Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 26

It's been a while, so if you don't want to go back to catch up, part 25 was about heaven, and why I think it's a horrible idea. I listed two issues that were troubling: purpose and longevity. Part one of purpose was the idea of an eternal worship service. This part picks up with the second part of purpose.

Secondarily in the purpose category is the satisfaction of divine justice. We looked at the negative aspect of justice in the hell chapter, but there is a positive aspect as well. For my pentecostal peers who had suffered much in this life--especially in the eschewing of fornication, alcohol, and swearing--eternity offered a reward in the form of paradise as deferred gratification. If you’re going to ask people to sacrifice in the short term, you’re going to need to offer some long term benefits. It’s an axiom in investing, and while it may be crass to compare spirituality to business, the analogy works here.

The pursuit of holiness was an investment. The church in Bowlegs was fond of discussing exactly how many jewels would be in a particular person’s crown upon arriving at her reward. A favorite expression was, “She’s going to need a wagon to drag her crown around.” Again, in a realm where jewels are used as construction material, their value is suspect. As with many things in fundamentalism, metaphors are misunderstood. Typically, they’re flattened to the point where their poetic flexibility is destroyed.

As for the houses in heaven, the size was related to the actual sacrifice. This metaphor makes sense within a community where people can barely afford adequate housing, which is to say that it was never a problem in mainstream churches; the brick and stone cathedrals were a testament to the affluence of the congregations, and any congregation that could afford a cathedral could certainly afford adequate housing. Not so for the pentecostals. Many met in shotgun shacks, clapboard sanctuaries, and rundown buildings. My grandmother’s house, in addition to being covered in tar and gravel shingles, listed so much to the east that I always felt I had to compensate westward to walk in a straight line from the living room to the kitchen.

Without dispute, the Apostle Paul is talking about a resurrection body in I Corinthians when he refers to a mansion, but that didn’t stop my spiritual mentors from singing I’ve Got a Mansion. In fact, speculation about heavenly rewards was the only allowable form of covetousness. Again, this makes sense within a community that believes they are sacrificing worldly pleasures, including wealth, for the sake of holiness in this life and reward in the next. No right-minded person would give up pleasures in this world without a promise of exponentially greater pleasures in the world to come.

That is, of course, the satisfaction of divine justice. Those who don’t sacrifice, especially those who don’t believe, are consigned to hell. Those who do believe receive the distributive justice they deserve. For those who are slightly faithful, a modest reward will be given. For the true saint, a mansion that rivals those inhabited by worldly billionaires is coming in the next life.

This does make a perverse sort of sense, especially when considering people who truly suffer injustice.

As I write this, I’m 45. Three years ago, I wrote my good-bye letter to Christianity. Nothing personal, Christians; I wrote the letter for all theists. Christianity just happened to qualify. Writing the letter seemed important, more as a way of clarifying for myself why I no longer woke up believing god would be present in my day than a way to organize my thoughts. One of the reasons I listed for walking away--and that’s a terrible euphemism, as any decision to leave a faith to which someone is deeply committed feels more like a catastrophic injury than a casual walk--was that I was only 42, but I was already tired. The idea that I would have to live 42 years plus eternity does not move me, except to despair.

The desire to live forever seems deeply ingrained in all of us, but I’ve found that the more I think about it, the more the idea needs to be parsed. Only the greatest masochist actually wants to live forever; what we want is not to die. The eradication of our identity, that kernel of greg-ness or joe-ness or susan-ness that we believe lies at the core of our nonphysical self, seems unthinkable. How can this glorious self ever pass away into nothing? How can I have a moment where I cease to be? How can I not know, be known, love, be loved? It is narcissism, of course, but the desire is either so axiomatic within our cultural and familial assumptions or so much a part of our evolutionary development--an extension of the instinct to survive--that we seldom consider the implications of living forever.

What is it that you love now more than anything? Honestly, the question only makes sense for a child. Favorite colors, favorite songs, favorite anything are the province of children. By the time I reached adulthood, it was apparent that there were entirely too many things and people in the world for me to love to have a favorite anything. But let’s assume for a minute that you have a favorite thing or activity: fishing, fucking, fighting, fondue, France, French whores, or NASCAR. It doesn’t matter. Pick something.

How many decades or centuries would you have to engage in that activity or eat that food or fornicate with your favorite French hooker before you came to loathe the very idea of it? Now, imagine doing it for eternity. This requires that heaven not be an extended, eternal worship service, and even when I believed in a god who would take me to heaven, I was pretty sure she wasn’t so insecure that she needed me to worship her forever. God, whatever else she may be, is not a slutty socialite.

I am no pre-suicidal, melancholy cynic. I love life, wife, friends, and wine, but I love them because there is a limit to my enjoyment of each, partly predicated on schedule and partly on limit of endurance. How long would it take to exhaust both my love and my interest in a million billion years plus eternity?

The common response here is that “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” For my pentecostal brethren it was a house. A goddamn house. A big-ass house, but a house nonetheless.

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 25

Golden Pavement, or Chapter 7
Bowlegs, Oklahoma, 1973

“The streets are paved with gold. The gates of the city are made from precious stones. God will wipe away every tear. You will not suffer sickness, disease or death ever again,” the preacher said.

No series on The Revelation was finished until the preacher addressed heaven. If end times theology was the pornography of pentecostalism and hell was the stick, heaven was the anti-depressant carrot. The preachers would go into great detail about the precious stones, the golden pavement, the healing tree (Why do we need a healing tree in heaven? It’s heaven, after all.), the mansions we would all inhabit, the crowns we would give back to God in gratitude and humility, and most especially, the chance to live in God’s presence. Only the Easter message could eclipse the heaven sermons for the rate of call and response.

“Pure gold!” The preacher shouted.
“Amen!” The congregation responded.
“No more tears!”
“Praise God!”
“No more sickness!”

