by Sarah Beth Nelson

Story Summary

Friendly lunchtime religious debates with Sarah Beth’s high school band friends turned serious when her religious identity was called into question. Would she be able to lose her religion but keep her friends?

Discussion Questions

  1. Teens are often especially interested in existential issues such as questions of religion. What spiritual discussions and/or explorations are you having now or do you remember from your teen years?
  2. This story took place before social media. How do you think social media has impacted the way people talk about their different religious views today?
  3. How have you handled (or how might you handle) a conversation that made you wonder whether you actually belonged in your religion?

Resources

  • Table Manners for Discussing God, His Works and His Ways by Glenn R. Kreider

Themes

  • European American/Whites
  • Identity

Full Transcript
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Hi, my name is Sarah Beth Nelson.

When I was in high school, my band friends and I would debate religion during lunch. And to be clear we were all Christians. There were some Catholics and a few different denominations of Protestant, but we were all Christian and usually the debates were pretty good natured. Once in a while, someone would get their feelings a little hurt but, after a few days, things would just go back to normal.

A topic that came up over and over again was whether Christians were the only ones who were going to heaven. Now I didn’t think so. I thought that non-Christians can go to heaven and my freshman year of high school I had a couple of friends who felt the same way. I remember one of my friends saying, “You know, I just can’t believe that Buddhists are going to hell because they’re not Christian.”

But, as the years went by, things changed and my friends who had agreed with me that non-Christians can go to heaven, they changed their minds, and this really bothered me. I thought that they had just succumbed to a popular opinion, not that they were really thinking about what they truly believed in their hearts.

And, then, there was this one day at lunch when my friend, Dean, spoke up. Now Dean was this tall blonde trombone player. He was a year behind me in school, so this was my junior year. He was a sophomore and he was pretty outspoken about a strict interpretation of Christianity.

Dean asserted that not only were Christians the only ones going to heaven, but that you had to believe only Christians went to heaven in order to be Christian. And I was just undone by this. Even though I was obviously the most unorthodox member of my group, no one had ever questioned my religion before. And he was kind of implying that I was going to hell. So, I called him on this, “You know, you’re not supposed to judge me.”

And Dean said, “No, I’m not judging you. It’s just that there are some core beliefs that are essential to Christianity. And I think this is one of them that Jesus is the way and the only way.”

That night I lay awake in bed thinking about what Dean had said to me and I wondered if he was right – if I had to believe only Christians went to heaven in order to be a Christian. I wondered if that was something I could believe in order to be Christian myself and to not go to hell. And I just, I just couldn’t.

I couldn’t believe that Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus and Jews were all going to hell just because they picked the wrong religion. So, I decided that I wasn’t Christian.

And, in some ways, this was liberating because then when Dean or any of my other friends would say during one of our lunchtime conversations, “Well you have to believe X Y or Z in order to be a Christian”

I would just say, “Well, no problem. I am not a Christian, so I don’t have to believe that.”

But, in other ways, it was terrifying. I felt completely unmoored, because my religion had told me a comforting story about the afterlife. It had told me how to be in the world and, without it, I didn’t know how to be… I didn’t know what to do. And there was this small, hard part of me that was angry at Dean, because his definition of Christianity had taken my religion away from me.

Near the end of that school year, my junior year, the jazz bands performed at an assisted living home. We played outside as the sun was going down and afterwards there was a reception with lemonade and cookies. I was standing around talking to some of my friends including Dean.

When Dean’s father came over and Dean introduced me to him. He said, “Hey Dad, this is Sarah. She’s the one I argue with at lunch. ”

And I looked up at Dean’s Dad. I could only imagine what kind of things Dean had told him about me. I said, “You probably think I’m a bad influence on your son.”

And Dean’s Dad looked down. He said, “No, I think you’re good for him.”

So that night I lay awake in bed thinking about what Dean’s father had said to me and I could see he was right. I constantly challenged Dean’s beliefs and because of that he knew exactly what he believed and why and he could defend it.

And so, then, I thought about what Dean had done for me. He challenged my beliefs and because of that I went down a different path. Maybe a better path for me; a path toward finding a spirituality that would fit. And I realized I was good for Dean. And Dean was good for me.