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They drove in silence—so close together but so far apart. As the heater warmed the cold car, Kate knew they had had this conversation. She had already tried to explain her attitude to him. She had grown up with this stuff—and grown out of it when confronted by the wider world of ideas and possibilities at university years ago. But her parents were believers and now they, and their faith, were messing with her perfectly nice, born-and-bred atheist boyfriend, who was the first she’d risked bringing home to meet her “fundy family,” as she had described them to him.

Taking such a leap was an indication of how well their relationship had been growing. Kate and Thom had been living together for months and now—and she guessed this was a vestige of her old-fashioned upbringing—she was dreaming of marriage. She had tried to describe her family and childhood to him but it was so different from his experience or anyone he had known, she had decided to offer him a glimpse of this strange world from which she had “escaped.”

“Not that we looked that different on the surface,” she had added, also remembering many of the good experiences of childhood. “We weren’t Amish, cult members or anything like that. We lived in an ordinary house in an ordinary suburb, both my parents worked in unremarkable jobs, my sisters and I were sent to a ‘good’ private school, and much of the time we were an ordinary happy-ish family—but then there was church and how that transformed, redeemed, shadowed or blighted all those other things. Just which of these it was depended on one’s perspective and I was ready to escape to another view as soon as I had the opportunity.”

As Kate had tried to explain it to Thom, it was difficult to say what exactly was wrong with it except that it was small or perhaps narrow. “Our world of what was true and good fitted into a neat box,” she offered, “probably about the size of a church, and everything and everyone else was evil, lost, doomed, worthless—no difference of perspectives there. My discomfort with this box of truth grew into rejection as my experience and education expanded, particularly as I discovered more and more truth, goodness and beauty in places the voices in the box had repeatedly warned me about.”

Thom had been one of the later examples of that truth, goodness and beauty. Kate had completed her degree and was working as a scientific assistant in a research lab in one of the city hospitals. She met Thom at a friend’s party and went to see his band play—badly—at a small venue the following weekend. He played bass but, of course, he worked in a city office during the week and they had met up a couple of times after work before settling into a steady relationship. It seemed they had just happened to each other over a few busy and exciting weeks, and his unquestioned atheism was a comfortable fit with her state of mind and faith.

“My disconnection from the family faith and non-participation in its practices has strained my relationship with my family,” Kate had explained. “Not that it was acrimonious; it was just more convenient to do different things. Family times—Christmas, Easter and even weekends—had always been dominated by church activities in my family, leaving me little time to fit without joining in with them. Coupled with work and life, it was easier to spend less time with my family.

“And then there were the political differences and regular inquiries as to my ‘spiritual life,’ a way of my parents each expressing their concerns for the state of my soul.”

Of course, on her first visit with Thom, her parents were careful to be welcoming, accepting and avoiding any potentially difficult topics of conversation. It was Thom who had begun asking questions. In such a setting, Kate was able to recognise his genuine curiosity, perhaps working like an anthropologist in a foreign culture.

As they left at the end of that first visit, Kate’s father had offered Thom a book from the bookcase in the front hallway. The book was a consideration of faith, science and the existence of God by Alister McGrath of Oxford University, a favourite among “thinking Christians” for his “apologetics” and responses to Richard Dawkins and the other “new atheists.” Kate was about to object but Thom’s genuine curiosity and politeness beat her to it, and he accepted the loan of the book. She felt the punch to her stomach but swallowed her anger and, on their way home to the city, she apologised to Thom for this imposition. Thom assured her it was OK and the subject was dropped as they switched back into their everyday life.

A few weeks later, Thom’s band was able to book their first—and, as it turned out, only—interstate gig. Kate had a major project at work and so was unable to be either roadie or groupie for the weekend trip. When he returned home that Sunday evening, after giving her all the details of a mediocre performance in a small and dingy venue, he mentioned to her a strange conversation he had had with the guy sitting next to him on the plane.

“I think he noticed what I was reading and assumed I was a Christian because it was that book your dad loaned me,” he said. “He began by gushing about what a great academic and thinker McGrath is. When I told him I didn’t know anything about him and that I had been loaned the book by my partner’s parents, he started back-pedalling.

“I told him I was just reading it to try to understand more about my partner’s family, he said something lame about being able to have conversations with them about these kind of issues, then went back to reading whatever it was that he was reading, which was something I’d never heard of.”

Kate laughed at his encounter with an earnest McGrath fan. “So why were you reading the book?” she asked with a return to seriousness.

“I just threw it in my bag to read if there was nothing to watch on the plane and I got it out because I couldn’t bear to watch Two and a Half Men.

“But partly it is to find out about your family and how you grew up but also about what makes someone—whoever—believe in that kind of stuff.”

Thom paused.

“But it’s interesting, too,” he added.

“Interesting doesn’t make it true,” Kate snapped back.