The people couldn’t wait to respond, couldn’t wait to get excited about the prospects of the next life. Many nights I’d join in their excitement, trying to picture the heavenly city in my mind. What does a gate made from pearl look like? Would the golden streets be translucent like the fool’s gold I played with on my windowsill, peeling off individual layers to watch the opaque density dissolve into translucent, paper-thin chips of golden light? Or would it be the hard, cold, metallic gold, like the bars I’d seen in pictures, stacked at Fort Knox? There may be a metaphor here, or just an insight into my brain, but I remember thinking of solid gold cobblestones most of the time, but occasionally, when I was feeling especially spiritual, I saw the cobblestones of gold as near transparent blocks of light, the gold so insubstantial that it would crumble when I stepped on it.

I never pictured god on those nights, just a soft, gold light emanating from the center of the heavenly city. Jesus was there, of course, but he too was bathed in golden light; in fact, he was the source of golden light, the corona of soothing light surrounding him turning the throngs around him into an umbra of shifting shadows, convulsed in worship. The beauty of the light would bring tears to my eyes, or that’s what I thought, anyway. I never cried when hearing about heaven. It was all so abstract.

I tried with great determination to get excited about heaven, but I have always been a creature of this earth. Some would say my life has been so blessed or charmed that I’ve grown too fond of earthly life, and had I suffered more, I would be disaffected with the blessings of this life; they would appear as burdens to me compared to the glory that is to come. Inasmuch as pentecostals were creatures of suffering, poverty, and hard work, that philosophy made sense, but for kids like me, kids whose lives were marked with a noticeable comfort and familiarity with the worldly things, the idea that heaven, a place devoid of sex, weed, pornography, alcohol, and profanity, was a reward was absurd. A reward for the terminally out of place perhaps, but not for those of us who grew increasingly comfortable in the world. That, however, is not the greatest reason I rejected heaven. Two other reasons stand out: purpose and longevity.

The promise of heaven--the raison d’être of pentecostal holiness, the goal of life, and the reward for the faithful--and its accompanying mythology were woven into the fabric of our beliefs. My grandmother and her contemporaries never questioned the narrative. Heaven was the city where the faithful would live for eternity with God. One of her favorite expressions was that “the lamb is the light of the city.” Jesus himself would light the city, and those who had longed to know him would finally know him fully and be known fully as they basked in his gentle light.

The faithful would spend eternity in the presence of the Trinity, singing His (Their) praises. Nothing, not one other purpose was ever offered. Heaven, it seemed, was to be one, long worship service. We’d sing, and then sing some more, and then, of course, sing some more. For eternity. Occasionally, we would be expected to shout or clap or praise (This was somehow different than singing.), and always we would be expected to cast our crowns at god’s feet, at which point we’d say, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty,” or something like that. The whole thing sounds so much like the repetitive motions of Jum’ah prayer that I’m sure Pentecostals just didn’t realize the Muslims were right.

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 24

“For by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God.” The verse is from Ephesians. Whoever wrote it, and it probably wasn’t the Apostle Paul, was insistent that salvation was a gift--the claims of Calvinists that faith is the gift ignores good grammar and good sense. Salvation is a gift of god, based on faith. I believe; I receive. Multiple semantic problems present themselves in any theology of grace that requires a response from the recipient.

Calvinists have rejected the notion that our faith brings about our salvation, since even the act of believing would qualify as a “work” on our part, so they have to insist that faith is also the gift of god. They are nothing if not perversely consistent with their flawless logic, and I mean that with great respect. They have managed to create an entire theology that is demonically consistent as long as the premises are accepted, one of which is that we are operating in a closed, Biblical system based on revealed truth.

Pentecostals are not Calvinists. They are near cousins to the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition, so they had no trouble saying that we believed god by faith, and the action of faithing--yes, I made the word up--justified us in god’s eyes, and faith for them was the responsibility of the believer. Take away the believer’s ability to respond in faith, and you take away free will. As a pentecostal kid, I was expected to have faith enough to believe that I was saved, and even absent a feeling of being saved, I was expected to trust god--surely a good synonym for faith--that I was saved.

The other tradition the pentecostals absorbed was the Holiness tradition, as stated previously. The Holiness tradition was adamant that a holy life followed salvation. Indeed, following the admonition in Hebrews that “without holiness, no one will see God,” they insisted that it was the mark of the truly saved. They were no fools; they understood that if salvation was a gift, and that if there was not a change in the person that could be marked by external signs, then there would be no way to determine who was among the congregation of the faithful.

However, they are immediately caught on the horns of a dilemma. How do you demand external signs of salvation when you insist that good works cannot save? How do you presume to judge a person’s soteriological status when only god can judge the state of a person’s heart? If you said the words at the altar, you were saved. Period. Even if you didn’t feel saved. Even if you went on to rob a bank. Even if you weren’t sure you were saved. The guarantor was god, not my thoughts, actions or feelings.

How then do you insist on holiness of life? Here’s one of my preachers: “The work of the Spirit in the renewed person will inevitably manifest in the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. If those gifts are not present, we are free to wonder if the confession at the altar was genuine.” In other words, you don’t need good works to be saved, but you must show them in your life post-salvation if you want to prove to the congregation that you are truly saved. Never mind that you may not feel one whit different than you did before you prayed.

I didn’t feel any Spirit. I didn’t feel a new desire to be good, my Sunday School teacher’s promises notwithstanding. No new divine impetus guided me toward goodness. I was my stripped self, full of humanness, just as I was before I said the words. I still fought with my brothers, still lied, stole, cussed, cheated, and acted like any other nine-year old who didn’t have some magical ghost guiding him down the path to goodness.

What could salvation possibly mean? Christians speak of it as if it’s an ontological shift from one kind of creature to another. That is what the Apostle Paul said, after all. What new kind of creature was I supposed to be? Where was I supposed to find the power to overcome my own sinfulness? The pentecostals posited a second, definite work of grace, as do the Nazarenes. The pentecostals insisted that it was the Baptism in/of/by the Spirit; Nazarenes spoke of entire sanctification, the moment wherein the Spirit freed you from the desire to sin and empowered you to live in holiness.

