by ANN M. COLFORD & r & & r &

Losing Her Religion

THEATER Julia Sweeney's new show relates her journey from Catholicism to atheism with compassion, heart and plenty of humor

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & F & lt;/span & or the book version of her one-woman show, Letting Go of God, Julia Sweeney chose the title My Beautiful Loss of Faith Story. But to hear her tell it, the process was more a gain of unfaith than a loss of faith.

Letting Go of God is the third in her trilogy of highly personal biographical monologues -- "Three. A trinity. Seems right, you know," she quips. "I'm not sure of doing monologues after this -- that might be all I have to say about my life."

The journey began back in the early 1990s when Sweeney's brother Mike developed lymphoma. She moved him into her house in Los Angeles so she could take care of him. Then her folks moved in to help out. Then she herself was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Within a year, her brother was dead from the disease and Sweeney was recuperating from treatments that included a hysterectomy. Those experiences became the basis of God Said "Ha!" -- a one-woman show that became a book and later a feature film.

Cancer, death, grieving -- sounds like funny stuff, huh? But somehow, in Sweeney's words and delivery, it was.

Next came In the Family Way, the story of her decision to become a single mother by adopting her daughter, Mulan, from China. (Mulan is now 7.) Around the same time, events bubbled that would lead to Sweeney's third monologue, Letting Go of God, the one she calls her "whole long-day's-journey-into-night piece."

Shortly before deciding to adopt, Sweeney endured the painful breakup of a long-term relationship. On the heels of that breakup -- and after a random visit from a pair of young men, Mormon missionaries intent on saving her soul -- she decided to reinvigorate the Catholic faith of her Spokane childhood. She joined a parish in Santa Monica and signed up for a Bible study class. And that's where things slid downhill.

The more she read the Bible, the more problems she had with it. She investigated Buddhism and some of the more popular New Age beliefs making the rounds. Eventually, she found her way to science. She began calling herself an agnostic but slowly realized she had more in common with atheists. When she finally claimed the word for herself, it felt like coming out of the closet, even though the process was more a long series of small steps than an earth-shattering conversion experience.

"I'm telling you, even the subtle shift from an agnostic-y person who really loves the experience of church, from where I was to where I am, even though it's a subtle shift, it had a huge profound change in my perspective," she says. "And I haven't been able to find a way to express that well."

There are words she doesn't like: "believe," "faith" -- even "atheist." The word, which seems to define people by what they are not rather than by what they are, represents just a narrow slice of her perspective, her worldview, she says. And it's a piece that's often blown out of proportion.

"People want to polarize my experience," she says. "They say, 'Oh, you were so religious before, and now you're an atheist; you loved God and now you hate God.' And I say, well, no, it really was a subtle shift, like leaning your leg an inch."

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & o now Julia Sweeney is ready -- at last -- to bring the story of her unfaith journey to Spokane, her hometown. "I've done my other shows there, and it's always really fun, but this show is another kettle of fish," she laughs. "Most of my friends [in Spokane] are still actively practicing Catholics. I think I'm as gentle as can be about religion, but on the other hand I'm ridiculing the Bible, and the idea that somebody would send their son to suffer pain [for us], and those are cultural ideas that are strong in the community."

She has been asked to do the show in Spokane for a long time, she says, but she declined because of the pain it would cause her still-very-Catholic mother. "Then she finally gave me dispensation to do it in Spokane," says Sweeney, laughing at the papal language. "It will be probably more meaningful for me than for the people watching. It's a big deal."

Curiously, she says that if she moved back to Spokane -- something she's thought about a lot -- she'd enroll her daughter in the same Catholic grade school that she attended (St. Augustine's, now Cataldo) to expose her to all the "culturally Catholic" stories and symbols of her own childhood. As cultural artifacts and foundational myths, those stories still have value, Sweeney says. "I always say, if you read Genesis, it starts with two conflicting stories of the origin of the universe. First, Adam and Eve are created together, then it's Adam first, and then his wife, with the rib and so on. To me, the Bible is telling you right away: here are some stories to think about -- but not to take literally. I think the people who think we should take them literally are missing the whole point of the Bible! There's just a lifetime of pondering these stories and how they came to be."

The story of her journey sounds a lot like a classic journey of faith -- except it's not. "I loved reading about people's spiritual quests, but it was always unsatisfying somehow," she says. "I love the journey: people on the quest, that they're struggling, where they're at. But I never knew of one where you give up the whole thing at the end. And that was part of my impetus in doing this show -- so there would be at least one story like this in the world, where you lose God at the end."

Julia Sweeney performs Letting Go of God at the Bing, Friday-Saturday, March 30-31, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $15; $20, day of show. Call 325-SEAT.

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