Did it Have to be Jesus? – Nicole Cliffe

Guest Contributor / 8.26.17

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Did It Have to Be Jesus? – Nicole Cliffe

One of the more vitalizing talks from our conference in NYC came from Nicole Cliffe, […]

Mockingbird / 6.26.17

One of the more vitalizing talks from our conference in NYC came from Nicole Cliffe, who co-founded one of our favorite humor sites, The Toast (may it now rest in peace). Be ready to laugh and cry as you hear this story of how a sarcastic Harvard grad found God.

Did It Have to Be Jesus? ~ Nicole Cliffe from Mockingbird on Vimeo.

It’s so nice to be here. It’s so nice to be asked. I have never spoken for a religious audience before, so I’m real excited about this. Usually it’s just gay librarians, 100 percent of the time. So this is very exciting. I like Christians a bunch. They’ve been very nice to me. Which I guess is not surprising. When I announced on Twitter I’d become a Christian, in the ancient way St. Paul would’ve announced such a thing, people thought I was joking, and then people realized I was serious. And then I had an email from the editor of Christianity Today within six minutes—six minutes flat—being like, “So, would you like to write for Christianity Today? Because there have not been a lot of young people joining the Christianity who have cool Internet presences to draw on.” I think the last really exciting thing to happen was when Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian, before he just stopped talking about it. I don’t think he still is. It happened, and he did an album about it. You can look it up. And then was just like, alright, no more interviews. So I like to think he’s still doing it, but he’s definitely not.

Today I thought I would just talk a little bit about how I became a Christian, which is the funniest and most unexpected thing which has ever happened to me. I love doing Q&A, so we can do a lot of that, because I like talking to people. And I thought I’d talk a little bit too about what surprised me about becoming a Christian, which was a lot of things, and go from there. I would also like to say that I am six months pregnant, so if you weren’t sure and were going to come up to me afterwards and sort of go like [spreads hands, makes awkward, surprised facial expression], I am, it’s okay. I really just like to soothe people. It does mean I may kick off my shoes at some point in this process. You’ll handle it.

I went to the wrong Episcopal church originally this morning, but because I am such a punctual Canadian person, I had a buffer. It didn’t matter at all. I got to listen to 20 minutes of the last guy. I was ready. I was ready to talk to you today.

So let me just chart out a bit. My mother is Catholic. She’s great at it. She’s like most Catholics in that she pays no attention to a lot of it and a great deal of attention to other parts of it and is generally just the best. And my father is the world’s greatest atheist. He was a New Atheist before there were New Atheists. He was the very first one. And so like any healthy marriage that’s mixed, he was deeply contemptuous of her faith and it drove her bananas. And she dragged us to church, even though he didn’t want her to. So that’s just how that goes. And because my father’s lack of religion meant that we didn’t have to do something, it was very popular with my brother and I, as opposed to Catholicism, which is all about doing things.

This was something I was observing the other day about Catholics and Protestants—because when you’ve just joined, you should definitely develop snap assumptions about the centuries of differences between Catholics and Protestants. But coming from a Catholic background, Protestants are really worked up about faith. All the time. Which is not to say that Catholics don’t believe. It’s to say, I think that, generally speaking—I identify as a Protestant—Catholics are more comfortable with there being large periods of your life where you are not feeling it. But you just keep doing the stuff. And eventually, things even out. So if you go to your Catholic priest and you’re like, “I’m not sure if I believe in God,” he’ll be like, “Me neither, since the 70s! It’s no big deal! Are you going to Mass?” And you’re like, “Yeah?” And he’s like, “You’re fine.” Which I think is actually wonderful, in many ways, and represents a lot of the natural ebb and flow of life and your walk with God. Whereas if you go to your pastor, particular if you’re like me, kind of on that range between Mainline Protestant and hipster evangelical, if you go to your hipster evangelical pastor and you’re like, “I’m not sure if I believe in God,” there’s an intervention at your home that night. Because it’s everything.

