As a child, Good Friday had a profound and lasting effect on me.
I mean, imagine hanging from nails in your hands for hours of torture before finally, mercifully, being stabbed in the ribs so you bleed out faster – that’s heavy stuff for a kid. Vividly I remember sitting in a pew on an early Friday morning, staring at the images glowing in the light of early morning through the stained-glass windows, picturing the blood and tears running down the face of Jesus, as he struck a grim smile to reassure his followers that lamented his torture. The tale of Good Friday is a powerful one indeed – full of noble suffering, passionate selflessness, betrayal and violence and ghosts and cosmic forces – and ofcourse, humanity’s obsession, Death. I would imagine the wails of the ghosts of the long-dead as they tore the veil between our world and theirs, and ripped the giant purple temple curtain on their way up beneath the roiling clouds on the hill who’s name was The Skull.
This is probably why I am writing this blog post: for many years on good Friday I would draw or paint or Something, about the scene of Good Friday, as an outlet for the deep emotional reaction the story caused in me.
This, for me, was the Grit of Christianity: Easter. That the creative force of the galaxy squished itself into a mortal human form on Christmas, I could accept as a happy miracle. But that an immortal should sacrifice himself for puny humanity, go through death and torture while still praying for the safety of his torturers – let alone the fact that he returned a few days later to be like “Hey guys, I Told you I was the son of God” – this, to put it colloquially, blew my little mind.
I have less time for painting it these days, but I believe it still effects me on some level every year. So this is, I suppose, 2016’s artistic contribution. Below follows an analysis of my experiences with spirituality, mainly Christianity, including the usual anecdotes about me and broad sweeping generalizations on society.
My Childhood State of Mind
I was an imaginative child … to a fault. On the sliding scale between “No imagination” and “Tentative Hold on Reality at Best,” I was probably at about a 7.5 “still lives in reality, most of the time.” Oh, I had a great time, sometimes turning a walk through the schoolyard at recess into a grand and harrowing adventure, other times hiding under tables during “reading time” at school and writing love poems, feeling deep emotional anguish at the beauty of the words I had written. (I encountered one, later in life and was Terrible. But hey, at the time it felt like ecstasy.) To this day I still sometimes leave out important details in real life, or add some that were made up, and have had to fight a natural tendency towards lateness – so my hold an reality is still probably a little lenient.
This has shaped me in more ways than just lateness – my desire to feel emotions and imagine emotional connections with everything, to makes things into stories or significance, has given me a tendency towards feeling spiritual. Going for walks in the forest with my family as a child, I would imagine spirits all around me. As a teen, I would get super into the tai chi meditations, and feel that I was using my body to manipulate my spirit energy. This is what I brought into religion: and that made it very easy to become completely enraptured with it. My family being reasonably religious and introducing me to it from an early age, the whole experience played very significantly of my development.
St John’s Lutheran Church, where I grew up on Sundays
While my various grandparents were Russian or Romanian Orthodox, we had enough Germans in the family to associate with the Lutherans. Also my parents, while both raised reasonably devout – especially my father – still had enough wisdom to recognize that the denomination of Christianity is less important than the people you worship with. (After all, Muslims and Jews and Christians all worship the same Allah, and I’d rather worship with a nice Muslim then a douchey Christian.)
A couple blocks away they found St Johns, a fun Lutheran community with active youth groups and friendly folk. The vibe was chillin, and the convenience was hard to argue – it was a match!
This was to be where I would spend the greater part of my Sundays that were not out of town. Back then (shite I’m old now) the sunday school was a happenin place, and I made friends I still keep in touch with. The choir was a blast, both to be in and to listen to, and everyone sang together during the services. As churches went, they were on point: very positive, with a bent on ‘loving others including their differences’ as opposed to the stereotypical bible-thumping prejudice.
Since then, their numbers have plummeted. It began during The Schism, where the two pastors – a stiff but well trained young man and an old but super-cool youth pastor (who was The Bomb) disagreed on gay marriage. To my astonishment, it was the old pastor – a dear friend to my whole family – who was against performing gay marriages, despite his continuing mantra of ‘love everyone’s differences.’ He had been very influential in teaching me to focus on loving others, finding the good things in others, and Love as the ultimate tenet of Christianity: thus his inability to accept the idea of non-cis genders being married by the Luthran church rocked me to the core.
