Last Friday, despite my trepidation over almost all things religious, I attended a Shabbat dinner at Hillel, the Jewish student center. Boyfriend is taking a Jewish studies class in which he must have several “Jewish experiences,” and this seemed to fit the bill.
At first I didn’t want to go with him, as I’d never had much fun at religious events. Visions of elaborate ceremonies filled my head and I was afraid I wouldn’t understand what was going on and that I’d do something horribly out of place and offensive. I also wondered if the people who go to Hillel regularly would appreciate us being there and studying them as if they were subjects in a research project.
Turns out, I had a blast and none of my fears came true (or at least if I did do anything offensive, no one told me about it). The night was very relaxed and everyone just seemed to be having a good time worshipping and enjoying each others’ company.
I left that night regretting, for the first time in my life, that I hadn’t been brought up with more religion.
My mom and dad, who were raised in the Methodist and Baptist religions, respectively, did read me some stories about the life of Jesus when I was young, and we celebrated Christmas and Easter. I occasionally attended church with some of my relatives, but it always seemed so ridiculous and judgmental that it turned me off to religion in general.
For example, I can’t believe anyone expects me to take the story of Adam and Eve literally. Supposedly, God made Adam and the animals, but then God thought Adam seemed lonely, so He said He’d make “a helper” suitable for man. Enter Eve? Not quite. First God brought forth all the animals, but “for Adam no suitable helper was found.” So God created Eve out of one of Adam’s ribs.
How am I supposed to follow a religion that says God created me (out of a bone) because zebras and goats didn’t seem like good companions?
Not only does this story imply that women were an afterthought, but also that we are responsible for most of the bad things on earth because we ate, and told Adam to eat, fruit from the tree of knowledge. Now childbirth is painful, crops are hard to harvest and we don’t live forever. Stupid woman.
Next we are told the story of Cain and Abel. This one isn’t as offensive to women, but it just doesn’t make any sense. Adam and Eve and their two sons are the only people on earth, right? So Cain kills Abel, then goes off and gets married to someone in the land of Nod. Excuse me, where did these other Nod people come from?
When I asked my relatives, who take the stories literally, about these things, I always got bizarre answers that didn’t make any sense to me. I was told people lived thousands of years back then and that Eve might have given birth to a whole other town by the time Cain was banished. Additionally, the gene pool was so small at that time that brothers and sisters could have sex with each other and their kids wouldn’t turn out weird. (Whatever!)
Many people in my family also believe that anyone who isn’t Christian is doomed. When I was little I had a conversation with one of my relatives in which I asked, “So you’re saying that everyone in the world who isn’t Christian is going to hell?” It was then explained to me that everyone has a chance to, at the last minute, accept Christ as his or her savior. “But what if they don’t? What if a person’s dying words are, I’m not a Christian’? Then will he go to hell?” The answer was yes.
That line of thinking amazes me. According to “The 1994 Information Please Almanac,” there are, to name just a few, 971 million Muslims in the world, 732 million Hindus, 314 million Buddhists and 18 million Jews. So the majority of the world’s population is going to hell just because it doesn’t believe the same things the 1.8 billion Christians do? Isn’t that a little bit egotistical?
I have this uncle who has devoted his life to spreading the word of God. He speaks in tongues and claims to be able to do things like use prayer to cure people of AIDS and revive babies that have been dead for hours.
When my widowed grandmother got remarried, which in itself caused a bit of a controversy, this uncle performed the ceremony. During his hour-long sermon before the vows were exchanged, he made a point of reading a certain passage out of the Bible. “Women were put on earth to serve men,” he said. Then later in the sermon he said he just wanted to reiterate that point that “women were put on earth to serve men.” (He also told the dearly beloved who had gathered that he had picked up a hitchhiker one day who had deformed feet. My uncle claimed he prayed for the man and, lo and behold, the bones popped back into place and by the time the guy got out of the car he could walk perfectly. But back to the subject at hand.)
I remember a conversation I had with him when I was about 12 years old. I asked why his wife and daughters were only allowed to wear skirts and dresses, and not pants. He explained to me that this dress code was in place because in the eyes of God, the order of importance went men, women, children then animals. Hence, the skirts. OK, is it any wonder I didn’t embrace Christianity?
I have since learned that many Christians are not as judgmental as some of my relatives. And many do not take Bible stories literally, but instead as tales with beneficial messages. Or they largely disregard the sexist parts of the Bible and just take a kind of “be good to people” message from it. Perhaps if I’d been exposed to that line of thinking earlier on I could have gotten into it. But from a young age I cringed at the idea of church and the hard-liners I associated with it.
Several years after my parents got divorced, my mom started going to a Unitarian Universalist church. From what I understand, she and her fellow UUs believe there is a higher power, but they don’t follow a strict religion. They celebrate Christmas and see Jesus as a good person and a role model, but not as their personal savior.
For years she tried to get me to attend a service with her. One Christmas, I agreed. I was about 15 years old, and while we were singing a Christmas carol we had to jingle our keys at a certain point in the song — I think it represented jingle bells or something. Anyway, being a snotty, insecure teenager, I saw this as totally uncool and didn’t go back. My mom, sometimes angrily, insisted they didn’t go around jingling keys at every service and it was usually a pretty dignified affair. I believe her, yet for some reason I’ve stayed away.
But after the Shabbat dinner Friday night, I’m starting to rethink this aversion to religion. (Not that I necessarily want to convert to Judaism; I’m too lazy for that, plus I really don’t know much about it.) Plus I’m nearing those child-bearing years and I’m getting that I-want-my-kids-to-have-everything-I-didn’t-have feeling. Just so long as no one tries to tell my daughter she was an afterthought in the eyes of God, or that God doesn’t think that she’s as important as men, or that all the ills of the world are her fault, or…
Kris Henry’s column appears in the Daily every Thursday. She welcomes comments via e-mail to [email protected]