Fans of the classic 1960s sitcom “Gilligan’s Island” remember the “Waiting for Watubi” episode as the one in which Mary Ann shows her navel for the first time. But for me, as a 5-year-old Reform Jewish child watching a rerun of the program, the program sparked an existential crisis.
The episode depicts a superstitious Skipper accidentally digging up a tiki statue that he identifies as Kona, the “god of evil.” Convinced he is doomed, he recalls a legend that only the ancient witch doctor Watubi can break Kona’s “curse.” It is up to Gilligan to save the day by posing as Watubi — with the female cast members accompanying him in hula garb.
As I watched the episode, I couldn’t laugh because the problem it posed was too disturbing. My understanding was that the “Gilligan’s Island” characters, like pretty much everyone else on TV back then, were Christians (they celebrated Christmas, anyway).
How then could Skipper believe in a “god of evil”? Didn’t God, in giving the Ten Commandments, say that we could have no other gods before him? And didn’t that mean, as my Hebrew-school teacher taught, that there truly were no other gods?
That episode, and the copycat “bad-luck tiki” episode of “The Brady Bunch,” actually made me angry. I wanted to write in to the producers and tell them they were liars. (If I were a little older, I would have said “hypocrites.”) After all, I thought, if you believe in God, then either God is true or he isn’t. But you can’t believe he’s true if you believe there are other gods too.
Looking back, perhaps my anger over the sitcoms was intensified because, also when I was 5, my own claim to truth was being questioned. It was during that time that I was repeatedly molested by a janitor at the temple my family attended. He told me I had to keep it a secret.
Thinking I had done a bad thing by “letting” the janitor abuse me — like many child victims, confused and frightened, I blamed myself — I lived with my pain for a short while before finally telling my mother. Her reaction was to go to the rabbi, who in turn called in the janitor, who denied everything.
When my mother told me what the rabbi said in their meeting — that it was simply my word against the janitor’s — I fell deeper into my misplaced shame. The rabbi, the very authority I trusted to uphold the truth, believed I was a liar.
I was no longer a practicing Jew in 2002, the year the Catholic Church was rocked by revelations of clergy abuse. Instead, I was a recently baptized nondenominational Christian, searching for a church where I might feel at home.
It wasn’t yet clear to me where that home might be — being a rock and roll historian, the white-bread world of American Christianity seemed an awkward fit — but there was one thing I knew.
I sure as heck wasn’t going to go near a Catholic Church — not with what I was reading in the media, where prominent Catholics were claiming the scandals were trumped up by journalists who hated the Church.
Then one day I brought up the scandals in conversation with some Catholics I knew from a G.K. Chesterton reading group. Their response surprised me. Instead of acting defensive, they expressed their disgust over abusive clergy and the bishops who covered for them.
My Catholic friends weren’t interested in making excuses, only in purifying the Church. What’s more, whereas I had assumed that Catholics saw the Church in terms of bishops and priests, with lay people a mere afterthought, that wasn’t how these men and women saw it.
To them, it was their Church, and they were righteously furious over those abusers and unwise shepherds who were mucking it up.
Seeing my friends’ reaction to the scandals, I was forced to confront my prejudices against Catholicism, prejudices fed by bad information I had received from Evangelicals who claimed the Church was “unbiblical.”
So I began to investigate the Church’s claims. What I found was like nothing I had seen anywhere else. Every other Christian tradition had changed its doctrine on fundamental issues over the course of time, particularly with respect to issues involving the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.
Only the Catholic Church had consistently — for two millennia! — taught that all human life was sacred and inviolable, even that of the child in the womb.
Slowly it dawned on me that if everyone followed Catholic teachings, the world would be a better place.
There remained the problem of clergy abuse and cover-ups. But as a victim of abuse that was not committed by clergy, I came to realize that there was an important difference between the way that the Church approached the problem of abuse and the way that non-Catholics approached it.
When non-Catholics sought to protect the vulnerable, they were essentially borrowing moral principles that had been properly declared and defined by the Church. When Catholics sought to protect the vulnerable, they were claiming a doctrine that was rightfully theirs.
I realized then that, in considering whether I should enter the Church, the key question wasn’t whether all who claimed to be Catholic lived up to their faith. It was whether Catholicism was true. If it was, then I had to enter the Church. And so it was that I became Catholic in 2006 and have never looked back.
The abuse I suffered should never have happened. But God in his goodness used my pain to lead me to hunger for righteousness. Now, as a theology professor and author, I use my experiences to help fellow survivors find wholeness in Christ.
My childhood intuition was right all along. There is no “god of evil.” There is only one God, and he seeks to bring all his children into the light of truth, justice and healing that comes to them only in and through the Church.
Dr. Dawn Eden Goldstein is an assistant professor of dogmatic theology at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. As Dawn Eden, she is the author of many books, including “Remembering God’s Mercy” and “The Thrill of the Chaste.” She was a rock journalist in New York City in the 1990s, and writes regularly about music and culture for Angelus.
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