I did not have a religious awakening on the winter retreat, but it was the one time I really tried. We were in Lake Tahoe, and at some point after snow angels and ice-skating on wobbly, unpracticed legs, we were called to a makeshift amphitheater for a sermon in the woods. We filed into the pit, squeezing together on wooden planks, snickering behind hymnal booklets, still full of the excitement of the day.
At the center of the amphitheater, in front of a bonfire, the pastor delivered his sermon. This was the youth minister, a man we’d only seen around the church. Because we associated him with the older kids, we regarded him with a kind of awe. We didn’t know it, but that was what this trip was all about: a graduation ritual, Sunday school to youth ministry. All I can remember about this man now is that he was always smiling in a genuine and vacant sort of way, as though Jesus was the most mind-obliterating drug.
Towards the end of the sermon, the pastor called on anyone who wished to accept Christ into their hearts to step forward for prayer. This was nothing new—it was how all sermons ended. As for me, I’d grown up in the Christian faith, and had been saved for as long as I could remember, and this was the part of the sermon I could safely ignore. Because of that, I didn’t see the first kid go down.
He had been praying with the pastor, and now he was on the ground. Now, he was convulsing, eyes closed, gasping in shivers, nevermind the nearness of the fire. If we spared a thought for ambulances and stretchers, we were distracted when another kid praying with another counselor collapsed, convulsing like the first. And on and on. Not medical, a miracle.
Now, he was convulsing, eyes closed, gasping in shivers, nevermind the nearness of the fire.
By the time the first kid got unsteadily to his feet, everybody else was in line for prayer, myself included. After an entire childhood of Bible stories—of dead souls risen and seas parted and walls scribed by disembodied hands—this was the closest I had ever come to the much-espoused power of God. The power to take you over. A possession is both a precious belonging and a seizure.
When I reached the front of the line, I got the youth pastor himself. I told him that I wanted to accept Jesus into my heart, and his smile went even wider, somehow. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that”—I remember those words. And something did seize me in that moment: guilt. I had lied to that kind face. I had accepted Jesus a long time ago. I had just wanted to see the trick firsthand, a volunteer at a magic show.
Maybe that was why it didn’t work. I bowed my head, he prayed, and when I opened my eyes, I was still standing, he was still smiling. As the boy behind me lurched forward for his turn, I wandered back to my seat, disappointed and dazed, waiting now for these fitful salvations to end. We wouldn’t talk about this night afterwards, as though to speak of it would break the spell. But now I knew there was a spell, some magic behind those old stories. What else could explain that night?
This awakening was an alarm bell. It was a certain night in October, a church service that promised to teach us the fear of God. The sanctuary stage was draped all over in black sheets, a hole in the chapel. There was no pulpit, no pastor tonight. There were demons instead.
They too were covered in black, except for faces painted white. They stalked the stage, hunch-backed, bow-legged, arms hooked “Thriller”-style. In the scenes that followed—a girl discovering that she is pregnant, a boy being pressured to use a syringe, a boy and girl getting too comfortable on a couch—the demons emerged from the shadows. Get that abortion, try those drugs, have sex, they whispered. Afterward, all of these teenagers got together in a classroom, and a goth wearing combat boots stormed in, shooting them all dead before turning the gun on himself. But that was when the Hell House really got started.
I knew there was a spell, some magic behind those old stories. What else could explain that night?
The stage lighting turned to strobe lights. Fog machines groaned to life. Now in Hell, the demons held domain as gleeful, grinning masters of horror (except in scene transitions, when they became harried stagehands.) One by one, they herded the teens into ironic personal torture chambers. The drug user was pumped with a dozen needles. The couple had their hearts ripped out over and over. And the abortion seeker was strapped into stirrups, a demon in scrubs working with jagged instruments.
Watching all of this, I was not frightened: I was saved. The cackling demons, the menacing smoke, the ketchupy blood—none of that was in my future. As long as I did not stray, which was the entire point of the Hell House. Not conversion: a reminder. Back on stage, the school shooter was strapped to a wheel and repeatedly shot, begging for death.
The same could not be said for my much younger sister, whose paled face was full of the fear of God. In her baptism in front of the entire congregation a few weeks later, she would cite the Hell House as the catalyst for her own religious awakening. And the pastor would submerge her in water, declaring her soul cleansed.
When I was sixteen, my family moved from California to Houston, Texas, where everything was bigger except for our apartment. My mom, my sister, and I downgraded to a two-bedroom with loose floorboards, the downstairs neighbor banging on the ceiling whenever we so much as walked. At the same time, I transferred from a Christian school of about 400 students to a public school in the thousands. And our new church—a palatial structure off the I-45 flanked by palm trees—more resembled a football stadium than a house of worship.
A possession is both a precious belonging and a seizure.
