“This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. 10 Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the alien or the poor. In your hearts do not think evil of each other.’
God Is Good. He Just Has To Be. – or – Plugging My Ears, Closing My Eyes and Screaming LA, LA, LA, LA…
So here’s a question we’ve probably all grappled with at one time or another: How much, and to what extent, does God interfere with our lives. Growing up I was assured that God had “a plan for my life” (in my strict, Calvinist church, God pretty much had a plan for everything). This was bolstered by that verse about all things working together for the good of those who love God. If some tragedy befell a member of our congregation, we were comforted with the assurance that it was all a part of God’s master plan.
I always found these words rang somewhat hollow. They were somehow disconcerting and they did little to salve the emotional pain I was experiencing. The explanation naturally begged the question of whether God initiated the bad stuff to bring about something better. This is where we tend to reach a theological impasse.
I have a friend who went through an ugly divorce – lies, unfaithfulness… the works. A few years later he met a girl who had been through a similar situation. They connected on an amazingly deep spiritual and emotional level and now they are planning to get married. He writes with relief and thankfulness that this was God’s plan all along – that God made him go through the suffering of the first marriage to lead him to this deeper, more loving second marriage.
While I don’t want to diminish in any way the joy my friend has found, this scenario sends my mind spinning in vicious theological circles. Could God initiate an adulterous relationship? Couldn’t God have just gotten these two together in the first place(he is supposed to be able to do anything) and if so, why would he choose to put my friend through so much pain? And finally, where do the ex-spouses and adulterers fit in to this picture? What is God’s plan for their lives and how does this sin that he may or may not have initiated fit in?
Another acquaintance recently went through the traumatic experience of a miscarriage. Her church friends, in an attempt to be supportive, assured her in notes and phone calls that this was all part of God’s plan, that the child was with God now and that it would all work out for good eventually. I couldn’t help but wonder if these notes were any comfort. After all, the mother doesn’t want her child to be with God, she wants the baby to be with her.
Then, of course, we could step back from our personal lives and look at natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile or Hurricane Katrina. While I think most of us would stop short alleging that these events were the judgment of God upon these people, some of us might feel theologically obligated to say, albeit reluctantly, that these natural events were part of God’s master plan.
I am going to go ahead and lay my position out there, theologically debatable as it may be: God did not cause the divorce, the miscarriage, or the natural disaster. My claim is based on three of the most widely held definitions of God. 1) God is love. 2) God is life. 3) God is light.
Perhaps all three of these fall under the category of God being ultimately “Good”. The creator of good. The definition of good. The embodiment of good. It is impossible for God to ‘sin’ and I would suggest that it is impossible even for him to initiate sin in humankind. If God is love, he cannot inspire adultery. If God is life, he cannot cause the death of an unborn child. And if God is light, he cannot initiate the darkness and destruction caused by disaster. All of these things are alien to God, the opposite of God and his Kingdom.
But God does intervene in our lives. I believe he initiated my friend’s new relationship. I believe he will give my other friend a child to love. And I believe that there have been and will be countless stories of love, compassion and faith in the midst of crisis emerging from disaster-stricken parts of the world.
Now I can anticipate the objection that this diminishes the sovereignty of God. I can also anticipate people throwing all sorts of Old Testament passages at me about plagues, wars, famines, etc. that seemed to be initiated by God.
I’ll admit I don’t have a defense here. All I can say is that I find it far more comforting to believe in a God who is all-good than a God who is all-powerful. In essence, I am reverting to the God of my childhood who comforted and protected you when bad stuff happened, rather than the mysteriously sovereign, rationally confounding God produced by countless hours of study, debate and theological reasoning.
This reversion to a childlike definition of God brings back another character from childhood who is often forgotten and seldom discussed: The Devil. Who is he? What role does he play in all of this? I think that’s a subject for a different post, but for now I’ll take this stand: God can bring good from a bad situation, but God can’t make a bad situation. That’s somebody else’s job.
The Cruelty of Calvinism – or – If We Go Around Acting Like We’ve Got Free Will All the Time, What’s the Point of Believing in Predestination?
I remember being 13 or 14 and sitting on one of the curbs at the edge of the parking lot of our church and having a heated discussion with my Sunday School teacher about the doctrine of ‘predestination’ which he had elaborated upon as part of a series on the five points of Calvinism, which my church wholeheartedly believed in.
I think I had the same reaction to it as most kids do when they are first confronted with this doctrine: That’s not fair. If God gives everyone the choice to follow him or to reject him, that’s fair. But if God has already picked the people who will at some point make the artificial ‘choice’ to believe in Jesus, then leaves the others to burn in hell, that’s not fair.
