Well folks, it's Jesus Week at Harvard. Sounds funny, doesn't it? Like Fresh Vegetables Month at Charlie's Kitchen or Bill Bradley holding a Week Without Scowling. I'm a Methodist, born and raised on Sundays at church, but even for me the name "Jesus Week," brings up stereotypes: images of a tent revival in the Yard, with people faith-healing pit kids ("Ye art afflicted by Satan!" "I am Satan." "OK! See ye later!").
Taking place between Palm Sunday and Easter, Jesus Week seems like it will be one of the campus' biggest Christian events--bigger than Moses Month, Noahpalooza and their big fall contest: Guess What Hell is Like! (Closest answer wins a T-shirt). Jesus Week is a celebration of one of the most popular faiths on campus and in our country. Yet still, in my mind, anything called "Jesus Week" makes me think of religious fanaticism. (Drink the punch at one of their events; and you'll wake up a week later with a tattoo reading, "You Jews, you lose.") In reality, of course, they're not fanatics: The groups which run Jesus Week are just trying to give an avenue for Christians to express their religion on campus. But why, for me, does the faith of my fathers now seem more like the faith of Ralph Reed and Bob Jones?
The answer starts in junior high Sunday School. I got my theological instruction from Madonna, so I felt class was superficial. Instead of learning, then, I spent my time trying to attract my female classmates (unsuccessfully) and sneaking away with my friends to turn off the church's air conditioning system (successfully, but this was an extremely bad idea). My teachers, faced with a classroom of people like me, needed to reach the lowest common denominator. We watched Rambo, ate many donuts and played a lot of run-around-and-shriek games. If there was a message in there, I usually missed it--I learned Christianity as well as you learn social theory from watching Jerry Springer.
On Sundays during high school, my learning was disrupted by the Fate Girls. Before the conformity of junior high had worn off for the rest of us, these girls were wearing loose-fitting clothing, no makeup and talking about the Indigo Girls (which we all thought was a tag team on G.L.O.W. women's wrestling). They would interrupt the class to say things like, "Well, you know, Fate like controls all of us, it's just like Fate, so believing in this Jesus stuff is like useless. Secure yourselves to heaven, like." I expected a John McLaughlin-type reaction ("Galileo's head was on the WRONG!"), but our Sunday school teachers just nodded and continued discussion. They didn't want to alienate anybody. Now I was really lost.
And so I did what many people do who have trouble with organized religion: I became "privately religious." I was still Christian, but I didn't dare practice out in the open for fear I'd hear more unhelpful or contradictory things. Sort of how, if you liked Moby Dick because you imagined Ahab looked like Fabio, you wouldn't hang around the English Department saying that. The problem was, since I never allowed my beliefs to be challenged, I never had to formulate them rationally, never had to make them make sense. Hey, I figured, it works for the Southern Baptists. Religion became a mass of beliefs whose origins I couldn't remember and whose ramifications often made them contradictory.
At college, it got worse. Science taught that Biblical stories run counter to the laws of the universe. History taught that every Christian doctrine was as sure of itself as the one I was raised in--how could I say for sure mine was right? In my private sphere of belief, secularization seemed as unwelcome and inevitable as a New Kids reunion tour. Christianity was not a conviction but a stage: An infant's pacifier to be exchanged inevitably for the pureed beets of intellectual agnosticism and perhaps the smashed-up crackers of pretending to understand Zen. And so, after this years-long process of disillusionment and personalization of faith, "Jesus Week" struck me first as the production of those less learned and less open-minded than me.
But now it feels like exchanging old-time religion for Harvard intellectualism isn't a fair trade at all. One made me feel viscerally certain of my role in the world. The other can't even explain for certain what started the Civil War, or why Lyndon B. Johnson's wife was named "Lady Bird." Here among academia's best and brightest, there are still some things I feel, and don't rationally know, about the world. I trust that life has a purpose higher than procreation and accumulation, for instance. I'm certain of the importance of honor. I believe that kozmo.com can deliver to your room in under an hour only because it is run by Satan.
So where does that leave me? Still certain that the "Jesus Week" folks and I aren't on the same page, but I wonder now whether that's because they know less or more than I do. Wondering why my education has left me with so many religious questions: Does God exist? What should I do if He does? Why doesn't "Zoroaster" rhyme with "toaster?
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