“THE VISION OF CHRIST that thou dost see Is my vision’s greatest enemy. Thine has a great hook nose like thine; Mine has a snub nose like to mine. Thine is the Friend of all Mankind; Mine speaks in parables to the blind. Thine loves the same world that mine hates; Thy heaven doors are my hell gates. Socrates taught what Meletus Loath’d as a nation’s bitterest curse, And Caiaphas was in his own mind A benefactor to mankind. Both read the Bible day and night, But thou read’st black where I read white.”
William Blake, “The Everlasting Gospel”
When I was growing up, one of my best friends was my grandmother, Phyllis. We had vigorous debates about (what I know now as) existentialism. “How do we know God exists?” “Who are we?”
Her fascination in life was religion and she could have been a divinity scholar. She couldn’t, of course, because she learned her duty was to serve her husband and family. I’d ask her questions: how could I determine the nuanced variations which made one religion “the one true way” versus another? She would indulge me for hours. I remember once she dug out a church produced chart which showed us how Catholic people were Hell worthy because of their Pagan origins (never discussing how any Christian sect had Pagan origins), Jehovah Witnesses were just plain foolish (Jesus died on a stake?! Aesthetic blasphemy!), and Protestants were insipid “Sunday Believers.”
Jesus hated gay people and women who subverted gender roles. Curiously, he also hated anyone who wasn’t reading the King James version of the Bible. Sometimes Jesus forgave you for “unforgivable” sins and sometimes he didn’t (depending on who I asked). Jesus seemed like he was the type of dude who kissed up to his boss, went to work every day despite unfair treatment, practically being crucified to uphold his master’s fanciful wishes. Oh wait.
One of my grandmother’s favorite things to say to me when I asked her how she was doing was: “Well, I will get through the day. Maybe the rapture will happen and the Lord will take me away.” She genuinely wished the rapture would happen in her lifetime and read her Bible when she woke up, in the afternoon with my grandfather (bible study), and in the evening. In the years leading to her death in 2008, she developed cataracts. They were more severe in her left eye, so in order for her to read her Bible, she would cover her right eye with her hand to see better.
Gram was always taking care of me when it was my father’s weekend. At a certain age I stopped expecting to hangout with my father and instead preferred my grandmother. She used money from her savings to send me to Word of Life summer camp a few different years. I learned archery, horseback riding and beginner’s evangelism. I was treated nicely by the people at camp, but poorly by my own family on my father’s side who saw me as less human because my parents weren’t married when I was conceived.
Gram was a Sunday school teacher when my father was growing up and she used to give my cousins and me lessons on her felt board. I’m grateful for these lessons because I learned to critically analyze texts. Perhaps it was my grandmother’s keen analytical ability that alienated her from most religious sects. She and my grandfather had a hard time maintaining church membership and preferred to study at home using tapes of old sermons from the 1970’s. A golden age for them ideologically (and perhaps deeper than that, in their marriage and connection).
Gram was for and against a lot of things because she read them in the Bible. There was a poster hanging up in her kitchen, where she spent most of her time, that showed “the right way.” Which, of course, was Jesus. It said “I am the way, the truth, and the light.” The poster was set up like a maze with many dead ends leading to “education,” “church,” “knowledge,” “philosophy,” “works,” “science.” The only way anyone was getting by was the path to Jesus.
When I was 17 I attended a strict Anabaptist church with both my grandparents. I gave it a full try. Wore the long skirts down to my ankles, attended services Wednesday nights and twice on Sunday. Had Bible study with church members, took religion classes with my Gram. She loved to study. The instructor assigned a paper for the class and I remember her on the ’99 Compaq furiously researching and writing, even with her cataracts. At one point she asked me, “do you think I could maybe have gone to college?”
