When I was young, my mother hammered into me her belief that Catholics were not real Christians. I was not allowed to play with children from non-Christian families. I lived in a protected bubble. I was rarely exposed to anything that would cause questions to arise concerning differing belief systems.
A Catholic family with five children lived two doors down, and I was not allowed to go to their house.I attempted to explain to my mother that they were like us. They had a cross on their wall. The girl, who was two years older than me, had told me she was a Christian. I was age 4 or 5 when my mother began to explain it to me, in simple terms at first: Catholics are idolaters because they worship graven images and pray to dead human beings, like Mary. She later pointed out that the children down the street celebrated Satan's holiday, Halloween.This notion was difficult to buy into beyond the age of 7. Halloween looked like a lot of fun. By that age, I was enrolled in a Baptist school, and most of the other students got to dress up in costumes and eat candy. I was told they were probably going to hell, too. As I aged, I began to notice that we were the exception when it came to Halloween, even among other Christians.
There were other things about my early upbringing, which I later discovered were not only strict and unfair- they were abnormal. I was not allowed to watch television. I was not allowed to watch Disney movies with magic. I was not allowed to play with Barbies. I was not allowed to eat sugar. I was not allowed to wear shirts with any writing or unknown symbols on them, with the exception of the names of family vacation destinations. I was not allowed to wear certain brand names. Osh Kosh B'Gosh was a popular baby and children's brand in the early to mid-1980's. My mother said that the word "Gosh" stood for"God", and that the clothing designers were taking his name in vain. Most oddly, I was not allowed to listen to contemporary Christian music, and especially not Christian rock. She explained that these artists were mimicking worldly,Satanic music. This made it as bad or worse than secular rock music, because unsuspecting,spiritually vulnerable Christians were open for spiritual attack more so when listening to the Christian stuff. I think that was the full explanation, but I'm not sure. To be honest, I did not understand the rationale back then, and I do not know how to replicate it more fairly as an adult from her bizarre perspective.
My mother once slipped in a weak moment and took me to see a theatrical revival of Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves when I was five years old. I don't remember much about the event, except that she cried and apologized to me the whole ride home, swearing to never expose me to that kind of evil again. I attempted to console her. I think I had a good time, and I did not understand why she was so upset. She told me that she had failed as my mother, and that whether I understood or not, it was a demonic film. It probably is no coincidence that I love Classic Disney films to this day. Even though I never cared much for Snow White, it's the first Disney DVD I purchased as an adult.
When I was 7, my mother had another lapse in judgment, this time allowing me to play with the Catholics a few times. Their family was extremely well off financially, and they had more toys than they knew what to do with. I was playing with the girl who was my age one day when I told her I wasn't allowed to have Barbies. Truthfully, even at that age, I hated dolls. I think the only reason I had any interest whatsoever is because they were so forbidden. I had stuffed animals, but no dolls, and I preferred playing outside with boys. That day, the Catholic girl gave me one of her Skipper dolls. I remember the feeling I felt: there was definitive guilt present, but there was something more powerful. I got high that day, and I do mean HIGH. I was full of adrenaline, and I felt a tingling sensation all over my body when I sneaked that doll into my house. Once I had her in my room, I didn't know what to do. My mom was a serious control freak and micro-manager. I had been responsible for cleaning my own room and making my bed from the age of 3. In spite of that, I did not know how I was going to hide it from her. She was into everything. I found a shoe box, put the doll in the box, and put it on the highest shelf in my closet, careful to stack other things on top of it. For two weeks, I was afraid to go near my closet. I'd rather not delve too deeply into it,but my mom was a strict disciplinarian. I was terrified of being caught. I was not having any fun with the doll either, and the high I felt that first day left. All that remained was guilt, shame,frustration, and obsession. After two weeks, I could not take it any longer. I picked what I thought to be a good time, and I collected the doll from her hiding place, just to catch a glimpse. My memory about the rest is fuzzy, but I think it was my two-year old sister who came into the room and saw the doll. I am not sure how she managed to tell on me at the age of two, but she was always an overachiever and a traitor. My mother confronted me in my bedroom. I can still visualize her in front of me, holding the Skipper. I remember thinking, based by her reaction, that this was the worst thing I had ever done in my life. I thought my life was over. It may have been over for awhile; I do not remember. I know there was a physical punishment. That was standard and happened daily in my early years. Whether it was a look I supposedly gave her, or I didn't complete a chore to her satisfaction, I distinctly remember knowing that I was a total screw-up who could not do anything right.
