ErikaRae_2010Erika Rae knows a lot more about the Bible than most people. She was a devoted and educated Evangelical Christian for all of her childhood, adolescence, and early college years. Today she is a devoted memoirist whose writing is frank, humorous, compassionate, and tolerant of all people. Like many smart women I know, Erika writes and thinks about sex, too. If you haven’t read Erika’s hilarious and insightful memoir, DEVANGELICAL, yet, check it out soon!

 Who is the sexiest person in the Bible?

Chapter 2: Magic Menstrual Mummies

I’d never heard of pheromones when I was ten. All I knew was that each month the large wicker basket in the bathroom on the middle floor of our chalet filled with softball sized, tightly wound wads of toilet paper. These tissue bundles were evidence that—in biblical terms—the time of Our Girls’ Monthly Uncleanness was once again upon them.

I LAY IN BED listening to the waves crashing on the beach, and the splat-splat-splat of rain spattering the on sidewalk outside. Clouds over the ocean. Wind in the twisted cypress. If I closed my eyes, I could hear mold growing. The ground was a humid sponge that never dried out but kept decomposing underfoot. The windowpanes by my bed sprouted hairline fractures of dark green. It was so moist, the linoleum sagged like mushy Rice Crispies. Even clean cotton sheets fresh from the dryer quickly assumed the sweet-sour fragrance of curdled milk. Nature was a magician; it caused wood to bend and glass to sweat.

I broke up with God. The breakup was devastating. It was like a divorce when all the friends you had as a couple are forced to choose sides and end up not choosing yours. It was like waking up in an empty bed in an empty house. It was like someone I loved died. It was like when Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of James, and Salome arrive at Jesus’s tomb with spices to anoint his dead body, and they find the stone rolled back, and they look inside the cave, and he’s gone.

“God loves you,” church signs announce when I drive by. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, Jesus says when he’s asked which commandment is the greatest, and in the river, when he’s baptized, God claims Jesus as beloved. It’s the best love story ever told: God chooses you, sacrifices for you, kills for you, knows you, sees you, saves you. No wonder losing my religion felt like heartbreak.

Still, I hesitate to call what happened to my faith a breakup. I’m not completely comfortable portraying it as a love affair gone wrong. Figuring it as a romance seems simultaneously so medieval-mystic, so patriarchal, so oedipal that it makes me cringe. Even worse, calling it a breakup means I have to come out: I have to admit to myself and to the rest of the world the kind of God I loved—namely, a man. I’m a feminist theologian. Saying out loud that I believed in a male God is like a yoga teacher smoking a pack of cigarettes every day between classes behind the studio. So let’s get that part out of the way: I believed in a male God. I loved him. I needed him. Sometimes he was gentle and kind. Sometimes he frightened me.

You could say God and I lived together, which made it hard for me to admit the relationship was over. Staying was easier than looking for a new place to live. God might have been invisible, but he took up a lot of space, and I had never been alone. Sure, the passion had gone out of our relationship, and he wasn’t who I thought he was anymore, but we were still comfortable together. Habits, routines, rituals. If you’d gone out to dinner with us, you wouldn’t have noticed that anything was wrong, but we definitely didn’t run home to tear each other’s clothes off. Sometimes we stay with what we know—even if it makes us miserable, even if it makes us feel small—because it’s familiar. It’s not that misery loves company, it’s that we’re willing to be miserable if it means we’ll have company. I was afraid of being by myself. A dead relationship seemed better than coming home to an empty house.

My relationship with God was never casual. When it began to unravel, I was going through the ordination process to become an Episcopal priest. I was the youth minister at a church in a suburb of Boston and a doctoral student in theology at Harvard. You might say God and I were engaged and the wedding was planned—church reserved, menu chosen, flowers arranged. Calling it off would be awkward.

Breaking up with God meant letting go of someone I had believed in, loved, and built my life around, so I hung on for a long time because I was scared of what would happen if I let go. My relationship with God was connected to everything—my family, my friends, my sense of justice, my vocation, my way of being in the world. I lost more than belief. I couldn’t go to the places we used to go anymore. I couldn’t use our special language. I couldn’t celebrate the same holidays. I even had to trade red wine for beer. People say you can use a simple mathematical formula to figure out how long you will feel like shit after a breakup: one month of pain for every year you were together. God and I were together for my entire life. Thirty-four years. Which translates into thirty-four months of post-breakup misery.

