13 August 2007

The summer of my discontent

I'm hopefully going to be writing a couple of posts about Joe Bageant's new book "Deer Hunting With Jesus," which, as far as I can tell, is a work of staggering genius that has to be read to be believed, an impassioned defense of working-class rural white folks against both the religio-capitalist charlatans who have exploited them like cattle and the urban liberal intellectuals who have dismissed them as unreachable and undesirable gutter refuse.

Bageant, who left the fold of his fundamentalist, blue-collar Virginia town to become one of those dreaded left-wingers, returns to the church where his brother is a fiery preacher who casts demons out of troubled youths.

One September day when I was in the third grade, I got off the school bus and walked up the red-dust powdered lane to my house only to find no one there. The smudgy white front door of the old frame house stood open. My footsteps on the unpainted gray front porch creaked in the fall stillness. With increasing panic, I went through every room and then ran around the outside of the house sobbing; in the grip of the most horrific loneliness and terror. I believed with all my heart that the Rapture had come, and all my family had been taken up to heaven, leaving me alone on Earth to face God's terrible wrath. As it turned out, they were at a neighbor's house not three hundred yards down the road and returned in a few minutes. But it took me hours to calm down. I dreamed about it for years afterward.

Since then I have spoken to others raised in fundamentalist families who had the same experience of coming home and thinking everyone had been "raptured up." The Rapture is very real to those people in whom its glorious and grisly promises have been instilled and cultivated from birth. Even those who escape fundamentalism insist its marks are permanent. WE may no longer believe in being raptured up, but the grim fundamentalist architecture of the soul stands in the background of our days. An apocalyptic starkness remains somewhere inside us; one that tinges all our feelings and thoughts of higher matters. Especially about death, oh beautiful and terrible death, for naked eternity is more real to us than to those born into secular humanism.
I'm a keen observer of many facets of fundamentalist Christianity, but the fascination with eschatology has always held a special place in my heart. The certainty of some Christians that the earth is passing through its final days culminating in global immolation has been with me for as long as I can recall.

This came to a nadir for me ten years ago this summer, when, for whatever reason, I became silently, obsessively neurotic over the notion that Armageddon was imminent, and that I had only two and a half years to live. As Bageant attests, if you have never known anything but fundamentalism, this becomes a very real and frightening thing. For nearly two months, I was desperate to stuff myself with any available distraction, because any time left alone to think ultimately lead to the grim despairing that the world was progressing along an inexorable countdown to destruction. All life was waste.

Worse still, I couldn't find an agreeable way to feel about this. The whole of the earth's population was going to be suddenly killed off, in what was billed by the radio preachers as the Greatest Event in History, and it all seemed so unsatisfactory and arbitrary to me. But not believing was just not an option, after all, the oily apologists had convinced me this was The Truth, and I would have to learn to accept it. And every time one of the much-"prophesied" signs of the End appeared on the news, the nausea started anew.

Of course, this could be chalked up to simple boredom and letting my mind wander. But it was, I think, the first revelation of the depravity that I was unflinchingly believed all around me, though I wasn't at the time ready to face it head on. Whichever of the multisyllabic factions of Last Days prophets one ascribes to, the basic idea behind it is really quite monstrous. I am sure it is believed by many sincere and well-meaning people who have never come to grips with its monstrosity because they assume it to be the Will of God and thus indisputable (a microcosm of their support for American foreign policy in that way, perhaps).

I don't know that it's had that kind of lasting impact on me the way it has for Bageant and others, though it was certainly part of the tunnel that led me out of fundamentalism. And, from time to time, it still occurs to me, particularly when reading slacktivist's series on "Left Behind," how I would react if the end-timers were right all along. Perhaps I can conceive of that possibility better than some because I know the feeling of being resigned to it.