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When I was in my late-single-digits, my mom and grandma inexplicably insisted I start going to church. Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that by age seven I was already trotting around in makeup and my sister’s frocks on a semi-regular basis, that by the third grade I had already started shaving my eyebrows off and penciling in new ones, that I was both inappropriately girly and just a huge weirdo regardless of gender. Indeed, you’re struggling to imagine which reason they ultimately chose for wanting to impress upon me the multitude of punitive horrors at the ready disposal of the sourpuss god of Abraham. But you would be wrong. It wasn’t a “Scared Straight” thing. There might have been some minor hope of temporary holiness, but mostly I think they just wanted to get rid of me for a few hours each week. They certainly weren’t religious people and I never saw either one of them enter a church a day in their lives. But they were steadfast in making sure I went.
I didn’t mind much, at first. It was like the world’s lamest book club. Maybe I was just too young to take much note of anything, but it all seemed innocuous (if preposterous, even then. Two of every animal, on a homemade wooden boat? So what, all the different varieties of elephants and hippos, then? And wouldn’t they eat each other? And who scoops 40 days of every-animal-in-the-world crap? Even if it worked, the next generation of sibling-humping animals would all be twelve-toed redneck morons!) But hey, there were free cookies and punch, what did I care? Plus, I got to sing and act in church plays, which I assumed would lead to an extremely holy career as a gigantic superstar about whom horrible musicals would be written.
But, like the gathering menace in a bad TV movie, things slowly turned. Pastor Jim’s sermons started being less about the Way, the Truth and the Light, and more about the looming hordes of abortionists, sodomites and Satan-worshipping liberal secular humanists out to put a chickenhawk in every garage and a cock in every mouth. The little Norman Rockwell picture-postcard images of Jesus carrying a lamb were gradually replaced by graphic pictures of aborted fetuses (with clever first-person narratives ostensibly written by the fetus.) Week by week, month by month, the little neighborhood church became a whitebread terror cell for Jerry Falwell‘s Moral Majority. I knew it was nuts, but neither my mom nor my grandma would listen to me. They carted me off to the Jesus H. Christ Nuthouse for Girls every Sunday, dropped me on the curb and went back to the racetrack.
By late November of 1980, things reached a fever pitch. Drunk with bloodlust after the election of their golden idol, Ronald Reagan, they began to organize weekly book and record burnings in the parking lot. Huck Finn, Vonnegut, Salinger, Judy Blume, all of Satan’s earthly literary wags, onto the fire, little paper flecks of their demonic words floating up towards heaven (where one can only assume they were reassembled and burned again?) But the book burning was just an appetizer. Nobody reads anymore. Music was the main course. Pastor Jim would even go so far as to play excerpts from the records first, so we could establish exactly which of the Seven Deadly Sins the musicians had committed. We’re not talking Twisted Sister here, people. Elvis Presley earned his glazed, deep-fried place in Hell for making himself into a false idol by singing “Love Me Tender” instead of directing his listeners to love God tender. (Actually, I hear God likes it rough, but.) Pastor Jim said that God had killed Elvis on the toilet for this little transgression, and that a similar fate would befall all other singers who dared challenge Jesus.
And then, eyes ablaze, face red and bloated like a hot house tomato, he pulled out the pièce de résistance of long playing evil. John Lennon’s Imagine. He placed it on the turntable with a warped reverence, as if his soul depended on it. He lowered the needle onto the wax tenderly, lovingly, not wanting to miss a note. An incantation. The song began. I’d never heard it before.
Stanza by stanza, word by word, Pastor Jim calculated Lennon’s damnation with methodical precision. No heaven? No Hell? No possessions? No religion? A brotherhood of man?! Atheism. Communism. Sacrilege. And of course, as a Beatle, Lennon had been a False Idol. He said he was “bigger than Jesus”! Plus, he boned an impure foreigner. “Race traitor!” Pastor Jim raged, pounding the pulpit like Khrushchev as the bonfire outside burned bright, waiting to receive Lennon’s black offering. Yes, God was firing up a special place in Hell for John Lennon, and all who support him. His time was coming. Count on it!
Lennon was dead the next day.
I was terrified, of course. It had not escaped my notice that God’s “enemies list” included all your various sexual deviants, your homosexuals, your cross-gender behavior. I didn’t know quite what to label myself, but I knew I was damned by some definition. And I liked to sing. Plus, I owned two Beatles records! I knew I was doomed, that on some dark night while I slept, a murderous Jesus was going to sneak in my window and snap my neck like a twig, or send one of his followers to shoot me, or who knows what else. I kid you not. I was so scared, I can’t do justice to the palpable terror. I sat there gasping for air, heart pounding so hard. The rules of the game were clear: God kills. Efficiently. Ruthlessly. I swore off rock music immediately. I figured maybe I could try and work on the queerness as a long-term project. I laid there all night praying for forgiveness before it was too late.
The next afternoon I went over to my mom’s house. The news was on, talking about Lennon’s murder, and the mass outpouring of grief and loss and love for the man. My mom sat silent, an eerie stillness, watching the tiny black and white screen. I stared at her, baffled.
“What’s so great about that guy?” I asked, thick with my newfound Jesus-approved smugness.
And then something unbelievable happened. My mom started to cry. I’d never seen it before. I have only rarely seen it since. She’s not big on crying.
“He was a great man,” she said, finally. “He was a very great man.”
I started to tell her about what Pastor Jim had said about Lennon and Elvis. She half-heard me. She told me how Pastor Jim was an idiot, and how great Lennon had been, and that burning books and records was a very stupid idea. And then she went in the bedroom alone, closed the door, and cried.
I walked back to my house, angry and confused and crying, but mostly angry. I felt bad for making my mom cry with my idiotic remark, but I was madder at someone else. Suddenly it all came into focus. The “ark”?! Cain’s wife!? If there are only Adam and Eve to start with, isn’t Cain fucking his sister? Giants in the land of Nod? Leviticus? Killing the firstborn? No evolution? Killing Elvis for “Love Me Tender”? Making me a boy when clearly I was a girl in every practical sense? It hit me so hard I could feel it in my body: God is a fucking halfwit! God kills puppies! God makes cancer! God turns a blind eye to evil stepfathers! God killed John Lennon for no good reason! God made my mom cry! And if I had anything to say about it, that son of a bitch was gonna pay.
I had a moment of abject terror when the anger subsided, when I realized what I’d been thinking. I’d committed a hundred mortal sins in the space of three minutes. I swallowed hard and waited for the executioner. The lightning bolt. The deranged gunman. The atomic blast.
Out of sheer spite, I tried a few more sacrilegious thoughts. Nothing happened. Impulsively, I shouted the Lord’s name in vain. Waited. Watched my last seconds tick by on my wristwatch. The world went on as normal. A few birds chirped happily. The sky was still blue. I felt a huge weight off my back. I took a deep breath. Freedom. Freedom to think. Freedom to say rude things. Freedom to be wrong, even. I had to laugh. I’d been had! Great and powerful Oz, my ass.
I never looked at life the same way again. Inoculated with a healthy dose of doubt, Pastor Jim’s flaming fetus sideshow had lost its power over me, and I dove headfirst into mythology and comparative theology and pop music and Judy Blume, so that I’d be well-armed against all such demagogues and charlatans in the future. It took a few months before I was finally able to stop going to church entirely. My grandma was tough to convince. I don
’t think she ever quite understood.
It was three weeks to Christmas. I asked for John Lennon records.