Thursday, September 30, 2010

Infiltrating Barnes and Noble and the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

September 30, 2010

Some people really liked my Jesus-y blog post and everybody else didn't mind it, excluding any people who might have hated it but didn't comment which is fine by me. So I thought I might start another blog--this one! But I don't want anyone to feel like I'm trying to sell something or use the Raptor Jesus Christianity Attack.

The other day I realized that I'm about as comfortable talking about Jesus and the Holy Spirit in common conversation as I am talking about masturbation--aside from mockingly saying "the Holy Spirit" in a Scooby Doo ghost voice, which I used to do quite often. Whereas, some people seem overly comfortable and tout the Holy Spirit as some sort of magical genie. I recently heard one woman saying that when she hears people speaking in foreign languages she "opens herself up" to the Holy Spirit (what the heck does that mean??) and He helps her understand what they are saying. Well okay, this conjures up all sorts of warm, fuzzy images of the first Pentecost, but this is a testable hypothesis and I'm not so sure the lady would pass.

Would the Holy Spirit bring her any information that she couldn't gather from tone of voice alone? Isn't this what psychics get paid to do for a living? "I'm sensing anger... those men are having some sort of disagreement." Or would this lady get some real sense of what the two people were arguing about? If I had to put money on it I'd go with the former. Not that the Holy Spirit is necessarily "the made up one", but I think this sort of unreasonable expectation does not help His case.

I remember the first time I purposefully went into the religion section of Barnes and Noble in Newington, NH. I think this is when I bought the Catechism of the Catholic Church. At this point I wanted to know what it would be like to be one of "them" so that I could interrogate this sort of Catholic guy I was dating. And I wanted to know what reasons he had for believing all of these weird things.

So anyway, I walked into Barnes and Noble and into the Christianity section and was terrified! I felt like I was skulking into an Adult Section without even having the protective curtain to shield me from disgusted stares. I had to give myself a little pep talk (come on, nobody's going to assume you're a Christian just because you're in that section). I felt so embarrassed that I probably would have been more comfortable looking at pornography. Every so often I'd peak down the aisle in each direction to see if anyone had noticed me.

When I found the Catechism, I bolted. I sandwiched it between two other books that normal people would read and paid for them, slightly panicked that the cashier would question me about my purchase. I thought about telling him that it was for a friend but who gives their friend (even a Catholic one) a copy of the Catechism?? Or maybe I could tell him that it was for a class? No, I decided to play it cool like when I buy tampons from a tough looking guy at the gas station. Not surprisingly, the cashier didn't care at all about either me or my purchases. I guess that's a lesson in humility.

So I read the Catechism and the first section (of four) on doctrine was interesting, I liked the idea that things in the New Testament were foreshadowed in the Old Testament and that Catholics see Mary as sort of a new Eve whose offspring crushes the head of the serpent (poor snake!). Protestants criticize Catholics for reading too much into these links between the old and new, especially when it comes to Mary, but to me it makes the Bible seem more coherent, rather than just the Old Testament with some Jesus stuff tacked onto it. Anyway, so far so good.

Then I read the section on the traditions of the Church including all of the Sacraments and that was fine and good. It doesn't really bother me that women can't be priests and that priests can't have sex. That probably has to do with the fact that I'm not a priest and don't want to be one. But to me, one obvious reason for celibacy is that the priest is suppose to serve all people indifferently which is hard to do when you have a wife and kids and are trying to balance family duties with being on call to rush off to dying persons' bedsides at any and all hours. (And I don't see how not having sex gradually turns somebody into a pervert or how having a wife would prevent someone from becoming a pervert if they were at risk of that. But anyway...)

The main reasons that only men are priests seem kinda weak to me. Essentially, since the priest serves as a proxy for Christ when bestowing the Sacraments, it is more appropriate for the role of Jesus Jr. to be played by a man AND why break tradition? AND women have their own special roles in the church; i.e. men aren't allowed to be brides of Christ. ;o) And blah blah blah. Yawn! I can't say I feel the outrage that some people do, again, probably because I don't want to be a priest.

Then I read the forth section on prayer. No surprises.

And finally, I read the third section on "Life in Christ". NOT okay! I'm not even Catholic and I felt completely demoralized when I finished reading that section. This part is basically a detailed discussion of all of the sins that can be committed, which includes pretty much every single thing I do (or don't do when I should)! AND freaking out about my sins is also a sin since being a drama queen is a lack of humility! My sort of Catholic boyfriend accused me of blowing things out of proportion but I could not understand how these people even get themselves up in the morning!!

