It is seriously my least favorite question in the world to answer.
Hefting my backpack beneath the seat in front of me, i’m clicking my seatbelt into place and halfway to securing my headphones even tighter when the man next me starts talking. Wildly, i look around, hoping he’s still on his uppity-businessman headphone-cellphone. Alas, his electronics are tucked into his equally self-important briefcase.
He’s talking to me. I fly into a panicked, what-do-i-do-with-my-headphones-now-that-they’re-half-on-my-ears half-smile.
Now before you call me an antisocial man-hating bitch (however accurate you might be) let me explain: i don’t mind a little airplane chatter. I’ve had some truly remarkable experiences with strangers in those altitude-gracing metal cylinders.
What i hate is the standard list of questions. There’s that weird hello that doubles as a comment about the soggy bag of peanuts in front of you. Some chatter about where you’re headed. All fine. All safe territory. And then there’s the digging deeper: where do you go to school? Oh how nice! A girl’s school I’ve never heard of! (At this point i’m gripping my armrests, refraining from yelling IT IS A WOMEN’S COLLEGE, NOT A GIRL’S SCHOOL, PLEASE STOP INFANTILIZING MY EDUCATION).
And then it comes. The million-dollar suckerpunch sure to make both of us miserable for the next soddy hour-and-a-half we have to pretend to know each other on this plane.
“So, what do you study?”
“Uhh-ummm,” I begin, trying to downplay it. Throw in a cough for good measure. “Uhhh …Religion.”
There it is. All cards on the table. Inevitably, no matter who they are or what they do, the person i’m talking to responds in basically one of three ways:
1. The militant atheist/agnostic assuring me religion will soon be obsolete and i best get over my bigotry. Without waiting for me to say another word, they launch into how we should stop talking because they aren’t interested in being converted and oh, BY THE WAY did you know how awful organized religion is?! (Never mind that i’m a universalist who doesn’t believe in hell, studying in a pluralist department where most of my friends are not at all “religious” in the conventional sense – including some of my nearest and dearest who are either agnostic or atheist themselves.) Usually, though, i try to respond in a gentle but firm tone that making sweeping generalizations that ALL RELIGIONS are evil is a bigoted and essentializing statement in and of itself.
2. The Jesus-lovin’ Bible-totin’ Commentator. This one actually has two sub-categories: (A) The Lady-in-the-Pulpit-Hater, hellbent on convincing me my genitalia and gender performance preclude me from the study of religion (you can imagine how well that one goes over with this feminist); and (B) The Thank-You-LORD-we-need-more-Gospel-toutin’-folks-in-this-heathen-world person. I love responding to subgroup B with references to my favorite Sufi poetry and talking about how much Christianity stands to learn from the third Abrahamic faith, Islam.
3. The Prying Eyed Sage of Wisdom. However annoyed i may be with groups 1 and 2, this is my absolute least favorite. They want to know if i am religious myself, how my faith is complicated by what i study, how i deal with political and theological conflicts, etc, etc. All i want to retort with is my sassiest Southern reprimand: “Didn’t your mama [or parental guardian] teach you not to ask strangers extremely personal and prying questions?!”
I mean, seriously. Since when is it acceptable to ask people you don’t know all about the crux of their belief and how they handle conflict? I’m not going around asking intimate questions about your sex life, bro. Or how you deal with anxiety or guilt or whatever it is you’re after.
But, to be fair, i suppose i should include the secret fourth category of respondents:
4. Everyone else, who is perfectly lovely and complicated and dealing with their own spiritual existential dilemma (or sitting contentedly in Nirvana/non-spiritual scientific reality whilst i yank globs of blonde out over Hauerwas).
The truth resists simplicity. The study of religion is, after all, the grappling with the vast and resilient questions about who we are and why suffering exists. It’s prone to make anyone feel uncomfortable.
And really, sometimes i should just get off my high horse and pretend to still be a Sociology major.
current jam: that wrecking ball-little lion man mashup!
best thing: the man sitting next to me.