When I first saw Jesus, he was standing like a statue on the fifty-yard line of the high school football field, one arm pointed at the goalpost and the other cocked back—fingers curled around an imaginary pigskin, locked at the ready for a pantomimed hail-Mary in the final seconds of a make believe bowl game. It was a glorious moment to behold… at least, that is, until an invisible opponent rushed his offensive line. Jesus had to fake right, spin left, and duck around a pretend tight end to make a harrowing dash for the touchdown. He hit a few straight-arm blocks, pulled some fancy footwork, and half a second later he was jogging across the goal line, spiking the ball, and moonwalking clear from one side of the end zone to the other.
But before I get too far into this story, I need to stop and explain a couple things to you. First, you need to know that this little run-in with the savior was happening on a cold and dewy Saturday morning, at about nine am. It was the first of September— about fifteen weeks after my fourteenth birthday, roughly three months since my last day of junior high, and exactly two hours after my big brother’s body was found, lifeless and broken, at the bottom of a sixty-foot ravine behind St. Soren’s. I don’t want to dwell on this detail too much at the moment (we’ll get into it all later, trust me), but I just thought you ought to know. For perspective.
“No,” he chuckled, pulling a business card from his pocket. “You’ve got me mixed up. I’m not that Jesus. I’m Jesus Jackson.”
He handed me the card. I looked it over. It read:
Jesus Jackson: Spiritual Contractor 100% faith guaranteed!
Call for a FREE ESTIMATE!
All of the numbness in the world could never have prepared me for what I found when we pulled into the parking lot at St. Soren’s. The normally imposing front steps of the school— a fifteen by thirty-foot mass of solid concrete— had been transformed into a multimedia, rainbow-colored shrine to Ryan: purple chalk hearts encircled the letters, “RIP RJS” written in bright baby blue; construction paper tears flowed out of papier-mâché crosses and real flowers sat next to plastic flowers that sat next to homemade pink tissue flowers that stood beside poster-sized pictures of my brother on the baseball field, or the basketball court , or the football field or the golf course. Ryan’s likeness was created a thousand times over in oil on canvas and acrylics on plywood and crayon on poster-board, and on and on and on, and all around all of this were hundreds upon hundreds of three-by-five note cards, taped to the steps and tacked to the posters and stuck in the cracks and the crevices in the granite— and on each of these cards were little letters and messages and poems for Ryan about missing him and mourning him and praying for him and about not being able to believe that he was dead. I stepped out of my father’s car and wandered, zombie-like, right into the middle of everything. I began reading some of the notes and messages and poems for Ryan about missing him and mourning him and praying for him and about not being able to believe that he was dead.
“Because it’s all bullshit. It’s fake. They don’t know where Ryan is. They just choose a fairy tale and run with it. If they say he’s watching over us in heaven with God and the angels, than they might as well say he’s huffing glue at Burger King with Mickey Mouse and the Easter Bunny! He’s just dead. Dead dead dead, and no one knows what the fuck that means except that his body is sitting in some freezer somewhere, waiting for some death doctor to cut apart his insides and replace his blood with chemicals, while some morons he never even liked recite bad poetry over a bunch of cheap-ass, ten-cent candles.”
“It just doesn’t make sense. And it’s a little absurd, when you think about it—the whole concept of some white-bearded guy up in the clouds, making every little decision about every little thing in every little person’s life. Listening to your thoughts, giving a crap about whether you tell a little lie, or curse, or copy someone’s homework.” I gestured down at the stacks of paper, and Cassie giggled, charmingly. “It’s all so damned convenient, you know? Life is too complex, too random, and too fucking sad for it all to wind up in some kind of marsh- mallow wonderland in the sky, where everything that ever happened, happened for a reason. I don’t know, it just feels like some cheesy ending to a crappy movie.”
Now I have to stop here for a second to talk a bit about inspiration. As an atheist, I don’t believe in divine inspiration, exactly.... Or at least, I don’t believe that there’s any divine god or mystical whatthefuck out there to do the inspiring. But inspiration itself? That mysterious, unexplainable, baffling burst of insight that somehow manages to tie everything together in a neat little knot? Well, that I believe in. That, I know is true, because it’s exactly what happened to me as I was sitting in those stands, watching the football team practice. And the whole rest of this story—its entire sad and unfortunate ending—would have been impossible without it.
“I want to know where he is now!” I screamed. “Right now! At this moment! Dead! What the hell happened to him after he died, not before. What happens to everybody, what’s going to happen to me? And I don’t want any of your stupid ‘constructions’ or my school’s stupid god or my father’s lame-ass pamphlets, I want the truth! A truth I can live for, and die for. An irrefutable truth about what the hell it means that Ryan is dead and that someday I’m going to die too! I want proof, not faith. I want to know!”
Jesus reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled wad of money. “Here’s your twelve dollars,” he said. “I can’t help you.”
And I had to laugh, because he was right, just as he had been right all along: In the end, you can’t be so concerned with reality. Sure, there has to be a real truth out there, somewhere. But if Jesus Jackson taught me anything, it’s that you can never really know the truth. Not about life, not about God, not about what’s in another person’s heart, or even your own. All you can ever really know is what it feels like. What it feels like to laugh and cry and hate and hurt and hope and fear and love; what it feels like to live.
And as I stepped out of that church, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to make that choice at all. That you don’t need to choose between accepting someone else’s faith and going without faith altogether. That you can choose to have faith in anything you want, in anything you feel. You can have faith in science, or your favorite comic book, faith in the stars or faith in the Earth, faith your job or your family or your best friend or your dog. You can have faith in the sweet face of a pretty red-haired girl who just wants to be close to you because she thinks that you just might want to be close to her too....