The (Conspiracy) Theory of Everything.

The (Conspiracy) Theory of Everything. October 2, 2013

When I was sixteen, I found myself in a Pentecostal church next to my friend Angela, dressed in exactly that sort of unflattering puffy shirt and flowing skirt combo (in purple, of course) that the 80s valued most.

Molly Ringwald at the PPL
Molly Ringwald at the PPL (Photo credit: Princeton Public Library, NJ)

Like every one of my friends, I was going through a Molly Ringwald phase (FYI, Fast Times at Ridgemont High was, as far as we were concerned, a documentary; almost every girl I knew was going through either a Molly Ringwald phase or a Sheena Easton phase). Most of my clothes came from the bargain racks at the newly-minted Banana Republic or Casual Corner shops in the mall. I’d blossomed from a total nerd into a preppy girl between freshman and sophomore years; my mom had graciously given me a $75 haircut as a sixteenth birthday present and a hundred dollars to invest in a new wardrobe. This was a really big deal for my family; we grew up crazily poor, so the idea of spending so much money on one’s appearance was simply unheard of. Then Dad got stationed in Houston and we suddenly were getting some sort of additional money from the government to get a house or something, and with dizzying speed we went from upper-lower-class to middle-middle-class.

It took me a while to adjust to the idea of our newfound relative wealth, but once I did, my life got enormously better. I had just a couple years previously cried piteously over losing a comic book my mom had just bought me (the Marvel “Conan the Barbarian” adaptation, if I remember correctly) because of the money that represented. Now I considered my lunch incomplete if I didn’t buy a candy bar and a soda. (Yeah, I weighed about 120 through my entire high school career and I ate a Bar None and a root beer for lunch every day. It was hard for me to get on board with the modern pushes against junk food in schools, you can imagine.)

Somehow in the middle of that pastel explosion of new clothes, awkward phone calls from boys, biding my time for Wednesdays (when Remington Steele came on–I was a huge fan and will confess that the character of Remington Steele came to my awareness at a formative stage) and wading through the ocean of Polo at school, I got my first real boyfriend–he took me to see Pretty in Pink at the cinema as our first date and none of my friends could believe I was dating someone as handsome as he was–and I became a Southern Baptist. I dragged this poor guy to an Amy Grant concert–the first concert I ever attended, and I’m sure I was a complete pain in the butt. He wasn’t a Baptist; from what I could tell, he was barely even Christian. I suspect he was dating me purely because his dad was a coach at our school for a program my sister was in and that there’d been some parental pressure on him to find a “nice girl” to date instead of his usual fare. I was heartbroken to break up with him (amusingly, he’s gone on to a measure of fame in the alternative rock community). I began dating a Matt Dillon lookalike, but in a rare moment of clarity broke up with him when I found out he was involved with drugs. I was, you can understand, devastated for a lot of that year.

This fan-made trailer has made me want to go watch the entire series again. I just grabbed it for the young’uns in the audience who maybe never had the pleasure of seeing it and WELL my day is booked now. (SFW)

I realized much later, as in many years later, that I was fairly popular and well-liked in school. I wasn’t hurting for companionship of whatever sort I craved; I was always out doing something or going somewhere. But I didn’t feel like it at the time. I felt very lonely and like nobody really understood me, and was starting to feel a certain sense of ennui from that vain sense of superficiality that the 80s were becoming known for. I had left my gaming buddies behind in Alabama and hadn’t found a new group yet, and though I was very active in the Drama Club, I still felt like a total outcast. In the middle of all this unhappiness, Angela asked if I wanted to go to a revival meeting at her church. It was very important, and she thought I’d get a lot out of it.

Now, remember, I was more or less a Southern Baptist at this point. I’d converted from Catholicism a year or so previously and been baptized their way, though I’d recently drifted out after realizing the leadership there was a lot more concerned with tithing and obedience than anything else. Whatever they were offering, it wasn’t feeding the hunger I felt inside my heart. I wanted something very much, but I didn’t know exactly what it was or how to get it–only that this church wasn’t the answer. (This was many, many years before I was self-aware enough to realize that this kind of hunger couldn’t be fed by anything handed to me–that realization would come about ten years later in a snowy Kansas town in a laundromat/bar.)

