The seeds of my eventual de-conversion were already in place in my young life. I was not introduced to religious belief until after I had explored the western United States with my family. I had enough of an understanding of science, particularly Evolution, to allow that seed to germinate over many years, only to blossom when I became an adult. I was also very good at finding patterns, particularly in the behavior of my new religious family. Perhaps my Christian beliefs were doomed from the beginning.
I only remember a few things that my newly converted mother said to me concerning her new Jesus Freak beliefs:
“Mom, isn’t Grandma going to Heaven?”
“No. I am afraid not. She has not been born again.”
“But she is good. She knows about churches. She taught me! Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors…”
“That does not matter. Even if she goes to church, it does not matter. She has not been born again. She does not know Jesus”
A fundraiser for starving, sub-Saharan Africans is showing on television. We have all seen them. Emaciated woman clutching onto fly covered toddlers with distended bellies. Some sick and filthy children with crusty eyes are eating food from relief workers that looks something like what we slopped the pigs with. And for your gift of only 25 cents per day, the price of a cup of coffee, you can feed one desperate child. Mom cuts split ends from her hair while she considers their terrible plight.
“Oh dear. They need Jesus. If only they knew Jesus.”
Mom spoke to me one evening by the warmth of the wood stove, “Remember, we will live in heaven forever. Do you know how long ‘forever’ is? Imagine a boulder of granite. Not that soft sandstone like we have here, but the hardest rock you can imagine. Imagine a boulder that is 1000 feet on ever side. A huge boulder, 1000 feet long, 1000 feet high and 1000 feet deep. Imagine that every 1000 years a bird lands on the boulder, sharpens its beak on the boulder, and then flies off. A bird sharpens its beak on the boulder every thousand years. When that boulder of granite is finally worn down from those tiny birds sharpening their beaks on it, then that is when only 1 day has passed in Heaven. Can you imagine that?”
This was smattering of the things I heard from my mother during those early years of belief. I was very young, and my Christian theology was infantile. I had no conception of Trinity, Christology or any other form of theological sophistication. My beliefs did not come from the pulpit of Grandpa Wagner, since I remember few specifics any of his Holy Ghost empowered rants. Basically, I all knew in that time of early belief was that there was a Man who lived in Heaven, named Jesus. Jesus used to live on Earth long, long ago, but he was killed because of who he was, but he came alive again, then he rose up into Heaven. Heaven was up there, beyond the clouds. Maybe Heaven was even beyond the planets that I was learning about from my astronomy poster. Heaven was where Jesus lived with his Father, whose name was God, and that was where we would go when we died. Jesus loved me very much, and I was to love him back because he died for me. Jesus could do anything, but he also wanted to spend time with me and be my friend. He wanted to play with me and would protect me while I was exploring the desert or swimming in the irrigation ditch. He could read my mind. He could tell what I was thinking, and if my thoughts were good or bad. Jesus did not want me to sin. This meant that he did not want me to lie, cheat, steal, kill or do anything else wrong. I could not smoke (like my dad), cuss (like my dad), gamble (like dad) or drink (like dad). I could not play with myself. Witches were evil, and I could not watch TV shows like Bewitched. I could not think bad thoughts, because Jesus could always tell what I was thinking. I could always pray to Jesus because he was my friend. If I wanted to go to Heaven, I had to Repent and become Born Again. It did not matter how good I was, it just mattered that I was Born Again. If I was not Born Again, I would go to Hell and burn forever. There was a bad guy who flew around trying to make me do bad things. His name was The Devil, or Satan. He was God’s enemy, but apparently if we prayed loud enough, we could ‘bind’ The Devil, and then The Devil couldn’t do anything bad to us. Jesus was going to come back very, very soon, and take all of us up into the clouds with him, and the world would end.
