By Marilyn Ferdinand
“There really ARE coincidences!”
Julia Sweeney bellowed this line in amazement right after she confessed her earlier belief that there are no coincidences. It was a funny and oddly moving moment in Sweeney’s new live show Letting Go of God, about her search for and eventual rejection of God. For me, it was also a strange moment. Only about a week ago, I wrote a review of God Said, “Ha!”, the 1998 film of her one-woman show in which she recounted the worst year of her life. In the last line of that review, I hoped that she’d provide an update on the Sweeney clan at some point to give us hope and a good laugh. A week to the day after I posted that review, an item in a local paper said she was in town for a two-day run of her new show. I was lucky to get tickets for the next day’s eventually sold-out performance.
The monologue opens with Julia telling us that she had come to the end of a 4-year love affair that caused her so much pain that one night, in deep despair, she cried out to God to help her. This call in the dark set the stage for a deeper exploration of her religion, unexpectedly triggered one day by the appearance of two Mormon missionaries at her door. The usual reaction to pairs of men in white cotton shirts and thin black ties with bibles in their hands is to politely hide in a windowless room until they stop ringing and knocking on the door. Julia, in an altered state by her spiritual need, invites them in. In answer to their first question, she says, yes, she does believe that God loves her with all His (wait a minute, His?, she thinks) might. Eventually they get to the kookier aspects of their religion, at which point they are invited, very politely, to leave. We then get a brief history of God according to the Sweeneys.
Julia Sweeney was raised a devoted Roman Catholic in Spokane, Washington. We learn of her first religious disappointment—feeling gypped that she hadn’t known God wasn’t reading her every thought before she turned 7, the age of reason. She started telling every 0–6 year old she knew that they could be bad all they wanted and God wouldn’t know, but this knowledge seemed to fall on deaf ears.
In later years, she contemplated becoming a nun. Like me, she was completely devoted to the Hayley Mills character in The Trouble with Angels (“I’ve got a scathingly brilliant idea,” she intones in a perfect imitation of Mills’ enthusiastic British accent.) Like me, she watched The Song of Bernadette in perfect rapture and walked around with a towel on her head. But when a priest angrily told her, “Don’t be ridiculous,” to her request to be an altar boy, she did the one thing Catholics are taught never to do—go up on the altar and TOUCH EVERYTHING.
Returning to her spiritual quest, Julia tries joining a liberal Catholic church and signing up for Bible study. She becomes acquainted with the horrors and caprices of the Old Testament God, then moves on to the New Testament, where she discovers Jesus is angry and impatient more than she remembered him to be from her youthful ardor. Finally, the book of Revelations gives her a White Rabbit experience, and she decides that Catholicism doesn’t really do the job of explaining her faith. She sets off for Bhutan to visit a Buddhist monastery, where she is appalled by children younger than the age of reason turned into monks, and comes to reject Buddhism. Then she tries the glories of nature by sailing to the Galapagos Islands and witnesses cute blue-footed booby babies having their brains pecked out by their stronger sibling. Brrrrrr!
She was a huge fan of Deepak Chopra and his scientific explanation for God’s existence and gushed all over him when they were both guests on a talk show. When she actually takes a class in quantum physics and realizes that it doesn’t do anything to explain intentionality in the creation of the universe, she wants that moment of gushing back so she can say, “Deepak, you’re full of shit!”
Sweeney has a prodigiously inquisitive mind that never let religious dogma—or even the feeling of comfort she got from praying—get in the way of what reason applied to indisputable facts told her. “It’s so hard because invisibility and not really there look so much alike!” She ends up an atheist. When she tells her parents that she no longer believes in God, they seem to take it in stride. But when an AP story titled “Julia Sweeney Comes Out of the Closet—As an Atheist” shows up in the local paper in Spokane, her parents stop talking to her. Her recounting of how they finally reconcile is funny, true, and touching.
Well, we do get that Sweeney clan update. Father Sweeney finally succumbs to emphysema, after a doctor-induced death watch that had been renewed every Christmas for about 20 years. Julia adopts a daughter from China. In raising Mulan, she stresses that it’s comforting to think that Grandpa and their recently deceased cat are together in heaven.
But it’s not real.
Julia Sweeney is touring her exquisite show around the country. She will be back in Chicago June 16–17 at the Lakeshore Theater, a fine, converted movie theatre run by the ever-friendly Chris and Jessica Ritter. An audio recording of the show is available on CD. I hope a film is in the offing as well.