A Letter to My Stepdaughter
Every parent must sometime deal with rebellion. It may be over quickly with few casualties in the areas of love and mutual trust. Or it may go on for years and lead to estrangement and brokenness.
In blended families like mine, the difficult years of teen rebellion are mixed with a destructive brew of divided loyalties, disciplinary uncertainties and the unhealthy leftovers of divorce and remarriage. It is only through grace, patience and long-suffering (on the part of both parents and children) that it can be endured.
Several years ago, my stepdaughter, now a beautiful (and very together) young woman, began a dark time in her life. Drawn to music and drugs and sexual promiscuity, she became everything her mother and I viewed as evil. A scowling, angry girl, she cursed and railed against our rules. She told us she not only did not believe in God, she refused to attend church, where she had been active in youth group and had served at the altar as an acolyte. We were beside ourselves.
But through the prayers and support of our friends, she began to grow through that time and now has begun to redefine her own spirituality. We still struggle sometimes. But we have learned to kiss goodnight, to say “I love you,” even when we don’t feel like it, and to forgive each other when we do things that are hurtful. Towards the dawn of that long night, I wrote this to her.
My Dearest Rachel:
I’ve wanted to write this to you for a long time. But seeing that you are suddenly reading the Bible and collecting religious tracts, I figure I better do it quickly. Kind of like having the birds and bees talk after you find your twelve-year-old in bed with his girlfriend. I hope I’m not too late.
Let’s start with faith. Faith is a universal quality. Everyone, even the most diehard atheist or cynic, has faith in something. It may be faith in its simplest and least controversial form: the awareness that certain things in the universe always work the same way. Grass grows up, towards the sun, not down. Food makes me full, not hungry. Dogs pee, usually in the middle of the Persian rug. Faith is, at its core, a mental leap. You can’t prove it. There may be grass that grows down. There may be food that makes you hungry (Chinese food is the closest thing to it, I guess). There may even be a well-trained dog that never soils a Persian rug. But, in our experience those things seem to be true.
Religious faith is similar. Religious people believe that there is a reason behind the cosmic order, a universal principle, if you will, that glues everything together. In the Hindu religion, it’s Karma, in Buddhism, it’s a universal balance called Nirvana (yes, the Buddha named it 2500 years before Kurt Cobain). In paganism, it is the universe itself: the trees, sun, stars, planets that hold themselves together and create the circles of life. In Western religions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) it is the belief that behind the creation is a Creator: the First Cause that causes all other things to exist. The First Cause is without its own Cause. It just exists. That’s a thought we Westerners actually got from the East, but more about that later.
In Western thought, the first cause is called God. He/She/It is the source of all things, the universal center. In Judaism, which began as a tribal religion of nomadic refugees, God was the one who promised the Hebrew people their land, their way of life and their sense of justice. They were mostly poor, displaced people, and they looked to God (whom they called YHWH) to insure that they would someday have a society that would provide for them, a society that would insure that there was no difference between rich and poor. In Islam, the Hebrew God becomes a kind of caricature: if to the Hebrews was the Promiser, to Muslims, God is the Avenger. God will destroy the “infidels” (everybody but them, a common theme among religious fundamentalists). In Christianity, (in its real form, not the comic book version believed by many ((most?)) Christians. More about that later, too.) God is the one who brings justice through suffering. It works like this: people suffer (sickness, war, divorce, rape, all the myriad ills befalling humanity), but their suffering has a kind of purifying effect. It’s like heating up metallic ore to get the pure form of the metal out.
In Jesus, Christians believe, we see the perfect example of someone who did not deserve what happened to him. He suffered a death that was unbelievably gruesome: after being beaten all night, he’s dragged through the streets by a blood-crazed crowd, has nails driven through his wrists and feet and is left to die on the stump of a tree. But that was not the end: justice was done because some mysterious thing happened during the thirty-six hours or so after Jesus died. When some women followers of his went to the tomb to put spices on the body (a common procedure in the ancient mideast), the body was gone. For the next five weeks, hundreds of people report that they have seen Jesus, and some of them even touch him and eat with him. Then just as mysteriously, he’s gone for good.