You know it’s a crazy idea. Occasionally you’re going to have days where it seems nuts. I think that can be hard. That can be hard for people. And makes people less honest about the natural ebb and flow of their walk with Christ. But I had no walk with Christ, so that’s not relevant to my story. I was not into it. I thought it was very dumb. Generally if I met someone who was religious—and most atheists are great; I was kind of a dick, but most people are great—I would just be like, “Oh, you seem really nice,” and in my head, I would be like, “Eh, you’re just 40 percent dumber than I had assumed at first meeting you. That’s fine. Lots of people aren’t that smart. It’s cool. I go to Harvard.” So I was that person.

And I started a website, with my dear, dear friend, Daniel Mallory Ortberg,* whose parents, I had not realized at the time, are very fancy Protestants who write books and things about it. I loved them. They are the greatest people in the world. Which was weird for me. Because they didn’t seem that dumb. They seemed pretty smart. But obviously I was missing something. So Daniel and I were making a website together called The Toast. Oh, okay, who read The Toast? Oh, hi, guys! It’s so nice to see you! I should have brought Daniel. Oh man, people are always more excited to see him than to see me. I said, “You can’t come.” He’s back at the hotel. He’s wearing a robe. He won’t have moved by the time I get back.

So I started doing The Toast, and we started to run some cool stuff by people of faith. I had moved from New York to Utah, which is why I am pregnant with my third child, as opposed to a normal number of children, which is 0 to 1, as you know from this town. It’s just what you do there. Everything is set up for it. It’s so easy. You can take them anywhere. It’s great. And so in Utah, I was also meeting people of faith, who were mostly LDS, who I get a real kick out of, and have a lot more sympathy now for, because I have a weird religion, which is Christianity, which is very strange that we often don’t think of it that way. Often when I meet Mormon people who are like, “I know, I know it’s weird,” I’m like, “It’s not that much weirder. It’s just a little newer. It’s okay.” Nancy Ortberg, who I love and has a beautiful, radiant faith, says something: any time someone’s theology is a little [makes askew gesture], which is, you know, they’re going to die, they’re going to see God, God is going to say, “That was really weird, but come on it!” Which is something I think we should all strive for in our relationships with everybody in the world as much as humanly possible.

But I was encountering a lot more people of faith, and then—I’m probably going to cry once, because I’ve done a couple of podcasts in the last week or two. For some reason people are asking me about Jesus more this month. And I have cried each time, very briefly. And it’s very awkward to do that on a podcast because it’s just dead air. There’s just silence, and then I’m sniffling for five minutes afterwards, trying to get it back together. But crying is very important to this story, so it makes sense.

Two separate things happened. It was two years ago. It was in the summer. I was living in Utah. And at the time I had two children, as opposed to two and a half [gestures toward belly]. I was worried about a health issue we were having with my oldest child, I was very worried—she’s fine now. And I was sitting on the couch, and I said, “Be with me.” Just out there to the room, to nobody in particular. Had no faith, no wish to have any. And I remember thinking, “Gosh that was weird I said that.” And I very much thought, “Atheists in foxholes, no big deal. Don’t let it ruin your week. You’re not that dumb.” And just sort of moved forward.

And then about a month later, I was noodling around on the Internet, which is how I spend most of my day, and I was looking through the archives of a series that Daniel and I did for The Toast, called Gabbin’ About God, which we would always illustrate with screencaps from Simpsons episodes with Ned Flanders, because they’re free. (New media is dying—another speech.) And for this series, because Daniel went to a Christian college, and is very steeped in biblical knowledge, I would ask him an idiot intro question about Christianity that I had no answer to, and he would then explain it to me.

So, for example, once, for this, I asked him, how did the dying-for-our-sins thing work? Like, what’s the mechanism there? I only know from Aslan. Why did that have to happen? And he would very patiently walk me through 2000 years of information about this. And I would say thank you. (His dad did one once, which was great.) I asked Daniel, “The Harrowing of Hell—what’s that? Why do some people have books in the Bible other people don’t?” You get the idea. And in the comments one day, one of our readers had said, “If I wanted to know anything about Christianity, about current Christian theology, what should I read?” And Daniel gave a short list of books. He said, “Dallas Willard is great. You should read Dallas Willard.” And so that day, noodling around on the Internet, I thought, “I should Google that dude. I don’t know anything about modern Christianity, obviously. And I got Dallas Willard. His obit came up. He had passed, and Daniel’s dad John Ortberg had written an obituary for Christianity Today. And I was like ding ding ding! That’s going to be great. I know both of those people. So I started reading it, and it was most beautiful thing I’d ever read. And for some reason I was deeply moved by it.

Dallas Willard’s books are fantastic, by the way. Those of you who are seminarians probably know this. I don’t need to tell you. You got this down. A very, very beautiful thinker, who has said a number of things that I just find deeply moving. In that particular obituary, someone asked him about Christian Universalism or what have you, and he just thought about it for a second, and he said, “I think God will let everyone into heaven who can possibly stand to be there.” Which is amazing, right? Because on one hand, you’re like, “That ain’t everybody.” But it’s most of us, hopefully. But I loved it.

He was asked, “Hey Dallas, what do you think about the doctrine of total depravity?” And he said, “I believe in sufficient depravity.” Follow up question: “What’s that?” And he said, “I believe that we are all sufficiently depraved that when we get to heaven, none of us will think we belong there.” And I burst into tears, just burst into tears, and was like, “Oh, this is so strange because I don’t feel happy. I don’t feel sad. There’s no dove. There’s no nothing. It’s just emotion.” And I was like, “Man, what a week I’m having.” I was like, “Where am I on my period?” I really checked off some boxes, moved on with my day, and a few hours later I started crying again. No reason. My husband came in the room. I’m like, “Get it together. It’s fine. It’s fine.” But it didn’t stop.

So I kept crying a bunch over the course of the next week or so, and I remember thinking, “Well, it kind of started when you read that obit. You could buy one of his books. That might be interesting.” So I bought three. And I read them, and I cried. And then I read Lewis Smedes’ My God and I and cried a bunch. And then I read Henri Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved, and I cried a bunch. And then I read Sara Miles’s Take This Bread (Episcopalian!), and I cried a whole bunch.

And what’s funny about all of this in retrospect is that I had no idea that what was happening here was that I was realizing I believed. That sounds so dumb right now, right? Because you’re like, “What did you think was happening? You were reading all these books about Jesus and crying. What was this supposed to be if not that?” But I promise you, I did not know it was that. I was genuinely just reacting. So after a good two weeks of periodic crying while reading books about Jesus, I was like, “Well, this can’t keep happening. This is not a sustainable way to live one’s life. I’m going to have to do something about this. Option the first: stop reading books about Jesus. See if that does it. Option the second: maybe you could talk to someone about this and try to pursue with greater intention why you are reading books about Jesus and crying all the time—apart from the obvious answer, which has not occurred to you.” So I was like, “Okay, who am I going to talk to? I should talk to a Christian.” Pop out the Rolodex.

At this point, I will take a brief sidebar to state that, shortly after I said I was a Christian on Twitter, I began to get emails from very enthusiastic Christians—which should be the only kind, honestly. It always mystifies me that there are people who are like, “Oh no, I totally believe this bananas thing happened, but it’s not like it changes everything for me. I live my life. It’s just a normal life. That’s something you can do once a week for an hour and then have brunch. And it’s not a huge deal.” Anyway. Christians emailed me questions like, “How would I convert an atheist?” My favorite one of those was actually this very sweet young man. He’s like, “What I’ve been doing is arguing with people on Reddit’s Atheism subreddit, and that’s not doing the trick.”

I’m like, “No, it’s not. Don’t do that.”

What would happen to me is, I was like, “I have to talk to a Christian.” And so I thought about talking to the Ortberg parents because they are professional pastors. It is their job. They could probably declare the time on their taxes if they had that conversation with me. But that seemed really high pressure. Because it’s not like they’re selling Amway or something like that, but it is their job. So I’m like, “I’m going to talk to them. I’m going to be like, ‘Thanks. That was cool. See you at Thanksgiving.’ And then I’ll be there, and they’ll be like, ‘Have you been crying and thinking about Jesus recently. And I’ll be like, ‘No! That was a dumb thing I did for a while last summer. I’m over it.’ I don’t want that in our friendship. It’ll be weird.”

So I thought I could talk to Daniel’s sister, who’s a Christian but not a professional. She’s a writer. That’s a great choice because I knew she had a faith that was very deep and sustaining and great for her. I asked her specifically not to knock her out to her parents, so that’s great.

So I emailed her a very awkward email, which, as I recall, was like, “Hi, Laura. How are you? I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus recently. Would you like to talk about it sometime? Love you. Nicole.”

Laura and I have talked about this a bunch since, because it’s exactly what you would anticipate. Laura gets the e-mail, and she’s like, “Calm down. Don’t scare her off. You’ve been in training for this your whole life.” So of course she immediately e-mailed her parents and was like, “Jesus is coming for Nicole. Start praying. Don’t say it.” They began praying. But what she wrote back and was like, “If you want, sure. We could do that. Or not. Like, whatever. It’s fine. Next Tuesday?” I was like, “Okay.”

I deeply regretted having sent the email. Because also, I didn’t have any questions for her. I didn’t know what this was going to be. We’re all familiar with Jesus. This is America. He runs everything. It’s the most intense chokehold on the cultural and political life of the nation imaginable. I know the story. Also Aslan—I’ve got this!—which, by the way, I did not know was Jesus, until my 20s. I just wanted to share that with you. I thought they were the dumb ones but I didn’t know that Aslan was Jesus. And I have an English degree!

So I at this point was like, “Okay, I have no idea what I’m going to say to her. I don’t know how to backtrack now. I guess I’m just going to ask what Jesus has been like in her life. Or maybe she’ll just talk. Which would be very convenient for me because I don’t know what to say. I was really just like uuuggghhh about it. And then she was going to call me in about an hour, and then I knew. That was it. I just knew. Nobody spoke to me. That was not a thing. I was just like, “Oh, I’m a Christian now. That’s what this has been this whole time.” I felt like the world’s biggest fool. Laura called. She was like, “Hi!” And I was like, “Let’s do this. I’m here.” And she was like, “This is so much easier than I thought.”

Which was great. But no, I was just like, “This is what I want. I believe this. I do not know why.” And then we cried, and we prayed together, and we laughed for like 20 minutes because it was so funny that this had happened. And she said, “I’ll send you some more books.” I was like, “Great.”

And that happened. It was very strange. And then you know you get a few months where you’re just kind of floating a little bit. Like, it’s something so strange to have happened to you. I had to tell people. So I started real easy with just Christians, who love it! That’s a great audience for anybody who becomes a Christian, telling other Christians about it. They’re just like, “Yes!” And the first person I told who was not a Christian was my husband, which, as you can imagine, I thought it was going to be very awkward, because my husband is a physicist. He’s a theoretical condensed matter physicist, who I had always felt was very soft on religion, in a way that aggravated me. He insisted on identifying as an agnostic, which is just nonsense! And I had always been really irritated by that. I would say, “Well, obviously this is nonsense.” And he would say, “I don’t know. Doesn’t really seem like it has to be in conflict with anything else. The whole point is, we don’t understand it.” I was like, “That’s such a cop-out!” Despite the fact he knew everything about science, and I, nothing.

So it was very convenient that I was the one who came to Jesus and not him, because if it had been him, it would have been a very different conversation. But I sent him a text message saying, “When you get home we need to talk.” Second text message: “It’s OK. It’s not bad.” But I thought it was a little bad. So he came home, looking, as you can imagine, slightly worried. I was just like, “Here’s the deal buddy: I became a Christian. I believe in God. I’m on the Jesus train.” And he was very surprised, because it was me, but was unbelievably nice about it. Just unbelievably. He was so happy for me. He was like, “This is obviously something that’s bringing you a lot of joy. I don’t believe myself. But it seems great. If you want to take the kids to church, go for it.” Which, again, I would never have signed off on, if the situation were reversed. And that was that. And he was never condescending about it or patronizing, which is amazing to me. He’s been great. And so then I told three other people and then Twitter, which tells a lot of people. At once. And that was great.

And something I really appreciate is, frequently, people will be like, “Have people been rude to you about it?” And I’m like, “I have joined the most popular religion in the world.” It is really not that bad. People have been great, and if they haven’t been great, they’ve been not great behind my back, like God wants us to do. I’m sure there are group texts where people are like, “Nicole really went off the rails.” I don’t see it. I don’t care. Bless you. Thank you. I appreciate it. That’s wonderful of you. My readers were great. Like everybody has been super nice about it. So that’s great for the world. I was real pleased.

