Telling Jesus stories at the KGB

by Kristin on September 28, 2009

in Belief, doubt & hope,God & church, hope & doubt

Photo by fellow writer/reader Elisabeth Kinsey

It has taken me many years to grow even slightly comfortable talking about my faith, particularly in the company of hipsters and intellectuals. You might think it’s effortless for me, but I can assure you it isn’t. It makes me squirm, stall, stray, and pray fervently for a magical deliverance from my discomfort.

The reading I participated in at the KGB Bar in New York City last week had me squirming like nothing quite has before. First of all, it’s a literary reading in New York. From my perspective, this translates to an audience of highly cultured, educated, skeptical, hard-hearted people with no time to waste on silly, old-fashioned notions like belief in Jesus. When I asked my New Yorker friend Carmen, who was at the reading, to tell me that all the people crowding into the bar weren’t as hostile toward Christians as I imagined, she laughed and replied “I wish I could honestly tell you that.” Gulp.

Then there was the venue: the KGB Bar, for goodness sakes! In the East Village! As Denis Woychuk writes, about his opening and naming the establishment: “…what do you call a place that’s almost impossible to find without special knowledge or a guide, a place with a history of left wing radicalism, which I intended to establish as a legitimate counter-culture venue? KGB seemed my obvious choice.” From my point of view, Jesus was a counter-cultural left wing radical, but I’m pretty sure Woychuk wasn’t thinking about people coming to his bar to talk about how Jesus changed their lives.

The KGB Bar is dim and mysterious, with sultry red walls and Soviet-era propaganda and mystique. As all the black-clad New Yorkers crowded in and ordered their cocktails, I felt more and more sure they would be filled with disdain for what I was about to read from my essay entitled “Redeemed” (published in the book Ask Me About My Divorce). I scrambled to find a different segment to share, but the whole essay is pretty much about how six years ago I walked away from the institutions of church and marriage, and then how God opened my eyes to what he’s really all about, and how confused I had previously been. There was nothing to read that wouldn’t lay bare my soul.

Moments of doubt are made for being bold

I was slated to read second. I whispered to Jason that I wasn’t sure I could do the reading. He told me to read extra loudly and boldly. The first reader, Sally Blakemore, was quirky, hilarious, irreverent, alternative, and read her story with a wonderful Texan drawl. Even as I reveled in her ability to spin her true tale, my stomach was in knots. To make matters worse, she told how her parents, in their Southern Baptist intolerance and ignorance, forced her into her first failed marriage so that she could “be cleansed in the eyes of the world and the Lord,” (and Sally added plenty of emphasis and drawl to the word LORD, which got a good chuckle from the crowd).

I was next. Why did I have to be next?

Because I trust Jason’s advice, always, I walked up to the podium, took a deep breath, and read from my essay as boldly and confidently as I possibly could:

…I could see—clearly—that the institutions of marriage and church were all wrong. In My Life (Take Two), I would get it right. But stories, like lives, take unpredictable turns. And although I desperately wanted to demonize both the church and the idea of marriage, this, it turns out, is not that story.

As I looked into the crowd, I didn’t feel hostility or skepticism or anything like that. People laughed, they were attentive, their faces open. I got the sense I could even detect some open hearts. During the break and at the end of the reading, several people approached me—to share their own similar experiences with faith and life, and to tell me how much they connected with my story. If there were any hostile listeners, they kept their distance!

Of course, I learned a lesson from all this

I feel kind of silly, in retrospect, about how certain I was that this crowd would dismiss me. As I talked to Jason and Carmen on our way to dinner after the reading, I admitted that I’ve long had a really narrow, either-or, all-or-nothing understanding about how people view faith. In my imagination, they either completely embrace belief or completely reject it.

But this experience has proven to me, once and for all, that only a fairly small percentage of people fall into one of those extreme categories. The rest of us fall into a deep and wide category I’ll call “It’s Complicated.”

Our past histories with faith and current feelings about God are rich in complexity. We have some good memories and some bad ones. We have a hard time separating God from his churches and the people who like to publicly claim him. We feel a fair amount of confusion, and also some hope—that hope fluctuates between a vague tickle and a strong surge, and is always hard to put a finger on.

Some of us are more actively seeking and grappling with our belief than others, but not one of us in this big category can completely shake our curiosity, our longing, our need for something beyond ourselves and our day-to-day lives. Just realizing this is a relief. I feel less alone, and very glad to share this space, and my story, with whoever feels inclined to join me.

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  • Angie

    Almost *all* of my relationships fall into the category of “It’s Complicated” (that was even my Facebook relationship status for years), so of course my relationships with church, god, faith, etc. do as well. I think you’re right on. I’m glad your reading went well :)

  • Carmen

    Jason’s advice served you well. You completely killed it! I was really proud. And I’m sorry I worried you. The important thing that differentiates your “Jesus stories” from some others is that you approach everything with curiosity that’s devoid of judgment and you have an interest in discovering new views and experiences. Everyone listening gets to experience that with you.

  • Trina

    Very cool Kristen. Real doesnt have to hide, just be. Through you, I have learned that not all Christians are narrow-minded. I never truly believed that to be entirely true of course, naturally there’s a scale – I’ll accept your label of “It’s complicated.” Joining you in our sameness and accepting our differences.

  • Maureen

    Ok so now I am intrigued. I would like to read this essay. Where is it?

  • Elaine Tolsma-Harlow

    First of all Kristin, congrats on reading in East Village, a wonderful achievement.

    Second, I am happy that God has given you a wonderful husband & friends to support you & the breath to speak boldly in front of what you perceived to be a hostile crowd. God created us complicated, we should celebrate that!

  • Kristin T.

    Angie, yeah, life is pretty much complicated, isn’t it? I’m amazed when I meet people who seem to be able to see everything as black and white. The good thing about shades of grey is that there’s so much room to move around in, explore and ponder. We never have to just be stuck.

    Carmen, no need to apologize! I was already worried, as you could tell (and now that it’s history, your response to me at that moment makes a great part of the story, right?). And this is a huge compliment: “…you approach everything with curiosity that’s devoid of judgment….” That’s definitely how I feel—I’m so glad it comes across. :)

    Trina, I am very slowly learning what you’re saying about being real. Why is it such a hard lesson? Thanks for being someone I can always count on to join me “in our sameness” and accept our differences.

    Maureen, the essay is in the book “Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On.” (The link is in the post.) I definitely think it’s worth a purchase, but of course I would think that! :)

    Elaine, I give thanks for Jason every day, too. I never doubt his complete support or his powerful belief in me, and I’m pretty sure I could do anything with him by my side. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true.

  • Frida

    I do so love your blog.

    And congrats on reading at the KGB. impressive!
    Love all the success AMAMD has had for the RMCers.

  • Susan

    Even though I am a New Yorker, they still scare me :-) Being transparent and open around anyone has always been difficult for me, but that’s especially heightened in a city renown for its hard-edged locals.

    Then I remind myself if the dude I saw on New Year’s Eve can ride the subway with a black leather diaper, horns, stilettos, and a mesh top and not get harassed… well, I can talk about what I believe in.