“Woah,” he recoiled. “What’s that about?”

“You didn’t grow up with it!” she blazed. “You go along to a church and they’ll love you. You’ll be the poster boy who read Alister McGrath and became a believer. Of course, they need that because if they can convince other people, it proves they’re right. There’s nothing better than a story like yours!”

“Hold on, hold on,” said Thom quietly, wanting to calm whatever it was he had set off. “There’s no story here. I read a couple of chapters from an interesting book on a plane, had a strange conversation with the guy sitting next to me—and am now having an even stranger conversation with you.”

Kate had calmed down during his reply. “Sorry,” she said. “Just don’t waste too much thought on it, it’s not worth it. It makes the world smaller. As soon as you say that it’s true, you need to say everything else is false or wrong. That’s not the way I want to believe.”

She swallowed with emotion. “And that’s not the way I want you to believe. I can’t go back there, even . . . even with you.”

She braced herself for his response. Kate knew her attitude was not fair or rational or healthy. She saw Thom look troubled for a moment, then he must have decided to let the topic drop. They were both quiet the rest of the evening but Monday morning hurled them back into their usual busy-ness and neither of them had the desire or energy to go back to that moment.

Kate fended off invitations from her parents for a number of weeks, until her anger had subsided. With Thom not having returned to the topic or the book, as far as she was aware, she eventually agreed to a Sunday-evening dinner.

On their way to her childhood home, Kate asked Thom if he had brought the borrowed book to return and he confessed he had.

“So do you have an answer ready for the inevitable leading questions?” she prodded. “Something like, ‘What did you think of the book?’”

“Can we talk about it? Or do you want me just to politely side-step any discussion?” He took her hand conciliatorily.

“I’d prefer not to talk about it with them,” Kate answered quietly, “—but I’m sorry for how harsh I was last time we talked about this. We need to learn to talk about this better. Maybe it can work better with others involved, although I doubt my parents are the right people for it.”

When they arrived, Thom kept the book in his bag and the conversation flowed around the usual pleasantries, work, family happenings, current news, the meal they were sharing. But Kate could feel her tension levels rising. The normal conversations seemed so banal to her, labouring under the weight of the topic they couldn’t talk about.

Eventually, she couldn’t hold it in. “Dad, Thom’s been reading the book you loaned him,” she heard herself saying, interrupting a conversation about football teams.

Thom looked at her with surprise.

Her dad paused, his hands frozen mid-air, not sure how to proceed.

“Neither of you even like football,” Kate said with a shrug of exasperation.

Her father turned to Thom. “Well, what did you think of the book?” he asked cautiously.

“I just read a few chapters,” Thom began, looking quickly at Kate as if trying to catch a clue as to how to proceed.

She gave him little beyond the conversation-opener she had already offered.

“Yeah, it was interesting,” he proceeded slowly.

“Mum, can I help you with the washing up?” Kate suggested as she began clearing the table and heading out of the room. For the next few minutes, she busied herself with dishes and forced cheerful chatter with her mum.

When she returned to the dinner table, she interrupted what seemed a healthy conversation and noticed the McGrath book was propped open on the table. Thom reached over and closed the book before handing it back to Kate’s father.

“Thanks,” said Thom. “It’s not something that I’ve thought much about before, not in this kind of way anyway.”

“Work tomorrow—we should be going,” Kate announced, not daring to look at either of them. “Thanks for dinner.”

She headed to the front door with Thom scrambling in the wash of amicable farewells.

As they drove home through a cold, quiet suburban night, Thom took her hand again. Kate hesitated in the face of the obvious question but after some moments she asked it.

Thom was readier for it. “I’ve never heard it explained like that before,” he said. “I’ve heard the arguments but the story is new to me—that there is a God who became human. It’s more like those old mythology stories than a scientific argument. It’s more like The Lord of the Rings than A Brief History of Time, to reference two books I’ve never got around to finishing—but at least I’ve seen the movies of Lord of the Rings.”

“But that’s why it doesn’t make sense,” Kate countered, freeing her hands to punctuate her statements. “It’s not scientific. It doesn’t fit with most of the real ways of knowing and understanding life that educated people accept. It’s the mythology of peasants thousands of years ago that just keeps being handed down to the next generation because some people think we need something like this to believe in.”

“Imagine, though, if it were true,” Thom reflected. “What a different spin that puts on things!”

“But suppose it’s not true?” she resisted.

“It ought to be, then,” he responded from the far-off place to which his imagination had been taken.*

She grunted without commitment either way and they lapsed into silence. The car heater was beginning to be felt in the small space, pushing back the outside cold.

Kate was tired. She had to be at work early the next morning. She reached for Thom’s hand again and the silence slowly became less uncomfortable.

*With thanks to Clifford Goldstein.

Art: Nan Goldin, The Hug NYC, 1980.

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