I find the shop on the road to a meeting of friends many months in the making, weeks in planning. My single windshield wiper lamely smears the mountain drizzle on my side of things, not helping much.
Must get that fixed, I think for the fifteenth time since last fall. You never imagine you’ll be caught in a rainstorm until there you are.
The bright orange sign stands out against the grey day—
WHY DO THE HEATHEN RAGE?
I send a text—“I found a xian bookstore we HAVE to go to,” thumbing send after worrying between smirking and vomiting emoticons, the most sophisticated of post-evangelical polemics.
I think I would have more respect in a mosque or a Buddhist temple—in fact, I know I would. (God is not far from any one of us, I am willing to say to the pagan, not the proselytizer.) We barrel in, eyes scanning wild for signs of contempt. It doesn’t take too long to find them. We find Westboro-worthy tracts at worst, the kitschiest kitsch at best. I wave a sticker in the air, twin to the one I had in my middle school locker: a Christian Icthus fish eating a smaller ‘Darwin’ fish with feet. I find a booklet with a rainbow cover and the subtitle, speaking the truth in love, a claim I am more than a little wary of. Emily and I squeal when I find a stray copy from a Frank Peretti teen fiction series I read before I even had braces.
“Remember the first one? It gave me nightmares!” she gestures emphatically.
“For real,” I roll my eyes.
“You guys, check this out,” she says, pulling a pink book on purity off the shelf, “for girls only,” raising her eyebrows.
Hannah is already reading aloud, more soberly, from a book on the demonic conspiracy theory of bikinis. I wince at the back of a book on ‘women’s ministry’—which I had picked up hoping that meant ministry by women.
“‘…a resource for pastors and women.’ Alright then,” I shake my head, noting the pointed dichotomy. Amma Josephine flutters into my mind, palms held upward above the Table, Amma Erin turning a page beside her.
We are only a few minutes in, but already we exchange looks from around the back room of the little shop and realize this is not just a walk down memory lane. This is not quite what we thought it would be–our past is not in the past. We bring our voices down as we realize the man behind the cash register has taken note of us—bright lipstick, wild hair, dark nail polish, pierced noses, and sweaters draped askew. A nightmare, in short.
It feels stuffy in here, and I’m wondering if this was all real to me at some point and suddenly I find myself needing to touch everything I see. Maybe it’s a laying on of hands.
There are stacks of prayer-cards yellowing in the window: “prayers for your healing,” covered with lilies, like a joke. But then the rounder of pamphlets against the many ‘sins’ of a godless generation, the fear-mongering, the seething hate beyond polite disagreement, white-hot to the touch. My throat almost closes in as I fan the stack that says, “REPENT OR DIE.” I close my eyes, with a deep breath, Jesus, was it supposed to be this way? I’m really not sure if I’m praying or swearing.
Wincing, I turn and realize they’re selling something I actually want—those special Bible pens that won’t bleed through the thin pages, hard to find elsewhere—I am in Divinity School, after all. I test a few colors on scratch-paper ripped out from Leviticus, curiously. I decide to buy a bright blue one, desperate to make a sign of mercy.
Maybe I also want to be able to place the pen on the counter as if to say, yes, I do read scripture. But as I grip it in my hand and fan the corner of the dissected color-coded KJV, open to Psalm 2: “Why do the heathen rage?” I know that isn’t right either. This man with the peach-fuzz moustache, suspicious eyes, and pre-conversion moon tattoo on his inner left wrist probably knows the words of scripture way better than I do, and certainly reads it more often.
He walks behind the counter, and I hand him the pen, forcing a smile,
“These are the best, because they never show through.”
I try to decide if I’m only imagining that he’s caught off-guard by my apparent Bible-page expertise.
“You’re right. You’ll find yourself writing on everything with those,” he speaks in a North-Carolinian drawl.
Hannah and Emily reappear from the back, eyebrows a bit raised that I’m pulling out my debit card, nodding at the usefulness of my purchase for school. The cashier eyes the three of us, gathered in motley again,
“Do you girls go to church around here?”
We laugh, giving our confusing account of where we decide to call “home” these days—
“Let’s just say we don’t live in town.”
He ignores our fumbling,
“Well, wherever ya’ll are from, do you go to church there?”
I look up and smile wide, accidentally matching his twang when I answer,
“I sure do—Saint Joseph’s in Durham. They’re dear,” I ramble a bit pointedly, signing my receipt, “a great community.”
“That’s good to hear,” he says, scanning our group a third time, but still invites us to his church the next day, handing each of us a hellfire tract apiece.
Thanking him, I try to call over my shoulder,
“Peace be with you, friend,” struggling with the door and trying to get the hell out.
We walk to my car in silence.
“It just seems like the Jesus they know and the Jesus I’m pretty sure I know are very different people,” Emily begins slowly, shutting the door, gaining momentum, “ I mean, I have a friend who would say that that is part of being in the Christian story—you have to accept all of it. The good, the bad, the Crusades…all of it. But how do you name orthodoxy? How do we decide…”
“Who’s in and who’s out?” I interrupt coldly, sighing, “I don’t know.”
And I don’t. At one point, I might have said “the Creeds,” or “the Eucharist,” effectively ruling out most of the world’s faithful who do not share those elements of worship, including one of my companions. That can’t be it. The voice I don’t know what to do with says, it’s not up to you.
[Our baptismal service goes--
There is one Body and one Spirit;
There is one hope in God's call to us;
One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism…]
As I pull away from the bookshop, I catch the sign in my rearview mirror—
WHY DO THE HEATHEN RAGE?
My jaw tightens. One Lord, one faith, one baptism…
To me, that is the terror and the beauty—and the rage.