Thinking About: 1983 and That Theology Class

This morning, my automated music application (MusicBee) started me off with some Ozzy Osbourne. Not an unusual musical choice for me. Ozzy was one of my very first steps out into the rock environment with his first solo album (Blizzard of Ozz). When I first heard the song “Crazy Train” I was completely hooked (forgive the pun here – my last name can be utilized as a variant to anything “hook” related). The soaring guitar riffs of Randy Rhoads were like nothing I had heard before. Most of my early childhood was spent listening to Tom T. Hall, Gilbert O’Sullivan, and the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s country music artists that were my father’s musical choices. MusicBee started me off with a cut from Ozzy’s 1983 solo album, “Bark at the Moon – the first studio album after the untimely death of Randy Rhoads.

1983 is an interesting year in my life. This was my junior year in high school. Many changes were arriving in my lap, all at the same time. I had my first steady girlfriend. I had my very first job. I was exposed to the concept of critical thinking in my Theology class. See, my parents didn’t believe that the public school system was a good choice for education. They wanted me to be “highly educated” – particularly in what they considered to be “classical education.” They felt that the Catholic school education model was far superior, and enrolled both myself and my sister in private Catholic schools, particularly for our high school education. I understood their reasoning, but only later in my life. They merely wanted to give their children an advantage that neither of them had. It’s a completely understandable perspective. What it did; however, was foment a growing revolutionary aspect in my mind. I was never truly enamored with the Catholic faith. It was pretty, and at some points it was interesting – but I’ve never been one to follow the crowd. That’s still true to this day. My preference has always been to find my own way.

Theology is a class that was taught at every year in the school I attended. It really wasn’t a class on all the beliefs that were out there. Essentially, it was a class meant to indoctrinate students into the Catholic faith. Each year built upon the previous year’s teachings – adding new material that was more complex in understanding. The function of the Priesthood, Nunneries, the Catechism, the reasoning, and aspects of the Rosary, the need and concepts behind confession, etc. etc. Me, not being a Catholic, I found this constant drilling unnecessary and unwelcome. However, I paid attention to the best of my ability. I went to the monthly forced services. I genuflected, stood, kneeled at the proper points of the Mass, but I never went to received communion. I just felt that this part of the Mass was meant for those that believed in the faith, not for a kid of protestant parents who had no desire to be in the Catholic faith. Then came my junior year Theology class, and suddenly my perspective of these “forced” classes changed – for a single semester.

It was the third semester. Spring is what they called it. In the beginning of January. We had just come back from the Christmas holidays. We were in a class of around twenty-five, and our scheduled time was right after lunch. We were full of food, and in a heated classroom. Sleepiness was a key factor. Our instructor brought out an old record player and set it on a four-legged stool at the front of the class. Great. We’re about to be bombarded with the Catholic version of gospel music. He took the record out of the sleeve, placed it on the turntable and put the needle on the disc. Jesus Christ Superstar’s opening overture started. With freakin’ hard rock guitars!! What was this witchery?? Catholic rock??

After the overture played, he took the needle off the record and stared at all of us – one by one. He had this huge smile on his face. “That’s what we are going to learn in this quarter,” he announced. Learn what? How to sing it? How to play it on instruments? We’re going to become musicians in a Theology class? “No, we’re going to learn critical thinking. Using this rock opera, the backdrop of Christ’s crucifixion, and your ability to think and change perspectives.”

Slowly, we went through the entire rock opera. Song by song. The lyric sheet was passed around to the class, so that we could read what was being sung. So that we could use those lyrics to five into deeper conversations about things I never thought I would hear in a Theology class. He spurred us on with statements and points questioning the divinity of Christ. We would argue that those statements weren’t true. He would challenge us back to prove our reasoning that his statements weren’t true. “You’re just stating what you’ve been taught. Regurgitating information rather than believing what you’re saying,” he cajoled us in one class period. “Think about what you believe. Make sure you believe what you’re saying. If you don’t, dig even deeper and find out why.” Soon, members of the class were bringing in other materials to prove their points. Books, audio recordings, magazine articles – nothing was out-of-bounds. At the end of the quarter, we took a “final” exam on the quarter on the material. There were questions on who played what role, what was the significance of a particular moment in the rock opera, and how did it differ from what we’ve been taught from the Bible. The very last question asked if we believed what we had been taught, and how did that play a part in our daily lives? The following year, our senior year, we were asked to go to local hospitals, nursing homes, and elementary schools to help out within our local community – Shreveport, Louisiana. We were excused from classes to be able to do this. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that this question was the crux of that performative duty. Anyways…