My Sunday School teacher explained that it was fair because we all deserve to burn in hell. So God picking some of us in his mercy to save was actually unfair to him, not us – it was a demonstration of what a loving God he really was.
But if he was such a ‘loving God,’ how could he leave anyone to burn in hell eternally? I understood that he was God and he wasn’t obligated to save anyone. But if he had the power to save anyone and everyone, why wouldn’t he do so?
This question provoked the most disturbing answer: “For his glory.” Those three words stick in my mind to this day. The idea is that without condemning the majority of people to hell, us lucky ones couldn’t fully understand the mercy he had bestowed upon us and hence, would not give God the respect and glory he deserved.
But why do we all deserve to go to hell? Well, that was the first point of Calvinism (in case I’d forgotten): Total Depravity. Basically, this means that because Adam and Eve ate that apple, we are all born into sin and thus, deserve to burn in hell for all eternity.
But wait. If God predestines all things, didn’t he predestine Adam and Eve to eat the apple? Right.
So what I’m getting from this conversation is that God decided to make some creatures to impress with the fact that he is God (besides angels, which he already had, and whose express purpose was to worship and glorify him). Then he decided that the best way to make these creatures glorify him was to create an artificial test that they were bound to fail, but that would give him the excuse to roast them in fire for all eternity. Then he would save a select group of these people who, when they saw what happened to their peers, would bow down and thank God eternally for not roasting them.
This was not the way to look at Calvinism at all, I was told. My pastor once used the analogy of a child who had been kidnapped and a father coming to rescue him. “Would the father say, ‘Son, I’m here to rescue you, but you have to do something first!’. Of course not. The father would come swooping in, scoop the child up in his arms, and bring him safely home.” This analogy made sense at first but the more accurate (and appalling) analogy , I contended, would be a father who had two sons kidnapped. He comes to the rescue, scooping one child up in his arms, but leaving the other behind because he wants the one he rescued to fully understand how important the rescue was and how awesome the father was for rescuing him.
My Sunday School teacher left the church shortly after our conversation in the parking lot that day. I wasn’t told why, but I’ve always thought it was a direct result of the theological impasse we had come to while sitting there, tossing pebbles at trees on the edge of the property.
That’s almost certainly not the case, but the point remains that the theology of my church never sat well with me and now, 15 years later, I’m finally calling it out in a (semi)public way. Predestination makes no sense. It’s a logical deduction theologians have made based on the assumption that God is all-powerful. However, all evidence that I can find points to a literal ‘battle’ between good and evil – not some artificial narrative God made up to pointlessly point out the fact that he is God to his own creation.
Starting with Genesis 1, Adam and Eve are given the ‘choice’ to eat the fruit of the ‘knowledge of good and evil’. They become ‘like God’ knowing the horrifying difference between the two – something God has known about for a long time already.
Then we have Israelites who are called over and over again to repentance. They are punished and rewarded for the ‘choices’ they make. All of the prophets’ pleading and begging and threatening is pretty pointless if God is just gonna smite whoever anyway.
Then we have Jesus who came into the world so that “WHOEVER believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.” This passage gives the impression that Jesus died for everyone, and that everyone has the freedom to choose to accept his sacrifice.
Then we’re called on to go around and let everyone know about this and offer them the choice to accept God’s forgiveness. My pastor used to decry the “hyper-Calvinism” of certain reformed churches that didn’t believe in evangelism, but isn’t this belief the logical conclusion of Calvinism? What’s the point of witnessing when God has already selected the people he will save?
A silly argument that I’ve heard over and over again is that by asking us to make the choice to believe in Jesus’s saving grace, we are diminishing God’s power and taking credit for our own salvation. Ridiculous! Did we live a life without sin? Did we die a horrible, horrible death? Of course not. All we did was believe that God did this for us. This is heroic equivalent of grabbing on to a life guard when he swims out to save us from drowning. In my opinion, it is much more insulting to God, much more a diminishing of his power, to suggest that he would need to create people with the illusion of free-will to torture and spare from torture just so he could feel good about himself.
Speaking of the illusion of free-will, there is, of course, what we call general revelation. One of the first things we understand as children is that we have the option to behave or misbehave. One question my brother and sister-in-law ask their daughter that demonstrates this is: “Are we going to make good choices today?” Arguably, the first way we understand our faith is that God is the ‘good guy’ and Satan is the ‘bad guy’ and that they are fighting with each other. We get to choose which side we want to be on. Also arguably, pretty much every single book, movie, television show, and video game ever created carries the theme of good vs. evil and the choices people make with regard to them.
