Was I saved or brainwashed?
A few weeks ago, ironically when I’d been planning to speak at an atheist meeting, I went to church with evangelical friends. I almost called them fundies, but I’m not always sure what that means any more. These days it carries a connotation of negativity, so I’m choosing not to use it to describe my friends, although I’m pretty sure they still hold to the “five fundamentals” with which the name originated. These were friends from my teenage days in New York, when I was on fire for God, a spirit-filled, born again Christian with a mission.
The experience made me wonder how I got that way, because when I think back to my younger days, I was a nominal Christian. I was born again when I was nine, but I didn’t spend most of my time reading the Bible, praying, or witnessing. But when I was 14, all that was starting to change.
Friends from church invited us to their house to hear a preacher from Texas. Ernie greeted everyone at the door, and Helene ushered us down the stairs into the basement. The long, narrow room was filled with metal folding chairs lined up in rows facing a makeshift pulpit that was nothing more than a cheap music stand. There was no organ, but two electric guitars and a microphone stood in the corner of the room next to a small amplifier, and a tambourine waited silently at the foot of the pulpit.
My mother, as usual, found seats near the front. I turned around looking over the back of my chair as the small basement filled up. It seemed like each person brought a personal leather Bible. Many were wrapped in homemade fabric covers. Some of the women brought tambourines, too. I bit my lip with suspicion. I’d never been to a church without pews before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In a few minutes a middle-aged woman dressed in a denim skirt, a Western-style blouse, and cowboy boots walked up to the podium and picked up the mic. Her dark auburn hair was curled in the tightest perm I’d ever seen, short on top and long around her shoulders.
“Praise the Lord, y’all,” she said.
The mic squealed with feedback and she moved away from the amplifier.
“Are you ready to worship Jesus tonight?”
She picked up the tambourine and shook it.
A few people in the audience echoed her “praise the Lord” or shouted out “hallelujah!”
Two teenage boys, also wearing cowboy boots and Western shirts, picked up the guitars and strummed a couple of chords. Another, much younger, boy remained in the front row when his mother and brothers got up to lead the worship service.
“My name is Shirley Shaffer and I’m here to praise the Lord!” the woman said. “Stand up and praise God with me.”
I looked around and everyone was standing up, so I did too. We usually stood up during the worship service at church, so nothing strange about that. The boys were strumming quickly now, and the woman started to sing. It was a song I’d never heard before.
I will sing unto the LORD,
for he hath triumphed gloriously:
the horse and rider thrown into the sea.
Bum-bum-bum went the guitars and tambourine in unison. “This song is from Exodus 15, verse 1,” Shirley said, “Open your Bibles and sing along.”
The Lord, my God, my strength, my song,
has now become my victor-ee-ee-ee.
The Lord, my God, my strength, my song,
has now become my victory!
The singing went on for a long time, perhaps an hour, with the music echoing off the concrete floor and bare basement walls. We sang fast songs and slow songs, loud songs and quiet songs, many with words out of the Bible and others with simple choruses that could be memorized quickly. And we sang each song enough times to memorize it. Five, ten, fifteen repeats of each chorus. As the music went on, some people fell into the rhythm and clapped their hands and jingled their own tambourines. Others looked a little nervous, used to singing hymns and quiet choruses to the accompaniment of the organ and piano.
When the singing finally ended, a chubby man with the same tightly permed, but shorter, auburn hair came up to the pulpit. He was dressed like the rest of his family, in Western wear and cowboy boots. His pants were a little too snug, and his tucked-in shirt didn’t hide his pot belly.
“Glory to GOD,” he hollered into the mic. “This place is like a house-a-fire!”
His pudgy fingers opened a huge, leather Bible and set it down on the pulpit. Before he started his sermon, he passed an offering plate around the room, collecting money to support his trip from Texas to New York to bring God’s word to us.
Three hours later, Tom was still preaching.
“Are you listenin’?” he’d yell every now and then, perhaps when he noticed someone nodding off in the back of the room.
Most of the adults were alert and awake, following along in their Bibles, taking notes, nodding in agreement, and yelling “amen, Brother,” from time to time. The younger kids were fidgeting in their seats or sleeping on the floor. My mind wandered and I didn’t even try to pay attention. I’d rather have been home in bed, but the extra time to daydream was just fine with me.
As Tom started to wind down, returning to the scripture verse he’d started with to remind us all of the theme of the sermon, the boys and their mother came back up to the front and got ready to sing some more. I looked at my watch and wondered how I’d be able to wake up for school the next morning. It was after midnight and I usually went to bed at nine.
Fortunately, it wasn’t much of a problem for me to be tired at school. I hardly paid attention anyway. Most of my classes were too easy, and I could read over the chapters we’d covered the night before the test and get an A every time. I was more concerned with being too tired to hang out with my friends. My mother liked what Tom had to say so much that we started going to services four or five nights a week, only going to Smithtown Tabernacle on Sunday mornings. I was glad when he disappeared and went back to Texas with his family so my life could get back to normal.
The Shaffers were back soon enough. They didn’t come in the dead of winter, but waited until the spring thaw. The nightly house meetings started up again, but at least I knew what to expect this time. Or almost.
One night a boy with the ice-blue eyes was there, talking to a girl with a high, tight ponytail. They were with a chubby boy who had brown curly hair. They were the only teenagers in the room.
“What the hell,” I thought, and went up to talk to them. I didn’t see anyone else near my age, and it wasn’t like I had anything better to do.
“Open your Bibles to 2nd Corinthians 10, verse 3,” Tom said after the singing was over and he’d taken the offering. He read the passage aloud:
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war after the flesh: (For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds;) Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ.
Tom preached his messages in seasons, like TV shows, focusing on one verse or passage for months at a time. He’d start and end each sermon by reading his key passage, and in between he’d take us on a three-hour journey where, seemingly, no man had gone before. Night after night it was the same message, with different stories to illustrate the point: we couldn’t trust our own thoughts, we had to crush any thought that disagreed with the teachings of the Bible, we had to capture every idea that didn’t conform to the knowledge of God.
Jimmy and Katie—it turns out blue-eyed boy and ponytail girl had names—followed along in their Bibles, taking notes and paying attention to whatever Tom said. Their friend Mike was less interested.
Somewhere along the way, I’m not sure when, I started paying attention, too. I know this because the pages of the New Testament in my old Bible are like a rainbow. Jesus’ words, of course, are red. But I’ve highlighted, underlined, circled, and annotated verses in every book using every color pen and marker that I had. The verses of 2nd Corinthians 10:3–5 are highlighted in yellow, underlined in blue, and marked in the margin with a large parenthesis to draw attention to the passage.
I still had trouble getting up for school sometimes, but Mom decided if we were too tired my sister and I could stay home from school every now and then. Better to miss a math class than another night of preaching.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was on my way to fanaticism. Looking back, I can’t help think that I was brainwashed. The church we started attending was very cult-like. But at the time, it all seemed very natural. I was never forced to do anything against my will. But the peer pressure was very strong. My transition from lukewarm Christian to on-fire for God took about a year. In the next installation of this series, I’ll talk more about that transition. Was I saved or brainwashed? I still find it difficult, over 30 years later, to answer that question.
- My journey into and, later, out of Christianity (Introduction)
- My journey into and, later, out of Christianity (Born Again)