The interwebs are awash with little quiz games that allow you to enter some data points about your personality and determine which Pope or Star Wars character you are. Then you can spend a few moments trying on that character as an identity, like wearing that blonde mullet wig in the Halloween store in late-October. We do this daily, exhibiting Palahniuk’s Ikea nesting instinct as we thumb through magazines on the toilet and contemplate what kind of dinnerware expresses our true inner self.
We live in a world of à la carte identity. It’s an all you can eat buffet, where you can fill your plate and eat until you’re about to explode. Would you like a mint? It’s way-fur theen! Want to be a Goth and wear Doc Martins and listen to the Cure? Well, it’s not 1986 anymore, so you better update to Emo and skinny jeans. Want to be a man-hating, grrl power 4-year-college lesbian? Just through the dorm room door on your left, the one with the Pussy Riot poster. Don’t worry, you can call it ‘experimentation’ when the urge to wear a sparkling Vera Wang gets too overwhelming.
So as my sister and I shared a couple of cold beers next to a cool green North Carolina lake, relaxing in the shade of 80 foot hardwoods on a magnificent Memorial Day weekend, it didn’t surprise me when she told me that my 14-year-old nephew had begun questioning the Christian tradition. He’d met a nice Jewish girl in his Southern suburban school and she had filled his youthful imagination with the wonders of the ‘chosen people’. He thought he might even convert. A waverunner towing a kid on a tube buzzes past. I lean back and take a long swig of the barley water, you don’t say?
I think this is common in our era. We live in atomized isolation from our ancestors. Our identities are marketed to us. We whites are deracinated, convincing ourselves that we ‘don’t see color’. So, my young nephew thinks that choosing his religion will be like taking a personality quiz. He’ll just visit a few sites, answer a few innocuous questions and beep boop bop out pops the religion that best suits his personality. It’s smart. It’s scientistic.
He’s been trained that he can simply buy every other part of his identity, like buying a new car or a laptop. He’ll just use the handy-dandy online feature comparison chart. Compare this feature here, that attribute there; he will just think real hard and calculate his religion. He’ll be a smart shopper.
Well, my sister had already told my father, who is an avid amateur Bible scholar, church elder and Bible-school teacher, that young nephew needed grandfatherly advice. Dad had explain to his grandson why he should buy himself a nice Christian tradition. Look at this brilliant theology here, that historical evidence there.
I was having none of it. When I got the kid alone, I had a couple of thoughts to share. My line of thinking went like this. You are born to your religion, it is the religion of your family. If you have parents of mixed religion, or no religion, then that’s just a crying shame. My nephew does not have this problem. One of his grandfathers I’ve already described, on the other side of the family, his great uncle is a practicing minister, and his great-grandfather was a minister. His family has deep Christian roots. Sure he can choose to convert to Judaism, and the family will still love him, but his grandfathers will know that he has betrayed them. They’ll take it like men, but it will break their hearts to see him a Jew and his children being raised as Jews.
You see, when you’re calculating your religion, the calculation has nothing to do with your personality. It’s not like picking out a new iPhone case. It is a social calculation, calculating the tensions on the web of your family members. You calculate the force it will exert on the family structure. Will you strengthen the family or weaken it? Will you signal fidelity to blood, or will you signal division? Do you think the men will respect your brave decision to convert, or do you think they’ll wonder what the hell is wrong with you?
In then end, I told him that no-one can tell him what to do with his life. But if he wanted to give his family the middle finger, then converting to Judaism was the perfect way to do it. Maybe that’s what he wants. Maybe he wants to rebel. Maybe he wants to test the love of his family. Or maybe somebody just needed to point out that he does not exist in a vacuum, and that his religion is a part of his family identity and that he should be a man and display some loyalty to the clan and not let some girl convince him to throw away hundreds of years of family tradition. Maybe he needs to figure out if he really loves his grandfathers. There’s no need for feature comparisons, or theological debates, or historical analysis. There is only blood and kin. That is all he needs to know. Honor thy father and mother.
Oh, look, I think it’s time to put the burgers on the grill.
We’ll see what the boy does.