With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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You can almost tell when it’s the Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door, because the knock is polite but loud at the same time, deferential but invested with the supposed authority of doing God’s work.
It’s a wonder I hear them knock at all. I am cleaning and have CNN turned up loud to make it audible over the dishwasher and washing machine. But hear them I do, and when I see their faces framed in the oval glass of the front door, I think, This is all my father’s fault. Before he died, my father used to invite Witnesses in and have spirited debates with them about obscure doctrinal points. This was a form of sport for him and gave him pleasure, but it put the house on a secret map for proselytizers.
I open the door to two men, both trim and fit. The one in front is fine featured, with only a bulbous nose keeping him from being truly handsome. The other, who hangs back, has the deep blue-black skin of many Africans. His glasses sparkle in the sun, his suit is wrinkle free, and his face is bright with the knowledge that he has made it to the promised land.
I immediately think, Oh dear, I’ve opened the door. Now it’s too late. I’ll have to say something rude. But before I can say anything, the man in front whips out his heavily thumbed Bible and says, “Hello, ma’am. I’d like to take a moment of your time to share with you this passage from Matthew.” And he begins to read.
It’s silly, I know, but the venerable language and familiar cadences of the Bible always slay me. And I’m feeling vulnerable today, with the sun unnaturally bright and CNN blaring in the background about all the ghastly troubles in the world. So the words from Matthew bring a lump to my throat and make my eyes mist. Now I am done for, because the man thinks I am ready to be converted, which is not the case at all. It’s just that I am not going to slam the door in their faces and add one more jot of suffering to the history of this poor, benighted planet. I want to be nice to these men and let them know that, even though I don’t believe in their bastardized religion, I have nothing against them and their longing to be loved, healed, and transported to a place where their suffering will slough from them like a moldering carapace and they will lie in a garden with no stinging insects and no creatures munching on other creatures.
So I say, grimacing sweetly, “I understand that you have your beliefs, but I’m a bit more broad-minded in mine. Also I’m busy, so if you’ll give me your literature, I’ll read it, but I don’t have time to talk.”
I am wearing a dirty, wet apron, which gives legitimacy to my claim of being busy, and clutching a bottle of DHEA, a hormone supplement that supposedly gives one more energy. These men probably don’t know anything about DHEA. It’s only those of us who suspect God is really nothing but a neuropeptide who invest money in supplements.
The man in front misses these subtle hints that I am not a candidate for conversion. He points out that he, too, is busy, but he takes time to talk to people about salvation, because that is what Jesus wanted, and what Jesus did himself.
Realizing that my gentle manner is getting me nowhere, I say abruptly, “I have a hard time believing in God, because there seems to be so much unnecessary suffering in the world.”
The man in back shifts uneasily. He’s probably along to watch and learn this gig, and it’s starting to sink in that he’ll have to contend with more than just older, churchgoing women with their own beliefs about the Bible; he’ll also have to talk to middle-aged (albeit well-preserved) women who dress in natural fabrics, buy bottles of DHEA, and read magazines like Harper’s and Adbusters.
Of course the Jehovah’s Witnesses have an answer to my objection: there is suffering because Eve broke God’s only rule, which was not to eat the apple.
I reply that I don’t believe in Adam and Eve, and, anyway, without choice, life would be meaningless. I cap this with something I dimly remember about the Jehovah’s Witnesses: that they believe only a limited number of people will actually be saved.
“Oh!” the man in the front says, giving me a big smile. It seems Jehovah’s Witnesses have grown used to hearing this argument and have found an escape clause. “Everyone can be saved, you see, but only 144,000 will go to heaven. The saved will live in an earthly paradise with abundant food, health, and well-being.”
I can’t imagine what heaven could have to offer that would be much better than the earthly paradise he describes. Perhaps those in heaven get to rule over the ones on earth. But since everyone will be happy and well-fed, that’s got to be a boring job. Perhaps the heavenly get to have sex. No, it hardly seems likely that there’s sex in heaven but none in the earthly paradise. Maybe the 144,000 feel better inside, like one supposedly feels on DHEA. But that seems like splitting hairs. So just what is so much better about heaven? And, furthermore, I seem to recall that Witnesses don’t believe in hell, so where do people like Bill O’Reilly go?
