Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A journey, part 2: A sinking feeling

This is part 2 of a story in five parts. Catch up here: Part 1: Waiting for a sign

Disclaimer: for the record, the college friends I mention are STILL some of my best friends, years later. So when I say I was lonely, I don't blame anyone. It was a confusing time, for all of us. We were all figuring things out, piece by piece.

At age twenty, sure I wanted to be the kind of Christian who lugged my Bible everywhere, hugged trees and denounced the Iraq war, I followed Jesus to Bangladesh for a month of studying rural poverty and development. I took with me a jar of peanut butter and a vague notion that this would be my training to save the world.

Upon arrival in Dhaka, while jet-lagged and drugged with the new scents and the thickness of the tropical air in January, I met Rumana. One of our student guides for the month, she translated the culture to us and painted our hands with henna in the evenings. At the hostel in the village, Rumana prayed five times a day. When she heard the call to prayer echoing from the minaret, she looked at all of the American girls huddled in a small room and asked gently, “Do you mind if I pray?” Then she bowed towards Mecca, her sari glimmering in the twilight.

In the evenings, the twelve of us Americans fumbled over our observations of village poverty and pretended we could figure out how one day, the women wouldn’t have to bathe and wash their saris in the polluted sludge. Our professor Haroun discussed pros and cons of micro-finance, the need for good governance, and the peace of the message of Islam.

The yellow mustard fields bloomed and the imam woke us every morning at 4:30, calling the faithful with an ancient song.

Photo by Abhijlt Kar Gupta


I returned to Minnesota, head full of unprocessed images on culture, religion, and poverty. Second semester began.

My religion class was called Old Testament/Hebrew Bible. Stansell, a professing liberal Christian, gave us a text called The Secular Bible and spent the first few weeks on Genesis—the creation story, the story of Adam and Eve, the stories of Noah and Abraham. He explained, with a little too much of a gleam in his eye, that Genesis was mostly legend. He compared it to contemporary Middle Eastern sagas. He claimed much of the Bible was more ideological treatise than history.

I stayed after class and asked why we were spending so much time drilling into our heads the idea of legend. “I want to get to the text and the meaning of the text,” I said. He told me he wanted to challenge my critical framework.

After a couple weeks, he announced that we were going to begin to delve into the prophetic books of the Old Testament. “Now let’s find this story about when Isaiah was visited by angels…” He thumbed around for thirty seconds. “Where is it now…”

“I think it’s Isaiah 6,” I said quietly. I happened to have read it the day before.

“Aha! A Bible thumper!” he said in the same half-mocking tone he used when he talked about Fundamentalists and Creationists. “Now, the book of Isaiah actually represents two separate prophetic traditions…”

Stansell’s teaching was well-researched and clear, if his tone was a little biting. The more I read, the more evidence slowly piled up on the side of his interpretation. Meanwhile, in another class, Darwin was making a pretty brilliant case for evolution, and Freud explained that Christianity was wish fulfillment, the ego’s hope of something bigger than itself. Until now, I’d thought I could gracefully tread along the balance of intelligence and faith, obedience and compassion. But was that wishful thinking? Did believing in the Bible mean I had to reject science? Accept holy war and genocide in the name of God?

Most of the kids in the class were either non-religious or liberal Christians. They did not seem perturbed. But there was another girl in the class. With a smile on her face, she would raise her hand and give the evangelical pat answer to questions about the Bible. When asked about the three historical/archaeological theories of the Hebrew people establishing themselves in Caanan, she would simply say, “Moses led them out of Egypt and God cleared the way for them in the promised land.” I wanted to shake her. Was she dumb enough not to realize that these theories were contrary to everything she believed?

Now I know. Everyone’s brain works differently. Maybe she did not see these historical theories of the Bible as a threat to her faith; maybe she was able to hold it all in tension. Or maybe she was challenged, but was clinging to the familiar words and beliefs as a means of defense. All I know is at the time, she seemed to me an image of the unthinking, head-in-the-sand Christian I did not want to be.


“What if Genesis is myth?” I queried my evangelical Creationist boyfriend over coffee during a study break. “When did we start thinking it had to be literally true? Saint Augustine and C.S. Lewis didn’t think so.”

He was worried about me; his eyes shifted quickly, right and left.

“What if we’re actually missing out by believing that? It could be more real, more powerful, as a story,” I said.

“You write stories,” I accused.

“Why are we so scared to admit it could be a story?” I added.

He didn’t argue. He knew I was talking to myself.


As the questioning voices grew louder, I didn’t know how to be honest with my friends about what I was going through. They had problems and conflicts of their own, which sometimes seemed too much for me in my agony. They knew I had doubts, but they did not realize how I was suffering. They had their own existential questions to deal with.

So I holed away in the library, reading The Secular Bible. I ate dinner alone in the cafeteria. I spent evenings analyzing Freud and Virginia Woolf in front of the computer screen, hoping with each footstep outside the door that someone would come in my room to ask how I was doing. My roommate sat at her desk wearing headphones as she wrote papers.

Woolf gave words to my experience: the estrangement of all human beings from each other and from reality. Where could a loving, or logical, God fit into this world of alienation and absurdity?

As I fell asleep some nights, throat would ache from holding back tears. This was more than “doubt” or “questioning my faith.” Those words are too small and mathematical. What was happening to me felt like an illness of the soul. Love, security, and meaning were being snatched away from me everywhere I turned.

One late night after another unfruitful talk with my boyfriend, I struggled to complete a short response paper on Nietzsche’s analysis of Christian faith. “Nietzsche is right; there is nothing rational in Christianity,” I finally wrote at two a.m. “Nevertheless, I will hold out for humble, sacrificial love, because it’s the only thing worth living for.”

I knew that I could not maintain this feeble grip much longer.


Thursday at Bible study, the speaker talked about dancing and laughing, leaving your sorrows, traveling light. We should be full of the joy of the Lord. We should drop all our sorrows and run full speed towards God, laughing all the way. We should stop being so boring and serious.

I sat still and did not smile at his jokes. My pack was full of books and questions and messy relationships. I left early, without talking to any of the smiling faces. I stopped at my friend Leanne’s room to say goodnight.

She was reading Nietzsche, but she stood up and gave me a hug.

I started to cry. “I’m so scared.”

“Scared of what, honey?” She held me close.

“That he’s not real,” I whispered, for the first time admitting it aloud.

She listened to me cry. “Even in my darkest moments, there has remained a core in me, deeper than emotion, that is faith.” She squeezed my hand. “God won’t leave you alone.”

She did not speak lightly. Her faith had been the only seed of hope to sustain her through the three years since her two sisters and brother were killed in a car accident.

Keep reading with Part 3.

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