Though she was raised a Protestant in an extremely strict church, Thea Deley began questioning religious teachings that she considered bizarre even as a child. Now firmly out of the religion, Deley has made a hilarious and touching one-woman show devoted to her evolution from believer to blasphemer. Jesus Loves You! (but hates me) plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Bug Theatre and uses acting and video to portray Deley's specific experience in and out of the church.
We caught up with the funny lady in advance of the show, which takes on everything from Satan's toothpaste, to yelling at a worship band, to an ex-boyfriend who believed God was speaking through a hair dryer.
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Westword: Tell me about Jesus Loves You! (But Hates Me).
Thea Deley: It's a one-woman show, although I do a lot of video and slides, so there are actually quite a few other people involved. Something like fifty people pitched in to bring the show to life, so my joke is that apparently it takes a village to put on a one-woman show. Basically, it's my story interwoven with my commentary on things that I see that are happening now -- in other words, my childhood experiences as I'm reflecting back on these really rather bizarre things that happened to me. In retrospect, I think they're bizarre, but at the time I thought they were reality.
What kind of bizarre things?
For instance, there was a Sunday school teacher that I had -- I think I was about thirteen at the time -- and this Sunday school teacher came in one day and told us that a particular toothpaste was created by a company that was satanic, so if we used this toothpaste, in essence we were worshipping Satan. I mean, just crazy stuff like that. And in some places, that was perfectly normal and acceptable. Even as a kid, my brain just couldn't accept that sort of thing, and I would just kind of think to myself, well, that's ridiculous; that's insane. But I couldn't say anything, because when you're a kid you don't want to upset your parents or your church friends. So a lot of it I just kind of filed away. It's been really fun to see what kind of memories come back through the process of working on the show.
I'll tell you one more story. I was dating a guy who was raised Catholic, and then he had joined the Moonies, which is a cult, and then his parents had him kidnapped from that cult so that they could have him deprogrammed, and then he ended up joining an evangelical charismatic-type church. This poor guy, the first time that we were getting intimate [laughs], I think we were alone in his room, kind of squished on his little twin bed, and we were kissing, and things were getting a little hotter, a little heavier, and then in the next room the hair dryer turned on. And no one was there -- it was just random, for no apparent reason. So the blow dryer turns on, and my boyfriend, like, jumps up off the bed and he's like, "Oh, my God, God is sending us a message through the hair dryer! So obviously God doesn't want us to have sex!" And of course I was like, aw, shit. I was like, really?
Can you talk a little about the video portion of the show?
I love spoof film. I love making these little two-minute satires. I came up with all these silly products like stoning kits for when you sin and you need to be punished. And a working-out-with-Jesus video program and stuff like that.
The videos are interwoven with my personal story. That experience of being raised in a pretty conservative Christian family could really warp a person's sense of reality. So I think what I'm doing now as an adult, especially with the video part of it, is I'm just trying to poke fun at stuff so that it doesn't have so much power. To just kind of show it for what it is, at least from my perspective, and then in that way, it gives me an opportunity to be like, oh, yeah, that's not in control of my life anymore. And the really exciting thing is that other people who were raised somewhat similarly seem to find it cathartic as well.
Have your parents or anyone from your old church seen or heard about the show?
No, they live in another state, and it's the kind of thing where I'm not quite ready for them to know about it. Honestly, it will probably destroy our relationship, which is already kind of tenuous. That was one of the reasons I was so afraid to really challenge what I was taught. I mean, I was challenging it in my mind, but not publicly. It's such an interesting situation to be in, because I think a lot of people really struggle with that. In my case, it would affect my relationship with my parents. Other people I've talked to, it affects their whole world. Like, if all your friends are at your church and your boss and your family, it could really destroy a person. My situation isn't that extreme.What made you finally decide to take the thoughts you were having out of your head and make them into this show?
I was very angry, and it was really holding me back both creatively and in my life. It was affecting my relationships. So in addressing that anger, I had to really dig deep and dig back into my past. I was taught some pretty debilitating things, especially in regard to women. I had wanted to be a minister, actually, and the pastor from our church made a special house visit to talk with me and to let me know that that was not a possibility for me to become a minister because basically God didn't want women preaching. And I did not realize how much that had affected me until maybe fifteen years later.
You know what I used to do? I ran track in high school, and when I would be running, I would picture that pastor's face on the pavement and then with every step I took I would, like, crush his face -- things like that. I would say the point where I realized that my anger needed to be addressed was about six years ago, when I lived across the street from a church. It was one of those where they had one of those modern rock-and-roll worship bands that are all the rage. It was Easter morning, and it was 6:30 in the morning, and at this point I'm no longer a church-goer, and their band starts to warm up. And I'm lying there, and you can just hear the bass, like, this throbbing bass, boom boom boom. And for some reason I just snapped, and I threw on my sweats and I ran across the street and I burst into their church, and I was literally like, "Shut the fuck up!" [Laughs]. I just lost it. And of course they just stopped playing and they looked at me like I was insane. I was like, "What are you people doing? I'm trying to sleep!" And then after that I was on this campaign. For like, two months, I got all my neighbors, we signed this petition, like, "You need to address your loud music." And it's not like I'm an old person or anything. I was just totally focused on getting this worship band under control.
That's when I realized that stuff is still a part of my psyche and I still obviously have some issues with it, some unresolved anger. And then as I started digging beneath the anger, I realized there was a tremendous amount of sorrow, too. And that, to be honest with you, is the most difficult part to deal with. The anger was hiding the sadness. And the sadness I address a little in the show, even though it's a comedy. I want it to be as truthful as possible, and just being angry about all of this stuff was not helping me or other people. So really just kind of being honest with myself, like, whoa, this makes me really sad that my mom thinks that I'm actually going to burn in hell. That just really makes me sad. What bothers me is that there's all these estranged families out there because of religious differences, and so if my show in any way can make some of those estranged people feel supported or feel not alone, then I'll feel like I have done something worthwhile.
What else do you want people to know about the show?
Sometimes people walk out because it's a little offensive if you don't have enough distance from Christianity. It's definitely satirical. The other thing I want people to know is that even though it kind of goes through my process and my evolution, it does end on a positive note. It kind of ends with my current belief system, which is basically love and personal responsibility.
Is there anything else that we didn't cover that you want to talk about?
We actually live in the most Christian nation in the world. I think that something like 75% of Americans identify as some version of Christianity. So it does make it difficult to speak out and to disagree. I think we get marginalized if we do. My dad was in the military, so we lived in Germany for a couple of years -- and talk about a country where a certain group of people were marginalized over time. That really affected me as a kid, just learning the history and going to some of these museums and things like that. I feel like we have the right, maybe even the obligation, to question any doctrine, any religion, any political system, and I think when we buy the illusion that that system is sacred, we won't question it, and I think that's really dangerous.
The other thing would be that from some of the research I did, that atheists in our country are actually the most discriminated-against group. When they poll people, people are more likely to vote for a Muslim candidate for president than they would be to vote for an atheist candidate. The Pew Forum on religion, they do a lot of these surveys. And to me that's just really fascinating. So, like, if you don't believe in God, you're a bad person. And I totally disagree with that. So that's a little piece of my motivation is that people can be good without a belief in a particular god.
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Jesus Loves You! (but hates me) is intended for a seventeen-and-up audiences, and plays at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Bug Theatre, 3654 Navajo Street. Tickets are $15, $12 for students, and available at the door or online.