Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Religious History, Part One: The Good Christian Boy

I'm tentatively entitling this entry with the suffix "Part One," as I'm going into this thinking there's a lot of ground to cover. There might not be. We'll see.

I would also like to preface my story with a big fat warning that my experiences are just that: experiential. They are subjective, and they are incredibly personal. Any reference I make to Christianity applies to the Methodist-Baptist upbringing I encountered, not Christianity as a whole. We'll get more into specifics when I reach that point in my story.

Let's begin at the beginning.

I was born into a Methodist family, which meant I was baptized before I could even form a word. My maternal grandfather had been a Methodist minister, retiring before I came into the picture. From all the recollections I hear from my mom it sounds like she was raised in some bizarro version of The Andy Griffith Show and The Waltons. Her parents were traditional, but not overly strict fanatics. Then again, my mom was also a fairly well-behaved preacher's kid, a status as intrinsic to the culture of Protestantism as ushers, deacons, trustees, and organists.

I don't remember too, too much about the Methodist church we attended in my hometown of Seymour, Indiana, other than the distinct sound of the pipe organ, the hospital-green paint job, and the overabundance of old farts in the congregation.

When I was four, one of the pivotal moments in my early life came upon my parents purchasing the Encyclopedia Britannica. I'd fallen in love with reading early, and this only boosted reading from mere hobby to obsession. At five, I knew the names of the Presidents, Prime Ministers of Canada, and could tell you a pretty good amount of information about the Second World War. Later on, I would try reading passages from the Bible, but by and large I thought it was boring, although using the index to find passages discussing sex made for some interesting reads.

(Not that it contributes to this discussion all that much - or maybe it does - but I didn't learn until 2nd grade what the actual sex act was, and it wasn't until a year later that I learned sex was where babies came from. No shit.)

A new pastor came when I was in 2nd grade, and he has some pretty backwards ideas. Long story short, he told my mom that she "couldn't serve two Gods" because of her visiting another church...the other church being the Baptist church.

Whatever, it didn't involve me all that much, though I can't help but wonder how differently I might have turned out growing up Methodist rather than Baptist. Who knows, maybe I would have grown up with a version of Christianity I found acceptable.

Anyway, we became Baptists shortly thereafter. The idea of immersion baptism bothered me. I don't quite know why, it just did. Maybe it was the resemblance it bore to the bullying practice of "dunking" at the swimming pool...I'm not entirely sure. Mom, Dad, and my older brother Eric were all baptized during the same service. For my parents, who (I'd like to at least hope) had acknowledged Jesus of Nazareth as their savior many years prior, this was their admission of membership to the church. For Eric, this was a significant step in his religious growth.

The procedure was one I didn't understand until Eric did it. At the end of the pastor's sermon, he would have a call for anyone wishing to accept Christ, during which time the final hymn would be sung and Bruce (the pastor) stood in front of the pulpit. Eric went forward, talked to Bruce for a bit, and then he, my dad, and a deacon and deaconess went off into one of the Sunday School rooms where they talked and prayed.

Eric was given this tract from Chick Publications, and it scared me just a little. (By the way, readers, do take the time to click through when I provide links.) The guy didn't seem to do anything all that wrong, but he wound up in a lake of fire.

The summer of 1995, a bunch of my friends who had gone to church camp accepted Christ and were baptized. Oh, church camp...again, a topic we'll return to at greater length shortly. I remember our counselor asked us to pick our favorite Bible passage. Mine was Revelation, chapter 16, which describes seven angels pouring "Bowls of God's wrath" onto the Earth.

What did I get out of it? That God isn't messing around, and that Jesus was coming back. I remember coming home crying because one of the kids in the neighborhood said Jesus was "an asshole." A student at my elementary school said he didn't believe in God and I told him that he should, otherwise he would go to Hell. (That kid actually became one of my best friends in high school...again, this will come full-circle later.)

In short, I was a parrot. A parrot who had had the fear of God put into him. I had developed a fascination with Revelation. The thought of all the vivid imagery, of catastrophic events, beasts, dragons, God's wrath, and people being sent to Hell simultaneously captivated and terrified me.

Start 'em young, I guess.

No one put any pressure on me to do it, I put the pressure on me all by myself, but I finally decided to overcome my fear of an immersion-based baptism and accept that Jesus of Nazareth suffered, died, forgave all the sins of mankind, and then rose from the dead. I made this decision at the ever-so-informed age of eight.