It was that same year that I began to take the issue of religious faith more seriously. I was given the impression by my parents and my church that I didn't have to make up my mind about god when I was young. In the faith of my youth, they taught that us that someone had to be old enough to comprehend and reason in order to choose salvation.. Young children would not go to hell when they died,supposedly. But I began to get the distinct feeling by the age of 7 that fun times were over. It was time to grow up. I did not want to wait too long and go to hell. No one could give me a precise cut-off age where one had to accept Jesus. Besides, age 7 is around the time that most people are fully mature, able to reason, and make serious life decisions. I knew this was true because all my church friends were getting baptized.
I began to ask my parents more specific questions about Christianity and picked up an adult Bible. For whatever reason, I began with Psalms. It was always my favorite book. I memorized Psalm 23 one evening. I found my parents sitting together. I recited it to them, and told them that I wanted to be forgiven by Jesus and be saved, explaining the serious thought I had given the subject. I remember that I was worried they might reject me and tell me I wasn't ready or serious enough, which is probably what motivated the memorization of scripture. They said the prayer with me, and I became a Christian.
Immediately, I was fervent. I was taught that this was the only thing that really mattered. Everything on earth is temporary. While I had questions from the age of 3 about aspects of theological doctrine and philosophy that made little sense to me, I did not question the foundation of the belief for many, many years. I accepted the premise readily: Jesus was the son of god, and a relationship with him was the only thing that gave me have value or worth. My goal was to learn and grow and become more like this god. I cared about little else until my teens, which is when I began to question the validity of significant portions of the Bible.
As I studied and prayed and wrote, I came across things that either did not make sense, or that flat-out frightened me about this god. When this would happen, I would carry my Bible around to Christian adults, like my parents and pastor, until I had been given a satisfactory answer. As a teenager, I was given a book as a gift that was meant to be a tool to assist Christians in responding to the questions and doubts of unbelievers. I immediately began searching that book for answers to my own questions, but most of my doubts were not addressed at all. While sometimes the answers given by adults and books did not satisfy, I had to find a way to let go and move on in order to keep believing. My motive, always, was to gain clarity and reaffirm my belief that the Bible was the ultimate truth, inspired by god. I was 18 years old before I could allow myself to even hypothetically examine what I thought I knew from another perspective- a perspective that did not assume there was a god.
Back to age 7: I had been saved! At the same time, it really hit me that practically EVERYONE was going to hell. As my mother taught me, even the Catholics were going to burn.Immediately upon getting saved, I began reading the whole bible, while continuing to memorize passages from Psalms. I wasn't too worried about myself at that time. As a new Christian, I was pretty sure that god would take it easy on me, especially since I was putting in so much effort. But privately, I was an emotional wreck. As I said, practically everyone I knew or came into contact with was going to hell. This understanding destroyed me on the inside. I began faithfully praying for every person I knew by name who wasn't a Christian, or who was the wrong kind of Christian. I worried most about the Catholics and other false Christians, because they thought they were safe.They were not safe. I wanted to help them all, but I soon found that other Christians were resistant to this message. I prayed for nameless people, too. I made lists in my prayer journal. My bedtime prayers sometimes went on for over an hour. By the end, I would be so sad that I couldn't sleep. It was at this age, 8, that I began to suffer from insomnia.
I remember negotiating with my mom at 7 or 8, arguing that I might be the Catholic neighbors' only exposure to real Christianity, and that I could be a good witness (AND get to play Super Mario Bros., which was forbidden in my home). This worked on a few occasions, and I really did witness to the lost, heathen Catholics, explaining to them the evils of Madonna and Michael Jackson. They were exceptionally tolerant of my indoctrinated rudeness. I meant well.
In the 1980's and 1990's, my mother lived in a self-made, fundamentalist prison. She didn't work, and she only listened to Christian radio- though, not the contemporary Christian music station, KSBJ Houston, which she claimed was sinful, worldly, and a tool of the devil. She only associated with women from our church. From the age of 2 to 17, I attended my parents' church,which began as a small, traditional Southern Baptist church. The same church slowly devolved through the years, and it grew into a 5,000-member, Charismatic Christian mess. If you are unfamiliar with Charismatic Christianity, I often explain it as similar to Pentecostal, but much more relaxed and normal-looking on the surface. She deliberately shut out any voices that might challenge her thinking or way of life. Differences of opinion in Biblical interpretation were a big deal to her back then. It caused problems between her and extended family. That was not due to the fact that she was verbally damning them. It was because if she believed, for example, that the small number of liberal Presbyterians on her father's side of the family were not real Christians, she did not want us around them. Not only were they a potentially negative influence, but their liberal views opened them up to demonic attack.
