Raised on Televangelism

Not long ago, at the end of a public reading from my recently published novel, Eulogy, I was asked how writing the book changed me. Though eleven years had passed from first scribblings to final publication, I’d never given this question any thought.

Yet the answer was sudden, instant, and clear. The gift this book gave me—how it changed me, if you will—is that writing it and sending it out into the world allowed me to know more clearly my relationship with the religion in which I was raised.

We followed the televangelists. That’s what our family did. The televangelists came into our home through cable, showing us miracles and speaking to us the truths by which we were to live if we wanted to achieve paradise, if we wanted to escape hell.

They came into our town on tour buses, and sometimes we would travel to see them— Ernest Angeley, Jimmy Swaggart, Morris Cerullo, a young Benny Hinn. We joined them in packed venues like the Ottawa Civic Centre to capture God’s magic, which flowed through them and would flow to us if we believed. We had to believe, always. To allow a moment’s doubt was to risk all. Salvation was precarious; I was always one little sin away, they would remind me, from the brink of vaporizing damnation, and doubt itself was a sin.

“It has been predicted by several prophecies,” said one evangelist from the stage to a packed house, “that the Antichrist will appear next year, 1981.” His white suit glowed, as did his face. He spoke with ardent conviction.

They cheered. Everywhere—behind me, in front of me, next to me they cheered. They cheered with moaning mumbles or with earnest “praise the lords.” They prayed in tongues and clapped their hands, waved their arms and raised their fists. It went on, in waves of praise and moan, crescendo and crash.

The end was near! This world and its evils would soon pass away and we would all be with Jesus.

And ten-year-old me wasn’t happy.

Though I clapped and cheered, as I was supposed to, I had no connection with this group joy. I would have liked to believe it was good news. They were all so happy and so sincere. Who doesn’t want to be happy?

But I hadn’t yet had the chance to do all those things for which many broken souls that day were repenting. And while the world was a mean enough place, I didn’t want it destroyed. I couldn’t celebrate on command the looming demise of humanity or find relief in having my earthly life cut short, with or without Jesus.

This was a malignant dark secret, because not wanting to be instantly with Jesus made me destined for hell.

It would be years before I would observe that people who boast threats of an otherworldly hell are also inclined to create hell on earth for themselves and anyone who will listen.

Still they cheered. A growing roar. The lord would bring us home, the championship would be won, all would be well.

Not only did I not want to be with the lord, I didn’t even want to be in that stuffy arena. I would rather have been playing baseball or riding my bike, like a ten-year-old. But it was duty to be there, because that was serving God, the evangelists said, and to not serve God was worse than bad. I couldn’t say what I felt—even to myself—because the merest doubt would put me at risk of damnation.

The dissonance was haunting. The Antichrist—evil incarnate—would soon reveal itself on the planet, and this was cause for joy?

We followed the televangelists and I never told anyone, despite the commandment to spread the word.

They told us what they said was all true, so it had to be true, and my parents told me to believe, so I did. My closest friends knew that we went to church a lot, but I don’t think they knew our family was preparing for the Rapture. When I was eight years old a friend asked me if the end of the world was real. I stammered through an explanation of the rising up into the clouds of all the believers, in the blink of an eye, the dead believers also, plucked from their graves and the seas, and then the “great tribulation” set loose up on the earth with the rise of the Antichrist.

This is what I was taught: Jesus will come back to Earth, but not all the way back, and everyone who is a believer in that moment will disappear into the sky with him, as will everyone who ever died as a believer. It will happen very soon, maybe even today.

This is what I was taught: if we’re not right with God at that moment, we will be left behind and the only way to get back to God will be to die as a martyr in the great tribulation, which will start immediately after the Rapture, and will last seven years, until Armageddon.

This is what I was taught: being saved means you get in on the Rapture and don’t have to die as a martyr. But it’s also wonderful to die as a martyr for Jesus in the great tribulation, because martyrs will get special treatment in heaven.

I had to believe all this. Those were the rules, but speaking these rules was mortifying, and those endless services of prayer, salvation, and healing were life-draining. Healing services were long, loud, and stressful. Nothing ever happened to me, and it became a mark of ongoing shame that I wore glasses, because rightfully I should have at some point been healed of my eye condition. I failed. I didn’t believe enough.

Today, as I watch the fast-moving ideological waves of our time (pick yours, for or against), I think back to the sad boy who found no resonance in an echo chamber. I have known loneliness among ten-thousand cheering people. To be raised fundamentalist, to doubt and to leave, is to know what it means to be secretly isolated. I accept that people find community there, and I ask them to accept that I don’t.

If you have religion, know that for it to work, you must be free to leave. You are free, and if anyone threatens or coerces you, they are wrong.

And know also that my not being part of your religion doesn’t diminish it one bit; you don’t need anyone who doesn’t want to be there. To all the religions that come door-knocking, click-baiting, comment-trolling, airwave-hollering or street-proselytizing to recruit, to save, to seduce me with promises, to judge, and tell me how I should live, I say no thanks.

All writers, all artists, hope to make something universal. It’s an unachievable vanity, but a sustaining one. If there is one universal thing that emerges in Eulogy, I hope it’s this: every person faces a decision, sometimes fraught, about the beliefs and religions in which they are raised. And every family has beliefs—religious, atheistic, pagan, rationalist, you name it. The decision is whether to accept the beliefs in which you are raised, or to find another way of relating to the world. For some people it’s easy. But for me, partly because of the nature of who I am and the strictures of the religions in which I was raised, it was not easy. And while the main character in Eulogy, William Oaks, is in many ways different from me, it’s not easy for him either.

And for me, contemplating how a book changed me? Well, this summer was the first time I’ve been able to speak of all this. It only took forty-five years. Now, perhaps, I can write something else.