the only thing Jesus Christ and J.R. Ewing have in common

by caitlin meredith

A Northern Californian childhood had some major advantages. There were mountains to hike and ski, the ocean to swim and fish, and the Redwood forest to breathe in and explore. The cultural patrimony was rich as well: hippies.  At least in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s, in Marin County hippies were parked in their VW Buses on every street corner, teaching me about the groovy universe. Hippies like my art teacher Turquoise who introduced my Montessori kindergarten class to Mother Earth and trail mix. Hippies like the parents of my classmates who named their children Meadow Rose and Morning Star and who didn’t allow refined sugar in their households.  And, of course, hippies like my parents who (before I was on the scene) spent weekends talking, then shouting, about their feelings in encounter groups.  Though hippies were long on organic produce (marijuana), psychotherapy and world peace, there were a few crucial American concepts they failed to transmit to those at their knee. Namely, Christianity and contemporary American television programming.

As a direct result of these missing pieces in my intellectual development, I believe I’m one of the only Americans over the age of 25 for whom Jesus Christ and J.R. Ewing occupy roughly the same plane in my cultural landscape. Despite their prominence in American culture, I know next to nothing about each of them. With both “Dallas” and the Bible I’m missing such basic plot points and character backgrounds that much of our national narrative is completely lost to me.  Whether it’s the big J.C. or the big J.R., I’m constantly feeling like I didn’t get the memo.

How did this happen? Well, to start with, I was 16 the first time I met someone who believed in God. No, I wasn’t raised by wolves in the Rocky Mountains; as I said, I grew up in Northern California. Religion was something we learned about in history class, not in Sunday school. I remember the horrific drawings of scenes from the Reformation in my social studies textbooks in middle school. I also remember thinking, “What a strange folk these people were, getting all riled up about something that doesn’t even exist.” I equated religious beliefs with leeches used in medicine – in the olden days, they just didn’t know any better. [**Please note: This post is not about how I’ve come to understand religion and religious people and communities in my adult years, only about my impressions and experiences as a child.**]

When I finally did meet believers they were the real deal. I was on a high school trip to Washington, D.C. with an organization that brought teens together from different parts of the country to learn about our government. The girls I was assigned to room with were from East Texas and you couldn’t find more wholesome, God-fearing churchgoers if you tried. I don’t remember how the issue of religion was raised, but once it was it never receded. My working definition of a Christian at the time was someone who believed in God (circa 400 years ago). I had never heard anything specific about Jesus Christ beyond the bit where he died on a cross. Lord, did I get an education. The girls stayed up all night explaining to me – in the most cheerful, friendly way – that Jesus Christ had died for my sins. And that even if I were the only person on earth He would still have died for my sins. It would’ve been no less bizarre to me if they had said that Ronald McDonald himself had flown my airplane from San Francisco to Dulles.

“Why the hell did he die for my sins?” I asked, truly, honestly perplexed. “And what sins? I’m only 16.” They implored me to recognize the great sacrifice J.C. had made on my behalf but there were too many leaps for me to understand the basic premise of what they were trying to explain. Why had some guy died hundreds of years ago for the sins of someone who he hadn’t even met and who might never sin (ah, the naïveté) who hadn’t even known about him or this selfless act until a pair of Texas teenagers laid it all out at two in the morning on the dingy carpet on the seventh floor of the Doubletree Hotel in the greater Washington D.C metropolitan area?

Each of my bewildered questions was met with an earnest, heartfelt plea to see how He was such an incredibly beautiful person that He actually did do all of this – that’s what made Him so wonderful. Their eyes lit up with their passion and glee at having the privilege of forging through such virgin Christian territory – they had finally encountered one of the Godless Heathens their pastor had warned them about. Unfortunately for them, and their pastor, their tireless efforts to infect me with awe of Jesus only served to confuse the hell out of me even more. After each of their attempts to phrase the “died for my sins” argument in varying ways, I inevitably responded, “But why? Why was that necessary?”

After that week of late night conversations sharing Doritos, Sprite and scripture, I knew much more about how much I didn’t know and had never suspected. I did the same for them. As I said in my college entrance essay, they taught me about prayin’ and I taught them about cussin’.

The only cultural deprivation equal to my lack of religious knowledge was my lack of TV exposure. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV (see: Northern California childhood.) Before my mom protests that there were exceptions, I will lay them out here. Yes, I was allowed to watch certain programs on TV. Every Friday night, for example, the family “got” to watch that unforgettable fixture of children’s entertainment Louis RukeyserhostWall Street Week, followed by the equally scintillating Washington Week in Review, both, of course, on our local PBS station. I was so desperate for TV that I actually sat there through the entire shows hoping there’d at least be an exciting toy commercial, which there never was (fucking PBS.) Also, Friday night was pizza night and the one night we got to watch TV during family dinner so I tried to make the best of it. Another exception: when I turned nine I was allowed to watch The Cosby Show. But, the main point here is that, unlike 98% of the population in America during the ’80’s, I didn’t get to watch the TV show “Dallas”.

One of my best friends did get to watch “Dallas” and I knew enough from spending time with her family that there was a guy named J.R. who was very rich and powerful. For years I would hear his name in passing, never knowing exactly who he was or why he was so famous or infamous (this was a full decade or two before Paris Hilton made that an actual celebrity category.) When the show’s climactic ending made it onto the cover of Time Magazine  in 1992, it was the first time I could put a face to the name. I was relieved that he was finally dead and would stop making me feel so uncultured.

My co-ignorances – Christianity and ‘80’s TV staples – seemed to come to a head when I moved to Texas a few years ago. Many of my more sophisticated friends would make jokes about my new glitzy life in the state that made J.R. so rich (even though I moved to Austin where people are much more likely to talk about extra virgin olive oil instead of crude oil), some even humming the theme song to me over the phone. I’d smile, make a comment about Sue Ellen’s furs gleaned from a soap opera magazine I’d once seen, and try to change the subject.

My new Texan acquaintances revealed the religious end of my deficits. A colleague sent a God-themed e-mail message on the Friday before Easter. I was so surprised that I had to e-mail a friend from a fundamentalist Christian background to ask what Easter was actually for (beyond the bunnies and chocolate eggs.) It must have been like someone asking what the fifty stars on the flag represent. How does an adult make it this far without knowing such a basic part of one of the fundamental stories of modern civilization?  Even worse: I don’t remember what she told me about Easter – I simply didn’t have enough context to integrate her helpful answer.

I’ve gotten used to being the Christianity dummy, but I thought enough time had passed that the brunt of my ‘80’s television ignorance could be safely left behind. But no. Like Jesus, J.R. has risen from the dead. (Wait, did Jesus already rise from the dead or is that what we’re all supposed to be waiting for? Or am I thinking of “True Blood”?) All of a sudden everywhere I turn J.R. is popping up again, making me lose even more time worrying about what a cultural ignoramus I am. For instance, this whole time I thought J.R. had been killed. I didn’t parse the People magazine headline closely enough in 1980: Who shot J.R.? He was shot, not dead. Like an idiot I’ve been wandering around thinking J.R. had been smoked by some vengeful relative, feeling confident that I had at least one crucial plot point under my belt. Apparently the TV channel TNT is making a new modern times “Dallas”.  A few weeks ago there was an essay in a recent New York Times Magazine reminding all of how essential “Dallas” is to the fabric of American identity. And then I saw that People magazine (in the supermarket line!!) has a feature on the “Dallas” characters then and now. I’ll never catch up.

Am I too old to keep blaming the hippies?