Wednesday, May 07, 2008
Recently I came across this article by Matt Taibi about his time spent at a retreat sponsored by Cornerstone Church, the megachurch pastored by John Hagee in Texas. It's a good article, but a couple of paragraphs caught my attention.
Here I have a confession to make. It's not something that's easy to explain, but here goes. After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship and praise — two days that for me meant an unending regimen of forced and fake responses — a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene — even if you're intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry — outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that "inner you" begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest — in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the "work" of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?
You may think you know the answer, but by my third day I began to notice how effortlessly my soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was going through his robotic motions of praise, and I was shocked. For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your "sinful" self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath. And besides, so long as you are going through all the motions, never breaking the facade, who are you really? It was an incomplete thought, but it was a scary one; it was the very first time I worried that the experience of entering this world might prove to be anything more than an unusually tiring assignment. I feared for my normal.
And I had a thought. That soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was me.
Now I don't mean in the sense that I feared I was growing a skin about my that would take over alien-style. What I mean is that I spent so many years living a Christian life before I became skeptical of religion in general, that the skin was already there.
It's not just that religion was ingrained in me from birth. I think I have shed most religious indoctrination. But it's more in the way I interact with the world. I still have that skin of acceptability which I hide behind. You know, be respectful of religion and religious leaders, don't express disbelief or any kind of skepticism about religious beliefs, and especially don't encourage anyone else to pursue their skepticism.
On my blog it's easier. It's not face-to-face. I don't have to have a mask. Very few people know me as a person and those people who do I know don't care. But I've always been a little afraid that some day my family or religious friends would find this website and be totally appalled.
This weekend I'm going to visit my family for a few days and the ways in which I act differently are prominent on my mind. Unconsciously I've made a set of rules for myself when visiting.
1. No swearing
2. No drinking (except around my sister)
3. No talking about science or politics
4. No talking about religion
5. When my parents ask me questions or make judgmental comments about my lifestyle I must be evasive and quickly change the subject.
6. Do not get dragged into a conversation about: government conspiracies, the end of days, Christian persecution, or anything scientific.
These are the rules I devised myself to avoid controversy, to avoid having my Grandmother write me nasty letters (yes, she that sort of thing), and to avoid my parents' attempts to "save me". Some of the talking points above I'm glad to avoid (government conspiracies, anyone?). But in the process I have put a lot of distance between me and my family. I visit, but I'm uncomfortable the entire time I'm there because I'm like a mindless automaton.
And it's not their fault I'm like that. These are self-imposed rules and I imposed them for very good reasons. I don't want to be in a constant argument every time I talk to my family. I don't want to upset and worry them. I don't want to be the black sheep who isn't invited to weddings and other important family events.
I understand completely why people never come out to their families, especially older members of their families. It's not just the fear of not being accepted, but the fear of losing a relationship with someone. And I respect that.
In my case I suspect I've already lost any kind of meaningful relationship with my family by becoming so distant. I just don't know what else to do other than sit in mummified silence. So maybe a little experiment is due this weekend. I'll let you know how it goes.