What we come to understand, however, is that we can’t be good on our own. We will inevitably choose to act selfishly, to hurt others – even, and especially, the ones we love. We do all deserve to burn in hell when you come right down to it. That sounds offensive to a lot of people, but I challenge those people to look back and remember the most selfish, shameful thing you’ve ever done and see if you don’t feel like casting yourself into hell at that point. And that’s where God steps in. In the person of Jesus he lived perfectly, then credited that perfection to our account through his sacrifice on the cross. All we have to do is repent and accept his forgiveness. There are plenty of people who choose not to accept him, obviously. But we all have a conscience and we all know we’ve failed at being good; that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’
But he has offered us salvation. All we have to do is accept his mercy. It’s pretty incredible and God gets all the glory he wants and deserves.
Speaking of God the Father, I came across this passage a few months ago that really stood out to me as showing something of the true character of God. It’s when God meets with Elijah at a particularly frustrating point in his career as prophet in Kings 19.
“Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.”
I’ve meant to write about this one for a long time but have never really been able to fully grasp it. I really don’t have much to say about it except that I find it tremendously comforting and hope, maybe, you will too.
…if you call out for insight
and cry aloud for understanding,
4 and if you look for it as for silver
and search for it as for hidden treasure,
5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD
and find the knowledge of God.
So lately I’ve been depressed (and by lately i mean for the last ten years or so) as I consider the fact that no one seems to share my understanding of Christian faith. With all the various denominations and the myriad churches in the world, I feel like I ought to be able to find a group of people who espouse the faith and understand it exactly the way I do. I’ve visited dozens of churches, participated in numerous bible studies, and read lots of books but nobody’s precise view of faith, it seems, lines up exactly with my own.
Last night I watched an episode of ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’. Dog is a real-life bounty hunter who, with a team of family members, travels the country and gets paid to bring wanted criminals into custody. Dog is a total badass. He looks like Mickey Rourke except about 6 inches taller, 50lbs. heavier, and sporting a platinum blond mullet, the likes of which I’ve never seen paralleled in my 28 years.
Hot on the tail of a particular felon, Dog, his wife, two sons, and a few other team members strap on bulletproof vests and load their black suburbans with guns and other weaponry. “Let’s go get this asshole,” Dog says (or something to that effect – there are plenty of bleeps in the show). Then his wife says, “Aren’t you forgetting something?” When Dog responds with a blank look, his wife says matter-of-factly, “We didn’t pray.”
The family proceeds to circle up, join hands, and Dog prays for blessing and protection upon themselves and their targets. “In Jesus name, Amen,” Dog says. Then it’s off to get those mother f-ers.
This pre-attack prayer was definitely unsettling, especially if you’ve never seen the show and don’t know that this is how the group routinely operates. But as the hunt progresses, one gets to witness this seeming paradox in action.
At one point, while Dog is searching an apartment complex for his target, he stumbles upon a couple having a domestic dispute which has worked its way out onto the balcony of the building. Dog feels it is his duty to intervene. He questions the couple, the woman holding a 1 year old baby all the while.
“Did he fucking hit you?” he demands. “Did you fucking hit her?” He turns to the man. Then his tone suddenly shifts. “Don’t you love her? Isn’t she important to you? Look at her. She’s beautiful. How could you hit a woman like that?”
The discussion goes on for a while and Dog refuses to leave until the couple hug one another and the man vows to give up drinking and never to hit his girlfriend again. “Cause if you do, I’ll come back and beat the shit out of you,” he concludes. And he’s serious. He gives the woman his card so she can call him if her boyfriend gets out of hand. He vows to personally return and beat the shit out of this man. But for now, the couple is reconciled.
Dog is by no means inconspicuous. His crew seems to be as much about style as they are about substance. This is evidenced most clearly in Dog’s wife, who sports a camo tank-top, leather pants, stiletto heals (in which she is surprisingly agile) and a pair of hot pink handcuffs to top it all off. The crew role into a housing project 12-strong in shiny, black suburbans and proceed to make a big scene and I wonder how they ever catch anyone being so noisy.
The suspect is not at home. But they talk to the building’s superintendent who tells them how the man beats his wife and comes home drunk all the time. The suspect happens to cruise by. A chase ensues with no success. Then, finally, on a hunch, Dog decides to lead the entire brigade right back to the housing project, theorizing that the suspect will try and grab some stuff from his apartment before taking it on the lam.