An important facet of Charismatic Christianity is the concept of spiritual warfare. In her mind, there was an invisible spiritual war between good and evil happening everywhere, all the time. This is why a simple children's movie was such a big deal to her. That is why spending time around family members who interpret the Bible in a liberal way and indulged in alcohol could leave our family open to spiritual attack. I barely knew my grandfather growing up because my mother believed he was possessed by demons. She did reveal to me privately some truly hurtful and wrong things he had done to her as a child and young adult, and I could always understand it on that level. But when I tried to ask her how it was that he was demon-possessed in present time, as he had always seemed okay tome, her answer was revealing. She told me that he believed in a Gray Philosophy. She knew the Biblical truth, that the world was black and white, good versus evil. My grandfather believes that life is full of shades of gray. My mother intended to get across the problem that my grandfather did not believe in the nature of sin as she did, and that he did not live by the proper interpretation of the Bible. What she probably did not intend to relay is these shades of gray also meant that he believed in and practiced compassion. He did not believe he had the authority to judge others. He was a grown-up who understood that, even with a moral foundation, there are ethical dilemmas in life where there is no clear-cut right answer. There are times when we have to compromise. There are times when being right is less important than maintaining peace or practicing humility.
My mother wanted to remain in a safe, labeled box, one where everything was simple, and it was easy to judge others to avoid looking at herself. If only I could have seen as a child what is now so blatant. She was consumed and ruled by fear. She shut the world out because she was afraid of it. My mother's religious addiction made her a narcissist. Everything was about her and her feelings. My entire life, until I was able to move out, my feelings did not count. If anything, they were treated as personal insults I needed to apologize to her for having. I was not listened to by her, as she would refuse to listen to anything unpleasant that might cause her to examine herself. If I said,"You hurt me!", she would respond with, "How dare you accuse me of hurting you? Look at all the bad things you are!" And so it would go in every argument. I never realized how terrified she was of what I had to say. Had she listened and taken in the "You hurt me", she would have to accept that she had hurt me. To do so might cause her to feel guilt and regret. Then she would reflect on her behavior with the possibility in mind that she might have made an error. She was unwilling to do anything of the sort until my latter teens. There was no miracle overnight, but progress was slowly made on her part.
Sadly, it wasn't until she knew I had rejected her belief system as false that she became more willing to hear me and look at herself. I say it is sad because my rejection of Christianity was the first thing she could not ignore, and that she viewed as partly her mistake. I do not view it as any kind of mistake. Of all the things she did to me, she thinks this is the thing that matters, and that she needs to try to make up for. It is sad because it is impossible to make someone believe something when they don't believe. It just doesn't work that way. That is why no one has gone back to believing in Santa Claus after discovering the myth. To this day, she thinks I am angry at god, and that I will come back. A lot of her attitude adjustment is related to her desire to bring me back into the fold. I am hurt that she never found me, the real me, to be worth the effort on my own. It is only my soul, which I don't believe in, and her accountability to god that caused her to put in the effort.
I view my lack of belief, my resentment towards bad theology and a harmful ideology, and my feelings about my mother to be three distinct, different issues. The lack of belief is not an issue for me.It is the one area where I have found significant peace. I had to let go of the garbage first,though, and it was difficult. There are claw marks all over my pink New King James Bible. I was reading it into my mid-20's, years after I knew I didn't believe, desperately hoping that I could find a new way to read it that would allow me to justify it as okay and palatable and believable. I worked harder at hanging on to Christianity than anything else in my life. My biggest disappointment is that there are no grades or degrees for that sort of futile effort. The more I tried, the less I believed. Once the house of cards fell, try as I did, I could not rebuild the damn house.
In the early 2000's, something happened. My mother rejoined the work force in the real world. I noticed her soften, her manic zeal and end-of-the-world-ism less pronounced. Many of you kiddos don't know this, but we were living in the End Times in the early 1980's. I know some kids think they are just discovering it, but it was happening way before they were born. I can only assume that at least one sector of the Christian faith will be shouting about the End Times forever. Every decade, there are new faces to the movement, but it will continue to be reborn until there are no more people.
