When I was seven, I sat down to draw God. God wore a pirate shirt, purple harem pants and a red fez. He sat in cross-legged meditation, the toes of his spangled slippers pointing up. I had a sense that Lord of Hosts would wear His hair as Dorothy Hamill wore hers (and as I wore mine) and so I gave God a bowl cut.
Nothing I drew, however, could match the illustrations in the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths: Pan chasing Syrinx; Tithonus withering into a grasshopper; Cadmus’s fierce warriors sprouting from dragon’s teeth sown in the soil of Thebes. I got that book for my seventh birthday, and it was a treasured possession by the time we moved from New York City to Los Angeles later that year. My father, who had been a director of stage plays, was going to try his luck as a television writer.
Soon after arriving on the west coast, my parents began looking for a church. They tried Westwood Presbyterian, but the music was a disappointment. At St. Augustine’s-by-the-sea, the sanctuary was Fifties modern, a style my mother found particularly uninspiring. The day after we’d attended our first service there, Father Phil rang our doorbell to find out how we’d enjoyed worshipping with him, a gesture that smacked of desperation. My parents must’ve thought of church simply as a way to integrate ourselves into a new community, but I noticed that we hadn’t needed religion in New York. Church, I thought: a flighty, Californian thing.
Finally we found All Saints, an Episcopal congregation in Beverly Hills, only a ten-minute drive from our house. The building was Spanish colonial, with a red-tiled roof and whitewashed, vaulted ceilings. It boasted ornate wooden pulpits and a professional choir. As an additional enticement, chocolate doughnuts were available after the service.
My parents were sold, but I remained sceptical. Why would you call a church after ‘all saints’ instead of selecting one particular patron? The fact that they hadn’t been able to choose did not bode well: they were as indecisive as my parents! It occurred to me that I couldn’t in good conscience go to a Christian church. I accepted that the Titans had unseated Uranus, and that Metis had toppled Cronus by way of a magic herb, but I didn’t see how this invisible Christian God had overcome mighty Zeus. Our God had impregnated one, very inexperienced Nazarethian girl, while Zeus had metamorphosed from bull to thundercloud to swan, sowing his seed from Thrace to Crete. I decided that my heart belonged to the Olympic pantheon: in short, I was a pagan.
When I confessed to my mother, she was not as dismayed as I had hoped. ‘There’s nothing wrong with that,’ she told me. ‘You can believe in both—or neither. We just want you to have the experience.’ You could not believe in both, I wanted to tell her—unless you wanted to be struck by a thunderbolt, turned into a stone, or give birth to a monster who feasted on human flesh. But none of those things happened to my mother, and I was forced to accept the deeply unsatisfying conclusion of the D’Aulaires’ book: Everything must come to an end, and so did the rule of Zeus and the other Olympian gods. All that is left of their glory on earth are broken temples and noble statues.
All Saints’ greatest asset was its young priest, Matthew Finch, who bore a striking resemblance to the actor Peter Gallagher. His personal charisma was matched by his power at the pulpit: his sermons were funny, and they often focused on his personal failures. Like Zeus and Ares, Hera and Athena, Matthew Finch got jealous. He envied his neighbours and coveted their possessions. He got angry, he told us, and overreacted. Then he regretted it and got depressed. The more he talked about his flaws, the more self-deprecating his jokes, the more people liked him. He was worldly, modern, ambivalent: he was one of us.
I preferred church to Sunday School. There was something dismal about the small, blue room with its child-sized table and chairs. I had no problem paying attention in school, where my efforts were rewarded with consistent praise, but although Sunday School simulated the conditions of the classroom, it was clear to everyone that it didn’t count. There were no grades; it was the weekend; and ‘class’ was taught by a parent who volunteered. The room’s only decoration was a picture of Jesus in a plexiglass frame, opening his arms to His children, the sun setting in glorious Technicolor behind him. Jesus had soft, cinnamon-coloured hair, which he wore in shoulder length waves, like Willie Nelson. I looked elsewhere for salvation.
I didn’t last long in the children’s choir (standards were predictably high) but the acolyte programme almost won me over. Dressed in white robes, we carried tall candles in gilded sconces, a bronze cross, or, on especially holy days, a bejewelled censer that swung on a silver chain, trailing aromatic, grey smoke. When I carried the censer I was the sibyl of Delphi, dreaming and murmuring prophecies on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.
Everything must come to an end, however, and anyone who wanted to be confirmed was required to return to ecclesiastical education. Confirmation classes consisted of the memorization of biblical verses, which appealed to me. I had a good head for languages: my best subject was French, and the Bible seemed to me a similar kind of euphonious nonsense. I could look at the verses we were supposed to learn in the morning while I ate my cereal, or even in the car on the way to church, and by the time I got to class I was line perfect. By that afternoon, of course, the verses were gone.
I was disappointed to learn that the actual confirmation wouldn’t include any kind of public performance. There was at least a prize at the end of the class for the student who had accumulated the most verses, and I triumphed in the face of a discouraging lack of competition. Of course, I hadn’t memorized those verses for a prize. (I had memorized them in order to defeat the other children). Still, I couldn’t help being disappointed by the contents of the irregular, foil-wrapped package: a plastic Christmas elf wearing overalls and a peaked cap, seated, inexplicably, on a fortune cookie. A fortune trailed from the ornament on a tired white ribbon: christ is born.
By the time I was in high school, we had stopped going to All Saints on a regular basis. Now on Sundays I focused my attention on the real family religion: academic success. My father hoped I might go to Harvard, his alma mater; I hoped I could manage that and maintain a social life at the same time. Because an all-girls school was challenging in that respect, the students paid an inordinate amount of attention to the romances of our teachers. In particular there was a very gentle young math teacher, Ms Keppler, who was engaged to be married. To my great surprise, we learned one day that her intended was our handsome, blue-eyed pastor, Matthew Finch.
I went away to Harvard and studied literature, as my father had. My parents remained connected to our school, if not to our church: my father served on the board, and my mother volunteered. That was how I heard, only a few years later, that Mrs Finch had become Ms Keppler again. According to the rumours, the math teacher was divorcing our minister because he had been beating her.
I remember the power of Matthew Finch’s sermons: how he was able to make the case for a contemporary kind of faith in a way that was inspiring to the congregation of a Beverly Hills church, at the end of the twentieth century, just a few blocks from the consumer paradise of Rodeo Drive. There was also the music. When I hear baroque music being sung, I always wonder if it sounded different in the throats of the eighteenth-century choirs: does singing those notes require the sort of faith that moved the composers to write them? In the same way, I can’t help wondering whether our pastor’s empathy for the failings of his parishioners could have come from his own experience of sin—and if so, was it worth it?
Redemption is the Christian model, but it’s hard to accept. We want our God to be perfect, which is why we don’t like to draw him a human face. Perhaps the truly devout can dispense with pictures and music and architecture; the Greeks, in any case, could not. In one of my favourite illustrations, Apollo gives chase on human legs while Daphne’s feet grow roots, her waist hardens to a narrow trunk, and her fingertips sprout dark green leaves. Only her face remains in the bark: a nymph’s face, terrified. The god of music is left angry and bewildered, his arms thrown open, so it’s hard to know if he would like to hold or slap her.
Photograph by Alvesgaspar