August 26, 2013

How I Became Captivated by Christian Fundamentalism.

By the time I turned 24, I thought I had it all figured out.

Life was good. I had been living the dream in the San Francisco Bay Area for 11 months, teaching yoga full-time.

I’d been a yogini for years, but I was just starting meditation practice. I’d gone on a short, solo zen retreat at Green Gulch Farm and begun to deepen my exploration of Buddhism.

My 24th birthday was on May 30, 2004. After celebrating in my hometown, Austin, I boarded a plane back to California.

On the connecting flight, I met a guy—thus commenced The Summer of Christopher. Mid-air.  

You know, the energy of Universe, the magical, mysterious stuff of Life that is forever moving and changing, attaching and detaching, shifting and shaking, dancing and stretching, singing and swirling, loving and fearing? That shit shifted on the flight when I met Christopher, that blue Saturday afternoon when we barrelled across the sky.

I was in a window seat; the aisle seat was free. He asked if he could sit there; I gave my permission. Despite the fact that he handed me a business card that announced he was in real estate, I was attracted to him right away.

We started talking about religion and spirituality almost immediately. Who are you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going?

What do you do? I do yoga.

He tells me he’s Christian.

I think: Oh. Really? What a goddamn shame.

I’m all for Jesus, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think much of what’s currently done in His name have much to do with the essence of His teachings: Karuna. Compassion.

Christopher was born and raised in San Jose. His immediate family consists of two parents and five sons. In the nineties, the brothers’ a capella quintet toured the U.S. singing gospel at megachurches across the nation.

When Christopher told me that he had never kissed a girl, I refused to believe him at first. I thought he must be kidding.

Then, I believed him. He had been miseducated into believing that sex before marriage and therefore any physical affection with a girl (or a boy for that matter) was sinful.

I had intentionally given away my virginity at 18 in my dorm room. The sex was unremarkable. It lasted the duration of one skit on Saturday Night Live, but hey, at least I wasn’t a virgin anymore.

I told Christopher I would kiss him, so that he could experience his first kiss straight away. He blushed and rejected the offer, but took my hand and held it the rest of the flight.

Here was this All-American guy who was obviously attracted to me, too. So what if he’s a Christian? I thought. So what if he literally believes in the Bible? Surely he’ll get over that, because I wasn’t going to become a Born-again.

I went right home and googled him. His quintet had a website. From there, I linked to their church’s site and before long, found their belief statement.

We believe in the following conditions for salvation:

No one can enter the Kingdom of God unless that person is born again.

Our redemption has been accomplished solely by the blood of our Lord Jesus.

The new birth of the believer comes only through faith in Christ.

No other acts, such as confession, baptism, prayer, or faithful service are required.

Christopher’s twin was a minister at a Baptist church, although their family claimed only to be “non-denominational” and “Bible-believing.” Despite his orthodoxy and my pagan yogic views and tarot reading habit, we somehow connected.

In our brief overlap, he would alter my life and influence my journey more than any other guru, lover, friend, enemy or acquaintance.

When I probed, I discovered that Christopher sincerely believed that Earth’s Creation took seven days. Because the Bible told him so. He argued against evolution. Fossil record? Fake! He was passionately committed to saving his virginity for his future wife. So, wait. What? No making out? Not even kissing? Heresy!

It took months after our relationship imploded for me to be able to apply the F-word to Christopher and his family.

Christian Fundmentalists!

Ecumenical became my favorite word. It was very important to me that multiple paths to Truth coexist.

I’d been raised Catholic and baptized as an infant. Like a good little bride, I wore a frilly white dress for my first holy communion. The body and blood of Christ, Amen. I refused Confession, because even as early as 1990, it seemed weird to have to go into a small enclosed room and confess my sins to the Father behind the screen. He was just a priest after all, not God.

My most cherished childhood memory of church was the Sunday when I sat in the pew next to my pal Allison and for some silly reason, we started giggling uncontrollably. We were probably eleven years old, thus capable of that particular brand of gasping, girlish laughter that can only occur when you know you are eleven and supposed to be sitting quietly in Mass.

It was a religious experience.

From an early age, I had a problem with accepting a personal savior. Yet, I gazed into Christopher’s blue eyes and thought, Okay, I could love Jesus for this.

At 24, I already had a decade of memories of dysfunctional dating experiences, ugly and unfortunate situations, heartbreak and rejection.

One of my best girlfriends had a steady boyfriend in high school, another in college, and another after college, whom she married. My history was the opposite; I mistook promiscuity for power. The ones I loved didn’t love me.

I settled.

With Christopher, all that changed. He held my hand. He stroked my hair. On our first date, Christopher came over to my house in Palo Alto. We kissed. He wasn’t so bad at it. He seemed modest, shy about sleeping in my bed. I was infatuated. He told me he loved me after we’d known each other eight days. When I said it back, I really meant it.