That is about it. Most of my theology in those years came from bits and pieces I picked up from hear and there, my own wishful thinking, and Chick Tracks, which were starting to become very popular. These short, cartoon pamphlets were much more memorable than any sermon I heard from church, or from our hymnals or Bible readings. They were easy for me to read, the drawings were funny, and they were amazingly memorable. I could read them over and over, and let the propaganda sink deep into my psyche. I am not sure where these tracts came from, or who brought them into our church, but my favorites were Holy Joe, Big Daddy, and This Was Your Life, Somebody Loves Me, and A Demon’s Nightmare. I encourage anybody reading this who is not familiar with Chick Tracts to click on the links and check out my gradeschool reading material. I seriously doubt any o my Catholic friends know what these are, but they were very common in homes and tent revivals during the early-mid 1970s. Looking back at these things, I cannot believe what a warped mockery they make of the world. It is almost as if the movie Constantine was a documentary.
[note – it looks like Big Daddy has been heavily revised since I read it as a kid. The first and last few panels are the same, the stuff in the middle looks like all updated material. Luckily, the frame which explains that the binding force of atomic nuclei is actually Jesus is still in the comic.]
Our ‘church’, if it can be called that, was usually led by Grandpa Wagner, but anybody else, as long as they were male, could fill in if they desired. We sometimes met outside by the horse tank if we planned on a water baptism; sometimes we met in a friend’s house. Usually though, our church met in a small adobe house down the road from ours, where the front room had enough space for about 30 people. Grandpa Wagner fashioned himself as the pastor of our tiny church, and his sermons were usually some extrapolation from a Biblical verse or two, and usually included yelling, jumping, and stamping his feet on the floor in fits of passion. I remember him preaching on things like the fact that we would never be good enough to go to Heaven, the filling of the Holy Ghost, demon possession, and Jesus’ soon return from Heaven to judge the Earth. I remember only the most primitive theology being preached by him, and I doubt he had anything more to offer. The songs that we sang from old hymnals were not memorable to me, but I remember that our singing was accompanied with a guitar, accordion, and about a dozen tambourines. During and after singing, everybody would speak, sometimes very loudly, in ‘Tongues’. I always felt strange watching my mother chant in this strange way. The scene was always chaotic. Everybody stood, lifted their arms and cried as the otherworldly language took hold of them. Sometimes all control was lost. People would occasionally fall and gyrate on the floor. Sometimes they did this while crying, other times while laughing, singing or screaming. On rare occasions, somebody had ‘demons’ cast out of them by Grandpa Wagner and the congregation.
We often drove in a caravan to traveling tent crusades and revivals in the neighboring town of Bernallilo and even in Albuquerque. These must have been hugely popular in the wake of the Jesus Movement in the early 1970’s because I remember lots of these things. It was usually an odd mix of the older, more conservative Evangelical trying to accept the younger crowd of fervent, long-haired Jesus Freaks sharing their space. Our church once caravanned all the way up to Farmington to watch Rex Humbard perform at one of his healing crusades. I don’t remember seeing Kathryn Kuhlman, but I do remember mom saying she saw her, and that she performed the healing miracle of lengthening a man’s leg. Mom recounted the story, with astonishment and wonder, of seeing the miracle with her very own eyes I also remember watching some kid, not much older than myself, preach every night for a week, in some community hall in Albuquerque. He was billed as the world’s youngest evangelist, one of probably dozens billed in the same way, and he was certainly dynamic. I remember leaving each night, and listening to adults as they marveled at his miraculous gifts of the Spirit. I remember this young boy, dressed in shirt and tie, as he marched up and down the aisle between folding chairs, preach with the confidence of a veteran. At the end of each service, we would form a long line in front of him, so he could place his hand on us, pray, and we would then be ‘Slain in the Spirit’. Of course, I had been slain in the spirit many times, by Grandpa Wagner and by numerous other traveling evangelists, and because everybody was wailing and bemoaning their own sin and unworthy state, my own face was almost always hot and wet with tears. But I will never forget the knot in my throat as this child placed his hands on mom’s head and yelled, as she fell over backwards to be caught by some assistants. I also remember my own strange feeling as hands were placed on me, and I knew, as if reading a script for a play, that this was the time in which I was to fall over and be ‘Slain’. So fall over I did. And I would lie there as people stepped around my prostrate body and the pandemonium continued.
