Lent, Week Five: Hell and Heaven Are Other People

I’ve always really appreciated that saying of Jean-Paul Satre that “hell is other people.”  As an introvert, this is true on a number of levels.  And in the midst of a week of remembered loves and weighty conversations and SO MUCH happening at work, it’s kind of hilarious to go back to these memories of that past Lent and know that, just as much as hell is other people, so is heaven.  God was in so many people as I ricocheted around the world of faith, it’s a little laughable.

The broad indicator was commercials.  While I won’t here debate about whether or not Christianity is dead in the U.S., I will point out that fish commercials and specials at fast food places are everywhere during Lent.  Seriously.  Turn on the TV and let me know how long it takes before you hear about Culver’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, or whatever, and how their fish is awesome/cheap/featured.  Of course, no one ever says why, but do you see fish being lauded in September?  Nope.  Because Catholics and semi-Catholics focus on fish on Fridays during Lent, not Ordinary Time.

So any TV that I happened to catch during that Lent in college was laced with these fish commercials, little 30-second alarm clocks that we were in this season, that I was still fighting this fight, that I wasn’t winning.  It was very annoying, to be honest.  It still kind of is.  And I even like fish sandwiches.

That was the background noise.  On top of it were all the people with whom I interacted, which is everyone at a small midwestern college.  I found all of the right people who were “spiritual, but not religious,” which for us meant that we recognized there was something going on in the universe but didn’t want to be bothered to care about what. I found the people who weren’t even spiritual— there was no point to any sort of faith for them, no difference big enough between all of the faith systems they could think of that would matter more than studying through the week and drinking at frat parties on the weekend. This laissez faire approach to the whole idea made sense to me; I had enough to worry about getting through college, getting over my first true love, trying to figure out what was going on with my life—who’s to know the big questions anyway, right? This is why some people are theology majors—I saved myself the headache and befriended several of them. Hopefully they’d give me the right answers if ever I cared enough again to ask the questions.

And here’s the thing:  I tend to dislike Christians.  I understand that this is a terrible bias and, these days, rather self-incriminatory, but there it is.  So it’s very interesting to me that, then and now, I tend to befriend theological types—not just the preachers and the preachers-in-training, although I know a somewhat alarming amount of those, but also the mystics, the agnostics, the atheists, the anti-religious folk; all of those who have truly and lengthily considered the studies of the Divine and hold fast to some idea of how it all fits together.  I like these people; they push my buttons, but in good ways.  I had a slew of them around me during that Lent; like I mentioned, a lot of them were living in my apartment with me.

There’s a friend of mine (whom I don’t think I’ve mentioned on here, but trust me, she’s awesome) who says brilliant things a lot.  She’s a Catholic now, but in college she was still navigating, and she decided part of navigating was getting into the text.  We were all humanities people at a liberal arts school, so this is no surprise, but her pitch was this:  Bible study without thinking of it like The Bible.

Man, I wish as I were as creative as she.

A lot of us came from churchy backgrounds to some degree; what if, she posited, we looked at the Bible like it was a book of stories?  It was a throwback, for me, to how I’d originally been introduced to the book—not as a Tome of Faith but as a work of great literature, in line with The Odyssey and Great Expectations and Anna Karenina.  It was something to be understood, referenced, and admired; somewhere along the line I’d gotten kind of afraid of it because it had all this other baggage attached.

So, in the heart of this God-less Lent, Bible Tuesdays were born.

Yeah.  Try telling me God doesn’t have a sense of humor.

They weren’t terribly successful because we were all super busy, but what meetings we did have were marvelous and uncomfortable and odd.  There wereabout six of us (give or take, depending on schedules) who would get together for an hour or so, usually in my room, and talk.  Sometimes we had reading beforehand, sometimes we just let it drift to whatever we were thinking, but it was all about digging into this text with all the skills college had handed us and really fighting with what we found.  It was, frustratingly, one of the best building blocks of faith I could have found, because it was challenge and honesty and realization that the Bible is a seriously messed up book.  Reading it outside of faith made it a whole new experience—in fact, I’ve only ever been in one study since that even came close to that level of growth and, in a strange sense, spirituality.  Sure, a lot of it came from my friend being one of the most brilliant and mystical people on the planet, but it was also the permissive state we created to tear this thing apart.  We allowed each other to get angry about things, to dismiss things, to engage or disengage with the text.  We created our own little community that would have made Paul proud, composed of roughly half believers and half we-are-so-over-religion folks.  And we learned.  Together.


To be continued…

One thought on “Lent, Week Five: Hell and Heaven Are Other People

  1. […] thought about the disciples several times before—even talked about it with some of my friends at Bible Tuesday—as just regular guys that were caught up in some pretty irregular and extraordinary events.  So […]


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