Honestly, there is no sense wasting words on the hypocrisies that abound when a people of god believe they are impervious to the temptations of humanity, nor would you be well served to hear about those baptized in the magical ghost who endorsed the segregationist system that still existed to some degree in Oklahoma in 1973. Holiness was narrowly defined as a list of sins to avoid: drinking, cussing, smoking, fucking someone besides your spouse, looking at dirty magazines, watching worldly entertainment, and a whole host of other prohibitions that had nothing to do with “love your enemy.”

Magic only extends so far. It extends to the moment when the magic words initiate an ontological re-creation, but it doesn’t extend to the moment when you want to steal, fuck your girlfriend, lie, slander your nemesis at church, or use a racial slur. Somehow the magic just wasn’t there.

The pentecostals had an answer for that too. It was called glorification, and it would happen when we got to heaven. God would once again extend his magic, and in a moment, with a word, I suppose, because everything is about God’s words and God’s word and the voice of God, he would remove the vestiges of our sinful humanity. We needn’t actually overcome those impulses on earth; in fact, we were to struggle with them. They were the mark of our sinful nature, slowly being devoured by the third person of the Trinity, but so slowly that there was little measurable progress.

My fellow parishioners believed that they would, with the wave of god’s magic spirit wand, become completely holy upon entering paradise. They never seemed to understand the dilemma that created for me. Why not just do it now? Why not just make us holy? If you’re going to wave the magic stick upon our entrance into the heavenly city, why not wave it now? Why not subvert our free will now for our own peace of mind and the peace of the entire fucking earth if you’re going to subvert it eventually? Why not end suffering, misery, rape, molestation, poverty, genocide, and every other evil free will allegedly allows if you’re going to end the shit eventually anyway? What sort of perverse concept of god allowed for this sort of malicious stupidity?

The magic didn’t work for me. Perhaps I’m a reprobate, that class of humanity that god cannot save because of my own stubbornness and hardness of heart. Perhaps the Calvinists are right, and I am not among the elect. I’ve been damned from birth. God never chose me. I was created for perdition, so that, in the words of my Calvinist brethren, God’s glory can be made manifest. Surely god is glorified in consigning humans who never had a choice to the fires of hell. Praise god. Oh, the glory. This might be a good idea to point out two things: 1. it’s possible that my pentecostal mentors were dead, fucking wrong about salvation, especially the ultimate goal of salvation--Heaven; and, 2. if justice means damning humans to an eternity of torment because they were created for that purpose, then justice might just as well mean “cheeseburger” for all the good it will do helping us sort out good from evil.

Number one is the focus of the next chapter. Number two will show up later. For now, it’s time to look at the streets of gold.

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 23

Like so many things in those days, my Sunday School teacher in Bowlegs is also forgotten. The military forces a leaver mentality upon its victims; friends are made, enjoyed, and quickly forgotten once the next set of orders comes through. That applies to most teachers, pastors, Sunday School teachers, and neighbors as well. It’s not as if these people weren’t important to me in the moment; it’s just that I had no need to remember them once my family moved.

The conversation would have happened on a Sunday morning. Salvation is important to fundamentalists and evangelicals. Some are so evangelistic that salvation becomes the sole content of the message. Every lesson, every Bible study, every opportunity is directed toward the moment of crisis because that moment leads to a decision. Sunday School classes and worship services nearly always ended with some sort of altar call, sometimes for the sin de jour, but even if there was a sin de jour, the pastor or teacher also made room for the “lost.”

The lesson could have been over Zaccheus, a personal favorite, since I too am of short stature. It could just as easily have covered the prodigal son, the lost coin, Peter’s aquatic adventure, or Judas’s betrayal. It simply doesn’t matter. Old Testament or New, the lesson would lead inexorably, if tangentially, to the moment of prayer, and during that prayer the opportunity to be saved would be offered.

“Zaccheus wanted to see Jesus,” the teacher would have said. “He didn’t let his stature get in the way of getting a glimpse of the savior. What are you willing to do to know Jesus? Will you give up your sin? Will you be brave enough to raise your hand today and signify that you want to know your Lord?”

Heads would lift slightly, eyes would strain for better peripheral vision. Occasionally, someone would be genuinely moved enough to raise a hand. In Sunday School, the teacher never lied. If someone raised a hand, it would be acknowledged and the boy would be prayed for. If no hand was raised, the teacher would finish with a prayer for general blessings and concerns. This was different than a worship service. Many times sitting in the back, I witnessed pastors say, “I see that hand,” when in fact no hand had been raised. Sunday School was evidently more sacred ground.

On this particular day, I would have raised my hand. I have no idea what prompted it. Perhaps it was an emotional day, a sensitive, fragile day. Perhaps I was afraid for my family. I don’t recall knowing where my father was for that year; surely that was a source of insecurity. Quite possibly I’d done something I wasn’t proud of that week. Or it’s possible that I bought the story for once.

“Jesus died for your sins,” the teacher would say. “He became God’s perfect sacrifice so you didn’t have to die. He took your place. God judged us guilty; our sin made us guilty, but Jesus intervened for us. He took God’s wrath upon himself so you can live forever. Now that He has died for you, God looks at you and sees Jesus, if you ask him into your heart. Will you do that today?”

Seriously, how does a kid say no to a question like that? This guy died for me? Of course I’ll do what he asks. It never occurred to me to wonder if the teacher or pastor was lying or mistaken. All the concepts packed into that one, short speech coalesced into one, simple message: Jesus died for you; what are you going to do for Him?

I probably raised my hand that morning. The teacher would have said, “Greg, would you pray with me? Just say what I say and Jesus will come into your heart and save you.”

I would have nodded, feeling very serious, if tear free. “Dear God,” I would mumble, following the teacher’s lead. “I know I’m a sinner, and I know Jesus died for me. I ask you to forgive me. I want Jesus to come into my heart and make me a new person. I want Him to be Lord of my life. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

“You’re saved now,” the teacher would say with a smile. “Hallelujah! Everyone give Greg a hand.” The class would clap half-heartedly. I would smile and look at the teacher. He would beam a smile back at me, and I know now that he would announce to the Sunday School director later that day that one more lost soul had come into the kingdom.