Everyone in his family thinks he’s crazy, but he turns out to be right. The suspect, along with his battered girlfriend and child are cornered in the parking lot.
Dog’s sons do the dirty work. “Get on the ground! Put your fucking hands in the air!” And Dog’s wife has a few choice words for the suspect. Her tirade lasts quite a while but can be summarized as “you are a worthless, wife-beating piece of shit.”
But after all the physical rough-housing and verbal smackdown, everyone sort of calms down. Dog gives the suspect a cigarette and starts up a conversation, reassuring him that he’s doing the right thing by facing the music. His wife counsels the suspects girlfriend on places she can go to get help, how she can turn her life around. And the episode ends with Dog riding in the backseat of the Suburban with his suspect, giving him advice on how to turn his life around and what kinds of jobs he can get when he gets out of prison. Dog admits that he, himself, is a convicted felon and tells how he was able to make something of himself.
I think that what I like about Dog is that he is so human in so many ways. He is decidedly Christian and he has the desire to do good in the world. He talks about how he wants to get at these suspects before the police do because he wants to talk to them. He has a message to deliver, and it’s that you can be forgiven and you can turn your life around. At the same time, he has the ability to get really pissed off at people when they do bad stuff. And he has no qualms giving these people a good thumping if he deems it necessary. The shift back and forth between these modes is bizarre and unsettling. One minute he’s pinning someone to the ground calling them a motherfucker. The next minute they’re hugging (you’d be surprised how many people end up getting hugged in this show).
But when I think about it, I can see a lot of Dog in myself. I am a Christian and as such, I strive to be Christ-like, which means being humble, merciful, forgiving and loving. But when I read certain unsettling stories in the news such as the story of the kidnapping and 18-year imprisonment of that little girl in California this past week, I am filled with rage. Dog’s foul language seems not to jive with his Christianity, but when I read about these people, the same words leap to my mind. I want to see those people pay. I want to see them punished for the evil they’ve done. Perhaps these dual drives reside in all of us, but unlike most of us, Dog lives them out on a daily basis.
But perhaps, also, this explains something about God.
Personally, I have always struggled to reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the Jesus of the New Testament. I know a lot of Christians and non-Christians who have also had difficulty with this issue. They just seem so different. One is often angered and prone to strike out in wrath. The suffers humbly and turns other turns the other cheek. One demands sacrifices for atonement. The other boldly forgives peoples’ sins. How can they be the same person?
In a way, Dog solves this confusion for me. Watching him display these conflicting impulses from moment to moment helps personify it, makes it relatable. And, strangely, it’s comforting for me to think of God as being a lot like Dog. He cares about us and loves us. He wants what’s best for us. But when he sees the horrible crap that we do to each other he gets pissed. And he has no qualms about laying a righteous beat-down on your stupid ass when you get out of hand. But, like Dog, he’s always ready to hug us, to welcome us back into the fold, to accept our repentance, give us another chance and love us no matter what.
But I desire to speak to the Almighty
and to argue my case with God.
An article I read recently about how young evangelicals are moving away from the religious right made me think. Certainly, I have abandoned my conservative evangelical roots to a large degree in recent years. For the last 10 years I’ve staunchly stood by the claim that I am a true independent. But recently I’ve stepped back and evaluated my life and it seems all the evidence suggests that I am, in fact, a liberal. What’s sadder is that I can’t help it. I just like the wrong people and the wrong things.
I like the media. I like newspapers and magazines. The first thing I do in the morning is log on to multiple news sites and willingly subject myself to all of the liberally tainted contents therein.
Similarly, I like journalists and journalism. Two of my best friends are journalists. And not for Fox News. In fact, I like journalism so much that I minored in the subject in college. Not only that, but I was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. And I enjoyed it!
I like NPR. I appreciate the in-depth news coverage. I even made a donation once. I like ‘On Point with Tom Ashbrook’, ‘Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me’ and ‘This American Life.’ All of it left-leaning and publicly funded! For shame.
I like 3o Rock. I think the show is brilliant. I laugh at Alec Baldwin’s satirical portrayal of a conservative.
Not liberal enough for you? How about this?
I like The Daily Show. I think Jon Stewart is funny. And not in a “he’s a great comedian, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about” kind of way. I actually think he makes a lot of good points!
