember, or who weren’t born then, Hale-Bopp was a new comet that was bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, and it was visible for 18 months. This was during 1996-1997. The Heaven’s Gate cult thought a spacecraft was following the comet and most of them committed suicide, thinking that was the way to leave their bodies behind and join the spacecraft.

Eighteen months is a long time to be able to see a comet, but I never saw it, because I didn’t know about it. The only time it came into my small world view was when the members of Heaven’s Gate committed suicide. You see, at that time, my family didn’t have a TV, get the newspaper or listen to the news on the radio. The only time I heard news was when something big happened. Usually, the pastor would mention something he heard about on the news, or another member of the congregation, who had a TV, would say something, and then it was always filtered through the lens of Calvinistic philosophy. The big news stories were always talked about with the smug assurance that God had ordained everything that happens and that sinners were always getting their just rewards. I look back and find that disgusting. There was no compassion and no understanding, just black and white judgment. Heaven’s Gate was mentioned because they were “lunatics” who were preordained to this fate and further proof that we were the only ones with the true gospel. What I have come to realize over the years is that I missed out on so much news, which becomes information, from my mid-teens through my mid-30’s. Admittedly, a lot of the news was bad, but it was news. All of it was information that I could have learned from. I might have made better choices in my life, if I had more knowledge of the world around me. I watch Netflix documentaries now, and I can’t believe all that passed me by. Granted, I have lived my whole life in Alaska, so many national news stories didn’t always make big headlines here, but the stories were there. I just had no clue. Sometimes, when I discover a missed story, I feel like an explorer finding a new ocean or mountain. I’ll be amazed that this huge thing was here, and I just now found it.


And, the little bit of news I did follow was always looked at through a very critical lens. All news had to fit into my church’s narrow view of the world. Waco, Ruby Ridge, Elian Gonzalez, these were huge things talked about in my church, but the focus was always on the wrong thing. We feared the government because we thought they were going to put us all into concentration camps due to our beliefs. Maybe too many of us had watched the A Thief in the Night series, because we were all describing the kinds of scenarios shown in the films. The bigger picture was that ego and bad decisions ruled the day in these tragedies. The government didn’t care what we believed; the church I attended then still exists, although it has moved locations and is much smaller. In the early and mid-90’s though, we were sure Janet Reno had her personal eye on each of us.

By downplaying the news and filtering what we did know, the church was able to keep us uneducated. If I’m uneducated, how can I know to question anything? I felt stupid, because I would get to work, and people would be talking about things that I had no clue about. (For the younger generation, the Internet was in its infancy in this time. I couldn’t just Google it.) And, by constantly bashing the government and “taking a stand,” how many churches brought unnecessary federal, state, and local attention to themselves? If you complain the government hates you long enough, you’ll become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So many IFB/Calvinistic/Southern Baptist-type churches get by right now by just being quiet. The federal government knows they don’t follow all the rules, they know tax evasion is going on, they know church board members use offerings as their own personal incomes, etc. The government just doesn’t care. It has too many other things to worry about, until they become something to worry about. Meanwhile, church members are being fed the story the pastor wants them to hear and never question anything.

Because of the church, I had warped views of events that happened, and it has taken years of looking into things for myself to figure out what the real tragedy in the stories was. Because of the church, I missed an 18-month chance to see a historic comet. a comet that will be forever linked, in my mind, to tragedy and not to how cool it would have been to see with my naked eye. Because I missed so much, I made sure I talked about current events with my kids, even when I was still a believer. I don’t want them to turn 40 and find out about a major event that they missed while watching Netflix.

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

After The Rocket, The Church Flamed Out

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A Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

Maurice “Rocket” Richard is revered by people whose grandparents weren’t born when he played his last National Hockey League (NHL) game in 1960. (That is a pivotal year in this story.) Possibly the only US athlete to attain iconic cultural status in his own country—and the world—as Richard enjoyed in Canada, especially in Quebec, is Muhammad Ali.

