Loco Parentis: He’s a Believer

What happens when a family of happy atheists turns up a holy child?

"COME HERE, I" call to my son Jake from the front porch. Just as I’ve stepped outside to get the mail, the cordons of pink-tinged clouds to the west, above the peaked roofs of the houses across the street, have parted to let through a vast, angular shaft of pure gold light. “Hurry!” I call again, and he leaves his computer with reluctance, ambling out. “There,” I say, and point.

He contemplates the radiance, then nods, acknowledging it’s worth the summons. “It looks like heaven,” he says.

I’m taken aback. Looks like heaven how? Like heaven where? I mean, yeah, sure, the river of light streaming from sky to earth is a standard of bad Bible illustration, the sort of cheesy propaganda hung on Sunday school walls everywhere. The thing is, Jake’s never been to Sunday school. He’s never opened a Bible. He’s hardly ever been inside a church, beyond your odd funeral or wedding. So where did this notion of heaven spring from?

I glance at him sidelong. The sun shifts, the clouds reshuffle, and the angels’ highway shuts down like the left lane of the Schuylkill where 476 comes in.

“Too bad,” Jake says, and goes back to slaughtering aliens. I’m left standing on the porch beside the potted hibiscus, wondering about God and truth and the meaning of life.

My husband Doug and I had typical ’60s Protestant childhoods. We said grace at supper, and the Lord’s Prayer before bed. Our families went to church on Sunday, dressed up for Christmas and Easter, and ate doughnuts in Parish Hall. Nobody ever handled snakes or healed the sick or did anything much more lively than pass a collection plate in our presence. By the time we met, in our 20s, we were both serenely secular.

God stayed beneath our radar until our first child was born, 16 years ago. That’s when secular humanism ran up against maternal terror. “Maybe we should have her christened,” I said nervously.

“What are you afraid of? Eternal damnation?” Doug retorted. Well, yes, actually. “Don’t be silly,” he told me. “There is no Hell.” I didn’t think there was either, not really. But I did ask my dad, who had attended church regularly all his life and was knee-deep in committee appointments at First Presbyterian, what he thought of the unbaptized-baby-goes-to-Hell theory. “I wouldn’t send a child to Hell because she wasn’t baptized,” he said instantly. “And I can’t believe God is any less merciful than me.”

With that settled by the Higher Authority I do believe in, Doug and I went about raising our kids as heathens. Oh, we spent plenty of time on moral values — in fact, we bent over backwards making up for our unholiness. We talked all the time with Marcy and her little brother Jake about other people’s feelings, and kindness, and honesty, and doing what’s right because it’s what’s right, and how that makes you feel all warm and tingly inside.

Granted, things got a little gummy around Christmas. I was always highly emotional then anyway, what with the relatives and the lack of sleep and the money I was shelling out for Barbies and LEGOs. “Shouldn’t the kids know why we bake cookies for four solid weeks and make enough Swedish meatballs to feed all of Sweden?” I demanded of Doug one Christmas Eve. So we did what good liberal parents do when confronted with a quandary: We bought a book. A Little Golden Book. The Story of Christmas. It had all the required elements — Virgin, baby, angels, shepherds, Wise Men — and illustrations reminiscent of Holly Hobbie. Easter proved more problematical, crucifixion being even harder to sugarcoat than miracle-birth-that-results-in-the-murders-of-every-other-boy-baby-in-Bethlehem. For Easter, we got the kids Margaret Wise Brown’s The Golden Egg Book, which had absolutely nothing at all to do with God or Jesus. And that was pretty much where matters stood until we noticed that Jake wasn’t hewing to the party line.