That question launched the idea for my first book, Void if detached: Seeking modern spirituality though my father's old sermons. Below is an excerpt from the first chapter:
For me, being a Preacher’s Kid (PK) is often a surreal experience. When someone finds out I am a PK, they usually envision me growing up in a stark, fire-and-brimstone household, and thus solemnly offer me their condolences, combined with looks of subtle pity. Or—having seen Footloose one too many times—they ask me if I have red cowboy boots. Or they smile mysteriously and say, “Now that explains it.”
I try to ward off most of these responses by quickly explaining that my father was not your typical preacher. That our house was not filled with spooky religious paintings. That, yes, my dad loved to dance, and drank vodka tonics.
Oh, and that, most importantly, I am not a bastard. You see, during our elementary school years, my sister Amy and I lived in a neighbor-hood that felt half Jewish/half Catholic, with us being members of a strange group called Protestant. My Catholic classmates pulled me aside quietly and whispered that I really shouldn’t have been born because priests aren’t supposed to have wives or kids. Dad further confused this issue by reading Hebrew in my first grade show-and-tell. Now my Jewish classmates were stumped. However, because my father would patiently answer their questions, he became known affectionately as The Rev by our friends of all faiths...
When I was very young, I never questioned whether the Bible stories were true. I felt a sense of awe thinking of Noah’s ark or Jonah being swallowed by a whale. Bible stories were just other versions of bedtime stories, in which cats wearing hats spoke, and girls could become princesses of other lands. God was a given and I knew that he loved me.
I loved being at the church with my Dad—and of course I loved the specialness (or entitlement!) that I thought came from being the “boss’s” daughter. Christmas brought the yearly Advent musical, and summer brought Vacation Bible School. I sang in the choir, and performed in church musicals.
Sometimes my sister Amy and I would skip church school and run our own club in Dad’s office. We’d round up a couple of other kids and play church—all putting our donation offerings in my Dad’s velvet-lined pipe box. Once at home we even performed a marriage ceremony for the kids in the neighborhood—dressed in a neighbor’s lingerie. Amy gave a rousing speech in a black-and-white peignoir. A neighborhood girl and I dressed in pastel camisoles and fluttered around as butterflies. (All the best weddings have butterflies, of course.)
We’d raid the church supply closets and make artistic concoctions from colored construction paper, bendy pipe cleaners, and ridiculous amounts of paste. One such project marked the first time I questioned what I learned in church. On the side of our church’s property was a large, wooded area we played in with the other curious kids. Affectionately named the Bunny Woods, it held a special place in the hearts and minds of our group, and served as the backdrop for most of our play.
So imagine our confusion when immense yellow construction vehicles showed up in this area and the trees began show up on the ground! Extremely upset, Amy and I asked Dad what was going on. To us, this was “God’s land” and how dare anyone hurt it, taking the homes away from our prized bunnies.
We then got an introduction to real estate development. But fear not, we had the answer. Raiding the church supply closet again with our assembled child warriors, my sister and I created oak tag and construction paper signs (pulling out all the stops by using the extremely precious glitter) demanding, “Save the Bunny Woods” and proclaiming, “Jesus Loves Bunnies!” (My heart goes out now to the construction workers who showed up to work the following day. Sorry.) Of course, the real estate development machine continued, and we lost the Bunny Woods. This had a profound effect on me. “How could God let this happen?” I cried.
This nagging thought popped up again a few months later on a warm summer day at the Jewish Community Center (JCC). To us kids, the JCC was the ultimate place on Earth—two pools, a youth lounge (with video games!), a hot dog stand, an ice cream shop, and on and on. We spent as much time there as possible.
Dad would take us there, and then spend his time in the adult steam room. When we ran out of quarters for the video games or had some sort of other important crisis, we’d open up the door to the steam room (ignoring the “No Kids Allowed” sign) and yell, “Dad? Dick Murdoch?” to summon him. Sometimes we’d get a glimpse of some random old man in a towel and run off giggling.
