Understanding My Mate
The obscure Christian sect in which he grew up
My boyfriend, Jonathan Dixon, and I have much in common. We’re both writers, we both like to cook, we’re both obsessive music fans. And we’re both preoccupied with death. But I learned early on in our romance that while mine was probably just an acute version of run-of-the-mill contemporary existential angst, Jonathan’s was something different: he was raised as a Christadelphian, a member of a community of Christians who believe that the end of the world is nigh. In his version, you don’t just die—the end of days happens, God judges you, and if you haven’t followed Biblical laws to the letter, you die again. I’ve always wanted to know more about his family’s theology and how it affected his life—but you never want the person you’re intimate with to feel scrutinized over morning coffee. This column gives me a legitimate opportunity to ask.
Tell me about Christadelphianism.
It’s a pretty small Protestant sect founded by an English guy named John Thomas around the time the Civil War ended. The Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists all started around then, too. It sounds a little apocryphal to me, but supposedly Thomas was on his way over to America, and the ship got into a tempest. He said to God, if you let me live I’ll spread your word. He lived, he landed, he started spreading the word; he formulated Christadelphian doctrine which is based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, which says that the eyes of God are on everyone continually. He knows the number of hairs on your head, the number of grains of sand on a beach, when a sparrow falls.
Growing up, what was your image of God?
I don’t recall a time when there wasn’t the specter of God. I remember being maybe five, walking outside in the White Mountains of New Hampshire,and thinking that God was watching me. The message my parents tried to convey was of a protectorate, but since I was a paranoid and neurotic kid, I interpreted an ever-present being as a threat. It may sound odd, but in my grandfather’s house, there are portraits of my mother and her two sisters as kids on the wall. My mother was highest up—and it’s kind of a direct gaze. That was my image of God. The age and the features didn’t matter. It was more the presence, the authority. I did go on to have an image of God based on photos I’d seen of the Sistine Chapel and Far Side cartoons.
Your parents were raised in this religion, right?
My parents are second generation Christadelphians. They met at vacation Bible school when they were teenagers and began dating when they were 16. My father had been kicked out of several high schools because he was a troublemaker. He hated authority and had some extracurricular activities that are probably best not to go into here. I think my mother was a calming influence.
What are some of the defining elements of Christadelphianism?
There’s a strict adherence to neither adding to nor taking away from the Old or New Testament. For example, it never says in the Bible, to my knowledge, that when you die if you’ve been good you go to heaven. So Christadelphians don’t believe in heaven. They don’t believe in hell because—according to what I was told coming up—the word for hell is Gehenna, which was a smoldering garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. You might wonder, why don’t they adhere to the law of Moses—they don’t keep kosher, for example—if they’re so literal? Because they think Christ was the fulfillment of the law, and you didn’t need to follow, say, all those old dietary rules.
The stories and laws of the Old Testament, according to Christadelphians, are forward looking to the time when Jesus, the Messiah arrives, and when he arrives, that’s a fulfillment of all the promises that God made to Israel. It was the advent of Christianity, and therefore a new doctrine was set up by God through Jesus and his apostles.
But Christadelphians don’t have the great Sturm und Drang of Southern fundamentalists—no speaking in tongues or frenetic outbursts. They don’t have really cool music like some Southern Baptists. Basically it’s all the fundamentalism and none of the fun. But it’s fundamentalism with a small ‘f,’ unlike Fundamentalist Christianity, which is, at this point, an ideology unto itself. Bertrand Russell once said—and I’m not convinced he meant it as a compliment—that Christadelphians were the closest thing he ever found to the early Christian church.
But Christadelphians don’t ignore the Ten Commandments.
No, but those get covered with the Golden Rule. All the Ten Commandments are basically: “Love the Lord God and love your neighbor.”
As far as taking the stories literally, there is wiggle room. The Bible says the world was created in seven days; my mother believes that a day didn’t mean a 24 hour period. A day is a metaphor for a period of time. But some of the people I grew up around believed that the world really was created in seven days.
So, as an adult now, do you believe in God?
Yes. But I’m not a Christadelphian. I have some fundamental (no pun intended) differences with their doctrine. I don’t believe, for instance, that sex between unmarried partners is the greatest sin. I don’t think homosexuality is a horrible aberration that needs to be outlawed. I don’t think the end of world is coming tomorrow or today, which is something I was brought up with. Christadelphians relate Old Testament prophesies about the end of the world as we know it to modern Israel’s creation and relationship with other Middle Eastern nations. I was raised believing last days are now, the world is going to end now or five minutes from now, and it ain’t gonna be pretty.
