Sunday, October 29, 2006

After one of my shows this week, I had a moment when I was standing with -- not only a nun and a rabbinical student (they were not together, just standing together) but also with a small group of ex-rabbinical students who had stopped their intended religious trajectory (they were orthodox Jews) because they were gay and they had been forced to chose between their sexuality and their faith. I wasn’t sure if those people were atheists or just alienated by their particular religion.

In any case, that moment after that particular show is my take-away image from this trip to New York. The nun blessed me. Which was partially shocking to me because I had sort of made fun of a priest blessing me during my show. I think it’s what those type of people do when they don’t know what to say next. In any case, I liked this nun, nonetheless. I can’t help but like those fresh-faced beaming lit-from-within nuns. And she was one of them.

The rabbinical student argued with me that I had gotten the Jephtheh story wrong. In my show I tell a story about how in Judges a character named Jephtheh tells God that if he can win a certain battle (I think it’s against the Ammonites) he will kill whoever greets him when he returns home, as a burnt offering. And that the first person he ends up seeing is his daughter. And after he allows her to go off into the woods for two months to mourn her virginity, he kills her. By lighting her on fire.

The rabbinical student argued that Jephtheh didn’t promise he would kill a person. When he said whatever greeted him, he meant an animal. And that it was customary only to kill animals in sacrifice. And that he didn’t kill his daughter, he told her to run off into the woods and then he didn’t kill her.

I was beside myself. I thought I must have gotten the story wrong. I mean he was a rabbinical student and I was an actress and what if I had exaggerated this story that much? I apologized and promised to immediately look it up.

And I was right. Jephtheh does promise to kill “whoever” greets him. As far as I know, “who” is referring to a person. And he does kill his daughter. In the story, his daughter actually begs him to kill her, because he must keep his promise to God. I’m sure this is told this way to make it less sadistic.

How does someone sit and listen to their teachers rationalize and explain away and blur over the more difficult stories of their sacred texts? I don’t get it. But then, as my boyfriend pointed out, I was one of those people at one time. Why did I accept that? And my answer was that I wasn’t studying the Bible so closely, and then when I did as an adult, I did question and finally reject it. But I accepted it earlier because it seemed like the people teaching me about it were smart and kind. And I liked them. And I wanted it to be meaningful. And l looked for only that evidence that confirmed what I already wanted to believe.

Anyway, these are the kinds of encounters that makes me infinitely glad that I came to New York to do the show.

On of the gay ex-rabbinical students told me that when he went to his superior and told him he was gay and how could he deal with this – the rabbi told him that he should sacrifice his sexuality the way Abraham had to sacrifice his son, Isaac. And that after several years of trying to do this, the ex-rabbinical student said he felt the sacrifice was much to great. And that Abrahams test of his willingness to give up what mattered to him most – his son, was a one shot deal and then when he proved his loyalty he got to still have his son. But this person said he would be having to turn away from his very nature every single day for the rest of his life. And that was too much. And for what reason? Finally this man left his religion and has had no contact with his family for over ten years. What a sad, sad, unnecessary result.

Anyway, I tell this just to give you that image of me standing there with the current rabbinical student, the former rabbinical student and the nun. What great moments this show has afforded me. I was so happy, in spite of the tragic aspects to some of those people’s predicaments. Being “Pat” on Saturday Night Live did not give me moments like that.


Anonymous said...

I think you've hit on the heart of the problem with studying the bible, Julia. Most people don't *want* to study it in a critical way, only in ways to explain what they already hold as truth. Try to apply rational thought to it, and it falls apart.

The funny part is, I've got a perfect explanation for everything in the bible and everything their god makes happen to good people: God Is a Bastard. It's simple, accurate, and seems to work better than most other explanations that they give us.

One of the things that I love about reading your blog is that you're so genuine. Seeing you still be giddy around celebrities or personalities you admire, reacting with real emotion to people who see your show, missing NY... it's obvious you're a real person who's doing what she loves to do, but still holding onto the core of who you are. I check back here every day just in case there's a new blog.