I was not around my mom very much during her first few years teaching, but I noticed some changes. For one, she finally had something to keep her occupied that was not ME. That was fantastic. She always told me that she quit working to stay home with me because she wanted it, but also that it was a sacrifice. I would wince on the inside, wishing she had worked instead of treating me as a child-rearing experiment. She seemed to find her new work fulfilling. Her angry,narrow-minded attitude seemed to be changing, though not radically, as she became newly turned on to right-wing talk radio. I directly attribute her attitude change to her participation in life in the real world. It grounded her and caused her to notice things about life on earth that matter. She began to invest again. She made friends with other teachers. I assume they were all conservatives and Christians, but one of them loved Led Zeppelin, the band my mother had told me was Satanic and forbidden in our house. Another friend she made was a devout and open Catholic. Part of me really wanted to taunt her about it, but I kept my mouth shut. I didn't want to undo any positive changes.
we were living in the End Times in the early 1980's. I know some kids think they are just discovering it, but it was happening way before they were born. I can only assume that at least one sector of the Christian faith will be shouting about the End Times forever.On Christmas day of 2013, I visited my mother in the skilled nursing facility where she was staying after an arm amputation. It was just the two of us, and she asked if I would mind watching the Pope give his speech. I was quite surprised. "The Pope? I thought Catholics weren't real Christians and were going to hell."
"I never said that." My mom is a lot of things, but she is not a liar. When she claims to not remember things, I think it is because part of her doesn't want to remember. And so she forgets.
"YES, you did. You raised me on it."
"Well, I don't remember that. People make mistakes. I may have been wrong about some things."
She went on to tell me why she thought she liked the new Pope. She said that he was teaching a message that was reaching non-Christians like never before. She admitted she didn't know everything about what he has said and done, but that she understood he was practicing the teachings of Jesus: love,compassion and acceptance. She liked the way he was reaching out to so-called sinners, loving them rather than judging. The Pope has said that only god can pass judgment, and he is refusing to discriminate by personally rating sins and condemning some Christians more than others, as so many Christians do.
I was too shocked by this to be angry. What?! I was raised by a religious fanatic whose beliefs and behaviors crossed the line at times into abuse, but she doesn't remember. She's all about love and compassion now?
I never did become angry. I knew immediately that I'd rather have a loving, accepting mom with a conveniently poor memory than the angry, fanatical, crazy, judgmental woman who raised me.
Asa young adult, I was traumatized and scarred as I awoke to find that nothing I believed in growing up was true. I spent hours a day praying, studying my bible, and writing, all for nothing. Ooh, and I was angry for years. But I am not angry anymore. If I do get upset, it is because I know how harmful Biblical ideology is when it's taken seriously. Notice that I did not say 'literally'. I said 'seriously'. I'm grateful I can read about Baptist on Catholic crime in blogs, like the one that inspired me to write this, and be entertained by it, rather than feel tormented and resentful,seething on the inside.
This past year marks the first time I am able to feel grateful for my upbringing. The manic fanaticism consumed me as a child. I took the Bible very seriously because I was taught that it was serious. Had my father not begun teaching me about his god at the age of 3, I never would have begun to ask profound questions about that god before I was old enough to read.Were it not for my indoctrination, I would not have begun studying the bible zealously at 7. I would not have had my first real doubts concerning the credibility and veracity of this god by age 12. I feel gratitude today.
I was 8 years old when I had my first frightening experience while reading the bible. Many are familiar with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, but I will never forget the first time I read the story of what happened to Lot's wife. I knew then, at that young age, that I was so inquisitive and curious, I would have looked back, too. I would have done the same. Why did god make me so inquisitive, and what would he do to me? It was the first moment I felt acquainted with the god of that book, and he was horribly vindictive and cruel. Would he destroy me for asking too many questions? For searching too deeply? I was terrified of him.
By my observation, most Christians do not put much into their faith. When they see no evidence of god at work, they blame their own shortcomings. I gave my faith everything I had. I studied my bible and prayed like my life and soul depended on it. I was taught that it did. I found nothing but excruciating pain and emptiness. Had I not read my bible cover to cover several times by age 13, I might be another complacent Christian today, feeling guilty for not pulling my weight or giving enough of myself to that relationship. It was my intense loyalty, commitment, and devotion to god that caused me to return to atheism, the lack of belief I was born with. In my own way, I am reborn today. I am so grateful to have found the truth. No matter what the cost in tears,no matter how great the anguish, I would rather know the truth.
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