A part of my story involves Christianity, and the abuses I experienced from the three branches of Christianity: Catholicism, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox. My background is Catholic, or rather Catholic flavored, because when my father’s family arrived to Indiana from Ireland in the late nineteenth century they were informed they could either be Catholic or they could eat. They gave up the mass, but retained the culture. Unfortunately, along the way, most of them became negative stereotypes with alcohol and a bad temper. My father would have beer every once in a while, but he struggled with his anger, and frequently lost when he returned to the church. He had Christianity forced upon him at an early age by a father who would beat him and intimidate him in God’s name, and sing the praises of Jesus Sunday morning while holding the position of elder. People in the church knew my grandfather’s character, but did nothing from fear of him. In the 1950’s my grandfather was a bull of a man who stood at 6”4, and, with one arm, could throw a 150 lb. bale of hay like you and I throw a wad a paper. My grandfather would put in the hospital anyone who stood up to him, and would feel no remorse whatsoever. When his father died, my father swore to himself that he was his own man, with his own mind, and people who thought to impose anything on him walked away with bruises from his well-read tongue. We started going to church at the beginning of my ninth year, and my father’s repressed wounds were triggered. My brother and I received the brunt of his suffering if we behaved in a way contrary to what he thought was a “good” Christian. The upside to this, though, is that our television, books, and music were never policed. We had our fair share of bruises and broken bones in the name of Jesus and St. Paul, and were instilled with an overwhelming dose of guilt and self-loathing. Not until a year before our father died from cancer did we learn of all the abuses he suffered, how ours paled in comparison, how our father fought through life to resist his father’s anger, and how religion set off everything. Before our father was diagnosed, I had become sort of a wanderer—both religiously and physically—seeking different sects of Christianity, and leaning closer to the teachings of The Buddha while driving all over the Midwest and the East Coast; and in recent years going across country traipsing about the coast of Northern California, and the Pacific Northwest. My brother took a different approach becoming an indifferent Agnostic. To some degree I share his Agnosticism, but mine is more of a soft approach because the view assumes a God while simultaneously unsure because there is no external evidence. My brother’s approach is, “I don’t know whether or not there is a God, and I don’t care.”
As an adult, I faced abuse from the church such as physical threats, ostracizing, victim blaming, and infidelity. From my perspective the abuse was motivated by my “difference” from not being “manly” enough. My bisexuality was showing, and I am quite effeminate in some expressions of my sexuality. Who I am is an affront to some arbitrary form of masculinity, and must be met with all manner of violence—mostly verbal. The same thing can be said by my questions of faith and the existence of God. The church I attended is located in Broadripple Village in Indianapolis, and is influenced by The Emerging Church movement, but the pastor says they are missional because they are about inclusivity and creating a diverse community. I thought myself free to bring up my doubts. Both the pastor and the worship leader had been friends of mine for twelve years up to that point, and I felt they had turned on me as I asked extensive questions about belief. My fiancé at the time would become enraged because I would ask her what caused her to believe in God, and she yelled, “I don’t know! I do because my parents do!” I rolled my eyes at the response, but word started to spread within the church that I was sowing doubts. Also, the worship leader had developed an attraction to my fiancé and started moving in our relationship. Eventually, they slept together, and because he felt like he had her, he came at me with physical threats and sending his brother after me. My fiancé didn’t help the matter as she lied to the church that I hit her. I never touched her, but the church rallied behind her along with many of our mutual friends. I roared and cussed at the pastor for not holding the worship leader accountable, and he replied, “Slow work of God. Grace of God.” He ended the call with excommunicating me from the church as I told him I’m not the one who should be put out of the community; and then he lied about it to the congregation telling them I chose to leave.
All that happened within months after my father’s death, and, needless to say, I snapped. I tried to hook up with two friends, and, thankfully, that never happened. I was going through two bottles of single malt Scotch a week, tried heroin—only one time, and I snorted—, and slept with a good friend who I knew wanted me while that person was in a relationship. I behaved despicably, and I lost good friends in the process, but, while my personal life burned to a smoldering heap, I had returned to school to finish my education. That journey took me out of state to a small liberal arts college in Illinois where I worked out my anger with Christianity under brilliant and patient scholars in Literature and Religion—my major and minor. As I studied American Literature from the 1600s to the early 1900s, I saw an evolution of Christian culture in America confirmed by studying, writing, and discussing Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus in my Christ & Pop Culture class. When I took Psychology of Religion, I started to understand my own development and the developmental stages of those who abused me—these particular people were at the early stages of psychological maturity. At that point I began to cultivate forgiveness, but not out of condescension. I understood what I did when I hurt people, and I understood why I had been hurt. I did not condone the behavior, but I could walk away no longer living in that ancient moment of suffering. I earned my B.A., I got married a week after commencement, and my wife and I wandered around the country before returning to my home town of Indianapolis to be close to friends. With the mixed baggage of blessing and consequences I now possess, I can see how those who hurt me did a good thing to me. Their behavior, alongside with the few positive choices I made, caused me to grow and become stronger.
