Posted by: gatheringwater | 2009/06/11

For They Shall Be Translated

Victorian Jesus Woman

Port Townsend has a number of coffee shops, each of which offers something distinctive and interesting, but none, in my opinion, offer a comfortable place  for me to sit and talk. Now, a new shop has opened on Tyler Street–Better Living through Coffee–and it is well-designed for conversation. Not so silent that I feel on stage, but not so noisy I can’t hear myself speak. It even has a tiny patio where folks can sit outside on a sunny day with a nice tall iced coffee (no milk, no sugar, I just like it plain, thank you). That’s where a friend and I were sitting recently when the woman in a Victorian-era costume stopped by to say hello.

I don’t know what you do for fun in your town but, in mine, it isn’t unusual for the town matrons to dress up as madams and whores and troll the streets, passing out brochures to tourists. Some towns try and stamp out prostitution; here, we think of it as a tourist attraction as long as it dressed in an historically correct costume. I say this by way of explanation that it isn’t really all that unusual for a strange woman in fancy dress to come up to you on the street and say hello, especially during tourist season. What is unusual is for her to be carrying a handmade sign that says “Jesus Loves You.”

She was not, as it turns out, a volunteer for the Chamber of Commerce, but a widow who, after the death of her husband  felt lonely and without purpose and decided to become a public witness to the comforting power of God’s love.  The costume attracts attention in a way fitting with the spirit of the town. I thought a temperance message might be even more historically accurate and longed to give her some tips from one enthusiast for the Victorian era to another, but I could see my friend was increasingly uncomfortable and so I cut the conversation with the Victorian Jesus Lady short and said I’d catch up to her another time.

“How can you do that?” my friend asked, “You’re an atheist and not exactly wishy-washy about it, either. How can you engage in conversation with a person like that?” I didn’t have a very good answer for my friend, so I said I’d think about it and write down my reflections. Here’s what I learned:

I don’t have to agree with someone to enjoy their company. In fact, I’m vaguely nervous in any group of people defined by shared belief. I can understand the longing for the company of the like-minded, but I believe it is really a kind of trap, a fantasy about being understood without effort. Finding points of agreement with the differently minded is more rewarding, and a more realistic basis of friendship or group identity. A friend with whom it is safe to have differences of opinion can be a friend for your entire life, but what happens when you change your mind in a group of like-minded people?

People change beliefs more quickly than they change identities. I may be an atheist now, but there was a (brief) time in my life when I sincerely believed in God. Plucked out of time and compared side-by-side, I think I would be recognizably the same person.  Knowing that about myself makes me think that other people, too, are more than their worldview at a particular moment in time. When I meet a 20-something vegan in hemp sandals who wants to be shaman (and there are a lot of them in Port Townsend), I am less inclined to roll my eyes when I remember the dopey things I was investigating at that age. (There is a certain Theosophy conference I find painful to recall.)

Most helpful, however, is something I learned from my friend, Marcia. She helped me to learn how to mentally translate a statement from another worldview into my own by paying careful attention to be people’s intentions, values, and actions rather than their religiously freighted words. Stripped of religious jargon, I may find a statement like “Jesus loves you” is not so different from me saying “I believe you have value and rights just by virtue of being a self-regarding human being.”

There is a danger of overstating the last two points. I try not to patronize people by assuming their heartfelt and considered beliefs are just a phase and I know, too, that my translations may not always be recognizable to the speaker. This is my fourth reflection: translations don’t have to be exact to be useful. For the purposes of goodwill and tolerance, I don’t need to have an absolute correspondence with the ideas of another person. In fact, we’ll probably get on better if we don’t understand each other perfectly.

The Victorian Jesus Lady is all right with me. I may not share her specific religious belief, but I do share some of her values. We both care enough about what we believe, for example, to put on a costume and go out and tell people about it.

a sister of perpetual indulgence (not me)

a sister of perpetual indulgence (not me)



  1. Matthew, this is a beautiful piece of writing on a challenging subject. I have been working on these perceptions/translations too. Sadly, when I see such a sign, I usually translate: “You are an idiot unless you love Jesus the way I love Jesus. He’s your only hope, moron.”

    I should work on that.

  2. Well, sometimes talk about God’s love really is a kind of threat but, in the case of this woman, I felt she meant something more along the lines of “Jesus loves you and so do I.”

    Marcia and I were talking about this subject last night in the context of parents who, for religious reasons, deny medical treatment for their children. She didn’t think very much of these parent’s claims of love for their children, but I felt their love could be sincere but predicated on a mistaken belief. If you believe your child’s immortal soul is imperiled by a blood transfusion, you may be willing to lovingly sacrifice their earthly body. That is one of the reasons I don’t enshrine Love as my cardinal virtue. It doesn’t keep people from killing you.

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