By: Stephen Faulkner
Changing my belief system was quite a simple thing in my case. Jesus was a simple answer to a complex malaise, a muddying of the spirit, if you will forgive such a strange metaphor. In the beginning, with me, I hadn’t a clue what I wanted or needed out of life, or even myself, for that matter. I just had an inkling that there was something missing, something more to be had. Then, suddenly, right in front of me, there HE was with those doleful eyes, His heart held out to me like a slab of succulent meat for the barbecue, His unconditional love, His dicta of brotherly, sisterly, family strength and togetherness under his teachings.
Boy, what an idiot I was in those days. Looking back now I understand the why as well as the what of my situation then. I know what I had been going through then that made that particular ball of dogma so attractive. But now, looking back…. I still retain an aversion to the use of curse words from that time of my life but, God, was I ever a righteous asshole!
All right, so call me a naïve idiot. That was what I was. But, coming from where I was coming from, being who I was and what I was (not much, really), it is understandable that that set of beliefs would be the crossroad I would find, the philosophy that would appeal to me. After all, he was a father figure, wasn’t he?
But I am getting ahead of my story here. I don’t want you to go thinking that I am an orphan or something, that I was in a desperate search of paternal affection, hugs and pats on the back of fatherly attention and approbation. No, that’s not me. I had a father to end all Daddies. It’s just that I was looking – even if I didn’t realize it at the time – for, shall we say, a different sort of father than the one I had.
Jesus, being just an idea then, really, was just the thing that I needed. Love and the certainty that all would be well with the world if only…? Sign here, believe this, that’s all; you are in, you are one of the Chosen.
Father? Daddy? The real one couldn’t give a shit that I had made the switch, the commitment to a new set of beliefs, a religion that had grown so close to my heart in such a short span of time. He had no idea any change had been made in me at all. Not at first, anyway. When he did take notice, though, his only comment was, “What’s all this Jesus crap about?” And then he waited for an answer; to him, the question was one that deserved an answer, no matter how derogatory or condescending the question might be.
“It’s my faith, Dad,” I told him. “I’ve been saved in the grace and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
My father snorted, a stifled sob of a laugh. “Grace and blood, eh? That’s what the Christers are offering nowadays for solace? Sounds like you’d get more at a butcher shop, at least then it’d be something you could physically sink your teeth into.”
“I was pretty sure you wouldn’t understand,” I said, getting ready to make as dignified a retreat as I could. “If you hadn’t asked I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned it.”
“Means that little to you, huh? Then why not drop the whole show and go back to what and where you’d been?”
That was the way with my father: for him there were always questions (not the plural).
There were two things here that needed answering, but I knew I had to pick and choose wisely. I knew to answer only one, and I had better make it good.
“No,” I said, having made my choice. “It means that much to me. I don’t want you to go riding down what I hold dear as you always do, that you just did now before you’ve even heard me out, so I figure why take the chance? Why put myself through it all with you?”
“Through it? Through what? Am I that bad? I just play the devil’s advocate, that’s al. Try to get you to think things through before going off halfcocked.”
“First of all you shouldn’t play the devil’s anything,” I told him, my newly bought fundamentalism coming to the fore. I was getting ready to spout chapter and verse but I was brain tied, couldn’t come up with anything in rebuttal. At that time I had only been a “saved soul” a couple of weeks. The pages still stuck together in some parts of the Bible in my head, it was so new to me. “He’ll get you every time,” I finished lamely, hope the old man knew who I was talking about.
“A figure of speech,” he said. “Don’t take every little thing so seriously. I’m your father, for Christ’s sake…. That’s okay, isn’t it? I didn’t blaspheme or anything, use the Lord’s name in vain, did I?”
“I guess it’s okay,” I said, seriously though I could see the glint of humor in his eye. He was playing with me, just as I had known he would. “Though it’s not a good idea to give into such temptation too often.”
