Monday, September 03, 2007

Born Again

I have a real checkered past in terms of dealing with Born Again Christians. Not necessarily referring to the “Born Again” movement that rose to prominence in the 80s. Most Christians will describe themselves as being born again, of having some sort of spiritual awakening where the message of Christ becomes clear to them and alters their paths.

Of course, I don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. I never did. Suspect I never will. But I respect it, because I have seen people make positive changes in their lives as a result. And I’ve known more than a few Christians who are just good people whom I’d gladly defend to anyone. I’ve pretty much come to terms with Christianity in my life, recognizing The Bible is packed with wisdom, and that for me at least, my respect for religion is based on the knowledge that many of the good things we take for granted in the way we live (wisdom, common sense, compassion, charity, etc.) may not have existed or thrived before the concepts of religion, and books like The Bible, came into being. For all the people who look at religion and see only a black hole of misunderstanding and hatred (believe me, in New York …), I can see the much larger picture, that religion is for the most part good, despite whatever qualms I may have about it and some practitioners of their chosen faith.

But going back to that 80s concept of Born Agains, I did have one rough experience with it. In my sophomore year at college, in one of my classes I sat behind a girl who caught my eye the moment I saw her. P was a real looker, probably still is, long brown hair, warm eyes, but what really caught me was how friendly she was, just a very sweet-natured, open individual. It didn’t take me long to go crazy for her, and in the process I found out she was the sister of a guy from my high-school class, who I liked just fine but wasn’t really friends with.

Unlike her brother, she had gone to the local Catholic school, and therefore inhabited that parallel universe in our small-town area. I noted in an earlier post that even within my town of 500 people there were some kids who once they went to Catholic school in the seventh grade, just did a slow fade from the public-school kid social circle.

With P, it was taken a step further. She was thinking about becoming a nun, much to my chagrin. I know most people look at teenagers and picture them having sex from the age of 14 onward, but that didn't happen for me and P, considering she was on the verge of forfeiting sex all together in the service of the lord. As we got to know each other, I also learned she was often depressed, seemed to have a real negative self image, which is a hallmark of so many women, attractive or not. I still remember her getting a little too far into the Pink Floyd album The Final Cut, the title track of which is the singer contemplating suicide all to a very attractive piano-laden ballad.

When I was at her house, her parents treated me like a boyfriend, or at least boyfriend material, when the reality was I was dealing with a young girl with a lot of shit going on, much of it tied in with her very strong sense of Catholicism; I suspect they were hoping I’d guide her into the boy/girl realm of things. But who knows. Like many homes in the Coal Region, the house was a shrine to Catholicism: Pope and Cardinal dolls, pictures of the pope all over the place, enough crosses to guarantee safety from even near-sighted vampires. Going to her house was like going to a church in a row house – all that was missing was the incense.

My mother met her when I brought her around and her immediate impression was, “Now that’s a beautiful girl.” She was really impressed with P, as was everyone I knew who met her. The idea was stick with this one, if you’re patient and things work out, you’ll have a great woman on your hands and might even end up getting married to her.

One big roadblock was that a few months into this, I was ready for my junior year, i.e., moving from our small branch campus to the main campus – a huge move for a 19-year-old kid who had never been away from home for more than a week at a time. That summer was busy, between working most of it in my dad’s factory on their great “joe college” program for children of factory employees, trying to find a place to live, getting mentally prepared to be on my own for the first time and trying to keep this strange situation together with P.

I can still recall one odd night, a few days before moving, late August, sitting by my grand parents’ graves in the cemetery on the hill, basically wondering what was going to happen with us. It sticks in my mind mostly because I also had the first hemorrhoid of my life, a tiny little knot just above my asshole that was causing me much consternation, as I had no idea what it was. (I still get one of these about once every two years, usually stress related, and my heart goes out to anyone who suffers the affliction on a far more regular basis.)

