Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Fundamentalist Finds His Freedom

When your girlfriend is four hundred miles away, freedom becomes a sticky concept. A minor addiction to Conan O’Bryan, Talk Soup[1], and E News helped somewhat to keep my mind off the fact that I was denied the one thing that had been for much of my twenty two years on this planet the holy grail of freedom. Of course, “helped somewhat” is speaking relatively, and Conan’s goofy jokes weren’t much help when I would be at one of the many parties hosted by the manager of the pizza restaurant where I worked and the inevitable wet t-shirt contest for the female attendees, many of them my co-workers, was happening. If you know how these things tend to devolve, and I hope that you don’t, you know that my “freedom” was there for the taking. Honestly, I used having a girlfriend as an excuse to mask the fact that, although I wanted to participate in the debauchery around me, I was scared shitless. I don’t know how or why my life played out like this, because I definitely didn’t orchestrate it[2], but I went from being a dorm student at Bob Jones University to being immediately plunged into an environment of debauchery that even the majority of non-Christians never experience[3]. I was finally free.   

The three things at the top of my wish list once I obtained my freedom were a car, a TV, and an earring. Housing wasn’t an issue since I was renting a room from my parents. My dad had begun his traveling ministry, so they were rarely home to monitor what I kept in the fridge. Bronwynne would be graduating from Bob Jones University in a few months, and we weren’t sure what would be happening next. So, getting my own apartment seemed like a decision that should wait for a few months.

I bought a twelve year old Pontiac Sunbird for six hundred bucks, and three weeks later it was dead. The guy who sold it to me forgot to mention the cracked head gasket. My dad loaned me the money to buy a Buick Century – a four door, powder blue granny car. But I didn’t care, and it only took me a couple of weeks to blow the speakers. I blame the street preachers who like to stand on Pensacola street corners screaming at passing traffic. Whenever I would be stopped at a red light, I would turn my radio up as loud as possible and blare AC/DC[4]. Actually, this habit went all the way back to my high school days, and also included driving through the campus of Pensacola Christian College with my windows down and my radio up[5]. It was my way of letting the Christians know that I wasn’t one of them. I liked to image myself being used in sermon illustrations. Anyway, that granny car also didn’t have a cd player, which meant that I had to buy a car adapter for my Discman. It’s a wonder that I never caused an accident while changing the cd in that Discman.

My TV was a VCR/TV combo that I bought from J.C. Penney’s. Along with my many music club memberships, I also joined the movie club through Columbia House. I joined several times, in fact. If you paid attention to the deals offered every month, it was possible to game the system and fulfill your purchase requirements with a very minimal amount of money spent on dozens of video cassettes[6]. There was actually a news story around that time about a guy somewhere in Pennsylvania who had joined the music and movie clubs several thousand times and was selling the cd’s and movies at the flea market. He got arrested for mail fraud. I wasn’t interested in selling my music and movies, and, unlike the dude who got arrested, I didn’t use fake names and only joined, at most if I remember correctly, a dozen times, so I wasn’t worried.

It would be a couple of months before I would get my ear pierced, but for the time being, I was set. A car, a TV, and freedom.

Those frequent work parties were simultaneously exhilarating and stressful. I was desperate to keep up appearances, but also afraid of the many substances that were offered to me. Afraid to say “no,” and afraid to look like a novice, I unquestioningly took and drank everything offered me. I was really nervous the first time I was offered a shot of tequila, and only having a vague idea of what I was supposed to do with the lime wedge and the salt, I was afraid of looking stupid. I waved off the lime and salt saying, “I don’t need that stuff,” and then choked down my first shot of liquor ever. (Did I forget to mention that it was my not only my first shot of tequila but also my first shot of liquor?[7]) My rejection of the lime and salt had the effect of causing people to assume that I was a seasoned drinker. That meant from then on at those work parties, I was offered drinks and shots with the assumption that I knew what I was being given. I didn’t.

My bravado at the store leading up to my first party, and my desire to be considered cool really came back to bite me when a coworker nudged me and indicated me to follow him. I felt sick to my stomach as I watched him cut several lines of coke on the kitchen counter top. There were several people joyfully waiting in the kitchen – some I knew, some I didn’t. I was dizzy from the alcohol, queasy and sweaty from nervousness and overstimulation from the loud, swirling energy of my first balls-to-the-wall party, and I desperately wished that I was back at Bob Jones University where the line of demarcation for coolness required far less commitment. In a way, I’m thankful for my intense visceral response to everything that was going on around me because I think that played a huge role in the fact that I hated the rush and the accompanying numbness from the coke.

The rest of that party is somewhat of a colorful blur of swirling people. I spent the rest of the night trying to keep up with what was going on around me. Wishing that I was far away, and finally aware of the huge gulf between how “cool” I thought I was and the actual reality of how “cool” I wasn’t, I smoked bowls that were passed to me, and drank whatever was handed me.       

Of course, undiscerning drinking leads to further stupid and dangerous decisions. Like drinking and driving. The first time I ever drove drunk was also the night of that party. The night I first had tequila. The night I first smoked weed. The night I first snorted coke. A night of firsts. I knew I was drunk. I didn’t want to drive home, but I was also unsure if in the eyes of “non-Christians” I had consumed enough alcohol to claim to be drunk[8]. Not wanting anyone to think that I couldn’t handle liquor, I got into my car. I was terrified the whole way home. Gripping the steering wheel tightly with two hands, keeping an eye out for cops, and slamming on my brakes anytime I saw red in front of me, I made it home safely. Sitting in my car, sweaty and dizzy, I swore to myself that I would never drive drunk again.