Patterns. I started to see patterns in the chaos. Somewhere in the frenzy of these revivals, I detected a subtle script that was nevertheless being followed. Was I just part of an act?
I remember more than once, consciously deciding to not fall when hands were placed on me. I was not trying to be rebellious, I was just trying to detect the power of the Holy Ghost. I was a firm believer in Jesus, but I had a sense that I was being slain only because everybody else around me was being slain, and falling over was something that was just expected of me. The evangelist placed his hands on the forehead of a praying believer, sometimes with his finger dipped in a bit of oil, and after a second or two, and on cue, the believer would slowly tip over backward. It seemed suspiciously rehearsed. I once heard a story about an obstinate man who braced himself with his leg so he would not be slain, and his leg ended up broken. So I did not brace myself by placing my leg behind me, I just stood there as the evangelist placed his hands on my forehead and prayed. I consciously did not fall. I half expected him to keep trying, to pray even harder, to throw a command at me. But no, he simply passed over me to the next person in line.
So, at a very young age, as a young Christian who loved Jesus, I learned that my being Slain in the Spirit was a function of the crowd around me. I imagined everybody in the crowd, including mom, falling over at the command of the evangelist, overcome by the power of the Holy Spirit. I could tell that I was not falling over by any power other than my own, rather I was only doing it because momentum from the believing crowd encouraged me to. This was one of the first things of a critical and skeptical nature that I picked up on as a very young Christian.
I could not, at the time, imagine any psychological trickery going on. I could see the script that was being followed, and I could read the patterns that were being laid out in each service, but I did not think to imagine if anybody could be Slain in the Spirit without the emotional crowd present, say in the privacy of the pastor’s office. My critique of the situation made me imagine that there was something wrong, not with the crowd, not with the religion, but with me. Perhaps my Faith in Jesus was not strong enough, or that I was not truly sincere in my belief, and I just compensated by allowing myself to fall over in order to fool everybody else. I imagined all my friends and family around me, being legitimately overwhelmed by the power of the Holy Ghost, all control of the bodies being taken over by divine command, while I had to be content with merely imitating everybody else. I did not feel too guilty over this particular lapse of faith however - that would come later. Relief was in sight from my friend Dino. I remember once laying on the floor after being Slain, eyes shut, then opening to look Dino, Grandpa Wagner’s young grandson, who was lying next to me.
“sssshhh” he quietly whispered. “Keep your eyes shut”.
OK. I was not the only one pretending.
Still, I could not help thinking that there was something wrong with me. It was not only the fact that I felt I was following a script when I was Slain in the Spirit, it was that I could not, to my shame, yet Speak with Other Tongues.
Our church taught, along with many other Pentecostals, that since Jeuss promised that his followers would speak with tongues and drive out demons (Mark 16:17), it then followed that only those that did show this evidence were truly saved and going to heaven. Everybody in our church spoke in tongues, including my mother. I had certainly seen demons cast out of people by the congregation. But I could not Speak in Tongues. I never could. I cannot count the number of altar calls I tearfully accepted, just in case I was not sincere enough the last time I tearfully accepted an altar call. I do not know how many times I was baptized in the river or horse tank, trying to show my willingness to be Faithful to Jesus, whom I was supposed to love. It did not matter that everybody in our church regularly accepted altar calls, repented, and was dunked (our chuch was tiny after all). None of that mattered. The fact was, I could not bring myself to Speak in Tongues. I was very troubled with my inability to be filled with the Holy Ghost and speak with Other Tongues much more than my own faults at being Slain in the Spirit.
Some of us kids used to meet in one of our bedrooms and ‘play’ church. I would whip out my Children’s Picture Bible and tell some story of the Biblical Patriarchs or something, then we would all sing a few songs. Once during playtime, Dino, my troublesome friend, started speaking in tongues in a mocking manner.
“Dino, stop! You are going to get us in trouble!”
“Stop it Dino!”
“C’mon, speaking in tongues is easy! Shandalahai!”