Almost three years.

 

 

Excerpted from BREAKING UP WITH GOD by Sarah Sentilles. Copyright © 2011 by Sarah Sentilles.  Used with permission of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.

 

Many reviewers have described Breaking Up with God as “brutally honest.” Do you wish you had been less forthright (or even fibbed some) when writing your memoir?

I am a terrible liar. I can’t lie to save my life, so it would have been impossible for me to write a memoir that wasn’t true. I have asked reviewers what they meant when they called my book “honest,” and most responded by pointing out that it is unusual for people to make themselves look bad in their own writing, which made me realize that being called honest is not necessarily a compliment. I didn’t write the book to create a flattering version of myself (I hope the author photo does that work for me). I wrote the book to try to understand how I went from almost being a priest to not calling myself a Christian anymore. That said, I understand that memoirs—like identities, like theologies—are constructions.

 

What do your parents think about your breakup with God?

It doesn’t bother them at all that I no longer call myself a Christian. They raised me with a healthy dose of suspicion and taught me to be a critical thinker who asks questions. They understand that the book is about breaking up with a particular version of God—the man in the sky who watched over me and protected me when I was good and punished me when I was bad—not about breaking up with all versions of God. My parents have always cared more about what I do with my life than about what I believe, a sentiment that is mirrored in the sorts of theologies to which I tend to be attracted. I sent them a draft of my book before it was published. I thought that was a fair thing to do given they both make appearances in the book. My mother was not upset at all about my journey out of institutional Christianity. She was, however, mortified that “everyone in the world” was going to read about me having sex in the back seat of a car.

 

Do you think you’re going to hell?

I don’t believe in hell. I also don’t believe in a God who would send someone to hell based on whether or not they believed in God or that Jesus was the son of God. That seems very narcissistic to me. I can’t stake my life—or my afterlife—on a God who would peer inside my mind and look only for himself. Enough about me, I imagine this God saying. What do you think of me? I also don’t understand why we need to invent an afterlife when there are already so many people suffering in various forms of hell on earth. I am much more concerned with trying to end suffering now.

 

What if you’re wrong?

I think “What if I’m wrong?” is the most important question we can ask ourselves. I call myself an agnostic. Although “agnostic” is a philosophical term, I claim it for primarily ethical reasons. My mentor at Harvard, the theologian Gordon Kaufman, taught me that the question of God’s existence is not a question human beings can answer. As a result, it’s time to start asking different theological questions: How are we to live? To what causes should we devote ourselves? How will we make the world a more just and life-giving place for everyone? It seems to me that we get in the most trouble and do the most violent things to other people, animals, and the environment when we forget that our ideas about God might be wrong. This is one of the biggest dangers that can come with religious belief—instead of recognizing that God is a mystery and that no human being can speak for God, some believers put their own words in God’s mouth. They use God as a way to justify mistreating others.

 

You’re a theologian who doesn’t believe in God. How does that work?

You don’t have to believe in God to be a theologian—just like you don’t have to be a politician to study political science or a bird to study ornithology. The word “God” is out in the world doing all kinds of work, good and bad, liberating and oppressive, and I understand my role as a theologian to be evaluating the effects of people’s beliefs. My theological project is both critical and constructive. I don’t really care what we believe; I care how our beliefs influence the way we live in the world.

 

You’re a scholar of religion. Do you have any marketable skills?

I am really good at reading. Is that marketable?

 

No. Reading is not a marketable skill. Name three things you are good at doing.

Reading, grammar, and predicting how much my groceries will cost in the checkout line.

 

Name three things you are not good at doing.

Skeet shooting, orienteering, and acting.

 

What does your writing practice look like?

I do my best writing early in the morning. It is imperative that I start writing before my critical brain is awake, before my censor starts telling me my writing sucks, my book is stupid and makes no sense, and I should just give it up and stop pretending to be a writer. So much of writing—so much of any creative activity—is about cutting through self-doubt and self-sabotage to make your way to the page. I have to work hard to get out of my own way. I have to work hard to trust myself.

 

What are you writing now?