“Temptation? Temptation to what? Say His name?” He raised a finger to the ceiling mock righteously. “Gimme a break, here, willya, kid? But like I say, I’m your father and I love you. I got only your best interests at heart. I just want you to be sure you know what you’re doing, what you’re thinking in this thing. What you’re feeling, too. That’s what faith is all about, really, isn’t it? The feeling that this right, that this is the truth?”
Pause here. He was waiting for an answer, again. “I guess,” I said, knowing how unsure I was sounding even as the words came out of my mouth. “Sort of.”
“Only sort of? Okay, then where am I wrong?”
“Not just a feeling,” I corrected and was glad for the chance to expand on my former wishy-washiness, make it sound more solid. “But it’s also a knowing, a sureness.” There, I thought: that was what I had meant to say in the first place, succinct and to the point.
“Sureness?” he asked. “Based on what?” And my balloon of pride popped right before my eyes, startling me into silence. After only a short pause, he pounced, singing a line of “More Than a Feeling” before letting it trail off into a breathy humming, the glint in his eyes sparking off unmistakable glimmers of self-satisfaction. The bastard was almost grinning in his sinful pride of having bested me.
My head was swimming with all the possibilities of reasons I could give out of the Lord’s myriad teachings on love and pride and Satan and faith and good will and yet because of my frenzied anger at this man I was unable to draw upon even a simple Verily I Say Unto You. I was close to tears as I plodded away from him, desperate to get away. I waited until I was out of earshot before I muttered an impromptu prayer for his soul. I had at least that much presence of mind, little though it was.
My mentor, Reverend P. Tillman Spencer, a fundamentalist preacher at the Church of the Holy Word in one of the poorer neighborhoods in our town, was something of a solace about my father and what the Reverend called “his ilk.” “You will always find those who will not know what it is to be saved, those who refuse to know even though the knowing is such a simple, natural thing. No?”
“Yes,” I said, not minding that he seemed to be attempting to recruit me all over again even though he already had me. Perhaps he knew something of the appeal that this sort of line had on the mind of the follower, the same appeal that any rite or ceremony has; that in its very repetition lies the comfort of the familiar, of sameness and continuation. Also, if you repeat something often enough it is like a drill, a goad to memory: you will take it as truth if you hear it said again and again often enough.
“And the knowing is in you, is it not?”
“Yes,” I allowed as if admitting to a sin, almost ashamed. “Yes, it is.”
“Then what harm shall come to you by hearing your father’s bursts of blasphemy and lack of faith?”
“None to me, Reverend Spencer,” I said, all righteousness and good will. “But what of the danger to his soul?”
“Ah,” said this man whose communion with Jesus I would not allow myself to doubt. “There is where we find ourselves in something of a dilemma, don’t we?”
Another of those pregnant pauses lengthened as he hummed and murmured in deep thought.
“So?” I asked, finally, breaking his reverie. “Do we?”
“Hmp?” he noised querulously in surprise at my intrusion. “Do we what?”
“Have a dilemma,” I reminded him.
“Oh, well…. Yes, in a way, yes…. With one of the immediate family, you see, who has no faith, or very little faith, perhaps just enough to question…. Yes, question, that’s the thing he’s about…. From what you tell me…. Hmm. Tell you what,” he said after all the hemming and hawing. “Bring him to me.”
“Yes, bring him to me. I think perhaps I would be more able to answer his queries, less likely to become emotionally involved, or overwhelmed, as it was, as you seem to have been. Yes. Hmm. Let me talk to him.”
“Are you sure?”
Reverend Spencer smiled with the same glint of mysterious deviltry in his eye as my father, on the other side of the fence, had shown. “Positive,” he said.
And so, they met; and they talked, talked for several hours in my father’s bedroom behind a closed door. Towards the end of their conversation I heard shouting coming from the room. Most of it was my father yelling. “Fuck the Bible!” he shouted and I heard the whap! of a fat book being unceremoniously slammed shut. “Just tell me in your own words the why and how of it all!” And some of the shouting came from the Reverend reciting Bible passages as his evidence for whatever point he was trying to make. In the end, though, nothing had changed.
“A stubborn man, your father,” was all the Reverend had to say to me as he left our house.
