When our web producer Sarah Collins responded to the favorite YA novels AVQ&A by discussing how Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels made her aware of an alternative to Christianity—cementing the loudly expressed fundamentalist fears that the movie would teach America’s children to be atheists—it started us talking in the Chicago office about other works we encountered in our youth that first made us aware that there were religious worldviews other than the ones we were raised with, or without. What early piece of pop culture first challenged your religious beliefs, or lack thereof?
Chalk me up on the “raised religious” side of the board; my family was Southern Baptist, which meant thrice-weekly church attendance, weeklong revivals and holiday church events, summer sessions at a Christian camp (where I was later a counselor-in-training as well), and eventually four years at a Christian high school. I’ve identified hugely with Todd’s periodic stories about growing up sheltered, indoctrinated, and scared of things that later became beloved hobbies. I was so sheltered, in fact, that it was a pretty serious shock to the system when I read Robert Heinlein’s JOB: A Comedy Of Justice, the first book I ever happened to encounter that treated Jehovah as just another god among many, and Satan as a pretty cool guy who’s more or less into freedom, choice, and self-actualization. I’d certainly read anti-Christianity screeds of various kinds, but anger and contempt against Christianity actually tends to strengthen a fundamentalist’s resolve, in that “They wouldn’t persecute us if they weren’t so afraid of our truths” kind of way. JOB, on the other hand, downplayed Christianity with humor (though a humor that seems more heavy-handed to me today than it did back in those inexperienced days), and presented an alternative to my enforced world with complete casualness, like it weren’t no thing. When I was a kid, it felt like the most dangerous, daringly sacrilegious thing I’d ever encountered.
My household had pretty much zero formal religion; we just had Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. (My dad was raised Jewish but doesn’t practice; my mom was just practicing the violin, mostly.) Our house definitely had a Bible (as well as the Good News Bible, which I tried to plow through a couple of times as a kid), but those were vastly overshadowed by the entire Kurt Vonnegut bibliography (good!) and stuff like I’m OK, You’re OK (maybe not so good, I dunno). Anyway, I gobbled up the Vonnegut as a kid, and while never inclined toward religion anyway, I’m sure I got a lot of my worldview from that gentle old guy. People tend to point to a couple of “Vonnegut-on-religion” quotes that sum up his views well, including this one from Mother Night that’s actually far more prickly than he tended to get: “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.” This one might serve us all better, though: “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”
I was raised in a pretty un-strict, but still superficially observant religious household. My mother descends from a long line of staunch, guilt-instilling Irish Catholics, and my dad was a member of the United Church of Canada, which is basically the least stringent, most loosey-goosey protestant denomination in Canada. We went to church every Sunday, alternating between the two, and I went to Catholic school from kindergarten through to grade 12. Given all this, I was exposed to a bunch of religious stuff, basically six days a week, including Sunday school. But before Marilyn Manson’s Antichrist Superstar taught me that religion is for-sure dumb, while bombastic neo-goth glam rock is not, it was mostly religious movies that turned me off: stuff like The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Story Ever Told. From the eyes of a kid in grade 4 or 5 watching these “epics” on a rolled-in VHS/TV classroom setup, the grand narrative of Christianity seemed tacky and cheap, forcing me to question just what the hell I’d been taking for granted without knowing it for so long. So thank you, Charlton Heston. And double thanks for Omega Man.
I was raised in a family of Romanian Baptists, which isn’t the most supportive environment for a burgeoning young gay. I don’t know which piece of pop culture first challenged my Baptist upbringing, but the one that best encapsulated my feelings at the height of adolescence was Craig Thompson’s Blankets, his graphic memoir about growing up in rural Wisconsin and his personal struggle with religion. I immediately connected with Thompson’s inability to tap into the collective inspiration that seems to overwhelm a congregation, and his fear and shame as he begins to stray from the Bible’s teachings really resonated with a boy who was trying his best (and failing) to hide the pornography he downloaded off Kazaa. Reading Blankets was a much more enlightening experience than anything I ever felt in a church, and after finishing it, I stopped believing in Christianity and started putting my faith in Art. Discussing media has become my version of Bible study, and a theater is my ideal place of worship.
