February 27, 2013 by jmar198013
I started writing a short story several years ago about a guy who goes to a Bible lectureship and is deeply damaged by the experience. I never finished it. I never could figure out how.
Those of you who have been following this series know this. This thing never got any further than Wednesday afternoon–not officially. I made a couple of stabs at finishing it, but I never did like where the story was going.
You see, it isn’t just a story: it’s my story. Calvin Luther Edwards, III is me. And I didn’t like where my story was going.
But then again, it isn’t just my story to tell. Other people’s stories have been conflated into it. Even people I didn’t know, or even know about, when I started writing this story in 2007, recognize themselves in it. Or people they have known. And many have seen the church they have known. Some didn’t want to admit it at first, but they saw it, eventually. For instance, one of my schoolmates wrote me a couple years back and said:
When I first read some of those short stories I was found them irreverently appalling, even though deep down there were spices of truth seasoned throughout. A couple of years have passed since then, and a couple of suppositions have changed. I now read them and can accept the humor, cruelty, reality, and irony of the stories. Calvin’s trip to the Zoo is a perfect summation.
I was born and raised in a church fellowship known for being ornery. Many of us are trying to change our path, and many have suffered greatly because of it. Not a few have departed. I have been asked why I still stay. The truth is, I don’t know how to be anything else. Beyond that, for all its crankiness, oddness, hypocrisy, self-righteousness and self-justification, its absurdity, its cruelty, its bellicosity, and its sometimes downright bizarre and anti-social behavior, I still love my church. Call it loyalty, call it a fondness for the particular, call it the path of least resistance, call it masochism, call it sheer stubbornness–it is what it is. I love my church. They are stuck with me, and I with them.
I do not pretend to be in the mainstream of my fellowship–never have been, never will be. I cannot speak for the mainstream. I can only speak for myself, and hopefully for the myriad others who have been whipped with their Bible belt and still feel the sting.
When I wrote these, I wrote them for children who were told that dancing is tantamount to sex. For girls who were taught that their bodies were shameful by preachers who blamed Bathsheba for David’s sin. For families where brothers and sisters were not even allowed to swim in the same pool for fear of arousing unnatural passions. For those who have lived in constant fear of hell because of a soteriology that can only be described as, “Once saved, always in jeopardy.” For those who have been deprived the comfort of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their life by preachers who told them that the Spirit dwells only in the Bible. For entire families of preachers who have literally been kicked to the curb without notice because of a homiletical misstep or a personality conflict with a power-hungry eldership. For those who have been told, “We will not even baptize you until you divorce your wife, because your marriage is unscriptural. It is better to break up your family than to burn in hell.” For the women who have been “put in their place.” For the LGBTQ family members who have spent hellish years trembling in the closet. For the young alcoholic booted out of the Christian college without so much as an offer of help or treatment. For the young man with a porn addiction who confided this to an elder and was threatened, “I’ll bet your momma would be real ashamed if she knew what you were doing.” For the men with porn addictions who were told in the Open Forum of a Christian college lectureship: “I don’t see how it’s a problem. I love to go fishing, but if Jesus told me not to do it, I’d get rid of my rod and reel. It’s that simple, boys.” I wrote these for everyone who has ever felt the need to pray, “Lord, protect me from my brethren.”
In my excerpt, I always wrote these sort of funny disclaimers about how none of this stuff really ever happened. That’s not entirely true. The truth is, most of these things have happened in one form or another. It’s just they haven’t all happened to me personally, and certainly not all in the same week. But I assure you, the shocking truth is, most of this stuff has happened. And if it didn’t happen to me personally, it happened to someone I know, or I heard about it from someone who knew whom it had happened to.
For instance, in the last post of the series I reported how Calvin was fired from a preaching job when a conversation he assumed was private was surreptitiously taped and then replayed, out of context, to the elders of his church. In my excerpt, I wrote: “No one has ever secretly taped a preacher, played that tape out of context for the elders where that preacher works, and gotten him fired … There are no scoundrels like that among us.” Truth is, I was being taken out to dinner by some church leaders I knew once during a lectureship, and they brought along a preacher I didn’t know. He reported with glee during the course of the evening how he’d gotten a rival preacher fired by sneaking a tape recorder into a gathering of local preachers and taping him explaining his position on a doctrinal matter so trivial I have forgotten it in the ensuing decade. What I have not forgotten is how brilliant this guy thought he was; how he felt he was justified for robbing his brother of his vocation and livelihood over a trifle; and how the people taking me out to dinner that night were impressed with what he had done. I was shocked and told them so. They looked at me like a potato had suddenly sprouted from my forehead. “He was only defending the truth!” they told me. I vowed never to let those folks pay for me another meal again.
In another of the posts, I had Calvin visit the zoo, where he had an epiphany:
I decided to skip the pre-lunch lectures and go to the Memphis Zoo. It dawned on me that the Full Armor Lectureship—indeed, our entire fellowship—was its own menagerie, a stationary Noah’s ark whose inhabitants refused to leave, all blaming one another for the stench in there. We are not exotic breeds from faraway lands in the First United Primitive Christian Church, however. We are more like stubborn relics of the recent past, looking at the world through nauseatingly garish Technicolor lenses. We live on in the rubble of Modernism, proudly making no concessions to the rest of the world as it evolves without us, flinging our filth at each other. I felt quite at one that day with the animals in the zoo, for it came to me that I, too, had been bred in captivity.
Looking back on it now, that may have been a bit unfair. Some days I think it was, some days I think it wasn’t. One thing I can say now is that while Calvin was a victim of this church machine, I also see clearly now that the sorts of folks represented by characters like Skeeter McDoogan, Herb Sharp, Remus Philbert, and Mack Snipes are victims, too. They can’t see it, but they are. This machine is crushing their souls; their participation in the soul-crushing of others damages them, too.
I pray for the day when their eyes are opened. I pray for the day when my eyes are opened wider. I pray for the day when we are not gazing in mirrors darkly. The Scripture says: “God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6 CEB). I pray for the day when that word becomes flesh for my people, for my church.
Until then, I pray that others may have the courage to throw themselves–as I fancy myself to have done in stupid moments when I think too highly of myself–into the spokes of this machine. It hurts like hell, but I don’t know how else to stop it.
It may be that the reason I never finished the story is that my story isn’t finished. I do not feel entirely redeemed, even though much of my Babylon is homemade. But I believe in a God of Exile and Exodus, of Cross and Resurrection. I pray, finally, that I will find my redemption, and Calvin will find his, as well.