In the 1998 film What Dreams May Come, Chris Nielsen (Robin Williams) knows he's in heaven when a favorite dog from his childhood bounds across a field to greet him. This poignant scene captures the secret hope of many "animal people": reunion with beloved pets in the afterlife. I have it, as does Brenda Peterson. Brenda's family, on the other hand, does not.
Peterson grew up in a strict Southern Baptist family and, to hear her tell it, neither parents nor siblings believe the family dog is bound for the afterlife. Although they plaster bumpers with stickers proclaiming "In Case of Rapture, this Car Will be Unmanned!" and emblazon vehicles with fish symbols, as far as the other Petersons are concerned, animals don't have souls. So when the rapture promised in Revelation arrives (as the sweat-soaked preachers of the faith proclaim), only righteous humans - meaning strict Southern Baptists - will join God in Heaven for Eternity. The sinners (and all pets) will be left behind - their punishment, apparently, to have nothing to read but Tim LaHaye books.
Peterson says of this scenario, "If there's no room for animals in your afterlife, I Want to be Left Behind." Her memoir with that title is an often pointed, sometimes funny but always thoughtful history of a young girl's quiet rebellion against the noisy (to her) faith of her family. She traces questioning conservative Christianity's End-Times philosophy to a young age, when her grandparents blithely informed her that she would not see her dead puppies in heaven on judgment day. After that, it was downhill all the way (according to her family) as she became less religious and more spiritual. Interesting stops along the way include time spent with an old whittler who included an ichthyosaur in his Noah's Ark tableau, a stint as a kitchen drudge at church camp in the New Mexico mountains, and summers spent tending a tiny Colorado cornfield.
Peterson's narrative details a journey away from the faith she found narrow and closed-minded to a more inclusive form of spirituality, and her gradual adoption of a modified Taoist belief system. Her current philosophy is not unlike the Navajo concept of harmony with nature, and she carefully explains her reasoning for adopting these beliefs. Throughout her forty-year journey in a much different direction, she has remained close to her family. The past fifteen years of in-your-face politicking have strained some ties with in-laws, though Peterson feels gratified that some of the next generation have softened their stances and identify more with their "weird aunt."
These days Brenda Peterson is a journalist and freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest, where her beliefs (though not necessarily her faint Southern accent) are a better fit with the neighbors than they were during her years in Virginia and Georgia. She watches the seal pups on the beach behind her house and, when necessary, helps perform a rescue. Her idea of "heaven" is a world where those seal pups would be safe from cruelty and stupidity. Her bumper sticker choice is, "In Case of Rapture, Can I Have Your Car?"