“What it comes down to,” said my father later when we were alone. “Is the same old thing.” A pause, and then: “Either you got it or you don’t.”
Pause again. If my father’s eyes could glint out mischievous intent, mine must have been spewing question marks. Dad, though, wasn’t paying any attention. I was finally forced to nearly rant, “What? Got or don’t got what?”
“What’s been the subject of this whole magilla all along?” he asked, seeming disappointed in me; another point for his side. “Faith. And I ain’t got it, but you do.”
He stared me down, then, all seriousness. “You know, I think I envy you that certainty. But please, take my advice – though you probably won’t, not now, anyway – but just don’t let it run your life.”
“You mean my faith?” I said, not believing what I was hearing. “But it is my life.”
“Ah,” he said, now making that non-word his own. “I was afraid of that.”
I’ll have to skip around a little here, as memory seems to give me out-of-sequence flashes (memory being what it is) over which I seem to have no real control.
The one memory that jumps out at me at the moment is that one time my father and I shared our first real laugh together. It was also the denouement, for me, of my unbridled faith in Christ, in my having been saved, in my sureness that there really was any need for anyone or anything to be saved and, too, what the real definition of that kind of salvation actually was. Laughing with my Dad didn’t do all of that, of course, but it was the signature event that I attach to all those questions and answers coming to a head in my life. Just laugh your way out of it, my father said of it later. I still have to remind him that it didn’t start out so funny, no matter the jovial outcome.
My father is and always has been a curser, not the flashing dash that shows you where you are on your computer screen, but a blasphemer, a swearer, a longshoreman cussing kind of guy who doesn’t seem to think before he rants out a blue streak of invective whose only basis is in itself, its crude roll call of anger filled words of offensive abuse that seemed to have no end and usually no definable target. There was never a simple “oh my” when “shit” could somehow suffice; never the simple expletive when “Jesus fuckin’ a-one Kee-ryst on a shit shingle!” could be used in its stead; never to say hello when “hey, shithead!” would work for him without his head being handed to him. He was smart enough to know when to stop, when not to curse, who would not tolerate such moronic, impudently offensive prattle (such as his boss, my mother before she passed away, the pastor of the Presbyterian church down the street from us which no one in our family attended but who, due to his relative proximity, every one of us knew enough to stop and chat with). As I say, Dad knew when not to curse, and the reasons why.
He also knew when to open the floodgates full out and with whom: drinking buddies, old friends, to the news and sportscasters on TV (“What the fuck in goddamned hell is this shithead talking about? I mean some rag headed A-rab runs a truck bomb into the middle of an A-merican military compound and now they want to put the fuckin’ shit eating bastard on trial ‘cause the friggin’ thing di’n’t blow up! I say shoot the dirty little schmuck – after they de-ball and disembowel him and stuff all his guts and baby making giblets down his fuckin’ throat. Jeez!) or the grocer or the newsstand operator who either honestly short changed him in error or charged him a five percent increase on an item on purpose or at his IRS tax form when he had it completed and the realized the extent of his financial obligation to the government. Yes, he would curse and scream and berate them all, either because he knew that they would be on his side and egg him on or they were of the larger faction of targets who couldn’t hear him and so were unaware of his tirades. Maybe there was something that had been said to him that was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back on one of his many bad days and so that person caught the brunt of his ire for what on an ordinary day would really be nothing at all. He would let them have it and, though sometimes the ratio of the profanity to the cause seemed rather outsized, at least there would be a discernable reason for his “venting.”
Then there was me.
Me, he liked to goad; me he liked to tease and bully and push to the limit. The only reason I could see for his harangues was that, at the time, in my Jesus phase, I was such an easy target. He got a large charge, as he confided later, in getting me worked up to a purple rage. For me a mere “shit” became either “holy shit” or “Christ on the crapper;” for my benefit, in my hearing range “fuck this shit” (a particular favorite of his) would turn the hyperbolic corner into “Jesus can fuck this shit ‘til it grows a halo” or something equally tasteless and, to my Christian way of thinking, grotesquely blasphemous and soul-damning.
