Religious Reminiscences

We usually debate weighty issues on SO, but I thought I would offer something a bit lighter. For fun I am writing a memoir (I was inspired by Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid) of growing up in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia in the ’50’s and early 60’s. These are my religious reminiscences. Names have been changed.

Mom and Dad were both practicing Christians. Grace was said before every meal. Mom read us Bible stories at bedtime. We were church members and regular attendees. The teachings of Protestant Christianity were gently inculcated and never disputed. Yet, their religion was remarkably undogmatic and had nothing of a fanatical, crusading, or fundamentalist spirit. Dad had scientific training (he had been a chemistry major who could do both qualitative and quantitative analysis before turning to journalism) and had no problem at all with an earth of great age or with Darwinian evolution. I was taught to tolerate other religions. I never heard a word of prejudice against other faiths from either parent. In fact, I remember Dad correcting me if I made fun of loudmouthed, hysterical preachers on the radio (You know, the ones who would scream about sinners going to someplace called “hay-ull” and who could turn “Jesus” into a word of four or five syllables, something like “Jay-eee-zuss-uh.” Ooops! Sorry, Dad! I’m doing it again).

I was raised a Presbyterian, not that that made much difference. As one wag observed, in the Deep South there was only one Protestant religion, Methobapterianism. The message was pretty much the same whether you went to your church or a friend’s. My best friend was a Baptist, and I went to his church a few times. The only difference I could tell was that his preacher was quite a bit louder and the services did not end as promptly as Presbyterians liked. The hymns were pretty much the same, as was the message and the worshippers looked and acted very similar.

Our church, Alexander Memorial Presbyterian, was middle-of-the-road in every way. It was middling in size, in theology, and in the socio-economic status of its congregation. The pastor, the Reverend Hanks, was a good, gentle, intelligent, and wise man, but even drier and more colorless than the usual Presbyterian minister. His sermons were dreadfully, painfully, unutterably dull and only redeemed by the fact that, unlike those of his Baptist counterparts, his homilies were strictly limited to twenty minutes. Even had he been a gripping speaker, it would have been hard to pay attention. Some churches now have padded pews; we could only dream of such luxury. Our pews must have been designed by old-fashioned, pinch-penny Scottish Calvinists who scorned the comforts of the flesh, and who harbored the odd idea that parishioners could focus on eternal truths when their butts were killing them. I would fantasize about inventing inflatable dress pants that would allow you to pump up a built-in seat cushion. Another and worse distraction in the winter was that my feet would freeze. You had to wear dress shoes made of thin leather and dress socks that were about the thickness of two-ply toilet tissue. The church’s heating system warmed the air around your head adequately, but the floor was always like mid-winter in northern Greenland. I would look occasionally to see if my feet were actually encased in solid blocks of ice, which is what they felt like (“Stop fidgeting!” Mom would sharply whisper). Between a pew that clearly was designed to mortify the flesh and severely frostbitten feet I received little edification from Rev. Hanks’ messages.

Being geeky, I probably read the Bible a good deal more than most children do. Actually, while Rev. Hanks was going on about tithing or volunteering for church committees or something equally stimulating, I would sometimes look for the sex and violence in the Old Testament, and there is plenty of it there. Genesis alone had nudity, incest, “sodomy,” masturbation, adultery, and lots of patriarchs “knowing” their wives (and sweethearts) and “begetting” lots of offspring. There was also a great deal of smiting and punishing and cursing in the OT, as when the prophet Elisha curses the children who made fun of him (II Kings, Chapt. 2) and two she-bears come out of the woods and maul forty two of the children. The Old Testament God was clearly a pretty scary guy. I imagined him as a sort of celestial Dirty Harry, fixing a steely gaze on sinners, backsliders, and uppity heathen while intoning in basso profundo “Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”

This image was reinforced by the popular biblical movie epics of the time, like The Ten Commandments and Sampson and Delilah, which always had lots of scenes of God, or his human agents, dishing out judgment on intransigent pharaohs or arrogant Philistines. The scene from The Ten Commandments with the angel of death, manifested as a green smog, smiting the first born of the Egyptians was pretty eerie. I still like to see the scene from Sampson and Delilah where sweaty, oiled Victor Mature, playing the blinded and humiliated Sampson, is dragged into the temple of the idol Dagon for the amusement of the assembled horde of Philistines. He prays to have his strength restored by the Lord. The crowd laughs as he begins to push on one of the temple’s supporting pillars. The laughter suddenly dies when the pillar noticeably shifts a bit. Soon, in a scene of spectacular devastation, the whole temple collapses onto the shrieking Philistines. It was hard to escape the impression that, though they preached a God of love and forgiveness, people really liked a God who kicked keister.

On the whole, though, as a kid I experienced religion as a benign influence. It did not seem to be the highly divisive and polarizing force it is now. The religious precepts I was taught were about being a decent person, treating others with kindness and respect, being honest and truthful, and that sort of thing. Nobody ever told my parents how they should vote or beat a drum for political causes. There were no frothing indictments of those who disagreed with us, or fanatical insistence upon rigid points of doctrine. I even recall as a teenager participating in a church-sponsored program where we visited Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Jewish places of worship and spoke to the priests or rabbi. The aim was to make us more aware and more tolerant of other traditions. Perhaps I went to an especially enlightened church, but I doubt it. I think that religion was just not something people tended to wear on their sleeves as they do now, and people were a lot less eager to foist their views off on you. There was a live-and-let-live ethos which I wish we could get back.