I moved through a world of angels, demons, and secrets that swam beneath the surface of our perception. Spiritual beings snagged rides on our car hoods and followed us around at school. No less than the author of the universe set everything aside to listen to us pray and ask for good grades on our tests. I didn’t question that this spiritual world was not only real but compellingly real; I didn’t even wonder if all this stuff was true or not. Turning away from that belief would have required a dismantling of my entire worldview. It’d have required a re-think about the entire way I perceived the universe. It was, therefore, so much easier to think that if I wasn’t being “fed” spiritually at the church I was in or the one of my youth, the problem was clearly the churches themselves and I just needed to find the right fit for me.

I’d previously written Angela’s church off as fanatical. I hadn’t known her before her conversion; that’d happened the year before I moved to Houston. But apparently she’d been quite the wild child. Nobody could believe the change in her–she’d done a total 180 in both personality and appearance. When you think of a “good Christian,” Angela is what you should think of. I didn’t know anybody as, well, sheerly angelic as she was. She loved everything and everybody, turned the other cheek, was so generous it made us all feel a bit guilty, and you could tell that this supernatural world hovered before her eyes at all times. I didn’t know at the time that she was as panicked about getting “left behind” as I was going to be soon, or that she questioned and doubted just like anybody else. She was fakin’ it till she made it, as the saying goes, and whatever she was doing looked like it was working for her. She bubbled over–there’s no other word for it–with her love for Jesus; she was downright incandescent, effervescent. I’d never known anybody as genuinely sweet as she was, and have only met Christians like her a couple of times since then. She was in my homeroom class and sat near me so we got to talk often; she was respectful and quiet, but this one morning she invited me to the revival.

I like to think of myself as open-minded, so I accepted her invitation. It seemed like it’d be a jolly lark to me. I’d never been in any church that was really, well, enthusiastic. I had no idea what was coming. I knew they were fundamentalists, but I only had the vaguest idea of what that meant (can you imagine a teenager today not knowing, with the growing polarization of our culture?). She didn’t even prepare me for it; she probably was so used to it she didn’t think she needed to say anything. It’s actually kind of funny, looking back at it now.

I think she drove me and some other friends there; my memory is failing me. It was a horrible neighborhood, with a Mormon church right next door; we used their parking lot for our overflow (later I’d learn they used ours in the same way–it was actually pretty cool that the churches could be so amiable; we had an unspoken agreement about not proselytizing at each other). I remember walking through the glass doors and seeing a church that time had forgotten–white marble floors with blood-red carpet runners, red-gold-and-white flocked wallpaper, absolutely humongous paintings of white hippie Jesus on the walls, glass-topped end tables and sideboards placed strategically around the place, and a little bitty bookstore whose doors were open right then. A long hall stretched ahead, and I could see small children moving and in and out of what were clearly Sunday School rooms, sometimes with women herding them around.

And the women! The younger ones looked a bit like Angela–long hair with the “Pentecostal pouf” in front made of untrimmed bangs back-combed and sprayed liberally with Aqua Net (the air smelled of it, they’d used so much) to make a sort of bobbing oval of hair that covered their foreheads–I would learn soon that we all were a bit self-conscious about foreheads showing. The adult women didn’t care at all; their hair was pulled back into buns or elaborate braids that sometimes went all the way down their backs. None of the older women had their hair unbound though; all the oldest women had their hair in buns or covered with hats of varying size and shape. Me, I sported the softly feathered “wings” and shoulder-length turned-under hairstyle that was popular at the time, so I reckon I stood out like a sore thumb.

The women all wore dresses; the younger women sometimes wore blouses and skirts, but the older ones all had on silky print dresses. I had been Christian long enough to know that women wore dresses to church, so that didn’t twig me right then, but I was to find out that these folks wore dresses or skirts all the time. The hair, though, horrified and fascinated me. They looked downright Victorian, most of them. I’d never been around so many women with hair like that. The hair especially marked them as separate, which is of course why they did it.