Christopher may have been a virgin technically, but before long we were doing pretty much everything but having actual intercourse. A long way from chaste.

I went to church with him. Wednesday Bible Study. Sunday Worship Service. In front of his family, he wouldn’t so much as give me a hug.

I quit drugs and alcohol for him. The one time I covertly smoked a bowl, he smelled it on me. He was displeased, but he forgave me.

He came with me to yoga once but was too weirded out by the Sanskrit chanting at the beginning to keep an open mind. Yoga was a false prophet in his eyes.

I was drawn to and repulsed by Christopher for the same reasons — his immense faith and devotion. I wished that I could just surrender, become “Christian” and live happily ever after. But I couldn’t let go of yoga or my newfound Dharma. I remember hot tears bubbling up because I knew something had to give.

In my moment of desperation, I asked Jesus to give me a sign. I hadn’t prayed to Jesus since the eighties, but I begged Him for guidance. I was willing to interpret anything as a sign that Christopher and I were meant to be yoked together forever. I thought our love would transcend our immense differences in belief systems. I imagined traveling the world together, he as a missionary and me… well, that part was not completely clear. The wife of a missionary? The yoga-teaching wife of a missionary? The mindful Christian spreading the light of Christ and Buddha around the world?

Our last date was his great uncle’s funeral. Uncle Ralph was from a branch of the family tree that was not Fundamentalist. Christopher and I got into an argument in the car on the way home due to his assertion that Uncle Ralph was not saved, therefore he’d been turned away at the pearly gates. Followed by my assertion that that was bullshit, and nobody knows what happens after we die.

Our love bubble burst. My rose-colored glasses shattered. How could this ever work? Mr. Christianity with a Zen-loving, yoga-teaching hippie?

I decided that we needed to take a week apart. To reassess our relationship, separately. I drove down to L.A. to visit Rose. In a shoebox under her bed was I Kissed Dating Goodbye, a manifesto written by a young Christian named Josh Harris who was purportedly saving his virginity for marriage. I devoured the book. Though I hated every sentence, it helped me understand the mind of Christopher a little better. Or so I thought. Here’s the book jacket summary:

Going out? Been dumped? Waiting for a call that doesn’t come? Have you tasted pain in dating, drifted through one romance or, possibly, several of them? Ever wondered, isn’t there a better way? I Kissed Dating Goodbye shows what it means to entrust your love life to God. Joshua Harris shares his story of giving up dating and discovering that God has something even better—a life of sincere love, true purity, and purposeful singleness.

Still. I was blinded by my overpowering lust for Christopher and my enjoyment of the new experience of actually having a boyfriend. I wanted to make it work.

When we reunited at a Starbucks, it was clear that his mind was made up. Thus, our romance ended as quickly as it had begun. Game over. But the story was not over yet…

Distracted by my interfaith summer romance, I had allowed myself to lose control of my finances. In other words, to go way further into credit card debt. Unfortunately, God doesn’t pay the bills. I had to surrender my entrepreneurial yoga lifestyle. Via craigslist, I landed a full-time, salaried job at a media firm in “The City.” SF. I was house sitting in Mountain View at the time, which meant commuting for an hour each way each day on the 101. I was so depressed that I could not bring myself to engage with my new colleagues. My mind was so fuzzy that I could not grasp the tasks of my new job. I sat at my computer confused and listless, all day. I would lie in the backseat of my car at lunch, crying.

I stopped at Safeway on the way home and bought an eighth of vodka, a Baby Ruth, a liter of Dr. Pepper, and a box of over-the-counter sleeping pills. I didn’t really want to die; I was just so lost that I didn’t know what else to do.

I deliberately left my phone in the car. If I stopped too long to think about how my family or friends would react, I would be overcome with guilt. I didn’t want to hurt them. I did not relish in the fact that they would mourn me.

I turned on the bathtub faucet and stripped down to my bra and underwear. Too modest to die naked? I swallowed all twelve sleeping pills with big gulps of vodka and Dr. Pepper. I sunk face down into the steamy bath and ate the candy bar. My empty brown eyes did excrete some tear-like liquid, but my sobs were weak and silent. I hoped death would happen painlessly, like drifting off to sleep.

I woke up, face up, in a pool of tepid bathwater, chunks of vomit floating around me. I was alive—and drunk. I staggered to my feet.

I called my mom and, between gasps and sobs, was able to form one sentence: “I need to come home.”

I landed on my butt back in Texas. I had survived my weak attempt to end it all, but I had no job, no money, no love, no God and no peace. I had adored my existence in the Bay area and fervently believed that living the dream in California was my own personal manifest destiny. Now everyday life was my punishment, constantly reminding me of my failure to sustain a happy life on the West Coast.

I effortlessly landed a salaried job in marketing in a gray building in a gray cubicle. I reentered the scene with renewed appreciation for cursing like a sailor, drinking beer, getting high… on weed, and having plenty of casual sex. All the things I had given up for Saint Christopher.