This next part I remember clearly. Nothing was different. I didn’t feel saved; I didn’t feel Christian; I didn’t feel anything. I said some words and I got to go to heaven. Later, of course, not right then. For weeks afterward I would have worried about it. I still lied, still cussed, still stole candy and gum. What had Jesus done for me? The question would lead me to a crisis, a crisis with which I believed an adult would help me.

“Remember that day we prayed in class?” I asked.
“Which day?” The teacher said.
“The day I”
“Yes! Of course. I was so proud of you for being brave enough to raise your hand.”
“Well, I’ve got a question,” I said, ever so tentatively.

The teacher begins to to sense my hesitation; he gets the scent of controversy, of uncertainty. “What is it?” He asks, his smile segueing into a featureless stare. I’m sure it’s supposed to be a look of interest or concentration, but it looks like the beginning of disappointment. I’m reading that into the look, of course, because I’m remembering it after I’ve made all my non-refundable decisions.

I hesitate, take a breath, and then try to articulate my concern. “I don’t feel any different after we prayed,” I say. “Shouldn’t I feel different?”

Without hesitation: “You can’t trust your feelings, Greg. You have to trust God’s Word. Lots of people don’t feel anything when they’re saved, but God’s Word is clear that salvation is given to all who ask. So, you don’t have to trust how you feel; you can trust God.”

Fuckity, fuck. I wish I’d known then what I know now (who doesn’t?). I would have asked, “Did you mean trust God or trust the Bible or trust your interpretation of the Bible or trust your interpretation of events in light of your interpretation of the Bible...?” The list could be nearly endless. His answer was simply a way of saying, “Hey, you said the words. This shit is magic. You’re saved. We simply replaced abracadabra with the Sinner’s Prayer.”

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 22

Salvation by Magic, or Chapter 6

My spiritual birthday was November 3, 1971. That’s total bullshit; I have no idea when I was saved for the first time, but I’ve known hundreds of people who could tell you to the moment when they entered into a personal relationship with Jesus. By the time I arrived in Denver in 1975, I was already saved. Jesus was my friend, my counselor, my comforter, my lord. I learned to say all those things even though I might just as well have been saying Jesus is my DJ or my shaman or my dance partner for all the reality those phrases had for me.

Re-creating the scene is pretty easy to do, even if I can’t remember it. At some point in a Sunday School class or Sunday service, I made my way to the altar and asked Jesus to “come into my heart.” (Little did he know there was only blood in that heart.) Thinking back I have a glimmer of memory of a Sunday School class. I’m sure my mother could tell me how it happened, but I’ve intentionally not consulted my family on this project, partly as a way to parse my own imperfect memories, partly to illustrate the tenuous character of memory, and partly because talking with my family about most of this is painful.

Let’s play the fake conversation game. It’s one of my favorites. The rules go like this: imagine the scenario you’re trying to re-create; imagine the assumptions of the people involved; divide by the absurdity quotient; speculate on the relative intelligence or stupidity of the participants; draw on your own experiences with similar conversations; invent shit. I couldn’t tell you when the conversation actually occurred, but let’s assume that it was after Japan; I was five when we left Japan, in 1969. It had to be before we arrived in Denver in 1975.

Let’s pretend it was 1973. Maud, Oklahoma. Third grade. My father was in Korea, probably helping make orderly Spirographs of the intestines of Vietnam wounded in some evac hospital, turning the spaghetti and meatballs into lovely geometric reconstructions. We’d have been attending Bowlegs Assembly of God, and the pastor was most likely Reverend Fent. His daughter would overdose on drugs sometime in the ’70’s, becoming both a cliche and a tragedy--a pastor’s kid who couldn’t keep her sanity or her shit together.

Bowlegs Assembly of God is the only other childhood church of which I have clear memories, but these have more to do with people and songs than sermons and theology. It would also be the site of my first marriage, but again, a different story. The church is located in Bowlegs, Okla., in case you’re confused about the name, a town which took its name, I was told repeatedly as a child, from Chief Billy Bowlegs of the Seminole Tribe. That too may be total bullshit, but people in Bowlegs believed it, and let’s face it, if you live in a town called Douchewater, Idaho, you’d want to believe it was named for a valiant, Native American warrior too.

Bowlegs had three churches in 1973: Baptist, Methodist, and Assembly of God. There probably weren’t enough people in the town to fill one of the churches to capacity, but it’s America, and you gotta have choices, dammit. It was my mother’s childhood church, once she moved back from Bakersfield, Calif.

Both my parents graduated from Bowlegs High School; my mother was homecoming queen, and my father captain of a sports team or two. I still remember the low-slung, rock wall that encircled the school. The brown, rust, and ash stones rose to a height of about three feet, making them the perfect walking track for bored children who were waiting for parents to quit talking after church. The church was on the same road as Bowlegs High School, and the only building between the two was Bowlegs Elementary School. The wall was a welcome recreation for those of us who wanted to avoid the Jericho marches happening at the end of Sunday night services. We navigated it with arms spread wide to maintain balance commensurate with the athletic confidence that a mere three-foot fall can instill.

Salvation happened inside the church, though, not on the wall, although I did kiss another Sherry on that wall after a Sunday night service, but that was after we moved back from Oregon in an attempt to find healing for our damaged selves. The more I consider the question the more convinced I am that this church is where the seminal event in the life of a believer occurred for me. I’m almost sure I was saved in a Sunday School class in this church. But I’ll never be sure. Nonetheless, we need to get to the fake conversation.

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 21

Sherry helped me overcome my peculiarity by allowing me to make mistakes. The beginnings of a relationship are awkward and stilted for peculiar people. We don’t know the right things to say; we worry about our clothes and hair; we aren’t sure how much touching is appropriate; we have no way of understanding body language and non-verbal come-ons. Flirting is a foreign language. These are painful for most teens, even those who pretend they’re not, but there was an added level of difficulty for pentecostal teens. Just making friends with outsiders is tough because the culture in which you grew up makes you a pariah and makes you feel awkward about the motions of life that normally lead to friendship.