The men were clearly in charge of the show; they all wore suits and ties, nothing strange, except their eyes glittered in a way I can now only call acquisitive. Not predatory, exactly, but they wanted something from me and all the other who were clearly guests. They came up and shook the hands of the guests and welcomed us. I’d never had such an enthusiastic welcome. Angela swept us into the church sanctuary, where I encountered long wooden cushioned pews, more blood-red carpeting, white marble columns, a sizeable choir area right behind the pulpit, and behind the choir, raised up so anybody could see it, a baptistry, which was very obviously the center of attention. It was empty right then, but lit up like a sunrise. I felt on more familiar ground, seeing the baptistry; the Southern Baptist church I’d attended had had a similar setup. (None of the Catholic churches I’d ever attended had had a baptistry like that, since they don’t generally immerse but rather sprinkle. Isn’t it just so weird that something as basic and simple as “how to get baptized” has so many different interpretations? It’s almost as if…)

So here we were, where you found us at the beginning of this entry, sitting together in a huge crowd of excited Pentecostals and waiting with anticipation as the lights lowered like a movie was about to start.

I don’t even remember exactly what-all got said, just that it was shocking. The end of the world was coming, you see, and we all had to be ready because this religion’s god was coming back. I listened in rapt horror and wonder as this preacher shrieked, moaned, and screamed his way through a sermon that printed itself upon my memory. He was talking, of course, about the Rapture, that relatively newfangled idea that at some unknown point, Jesus was going to take up all the worthy Christians into the sky to avoid years of torture and persecution (a time known as the Tribulation or the Great Tribulation), which would happen before the great endtimes war called Armageddon, which would itself usher in a thousand years of paradise before the whole planet just got trashed and our god started over again.

This preacher had it all figured out. We were supposed to get ready to fight in the war (this was a bit fuzzy though; I never understood how the dumpy, largely-elderly people around me were supposed to be fighting demons with swords and stuff, but that’s the way it was preached). After the war, during that thousand years of peace, these worthy Christians would be enjoying the pre-party in Heaven, and anybody who got stuck on Earth during the Tribulation and got killed would wait to join us afterward. And after the Earth was destroyed by our god (in fire this time, since he’d promised he would never again get into a snit and drown every man, woman, child, and animal on the planet), there’d be an eternity of feasting, praising, and walking around on streets of pure gold.

And when was this going to happen? September 11, 1988.

That was a couple of years in the future, but I was still panicked to hear it.

I believed. I totally believed. He sounded so sure, and he had a lot of Bible verses to back up why he thought that. I don’t think he was the author of this theory (I don’t remember who he was, just some visiting preacher); he might have been. Whatever his relationship to the material, he believed in it heart and soul. And I, as an impossibly naive teenager, didn’t know all the reasons why what he was saying was not only improbable but patently absurd.

I know I’ve touched on this revival sermon before, but I wanted to talk about it today. This sermon encapsulated everything about modern evangelicalism that is toxic and hostile to the human spirit. Curiosity was bad. Obedience was good. Science was bad. Blind faith was good. “Worldly” living (defined as “women in pants,” “church not being the center of many people’s lives,” and “people having unapproved sex,” from what I could tell) was condemned. As we look today at our nation–half of whom don’t understand much less accept the science around the Theory of Evolution, way too many of whom believe anything Fox News (Faux Noise?) says about our President’s birthplace and what the new healthcare laws involve–we need to understand that this kind of ignorance and blind acceptance is not new. It’s more polarized now, I think. But it’s not new. The same drives and mindset that led me to embrace Pentecostalism that night still exist today.

Americans live and move through a world populated by conspiracies. “They” lie to us about everything, and nothing can be trusted. We not only don’t have the tools with which to evaluate and weigh information and claims, but our trust in those people who do and can has been destroyed. Most of us believe, deep down, in angels riding on car hoods and an inscrutable “god” who lets children die amid starvation, terror, and sickness for some divine “plan” that will all make sense after we die and learn what it is.

But it all hinges on the children.

There’s a reason why creationists and other religious groups target schools.

It’s not a very nice reason. But the simple truth is that had I encountered this preacher’s sermon a few years later on down the line, I’d have just laughed. I’d have known that there have been literally hundreds of similar end-of-the-world scares throughout history, none of which (obviously) turned out to be true. I’d have known that the “Rapture” is a fairly new concept and that it’s just an excuse to feel superior and inject additional urgency into the religion’s claims. But as a young person, I didn’t have that experience or that understanding.

