Ada Calhoun wrote of her experiences of being a Christian in the closet in that bastion of secularism, New York City in this article in Salon.com back in December 2009. I found article through a link provided by a Facebook friend. It turned out to be interesting to read, but a little disappointing, in part because she felt the need to be closeted at all.
It was Sunday morning in my scruffy Brooklyn, N.Y., neighborhood, and I was wearing a dress. Walking to the subway, I ran into a friend heading home from yoga class. She wore sweats and carried her mat over her shoulder. “Where are you going so early all dressed up?” she asked, chuckling. “To church?” We shared a laugh at the absurdity of a liberal New Yorker heading off to worship.
The real joke? I totally was.
Inside the church, it’s cool and quiet. I read the Collect of the day in the Book of Common Prayer, which urges us: “While we are placed among
things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall
endure.” My recent layoff no longer seems like the end of the world. I take Communion and exchange the peace and listen to the sermon. As I’m walking back up the aisle, I feel reoriented and calmer, the indignities of the week shift into perspective.
These moments are not only sacred; they are secret. Outside, on the steps of the downtown Manhattan church, I think I see someone familiar coming down the sidewalk, and I bolt in the other direction.
Why am I so paranoid? I’m not cheating on my husband, committing crimes or doing drugs. But those are battles my cosmopolitan, progressive friends would understand. Many of them had to come out — as gay, as alcoholics, as artists in places where art was not valued. To them, my situation is far more sinister: I am the bane of their youth, the boogeyman of their politics, the very thing they left their small towns to escape. I am a Christian.
I can understand her feelings. Most people would rather die than be caught doing something that their peers disapprove of. Still, we live in which in many places Christians are persecuted and even martyred for their faith. The worst that Ms. Calhoun faces are sneers from her cosmopolitan, progressive friends. What would she do if practicing her faith meant ostracism, loss of work, even prison?
I am glad that Ada Calhoun has come out of the closet and I hope that many more will come out in secular, progressive circles. Maybe Hollywood and the media will treat Christians better if they understand that some of us are among them. She seems at pains, however, to assure her readers and her friends that she is not one of those kinds of Christians.
I’ll give the atheists a lot: The Creation Museum is a riot. The psychos shooting up abortion clinics and telling gay couples they’re going to hell are evil, and anyone of faith has an obligation to condemn them. Abominable stuff has been done in God’s name for centuries. The Bible has a lot of crazy shit in it about stoning people for using the wrong salad fork. Up with science and reason!
And yet, atheists are at least as fundamentalist and zealous as any religious people I know, and they have nothing good to show for it: no stained glass, no great literature, no great art, no comfort in the face of death. Just dissipated Christopher Hitchens sounding off on “Larry King Live” and a stack of smug books with childishly provocative titles.
A lot of my best friends are atheists, and there’s no reason they wouldn’t be. They find what I get from religion elsewhere, like from music and art. Not long ago, I told a priest at my church that my friends equated religion with horrible things. I expected her to tell me I had some obligation to stop hiding my faith, but she said, pulling a scarf around her neck to hide her priest’s collar, “Those preachers on the subways make me cringe.” She said she prefers Saint Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
Her Episcopal church is suitably progressive in its values and unlikely to cause any offense to her cosmopolitan and progressive friends, and she exhibits the progressive tolerance we might expect.
I could reassure my atheist friends that the Episcopal Church is a force for equality and social justice. It ordained its first gay bishop, Gene Robinson, in 2003. It takes the Bible as a mandate to fight hunger and disease and to rebuild after disasters. I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and other politically involved religious groups who take the gospel as an excuse to spread hate and support specific candidates and propositions should have their tax-free status taken away.
Maybe, though, apolitical Christianity is on the rise. The Obamas are now in office — a good Christian family in the truest sense of the term — and the right wing is more marginalized than it was a year ago. My friend, the young (and kind of ridiculously hot) priest the Rev. Astrid Storm, whom I used to edit at Nerve.com, says she’s sensing more acceptance:
“When I said I was a priest, it was always a conversation stopper,” she says. “Recently someone asked what I did, and when I told him he said, ‘How interesting. There are a lot of exciting things happening right now in the Episcopal Church, aren’t there?’ The diversity of opinion people are reading about in the news — about gay marriage, female priests, poverty issues — are showing how Christianity isn’t monolithic.”
I wonder what Ms. Calhoun would do if she learned through divine inspiration that God really does disapprove of homosexuality, or He really doesn’t intend for women to act as clergy, or any of the other exciting things that are happening in the Episcopal Church? What if it turns out that the groups who oppose same sex marriage really reflect God’s will better than her church? Would she have the courage to stand up against her cosmopolitan and progressive friends? I wonder.
It may be unfair, but I can’t help but consider that Ada Calhoun’s religion is a little like Mr. By-Ends’ religion in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
It is true we somewhat differ in religion from those of the stricter sort, yet but in two small points; first, we never strive against wind and tide; secondly we are always most zealous when religion goes in his silver slippers; we love much to walk with him in the street, if the sun shines and the people applaud him.
To which Christian replies
you must also own religion in his rags, as well as when in his silver slippers; and stand by him, too, when bound in irons, as well as when he walketh the streets with applause.
I wonder if Ada Calhoun would walk with religion against wind and tide and when bound in irons. To be fair, I wonder if I would. It may be that I also am more than a little like Mr. By-Ends.
The biggest disappointment I have with Ms. Calhoun’s article is that there is something that is missing, or I should say Someone. In an entire article about Christianity there is not one word about Christ. This seems very odd. She says nothing about Jesus or the salvation he brings through His death and resurrection as a reason for becoming a Christian.
Sometime later I got married, and the priest with whom my husband and I did premarital counseling had firsthand experience of closing bars, but he also was smart and eloquent and fulfilled. He showed me the best side of Christianity. Not how it’s right or just, but how — and this may sound stupid, but it’s what I think about religion in general — it works.
All of us need help with birth and death and good and evil, and religion can give us that. It doesn’t solve problems. It reminds you that, yes, those challenges are real and important and folks throughout history have struggled and thought about them too, and by the way, here is some profound writing on the subject from people whose whole job is to think about this stuff.
The idea of an eternal community brings me comfort: I like the image of a long table extending backward and forward in time, and everyone who’s ever taken Communion is sitting at it. The Bible at the 1920s stone church where my husband and I were married was filled with the names of people in the community who’d married, been born and died. When my son was baptized in our church in a traditional Easter eve service, the light spreading from candle to candle through the pews of the dark church made me feel, at least for one moment, we were united in a sense of gratitude for new life and awe in the face of the numinous.
All of these are good things, to be sure, as is feeding the hungry and fighting disease. They are not, however, the primary purpose of the Christian Church. The purpose of the Church is to bring souls to Heaven. If a church tries to make heaven on Earth, however good its intentions, it runs the risk of losing sight of that main purpose. I wonder if the church Ms. Calhoun has lost its way. Does that priest ever preach the Good News of Jesus Christ. Is salvation the goal 0r doing good works and progressive politics?