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This is Not a Conversion Story

By: Louise Van Oel

Photo Credit: Unsplash

“You’re the most Jesus-obsessed atheist I know,” my friend Margaux says to me, and I laugh because I can’t argue. 


We’re sitting in the Old Port’s Café Olimpico together, and I have just finished describing my latest short story project to her in exhaustive detail, grinning all the while. In it, Lucifer breaks Jesus out of jail before his crucifixion to prevent him from redeeming humanity. I take far too much joy in writing slightly blasphemous comedy for it to be entirely good for my soul, but this heathen habit of mine emerged quite out of the blue. 


I blame some of it on this city. Before I moved to Montreal, with a church on basically every street corner that isn’t a Couche-Tard, I had absolutely no interest in Christianity’s history. My family is atheist going back to my grandparents’ generation, so religion had no part at all in my upbringing. My strong godless lineage was not helped by the course I took in the philosophy of religion that laid bare (and, in my opinion, failed to resolve) all Christianity’s doctrinal contradictions. And yet, as a concept, I find it absolutely fascinating. 


(I blame the rest on Jesus Christ Superstar and Good Omens.)


My little Christianity obsession took root in the fall of 2022, during my first semester at Concordia. I had just moved to Canada on my own—a transatlantic flight and six time zones away from my closest family in Belgium and Sweden—and was understandably feeling quite small and far away. 


The way I have always (perhaps unwisely) coped with any sort of emotional distress is to bury it under a pile of books, distracting my brain with a shiny new novel or topic to study so that it forgets to be sad and scared because it’s spending all its energy figuring something out. The shiny new topics I found that fall were twofold: medieval literature, and the Old English language. 


The older the literature is, the more I am predisposed to love it, because the more miraculous it is that it has survived. I also like to learn dead languages—so far Latin and Old English—because I like being able to read old literature as someone actually wrote it down hundreds of years ago, and because it’s so satisfying when the meanings of the sentences finally start to click.


I should say, Old English isn’t actually a dead language, given that our still-living language developed from this one. I only say that because Modern English speakers don’t tend to be able to look at Old English and understand what’s going on. A fragment from the poem Judith to illustrate: 


Heo ðar ða gearwe funde  

mundbyrd æt ðam mæran þeodne, þa heo ahte mæste þearfe,  

hyldo þæs hehstan deman, þæt he hie wið þæs hehstan brogan  

gefriðode, frymða waldend.   


Yeah. When I tell people I’m interested in Old English, they often think I mean Shakespearean English, but that’s Early Modern—this Viking-looking gibberish is the old stuff.


These days, the words of this “original” English only make up one percent of English vocabulary, now that we’ve stuffed it up with so much French and other languages. Old English is more like a skeleton language—dead if you look at it by itself, but still holding up the Frankenstein flesh suit of words that the English language has become since the Norman invasion.


The English literature of the Middle Ages, and certainly that of the earlier eras when people spoke like that Judith quote, talks about Jesus and Christianity constantly. I would too, if I lived in a world with death all around me and believed in an omnibenevolent being who could protect me from it. So, unexpectedly, I was infected with an interest in Christianity through Concordia’s Medieval and Renaissance overview course, ENGL 261.


It does make sense, if I think about it, that the history of Christianity would be interesting to me. While I had no idea until last year that I liked medieval literature at all, I’ve always been tremendously interested in the Roman empire (before you ask, the answer is probably two to three times a week) and in mythologies. The literary legacy of a fringe religious movement which took over the Roman empire (its former oppressor) in just a few centuries, through compelling stories about one very nice guy, fits those MOs quite nicely!


The best thing about going to university is that you can discover you’re passionate about something you never even thought to think about before. Engineering majors taking a history elective and end up getting converted to the humanities… psych majors adding one English class to their semester and then realising that they’d much rather learn about the human consciousness through Woolf and Dickinson than Freud… me finding out that I’m atheistically into Jesus through medieval literature… funny things happen! 


It's wonderful to find something you’re passionate about studying. However, sometimes we risk getting too consumed in our individual academic paths to remember the importance of other things. I almost cancelled on Margaux that day we went to Café Olimpico because I was worried about finishing an assignment, even though the due date was two whole days away and I needed the break. I happen to be a particularly academically anxious person, but making sure I spend enough time with friends is not just a me problem. Particularly since COVID, loneliness at universities (and generally) has increased, particularly for those without religious communities to join or who study far from home.


Many of the traditions that form religions are primarily about building and maintaining community. Aside from some excellent literature, that is the other main thing I can appreciate about it. From prehistory through Antiquity and the Middle Ages down to the present, being together with people you love is what makes life more than a sequence of days to get through. We need togetherness—on a biological level.


Academic passion and fulfilment are great things to have, but they only take you so far. I loved what I studied in my first year, but I also felt like studying was the only thing that mattered, and I neglected so many opportunities to hang out with friends. I’m trying to get better at that. Many of us are far more scared than we need to be, whether that fear is of academic failure or anything else, and (cliché as it is) often don’t realise that no one has to be in this alone.


Before Christianity became the poster religion for unwilling self-denial and colonialism, it was about sticking together against the people trying to hurt you, and about doing your best to not be a person who hurts people. With Christmas on our doorsteps, there’s no better time to remember that no matter what you believe, coming together to prevent people from feeling alone (whether at university or across the world) is the most important thing.


As a person raised in a universe with no great sentient being Out There, I can only try to conceptualise what it feels like to have an immortal, all-powerful protector who loves you so much that He died for you and a million billion other strangers. On the other hand, though, maybe I don’t need that. I don’t feel the need as acutely as the people who lived at a time when the Black Death or just a simple infection could take you any day, but it’s not only that. 


In my subjective opinion, I’m lucky enough to have the most loving friends and family a person could ask for. People like Margaux, who coax me out of my academic anxiety-shell when I need it. I’m not being intentionally hyperbolic—I genuinely don’t know how I’ve been so lucky to collect these people in my life. So even if I do feel stressed and alone sometimes, and I don’t have prayer as a reliable escape route, love is usually never more than a metro ride or a phone call away. 


If those who say God is love are right, then maybe I have my own kind of religion after all. Not the same kind as the Medieval monks who wrote the devotional literature I study, but something that lets me appreciate what they were seeking through their art: comfort, community, to understand the world around and beyond us. I certainly don’t think we live in a cold and unfeeling universe. Conscious beings like us are the universe experiencing itself, after all. And the way to live is to experience the Hell out of it, together.


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