I don’t remember too many of my childhood experiences with religion. I know that my family went to church most weeks, and that I was baptized as a young child at First United Methodist Church in Jackson, Michigan. I know this because I have been told; I don’t remember the experience at all.
My earliest memory of church is the time I crapped my pants during Sunday school. I had been trying to say that I needed to use the restroom, but was too self-conscious to say it; so I used a euphemism which, apparently, I alone knew the meaning of. This didn’t help, and I had to be changed by one of the ladies supervising the class. It was quite embarrassing.
A couple years later, I was taught (in the same church) about the culture of Native Americans. The Sunday school teacher told us that we shouldn’t call them “Indians,” since they didn’t come from India. “God will slap me if I call them Indians,” she said. While I knew, even then, that God doesn’t go around slapping people, the point was well taken. To this day I cannot refer to a Native American as an “Indian.” It just doesn’t feel right.
When I was about ten years old, my family stopped going to the Methodist church and started going to Arbor Grove Congregational Church, right down the street from where we lived.
It was a strange church. It had a traditional Trinitarian liturgy, but the pastor (Rev. John Doud) was a Unitarian. He did not believe that Jesus was the unique Son of God or God incarnate, as most Christians do. Rev. Doud and I became friends fairly quickly, and have remained good friends to this day.
At about this same time, I began studying the Bible and became very interested in what it had to say. While there were many Bible stories I was familiar with (including the seven days of creation, Noah’s ark, the Exodus from Egypt, the Ten Commandments, and the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus), there was also a lot that was new to me.
I found the book of Revelation terrifying, but also very intriguing. I began to read the Bible every day for a while – though I would not read it all the way through until I was an adult.
I was about eleven years old the first time I met Christian fundamentalists. These were warm, friendly folks who believed that the Bible was literally inerrant – that every word of it was dictated to man by God, and that it should be interpreted as literally as possible.
Even at this young age, I found this idea absurd. I didn’t know everything that was in the Bible, but I knew enough to know that there were many contradictions in it that could not be harmonized if one took it literally.
Besides, I reasoned, no one considered every detail of other books to be literally true (I did not yet know about the Koran). Why should the Bible be different?
When I got older, I would come to realize that there is another way in which the Bible could all be true – if one didn’t take it all literally. But as a child I regarded it more as a storybook – inspiring and very interesting, to be sure, but not something a person could base his or her entire life upon.
(Next week: My teenage years.)