Our theme for October is “Why I Believe.”
I spilled four-dollar wine down the front of my white shirt at the English department’s unofficial kickoff party last month. I talk with my hands a lot, and I had to shout to be heard in a Brighton kitchen flush with beer-warmed graduate students. My Solo cup of Merlot listed ominously even at the beginning of the evening, when I was introducing Nathan to the first years. “This is my husband,” I yelled. “He’s in seminary.”
These statements inevitably elicit confusion at my Jesuit university. The Catholics aren’t sure how it is we’re married, then, and the non-religious often don’t know what I mean by seminary. Most Boston College grad students don’t talk about religion except in abstract, academic terms. But I’ve found that being married to an aspiring pastor makes the Jesus question harder to avoid—faith is obviously personal to me. I’m wed to it.
Because of that, I’ve had occasion to reconsider why I believe—and, of course, what I believe people believe about me because of my belief. I’m afraid people will think I’m foolish, or, perhaps more probably, that they will think I am a gun-toting, climate-change-denying, anti-Muslim bigot. Both assumptions are repugnant. The second is perhaps more so, because they would have good reason to assume it.
Christians shouldn’t be surprised that people think we’re assholes. As a collective, we’ve thrown our weight behind some pretty misguided causes. I try to rebrand the faith on a micro-level, by following the first rule of good PR: don’t be a self-righteous jerk. And by communicating my faith as something other than a set of legislative maxims. Instead, I try to talk about Christianity as a story.
Like any good English graduate student, I’ll tell you that the Bible is an enormously complicated and polyphonic text, open to many interpretations, and the best of these are grounded in considerations of rhetorical situation. SOAPS, as I taught my freshman last week: subject, occasion, audience, purpose, and strategies. No story is simple. There is no single and unequivocal meaning to story. There are only strong interpretations, supported by direct textual references and careful research, and weak ones. And sometimes smart, thoughtful people have different ideas about the same story.
Christianity is a complicated story, and an easily misinterpreted one. But I can only believe in a God of story, a story that is bigger and more powerful than historicity, and broader and more generous than rules.
Because today—I won’t say “more than ever,” because the need is always urgent—we must look to the story of a man who surprised Jews and Gentiles alike, shocked them by his generosity and his forgiveness, by his willingness to risk his reputation, well-being, safety, his life, for an ungrateful and undeserving mob. They wanted him to return Israel to its former glory. He came to tell Israel a new story, a better one, that had little to do with winning wars over the various -ites and -ines of Canaan. He came for all of us: the Christians we hope to be and the Christians we don’t want to be associated with and the Christians we are and are not. Every one of us needs the story.
I’m not sure I’m a good witness to it, most days. Other than being married, I’m more or less your average graduate student; I stress and sweat and snark and read and read and read, like everyone else. I drink cheap wine from Solo cups and talk about Hamilton at house parties and I’m uncomfortable with organized religion to the point where I’m tempted to skirt the question when people ask what Nathan does. But if the first rule of good PR is not being a jerk, the second is owning up to what you believe, and I believe in the story.
I have a lot of questions about it. But my husband’s in seminary. Maybe we’ll figure it out.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.