If my brand of Christianity were a musical, it would play off, off, off Broadway.
I’ve spent most of my life calling myself an agnostic, but I’ve always been fascinated by religion and religious people. I love the way their eyes light up when they talk about God, the sort of warm bubble that envelops them in the comfort and security of their faith. I was envious of them, actually. I wish I could be so certain of anything, I’d think, especially when they used their beliefs to get through seriously hard times. They’d stand over the closed casket of their only child and pray, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” and I’d watch as they were unburdened of a portion of their grief, releasing it into the universe like a dark cloud. I wished I could do that. I wished God would take care of me.
But faith seems seriously hard to interface with logic. If there really is a God, where the fuck is he? Hasn’t he realized that a lot of his supposed peeps are doing some crazy and brutal shit down here? Is that what he really wants? And, if there is really a God, why do religious people believe so many different things, some of them completely whack-ass? Why doesn’t he speak with a clearer voice?
Every so often, I would get what seemed like an answer to these questions. A little bubble of peace would rise up through my soul. God’s voice is big, and it is all things to all people, it said. Humans are by nature silly little creatures that fill their lives up with silly things, but God’s voice is deeper than all that. It can mean more than that.
I’d sit there and trip out on that shit for a second, but then it would pass, my logic would reassert itself, and I’d go on with my life.
Which, by the way, was a never ending shit-show. A sketch comedy of bad decisions. I’d get little impulsive ideas, and I’d be carried away by them. Get into a van full of Deadheads and coke addicts and head off to who knows where? Why not! Hang out with a bunch of dudes with tattoos on their necks? Fun!
I continued to dwell on religious stuff, but it didn’t help me in any practical way. In fact, whenever I got one of my little ideas, the God in my head might give me a stern and dubious look at first, but when I persisted, when I said, “No, really, I think it’s a great idea to try drugs. I hear they’re really good,” he didn’t shake his head at me and leave, like a lot of my friends and family did. In fact, sometimes He seemed to be egging me on. In my imagination, Jesus would lean back on his white mohair couch, hiding a grin behind his hand. “Go ahead, Elizabeth,” he’d say. “Let’s see how it turns out this time.”
Afterwards, as my life was crumbling into rubble around me, I’d turn to my imaginary friend Jesus with an incredulous scowl. “Why did you let me do that?” I’d ask, and He’d just shrug and look innocent. “Free will,” He’d say, then He’d smile benignly as Jimi Hendrix snorted a line of manna off of His solid gold coffee table. Time and time again, it wasn’t God who saved me from myself, it was my parents, or sheer dumb luck.
But I didn’t expect God to save me. I figured, if there even was a God – if God wasn’t just some stoned-out thought that floated through my head sometimes – then he surely wasn’t going to waste his time trying to fix the fucked-up life of someone like me. If that were going to happen, I knew I’d have to do it myself.
I discovered that there were people who did believe that God would step in and save people, though. It sounded like a forceful process, akin to kidnapping, but I was willing to undergo it if it worked. Once I had this friend Megan who convinced me to talk to a woman, a “Born-Again Christian” as they were called in those days. “She’s really nice,” Megan assured me. “I don’t believe the stuff she says, but I like talking to her.” Megan had skin like an apple blossom and a habit of singing Violent Femmes songs at the top of her lungs, her eyes bright with the same manic impulsiveness that had led me astray time and time again. So I shrugged. “Sure, why not.”
The Born-Again lady had a Nancy Reagan hairdo and an aura of determined fervor. She gave us cookies and explained that she had just been sitting there one day when Jesus had come and transformed her life. Just like that. BAM! Sinner to Jesus in four-point-five seconds. I gazed at her, shot through with jealousy, and asked her how I could get that to happen to me.
“You just have to open yourself up to Him,” she said. “You have to accept Jesus as your personal savior, and let him work through you.” She explained that Jesus, a sinless man, had died upon the cross for us, and that if we accepted his sacrifice then we would gain forgiveness and go to Heaven.
Believe it or not, this was my first exposure to Jesus the scapegoat, the sacrifice-by-proxy, as opposed to Jesus the enlightened teacher, and I found the idea hilarious and a bit disturbing. “So, God let his son be tortured to death? Even though he was, like, the best guy in the world?”
Her smile became a bit fixed, but she nodded and spoke in a patient voice. She really was nice, like Megan had told me. “Yes. God gave up his only son because he loved us, and wanted us to go to Heaven.”
I wrestled with that one, trying to pin it down and make it stay put so I could get a good look at it. “So, what I have to do, if I want to go to Heaven, is to understand the sacrifice Jesus made for me. I have to be thankful that he was able to suffer a painful and horrible death, all the while trusting in and loving God. That he was willing to do that just so that the rest of us could know God, too.”
I don’t know if I’d gotten it quite right in her eyes, but she still smiled brightly. “Yes, and you have to let him into your heart, and give your life over to him completely. Through Jesus, we have eternal life, and he’ll take care of us forever.”
Next to me, Megan had begun to chew her nails and rock back and forth slightly in her chair, but I was in full stare mode at Born-Again, and I could feel my eyebrows scrunching together. Megan may have been bored, but she was the one who had dragged me there in the first place, so she could deal with it while I figured this shit out. “And if I don’t accept Jesus, I go to hell?”
“Yes. It is only by accepting Him that we can be saved.”
“But what about people who die, never having heard about Him? What if they’re good people, nice people, but they live in the middle of the jungle in Brazil?”
