There’s this new show on TV – you may have seen it – called Community, about a lawyer who loses his license and has to go back to community college. In one scene, the lawyer is talking to his friend (the college dean) about why he doesn’t feel bad when he cheats or lies. “Look,” he says, “I learned when I was very young that I could make anything true or false just by talking long enough. Either there’s no god, or I’m god. Either way, Booyah!”
It’s a silly scene, played for laughs with the host of E!’s The Soup in the lead roll. I doubt the writers really meant to hit on anything transcendent when they wrote the line. But for me, that moment sticks out about as much as Erin’s realization about Mormonism. And it’s interesting to me now to trace the different lines our lives took, and to wonder how many of those lines were nudged along by our different religious backgrounds. Because while Erin was experiencing what she calls her moments of “egregious religious zealotry,” I was experiencing moments of a different sort of zealotry. As Erin grew more devoted in her religious practices, I began to have a looser and looser hold on the things I’d once believed as “right” and “wrong.” I was developing very quickly into a moral relativist – and one with all the passion and conviction possible in a teenager. And this determined relativism began blossoming back in the early days of my education at the Unnamed Religious Private School.
As far as I’m concerned, 3 very different things were happening at that school, to 3 very different groups of kids:
1. The school’s religious elite – the kids whose families believed in the precise doctrine practiced in our halls, whose faith was based in the same fundamentalist ideals – were having all their beliefs and worldviews confirmed for them. They were growing stronger everyday in the values their parents had taught them, and they were growing more and more self-righteous as they confronted those of us whose beliefs didn’t match their own, pointing us out as wrong, the same way you might point out a kid who thinks “cat” is spelled “qvx.”
2. The kids like Erin (and I imagine we had quite a few) were having to confront the differences in their family’s beliefs and the beliefs espoused by our teachers and administrators. Their brains had to process gray areas and matters of difference, and in some cases had to choose sides between a parent and a teacher. They were learning about negotiation. They were learning about feeling outcast amongst people who ought to have been like-minded – people who were coming from the same basic faith, the same basic system of rules. Some of them likely lost confidence then, only to (hopefully) regain it once they began to understand the strength of their own position, to rely on their ability to choose their own path.
3. Kids like me (I felt like the only one, but somehow I doubt I was) were learning that there is no such thing as truth. Everyone gets to make up whatever they want, and then you get to fight it out to the end. “You can make anything true or false just by talking long enough.” You’re right, guy from The Soup. Or at least, that’s what I learned at religious school.
Now keep in mind that my father is a scientist and would hotly dispute the idea that there is no such thing as truth. I never learned that from him. And I didn’t exactly learn it from my mother either. I’m sure if I called her and asked her right now, she would say that some things are definitely good and others are definitely bad. But what I did learn from her is that ideas will change over time. There are several issues she sees differently now than she did when I was in high school or middle school. And she sees no shame in that. Ideas are constantly in development. We grow and learn, new people come into our lives, and those people help us see things differently. But there is still right and wrong. She has a values system, albeit a self-created one. But if you asked them what my values are, I bet they couldn’t tell you. What they could tell you is that I have always had a very loose grip on the truth. And I believe wholeheartedly that this came from my early education – exactly the opposite effect that evangelical education hopes to have.
I feel like I’m not explaining this very well, so I’m going to try a different method. Bare with me here.
When you come from an a-religious background, these are the things that strike you about fundamentalism when you first encounter it:
1. Words are magic. Literally. You close your eyes and bow your head to pray, and those prayers are made up of words. And the words go somewhere. They go to God, and they are supposed to get results. Something will happen. All because of words.
2. Interpretation is everything. This is a division of “Words are magic,” because part of their magic is that they mean lots of different things. They are slippery. This is NOT the lesson you learn about words during regular school, where you are drilled on definitions. It IS the lesson you acquire accidentally when you memorize verses each week out of context.
Think about this for a second. When you’re in second grade, you learn words like “through”. You learn the definition of “through.” You learn how to use it in a sentence. You learn that you have no choice but to use it in the precise way it is intended. During the same years that I was being asked to memorize precise definitions of simple words, I was being asked to parse out complex concepts that had no previous meaning for me. When a second-grader encounters a Bible verse at home or in church, they are usually also taught what the verse means by their parents or a pastor. No interpretation is necessary No interpretation is possible. But when you learn a verse as part of Bible drills, and you are a child who has never attended church, those verses are a bizarre form of archaic language you’ve never encountered. You are left to interpret it for yourself, however you want. You have power over language for the first time.
One of the first verses I remember learning was Romans 10, verses 9 and 10: “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart God raised Jesus from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation…” (NIV, I think). That’s a verse that probably any evangelical could recite for you. It’s part of the “Roman road,” the series of scriptures that outlines for non-Christians how they can be saved. It makes sense that it’s one of the first I’d learn. But imagine encountering these words without ever having heard of the Roman Road, or the concept of “salvation.” Imagine encountering this at the age when so much else about education is hard and fast, concrete and definitive. 2 plus 2. A,B,C. With the heart man believes. With the mouth he confesses. What you end up learning is, “If I believe something in my heart, it must be true.”
Let’s try another of the Roman Road on for size. Romans 10:13: “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord shall be saved…” Again here words act like magic, an incantation that saves us from ourselves and our sins. Stir the pot a little, add a spell. Words are what make it happen. If you say the words, and you believe the words, nothing can touch you. You are invincible.
That’s a dangerous thing to teach a kid. I know a lot has been said in the incredibly leftist community (of which I am a part, keep in mind) about the dangers of indoctrinating children as religious zealots. But what about indoctrinating them as just general zealots, with no real anchor? That seems awfully dangerous too, and I’m pretty sure it’s what happened to me. I can make anything true just by talking long enough… and loud enough, and with pretty words.
I have lots more to say about this topic, and I’ve been holding this post for the last two days, just mulling it over. But instead, in the spirit in which this blog is intended, I’m going to post it as-is, with a more open end. Because I think we can take this to some interesting places.
And so I’ll tack on instead a story, because I’m curious to know whether this is something Erin experienced differently the first time she heard it:
We are in chapel. This is probably around the 2nd grade, although it might have been even earlier, in 1st. Our principal (a woman with short blonde hair, I think) is talking about the verses in the New Testament wherein Jesus tells stories to little children. The disciples ask him if he really wants to spend his time doing that, if he couldn’t be teaching the adults how to behave instead. Jesus says the quote that’s famous even outside of religious circles, “Suffer the children to come unto me.” Our pastor/principal talked about this section for several minutes, reminding us that as children we were the absolute treasures of God, that we were seen as untouched and blameless in the eyes of the Lord and the world. We were automatically righteous. And I remember so clearly thinking, “Then I just can’t grow up. Because if I grow up, I won’t be right. I’ll be broken.” Words were magic, but they were more magic for children than for anyone else.