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The Virgin and the Wedgie

RACHEL MANTEUFFEL is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner.
RACHEL MANTEUFFEL is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner. (Courtesy Author)
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By Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, July 27, 2008

THE SEARCH FOR GOD might be ancient, but it is also endless. Even today, people are finding new mysteries to ponder. Recently, for example, I took part in a theological discussion about the angel Gabriel visiting Earth to talk to the Virgin Mary. Classically, he came to tell her she would bear the son of God. The new theory held, however, that he was there to give her a wedgie.

This theory is clearly flawed. There is no textual evidence for it, and the very possibility depends on Mary's choice of undergarments, which, thankfully, is a topic that no one has yet explored. But in the context of the Sunday school class I teach, and an audacious little girl named Ella, the question it raised was an immediately important one: Should one get in trouble for saying "wedgie" in church, specifically pertaining to the blessed mother of God?

That was Ella's real question. She's about 7, and she was testing the boundaries of Sunday school, and of me. The truth is, I didn't know how to respond; I haven't been a teacher very long. I don't think I ever said "wedgie" in church myself, although I did say "diaper" one time, when the priest asked the little ones if we knew what it meant to change. In real life, I value kids' subversive humor and was an enthusiastic practitioner of it even as a child. So do I castigate Ella, teaching her something I don't personally believe for the sake of someone else's notion of what constitutes sacrilege?

For one thing, a 7-year-old is not going to believe me just because I'm big. She knows better. She knows that there does not seem to be a heaven above the clouds (she has probably been on a plane), and she knows that Santa and Hogwarts are not real. Ella probably understands that she is in Sunday school only because her parents are making her be here. Dogma can hold you only so long.

And that was really Ella's issue, and it is also probably why my 18-to-34 demographic makes up only about 2 percent of regular attendees at my church. No one I colored with in Sunday school is here anymore, and only a trickle is taking their place. People tend to come back to church once they have kids, but something about early adulthood doesn't currently mix well with religion. Statistically.

I've been where Ella is, and beyond. Growing up in a church, you stifle the urge to say wedgie while everyone is quiet, and then one Sunday suddenly you blush when everybody sings, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord," and then you find the candles w-a-a-y too bright some mornings, when you're pulling the sleeve of your choir robe down to cover the stamp on the back of your hand from the club you left just a few hours ago.

But I'm still here, the statistical anomaly.

I was 10 when my family started attending this church. It had already seemed to me that not everything the Bible said could possibly be true, that you sort of ruined the beauty of religion by trying to apply logic to it. All I have, really, is a feeling. I feel loved, gigantically, by someone. And here, in church, I can see traces of the same feeling in other Christians -- in hymns written long ago and in how the people standing beside me raise their children.

A religion is created by millions of people who die for their faith and care for the sick and massacre people who disagree with them. Mine in particular was founded for a king who wanted to get divorced without anyone telling him he'd go to Hell. If you sign up for religion, you accept that people made it -- that it is, like most things are, an attempt to do good that turns out woefully human.

Just like my Sunday school class. When Michael wondered aloud whether the Silver Surfer could beat up the angel Gabriel, he and I talked it out and decided that since they were both good guys, the issue was moot. I think I handled that one well. But when Ella put forth her wedgie theory, I nervously laughed and moved on to something else. Now I wish I had done more.

It was wrong to imply that wedgies and church are of different worlds, that she is here to answer my questions the way I hope or expect. I want her to know that we have some answers and a lot more questions, and that we can think outrageous thoughts and still belong here.

So, here, Ella: We know angels have free will because a few once rebelled against God. But their punishment was eternal (they became demons in Hell), so henceforth, angels were profoundly encouraged to toe the line. Thus, if Gabriel gave Mary a wedgie, it was because God wanted him to, and that is no way God would ever treat the mother of his child. An unrecorded wedgie, then, is really quite unlikely.

God knows wedgies are funny, Ella. He made us able to tumble Him and wedgies together in our heads and ask some impertinent questions, find some answers and keep looking.

E-mail: xxfiles@washpost.com.


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