Sort Of Like How The Name "Ethel" Is Getting Popular Again
Volume II, Issue II - Nov. 2011

Born Again - A clichéd metaphor for spiritual rebirth that has morphed into a cultural context, a way of stereotyping, an excuse for all evils.

The day he is born, there is light everywhere. It is streaming through the windows of your hospital room, and it almost takes you by surprise, the brightness of it. The whole thing began at one thirty in the morning, and the nurses kept the delivery room dark through the night. The low lighting over the desk and the fluorescent glow of the computer screens barely slipped into your consciousness as you labored. Breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe.

And then he is there, and he is tucked into your hospital gown, and you are skin to skin, and you feel so luminous, like you're lying in a sunbeam, like there is a halo of light circling your new little family as you lie there in the hospital room, bloodied, battered, being stitched back together.


Somewhere in all of your pre-baby reading, you learned that memory and oxygen are linked, that the former depends on the latter. That even in those first days of life, your baby can have no memory of his dark, uterine world, of kicking his tiny feet absently into your ribs, of his harrowing journey from that dark calm into the noise and light of your delivery room. To have memory, there must be breath. To have breath, you must be born.

"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to Nicodemus, the high-powered Pharisee with a mild curiosity about the new Jewish rabbi, the one who was doing all the miracles. "No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." Born of water. Born of Spirit. Alternatively translated, "born from above."

In those first moments after it was spoken, you imagine that this new metaphor was staggering. The marriage of the most natural and messy of human processes with the spiritual. With God. This idea that everything before This Moment was dark and muffled, and that now you have emerged into brightness. Clarity. Joy and understanding and light.

Here is how a metaphor becomes clichéd: it is used, used, overused until it becomes the name of a national movement. A book is published by one of the great political schemers of your time: Chuck Colson of Watergate fame, who found Jesus during his time in prison and then wrote a best-selling autobiography about his experience. He called it, of course, Born Again. Cliché turned movement turned cultural construct. It began to characterize a certain kind of person with a certain political identity and a certain taste in music and a certain way of moving through the world.

I'm a Born Again Christian, said President Jimmy Carter in an interview with Playboy. I've been Born again, said Johnny Cash and Dr. James Dobson and George W. Bush. Former Alabama governor, George Wallace, best known for saying "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," became a Christian in the 1970s. Apologized to black civil rights leaders for what he said Before. Before when he was in figurative darkness. Before he drew his first breath of God. Before he was Born. Again.

You can't decide why this particular phrase is so troubling to you, why you wish it would disappear from the vocabulary of faith. Phase out. Fade away.

It's something about the shift in grammar: verb to noun to proper noun, morphing into a caricature of itself. Something about the way it is wielded like a weapon. Defensive, to excuse all manner of evil: That was before!! I've been born again! Offensive, as a way to write someone off, to group their beliefs into one small, laughable package, as in, Those fucking born-agains...

Yes, faith is like being born again. But it is also not. Unlike the newborn infant, you have memory, memory that spans back into the unnamed darkness. You are not so much born as waking...every moment to new realities. To a new way of looking at humanity. To grace and to peace and to love. It is not Before and After, a clean split, dark and light. It is gradual illumination, fireflies moving slowly toward you, softening the edge of the darkness so that you can see the beautiful mystery all around.

In the delivery room, your baby boy breathes contented sighs against your chest. For him, the only thing is this moment: the warmth, the scent of your skin, the light glowing behind his closed eyelids. He is born. He will spend the rest of his life waking and waking and waking and waking.

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