Born again: Thea Deley in recovery from Christianity
November 9, 2013
One Sunday morning a decade ago, when she was living in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Thea Deley had enough of her customary 6:30 a.m. weekend wake-up call — a rock band practicing directly across the street. "This throbbing bass at my bedroom window," Deley said. "One morning, I snapped. Threw back my covers, threw on sweats and burst into band practice and told them to shut up. I unleashed my fury. They looked at me like I had lost my mind." Afterward, she collected signatures of neighbors to force the church to lower the volume.
Looking back, Deley, a 47-year-old who now lives in Paonia, has come to agree with those musicians: She had been unhinged. She can blame it on the fact that the noise had been waking her up regularly, and that it was early in the day for band rehearsal. But most of the crazy-lady reaction had to do with religion. This particular morning happened to be Easter Sunday. The blare was coming from a church; it was a worship band making the racket. The hypocrisy got to her: Christians singing about brotherhood and ignoring their sister across the street, trying to get some sleep.
"It was that hypocrisy: 'We really care about you.' But not really," Deley said. And beyond that spiritual disconnect, Deley realized there were other things stirring, inside her own being. "It was the first time it occurred to me — I had some unresolved anger issues toward religion."
Deley has worked through those issues in a variety of ways. During her high school years, she planned on becoming a minister. In college, at Colorado State, she minored in philosophy and took classes in ethics and Eastern religions, which led to an ongoing spiritual search outside mainstream religion. In her early 20s, she abandoned the Christian church entirely, and in her late 30s, she tried alternative paths. "More like New Age churches. And those kind of worked," she said. Since moving to Paonia in 2006, she has sampled a few of the town's many mainstream churches.
For the past few years, Deley has been looking at her religion issues from the stage. Her one-person, multimedia show, "Jesus Loves You! (but hates me)," looks at the oddities, complexities and, perhaps more than anything, the hypocrisies of religion through films, puppets, commercial skits and more. Deley says the show, which she workshopped at Paonia's Paradise Theatre, and has performed at the Durango Arts Center, the Bug Theatre in Denver, and the Nomad Theater in Boulder, ranges in tone from silly humor to honest anger. The show has its valley debut tonight at Thunder River Theatre in Carbondale.
"A few scenes are very intense," Deley said. "The story pushed toward my resolution: How do I make peace with this? Because frankly, for some time, I was angry, even hateful. That wasn't serving the world."
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Deley's dad was in the military, and the family lived in 11 places by the time Thea was 14. One constant was church, and a strict adherence to religious teachings, but there was flexibility on denomination; the family went to whichever mainline Protestant chapel was on the base where they were living.
When Deley was 12 — around the time of being baptized — and attending a Southern Baptist church in Kansas, she had her first notable experience of doubt. In public school, she was being taught evolution, but the lessons in Sunday school were very different.
"At Sunday school we were studying Genesis, and this particular church was adamant that evolution wasn't true," she recalled. "That didn't resonate with what I was being taught in school. It was the first time I started to wonder about what I was learning."
The real questioning came when Deley raised the discrepancy between evolution and what is told in the bible. Or tried to raise it. "I raised my hand to talk about it and found out that was not acceptable," she said. "I said, 'That's different than what I've been taught. I want to understand this.' Everyone started at me like I was crazy. The teacher was concerned for me." Things got really strange the following Sunday when a member of the congregation, a man Deley didn't know, approached the Deley family with a book they said would help Thea. He handed her a copy of "Evolution: The Fossils Say No."
Deley traces her questioning nature to the three adolescent years she spent living in Germany. "It gave me a chance to realize American culture is not the only culture. And not necessarily the best culture. It's just an option," she said. "The American culture seemed so foreign to me. Other countries were doing things so differently."
Deley found that German culture at the time was engaged in a serious reflection on the Holocaust. "We were right there where these things happened. That affected me tremendously. It set in motion the idea — look what happens if you don't question things," she said.
Another formative experience during her Germany years was visiting a museum of torture. "Where you got to see all these ways people were punished," Deley said. "A lot of it was the Catholic church, for people who were blasphemers. I got a sense of how violent this religious culture was. That was pretty disturbing for a 12-year-old. That was hard to reconcile with 'Love one another.'"
Still, as a high school student in Las Vegas, Deley expected to become a minister — until a pastor made a house call and advised her to rethink her career choice. The ministry, the pastor said, was no place for women.
"What does that mean to a girl? That you're not as worthy as a boy," Deley said.
Deley, who has worked mostly in the nonprofit world, with environmental and health organizations, has a background in writing and theater. She has taken acting classes and appeared in one-act plays. In Paonia, she has been involved with the Ship of Fools improv group, which she pushed to do more written-out material. Several years ago, she began writing the vignettes that would become "Jesus Loves Me! (but hates you)" — bits including how Proctor & Gamble is run by Satan and a film pitching a work-out-with-Jesus video (inspired, Deley says, by an actual pole-dance-for-Jesus video which seems far more surreal than Deley's adaptation).
Deley says it was the beliefs instilled in her as a child that kept her from creating a show about her take on religion till now. "There's a lot of pressure not to be critical, not to make waves, to be a nice person," she said of the Christian teaching she received. "And my parents think I'm going to hell. So what do I do with that? I pretend to be a person I'm not."
Deley's aim is not so much to criticize as to encourage critical thinking about religion. "What really concerns me is that a lot of Christian teaching is scary for children. That's when your brain is developing, and you develop fearful thinking," she said. "In our culture, you're not allowed to talk about that. Religion is so taboo. You think, 'The problem is me.' But what I've found is this culturally approved repression, especially for girls."
Among the venues where "Jesus Loves Me!" has been performed is the First Baptist Church in Denver, which has a minister Deley calls "very progressive." After the performance, the audience divided into groups to talk about what they had seen. Deley loved the fact that people were discussing the issues.
"No one had to defend or justify what they believe," she said. "It was just a conversation. That's what we need."
“Jesus Loves You! (but hates me)”
Saturday night at 7:30
Thunder River Theatre, Carbondale
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