I chose not to be confirmed into the Catholic Church when I was 17, citing Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling as proof for why, if I didn't come to faith on my own, there was nothing my mother or the Church could do about it. Now, at 34, it's difficult to remember what it was in Fear and Trembling that I liked so much. I have far more memories of reading Saint Augustine, he of the bumper sticker, "Lord, make me chaste. But not yet." Augustine blows all the other saints out of the water. In fact, in high school, when my Protestant friends talked about what a great guy Jesus was, how he was such a good friend and all that buddy-Christ stuff we Catholics never got, I remember thinking: I don't really want to be friends with Jesus. I want to be friends with Saint Augustine. Augustine and I could have a real good time.
I've recently published my first book, Yoga Bitch: One Woman's Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment, which is a spiritual memoir of sorts. Well, it's a spiritual memoir, but one without the happy ending where heroine and God ride off into the sunset together, and the narrator plans to feel great about herself for the rest of her life. It's actually the story of how I failed to find everything on a yoga retreat. (What I did find was a cult of urine drinkers, an inflamed ego, and a yoga industry that, for a time, turned me into Martin Luther in a sports bra.)
I've always loved spiritual memoirs, and writing about my own spiritual questing hasn't slaked my thirst for them. It's actually made it worse. I crave conversion stories, be they Muslim, like G. Willow Wilson's beautiful memoir, The Butterfly Mosque, or yogic, like Christopher Isherwood's My Guru and His Disciple or Claire Dederer's Poser. But the Christians have a corner on the conversion market. Saint Augustine's Confessions is among my favorites. So is Anne Lamott's Traveling Mercies, because it doesn't make me feel icky or like I'm being turned into a Social Conservative by osmosis. I loved Mary Karr's Lit, tearing through it in a couple of days. But I recently noticed that, while I bought Wilson's and Dederer's books at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle, smiling at the teller, when it comes to buying Christian works -- and I don't mean just liberal-approved Christian books like Lit and Lamott's books. I mean C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, G.K. Chesterton; I mean Garry Wills' Why I am a Catholic -- I often buy them online.
Why? Well, because I'm embarrassed. I live in Seattle, a city that is consistently ranked the least religious city in the country according to some poll or another. People in my city think Christians are nutso religious freaks, Koran burners, Westboro Baptists, Glenn Beck disciples. Or, I don't know, maybe it's just my friends who think this way. What I do know is that I don't want the folks at my favorite bookstore thinking I'm a crazypants social conservative looking to clamp chastity belts on women and throw gay kids into Get Straight camps. Holy hell.
This is certainly unfair to most Christians. And, for that matter, to most tellers at Elliott Bay Books. But it's difficult not to view Christianity in such an alarming light when Beck, Ann Coulter, and the guy on the corner with the "Repent or Burn" sign are the loudest voices, and the least charitable. They've taken a 2000-year-old tradition of depth and insight and reduced it to a handful of political positions.
I'm not looking to become confirmed in the faith I rejected at 17. At least, I don't think so. But there's no point to this kind of inquiry if I don't keep myself open to such a thing. I want to test the power of my rejection by reading the smartest Christians, like Saint Augustine -- the Christians I would like to have a drink with. If I can't openly engage with these texts, then perhaps I am not rejecting so much as dismissing Christianity. Dismissing a tradition that has inspired many of the greatest works of art in the world, from the Pieta to Mozart's Requiem to The Last Temptation of Christ is not something I want to do.
On August 28th, I'll be reading from Yoga Bitch at Boundless Yoga in Washington, D.C., on the year anniversary of Glenn Beck's "Rally to Restore Honor". (Remember that rally? Have you noticed that honor has been restored?) I was visiting my sister in Washington while Beck and his people rallied last year. It was hotter than Hades in Washington that weekend, and I was already irritated at having to dodge large clumps of white people clogging the sidewalks. A friend of mine, a tour guide in Rome, calls these groups "White World." White World is that unmistakable mob of white people in white t-shirts and light-blue jeans shorts with white tube socks and white tennis shoes who pour out of cruise ships into every city in Europe. The people who want to eat McDonalds exclusively and complain when they have to pay for water. The kind of people snotty coastal liberals would rather die than be associated with.
Being in an uncharitable mood, the sidewalks quickly became too overwhelming, so I abandoned them in Dupont Circle, ducking into Kramer Books. I wandered through the front of the store, past the stacks of bestsellers and new releases, and soon, like a moth to the proverbial flame, I found myself standing in front of the Religion section. And my interest was unmistakable: I was looking at the Christian sub-section. In public. On the weekend of Glenn Beck's rally.
I glanced around at the handful of Glenn Beck people in the store. They wore their White World easy-recognition garb, their Restore Honor t-shirts. In my sandals and sundress, I hoped I could stand in the Christian section without being mistaken for a member of that world. I even thought that maybe I would be taken for a graduate student in comparative religion or something. (This is the magic of narcissism. Wherever I go, I bring my ego with me. And, apparently, an investigative journalist from MSNBC, looking to out me.)
Anyway, the longer I stood there, debating between the Oxford Study Bible and the King James, between Kathleen Norris's The Cloister Walk and C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity, the more self-conscious I became. I started to get the Glenn Beck sweats. The "God forbid anybody should think I'm one of those crazies" sweats. I mean, really, sweat was pouring down my back. And yes, it was 90 million degrees outside but this was soul sweat, ego sweat, new kid on the playground sweat. It was complicated by the appearance of a couple and their teenaged son, all sporting their Restore Honor tees, each holding a different Stieg Larssen book in their hands. I couldn't help but notice how charmingly the mother teased her son about being a quick reader and already on the third book. How the mother looked like she gave great hugs and probably made a delicious casserole. How the son had long hair that hung in his eyes and the gawky skinny look some boys don't grow out of till their mid-20s. I noticed the way the couple looked around the bookstore with satisfaction, just taking it all in, being in our nation's capital, in a bookstore. They didn't even look like they wanted to burn the books. They were there, like me, to hang out, opening books at random, seeing what was there to be discovered. They looked nice, separated from the pack.
That's when either God or the voice my mother implanted in my brain told me I was being a terrible jerk. That spiritual wisdom emerges from compassion, from our repeated attempts to understand each other -- especially those we would rather dismiss or condemn. If I want people whose politics are different from my own to understand before they condemn, I had better learn to do it myself. I thought of Saint Augustine: "There is no greater invitation to love than loving first." It occurred to me that my favorite saint might have been a little bit drunk when he said that. But the worst thing Glenn Beck could do to me would be to make me see the world through eyes as paranoid as his own, make me incapable of seeing individuals, but only political types.
And I brought Karen Armstrong's The Case for God to the teller.