I answered the last question in a manner in which I received a “wrong answer” notation, along with a request to see the instructor after school was let out for the day. I was not happy with this, since it meant that I couldn’t spend another forty-five minutes playing on the new Apple ][ computers that had been installed in our computer studies classroom. But I knew that not following the request would result in a phone call to my father that I had not followed an instructor’s request, which quickly lead to a punishment that I didn’t want. I came to my instructor’s classroom, and he asked me to sit in the front row. As I sat down, he quietly closed the door and sat in the desk next to mine. “You’re answer on the last question of the exam,” he stated quietly. “Why?” I explained my reasoning. I didn’t want to answer a question that had me claiming a belief that I did not have. I didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus ben Joseph. I didn’t even believe in the correctness of the Catholic faith. “You attend the monthly service. You could always stay back in the library with the other non-Catholic students instead.” I explained how I found the Mass to be a beautiful ceremony that depicted much of the symbology of what I had been taught in the Theology classes. I enjoyed the beauty of the ritual, even if I didn’t agree with what was being depicted. “What do you believe?” This was the toughest question to answer. I wasn’t sure. I knew that it had something to do with the outside. The beauty of the woods. The serenity of the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees. The feeling of the sun’s warmth on my face. The sting of cold rain driven into my face by a winter’s storm. To me, being outside was that serene feeling that I had heard several of my classmates express about being in Mass. I didn’t feel that in Mass. I felt that every time I was outside. When I finished, he stood up and held his hand out to me. I took it and he provided a very warm, friendly handshake. “I hope you find that somewhere Tommy.” I was quietly ushered out of the classroom, and he thanked me for coming to talk with him.

It took another three years before I found what I was looking for. Even when I found it, I continued to question its “rightness” and “appropriateness” in my life. I utilized some of the critical thinking skills I had attained within that class. Did I believe what was being said? Did it fit within my heart? Did it resonate in my mind as being a complete fit to what I knew about the world? Could I find something that eroded the foundation of what I believed? Most importantly, did any of this make the world come alive for me? The answers are self-evident. I’m now on my (counting on my fingers – and breaking out the calculator when I fail at it) thirty-sixth year on my Pagan Path. I’ve been on my Path longer than I had been alive at that moment in my Junior year of High School (I was seventeen). I’ve seen a lot in all of that time. Good groups, bad groups. Good leaders, bad leaders. Learning how to walk my Path alone. Encountering the Gods (and being scared shitless when I figured out what I had stumbled upon). I’ve been ridiculed over my beliefs. I’ve even been physically beaten because I’m not a Christian. I’ve been ostracized by others, simply because I didn’t believe as they did. Through all of that, I’ve remained a Pagan because it is what I believe. It is my approach to the world around me. It permeates who and what I am. But I would never force my belief and understanding on to anyone else. Because in that 1983 Theology class, I learned that not everyone believes the same way. That the best approach is to be happy for someone that has found a system of belief that provides them with an understanding of the world around them. Because it is best to show kindness to others, even when they don’t show you kindness.

As I said that year was formative to who I am today. I learned about myself – through music, through books, through others – and through that class. I’m not the best person in the world. Nine Hells, I’m not even the best person that I can be. But I try my best. Some days, that’s not enough. Other days, its more than I could ever fathom. In the end, it all evens out. All I can do is hope that I touch the lives of others in as positive a light that I can manage for the moment. ::smile::

–Tommy /|\

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