The early Christians (though nobody really called them that for a long time, they were just a kind of weird sect of Jews), claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead. How else to explain the missing body and the appearances to so many people in so many places? They began collecting his “sayings,” the oral teachings that he, like all traveling rabbis, delivered to his followers.
The teachings of Jesus are where the religion of Christianity separates from all other religions: he treated women as complete equals, he hung around with drunks and whores and assorted ne’er-do-wells. He had a way of making anybody in any sort of power aware of how many people they had stepped on to get to where they were. He advocated loving people even when they hate you, giving your money to people who were poor, letting people out of jail, and abandoning the traditional religious trappings of Judaism. He even believed that someday the Romans would come and destroy the Jewish way of life and burn their beautiful Temple to the ground. He was right about that, too. It happened in 70 AD. The sayings of Jesus and his closest followers were eventually collected into books that formed what Christians would later call the New Testament, to distinguish it from the Hebrew sacred texts, that they called the Old Testament.
The first four books of the New Testament are biographical sketches of this mysterious and beautiful teacher. They, like any story written by different people, have different emphases and details, but they are essentially in agreement: Jesus was different from every other religious teacher before or since. And if you took his teachings seriously, you would have a world quite different from the world as it is. It’s not that Christianity isn’t true; it’s that, for most of the existence of the Church, it has not really been tried. The Church over the centuries turned into exactly the type of religious structure that Jesus detested. Isn’t irony wonderful?
The reason that Christianity so quickly abandoned Jesus’ teaching is that Jesus was not a Western teacher at all. Western teachers were the philosophers of Greece and Rome, people like Aristotle, Socrates and Seneca and the Church became profoundly influenced by Western thought. The emphasis in the thought of the West was on scientific rationalism; what you can see exists, what you can’t doesn’t. In the east, people were a lot more inclined to accept that we cannot explain everything that exists. That’s why Taoism is still popular in Asia: it understands that some things just are, they exist outside and beyond our rational attempts to explain them.
The First Cause Theory of God I mentioned above is really an Eastern thought. God just is. Everything else is, because God is. That was too esoteric for the rational approach of the West, and so the Church devised intricate “proofs” for the existence of God. They can be dismantled like so many tinker-toys, by anybody with a modicum of philosophical training. And yet “scientific rationalism,” which once triumphed over religion, is no longer the reigning philosophical king. The 20th century brought advances in science that moved into “quantum” areas: chaos and game theories in physics that strive to explain why you can’t just explain everything. So, here we are, at the dawn of the 21st century, back to faith. I guess we are not as modern as we suppose.
So what about the Bible? Is it the Word of God? What about all that weird stuff in Exodus and Leviticus? Does God really care if we eat ham sandwiches or if men shave? Is it morally wrong to eat veal scaloppini?
If you approach the Bible as a Western book of history, you make it absurd pretty quickly. In the first three chapters of Genesis there are two completely different myths about the creation of the world and humans in particular. I use the word “myth” deliberately here: a myth is an ancient story that is not designed to be taken as historical fact, if there even is such a thing as “historical fact.” (“Facts” may be one thing to you, another to me. For example: was the American civil war about slavery, as the North said, or about states’ rights, as the South said? The “facts” surrounding the war are constantly interpreted and reinterpreted through the diffusing lens of our beliefs about it, giving rise to the myth of the Civil War.)
Myth contains truth at its core, not a literal chain of actual events (though it may contain actual events). Did YHWH roll a bunch of mud around in His hands, forming a male body, and then open its little mud eyes and breath into its little mud mouth? Did He then make the man go to sleep and yank out a rib to make a woman? Of course not, and the scripture is not written to promote such a ridiculous story. It is written to show that humanity had a common beginning, that all people come from a common genetic stock, that we are one with all the rest of earthly life. Even the bugs and slugs and creatures of the mud.
