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Chapter One: The Devil Is in an Air Bubble
The devil is in an air bubble floating beneath my baptismal robe.
This is troublesome, because I am trying to do the right thing—and, incidentally, avoid hellfire. I have walked to the front of my fundamentalist Christian church this Sunday morning to profess my love for Jesus and be buried with him in the baptismal grave. I will rise and walk anew, a new Christian, a good girl—
not sinless, but perfect nevertheless.
But this damn bubble is getting in the way. It is Satan, come to thwart me.
I am a fundamentalist. I know that in order to spend eternity in heaven with Jesus, I must be immersed completely in the water, be it in a baptismal font, like this overly large bathtub-type model at the front of my church, or in the swimming pool at Green Valley Bible Camp, where I go every summer,
or in a river, or anywhere where the water will cover me completely.
I must be buried, figuratively speaking, because that is how Jesus did it with his cousin, John the Baptizer, in the river
Jordan.1 It is how I want to do it now. I came to the earth sinless—
not like Catholic babies, who, I’d been told, drag Adam’s original sin around like a tail. Not me. Had I died at birth, I would have shot back to God in heaven like a rocket. But I did not die, and the time I’ve been on earth since my birth I’ve spent accumulating black blots on my soul, like cigarette burns in a gauze curtain.
And here Satan has floated up in a bubble beneath the thick white robe, and so I am not, technically speaking, completely immersed.
My soul is encased in my body and my body is encased in this gown, and a small portion of it has swollen to break the water’s surface, like a tiny pregnancy, or the beginning of a thought.
My head is under. One hand is clenching my nose shut and the other is crossed over my chest, half the posture of a corpse in a casket.
But if this dress doesn’t sink with the rest of me, the whole ceremony will be useless.
I am a fundamentalist. We worry about such things.
A ceremonial joining-together only makes sense. I am thirteen when I decide to make it official. I’d been flirting with Jesus since age eight or so, the way a little girl will stand innocently next to her cutest uncle, will preen and dance for attention with only a dim idea of the greater weight of her actions. I meant no harm. I
just loved Jesus. He made me feel happy.
In my mind, Jesus had been flirting back, and why wouldn’t he? Our families were close. I went to his house three times a week,
sat in his living room, listened to his stories, loudly sang songs to him. Our relationship was inevitable, and it seemed the simplest thing imaginable to declare my love.
And so on this bright and terrible Sunday morning I nervously slide out of my pew to walk up the aisle during the invitation song, the tune we sing after the preacher gives his sermon. The invitation song is a time of relief for those who think the preacher has gone on too long, and a time of trepidation for the sinners who are paying attention. Although the song varies depending on who’s leading the singing, all the invitation songs share a tone of exhortation firmly grounded in fear, meant to shake a few of the ungodly loose from the trees. And I am a sinner. I know that as assuredly as I know Jesus loves me. I am trying to live my life to meet the impossible ideal of perfection set for me exactly 1,972
years earlier by my boyfriend. The Bible said Don’t lie, but I lie several times a day. The Bible said Don’t steal, but I copied from a friend one morning in social studies because I hadn’t taken the time to do my own homework. The Bible said not to lust, and while I am not clear what that means exactly, I harbor a deep and abiding crush on a series of pop culture icons from Bobby Sherman on—save for Donny Osmond, because he is too Mormon and
I don’t think I could convert him. But Donny is the only one from
Tiger Beat magazine for whom I have no tingling feelings. I know,
even though my church would frown on it because none of these boy-men are members, that if any of them save Donny drove up in a jacked-up Camaro and honked the horn, I would hop into the front seat without a look back.
Oh I sinned, all right.