I decided to distract my depression with debauchery, and I partied with a vengeance.

Christopher responded to my attempts to reestablish communication with a tidy email. Subject line: Hello and Goodbye. He told me that I “blessed” him in so many ways and said he was “forever indebted” to me for all that I taught him about beliefs, commitment, faith, and hope. He went on:

Now, however, I am grateful for how it turned out. Even though we became quite close, I know it would never have been the best for either one of us to continue the relationship. I wanted to respect your beliefs while not compromising my own, and it became increasingly more difficult, then impossible, to do either very well. Thus, I am glad for the amicable way in which we did part.

He thanked me for being so understanding.

I am glad to hear that things have both settled down for you and picked up at the same time. I have prayed for you on several occasions, and so I am glad to hear you are doing well.

Oh, that pissed me off! And then, the killer:

I, too, am doing well. The best part of my life now is the reintroduction to Alicia, a girl I had known as a teller at my bank. We’ve found mutual attraction and friendship with close compatibility. I really think this is the girl I’ll spend the rest of my life with, and I’m so very happy. I know that you will understand that this changes the nature of our relationship, Michelle. As close as we were, it wouldn’t be fair to either of us to continue correspondence of any kind in the foreseeable future. I sincerely wish you well, however, and I hope that the next time our paths cross I’ll hear that you and your cowboy are teaching yoga on horseback… or something like that.

WTF? When I called him, he revealed the fact that Alicia was, in fact, Catholic.

Well, that did it! In my deranged mind, I decided that having a big, colorful tattoo of the Blessed Mother in her Mexican form—la virgen de Guadalupe—on my left shoulder was going to help me win Christopher back.

Shortly thereafter, I had a nervous breakdown, precipitated in part by my steamy, sexual, spiritual confusion.

A friend who was there to witness tells me I was convinced that I was pregnant with the second coming of Jesus Christ via immaculate conception. And adamant about my plan to hitchhike to California in my bikini.

I spent ten days at the state mental hospital as men in white lab coats and sad-faced nurses cured my craziness with pharmaceutical potions.

I never saw Christopher again, but I did hear about his fate.

Two Years Later

I had recovered from my manic episode, bought a house and become a bilingual school teacher. For spring break of 2007, I drove myself to Taos for a Yoga as Muse retreat, I spent five days practicing a technique that involves integrating yoga sequences with creative writing.

I was working with particular intensity on a scene in which my heroine, Margot, was struggling to salvage her relationship with Joshua, a Christian. After a draining day, I went to sleep. At three in the morning, my phone rang. Caller ID told me it was Christopher. We hadn’t spoken in months.

I answered to discover it was his fiancé. Distraught, she asked me if I’d known anything about Christopher’s involvement with particular girls from his church community.

“No. Those names don’t ring a bell,” I said. “Why? What’s going on?”

He’d been arrested. One of his brothers had turned him in to the authorities. Evidently, Christopher was a pedophile.

I was stunned. An emotional maelstrom swirled within me—disgust, pity, confusion, repulsion and gratitude that our relationship had ended so abruptly.

The next morning, I woke up and wondered if the conversation had been a lucid dream or a bizarre coincidence of writing and reality overlapping.

Turns out, it was true. The self-proclaimed virgin had repressed his natural instincts since adolescence—other than the two months he spent with me—but they’d emerged in detrimental, perverse acts with eight different girls he’d abused over the span of a decade, some of whom he had met while traveling with his gospel-singing brothers.

The next time I went out to visit friends in the Bay Area, Alicia and I met for lunch. We commiserated and chatted. She told me that Christopher had ultimately been convicted of eight counts of inappropriate involvement with a minor and sentenced to 15 years at San Quentin. She had moved on too and was dating a guy who wasn’t a convicted felon.

Crazily enough, Christopher led me back to Jesus. Because of him, I reopened to the teachings of Christ, for the first time in my adult life. I altered my spirituality because of him; his ridiculous religion remained unchanged.

I have gone from Catholic child to atheistic teen to wannabe Zen to agnostic to secular Buddhist.

Now, I avoid labels. I am nothing. I am here, now. I am breathing and trying my best to be kind to myself and everyone else.

After the Christopher catastrophe, I read helpful books like John Shelby Spong’s Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism and Bruce Bower’s Stealing Jesus. I found great solace in Thich Nhat Hanh’s beautiful work, Living Buddha, Living Christ. In 2009, I developed a serious case of Palinsanity. My attitude toward conservative Christians evolved from ignorant to cynical to judgmental to curious to compassionate to confused to indifferent.

Through this experience I have learned that it doesn’t help to judge the judgers or to hate the haters. Buddha and Jesus can live together in my heart, in perfect harmony.

Note: An earlier version of this piece was originally published by elephant journal in five parts under the title The Summer of Jesus Versus Buddha.

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Ed: Bryonie Wise

{Photo: courtesy of the author}

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