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I have this memory, from a few years ago, of sitting around in a friend’s apartment and listening to random music and eating great food. (Said friend was Danish, you see, and dang but do Scandinavians know how to cook.) At some point the soundtrack for Jesus Christ Superstar came on. Specifically, ‘Everything’s Alright’, the scene where Mary Magdalene goes to bathe Jesus’ feet and was his hair with her expensive oils. The song is quite moving, I suppose, but I suddenly realised I loathed it.
In the song, Judas Iscariot rises and condemns Magdalene and Jesus for using the ‘fine ointment / brand new and expensive’ instead. Instead he advocates selling the stuff and using the ‘three hundred… or more’ pieces of silver they could have acquired to assistant the poor and starving in Roman-occupied Judea. Jesus’ condescending response is that there will always be poor folk, ‘pathetically struggling’ and that it’s better to appreciate the ‘fine things’ that one already has. Meanwhile in the background, Magdalene and the chorus (the wives of the apostles) chant:
Everything’s alright, yes, everything’s alright, yes.
Close your eyes, close your eyes, and relax
What a hideous piece of music. Of course Jesus advocates that one should appreciate what one has. He is the one getting his feet massaged with oils! He is the leader of the motley crew, with all the power and authority. And, of course, he is the all-powerful Son of God, one third of the Trinity, with the power to overturn all the earth and make it into a paradise. His sneering contempt for the helpless poverty of the people he was sent to save sends paroxysms of anger and hatred down my spine.
Helpless only because he refuses to help them! There will always be poor of the world because the Almighty refuses to do anything to stop it. When one of his closest companions offers to help relieve some of the poor of their cruel lot, he refuses- why help anyone at all, when there are others? Why indeed, especially when one can spent such exorbitant wealth on oneself. Gah.
This is without even addressing the myopic bleating of the chorus lines. Close your eyes and relax! Pay no heed to those who are desperately trying to wake you up from your heartless selfishness. Everything’s all right. Just relax.
It perfectly encapsulates my issues with religious thinking.
Of course, Superstar isn’t exactly an accurate depiction of the New Testament. Yet even a straightforward reading of the texts of Jesus reveals him to be anything other than a powerful figure for social change. Rather than advocating the freedom of his people from Roman rule, he said to render unto Caesar what was his. Rather than compelling his followers to improve their lives and those of their neighbours in the here and now, he declared that he was a sword to set brother against brother.
What a lovely chap. I much prefer Judas.
I am still struggling with some other work, so you may consider this post filler. Behold! A holy saint who I would be inclined to worship:
My apostasy is no epic tale of tragic heroes and fallen priests. My parents were areligious; my grandmother was Anglican; my secondary school cared not what your sexuality was. There is no grim black-robed figure in my past, frowning as he railed against the evils of hellfire and sin, cursing my young mind to be forever looking over my shoulder for the Devil.
I read too much Tolkein and Lewis and believed in that nice guy in the heavens. I am pretty sure I identified as an Anglican and as a youngster was a devout member of the Boy’s Brigade. I really did believe in Discipline and Obedience and all that, which is a puzzle for those who know my pierced and long-haired adult self.
My childhood theology was fuzzy. I knew that God, Jesus, and the Spirit were one being, although the details were always vague. I figured out that Aslan was Jesus fairly early in the piece, and loved that it essentially a crossover. I knew that God did things to test us, and that He did not grant wishes, or raise the dead, or any of that nonsense. Yet I knew that if one believed, if one prayed, then He would respond in subtle ways.
I was heartbroken when my beloved grandmother died before I could reach her. Understand, I had never prayed expecting that God would heal her, or anything. Just that the day we were called and told she was dying, that he would allow me to go and see her one last time. She died about four hours before we arrived. I was ten.
This -understandably, I think- crushed my faith. I think I still believed (it is difficult to tell), but I no longer believed in God as an almighty, omnibenevolent figure. He was now an oath-breaker, one who claimed one thing and did another. To someone raised on Tolkein, Lewis and Arthurian myth, this ranked him with Sauron as the blackest of hearts.
[If I had ever read the Old Testament more closely I would have realised this, of course. The God of Abraham is a brutal murderer, a psychopath more closely related to Stalin than Gandhi. Others, of course, have said this more eloquently than me. I wander from my point.]
So as I aged, I continued in my state of almost-unbelief. The stereotypical apologist about atheists not truly doubting the existence of God, but simply being mad at Him was actually sort of true in my case. I was a child, so I think I may be forgiven.
Eventually my anger subsided, and I started reconsidering my lack of faith. By this time I had started on my secondary schooling quest to become a chemist. The skeptical outlook of science meant that I absolutely could not bring myself to believe, no matter how I wrestled with the concept. Still in love with the idea of faith, even if I lacked it, I called myself an agnostic and spent a few years poking with alternative religions. Wicca, reconstruction of pagan religions, Satanism, Buddhisms; I looked at all of them, and discarded them for various reasons.
It was not until I decided to return to university that I became an atheist. I had taken a break for a few years, due in the main to illness, and eventually returned. What to study was the prominent question- I had long had an interest in the middle ages, but religion beckoned me ever closer. I compromised, and took classes in both to get a taster.
[Guess which won.]
It was in the first year course Introduction to World Religions that I first had forcibly revealed to me the sameness that underlay so much of faith. Similar rules, ethical structures, binding hierarchies- it was almost as though a template applied across religions around the globe. Yet they were all manifestly different enough to not be stemming from some common ancestor, but rather examples of convergent evolution. From different roots, humans had arrived at similar institutions, different and wonderfully diverse; cruel and relentlessly restricting.
As part of this research, I began reading non-religious manifestos and engaging in debate with religious, ‘New Atheists’, Deists and the like. I wanted -still do!- to know if I were right, and if I were not, I would adapt my belief system accordingly. I do not deny that Dawkins was an immense influence, but he did not stand alone. Gradually and persistently, my defense of faith as a purely positive force, my concept that God could perhaps exist, my preference to avoid religious arguments…were worn away.
I decided it was time to step out and help confront religion.