Inside that building, sitting on $100 seats (I remember the specific number because the pastor solicited that donation from each of us, saying we were investing in seats for the unsaved,) I paid attention to the pastor in a way that I never had before. Not the pastor, exactly—he was too far away to see from the nosebleeds—but the big screen projection of him. During this period, I had become a very serious Christian, reading the Bible in my spare time and praying more formally and consistently. Because I had been removed from all of my childhood friends, an awkward outsider in an overpopulated school at a time when (according to television) I was supposed to be having all of these amazing high school experiences, I was the loneliest I had ever been. And if there’s one thing Christianity reliably promises, it is an answer to loneliness.
But I was also gay. Now a teenager, the hormones fully raging, I could no longer ignore this fact. While my upbringing was completely fundamentalist—as in no evolution, no secular music, no sex before marriage fundamentalist—I don’t recall a ton of explicitly homophobic lectures. Being gay was definitely mentioned as a sin from time to time. But for the most part, the subject was avoided, like a dirty word. This was somehow even more effective in inducing fear and shame: I was the unspeakable.
If there’s one thing Christianity reliably promises, it is an answer to loneliness.
So I turned to my religion out of loneliness, in search of a loving God who forbade romance to me, increasing my loneliness—a vicious cycle that went on for years, for far too long. It wasn’t until I was nineteen that I finally snapped out of it.
There was nothing remarkable about the day that it happened. I was deeply depressed, but I was used to that by now. I remember going for a walk around the neighborhood, hoping to lift my spirits, when a simple thought came into my mind out of nowhere. How would being with a woman make me a better person? An obvious enough question, but you don’t ask questions that challenge the logic of God (and the obvious ones are the most challenging.) You dismiss them the way Jesus dismissed the tempting Devil in the desert. But what surprised me most about this very obvious question was that there was no good answer to it.
After nineteen years of fervent belief, my faith was beginning to slip away all at once. But it wasn’t just the question that did it. What this awakening came down to was a fundamental truth: God might have the power to make you tremble, but even He can only make you feel bad about yourself for so long until you just get tired of it.
In a college classroom, during a unit on mythological history, a professor casually referenced the similarities between a number of different myths. This was a first for me—I’d never had use for other ancient stories before now. Soon, I was reading all I could about them. I discovered that the Biblical Noah’s ark story bears striking resemblances to the Sumerian Gilgamesh flood myth. I dismantled Samson, the strongman archetype who slays a lion (like Hercules) and has a single weak point (like Achilles.) Most importantly, I learned that Jesus’s death and resurrection cycle mirrors that of earlier gods Osiris and Dionysis.
By this point, I’d accepted my sexuality in spite of the church, but my relationship to my faith was murky. I didn’t wholly disbelieve—it was all I had known for so long, after all. Mostly, I tried not to think about it. But once those stories were exposed for exactly what they are—stories, based on recurring tropes—that was it. I no longer believed a word the Bible said. Some awakenings are just that easy.
I found myself in another church, a modest building somewhere downtown. I remember the place had wood paneling up to its vaulted ceiling and a roaring fireplace in the chapel, all of which reminded me of the winter retreat so many years ago. A good sign: I was hoping for another miracle.
I no longer believed a word the Bible said. Some awakenings are just that easy.
It had been a long time since I had stepped foot inside a church. All through childhood, going to church had been as natural as going to the grocery store, and ever since I had stopped, I had come to realize there were benefits to the church that I had taken for granted. Because through it all—through the hell houses, the shame-inducing sermons, the secrets and fear—there had always been a strong sense of community. It was both a profound relief and a tremendous loss to be on the outside of that community, even if it was based on fiction.
The community was what drew me back, as it must do so many others. I had decided that in spite of it all, I was going to try to be a Christian again.
I had done my homework this time, scouring the Internet for a queer-friendly parish. It was a small congregation of people, but otherwise they didn’t seem any different than any other church-goers I had met. The pastor was a woman (scandal!), and I can no longer remember the content of her sermon, which is probably for the best. It means it was the rare sermon that was devoid of fear-mongering and guilt.
What I do remember is worship, the point at which we all sang hymns. I stood with the others, but I found that I couldn’t make the words come. It wasn’t as though I didn’t know the words. In fact, the words were all I could think about. As the people sang around me, it was like I was viewing the scene out-of-body. For the first time, it struck me how bizarre this must look, how bizarre the entire concept of worship is, all of us singing love songs to our invisible sky friend.
Although I missed the church in some ways—really just the excuse for a community the church provided—I understood that there was no going back. No matter how progressive the congregation, I just didn’t believe anymore. And you can’t choose to believe in something—even if it’s nicer than believing in nothing—any more than you can choose to be straight. No true awakening can be put back to sleep.♦