It rocked many other as well: including those that could not accept that the young pastor, who seemed so traditional and well trained, could dare to openly support having gay marriage be performed by their denomination of church. The schism tore a congregation in half: and while very few friendships were damaged directly – we still were a congregation about Love, after all – many families we had befriended moved to other churches, and many ties throughout the congregation grew slack from lack of contact.
It was not uncommon at the time…
Since then the church – while now being in support of gay marriage – has not grown or added to its numbers, and gradually the half of the congregation that stuck around post-shism aged, moved on or died. The congregation itself is now probably an 8th of what it was in its heyday, with an average age of 70.
Fortunately Elevation Church has moved in since, a super happening congregation of yuppies with kids, hipsters with manbuns and just energetic young people in general. The building is happy once more, and my kid goes to their sunday school – if anyone out there is on the market for a youthful church of open-minded “New-Age Christians,” these guys may be your bag.
A Good Christian Boy
By the age of 8, I was deeply Christian. I felt I had a relationship with Jesus, and would pray more once a day – once minimum, possibly a second time if I was particularly worried or thrilled about something. Prayer would follow emotional extremes, from fear to joy, and it was deeply comforting to feel that the ultimate force of coincidence (and therefore fate) cared about my feelings.
There were good points to my religious upbringing – like the feeling of connectedness, and the development of my moral compass. Oh, not that I have a moral compass thanks to Christianity – we all have one of those. And, like all Christians (all humans, even) the tenets I developed were the ones that most aligned themselves with other factors such as my socialization, parents and perhaps temperament. But it did give me a conceptual playing field to think about these things, and engrained in me good principles to obey rules and work hard that probably made it easier for me to function in society, until I had developed into my own.
But they also caused cognitive dissonance: and guilt. So much guilt and worry. I was taught to hold myself to a high moral standard: and beg for forgiveness when I did not meet that standard. A “good Christian boy” would not do certain things, or think certain thoughts. While I was raised with the idea that Jesus would love you regardless, I was also taught to feel chagrin for every wrongdoing. Sometimes, when something bad happened, I would perceive it as divine punishment, well deserved and to be borne with meekness and guilt for your transgression – for something completely unrelated. Like losing your keys the day after you masturbated – and then falling to your knees with guilt from the fact that the Lord knew what you had done, and had obviously hidden your keys as punishment.
It perplexed my best friend “Frosty” (as I will refer to him) who, an athiest with a clear head, could not understand my ability to feel bad for things that happened to me when I should be angry with the perpetrator.
It was a great moment in my development when, on ski trip (hence “Frosty” 😉 he and I had to leave the hill due to his binding breaking, and instead of finding a bright side or feeling personally bad for it I agreed with him that “This sucks bull testicles.” (ah, what a memory). Later in life he was equally frustrated by my ability to build up justifications for things, and allow myself to do bad things – so long as I felt bad enough about them afterwards. I have now recognized this as a twisted version of guilt – hey, if you feel bad enough about it, why not? – and I have since spent much time trying to overcome this tendency.
Would Frosty go to Hell?
Although, part of the guilt and worry could also be due to my upbringing, not just religion… For example, at one point my grandmother – who I still love dearly, and the tough old thing is still kickin – was telling me about how people who do not believe in Jesus would go to hell. I began to worry about the idea of my athiest friend Rory spending an eternity being water-boarded by Satan. Deeply disturbed, my tentative 8 year old self asked my grandmother “Grandma what if, like, you know someone who … who is a really good person, and I am sure Jesus would approve of them .. but like, they aren’t actually a Christian and do not believe in Jesus.”
“Well…” she thought about it, trying to give me an out. “Well Michael, if they had never been brought to Christianity – if he was never given a chance to learn about Jesus – then I am sure Jesus would forgive him.”
“Umm …. No,” I said, thinking of my many discussions with Frosty about the nature of our beliefs, “No, he knows about it… ”
My grandmother shook her head gravely. “Then I am sorry, Michael” she said. “But if your friend was shown the way to Christ, and did not choose it, and does not believe in Jesus as Lord…” Her words held the cold ring of finality “Then he will go to hell.”
Try that on a true-believing, swallowed-the-koolaide 8 year old and see what happens. I was Terrified that the soul of my best friend (that devil-pleasing atheist) was slated to be dragged down to hell for eternal torment. Thus followed several walks to school during which I vehemently tried, for his own sake, to convert my dearest Frosty to the way of Christ Jesus for the sake of his soul. Frosty, to this day a man of strong principles defended by rational analysis, would not even budge. The first couple debates were enjoyable for both as verbal sparring matches – but I remember to this day the conversation where he turned to me at the end and said, “Michael, to be honest … I’m kinda tired of this topic. Can we just agree to disagree?” Seeing the worry on my face, he added “for a while. Atleast. You know. Like, lets talk about other things.”