Back when I believed in a god and devil, I would have been forced to say that Sherry and Mel were on the devil’s team. The automatic acceptance, the graciousness with which they offered themselves, the ease with which they yielded their bodies, and the apparent sanity and balance in their personal lives helped me believe that my church grossly misunderstood the Jezebels about whom they preached. These girls weren’t Jezebels. They were teenage girls who had a sense of their own bodies, a command of their own sexuality, and a guilt-free choice in the matter.

I was nearly 40 before it occurred to me that a 2000-year old text written in a culture in which 14-year old girls married 30-year old men wasn’t the best treatment of the ethics of human sexuality. What of the women I knew, my students, who wanted to finish a graduate degree before marriage? Were they compelled to save that “precious gift” until marriage, even if they married at 25 or 27? How much easier is it to tell a 12-year old to remain a virgin if she only has two years of childhood left? How much more draconian and perverse to tell an 18-year old college freshman that she will need to keep her hymen intact until she finishes that graduate degree?

The girls on my block were different in some ways than Mel and Sherry. For one, they lacked the confidence that comes from being attractive in the head-turning sort of way. Second, they were first our friends, because the hormones that led us to orgiastic hide ‘n’ seek games wouldn’t develop immediately. It was only after knowing them for a couple of years that we all began to develop our hormones and our naughty bits. The friendship and trust were already there. It seemed a natural extension to experiment with people we already knew well, who knew our faults and strengths, who laughed with and at us, and who knew we weren’t rapists or perverts, only hormonal boys.

The experiences were heady, but they weren’t intoxicating. They were the first, tentative, clumsy steps toward understanding ourselves and our bodies. Pentecostalism was still sick with that disease which causes a belief that humans are embodied spirits waiting for their release to be with Jesus in paradise. In fact, we are at least our bodies. We may be more, but we are certainly our bodies, and our ability to navigate the world, to understand the world, to thrive in the world is tied to embodiment. We learned who we were to some degree in those clumsy touches, feral gropes, and desperate clutches. Our comfort with each other allowed us to map our growth on each other’s bodies, and we found there no trace of whores or profligates or Jezebels; rather, we found friendship and embarrassment and joy and release.

Mel, more than Sherry, was a categorically different experience. I didn’t have the luxury of knowing her first as friend. She was stunningly beautiful. She was confident, assertive, and irreligious. In short, she was everything I’d been told to avoid throughout my upbringing. And when she kissed me, I didn’t give a shit who sat upon the throne of the universe; all I knew in that moment was that a beautiful girl wanted to be with me--the pentecostal kid with stained teeth, shitty K-mart shoes, cheap JC Penney jeans, and a load of eschatological baggage that led me to sweaty nightmares about the antichrist’s kingdom. I was no Sampson, but this was assuredly a Delilah, and I was willing to be shorn if it meant five minutes of her attention focused on me as if I was someone worthy of her notice.

My Sunday School teachers were right in one sense; lust certainly leads to a falling away, but it was my quickly considered opinion that the falling away was more than compensated by the rapture attendant with her attention. The other rapture would have to wait, and wait it has, for forty-five years, so far.

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 20

Normally someone would insert a dictionary definition of peculiar at this point, but I hate dictionary definitions. Words don’t derive their meaning from dictionaries, irrespective of what my ancient schoolmarms told me in elementary school. They derive their meaning from usage, so the best a dictionary can do is try to reflect common usage. Unfortunately, language is a tricky exercise; misuse sneaks in all the time. This is especially true when translation is involved.

I once had a white supremacist patiently explain to me why white people are the real Israel. The argument hinged on pronunciation: Isaac’s sons sounds like Saxons. Never mind that Jacob’s sons are the tribes in question, this guy believed that because the two sounded alike, white people were really the Jews.

Try to explain to a pentecostal in the ’70’s that peculiar didn’t mean weird or unusual. The word probably meant something like set apart or different, and the differences would be positive differences, like the early church’s refusal to participate in systems of violence as demonstrated in their willingness to die rather than be conscripted into military service. That commitment lasted until Constantine “converted” the empire in the 4th century. The most obvious example was their willingness to love and forgive their persecutors. Even as they were fed into the Coliseum or covered with pitch and set alight to function as torches for Nero’s parties, they vocally forgave their enemies and suffered abuse that no American Christian would tolerate without picking up a weapon and defending himself. In those ways, they were peculiar people.

But for pentecostals like me, we were expected to embrace practices that made us peculiar in the eyes of the non-pentecostals around us, most especially tongues. Glossolalia wasn’t the only thing that set us apart though. We were expected to follow rules that non-Christians would never follow. Anyone from a Holiness background—churches now known as Assemblies of God, Pentecostal Holiness, Free Holiness, Nazarene, and their kin—can tell you about the rules they followed growing up: no movies, no make-up, no dancing, no television, no drinking, no pants for women, no long hair for men, no shorts in church, no coed swimming (bizarrely referred to as “mixed bathing”), no rock ‘n’ roll music, no secular books, and on and on and on.

We were peculiar because we were peculiar. Imagine explaining to your friends that you can’t listen to rock ‘n’ roll because the beats were based on demonic music from Africa. (Pay no attention to the implicit racism in that argument...) Tell them that you can’t dance with a girl because it foments lust. (Just sitting next to them in class doesn’t?) How about explaining that you have to wear a tie to church so that god isn’t offended? A friend’s dad, a sales rep, once explained: “When I meet with the buyer for a company, I want to look my best. I want him to know that I respect him and his buying power, so I dress appropriately. Why would I not dress respectfully for the king of the universe?” Indeed. We were too naive to ask why the king of the universe gave a shit.

The real issue at the heart of this peculiarity was that pentecostalism began among the poor and outcast of society. The first two movements, in Kansas and Los Angeles, were not among theologians or middle class Christians or powerful people; they happened to Bible school students in Kansas and street people in Los Angeles. The movement was “red dirt” in the Midwest and marginalized people on the West Coast. They were poor, uneducated, and racially mixed. They had not achieved any level of secular success, but the movement had promise because it was so egalitarian.

