To celebrate the October release of my book Thrashing About With God, and to expand the conversation beyond myself, I have asked 31 brave people to share a guest post with the theme of #IAmThrashing. These are people I have personally dialogued with, people who I know have risked a lot to wrestle with the hard stuff that comes with spirituality. Our faith may not look like yours, but we welcome you to the discussion.
Having read much about Mandy’s spiritual journeys, I feel I must somehow address how #iamthrashing with religion--but as long I can remember, I have understood religion not as spiritual, but as a frighteningly human, social institution.
My first memory of considering the question of my own belief was in second grade in the parochial school my mother and grandmother chose for non-religious reasons, which I know because it left a vivid enough imprint that I recall how close I was sitting next to the classroom wall when it happened. A classmate I’ll call Jim was at the front of the class witnessing about his recent conversion at the end of a Sunday service. Frightened by visions of armageddon provided by church leaders in the form of comic book villains, horror stories that in no other circumstances would you provide to young children, he’d decided to “give [his] life to Jesus” in order to avoid that fate.
Even at seven, that struck me as a really dumb reason to follow a leader. I just couldn’t get down with the idea of following this guy because if not he’ll let the bad guys torture you, not just in this life but forever. Even though he can totally stop it if he wants to. That’s a lousy vision of a god.
But even after I moved to public school in my teen years--there was, thankfully, no longer a parochial alternative--I maintained connected to organized religion, to the idea of a caring community that it seemed to offer, to some of the kind people I met there who seemed driven by Jesus of Nazareth’s radical message of love not by dystopian visions from ancient apocalyptic literature, and most of all because some friends encouraged me to play Bible Bowl.
I loved the intensity of reading the text for competition, and though my by then well-established skepticism made it lack some of the same “lip-whitening, vein-popping thrills” that it had for a fellow traveller from the world of fundamentalist religion to queer academia, Michael Warner, reading the Christian scriptures was for me, too, a first experience of textual interpretation as a life-and-death kind of business, a first glimmer that being a lover of language and plumbing its depths could help me understand how best to live, how to change the world for the better, a premise on which I found my work as a writer, as a philosopher, artist, activist--my existence as a part of this “huge and wonderous, bewildering, brilliant, horrible world.”
Indeed, it is in language, through language, with language that I have thrashed.
Though I found my languages elsewhere--from poets and playwrights, drag queens and philosophers, screenwriters and singers--perhaps it was, after all, the experience of reading scripture closely that first put me in search of what one of my intellectual heroes Adrienne Rich describes when she says:
To read as if your life depended on it would mean to let into your reading beliefs, the swirl of your dreamlife, the physical sensations of your ordinary carnal life; and, simultaneously, to allow what you’re reading to pierce the routines, safe and impermeable, in which ordinary carnal life is tracked, charted, channeled. . .
To write as if your life depended on it: to write across the chalkboard, putting up there in public words you have dredged, sieved up from dreams, from behind screen memories, out of silence—words you have dreaded and needed in order to know you exist.
Words you have needed in order to know you exist. Messy. Vulnerable. Artist. Writer.
Maurice Sendak’s editor Ursula Nordstrom has suggested that it is the peculiar “penalty” of the creative artist “wanting to make order out of chaos” and that “plain people just accept disorder.” I don’t buy it. Though I didn’t thrash with religion, I took from religion that we all must find the field in which we are to do our thrashing, in which we can carve out our existence from the chaos. That what we are--whatever else there is--are meaning-making creatures.
I understand Mandy’s god to be most of all a Creator. That, I think, is a much better vision.
Angel Lemke is a writer and doctoral student living in Columbus, Ohio. She counts herself lucky for the many artists who have crossed her path since her days growing up in the same town as Mandy Steward.