Dan turned on Audio Adrenaline this afternoon just especially to annoy me as I finished cooking lunch because he loves me so.
I used to like them because even though they were Christian (a requisite for my mid-‘90s music collection), the long-haired bass guitarist used to paint his nails. SUCH A REBEL. Anyway, I hadn’t listened to them in 150 years or so, and some of their lyrics startled me today:
“You can take God out of my school
You can make me listen to you
You can take God out of the pledge
But you can’t take God out of my head.”
I was still brainwashed a good conservative Baptist girl when the issue of prayer in public schools stirred up tremendous controversy in the church. I earnestly believed what I was told: that you would be arrested for having a Bible in your backpack or praying at your desk. Of course that was simple misinformation, spread in hysteria by panicked churchgoers. (If any of you are interested in the actual details of Supreme Court rulings, here ya go.) It never has been and probably never will be illegal to pray in schools; it just isn’t legal to force everyone else to participate. (I am so tempted to go ask the hysterical doomsayers of my childhood how they would have reacted if it had been Muslim prayer or Native American rituals or Wiccan chants being banned… but I guess that is just the heathen in me.)
The subject launched Dan and I into one of those long coffee-fueled conversations that remind us how glad we are to be on the same page. (He calls us “conservative hippies,” a fabulous description for two people feeling out the balance between standards and open mindedness.) We’re coming into that delicate stage of parenting where our preschooler absorbs every word she hears and works it into her own context of the world, and I desperately want to protect her from all the damaging teachings I grew up with. For Dan, who grew up in a different (and more, uh, functional) culture, the challenge is in noticing all the subtle hints of religious dogma that pop up.
For instance, I was reading a new picture book to Natalie today—a gift from relatives who no doubt found the story wholesome. However, I almost threw it away when we got to the page when the spoiled little mice realize how ungrateful they’ve been and start to cry. “I’m so dreadfully ashamed of myself,” sobs the girl mouse, who had refused to eat her parsnips on page 6. Wham. One little sentence packing a life-long punch of obligatory guilt. I know it all too well. (I decided not to make a big deal out of it at the time and finished the story—Natalie has a few years yet before she needs to learn about the religious-cultural doctrine of shame—but that book is never going back on her shelf.)
Dan reminded how much of this idea of making oneself miserable to be moral comes from ancient Jewish culture, and later, Roman Catholicism. (It’s not, by the way, from the Bible. In fact, Paul wrote a lengthy letter directly to the Romans explaining that forgiveness was God’s job, not theirs, and was free, free, free, free, and did he mention free?) It’s incredible to me that shame, a monumentally damaging emotion, is held up as a hallmark of holiness in so many circles.
I’m still unsure how to cultivate the spiritual side of my daughters in a way that will be relevant to them now. I can guarantee I will never be hammering the concept of obedience into their heads as the path to preschool Godliness. (We do teach them to obey us, by the way, just not in the vein of “morality is the point of life, now clean your room.”) Neither will shame or deeply burrowing regret ever be sensations we teach them. We’ll let them read the Bible in time, once they are able to process context and applicability, but there will be no gruesome history lessons for now. (Do you know how many Noah’s Ark-themed gifts I’ve had to throw away? I would like to punch whoever keeps insisting that the story of worldwide homicide and destruction is good for kids just because some animals were involved. And Jesus’s horrific torture, murder, and abandonment by God? They deeply traumatized me as a young child, and I am not willing to put my girls through that at such sensitive ages, no matter how foundational the story is to our faith.)
That only leaves the question of what do we teach them now? I still find myself a bit undone spiritually, decades of righteous BS unraveling while my true un-churchy beliefs begin to form. I feel bad that the girls are not benefitting from a mother who has her own convictions figured out like the mothers of my past all did (or pretended to), but perhaps my honesty in the matter will be enough. Maybe my lack of pretensions can accomplish what severe doctrine failed to do for me: inspire their spirituality to grow and breathe and seek out the truth with confidence.