His younger brother Henri—“Pocket Rocket,”–while not as much of an idol or even as prolific a scorer, nonetheless followed his skate-tracks (is that the hockey equivalent of footsteps?) into the captaincy of the Montreal Canadiens and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Four Hall of Fame goaltenders played behind “Pocket Rocket” during his twenty-year career. One of them was “Rogie” Vachon.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you might think that my longtime fandom of hockey—and, in particular, the Canadiens—is incongruous. How I came to that is the story of another article, which I may or may not write, altogether. But that, or the fact that the NHL season begins this week, is not the reason I’m writing this article. Rather, the three players I’ve just mentioned are emblematic of another development I’m about to describe.

Henri “Pocket Rocket” played his first Canadiens, and NHL, game thirteen years after Maurice “Rocket” first donned la sainte flanneleThirteen-and-a-half years passed—and six other siblings were born to Mme. Richard—between the days Maurice and Henri first opened their eyes to the world. Vachon was called “Rogie” by everyone he knew because his birth name was a mouthful for almost everyone else, whatever language he or she spoke: Rogatien Rosaire Vachon.

Now tell me, how many people do you know named Rogation Rosary? For that matter, unless you’re, say, about my age and were raised in a Catholic community, how many families have you known with eight children?

In the milieu in which the Richard brothers and Vachon were born and raised, however, such things were normal.

In the 1950s—when Rocket’s career was at its apogee, Pocket Rocket’s was being launched and Vachon was idolizing them—the province of Quebec, which includes its capital city of Quebec as well as Montreal, was probably the most Catholic part of North America. An older co-worker on one of my first jobs described Quebec City as “the second Vatican” because he saw so many priests and nuns walking its streets. And two of Montreal’s nicknames were the “la ville au cent clochers” and “la cite des saints”: the city of a hundred spires and the city of saints.

In that sense, Montreal, Quebec City, and the province of Quebec hadn’t changed much since French settlers first arrived in the 16th Century. The French royal family and aristocracy were Catholic, as was most of France, so charters to set sail for, and claim, the New World, were given only to Catholics. The Huguenots, Protestants who were about 15 percent of France and were more educated than most French people—and who thus comprised most of the merchant and professional classes as well as most of the country’s technocrats—were not allowed to claim lands for the French crown. So, from the day French colonization began, Quebec, like other French colonies, was a Catholic stronghold.

Because most of Quebec outside of the eponymous city and Montreal was rural and agrarian until the 1950s, the language and culture didn’t change much as it did in, say, Paris, Marseille or Strasbourg. Quebecois who didn’t live in the capital or in Montreal were unlikely to encounter, much less marry, anyone from outside their culture or church. That meant that the province remained culturally and religiously conservative, even by the standards of the Pre-Vatican II church and McCarthyite America.

It also meant that the Church exercised control over institutions, and the daily lives of people, in ways that are unimaginable to most contemporary Canadians or Americans but would be familiar to the Irish of a generation ago. The church was in charge of everything from schools at every level, nurseries, orphanages, and most social services. That meant, among other things, that young people who defied the Church’s prohibition against pre-marital sex used “Catholic birth control.” It also meant that girls were discouraged from pursuing more than the most basic education unless they were going to be nuns or serve the church in some other way.

The type of education offered, and its unavailability to girls, dovetailed with the Quebec church’s ideology of la revanche des berceaux—the revenge of the cradles. Encouraging people to have lots of kids was not new to Quebec: the Church has done it from the day it began. In Quebec, though, as in Ireland, it came to be seen as a way to keep French language and culture—and the rural way of life—from being subsumed by their British conquerors. The Church itself also served this purpose, as it did for the Irish and Polish, as it was one of the few institutions that had help from the outside world.

As a result, Quebec’s population grew far more rapidly than the population of its neighboring provinces. Further fueling that centuries-long baby boom, if you will, was immigration—mainly to Montreal, and most of it Catholic: Irish, Portuguese, Italian and Polish. One notable exception to this pattern was the Jewish immigration from central and eastern Europe which, as in the United States, came at around the same time as the Italians.

