A personal essay by Madison Hamill on Christian camps, belief, and abortion
I reached my peak religiosity at Easter camp when I was 12. Easter camp was a camp for Christian teens on Easter weekend. It involved lots of normal camp stuff, like team sports and obstacle courses and campfires, with the added elements of Bible discussion groups, feeling sombre about Jesus’s execution, and daily singing of contemporary worship music while waving one hand in the air to feel the Holy Spirit.
My friend Rachel wasn’t Christian, but when I invited her she came. In Bible discussion groups she made up stories about feeling close to Jesus.
“So this is where all the hot guys are,” Rachel whispered as we sat around the bonfire on Easter night. “Who knew? They’re all at Jesus camp!”
I hadn’t noticed it before then, but she was right. There were a lot of hot guys at Easter camp. A lot of them were in Christian folk bands. I felt a strange pride in knowing that I had inherited an ideology endorsed by hot people.
I tried putting one hand in the air during the singing, and it worked. There was a song about being washed clean by the Holy Spirit and I could feel the Holy Spirit detoxifying me from my hand all the way into my gut. I could see that this Holy Spirit thing was a sort of drug. You could feel yourself being forgiven; it was a pure feeling, just like how I’d felt after putting the money in my sisters’ piggy banks.
One day I would sort out the questions I had about some of the biblical details like the angels and virgin births and heaven. I was given the impression that it was an all or nothing situation. At some point, you took ‘a leap of faith’, and when you reached the other side of the leap, all of that made sense too. But I wasn’t sure that wanting to feel pure was a good enough reason to make that leap without first straightening out the logistics.
My dad organised an introductory Christian course for youth when I was about 14. We learned that some of the events in the Bible had really happened and some were just parables or stories to illustrate a point, and some were from before Jesus came along, so that was more of a prologue any-way. Many things were hard to understand because they’d been written by multiple people over hundreds of years, or because the target audience was 2000-year-old middle-eastern Jewish labourers, or because the translations were ambiguous. For instance, ‘eternal punishment’ could be translated as ‘the chastisement of the age to come’, which was not eternal but a kind of temporary restoration process. At the end of the course, each of us could choose if we wanted to make a leap and officially confirm our faith in front of the congregation.
“Maddy, do you want to do it?” my dad asked. “You don’t have to.”
I sighed and rolled my eyes. “What’s the point? It’s just a ceremony.” What I really thought was, Maybe I’m just not capable of belief.
In high school, when people found out my dad was a church minister, they would ask, “Is he very strict?” But the closest my dad came to being strict was when he frowned and said, “Listen to your mother, girls.” Religion wasn’t something one talked about in high school. If someone derisively mentioned the people intimidating young women outside abortion clinics, afterwards they’d say, “Oh sorry, Maddy, no offence,” to which I would attempt to explain that I didn’t know those people and I didn’t think they had anything to do with me or my parents. The more firmly I insisted that my family weren’t crazy, anti-science or secretly oppressing me, the more religious I seemed, since who would talk about religion except a religious person?
Sometimes I would ask my dad a question like “What’s Heaven supposed to look like?” and he would pause for a long time before questioning my use of the words ‘supposed’ and ‘look’, since perhaps it was not a physical space that you could look at, as such. Then I might say, “Well, what is it then?” and he would pause for a long time before questioning the ability of anyone to imagine what lies outside our perceptual abilities. You could start with any question—how can God be love if love is not God? Why didn’t God send his son to Earth during a time with the internet?—and he would take your question and complicate it and make it bigger so that it encompassed fundamental existential problems, and the whole family would be drawn in, everyone interrupting and questioning and defining, until the point where the next step in logic would require a leap of faith. And then there was no way for either side to make any further point. Luckily, by then, Mum would have reminded Dad of whatever he was supposed to have been doing in the first place, and we’d be satisfied that even though we hadn’t won, none of us could yet have been said to have lost.
I noticed that other people didn’t have these kinds of conversations with their parents. It wasn’t the same when you tried it with friends. On my 13th birthday party, I put a tent up in the backyard and had two friends sleep over. I had every intention of having a normal sleepover like the girls in movies who gossip and talk about boys. Instead we debated the beginning of the universe. My point was that there were things that science couldn’t explain, so you couldn’t use science to prove there wasn’t a god, but maybe the point got a bit garbled. My friend Rachel insisted that God was impossible and refused to accept my point. I kept saying, “But what caused that?” and she kept trying to explain and then I would say, “But what caused that?” and it went on until we got to the Big Bang. “But what caused the Big Bang?” And somehow the argument kept going even after we got to the Big Bang, even though none of us, and no one else in the world, knew what had caused the Big Bang. The third friend begged us to stop, and we wanted to. We were bored and tired, but neither of us could cede our point of view.
