Growing up part of a very reserved, small-but-corporate Lutheran church body, one of the ideas of which I was all but unaware of until my late teens was that of a testimony. When I learned the term and listened to a few online and on television, I felt confused and left out because, unlike mainstream media-based Christianity, I never had that “moment.” See, good conservative Lutherans believe that infant Baptism creates faith. So, at approximately two weeks of age, I had it and was robbed of that fabled “moment.” As I’ve gotten older, of course, I’ve realized that I get to have my own story and that “my testimony” of faith needn’t have anything to do with a “moment” of strong connection with my Maker. It has to do with a life I’ve had for however many breaths I’ve taken.
Countless things have shaped me; not just some moment of revelation.
I spent the first decade of what I’d consider my formative years (ages 3-13) in a small town in northeastern Arizona. I’ve always found it difficult to explain just how much living where I lived shaped my outlook on life, but it becomes somewhat easier when I contrast it with where I moved at age 13. You see, although I moved to another small town, it couldn’t have been more different. Thirty miles south of America’s “Second City,” I ended up where the city hits cornfields and where prejudices and religious feelings run deep. Compounding this culture shock is the fact that I attended public schools through sixth grade and made the switch to a parochial school system upon moving. This was the proposed reason for the move, actually, because my grandparents were concerned about bad influences as I got older in public school.
The problem that I don’t think they couldn’t have foreseen is that I’d been very molded by my scholastic experiences up to that point. Although most of the children I knew were Protestants, there was great denominational diversity and I had friends who held different religious beliefs altogether. Our town was not very diverse, but it was actually more diverse than where I moved. I don’t know if I just had exceptionally brilliant friends or if the kids at my charter school were just that smart, but we discussed religious differences. In sixth grade, I became really interested in Islam – and I was encouraged in this by a woman who fought for the US in the Gulf War and was dragged through a street for walking off of her base in shorts. Some mixture of Kingman’s relative isolation from major metro areas and the fact that children all attended school together, regardless of personal beliefs, however, created some weird belief in my head: equality.
I know. Silly me!
Upon moving to Crete, I learned that we’re supposed to fear people who are unlike us. I learned that Martin Luther King, Jr., Day didn’t matter because Martin Luther and Good Friday mattered more. I learned that black people are “like mice: ‘Where you have one, you have ten.'” I learned that there are history and science books made specifically with the idea of pushing religion over fact. I learned that I’d wasted time learning countless dates explaining evolution because all I really needed to do was memorize the seven days of creation and a small catechism full of beliefs. I learned that driving in certain areas was a bad idea. I learned that euphemisms are as bad as the real thing and referring to luck is discounting God’s providence. I was additionally jarred because two weeks after arriving in Crete, Islamic extremists executed the plan we now simply refer to as “9/11.” Now, in addition to racial slurs against blacks and Latinos, came “rag heads,” “terrorist,” and countless other words of hate.
I learned that there are people who’ve never explored the outside world and are so afraid of it that their insular world has spewed lies and hatred to brainwash their children into staying in their bubble.
Of course there were exceptions. And of course I still debated things with people. I grew up and went through phases, but I never understood how people could be so firm on their beliefs above all others. I could never comprehend the hypocrisy of quoting, “Love your neighbor,” but refusing to bow our heads in prayer with opposing teams whose beliefs were precisely the same as our professed beliefs. I used to get bad grades in religion class because I actually wrote about my beliefs instead of those I was force-fed and I got into arguments because of others’ ignorance and isolation.
I explored many options and found that direct, clear ideals were easiest to swallow. We like to see things in black and white, good and bad, rich and poor, and obvious. That’s why ideas like Christianity versus everyone is so appealing. It’s easy. It’s simple.
Fortunately for rebels like me, the world is not simple.
After six years in a school that forced me to be on the defensive each day – whether from simply not fitting in because of how I looked or acted or moreover what I believed – I moved on to a local community college. I attended for two years and they provided some of the best educational experiences of my life. I got to learn real history again. I got to re-learn what it’s like to be in a class with a non-homogenized group of people. I got to experience freedom in the classroom and to express my thoughts without fear of bad marks for having a counterpoint.
I transferred to Berea College in 2010 and encountered something new. Suddenly, I wasn’t open enough. I was criticized for being too conservative, too traditional, and too religious. I was challenged every day, but I think that’s the beauty of a small historical liberal arts college with a passion for social change. When I reflect on my time there, I know that the scholastic and social education I received were equally valuable. I also was given the incredible opportunity to further explore something I’d been interested in for eleven years: Islam. I traveled to Turkey in May 2012 and haven’t gone a day without thinking of how comfortable I became in a head scarf, how beautiful the tile is in some mosques, how haunting the calls to prayer can sound, and how much a part of it all I felt, though it was unmistakably foreign.
I’ve had a few great moments of clarity in my belief system, perhaps small testimonies from those who said them and their importance:
- “Pray for what you want. God already knows what he wants.” – Papa
- My grandfather gave me this advice on prayer when I was struggling with Catechism class in seventh grade and concerned that the pastor had told me we ought always to preface prayers with, “If it is Your will.” Papa said that was BS; this is when I learned that I wasn’t alone in questioning the status quo and that, perhaps, I came by it honestly.
- “She’s in a better place… That’s what you believe and that’s all that matters.” – Tom
- I was with Tom when I learned of my great-aunt’s death. He’s not one for religion, but he loves me more fiercely than I knew was possible. This was one of his first great offerings of love – to not worry about arguing the point in a moment of sadness. He shows me this same love when he lets me drag him to church a few times a year.
I think, for religious people, one of the greatest temptations in life is to take our beliefs too far: confusing religion with morality, forcing our beliefs on others, making issues black and white, basing political campaigns on religious idealism, and breeding hate.
Call me a trippy dippy hippy, but love is where it’s at.
I identify as a Christian and this is what I do:
- I find comfort in heaven
- I believe in God’s grace
- I respect all people
- I don’t give a damn about race
- I enjoy learning about other religions
- I refuse to vilify any other group based on religion
- I wear a cross sometimes
- I think the evolution vs. creation debate is pointless
- I say little prayers throughout my day
- I don’t believe that politics and religion should intermingle
- I read the Bible
- I think critically
- I read Harry Potter
- I dance like a crazy person
- I don’t believe birth control is wrong
- I argue my point
- I care about people
- I enjoy the history of the religious rites I witness in worship services
- I sing my favorite hymns while I do housework
- I love a good pot-luck
- I drink red wine
- I don’t care what people think of me
- and countless other things.
I know that some of you reading this will label me a hypocrite, but I don’t feel like one. I feel enlightened by the beliefs I’ve developed and enraged that people would label me hypocritical for finding a happy medium between what they may label godlessness and goodness. I am a child of grace, able to eat the solid food of radical love and not wash it down with hatred.
I suppose that makes me barely rebellious.
My intentions for Religious Talk Tuesdays are fairly self-explanatory, but today’s will serve as a nice introduction of the types of ideas I’ll be exploring and how I’ve become who I am in regards to religion. Last week, the LA Times published an op-ed entitled “How secular family values stack up,” which I was anxious to read. Reading it ultimately helped inspire the idea for Barely Rebellious and I think I’ll be looking into it more next week.