I was reading an atheist’s post earlier today and it got me thinking about issues I have trouble with regarding my family and my own beliefs. To be more precise, trouble regarding my upbringing with parent-approved, pre-packaged beliefs dropped into my brain.
Mom-approved would be even-more precise. Dad was never religious and I don’t think he even stepped foot in a church for anything but a funeral since I was born, at least, not willingly.
I grew up Pentecostal, then went to a non-denominational church until I was about 11 (which was fundamentalist at heart). I don’t remember when we stopped going to that first church, or how old I was. Dad told me about how there was a preacher (maybe from that church) talking about TV and Nintendo and that they were demonic distractions that weren’t suitable for kids. Dad and mom were invited to this preacher’s house and what were his kids doing? Playing Nintendo, even after the preacher railed about it to the congregation.
That stopped dad from ever going again, he said. The hypocrisy was too much.
Religion was a bone of contention between those two: mom would tithe 10% to our church (when we had one) or televangelists when we didn’t, like she said she was supposed to. However, she not only tithed her 10% when she had a job, but dad’s too. More than that, she included the overtime pay dad made and it ticked him off, because he had to work more overtime to make sure he had enough for income tax time and emergencies. Yeah, he told me about that, and after Jimmy Swaggart got caught with his pants down, he really got pissed at her for sending his church money, even after he confessed!
When they finally divorced, mom and I went to this “non-denominational” church. I don’t remember too many of the lessons off-hand, but I do know what I looked forward to the most. The meet-and greet and singing before it all started was fun, but I really wanted to be in the bookstore.
We were always early, and the bookstore inside would open about 30 or 45 minutes before taking our seats started. It was probably the only bookstore I really had a chance to browse in as a kid, and even though most of the books were geared toward adults, they had several youth-market items. It was probably the only time mom bought me books (we were library people otherwise), but they weren’t “books” most of the time: they were the Chick Tracts.
Mom didn’t have a problem with them, because most of the time they were only about 10 or 15 cents each, and that wouldn’t break the bank. If I were to go to her house and look at her bookshelves today, the only books there would be religious books.
But I digress…
I had probably a shoebox full of those Chick Tracts by the time we both stopped going to church (I was with dad and moved farther out, and mom stayed home to watch her sermons instead). Since I was with her every other weekend for visitation, she’d look for new Chick Tracts that we missed and have ’em waiting for me. When I was sick or bored, I’d pull them out for a short read.
Oddly enough, I still remember a lot of them, some of the plots they came up with. The endings were always predictable in the non-bible story ones: either some sinner would break down and ask for Jesus to come into their lives and be saved, or there’d be two demons in the shadows commenting about how they got this one in time before they could be saved.
I bring this up because I have some major issues going on in my personal life, aspects where it feels like my self-awareness and personal growth have been stunted somehow. My most pressing and obvious issues that have shadowed my adulthood are my prudishness and my approval-seeking nature.
I remember being terrified of sinning when I was a kid. I was actually hoping for the year 2000 to hurry up, counting down to the millennium because many of the tracts said that was when the end of the world would come. I didn’t want to go to Hell, so I would do my very best and be good and not sin so that I could be taken to heaven with all the other believers.
I figured most sinful behavior occurs after high school. So, I was relieved to know that I’d be dead (or ascended, whatever they called it) before I got out of high school. The odds of me having premarital sex (boys were gross and punched me all the time anyway) and being condemned to hell, or disobeying my parents, or losing my faith in Jesus by then were slim, so I didn’t have anything to worry about from what I could tell.
It took me a while to realize how potent those lessons were, how much I took to heart, and how much they may have directed my behavior through adolescence and into adulthood.
What fit into the palm of even my child-sized hand were “lessons” about Halloween and druid sacrifices, ineffectiveness of condoms to prevent pregnancy and STDs, men have the power, women must be obedient, teachers will lead children to Satan and turn them against their parents, Christians will be tortured by atheists, Catholics are awful people, and tolerance of other religions is not being right with God.
This last one is more a supposition than anything else. It came from a picture from one of those tracts, talking about how the world’s going to hell (can’t remember the titles–mom threw them away after the last crazy flood). There was a picture of a priest with a giant cross necklace (assumed Catholic) with a rabbi and (presumably) an imam, and they were walking down the sidewalk, talking and smiling with each other.