I am writing a novel about a conscientious objector during World War II. I am also working on two edited volumes—one about Christianity and torture and one about artists’ responses to torture.

 

You spend a lot of time writing about torture. You must be fun to hang out with.

Is that a question?

 

Are you fun to hang out with?

It depends.

 

Do you think you and God will ever get back together?

It’s possible, I guess, but unlikely. Right now we’re seeing other people.

What is Jon Stewart really like?

I’d really prefer to talk about my book, if that’s OK.

 

Fine, whatever. So you’re a secular, New York Jew, right? What made you want to write a book about Christian pop culture?

A few years back and I was visiting my wife’s family in Kansas. Her teenage half-sister is an evangelical and we went with her to a Christian rock festival. After one of the bands, her friend came running over and gushed, “Awesome performance! They prayed like three times in a twenty-minute set.” I was like, Wait, the stuff between the songs was the most important part? I’ve attended plenty of rock shows and thought I was pretty savvy about entertainment and media, but this was new to me. So it was really the pop culture angle that appealed to me first. I found the this parallel universe simultaneously familiar and disorienting in a way that was incredibly intriguing.

 

So you thought you’d just travel around the country making fun of these people?

No!

Well, OK, before I actually got started I did think that there might be a certain freak-show aspect to the book. I mean, one of the performers at that festival was a rapper billed as “the Christian Eminem.” When he raps about his addictions, it’s Mountain Dew. Seriously. And then when I go to a Christian bookstore and see Gospel Golf Balls and Testamints, what am I going to do, not make jokes about that? But I pretty quickly became more interested in something else. As ridiculous as some of this stuff was to me, it is meaningful to a lot of people, and I genuinely wanted to understand why. That search became much more fascinating to me than cracking jokes. What does it mean to express something as deep and meaningful as faith through a medium like popular culture that is almost by definition transient and superficial?

Although I did still find plenty of opportunities to crack jokes too. I mean, come on — Gospel Golf Balls?

 

Who is your audience?

Before the book came out I thought it was going to be basically people like me. Liberals or moderates or just non-evangelicals who knew about evangelicalism as a religion or a political movement but had never looked at it through the lens of its trillion-dollar-a-year pop culture, which is much more revealing in many ways. After all, if someone had memorized the entire U.S. Constitution and knew all about free market economics but had never heard of Elvis Presley or Oprah Winfrey, I think you could make a pretty good case that they didn’t understand America. For instance, I’m somewhat bemused by how amazed everyone is at the stuff that Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell has said in the past. All of it — the dubious claims about witchcraft, the chastity vows and ideological opposition to masturbation, the extreme creationism — it’s all in my book. OK, not the bit about mice with human brains. That was new to me.

 

You said that’s who you thought your audience was going to be. Is it?

Partially, sure. But most of my readers — or at least most who have taken the time to get in touch (and if you read it, by all means do) have been Christians or former Christians who grew up in this world themselves. It’s been extremely gratifying to learn that by offering an outsider’s perspective, I’ve helped people who already know the material well see it in a way they hadn’t considered before. And I guess it’s partly that everyone likes to read about themselves, especially when they find that I’m more than willing to identify genuinely great Christian pop culture when I find it, and to offer serious thoughts about what distinguishes it from the shlock that makes up most of the Christian — and secular — pop culture worlds.

 

Have you gotten any hate mail since the book came out?

Almost none. Some civil disagreements, some tedious but well-meaning attempts at proselytizing, but only one piece of genuine hate mail. It was, however, totally awesome. I won’t reprint all 2,000 words, but suffice it to say that I graciously responded that my book was not in fact financed by the ACLU; that the cover image is a real candy necklace from a Christian bookstore, not a photoshopped mockery of the rosary; that Leon Uris’ Exodus is not Bible history; that I have nothing to do with indoctrinating Mexican children to hate white Americans; that Christians do not have a Constitutional right to be free from ridicule; and that while I have been called a sick fuck many times, it was never before by simultaneously holding themselves out as a paragon of Christian moral rectitude.

 

So what’s Jon Stewart really like?

In person, he’s nearly 6’3”.

