Date: November 20, 2020 07:54PM
In his early 20s, my father was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army. I asked him recently how he talked himself into jumping out of planes. “Were you excited about it? Like ... did you want to or something?” I asked, trying to square my ponderous dad who spends most of his evening curled up with a Louis L’Amour novel with the kind of adrenaline junkie typically associated with skydiving.
“No,” he answered, pausing to think. “I was pretty scared every single time.”
“So, then how did you get yourself to jump? Did they push you or force you?”
“Well, no. I guess ... it’s hard to explain,” he replied. “You’re just all in a line, one after another. The guy in front of you jumps and the guy behind you is waiting, and so you just ... jump.”
It’s the closest thing I’ve heard to describe the feeling of being “slain in the spirit.” It’s not that I really believed I’d been overcome by a supernatural force. In fact, I remember lying on the carpeted floor of the sanctuary and worrying that a prowling deacon would notice me chewing my gum, but despite knowing that it wasn’t really God that knocked me to the ground, it had still felt involuntary.
I recognize it now ― as an adult who’s been drunk and stoned a time or two ― that hazy, out-of-body feeling. It’s an emotional high ― this rush of belonging ― a sense that you’re part of something bigger than yourself that nudges you out of a plane because everybody else is doing it.
We took it home from church, of course. We didn’t laugh in the spirit on Sunday and then go about our weekdays in the mundane order of the unwashed masses. These extreme behaviors that our circle of friends termed “charismatic” came with a particular set of beliefs that informed every choice our family made. The world was literally always about to end, angels and demons were haunting all of us, and the nonbelievers we rarely came into contact with were either our mission field or our battlefield, depending on the focus of our daily devotional.
You might interpret my story to this point as the eccentric childhood of someone who grew up in the space between regular Christians and snake handling fanatics, and I suppose you’d be right, but to label something “eccentric” implies a level of harmlessness that I can’t apply to my childhood. Because just like Trump and his supporters working to undermine our democracy illustrate, deluded fanaticism is always harmful, and my family was no exception.
I’ll never forget the day my mom hid my siblings and me in the attic because she saw a flash in the woods behind our house and thought we were being raided by agents of the shadow government. We spent hours in that hot, stuffy attic, wondering if our mom was alive or dead, wondering if we were going to be dragged from our home and executed for our faith.
On another occasion, my mom, frustrated by my little brother’s behavioral issues she believed were the result of demonic possession, sought help from a family psychologist who attended our dog-barking, spirit-slaying church. After a few quiet sessions of therapy and prayer in our living room, my mom and the psychologist realized that the issue must be confronted head on, and they scheduled an exorcism. Together they stood above the angry, tear-stained face of my 8-year-old brother huddled on our floor and summoned the spirits from him, rebuking them by name, and asserting their divine authority.
This ritual went on for over an hour. My mom told my dad about it when he got home, recounting the events of the afternoon like it had been an exciting sporting event. She told him things the demon had said to them (through the mouth of the little boy, of course), the commands they had responded with, and the palpable shift in the atmosphere when the demon eventually surrendered and fled.
I remember inwardly calling BS ― my mom, as you may have gathered, has a penchant for melodrama, and having witnessed the event for myself, I knew what I had seen was something I didn’t have a name for yet, but as an adult, I call “abuse.” I remember wondering if my dad believed her, and I remember being afraid because it didn’t matter: Mom had jumped, the psychologist was right behind, and we were all going out the plane door with them.
Having grown up surrounded by True Believers, I know firsthand that the danger comes from the origin of their beliefs. Their worldviews are not shaped by facts or research, but by the good feeling they derive from their sense of belonging and the rush of being right, even if no one outside their group agrees ― perhaps especially if no one outside their group agrees.
Growing up, I saw my parents’ beliefs as the ocean, and the people in our life outside of our church group ― our extended family, old friends and neighbors ― as the tether that was keeping us moored to dry land. The thing is, the closer they felt to the other boats that sailed on the sea of their beliefs, the more they resented that tether, and the closer they came to cutting it so they could float away entirely. They never quite did. A job opportunity and a move took us away from that group of friends, and over the years my parents’ fanaticism faded into a more mainstream brand of Baptist.
Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 11/20/2020 08:08PM by anybody.