Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A Bad Weekend For Our Sins

Recently I re-watched a DVD that was of tremendous encouragement to me, during my de-conversion a few years ago.  I'm normally not a fan of monologues, but Julia Sweeney's "Letting Go of God" is a noteworthy exception. She somehow manages to turn life's most serious topics (religion, sickness, death, doubt etc.) into things we can all laugh about together.  As reviewer Ira Glass put it, "...against all common sense, Julia is making something funny that has no business being funny".

This one woman play tells the story of Julia's own personal quest for truth (she was raised Catholic, but I won't spoil the ending for you).  She manages to make numerous piercing insights throughout, all the while maintaining a lighthearted tone.  Honestly, I don't know how she does it but, she pulls it off in spades.  There is nary so much as a hint of bitterness in Julia's delivery and, for this reason, I would even feel comfortable in recommending the DVD to Christians.  In fact my wife was still a strong believer, when we first watched it together, although I was in the early stages of doubt.

Near the beginning, Julia recounts a hilarious "pitch", given by a couple of Mormon boys who came to her home.  She follows it up this way...

"I initially felt really superior to these boys...and smug in my more conventional faith...but then the more I thought about it the more I had to be honest with myself...if someone came to my door and I was hearing Catholic theology and dogma for the very first time, and they said, 'we believe that God impregnated a very young girl, without the use of intercourse, and the fact that she was a virgin is maniacally important to us, and she had a baby and that's the son of God', I mean I would think that was equally ridiculous.  I'm just so used to to that story."

Even though Julia doesn't buy any of the tales, told by these Mormon boys, she admires their dedication.  So, shortly after this visit, she joins a Bible study which ultimately leaves her with more questions than answers.  Early on in the play she recalls the experience, describing in remarkable clarity her burgeoning thoughts on everything from the Noah story, to Sodom & Gomorrah, Abraham & Isaac, Jephthah, The Ten Commandments, Jesus' parables, his "family values", the letters of Paul, the book of Revelation, and so on and so on.

Julia recounts her mother's reaction, to all of these nagging questions about the Bible, this way...

"My mother said, 'Julie, I just ignore what I don't like.  Why would you do something Honey like go read the Bible cover to cover if you weren't just looking for reasons to get upset.  You make your life so much harder than it has to be Honey.'"

This really hit home with me since it was my own attempt to read through the Bible, literally cover to cover, that kickstarted my doubts.  Her mother's comments also typify what my wife & I have now termed "the ostrich approach" to faith.  Don't bother with the hard questions; just "choose" to believe and then stick your head in the sand when you're presented with information that appears to counter those beliefs.

I won't attempt to provide a full review of Julia's play here.  The content is much too varied, and richly presented, so more than anything I really just want you to watch it yourself (you can hear the audio for free, starting right here, or you can purchase it on Amazon).

I find myself reflecting, here at Easter time, on Julia's thoughts surrounding the death of Jesus. By this point in the story she had already begun to have serious doubts about the historicity of some of the Bible's accounts.  It is then that she discovers the work of Karen Armstrong, and is introduced to the idea that the Bible may be "psychologically true".  Her comments next are excellent...

"So when I went to Mass on Easter Sunday that year, I felt I had this new positive attitude.  I knew the correct way to look at the stories.  Historical accuracy was not important...what was important was that they triggered us somehow, very deep in our psyche, because they were psychologically true.  But as I sat there in Mass I thought...what does that really mean? Psychologically true.  I mean, Jesus' death and resurrection; death and re-birth.  O.k., I get it, psychologically true enough.  But what about other stories on the same theme?  I mean, what about Persephone going down into the under world...that's psychologically true too then, I suppose.  Or what about stories from the Iliad, or Darth Vader, or the Little Engine That Could...those are 'psychologically true' stories; aren't they??

And what's so psychologically true about atonement?  We were taught that Jesus died for our sins, based on this idea of atonement, or that somebody else can pay for the sins of other people. For the first time after going to church, basically my entire life, I considered the idea that God sent his son to earth, to suffer and die for our sins.  Why?  I mean, first of all, you can say that Jesus suffered but y'know he didn't suffer any more than a lot of people have suffered.  I could think of examples in my own brother Mike, who had cancer.  He suffered unspeakably for a very long time...eyelids freezing open and his eyes drying up.  Canker sores all over his throat and he couldn't swallow.  Weeks, and then months, of gut wrenching vomiting and nausea before he finally died."

The first time I heard this presentation I was bowled over by Julia's (very memorable) phrase that Jesus, in effect, had a really "bad weekend" for our sins.  That couldn't be true...could it?  It had never occurred to me before that perhaps there were people on earth who had actually suffered more than Jesus.  Also, if I had been God, and I knew that all of humanity would be condemned to eternal punishment (because their sin had offended my perfection), would I have sent my own son to die for them?  YES!  I would have; especially if it were "the only way".  If any one of us would have done the same, simply as an outgrowth of our compassion, what's the big deal?  And why do people need to accept the historicity of this event in order to get to heaven; and on such questionable evidence?!?

These are the sorts of thoughts that were running through my head, at about that time.  They only compounded the doubts that I was already having.  Of course, later, I would come to believe that Jesus was only a man.  He hadn't died for our sins, to begin with, and he wasn't God.

But all of this presents an interesting quandary, for us former Christians, most notably around Easter (and Christmas) time.  How can we still feel like participants in the celebration?  As Julia points out, the initial temptation is to grab and hold tightly, even as it slips through your very fingers...

"So, I tried to concentrate on what I did like about the church.  The stained glass windows are pretty.  The light in the church, the religious art.  The songs...not the words to the songs exactly...but the melodies are nice..."

Will I be going to church this Easter?  No.  I suppose I would, if I lived closer to my parents.  Or if my wife was still a believer.  At the end of the day I think it is that sense of community, even extended church "family", that makes me miss church just a little at times like this.  I can no longer bring myself to give intellectual assent, to the creeds that underlie the occasion, but I still understand the appeal on an emotional level.  I believe it was Bart Ehrman who pointed out that one of the more uncomfortable aspects, of no longer being a Christian, is having no one to thank.

I can relate to that.

So let's love on those around our own table, this Easter, and remind them how much they mean to us.  Soak in those good moments because, unfortunately, they won't last forever.  And, to my fellow unbelievers, remember that although there may not be any meaning to life, there is certainly meaning in life."  But it's up to us.  Let's create some of that meaning, for those and the ones we love this weekend.

Happy Easter everyone.


  1. Wow, great post! My wife and I just watched Letting Go of God a couple of months ago, and we really enjoyed it. I don't know what kind of effect that would have had on me as a believer, if I'd seen it then...

    1. Thanks Nate! My wife has said that she "didn't want to like it", at the time, but she did :). Julia is quite disarming.

  2. The YouTube link (to listen for free) doesn't work anymore.