“Shandalahai. Shandalahai la la Shandala la la da Shandalahai.”
I picked up more patterns at my young age. Even though I was troubled by my inability to Speak in Tongues, I could detect that the language as spoken by my church mostly consisted of the same words and syllables repeated over and over. Even by mom. Some variation of ‘Shandalahai’ seemed to be a favorite. And Dino was just mischevious enough to not only pick up on that, like I did, but also mock it.
“Shandalahai! Everybody does it this way!”
Still, like being Slain in the Spirit, I refused to just read the Script. I did not want to follow the crowd and just chant “Shandalahai” over and over. I wanted to be filled with the Holy Ghost, and I sincerely desired the power of the Holy Ghost to take over my body and speak through me. I was intensely conscious of my own actions.
Once, during some service, I asked Grandpa Wagner and the congregation to pray for me so that I could be filled with the Holy Ghost and speak with new tongues.
What followed was a cacophony of prayers, chanting, yelling, urging, hand-laying, and demon-binding. Voices rose and shouting began. I cried. They yelled. My face and tears were hot. I tried to loosen my throat, to allow my tongue to flap of its own will. Voices urging me amidst the pandemonium of prayer, “Just let it out! Just let it out! Pray with other tongues, in Jesus name!” I pleaded with God. “Please God. Please Jesus. Fill me with the Holy Ghost. Come into my body! Please save me! Please save me! Let me speak in Tongues!! Please!
I cried, I prayed, I begged. They shouted, they prayed, they urged me on. Finally, I just let my tongue smack against the roof of my mouth.
“…duh duh du du do do du du do do dud dudududu dodoodoud dou do duo du do…”
Shouting! Cheering! Rejoicing! Everybody clapped. I continued to stammer with my eyes shut, tears flowing, flushed, drained, but with arms raised in praise to my Jesus. Jesus, who had finally given me the gift of the Holy Spirit!
“…du do do du du du do do dodood dudo…”
But why did I not speak with anything that sounded like words? I could do nothing but repeatedly stammer. Grandpa Wagner reassured me. I was just in the baby stages of speaking in Tongues, and just like a baby who babbles, my spiritual speech would soon develop into a full language. Very soon now. Very soon. I was relieved.
I remember several weeks had gone by. For a very short time, I freely and proudly spoke with other Tongues, because I felt that I had finally recieved that power from the Holy Ghost. After the prescribed number hymns were sung, and the proper intensity of prayer was reached, we would all stand to our feet, we would all raise are arms, and without any verbal commands but on cue nonetheless, we would all Speak in the Tongues of Angels, in unison. While the more mature believers wailed forth, ‘Shandalahai!’, I finally felt like a true believer with all of them, as I lifted my own arms, half bent at the elbows, eyes shut, and quietly spoke to God in my spiritual language of stammering utterances. But my babblings never developed into a language. Several weeks went by, and I continued to stammer. I felt no language developing and no maturity in my speech. I think I was just relieved that I could do it, and do it before witnesses. But after several weeks, I quit speaking in tongues. I tried it, and I had not advanced beyond a baby language, so I must have felt dissatisfied with it. I never attempted to Speak in Tongues again. I was satisfied with what I had. I was convinced that I had been filled with the Holy Ghost as evidenced by my speech. I could let it pass.
At a very young age, I could recognize the unwritten and unspoken patterns in Christian worship, prayer, hymn singing and fellowship. They were obvious to me, and would become only more obvious as my Christian life developed. I could tell when people would become Slain in the Spirit, and under what conditions. I could tell when people would speak in Tongues, what their speech would sound like, how long it would last, who would stand up to give some kind of interpretation, and what that interpretation would be. Even as a very young Christian, fully intent on living to please Jesus, I could see patterns of behavior, and these patterns just allowed me to the memorize the Script of Christian behavior that we all followed.
But I did not make the connection that something was wrong with the belief. That was not thought of. It was simply out of the range of possibility. Rather, something was wrong with me. I was never Faithful enough. Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!
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