Pentecostals were some of the first American Christians to ordain women, have racially mixed congregations, and focus their spending on the poor rather than on facilities, salaries, and programs. They embraced the uneducated, unwashed, and unacceptable among them. They were truly a New Testament community. Blacks and whites worshiped side by side. Young and old. Even rich and poor. They were galvanized by what they understood as a move of the Spirit of God, as demonstrated in tongues, healing and prophecy. They took seriously Peter’s message in Acts 2 that the Spirit would be poured out on all flesh and that people would dream dreams, see visions, prophesy and speak in tongues. The only race was Christian, and the only goal was holiness. It didn’t last long.

The problem is that the Spirit’s movement has to be interpreted. It’s not like the Spirit of God was publishing a weekly study guide. Whatever he was allegedly saying, he was saying through human vessels who were tasked with speaking those words to their fellow congregants. It’s funny how the Spirit can’t seem to speak with one voice.

Alan Wolfe, in his excellent study of American religion, The Transformation of American Religion, has pointed out that no religion comes to America and retains its distinctives. The primary values in America—individualism, consumerism, populism, and capitalism—change every religion that reaches our shores. Pentecostalism was no exception.

Worse yet, nothing comes to the American South with hopes of succeeding without embracing the ethos of the American South: patriarchy, racism, paternalism, fundamentalism, individualism, and violence, especially masculine violence. Skeptics can read Christine Leigh Heyrman’s excellent study Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt. It’s obvious at this point that Colorado is not the American South, nor is Oklahoma, where this story ends, but Pentecostalism developed its character in the Bible Belt, which is largely composed of the American South, plus Oklahoma and Texas.

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 19

Peculiar People Indeed, or Chapter 5

Mel and I started having sex days into the relationship. She was aggressively sexual, well-schooled, and patient. She was my first; I was not hers. Her family had no interest in things religious. They had no interest in much of anything. Her father worked as a civilian for the government in some Defense Department capacity. I could not pick her mother out of a line-up to this day. We arrived at her house after school most days, said hello, went to the basement, and had sex. Her parents never once came downstairs.

Two things are apparent to me as I write: I have only snapshots of memories of church before Denver, and I have no memory of church during my relationship with Mel. Teenagers are consumed with immediacy, especially when it comes to love/lust; they do not multi-task well, except when the issues are frivolous, including school, and a crush becomes and obsession in a matter of hours. I am sure I continued to sit through sermons about the end of days, lectures about American history, and Sunday School classes about how to live as a Christian. I don’t remember any of them. I remember Mel--the way she looked, the way she laughed, the way she smelled, the noises she made during sex, the conversations we had about music and school and sports. She is all I remember with any clarity for the last half of 1979, until the day we were told we’d be moving to Oregon.

Let me back up just a bit. The summer before sophomore year, I’d been spending all my Friday nights at--and I’m not making this up--the Disco Teen, a dance club in Denver for kids under 18. They served sodas only, and the music included every record on the disco charts: Bee Gees, Earth, Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson, Donna Summer, and any other song with a beat that was danceable for awkward teens. Those were the days when buses shuttled people around from place to place and no one worried about safety. Many were the days when my friend Don and I would grab a bus on a Saturday morning, ride it down to the Museum of Natural History, grab another when were done to go to our favorite tropical fish store, followed by another to the mall to steal books from B. Dalton Booksellers, and a final one home just as darkness was settling in, just in time for Hide ‘n’ Seek.

Our group of friends was predominantly white or Hispanic, with two exceptions, Al and Mike James, two black kids who lived down the street, and whose parents had no interest in their sons fraternizing with white folks; those were different days. The Civil Rights Movement was just over a decade old; parents of our friends had lived through segregation; black folks had learned how to get along with white folks by making minimal entries into a white world. Al and Mike were always in our world. They dated white girls, a choice I’m sure terrified their parents; they rode to and from practices with us; they were in our house and we in theirs, a situation which made both sets of parents nervous, but of which we were completely oblivious until much later. We were joined by a neighborhood and an economic status. Those categories never occurred to us as teenagers, and I look back on the time fondly because we were truly color-blind.

The Disco Teen was midway between our quiet suburb and the wealthier parts of Denver. Many of the kids who frequented the club went to one of two private, Catholic schools. We were better prepared to meet them, having lived and played around Italian and Hispanic Catholics for years, than they were to meet us. I managed to bridge the gap briefly because of a girl named Sherry.

It was a bit ironic because my first kiss was a girl named Sherry in fifth grade in San Antonio. My friend Chuck and I were the best kickball players in fifth grade at Fort Sam Houston Elementary School. Sherry Kidwell was a ginger girl in our class, and Chuck and I were both smitten. On one particularly glorious day, my team beat Chuck’s team and I dared to demand a kiss from the playground siren. She accepted.

Sherry at the Disco Teen was sweet and cute and very accommodating with my quirks. I still maintained some of the detritus of my previous faith, and could occasionally become sullen and melancholy about the prospect of missing the Rapture. I still worried that there was a hell; I didn’t want to go to heaven, having a great affection for life on earth, but I wasn’t prepared to eradicate the last gasp of fear when it came to such a serious punishment as burning for all eternity. After particularly emotional revivals at the church, I’d recommit on a Monday or Tuesday night, try really hard for the rest of the week, and then lose all my resolve when I saw Sherry at the club.

This sort of vacillation is common in teenagers; I was certainly no exception, but given my orientation to always question and believe based on what I thought were good reasons, the lack of certainty combined with my lack of willpower to create an occasional existential crisis. Sherry endured these.

Catholics in the U.S. have, I believe, always been better grounded in the world than Protestants. Some of that is due to the catechetical process, but some of it is due to being part of a faith tradition that was marginalized in our “Christian country” for centuries. They developed their faith and their commitments alongside their Protestant neighbors, not with them. They were part of their community, but their schools, churches and commitments to an ethnic heritage set them apart. However, whereas they were set apart for reasons related to culture, ethnicity and bigotry, pentecostals were a peculiar people for a completely different set of reasons.

The relevant passage is 1 Peter 2:9: “But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, to show forth the praises of him who has called us out darkness into his marvelous light.”