Will you ever do a show in Portland, OR? Most of the state is actually red, but the major cities are pretty blue. And I know you wouldn't have any problem attracting an audience. You'd definitely have me and my wife out there!

Anonymous said...

Yes this makes an interesting picture Julia. You standing there with people of Christian and Jewish background and them giving you some feedback on your creation, your work. This is the real stuff directly from the people. It is always rewarding. Much better and more real than from any critiques.

I agree with you on the bible being crap. However, how could it be otherwise? Moses and Jesus never wrote anything down. Nobody had any tape recorders or video cams. It was all put down many years later from hearsay. Not only that, the bible is full of errors even from making hand copies to preserve it over the centuries, not to consider translations from one language to another. It has always been a wonder to me as to how the so called religious scholars can keep a straight face when they discuss or present this material as the ‘word of god’.

David said...

Hi Julia. Great stuff. I learned of your existence from reading some of your quotes in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. And then you're on Fresh Air, and now you're on my laptop, you're everywhere! Just like God ;-)

I can really identify with a lot of what you were saying. I was raised in a very good and decent Christian home. My Dad was/is a professor of Theology, a New Testament scholar, author, ordained minister (I'm the son of preacher man).

In spite of a childhood immersed in Christianity - Sunday School, Daily Vacation Bible School, Young Life - I always, from the very earliest times, 7 years old at least, questioned it all. I just seemed so *fantastic*, and well, unbelievable.

For the longest time I got hung up on how God knows what I'm going to do all the time. I used to try to fake him out - okay, I'm going to pick up that cup, and at the last minute I wouldn't ... but then I would! Gotcha! Or not, God probably knew I was going to the that too, I'll get him next time. The question of free will vs. determinism haunted me throughout my elementary school years.

I was the kid in Sunday School asking where the dinosaurs fit in, and was greeted with awkward stares - like what a stupid and inappropriate question!

Anyway after settling into a lifetime of agnosticism, I'm only just now, at the wise age of 47, facing what I've always felt in my heart, or my brain I should say. There is almost certainly no God. And if there is, he specifically set out to cover his tracks. He is not necessary. I tried on your no-God glasses, and presto, I was alone with my thoughts, wow.

The turning point occurred when I read a comment by Dawkins about agnosticism. He said that it's not a tenable stance because there are literally an infinite number of things you might or might not believe in - teapots orbiting Mars, for instance. Just because you can't prove something doesn't exist does not mean it has a reasonable probability of existing. Somehow I never considered that angle exactly and something clicked.

Anyway, sorry for rambling, on the unlikely event you've gotten this far, I just wanted to say thanks for sharing! Your monologues are very funny/true. Keep it up.

Take care, David.

Anonymous said...

I happened to hear your interview on Fresh Air the other day, and I found myself exclaiming,"Yes!" so many times! I am a Catholic wife and mother and a high school science teacher, and I could completely relate to your application of the scientific method to God. I think so much of the evil that has been done in the name of religion is because the religious HAVE to make everyone else believe what they do...because they know it can't stand up to questioning. At this point, I believe because I want to, I'm clinging to that foundation for myself and my family--and it gets harder all the time. Like you, I haven't ever gotten good answers to so very many disturbing things in the Bible (how about those bears killing the children who made fun of Elijah [or ws it Elisha?]--always one of my "favorites"), and the way it all doesn't stand up to the scientific was just so good to hear another intelligent woman has gone down the same road. I'm really looking forward to hearing more from you, and wish you and your daughter the best on your journey.

Anonymous so as not to cause scandal--but maybe someday I'll have your courage.

Edward R. O'Neill, Ph.D. said...

Well I've heard so many excerpts from your show (This American Life, Fresh Air,, and I just want to say, I love, love, love this work.

