I have to admit, I am impressed, good PR is always something to admire. Whoever rolled out this 2WordStory campaign deserves to retire rich. That doesn’t mean I agree with him. Or her.
For those of you who do not currently reside in the great mitten state, this 2WordStory I refer to is a very widespread and graphically attractive ‘Come to Jesus’ PR campaign. It involves (tons of) yard signs, large banners displayed outside almost every Christian church, a very well-done and high-tech website, t-shirts worn by men in the local coffee shop Bible study—and worst of all: coffee sleeves at my neighborhood coffee shop. It ruined my Monday morning.
When I was ranting to one of my Michigan native friends about all of the fun she was missing, she pointed out the enormous sum of money a campaign like this must cost—money had yet to cross my mind. But she’s right. Granted, I am familiar with a very different kind of yard-sign—the kind that will always bear a union logo. Regardless, even if the hands of Chinese children made these signs, the sheer amount of them (I am talking every 5th house on many streets) means organized Christian faith is hemorrhaging from their outreach budget. But perhaps money is what it takes to get people to church these days? I wouldn’t know.
I was completely baffled after seeing these 2WordStory signs on lawns around my neighborhood. What kind of story is only two words? NPR recently had a piece on six word memoirs, which sounded like an interesting challenge, but two words? Not enough. Like any good investigative journalist, I went to the website. Of course it was a Christian thing. It had to be, didn’t it? Basically, the 2WordStory is meant to give a quick (hmm soundbite?) blurb about the positive-loving-sunshine-rainbow-puppy-happy feelings people derive from being committed to Christ. (The website has several people telling stories that extend far beyond two words, but for the sake of brevity, we’re going to stick with the two word mode.) I am glad people feel good, but something about the campaign rubs me the wrong way.
Many of these ‘two words’ are pretty wonderful: peace, accepted, loved, secure, purpose, joy, significant, fearless, free, etc. I identify with these words. I am at peace with the earth and those in my life, I am accepted wholly and completely by Jess, I am loved by my friends and family and when approaching change or adversity, I am fearless. These words are not the property of committing one’s life to Christ; Christianity doesn’t have sole-ownership of one’s ability to be accepted or loved. Maybe you get joy as a bonus prize, but I can assure you that life is a bumpy road (God or no God) and the hills and valleys will always be what you make of them.
In the course of 25 years, I have received a pretty consistent message from most Christian outlets in my life: you are less than. Without God in my life, I will surely become a wastrel, a whore, a miscreant. Without God and church, I am incapable of having morals or purpose. As a non-believer, I do not deserve any good things that come my way—even if I made them happen. I am happy to say I prove all of these things to be wrong on a daily basis. I am a medical student, President-elect of a national non-profit, a faithful and monogamous partner; I have a moral foundation that has been decades in the making, my values were not handed to me on Sunday mornings, they were hard-won in the course of living life; I do deserve the good things that come my way because I work my freaking ASS off.
Time for some two word stories.
I have spent a good deal of time struggling with spirituality; it’s something hippies like me are supposed to be in to. Not the saints and Jesus part, but Goddesses and shit. But I can’t get with it. I have tried. I have tried so many times. At the end of the day, I worship objective facts, the scientific method and hard work. And I’m OK.
Like many things that will haunt me for the rest of my life, my conflicts with religion started in elementary school. I was raised in a pseudo-hyper-Christian town by two militant atheists that like to call themselves agnostic for the sake of ‘softening the blow.’ Our family was notorious for our lack of religiosity. Blessed ignorance that is youth, I was fortunate in that I didn’t understand why not believing in God made me such a bad person. Hell, I was six years old. The one thing I did know about church and God, though, was that it sure made Sunday play-dates difficult. Without fail, every Sunday morning, I would call my three best friends. Without fail, their fathers would answer the phone and remind me they were, once again, at Sunday school. No one could play on Sundays. One week I decided I needed to see why Sunday school was a bigger draw than my company, so I went with my friend Sarah. After learning about some old dude and stringing some pasta, I decided that Sunday School was basically religious day care and I was happier watching PBS and eating pancakes. But then! Then the Sunday school teacher gave us a Jolly Rancher! I really didn’t get it. Why did my friends go to church? (Granted, I did not understand that their parents were forcing attendance, lest the be sentenced to eternal damnation.) Yep. I was confused by this whole “church” thing.
