I grew up in Montcalm county, in rural central Michigan, in a land of largely poor and pious protestant farmers and factory workers. My family was alternately Methodist or Lutheran or some close denominational outlier depending on how vigorously you shook the bush. Like in many families of my acquaintance, my mother was the driving force behind my family’s religion, though she was never particularly strict about it. My father, by all accounts, preferred the woods. I much prefer the woods.
When I was ten-years-old, my parents sent me to Lutheran confirmation classes on Wednesday afternoons, that I might be instilled with moral and ethical virtues. I would walk to the church after school and a confirmation classmate’s mother would drive me home afterward. The main thrust of the class was that we should believe blindly and literally. During one of the first classes I asked the preacher if he truly thought there was once a great big boat with two of every animal in the world on it, and he’d said yes. When I’d asked him to elaborate on if he thought the menagerie had included two panda bears, two Komodo dragons, and a brace of duckbilled platypus, etc., he’d said yes again, unblinking, unequivocal. There was no discussion of metaphor or symbol or allegory. I’m not entirely sure if I was formally taught what those things were until I went away to college. More likely, I just wasn’t paying attention.
I did have a nose for bullshit and hypocrisy, though, and quickly decided to take the school bus home from school on Wednesdays instead. I would play in the woods for two hours before walking in the front door and announcing to my father that my confirmation classmate’s mother had “dropped me off at the corner.” I got away with this for a couple weeks. Children don’t realize the extent to which adults speak to one another. Soon enough my father figured out my game and my mother struck a deal with me. I was to attend confirmation classes until I was confirmed, without fail, and Sunday services as necessary. Believe or not, she told me, but I was to finish what I’d started, and maybe I’d learn something from the process. After, I need never set foot in a church again, she’d said. Except for the occasional wedding or funeral, I haven’t.
Around the same time the man who was the driver of my school bus happened to be some brand of fundamentalist preacher. I remember him as a mean spirited little sparrow of an evangelical who liked to use the bus ride to and from school as an opportunity to right the sin of wayward youth by yelling irrelevant scripture over his shoulder and, when we children were truly unruly, stopping the bus along the road to deliver an entire sermon on why we were all going to burn in hell. This would have been around 1988 and I would have been in the seventh grade, and though already five years out of date, Mötley Crüe’s breakout album Shout at the Devil was as good as a top forty hit for my friends and me. We could usually make it all the way through the first verse of the album’s title song without the bus driver noticing, but by the time we had built the song’s first chorus of “shout, shout, shout, shout at the devil” into a pubescent, falsetto crescendo, the bus would careen to the muddy margins of the road where we would receive an earful about pentagrams and drugs and Dungeons and Dragons and black magic and… We were all going to burn in hell.
Decades later, I’ve come at midlife to live for a time in one of the world’s least religious countries, Estonia. It is a stark contrast from my home in the United States where people seem increasingly intent on legislating their belief in the existence of angels. To be fair, I don’t really know what Estonians believe – they’re a tight lipped lot – but history tells me this land on the Baltic Sea was the last corner of Europe to be Christianized, and the Estonians where the last of all. The poor bastards were finally put to the sword in the early decades of the 13th-century during the Livonian Crusade, because Christianity, because peace, love, and mercy. They were still rebelling Christian thralldom as late as the St. George’s Night Uprising of the mid 14th-century, and they remain to this day blessedly quiet on the subject, bless their pagan souls.
Patience is a weapon goes the maxim. Those medieval churches and cathedrals tourists come to take pictures of, those were built by military occupiers, Germans, Swedes, Russians, no mass conversion implied. So I’ve been told in proud if quiet tones. While up the hill from my apartment, behind the ruins of a medieval cathedral there’s a large glacial erratic with two small hollows carved in the top thousands of years ago, an “Uku Stone” upon which I frequently find (and occasionally make) offerings of candles, flowers, coins, or bits of food. Estonians will speak at loud length about bog and wood, mushroom, bear, boar, and solstice if you let them. If they trust you. On this coming Sunday, December 21, the sun will be reborn and begin its long return to the north. My Estonian students all nodded knowingly when I observed this during our last class together yesterday. Back home, my American students wouldn’t have known what I was talking about, not most of them anyway. Apparently the old gods still hide in the mossy forests, still travel with the sun and moon, if you stay quiet, if you know how and where and when to look.