But I remember her assuring me that whatever strange, hard-to-define thing we had going on wasn’t going to stop, and that I could easily come home on weekends to see her. It was one of those nice little moments of life where another person reassures you that all is not lost due to a looming change. That it took a place on a clear late summer night, in a cemetery, only adds to the odd, touching quality of it in my memory.

And that first year at the main campus (actually both years) was a blast, found myself writing a weekly humor column for the newspaper, made a whole new stable of friends on the same wavelength, found a very tolerable part-time gig in the German Department, and still kept a pretty high GPA, despite much drinking and folly. No urge to screw around, as I was locked in on P in that way only love struck teenagers can be – and believe me, opportunity knocked more than a few times! All the while, staying in touch with P and seeing her most weekends. Towards the end of that school year, in May, she had to come up to the campus herself as it was her turn to transfer, which had me elated.

But I had noticed, especially when I got home that summer, that she was even more troubled before regarding religion. I think she may have dumped the idea of becoming a nun all together, and was now feeling some sense of void or guilt over it. Whatever it was, I could tell things were off in a way that had nothing to do with me. And that was a shitty summer in general. I guess the factory had an off year financially and dumped the summer college program, which had been a cash cow for me the past two years. I tried my hand at two separate jobs, doing sales help at a commercial lumberyard and working midnight shift at a local lumberyard, but quit both within a week, the second after the first night. I can look back now and see I should have told myself, “Just bite the bullet and do this shit for two months then go back to school.” But at the time, both jobs seemed unbearably awful, the commercial place being run by two guys who made clear their disdain for college kids, the second a weird night shift job where fellow employees told me recurring stories of guys sawing off various body parts, with the shining rainbow that if you put the parts in a plastic bag on ice, they could probably still get you to the local hospital on time to have them re-attached.

I spent most of that summer watching MTV and killing time, while I sensed this thing with P was petering out due to her increasingly cloudy mood. One day around my birthday in June, she showed up at my house elated, which was a shock. We went out walking, and she had told me she met a new friend, E, who was part of a new church that had a wonderful message to tell regarding our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Immediately, I could feel something was off. It was as if a car had shifted from reverse to third in terms of her mood, no transition whatsoever, just an immediate decision to be overwhelmingly happy, which had me understandably suspicious.

P brought around her new friend E, and I knew things were going to be strange from that point on. E was a full-on stereotypical Born Again, not very smart, disdainful, judgmental in a very bad, condescending way, and someone who, I gathered, was on a pendulum swing in life, going from one extreme to the other. She had told me some story of Jesus saving her from drugs and that whole way of life, and right then, I figured she’d probably be better off on drugs. The pendulum swing seemed to be a hallmark of more than a few Born Agains I met in the 80s: people who were on the verge of flushing their lives down the toilet due to some type of self abuse, who suddenly had this magical transformation that made them full, whole, superior rays of light and happiness. I could tell P was overly impressed with E and her routine, when I could clearly see that E was a bullshit artist, not someone I would ever allow into my life, and very bad news for me. As it turned out, very bad news for everyone, as P’s parents, still staunch Catholics, weren’t having any of this Born Again nonsense.

I called bullshit the next day. P and I had always been very honest with each other, and I told her what I thought, that E didn’t strike me as someone I wanted to be associated with, and that I thought the whole Born Again thing was some form of mental illness – and I still believe the same to this day for that odd strain of Christianity. P got offended, said I better get used to it, because E was like a big sister to her now, and that if I couldn’t accept Jesus in the same way, there was no place for me in her life.

What a slap in the face that was on so many levels. One, I was being dumped from her life. Two, I was expected to shoehorn my personal beliefs along with hers, with a strain of Christianity I immediately recognized as counterfeit and wrong. Three, what kind of true Christian would offer that sort of ultimatum? Wasn’t Christianity supposed to open your heart, to allow you to accept others with total love, compassion and humility? My way or the highway wasn't the way of Christ; it was the way of fanatics.