In the 1920s, when Maurice Richard was born, rural areas of his native province had some of the highest birth rates in the world: around 7.5 per Quebecoise, or about 39 per 1000. Today, such fertility in industrialized countries is found only in some ultra-orthodox religious communities like the Hasidim. Birth rates in Quebec, and the rest of Canada, fell somewhat until the 1950s but remained higher than in the developed countries of Europe. At the end of the decade, however, events would conspire to change the size and structure of families, and Quebec society, as quickly and dramatically as would happen in Ireland a generation later.

In 1960, Quebecois elected a new Liberal provincial government headed by Jean Lesage. By that time, Quebec had fallen far behind neighboring Ontario in economic as well as egalitarian terms. Furthermore, the province’s economy was dominated by English-speaking Quebecers. Lesage believed that modernizing Quebec’s economy would not only make it more competitive with that of Ontario and other provinces, but would also help to preserve the distinctive culture of la belle province by freeing it from Anglo domination.

What Lesage initiated is often called “The Quiet Revolution.” It included not only economic reforms, but social ones: The Church would no longer have control over schooling. Instead, the government would take over and modernize the curriculum and methods while expanding the education system. With these changes came perhaps the most significant development of all: for the first time, females would be entitled to the same education, including post-secondary, as males. In 1961, 4.7 percent of women aged 20 to 24 had a university education. Three decades later, that figure had jumped to 27 percent. With that change came greater female participation in the paid workforce: from 15 percent of women of childbearing age in 1961 to 74 percent in 1991.

The most dramatic change of all, however, is one that’s inevitable whenever women have access to education: They have fewer kids and have them later. By 1987, Quebec’s women, whose mothers might have given them five or six siblings, were giving birth to, on average, 1.37 children. That is even lower than the birth rate in Scandinavian countries and on par with Italy, where there are fears of a “demographic crisis.” While fertility has crept up somewhat in recent years, it’s still below the accepted “replacement” rate of 2.1.

With that decrease in childbearing and rearing came another inevitable development. In 1958, two years before Lasage’s election, 85 percent of Quebec’s people identified as Catholics, and 88 percent of them attended mass every Sunday. While approximately three-quarters of Quebecers still identify themselves as Roman Catholic, as we have seen, such a number tends to be high because people continue to identify themselves, out of habit, by the religion in which they were brought up even though they no longer participate or believe in it. Also, sometimes the responses of people, especially children, are filled out for them by other people.

Church attendance rates give a truer picture: From 1986 to 2011, the proportion of Quebec’s Catholics who reported attending church monthly dropped from 48 to 17 percent. Today, the weekly attendance rate is estimated at 4 percent: even lower than in European countries like the Czech Republic and Estonia, which have some of the lowest rates of attending worship services in the world. And barely a third of the people say religion—any religion—is “important” to them.

And it doesn’t take a demographer or religious scholar to see that this decline in religiosity is a “feedback loop”: As women become more educated and less religious, they have fewer and less religious kids, who in turn have fewer and less religious kids.

So what does that mean for my favorite hockey team? Well, large, often impoverished families with few economic opportunities provided a steady stream of aspiring players. Even for the vast majority who didn’t get to don the uniform of Les Habitants, or any other NHL team, their salaries, meager as they were, earned on junior or minor league teams nonetheless helped their families. That immediate “fix” was a disincentive, in much the same way tips from a good night of waitressing or bartending are, from furthering their education, which could do more to help them and their families in the long run.

Now, with a drastically decreased birth rate, Quebec has a smaller talent pool to offer the hockey world. Moreover, young men in Quebec, no doubt influenced by parents who spent more time in school than their grandparents, are opting for more education. And new media, including the Internet, have introduced them to a world of possibilities beyond hockey rinks, where they would compete, not only with other Quebecois and Canadians, but with hockey players from the US, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, and other countries.

It is little wonder, then, three Montreal Canadiens legends, all of whom are enshrined in the Hall of Fame, had sons who didn’t become NHL players. And, chances are, their kids and their peers probably aren’t attending church. After all, there’s so much else to do in Montreal or Quebec City, even on Sunday morning!

bruce-gerencser-headshot

Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

Connect with me on social media:

You can email Bruce via the Contact Form.

Your comments are welcome and appreciated. All first-time comments are moderated. Please read the commenting rules before commenting.

Bruce Gerencser