You know, I feel a little defensive. I love my parents, and my parents aren’t stupid. It’s really hard for me to understand, sometimes, the things they believe because I have such high regard for them. Not only do I love my parents, I like and respect my parents. And a lot of the people who I grew up with I like and respect as well. It’s hard to create a boundary between people’s beliefs and who they are.
Early on in our relationship—perhaps even when we were just pals and you came to my seder—you talked about how Christadelphians look at Jews differently from how other Christians consider them.
Yeah, there’s no anti-Semitism in Christadelphian circles because the Jews are the chosen people—so therefore they get a pass, to phrase it crudely. The Christadelphians believe that everyone is going to have to answer to God on Judgment Day, and that all Christians—Baptists, Catholics, Lutherans, the whole lot—are going to be found lacking because they are not following the Bible exactly. The Jews on the other hand, because they had a relationship with God first, are exempt from this, they enjoy a special relationship with God that others don’t. You know how, in antiquity, the firstborn was always the favored son? That might be an analogy to the way that God looks at Jews: they’re the firstborns, the favorites, the chosen people. In dour Christadelphian circles it’s a big deal.
When you refer to the anti-Semitism of some other Christian groups, what do you mean?
A lot of Christians feel that the Jews are responsible for the death of Christ. Christadelphians think that a couple of corrupt, rogue Jewish guys, in collusion with some Romans, killed Christ. The fact that they were Jewish had less to do with it than politics did.
Now that I’m thinking about it, I wonder if there’s something else at work, too. Since the Christadelphians proudly position themselves so far out of the mainstream, I wonder if there’s some kind of sympathy or receptivity toward others who aren’t necessarily part of it, either. One of the things you commonly see among Christian believers is they wear crosses. Christadelphians don’t. Instead, those who wear jewelry, usually the young people, wear Stars of David. I remember my grandmother taking Hebrew lessons when I was little. Her husband, my grandfather who was not a Christadelphian, is actually a chemist who helped develop Nutrasweet; my other grandfather, who is a Christadelphian, was a package designer who designed wrappers for Trojan condoms and Hershey bars. Anyway, one night my grandmother made a pork roast before going to class, and she was very concerned that the others might be able to smell it on her.
But it’s not as if Christadelphianism is a Jewish-centric religion or that Christadelphians fetishize Jews; this is just one underlying part of the way they see things.
The first Christmas that I spent with your family, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that the only overtly religious ritual was when your cousin’s husband Brian, and your brother-in-law Dave and I—three secular Jews—lit candles on a menorah and clumsily recited the prayer together. I think it was your Aunt Barbara’s menorah.
It’s definitely notable that the majority of people in my generation in my family have wound up with Jewish mates. I can’t tell you why that is or what it means. My sister seems to be the one most enamored of Judaism. As you know, she likes to brag about her mitzvahs and seems to expect to be rewarded for them. Even though her husband seems like he couldn’t care less, she’s—maybe tipsily—talked about converting.
Did you always know you were different from your parents in terms of the way you dealt with religion?
I knew I was different from my parents, and I knew I was different from the other Christadelphian kids I was growing up around. I had a record collection for one thing, and that was a really big deal to the other kids; they thought it was horrendous.
My dad played me “Gimme Shelter” when I was about 10, and that was one of the most mind-blowing moments I’d ever had. At that point there was no going back. I was completely into music and records. And my dad was a big music fan. He is an artist. He saw Jimi Hendrix play, the Rolling Stones. He has a real interest in human expression.
What made you so different from your parents?
I never joined the Christadelphian church. You have to announce that you believe the doctrine and then get a full immersion baptism. I never did it. It seemed like too much of a commitment for something I was really having problems with. By the time I graduated from high school, I’d about had it: I felt repressed, oppressed, I felt that all the things I was passionately interested in were being frowned on or quashed. All the people I was fascinated by were, in any man’s English, not nice. I was into William Burroughs. I wanted nothing more than to sit around listening to the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead and Black Flag. I was watching Blue Velvet and Mean Streets. It wasn’t really my parents who were the problem for me, it was the other people in the church who weren’t as thoughtful, the people who told me I shouldn’t go to college because there were homosexuals in the dorms—or that if I went I’d learn too much and pull away from the church (which, as it happens, was probably true).
How could religion be so easily undermined? If you have true faith is Charles Bukowski going to destroy it? Is Mick Jagger any match for the Omnipotent? I ran screaming, and decided that God did not exist and religion was ridiculous—it was all a sham. But you can’t escape your upbringing. I had tremendous guilt. I’d gone from a town of 5,000 people to Boston with no transition. I arrived in the city eager to get laid and take some drugs and do some drinking, and I went ahead and did most of it, but was haunted. I thought that every act would be answered by God, everything I did was a debit and I would have to pay it back at some point. That was a shitty way to go through life. It tortured me for years, the idea of divine retribution.