I don’t specifically remember the first time I was exposed to something that might have been intended to challenge anyone’s preconceptions. But I do vividly remember a spiritual crisis I experienced at 9 or 10 when, as a frightened kid raised Southern Baptist in deepest Mississippi when the secular media machine was just starting to flex its tentacles and reach people in the backwoods, I was gifted some Christian comic books by a well-meaning aunt. These were the notorious Spire Christian Comics, written and drawn by Al Hartley, a long-time Archie comics pro who became a born-again Christian and received permission to do a string of Christian comic books featuring the Riverdale gang, in a style that could have easily suckered a casual reader into mistaking them for mainstream Archie comics, until he got to the part where a misguided “secular” character—readily identifiable by his unruly facial hair—wanders into the cafeteria and has a screaming, wall-eyed fit at the sight of Betty, head bowed, saying grace over her food tray. As you might guess, these were straight-up Nixon-era conservative propaganda, linking Christian faith to the need to clamp down on insufficiently cowed liberals who just wanted to make fun of kids for loving Jesus, and Hartley proved himself a master at making readers feel weirdly guilty—especially readers like me, who were too innocent to pick up on the metaphors for pre-marital sex. (Musing that some guys sure do have funny ideas about “love,” Betty notes that Jughead says he “loves” oranges, but as soon as he’s gotten what he wants from an orange, “he throws it away!”) Hartley must have thought he could sugarcoat his hammer-headed messages by having them carried by the beloved Archie characters, but instead, he achieved the kind of confusing, disorienting, ultimately disturbing effect that the Air Pirates must have hoped to achieve when they depicted Mickey and Minnie Mouse boning. And instead of convincing me, as today’s Christian pop-culture industry is meant to convince kids, that I could have my God and eat it, too, his comics left me suspecting that the pop culture I was already interested in and the politicized Fundamental Christianity beginning to take shape around me were two different, ultimately incompatible flavors of strange.
“Secular” doesn’t even come close to describing the bacchanalian atmosphere in which I was raised. I won’t go into that, but suffice it to say, I wasn’t instilled with anything resembling a fear of God as a kid. By age 16, I considered myself quite the godless little communist. My burgeoning leftist-atheist mindset was given quite a shakeup, though, when I first heard The Housemartins. I was already a huge fan of The Smiths in high school; The Housemartins’ clever, jangly British pop felt instantly familiar. As I read more closely into the group’s lyrics, though, I was confronted with a horrifying truth: The members of The Housemartins were both socialist and Christian. I mean, they even covered gospel songs. My brain broke. How does one reconcile such polar opposites? And still manage to make great music? It led to a simple yet profound realization: You can believe whatever the hell you want to believe, dogma be damned. Perhaps there’s even a profound kind of beauty in paradox. I still consider myself an atheist, a socialist, and a Housemartins fan. Only now, it makes total sense to me. It doesn’t hurt that The Housemartins were as critical of organized religion—Christian or otherwise—as the pinkest of pinkoes.
I also had my religious upbringing challenged by Robert Heinlein, but in my case, it was Stranger In A Strange Land. I picked it up the summer after 7th grade, after working my way through the majority of his juvenile science fiction, and I can honestly say it changed my life. I was raised intermittently religious—meaning whenever we lived near my grandmother, the religion was poured on strong, less so when we lived farther away. But I harbored a few doubts that I was afraid to think too hard about. Stranger changed all that with its frank, unfettered discussion of the silliness, contradictions, and outright stupidity at the heart of the majority of the world’s religions. Not coincidentally, a short time later, I made a clean break from religion of all kinds (although I did dabble again in early adulthood before quitting the stuff for good) and for years, partly because of its huge impact on my young brain, Stranger was my favorite novel.