I like Boston. Moving up to ‘Taxachussetts’ is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. I have a wife, a job, a ton of friends with whom I hang out and play sports and party liberally. Even if I left Boston, it wouldn’t help because…
I like The Ocean. There’s really no chance of me getting away from living in a blue state (with the possible exceptions of Savannah, GA or SC or FL if they swing back the other way).
Think all this is bad? It gets worse.
I like theater. On certain evenings, I have a strange penchant for going out and watching flamboyant liberals prance around on stage. I even studied playwriting at Boston University. So not only do I like watching plays, but I like writing them too. And when they are produced, I just give more flamboyant liberals more reason to prance around in front of impressionable crowds.
I like punk rock. I know in its original form it espoused anarchy (which takes the conservative notion of ‘small government’ to its ultimate extreme) but over the years punk has repeatedly railed against social conservatism, conservative politics and the church. Bad Religion is my favorite band. They are atheists, for crying out loud! Do you know what it’s like to grow up a Christian and have Bad Religion be your favorite band? Talk about an identity crisis.
But wait, there’s more.
I like academics and academia. I loved college – the classes, the new experiences, the ivory towers of liberalism. In fact, I even taught in the left-leaning halls of the university system for several years as an adjunct professor of English. Talk about a damning resume.
I like Barack Obama. I voted for that ‘extreme liberal socialist’. (For the record, I liked McCain too. I thought he could’ve been a great president and I wish the Republicans had nominated him back in 2000 when he ran against Bush in the primaries. But of course he was considered too liberal in a lot of ways.). But, yeah, I voted for Obama. Obama! I liked the way he conducted his campaign, but worse yet, I liked his ideas. I actually felt like if they were put into practice, America would improve! I don’t know why I didn’t feel frightened of terrorists or outraged by immigrants. I don’t know why I didn’t feel the current flushing us down the toilet of moral decay. The liberal media probably blinded me to it.
I like Wikipedia, which I’ve heard is secretly run by liberals. But I think it’s probably the greatest website ever invented. I’m blind to the way it’s subtly brainwashing me.
I like Kurt Vonnegut – without reservation. He is probably my favorite author.
As I scan through my life – the ins and outs, the daily rituals – I’m hard-pressed to find anything in my life that I enjoy that could be considered properly conservative. I like the Economist, which is supposedly right-wing but what’s right-wing in the UK is a lot different than what’s right-wing here in the states. I like Jesus, who I grew up believing was a conservative, but he seems more liberal to me all the time – telling us to give all our stuff to the poor and freely extending his grace to people who haven’t even worked to earn it. It’s like some kind of forgiveness welfare program.
About the only thing I can say I definitely like that I know a lot conservatives also like is fishing. Consider it my way of reaching across the aisle.
It’s been oddly refreshing to let go of all the pretense and just flat out admit that I’m a liberal. It’s something people have probably suspected about me for a while, but I’ve never admitted it to myself. What’s more refreshing is the realization that it’s really not my fault. Maybe it’s some sort of genetic deffect or a yet-to-be classified disorder. But I just have an innate tendency toward the wrong stuff and the wrong people. So until they find a way to shut down the ‘liberal gene’ I guess I just have to accept who I am and try to make the best of each day.
It was the first day of my senior year of high school. I remember it had been a really crappy day. The excitement of being an upperclassman had worn off during junior year and now it just seemed like I had to ride out another year before I could escape to college.
The day was over and I walked out to the student parking lot with my friends Jon, Bob and Mark. It was a beautiful, sunny early September day and I was thankful to have the first day of what promised to be an awful senior year over with. The four of us came down the hill toward our cars and Andy came cruising past in his old, gray Jeep Cherokee. Hanging on to the back door through the open window was Ryan being pulled along on his skateboard.
I don’t know what drove me to chastise Ryan for his recklessness as if I were an adult, but I remember I called out sarcastically, “Yeah, real cool Ryan!”
About two seconds later he went down. Hard.
At first it was a collective “OOOH” that typically follows a hard hit in any given sport. But he rolled once and came up on his knees, shaking violently. His shirt was ripped and his back was all scratched up from the asphalt. He was shaking really hard and a second later a river of blood rushed from his forehead and down his face. That’s when we knew it was serious.
Next thing I remember we were back up the hill. For some reason after school the doors were locked from the inside so students could go out but couldn’t get back in. So the four of us were there banging on the locked door and hollering. There was this really young, cute teacher – I can’t remember her name now, but we all had crushes on her. She saw us banging and she gave us a look like, ‘You know your not supposed to get back in after you leave school.’ But as she got closer I guess she got the sense that we were serious and she opened the door.