As I begin to walk to the front pew of the sanctuary at Fourth and Forest church of Christ, I can hear the giggles and gasps from my girlfriends left behind. Most of them have already taken the walk to the front to declare their love for Jesus, but I have dragged my feet. I know I need to be baptized—it would sure beat spending eternity in hellfire—but it seems such an awesome step. I am walking toward the highest church office I can reach as a female—
that of a baptized believer—and for that brief moment, all eyes are on me. I will be a Christian. I will teach Sunday school and participate in the odd rite of church dinners, where the mark of distinction is given to any woman who can assemble an ordinary-
looking cake out of ingredients you wouldn’t expect, like beer. Or potato chips. I will grow up and marry a deacon, the worker bees of our church, who will one day grow old—like,
forty or so—and become an elder. I will raise up my children in the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart from me.2 I will wear red lipstick and aprons and gather my grandchildren to my ample lap (all grandmas being fat). And finally,
I will recline in my rose-scented deathbed with a brave,
faint smile as my family gathers around me, and then I will rise in spirit to my home in glory, leaving behind a blessed bunch who look and sound and smell like me and who point to my faith as their ideal. They will, of course, all be Christians, and they will marry Christians and beget Christians, and not some watereddown namby-pamby type, either, but fire-breathing and soulgrowing
Christians, members of the church of Christ, saved by grace and fired with an obstinate belief in the black and white.
Give me that old-time religion! Yes, Lord!3
It is all laid out for me, both in the Bible and in the talks our
Sunday school teachers give us. I know my future as I know the
St. Louis Cardinals lineup from the tinny transistor I sneak into my bed on game nights: Bob Gibson, Ted Simmons, Matty Alou,
Lou Brock, José Cruz, and the man who will ultimately betray my faith in baseball and become a hated Yankee, Joe Torre. Those
Cardinals will win the pennant one day, but I will be a Christian today.
The sanctuary in which I walk is a high-ceilinged, cavernous room covered completely—walls and ceiling—in knotty pine that holds my secret sin. When I am bored—and during three-hour
Sunday-morning services I am often bored—I attempt to count the knots in the panels behind the preacher. I lose count and start again, lose count and start again. I feel guilty about that, but I
am sitting through three sermons a week and once I recognize the preacher’s theme (sin, mercy, salvation), I start counting knots.
The room seats roughly seven hundred souls. I say roughly,
because we never fill it. It was built amid much discussion and hard feelings at a time when my church was among the fastestgrowing
Christian groups in the country. Of course we would fill it, we told one another, even if our regular Sunday-morning attendance hovered around three hundred or so. God would provide.
We just needed to have the right amount of pews. The interior looks as we imagine the ark of Noah would look—spare,
with not one cross on display. Jesus hung on a real cross. Who were we to use the emblem of his shame as decor? And why would we, as girls, wear small golden crosses when the real one was so much bigger and uglier? 4 The pews are padded—another discussion—and there are no prayer benches, for fear that they would put us in company with the Catholics. Still, I never once saw someone drop to his or her knees during public prayer. We are, one visiting minister derided us, the only group of believers that sits to sing and stands to pray.
In fact, the building was built on prayer—and a painful schism. When you believe you are holy and have God on your side,
you easily cross over into being dogmatic. We split over paving the parking lot. The anti-paving bunch argued that Jesus never walked on pavement, and that we shouldn’t be so fine-haired as to worry about muddying our good shoes as we scrambled to our
(padded) pews. And besides, the money could be used for a greater purpose—namely, saving souls. The grandparents of this crowd had cheered at the outcome of the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Consider them opponents of creeping and sweeping modernity.
The other bunch—and, oddly, my notoriously hidebound family sided with them—said that paving a parking lot was right and good, that it didn’t hurt to have a few creature comforts, and the anti-paving crowd hadn’t kicked up a fuss over the fancy new air-conditioning, now, had they? When the church splits, we stay with the paved group. And when it splits another time over whether the grape juice of the Lord’s Supper (the communion we enjoyed every Sunday) should come from one cup, as Jesus may have shared it, or from tiny shot glasses set into special circular trays made for such an event, my family again sides with the progressives.
The others we derisively call “one-cuppers,” as damning a phrase as “dumb-ass hillbilly.”
It would be my family’s one concession to change.
Among the literal-minded, schisms are just waiting to surface,
ready to crack open at any moment. Elsewhere, the other churches of my faith—we had no central hierarchy, opting instead for home rule by a group of older men, the elders—would split and split again, over adding a pastoral counseling service,
or a daycare center—more modernity, in other words, but that was later. For now, we felt the sheep were scattered, and when we brought them home, they could clatter across pavement to sit in padded pews and partake in the liquid part of the Lord’s Supper from tiny shot glasses meant for just such a purpose—and likely to form a barrier against the common cold as well.