The Thinking 

In the Soft Belly of Protestantism

September 18, 2015



WHEELER writes:

In the entry “Before the ‘Happy’ Church,” Alex writes with power and precision of his memories of the traditional Roman Catholic Church of his boyhood. I say “power” because of the evocative nature of his descriptions, and also because of the melancholy his words engender in my own heart when I think on the vast difference between his experiences and my own.

With apologies to Alex, may I describe the Protestant world in the South, during my boyhood in the late ’60s?

Arid Sunday School classes (almost all taught by women) in bleak, utilitarian classrooms where we learned Christian campfire songs and were indoctrinated with the belief that Jesus is a celestial vacuum cleaner salesman, forever standing at the door of our hearts, hat in hand, squirming under our gaze while we make up our mind about Him and His claims on us.

Emotion-driven choir performances where at least one person would sing a solo; this person would be treated like a celebrity for the remainder of that particular Sunday.

Sitting with other kids in the pews between Sunday School and the worship service, listening to the men argue about football and politics, and eavesdropping on the ladies’ encyclopedic knowledge of what other women were wearing, their motives for wearing it, and the future ramifications of such apparel. Then if we whispered to each other, being shushed by those same adults and told in growled, threatening voices to “prepare [our] hearts to come before the Lord.”

Listening to the preacher start almost every sermon with a joke, and listening to the adults roar with laughter at his wacky antics, but being glared at by those same adults if we laughed a little too loud or a little too long. We were “before the Lord,” dontcha know.

Christmas Eve candlelight services, which were almost always Amateur Hour nativity plays in which the kids misbehaved and laughed through the “solemn, holy” retelling of the birth of Christ, and after which the fellowship hall erupted in a orgy of cookies, punch, cake, and the de rigeur endless gauntlet of “What is Santy Claws gonna bring you, boy?”

Dreading everything about church except horse-playing with my friends before and after services.

Gregarious, hail-fellow-well-met pastors with soft hands and soft bellies who always seemed to be just one step away from going into politics.

The belief that drinking a glass of wine would send you straight to Hell in high gear, a belief mouthed repeatedly by mousy deacons, many of whom wore a curious little scrawl of broken veins on their cheeks and noses, and abode in neat ranch houses with their almost always chubby, florid wives.

An overarching emphasis (especially around holidays and in the summer, during Vacation Bible School) on the officially approved emotional catharsis known as “getting saved.” Some of my friends and I were “saved” several times during our collective childhoods. It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I began to speculate about the dubious efficacious nature of these innovative Protestant rituals.

The “sanctuary” in the church where every variety of gossip and whispering took place before, after, and between services, as sterile and barren as the rec room at an Elk’s Lodge, but referred to in reverent whispers as “the house of the Lord.”

A complete and comprehensive lack of awe or dread, except when we were told that our frowning God was ever poised to smite us if we sassed our mothers or copied a classmate’s homework.

A tacit but pervasive assumption that nothing notable in history had happened between the time of the Book of Acts and when our denomination had been formed. This was coupled with a thorough denunciation of every denomination and sect not in clear alignment with our denomination. Catholics were, of course, as doomed as the Hittites.

Hymns and songs designed to rouse the congregation into a roaring festival, but nothing to lift the mind and heart in quiet joy and devotion to mysteries (in fact, the idea of “mystery” in the faith seemed hateful). There was one non-raucous song which was a staple in almost every service: “Just As I Am,” the maudlin, manipulative soundtrack to every “invitation” and “altar call” I ever witnessed.

A total separation between our everyday lives and the few hours per week spent inside the walls of the church building. Adults in those days seemed uncomfortable and even incompetent in discussing the faith they claimed to hold so dear.

These are the memories of a boy. Memories of a culture in which the churchmen never tried to provide perspective on the bewildering world in which I lived, memories that I must confess lead me to a gentle envy of Alex and those who were raised within the shelter of the Church he remembers with such lyrical fondness.

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