Then, one day, I began thinking that if God is omnipotent and unconditionally loves you, not every “sin” is equal. If I’m in a diner and I walk out with a couple of extra packets of sugar, that is not the same as killing someone. So that laid the groundwork for considering a deity that isn’t as intimately involved in one’s life as I was brought up to believe.
Now I believe that there’s a deity, but I have absolutely no idea what form that deity takes and what omniscience the deity has. If we’re dealing with the omnipotent our mentality is pretty piss-poor. We can’t imagine an omnipotent being. We can only think of infinity in terms of negatives, in terms of limits—when we think of infinity, we think of the farthest we can think, and then say ‘beyond that.’ It’s an abstraction that doesn’t mean anything.
Sort of like my theory of the aliens. There’s life in outer space, but we’ll never be able to detect or measure it.
The kind of moments when I have the most religious feeling are when I see the full moon or I’m traveling over the Brooklyn Bridge: it’s the idea of something so much bigger than me. I can make a continuum between the New York City skyline and be awed by what it looks like, its density, brightness and complexity—and then look up and see the moon and the stars and feel absolutely insignificant. Freud talked about that feeling people get when they look at the ocean and see its expanse as a prototypical religious feeling. I completely understand that. I see things that are so overwhelmingly beautiful that I can’t believe it’s all just coincidence that we arrived here.
“So can you recite their names and birthdays?” I asked Larry. It was almost dinner time again. He’d just popped the lasagna and garlic bread into the oven and was pouring lettuce out of a bag, chopping up cucumbers for a salad. A cluster of the boys were doing gymnastics on the kitchen floor, Menashe dangling upside down from twelve-year-old Akiva’s waist, Noam swinging from his back.
“Yeah, I can,” Larry said, laughing. “But when they page me at work I have them punch in their number in the birth order. Otherwise, whoever answers the phone when I call back asks the first five people he sees if they’d called me and I eventually get tired of waiting.”
He moved on to a pile of dishes in the sink. My secular friends would be envious; their purportedly egalitarian husbands don’t do half of what Larry does around the house and they have twice as much time. In addition to laundry and dishes, Larry mops the floors and does all the mending. (“Beth has never sewn on a button,” he boasted.) Every Friday afternoon, he gets down on his hands and knees and scrubs six bathroom floors to prepare for Shabbos. That domestic competence predated his piety—credit his mother, who made sure her three boys pitched in at home. At any rate, equality in housework is one thing; in the House of God it’s another. Larry’s daughters don’t attend yeshiva. They can’t study Talmud, can’t hold positions of leadership at the synagogue, can’t become rabbis or cantors. Beth’s authority at school stops at the door of the Hebrew classrooms. Women have fewer mitzvot, or commandments, to fulfill, too (supposedly because they’d conflict with the higher calling of household responsibilities). That’s why Orthodox men will tell you they thank God each morning for not making them female.
“What you don’t understand is that we may have different roles for men and women, but the wife is not inferior,” Larry told me. “Beth is not inferior. It’s a distortion of American culture to think that the person who has the greatest influence on a child’s values and development is inferior to the one who brings in the money. Men may have imposed that ideology, but the women who didn’t glorify the domestic role contributed to it, too.”
I flinched; I’d been one of those renegade women and secretly feared my miscarriage was retribution. At the same time, Larry’s perspective seemed as skewed as my own. Separate could never be equal when one half of the equation was economically dependent on the other. Housework would never be valued until men participated in it fully. I doubted that transformation was possible in a community so invested in differences.
As a treat, Beth had arranged for the kids to swim at a friend’s house, but since her nephew, Sha’uli, was visiting—and tsnius prohibited the Browns from seeing members of the opposite sex, aside from parents and siblings, in bathing suits—the girls were going to one pool with her and the boys to another with Larry. She explained this to me so deftly that it wasn’t until later I realized Sha’uli wasn’t the only concern: the Brown males couldn’t see me in a bathing suit, either.
I hadn’t brought one anyway, so I only dangled my legs in the water. In capris and a tank top, though, I was still flashing more skin than Beth. On the off chance that the husband of the couple who owned the pool might come home and catch a glimpse of her, she swam in her sheitl, a calf-length skirt, and an enormous T shirt which read, “Who Are All These Kids and Why Are They Calling Me Mom?” Of all of the customs I witnessed at the Browns, tsnius rankled me most. Nineteen-year-old Shira worked out on the treadmill in the basement wearing an ankle-length skirt and long sleeves. Even five-year-old Esther Neima covered up. “We’re taught that what’s important is the inside of a person,” Larry had told me. “So the idea is not to advertise your body. You shouldn’t neglect the outside, but if you dress to call attention only to your physicality, what does that mean?” I got the point, but to me it seemed that tsnius, like the Muslim practice of purdah, could be too easily manipulated to silence women, to bar us from public places, to force the shrouding of ankles and eyes.