Adults just don’t generally fall for stuff like that out of the clear blue sky. Oh, we do sometimes, but the direction of belief is usually toward deconversion nowadays rather than conversion (when an atheist converts, you can almost hear Annie Potts shouting, “WE GOT ONE!” and hitting a bell, can’t you?). It’s the same reason that adults don’t believe in Santa Claus; only a child could believe something that out-there. And it’s a mark of maturity, a milestone almost, when children eventually realize that “Santa” is really just their families, and they learn to appreciate the holiday without the ruses. I still remember the day I realized there couldn’t possibly be a Santa Claus. I just wish I’d carried that understanding a little further.

The Bible talks about “rightly dividing the truth,” but the sad fact is that most Christians have no idea how to evaluate whether or not something’s objectively true or false. Even the meaning of objective reality gets mangled–as it must, for their ideas to work. Just the meaning of “evidence” gets put through a wood chipper. And so they are content to continue to move through this world of shadows and unseen things.

And if there’s no way for them to rightly divide the truth about angels and prayer and all that other stuff, why would we imagine they can rightly divide the truth about, well, the healthcare law? Or Obama’s birthplace? Or abstinence-only education? Or the Theory of Evolution itself? Their religion has effectively removed every tool they might have used to figure out what’s going on, and now we’re all shocked and dismayed that they’re using the same sort of reasoning regarding these facts as they use on their religion?

What we need is compassion and patience. I get frustrated too, but I try really hard to remember what it was like being a terrified teenager attending my first Pentecostal revival meeting. The best thing we can do is push to ensure that our schools are as free of religious entanglement and indoctrination as possible. We cannot count on Christians to do the right thing and keep their noses out of children’s education, because they desperately need to reach these kids before they get too old to be gullible enough to buy what is being sold to them. They need to hit these kids with their brand of Christianity before these kids learn how to think and how to weigh ideas. We’re talking about a fairly narrow window, so of course they’re going to be all but fanatical in their push to get back into schools.

We need to make sure our elected people know how we feel about religion in schools. We need to support groups that fight and oppose religious overreach. And we need to make sure our school boards don’t have fanatics and zealots on them who will happily sneak around and knowingly lie and cheat to break the law like the board in Dover did.

And when we encounter adults who are the product of environments that have stifled their curiosity and their ability to weigh information and evaluate claims, we need to be gentle. We’re challenging their entire worldview when we demand proof. We still need to demand proof, we still need to make them aware that there’s a whole realm of knowledge they’re ignoring and refusing to see, but we need to be gentle. I know how I’d have felt if someone had told me, way back then, that no, there were no angels walking behind me with drawn swords, no demons lurking around every corner, no gods stopping everything to hear me asking for stuff in prayer. My entire world changed when I finally did seriously investigate these questions I had. That’s not an easy thing for anybody to go through.

And mainstream Christianity is gleefully setting up this same dilemma, this same choice between “reality” and “being saved,” for every person in its ranks. Think about that. Either deny reality, or else go to Hell. As the old saying goes, when a person’s paycheck depends upon belief in something, you may rest assured that person will believe in that thing very strongly. A Christian’s entire paycheck depends upon denying reality. When many of us leave the religion, we are indeed lost for at least a little while, before we disentangle ourselves from that entire system and learn that the “paycheck” doesn’t actually exist. I can tell that these mainstream leaders thought at one time that the dilemma itself would hold their people there. But that’s not quite true anymore, is it? And the reason it’s not true is, perhaps, because there are so many people who have left by now, and it’s so obvious that one need not be Christian to be good (and being Christian is certainly no guarantee whatsoever that someone will be decent), that questioning and wondering is not the end of the world that maybe it once was.

It can be hard to leave a conspiracy theory behind. I’ve talked to plenty of people who were involved in various sorts of conspiracy communities, from UFOs to anti-vaxxers to 9/11 “truthers” to you name it. Theories like them play upon our fear, but also upon our unspoken hope that the world is really filled with these unseen wonders, and if we just search long enough or believe hard enough, we’ll get to see them. I know exactly what it’s like to hope like that. Reality has since proven to be so much more wondrous (and so much less frustrating), but to those still locked in that mesmerizing mindset, the idea of existing without that unseen world can be scary.

Let’s be gentle, therefore, and as loving as we can to those brothers and sisters still seized in the teeth of the dilemma.

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