As a child, listening to my mother read to my sisters and me from the New Testament, I tried to care about the people in the stories, who were lame or leprous or blind, who ate locusts and raw fish, who didn't have television or telephones or toilets, who were homeless or lunatic or possessed. I pictured these Bible people, even the famous ones like Mary Magdalene and John the Baptist, unwashed, dressed in rags, their hair hanging down infested and uncombed. My eight-year-old body shuddered, because of course they must have smelled bad, and wht about their teeth, if they even had any!
It seemed a sore test of my belief in God that he could love these ancient, unkempt people; that he had picked them to be born and live and die among and not us who washed and drank milk and went to church on Sunday in America in 1963. I thought it was a waste of the Savior of Mankind, an error on God's part to have sent his only son to earth so early on, before we really needed Christ to save us from Khrushchev and Castro, and Richard Nixon, a man whose hatred of President Kennedy I knew made him evil.
Other aspects of the Bible vexed and bewildered me as my sisters and I lay sprawled on our parents' bed, hearing the stories in their entirety for the first time. There were the Pharisees, who tried to trick Jesus at every turn. I had no idea who the Pharisees were, but the word made them sound like phony piranhas or farcical parasites. There were the high priests, whose identity also was obscure to me. Why were they in synagogues instead of churches? I didn't know there weren't any churches because there was, as yet, no Church. So the high priests came off as bogus, a pack of holy lowlifes.
Over the weeks at bedtime, as my mother read the Gospel of Matthew in her lively speech-and-drama-major voice, I fell in love with God's son. Christ was handsome. In the popular renderings of the day, he had long wavy hair, an aquiline nose, and soulful – our mother would have called them bedroom – eyes. His was a portrait of masculine beauty and serenity, a face radiatingquiet, unthreatening authority. What kind of man was this, I wondered, who, unlike my own father, was brilliant but not bullying, powerful but not paranoid, handsome but not arrogant, sexy but not sadistic? At night in the dark, in the room I shared with my younger sister, I kissed my framed Sacred Heart Auto League picture of Jesus (given to me by my grandfather, who was a member) over and over.
I wanted Christ to be with me, my savior-lover made flesh. Then, as my mother finished the Gospel According to Matthew and began reading us Mark in late November, President Kennedy was shot.
Through the terrible days and weeks after the killing, my mother read on, finishing Mark and beginning Luke, but her voice wasn't lively; it sounded heavy and tired. Sometimes, she would stop and cry, and we'd cry with her, thinking about our murdered president. She'd sit, not reading, and sip quietly from her "Coffee With Kennedy" cup, a souvenir from her volunteer work on the 1960 campaign.
By the following spring, as my mother read us the Gospel According to John (in a voice that had regained some of its fine theatricality), my older sister and I had discovered the Beatles. Every day we’d come home from school – we were latchkey kids – turn on the radio in the dining room to WPGC-AM, LOUD, and dance to Beatles songs. Iworked out a theory that each of the Gospel writers was like one of the Beatles. Mrk was lively like Paul; Matthew was quieter like George; Luke was lovable like Ringo; and John was just like John, smart, harsh, inscrutable. My older sister’s favorite Beatle was Paul, whose sunniness I found a little boring. My favorite was George, who was lanky like Christ and who had those necrotic good looks. (My younger sister, who was five, wasn’t into the Beatles; she liked Dwayne Spedden, who was also five and lived next door with his cousins.)
Toward the end of the summer, Our New Testament gatherings on my parents’ bed became more sporadic. I am pretty sure my mother had begun reading us the Bible as a stay against the Cold War scares of the early sixties: bomb shelters, Cuban Missile Crisis, air-raid drills, Bay of Pigs. That and the more personal hell of her deteriorating marriage to my increasingly volatile father. Maybe she thought the Bible would guide us or help us or even save us from all the public and private terribleness abroad in the world and in our own unhappy house.
And then, around the beginning of the new school year, the readings ceased altogether. I’m pretty sure my mother stopped reading us the New Testament not because the world had become a safer place but because she was miserable and exhausted, worn out from the chaos that ruled our home.
My crush on Jesus Christ ended, not to mention my memory of his words and deeds, his divine miracles. God’s love might be everlasting, but mine was fickle. I’d look at my Sacred Hear Auto League picture of Christ and wonder what it was I ever saw in him.
I still think about the people in the Bible. Far from feeling scorn, I envy them their living witness. And I still want to know: is God real? Is religion real? Can I, can anybody, be saved? The new Testament stories taught me to think on these things, even if I can’t bring myself to believe.
from "The Good Enough News" in Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, edited by Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke