September 25, 2007

"The Dark Side of the Moon"

by Tom Blunt

When I was a child, I felt a unique calling to God because of a dream I had one night, when I was about eight years old. In my dream, a huge golden whirlwind descended from the heavens, and in a booming, not-to-be-fucked-with voice, it began to orate to me and my parents and sisters as we gawked in rapt fear and ecstasy. After it had established the proper authoritative tone, it took turns speaking to us individually amd explained to each of us what the purpose of our life would be, what we were to pursue beyond all other things. I woke from the vision gasping and sobbing, overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude. The next morning, however, I was very disappointed at how life was clearly just the same as it ever was, and rather than risk being mocked or misunderstood I kept the dream to myself, where it glowed warmly for several days and then was more or less completely forgotten.

I did, however, retain an incredible curiosity about religion, and Christianity of the miscellaneous Protestant stucco ranch-style church-building variety being the only immediate outlet, I began to pack my brain with as much Bible as it would hold, trying my best to spread the Word. I even went so far as to tell my cousin that if she really hated her sister like she said, that she was sure to sear in hell. ("I'll see 'er in hell, all right," she swore with gusto.) My family never belonged to any specific church, because my wise mother quickly grew appalled by each of them for one reason or another, but she was proud of my interest and supported my decision to attend whichever church I wanted—which was usually that of whoever I was best friends with at the time. That is how I ended up in Jesus Camp.

These camps were quite benign compared to the regiments of tear-streaked tongue-speaking toddlers that populate the nightmares and documentaries of New Yorkers. There were crafts, and singing, and the decent, sweet, generous people who organized them did everything they could to build us up, that we might pass through life more buoyantly because of our love for God. No one made us pray for the unborn. I attended almost every summer -- though never the same camp twice -- and enjoyed myself immensely. As I grew into a young man, however, the expectations began to intensify; when I felt the train go off the rails toward a destination I hadn’t planned on ending up at, all I could do as an earnest, trusting Christian was admire the wildness of these moments as they passed and then sink them into the tar pits of my memory. Just like my dream.

My last Jesus Camp was "Encounter," a camp hosted on-campus at Lubbock Christian University in western Texas. I was fourteen, and the trip was expected to be an exciting preview of the university life: we slept in the dorms and ate in the dining hall, roaming the great boggy lawns with little supervision. The lessons were broken up into workshops that one could choose freely from, so in the first few days everyone tried to glean by word of mouth which workshops involved fun games or fog machines or movies and which ones were long preachy duds, and then we scrambled over each other for tickets. Determined to pack 'em in, many of the instructors overachieved to an extent that was truly Texan in nature.

One workshop transformed a classroom into a giant board-game, and handing us each a stack of fake money, besought us to play the game and get ahead in life by bartering and winning candy prizes. After fifteen minutes of this, suddenly the lights went out -- it was explained to us that we were all dead, that we'd wasted our lives on material things, and now we would have to pay the ultimate price. Herded into an adjacent room, we bumped around in the darkness until we found ourselves to be inside a large cage made of PVC pipe and wire mesh. Once the damned were all packed in, strobelights and blacklights began to sizzle while blasphemous heavy metal blared overhead. From the murk, counselors dressed as demons emerged to taunt us through the bars, jabbing the writhing mass of tweens with makeshift pitchforks. We screamed appreciatively, and when they eventually released us, our brush with death seemed to have left a powerful impression. I mean, what if that had really been it?

In another workshop we were invited to lie on the floor in a dark room and relax. Strange music echoed overhead as we were led through a guided meditation and then left alone with our innermost thoughts. BRRRRANNNNGGGG!!!! Suddenly the sounds of clocks and alarms battered us awake. We all sat up, panting in fright. One girl was scared to tears. I don't remember what the lesson was, but some years later, I at least figured out what the music was. For reasons I will never comprehend, they'd been rocking us gently to Pink Floyd's "The Dark Side of the Moon."

Days passed; by the time the truth about this place began to sink in, I was in too deep to do anything about it. One workshop seemed benign enough at first; we'd heard movies would be shown, so it was not to be missed. Sure enough, we got to watch the "Reproduction" science-class musical number from Grease 2:

Reproduction, reproduction!
Put your pollen tube to work.
Reproduction, reproduction!
Make my stamen go berserk.
I don't think they even know what a pistil is!
I got your pistil right here...
Where does the pollen go?

Queasily received, this was followed by the entire scene from Mrs. Doubtfire in which Robin Williams was transformed by his make-up artist brother into the British nanny we all already knew and loved. The instructor seemed dismayed by requests to let the movie keep playing; it turns out that this workshop was supposed to show us how pervasive dirty sex talk was in movies aimed at young people (Grease), and how positive portrayals of homosexuals were being slipped into movies to desensitize us to the fact that they were sickening abominations. I was scandalized -- it had never occurred to me that Uncle Frank and "Aunt Jack" were homosexuals. To naïve me, they had just seemed...well, rather fabulous, that's all. I felt ill. It was the first time any Christian had spoken to me about gays, and I felt cold, dark waves bouncing between my stomach and heart. As the instructor relented and allowed the movie to play on, I had plenty of time to consider this second set of bars I'd found myself behind in as many days.

This was the true nature of revelation, I felt. It was the feeling of being in the company of the Eternal, but alone in the world. It was the lesson you taught yourself about whatever else the world tried to teach you. It was the two way mirror that allowed the Holy Spirit into you, but sheltered you from detection of boys as they passed by, oblivious to your devouring eyes on their hips and shoulders. So during the last few days of Encounter, I allowed myself to fall deeper into that half-lit world, experimenting with this new faith that would let me hide everything and still be everything.

Each evening after dinner, baptisms were performed in front of the entire camp congregation. By the end of the week, literally dozens of campers who had been startled, cajoled, or inspired by their Encounter workshops would line up and await the ultimate vacation souvenir. I was one of them. I called home to ask permission. My mom granted it warily, and said she was proud of me, though her tone of voice was completely opaque. My dad's congratulations rang even more hollow. By making this decision alone and celebrating it with strangers, we all knew I had slipped their bridle. As I shivered backstage in my white robe and waited my turn, that dark wavy feeling returned to the pit of my stomach; remembering my mother's voice, I decided this must be what grownups felt like all the time. Entering the water before an entire auditorium, I embraced the darkness.

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