By Jan Frel
I have two people in my close family who are long-time members of some very weird Christian splinter groups. One of them, who I won’t identify, is a Jehovah’s Witness. This relative — an adherent for more than 20 years — walks around, knocks on doors, passes out literature with some of the most laughable illustrations I’ve ever seen in my life. The most common pastiche is one composed of what look like off-duty prozac-popping bank tellers walking around in mocked-up nature scenes that most resemble a Hawaiian golf course in the adoring company of fuzzy mammals — such as smiling tigers and koala bears. In the Jehovah Witness’ world, this is supposed to be a depiction of paradise on Earth, when in fact it’s litmus proof that 9th-rate minds are cooking up a weak broth of religious fantasy that makes the Left Behind series look as real as the pile of parking tickets in my glove compartment. Luckily for them, poor suckers like this relative of mine are satisfied with this Motel 6 version of Christianity.
My half-brother however, went for the most ornate and elaborate Christian sect I know of — Eastern Orthodox. He worships five-star style, in an ancient church that hits, as he told me, “all the senses.” Beautiful chanting, endless sticks of incense, gorgeous depictions of Jesus and his friends in mosaics and gold carvings, real relics that Jesus slept on that have healing powers, and endless cycles of feasting and fasting. Like a crazed Cubs fan who relocates to be able to sleep within sight of Wrigley Field, my half-brother moved to the old city of Jerusalem, just to be closer to the action. He truly believes that icons of saints and the Virgin Mary shed real tears, and that tombs of saints ooze myrrh and holy oils. He’s been in Jerusalem for six years. Praying night and day, sometimes for me.
And I think he’s completely out of his mind. If you are a believer, come and jump in my shoes for a second: if the prayers and chants he performs aren’t in fact ordained by God, then what the hell is going on? What the hell is my brother doing? If God didn’t write — or inspire — these prayers, some of which take hours to recite, then who did?
It makes me feel like these relatives are a bunch of suckers who pour their time in an energy sink, are stuck in an obsolete way of thinking, and make some very stupid choices in life based on these beliefs, involving everything from diet to seeing doctors.
And it seems to me that there’s a very easy tool you can use to sniff out that something is very strange about religious faith: cold, literal comparison. Look at one church and its claims and compare it to another one. Like Jehovah’s Witnesses vs. Eastern Orthodox Christians. Can my relative and my half-brother both be right? Their ways don’t mesh, and make each other look pretty ridiculous when they’re side by side. My brother’s fervent passion for kissing the icons of saints is matched by my other relative’s passion for converting Chinese immigrants with childish propaganda. They both have told me they think other sects of Christianity have it wrong… “if you go back look at the true words in the Bible,