“So today at school, Mom, I was telling Jacob about Adam and Eve, and he was rolling around on the ground laughing.”
12-year-old Stephen and I are in the car, heading home for dinner. It’s a great time to talk about our day. Lately, he’s been telling his Grade 7 buddies stories from the Old Testament.
“Jacob goes, ‘So they eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and the best they can do is figure out they’re NAKED? They get knowledge of CLOTHES??’ ”
Stevie is just as irreverent as Jacob – that people would actually take this “Bible stuff” as literal truth is a completely foreign concept to him. And yet, I still have a guilty twinge at all this mirth at the Bible’s expense. I know that no bolt of lightning will slice through the roof of the car to smite us, but it’s still weird for me not to treat the Bible as a – no, THE Holy Book – the literal Word Of God. I grew up with literal bible believers, went to school with them, hung out at their youth groups. I was a teenage fundamentalist – or at least doing my best to play the part.
Kelowna, BC, is a pocket of religiosity in an increasingly secular Canada. The churches are big, especially the evangelical ones. In my teenage years of the late 1970s, Kelowna was smaller, more remote, less sophisticated. It was a bit like the town in the movie Footloose, where youth weren’t allowed to dance, so some of them snuck out to do more risky things, like drink in the bush. As an insecure, bookish teenage girl, I knew I didn’t want to go to those parties. Why stand by a smoky fire in the cold, just to get drunk, throw up, ride in a pickup truck with a driver almost as drunk as you are, and risk ending up in the hospital, where my mom (the emergency nurse) would probably disown me? Or risk getting arrested and fingerprinted by my dad, the cop? Let’s not even entertain the thought that I might end up dead, or worse – pregnant. So if I were to have any social life at all, I should probably hang out with those nice kids, the Christians.
My best friend, Lori, beat me to Christianity by a few weeks when we were both 14. She had gone with her mother to a Pentecostal women’s dinner, and came home speaking in tongues. Church was suddenly the best place ever, particularly the Young People’s group, which had older teenagers and really nice leaders that treated you like a real person and listened to what you had to say. What’s more, Jesus was real, and Lori had given her heart to Him.
When Lori asked me if I would come with her to the Presbyterian Young People’s I was happy to go along. Bible study was actually a natural fit for a book reader like me; we looked in-depth at individual verses, like “If I have the tongue of men and angels, but have not love, I am nothing”. We sang songs like “Peaceful, Easy Feeling”, only the words were changed to be more Christian. We had intense conversations about the nature of evil. Christianity was actually getting me to THINK. I have the Presbyterian Church to thank for that. And it’s a good thing, too, because the Cool Church was one of the big churches down the road, and things were a little different there.
At the Cool Church, they showed films about the Rapture, and how scary it would be to be left behind while the plague of locusts rained down on apartments and cars. Kids from the Cool Church played Led Zeppelin songs backwards so we could hear Robert Plant sing “My Sweet Satan” and be thrillingly horrified. At the Cool Church, they lifted their hands and spoke in tongues after just about every song. The Cool Church had about 70 teenagers in their youth group, and concerts, and really good looking guys. And those really good looking guys hugged everybody, even me.
I tried being baptized in the Holy Spirit, but he was stingy with me – my speaking-in-tongues attempts just came out like “Hey, Shondala shondala”, and felt completely stupid. I also had trouble believing that everybody was born in sin, and doomed to hell unless they believed in Jesus Christ As Their Lord And Saviour. I mean, I came from a family full of dead people. My older brother died as a baby. My mother was in a car accident when she was 13, and it killed most of her family. Would Oma, Opa, Hans, Leen, and my baby big brother Stephen be in hell because they weren’t Christians? Still I straddled these two worlds of Christianity – one cerebral and folky, the other glitzy and mind-bogglingly scary and literal… because either you were in or you were out. I wanted to be in.
My whole social life came to revolve around being a Christian. I sang and played piano in the church young people’s music group, Koinonia. We actually made matching skirts and toured churches around the Interior. A few times a year, we went to a retreat where we’d study the Bible and impress each other with the verses we’d memorized. We’d sing and sing, and have our own dances, and flirt, and laugh, and stay up all night, lying in big puppy piles and listening to Christian rock… or the B-52s and the Moody Blues. I got to know the Bible very, very well. And I still had trouble with this whole “saved” thing. At least with the Presbyterians, who believed in Predestination, being saved was all up to the Grace of God. It was up to Him who was in and who was out, and God’s Grace was surely enough to be merciful to a few innocent babies and grandparents I’d never met. And Gandhi, I decided after watching the movie about him.
As I was thinking my way into ever-more-liberal Christianity, and heading off to university, some of my high-school friends who stayed in town were dating the guys from the Cool Church, and going to Bible School. I could feel the gap widening between myself and them. One Christmas I came home, and the drummer from Koinonia announced that he was throwing out all his rock albums because the rock beat is from the Devil. Right. Another friend stopped cutting her hair or wearing makeup, because long hair is a woman’s adornment, and pleases the Lord, and her husband. We lost touch.
When I was 21, I took a wonderful course in “The Bible and English Literary Tradition”, which finally opened the doors and let me breathe, and figure things out for myself. We discussed allegory, Dante, Milton, Mithraism and pan-Hellenic gnostic sects. We looked at the puzzle of Paul the Apostle, and how messiahs and virgin birth stories existed in many faiths. We were introduced to Northrop Frye’s The Great Code, and the work of the Jesus Seminar. Wow, I thought. A group of Christian scholars that actually respects Jesus enough to try and figure out what really belongs to him, and what is just stuff that grew up around his reputation! By this time, I knew much of the Bible by heart, and knew that many parts of it just didn’t hang together well enough to take literally. It had to be a series of documents that reflected their time, written by people who created God in their image. I no longer wanted to be in at all costs. I just wanted to find out what was real.
The rest of my story is about leaving and coming back to my faith, as an adult. I may get to writing that down, eventually. For now, let’s go back to the car, with Stephen, because I think it’s important that as Canadians of European descent, my kids know the biblical references in their cultural background – the stories in the Bible, the basics of mainstream Christianity, and where people have made God in their own image. I want them always to be able to know what they believe, and why. Even if it’s just to say “I don’t know the answer.”
I know that Christianity comes in many flavours, including Quaker. We don’t have to accept – or reject – all of it, in order to be “in” or “out”. I find that even though I count myself among the Universalist Friends, I understand both historical and current Christocentric Quakers. Their turns of biblical phrase often resonate with me deeply. I can laugh with my kids at the absurdity of taking creation myths literally, and be thankful that I know the stories anyway. I’m thankful that I grew up Christian, even though I’ve left both the extreme and the mainstream forms for a version that is both more open and more challenging. As a Friend, I can be both who I am and who I was.