When I was seven years old in the mid-‘80s, Mom started taking my brother Marco and me to Grace Bible Baptist Church and School in rural New Hampshire. We’d pass by all these well-attended, high-steepled liberal churches to worship in a squat, utilitarian building hidden on a back road in the woods, with a congregation of 30 or 40 strong: The Moral Majority. Whenever politicians like Michelle Bachman claim that we’re living in the End Times, it reminds me of those days. We were the pre-party to the Tea Party. There were Ronald Reagan posters in the lobby. We’d listen to sermons about “back masking” and the Satanist propaganda you’d hear if you played rock records backwards. One week, we came back to church every night after school to watch Russell Daughten’s four-part 1970s Rapture movie series, the original Left Behind: Polyester pandemonium.
A guy named Jack Hyles in Indiana was like our Pope, and sometimes we’d listen to his sermons on tape at church. The real Pope might have been the Antichrist; we weren’t sure. We were pretty sure the Roman Catholic Church was “the Whore of Babylon” from the book of Revelation, leading our neighbors to hell, with a stop at the corner bar on the way. (We stuck with grape juice). Until I looked it up just now, I had always thought Hyles was from Denver; I must have confused him with the Broncos quarterback, our pastor’s other big hero. Some things were certain: Reagan and Hyles would save us from the Communists and Catholics, and John “The General” Elway would lead a fourth-quarter touchdown drive to beat the Browns in the playoffs.
One time a singing group from the Pope’s college in Indiana came to our church for a concert. It was an unaccredited college because Hyles, like our pastor, didn’t want any bureaucratic meddling. It was bad enough that Gorbachev and the United Nations were conspiring to form the “One-World Government” and that Mom and Dad’s credit-card company was an accomplice, stockpiling our personal information so they could link it to the Mark of the Beast in the run-up to Armageddon. The Hyles-Anderson Singers were a barbershop-gospel quartet. They did the old folk song, “This Train,” the bass rumbling and the high tenor soaring about the “righteous and holy” who’d get on that train, the liars, gamblers, hypocrites, and midnight ramblers who’d be left behind. They sang a verse added by Woody Guthrie in the 1950s: Cigarette smokers were his target. Bad news, because Dad liked his Winstons. No wonder he didn’t come to church much. The Hyles-Anderson Singers even got creative with the lyrics:
This train is bound for glory, this train.
This train is bound for glory, this train.
God made Adam and Eve,
God didn’t make no Adam and Steve
This train is leavin’, get on board.
The pastor presided over both the church and the school with absolute authority. He identified us as “independent,” “fundamental,” “Bible-believing,” and “Baptist,” in that order. Calvary, a competing Christian school where I would eventually graduate, used the same words, but it wasn’t strict enough for this pastor, and he would constantly bad-mouth it as “liberal.” The Rolling Stones’ swaggering frontman Mick Jagger, 15 years past his prime even then, was one of his favorite villains: something about his “prancing around the stage.” Smoke machines were meant to make a rock concert look like hell, he’d tell us. He forbade Mom and the other church ladies from wearing slacks or cutting their hair short; that would make them too much like men. Likewise, earrings and long hair were off-limits for men. Brother Starch, aptly named, wore dark, double-breasted power suits, shiny black cowboy boots, his black hair slicked back and a thick, Magnum P.I. moustache. He taught me a firm handshake, saying limp wrists were a symbol for gay men, though I wasn’t sure why; didn’t their arms work like everybody else’s?
One morning during our weekly chapel service at school, my friend Sean threw some pocket change toward the pastor as he entered our classroom to preach. It was an innocent gesture: Sean must have seen video footage of Catholics throwing flowers in front of the Pope or heard the story of Jesus entering Jerusalem over a path of palms. “You DO NOT throw things at the man of God,” Brother Starch barked.
Anybody, even Dad sometimes, could come to church on Sunday mornings, but Sunday night at 6 o’clock was the time for the true believers. We didn’t miss it. Mercifully, when our hometown Patriots got beat 46-10 in Super Bowl XX, Brother Starch had been taping the game so we could watch it after the service in the fellowship hall that doubled as our school classroom; we didn’t have to see the massacre on live TV. One Sunday night he announced he had never been “saved” in all those years he’d been leading the church and that only days earlier had finally accepted Jesus as his personal savior. I wasn’t sure why he told us that, but it caused me to doubt my own salvation, surely an effective means of control. If you couldn’t have faith in your own faith, there might be hell to pay.
Brother Starch would convene us every Sunday night to boast to one another about how many souls we had won the previous week. He that winneth souls is wise, he’d always say, quoting Proverbs 11:30. Winning souls was never about anything like, say, convincing a man to stop beating his wife or to start serving at a soup kitchen. It was about keeping people from eternal damnation. One lady, Miss Beth, would come reporting she’d won seven or eleven or seventeen souls in any particular week. Nobody, not even Brother Starch, ever came close to beating her.
We were supposed to handout “Chick Tracts,” these little comic books a guy named Jack Chick wrote against Catholics, Mormons, and evolutionists, trying to get people saved. Every tract ended with four steps to salvation, a pattern prayer asking Jesus to save and a reminder to “Read your Bible (KJV) to get to know Jesus Christ better.” We were to believe that the King James Version of the Bible, translated in 17th-century England, was the only version that had come down through history untainted by human error. One tract, “Back from the Dead,” showed a guy with a Luke Skywalker haircut having a near-death experience, going to hell, and then reviving in the emergency room and screaming for a preacher to tell him how to get to heaven. Another tract, “A Demon’s Nightmare,” had a guy in a nice suit telling a teenage boy about Jesus while some Disneyfied devils try to distract the kid. The demons used the new believer’s worldly family and friends to persecute him and tried to steer him toward a “wonderful little modern church” instead of a “Bible-believing” church that preached “the second-coming of Christ.”
Our unsaved relatives weren’t supposed to like us.
We were supposed to be different.
We were supposed to be weird.
That’s how we knew we were right.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham, N.C. This post is excerpted from his memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. He is releasing a series of excerpts paired with live music videos of songs that have shaped his spiritual journey. For more information, please visit www.thislittlerlight.com.