Fear and the Fundamentalist Child

Fear and the Fundamentalist Child October 31, 2012

Today is Halloween. Sally is giddy with excitement. I’m taking her trick-or-treating this evening, and she’s been asking every day for a month now if it is “Halloween Day.” Bobby will be going too, his first Halloween, in the matching outfit Sally picked for him. The thing is, I remember experiencing Halloween as a child raised on the border between evangelicalism and fundamentalism. I loved wearing a costume and attending our church’s Harvest Fest, but I also believed that Halloween was Satan’s high holy day, complete with sacrifices by covens of witches and increased demonic activity. Halloween scared me to death.

Of course, demon anxiety wasn’t just a one-day-a-year thing. There were nights I could barely go to sleep I was so scared of demons. I was taught that God had put a “hedge of protection” around our house, but I also heard my parents talking about how that “hedge of protection” could be compromised by things like rock music with sinful lyrics. This concerned me greatly. Was a sinful thought enough? What about disobedience to my parents, would that let demons in? These were questions I pondered most frequently when I was in bed at night, and the house was dark and quiet. Every little noise made me jump. One night I was sure I heard a demon moving around the room, and, my eyes held tight shut in terror, I eventually fell asleep out of pure exhaustion only to wake in the morning and find it had been the cat.

I’ve been told that this sort of fear as a child was only normal, and that if I hadn’t been afraid of demons I would have been afraid of wolves, or monsters under my bed, or some other nighttime bogeyman. The problem with this argument is that no parents teach their children that there really are monsters under their bed, or that wolves really could break into their homes and get them. In contrast, my parents and my church taught me to view demons as literal beings. They told me that demons were real, and out to get me.

As a short anecdote, one evening this summer as we got Sally ready for bed, she told us she was afraid a giant spider would get her. She had just watched one of the Harry Potter movies, and it had giant spiders. So we explained to Sally that spiders that size don’t exist – that they’re just pretend – and that in any case, our house is safe. She went to sleep without a problem. I can’t help but imagine that if we’d told her that giant spiders are real, and could materialize in her room at any minute, the result would have been very different.

Now of course, I was taught that, as a follower of Jesus, I could cast a demon out if I saw one. In other words, I was taught that I had the perfect weapon for fighting demons – Jesus’ name. If I ever saw one, I could say “be gone in Jesus’ name” and it would have to leave. There was one problem with this, of course. For that to work, you had to be saved, really truly saved and not just pretending to be saved. And this brings up another point of fear: salvation anxiety.

My parents always made salvation seem so simple – you just pray the sinner’s prayer and you’re in. The trouble was that you had to really mean it. Saying the words wasn’t enough. Given this, I was constantly second guessing myself. Had I really meant it? I prayed the sinner’s prayer dozens of times, each time afraid that I hadn’t meant it before.

It didn’t help that when a Christian “fell away” it was often suggested that he or she had never been a Christian to begin with. This indicated to me that someone could think they were a Christian, could live like they were a Christian, and could yet not actually mean it, not actually be saved. Of course, the alternative wasn’t much better. I was completely aware that if someone could lose their salvation, that would mean that I could truly mean the sinner’s prayer one day, and then somehow not mean it enough the next day. The prospect horrified me. Did I mention how many times I prayed the sinner’s prayer as a child and teen?

Of course, this anxiety about salvation resulted in another concern: rapture anxiety. What if the rapture were to happen and I were to be “left behind”? This is something I actually worried about. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – there were times when I came upon a pile of clothing on the floor and freaked, thinking that it was the clothing left when one of my family members had been raptured.

I do want to be clear on one thing. Most of the time I felt entirely confident in my salvation. Most of the time I felt confident in my ability to cast out demons if need be. Most of the time I was sure I would be among those raptured. I was taught to have a “personal relationship” with Jesus, to have him as my best friend, and I did. I was taught that God was absolutely wonderful and that I should bask in his love, and I did. But the cracks in this facade, cracks I often worked to hide, were there. The times I was afraid I wasn’t truly saved, was afraid a demon might laugh in my face when I tried to cast him out, and was afraid that the rapture might come and find myself “left behind.”

And there were also some things I didn’t experience that other children growing up in similar communities do experience: being told that your illnesses are caused by demons, for example. While my parents always prayed for us when I was sick as a child, they never tried casting demons out of me or told me that I was under demonic attack. And while I overheard them talking about how things like rock music with bad lyrics could allow demons into the home, they put little emphasis on that and instead emphasized the “hedge of protection” God put around our home. If they had spend a great deal of time emphasizing the ways this hedge of protection could be broken, I almost certainly would have felt less safe.

The interesting thing is that my parents never seemed to be affected by this sort of anxiety. They were always confident of their salvation. They never acted like they were afraid of demons. They knew they would be raptured. I’m not sure whether they were just good at hiding underlying fears from me, or whether they had different temperaments from mine and so didn’t have the fears I did, or whether the fact that they had spent their formative years in more mainstream Christian traditions made the difference.

Regardless, I am reminded once again this Halloween how glad I am that, because I no longer believe in God, heaven, hell, or demons, Sally and Bobby will be growing up without these fears and anxieties. Childhood is difficult enough without extra things to worry about.

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