 

 

Given the hyper-capitalistic drive to sodomize every American, it’s a wonder gay marriage and anal sex aren’t condoned. In fact, I suggest that we all bend over in front of the nearest flag and wait for the creditors to bang us in the ass three times, once for the interest and twice for the mysterious penalty charges. Freed from criminal liability, the banks have managed to legalize ass rape. “Oh,” they cry, “but the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the plaintiffs’ attorneys!”

Now, let me guess: It’s our personal responsibility we’ve landed in this doggie-style position, perhaps because we made the mistake of returning to school to complete our useless educations and become slaves of the fed, or we re-mortgaged our homes to buy, you know, food.

This is a recession song, and very soon it will be even more depressing. If you like that kind of music, finding it cathartic, you need only say, “Brother, can you spare a dime?” and you’re 1/99th the way to purchasing it from I-Tunes.

I don’t mean to complain. I would never do such a thing because I have great faith in this country, faith so deep that I know what to expect at every moment: the worst. “Our system may not be perfect, but it’s the best in the world.” Sounds like Microsoft explaining Windows.

Yes, let us count our blessings… -1…-2…-3… That’s in Fahrenheit. Were it Celsius, the U.S. dollar might be worth more than a Dorito. And that’s what you’ll be living on soon, so be thankful. It could be worse; it could be a pork rind.

Now, I don’t want my atheism to get in the way of my faith, but let’s paraphrase John Lennon and put it simply: Atheists are the niggers of the world. I don’t want to be a nigger, nor a Negro, nor black, nor African-American, because I’m screwed enough as a cracker; that’s the way it goes, so watcha gonna do? I gave up Lent for Lent.

I tried lying to myself. I almost gave prayer a shot, but the pennies kept falling from my hands, and I dropped the gun. Besides, the pennies might have come from heaven, for they proclaim, “In God We Trust,” although a better motto would be, “In Trust Funds We Trust.”

Why anyone comes here, especially legally, ’tis a mystery. It’s the height of governmental irresponsibility not to force immigrants into watching five episodes of Cops, then telling them, “That’s going to be your neighborhood…It’s up to you.”

Yet again, I say unto thee, “Do not lose faith.” Good News is on the way, in the form of a depression not subject to the effects of SSRIs. It’s even possible the wealthy might suffer by having to sell a fourth home. I know how that goes; I just had to move out of my first home. Imagine moving out of your fourth home! It’s too much to comprehend such misery; it confounds the imagination.

Before I moved, I lived on Sanibel Island, Florida. It’s enough to make a normal person sick to watch four retards pedaling a canopied contraption as if they desire to be ridiculed, but I never judge others. I love my neighbor from a distance of five miles or more. I do unto others as they do unto me. Isn’t that how the Copper Rule works? If so, it should count its blessings; at least it has a job.

I might as well admit that I’ve abandoned my quasi-socialism and become a God-fearing capitalist. I am doing quite well capitalizing on myself and have already earned a healthy profit for someone else. Soon, I will whore myself to myself, in order to pay the holy tax of free enterprise. Every act of fellatio would put a quarter in the jar, but my back hurts from bending over based on reasons I enumerated in the first paragraph, and the National Endowment for the Arts has yet to contact me.

Still, I am taking personal responsibility for myself. I, in fact, am responsible for everything. I live in Sarasota, Florida. Kill me, if you like; the PR might allow me to leave an inheritance. After all, Personal Responsibility is my middle name. It’s such a thin line when forty is the new twenty, which is the old ten, which is the new eighteen. By these calculations, my age of 43 years varies from fifteen to sixteen. I’m proud of it. I stand with a torch held high and call myself the Statue of Puberty. I was sent by France, as a gift, bought on the cheap with American dollars.

In life, giving is the main thing. Why, even the Canadian dollar buys more than the American version. That’s because Canadians drink a lot of beer and generate better hockey players. They give us good hockey, and we give them dollars worth 1923 German marks.

But there is hope. Raise your heads. Our God is an awesome God, and man-made miracles wait just around the bend. This morning, a pigeon delivered to me a prophesy: The sun shall melt the human race into a puddle of flesh, and verily the heat-resistant insects will control the earth. They’ll take a bigger bite than bankers, but at least we won’t be present to feel it. I told you the Good News was coming. It’s here; it’s there; it’s everywhere.