“The way you react is what should worry you,” he told me one time when my anger settled after one of his more vituperative outbursts against nothing in general. “Your anger at my innocent blathering is nigh-on to being pathological. Cool down, boy. Just shut up and let be.”
“But, Daddy,” I came back, knowing it was foolish even as I opened my mouth. “You know God is gonna get you in the end for talking the way you do.”
“Now that’s where you and I differ,” he said. Warning lights went on in my brain. He was being just a little too reasonable in his tone. What was he up to? Where would the first blow come from?
“To me,” he continued. “Any God worth the name would smack me down for murder, mayhem, rape, adultery, maybe even fornication – I don’t know. But I think that He or She – don’t look at me funny now – would turn the other cheek for a little harmless four-letter prattle, especially when no harm is intended by it. I mean, really, who the hell gives a flying fart or fuck anyway except some puissant kid who’s too scared to think for himself and maybe get laid to start his education on what living – and I mean really living – is all about.”
Then he kissed me affectionately on the forehead like I was a child and left the room. It took me a moment to take offense and by that time it was too late to get in any digs of my own. I scurried for my Bible that time, incensed and in need of something. Solace? Inspiration? I had no idea what I was looking for but I pored through several Old Testament sections nonetheless.
His ways were definitely working on me and were quickly coming to a head.
The joke – that is what I started with here. One last joke of Daddy’s to kick me through the last loop. He was railing at the newspaper, had it laid open before him and he was cutting into article after right and left wing articles like a surgeon with a scalpel, assessing the asshole who had attempted to waste an abortion doctor outside of his clinic as a fucking madman with a mission to make the world safe for no one, not even his own sorry, crazoid self. (It seemed that Daddy was letting up on the four letter variety of insults this day, for once). I was in the living room, studying my Bible, taking little if any consolation in its crisp, aged pages, in its anachronistic wordings, its ancient, arguable wisdom. Daddy was a muttering to himself in the dining room, punctuating the silence with a yelp of consternation now and again, an occasional curse or roar of righteous disbelief at what he was reading.
It was all like a strange song, a jazz riff repeated over and over with a medley of variations that didn’t do much to change the sameness of the tempo, the similarity of it intertwining themes. My mind, supposedly focused on the One True Word of the battered book in my lap, was grooving along with Daddy’s staccato pattern of blue verse, getting into the rhythm and rush of it, as it were.
That is, until he came up with one two-word bit of profanity that I just couldn’t let slide. “And just what, pray tell,” I demanded. “Is a ‘holy fuck’?”
My father, without missing a beat, ranting off without a pause, let me know. “The Immaculate Conception!” he shouted before going back to his muttering over the printed doings in the more conservative end of the spectrum of human intent and folly.
For the first minute or two I was blank—no reaction at all. When it finally sank in what he had said, what he meant, the insult intended, my first impulse was to be angry, outraged. But that was a thought rather than a rection, the idea of what I should feel, Reality was something quite different.
It began as a tickle in my gut, a hum at the back of my throat. It quickly escalated into an uncontrollable urge to just giggle, to titter, to let loose and shout out my own song of joyful laughter. My father jumped up from his chair at the dining room table and came running over to me in time to catch the dog-eared old Bible as it tumbled from my lap as I turned onto my side in the fat, overstuffed chair, pulled my knees up to my chin in a fetal exhibition of sheer helplessness in the face of this tide that had just rolled over me out of nowhere. Out of God, the devil, myself – I didn’t know and didn’t care. I just laughed.
Just let it keep me, I thought somewhere in my head where thinking was possible. Let it keep me. Keep me as did my father, then, holding me in his arms as he had once done to me when I was a little child. Then it was at the break of a nasty, sweat soaking fever. That time, too, now that I think of it, was similar to this: an illness coming to it violent conclusion.
“Son, son, son,: he chanted, all worry and concern as the giggles subsided, the hysterical quality slowly left my voice, the contractions of my body eased and slackened. “What is it, son?”