It's laugh-out-loud funny, while also being seriously moving. I got shivers and tears when you spoke about your loss of your brother and what death now meant to you. You have retained a seriously beautiful view of the universe--as if you've saved the aestheticism of Catholicism while jettisoning the irrationality.

You must make a movie of this. Get Erroll Morris. Just send him that TAL clip. He will sign on in two seconds. I see Julia Sweeney wandering through the universe, past and present, in bed with her boyfriend and then looking at squid's eyes, seeing all the sperm and egg that might have become her, etc. Major CGI budget!

Meanwhile I have a tiny critique.

For Kierkegaard faith and reason are different, and faith involves a leap.

Without even going that far, I think we have a right to be suspicious of using science as the model for human knowledge. You yourself alternate between science as a font of knowledge about the universe and human communities and traditions as sources of values.

A sharp critique might be: that you have replaced faith in God with faith in science--that you haven't entirely gotten rid of faith.

On the plus side, this means you still know that you're dealing with faith--not ultimate truth, just tentative human knowledge.

You might want to look at critiques of science as a form of instrumental domination--human attempts to control and dominate each other and even the planet. Martin Heidegger's essay "The Question Concerning Technology" (part of his 'later work') is very powerful in this regard, as is the so-called second phase of the Frankfurt School.

I know you're loving science now, but please remember it isn't always so wonderful. The Bomb, global warming--these are the fruit of science, though the willful blindness to them is very, very human, and at least scientists are willing to examine evidence of global warming where certain others, sometimes more guided by faith, are not.

In any case, kudos overall, with only a small quibble about giving science too big a role.

E. R. O'Neill

Anonymous said...

Is your show still running in New York?

Anonymous said...

Just a small point: "faith" in science isn't necessary. While science isn't perfect, it is testable, reproducible, and real. You don't need faith for facts.

You can split hairs philosophically, but ultimately, science doesn't care.

The problem we have now in this country is that too many people who put faith in god seem to think that "faith" in science is equivalent, and it's not. Intelligent Design is not a scientific theory and is not "the other side" for people to choose from. You can't prove something doesn't exist, so science doesn't even bother to try to disprove god.

Science will never be able to answer everything and can be wrong, but recognizing its limitations does not mean needing faith in what it can answer.

Anonymous said...

your being "pat" on saturday night live gave *me* lots of belly laugh moments, thanks

Anonymous said...

Take stock of those around and you will…
hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyse those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality, and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.
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I sorry this was so long but thougth to the point.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for what you do. I am a recovering Mormon (61 years very active). I loved your bit on the Mormon missionaries coming to your home. I am still trying to get your CD but your sight has been down. I will keep trying.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Sweeney,

Thank you for standing up for what millions are thinking, but might be too intimidated or inundated to articulate.

I can't wait to purchase your CD.

Much love.

Fargofan1 said...

I used to be a Bible student. The story of Jephthah is only one of the disturbing tales you come across. One of my Bible professors had as a test question, "Was Joshua some kind of Hitler?" (I wonder what would've happen if a student had answered yes.)

Even as a Bible major I felt like I was not so much believing, as trying to suspend my disbelief. Julia, I really appreciate your honesty in your personal journey.

Anonymous said...

I am a new convert to the enlightenment and have found it to be refreshing and, well, enlightening. unfortunatley, I shutter to reveal my beliefs, or lack of, for fear of being an outcast. I'm glad their are people like Julia who are willing to speak out and hopefully, wake people up.

James Redekop said...

I've been hearing about your show for ages, and just heard about your blog via Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer. Just been catching up.

The rabbi told him that he should sacrifice his sexuality the way Abraham had to sacrifice his son, Isaac.

Would that be, going through the motions of sacrificing it, then getting a reprieve at the last minute and getting to keep it anyway?

By the way, I tried to order your CD, but the order form on your website didn't support Canadian addresses. Is there a way to order it from Canada?

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