After my totally underwhelming Sunday school experience, I decided that atheism was where it was at—though, I didn’t understand much about the gravity of claiming to be atheist. If I got to gorge myself and watch TV instead of learning about old white dudes on a Sunday Morning—in uncomfortable dress clothes at that—the choice was pretty freaking easy. I spent the rest of elementary school completely content in my atheism-via-laziness. As you can imagine, though, I wasn’t quiet about it. I was kind of fascinated by everyone else’s commitment to church, and incredibly pleased with myself for being ‘different.’ So please, in fact, that I told everyone I was an atheist. I wanted my entire elementary school to know how unique I was—how I knew the secrets of Darwin and all they had were some cheesy songs. I am not exactly how much of a pain in the ass I was, but I can imagine. My powers for snark developed young. I shouldn’t have been surprised then, when in sixth grade around Christmas break (because in Livonia in the 90’s it was CHRISTmas break, not holiday vacation), Kevin Jarvis told me that I not only did not deserve to get presents on Christmas, but that I would likely burn in hell for all eternity. Quick to defend this identity of mine, I reminded Kevin that atheists didn’t believe in hell, and that my parents bought me presents because they loved me, not because they believed in some bullshit myth. But I was alone on this one, and my entire sixth grade class ganged up on me. It became abundantly clear to me that all Christians are absolutely terrified of disbelief. It was almost as if I had the plague. Thank Sheera I got in to the gifted and talented middle school and I got to leave the vast majority of my Buchanan classmates behind. But, still, this kind of attack hurt.
Seventh grade was my first positive experience with someone who was proudly religious. I am sure you won’t be surprised to know that my snarky mouth did not disappear upon entering middle school—nor did my desire to be accepted. A rough combination when you’re twelve years old and new to a school. After a rough go attempting to break the ‘cool kid’ barrier, I became embittered with the social ladder at Frost Middle School. Unfortunately, I befriended this chick, Jane, who was similarly disillusioned. We bitched about the ‘cool kids’ incessantly. This was also the era when writing and passing notes consumed approximately 60% of the school day. Well, I made the mistake of writing what amounted to a hit-list about all of these girls who wouldn’t give me the time of day. If this hadn’t been pre-Columbine, I am pretty sure I would have a GED instead of a diploma right now. Jane, gem that she was, photocopied this note and gave a copy to every single girl on my (hit) list. Awesome. Of course, my mom was called in to school, I had to talk to counselors, I had to apologize a million times. The worst part, though, was the social stigma I had brought upon myself. Everyone knew what I had done. I would like to say I am dramatizing when I say everyone, but I am not. For the remainder of the year, no one would speak to me. Once again, it was like I had the plague (but this time, even I believed it). I ate alone at lunch for a solid month. This is where my first positive experience with religion comes in: Bethany Snow. Bethany was one of my classmates; she was endlessly sweet, everyone loved her. She wasn’t ‘cool’ per say, but the in-crowd definitely acknowledged her presence. After sitting alone at lunch and recess for so long, I was shocked when she plopped down across from me.
“Are you OK, Emily?”
Her olive branch, in and of itself, was courageous. The fact that she kept sitting with me? The fact that she and I would pal around between classes? That made her my saving grace.
I knew Bethany was Mormon, and thank goodness back then I didn’t have any of the nasty pre-conceived notions many have about Mormonism today. My assumptions would have ruined my chance for what turned out to be a very healing relationship. The great thing about Bethany and her relationship with religion was that it was completely pure. It was, truly, about her and God. She was happy to answer questions for me, tell me about life growing up Mormon, she even brought me to a couple of youth group things. She didn’t do it to feel good about herself, she did it because she wanted me to find something if it was there. Bethany wasn’t disappointed when I decided Mormonism wasn’t for me—she was completely at peace with me, her religion and herself.
Indeed, my friendship with Bethany taught me a badly needed lesson about making assumptions. No longer were religious people judgmental/wrong/mean/bad—Bethany proved to me that people make the choice to mess up the face of religion. Like it or not, if you’re religious, you are the face of religion to someone like myself. You choose whether it is a judgmental scowl or a welcoming smile. It was through Bethany that I was reassured that religion, this giant club I was not a part of, might not be evil.
The next memory that really sticks out for me is brief, but telling. The vast majority of my friends grew up Catholic, my best friend Megan not excepted. I distinctly remember being in the back seat of her mom’s fancy car when she received a phone call. She was kind of brusque, but also apologetic. We didn’t know who she was talking to. Turns out, it was a pastor at their church, inquiring about why the family hadn’t come to a service in so long. Mrs. B was pissed, but it was Megan’s question that says the most:
“I don’t get it mom, didn’t you mail them the monthly check?”
When my seventh grade self came to understand religion as giving rather than going, I became increasingly skeptical. This sure didn’t seem like the personal relationship with Jesus that is so often a selling point.
This story, and many more just like it, formed the core of my opinions on Christianity. By the time I graduated high school, I was a pretty committed non-believer.
But college, and all that has followed, has offered ever more interactions with religion. Stay tuned…