hellboundPosted: April 18, 2011
We’re a week away from commemorating the death and resurrection of everyone’s favorite Jewish cosmic zombie (and all-around swell guy). I loves me some Jesus, but I’ve spent most of my life at odds with organized religion. I didn’t deliberately seek an obstinate path, but I’m forever cracked when it comes to any sort of routine approach to worship. I go numb whenever anyone tries to talk me into any sort of regimen that involves putting on a suit, awkwardly congregating with a bunch of strangers, and listening to a listless and intellectually bankrupt sermon/money hustle. My eyes glaze over and my mind wanders off to topics that make cavemen happy (like fire, nubile women, explosions, picking up heavy things and putting them back down and picking them back up again, more fire, and beef jerky). So please do yourself a favor and count me out of your forthcoming Easter festivities. We’ll all avoid undue awkwardness and heartache.
Why the resistance? I suppose that requires a bit of exposition.
For the first five years of my life, I didn’t receive much exposure to religion. I don’t think my biological father was too keen on any activity that forced Mom to leave the house, so we didn’t go to church often. Instead, we were supposed to hang around the house and serve as his hand servants. For Mom, that meant cooking, cleaning, and plopping out a kid every 1.5 years. My brother and I served as beer gophers. My sister was a baby, so her cries for food and diaper changes merely served as a nuisance for him. Then we all took turns as his tackling dummies once he got sufficiently drunk and angry.
Shortly before my fifth birthday, Mom decided that we had endured enough. She told me that her breaking point was when I started crying around 5:00 PM, because I knew that my father was coming home from work. Mom called my grandfather, who sprinted from Louisiana to Oklahoma, beat the snot out of my father, scooped Mom and three little kids into his car, and drove us back to Alexandria. While I’ve always admired my grandfather for being the tough old goat who finally gave my father the severe beating that he so richly deserved (and rendering him a nonentity for the remainder of my life, save a handful of unwelcome visits over the past 30 years), I’ve always walked around with at least a twinge of guilt because I was the one who forced Mom’s hand when it came to ending her marriage. I realize that it’s not altogether rational, but there you have it.
ANYWAY, Mom decided that her kiddies needed some religion once we got back to Alexandria. She was raised Pentecostal and rebelled against it during her teenage years, hence her marriage at 17 and hightailing it out of Alexandria ASAP. But six years later, she decided that her kids needed to go through the same indoctrination that she had fought against heretofore. So we started attending Sunday services at the First United Pentecostal Church. I always described that first encounter as an experience akin to James Brown’s evangelical church in The Blues Brothers, except it was entirely white. The congregation jumped, shouted, ran all over the assembly hall, and spoke in tongues. G.A. Mangum’s sermon was chockfull of fire, brimstone, and eternal damnation. I had never experienced anything like this before, and I was terrified.
Well, so much for guidance and reassurance. When I explained my confusion with people flopping, jumping, and screaming to my Sunday school teacher the following week, she explained to me in a sugary sweet voice that those people were simply experiencing the wonders of the Holy Ghost. Furthermore, I was going to straight to hell because I refused to let the Holy Spirit into my blasphemous little heart. Because you see, I was already hellbound. She and several of the kids in my class had already told me that my whole family was damned because Mom was divorced. I guess she would have redeemed us all if we had just stuck around, remained punching bags for an ill-tempered addict, and dug through the trash for food scraps because my father drank up the whole week’s paycheck.
Great. Not only had I already been pegged as hardscrabble white trash at school when my kindergarten teacher made all of the free lunch kids get in a separate meal line, but I was also destined for the fiery pits of hell. I was reminded of this every Sunday. The only time I caught a break from harassment was when I got to spend Friday nights and Saturdays with my grandparents. But the rest of the time, I was already persona non grata and I was five. I believed all of this shit, because I didn’t know any better. I’m amazed that I didn’t become a juvenile delinquent, addict, or attempt suicide at some point, but I think part of the reason why I stayed on the straight and narrow was because I didn’t want to give those bastards the satisfaction. But I’ll argue with anyone that our weekly dose of religious nonsense helped screw up the rest of my siblings and partially contributed to their subsequent issues with drugs and the law.
I spent the next ten years or so dealing with this crap on a weekly basis. There was a clique of kids whose parents were well-established within the church, and one of their hobbies was making me miserable on Sundays. Being a shy, awkward kid, I sat there like a pussy and took it for the most part. Kids are mean, vicious little bastards in general, but this particular batch of little bastards also got to incorporate the threats of damnation when they ganged up on me. Every little thing that I did at that church was scrutinized and nitpicked. I rode the bus to the church. The little bastards decreed that was because my mother was too busy wallowing in whoredom to bother to drive us herself. Maybe she just didn’t want to deal with a room full of judgmental assholes. But that didn’t matter; I was damned. We were too poor to wear suits to church, but the little bastards twisted our cheapness into me being disrespectful and irreverent. So I was damned. If I wore shorts to an outdoor function, I was damned. Unless it was a swimming party, where I was damned because I stripped off my t-shirt before diving into the water. I was also damned because I had a TV and listened to secular music. I was actually honest about that, unlike most Pentecostal families that kept their TVs in the closets when company came over. But I was damned.
