Now that I wasn’t involved in weird evangelical churches anymore, I blossomed at last in the late 80s.
I discovered the Drama Club at school, slowly made normal friends, and tried to fit in. I got involved with a historical re-enactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism and found my niche at last in costuming and fencing. I got back into tabletop gaming with D&D and Paranoia and innocent games like that with my new friends in the SCA; because there was a movement claiming these games were Satanic, my mother forced me to watch Mazes and Monsters, which I found comically inept and ridiculous, and she backed off after we had a long discussion about why the movie was not in any way describing any real dangers. Of far greater concern to her was my infatuation with a young man I’ll call Biff (details will be obscured here slightly as he’s just the sort of nitwit who thinks lawsuits are the best way to handle damaging information leaks).
Biff was a handsome, bombastic young man two years older than me. He was in college and quite frankly one of the most flashy guys in the local SCA group. I’d had boyfriends before, nothing too serious, but I quickly got very serious about Biff. My parents hated him, seeing what I was too young to realize: that his constant social mistakes, tardiness, and lack of graces indicated a disturbing lack of respect for me. I also was too gullible to even question his many blatant lies or his habit of deliberately provoking people just to get a rise out of them.
When he found out I’d been a fundamentalist, evangelical Christian, he was instantly intrigued. He fancied himself an intellectual and a witty, quick-thinking man. I didn’t realize he was neither of these, nor that he was a compulsive, one might even say pathological liar. That would take a few more years to figure out–because of one thing he definitely was: blindingly charming. He got into a lot of trouble, and he got out of all of it through sheer blustery charm. Nobody even noticed that he not only lied a lot, but that he was really bad at it–he got caught all the time, but nobody seemed to remember later that it’d happened, especially not his starry-eyed girlfriend–which was me–and I constantly got told by friends how lucky I was to have gotten such an incredibly handsome, charming, romantic boyfriend. For his part, he made it very clear that he could get any girl he wanted, but that he liked me best. I was so proud that I’d been found worthy by such an incredible man. He was from a wealthy family and had grown up quite spoiled and coddled, and I was naive and inexperienced enough to interpret his behavior as patrician rather than narcissistic.
He decided, after hearing about my experience in the Pentecostal church, that he wanted to go down there and sit in on a service and start an argument with them right in the middle of their own church. I guess it was his weird way of striking back at people who’d hurt me long ago to show me what a big tough guy he was, but I was horrified. I told him not to go, but he interpreted my words as concern that he might get hurt or converted or something, which was a fate he thought himself well above, and my objections just gave him an even bigger desire to go through with his plan. He told me not to worry, and didn’t I want to come watch him bury a bunch of Christians on their home turf? NO, I most certainly did not, I said, and he set off with a gleam in his eye.
Now, looking back, I can see exactly why what happened was all but foreordained. It would have been the first time my boundary-seeking, directionless boyfriend would ever have seen boundaries or direction; just as I’d desperately needed structure and discipline in my life, just as I’d craved a consistent, fair, justice-oriented father figure, he did too, though for different reasons. And he’d always been all about “the angle.” He was absolutely convinced that there was some hidden secret out there that he could find and cling to that would make him rich, powerful, and respected–if not downright famous. He fell for everything in the book later, from money-making schemes to theology, in his desperate search for that angle that rich, powerful, respected people knew about but that he didn’t. And he was impetuous, couldn’t control his impulses, and was driven to seek approval. In retrospect, I’m not sure how that evening could possibly have turned out any differently, considering it now after two decades of wondering what in the world he was thinking that night.
He turned up at my parents’ house around midnight on a Sunday night. I had been listening for his car, figuring he’d drop by, and as soon as I heard the wheezing of his car in the driveway, I threw on a thick robe, tiptoed past my parents’ bedroom, opened the front door, and saw Biff standing there with teary eyes and wet hair.
Oh god, don’t even tell me, I thought, but before I could speak, Biff told me, “I had a demon in me! They exorcised me and I got baptized! It’s all true!”
I closed the door behind me in horror, stepping out onto the little entranceway. We were private here; it was a Spanish style ranch house with an arched entrance leading into to the doorstep. “What are you talking about?” I asked. “You weren’t demon-possessed.” I was very sure I’d have known if he had been. He was a liar, flaky, perpetually late, constantly putting his foot in his mouth, but nothing he’d ever done seemed supernaturally evil to me.
