How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in my Heart
Jay Michaelson

When I was about five years old, living in suburban Long Island, I answered the telephone and heard a voice I didn't know. If memory serves, it was a woman's voice. She began to ask me a series of questions, which I dutifully answered, about the subject of religion. She said that she was doing a study, and that I was helping her. "Would you like to continue?" she asked me. I, of course, answered yes. And then she said, "Great, just repeat after me: I accept the Lord Jesus Christ as my personal savior."

These were words I did not understand, and yet for some reason my body was tingling. I must have known that I was doing something wrong, that a Jewish boy was not supposed to say these things. The Christians were the other people; they were the ones with the holidays we didn't celebrate, the big churches we didn't enter. But the woman seemed nice, and I listened to her, and began to repeat the line.

As if by providence, my mother entered the room just as I said it. She grabbed the phone, angrily - it was all my fault, I knew - and shouted into it, accusatorily, "Who is this? What is this?" She hung up the phone. I knew that the nice lady, and the tingly feeling I'd gotten, were evil. I had made a big mistake. I was terrified.

I'm not sure if this early traumatic experience is a symptom or a cause of my longtime aversion to Christianity. I'm also not sure what kind of missionary theology holds that by simply reciting a phrase, a child can accept Christ and be saved. But as a child, and as an adolescent, the proselytizing phone call, the deceptively sweet voice, the erotic charge, all of it hung together with what I believed was the world's stupidest religion. Who on Earth could believe that God had a son? We learned in first grade that God didn't have a body, that God wasn't a person like you or me. What could a "son" mean in such a context? And who couldn't see that Jesus had, obviously, failed in his mission, if he was indeed supposed to be the messiah? After all, he was supposed to be our Messiah. The King of the Jews, not the Christians. And we had certain texts which told us what the Messiah was supposed to do: end war, usher in an era of universal love, cause the lamb to sleep with the lion, all of that. This whole business of a "Second Coming" was such an obvious weasel-move to excuse a "First Coming" that hadn't quite worked.

My relationship to Christianity - I didn't really understand the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism until college - was fraught with complexity, contempt, and jealousy. To me, Christians were stupid, popular, lucky, saved, loved, idiotic, ignorant, antisemitic, athletic, and, most importantly, Other . I formally learned about the concept of "alienation" in my senior year of high school, but I had experienced years of it already. Even on Long Island, but especially after my family moved to Florida, we were aliens in our own country, like visitors, almost, or spies. I had a secret which only a few other people had. For a while, I went to secret schools. Then, when I mingled with the Christians, it was my own personal secret, which became painfully exposed every September, when I missed schools for funny-sounding holidays.

As for the religion itself, it seemed an almost wilful attempt to create a religion of nonsense. As I grew older, my initial doubts about Christian myth ripened into astonishment at how so many millions of people could be so wrong. Did people really believe that every baby was born guilty of Original Sin? And that a person who was crucified 1900 years ago could somehow atone for it? And if so, why bother with trying to be a good person now? I remember thinking that if Christ died for my sins anyway, I sure wouldn't be wasting time at church. And yet, it seemed that everyone believed these things.

And that was just the beginning. The Trinity? And the idea of hell? The Virgin Mary, the Resurrection of Jesus, the whole idea of a mostly-naked tortured man on nailed to a cross becoming a religious icon that people wore around their neck - I just couldn't believe that people bought this stuff. Sure, Judaism had its myths, but they weren't really that important. I learned early on that whether the stories in the Bible were literally true or not was less important than how you lived - even though, of course, many people thought they were literally true, and would fight anyone who didn't. Moreover, what I intuited but couldn't articulate at the time was that our stories were primarily historical, not theological. Noah's Ark tells us a little bit about God - that He gets angry, that He has favorite people - but it seems to be there primarily to tell us something that happened many years ago, and to teach us something about how to be a good person. Compare that with the drama of the Passion, which is entirely about a theological drama of sin and sacrifice.

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Top image: Icon, Christ the Savior, 12th C., Monastery of St. Catherine, Mount Sinai.
Lower image: The Holy Crucifiction. 12th c.

June 2004

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How I Finally Learned to Accept Christ in my Heart
Jay Michaelson

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