Picturing God

by Chelsea Schlievert

When I was little, I was fascinated by the idea of what God looked like. Every middle-class Midwestern white kid who grew up with one of those picture bibles knew exactly what Jesus looked like: brown hair, long but never unruly; a beard which always seemed nicely groomed; a clean white robe and sandals. But what about the big guy? I didn’t buy the old-man-with-the-long-white-beard bit. And even George Burns, though grandfatherly and funny in the Oh God movies, didn’t seem right. So, for reasons that I cannot explain, I decided that God probably looked like my Uncle Bill.

A picture of my uncle hung on the wall at my grandmother’s house. Taken in the early 1970s when Bill was in his twenties, and sideburns, turtlenecks for men, and plaid flared bottom pants were all the rage, it was this image that I adopted as the appearance of the almighty.

My uncle Bill is a great guy, but there’s nothing particularly God-like about him. The photo had a golden hue to it, probably yellowing due to age; perhaps I interpreted this as ethereal light. In any event, until I started Sunday school, this was how I pictured God.

We weren’t a religious family; in fact, we didn’t start attending church until I was in the 3rd grade. Deciding that my younger siblings and I needed “some structure of religion” in our lives, my parents joined the local Episcopal church. I never quite understood why: Mom’s family was Methodist and Dad told me once they were Lutheran, though it was years before I understood that the quotation fingers he used when he said “Lutheran” really meant “non-practicing.”

I never felt comfortable in my Sunday school classes. The church community was small, and all the girls my age had known each other since baptism. I felt like an outsider and found it hard to make friends.  To further complicate things, though my parents wanted us to belong to a church, they didn’t feel it was all that important to go every week. So we became that family — the strange one who sometimes showed up (usually five to ten minutes late) and sometimes didn’t. Sunday school teachers realized they couldn’t depend on my sister and me to be in class every week.  We weren’t given our own workbooks, coat hooks, or crayons — items reserved for the kids who attended on a more regular basis — and instead had to use the leftovers or, worse, those of whichever “regular” happened to be absent. I always felt terrible using some other kid’s coloring book; imagine coming to class the following week only to open your book and find that the page that you’d been saving for Jesus had been colored by someone else!

My father soon picked up on my sister’s and my anxiety toward church and did what every clear-headed, considerate parent would do: he began to use it against us. Church became a form of punishment, and Sunday school a threat that he hung over us each week. If we misbehaved or mouthed off to my mom, then it was off to church on Sunday. Really extreme sentencing landed us in the church’s children’s choir. This was particularly embarrassing, as we never attended mid-week choir practice, didn’t know the songs, and did not even have choir robes assigned to us. The children’s choir was frequently underpopulated, so the choir director, who always seemed more concerned with having “butts in pews” than making sure his flock of singers knew the words to their songs, never turned us away.

When I was fifteen, I began confirmation classes led by a new priest who was eager to introduce the parish teens to Jesus Christ. He was sure we would become best friends. So, every Wednesday afternoon for a whole year, my sister and I would sit through confirmation class. When it came time for us to ask questions about our new friend Jesus, the bible, or the Sunday Eucharist, I always found myself instead thinking of Hollywood. I couldn’t care less about the Nicene Creed or why we Episcopalians had to recite it every Sunday centuries later. What I wanted to know was if the Ark of the Covenant really existed and, if one removed its lid like the Nazis did in Raiders of the Lost Ark, would it melt faces? What about the Holy Grail? Was there really a 900-yr-old Crusader guarding it somewhere in Jordan? It is probably a good thing that The DaVinci Code had not hit bookstores or box offices until years later; otherwise, my confirmation class would have been completely overshadowed by the likes of Robert Langdon, Sophie Neveu, and the Knights of the Templar.

In the small Nebraska town where I grew up, Christian youth retreats and gatherings became popular with my high school classmates. Many of them would get together on Wednesday nights for Young Life, which would take place in the family room of some kid’s house or on a farm, often around a big bonfire. If the latter, it was pretty much guaranteed that s’mores would be made and Michael W. Smith songs would be sung. Through these gatherings, Jesus seemed to become best friends with many of my classmates, who started referring to him as “my bro” and “my pal” in addition to the more standard “my lord” and “my savior.” And fish things started to appear everywhere: as stickers on locker doors, keychains in car ignitions, drawings on notebooks, frames around license plates.

Young Life and the other Christian activities that enthralled my friends and classmates did nothing more than alienate me. I attended one or two but felt out of place. I had a difficult time imagining that everyone present truly felt the way they claimed. Really, everyone there viewed themselves as BFFs with Jesus? (And if that was the case, why didn’t I? Was something wrong with me?)