Going back to the person who was like, “How do I convert atheists?” In the moment I was like, “Oh, God’ll just come and bother you and make you cry all the time, and then you’ll figure it out. It’s fine. You don’t have to do anything to convert atheists. God’ll do it or it won’t happen. Chill out.” But I think more useful information than that is just, I knew who to call. I knew who the people in my world were that, if I wanted to have a really awkward conversation about Jesus, in a non-Amway scenario, I knew who to have a phone call with. And so if you are that person in someone’s life, just, you know, be prepared to take the call. She didn’t have to do much, but I’m sure she would have done a great job if it had gone differently. But knowing that there was someone in my life who was a person of very deep faith who would be happy to talk about it if I wanted to and who I knew loved me was the whole thing. So that’s just a little data point for you that may be useful or not. But it worked out great for me.

The things that I have found since becoming a Christian—apart from very broad observations about Catholics and Protestants, which are making people twitch who have actually read things—I would say that Jesus is unbelievably demanding in a way I had not really anticipated. There’s cool, countercultural Jesus. And there’s very terrifying Jesus, throwing things. It took me a while to read the Bible. I’d read it before—my thesis was on the intersection between medieval and renaissance English drama, the mystery plays. I knew that story. But I hadn’t read it in a ‘This is true’ way, which is very different. Something I hadn’t anticipated about it was that, oh, he asks a whole bunch. It’s just unimaginable, the standard that he’s asking for. And he’s so unbelievably patient with what he’s willing to accept. Which is great for all of us.

The thing I had said earlier about being surprised that there were people who were Christians for whom it didn’t change everything was very much true. Once I became a Christian, I went first to a very ‘frozen chosen’ church near me because in Utah you do not have a lot of non-LDS Christian options. You are really picking from like a very small handful of churches. And I went and there was a pastor and he was like, “Oh hey, I haven’t seen you before.” And I’m like, “I found Jesus.” And he was a little like, “Cool…?” Like, “We don’t get a lot of that here.” But also, I was just more enthusiastic than I think that he was prepared to deal with that particular day because it was a really big deal for me. If you’ve never thought these things were true before, and now you think they’re true, it’s a really big deal.

You want to think about it all the time. Every time you go to do something, you’re like, “Oh, is this a thing I should do now?” There are a lot of things like that. I tell a thousand tiny lies a day, all the time—gentle Canadian smoothing-things-over. Or lies about stuff. Nothing terrible, though I might. An example: A week after I became a Christian, my husband asked me to pick up milk and I didn’t want to because I just wanted to drive home. So I drove home. And I of course had planned to say, “I forgot to get the milk.” But I hadn’t. I just didn’t want to. And having just become a Christian, I was like, “Ugh.” “Honey, where’s the milk?” “I didn’t want to get it. I was going to lie about it, but Christ died for me.”

So there was a lot of that. I think people like to think I become a nicer person. I’m like, “People would not think so.” Suddenly people see what a turd I’ve always been. But I think it’s been wonderful for having difficult conversations with people I love. I think it’s been wonderfully enriching, especially for my friendships with other Christians. Because I love praying for things. Didn’t see that one coming. It’s great. Oh, it’s so much fun! You know, you’re just going through your day, like, “I’ll pray for you later. I’ll feel great about it too.” You’re not supposed to say it out loud. Jesus was very clear, very clear about that, as he is with so many things I would love to do. Oh, it’s the worst.

But we all have that phenomenon where you have a friend, and they’re doing something you think is just a bad idea. And instead of being like, “Everything you do is great,” sometimes now I’ll have a friend who is also a Christian, and I’m not going to be like, “Jesus doesn’t like that,” but it’s made it a little easier for me to be like, “Let’s have a slightly hard conversation that I would never want to have.” And it can be amazing for your friendships. I just think it’s really enriched and deepened my relationships with other people so much. I don’t want to say that I care more, because I love the person as much as I ever did. But I am now, I would say, more constantly aware at awkward moments that everyone else is a beloved child of God, even when they suck. And it really messes with your life. You know, it’s very inconvenient to think that everyone is a beloved child of God. This may or may not have come up for you, but it’s true, they are. And so it changes the way that you talk to and interact with them.

