It's Easter Sunday, approaching midnight. I'm in The Continental Room, sipping a vodka coke. Troy is inside on the turntables, playing a Misfits song. I'm sitting next to my friend Reuben.
"Happy Easter, I say.
"I'm Jewish," Reuben says, "We don't celebrate Easter."
"Happy Passover," I say.
"I heard a joke the other day. You know how Jews don't eat bread that rises? Well, we don't like anything that rises."
"Haha. Like Jesus."
"Yeah, it's a resurrection joke."
"But Jesus was a Jew."
"You know," I say, "I'm something between an agnostic and a Christian."
"I'm something between an agnostic and a Jew," he says.
"The thing that really bothers me about Christianity is that it is such a colonizing religion. The conquistadors, the crusades, the missions, the inquisition. All that oppression and injustice, done by Christians. It's embarrassing," I say.
Reuben sips his drink and says, "Yeah, us Jews are not proselytizers. We have just kept to ourselves and gotten fucked in the ass for a few thousand years."
I sip my drink and say, "Yep."
"Someone who tells you to believe something or die...I can't understand that," he says.
"Nor can I, my friend," I say as I hold my fingers to his head like a gun, "Now say the Lord's Prayer! SAY IT, motherfucker!"
"You're gonna have to kill me," he says.
"Alright, have fun in HELL with the other non-believers. BANG!" I say, pulling the pretend trigger.
"Hell...now that's a concept I can't get behind," Reuben says, as Troy puts on a new record, "According to Christians, all someone has to do to get into heaven is to accept Jesus into their heart as their personal Lord and savior. So, someone like Jeffrey Dahmer, who fucking ATE people, could theoretically go to heaven if, on his deathbed, he accepted Jesus into his heart. But someone like Gandhi, who actually did a lot of good in the world, goes to hell because he believes different things. I dunno...that whole schema sort of undermines the idea of personal responsibility."
"I know. I sometimes think the Christian concept of hell is morally absurd," I say.
"It is. It's fucking absurd," he says.
"I went to a Christian university for my first two years of college," I say, "By my second year, I was having this full-blown crisis of faith, where I was questioning everything. I remember talking to one of my professors in his office, telling him about my doubts. I told him I was having trouble believing in hell. And do you know what he said?"
"He said, 'I stopped believing in hell ten years ago.' A professor at a Christian university! I'll never forget that."
"That's awesome. So, if hell is out, what about heaven? Because it seems like a lot of believers think, 'Okay, I've accepted Jesus into my heart. I believe the right things. So it doesn't really matter, ultimately, what I do now, in this life," Reuben says.
"Totally. Especially in Orange County. Whenever I see some conservative Republican Christian, living in some nice well-furnished home, driving an expensive car, working some corporate job, pulling down six figures a year, I think...You are living NOTHING like Jesus lived. He was poor. He railed against the rich and the conservatives of his day. He said, 'It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.' In other words...impossible. But then he said, 'What is impossible with man is possible with God.' So I guess there is hope for rich people too, if they sell their stuff and give it to the poor. If anything, you'd think Christians would be liberal, not conservative."
"That's a weird metaphor," Reuben says, "A camel through the eye of a needle."
"I think about heaven a lot, "I say, "What is it?"
We sip our cocktails in silence for a while, and Troy plays a new song.
I say, "Jesus said, 'The Kingdom of heaven is within, and the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' Meaning, I think, heaven is possible here, now, in this life. Maybe it has to do with love, and how we relate to one another, and what we contribute to the world and to other people, and community. For me, the first night of the Downtown Fullerton Art Walk, I remember thinking, 'For me, this is heaven.'"
"I've thought about that too," Reuben says, "Sometimes I'll get bummed out because I feel like I haven't yet contributed what I want to contribute to this world. Maybe, when we're old, we'll look back and understand...that time when I was in the band, when I was poor and struggling...that was my heaven."
I look at my cell phone. It's almost 1am.
"Hey man, I gotta go," I say, "I have early class tomorrow.
"It was good talking to you. Happy Easter," Reuben says.
"Happy Passover," I say.
We shake hands and I pay my tab and give Troy a high-five and walk out onto quiet streets thinking, 'Was that heaven?' That conversation, a skeptical Christian and a skeptical Jew, drinking in a bar on Easter Sunday, feeling more alike than different, to a soundtrack of punk music.