My friend and neighbor, we’ll call her Stella, started working at a church last summer. She’s working here Monday through Thursday nine to one. She invited me to write here today since the pastor is on vacation. I accepted because, though I have tended to avoid church, in the tiny, rural town in which I now live, church is not the same haven for absolutism and judgment and Bible reading. It is more like a community center. It is where us hill people come to make friends. And though the musty human smell common to churches coupled with the “painting” of a Caucasian Jesus praying at Golgotha on the eve of his crucifixion threatened to send me into an anxiety-fueled flashback, I’m comfortable. I’m thinking of it as research. I’d like to come again and write in the sanctuary.
Last night, I listened to Julia Sweeney’s “Letting Go of God.” She is a funny, funny woman of SNL fame, and her performance provided loads of opportunities for reflection on my own life, how I want to tell this story, and it gave me another thing, too. Julia Sweeney is a plain-looking, mildly doughy woman. Funny women do not have to be blindingly sexy. Other examples spring to mind: Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho pre “Coming Out,” Maria Bamford, Tina Fey. These are all utterly regular looking women. Why do funny women get a pass on being perfect? Now, more than ever, I want to be a publicly funny woman.
But another, more important thing that I took from Sweeney was this: She says to her mother, “Mom, I don’t believe in God anymore.”
Her mom says, “You’re still going to go to Mass, right?”
And Sweeney has this serene, mature, thoughtful response. She says, “I get that, because in Minnesota, church is the culture. She was more upset that I was quitting the club.”
As soon as she said it, it seemed like something I might’ve always understood. But I didn’t. And it led me to reflect on my own frustration and anger toward my parents for not being able to just be comfortable with the notion of me quitting church and God. I mean, neither of them practice precisely the same brand of Christianity with which they were raised. I’m not really clear on whether my father was raised with any Christianity at all. Why wouldn’t they be able to distribute their own experiences across mine, to understand that it is at least partially owing to the way in which all children, eventually, seek autonomy?
But there’s another portion of it for my parents. Though they stopped saying it some time ago, they communicate it in many other ways. The sentiment is, “We are worried for your soul.” Because they ardently, absolutely believe that there is only one answer about God, and that anything other than that one answer damns a person’s soul directly to Hell without passing Go or collecting 200 dollars.
One of the books that showed me the way away from Church, God, Christianity was W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. I suspect my folks would lose a little respect for Mr. Tarrant, the guy who assigned it to my eleventh grade honors English class, over that because it is much easier to blame him than to accept that it is a quandary of intellect for me. In Bondage, the protagonist, Phillip, embarks on a quest for God. He, like Sweeney, lands staidly in Atheist land. I found his pursuit to be so identifiable when I was a rebellious, irreverent teenager. It is also among the books that made me want to be a writer: it occurred to me that books can change people’s lives.