It became morning. We were hungry. Our eyes hurt from pointing the torch at one another and our mouths hurt from talking. We hated it all but we couldn’t stop.
“Well, abortion is killing a human being,” Dad said one afternoon, “so shouldn’t it be considered murder?”
I was 23. I didn’t know how the argument had started. Perhaps there had been some discussion of access to healthcare in the United States. My parents and I had been at my nana and grandad’s house over the summer break and I hadn’t been giving my full attention to the conversation, as I’d been researching body grease for my future as a long-distance swimmer.
“Ew,” I said. “That’s so grossly conservative of you.”
“Well, is a foetus a human being?” Dad said. “It has all the DNA of a human being. At what point does it become human? If it’s human, and you kill it, that’s murder.”
“You can’t just go around calling people murderers,” I said. I wasn’t shouting but I wasn’t using my inside voice either. Grandad and Mum carried on making dinner behind me. I could see Nana in the corner of my eye squinting at her crossword. I knew I was being disruptive, but I wanted to be hysterical. I liked to think of my dad as an oppressive patriarch from time to time, whenever it suited my desire to feel righteous.
“You can’t murder someone until after they’re born,” I said. “Before that, it’s foeticide. That’s how murder is legally defined.”
“Well, the legal definition is not really the point, is it?”
I rolled my eyes. “Do you agree with those pro-lifers who harass people outside of clinics?”
“They are probably not going the right way about it.” He shrugged. “But maybe they have a point. There has to be some middle ground.”
I sighed and stormed over to the couch. “What if the baby would have to live in poverty or grow up in an abusive household or get handed over to one of those Romanian orphanages where it would become brain-damaged from lack of attention?”
I could tell Nana agreed with me by the way she was trying to spit out her response. “No, those orphanages are not a life, are they?” she said. She had to force each word out slowly. Motor neurone disease was destroying the muscles in her mouth. She’d only ever used her voice when she felt strongly about something in the first place, and now, whenever she wanted something known she took too long to get it out, and whoever she was talking to had already folded the washing wrong or moved into the next room to incorrectly attempt the thing they’d asked for help with, or moved swiftly forward with their argument about the value of human life.
“Is life only valuable if it’s a positive experience?” said Dad.
I rolled my eyes. “Well, what about the mother’s life?”
“Of course, that matters too. She’s not likely to die from the abortion, so it’s a bit different.”
“This is so annoying, Dad. You’re not a woman. You’ll never have to make this choice.”
“Does that mean I am not allowed an opinion?”
“No, you’re not,” I said.
“Every woman has a choice,” said Nana haltingly.
“Exactly,” I said. “Mum, do you agree with this bullshit?”
“Oh well,” said Mum, “I do think it’s so easy for you young people these days to get access to abortions, and you know, the morning-after pill, etcetera.”
“What’s the morning-after pill got to do with it?” I said.
“Well,” said Dad, “since it kills the fertilised egg, it should be considered murder too, shouldn’t it?”
“What?” I said. In my head I thought, What?
“Why are you taking this so personally?” he said.
“What do you mean why am I taking it fucking personally?”
I thought of the long walk on a Sunday morning to the urgent doctors because the pharmacies were closed. I thought of stepping into the little side room, which was not really a room but a curtained-off cubicle, and being asked personal questions and trying to answer quietly so that all the people in the very quiet waiting room on the other side of the curtain wouldn’t hear. I thought of being led to the counter and handing over the $37.50 and carrying the taped-up bag with the box in it, which didn’t fit in my pocket, and walking all the way home and locking myself in my room and ripping open the bag and then the box which was too large to contain a single pill. It was like when my sisters and I, as children, would wrap presents multiple times to make something tiny look large and exciting.
“I just am,” I said.
“I think we should continue this another time,” said Dad. “I think it makes Nana and Grandad upset.” Nana and Grandad had left. Maybe they were taking it personally too.
“You’re the one calling people murderers,” I said. I stomped down to the backyard. I was staying in the Hut, a back-country-style hut made out of a shipping container that Grandad had set up as an office space. I sat down in the office chair behind the big wooden desk and spun around in the chair, shaking off thoughts as if trying to unsettle flies.
“There is only one truth. That’s the nature of truth,” Dad had said once. Maybe it was.