“That’s why it’s important to reach out to others, so that they can be saved, so that there isn’t anyone who hasn’t heard about Him. It’s not enough to be a good person. The only path to Heaven is through Jesus.”
“What about the Native Americans, before European missionaries came? They didn’t even have a chance to hear about all this. Did they go to hell, too?”
“Even if no one told them about Him, He was still there, speaking to them. If they didn’t listen, if they didn’t let him into their hearts, they still went to hell. Jesus is with us, all the time. Even if no one tells us about him, we can see him. We just have to open our eyes.” She made an airy gesture as if to indicate the presence of her Savior somewhere in the room with us, and I imagined Invisible Christ jumping backwards she wouldn’t accidentally smack him. I wanted to ask her why, if Jesus supposedly loved us so much, He didn’t just bust into everyone’s hearts like He had hers. Why was He letting most of us go to hell? Why hadn’t I awoken screaming one morning, terrified that some tweaker was doing a B&E on my soul, only to hear, “It’s okay! It’s me, Jesus! I’m here to save you!”? I also wanted to ask her how it worked in the good old days B.C., but I feared I’d be stretching her theology and her patience.
My head was all tangled up in knots and Megan was now picking compulsively at a frayed patch in her pants, so I took Born Again’s pamphlets and a free Bible and left. She told me to come back to talk to her anytime, but I could tell by the look in her eyes that I wasn’t salvation material. I couldn’t share her faith, though I sincerely wished I could. Jesus hadn’t kidnapped me, and I wasn’t going to hold my breath for that to happen. I couldn’t question Born-Again’s story of her own salvation, but I doubted this woman had ever been the sort of person I am. God was for people like her, not for people like me.
But I read the Bible she’d given me. Genesis and Exodus had some great stories, with murder and love triangles and plagues of frogs. Frogs, seriously. I imagined myself lying naked in the mud of the Nile, covered in wiggling frogs, their little bellies sliding all over me. Nice one, God. But, I did wonder why He continued to harden Pharaoh’s heart against Moses and Aaron’s request. Did he just like fucking with people? Was he searching for a chance to show off his mighty plague powers? I didn’t know.
I continued to live my life like I was auditioning for the lowest of lowbrow reality shows, but I still read my Bible sometimes. Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy were tedious and sometimes brutal. Esther was an awesome chick, in her way, and some of the psalms were pretty great, but I was starting to get bored with the Good Book. At that time, I was trying to haul myself out of the sucking swamp that was my first marriage, get a real job that would help me make rent and car payments, and live a normal life. I wanted something a little more Elmore Leonard-y to read, just to keep my mind off things.
But then one day I was flipping through the thing and landed on Ecclesiastes. I remembered that I’d liked this chapter when I was a kid, having chanced upon it somehow during one of my literary forays, and so I started in on it.
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
“Kickass,” I muttered to myself, caressing the page as if I could feel the words through my fingertips.
The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.
It is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
It was like the son of David had written this just for me, his voice speaking through the ages into my ears. I hugged myself as I read it, thinking of how each morning pried me out of my dreams, consciousness settling like mud into my soul. Each day just like the one before it, different perhaps in the particulars, but the same in essence. Every day the hustle, the striving after wind, trying to pretend that everything wasn’t bleak and pointless, seeking to fill the proverbial emptiness inside with dope or sick love. In my imagination, Jesus was quiet for once, the little teasing smirk gone from his face, and he was watching me closely as I started to cry.
There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from Him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
This was Ecclesiastes’ answer to the seeming pointlessness of it all: God has given us this life, so enjoy it while you can. Instead of filling that hollowness inside with vanity, fill it with God, instead. I thought it was a pretty good answer, except I was having a hard time finding joy in my toil now. I wasn’t connected to whatever cosmic font of peace and happiness religious people had access to. God wasn’t for people like me. I couldn’t swallow the bullshit that Born-Again and her ilk believed, because it just didn’t make sense to me, so I couldn’t reap the benefits of faith.
Ecclesiastes had some seriously good shit in it, but all that proved is that some dude knew how to write awesome poetry thousands of years ago.
And then there was that stupid Byrds song in there. Plus, all the other stuff in the other chapters, about it being better to fuck hookers than beat off, and about homosexuality being an abomination. The stuff about God righteously smiting everyone except a select few. Loads of stuff that seemed hurtful to me. But this, apparently, was Christianity. In fact, if you looked closely at other religions and their followers – even Buddhism – it seemed to me it was a lot of the same crap: sanctimony, convoluted and crazy thinking, and exclusiveness. People who supposedly did know God, who were tapped in to the Eternal and the Divine, people who had faith coming out their ears, true believers, said that people like me were going to hell.
My God – my imaginary friend Jesus – didn’t have any problem at all with gay people, or Buddhists, or Muslims – he figured all religions were, somehow, seeking the same divine goal. He loved drug addicts, although I didn’t know what he did with the murders and rapists – I guessed that was between them and their personal God. My friend Jesus didn’t think I was going to burn in eternal hellfire, though maybe He thought I was a bit tiresome in a humorous way, and wished I’d get my shit together.
So, logically, the God in my mind, the dude with a twisted sense of humor, who teased me like an affectionate older brother every time I landed myself in some dark place I thought I’d never get out of – since he wasn’t the same God the experts were talking about, he must not be real.
Logic reasserted itself. God was a figment of the imagination.
I put the Bible down and wiped my eyes, and Jesus sighed and went back to whatever he was doing.