I am agnostic. I would love to be able to believe in a God that you can reach through a structured program, like most people do, but I simply can’t believe in a High Spiritual Being that would care to establish a step-by-step guide to holiness. “If you do this thing, and you abstain from doing all that, you will have a place in my Paradise,” God promises. But the rules change depending on the part of the world where you are born, which seems pretty flimsy for a Creator. I want to believe, because I know that it is a source of comfort, but my brain won’t let me step in that path.
That being said, I was baptized three months after my birth and I studied at a very Catholic school where we had Mass every morning and a Religion class twice a week. I took my First Communion wearing my mother’s dress. When I was 12, I tried to drop morning Mass and enroll in the Free Study class that was available, knowing that not only I did not believe, but my mind drifted during the rituals and I had started to utter mocking versions of the sentences. I was, from my point of view, disrespectful of my peer’s and teachers’ faith, and unfit to be a part of that group. It was when my teacher explained to me that at 12 I couldn’t know what I believed in and that she wasn’t going to let me go because I was an excellent reader that my respect for the spiritual side of organized religion dropped to 0. I got through it by studying the storytelling side of Christianity, but it wasn’t a fun path either. For me, it was like being told over and over the same stories, that seemed disconnected. Religion was the easiest subject to pass, but also the only one where I had to actively lie to get an A.
It all paid off when I finished school to become an Art History major. Suddenly, all the dull repetitions had a meaning: I knew the names of every person ever painted or sculpted. I was an Iconography wiz kid. My professors praised how well I spelled the names of obscure Bible characters. Whether you want to admit it or not, Art has its roots in religion, and the body of Western Art and Music and Literature is heavily based on God’s message to His people and what His people interpreted.
Religion is, whether I want it or not, an important part of my life, but also a part that I only touch with a ten feet long stick because most people (believers and atheist alike) get upset at me whenever I get involved in a religious conversation. This is why I was a little shocked when my boyfriend complained about not having a Bible at home.
“But we have a Bible,” I said, pointing to my grandmother’s brown and dusty edition.
“But I can’t read it,” he answered. “Because it is in Spanish. I need it in French.”
I need it. Why did he need a Bible? Bible knowledge, from a certain age on, is like pop culture. You pick it up as you go. If he wanted we could watch some episodes of 7th Heaven together. Or I could answer his doubts about places, dates, characters and literary genres. A Bible, I argued, would only take up space on the shelves, because as he could see by the cloud of dust that was floating around us since I cracked open my version, it wasn’t something that he would read every day.
He just looked around the room at all my books that were taking up space and I didn’t re-read every day. I shrugged. Sure, he should get a Bible if he wanted.
At the Salon du Livre I decided that I would get him his Bible. And it would be the Best. Bible. Ever. It had to be light enough to be carried around, in case he wanted to keep it in the car or read it on the Metro, but it also had to have good quality paper. Cigarette paper breaks so easily. I wanted to get the simplest, best translated version that I could find. Catholic Bibles are annotated. Some of these notes are pretty biased. After perusing a couple of stands, I found The One. It was a bit bigger than a pocket-book, but it was light as a feather. It didn’t have shiny golden letters that advertised how very holy this book was. The typography was gorgeous, and the editor had left enough space on the margins in case the reader wanted to make his own notations. It also had maps. And the translation was clean and streamlined. It was perfect.
I head to the counter, happy with my find, when a lady wearing a very stiff blazer and pearl earrings stepped in front of me. She had a badge around her neck that identified her as the owner of the stand.
“Excuse me,” she said, ” Do you know that the Bible you picked up,” she dropped her volume until her voice turned into a whisper “is Protestant?”
I blinked. “Yes. It is a really pretty edition,”
She looked at me as if I was crazy. “You should buy one of the other versions. They are Truer to the Faith,”
“I like this one very much, thank you.”
I tried to follow the queue, but she stepped in front of me again. “Are you a Christian?”
What should I answer? Whenever someone stops me in the middle of the street to ask me about my beliefs I always answer something that will throw them off-center so that they will let me go. In Madrid I said that I was Jewish, because there are not many. But in Paris there would be no “let me buy your damn Bible and leave in peace” answer. I was pretty sure that the saffron-clad bald man studying a Psalms book in front of me wasn’t a Christian, but nobody was bothering him. Instead of telling her that I was Tantrist or Wiccan or Panoramixtian inclined, I answered a half truth. Because I wasn’t in the mood to start a discussion about my faith or lack thereof.
“I study Art History,” I said. “I want this Bible as a reference book,”
“But the other ones are annotated,”
She was on her way to become the worst saleslady of History. The edition I had picked up was substantially more expensive than the versions she was pushing me to buy. And what had happened to “The client is always right”?
“But those have more chapters,” she added.
“I know they have more chapters. I already have one at home. But this version is more readable. And I can write on the margins.”
I was lying to a Catholic saleslady. In Paris. Capital of all things secular. How low could I go. “You are not supposed to write on the margins,” she said. “It is a sacred book,”
Some of her sacred books were bright pink and orange and had more glitter than a drag queen, but saying that would have been offensive. “You don’t understand,” I answered, as calm as I could. “I don’t want this book for praying. I am going to use it as a comparative source of historical information,”
“No, you don’t understand! There is nothing to compare because what is written here,” she picked up the flashiest Bible of the lot and shook it in front of my face “is the Truth!”
I have a theory about what happened next, but I should give you a little context.
In Spain, everybody is Catholic. But because everybody is Catholic, nobody cares a lot. Don’t get me wrong, there are people who go to Mass every Sunday and teach their children to pray, but they are not going to throw a fit if you tell them that you have doubts about His existence. Or if your best friend is Muslim. Or if you want to buy a Protestant Bible. They might get snarky, but they won’t lose control over their social skills to the point that they are hurling at you in public.
However, being religious in Paris is a deliberate and sometimes difficult choice. Whatever your faith, flaunting it in public is not acceptable, and even worst – it is unfashionable. It is tacky! I haven’t heard anyone talking openly about their Atheism (because not believing can also be a passionate feeling). Public buildings have to be free of ostentatious religion symbols, and students can’t wear crosses, kipas or veils to go to class. One of my French friends is going to get baptized, and she has told be that she doesn’t mention it to her colleagues, because they would think of her as silly, naïve and unsophisticated. The fact that she has a spiritual need and might have found a way to nurture doesn’t matter.
This saleslady was clearly a repressed Catholic and was getting very angry at me. I realized my mistake. I should have told her that I was Protestant, because that was something that she would have respected. She might have been disappointed, but at least I would have been someone with a faith as strong as hers. But what I had told her was that I didn’t believe in her book. That it was just for reference. That it was a story and that it was not holy -for me, a supposed college student. That I wasn’t going to use it as she did, and that her opinion did not matter. I had told the truth about how I felt, but I wasn’t prepared for her answer because nobody had really cared before.
“No, it is not the Truth. It’s just a book,” I said.
Silently, she took The Book from my hands and set it back on the shelves, next to its lollipop-coloured cousins. My hands were empty, and I was ashamed. I wanted to retort something smart, like that what mattered was that the text got across, that it was an important body of work, that she was being unreasonable, that I was her client and should be able to buy whatever I wanted, but I couldn’t. My words wouldn’t reach her, because she was shielded in her faith.
I walked away to find a stand with a less scrupulous vendor.