We burst through and ran right past her toward the main office. I think Mark asked one of the secretaries if the nurse was still in. She said yes and everyone took off running toward her office. I was the only one who heard the secretary say, ‘But she’s in a meeting in Ms. Reidmiller’s room.’ So I did an exaggerated about face and took off in the opposite direction. No one followed me.
There were a bunch of teachers in this meeting and when I burst in the door they all looked at me like they were getting ready to yell at me for interrupting. I couldn’t figure out what to say. Or which one of them to say it to. I didn’t know how to convey the urgency of the situation. I tried to stay calm and just explain everything and I remember it took them a while really grasp that Ryan needed help right away.
I rushed back to the parking lot. Ms. Castiglia was hustling down the hall behind me and I remember for some reason stopping and trying to hold the door for her. ‘Just go, Jon,’ she said and I took off back down the hill as if there was something else I could do. By this time a crowd had gathered and Ryan had gone into convulsions. His mouth was full of blood and some of his teeth had been knocked out in the fall. I remember one of the teachers kneeling beside him, holding his head and then it’s all a blur until the ambulance was ready to leave.
The nerdy science teacher was carrying a back pack toward the ambulance and I remember thinking, ‘Hey, that looks like my backpack.’ Turned out it was my backpack. I must have ditched it when I started my run toward the building and I hadn’t even thought of it since. I remember awkwardly breaking past the sort of police line that had been set up and having to ask the teacher for my bag back.
My anatomy teacher, Mr. Lusto, was asking me what had happened and I remember one of the EMTs saying to him, ‘We just have to hope for the best,’ and thinking that was an odd thing to say. It sounded strangely bleak considering this was just a skateboarding accident.
That night I was at CVS stocking up on school supplies and I ran into my friend Paul’s father. He asked me about Ryan and the accident and I told him how I was there and was the one of the people who had gone to get help. “Wow, Jon,” he said. “You might have saved his life. You’re a hero.” I said I didn’t know about that and I was sure it wasn’t that serious.
I honestly never expected Ryan to die. Even the next morning at school I was poised for another normal, boring, crappy day. I was even smiling and joking in the hall when Perry came up and told me the doctors had given him 24 hours. ’24 hours til what?’ I asked, genuinely thinking he might mean he’d be out of the hospital in 24 hours.
The day was surreal. Through most of it I still believed he wouldn’t die. The young, cute teacher stopped me in the hall and apologized for not opening the door sooner. For a brief, strange moment I was comforting her, telling her it was alright and there’s no way she could have known. Later that afternoon we found out he had died. The impact of the fall caused swelling in his head that couldn’t be stopped. It ended up basically cutting off the circulation to his brain and that was the end of it.
We gathered at my friend Garrett’s house. His parents were great. They just let like twenty kids hang out in their backyard and they didn’t bother us except to bring us hot dogs and sodas. Ryan was part of the grungier sect of high school kids. I was on the fringes of his group of friends, being a member of another punk band. But because I was there at the accident they made sure to include me. Lots of kids were smoking cigarettes and we went from crying to laughing over and over again as the evening wore on. Some guys were playing guitars and some were kicking a soccer ball around and things were starting to seem like they were gonna be okay.
Then somehow my mother appeared. I had left her a message telling her I’d be at Garrett’s but as far as I knew she had no idea where Garrett lived. She found out some way or another and I think when she saw all of us kids there she just sort of lost it. She came up to me with tears running down her face, her make-up all messed up, and hugged me and said, ‘I’m sorry about your friend’. I had done my best to hide my more motley friends from her and I was definitely aware of all the cigarette smoking going on. But in that moment my mom didn’t care about that at all and for that I’ve always been appreciative. We talked a little and I told her I’d be alright and she eventually left and I stayed and we hung out long into the night.
It was Friday morning when I had my first panic attack. They announced in homeroom that Ryan had passed away and that anyone who felt like it could gather in the auditorium with a few teachers and a counselor. So we were down there hanging out and I hadn’t really cried yet. Honestly, I hadn’t been that close to Ryan. It was my proximity to the accident and my role in alerting the authorities that caused all these kids to reach out to me. (Before this experience we had all just been acquaintances. They became some of my best friends.) Anyway, so it wasn’t when I thought about Ryan being gone that I cried. It wasn’t when I remembered him writhing on the blacktop. It wasn’t the accident or the blood or the death itself that made me lose it. It was when I thought of pounding on that door. It was the moment when I couldn’t get in the building, when I was waiting for that teacher to open the door. When I thought of that moment I just started heaving and wailing – hyperventilating, etc. It wasn’t a sorrow or a mourning cry. It was a cry of desperation and panic. So I was sitting in an auditorium chair in the front row when the first one of these hit me. It was surprising and I couldn’t control it and Pete Krulikowsky, who I barely even knew at the time, came and sat next to me and just put his arm around me until I calmed down.