Look, I enjoy looking back on my early years with the sort of tongue-in-cheek good-natured humor that permeates so many good cartoons, memoirs, and stand-up routines...but I can't even pretend to joke about this. It was totally okay with my parents, my pastor, and an entire congregation that an eight-year-old boy was committing himself to a belief system that he had little knowledge of, centered around a big (boring) book that most of them hadn't even read.

Eight year olds can't vote, can't drive, they eat soap if they swear (or at least I did...), can't work, and they aren't expected to fulfill many obligations other than to complete their homework, get along with their classmates, and wipe their own asses. And yet this, choosing a philosophy you were expected to follow for life at age EIGHT, was totally okay?

I've been around the block enough now to know that all across the board religion is something handed down from parent to child, assuming - not hoping - that it will take. My fiance Shelley was raised Jewish, and her apostasy has driven her father to self-loathing induced alcoholism, thinking he's somehow failed as a human being and a father. That's not even a worst-case scenario. Shelley follows a blog about a girl who was raised Orthodox Jew and is now shunned by her family for leaving the faith. One of my newer readers told me he is a "skeptical Sikh." Another reader, a dear friend of mine since 8th grade who I always knew to be a Pentecostal Christian, told me he and his wife are at a stage in their life where they're seeking out their own answers.

On one end of the spectrum are Muslims calling for death to all apostates. On the other end is my friend Nick, born and raised Baha'i. When he came of a certain age, he said, "Well, I guess I'm a Baha'i." His mother said, "No, you will find religion on your own!" He's still a Baha'i, but not before he did some independent investigation himself.

In short, it's good to know I'm not alone and bad to know that this is fairly common in any organized religion.

One thing my Christian upbringing taught - and NEVER sat well with me - was that non-Christians went to Hell. My parents have the Universalist sentiment that "those who haven't known Jesus" are saved, putting my youthful query of whether or not bushmen in the Kalahari desert were going to go to Hell when they died. (Yes, I asked that.)

Then came another pivotal point in my upbringing, and that was having two fire-and-brimstone lunatics for Sunday School teachers, named Kim and Craig. They were a married couple, with a son a year older than me and a daughter my younger brother Nick's age. And every single week, our lessons had less to do with Moses, Noah, Jesus, or John the Baptist and more to do with the events of Revelation, the Anti-Christ, the Final Judgment, and tales of Satanist rituals involving child abduction/sacrifice.

One night I told my younger brother a distilled (and probably slightly embellished) version of all the crap I'd been told in Sunday School, causing him to freak out and tell my parents. They asked me where I heard it, so I told them the truth. The next week, I was in the 6th-grade Sunday School class my dad taught. He almost minored in religious studies when he was in college, so we would read stories from the Bible and discuss what the moral of the story was, all with a good smattering of my dad's goofy sense of humor (which, along with his innate hatred for talking on the telephone, I've inherited from him).

I was still plagued by the apocalyptic Christianity I'd been exposed to. Matters were made worse when my church's youth group trekked to Kentucky for a Christian music festival called Ichthus. It wasn't the music - in fact, a pre-fame Sixpence None The Richer played a new song of theirs called "Kiss Me" at the Friday night show. It was that I encountered more of those damned tracts.

One dealt with an otherwise good girl having sex, getting gonorrhea and AIDS, but then finding Jesus thanks to her doctor. Another featured an exceptionally Semitic-looking Ebenezer Scrooge accepting Jesus. Another explained that evolution is a lie before expounding upon original sin.

There were two others that had the most profound impact on me, though the "Earthman" tract embodies one of the central tenets I was taught. The first one is called "The Curse Of Baphomet." Never mind all the crap about the Masons - though until sometime in middle school I really thought they were some evil organization - it suggested that there really were forces of evil out there, perverting men's minds, deceiving them, and sometimes winning.

It also triggered my fascination with the occult and its symbology. I don't believe in the occult, I think it's all horse-shit, but it is intriguing in the same sense that I was fascinated reading about the religions of Ancient Egypt, Rome, and Greece as a kid.

The other one, the real behemoth, was "The Last Generation." I can't emphasize enough how much this tract frightened, mortified, and haunted me. It scared me to think there could someday be a reality as depicted in the tract, a world where religion is outlawed and men are tortured to death for their beliefs. The thought of a Rapture frightened me, mostly because I had some behavioral problems at school and at home - it had me convinced that I wasn't a good person, and that someday the angels would blow their trumpets, as I had been told by Kim and Craig, ushering in the soul harvest and the Rapture...and that I would miss it.

(Better get some eye-soap ready. Remember, you can't really un-see things.)

The picture of Jesus near the end of the tract...

