Around this time, television screens were installed all over campus, and the senatorial face of our pastor bobbed around on each one, preaching to nobody in particular.
At chapel, we were sometimes shown religious agitprop videos; in the worst of these, a handsome dark-haired man bid his young son farewell in a futuristic white chamber and then, as violins swelled in the background, walked down an endless hall to be martyred for his Christian faith. Afterward, we sang “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb.”In middle school, I became conscious of my ambivalence.
On Sundays, as we drove into the city, I sat quietly in the back seat next to my cherubic little brother, ready to take my place in the dark and think about my soul. I prayed every night, thanking God for the wonderful life I had been given.
On weekends, I would pedal my bike across a big stretch of pasture in the late-afternoon light and feel holy.
A teacher advised us to boycott Disney movies, because Disney World had allowed gay people to host a parade.
Another teacher confiscated my Archie comics and my peace-sign notebook, replacing this heathen paraphernalia with a copy of the new best-seller about the Second Coming, “Left Behind.” Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.There was a dried-out field with bleachers and, next to it, a sprawling playground; during the school year, the rutting rhythm of football practice bled into the cacophony of recess through a porous border of mossy oaks.Mall-size parking lots circled the campus; on Sundays, it looked like a car dealership, and during the week it looked like a fortress, surrounded by an asphalt moat.One Sunday, I told my parents that I needed a sweater from the car.I walked across the echoing atrium with the keys jangling in my hand and the pastor’s voice ringing through the empty space.I started to feel twinges of guilt at the end of every church service, when the pastor would call for people to come forward and accept Jesus.What if this feeling of uncertainty meant that I needed to avow Him again and again?During the holidays, I acted in the church’s youth musicals; one of them was set at CNN, the “Celestial News Network,” and several of us played reporters covering the birth of Jesus Christ. Back then, believing in God felt mostly unremarkable, occasionally interesting, and every so often like a private thrill. Fathers offered their children up to be sacrificed. The horror-movie progression of the plagues in Exodus riveted me: the blood, the frogs, the boils, the locusts, the darkness.When I was still in elementary school, my family moved farther west, to new suburbs where model homes rose out of bare farmland. I was taught that the violence of Christianity came with great safety: under a pleasing shroud of aesthetic mystery, there were clear prescriptions about who you should be.They had grown up Catholic in the Philippines and, after moving to Toronto, a few years before I was born, had attended a small Baptist church.When, in 1993, they moved to Houston, an unfamiliar and unfathomably large expanse of highway and prairie, one pastor’s face was everywhere, smiling at commuters from the billboards that studded I-10.