It should ideally change what you do with money. He was so clear on that one. Of the first month after I became a Christian, every night there’d be two hours where I was just like, “That Rich Young Ruler story is rough!” And if you are here today on a Saturday morning instead of working shift work, you are the Rich Young Ruler, son. We are! All of us are, in fact, the Rich Young Ruler, and he was real clear about that. It’s very comforting to me that, after Jesus says the thing to the Rich Young Ruler—I think it might have been before; I’m not great—it says that “he loved him.”

I forget who said this, but—Dallas Willard was awesome for this, incidentally: one of his graduate students said, “I’m using something you said in my dissertation or one of my books, so I’ll cite you.” And Dallas was like, “Oh no, don’t do that.” And he was like, “What?” And he’s like, “Well, if what I said was true, then it came from the Holy Spirit, in which case you do not need to cite me. And if what I said was wrong, I do not want to be connected with it forever.” So you can lift other people’s theological observations all you want. Dead theologian Dallas Willard said it was fine. Cite nothing: it came from the Holy Spirit or it’s untrue. (I am not in academia. I have not written a book.)—But he said that what was very comforting about this is that when you’re reading that chapter and you’re thinking about Jesus telling the Rich Young Ruler that he needs to sell all of his stuff and go help the poor, he’s saying it because he loves him, and he wants to remove the greatest burden that’s facing the Rich Young Ruler. It’s not a “rich people are trash” statement. It’s not a “you’re a monster who’s trying too hard.” It’s that he loves him and wants to take away the hardest thing in his life. And that’s something I find very liberating to think about in those moments. 

I have just gotten my five-minute warning. I told you I didn’t need notes. It would be fine! So, you know what, I don’t really have a great wrap-up, that’s just my story of becoming a Christian. I feel like I use the same jokes every time, but people who’ve written books about God tell me they frequently reuse jokes in their various books about God, and it’s okay. It’s harder on the Internet. I didn’t reuse my jokes on The Toast. But apparently it’s okay when it’s God.

I would love to answer any questions people have because I love talking. If anyone has secretly hated me my whole life and has come to ask a question, please don’t; I’m a very soft person.

Q: So, becoming a Christian, for someone who doesn’t want to be a joiner, I feel as though Christians are very weird about the ‘in-out’ thing. How could Christians be less weird and more normal about…

A: I mean, that’s the question, right? That’s the most important question. Thank you. I’ll do my best. I do not have an answer to the problem of suffering, which occasionally atheists have asked me, and I’m like, “Yeah, I’ll be the one to solve that.” I don’t know. A rabbi wrote a book about that. Maybe the Jews have a better handle on that. It’s not me. I think the most important thing is to create a space where that conversation can be had in a way that you have to work on your face more, by which I mean if someone is like, “I’m really struggling with my faith right now,” you can’t make this like [gasping face] Indiana-Jones-grabbed-the-wrong-chalice situation, which is what we often see. Instead, there has probably been a time in your life where you thought this story was real bananas-sounding and had a moment about it. Maybe share that moment.

Lauren Winner actually wrote a great book—she wrote Girl Meets God, which is one of the early books I read, but she also wrote a book, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, but it was her second book, which is usually the bad one, but it was really good—about a time in her life when she really felt like God was not pulling his end of the oar, and that her faith was suffering, and she said it’s a great time to really double down and do the stuff: which is reading, just filling yourself with the Gospel, having these conversations, and continuing to…

This is something I was saying the other day about marriage, which is that it’s really important to have the fight. By which I mean, when you’re married, and you’re disagreeing about something, or you’re mad, it’s very easy to pull back, and instead you need to go Old-Testament in. By which I mean arguing about it and being mad at God. Which is totally fine; he’s used to it. I mean half of the people talking to him are real mad all the time about it. But something I find wonderful about the Old Testament is just seeing people who feel real neglected by the Lord getting mad at him about it. Like, some of the people with the most beautiful faiths I know have days when they’re like, “God, I just don’t understand, and I’m frankly irritated that you’re doing xyz right now instead of the thing I want.” And that’s a conversation. You’re having it. I think it’s so much better to be angry with God and speak honestly to him about it than it is to just withdraw and be like, “I’m just not going to engage with my faith until I feel better about things.”