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 18

In sixth grade I played on the C-team in basketball. Yes, our middle school was large enough to warrant three teams in sixth grade. I dominated C-team. (It was the last year I would play organized basketball until 1988, but that’s a different story, involving a bank robbery, a cross-country trek, a goat-fucker, the FBI, and Memphis, Tenn.) By dominated, I mean that I scored about eight points a game, stole the ball at least once, and got a few rebounds. We were only allowed two quarters of play, a total of sixteen minutes, so eight points could conceivably have been sixteen in a full game. Not bad for a 5’5” kid who weighed in at a bulky 130 pounds.

My life has been defined by extremes when it comes to athletics and weight, so I’ve been as small as 5’7”, 155 pounds as a 28-year old, and as large as 5’7”, 205 pounds as a 23-year old. All that to say I was never basketball material, but I loved the game dearly.

Playing on the C-team does two things for a would-be athlete; it helps you realize that athletics may not be your calling in life, and it makes you a kinder, better friend for the other C-teamers. After all, when you’re third string, you have to be nice; it’s your only tool in the popularity war that is American public schools.

The prospect of a C-teamer meeting Mel in the parking lot was the sort of terror-riddled moment that turns the bowels to water. What the fuck was I supposed to say to an A-teamer? My experiments with talking to girls had yielded mixed results to that point. For girls like Kim and Karen, no words were necessary. Clothes off, bed, don’t talk, do what you came here to do. For others, I’d tried hard to mix in some of the inspiration I’d found in the pages of my books, but I found that girls weren’t as enamored of Sword & Sorcery fiction as I was.

Setting: Aurora, Colo. Friday night. Hide ‘n’ Seek game. After sundown. Action: Small, nerdy boy tackles large-breasted, Catholic girl in a stranger’s front yard. Nerdy boy begins to feel the important parts of Catholic girl’s body. Catholic girl recoils initially and then says, “Damn you, Greg.”

In perhaps the most awkward moment of nerdy boy’s life, so awkward that the embarrassment still brings a flush to his cheeks, nerdy boy chooses a line from one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Babarian books to respond.

“Oh yes, damn me, Janet. Damn me to the eleven scarlet hells.”
“What did you say?”
“Damn Never mind.”
“Get your fucking hand out of my pants.”

Denouement: In his defense, there would come a time when Janet would crawl into nerdy boy’s sleeping bag late one night during a camping trip in the Rockies. Just sayin’. And, Scene.

What do you say to a beautiful girl when you’ve been conditioned your whole life to believe that beautiful cheerleaders were the Jezebels of high school life? This was long before the days of youth pastors who believed that saving a linebacker or cheerleader was the best recipe for success in building a “relevant” youth group. The A-teamers never set foot in a pentecostal church. That may not have been the case in the always-religious South, but in the Mountain States, life was different.

I don’t remember if I prayed or not on the way to the parking lot, but I ran through a dozen different conversation starters in my head, none worth repeating. I’d spent countless hours meeting new people after each of our military moves, but this was categorically different. It’s one thing to meet new people simply to introduce yourself; it’s quite another to introduce yourself with the hope of the object of your lust being attracted to you.

Before I got to the parking lot, I settled on an introduction. It has served me well many times since that day, and on that day.

“Hi, I’m Greg.”
“I know who you are,” Mel said.

She was wearing her cheerleading uniform. This was either the beginning of a bad porn script or the beginning/end of the best/worst period in my life to that point. The affirmation “I know who you are” is a powerful statement. People on the A-team seldom know people on the C-team. They may be aware of them, but they don’t know them.

“Kelly said you wanted to talk to me,” I said, ensuring my lip was covering my teeth.

That was it, completely noncommittal in tone and facial expression. She was going to leave it up to me. She stared at me, waiting for the next words from my mouth. I knew it was a test; it was so evolutionary. Here was the female of the species subjecting a courting male to a series of exams that would determine his fitness to mate. The next sentence out of my mouth had to be the right one or this fever dream would end with me beating off at home dreaming of what might have been.

“Do you want to go out with me?” I decided on utter hubris.
“Go out with you or go to the Homecoming Dance with you?” She wasn’t buying the hubris, but something made her throw me a lifeline.
I decided not to take it. “Both.”

She laughed. Not a dismissive or scornful or mocking laugh. A real fucking laugh. Her eyes lit up, she reached out and touched my arm, and she laughed. I’d been making people laugh all my life. People who study dysfunctional families would tell you that I played the role of clown in my family. I diffused tense situations with humor, but this wasn’t dysfunction. This was my heart beating so hard I couldn’t hear the noises around me, my breath so shallow that I was light-headed, my eyes so focused that all I saw was her blue eyes, and my hopes so inflamed that I dared to lean in for a kiss.

It was absurd. I fell in love at that moment--with her beauty and approval, of course, but it felt like real love, and how the hell does a 15-year old know the difference? I was drunk on acceptance, and I didn’t give a shit about anything I’d learned about life, faith, or god to that point. This was the greatest moment of my life, and it reigned as greatest for less than 30 seconds, and then she kissed me.

Pentecostal Boys Aren't Like Holden Caulfield, Part 17

Prayer is the Quasimodo of theism, the ugly creature who should be hidden from sight, but rears his head regularly, thereby creating consternation and frustration. No single act of the theist is more irrational; no act has less evidence for effectiveness; no act is clung to quite so tenaciously in light of its complete foolishness. This is in large part due to its cathartic effect on the practitioners.

That sounds a bit dogmatic, I’m sure, but I’m equally sure that if you owned a car that worked two percent of the time you’d trade it in, or if it was new enough, you’d demand a refund. This calculus is equally true of refrigerators, microwaves, curling irons, televisions, and any other appliance you expect to work according to certain rules. It’s a contract of sorts. I plug you in; you work. We have an abiding certainty that the cord with the two-pronged plug on the end will bring about the magic of electricity, and therefore, hot pizza rolls, curly hair, a clean-shaven face, and cold milk. If the milk’s not cold, we seldom doubt the cord; we doubt the refrigerator, and more often than not, we’re correct.

