So the Easter season has come and gone, and I got through it without downing a single chocolate bunny or candy-coated, malted egg. Eventually the pastel yellows and blues and pinks will fade away from storefronts, and churches will rearrange the letters on their signs to read something other than “Christ Was Born Again. Why Aren’t You?” — like “Who Wants Strychnine?” or “Has Anyone Brought Yarn?”
Maybe you spent your holiday with family and large amounts of basted ham, or by placing your last bets on the NCAA championship. Or maybe you actually went to church — if not on Easter, than at least on Good Friday. (For those of you who weren’t involved in the naming of these holidays: Good Friday is when they nailed him up; Easter is when he dug himself out. Neither name seems particularly appropriate.)
I haven’t been to an Easter service in about five years, and even then I wasn’t really there for the service, but because my girlfriend at the time was singing in the choir. Shoehorning myself into a suit and sitting in a pew for an hour trying to remember the words to “Amazing Grace” instead of sitting on my couch watching “Crossfire” was, at the time, my pinnacle of sacrifice.
I did the same thing a month later on the last day before college ended for the summer. That was the last time that I sat in a church for a regular service. Unless my math or my memory fails me, I’ve only sat through five church services in the last seven years: the two mentioned above, a funeral, a wedding, and a christening.
I haven’t consciously avoided it. I just rarely have a reason to go. And I’m certainly not alone.
A lot of people my age are lackadaisical or ambiguous in their churchgoing and in their faith. They’re iffy on the dogma; they pick and choose among the doctrines. Oh, I’m sure they have convictions, just not the same ones that their church has.
Some people just outgrow the church of their youth. And others call it the deterioration of fundamental values in America. I like to think that it’s just another step in the spiritual evolution of mankind, where a single corpus of ideas cannot encompass what people believe is true and right.
Or, society could be turning to poo. Who am I to judge?
As for myself, I walked away from the religion of my childhood a while ago. You see, I grew up fundamentalist, non-denominational Christian.
Yeah, I know. If you’ve read my other pieces posted here, you’re probably having the same reaction my friends do when I tell them: Huh? It’s like an extremely overweight person saying that he’s a terrific ballroom dancer. People are just amazed and incredulous.
I think most that know me expect me to have been raised by atheist advertising executives and weaned on the glass teat (that’s television for the uninitiated) until I was able to gnaw through my leash and set myself free on an unsuspecting populace.
Couldn’t be farther from the truth. Here’s a little background on my childhood. In the next few paragraphs, when I say “we,” I’m referring to my mother, father and myself. I was an only child; a fluke that I’m sure is responsible for just as much of my psyche and mannerisms as my religious upbringing.
“Fundamentalist” means — well, pretty much what you think it does. The words of the Bible are taken, more or less, at face value and literally, with very little spin. Non-denominational means that while we were on Martin Luther’s side of the Protestant/Catholic divide, we didn’t subscribe to any particular sect of Christianity.
If someone asked, we said that we were “Christian,” and that was the end of it. But it was a bitch having to explain that I wasn’t Methodist or Episcopalian or Baptist to kids in my class who couldn’t quite grasp the concept.
If it were only the semantics of our religion that I had to explain, then it would be simple.
We drove an hour to church three times a week: once on Wednesdays and twice on Sundays. Sometimes there would be visiting preachers, or a congregation from another state would be visiting for an outside tent service, and we would have services every night of the week.
Services were held in a small, wooden church tucked away just off of a Delaware highway. It had faulty heating and no air conditioning, so it was as comfortable as the weather. Attendance never reached much higher than 50 if you counted the small children. But what was lacking in membership was made up for in just about everything else.
Now, I’ve got to break a few preconceptions of what the word “fundamentalism” refers to in the context of this piece. I’m talking about the flip side of the Bible-beating, abortion-clinic-bombing hate-mongers who take the eye-for-an-eye parts of the Old Testament and twist them until they can look at the rest of the population with righteous contempt. When I get around those sort of people, my head starts to throb and my feet start itching towards the door.
The people I grew up with and went to church with are the people you hope for when you’re stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire and no jack. They practice love, compassion and charity, the best parts of the New Testament, with some common sense thrown in. I don’t think I ever heard a one of them say a hateful thing about anybody. Think Quakers, only different.