One day, I noticed that one of the men in the steam room had a bunch of numbers drawn on his wrist. In my house, drawing on yourself (or on your sister) with markers was forbidden, so I asked my father what that was all about. The answer greatly overshadowed my previous lesson in real estate development. Dad took me to the museum area of the JCC and explained the Holocaust. Again, I asked, “Why would God let this happen?” No answer he gave me would I accept.
As I grew up, I began to develop my own answers to my religious questions, with the infallible wisdom of kids in their elementary school years: “Catholic families have the most kids.” “Jewish kids are lucky because they get more presents.” My sister followed suit by demanding at dinner one night, “Give me my daily bread!”
We practiced dressing up with neighbors for a First Communion we wouldn’t have, then spent the next day eating mini-bagels at a Bar Mitzvah. During the winter holidays, we lit the Menorah and played dreidel with friends down the street, then came home to trim our own Christmas tree.
And all of this seemed normal. My father explained to me that there were many ways to experience God, and never gave me the feeling that our religious denomination was better than those of any of my friends, or that their beliefs were less than mine. And this was all good by me.
But then came puberty. This was the time in our church that kids were asked to dive a little deeper into religion. I attended Sunday even-ng Confirmation classes where we were supposed to learn about our church’s faith, traditions, and practices. I must confess I was more interested in staring at the cute blond boy in my class and wondering if he liked me. Or if he thought I was too tall. Or too short. I worried incessantly about my looks and what other people thought about me. The strong confident child I had been turned into a nervous gangly girl who felt ugly, poor, and not good enough.
So, needless to say, I certainly didn’t learn what our teacher hoped I would. I do remember learning that during ancient times if someone was caught stealing, then his hand was cut off. Our teacher explained how truly awful this was by explaining to us that toilet paper did not exist then, and so one hand was used for eating, and one for “wiping.” So having one of your hands cut off was the ultimate humiliation.
I also remember somehow passing the class test—complete with an ordered list of all of the books of the Bible—so that I could stand in front of the entire church congregation and be confirmed—right next to the cute blond boy.
The following year, my father accepted a position as minister of a church in another state. I was now entering ninth grade, and was not thrilled. At all. But after a few rough months at a new school—and a new church—I began to find my way. The hip teen activity in my new church was the bell choir. (No, I am not kidding.) I joined it and must say we had some crazy times in that bell choir. Through it, I found my first serious high school boyfriend and my first fake ID.
I also began to realize that in some crowds being a preacher’s kid was a serious liability. Living in a Midwestern college town in the 1980s, the last thing I wanted to be known for was being a square who would rat out a party. So I made sure my appearance didn’t give people that idea.
Want to spot a PK at a youth retreat? Look for the one with the spiked hair. Or the blue hair. Or the black leather punk rock jacket. Luckily, since I continued to excel in school and on the swim team I was given a lot of liberty by my parents for self-expression.
Spiritually, I was beginning to question everything. I remained skeptical about whether Jesus truly was born of a virgin as the Son of God. I’d agree that he did seem like a cool dude, but I couldn’t buy into him being any more a son of God than I was a daughter of God. And I didn’t want to be a hypocrite, so I went through a period where I wouldn’t say the word “Jesus” in prayers or take communion.
While my father was always willing to help me with my questions, my self-absorption was growing to a colossal size. Eventually, my questioning spirituality took a back seat to my self-seeking. A large void began to grow inside. Probably the oddest thing I did was to buy a copy of The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan. Now, before you go thinking I was crazy, let me assure you that there was a reason for this madness. The book had been banned at a local bookstore with a lot of media fanfare. Being a curious kid, I wanted to see what all the noise was about, so I tracked down a copy.
Dad saw the book in my room one day and casually asked, “So what do you think of it?” I had certainly been expecting (or seeking?) a different reaction. “Haven’t read it yet,” I replied. “Well, once you finish it, let me know and we can discuss it,” he said. Well, I never finished that book, so we never did get around to discussing it, but I did come to understand something from the experience. Most people need to believe in something. Or at least they want to believe in something. That book had changed the common perception of Satan and created a religion around it. And that religion wasn’t for me.
But I wasn’t sure the religion I had was for me either.