“What you just said,” I told him as I pulled myself out of his clutch and up to a normal siting position. And I looked at him squarely and, after a moment, just shrugged. “It’s just that….”
I didn’t complete the thought, just smiled at him. Then he smiled back at me, nodding as if he understood. But it was apparent that neither of us was anywhere near certain of what had been communicated between us. But it didn’t matter.
Dad and I get along famously now. But the two parts I’ve given you, the one about him asking me “What’s all this Jesus crap?” and the last part with the definition of holy fuck and the resultant laughter it caused in me, are like bookends to a much wider set of circumstances. I didn’t find Jesus one week and dump him for a joke the next. No, I was what you would call totally into being a born again Christian. I was as brainwashed as any chump could be. The Reverend Spencer had a hold on my psyche like nobody’s business with all his rant and nearly salivating palaver about Hell and all its demons, Heaven and all its glories, angels and levels of beauty and light, about the face of God and how Jesus fit into the overall scheme of history and man’s place in the world. All of this, mind you, was expounded on in the cadenced delivery of a Bible thumping sermon that, most times, had little to do with any kind of reality known to man. “Say Yay-uss!” he would shout to the multitude before him on a Sunday morning at a tent meeting. He would dig his heels into the mulched or graveled floor of the circus-like enclosure and dig at the ground with his feet like a bull about to charge, raise his hands to heaven and proclaim, “Jay-zuz will save yooou from the perils and pitfalls laid out by the ee-vul hay-und of Say-tun and his min-yuns! But do not fret my brothers and sisters for you shall pre-vay-ul! And yoou shall be brought to the throw-un of God Almighty in Heh-vun where you shall re-see-uv His blessings of im-moe-er-tality and gray-uss! And do I hear and Aye-men to that my brothers and sisters? Do I hear an Aye-men? Let me hear yooou say Aye-may-un Jay-zuz!” It was all part sermon, part hypnosis, part Christian fundamentalist philosophy, part repetitive behavior modification cant, part simple need of the believer for acceptance and to be a part of something. From the beginning I was an easy pigeon for this sort of thing, throughout it all a willing accomplice and victim. I can’t say where the rift had occurred to make that last fit of cleansing laughter possible, but I do know where the apex of my faith, my belief and gullibility came to its final end.
I was with the Reverend and we were walking on a lonely, chill stretch of beach. It was October, the air was crisp and Halloween was coming. The summer crowds had long since been gone from this bleak shoreline. The lifeguard towers were empty, the wind felt like it was tearing holes in my woolen clothing with each meager gust.
Despite the cold, Reverend Spencer was barefoot, digging his toes into the hard sand with each stride, seeming not to notice, let alone mind, the chill bite of the sea air. “Tell me your secret,” he said into the wind, adding his words to the whoosh of the waves. “Tell me something that I don’t know.”
I had been in his congregation for eighteen months, give or take a week or so, and this was only the third time that he and I would speak one to one alone. I felt blessed, special. I had no idea what to say, what he wanted, what he expected of me. As had happened with my father on occasion, my brain went numb.
“Uh…” I said. “Uh…. Hmmm?”
The Reverend laughed softly. “Not quite the response I thought I’d receive. Let me put it another way, then.” He coughed and harrumphed, biding his time until he had his words chosen. “Just answer this for me: why are you a Christian?”
Me, quickly: “Because I am; I’ve been born into the spirit. It is right and it is the truth.”
“Bad answer,” said the Reverend sternly. “It is the truth? But what is ‘it’ in this context?”
“I dunno,” I said, wracking my mind for answers. “The Bible; Christianity; Jesus.”
There was a thoughtful pause from my mentor. “You don’t know,” he said aloud as if to himself. “You really don’t know where the truth lies. Is it the word of our Lord Jesus, in the Good Book that bears his words, in the very faith we hold dear or in all of these things? Or maybe none of these things but something else entirely?”
We had stopped our progress on the cold sand and he turned and hugged me. “Tell me,” he whispered like a lover into my ear. “I want to know.”