I feel like I’ve answered this question a dozen times already for this particular feature (to say nothing of the other times I’ve written about it for other features), but the act of questioning a long-held belief system can rarely be tied back to a singular event. It’s far more likely that there’s a gradual wearing away, a dam that disintegrates in slow motion, bits and pieces floating off in the overflow. But if there was one artwork that carried away more of that dam than any other for me, it’s got to be Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ, Superstar, a musical depiction of the passion of Christ that turns Jesus into kind of a dick for roughly half the show’s running time, before neatly pulling back and revealing that he’s kind of a dick because of the weight of what he has to do. In particular, “Everything’s Alright,” one of the best songs ever written for the musical theater, pedigree be damned, takes a New Testament passage where Jesus, weighted down with the knowledge that he’s about to die, has his feet washed, then castigates the disciples for worrying more about the poor than about him, given that he’s going to die soon, while the poor are always going to be around. Typing it out like that shows just how horrible Jesus can appear based on interpretation, but in the Bible, it’s a deeply sad, moving moment. In “Everything’s Alright,” however, Rice and Webber rip that open and show a Jesus who’s self-centered and vain, who ultimately doesn’t care about the poor as much as he cares about himself. And even as the listener starts to agree with Judas as he angrily rails against Christ, Rice and Webber take away that solid footing by making Judas a preening whiner. It’s a complicated, slippery bit of work, and it did a number on 13-year-old me. I thought Jesus was a great guy, but what if it was all a matter of perspective? What then? That question led to others, which led to others, which led me here. You never know when the dam will break.
As a New England Episcopalian, I was raised with beliefs a mile wide and an inch deep, which is to say that outside of church, Sunday school, and a pre-choir practice prayer, God never came up much. If anything I read was responsible for altering my views on organized religion, it was, appropriately enough, The Bible, as studied in a high-school class called “The Bible As Literature.” As my memory has it, my mind was blown on day one, when we were introduced to the concept of Biblical redactors—historical figures who assembled the Bible from a variety of sources rather than simply transcribing the infallible word of God. It doesn’t take long to find evidence for the theory, given that the Bible contradicts itself in the first two chapters of Genesis, offering accounts of creation that on the one hand lasts a week, and on the other, a day. Even if you argue that time as we know it didn’t exist at that point, there’s no reason for the Almighty to repeat himself. If, as Einstein said, God does not play dice, it’s hard to believe that he stutters.
As I was growing up, my parents were in the midst of their own religious uncertainties, leaving behind the Baptist faith they’d both grown up with and seeking out something a little closer to matching their core beliefs. In the end, we all ended up as Episcopalians, a faith I continue to embrace to this day, but to my parents’ credit, there was never any occasion where we were given the impression that being Baptist was somehow wrong. It was always more a case of looking for something just a little more right. That refusal to wholly dismiss a faith to which they didn’t entirely subscribe has always stuck with me, which is probably why I’ve always been very conscious of—and yes, annoyed by—those who do feel comfortable mouthing off about beliefs that don’t match their own. As such, I was taken aback when I first watched The Compleat Beatles and learned of John Lennon’s controversial comments about Christianity and his famous line about how he believed The Beatles meant more to their listeners than Jesus did. Weirdly, though, I remember being more disconcerted by Lennon’s apology for his comments, specifically his description of God as “a thing or whatever it is.” I think that may well be the first time I ever considered the possibility that God wasn’t a big white-haired guy with a beard, or a George Burns lookalike. That’s the Beatles for you: always expanding the minds of their listeners.