He tried to console me by explaining that only mortal sins prevent a Catholic from communing with God and are the ones that MUST be confessed. This means that the sin is grievous (for example, falsely accusing someone of rape versus giving some skeezy guy a fake phone number), that you have full knowledge that what you are doing is a sin ("Isn't that just encouraging spiritual cluelessness?" I thought.), and that you willingly consent to it (you didn't do it by accident or under duress).

I became obsessed with where that line between mortal and venial sin lies. The location of that line seemed highly subjective and I'm a serious person. I was convinced that if I ever became Catholic, which wasn't a real possibility yet, I would have to go to confession every single week and even then, since confession was held on Saturday, I may not be able to make it through the night and the morning without committing some sin that would prevent me from taking communion at a Sunday Mass. What if somebody made a crude joke about Jesus at dinner and I laughed? What if I went to a party Saturday night and got tipsy or flirted with some guy? Or gossiped? I would be lucky if I received my obligatory one Communion per year! I started looking at all the people taking Communion at Mass as though they were dirty, lying hypocrites, surely most of them had committed some mortal sin recently!! And having this sort of Catholic boyfriend tell me not to judge did NOT improve my mood any.

He did mentioned to his priest that I was learning about Catholicism and reading the Catechism and he said, "Oh no, don't have her read that!" probably anticipating this sort of freak out. Since then I've learned that most Catholics go to confession a few times a year at most. So I'd say unless Catholics are all WAY better behaved than me, or the vast majority of them are taking Communion when the Church says they shouldn't be (entirely possible), then the situation is probably not as desperate as I thought it was. But now I know that if I had been with Adam and Eve when they ate the apple, I too would have covered my nakedness and rushed off to cower in hiding because sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Great Jesus Experiment.

September 26, 2010

When Carrie was visiting GSFC she asked me something like "So what's the deal with all this Church stuff?" I said something like, "Yeah, I started going for something to do" and then sat there trying to think of something to add until the moment was gone. One of my neuroses in answering a question like that is that in general I'm terrified of mentioning any sort of interest in religion/ christianity/ catholicism for fear of being berated as a deluded and gullible moron. (That neurosis has nothing to do with Carrie, by the way.) But another problem is that I don't really know what the deal is. Still lacking an answer, here is a bit of the story. It's WAY long, but I figure one super Jesus-y post will have to do. This is NOT an evangelical blog here! If someone happens to have a keen interest in my conversion story I can start a new blog--which, in fact, I did! And you are reading it.

I started going to mass with a guy I was dating about seven months ago because for whatever reason I enjoy church services. Around this time I found my Gideon pocket New Testament which i decided to try reading for about the forth time, because this guy had said that once you get through all of the begetting the story gets a lot better. Amazingly, the story IS a lot better than I expected. There were some awesome miracles i had never heard of, like when Jesus exorcises a bunch of demons from some dude he happens to cross paths with (I am Legion for we are many!) and the demons possess a nearby herd of pigs and the demon-pigs immediately throw themselves off of a cliff lemming-style thereby getting rid of the demons--whoa, awesome!

I was surprised to LOVE Jesus, he is definitely my favorite character in the New Testament, maybe even the whole Bible (I haven't finished reading the OT yet). I started to think that maybe living a Gospel inspired lifestyle isn't such a bad thing, even without necessarily believing in that God stuff--what's wrong with being an Atheist-for-Jesus? But there is no ignoring the fact that Jesus desperately needs some better PR people. Recently, Christian convert Anne Rice renounced the title of "Christian" while supposedly retaining her beliefs, saying she doesn't want to be associated with other Christians who are often so awful. I felt like Gandhi who supposedly said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

All of a sudden I was really interested, I had read some of the New Testament in Modern Greek at Dartmouth and was sad to miss out on the liberal arts side of education since leaving college. Maybe because I was starved in this area, I started learning about the differences between Catholics/ Anglicans/ Protestants and reading the writings of the Catholic saints and other super smart people like Pope JP2 and G. K. Chesterton. I also stumbled across the conversion stories of some educated young women who have recently converted from atheism to Christianity (one of my favorites is The Conversion Diary). I started to feel less afraid and less critical of this Christianity stuff. (I know! I thought the same thing: Uh oh!!! What next?) This new respect for Christianity and especially Catholicism was a big change considering I had been consistently referring to the Holy Spirit as "the made up one", had many misconceptions like thinking the New Testament was an updated version of the Old Testament with some Jesus stuff thrown in, and once asked someone "Where the heck is Nazareth??? I thought Jesus was from Bethlehem."