The following day, I was proud of myself for conquering tequila and finally doing drugs, and, rationalizing like many others unfortunately do, I questioned whether my decision to drive home was as bad as I had thought. After all, who’s to say that I was actually drunk; I was mostly scared. I also felt proud of my headache; the hangover was a badge of honor. Going to work that evening, I bragged loudly about the party in front of the co-workers who were also Pensacola Christian College students, and felt smug in my freedom.  

With my parents frequently out of town, the hassle of going to church was solely my decision. Most often, I decided in the negative. When my parents were in town, I would lie and say that I had to work the lunch shift at the restaurant. By the time they got home from church, I’d be at a movie theatre waiting for a matinee to start. I did, however, occasionally go to my parent’s church on Sunday evening. I went for two reasons – 1. The church would roast hotdogs and marshmallows over a bonfire after the evening service - free food. And, 2. I enjoyed observing the contrast between “cool” me and the “uncool” Christians. Oddly enough, the Christians were so uncool that they never even noticed the difference between us, and talked to me as if I was one of them. It irritated me to no end, but I would only passive-aggressively challenge their mistake. I would do things like make sure that my yin yang necklace was noticeable, wearing jeans, and blaring my car radio when arriving and leaving[9]. My tactics didn’t work, and they continued to be as open and friendly with me as if I had been a tithing member. I stopped going. No amount of free hotdogs was worth being treated like that.

Of course, escape wasn’t that easy and people from the church rudely pursued friendships with me. Among others, the assistant pastor, who was only a few years older than me, would invite me out to eat with him – his treat. I turned him down as often as I could, but he was cheerfully persistent, and I would get stuck eating the occasional meal with him. I would make sure to order the most expensive thing on the menu, but he never seemed to notice. He would ask me questions about my acting career[10] and seemed genuinely interested. It reached a point where I got fed up with him and dropped my passive-aggressiveness, but he never balked or flinched at my blasphemous pronouncements like “God is a child abuser if he did indeed torture and kill his son.” His rudeness in not getting fed up with me even went so far as to offering to buy me new tires when he noticed that the tires on my car were almost bald. I told him that I was saving up for an engagement ring, and so I was waiting to buy tires. I turned his offer down. He would tell me that he was praying for me and to call him if I ever needed anything. Of course, I never did. The only way I got that dude and church out of my life was by moving.

I had my new life, and my freedom didn’t have any room for Christians or their God. I did, however, begin to find a new god.

[1] With John Henson.
[2] Although often overwhelmed, confused, and scared, at the time, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. My biggest fear was being found out a fraud.
[3] Thankfully. And, proof of Common Grace.
[4] After working a Page and Plant concert, I got into classic rock.
[5] Just like Eric Carmen suggested.
[6] I got my first dvd player three years later after my boss, convinced that the franchise office was racist, named me employee of the month for like 8 straight months. Every stores “employee of the month” would be entered in a drawing, and the winner of the drawing won a prize. The employee of the month from our store hadn’t won the big prize. My boss was convinced that it was a plot against him because he was from China. It took several months, but I finally won.
[7] That’s not completely true. In tenth grade, the girl who rode to school with us brought me some of her mom’s Jack Daniels in a little container. If I remember correctly, she gave me about 2 oz. (less than two shots worth). It took me several weeks to drink it all. I was scared of it, and would take tiny sips, barely enough to even taste it. I lied to the girl the day after she gave it to me when she asked if I liked it. I told her yes. She asked if I got drunk. I said yes. She laughed really hard. I now know why.
[8] At the time, even I knew that I was lying to myself about that. Of course I had drunk enough. But I wanted to be the guy that parties didn’t phase.
[9] Between the speakers being blown and the factory stereo system being incredibly cheap, I doubt anyone could hear my radio unless they were standing right next to my car. I literally lied to myself about that, and would pretend that my music was blaring. Yep.
[10] A non-existent career at that point, but I never told him that.


  1. Have you talked to the youth leader in the past 15 years? guess he gets a last laugh. ;-)

    I'm always fascinated by how your attempts to escape God are always couched in a "legalism" that's just suffocating.

  2. I haven't. And, to be honest, it's probably best if I don't talk to him. Better to wait until we're sharing a Heavenly IPA at the feast of King Jesus.

    In my experience, most people (all at some point or other) are suffocating in legalism. I still struggle with legalism, but thankfully my continued relapses into legalism have been covered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

  3. Yeah, I agree. I just think it's really striking in your particular story how your desire to be accepted by non-believers was such a prison. I'm sure that's true of other people, it's just the dominant theme of your tale so far.

    1. I'm pushing that theme in contrast to the freedom offered by Jesus, often time by "fundies." I don't believe that it is unique to me, though. Just recently, I was having a conversation from a good friend who had been my roommate during the "externally" darkest time of my life. I was explaining to him my writing, and some of my objectives. I laughed about how the whole time back then I was faking it, and that most of the time I was scared that I would be found out a fraud. He replied, "We were all faking it."

  4. Is it too early to pre-order your book?