Each one of us has a personal mythology, central lived images that are the emotional, if not the literal, foundation of our stories, our poems, our artistic voices. They are our own hieroglyphs, carved in the bedrock of our emotional lives. A number of famous writers have said that they have spent their lives telling “the same story” over and over again, in different images, different plots, different tones.
~Pat Schneider, How the Light Gets In
I don’t remember a time when I was a child I didn’t get terrified of thunderstorms. We lived in the panhandle of northwest Florida, where the afternoons often brought a mixture of humidity and showers that made me tremble.
I loved the rain. It would make a normal day seem different, more alive, more contemplative. But the sounds coming from heaven terrified me. The bumping of the clouds frightened me.
Being raised a Jehovah’s Witness, I knew of the book of Revelation and the prophecy it predicted. The thunder and lightning always reminded me of those Armageddon images adults told me would come at any time. We would have to be on constant alert.
While some praise a child of eight or so for knowing the Bible so well, I am concerned. These images, the talks at church, the perpetual fear these pictures burned into my head were troubling for me as a child.
At the Kingdom Hall, we didn’t have a separate Bible school for kids where we could color Jesus’ face and have snacks or run around. Our church was a stern place where two-year-old babies would be smacked for not sitting still. I would be smacked for not sitting still and having my Bible open. We sat dutifully next to our parents. (Some justify this harsh parenting style at a church by believing this is the why their children didn’t get ADHD and learned to read “early” because we were always read to in church.)
No study of child psychology or development did this church encourage – it was a place to glorify Jehovah (God’s name according to JW). Yes, we had other children friends. Yes, we could get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, but the Kingdom Hall was not a child-friendly place.
I remember always standing next to my dad as he would bring microphones around for the question and answer part of the meeting. I would help him roll up the mic cords and put everything back in its place, wondering why an able-bodied female couldn’t help.
I remember being worried about being critiqued my dress wouldn’t be the right length or my bra straps would show.
I remember wondering why women couldn’t stand up in front of the crowd to give a sermon. I had interesting things to say. Mrs. Gayle had interesting things to say. She always raised her hand before most men during those audience participation parts, giving the most eloquent and cogent answers a young girl heard.
At 13, I remember thinking where are the women “thinkers” in the Bible? Where are my examples of women in power? What is the feminine form of Jesus? In church, I was surrounded by both man and woman, husband and wife, but there was no such arrangement in the authorities I was shown to worship. The woman on a throne was nowhere to be found. I felt unseen in the church. (I know – Ruth, the Good Samaritan, Mary, Esther, etc – but none of them had the same level of contemplation Jesus had.)
Once I found the words of The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, I finally understood what I was feeling:
First I noted that the lack of a divine feminine images supported an imbalance in our consciousness that diminished our wholeness as persons. The feminine goes underground in our psyches just as it does in our God. When this happens we exclude, overlook, and undervalue the feminine within ourselves and in the world around us. (138)
I remember counting the number of times the word “wrath” was used in Revelations during a boring sermon.
I remember how contradictory it was to me as a child I was forced to go knock on stranger’s doors to tell them about the end of the world coming, but any other time, it would be dangerous to talk to strangers.
There were times I would laugh when I would get a spanking. I would laugh when they would tell me it was because they cared for me, that Jehovah is good, and this is what he asks of parents.
But as a child, perhaps being of a simpler mind, it was if a highlighter singled out all the acts of violence I heard, read, and told were just. The words floated off the page like little SOS messages, sending me signs to question what they really meant. Words like “wicked,” “slaughter, “kill,” “destroy,” “plague,” “suffer- even children” scrambled around my head as a child. We were not allowed to join the military, but we could certainly enjoy a war in the scriptures.
I remember during a specific loud thunderstorm, running into my closet, begging God to take my whole family at once. How could I ensure no one would be left behind? How could I, a ten-year-old girl, guarantee my parents wouldn’t get murdered by God during Armageddon?
The only assurance offered were rules which described how to be a Godly servant. But I couldn’t remember all the dictates, let alone understand what some of the lessons meant. I couldn’t decode the metaphors. Would I be saved even though I couldn’t make sense of all of this?
Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined offers a theory regarding the cognitive dissonance Christians may experience when dealing with the violence in the Bible:
If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles. (11, Kindle Ed.)
Once again, the point of this discussion is not to accuse Christians of endorsing torture and persecution. Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people. Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado. The question is why they don’t, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good. The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology. When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years. But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful. (17, Kindle Ed.)
