2019 is almost done. And I am procrastinating on everything because there is too much change in progress. Zen gardening the filesystem on my hard-drive. Getting ready to wipe and reinstall the OS on my computer. Time to make everything new again.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of time this year. My eyesight got a notch worse sometime between turning 29 and 30. There’s that song from Adventure Time that I had on repeat for a good part of the year:
Everything stays, right where you left it.
Everything stays, but it still changes;
Ever so slightly,
Daily and nightly;
in little ways.
In 2019, there was listening to people who were talking about taking things slow/-er (notably, The Refusal of Work was an outlook-changing read). There was realising that work had monopolised my emotional energy and why am I always so tired at the end of the day. There was that movement against social media which started as an ideological stand against Facebook, and then realising that my happiest weeks were the weeks where I wasn’t as internet-dependant. Definitely no social media on my phone, definitely no social media when I’m bored. There was being able to track my mood by the new Screen Time feature on iOS, and being able to track how much I missed Jackie by how I found it hard to get to sleep without a whisky or Netflix. Historically, I've only had one set of variables; an inverse relationship between my sense of internal peace and the length of my fingernails. Things seem to have fluctuated more dramatically this year.
In 2019, I thought about this sense of, who you are is as much what you say no to as what you say yes to. The things that you choose to ignore being as much a part of identity as the things that you choose to pursue. The idea that sometimes you have to decide that things aren’t worth rescuing.
I wondered about faith again, this year. When I left the Church in 2016, a friend gave me a book, My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wyman. I left it on a shelf in Jigjiga, Ethiopia, along with a copy of Offscreen Magazine Issue 15, which I’d sponsored because I thought the world was a better place for having it. Both were books that were really important to me, and I hoped that one of my colleagues there would read them, I guess. I dunno, I think it’s important to let friends inject new ideas into your life, and to do the same for others. I like lending books to people without the expectation of ever getting them back.
Anyway, faith. I liked My Bright Abyss because it was a story about one human and a God that was bigger than he imagined. But not in the way that evangelicals talk about it, in like… I dunno, there was something realer to it. In the sense that the Romantic poets, who I adored in my youth, would talk about God. Revealed through nature. Experiential. Larger than what any single person can comprehend. For Wyman, it was a cancer diagnosis, and falling in love.
In August this year, a friend told me to read a book about leaving evangelical christianity in Sydney. I was tricked – it was a psych textbook. I’ve accidentally read so much about Foucault and the Panopticon and Bourdieu and other social theorists this year. I don’t even know who these people were; they’ve become synonymous with their theories. I would hate to become synonymous with my theories.
Anyway, faith. In this Psychology Textbook, there’s interviews with people who’ve left Sydney evangelical churches. There’s one in particular that grabbed me: one man says that he figured himself out by “reading the heretics”. You know, all those books that had the ‘wrong’ answers; those ideas you weren't really allowed to consider as a self-respecting Bible-believing Christian. Maybe ‘reading the heretics’ is a response to a uniquely evangelical insistence upon a specific literal interpretation of the Bible as absolute truth? But, yeah, whatever the origins of this idea, it's a good one.
When I left the church, it was easy to challenge the things that were peripheral to the faith but of a strangely inflated importance to the church. So, it was easy to say big yes to gay marriage, abortion feels… vaguely sad, but I can feel that and hold the belief that it’s not my place to make decisions on behalf of other people. Women should clearly be allowed to speak / lead / preach in church; it feels deeply wrong that this is even a point of discussion in these circles. “No sex before marriage” is a stupid thing to tell teenagers. But the stuff at the core of Christianity – I guess I don’t know what I was expecting, but it's harder to make resolve with the core beliefs than these extremely practical social matters.
When I first arrived in Berlin, I remember Talitha telling me that she’d moved here from the Czech Republic, and was so grateful for going to church in a language she barely spoke. It let her avoid a lot of the church community bullshit; sit on the fringe for a while, not get roped into stuff, figure out what was actually important in her faith. When I left for Germany, my analogue was deciding to just “shelve” the religion thing.
I still think that “shelved” is the right word for it, because you can't really ever remove stuff like this from your identity. Once you internalise it, you construct an identity in position to it; either you're aligned with it, or consciously disaligned with it, or somehow again neutral to it – but it's all a statement of identity somehow. I always knew I was angry with the church. I guess I’m realising now that it’s muddy as to whether I was also angry with God (probably)? or angry with who the church had told me that God was.
It unravelled a little bit last week I guess, reading this book by my former Youth Pastor, Joel1. Talking about the bullshit he wrestled with when he was at the church of my childhood. But I guess he came to the conclusion that this church’s view of who God is was too small. You can’t only call God a he, because masculinity is not an adequate descriptor of who God is. He’s not a point along that masculine-feminine spectrum, he is the spectrum. God is the gender rainbow.
Weirdly, it was this idea that made me think the most, because it highlighted that I still imagine God as this… dude. I'm grateful that our modern definitions of masculinity are more inclusive and probably less socially important than they were in decades past. But I guess I’m only going to get so far as to an understanding of God if I’m relying upon my idea of masculinity to change. Maybe better to throw the whole thing away and start again.
Either way, you… learn who God is by reading the heretics, by trying on the radical ideas and seeing what sticks. God is necessarily experiential, and our understanding of Them is necessarily social.
I see polarisation happening as my generation of Christians grows older. Joel (my youth pastor who wrote the book), one of my former colleagues, and my brother and his wife have stuck out church and… I guess stripped back their definitions of faith to the kernel of truth in the middle. Haven’t thrown out the grain with the chaff, the baby with the bathwater, whatever. Then there’s me, and a handful of my other friends, some of whom were “so on fire” about this specific religious ideology that I thought they were destined to become missionaries, and we’ve all bailed out of it. Not with any coordination; just like we all went along the same trajectory. It’s weird to me that this is how it shook out.
I guess I don’t feel like I can pray anymore because I don’t know who I’m praying to. I can’t pray to the God I thought I knew, because he’s a bullshit God. But if God is really bigger than that, if I read the heretics, then maybe I’ll find someone I could pray to.
Apparently Sydney Evangelical churches are a significant enough cultural force that a few people have published critiques now. It’s weird, and gratifying, discovering them. ↩︎