Confessions of a Bad Christian
The rumors are true. I am a Christian. I go to church. There, I said it.
Let me begin this confession by apologizing to my fans, all six of them, whom I’ve deceived into believing I was a regular pagan who dances naked around bonfires deep in the forest, like a normal person. I do not generally do naked bonfire dancing unless pressured to do so by my colleagues in higher education.
To my godless friends: I know you’re worried about me. What if I’m secretly a theocrat who believes Jesus will come back on a space pony and slay everyone who doesn’t believe what I believe? Some do believe in the magical pony and some believe it will be a benevolent unicorn while others believe this image serves as a metaphor for an event that has already occurred and that the thing to be destroyed is already destroyed. The point is not to get fixated on the pony, which is like hating the music of Led Zeppelin due to the bulge in Robert Plant’s trousers. Try not to look directly at it.
I know a respected atheist scholar who believes electromagnetic energy can cleanse her breastmilk of impurities, but I don’t tell her I think she’s nuts, because Jesus says I have to feel compassion for crazy people. She probably thinks I’m insane because I believe the Christmas story actually happened in space and time. I’ve known many young mothers who are virgins, which we call “Baptists.” But I’m not here to preach the Virgin Birth or cite studies showing how weekly church attendance reduces gingivitis. I’m here to confess.
I may be a Christian, but I am a very bad one.
I do give some of my income to an organization that does weird things with that money, working to reduce recidivism rates and hosting scandalous public celebrations that feature bounce houses for children. I realize this may exclude me from certain privileges of the pagan elite, such as being invited to any more of those naked pagan bonfire parties, which I will greatly miss.
And while I do believe in the Good News that during the late Iron Age a wizard-like Jewish bachelor died and came back to life so that I might eat Chick-fil-A for all eternity, the other Good News is, I’m probably not going to talk to you about him at the bar, even though it was impressed upon me by Sunday school teachers that the one thing I should be doing is telling people about this Israeli magician, especially at bars.
“Can I tell you about an invisible God-Man who follows me around and has limitless powers to change the weather or the outcome of a sporting event?” is not a fun way to begin a conversation for me, just as listening to tedious and unimaginative sermons is not always a fun way to spend my weekends. On most Sundays, right around the time my heathen friends are falling headlong into a Times magazine story about a man who invented a technology that allows humans to communicate with snakes and lizards, I grow sad. I would like to spend Sunday drinking bottomless mimosas, too.
Instead, I am standing in my kitchen, dressed in business casual, preparing to fellowship with certain people who, if I see them in a liquor store, may not actually speak to me. And so I pray for deliverance, from this feeling that I do not belong, that those people are not my people, that I do not deserve favor from a God who may not even be there. I pray for faith, and something good for lunch, as my children scream at my wife for having the audacity to insist they wear clean panties in the House of God.
“It’s time,” I say.
“Ugh,” my wife says. She’s a bad Christian, too.
I’m not even good at that honeysuckle sweet Christianity that treats Jesus like a baby kitten who says church is silly and all you need is to love your neighbor. I don’t love my neighbors. I can’t even tell you their names. One is named Janet or Joy or Cheryl, and she has two loud tiny dogs that I pray will soon die. She is too old to be cutting her grass, and I should volunteer to help her mow it, because one day she is going to die out there in the yard. But I don’t help, because she derives great pride from her independence, I internally surmise, based on absolutely zero evidence.
I’m not even good at the social justice Christianity that longs to affect change with protests and placards featuring clever genital puns. I don’t march in the Women’s March or the Pro-Life Parade or the Pro-Death Parade. I marched once in a Pirate Parade and instantly regretted it, and I am ashamed.
I am ashamed that I find it hard to hunger and thirst for righteousness, as Jesus says I should. Remember everybody standing with Standing Rock? I envy people who cultivate informed, nuanced positions of righteous anger. I barely have time to mow my grass. I stand with a lawnmower, and I push it, after which I hunger and thirst for food and water.
If I find matters of social justice so boring, why do I persist in believing in a God who showed the greatest compassion for the downcast? Fair question. Pray for me. It will have to be you who does the praying. I start in praying about a friend’s fragile marriage and in a second or two, I’m wondering why Amazon makes it so difficult to return gifts.
I used to be a good Christian. In my boyhood, I was attentive in Sunday school and sang songs about the devil without irony. I was a good boy back then, and longed to be loved for my goodness. And then, around puberty, something happened to transform me into a bad Christian, in addition to puberty. There we were, my friends and me, ready for Sunday school to begin. The door opened, and through it came our teacher and a little blind boy.
“This is Billy,” the teacher said.
I cannot tell you the morning’s lesson, for I was consumed by a most Christlike compassion. What blessings had I, to live in such luxury with both my eyes? Did Billy wish to touch our faces? Could he smell my breath? Would he ever find love? Did other children have such tender thoughts about Billy as did I? Time flew, as always happens when I am feeling extremely righteous thoughts. “Can you help Billy get to the sanctuary?” the teacher asked me when Sunday school was over.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said.
My feet had already begun to float above the earth, as in a Renaissance fresco. As we walked down the hallway, everyone smiling approvingly. I was a floating Beatitude. Such an act of service has the effect of elevating you to a higher spiritual plane, which can make it difficult to lead the blind, who in fact dwell on the earthly plane, where there exist many physical objects. The abrupt crashing noise came into my ears from very far away.
Poor Billy, crumpled now in a heap at my feet, had, in the midst of my holy reverie, slammed into a floor-mounted drinking fountain.
“Oh, no,” I said to my new friend, while looking for someone to blame.
More responsible churchgoers rushed to help the boy, lifted him from the floor, brought tissues for his bleeding nose, while I stood there, stunned and humiliated.
Something had come unmoored deep inside me, the demon of pride being let loose, and if not exorcised, at least made visible, for in addition to injuring a small blind child, I had permanently fractured my belief in the purity of my intentions. It would take me years to understand this fact, but the understanding commenced in that church hallway: that a good human being is a temporary and imaginary creature, that even the best of us can believe ourselves gods. We are all fools, in various states of lapse and relapse.
I am grateful to the thing we call God for that enduring awareness of my tendency to forget I am no god, not even close, which is what allows me, if not to do good in every moment and for the right end, at least to spot the good from far off and pray for the strength to walk in that direction.
If there’s one thing my long internship at Jesus Enterprises, LLC, has taught me, it’s that I should be much more watchful of what’s inside me than what’s inside you. That is where we have to start, I am told, by the invisible God-Man who has limitless powers to change the weather or the outcome of a sporting event.
I am sorry I do not care more about causes that make my pagan friends seem insane, because some of those causes are important, and I am sorry I do not like church as much as many of my Christian friends say they do, although I have a feeling most are there for the same reasons I am, not because church is fun, but because it is a kind of hospital. That’s where I’ll be, sitting with my family, all of us dreaming about being at home eating lightly toasted bagels and feeling like sloths, highly refreshed and useless. Even as I say it I am feeling envy. Forgive me, Lord.
Harrison Scott Key lives in Savannah, Georgia. His first memoir, The World’s Largest Man, won the Thurber Prize for American Humor. His second book, Congratulations, Who Are You Again?, was released in November 2018.