I acquiesced, sensing his resolve, and also wanting to enjoy our conversations again. But as I looked into his eyes and said “Ok,” in my mind I was saying a pre-emptive farewell to his mortal soul as he plunged into this abyss.
Judging Someone on their beliefs: why it made sense long ago
At the time it seemed unfair, but I accepted it without question. I suppose that makes it easy to see how any religion – even lack thereof, like in Communist Russia – can be used as a tool to manipulate people … scary stuff.
Looking back now, though, I’m like “How can you make a judgement on someone so harsh based on what someone believes?” What we believe is so linked to so many factors – our upbringing, parents’ religions, what we were exposed to and when, and what mood we were in at the time. To judge someone on their religious beliefs is to base your opinion on something they may have actually less influence over than we would believe. Even Atheists – the “truly rational” – are a product of their upbringing and socialization… After all, Atheism is itself a belief system, one based on the idea that human knowledge is so overpowering that if we have not found something out through science, then it does not exist. (Atheist friends, did I get that right? Let me know if I missed something 😛 ) But by choosing not to believe what is not “rational,” they are still Choosing to Believe: and their choice of belief system will be due in large part to their upbringing, socialization in school, expriences, and so on. Atleast, that’s what I believe…
Once upon a time though, it made sense. In the stone age, if your were from a certain cave, that was your association: and people from other caves were different, and – to safeguard the confidence in your own caves’ ability to prosper – probably considered to be ‘from the wrong cave.’ Later, it was which tribe you were from. From there it took off – with a caste system in India, with ‘being from a certain City-State’ in Italy, and being from a certain family within the cities as well – or being under a certain Shogun’s farm and court in Japan, vs. a member of warring ninja families. Ever and always we find dividing lines. As Europe began to be carved out into countries, an international dividing line became available: religion. Small wonder it was the case, as religion was Huge – be it Islam in Islamic countries, or Hindu in the Indian Caste System, or the Pope in Spain, it was what brought entire populations together. The church had organized Brilliantly and made itself invaluable: taking huge populations of rural folk that never saw each other and becoming their main excuse for social interaction once a week made it the connecting-piece of the masses. Giving Noblemen a ‘divinity and ordination’ to their pomp, events, and place in society helped cement their position. Therefore, religion was used by the rich to keep the poor in line, by well meaning monks to get money out of the rich to be given to the poor, by corrupt Catholic priests to accrue huge sums of money and power, to manipulate people into doing the crusades…
But I don’t know that we can blame this on religion intrinsically. Religion was just too good. As the common glue that everyone believed in, it was the easiest and most powerful tool of manipulation on the menu. A few centuries later it the tools were Progress and the dollar, and look at the environmental crises that happened in the name of progress… Religion was, perhaps, too powerful and too easy – so many people were so easily be manipulated by the right person. But when your life was making shoes or baking bread or cutting meat or farming land all day until you were home with your family a few hours before bed – I imagine it was easier to let the establishment of the time do your thinking for you.
Then again, look at most modern dystopias: where technology, or progress, or science, are the way in which to easily manipulate people. Look at Hitler, who used anti-Semitism – as it was Huge all over Europe and the Americas in the 1920s, and scape-goating is super effective – as his tool of manipulation.
If Hitler came back in 2018, I have no doubt that his campaign would be based on social media.
Where were we? Oh right – Religion.
Well, this was a bit long… I will begin “Part Two.” But this cartoon is funny to me:
Forest Spirit: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/156500155771084821/
Saint Johns, Outside: http://kitchener.ctvnews.ca/pastor-at-waterloo-church-arrested-on-theft-charges-1.563101
Saint Johns, Stained glass:https://villagephotographer.wordpress.com/tag/st-johns-evangelical-lutheran-church/
“Just Married”: http://www.businessinsider.com/read-the-essay-that-helped-start-the-gay-marriage-movement-in-america-2015-6
Elevation Church: https://twitter.com/elevationw
Calvin and Hobbes : https://chronologyofchris.wordpress.com/tag/christian-guilt/
“Give it to God” https://revealingtruthtoday.wordpress.com/