The summer I was 18 I left the sect. Maybe it was the divisive, paranoid “pssst, see those people? they aren’t saved,” or the Pastor saying things like “don’t trust people from divorced families,” or that I was almost betrothed to someone’s son I barely knew. By the summer I was 19 I was a year into community college at my boyfriend’s family’s Lavallette beach house drinking Yuengling, having drags of cigarettes, studying for a summer class in Art History. By 19, my grandmother was already married and had to drop out of nursing school. I gave up the long skirts, began listening to music again, and trusted my sense of autonomy.
Although I left the church and was back in college, I was still in a relationship archetype I had seen all my life: a controlling, insecure man, alcoholic, smoker, interested in the “bread winning” detached embodiment of masculinity. We were engaged and quickly broke up shortly after. Although college was better, it was still a substitute for my father.
My grandmother’s father was an alcoholic as well. As was her husband’s (my grandfather) father, and, for a time, my own grandfather before he quit drinking in his 30s. My father is an alcoholic.
Later, as a student at Centenary College, I took the required World Religions class. As part of an assignment, we had to watch a PBS documentary, The Buddha. Gram reluctantly let me watch the video on her Compaq as long as we could talk about it after. At around the same time, I took the Bible as Lit., Women’s Lit. Romantic and Victorian Lit. I learned about Sappho, Mary Shelley, how women were denied full social participation and men were deemed leaders by divine right. Learning about who woman weren’t allowed to be and by whom changed the way I understood who I could be in the world. The view of women as subcreatures in the history Christian faith tended to contradict Jesus, the social welfare advocate, who encouraged equity, fairness, and liberation.
Like my World Religions Professor pointed out in my junior year of college, we all do have a divine spark. We can still connect to this spark, but Capitalism has made us disconnect with the environment, our authentic selves, and our community. Jesus is a convenient manifestation of guilt and desperation from a culture that has murdered, stolen, and beaten into submission other cultures deemed “less divinely chosen.” Jesus is the person assigned to take on all these sins of humanity and give us permission to continue committing the sins of oppression.
The person I was seeing during my last years in college was Catholic, so I started attending his church. Gram was not happy, although I found Catholics to be far more engaged in structured, Christian principles than any Baptists I had met. Their views of womanhood were even a bit more liberal.
Before my grandmother died, my cousin had not yet started working for Bechtel. He gets plenty of positive attention from my grandfather for his work now, as he has become the epitome of capitalist and imperialist. Bechtel invades countries (which we like to call the “third world”) to impose water resources saying “Wow, you guys could really use water here.” After they install elaborate water systems, they say “Also, you have to pay us…oh you don’t have any money? That’s fine, just work for free for an indeterminate period of time.” I don’t know how she would have felt about this, or about who I am now, at 28.
I know she would put my college courses on a Post-it and tell me she would pray for me to do well. As I turned 21 and prepared to graduate, my grandmother started to fade. Not just her life, but her staunch firmness in Biblical values. Despite the decidedly "bad" legacy of my father as my birthright, she started to believe in me. As a woman, as her descendant.
To my grandmother, salvation meant salvation from this world. Only death can save us from this culture. The myth of Jesus was born from early Capitalist culture and people’s need to moralize immoral behavior towards others, their inability to treat others fairly.
My grandmother gradually starved to death after refusing treatment for a tumor in her stomach. Before she died, she atoned. She apologized for her zeal as a substitute for love at times. As a proxy for my aunt (her daughter, who is still living), my “Christian” aunt, she said it was wrong that I was always made to feel like a bastard. Gram was always against pain medication, but agreed to take 1/4th of a Valium to help with the pain of a destructive stomach cancer.
As she died, I tried to comfort her with the kindness I’d found wanting from many Christians I’d met who introduced pain into my life based on who they thought I should be. A bastard, a subservient woman, a nothing. She seemed softer then, less afraid of who people told her she had to be, ready to take on the “new form” she so badly wanted all her life. The form she could not take because of her religion. Maybe hoping I could find that form here, on Earth.