The comic book versions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam take these things very literally, and in the process destroy the very truths at their heart. They believe that God told Joshua to kill the people who lived in Canaan, all except for the virgin girls, whom they would capture as slaves. Real biblical faith sees these ancient stories as what they are: the story of a people evolving into a society, sometimes (mis)using their religion as a pretext for cruelty to their neighbors. But contained within the Bible is the hope that humanity can live in a world where there is real justice, where the rights of the poor are not trampled, where people would take care of each other. Jesus came along and showed us that it could be done. But he was killed by the religious-political power structure that knew that it would lose its power if people really lived according to Jesus’ teachings.
Is the Bible really God’s Word? That’s sort of like asking if you really are my daughter. In one sense, no, you’re not. You are the biological offspring of someone else. But in our relationship, fraught as it is with conflict, pain and love, you really are mine, perhaps in a truer sense then you would be if you carried my genes. When the Lector on Sunday at the end of a Bible reading says, “The Word of the Lord” what she means is: in these words you are going to find God: Her sense of nurture, His sense of justice, Its measure of quiet power.
If you are going to read the Bible, start with the gospel of Mark, where you will find the earliest written portrait of Jesus. You will find him portrayed as a radical liberationist, intent on freeing people from the oppression that they endured under the rule of the Romans and the religious hierarchy. He gets murdered for it. Read Matthew next and then Luke. When you’ve done that, read John. John’s Jesus is a strange teacher who gives long, sometimes boring speeches about light and darkness and good and evil, sort of a cross between Obi-Wan Kenobi and your social studies teacher. But look at the teachings at the heart of John’s Jesus: God is love, and loving God is only done when you love other people. After you read the Gospels, go back and read the Hebrew Old Testament. Remember that the first part is not “history” at all, at least in the modern sense. Remember that much of the rest of the “historical books” are the interpretations of the writers about what they thought God wanted people to do. A lot of the rules about eating and clothing and (especially) sex, are kind of amusing now when you read them. Funny thing is, no one, not even most hardcore fundamentalist, keeps all those goofy rules.
In the middle you’ll find the poetic books which contain some of the most beloved and beautiful literature in all the world. They have their share of weird stuff, too. After that are the prophets: the writings of mystics who understood very well that religious ritual has very little to do with God. That real religion is one that shows people how to care for those whom society treats uncaringly. If you are looking for the Word of God in the Old Testament, you’ll find it bright and clear in Amos and Hosea and the other prophets.
When I asked you not to take communion until (if ever) you could say you believed, I did not mean that you had to believe in the comic book version of God. The God that is real is not that god. The god of the religious tracts, who sends you to hell if you never heard of him, or if you think his followers are nutty, is not a real god at all. It’s a comic book god, like Captain Marvel or Hercules. The real God is the mystery of a seed sprouting, of a baby’s first cry, of a rain bringing life to a desert.
I hope that someday you will believe that there is something real behind all the stupidity that we call life. Something that creates love and hope. Something that makes composers write beautiful music and sculptors turn a slab of marble into a perfectly rendered woman. Something that says that living your life with the goal of helping as many people as you can is the only real way to live forever.
I don’t know why you don’t believe. I think it’s because you are an extraordinarily intelligent young woman who easily sees through hypocrisy and falsehood. You are right: the comic book god of the much of the Church is not real. But God is real. God is why I love you. When you can really love me back, then you are ready to eat the bread and drink the wine at communion. Then you will have discovered what it’s really about: joining a group of people who are filled with hope that someday, somehow, all the good that they have done will be rewarded. It does not mean believing silly things. It means believing the most serious thing of all: you are not alone. There is someone outside you who loves you. Keep reading, keep searching. You’ll find it. And it will be worth it. I promise.