Loosening the Bible Belt

I. 

When I was five, my kindergarten teachers told me that prayer was like talking on the telephone: just because you can’t see the person on the other end doesn’t mean that no one is listening. They tell you lots of things when you are eager and spilling over with questions. They even ask some of their own.

“Is the Bible fiction or nonfiction?” 

That one was easy. 

“Nonfiction,” I responded obediently, always “nonfiction.”  

If you are five years old and precocious and living in Texas, you know that the sky is blue and that God is real and most importantly you know that both of these facts are nonnegotiable. Some people call this brainwashing, and they may be right. Indoctrination permeated my childhood in the South—a place where God is a cultural norm, where disbelief makes you an outsider. But I might argue that this childhood faith never really sticks, that eventually everyone has to make a conscious choice to believe. I might argue that knowing God as fact is not the same as knowing him in relationship. 

 

II. 

When I was 10, my Vacation Bible School leaders told us the prayer could change our lives forever. They also told us that it was okay if we needed to wait, but I didn’t pay much attention to that part. Like a good little Christian, I paraded into the sanctuary, ready to ask Jesus into my heart. When it was my turn, I repeated, line by line, the words that were supposed to save my soul. 

Dear Jesus, 

I know that I am a sinner. The price for my sins is eternal punishment. I believe that you died on the cross to save me from my sins. I can have eternal life through you. I believe that you rose from the dead and that one day you will come back again. Jesus, I want to give my heart to you. Please guide me and help me to follow you for the rest of my life. I love you. Thank you for forgiving my sins. 

In your name I pray, 

Amen. 

I cannot forget the boy who stood up and walked out when the prayers started. I cannot forget the heavy, visceral, aching desire that I had to join him. I cannot forget the sudden, unexpected knowledge that if I said those words, I would be lying to everyone but myself. Disbelief came quickly and out of nowhere, so surprisingly that I found myself unable to react. Instead, I filed up the stairs near the altar and said the prayer, even as I understood that God had ceased to exist as fact anymore. Revelation left me damned before I had the chance to start. 

Weeks later, licking a spatula clean in my grandmother’s kitchen, I noticed the church bulletin on her refrigerator, saw the article about that year’s Vacation Bible School program. To my utter mortification, it contained a quote from her. She was blessed, apparently, by her granddaughter’s recent decision to receive Christ. Cake batter doesn’t taste as good after you’ve discovered your own filth. 

 

III. 

When I was 16, my humanities teacher suggested that perhaps the God I had been trying to find wasn’t worth talking to after all. On the first day of class, she sat down at a table, looked us in the eye, and said, “This curriculum will make you doubt, or, in rare cases, strengthen your faith.” 

Thus began the moment when I held Christianity next to other religious traditions and realized, horrified, that they felt eerily similar. Reading the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Bhagavad Gita left me thinking none of them were sacred. Then the fear set in—that faith was man-made, that I was walking around trying to believe a fantasy. My peers, who dabbled in a mixture of atheism, Buddhism, and teenage apathy, seemed unperturbed. I tried to be like them, tried approaching discussions about religion with their cultivated nonchalance. But when our teacher led a rousing discussion about sexism in Genesis, my fists clenched so tightly that fingernails dug crescents into my palms. 

This retelling of Genesis haunted me. Terrified about whether or not the story was true, it had never occurred to me to ask myself if I agreed with it or if I liked it. Genesis was either fact or fiction. I saw religion in terms of polarizing opposites that left no space for shades of grey. If one truly loved God, I rationalized, there was no other response but to offer everything to Him—and why search for truth if finding it meant giving up my possessions, slapping on a habit, and hitching a ride to the nearest convent? Even then, the possibility of hell scared me into continuing the quest for faith. I convinced myself that there was a singular, ultimate truth out there—I simply needed to find it. 

 

 

IV.

When I was almost 18, my youth pastor told me that prayer would help me move closer to God. 

He was a little late though. God had already left. 

