Tonight I watched The Education of Shelby Knox, a great documentary about a teenage girl who tried to get sex education taught at her Lubbock, Texas high school.
The footage of Lubbock zoomed me back through a wormhole to Bakersfield, which I recently read described as "a dirty, flat town." Those places have so much empty and deserted space. Very metaphoric, that. Anyway, as I was experiencing that mindtrip into the vortex, I was also feeling the creeping realization that this girl, Shelby, was freaking out in an extremely familiar way.
Shelby was raised by religious Christian conservative Republicans. Who totally supported her work to get sex ed taught in the schools. But scene after scene, Shelby is asking her parents, her pastor, and the TV audience, "Am I still a good person?" "Would I be a better person if I were a Republican?" "How can I be a Christian and disagree with my pastor?" Then she routinely collapsed into tears.
Taking me straight back to being seventeen in the Andre's drive-in parking lot, discussing Bertrand Russell with my Jewish boyfriend, to whom I give all the credit for successfully deprogramming me.
I was thoroughly distracted from the film's subject matter by her struggle with the logical paradox: how can I disagree and still be right? None of this was coming from her parents, it was all her. Shelby's repeated nervous breakdowns was the best illustration I've seen of how painful it is to disassociate yourself from fundamentalist Christianity. Nothing to do with the people around you; everything to do with how it makes your brain implode.
This girl had been taught all her life that there is only one truth, one way, one right. How can there be more than one right answer? Her self-doubt had a gentleness and grace, though, a purity and sweetness, that I've never seen.
In one conversation with her pastor, she tells him she wants to reconcile her Christian beliefs with her convictions about birth control education. "Because some people are telling me that I'm going to hell." She's clearly uneasy, but he's at a loss to allay her fears. She says, "You'd think we would all agree." That when he says disingenuously, "Christianity is the most intolerant religion in the world." She softly says, "Yes. I can believe that." He goes on to say that sometimes, when he hears her speak, he hears tolerance. This worries him.
I was reminded of a book that came out about ten years ago, Hitler's Willing Executioners. It was a history of anti-semitism in pre-war Germany, and it described a period in which Jews were granted more civil rights and were invited into Christian society. The idea behind those reforms was that, if given the opportunity, Jews would renounce their religion and find Christ. When that didn't happen, Christian Germans got angry enough to participate in one of the world's largest genocides. Maybe that's an oversimplification, but the book was the only one I'd read on Nazi Germany that put the blame squarely on the shoulders of Christian intolerance -- which is where I had always thought it belonged. Hatred is in the fabric of fundamentalism, impossible to unweave.
Anyway, Shelby fails to get the school board to change its sex ed policy from "abstinence only," despite the fact that her small town has twice the national average of teen pregnancies and STDs. In an interesting twist, the head of the school board was later fired for sending emails (on company time) offering an employee $500 to have sex with him in his office during work hours.
God bless America.