...with its vacant stare and all the accompanying tales of judgment, Hell-fire, and all-around bad things that I'd been hearing for the last few years, kept me awake at night. I slept with my door open, and could see down the hallway in my house, which could get very dark. Laying on my right side, I would see that face, hovering in the darkness. Even now, at age 23, I find it to be a very unsettling image. It's the eyes.

I would wrap myself up in my blankets like a cocoon/burrito, lay on my left side, and get as close to the wall as possible. Sometimes at night I would hear the nearby whistling of a train and think the trumpets had been sounded and that I'd missed the Rapture. This happened several times, and I would panic in the middle of the night, grabbing the flashlight I kept in my bedside table and one of my books on The Beatles I'd gotten from my grandparents and simply read until the sun came up. Sometimes I'd listen to The Who's Tommy on my Walkman. Eventually in 6th grade it went away.

The next few years were pretty uneventful until 8th grade, with one exception. At junior high church camp, in my "fat" phase (where I briefly had tits, sensitive nipples and all, before starting puberty - it's like my body was briefly considering being a woman), on the last night after campfire and all that there was a "special program." There was a long path in an open field lit with coffee cans filled with kerosene. At the end of the path was a massive cross...except there was a body on it.

For a brief, stupid 12-year old moment, I thought it might have really been HIM. I then thought, 'Oh, probably just one of the counselors.' Nope. It was a paper-mache likeness of Jesus, with baby blue construction paper on a string forming his teardrops and red construction paper on strings all over to represent blood. The camp leader then spoke to us, telling us in fairly gruesome language what all Jesus endured during the crucifixion and everything leading up to it.

Everyone else around me was at the very least sullen, their arm around someone else and at the most bawling. I just stood there, hands in pockets, wondering why everyone was so upset over an incredibly fake scene. I was unmoved.

This whole concept of me being unmoved while others around me were crying their eyes red was something new for me. I'd overcome my fears (for the most part, though that fucking picture still creeps me out), and I'd read many times the story of his execution. I was past the point of it making me cry...and yet that seemed to be the purpose.

I walked away from everything that night realizing how it worked. They tell you the story, which involves a man being persecuted by the state, sold out by his peers, tried, and subsequently brutally beaten and then crucified. During those three days, he was in Hell, in spite (allegedly) never doing anything wrong while on Earth. The details of this are played out for dramatic effect, eliciting feelings of guilt and sadness - "He did this for YOU!" - and then it's like a forced confession during an interrogation. You're supposed to crack.

In many ways, that humid June night in 1999 was the beginning of the end for me with Christianity, though I didn't know it then.

Stay tuned for Part Two, though until then let me end with a song. No, not one of mine. Those all involve two chords and generally crappy lyrics. This song I first heard in Kenneth Anger's 1979 re-edit of his film Rabbit's Moon. It ties in with me having the ultimate bout of nyctophobia for most of 1998. Click here if the embedded video isn't working.


PS - A lot of the information here I'm disclosing for the first time. There's stuff here I don't even think I've told Shelley. Not fishing for compliments or anything, but writing this - for what I thought was of interest to you, the reader - has actually helped me learn more about myself.

PPS - Thanks for reading.


Anonymous said...

Really great and powerful stuff. Looking forward to the next installment. I might do a series on my religious experiences. It seems I got off pretty light all things considered. My mom was pretty easy going despite being a Republican and a Catholic.

Shelley said...

Wow. I've heard some of these stories, but a lot of it is new. While I knew fear was instilled in you, I had no idea to what extent. Fear is no way for a child to live. Fear is no way for an ADULT to live.

While you were stayed up because you were scared you missed the rapture at night, I stayed up because I was scared of a spider crawling on my face or (if I watched a scary movie) a dead corpse suddenly in my bed. I'm so sorry you endured this. And I am so glad that you realized its ridiculousness at such a young age.

And I'm glad you're learning about yourself through your writing. You are an exceptional writer (and this is as a critic not your fiance).

Jordan K said...

Very glad I read this. It pains me to think of how many people aren't so insightful and are unable to see through and break free of the cycle fear. And few of those that do are able to really excavate the issue as you have. And holy fuck, those tracts are horrifying!

My history on this matter is much shorter. It more or less boils down to a conversation I had with my Grandpa. I told him he was going to Hell. He basically presented a comprehensive, yet six-year-old-friendly argument as to why Hell would be preferable to Heaven in every way. He was merely being playfully contrarian, but that little seed of "maybe Hell is not what people make it out to be" went a long way. That, and not having a "church-every-Sunday" upringing helped a bit. Though strangely enough, the one experience you recounted that I also had was thumbing through the Bible to find "the good parts" regularly as a kid.