When I was a teenager in New Jersey, we lived in an ethnically rich area. We were Roman Catholic—Irish, Italian, Polish, and other second-generation immigrant families— and Jewish families with just a few Protestant families mixed in. The Protestants seemed bland compared to the distinctive customs of the Catholics and Jews. I didn’t even know then that there were different kinds of Protestants.
On Friday nights, we had fish for dinner, because we had somehow convinced ourselves that eating the most expensive item on the menu was the same as fasting. Afterwards, I would go to the Steinbergs’ house, where they would have a Sabbath candle burning while Mrs. Steinberg went out and partied. So maybe we weren’t always perfect, but Roz cleared every dish and utensil out of her kitchen (into the garage) and kept strict kosher during Passover. I always babysat for Jewish families, it seemed, and they were generous and had great candy. My friend, Eithne, opined that the Catholic families had too many kids to be able to afford to go out, so we should thank God for the Jewish families.
In the wider community, Finklestein’s and the other Jewish businesses were always closed on Saturdays, and pretty much all of the others were closed on Sundays. All the grocery stores were closed on Sundays. You could usually find a drug store open for emergencies. No one questioned this; no one was annoyed. It was life. A year or so ago, I saw someone online furiously complaining that Chick-Fil-A was closed on Sundays, ranting that it was inconvenient for them on their biggest shopping day. As if it should be illegal for companies to choose their own hours.
Was there bigotry? Sure, occasionally. As long as we are human, we will want everyone to be just like us, but for the most part, everyone got along really well. No one was shy about asking questions about other people’s beliefs, because no one was embarrassed to hold to a particular faith. People were interesting then. We expected our neighbors to be different, and we would not have respected them as much if they had disavowed their religion.
Somehow, in the past decade or so, it has become shocking to hear people speak of their own religious beliefs, as if they were taking off their clothes in public. We are all supposed to be secular now. Perhaps if you ascribe to some cool religion, like Wicca or Buddhism, you can get away with it, but Christians are of all people the most despised. The last few years have seen an alarming increase in persecution and oppression, and that’s not just my perception. The Liberty Institute, which litigates religious freedom cases, saw an increase in requests for their services from 600 in 2012 to 1,200 in 2013. Children in public school are forbidden from wearing clothing or jewelry with faith symbols, and from writing about their family’s religious practices or beliefs in assignments. In other words, our children are being taught to be ashamed of their families and their churches. The oppression in universities is much more direct and forceful. Despite my advanced age, it was not very long ago that I was a student in grad school, and my son has also related some incidents in his classes.
So when my sister called Saturday morning to say that she and her husband had been to see the movie God’s Not Dead the night before, I was interested. There is so little marketing, yet they had had to travel to two theaters to get in! They loved it, and she urged me to see it. I have to say that this movie had been on the periphery of my brain, as I had seen snippets of interviews with the stars, so I knew what it was all about. Just in case, I called our local theater, and they confirmed that all of the showings were selling out and advised that I buy tickets online, since they could not guarantee a seat even if we showed up 30 minutes early. So that is how we ended up driving through veritable rivers during a tornado warning to go see a movie at ten o’clock at night. I am super-cheap, and there is no way I was going to waste those two tickets I had bought on Fandango.
Next time: Is God’s Not Dead worth seeing? And how old are the Newsboys, anyway?