Imposter [emo poem to read before the actual prose, if you’re inclined]
She’s gorgeous, first: bright lips, silk hair, slim face
Articulate, with an accent to boot
Borne from some world apart from U.S. trace
She captivates with every salted word
But I—plain-spoken by her silven voice—
Withdraw from her still-patronizing gaze
Her words are subtle, but I know their tone
She tries to make converts of our mixed realm
And I, who have removed myself from there,
Feel like a person privy to a spy
False seed; discomfiting knowledge; and sad;
I cannot think of any word but “bad”
This pretty girl has no interest in us
We are numbers to remove from her hell.
Last night, I arrived at the interfaith study in Beijing excited about the tequila. Of all the quasi-Mexican restaurants in Beijing, the Taco Bar–whose location I frequent opened only last year–has become one of the few places I will go eagerly, always, happy to attend. Their namesake treats come in chicken, pork, steak and (my favorite) flaky fish varietals, with sauces that range from creamy to tangy, and their drinks–albeit smallish–are great.
This event was mostly to celebrate the departure of our brilliant young founder, a 22-year-old headed to Stanford to study Chinese for her master’s degree after obtaining an undergraduate degree in the language. She is earnest, sincere, and the kind of acceptable Lutheran who really listens to other people and has come to love attending the local Jewish service on Fridays.
I myself have devolved into a bizarre mix of rote Bible knowledge, social justice theology and inordinately confused beliefs that coincide nicely with the atheistic Jewish members of the study. In the few months that I’ve been a part, I’ve learned an amusing mix of useful and occasionally troubling information, like how there’s no real hell in Judaism, their beliefs are largely focused on man’s relation to each other more than God, and Jesus was pretty inconsequential.
Regardless of my own occasional confusion, I have only felt welcomed and warmly accepted as my new friends ask questions about things that puzzle them, like “How do Christians claim they’re monotheistic when they have this thing called the ‘Trinity’?” It’s been a uniquely open group, apart from times when certain more strict members of each religion attended.
A few of the more dogmatic people came last night, but instead of being Orthodox Jews, they were Pentecostal, evangelical Christians. For those who don’t know, Pentecostals believe (for the most part) that salvation is evidenced by actions that strike the average American as odd: writhing in incoherent ways that would frighten any young child, AKA being “slain by the Spirit,” and speaking in indecipherable babble that openly defies what the Bible says is the right way to do it, if you’re speaking in languages no one knows. In general, it presents an even more emotional and baseless form of the Christian Gospel than the Baptist “relationship with Jesus” I grew up around. Three evangelicals came last night, but my attention ended up focused on the one described in the poem.
“Evangelical” means that you believe, among other things, in a literal, 7-day creation by a sovereign Creator God who ignores His own mistakes in Scripture and has some zany opinions about how women are men’s property, it’s okay to have many wives and slaves, and that sometimes genocide is just necessary. In the New Testament, evangelicalism embraces a version of reality in which Jesus is the only way to Heaven and everyone else, a la John 14:6 and including Catholics, mainline Protestant denominations, Muslims, atheists, and agnostics are all headed to hell. Oh, and drunkards, gossips and people who have sex before marriage, too, though these are more easily surmounted sins, and strangely, things like gluttony, dishonoring one’s parents and the forbidding of lawsuits are never mentioned in the same breath, though they’re discussed often in the same verses in the Bible. In addition, I say “His” mistakes in Scripture, because the Bible is not seen as a fascinating document put together by hundreds of people over thousands of years, but rather, an infallible book basically transcribed to people God liked in a trance, history be damned.
In my experience, the many different Protestant groups, including evangelicals, split often over an overemphasis on one aspect of the aforementioned Trinity: Father, Son, or the Holy Spirit. Baptists emphasize Jesus to the point that they get all awkward if you mention the Spirit, because He might make them clap in worship. Much of today’s Baptist services focus on trying not to focus on the charismatics who have stumbled into the service and raise their hands like it will make them feel closer to God, because you can totally reach Him if you just stretch high enough. Catholics are all about the Father, since He founded both their institution and, you know, Western civilization, in their view of things. Having had the advantage of the nations of most of medieval Europe behind them, and the power to burn people alive and kill science, they get pretty puffed up in the right context. Baptists think that Catholics are a cult.
Overall, Orthodox Christians stick pretty much to themselves, apart from how they like to protest Protestants’ work in Russia and freak people out with their incense, asking you to kiss the priest’s ring ’cause he’s just so darn holy, and excluding women from leadership positions. Which brings me back to the Bible.
Although the ways in which evangelicals like Baptists and Pentecostals ignore what the New Testament says are legion, they like to emphasize the parts that condemn homosexuals, exclude women from leadership, tell people they’re going to hell, and in general create a petrifying world in which every matter of your being operates in constant awareness of the most extreme “us versus them” imaginable. It’s like an extreme version of a deadly flu, except you have a cure nobody wants, everyone thinks you’re the sick one, and their end game is not a few weeks of intense aches and fever followed by death, but an eternity burning in hellfire. Not a fun place.