I can’t divide the Bible into wrathful God and peaceful God. For one, I wouldn’t know where to place the line. I can’t deny what I’ve read in the Bible, as a child and now as an adult. If Bible stories were made into movies, I would not let Larsen watch any of them. I wouldn’t fast forward through the violent scenes just to get to the good parts. I wouldn’t push play at all.
The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. People enslave, rape, and murder members of their immediate families. Warlords slaughter civilians indiscriminately, including the children. Women are bought, sold, and plundered like sex toys. And Yahweh tortures and massacres people by the hundreds of thousands for trivial disobedience or for no reason at all. These atrocities are neither isolated nor obscure. They implicate all the major characters of the Old Testament, the ones that Sunday-school children draw with crayons. And they fall into a continuous plotline that stretches for millennia, from Adam and Eve through Noah, the patriarchs, Moses, Joshua, the judges, Saul, David, Solomon, and beyond. According to the biblical scholar Raymund Schwager, the Hebrew Bible “contains over six hundred passages that explicitly talk about nations, kings, or individuals attacking, destroying, and killing others. . . . Aside from the approximately one thousand verses in which Yahweh himself appears as the direct executioner of violent punishments, and the many texts in which the Lord delivers the criminal to the punisher’s sword, in over one hundred other passages Yahweh expressly gives the command to kill people.” Matthew White, a self-described atrocitologist who keeps a database with the estimated death tolls of history’s major wars, massacres, and genocides, counts about 1.2 million deaths from mass killing that are specifically enumerated in the Bible. (He excludes the half million casualties in the war between Judah and Israel described in 2 Chronicles 13 because he considers the body count historically implausible.) The victims of the Noachian flood would add another 20 million or so to the total. (10, Kindle Ed.)
The genocide, rape, slaughter, torture – the extreme violence and inequities I see in many religions still scares me. I cannot unsee it or unhighlight it.
I try to assuage myself with more research, heartfelt supplication, dialogue with others, and constant reassessing, but it remains a crisis of my conscience. It motivates me to offer something different to my children.
For further reading: The Holy Bible, Appropriated: An Illustrated Scripture by Broomberg and Chanarin – “Violence, calamity and the absurdity of war are recorded extensively within The Archive of Modern Conflict, the largest photographic collection of its kind in the world. For their most recent work, Holy Bible, artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin mined this archive with philosopher Adi Ophir’s central tenet in mind: that God reveals himself predominantly through catastrophe and that power structures within the Bible correlate with those within modern systems of governance.” (http://www.mackbooks.co.uk/books/68-holy-bible.html)
The stress of striving for perfection plus the fear about family members not surviving caused me much harm. I didn’t get much time to be a kid.
I still mourn that little girl who had to dwell in such things.
The knots surrounding my issues with God are tightly wound and will take time to unravel. I will not take responsibility for the issues that were handed to me unfairly as a child.
Remembering, searching through it, writing it – this is my personal experience with religion. I won’t have it reduced to a tagline from the Bible. I won’t be spiritually gaslit by others “helping me to understand” or “solving the problem” of my lived experience by offering words such as:
- This isn’t really what happened.
- You were just a child – you can’t possibly remember this correctly.
- You were such a sensitive child.
- You were just exposed to the wrong religion.
- God is just ruler.
- You are only writing about half of God’s personality – what about his lamb-like qualities? his compassion?
- You are only reading the Old Testament.
- This struggle is to give you humility so you can get closer to God.
- Your quest for a feminine face of God is pure hubris.
- You are selfish to want for more than God has given you.
- You are just interpreting the Scriptures wrong.
- Satan is in you.
- Your heart is deceitful and not to be trusted.
- Do you even read the Bible?
- You were in a cult devised by Satan to deter you from God.
- You didn’t pray sincerely enough.
- You don’t have faith.
- Your education has brainwashed you away from God.
- Satan will promise you good things in order to lure you away from God.
- Why does this matter? Just be a mother like God wants you to.
- God has a plan. This happened to you for a reason.
My experience is not a question offered to be answered by proselytizing.
Religion can sometimes hurt us, silence us, shrink us instead of heal us.
I am a seeker. I am a mother. I will go ahead to clear the way. I will not have my children’s curiosity about the mysteries in life be overshadowed by inappropriate fear nor will their pursuit of an examined life be diminished by manipulation, mislabeling their searching as a lack of faith.
But I do know I will continually rewrite my religion “story” with “different images, different plots, and different tones” as my spiritual self deepens.
So it is in opening ourselves to mystery. If we stay knotted into our smallest measure of capacity, of course we cannot “go to the lengths of God.” But if we dare to open ourselves, we unfold like the winged creature emerging from a chrysalis…we unfold into love.
~ Pat Schneider, How the Light Gets In