I’ll give myself credit. Even with those odds against me, my immediate response was, “There’s no place for me in your life.” Not that I felt any sort of need to define and stand up for whatever form of spirituality I believed in. It was much more that I wholeheartedly rejected her form of spirituality and her new guide, who would have had a ball at the Salem witch trials burning innocent women at the stake.

When I got back from that meeting, I told Mom, well, you won’t be seeing P around here much anymore, and I told her why. She wasn’t heartbroken, but she was disappointed and angry. Being a Protestant who had married into a family of staunch Catholics, she knew well the sting of meaningless religious dogma and low-level persecution, and thus was just as skeptical as I was with any overt display of spirituality. But she said, all for the best, think how much worse this would be if you’d gotten more involved and something like this had happened.

Of course, these things never stop on a dime. While I distanced myself from P, we somehow stayed in touch, although I can’t remember how. The killer for me was that when she came up to the main campus, she immediately found a Born Again boyfriend and was hanging all over him the few times I saw her. Understand this was a woman who had previously been so uptight about issues like this that just to get her to hold hands was a major triumph. She finds Jesus, bam, next guy in line, provided he has the same beliefs, has this beautiful girl hanging all over him as if he was a rock star and she a groupie. Having spent a good year and a half scrapping for any display of physical affection, it was a real slap in the face.

But as those first few weeks at school moved on, I recognized I was lucky to have removed myself from the situation, because whatever Born Again road she had gone down, she wasn’t coming back any time soon. I think the first few weeks of that summer, I was sitting around waiting for her to come to her senses, to see through E’s smoke screen, but it just didn’t happen. I recall the last contact I had with her, late October my senior year of college, we sat on the main lawn of the campus, can’t recall what we’d even talk about at that point as I had moved as far from her as I possibly could. But at one point, she recognized a fellow Born Again walking by on the other side of the lawn, told me to watch her stuff and ran over to celebrate or something.

While she was gone, I noticed she had a writing tablet and had been jotting something down. I couldn’t help myself, and looked over to read it. It was a letter to E that read like something a cult member would write to the master. I can’t recall exactly what, but along the lines of, “My life since accepting Christ, and you as my guide, has been nothing but profound joy and happiness, oh, thank you for saving me from eternal damnation.” Again, I can’t recall the exact content, but I do recall the tone and word choice being very much along those lines.

It was then that I sort of heaved a spiritual sigh and said, “Thank you, Jesus, for taking me out of this situation before I got too far in to leave of my own free volition.” Because if I had become engaged or married to this woman, and something this bizarre and off putting had occurred, that would have been much worse than whatever pain I had already put myself through. She came back, found me in a noticeably brighter mood as I had realized she had gone totally off the deep end, bid farewell, and that’s the last time I remember seeing her.

Fast forward seven years, to my 10th high-school reunion. I hadn’t planned on going, but a few of my friends convinced me it could be fun. And sure enough, it was – I had a great time, seeing old friends, getting along famously with people I hadn’t know all that well, and having an all-around fine night. P’s brother was there, and I had been avoiding him most of the night, not sure how he or her family would see me now, all these years later. I hadn’t seen P since that day on the lawn and had totally removed myself from her life, had no idea what has transpired with her and her new beliefs down the road from college.

At one point in the night, I found myself at the same table as P’s brother and his wife. It was later in the night, and we were both pretty hammered. Everyone was, with an open bar and many guys walking around with a beer in each hand. We got to talking, and I didn’t even think to bring up P. He did. And I can’t recall exactly what he said, or even if I have this right all these years later, but he may have insinuated to me that she tried to commit suicide. Again, I’m not sure if that’s true, as we were both drunk at the time, but I do remember sitting there with my mouth open, in shock of what he was saying, and not quite sure how to respond.

