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Religion: The DVD

By Cheryl Ensom Dack ~

I would not say I’m an atheist and I resist labeling myself as an agnostic, mostly because I can’t stand labels anymore. But I definitely am not a Christian. I’m at a place where I no longer feel the need to believe or disbelieve anything. I know what I’m experiencing. I’m honest about it. I don’t need to label it. I don’t need to change or move. I’m where I’m at.

Description unavailableImage by ~Liliana via Flickr
Because the shifts that have gradually occurred in me didn’t happen overnight, I think it’s important to write about the various stages I went through in the deconstruction of my Christianity. I know I am not alone in the feelings I have or had, but I often feel like there is a lot written from a Christian stand-point and a lot written from an atheist or agnostic paradigm, but not a lot written about the “process” people go through in between. What about the places in between belief and unbelief? Lots of people are there, but unless they read something about someone else’s similar experience or feelings, they inevitably feel alone.

Who do you talk to about the “in-between” places? Sometimes it feels like everyone – Christians and atheists, alike – would have you “hurry up and get on board, already!” There has to be a place for the process. In fact, I think I always WILL be in process and I don’t see myself ever pigeon-holing myself as “this” or “that.” I want to just be where I’m at and be honest about it, from here on out.

In the effort to talk about the in-between places, I’d like to share something I wrote about a year ago, when some questions began to surface that I think are important in the “deconstruction” process for a lot of people. Where I was at the time, it made sense to me to frame them like this:

Winter 2008 –

What if religion is the world’s effort to package up God in a manner we can offer to another at arms' length...we don't have to get too close, don't have to get the weepy, hurting friend's runny mascara on our clean shirts and we don't have to love in a palpable way that makes a difference in their circumstances?

After all, we aren't loved that way by others, so why should we get messy for someone else when no one is getting messy for us? Religion was handed to us at arm's length.

Many of us received religion as a neat and tidy package we didn’t dare unwrap. Religion was like a DVD still in the package we based our whole lives on even though we never opened or watched it ourselves.

Everybody we know gives and receives the same DVD in its' sealed form; we have forgotten there is something inside. Instead we talk about the DVD as if we've watched it. We repeat the little summary from the back cover, talking and acting as though we have seen it ourselves, when in fact we have not. We, along with our fellow-unopened-DVD owners, make special clubs we advertise as a place to talk about the DVD in depth. Instead, the clubs all go the same way: everyone repeating the description from the back cover in all the same ways. We forget the DVD is anything but the package it's inside of.

We all feel a vague discomfort- a feeling that there is something missing. Every once in awhile we might have a tiny flash of insight: what if we open up the DVD and actually watch it? What if, when we watch it, we find the story is different than our simple little clubs had interpreted it as being? What if, after actually watching it for ourselves, we can no longer stomach the "pat" conversation at our clubs? What then? This line of thinking is so uncomfortable, we more often than not push it from our minds.

We are too busy, too tired, too....afraid. We know deep inside that watching the DVD would change our lives, change our relationships, change how we do things. We, like the rich young ruler Jesus challenged to actually act on his beliefs, are willing to buy and distribute copies of the DVD to the world, stand in front of crowds and recite the blurb on the back cover and attend every single club meeting discussing the DVD. But open it up and watch it, knowing it could potentially change everything...hell, no. That is far too scary.

We give this same DVD to our children. We teach our impressionable children to memorize the blurb on the back of the DVD. We at least imply, and sometimes overtly teach, that if our children and/or other DVD-less acquaintances do not take the DVD we offer them and attend the discussion clubs, they will quite possibly go to hell. They are made to understand that if that happens, they are in danger of losing not only God's approval, but perhaps even our love.

When our children reach an age where they begin to think independently, they of course begin to doubt the "magical powers" of the DVD we touted: the rest of the world is watching all sorts of interesting DVDs, talking about them and don't live with the fear and numbed-out brains our children inherited from us. Why should they risk opening and watching the DVD for themselves; they already know the basic plot by rote, thank you very much, and they're frankly not impressed. Everywhere they look people are living their lives and watching fascinating DVDs.

And even if they had the gumption to open and watch the DVD we gave them, they'd likely meet with disapproval from us, as well as from our clubs, anyway. So why bother? It's much easier, more attractive and less of a bother to dump our DVD entirely and just subscribe to Netflix like everyone else in the world. Who cares what the movies the world watches are about; at least they WATCH them!!

What if we watched the DVD rather than leaving it unwrapped and having silly, shallow discussion groups about what someone else decided to say ABOUT the movie? What if we watch the movie, running the risk that it could change us? What if we were always meant to live in the truth the movie so beautifully pictures? What if there is no need for clubs? After all, why talk about watching it with other people, when we could be WATCHING it with other people?

Perhaps God created the movie TO change us as we watch it. If so, we shouldn't be standing arm's length from people, telling them ABOUT the movie and expecting them to be changed because they know what it's about. What if it's a movie only appreciated, only understood and only life-changing because the individual watches it themselves?

Perhaps watching the DVD yourself rather than basing your life on someone's tidy little summary would mean that the movie relates differently, personally and specifically to each individual. What if God made this movie specifically for each person, knowing exactly what that person needed to hear, see and feel? To give someone my interpretation or tell them about my experience is only helpful if they have already experienced it and been impacted by it in the way that is specific to them. If they already know the movie, they would enjoy hearing how it impacted me, what was personal to me and the individualized message I uncovered in it.

I can be told I am loved every day and twice on Sundays but until I am loved in a palpable, personal, wipe-your-snot-on-my-new-sweater-while-I-listen-to-you kind of way, others' statements of love are worth nothing to mePerhaps the main difference between reading the description on the back cover and actually watching it myself is, quite simply, love. I can be told I am loved every day and twice on Sundays but until I am loved in a palpable, personal, wipe-your-snot-on-my-new-sweater-while-I-listen-to-you kind of way, others' statements of love are worth nothing to me; in fact their emptiness eventually hurts so much, I numb out to it. And yet, am I doing anything different when it comes to my interactions with others?

To be handed the DVD while the person offering it sits and watches the DVD-less person's child cry because she's hungry is insensitive and even hateful. And you better believe that when that person shouts, "goodbye!" over the deafening cries of that hungry child, the DVD-less person will be throwing their DVD, unopened, into the next rubbish bin. If she is given a DVD about African salamanders, while the cries of her child and her own tears rolling down her cheeks are ignored, the giver is worse than those that walked right by her, pretending they don't see her plight. In her world of pain, she has no use for DVDs...doesn't matter whether they are about salamanders or love. Same thing in her reality. The tidy giver doesn't see her; he or she doesn't care. They just want to go back to their happy little club and tell all their buddies how many DVDs they distributed this week.

"She wasn't very receptive," he or she will tell their friends, when asked about what the person they offered the DVD to did and said when given the DVD. These friends shake their carefully-coiffed heads sadly.

"We'll just pray that she looks at it. That's all God asks of us, after all," they say. "We've planted the seed..."

How despicable is it to distribute a DVD about love in an unloving way. We might as well replace the real cover with a new one that is entitled, "Fuck You." At least that cover is honest about what the giver really thinks and feels about the person who doesn't own the DVD. I know for a fact that such a person would rather they just ignored her. But instead we shout over the sounds of her cries what will happen to her if she continues to refuse what we are offering.

What if we just toss the DVD altogether? Or maybe we watch the DVD ourselves and then put it away. What if we meet one another, DVD-less, and simply offer the compassion, support, acceptance and love we all want? Who needs to watch a DVD about something when they can experience it themselves? I enjoy a good love story, but I'd much rather experience one than watch a movie about it.