Those flashbacks lasted a few months. For a while I wondered if I’d ever get over them. I remember coming home from Garrett’s on Saturday night and trying to explain the phenomenon to my parents, who had already gone to bed, telling them it was okay and I just wanted to let them know about it in case it happened unexpectedly while they were around.
The funeral was Saturday and it was packed. The line was out the door. I had gone through and paid my respects and shook Ryan’s parents’ hands, just saying that I was a friend of Ryan’s. When I came outside I sat down on the grass and started bawling. This girl Jen Berkowitz, a blond cheerleader who had known Ryan since Kindergarten but probably hadn’t hung out with him in years, another unlikely savior, knelt down in front of me.
“I wanted to tell them I was sorry,” I cried to Jen. “I wanted to tell them I did everything I could. I tried to get help. I ran as fast as I could. I tried to save him. I just wanted to tell them I was sorry.” She just knelt there in front of me for a while with her hands on my shoulders. I looked up at her with tears in my eyes. “Do you want to go back in?” she asked me. I said no. Then she asked, “Are you looking at my cleavage?” What? No! “You can see right down my dress, can’t you?” she said with mock-outrage. I could see right down her dress, actually. I started to laugh. She had noticed her exposure before I did and she went on to scold me even though she didn’t move or make any attempt to hide her cleavage from me. She just went on, “I can’t believe you’re looking at my boobs right now!” I guess she didn’t really know what to say so she used the one thing she had that she knew could cheer a guy up. We both were cracking up and eventually we stood up and left.
Finally, it was Sunday and I headed off to church with my family. My parents’ friends, my pastor and my youth leader had all heard the news. I looked forward to being comforted by the people in the congregation I had known since I was a little kid. I craved the prayer the pastor would surely pray from the pulpit on my behalf. I knew I’d find comfort in the church with my fellow believers.
So I shared the story during prayer request time in our teen Sunday school. People came up to me and said, “Sorry to hear about your friend. Was he Christian?” Thanks. No. I don’t think so. At this, they would frown or grimace. “Have you gotten any chances to witness to anyone because of it?” they asked me. No. Sorry. I think we’re just still trying to just deal with it, you know?
“And we pray for Jon, who’s friend passed away this week,” the pastor prayed from the pulpit. “We pray that this would remind us all of how our time on this earth is limited. And how it can be taken away at any moment. And we pray that Jon would find the opportunity to share the Gospel with the kids in his school through this experience.” This was not the prayer I had anticipated. I don’t know what I was hoping for but I hadn’t considered any of this as an ‘opportunity to evangelize’. And the ‘life lesson’ I had heard so many times felt even further removed, even more empty and generic, when it was in reference to something so close to me.
Nobody seemed to understand that I had just watched someone die in front of my face. No one seemed to understand that I had shouted what might very well have been the last words he ever heard. No one seemed to understand that I had seen his teeth lying on the ground next to him while he shook and foamed at the mouth. No one seemed to understand that I was having panic attacks every time I was reminded of my inability to get through that door and get help.
I didn’t go back to church that night for evening service. I couldn’t take it. I went back to Garrett’s house and just sat in the backyard. I didn’t find comfort in the people or the prayers. I found it in Pete Krulikowsy’s arm around my shoulders. And in Jen Berkowitz’s cleavage. I found more comfort in my grungy, cigarette-smoking friends with their guitars and crude jokes than in the ‘love and support’ of people I’d grown up with in the church for 17 years.
I don’t remember praying at all during that time, though I’m sure I must have tried. Maybe I didn’t reach out to God but I felt like this was one time he could’ve taken the intiative and reached out to me. It was radio silence from heaven during that time. If we’re supposed to have a ‘personal relationship’ with God, if Jesus is supposed to be our friend… well, what kind of friend deserts you in a time like that? My church failed me. My faith failed me. God failed me. And deep down, I still hold it against him to this day.
I have an unsubstantiated, somewhat out-there theory regarding some possible socio-political influences on my Evangelical upbringing. Basically, I blame the 1970’s.
Now I wasn’t around for any of the 70’s, so all of my primary sources are the films of that particular decade. But something happened during the 70’s that gave a lot of people from my parents’ generation cause to do some major life reevaluation and ultimately turn to Jesus. And I think there are a lot of clues in these movies.