For as long as I can remember, I have had an affinity for catharsis. It is what kept me going to church for so long—I loved leeching onto the spectacle of worship, watching people rise and fall in the movements of grace, letting it unlock emotions that I could not access by myself. 

When I saw the pastor’s wife prostrate on the ground in a darkened sanctuary, hymns reaching their crescendo in the background, something inside of me broke. I scribbled the moment down in my notebook, tried to capture her prayer in my poetry. But despite my best attempts, the magic always vanished on Monday. The week ahead was a long stretch of aching wanting, a yawning hunger that waited impatiently for the satiation of Sunday church. 

Eventually, the release stopped coming entirely. I became too greedy, started wanting the beauty I saw there to become my own. When catharsis was no longer enough, worship served only to awaken me to the stifling burn of my own disbelief. A traveller in foreign lands, I was weary, passing through but not yet home. An actress, I was at the mercy of scenes scripted by someone else. 

The stage was set perfectly: a grassy field at midnight, worship music playing softly, and the culmination of seventeen years of questioning, deceit, and empty words. But I felt nothing, and I did not think I could continue living through moments of absence. In the first honest prayer I had prayed in years, it seemed appropriate to ask for everything: if he was there, if I could know him, if I would love what I found in him. The answer? An actively oppressive silence, an open rejection. Whoever wrote that scene must have forgotten that I am not a pretty crier. My tears did not roll down my face in beautiful rivers of anguish. They came in smeared make-up and bloodshot eyes, and that night they left me to find my own personal theodicy, dared me to defend a supposedly loving God that kept walking away. 

 

V. 

When I was 19, I did not believe I could pray. Instead, I spent a lot of time alone, lapsing deeper into the inky fog that oozed from everything. My sadness bred disgust for its own triviality, but I sank anyway. Fear came upon discovering that I lived in the hell of my childhood, a place where God did not go, where he refused to hear cries for help. There were no flames here. Punishment came heavy and suffocating, without light, without the clarifying burn of fire. 

 

VI. 

Now I am 20. I have given up prayers for the sanctity of poetry. Unlike prayer, poems do not disappear the moment they are spoken into being. Poetry shines light into the Other, both reveals and preserves the mystery of shadows that move behind things. That move between people. That exist within people. As Audre Lorde writes, “This is poetry as illumination, for it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are, until the poem, nameless and formless.” Shadows and the words that unveil them are my sacred.

Despite everything, perhaps I have always known this. Back then, I brought a journal to church, wrote what I saw into poetry. Ignoring the sermon for a chance to conjure grace, I tried to capture God rather than simply address him. Perhaps, in this way, poetry has always served as my altar, though I have since learned that poems exhale the sacred and do not try to imprison it. Perhaps the acceptance of this fact functions less as revelation and more as rebirth. But I am a rather disgruntled phoenix. Burned free of Golgotha while deprived of ascension, I am left to writhe in my own ashes, to coat raw, tender skin with particles of soot. Or words. 

I think faith is like falling into a subconscious rhythm. Somehow the music seeps through your cracks, vibrates with a still, small voice. Once painfully dissonant, now my symphonies are beginning to resolve. I am starting to hear something new. Some skeptics say God isn’t there to begin with; the Christian answer says that he will never leave. I don’t think I am ready to believe either of them just yet. Right now I will listen for secular grace. I will let poems be prayers I write with my eyes open.  

 

Inspiration is to thought what grace is to faith: intrusive, transcendent, transformative, but also evanescent and, all too often, anomalous. A poem can leave its maker at once more deeply seized by existence and, in a profound way, alienated from it, for as the act of making ends, as the world that seemed to overbrim its boundaries becomes, once more, merely the world, it can be very difficult to retain any faith at all in that original moment of inspiration. The memory of that momentary blaze, in fact, and the art that issued from it, can become a kind of reproach to the fireless life in which you find yourself most of the time” 

-Christian Wiman