Lessee, what else? The adult services continued to scare the shit out of me, and the spirit never compelled me to holler gibberish or flop around like a headless chicken. So I was damned. And then a few of the really vicious little bastards took to pelting me with spitballs or slapping me in the back of the head with hymnals, Bibles, or fists. The Sunday School teachers would let their antics slide (these were the golden boys after all), but I was the one who would get yanked up by the ear, dragged into the hallway, slammed against the wall, and screamed at if I dared to whip my head around or roll my eyes when I got harassed. And yes, my inability to sit there like Christ and take a beating without complaint meant I was damned. So I eventually learned to go into zombie mode while the little bastards tortured me. It actually turned into a valuable skill to utilize later when dealing with sadistic football coaches, boot camp, crappy jobs, Iraq, crazy girlfriends, etc. So thanks, little bastards! You were my preseason workout for the miseries of adulthood!
I finally put my foot down once I started high school. Football and weight lifting gave me just enough self-confidence to deal with the little bastards. I was still pretty small compared to my teammates, but I was more than capable of throttling the twerps at church. I brutalized a few of those guys, and I loved every second of it! I figured since I was hellbound anyway, I might exact some reciprocity on the way! Once I got bored with thuggery, I just started cutting Sunday School class. Then I told Mom I was done with it. When that didn’t work, I told her I didn’t believe in God. And when that didn’t work, I told her that the next time she forced me to go, I’d leave in handcuffs. She finally fell for that ruse.
I’ve had my struggles ever since. Anytime I showed even a passing interest in another church, the POA pamphlets and videos about the cultish nature of every other stinking denomination made their way home. Alright, fine. Y’all want it to be a zero sum game for my soul? You got it. I’m hellbound, so I won’t play ball with anyone. Happy? And every time I went back to church to placate Mom or the grandparents, someone would come up to me and make a dig about damnation before the Sunday service was done, which effectively ruined the day for me and swore me off religion for another couple of years. So it got to where I only went to that church for the Christmas concerts, the “Messiah” play, and Easter (which is when the congregation was on their best behavior, lest they scare off some potential new members with deep pockets).
And then I just settled into a period for most of my 20s where I was agnostic, bordering on atheistic. I was so angry that I relished every attack made on Christian fundamentalists, regardless of its merit. That’s why I listened to a lot of Norwegian black metal in the ‘90s. That’s why I jumped out of my chair and roared like a maniac when Marilyn Manson screamed “Who wants to go to Heaven with all those asshole angels?” He might be a schlocky cornball, but he struck a nerve for a lot of kids who were fed up with religious browbeating.
I guess my wakeup call was when my grandfather died of cancer in 2001. That moment for me wasn’t a spiritual reawakening out of fear (after all, I’m hellbound, right?). It was just a realization that if there is an afterlife for good and decent people, then he had to be one of the people who got to punch that ticket. And if he couldn’t pass the pearly gates, what chance did the rest of us have? Anyway, I just had a feeling of peace when we were burying him. I knew he had to be somewhere better than here. And that began my stumbling, fumbling path towards where I am now. I wasn’t even deterred by old G.A. recycling the same old fire and brimstone riff during my grandfather’s eulogy. What used to terrify me now just sounded like a CC DeVille guitar solo: a bunch of screeching and no substance. It was almost quaint. Almost.
I try not to go down the rabbit hole with wacky religious demagogues anymore. There have been a few exceptions over the past 10 years. I loved screwing around with the crazy, homeschooled fundamentalists camped out in LSU’s Free Speech Alley. These wacky creeps look just like some of the miserable lot that hounded me during my youth, and they follow the same playbook as the Westboro Baptist idiots – verbally berate all passersby and try to get some sap to engage in an argument with them. They’re probably praying for a physical altercation and the ensuing lawsuit, because I couldn’t figure out how these people ate, unless they got a “love offering” from the rest of their cult. I always took the road less traveled when it came to these boobs. Instead of screaming in protest or just ignoring them altogther, I would wait until they accosted some hapless student and then I’d holler, “No, wait! You convinced me! Take me home with you!” When they’d screw their faces in confusion and mumble, “huh?”, I’d screech “Only kidding, assholes! I heart Satan!” or something equally obnoxious.
These days, the only time things get awkward is when I have to deal with family members who want to argue that the Earth is 6,000 years old. I never understood why faith and science had to be mutually exclusive, but progress is the devil for a lot of folks around here. And why does it matter if I view most of the Old Testament as allegory instead of literal interpretation? I’m damned anyway, right? And I’ve given up trying to discuss the subtleties and nuances of Muslims I met overseas, because we all know that they’re just a bunch of barbaric savages who want to enslave and kill the rest of us, right? Why the hell should I have the audacity to offer eyewitness accounts of people who fly in the face of that preconceived notion? Based off my experiences, the only differences between an Islamic vigilance squad and the people who made my childhood utterly miserable is a lack of state sponsorship, a hesitance to throw stones (have some conviction, you pansies!), and whole lot of denim and hairspray. But what do I have to go by other than my lying eyes? I’m damned anyway, right?
So there you have it. Y’all enjoy your Easter. I’ll celebrate mine alone. It’s for the best.