I have a friends who grew up in really just an unpleasant, fundamentalist, abusive spiritual situation—not that all fundamentalist spiritual situations are abusive, but theirs was—and the idea of expressing anger with God is just really verboten to them. And to this day, it makes them very uncomfortable. And I’m like, “Well, it’s the oldest thing you can do to God, is be mad with him. He’s really going to be okay with it. And he would rather you’re telling him how you felt than not talking to him.” Which is true for marriage and God, and I think that if we were more open and embracing of that, it would be easier for people to talk about the times in their life when they’re not feeling it or when they’re just real mad about it, which can often be deeply related. Not overreacting when people are having a tough time in their walk with God, and praying a ton for them. So that’s my answer.

If you run out of Jesus stuff, I can also answer Toast questions. It’s fine.

Q: I remember Christopher Hitchens’ brother Peter writing something—Peter is Christian, and his brother Christopher is an atheist—and he was talking about (I’m paraphrasing) how rationalization wouldn’t work on his brother. And he mentioned how art might have the ability to bypass that and hit the heart. I’m wondering if your experience of reading the obituary, if it was as much how it was written as it was what was actually written.

A: Sure, absolutely, that’s a great question. I to this day do not have a rational case to make for God at all. And I have never heard a plausible one that worked for me. So it’s been very heart-based for me, which also makes it easier to avoid arguments with atheists sometimes, because I’m like, “You’re right, the story is nuts. It doesn’t make sense at all. That’s just how I feel.” Which makes them so mad. But it’s true. There are very, very intelligent Christians who’ve made great cases for why this whole thing actually hangs together, which is great—thank you for doing that work; it ain’t me. I think that you can very rationally believe in God, I hope, I don’t think you necessarily have to sidestep things, but I think most of us do.

I’ll tell you the part I’m going to cry about. Oh, it’s coming. So again, I don’t think the story makes that much sense. I’m willing to buy it. I do every day. But I remember because I had such a hang up on feeling like an idiot about the whole thing, that I really wished I had a story. Because some Christians will be like, “My foot was healed.” Something happened, you know. “My mother appeared to me as an angel and was like, ‘Things are great.’” And we would all like that. I have a friend who’s a very gifted pastor, very gifted theologian, and he does not have a story, and he loves hearing other people’s for this reason, without much of a sense of “I’m mad that God hasn’t given me one.” But I did wind up having one.

A couple of months after I became a Christian, which was very inconveniently so close to waking up that if I ever stopped being a Christian, I could be like, “It was a dream.” But it wasn’t. I was just lying in bed and suddenly felt just completely suffused by love. [begins crying] I told you this would happen. It just lasted for a few moments. It was the realest thing I’ve ever felt. And so I was like, “Yes, okay, good, that’s going to power me through the fact that the story is really dumb.” I mean, transformative and beautiful and everything, but, you know, a little weird. So that’s been a great comfort to me.

But that’s also not something you can explain to someone on Reddit. Because also, lots of people—there’s the Buddhist saying that “your revelations can be what trap you,” because a person can have a revelation that will not be true for them for their entire life, and sometimes, in trying to hang onto our revelations, we can really stunt ourselves, which I think is probably fair. But for me, that was just a beautiful leapfrog over many of the things that are strange into a place where I’m like, “This is just how it is for me.” I hope everyone gets that. It was real pleasant. But I think if there was a perfect case for Christ, it would have been made. We’d all talk about it a lot more. It would be something we’d all point to. But it is a deeply personal thing. And before I became religious, I definitely saw that as a cop-out, like the “Oh, they’re going to mention faith again” thing. But it’s true. That’s it. I’m that person now. It really is, for me, about the heart. And my brain doesn’t interfere with it. I can see how it could. But I find it to be something that’s just extra-rational. That’s just not the realm in which it operates for me. Though I think it’s true. Most of you probably do, because you’re here on a Saturday.

*In 2018, Daniel transitioned from female to male, hence the difference of name and pronouns.