When I was evangelical, I used to talk to “unbelievers” with a heightened heart rate, praying constantly, focusing on every theological error in their words, convinced that if I just hung around them enough, they’d be impressed by my awesomeness, repent of their lackadaisical way of enjoying life and feeling chill towards those different than them, and join me in condemning others to hell UNLESS they’d just accept the “free”/mandatory love of Jesus Christ (who, to be fair to him, did seem to love people and sacrifice his life for them, in some ways of looking at it).
In high school, I went on a mission trip to South Dakota where we ministered to flea-ridden, impoverished and sexually abused little kids who wanted a hug and free toys, but accepted our “Jesus-loves-you-love-him-back-so-you-don’t-go-to-hell” spiel in exchange for a few of those things without time to make sure it sunk in. We also lacked the time to make any real difference in their lives, and while I proudly counted up my “salvations” (aka “times I prayed the prayer [of salvation] with a kid”), the whole thing left a vaguely sick, guilty feeling in my stomach.
I was also part of a “Cultural Ambassador” program as a high school freshman the autumn after that trip, proudly commissioned by my church to “go out into the [godless] world [of my public high school] and make disciples.” This meant purposely befriending non-Christians so that I could convert them.
The sad thing is, I kind of succeeded. I took a flower-power, hippie-ish free-spirited friend and wore her down over time, through prayer, intense conversations about angels, and abetted by the Passion of the Christ and her party-loving boyfriend whom she calmed down, counseling her through casual talks and eventual theological discussions. Then, after all my hard work, her quasi-alcoholic boyfriend, who shouldn’t have even been dating a non-Christian despite his “fallen” status (according to these verses), took her to church. While such an act of “missionary dating” was frowned upon in my Baptist group, it was more accepted at his congregation, and lo and behold, she became a Christian.
She is a remarkable person who uses her faith to better the world, not condemn it, but I still feel deeply uncomfortable when I recall my first years of friendship with her. She became a Christian while I studied abroad and nearly lost my faith, and today we share a very genuine, honest relationship, but I will never be comfortable with the subterfuge that led to our interaction. I befriended her as a project, not because I liked her as a person (well, actually, it was probably both, but there was a driving force behind it). Who does that? Even if you are religious, viewing other people only in terms of their eternal destination as “unsaved” or “saved” removes any care for their individual humanity. Rachel Held Evans mentions this in several of her books, especially the first one, but I find the whole thing distasteful now.
The thing was, even sitting around alcohol (which would have been abominable according to my upbringing), I suddenly realized as one of the Pentecostal Christians began to speak that she was like I used to be. A Jewish person asked about the Trinity, and then the Holy Spirit. She ignored the question and began to share a rote version of the Gospel, most likely taught to her Sunday after Sunday as a way to witness to “those people,” and a knot formed in my stomach. I distracted myself for awhile by talking to another friend by me at the table and the Lutheran founder for whom the going-away part of the even took place, and enjoyed our conversation. As the people around this gorgeous young woman patiently listened to her not listen to them, and tell them things they didn’t ask to know (like who Martin Luther was, no kidding!), I grew increasingly nauseated.
The man right next to her was similar in beliefs, but when he spoke, he didn’t attempt to convert or ignore their questions. He just answered them honestly, and made the astute observation that Pentecostalism has spread quickly in his native continent because it resembles the indigenous beliefs held, for example, by his parents (more on that here). Another friend who grew up evangelical but tends to camouflage the crazy out in public listened quietly, not moving one direction or the other. Bottom line, it was really this first girl’s inability to truly hear the inquiries that bothered me. In old-fashioned “Christian speak,” I would say that it “hurt my heart.” The more she spoke, the more I knew that she didn’t give a damn about their religion, beliefs, or who they were. She was there to convert the “incomplete” Jews to the “true faith.” For all of her lovely, kind words and sweet disposition, she still came off as a total wolf in sheep’s clothing–ironic, since she serves the Jesus who warned against them.
I have long yearned for a world in which my beloved family, childhood friends and I myself don’t have to look at the world as “the other,” as everybody (even most Christians) as condemned unless they believe “our” version of the truth. The inherent insincerity of my upbringing came through this woman’s false presentation–even at a snazzy cocktail bar where the party moved after the initial meeting, in which her über-earnest words grew cloaked in candlelight and the smell of old cigars. I couldn’t help wishing that she was sharing an account of something other than the same twisted theology I grew up with, the kind that enslaves people instead of freeing them, and posits people like “her” against the ubiquitous “them,” all in the hopes of saving them from her version of hell…yet strangely removing any need to genuinely listen to the people in front of her without thinking of how what they are saying is wrong, and will condemn them to eternal damnation.
In a phrase: some Christians be spies, intent on nothing more than converting you. They are not interested, at the end of the day, in who you are, but in making you part of the “us” instead of “the other.” They may not lob bombs or call you “infidels” to your face, but it’s sure on their minds, and that reality, more than anything else I’ve left in that world, grieves my spirit.* It’s almost enough to make me want to raise my glass to Lennon’s famous tome, a song I despised in high school for its biblical heresy. Hear, hear!
* Another Christian aphorism. But, for real: if people have spirits or souls, mine is seriously bummed out by this reality.