“I was! They got it on tape and everything! I was snarling and snapping at people in the service and I don’t even remember a thing!” He said all this with a big huge Jesus-smile on his face. “You’ve got to get baptized! It’s all true!”
They’d gotten to him.
I didn’t even know what to say. I told him to go home, that I’d think about what he’d said. He was absolutely crestfallen–he’d assumed I’d happily follow him into the church that’d exorcised him. He was freshly-scrubbed the next day and eager to demonstrate to me that he was the same person he’d always been, but better. Nicer, more respectful, kinder, more romantic, but still the dashing rogue I’d fallen for. Everything he did backfired, and I’m still mystified about why I didn’t just dump him out of hand. I guess it was just the 80s, the era of power ballads and dysfunctional love songs. I grew up thinking that people in love fight a lot and have dramatic differences and have to work really hard on their relationships or it didn’t count. I grew up thinking it was normal to cry my eyes out over “true love” and go from drama to drama to drama. And he was Christian now, which meant only good things, right? Because a Christian girl should want a Christian boyfriend. Last, he seemed very, very, very sure that we were meant to be together (meaning very literally that God had awarded me to him for being such a good little boy). Remember, certainty trumped uncertainty. I was uncertain, but he was very certain. I eventually caved.
But I did draw the line at getting re-baptized. I figured twice was enough. They’d just have to cope with me not doing it a third time because I refused to believe that baptism was that precarious, like some magic ritual that had to be done just so or it was invalidated. I did not speak in tongues, either, as I hadn’t before, which bothered Biff quite a bit as he quickly became famous for spouting it at every opportunity.
A brief word for those who aren’t familiar with “speaking in tongues:” The concept comes from a Bible verse in Acts in which God’s spirit descends upon a crowd of men from different countries during the Feast of Pentecost (a Jewish holiday after Passover) and they all start preaching and talking in other languages that foreigners could understand and there’s a huge conversion and it’s awesome. Now it is a quick and easy spiritual barometer of how holy a fundamentalist is, and nobody expects to actually understand the words–though, just to complicate matters again, some denominations do insist that all tongue-talking be accompanied by an interpretation, and others just separate “words of prophecy,” which involve someone in the congregation standing up right in the middle of a service to shout something really disruptive, from normal tongue-babbling which takes place during group or individual prayer and doesn’t have to be interpreted as it’s just the praying person’s “soul” talking to God, and why yes, how’d you guess? They all have Bible verses they think back up their quirky take on the matter and think the others are downright demon-possessed. My church was one of the latter type which differentiated between “words of prophecy” and “speaking in tongues.” Also as you’d probably guess, almost every single example of “speaking in tongues” I ever heard in every church I ever visited sounded suspiciously like a sheltered, ignorant white Southerner’s concept of Arabic or Hebrew. Amazing, isn’t it?
As embarrassing as it is to say now that I’ve revealed just what type of person my boyfriend was, I stayed with him, and about all I can offer in defense of such a ridiculously stupid choice was that I believed that this was what God wanted for me for some crazy reason. Eventually I did speak in tongues once during a revival. It was a transcendent, bubbling-over feeling, to be sure, but as I would find out later to my astonishment, this feeling was not at all unique to Christianity. To Biff’s chagrin, I never felt that feeling again while a Christian–though I would feel it many times after leaving, sometimes while doing things that are distinctly not things that would make Jesus happy, and these feelings did not result in my bursting out in “foreign languages.” Not long after this infilling, we got engaged and then married, and he began preaching at a couple of different churches.
Oh, and at one point I did listen to that tape of his exorcism, right near the end of my time as a Christian, and I’m glad I was alone so nobody could see my cheeks turn bright red at just how fake and attention-seeking Biff seemed on it. Let’s just say that anybody who’s seen the right movies could have given the same performance. I was humiliated to realize that he’d been telling people for years that he’d started off by being exorcised when it was so chillingly obvious that no such thing had really happened. He was lying. But what else was he lying about? What, indeed.
- Rapture Scare, Part One. (www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve)