BY NAREG SEFERIAN
Once there was and there was not.
I have spent more than two years in America now, and one of the aspects of society here that has struck me is the kind of Christianity which one finds prevalent in a significant part of the population.
I consider myself to be a Christian, an Armenian Christian. My family is certainly Christian, and always has been, to my knowledge. I was baptised before I turned one. I attend church (although I must confess that I have not been going very regularly for various reasons while being a student at present). I pray the Lord’s Prayer, I recite the Rosary. These are some of many reasons as to why I allow myself to call myself a Christian.
Something I have discovered, however, is that being Christian means something different in America. I distinctly remember getting that feeling when someone here asked me if someone was Christian once, and it wasn’t just a casual inquiry into one’s religion. Back in India, where I grew up, what religion one practiced was simply a matter of fact. So-and-so was Hindu, such-and-such was Muslim. There were Sikhs, Jains, Christians, Buddhists, Zoroastrians… all sorts. But being one or the other didn’t really mean anything, except for the fact that one belonged to that religion. Sort of like saying, “This is my friend. His name is Bob.” There’s nothing more to having the name “Bob” than being called “Bob,” really. I get the feeling that, in America, if I said, “This is my friend. He is a Christian,” it would have other social and even political implications.
I spent Thanksgiving break with a wonderful family in the South. They were Armenian in part, but adhered to that very American, I would say “evangelical brand” of Christianity, for want of a better way of putting it. A wonderful family, I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed myself. But I began asking questions. Why did so many people have this approach to this religion? Growing up for me, in my family and, as I said, in India, it was neither a big deal, nor a small deal to be Christian. It just was. Here, there was baggage that came with it. It seemed unnatural and complex to me.
I engaged in conversation. I wanted to understand. Someone talked about not having been Christian before, and I asked what that meant, to be Christian now. Was it a change of lifestyle? A change in something deeper, one’s philosophy of living? Certainly both, but it occurred to me again and again that these people were not entirely comfortable with this religious aspect of their lives. Or else why would they talk about it so much? Again, I must stress that they were wonderful people, nothing in the least wrong with them. What was bothering me was that their take on Christianity was not appealing to me, personally.
The Armenian Christian tradition in which I have grown has some details which don’t quite fit with the version around here. For one thing, there is a great deal of mysticism that comes with it, and beautiful, haunting music, all in a non-vernacular language. I cannot really say the Lord’s Prayer any other way, except in Grabar (Classical Armenian); it doesn’t sound right otherwise. It occurred to me that this could be one factor as to why this sort of more casual and accessible kind of Christianity was unattractive for me. Too much talking about it, too much affirmation and constant re-affirmation of the faith. To what end, I kept asking myself? Faith is supposed to be simply faith. I don’t believe that there is supposed to be an account of it. Pistis, in Ancient Greek is “faith”; it is different from logos, “reason.” Well, that’s one conclusion I came to, anyway.
Another conclusion, to be very honest with myself, is that I am not really being fair. For example, when someone said something nice or gave some good news, a response I heard was, “Glory to God” or “Praise the Lord.” I found this somewhat strange and off-putting for a regular English speaker. But, in truth, I do it all the time, only I do it in Armenian, or Arabic, or even Turkish. Just because it’s a different language doesn’t make it “wrong,” for Heaven’s sake. Often, when saying good-bye to someone, I say “Godspede,” which is the best in English I can make of ??????? ???? – Asdvadz hedt, God be with you – which, by the way, happens to be where the expression “good-bye” came from in the first place, as a contraction of “God be with ye.” So I certainly admit to my own bias and my own complexes in turn. (It’s a pet peeve of mine, to digress just a little bit, getting the impression often in America that Muslims have some God of their own, whose name is “Allah,” whereas – as I keep reminding whomever I come across expressing this sentiment – “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God” and, wouldn’t you know it, Christian Arabs use it just as much as Muslim ones do.)
There’s a little bit more to it, though, and I expect this further reflects my personal biases as well. Here in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I study, I have been to several churches – Catholic, Presbyterian, Orthodox, Anglican, I think one was Unitarian… – and not one has had a service that has touched me in any profound way (except, for some reason, the Easter vigil at the Cathedral this past year). I think I crave more of the quiet mysticism, and less of the more open worship and even the praying for things, for people, for those around us. I can’t really do “prayer requests,” especially if the prayer requester is present. I have long, long since learnt to… I don’t know, not trust myself, really, to pray for others, but to simply trust in God. Things always turn out all right in the end, in my experience. I am a big believer in Providence, and I like to help people, and I do pray for people, it’s not that I don’t, but to say a prayer in my own words, in a commonly-spoken language? It doesn’t feel right to me. I just like to pray, to send positive energy out, as it were, but as calmly as possible, making the least amount of fuss over it. I guess I am just much more of a private, reserved person, and this gets reflected in expressing my faith as well.
And then there’s the politics of Christianity in America. I’m not overly familiar or informed well enough to discuss it that much, but this is also a point of discomfort for me. The Armenian Church is a national church. It’s not only meant for Armenians, to put it one way, but, for many, it defines the identity, and it has been a bastion of the identity and the culture for over a millennium and a half. And for a people who have been mostly without a state, and who try to maintain their identity in an organised Diaspora, a national church is a huge and important asset. I appreciate that, and I respect that immensely. I don’t see how that fits in for the American people in their own country, however. And I especially cannot fathom the diversity of denominations, non-denominations and their varying politics. This makes that socio-political baggage of being Christian in America all the heavier, unfortunately.
I doubt that I will ever stop calling myself Christian. I only wish I could do that with greater ease around here. I crave for the simplicity of religious practice that is prevalent in India, even with all the socio-economic problems and issues associated with religion and castes there. Would I ever be turned out of a temple or a mosque in that country? In America, however, I might feel unwelcome in some churches. I fear that’s a real possibility.
And three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for him who made him tell it, and one for you the reader.
Nareg Seferian grew up in New Delhi, India and lived in Armenia before starting at St. John’s College, Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he is currently a junior.