Recently, I was watching the 1976 film Network when it dawned on me: The 70’s sucked! This fantastic movie contains the iconic quote, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it any more!” This, I think, is how a lot of people felt during the seventies and the phrase served as a rallying cry for the masses in Network as people watched and identified with the ravings of a news anchor descending into madness. The film also features a violent, ultra-left terrorist group, early discontent with globalisation as a major American corporation is sold to Saudi Arabian investors, and the dramatic desensitization of people through popular media.
I don’t want to give away the ending, but let’s just say the film does not end happily. Then I started to think about other movies from the 70’s. The Godfather. Godfather II. The French Connection. China Town. Apocalypse Now. Taxi Driver. Godfather I and Taxi Driver have arguably the happiest endings of all, but that’s not saying much. SPOILER ALERT – Michael wins his war on the five families but is still left without a father or brother. And the praise for DeNiro’s character’s heroism in Taxi Driver seems tacked on, especially since we know he’s more angry than courageous, simply disgusted by the moral emptiness of the city.
Happy endings were hard to come by in the seventies. The films were mostly dark both in color and subject matter. The line between hero and villain was often blurred. They were largely bleak and devoid of hope. Compared to these movies the Gospel message must have been pretty appealing.
That’s actually why the original Star Wars movie was such a big hit in 1979. After a decade of tragic endings and moral ambiguity, the American Public was ready for a straightforward, action-packed, good vs. evil, western/martial arts movie that happened to take place in outer space. Star Wars, to its original audience, was an enormous breath of fresh air.
But that was after an entire decade of suckiness. It seems to me that the some pretty exciting stuff happened during the 60’s but it kind of peaked at Woodstock and it was all downhill from there. The things that the 60’s romanticized took an ugly turn in the next decade. Happy hippies twirling in fields via recreational drug use gave way to an epidemic of crack addiction in major cities. The sexual liberation of the 60’s was replaced by an HIV/AIDS panic, explicit pornography and discos where people would apparently do coke and have sex with each other (if the E! True Hollywood stories are to be believed). Fortunately, we’ve classed things up a bit now.
And weren’t there a lot of serial killers in the seventies too? Two more contemporary movies, Summer of Sam and Zodiac, remind me of this fact. Worse still, you had Charles Manson using the lyrics of Beatles’ tunes as motivation for his murders. Talk about ruining the sixties.
Annie Hall demonstrates how throwing off the shackles of society’s rules to seek your own happiness devolved into a neurotic over-obsession with self-actualization. The characters all follow their ‘analysts’ advice and end up jeopardizing their own happiness by over-thinking it. Even comedies didn’t have happy endings in the seventies. Ugh.
In a way our culture has returned to morality a bit since then. We don’t have much ultra-left-wing violence. Protests, at least in our country, maintain relative peacefulness. We don’t do drugs or have sex in public (at least its not a prominent thing, anyway). We’ve cleaned up Times Square (a pretty apt metaphor I think for removing ‘sin’ from the public space or at least the public eye) and I think we’ve realized as a culture that some amount of restraint is desirable in both public and private life.
My parents have always said ‘liberal’ as if it was a dirty word. I have to admit I’ve been somewhat baffled by this. But I think when my parents rant and rave about ‘liberals’, they have the seventies in mind. The seventies were about as ‘liberal’ as I can imagine. The were ‘liberal’ to excess. And I believe most of our parents acted pretty ‘liberally’ in the seventies and then thought better of it.
So for having lived through the seventies, which as far as I can tell completely sucked, I suppose I need to cut my parents some slack. But I think also that they need to recognize that that era is over. The United States has changed. Movies today by and large have happy endings. And even the raunchy comedies (Knocked Up, Superbad) end up coming down on the side of love, family values, loyalty and moral choice. These days, the good guys win. Our society has learned from its mistakes. We’ve grown. We’ve compromised.
It’s time to forget the stupid, sucky seventies and move on. And that may mean stepping back and reconsidering our faith on contemporary terms; viewing it in a less reactionary way. It’s not as simple as an us vs. them mentality anymore. The secular world is no longer spiraling down a liberal toilet bowl as I was taught growing up. And while that makes things more complicated, I think it’s ultimately something to be thankful for. It’s a new challenge. And it’s our responsibility to step up.
Correction: The original Star Wars was released in 1977, after not quite an entire decade of suckiness, not 1979 as previously reported in the above post.