When I was in kindergarten, the teacher had us write stories. It was the first time I had ever done such a thing. It was a revelation. A mind-blowing, life-changing moment. Until then, it had never occurred to me that stories had to be written down before they could be read. Once that occurred to me, I was convinced that was what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a person who wrote down the stories. I wanted to be a writer.
Before that, where did I think stories came from?
I really have no idea. I probably thought they just existed, somehow.
When I was a kid in church, the adults handed me this big, old book called the Bible and said, "here, everything we believe and everything we do, it’s all in this book."
I had been told that God wrote this book. If pressed, adults would admit that actual human people had done the actual writing down of it. But, I was assured, they were all inspired by God. God spoke through them. The phrasing was, "it is written." Passive voice. No implied actor. It’s just written. It just exists.
It seems a bit silly now, to think that I ever fell for such an absurdity. A book written by gods, what nonsense!
But then I think back to when I was in kindergarten. Books and stories already have a kind of magic about them. Writers and the writing process already possess a kind of mystique. The act of human creation seems transcendent, all by itself, whether any gods are purported to be involved or not. So maybe it’s not so absurd.
Something I believe now, that I couldn’t have explained then, is that religion arises out of the human narrative impulse, and it "works" for the same reasons. We believe in gods we have never seen in much the same way that we are able to weep for the death of characters who never existed. If you want to know how otherwise reasonable, fact-based people can believe in something as silly as religion, look there, to the relationship we have with our favorite stories.
One way to look at the Christian church is, as a really big fan club that’s obsessed with this one particular book. And there’s this one character in it, this guy called Jesus, who they are such big fans of that they actually try to emulate him in their daily lives. They think he’s, like, the wisest and best and coolest guy who ever lived.
I was a member of the Jesus Fan Club.
I believed passionately in the teachings of Jesus as I understood them. That was the hook, the thing that actually gave me the spontaneous upswelling of emotion that feels like truth. I believed the teachings. Love your neighbor as yourself. Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me. Everyone is a sinner. Everyone can be saved. Everyone is loved by God. That sort of thing.
I started to feel sure that I was a Christian around the age of 10. This was probably an important state of cognitive development. Prior to that, being a Christian was more of a cultural thing, a tribal thing, a hobby my parents had. If asked, I would have told you that I was a Christian Protestant, but I wouldn’t really have been able to tell you what that meant. Or if I tried, I would just be reciting things I’d heard adults say.
Around the age of 10, not only was I at the right cognitive stage, but my family also started going to a church that was very amenable to me. In retrospect, I know it was a politically liberal, vaguely Jesus freak-y kind of church. The minister referenced things like Peanuts and Star Trek in his sermons. They were big on music and helping the poor. And low on pointing fingers at ordinary sinners and ranting, although the finger would sometimes get pointed in the direction of the money-hungry megachurch culture that was on the rise in Orange County at the time.
(I recall one memorable sermon about the enormous cost of the "Crystal Cathedral" , where he listed all of these humanitarian things that could be done with however many millions the church cost, and then the punchline was that you could have done every single one of them with the cost of the building. I was moderately conflicted about that, because I cared about humanitarian causes but I also loved beautiful buildings. Then I saw the "Crystal Cathedral" and had no more doubts. It’s hideous. It looks like an office building.)
Also, this church met in an old, rather nice, classic church building. Old and beautiful objects tend to instill in me a sense of awe. It feels like religious awe. Maybe it is, I don’t know. But it’s highly ecumenical, if so. I feel it as strongly at Stonehenge or the King Tut exhibit as I do at Notre Dame de Paris.
So, antique building, good music, likable pastor, socially and politically liberal interpretation of the gospels. The conditions were right. I was baptized. I mentally committed to the church.
Except I’m not being entirely honest here, and I just realized that. There was another factor. If you’re raised in the evangelical Protestant church, there is a social pressure that being baptized means you’re an adult. It’s not as formalized as Catholic confirmation or Jewish Mitzvahs, but it’s a similar kind of rite of passage. It’s supposed to mean, "hey, I’m old enough to really understand what all this stuff means!" And I believe it! Of my own free will!"
And I suppose it could mean that. I thought it meant that. But it also means something else, it means "I am going through the growing-up rituals prescribed by my culture."
It can be hard to separate those things.