Losing her religion
"I thought, Okay, calm down Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off Slowly, I began to see the world completely differently. I had to rethink what I thought about everything. It’s like I had to go change the wallpaper of my mind."
–Julia Sweeney performing her autobiographical monologue, "Letting Go of God."
It is fitting that Julia Sweeney’s next performance of "Letting Go of God" will be in Utah, the land of Zion for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Sweeney’s anti-revelation – that she no longer believed in God – was triggered by a visit from a pair of Mormon missionaries at her door in Los Angeles. They asked if Sweeney believed with all her heart that God loved her.
She mulled over her answer for about three years. She re-enrolled in adult catechism classes, read all the volumes of Deepak Chopra, visited a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas, took a trip to the Galapagos Islands and endured an ideological rift with her Catholic parents. At last, when a new set of missionaries appeared at her door years later, she had her response: In short, no. She does not believe in God. "I don’t live my life under the assumption that there’s a God, so I guess that makes me an atheist," she says. "But I like the word ‘naturalist’ more. Atheist defines me on religious terms."
Sweeney must carefully monitor how her latest show is marketed. Her breakout role came when she created the androgynous character "Pat" for a Saturday Night Live sketch – a role that culminated in a full-length feature film, "It’s Pat," in 1994. In a recent blog entry she explains why "Letting Go of God" shows in Connecticut were canceled:
"I noticed that they were billing me as ‘The Comedy of Julia Sweeney’ on one of the sites, which I should have corrected," she writes. "Wow, if someone came to hear the comedy of some vaguely familiar comedienne and ended up, instead, watching me perform my two hour days-journey-into-night about science and religion, I think they would be very surprised."
"God Said ‘Ha,’" Sweeney’s first successful autobiographical monologue written in the late-90s, cast Sweeney in a new light. The piece dealt with Sweeney’s brother’s unsuccessful battle with cancer and her own successful fight with the disease in her own comedic fashion. The taped performance of "God Said ‘Ha," continues to be available in video stores.
But Sweeney maintains that "Letting Go of God," which she has performed throughout the country for the past year, is a bigger departure and a greater professional risk.
"I can’t quantify it, and I’m totally happy with my career, but there are all kinds of things that I could have done, but can no longer do because my public persona is now tied up with this anti-religiosity, even though it is not the whole focus of my life," she told the Park Record.
Sweeney sat down to write "Letting Go of God" after 9/11. She hadn’t intended to jot down her journey, but she was shocked at the reaction to the national tragedy. "I thought people would be outraged by what these young men did in the name of God," she says. "Instead, [George W.] Bush immediately started using religious rhetoric I started thinking to myself, ‘I spent 10,000 hours in Catholic school listening to outspoken people about religion. I want to be outspoken, too.’"
Sweeney looks forward to her Dec. 1st performance at the Eccles Center, adding that if she’s lucky, she may be back in Utah this January for the Sundance Film Festival. She recently made a film of "Letting Go of God" and submitted it to the Sundance Institute for consideration.
"I kept thinking I wanted to take the show to Salt Lake because I had a few letters from people saying, ‘You think Salt Lake would be the worst place for our show, but actually, it’s the best: You can’t not have an opinion about the Mormons or religion when you live here and the city is actually more liberal and open-minded than you think,’" she says.
Sweeney argues her story is just as valuable as conversion stories. "I just wanted to have one little drop in the ocean of people talking about how they found Jesus [diluted] with the story of someone who didn’t," she says.
Sweeney says she has received some blog posts that berate her and her monologue, but not in the fashion she anticipated.
"I thought people were going to disagree with the show and say, ‘I disagree with you because there is proof that Jesus rose from the dead’ I didn’t expect people would comment on my looks," she says.
The public response to "Letting Go of God," has been positive, though Sweeney humbly notes few of her opponents are motivated to share their negative reviews with her.
Often, those who choose to attend Sweeney’s performances already agree with her perspective, but there have been some audience members who have changed their minds about religion after seeing her show. At her tennis club, Sweeney says, a woman she had never met approached her. "She said ‘Hi. I just wanted to say that I have four kids at St. Brennan’s and your show really [screwed me up],’" recalls Sweeney.
But unlike many conversion stories, Sweeney’s chief intent for her monologue is not to proselytize. In fact, responses like the one at the tennis club maker her uncomfortable. She’d rather not be responsible for people leaving God, she says – for some, it’s the only way to cope, she concedes – and her job as an artist lies more with spectacle than with politics or religious conviction.
"I do want to excite dissidence, but my job as a dramatists is really to just make a well-crafted story that’s compelling," she explains. "As my strictest artist self, when I say, ‘What do I do?’ in the strictest pure-art way, it is to express my experiences as drama publicly, no matter what the drama is."
See it: "Letting Go of God"
Who: Julia Sweeney, Saturday Night Live comedienne, made famous for her early-1990s character "Pat," turned autobiographical monologue writer/performer.
What: Sweeney’s one-woman show, "Letting Go of God," which chronicles her exploration of her own spirituality – a quest that leads her to believe that nature is her truth, not God.
When: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: The George S. and Dolores Doré at Eccles Center for the Performing Arts at 1750 Kearns Blvd.
How much: Tickets range from $18 to $65 – tickets for children 12 and under are half price; seniors receive a 20-percent discount.. Tickets are $5 in section-C for Summit County students (K-12).
**For more information: visit parkcitytickets.com or call (435) 655-3114.
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When it comes to the U.S. census, let’s just say Park City has… room for improvement.