Nowadays, I still consider myself a Christian, but only in the loosest sense of the word. I don’t care about dogmas, doctrines, or hierarchies which only serve as distractions; and, I think, distorts the message of Jesus. They have their place, but the churches I have attended—and they are many—often substitute their doctrine for Jesus so they can have a checklist of what they have “right.” I don’t fault them for it. I understand the fear and insecurity, especially in a world that has no stability, is violent, and shaken with anxiety. I did that too, but now I stay in a cloud of unknowing without the assurance of a safety net or a blanket.
This is where I tread lightly.
What I’m about to say may come off as arrogant and dismissive; but that is not my intent. The need for security, or the illusion of security, comes from an immature mind—an adolescent mind seeing things in black or white. At some point we all have to grow up and look past the illusion into Ruldolf Otto’s tremendous dread. Christianity, when you get past the buildings and opinions, is a grown up religion, as C.S. Lewis put it, and faces the world as it is while refusing to conform the world into our image. Don’t misunderstand, I am not yet there, but I do make the move forward—even if it’s a painful, crawling inch.
This is my story, but I find comfort in knowing I am not the only one with a painful religious account—there are many people I have met who had similar experiences. There are variances to the telling, but there is also a community found within the pain of the story—the pain from the shameful mistakes committed in the midst of the suffering. Charles Bukowski was once asked why he puts himself in such a good light in his stories and poetry, and he answered, “I’m the hero of my goddamned story!” We are all like that in our recollections. Who wants to bring up the embarrassing mistakes or humiliating conversations that would cause the listener to take the side of our antagonist? My approach differs from Bukowski, but only slightly. I am not the hero of my story, instead, I am the anti-hero—if I come out on top it’s only due to chance or God that I did not destroy myself in the process; and that which did not kill me made for a damned good conversation.
The downside to sharing stories is the listener may compare their own life with the life of the character, and regard their own experiences as worthless. I disagree. No one has to go through the frozen tundra of Hell to have something worth saying, nor do we have the right to judge another person’s experience based on how we handled our adversity. Everyone has their own battles, and those battles carry their own pain and reward. Our experiences, as varied as they are, are how we come together and learn how to be more human. My story can help one person grow in a certain area, and a story from someone I don’t know can touch my life and help me get past an obstacle. We’re human beings, and we tell our stories to remind us who we are and where we’re going.
A good story is not one where everything goes well and ends well, or the protagonist will be broken with one form of chest cracking suffering after another, and comes to a happy ending. Those are terrible stories with two dimensional characters and belong on the likes of religious broadcasting or ABC Family. The good stories, the stories that stay with us, are the ones where the protagonist is flawed, complicated, and their story ends bittersweet. Some things work out for them, and other things are lost, but they are changed, along with the people in their lives.
The best stories are messy, full of pain, misery, and some happiness; but we enjoy them because the stories are real. They are real because we can identify with them, and more so if they are rooted in actual events.
That messiness is why I found a connection with the writings of Jack Kerouac—specifically, On the Road and Dharma Bums. Kerouac documented his physical and religious wanderings in those books. Granted, there were some novelizations and exaggerations of events to make his point; but a real person wandered America as a bum looking for God; and that resonated with me because I wander in a similar way. Kerouac’s search was always about finding Jesus with the aid of Catholic and Buddhist imagery, but his stories were dismissed as juvenile—or misunderstood as Buddhist. Kerouac’s journey is something we can all relate to for its human element. His story is filled with promiscuous sex—both heterosexual and homosexual—drugs, alcohol, misogyny, and shiftlessness; but those elements make up the lives of saints—see St. Augustine’s Confessions. We don’t have it all together and neither do our friends or family, and we make different kinds of messes. People are not one thing or another. We are a composite of black, white, gray, and other convoluted colors with different nuances; and when we interact with each other on an interpersonal level, or through different mediums such as books and films, there is chaos. Good does come out of the noise, but that good is subjective and seasoned with past fury. The memorable stories are cluttered.