An Unlikely Exit

blooper the dog

unfortunately there is a photo…

When I was twelve I played a spotted dog in my church’s holiday musical. I ran up the aisle of the old Presbyterian Church on my hands and knees, howling, and barking. I was a confident, loud dog. I loved my costume’s fleecy ears and the black sweat pants and knee pads. It never occurred to me to be embarrassed by the casting – Blooper was the most coveted role in the play. My stardom was fleeting; the singing songbook stole the show and I never appeared on stage again. It turns out I’m tone deaf and my sense of timing is frightening – I still can’t believe I was allowed near musical theater. Leaving the stage was a no brainer.

My departure from church life took a bit longer.

christmas at grandmas

matching church outfits for Christmas circa 1982

In retrospect, I stuck around so long because of the Blooper effect. The Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Miles City, Montana was familiar and comfortable. In the 80’s it seemed like everyone in Eastern Montana went to church on Sundays. The Catholics were in and out quickly, the Mormons stayed all day, and the Presbyterians sat in the back of their beautiful stained glass chapel for exactly one hour. My family went to church early for Sunday school and singing. We stayed after church for weak coffee and sugar cookies in the Narthex. My mother attended church circles on most Wednesdays and I went to the church basement for youth group and rubbery lasagna.

But church looked different after Blooper. Most teenagers hate church, so maybe my dissent was normal. As my experience of world widened, the messages I heard at church and from church friends no longer seemed so solid. I found myself caught in circular arguments about diversity and acceptance – about certainty and concrete answers. I read about Buddhism in my AP humanities classroom. I celebrated Hanukkah with two of the seven Jewish people in Eastern Montana. I studied Catholicism and Lutheranism in Presbyterian Sunday school. I was enamored with a world of possibilities outside of my own experience. And almost without knowing it, I made a big decision about my natural approach to the world: I learned to value healthy skepticism.

I now know that my skepticism was no accident. My father set himself at the task of raising skeptical children – his quiet, unobtrusive faith highlighted life’s gray areas. My mother voiced her opinions as only her own. She was careful to give voice to lots of different ideas, “Some people believe…” she’d say before she suggested some alternative view of the world. This couldn’t have been an easy way to raise a teenager – I argued at every turn. And ultimately, my need for supportive skepticism led me away from American Christianity.

What I am just now realizing is that the comfortable cultural community that was the 1980’s church, has changed for much of the country. All too often, it seems that skepticism and doubt is not tolerated by most faith communities. If patience for doubt exists, it is temporary – a momentary separation from an inevitable truth.

But shouldn’t healthy skepticism be at the heart of faith? If we are to accept and trust that which we cannot see or touch, shouldn’t we consider all of our options? Shouldn’t we find our way to church by way of understanding and thought rather than fear? For me this is the only certainty, the only thing I know for sure about church – I don’t always need my questions answered, but I must have the opportunity to ask them. I want to wallow in skepticism, to sink into doubt, and find the solid ground beneath.

I don’t remember not liking church as a child. No one asked me if I wanted to be there – it was a given. No one asked me if I believed the stories or if I’d been saved. No one mentioned doubt. My parents talked about God in the abstract – there wasn’t a man in the clouds with a beard or a robe; God was an idea or maybe an action. My father was fond of saying, “God is a verb.”

I cling to this idea of action. It exists without the church, without the rules and regulations that disallow skepticism and doubt. And it may be enough.

Identical Brick Buildings

One of my favorite non-English colleagues came by my office yesterday.  She wandered down from the nursing department looking for a favor.  She wants me to serve pie in her church kitchen this Saturday.  I made my usual non-committal noises and reminded her that I was a heathen.

“I go to that other church,” I said.

“Oh, you mean the other brick building right across the street that does the same thing we do every Sunday?”  That’s the one, I thought.  It took my family five years to decide which building we should intermittently show up to on Sunday mornings.  There are four identical brick churches within a three block radius of our house.

“You know,” she cocked her head and put her hand on her very tall hip.  “I am just tired of picking sides.  After this election, I’m tired of choosing teams.  Come help me with the pies.”

I never get that rule right – the one that says you shouldn’t talk about religion and politics.  I stick my foot in my mouth nearly every day with half-baked ideas and enough-knowledge-to-be-dangerous opinions.  I am excellent at choosing sides, at least initially.  I love the idea of being committed, to stand up and speak loudly about some well-considered certainty.  I can argue with a brick wall.

My office space is crowded with politics.  We compare churches and political parties.  We yell across the Writing Center about New York Times commentaries and TV coverage.  We share political cartoons and compare ideologies.  I’ve convinced myself that we could solve proverbial world peace if it weren’t crucial that we teach community college English.  The presidential election kept us busy for the same 18 months it kept the major news stations distracted.  We showed up every day eager to deconstruct the candidates’ latest gaffs, to roll our eyes and wish we could deal with “real” problems.

And then we’d retreat to our classrooms to teach King’s Birmingham letter, Walden, and Dracula.  English teachers have the luxury of the abstract.  We can climb into fiction and consider divisive ideas from a fictional character’s point of view.  We can think about sexual politics and culture in between vampires and European countryside.  We can deliberate the construction of King’s nearly perfect argument from the safety of an anthology and a classroom – a space significantly removed from the violence of race and class.  We do not have to choose sides in our classrooms.  We model using evidence and supporting arguments with sound reason, but we practice restraint and consideration.   I often get to play devil’s advocate, balancing the classroom and ensuring that the driving ideas of a text aren’t lost to the chaos of undergraduate discussion.  I have to practice moderation.

It’s good practice for me.  I was born arguing, born choosing sides, and hoping to solve problems with partisan certainty.  At some point, either due to education or really great parents, I did learn that the gray area is usually where the answers are.  I look to choose sides, but the little gray voice niggles at the back of my brain reminding me that it’s never that simple, never so easy as right and wrong, black or white. And occasionally I am reminded that the opposite side of the street is not so different – just another brick building.

– S