I’ve already mentioned in a previous AVQA about how I grew up Jewish in a town that had very few Jews in it; while it was tough all year round, the time of year where I felt the most out of place was during the Christmas season. It wasn’t only because my house was the only one on our block without lights, and it wasn’t just because I’d be asked the same questions about Hanukkah by all the goyim in my class every single year (a fun period of my life I wrote about in The Washington Post many years ago). No, what really got to me during that time were Christmas songs and carols. It could be secular stuff like “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” or religious-themed songs like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing;” it didn’t really matter. Not only did I hear them wafting over my head at every supermarket and shopping mall I went to, but since I was in both band and choir during my heady grammar-school years, I had to both sing the songs as well as blare them on my trumpet—I remember crying when I didn’t get first chair for “Hark.” Sure, we sung a few rounds of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” in music class as a token gesture acknowledging my presence, but for the most part, the music program at my school said to me, “You’re not one of us.” I definitely think it’s one of the reasons why I became so ambivalent about being Jewish, and why my connection to the religion is a weak, cultural tie, mostly involving the enjoyment of Eastern European potato-filled pastries, smoked salmon, and guilt.
Even though my parents aren’t all that religious—I think my dad identifies as agnostic, but he seems to lean pretty close to the atheist side of the belief continuum—they sent me to a Baptist preschool and kindergarten, a Lutheran church (my mom and I would attend our respective Sunday schools, but never stuck around for the real service), and a catch-all Christian elementary school. I went through various stages of believing strongly and not at all, but at the beginning of high school, I got bit by the God bug and got into my church enough that I started attending night meetings. I think I was just grappling with wanting to do things with girls that I wasn’t sure I should be doing when I was 14, and I was looking for a little moral guidance. Everything seemed to be working out pretty well until I began to notice how fixated my Lutheran church was on separating out who was going to heaven and who wasn’t—oh, you poor Mormons rotting in hell!—and I didn’t get the sense that they were all that keen on granting the “others” much respect in this life either. But the final straw was at one of those night meetings when we were shown some sort of scare-tactic video that included a bit about Mick Fleetwood being possessed by the Devil. Yes, the man behind the beat of such wicked hits as “Hold Me” and “You Make Loving Fun” apparently loves Satan. Actually, the idea was based around some dumb-ass hyperbolic quote Fleetwood had made about being taken over by a spirit (or something to that effect) while he was onstage, at which point the program showed a slow-mo Mick behind the drums sporting a most demonic look. The whole thing seemed pretty laughable even to my highly impressionable teenage brain, but the kids around me were eating it up. At the time, I was already pretty obsessed with music, and even though it took a while for me to come around to Fleetwood Mac, I knew right then and there that rock ’n’ roll was going to trump any fire ’n’ brimstone malarkey.
I don’t know whether this qualifies, but I grew up in a Reform Jewish household, attending Hebrew school and spending the first four years of my elementary career at the Milwaukee Jewish Day School. But when my parents got divorced and left me to be raised largely by the UHF channels on our tiny black-and-white television I masochistically devoured hour after hour after hour of Christian-television fire-and-brimstone sermons on the unimaginable horrors awaiting the non-saved in the fiery bowels of hell. In time, I came to see such shows as scare-mongering kitsch, but at the time, they scared the holy living fuck out of me. I was convinced I would burn in the fires of hell for being a heathen Jew, a fear that abated somewhat once I stopped forcing myself to watch the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world and grew up a little.
So many A.V. Club writers grew up Southern Baptist. Strange. But count me among them. As a kid, I had a low tolerance for blasphemy—and anything that even hinted at Satanism, but that’s another story. Fortunately, I also had a lot of curiosity and an interest in science fiction and comedy. Thus I sought out The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy as a 10-year-old. Which, if you’ll recall, contains this among its opening lines: “And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…” That seemed like such a flippant way to talk about Jesus that I returned the book to the library moments after checking it out. Then I went back a week later and checked it out again and read it. There’s really nothing blasphemous about that statement, but it opened a crack that let me think that there might be a different way of looking at the faith in which I’d been raised. It let in some healthy skepticism about untested beliefs, and I’m grateful for that to this day.