Blame my mother.
Well, perhaps that’s a bit harsh for the woman who had the audacity to teach a three year old how to read. The round edges of those oversize flash cards were so awkward in my hands. But I loved them. And I loved the chalkboard with guiding lines. Thick blue bars to contain capital letters and a faint dashed line for their lowercase twins. She would stay up with me teaching my tongue to embrace the quirky rhymes of Dr. Seuss until I was strong enough to read them all on my own. My first bookshelf was the small red plastic one that came with my Seuss collection. I have since moved on to hardwood models with much larger series and books with more pretense than rhyme. But knowledge can be dangerous in the mind of a child, especially one as insatiably curious as myself.
By the time I was in Middle School, I had invaded my mother’s dusty collection in the garage. Feeding my desire for escapism through King and Koontz and Cook, I ran through everything she owned. I had read every Steven King novel published by sixteen and was well on my way to becoming critical of film adaptations. Despite my eye for the morbid stories of King and his predecessors, Lovecraft and Poe, it was not their hand which lead me down the path of atheism. Once again, blame my mother.
She always supported my reading habits. I was insatiable. Voracious in my need to consume text in every form. When I got my first pair of glasses, my mother had me reading every billboard on the way home. She played along making up funny words and phrases from the license plates that passed. In eight grade, my homeroom teacher called my mother at work to inform her that the book I was reading for my class assignment was “not age appropriate”. My mother’s reply still makes me giggle. “So you’re telling me she’s not bleeding? She’s not having sex in the cafeteria? What you’re concerned about is that she’s reading a book, in school, for an assignment?” I was given detention for “sass mouthing the teacher” and told that I had not fully understood the assignment. What’s to understand, I wondered. It was a free reading assignment where we were told to bring any book from home, any book at all, to read and write responses to in class. My offensive selection? Brian Lumley’s Necroscope.
Before I attempt to convince you that I did, indeed, sit down and read the entire New Catholic Bible at fifteen, there’s something you have to know about me. I read when I’m bored. And not just the shampoo bottles, the cereal box or the magazines at the dentist. I consume books the way depressed romance stars devour Ben & Jerry’s. About two weeks before my scripture exploration, I read the entire 1993 Encyclopedia Britanica collection. I was supposed to be cleaning my closet. I had the books scattered all about. My brothers loved looking at the animals and pictures of cool thing like dump trucks and Apollo 13. And as I sat there organizing them neatly back on the shelf, I dropped the A volume. I forget what chapter it opened to, but I think it was someplace in Egypt. The images were magnificent so I got curious. Captions lead to tables and charts and the next thing I knew, I was flipping to page one to learn about aardvarks and their quirky tongues. I kept reading all weekend, straight on through Zebras and Zimbabwe. At that point, nothing could go wrong if I had a book.
The reading schism came during CCD class a few Sundays later. That’s when I learned the harsh truth about editors, censorship and the printing process. I was listening to Father Sean speak in his singsong Irish accent and taking notes when I heard him say, “.. and these books were chosen because they represented the best of all Christian stories…” My hand flew up. Pointing to my New Catholic Bible I asked, “So you’re saying there’s more than what’s in here?” He stalled, his face showing remorse for the curiosity he had inspired. But you can’t just ignore a classroom full of faces, so he blurted out the most non-blasphemous thing his mind could conjure. “Yes, well, some of the stories get repeated because they are very popular. They are redundant. We don’t need five different people telling us Jesus was born, so that things were cut out.” Satisfied, my classmates let him continue. I sank in my seat stewing with more questions to hurl at my mother when we got home.
I shoved the bright blue cover in her face and asked incredulously, “Did you know about this?! They just, edit books? But who is to say what is good to read? Doesn’t the writer decide that?” I pictured myself in the future trying to submit a novel to a room full of old witches with scissors and white out. Butchering my baby and telling me it was for the best of everyone. Surely Mark and Paul didn’t appreciate this editing process any more. My mother calmly explained to me that writers aren’t perfect and editors and publishers influence the book business as well. She also explained that the Bible was not always a book, nor had it even been in English. It was this last revelation which shocked me the most.
In Middle School I was taking beginner Spanish classes. I’m no genius of dialect, but even I knew how difficult it must be to convey the same idea in multiple languages. I had already tried the word for word translations of my poetry and they were atrocious at best. I knew then that there was no way the flowery, rhyming text of my English Bible could be the same as the Hebrew or Latin. Inspired by my childhood heros Encyclopedia Brown and Sherlock Holmes, I set out to investigate this translated, butchered text from copies scrolls. I made it my duty to read the entire Bible, highlighters at the ready, and mark anything that seemed suspicious or out of place.
It took days. And by the next Sunday I was more confused than ever. There were points that contradicted one another. My pastor explained that the old testament was written before Jesus was born and it had some laws that were outdated. He compared it to how slavery used to be legal and accepted and told me that Jesus came in and changed the rules. I asked about how women were viewed, pointing specifically to a Psalm instructing women to not speak in church, not to braid their hair or wear gold or purple. Surely the church was not following these laws today. He again told me simply “times have changed”. But I couldn’t let it go. The seed simmered within me for three years. I actively went to church every Sunday for three more years listening intently. Praying that someone would give me the codex I needed to understand. But no answers came. And by the time I had heard one too many sermons professing to be quoting the Bible when, in reality, they were taking the story way out of context, I could bear it no more. The day of my Confirmation, I lied to the Archbishop. Told him I as an adult fully accepted Jesus as my lord and saviour. Walked out and never went back.
That was almost a decade ago. I have since lost many friends and even some family members over my faith. But I have never regretted my curiosity. College had me reading books from all different religions and philosophies, curious about new languages and cultures. I learned how similar we all are as human beings. I learned that we all want love and happiness for ourselves, our friends and our families. We all want the best for our children and our home. And no matter how violent the regime oppressing us becomes, all human beings secretly hope for immortality.
My mother used to blame the darker more macabre books she let me read as a child. When I first confessed to atheism, she even blamed my current boyfriend and my taste in music. But now that we’ve had real conversations as adults, I think she understands. In fact, much of my family now thinks I’ve corrupted my mother’s stance on evolution, homosexuality and politics, but I’m really just returning the favor. She opened my eyes to the world so many years ago; I’m glad I can finally do the same for her.
With love, for mom.
~ Sarah Ashworth