Are you there God? It’s me, Josh.
I don’t believe in you, but I’m going to try, so let’s get this holy train rolling. The first time I read your book I was baked out of my mind. But you know that already. I lived in a disgusting studio in Boston’s South End with my father. Nineteen-years-old and I couldn’t stop eating Doritos. By the way, those things are so good when you’re stoned. It’s like that cheese does a little ballet dance on your tongue while making sweet, dirty love to your taste buds. Sorry. I remember finding your Bible on the bookshelf, flipping through Matthew. In the matter of an hour, I was engrossed, the whole front part of the book—those thin, little pages—stained in thick, orange cheese dust. I remember zoning out for hours and then suddenly hearing my dad rumbling up the stairs. He blasted through the door, contemplating the smoke-filled room, studying me as I lay on the bed, crooked, propped up against the wall with a Bible in my hand. He undid his hair tie, letting his long, gray ponytail fall onto his shoulders.
“You’re reading my Bible?” he finally asked, confused.
“Uh-huh,” I said, nodding my head. His concerned face gave way to unbridled delight.
“Well, then,” he said with his hands up in the air like I’d just discovered a cure for AIDS. “I’m making cookies!”
You see, Lord, I don’t know what happened, but you made my dad into a crazy person. A schizophrenic; the kind of guy who loves the Bible so much that he can’t keep his footing here on Earth. But you picked him, apparently. He says you did, at least, which is why you’re not as great as they say you are. I mean, c’mon, why are your messengers so goddamn annoying?
Instead of waiting for an answer, I set out to talk with a bunch of people who might know about religion, people in the community who have more faith than I, which, to be honest, wasn’t hard to find, because I have not a drop of spirituality in this heathen blood.
But here’s something weird, Lord: As I write this, my cat is meowing, purring like an old Cadillac. Is that a sign? He’s cute, this cat. That’s one thing you got right, at least.
Satanism: The devil’s work
First, I talked to your exact opposite: Jim Boots (a.k.a. Evil Jim), a Satanist. I know what you’re thinking: “Damnit, Josh, Satanists make badass music.” And you’re right, they do—Mayhem, Cradle of Filth, Satyricon, Gorgoroth. Classic. Boots also makes great Satanic music in a band called Minenwarfer, so I sat down with him at his house in some forgettable suburb of Sacramento and asked him about the Satanic religion.
“It’s more of a philosophy than a religion,” Boots said, his long, black hair shining under the artificial light. A small, metal pentagram necklace on his chest moved slightly up and down with his breath as he spoke. “It’s mainly about following your carnal nature as opposed to reserving yourself. It’s about indulgence, enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. Everything that Christians tell you to do, such as hold back on things, Satanists would do the exact opposite.”
Lord, let me be frank with you: I, too, find your teachings to be confining. To have your whole life bound by the pages of an ancient book is the ultimate buzzkill. And while Satanism—the music, the freedom, the attention to darkness—seems legit, the more I spoke with Boots about his philosophy, the more red flags I began to see, especially when he said this: “We’re not afraid to do what we want.”
I’m afraid of everything. It’s true. Motorcycles, women, the nighttime, sharks: all scary as fuck. I’ve always wanted to be the kind of person who walks around, not giving a shit about anything, but the truth is I give a shit about everything. To a crippling degree. If I am to accept a religion (or philosophy), then I need one that will accommodate my cowardice and sensitivity.
What would Jesus dare?
So, Lord, I guess you’re happy to know that Satanism is not for me. Defeated, I talked with a Christian: Stuart Canton, a man who seemed much less insane than a lot of other Christians.
“I’m flattered to be considered a non-creepy Christian,” Canton said.
Baptized in 2007, Canton was late to the Jesus game. He didn’t grow up in a particularly religious household, but eventually became acquainted with the Christian Reform Church, a group known for its especially bookish approach to theology. I asked him how one has a relationship with Christ.
“Throughout the Bible there are a bunch of stories that will reveal different ways. For Jacob, it was an angel wrestling with him. To someone else, it’s a really loud voice,” Canton said. “It’s because he knows us and knows what is going to make the most sense to us.”
On one hand, Canton seems to really believe in you, Lord. But on the other, his ideas seem so fragile and surreal.
But he did have one concrete suggestion: “God makes a promise that people who are looking for him will find him,” he said. “So I think that someone who is really looking and is asking, maybe they need to say, ‘God, I fucking dare you.’ I think God would be more interested in hearing that than having someone come in and fake it.”
So, here goes nothing, Lord: I fucking dare you.
have to be a bitch
As you know, Lord, Wicca is a confusing religion. It’s about nature, mostly, but I don’t get it. So I sat down with Elizabeth Cheryl who recently finished writing a novel called The Summerland, about a girl in Massachusetts who finds a spell book and casts herself back to the Salem witch trials.