And they certainly stood out. All of the women had long hair; all the men had short. Women didn’t wear pants. No one wore shorts. No drinking, no smoking, no gambling, no cursing, no rock music. We never owned a television when I was growing up, but I had a grandmother and an aunt who did, so I got around that one.
And again, if this was all there was to it, explaining it would be easy.
The closest comparison to our church that I can conjure is Pentecostal, but even that doesn’t quite cover it. There was screaming and shaking. There was faith healing (without the televising or donations, mind you). There was prophesizing and speaking in tongues. It’s a far, far cry from a quiet midnight mass, I’ll tell you that, but you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a group of 65-year-old women dance and scream in holy rapture for five straight hours.
They were convinced that the world was coming to an end, that the human race was in its twilight, and soon everyone would be called to God. It’s not a rare sentiment. Even mainstream churches preach the same thing. But they wholeheartedly believed it. They believed that the world (“the world” was never said with a good connotation) had gotten just about as bad as it could and was ready to spiral out of control.
I suppose if you consider television, rock and roll, and the flagrant flaunting of sexuality evil and sinful, than it’s kind of hard not to think that the world is heading on the fast track to Armageddon.
The atmosphere was happy and boisterous and joyful in a black, Southern Gospel kind of way, but how far can that go when there’s always a backdrop of impending doom? I suppose that was the aspect of it that started me on the path to agnosticism and worldly delight. What’s a child to think when, should the cosmic cards fall as he was told, his friends who weren’t part of the church were going to Hell?
“Fuck that!” That’s what he’s supposed to think. “Things just aren’t adding up here.”
They have got this thing wrong, I began thinking sometime around puberty. I’ve met far too many truly good people who have no ties to Christianity whatsoever to believe that they’re slated for eternal pitchfork sticking. And if I’m wrong, at least I’ll be in good company.
That was my mindset at the time. Mind you, it’s expanded, matured and evolved over the years, but the core is basically the same: You don’t need to have a membership card in anything in order to be and do good.
I am a registered minister in the Church of Universal Life, but that’s just to initiate good bar conversations and to legally marry people. Anyway, I digress and summarize.
I was born in a nondenominational, fundamentalist Christian household around 24 years ago. When I was 13, I was baptized in a river outside of Hot Springs, Arkansas, famous for its cottonmouth population. And when I was 17, a few months before leaving for college, I essentially excommunicated myself from my parents’ church.
My mother cried. My father was angry that I made my mother cry, but they both got over it. They still believe that I’ll come back to the fold eventually, and I let them believe it. And I can still count on them for anything. They are, after all, good Christian folk in the finest sense.
Their church has relaxed its rules some in the years I’ve been away. When I graduated from college, I sat down with my dad in a bar for a beer. It was the first he’d had in 25 years, and he — a man of 240 pounds — got real tipsy, real fast.
And was I, as Freud would put if allowed to use common vernacular, fucked up by my childhood?
Well, I never wore shorts until I was 17. I didn’t date until I got to college, but I’ve since made up for it. I didn’t cut my hair for three years, which was an apparent mistake if my friends are to be believed. If given free rein, I curse like a French whore. And I still get antsy feet any time I wander into a Christian bookstore, which is the only place in my town that sells guitar strings.
On the upside, I’ve got a steel-trap mind for Bible lore and Christian mythology. (Yes, I call it mythology now. So sue me.) It’s brought me no end of help when playing computer Jeopardy. I’ve also got a wealth of real-life experience in the American/Southern gothic genre, which comes in handy when you write dark fiction as a hobby. And I’m still a rather generous and charitable person. You have to really fuck me over to get on my bad side.
Which all goes to show that whatever you were taught as a child will tend to stick with you in some fashion, whether you want it to or not. Maybe someday we’ll get to the point where we won’t need the indoctrination of religious principles and the fear of damnation to get people to do the right thing.
And maybe the love child of Tori Spelling and Pauly Shore will grow up to be the next Messiah. Who the fuck knows?
Meanwhile, it’s nice to think that all religions are equally right and wrong. That through any denomination, creed or sect is the pathway to spiritual perfection.
Except for you Mormons. You guys are screwed.