My freshman year of college at the University of Nebraska introduced me to the Langston Hughes story “Salvation.” Thank God! I wasn’t the only one missing this whole Jesus business. From there I leapt into the world of Flannery O’Connor. While fellow dorm residents took part in bible studies, church groups, and Campus Crusades for Christ, I snuggled up with Flannery and her crooked bible salesmen and murderous highwaymen. I met my best friend, who was raised Catholic but had parted from the church years earlier. While living at home, her parents still required her to go to church on Sundays. She would instead go to Barnes & Noble, where she would, as she said, “worship in the temple of coffee and books.”

I started meeting people who called themselves atheists and agnostics. I seemed to identify more with them and felt more like myself around them, but I never felt right using either word to describe myself. I also met a few friends who were struggling with identity issues beyond the spiritual. One dorm-mate came out during our sophomore year of college only to be told by her bible-bound mother that she would never again be welcome at home, as homosexuality was a “sin too big for Jesus.”

The whole God/Jesus-thing was really confusing me. A guy I knew, sensing that I was questioning faith, tried to expound upon me the brilliance of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. I was always unclear if his intentions were educational, conversional, or amorous. And I began to get frustrated with conservative Christian classmates who I felt looked down on me for choosing to hang out in bars and music venues on the weekends. On a few occasions, I felt the need to remind them that if Jesus ever came back — if he even existed — he would probably spend his time in hospitals, soup kitchens, and homeless shelters with people who really needed him rather than at a hayrack ride with a bunch of privileged white kids.

Fascinated by spirituality, yet feeling none of it myself, I took classes on world religions. The Hindu gods and goddesses looked so much cooler than the Christian iconography with which I was familiar. Vishnu, blue-skinned Krishna, Ganesha in his elephant form — their mythologies swirled in my head and piqued my curiosity. And as I began to consider Buddhist philosophy beyond just plastering my backpack with Beastie Boys-inspired “Free Tibet” patches, I found myself eager to learn more.

I also started to find spirituality in art. The first time I felt moved spiritually by anything was in 2001 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, standing in front of one of Mark Rothko’s untitled paintings from the early 1960s. The work stirred parts of me deeply and peacefully, parts that I never knew existed. Years later, it happened again on a sticky Houston afternoon in the Cy Twombly Gallery at the Menil Collection. Other than the guard, I was the only one in the building. I sat for 30 minutes in front of the 52-foot long Say Goodbye, Catallus, to the Shores of Asia Minor, just listening to the silence, the thoughts and emotions it activated inside me. The guard must have felt it, too (or perhaps he had fallen asleep at his post), as he let me stay 15 minutes past closing. After that, the Cy Twombly Gallery became a holy place for me.

I tried to reconnect with my Episcopal roots once as an adult. After my dad died in 2008, I felt lost. I had moved to a new city for a job, had yet to make any friends, and was 800 miles away from everything and everyone familiar to me. I drove aimlessly one afternoon until I found myself in the parking lot of an Episcopal church. I went in and tried to pray but broke down in tears. A priest came and sat beside me, offering to talk. We moved out of the church and into a quiet sitting room. The next two hours he listened as I unloaded. I told him what I thought about Jesus and Christianity and how much of an imposter I felt like in that space. I told him I was sorry for taking up his time.

I was a mess: embarrassed, bleary-eyed, angry, sad. When I finally was able to take a breath and look at him, I saw God. Not in the sense that I had a vision, or even that God took the form of the priest in order to talk to me. It was simply the look of compassion and understanding in this stranger’s eyes that assured me spirituality was something real. He told me that he didn’t care that I didn’t see myself as a Christian. He was just glad I stopped by.

We began talking about Buddhism and art and music and parents and relationships and work, and he suggested that I ease up on myself. He encouraged me to explore those things that interested me, that moved me in ways I couldn’t quite articulate. He also suggested (secular) grief counseling, which I started a few weeks later and continued for the next two years.

I’d like to say that there’s been some kind of resolution to my feelings of spiritual awkwardness, but there hasn’t been. No divine intervention, no conversions, no major answers revealed. But what is different is my own personal acceptance of it: God doesn’t have to be Christian; God doesn’t have to fit neatly into the parameters of any organized religion. God might be eternal; God might be internal. God might be everywhere; God might be nowhere. I will probably never know; someday I might know. In the meantime, I can explore. And imagine.

Though if, when I die, I make it through the pearly gates and am introduced to God, it will be pretty righteous if he does, in fact, look like my Uncle Bill.

Categories: Essay