We met at a burrito shop in Roseville—counterintuitive, I know, but what can I say? You work in mysterious ways. Anyway, Cheryl—a beautiful blond with blue eyes so crisp they’re almost hard to look at without drooling (good job, by the way)—was very kind and patient while I grilled her about her faith.
The one thing I really wanted to know was if Wicca was a dark religion, like a satanic cult.
“I think there’s a big misconception,” said the mother of four. “Anything that’s not Christianity or worshipping God is considered [to be] worshipping something dark, which is not the case.”
In fact, she informed me that our interview was being conducted on Imbolc, a pagan holiday marking the end of winter and the beginning of spring.
“There’s nothing dark about Wicca,” she said. “[There’s a] threefold law. Anything you wish for on one person it comes back to you threefold. So if you’re sending positive energy to somebody and blessing them as much as you can, it comes back to you threefold.”
Sounds harmless, really. So, here we go: Dear, readers: you are beautiful and kind of intelligent.
Buy the book
That threefold thing didn’t work. I’m still miserable, and on my day to check out Scientology I was not excited. When I opened the door to the little building on the corner of Eigth and I streets, the guy at the counter—a chubby 20-something with ill-fitting pants—looked surprised to see me.
“How did you find out about us?” he asked, his short, curly hair mussed, like he’d just woken up.
“Just walked by and was curious,” I said.
“Do you know about Scientology?” he asked.
“Not really,” I lied.
I asked him if it was a religion. He said yes and handed me a book called, A New Slant on Life, which he said had all the answers.
“Are you thinking about buying it?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said.
He disappeared around the corner and came back with a middle-aged woman with short, fashionable hair. She greeted herself and took me back to a messy room, cluttered with Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard’s literature.
“Excuse us,” she apologized. “We’re in the process of moving.”
Proudly, she showed me a picture of their new digs, right behind the K Street Mall. The modern building boasted large glass windows and lush greenery. It looked expensive.
“So you’re going to buy that book?” she asked.
I got out my wallet, and she took me back to a private room where I sat while she rang me up and took down my email address. Another middle-aged woman came in and stared at me with watery eyes that seemed to float around her skull with scary magnetism. Everyone seemed nervous. And insane.
On the way out, I looked into an empty room where a man sat perfectly still in an office chair, staring at a blank wall in complete darkness.
Lord, if you were real, Scientology wouldn’t exist. Although now they have my credit information, so, uh, just kidding.
Peace, love and stomach rumblings
I confess, when I was younger, I thought Buddhism was a religion for people too lazy for faith. But, to be honest, the older I get, the more intriguing Buddhism becomes for that exact reason. So, I went to the Sacramento Buddhist Meditation Group, held at the B’nai Israel Synagogue, where many white people were waiting around in loose clothing for the meditation to begin. There was something about sitting in the auditorium of a Jewish synagogue in Land Park with a bunch of Caucasians that didn’t strike me as particularly Buddhist, but I wasn’t going to let my unjustified prejudice lead me astray.
When the lights went out, a bell rang, signaling the beginning of meditation. My cellphone also rang, which was a bad start, but I tried to be at peace with my folly. And as soon as I could hear my own breath, I tried as hard as I could to calm down. Which is difficult. Maybe impossible. My mind, no matter what, thought constantly: What is that creaking sound? I wonder how much they pay the Jewish people to rent out this building on Friday nights? Does my breath smell like Cheez-Its? My back and legs exploded in pain. I was pretty sure that I couldn’t take 40 minutes of sitting still, so I tried to plan an escape. My stomach gurgled. I felt a bubble of air rush from my belly to my lower intestines and for the next 30 minutes I focused solely on sealing my ass cheeks shut like a Turkish prison so nothing could escape.
Ah, man, Lord, I know you’re thinking: You’re not giving these religions a fair shake. But after all this research, I still don’t find anything to grasp onto. Satanism is too carnal. Christianity too weird. Wiccanism doesn’t make any sense. Scientology seems like a pyramid scheme for abused wives. And Buddhism poses a serious threat to my digestive tract.
On the last day of research I was supposed to check out a Unitarian service, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to attend. I still harbor this ill feeling toward faith that started with my father and continues to this day. So instead of sitting in on another voyeuristic festival of divinity, I drove to the Jazzy Cats cat show at Cal Expo. Even though it smelled like ripe testicles in that strange warehouse tucked in the back of the expo center, the room was filled with cats of all breeds and their owners who loved them. There was no doctrine in Cal Expo that day. There was no path. No holy book. Just cats. Well, a gun show, too, which was weird, but mostly there were just cats—hundreds of them—purring, meowing, eating, shitting and hissing.
I found a man with a prize-winning feline with fur like a cloud. It looked like Falkor, the luckdragon from The NeverEnding Story.
“Can I pet him?” I asked. The man had gentle eyes.
“Well,” he said. “Sure. Why not?”
The cat purred when I pet him. He rolled his neck and pushed his little head into my hand. Truthfully, Lord, I know this won’t sound good, but it was the most heavenly thing I’d felt in a long time. Best of luck in your recruiting.