If I had time, I think, I could talk circles around this man. (This must have been my father’s motivation.) But I don’t have time. I have to go to work soon, and I’ve already talked too long. This Witness should be satisfied, because he has accomplished his objective, which was to engage me in conversation. Of course, he’s come nowhere near to converting me. Even if I were at death’s door, like my brother, who has pancreatic cancer; even if I were on umpteen milligrams of morphine an hour and disgusted and disappointed with my life, I wouldn’t become a Jehovah’s Witness. I would choose something more sophisticated. This is a fast-food religion for people who eat at McDonald’s. There are no nuances. There’s no hard work. You can get saved in five seconds, as soon as you accept Jehovah as your Lord. Their heaven has a drive-through window.
I smile stiffly and take his proffered comic-book-looking tract. It has three people on the cover: a black, an Asian, and a white, or maybe a Latino. No blondes? Obviously this literature is aimed at the Third World, where not many people have Scandinavian looks or liberal-arts educations.
Well then, let these men go there, I think. But of course the Jehovah’s Witnesses are there, converting those unwary souls who come to services for the free food. And the free hope.
Later, on a break at work, I read the tract out of curiosity. It is set up like a grammar-school study guide: each chapter begins with a question, which is answered by the end. At first glance I am rather beguiled by it. I read about topics I would not have thought would be covered by religion, such as washing one’s hands after going to the toilet (do), and chewing betel nut (don’t — which is another strike against them; having tried every other drug in the world, I have always wanted to chew betel nut). I also learn that one should not eat an animal that has not been properly bled. And yes, those in heaven will rule over the inhabitants of the earthly paradise. And apparently the unsaved will simply be destroyed in one fell swoop. They are called “goats”; the ones who will live in the earthly paradise, “sheep.” Of course, goats are far smarter than sheep, but it’s clear that intelligence is not a quality Jehovah’s Witnesses look for, or even admire.
The illustrations in the tract are cartoonish and strangely reminiscent of drug hallucinations. Eve is depicted as a brunette beauty, her long hair covering any R-rated areas, who talks to an improbably fat green snake. In a picture of the earthly paradise, an Arab, an African, and a Latino are gathered at an umbrella table, sharing a bowl of punch and laughing heartily. (I imagine someone has told a knock-knock joke.) In the foreground two white women, an Asian woman, a raccoon, and a lion are lolling on the grass. There is a beach ball near the lion’s snout. This and the palm tree in the background suggest that they are at the beach.
As I read on, I find the tract more disturbing. It says people who “look to political organizations to solve man’s problems . . . are rejecting God’s Kingdom.” (So much for the civil-rights movement.) It also says, “The earth will never be destroyed; it will last forever.” (No worries about global warming.) And then there is this: “Members of false religions may sincerely believe they are worshiping the true God. But they are really serving Satan.”
Homosexuality is wrong, abortion is wrong, smoking is wrong, gambling is wrong, magical spells and spiritism are wrong, Christmas is wrong, Easter is wrong, and using the symbol of the cross is wrong. Each of these statements is supposedly backed up by a verse of the Bible, which is conveniently identified so you can look it up.
By the end, I’m no longer feeling so kindly toward the men who came to my door.
There’s something I didn’t tell those Jehovah’s Witnesses: I have a cousin who is a Jehovah’s Witness convert. Let’s call him Tom. He used to be a severe alcoholic, so severe that just about everyone had given up on him. Then he became a Witness and stopped drinking for thirty years.
A few years ago I made an effort to get to know Tom better, and I discovered he was drinking again but still considered himself a Jehovah’s Witness. (We didn’t discuss religion any further than that.) When I visited, Tom was in ill health, and I did what I could to help, because he’s family, and in his voice and features I saw the last traces of our grandfather’s genes. A British soldier in the king’s army in India, our grandfather was injured in battle during the First World War. Tom told me how our grandfather had been dumped into a mass grave to be buried, but his moans saved him. He was pulled from the grave and sent to the hospital ship Aquitania to recuperate. Tom gave me a cross-stitch our grandfather had made of the ship while recovering from his injuries.