A bank of thunderheads rolled in. I shifted to a lounge chair under the eaves where I wouldn’t get wet. I watched Beth shushing and coaxing, playing with and reprimanding the six children who were with us. The rising humidity made her seem far away, as if she were behind glass. I had come to respect Beth, but I’d never be at ease with her. I’d always be comparing us, wondering what it would be like to be her, flirting with the possibility then rejecting it. And I’d never really understand.
We drove home in silence. I couldn’t tell if she noticed or cared that we’d run out of things to say. I sensed, though, that she was weary of my presence. Maybe that was just me—the novelty of being around fifteen children and hundreds of arbitrary rules was beginning to wear thin. Beth flipped on a cassette of religious—themed doo-wop songs. All of the tapes in her car featured men’s voices; women’s are considered too licentious for male ears.
Rebbe tried to teach us Torah each and every day
We just closed our eyes and ears to what he had to say
Every afternoon we’d sit and watch our TV sets
Talking about the Yankees, the Dodgers, and the Mets
Harrison Ford be damned—I wanted to return to the twenty-first century.
By 10:30 I couldn’t stifle my yawns. Beth noticed and offered to drive me back to my hotel. She had to go to the grocery store anyway to buy a thank-you balloon for the couple whose pool we’d used. She wanted to have it waiting at their kosher butcher shop when they arrived for work the next morning. There was still a sink full of dishes to wash, bills to pay, and boxes of trash and recycling to drag to the curb. Larry had to be at work by seven the next morning to start another sixteen-hour day. Even so, he offered to drive me to the airport.
“My flight takes off at six A.M.,” I said, shaking my head.
“That’s okay,” he said. “When do you want to leave your hotel?”
Hadassah tugged on my pants leg and I hoisted her in my arms. With her dark eyes and blonde Shirley Temple curls, she resembled the daughter I imagined Larry and I would have had if we’d married. He had noticed, too. “If I couldn’t prove that Beth was her mother,” he cracked, “I’d be suspicious.”
I held her closer, had a wild urge to cut and run. It’s not fair, I thought. Larry had fifteen children; why couldn’t I even have one? If I had done the “right” thing, followed the proscribed path, would I be a mother now? Hadassah began to squirm. I tousled her curls and—though it ripped my heart out to do it—handed her to her father. We weren’t in high school anymore; I’d made my choices.
“Larry,” I said, as I turned away. “Do me a favor. Sleep the extra hour tomorrow instead of driving me. Consider it my gift to you.”
I came home from the airport to a message from Risa, who’d called to fill me in on the pathology report from the miscarriage. “You are the last woman I want to have to tell this,” she said when we spoke. “You had something called a partial molar pregnancy.”
“It happens in about one in every thousand pregnancies,” she explained. “It’s a condition in which two sperm fertilize an egg.”
Hmm, I thought: Steven must’ve been overcompensating for that insulting semen analysis. Rather than twins, Risa continued, a fetus with too many chromosomes to survive is created as well as abnormal cells in the placenta. If any of those cells remained after the D&C, they could implant, turning into tumors that could spread and, without chemotherapy, eventually be deadly.
It was a pregnancy that could turn into cancer. Who had ever heard of such a thing?
“What are the chances that will happen?” I asked.
“I don’t know. In a full molar pregnancy the chances are about one in five. It’s not clear with a partial molar. But the way we tell is by drawing your blood every week and checking for a rise in the pregnancy hormone. If it goes up and you’re not pregnant, something’s wrong.”
“But what if I am pregnant?”
She paused. “I’m sorry. You have to use contraception for a while. If you got pregnant there’d be no way to tell if you had a tumor. And if you did develop a tumor it would be dangerous to the baby.”
I could barely speak. “How long do I have to wait?”
She paused again. “I’m going to do some research. Normally it’s a year, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that long. At least six months.”
Six months? A year? I thought about Larry and Beth—no way could this be God’s will.
“Do you want to know the sex?” Risa asked before hanging up.
“No,” I said evenly, though I felt like howling. “I don’t think so.”
When I told Steven the news, he wrapped his arms around me. He wasn’t worried, he said. “Even if we have to wait for a year to try again, that’s twelve extra months that we can enjoy being together, that we can do fun things as a couple.”
I buried my face in his neck and cried, newly grateful, after my visit to the Browns, for his touch. I felt like the luckiest unlucky woman in the world.