I had a challenging conversation with my 16-year-old son last night.
It’s all Denzel Washington’s fault. Or, more specifically, Denzel’s Christian-propoganda-disguised-as-post-apocalypse-thriller (but, nonetheless quite good) movie The Book of Eli’s fault.
The fact that I had to say “but, nonetheless quite good” tells you most of what you need to know about the conversation. But I’ll describe it anyway.
The movie is cinematically gorgeous. The action is measured and exciting. The dialog is sparse and poetic. The plot is inspiring, the costuming is beautifully convincing and the scenery stark to the point of hypnosis. My son came into the room in the middle of the movie and saw…none of that. Instead, he keyed into the religious undertones immediately (and they weren’t that heavy handed, really) and dismissed the entire thing with “ugh, I hate religion. It’s awful, am I right?”
Ehhhhh….no? Well, yes. But, I wish, no?
Western Christian religion as expressed by (most notably) fundamentalist Christians on the Religious Right? Horrific. Hateful. Everything-phobic. Vaguely racist. Full of exclusion, privilege, money-worship and ignorance. Morally cherry-picked. Piousness of convenience. Selfish and self-serving. Bankrupt. Essentially, the worst PR job Jesus has had in two thousand years, including the era of the early Romans who crucified him.
Christian philosophy as expressed by Jesus Christ himself? That’s a much better story. And one that isn’t getting the airtime we all probably need.
Our household, for as long as our children have been alive, is unapologetically and firmly atheist. Not agnostic, nor “spiritual but not religious” nor any of those other non-committal pseudo-religions that modern Americans are fond of making up. Athiest. Nothing-but-the-void-when-you-die Athiest. And it’s a badge that my son, especially, wears proudly. But our household wasn’t always that way.
I grew up actively, observantly, Catholic. I was an altar boy. I played guitar in the church choir for years. Sunday school. Youth group. First Communion and Confirmation. Spring carnivals and casino night in the sanctuary. Soup kitchens and spaghetti feeds and collecting cans for the poor. For a moment there, I even considered the seminary (thank God I knew, even then, there was no way I could live a life of celibacy). And it was wonderful. I loved my church and it loved me back. We went through three or four pastors in the twenty years or so I went there and all of them had the same, consistent message: God is love, serve your fellow man, seek goodness and practice forgiveness.
They didn’t talk about The Gays or about politics or about abortion or about literally any of the holy hand grenade issues the Religious Right has co-opted to sow division and shore up its own power. They talked about Love. With a capital “L”. And all of its manifestations. Just like Jesus did.
So, suffice it to say, I didn’t lose my religion because I found the Church hateful. In fact, quite the opposite. In the Church I felt the perfect love of a benevolent, perfect, and omnipresent parent figure.
Realizing that parent figure didn’t really exist remains the second most traumatic experience of my life. In fact, I might even articulate it another way: murdering that parent figure with my own mind for no other reason than, well, reason, remains the second most traumatic experience of my life.
So it made me deeply sad and angry that the jackasses currently representing Christ the loudest have ruined him for my son. I wanted him to know the Christ I knew, even if neither of us is buying that it’s actually possible to rise from the dead.
So here, son. Here’s what the Jesus of my youth taught me. The real Jesus. The one described by John when he said “let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” Here’s what religion is theoretically capable of, if not kidnapped by the cynical and powerful for their own gain. Here’s what I wish you could feel with the certainty I once felt. Please know that Christian philosophy, as actually expressed by Jesus, didn’t give a shit about the gays or about patriotic purity tests, or about which political party you belong to. Please don’t throw away what Christianity has to say just because its loudest, most contemporary adherents are so hateful and ignorant. And because it literally believes in ghosts.
You know what Jesus did have to say?
He said you are worthy of being loved. You. And every last person who ever lived on this Earth or ever will live on this Earth. Every. One. All of them. Any exceptions? Nope. None.
He said that giving is a virtue. In fact, it’s expected. You have to do it. You have to give until it hurts and then you have to give some more. And giving is, itself, a gift. Jesus required every one of his apostles to give away every possession they owned (some of them were quite wealthy before that). Do you think that was a coincidence? They just didn’t have room in the rowboat? Nope. He wanted it that way. He thought that possessions ruined people and that giving was an expression of God’s love. Do today’s bombastic, mega-church Christians gloss over that little, inconvenient fact? You bet your ass they do. But they’re wrong.
Jesus charged us with being caretakers of God’s creation. Caretakers. Not masters, not exploiters, not subjugators, but caretakers. It’s a position of service, not a position of mastery. Jesus was the original tree-hugging environmentalist before hippies made it fashionable. We are utterly failing at this task. And he would be very disappointed, starting with those who invoke his name to justify their immoral harvests.
And, guess what? He said we are all part of God’s creation. So, by extension, he also charged us with being caretakers of each other. Again, not masters. Caretakers. Lovers. Let-he-who-is-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone advocates for the persecuted, misunderstood and maligned. Jesus would stuff himself with Skittles. If Jesus were alive today and in America, he’d be at the border springing babies from cages and then BURNING THOSE CAGES DOWN SO NOBODY IS IMPRISONED IN THEM AGAIN. Jesus hung out with lepers, adulterers, foreigners and debtors. He protected them and lifted them up and saved them from harm. You know the only people he ever really had harsh words for? Bankers. And even them he loved anyway.
Basically, he taught us that we are expected to do good things. We are accountable.
And, in exchange, we got to feel, like, deeply, that we will never be alone. Ever. He taught us that God is always with us. We got to know, to the bottom of our heart, that there will be “someone” who is there for us, even in our darkest hour. That, just like Denzel’s character quoted from the Bible in the movie last night, “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me.” I wish you knew what that felt like. I’m actually getting choked up just from writing this paragraph, that’s how powerful that feeling is. I knew what it felt like, once. I can’t imagine navigating adolescence without that knowledge. It must be hell. I wish I still knew what that protection felt like, myself, even as a grown-ass man. It’s now-absence is a hole in my spirit that cannot be filled. I hope you’re finding an adequate substitute to keep the darkness away. I hope I can help in some small way.
So, yeah. I wish I knew a way. I wish I knew how to teach the real lessons of Christian philosophy without having to evoke burning bushes and literal ghosts and omnipresent deities that somehow, as if in a cruel joke, only showed up in our consciousness in the last 0.0001% of the time that humanity has been on Earth (and only to Western people’s consciousnesses). I wish I knew how to give you, son, that peace. And I wish so many people in the news today weren’t ruining it utterly for you.
Also, I really do recommend The Book of Eli. It’s quite good. Please give it a second chance. Also, if you’re going to read the Bible, start with Matthew or John. Not Samuel or Genesis.