catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 7, Num 18 :: 2008.10.10 — 2008.10.24


Out of the closet, into the forest

This is what I believe:
That I am I.
That my soul is a dark forest.
That my known self will never be more than a little clearing in the forest.
D. H. Lawrence

I have been outed. Without intention or agenda, I recently came out of the closet to a group of near strangers, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.

After a year of living a near hermit-like existence in the warm and comfortable confines of our little house on Edgar Street, my self-imposed thrust out of the cocoon and into the unforgiving winds of an intensive eight month master’s program has made for quite a lifestyle adjustment. While I once danced thorough my days happily composing poems and dinners, I now spend every waking moment listening to, reading about or synthesizing the mounds of information served up to me on an academic platter so overfilled I’m surprised it doesn’t shatter beneath the weight. And I do this alongside fifteen other students, all of various backgrounds and faiths. We are connected through our love of language but beyond that-well, it’s a crapshoot.

I was happily surprised upon meeting this small group of relatively like-minded (at least in terms of academic interests) people, to find out that they were-gasp-friendly! Contrary to the rumors I had heard and warnings I had been given, these folks, my colleagues in the career of mind expansion, are not snobbish and competitive. In fact, I find them quite the opposite. Not only have our courses become forums for expression and open dialogue, they have also worked as springboards for further discussion about academics, theories, and even plain old blue-jeaned life outside of the classroom. It was in the context of one of these warm and cozy, amiable and non-judgmental conversations that I outed myself to a classmate. After that, it seemed I couldn’t stop myself; I told more people. Before I realized what I was doing, I had told a majority of my new friends that, yes indeed, despite the Crusades and the crazies, I am a Christian.

The experience of revealing my faith-however floundering, however hodge-podge it may be-to a group of master’s program classmates stands in stark contrast to the first time I did such a thing. Reaching back through the cobwebs to a time before President George Bush (Jr.), before the war in Iraq (this one), before Hipsterism (as we know it), before the 80s were cool (again), is the autumn of 1998. I was a young buck, in the twilight of my 17th year and still believing that crow’s feet didn’t happen until age fifty and acne ended with adolescence. I was five years into Christianity, and I felt as if I had sailed the seven seas. I couldn’t imagine that any great changes might lie ahead, at least not for my faith, because my faith seemed the one constant in my life. Had I allowed myself to conceive of faith as the rocky sea instead of the anchor that held the boat amidst that sea, I think I might’ve had a nervous breakdown. Nonetheless, it was 1998, I was 17, and I couldn’t wait to go to a Christian college. After all, I had had very limited experiences with other Christians outside of church, and I was excited to be around some of them on a daily basis. For better or for worse, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what that might mean. I envisioned late-night theological discussions over coffee and Kierkegaard, and early morning sunrises spent sharing favorite C.S. Lewis quotes (this was before Aslan was a household name) and arguing over predestination. Until that point, I thought that all Christians saw the world as a dichotomous place of black vs. white, sacred vs. secular, The Newsboys vs. Tori Amos.

As you might guess, I was surprised by the variety of different kinds of Christians that I came into contact with at my new school. Beyond the obvious differences of Protestant and Catholic were the myriad of opinions and dogmas represented by the many different strains of Christianity. Coming into contact with such a wide spectrum of believers helped to broaden my own faith. I realized that, contrary to what I was beginning to think, it wasn’t a sin to be a Democrat, and all of my natural inclinations towards creative expression and experimentation weren’t necessarily fragments of the “old man” sin still floating around in my psyche after conversion. It also helped me to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t have to be an Evangelical, a Conservative, a Republican or even a very good person to be a Christian (even if many of my classmates themselves were all of the above). In short, I learned that Christianity was as broad a category as Humanism, or any religion for that matter, and that my selfhood was not something that needed to be beaten out of me like dust out of dirty old rug. I was relieved to learn from the example of these Christians that my personality and my faith weren’t mutually exclusive, and that they could work in tandem with one another towards a more genuine expression of both.

After four years of undergrad at a Christian college, I went onto to another Christian college for their three-semester secondary education program, and after that, I worked for three years at a Christian high school. And now, after so much time among relatively like-minded people (at least in terms of faith), I find myself in the inverse situation; I am among a group of fantastically interesting individuals who may or may not share any aspect whatsoever of my particular worldview. Despite the fact that I spent the first 17 years of my life outside of mainstream Christianity (and church, for that matter), my recent move into “secular” academia is still a marked transition for me, as my decade-long indoctrination into Christian culture, both mainstream and marginal, has made a deep impression upon my worldview. The old bad habit of assuming that I formed while in the company of Christians does not work in this new situation. The old bad habit of saying things like “I’m a Christian, BUT [fill in the blank here: I’m liberal, I’m tolerant, I’m…]” is creeping up and out of my mouth again, as it always does when I find myself in any sort of serious conversation with people who do not share my beliefs. The fact is, I find it hard nowadays not to qualify my faith. Akin to the times when I feel I have to qualify my citizenship (I’m an American ex-pat living in Canada) by saying things like, “I’m an American, BUT [fill in the blank here-I’m not totally insane, I don’t drink blood and oil cocktails, I’m not voting for that maniac, etc…]” are the times when I qualify my faith. And, as with the need I feel to qualify my American identity, how much am I the one to blame for the need I feel to do the same for my Christianity?

The fact is, greater and greater numbers of intelligent and articulate Christians are coming to the fore to speak about things like the war in Iraq, global warming and minority rights. More than that, progressive peoples of the faith are more than just yammering and jabbering and clacking away on their keyboards, some are actually acting upon their beliefs in an effort to enact this doctrine of social justice. Many Christians have realized the legacy of pathos that our forefathers have left us-extreme fundamentalism, the open hatred of gays and lesbians, and the shaming and condemnation of those who fight for abortion, to give but a few sensational examples-and they are doing something to heal the bridges that have been burned by our predecessors.

Don’t get me wrong; I am certainly not saying that in order to be a Christian one must espouse any particular political (i.e. liberal progressive) opinions. I refuse the notion that I have the authority to tell anyone that his or her beliefs must fit a certain mold in order to be culturally acceptable or socially palatable. In the same vein, I retain the right to maintain as radical or liberal an opinion as I desire on any issue-political, social, or otherwise-and to still call myself a Christian. And this is the difference between myself at age 17 and myself at age 27. It’s not that the world has changed so much-it hasn’t. It’s not that I have changed so much-I haven’t. It’s not even that my faith or my concept of God has changed so much, although it has, in every way but the most essential. What is different is that while I may yet feel the need to qualify my faith, I no longer feel the need to justify it to my non-Christian friends. In the same way, while I may feel the need to explain my perspective on issues of politics and culture, I no longer feel the need to justify it to my Christian friends. This may not seem like a big leap to you readers out there, but believe-you-me, amigos, it is-it’s the difference between the shopping mall and the sewing room, the produce aisle and the garden. My master’s program friends might call it agency, my Christian friends might call it grace and if I had to call it anything at all, I’d call it a relief.

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