I was raised Southern Baptist, spending hours each week in a red brick church where the list of forbidden activities included drinking, dancing, cursing, card-playing, fornicating, two-piece bathing suits and celebrating Halloween. Secular Media was looked on with suspicion -- characters on "Captain Planet" controlled the weather and pogs were a form of gambling. I'm sure the children of Emmaus Baptist Church are being denied the enjoyment of Harry Potter as we speak.
And while I fled that specific brand of venom-and-hellfire-fueled religion around the same time I started dyeing my hair purple and letting older boys put their hands up my shirt, stepping into a church feels natural to me, comforting like the night I can still remember when I looked up into the vast, starry sky and first felt the presence of God.
When I hauled ass for NYC at age 18, I pretty much left the Bible belt in the dust, along with the particular culture of evangelical Christianity. But I can still see it on "Survivor."
That's because show attempts to cast a group of what they call "average Americans" to dump in some farswept and unforgiving terrain. Because they cast a cross-section of regular folks, there are always deeply religious people on the show. This season's super-Christian Brandon Hantz is being edited a bit creepy, but he kind of deserves it, since he's basically using fear of his own boner as a valid reason to target a female player who he sees as "tempting him" and "flaunting her body."
But for the most part, religion just is on the show -- it's not editorialized or winked at or played for laughs. Last season, contestant Matt's religious faith was part of a major storyline in which it carried him through a lot of long lonely nights as the underdog on Redemption Island. His faith seemed heroic. And on Wednesday night's episode, when Brandon and Coach bowed their heads to pray together, it struck how rarely I see such natural, unremarked-upon displays of individual personal faith.
I pray most days. Not because I believe in a literal guy in the sky, but because I believe in something, and praying helps me connect to that something, myself and the world. In my life as a young NYC media professional, I may be in the minority, but in America, I am not. We are a nation of prayers, of believers in something bigger than ourselves.
It's not surprising that a lot of players turn to their faith to make it through the 39-day survival ordeal. (And yes, Jesus also spent 40 days in the desert.) Religion and other forms of spirituality are the things that get us through many ordeals in life. The contestants are hungry, tired, wet, cold and isolated from their loved ones -- a great time for God, if you've got one.
If it weren't for the ordeals in my life, I would never have made it back around to faith. Religion is in some ways borne of suffering. It helps us find meaning in pain. I was raised with a God who condemns you to hell, but as an adult I met the God who pulls you out of it.
By that token, my relationship with a higher power today is basically nothing like the religion I grew up with. I don't fully understand my higher power; I believe the concept may be too vast for me to fully understand. I am comfortable with its shifting nature: One day I feel God is the force of love in the world, another day I consider it to be the objective existence of right and wrong. It's a concept I develop and redevelop.
I know that God is definitely not shame, or intolerance, or a rigid set of rules to govern my behavior and force on others. It's not about how often I am in a church building or who sees me there.
It's about looking out my window, as I am right now and seeing the trees with their leaves beginning to turn a burnt orange, and the rain pouring down into pools on the sidewalk, and beyond this the park, and the babies and dogs who play there. It's about looking at all those things and acknowledging that I didn't create them and I can't control them, any more than I can control the circumstances of my life, the tragedies that may come and when they will befall me, the year I will be gone from this Earth, or even tomorrow's weather.
And if I can't control these things, whatever does is certainly higher than me. It's about letting go of my fear and need for control and trusting that I will move through whatever happens. It's about learning to accept and adapt to life's events, instead of raging against them. It's about knowing I will be taken care of.
And each morning, when I bow my head, and again each evening, it's about saying first "Please," and then later, "Thank you."