I don’t remember the words the caption used for this scene, but I do remember the portrayal of this moment was supposed to be a sign of the apocalypse, or something like that. It painted the priest in a bad light, that it was un-Christian to be talking on even terms with these other two religious leaders. I assume he was supposed to convert them instead.
And then there were the tracts that talked about sex, STDs and pregnancy (don’t remember any about abortion–maybe they came out after I stopped collecting them).
And I read these before and after I went to Sex Ed., mind you.
You’d have a young woman go on a date with a cute guy and everybody’s egging her on to have fun, and then she finds she gave her virginity to a total jerk mid-act. Afterwards, the same people who told her to date the guy and have fun turned away from her and called her a slut. When she gets checked out by the doctor, she’s got AIDS (by the way I was reading these in the late 80s and early 90s). I remember one of them had a doctor character tell the poor woman that condoms don’t prevent pregnancy, AIDS, other STDs, and the holes in the latex let plenty of diseases in. So she’s dying and the doctor tells her about an afterlife with Jesus and there’s the typical conversion scene right then.
Of course, she still has STDs, but at least she’s right with Jesus.
It took me a few years (and some questions about my faith) to realize praying wouldn’t take STDs away right off the bat.
I was trying to figure out where my prudishness came from, and my fear of sex…well, I think reading and hearing about how you can become pregnant and get STDs your first time because condoms are useless is the way to scare somebody away from premarital sex.
Also the depiction of STD-carrying guys was horrible, because they didn’t get their comeuppance. They kept sleeping around and giving women STDs. I hadn’t read a religious tract or text that had the man go to the doctor and the doctor tries to set him straight about his life path. No, when the man’s gone, he’s gone, and the woman’s left to carry on alone, and get chastised for her bad decisions, and die of an STD because she had sex before marriage.
The idea of trusting a man enough for sex before marriage is paralyzing to me, so they did a damn good job scaring this particular woman away from it. But they did more than that–they made me wary about every man out there, the “hidden jerks” or “incels” that just want sex and won’t disclose the truth about themselves.
But my prudish upbringing, combined with stories about cheating and hook-up culture everywhere I turn, really leaves me in the lurch. I have enough trouble navigating society and it’s norms, and am perpetually single and alone–a state I’m frustrated with and haven’t been able to change because all these hangups. I can’t bring myself to go out and meet people or date because I remember all these awful things I was taught as a kid.
I would like to date some day, but how can one date with a heap of fears and without trust?
It’s ironic because I would be hard pressed to call myself a Christian today. I’m not hung up on sinning like I was, or terrified of hell anymore (at least, not the Christian aspect of it). When the rapture didn’t come, I shrugged it off…I was on my last legs of Christian belief by then anyway. I’d rather be a decent person to people I meet, Christian or not.
It was decades ago when I last read those damned things, but I can’t help but think about them now. When I was reading the blog about atheism, I started thinking about the other lessons taught, and the whole “Christian persecution” complex that’s been going on the past decade and more. Some of the “infringements” on “Christian rights” have come straight out of those Chick Tracts, and usually hailed the beginning of the end of the world.
I wonder if, like I did as a naive child, some of these people are hankering for the end of the world and want to hurry the rapture along. I can’t understand the persecution idea, when the so-called Christians I know personally that spout about it the most are some of the most hateful, prejudiced people I’ve had the misfortune of meeting or being related to.
I might’ve been raised on those freaking Chick Tracts, but now I really wonder how many ways and in how many churches those same lessons that paralyzed me were being spoken of to the adults.
I’ve been trying to achieve more self-awareness and take my time thinking about how the hell I ended up such a stuck ball of anxiety. I think some of those in-your-face Christian Fundamentalist lessons played a helluva part, largely through Chick Tracts and just being told to be a good girl, don’t make waves, don’t get greedy and ask for things or give people trouble.
Deep down, I think I’m still a child waiting for approval…but I don’t know what for. All I know is when I dared to think for myself (or tried to), the people I should’ve been able to confide in to help me tuned out. I wasn’t a good little girl anymore. I was a non-believer; and all I had to do was listen to the Word and believe it and everything would be fine.
I think it’s irrational to be afraid of being human, but I haven’t found a way around that yet. So I’ve wandered away from Christianity of my own volition. I can’t let it make me feel like a freak for having curiosity forever.