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Wednesday, October 18, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

An Atheist Tries Jesus

By Joel Stein

I HAD NEVER BEEN to church before. I mean I'd been inside them for weddings, architectural curiosity and once, in college, to hear some guy play organ so I could hook up with Jenny Hodge. I'm pretty sure God will be cool with that because, as an omnipotent being, he knows how hot she was.

But I'd never sat through a service until I went to Austin, Texas, two weeks ago. This mostly has to do with the fact that I'm Jewish and don't believe in God, and sermons don't have nudity or anything to gamble on. But my college friend, Mike Langford, just got ordained as a pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church, so I felt like I needed to see his gig.

The first thing I noticed about church was how much like PBS it was. The lighting was dim, the speakers talked slowly, the songs were dated, there were a lot of references to reading material and every so often my eye line was interrupted by envelopes asking me to donate money. Also, I kept falling asleep.

I was surprised by how many of the songs and prayers I knew, like the one where I walked through the valley of the shadow of death. I was getting pretty confident until the call and response of Kyrie eleison, when I mistakenly belted out "Down the road that I must travel." It turns out Mr. Mister played pretty loose with their hermeneutics.

In fact, I'd never realized how much of a death cult Christianity is. When we weren't fixating on how awesome Christ's murder was, we were singing about how terrific it was going to be when we bite it. Chipper up, Christians! There's a lot to live for. They're making more of those "Narnia" movies.

Still, there was also a lot of talk about peace and love and some nice meditative time. In fact, it was all going well until the interactive portion. I had foolishly thought that only Catholics did Communion. But it turns out that only Catholics, for whom the Eucharist is more than a mere memorial, do Communion well. Presbyterians use a supermarket baguette for the body of Christ and grape juice for his blood.

I figured just a few people would take Communion; the ones who needed a little extra boost of Christ that week, like a spiritual PowerBar. But every single person in the first row got up to take Communion from Mike. Then the second row. They were serving buffet style.

I panicked. Would taking Communion somehow magically convert me? And even if it didn't, would it be an affront to my lineage, to my people who died refusing to convert during the Inquisition? And wasn't it particularly bad considering it was the night of the most religious Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur? Symbols of the body and blood of Christ seemed like a particularly bad way to break the fast.

In "Ulysses," the agnostic James Joyce debates whether he should have put his principles and his pride aside and agreed to pray with his mom on her deathbed. Lucky for you I don't have the kind of space he had. With just minutes left until my row stood up, I decided that Joyce was an idiot. The whole point of being an atheist is that you don't have to believe symbolism matters.

So I decided I was going to do it, when, with just three rows left, I started to worry that taking Communion would be rude to my new Christian friends. Was I cheapening their religious experience by traipsing through it as a tourist? Basically, would this be bad for Mike at job evaluation time? Hadn't an African Catholic priest once gotten in trouble for letting President Bill Clinton take communion? I tentatively went up and gave Mike a look that I hoped asked, "Is this cool?" and he smiled and let me rip off a piece of baguette and dip it in the juice.

Afterward, he assured me that it was fine for me to have taken Communion. As we stood outside talking to the congregation, I liked how even our shared snack bonded us as a community. The interaction and solemnity was personal and communal at the same time. As the saying goes, you can't ignore someone in the supermarket after reliving the Last Supper with them.

And, as I drove away, I wished I could just make the Kierkegaardian leap of faith to belief in God and be part of it. And I realized that, postmodernist or not, my pride was just as bad as Joyce's. But at least you can understand some of my sentences.