Tom had an iron rod in his back and walked like a wounded soldier himself. Although he had been in the military, his injury was from a motorcycle accident. Lonely, impoverished, and estranged from his only son, Tom seemed aware that his life hadn’t turned out well.
The last time I visited him, he was living in a VA nursing home. It was like a regular nursing home, except the men who were well enough were allowed to take a bus into town, and there was a pond in back stocked with trout and a fenced pasture full of tame deer. Tom, who was only sixty-four, was there because he had been taking OxyContin for his back, and between that and his drinking, he kept blacking out and ending up in the hospital. Also, he couldn’t live in his isolated cabin anymore, because he’d been convicted of drunk driving and no longer had a license.
Tom’s room was a double with two beds, two bureaus, and two chairs. He kept the curtain pulled between himself and his roommate while we visited. A Bible lay open on his bed. We strolled to the common area, where men sat in wheelchairs and the television blared an old sitcom: Green Acres, I think. When lunch was served, Tom ate without enthusiasm but cleaned his plate nonetheless, right down to the sprig of parsley draped across his overcooked haddock. He said he wanted to make sure he got his vitamins. I was impressed that he still cared about his health. He appeared to maintain hope that he could one day live at home again, though the prospect seemed dubious to me.
When I left, he walked out with me to see the trout in the small pond. We stood on the dock and watched the fish, who crowded together, swimming languidly in place. When I looked closely, their scales appeared rusty. Some trailed ragged boas of algae, and others had bits of their fins missing, as if they nibbled on each other to defend their space.
The deer were just as lackluster. They were shedding, and snags of fur clung to bushes and collected on blades of grass, giving their enclosure a fuzzy, unfocused appearance. I remembered the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ earthly paradise and thought perhaps this cut-rate version was as close as Tom — as close as either of us — would ever come. The thought made me want to find the nearest liquor store, but I still had to drive home. Eager to escape this vision of my future, I drove east as if the hounds of hell were right behind.
After that visit, Tom and I lost touch. He didn’t call me again, and perhaps I’d gotten what I wanted from him: details about our family history. Once they were harvested, he wasn’t useful to me anymore. And, of course, I’m busy. But we’re all busy these days. That’s how we live our lives.
I know I should call Tom. As the days roll by, we both inch closer to that moment when we’ll discover whether there is an eternal soul. I often think of the Bible lying open on his bed and hope its words, with their majestic, sonorous weight, comfort him. I expect there are times when Tom, like me, loses faith and cannot understand how his life took the turns it did, how the precious years fell through his fingers. Then that book is the shield he holds up between himself and the horror of annihilation. And who am I to judge him? I also cling to words, to the idea that something I have written will make a lasting mark, indicating where I once stood and faced the terrible truth that we are nothing but passing energetic forms, rising like waves and soon folding back into the anonymity of atoms.
I was not aware that being a Jehovah’s Witness involved so much study. Certainly my cousin, who calls himself a Witness, does not attend classes or go door to door. Also, when I spoke of “work,” I was referring more to the philosophical work of trying to determine the meaning of life, of searching for God and deciding what he or she demands of us. When one joins a dogmatic church, there’s no longer any need for all of that.
Parts of Lois Judson’s essay “When the Lion Lies Down with the Beach Ball” [June 2007] were familiar to me from my days of passing out Jehovah’s Witness tracts, magazines, and books. (I’m now passing out Adbusters.) I was born into a Witness family. After twenty-two years I left in disgust as an atheist. Half my family would later follow.
Judson, however, makes many incorrect observations. The biggest is that “there’s no hard work” involved in being a Witness, and accepting Jehovah is all it takes. Becoming a Jehovah’s Witness is a life-altering commitment. Seven hours of Bible study and door-to-door proselytizing a week was the absolute minimum; many Witnesses put in 120 hours a month. Every move we made was filtered through extensive study and meditation on the Bible. Judson was right about the most important thing, though: we will all “fold back into the anonymity of atoms,” and that’s nothing to fear.