13 June 2007

Here's your future

My reading habits are pretty scatter-shot; I don't read with any great procedure or toward any particular goal, just because any I might set seems like too large of a mountain to climb, and I'm mostly without any idea of where to start hiking.

So when I read, it's usually something completely random that I've decided to take a flyer on, which doesn't make me cultured but does occasionally drop something inspired into my lap. Such is the case with Julia Scheeres' memoir Jesus Land, which dropped into my lap unexpectedly but quite fortuitously. Though I went in expecting to relate a little more than what I did, I was still completely transfixed by it. I'm a lousy reader who can never finish anything he starts, and I quaffed the last 200 pages down in one sitting. That's about the best endorsement I can give.

Jesus Land is Scheeres' story of growing up in Indiana with a white family which has adopted two black children. Her parents stern Calvinists, and see it as their Christian obligation to save the lost souls of savages. They are cold, distant, and domineering, and especially abusive of the children not furthering their genetic lineage. Scheeres is especially close to the younger boy named David, and much of the book is the story of their close relationship and how it becomes strained when the family moves out of the almost-urbane town of Lafayette into the country where the complicated world of high school is further spiked with racism and intolerance.

But Indiana being littered with bigots isn't going to surprise anyone. The real corker of Jesus Land is the second part, set in a reform school in the Dominican Republic where wealthy Christians can pay an exorbitant fee to have their recalcitrant teenagers re-educated with the love of Jesus. The rampant authoritarianism of the school is mind-boggling; new inductees quite literally cannot move without asking permission from a staff member. Students are ranked on a hierarchy, with each successive level giving more privilege, and the easiest way to move up is by ratting out the misdeeds of a fellow student in the interest of "being a good witness for the Lord."

It is a vile and distasteful place, far from any regulations concerning child abuse, a notion some Christians regard as a government conspiracy to subvert their authority. I can still remember hearing a sermon as a child where the preacher mocked the "child abuse hotlines" that were beginning to appear at the time as an encouragement for children to rebel against their parents. For people whose public concern seems to center on nothing but children, it's baffling why some Christians seem to hate theirs so much, as reflected in the combative parenting techniques popular with the Dobson crowd.

As you might expect, almost no one comes out of this hellhole filled with any more Christian charity than when they started, but that is hardly it's real purpose. It exists as many things in the lives of the rural, Christian elite do; to cover up any improprieties that might paint anything less than a rosy picture of their Rockwellian American paradise. Scheeres says she took the title "Jesus Land" to represent a kind of amusement park, a kind of imaginary tourist trap (sadly now becoming real) where everyone puts on their Sunday best for the customers but none dare mention what the carnies do when the rides have closed down.