One of the scenes in Bridge to Terabithia that set me to a reflective mode was the one where, after attending church, Jess and May Belle got to talk about religion with Leslie in the back of their homebound pick-up truck.
The bubbly Leslie says, "I’m really glad I came. That whole Jesus thing, it’s really interesting, isn’t it?"to which May Belle responds, "It’s not interesting. It’s scary! It’s nailing holes through your hands. It’s ‘cause we’re all vile sinners. God made Jesus die."
"You really think that’s true?" asked Leslie.
"It’s in the Bible, Leslie," Jess assures her.
"You have to believe it, and you hate it. I don’t have to believe it, and I think it’s beautiful."
"You gotta believe in the Bible ,Leslie," May Belle ventured.
"‘Cause if you don’t believe in the Bible, God will damn you to hell when you die."
"Wow, May Belle. Where’d you hear that?"
The self-assured girl turns to her poker-faced brother for confirmation. "That’s right, huh, Jess? God damns you to hell if you don’t believe in the Bible."
"Well, I don’t think so. I seriously don’t think God goes around damning people to hell. He’s too busy running all this." Leslie stretches out her hand to everything around her as the car speeds away with dried leaves from roadside trees trailing it.
As they zoomed out of the screen, I began to zoom in on my own religious experiences. I first realized that this fictive conversation could be a good starting point for a discussion on theological issues or topics such as theodicy (justification for the acts of God), hermeneutics or bibliology (study/interpretation of the Bible), soteriology (doctrine of salvation), eschatology (teaching about the end-times), or even homiletics (preaching/sermon delivery).
For now though, let me just recount some of my experiences with religion in childhood. I remember being in a series of Religion classes in Grade 3 taught by an old Katekista who made for herself quite a reputation among us with her odd way of punishing the unruly ones -- booting out a boy from his seat by the ear or pinching a girl in the singit (crotch). Along with her disciplining technique, her dark lipsticks, raspy voice and grave countenance gave a scary ring, rattle and roll to her "Jesus ([and Mary] thing." I think the only fun time we had with her was when every one of us marched from school to the cathedral to offer a pot of flowering plant which we were required to snatch from our parents' garden. Generally, we viewed her a killjoy, just as we did each Simbang Gabi (which was a mass at dawn, actually) when our parents had to half-drag us sleepyheads to the cathedral for a soporific ritual during which we either dozed off or gaped at the stained glass images of the suffering Christ.
At Christmastide, it was not only the klem-bang of the cathedral that signaled dawn but also the Christmas carols which a couple of loudspeakers blared from the Baptist pastor's house, apparently as a counterbalance to the strains and peals issuing from the Catholic church nearby. And if the Catholics had a Katekista for the public school where we studied, the local (Fundamental) Baptist church also sent to us a "Bible Teacher." And we liked her better than "Ms. Singit" not only because she was a young lady at the time but also because she always had interesting songs to teach and new stories to tell with cut-outs and a flannelgraph to boot. I would grow up with the Baptists after that, spending much of our time at "Pastor Taber's" where we played UNO, chinese checkers, table tennis, and croquet.
But I liked both the American missionary, Pastor Donald Taber , and the Belgian priest, Father Mike Haelterman. It was probably because they were white foreigners, Amerikano (in our Little "Town" of Bulanao, every white foreigner was an American). And the American's white hair and nasal tone always interested me, just as the Belgian's large swako (pipe) and queer but fluent Ilocano amazed me. And they were also family friends.
What makes this "Jesus thing" scary to many people? I can think of two.
Preaching style and subject. Some preachers neglect to balance the negative content of their messages with the positive messages of the Scriptures. They delight in their Jonathan Edwards-style of preaching and all they talk about is the sinfulness of sin, the danger of apostasy, the terror of hell with real undying maggots thriving in a literal lake of fire and all these in a region of literal darkness, the horrible days of the Tribulation period where one gets fed to the dogs for refusing the literal Mark of the Beast ("666") on the forearm or the forehead, or the terrible battle of Armageddon. Often unconsciously, they deliver these fire-and-brimstone stuff with such self-righteousness as to make the hearers painfully conscious of their inability to attain perfection.
Legalistic and exclusivistic church system. When one is brought up in a religious environment which teaches explicitly or implicitly that one's salvation is dependent on her/his commitment to 613 or more rules (impeccable Wednesday and Sunday attendance record, regular tithing, tracts distribution or baptism quota, etc.), s/he may find herself/himself continually living in fear that one mistake (especially at the point of death) or one unfollowed rule will render all her lifelong deeds of righteousness futile. Some of those who think they belong to the One, True Church tend to view other groups with suspicion and condemnation, and their air of spiritual superiority and narrow, bigoted worldview often scare people away.