Infidel gospel

I know, as Tobias Wolfe said, memory has its own story to tell. With that in mind, it’s hard to accurately pinpoint when I stopped believing in the Resurrection, or if I ever really considered it historical fact.

I spent a lot of childhood time around devout Christians, however, and was captivated by bible stories, often rendered in picture books featuring decidedly European-looking characters. The “Kenny Loggins Jesus.” The “Disco Jesus.” But my single boomer mom rarely took my brother and me to church. Although sentimentally attached to the Catholicism of her youth, she identified as agnostic.

“It means, I don’t know,” she said. “Atheists say they know there’s no God. Agnostics dwell in uncertainty. Which is okay.”

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At the behest of my devout grandmother, however, I did a five-year stretch – fifth to ninth grade – in the same Catholic school my mother had attended, which my grandmother paid for. My peers and I entered puberty under the watch of abusive nuns, walking dim, marbled halls adorned with garish crucifixes, the intense contradictions of Catholicism – the flesh is beautiful, edible, but forbidden – playing out in our amped-up bloodstreams and in fumblings in broom closets and such. A more sexually fraught middle-school experience I cannot imagine.

But even as they were used to try to control, the stories still found purchase in me, especially the ones filled with Yahweh’s cruelty: the Passover story, the Book of Job, the crucifixion itself. The often-horrific lives of the saints, the parables, the epistles – all seemed already in my blood, like DNA memory. Especially the dramatic books, like Revelation.

Trying to sound like the smart kid, I would say something like, “You know, apocalypse is actually Greek for revelation of the truth?”

“Dude. You a Jesus freak?”

I eventually read in my twenties that some ancients entertained a dualistic version of truth. That resonated. I.e. the notion of the myth of trickster titan Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to give to humans to kick-start civilization being understood by learned Greeks to be metaphorically true while simultaneously being a fiction from an imaginative human’s mind. I could appreciate much of the Judeo-Christian canon thus. As much as I loathe lies and especially the current post-truth culture, I can get behind the usefulness of metaphor to reveal depths of human nature.

One of the challenges, of course, is finding space for the fact that people are still being abused and dying for these metaphors, these stories of God and supposed divine law, and prophets and, at the core of it all, misogyny. One of my oldest, dearest friends reached a point of intolerance, refusing one Christmas to enter a church with me. I wanted to light a candle for my grandmother.

“I’ll blow up if I go in there,” he said. Joking, but not.

Sometimes I too despair, and want to scrap it all from my life. I reckon I could, and focus my attention on other myths, although good luck finding bloodless ones.

The Christian canon’s hold on me will continue. Perhaps in my dotage I will snap, and be born again. This has happened to people I know, most of them in the arts. But I doubt it. Whenever I experience these stories, or the interpretations, or revelations of different, sometimes previously hidden versions, or retellings in pop culture, I am not so much hearing God as the ancient storytellers. In the story’s magnetic power, I envision the teller. The human using distinctly homo-sapiens talents, weaving words to shape the world, for good, for ill, with intent to divide or bind, to nurture or punish.

It is these mysterious storytellers who fascinate me. In writing of the immortal, they achieved anonymous immortality. For a while, at least.

 

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.