The more I read, the more I realized that regardless of whether or not you believe it, the Bible is an amazing piece of literature and, like Scott Hahn who explains it much better than I could in his book Rome Sweet Home, I decided that the Bible along with the Catholic Church had the most complete and self-consistent story. The Catholic Church also passes my science litmus test--I think they learned from the whole Galileo embarrassment. I believe what Bishop Fulton Sheen said, "There are not over a hundred people in the United States who hate the Roman Catholic Church; there are millions however, who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church." (Unfortunately, even some Catholics don't seem to know exactly what the Catholic Church is.)

This was strictly an academic study, letting curiosity get the better of me during my free time, and maybe this is what put me at risk of seduction because I wasn't angrily trying to prove it all wrong. Anyway, I thought that Catholicism made sense (won't go into details unless someone cares), but seeing consistency in the story and having faith in it are two different things entirely.

I started going to Mass again in MD at first as something to do since I don't know anybody here. This is something that a year ago I never would have dreamed of doing. Not only could I not have imagined going to church but certainly not a Catholic Church and certainly not alone, especially since I don't know all of the responses yet. But like I said, I think Jesus is trying to seduce me, and he's doing it via the Catholic Church.

In the meantime I had started praying the rosary, not for the noblest of reasons. I recognized it as a nice way to clear my mind and meditate for a while--almost like a substitute for yoga meditation, and it also made me feel kind of cool for some reason like when I tried to learn to read Tarot cards, like it was some quirk that I could brag to my friends about--"hey, I learned to pray the rosary just for the heck of it!" But oddly and quite alarmingly I started to sense changes in my thinking and behavior. INSERT CLICHE EXPERIENCES OF GOD'S GRACE HERE. At first I would never have said that I believed in God (and certainly not Jesus!!) because that's dumb, but I started talking to this nonexistent God/Jesus duo a lot (ignoring the made up one, of course).

In some sense whether God is real or imagined or a result of overactive hormones doesn't make much difference to me (I know that makes me some horrible person, I don't have to be told.). If faith works (i.e. helps me in some way) then it's good and "true". I've transitioned from being a disinterested agnostic to some sort of pragmatic, agnostic "believer" in that I realize I will never have any empirical proof but heck, maybe the proof is in the pudding. But in some sense that's what a lot of Christians are. I have learned that believing doesn't mean the same thing for Christians as it does for scientists.

C.S. Lewis in his Mere Christianity (which is a book that I avoided at Dartmouth like it was infected with the plague, desperately avoiding eye contact with the crazy, obviously delusional prudes handing it out for free) said that having even a minuscule amount of faith (or perhaps even just open-mindedness) is the first step toward conversion--the Field of Dreams-esque "If you build it, He will come" philosophy.

And so commences The Great Jesus Experiment. I've decided to take Jesus-class  (i.e. Right of Christian Initiation for Adults) and if all goes well (or if I lose my wits completely, depending on your point of view) I should even be Catholic by this Easter (gasp! I feel like a deer in the headlights waiting for my flight instinct to take over!). Maybe I will end up like Wayne and Garth in one of the endings of Wayne's World 2 when they booked the bands but none of them showed up. But for now I'm going out on a limb here and trusting that God will continue to show up.

So to answer the question of "What's with all this Church stuff?", I can't expect anyone to understand my answer, since I basically don't have one. Just like we were all surprised when I joined the Dartmouth Cheerleading team, we can all be surprised now that, yet again, Sarah is doing something completely out of character and for no apparent reason. I will leave it to you all to psychoanalyze me as you see fit.

But so far I don't think I am in danger of supporting the religious right, carrying around pictures of mangled fetuses (feti?), branding my car with a Jesus fish, or taking it upon myself to save the world one offensive outburst at a time. Fortunately the situation is being monitored closely--my mom assures me that if I say anything too cultish then her and my brother will come down in an unmarked van for a drive-by rescue whether I like it or not! And they're powerlifters. :o)

So yeah... probably nobody has read this far and that's okay. But I thought this was funny. When I was listening to the awesome audiobook version of The Screwtape Letters (a full-cast dramatization) I heard the demon Screwtape tell his apprentice Wormwood:

"Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable real life. But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up on in casual talk and reading is the result of modern investigation."