When it comes to prayer, though, the theist routinely doubts the cord. (Without being overly pedantic, I hope, the cord here would be the act of praying.) The analogy is imperfect, of course, because the cord is occasionally flawed. The problem is the theist assumes the perfection of the appliance, and if it doesn’t work, platitudes are offered as explanations. “God has a plan.” “God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.” “God needed a quarterback on his football team in heaven.” “We’ll all be healed eventually.” “God is in control.” “God always answers prayer; sometimes the answer is ‘no.’”

To stay with the analogy, we might just as well say, “The manufacturer of the refrigerator knew you didn’t need that glass of milk.” How would I know that? I must assume the answer in the absence of an actual answer. The implications are more severe if I take Jesus seriously. “Whatsoever things you ask in my name believing, you shall receive them.” There is no qualification except for the “in my name” part. That has led to the appending of Jesus’ name to any and all prayers, as if that is what he actually meant. (It’s possible that “believing” is another qualification, but taken to its extreme, the potential perversity is best illustrated by the purveyors of the health and wealth gospel who insist that people are sick or poor because they lack faith.) Should I have prayed, “Dear God, please let me fuck Mel. In Jesus’ name. Amen.”

My pentecostal mentors would have recoiled in horror at the thought. What then are the criteria by which I determine which prayers qualify for the appendage? Let’s assume for a second that god hates cancer. Who, after all, could love cancer? If god hates cancer, then a prayer to defeat cancer would seem to qualify for the magical appendage: “Dear God, please heal Uncle Bob of cancer. In Jesus’ name. Amen.” And let’s assume for the sake of the charismatics out there that I believe fully in god’s ability to heal cancer. Is that a prayer that should be answered? And should the answer ever be “no”?

People die of cancer. Every day. In spite of prayers. What do we say to that? How do we explain an act that seems to have no effect on cancer in spite of the savior’s promise that all things would be granted his followers if they only prayed in his name? I invite you now to fill in the blank with whatever explanation you were offered in Sunday School.

There is a way out here. We only have to assume that Jesus wasn’t making a promise to all of us. He was promising the apostles that all things would be granted them so long as they prayed in his name. A cursory reading of the Bible will disabuse us of the accuracy of that interpretation. Even assuming that the apostles always got what they prayed for, we should ask two questions: why was this grace given to them and to no one else, and why the hell should I pray now if there is no guarantee of its effectiveness? A promise is only as good as the word of the giver.

I remember the first time I encountered the explanation that prayer changed me, and that is why I should pray. “You can’t hate someone you pray for,” my pastor told me. Like many truisms in Christianity, that one sounds nice but is actually shockingly banal. I can hate anyone. I can feed them while I hate them. I can work for them faithfully while I hate them. White pastors lack the minority experience in America, else they would understand this.

But what if my pastor was at least right about prayer changing me? We’re back to the point about prayer as catharsis now. Let’s say it does change me. That’s an unqualified good thing. I should be a better person; we could all stand a little improvement. Is this what the overwhelming majority of Bible passages about prayer teaches about prayer’s purpose, though? No.

Catharsis is integrally tied up with prayer. I believe that because I’ve experienced it. Praying about something allows me to believe I’ve done something, even in the face of my own powerlessness. Shortly after I stopped being a theist, I was confronted with a crisis; a friend was desperately ill. My initial response was to pray. I stopped myself. It was a watershed moment for me. Either I believed my new skepticism or it was just frustration or anger with god.

I chose not to pray. My friend eventually survived. I’m sure there are other friends of ours who believe their prayers got to god’s ears and he acted to heal. (This brings up the question of why we should have to ask a good god to act in a good fashion, but let’s save that for later.) That is possible, of course, but I’m more inclined to believe the doctors were responsible for his recovery.

The point at issue though is what I thought I would accomplish by praying. I called a friend the night I got the news.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“What do you want to do?” She replied.
“I wanted to pray, but I don’t believe it works. Why pray if I don’t believe it’s effective?”
“So you want to pray so you’ll feel better?”
“That’s the conclusion I’ve come to. I feel like I have to do something, but I can’t do anything, so prayer is the only option left.”

Conversations have always helped to clarify things for me; I’m an external thinker. I run ideas by people I trust, including things I don’t yet or won’t ever believe, for the sole purpose of hearing their reaction. Sometimes their reactions bring me to an epiphany. That was the case this night. I realized that I wasn’t praying because I believed god actually gave a shit about my friend; I was praying for two reasons: 1. I’d been taught all my life that it was what I was supposed to do in a crisis; and, 2. I felt like I was actually doing something about the crisis.

This is the point at which theists typically offer me anecdotes about the times prayer has worked in their lives. I suspect that they are guilty of confirmation bias, the flaw in reasoning that causes people to accept whatever evidence supports their case and reject whatever evidence militates against their case. Again, if prayer works two percent of the time, there will be instances that a believer can point to that will demonstrate prayer’s effectiveness. This requires that the believer ignore the other 98 times out of a hundred that the answer was apparently a silent no.

Does the theist really intend to place herself in the unenviable position of arguing that a silent no means god condones or allows or approves of child molestation, cancer, terminal childhood diseases, rape, poverty, genocide, or any other evil we can imagine? Who would serve a god like that? No, the theist argues that god hates these things. Why doesn’t god put a stop to them? Some are the result of human freedom; some people choose evil. What good is prayer, then? If a child can’t pray that her tormentor stop molesting her because his human freedom trumps god’s power, why pray at all? Why not take a knife to the tormentor? Why not curse god and the tormentor? What does prayer add to this equation? What good is a god that can’t save us from the pit? If human misery in the form of raped children is the result of god’s experiment with human freewill, we are left to wonder what kind of god permits the act, offers a solution that doesn’t work, and then commands us to use it with the promise that it will work.

This is the point where I need to say that I’m not angry with god. I’m angry with people who are so blinded by their own literalism that they fail to see the perversity in their theology, who are so certain of their grasp of truth that they make their god a monster, and who are so moralistic in their triumphalism that they make their children victims of a god that doesn’t exist. This is not to say that no god exists--only to say that their god, if he exists, is unequivocally evil.