I was close to tears for he wanted something of me that, at that moment, I could not give. I did not know and had no clue as to where, within myself, to find the answer. I muttered something unintelligible even to myself, just a blubber of syllables. The Reverend continued to hold me, then even tighter than before. “All right,” he said. “It’s all right. You can tell me later, when you know. When you are sure. But for now….” He released me and walked on ahead, setting a pace that caused me to sprint to catch up to him.
“For now,” he said when I was abreast of him. “Tell me why.”
“Why?” I parroted, thinking that this test – if that was, in fact, what it was – was even harder to answer than the first one about why I was a Christian. “Why what?”
“Why you are here,” he said and clapped a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Here with me now, on this beach. Are you here to learn, to know? Is that it?”
It all sounded innocuous enough, so I said yes, that it was.
“But to learn what? To know what?”
“All,” I said stupidly. “Truth. What is and how we – I, you, all Christians and non-Christians alike – fit into His scheme of things.”
“Ah!” said the Reverend and nearly knocked me down with another shoulder clap. That was his only answer for a good ten minutes until he admitted, “No one can know all that. Give me another. Learn what?”
“Why I’m here,” I said, thinking that I had hit on something profound. “Here with you, a Christian.” I blinked hard as if seeing something for the first time. Yes, I thought, now there was a question for you. “Like you asked me before: why am I a Christian. I would like the answer to that, ‘cause I really can’t say for sure.”
“Easy answer,” said the Reverend. And I waited for it, his easy response. But instead, he said, “That’s what you wanted from me, was it? Easy answers, a solid package deal of truths? Here is why you are a Christian, a Moslem, a Jew, a Hindu, Shinto, Buddhist, Jainist, Sikh, Zoroastrian or whatever else you might like to call yourself. A pretty package tied with a bow, something to believe and something to align yourself with, all at the same time. Boing, and there it is, it’s done. Next question.”
Next question? “I, uh, well you….” I stuttered. And then, another epiphany, and don’t ask from what fevered part of my mind it had sprung. “Why,” I asked. “Did Jesus have to die? And don’t give me that ‘God works in mysterious ways’ cop-out. Just tell me why.”
“My,” said the Reverend, stopping in his tracks to turn and consider me seriously. “Aren’t we the feisty one here?”
I wasn’t sure whether to take that as a compliment or a reproach. Ego being what it is, I chose to feel good about what he had said. At least for the few moments’ worth of silence until his next proclamation.
“But you should be well enough versed in your readings to know that Jesus never died,” he said and then went on to beat the Bible on the subject of the Resurrection and Everlasting Life, amen.
Amen, I thought, amen as the man continued and continued to continue, then turned the words around so that he wasn’t talking to me so much as he was talking at me, like my father used to do, firing volleys that he knew would hurt. He made fun of what he considered my shortcomings (for Daddy it was my Christianity, my born-again status, my ill-conceived faith; for Reverend Spencer it was the quality, he said, of my faith, the mediocrity of my studies into the underlying philosophy of Jesus’ teachings and life), getting his nasty digs in about how low in esteem my fellow students of his, the Reverend’s and Jesus’, teachings, held me and how he, the Reverend, my mentor and father figure, was forced to agree with my detractors, at least in some degree.
“Let me tell you, then,” he said and I was sure that he had prepared an exhaustive list of my faults and philosophic lapses, errors in my thinking, in my faith and in my studies and he was about to happily and mean spiritedly expound on each and every one of them for, as he would certainly put it, my elucidation.
But I cut him off, said that I knew where I lacked, that I still needed to learn. I told him how strong my faith was even though I was very unsure, then, if it really was as strong as I professed. “And you know,” I said, totally unaware at that moment of the words that were about to exit through my mouth. “I sometimes wish that Jesus really did die that day on the cross; that there never had been a Resurrection.”
The look of shock and disbelief on the Reverend’s face was priceless and it gave me the courage to say the rest of what was on my mind. “At least then,” I said honestly. “You and I would never have met and we wouldn’t be having this stupid conversation.”
Never have I felt so light and free in my life as I did at that very moment.