The Hut was full of mountaineering books and mountaineering photographs, and textbooks about tropical illnesses and how to perform surgery without running water or electricity. Years ago, Grandad was a missionary doctor in Papua New Guinea. When he and Nana told his parents that they were going to Papua New Guinea to be Christian missionaries, his dad had got upset and said, “What a waste of time and resources to spread such a nonsensical story.” It was only after they’d been to Papua New Guinea and seen more of the world, Grandad said, that they’d begun to see ‘the nonsense side of it’. They are both Christian still, but in a corner of the Hut I noticed he had a gilded copy of the Qur’an and a book of Buddhist teachings. In the hut too are notebooks full of my grandad’s poems. He writes them peppered with ellipses, as if each sentence is a glimpse of some greater submerged text. “We believe / I believe / we both believe / creeds are worn / lost and / harsh / formulae that / exclude / by virtue of / their sense of knowing /. . . all.”
Nana and Grandad are my mum’s parents. When my mum went to university, she thought her parents weren’t going far enough with their faith, so she briefly became an evangelical. She went to a church where everyone jumped up and down and waved their arms in the air for the Holy Spirit and had their demons exorcised.
My dad’s parents are Zionist Brethren. Their church doesn’t allow women to preach. They talk lovingly of Israeli military technology, and their hall mirror proclaims in gold lettering, ‘Choose THIS DAY whom you will serve. BUT as for me and my family, we will serve THE LORD.’ When my dad announced, after getting his PhD in theology, that he had become a Presbyterian, his parents were scandalised. He was intensely shy and terrified of public speaking, but he insisted on becoming a church minister.
I swung on the office chair in the Hut and thought of how philosophical rebellion ran in my family. Perhaps I was doomed to continue it. Did anyone really choose a philosophy for themselves, or was it always just one long argument with your parents?
Grandad knocked on the door of the Hut, interrupting my thoughts. He was carrying a little vase made from an old deodorant bottle, filled with wildflowers. “This is from Nana and me,” he said. “Nana said to tell you she thinks you’re completely right. She said, ‘He doesn’t get to have a say, because he’s not a woman.’” He winked, another kind of ellipsis, plonked the vase on the desk and ambled back up to the house.
I used to think agnosticism was a transitional phase. I thought it was a problem that would resolve itself one day, the way we expect to stumble across true love.
A few weeks before, I’d had one of those debates with my dad, and I said, “Can’t I just choose to make moral choices without religion?” and he said something like, “But where does your sense of right or wrong come from, and if it is just biology behind everything, then there’s no explanation for your moral behaviour except that it makes you feel better, or it betters your chance of surviving as an individual or a species.”
“No,” I said, without knowing why I was rejecting this. “It’s not just that. People can just choose to care about other people.”
“So, you agree that there is some greater reason beyond a biological imperative?”
All I knew was that I knew nothing. My dad might have said that this was oxymoronic, since knowing that you don’t know is a kind of knowing. Perhaps I didn’t know for sure that I didn’t know anything. In other words, I might know something. In fact, I was certain I did know some things, only that these things didn’t add up to a knowledge of the whole nature of anything.
But maintaining that I didn’t know whether or not I knew would be nonsensical, since how could I not know the contents of my own knowledge—unless knowledge had slipped inside me undetected, for me to find when I looked hard enough, like repressed trauma or a set of keys that has been lost down the sides of a couch that hasn’t been cleaned for fear of what might be found or not found. Maybe saying ‘I know I don’t know’ was just the same as saying ‘I don’t know’. Maybe such a statement was unsuitably certain in its declaration.
As I swung around and around in the chair, I thought about how maybe I didn’t know anymore what it meant to keep learning and also remain fundamentally ignorant. I couldn’t remember what I’d learned in Classics about Socrates, whether he really believed he didn’t know anything, or whether he was posing as ignorant to lure people into feeling comfortable enough to share their arguments with him, so that in his questioning he could prove that they didn’t know, even when he himself couldn’t make any claims to the contrary. It’s easier to point out flaws in other people’s arguments than to build your own hypothesis, but it also might be misguided to build a hypothesis for the sake of having a hypothesis. Such hypotheses are, like Netflix binges, a comfortable rest for the brain. In this way my ignorance was not passive. I stayed in the dark for a while, in the office chair, lifting my feet so that the chair kept moving.
An edited extract from the chapter “Suspending Belief” in the essay collection Specimen (Victoria University Press, $30) by Madison Hamill. Her book is longlisted for the non-fiction prize at this year’s Ockham New Zealand national book awards.