If that wasn’t the case, then my apologies to P for getting a very serious issue wrong. If it was true, maybe I shouldn’t have been so shocked. I could clearly see that whatever she was going through strongly resembled the sort of deranged behavior more often associated with dangerous cults where people have to be kidnapped and unbrainwashed. While she may not have been that bad, she was close, and it wasn’t reassuring that summer when I had said, “There’s no place for me in your life,” and she got up and walked away with a huge Jesus smile on her face and a “your loss, buddy” attitude. I suspect I wasn’t the only person who got the routine – she seemed to be making it clear to everyone around her that if you weren’t on the same wavelength, you were somehow on the outside looking in from that point forward.

Still, no one wants to hear that an old flame tried to do something like that, whatever the scenario. It still troubles me to this day, although not enough to find out for sure, because if I did make contact with her, only to find out she was still mired down in that regrettable form of Christianity, I’d find that even more depressing. I’d like to find a lucid, warm human being, the kind of person she was the day I met her and recognized someone who had a real spark about her, only now she’d be older and wiser. But I’d also rather not take that chance, as I’ve seen how life works out, and I know that would be a best-case scenario.

I’d rather just let that one be for the rest of my days. Even now, there’s a small picture of her back on the dresser in my old bedroom, usually turned face down, mainly to keep dust off the face, P looking just beautiful, think it may have been a high-school graduation photo, but it caught her essence. I’d rather leave that picture gathering dust. It’s as nice a memory now as it was that sunny October day on the lawn in 1985.


Andy S. said...

"I’ve pretty much come to terms with Christianity in my life, recognizing The Bible is packed with wisdom, and that for me at least, my respect for religion is based on the knowledge that many of the good things we take for granted in the way we live (wisdom, common sense, compassion, charity, etc.) may not have existed or thrived before the concepts of religion, and books like The Bible, came into being."

As someone whose mom and both sisters are born-again Christians, I think I have a unique perspective on this topic, and I'd like to explore it in more depth than is afforded in this little comment box. But for now I'll just take issue with one small part of what is otherwise a fine piece: the notion that religion is the cause of what is good in humanity. If you credit the nobility contained in the Bible with nobility in man, don't you also have to blame the pettiness, violence, etc. that's in there for the bad? I think in either case it's a spurious argument. I used to blame religion for a lot of the bad stuff that people do, but I've come to see it as just another symptom of man's failings. If you made all the world's religions disappear tomorrow, people would find some other pretext for hating each other.

It's hard to say whether religion predates any form of human civilization, because as far back as recorded history goes, you find it there in some form. I think it's very likely that the first people who believed in god or gods had the best of intentions. But sometime very soon after that, someone figured out what a great tool religion would be for controlling people and turning them against one another, and from then on, that's the way it's been. There's the tension between what religion can do individually and what it does socially and politically.

For me, whether or not someone is religious or identifies himself as such has no more bearing on what kind of person they are than their skin color, gender, nationality, political party or any other label we put on ourselves. There are many enlightened, thoughtful and compassionate people who are highly devout, but my theory is that they would be those things even without religion. After all, plenty of devoted religious people are not any of those things, though they'll be happy to tell you at any opportunity how superior they are to you.

Anyway, good piece. As I say, I have a lot more to say on this topic, and maybe sometime I'll get around to organizing those thoughts in more depth.

William S. Repsher said...

Re: blaming religion for pettiness, violence, etc. Sure, I'd say that's true. But I'll also side with the concept of original sin, that we're all born sinners and must be guided to righteousness. While I don't subscribe to that concept in a traditional religious sense, I do believe that children have to be taught what is good and virtuous, that this will not come naturally -- that's plain as day when you can see kids being raised with no control or guidance. So, in effect, while religion can bear the weight of the good and bad concepts that have flowed through them, I'd have to say that overall I still stress the good. Because people left to their own devices, especially kids, without any guidance, I have to believe are not going to grasp the virtues of life on their own.

Andy S. said...

I don't buy into original sin at all. I think it's one of those concepts that came about as a way of, in essence, blackmailing followers into staying with the program. I agree, though, that it's a good idea for kids to have guidance in their lives, although I don't see a religious imperative there.